Friday, August 7, 2009

I have a serious problem.

I don't like conflict. I just don't find it interesting. I am an aspiring fiction writer who lacks an interest in conflict. And I suspect that this may be an insurmountable obstacle. Since, you know, conflict is fairly essential to telling a story. So...this is a pretty big problem for me.

It isn't that I'm unwilling to introduce conflict into my stories because I'm overly protective of my characters. It's that I am genuinely, objectively uninterested in stories with high stakes. I like stories that are small and quiet and meandering and thoughtful. I like complex characters and nuanced relationships and unexpected moments and witty conversations. I prefer books that explore emotional depths and the potential of language. I prefer movies that are silly and aimless. I don't enjoy stress or unhappiness, and I don't seek it out in my entertainment choices.

When I was in elementary school, a teacher once illustrated the importance of conflict in stories by explaining that if one were to write a picture book about white fluffy clouds frolicking in a bright blue sky, dark stormy clouds would eventually need to arrive and ruin the fun. And I remember thinking, why do the dark stormy clouds have to show up? I would rather read a book with just white fluffy clouds, and no dark stormy clouds. Since then, my perspective hasn't really evolved all that much.

To me, subtle, unacknowledged tension is so much more compelling than overt conflict. I guess that's why I love The Hills so much. But the thing about subtle, unacknowledged tension is that you have to pay attention in order to notice it's there. And it's hard enough to get people to read your unpublished, unsold, unrepped work in the first place. It's basically impossible to get them to read it slowly and carefully and attentively and maybe even more than once.

I took a lot of creative writing classes in college. And whenever we discussed something that I had written, a curious phenomenon occurred. My first draft would generally recieve a lukewarm reception. So then I'd do some very slight rewrites based on the comments, and turn in a barely altered second draft. And my second drafts nearly always got rave reviews. Paragraphs that I hadn't touched since they were overlooked or criticized in the first round of discussion would provoke gushy praise in the second round. I never really knew what to make of that.

I don't mean to be one of those writers who rejects criticism and insists that readers "just didn't get it." Those writers are usually obnoxious, untalented jerks. I don't think that I'm an obnoxious, untalented jerk. And I actually love constructive criticism. Positive feedback tends to be hollow and nonspecific and useless. I know that my stories aren't flawless works of genius, and I want to make them better, so when I do get helpful, insightful criticism, I gobble it up gratefully. But I'm starting to think that maybe I need to highlight all the phrases meant to indicate underlying tension, so that readers will notice them the first time around. Like, literally, highlight. With a highlighter. And maybe write "tension!" in the margin, with an arrow pointing at the highlighted phrase.

Or maybe I'm just doomed to be invisible and ignored forever, because I'm too small and quiet and insignificant and I don't know how to grab readers' attention. I probably should have pursued visual art instead of writing. You don't need to have conflict in a painting. But I've neglected that skill and I'm not very good at it anymore. It's pretty likely that I could end up being a trophy wife, with the luxury of writing as a hobby. But then I'd feel obligated to wear skirts and high heels all the time. And I'm so much happier and more comfortable in jeans and sneakers.

I wish somebody would just tell me what I should do with my life.


Matt G said...

Here's my advice: don't show your work to anyone (except maybe one person you completely trust) until you think it's finished, and then start querying agents (i.e., ppl in a position to actually sell it, not just offer an opinion). Selling my own novel was a highly improbable event, not only because of the way I wrote it (basically without compromising for anyone, and rooted in my love of 19th-century prose), but for the subject matter (cats, gays, opera, philosophy) much of which goes against the grain of what 'sells' in contemporary literary fiction. I wouldn't recommend that you ever 'depend' on writing, i.e., you should get a job or a partner or whatever else you need to pay the bills (and don't think the less of yourself for doing so), but there's no reason to ever give up; once you finish, serious agents WILL read it, and it only takes one who likes it for you to break through. Most of all, write something that you think is beautiful and important and mngful to you and don't worry about the parade of doubters or dumb conventions, real or imagined! (I hope this didn't come across as annoying or pretentious!) Good luck!!! <3 Matt G

Nathan Bransford said...

You can definitely make this work. Have you read any Sarah Dessen? She's a master of real-life quiet situations that quietly build. And she's pretty popular.

Don't despair - find the voice!

jh said...

(I really hope this doesn't sound preachy or condescending, since I deal with a lot of similar stuff and am about your age and am not successful or anything so really what do I know about it all, I am actually writing this comment because I'm stuck in something I'm meant to be working on right now, but this is what I've got anyway)

If someone doesn't like your writing, this is because of one of three things: either it's an issue with the way that person's reading, an issue with the way that you're writing, or both. The answer is always both. A lot of people who read your writing, especially in college writing workshops, probably won't (or won't be able to) give it the attention that you think it deserves and won't understand or appreciate it on the level you want them to and think they should. The problem is that you can do absolutely nothing about how other people read your work (besides "write better"), so there's really nothing productive in thinking about it. This is not to say that you shouldn't be conscious of how someone reading your work will experience it, which you should, because what you're creating is an experience for them to have and you want that experience to be as affecting and immersing as possible, but it is to say that you can't think things like this ("But I'm starting to think that maybe I need to highlight all the phrases meant to indicate underlying tension, so that readers will notice them the first time around"), you can only think about how you can better write the underlying tension so that they can feel it for themselves; you can't make them see it, you can only control what you control.

jh said...

Matt G is very smart and talented and awesome and out of the two of us he is the one who wrote and got his novel published so take this with however many grains of salt you want to take it with, but I do think you should share your writing with other people and that you should do this online, whether here or in some sort of forum or whatever. At first (or almost always, in my case), this will be very unpleasant because you will be writing things that you aren't sure about and then either no one will read them or some jerk will read them and write something stupid or mean about them. But it has a lot of benefits, too. I said earlier that you can't change how people read what you write, which is true, but you can change who reads what you write, i.e. your audience. If you think what you're writing is good and you're proud of it, you should put it out there and try to find someone to read it; this will make both you and them happy and thus contribue to the public good. I am the anti-Tao Lin and I am not good at this aspect of being a writer today, promotion and everything, but I basically have just hustled and put my work up and eventually a lot of nice and smart people have read some of it and enjoyed it and I've enjoyed their reading and enjoying. There are other benefits to writing online, too. I don't know about you, but I have always been someone who has written well and when I was in college I did my two short stories a semester and everybody loved them and thought they were great and I liked this attention and admiration but I wasn't really a writer then because I wasn't really and truly committed to writing, I was just a kind of dilettante. Writing a blog has made me a writer, the sheer act of posting over and over and over again has made me much better than I would be if I was writing in isolation and trying to pitch my work to magazines or editors. I don't think I could write that way, so I feel very lucky to have the Internet to put my stuff up on for people to read it. Maybe you feel differently about this (as Matt does), which is fine, since writing is really complex and different for everybody and there are no rules, of course. The most important thing has already been said anyway, which is "Most of all, write something that you think is beautiful and important and mngful to you" Seriously, do that and who gives a shit about anything or anybody else. If writing is really important to you, that's what you'll do, however hard it is (and fuck, it is HARD).

jh said...

Advice for you specifically (based on the little I know about you from your blog and comments and etc.)

1. You do need conflict and you like it, too, however much you think you don't. Don't get me wrong, I agree with you about hating movies and novels that seem to exist solely to be dismal and depressing and cruelly fuck with our emotions, I don't like that kind of stuff either. But just on the practical level of craft, it's almost impossible to create any kind of narrative without some kind of conflict. The most experimental novels I've ever read that fuck with every convention of writing imaginable still have some kind of conflict in them, if only the conflict that you express in your post, the conflict about how difficult it is to write things and read them. Conflict doesn't have to be serious or epic but it does have to be present, in some sense, or else you're making your job as a storyteller nearly impossible for yourself to do. It's okay, though, because there's conflict in the things that you're describing as not having conflict. Complex characters are complex because they're conflicted; nuanced relationships are nuanced because conflict has driven the characters to act in certain ways which has warped and changed their bond; unexpected moments create drama, excitement, and conflict; most good wit and humor are born in some kind of conflict and tension. If you think about any of the silly and aimless movies that you love long enough, I think you're going to figure out some kind of conflict there. I mean, come on, The Hills?! Conflict is all over that shit.

2. (this is assuming you're still trying to write screenplays) If you try and try and you're still having an issue with the conflict thing, then I would say you should stop writing screenplays and try to write something else -- you've picked the most difficult form for your particular worldview and writerly ability. A novel or a short story can get by on a lot less external conflict or plot than is required in a screenplay, though I think that conflict is still important to these as well. If you want to explore emotional depths and the potential of language, poetry and essays are also great for that.

3. Stop writing while you're stoned (I think I saw you write some comment on Gawker to this effect or something). You know that I agree with you about legalizing it and the wonder of psychedelics and everything but I think the fact is that there are very very few writers whose work is/was improved by the sustained use while writing of any drug other than caffeine or nicotine. Maybe you are one of these people; if so, then disregard, but my personal belief is that if you can't do something sober, you shouldn't really be doing it at all (from this rule, I exclude singing karaoke, watching really bad TV, and listening to Pink Floyd).

Anyway, good luck! My favorite conflict in your post (which was so sad and so full of conflict) was the conflict about what trophy wives are supposed to wear and do. That was pretty funny. Maybe you should write something about it!

Anonymous said...

the little cursor is blinking, taunting me to respond. So I'll just say that you have very astute and responsive readers, and that says something about your writing too.

Jeff said...

Over at Scott's Go Into the Story blog, which I know you read because I've "seen" you over there, he has a ton of Ingmar Bergman material up right now. A few long interviews, some nice profiles, etc. You REALLY should take a moment and digest all of it and then, if you haven't, have yourself a little Bergman fest in your living room (or, um, whichever room you prefer).

Your aversion to "conflict" in its traditional sense should in no way deflate your creative writing goals and desires. I think you will also find that there probably IS a certain amount of conflict in your work, it's just a bit more layered and subtle, which, um, hello, is a GOOD THING.

Bergman's version of conflict was with faith and God and the psyche. I know you are capable of writing conflict because it's all over your blog post... conflict with yourself.

Let it happen. It WILL come.