Monday, July 16, 2007

Are We Having Fun Yet?

(I am at Okay, it's harder than I thought but still good on this draft.)

I've had a cold, which meant, as far as I was concerned that I couldn't possibly work on my novel, but alas, I'm feeling better which means I should go back to the damn thing. I thought about working on my outline, but decided to default to my old rule of having to write two pages of the current draft before allowing myself to do anything else. I haven't quite completed my two pages, but blogging about the process somehow counts at this point, right?


So there are a lot of things I feel pretty solid about in this scene. I know the characters. One of them is loosely based on the older brother of a friend of mine in High School. I don't usually base characters on people I know, but this novel involves a high school girl. Sometimes it seemed to me that there were people I knew who were incomprehensible. Now I can look back and get a sense of them, but at the time, I found them so self-assured in aspects of the world that were pretty much opaque to me. And somehow it seems really interesting to write about someone like that--one of those older boys who were so physically fearless. And I was so fearful, of censure, of looking as foolish as I felt, of somehow derailing the process of getting to college (and therefore getting out of the small town where I lived.)

That's all informing the characters in ways that I think are making them feel lively, complex, unexpected but true.

What is so much harder for me is the problem of making the scene not only vivid, true and well written, but worth reading. It seemed to me that if it were vivid, true and well written, that should be enough, but I have come to the conclusion that perhaps there is the problem of grim. I am, in my heart of hearts, an earnest and grim writer. I think at times that reading a Maureen McHugh scene can be a little like taking your vitamins. Good for you but not, you know, the highlight of your day. (I think some of this may be a reaction to my own fears in college where I was so convinced that I wasn't getting and understanding whatever piece of literature we were reading that I invested it all with great weight. Reading literature was taxing, sometimes illuminating, but it was not fun. Fun was reserved for the stuff I read in my spare time. But now, if I want to write Real Stuff, I have a reflex to reach for grim. And yet, Chekhov is funny! Shakespeare is funny! Not all the time, but still!) So in addition to asking myself, is this technically deft, does it forward the plot, does it have dramatic tension, does it illuminate the human condition, does it tell some sort of truth, I am forced to ask myself, is it fun?

I was raised Catholic and I am ethnically still Catholic, even if I'm not religious, so my reflex reaction to this is, Life is Not an Amusement Park Ride. And yet, while I am willing to concede that not every scene in my novel needs to be fun, I think that the occasional fun moment might be called for. And at this point, it seems to me that a little levity and wit could add immensely to the scene.

Of course, staring that the page thinking, 'be witty, be witty' is probably not the most productive way to go about it.

(Be witty.
Be witty.
Be witty.

What kind of word is 'witty' anyway?)


Blogger Rose Fox said...

Grim and witty are cousins whose mutual grandparent is dark humor. A little exaggeration can go a long way to recalling that august ancestry.

I don't think of your writing as grim (and not just because you so clearly love to laugh and enjoy yourself when doing non-writing things). It's serious, yes, but it's serious without taking itself too seriously. So many of your characters are desperate in some way, constrained by their environments and struggling against those constraints; but they never sink into morose depression or stop seeing the quirky side of things. I suspect you don't have as much to worry about there as you might think.

July 16, 2007 4:19 PM  
Blogger Nathan said...

Your writing is anything but grim. Moving, heartfelt, sometimes sad ... not grim. And never, ever a chore. (Madness!)

July 17, 2007 12:23 AM  
Blogger Karen Sandstrom said...

i agree. You default to serious, but not grim. Also, witty and funny are not the only ways to be fun. Suspense is fun. (And you do that.) The right kind of high-conflict scene is fun. But you know this. Me pointing out such things to you is ridiculous, but I can't help myself.
Aside: Shakespeare is more fun/ny than Chekhov, no?

July 17, 2007 7:17 AM  
Blogger mary grimm said...

I also have a worry abt being grim (which is pretty funny)--I've often been told that my stuff is bleak or depressing. My problem is though that I thought I had some funny stuff in there--so I worry abt my sense of humor as well.
I think of your writing as grave, by the way, not grim.

July 17, 2007 10:36 AM  
Blogger Maureen McHugh said...

Well, I'll take grave.

But at book length, I think a little modulation is a good thing.

It's just hard for me to realize that it isn't enough to write well, I have to worry about the reader's experience as well.

Readers. Hmmph.

July 17, 2007 10:56 AM  
Blogger Responsible Artist said...

I met a poet named John Witte (pronounced Witty). I think I'll stop here.

July 21, 2007 7:10 PM  

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