Monday, September 5, 2011

What does this writerly screed have to do with my grandmother's notebook?

I’ve been carrying around this old notebook of my grandmother’s forever—it's sat in the bottom of a bookshelf in every place I live. It was entirely blank and unused, aside from one page of something random (and the front, where she wrote her name and ‘knitting book.’) Isn’t it cool? So cool, that I felt like I needed to wait and find a really important use for it.

 So, I didn’t write in it for years, waiting for the exact perfect use for it. Something monumental. And of course I simply never used it.

 There is this bad habit writers can get into, or at least, I can get into, which I think of as ‘scarcity thinking’ which is where I’ll think of an awesome event or realization or twist, and I think, I need to hold that for the pinnacle of the book.

 Whenever I find myself thinking that I need to keep something to spring later, I try to do the opposite — I make myself blow the cool idea early in the book.

 It’s because I have this writerly superstition that holding things back for the right time implies that there aren’t millions more cool ideas, and I think it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy—that is, waiting to use the good stuff makes the good stuff scarce. Holding back the candy makes it so that I have less candy, whereas if I spill all my candy right away, more will be there waiting for me later. That's the superstition I have, but I really think that's how it works.

 There is another form of it where I’ll hold off on getting my characters in worst-case-scenario trouble until later. I think that’s really bad for a story to let worst case scenarios hang out there forever. When I find myself doing that, I’ll try and spill that candy, pull that trigger, push the nuclear option button.

I'm not successful at it yet. It's a discipline I'm working on. Striving. You know how it is.

Have you ever watched the Sopranos? It’s this whole drama about Tony Soprano, the mafia boss. Not to criticize it, I mean, it was an excellent, bold, groundbreaking show, and I couldn’t have written it better. But, my husband and I would get so frustrated because they kept almost getting Tony in trouble, and then withdrawing the trouble. He never got arrested, convicted, toppled by another Mafia boss, nothing. They kept the Sword of Damocles suspended over his head—season after season after season, just wiggling around now and then. And I think that’s why the show got stale.

The opposite is Joss Whedon, who’s perfectly willing to go there, wherever there happens to be. Joss is a total hero to many writers, including me, and I think a lot of it, for me anyway, is his abundance thinking, which is the opposite of scarcity thinking. He’ll kill characters (sometimes twice) let people radically transform, even plunge the planet into apocalyptic chaos. He doesn’t hold back on going to the ultimate place. He’ll go there - it’s as if he knows that when he comes out the other end, there will be a new ultimate place to go.

Actually, Kresley Cole does that really beautifully, too, in a different way. She lets things get big and crazy and terrible and spills candy all over the place. Sometimes, I look at the events in just one of her chapters, and in other hands, I could see it filling a whole book. I think she is amazing.

So this is a big thing for me that I’m always working on, to get away from scarcity thinking, and always looking to my favorite writers for their example of it. Like, what would Joss or Kresley do?

I was thinking about it this past winter, and thinking about other places in my life where I do that.

I have favorite clothes that are so favorite that I coddle them and, I limit how much I’ll wear them, like they’re too precious. Why do I do that? I actually have another grandmother thing—these little Christmas candles from the 40’s that I never burn. Sometimes at Christmas I take them out but they get dusty if you leave them out too long. But I think I’m going to burn them this Christmas!

And this notebook of my grandmother’s, of course. So I thought, no more scarcity thinking with that notebook! I’m going to use it. I decided to use it for brainstorming notes on short stories and novellas. And it’s been really great, because the thing is in use, laying all over my office, in the living room, wherever. I look at it 1,000,000% more this year than my whole life combined. I’ll eventually fill its pages but why not? It's there to be used. So, that's my big thing.

So do you do that scarcity thing, too? Or do you have the opposite problem?

Images: Sword of Damocles by Richard Westall; Jelly Babies by Father Jack


Mardel said...

well, I'm not a writer, so I don't have the problem you writers do with the whole "candy" thing. I do notice however, that I've saved dishes, not using them because they're too pretty, etc. Saving them for just the right time (which never really comes) and then after many moves...found quite a few of them chipped or just broken. Now I just use the ones I have, pretty or not. I let the grandkids drink out of my pretty glass teacups, and they have fun drinking out of pretty cups...why waste them? They're going to get broken anyway. LOL

Dr J said...

Very thought-proviking, Carolyn. Your comments caused me to remember a spiral notebook I found recently, given to me by my hubby over 52 years ago that is completely empty except for a poem he wrote to me when we were "courting." I stood there and wondered why I hadn't ever written in it--stuff that was probably just as precious and thoughts I should have written down at the time. Now all those really important emotional responses to things are lost. I guess we all get caught in the "scarcity" thinking, eh?

Carolyn Crane said...

Mardel: I love that! I think it must be easy to do that with dishes. And when you're a kid, those little teacups are so exciting.

Dr. J. Oh, too true. I know, things that seem so "everyday" now are so special later, and would have been so special in that book.

And you totally reminded me of something I'd meant to include in that post, too, about blogging. Sometimes I hold back great blogging ideas, and then later, the fire is all gone from them.

Moira Rogers (Donna) said...

The times when Bree and I hold back are the times when we regret it later.

With our Southern Arcana series especially, we've caught a little bit of flack because no secondary or tertiary character is safe from death. We have killed with impunity--and will continue to do so.

Yep, that was me, cackling in an evil fashion.

Carolyn Crane said...

Hah! So, you don't regret all that mayhem and killing? lol. I was wondering if it's possible to err on the other side, but apparently, you two haven't hit it yet.

Nicola O. said...

Sometimes I hold back great blogging ideas, and then later, the fire is all gone from them.

Whoa, I really relate to that!

I had a math prof in college who would hammer the chalk very enthusiastically on the board and broke chalk all the time. Whenever he broke a piece, he would chuck it out the window. Someone finally asked why and he said that if the tray was full of broken pieces, the cleaning staff would not replace anything. But if it was empty, he'd get nice new unbroken chalk to use. Your candy analogy reminded me of that. ;-)

Joanna Chambers said...

What a great post - and yes, abundance over scarcity every time! It made me think of the Ant and the Grasshopper which featured in a very old-fashioned illustrated book of fairy tales I had when I was a wee girl - I remember vividly the picture of the ant (female, drab) and the grasshopper (bit of dandy, with fiddle). There was stuff in it about everyone loving the grasshopper playing his fiddle all summer and then winter comes and he has nothing and the ant has tons of food. So of COURSE, I'm expecting the ant to take him in etc. But no! She tells him he should have thought about being hungry in winter when he was idling away his summer and shuts the door on him and he dies. DIES! Man, I hated that smug ant. And in fact, it's quite a counterintuitive story because I felt like the moral (for me) ended up being, if you spend all your time saving stuff up/working, you won't actually live. Which I think is what you're saying here about saved up things going stale or being forgotten instead of used when they are fresh or ripe or new or whatever.

Tez Miller said...

Was your grandmother a leopard-shifter, by any chance? ;-)

Unknown said...

In my writing, I am getting better at not holding back. If it turns out I blew up the world 2 chapters too soon, I can always move it to chapter 14. But normally what happens is the story evolves in good ways from the early explosion.

IRL, my mother gave me some lovely dishes from my grandmother, and I said, but they'll get broken if I use them! And my mother said, so what? They're meant to be used. So I used them and enjoyed the heck out of eating off pretty plates. Then, one of the bowls broke and I mentioned that and my mother had a fit.

That's my mom.

If the dishes weren't currently in storage, I'd be using them now. Because it was wonderful to do so. But I wouldn't tell my mother about it.

Chris said...

I'm like that about notebooks - I love beautiful notebooks, but then I don't want to actually use them because they're too beautiful.

Yveva said...

I used to work in a historical home museum, with medieval art built in to the walls, very valuable carpets on the floors, etc. The family who owned the home believed that the art should be useful, or it wasn't fulfilling it's purpose. Though there were some measures taken to protect the carpets (no food in the room, for example), otherwise they were treated like carpets. Though there were wood pieces and frescoes they weren't stored with dim light and monitored humidity. As time goes by they will likely be more worn than the ones with more protection, but the philosophy of the owners has stayed with me. Things are just things, the way they are used adds to their meaning and the owners' enjoyment and is a different sort of value.

Carolyn Crane said...

Nicola: ha! And I bet he loved having that nice big chalk to bang!

Tumperkin: That's why I like you! You hate the ant!

Carolyn: I love that about going for the explosion right off. And your mom getting mad about the dishes! lol

Chris: I'll come over and scribble in some!

Yveva: That is such a lovely thought, almost as if the objects have a soul that needs to be expressed.

Carolyn Crane said...

Tez: LOL. Pictured on the cover? Staring out at me? It is a cool image, though, isn't it?