Saturday, April 05, 2008

Tired, banal and deeply rutted roads

Do you ever look at something and misread it or put it together in a way that just comes out wrong, like being partially deaf and not hearing well?

Once my mother called and asked me what M-I-S-L-E-D meant. She pronounced it MI-ZEL'D. I told her it was MIS-LED. That finally made sense. WHOREPRESENTS becomes WHORE PRESENTS instead of WHO REPRESENTS, a web site about who represents what artist, writer, poet, actor, etc. This morning, ANGELICLOVE became ANGELI CLOVE and that didn't make sense. It's really ANGELIC LOVE. Sometimes connections misfire or your mind takes you on a different path and you come out at the wrong end. It happens with other things than just words.

When I was a teenager working at McDonald's I made a little mistake that kept co-workers chortling for a couple weeks. It was grade card time and each child got a free cheeseburger for being on the honor roll. A girl came up with her grade card, all smiles and dimples, and motioned me closer. "Can I get a cheeseburger without the cheese?" I told her yes and made a grill order on a cheeseburger without the cheese. It didn't occur to me at that moment that I had just asked for a hamburger and there were already a bunch under the lamps. Oops.

Sometimes the mistake occurs because your mind is on another track, like making a grill order when anything on the usual fare is changed. It's the truck stuck in the tunnel surrounded by police and firemen and engineers who can't see what a little girl can see -- all you need to do is let a little air out of the tires. We get stuck in a mindset or a way of doing things that is so ingrained or dominates our mental pathways we can't see what's really happening or how to change gears. Being able to change gears or go against the grain or think outside of the box (or into it in the case of the cat) is the essence of genius. That's what successful authors, playwrights and creative people do, even if the creativity is building a new electronic circuit out of found parts or throwing together an impromptu stew or hash.

Writers are especially susceptible to the mind rut. Some writers get so comfortable with a certain topic or way of writing and they end up redoing the same old thing, rewriting the same story or article over and over and over. Spread it out over enough periodicals and books and most people don't notice because they haven't read your articles before. There are, of course, different ways of saying the same thing and can be very creative, but, like lying, the product becomes parody, heavy with layers of exaggeration and schmaltz designed to play on the emotions. It's why liars always get caught; they don't know when to stop embellishing, telling the same story over and over and over until everyone has heard it and begins to see the changes, subtle at first and then more outrageous and blatant. So, too, with writing, which is always my main concern.

I've fallen prey to reworking an old idea when I didn't think I had any because the act of facing the blank page is too much to bear. Where do I start this time? How many characters can I come up with? How many times can I write "roiling river" or "lambent gaze" without emptying the contents of my intestines onto the keyboard? It's too easy to fall into that trap, to keep reworking an idea until it's threadbare and worn and you can't wring tears or smiles from the readers -- or yourself -- any more. The writing becomes stilted, a worn bromide, and goes from bad to worse. I can think of several writers who fall into this category, which is why I no longer read them. Some are still cranking out the same out story with different hair/eye colors and jobs, but still the same old-same old. Those writers have blind, sycophantic fans and friends who would applaud if they published their grocery list. Other writers finally gave up and went in a completely new direction, repudiating everything written before, as though fleeing a particularly bloody and vicious crime scene, and those writers, no matter how successful their new venture, end up denying the gift that made them good writers in the first place. Their only refuge is in faction, or what is currently known as creative nonfiction, and it is very creative.

So, where does all this lead us? I hope it leads to a good creative spring cleaning, throwing out what doesn't work and hanging on to what does and building on it. We all need to let the air out of the tires when we get stuck or simply step back, sit down and take a look from a different angle, tackle what has frightened us before and take a less well marked and traveled path. In other words, it's time to shake up the ant farm and clear out the cobwebs to get a fresh perspective and a deep, mind cleansing breath of fresh air. It's spring after all.

That is all. Disperse.

No comments: