Monthly Archives: November 2012

housing development

Why I don’t like story outlines

(or planned communities, for that matter)

I lived in Colorado Springs for a few months when I first arrived in Colorado. I didn’t know anyone when I arrived. I had orchestrated my place to live through email and Skype, and had a few names of friends of friends that I could contact. But I was On My Own.

housing development

like a giant cornfield… image courtesy of GeekPhilosopher.com

I arrived a little over two weeks prior to the Super Bowl. Despite being a total newcomer to the area, I found myself partaking in the festive American ritual of The Party, courtesy of one of these friends of friends. It was located in the far-flung northeastern corner of the Springs, north of the Air Force Base, in one of the many housing developments that characterize most of the Springs’ residential arrangement.

For those who have never been, Colorado Springs roads are characterized by quite a few large, north-south routes on either side of I-25, and only a few good connections east-west, topography creating a bit of a road building challenge which results in bottlenecks. There is a compact downtown, and a small historic district called Old Colorado City (which was once a separate town), but most of the rest of it looks like a template for Suburbia.

Heading out to the party, making my awkward west-east connections, I drove past housing developments and strip malls. These followed a steady rhythm internally as well as externally. Neighborhoods often had limited entry and exit points via main roads; the web of streets within the neighborhood featured houses that were in many ways very similar to each other; sometimes there was a walking path nearby; sometimes there was a park in the area; in order to visit this park (if applicable) or any kind of store, residents needed to get in the car and drive to a parking lot or one of the strip malls or store groupings concentrated around a big-box mega-center such as Target. Each neighborhood functioned as an entirely discrete unit, which, however, was strangely isolated from practical things like corner stores, gas stations, and parks.

My Super Bowl party hosts lived in a development situated on a bit of a rise. Coming in from the main road, I was granted a vista to the west, where the sun was slowly setting, glinting over a sea of roofs which looked, from this distance, like the interchangeable pieces of a Monopoly set. Indeed, despite the red twinkle indicating storefronts for various malls, it looked like one enormous, homogeneous neighborhood. I was reminded of the overhead shots during the opening credits of the series Weeds.

It got me thinking. About planning and an adherence to logic and order. About variations on a theme (think music, the visual arts), and what makes some variations more pleasing than others. About organic growth (not like in your garden), and checklists.

I don’t want to get into a discussion on the relative merits and drawbacks of planned living communities, since that’s not the focus of this blog, but I do see a connection between this type of reliance on planning in the physical world of infrastructure, and in fact within companies, and planned art.

Almost everyone that has set out to tell (write) a story, whether short or long, at one point probably considers the question: would it be wise/profitable/advantageous/required/etc to have an outline, a sort of blueprint, so that I have a basic idea of where I’m going and can make sense of the act of getting there?

And in fact there can be many pros. The more complex the subject is, or the greater the number of characters, or the longer the story is, the more helpful it can be to have a kind of cheat sheet for organizing our thoughts. But in my experience, the difficulty is then in keeping this cheat sheet in its proper place. Because it can become very tyrannical. No, so-and-so is supposed to be here at this particular time, and he has to feel this way about this, otherwise we’ll lose the whole plot…

And then it seems to be inevitable that just a little farther down the road, the story gets really hard. It’s like a three-year-old in the supermarket, throwing a tantrum.  It doesn’t like anything I’m suggesting, the characters are in a torpor (“Hey, you tell me where we’re going!”), and, despite the fact that there’s a Plan in place, nothing makes any sense anymore.

Know the feeling?

Every time I try to plan something, it doesn’t work out. The story withers on the vine and calcifies. I can water it as much as I want; it’s not going to bloom. But the outline was so logical! It was meant to help me out. What’s going on here?

Good stories, in my experience, have a life of their own (this is what I mean by organic). The problem with outlines is that they often act like the bait on a spring-loaded trap, which when I reach for it, drops an iron cage over the lush garden of the story with a sign mounted on it: Caution! Agenda at Work! And then I can’t get at any of the plants. I can’t prune what needs pruning, and uproot the weeds. And I sure can’t plant anything new.

I think in the Springs they were mostly overtaken by the growth in the population and the need to provide housing. I surmise there was an army of planners requiring X type of services for Y number of people, and that there was a budget. But I couldn’t help regretting the loss of an actual neighborhood. With a corner store that I can walk to, to buy a sandwich and a newspaper.

That’s the dangerous thing about having story outline, in my view. It becomes the budget; it becomes a checklist of requirements. Blueprints are great for many things. But they don’t leave a lot of room for new stuff.

An Artistic Statement for Writers Part 2

Feeding the Roots

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the absence of information I was able to find about creating artistic statements for writers. This week, I’d like to offer my own thoughts on why this might be, why I think it’s important for writers to create one anyway, and ideas for scaffolding this tool.

image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

Artistic statements for writers are treated differently than artistic statements for visual artists. Visual artists are advised to create their artistic statement around a body of work — if not their whole oeuvre, then a distinct, thematically-linked portion. Writers are encouraged to create an artistic statement for a small, specific purpose: a particular project, or an application for a literary grant.

I agree with the usefulness of creating a unique statement for literary grant applications, but it is not the same thing as the artistic statement is for visual arts. Visual artists create artistic statements for public purposes: gallery exhibitions, portfolio preparation. Writers, if they do create artistic statements separately from individual applications, may do so from a more private desire to conceptualize a particular writing project for themselves.

While I think that’s useful, we writers are cheating ourselves if we never create an artistic statement that addresses the totality of our relationship with our art. Writing is a process of discovery — of ourselves, as well as our characters or our topics — which can only make our future writing better. I got some fascinating insights about my vision by creating my own artistic statement — although it was never meant for public consumption.

The bonus for creating a writer’s artistic statement is that we can poach that language for many other materials: personal websites, event bios, press releases, and so on.

A writer’s artistic statement is about vision. Visual artists have to drill down with words.  Writers need to get words to coalesce into something bigger.

What about you? Have you got a vision? How do you know?

Ideas for scaffolding an artistic statement for a writer: feeding the roots

image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

I like Natalie Goldberg’s analogy of good writing as composting. It involves the mingling and enriching of disparate-seeming ideas over time. The first thing to do, therefore, is brainstorm.

I’ve shamelessly stolen a lot of the structure of the following from Molly Gordon. The questions about writing are my own.

Take a few minutes and think about why you write. How did you get into writing? How do you feel when work is going well? What are your favorite things about your work? Jot down short phrases that capture your thoughts. Don’t worry about making sense or connections. Use a pen. Don’t delete, cross out, or throw out that sheet of paper to start fresh (in other words: no editing!).

Next, make a list of words and phrases that communicate your feelings about your work and your values. Include words you like, words that make you feel good, words that communicate your values or fascinations. Be loose. Be happy. Be real. These are all potential compost ingredients. It’s no time to be selective.

Continue your exploration by answering these questions as simply as you can. We’re not editing yet — let it all hang out:

What is your favorite genre? Why?
Do you ever play with other genres? Why?
Do you like to begin your work from a grand idea? from a small detail? from a character/person? from place? Why?
Do you prefer to write long-hand or using a computer? Do you use a digital recorder and transcribe thoughts and notes? Why?
What do you do differently from the way you were taught? Why?
What inspires you?
What patterns emerge from your work?
What do you like best about what you do?
What do you mean when you say that a project has turned out really well?

Go back to your word list. Add new words suggested by your answers to the questions above.

Choose two key words from your list. Look them up in a dictionary. Read the definitions, and copy them, thinking about what they have in common. Look your words up in a thesaurus. Read the entries related to your words. Are there any new words that should be added to your list?

Write five sentences about your relationship to your work. Be truthful. How do you feel when your work is going well? How do you start? How do you know a piece is done?  What do you want your readers to experience?

Take as much time as you need to brainstorm. To get good dirt, you’ve got to add a lot of material and keep turning it over. If you’re patient, it’ll do all the work for you.

Can you smell it? What are some words that you love?