Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Zen of Mindy Friddle

Hint: You Just Walk the Path

My life continues to be enriched by reading novels that completely draw me into their worlds. You look up from the pages of such an absorbing read, startled to find yourself back in your own skin, as if you had been off somewhere else (in a Mississippi courtroom in the 1920's, say, or a post-Apocalyptic scarred planet), living another sort of life entirely. I think--I hope-- it's safe to say that writers start off as voracious readers first. We read for inspiration, for the bliss of an absorbing story, and, later, we read with an eye for craft.

I tell students this is the "feed your head" part of writing: a sort of intuitive trust that the right book by the right author will come your way for a reason-- for sustenance, to strengthen your talent, to teach you something about your own writing, help you get unstuck, show you what you need to know IF you're open to exploring, and IF you read widely and deeply.

Francine Prose (novelist and author of Reading Like a Writer) is adamant (in this interview) about seeking out what she needs from the "masters":
You can say, 'Look, James Joyce has written the greatest party scene that has ever been written,' or 'Tolstoy has written the most marvelous horse racing scene.' And if it happens to be that you want to write a party scene or a horse racing scene, you might want to go look and see how geniuses have done it and take a lesson.
Prose also said that, in a serendipitous fashion, the right book often finds its way to her at the right time and reveals something she needs for her own writing.

I LOVE the story of how E.L. Doctorow wrote Ragtime. He's one of my favorite authors; it's one my favorite books. It's a historical novel, full of pitch-perfect details, with a constellation of famous personalities (Houdini, Henry Ford, Emma Goldman, J.P. Morgan, just to name a few) alongside fictional characters. The research, I thought, must have been staggering. But, no. "When you’re working well," Doctorow said in a recent New York Magazine interview, "you don’t do research.Whatever you need comes to you."

Huh? Yeah. Case in point: In Ragtime, there's a scene where two characters (a father and a little girl) flee Westchester, NY on a trolley, making their way all the way to Massachusetts. A snag: After he'd written this scene, the author wasn't even sure if such a feat was possible. So, he got up from his desk at the public library, "and banged my knee on a book and looked down, and I picked it up. It was a corporate history of trolley-car companies. This is the way the book (Ragtime) was assembled."

In Zen-speak, I think this might be known as being in alignment with the universe, open to the present moment, and free from desperation and "grasping" that skews and distorts. In talking with my fellow writers, many tell me they've found the fastest way to get blocked and stymied in a work-in-progress is to consider the writing a means to an end (publication, best sellerdom, freaked out crazy deadlines, etc.) instead of focusing on the writing for its own sake. Richard Bausch, in an interview with Writer magazine some years ago, summed this up beautifully:
When I sit down to write, I'm not thinking about pulling stuff out of myself. I'm thinking about going somewhere, walking around, and seeing what I find. And there's never a time when I sit down and it isn't there. You just walk the path. There is a tremendous amount of work you can get done doing that. There's no part of that that's not fun. I never worry about whether or not it's good. I don't care, right then. I'm walking the path. I know that if I can bring enough attention to it, and be honest and open to it and not cheat it, it'll be fine. Whether it's the best I've ever done is not anything for me to worry about.

When you're in the zone, you're not even YOU, you're watching this story reveal itself (in hard glimmering icy plinks or long, luxurious warm rains-- the story is often fickle as the weather), and, then, somehow, you're writing it.

Which might explain the article I tore out of yesterday's science section of the NYT: "Tongue Orchid's Sexual Guile: Utterly Convincing." I'm in the midst of final edits of my manuscript and I've been stuck for a few days on one paragraph that just needed a little...something. So there, over my first cup of coffee, I found it: There's a slew of delicious, odd scientific facts stuffed into this article, one of which is the perfect missing detail for my scene about a presentation on orchids to senior citizens. I'm grateful, delighted, but not entirely surprised. I knew my little something would come. And in this case, it was delivered to my door.

Mindy Friddle--that's her, pictured at right, at the NY Botanical Gardens-- is the author of THE GARDEN ANGEL (St. Martin's Press/Picador) and SECRET KEEPERS (forthcoming from St. Martin's Press/Picador).Visit to read her interviews with authors, drop by her blog, Novel Thoughts. Befriend her on Facebook.


Anonymous said...

This is really a beautiful and wise piece. So true.

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