Writing with the back of the brain

This past week my first stand-alone novel, A DARKER PLACE (or in the UK, THE BIRTH OF A NEW MOON) was the topic of discussion for a group of MFA writing students from the Whidby Island Writing Association. The students would post comments on various topics, I would read them each day and post remarks of my own whenever I thought I could add to the discussion, but mostly what happened was I sat back, amazed that I’e2’80’99d got away with it. These people, all of whom tossed around writing terms I’e2’80’99d never heard of (what on earth is a ficelle???) actually thought I knew what I was doing. Me, who last took a writing class when they were still diagramming sentences, who thought once that she’e2’80’99d invented this clever technique which later turned out to be called foreshadowing, who at book eighteen still flails and struggles her way through a first draft like a camper in a collapsed tent’e2’80’94they thought I actually knew what I was doing when I wrote a novel.

Far be it from me to disabuse them of the notion. And actually, I am convinced that some part of the back of my brain actually does know what it’e2’80’99s doing. Half the time I write away, putting in page after page of, for example, a description of an eccentric country house, telling myself that I’e2’80’99ll surely cut it all in the rewrite, only to find a hundred pages later on that I’e2’80’99ve given myself something in all that description that’e2’80’99s absolutely essential to the story I need to tell.

The back of my head does it all. But do I tell writing students that, people who have invested a lot of time and money in learning to do it with the front of their brain? No, because that way does work for some people, and just because I’e2’80’99m not one of them doesn’e2’80’99t mean that it’e2’80’99s not a useful technique for others.

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And speaking of British humo(u)r, which I was in the last post, if you don’e2’80’99t know the short program called ‘e2’80’9cPosh Nosh,’e2’80’9d check these out:

Absolutely priceless humour.

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  1. Becca on February 19, 2006 at 3:59 pm

    You may not know the names, but it was the writing in A Darker Place which reached out and grabbed me. Very intense, but it’s one of the few books I’ll go and reread just to see how the words flow together.

  2. Vicki Larson on February 19, 2006 at 5:27 pm

    Perhaps it is your supression of left brain knowledge that allows your right brain to do all the GREAT writing that it does. Knowing too much consciously can just slow one down to a snail’s pace. One would become self conscious. Am I doing the right thing here?… rather than just proceeding with the story. However you do it, you are writing great stories. Keep it up. Pleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeze.

  3. wolfa on February 19, 2006 at 10:18 pm

    ‘A Darker Place’ is my favourite of your novels, and one month I will get in my questions about your research for that novel before you’ve posted “please wait until next month”.

    Some people learn spelling and grammar through reading; there’s no reason that couldn’t be true of plotting or description.

    A ficelle is a kind of bread — an even skinnier baguette. It probably has a specific literature meaning, but it’s also nice in a picnic and for some appetizers.

  4. Liz on February 20, 2006 at 9:53 am

    Is it satisfying to see the complex thoughts that derive from something you’ve created, or merely slightly scary? Do you feel like your creations have escaped and taken on a life of their own? Should I save this for the end of the month?

    Really, I just wanted to say that Birth of a New Moon is one of my favourites of your books, because of the layers and complexities. And also because you’ve obviously approached the subject matter with a lot of thought and knowledge, but the whole project never feels forced or stilted.

    Or at least, that would be my guess, as to why and how it stands up to dissection by students, where other novels fall apart under scrutiny.

  5. chris on February 20, 2006 at 4:25 pm

    I echo Liz – “The Birth of a New Moon” has always been one of my favourites of your books. Seven years may have past since I read it, but (allowing for naturally ageing memory!) remains fresh in my mind.

    Incidentally, Posh Nosh – I love it, it’s a gem. Glad it’s your cup of tea, too!


  6. Anonymous on February 20, 2006 at 8:28 pm

    Laurie, I agree with Vicki Larson, who said “Knowing too much consciously can just slow one down to a snail’s pace. One would become self conscious.” The best place for all the “book-larnin'” comes in the editing phase, not the creative process. Once I have a rough draft produced, I can edit and refurbish like you wouldn’t believe. But setting aside that crafty little “inner editor” during the creative drafting of a manuscript is like trying to herd cats. I applaud your ability to get the job done. I truly believe that reading, itself, is the best teacher for writing. And clearly you are a lifelong reader. I look forward to encountering more of the detritus from your unconscious but perceptive mind. Iris Lady

  7. Anonymous on February 21, 2006 at 9:16 am

    I had never heard of it before, so I had to look it up. A ficelle is an auxillary character. Learn something new every day….

    Jargon aside, I love to read your work, so please keep at it. Russell has to be one of my all time favorite literary women.

  8. Erin on February 22, 2006 at 1:47 am

    You know, I just took an english/linguistics course last quarter in which we diagrammed sentences; ENL/LIN 106: English Grammar. *sigh* Sentence trees. Rather fun until you get to subordinate wh-clauses. *shudders*

    I’ve always wondered how the author feels about having their work analyzed. We spent so much time picking apart novels in my lit classes and all I could think while doing it was, “Is this really what the author meant? Did they really mean for this to be a metaphor or are we making something out of nothing?”

    Is writing like art in the sense that the meaning the audience takes is the meaning that is meant? In which case it depends on who’s reading? Or is there really a specific meaning meant?

    It reminds me of this children’s book that my roommate has about an archiologist from the future who comes across a hotel and decides that the bathroom is an alter and the toilet-seat covers are necklaces used during prayer. Are we thinking too much about underlying meaning when we analyze fiction?

  9. 2maple on February 22, 2006 at 2:32 pm

    I think readers have voted in your favor, so you might as well accept that you know how to write.

    That being said, I agree with the Iris Lady. The type of terms you’e2’80’99re talking about I see as concepts or tools that are useful in the editing process to make a story more believable or heighten the experience for the reader. Initially, they would just get in the way of getting the story out other than at a basic level.

    But sometimes I think a lot of this is common sense that academics have given a concise name to, summarizing intuition eloquently into a word or phrase like foreshadowing or back story, for the sake of communication. But ficelle, now really, from the preceding posts, does that mean an auxiliary character is to a story like bread is to a meal? Clarity seems to have been lost in the translation.

    I’e2’80’99ve always wondered how much of all this an author actually intended; and what was over-analysis. Has anyone ever taken the ‘e2’80’9canalysis’e2’80’9d of your books too far?

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