Salvatore Pane

Tag: Process

Ownership of Experience

Last weekend I went to the American Serbian Club. It’s a bar in Pittsburgh that caters to the Serbian elderly complete with traditional Serbian music, foods and supple Serbian granddaughters. I drank. I danced. I potentially got engaged to a young beauty. The next day, I sobered up and decided that the ASC DEMANDED to be written about.

Happiness, thy name is American Serbian Club

But who can claim ownership over such experiences? I jokingly messaged another friend of mine who attended the ASC trip and told her she could not write about it because I already had 900 words (which I did). Obviously, this was meant in jest. But now, a few days later, I’m wondering if there’s any validity in that statement. If we, as writers, can ever truly claim to represent a location, an experience, a feeling.

One of the reasons why this is so interesting to me is because I’m the type of writer who can’t imagine faces. I can do setting and internalization and dialogue, but I can never truly picture my characters if what you mean by that is actually generating entirely new humans that don’t already exist. I’m a big believer in the amalgam, of taking one real life person and jamming them into another and seeing what happens because of the inherent tension. Also, I can’t picture clothes. That’s why I’m so thankful Facebook exists, because now if I need an outfit for a trendy, thirty-something dude, I can just go onto Facebook, look up one of my friends who matches the description and get to work.

Is this creepy? Fair? Why, as a writer, do I think we are allowed to do this, that we deserve this even? In my work, if I fictionalize scenarios or characters or settings even a little, I feel as though I now own them, that I can rightfuly claim ownership. Is that outright insane? How do non-writers feel about this? And what about nonfiction? A few weeks back, Amy Whipple was telling me about the ethics involved in interviews. I couldn’t even wrap my mind around such a scenario: the idea that a writer has to consider the feelings and privacy of their subjects. Various ex-girlfriends have liked the idea that certain things they said or did would appear in my work. They figured that since people couldn’t 100% attribute those elements to them, it made it ok and even somewhat desirable. But does that really make it justifiable or should I feel guilty when I stick a close friend into a story? I never have before and always fell into the Richard Yates camp. When asked about which of his characters he really disliked, he said none of them. He told the interviewer that in some small, meaningful way they were all him, pieces of his psyche at work. That’s both a very complex and reductive way of looking at what characters and experiences writers are entitled to.

I've always had a thing for amalgams...

A Disturbing Trend

Every so often I find myself stuck in strange, sometimes unproductive writing routines. The first one I really remember started in spring/summer 2006. I was preparing my application for grad school and tried to write a new story every two weeks. The only problem was they all had the same voice: first-person working class dude in his mid-fifties.  I’d try to write other things, but they just wouldn’t go anywhere. They’d stall out after a page or two and I’d revert into that familiar voice that was one part everything I’d grown up with at my father’s garage and one part Ray Carver imitation. This consumed my writing for about four months, until finally, I produced a story with this voice that wasn’t mind-numbingly terrible. I put it in all my grad school applications and luckily got into Pitt. So the end result was positive but all that time spent drafting failing stories with the same exact voice felt pretty unproductive, and at times, like a personal affront.

Recently, I’ve found myself going through a similar cycle. Ever since I’ve finished my novel (or at least, slowed down enough where I could focus on short stories), the same routine keeps recycling itself. I write about five or six pages of a new story, get an idea for something totally different, drop the first story completely, then finish the sexy new thang. For example, during the cataclysmic snow fuck that was February, I started writing a story based very loosely on the Angry Video Game Nerd’s wife. I don’t know a thing about her, but I’ve always wondered: who married that guy? What does she say at office parties when people ask her what her husband does? “Oh, he used to work in an office but now he reviews video games from the 80’s and early 90’s and the odd nostalgic board game.” Who is that person?

Clearly, that’s not a good basis for a story. There’s good character potential but zero idea for a plot. And after the aforementioned office party scene, it stalled out and drifted towards the most overused plot device in all of my work: the classic love triangle. I took a long walk around Squirrel Hill on one of the days Pitt closed on account of the blizzard and came up with the idea for my final workshop story: a piece about a former NCAA swimmer from Egypt who works in athletic advising at Pitt and knows his wife is going to leave him after work. That seemed to go a lot better in that I actually finished the story and revised it considerably. The AVGN piece sits untouched on my desktop.

Since then, the same process has repeated itself twice. A few weeks back I posted about my frustrations with my novella. I thought the problem was a post-novel slump, but the truth was I just couldn’t deal with that material at the moment. I swapped it out for something more familiar (aging comic book writer deals with a love triangle via Twitter!) and called it a day. Even this week, I started work on a project about President Garfield’s assassin’s time in the Oneida Society as narrated by his death row grandson, but the scenes just wouldn’t go anywhere. Its failure left me in a funk until I abandoned it and moved onto, again, something at the opposite end of the spectrum.

What I’m interested in is whether or not all writers develop odd quirks or routines. Do you ever find yourself  going through a strange process that you know isn’t the most productive way to be doing things even if at the end you come out of it with a decent story? I’m not talking about having a specific writing chair or pre-writing routine. I mean an actual tick that develops in your writing, like a superstitious belief that every other story you write is crap and must be sacrificed to the ghost of Richard Yates in order to produce something worthwhile. TELL ME I’M NOT ALONE!

Post Novel Depression

A few days ago, I finished the (187th?) draft of my novel. It’s been read by lots of folks (if you’re reading this (doubtful), thanks!). And I’ve spent so much time on it that I can recite many scenes and snippets of dialogue from memory. It’s too early to talk about what happens to it next, but please send your positive energy my way.

What I really want to talk about is starting my next project. I’ve spent so much time in the world of the novel using that voice, and it’s a lot harder to come out of it than I anticipated. While writing the novel, I took a few breaks to write some short stories and a couple pieces of flash fictions, but those were trysts, brief interludes that kept me away from what I considered to be my truest work.

Now what the hell am I supposed to do? Since starting the novel, I’ve been keeping a notebook full of short story ideas and a very loosely plotted novella amputated from a too-ambitious short story. I started the novella three days ago and it’s been really rough going. I’ve written about 4,000 words but there’s only one scene I actually thinks is any good, and even that’s filled with instructions to myself in big red letters about how to flesh things out more.

One of the problems I have is I keep slipping into the novel voice and trying to bring the novella back to themes directly connected with the novel. I’m not sure how to deal with this. Usually, I’m a very intuition based writer. I don’t have elaborate plans and only know what’s going to happen a few scenes in advance (with the exception of maybe a handful of images I know might work towards the end). A lot of the time, I don’t even write in order and piece the scenes together once I have a first draft. Normally, I would follow my intuition and keep writing in the novel voice, but I’m worried about being derivative. I don’t want to be one of those writers who does the same thing 85 times, but on the other hand, maybe the novel’s themes are my true subjects, and it’s up to me to continue pursuing them? Another problem is that both the novel and novella use twenty-something male first person protagonists. They’re extremely different characters, but the voices are more similar than I’d like and this worries me. Maybe I need to put this novella away (again) and work on something more closely connected to a female character or write something in third person.

I know a lot of this is rambling and probably of little interest to non-writers. But I am curious for responses from people who read this who do write. What’s your process like? Do you have difficulty transitioning from one project to another? Do you work on multiple projects at the same time? Do you find that your voice bleeds from one work to the next, that you have an authorial style that’s impossible to hide once you really discover your voice? Any and all opinions welcome.

There I am working on my novella!