Jay Has An Insight

I was catching up on my New Yorker reading this morning (work has been so crazy I'm even behind on The New Yorker, which never happens), and I came across this article on insight. It's a good article, and you should totally read it*, but the part that interested me particularly this morning was when it talked about how scientists and mathemeticians described insights and how they happened for them. Basically, they all said "you can't force insight."

(You can't force insight and you can't hurry love. No, you just have to wait. Just trust...sorry.)

I think maybe this is what I meant when, a long long time ago, I said I don't get writer's block. I don't. That doesn't mean that I don't go through periods when the writing is not working, or when I'm stumped about how to do things, but I don't get "blocked." I just wait.

Anyway, the reason why I'm writing this is not just to give you a book report on The New Yorker (short version: AWESOME), but because I recently had an insight about The Book that followed this exact sort of pattern.

See, near the beginning of The Book, main character S, a new girl in school, starts hanging out with other main character G, a popular jock. Of course, this raises the hackles of popular cheerleader girl A, who used to go out with G, but broke up with him a couple of months earlier. (Don't worry, I'm not giving anything away in terms of plot--this stuff is sooo background.) Anyway, at one point, A catches S alone and says all this cryptic stuff about how G is weird and S should totally not get involved with him. S interprets this (rightly so) as A's jealousy about someone else hooking up with her (totally hot) ex-boyfriend. But the other day, while I was waiting for my LSAT students to show up, I got to thinking about that scene.

I think I wrote a post recently (oh, here it is!) about how every character is the star of his or her own movie, and the thought that came to me the other day was "why would A do that? Why would she go up to S and try to dissuade her?" Jealousy makes sense, of course, but A broke up with G, not the other way around. So what would make a girl like A break up with a guy like G, but still really like him and still be jealous of him going out with another girl? A is a Queen Bee--she's not threatened by other girls generally. And if she dumped G, she wouldn't be jealous of other girls having him, unless...

And then I had it, all in an instant, a complete scene detailing what A had seen that led her to break up with G, and how it made her feel, and why, besides jealousy, she would take the time out of her day to talk to S and say "look, G is odd. Look out."

Now, again, is this scene central to the plot? Nope. It's not even going to appear in The Book, which is all from S's point of view. But it matters, because now I know why A did this, which makes her a more three dimensional character, which affects the way I write the (three) scenes she has in the book. She's not a plot device. She's not a contrivance. She's a character, with her own unique motivations. She's the star of her own show.

But, and this is the weird part, she wasn't a problem or anything. A's been in The Book from early on, and the scene where she talks to S has always been there, chalked up to jealousy and nothing more. And that wasn't an issue. But for some reason my brain said "hey, Jay, I've been thinking and I think this about A," and the "this"? Is super cool. I'm totally going to write that scene, you know, in my spare time. :)

To sum up:
1. Read The New Yorker.
2. Have insights.

*You should totally read most of the articles in The New Yorker--it is consistently one of the best-written magazines in the world. I skip the poetry though. And sometimes the political stuff. Does that make me a bad person?

3 comments:

I find this post fascinating, but possibly not for the reasons you might suspect. (By the way, hate the New Yorker: beyond pretentious, had a subscription, couldn't WAIT for it to end. You want fun writing, try something by Christopher Hitchens in Vanity Fair, man has a way with an insult.)

I could try to put this delicately but that wouldn't be my style, plus you know I don't mean anything bad by this . . . have you made the connection between not being blocked and just now discovering a motivation for an ancillary character? If I had to guess, I'd bet you're churning out text at an incredibly rapid rate (not a bad thing, but interesting nonetheless) but that you generally only know what you're going to type maybe half the time? Or possibly less? So, it should come as no surprise that upon revisiting that passage, you now can think it over a bit and BAM, there's the reason behind the scene all along! Either way, it's all good.

I'm just fascinated because it's the exact opposite of the way I write. I sit and think for years. I ponder sentences and paragraphs over and over again. I hit upon turns of phrase. Do I write them down? Almost never. If it's good enough, I'll remember it, I know I will. So, when I finally sit down and write, all I have to do is type everything I've been thinking about for the past few years. A bizarre form of dication, if you will. But the thought has already been put into it and there's no need to think about it anymore, just do it.

In other words, by the time I get to writing, nothing my characters do surprises me. They surprised me during the thinking part.

In a way, I imagine your style of writing might be considered by many to be more fun because you sit down and start typing and you don't know exactly where it's going. I'm a control freak, I need to know where it's going, whether the theme is working, all that jive. I take pleasure in other aspects of writing, getting just the right word, just the right metaphor or simile, or even just the right little joke.

So, as interesting as I find your method of working, I cannot imagine working like that. I suspect you cannot imagine working the way I do, either. It takes all kinds.

In case you're curious, I always thought Cheerleader Girl was just trying to keep S from having Jock Boy simply because she thought she could. I know a lot of girls who operate on the theory that even if they didn't want a guy, they certainly didn't want any other girl to have him, either. That guy was expected to sit there and pine for that girl the rest of his life and never move on.

Women. Hee hee.

Saturday, August 9, 2008 at 2:58:00 PM EDT  

Hitchens turns my stomach (and most of Vanity Fair isn't worth the paper it's printed on. Not all of it--they get some good stories now and again--but most of it is just plain old boring celebrity journalism. Pass.), but like you said, it takes all kinds. :)

Actually, I think you're exactly right--because I write so quickly, the motivations behind my characters' actions are only half-realized in the initial drafts, and are only fully fleshed out in the revisions. The thing that most surprised me about this particular revelation was that I didn't have a problem with the way A was portrayed. (Incidentally, you're also correct that there's a little "he'll never get over me" in A's behavior as well.)

I just can't imagine the way you write, just sitting there...thinking...no surprises on the page...I literally cannot fathom doing that. I mean, I appreciate it, I've seen the results, but dude. TYPE SOMETHING. :)

I don't know that my way is more "fun" actually--you have to be willing to throw away a lot (a LOT) of stuff in order for it to work properly. I've got whole chapters, thousands of words, some of which is very good (if I do say so myself :) ) that will never see the light of day because it no longer works. So you spend a lot of time thinking and I spend a lot of time cutting. It's a trade-off.

Sunday, August 10, 2008 at 10:47:00 AM EDT  

Funny how we cannot imagine working like the other even though we know it works for each of us, isn't it?

Even if you never include your new story of A's motivation in the book, it would be fun to see it somewhere -- perhaps on this page some day after that book is all sorted out -- just for the fun of it. Everybody always likes to know the backstory.

You can expect a book from me in about two years, I suspect. Ideas are popping but short stories lend themselves to multiple takes, which is not good for me as I like to settle on the definitive version right away. There could be -- gasp -- some rewriting in my future unless I do some more thinking, hee hee. Also, not surprisingly, the book keeps getting darker by the thought. I guess you have to go with your gut. But there's a story I'm thinking of that has one of the most horrifying scenes I've ever thought of and since I can think of a lot of grim stuff, it comes as a surprise to me that I'm not too keen on writing it, even though it's a humdinger.

Now I have to research the etymology of "humdinger." I'm that kind of person. Argh.

Sunday, August 10, 2008 at 11:26:00 AM EDT  

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