Thursday, June 1, 2017

If cows could talk

Walking on a moonlight night in Aquitaine with a British friend. We came upon a few cows near a fence, but across one of the drainage ditches that run along the roads in Southern France. I was a Buddhist nun then, bald and in gray robes. My friend from Nottingham asked me if I knew how to talk to cows, and when I shook my head, she taught me how. You breath in deeply, and then breath out as noisily as you can, using both your throat and your nasal passages. Not a pretty sound, but an earthy one. You breath in and out, slowly. The cows were riveted. In no time they started responding, breath for breath.

Writing is like that. You put something out there, and sometimes you feel that there is a rising in the universe to meet it. It's like plucking exactly the right string, or making a hole in one when you've never even picked up the clubs before. 

These are the moments of effortless "genius" that every writer has, that can't be taught. They are gifts, ephemeral and rare, though if you have diligently practiced your craft they will be more likely to arise.

But 99% of the time it doesn't happen that way, does it? We have to apply good old fashioned elbow grease to get those sentences flowing just so, and the characters drawn so vividly we are not conscious of those perfect sentences that describe them. 

Perfectionists like Truman Capote, agonize over every word, every sentence, as they go along. He was observed on more than one occasion, pen in hand, with an expression on his face as if he was literally giving birth!  Before he moved on to the next sentence, he had to be completely satisfied with the last one he had written. And that perfectionism shows in his work. Two other writers that reach his level of hitting exactly the right note every time are Eudora Welty (if you don't know her work, start with House of Mirth), and Willa Cather (especially Death Comes to the Archbishop). 

The process is so wonderfully varied between writers. Norman Mailer and Theodore Dreiser slapped down cringeworthy sentences all day everyday and still rose to the top of their generation's hit list.

Hemingway is held up as a paradigm of good writing, though he bores me silly.

D.H. Lawrence rewrote "Lady Chatterley" three times, each time without referring to the last draft. All three versions were eventually published.

Many writers slapdash the first draft and figure they'll tweak it to perfection when it's all down on the page. Nothing wrong with that. But sometimes it's good to have a solid foundation under you before you rush forward, a deeper feeling for your characters, a more vivid sense of place.

So sometimes you can tune in and breathe with the cows, talk with the dolphins, communicate directly with the muse of the unseen universe. But most of the time we have to wing it. We have to do what we can with the limited, improvable skills we have, while working to make them better.

So, the next time you see a cow hanging out next to a fence, stop the car and walk on over. See what she has to say.

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