“I’m not sure I understand the creative process. I’ve never given much attention to it. I understand how I work, but I really don’t know what psychological things happen in the creative process, or why someone creates.”
Paddy Chayefsky, screenwriter
Yesterday I discussed two of the components that contribute to an author’s voice: style and tone. I will discuss two others today – focus and creativity.
FOCUS is what you select to write about. It is the piece of clothing that demands the most attention – a bright yellow dress, a smart suit.
CREATIVITY is the choice of what details and examples you use in your writing. You might say it is the choice of which accessories to add to your outfit – a pair of earrings, a certain of tie.
All (or most) Peace Corps books are creative non-fiction, all based on historical facts within your own experiences. These memoirs might be highly autobiographical, or they might be simply based on the experience. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that they are compelling told.
Most writers begin with large ideas. Large ideas are unwieldy. Whittling a large, unfocused subject down is the process of moving from the general to the specific, and the best way to do that is to strip away unnecessary prose. Focus determines which facet of the larger picture you will explore and reveal in your writing. Focus requires making choices from those ideas.
Whatever you write, you will have to make many decisions both large and small. You have to decide whether to include a particular incident, for example, or if you (or your character) will turn left or right on a given street. And you have to keep making those decisions throughout the book. Good decisions will propel your story forward; one major decision gone wrong and you might ruin it.
You have lived your story, now you must select and discard from that story. That is what is meant when we talk about focus in your book.
Here is another way to understand focus. Think about when you take a photograph. When you point your camera, you choose to take this picture and not another one.
Let’s say you have one roll of film you can use at a reunion of your Peace Corps group. You can choose to take a photograph of your old Peace Corps boyfriend or one of him and his wife. You decide to take a photo just of him as he is gesturing, telling a story; you remember that habit of his from the time you were together in the Peace Corps. (Next, you might want to take a quick shot of her, just so you have something to remind yourself that you look a lot better than she does!)
But it is all about selection – and the right kind of selection. What are you going to select as the best from your Peace Corps experience to write about?
Once you have chosen the material on which you will focus, you will be confronted with more decisions – how much creativity will you give your selections? You must begin to think of how you will control (and that is the right word!) the material you have, the characters you have met, the sights and scenes you have experienced. You will edit, refine, rearrange, enrich – you will be creative! Now I am talking about “creative non-fiction.”
Focus + Creativity
Focus and creativity go together. And your task is to make those many decisions of both focus and creativity that will make your book “work” for the reader.
Review and Summary
Let me sum up voice and its components: style, tone, focus and creativity. In writing, the basic function of style is to gain and hold the reader’s attention from beginning to end.
That said, remember only when you, as a writer, feel capable of expressing yourself correctly and clearly will your prose feel free. The sense of control that comes with knowledge of the principles of good writing serves the same purpose in writing as it does in any other activity, whether it is playing a piano or cooking a meal. A sense of control gives you the assurance that you are doing a good job and it enables you to push on with confidence.
Your material will interest the reader, but your style will keep them reading. Now you will refine and develop your style as you write. When we get to rewriting, you’ll marvel at how much better a writer you have become. Nothing helps writing like writing.
While you are at the beginning stages of your book, remember to keep your meaning clear. Pick your words carefully. Don’t try to impress us with your prose. Faulkner once said – talking about rewriting – that you have to get rid of all your “darlings,” the passages that draw attention to themselves and not to the story.
William Strunk, Jr. in his classic book on clear writing, The Elements of Style, makes this point: “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”
Take a look at one descriptive scene from Mike Tidwell’s book The Ponds of Kalambayi.
It was after a few weeks of this, not long after watching Makoyi Mufdedi shoot arrows at his geriatric fish, that I met Ilunga Mbumba, chief of the village of Ntita Kalambayi. I was riding my Yamaha 125 Enduro through an uninhabited stretch of bush when he appeared from out of the ten-foot-tall grass along the trail, signaling for me to stop. Had he not waved, I’m pretty sure, I would have stopped anyway. Ilunga had been out hunting antelope and he presented a sight worth inspecting. In one hand he carried a spear, in the other a crude machete. On his head was a kind of coonskin cap with a bushy tail hanging down in back. Around his neck was a string supporting a leather charm to ward off bad bush spirits. Two underfed mongrel dogs circled his bare feet, panting.
When I stopped and saw Ilunga that first time, I saw a man living, it seemed to me, in another century. Inside the tall grass from which he had just stepped, the clock ran a thousand years slow if it registered any time at all. Unable to help myself, I stared at him openly, taking him in from head to toe. He, meanwhile, stared back at me with the same wide-eyed incredulity. An no wonder. With my ghost-white skin and rumbling motorcycle, with my bulging safety goggles and orange riding gloves, with my bushy brown beard flowing out from under a banana-yellow crash helmet–with all this, I suppose I had a lot of nerve thinking of him as a museum piece.
For a moment we just kept gawking. Ilunga and I, mentally circling each other, both of us trying to decide whether to burst out laughing or to run for safety. In the end, we did neither. We became friends.
Remember the five elements that Peter Hessler said helped him structure his chapters? They were tone, character, action, setting, and information. Analyze this passage that Mike has written by considering what Peter Hessler looks for in his writing.
Michael, I know, does not “think out” his writing in an analytical way in the way that Peter does. He is a much more impulsive writer, but nevertheless, he has managed to “capture” all of the elements in these three paragraphs. Relate what Peter has said to what William Strunk, Jr. wrote in his book: “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences.”
See how Tidwell has captured the meeting in the forest with concise language, with phrases and adjectives like: “I saw a man living, it seemed to me, in another century…” and, “bulging safety goggles and orange riding gloves, with my bushy brown beard flowing out from under a banana-yellow crash helmet.”
In this scene we have seen how focus and creativity work smoothly together.
Every word nails down the description, nails down the scene of this Peace Corps Volunteer on his Yamaha 125 Enduro and the village chief. Peace Corps writing doesn’t get much better than the prose of Mike Tidwell.
Additionally, you have a real sense of Michael here. The “character” of Tidwell. He is wise enough to make fun of himself, to be culturally sensitive to the fact that he is just as strange looking to Ilunga Mbumba as Ilunga is to him. You like Mike. He has a sense of humor and that comes across in this passage. You understand Mike because you have found yourself in similar circumstances. Well, now it is your turn to write about them.
ASSIGNMENT – WEEK 4
Go back to what you wrote and identify if it –
– is focused and creative;
– has the five aspects – tone, character, action, setting and information – that Peter seeks to have in his work.
Now, rewrite that piece. If you can’t honestly say it has at least four of Peter’s elements, rework the piece so that it does. When you are rewriting, also make sure that you remember what Strunk said: “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences.”
Remember also what my son would say, “Get down with it!”