Lessons Writers Can Adapt from Popular Culture

I have to begin with a “writer’s confession” of my own: I’d love to plagiarize Sam’s post from yesterday. For the past couple of weeks, I’ve known I have this blog entry to write, and I shuffled through ideas for it but repeatedly found myself face up against a wall. I still haven’t figured out a way around, over, or through that wall. I wanted to write about that wall — an admission that I’d run into it — and then Sam wrote about her version of it first. I imagine my wall as a tall and long row of brick cinder blocks; I’m flush up against it, it’s scraping my skin raw, and neither of us appears to be moving anywhere. But I’m responsible for a blog post, so we’re stuck with whatever is about to come out extemporaneously.

My friend Lisa, who did not sign up for the Writer’s March this go-round, happily reported to me this evening that she’d managed to do a march’s worth of successful writing anyway. I confessed that I haven’t. I’ve written a good bit more than usual, yes, but not what I had in mind or as much. I told her I was having trouble coming up with an idea for tonight’s post. She’s been working on a retelling of the fairy tale “The Beauty and the Beast.” She said, “Why don’t you write about the Beauty and the Beast of writing?”

“Then I’d be stealing your idea,” I said.

“You have my permission.”

So, yeah, I could write about the beautifully romantic notions of what it means to be a writer — for instance, the glorification of the “starving” artist — and the beastly agony that is the real work, but no, no thanks, not tonight.

I watched Dancing with the Stars tonight. I have learned to love this show. It’s happy candy. This is the only second week of the new season, and the dancing is already notably better than in past seasons. But some of the “stars” are nervous, stiff; their limbs fly every which way, they miss the beat (sometimes most of the beats), they lose their place, and their performance smiles are often coupled with a deer-in-headlights look in their eyes. I like this show because of those dancers, because I get to see celebrities I may or may not recognize doing something different, something out of their comfort zone. And I often get to see them progress in their abilities.

I was talking with a student today (Ava, who is also doing the Writer’s March) and mentioned the cut-and-paste process of revision. You don’t do this on the computer. You take your manuscript and a pair of scissors, and you cut after every scene or, if you’re feeling especially bold, into the heart of the scene. Then you lay out these physical pieces of paper in a new arrangement. You shuffle them again and again until you’re forced to consider new ways to develop existing scenes and obviously new ways to structure the overall piece. Ava shuddered at the thought of doing that to her manuscript, and I admitted I’d rejected the idea outright when my own teacher recommended it to me. It sounded like so much work. But my real problem with it, I know now, was that I was doing something outside my comfort zone. I wanted then and still want to be able to write a manuscript successfully from beginning to end. Dear readers, I inform you that that has never actually happened. Only once did a fairly solid draft of a five-paged essay come out in a mostly usable form. As it turns out, every time I’ve dared make the mess of cutting up a printed-out manuscript and laying out the pieces on a table or on the floor, it’s worked to my advantage — or rather, to the advantage of the manuscript needing scrupulous revision.

I don’t know that I’ve succeeded in making the connection to Dancing with the Stars clear for you. Something about pushing yourself beyond what you’re comfortable with to discover other talents or at least other possibilities, that’s the connection I’m aiming for. Try something you haven’t done before when you’re revising. Rewrite a critical section by hand without referring to the original draft. See if anything new and useful results.

More than anything, I’m thinking about Wednesday, the day after you’ll read this post. Wednesday is Lady Gaga’s birthday. If I haven’t told you lately or ever, I’m a huge fan. No, you’re not thinking huge enough. Huger than that. Now think huger. Okay, you’re almost there. Anyway, for the past couple of years, as each semester draws to a close, I’ve brought up Lady Gaga’s musical and performance abilities in relation to writing. Believe me, it matters not one whit whether you like, appreciate, or loathe and scorn Lady Gaga as an artist. My analogy goes beyond that. It’s this: I admire her because she has a far-reaching grasp of the musical and performance traditions that precede her, yet her work also pushes past existing boundaries and shows promise of great advances. Some view her as a Madonna wannabe, but I hear Prince and David Bowie, Queen and Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen and Elton John, KISS and Liza Minelli, and others too. Some may hear party songs, dance-pop, and see an overmade-up bewigged crazily dressed gimmick of a pop star. I see someone in command of the construction of her persona(e). I could go on. Ask, and I will.

But what I want to emphasize is her knowledge of tradition and her ability to transcend it. I believe that the latter is entirely contingent on the former. Novice writers — all writers — should read, read, read. Read deeply and read widely. Read what gives you pleasure, read what you’re assigned, read what your friends and teachers and other writers recommend, read for pleasure, yes, but also read critically. Study the tradition you’re working in. “Read beyond the syllabus,” one of my professors once told me, which seems the most obvious sort of advice. As you discover kinship with writers whose work you enjoy and/or admire, try to find out which writers influenced them, and add to your reading list accordingly, ad infinitum.

Spend some time this week enjoying and studying the writers who have influenced your work or whom you want to influence your work. Steep yourself in the tradition. Consider why you admire their writing. What themes or techniques inspire you? Which characters live for you beyond the page? Where is a writer’s language most lyrical, most precise? Think about it. Then write.

Me, I’m going to call it a night!