I read the other day, I think at the First Things blog, that Ralph McInerny taught himself to write fiction, and it took him several years to do it. He started writing short stories, then progressed to longer fiction. The thing that really caught my attention is the time it took him to learn to write. It’s not surprising, though. Oh, it’s relatively easy to write short scenes, to sketch a character or two, or to describe a setting for a scene, but putting it all together into a longer work is no easy task, especially if you’re trying to develop an interesting plot at the same time. I know, I’m trying.
But I feel more like Hemingway must have felt after he showed his first attempt at a novel to Gertrude Stein – she shredded it. Hemingway didn’t give up, though. He decided he, like McInerny, would teach himself to write. He began writing sentences, only sentences, and kept that up for a few months, then, when he felt ready, he started writing paragraphs, then he tried putting a few paragraphs together. This process must have taken a good deal of time, but when he was done he had both a truly distinctive style, and the makings of a real novel.
I feel like I’m at the same point as Hemingway when he started writing sentences. I’m learning, but still have a long way to go. The process will take patience, something I’m not real strong on, but it must be faced.
Something I realized while thinking all this over – I have already learned a lot. I’ve had two or three rather extended periods of regular blogging here at the 7 Habitus and, looking back on it, I was surprised that I learned something valuable each time. The first lesson was the power of words; I voiced some very strong opinions here when I started, some not entirely appropriate, and those opinions drew strong responses. It was a very humbling experience, and a valuable lesson.
I started again here just a couple of days before Lent began this year. At that time, I wrote that I had picked up a package of three small, soft cover, Moleskine notebooks and that I planned to use one of them as a place to make daily notes of whatever caught my interest. I wasn’t really sure that I would be faithful to the practice but I have been. The result has been amazing. I learned that, most days, I notice very little of what is going on around me. It’s as if I was going about in a sort of fog, only seeing that which was right in front of me and, therefore, unavoidable. Being mindful of my little black book and my Lenten commitment to make use of it has opened my eyes, both literally and figuratively. A fiction writer needs to be attuned to his surroundings, and be able to provide fresh, vivid descriptions of the people and things he is writing about. The only way you can do that is to see, truly see, those things. You have to notice them, and notice the little insignificant details that make them special. The discipline of using the notebook has been a real wake up call and I think I am becoming much more observant of my surroundings. It’s also instilled me with a bit more gratitude for those little things. This is a Lenten discipline that I hope will continue for a long time to come.
So, I am going to keep writing, here and on the book, but now there is no time table. If I have to go back to writing sentences, one at a time, I will, but I think it may be worth the effort. I’ll likely enjoy it a great deal more, and I might just learn something about writing in the process. And who knows what else.