linda urban (lurban) wrote,
linda urban
lurban

Form and Challenge

Okay, you say, isn't just showing up and putting words on the page challenge enough?

I think that for some of us, just getting the story down is pretty challenging, so I'm not going to discount that for a second. But I also think that focusing on that challenge is also what can be debilitating for many writers. Sometimes we get too wrapped up in it.

Sometimes it helps to have another challenge to focus on.

Like when I take my kids to the local candy shop, Delish*. They want everything in the place and are easily overwhelmed. I have to put on limits: a budget. Nothing that is in the shape of body parts. Nothing that will crack your teeth. The more we narrow things down, the more manageable the candy store -- and the more likely the kids are to leave with something yummy. (Yes, we once left the shop with nothing when indecision led to tension led to one child whacking the other with a dino-pop.)

Talk to poets who write in form. Writing about something as huge as, say, death can be overwhelming. But many will tell you that writing a sestina about death puts some limits on what they can say, it forces them to pare down, to think within a particular framework, to distill all that could be said into something smaller, more precise, and ultimately into something so much more individual.

After my post about challenge, I got a few emails from friends. Sara Lewis Holmes and I talked about formal challenges. Sara, you may know, is a poet and a novelist and is the author of Letters from Rapunzel and the new book, Operation Yes.**

Here's the cover of that book, so I can break up all this text with a pretty picture.

Nice, huh?
Okay, now here's something that Sara said in our conversation:

I do think I'm perverse in needing a high level of challenge to get started. I love the mystery involved in creating something. I love not knowing. I love exploring. So I have to pick a tough nut---a question I don't know how to answer--- to worry between my teeth. And that grows into a book.

I also think it's a matter of being infatuated with form---and liking the way an author can choose a deliberate framework that serves the story. For Letters From Rapunzel, the challenge was to tell a whole story in nothing but letters and homework assignments. It was like a fun puzzle---until I realized halfway in how difficult that was, how much everything rested on one girl's voice, and why in the world was I making it so hard on myself in my first attempt at a novel?!? I twisted on that hook for a long time. (My editor later gave me permission to "cheat" a little, and recount some traditional scenes, even though in real letters, you might not write that way.)

I asked about the "puzzle" of Operation Yes and another really important point came out -- the formal challenge was linked directly to the spine of that book. Here, I'll let Sara tell it:

For Operation Yes, I was determined to use an omniscient point of view, because for me, the key to the book was community. You talked about spines, and that was my one-word spine.***

But writing about a whole community....students, teachers, cafeteria managers, librarians, parents, mayors, Flying Farmers...I had no idea how hard that would be to keep balanced. Even just writing about one classroom is hard. There are normally 20+ kids or so in a class, so you have to imply that there are that many, but focus on a subset, and then a smaller subset who are the main actors. I adore school stories---Frindle is one of my favorites that I give a shoutout to in the book----but dang, they're a logistical challenge. I had to resort to sticky notes saying things like CHECK THIS/FIX THIS/CHANGE THIS; using the search function in my word processor to track characters through the manuscript; index cards with key data, and all sorts of crutches. The whole thing felt like a production I was trying to stage manage and the actors were being unruly!

Then Sara asked if I also think about form and challenge.
I do.

Now, the form part of things doesn't seem to start as early as it does for Sara. I start with voice and character and a lot of rambling. But pretty soon, I'm thinking about the overall mood/tone of the piece and that, for me, is directly related to the form or shape of the book. I start thinking about what that book would feel like to read -- both emotionally and physically. I know how long I want it to take to read and how many pages and what that should feel like in the hand. And part of my challenge is to get the story to conform to the material form of the book that I've imagined.

But more about me and my challenges later.

Right now, I'm wondering about you.
You've got your writer's spine and your project spine.
Do you have any sense of the form of your work in progress?
Does that form present a particular challenge for you?
Does the form relate to the spine of the project?


And I'm also curious -- if you are one of those worry types -- does focusing on the puzzle of form help you "get over yourself"? Does form present a challenge that helps you attend to the work instead of to yourself?




* Did you follow the link to the article about Delish? Yes, its owner is a 16 year old boy. How cool is that?

** In the interest of full disclosure, I read and loved Operation Yes so much that I blurbed it. Thought you ought to know.

*** Sara also said this about Community as spine: It was why I wanted to work with Cheryl Klein. In our first conversation, she used that word "community" and I was smitten.
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