32 Max Bell

01 Aug

Creativity: bringing something into existence that would not have occurred on it’s own.
Art: From artifice, something that comes into existence by non-naturally occurring means.
Inspiration: whatever gives rise to art or creativity.

These terms are ambiguous and subjective, therefor it is important to establish a general definition so as to have a common point of reference in discussing them. While I can’t claim to be a great writer, I have written a great deal and devoted much of my life to studying the writing process, and I believe that what I’ve learned, I can condense into a brief essay.

Of the three, inspiration is probably the most elusive. I think it’s grossly overrated. The most inspired work possible is meaningless if it is never finished. In my own experience, inspiration is not so much something to be apprehended, like carting a muse off of Mount Halcyon in a butterfly net, but something one has in abundance and need only learn to be sensitive to. We go tilting off after the profound and overarching, completely oblivious to the landscape of our own creativity.

There are those who would criticize any attempt to quantify process as formulaic and derivative, but I believe it is essential to have enough structure established beforehand that the organic product of the actual prose does not wind up so much literary spaghetti. A good story has a lot in common with a well-designed vacuum cleaner; I’ve read a lot of books, I’ve vacuumed a lot of floors.

Knowledge of either has been accumulated through observation.

Who? What? Where? When? Why? How?

These questions are of equal importance to the poet and the philosopher. With respect to writing?

Who — your characters — generally, a protagonist and an antagonist.
What — how your characters change over the arc of the story, from introduction of the conflict through it’s resolution.
Where — theme and setting — too often neglected, but of equal importance as the characters
Why — Are you telling this story?
How — you should tell it, once you’ve answered these questions.

Of these, ‘why’ is the most difficult, because answered truthfully, many times the answer will be simply “I don’t know” and in truth, it should only ever be “because I have to”. In practice, the former should prevent us from attempting to go forward without a better answer and the latter is a romantic ideal that rarely reflects reality. And besides, most of us learn to write by “trying to sound like a book”, which is how we wind up using words like “albeit” and “cavalcade” even though we might not use them so often conversationally (unless you’re me, and then you go out of your way to begin doing so as soon as you fall in love with a new word).

Subsequently, when I write something, I generally don’t even start until I’ve created something roughly equivalent to a show-runner’s bible for a television series; character biographies, timelines, maps, and perhaps the most important, a ten point synopsis for the A and B storylines, if need be, as well as a “meta” storyline. The latter is discussed elsewhere by different names, but the gist is simply that most stories will require a timeline of facts and events that the characters may or may not even be aware of and almost certainly will all have different perceptions of — knowing what they are and sequencing them in concrete form is an excellent way to establish narrative structure and helps to ensure continuity to some degree.

Breaking one’s story up into a ten point synopsis might strike some as overly controlling or again, formulaic; I write mine to include an epilogue, four acts, a denouement and a “resolution” to the narrative conflict established in the first, second, and third acts that serves as a means of escalating tension (usually through failure or setback) before resolving it in the forth act. Ideally, such a document would fit on a single page; in practice, it’s seldom been less than three. Ultimately, however, this allows me enough structure to know how the story will end, which is, of course, essential to finishing it.

None of which says anything about inspiration, does it?

Except with this kind of framework in place, it’s now possible to observe one’s own story from a third-person perspective. Does your antagonist have all the cool toys? Is your protagonist sufficiently tortured before allowing them to resolve the narrative’s conflict? Has the theme been sufficiently fleshed out that the protagonist and antagonist can debate the merits of tuna on whole wheat versus sourdough? Frequently, we hear “show, don’t tell”, a phrase frequently accompanied by rants against exposition as though it were all recited in the monotone of an automated phone system. Yet when the organic process of actually setting the dialogs and narratives to page, the protagonist stands up several times before they’ve actually left their seat, key details like an identifying trait aren’t revealed until the third act, and the narrative pacing includes stretches of time where the narrative does not advance in the slightest and yet somehow winds up being included in it’s entirety.

When critiquing someone else writing, I find that structurally, there are two points where I am lost as a reader (i.e. instances that would cause me to lose interest in a story and stop reading it). The first is when I’ve made it through the first act and can’t identify the characters and the second is when I get towards the end and discover that there is no resolution. As an example, I recently read a published short piece in which, for no reason that was ever explained, all the light had gone out in the world. After struggling to establish a temporary source of light, the protagonist is left alone with the realization that it would eventually give out and return them to the darkness. Another, written by a very prominent genre author, wrote about a scientist who divorced his wife and eventually ran off with a flock of birds that he’d been studying (presumably to die of exposure eventually, although the story didn’t go on to say). I can’t tell you anything about the protagonists in question because I don’t remember anything about them and I remember the stories only in that they seemed to discard resolution as somehow making the genre more ‘literary’.

Not that I can’t claim to have written countless stories whose endings I assumed would be revealed to me only when I’d written my way there, nor can I claim to have finished any of them.

Frequently, we’re told that one should “write for themselves”. The truth of this is not just that you’ll feel better about the final product if you can reread your own writing and take enjoyment out of it but that you have to be able to at least tolerate it to get through the editing process. For me, once I’ve finished a writing session, the only time that works for me to handle the editing process is before I begin writing in the next session. Otherwise, I simply won’t muster the self-discipline to tackle it at all.

Lastly, whatever inspiration you’ve derived from observing your own narrative in the third person, it need survive an encounter with one’s inner critic, frequently viewed as a destructive anti-muse. Myself, I have worked to cultivate a working relationship with my inner critic because I’m unwilling to give up my neurotic little safety net of self-sabotaging failure. There’s an analogy about value judgments that I find very zen and very universal: a young actor and a more seasoned performer are backstage after curtain call when the young actor is presented the evening’s first review. Bracing himself, he is none the less crushed to learn that his debut reception was every bit as awful as could be imagined. Presenting the copy to the older actor, the veteran drops it in a waste basket, prompting the younger to ask “As you get older and gain more experience, do the bad reviews ever get any easier to take?” and the elder thespian replies “The bad reviews are easy to ignore; it’s the good reviews that are impossible”. 


Posted by on August 1, 2011 in Creativity Guest Posts


4 Responses to 32 Max Bell

  1. Laroquod

    August 1, 2011 at 10:49 am

    Insightful and a pleasure to read as usual, Max. So sad that this will be the last.

  2. gunmancmp

    August 1, 2011 at 4:00 pm

    Indeed. Such an insightful man. Such a loss.

    The point that he makes about the Inner Critic is that one that resonates with me the most. As I write my little posts for my pathetic little blog, I discover that the critic inside me continually flogs me with “you can do better”. Even though I’m writing about actual events that I found amusing. It should be a simple affair, but I seem to be making more out of it. Leave it to Max to, at this late date, point out what has been my problem all along.

    I shall miss him terribly.

  3. admin

    August 1, 2011 at 10:30 pm

    By way of explanation for those who didn’t have the priveledge of knowing Max personally, he was a dear friend who suffered terribly from COPD. Even when his own pain was almost unbearable he always had time for everyone else. Every time we talked, he made me smile. And, anyone with a pet hedgehog just has to be special.

    He was finally released from his earthly pain nine days before this was published. I am honored to present it to the world. He was a courageous man, and I loved him dearly.

  4. Neil Colquhoun

    August 26, 2011 at 5:50 pm

    A comment on the post put simply: wonderful.



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