Writing with Tunnel Vision

For various reasons, I slowed down a bit with my NaNoWriMo novel this weekend. The decision to take a mini-break was easy, since this year’s NaNoWriMo experience has felt, in some ways, like I’m trudging through six inches of mud. I’m making progress, but it’s slow and sticky and I keep getting stuck.

I turned to Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones again and flipped through my December issue of The Writer magazine. In both the book and the magazine, I found crucial tips or guidelines – or maybe even rules of the trade – that I often miss when I write, whether it’s for NaNoWriMo or just in general.

In The Writer, I saw myself as I read Mary Miller’s “A Case for Plot.” She starts out by saying she never cared much for plot, because she “believed that in order for things to happen in [her] stories, they had to be happening in [her] life.” Like Mary Miller, I keep my life as level as I can, because I, too, am a lover of structure and routine. I prefer logical steps to accomplish any goal and minimal risks. But, when I write with my idiosyncrasies and philosophies in the forefront of my mind, I make it difficult to allow a character in a story to take action or risks.

For instance, in the first 10,000 words of my current NaNoWriMo draft, my main character observes way too much of life’s happenings from behind a window, either the kitchen window or the living room window. Maybe that’s her thing, her own idiosyncrasy. Or, maybe that’s more of me seeing the story through my limited vision.

Maybe my main character would rather step outside and press her nose up against the neighbors window, be more forthright in her snooping. I, myself, wouldn’t be quite so daring. I tend to hide behind the edge of a curtain or to open the slit of the blinds just a smidgen. But, that’s me. I’m only the writer. If I reconsider my main character in her own right, then maybe, as Mary Miller puts it, my main character will “step in and do something, or I’ll get to know her better and her lack of action will feel like a choice instead of just passivity.”

Natalie Goldberg’s chapters “Be Specific” and “Big Concentration,” complement Mary Miller’s article. First, Natalie Goldberg suggests we name things, like a specific flower or a tree, when we write. In naming an object with more specificity, “it takes us closer to the ground. It takes the blur out of our mind” (p. 70). Rather than show the reader a moment in a story from a general distance, naming things keeps the reader present, in the exact moment, and makes the experience more realistic. Second, Natalie Goldberg suggests we widen our concentration on a character and add environmental clues, like a sentence about the temperature or a background noise or even the color of the sky. In this way, we remind ourselves, and our readers, that “the universe moves with us, is at our back with everything we do” (p. 72). It all sounds simple, so simple that I forget to do it.

Each time I force my main character to stay behind the kitchen window (because that’s what I would do) and look straight across the yard to the neighbor’s kitchen window, I isolate her. I force the reader to decipher a story through tunnel vision, and I shortchange the experience. If, instead, I let my main character open up the front door, get hit by a brisk night air, sneak under the dark shadow of a large oak tree, and let goosebumps rise up on her arms, the reader has more to consider and is more vested in the story.  Are the goosebumps from the night chill? Or, are they in anticipation of what she might see once she climbs the front steps and presses her nose up against the cold, glass pane?

Tomorrow, I will have a little more time to spend on the story. By pushing my writer-self to the side and by widening my character’s perspective, I hope to travel easier along the plot line.

***

Goldberg, Natalie. Writing Down the Bones. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1986. Print.
Miller, Mary. “A Case for Plot.” The Writer Dec. 2009: 15-16. Print.

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8 responses to “Writing with Tunnel Vision

  1. Good luck, Christi. I’m not following the cardinal law: write what you know and making everything up on the fly. I like your way better.

  2. I enjoyed reading this post. Good insights into how to take your writing to a new level. Also interesting that you see a danger in keeping your MC too close to her creator.

    I look forward to the day when all these “tricks” are just naturally incorporated in my writing.

    Good luck in your second week of NaNo.

  3. Great insights into your character, Christi. I’m very intrigued by the idea of her getting more aggressive in her observations!

    Thanks for reminding me what a great resource Natalie G is when I feel stalled.

    • What’s funny, and frustrating, is that I’ve had this vision of my MC and her personality in my head well enough. But, when I try to get it on “paper” she kept coming out flat. After I wrote that post, I sat down with a notebook and listed more of a plot-line or outline or whatever. I hope today to spend a little time writing out her motivations instead of just thinking about them.

  4. What a thoughtful post — and great for me to read as I write, as well. I think, as writers, we’re probably a more introverted, observational lot than most. (Maybe I’m stereotyping/generalizing?) So, it makes sense that your MC would have that desire to observe. I actually think your MC sounds fascinating! There’s something compelling about a person who watches life through a window and internalizes it. But you’re right about it making plot difficult! (Of course, I can’t help but think of Hitchcock’s Rear Window. Also, strangely enough, Wuthering Heights, with the narrator (or two narrators) outside of the action.)

    Good luck with NaNo!

    • Thanks, Christina. I agree with your point about writer’s innate tendencies to observe. Maybe that’s what drew me to my main character in the first place. And, as I dive into the “what is she looking for” and “what is she afraid of,” she becomes more and more interesting!

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