Kiini
Ibura
Salaam

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KIS.list

Vol. 32, Freeing Your Work Through Limitations

Posted on 5 April 2003


The idea for this month’s column was sparked during a recent conversation with my mother. My mother is at the bitter end of her struggle to complete her Ph.D. In the final throes of her dissertation, she finds herself pulled in more than one direction. On the one hand she wants to explore all her ideas to the fullest; on the other, she wants to get her degree. With her defense date fast approaching, my mother’s major advisor told her to pull together all her prepared material and hand it over. As we discussed exactly which parts of the dissertation my mother was going to turn in, I recommended my mother turn in what was completed and leave the rest for another time. This sounds like basic advice, I know, but when you are in the thrall of your creative ideas, it can be hard to let your undeveloped ideas rest.

Sometimes we have a complete work and we don’t know it. We don’t know it because we conceptualize our pieces as a complex chain of ideas, with the intention of giving each idea time to shine. Sometimes, we exhaust ourselves before exploring every point we wanted to present. Other times, in order for the strength and completion of one idea to manifest, other ideas may need to be suppressed. “You mean don’t even present the material I intended to prepare on black women’s contribution to my work?” “Is it prepared?” I asked. “No,” she said. “Then don’t even mention it to them. You are at the end. It’s time to complete.”

People often don’t know when they’ve said enough. I’ve heard an author say, writers always try to cram everything they have/know into their first novels. I assume it’s pretty similar with a dissertation. Perhaps we feel it’s not going to be good enough/deep enough/relevant enough if it doesn’t contain all our best ideas and most profound thoughts. But readers can’t see through muddy water. The more ideas/elements/techniques thrown into the work, the muddier the piece gets. Some writers/pieces rely on muddiness to express certain points, create certain moods, describe certain situations. But for the most part mud sits between the writer’s intention and the reader’s comprehension. Mud clogs the reader’s vision.

Whenever I try to say EVERYTHING, I exhaust myself. I lose my direction (if I ever had one) and my work becomes a big mess. When confronted with the jumble of too many ideas, I shut down. Progress halts. I’ll sit at my computer, stare at the story/essay and feel the pressing need to take a break. Or I might not even approach writing the piece at all. The complexities swimming around my head can prevent me from even starting to write. These days, when I’m confronted by that sensation, I know it’s time to enact a limitation to free myself from this quandary.

In response to an invitation to write a story involving “mojo,” I conceived a New York City bathroom attendant who works mojo on the clients who come in to use “her” bathroom. But first I decided to tell a little bit about her powers and how she came to New York City. In telling the back story, I exhausted myself. I quit; I shut down. I decided the story was way more work than I had energy for. Oh well, I thought, that’s a missed opportunity and I left the story to the side. But the deadline kept nagging me. In the back of my head, some productive part of me was meditating on how I could submit a story without exhausting my reserves. One day, I realized the part I had written, the “back story” about the woman’s childhood was a story in and of itself. I decided to cut back on the plot and limit the story to one defining moment in the woman’s young life. It worked. I finished the story, edited it a few times, and sent it in. It was accepted for publication. Granted it’s the simplest story in the anthology. I don’t know how it holds up against all the fantastical creations in the book. But upon completing the story, I felt satisfied that I had done right by the character and told her story well.

There are times when creating a limitation actually helps me mold the content, direction, and tone of a piece, as well. Before embarking on one problematic essay, I brainstormed ALL the ideas I had in relation to the theme. Then, as I was writing the essay, I attempted to fold every single idea into the writing. It didn’t work. The essay was all over the place. I didn’t know where I was going with it, or what I was trying to say with the information. I scrapped the first draft and tried again, but I got similar results. Not until I said to myself, “O.k., you’ve got all this wonderful stuff, but what do you really want to say?”, not until I eliminated half of the ideas I had scribbled down during my brainstorming session could I begin to focus on the kernels of truth I wanted to reveal. As I wrote the third draft, the eliminated ideas kept panting at the gates, begging to be included in the essay. But my success lied in turning away from them and staying loyal to strict parameters. Suddenly, I had an essay that worked. It held together, the ideas related to each other, and it had it’s own internal flow.

For me, parameters don’t limit my creativity and limitations don’t damage my freedom. Ironically, by setting tight restrictions on certain pieces, I am freed from the buzz of everything that “should” be said about the theme, and I flourish in the luxurious certainty of where I shall not tread. It seems counterintuitive to claim that limitations free a piece to be, but witnessing limitations at work made a true believer of me.

The biggest place I’ve seen setting limitations work for myself is in my forever-developing novel. I started out with a big mess. A mess of stories, ideas, characters, with no kind of structure or direction. When I decided to tackle the mess and make it into some kind of cohesive whole, I realized I needed parameters. I needed a stage, if you will, to contain all the tales I wanted to tell. So I chose 16 chapters and 4 sections. And I reigned all my stories into that format. Then I looked at the chapters and saw that they were of wildly varying lengths, but it wasn’t really the page length that was the issue. It was that each chapter didn’t delve equally as deep as others. In some situations I barely skimmed the surface of the situation, in others I went into minute detail. Setting a limitation for the number of pages was my way of monitoring my content. I don’t claim that chapters should be uniform or a specific length. But I found that in choosing a standard range for my chapter lengths, I defined the breadth of the work. Shorter chapters didn’t have enough emotional weight. Longer chapters got lost in the characters and the story, and wandered away from the point. As I began normalizing the chapters, the story began to solidify and tighten. I began to see what the core of the novel was/is.

One writing teacher tells her students, if you don’t define where you’re going, how are you going to know when you get there? Without parameters, you write and write and write and just get lost in the pretty words and stunning ideas. When you allow yourself to get lost in the big picture, your work can be never-ending. One writer friend told me about a novel-writing guide that recommended that each chapter should have three to five scenes. When I first heard that, I thought that was the most ridiculous thing I had ever heard. I balk at any objective system to writing. I think each piece requires a different sensibility, and a good writer follows the demands of the piece. However, when I looked at my novel, I saw that the writer was right, the majority of my chapters had three to five scenes. And the ones that had more than five scenes really went on to long. Suddenly I had a mechanism to pinpoint exactly where the story wandered away from the point. When I examined a 25-page chapter that had less than three scenes, I noticed that the narrator did a lot of talking ABOUT the story and the characters. The chapter had no action; in 25 pages the characters had no real engagement.

There are some writing styles that depend on a lot of narration and are intentionally low-action and low-engagement. But in this case, the chapters readers had previously identified as weak, turned out to be those without clearly defined scenes. Before looking at the novel through the lens of scenes, I could not see what was weak about those chapters. That’s because I was looking for a flaw in the story, the plot, the ideas. As it turns out, the problem didn’t lie in the content at all. The problem resided in my using general language and TELLING the reader what the characters “would” do and what the character’s life was “like,” instead of creating scenes that revealed exactly what I needed the reader to know. Now I knew exactly how to address the weak chapters. I took my rambling, general material and put it into scenes. Suddenly I had a formula for revising the whole novel. I began thinking in scenes. It not only helped me strengthen the weak chapters, but it helped me conceptualize solutions for the novel’s larger issues.

Before I finished writing this installment of the KIS.list, a writer friend came over and we began to chat about her novel. When I met her five or six years ago, she was reading excerpts of her novel in a writing group I was visiting. Now she’s an MFA student and she’s wrestling with the same novel. She’s stopped and started so many times. She’s repositioned, rewrote, rethought, reconceptualized. She’s scrapped everything and recommitted. Today, she was confident and smiling. “My novel’s going great,” she told me. “So what’s up, how’s it working?” I asked. “Well, I started over,” she said with a big smile. “And…?” I asked. “And I cut out a whole bunch of characters. I’m limiting the character pool to about five characters. I loved the other characters and I loved their stories, but there was too much going on and I couldn’t get my bearings. And when I eliminated these colorful, wonderfully imagined extra characters, I realized how weak my main story was. There was nothing there. So I worked on that, and now the novel is much stronger.”

Wow, I thought, as I listened to her. It isn’t just me. There really is something to the concept of limitations. It’s one of the paradoxes of the universe, you can expand your work and reach completion by setting parameters and limiting your scope. It’s sort of like spring cleaning for your work. Eliminate the stuff that isn’t maximizing your message. Sure some ideas are stunning and beautiful and powerful, but if they’re too big for you to wrestle with at the time, it’s better to leave them in the back of your mind and let them percolate a little more. Great ideas can suffocate you if they’re not ready to be told. Too much plot can stop you if you don’t have the stamina to ride it through to the sunset. When you’re stuck with a piece, sometimes it’s because you need more ideas/material/plot/content, but just as often it’s because you need less. Writers need to be intimate with their literary scissors. Cutting back can be a liberating thing.

Be well. Be love(d).

Kiini Ibura Salaam

==KIINI’S ACCEPTANCE/REJECTION O’METER==
: : : September 2002 – present : : :

Acceptances:
Publications: 2
Grants/fellowships: 0
Residencies/workshops: 0

Rejections:
Publications: 1
Grants/fellowships: 1
Residencies/workshops: 0

==KIINI’S ACCEPTANCE/REJECTION O’METER==

I forgot to mention, a month or so ago a Polish translator and student of literature wrote me asking permission to translate one of my speculative fiction stories into Polish! He chose “Of Wings, Nectar, and Ancestors,” the most difficult story to translate due to its play with language.

I was recently invited to submit a proposal and a sample for a prospective column on parenting. The proposal was accepted and starting in mid-April I’ll have a column appear twice a month at www.TheBeehive.org.

A few days ago, I received a memo from Ms. magazine. Apparently they granted permission for my brief article “No” to be reprinted in a college-level writing guide. The fee is split between me and Ms. magazine. In this case, the magazine earned the funds. Ms. editors worked very hard on the essay (to the point that it got on my nerves). They had a huge hand in its power and polish.

The translation is an abstract publication credit, because I don’t know when it’s coming out and I can’t read it when it does. The column isn’t quite “creditable” since it’s ongoing. So I will not include those two on the acceptance/rejection meter. I will add the Ms. article to my acceptances column.

Also, one of my editors wrote me, in response to my latest rejection, suggesting that I start a section called “Editor Love Letters” so my editors can throw some praise my way. I thought it was a touching idea, but I think it would soften the reality of the push and pull of acceptance and rejection. I’m not sharing my acceptance and rejection to advertise the value of my work, or to demonstrate my rapport with my editors. I seek to share, in the most objective, raw way possible, what it’s like to submit and be rejected on a regular basis. I hope to convince a few writers to keep submitting despite rejections. I want readers to know to get published, it’s necessary to develop a healthy level of comfort with rejection. Rejection is not personal and it doesn’t define the value of the rejected piece of work. It’s part of the process that we writers confront together.

Kiini’s Rate of Acceptance/Rejection
August 2001 – August 2002

Publications: Acceptances = 6, Rejections = 6
Grants/Fellowships: Acceptances = 0, Rejections = 1
Residencies/Workshops: Acceptances = 0, Rejections = 4