Over the course of my life, I've written zines, essays, op-eds, features, news reports, several research papers, a few short stories and a thesis. These days I churn out a dozen stories about everything from double murders to dogs that work in convenience stores. When I go home I labor away at my book and the occasional essay and blog entry.
On an average day, I spend about five or six hours putting words to paper (or screen), almost all of it intended for the eyes of others.
In addition, I have read at least 10 books on writing (Strunk & White, Stephen King, Annie Dilliard, Roy Peter Clark, William Zinsser...you name it, I've read it - twice). I constantly scan writing blogs for tips. I read, read, read as much as I can, every chance I get. And when I am not writing or reading or reading about writing, I am thinking about writing, thinking about how I would describe something or someone if I had to write about it.
My point is, I take writing seriously. I dedicate large chunks of my life to becoming the best writer I can possibly be. I enjoy it, but I also approach it as work, as do most writers, I think.
While this hardly makes me great - even at my current rate, I am still at least a year away from reaching that mythical 10,000 hours mark at which one supposedly becomes a master, a milestone I regard with skepticism anyway - it does mean that I have a pretty good sense of how to construct a sentence and choose words so I can best convey my meanings.
But even with all of this work, I am woefully unprepared when it comes to the world of memoir and fiction writing. Here, the scene is king, and dialogue his queen. And I am but a trembling peon, trying to figure out how to approach them in a way that shows nothing but the utmost respect.
Fortunately we have the work of masters to guide us. I had the good fortune to make the acquaintance of one of the best last week when I was flipping through the channels and I came across "The Age of Innocence" with Daniel Day-Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer. I'd been told by many that this was a wonderful movie, so I watched it. I was captivated, not just by the acting and the visuals, but also by the nuance of the story and the way it was told through a series of interactions overlaid with wonderful narration by Joanne Woodward.
And so I decided to read the book, because I figured that if I loved the movie as much as I did, I would surely love the book even more. That is exactly what happened. I immediately ran out and bought a copy of House of Mirth, and I plan to read that once I finish the books I'm reading at the moment ("Impossible Motherhood: Testimony of an Abortion Addict" by Irene Vilar and "Girl Meets God" by Lauren Winner, two much-praised memoirs I hope will teach me something about the art form while edifying and enlightening me).
But even more importantly, the juxtaposition of film and words gave me the unique opportunity to compare the way Wharton wrote a scene with the way Scorsese and his cast brought it to life. What I learned is that a scene does not have to be long and it does not have to be momentous. It can be subtle and only a few words can be spoken. What makes a scene important is that it has some action, some forward movement for the plot or some character development (preferably both). Facial expressions, gestures, tiny movements, nervous tics, phrases...all are essential ingredients when building a scene.
Scenes don't have to necessarily be staged and blocked as if they were intended for a movie or a play. That is the last thing I want for my book, for it to seem as though it was written with a movie adaptation in mind. But there are certainly aspects of film that can help jumpstart the imagination when it comes to the scenes for my own writing.
I am facing a particular challenge, as much of my book takes place within my mind as I examine the doubts and fears that plagued me over the course of my adolescence. I am not sure there is any way to make a compelling scene out of questioning a passage of the Doctrine and Covenants, for instance. But there is much that does take place outside of my mind, and I am relishing the opportunity to bring it to life as much as possible with these new tools I've been given.
So tell me, what are your ideas and thoughts about writing scenes, particularly when it comes to memoir? What makes an effective scene? What do you keep in mind when you construct a scene for your own writing?