Zen and the Art of Prickly Writing

By Darcie Abbene

Photography by Brian Michael Barbeito

My high school history teacher once described me as “prickly” when analyzing my pokey handwriting. The girly girls in the room, I noted, all had bubbled-out, soft, rounded letters. Mine were pointy and messy, hard to read. Protected, one could say. I’m beginning to wonder if this diagnosis hasn’t somehow translated to the characters I write. Recent feedback on a story was that the reader could not connect with my characters emotionally. So, there you have it. I’m halfway through the first draft of a new novel and I’m worried about a pattern forming. Who are these characters anyway? What do they really care about? How do they want the story to end? I don’t know. I’m in the weeds. It is time to go to the poets, as a former colleague of mine used to say when he needed the experts, the people who knew what they were doing.

One thing that Ray Bradbury returns to repeatedly in Zen in the Art of Writing: Essays on Creativity is the idea of making lists. Early in his writing career, he tells us, he would begin his writing day by asking of himself, “‘What do I really think of the world? What do I love? What do I hate?'” Then he would take notes. Mostly this looked like lists of objects—nouns, he points out. The essays in his book detail how some of his more famous stories were pulled from these lists of nouns and he reasons, “But, at heart, all good stories are the one kind of story, the story written by an individual man from his individual truth.” Gender exclusive language aside, this strikes true. It also strikes me as a worthy personal exploration.

What do I really think of the world? What do I love and hate? I think much of society is lazy and I hate that I’m not and I have to exist with other people’s laziness. But I also hate it when I give in to doing a sloppy job at something. Another tough one is watching people be selfish and close-minded and I feel shameful when I spy that quality in my own behavior. If we really want to get dark, I’m jealous when I know I’m working harder than someone else who is recognized for their flimsy effort. Religion baffles and yet, I can see the draw. Community is a thing that I both desire and find suffocating. And yet, “No man is an island.” I also hate referring to humans as men only. I can’t stand it when people take themselves too seriously.

And yet, the smile of a musician lost in their own music can fetch my biggest, dumbest grin. Watching a professional athlete win big can make my heart swell and the tears come. I love to watch people push and dig deep when it’s hard and then succeed against all odds. I love a good underdog. I love sneaking one under the radar. I love when people have grit. When I have grit. I love it when I find my words and new angles and perspectives and the freedom from uncertainty that dancing to a song can give. What will happen? You ask. Who knows? I say. But for the next two minutes, we will boogie down and forget. We have these two minutes, at least. I hate dishonesty. I value failure and the experience of leaving it all out there only to find it was not enough. That’s when the real learning begins. But I also love when something surprises and goes easy. I love it when someone does something surprising that I didn’t think they could do. I love it when someone volunteers to do the shitty job and then doesn’t complain but finds some joy there somehow. I love finding adventure in a trip to the mailbox. I always have.

This is a good start. But it is not enough. Bradbury writes, “Conjure the nouns, alert the secret self, taste the darkness,” invoking a sentiment similar to William Carlos Williams’s famous “No ideas, but in things.” Bradbury advises to let the things—these nouns—associate with ideas and there you might find what you’re looking for.

Stories begin to swirl. I am reminded of something Terry Tempest Williams said in a dialogue with nature writer Robert Finch called “Landscape, People, and Place.” Williams told of a time she brought some Navajo children to the desert. They brought her a yucca plant and asked, “What story does this tell?” She said, “And that changed my life, because I realized it’s not only in terms of human interaction that we find story informs and instructs, but also in the natural world. Everything is subject to a story. Everything is related.” Everything is subject to a story. Everything is related. I wonder about these stories when my mind wanders—but really what Bradbury is saying, and Williams too, in another way, is look to the objects. What do they reveal about relationships? What stories happen when humans and the natural world intersect? What emotions are there?

High school basketball, muscles so tired they sink into bed, World War II Dear John letters, hundred-year-old Steinway grand pianos, B-17 Flying Fortress and the Lucky Bastard Club, and rain gutters. A notch between mountains. Knee socks. Cracked corn and wild apples. Garden sheds. A split wooden handle on a rake. Grapevines and fettuccine alfredo. Bike helmets and corn snow. I see what Bradbury is after but this is not easy.

So, then, to my manuscript. Betty, a wildlife biologist, hates that she worked so hard on her bear study and nobody listened to her recommendation. Fredrick is a celebrated game warden who wins awards and is respected for his work, but Betty knows she cares more about wildlife than he does. Twelve-year-old Sally thinks adjusting to her new school is terrifying and, preparing for the worst, *surprise* finds success in a science experiment. Betty feels taken for granted by her sister, Ada, and doesn’t know how to say this exactly, and in a moment of pure frustration throws Ada off. In a scene where Betty is the angriest, Sally appears and reminds her that dancing helps you forget you have no control when life starts spinning. Ada sees Betty’s anger in a letter and eventually forces reconciliation. This is still hard but I’m beginning to see a way forward.

A popular thing for seasoned authors to advise about learning to write well is to avoid imitating your favorite writers. I notice they all say this after having done this very thing themselves, of course. Bradbury says, don’t imitate authors, imitate life. Start with concrete, with tangible. Not symbols, but story. No ideas, but in things. Let them be as poky, messy, rounded, or bubbly as you want. Who knew?

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Darcie Abbene is an adjunct instructor at Northern Vermont University and the Managing and Nonfiction Editor at the Green Mountains Review. She has work in Portrait of New England and forthcoming in Capsule Stories. Darcie is working on a novel and a collection of essays on teaching and is a candidate in the Stonecoast MFA program.