Underwater writing

Three years ago I took a master class with Sarah Selecky, a writer whose short fiction I've admired for years. The class was tiny. Five of us students plus Sarah around her kitchen table every Monday night for five weeks. I learned a lot in that month - how to critique other people's work, for example, and by extension how to think critically about my own. But the most important skill Sarah taught me was underwater writing.

Close your eyes. Take a deep breath. Submerge yourself fully in the scene. Smell, taste, hear, see, and feel every detail. Are you there? Are you squirming? Is it hard work? Good. Now write from that place; write from within the scene. Don't write about the scene. Don't write in circles around the scene. Don't hover above. Write from inside. 

Don’t be deceived by well crafted sentences that write around an experience. Write the experience. Don’t write about it. Write from within it.
— Sarah Selecky

How do you know if you're doing it properly? Watch for the red flags. Abstractions are red flags. Don't say Romeo and Juliet are in love. What does love mean? How does it manifest for these characters? Show us the specific emotions and actions.

Efficient language is another red flag (ditto: cliches). Words like happy, angry, and impatient have become a kind of short hand, so shopworn as to be skimmable. Don't tell us a character is sad. Show us the rapid blinking of the watery eyes. Let us feel the slump of the shoulders. Conjure melancholy without using that word.

The word "something" is another flag. Like efficient language and abstractions it is a first draft placeholder. But in the revisions, you must articulate what the something is.

Don't trust the word suddenly. Cross it out. Make the action feel sudden.

Once you get the hang of it, cliched and lazy writing are easy to spot. A more pernicious problem is beautiful language. "Don't be deceived by well crafted sentences that write AROUND an experience," Sarah told us. "Write the experience. Don't write ABOUT it. Write from WITHIN it."

This is the toughest part of writing. Articulating every emotion and action, that's slow going, gruelling work. It's the real reason writers are tortured and turn to hard liquor. Writing is drowning.