Susanne Dunlap

Work and work

In Random thoughts, The writing life, Writing Craft on July 18, 2010 at 3:47 pm

It’s such an interesting word, work. When a thing “works,” it operates, it does what it is supposed to do. It accomplishes a task. When an engine works, it starts up and keeps going, usually driving something practical, like a car or a lawnmower.

When people “work,” they also accomplish tasks, operate, do what they are supposed to do. I’ve just been working physically. I’ve cleaned two-thirds of my apartment. I’m sweating and tired, and I can see the difference in the way the surfaces look and how everything smells. I have definitely worked.

Then there’s that other kind of “working.” Here’s what I mean:

“This relationship isn’t working.”

“Works for me.”

“This scene/chapter/novel isn’t working.”

“I don’t know why, but it just works.”

Greenlight Bookstore in Fort Greene somehow “works.” It’s the right neighborhood or location. The right size—big enough to have a good selection, small enough to be personal. The right interior design, with welcoming nooks but not chaos. The owners are dedicated to events, and have them often enough and do them well enough that people actually come. No doubt, they have worked very hard to achieve this, but certain intangibles have also contributed.

In fact, things can “work” without any visible effort to make them do so. A haphazard combination of wildflowers in a field can “work” visually, for instance.

I’m not a linguist although I have studied language and languages extensively. But English, I believe, is exceptionally rich in these subtleties and adaptable usages. That’s a blessing and a curse. Especially when it comes to writing.

I’m not the kind of writer who agonizes over every single word. If I did, I’d never be able to fill a page. However, I am very aware of what “works” or doesn’t, in my novels and the novels I edit. Sometimes it is, truly, a matter of a single word working in a context or not. More often it’s something less tangible or more theoretical. Frequent point-of-view shifts, for instance, normally don’t work. In very adept hands, however, they can be manipulated to create something extraordinary.

A lot of exposition usually doesn’t work either. But there’s a fine line between exposition and seamlessly integrated buildup.

I can work very hard, and then discover that what I’ve slaved over for hours simply isn’t working. I’m working, but it’s not.

How did we get to this? Projecting the ability to act upon things that have no volition or even existence without being acted upon?

I suspect the answer to that is out of my reach. In the meantime, I’ll keep working at my manuscript until I get it to work.

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