Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A sackful of writing lessons

Bagging groceries is a lost art.

Some years ago, Tawna Fenske gifted me with a few reusable shopping bags, way before they were popular in my neck of the woods. I use those and an insulated shopping bag to pack my groceries in. Even now, the cashier and bagger will give me sort of quizzical looks, as though I've just asked them to stand on their heads.

This past Saturday the bagger totally ignored the chill bag and just tossed things harem-scarem into any bag she could get her hands on. The bathroom cleaner was chunked in with my bread. My frozen chicken tenders were in a bag all by their lonesome. And my chill bag? Well, the bagger held it in her hands and said, "Uh, guess I could have used this for the cold stuff."

I'd sorted the cold stuff as I put it on the register's conveyor belt. I'd asked the cashier to put my cold stuff in the chill bag. But bagger and cashier both looked lost as haints, as my grandmother used to say, so I pushed my cart out of the way of the next person in line and started re-bagging my groceries.

Yes, a tad OCD, but the temps were hovering in the 100-degree neighborhood, and I did have 30 minutes of drive-time in front of me to get home. As I rescued my bread from the bathroom cleaner -- which later proved to be leaking -- I thought about how baggers used to take such care with groceries. When I was little, paper bags were the rule, and cold things like ice cream went into a super-heavy small paper bag. Baggers took pride in filling the sacks so that, if the bag were ripped away, the contents would almost be able to stand in a tightly-packed tower.

I blame it on those infernal plastic bags. Baggers now toss a few items in each bag and stick your bread and your eggs on top of the pile. They've never learned the intricate art of assembling a bag of groceries -- or even that it mattered.

Computers, in a way, have made writing novels seem easy and accessible, just like those plastic bags. People think that writing a book is something you can just toss together: you open up a word processing document and start with Chapter One. No planning. No thinking of plot. No need to develop characters.

I'm not talking plotter vs. pantsers here. Pantsers do all the thinking and planning and character development after they have the framework done, whereas plotters get it done first. I'm not talking about people who are just starting out and don't know beans about writing - everybody's got to start somewhere.

Nope, I'm thinking instead of people who SHOULD know better but don't. They think a first draft is the ONLY draft they need to write before they send it off to a publisher, with the next stop Number One on the NYT Best-Seller List. They think that their manuscript should never be subjected to an editor's tender mercies, and that any suggestion of improving their story is a request for them to sacrifice their art on the altar of commerce.

Nobody reading this would fall in that category -- the folks I'm arghing about are too hard-headed to read blogs about writing. But as you continue to write, I can guarantee that you will run into these sorts of people -- the equivalent of my Saturday bagger who couldn't understand that cold stuff should go into a chill bag.

My advice? Smile and say, "Oh, you're writing a novel? Wow. That's great." If they're really interested in learning, they'll ask YOU questions that will signal that they understand the cardinal rule of being a writer: no matter where you are in learning the craft, there's always SOMETHING you can learn.


Linda G. said...

You've hit upon one of my pet peeves -- sloppy grocery bagging. I hate when the bread gets squashed. And is it really so tough to keep all the frozen stuff together? Grrr.

Re writing: I'm a pantser, but there really is a method to my seeming madness. Somewhere in my subconscious lives an invisible organizer who does her job unobtrusively, and hands me bits of plot I need as I need them. We get along best when she doesn't intrude with the ending before I write the middle. ;)

Piedmont Writer said...

Thank you Cynthia for bringing up one of my biggest pet peeves. Grocery people do NOT know how to bag. I bag my own, in my reusable shopping bags and when someone comes over to me and says, "Oh, I'll do that," I say no. Once even the manager came over and he wasn't happy when I said no. I'd rather do my own. That way my watermelon won't be uck by the time I get it home. Or like you, bathroom cleaner leaking on my bread.

And yes, those people who haven't a clue about what it takes to write. I just had a girl ask me for help with her ms. Clearly, she had no clue and when I gave her my suggestions she was, well, I won't tell you what she said to me. I explained to her that writing is hard WORK. I guess she thought it would just magically happen with no prep involved.

Thanks for this. Spot on as usual.

Lickety Splitter said...

When I thought I wanted to be a writer, I looked over and went ... whew ... that looks like a lot of work. Never mind.

Thanks to all you hardworking writers, I went right back to reading.

On that grocery bagging topic -- grocery bagging, along with lots of other common sense tasks, are looking like priceless works of lost art.

Tawna Fenske said...

Love the analogy!

You know, I never give people the chance to bag my groceries. It's not that I'm so particular about how they're bagged. It's more that I run up against the occasional bagger who seems annoyed that I've brought my own, so I've resolved to just do it myself and save them the trouble.

Re: writing, I've always wondered what it would have been like to be writing in an era where it wasn't so easy for everyone with a laptop to dash off a book. Not that I begrudge anyone's effort, but I agree there are tons of people who don't bother educating themselves about the process before diving in. I feel for all those agents & editors who have to sort through slush piles.


Patty Blount said...

OOOO, I really hate it when I organize my food on the conveyor belt and they just lump it any old way.

This is a perfect writing analogy. It's sadly something I encounter often at the day job. Everyone thinks they can document software.

Re: fiction writing... I'm leaning toward this being a lesson learned. After folks experience the writing equivalent of smashed bread and leaky bathroom cleaner, they learn, they grow and pack a better bag next time. At least, that's how current project is shaping up for me.

Great post, as always!

Elizabeth Ryann said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Elizabeth Ryann said...

Haha, apparently we ALL resent crappy grocery bagging! Here in SoCal I'm generally asked if I have any reusable bags (I do!), and they still pack so oddly and try to throw a few things in a random plastic bag. Since I live about three minutes from the grocery store, it's generally not a big deal, but I hate making multiple trips from the car for no reason, so I almost always reorganize once they're done. Cold stuff should be together, fragile stuff like eggs and bread should be on top. You can chuck the rest together, as far as I'm concerned, but those are the basics! How is it that every bagger has no sense of this? Do none of them buy their own groceries?

Apparently I am more passionate about this than writing today.

Cynthia Reese said...

Ah-ha! So I'm not the only one who has a pet peeve with baggers! Yay!

Linda, can your invisible organizer come over to my house and play in my kitchen cabinets?

Anne and Tawna, I would bag my groceries myself, except I'm so busy unloading my cart and making sure that they're actually deducting coupons. Maybe I should go, "GRRR" at them and they'll leave me alone?

Lickety Splitter, you're the one non-writer that I'm sure REALLY hides a writer in your soul. Yeah, it's hard work, but I promise -- there are rewards!

Tawna, what's that riff off of Austen's, something like "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a person in possession of a word processor, must be in want of a book deal?"

Patty, I'm learning every day to pack a better bag -- really, truly, I am.

Elizabeth, you tell it on, sister! I'm thinking of just how bad the bad ol' karma will be for all those baggers who've scrunched my bread and crunched my eggs!

Anonymous said...

I love this post, both about the bagging and the writing.

Going to the grocery store is so unpleasant. Baggers put the wet stuff next to the paper stuff--no, I don't want a cold can of soda next to the nice birthday card I just bought! Meanwhile, they have a conversation with the person next to them. It's frustrating. I'd rather bag everything myself.

I've met the writers you've mentioned. To think that pre-email I spent a small fortune on postage, copying, and even a few critiques; and post-internet I read numerous blogs and forums, joined critique groups, and attended conferences. Meanwhile, I've met writers who are unwilling to do a small fraction of that. Instead of asking me questions about the craft or business--which I eagerly answer--they quickly jump to the conclusion that I'll help them get their foot in the door.

Anonymous said...

I was THAT person, just a year ago. It was unintentional. I was blinded by that nasty myth: Either you've got it or you don't. Then my seven years of art class kicked in and I realized that even though I had a talent for art, it didn't mean that I wasn't in need of a teacher, homework, lessons, and practice-practice-practice. Mostly I realized that I was devaluing the craft of writing by thinking it was something that fell out of the sky.

Like I said, I wasn't rude or purposely snotty about it. I just honestly thought it was something you had a knack for, or you didn't. I wanted to try and see if I had it, and if I didn't then I just didn't. That's the line a lot of people cross. They believe that myth and believe they have "IT". That is what makes you a snotty jerk. And in the end it makes you look like an idiot b/c everyone else knows that there is not an "IT" to have. Some may have a knack for it, that makes learning the craft easier for them. There are exception. But the rule is, anyone can do and be whatever they put their whole self towards. The rule is, if you want it then go get it. Nothing falls out of the sky, by rule of thumb.

I'm glad that even though I was THAT person, I was humble enough to realize what I was doing, and not a snotty jerk about it.

And as far as the grocery bagging. It's just the way it goes in a world that wants to go faster and faster. Nothing is slow and easy anymore. Everything is snap, snap, snap. Therefore, not a lot gets done thoroughly.