‘Unpacking the Suitcase’ and The Pain of Knowing What You Don’t Know

I want to start by wishing best of luck to all the writers out there crazy/brave enough to embark on the insanity that is NaNoWriMo. For the uninitiated, November is designated as National Novel Writing Month, and if you sign up for the challenge the goal is to write a complete draft of a novel (at least 50,000 words) by the end of the month.

I don’t think I have the organizational skills to have a story so well thought out that I can crank out the words that fast; maybe next year (?). I’m with you all in spirit, though – I’m 26,000 words into my current rough draft, and the way I work I may need all month to finish that. So read my blog, then get back to churning out the 1700 words a day you need to hit that goal and win NaNo!

I’ve been re-reading some of the craft essays on Lit Reactor (which, again, I can’t recommend highly enough) for help and inspiration as I go, and there’s a phrase Chuck Palahniuk uses throughout his essays: he refers to ‘unpacking the suitcase,’ a term he came up with for identifying what writers need to do sometimes to slow down and be more descriptive. I have a really hard time doing that.

I sent out a tweet recently (follow me on twitter here!) saying that as I read over what I’d written I heard the voice of an annoying little kid in my head. Do you know the kind of kid I mean? The one who doesn’t know how to regulate the volume of their voice when they talk, and love telling lengthy stories as though it’s the world’s longest run-on sentence? Since my writing (at least in early drafts) tends to lack some of the details that makes a reader slow down and take in what they’re reading, it felt like I was rushing through it as I read it. When I go back on future drafts I need to slow down and ‘unpack the suitcase’ so the scene is a little easier to visualize. It’s good to leave a reader room for imagination, but you don’t want to leave it all up to them. Throw them a freakin’ bone, ya know?

A couple months ago I read The Long Walk by Stephen King (from way back in his Richard Bachman days). It’s one of his most well-liked by a lot of the die hard King fans out there, and if you’ve never read it I highly recommend it. It’s not flat out horror, but of course it’s very bleak and dark. As I read, I came upon a paragraph that stuck out to me so vividly that I went back and looked it up now months later just so I could quote it in this post. The book is set in New England during an unseasonably warm early May:

Birds sang in the high-crowned trees, the furtive breeze now and then masked the heat for a moment or two, sounding like a lost soul as it soughed through the trees. A brown squirrel froze on a high branch, tail bushed out, black eyes brutally attentive, a nut caught between his ratlike front paws. He chittered at them, then scurried away higher up and disappeared. A plane droned far away, like a giant fly.

When I came across those four sentences I stopped. I don’t think I’ve written that much detail in a single paragraph, well, ever. I’d like to think as I keep writing I keep getting better at ‘unpacking the suitcase,’ but I suppose time will tell. Which brings me to my next point.

I was thinking about how frustrating it is, knowing I’m not usually descriptive enough with what I’m writing, but at least I should take comfort in the fact that I know and don’t just keep doing it wrong without realizing it. That took me back to something I heard in high school, which I had to look up to refresh my memory, called the four stages of competence. They are (cribbed from Wikipedia):

  1. Unconscious incompetence
    The individual does not understand or know how to do something and does not necessarily recognize the deficit. They may deny the usefulness of the skill. The individual must recognise their own incompetence, and the value of the new skill, before moving on to the next stage. The length of time an individual spends in this stage depends on the strength of the stimulus to learn.
  2. Conscious incompetence
    Though the individual does not understand or know how to do something, he or she does recognize the deficit, as well as the value of a new skill in addressing the deficit. The making of mistakes can be integral to the learning process at this stage.
  3. Conscious competence
    The individual understands or knows how to do something. However, demonstrating the skill or knowledge requires concentration. It may be broken down into steps, and there is heavy conscious involvement in executing the new skill.
  4. Unconscious competence
    The individual has had so much practice with a skill that it has become “second nature” and can be performed easily. As a result, the skill can be performed while executing another task. The individual may be able to teach it to others, depending upon how and when it was learned.

I suppose I’m in between 2 and 3. I know enough to recognize what I’m doing wrong, but for the most part I think I do know what I’m doing (if I do say so myself). I don’t know if many writers ever feel like they’re fully at number 4, aside from maybe King, Cormac McCarthy, people like that. I have a hard time believing I will ever reach number 4, but that’s okay – there are lots of 3’s out there who are doing just fine.

With that, I’m going to retreat back into my little writer’s dungeon, start mashing on the keyboard and see what appears on the screen. Once again, best of luck to the NaNoWriMo participants, may the word count gods be with you.

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