ABC’s of Fiction Writing: Q is for Quixotic

Posted by on Mar 18, 2015 in Uncategorized | 1 comment

Madden Author PhotoMadrid, Spain. A nine month search by archeologists for the final resting place of Miguel de Cervantes turned up fragments of a battered coffin with the initials “M.C.” spelled out in metal tacks on a piece of wood. Evidence of the final resting place of Spain’s greatest author and creator of the beloved Don Quixote caused a sensation and received international attention. I had no idea that Cervantes was missing.

Writing is also a quest for something that is missing.  Your job as a writer is to uncover a narrative, story, or a character that has escaped notice. Which brings us to the title of this piece.

The word “quixotic” is derived from Don Quixote himself, the ultimate knight-errant. Quixotic is an adjective that means “foolishly impractical especially in the pursuit of ideals.” Creating a novel— or poems and short stories —is perhaps the most quixotic activity a writer can undertake.

Don Quixote the character is afflicted with romantic notions of chivalry that he learned in old books, and these notions color and occlude his vision of the world. He sees surly inn owners as lords, women of questionable virtue as ladies, and windmills as giants. I prefer to think that Don Quixote chooses to see things differently. That is the job of writers, to see and show the world in a new manner. You may not be the next Cervantes, but here are a few tips about how to tilt at windmills.

1. Find art in the ordinary. In English, we are bound by twenty-six letters and fourteen punctuation marks, and most subjects and plots have already been done. (There was an old mail order scam that used to run in comic books and magazines of questionable merit: send $9.95 for a novel suitable for publishing. The purveyor would indeed send a book, a cheap dictionary, with a note that read “some assembly required.”) You probably won’t invent any new words, but you can do a lot with the thousands and thousands that we have. Your story or one like it may have been done, but not by you.

2. Give the reader something new from something old. McSweeney’s 48 features the amazing short story “Only Good for a Day” by Julia Slavin. The story is whimsical, to be sure, but one line about glow-in-the-dark stars made me sit up and say wow. I should mention that I had an apartment in college that came decorated with constellations and that my son used to refuse to go to bed until we charged his ceiling with a flashlight so that he could fall asleep to the eerie green glow of his indoor universe. I Slavin’s fantastic line is this: “As the light changed they lay in bed and watched the glow-in-the-dark stars pasted to the stucco ceiling begin to come out.”  I never thought of gazing at ceiling stars like this before, but I will now.

3. Have a Sancho Panza. My version of a trusty wisecracking sidekick is my writing group. Some ideas are TOO quixotic. By regularly meeting with other writers I am able to get invaluable feedback on work in progress.  My readers keep me focused and pull me out of the ditch when I get knocked off my Rocinante.

4. Go on a quest. Whatever your holy grail is, chances are that you may not find it. But, oh, the journey. When you are writing, do not hesitate to explore minor characters or situations. Follow your characters and let them do the heavy lifting. Thanks to the diaries published by Christopher Tolkien, we know that J.R.R. Tolkien had no idea where Frodo was going when he ran out of Bag End without a handkerchief, with a ring that was then just an invisibility ring. Tolkien was a Don of English at Oxford, a careful writer, a linguist, fussy, an editor of the OED, and an avowed over-plotter. If you’ve ever slogged through The Silmarillion — a wonderful but dry epic — you can see the difference a work is without a focused quest.      

5. Read. Even though Cervantes suggests that Don Quixote’s brain has “dried out” from too much reading, chances are that “too much reading” may be just the thing to keep pushing the boundaries of your writing. While you may not be able to write poems every day, you can make poems part of your routine. You can read and ponder over short stories and novels. Reading is the stream that nourishes a fecund brain.

6. Rewrite. Editing and reworking a piece may be just the thing for it. When asked why he was qualified to paint the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo is said to have drawn a perfect circle freehand as proof of his skill. Chances are that an early draft of a novel isn’t perfect. Look at it again, and look at it differently.

7. Persevere. Especially when you don’t find the grail. You need to be determined — very determined and focused — and keep writing. The best chance of making your writing quest successful is to write and write and write.   

8. Submit. Send out your work. Read your rejections. Consider any advice that you get from editors. Repeat. The Sun hands out bookmarks at writing conventions that read SUBMIT in large bold letters. Chances are that nobody is going to break into your house, steal your manuscript or poems then publish them and send you a check.

Yes, writing is a quixotic endeavor, unclear and uncertain and above all, a quest. Those giant white turbines and wind farms are everywhere. You just have to know how to look for them. Now get back on your horse and write.     

Christopher Madden is a writer and an adjunct professor of English at Fairfield University. His work has appeared in Airways Magazine and Temenos. He still owns a bass guitar named Rocinante that he purchased when he was sixteen.

1 Comment

  1. Hello Christopher, My niece Rebecca Dimyan steered me to your astute advice. Her success with her academics and mostly with her writing inspired me to look beyond editing (my original interest). I’m in the second semester of Coastal Carolina University’s M.A. in Writing program. I like your advice – succinct and spot on. I’m fortunate to have published authors/poets as both professors and classmates. Look for me to be a follower.

    Very respectfully,

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