Tag Archives: inspiration

Can a story ever be “done”?

22 May

 

Over on The Woodsy, I chatted about inspiration, long-term motivation, and whether one ever feels “done” when writing a novel. I was joined by Bonnie Rochman, author of The Gene Machine, and Candace Dempsey, author of Murder in Italy. Thanks for the fun opportunity, Dena Ogden!

Refilling the well

26 Oct
A fresh green chestnut

A fresh green chestnut

I’m retraining myself to write novels. My first novel is floating in the ether, I wrote a quick, rough draft of my second novel some time ago, I focused on finishing my short story collection, and now, with the leaves falling off the trees outside, I’m in my dark office x-raying that second novel to get at an outline.  I already had a couple outlines in hesitant pencil, one very bare bones, one a bit more detailed. But I’m hesitant to launch into a rewrite yet as I seem to still be in a fallow period. I’d have loved to take a suitcase full of books into the woods and just read for 10 days. Alas.  A decent second option was to bolt to Vancouver with M. for the weekend, where two writer friends were visiting from New York. We gorged ourselves on dim sum, wandered around Coal Harbor and the West End, had cocktails at Cloud 9, a bar that rotates on top of the Empire Landmark hotel and that has some very 1995 cocktails (we stuck to a gin martini and an old-fashioned), and went on a short, mild hike where we spotted purple and orange mushrooms and black slugs and a seal. We waved at the seal, and the seal seemed to give us a little nod before disappearing in the water, probably grumbling that we took his lunch spot, Cod Rock. All this to say, there are different ways to refill the well. Reading and travel (and with travel, eating) are some of my favorite ways. So is looking at art.

I feel a little out of shape, novel-writing-wise, because I’m at the difficult step where I’ve decided to rewrite entirely. The first draft was quick fun, throwing details on the page and seeing what sticks.  I want to be a lot more strategic about the second draft.  I decided to try using novel writing software, to help me feel less scattered, and a few friends recommended Scrivener. This morning I finally started to get the hang of it, and now I have a more detailed outline with fancy arrows and nesting files and everything. Soon (hopefully!) I can go deeper into the writing cave to write those scenes.

Outlining at this point feels helpful, but sometimes I outline when I’m stuck in writing because I don’t know what else to do. I might already have the outline in my head. I might have gone over that outline obsessively already. But I still write it down, maybe more than once, as if I’m in a holding pattern, and then it just feels like treading water.  In a way, it is like a writing exercise I used to do, coming up with arbitrary lists of specific things. But it is also very different from those lists. Rather than racing from plot point to plot point., those lists try to get me to think about very specific details or to think about words I don’t often use. Red things; things that start with the letter V. More particularly (while still being quite broad), Ray Bradbury recommended making lists of nouns as a way to jog creativity. He wrote, “Make  a list of 10 things you hate and tear them down in a short story. Make a list of 10 things you love and celebrate them. When I wrote Fahrenheit 451 I hated book burners and I loved libraries. So there you are.” Such sound advice, for not only finding ways into writing, but writing with passion.

Back in September, as Rosh Hoshanah approached and I thought about all the oncoming holidays (hello, Thanksgiving-Hanukkah merger), I thought it would be fun to just write a list of all the dishes my grandparents, great aunts, etc. were known for. I invited M. to add to that list.  This got me thinking about how many stories might be in each these specific dishes as well, and how revisiting memories is another way to refill the well.

Here’s that dish list:

Bubby’s mandelbrot

Grandma’s chopped liver

Aunt Shirley’s jello molds

Aunt Ellen’s meatballs in a sweet tomato sauce

Aunt Myra’s chicken schnitzel

Grandpa’s sarmale (large and loose and juicy)

Eva’s matzo balls (dense as bricks)

Aunt Shirley’s brisket

Mom’s meatloaf

Grandpa’s meat pies

Bubby’s Swedish meatballs

Grandpa’s cheese pies

Bubby’s matzo balls (large and fluffy)

Aunt Myra’s walnut cake

Mami’s salade de boef

Grandma’s apples and rice

Grandma’s salade de boef

Eva’s fish soup

Eva’s salade de boef

Aunt Myra’s trifle

Eva’s sarmale (small and tight and smoky)

Grandpa’s fried kippers and onions

Grandma’s upside down cakes  (fruity and light)

Eva’s plum dumplings

Grandma’s plum dumplings

Mr. C’s plum dumplings

Everybody’s plum dumplings

What do you do in your fallow periods? How do you get yourself ready for big creative projects?

Related posts:

1. Background Reading for a Novel-in-Progress

2. Parking Signs to Power Lines

3. Writing from Art

On Reading

22 Aug

View from San Francisco Museum of Modern Art – can you find Waldo? Sometimes sifting through reading and ideas for stories feels a bit like this.

Twice this week, I thought, “this is *just* the thing I need to be reading.” It’s a curious and satisfying sensation, especially when that reading is incidental or meets a need in an unexpected way. I picked up Mark Doty’s slim book Still Life with Oysters and Lemon: On Objects and Intimacy in preparation for a class I’m teaching at Hugo House in October.  In my notebook, I ended up copying long passages from it (and I’m still reading it, so perhaps more on this later), but the kernel that first caught my attention will also, I think, help a lot with my in-progress short story collection, “More Like Home Than Home,” which explores themes of migration:

“[…]why resist intimacy, why seem to flee it? A powerful countercurrent pulls against our drive toward connection; we also desire individuation, separateness, freedom. On one side of the balance is a need for home, for the deep solid roots of place and belonging; on the other is the desire for travel and motion, for the single separate spark of the self freely moving forward, out into time, into the great absorbing stream of the world [….] We long to connect; we fear that if we do, our freedom and individuality will disappear.” (p.6-7)

Doty goes on to explore how to “think through things” – how attending to precise detail in objects is more than just that, how “intimacy seems to confront its opposite, which is the immensity of time” (p. 21).

Mark Slouka’s “The Hare’s Mask,” in Best American Short Stories 2011,  is the second item that set off little internal bells that said “yes, this.” It’s a multi-generational story, from the perspective of an adult thinking back to his childhood understanding of his father’s life, surviving the Holocaust in Czechoslovakia while his parents and sister had not. The story jumps in time to different ages when the narrator picks up details of his father’s story about a refugee hiding in his parents’ rabbit hutch in Brno, and his father’s struggle with the weekly task of slaughtering a rabbit for dinner. The central object of the story, a hare’s mask used by the narrator’s father in fly fishing, contains both that sense of intimacy and that immensity of time. In the contributor’s notes (which, in BASS, can sometimes be enormously helpful in a practical sense, and can sometimes a source of solace), Slouka writes:

“I had to warm the actual event, knead and stretch it until it became malleable to the imagination. The basic material is historical fact [….] Who knows where these things begin, really? [….] I sensed a story about history’s losses, time’s compensations, a child’s ability to misread the world. To get at it, I had to mix three generations. It was easy enough; in my heart, they were already blurred.” (p.343-344)

Reading these three texts – Doty’s essay, “The Hare’s Mask,” and Slouka’s note on the story – rearranged something subtly in my mind. I’m not sure it would’ve happened if I hadn’t read all three in close proximity to each other. I read Slouka’s story today before my morning walk and writing time. When I finished, without knowing exactly how, I just knew it would help me with a short story I’ve been struggling with, that I’d been spending too much space summarizing. It’s not totally explicable (who knows how these things begin, indeed), but, huffing up to north Capitol Hill, where it’s quiet and where the moss takes over the sidewalk, specific images started coming to my mind, enlivening what I worried was static and making sense of other images and ideas that had seemed disconnected and hazy. I realized that something in her past, in her family’s past, was heightening those conflicting desires Doty writes about, that need for both intimacy and freedom.

Two men in orange vests were at an intersection (this is not an image my story but what I actually saw on my walk today). One of them knelt on the asphalt and was pointing at a small divot in the road, possibly a hole. “This looks strange,” he was saying. He brought his eye to the street, peering toward a storm drain. I realized there was a divot in my story, that thing in her past, something to look at more closely. I haven’t decided yet whether to yank it open for the reader to see what’s beneath it, or whether to draw the reader’s attention to the divot itself and what it suggests. My guess is that I’ll have to yank it open for myself and then decided how much needs to be buried again.

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2. Glass Steak

3. Summer

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