Welcome to what should probably be known as the Geezer Blog. Charlie Price and I are here to demystify that most elusive of animals, The Writing Process. We’re going to take you down the dark, overgrown path into the cave Where We Get Our Ideas. These are questions we’re asked all the time, and that we ask ourselves all the time. Creative writing is a hard subject to teach; creative anything is hard to teach because so much about creativity is instinctive. But we gone give it a try. Chris C
Tuesday, December 18 Igniting in Writing
Mr. Crutcher, I like The Idea Cave: Cannot be clumb into, must be relaxated into. An easy breath, a drift-off into uncharted country, a determined lack of insight, waiting for the Godot of synapse sailing. Afloat in a soup of ideas that may or may not be directly related to the question —— so she’s broke, hungry, cold, on the streets of San Francisco, wishing she hadn’t hitched here, wishing she wasn’t so damn mad at her mom and dad, wishing she had a friend with a penthouse apartment and a craving for sushi … what’s she gonta do? (If Mr. Crutcher can use gone with scarcely a raised eyeliner, gonta seems fair.)
I have vowed that I will not make her do something to serve my sense of plot. So I have to watch her. Feel how chilly it is when the wind off the bay caroms down the skyscraper walls and bounces off the sidewalk up the sleeves and into the neckline of her coat that is really just a heavy flannel shirt. I’m guessing she thought it would androgenize her, camouflage her attractiveness. And why hadn’t she thought to pull some serious money out of her checking account, cash money, so she wouldn’t be flashing a debit card like a lost kid on a field trip?
Well she can’t stand on the corner of Taylor and Ellis waiting for the sun to sink under the ocean. So … what’s around here? I know. Glide Memorial Chuch. I’ve sung and danced in those aisles in the seventies. But does she know? I don’t think so. A smart, seventeen year-old junior volleyball player from Yreka three hundred miles north up highway 5 … nope, I don’t see her realizing the valuable resource she’s standing right beside. So? I see her start looking up and down the street for someone she thinks she can trust. Hard to tell. So she scans the buildings for stores and restaurants that might have a staff person she could relate to. Hard apples, I’m thinking, and I’m betting things may get worse.
The good thing about the Idea Cave is that though it can be dark, dank, and rank with old animal scat, it is absolutely brimming full of ideas, thoughts, memories, things we’ve read, things we’ve learned, things people have told us, pictures, movies, tee shirt sayings, flotsam and jetsam from our entire life just waiting for a good open question to play around with.
Face it, our relaxed brain is a goofball chock full of connections and associations it’s never thought of before. Hoo baby. Ask it to look at a situation, take a comfortable breath, lean back, drop your agenda like a hot marmot, and enjoy the ride. Or so I’m thinking. Yourn, Mr. PriceWeakly
Time to get serious about getting our stories written and out to our respective publishers. I know mine would be beside herself if she knew my resolution was to get a certain number of pages done every day of 2013. Well, that’s my resolution, to get a certain number of pages done every day. I’m just not telling how many. Charles, I love your idea of getting into the “zone” to find the story; going into “The Idea Cave.” What a great visual. And the thought that within that cave dwells the darkness and the light of both character and plot. Look through the eyes of the character to see where that character takes you. OR, find a plot idea (usually dark) and decide who you’re going to put in there. Always a question, does plot define character, or character, plot? The book I’m writing now is totally character driven. The one right after, totally plot driven. Interesting how it doesn’t really make a difference. The STORY tells itself, no matter. As a writer’s teaching strategy, this opens every possibility your imagination will allow. The scary thing about going into any cave, however, is encountering YOU. Chris C
Thursday, January 3 Happy New Cheers
Mr. Crutcher. Why does cave sound okay but cranny … ? Plato never mentioned it.
“The story tells itself.” Impossible. And yet that’s my experience, too.
I would have said all my stories are “character driven” until I read your post. I attempt to represent teens that inspire me, composites of people I met in schools and hospitals. By placing them in a particular setting or situation (often one I myself did not know how to handle) I watch them and report the story they unfold. On second thought, I realize several of my stories began with an action or event that kept me awake at night: the kidnapping of a local girl my own daughter’s age, a girl’s bizarre secret home life, a boy going to school and coping with a single mother who’s floridly psychotic. These events generated the idea to write the books and spurred the characters’ behavior
Several times I’ve tried to write books about people I don’t like. It doesn’t work and I can’t keep at it. I don’t want sad/sick/arrogant folks camping in my head. (That’s my own personality’s job.) Really, that’s why the characters are the most important element for me. I’m spending months with them! Like a road trip.
In DEAD GIRL MOON I admired Grace’s survivor courage. She was not defeated by her horrible experiences. I did not admire her ethics but I understood their genesis. That said, your genesis remains a mystery to me. I’m thinking DNA from an alternate universe. Somehow your string theory got all balled up.
I hate to admit any time you’re right, Charles, but I have to say you’re rrrrrrrrr….. I can’t get it out. Using characters that inspire me is absolutely essential. If I’m writing a novel, those characters will be with me well over a year. Nobody, least of all I, wants to go to the computer every morning and pick up on a story about someone they don’t like very much. And to paraphrase my retired editor, Susan Hirschman, “Give me a character I like and I’m more likely to give you a contract you like.” The point being, I believe, that if I create a character I like, that affection will translate to the reader. Think of the number of stories you’ve read about characters you might not connect with in real life, but that you feel a strong connection with because of the way the author presents them. Which brings me to a related point. When I started working at the mental health center in Spokane, many many years ago, I believed I’d only work there for a short time because after all, I would be working with them. My expertise was supposed to be with teenagers and adults (more likely adult males). Well, teenagers who have been abused are usually no fun and adults who abuse them are even less fun. Or at least that’s what I thought. What I discovered was, I would never work with a client who wasn’t like me in some way, and often in ways I didn’t like to admit. It turned out I had to embrace those similarities to work effectively with them. Turned out it was the same way with characters, particularly secondary characters. The more I knew about the humanity of those clients the more help I was, and the more I knew about the humanity of those characters, the better they served me in story. Perfect symmetry. As opposed to perfect cemetery. So, finding those characters I understand at an emotional – and nuanced – level, is necessary for me to write a believable story. Much of this explains why I’ve never been able to write a story about you.
Embossing the Similarities: Yesterday I was on a Short Story Panel here in Redding. During a break a person told me the protagonist of her book was a cute little angel. Struck me. That’s not a story I could write. As you and Penelope Cruz know, I’m seriously cute but I’m no angel. In fact I’ve been embarrassed sometimes how easily I can inhabit and write about a horrible character. I identify effortlessly. I believe it relates to what you were saying about your work. When I meet people, talk to them, try to understand how they arrived at the opinions they hold or the behavior they exhibit . . . something happens for me. I lose some of my judgmental nature and often find myself empathizing. Even if I hope I wouldn’t make the same choices or decisions they do, I can see myself in them.
I know what made Scotty a killer in Desert Angel. He was raised to be mean for self-protection. Learned his family’s criminal skills as the path to make a living. I know what made Homer vicious in Interrogation. He felt isolated and ashamed and powerless at home and he wanted to get even with a world that had dealt him such a bad hand.
In years of work in psych hospitals I saw kids from the same families turn out differently — one self-destructive, the other, moving toward a positive future. I cannot understand how or why. It’s a mystery. I came to believe that all of us have this range of possibility inside us. Writing effective characters requires self-awareness and the ability to explore or at least accept both light and dark aspects the soul. For example, I’m extremely aware of your myriad flaws and that helps me write about weird characters.
First Charles, let me clear something up. You said you were aware of my myriad floss. I have false teeth so I don’t even use floss. Let’s try to keep this blog real, okay?
That said, I agree with you about the creation of all those grey characters – which is to say, all characters – but particularly those who are a darker grey. Once in a while, I’ll create a total bad guy, such as Sarah Byrnes’ father. He’s a guy I just want the reader to be scared of. His job in the story is to make Sarah’s life risky. When I do that I show him only by his behavior and let the reader decide how he got that way. All I want in that case is malevolence. Even then, however, I have an idea what his history might be or what brain chemicals might be mixing in a toxic way because in the end, if the reader doesn’t believe him, my story is in jeopardy. In my soon-to-be-released (finally) book, Period 8, I’ve created a psychopathic character who raises all kinds of havoc in the lives of unsuspecting peers. I had to let his psychopathy out a little at a time and I had to keep in mind that he objectifies all other life. No empathy. That’s a character I can’t relate to in general, but paying attention to times in my life when I’ve been embarrassingly cavalier about other people’s feelings to meet my own ends, helps. Beyond that I need a deep understanding of other characters’ responses to him.
Like you, big Chuck, I’m often asked about writing, by individuals trying to break into the business or in more formal, writing workshop arenas. I refer them to On Writing, by Stephen King and Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott, because the information in both those books is invaluable. But then I turn them inward. It’s important to know that you have to “just write it” and that about eighty five percent of modifiers should be edited out. It’s important to know the different ways different brains are capable of structuring story and character, and how your particular brain works. But to me the most important character in your story is the character writing that story. I need to know as much about myself – how I operate, my biases, my agendas, my strengths and floss, etc – as I know about any character I create, because my understanding of basic human existence will float or sink my story. For most of us the most basic human is us: me. Which means I have to back up to see the whole picture at the same time as I go deep into my own understanding so I can bring that certain brand of reality to the reader.
That’s a little obscure, but if I can ever articulate it clearly I will be a rich, rich man. At which time I will send you flowers.
You talk about your false teeth, but you never mention the brain damage that occurred when you were accidentally whammed with that softball bat. I stipulate that you were merely doing the girls’ team a favor by running for an injured hitter. But it also cost the school good money to remove your teeth from the Louisville Slugger. Before your injury, you were fluent in several languages if you count pig-Latin and barking. Afterward, you could barely decipher English. Be that as it may, I was talking/thinking about your comments on advice to writers.
The good news? We are all inescapably creative and make hundreds of creative decisions every day based on our experience and personality style and education. The issue is not whether we’re creative enough. Better we should ask ourselves do I love to read? When I run across something terrific, do I whoop and twirl? Do I have to read the marvelous passage aloud to the nearest person, even if it’s a weary man patiently waiting in line for his prescription to be filled?
And do I love words themselves? Playing with them, arranging them into images, stacking and shuffling them into sentences? Do I feel a strange pleasure when I write, like the activity itself is not only enjoyable but important?
Do I love movies and wish I had written every one that absorbs me?
Do I see re-writing as fun and can hardly turn loose of a piece that I’m working on?
If we answer yes to these questions, then we’re designed to be a writer. We have the passion it requires. So will we make the effort it takes to get good at writing? Figure ten thousand hours practice. Figure finding other writers we respect and paying attention to their comments on our work. Figure driving our mates quite mad with rereading incessant paragraphs. Figure learning how to tell the stories that reside inside us without making them autobiographical. Figure honoring our writing by persistently sending it places where it might receive an unbiased read. Figure weathering the many days when we decide to go into the refrigeration repair business instead.
Which reminds me, perhaps we missed our true calling. You would have made a wonderful harbor buoy, bobbing and weaving in the waves and clanging relentlessly. I myself, larger and less buoyant, would have made an excellent doorstop.
Monday, February 4 Lunacy
Charles, you make writing sound like true lunacy. Reading a passage to the wrong man standing in line could easily get you a bloody nose. Your prescription for how to treat your mate could get you out there looking for another unsuspecting mate.
Yet all you say is true.
You have to love it. You have to love story in many forms. You have to read it or see it once, then read it or go see it again to find out how the creator of the piece did it. Then again. You have to make friends with embarrassment because you will be embarrassed exposing yourself in the way you have to do to be a writer. (This is true for creativity of any kind, by the way.)
Speaking of movies, I have to give a shout-out to “Searching for Sugar Man”, the riveting documentary about Sixto Rodriguez (which you turned me on to) who was and is true to his creativity in ways few artists are. I’ve watched it three times now, and am finding characters among the real people in his life, and particularly in him. He inspires me to imagine, and those imaginings are creating some fine, fine characters. I’ll say more about Rodriguez when you’ve weighed in on him.
Given your weight, don’t weigh in on him all the way. Or the weigh.
My good friend and co-conspirahort, Mr. Webster, assures me that lunacy is but extravagant folly, and I for one . . . (if you use contiguous skin cover instead of avoirdupois as a measure) . . . will happily invest in wild foolishness at the drop of a Mardi Gras bead.
Searching For Sugar Man and its subject Sixto Rodriguez are amazing on so many levels. His music was singable and powerful, great to many who heard it, but it couldn’t break through and become broadly popular in the United States. Dylan already occupied that niche, had already gathered that population of fans.
Instead, incredibly, Sixto’s songs, his CDs, catch on like wildfire in 1970s South Africa where people are suffering under the tyranny of apartheid. A large group of people there need a voice, a poetic rallying cry that symbolizes their frustrations and dreams, and Rodriguez speaks their language. He becomes hugely famous in that country and never knows it. As we watch, we find in Rodriguez a man genuinely worthy of admiration. A man able to live the values he espouses. Humanly holy.
And as writers, painters, singers, musicians, many of us hope to well-represent our values and the people we respect, the situations or events that inspire us . . . we want to do them justice. We want to place in public consciousness the vision we ourselves hold dear.
When we write about the mentally ill, we want readers to see how admirable people can be who live productive meaningful lives in spite of their personal difficulties, in spite of social stigma. When we write about troubled teenagers who have no adult they trust and who have to more fully develop their own inner resources, we are hoping readers see how amazing and admirable at-risk youth can be.
Along with astonishment, the predominant emotion I felt watching Sugar Man was humility. An artist like Sixto Rodriguez is not that common in our hype-filled, image-conscious, publicity-hungry world. Makes me hope to write my talk and live my write.
As for you, to paraphrase Steve Landesberg, honesty may be the best policy, but lunacy may be a better defense.
…Charles, leave me DUMBfounded. I realize the operative word there is “dumb” but could you provide a dictionary definition for any word you use that’s more than fifteen syllables.
That said, I’ve watched “Searching for Sugar Man” three times since my last post. There is something so unbelievably pure about that guy – Rodriguez – that it makes me jealous. I think every person who strives toward his/her creativity, myself included, could learn a lot from this man. He took his best shot, seemingly didn’t hit the mark, and went on with his life, while not abandoning his music, at least in a personal sense. There are people who show us our better selves simply by the way they live, and Sixto R. is certainly one of them.
Just came back from Singapore, working in the American International School there. Was treated like and king and the kids were wonderful. It’s a high pressure place, though, as are most of the American International Schools around the world, and I sometimes wonder if there’s not a way to find a close-to-perfect balance between that pressure and a more laid back, creative approach. But, what can I say? Kids were great, teachers were great and I was grape.
A dictionary won’t help since I make up any word longer than seven letters. Take fulminate for example. It’s the opposite of emptiminate. Now really, is that useful?
Lately I have been starting a new book and my computer is filling with beginnings. Tens of them. None the right one, but all valuable. Some beginnings will become earlier or later chapters. Some won’t get used at all but will help me choose characters I want to keep for the long run. Some will let me play with a scene I know I’ll want to include at some point.
This works great — the writing itself — as long as I’m enjoying the process. As soon as my left brainish “shoulds” wedge their way into my thinking, I’m cooked. Then the “this-isn’t-rights” and “you’re-wasting-times” stomp on my pleasure and grind my writing to bits of broken taillight. “PRIORITIZE!” My long-dead asholic uncle slaps his riding crop against his thigh and my writing pleasure dissolves in a pool of criticism.
I sit back. I know better than this. I know that in creative writing this demand for order and logic and planning is no friend. Not of mine, anyway. No friend of inspiration. I breathe. I scour the house for a wheel of cheddar. I walk outside and feel the difference on my skin. I cast an imaginary yellow-belly Humpy through an imaginary riffle. I bounce a hard dribble and loft a twenty-foot jumpshot through an imaginary nothing-but-net. I guitarpick a tricky riff that my brain plays better than my hand. And zip zop . . . ready again . . . I imagine.
Ready to look through my screen and type what I see. Ready to enjoy writing. Ready to trust the process. Hoo boy, I can almost feel it. Here comes another word!
Nobody, but nobody casts an imaginary Humpy through anything. And the operative word with your nothing-but-net jumper is imaginary. But man I do get it about beginnings. There are so many ways to start any given story and at some point we have to just go ahead and do it. The beginning we start with may end up in Chapter 3, but we have to get going. One thing I always try to get across to new writers is the value of so-called errors. Humans are a trial-and-error species that refuses to celebrate errors. We call them mistakes. We call them sins. We beat ourselves up for making them. How crazy is that? The staple for learning is vilified. Those mistaken beginnings (as well as the mistaken transitions and the characters and plot lines that don’t work) are what tell us the way to go. Half of knowing what is, is knowing what isn’t. We have to try things to see if they’ll really work. That’s also a reason to let a trusted reader, or listener, see or hear our works in progress. We often need someone else to tell us the error of our ways. I’m playing with a character for my next novel who simply appears on the scene in the first chapter. Even he isn’t sure where he came from or why he’s in this place. I love the character but I need rules for him and those rules will make themselves clear as I put him in situations. You, Mr. Chuck, will have the honor, such as it is, to give me feedbag. I mean feedback. Feedbag is easy for you; feedback maybe takes a little more focus.
So drop everything you’re doing and watch your email.
I can give feedbark at the drop of a tonsil, Mr. Crutcher. As you know, opinion is my middle name. And I will be sending you some of my flotsam for comment forthwith. I now have thirty pages of beginnings and I’m shuffling them. I can see I still don’t have the start I want but sooner or later it will sneak in like aliens in the dark of night. I love the process of starting a new book or a new story. So many possibilities, so many words, and every so often an agate in the gravel.
When I start a book I imagine the “world” of the story. Are these characters equal to the task that interests me? Is this setting effective for telling this particular tale. But I can’t live on thought experiment alone. I have to get the feel of a situation, the feel of a setting, by writing about it. Can I find the voice we need to tell the story? Does one voice work better than another? Will this setting provide not only the backdrop but the tone I need. How else to explore that terrain than to start typing, write about it and learn what I like?
Fearing mistakes? That’s like memorizing the book How To Develop Writer’s Block. Teachers urged me to embrace “mistakes” and more than embrace them, cultivate the attitude that they are indispensable tools. As you say, the staple of learning. An airplane autopilot make thousands of mistakes flying between San Francisco and L.A. — and it gets new information and makes adjustments as it goes. Mistakes, fiddledydash! We wouldn’t have learned to walk without them. And besides, who are any of us? William Faulkner’s mother? No. We’re just women and men learning to write as well as we can.
And by the way, I, too, am working on a new novel where somewhat extra-normal or at least unusual rules apply. Years ago I worked with a parapsychologist in NYC who was fascinated how and under what circumstances different mediums (people with clairvoyant talent) got their information. — Some claimed a spirit guide, –Some were embarrassed by their inability to understand how they knew what they knew, –Some needed to touch a personal object (comb or ball point or ring) in order to establish supra-normal contact. This parapsychologist believed that no one understood how this phenomenon actually operated, not the person with the ability or the researchers studying it. Now I get to play with that idea!
Hey man, go light on William Faulkner’s mother. She’s getting old. If you had teachers who told you to embrace mistakes, you must have grown up in a different United States of America educational system than I did. AND if you had teachers who told you to embrace your mistakes you must have felt like you’d won a free trip to Disneyland! (I, Charles, am that good good friend who will turn on you in a minute.)
Using the paranormal in any way is an interesting and slightly dangerous path to walk. It’s easy to fall into cliches or go to a place that’s unbelievable. It has to be exactly consistent to be good, and some great “twist” about how it works is always good. I tried it to a small degree in The Sledding Hill. I had to do an amazing amount of editing on that very short book because I couldn’t get it in my head what the dead narrator would know and not know and how he would articulate it. He was still fourteen and I needed his teenage voice, but he had also escaped out into the universe where, I assume (and therefore incorporate) that he would know more. When you’re writing such a book you’re appreciative of good editing. I’m doing it again in a different way with this new novel and like you, am having fun, yet creating much chaos in my cranium.
Again, go light on Mrs. Faulkner. She carries the burdon of birthing an author who is at the same time very famous and unreadable.
I know what you mean about the editing necessary when walking the precipice of reality. Can’t afford to be glib or cheap or easy with our language ,,, the story would enter the realm where anything seems possible and the tension would evaporate. As to creating much chaos in your cranium, how could you possibly tell? What degree of bedlam did you use as a benchmark?
When my teachers said to embrace my mistakes, they were suggesting I take the hundreds of sheets of incorrect math equations and carry them to the dumpster. Under all that snow, Billings Montana was green. As was William Faulkner’s mother, Maud, at our seance yesterday. The agitated woman kept pounding on the table and moaning, not unlike my math teachers.
My character who talks to the dead went to the library in Chapter 12. He found out parapsychology is considered by many to be a psuedo-science. Go figure. I have a nice psuedo jacket but I have to dry clean it after I eat. Anyway, my character and I were both surprised. Libraries have a lot of damn nerve with their research books and big dictionaries. I had a big dictionary the size of a recliner but someone borrowed it for an unabridged piling.
Research — that’s an unseen pleasure of fiction writing. You expect research in non-fiction. It’s often behind the scenes in fiction. We have to know the landmarks of our settings — sometimes to the extent of checking whether our memory is accurate. I’ve been absolutely positive … and wrong. I’ve wanted to know more about a piece of music, or the history of the Anza-Borrego Desert, or the different departments in county social services, or what did Houndsditch Street look like in 1888 London? I get curious, immersed in my research education, and forget I’m writing. So, like we were talking about earlier, we write what we know about but it doesn’t always have to be from our own experience. Is that so obvious?
My protagonist decided to go to the library. I hadn’t thought of it myself.
To me “research” is just an eight letter word. Where I come from that’s twice as ugly as a four letter word. Our different perspectives on it may explain why you went to Stanford University and I went to Ed’s Junior College and Latte Stand. I have library cards for libraries in some of the most obscure cities and towns in the United States of America. The reason is that, until I discovered I was offending librarians all over this great land by telling them the last library card I had was for the Cascade, Idaho Public Library in 1955 (to which I could go any and all Saturday mornings to check out donated books nobody else wanted) it was a part of my standard presentation. Those offended librarians started sending me cards. The Cascade library was housed in the back of the fire station where Dewey Decimal had never set foot. My mother, a champion of community betterment coerced – or should I say forced – her children to check out at least one book a week. Because of this, I discovered that the Edgar Rice Borroughs’ Tarzan smoked cigarettes and spoke like the English Lord he was. I preferred the movie Tarzan, whose vocabulary consisted of “Me Tarzan, you Jane. Then he took off with Cheetah. Forever traumatized, I swore off libraries and research and literacy. Later I discovered another way to research is to “live it” and began digging up many of my facts from my own experience and, more importantly, the experiences of others. As I’ve grown older, and I have grown older, I’ve discovered I need to write about things I haven’t experienced and therefore must change my ways. How fortunate I discovered this need at a time when I can send my computer to the library and don’t have to get my skinny butt out of my chair. But your point, Mr. Price, is well taken. If you don’t get the details right, the readers will catch you and they will slay you.
Mr. Crutcher, you have one obedient computer. You send yours to the library, I can’t even make mine go downstairs for a donut. And I’m sorry, but this Dewey Decimal has to go. When I was a boy in rural Colorado (at a one room school where my mom taught first through fifth grades – and hit me with a ruler when I was unruly – where at the end of every day we stood beside our desks and sang Onward Christian Soldiers like the angels we were) the bookmobile came once a week! It was like Santa Claus! — except for this twirp Dewey Decimal that they were always trumpeting about. I already knew the real Dewey. Dewey Duck, with his brothers Huey and Louie. It was years before I discovered the truth about Mr. Decimal and his arcane “system.” As if three numbers weren’t enough, he added that point at the end and then added more letters and numbers after … really? A whole 3×5 card just for the book’s number? Got so’s I would read the number and skip the book. That accounts for the richness of my literary understanding. Remember 142.780973 C826e? What a number! What a concept!
Researching, I use several search engines for articles and images and I love the online thesaurus when I’m considering non-repetitive word choices. I made a deal with myself to stop and think — THINK — before I access these tools in the hopes that my brian doesn’t atropine completly . . . hmmm.
This week I’m caught up with my researching but I’m in the process of rearranging a new book’s fifteen beginning chapters to establish the character-building and the plot momentum that I believe will be most effective. I’m aware how difficult it is for me to hold entire chapters in my head and move them around like building blocks. I see now why some authors use storyboards to give themselves a visual anchor. Or maybe I should use scissors and scotch tape . . . but wouldn’t the pages tear after the eleventh reconstruction? Surely you have suffered the pain of beginningitis . . . or wait, maybe you’re one of those scalawags who write the first draft through to the end before you monkey with it. Well, fie on thee, penman, may your ship scrawl to the doldrums – – an old curse I learned from 216.818974 K353r.