Lately the inside of my head feels like a frozen yoghurt shake.
Actually Ernest has me, there. There are myriad possibilities in a line like that-- though when your head's full of frozen yoghurt, it can be difficult to see them sitting there, or figure what you might do with them.
I've been thinking, as I wade through the curdled mind-custard, a lot about where you get stories, where the ones really worth telling come from. There are those sort which seem to come out of nowhere, spilling out of your subconscious when you're not looking for them. Then there's that other sort of story, the one you've been working on, or thinking about, for years, the one you've gone and done research for, the one you care about. That latter type is the one most writers talk about when people ask them why they write, or what they're working on; to be honest, I've never felt that I have many of that type of story in me to write. Consciously, I never know what to write about. Sit me in front of a blank screen, tell me to write the truest thing I know, and nothing happens. Give me something that feels, on the other hand, like an idle problem to solve or a puzzle to play with, and things come alive: there's the wizened aunt in the gauzy flower-print skirt. She's got no stockings on, and probably no undies, either. There's a girl wandering lost down an alley; she'll die when she turns the corner. There's the ship captain in his white patent leather boots, about to kick a stowaway in the gut. Who knows where they come from? The same place that nightmares and half-sleep hallucinations come from, probably-- that part of my mind which felt utterly convinced, at 4:00 on one particularly dark morning, that a bat was climbing up one side of the hall window.
How the products of that idle puzzle-solving move from being the first type of story to the second type-- i.e., from daydream to the one story that matters more than any other you've yet told-- is the tricky bit. I'm not really sure how that happens; whenever I find myself flailing around, trying to find a story I care about, I mainly feel frustrated with anything I do write. I get picky, and grumpy. I often don't finish, having convinced myself the story's not really worth caring about. How to care is a question I will leave to the interweb's armchair psychologists, and How to finish warrants perhaps an entire entry on its own. How to begin is what concerns me for the moment: that mental sleight-of-hand which takes place, allowing one to tell a story at all.
In some desperation, I began all over again, a few hours ago, with the Le Guin book, and reread the first chapter. You might recall the exercise she uses there, which encourages free play with language sounds and rhythms. I wondered whether there might be some way of attaching that exercise to writing story beginnings-- there was that one idea of beginning with a poetic line which I stole, sort of, from a poet I know-- and also to working with setting. I like the idea of an exercise which begins a story the way an opening panning shot does in film-- a description which begins at a sweeping, wide angle, then moves in closer to reveal an object, a character, or a situation. An opening paragraph or two, let's say, which begins from a poetic description. Rather than trying to make something up for this exercise I actually went back to a dim memory of visiting Jerome, Arizona when I was twelve; you might say I began from memory, but tarted it up a bit.
The result is a little rough, and it doesn't go anywhere much; bear in mind, too, that I used the exercise more as a starting point rather than as practice in writing description. Consider this not so much an instructive post as an over-the-shoulder view of me attempting to write through whatever it is that's keeping me from writing very well this week. Feel free to try it along with me, if you like, and let me know how it works (or doesn't) for you.
We walked up Hill Street, right to the top on a clear blue day, past shops and galleries with their fronts painted blue to match the sky and green to match the blue, their windows dark because nothing's open on a Sunday in Jerome; nothing on a Sunday, nothing after five. There was a glossy-glazed earthenware pot in one window, a round pot like a miniature dutch oven, with a knob-handled lid. The pot had turtles painted round its middle, coloured deep blue like the ocean and spread-eagled like they were swimming, round and round and round the pot. I wanted that pot; I wanted to keep pennies in it. But the shop was shut.
My Aunt Sally put a hand on my shoulder and leaned down to whisper in my ear, in one of those whispers everyone nearby can hear. "I'll buy that for you come Tuesday, when we come in to do the shopping." She turned and clopped off up the sidewalk in her thick high heels, her flower-print skirt whipping at her legs in the wind. I followed, and my parents followed; we all went up the hill. I thought and thought and thought about the pot, and couldn't see anything else for glazed clay and shiny round and turtles, turtles, turtles; I would put it on my desk at home for keeping special things, for coins and fuzzy google-eye worms out of plastic eggs from supermarket penny-toy machines, and for the smooth little pebbles, better even than marbles, out of the creek. I couldn't see anything, not the clear blue or the clouds rushing along the early evening sky, or Aunt Sally's chunky front steps, which I tripped on going up not once but twice; when I leaned out through the square porch window cut right through the white brick to look back down the hill and the street, I couldn't see that, either. I leaned out and felt the wind in my hair and thought about a pot. "Come in, come in," Aunt Sally said.
I'll be a heel if I don't at least try to attempt the other exercise I had in mind-- the one about getting inside a character who tells a lie. Which seems, now I think about it, a very good way to play with unreliable narrators. So perhaps I'll do that next. (Anyone else try that one?)
Edit: Now with graphical enhancement! That's the pot-- or, at least, that was the pot I ended up with; either the pot I describe above wasn't available for sale at the time, or the friend in Jerome who sent it thought I wanted the vase instead. It was the very first piece of art pottery I ever owned, so it didn't really matter in the end. I believe it came from Made in Jerome Pottery. I'm not entirely sure about that, though, so don't quote me on it.