Sleight of mind

Oh, we make it all sound so bloody easy, don't we? Writers, I mean. When we're writing well. We talk about writing as though we'd know. Start from a line, I says to students, when I have them. Start from an image. Start with what happened when you brushed your teeth this morning. Anything. Begin where you begin! I call it spew. Natalie Goldberg says to begin from First Thoughts, which is much the same idea, while Ursula Le Guin says it all begins with language and the way it sounds (an idea I like very much). Neil Gaiman says that ideas come from asking yourself simple questions (I like this idea, too), and Ernest Hemingway once said, "All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know." Okay, Ernest. Stick this one in your truth pipe and smoke it:

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.


Dragonsally said...

Ew, thanks Jess "Lately the inside of my head feels like a frozen yoghurt shake"...now I have sore teeth in sympathy. Not really, although for a split second I did as I read the sentence.
I can't wait for my copy of the book to arrive. It will take a few weeks as apparently there are none in Australia, so it is winging its way to me from the States.

The Goldfish said...

I really enjoyed this post and your little piece. If the pot was real, did you get it? Have you still got it?

I think it is mistake to feel the need to care very greatly about a story. I've had an ongoing cycle with my bloody f**king novel of thinking, "This is really quite a silly story which won't contribute to the wealth of human knowledge or insight in any way, shape or form."

Not just generally, but specific elements of it become very irritating to me, even embarrassing. Because it would be hard to justify any worth it its telling. But it won't leave me alone.

Jess said...

Hee hee! Sorry, Sally. No psychosomatics intended. :D Let me know how you like the book once you've had a chance to sit down with it! I hope you'll find it as helpful as I have. I really like it. Wish I'd found it years ago.

Morning, Goldfish! Well afternoon, really. :) The turtle pot was indeed real! Though the piece I ended up with is actually a vase-- the friend we were visiting remembered the turtle design, when she went to buy it, but not which pot. I was only a little disappointed. It's a lovely thing-- I've got lots of art pottery knocking about the house, but that one is still my favorite. I should post a picture somewhere.

Arizona is a fun place to go for arty stuff. I was thrilled to find Cosanti Originals on the web (they make gorgeous windbells and pottery items), which is loosely attached to Arcosanti down in Pheonix. They've got all kinds of nifty arts programming and architectural experiment going on there.

And I hadn't intended to yammer that long about why I love those places in Arizona-- which is what I mean by material one really cares about versus playing around with an idea without following through. It's not so much that a story needs to be some great contribution to humanity, or address some enormous, important issue. I think you're right that it's difficult, and probably a mistake, to consciously attempt to write a story like that, or to allow oneself to feel so personally attached to an idea that the thing becomes more about the author than what's being told. I think the best stories are those which wouldn't leave the author alone-- rather, he or she has simply found something in it which matters to them enough to keep following it till the story's told.

That's the trouble with many of my exercise-characters: they disappear after a paragraph or two, and I no longer feel curious enough to follow them. I worry about feeling that kind of apathy for potentially rich subjects, but I suspect it's more likely that those characters and situations simply aren't where my heart is. Whereas I can talk your ear off about a pot, and what it's like to stand at the head of a steep staircase on a very high hill when you're twelve, with the wind blowing and the sun setting, looking down the steep cobbled street and thinking to yourself, if I were to run away anywhere, this would be it. That's a story I can care about.

Which if anything makes me wonder what all my whinging was for. There it is! There. There's a story I can write. Maybe. :D

spacedlaw said...

There's a lot of scalding yogurt inside my head so I think I shall attend the matter later on (and read again the post, I think the pink walruses have made away with most of the sense that I know must be there...)

Jess said...

Pink walruses? Where?

spacedlaw said...

Somewhere floating between the lines, playing conkers with concepts. And I have not been drinking. Cesare says I have fever.

Jess said...

Still down with the bad lurgy, eh? Poor you. :( Ignore the walruses and have lots of tea. Maybe some chicken soup, too.

The Goldfish said...

It is a lovely pot!

I've been thinking about the character thing. As far as story writing is concerned, it is the characters who get hold of me and won't let go. I wouldn't want to do it myself, but I sympathise with authors who use the same characters for dozens of books.

I'd even say that there is a cast of characters who I have always had in my head. Undoubtedly compounds of people I have known, or wanted to know - or even wanted to be in some cases. Heroes and villains, although mostly somewhere in the middle. I would say it is a pretty huge cast, and I haven't got enough time on Earth to write about them all.

But, it's a long time since I've done any serious writing exercises, but when I did, I found it very hard to write short pieces focussed on character. If I liked a character or a situation at all, I wanted to write an entire novel about them. I found pots and hillsides (or in my case, beaten-up chairs and clifftops) easier going.

I'm sure I could be more disciplined about that today, but am so bogged under with my novel that now is not the moment to experiment.

Jess said...

I get hooked on certain characters, too-- and certain narratives. Sometimes I'll look back at one story, then another, and realize that they're both different versions of the same one. Sometimes it seems I've been telling the same story over and over, but haven't yet found the right way to tell it. Or something.

You know, I actually ended up applying a lot of these exercises to things I'd written already, and found it illuminating. It might be worth doing a little experimenting with the material you're already working with, if you ever feel like you're at an impasse with the novel, or that you just want to try something different with it. :)

spacedlaw said...

Nice piece. I am still not too clear on what started it - since this was your subject - although reading your comments, the matter might be really more about sticking to a story. That's the nice thing about short fiction, you don't have to worry about that.

Diane J Standiford said...

I have a story that research made my friend a bad guy, non-fiction...do I still write it? I'm torn.

Jess said...

Hi Diane-- and welcome. That's a tough question. Is it the truth? The way I figure it, a writer's obligation is to tell the truth. Is the truth worth the friendship? That depends on the friend. Some friends wouldn't object, another might. Is the friend key to the story-- would leaving said friend out of the telling obscure the truth? If not, you may have a solution-- though in the case of nonfiction, that's only if you're absolutely certain leaving him or her out of the telling would not be rewriting history. Good nonfiction writers don't rewrite history: you only need to look at what happened with A Million Little Pieces to see why not.

So the short answer is...that's a hard question. I'm not sure what to advise. I'm not sure it's a decision I could rightfully dispense advice about either way. It's one of those decisions we as writers each have to make on our own-- where we decide what's really important to us, what's important about the story, and how firmly we believe the story needs to be told.

If I wewre to suggest anything, it might be to consider thinking about whether there's another way to tell the story besides nonfiction. Fiction based in real events can be equally powerful and illuminating in certain instances-- but again, it depends on what you feel is important about the story, and what's important to tell.

Thanks for dropping by and reading!