Monday, January 24, 2011

The Privileged Pain of Writing

Over on that delightful distraction, Facebook, one of my friends, Melinda Henneberger, expressed pseudo-annoyance with people who claim they just luuuuuuv to write. She later expressed the sentiments about writing I share: I prefer having written to the actual writing. One of  comments described writing as a "privileged pain."

Where do you stand? Privilege, pain, or both? Do you just luuuv writing so much that you would write even if you knew that you'd never get published, that no one was ever going to read your work? Is the drive to write so strong that you cannot bear the thought of going for more than a day or two away from the keyboard or pen and pad? If you were stuck on a desert island, would you write anything more than "Help!" in the sand?

Do you write in hopes of fame? fortune? an excuse to drink? a reason to flout the rules, cheat, act all artistic? Do you write because you want people to say, "S/he's a writer." Do you write with visions of your serious-looking mug on the back of a book, of people recognizing you as you stroll through malls, run through airports, search for seats at movie theaters? What's your excuse for the time you spend alone instead of in a soup kitchen, for spending more time with imaginary people than with your own family?

Samuel Johnson weighed in on the question this way: "No man but a blockhead, ever wrote, except for money." What say you?

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Flypaper for Ideas

While we're on the subject of questions that come up during readings, another common one is, "Where do you get your ideas?"

The answer is that I have no idea. But when those ideas fly in from wherever they've been, I have two ways I try to capture them. The first is a Native American Dream Catcher, which I have hanging from the bookshelf over my desk. Bought it years ago on a family trip to Arizona. A somewhat more reliable method is a small, moleskin notebook. I try to keep this with me, along with a telescopic pen, whenever I'm away from the computer. The entries are rarely the stuff for full-length novels, but they often spark an idea for a scene or description. I was procrastinating this morning by flipping through my current "idea book," as my kids call it. Here are a few random entries:

- At airport, expired passport.
- Little girl on accelerating train, mimicking sound of accelerating train
- Richard Russo: "This novel is about how hard it is to shut your parents up after they're dead."
- Holes in rain boots
- Considering changing name of main character
- No longer considering it
- Wind chimes in back yard knocked off tree
- Chopin Waltz in A minor
- Lighting altar candles at St. Luke's
- My wife is in love with Clark Howard

Banal, no? But who knows: a character in some future story may have a wife who develops an obsession with a radio personality; an expired passport ruins a vacation and a relationship; a boy sets fire to a church. The point is to capture these ideas, no matter how innocuous they seem at the time. Something extraordinary can happen as you start to build on them. 

So go get your own Dream Catcher. In the meantime, though, answer me this: How do you capture those ideas for your next story/poem/novel before they fly away?

Monday, January 17, 2011

Pants on Fire?

At one of my readings, a young man asked if I agreed with the statement that all novelists are liars. My immediate response, perhaps to play the part of the incorrigibly rascally raconteur, was, "Of course!"

But I lied. I don't think that novelists are liars. Maybe at book readings *cough cough* but not in their writing. On the contrary, I believe the best fiction writers are truth tellers. They just try to get at a truth by making stuff up.

A few weeks later, a different reader referred to the chapter in Bill Warrington's Last Chance that recounts the sexual history of one of the characters, Mike."You obviously have had many sexual partners to write about it so convincingly," the reader said. I almost burst out laughing. Fewer scenes in the book required more of my imagination.

I've also answered the how-much-of-this-is-true question by insisting that there is nothing autobiographical in the book. And yet... I set the story in Woodlake, Ohio. I grew up in Lakewood, Ohio. (Not clever, I admit... but fun.) The family matriarch died of cancer when she was a young mother.My real-life mother died of cancer at a young age. The made-up Bill Warrington  is based on a not-made-up neighbor I came to like and admire before he passed away. He didn't suffer from dementia, but he had the Bill Warrington attitude in spades.

So... what do you think? Is there such a thing as pure fiction? Does it matter? And what was your most recent truthful lie?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Shoveling Up the Past

We had another major snowstorm last night, and my son was out there shoveling before the flakes had stopped falling. I considered staying inside but--and I know this may sound strange--I love to shovel snow.

My daughter, born this day 24 years ago, has on previous snow days informed me that I am officially too old for this sort of activity and advised that I shouldn't expect her to venture out into the cold to help retrieve my corpse until Spring's first thaw. But still I grabbed a shovel and joined my son. He focused on digging out the cars; I tackled the front walkway.

Shoveling out reminds me, as nothing else here in New England, of my boyhood in Lakewood, Ohio. The muffled wind reminds me of the much stronger winds off Lake Erie, a block from our house. After the shoveling came snow forts and snowball fights. Or skating on the flooded field at Lakewood Park. I'm reminded of my mother's milky hot chocolate, topped with a turban swirl of Reddi-Wip, and the smell of pot roast. The cold  reminds me of "Triple Skate" at Winterhurst and post-skating sundaes at Malley's.Of the Browns vs. the Packers. Of downtown Cleveland, smoke from the steel mills frozen in gray. Of the strangely pleasant pain of near frostbitten toes warming in front of the TV--the Idiot Box, as my father called it.

What about you? What season or sight or sound or smell or physically risky undertaking reminds you of the good old days that seem to get better as your back gets weaker?

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

And Now for Something Completely Obvious...

... I appear to be failing as a blogger. Most recent post was in November? Pitiful. So much for that particular New Year's resolution.

The best blogger I know is Betsy Lerner. Every day, five days a week, she posts something that will make you laugh or frown or smile or cringe. She's not always (make that, rarely) politically correct and she often uses languages or describes situations that make the repressed altar boy in me trip over my cassock. But she never fails to entertain or force you to think. Kind of what I should be trying to do with this blasted site.

So check her blog out here. Today's post is especially good for writers afflicted with beautiful-writing-ho-hum plot syndrome. And if you love to write (or hate to write but must write), get her book, The Forest for the Trees.

(Unnecessary Disclaimer: Betsy Lerner is not my agent. I do not know her. There is no financial remuneration involved in this post. I happily acknowledge, however, that I sent her my first-ever fan letter to an author about nine years ago, and she was gracious enough to reply!)