Friday, March 26, 2010

Blog series! Where stories come from: from the time you get the idea for a novel to the day you first put your fingers to the keyboard, how does the story come to you?

Right! Let’s look at what Anne Lamott has to say on novel writing prep and where stories come from. This post is going to be kind of low on advice on how to plan stuff. You know, with a nice tidy plot that does what you tell it to, performing all these perfect, synchronised dances down to the last millimetre. That’s because Bird by Bird isn’t that sort of book. Some of the best preparation we can do, is, in fact, not to prepare too much. We might know where we’re going, we might not. Either way, everything will be ok.

You remember those Polaroid cameras that everyone used to have? How they’d take a picture and spit it out, and it would start off as a blank blur, but then the image would slowly appear? With a Polaroid, you can never start off knowing exactly what the picture would be; instead, it’s something that drifts into view gradually.

And finally, as the portrait comes into focus, you begin to notice all the props surrounding these people, and you begin to understand how props define us and comfort us, and show us what we value and what we need, and who we think we are.

You couldn’t have had any way of knowing what this piece of work would look like when you first started. You just knew that there was something about these people that compelled you, and you stayed with that something long enough for it to show you what it was about. (p.40)

It’s useful to bear in mind that we can work on stories even when we’re not sitting down writing them. Not in an 'Obsessing Endlessly and Agonising and Trying to Force Things to Turn Up' kind of way, more through keeping things open. Lamott carries index cards around, so she can jot down ideas. At the moment I carry a small, fat spiral notebook, which is starting to fall apart from being shoved into small handbags and scribbled in so many times. I keep eye an out for new stories, and compelling images, and solutions to problems with existing stories, and strange conversations, and random words that sound nice together. And other things too. This is a great way to prepare:

And then, unbidden, seemingly out of nowhere, a thought or image arrives. Some will float into your head like goldfish, lovely, bright orange, and weightless, and you follow them like a child looking at an aquarium that was thought to be without fish. Others will step out of the shadows like Boo Radley and make you catch your breath or take a step backward. They’re often so rich, these unbidden thoughts, and so clear that they feel indelible. But I say write them all down anyway. (p.136)

In a way, we are our own best subject matter. Our stories come from ourselves, from what it is to be who we are:

The greatest writers keep writing about the cold dark place within, the water under a frozen lake or the secluded, camouflaged hole. The light they shine on this hole, this pit, helps us cut away or step around the brush and brambles; then we can dance around the rim of the abyss, holler into it, measure it, throw rocks in it, and still not fall in. It can no longer swallow us up. And we can get on with things. (pp.197-198)

A great way to come up with stories is to remember. My memories are something I often completely take for granted, but rereading Bird by Bird always reminds me how sacred they are. The good ones, the brilliant ones, the ugly ones, the awkward ones. All of them. Why? Our memories define us: they draw a map of who we are and who we’ve been. And they’re also an excellent source for material. Lamott recommends mining all of them. Not all of them meaning all of them except, you know, that dark ugly stuff we don’t like thinking about much. All of them especially that dark ugly stuff we don’t like thinking about much. When stuck for material, Lamott urges us to delve into our childhoods, into the school lunches we used to eat, our families and how they compared with other people’s families, into our memories of holidays long past.

Writing is a way to make our past as alive for others as it was for us when we lived it, and it’s also a way of defeating all our old monsters, all of the stuff we try to forget. Our memories can be shaped and transformed and sung out to the world.

You are lucky to be one of those people who wishes to build sand castles with words, who is willing to create a place where your imagination can wander. We build this place with the sand of memories; these castles are our memories and inventiveness made tangible. So part of us believes that when the tide starts coming in, we won’t really have lost anything, because actually only a symbol of it was there in the sand. (p.231)

We could let our anxieties and jealousy and despair stop us from writing, or, like our memories, we could use them as fuel for ideas too:

You can be defeated and disoriented by all these feelings, I tell them, or you can see the paranoia, for instance, as wonderful material. You can use it as the raw clay that you pull out of the river: surely one of your characters is riddled with it, and so in giving that person this particular quality, you get to use it, shape it into something true or funny or frightening. (p.11)

Lamott also recommends having a clear and strong picture of the worlds our characters live in. When we don’t have memory to guide us, use research to build up the details of a character’s world. Lamott writes about calling people and asking them to give her details that she would not otherwise have access to about gardens her characters have planted and houses her characters have lived in. When we sit down to write, it’s good to know what our characters are surrounded by every day, and what this is like for them:

Just as everyone is a walking advertisement for who he or she is, so every room is a little showcase of its occupants’ values and personalities. Every room is about memory. Every room gives us layers of information about our past and present and who we are, our shrines and quirks and hopes and sorrows, our attempts to prove that we exist and are more or less Okay. You can see, in our rooms, how much light we need – how many light bulbs, candles, sky lights we have – and in how we keep things lit you can see how we try to comfort ourselves. The mix in our rooms is so touching: the clutter and the cracks in the wall belie a bleakness or brokenness in our lives, while photos and a few rare objects show our pride, our rare shining moments. (pp.74-75)

So. There’s no amazing and straightforward plan we can draw up before we start that takes us through everything with speed and ease. For Lamott and for me, writing isn’t driving on the motorway; it’s taking the weird side streets and the gravel roads. It’s about discovering what happens as it happens, about seeing where we end up. We remember old things that happened to us ages ago, we learn new things that happened to other people, we watch the world, we take notes. And sometimes this magic happens, and things shine out, then find their way onto the page. And the best way to be prepared is to be patient, and keep a pen close at hand, because the glowing stuff can turn up at any moment.

This is my last post for the writing process blog series. It’s been fun, and writing about Bird by Bird has been all kinds of awesome, and reading other people’s thoughts on other books on writing has been all kinds on awesome too.

In the meantime, it’s late at night, and Josh is already fast asleep. Just now, my cat leapt on top of my chest of drawers, then looked down and gave me a concerned look. What you should do is go check out the other posts, and maybe win a prize. And if you do win a book on writing, I strongly recommend you try blogging about it.

However, right now, I’m afraid I’m going to have to go to sleep. It’s after 1am, and I don’t want the cat to worry.


corrinejackson said...

Love the post, Leila! In fact, I've purchased the book based on your reco and can't wait to read it. Childhood is a scary place to pull stories from, but it can make for some powerful writing.

Kate Hart said...

We should invent some kind of notebook with super anti-disintegration powers, specifically for surviving the recesses of purses and backpacks.

Sarah said...

Love the polaroid image. That is so true!

Jamie B said...

This post convinced me that I need this book! Finally, a writing book that gets where I'm coming from! :)

J.S. Wood said...

Loved the post! I agree with Jamie about getting the book - definitely one I want to read. It's been fun blogging with you :)

Leila Austin said...

Yay! The book is actually a lot better than my posts. It is worth rereading many, many times.

And I would totally buy a disintegration proof notebook. In fact, I would probably buy them in their hundreds. I swear the backcover on my current one is mostly staying attached through sheer willpower. And also tape. Mostly willpower though.