The 1” Picture frame
How I write has evolved quite a bit, especially as I read more books and stories, and have completed an MFA program. It’s a tough question to ask, really, sort of like asking musicians how they write a song. Some artists speak to process (develop a routine) while others stress resolve to complete a pass (draft) until you leave your work station. This last bit is modeled after a comment I read that Neil Young imparted to Eddie Vedder about song writing. The idea is that if you break the chain of creativity, you allow for a chance at greatness to pass (or something like that). I may not work the exact same way every time I write; however, I start in similar places (literally and figuratively) whenever I begin a new story.
How I enter a story—in terms of an opening paragraph or scene—is usually not the way that begins the complete draft. Sometimes this portion gets cut altogether, rather than being moved to someone else because I like what I wrote. Usually this opening tidbit sparks some interest in me–I think, hmm, that might be an interesting story.
So I think about a way to “test” this idea on real characters. For example, I was on the treadmill at the gym and the TV was stuck on the Retirement Channel—which, by the way, I never knew existed. One of the segments on that day’s show involved some retired folks talking about the day that changed their lives: they’d learned that, after they’d been married (sometimes more than once), raised kids, paid off their mortgage, retired from the careers, they’d contracted HIV. As the program mentioned, the largest growing segment of the population (in turns of percentage, not sheer numbers) is the 55 and older crowd. Since the face of HIV involved young(er) or gay people for so long, these people figured they had nothing to worry about. Since pregnancy was also off the table, why bother with condoms?
Hmm, there’s a story there.
So I did some free writing, testing what kind of character might be involved in this situation. I gravitated towards a woman—which seemed more interesting to work with than a man. Then I questioned her: what’s her situation? Is she married? Divorced? Widowed? Who did she contract it from? What was HIS story?
The answers to these questions got me started. I had something to work with, not necessarily in terms of where I was going but definitely where I WASN’T going—which I find to be more important when beginning.
Then I started writing. To me the best place to start was the moment she learns of her diagnosis. Although this isn’t what I kept through revision—it comes about a third of the way through the story—but it helped for me to get a better physical image of her, seeing a person in an environment: what was she wearing? HOW does she hear the news? What are her mannerisms like? The answers to these questions brought her in to sharper view.
A bunch of my stories form this way. They also emerge from an image. A person standing on a cliff watching a ship come in (or leave). (Something like this.) Once the image comes together, I interrogate it. Who is that person on that cliff? Where is there? What is she (or he) doing? These answers fill in the picture. They also create the need for more questions to be answered.
Once you have some basics down, you can proceed, but just take things one step at a time.
I also start with a basic structure, getting the bare bones of the shape of the story working and then fill in the fun part, the scenes, later. In this way, I guess I work like a contractor (though I wouldn’t trust me to build a house or be left alone with power tools for very long). I had a professor in undergrad said the best way to work was to throw everything at the page and then whittle down. This has almost never worked for me.
In the great writing book Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott suggests proceeding by thinking about only what you can see of the story through a 1” picture frame. Doing this forces you to move slowly and cover what you do see in depth. She also adds in the metaphor that this is like driving at night in the fog: you can’t see very far in front of you and you can’t go fast (safely), but you can drive quite a distance that way and you will get to where you are going eventually.
Proceeding this way will eventually give me a first draft. What stays and what goes during revision? That’s another post.
But one last thing I can say is that if you wait for inspiration to find you, you’ll spend a lot of days sharpening pencils rather than writing. You have to work your brain like an athlete trains a muscle. The majority of what you write might not be good or even worth keeping, but you probably need that bad writing to unearth the stuff that is worth working further.