What’s Your Creative Process?

Absolute Blank

By Shelley Carpenter (harpspeed)

I was at a late summer barbeque at one of my friend’s homes when one of the people at my table (a non-writer) asked me about the writing craft. “So what is your creative process?” His question jarred me. “My creative process?” I echoed. Did I even have a process—never mind a creative one?

“You know, “ he said, with a smile. “How do you tap into the stories?”

“I don’t,” I said without thinking. This attracted the attention of the people sitting with us who were just before only half-listening to our conversation. “I don’t tap into stories,” I explained. “They tap into me.” I thought that might satisfy him. It was reasonable response and true, but I was wrong.

“How does that usually happen?” he prodded. What was meant to be a casual question, small talk at the picnic table, had turned into something deeply personal. I don’t think my new friend realized the intimacy of the question. He picked up his corn-on-the-cob and took a bite and waited for my answer…

First, I thought about rituals. I don’t open a twenty-year-old bottle of scotch when I begin to write a new story; drinking makes me tired. Neither do I exercise beforehand. I don’t need the extra endorphins because I’m happy when I’m writing. I don’t frequent coffeehouses all day and write while surrounded by locals. This may have worked for Ernest Hemingway but I’m no Hemingway. Not even close. So how do I answer this inquisitive man’s question? How do I tell a perfect stranger that I hear voices?

Some days I hear only one or two; other days I hear several conversations, beginning, ending or in medias res. I hear arguments in earnest, decisions being pondered and executed, revelations, secrets, lies, plots and once in a while, a bloody knuckle sandwich being delivered. Other days, I can listen in on the internal monologues of these ambiguous specters, their private soliloquies full of emotion and sentiment that may or may not connect to the plot of the story I’m currently working on. Yet I am so enraptured by their dialogue that my fingers cramp as I try to capture the moment on Post-it notes. I’m no mind reader and I’m not crazy. The voices I hear are characters—my characters from the stories I write, characters who drop in on me unexpectedly and keep me up at night with their problems. And there is no off button. I have to listen to them until they reach the end of their scene or parley is declared.

Years ago, someone else asked me a similarly profound question. They asked if I knew how all my stories ended before I finished them. I told the questioner that I was a fiction writer and had learned it was best to just let the story write itself, that what my characters did on my pages was entirely up to them. Occasionally, I did navigate them here and there around the dead ends and roadblocks but overall, they did the driving, over the bumps and through the frequent potholes. Thus, a new definition for character-driven story came into my craft. Could this be my creative process?

When it’s time to write, I sit back in my chair and tune in like I’m watching reality TV. Sometimes I feel like I am a Hollywood producer, sitting in my canvas director’s chair watching a movie being shot, the one that’s playing inside my head. This helps me to avoid the dreaded writer’s block and takes the pressure off me when its time to turn the computer on. It’s not my fault if the characters are having a bad day.

Still, my characters can be very cunning. I know this because lately in addition to hearing their dialogue inside my writer’s head, I have begun to see and smell them as they manifest themselves evocatively, channeling through my senses. They make themselves known to me in small ways throughout the day.

Recently I was escorting a small group of young students to their classrooms. A larger group was ahead of us on the stairs. As the kids were trudging their way upward, I saw the small golden head of one of my characters lean over the banister, her pixie face gazing downward at me as the sun’s rays captured the moment. Ashlin. Reminding me that she is still sitting in the bleachers over center ice waiting for her next scene. Other times it is an earthy smell, the muddy boots left dripping outside a classroom door signaling Seamus, another young character or the sound of jingling keys—that would be Hector, whose pockets are lined with quarters.

My characters haunt me like lost little ghost children. They surround me until their expectations are met, their stories committed to my mental hard drive, and I let them, for they are my muses. My inspiration. I hear voices and see people that aren’t there. Don’t call me crazy; call me a writer.

I turned to my new friend across from me who was still patiently waiting for my response. He caught my glance. I knew my words would not be my most eloquent, at best economic and simple, bordering on facetious, but it was the truth and all I had to offer. He put the cob of corn back on his plate and wiped his mouth with his napkin as I reached for my Chardonnay. Our eyes met again and I smiled. “I hear voices.”

 

Time has passed since that fateful backyard barbecue. Today I have several parties marked on my calendar. The first is a wedding in May. I plan to wear my favorite green dress and gold sandals. I’m looking forward to the champagne, the fancy appetizers, the chocolate fountain, and schmoozing with the other guests.

Will I tell people that I am a writer? Probably not. However, if I am found out, this time my responses to questions about my writing life will be eloquent, witty, and humorous.  And how do I know this?  I know this for a fact because I have taken the time to prepare myself. I went on several interviews with myself recently. Most took place in traffic this past winter while commuting to and from work—yes, I was alone in the car—and I feel pretty confident discussing my second vocation—the one that is not my day job—with friends and new acquaintances alike. I even hope to meet my corn-on-the-cob friend for a reprise of our conversation at this year’s holiday barbecue.

And how about you? Are you prepared to talk about your personal habits and thoughts on the subject of your writing? What will you say when a stranger hands you a glass of punch and asks, “What’s your creative process?”


14-04

Stretch!

A Pen In Each Hand

By Beaver

It’s spring—time to come out of hibernation and do as the bears do: stretch! This month’s challenge is to stretch outside your writing comfort zone. Here are some ideas:

  1. Use something other than words to tell a story.
  2. Learn a new skill. Choose something you want to do (not have to do).
  3. Start a daily practice in anything; use what you learn to inform your writing practice.
  4. Schedule time to write (be realistic) and keep your appointments.
  5. Buddy up with another writer; set a mutual time or word goal and keep each other accountable.
  6. Free up physical space to write. Get rid of something you don’t need/use anymore that’s cluttering up (the space that could be) your writing space.
  7. Free up mental space to write. Cross a postponed task that’s distracting you from focusing on your writing off your to-do list.
  8. Offer to read another writer’s work and give them feedback—without the expectation that they will reciprocate. Instead, see what you can learn from critiquing and apply it to your own work.
  9. Pay for a professional critique or edit of your work.
  10. Thank someone who gave you a critical review for reading your work.

Finding Forrester: A Film Review and Quandary About the Writing Craft

Absolute Blank

By Shelley Carpenter (harpspeed)

I recently watched the film Finding Forrester (2000) directed by Gus Van Sant. I saw it years ago and revisited it only this time with my writer’s lens. The film is about a fictional author named William Forrester (Sean Connery) who writes the great American novel and then disappears from the literary world like a Salingeresque legend until he is “found” by edgy teenager Jamal Wallace (Rob Brown), whom Forrester catches breaking into his Bronx apartment.

There inside the top floor apartment overlooking the basketball courts, Jamal discovers a writer’s haven as Forrester’s home is filled with books, typewriters, file cabinets, stacks of papers, and artifacts. Jamal, who meant no harm to Forrester, whose escapade was done on a dare, scrambles out of Forrester’s door forgetting his backpack and inside it, his writing journals. Consequently, this unexpected encounter leads to a cat-and-mouse game of words that aligns the two characters in purpose and, later, in friendship.

Finding Forrester: A Film Review and Quandary About the Writing Craft

What I like the most about the film are the short discourses the pair have concerning the craft of writing that often end in disagreement and argument. The chemistry between the two very different and likeable characters is amplified by Sean Connery’s magnanimous presence that made me almost believe he was William Forrester. They are archetypes: the wise master and stubborn young apprentice. Classic.

One such exchange concerns the usage of conjunctions. Forrester believes the use of a conjunction to begin a sentence is sloppy, egregious writing. Jamal disagrees and very eloquently defends its usage:

“It was a firm rule,” Jamal explains. “Sometimes if you use a basic conjunction at the start of a sentence it can make it stand out a little bit. And that may be what the writer’s trying to do.”

Forrester raises his eyebrow. “And what is the risk?”

“Well, the risk is doing it too much. It’s a distraction and it could give your piece a run-on feeling. But for the most part the rule on using and or but at the start of the sentence is pretty shaky even though it’s still taught in too many schools by too many professors. Some of the best writers have been ignoring that rule for years—including you.”

Beyond their relationship and the journeys these characters face is another theme just below the surface, one I recall hearing about several times in my undergraduate classes and in conversations with fellow writers. It is a common question that can be applied to many subjects, a quandary much like the chicken-and-egg riddle tailored to the writing craft: is talent in writing something a person is born with or is it something that can be taught? A gift or an education?

It would seem that Jamal’s character fell into both categories. From the beginning one can see the burgeoning writer. His writing is both meaningful and cathartic. Jamal behaves like a writer, hungry to learn and disciplined. He carries a journal and often pauses in his day to record his thoughts. It is Forrester who makes the connection. He is the one who recognizes Jamal as a writer regardless of Jamal’s young age or social status in the community.

Jamal’s self-awareness of himself as a writer is also notable. He wants to be better and is humble enough to know that his writing would improve greatly under Forrester’s guidance. He is also ambitious and pursues Forrester relentlessly for it in the film. He baffles school administrators, teachers, and professors alike with his intelligence and talent. Some believe in him and award him with opportunity while others don’t, and call him out for it: Jamal is accused of plagiarism.

Is writing a gift or is it something that can be taught? The film, Finding Forrester, is metaphoric in this quandary. Writers are indeed driven by desire beyond self-improvement, the heart of which is simply the love of the craft—the absolute joy in making meaning with words, putting those words into sentences and forming paragraphs and pages until there is no more to be said. It’s a love affair that we are born into, a gift we inherit, pursue, and enjoy all our lives. And that is something that just can’t be taught.

Yet there are other facets to the craft such as ambition. Like Jamal, many writers possess that personal ambition—an overwhelming desire to be better at what we do best: write. Writers may identify with the young Jamal but how many of us have a Pulitzer Prize-winning mentor like Forrester? Instead, we seek out our own “Forresters” by learning about the craft from a variety of resources: books, undergraduate and graduate programs, author talks and lectures, fellowships in various writing communities, etc. So, yes, there is some education to the craft. And that education serves a dual purpose: improving the caliber of one’s writing and creating new sources of inspiration to draw from.


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