Where do ideas for stories come from? How are they shaped?
I’ve been struggling with this. Seems that whenever I go fishing in the Sea of Stories, I find myself casting too deep, or else too shallow. I go into over-fished areas, then when I come up with nothing but seaweed, I overcompensate and head off to fish some lost tributary that isn’t on my map and for which my sonar doesn’t work and I’m ill-prepared to get a good sounding. When I do catch something, when I cast my line and wait for a nibble, a tug, then jerk back with finesse to set the hook and reel in the catch, I usually find a messy clump of story strands. Too many, I think. I have to surgically separate them above water, try to isolate the one idea. But they don;t do so well out of water, as you know. They already start to decay. The story gets muddied with the others it came up with. I can’t tell the ideas apart. So I do one of three things: I cast it back and continue fishing for story ideas; or I study the different elements as best I can and make a few field notes so I can parse them later back at home; or I take the whole stinking clump home to try to use, to pass off as a story. I tell people in those instances I got something new, perhaps groundbreaking. Something they haven’t seen before. But really it’s just a putrid clump of stories jumbled with knotted lines and seaweed. In the right angle it looks like it could be art.
Writing short stories is hard. I’ll get an idea, but it’s only an image or a scene—much harder to flesh out a story around that image. Even harder to then give that story drive. I suppose that’s really then the thing I’m struggling with most. Because once I have the core image or idea, I have a very hard time creating propulsion. I’ve been told that such drive in a story comes (always) from desire, a character wanting something.
The other night I saw Inception, the new film by Christopher Nolan and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, along with the all-star cast of Marion Cotillard (La Vie en Rose), Joseph Gordon Leavitt (Brick, Third Rock From the Sun), Ellen Page (Juno), Michael Caine, Pete Postlethwaite (In the Name of The Father, The Usual Suspects, Romeo + Juliet, etc), and Cillian Murphy (Breakfast on Pluto). Fantastic movie, total mindfuck, in the spirit of Blade Runner and Memento (the latter of which was by the same director). I won’t spoil anything major, I swear… The premise was intricate, the scenario intriguing, but the force providing the drive was very simple. It is pure sci-fi on the surface: a not-so-distant future in which thieves have the ability to penetrate your dreams, unlock information you are guarding, and steal it. The scenario—without giving too much away—involves the thieves having to plant an idea in someone’s mind during a dream, rather than steal one. Then the engine that drives the story: nothing more complicated than the protagonist simply wanting to go home.
Sure, there are other forces working on the protagonist and his cohorts, obstacles or pursuers that create tension, but the main thing driving Leonardo DiCaprio is a desire to get home and see his kids. Simple, elemental even. A primal emotion (“missing”), with one of the closest possible objects of that desire (one’s own children). One of the many neat tricks that the director—who also wrote the screenplay—pulls off is to actually describe the nature of these ideas, and how to make them stick in your mind. That is, after all, what the characters are trying to accomplish. It has to have an emotional core, they say, or it won’t take.
This is all fine and good, but here again is where I get stuck: I don’t have a lot of experience wanting things very badly. As a writer, I suppose part of my job is the same as an actor’s: I make it up, using the power of empathy coupled with whatever morsel of experience I have. I want to go to grad school to pursue my writing. I want to travel the world. I wanted a job. I wanted to start a freelance illustration and design business. I wanted to move to Washington to be with my girlfriend. I wanted to marry her.
I have to then add an obstacle: I want to go to grad school to pursue my writing, but (a) I’m at the mercy of the admissions staff, (b) I may not be good enough, (c) I may abandon my goal before seeing it through, or (d) I may discover another path before I’m through (maybe I’m better at nonfiction? Or genre fiction?).
I want to travel the world, but (a) time and money are limited, (b) I am also trying to put down roots and start a family, which is not conducive to a lot of travel.
I wanted a job, I searched (forming the Job Club), and I got one (at the CVB), but it turned out to be a bad fit, and I was rejected after a year…leaving me jobless again, and forced to reconsider my initial goal.
I wanted to become a freelance illustrator but (a) I didn’t have the necessary experience, and (b) I was getting hired to do freelance book publicity—my former job—keeping me pegged to that career, and forcing me to abandon my goal.
I wanted to move to Washington, but I had (a) a life, (b) a job, and (c) friends in California, and I had (d) no money, and (e) no job lined up. The force necessary to reach escape velocity was huge, and I achieved it. Where there’s a will…
I wanted to marry my girlfriend, but (a) I wasn’t sure why at first, (b) I wasn’t sure I was ready, and (c) I had no idea how to take measure of those two things. So I invented my own internal dialogue to ask myself questions about motive and desire. I tried different angles, different questions. I kept answering them, sometimes to my “other” self’s satisfaction, other times less so, until the questions themselves became moot as I emerged more firmly rooted in my desire—more sure of the desire than any one answer. Everything rational clears away, and what’s left is hard to measure except almost by the absence of logic. When words and arguments with myself are stripped away, there it is: a core thought, an emotion, wordless, shapeless, but undeniable and inherently related to my being with this other person I love. Desire, conflict, resolution. The basis for nearly every romantic comedy (I’m leaving the ongoing plot of marriage out of this one).
I get the emotional core thing. So why am I having such a hard time creating real characters with plausible goals in detailed scenarios that give them ample conflict to propel them toward a satisfying resolution? I’m trying too hard, maybe.
My writing coach Bruce tells me to think of the short story process like painting. First of all, what we create at first is a “writer’s draft,” not a rough draft. This writer’s draft is a very raw and intuitive first expression of an artistic idea. A writer chooses some purple, some red, and a little blue, plus a single little streak of yellow, and gets them all down on canvas. What does it mean? What’s the story? How does the red relate to the purple, or the blue? And how does that little streak of canary yellow relate to anything? That’s for the first revision to decide. A story doesn’t become a story then until after that first creative, expressive act of raw color. Then you go back with the tools of the craft and you see how shapes emerge and relationships develop. I suppose a lot of it is already there—the artist certainly has some kind of intention, even during that first stage. Even Jackson Pollock had intent before throwing a cup of paint across a canvas, even if that intent was abstract.
My mom paints in a similar, intuitive way. Though not an artist by profession, she is one by training and by practice, a lifelong dabbler (I mean that in a good way) in watercolor and jewelry and other crafts. She has a fully developed style of her own, and a process that is most definitely an expression of herself. She uses bright, rich, and sunny colors and applies them—sometimes in dribbles and pours, other times with more purposeful brushing—to full the canvas (usually) and create a mood of abstract shapes. They often look like soft glowing screen savers at first. When they dry, she goes back to them. Turns them around. Squints sharply and then widens her eyes into a soft focus. Looks for new, more specific shapes and characters that emerge from the more generalized color-shapes. Then, using a pen (either rollerball or felt-tipped), she’ll start tracing lines where she sees the shapes. Sometimes the lines follow splotches of color to form little faces, real discernible characters. Sometimes they’re holding their hands with other characters and dancing. Other times the lines are just another layer of pure abstraction, following and defining contours without ascribing meaning.
I have several of her paintings—a wedding/housewarming gift for Angie and me—and what astounds me is how, if you spend enough time looking at it, a third layer of shapes emerges, this time completely in your own mind. Like when your a kid and seeing animals in the clouds, I see faces and bodies emerge from the random jumble of lines and the florid sprawl of paint. An ogre whose face is puckered in a scowl, or a map of an ancient Mycenaean village. It’s all there. And few of the specifics were ever intended by her.
Okay, so the analogy frays and I’m getting off course: in writing stories, I don’t necessarily want to leave the whole story open-ended like that. I mean, I guess some of the best surrealist stories I’ve read, by authors like Aimee Bender and Karen Russell, even Kafka, can be seemingly interpreted a number of ways. Yet I have a strong feeling that what we interpret as our own reading is actually a demonstration of skilled writer in complete control of their craft: your mind commits feats of acrobatics when reading these surrealist or abstract stories, and by the time you land you think you’ve come to your own conclusion about the characters and the resolution, based on your own private experience. But your subjective reading was not subjective at all, but manipulated by an artist who planted an idea, then raked over it with layers of stuff, knowing full well what kind of seed it was and what kind of flower would always, inevitably, emerge.
All this is to say that abstraction is no excuse for laziness in writing, and the writer’s draft isn’t a finished product either just because it reads like some kind of surreal plot.
So what, then? I have to revise. I have to first do the work, and write the writer’s draft. This can be done somewhat intuitively, but must have some idea of palette and intent, initially. Then I have to go back and re-read, and revise. I have to make decisions about all the usual crap: characters, plot (if any), motivation, tone, drive, et cetera. Then I have to re-write and apply these decisions. Then I have to edit, and revise again most likely.
Here, again, is where I feel a pang of impatience and fear: on the one hand, I have this incredible capacity to understand fiction, and understand what an author is doing, thanks to a lifetime of reading and a good education in same. But when it comes to writing—well that’s the difference between being able to speak a language and being able to just comprehend it, isn’t it? I’m frustrated by my beginner’s status. And I am truly a beginner. I’m making all the usual mistakes of a beginner. Making them while fully aware that I have to make them, that I can’t avoid making them, no matter how clever I am in theorizing about it before and after.
It’s frustrating because I understand the language as its’ spoken, as it’s written. But I’m still not fluent in speaking it. And I guess, as with everything, that just comes with practice. And honestly, I have a pretty good excuse for not being good at this yet: I AM a beginner. I haven’t written much. I can probably count on two hands the number of things I’ve written. On one hand the number of finished, successful stories. I wrote a story in seventh grade, and one or two more at summer writing camp when I was fifteen. Another as a junior in high school, which was actually published and won an award—a high point so far in my career as a writer—and then three more stories in a creative writing workshop at Berkeley, only one of which was good. Now, years later, I’ve finished about four stories, and I think only two of them are workable into finished, “successful” pieces. I have one or two more in the hopper. It feels like progress is slow and plodding, but I think if I were to take a step back and look at my output and development just over the last three and a half months (without any coaching!), it’s probably pretty rapid. Like the warped pace of dream time. Yet still I get frustrated by the slowness of it all. It’s hard when I can sense that I can do better, and feel that I’m capable of much more, and ambitious enough to want to write great things, but as of yet only capable of fishing out clumped strands of stories jumbled with a lot of seaweed.
I am learning to be a student again. How to take stock of things. Learn from them. It’s weird.