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This space has been a writer’s love song. To notebooks. And tape recorders. And self-created book soundtracks. And improvisation as a path to inspiration. Now, another way to find one’s way into a scene through the labyrinth of thought.

I’ve always done this technique, in a sense; collected notes scattered over pages, assemblies that contribute to the form taking shape in my head. And today, a variation. The lightning round of coerced innovation.

The laundry list.

A little background. In this scene, the main character turns the beautiful creation that he has come to love; remakes it into something dire. Vile. Fear-making. An inescapable “sticky darkness” that will be his self-defense, his weaponized wonder. The chapter—the experience of those foul creations—is written, as they all are, from the POV characters pov. A living of a bottomless dread, of the worst of a human soul.

Enter The Laundry List. And yes, readers, this is an open book examination.

Thesaurus.com is my cheat of choice: From it, I drew a list of words that described the abhorrent, the impossible, the foul, the unbearable. Already knew what the contributing categories would be…simply set myself free in word-wonderland to gather up the grandest, most horrific gems I could find. I let them fill me up inside, until my brain was afloat in them; until my thoughts foundered near drowning. A kind of total immersion method acting, with words as prompts rather than memories.

Did it work? At this moment, I think so. I’ll know with a re-reading, the perspective of distance. I’ll let you know.

Love and kindness are easier for me to write than pain and cruelty. At least, that’s what I choose to tell myself. An end-of-relationship scene in a previous book, drawn from a memory revived, laid me flat for two days. Not this time.

In this new technique, a strangely painless source of despair-memory. Something worth going back to when we need to write from the most difficult places.

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The knack for observing aspects of character: Happened the other day in the office. Asked, the writer noted some qualities of a co-worker’s nature. Was asked to repeat the feat for someone else, a breathless “Now do me!” moment. Funny.

It’s an ability surprises some people. They regard it as some sort conjuring trick; parlor magic. Not to me.

To me, it’s a symptom. Of something writers spend our lives doing.

We sit in the high, Emily Dickinson window of ourselves, watching what happens around us; watching what other people are, seeing how the pieces and parts move.

Don’t mistake this observing for judgments on people’s characters. It’s not that, although judgment does happen. It is, instead, a holding-apart of ourselves from safe distance. That high window is our protection, our safe vantage. Where we sit is where we prefer to sit. It is the place that wants us to return when we stray from it. The place where we are happiest.

An observing nature makes life complicated, sometimes. The adopting of a single committed viewpoint among many can be difficult when the writer finds value in most of them. We seem wishy-washy. We seem to be without strong opinion. It’s not that. Not at all. Call it an omni-directional point of view, an encompassing vision. It’s what we are made for.

We are the high window, the Emily Dickinson perch. And the one who looks out from the world from that sacred, quiet place. And, in a way, we are what we view. The view has an isolation built into it. And we like it that way.

 

Stories keep secrets, to reveal them when they will.

When could you, should you, tip your reader that a momentous event is coming? How much clue is permissible? How much should you let a reader in on what’s about to happen? How much credit do you give your reader for seeing the breadcrumbs you’re dropping on the trail?

Don’t look for an answer here. I have no rules, only observations.

There is no one right way.

The hint-of-what’s-coming is a kind of literary foreplay. As that, it can be exquisitely executed or clumsily so. A breath on a receptive surface. A delicate touch. When the intention is suggested, it’s pretty clear: The writer is announcing a commitment to the main event ahead. Done well, the reader should be consumed with thoughts of what’s coming. The foreplay has the forecast of the conclusion built into it.

This is not to say that surprise not longer has its uses (I said there’s no one right way, didn’t I?). The surprise that comes out of left field will always be as much a delight to the writer as to the reader. It’s a wakeup jolt, in the nicest possible way. It’s the surprise that makes us keep reading.

Right now, I’m leaning toward the “watch this, it’s coming” approach. Is that the right one? Don’t know. Tomorrow I could change my mind. Or the day after tomorrow. Right now, I’m all about the foreplay. That little touch, the small, shy look. And off we go.

The wiggle in the hat where the rabbit is waiting, the hint of silk up the sleeve…the lifting of the lid to offer a peek into a future-in-the-works, the intention, the way the trick is done…there’s something magical about that. Tomorrow, who knows?

We write in isolation. That is the way of the world in our heads. The bone prison may be a highly populated environment but, make no mistake, we’re alone on an island in there.

This is not a lament. Not a “poor me.” Not a sadness, not nearly. Writing is a solitary pursuit. Writing that by group consensus is, I suspect, never going to reader-worthy. If the solo, silent room is our lot, I’d guess that most of us prefer it that way. But that isolation brings a complication:

We need someone to talk to. That person is us. And we are too close to ourselves.

Internal distance is our friend. But it is a mean and stubborn pal. The person we need, the friend off whom we can bounce the day-to-day intricacies of the work—it’s us. The truth is, we simply can’t/shouldn’t expect our flesh-and-blood friends to stay patient enough, involved enough, to pay attention as we tease the idea through to its conclusion. It’s a tough ask.

As we write to put our voices out into the silence, we speak to work out a lot of ideas. Something in the mechanics of verbalization helps us order our thoughts in ways that writing them cannot do. But.

Bouncing an outrageous possibility off the handball court of our own personal silences is not the same thing as trying the idea out on somebody else. I don’t have a clue why that is. When we toss off the idea outside the court of conversation, the sound of the bounce is all that comes back to us.

I’m facing that strangeness now. I’ve come upon an idea that will send the work soaring off to a startling new place. A real “whoa” moment. But it isn’t a sure thing. Friend-in-the-head likes it one day, hates it the next. And the idea is so bound to the story-complete that sharing it, talking it through, would test the patience of even the most saintly-tolerant friend. Which means that writing it through is the only path open to me. Which means that I may be about to waste hours and pages in an experiment that is destined to fail.

One is tempted to create a alter ego—a manifesting of the willing Other, the ever-ready listener, the wise and patient counsel. And yet, having a split personality has issues all its own. And when it comes to issues, this writer already has a full dance card.

Writers: Are we finders? Or manipulators?

I’d wager my latest Unemployment check that every dedicated writer has, at one time or another, had a friend who pushed away from a conversation saying, “I’ve got to be careful what I say around you, because I don’t want you to write it.” And I’ll bet that most of us have felt somewhat stung by those words.

Question is: Are they true?

We tell ourselves that we do not—would not—write about our friends’ quirks; that we are too principled turn their foibles into page-fodder. And yet, do we?

Writers are the hoarders of life. The magpies. The packrats of the emotions. We walk wide-eyed into the world daily, collecting everything we see, afraid to let a moment of it go. If a truth or a sight or a sound or an emotion shines for us, we pick it up. Ours, someone else’s…doesn’t matter. The attic-nests in our heads are crammed with stuff…so much of it tucked into so many deep corners that we’re unlikely ever to see some of it again.

We do that because we find the found-stuff fascinating. We find the finding fascinating. We find instants of truth in it.

When we write, we take the stuff out of storage, sometimes without intending to; we polish it up, gaze at it with our original fascination, and cobble it into something else. Moments of personal truth, nailed together by a story; a hopeful thing made up of the found bits. A non-truth made from other truths that, if we’re good enough at what we do, reflects a truth of its own.

The picture frame in which we’ve memorialized those thoughts, things, moments will still be there, but the picture itself will be faded to invisibility. The cobbled sculpture of assembled bits won’t be recognizable as anything but what it is. If I’ve displayed my own guts out to create a deeply flawed character, chances are you’ll never know it, not even if you know me very, very well. All you’ll see is an interesting shade of red; you won’t know that it’s my blood on the page.

Thus, the answer to the concerned friend is, “Yep, I am going to write about you. It’s inevitable, it’s a compliment—you’ve meant something to me. But don’t worry, and don’t be insulted…by the time I’m finished with you, you won’t even know yourself. Because I won’t either, by the time I’m done with you.”

Is there ANYBODY, this time of year, whose conversation doesn’t turn sooner or later to the seasonal blues? Whether it’s being starved for light, or the insidious turning back of clocks, or the demands of a relentlessly upbeat holiday, we all feel the downward tug at the corners of our souls.

And creative people: Sometimes I think we’re the worst of the lot.

We talked about this in our e-salon yesterday. What is it in us that lets us—makes us—feel that suffering has more value for our work? The paradigm for comedians tells us that a lot of them have had tough childhoods or challenging personality traits. For artists and musicians and writers (the last category being the one I know best), there seems to be an unwritten rule that we create from a place of melancholy rather than joy. Why?

This silence that attends the act of creation: Is it a natural home for melancholy? Do we turn our melancholy into our art, or does our art create the melancholy?

Personally, I don’t particularly fear melancholy. Truth to tell, I welcome it, am comfortable with it. Paradoxically, I am happy when I’m there. Melancholy (not sadness, mind you—melancholy, a different thing altogether) is a steady state, a level ground, a comfort zone in which delight and darkness can both come to visit. As a creative person, I find more colors in melancholy; more possibility. The language is richer, here, and easier. It gives me good air to breathe.

Melancholy has no expectations. I can smile in the midst of it. And feel deep gratitude. Melancholy is like the friend who listens…and nods at my choices…and doesn’t ask me for anything other than to be what I am.

As I sit here awaiting the moving guys…as I understand, after another half-sleepless night, that the hill has been halfway climbed…as I realize that this next stage of my life is just hours away…I look at the empty bookcases in the boxed-up living room and know that I am looking at a secret that has been concealed; one that waits again to be told.

Our bookshelves are the confessions of who we are. They tell our secrets. They nod to the stages, the loves, the obsessions of our lives.

I’ll bet that it’s the same for you: The books are the tours of us. There, the obsession with classical music. There, books on film. There, British mysteries. There, the tragedy that was the South Africa of apartheid. There, the truths of America. Novels. Science Fiction. Sherlock Holmes. Physics. African-American Fiction. Nabokov. Native American spirituality.

The snapshots of me.

When I moved away from NYC after so many years, I gave a lot of books away—a very difficult thing to do, at the time. A strange truth-telling, that. An unsettling admission. I had thought that as travelled from past to future, we traveled intact. I found that I was surrendering bits of my life that were no longer relevant to me. For a while, I felt as if this surrendering was a betrayal. Not so.

We change. We carry the molecules of those past selves with us always, even when the passion of the pursuit is gone.

Like a psychological Peeping Tom, I have always had a fascination with the bookshelves of others. Invite me over, and I’ll probably find a way to do that sort of emotional anthropology in front of your bookcase. They offer the snapshots of individual humanity that we get as we walk down a city street on a Sunday evening. Evidences of life in the lights, the movement, the glimpses of furniture. The canvas of existence in constant motion.

Our books are the ideas of others, writ in broad strokes, spoken quietly into our minds and thoughts and hearts. Who we are as we read each one is not the person we will be tomorrow. But it is an ingredient in the soup of ourselves—once there, it cannot be taken out.

Suddenly, there is comfort in knowing that, on this day in a changing life.

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