Archive | Creativity

Interview with Author Toni Fuhrman

 one who loves

Welcome, Toni,

 You and I met in Ann Arbor in the 70s, so we have a long history as fellow writers. I’d like you to talk about your writing background—when you began to write, where you get your ideas, how you would describe your style of writing, and what authors have inspired you. Also tell us what has sustained you as a writer through the years.

 You recently published a novel, One Who Loves (New Libri Press, 2015), which is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books, and Apple iBooks). Do tell us what the novel is about and what inspired the story.

 Finally, what advice would you give would-be writers, and what are you working on now?

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I always liked writing, including the act of writing, which involves handling pencils, pens, and paper. I still like touching the page with a writing instrument—that closeness, that physicality. I once took a calligraphy course so that I could indulge my love of writing by hand. I also write the first draft of my novels by hand. This may seem labor intensive but it’s not, if one is working on a few pages at a time. The pages just pile up and, some months later, there are several hundred pages and that wonderful thing—a novel manuscript. Once the first draft is complete, it’s much easier to edit and rewrite on a mechanical device. Over the years, I’ve transitioned, without too much difficulty, from manual typewriter to electric typewriter to word processor to desktop to laptop.

I didn’t write extensively while studying English literature during my undergraduate and graduate years. I didn’t write a novel until a few years after that, when I took myself off to England and wrote a very bad first novel, sitting in front of a rented typewriter at a gigantic claw-foot desk, in a bed-sitting room on Cheyne Walk in Chelsea, across the street from the Thames, just down the street from the former residences of Thomas Carlyle and Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

I took my first writing course—and got my first rejection (from The New Yorker)—as an undergraduate. Following graduate school, I took two other courses, one at Windsor University (with Joyce Carol Oates) and one at the University of Michigan (with Robert Haugh). That was the extent of my formal training. I was accepted at the Iowa Writers Workshop but did not attend. One of my few regrets. I was in love, and Iowa seemed much too far away. I still have (filed away somewhere) the letter of acceptance from Vance Bourjaily, at that time a writer and teacher at the Workshop.

Story ideas. Where do they come from? They are often a momentary thought, realization, or insight, during which I visualize the story, or the key elements of the story, sometimes from beginning to end. It might simply be a title—at this point nothing more than a place marker. More often than not, the title, and its accompanying note, land on a stray piece of paper. I try to remember to put the idea in some more permanent place, like a journal, before the idea is lost and gone forever. Inspiration is ephemeral. It needs to be captured and pinned down before it dissipates. There’s a Chinese proverb that goes something like this: “The faintest ink is better than the best memory.”   

An idea for a novel is not much more complicated than an idea for a short story—at least in the beginning, at least for me. I know the main character or characters. I know what the thrust of the story is. I know how it ends. The rest is process. The story unfolds as I write it.

I often write plot outlines, but only after I’ve drafted the entire manuscript, and only to assist me in recalling the sequence of events, or because a potential publisher has requested it. I don’t map out novels or stories before I write them, or as I write them, because, for me, the story and the characters have lives of their own. My job is to get the story down on the page and allow the characters to progress in their own way and at their own speed. They’re often fated, as I may already have determined the ending, but they have a lot of freedom within that boundary. Yes, sometimes they force me to rethink my endings. That’s when I know I’ve created strong characters.

In several of my novels, including One Who Loves, I’ve written in the ending, or some portion of the ending, at the very beginning of the story. Even though some might consider this a “spoiler,” I’ve found it an effective way to launch a story. Most readers, I believe, will become too involved in the story to put down the book because they know the ending. The stories I tell are not about plot but about character development.

That said, it’s probably easier for someone else to describe my writing style than for me to attempt it. My primary stylistic model and ongoing inspiration is Jane Austen. I am almost always reading Jane Austen. I read her six major novels over and over because I admire her stylistic clarity, her utter lack of sentimentality, her smooth, effortless narration, her satire, her witty and engaging dialogue, and her timeless stories of family conflict and romantic mishap. She is a realist in the best sense; that is, she portrays her flawed characters with wit, humor, and compassion. As she said in one of her letters, “Three or four Families in a Country Village is the very thing to work on.” Modestly, she refers to her literary output as “the little bit (two Inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour”—a reference to the miniaturist art (watercolor on ivory) that was popular at the time. I’ve always believed, however, that she knew how good she was. After all, at his invitation, she dedicated Emma to the Prince Regent, later King George IV, who was an admirer of her novels.

Lined up behind Jane Austen are many other novelists and philosophers whose works have inspired me. For its narrative drive: Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (a favorite from age 12). For style: Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, the short stories of Anton Chekhov, James Joyce’s Dubliners, and Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient. For imagination and originality: Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. For majestic storytelling: Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and Jude the Obscure; Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina; George Eliot’s Middlemarch.

For language and subtlety: Henry James’ Washington Square and The Portrait of a Lady. For brilliantly capturing a particular period and social class: Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence and her New York stories. For enlightened discipline: Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (another early favorite, from age 18), Anthony Trollope’s An Autobiography, and B. K. S. Iyengar’s Light on Yoga. For voice: W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge and Of Human Bondage. For compelling story: John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. For its iconic character: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

For fearlessness: D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love. For empathy: E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India. For combining mystery with narrative mastery: Dorothy Sayers’ The Nine Tailors. For narrative style and personal warmth: Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety. For shattering impact: Paul Bowle’s The Sheltering Sky and Annie Proulx’s Close Range: Wyoming Stories. For their clear, inviting style and stories of ordinary people: the novels of Anne Tyler and Sue Miller.

One Who Loves had several layers of inspiration, all of which came together at one point, and became the story it is. One layer is the title itself, which comes from a line in W. Somerset Maugham’s novel, Of Human Bondage: “There’s always one who loves and one who lets himself be loved.” I’m drawn to what I can only call Maugham’s “voice”—and I found that line, which is very thematic to his novel, and to mine, most intriguing. Do we ever love equally? Does the balance always tilt one way or the other?

Another novel that inspired me was Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety. Stegner is a great favorite of mine, and this is a novel I like particularly well, and have read and reread. It’s about two young married couples who meet at the University of Wisconsin and form a deep bond of friendship, which continues throughout their lives. It’s one of those novels in which nothing extraordinary happens, but which sweeps the reader into the adventure of living one’s life and enjoying one’s closest relationships.

The third layer of inspiration was not so much inspiration as observation. My son, David, lived in a co-op while attending the University of Michigan, and I was an occasional visitor on the premises. I kept a picture in my head of several of the co-op houses, and imagined one that had its own look and personality. Co-op life is a source of close and lasting friendships, as the residents share not only space but responsibilities and a special kind of interconnectedness. It seemed to suit the story I was writing, so I used it to launch my two couples—who are a generation older than my son—on their life journeys.

One Who Loves is a story of friendship and love—including obsessive, misdirected, and frustrated love—troubled and challenging friendship, and the extraordinary conflicts that impinge on seemingly ordinary lives. Liz, Patrick, Tess, and Jon meet at a University of Michigan co-op in the 70s. They quickly form lasting friendships, which continue through the 80s and 90s. Liz, the narrator, takes us on her journey as she grapples with crises of love, loyalty, and the inexorable pull of sexual attraction.

What has sustained me as a writer through the years? Stubbornness. While continuing to write and submit short stories and novels, I worked as a creative director in the marketing field and, more recently, as a feature writer. Some of my short stories were published and, intermittently, I made an effort to hunt down an agent for my novels. Then, I began submitting to independent publishing houses, and New Libri Press accepted One Who Loves. Independent presses are the lifeblood of contemporary literature.

I should add, however, that, were I not published now, I would continue to write, as I have always done throughout my adult life. Why? Because, gratifying as it is to have readers out there who are enjoying what I’ve published, I have stories I have to tell—or, perhaps, one story which I have to keep telling—and, readers or no readers, I’ll keep telling that story as long as I’m able. Although my writing is character driven and revolves around family and relationships, it is—as is all literature—influenced by a personal quest, our search for—what? Love. Purpose. Rootedness. A sense of belonging. A room of one’s own.

During my brief stints as a teacher of freshman composition, I told my students, at the beginning of each term, that becoming a better writer was an ongoing two-step process, and that both elements of the process were absolutely essential for success. The two steps, in order of importance, were (and are):

  1. Read.
  2. Write.

I would reiterate this advice often during the term, but I doubt if it made much of an impression. It’s like that timeless advice for losing weight: Eat less. Exercise more. It’s just too damn simple.

 Right now, I’m working on my next novel, first developed some years ago and undergoing a considerable makeover. The title is also undergoing change, so there’s not much point in mentioning it. It’s a novel about family (sound familiar?) in a small town (think: “Three or four Families in a Country Village”). The characters will, I hope, be fully realized (at least to the best of my ability), but their quest—in all fairness to my readers—will be only partially fulfilled. As a realist, I don’t believe in happy endings. I do, however, believe in the resilient human spirit. We aspire. We struggle. We take risks. We often fail. But we are sustained by friendship, family, and love.

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 Thank you, Toni. And I’m so glad our paths have both been sustained by such a friendship.

 

 

Entering the Atomic Age

 

In my last blog, I delved into the magic of storytelling–or more specifically, the birth of stories, a subject that came up in my interview with Liz Adair. I promised to share the memoir that came to me in an afternoon, the first story I wrote. The drawings, which i’m embarrased to claim, are a child’s memory.

Here it is

 

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Stagg Field, 1943

 

Every day as I grew up, the Stagg Field wall stretched its length between me and school, between me and home, between me and anywhere. Across the street from the old stadium was the campus backside, a line of gothic stone enfolding and protecting. From the front it was the

UC campus 1

UC campus 1

University of Chicago, set back a pace from the city by the broad green ribbon of the Midway, insulated by parks at either end. One that side, Rockefeller Chapel rose like a crown jewel; our parents took us up into the bell tower, sometimes, on Sunday, but we lived around back, near the field.

In the summer that wall blinding; no tree or shrub broke the glare of stone, concrete, and more stone, and as you looked down its length you could see the heat waves dancing before you pitched through the prickly, airless space. In the winter it was a wind tunnel, roofed by the dirty Chicago sky. It was an empty place, a scar where the University cut herself off from her athletic past.

P1010539

And it was always there. Like a swimmer going under, I’d duck my head for the four times daily trip. Sometimes I was a sea captain, fighting the gales around Cape Horn, or a gallant child-hero dragging my brother safely through arctic wastes; sometimes I was an Arab driving a caravan toward an oasis. But more often I watched my feet, absorbed their rhythm as they matched their monotony to the monotony of the stone beside me, to the steady procession of cracks beneath me, and gave myself into a trance.

When I surfaced at Ellis Avenue, the homeward end, the gray towers ended too. Beyond Ellis was the university backyard, a litter of mismatched outbuildings where, among experiments and service plants, the faculty raised its young. Catty corner from the field was a squat yellow brick box with a Parthenon-like entry stuck to the front, facing campus. They kept sheep behind it. Down the street, if it was summer and the windows were open, you could hold your ears and watch black printing presses screech and clang, and listen to the men shouting to each other over the din. Behind that, surrounded by small buildings that gave off strange smells, the five-story chimney of the heating plant rose to mark the block. Beyond that was our alley.

On the front, the row of six-flats facing Drexel looked like any other row of Chicago six-flats, but in back, the three-story spider web of banisters, porches, and stairways overlooked chicken coops—university chicken coops. We woke to roosters every day, and if you walked with your ear to the board fence, a world of barnyard smells and noises rippled by. Except for that, it was a Chicago alley; we had Dominic, the vegetable man, who gave rides, and a milkman with a horse-drawn wagon, who didn’t—so you had to sneak. An ice cream truck, a monkey-grinder man, an accordion player, a knife sharpener, a brush peddler, a rag man–almost anyone might come through and there was an alley sonar for new arrivals. It signaled when the nose of a dump truck appeared at the end of the alley, inching its way between board fence and telephone poles, leaving mountains of coal to climb.

Between visits, we walked fences, played hide and seek in the web of porches, held secret meetings behind furnaces in dark basements, and tangled in wash lines. If you dropped a ball from a third floor porch, and you aimed right and didn’t hit a crack, it would bounce far enough for a friend leaning out from a second floor porch to catch, if her mother didn’t see her.

Then the fathers came home for dinner and everyone went in. The din that traveled up and down the airshafts faded, and it felt like the place under the carillon where there is a seal that no one steps on. “Crescat Scientia Vita Excolatur;” “Let Knowledge Grow, Life Will be Enriched.” My father sat and thought, and no one interrupted, even for the salt. Then all of a sudden he’d look up. “Al Smith was right,” he’d say. “Do you know who Al Smith was?” And he’d tell the story in a way that made Al’s rightness burn through. Another time it would be, “The Union generals were bums.” And he’d tell about Grant’s drinking or McClellan’s cowardice, even though McClellan was supposed to be a relative of ours. Other days he’d say nothing from the beginning of the meal to the end, and his face and eyes would shift and strain with inward rage—at ritual used to raise emotions and bind people to narrow visions—at failure to acknowledge freedom of the intellect to rise above passion, to search for truth. We watched and knew, for he was likely to turn to us, pare us to our rational bones to discover whether we were becoming what we were to be. He’d ask for answers then, for evidence, and I never had any. My alley self shrunk up or slipped away and left me stranded, unknowing everything I knew. There was no barnyard behind the alley fence; there was research.

And as I made my daily journey down Stagg Field’s length, I became more and more aware of those gothic towers rising across the street.

Hull Gate & pond

Hull Gate & pond

Once I’d made a dash for Hull Gate, the entrance to the quadrangles, aiming for the pond inside as though I owned the place. The dark water under the lily pads hid goldfish and turtles, which you could see if you sat very still on the stone bridge. I knew every alcove where you echoed, exactly how much the bottoms of your feet hurt when you jumped from each wide stone balustrade, which ones you could run down and which you couldn’t. I knew in which square you could find shouting sun and where the shade was very old and shivery. There was a tiny lovely chapel to peek into, but it was always very sad. I knew the hot places in the sidewalk where you could warm your undersides even as the cold bit your fingers. The important question then was deciding whether Mitchel Fountain was better spouting water in summer or covered for winter when you could run up its wooden roof, the echoes of your feet making all the surrounding spires take note.

But even then the sound faded and left the quiet bigger than before; the quadrangles again became scenic easements for the towers of the mind. Botany Pond was there for science.

P1010536So even then I ran back through the gate, away from those encircling expectancies, to the comfortable monotony of the unwanted field. There was a door in the wall, a gigantic, double-leaved iron-hasped castle door that give birth in its midriff, like a laugh, to a little door. On rare days the shell would condescend a peek—the little door would be open. It was the peephole in a giant shadow box, granting a glimpse of a magic world. All I remember were joggers running the track, football teams from other places practicing, but I’d watch spellbound until the empty bleachers shrunk the activity to silliness. Bleachers are usually empty, but these had the dusty sadness of a face no one wants anymore, and I think the field was grateful for that human flurry even as it reduced it to insignificance.

Bits of memory jumped about in my mind, of our alley packed with cars, the din of horns and noisemakers, raccoon coats and pennants, and sitting in a third floor window watching the scoreboard through someone’s binoculars. I’m told I can have no such memory, that the University of Chicago stopped playing football before I was born—but it’s a fitting memory. What could I substitute? The name of Amos Alonzo Stagg? We used to roll it off our tongues, but I saw him once, and he was an old man—little and very wrinkled. A few stale football songs rattling around coffee houses? Some maroon and white football uniforms stolen for Halloween parties? The human sized door was usually closed and my four-times-daily walk a trudge—so I kept the memory.

One morning Pearl Harbor was bombed. We woke to find the adult world steamrolled, trying to shake out, to reorient. The smudgy chalk lines of everyday were wiped away and replaced by pen and ink. The railroads brought long unseen cousins and uncles to our house, all in uniform, pressed, with gold braid and shiny buttons, on their way to war. The living room where my father read was filled with students, gloriously transformed into officers, and then they were gone too. Life acquired new habits—ration stamps, paper drives and tinfoil balls. And songs. Hitler’s voice came over the short-wave, along with German voices singing as they marched—and we learned songs to match theirs. And every Saturday afternoon at the Frolic theater, newsreels showed jackboots marching through the silent streets of Europe.

Then a map went up on the dining room wall so the war could teach us our geography, and the Chicago Tribune produced endless words. And we learned to focus beyond, to comment, to evaluate, to judge. Little, after all, was different.

Except Stagg Field. Stagg Field acquired a mysterious life. How did we know? A child always knows when an adult is hiding something behind his back. Her walls were suddenly too stiff, her doors too closed; there was too much of the wrong kind of quiet—she was no longer empty; she was shut. Every passing school child knew something was going on in Stagg Field, and knew with equal certainty that it was “secret war work.” Every fedora pulled too low became a German, every overcoat too long a Jap, and the comings and goings at the West end of the field inspired new plots daily. The stories were ours, for our entertainment, to liven up the trudge along the wall.

But then one day the castle doors themselves began to open. Slowly. With great complaint. And when they were all the way open, they revealed two Sunshine Laundry trucks. Beside each truck stood a guard with a tommygun. Someone had stolen our spy thriller and turned it into a Marx Brothers comedy. In the days that followed, our nostrils and skins picked up the tension. We stopped telling spy stories.

One day when peeked through the fence to see the sheep behind the yellow brick corner building, I saw an armed guard instead of sheep. When my brother and I came back an hour later, on our way back to school, we stopped before we got to the corner because we couldn’t hear the street. It was missing. Instead we heard marching feet—jackboots come to Ellis Avenue. We crept forward and watched the squad of men that marched back and forth in the street that had taken cover. We ran. By the time we returned from school it was over—it happened and unhappened.

No one would—or could—explain. It was a time of odd silences, of breaks and pauses in adult sentences. So it remained suspended in memory for two years, until I stood looking down at the evening paper and understood.

 

Mushroom cloud

Mushroom cloud

“Fifty thousand dead” “the scientists at the University of Chicago have succeeded”  “the war is over”  “splitting of the atom” “ten thousand dead” “heralds a new age” “Hiroshima” “under the decaying stands of an abandonned football fiels” “death toll” “breakthrough”

Words were blown free, subjects could not find predicates my mind could embrace. If the scientists had fathered fission who had fathered death? For a few days the university herself seemed shaken, turned and looked behind her aghast. At the dinner table, my father said nothing. His face was not abstracted; it was gray.

But it was atomic fission, not the bomb, that was born under the stands that day, and the soldiers were a suicide squad, not the war come home. The towers pulled themselves together and turned around again. “Science must be free and pure, and is in no way liable for the uses men find for its discoveries.” I don’t remember my father saying that; I remember the words as coming from the air we breathed, from the towers themselves, the sound of a congregation chanting its creed.

Sometimes my father stared at the table, but we were of the faith. When it came my turn, I walked the aisle of Rockefeller Chapel and received my confirmation. It’s nice to be ennobled. The dirty belching mill town where I grew up has felt its touch. Picasso’s beast spreads its

Mushroom Cloud

Mushroom Cloud

wings where I remember pawnshops; Alex Calder’s ‘Flamingo’ has lighted in a place I was not allowed to go; seasons are marked by Chagal’s mosaic instead of by the tone of the lake wind. Not long ago the workers of the mills and slaughterhouses, Sandburg’s “hog butchers of the world,” were transformed into Miro’s peasant, pitchfork pointed to the sky. I like to think I’m a part of that, but I know better. I received my monument twenty years after that December noon, when the university ordered the West Stands torn down and commissioned a monument to symbolize science’s gift to the world that day. Henry Moore gave us a mushroom cloud—set in stone. I can still feel the faculty’s shock, my father’s rage at that choice of symbol. They tore down the rest of the field and built a library that towers above that little ball of stone, but it doesn’t change anything. It is still mine, and I’m still standing there where the old field opened her shabby arms and received that bastard child.

 

 

The Magic of Storytelling

 

magic lamp

magic lamp

In my recent interview with author, Liz Adair, I talked about the origin of stories, and I found myself thinking about its magical qualities. Why, when I sat down to write a story for the first time, did a childhood experience emerge full blown in an afternoon? Where did it come from? What gave it form? Why did a door closed to me for thirty years burst open to let it forth? Why that experience?

 Most writers today don’t talk about their Muse, though the word does express the mystery of the experience I describe above. The question demands a rational answer to a process that isn’t rational, so it must always fail. It apparently emerged from my unconscious, but we don’t, as a rule, gain access to our unconscious by any willful act. And why that story? By hindsight, looking at it, I’d say the experience gives form to my ambivalence about the academic world I grew up in. I witnessed, at ten, the birth of the atomic age, the event that would change the world, shape my adulthood—the greatest scientific breakthrough of the century, but I learned the meaning of that day from the mushroom cloud on the front page of the newspaper. Hiroshima. The adults around me struggled through shock for a response and in the end proclaimed: “Science searches for Truth. We’re not responsible for the uses men put it to.” But my father’s face was gray.

 I can also see that that deep seated conflict shaped my life—and my writing. I lived on the fringes of universities most of my life—as child, student, wife, parent, temporary faculty—without embracing it. I have a deep respect for the education it gave me, but I abhor its arrogance; I love ideas, but I’m no scholar. Indeed, the very experience I describe here gave voice to the person academia suppressed. So the story tells me a lot about myself.

 The story I wrote that afternoon, “Stagg Field, 1943,” is non-fiction, but for me the process of fiction is not that much different. The magic is always its appearance, the ability of the unconscious to give form to such emotional truths in a form they can be shared.

 Next week I’ll share it with you.

magoc book

magoc book

The Creation of Hawkins Lane

 

In my recent interview with author, Liz Adair, I said that HAWKINS LANE began with the image I woke with, one morning, of a child in a wooded lane sensing that the trees had taken everything up into their boughs, leaving the lane untouched.

 

Hawkins Lane Cover

 

Images are not stories, but they raise a host of unanswered questions. Who is the child? Where? What had the trees swept up? Where is her family? My writers’ friends who struggled through early drafts know that the story once started with those questions. I named the child Bonnie and felt her aloneness. Her father, a forest ranger, has refused to take her along on his tour of the upland camps; her once-upon-a-time loving mother is no more. She has changed radically. The child has seen something in the lane that has terrified her and she runs away. What?

 It’s not so unusual to begin a story with a final scene, but I always assumed the author who made such a decision already knew the answer to that question. I didn’t. Nor did I know the father and mother or how the family came to this. I had an isolated family in the mountains—the Cascades—and a husband and wife to whom something tragic had happened, terrifying the child.

 As soon as I began to create Ned, I recognized him. I don’t, and won’t, analyze why that is, for I’ve learned such analysis can tie Ned to some real person in my past and chain the story. He is who he is, no one else. He’s part of an isolated mountain family and he is haunted by its past—a murder’s son. He’s a fatalist, resigned to his fate. Until he meets a woman on a mountain stream.

 Now I know it’s a love story. As I create Erica, and again, I know her, I know Ned will reject her as inaccessible to his social class. He’s not for her. But it’s clear they both love the mountains, and the mountains become the unifying theme—their overwhelming presence not only shapes their lives, but gives perspective to their trials.

 Now the story has legs and moves without me. The characters have enough substance to come alive and act. The creation of secondary characters is just plain fun. I love them. They seem to bounce into existence full blown, language and all, carrying histories. I think they come so easily because they don’t carry the responsibility for the story and no one asks whether they are autobiographical. They are free spirits.

 The story of the child has now been left behind, and early efforts to keep it as a prologue didn’t work. The story isn’t the child’s now; it’s her parents, but the questions remain. What happened in the lane and how did Ned and Erica come to the point where their child runs away in terror?

 So it is a love headed for trouble. Theirs is a deep love and their love of the mountains gives it purpose. They rescue each other, and their sense of owing their lives to each other is both the beauty and the hazard, for their fear of losing each other triggers Ned’s sense of inevitable doom and Erica’s rebellion—traits born of their pasts. Both of them begin to react in ways I know spell trouble. In Erica’s case, I stopped writing for a week or so because I wanted to stop her and knew doing so would collapse the story. An author may interfere—a cardinal rule of storytelling. So I didn’t return to the book until I could let her do what she was going to do, and it led to situations I did not plan and didn’t know how she would emerge. She had to work herself out of them.

 And so we arrive at the mother much changed, the frightened child, and the father who took off without her for the upper camps. How the characters arrived there without my direction is a mystery; in some way that initial destination held, drawing them toward it. Perhaps those original images have a greater power than we know. The story could have wandered off somewhere else. It didn’t, and the fact that it was faithful to that image gives a jolt of satisfaction. My first writing coach argued that a good story will hold up under revision, and I suspect that initial image gives a form that holds. For I assure you, this story has had more than its share of revising.

As my critique group will attest, I changed the order of the telling over and over then finally, still dissatisfied, I put it on the back burner while I worked on Home Fires. When I returned to it I went back to the order of the first draft, settling for an opening that was slower than i likedStill frustrated, I described my problem to writer friend, Patricia Bloom, who instantly provided me with the opening. The message? The creation of story is a very personal act, but its completion depends on others–thank heavens for writer and reader friends.

 For the answer to that initial question—what happened in the lane—you’ll have to read the book.

Creativity and Madness

The relationship between creativity and madness is a longstanding topic for psychologists and artists alike, but answers elude all. Nevertheless, the question continues to haunt students of the human psyche. So, if others think you half-mad to be a writer, or if you sometimes fear they may be right, take a look at this take on the Muse by one of the greatest science fiction and horror writers of the Twentieth Century—Theodore Sturgeon–excerpted from The Perfect Host.

The Perfect Host

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 “I am a Thing which lives in fantasy, where true fantasy lives in the minds of men.

What fumbling is this, what clumsiness, what pain … I who was never a weight, who never turned, coerced, nor pressed a person, never ordered, never forced—I who live with laughter, die with weeping, rise and hope and cheer with man’s achievements, yet with failure and despair go numb and cold and silent and unnoticeable—what have I to do with agony?

 Know me mankind, know me now and let me be.

 Know the worst. I feed on you. I eat and breathe no substance but a precious ether. …

 … But know this too. The thing that I take is the essence of joy—and in joy is created an excess of that which I need.

  … I demand only sustenance: that is the right of all living things. I ask in addition a thing which is simple enough—I ask to be left to myself to encyst or to flower or sleep or be joyful; without any devilish probing.”

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That’s Just Your Imagination

“You’re imagining things!” How often have you heard someone respond this way? A husband to a wife, maybe? One friend to another? A parent to a child? In any case, it’s clearly a put-down. When I was teaching writing my college freshmen assured me the imagination is a thing of childhood—fairytales and Winnie the Pooh—given up in adulthood.

Really? Then why do we all understand—get the same meaning from these images?

Swastika

          Balloons

Why does the juxtaposition of those two images jar? Why do trees become images for growth? Why, all of a sudden, has fantasy become the rage among young readers? How, in the previous blog ,  did my mother’s hands become an image, for me, of a way of life? Why do you associate some object, flower, or person with fear, love, or laughter? Why do we put a book down because the author has failed to create a visual picture—an image—of the hero or the place? And why do we worry that giving children too many images via television and computers will lead to an inability to create images of their own as they read?

No, imagination is not a thing of childhood. Images give form to emotion, give shape to our experience of life. What does loyalty look like? Draw a picture of fear? Why do balloons make us happy? And in what sense are such images not “true”? I have no idea why hands—my mother’s in particular—became an image—or metaphor if you prefer—of her culture, but for me they express an emotional truth. Suzanne Langer, who holds that our imagination gives first form to experiences and because it does so, our reason can then take hold of them and they become ideas we can talk about.*[i] But when I talk about it rationally, as I am now, I distance myself from that truth and it begins to lose its impact. So I’ll stop.

Writers, especially poets, know and depend on the power of images to express the inexpressible, to give form to emotion. It is the source of story and poem, but is beyond the command of reason. It is a fickle friend, nowhere to be found if we go looking for it. We go through rituals each day to coax it from the shadows. We know that it will forever dodge reason, but we still command it to come forth. Which it will not. It requires a certain fascination with its quirkiness, a delight at its uninvited appearances to keep facing the blank page and trust this untrustworthy voice to appear—sooner or later—in its own time.

Then the conscious mind can shape it. The poets are the masters at using pure imagery to convey meaning. Next week, poet Jane Alynn will talk about her experience with this elusive creature.

Camano Sunrise

[i]* Langer, Suzanne. Philosophy in a New Key, Third Edition, Harvard Press, 1942

Woo Themes, Canvas - Designer, Kate L Williams

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