Let us equate internal creativity with imagination and external creativity with lived experiences. Of my three novels and collection of short stories, only the novel—Members—originated from specific personal (external) experiences. The others—Tanner Blue, Painted Deserts, and Music for the Dream—Seven Short Stories—are pure fabrications (internal).
The topic of this blog calls into question when and how do we decide what to fabricate—what are some of the reasons? I’ll discuss this in the order in which I wrote each book.
Tanner Blue came first. It was inspired by learning about the African-American painter, Henry Ossawa Tanner during a walking tour in Paris. The French loved him so much they named a color after him—immediately, that color became the title of the novel as well as the name of the main character. That trip was part of a birthday celebration and I found myself consumed by the idea of remembering one’s birth. That became a motif for this book. As my first book, I discovered how much I loved making things up—the freedom and power of it. So I tried it again in Painted Deserts.
Painted Deserts was originally called Farmers Market because after visiting a local farmers market each Friday, I became fascinated by watching all kinds of people interact. One day, I looked at some empty chairs and tables at a sidewalk restaurant and began filling the furniture with fictional characters. The next step was to listen to their story, which I did. Because the book developed into a journey to the Southwest, I adjusted the title to reflect the change of scene that parallels the growth of the characters.
Music for the Dream—Seven Short Stories came next. Two of the stories—Cross Country and El niño started out as novels and shrunk down nicely into short stories. The title story qualifies as magical realism. The others are loosely based on experiences but are largely figments of my imagination. It was fun coming up with a variety of stories that coincided with certain years and events. Often, I began by asking myself what I knew enough about to build a story around it, and that’s what I did.
Members is a personal coming-of-age story that is calling for a sequel. I envision the sequel as more made up than based on actual experiences because of a device that intrigues me. The main character will write a book that I intended to write, so I see this as a story developing within a story. I’m interested in following these layers.
So, how do we balance internal and external sources of creativity? In writing fiction, it comes down to addressing moments of truth in which we decide whether the story is best served by some kind of embellishment or drama, or if the facts are more compelling. This crossroads is just another example of the ongoing wisdom of stepping back from the story long enough to determine the most effective way to tell it. Self-protection is also another valid factor in the equation. Writers always know which story elements are based on actual experiences. In this regard, it can be useful to ask, “What message do I wish to make here?” Then, find a way to either distance the storytelling from the truth or go for as much honesty as is called for.
This exchange continues in a conversation with Kyle Kesses.
Foreshadowing is the practice of strategically dropping hints throughout storytelling to give readers a chance to make educated guesses about how the story will unfold. It can be a very effective way to engage readers because foreshadowing can create a satisfying sense of collaboration. On a subliminal level, foreshadowing can be an immersive way to welcome readers into helping authors tell their stories. It also appeals to the intelligence of the reader.
One way to implement foreshadowing is to constantly look around the scene and relate deeply to ambient details. Symbols and dreams fulfill this purpose in handy ways. For example, say a character keeps noticing certain numbers and either does or does not decide to play the lottery and the numbers win.
Pacing refers to the overall rhythm of storytelling. It involves a very delicate dance between getting to the point and providing sufficient sensory, emotional, and factual details in order to maximize the dramatic effect. Look for organic ways to suspend tension and keep readers wondering about outcomes while providing opportunities to explore a full range of emotions.
“A drawing is just a line going for a walk.”
Chalk on bathroom wall in café
Write a Book About Your Business is a class I’ve taught through the Small Business Administration in San Francisco. Recently, I was wrapping up a session with four highly motivated and productive businesswomen. Their lines of business were finance, restaurants, gymnastics, and education. Five minutes before we were scheduled to wrap up, a fifth woman entered and disrupted our space to the extent that I had to ask her to leave. I was shaken by this experience and had the following thought about two hours later:
Everyone who speaks wants to be heard.
As a writer, I think in the language of writing. The disruptive woman became a character who insisted on being heard. This connection has made me contemplate when this shift happened—the one that turned thoughts into full-blown descriptions of people, places, and things. In other words, was there a precise moment when adjectives and adverbs took over? Would the disruptive woman be merely a woman to someone who does not write?
Thinking in the language of writing is similar to learning any other idiom. At some point, one ceases word-for-word translation and thoughts flow so fluently that the training wheels fall off. The thought, “I’m writing a story,” dematerializes. Somehow, the narrative voice speaks specifically through paragraphs, dialogue, and chapters.
Readers, please feel free to share your positive thoughts at the bottom of this page.
It’s a tremendous comfort to count on having fascinating discussions related to writing each time our circle meets. That was certainly the case yesterday.
We talked about how often, the author’s intentions are quite different from what the reader takes away. There are all kinds of reasons for this but ultimately, what seems most important is that the author has clarity about the key points that compose the core of the writing. So, for example, one of my main intentions in writing Painted Deserts is explained by the line, “We’re all deserters, prettied up with surface paint.” That message is rather personal and abstract. It would not be “realistic” to expect anyone else to intuit that intention. As an aside, I’ll also say that I know there is an audience for what I write though I do not systematically attempt to define them. It’s become enough for me to know (based on experience) that books sometimes adhere to the “reality” that not only does the teacher appear when the student is ready, but the teacher must also be prepared to meet the student. In other words, books have a rather whimsical way of showing up in our lives.
Regarding intensity, we also discussed the tendency to stockpile all of the drama for later in the book rather than unleashing it from the first chapter. This “stockpiling” diminishes the intensity of the book and can easily fall prey to the trap of convenience and protection. Convenience allows the writer to lay things out very neatly in ways that are inconsistent with the sometime-messiness of “real” life. For example, say a “good”’ character has decided to attempt to escape a dangerous situation. There is a sometimes irresistible tendency to protect the character and stack up details so that everything goes smoothly. This contradicts the “reality” that readers (and authors) know to be likely.
These concepts—intention, intensity, convenience, and protection—are tightly coupled with balancing showing and telling as the story develops. In the example of the “good” character, once the author has decided on that “goodness,” the reader needs to be shown qualities that are consistent with that way of being. In doing this, sometimes writers tell before showing and ultimately discover that “showing” is all that’s needed. Here’s an example:
Suzette is such a good person. Suzette takes care of everyone and is loved by all.
See how that first (telling) sentence is unnecessary?
Our task as writers is to do more showing than telling in order to articulate our intentions; let readers feel the intensity of emotions; avoid convenience; and be aware of when and why we tend toward protecting our characters. Showing empowers the reader to come to her or his own conclusions once we, as authors, have provided them with enough information to understand the various aspects of the story.
This exchange continues in a conversation with Kyle Kesses.
“Ma’am, can I talk to you for just a minute?”
“Thank you so much for stopping to listen to me. My sister and I, here, need some help. We were put out of where we live this morning and haven’t eaten since then. We have some money, but we’re trying to save it. The rest of our family is trying to figure out what we’re gonna do.”
“I hope things get better soon.”
“Thank you, ma’am. I do, too. Can you help us out?”
My mind leaped beyond believing this particular story to real people who were doing their best to navigate a situation just like this. I thought about the positivity of karma and how we all need a variety of help on occasion and how assistance can come in so many ways. In order to get through experiences in the best possible manners, it’s often useful to pay attention to *everything,* leaving room for answers to overrule confusion.
A trusted force moved my fingers to open my wallet and give this guy $10.00. I’d divvied up this amount among his “family members,” budgeting roughly $2.00 of my well-earned dollars per person.
“Thank you, ma’am. God bless you.”
“I do hope things get better soon. God bless you, too.”
Shortly after I walked away, I saw both of them doubled over laughing before recomposing themselves to retell their story to a group of people. I was the only yes.
At first, I was angry because the truth is my default. Then I felt good about my intentions. After that, I felt sad that hustling is, indeed, an occupation. I made peace with this little incident by being grateful that I could “spare” the money and ultimately, that I had paid $10 for a temporarily convincing story.
Everything meant something and something, too, meant everything.
I’d like to share some particularly useful input from yesterday’s circle/intensive. It pertains to managing the various developmental details that arise in the course of writing a book.
We concluded last weekend’s immersive Motivational Writing™ Circle and intensive by responding to a question posed by Vicki B:
What are our visions for our writing?
In some form, each of us expressed a deep desire to create what we value. We discussed a profound awareness that there is a void in the vast world of books that we each seek to fill in our own unique and meaningful way. This mindset is an excellent opportunity to practice balancing the importance of reading profusely and avidly as a means of enhancing what we offer as serious writers, with writing from our own experiences, perceptions, and truths. In other words, the more we read, the more likely we are to read like writers. When we do that, we are able to understand our tastes and map our learning to creating what we value in our own written work.
By balancing our serious writing with carefully reading the published work of others, we stay in touch with ourselves and each other through that mysterious and miraculous force that we answer when it calls.