Balancing Internal and External Sources of Creativity

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.

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