All lit up

The one thing emphasized in any creative writing course is ‘write what you know,’ and that automatically drives a wooden stake through the heart of imagination. If they really understood the mysterious process of creating fiction, they would, ‘You can write about anything you can imagine’ — Tom Robbins

If I consistently followed the mantra ‘write what you know,’ I’d be pretty fucking boring as a storyteller. The mantra is without a doubt, a good place to start when figuring out what it is that you want to write. And it is a great place start if you want to figure out the process of writing and to just start writing.

The phrase popped up ten months ago while having drinks with my best friend and a mutual acquaintance of ours. The acquaintance was curious about my writing so I explained what the first book was about in a rough-and-tumble kind of way. Then I gave him a quick and dirty pitch describing what my next writing project would be about. At the time, it was roughed out in my mind but I gave him the gist of it. He responded by asking me if I was supposed to write what I know, not what I just told him. His initial assessment of me never prepared him for what came out of my mouth. He was utterly befuddled much to my best friend’s delight and amusement.

I have never taken a creative writing course. I don’t think my lack of being formally educated in the art of storytelling via a college course or some sort of university degree makes me less skilled at it. Wait, does double majoring in English and Political Studies count for something? Maybe not.

To be honest, I’ve seen some of the requirements needed to enter master programs for creative writing. No, thanks. Never mind the ‘write what you know’ mantra driving a stake through the heart of imagination, those masters programs will do it for you… well, me for sure. It would have just filled me with self-doubt while I despised my perceived inadequacies as a writer. I know how much angst I can handle. I don’t need anybody deciding for me what I can or can’t handle. Or what I can or cannot write.

I’ve UN-intentionally avoided pursuing a diploma or a degree in creative writing because it was never the path I needed to get where I am right now. Where I’m at right now, is at the cusp of something amazing, creatively and personally. It’s something that been gestating for a long time. It started before I gave writing a go. It picked up a little steam when I wrote my first book. It started accelerating with the two characters (affectionately referred to as ‘my boys’) I’m working with now. I can’t remember the precise moment when they came roaring into my life, upending a previous story idea and planting themselves firmly in front of me so I couldn’t see anything else but them.

That upended story idea hasn’t been tossed aside. It is something I will return to explore. There is a reason for the switch-off. I think I know what it is. When the timing is right, I will revisit those characters and explore them again.

And as if my boys weren’t pesky enough with their poking me and wanting to play in the now-too-small sandbox of imagination (they now live in a hut with a fire pit by a beach), my field trip back in late October turned up the heat a little more. The boys were excited as hell by the research. I could feel their energy thrumming.

You know that carnival/exhibition ride operator who asks you if you want the ride to go faster? It seems I have been saying ‘HELL YA!’ a lot along with my two boys in the last couple of months or so. I must be some sort of closeted adrenaline junkie. I don’t get my kicks in the most obvious ways. The boys make it known that they’re in my head 24/7. When I’m not paying attention to them, they’re always there. Oddly enough, they’re not annoying. I enjoy their company regardless of the shenanigans they insist on exposing me, too. They’re quite shameless when it comes to grabbing my attention. I find it impossible to hate them. They love being around me. Te amo y más. That phrase pops into my head a lot. Some could argue that they love being around me too much.

While I might be a closet (maybe ‘latent’ is a better description) adrenaline junkie, I do think something is awakening in me that has long been dormant. Things have become clearer with regards to who I am, who I need to be. I’m sure how it ended up being dormant. Maybe, I just needed to get to a point in my life where it was the right time to come out of its slumber.I attribute a part of the awakening to the political disaster unfolding in America, one which threatens what stability there may be in the rest of the world. A tangible sense of activism has been awakened. And I’m figuring out how to express it. The expression isn’t looking to be deafeningly loud. It’s just looking to be duly noted along with all the other voices out there.

Being just a drop in the sea of humanity, I do have a sense of what I can do. I can’t explain it right now. It’s something I feel. And it’s taking me somewhere I need to go. It starts with the personal choices I make in how I live my life and who I want in my life. And it also starts with the stories I want to tell.

The stories I want to tell will represent who I am. I don’t think I’m a writer whose subject matter necessarily appeals to the masses. Being something to everyone is a straight jacket I don’t care to slip into.

Last Wednesday, I came across something that piqued my curiosity and now, it has me excited because it’s a story idea (in its most fundamental elements) I want to explore after my boys and I are done playing together. Although, I don’t think the three of us will ever leave each other. Will this new story idea become a novel? Probably, considering long-form writing seems to be my jam. I haven’t put a ton of thought to it yet. But it’s an idea I find fascinating. But I don’t want to create any characters for it until I do little more research on it.

And speaking of research, I’m hoping to do more field research in the near future with someone I consider a really good friend. The biggest obstacle will be finding time from our busy schedules to get this research done. Yes, I’m being vague again. Mainly because what I want to do, might raise a few eyebrows except for the ones who really know me. They’ll just think to themselves ‘why am I not surprised she’s going there?’ As for the others who don’t know me all that well… let’s just say they may have reason to be a bit wary around me. I say that with a semi-evil grin.

I have been fortunate enough in the last few months to find, encounter and be surrounded by individuals who inspire me just by being themselves, who accept me and my foibles. And in that time, I’ve also been lucky to discover things that have set my imagination on fire. Not the kind of fire that burns hot, blindingly bright and quickly dies. It’s the kind of fire that burns slow with a hotter-than-warm glow and doesn’t seem it will ever fade away.

Comforting yet energizing. Perfect and seductive, especially at night.

Space and shape

In many a piece of music, it’s the pause or the rest that gives the piece its beauty and its shape. And I know I, as a writer, will often try to include a lot of empty space on the page so that the reader can complete my thoughts and sentences and so that her imagination has room to breathe — Pico Iyer

I’m not sure whether any of my writing has included a lot of empty space on the page so a reader can complete my thoughts and sentences. Do I want them to complete my thoughts and sentences? I don’t know. I’d prefer they come to their own conclusions about what I’ve presented them. I don’t see the point in telling the reader to finish my thoughts. I don’t think that’s part of how I define my job description. I could be wrong, though.

But I do whole-heartedly believe in giving a reader’s imagination room to breathe, or at least let them catch their breath (if you know what you’re doing, of course). I believe that is part and parcel of letting a reader come to their own conclusions.

While empty space isn’t exactly on my mind when I’m staring at a blank page, I do think about pacing and intensity — when to find the quiet moments, when to ramp things up, when to hold your breath and when to breathe. Dynamics, not monotony. I think I have natural ebbs and flows in my storytelling abilities. It’s not something I overthink. I’m not sure how successful I am at it, though. Haven’t heard any mutterings on that front. Not yet.

When I think of empty space, I tend to think visually and aurally. I understand it when I see and hear it in a film. It is also something that can be felt and tugs at your emotions. Moonlight does that for me.

Words can’t describe how that movie has affected me. Everything about that movie is perfection. I say that because of how it pulled me in from the first scene, right to the last words spoken in the film. I gotta tell you, those last words were so powerful, honest, vulnerable and heartfelt enough that it made me cry sitting in the theatre.

There are very few films that have the evocative power to move me this way. In fact, I can’t think of another film that has done what Moonlight did to me. I tend to go for the wild ride, the hold-your-breath type of films. Moonlight is it for me. It is one of those gems that you find once, maybe twice in a lifetime. Writer/director Barry Jenkins knows how to use empty space. You see it in the cinematography. You see it in the actors’ eyes and their physicality. You hear it in Nicholas Britell’s music score. You feel it in the dialogue. It’s inspiring. It has stirred something in my soul and it demands to be expressed or manifested in some way in my own life. It’s a process. I’m going to let it play out. I look at it with curiosity and embrace the possibilities to come.

If I can convert a small fraction the empty space I see in my imagination and shape it into something beautiful and, maybe, transcendent, into words the way Jenkins converted words into visuals for Moonlight, I will be one very happy camper.

Beyond the sandbox

If you’re actually allowing your creative part to control your writing rather than a more commercial instinct or motive, then you’ll find that all sorts of interesting things will bubble up to the surface — Emma Thompson

Last week, I started taking apart my short story and started re-assembling it into a novel. It’s funny writing a novel in this manner because one usually starts with a blank page and a vivid imagination.

I’m starting with something I’ve already written — a gallant attempt at writing in a short story format.  Note to self: shorts stories are probably not your jam. Ever.

Now, I need to expand this fictional world. To let it breathe, to let it find its space, to let it get comfy. Almost every scene I’ve written for the short story will be expanded to its full potential. Well, that’s the plan. There’s always the possibility of royally fucking that up.

And I have a laundry list of new scenes I need and want to write. Those will be fun for a variety of reasons, but the main reason is there is still lots of room for the unexpected. For me, the unexpected has the tendency to give me a few ‘a-ha’ moments and gets me more amped up than I already am. My descriptions for the new scenes are one to three sentences long. Not detailed. Just the essence. Gives me room to play.

I have to admit that creating a world big enough to contain my two main characters is thrilling and mildly daunting. It is mildly daunting because I had tried to confine them within the parameters of a short story. Switching gears from confining to expanding is going to be interesting, but in a good way. The moment my two boys came to life, I knew their personalities and their story were too big for a short story format. I knew they would be trouble. The good kind of trouble. The kind of trouble I couldn’t walk away from if I had successfully contained them within a short story.

The nervousness (I guess that would be the best way to describe it) about expanding the story isn’t akin to realizing you left the barn door open and it’s too late to do anything about the animals who have scattered off to parts unknown.

It’s more like removing the barn itself, removing the walls, the roof, the barriers and realizing there is nothing to keep you from exploring everything around you. Into the great wide open. No restrictions. Although I have a list of scenes that I need to write — a path to follow — it doesn’t mean I can’t stop and look at everything that piques my interest along the way. There is an adventure to be had with my two boys and I know they’ll drag me off the path just because they saw or heard something that aroused their curiosity. But they’re good boys. Once their curiosity is satiated, we’ll get back onto the path, with a couple of extra bruises from mucking around and interesting trinkets in our pockets.

I’m excited. Maybe too excited or overwhelmed to know what to do with myself or the boys. But they have a very clear end game, those two. As much as I have to keep them in line when their enthusiasm bursts into rowdy behaviour, they’re very good at grabbing my attention and reminding me of the bigger picture when they need me to be on my game.

Now, is the time to get my game on. My boys have made it clear they love the idea of roaming, playing and exploring. Nothing holding them back or keeping them from moving forward. They have moved beyond the sandbox and they want me to join them. Whether or not I feel ready despite my excitement, who am I to deny them.

I’ll see you folks later.