Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Feeling my way into writing

I had a (maybe) epiphany this morning, having to do with that question everybody asks writers: "Where do you get your ideas?" My epiphany is that mybest ideas for novels and short stories grow out of moments when I've had strong and deep feelings. I think those feelings give me the ideas that grow into the stories that are the easiest for me to write. And I'm wondering if the reason some stories don't develop, or I have an awful struggle making them work, is that I don't have any deep feeling of my own at the heart of them.

I bragged yesterday that I'm writing my fifth short story in three weeks. They have come naturally and easily, and I suspect it's because there was memorable emotion that "birthed" each one of them, even if that birth was decades ago.

The five stories came from these emotions. . .

The fear. . .no, make that terror. . .I had of werewolves dating from when I saw "The Werewolf" when I was maybe eight years old.

The poignancy I felt when we'd take our toddler into restaurants in south Florida and he'd get lots of longing attention from grandparents who missed their own grandkids.

My annoyance over "fan" mail from people who object to any "bad" language I use.

The emptiness I felt when I couldn't communicate with somebody I loved, when I was eighteen.

The unrequited love I felt for a fellow who considered me just a friend, when we were twenty-one.

Contrast that with the book I'm supposedly working on and which is causing me so much trouble. When I try to think about any deep emotion that birthed it, I come up blank. It may be there, but if it is, I haven't felt it yet.

Years ago, I was struggling with a novel, Twilight, that wouldn't let me advance past page 84. I couldn't push out a single word for months. Things got desperate. Finally, one sad day, I gave up. That night, I had a dream in which I felt deep emotion, and when I woke up I realized that's what my heroine would feel on page 85. It was an emotion that I had never felt before, so no wonder I hadn't been able to put it onto the page. Within an hour after I woke up, I was writing again! I wrote 26 pages that day, and finished the book in two weeks, the fastest I've ever written any novel.

My guess is that if were to think back on the stories and books of mine that I consider to be my best ones, I'd find emotion at the heart of them. My emotion. And if I were to look at the ones of mine that I think are my weakest, I'd realize that I had no personal emotional connection to them, and that they were more like a strictly mental exercise of putting together a plot.

I don't know if this late-coming epiphany of mine will help anybody else, but I think it may help me. So thanks for listening as I work it out, out loud.

34 comments:

Nancy P said...

I wrote that before coffee. Must have been feeling it. :)\

Good morning, everybody.

Beth said...

Morning, Nancy! It's a great realization. A friend recently told me I should decide what matters to me, and everything should revolve around that. My writing, my day-to-day activities, my goals - everything. Kind of similar advice. I hope it will make your book go easier, now that you've figured this out. I'll keep it in mind myself...

Nancy P said...

That's a good friend you've got there, Beth. A keeper. She reminds me of my psychologist friend who says that the next question in regard to decisions is, "Will this move me toward what I want, or will it move me away from it?" I'm beginning to think of it as being loyal. Loyal to what we want most in life. It may be hanging way out there in the future, but we can be loyal to the direction of getting there. I tell people to be as loyal to their writing as they are to their friends and family. That means giving it the honor of their serious attention, looking it in the eye, making it a priority, etc.

Sigh. I hope it will make my book go easier, too. Thanks, B.

These days, I'm making the effort to be loyal to my new daily practice of meditation. It really helps (me)to think of it as loyalty.

Nancy P said...

Beth! That was amazing yesterday! The way ghostfolk discovered an incredible part of your father's history. Is this blog cool, or what? (She said, proudly.)

And of course, I have to say. . .there's a novel there, about a daughter finding out something historic and/or heroic about her dad.

Beth said...

It was VERY cool, Nancy! I told my sis, and she had no idea either. We both wish we had pumped my dad for more stories of his life, but we were too young to realize how much we'd appreciate them later.

And yes, that friend is a keeper, though it's a "he."

I really have to start thinking that way, focusing on what's important, rather than flitting from interesting thing to interesting thing, like I have all of the time in the world. Thanks for the reminder!

Nancy P said...

Maybe what's important to you *is* going from interesting thing to interesting thing. :) Seriously.

Beth said...

You've hit on the great mystery of my life. I spend oodles of energy and time trying to figure that one out. It irritates and terrifies me that I can't put down roots when I so want to. Or at least I think I do! Hopefully I'll be able to find a way to have a home base, and then travel from it. Anyway, thanks for the insight. I need to figure out what's important to me, and then focus on it in regard to this, too. I envy folks who know where they belong.

Jen said...

This resonates so strongly for me, Nancy.

It's emotion that fuels my writing work, too. While I enjoy delving into the technical minutia of a lot of my interests, I have an aversion to focusing too closely on the mechanics of writing. I'm a very visceral writer; it all comes from the heart/gut, even the heady symbolism and subtext. And it's always a feeling from the heart/gut that lets me know whether a story/scene is working or not.

Thanks for another terrific blog post about writing. :)

GhostFolk.com said...

I tell people to be as loyal to their writing as they are to their friends and family.

And perhaps a bit more honest. :-)

GhostFolk.com said...

Nancy, Nancy, Nancy.... Are you sure you can name the emotion beforehand?

I hate to anticipate family man, but is ennui an emotion? If so, I got about a dozen books to do. :-)

Nancy P said...

Jen, funny to see you here, since I was just over at your place while you were gone. Anybody who reads you steadily can feel the heart in what you say on your blog. I felt that this morning, and didn't want to comment right away. That's the thing about truly felt writing--it makes the reader want to lay it down for a little while and just be with it, thinking about it and feeling it. Sometimes when nobody responds to a post of yours, I wonder if you know that it isn't because nobody's reading it, it's because we're absorbing it.

And it's always a feeling from the heart/gut that lets me know whether a story/scene is working or not.

Yeah, though I have been slow to understand that.

Beth said...

You're exactly right, Nancy. Jen's posts are often so thought-provoking, I have to go back and read them a few times to take it all in. I read it every morning, Jen, whether I post or not.

Ditto with everyone's blogs - it's the first thing I do each day, check out each site and see who's up to what. Kind of my waking-up routine! :-)

Nancy P said...

I didn't even used to think about this, ghostie, but now, yeah, I can name the feeling beforehand. I don't even want to start a story if I can't connect it to a "feeling beforehand." In fact, one way I found the story I'm writing now is that I sat down and said to myself, "Okay, when did something happen in your life that made you feel something strongly?" And the memory that popped up was the Florida one. "Poignancy" doesn't sound like much, but it was actually quite piercing. And then I knew that a story idea I already had was going to work, because it came from that true moment in time. (This is reminding me of a Donald Maas exercise!)

Nancy P said...

Speaking of morning blog tours, Beth, I loved that part of Family Man's where he "petted" George and Henry, lol.

I don't always read everybody's posts every day. If somebody has a long post, sometimes I save it for when I can pay more attention to it. I do that when farfetched posts a new episode, for instance.

Nancy P said...

Beth. . ."irritates and terrifies" are great emotions on which to base a story.

I couldn't resist saying so!

Beth said...

My WIP has lots of ghost stuff in it, so I did appreciate Fam's ghost doggies. I can imagine Ghost did, too! I'm trying to learn not to comment on every blog, otherwise I never get any work done. But it's so hard! I always want to be a part of the conversation...

Beth said...

Those doggone emotions!! :-)

I'm going to keep this in mind, and maybe try a short story using emotions, like you've suggested. It'd be nice to get the big ones on paper, rather than just letting them rattle around in my heart.

Nancy P said...

I, too, do love to chat, Beth! LOL.

Ghost, I just now saw your "honest" post. BOY HOWDY, YES! I LOVE writing characters who say things I might only think to myself.

Nancy P said...

Oh, cool, Beth! Remember that Maass exercise where he has us write down an emotional scene from our own life and then transfer it directly to our story? Maybe you could start out that way with your story.

If you don't reply, I'll know you have started writing. :)

Beth said...

My sister acts in community theatre. She directed a play this weekend, which is why I'm in NH. One of the characters is a really nasty woman with too much money and a big mouth. Ann, the woman who played her, said it was strange saying her lines since she's very passive-aggressive and wouldn't DREAM of ever saying anything like that. I think she enjoyed it, though, in a way.

Beth said...

Oh, yes, I DO remember that, Nancy! Oops, I wasn't supposed to answer. :-)

Kelly McCullough said...

Wow, y'all are chatty this morning. When I opened my blog set in tabs there were four comments. By the time I worked my way through the list to here, 21.

Nancy, you are wise, I linked this at Wyrdsmiths.

Ghost, from yesterday. Ain't story-dreaming cool!

Beth, good morning.

Jen, what Nancy and Beth said. You're a luminous blogger-in the sense of being enlightening. I always learn from you. BTW, have you ever spent time at Making Light? I think you might really enjoy time spent in the comment threads there. I'm thinking in terms of your note in your post today in re: jokes and youtube. This post, for example, is a thing of beauty.

Jen said...

Thanks, Nancy, Beth. And thanks for the link, KMc.

Tracy said...

Hi Nancy -

I'm afraid I'm going to have to adopt you as my personal writing coach. I listened to you speak at KAC in Lawrence on Saturday, I wrote about some of my own realizations--prompted by your talk--in my blog on Sunday, and I devoured The Virgin of Small Plains on Monday. I'm reading this as I take a break from my current novel attempt. It has become somewhat of a struggle, but one I'm still trying to convince myself I can overcome. Now I'm wondering if this work is perhaps being "birthed" by an emotion or just pure stubborness on my part.

I'm enjoying the blog, I really enjoyed your talk, and I'm looking forward to more epiphanies.

Thanks,
Tracy

Beth said...

Welcome, Tracy! I hope you stop by often. There are great people here, and lots to learn. Lucky you to have seen and learned from Nancy in person - I have to wait til April! Good luck with your novel...

FARfetched said...

Emotions… ? I'm not sure if emotional experiences I've had transfer well to stories or not. Some of them do, but sometimes there's just something there that wants OUT of my head.

Mrs. Fetched thinks I'm too emotional anyway.

Conda said...

Wow, great post, Nancy, so true. And it's giving me tons of great ideas for stories. Thank you!

I attended one of Maass' Intensive Workshops with another version of my currently just-finished w.i.p. I was about to give up on the whole, almost done, novel.

That exercise that you mentioned, Beth, and the others like it, made me realize that the problem was I'd been "pulling back" emotionally from my story.

And don't we, as readers, care most about the emotional experience of a story?

Beth said...

Too true, Conda. If it doesn't move you as you write it, how can it move your readers? I get chills when I draw the right picture with my words, and I hope it does the same thing for someone else.

Don taught me a lot, and I go back over his workbook regularly. One of these days I'll spend another week with him, and let him help me find my flaws again.

Nancy P said...

Hi, Tracy, and welcome! We'd love it if you stuck around and joined the free-for-all. (Were you sitting on my left side, down at the other end?)

Nancy P said...

Conda, if the post inspired your muse, I am delighted!!

Nancy P said...

Hey, far! I'm late reading your latest episode, but I'm really looking forward to seeing what forced its way out of your head this week. :)

Nancy P said...

Kelly, I'm glad you like it well enough to post it. Maybe it will help somebody on a day they need some inspiration.

boran2 said...

Nancy, In a way I really do feel what you are saying. My better paintings, many of which I've not put on line, have a personal connection and emotional component. The things that I love or feel strongly about just make for better work. To just paint a scene would not yield the same result.

Nancy P said...

The things that I love or feel strongly about just make for better work. To just paint a scene would not yield the same result.

Thanks for this, b2. True of painting with words, too It's interesting how transferable the basic truths are from one art to another.