Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Sometimes the strangest things can trigger a story . . .

. . . as in today when I was driving to the law school to pick up cute husband and jamming with the windows down to Sirius radio, channel 18, The Spectrum.  A kind of country-ish, kind of Lou Reed-ish song came on and frankly for most of it I was making fun of it in my head: what is this crap? why is there no more good music being made?  I wish I was in the 60s . . .

. . . until the following line of the song: My divorce papers will have gone through by then.

Not exactly lyrical genius, but sometimes a single line can create some imagery, whether or not the imagery was intended.  For me, I immediately saw a man in jeans and a scruffy shirt driving down the highway in the dead of night, finally set free by his divorce papers.  He was going towards a woman, I knew that much, but I didn't know if he was in love with her, if she was an old friend, maybe even his estranged sister or his brother's widow.  All I could see was this man, his eyes steady on the road ahead of him, his head clear because he knew his destination and was filled with relief to finally be on the road towards it.  His only thought was, it's only a matter of time now . . .

Moments like these are great for us writers because for a moment the wall (I've always pictured writer's block as the Berlin Wall, wherein the story waiting to be told is West Germany and I am a starving East German slumped against the wall) gets whacked and a few bricks or even just a few flecks of concrete fall to the ground and there's a place to start hitting with a hammer with hopes of, in the words of The Doors, break[ing] on through to the other side.

Last week I wrote a little bit about characters, how we can see something or hear something and suddenly a person appears to us and out of our wonder and curiosity is born a tale.  Sometimes when I sit down to write and I'm feeling completely blocked and every character I think of is either contrived or a knock off, I take a deep breath and think of it like this: There are hundreds of characters possibly floating around up there in my head.  The man in the truck driving across the night to whomever is waiting for him; the store clerk closing up for the night, dreaming a simple but out-of-reach dream as she does so; the teenage boy picking up his best friend on a Friday evening; the mom who waits; and the daughter who chooses not to call.  They're all up there!  They're living their lives up there and making their choices and sending their worlds spriraling all over the place, or even just keeping them sadly stagnant.  So when I sit down to write, all I have to do is find them and write down how they're doing.

The work of writing out their stories--figuring out where that man with newly signed divorce papers is headed and why it's so important for him to get there--is always tedious and sometimes long.  But to me those adjectives don't have to be bad.  The minutiae of lives and the day in and day out and what it all adds up to in the end, those things are worth plumbing the depths for.

My favorite writing quote of all time is from E.L. Doctorow:

Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.
And so I drive.  And the man with the divorce papers drives.  And maybe our cars pass on the highway.

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