On Writing

on-writingThe impetus to write springs from as many sources as there are authors. I write because I love words: their weight, shape, sound, translucence, and power. I love how they may carry us through and over our preoccupied dailiness into meaning. With words, our inchoate yearnings become questions, affirmations, imperatives. They are messengers that tell the intentions and insights of our hearts; they are what we have, really, to draw and keep us close to one another.

I started with poetry, with the centrality of an image crafted from the fewest possible words. Most early poems were lyrics, a form I still love. The natural world, especially the play of light and water, are my favorite sources of imagery. Soon lyrics turned to narratives, and stories pressed their way out. Stories lengthened into novels and a memoir. Stuck in there was a children’s book.

There was a time I worried that ideas might run out and I started keeping a file of notions, clippings, images that could become novels. I still occasionally stash something in it, but I’ve long since stopped worrying. Ideas are everywhere, everyday, in the fertile soil of life. Retrieving them only requires paying attention, which is what I titled my blog. Most of the time what starts a novel is just a seed that immediately starts to grow into its separate story, leafing out onto a fence I rush to construct.

But not even the most observant person can pay attention to everything at once. Here’s what I’ve discovered: images that capture my most rapt attention, ones that seem to want to grow much larger, often have some connection to something I’m already thinking about. A good example comes from one of my forthcoming novels, Remember My Beauties. I doubt it’s a coincidence that the main character, Jewel, is struggling to care for her elderly parents; I started the novel when my Dad was still alive but increasingly frail and dependent on my sister. Does Jewel have the smallest resemblance to my sister? Definitely not. Does Jewel’s sense of guilt have anything to do with my own, living 760 miles away from my father and sister? Definitely.

But what was the seed image that got me thinking about a novel?

It was reading about the death of Mr. P., who owned the small family horse farm where I used to keep my horse. I only knew that his daughter had moved in, taken care of him, and tried to keep the place going. I don’t know the real story, only that from a distance I’d watched the horses disappear, the corral fall to weeds, and the roof of the stable collapse in on itself. Knowing something about the power of the animal-human connection, I wanted the horses back. I wanted something different to happen. As I wrote my way into the story, themes emerged: it became a novel about perception, leadership, and what keeps families together, but I didn’t know that clearly when I started, even though I’d structured the novel. The characters had to breathe and begin to speak to each other—and to me—before what the novel was about fully evolved and deepened. That’s the wonder and the beauty of the process. I’ve learned to trust and love it.