My Epitaph Collection (vol. 17)

Ouch. A graveyard with headstones:

…carved mottoless with simple names and dates as though there had been nothing even their mourners remembered of them than that they had lived and they had died…

From William Faulkner’s only mystery novel, Intruder in the Dust.

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Sequels and Missed Opportunities

Some of my readers have requested a sequel to my recent novel Scar Jewelry. While I am thrilled that they care enough about the characters to want a part two, I suspect the requests come from desire to witness certain conversations and interactions that, well, frankly, won’t ever occur, even if I were to write a sequel. Such additions would make the story more tidy, maybe – but no longer right.

Here’s the bottom line: at any moment, life stretches in all directions and sometimes the options feel endless. But most of those options are fleeting opportunities and it can really be too bad if we don’t say something or do something or change something when we have the chance.

If this is a spoiler it is an enigmatic one that shouldn’t harm the reading experience.

Plots and Characters in the Raw

Typically, plots of my novels start with a collection of images, moments, vignettes, and other idea snapshots that feel related to me, although I do not always know why. Gradually, I discover the connections as the planning and writing evolve. During that evolution, there will always be ideas that turn out not to fit, after all, and I have to scrap those.

Similarly, my characters start as a pastiche of attitudes, actions, and problems, which may be drawn from people I know, situations I have experienced, or stuff I’ve overheard in passing. (Beware discussing your life while standing in a grocery store line. There may be an eavesdropping writer nearby.) As the book progresses, I inevitably discover that multiple characters have conflicting traits that all belong to me. Real humans tend to be more contradictory than even the most complex of characters. Perhaps on certain levels I use the characters to work through some of my contradictions.

The Subconscious as a Collaborator

How do you come up with your book titles?  Asked this recently, my answer came quickly: At some point I just know what the title is. Which means I’ve been working on it subconsciously. Which makes me realize how essential my subconscious is to the writing process:

  • Stuck? Set it aside and come back to it tomorrow. Usually when I wake up I know what to do — my subconscious figured it out.
  • Sudden discovery, typically while brushing teeth or gardening, of a plot twist that ramps up the tension and surprise? Thank you subconscious, you are always on the job.
  • Realization, as the book nears completion, that details have coalesced into a united theme? My subconscious knew from the beginning what this book was about; the conscious mind is always the last to know.

My principle motivation to write is a desire to connect with other people, but a secondary motivation is to connect with myself and see what will next emerge.

As I write this I find it difficult to say “I figured it out subconsciously” rather than “my subconscious figured it out”.  It doesn’t disturb me to feel that I contain these separate entities.  Should it? 

The Value of Shards of Writing Time

More progress with less time.  That seems to be the bottom line. Yesterday, the middle of three days off, I had all day to write. I frittered and chilled and squandered all those hours on doin’ nuthin’ (which has its own rewards but that’s another story).

This morning, crammed between the trip to the mechanic and the shuttling of kids – first items on a long must-do list – I knew it was now or never and I got a weekend’s worth of writing done in a couple hours.

These are recurring refrains. The tighter the time span, the more I get done, especially when preceded by a day of “nothing”, during which some part of my brain figures out what I need to write: when I sat down today I had it all figured out, but yesterday I had not a clue.

An Ode to Repetition

On one level, I hate routine. I’ve made important life decisions based on a futile attempt to avoid repetition. Changes of jobs, homes, cities – and probably relationships. I have to fight feeling trapped once I exhaust the options for fresh experience. But that time will always come. There are only so many ways you can drive to the store, if you are going to the same damn store from the same damn house.

Yet, concurrently, repetition and routine provide essential foundations to so much that matters to me. While it is always great to share a new experience with my kids, the comforting patterns of family life are constructed of routine. There is no question that I plan most of my writing during mundane tasks like toothbrushing or weeding. And one of the richest benefits of travel is how much I appreciate home when I return.

I have a friend who talks about Buddhist intent to stay fully present in each moment – aware of the give of the keyboard as I type, conscious of the flow of water and the scratch of the scrubpad as I wash a plate. She strives for this awareness to feel grounded and calm. I try it and discover subtle variations that make each repetition unique. Doing this seems to be as close as I can get to meditation -with all my Western impatience and resistance to organized faith.