When I start a story, I’ve usually been thinking about it for a while. Maybe it started with noticing something out of the ordinary—a fleet of mail carriers rushing to park their cars near the substation at Westwood Village at 6:30 in the morning—or a person who has crossed my path and made me wonder about the backstory of a character with similar issues, such as a noisy upstairs neighbor with a drug and alcohol addiction.
The notion will often linger in my mind for a while. I like this part, feeling the pure possibility of an idea before it’s marred by reality or trapped in words that never quite seem to do it justice. As soon as I can, I write each spark in my notebook with a little cloud around the word IDEA and there it will sit, both in script and in my brain as an obsession until another incident inspires me to think of something that takes its place. How about a story about a grumpy old guy who tries to shame a woman in the gym, and then later he discovers that she’s his interviewer for a new job? (I’m still exploring this gent’s fictitious comeuppance…)
Sometimes, these ideas take years to appear in written form, if ever. Not every idea is as good as it feels when it first appears or has enough mileage for even a short story. Story ideas may ultimately go nowhere, or they might appear as tiny threadlines in a larger work. Their fate is determined by my power to create enough fertile ground for them to implant and sometimes the dirt just isn’t there. Even some ideas that resurface again and again are ones that, as much as I want to, I can’t make work. Desire has so little impact on ability, unfortunately, and that sense of creative impotence—conceiving of an idea but failing to grow it beyond that—is one I struggle with more so than the blank page.
This month, The Southeast Review’s 30-Day Writer’s Regimen is showing me how to work around this. The regimen consists of daily emails with writing prompts, words of the day and craft talk podcasts. It’s teaching me a lot about the way I work by showing me how I don’t—namely in small bits. I was surprised to discover that my writing methodology strongly relates to size and length which, for me, typically equates with one longer work followed by another. I usually focus on one (maaaybe two) pieces at a time, and usually in one distinct stage or the next—writing then editing.
Whatever I’m working on, the story or essay is all-consuming and I’m either all-in or I’m taking a break in between pieces. During the drafting stage, I feel like I’m using a flashlight in the dark to find the plot and only by giving it my full attention can I get the bare bones down. As much as I love writing, it can a frightening process. My heart sinks when I just can’t get a story right.
Editing is different, though still intense: this is where the fatty parts of the body are sculpted away while tendons and muscular tissues are built up, giving life and personality through intensive surgeries, grafts and enhancements. Early readers and mentors help point the way to parts that needs more work until, after many drafts, I feel I have a fully formed creation that can walk on its own.
What I tend not to do in this process is allow for creative play. After all, writing is SERIOUS BUSINESS (to some of us, serious business is also incredibly fun) so a part of me is not satisfied unless I see continuous production and accomplishment. In other words, progress. Pieces of 4,000 to 8,000 words are my sweet spot and, since I’m working on a collection of short stories (and a separate collection of essays), my German heritage wants me to focus only on those works that contribute to these manuscripts. Ja wohl!
For me, the Writer’s Regimen was an experiment. I am traveling too much this spring to take a class at Hugo House, so I enrolled with the hopes of using the daily prompts while I’m on the road to work on specific story that I’ve been wrestling with. What actually happened was different.
I imagined that the prompts would pry loose the backstory of one particular character who I’ve been obsessing about for a year; instead, it released a smattering of other potential stories, most of them wholly unrelated. The resulting pieces are only 500 or 1,000 words and they may never see the light of day. During this process, I haven’t treated anything I’ve written as precious, which I normally do. Instead, I’ve allowed the daily prompts to take me where they will (some days even the prompt is just a jumping off point), and so each exercise has brought up memories that I’ve never considered writing about before, as well as new angles to stories and characters that I thought I had figured out completely.
After the first couple of days on the regimen, I was coming up with so many new ideas that I gave myself permission not to work on any one story. Huzzah! Instead of waiting to write on my laptop after work at night, this process has allowed me to take advantage of small moments of free writing in my notebook, which I can do any time anywhere. I have surprised myself (and delighted my German genes) by filling up almost 40 pages of new material in just a few weeks.
As the Writer’s Regimen comes to a close, my mind is full of fresh plot ideas, snippets of dialogue, character and scene sketches and even some cross-genre play—plenty of fertile soil in which seeds can sprout. By treating nothing I’ve written as sacred, this daily practice has also made it easier to just start writing without judgment and those little scenes and sketches have each, in turn, unlocked something unexpected.
What a great lesson to learn: writing doesn’t need to happen in big, serious strokes; it need not be a major campaign or creative effort. Writing can happen in playful scribbles in my notebook and still hold tremendous value. It can be all about tiny details and small eye-opening revelations and twists rather than major plot arcs. Maybe what I’ve written will only be for me; maybe it will exist only as backstory that readers never see. But I’ll know it’s there. And those small moments will, eventually, lead to something bigger.
Think about your main character’s childhood. What was her first memory? What were the circumstances around it? Who was there and how did that experience come to bear on the way she interacts with others later in life?