I start with very short pieces, usually no more than a handwritten page. I try to focus on something specific: a person, a moment, a place. I do what I ask my students to do when I teach creative writing. I explain to them that such fragments are the first steps to take before constructing a story. I think a writer should observe the real world before imagining a nonexistent one.
One nice thing about sentences that display a skill you can only envy is that they can be found anywhere, even when you’re not looking for them. I was driving home listening to NPR and heard a commentator recount a story about the legendary actress Joan Crawford. It seems that she never left the house without being dressed as if she were going to a premiere or a dinner at Sardi’s. An interviewer asked her why. She replied, “If you want to see the girl next door, go next door.”
It is the bang-bang swiftness of the short imperative clause-“go next door”- that does the work by taking the commonplace phrase “the girl next door” literally and reminding us that ” next door” is a real place where one should not expect to find glamour (unless of course one is watching Judy Garland singing “The Boy Next Door” in Meet Me in St. Louis).
How much time do you spend answering these questions? Thinking of a response? Researching for a factual (where necessary) response? Writing, editing and moulding the response? The fluidity of your responses seem like an almost spontaneous stream of consciousness, but the conciseness, the beauty, the lyricism, the depth of meaning and the way the response pulls together within its own universe belie a great deal of time. How long does it all take?
A few thoughts on the enduring usefulness of index cards:
I fold an index card lengthwise in half, stick it in my back pocket along with a pen, and head out, knowing that if I have an idea, or see something lovely or strange enough worth remembering, I will be able to jot down a couple of words to remind me of it. Sometimes, if I overhear or think of an exact dialogue or a transition, I write it down verbatim. I stick the card in my backpocket. I might be walking along the salt marsh, or out at Phoenix Lake, or in the express line at Safeway, and suddenly I hear something wonderful that makes me want to smile or snap my fingers-as if it has just come back to me-and I take out my index card and scribble it down.
try orienting your index card horizontally instead of vertically. “Going wide” has two immediate benefits. First, it more closely approximates our eyes’ field of view and (perhaps not coincidentally) correlates with the proscenium’s composition space, seen not only in stage plays but also on film and computer screens. Second, it damningly highlights those unconsidered compositions that focus on the figure to the detriment of any surrounding environment. We’ve all seen examples: a character is cut off at the ankles and surrounded at the top, left, and right by an undeliberate emptiness, a vast halo of nothing, a rickety non-space, or what I call the Arch of Uninterestingness.
I’ve used many types of notebooks. Moleskines (anyone else think that’s a gross name?), Field Notes, Composition books, Evernote, but index cards are the sharks of the stationary world – they adapt better than any note taking invention.
Their size allows me to scratch out a poem or sketch on the run without elbowing fellow passengers on the subway.
“You are writing, say, about a grizzly bear. No words are forthcoming. For six, seven, ten hours no words have been forthcoming. You are blocked, frustrated, in despair. You are nowhere, and that’s where you’ve been getting. What do you do? You write, ‘Dear Mother.’ And then you tell your mother about the block, the frustration, the ineptitude, the despair. You insist that you are not cut out to do this kind of work. You whine. You whisper. You outline your problem, and you mention that the bear has a fifty-five inch waist and a neck more than thirty inches around but could run nose-to-nose with Secretariat. You say the bear prefers to lie down and rest. The bear rests fourteen hours a day. And you go on like that as long as you can. And then you go back and delete the ‘Dear Mother’ and all the whimpering and whining, and just keep the bear.”
Some mornings, in a perfect world, you might wake up, have a coffee, finish meditation, and say, “Okay, today I’m going into the shop to work on a lamp.” This idea comes to you, you can see it, but to accomplish it you need what I call a “setup.” For example, you may need a working shop or a working painting studio. You may need a working music studio. Or a computer room where you can write something. It’s crucial to have a setup, so that, at any given moment, when you get an idea, you have the place and tools to make it happen.
If you don’t have a setup, there are many times when you get the inspiration, the idea, but you have no tools, no place to put it together. And the idea just sits there and festers. Over time, it will go away. You didn’t fulfill it-and that’s just a heartache.
To reproach Hitchcock for specializing in suspense is to accuse him of being the least boring of filmmakers; it is also tantamount to blaming a lover who instead of concentrating on his own pleasure insists on sharing it with his partner. The nature of Hitchcock’s cinema is to absorb the audience so completely that the Arab viewer will forget to shell his peanuts, the Frenchman will ignore the girl in the next seat, the Italian will suspend his chain smoking, the compulsive cougher will refrain from coughing, and the Swedes will interrupt their love-making in the aisles.