There’s a great blog post (Better View of the Moon, January 11, 2016) by a Facebook friend of mine, the very talented poet Karen Craigo, on the general concept of what my beloved mentor, Sandy Benitez, called “Staring out the window time.” Karen writes about driving through apparently uninteresting landscapes, and finding what makes them interesting:
The challenge, should you take a similar trip through boring country, is to write down or record a list of observations—a hawk standing sentry on a fencepost, phallic silos, caved-roof houses. A feeling will start to emerge, and it may not be the one that seems obvious. For you, those farm fields may be stitched together with desire or longing; for me, having grown up in a rural area, the feeling might be sacred, or I may channel those old frustrations.
Karen goes on to say how if you use these observations as a prompt for a poem, great, but don’t get caught in tired metaphor. Always excellent advice. What I took away this morning from her blog post is more along the lines of how scenes, images, have always prompted stories for me, even novels.
For my first novel attempt, it was Vincent Van Gogh’s “Portrait of a Patient in Saint-Paul Hospital.” For my second, it is a moose, swimming, in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. For my short story, “Seizure,” it was a man riding a bike in a snowstorm. The list goes on: “The Necklace,” a beaded necklace a saw in Tanzania; “Mosaic,” the ice on the Mississippi as it travels down from colder places north into downtown Minneapolis; “Vestiges,” the barren landscape of the Badlands; “A Singular Certainty,” although you might not guess it from the story, the Minnesota State Fair.
I’m starting something new, which is to say I’m having trouble starting something new, because otherwise I’d be writing something new and not writing about writing something new. One of the many things that makes it hard is that it’s been a very long time since I’ve started something truly new. I wrote the first drafts of “Seizure” in 2012. I finished revising my first novel ms about a year ago. I wrote my new novel ms over the last two years, but it is a hybrid of two short stories I’d written previously. Much, much changed, much, much different–but not absolutely new. Now that I am trying something new, I’m looking at new characters, new settings, new desires, new roadblocks, new elements of timing and suspense.
There are so many things I want to do better this time. I’ve been trying to dig up all of Ben Percy’s craft-of-fiction articles (why did I not cut them out and save them all from Poets and Writers?!?) so I can remember things like making characters work (literally, giving them a job), setting a clock (make it so something has to happen in x-period of time), so many other things I despair I am forgetting and of course the hardest: Thrill Me (95% sure it’s the title of the collection of Ben Percy’s excellent craft-of-fiction essays that will be published by Graywolf Press in 2016. I’m trying to get myself on the pre-order list).
The notion of images came up again, just yesterday, as I was preparing to lead a discussion about Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See for my wonderful book club. I found an NPR interview in which Doerr says, of his inspiration for the novel, All I knew is that I had a blind girl reading a story to a boy over the radio. I suppose I’m the one who has taken that to an image; it could be Doerr just had the idea of it.
But for me, it’s images. Thank you, Karen Craig and Anthony Doerr for reminding me I need an image.
Once I get it, I’m sure EVERYTHING for this new writing project of mine will come together.
Now that’s a funny image, for sure.