Seedlings

germinating_seedlingI had a blogger reach out to me yesterday to ask the age-old question, “where do you find inspiration?”  She went on to explain to me that she loves blogging and writing for her local paper, but feels that itch to do more.  She hopes to write a novel, but has no idea where to begin.  Sound familiar?

I preface what’s to follow with this:  There is no correct answer.  Everyone has a unique process, and it’s usually the thing that comes most natural.  It’s often from some medium that makes you feel alive and creative.  However, if you’re having trouble recognizing what that is in your life, I have a few things I hope will help.  I promise that if you truly desire to write, it’s in there already.  Sometimes we just have to go fishing for it.

Because I am a human being, that’s where I start first.  For me, the voice shows up before anything else.  I have no plot, no setting, no secondary characters.  I usually start with one small notion I find fascinating and start exploring it.  Accents, locations, smells, intentions….everything else is born in time from this tiny little seed.  It might start as small as picturing the first person that pops into my head, and just writing a list of adjectives about him or her.  I’ll often see a character’s face the first time while listening to a great song.  I’ll purposefully put on music that makes me emotional, and just start going stream-of-consciousness on the keyboard.  It doesn’t need a point….that grows later too.  The one thing I make sure of is that a being is speaking.  I might later realize that voice died years ago, or is inside a cat….but I start with something that had consciousness.  Life.

If you’re just more setting driven, and need a picture to get yourself going, there’s a simple fix there too.  You don’t have to buy season tickets to The Met, or hop a plane to Paris.  Just google “pretty landscapes,” and start scrolling through the pictures.  Write down which emotions the depictions evoke…then start writing about the person who’d be feeling that way, or the person who’d fit in a picture you like…or who wouldn’t fit.  One of these seedlings will eventually take root.  Once you hear a character’s voice, it’s going to keep talking.  It’s going to tell you where to take it.  Don’t be afraid to step into it’s shoes, give it the ol’ first-person try.  Be it.

Do you plan every word you’re going to say to every person all day long?  No.  You run into people, or circumstances, and you respond.  Your character is no different.  Make a live thing that interests you, and just write.  Eventually that character will stumble into some drama…but it has to actually get to it.  It has to move.  It cannot stay still, or it does nothing.  And the only way it moves is if you do.  Make your fingers dance….start scribbling.  For God sake’s don’t over think  it…first thing with a pulse that comes to mind.  There’s a reason it came first.  Write about it, even if it sucks.  You will stumble onto something that won’t.  In the beginning, there are only small sparks.  Nourish them for a fire.

Here’s a prompt for you today to help you get started:

Every night before you go to bed you see her standing there by the mailbox.  It never fails.  At 10pm, there she’ll be, barely visible through the dim moonlight.

And go! (Use all five senses)

Good luck!

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The Gremlins Speak

I never expected to like writing sequels.  I’ve never been a reader of series, and have been almost against them all together until this point.  I tended to like the finality of a book, and close the door.  However, when I finished my latest project, my characters wouldn’t shut up.  They’d habitually wake me up at 3 a.m. just to hear themselves talk.  The accents, the wit, the condescension…They.  Would.  Not.  Hush.

“Shut up.  I haven’t even published your first novel, yet.  Leave me alone,” I’d scoff, flipping my pillow to the cold side.

“We’re not interested in your excuses or business.  We’re here to talk, so write,” they’d reply.

A writer knows, you’re never in the driver’s seat.  If the gremlins that run the show in the creative side of your mind say go, you go.  You don’t sleep, you don’t silence them, you don’t put them off.  You open up the lap top and start dancing. And 5, 6,7, 8….

Here’s what I learned from my gremlins as of late…First, don’t declare things like ‘I don’t write sequels.’ Never say never to the creative process.  Second is, it turns out I like sequels afterall (as long as they’re organic).  I’ve written about and spoken about, on many occasions how nostalgia is one of my favorite emotions to prance about in.  There is nothing more eery, or more deliciously satisfying than a familiar fingertip from yesteryear reaching out to stroke your shoulder again.  That half happy, half sad, partly close, partly unreachable place is where romance and magic live year round.  When we visit on holidays, we consider staying to find that we simply cannot.  My sequel, a whopping 30 years into the future is giving me a chance to wallow a little.  Thanks, Gremlins.

The moral of this post is that we have to remember that we don’t create the stories.  They’re in there, and they just use us to get out.  If we hold them in, we may miss our moments to get the glory from their tales.  And, oh, don’t we want that.

Flowers and Sunshine

I used to wonder why I always want to write when I’m angry.  Why do those things that twist around like metal from a ravaged junkyard find a way of spilling out of the fingertips?  What is it about the angst, anxiety, worry, and fret that makes creative juices leave the safety of simmer and start to boil?

I used to think maybe it was romance…writer’s tend to be the worst kinds of romantics.  The chicken or the egg theory applies here.  Did our love of writing make us romantic, or did our romanticism make us write?  For the kind of writers that have to write…that need it to cure the ulcer that comes from too much pleasure or pain–they are the latter.  Romanticism came first.  Then, we found a way to express it.  We found a way to find the words that evade us when trying to strum our vocal chords at once.  These rare feelings come at times when it’s hard to walk and chew gum at the same time. As eloquent of speakers as we may be, willing the throat is one request too many.  We write.

The hardest emotions that roll around deep, enjoying the bowels of the mind, and relishing in the moments when the tedious tight rope shakes–those are the one that tickle the keyboard.

I’m pissed.  That sounds simple, but it’s the right word.  I’m pissed off to the uttermost.  It’s not so much important what it is about, than it is I have to say it. I have to convey it, unleash it.  I want the kinesthetic feeling, exercising those fine motor skills, that makes me feel every ounce of it.  Then maybe I can shower that feeling away–but for one splendid moment it robs from me all of my innovation, all of my passion, and all of my words.  Maybe it robs me of nothing.  Maybe that’s why anger makes for the best writing,  The verve it creates, the synergy with the written language lets something ugly become beautiful for a moment.  Maybe this isn’t my dark side, but the optimist in me, forcing shit into art.  Perhaps I’m giving some dead thing a pulse again…the part of me that departed while I was so pissed off.  I feel just a little more flowers and sunshine already.

When Words Marry a Melody

When words are married to a melody equally as powerful as they are, things happen. Lyrics change, and where there was once no understanding, sometimes the notes are the answer. They awaken deaf ears, or passions we’ve turned our backs on.

I haven’t been writing as much lately. The rejection got to me. I continually preach how I’ll never stop trying, I’ll always love writing before all else, and I won’t give up my dream of sharing it. However, I did…a little bit. I was angry at my writing. It became like a little gremlin that wouldn’t shut up no matter how tightly I closed my ears. I found myself screaming into pillows and imagining pulling the writer out of my chest to lock it in a box. However, much like the tale-tell heart, it beat so loudly. I let it drive me mad, and busied myself with anything I could to avoid it. I never thought I would see the day…

Then it happened. I heard one of those songs that only come out every couple decades. I heard a new sound that jolted me to life. I heard the melody before the words. It was sultry and grinding. It was folksy and bluesy. It was modern with antiquated traits. It was some place where the ghost of Janis Joplin mingled with Lady Antebellum if such can be imagined. It may only get to be heard…

I closed my eyes and breathed in saw dust from a mill dirty men were working at nearby. I saw a barefoot woman in a second-hand, dirt-washed, floral dress pacing in a barren front yard in front of her shack. I saw a newspaper thrown down beside her declaring World War 2 was over, but was more concerned with the blood stain on her right shoulder. I hadn’t yet decided where it had come from, nor if she is insane or just drunk. I do however know she is thirsty. She’s thirsty to be touched, loved, or just noticed. I think she was probably born cursed and is more earnest than people know. If she is at the point of madness she’s been driven to it. She’s strong, but probably won’t be forever. The daisy in a Dixie cup she picked for herself gives her away. Oh my…Where did this character come to me from? It happened in a flash. I think I can make something of her…was it simply a few bars of a song?

Then I snapped out of it and heard the words,

“Billie Jean is not my lover. She’s just a girl who claims that I am the one. But the kid, is not my son.”

It was drawn out, pushed, like the singer was forcing himself out of a heat stroke on a southern August day in the Carolina sand hills. They had covered a MICHAEL JACKSON song in such a way they showed me Billie Jean herself. I saw her before I heard her name, and now she’s inspired me.

The band, The Civil Wars told me the story of girl with a deep sadness about her who just tries to be a good time. They told me the story of someone who was once beautiful but used and denied to the point she lost herself. They told me something Michael did not. They told me her side.

Now I have to write the rest of the story. I now see the next level, the rawness, the pain. I see the man who did this to her, and I see a gun in another lovers hand. I see a washed up war-time pin-up, and I see bastard child with a curse hanging on her head as plainly as her Mama’s. I hear old southern accents, like the kind my grandparents use bustling about, and I smell moonshine on all their breaths. I think…I think I just might have a novel in spite of my rebellion against it. I think one form of art reached out and stroked another, and I think I am grateful.

Time to Contend

I’m terrified to finish my novel.  I have about a chapter left, and well, have had about a chapter left since May.  For whatever reason, I keep putting if off.  At first when I realized I was so close, I was ecstatic.  I was already picturing the cover art, and how it would bring life to the beige shelves at Barnes & Noble.  It would be my masterpiece.

However, the romantic music in my head began to fade, and I shoved my laptop in a drawer.  I concerned myself with other matters like work, vacations, sun-bathing, reorganizing my closet, and watching old episodes of Friends all day.  I complained about how busy I am, while sitting on the couch at noon in my pajamas.  I am avoiding my novel, which I am in love with, as if it will open Pandora’s Box the second I lift the lid of the laptop.  Why?  I spout off constantly how I want to be this great writer, and that this is the only thing I really, and I mean really know how to do.

If I finish the novel, I’m no longer working on it.  I’ve done it, and I have to do something about it.  I have to send query letters to agents and get ready to tighten up my muscles for the hard blows.  I know I will be backed up against the ropes, feeling them dig into my back,  while I let the George Foremans of the literary world have their way with me.  They will send letters saying things like,”the project just isn’t right for us,” “keep trying,” and “due to the large amount of queries we receive, we can only select a few manuscripts.”  I will act like I’m unaffected by this because even the great writers have gone through it, but really each rejection will make me sick in the deep parts of my stomach I don’t like to address.

However,  I have to do it.  I have no choice but to step into the ring, knowing full well I will not come out unscathed.  I have to ready myself for the beating of my life, but with one thought in the back of my mind…I will win.  I will take the punches, weaken my opponents, get off the ropes, and never stop coming at them.  I will wipe away the blood with explosive words on stiff pages, and just start throwing punches over and over until I’m so engrossed in the fight that I no longer feel the pain.  What else can a writer do?  A novel has to fight like hell to make it to a shelf.  That’s any novel.  It has to be a contender before it can be a champion.  There’s a time to contend, and a time to win…now my book and I contend.

I will finish my novel by this time next week.  I think I decided that just now.  I’m entering the ring, ready to contend with all the meanest, grittiest heavy weights because I have to.  It’s in me already.  It’s not a fight I even have the ability to choose.  I’m a contender by nature.  All writers are.  I just wake up in the ring, and the bell is resounding.  It’s time.  Start dancing, Lorna.

The Nature of Belle Isle

I was poking around on the computer at my mother’s house when I noticed a file with my name on it.  At first I didn’t know what it was, but when I opened it, remembered it immediately.  The top of it said Belle Isle, 1949.  That’s the name of a poem I did an explication on one of the 428 times I went back to school.  I remembered the poem well, and smiled when I looked back at my analysis of it.  I had done a good job because I liked the subject.  The poem was a coming-of-age, carpe` diem themed piece about a high schooler who skinny-dipped with a foreign stranger on a hot summer night in the late 40s.

This poem in particular stuck out to me because it highlighted the uncooked human soul at it’s finest.  It is my favorite kind of tale. It is the kind where two ships pass in the night, yet it makes all the difference in years to come.  It was about a memory, a raw memory…the kind I love writing about.

Two teenagers, from different cultures, who spoke different languages somehow communicated through hyper-sensitive teenage pheromones to come to an agreement that they would seize the moment, get naked, and just maybe have a night neither of them would be able to forget.  They wouldn’t exchange names or numbers…after all how could they?  They would only hang onto the burning rope that was the summer night, then go their separate ways.  I recall the poem was written without punctuation or end-stopped sentences.  Overflowing with enjambment, I could feel the rushed, passionate pace, and my heart quickened a little.  I could feel the energy between these kids. They are soul mates for a moment, the kind of soul mates we all find floating about us once in a blue moon before the real lifetime kind show up, and it’s enough.  Their flesh was enough, their humanism was enough, and their circumstance was enough.

We’ve all had a Belle Isle sometime…that place where we let our nature take over, before the adolescence wore off, and age and time told us to change.  There’s some place in the corner of our minds where the nonsense still exists, and still calls me to write about it.  I love learning about what makes us thrive in that way we do when we’re naive, because that’s who we really are. I love to strip away the bullshit and just look at bare naked nature. That’s where that juice that tastes so sweet to a writer’s tongue lives.  That’s the place that doesn’t know language, though I try to use language to describe it.  It’s the place where a warm body made of flesh and bones simply wants another just like it nearby.  It isn’t about forever, or the other things that have to be present for a lifetime mate.  This is that in between place when we first know we have a pulse, and it pulses for someone else, leading us to them.  Here is to gravity.  Here is to nature.  Here is to Belle Isle.

Home Grown

Writers in The South grow slowly and organically like garden vegetables, about one row back from the tomatoes (a.k.a “tomatas”).  We soak up about as much sunlight as we can, but grow the most on our rainy days.  We dare not cover the scuffs or rough marks on our skins, because it shows where we once laid on the ground until somebody came along to pick us up.

I’ve always emphasized my connection to my atmosphere.  I always say this as if I’m the only one who operates that way.  On occasion I like to prance around in self-indulgent thoughts when my ego has hit a little drought.  However, I’ve realized a lot of people are conjoined, like a Siamese twin, to his or her atmosphere.  After all, that’s how we develop different cultures.  Culture is born from an atmosphere rubbing off on everyone in it.  Writers come from all different backgrounds, but often display trends rooting back to the region they come from.  We Southern writers are no exception to the rule.

I’ve written on many occasions about the unexplainable energy that pumps through that Bible-quoting, front-porch-sitting, humidity-expelling, artistic cess pool below the Mason-Dixon line.  That energy is what fertilizes Southern American writers.  It’s our miracle grow.  We are emotional, romantic, hopeful, wishful, and always starved for something.  Those things are the connective tissues formed between us.  That’s what makes Southern literature incredible, and is why I want so badly to be a part of it. We are all home grown, sprouting up with seeds inside spicier than a hot banana pepper’s.  I know that fire, and it’s a blood thirsty flame that can only be controlled for fleeting moments at a time when my hand and the page connect and make sense for that minute.  Whenever that beautiful event occurs, I just look around me to quickly find where it came from.  When I read other Southern authors like, Sue Monk Kidd, Nicholas Sparks, Barbara Kingsolver, or the great Thomas Wolfe I recognize something.  I recognize a community pulsing the same heartbeat, a sweet Southern song, performed by a chorus of crickets and summer afternoon thunder.  I see all of the writers speckled about the lower right side of the map writing out those passions bred by an amazing culture, and I realize I belong there, and I am home.

Creative Writing teacher Natalie Goldberg says, “Often when a southerner reads [an original piece], the members of the class look at each other, and you can hear them thinking, gee, I can’t write like that. The power and force of the land is heard in the piece. These southerners know the names of what shrubs hang over what creek, what dogwood flowers bloom what color, what kind of soil is under their feet.”

I can almost hear all the Southern writers sigh, in different variations of the accent, a collective, “Amen.”

Becoming Grant Tilley

     A couple of months ago I began the process of becoming a man…and I must say it’s a quite interesting endeavor.  When I first got the idea for my latest novel, I knew it would have to happen.  The story needed a male narrator.  I’m not going to lie…it scared me a little.  Could I do this character justice?  Could I conquer all the little nuances that make up not only the male psyche in general, but a specific male?  I knew I had to try.  I would have to put my girly, Margaret Mitchell-inspired writing voice aside, rub a little dirt in the keyboard and start my journey towards becoming Grant Tilley.

     His face came first.  I could see him at about thirteen years old, liberally speckled with red freckles, standing out in the hot Charleston sun with green eyes too knowledgable for a child.  He was wearing greasy overalls and an expression on his face that gave away the fact he was surviving the Great Depression in the South.  He started the story as a boy, already with the stress of a man on his shoulders.  I could feel the nature of a male, how he works harder through stress, and grows up based on experiences instead of time starting to unfold, as my fingers started stretching.  I reached for the keys, waiting on his voice to show up, almost feeling the hesitant cadence to his tone forcing me to pause.  I could then see gestures and body language….he was making my mind fire off image after image….then there it was…the accent…and he started to speak.   The next thing I knew,the white screen was spitting up black letters, and I was spewing Grant Tilley out of my veins.  At this point, it wasn’t about trying…he had arrived.

     This was the greatest joy for me as a writer.  It was maybe the first time a character who was nothing like me came so purely out of me.  It is so real when I write from his prospective.  It doesn’t matter that I’m the girliest kind of girl.  It doesn’t matter that I’ve never experienced a life like his…the idea was born, then there he came, almost entrancing me, dancing out of my mind and all over the page…or maybe he clogged out of my mind… 

     I half expected to come back to consciousness mid-writing session to notice myself sweltering under either stress or real heat one, in a pair of overalls two sizes too small that had been washed in mud hole.  However, when I stop writing I’m just me, and Grant lives in my computer, staying quiet until he comes traipsing out, fishing pole in hand, through my mind once again.~