July 23, 2014

You Get the Picture

It's been a while since I posted anything about this new novel I'm working on. That's because after I did a bunch of planning and a lot of research and then some more planning, I wasn't sure how to proceed. I still needed to figure out many aspects of the story, and I didn't really know enough about the facts, and it was all rather intimidating. I went off and wrote some other stuff for a bit, and I wrote nothing for a time, and I let myself get distracted by unrelated things. Somehow none of that resulted in progress on the novel. But now I finally have a much stronger grip on the story, and I'm feeling far more confident about getting somewhere. So it's the perfect time to get caught up in the excitement of a vacation and forget all about the novel again!

I'm really looking forward to visiting my family. I'm also happy about feeling that when I get back from the trip, I'll be eager to move forward with this novel instead of continuing to avoid it.

In a couple of other areas, I've made more visible progress:

I'm pleased to report that my new/old Polaroid camera is functional! I was able to purchase the appropriate battery and film, but I wasn't certain I really had it working until I peeled apart the first photograph. I'd braced myself for disappointment, so seeing a clear image there was kind of astounding, perhaps what it might have felt like to encounter a Polaroid for the very first time.

Here, meta-ly, is a photo of my first four photos:

July 18, 2014

Inspiration vs Perspiration vs Procrastination

There is a component of creativity that comes out of nowhere. At no particular time and for no particular reason, you might be struck by an image or a scenario or a dilemma that enthralls you. Maybe this happens to you constantly, maybe it's rare, but either way, that spark of inspiration can become the thing you're excited to write about (or express in the creative format of your choice). A creative project has to start from something, and this so-called visit from the muse might be the best source for an idea you actually care about.

But any creative project requires a whole lot of ideas, not just a starting point. That sentence you overheard can inspire your novel, but you're going to have to make a million decisions about character and plot and setting to transform that sentence into a story, and that's leaving aside the fact that you also have to sit down and write the damn thing. Since so many brilliant ideas come unexpectedly, it can be tempting to wait around for as long as it takes for all the right pieces to fall into place in your head, but this isn't generally the best tactic.

Coming to every decision in its own sweet time could take forever, so it's important to apply the same discipline to planning and thinking as to writing: Show up and do the work whether you want to or not, whether you feel inspired or not. This won't be effective absolutely every time, but usually, all that's required to get things flowing is to make a start. Focus on the problem, stare pointedly at research materials that might lead to ideas, and a solution will become apparent. It's not magic, it's persistence.

Once you've had a little success with the just-do-it strategy, it can again be tempting to sit back and let the rest of puzzle assemble itself through those useful flashes of brilliance. This might work, after all, now that you've solved that one big problem that was plaguing you for ages.

Don't do that. A crucial aspect of persistence is that it's ongoing. To really accomplish anything creative, you have to work at it and work at it and work some more. Even if it's summer and there are new books out and vacations to plan.

This post is of course simply a timeless observation, relevant to nothing at all particular or currently relevant.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ This summer, London is full of benches inspired by books, and they're rather lovely. (Thanks, Books on the Nightstand!)

→ At The Millions, Jonathan Russell Clark examines The Art of the Epigraph: "Writers don't use them to boast. They are less like some wine and entrĂ©e pairing and more like the first lesson in a long class. Writers must teach a reader how to read their book. "

July 10, 2014

Artifacts of Fiction

Last month, while I was out for a walk in my neighborhood, I saw a sign for an estate sale inside a house that was on the market. I never pass up an opportunity to look around a stranger's home in a socially acceptable manner, so I went in.

It was clear that someone had spent a long life in that house and taken great care of their belongings. I lingered for a while over a beautiful Art Deco bedroom set that has nothing to do with the decor (if you can call it that) of my own house but would fit in well at the home of my antique-collecting parents. Primed by childhood weekends of antique fairs, I turned my highly specific knowledge to the shelves of smaller items in search of any other Deco pieces. I didn't find any, but my attention was grabbed by a set of white dishes with tiny green flowers near the edges. The pattern instantly made me think of being young in my other parents' kitchen. It's a strong memory, but I'm not even convinced it's correct -- it might be my grandmother's dishes that bear this pattern.

Then I spotted another object full of personal significance, but this one had nothing to do with my real family. Instead, it was connected to the fictional family that inhabits my novel. In THE EXTENT OF THE DAMAGE, the characters buy an early model Polaroid camera. It's not a major event in the story, but the camera does play a role in several scenes, as do the photographs passed down through the years. I put a fair amount of effort into researching 60s-era Polaroids, so it gave me a thrill to unexpectedly discover one in front of me.

The actual camera in my novel, which the characters purchase in 1964, is a Polaroid Land Model 100. It retailed for $165, equivalent to over $1000 in today's dollars. The estate sale camera is a Model 250, available starting in 1967 for about the same price, but the two models are similar in design. The original owner had carefully preserved all the camera's accessories and documentation, and what most excited me was the idea of a carrying case packed with everything my character would have brought home from the store. For $40, I took this piece of fictional family history back to my own real house.