Connecting Ideas and Manufacturing Inspiration in the Writing Process

Saleema Nawaz (author of a great novel and an outstanding short fiction collection) asked me recently about a novella I’ve been working on: “How often do you set out to write something with a theme already clearly in mind before you’ve started?” I was going to bang out a reply but then I realized how utterly strange my writing process truly is, and thought it might be worth a post.

This is how I came up with the idea for the novella, “The Lightning of Possible Storms” (which I’m still writing): in 2006, I was walking down Kensington Road on a summer day when there was a lot of dandelion fluff in the air, and I wished I had a video camera and a movie script so that I could record a regular scene with dandelion fluff everywhere. Then I started thinking about what kind of scene I might record. Around that time I was reading a book on digital filmmaking by Mike Figgis, who directed Leaving Las Vegas. It occurred to me that I might write a very character-based story one day rather than all of my idea-heavy stories, and then adapt this story to film. But I didn’t have a character. I wanted a female character, because I don’t feel that I write female characters enough. So I started to think about who the character might be and what they might do. The story would need a level of melancholy because of the dandelion fluff, which would seem too fanciful unless balanced with some melancholy. For the next few months I thought about where I might shoot scenes of a woman looking melancholy if I had a melancholy woman and a digital video camera. I brought in a lot of ideas and then threw them out. I fleshed her character out a little in my head, but came up with no real ideas, not even a name. I learned that somebody I know is a silversmith, which seems like a cool gig and something very hands-on, so I could write or film her actually manipulating physical items, and so decided that this character would be a silversmith. I also decided she’d work in a tea shop, since I like to drink tea, and since tea has a fascinating history, and I would have an excuse to hang out in this Kensington tea shop that I like. Tea and silversmithing together seems almost alchemical, I don’t know why I feel this, but suddenly my nameless female character is sounding interesting to me.

Then later on I start learning about string theory, and am particularly drawn by this notion of multiple universes, which might be infinite in number. This would mean, possibly, in theory, that any fiction I might imagine has already actually occurred or will someday occur in another universe. So that my nameless female protagonist is already out there, in a very real world, shuffling around, serving tea, and smithing silver. All of which is fantastical, yet potentially literally true, depending on whether or not the theory is valid and if it can be interpreted in this manner (it’s all very speculative). By this point it’s almost 2007, and I write a short story called “George and Gracie” based on characters from an explanation of relativity in Brian Greene’s book on string theory, The Elegant Universe. Now I think I can also use this idea in the short story about the woman, which now has a name, but I don’t know how.

Then I get a title for the story, from reading an interview with Michel Foucault, “The Masked Philosopher.” At one point in the interview, Foucault says:

“I dream about a kind of criticism that would try not to judge but to bring an oeuvre, a book, a sentence, an idea to life; it would light fires, watch the grass grow, listen to the wind, and catch the sea foam in the breeze and scatter it. It would multiply not judgments but signs of existence; it would summon them, drag them from their sleep. Perhaps it would invent them sometimes — all the better.”

“Criticism that hands down sentences sends me to sleep; I’d like a criticism of scintillating leaps of imagination. It would not be sovereign or dressed in red. It would bear the lightning of possible storms.”

What Foucault fails to realize is that this kind of “criticism” already exists: as literature itself, which (in the postmodernist view) already always refers to other literature. So now I have a great phrase, “the lightning of possible storms,” that I decide would be a good title for a collection of short stories. At the same time, for no reason, I decide it should be the title of this short story with a female protagonist that I am trying to write.

I have to emphasize the fact that I decided this for no reason. An important part of my writing process involves making random decisions, posing writing problems for myself, and then attempting to think my way around these problems. For example, during this time I have also decided that my main character will take the C-train everywhere and that she will see the fake dinosaurs at the zoo from the C-train, which I noticed is possible while I was taking the C-train one day. Like the decision to make her a silversmith and a tea server, I have decided this for no reason, or rather, because so far I have no story. My theory of writing is that if you just keep throwing elements together, eventually you figure out how these elements can combine into a story. So now I have: a story with a female protagonist, a silversmith tea server, who rides the C-train and sees fake dinosaurs, and at one point notices dandelion fluff falling everywhere. And it’s called “The Lightning of Possible Storms” and may involve string theory as a metaphor. I already like it more than most stories I read, and it is absolutely NOT a story.

I keep throwing ideas around in my idle time, mostly while riding the C-train, not really keeping any or adding anything significant. Too many of the ideas involve her being victimized somehow by a man, a too-easy way to introduce conflict, so I decide definitively AGAINST this. Maybe she’ll be a lesbian, in any case if a man is involved he will be neither an aggressor nor a typical love interest. I want to keep the story focused on her, and avoid the temptation to play it “safe” and get into a man’s head.

I also decide that, if I am going to have a book collection of stories including this title story, the title story has to somehow connect to or tie together or at least thematically inflect the other stories, which need a reason to be in a book together. So riffing on the word “possible,” I notice that I spend a lot of time writing stories where something impossible occurs, or where the realm of the possible is larger than in a normal story (although I’m not really writing anything too strange or magic realist, often just one odd and bizarre element, or maybe just an odd approach to an otherwise normal story). So I look at what stories fit this vague notion and which I might include. And I start thinking of ways that my title story might relate to these other, unconnected stories. I read a great story collection by Paul Glennon (The Dodecahedron) which has a strange, Oulipian constraint where elements have to be repeated from one story to another in a complicated fashion, which I enjoy but decide not to copy. Although maybe the basic notion of repeating elements in small ways?

By now it is almost New Year’s Day, 2009. I am almost done the short story collection. The stories I haven’t written are pretty well planned out, EXCEPT for my title story, which I have to write if I want to have a collection of stories and not abandon my awesome title, etc. It’s been almost 2 years and I still haven’t written a single word of “The Lightning of Possible Storms.” And yet, I can’t give up on my nameless protagonist (maybe Aleya?) and I still have a driving desire to write this story, and even believe, again, for no reason, that it will be a great story that will hang everything together. At this point I feel almost like I have fallen in love with this character and this story, so irrational are my feelings towards the story and my unwillingness to give it up, even though it is only causing me pain.

And THEN I hit upon the idea: in fact, this is precisely the story. Aleya (or whoever) is serving tea, someone fitting my description keeps coming in, is always trying to write, but never does. They don’t talk to one another, but one week she notices he is writing furiously, head down, on a yellow pad. He has a book with him, like always, it changes every visit. One day he forgets his book. She picks it off the table … The Robber by Robert Walser (subject of one of the other short stories in the collection, “Walser in Winnipeg”) … thinking maybe, like some books, his name or contact info is inside so she can return it. Lo and behold, the book is inscribed as a gift to her, complete with name, although they haven’t spoken and he shouldn’t know her name. He does not return, and she reads the book, and slowly the world becomes less real… books inscribed to her appear in the oddest places, all over the city, a secret benefactor (the author) is slowly reshaping the world in a bid to please her. It’s as if thousands of different universes are converging, and she is stepping from one to another, looking for one she likes. And, well, we’ll have to see how the rest turns out, in the actual writing of it.

So, in short, my writing process is haphazard and bizarre, shot through with random decisions. I get odd notions or make suspect decisions and then obsess over ideas and characters or just thoughts for scenes until things gel organically or I otherwise figure out a way to make them work on paper. When I am actually writing, I simply write so many words per day and if I don’t know what to write I make a similar random decision, simply to have something to write, even if I just end up deleting it later. But usually I have been obsessing over ideas for a long time before I begin writing, I have a big backlog of ideas so I am able to write while thinking ahead to other projects, even though I may be thinking ahead for years.

A long answer to a short question, but strange enough to warrant a long note, I think. And now, Saleema, how do YOU approach things? You mentioned this a little once on your blog, but I’m curious to know about your process in more detail… is the “white rabbit” road your typical way to work? I would have to say this convoluted nonsense that is my approach to “The Lightning of Possible Storms” is fairly typical of how I work.

And anybody else reading this blog (I know Peter Norman is still out there, if no one else)… what’s the deal with you?