Write some. Live some.
June 7, 2014 § 11 Comments
In 1998—a lifetime ago—I began writing a book called “Crossing Jordan.”
It was my third novel, and I was still finding my feet as a writer.
I am almost always spurred to write a story by some small, random incident that would otherwise be quickly forgotten.
In this case it was a conversation with the girl next door who said her family was about to move because there were getting to be too many black people in our neighborhood.
As soon as the door closed behind her, I sat down and began to write.
I knew only two things when I began: the title, which comes from the old spiritual, “Wayfaring Stranger,” and the fact that the white father of my story would not move his family when a black family bought the house next door. He’d build a fence.
Seth Bodine, the bigoted redneck father in “Crossing Jordan” resembled a cardboard cutout when I first stood him up on the page. A narrow-minded stereotype, he was more cartoon than breathing man.
But he quickly spoke up for himself, told me how much he hated his lousy job as the maintenance man in a complex that rented to college students, how disrespectful those kids were, how demeaning. Yet he went in every day and kept his mouth shut because he had a family to feed.
It probably seems, to non-writers, as if there is an element of crazy in the process. A character “spoke up” for himself?” Characters do, but that conversation between author and character begins in the real world.
In the case of Seth Bodine, I may be drawing on something as close as the voice of a neighbor, or as casual as a conversation overheard at a convenience store.
Although I can’t say where I met him, the angry man who faces life with his fists balled and I have encountered each other here in the real world, but it was only through spending day after day with him on the page that I came to understand him and sympathize.
This desk at which I sit exists in two worlds.
One is the world we call “real.”
In my case “real” is an intrusive, lively, beloved neighborhood that constantly interrupts my writing.
The other is the fictional world of my story.
As a new writer I wrote all the time—any minute I could steal was spent pumping out words. I resented interruption, even panicked. I would never be a writer if this kept up!
Desperation and myopia are common at the beginning of the intoxicating journey of writing and probably necessary. Writing first books (second, third) is a little like holding a high pressure hose and trying to control it—you just can’t let go.
The scary thrill of writing is going full blast—and none of the finesse and craft that will develop over time are yet there to control it.
But write year after year after year, and book after book after book and what began as dedication will leave you sifting the dust of memory for your material.
Get out of your writer’s chair and live.
At work on my fifteenth novel, I write less than I used to, live more.
I have a library for my neighborhood kids with weekly programs that invite joy and mayhem–spend too much time as the god in charge of a fictional world and you forget how random and spontaneous life is.
Those same kids invade the time when I sit at this desk building stories. They show up at my door to say they saw a bald eagle fly over the neighborhood or borrow the library’s basketball or ask for a drink of water which is code for, I’m bored so let’s sit down on the stoop and talk.
I play a lot of music which takes me to places I wouldn’t otherwise go, like bars and festivals that celebrate everything from watermelons to worm grunting. If you are ever short on characters, hang out with musicians.
I have a husband, a family–all with suggestions on how I should spend my time.
If you’re a new writer, park your butt. Write yourself stiff and numb. Prove your intentions. But if you’ve been at it a while, you need to get out of that chair.
Write some, live some.
To be a good writer it takes both.
Note: The library photos were taken by my library co-mother, Kary Kublin.