Earlier this week, I was honored to be featured on TreeHouse, An Exhibition of the Arts, a web site put together by my friends Erin Whittinghill and Natasha Ganes.
Click on the logo or right here to read it on their site, or to just check the site out in general, which you should, because it’s awesome.
Or you can stay here, because I’m I’m also re-posting my TreeHouse guest post here, for my email subscribers and so it can filter down into the aquifer/archive. And cuz I’ve been busy and don’t have a new post. And you know, so you don’t miss it.
We’re driving through Hollywood when a friend asks me,
“Where do you get your ideas for stories?”
His phone rings before I can answer, and while he talks, I look around. We’re headed home from a vintage LA evening: sunset dinner atop a Venice hotel, an improv variety show at the Fringe Festival, a nightcap at a French Quarter-looking joint, a dip in the Roosevelt Hotel pool. It’s past midnight and Hollywood Blvd is packed with cars. The line for the Supper Club stretches halfway down the block and it’s packed, too, with bare-backed broads shivering atop their stilettos and fat men in skinny jeans oohing and ogling. Creeping up La Brea to Franklin, I slalom concertgoers wheeling coolers down the middle of the street as they spill out of the Playboy Jazz Festival at the Bowl, laughin and carryin on. A homeless man argues with the parking attendant in front of the Magic Castle. When we finally get to the 101, three cars are backing up the onramp. A shirtless man is standing on the railing of the Pilgrimage Bridge.
Finally, my friend hangs up. “So, about those story ideas,” he says, and I tell him I had about twenty while he was on the phone.
This is hardly unique – even to writers, let alone to just me. I think we all make assumptions all day long about where people come from and how we’d act in situations we come across. An image presents itself, and a backstory unfurls behind it. Most of us just immediately let them go. Most of the time, I do. But every once in a while, I pluck an image-packet out of the ether as it whizzes by, like Mr. Miyagi with his chopsticks, and write it down.
If I let it ferment for a while, the general framework takes care of itself and I can write it all out like I’m transcribing something I know. This part – the setup – is sheer fun. And it gets me writing, which is the only way I know how to come up with the rest of the story. What it’s really about. Because a story’s not really about what happens where. (Except it kind of is.)
In the stories I like to read, and the ones I try to write, there’s some ineffable something else in addition to plot and theme and setting and character – not a moral or a point or any kind of distillate you can separate out from the other elements and say this is what this story’s about, but something that, well, gets at the heart of things.
I rarely know what that ineffable something is before I write it. Or, discover it by writing, I should say. Even if the image I first glimpsed is the resolution, by the time the story’s done, it doesn’t carry the weight or meaning I initially thought it would.
Only once has a story come roaring out fully formed. For several years, I thought it was brilliant, and I tried to duplicate that process of starting with the “conclusion,” of describing the whole jigsaw puzzle just as it first appeared, of manufacturing impact. But I never had that experience again, and what’s more, I can finally see that actually, that story is predictable, pedantic, unimaginative, and cliché.
Technically speaking, all impact is manufactured. But ineffable somethings feel less conscious than that. They feel stumbled upon or written into. Uncovered, if I may.
By way of example: I heard a story on NPR last fall about a handful of people who were going to jail for a very long time for defrauding the State of California by redeeming recycling deposits on cans and bottles they collected out of state. It was irresistible, but I had to carry it around for eight months before I could figure out how to use it. Because a story about the fraud ring would be journalism, and that’d already been done. (Besides, I couldn’t be bothered with all those…facts.)
One day, I saw this great big woman in a pink sweat suit standing at a crosswalk, lighting a cigarette. On the opposite corner was a skinny priest in short sleeves, an older guy with a pretty hip haircut (this is LA, after all), polishing his Ray Bans. Looking back and forth between them, I knew I had a way in.
But still – the cans, these characters, this one strange moment…it was enough to get going, but it wasn’t anything to hang an ineffable something’s hat on. Things went here, things went there, and before I knew it, I was up to 25,000 words. I thought for a moment I’d turn it into a novella, but the vast majority of it was superfluous to the real turning point of the story – which only emerged around word 23,000, as an insight into one of the first paragraphs I wrote. Now, at 8,000 words, the fraud ring’s incidental to the main action of the story, but it’s also intrinsic to the main thrust. I couldn’t simply swap it out for cocaine runners or hedge fund managers or used car salesmen. That’s the thing with ineffable somethings – they transcend the story, but couldn’t exist without it.
Whatever ineffable somethings are made of, I’d never have any of them if I didn’t go through the process of building a story up and then whittling it down, saying, this tangled mess is where I think the story is, and then paring things away to find the kernel.
And that paring away is where the creativity required by writing overlaps with the creativity required by life; discovering what makes a story tick is the same process of discovering what makes me tick. They’re both about removing obstacles to get at something I don’t understand but that I know is right. That ineffable something near the center of things, in life as in fiction, is always already there, waiting to be brought out into the open. There’s always a thrill when I discover it, sometimes even surprise, but it’s the shock of recognizing something that was there all along.
Hemingway famously said, “The first draft of anything is shit,” and a lot of the “shit” I have to revise out of drafts isn’t just superfluities of my own devising, but also – and more importantly – attempts to sound like someone else. It’s only when I can manage to get past my ideas of what kind of writer I want to be, when I can stop trying to manufacture impact by imitating Papa or O’Connor or Bukowski or Gogol or Winton or Porter, and just try to write sentences that sound true, that the ineffable somethings happen.
That Papaism applies to life, too, for – at the risk of sounding trite – life itself is a process of constant revision. I certainly didn’t come out polished and blemish-free, as those who’ve had to put up with me know only too well, and all these conceptions and notions I have about myself constantly prove to be only flimsy veneers over…something else. If I try to manage my personality or “craft my image,” I come across as inauthentic, feel horrible about it, and act accordingly (that is, hostile). And then that interpersonal magic that we live for – that real-life ineffable something – becomes an impossibility.
There’s a music inside each of us that’s often drowned out by the cacophony of bullshit muzak we’re sold as models of what our real lives should be.
For me, that muzak-model is a Jack London Jack Kerouac Johnny Cash Tim Armstrong fuck-you aesthetic, mixed with a David Foster Wallace David Rakoff Christopher Hitchens edgy intellectualism, and topped off with a Tom Robbins Tom McGuane irreverent joviality.
Seriously, that’s who I think I should be.
To combat this self-propelled onslaught of ludicrous and impossibly-attainable images, I rededicate myself every day to trying to lead a life, on and off the page, that’s a process of picking out the strains that ring true and leaving behind the rest. You want a Bukowski story? I can write you a Bukowski story, believe me. Hell, I can write you a Bukowski story by three o’clock this afternoon. But I’m not Bukowski, so it’d be bullshit.
You want a Prichard story, well, that might take a little while. I gotta find it first.
Since we’re getting close to the end, let me try to sum up: creativity is about paring away the layers upon layers of superficial nonsense we pile on over the years, discovering what you-and-you-alone harbor in the hidden recesses where your undiluted magic resides, and making do with what is found there.
It’s creative because it’s new, it’s original and unique, and you’re exposing it to these old-old things – language, pictures, drums, design, whatever your thing is – and throwing that mass up against the newness and nowness of culture and society.
It’s scary, because we’re taught to look elsewhere for meaning and value and worth, that what’s inside is bland at best and probably corrosive.
It’ll cost you – a little torture, probably, maybe some vertigo – to go rooting around in your depths.
But I promise you, the trip down is worth the cost.
It’s exactly as rewarding as you can possibly imagine.
Where do you get your creativity from?
What things stand in your way?
How do you get over/past/through them?