I’ve been thinking a lot about writing and how it’s done and where ideas come from. Stephen King, in his book On Writing (which we all agree is a national treasure) says that writers don’t know where they get their ideas and that it’s all very mysterious and we can’t possibly explain how it’s done and everything. Who knows where thoughts come from? They just appear! That’s true, I guess, but I think I can be a little more specific. This would be way more interesting if I were famous or widely read. It would be very, “Where does Molly Laich get her ideas?” It still is that, I guess. You know what I mean.
Here. I’ve broken it up into the various categories of writing that I do.
Most of my stories start with a single idea or image. I fall in love with one idea and I want it to be in a story, but there’s no plot or anything to go with it and that makes me depressed. So for a few weeks, I walk around feeling sad that my idea has no home. Then I think, “well, you might as well just write down the idea.” It can be something very kinesthetic and mood based, like standing on a hot street corner in Phoenix staring at a billboard. Or it can be a little more fleshed out, like “What if my friends got drunk and drowned a dog.”
I’ll start with an example from a story I wrote when I was around 18, called “There’s Been a Bear.” I just had this idea that there had been a bear, so I wrote down that sentence. Then I built a little story around it about a kid who wakes up and finds that her family has been replaced by grizzlies that read newspapers and wear eyeglasses and stuff, and voila. The characters are born out of the situation. I remember Kevin Canty telling us in workshop that in a short story, the character’s personality is defined by what they do, so I think it works out to do it in this order.
One thing that gets me into trouble with short stories is that I often use people that I know as real life templates for the characters. I imagine what they look like, and then I put them in the scene, so it becomes this thing of, “for this scene, Dustin will be pretending like this thing has happened to him.” I’ve been irresponsible in the past using my friends in stories. People are all “Hey, I’m not gay!” and I’m all, “No no, you’re playing a gay in the story,” and then they get upset and try to kill me. (That only happened one time, and it turned out fine. He didn’t know that I had moved.) I’m getting better at at least changing their goddamn names, though. Geez.
Sometimes I’ll use real life events as a springboard for the plot, but it inevitably works out that the details get rearranged and monkeyed around so much that it scarcely resembles the original event and the “fiction” is preserved.
As for writing a novel, I don’t know. I still don’t get that. So far I guess what I do is that I go to a colony in the woods for two months, I write 30,000 words in various MS Word documents, and then I put those in a drawer and feel bad about them.
By this I mean creative non fiction personal essays or features, a la the kind of stuff I’ve been writing for the Missoula Independent for the last year. The weird thing about these is that the process is completely different from fiction. Working on these stories runs me through the emotional ringer in a fresh, new way. For “Forgetting Mary Jane,” (a story I wrote about using marijuana) I would say I’d been working on that piece in my head for around 10 years. I got the idea that it might make a compelling non fiction essay about a year before I ever pitched it at the paper, and then from there, it became a collaborative work with Robert, editor at the Indy.
The collaboration aspect is mysterious and interesting. I think I’m very lucky to have fallen into working with an editor who turned out to be such a good fit. He’s very swift and exacting. He reads my bad sentences out loud to me in a way that is so gut wrenchingly painful that it makes me never want to write a bad sentence again just to avoid it. But more than that, he gives advice on where to direct the rewrites in ways that I never could have done on my own. It’s weird to work with someone else on writing. That’s all I can say about that. Workshop is like that a little bit, but in the end, you take the advice or leave it, and you do it in isolation in the privacy of your own home. I have had some good experiences with edits for published fiction as well, on a smaller scale.
When I write non fiction, I tend to vastly overwrite, meaning that I’ll write 10,000 words for a 3,000 word essay. This is something that doesn’t happen in fiction. I tend to have a lot more self doubt and anxiety about the final product, and with good fucking reason, because thousands and thousands more people read it than any piddly little fiction piece that ends up in a journal. Puking into a bucket the night before one of my stories comes out in the paper is not an uncommon occurrence.
Then I wrote “Abacradabra” about using magic and addiction recovery. From start to finish, the gestation period in my head for that one was around four months, although the magic aspects were still years in the making. The constant with these non fiction pieces is that I’m thinking about them ALL THE TIME. They ferment in my head like a fine wine. I’m writing the sentences in the car, in the shower, in bed, etc. Around a month of this before I ever start actually writing anything down.
Right now I’m working on a story so earth shattering and mind blowing I can’t even talk about it. I can’t even begin to mention it or say anything about it for fear of making all of your hair fall out with the sheer electricity of the subject matter.
Film / book / music criticism
I consume the media and then I think about how I want to talk about it from the time the media is consumed until the deadline, which tends to be a pretty short turn around. During the film screening, I think about jokes I might tell about the brilliant or terrible shit I’m seeing. When I’m reading books, I underline stuff that’s either really good or bad and then I write about that. This is boring. You get the idea. It’s a matter of taste. I believe I have great taste, but doesn’t everybody?
Blog posts are Facebook status updates and tweets with a prohibitively long word count.
So there you have it! I would be really interested to know what you guys think and how my experiences relate to yours. I wonder if we are similar or if it’s different for everyone.