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Tonight’s Lecture Will Be on the Creative Process (whether you like it or not)

September 13, 2019

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Last week at the dinner table, my middle daughter (age 15) performed a cheeky, dramatic reading of a sweet love scene I wrote for my upcoming fantasy-romantic novel, Savage Island.

“Will’s kiss is wild,” my daughter cooed. “It’s like the wind Aunt Kitty is so afraid might sweep me off the tops of the arches.”

She stared directly at her 17 year-old brother as she hammed it up. But he would have none of it. He remained fixated on his food, moving his potatoes around with his fork.

“The kind of wind that blows my hair this way and that,” she continued. “Scoops the breath right out of my rib cage. Every stroke of his tongue – ”

“Please stop!” her brother shouted. “Do you have any idea how much this disgusts me?”

I knew that last bit was for my benefit, even before he looked my way. “Mom, I just picture you at your desk…sitting there…biting your lip as you write…and it’s horrible.”

I’m sure just about every parent can related to this admittedly awkward exchange (awkward for my kids, anyway). What child isn’t revolted by the idea of a parent having any kind of sexual awareness? What parent hasn’t heard one or more of their children express icky discomfort at the prospect of good ole mom and dad being real live human beings who brought their little bundles of joy into existence by reproducing the way real live human beings do? I suppose for children of writers, actors and artists who might address the act of falling in love or lust in their work – this type of evidence, one that isn’t merely circumstantial, but chronicled in detail – is mortifying.

Still, I figured this cringey domestic moment could also be an interesting segue into a conversation about the form and function of creativity. I forget how opaque the creative process may seem – even to those who live with artists. Few people outside the realm of painters, writers, musicians and their ilk have anything more than a rudimentary understanding of the way it all really works.

And for good reason. The creative process is complicated and difficult. It also happens largely inside our heads, so the many steps between the spark of an idea and something you can actually hold in your hand and experience remains hidden.

That’s why I thought it might be helpful if I tried to articulate some of those missing steps for my kids – especially my son, who seemed to fear that I sat around all day having sexy fantasies and then scrambled to jot them down before he got home from school.

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Photo by Christal Yuen on Unsplash

“Writing fiction,” I told him, “is not as literal an experience as you seem to think. Storytelling is one part memory and another part alchemy, and while I might start with a personal fragment – of an old acquaintance, an experience or observation, even a fantasy – from there it takes on a life of its own.”

“Great. Thank you for clarifying. Are we done?”

“No, we’re not done,” I scolded. In fact, I proceeded to ramble on and will try to capture some of the things I said by employing a hodge-podge of what I recall from my dinner table lecture, and bits and pieces I’ve written about the creative process in the past. Over all, the gist of this will be informative. I think. And interesting. I hope.

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Photo by Mervyn Chan on Unsplash

Here goes.

The weird goulash of anything and everything that’s ever caught my attention might offer some great raw ingredients for a story, but without something to bind it together, give it structure, it’s just a creative goo. For me, that’s where the role of myth comes into play.

Mythology, I believe, connects just about any work of fiction. It’s the bones that hold up each and every discordant part, providing architecture to the stories we endeavor to tell. In the case of Savage Island, it’s in the way my lovers approach one another, in their motivations, and the trials they’re put through in order to earn what is arguably the most sought after objective in the history of mankind – true love.

Seems to me all fiction writers throw a pinch of mythology into their stories, whether they know it or not. My own myth medley draws heavily on the Greeks, Grimm’s Fairytales, Hans Christian Andersen and the Bible. But I see the influence of myth everywhere. Thriller, sci-fi, fantasy, romance, horror, even dragon porn (yes, there is such a thing) borrow from bygone tales first told thousands of years ago. They indulge in narratives that touch on prodigal sons, jealous gods, heroic warriors and fallen angels. On evil witches, wise old shamans, prophecies and destinies.

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Image by Greg Montani from Pixabay

Once this brew of legend and cold eye reminiscence has been cobbled together, something resembling a proper fiction emerges. At this point, I clarified, I’m still not “done.” This is when writers sit down to bless the work with our senses – color, smell, taste, a little music for the ears. Quirks and eccentricities. These are the seasonings, if you will.

Stuff like this:

A bloke about my age starts to thump his palms on his nafa – bum-bu-bum-bu-bum – and the hair on my arms stands up. Son of the friendly woman from the post office, he’s long limbed and built like he should be tall, though he’s a fair bit shorter than me. His sister, can’t remember her name either, stands next to him all plump and pretty. She’s got a shock of curly black hair that hugs her skull like a bathing cap fixed with floppy rubber roses, and starts to sing Haku Motu. Out of tune. –Savage Island

From here, I followed my son into the kitchen, speaking loudly enough so that my daughters, who were clearing the table, could hear.

I stumbled through trying to decode the basics of the editorial process – something that’s still a bit mysterious to me, and involves a fusion of intuition and practice. How a writer reads her first draft with cohesion and natural progression in mind, for instance. What I’ve written has to make sense in order for it to come together; it has to move at a certain pace to have a reader turning pages. Otherwise, I know damned well the work will die. That’s why with very, very few exceptions, if a work of fiction is created by merely the act of transferring fantasy from brain to paper, it’s probably a hot mess.

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Photo by Tyler Nix on Unsplash

Because fantasies serve only our own desires.

Even when I’m writing one of those precarious love scenes, the ones where I’m taking a deep breath, conjuring every sweet nothing I’ve ever taken seriously – I’m not writing my fantasy. Or literally placing myself into the story. I’m crafting a scene, choosing my words carefully and from a whole host of possibilities. I’m thinking about the light, what scents might be enticing to my characters. Whether a girl from the desert might find the smell of a flowery perfume heavenly or overpowering? These impressions are part of a world built intentionally and meticulously. From the ground up and with a tremendous amount of love and passion. My fiction, I explained to my son (the girls were making Tik Tok videos together by this time), is no more a reflection of my fantasy world than are he or his sisters. And that’s the very reason it means as much to me as it does. It’s real.

At last, my son glanced my way again. “You know you lost me way back at ‘Bill’s wild kiss,’ don’t you?'”

Will’s wild kiss,” I corrected him. “My character’s name is Will.”

“Whatever,” he mumbled from the back hallway, as I heard him heading upstairs.

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Photo by Carli Jeen on Unsplash

Savage Island…coming October 1

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