ON THE 4th OF OCTOBER, I visited with six creative writing classes at Barrington High School, about 40 miles NW of Chicago. I hadn't darkened the doors of BHS since I'd graduated in June of 1980, and coming back was a little weird.
It's always strange returning to Barrington, where I spent the first 18 years of my life in a big house my father built by Bakers Lake. Despite all the changes in the neighborhood, I seem to breathe memories in from the humid air, and the shape of the land (though much of it has been built over) and the sky that sits over it (the same way it always has) strikes me with strange familiarity.
Inside, the school was so different as to have little of this effect. But I knew it was the same place. And there were moments, such as looking out the window of Ms. Sultan's classroom and realizing it was my old typing room, when I could remember sitting there buzzed on coffee from The Breadbasket restaurant, making mistakes and borrowing Jena's typing eraser.
THIS IS THE FIRST of a series of blogs in which I respond to questions from BHS students:
How do you come up with a concept for your writing?
For the novel that I'm currently avoiding revising, I started with an image: a canoe lodged in tall cattails at the shore of Bakers Lake, and someone--me, I suppose--lying down in the bottom of the canoe. The tall, thin blades of the cattails exude coolness and green, but from the warm water the scent of decay rises: ripe with algae and the biology of fresh water, millions of organisms living in the water and the mud. The green of the cattails and the algae breathe out the fresh oxygen, converting the sun into energy, while microorganisms eat and decompose and die and are decomposed themselves.
In the canoe, the character--the more I think about him the further he goes from being me--is aware of everything around him. He knows the ecology, the relationships between the living and non-living things around him, and his imagination brings it all into his consciousness. He is himself alone in this place, but he is thinking about his friend, and something has happened. Maybe his friend has died. And a song they used to listen to comes to his mind, haunts him, " . . .story of her boyfriend, of teenage stone death games, handsome lad, dead in a car . . ." And he thinks of his best friend's girlfriend because of the "story of her boyfriend" line.
So my concepts come from memory, and changing memory by drifting deep into the scenes brought to my mind from memory and letting the possibilities of those scenes shift.
Aidan Chambers uses a repeating line, placed throughout his amazing novel, This is All: The Pillow Book of Cordelia Kenn: "All writing is memory." Some of the shifting is very deliberate--I take a memory of my best friend, and I say, "He can't be blonde, his hair is dark." Or I'm thinking about his girlfriend, (only it's the character's girlfriend now) and I'm doing the dishes and she's not coming to me, and I'm getting frustrated. Then I think her name might be Sophia,* and the image of a Sophia I once knew comes to me. Suddenly I realize that her name isn't Sophia, but that she looks like Sophia, and from that memory of Sophia's physical presence--not just her hair and her eyes and her body, but the way she carries herself, her gestures, the movement of her eyes--the character suddenly takes shape.
To BHS Seniors: Hope this answers your questions better than my random presentation!
*name changed to protect the innocent. ;-)