I chose a building in Bellevue for the location; and because my cousin’s grown daughter worked in the area she appeared as the unexpected person I met. In real life it had been almost a year since I’d talked to this daughter. She is a successful professional in the pharmaceutical field. Here is what was startling. Through this interaction I was writing, I came to realize that this daughter represented the alternative choice her mother was considering for herself years ago. She is the embodiment of that dream deferred. Through writing I discovered what my cousin had been thinking, and realized that my cousin probably regretted her choice.
This is an example of how writing is an access to truth through the intuitive level. Intuition can be as certain as direct observation.
Could you write about an historic encounter hundreds of years ago in the same way? I wouldn’t think so–remember I had real, extended contact with both mother and daughter. But, the next morning after I did the exercise I read an article on Amy Tan that makes me wonder. Here’s part of what it said:
Writing The Joy Luck Club helped Tan to better understand her relationship with her mother.“I could go back to any point in my childhood or even my mother’s childhood and imagine how I would have reacted and how my mother would have reacted. These scenes are not necessarily what we went through. They are my imaginings, what we would have said to each other…or not said.”
Though Tan invented details of her Joy Luck Club’s stories as she went along, her mother was shocked at how accurately some of them depicted incidents in the family’s history, particularly in regard to the death of Tan’s grandmother.
“She said, ‘How did you know my mother was really the fourth wife, not the first; that it wasn’t an accident, that she killed herself; that it happened on a certain day?’ It gave me the chills,” Tan says. “It made my mother believe that all of my fiction comes from the other world.”
That other world isn’t necessarily spiritual. It exists below the surface of things, right where our real subjects dwell, right where our intuition, released through writing, is free to explore.
It’s this quality of discovery that makes writing exciting for both writer and reader. In the first half of this book I introduced the first three principle of a writing method based on acting and film editing. What pulls us into a piece of writing is that we identify with someone in it who is reacting with genuine emotion to events in the narration. Under the guise of characters we can confront difficult subjects and conflicting aspects of our own personalities. And, when we project parts of our inner self, and see them in contexts of unlimited possibilities, we free our emotions to take us where they will. Testing their limits helps us understand who we are. Through a release of these feelings we are–at least temporarily–more fully ourselves.
Characters are rooted in scenes. A scene is a subdivision of a dramatic presentation in which location is fixed and time is continuous. Scenes are important for three reasons. First, they ground the reader. The reader knows where he or she is and who is there. Second, because scenes are complete in themselves they can be taken out of chronological order–to create more suspense, for example. (This does not change the order of the events, but changes the order in which those events are presented to the reader.) Third, vantage point (within a fixed point of view) can be shifted subtly from one scene to another. If you once thought in terms of words, sentences, paragraphs, chapters, etc…, now think in terms of scenes—the building blocks between paragraphs and chapters.
John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, John Gardner may not plan their writing the same way I’m going to suggest that you do, but they do think in terms of scenes. A story idea or plot twist isn’t enough, there have to be characters to dramatize the piece and memorable scenes in which they interact. At first it may seem like a strain to come up with scenes, but after a while you’ll be like a photographer without a camera, seeing the world in terms of scenes, primarily (in terms of plot, character, and theme… secondarily).
The art of writing is in creating structure, yet having the ability to break out of that structure to follow where a subject leads. Structure is important for you and equally important for your reader. But too rigid an outline is suffocating; besides outlines emphasize ideas, and as a contemporary writer you’re interested in scenes. I have borrowed a tool from television production that helps you accomplish this. It’s called a “storyboard.” Shortly we’ll see how it works.
The story ideas that become finished pieces are ones that involve the most interesting scenes. They are fun for us to work out. You should always have four or five story ideas in the back of your mind when you sit down to write. After you spend some time with one, you may want to switch to something else but with a ready supply of story ideas you’ll never be forced to stare at an empty screen or blank piece of paper. To do that is to ask the impossible of yourself. Always have something ready to blossom or something to fall back on when what you’re writing is not working. It’s how commercial writers work, with more to do than there is time. This forces an efficiency which is creatively healthy.