Thursday, April 28, 2011

Emoticon smiley face

I'm still working on my submission for writer's group.  It's ridiculously not ready, and a deadline looms pretty large.  So until then, my posts will be brief, if I post at all. I did want to take a second, though, and tell everyone how freakin kick-ass my friends are! I.Love.Your.Comments! Keep them coming--I can hardly wait to really roll up my sleeves and dig into them.

Soon. Soon. Until then, this is kind of how I feel:

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Inspiration, Prince, Wholesale Theft, and a Boss Reading Chair

Ah, wholesale theft. I'd forgotten all about it. I'm glad, though, that someone brought the idea up (see Matt's comments on the last post); glad to know that I'm not the only one who uses the technique! I find it to be an excellent way to unblock myself when I've hit a wall. I go back to the writers that inspire me and walk in the footprints they leave behind (if for no other reason than to avoid land mines). Sometimes it works: A story I wrote about the Molly Maguires found it's beginning in Aleksandar Hemon's "The Accordian." (It ended up more like Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek", but that might be beside the point.) The current albatross around my mean novel I'm working on (which, by the way, I should be working on as I type this...) finally found a shape once I read Michael Ondaatje's Coming Through Slaughter.  Sometimes it doesn't: I am fairly certain that everything I've ever written has been my attempt to re-create Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, to very little success.

Successful or not, I still do it, though. I don't think I can help myself. Even if I just end up spending an evening re-reading the last few paragraphs of Joyce's "The Dead," or the last page of Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, or a few pages from someone like Ann Carson, or Joanna Scott (who is a criminally overlooked writer--ya'll should check out Arrogance or Tourmaline), I still feel like I've accomplished something, even if I don't write a word. Other writers have a way of recharging me, of reminding me of the potential of this art form. (Wow, is this getting rousing? I suddenly feel like watching standing up on my desk to yawp, a la Dead Poets Society). And since I've already come to the conclusion that my dreams are no good (or not nearly as good as Prince's), I have to turn to external sources from time to time.

Maybe this is, at least in part, a kind of answer to my previous question. As Salinger's Seymour Glass once pointed out to his brother, Buddy, "you've been a reader long before you were ever a writer" (oh my, the Salinger police are definitely coming after me now), so it is with me. Probably it's that way with every writer.  With anyone who has ever picked up a pen, or a paintbrush or a guitar or a camera. We were devouring what others did long before we tried our own hand at it. And when I am stuck, really floundering, I go right back to those people who made me want to write in the first place. Those people who made the whole thing seem so flippin effortless that I wanted to do the same (joke's on me, isn't it?).

I'm not saying that this is my only source of inspiration--I'd like to think that I can be one of those people who sees the story in the mundane things like tricycles and beaded bracelets--but it is one source. And a pretty damned good one, too. Prince has his sexy tiny purple velvety assless pants sexy sex dreams (which is how I imagine Prince's dreams to be), and that's great for him, but a reading chair can be just as useful.  (awww)


Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Unanswerable Question

Let me start off by sending many thanks to Tim Decker for my lovely graphic!

Second, leave it to me to ask a question that most likely can't be answered (not easily, anyway), though I do agree with what Mindy wrote in the previous post's comments (although to be honest, had I seen a child's beaded bracelet on the ground, my first thought would've been morbid, I think. But I'm hoping that's just from years of living in Baltimore and not because of any deficit in my creativity...ha ha?). A few years ago, at the Baltimore Book Festival, I was listening to a poet talk about something similar. I can't remember all the details, but she happened to see an old tricycle or something like that and ended up writing a poem about it. The point she made, though, was that most people would've seen it as trash (if they noticed it a'tall), but she, being the creative type she was, saw something else, or perhaps projected something else onto (into?) this rusted old piece of crap bike. Which makes me wonder if that's what it means to be "creative"? That is, seeing beauty (or whatever you want to call it) in the mundane, the morbid, the simple, the overlooked. Does that kind of stuff find it's way into the mind of a writer or an artist, or do they actively seek it? Or both?

I work at Johns Hopkins Hospital, and in the lobby of the main building, the original building off Broadway, is an enormous statue of Jesus (I call it MC 900 Ft Jesus, my sister calls it Gladiator Jesus. Happy Easter, everyone, BTW). I walk by it nearly every day. I walk by it, then by the security guard stand. After about a year of this, of walking by this ridiculously large marble statue, I suddenly started to think about it. Well, actually, I started to think about the security guard right next to it, and if there's a guard at the desk even after they close/lock the doors at the end of the day. I started to wonder if there was a security guard on duty in the middle of the night, and what it might feel like to be alone in that lobby, at night, with that big ole statue of JC.  What would she do? Would she be aware of the statue? (Who wouldn't? It's ten freakin feet tall!)  Would she feel it as a presence, is what I mean, I guess. Would she pray to it? Or would she just talk to it, like it was some kind of companion?  And if she did start to talk to it, why?

I ended up writing a short story about that statue, about a young woman who thinks about that very idea. And that's great and all; I'm happy that the statue provided some kind of inspiration, but I can't help but wonder--why then? What was different on that particular day? Why did I suddenly see the statue in a different way? I can't figure it out. I want a guide or a formula. I want an instruction manual with Ikea-like pictographs. I want to be able to put my manuscript together with an allen wrench! I don't seem to be content to just chalk it up to inspiration or a muse or whatever.That feels so flimsy, so insubstantial. Such a tenuous thing to build a career on, don't you think?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


A friend of mine regularly posts synopses of his dreams on Facebook. (keep reading--this isn't going where you think).  They're actually pretty interesting. Sometimes they're funny, or bizarre or touching. They're never static or boring. They're fuzzy and languid, as dreams should be, but they still manage to have a shape and a logic that rings true, even in the middle of the day, as I sit reading his posts and drinking coffee, in the very pragmatic and altogether un-dreamlike landscape of my office. I'm envious of those dreams. Sure, he could be nudging them, maneuvering them, James Fey-ing them to meet an aesthetic goal, but I'm willing to bet the guy's got pretty good material to start with.

I don't have that kind of material. Still, I keep a notebook and paper bedside, just in case. Just in case I awaken after a kick-ass dream and need to write it down.  It's happened a few times. I've opened my eyes in the small hours, after some incredible adventure, some insightful encounter, some mind-blowing revelation and groggily scrawled the thing down by lamp- or cellphone LED- light.  Then I've put down my pencil, closed the notebook and fallen back to sleep, blissfully confident that what I just transcribed will surely lead to the next great short story.  Then my alarm goes off.  It's morning. I check the notebook, and--this happens every single time--I can barely read my handwriting. Well, duh. That's because I wrote it half asleep at 3am.  But here's the rub: even if I am able to decipher my sleep-scrawl, what passes for a great idea in the muzzy middle of the night doesn't always make for a spectacular idea with the dawning of the first light.  I'd give you and example here, but honestly, I can't even remember the dream I had last night. I think my sister's cat, Hector made an appearance. Did I mention Hector is dead?

So, actually, I think I just illustrated my point.

Anyway, this brings me to the big question, the one that I guess this blog, at least in part, is about.

Where do ideas come from?

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A Carpet of Novel

This is my dining room floor. If the photo isn't clear, that's about 40 pages of a novel; I have to get it into some kind of decent shape in the next few days. Wish me luck. Hopefully I'll have something insightful to say about the process in the near future. Now, I have to get back to it before the dog comes in and makes marks on it.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The thing that's the thing

I'm terrible at naming things. In college, I named my cat "Godot" only because I was reading Beckett at the time. When I was about 6, my grandmother gave me a cute, Snoopy-like stuffed animal, which I promptly (and inexplicably) named "Bill."  And before that, when I was about half that age, I named my favorite baby doll "Lucifer." Yup. Technically, I think Lucifer was the Devil's name before he was cast out of Heaven (?). But I digress slightly. (My mom laughs about it now, but can you imagine her reaction to my three-year-old self, all pudge and pigtails, toddling around, proudly tending to my dolly "Lucifer?! In my defense, I think I was probably aiming for "Lucille" but landed on the Prince of Darkness. Nice.) The point is, I suck at this stuff, and I don't know why. Is it because most narratives are judged by the title? (i.e. stupid title=stupid story?). Is it a manifestation of my social anxiety and fear of first impressions? Could be.

Most of my short stories bear the name of the protagonist. Not very imaginative, I know. But I come from a long line of lousy namers, so I must be genetically predisposed, or something like that. So it goes with this blog. I could not come up with anything. First, I'll say here that I hate puns in titles. Coffee shops are the worst, what with the "Bean Counter" or "Daily Perks" or "Back to the Grind" and whathaveyou. Ugh. Writing blogs run a close second. "The Write Stuff" or "Write Now" Blerg. Hate that. Literary references are better, but they have to be done well. A great example of how to create a stupid literary reference was my next idea: "Bruno's Answer." A nod to my favorite writer, Aleksandar Hemon's collection of short stories, The Question of Bruno (get it now?). Yeah. Dumb. And dorky.

But everything else I came up with felt self-important or heavy-handed. And it's just a blog. About writing stuff. I'm not discussing the latest antiretroviral cocktail that I'm developing for HIV patients.
I'm just thinking out loud.

But then I started flipping through a JD Salinger novel and found the phrase "Jump-seat masterpiece" (somewhere, an estate lawyer perks his ears). I had underlined it years ago, for some reason (anyone remember the movie Heathers? What was the word Heather I was supposed to have underlined in Moby Dick?). And it seemed somehow appropriate. Maybe equal parts ethos, pathos and logos? No? But catchy nonetheless? Maybe?

Saturday, April 16, 2011


Welcome to jump-seat masterpiece, my attempt at blogging about the creative process. I've never been a huge fan of blogs (writing them, not reading them. I'm all for reading them). I'm still not convinced that anyone will care what I have to say.  I mean, this is essentially what I have in my brain at any given moment:

  • running list of movies I need to add to my Nexflix queue
  • how to spell "queue"
  • PIN number
  • lyrics to nearly every Replacements song ever written
  • a Simpson's quote for every occasion
  • the food markets in my area that carry Turkey Hill Peanut Butter Cup ice cream
C'mon, really. Who wants access to that? No one. Not even me. Nevertheless, I'm going to push ahead. Why? Don't know (this is the reasoning behind many of the decisions I make, by the way). Honestly, though, the chances of anyone aside from blood relations and my high school best friend reading this (and pity-commenting) is slim-to-none. And that's fine. Because, if you think about it, blogging is really just a socially acceptable form of muttering to oneself (and boy am I good at that), so I should just cork my cry-hole and start writing, fer crissake.

At any rate, I hope to come up with a few insightful pearls before this whole thing devolves into a repository for cute pictures of my dog.