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?


  1. I think you are a poet trapped in a novelist's body. :)

  2. Prince once said that he wrote a minimum of one song per day based on the previous night's dreams. Listening to some of his B-sides, I can believe it. But, I wonder if he ever had a dreamless night? How can some people have such a wealth of creative ideas (with clarity?) and others have only fleeting glimpses?

  3. Post-a-bility!

    My utilitarian reply is anytime you ask “what if,” there’s an answer – that answer, good or bad, is an idea. And theft – ideas are definitely born of theft. When I started working on my current documentary, I was really struggling with how I wanted to tackle structure, character, and even basic story. After all, I was moving outside the comfort zone of being able to make stuff up – these were real lives, and at the same time there was real time and money on the line. What would happen if I filmed and nothing happened, nothing “story-worthy” emerged? With this in mind, I started pillaging questions and storylines from a 30-year-old doc that I loved, and I took those questions and potential storylines on the road. Of course what happened is the content and characters of my current project started taking on their own shapes and sizes, and what was initially wholesale theft has become (I think) an honest conversation with that 30-year-old doc that “inspired” me.

    The meat of what you're asking, though, got me thinking not so much about where ideas come from, but how do you determine which ideas are worth keeping? I used to keep a notebook by the bed, one by the reading chair (yes, I have a reading chair), and one in my shirt pocket. But all that planning and anticipation for logging ideas became a little counter-productive – those notebooks became a constant reminder that I was waiting for something. So the notebooks were ditched (I still keep the one in my shirt pocket, where it gets much more use as a wallet), and out of that grew my general belief that it’s the images or ideas that stick with me whether I write them down or not that are actually worthwhile to an audience. I WANT people to remember my characters and scenes without having to take notes – if I can’t do that on my own, do I really think others will stick around for the details? Eventually that randomness has to be roped in, but it’s not until disparate images and scenarios have bounced around inside my brain and refuse to leave and start to merge into darker, larger shapes that I actually feel confident I’ve got something others will find worth reading or watching. THEN I start taking notes and purging the mental back-catalog.

  4. Ditto everything Matt said. Except I don't have a reading chair.

  5. Also, that banner pic TD did up for you is BOSS!
    Yeah. I said BOSS.