I am a fan of George Saunders, a writer I discovered through Jeffery Eugenides anthology, My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead. In that collection he had a story called Jon, a stunning example of voice for my teenage writing students. Quirky is too banal a term for what he does with words. His stories are never tidy. I find myself re-reading sentences, paragraphs or even going back to the beginning and starting again. His stories break all those rules about smoothness and not interrupting the reader’s flow. But when I’m reading him I don’t care about being confused. His characters are so intriguing, the situations they are in so bizarre, I want to read every word again and again.
Enjoy Tenth of December from the New Yorker, a short short story, with a memorable final line. This is from a collection of the same name coming out in January. I’ll be adding it to Pastoralia, his earlier collection I was supposed to get for Christmas (but couldn’t wait.) For a review of Pastoralia in the Guradian, go here.
What is your favourite writing stimulus? Maybe you respond best to images: a real life scene of a busy street, or a nature panorama. Perhaps you’re tactile, finding a starting point birth from the sensation of crushing a dry leaf in your hand. Does an intriguing sentence fragment or combination of words have you running for your blank notebook? Or would an evocative scent open worlds for you? I’ve had great writing experiences from all of these. But of all stimuli I would have to say the most reactive for me is music.
When I taught creative writing to high school students I brought songs to play, both to set the overall theme, and to write to. I was hoping to challenge comfortable starting points. I was intrigued to see the violent responses many of the boys had to music that, while current, was not to their individual tastes. I suspected this was an anomaly, that these were identity-sensitive teenagers needing to assert themselves. Later I was surprised to find a similar revulsion response to music from many adults in writing groups.
It seems that music has a powerful ability to stimulate and stifle creativity. I wonder if this is because music is reaching deep into emotion centres, “pushing buttons.” And just because I’m contrary, this makes me think music can be a great resource. Imagine writing a villain to music that makes you want to scream. Or penning a death scene to some tragic classical score. Or reverse the expected soundtrack, and see what happens.
I’ve often found it most helpful to write to music that isn’t my own taste. Recently I wrote a story to xylophone music that automatically downloaded onto my Ipod from Itunes. I never would have listened to this music recreationally. No offense to the xylophone musicians of the world, but this music usually depresses me, or even makes me want to cut off my ears. However, one day I found myself having a couple of disconnected words I wanted to write from, but couldn’t seem to make a start. Suddenly xylophone bobbed up on my playlist. Sure enough, it was just right. One quirky and urbane tune initiated the whole process, mysteriously weaving threads I can’t begin to understand. What emerged from the odd mood was a living character in a world I could not have generated intentionally.
When writing, anything that takes us out of our comfortable, familiar worlds is an automatic win. The sense of discomfort, if you can get past it, seems to force a disjunction. Something interesting often comes out of it. So here is a stimulus idea. Go to Youtube. Search a random word combination, and “song,” or “band,” or “music.” And then write to whatever strange new thing you find. It might be some dude in his underpants, sitting on the edge of the bathtub while playing the ukelele. But hopefully not. Unless he’s the broken hero of your next novel.
Raymond Carver (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Lately I’ve been browsing on Issyvoo. A beautifully clean looking site, it distills out succinct insights by writers on their own writing, and that of others. Many of the quotes link to articles, interviews, etc, from journals like Paris Review, or The New Yorker. I’m finding it a great place to discover more about how writers work, and to bridge from authors I like to authors they like, which is often a happy journey. I found a great interview with Raymond Carver there, and started reading some of his short stories online. I’m sure I did some of his stories in high school, but can’t remember any of them off the top of my head. Today I read Kindling, a posthumously published story he wrote years earlier, not long after he gave up drinking. You can find it here, at Story of the Week. For an excellent interview with Carver, have a look here. In it he talks a lot about his methods of writing, and interestingly claims his first drafting to be rubbish, a scaffolding he would build up over months.
I find it inspiring to read the words of other writers, on their lives, on their processes. These are people who take their work seriously, who are aware of their limitations. They struggle with it, they make headway. Over time they build up bodies of work, representations of their growth, of the evolution of their thoughts and beliefs. Fascinating.
The other thing I love about Issyvoo is the black and white photographs. Great.
If you use Facebook please visit my page, Burinsmith! You can do so by clicking in the right column…and click Like if you do! Then you’ll get updates as they occur. I’ll be putting things on there to round out content here on the site, things like starting points, comps, commentary. Today I put a post on there about Verandah Literary Journal’s outrageous submission fee. I’d love to hear how you feel about that.