Friday, April 29, 2011

Cooking Up a Good Story

I was going to title this one "The Muse Wears an Apron" but realized that while that would be a cool concept for an ongoing blog, this one already has a title. Which I happen to like very much. And those kind of blogs where every title starts the same way start to feel a little gimmicky after a while. Also, and probably most importantly, this one had nothing to do with a muse or inspiration anyway.

As I was in the kitchen the other day, pursuing one of my other passions (no, not opening a bottle of wine), I was struck by the similarities between the two separate creative processes - that is, making a meal, and writing a novel. While the former takes a great deal less time, being able to prepare a meal inside the span of an afternoon, and I've yet to write a novel inside the span of three months (more like six) - they nonetheless undergo a similar arc from beginning to end.

Like a novel, a meal takes preparation and planning. You have to have some idea where you're going. At times, this can be quite clear, particularly if you're working from a set of recipes or planning a menu. When writing, this is akin to those times when you know where the story is going. You have your plot laid out, more or less, and know what you want when you sit to write. Other times, however, you find yourself staring into your pantry and wondering what the heck you're going to make for dinner that night. A full pantry makes that easier, just as a full stock of story ideas or brainstorming techniques makes it easier when you have the same experience when writing.

And then, just as the various elements of the plot come together, so too does the meal. You assemble it bit by bit, following a set process. Unlike writing, where you can (and I do) write the ending first, cooking forces you to go from beginning to end. However, plenty of times I've written an ending as a starting point, so if you view the end product as the finished novel, it still holds.

(Hey, it's not the first time I've put a metaphor up on the rack in this blog. Won't be the last either.)

Subplots are like the appetizers of the side dishes. Satisfying and delicious, they help round out the meal, making it a more thoroughly enjoyable experience. The more ambitious the meal, the more prep, the more that has to come together, and, in my case, the greater the satisfaction at the end.

And of course, at the end, you have to present it to your audience. You ultimately hope they like it, and can be reasonably confident in your skills, but still you know in the back of your mind that no matter how many meals you've pulled off flawlessly, every once in a while something goes wrong. Then, you shelve the recipe until you're willing to take it out and tweak it later.

Though, unlike making a meal, when you finish a novel there are no dishes to wash.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Muse Also Moos

(Try not to think about this week's entry too much in conjunction with the last one. Cows in scuba gear is a subject best left for a Far Side cartoon. Though, having said that, I am picturing a Gary Larson-esque cow in a swim cap.)

I was reminded the other day that I live in the country. This is not something I generally forget, especially as the local grocery store closed and the next nearest place for a half gallon of good ice cream is ten minutes away by car. Yet there are times when it is less prevalent in the forefront of my mind, made easier by my home being in a small community where I do actually have neighbors that I can see out of my own windows. Well, their homes, anyway, lest someone think I am spying on my neighbors. Which if you'd seen my neighbors you'd understand is a scary concept. Real life is not Hollywood, and my neighbors have never, ever been the kind of people I'd want to even catch a glimpse of running around in their underwear.

Nonetheless, it was brought home to me when as I was making the commute into work, there were cows alongside the road. They were on their side of the fence, thankfully, but they were as close to the road as they can get. Now, within a ten minute radius of my house (and each other) there are cows, sheep, alpacas, and buffalo. It's quite an eclectic mix of grazing livestock. Certainly not the kind of assortment you'd expect to find in an urban environment.

As I drove past the cows, I mused to myself about the bucolic environs, and how conducive it is to easing stress and such. In short, the usual cliches. Which was going to be what this post was about. Only I realized that not only did I not want to do that, but that it wasn't accurate. While I like being out in the country, with the flowers (to which I am not allergic, or my reactions would be very different) and the green and the cows and yes, even the sheep and the alpacas and the buffalo, I have been equally inspired in any number of places in the city. There is an overpass in downtown Chicago, towards the waterfront, for example, where as a pedestrian once I stopped and watched the traffic humming back and forth in the evening gloaming. Not to mention the half dozen other places in Chicago, or Boston, or even Pittsburgh, where I have done much the same.

It occurred to me that this is what it is to be an artist. My medium is words, of course, so I call myself a writer not an artist, but that is what writers and poets are, just as surely as anyone who works with paints and brushes or a camera and a lens. And as such, our muses tend to take on a myriad of forms. We have the gift of looking at the world in such a way that many things inspire us. Some more so than others, to be sure, but we retain some of that childlike sense of wonder at the world that allows us to appreciate not only the joy of chasing fireflies, but the firefly-like blinking of road construction signs along a road. (Provided we aren't stuck in traffic because of them.)

And so, while we tend to speak of a single muse, this is perhaps misleading. Possibly even incorrect. We have multiple muses, who inspire us in a multitude of ways, providing that we are willing to listen to them when we do.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to reread my Far Side collection.

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Muse Wore Neoprene

I find myself thinking about my writing in places where I'm often least able to actually write things down. You'd think, if I was being smart about this, I'd set aside some time before I write to plan things, plot things, brainstorm about things, and all the sort of things that come before the actual moment of typing. That would be the smart thing to do, when I'm at the keyboard, or at least within easy each of pens and paper.

Now, I know, inspiration can strike anywhere. I carry a notebook. Have carried the same notebook for over a decade now. (I know this because the very first thing I wrote in it had to do with the smell of cows in the parking lot of an Illinois Barnes and Nobles.) It is slowly but surely getting filled with ideas, some used, some not, that have mostly come to me when I wasn't deliberately musing.

And I have had enough ideas in the shower that I am tempted to buy a package of bath crayons - yes, there are such things - just to be able to write them down as they hit instead of having to wait until I'm dried off and won't drip all over the paper, causing the ink to run and smear.

But, as I have resumed swimming these past few months, I have discovered that it makes an excellent place to think about my writing. Unlike jogging, or any other exercise activity that's dry, I can't plug in headphones and listen to my NPR podcasts or other inspiring music. (I will confess that, long ago, I did in fact jog to the various themes and montages from Rocky.) I don't really have a choice but to be alone in my head. And while this is not always advantageous to the workout, particularly when I lose track of whether that was 150 or 200 yards at that last turn, there isn't much else to concentrate on.

There is something about being able to achieve that disconnect that I can't manage anywhere else, where I can put my body on autopilot - mostly - and let my mind roam where it will, that I find conducive to the idea process. I won't claim I'm spending all the time thinking about writing. It's a good time to think about other things, too, especially anything I might need to ponder over or decompress about. But I can think about such things as the direction of my subplots, the motivations of my characters, and take them in directions for a duration I don't normally have the time to do. And I can do so without feeling like I'm neglecting something else, like my taxes, for example, or those worksheets I'm supposed to be looking up for my students.

It's a time strictly for thinking, for musing, for indulging in purely academic thought exercises even as my arms cycle and my legs kick. Each train of thought interrupted only by the approach of the wall, and then resumed again as soon as I push off.

I just wish I had a place to write down the really good ideas that come to me in the water. ... Maybe they'll let me bring my crayons next time.