Small Towns

Growing up in a town that has only one stoplight has changed my perspective on community and what it means to be a part of one, I think.  In a town where everyone knew everyone else’s business the minute they opened their mouths, it was impossible to be a total loner.  Around dinnertime, when the streetlights began to wink on, casting rosy circles of light on the old side street, we’d meet out in the yard in groups, calling to one another.  I don’t live in that small town anymore, but sometimes I think about it, the memories re-imagined in that idyllic half-truth in which all memories resurface.

It occurred to me today that community isn’t what it used to be.  (Yes, I realize that I sound like an old fuddy-duddy complaining about the good old days).   Here’s the thing: there’s a lot our generation doesn’t even miss.  How can you miss something you don’t even know about?  Some would say that community now falls under the category of a dying tradition.  You know, like walking to school uphill, barefoot in a snowstorm or Air Jordans and acid wash jeans.  Where I might have asked a friend for help, I now go to Google or YouTube to learn how to do pretty much anything.  I’ve noticed that the people I know commute long distances, work online and send status updates, but I don’t even know most of the people in my neighborhood well enough to ask for a cup of sugar.

This got me thinking.  What does this mean for the state of stories and the people who write them? If we are always present online, does it mean we are missing moments in our own realities? 

That being said, I do happen to be writing on a blog.  I love my blog and I love the people who read it.  Since starting considerablespeck.com, I’ve felt more connected to writers (and writing) than I have in a long time, being that I am quiet, weird and never socialized much before The Internet happened.

There is a quote from Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities that has stuck with me:

Paris from the Eiffel Tower.

So where does this leave us?  Is anonymity the new community?  What about that small town, with the kindly neighbors who sat on front porches and knew exactly what grades you got in school or whether you had a date to the fall dance?  It didn’t hit me until this morning, when I logged onto my writing group and was excited to hear what they had to say about my latest literary pursuits that I realized something.  Small towns are everywhere.  I think we make them up as we go, those idyllic meeting posts out under the street lamps.  Community is what we make it and it doesn’t have to be anonymous, even if they exist online.  Small towns are re-imagined through the people that we choose to connect with—wherever they might be.

Snapshots of Wisdom, Or Quotes that Inspire

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately, mostly of the author-advice persuasion.  In my literary odyssey, there have been several quotes that have in some way inspired me or at the very least made me smile.  Often, when I find a quote that I love, that kicks my butt into high gear and makes me want to write, I scribble it in a notebook.  I have loads of these notebooks, in piles, on my floor, under my bed…  Over the years, I have spent a lot of time recording these snippets of wisdom.  But here’s the thing: after they’ve been filed away in that mountain of ideas, I never read them again.  So instead, I’ve decided to add them to my ongoing writing saga in the hopes that not only will I read them to be inspired again, but maybe someone else will too.

By: Andrew Dunn, altered by myself

Natalie Goldberg’s notion of “composting” always inspires me to sit down with a notebook and scribble down as much as I possibly can.  I love the idea of gathering moments and letting them break down in our minds to become amazing stories.  It serves as a reminder to keep plucking away at the daily practice, because everything that we do, see, write has the potential to become something meaningful.  I think it’s a perfect reminder to be in the now and to focus on the small details that bring fiction to life.

Do you take note of the little details? What is your writing practice like? Or, if you don’t write, how do you stay in the moment?

The Land of Opportunity: Ebooks

By Maximilian Schönherr (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s been long known that exciting things are happening in the e-publishing industry.  Self-publishing and the boom of ebooks over the last few years has changed the way that we (or at least I) think of writing (and reading) books.  So when I heard that HarperCollins’ William Morrow Division had announced that they were going to launch their own “digital-first imprint” for mysteries, thrillers, romance, sic-fi/fantasy and YA novels, my interest was piqued.

While the promise of monthly royalties to authors who sign with Impulse is tempting, it is the fact that digital-first lines are one more opportunity for new authors to be discovered by publishers.  According to Morrow, “the HarperCollins sales group is always seeking out opportunities in print.” Considering that this will provide more opportunity for publishers to take a chance on previously unsigned authors, it feels like a step in the right direction.

Do you see ebooks as the new frontier of publishing?  Or do you prefer print books and the traditional publishing route?

Why Should You Re-Invent the Wheel?

By: Robert Brook

By: Robert Brook

 

Did you ever hear of Max and the Cats by Moacyr Scliar?  It’s a story about a teenage boy who is stranded in a boat with a panther following a terrible shipwreck.  If this sounds familiar, that’s because it is.  “I saw a premise that I liked and I told my own story with it,” claimed Yann Martel, when asked about the obvious similarity between his book and Scliar’s (The Guardian).  In many ways, against the ideological underpinnings of modern art standards, this makes Martel look like a plagiarist.  But when compared, the two novels are actually quite different: Max and the Cats is all about Nazis, while Life of Pi deals mostly with religion.  To complicate matters, Martel says he didn’t even read Scliar’s book.  Considering all facts, can we still call Life of Pi an original?

For that matter, the fact that J.K. Rowling used many elements from Eva Ibbotson’s The Secret of Platform 13 in the Harry Potter books blurs the line between theft and imitation.  After all, Ibbotson also wrote about an orphaned boy with magical abilities who lives with his terrible relatives—long before Rowling did.  H.G. Wells’ Outline of History is largely borrowed from Florence Deeks’ The Web of the Worlds’ Romance.  Shakespeare, Plato and countless others are all said to have done a little literary pilfering too.

Originality as a concept hasn’t been around for as long as you might think.  Prior to the 18th century, imitation was a crucial part of successful art.  Writers lifted whole lines and stanzas from poems and shamelessly used the same ideas.  It was only later that people started getting touchy about it—right around the time that artistic “genius” became important.  I could be alarmed at these shocking revelations, but instead, I offer to you a case for imitation as part of the artistic process.

The truth is this: we are not writing in a vacuum.  So why pretend that great stories, voices and characters haven’t happened before? Writing in the voice of an author that you love or writing a story based on a scenario that inspires you is another way to inform your own literary voice.  In part, I think that the honesty of writing real, original works comes from a deep understanding of captivating elements of literature and writing them the way you want them to be.  They say that art imitates life, but I would argue that in many ways, great art—great literature especially—imitates other great literature that has come before it.

To return to the question: why reinvent the wheel?  Because the wheel works.

What does originality mean to you?  As artists, can we imitate honestly, or does it come too close to theft?

Back to the Mailroom

By David Shankbone  (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

By David Shankbone
(http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Confession: when I was in high school, I failed my drivers’ test six times.  There was the damned horse and buggy, plodding down the middle of the road that first time.  I sat there in the drivers’ seat, hands clenched to the wheel like bird claws.  There was a line of traffic all the way around the block, punching a Morse code of car-horn curses out into the air and the instructor, hidden behind enormous aviators, smiled and shook his head.  There was the time of the hypothetical pedestrian…the time of the wrong lanes…the time I ran over the curb or the time I was so nervous that I forgot to look in the mirrors for the whole trip.  I’ve been thinking a lot about those slow, defeated trips home from the drivers’ test.  Each time I knew that if I didn’t pass soon, I would have to start over again.

The other day, after a particularly frustrating experience of rejection, I started to think.  (Actually, if I’m being honest, I ate some cheesecake and watched some 30 Rock re-runs, because this is the all-time best remedy for disappointment. But saying “I started to think” just sounds way more avant-garde artiste…or something.)  And you know what?  It was totally productive, because I had an epiphany and it’s all because of Jack Donaghy and his awesomeness.  No, really, I mean it.  And not just because I have a crush on Alec Baldwin.  It just so happens that in this episode, Jack loses his position as CEO, but he climbs his way back to the top by getting a job in the mailroom.

Okay, bear with me.  This all makes sense, I swear.

For some reason, it got me thinking about my novel.  No, really, this time I actually was thinking and not ogling Alec Baldwin.  I’m rewriting this novel for the third time.  Why?  Because it just didn’t feel quite right the last time.  Maybe I’m a tad insane (aren’t we all?), but when I write another draft, I don’t like to cut and paste or edit what I already have.  I read each chapter and then type it out in a new document or write it again in a notebook without looking at it.  For some reason, the act of starting fresh makes all the important pieces stand out in my mind.  Aspects of the novel that I forget just fall away, because they weren’t really that important to the story anyway.

I guess you could say the blank page is my mailroom.  Sure, it’s not quite where I want to be.  Most of the time, it’s dark and filled with grumbling and a lot of papers everywhere.  But the thing is, I know that this is where I need to be.  After all, I did eventually pass my driving test.  (If this terrifies you more than comforts you, this is totally understandable). But it stands to reason that if someone who had to start over so many times can still succeed, we are all capable of our aspirations.  So make peace with the mailroom, because it’s only the first stop on the way to the top.

Have you ever gone back to the mailroom?

Artifacts

At sixteen, I took a trip to Mexico.  Like most people, I climbed the towering pyramid of Chichen-Itza, scaling the narrow, slick stone stairs three at a time while my parents crawled their way upwards warily.  Across the dusty, bleak ruins I could see the tourists peppered below, peering into the darkest corridors and snapping pictures of the unusual stones that imposed themselves on the green snaking vegetation that had overrun the place in the time that the Mayans kicked the bucket and Mexico became a more impoverished version of Disney Land for history nerds and partiers alike.

I can’t boast at having any kind of epiphany while I was there.  I was sixteen!  Although I did get my first taste of Cerveza and got screamed at by a guard for sitting on some “off-limits” ruins, I happily absorbed the ruins as a strange and wonderful place.  It was only later that I began to think more about artifacts as defining moments in history.

I’ve heard a lot of people say that if you are always stuck behind the camera, you’ll miss the moment as it happens.  I agree with that to an extent.  (How many pictures can you really have of that weird pantsless man on Waikiki beach, anyway?)  But I’ve also thought about what it would be like for someone to find the artifacts of our culture long after we’re gone.  What would it be like for them?  What will they think of us?

I can remember the summer that we first bought our cottage; it was being lived in by raccoons (that’s another story), the roof was caving in and a tree had fallen into the living room.  While we were gutting it, we found a tin box in the wall filled with old playing cards and small trinkets.  On the old pine table was a yellowed newspaper, folded in half as if the family who had lived there before had simply got up and left never to return.  I spent the summer making up stories about who the people were and why they had left, each artifact an intricate piece of the puzzle.

I never did find out their story and it always kind of bothered me that there were these strange pieces of another life.  I wanted the full story and it felt like because they were gone, these weird old relics would never make sense.

While cleaning the other day, I found an old tape recorder at the bottom of a drawer.  To my surprise, when I pushed the button, my grandmother’s voice crackled, filling the room.  For a few moments, she was telling me ghost stories the way she had that day on the breezy porch with the water lapping softly at the edge of the lawn.  I remembered what she had told me—the thing she had said after I had turned off the tape recorder: “She’s still out there, I think…singing in the trees…”  She was talking about her friend Vera, who had died not too long ago.  It’s funny to think that she wasn’t totally wrong.  All these years later, even though my grandma was gone, her voice and her stories were still here. It was just a small artifact of her life–not the whole story, but it was a moment that I could preserve.

It doesn’t matter what stories the artifacts might tell.  They don’t have to tell the absolute truth, because they are only small moments.  What matters is that they—the stories—lived and you found them.  That’s the power of artifacts and the stories live in the moment that they are found.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, I only took one picture of the underwear guy on Waikiki Beach. I wonder what he was doing?

Waikiki Man

Finding Stories in the Cemetery

Cemetery in New Zealand

Cemetery in New Zealand

 

 

There are a lot of different ways that I find inspiration.  I’m curious to know whether the ways that I find stories are similar (or completely weird) in relation to other writers.  I mean, I like to visit coffee shops and people watch at malls, on busses and planes…  It’s better than sitting in my office all day with the walls that are currently covered in post-it notes (literally floor to ceiling).

One place in particular that I have been interested in is the cemetery.  Maybe it’s because I’m currently writing a ghost story of sorts.  But it could also be the fact that there is something quiet and calming about the cemetery.  In the peace there is a silence like no other.  But most importantly, there are so many interesting names on the tombstones; I like to walk down the rows and imagine what the people were like.  What sorts of stories would they have to tell?

So my question is this: where do you find inspiration for stories?  What is the strangest place you have found inspiration?