Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Word Magic

Now that I am trying to write, I gather hope and inspiration from other writers. "How does it work for them?" "How did they get started?" And "Does it get easier?" are among the questions each author answers differently. In July of this year Daniel Wallace stopped into McIntyre’s Books to discuss his latest effort Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician” .

“Books read different than they’re written,” he told the group. "It’s like building a car – or reading books for school assignments. I don’t know how one part fits with the others – I just let the story open up before me, just like a story opens up before a reader." You cannot believe how relieved I was to hear him say this. When you begin the writing process, you do need an overall idea for a story, before you can write - but those ideas are just parts. Here's a trunk, there's a window, here's a steering wheel. It's not until you get along a little further with the writing that you realize, "Oh Hey! This looks better as a convertible", or "Nope, the terrain I'm traveling calls for four-wheel drive." Josiah and his cohort Chadwick are certainly changing the shape of my work.

Mr. Wallace went on to say that "sometimes it’s fun to watch how things come together and other times it’s scary. As the story develops, it’s fun to watch it run." For years now I've been listening to authors talk about how stories come together. If you're not a writer, these statements are definitely from the perspective of, "on the outside looking in" and you feel like you're observing an escapee from the insane asylum. I'll never forget the first time I heard an author talking about characters doing "unexpected things". How can that be I wondered? When I tell a story, I know who’s in it, what's happening, and how it will end. Isn't writing the same way? But it's not! When you're telling a story, you're just regurgitating past actions. I don't think anyone knows all the details of their written story - or characters in it, until the book is published. You might know some big points of the story line, maybe some major and minor character traits about the characters, but as they develop there's plenty of room for "inspiration" or craziness to surface.

Another reassuring thing to hear him confess was, "themes and motifs just pop out, things he never intended to be part of the story, or thought were not in the story to begin with, materialize," as he writes. One of the motifs in this book that he hadn’t planned on was this idea of a lost family, identity, and the color of skin. What he DID plan on was showing how a circus family provided for freaks – and how “gathered” families work. “The character of Henry is lost before he came to the circus – and lost after he left”, Daniel said. How many of us feel the same way about our own families and our positions within them?

This is another point all of us in our writing class can agree upon. Things just "arise" as you write. Sometimes you are aware of them, and sometimes they are entirely hidden to you until someone else interprets them for you. I think writing critique groups are like dream interpreters. They are always finding allegories and allusions to story-lines that I, and other writers, never intentionally inserted.

Knowing the reading public will find unintended themes reassures me about all the book reviews I read. I always wonder how the reviewer has such an intimate knowledge of a writer’s work, when I can never extrapolate that particular topic or idea being discussed. Now I know ... they're pulling it out of their butt, or crazed mind ... or own personal experience and adding their own interpretations. This is very scary. I like to think of written words are fixed. Less easy to misunderstand, and misinterpret, than the spoken word; but clearly that is not the case.

He also talked about how he is forced to scrap material and ideas all the time. Yet he doesn’t panic anymore because he can recycle them for later works. The genesis for Mr. Sebastian’s main character, Henry, was in a screenplay he attempted about a black magician. The screenplay didn’t work, but he found he still “wanted to explore the idea of being born a freak vs being a self-made freak.” In the novel, “the black magician of the screen play morphed into a white kid who thinks he’s a black magician.”

The idea behind the story came about by the accidents of his experience and an interest in magic and freak shows. The world use to be magic all the time. Science has killed that he said. The actual shape of the story is a result of a happy mistake. Mr. Wallace says, “I got tired of reading what I’d written. I was bored and didn’t know what was coming next” is one reason for some of the breaks in the journal style book. [A]nd then one day there was a coffee stain in my journal. Immediately I thought of making the book format [so it] is that of a journal with interruptions – like a coffee stain.

It’s this sort of experience that he calls an “[o]rganic process. He feels it “allows the reader to use more imagination” and do things, like think in their mind, “yes, yes. That’s right,” which allows them to “get the big laugh, instead of telling them what the big laugh is, in the story”. Giving the reader these types of experiences he says, “Is what makes this book a different journey than most”.

Not only did he talk about how stories take shape and mutate from their original form, he also talked about developing characters. He says for him, he latches onto a curious phrase or description and that informs him with almost everything he needs to know about the character. In this book, these are three of the main players. These descriptions just “came to him”.

Jeremiah Mosgrove, owner of the Chinese Circus. “Attended a lot of medical school. Could plug a wound with a piece of gum and sometimes did.”

Wit the Stick, Owns a diner now, when he has a medical problem X-rays not necessary. “He is thinnest man born. He has to stand in a place three times to cast a shadow”.

Bambi Dextrous – “She was a little thing – folded herself up into a shoe box, she did.”

Throughout the story, numerous magic tricks are mentioned and discussed. “I hate doing research,” he told us. “So I just made them up.” Continuing on he reminded us, “Writing is a type of magic too. You link words together, create metaphors, and in turn end up telling a different story than the one you started out to tell.” This has also happened in his on-line journal. He wasn’t sure what he’d do with it, but among other things he’s recorded in 2007, his New Year’s pledge to not use as many paper towels. Somehow, I bet that’s not the story he started out to tell there either.