One day spent chaperoning debate nerds. Two insights about writing fiction.

I say nerds admiringly. After all, I was one of them back in highschool when I regularly skipped other classes to work on my debate cases. Am one of them, really. I no longer geek out on arguing the ethics or efficacy of various philosophical schools, all of which I was  learning solely to build my rhetorical arsenal. All of which were making me more befuddled as to what I really thought and believed. Now, for me, it’s books and the things that make up books. Precious sentences!

For the two judges sitting across from me in the judge’s lounge that day it was crossword puzzles. To be precise, four of them. Another judge they knew, a tall bespectacled man carrying a fresh copy of the New Yorker, noticed they were currently working on the LA Times and proceeded to rib them. How could ladies of their caliber deign to do any crossword puzzle than NY? They laughed. They had that one too, tucked under the LA Times. This was the seed of my first insight of the day into writing fiction. It has to do with character, specifically archetypes and models. As I was sitting there drinking the coffee but trying to avoid the white sugar parading as mini bagels by munching out of my baggie of trail mix, it occurred to me how far one can get in developing a character’s identity by first figuring out what social sub group they belong to. You can sketch a lot about what they wear, what they do in their free time, what topics of conversation they lean toward, what books they might read, even what they value. The danger of course is to stop there. And since I had ten hours of basically just sitting around watching people that day, I did a lot of sneaky staring and character sketching. I eavesdropped on stories and began to see the individuals emerge in this group that at first seemed strikingly aligned. What emerged for me from this exercise was that it’s useful to begin sketching a character by identifying a model. The danger is to stop there. Perhaps a more pervasive danger exists in fearing models that are out of our own social comfort zone We must push past the judgement that emerges when values clash to create human characters who inhabit ways of being that are difficult for us to empathize with. Because, in the end, characters should be individuals, not models.

At one point I grew bored even of people watching and decided to go for a walk around the University of Puget Sound’s campus. I had no idea where I was going, no destination. That became part of the fun. As I walked, I began to build stories in my head, urged on by what I was seeing with my eyes. A persistent yellow rose, a bit weary, but persevering winter. An old style chalkboard on wheels, some unknown equations written across it. A fountain with the head of a fish next to the head of a lion, the leo and the pisces locked in natural conflict. A rooftop fire escape. I even hopped onto an elevator at one point and pushed the button for the floor I thought was the one I started on. The doors closed, but the elevator didn’t move. I almost panicked, then browsed the buttons again, selected my second choice. The elevator lurched, moved. The doors opened right where I began. What had been on the floor it wouldn’t let me out on? My imagination scrolled through story possibilities for what was on floor M. And here’s where the second insight into writing came to me. Be present as you adventure into the world. Collecting images of sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. Taking photos and writing descriptions in our journals or recording our own voices describing these things on our mobile phones. This builds the muscles of our imagination.

 

Here’s a prompt and a challenge for you. Take one of the images below and turn it into a poem or a short work of prose. If you’re willing, share it.

 

I’m wishing you all another week of flowing words. As for me, I’m just past the half point in the first draft of a novel I’m writing called It May Look Like Disaster, the first in a series of three Olympia novels. I’m waking up at 4 AM on weekdays to write and trying to edit stories and type in handwritten pages in the evenings. I submitted stories to three journals last week and my goal is to submit every week of 2016.
Blessings to you. Make time.

 

 

 

elevator gargoyle fountain yellow rose         escape spider web

 

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