Someone is playing piano in the lounge next to my dorm room at VCFA. It’s raining and a great rush of water pours off the roof and sends cooling air in on the breeze, and the sounds weave through the open window until you can’t tell where one stops and the other begins. The mingling is very like the alchemy which happens every Vermont College writing residency, since faculty lectures, no matter how disparate their titles and content, invariably evoke similar themes, and touch on the questions you have already been asking yourself.
Questions such as, how does our personal and cultural “truth”—that ever shifting truth—really inform our fiction? Where is the intersection of the personal story and art, where does one stop and the other begin? And how do you get to this crossroads and best tap in, to uncover the patterns you want to paint in fiction?
In last week’s post, Helen Pyne touched on the idea of writing with “mindfulness, honesty and play” as laid out by amazing authors Amanda Jenkins and Marcelo Sandoval. In the way of things, these themes have suggested themselves in the current VCFA residency lectures as well, so let’s visit them from a couple of new perspectives.
Liz Garton Scanlon, author of the Caldecott-honored picture book All the World, and middle grade The Great Good Summer, says that as writers we face a dearth of daunting, complex choices. So much so that sometimes it’s easier not to choose. Where do we show, where do we tell, where create poetry, where create prose, where inform, where entertain? And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. But no matter how hard to choose, it’s in answering such questions, Scanlon says, that writers find their power. Her advice for the next time you’re faced with this dilemma, is to play around with the intersection where two such opposites meet, because here you’ll find the sweet spot which holds a new way forward.
For example, bestselling author of the Raven Cycle and other novels, Maggie Stiefvater found her sweet spot while creating the Scorpio Races, in the meeting of myth and personal story. For her, a story comes alive when she uncovers its mood and emotional weight. So even though she was writing about a fantastical world where dangerous, mythological sea creatures rose up to be ridden, she needed to connect it to her own childhood memories of what it felt like to face danger and challenge. And then her novel was born.
Not that the deeper reasons you’re writing a novel are always easy to determine. Tim Wynne-Jones, who knows how to get things accomplished given his long list of award winning novels, just spent four years creating his new release The Emperor of Any Place.
The work began as a series of vignettes he wrote in college—enter the element of play—and grew as he put it, from a “greedy curiosity” to write about so many characters, settings and situations that one book couldn’t hold them. To actually make this “morass” into a novel, he had to return to why he was writing it. To let go of “the stories that might have been” and find the pattern in his writing that revealed the one true story thread.
That’s ultimately why we write, says Mark Karlins, author of the acclaimed picture book Music Over Manhattan, to discover a description of ourselves in the world, a pattern for our lives and an identity, a sense of who we are in relation to others. Story allows us to ask, as the muddy creature from Jenny Wagner’s The Bunyip of Berkeley’s Creek does, Who am I? And story, Karlins says, is a place to explore, deeply and honestly, the answers to this question.
In addition, Karlins believes we write best when we write for our own amazement, right down to the smallest details. For example, instead of calling a day sunny, call it bright as the back of a spoon. The very strangeness of the metaphor can lead your reader in, and make your fictional world come alive.
Daniel José Older, author of the YA Shadowshaper and other bestsellers, says there’s yet another way to make your fictional world live on the page. Proximity. As a former paramedic on the streets of New York, Older experienced firsthand that participating in events is very different than simply watching them. To paraphrase the author, you can’t really walk in another person’s shoes (or another character’s), unless you’re proximate. And when you are no longer a passive witness to events, but an active participant, you become the protagonist in your own story, too.
Enter crisis, growth and change, which Older believes is the heart of any novel. But he cautions not to stop here, because none of us live in a vacuum. “Context (setting) is time, place and power,” Older says. (You only have to consider the events of 9-11 to see how crisis reshaped a nation’s mythology.) So if you want to create authentic worlds for your characters, their lives need to reflect the social, cultural and historical factors that make us who we are.