Tuesday, October 15, 2002

Steven Den Beste has written an interesting article about how he decides to write about some matters and not about others. It's got me thinking about my own such process.

SDB notes that he often receives e-mails from regular readers of his site who have come across something online or have discovered some issue, and they want to hear his personal take on that subject. (I confess, I did send him an e-mail once, pointing out something that I thought might engage him, but he didn't write about it. I chalked it up to the large number of requests he probably receives, given that his is a fairly high-traffic site, and that he probably didn't find the item I'd sent him particularly compelling.) He offers one particularly telling sentence as to why he writes about the things he does, and why he does not write about the things he does not:

"I don't pick what I write about, it picks me."

I found that fascinating, because it's the same for me. And not just here on Byzantium's Shores, but -- and this may be more important -- for me as a fiction writer.

I am told that a question that nearly all writers get is, "Where do you get your ideas from, anyway?" (Maybe when I'm actually successful someone will ask me that....) My experience is quite a bit like the process that SDB describes in his article: I will happen upon some small thing, maybe an image or an event in everyday life, and a story will spontaneously appear in my mind. I don't sit down and say, "Today I think I will write a ghost story in the M.R. James vein." It's not something that can be turned on or off. Instead, the story will find me -- it will actually present itself, or at least a fairly representative portion of itself, to me and I will write it. The metaphor that Stephen King uses in his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is that stories are fossils, and as writers we are the paleontologists whose job it is to extricate the fossil from the ground. Keeping the metaphor, a writer's craft isn't taking a blob of clay and shaping it into a dinosaur skeleton, but rather getting that dinosaur skeleton -- already intact and complete -- out of the ground without, say, snapping the shin-bone in two or crushing the skull. So when I reach a point in a story where I realize I've made a wrong turn somewhere, that the story in its current state is not going to work (or even be finishable), I'm like the paleontologist who realizes that further prying on the skeleton from this particular angle with this particular tool is going to cause the thing to break down the middle.

So I don't think that I "create" my stories; instead, they find me and demand that I tell them. The ways that stories have presented themselves to me in the past are interesting. (At least, I like to think that they are.) Here are a few:

:: Once while browsing in the library, I opened some book and a slip of paper fell out. When I picked it up, I saw that it was just one of those little slips that libraries provide for writing down call numbers; some patron had been looking for this book and left their little call-number slip inside it. Nevertheless, I wondered: "What if this slip was actually a letter from someone who died mysteriously many years ago?"

:: I've been a big fan of Gary Larsen's The Far Side for years. In one installment, a man stranded on a desert island has just rubbed Aladdin's lamp. (How he got it is a mystery....) The Genie is standing there, looking annoyed, while the man rubs his chin and says, "Let's see....I've got rhythm, and I've got music....how could I ask for anything more?" I liked the idea of a lamp with a Genie inside coming into the possession of a man who already has his heart's desire, and I wrote the story.

:: My most ghoulish story came about from my connection of the fact that the Nazis conducted terrible experiments on humans in the concentration camps with the fact that the Nazis were also bizarrely interested in the occult.

:: There's a wonderful episode of The Simpsons where Springfield adopts Prohibition and later abandons it. The episode ends with Homer Simpson saying, "To alcohol: the cause of, and solution to, life's problems." So now I'm writing a story where alcohol is really the solution to a town's problems. (Or maybe it isn't; I'm deliberately hedging on the moral POV in this story.)

:: My novel-in-progress is an Arthurian story, which I decided to write when I realized that many authors have treated the "once" part of "the once and future King", but not very many have tackled the "future" part. (It's a two-part work called The Promised King, of which I am nearly finished with the first part, called The Welcomer.)

These are just a few of the stories that have chosen me, out of the infinite possible ones that did not choose me. "Write what you know" is an oft-quoted rule, but it doesn't work very well for me, as it leads me to seeking out the stories instead of allowing them to find me. I don't write all of the stories that knock on my door or whisper in my ear at night. There isn't enough time to get to them all, they're not all equally compelling, and they don't present themselves to me exclusively. (One idea I've been considering for a few months actually shows up in the current issue of Realms of Fantasy, and it's executed beautifully by its author, so I don't know if I will ever tackle that one.) It occurs to me, also, that perhaps the lengthy period of rejection that all writers endure (and which I whined wrote about a few weeks back) is something of an audition period, but not in the usual sense where I'm continually auditioning for editors and first-readers. Maybe I'm continually auditioning for the stories. Maybe all the good stories are gathered somewhere, in some Platonic realm, watching me write and saying amongst themselves, "So, should one of us go let him write us yet?"

I like that image. So, maybe I'll indulge it for a while, and see my daily efforts as my way of putting out the welcome mat and seeing what comes knocking.

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