Tag Archives: where do ideas come from

Metaphor Monday: The Stray


My runs lately have me in more rural areas than I’m used to.

I’m still deep in the suburbs, mind you, but the suburbs here are a little more “trees and dirt roads” and a little less “convenience store on every corner.” Zoom out a little bit from my house on the old Google Maps and you quickly find yourself in a sea of green: sprawling forests and rolling hills all around.

So I have a lot of encounters with wildlife, especially when I’m hoofing it before the sun is up (which is almost always). Usually it’s squirrels and rabbits — I could basically feed my family bunny meat indefinitely if I had a hankerin’ — but I’ve seen more than a few deer, too, and there are almost certainly coyotes out here. Which is why I carry a big stick with me when I’m pounding the pavement these days: I don’t want to be caught defenseless if I come up against a crazed or frightened critter out there. (Sure, my dog is usually with me, but something tells me she’d be even more useless than I in an unarmed tussle with local wildlife.)

I should have started carrying that stick a week earlier, though.

I’m out for a pretty routine jaunt, not even a mile from the house, when I hear the unmistakable sound of padding footsteps and panting breath. I look toward the trees, and sure enough, here comes a sizable shape out of the dark, beelining right for me and my dog.

If I were hooked up to an FMRI, my head would light up like a christmas tree. Every fight-or-flight response I have goes off all at once. I can’t quite make out the shape of the thing. It’s coming on too quick to be just checking us out, but too slowly to be on the attack.

I start doing math. I don’t hear anything but its feet, so it’s not collared. Which means it may or may not be domesticated. Home is over a half mile away; no chance I can outrun the thing if it decides to chase. Nothing around me that I can even see, let alone grab, to use as a weapon. I’m on that stretch of no-man’s-land where there’s not even a streetlight in sight to help me see by, just the soft, useless glow of the stars. Meanwhile, my idiot dog is losing her mind at the approach of another animal: tugging at the leash, dodging this way and that in an attempt to sniff the intruder’s butt, or whatever dogs think about.

I’m stranded and screwed, in short, if this thing turns out to be hostile. I shout at the thing — sometimes that’ll scare a stray away — but no avail. It’s close enough now that I can see it’s a big, dark dog, a little bit bigger than my golden retriever.

I should detour to say that my warm feelings toward dogs are tenuous — generally I like them but I’m wary as hell about them, because once I saw a neighbor of mine reach down to pet a friendly-looking stray and it latched onto her arm and started thrashing around like it was tearing the throat out of a deer. Not an image you forget, as much as I love my dumb mutt.

Anyway.

It pulls up just short of my dog — I’ve slowed to a brisk walk, to avoid my own dog tripping me — and begins sniffing at her. My dog sniffs back. I yank her away and shout at the dog again to get lost. I stomp in the thing’s direction. It backs up a few steps but keeps pacing us, trotting along in the grass while we stick to the pavement.

Last thing I want is for something bizarre to happen, so I turn it around and walk back home. The dog falls right in with us, haunting us every step of the way, sometimes a little in front, sometimes a little behind — I try to feint it off down a side street here and there, but it always wanders back.

I get home. Stray dog follows us up onto the porch. I open the door; it tries to follow us inside. I slam the door to keep it out, go to put my dog in her crate because she’s well and truly losing her mind by now. I go back upstairs — the dog has opened the door and pushed into my foyer. In my mind, this thing is Cujo. I shout at it and shove it back outdoors with sweeping feet, then close and lock the door. It sits there staring at me through the side window, its breath fogging the glass. Thank goodness that’s over, I think, and begin the slow process of decelerating my heartbeat and preparing to go to work.

WHAM. The house veritably shakes, I drop my glass of water. SCRATCHSCRATCHSCRATCH WHAM.

I run to the front door. The dog is almost hurling itself against the door trying to get in. It starts barking. My own dog starts barking in response. I feel sweat beading on my forehead, and it’s nothing to do with my interrupted workout. It’s five in the morning. Do I call animal control? 911? I can’t ignore it; this thing is about to wake the house, to say nothing of the panic attack I’m about to have.

I run downstairs. Grab the broom. Back upstairs where the critter is furiously scratching at the door. Take a deep breath — open the door.

Its muzzle flashes in through the gap in the door and I whack it good with the butt of the broom. It yelps and skitters backwards, leaps down the steps to the sidewalk, and turns to stare at me. I follow it, waving the broom for good measure. It takes the hint and crosses the street.

Then we go to work, and I try not to think about the dog for the rest of the day.

I come to learn later that the dog then went and harassed my neighbor across the street a bit later, when the sun was up. She (being the sort of person who has the time and, dare I say it, the good heart required for such things) collared the dog and took it over to a veterinarian and checked it for a chip. The dog belonged to a house on the other side of our neighborhood. She drove over to return the dog — and found the house vacant. She asked around the neighbors of that house; they had moved away about a week ago. Sure, that’s their dog. Guess they didn’t take it with them.

Further, what I couldn’t see in the dark of the morning is that the dog did have a collar. It didn’t make any noise because the collar was too tight and it had actually grafted itself to the poor creature’s skin in some places.

So a neglected animal saw me out with my dog, followed me thinking I’d be a fair source of attention and, possibly, care, and I smacked it in the nose for its trouble.

I have my own moral indigestion over what happened (my neighbor has now taken the poor thing in, which is a little balm to my conscience), but this really demonstrates to me the power of prejudice. I saw this animal in a certain light (or lack of light), made a few snap decisions, and was unable to distance myself from the perceptions that followed. As soon as the fear started boiling in my bloodstream, the capacity to think and make a rational decision went right out the window. It wasn’t a helpless, harmless stray looking for a home; it was Cujo trying to force its way into the house.

As it turns out, it first approached my neighbor by — you guessed it! — jumping into her vehicle as she was loading up her kids to take them to school. (Imagining it gives me the shivers. I probably would have done a lot worse than bop it in the nose, at that point.) The difference? It was daylight by then. She could see the dog clearly, get a sense of its demeanor. She’s taken it in, now, and is giving it a measure of care it may never have known in its life.

Long story, that, so the writer’s tie-in will be short.

Ideas can come out of nowhere, and it’s not easy to see them clearly at first. Maybe they follow you around at the edge of thinking for weeks, months, years without ever coming into the light. And maybe you hesitate to engage, because it’s impossible to tell if these ideas are the good kind that will love you and bring you your slippers and turn into bestsellers or if they’re the bad kind that will bite you and leave you bleeding and on the waiting list at the ER for a series of rabies injections. (Did I mix up my metaphors there? Or am I writing the wrong kinds of stories? You decide!) But if you’ve got an idea sitting there on your porch, staring you down through the windows, chucking itself against the door, demanding to be acknowledged? That just might be an idea worth entertaining.

All the same, I’m carrying my stick when I go out running by moonlight from now on. After all, if I had known I could defend myself if things went south, I might not have turned the pitiful little abandoned dog into a bloodthirsty monster in my mind.

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Sparks! (and spiders)


Yesterday I wrote about the occluded flow of viable ideas making it from my brain to the blank page. Here’s why I think my particular eclipse might be waning:

In the past twenty-four hours I’ve had a couple of ideas penetrate the mental fog, strike me as amusing, and stick around for more than a few moments (of late, the ideas strike and then vanish again into the ether like Batman knocking out a criminal and disappearing into the night). Both spurred by simple real-life situations that could easily have been left alone and forgotten about!

Situation 1:

I’m at work. I get no cell service in my building. So if I receive a text, it doesn’t usually land until I’m in the parking lot, leaving school. As it turns out, I receive a text from my father as I’m pulling away from the building. It’s time-stamped around 2:00: “What is happening?”

I reply “not much” and don’t think of it again until the following morning. A response never comes. Now, it must be asked: who sends a text to ask “what is happening” without that being pretense for actually asking something more significant, a la “let’s get together for dinner” or “are you going to be available on Saturday” or “do you still have the shovel and duct tape and garbage bags and lye that we used for that one thing that one time, I kinda need them right this minute”? Nobody, that’s who. You ask somebody “what’s happening” so that you can talk to them about something else and you don’t know how to begin the conversation without a banality. And, by the way, you say “what’s happening” like a human, not the more formal “what is happening” like a robot.

But there it is. Just that question — “what is happening?” — and nothing to follow.

Right around the time of the eclipse.

Then, in my head, the scenario plays out: the eclipse has come, the sky is dark, and my father rushes out into the yard, beseeching the heavens (and then also texting me, because of course he would do this): “WHAT IS HAPPENING?”

Read with the proper inflection and emotion, this makes perfect sense. All it needs is a second question mark to fit perfectly — ooh, or perhaps the saucy interrobang. The world needs more interrobangs. Doesn’t it?!

Ahem.

And why no response? Well, that’s easy. He was taken by the lizard men, obviously, and spirited away to their space station on the far side of the moon.

This is much more palatable than the probable actual truth, which is that he just sort of wanted to check in with me.

Right. Situation 2:

I was out for a run this morning. Gorgeous one, actually. Starry sky in full glory, perhaps trying to make up for being overshadowed (haw) by the eclipse yesterday. I’m plodding on, eyes skyward, when I tear through this massive spider web.

And I do mean, massive. The web happened to be strung across the gap between a football fence and the bleachers behind it: a four-foot gap, and right at head-and-chest height. I’ve got strands in my mouth, on both shoulders, even trailing the tops of my knees. I’m pulling webby gunk out of my eyebrows, off the back of my hands. The dog is freaking out because I’m stumbling all over the place like a drunk trying to pick a fight with a bar stool.

While we’re on the subject, have you ever run into a spider web while bald? I can’t say I recommend it.

Of course, I don’t stop running while I’m trying to de-web myself (NEVER STOP RUNNING, the demons will catch you). So about fifty yards later, when I’ve collected my thoughts a little bit, the real horror strikes. What’s unpleasant about spider webs is not the webs themselves, but the spiders they conceal. And now I have to contend with the possibility that a spider is on me right now. Worse than that, massive, human-sized spider webs are not woven by tiny house spiders. This web was a doozy, which means the responsible spider is a doozy by proxy and I know spiders don’t always just sit in the middle of their webs but SOMETIMES THEY DO OH MY GOD HELP.

But I can’t feel the spider, despite lots of swiping at my face and neck and back and various other parts.

And I figure that means I’m okay.

Unless the spider is one of those weird anomalies of nature like that parasite that takes over an ant’s brain and drives it onto the top of tall grass at nightfall to be devoured by a cow. If it were, couldn’t it conceivably have wiped out the past twenty seconds of my memory, when it crawled up through my nose and buried itself in my brain, and only made me think that I hadn’t found the spider?

Couldn’t it, then, be driving me around like a meat puppet right now?

Could I really be the spider right now? Thinking spidery thoughts that just happen to be the thoughts that spiders would think if they found themselves embedded in human husks?

We can’t be sure that I’m not.

So I’ve spent the past several hours wandering in and out of a dreamland in which my father was abducted by eclipse-riding lizardmen and I was being piloted by a mind-controlling spider. Which is a weird headspace, but not a narratively unfertile one.

Still, it’s got my brain percolating, so that’s good. Even if a spider is to blame.

(Spiders are usually to blame.)


A Burp of Inspiration


Writing is an act of discovery as much as it is an act of communication. I forget that sometimes, but then there are days when it comes crashing back into my consciousness: like today.

My current WIP has been struggling forward on lame legs for a while — I love the idea in general, but it has failed to stand up under its own weight for some time. Like a newborn calf, it struggles to stand, it collapses and has to be helped up. And since I’ve never quite been able to figure out how to keep it steady, I’ve struggled to find a groove with the project. It’s been tough going, tougher than I would like and certainly tougher than I sometimes make out.

So today I kicked back and let a few of my characters talk some sharknado out, and holy carp. Out of the conversation sprang the solution to the problem that’s been plaguing this story from the start. It gives shape to the entire narrative, gives motivation to the protagonist, gives foreshadowing and tension to the early chapters and closure to the late chapters.

I haven’t gotten there in eight months of thinking about this story, and finally — while in the midst of a perfectly ordinary writing session, I might add — it just pops out, when I’m not even thinking about it. Which probably means it was clunking around in my dome the whole time, I just didn’t know how to let it out. And it almost certainly means I would never have found the solution if I hadn’t set my shoulder against the problem and worked forward anyway.

One of my favorite quotes on creativity comes from Pablo Picasso: Inspiration exists, but it has to catch you working.

Today’s session was a perfect example of that. I needed this today.dory


LightningStruck


Often, I rail against the mortal writing sin of “waiting for inspiration.” The fact is, you can’t count on inspiration. The muses are busy little bees, and if they only turn their divinely inspiring faces your way even every few months, well, you should consider yourself lucky. But you don’t get things done by sitting around, waiting for that to happen. Novels are not written with a muse perched over your shoulder, hmming and ahhing as you get to the good bits, putting whiskey into your hand just when you need it, and yanking you out of your stuffy crapsack apartment every now and then for the fresh air you so desperately need to keep the creative juices flowing. The muses have better things to do, and you should have better things to do than to sit around waiting for them.

Still, though, on some days the car just won’t start. Some days, you’re in between projects, and your routine is shattered, and you’re unsure what to do, and even the thought of opening up that blank document and screwing it up with your words is enough to send you into an existential spiral of doubt and dread and you go binge-watch Orphan Black instead. Some days, it’s hard to believe that you ever thought of yourself as a writer at all. Who does that, anyway? Who has the time or the creativity to turn out stories day after day, to think up new characters and conflicts, to flesh out entire worlds? It can’t be done. The authors who’ve done it are either fake people — computer-simulated AI programs that analyze market trends and tailor the storylines to what people really want to read. Or maybe they’re just independently wealthy people who don’t have to hold down jobs or families or any other inconveniences of living in modern society. That must be it.

These are the days that break a lot of folks down. They’re the days that broke me down in the past. “I just don’t feel like writing today, so I’ll start the new project tomorrow.” “I’m not sure what to do with this scene; I’ll just ponder on it until I figure it out.” “The story’s kind of up a tree. Maybe I just need to let it be for a while.” The problem is, momentum matters. “Tomorrow” turns into the next day, then a week, and so on until the novel you are writing turns into the novel you were writing, once upon a time. “Until I figure it out” becomes “until I feel like it,” which becomes the trash fire of “maybe I’ll get back to it one day.” “Letting it be for a while” likewise becomes “dust on the shelf.” You’re writing, you’re writing, you’re writing, and then poof, you lose the spark, and all of a sudden, you’re not writing anymore. You’re waiting.

For what? For the magic to happen?

Keep waiting. There is no magic in this world outside of the magic we create, so if you want inspiration, you have to seize it where it comes and drive it in front of you like a herd of goats when it doesn’t.

It shames me to admit (though I must) that I’ve been waiting for a while. Sitting back, letting my tomorrows turn into one days, letting my until I figure it outs turn into until I feel like its. I’ve had excuses. Good excuses, even! It was the end of the year; I was focused on wrapping up at school. I had just finished the AI edit, I needed some time to decompress before the next project. I wasn’t even certain what the next project wanted to be; how could I just start working on something with no guidance, no map?

Well, valid excuses turn into crap ones the longer you stretch them out, and I’ve stretched mine for about a month. And I wish I could say that I have seized gumption by the scruffy nethers and started shaping my creative expression like a sculptor with a particularly pliable bit of clay. That I hoisted myself by the bootstraps and threw myself back into the habit and started crotchpunching the sharks out of my way.

But the sad fact is, it took a visit from the muse to kickstart me into motion again.

Lightning, Thunderstorm, Storm, Weather, Clouds, Nature

Somewhere between trolling the internet, not thinking about writing too much, and mowing the lawn, lightning struck, and all of a sudden my brain is like a pack of jackals scrabbling against the inside of my skull. All of a sudden, the story demands to be written.

I’m not saying I wouldn’t have gotten started up again, but there’s no telling how long it might have taken. That scares me. More than a little bit. It’s humbling, this thought that for all I preach about the virtues of sticktoitiveness, of writing through every day even when the writing sucks, I got mired in the morass myself.

But you know what?

I’m writing again. And you know that thing they say about gift horses.

Jump on and ride them till they throw you.


Dreams are Useless


Many times I’ve read the nugget of writing advice: “keep a notepad by your bed, so you can jot down the ideas that come to you in your dreams!” Which is the sort of nebulous, tree-hugging crap that sounds good at first. We don’t know where inspiration comes from, and we don’t know where dreams come from, so obviously they must come from the same place, right??

I’ve tried it. My results are less than stellar. Less than atmospheric, really. The trajectory of my success with this method is more like a Greyhound ride to Denton: disappointing, a little smelly, and at the end of the day, you’re in fargoing Denton.

But my best ideas come from my dreams! I hear you cry. If I hadn’t kept that little notebook next to my bed, I wouldn’t have ever remembered the idea that became the seed for my 7-part fantasy saga based on my life, The Rainbow Riders of Regulon 7. (btw, you can’t have that title; I made it up as a joke but I’M KEEPING IT.)

Sure. Maybe. But dreams are boring as hell to anybody who isn’t you and who isn’t bound by genetics or marriage vows to listen to you. And dreams aren’t compelled to make sense or be coherent at all.

Here, I’ll show you. (Feel free to skip this next paragraph, because it’s absolute garbage.)

I dreamed early this morning of a sort of Titanic-esque love story. Two people from different worlds collide on this boat that’s going away forever. Romance. Goofy frippery. Elaborate costumes. But the dude is found out as a fraud by a snooty guy who goads him into a fistfight and gets him thrown off the boat. Dude is losing his mind with love and the thought that he’ll never see his girl again. He tries desperately to get back on board, and ends up swimming out into a shipping lane in hopes of getting scooped back up. He does — by the Coast Guard, and his persecutor takes great pleasure in locking him up for international crimes or something. But our dude manages to win over the persecutor’s grandmother with the power of his love, and she convinces her grandson to stage an elaborate shenanigan (shenanigans can be singular, can’t they?) to stop the boat and allow the dude back on board, where he is tearfully reunited with his love.

Terrible. And that’s a salvageable dream, with a beginning, middle, and end, kind of. Never mind how the guy got out into open ocean to swim into a shipping lane, although that’s arguably the best part — maybe he could get mauled by the propellers of a cargo freighter hauling prosthetic limbs. As dreams go, this is a masterpiece of continuity.

It’s awful, but it’s vivid, and because it’s vivid, and because that little turdlet of writing wisdom is still kicking around in my brain, I wrote it down. So, now, I can ignore it as I flip past it when I go plumbing the depths of my drivel looking for inspiration for my next work.

But here’s the real problem with waiting for inspiration from your dreams (though it’s more of a skeptical hangup than a problem). If it’s kicking around in your dreams, that means it’s already banging around in your subconscious, which means on some level it’s something you’re already thinking about. The dream just brought it to front-of-mind for a fleeting moment while you were unconscious.

With that in mind, it’s hard to say that just because I dreamed something, it’s automatically worth writing down. Like most of the thoughts that pass through my head, anything I dream is actually probably not worth writing down or remembering at all.

Dreams shouldn’t get preferential treatment over any other old crusty idea that drops into your brain. If anything, they deserve more skeptical treatment by dint of being disjointed incoherent heaps of hot garbage. Dreams, just like any other idea I have, go through a rigorous screening process. Just like I don’t pick up the phone for phone numbers I don’t recognize, I don’t write down an idea as worth keeping just because it popped in there.

Most ideas are crap; dreams, doubly so. But you’ll know the good ones when you see them: The good ones will stick around, call back, or even show up on your doorstep to make sure you pay attention to them. The good ones will stick in memory whether you write them down or not.

 


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