Okay, I stole this title from Barbara Sher (the Wishcraft lady), who has a book entitled I Could Do Anything If Only I Knew What It Was. I am about to usher myself and a passel of writers and hopefuls through the process of planning and writing and revising a novel.
In October, we will plot and plan, write about writing, fumble and feel and think our way to the stories we think we will tell. In November and half of December, we will write our a**es off, at a minimal rate of 1667 words/ day. In mid-January, after a respite for perspective and recovery, we will gather again to see what these books are about and to begin to revise them.
But right now, we are about to start (on Oct. 6. To join us visit http://www.elizabethstark.com/courses). And I am asking people to come up with a pitch–character, motivation, obstacles. These are good times for stories. No one can say that nothing happens: corruption, greed, ambition, loss, fear, and a lot of the unknown, looming. And yet, what to write?
I won’t say that there are two types of people . . . but I will say that some people have tons of ideas (but don’t necessarily follow through) and some people seem not to have ideas. My theory is that people who don’t seem to have ideas are just shooting them down before they pop up. Scaring them away.
It is easier to come up with five ideas than only one. Five ideas is like dating; one idea is like getting married on your first date: what if I don’t want to stick with this idea?
The secret, I think, is to trust story. Not a particular story, but the fact that caught in the happenings and imagery and relationships of a story is everything you have to say about the world. Start with a composite of your grandmother and your dental hygienist. Start with a moment when someone loses everything on the stock market. Start with a little boy at the park hugging smaller little boy in a matching shirt until they both fall over in the wood chips and start to cry. (Character, dire situation, imagery.)
When I was seventeen and had just started college, I took a class with Gloria Anzaldua (another amazing writing teacher who died too young. Uh oh.). She has us write a Table of Contents of our lives. This is a great exercise for digging up story.
Shakespeare lifted his plots (stole them, you might say) and transformed them. I’ve heard that Jane Smiley always uses another book as a blueprint. (I know that A Thousand Acres uses King Lear.) Natalie Goldberg (not a great writer but a great writing teacher) would tell you, write down, “I want to write about . . . ” and then keep your pen moving, coming back to this phrase whenever you get stuck. Barbara Kingsolver asks herself a question whose answer she does not know, and she learns the answer in the process of writing her novel.
Start with a story from the newspaper. Or the story of how your parents met. Or the story you invented about that strange guy at the corner store. Think of someone you know and about what would cause this person to change completely. Then make that person a different gender or age or race, give them a different profession in another city; let them become a fictional character.
Take a stack of index cards and write down ten different characters, ten different impossible situations, ten different insurmountable obstacles. Then mix and match.
Write in crayon on big paper. Ride a bus and scribble in a little book. Go for a walk and let the rhythm of your feet turn into words, into a voice, and let the voice tell you its story. Look at someone across the cafe from you and imagine something in his life that changed him completely. Ever wondered, “Why do people do XY&Z?” Make-up a character who does that and let her tell you.
I remember a story–I think it was in a play? or in The Sun magazine?–about a woman who told her young daughter that she was going to teach a drawing class to adults. “You mean they forgot how?” the child asked.
Your mind is full of stories. What are you afraid of, what do you hope for, who did you think you might be? The great thing about the writing experiment we are about to embark upon is that you can start anywhere, explore, and move deeply into a story. Through that story you will discover other stories, discover a voice or voices, discover what you think about some piece of the world and–by extension–about the world itself.
[More blog entries about writing and life, as well as information about my NaNoWriMo course, editing services and other classes and writing tips, are available at my web site: http://www.elizabethstark.com Thanks!]