Tuesday, April 14, 2009

I just like to make stuff up.

There's a movie called "Barton Fink" which centers on the idea of writer's block and creativity. In the movie, when one character is asked about why he writes, he replies quite simply "I just like to make stuff up."

The character is W.P. Mayhew, who is supposed to resemble William Faulkener. Faulkner himself once said, "Facts and truth really don't have much to do with each other." And he is right. As a requirement for my master's degree in communication, I took two courses on quantitative and qualitative research. I learned how to conduct surveys, create Likert scales, develop interview questions, interpret data, calculate the mean, median, and average, and perform all sorts of interesting tricks with collected data. I became a master of research, a wizard of data collection, a grande dame of statistical analysis.

And in the end I still had to make shit up to write my factually researched thesis.

That is not to say I lied when writing my thesis, but even with all the data I collected, I still had to organize my dry facts and put some sort of spin on them. Facts alone mean nothing, really, and they will only get you so far in writing. Even non-fiction, the hallmark of research and fact, involves a certain amount of creativity and making up of stuff. Don't believe me? Go hit the non-fiction section of your local bookstore and page through a few good books. It may not be blatantly apparent, but every non-fiction author brings to their work a little something called "voice." That is, the ability to take dull, dry facts and enliven them through imagination and creative writing. These authors do not lie, nor do they even bend the truth, but if they want their books to sell, they've got to know how to tell a good story. And as writers, we all know we never let the facts get in the way of a good story.

Some of my favorite non-fiction books are biographies of famous artists. I collect these books, mostly because I like to look at the pictures and enjoy the artwork of the artist in question. But the really good books are the ones that take me inside the artist's head. Now you and I both know it's not physically possible for one person to actually get inside another person's head. We can't read minds and experience life as someone else experience's it. But a good biographer can make you feel like you're in the mind of another person. They can start your imagination going by taking the facts of someone's life and spinning a creative tale with it. The most boring life in the world can be quite exciting in the hands of a good story teller.

But what about fiction, you ask. Helen, aren't you supposed to be talking about making up fiction? So far you've just been rattling on about non-fiction, which is based on research!

Okay, here's the deal. I will do the research for stories. Some stories simply require it. In some instances I find I must browse through books or the web to help me solidify an idea. It's sort of like looking for a jumping off point of inspiration. I scroll through the facts, letting them sit in my head until my imagination takes over. In other cases, I will spend days gathering notes in order to accurately describe a historical setting or costume, to recreate an exotic locale and its customs, to put the reader in a specific place and time. Yes, I will do the research!

But I also like to just make stuff up.

That's where all my stories start. I don't flip through the newspaper every day looking for inspiration. I don't browse the web in search of ideas. I start with a blank slate, as it were. Before I ever hit Wikipedia or the local library, I start with nothing more than my own imagination, a blank sheet of paper, and a pen. I scribble words down at random, jumping from one rapid fire thought to the next. I write about whatever strikes my fancy. Inspiration can come from anywhere - my mood, my latest daydream, the dessert I had the night before. It all comes out in a jumble, a sort of automatic writing, and it keeps coming out until one of two things happen. Either I find a theme that I keep repeating in my scribblings, or the voices start talking in my head.

If it's a theme that keeps showing up, then I know I have some work to do. The idea is there, but I'm going to need to dig for my story. Digging usually means research, and thus I will hit all my sources to get what I need to make my story, to find that jumping off point where my imagination takes over.

But if those voices start talking instead? You know what voices I mean. The ones that start supplying you with lines of dialog, action sequences, and impossible settings. Those voices are probably what writers like Homer and Ovid called the Muses. Those voices don't require research. They come with the full story in hand, ready to recite into your ear, if you're fast enough to get it all down.

I love those voices. I love that they have everything ready for me to write. I don't need to research these stories. They come with their own facts, their own rules, their own logic; a world complete within itself. And the more impossible the story, the more unlikely the tale, the better it usually is. A man makes love to the ghost of his high school bully. A sentient plant pollinates his human lover. A dominatrix sees the future every time she has an orgasm.

To paraphrase Dave Barry, you can make this up.

You can make up these stories and make them work, and you don't have to research anything to do it. You just have to give you're imagination free rein and get those voices going. But how do we do that? How do we summon the muse at will? It takes practice, and maybe some experimentation. Over the years, I've learned to listen to what goes on inside my head, and to jot it down no matter how improbable it may seem. I daydream a lot. I play "What if?" and make up ridiculous situations. I run these scenes through my head over and over and over again, rehearsing them until they take on a life of their own and then I just follow along for the ride. Call it research of the mind, if you will. Just as we sometimes have to spend hours in the library, we should also spend time alone with our thoughts. Lots of time, if you want to make stuff up.

Research is great, don't get me wrong. But if you really want to write? Get inside your own head and see what you can dig up in there!

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