It’s as simple as that sometimes, a single word. I’m reading Ray Bradbury’s Zen and the Art of Writing and he talks about his writing journey and how he’d been sitting his butt down and writing every day for a decade before he sold his first story at 22. It’s called showing up. Not by him but by others, and it’s instructive to realize not only the truth of this idea of sitting down and dedicating time to what you do, but that over time it really is the only way to get anything done.
So brother Ray has 20+ years on me figuring this out. But does he stop there? No, he rubs my face in it with another simple exercise that he also happened to chance upon. After he’d written a number of published stories he wrote the titles down as a list and discovered they were all nouns, all based on things that he was curious about as a kid, all general enough that they could be about anything but for him they were specific triggers for memories.
In unpacking things into my new office space I finally had almost all (there’s one missing!) my screenplays in one place on a shelf. Spine out, with their titles handwritten on the bluntly bound pages, I stacked them in order of when they were written and studied them from my reading chair.
The Death of Chris and Jenny.
The Book of Isabel.
(the missing Helena would go here).
Peace of Mind.
Come and Gone.
Tips for the Dating Impaired.
What did these titles tell me about my writing? They begin as concept stories, a mad dreamscape about a movie being made in the space between this world and another, between life and death, followed by a pseudo-political story concerning government-controlled and -funded criminals. Next come a trio of character studies that explore (or attempt to) the underground youth culture. These are followed by a weak attempt to write a Hitchcockian thriller, that actually was read by an agent who was kind at pointing out that I was still having problems with grammar. Two autobiographical stories follow, then a What-If fantasy based on an idea tossed away by a film director in an interview (“What if I pretended to be the interviewer and you pretended to be the filmmaker and we see how many people we can fool…”), and lastly my epic homage to Victor Hugo concerning the professional street people who occupy our urban centers.
And those were the finished ones.
Many of these stories were built off ideas, or collected observations, but not around those ideas and observations. I wasn’t telling stories as much as I was trying to stitch ideas with tenuous narrative threads and borrowed styles. Even the biographical stories seemed to be missing the target emotionally, and that’s why they failed. It’s why they all failed. The titles don’t do what they’re supposed to — trigger memories — because the stories they represent come from the head.
I can’t tell you how this pisses me off, because lately everyone’s been talking about emotion in writing. Emotion this and emotion that, and what are these characters feeling, and, crap! Why don’t I know?
Well, according to brother Ray, it’s because I’m not stepping on my own landmines. I need to blow myself up, tear myself apart and find out what everything’s really all about. And then there’s my advisor, Margaret, who’s pointing out that I’m not letting the boys in my story get into enough danger, that I’m protecting them too much.
Why. It’s a no-question-mark question, the kind where the answers are questions in and of themselves. Why am i protecting my characters? Why won’t I let them feel? What part of the world that I’m a part of am I protecting them from…
Ah. The world. I’m trying to protect them from the world that didn’t protect me. Is that a statement or a question? Do I really feel like the world didn’t protect me? Or is it because I never learned the langauge of the emotions, that I can’t pass them along to my characters because, like passing on bad genes, I don’t have them to pass along?
Freakin’ Ray Bradbury.
So I sat down and wrote out a lit of nouns, titles to future stories, triggers for ideas that I may or may not write about one day. Each one of those nouns has more intrinsic meaning than any of those titles above. Some have stronger emotional centers than others, and some strange things came out of the exercise — like the eerie early memory that links cult-like religious indoctrination with soccer. But as personal stories they underscore moments where I (the main character) encountered a strong emotional experience that I don’t think I ever really understood.
Nouns. Word association. Emotion. It reads like therapy.