I Know the Guy in the Green Shirt

GuyInTheGreenShirtI know the guy in the green shirt because I birthed him. I named him Harvey Kipp. Harvey grew from the sparking nebula of my mind and entered my story fully grown, page 176. He’s based loosely, loose as in wouldn’t fit in a classic dictionary entry, on several boys from my high school. None of them paid me any attention at all so I was in the perfect lurker’s position. I could stand in any hallway and spy on the louts, watching their hands play grab arse with the girls, noticing their leers as others walked by, spotting their wicked hand gestures to each other indicating how high they’d scored. Didn’t matter whether they’d actually scored anything, it was their male mythology and the braggadocio that mattered. Old story of course, naughty teenage boys who likely grew up to become men worrying about the next generation of naughty teenage boys with eyes on their daughters. Twenty-five years will put that kind of wisdom on a person.

I listened to the Harveys in class as they showed off their mediocre interest in the scholastic aspects of high school and repeatedly asked the teacher annoying questions meant to steer the class off track. I grunted when they distracted everyone from a meaningful discussion of Jonathon Swift’s Modest Proposal by suggesting their own immodest proposals and generating laughs from fellow high school cretins. Sitting quietly in the second row afforded me a good view and acoustics for the daily procession of intelligence taking a back seat to arrogant bravado. So when I needed a memorable but loathsome character for my book, I had many doofusses to choose from and created an amalgam I named Harvey Kipp.

I get a bit bleary eyed when writers claim they allow their characters to tell them how they feel or what they plan to do. How’s that possible? A figment of one’s imagination giving directions – that’s fodder for the loony bin, folks. The people with clip boards start hanging around, making notes about your conversations, measuring time lapses between your wacko claims. Then they begin to approach you with syringes and long white jackets. Time to fess up, admit you’re a writer, the person you’re talking to is a character you fabricated. Whew, clip boards walking away. Isn’t that a nice change of direction?

However, Author Doe, I don’t think you’re really on the registry for admission to Far Country Psychiatric Residence if you talk this way. I just think you’re using the wrong metaphor for your act of creativity.  Unless you’re actively engaged in plagiarism, or if you write non-fiction, everything you write is an invention. It’s made up by you, you wordsmithing genius of the writer’s guild. So take credit and say in a proud voice, “Sibley Sussexford carjacked the Mercedes because I wrote her committing the crime.” Don’t tell me she talked to you, explaining she had criminal tendencies and loved to drive the fancy cars she couldn’t afford. Don’t tell me you watched her crack the window and hotwire the ignition and had to write what you witnessed. You made it up and it’s all good that you did.  Makes for a fun jaunt down the freeway with six highway patrol cars trying to round robin Sibley into a catchable corner.  And you made up that as well, even if you’ve watched a thousand freeway car chases on the five o’clock news.

Don’t attempt to convince me about Sibley’s self-sufficiency by her unbidden presence in your dreams, an independent haunt out to hijack your sleep. She shows up perhaps in your nightlife, but not mine, not your neighbor’s, because she’s a figment of your imagination, whether you’re awake or asleep. If she could manifest herself to you without your internal Ouija board beckoning her, I have to ask why she’d pick someone who drools and snores in their sleep when she could more happily inhabit my pristine and dainty evening slumber? Oh slobber and snort all you will, Sibley would recognize better lullaby digs were she able travel anywhere outside of your head. Alas and alack, she’s brain locked in your cranium, wallowing in your obsession with your book. I know because Harvey sometimes nudges me in mine. Believe me, if I could get Harvey to move over and make room for Sibley, I would. The guy’s a gorilla-handed lummox, and he isn’t any nicer because I didn’t make him Mr. Nice Guy.

The reason you can write about Sibley Sussexford and I can write about Harvey Kipp is because of all the actual, identifiable humans you and I have observed and interacted with down here on the blue planet. It’s our multiple experiences with real folks that allow us as writers to depict a three-dimensional person who carries the genetic code we wrote for them. Be proud of your imaginative mind. Take credit for your innovations. Tell it like it is: Sibley Sussexford never did a thing you didn’t direct, because you’re a writer. It’s one of your best assets.

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Kernels & Connections. Or, how a popcorn-brain makes family events into story events

This isn’t about writing your family history, or including what happens in your relationships as part of your creative writing.  I personally think a writer should not, unless there is a very, very good reason. Rather, this is where I talk about the metamorphosis of stories, from kernel to so-called finished piece.

As a novice  I read whatever how-to writing books I could get my hands on (you know those rare gems and cartloads of crap culled from resale bookstores.)  Most have a section on story ideas.  What I find fascinating is that my process has absolutely positively nothing to do with all the common advice.  As a matter of fact, my way is superior.  Although you do need a brain that works like microwave popcorn for it to work…

I don’t have an idea journal, you see, or a dream journal, or a writing log, or a journal of any other stripe.  In fact journals of all stripes and spots, make absolutely no sense to me.  (I’ll admit that I did keep a journal once, when I was 12, for three days…)

I’ve already said I don’t like mining my family life for stories.  But I’ll admit this is where it starts.  No, scratch that, it begins with curiosity and an over-active imagination.  Add in family friction and my internal popcorn machine, and I have a story generator I’ve learned to love and trust.

The popcorn thing may need a little explanation.  Do you ever find your mind wandering to one topic only to have it drift, like a slow pop, to something connected and then, pop, to another thing that the second thing or even first thing reminded you of, until – pop pop pop pop – fifteen topics and 4 seconds later you’re asking about something that everyone else thinks is coming out of the blue?

Is coming out of the blue a reference to things falling from the sky?  Could it be like the storm of toads phenomenon? I need to return the Toads on Toast book to the library.  The library would be a nice, quiet place to write.  Hm, nah.  Too quiet.  Better get coffee instead.

So stories begin like this:

My husband and I are sleep deprived, cranky, and getting on each other’s nerves.  We narrowly avoid a fight over the dishes.  He goes to work and I’m wondering what that fight would have looked like were we not the type of people who avoided fights like nurses avoid germs.  I decide it’d be an interesting scene to write.  Draft 1—written in my head—is the fight over the dishes.  Draft 2—written in my head—there are no dishes.  Draft 3—maybe on paper—it’s a mother-daughter shouting match in a café over a careless gesture that knocks over the waiter’s tray carrying someone else’s food.

The mother is nothing like me or my mother (or my husband for that matter); the daughter is nothing like me (or my husband).  That would defeat the purpose.  The purpose is to see a story about somebody else, to see what they would do in a situation I’ve been in.  Except that by the time I’m writing I know so much more about the character than will fit in a story that I know the character would also avoid the fight in the kitchen, but only because she didn’t want to clean up the mess afterward.

Clearly, my method is superior to everyone else’s except yours.  What is yours?