Starting From Nothing

I have always found it fascinating to hear how writers get their ideas or how they begin their stories. For me, stories sometimes begin with watching someone closely and imagining what it would be like to be them—or if not them, then someone in their lives. Then, that maybe gets juxtaposed with an unrelated idea in just a way to make a story emerge. Or it begins with an object or an item and a character. Or it may begin by putting someone in a situation and seeing what they do to get out of that situation. Or it may be a bunch of half-truths knitted together all slip-shod and rumpled just enough to make a story.

But on rare occasion, when I’m feeling very free and exploratory, I just start writing and see what happens, where my ideas take me.

Don’t get me wrong…I have a kernel of something before I begin. An image, maybe, or an idea of a character, but mostly, the beginning is dreamy, ghostly, ephemeral. It’s hard to pin down. And pinning it down isn’t the goal….the goal is to see what emerges.

And much of the time, it’s total garbage at first—a weaving of plastic grocery store bags and corn husks. Or a castle of damp playing cards. A tower of cans and bottles.

But sometimes—the best times—something sturdy and completely unexpected emerges. And suddenly, I’ve created something out of nothing.

Which is one of the main reasons I write.

Practice Makes Better

mcaw bird photo.jpg

Last week, I started teaching a summer class–a Comp 1 class–filled with nervous freshmen. They are all inherently likable, arriving to class with their notebooks and highlighters, filled with fear and optimism. The fear is usually at the forefront for most of them, though, and I forgot how often they utter the phrase, “I can’t write,” or “I am not good at writing.”

Part of my job is to convince them that they CAN write. After all, if they don’t think they can, they won’t try.  So I need to restore that hope, the concept that as with anything a bit complicated, it just takes practice.

I ask them to share with a classmate a skill they have, something they are good at.  Soccer. Basketball. Working out. Taking care of people. Cooking. Playing an instrument. Surfing. Re-building cars. Then, we come together and discuss how all of those things took practice and time, as does writing. So, it isn’t a matter of them not being good writers–or even just competent writers–but just that they may need more practice.

Writing is a complex act. Even if we aren’t writing poetry or fiction, we have to make decisions on audience, point-of-view, word-choice, and organization. We have to write a clear message, which isn’t always easy. We have to offer details and examples and be logical about the whole process. It’s no less complex than playing a guitar, yet people will beat themselves up if they can’t master an essay in one draft.

I try to learn from them on the level that I’m at. All things worthwhile take time. They take effort. It’s not a race, it’s a marathon.

Using Concrete Details in Writing (The Love-Coat Hanger Story)

coat hangers

When I used to teach creative writing, I realized early on that new writers needed to learn the difference between concrete and abstract words.  After reading how a girlfriend or boyfriend was “the most amazing person,” or throwing the word “love” around all willy-nilly, I knew that we had to discuss this very important skill upon which believable writing relies.

I’d ask them to name a concrete word. Sometimes, someone knew what I meant, but usually, they blinked and looked confused.  So then I explained how concrete words are words that readers can experience with their five senses.  Then, I’d name them, ticking them off on my fingers as I went because I’d always forget one:

Smell. The scent of popcorn popping. Sea salt in the ocean.

Taste. Dill pickles. (“Salt in the ocean, too!” someone would interject. Exactly!)

Sound. Rain on a rooftop. Tinny music from an old radio.

Sight. A red dry-erase marker (I’d hold one up). A blue Volkswagen Jetta (I’d point out the window).

Touch. Sand clumping between toes. A bumpy seam on a sock.

Then I’d tell them that abstract words are words that cannot be experienced with their five senses and such, the reader cannot form an image of those words.

“Take love, for example,” I’d say. “If we all heard a knock on the classroom door and we opened it up and saw Love standing there, would we all be able to say, ‘OMG!  It’s love knocking!  Come on in, Love!’? No, we could not.”

This elicits laughter and then I go on.  I tell them that we do not know what love looks like. We cannot recognize love like we can recognize a dry erase marker or the President of the United States because love is not a concrete thing.

“Well, what about Valentine’s Day?” someone will inevitably say. “That’s love.”

“Well, I can see why you say that, but no, Valentine’s Day is Valentine’s Day. Technically, it’s February 14th on the calendar and that’s that, but it is not love.

I explain to them that when use concrete words, we are able to create an image in the mind of the reader using his or her five senses. The only way people CAN interact with the world is through their five senses–otherwise, those words are only black dots on a white page. They can’t come alive unless they transmit their images into another person’s mind.

“So, we can’t write about love?” someone will inevitably ask. I just wait for them to ask it because they always do.

I tell them that of course they can write about love. And hate. And freedom. And war. And sorrow. And loss. And redemption. And everything else because those abstract big concepts are the heart of why we write. Yet, we need to use concrete words to get there, to make the reader share in the world we are creating.

This is when I launch into the “Love-Coat Hanger Story.” To begin with, this story has a nice hook with the title and all that. I’m a little proud of the title and the story, which I invented it on the spot one day as about thirty eyes stared at me, waiting for me to illustrate the whole “use concrete words to access the abstract idea” point I was trying to make. So, I gave the story a title and then launched right into it. It worked out so well that I went on sharing it with future classes and now, I’m sharing it with you.

My husband and I share a closet. It’s a large walk-in closet with two doors–his side and my side–but once inside the closet, the closet is all one room. My clothes hang on the right side of the closet and also throughout most of the middle, but my husband has the left hand side. In the mornings, my husband, rushing off to work and taking a shirt off of a coat hanger, doesn’t always know what to do with the hanger. When I remove clothes from hangers, the hangers go in a special place on the bottom right-hand side of my closet on the lowest rod so that I know where all of the empty hangers are located. This makes it easier to either use them again or find them when I need to take a bunch to the laundry room for more clothes-hanging purposes.

My husband does not have a coat-hanger system as I do, so instead, he began tossing his daily hanger across the closet, so it landed on my side of the closet, on the floor.

Eventually, a small pile of three or four coat hangers grew and one day, irritated with his actions, I scooped up the whole pile and let them fly, back over to his side of the closet. Then I went on with my day.

The next day, I saw the pile back on my side, plus one.

I scooped them all up again, plus one more from my own blouse, and tossed the whole pile back to his side.

The next day, the pile was back on my side, plus one.

The pile grew considerably over the next few weeks, until the coat hangers not only fell on the floor in a haphazard pile when they landed, but also scattered across the rest of the closet, hooking in t-shirts and landing on the shoes which lined the floor. At this point, neatness prevailed and I declared him the winner of our little game. I gathered all of the coat hangers and took them to the laundry room.

In the morning, however, he said, “Where’s our coat hangers?”

“In the laundry room. Where they belong.”

“Oh. But I thought that was our little love game.”

So, the next day, I felt bad and tossed a coat hanger onto his side, but later, he told me, “It’s only fun it if it irritates you.”

At this point, people laugh and some people sigh and say, “Awwwww.” Which is a good time to debrief the story.  In order for that story to work, you have to have a pretty good sketch of the inside of my closet.  You don’t need to be overrun with details about which of my specific clothes hang where, but you do have to know enough concrete details to understand the layout of the room so you can see how it is possible for the coat hangers to be thrown. You also have to have enough details to hint at our personality differences.  I don’t want to say, “I am neater than my husband” because again, “neat” is an abstract word.  I need to show the relative neatness by describing how one character has a plan for dealing with accumulating coat hangers and the other has no plan except to toss his to the other.  These details speak volumes about our relationship, as does the romantic qualities of my husband, who sees romance and fun, even as he is attempting to irritate me.

All of those details are important because they reveal volumes about the complexity of our love, which an abstract statement such as “I love my husband” cannot. This is why it will not do to simply write,  “I love my husband.” The abstraction of that statement is meaningless, and in fact, we probably shouldn’t use the word “love” at all–only “tell it slant” to quote Emily Dickinson. Each love has a complexity to it and one can only get to that complexity through the revealing of concrete details that help create that meaning and access the bigger issue of our unique love.

So, there you have it. The “Love Coat Hanger Story” on using concrete words in your writing.