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.

You Can’t Capture Reality

sleepy birdie

One really important–and freeing–thing about writing is when we have a basic understanding that in our modern/post-modern/post-post-modern world (now is not the time for that debate, although I always like a good “what-version-of-modernism-are-we-in-now?” chat) that no writer can REALLY capture a single reality. We can all agree on that, correct?  Most of us anyway?

Take the above photo of my sweet and exhausted Cockatiel.  Hims is really tired in this photo and when hims gets tired, hims likes to nestle in a flock-member’s shoulder, right near the flock-member’s neck. Hims gets all fat and fluffy. He squats low like a duck and him’s eyes begin to close. When hims does this, hims flock members need to be very quiet because if they startle hims, hims will hiss.

Cockatiels don’t believe in correct pronoun use. At least this one doesn’t. But the point here is that whose reality does this photo represent? The tired avian? Whose reality I can’t possibly know, but I like to construct? Or his flock member, who writes with an 91-gram warm package of feathers sinking into her neck? She feels his little hot breathing through his nostrils and has to sit very carefully because in such deep sleep, he lifts one little foot and hardly holds on.  She knows if she lifts him up gently and doesn’t startle him, he will let her kiss him on his head and he will smell like baby powder and electricity.

The same is true for writing. I can write every single description of that bird–down to his fuzzy “underbrush feathers,” as we call them, to his little scaly feet–and I will not actually capture the reality of his existance. I can also write an entire book on his personality, the songs he knows, how he escaped yesterday and spent the morning flying around the house and we found him hours later perched on the cookbook in the kitchen, chirping for someone to find him, and all I will do is bore you, but I will bring you no closer to understanding the reality of this bird.

We didn’t always think this way. In grad school, I once took a humanities seminar where we explored every single thing about the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. It was a very valuable class, actually, and one of the many takeaways from that experience was reading a self-published little journal about a young man’s trip to the fair, which his father had given him as a high school graduation present.  I can’t recall the name of the book (and to be fair, I did try, just for you. I got up and spent a few minutes rooting around in the section of bookshelves where I thought I had it last, but it’s been years and hunting for it isn’t all the efficient to do just now. You’ll just have to take my word for it that the book exists and I read it), but the impactful part for me was that the teen used his journal as a type of camera.  For every exhibit he visited, he wrote in great detail describing everything, so he could remember every bit of the experience years later.  He tried to preserve the memory as clearly and as perfectly as he could–as close to reality as he could get. Not that I am attempting to distill realism into its most simple element–there is certainly more to realism than that–but that attempt to capture reality as it is is certainly something humans once believed they could do.

Now, we know that any attempt to do so is futile. As a child, for example, I remember opening one eye after taking a nap and then opening the other eye, realizing that because the pillow had been pressing on one eye and not the other, the bedsheets looked two slightly different colors of pink. I shut one eye again and opened the other. Yep. Two shades of color. It made an impression on me, even as a child, and I knew then that we can’t possibly all see the same way because even with one person, two different eyes may see two different shades of pink. I could imagine how differently two entirely different people view the world, so there could not be any actual reality in terms of physical surroundings.  It was easy to embrace this during my childhood–as opposed to a hundred years earlier–because  the shift that came with modernism (and post-modernism, and post-post-modernism, if you will) happened long before my birth. Thus, today, most people realize that when it comes to any medium, we cannot capture reality. Only shadows of it. Slants of it. One version of one part of it.  We know that if we take our journal (or camera, for that matter) to the museum and write down every single experience, we still can’t capture it all. We just can’t. It can’t be captured.

Which brings me to my point. Despite all of this, I still run into new fiction writers who try to capture the reality of a situation and get bogged down in the details of a story because “that’s how it happened.”  Even in non-fiction, the idea of changing a detail from a memory recalled on paper shocks students because “that isn’t what happened!”  Sometimes, when trying to get new writers to see the importance of details in writing, I will ask them to describe the last time they went to the beach. What did the air feel like on their skin? What did it smell like? What did they taste? Many times, they will claim not to remember their last time to the beach very well and when I tell them to shut their eyes and just imagine what they MIGHT have felt, they appear shocked. Am I asking them to lie? They thought they were supposed to write about something that actually happened?  They are distrustful. Will they be penalized for lying?  After all, they have been told not to lie. They have been told to tell the truth.

I tell them for this activity–recalling the memory of a beach experience–it is fine to make up details, even if they aren’t exactly accurate. After all, does it really matter if they were wearing their blue t-shirt or the yellow one? Does it matter if on this particular day, they ate lunch in a restaurant on the pier or at a picnic on the beach? Maybe, maybe not, but if it doesn’t matter in the telling of the story, or describing an experience, then who cares? Not when it comes to writing fiction (and that is what I am taking about. Not news reporting. I’m not even going to go there).

This is especially freeing if you are basing a story on something that did actually happen.  Nothing will cause writer’s block faster than trying to stay true to a situation that actually happened and being unable to break free of the “reality” of the moment.  The best cure for this type of writer’s block is to understand that the event that actually happened can and should be altered so that the truth of the experience remains, but the details are changed. And you can get at this truth a multitude of different ways. You might change the gender of the character, for example, or give the person a different profession. You might change the time of day or the time of year or anything else that fundamentally tells your brain, “you are not being a reporter…you are creating, not reporting .” Rather than fighting with your perception of “reality,” you can embrace that when it comes to narrating our lives, there is no physical true reality anyway.

For the record, I am leaving out a lot of the “is there a true reality?” philosophical discussion and I am only focusing on what most of us can agree on: that we all have different perceptions for what happened, what is currently happening, and what will happen. Whether there is some ultimate, true reality is a discussion larger than this post. I am simply saying that as a writer, your goal is to evoke some emotion in the reader, some realization in a reader, some realization for that one person, which may or may not be the same for any other person. However you want to do that is fine–use all of the tools at your disposal, including removing the idea that you must remain loyal to reality as you know it.

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On Riffing in Fiction Writing (How To Have Great Ideas If You Are Stuck)


A few years ago, I found my oldest daughter’s acoustic guitar in the secret attic room and after restringing it and tuning it, I decided to teach myself how to play it. I didn’t make it very far (I really don’t have time to properly teach myself how to play a guitar. After all, if I have any time, I need to be writing), but I made it far enough to learn a few chords and understand the concept that you can take a simple song—“Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” for example—and then, if you feel so inclined and have the ability, you can add different strum patterns and other dimensions, all based on that same basic song. You can take the skeleton tune and turn it into something entirely new.

I’m not sure why it took me so long to figure this out. After all, almost everything we learn to do is based on this idea of what I call “riffing”—starting with a simple structure and then adding complexity and other dimensions to make it our own.

For example, we do this with cooking.  When we first want to make a new dish, we probably hunt down a recipe to figure out where to begin. Then, generally, we follow the recipe pretty closely that first time, just because we don’t necessarily trust ourselves not to mess it up (depending on what we are making). Once we have made it a few times, however, we decide to use different noodles, perhaps, or add some jalapeños. Oh, and red onion would be another good addition. Maybe some cilantro. Soon, the new recipe is perhaps but a shadow of the original one, with our own flare and probably even more delicious. It doesn’t always work out, but this experimenting with recipes is half the fun of cooking.

We do this with everything, actually. We start with something basic and then make it our own. And so it goes with fiction writing: if you are stuck for an idea, you can hardly go wrong with riffing an urban legend or a fairy tale.

You will start with a basic tale—take the “Three Little Pigs” for example.  With this tale, we have three pigs, one of them a bit lazy, one a bit middle-of-the-road, and one who gets shit done. We then have a wolf who, of course, wants to eat them because they are juicy and that’s what wolves do. Then you have some bit about a fair and rolling down the hill with a butter churn and the wolf meeting his demise by falling through a chimney into a pot of boiling water. All that, however, is old detail for the basic upshot of the tale, which is that the two pigs run to the house of the pig who gets shit done and they work together to foil the wolf. That’s the bones of the story, but you can take this story so many different ways.

In your story, perhaps, the pigs become human brothers (or sisters), who probably all have a bit of emotional baggage about their perfect brother who builds sturdy houses out of brick. The middle brother just wants to be left alone to publish articles on sub-tropical islands he can never visit since the mortgage to his ranch house in the suburbs takes all his cash. The younger brother, who built his house out of hay, lives in his girlfriend’s condo in LoDo because he’s charming and attractive, but doesn’t have a dime to his name and he is resentful of the other two. At some point, he wants to impress his girlfriend (so she won’t kick him out) and he starts a business by borrowing from a loan shark (enter Wolf)….

And, we’re off to the races. Now we have an idea! The point here is not that this would be an excellent story or not—we have no idea because a story like that is in the telling and the details. In fact, we could all write this exact same story and none would be the same, which is the great thing about writing.  The point here is that if you ever get stuck finding a writing idea, you can always start with a basic skeleton of a well-known tale and, with a little riff session, make it your own.

Blending Reality into Fiction in Your Writing

I had an imaginary conversation with my mother the other day.  I had just finished a story involving an alcoholic and somewhat neglectful mother and in my imaginary conversation, I was explaining to my Imaginary Mother (I have a real mother, too, but she hasn’t read this story yet. I was imagining what I would say if she did read the story) that no, that story was not a commentary on her or her job as a mother raising me.  Not at all.

Imaginary Mother didn’t buy it.

“But you wrote her driving a brown Oldsmobile,” said the Imaginary Mother. “Just like we used to own.”

“I also wrote her smoking and you don’t smoke,” I said. “I also made her an alcoholic and you hardly drink.”

“You wrote about that boy I chased down in a car because he hit you,” said Imaginary Mother.

“Yes, but you actually caught him! This character didn’t catch the kid because she was drunk.”

“You didn’t even change his name!”

“Whose name?”

“The bully!”

I went on to explain to Imaginary Mother that the bully was actually an amalgam of three different people, melded into one who looked nothing like the original one that she once chased down with her car, so it wasn’t a matter of writing a story about a single person or an incident that actually happened. None of it actually happened.

Because I write fiction.

As writers, we take bits and pieces of random parts of our lives and toss it into the blender of our unconscious when we write. Our unconscious then blends the raw pieces of our experiences with its sharp blades and the end result is something entirely new, yet still retaining the some of the taste of the former.

We watch people. We take notes. We observe the crossed arms and breathing patterns of a bored co-worker. We file away knowledge that someone never takes left hand turns and it takes them two hours to get to work each day. We take note of a statue of a monster at the foot of the stairs when we are touring a house for sale (we didn’t buy that one).  We record the numerous times we have almost run over a man riding a unicycle down the street in the dark. We jot down the couple who takes their dog for a walk in a baby carriage. We remember the way our stomach hurt with hunger before lunch in third grade and our teacher wouldn’t let us walk down the hallway to the cafeteria until everyone stood perfectly silent.  We recall the time we went on a carousel for the first time, the scents of old wood and  machine oil. And all of that comes together in a way that blends reality into a new reality of fiction.

That’s what we do when we write. So, when people say, “Are you going to write a story about me?”  The answer is probably yes. And no. And maybe. Maybe just a snippet or two of a hint of you. Mixed with everyone else, including myself.

Because I write fiction.

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.