Friday, September 18, 2009

Why I Write

As a child, I always was reading. My mother would say, “Jan, it’s too nice outside to stick your nose in a book all day.” Then she would pat my arm and smile. My taste in literature was eclectic, although fantasy novels such as Alice in Wonderland or The Phantom Tollbooth appealed to me most. I did go through a stage where I read all of what we referred to as “those orange books,” biographies of notable Americans, one of the first non-fiction series in school libraries. My favorite was Sacagawea, Girl Indian Guide. But it never occurred to me when I made-up stories to entertain my little brother that I would become a writer. I was a curious kid and noticed everything about everybody. I could mimic the way people talked, their facial expressions, tone of voice, what they wore, what we talked about….the white rabbit fur coat that my friend Sherry wore to school in second grade, a nursery school aide who made me keep my eyes closed all through rest period, the smell of ink at my mother’s easel, the lump in my throat when she left every morning for work. Always outspoken, I had such a fine sense of the ridiculous that my Uncle Rudy called me “Miss Wiseguy.” All of this has helped shape me as a writer. I can reach back into my memories and use them for characters and situations in my books.
Whether I’m writing fiction or non-fiction, I love to write. Sometimes I begin at dawn, wakened by my poodles Henri and Thiebaud, who whine to go out. Then in my sweat clothes, I hurry up to my study with a huge cup of coffee and a bowl of oatmeal and turn on the computer. I have trained myself not to check my e mails until after I’ve done some writing and taken a long walk. If I wait for an inspiring thought, I’ll never get started. So I go straight to the project I’ve been working on and plunge right in. I always end my day with an idea about what I want to write the next morning. But first I revise what I’ve already written. Aside from the clicks in my head when I read sentences that don’t work, revising puts me back into the rhythm of the language, takes me inside the skin of the main character. All around me in piles are personal interviews, research books, a bulletin board filled with photographs and drawings of my subject, and reproductions of their artworks, buildings, stage sets…whatever it is that the artist creates. Photos of Frank Gehry buildings, posters of Chuck Close paintings, a multiple by Louise Bourgeois, a print by Andy Warhol, Xeroxes of drawings of The Gates in Central Park by Christo and Jeanne-Claude. I surround myself, immerse myself in the world of the person whose story I am telling. My husband wanders in before he goes to his office. He looks around and shakes his head. “What a mess,” I can almost hear him say to himself. But he knows that eventually I will emerge from the rubble, the debris of someone else’s life, with a book.
Of-course the first draft is just the beginning of a long process. I enjoy all the stages from first inspiration to final product. One of my favorite stages is called “Feedback.” Visiting schools to read parts of my new manuscript takes me out of my study and back into the real world, the world of my readers. It also helps me to know what works and what doesn’t, what’s interesting and what’s not. But my favorite part of the process takes place when I’m alone in the room, writing. When I’m finished, I seldom start a new project right away. I rarely read books other than research material when I’m working. An explanation might be that I don’t want someone else’s use of language to somehow slip into my own. So there’s always a stack of the latest mysteries or biographies waiting for me …on the couch, next to my bed, on the night stand, on the floor of my car. I look forward spending the day with The Lincolns or Darwin. My mother’s repeated words come back to me. I know, Mom. It’s a nice day and here I am with my nose stuck in a book. Thanks for understanding all those years ago.

1 comment:

michellemarkel said...

Yes, one must train oneself not to read the emails- it contaminates one's fresh morning mind. Your writing process sounds very similar to mine. When the writing is not going well, it's often because I've not been observing the "rituals."