The Itch I Just have to Scratch

To all of you who are doing the Nanowrimo challenge.

It’s a mystery to me how the miracle of a story, a humor piece or a poem was performed. I am always amazed that I was allowed to participate in the labor for it is such a labor of love. It is worth all the sweat and the blood, the tears and the frustration that it took to breath it to life. So here goes. Here’s my process of invention, of creating something out of nothing.

1. The itch. It often begins with a picture or an idea or a dream or some scene or a phrase or a word that strikes me over the head. For instance, I was sitting in a restaurant several years ago and I observed a grandfather bouncing his granddaughter on his knee. I tucked this scene away in my subconscious. Then I saw a series on World War 1. It talked about how the men who had lost part of their faces in that war battle were called gargoyles. Tucked this away too. At a workshop a couple of years later, the prompt was to write about a scar or a wound. Immediately the old man and his granddaughter came to mind. I asked myself, “What if he had lost some of his face?” Bing! the idea began itching and it itched like crazy until I had completed a short story called “Rose and the Gargoyle”. In the case of poetry, the itch is often an opening line such as “Welcome to our town”. All this starts me asking the question, “What if?”

2. Start writing a scene or the next line of the poem and write it quickly. In my poem “Open your eyes”, I open with “Open your eyes, wipe the night away./Open your eyes. It is morning.” Those words came to me sitting on my back porch meditating. I immediately knew that I wanted to share the joy of morning as I was experiencing that joy and that moment. Mostly I am answering questions very quickly. Questions like: What is he doing in that car? What happens if she yells at him and he doesn’t yell back? Why is she taller than he is? Why would she wear a new pair of dress shoes on the beach?

3. Character and setting. Once I have a scene that may or may not be an opening scene or an opening line to a poem, I have a sense of who may very well be the main character and what they really want. I have a pretty good sense of what the point of view may be. I let the story make that decision. And from that scene, I usually have a pretty good sense of the setting.

4. Where am I going? In the case of a poem, it may begin like “‘Be good to Sylvia. Always,’/Mrs. Plath said to son-in-law Ted”. This poem was inspired by the movie “Sylvia” about Sylvia Plath and is a direct quote from the mother in the movie. As soon as I had written those words, I knew where the poem would end up. It would end with Sylvia Plath’s death. The thing is that I wanted to use the journey of the poem to show that Ted Hughes was not to be blamed for his wife’s death. After reading years of criticism that blamed him in such a way that he was judged for his character, not his poetry, I wanted to defend Ted Hughes and how he must have suffered from the loss of his wife. In “Janos of the Mountain”, I was not sure where the story was going after the opening scene. I was almost at the end when I discovered that the protagonist was a teacher. I only knew this two paragraphs from the end when Janos says to the protagonist, “‘It is that our children will not ride the bulls on top of the mountain. How our bulls must miss the mountain.’ Then he said with a hint of a threat in his voice, ‘You must remember this when you teach our children.'”

5. Getting to the end. Now that I have a destination, do I know how I will get there or where it’s at? Hell, no. I do not. I only wish I did. And no amount of plotting will help me. I am like Hansel and Gretel slogging through the forest. I know there is a gingerbread house out there somewhere. I just don’t know where it’s at or how soon I will get there or what kind of winding road I am going to have to take. And I don’t always know what’s waiting for me there. I just keep asking what happens next, and what happens after that next. My story “Caffeine Blues” begins with a waitress sticking her head into her boss’ office, offering him a massage. He refuses. As I go along, I learn that he is not interested in a new relationship. He hasn’t gotten over being dumped by his fiancée. He sits in his office, doing paperwork and making a success of his restaurant. Until….well, let’s just say that something happens that completely changes his life.

6. Once I am there, I am there. As Buckaroo Bonzai says, “Wherever you are, there you are.” Once I have arrived at the end and I have done very little editing, it is time to go back and start anew. This time I know where I am going. So I can put together an outline and do bios of all the characters and the settings. I can analyze the scenes to see if they are up to the job of doing what they are supposed to be doing. If it’s a poem, do the lines work? Do they have the sounds I want? Is a line necessary? Many a time I’ve reread a prized line and go, “Oh, shit. That doesn’t work. Why, oh why doesn’t it work? I love that line. Well, if it’s gotta go, it’s gotta go.”

7. Patience. Now that I know what I know about the story, now that I have made friends with the characters, it’s time to settle back and take a pause. Give the story some time to stew.

8. Stir the pot. The story has stewed in my brain for a while, could be days, could be months. And now I am back at it. I print out the completed story and start retyping it or rewriting it in a notebook. No copying and pasting. That would be cheating my creative process. Only this way can I discover things that may have been left out. Or things that were put in and don’t work. In the story “Rose and the Gargoyle”, this was how I learned that it needed a paragraph, and only a paragraph, about what his war had been like.

9. One last scrubbing. I have worked my way through the story several times. Added a this or a that and subtracted a character or two that just didn’t fit or replaced the saloon for the stable, ’cause the scene needed the smell of manure. I’ve added commas and I’ve subtracted those same damned commas. When I start doing that, I know the piece is finished. I’ve polished it till it shines as best as I could get it to shine. It’s dressed in its Sunday best and ready for the world.

10. The itch has been scratched until it itches no more. I’ve done my part and made the work the best it can be. I have put my work out for acceptance or rejection. I have no control over whether it will be or not, so I don’t worry. If it is accepted, I rejoice. If not, then I’ll be sad. All I know is that I have done my job the best I can. I have absolutely no control over the fate of the story. That is in other hands. I accept that and move on to the next thing. I rejoice that I am a writer. That is the best thing there is.

11. Suddenly there’s another itch, and I’m off again. God help me if the itching stops. Sometimes I wonder if that is why writers take to drink. The itching has stopped—for the moment. And they don’t trust that it will come back. It scares the hell out of them. The thing is, it always does come back. I’d stake my life on it.

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13 thoughts on “The Itch I Just have to Scratch

  1. This is one of the best explanations of creativity at work and of a writing process I have ever read. Were I still teaching English to high school students, we would read and discuss this post together, then read a couple of your stories to see the result, then try writing a story of our own. I learned from reading it, and I know my students would have found it helpful as well. Thank you.

  2. Don, I like your process. I have been trying to focus more and more on craft. My hopes are to make my writing a bit more of a science than a dark art.

    Sorry I have not been around that much. Still off the grid, except for posting a few essays a week, and will be until spring.

  3. When I start adding commas and putting them back, I’ve reached the point of diminishing returns and call it good. I never consider a piece finished. It’s just the best I can do with it.

    • I so agree about knowing when you’ve done your best with a piece. Like you, there comes a point of diminishing returns. Then I have to say that I’ve done the best I can and move on. But no piece is ever really finished.

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