On Tuesday, I went to Blacksburg to be a guest speaker at Virginia Tech's Creative Learning Academy for Senior Scholars
. The CLA was at Warm Hearth Village
's community center.
|The Community Center at Warm Hearth Village|
One of my favorite authors, Sharyn McCrumb, had recommended me to Sam Linkous, one of the directors of the CLA. I decided to speak about the sources of my inspiration and read a bit from some of my books.
Tuesday morning was shrouded in fog so thick I couldn't see very far ahead of me. This made me dread traveling the I-81. Would I make it to Blacksburg? I started out in my faithful PT. I don't have a GPS, so this is how I knew where I was going:
I didn't take any pictures of the fog (It's white; that's all you need to know), but—as I headed west—the rising sun burned some of it off.
Fog still hung low on the mountains, though.
When I arrived in Roanoke, the fog was back.
However, by the time I reached Interstate, I was pretty much out of the fog. The fog was long gone by the time I arrived at Warm Hearth.
The meeting room at the center was very nice. It had a spectacular ceiling, made from wood that was harvested from the property by Jason Rutledge of Floyd County who logs with horses
There were some lovely paintings on the wall. Below, I'm standing in front of a portion of one.
Vowing revenge on his English teacher for making him memorize Wordsworth's "Intimations of Immortality," Warren decided to pour sugar in her gas tank, but he inadvertently grabbed a sugar substitute so it was actually Splenda in the gas.
. . . my 1996 Worst Western Winner:
Following the unfortunate bucking of his horse when it was startled by the posse's shots, Tex--who now lay in a disheveled heap in the sagebrush--pushed back his sweat-stained Stetson from one deep-set eye, spat a stream of tobacco juice at the nearest cactus, and reflected momentarily that the men approaching him with ropes probably weren't just out for a skip, and--if they were--his freshly broken ankle would have to cause him to decline any entreaties to join them.
. . . and my 1999 dishonarable mention:
"Well, Mummy," replied little Felicity in response to her mother's chiding, "I know for a fact you are lying to me and that I was not left on the doorstep by gypsies, as you are fond of telling me, for gypsies are not in the habit of abandoning infants on the twentieth floor of New York apartment houses, and furthermore there is absolutely no room on the street for them to park their horse and wagon, so--when you are old and in need of custodial care--we shall then see who has the last laugh as I abandon you in a substandard adult care facility."
While I was in my bad writing mode, I read some examples of "Peevish Advice
" and told how I got inspiration for that (mainly suggestions from people in my writers group, folks who ran into me at Kroger, etc.).
Several years ago, I had written an essay, "Out of the Fog," that explained where I got ideas. It appeared in Cup of Comfort for Writers in 2008, so it's a bit dated now. But it did tell some of the sources of my inspiration, so I read it.
Out of the Fog
“Where do you get your ideas?”
Does the girl in the back row really want to know, or did her teacher assign a certain number of questions that students must ask me, the visiting writer? The teacher looks at me. Hope shines from her eyes. Will I enlighten her students by giving them The Right Answer—that I dutifully sit at my desk for an hour and free-write onto a yellow legal pad until I perfect my ideas that I then neatly organize into appropriate file-folders?
Most teachers love the idea of freewriting and organization. They hate that I tell their students free-writing is a waste of time and that I’m disorganized.
I want to tell the class that I don’t get ideas. Ideas get me. Instead, I describe how I write.
“I compose directly onto my computer,” I tell them. “Of my three computers, the eMac is my favorite. I like its sleek whiteness—like an empty page waiting to be filled. The white keys require so little pressure, the delete key removes evidence of my mistakes, the 17-inch screen is easy to see through my bifocals.”
The students laugh. Bifocals aren’t yet part of their reality.
“My eMac, solid and substantial, sits on my cluttered desk in my equally cluttered study.”
The teacher smiles at my alliteration. “Solid and substantial” sounds so writerish.
“Some writers work best in an environment devoid of clutter and animals; I am not one of those writers. Cats nap on my cluttered desk.” Digressing, I tell them about my six cats.
The students nod. Teenagers are not strangers to clutter or pets.
“Some say that a cluttered desk is the sign of a cluttered mind.” I glance at the teacher’s desk. The few papers on it are neatly stacked. “One thing a writer needs is a cluttered mind—one so brimming over with ideas that she has plenty to pick and choose from.”
The teacher cringes, but I continue. “I never wonder what I can write about. Instead, I wonder what idea I will work on next. An idea always claws its way to the top of the heap that is both my desktop and my imagination. If that idea doesn’t grab me, another lurks beneath it.”
A few students lean forward. Maybe I’m saying something worth listening to. At least I’m not telling them to free-write. And I use technology—three computers!
“From my study window, I can see the Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance. They’re beyond the hill beyond the trees beyond the cornfield across the road. The view from my study window reflects what a writer ought to have: a series of beyonds. Just beyond one idea is another.”
A few students look out the classroom window. They see the houses across the street.
“A writer should be able to see into the distance,” I tell them. “Or at least know what is out there. On a clear day, I can see the Peaks of Otter. On a foggy day, I still know they’re there. The same with ideas—somewhere in the fog and the clutter, ideas are out there.”
I figure I should tell how I structure my stories. Teachers like that.
“Usually I write the ending to a story first. I like to see where I’m going. Writer Lee Smith says that she writes her last line first and tapes it up where she can see it. I type mine so I can see it. Whenever I open a blank document, I stare at the shiny white page on the shiny white eMac’s screen: all that empty white space—like fog.”
The students nod. Some haven’t the foggiest idea of who Lee Smith is.
“Then I type my last line. My words shimmer on the screen. The fog lifts. I can see where I’m going. Some writers carefully plot their stories and structure every minute detail. They’re probably the ones who, before they take a trip, peruse the roadmap and carefully plot their route along the fastest and shortest route to their destination— usually the Interstate. I don’t do this. I like to explore the back roads and admire the scenery. As long as I know my destination, I don’t mind an occasional wrong turn. I can always turn around.”
Great! the teacher probably thinks. This writer hasn’t the foggiest idea what she’s talking about.
I plunge ahead. “Some writers might say, ‘Oh, but I want my story to reflect life! In life, we don’t know where we’re going to end!’ But we do know exactly where we’ll end.”
I pause for dramatic effect. Let it sink in that I’m talking about death.
“Everyone has the same ending. The only difference is how we get there. I know my destination, and I want to get there in the most interesting way.”
A few nod their agreement. I tell them how I don’t do all of my writing in my study—how most of my writing takes place in my head while I’m doing something else. I tell them I’ve heard a couple of speakers at writing conferences say that a writer should sit down at the computer everyday and wait for an idea to come. “ ‘Put your butt in the chair!’ I heard one spokeswoman at a conference declare.”
The kids giggle. I said the word “butt” out loud right in the classroom.
“My best ideas come while I’m doing something else,” I tell them, “so I haul my derriere out of the chair and do something else—laundry, vacuuming, playing with cats, or walking with my dogs—until I get an idea. Sometimes I take my iBook a couple of miles down the road to my farm. While my dogs run through the woods, I perch on the tailgate of my old Dodge truck and write. A writer can go where the action is. Sometimes a writer can even join the action—or doggedly follow a trail of thought or bat ideas around like a playful cat.”
Did the teacher notice my simile?
“Once in a while, I use my old iMac in the den. While I work at the iMac, Buford the deaf cat sleeps on top of the computer amoire. He doesn’t like anything to creep up on him, so he sleeps high. Dylan, my smallest black cat, drapes himself over the iMac. He puts his front leg through the handle so he doesn’t slide off. Sometimes I have to move his tail so I can see what I’ve written. Cats are a great audience. They never find fault with anything I write.”
The students laugh. The teacher smiles a little.
“At the iMac, I can look out sideways out the back door to the pasture and watch my horses graze. My view is limited—a line of trees, the edge of the barn, and two elderly mares.”
Most of the students—even a few on the back row—are listening now.
“Sometimes a writer needs a limited view, a narrow focus. Sometimes a sidewise glance is what I need to get a fresh idea. Sometimes, like Dylan, I hang onto an idea so I don’t slip away from it. Sometimes, like Buford, I don’t let outside ideas creep up on me. Sometimes, like my mares, my imagination grazes.”
I want to tell them how my horses will unroll a round bale of hay. They’ll paw and push at it until it yields to their efforts and unrolls all over the pasture. Then they’ll eat the good stuff from the middle. I want to use the unrolling of the hay as a metaphor for unrolling an idea—how the good stuff is in the middle and how you can’t see it from the outside—but time is running out. Several students glance at the clock. I do too.
I wrap it up: “Each computer gives me a different viewpoint, a different approach. A writer, I’ve decided, can’t have too many computers—or too many viewpoints.”
Yeah, yeah, the kids think. Hurry up so we can go.
I speak faster. “Years ago, I believed that ideas had to flow from my brain, down my arm, into my fingertips and out my pen onto a yellow legal pad. Then, after much crossing out and revising, I’d bang away on my typewriter until the idea popped out onto paper. What a waste of time! Now, ideas—like electric currents—flow from brain to fingertips to screen. I can move words, sentences, paragraphs; I can insert and delete. Quick as a cat, I can change the whole look of my manuscript in seconds. I can luxuriate in words that appear before my eyes almost as fast as they appear in my mind.”
I look at the teacher. She nods slightly and points to the clock.
“Where do I get ideas?” Seconds before the bell rings, I give my answer: “All sorts of places.”
I also told about the inspiration for my novels, Stuck
and Patches on the Same Quilt
. The audience was wonderful, and I chatted with some of them when I sold and signed books after the session.
Meanwhile, when I arrived home, I discovered that my husband had left open the deck door so the cats could go out, and Tanner (the only housecat) had gotten out while dozens of stink bugs had gotten in. Not far from the deck, I managed to find—and rescue—a frightened Tanner, who was about to be beaten up by Jim-Bob and George while the other cat watched because he had invaded their territory. I managed to get Tanner inside before a bushed-up Jim-Bob jumped him, and I got the stinkbugs vacuumed up—well, most of them. Thank goodness, Chloe and Dylan did not take advantage of the open door to implement their "catch and release" program for insects and small mammals. At least I haven't found any evidence of any catches and releases in the house—yet.
Labels: book signing, cats, reading. writing