Monday, October 21, 2013

Where Do You Get Your Ideas? or Why I Read

We’re very glad to continue a longstanding Writer’s Center tradition of hosting readings by winners of the Washington Writers’ Publishing House competitions.  This Sunday, October 27 at 5:00 p.m. the latest winners, Robert Herschbach and Kathleen Wheaton will read.  We will have a reception and book signing following the reading.  Please note that the reading begins at 5:00 p.m. We're fortunate to post a blog entry by Kathleen Wheaton, author of the prize winning fiction collection, Aliens and Other Stories.

Where Do You Get Ideas? Or Why I Read

By Kathleen Wheaton

When I took my first creative writing workshop in college, our young and handsome instructor, who’d recently published a story in the New Yorker, imparted tips on craft that everyone made eager note of: show, don’t tell; have your characters desire something, read your own words aloud to find your voice.
He also urged us to spend as many waking hours as possible reading. This sounded humorous, like telling members of the football team to be sure and get plenty of exercise. But as the term progressed, it became obvious that some students hadn’t--and didn’t--read all that much. Their impulse to write seemed more organic than mine, to spring from an internal well of imagination I didn’t possess.

“Creativity” was big on campuses in the late 1970s (you could take a class in it), and it bothered me that a quiz administered by the psych department revealed that I was too cautious, my habits too orderly, my homework too promptly finished, for me to qualify as a creative personality. And the stories I wrote for the instructor (himself a natty dresser with neat penmanship) were usually a response to something I’d read: about a trip to a new place, a romance gone wrong, an old person looking back on life. Writing, I felt, was an ongoing conversation between someone long dead or far away, and me.
I moved to Spain after college and taught English, and then moved a lot more, to Boston, New York, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, and Tepoztlan, Mexico. It was several years before I had enough freelance newspaper and magazine assignments to be able to say that I made my living as a writer.
With journalism, your inspiration is clear: your editor gives you an assignment, you do it and hand it in--it’s like having homework for the rest of your life.  But I continued to write short stories, and here the “why” was murkier, especially after I was married and had two children. I could claim that I turned down assignments and spent money I wasn’t earning on babysitters because it turned out that I actually was creative, because I had a deep-seated drive to invent and imagine. The truth is that some other writer was doing the imagining first, and that was what always got my own wheels turning--to want to describe my peculiar neighbors, the view from my window, my midnight epiphanies.
Living much of the day in another language, and writing what I hoped were indisputable facts, I looked forward to sinking under the covers at night with a novel. In the early 90s, before books could be turned into bytes, they were expensive to mail or took up precious space in suitcases, so I chose carefully, and reread a lot. And then I’d want to sit down and reply to my invisible, distant, dear friends.
The British novelist Anthony Powell once said that when writers read they’re always thinking about how they’d have told that story. I don’t think he meant that they’re nitpicking or criticizing (though they also do that) as much as working out what they’ll say when they get their turn at the mic.
Of all the arts, we view writing as the least collaborative--songs are written and movies made and dances performed and even murals painted with and alongside others. A book written “with” someone else is ghostwritten, somehow bogus. Writing is only properly done alone, we’re told, in that hard-won room of one’s own. To say that you rely on others for your ideas, your techniques, your stories, seems to skate dangerously close to confessing to plagiarism. But I’m not talking here about about passing off someone else’s work as your own. I’m saying that stories, like language itself, evolved from a long-ago mother source. Nobody is born speaking a language--you listen, imitate, practice, until your words sound like you. And you have to know the story--in as many iterations as possible, as close as you can get to the ur-version grunted around the campfire while the mastodon sizzled--before you can tell yours.