Groundwork

I have no innate sense of direction. When tasked with an important appointment in unfamiliar territory, I like to make a preliminary visit to my destination—and ideally, I like to walk around. Often such a scenario is simply not feasible. Time, distance, and convenience limit such a luxury. But when it is possible and I take the opportunity, much of my new-situation anxiety falls away. Walking provides a means to get a feel for a place at ground level. Walking is slow: it provides the details. Walking is meditative: it allows the mind to make connections to what the senses perceive.

I’ve recently realized an equivalent tendency in the realm of my writing. I began a new story several months ago in the form of feature-length screenplay. As I struggled and struggled—with the outline, the direction, the theme, the beats—as I set it aside repeatedly in exchange for shorter, swiftly-completed writing gratifications—I wondered. Maybe I’m just not up to the task? Maybe the idea is bad? Maybe both.

However, I was loath to give up on it entirely. I sorely miss working on a long storyline. I spent recent years—years—wrestling with a sprawling, epic novel, the end of which I simply could not reach. Although at times immensely frustrating, it was also the most fun I’ve ever had writing. I loved working on it despite the complexity.

But ultimately the novel became an exercise in futility: I was so deep in the weeds, so low to the ground, that I couldn’t keep the story moving in any one direction. I wanted to reach a worthwhile destination, but I was lost.

In school last year, I used that novel’s story as the subject of a screenwriting project. I was forced to rise above the details and simplify both my narrative and my thinking. I had to focus on basic plot points, singular character motivations, and essential themes. From the bird’s-eye vantage point of a screenplay beat sheet, the story’s destination came into view at last. The finished product isn’t perfect, but for now, I’m satisfied: that story exists. It has officially been told. I can make clean break and step away.

And I need to step away. The necessary work to finish a major writing project is more laborious sweat than creative spark. Right now, I don’t want sweaty labor to be the bulk of my creative life. I’m yearning for that early-stage spark. I want to regain that sense of story-passion. That sense of fun.

With this new story idea proving troublesome, I considered the wisdom of giving up. It seemed like a dead end. Yet still it lingered in the back of my mind….

And so it lingers today. Scenes appear in my imagination unbidden. Characters show up in insomniac hours to make conversation, and to make their pleas. Exhausted, I acquiesce. Fine, I’m listening.

Maybe they’re right.

Perhaps this new story does hold potential, considering my subconscious is so insistent (or is it my sanity fraying at last?). Maybe it is my next chance to reclaim that endurance-enabling creative passion. But to find out—to get there—I must feel the story, sink into it. I need to set aside the outline for a while, put away the beat sheet, stop overthinking the possible themes.

I need to walk through it at ground level.

I must slow down, go deep and detailed, get lost inside the minds of the characters, immerse myself awhile in the new imagined world. Direction and destination aren’t important during this preliminary amble. The goal is to sense-perceive the story in its incipiency.

Several days ago, I fired up Scrivener for the first time in a long while. I saved a novel template. I started writing prose: a purple, long-winded, overly-detailed account of my opening scene, complete with the character’s thoughts and feelings—what he saw, smelled, heard, tasted.

It was fun.

Each successive morning since then, I’ve awakened early and excited to return to that world, to squeeze in a tiny bit of writing time before morning’s workaday busyness sets in. If this excitement keeps up, and with the help of a parallel script-in-progress, I think I can navigate to the narrative’s end (eventually, anyway—as the crazy-working-mom schedule allows). Thanks to an awesome screenwriting instructor and gracious feedback from my writer’s group, I know much more about storytelling now than I did a few years ago. I hopefully have the skills now to alternate groundwork for a bird’s-eye view of the plot when it’s necessary to gain perspective.

But for me, it’s groundwork that fuels initial passion for a story. In the past, the energy generated by groundwork was what sustained me through the long trip of telling a tale—and it ultimately propelled my writing to its completion.

I hope that will be true of this story too.

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Story Excerpt No. 5

If you know my kind, you’ll recognize the art of the creep. Front-facing chair at an innocuous angle. Trappings of homework on the little table in front of me, arranged slightly askew: pen, pencil, journal, assignment sheet, coffee cup. Me, seated in a relaxed-looking slouch position. It appears to the naïve onlooker that, whenever I gaze  in Sean’s approximate direction, I’m merely concentrating on my assignment. No, I’m not watching for his shy but warming smile. No, I’m not waiting for his dark forelock to swish in front of his eyes for a second before he pushes it behind his ear. No, I’m not yearning for a glance at that awesome goldfish tattoo, by which Eddie would be so cynically amused.

I’m contemplating. Oh, now I’m writing something down, see? Mulling it over. Jotting another note.

I’m none too proud of myself at the moment. I walked into Café Amor Fati with an armful of Mr. Crosthwaite’s homework, real work that needs to be done. But it’s impossible for me to concentrate with Sean working the counter. Mine is the self-defeatism of a true professional. I can make wrong choices in my sleep.

Amor fati: what an irony.

I sip coffee, Sean pleasantly positioned within my peripheral vision’s scope, as the entry bell jingles over the door.  A beautiful woman steps into the coffee shop, and I feel a twist in my gut, a flash of warmth across my face. I mean, beautiful. The epitome of self-confident feminine femaleness, my polar opposite, all pleasance and charm and sensuous simplicity with an air of tacit complexity and oh God I can hear his friendly, “What can I get started for you?” and my heart wrenches with ire and I feel like I might cry or be sick or scream and she orders a latte.

I flip my hood up to block my view, stretch it along the sides of my face like a curtain. “How’s your day going?” Sean asks her, and she says something witty and bewitching. “So far, so good,” as I grip my pencil, and then, “How about yours?” as I break the fresh, pointy lead on the paper. I glare at the rough-edged stump, a mere remnant of good intent. “Pretty good, sun’s still out,” he says. “Stormy weather’s rolling in soon.” I set the sorry pencil down, take up the proud pen. Stare down at my assignment sheet through the fabric tunnel of my own ridiculousness:

You have achieved Step One toward the dissolution of writer’s block. You have begun to psychoanalyze your muse.

I smirk, tapping the pen, recalling Crosthwaite’s class lecture. “’The geese do not wish to leave their reflection behind; the water has no mind to retain their image,’” he’d recited, strolling along the rows between desks. “You and your muse are not dependent upon one another for existence or significance. Nonetheless, the connection between you manifests in the art you create—which, once loosed upon the world, holds its own manner of self-sovereignty.” He’d stopped at my desk-side, freaking me out a little. Looked down at my backpack on the floor, considering the Filth band patch sewn on the side.

“‘Live the chaos,'” he read aloud. Classmates around me shuffled, someone laughed quietly. My face heated up. “Live the chaos, yes,” he said. “Let’s take that advice.” Smartass. Was he making fun of me?

“It’s just the name of an album,” I sullenly tried to tell him. But by then, Mr. C was already wandering through the desk rows again.

Per your prior assignment, you’ve now documented your primary sources of inspiration and personal influences. This five-item list itself becomes a resource for further discussion.

I suck down more coffee through my hood-tunnel. Turn to the first page of my journal, take a look, cringe a little. In class, Mr. Crosthwaite had demanded to know: “What makes an impression upon you? What compels you to action? What, by your very nature, must you love? What must you hate?” At home later, self-soothed by two cheap beers and one bad joint, I’d composed my list:

  • Babysitting (hate)
  • Airplanes/flying (hate)
  • Punk rock records (love)
  • Looking around in people’s houses when they don’t know (love)
  • Tales of heart-rending misfortune (love)

On Monday, we’ll relate your list of inspiration sources to the discourse of complexity. Be prepared for class by considering the following questions.

Monday. Tomorrow. Mr. Crosthwaite’s going to pick on me, I just know it. Stupid Filth patch.

Question 1: What do you consider to be the simplest item on your list? What potential complexity could arise from this simplicity?

Not rocket science. Concentrate. I lay my journal down flat in front of me, open to the page where I’ve jotted my list. Question 1, Question 1. Question 1 was actually two questions in one, dammit…

Relax. Think. I write the word Simple at the top of the next blank journal page. The simplest item on my list had to be punk rock records. Unlike the other items, which were saturated with context-sensitivity and emotional baggage, a Blatz or Op Ivy record simply was what it was—a specific and proper noun with no grey areas. It was pure. It had weight, mass, location. Its identity was not dependent upon opinion or circumstance. Satisfied, I scribble on the next page of my journal for a moment, then close my eyes to think.

What complexity could arise from something so simple? What could contaminate such purity? Scratches? Warping? The fact that you gave away all your duplicate LPs to your ungrateful ex?

The beautiful woman with the latte has passed my table and sits at a booth behind me. I push my hood back, eager for a tranquilizing glimpse of Sean. He’s still at the counter. Now he’s taking money from some high school kids and smiling that same warm expression that turns my center to liquid. What a genuinely kind smile he has. It is in itself a simple thing, unburdened by ulterior motives or self interest. Eddie’s smile was always more like a sneer. Eddie’s smile shone brightest when he was one-upping someone with a sarcastic jab.

I could enjoy many years to come basking in the warm, simple smile of Sean St. John.

Once more, I contemplate potential complexity of punk vinyl. I guess there could arise issues of authenticity—you might accidentally pick up a bootleg. Or rarity—finding a first pressing or limited edition is cause for celebration. I jot these down. What about the fact that I won’t even walk into a record store if I have no money to spend? Collecting records can be something of an addiction. Complexity arises from issues of temptation, of self-discipline. I write, Coping with desires. I stare at it, uncomfortable with the wording, and scratch at it for a second. Coping with material desires, it says now. I scribble it out and write, Coping with obsession.

Question 2: What do you consider to be the most complex entry on your list? What potential simplicity could arise from something so complex?

Suddenly I’m attacked at the lower buttock by an insistent buzzing vibration. I jump up with a “Whoa!” and rattle the little table, splashing coffee over Mr. C’s assignment sheet, the tabletop, the floor. I manage to brace the little table before anything falls, but I don’t dare check to see if I’ve gained Sean’s attention. I turn away, toward the back corner of the room. I grapple in my back pocket for the stupid cell phone, which has been on vibrate since I’d missed Mom’s last call.

“Honey, how’s everything going?” Mom asks. “I heard you had dinner with Aunt Mir last night—that’s great.”

“Yup,” I say. News sure gets around fast.

“She said you’re looking happy and healthy. Sounds like this Kansas visit is doing some good. Helping you get past this whole Eddie thing.”

It bugs me, hearing my mother say that name just now. I chew on a response, then swallow it. Turn my head slightly, stealthily: Sean’s profile is visible at the espresso machine. I look back down at my homework, eager to change the topic. “So did you go on that date with Frank yet?”

“Francis. As a matter of fact, we went out last night for the first time.”

“How’d it go?” I write the word Complex on the next page of my journal.

“It went well. We had tapas on Capitol Hill, caught a jazz band downtown. A couple of drinks….”

“Wow, that’s quite a first date.” I flip back a couple of pages to my inspiration list.

“I was pleasantly surprised. He’s funny and friendly. And handsome too.” I metabolize this last comment with a shudder, turn to my assignment page to write, Other people’s houses. “How about you, honey?”

How about me? Tread carefully. It’s a mom-ism, emotion-laden and context-sensitive. “Oh, I’m just fine.” I look across the room again at Sean. Feeling bold, I actually watch as he wipes down the countertops. The goldfish tattoo moves subtly along the muscles of his arms as they adjust and stretch; the forelock of dark hair hides his eyes for an instant, and he brushes it back with his palm. A perverse train of thought pops into my head right then—Just go for it, for once! Be one of those liberated one-night-stander women! Break the Eddie hex! You’ll leave for Seattle in three weeks, and you’ll never see him again. Be crazy, go wild… Live the chaos! I shake it off.

“I should go. I’m in a café now and I’m probably bugging people.” I cross out the line I’ve just written in my journal, and replace it with a new scrawl: Tales of heart-rending misfortune.

“I love you.” She says it, I say it back. It’s our thing.

I stare at the page again, the words there. Consider the infinite complexity of the lovelorn, the unlucky, the wayward, the lost: timing is everything, for better or worse. The root of so much we take for granted can be traced to sheer coincidence, woven into a mad tapestry of complexity as robust as the universe and all of time itself. And love? Love above all! At essence, it emerges from complete chaos, no matter the medium: a blind date—high school sweethearts—work partners—tandem seats on a bus—it’s all random, chance. Amor fati, indeed.

Love is just an accident, an outlier, a by-product.

Its dissolution, therefore, must be as natural, all-pervasive, and law-bound as entropy itself. The simplicity that arises from the tales of heart-rending misfortune? I write it down: Predictable but inevitable.

“I’ll take that, if you’re done with it,” a voice says at my shoulder.

I whirl around. And I mean, whirl. Like a ballerina on her toes. Or maybe a tornado ripping through a quiet Kansas wheat field.

“You’re about empty.” Sean St. John is standing right. Next. To me. Pointing at my coffee cup. He glances at the splatter of coffee on the floor. “Oh, did it spill? I can get you a refill.”

He turns to walk away, and I say “No!”

No is such a heavy word. It can be so emotional. Contextual.

“Well, I don’t want to take it if you’re not ready.” He smiles. Is he making fun of me?

Tense beat. He’s not. He seriously is not….

“You can take it,” I breathe. “I’m ready.”