Let's distract from my distractions for a while and reflect on writing detours and some shortcuts for getting back on the road. What's your favorite distraction? We writers all have them. I find Mozart preferable to social media, crossword puzzles, online chess and binge eating while standing at the fridge, all of which I'm also prone to do. (Mozart also doubles as an antidote for despairing of our species when confronted with depravity of the kind currently found among the kleptocrats, racist thugs and child abductors we've allowed to seize power here in the USA - for the time being.)
Lately, I've discovered that distraction can work in both directions. I can use at least certain kinds of distractions as a writing aid as much as they can be diversions. Perhaps what leads us writers away from the keyboard and what leads us away from the hypercritical, analytic mind that blocks creativity co-exist on two sides of the same coins.
|Viola Spolin, 1930s|
I had been in funk and a slump up until six weeks ago, chasing my tail trying to make a couple of novels-in-progress go somewhere. I rolled fragments uphill, only to see them tumble back down. I spent hours on the Internet, taking walks, taking naps, texting, Tweeting, never thinking of tomorrow.
In the meantime, not to feel completely useless, I worked on a collection of my short stories - my second - to be published by fall, entitled "Sometimes Ridiculous" The title refers to stories' surreal aspects. It also fit my mood - which I wrote about in my June, AE post about being trapped in a bathroom with a jammed lock.
In the process, I combed through my computer files to select pieces for the anthology. One folder contained improvised stories Eleanor and I had created when we played a series of improv theatre-derived writing games about seven years ago. We enjoyed this immensely at the time, but I never gave much thought to taking my output seriously - only as exercises. Upon re-examination, however, I discovered that I had gone on to develop full-length short stories and novellas from a good many of these "exercises." I sent the file to Eleanor with a note. (She had a similar experience - having developed her haunting, psychological symbolist love story, "A Rose in Bloom" from one of our a three-word starters.)
"Let's play again," she said. I agreed, and so we have for the past six weeks.
For reasons I won't scrutinise too closely for fear of jinxing it, the process has worked in every way that it should. And not that its purpose should be anything more than loosening up and letting the process take on where it will, it has amped my productivity marvellously and helped me churn out several short stories and the start of a novella that I must say I'm rather happy with - even after letting them simmer.
For example, I started on the above story with the obvious - a character making the only "let's elope, cantaloupe." Normally, I would have deleted that as cliche. But playing the game, I enquired of the character: Who makes that joke? An eccentric, complex, washed-up, Hollywood bit-actor-Pierrot emerged, in the midst of an equally odd, conflicted family, threatened by a raging wildfire. We should call the game, "see where it goes."
I won't say this any other game is a panacea - nothing is when it comes to writing. The concept, however, is that focusing on playing "the game," gets one out of the calculating mind and into the creative spirit. Whereupon, if you yes-and what that spontaneous consciousness serves up, it will lead into more and more imagination and invention.
Julia Cameron's "morning pages" faithfully back in the 1980s, and that primed the pump back then when I was writing a lot of nonfiction for magazines. Perhaps members of this esteemed group of writers would find merit in creating an annotated compendium of favourite writing-starter, writing-supercharger and writer's-block breakers online or in book form. I'm one who collects such remedies. They often work, until they don't. Same as writer's block, it lingers - until it's gone.
Back to Mozart. About a week ago, I had one of those dreams of many rooms and many characters, most of which remain a blur, but just before I woke up, I was on a balcony overlooking a garden, and heard a chamber orchestra playing a most exquisite passage coming from somewhere out there. The music was absolutely vivid, I could hear and feel the timbre of every instrument, and followed every note, through an entire movement, it seemed, bathed in - I swear - golden light. The music stayed with me for days. I knew this passage, and was sure it was from Mozart, and probably the slow movement of a concerto. I even sounded it out on my Casio keyboard. I determined to track it down. (There are phone apps for identifying melodies, but I don't have one and doubted it would work in this case.)
|Wolfgang at 14|
So I listened, searching over the next several days. Unfortunately - or fortunately if you like a lot of Mozart - I started with the high numbers and worked backwards. Which brings me, da capo, to the concerto I was playing just as I started to write this post. It turned out that, eureka, I found it - the very next piece in that Lili Kraus recording: the "andante," second movement of Mozart's Piano Concerto N. 15 in B-flat major, K. 450. The andante lasts barely five minutes, a lilting theme and variations, but truly heaven.
I can't say what this all means, except it suggests the magic we all seek as writers cannot be grasped. It must be discovered and accepted, and it comes from the land of dreams, a gift only to those who manage to keep their eyes and ears open.
Umberto Tosi is the author of My Dog's Name, Ophelia Rising, Milagro on 34th Street and Our Own Kind. His short stories have been published in Catamaran Literary Reader and Chicago Quarterly Review where he is a contributing editor. He was contributing writer to Forbes ASAP, covering the Silicon Valley tech industry. Prior to that, he was an editor and staff writer for the Los Angeles Times and its Sunday magazine. He was also the editor of San Francisco Magazine and other regionals He has written more than 300 articles for newspapers and magazines, online and in print. He joined Authors Electric in May 2015 and has contributed to several of its anthologies, including Another Flash in the Pen and One More Flash in the Pen. He has four grown children - Alicia Sammons, Kara Towe, Cristina Sheppard and Zoë Tosi - and resides in Chicago. (He can be reached at Umberto3000@gmail.com)