Two of my most valuable writing tools are daydreaming and quiet observation. Nothing new here, but I wouldn’t be doing much writing without them.
A long time ago I went to a Terry Brooks reading/signing (no, not THAT long ago!). He had just released The Voyage of the Jerle Shannara, Ilse Witch and the appearance was in a tiny independent bookstore in a small town about a half hour outside Portland. Someone asked how he got the idea for his Running With The Demon series, and he answered that he decided to write a story about domestic violence and then he just sat for a while, daydreamed, and let things happen. I’m pretty sure it was on a beach, but I could just be projecting my own favorite place to sit and daydream onto this memory.
At another reading (same tiny indie bookstore) Chuck Palahniuk said he thinks about one or two things he wants his main character to do/be and as he listens and writes, more about the character will “suggest itself” to him. I’ve never forgotten that phrase—suggest itself—because in order to hear any suggestions a character or story may present to you, you’d have to be listening. If the thing you’re listening to doesn’t physically exist, I’m pretty sure you have to be daydreaming.
Observing is harder, IMO. I’m a natural daydreamer—it’s innate—I was born with the talent to sit and stare into space and listen to the voices in my head. Sometimes it freaks people out, which has been perversely satisfying at times, but I digress.
Observing, or to be more specific, active observation, means adopting the same posture you would while daydreaming and then turning the focus outward. I don’t’ have any anecdotes about this, probably because it’s not something I’m naturally wired to do. Oh, I love to people-watch and will peer into anyone’s living room widow if the curtains are open but the tendency is always there to put what I see into the context of my own life and experience, to impose my own interpretation on what I see as I’m seeing it. There’s nothing wrong with interpreting what we see, but I do think writers shortchange themselves if they do so while in the middle of a new experience. I can figure out what I think about the street performer on the train home, but only if I really pay attention while she’s performing. Skipping to the interpretation is like having salad and then dessert. No, that’s a bad analogy; I like having salad for dinner, and dessert at any time is fine by me.
Back to daydreaming and observation. I started a new story this week, one that’s been percolating a while because of the television commercials a local business has been producing for 20+ years. The two proprietors look as though they’re still good friends after all this time and over the years I’ve shipped them pretty hard during their 20-30 second appearances. A few weeks ago I read a submission call for 2013 and somehow these two things tangled up in my writer-brain and turned into a character. He was a little shy at first, but the more I listen to him the more he speaks. And the coolest part is that he’s not exactly who I’d envisioned before I started.
I love it when that happens.
I’m off to set the stage and then listen to my new guy for a while. Sweet day-dreams, everyone!