Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Authentic Curiosity

It’s a mystery that people need stories. We don’t know where that element of human nature comes from, but our fascination with books, and movies is clear evidence that it is true. There is some deep inner need to the human psyche that demands them. But where do they come from? To me, (and hopefully many people reading these posts) that need is best fulfilled through the written word, through the writer.

In my last post I talked about Pulling the Plug, or really, getting to know and believe in your self as a writer. And I dug up a great example from Andre Dubus III, who happened to deliver the keynote and Master Class at the Antioch Writer’s Workshop this year. I was lucky enough to be there to hear him talk first hand, and he used the same example for us. Andre posed it as a simple question: If you can go a whole year without writing, then you’re probably not a writer and you need to go find what you were meant to be.

Andre Dubus III delivering the Keynote Address at the 2014Anitoch Writer's Workshop

Well, I’m guessing most people who read these posts had a solid answer to that question (and if not they’re probably not still here!) So after you’ve made the decision and still dove headfirst into the writing life, where do you begin? If you ask a hundred different authors you’ll get just as many answers. And all of us want to get to that moment Joe Clifford so deftly captures as he runs downstairs pantless (with a poodle) to find his first box of books (The Day My First Box of Books Arrived). Even if that is a sad moment for Joe (and by reading his post you’ll understand), it’s magical nonetheless. So, how do we get there?

As I alluded to in my last post, Andre’s advice for writers didn’t just stop at finally standing back and calling yourself a writer. He delivered some poignant advice that in truth I have not fully digested even weeks after the workshop. In re-creating his words I may be distorting them with my own lens of interpretation, but I think the value outweighs the danger of the messenger inserting himself into the message.

Andre with Amazing Poet Tobin Terry
Authentic Curiosity—that was the term that Andre left us with during his Master Class. As a writer, if you want to reach deep and truly touch other people with your story, then you need authentic curiosity. Writing is a labor. Even if you love it, it’s hard work. All of us who have hit the keyboard know that, but we keep at it. What we’re hoping to do is to reach another person at some level, to write something so fantastic that they discover their own meaning in the story—a meaning shaped by who they are and their collective life experience.

Andre’s advice is to write what you are curious about, maybe something you don’t know yet that just tugs at your imagination. If you can find that thing, that storyline, that character, that conflict…then you have a shot of writing truly genuine prose that may reach out and touch another person. It’s that simple. Andre identifies himself as a character driven writer, and as such he finds the plot and the conflict from deep within his characters. He likes to go deep into the characters, to really be curious what they are about, and then find the story that the character wants you to tell. Writing from deep within a character like that causes the outward sequence of events that drives the story forward and creates the conflict.

Andre walked us through the conception of his novel, House of Sand and Fog. It was a fascinating tale. First, he wrote long hand, something I can’t imagine trying. Next, he wrote only 15 minutes a day while sitting in his car before work. One day he was driven off the street where he normally parked by a police officer, and wound up parking in a cemetery to write undisturbed. He did that for three years and the story developed, a story that started with a single character. He dreamed what that character’s life was like, and then started finding other characters she would interact with. Those characters had their own desires and goals, and when those were at odds with his main character, he had created a story with tremendous conflict. The story literally found him, and he scribed it into notebooks to capture the magic before it left him. Because he was curious about his main character—about what she was like, why she had wound up at this point in her life, what was happening to her—the entire novel developed.

Andre advised us to give ourselves permission to find our story, to never plot too soon. I admit that this is a completely different manner of writing for me, but it is something that has been a tremendous help as I have started my next project. In fact, imagining the main character and being curious about his life is how I landed on the whole next novel I’ve started crafting. I let the characters walk me through their story, the one they want me to see. And by asking the questions, being curious about their world, the story builds itself around me and all I have to be is a great observer.

I think that Eliza Cross did a great job in her post yesterday (20 Great Books that Sparked an Early Love of Reading). She had no idea what I was writing about today, but in truth they fit together very well. Go back to those first books you read, those books you were curious about. When we were all innocent readers, finding those stories that touched us most deeply was simply due to the same phenomenon that Andre talks about—Authentic Curiosity. If you can remember what it felt like to read something like that, or maybe you’ve encountered the same feeling recently. That’s what I am striving for in my writing, and I think that’s exactly what Andre Dubus III was talking about when he suggested that we dive deep into our characters. Be curious about them, or find characters you are curious about, and they will lead you to the story.