No, really, disorientation is part of the writing process (written to reassure a worried friend)

Seattle, Green Lake, fog, JC OBrien

As long as I’m not driving, I love fog. Wandering somewhere I half know, only able to see a few feet in front of my face while mist renders the air nearly solid is exciting for me.
I want things to come out of the fog. I want to go into the mist and find secret islands.
But the thing about fog is I know it will be burn off. Sooner or later, I’ll see the shape of what I know is there. Eerie and damp as it can be, I know it will disappear.
I’m working on maintaining this confidence as I write.
New projects I start and finish without pausing to worry over whether or not I’ve written the right scene or chosen the right word. I still work with care and attention, but I’ve shed the stress that comes from obsessively worrying about whether or not I’m making the right choices.
But that doesn’t apply to the unfinished works sitting in a folder on my laptop.
There are a couple of books that really want to be done. Pieces I could claim got interrupted by deaths, illnesses, accidents, other people’s deadlines, but the truth is that the stories are still somewhere in the fog inside my brain. As long as I believe the fog will eventually burn off and I’ll figure out how the story really goes, I’m fine.
The disheartening part of finishing these stories is that I’m not always certain about parts to keep. Or if the structure is clear. Or if I’ve focused on the right characters.
I just know there’s something out there, in the fog, and, like Mulder, I want to believe that if I hang in there long enough, I’ll figure the whole thing out. Or at least enough to type to the end of the book and send it to my copy editor.
Leo, JC OBrienAt my keyboard, all of this makes sense. I don’t need to explain it to my dog, who is there for most of my confusion, breathing the same essential oils I burn to motivate, nudge and clarify. Dog is my co-writer. He types nothing, but having him in the room is an essential part of my process. He’s there by my side as we metaphorical travel the fog together. Essential. Silent, except for his farts.
Explaining this to friends who want to know what’s going on with me is harder. The ones who don’t write hone in on my disorientation and worry or merely end up confused by my inability to narrow my mess-in-progress to a pithy pitch line. I write fiction without an outline. It just works better for me, but it leaves little to say to other people. Mermaid, blah, blah. Steampunk, blah, blah. My central character is giving me troubles because she might not be the right central character, blah, blah.
And then I’m driving home, realizing that my friend is concerned for my mental state. I haven’t done a good job of explaining that this lost, uncomfortable, occasionally boring bit is an integral part of the process—that, yes, I really do like spending my life in a muddle a good part of the time.
Other writers get this. We swill tea or alcohol and spout half sentences at each other and despite the lack of clear conversational structure, a kind of communication happens.
It’s comforting really. Not quite the clear communication my dog achieves through sniffing other dogs, but close. And, fortunately, since writers are for the most part human, not as physically intimate.


The Not so Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Zelda Fitzgerald

I have a confession to make:

I don’t think “The Great Gatsby” is the Great American Novel. Despite the best efforts of brilliant readers like Nancy Pearl, I return to the reaction I had when I first read the story as a high school sophomore: There are some beautiful sentences in this book, but I don’t give a damn about the story.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s great piece of writing.

I can clock the moment my husband became interesting by the time he compared the description of Gatsby’s beautiful shirts to the rhythms of jazz. I believe that F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s final Gatsby sentences are some of the most brilliant in literature. And I know that the concerns of money, class and privilege remain dramatically relevant today.

But the mistress’s death feels contrived. Which leaves the rest of the book feeling contrived, but it meant that I got to spend a whole lot of time with a cool teacher while she explained it to me. This was my first introduction to literary criticism (Thank you, Mrs. Kercher).

In the last decade, Fitzgerald’s become something of a cult with whole books being written about Gatsby and his brilliance.

Let’s face it, Fitzgerald didn’t come up with his characters, witty dialogue and descriptions all on his own; he patterned some of the women after Zelda (his wife) and lifted sentences from her letters and diaries to prop up his own work.

I know. Artists steal. But at what cost?

Certainly, Fitzgerald found himself plotting fresh breakdowns for Zelda and cribbed passages from letters written from the insane asylum.

Whether or not Zelda would have been a great author on her own is something we can’t prove.

But here’s what I suspect:

I think the fact that Fitzgerald couldn’t do it on his own ate at his core. I believe it made him less of an artist, leaving him even more disempowered in the face of his own efforts. And I have to wonder what would have happened if he and his famous editor had opted for another course:

What if they had invited Zelda in? What if Zelda and F. Scott shared a byline, granting Zelda access to the fame she helped make possible? At the very least, isn’t that something readers could remember to do today?

Places where inspiration finds me

Seattle alley, Pioneer Square, J.C. O'Brien, Night Shift
While I’ve witnessed some racy things happening in Seattle alleys, I have, fortunately, not run into any of the scenes that happen in my novels.

I find my inspiration in Seattle’s dark alleys.

Seattle burned to the ground in 1889. 32 blocks of the city were rebuilt to new fire standards and so far (fingers crossed), they’ve done OK with quakes (with a few exceptions).

Seattle’s rain is no myth. Like New Orleans, downtown’s streets end up with puddles of “mystery” liquid that sometimes develops an oily sheen. Mix in some moss and subtract some sunlight and it doesn’t take much to imagine something dark and lovely hunting through Pioneer Square’s streets.

I also like to include real locations in my stories. Bars like the Alibi Room or restaurants like the Crumpet Shop show up in my work because I want readers to be able to taste what it’s like to live in Seattle.

But while I might go out in the streets at night hunting inspiration, when it comes time to express it in a story, I turn to locations I visit almost on a daily basis.

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[soliloquy slug="green-lake-inspiration"]

My favorite place is probably Green Lake. Designed by the Olmsted brothers, who’d been hired by Seattle in 1903 to oversee park planning, this manmade lake includes a nearly three-mile track that I walk five to six days a week with my husband and dog.

But my history with Green Lake goes back to when I moved here from Detroit in 1987. I’ve walked that same track for nearly thirty years, oddly enough, almost always in the same direction. I’ve watched the seasons change, rabbits, eagles, hawks and red-winged blackbirds appear and disappear and had the opportunity to watch my own child and others grow into teenagers.

In other words, the lake provides a familiar place where I can go and observe change — a sort of laboratory of human expression, storytelling and condition combined with my absolute favorite source of inspiration — movement.

There is something to be said for knowing a large swathe of land with great intimacy and knowing that you share that space with people having a similar experience.

The Olmsteds created their parks with this kind of sensation in mind. If you’re lucky enough to live near one of the spaces that they created across the U.S. or in Canada, it’s worth exploring. But the same feeling can be had anywhere that you call home, because it’s going back to that same space day in and day out and looking really closely sometimes and not so closely the next that layers experiences in your brain. I believe an activity like walking or running allows you to coax those experiences onto the keyboard and combine your knowledge of daily existence with any dark, magical thing that strikes your fancy.

This piece was written as part of a blog carnival with six other others. Find out where they find their inspiration.

How to train your mind and body to let creativity find you


For me, the secret to staying inspired is movement.

Whether it means that I move my fingers across the keyboard from the moment I sit in my writing chair until I leave, or that I get up for regular dance or tea breaks, it’s shifting my body that shakes ideas loose.

I think ideas are sticky. They’re the product of all kinds of processes and I think they get stuck in our heads and it can be hard to pry them out.

This is why movement works.

Instead of concentrating on the outcome or the absence of an idea, you shift your focus and move.

Much of day we shorten our gaze to the width of a screen. Whether it’s on a phone, a computer or a television, that flat screen defines the span of what we encounter. Despite the knowledge literally at our fingertips, creativity can flatten and shrink during the hunt for small pieces of information if we don’t expand our gaze.

There are moments when you need to narrow your focus. Instances when the ability to zero on your quarry is what allows you to push through a deadline with the requisite number of words.

But to create those moments when the work feeds itself, I need to allow it to come to me. Instead of hunting creativity, I need to let it find its way into my story.

I do some of that by removing doubt.

After I walk the dog, unless there’s blood or fire, I’m going to eat breakfast and write for two hours. Whether or not I feel like it or am inspired is irrelevant. It’s what I do at that time of the day.

Once I’m in my writing room, I follow a set pattern of turning on the electric fireplace, the weird dolphin light I got at Good Will and lighting my candles. My dog gets off his bed and stretches out on the cool basement floor and I make my fingers move. I don’t stop to think if what I’m writing is good or if I like the scene I’m working on because I might not like the answer. And more importantly, when I get to the editing process, I might find out that “writing me” was wrong.

Thanks to NanoWrimo training, I write through to the end of the story and when it’s done, I start the next one, because it’s easier to keep going than it is to get started.

Momentum works.

And movement, done with intention, can keep the momentum going.

Instead of zeroing in on your screen or book or task at hand, softening your gaze allows you to notice things out of the corner of your eye. Lulling your brain with rhythmic movements allows it to relax and make connections between a random comment on Facebook, the music playing through your speakers and the trouble with the pacing your last chapter.

Movement done in a relaxed, steady manner, whether it’s walking, dancing or loading the dishwasher replaces chasing after the story with an invitation for it to come to you.

This is easier if you pay attention to your breath. Allowing your in breath to descend into your diaphragm to spread your ribs like wings and following the breath through a complete exhale can help you relax enough to let your story find you.

If all of this sounds like yoga or meditation, you’re close.

For me, creativity comes when I achieve a state of trance. I can get there through rhythmic movement or immersing in a task, but it’s the product of relaxed action.

This doesn’t come easily.

It’s not like you can go sit wherever you write, snatch a couple of breaths and tell yourself to relax and it will work. Especially when faced with multiple demands on your time, the state can be hard if you haven’t laid the groundwork. This takes practice. You have to train both your mind and your body.

Figure out when you do your best work by trying to write at different times of the day. See if that time meshes with your schedule, which may take some rearranging. (My best time doesn’t work for mine or I’d have written this at three in the morning when the only sound is the world breathing.) If you have too much to do, get your writing done first. Even that shift in priority can provide the perspective to receive other ideas throughout the day.

Because you’re in a story mind, co-workers may offer bits of dialogue or plot points. You might encounter colors or situations that suit your plot.

Putting your story first sets you up to receive inspiration instead of chase it.

Because inspiration is a little like love — it finds you best when you’re doing something else.

Need more inspiration? This post was written as part of a Blog Carnival of Inspiration with several of my fellow writers.