Friday, June 17, 2011

Finding your place

The more you write, the more you'll see things with a writerly eye. Just like a photographer sees the world in frames, you'll see it in words. You'll see the parts that make the whole. And things will inspire you--experiences, places, people, conversations, dreams, flavors--all sorts of things.

Lately, I've found nostalgia very inspiring. For example, my husband and I lived in South Carolina for almost seven years in a sweet farmhouse with a quirky personality. We saw our little playful kittens grow to be big lazy cats there. We used to leave the front door open in the evenings to listen to the owls and the frogs and the whippoorwill. We spent many hours making and enjoying meals in the big kitchen. But then one day recently, something took us from that place, and I knew right away that if we ever happen to return, things will be totally different. That quickly, the life I knew there ended. Now I'm left with a funny pulling. It's an excitement for the adventure ahead but a sadness in leaving the known behind. And that is life: beginnings and endings.

That pulling of positives and negatives produces a special energy. A creative energy. It's the perfect time to write. And in this circumstance, the writing process has begun with setting.

It all started while I was cleaning at the old house last week. I looked out the kitchen window and saw Mr. Bluebird sitting proudly on top of his birdhouse. Jonathan and I have been watching Mr. Bluebird and his wife for years. They stay around almost all year and don't mind that their house sits on a crooked pole. I even had to save one of their babies after it took a ride in our cat's mouth one summer, and Jonathan nailed a stovepipe around the pole to avoid future tragedies. Seeing the bluebird on top of his home with his chest out made me think, "There are so many things I'll miss about this place." But only moments before, I'd noticed a patch of mold on the bathroom ceiling and thought, "There are lots of things I'll be glad to leave behind. I wonder what the next place will bring." Upon recognizing this juxtaposition, I immediately stopped cleaning and started brainstorming a list of things I'd miss, like the wild roses that grow on the bank in early summer, and things I wouldn't, like the plethora of ticks in the high grass. The list is substantial now. With a little filling in, it will become a ready-made landscape for a story--the small farm with its grapevines and barns and overgrown pear trees. With its old red outhouse. And the ghost cat. And the cornfield. And on clear, cool nights, Orion looking down on everything.

Some people have a great talent for creating settings and characters and stories from scratch. I don't. I write what I know and don't feel one bit lazy for it. It's very real to me. All I have to do is make it real to you. And real comes through in the details--in the list. In how grass doesn't grow in the front yard, so years of tenants have let the pine needles pile up till there's a soft brown carpet dotted with pine cones. When my character comes walking through some late spring afternoon, deep in thought, I'll know the soft brushy sound and the earthy smell and where the stripes of shade cross his face when the sun sneaks through the trees that line the road. Real comes through in how the ferns that the landlady's mama planted so long ago stand out against the faded red barn like a feathery green collar. In how the wheels of a car rolling over the gravel driveway sound. The setting is there if only I'll listen to the chimes, taste the grapes, smell the magnolia, feel the cold porch under my bare feet, watch the sparks fly through the smoke of an autumn bonfire. I know what every season is like. I know the sound of hail pounding a tin roof. All I have to do is remember and communicate.

And I know the place so well, I can even begin to imagine what it would be like if something happened there that I never actually experienced. Like a tornado. I can guess which trees could be uprooted and how the weathervane would screech. Or if someone broke in. I know where I'd hide or how I'd try to get away. Or if I were my old self back in elementary school and ran away from home and found myself at a little farmhouse with a tin roof and a red barn and a scared, shiny black cat hiding in the cornfield. The setting, that crucial character, is ready to interact with any other players I introduce. It is whole. It is living. Remember and communicate.

Who will live in those foothills? What will they think of the rooster next door crowing at all hours of the night. Will they be angry at the lady across the road who spies on them from behind sheer curtains? Will they fill the house with the music of a peaceful and balanced life or with the dark and heavy tones of turmoil? I don't know yet. But when it comes to telling stories, knowing the setting intimately can be just as important as knowing the characters themselves.