Whistler Writers: The Strangeness Of Writing
Let’s face it: writing is an odd act to engage in. A ridiculous bit of alchemy, turning ideas in one’s head into words on a page, in order to put ideas into someone else’s head. And within it, there is a lot that can be explained, and a lot that can be practiced, and then some elements that can only be accepted, with gratitude.
One of my favourite characters to write in Sleeping Funny was Mrs. Knox, an aged Sunday school teacher with a gift for predictions. When I described her preference for certain bible stories, I said, “Mrs. Knox’s God was a God of mystery and muscle.” And that’s kind of what I think about stories—how they begin and how they are built.
The act of writing requires so little movement, that sometimes my body goes coma-cold (as I sit rigidly still, moving only my fingers and a few, connecting, marionette-like tendons) that I have to wear outdoor winter clothes—toques and shawls and work socks—even in my well-heated little office. And yet, there are times when I emerge from my chair feeling physically exhausted, as if I have had to wrestle my own characters and situations to the mat.
Wherever do you get your ideas, people want to know? And I don’t know what to tell them. Because to say that it’s beyond even me is a dangerous thing to admit and still sound professional. Most writers will roll their eyes at the whiff of a suggestion that their stories write themselves. And so they should. It’s a convenient little myth that makes the work of writing sound like taking advanced dictation. But there have to be moments of insight and flashes of inspiration, and to greet these things with anything other than wonder also seems wrong.
For me, it begins like this: a dream, an image, a string of words, some little kernel of possibility pops into my head. One night, brushing my teeth and staring out the bathroom window onto the street, I heard the line, “It was all because of Geraldine.” Where did it come from? That’s the mystery, because I just don’t know. It was as if someone had left a gift on my doorstep, and disappeared into the night. “What was all because of Geraldine?” I asked. But there wasn’t an answer. That, I’d have to find out. Which was where the muscle, the heavy lifting, the sweat and the struggle, came in.
It’s a mix of these—the elements that we can get to know, and learn to practice, and the parts that will always be strangers, that enter and exit our minds without warning, leaving fragments of themselves behind. I don’t know when these strangers will arrive, or by what means the mystery will come, but I’ve learned that I must always leave the door open, so that I may greet them or confront them, embrace them, chase them or do battle, when they do.