When I’m not writing I feel half alive. I go through every-day motions like a zombie. Something is missing.
Nothing equals the excitement of plunging into a story and not knowing where it’s going. I write in order to find out what’s happening, what the story all about. It’s a process of discovery.
There’s fear as well as exhilaration. Will I be able to solve the problems? Will I measure up? I’m my own judge. Not yet my own dispassionate critic. That comes later. What is this fear? Performance anxiety? But no one is looking over my shoulder except me. Each time I begin a new story it’s as though I’ve never written anything before. My confidence is zero.
Writing has to be fun. And in order to have fun you have to squelch the fear and jump in, take risks joyfully. You can always revise the piece later—you must revise. Knowing that, you have the freedom to make mistakes, to digress all you want. Later is the time for cleaning up.
How to start? My work is almost always based on real people. I may know them well or maybe I just spotted them on the street and something struck me in passing. A little spark goes off in my head, the spark of possibility. The notion of “what if . . .?” Taking what I see and know and moving into an imagined—but plausible-- situation.
Sometimes, before I’ve actually begun to write, a line will pop into my head. My first impulse is to reject it. No, this is crazy, what a wild notion. But that’s how I wrote my story, “Goodbye, Evil Eye” (in Goodbye, Evil Eye: Short Stories). The line was: “It is not common knowledge that a woman sailed with Christopher Columbus.” And that was the start button for me. Don’t ask me where that line came from. If we’re lucky and receptive, these charmed moments come to us.
You never know what is going to show up in your story. Before you realize it, you’ve written a scene based on an event that occurred ten years ago in the workplace, a scene you haven’t thought about consciously. Who would have imagined that my job in a nonprofit organization would have yielded so much fodder for a story, “First, Do No Harm” (Antioch Review, Fall 2010).
Writers are ruthless and I’m no exception. I have little compunction about using my parents, sibling, husband, and children in my fiction even though sometimes I feel guilty. The parents are dead, the spouse supremely understanding, the children—there I have tread lightly. And with friends, you hope they either won’t recognize themselves or better yet, won’t read your work. I once wrote a story about my mother (“Food of Love,” in Goodbye, Evil Eye: Short Stories.) It was first published in an obscure California literary magazine called Shmate, literally, “rag” in Yiddish. Who could have imagined that a distant cousin living there, a continent away, would find the magazine, read it and call my mother to say she read a story in it that was all about her. My mother called me to ask about it saying she wanted to read it. Uh oh! It’s true that it was fiction but very thinly disguised. There was my mom with all her quirks and exasperating behavior, the friction between us in print for all to see. I told her I didn’t think she would be interested. A feeble excuse. I was truly terrified. I gave her the magazine and agonized for a couple of days. She would be so hurt, so angry at me that she would disown me, her own daughter. How could I do such a thing to her, etc. etc. Her reaction? Sheer delight. “It’s all about me,” she said happily. Then she suggested that I write her biography. But that’s a whole other story.
Nothing equals the joy of being in the middle of writing fiction—nothing, except maybe a swim in the ocean. I want to immerse myself, play, splash around. That’s how I’ll find out what I’m doing.
So, why do you write? and how do you approach your characters and create their stories?