My story isn’t working. There are too many characters, too many events. Too much back story. I’ve lost the road map and driven into a swamp.
I need to take a breather. Time for a field trip.
“The brass elevator doors in the Dominion Square Building,” suggests a poet friend.
Go look at an elevator door? Really?
I know the building. Apart from the attractive, ornate entrances, there’s nothing particularly interesting about it: huge posters covering large windows of one store, beauty products in the window of the store next-door, phones in the window next to that, currency exchange rates in a window round the corner, and round another corner, the Montreal Tourist Office.
But this time as I approach, I look up, above the street level view. How come I’ve never seen the gorgeous Italianate design of the exterior before? Going inside into the golden light of the paneled corridor with its decorated ceiling and floors is like walking into a different era. Think Poirot, Miss Marple! The security guards watch me walk up and down and up and down, stopping to look again and again at the brass elevator doors.
I go back outside, examine the entrances and the exterior again, walk round the building that takes up a whole block, go back in to look at everything once more.
As I look at details and take photos, people smile and nod. Some stop and look with me. Others chat, pointing out decorative details or telling me when it was built (1928) or that The Montreal Gazette (which owns the building) was Québec’s first daily newspaper and is its only surviving English-language daily newspaper. (Although I worked as a freelance dance reviewer for the Gazette for several years I’ve never been in this particular building.)
I cross the road to take a photo from a different angle and people lunching on the terrasse of a café nearby turn to look at what I’m looking at.
The contagion of looking!
Focus hard enough on something and others will look too!
Is there a way to make something similar happen with a story?
Is there a way to look so hard at the story we’re writing that a passing reader feels compelled to stop what they’re doing and look with us?
Beautiful writing works well of course, and great plot lines, interesting characters…
But what is absolutely crucial, according to author Laraine Herring, is the writer’s curiosity.
In “Writing Begins With The Breath,” she explains that if a writer works on a story without any questions, already knowing everything about the character and what will happen, she will “destroy the spark of curiosity that sustains the work.”
Curiosity provokes questions: What is my character doing here? What does she want? Why this place? Why does she answer him back like that? Why is she looking over her shoulder?
In answering these questions, the writer embarks on a journey in search of the ‘real’ story hidden in the first ideas and images.
“One question leads organically to the next one. Each one pulls you a layer deeper. A layer closer to the heart of what you have to say.” Laraine Herring
Exploration and discovery are essential for an experience such as writing or reading (or looking at a building and its elevator doors) to become interesting or compelling.
“….if you’re not curious, the reader won’t be curious, which means your book gets put down in favor of the TV. It’s your curiosity and your questioning that first carries the work.” Laraine Herring
Field trip over, I go back to the confusion of my story drafts. But now I’m letting go the frustrations of not having a product, a finished story, in my hand. Instead I’m focusing on re-entering the process, of stepping back on the train of my creative journey. Time to start asking questions again.
Have you ever caught yourself trying to see what someone else was looking it? Or vice versa?