Thursday, May 27, 2010

Inside the Creative Process (and a cave)

Watching M*A*S*H during my mid-day exercise routine, I watched Alan Alda’s Hawkeye dealing with a classic case of TV claustrophobia. He’s got to go inside a cave for shelter from bombing. It works out semi-heroically and is a smashing episode, as well as a smashing way to get my mind off the excruciation of exercise on my syndrome-ridden body.

On the elliptical, I imagine what kind of cave story I could tell. How exactly does claustrophobia work? What are the symptoms of an aggrieved sufferer?

As I lie in the tub afterwards, soaking my muscles, I imagine why a claustrophobe might go down there. His friend, Alan, becomes the reason. Alan is a dick. Some synapse in my head connects “dick” to “Alan” – the best I can figure is because Alan Moore has written his fair share of dicks. This Alan wants to go into the cave and our protagonist is forced to follow.

It’s night before I can concentrate again. The pain subsides enough, the brain fog lifts enough, to work.

It’s dark out. I draw the curtains anyway. Off goes the overhead light. A lamp in the back of the room gives a little glow, and reduces just how horrible staring at a computer screen will be for me, while still giving my room a necessary darkness.

Alan is fine. He’s changed since he went to college and made new friends. The friends are dicks. The narrator hates these new friends, who have replaced him. He’s come down here because it means keeping part of his relationship with Alan.

But Alan’s gone deeper into the cave than he could go. He had a breakdown and stayed. He complains for several paragraphs (which will probably get truncated in editing) about the influence of these friends and how stupid spelunking is in a world of airplanes and fast food. We’ve evolved.

He worries. He’s got good reason. He calls for Alan. I call for Alan, out loud. Every time he says something, I say it. He gets no replies; neither do I.

His thoughts accelerate. I read a few. I read a few more. Soon I’m reading out loud before my fingers have typed the words. When I don’t have the words for a line or a connection, I type what needs to happen in capital bold letters rather than stop to think it over. I can fill the gaps later. Right now he’s going back and forth, no sun light, no responses, and is the cave changing? Did he turn left or right after the slope? He’s bleeding from two places and then there’s…

It’s 2,500 words. At a certain point, the narrator gushed. 2,500 words is short on the “short story” scale, but I know this gushed because my heart is racing. I know a lot of the prose needs polishing. It’s redundant, whiny, and not enough of it pushes the story forward. But I bothered myself.

That’s how I did it, if you’re interested. Excuse me while I go turn the lights back on.


  1. The whole process sounds painful but exhilarating all at the same time. And oh so familiar!

  2. Love seeing how another writer's brain works.

  3. It's hard to go to those places and yet so necessary if the story is to grab the reader.

  4. Yes, I was interested. Thanks for sharing how you did it.

    I learned something that I can use: typing what needs to happen in bold and moving on, not staying stuck in that place.

  5. These comments were lovely to wake up. Thank you everyone. Glad sharing a bit of my process was worthwhile to you.

  6. Late getting here, but boy, do I know that feeling. As stated, it's wonderful to hear how others' brains work.

  7. Isn't it amazing the tension and build up we ourselves have as the story and characters progress through our minds. They completely overwhelm us, and soon we our gushing their lives and stories.

    Your process sounds very similar to mine. Although, I like to move around while I write. Outside, inside, dark, light and of course, wild tunes. I can't write when something smells bad though. Too distracting.

    Thanks for writing this.

  8. John ... I love how you do what you do... It makes me feel so pigeonholed as a scribe.

  9. Loved reading about your creative process, always interesting to see how other writer's minds work :)

    And I'm thrilled that you watch M*A*S*H, it's one of my favorite series!


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