I was much too harsh of one Barbara Kingsolver yesterday on my website, so I just wanted to follow up that post by saying that she pretty much rocked it this morning. I was disillusioned yesterday that she only performed some of her more obscure material, when all the audience wanted to hear was “November Rain” and “Welcome to the Jungle”. Well, she delivered the hits this morning and had some truly inspiring things to say. Here are a few of my notes from today’s performance.
How much research should one do? Kingsolver’s description of research sounded to me much like an inverted pyramid, with scores of research taking place at the beginning of the process (even before starting one’s novel) and then gradually narrowing/lessening as the book takes shape. She said she put together over 100 pages of research alone on one of her books and, based on my research for “The Notice”, I have an easy time believing that. Her one comment that stood out to me was that she struggled writing “The Poisonwood Bible” because she could not actually go to the Congo, so she had to find ways of getting there without actually going there (she said she visited Togo to ballpark the atmosphere and she read a lot of books). I wanted to ask her why she didn’t simply rent the movie “Congo”. I mean, what more could she need to know?
Describe the beginning of the writing process? Kingsolver was adamant that the first thing one should be able to do when endeavoring to write a book is first know exactly what the book is about. Can you describe your story in one sentence? In one paragraph? If you can’t tell what your story is about, then how can your reader? It was a simple point but very obvious and meaningful and I felt it was worth repeating. From there, what are the key themes of your story and what are the questions being answered within the context of those themes? What questions aren’t you answering? Finally, how do the characters you create embody those themes and questions? Take “Lost”, for example, where science vs. faith was a recurring theme on the show and those elements were embodied by Jack & Locke. Ultimately, those questions proved meaningless, as we all know (damn you, “Lost”!) but it was always very clear in whom those themes were personified.
What about rewriting? Barbara Kingsolver said one should always keep a large trash can next to one’s writing space and even though in this digital age that may not pack quite the punch it once did, the core idea is still there: Don’t be afraid of deleting material. She said she once did 70 drafts of a first chapter and I’m not entirely sure she was joking. One person laughed, though. She also emphasized that “leapfrogging” (I’m borrowing her expression) is perfectly okay, where perhaps you are stuck on a scene and you just bounce to the next one. I’ve done it myself but it’s nice to know that even someone of her stature does the same thing. If you don’t have the words for the scene you’re on, write down the words that you do have. For me, it’s kind of like doing a puzzle. Imagine you’re doing a puzzle of a tiger and you know it’s a tiger, but you only find pieces of the right eye or the left eye or an ear or the nose first so you work on those as you find pieces for them. The stripes will be hardest part but they’ll come; you just have to be patient.
Why are there no Ben & Jerry’s Barbara Kingsolver ice cream flavors? Okay, I obviously stopped paying attention for about fifteen minutes during her lecture because all I could think about was ice cream and what a hippie Miss Kingsolver is (I say that affectionately). So I started cranking out flavors based on her work with moderate success.
- “Figs in Heaven” (figs, obvi, with a chocolate-strawberry swirl and…I don’t know, chunks of ham?)
- “Boysenwood Bible Berry Bubble Gum” (boysenberries, bits of bubble gum, and a Bible verse swirl…I like swirls, what can I say?)
- “Animal, Vegetable, Creamsicle” (bacon bits and cucumber in creamsicle ice cream)
- “The Vanilla Bean Trees” (Vanilla bean ice cream and, I’m not sure about the other flavors, but it’d be rich with subtext)
- “Prodigal Crumber” (Obviously I’m reaching at this point. Something to do with breadcrumb pudding and cheesecake and marshmallows??)
Any advice on getting past writer’s block? Kingsolver’s comment here was that she was simply too busy to have writer’s block and, although I don’t remember her elaborating heavily on that point, I can definitely relate to it. Writing for me is as addictive as exercise. The more I do of it, the more effortless it is. That’s one reason I started this blog. The more I write, the more I think in terms of what I will or might write next and that feeds itself. When I go for a long period without jogging, I’m irritable and also slower the next time I do go for a run. When I do it more often, though, the experience is liberating and I’m ultimately more productive. That’s the best advice I can give to young writers.