JAMES R. SPRING: I never stopped to recognize this before, but suddenly it’s clear. I write from a place of pain and inadequacy. I write from fears. Even the funny stuff comes from fears. My NPR stories have sometimes revolved around becoming older and less relevant to the world. And now that I have two toddlers, some of my short stories have sprung from the enormous fear associated with the possibility of losing one’s child. Sometimes I just write about a fear of being pathetic.
Now that I understand this about myself, I feel very bad about it. And, thus, I’m inclined to start writing.
Does anybody write from a place of strength? If so, don’t tell me.THE WRITER’S JOURNEY: How and when do you know in your gut that an idea is viable and worth creating? Is there a telling, pivotal or aha! moment?
JAMES R. SPRING: The times I have been most successful with this writing stuff, I’ve found that the serious stories have filled me with melancholy, and the funny stories have made me laugh out loud. That said, some of my best stories have hardly blipped on the reader radar. I’m thinking particularly of a short story called The Book of Jack, which I really like, but nobody else – including people who profess to love me – has ever acknowledged.
Who knows? Maybe we’re the worst judges of our own stuff. Maybe Billy Joel thinks “Uptown Girl” is his generational anthem.
JAMES R. SPRING: The beginning is just a thought, and it is beautiful and pure. It makes me all warm and tingly inside. In describing this notion, my pal Stephen Dobyns (“The Church of Dead Girls” and a zillion others) once quoted a Buddhist adage that goes something like “First thought, pure thought.” It sounded a little like horseshit when he said it, but I mention it now so you’ll know that I have famous friends.
Regardless, my first thoughts on a story really are a thing of beauty. It’s when I go to put those thoughts to words that everything goes to hell. I take that beautiful little Buddhist baby of a story idea, and I run it through the wood chipper that is my first draft. It is a huge mess. When I call in the paramedics, which represent my second draft in this increasingly convoluted metaphor, they will often tell me that the story is dead on the scene. As a result, I have two bankers’ boxes full of mutilated stories and a novel that nobody has ever seen.
THE WRITER’S JOURNEY: The refusal to be creative is self-will and is counter to our true nature. This is what Julia Cameron says in, The Artist’s Way. What’s your take?
JAMES R. SPRING: I guess it all comes down to what you define as “creative” or “art.” I believe that the refusal to dance, for example, is completely understandable. Some people should be encouraged to NOT dance. If you don’t believe me, I will dance for you.
Perhaps people should be allowed to write whatever they want. God and the audience will sort it out.THE WRITER’S JOURNEY: Do ideas come to you in words or images, sounds or something else? Has it always been this way for you? Are you sometimes caught off guard?
JAMES R. SPRING: Without sounding too much like a blow-hard, and using words like “muse” and “dreamscape” and “Posture-pedic,” my first notion of a story arrives as a snapshot. It’s a little fuzzy.
There is a little girl and she is standing next to her father.
If there is a little magic (or tequila), the details come into focus.
Where are they? Why isn’t the mother there?
It looks like a zoo. A lion’s enclosure. But there is no lion.
“He’s probably sleeping,” the father says.
“Maybe he’s dead,” the little girl says.
“He’s not dead,” the father says.
Whoa! Maybe we have something here. Pour another drink and start typing.
I’m just kidding. Don’t start typing. Put it off for another day, because if you’re a real writer, you know that tomorrow is always the best day to start writing a story.