Sunday, July 25, 2010

Idea Garage Sale: Mining the Clutter

Most modern Americans have too much stuff. Boxes of clothes they can't wear anymore, photo albums they don't look at, tapes too degraded to play, tacky souvenirs,games they don't play, books and magazines they'll never read again, papers they don't know where to file, birthday cards, unfinished projects, unstarted projects, broken things that could be fixed but never are, presents we didn't know what to do with, collections, and on and on and on. I have bins full of old manuscripts in the attic, boxes of my own publications, a smaller fabric stash than a lot of people, file drawers of correspondence, a doll collection, character sheets, old diaries and notebooks and files and files and files of writing dating all the way back to my first filing cabinet obtained when I was 12.

Once in awhile you have to go through it. To whittle it down, yes; but also to rediscover it.

I had occasion this week to look at a couple of old stories I published in the late lamented Dragon Magazine. I'd forgotten how good they were. "The Waiting Woman," the one in Issue 159, may be the best short story I ever wrote. And there's a potential epic fantasy novel to be written after the end of it, too, when the predicted war comes and the sleepers get up and Lord Kettry wakes, the lone stranger in this tight-knit group of heroes, and meets the great-great-granddaughter of the woman he loved and his rival.

"The Waiting Woman" and "The River Children" are set in wildly different portions of a setting I started creating in high school, which I just called "the regions between the mountains and the sea." I had world-builder disease real bad in the wake of reading Tolkien (don't we all?) and I still have file folders stuffed with maps, folktales, ballads, history. I may even have the index card file of names and their meanings, somewhere. I left the regions behind as I grew less interested in sword-and-sorcery and wrote fewer short stories, focusing on the middle-grade books; but quite a few of my published short stories, in the late 80s and through the 90s, used the regions as a setting; and a lot of it (I found on rereading) is damn good.

During the recovery period from the Year From Hell, I returned to short stories for awhile and actually produced a regions short story, which I sold to Realms of Fantasy. It appeared as "The Singers in the Tower" in February 2009, and was an Honorable Mention for the Year's Best Fantasy and Science Fiction, so I know there's life in the old place yet. If I ever have to reinvent myself from scratch, the regions wouldn't be a bad place to start.

Yeah, a lot of my high school concepts don't stand up, and I've changed the way I look at a lot of the history; but that border area between the sorta-European-medieval countries of Vinland and Forblon and the psuedo-Aztec confederacy of the Karankan city-states; and the psychotic level of determination tiny landlocked Notrone had to retain its identity even as its more powerful neighbors conquered and reconquered it; and the way folklore and history and mythology all braid together - it all points in a viable direction, one I could have followed and didn't. Could still follow, if it comes to that.

When I'm writing YA I sometimes force myself to go through the old yearbooks and notebooks. It's painful and embarrassing and that's the point. Young adults lead painful, embarrassing lives. Try not to get caught up in the fashions and the fads. It doesn't matter about my hair: Did I really say that to this person? Did I really think anything as unkind as that? Did I really let that opportunity go by? Did I really waste time crushing on him? Did I really write that down? Did I really put up with that crap?

Yes. Yes, I did. And I need to face up to it, without judging myself, or I won't be able to face up to the choices and assumptions and feelings a 16-year-old character would naturally make, and follow where that leads, to a viable story.

When we're born, our brains are not fully grown in. They don't finish growing - temporal lobes come last - until our early 20s. That's why growing up feels the way it does and why such enormous differences can exist between, sometimes, one day and the next. Kids can't think in certain ways until they grow in the right equipment, and learning is a process by which the architecture of the brain is constructed. We make synaptic connections and we reinforce them; we lose connections we don't reinforce with use; and eventually we have all the brain we're ever going to get, and from then on life settles down as we consolidate our territory.

In practical terms this means that learning and creativity get harder as we get older; but we compensate for this with experience. Most of us have well-worn tracks in our brains from doing similar things in similar ways, over and over and over; and this is how we achieve smooth practiced elegance. Teen-agers and children are constantly reinventing the wheel. Adults are, ideally, perfecting it.

Both modes have their advantages and disadvantages. When creative people are young, they are fountains of ideas; so many they can't keep up with them. Some of these ideas will be wildly original, some will be derivative, some will be brilliant, some will be stupid. Most will be pursued until a brighter, shinier one comes along and be abandoned. It is easy to come up with new ideas; it is hard to get one out of the head and into the real world in usable form. Techniques must be learned and honed. Discipline must be acquired.

When creative people mature, they pick out the ideas that suit them best, based on whatever criteria - I can make more money like this, that ties in with what my spouse does, this is instinctive and easy, that is exciting and a challenge - and leave heaps of glittering random gold behind in disarray in order to concentrate on producing finished work and putting it to use. We polish our techniques. We live by our work habits.

But we are in danger of digging ruts in our brains so deep we can't dig our way out of them. We are in danger of getting tired, or bored, or smug, or lazy; or bypassing interesting sideroads, taking the easy path. How many of your favorite authors got predictable or sloppy as they got older? How many series turned into the same story over and over?

Sometimes you reach the end of the road you're on; or decide the scenery bores you; or strain a creative muscle and need to exercise a different one. Your habits won't help you then; but your younger self can. When you're tired, blocked, feeling like the well is dry - go back through those drawer manuscripts, the yearbooks, the photo albums: not to wallow in self-indulgent nostalgia, but to see where the turn-offs are, whether any of those roads not taken beckon to you now. Chances are you had an idea at 16 that only a 66-year-old could carry out to a satisfactory conclusion.

I've never regretted throwing away the Tolkien/Dickens pastiche I spent two years of my life on; but losing the maps and folklore and name index cards of the regions between the mountains of the sea would have been bad. If you had joy in the creation, keep it tucked away some where, against the day when you need to remember joy.

No comments:

Post a Comment