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I keep thinking of a conversation I once had with a very cool female screenwriter. She’d written a screenplay based on the life of Zelda Fitzgerald — Natalie Portman was interested in playing Zelda — and went on to say that an important part of her writing process was finding the story’s central image.
In the case of the Zelda script, she found that image when Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald clasp hands and take a running leap off the edge of a cliff into the water below. This, for her, defined her story: Zelda and Scott’s headlong rush into hedonism and self-destruction. Whenever she felt like she’d wandered down a wrong path, she’d return her attention to that scene, that image. It pulled her back to the heart of the story.
I like this. It made me realize that each of my books have scenes that performed the same purpose for me, even if I wasn’t aware at the time.
In BLOODANGEL it’s Lucas walking through a burning house with Ramsey in his arms, strange words scrawled on the boy’s near-naked body.
In UNINVITED it’s the scene where Archie and his minions besiege the house with Jasper and Kelly trapped inside, and Jasper stands in the window and sees Archie in the street below, his wings unfurling in the mist.
In LORD OF BONES it’s the confrontation between Jess and Lucas on the terrace of his Hollywood home that happens early in the novel, when she steals his Ducati motorcycle (and he lets her).
For me, though, the awareness of what those scenes represent can’t be articulated. Part of that might have been my still-developing maturity as a writer (I regard those novels as a prelude to my ‘real’ writing, which I have yet to inflict on the hapless public), but another part probably has to do with the creative part of the brain that bypasses language altogether. Whatever those images meant to me, I recognized in the way they made me feel, and the way they would not leave my head, and the need to keep writing the story.
I haven’t found that image with THE DECADENTS yet, which might be why the story still feels like a jumble of material. But I know it will emerge, and I’ll be glad (and relieved) when it does.
On a similar note — or what feels like a similar note — creativity coach Eric Maisel (see my little video clip below) suggests in his wonderful book DEEP WRITING that you find a small object that symbolizes your project. You carry that object around in your pocket, take it out and fondle it, keep it with you when you’re not writing and on your desk when you are.
It’s a touchstone.
It’s you, living with your work, holding it in your mind when you’re doing other things and don’t think you’re thinking about it at all.
Perhaps it sounds silly, but we’re not trying to appeal to the rational, conscious mind. When it comes to creative work, that part of your mind can do more harm than good. We want to slip past it, like a kid sneaking past his parents’ bedroom door, and tap the undermind.
The undermind deals in association, image, feeling and symbol.
The undermind doesn’t do ‘rational’.