What sounds like just another chemistry joke (and we all know how hilarious THEY are) is actually the clearest distillation (see what I did there? Yeah, the whole post is like that, sorry) of how I see myself as a writer. I’ll explain.
Recently for my Creative Writing class I had to write a short story for the class to critique. We were given several weeks to do this, but I actually had an outline by the time class was done, and when I went home that night, I wrote in one long stream—of-consciousness session - a perfectly-formed 11,500 word short story entitled ‘Barstow’. I didn’t need to stop and think about it. I didn’t need to wonder about character names, or motivations, or plots.
It just appeared to me, as if by magic.Except that as writers, we make our own magic.
I’ll continue to explain.
I’ve been researching for a new novel called Nomad. It’s about a motorcycle gang in Arizona in the early 1970s. As research, I’ve been deeply submerged in biker culture and mythology for a couple of weeks, reading pretty much anything I could get my hands on. I particularly recommend Sonny Barger’s autobiography, ‘Hell’s Angel: The Life and Times of Sonny Barger.’ He was the founder and president of the Oakland charter and is still a member in good standing. You might know him without realizing it if you watched Sons of Anarchy. He played the character of Lenny ‘The Pimp’ Jankowski, the lifer that helps the club out in Stockton prison from time to time. And yes, Sonny Barger really had a laryngectomy and really speaks like that. (As a side note of interest, the character of ‘Happy’ Lowman, the Sons’ resident Man of Mayhem and all-around psychotic enforcer, is played by an actor named Dave Labrava, who also is a member of the Hell’s Angels in good standing.) At any rate, I’m steeped in knowledge about motorcycles, the working of the clubs, the politics and mayhem. I’ve also been reading a lot of motorcycle manuals, particularly Harley Davidson and Triumphs.
Second on my research list is a method of telling a story which involves reversing the course of the story, telling the last part first, the second-to-last part second, and leading back to the incident that started the whole mess in the first place. This is called Reverse Chronology. You’re probably familiar with this device if you’ve read Stephen King’s The Gunslinger. The entire first book in his massive epic of novels is actually told in reverse, explaining how he got where he is by showing where he came from. If you’ve seen the film ‘Memento’, this is another example.
I was reading the history of cremation a couple of weeks ago, in the research for a different book called ‘The Mercer Street Murder’ in which I needed to know things about corpses, and took a pleasant diversion into the history, legality, and process of burning a corpse to ash.
These things are the various chemicals I hold within myself.
The creative energy a writer has, there’s no way to explain or produce that. You either are driven to create or you’re not. That’s fine. That’s not what I’m here to explain. What I AM here to explain is that this creative energy, the spark, that’s the Bunsen burner under the test tube. I’m the test tube in this analogy. I hold within myself the various additives and knowledge of my experience. These pieces are the chemicals that make up the solution. The creative flame is the process under which they are transformed. When you apply heat energy to a chemical solution, one of several things will happen. In one particular instance, solid matter will form in the solution. This is called precipitate. In this analogy, my story is the precipitate. See? I brought it all around.
When you take everything you are, know, see, do, and experience and add the creative spark of heat energy, you can sometimes distill this (see? I’m clever) into a precipitate. That precipitate is your work. Your book. Your poem. Your story.
So when my instructor told me to write a story, all the chemicals were there in the vessel, waiting for the spark. He triggered the spark by giving me the assignment. The story is the precipitate that formed from those chemicals present.
Hence, what looks like magic is actually a process that you can control. You can’t force the spark. But everything else is yours to command. YOU decide what you take in. YOU decide what you experience.
This is why all really good writers are wide and voracious readers. You never know what’s going to come from a happy accident like falling down a knowledge hole and learning how to cremate a body.
And for the record, the story has nothing to do with Nomad. It just happened that I had TWO ideas, one novel-length and one story-length spring from the same set of chemicals.
It could be worse. I could have had the whole thing explode in my face.