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Four Lessons in Creativity
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I’m a really good reader, not really a writer. But three years ago I stumbled into a literary fiction writing class at Santa Monica College with the idea of turning a solo play I had been performing around the country into a book. Also, I was there because I had discovered that if I took a class at SMC then I could swim in their two Olympic-sized outdoor pools for free. It was a win-win situation.
The first day, an attractive red-haired artsy looking woman approached me and exclaimed: “I know you. I looked at your face for six months!”
I had no idea who she was. It was awkward for a moment and then she explained that she was a special effects designer and had worked on an indie film that I was in… hence, she had stared at my face filling several 50” monitors in a dark editing bay for six months. She wasn’t CGI’ing my nose or freckles or adding cleavage, she was working on a lightening thunderstorm in the sky behind me. It was an important plot point. I don’t know why it took six months to create a fake storm but it did, computer-generated imagery is tricky that way.
“So you know Jim?” she asked.
“No, I’m sorry. Jim who?” I said.
“The teacher! Jim Krusoe! You don’t know who he is?”
“No, I just wanted to take a class… so I could swim. I really like swimming.” I said.
“You don’t know? This is the best class in LA, “ she said. “He’s a fabulous teacher! You’re going to love it! ”
I did love it, in a big way. I hadn’t done any real writing since college, and then only truly enjoyed or learned anything in a class taught by the poet, A.R. Ammons. Even so, I remember little about the experience except that Professor Ammons was generous and sweet, and that he had astonishingly large meaty hands. I wrote a poem about a failed love affair that was painful to write and I am sure even more painful to read, but Ammons was gracious and forgiving, and didn’t let on that it was.
Professor Jim Krusoe turned out to be as patient and kind as the prize-winning poet, and he has terrifically communicative eyebrows that dance about his face when he’s speaking passionately about what makes for great writing (he says it’s when we’re left feeling differently, or invited to see another color of the spectrum that we hadn’t seen until then, or leaves us with a new view of the world after we’ve read it). I went in with the idea of re-crafting my play into creative nonfiction form, but almost immediately I went astray. Jim assigned exercises that were challenging and intriguing, designed to shake up our minds and writing process (I didn’t have a writing process so I was shook up maybe even more than others) but he also stressed that we could submit whatever we liked – do the exercise, or write something else, or write nothing at all. I started working on a story about a troubled young teenage protagonist that I’d been ruminating on, and I loved writing the pages. After he read a section, Jim scrawled on the last page: “This might make a great novel. Get working on it. Write more.” Unlike many of my classmates, I’d never worked on a novel before and didn’t have any half-finished ones lurking in my office desk drawers. But in that moment I did think to myself, Hey! Maybe I could write a novel, maybe I really could. I wrote more and pretty soon I had half a novel, or maybe a third. I was cooking.
Then my father died unexpectedly and I was elected by the family to write his obituary. I stayed awake for several nights in a row, bleary-eyed and weeping, receiving pages and pages of faxes from my father’s wife and my siblings, gathering information that would be needed. A journalist friend kindly guided me through the process of what an obit should include, what the newspapers would need and want to print, and the form in which it should be submitted. In less than thirty days, I had gone from a fledgling playwright to an aspiring novelist to a nonfiction writer.
Sometime later, I performed my play in Memphis and the experience, as usual, was grueling. Solo plays are a bitch. It’s a lonely heartbreaking process no matter how talented the cast and crew, or how good or successful the play. This was especially true for me this time because I was still grieving. Ultimately, you’re just all alone on stage for a long time without respite. No one enters or exits but you. If you drop a line there’s no one to save you. You’re alone in the dressing room before and after the show, staring at your face in the mirror trying to remember what you have to do when you go on stage, or trying to remember what you forgot when you were on stage. But it’s also thrilling because you get to play characters you’d never be cast as, at least certainly not in Hollywood. I portrayed a fifty-five year old Saudi Army colonel, a teenage North African servant girl, a bubbly privileged Saudi princess on the cusp of womanhood, a barking but kindly middle-aged ex-Marine, and many other colorful parts – back to back all in seventy-five minutes. Doing that develops some serious acting chops.
Months later, my play was set be performed at the New York International Fringe Festival in August 2010. I was pretty much past schlepping my props (over 200 shopping bags from high-end stores) cross country and mounting a play practically by myself with little or no technical support but a friend said: “Just do it! Who knows where it will lead?” And she paid the registration fee.
I suddenly had a flash: I am going to try to write a nonfiction book proposal based on my play. Maybe I can get an agent when I am in New York and then I can sell it!
I asked Jim if he thought that might be possible. His answer was encouraging but cautious. I only listened to the encouraging part. It was something along the lines of: “It has been known to happen.”
With the help of more knowledgeable friends, three weeks later I was on my way to Manhattan with a fifty-page book proposal in my hand. Most of you know that they are hard as hell to write but once you do, you practically have a book, or at least the bones of one. The most confounding part to me was the required marketing section. Why did I have to tell publishers why and how my book was going to sell and who’d want to buy it? Weren’t they in the business of selling books? Didn’t they know more about that than me… no matter how much research I did?
By the middle of August, I had an agent who helped me recraft the proposal (i.e., she made it way better) and a short time later I sold it. Now I had to write the book.
I was excited to start. I had my proposal as a guide but right away I knew that writing a 200 or so page nonfiction book was going to be very different than writing a seventy-five minute solo play. Now I didn’t have to write mostly monologues or two person scenes in which I bounced back and forth portraying the different roles with varying degrees of agility. Now I could write long scenes with many characters who could move into new combinations of characters or different settings. Now I could really flesh out the characters in a way that was never possible in a short play. Now I could explore many more themes because I had more time and space to do it in. Now I could really explore the bigger issues that I had only glanced on in the play. Now I was scared.
Then people started to say things like: “So, you’re writing a memoir?”
“No, actually, it’s creative nonfiction based on my real life experiences,” I said.
“But it’s about you isn’t it? Aren’t you essentially the heroine? You’re going to have to make the reader root for you or it will never work.”
I wasn’t writing a memoir (or MeMore as I came to call it). I didn’t want to write a memoir. I just wanted to tell a story about what happened to me by revealing what I saw and experienced at the time. I didn’t want to write about me. I just wanted to write about it.
When I was on stage telling the story – acting the story – I was just there as another character among many I was depicting. Yes, I revealed things about myself and about how I felt, but much of that was done by how I expressed myself using my body and my voice. I didn’t say: “I was mortified with shame.” Instead, I looked down, covered my face with my hands, and backed away to the corner of the stage as if hiding, as if mortified.
Now the audience couldn’t see me. In many ways I had to say more (with words) so that I could better convey my experience and how it affected me – so that the reader could understand what was going on and what to take from it. This was extremely difficult for me to negotiate. I had to learn how to write so that the reader could feel as if they were there and, in some ways, as if they were me. I knew the reader needed to identify with me. I knew that makes for good storytelling. Pretty soon I figured out I probably was writing a memoir, and I was the heroine. Oh, dear God!
Then somewhere in the middle of the process, I realized that once my book was in print I wasn’t going to be able to change any of it. As the playwright and performer of a solo play, I was changing the text all the time, often from night to night. Part of this was based on the live audience response I was receiving, but it was also a result of me understanding the material better or differently as it developed – and I was compelled to rework it. Or something in the news would happen that I wanted to include in the play that I knew would inform the play in a significant way. An audience member at one of the post show Q&As might have puzzled about an idea or issue and I would go home and rewrite the bit that night to clear it up. I loved that aspect of writing for performance and I was loath to give it up. I still am. I am secretly hoping that somehow publishing will become interactive and the author will be able to go back and make some big fixes or saves if she chooses, or just add a new chapter in the middle if she wants.
I am still in the writing class with Jim (luckily he lets me continue to show up whenever I want, some writers have been there for twenty years) and I am still swimming at Santa Monica College. A mile is roughly seventy-two laps of the short course pool and that’s usually what I swim (sometimes a mile and a half if I’m feeling feisty). When I am swimming now I think about the novel I am back to working on. It only sat in my desk drawer for a short while so it still feels fresh to me. But I am facing all new challenges: I am not writing nonfiction, I am writing fiction. I can make shit up!
How can I do that?
How will I do that?
Any way I want.

*Driving The Saudis is on this week's (November 18, 2012) New York Times Best Seller List

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