Thursday, October 27, 2011

Turn and Face the Strange

photo by Jan Siebold

I recently returned from a trip to New York City and New England.  I am always amazed at travel's power to transform my life and my writing.  I begin each journey still tethered to the routines and rituals of everyday life at home.  As I travel farther away those ties are quickly broken, and I revel in the new and the unfamiliar.  As much as I am excited about natural wonders, I am even more drawn to places where the human spirit is evident .... the World Trade Center Memorial site, art installations along the Hudson River Parkway, a cellist at the Chelsea Market, the High Line path on NYC's West Side.  I am reminded that possibilities are endless and that there is beauty and strength in the triumph over obstacles and adversity.  I return home from each trip with a pocketsize notebook full of revelations and ideas.  My travels do not always take me to far away and exotic places.  There are places to discover just around the corner.  The trick is to take the first steps.  In the words of David Bowie ... "turn and face the strange."  The rewards will be immeasurable.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The House behind the House ... a New Perspective

photo by Jan Siebold

A few years ago a building lot came up for sale on the street where I live.  Through some strange past division of property, the lot was behind an existing home.  That meant that the front windows of a new home would look into the back windows of the existing house.  Understandably, the owners of the existing house were upset.  They had lived there for years, and had assumed that their wooded back yard would remain that way forever.  They never imagined that the view from their back kitchen windows would be another house.  Protests were made to no avail.  The lot was sold and a new house was constructed on the property.  In actuality, the owners of the new home did a remarkable job of curving the driveway and landscaping in such a way that the house is barely visible from the street (and from the owners of the front house as well).  I often see the children from both houses playing together in the side yard as I walk past.  A while back I decided that this tale of two houses serves as the basis for a great lesson in perspective when writing.  Instead of picturing my characters from the perspective of a stranger ringing the front door of their house, I try to imagine the view through the back windows.  From that point of view I see the characters as they go about the daily business of living ... in their kitchen, in their family room, in the back yard.  It helps me to get to know them better, and as I result I have better luck fleshing them out in my writing.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Make a List! Listing as a Writing Tool

There are many kinds of organizational and brainstorming tools that writers use to keep track of thoughts and ideas.  For me, the simple format of a list works best.  One summer I attended a writing seminar at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.  Our class was given a private tour of the Museum of Modern Art.  We were instructed to choose a work of art that "spoke" to us.  We were asked to list 20 things/images/ideas that we saw in the piece of art.  The instructor then asked us to list 20 more things.  And then 20 more.  It became increasingly difficult to find something to add to our list.  However, the later additions to the list were understandably the more creative out-of-the-box ideas.  When we finally wrote about the piece of art, those later additions became the ideas that made our writing less mundane and predictable.  Since that exercise, I have used the listing technique to begin any piece of writing.  I also keep a running list as I am working on my piece.  As ideas pop into my head I add them to that list.  I check off ideas that I have used.  Not every idea will be used, but they might end up on another list for future writings.  Or they might not.  This seemingly simple technique has helped me to dig deeper in my writing.