Blood and Bone and Magic

Writing at Mary Anne's house, November 2014. (photo by Mary Anne Mohanraj)

Music is important to my writing process, and I usually end up with a collection of songs for most of my stories, long and short. When I’m starting to write, especially a novel, I like to have a song that sets the emotional atmosphere. It’s exciting when I find it—that perfect collection of words and melody and rhythm to capture the energy. I add to the soundtrack as I go, finding a song for a character or a particular place, but that first one remains important, a touchstone. I will go back to it again and again.

This is all to say that I’ve found that song for my next work-in-progress. I’m in love with it—playing it over and over, trying out the words when I’m alone in the car, rereading the lyrics when I take break from writing. The song, Blood and Bone,” is a by Alt-folk musician Hayley Jane, who currently has a kickstarter campaign to produce her next album. It’s the only song I’ve heard so far, but I was intrigued enough to become a backer. Her campaign is nearly funded after only the first few days, and no matter what else the album holds, I’m grateful for this gem.

I listened to Blood and Bone all morning and on the way to a writing day at Mary Anne Mohanraj’s beautiful Victorian home. Quietly typing away on our laptops atop bellies full of Mary Anne’s always amazing cooking, Mary Robinette Kowal, Kat Tanaka Okopnik, Julie Chyna, Mary Anne, and I spent a few hours writing.

To my delight, “Blood and Bone” had made its way into my imagination, into my creative DNA. When I sat down to work on my opening scene, there it was—a musical-emotional undertow pulling me along, plunging me deeper. I wrote the scene quickly before having to leave to pick the kids up from school, the character and setting still fresh in my mind on the drive home.

I love those moments, when the Muse is in control, when the story washes over me and onto the page in waves. It’s not always like that, but when it is, oh it’s magic! And any day with magic is a very good day, especially on a snowy November Monday in Chicago.

Breaking Time

I asked my friend Pat Prather, a talented photographer for 8 Eyes Photography and a brilliant artist, to create a memory board that I could mount in my kitchen. It would be a place to put precious photographs and mementos so that I could see them every day.

Pat Prather's Steampunk/Nouveau Memory Board. (Photo by 8 Eyes Photography)
Pat Prather’s Steampunk/Nouveau Memory Board. (Photo by 8 Eyes Photography)

Pat created not just a work of art, but a story told through the steampunk sculpture that surrounds the handcrafted frame, a story about a fairy who breaks time so that the memories can remain alive forever. (You can read about his process here.)

Close-up of fairy. (Photo by 8 Eyes Photography)
Close-up of fairy. (Photo by 8 Eyes Photography)

I’m nostalgic, increasingly so as I get older. I often think back fondly to people I’ve loved, places I’ve called home, adventures and conversations that have had an impact on me. I’m grateful for them, really grateful for these experiences. They are treasures, and even as I look forward to the future, I am gratitude for everything and everyone who has brought me to this point.

“The Greek word for “return” is nostos. Algos means “suffering.” So nostalgia is the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return.”
― Milan Kundera, Ignorance

I wanted the memory board to be a place to mount those sentimental treasures, and they are frozen there, snapshots into important moments. I’m slowly printing out photographs to affix to the board. Some are obvious choices: the dearest of family and friends. Others inspire, challenge or remind me, like the photograph of Gene Wolfe and me that I added last week.

memoryboard4
Close-up of Pat Prather’s Nouveau/Steampunk Memory Board

On May 7th, I met Gene for lunch to celebrate his 82nd birthday. Each time we meet, we chat about our lives and works in progress. I always enjoy Gene’s stories about writers he’s known, places he’s traveled, stories he’s read–so many memories, so much history. On the drive back to Chicago, I’m often lost in some Gene-inspired reverie or creative provocation.

This time, Gene mentioned an exercise attributed to Benjamin Franklin called “Imitating the Style of the Spectator.” The idea is that a writer should choose a piece of writing by an author he/she admires. After reading it over many times, the writer should hide the original text away and attempt to write the story from memory. Once it’s completed, the writer should refer back to the original and note the differences: the places where he or she forgot a detail, or did not capture the same mood or character, or had trouble with dialogue, and so on.

Gene did the exercise early on in his writing career with one of his favorite Lord Dunsany stories, The Assignation. He explained that there is much to be learned by studying the craft of the masters.

He’s right, of course. Gene Wolfe is a Master. This weekend,Gene Wolfe will be honored by the SFWA with the Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award for his contribution to the literature of Science Fiction and Fantasy.  I am grateful for lessons I’ve learned not just from his writing, but from his friendship.

Just below the photo of Gene and me is a photograph taken from last year’s Fuller Awards to honor Gene Wolfe. That one has a group of people who are both dear and an inspiration. They each inspire me in their own way: to keep writing, to strive for excellence, to learn from the examples of the past, to connect with others. That night was one of those important moments in my life, a night to remember.

Unlike Pat’s fairy, we cannot break time (except in stories). Time will continue with or without us.

But I find that nostalgia can work like a touchstone. Memory and nostalgia motivate me to reach for the stars, to step into the chaos of creativity, knowing that I am grounded in the past and am part of a continuum that stretches backward and forward in time. Just like Gene’s exercise about writing from memory, there’s much to be learned from the intersection of what is and what is remembered.

Imagination Grows by Exercise

A quick post, while working on others. I really enjoyed this conversation between Connie Willis and Neil Gaiman filmed at World Fantasy Con 2011.

Charming and inspiring, it’s a great one for writers and aspiring writers to watch.