Words on Fire

candleOnly four dry days in June 1977, the year my basement flooded. Elvis hadn’t died yet, but another, more personal loss happened under my feet as I slept. My basement filled halfway up the stairs with water. The chaos involved in that was nothing to a big drama in three small boxes that seemed no big deal to my husband.

I’d been writing diaries and filling notebooks with poems since I was 11 or 12. I saw right away that all three of the boxes were soaked, my stuff ruined. I grabbed the top notebook anyway. It was wet, but the ink had only smeared, not completely disappeared.

“My poems! Mike! What should I do?”

He looked down at me. “Throw them away,” he said. And then he left for work.

Alone with the ruins of a necessary part of me I barely understood, I wondered if I’d come to a sweet resting place where my head no longer filled up with words on fire until I had to write them down or burst into flames.

I kneeled over the boxes, not caring that I was wearing my favorite pair of bells. The jeans would survive; they were made of tough material. My writing, on the other hand, was disintegrating before my eyes. I pulled the top spiral bound books, which seemed semi-okay, out of the boxes. My oldest stuff–the white diary with gold lock and key, a picture of Mickey Dolenz, my favorite Monkee, hundreds of sheets of loose notebook paper—all of that was unsalvageable soup.

I came upstairs, my arms full of notebooks. I set them in the kitchen sink and went back down to clean the mess, a jug of Lysol in one hand, old towels in the other. Hours later, I wrung out the rags and hung them on the laundry line that spanned the basement ceiling.

I looked at my notebooks in the kitchen sink, noticed how the light from outside shone down on them. For the first time in ten days, the sun had made it through the clouds. I opened all the windows before getting into the shower.

“What are these doing in here?” Mike said, coming home from work to a sink full of poems instead of dinner on the table.

“Oh, I, ah, maybe I can save them.” I combed out my long wet hair and avoided his eyes after I noticed that he was looking at me like I was a sad and deluded little girl.

While we waited for the pizza delivery, Mike watched the news and I hung my poems up to dry with the damp rags on the line downstairs.

The next day, I set up a card table in one of the empty bedrooms. Then I called my mother and asked to borrow her typewriter. I went to the mall, but instead of shopping for shoes or another pair of velvet hot pants, I bought typing paper, a new ribbon, and a bottle of White Out.

Fifty-six poems survived the great flood. And surprising stuff happened when I typed them out on fresh paper. Hours flew by like minutes. I discovered the value in revision. And I learned how to woo inspiration. The old seductress had come again, and since that day, she has never left.

Letter to Jenny

Dear Jenny,

You ask what inspires my books. It’s different for every book, but with Blue Heaven it all started with a visit to some friends’ cottages on Lake Huron. Yes, that is the exact setting of Blue Heaven. My friends had bought these run-down cottages as rentals and the wife did a great job decorating them shabby chic. She was amazing with fabric and paint. I’m sure the husband did the plumbing and so forth. I was simply charmed by that day, those cottages, and I never forgot it.

Inspiration sometimes needs to simmer. Maybe a year later, or even two, I told my husband my idea for a book. “Like Sue and Joe’s cottages.” He thought the idea was good, and even offered to take me for a nice long ride around the thumb. I took pictures and notes on that trip and the novel was born. A scratchy rough draft later, some friends bought a cottage in Caseville.

Everyone in Michigan knows Caseville is the top of the thumb. Visiting my friend, walking into town via the beach, all of that added to the setting as I worked on draft #2.

One final influence on this book is Mary Kay Andrews. I love her books; they’re fun and sassy and she almost always has a renovation element. She is the queen of shabby chic. I just checked her blog and she’s doing a real-life remodel on her own cottage. And there are pictures! I got to meet MKA once. We actually walked to lunch together! And she asked me what I was working on…I said nothing. I mean, I said the words “nothing right now.” Because walking beside my idol, I just blanked. But I was working on Blue Heaven.

As for the characters, I always give my female protagonists at least some of my own emotions but different lives than mine. I like feisty women who dig deep through tragic circumstances and come up with the prize: a happy life. So that’s Eva, who lost a job and boyfriend on the same day. As for Daniel, I called him Adam at first. And Eva was Eve. Get it? Garden of Eden? One of my working titles was “Remodeling Eden.” I decided the metaphor was too labored, but I did keep the name of the resort: Blue Heaven.

Thanks for asking about what inspires me! And enjoy your books:)

Sincerely, Cindy

Dreaming Awake

Re: my post yesterday: I’m not sure you have to believe in “something more” in order to let go of negative thoughts, or to know that you are not your thoughts. That we are all bigger than our thoughts.

Also, I recognize the circular logic of “I am not my thoughts.” Because “I am not my thoughts” is a thought itself. Also, where would we be without thought? Thought gets things done. Thought organizes and strategizes.

I use thought when I need it, like when I’m plotting or revising a novel or a lecture. But I don’t really “think” when I’m writing. It’s more like dreaming awake. And at that time, when I’m in creating mode, thoughts can actually work against me. Those negative thoughts are the ones that need to be dropped like yesterday’s boyfriend.

But the dreaming awake thoughts, those that come out of somewhere/nowhere and give me my pages for the day, those are the keepers.

Simple Inspiration

One of the fastest and easiest ways I know to get inspired and accumulate some pages is to read a book while writing. At the same time. Simultaneously. You read a little, put down the book, pick up a pen, and write a little. Repeat as necessary. That’s all there is to it.

Simple as long as you don’t read fiction when you’re writing it! That’s the first rule. You don’t want to copy anybody’s plot or characters or turns of phrase! The kind of reading I’m talking about research material, non-fiction. Biography. Philosophy. Psychology. New Thought. That’s what I read and then apply to my story.

Something I try to impress upon my students is that every single time direct words are taken from another source, stick in the quotation marks. I do it because it reminds me later that the words in my notebook enclosed in quotes are not my own. If historians would do this, there would be no plagairism dramas.

I use lots of quotations in my notebooks, and I always mark the book, page number, and author as well. But more than quotations, I like to read and then spark off an idea with my own take on how such an idea might affect my characters. I can read one line and write pages and pages of inspired prose (or so I believe at the time of first draft) just from a few words that set something off in me, a recognition that yes, this is what my character needs right now.

What I write has little or no resemblance to what I read. It’s a connection I have made in my head that maybe someone else who’s done the same research might catch, but probably not. I am working right now with a lot of universal laws that have been around since Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree. Most of this stuff comes under the heading of “general knowledge” and does not need attribution.

Not many actual word-for-word quotations make it to my final drafts. If they do, my character is reading the book or has read the book or in some way the book and author are mentioned along with the quoted piece. Still, if ever an idea came directly from one source, I mention the source, giving credit where it is due.

Books inspired me long before I ever thought of being a writer. Then, one day, they pushed me over the edge into wanting to write. Finally, in writing, I turn to them again for another kind of inspiration. For me, the reading and writing of books is at the center of the circle of a certain kind of life, my writing life.