by Lisa Lenard-Cook
Authorlink welcomes an exciting new columnist this month. Lisa Lenard-Cook is an award-winning author and writing instructor. It Begins is the first in her series, The Art of Fiction. Watch for her insights every month on Authorlink. Read more about Lisa.
"I only know that when the moment happens, when the third seed is planted, I am compelled to write." —Lenard-Cook
Where does fiction come from? My favorite definition is from McCauley and Lanning’s Technique in Fiction (St. Martin’s):
Fiction originates in direct personal impression linked by imagination with the writer’s resources of experience.
Let’s begin with the first part of this equation, direct personal impression. Let’s say you’re walking down the street one day when you see a striking woman, beautifully dressed, striding purposefully toward you. Let’s say that woman suddenly stops short and turns, and you realize that the hastily dressed, runny-nosed child a few steps behind in fact belongs with her. Let’s say the woman yanks the child’s hand (let’s say the child is a girl), spits a few stern words, and then marches resolutely past you, child in tow.
If you’re a fiction writer, scenes like this will get stuck in your head. That’s my term, and maybe there’s a better one, but that’s precisely what happens: The scene gets “stuck,” and plays over and over again. I call this a fictional seed, and it forms one axis of that “direct personal impression.” But I can’t begin to write. Not yet. It’s only one seed.
That’s because, for me, it takes at least three seemingly unrelated seeds to start writing. I never know what three seeds will come together to grow a story. I only know that when the moment happens, when the third seed is planted, I am compelled to write. After I’ve illustrated the other two axes of this equation, I’ll come back and show you how this works with a story of my own.
"Humans are, above all, creatures of imagination. . . " —Lenard-Cook
The second part of the equation is linked by imagination. Chances are, when I painted that fictional woman, you began to imagine a history for her even if you aren’t a fiction writer. We can’t help it. Humans are, above all, creatures of imagination, and when we see something we can’t explain, we imagine an explanation.
You might imagine, for example, that the woman is not what she seems, a fact that’s revealed by the child. Perhaps she doesn’t know how she’ll pay for their lunch, even where they’ll get lunch, and is on her way to an appointment that could change not only that, but the direction of her life. But she’s saddled with this child, and she doesn’t have a babysitter, and— Well, you can see my direction. It’s only one possible scenario amongst many, of course.
The last part of the equation is the writer’s resources of experience. If you’ve ever laughed or cried, been angry or overjoyed, loved, hated, or anything in between, you have your own resources of experience. In the best fiction, you use these resources to translate this emotion onto the page for the particular fiction you’re writing.
Now here’s that example I promised you. About ten years ago, both a friend’s mother and a neighbor in the remote corner of southwest Colorado where I then lived were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. I noticed a number of parallels in the two women’s behavior: how polite they were; how both seemed to find joy in simple things they could no longer name. As I drove back and forth to Durango every day, I often found my thoughts turning to something one or the other had said or done. I knew this obsession was a seed. But I wasn’t ready to write—not yet. It was only one seed.
Meanwhile, in that drought summer, the fires burned. In the evening, my daughter and I would sit on our porch and watch the planes shuttle back and forth to Grand Junction. When a plane dropped its slurry, the sky would flare pink. My daughter, an artist, and I, a writer, would sit entranced, night after night after night. This direct personal impression too became a fictional seed. But it still wasn’t enough.
Then, late that summer, I read a story in the Rocky Mountain News about wild horses that were starving on BLM land in New Mexico. BLM management believed their only choice was to kill the horses before they became a nuisance to nearby ranchers. This brief news item became the third seed. I know this because as soon as I read it I sat down and wrote the first line of my short story, “Wild Horses.”
“Wild Horses” is told from the point of view of a rancher in southwest Colorado whose wife has Alzheimer’s. He oscillates between his memories of the woman he married and the daily reality of the woman she’s become. In the evenings, they sit on their porch and watch planes ferry slurry to nearby fires. Then a BLM functionary announces that the wild horses that live in the canyon beyond their ranch are going to be shot. Throughout this story, we see the wife only through the husband’s eyes, and yet, because the husband has the use of my imagination and my direct resources of experience about things like bewilderment, anger, and most of all, love, in this story’s few pages we are able to connect deeply with these characters and their particular predicament.
"Fictional seeds can take years to germinate, but ultimately, it really is this simple." —Lenard-Cook
Let’s review how the three axes work for this story:
Direct personal impressions: the Alzheimer’s, the fires, the wild horses
Imagination: this couple—who they were and who they are now
The writer’s resources of experience: bewilderment, anger, love
Fictional seeds can take years to germinate, but ultimately, it really is this simple. The key is to trust your instincts enough to allow the magic to happen.
About Lisa Lenard-Cook Lisa Lenard-Cook’s novel Dissonance (University of New Mexico Press, October 2003) won the Jim Sagel Award for the Novel, was selected as a 2003 Book of the Year by the Pima County (Arizona) and Cincinnati Public Libraries, and is a Book Buzz selection of the Ramsey County (Minnesota) Public Library. Her newest novel , Coyote Morning, is published by UNM Press. Lisa taught writing at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado throughout the 1990s, and now writes and teaches in Corrales, New Mexico. Visit her website, www.lisalenardcook.com for information about upcoming classes, appearances, and for writing inspiration.