In December, 1975, my sister sent me a small wrapped box with a note attached. Our mother had died suddenly the previous May, but my sister found a small package, wrapped for Christmas the year before, at the back of a closet.
Inside was a compass. I’m sure my mother intended it as a pragmatic gift – I was spending a lot of time on back roads and camping out in the southwestern deserts where you really want to know where you are and where you are going, but ever since, that particular compass and compasses in general, have carried a lot of symbolic meaning for me. Finding true north. Finding one’s way.
My ideas have changed since I got that compass. I used to imagine “one’s way” as “one way.” As if our lives were like trains, and we are either on the track or off. Now I imagine something more like “possible futures,” (a classic sci-fi term). Not a single track, but an ongoing dance between ourselves and the world, of choices and unfolding events.
Recently I posted that I am rethinking the plot of the novel I’m writing because my forward progress had slowed and a step back showed there were flaws and gaps in my core conception. Later I realized some of the story elements had become so common as to have already become cliches. I understand how fast that can happen; Thomas Edison used to speak of times when “ideas were in the air,” and I’m sure there were far fewer inventors in his day than young adult writers in ours.
I’ve taken my own advice recently, and done a lot of free-writing, easily filling up single spaced pages with several alternate plots that seems fresher to me, but remain similar in setting and character to the story I was working on before. One in particular sparked my excitement. Then I spotted a review of a recently published, YA novel that had features strangely in common with my current conception.
Conventional wisdom urges us not chase popular stories, but these days, my impulse is almost the reverse – it almost seems harder to run away from what other people have done! Something else we are told often is, “tell the story that only you can tell.” To me, this sounds a lot like the “true north” idea. Our thoughts, our emotions, our memories are not stable, so why should our stories be? That kind of imagined fixity is something the conscious mind loves, but the unconscious or whatever you wish to call the wellsprings of our creativity, does not share in such linear thinking.
I used to admire an Arizona man named Frederick Sommer, who took hauntingly surreal photographs in the desert. Once an interviewer asked him why he photographed, seeming, from the tone of the article, to want some kind of deep philosophical rationale. Instead, Sommer shrugged and said, “You’ve got to do something during the day.” I’ve always loved the irreverence of his response. I remember it in moments when I begin to take myself and work too seriously. As ego involvement grows, I risk mistaking what I do for what I am.
In retrospect, I learned a lot when I was writing software. I learned that when something isn’t working, you look at it closely, and if necessary, try something else. I may have missed schedules but I seldom missed sleep. The years that I spent writing software convinced me that I can solve problems – that if I keep looking long enough, I’ll find a creative solution that was there all along, overlooked.
I write for a lot of reasons. One of them is that I have to do something during the day.