Sometimes, not knowing where to go with your work warrants new methods. The new novel on its twelfth or so iteration is slow going, so I’ve turned my mind to other things. One of them is documenting the Kansas countryside where I am now. Specifically, trying to unpack what I’m seeing into images that distill its impact on me. For weeks now I’ve been watching the farm fields roll by my window, intrigued by the details, without really knowing why. Then, I drew this image with Sharpies and pencil:
It immediately became clear to me why I was so fascinated with the fields. My unfinished drawing looks to me like a quilt in progress: the interspersed colors and the patterned rows of roadside, dirt berm, planted field lend themselves to a pattern like the ones my grandmother made. Then I remembered something my college psychology prof taught us: Learning, in order to become memory, must be linked to something already known. The quilts of my past link to the patterned Kansas fields and train my eye to look more deeply at the patterns. Some are like what I know, some very different, as in the Midwestern winter wheat ringing red the local fields. Even when I draw pictures of the German and Swedish influenced houses of this area–a goal for the near future–I will be thinking about the farm houses I have known already and seeing both the similarities and the differences, which should help me seeing what strikes me as new.
How does this relate to writing? Today I am thinking about how my new novel relates to the first, Eve’s Garden.EG is set in a North Georgia mill town. The Man Who Loved Chocolate (TMWLC) is set on the northwest side of Chicago. EG is focused on three generations of women in one family, and their close friends who help them weather tragedies. TMWLC is about two awkward thirty-something’s who can’t seem to get together without the help of their family and friends and one very astute homeless woman. Both novels feature a close knit community, one a Romani family and their friends, the other a community of local business owners who over many years have become like a second family to one of the protagonists, and a new family to the other.
Dorothy Allison told me several years ago that my work is about everyday ordinary people in extraordinary detail. Of course, being a literary genius, the author of Bastard out of Carolina saw right through to the heart of mine. I am not interested in fantasy creatures like vampires and werewolves and zombies, or in people of fame and fortune. I am interested in what makes the people around me tick. They are fascinating to me both in their adherence to traditions or norms and also in the unique characteristics that I believe inhabit the minds and consciousnesses of all of us. Each of us is a combination of our family’s past and our own unique selection of traits.
We are all a quilt. And that is how drawing helped me write.
What are you writing about this morning? What helped you see where you should go with it?