Portland, Oregon’s authors have many friends in common, and it’s a good day when two more of us meet, making its community even tighter. I had the honor of meeting Gigi Little this fall when our friend-in-common, author Laura Stanfill, included us in Brave on the Page: Oregon Writers on Craft and the Creative Life, an anthology of variously funny, wise, and beautiful literary interviews and shorts by forty-two Pacific Northwest writers.
Gigi is a member of Tom Spanbauer’s renowned Dangerous Writers group, and her extensive experience with the performing arts—from theater to clowning to her love for old movies—gives her an exemplary ear for voice and dialogue. (Read her excerpt, “The Book Club,” here.) About her love for dialogue she says, “We don’t have time to refine our dialogue before it comes out of our mouths. [It’s] the particular wackiness that pleases me.” But most of all, we compared our processes for story creation. Gigi exemplifies the concept of bravery in front of what Ernest Hemingway famously said was the most frightening thing he’d ever faced: a blank sheet of paper.
She says, “Surprisingly each time I think I’ve hit the cliff and there’s going to be nothing on the other side, I move forward and the story moves forward. The story is there.” This got me thinking.
As an editor, I love this quote by Paul Sahre: “Design is a process of trying to address the unknown, through a process, and end at some place. … Any creative endeavor is about embracing risk, and that risk of failure, whatever form it’s going to take.” So much of my editing is about story design: Do the subplots mirror the central plot? What leitmotifs reflect the story’s main conflict? Does the protagonist’s feelings about the antagonist evolve smoothly, and are they proportional to the actions s/he takes to get what s/he wants? To say that editing is a cool-headed profession is a wee bit of an understatement.
But as a writer, you have to be brave. You have to trust that you have something to say, which is best said in fiction. Gigi says of her current manuscript, “I think I’m drawing on a lot of subconscious stuff that I’ve been wanting to talk about for a long time. The scariest thing is that I don’t know where this ends. That definitely eats away at my courage. How do I know that any of this is worthwhile if I don’t know where it’s going?” And yet, it all comes back to self-trust: “The interesting thing to me about my own process in this is that when it works best—really, not only dialogue but in creating situations, too—what works best is when I put down what pops off the top of my head.”
I’ve found something similar, too, in trusting what my subconscious mind hands to me; and Anne Lamott, too, evidently, since she writes something in Bird by Bird about a little kid in the basement of her imagination, who plays in the dark and hands up ideas when they’re ready for the light. Is this how all writers work? Gigi and I talked a lot about breadcrumbs—about scattering a few ideas lie on the ground and then enjoying a night’s sleep, or a walk with the dog, and then coming back later to find that the breadcrumbs lead somewhere new in the story.
It is interesting to see this commonality; and also its diversity. The pieces in Brave on the Page celebrate the perspectives of so many successful, hardworking writers who have followed their breadcrumbs to a voice of their own. Not only do we each have something to say, but also to tap into our courage, our sense of faith in finding a way to say it.
I’m a planner at heart. Faced with the blank page, I am afraid of wasting time, wasting hope, wasting the spark that made me sit down in front of one of my high school notebooks some sixteen years ago and begin to write a novel. But Gigi is right; just as on that first day, the story appears.
All you have to do is sit down.
(Read Gigi Little’s side of the conversation with me on her blog, here.)