That old chestnut of writing advice declares: “Write what you know.” I’ll take liberty to upgrade it: “Write what you can imagine.” For out of the tiniest detail, a writer can create a character, envision a series of events that will knit together as a plot, give shape to a new land or recreate one long-forgotten.
I stopped keeping a journal two summers ago, a practice I had maintained with degrees of consistency since I was seven. I fell out of the habit and fell into a desire to live more in the moment and less reflexively in the past. Now that my energy is focused on crafting fiction rather than recording the minutiae of my day, I find myself mining my memory like a vast scrapbook, searching for sensations, images, encounters, even fragments of conversation, that I can pin to my mental bulletin board. I am learning to listen and look for the smallest details that will ignite my imagination and spark a new story ember.
There is a growing collection of post-it notes on that bulletin board, threads in my memory that are knitting together into stories:
In a back garden of a townhouse of a Bavarian spa town sits a small shed in a corner of the vast lawn, under the shade of a white chestnut. Thirty-five years ago that shed sheltered a young American man who had walked away from the Army base in nearby Rosenheim. He was stationed there, awaiting deployment to Vietnam. At some point his uniform was buried in that back garden. He was fed and kept hidden by a woman who watched her own sons go to war thirty years before.
There is small community hidden in the folds of Colorado’s Western Slope where people go to escape life “on the grid.” A couple, successfully working a subsistence farm, open their home to a battered and fragile woman. But their generosity belies a rotten core. Their ulterior motives turn their guest into a captive.
On the banks of the Katsura River that flows through the ancient city of Kyoto, a young American ESL teacher finds a cardboard box sealed shut with packing tape. She can hear faint yips and cries of puppies coming from inside the box. She cycles away, leaving the box unopened. What are the personal consequences of her inaction?
On a beach in western France sit an old man and his wife. They spend summers here, tucked into a small white stone cottage, eating simple meals of salad and grilled fish, caught fresh from the Atlantic Ocean that sweeps across white sand 100 meters from their back door. They speak French together, but his first language is German and she hasn’t called France home since she left as his bride in the early 1950’s. Their love story began when she first saw his hands, a prisoner’s hands, improbably smooth, nails clean and trimmed.
There are characters that linger, partly formed, waiting for me to find their stories; there are settings that shimmer, ready to be brought into sharp relief by voices, aromas, bullets, or violins. The process of writing enthralls me. I witness these unbidden fragments inserting themselves into my narrative. I allow an idea I’ve been gnawing at mentally to scramble away in a different direction once I begin to textualize the plot. I’m learning to write like I travel– the map is there, ineptly folded in the seat beside me, but it’s the unplanned detours that make the trip memorable. If you focus on the map, you miss those little things that make a trip an adventure.