If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to be an author, read Celestial Navigation by Anne Tyler. She gets into the socks of an artist and wiggles her toes.
The book is about Jeremy Pauling, who at thirty-eight has never left home. It’s been a while since I’ve read it, but as I recall, Jeremy lives on the top floor of his mother’s home, a Baltimore brownstone, and is misjudged by many, including his sisters, as a person unable to cope. He spends hours in his room, deep into his imagination which is boundless, and then creates collages from found objects, mostly bright scraps of paper he collects.
The book begins at a point of no return for Jeremy and is about how Jeremy changes—he finds the courage to fall in love. But it is also about being creative, the peace or the angst of the artist at work inside his mind—or not—about the necessity of freedom and privacy, and about the fragility of a Jeremy who can become easily torn, like the collages he creates.
Beyond daily word and marketing goals, an author inhabits a special world known only to herself. We are reluctant to share it, although most of the time being inside our brain is the best place to be. It is a world filled with dreams, a place where we are most productive, a carnival we take care to cultivate. If we don’t visit it often, we begin to dry up.
Sadly, the reverse is also true. There are days when it’s sheer hell, when we must take off our artist-at-play hat and go to work or change a diaper or write copy. Or a day when, despite the care we’ve taken to inhabit our mind, we are restless, cannot do what we want, find the best word, create the best scene or the roundest character or fit the pieces of a novel together.
Most authors have a system for exercising both sides of the brain, but here are twelve ways for mining the rich lode of the subconscious:
Create a space of your own and sit in it, surrounded by your favorite stuff.
Do a morning or afternoon of dolce far niente.
Start a collection of found objects. Found objects abound in fringe neighborhoods where there are artists’ studios or abandoned factories.
Write a short story in a genre you seldom read. How would it begin?
List the objects in the purse or pocket or closet of your main character.
Rhyme words or string them together creating word salad.
Look at street signs and make up names with them.
Describe the shapes of clouds or mountains. Find giants in them.
Write without conscious thought, pushing the pen across paper.
Read poetry or go to a gallery. Savor how the words or colors surprise.
Eat your favorite food slowly, concentrating on the different flavors and name them. Name the scents in a meadow or a library or a sewer or a morgue or a haunted house or describe how newly cut grass smells.
Never listen to “Why don’t you write a book about …”