Career Authors

You Create Something Out of Nothing

Are you making a hat? I’m getting ready to start writing a new book (please take a moment to cross fingers, you know what this is like). I keep saying to myself—you can do this. You’ve done it before.

But I digress. Well, not exactly. Creating new characters out of nowhere! That never ceases to amaze me. I sit down at the computer, blank page. Some hours later, several pages are full, and a new person—or two or three—has been born. A main character named Jane Elizabeth Ryland, with her investigative reporter career in shambles, her secret cop boyfriend, her brusque and dismissive father, and her ambitious and soon-so-be-married younger sister, and her mother, who she misses but still consults. (Not in a woo-woo way, just how one does.)

Jane exists. Where there never was a Jane before.

Making new people where there never were people before. People who readers will know, and understand, and care about. Sookie. Scout. The second Mrs. DeWinter. Harry Bosch. Harry Callahan. Harry Potter.

It always makes me stop in wonder. Where does that come from in our writer brains? Can we let go enough to reach it? How do we do that? Stephen Sondheim would call it making a hat.

The ultimate play about creativity

I’m a huge fan of Stephen Sondheim, have been even way before I started writing novels. He’s so clever, and so careful, and so funny, and obviously loves words and how they work together. And how an artist’s mind works. One of my favorite plays—has been for years—is Sunday in the Park with George—the ultimate play about creativity. Do you know it?

There’s a song called “Finishing the Hat.” And if I talk about it, I’ll start to cry. (No, really. I actually do “teach” about it, and if you come to one of my classes, you’ll see how tears always come to my eyes.)

You know the play is about Georges Seurat, right? And his obsession and passion for his art. In Sunday in the Park, he talks to his muse/lover (whose name is Dot, and his dog is Spot) about why it’s important to get it just right, why his art is constantly in his mind. And—in “Finishing the Hat”—how he’s creating someplace out of nowhere, and being so zoned out (and in) to what he’s doing, the time evaporates.

In the play, he has a blank sketch pad. And on it, he draws a hat. And then he realizes—that’s…new. That’s beautiful. That’s real. And no one has ever seen it before. I just created it—only from my imagination.

Sondheim writes about his process, and it’s just like a writer’s process:

Studying the hat
Entering the world of the hat
Reaching through the world of the hat

Somewhere in our brains

Somewhere in our brains, we “magically” can create something completely new, made of snippets and pieces and dots of our past and our imagination. And our brains become so focused on whatever it is—that we have no idea how long it took. I sit at my computer, and it’s noon. I look up and it’s 3 PM. How does that happen?

It’s because we let go. We stop worrying. We become the story. We make it real.

We type “curly.” Then delete and type “straight.” We type “brown.” Then delete and type “auburn.” We type “frowned,” then delete and type “crumbled.” Or whatever. And in our heads, a new person—with a face and desires and conflicts and intent—emerges, bit by bit, dot by dot. And whatever else we’re doing, our minds are still testing our choices, perfecting them—maybe it should be “chestnut” or “chocolate” or mahogany.” Or revenge or sorrow or lust or greed.

That however you live
There’s always a part of you standing by
Mapping out the sky
Finishing a hat
Starting on a hat
Finishing a hat

And at the end of the page, there’s a person where there never was a person. A place where there never was a place. That’s why we write, isn’t it? We point to our book and say,

Look, I made a hat
Where there never was a hat.

Oh. Like I said. Tears in my eyes.

Have you hit that zone?

Have you ever hit that zone? Where you’re writing and you don’t even realize it? Where something new emerges—and you didn’t plan it? Yes! Wonderful. You are letting go. You are tapping into your true imagination. Come chat with me about it on Facebook.

But now—get writing. Go make some hats.