Friday, February 11, 2005

City in my mind

"There's a city in my mind.
Come along and take this ride
and it's all right, it's all right.
And it's very far away,
but it's growing day by day,
and it's all right, it's all right."
--Talking Heads

When I write, the ideal situation is to become a victim of my ideas. I know a story is good when I find myself no longer in control of it. Characters behave unexpectedly, and words and actions occur on the page that I had not planned. Sometimes it's frustrating, because the storyline can suddenly veer in an unexpected direction, and I find myself taking notes from the back seat while one of my characters sits behind the wheel. At other times--to make a worse metaphor--ideas sometimes slip up from behind and mug me, then rifle through my imagination for storylines they can take for their own.

Sometimes the process is reversed. Sometimes I have to go hunting the story with a butterfly net. (Be careful; a story is a very fragile and delicate creature, and is easily damaged. Too rough and it will never fly again.) You see, occasionally, a scene will present itself, unbidden, in my mind, and I have to figure out what story it belongs to. I'll see the characters, their setting, what they're doing, but that's it. I have to study the scene and piece together the clues, deducing motives and prior events like a detective. Here are three people sitting at a small table in a narrow Manhattan cafe. It's obvious that two of them are a couple: they sit just a little too close, and lean into one another, amost as though they are afraid of something. I wonder what. Not enough clues to tell yet. The third one, a girl, pushes an amulet on a chain across the table. She speaks in many voices, like a radio being flipped across the stations. I wonder what that amulet does. It probably has something to do with why that couple is afraid. I'll have to follow them for a while longer to find out what they've been up to before now. And that girl with the strange voice. I'll bet she's not human...

Tracking down a story like that really is a lot like investigating a murder mystery. Only the victim is me. Stories don't always do what they're told. Sometimes they become the master and lead their author by a leash. Sometimes they run off and lead him on a cruel game of hide & seek.


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