Blog posts tagged in Book Inspiration

The writer’s split personality

Posted by on in Magnolia City

One of the first exercises I did in my workshops at the Rabbit Hill Writers’ Studio was to have my students separate out the two parts of their nature. As As Dorothea Brande says in her wonderful little book Becoming a Writer: “Every author is a very fortunate sort of dual personality, and it is this very fact that makes him such a bewildering, tantalizing, irritating figure.”

So it’s all right for a writer to have a split personality — in fact he/she should cultivate it. I always had my students personify their two sides: the Creative Artist and the Critic. I named my two sides and even wrote scenes where they interacted with each other. My Creative Artist is Kyle Marin, which means “temple of the sea.” He’s a pearl diver who knows how to open oysters to find the treasures inside. He lives on the beach, and is wild, unkept, unshaven, shaggy, with sun-bronzed skin and callouses on his feet from never wearing shoes. He doesn’t speak much but dredges up uncanny things out of the depths. He’s always tracking sand into my studio.

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In the last twenty years, there’s been a movement toward revisionist Texas history. As cited in articles such as “Forget the Alamo” from Texas Monthly Magazine, a young breed of scholars is changing the way natives look at the Lone Star State. These social historians try to recreate the details of everyday life, rather than celebrate the traditional heroic myths.

I’ve tried to do the same thing with my hometown of Houston. In place of the honky tonks of Urban Cowboy and the tough ranchers of Giant, I present to you the denizens of Courtlandt Place. They practiced a more formal, Edwardian style of southern etiquette, which lingered until World War II. Within the gates of their “private place,” there was an elaborate ritual for meals, including formal dinner dress and a butler who waited behind a screen to be summoned for service. Think of it as “Downton Abbey meets Dallas.” These were sophisticated people, cotton and lumber barons who summered in places like Newport and often took the Grand Tour of Europe.

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I owned a piece of Hemingway!

Posted by on in Magnolia City

duncan-aldersonI did a rather drastic thing in my forties. I walked out on a teaching career to become a writer. “Leap and the net will appear” was my slogan. After twelve years teaching English at the Toronto Waldorf School, I decided to move downtown and take up the bohemian life. When I spoke to my real estate agent, he said, “Well, Hemingway’s apartment is for sale.”

To make a long story short, I ended up purchasing this piece of literary history!  What better place to start my career as full-time writer? There was even a plaque on the building which read: “American-born Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961), internationally renowned author, lived in this apartment building, 1597-1599 Bathurst Street, in 1923-24, while working as a journalist for the Toronto Star.” His apartment (and mine) was the penthouse in the left tower, as he said he could look out over the Cedarvale Ravine where he enjoyed riding on horseback. He wrote to Gertrude Stein, describing it as “a corker of an apartment.” And it was. There was a lovely sunporch off the master bedroom that looked down on the trees. As I renovated the space, I fantasized finding a faded typewritten manuscript hidden in the walls because this was the period when he started writing short stories. As I sanded down the woodwork, I imagined that Hemingway’s very sweat was mingled in the dust.

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houston-flapperOne of the first questions people always ask me is, “What inspired you to write this book?” A Mona Lisa smile appears on my face, and I shift into my enigmatic mode. I usually say, “Why, from Bestsubjectsfornovels.com. It’s a great website. And quite reasonable. They even have a three-for-the-price-of-one special on trilogies.”

The truth is closer to what Flaubert said: “We do not choose our subjects. They choose us.” A novelist doesn’t have to search for a subject. It already exists. Inside him or her. To be “original” means to go back to your “origins.” What Henry James liked to call the donnée, from the French for “given.” What has life given you to write about? Go there. Find that inner core, that donnée, and work outward from there.

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