Flashback Friday – The Creative Process

From 2008, here’s a reflection on my creative process, or lack thereof. I still find that images that are distinctive or emotionally-resonant with me provide the best seeds for a story. I do a lot of composition in my head before I ever set pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, and I tend to visualize the story as I go. Some things will change when I begin writing—new details emerge, and characters begin to take on a life, and sometimes, a will, of their own.

That’s when I enjoy writing the most. I’m not just building a story, I’m participating in an adventure…

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Since I began writing in earnest, I’ve noticed that when people who know me well read one of my stories, they’ll frequently ask me a question along the lines of, “How did you come up with this (insert adjective) idea?”  I’ve posted here an excerpt of an e-mail exchange with a long-time friend on this topic, which may shed some light on what could be very loosely defined as my creative process.

SPOILER WARNING:  This includes a few spoilers from my short story, “Mound of Mud,” so you may want to read that first, if you haven’t already.

The golem thing is kind of complicated.  I’m not sure when I first encountered the idea, years ago, probably in some fantasy story or game, and at that point, all I knew was that it was an animated statue.

Eventually, I stumbled across the fact that the golem was a character in Jewish folklore, and it became a lot more interesting…it’s the story of a man trying to reproduce God’s creative act, for what seems like a good reason, and of course, it all goes wrong in the end.  Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein uses a similar idea, in a secular, science-fiction form, and provides the creature’s perspective as well.

Next, I spent ten years in Alabama, and something that surprised me and got filed away was that there’s a substantial and very active Jewish community in the South.

So, that all was percolating somewhere in my head for a number of years, and a couple of months ago, I was working on a flash challenge in my writers’ forum, and started writing about a little boy making a statue out of mud in the middle of a forest, just a mental picture (the trigger for the challenge was to write a story that included the phrase, “There, it’s done,” and I started thinking about sculpture).

Of course, the image stirred up lots of questions–Who is the boy?  Why is he in the forest all alone?  Why is he making a statue?  As I started answering the questions, the story came together, and some unexpected things started popping out.  He’s an outcast…nobody likes him, he’s a minority, he’s different.  He’s making a statue out of mud, which makes me think of the South and the extra-messy red mud they have there.  He could be black, but that doesn’t feel quite right, so maybe he’s a religious minority…then the light goes on, and I make the connection to Jewish folks moving into Southern communities…he’s getting picked on, and what’s the most powerful way a little Jewish kid could possibly think of to defend himself?  He tries to build a golem.  And it works.

And that’s as far as it went in the first draft.  The story ended with the golem coming to life.  The folks in the writing forum liked it, but they felt it ended too abruptly.  They really wanted to know what happened next…a gory spree of destruction and mayhem as the golem rips apart a sleepy Georgia town?  Nah, that didn’t feel right to me either.

So, when I sat down to work on it some more, I started playing the whole scenario through my head, like a movie, and that’s when the fun really started, because people began spontaneously showing up.  Writers talk about characters taking on a life of their own, and sometimes it really does feel like that.  The bullies appeared, which saved me from taking the golem into town, but left me with a standoff…the golem was going to stomp all over them, but Jacob was too principled to let that happen.  Then Grace waltzed in, and the story changed completely. 

I don’t remember exactly how I got to two golems, but the fact that Grace seemed a little too comfortable with the situation made me think she must have some inside information, which brought me back to a big question I hadn’t answered–why was all this working?  Both golems should have been failures.  Something else was going on that only Grace, for some reason, understood.  Things flowed pretty smoothly from there.  Ironically, it wasn’t until the end that I realized that this was a story about love and acceptance, and about seeing things from the other person’s (even the monster’s) point of view.  You’d think it would start out with a Big Idea, and the story would be built to reinforce that, but it was the other way round.

Mound of Mud” was originally published in the online magazine, Mindflights. It also appears in the Residential Aliens anthology, While the Morning Stars Sing.

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