Guest Post, Kelly Morris: Writing While Not Writing

Kelly Morris Bio PhotoLike most writers, I was an avid reader as a child. Even though I couldn’t tell you the name of most of my college professors, I can easily summon a mental picture of my elementary school librarian, Mrs. Blair. To this day when I read a story set in a library, even a decidedly grown-up story about librarians such as Aimee Bender’s Quiet Please, I still summon a mental picture of my elementary school library. (But not Mrs. Blair because that just feels wrong. If you’ve read the Bender story, you’ll understand why.)

I have a very clear memory of Mrs. Blair telling me once that when former students dropped by to visit and she asked them what they were reading, they often looked at her blankly and said, “I don’t have time to read for fun” or even “I don’t read anymore.”

Didn’t have time to read? Didn’t read at all? Did these former students also not have time to breathe or eat? I remember vowing that I would never be like those other students, that if Mrs. Blair asked me what I was reading in a year or two or three, I would always have an answer.

Memory is a tricky thing, though.

I think the writer equivalent to this question is “What are you working on?” Much like my younger self was horrified at the thought of not reading, there was a time I couldn’t imagine not writing every day. I thought this before I went back to school for an MFA, I thought this all through my program, I even thought this for a few years after I left school. I knew that writing kept me sane and made me a kinder mom/partner/friend, and I was thankful that I always found the time for it, that I always had an answer to “What are you working on?”

Of course we all know how this kind of story ends – it ends with someone admitting they have not written in awhile.

Even though when I look back on my childhood and young adulthood I always remember having time or finding time to read, I know this couldn’t possibly have been true all the time. Times in high school and in college, for example, when I needed to prioritize studying for finals or reading for class. But these memories of not reading don’t have the same emotional pull as my eleven-year-old self learning that some people didn’t read at all once they left elementary school.

In some ways I know this is all part of the writing process, the ebb and flow of it. We can’t always be in a manic creative phase, or even a steady creative phase. Of course, there are days I am comforted by this thought, and days I am not. A friend recently reminded me there are ways to write without writing, to do without doing, if you want to get Taoist about it. You can look through your old submissions, you can analyze the beginnings of stories that never went anywhere, you can re-read short stories you admire (and ones you don’t), you can write outside your genre, turning scenes from a story into a screenplay or a poem into a work of flash fiction, and you can show up in front of your computer and stare blankly at it and spend an entire morning adding, and then deleting, a comma.

When I look back on my writing life, I wonder if I’ll mostly remember the times I was inspired to write, when I diligently sat down to work because I wanted to, because I needed to. I suppose I’ll have to wait to find out what my memory decides to do with those times when writing temporarily moved from the driver’s seat to the backseat.

Guest Post, Kelly Morris: Where I’m Writing From

I’ve recently realized the importance of my own physical setting as an influence in my writing. When I’m working on a story, I like to write at my desk while drinking a particular type of green tea out of a specific mug. But sometimes I make myself go out and write in a coffee shop or bookstore, if only to remember why I like writing at home (and to reassure myself I am not a completely neurotic and rigid person.) I’m actually writing this blog post from Austin, which is a city I adore. I went to college here, one of my kids was born here, and every time I visit, I’m reminded how a city has a certain vibe and feeling. When I’m in Austin, I can feel the energy here influencing my work, and it goes beyond the fact that many of my stories take place in Austin; it’s more the idea of tapping into a different frame of mind depending on where you are. The weather and traffic and landscape of where you’re living will surely show up in a small way in your own work. How is your mood and perspective influenced by living in the suburbs vs. living in the heart of a city? Living in a populated area like California versus living somewhere more remote like Alaska?

Setting used to be one of my least favorite aspects of a story, both as a writer and a reader. As a character-driven writer, I typically think of characters first, then plot, and finally setting. And when it comes to setting, I’m perfectly happy naming the city the characters live in, describing a few of the city’s quirks, and calling it a day. In other words, it can be tempting to ignore setting completely.

16679751794_290b072b7a_cThere was a time in the not so distant past when I thought that setting was the part of the story that could be neatly excised. Of course I knew there was a difference between a character living on a farmhouse in Kentucky as opposed to a high rise in New York, and of course your characters can’t have an expensive Starbucks habit if they live in the Amazonian rainforest nor can your character spend hours a day tending a garden if he lives in the desert.

But it seemed to me that setting was influential in subtle ways, like how your characters might talk, where they can physically move around in a story, etc.

A few years ago I was working on a short story about a man who runs into his ex-fiancee at the grocery store. I had been struggling with the scene that follows their chance encounter and after staring blankly at my computer screen for awhile, I decided to take my dog for a walk. It was a windy day and as we walked, I watched a trash bag snag in a tree and I noticed how my poor dog was struggling to walk a straight line. A cyclist passed us, and I suddenly imagined my character bike riding over to his ex’s house on a day like this. I could see that he would be going over there to apologize and only later did I see that the setting was a mirror for his own swirl of emotions. It was the setting that helped me find the emotional weight to the scene.

In Nina Munteanu’s on-line article Important Tools of Setting in a Novel: Create Memorable Settings Using Time, Place and Circumstances, she argues that without setting “there is no story.” At first glance this is a bold statement. What about plot? Character? Theme? And yet, Munteanu makes the case that setting is influential because it grounds a scene, advances the plot, and reflects a character’s mood. The setting of your story keeps the characters from simply being a group of talking heads amid a backdrop of nothing. Munteanu writes, “Without setting, characters are simply there, in a vacuum, with no reason to act and most importantly, no reason to care.”

But setting is important, even for us character-driven writers. Maybe I should say, especially for us character-driven writers. I like writing dialogue; it’s one of my strengths. The downside to knowing our strengths as writers is that we can lean too heavily on them. This means I often have scenes in my stories with people just sitting around talking. Remember what we said about not wanting your characters to be talking heads in a vacuum? That’s where setting comes in.

So if you’ve been hesitant to give setting a big role in your work (setting-phobicthat’s a word, right?) don’t panic. There’s a way to incorporate setting into your work without compromising your own aesthetic. And just because I have a better appreciation for setting now doesn’t mean that I’m a convert who now knows fifty ways to describe a busy Austin street. But it’s helped me to appreciate why that street sometimes needs a description.

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