It’s Not Exactly What Happened: Thoughts on Creativity and Writing

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
Rumors postimage 278 0

In August, L.L. Barkat published Rumors of Water: Thoughts on Creativity & Writing. It is extraordinary, and not the usual book you find about writing. It is filled with sound counsel, perceptive observations and stories about daughters coming of age. We caught up with L.L. to talk about the book.

How did you decide to structure the book the way you dida basic statement of lesson (i.e., “Be idealistic”) a story about one or both of your daughters, and then a kind of meditation and discussion?

If you’ve ever met me, you know I’m a tangential conversationalist. Threads begin, I go off, then I come back. If we sit together for hours, you’ll see that it all comes ‘round eventually, and themes deepen along the way.

The first time I ever saw this kind of “conversation” done successfully as a writing technique was in Annie Dillard’s Teaching a Stone to Talk. It demonstrated how to join a spiraling conversation style to essay writing, if only I could pull it off. It’s a challenge, taking disparate elements—a story of daughters, a mother’s letting-go, a writing journey—and dealing with them in parallel, moving in and out of each, yet really doing all at once. But I love the risk of trying to write this way. I’ve been playing around with it since my first book, and I feel like it came to a peak in Rumors of Water.

You draw lessons from everyday experiencesa visit to a farm to buy vegetables and fruits, a tour of a lighthouse, making bean salad, a grandmother’s knee problems, weeding a garden, a clogged drain. This emphasis and exploration of the everyday isn’t what most writers might expect. Inspiration from a clogged drain?

Indeed! But if you’ve got to put up with a clogged drain, you might as well use it to your advantage, don’t you think?

I can say that this book was fairly effortless to write, because it came from the absolute center of my everyday living. So I highly recommend that if you’ve got writer’s block, or are feeling tired with your writing, go back to your kitchen sink (or your wet-dry vac, or the sparrow that keeps nesting in your air-conditioning unit).

So who did end up weeding the garden?

I was afraid you might ask that. Well, who do you think?

Yep, I thought so. Now, this question about voice. “Writers worry a lot about this, about voice,” you write. They wonder if they have one, how they can find one, and so on. “The truth is that every writer has a voice.” So how does a writer find that voice? And how does a writer avoid developing a “copycat voice?”

There’s a whole section on that in Rumors, because it’s fairly complicated. Still, in its way, it’s fairly simple. The short answer is that you have to be willing to let yourself come through. You have a voice, but you may be embarrassed by it, or you may be enchanted by the success someone else has found with a different voice. Know this: when you speak deeply using your own voice, it is intoxicating for a reader—whether that intoxication leads to uncontrollable laughter, unstoppable tears, or even a great sigh of contentment.

“To have a voice,” you say, “a writer must have passions and a sense of place.” That sense of place seems especially difficult in a rootless, pick-up-and-move-the-family society like the United States. Explain what you mean by “sense of place.”

Really good question. It is definitely easier if a person has lived in one place his whole life. The sights, smells, sounds, the textures of the place, seep in over time and become part of a person. In the book I give an example of the Middle-Eastern poet Darwish, and how his poetry is infused with images like olives, jasmine, doves, veils. Darwish was rooted in his Middle Eastern place. He didn’t really write about pancakes and maple syrup, and the way the butter gets all mixed up with amber stickiness.

To be “in place” is a luxury, though, as you note. Is it still possible to have a sense of place when you’re on the move? I think so. Two books come to mind, by people who captured a place that wasn’t really their own. The Things They Carried and The Places in Between.

O'Brien and Stewart took these places into their bodies, literally, figuratively. The body has an incredible memory if we close our eyes, tap into it. Reading these books you get a deep sense of place, as remembered not just by the mind but by the body. Tangent here then: might it be critical to a writer’s development to engage in sports, dance, manual labor—you know, to engage the body on a regular basis?

What is this “wild side” you says a writer needs to cultivate?

Oh dear, did I say that? I do believe it, dangerous as it sounds.

Poor writing generally suffers from a terrible constriction of experience or a lack of willingness to clearly, openly express experience. I highly recommend little experiments in wildness: take up skateboarding or tango after dinner in the dining room, write poems you’ll never let anyone read, order a vindaloo curry.

You quote John Gardner and The Art of Fiction. He’s not been popular with the postmodern academic set for quite some time (yet, truth be told, he’s one of my favorite authors, and he died almost 30 years ago). You cite his advice to describe things, even seemingly unimportant things, to “find the questions we may need to be asking in our writing, as well as possible answers.” What is so important about this art of description?

Description begins with details, and details are the containers for emotions. If you write nothing else but lists of details about a place, an event, you’ll begin to find all kinds of fascinating subtexts and feelings. Think about the writing that moves you. Does it say, “I was so sad to see my son growing up” or does it say, “[the milk] will collect on my son’s chin/and I will dab it with a paper napkin/and he will say, ‘Don’t, Daddy, don’t.’”[1]

So why not try this simple writing practice: spend a few minutes each day writing details. If you get inspired, craft them into a simple poem or an essay. I have done this before, for no other reason than to prove that it works (and to meet a deadline).

One of my favorite chapters in the book is “Big Bird in China.” It’s full of small, digestible nuggets of advice for all writers, no matter how experienced: Have goalsrest on a weekly basischoose writer friends carefullywatch out for siphons. What exactly is a siphonand why do you have a warning about them?

I poked through a few words before I landed on that one. Somehow I was remembering my childhood, and how people used to steal gas from cars using a rubber hose, sucking upwards from the tank to get the liquid flowing into their gas cans. That was before the days of locked gas caps! The art of siphoning, you know? It benefits the siphoner and not so much the siphoned.

Mostly, we fall prey to siphons—things that suck the life out of our words, our passions, our time, our writing goals—when we have forgotten to protect ourselves. Sometimes we do this on purpose, to avoid writing something we’re afraid to pursue. Mostly I think we just forget that the world will take from us what we let it take. Is that how we want it to be?

You pay close attention to the idea of structure in writing – what it is, how to begin it, how to strengthen it. The entire book itself seems almost casually informal, and yet is a highly structured work itself. Can a writer rely upon himself or herself to strengthen structure and why is it so important?

In the case of this particular book, I relied mostly on myself (pardon how independent that sounds!). But it’s my fourth book, and I understand the pitfalls up front and can deal with most of them up front. However, that comes from years of experience and thousands of pages of writing and editing. I dare say if I was writing fiction, I would have to rely very heavily on others for certain issues of structure, because my experience with fiction-writing is minimal.

For this book, I still had two Readers and an Editor who helped with the project, telling me what they sensed when encountering the text, telling me where they were confused by something or wanted to know more, making suggestions for line editing. It’s important to listen to this kind of feedback, because we can’t always know the effect (or lack of effect) our words are having.

We do, after all, want people to know what the vindaloo curry tasted like. If it's coming off as a mango drink, we probably want to know that beforehand.

You ask a question in Rumors of Water that seems obvious, but simply by asking it, you’re suggesting that it’s not necessarily obvious and it is likely extremely important. The obvious answer is, ”Well, of course.” I’m speaking here of the question, “Should you publish?”

You are so right about the obvious answer being “of course.” At least, that’s the answer most writers work towards.

Yet, I actually don’t believe everyone should publish, in the formal sense of the word—and that goes for established authors as well. Recently, I was asked to look at a collection of books and give my opinion about them to a committee. I have to say that at one point I was thinking, “Why were these books published?” They added very little to the conversation, offered virtually nothing original. Sure, they could be published, but I don’t believe they should have been.

And recently too, my older daughter wrote an essay about what she called hopeless literature, and how she didn’t believe that some of it should be offered to the world. Where does she get these opinions? [tiny smile]

I apply the same opinions to myself, so I hope they can be taken in the spirit I offer them. It is why I slack off with blogging sometimes, if I feel I have nothing to say. It is why I only write a book if I think it offers something unique. That doesn’t mean I stop writing altogether; I just don’t make it public through “publishing” or I share it with my friends simply for the fun of being able to share.

You talk about writing the truth, and rather shock your daughter by suggesting that the truth may not be what actually happened. What do you mean about “writing the truth?”

Oh, can I pass this question to Tim O’Brien? It is worth reading his entire chapter in The Things They Carried, called, “How to Tell a True War Story.” But here are some of my favorite lines from it…

That’s a true story that never happened.

All you can do is tell it one more time, patiently, adding and subtracting, making up a few things to get at the real truth.

It comes down to gut instinct. A true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe.

As for me, I write the best truth I can get at. I use details I remember. If they are wrong, I hope the story is still right—a story that will make the stomach believe.

Your daughters are featured prominently in the book, and are indeed part of the book’s structure and narrative. What did they think of the book?

My younger daughter hasn’t read the book. I think that’s best for now. At her age, I think she might not be able to process past some of the details and on to the truths, so I’m waiting.

As for my older daughter, she stole the book away on a long trip and kept laughing, and sometimes clarifying situations, and telling me things I’d never known. When I shut the car off, she was near the end. So I sat and waited for her to finish. If a heart can fidget, mine was; I was so worried she would be upset, because it does reveal very deep things about us, about her.

Anyway, I waited. And I waited some more, peeking towards the back seat every other minute to see her expression. She finally put the book down and smiled, a quiet smile.

“It’s not exactly what happened,” she said, “But it’s perfect.”

Image by Claire Burge . Used with permission.