One Tiny Spark

A reflection
by Chris Hibbard

“The artist must create a spark before he can make a fire and before art is born, the artist must be ready to be consumed by the fire of his own creation.”
– Auguste Rodin

One Tiny Spark

I would love to sit here in front of the computer and bang out an easy seven page paper on how much my writing has improved over the course of the semester. I could tell you that I started out with no idea and now consider myself to be 200 per cent better. I could relate all the wonderful advances I have made in writing quality, clarity, and skill, and then wow you with all the little tips and tricks that I’ve picked up along the way.

But I can not write such things, at least not without exaggeration or a little bit of bullshit.
The truth of the matter is that I am very much the same writer now as I was when I first sat down in your class.

I believe that I am a good writer, and have been blessed with the ability to mould language well from a very early age. I’ve been reading and writing for simple and sweet pleasure since I was a spelling bee champion in grade school. So I suppose it makes sense that how I learn the most about writing is through two simple things: practice and reading.

By reading other peoples work, I learn what I like and what I don’t. I learn what works and what doesn’t. I pick apart other writers works word for word, line for line, mentally deconstructing what it is about any particular message that sticks with me, for better or for worse. By sitting down and just writing, letting it all out, I learn as well. I learn when I have to restrain myself, and when I have to push myself harder.

Because of this method, for the past ten minutes I have been staring at my arch nemesis, The Blinking Cursor, scourge of a writer’s existence; wracking my brain for the right way to start. I find it rather humorous that the worst case of writer’s block I’ve had this semester occurs when I am attempting to write about the act of writing. Sweet irony I guess. But once I’m going, I’m going – out of the gates and off like a flash and all you can do is strap in and hold on because this is my journey.

I’ve had to do a lot of writing in the past ten years. I was trained to be a journalist, which certainly helped me tighten up the screws a bit – call it a crash course in grammar, punctuation and spelling. This training paid off I suppose, as I was the only reporter in the Crowsnest Pass for over a year, and had to come up with ideas, conduct interviews, and then write 15 stories per week. But news stories are not creative writing. Certainly one can exercise their creativity in any form, but when the transmission of information is the goal, colourful language is exchanged for conciseness and clarity.

For the last year of university, I’ve been the Editor-in-Chief of The Meliorist, and have had the opportunity to write weekly rants (editorials is what they are supposed to be) about all sorts of things. I call them rants because they tend to take off and go, screaming away from me faster than I can even type them. This allows for far more creativity than a news story, but is still not truly Creative Writing, as I understand it.

Throughout this Native American Creative Writing course I have had to take a step back in attempt to switch gears, from a newspaper and a full course load of academia, to a world of unbridled imagination. Granted, some of the assignments we had to hand in for this class had their limits; historical fiction, imitatio, children’s story and so on, but those limits only dictate the form and foundation of the piece, not the content. This worked well for me, for I have never been fond of too many restrictions, which have led me into all sorts of sticky situations, many involving C grades that would have been A’s otherwise. But I digress, something that I would imagine all writers do, until they reign themselves back in. Anyway, I cannot hope to explain to you how my mind works, but I can attempt to present a portrait of how I tend to write.

Unlike many of the methods you taught us to use in class, almost all of my preparation is done mentally. I don’t use word webs or other brainstorm techniques. I don’t write one-line reminders to myself and I don’t keep a journal. These are things that may be very effective to one writer, but just don’t click with me. I do it all in my head, and it goes a little something like this.

1. The match.

I’ll begin with an idea, a random notion that hits me just the right way at the right time. Sometimes I wake up from a dream with a great idea and then can’t get back to sleep. Sometimes a great idea jumps up and bites me on the ass while I’m using the washroom. But most often, I get inspired by something I read, something I see, something I overhear or a conversation I get involved in. This little idea is like the flame on a match – it will grow and grow and grow on its own – but then sometimes blows out when I need it most. Other times it burns so bright that I can’t even hold onto it for more than a few pages, and it pains me to have to move on. Still other times, the flame gets so hot that it burns my fingers and I have to cool off before relighting it.

Metaphorically speaking, writing to me is a fire – it can light up a room and warm a cold soul, or it can consume everything in its path and cause a great deal of anguish. No matter how I look at it, it all starts with the one idea that strikes the sulphur against the sandpaper.

2. The kindling.

Once I’ve gotten the match lit, I need to add fuel to the fire. I do this by collecting my thoughts like a reporter would do – Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How. Sometimes each of these questions takes a long time to answer and may lead to other questions. Sometimes the answers are ready to go before the questions are even asked. Sometimes the questions are so many that by the time I’m ready to roll, the match has nearly gone out. But no matter what, if I collect good kindling, it’ll burn.

If the kindling is wet or full of sap, all it will do is smolder and smoke, and I’ll know that something is off. Provided I collect enough of the good stuff though, I’ll have a whole fire blazing with characters, settings, backgrounds, and plot lines in no time. I learned in journalism school that omission of information should be by plan, not by mistake

3. Let it breathe.

Now that the fire is burning, every few hours I lean back in my chair, hit save, turn off the monitor and get the heck out of there. I’ll walk to Mac’s, watch CSI, make some dinner – just do something. I have learned that too much time close to someone you love can be a bad thing. And too much time too close to someone who’s too hot can lead to terrible moments of arguing, self-doubt and hard feelings. Sometimes I get so wrapped up in a characters life that I neglect my own. This ‘letting it breathe’ approach works as long as the break isn’t too long. Leaving a half-finished story alone for over 24 hours can be a death sentence.

Picture a story sitting atop a burning pyre, with the flames licking closer and closer. If you leave it alone too long, when you look back at it may be gone. Another great aspect about the breathing period is that sometimes my mind will get onto one track that goes forever, but only in a single direction. By taking a break, sometimes the track has a chance to branch off into other directions, some of which are far superior.

4. Add wood, poke with stick. Add bigger wood, poke again. Repeat.

The fire is burning high and bright, and the story just feels perfect. If I feel that this is true, then I know I’m only halfway there. This is where the tools come in. I’ll print off one copy, look it over and analyze it. Some things will always be missing and need to be inserted to give better flow. There’s nothing worse than having to shake your head and shrug, confused in your reading because two and two don’t add up to four.

In these cases, sometimes whole new paragraphs might be necessary, other times it might only be a single word. In the same way, there are things that will always need to be cut, as they make the story too long, too wordy, and too clunky. I am notorious for using run-on sentences. I write like I speak, and I have been told I often babble on, speaking in run-on sentences. At the other end of the spectrum are those silly fragment sentences. I have no problem with those. I ignore all that my junior high teachers told me about them, and believe that sometimes they work better than any other ‘proper’ substitute could. My basic rule is to use variety in sentence length. Short sentences and long sentences living together in harmony.

There are other amendments that can be applied here. If the fire’s burning too slow, add more wood. If it’s burning too fast, move some around. If it is burning properly, a story will have no stumbling blocks that a reader’s mind will trip over, causing them to have to repeat a sentence, or exclude the flaw completely. These stumbling blocks can often only be found by reading the work aloud – the conversation test. If the entire story sounds first-rate when it is read out loud, then it will sound even better bouncing around between someone’s ears as it jumps off the page.

5. Only you can prevent forest fires.

We all know how important the ending of a story truly is. How many movies have I sat through only to be disappointed by a too-quick wrap up of loose ends, or some gaping plot monster that comes roaring out of nowhere to hit me over the head with its transparency. A fire that has been burning bright for hours and hours leaves a great bed of hot coals under it, the perfect type for roasting hot dogs and marshmallows.

These coals are as important as that single spark that started the fire, because they are the last thing that people will remember about the fire in general. I find that my favourite endings are open. They leave me undecided, hopeful, yearning for more, and satisfied with the fact that perfection is still a myth. I don’t need to be talked down to while having my hand held as I am spoon-fed watered down crap in the place where a good ending should be. If it doesn’t make me feel thankful, anxious, or wishing for more, then I’m not quite happy with the fire.

With this being said, an ending is an ending for a reason. If it drags on too long, I’ll lose interest in even knowing how if turns out. It’s like the forest has now caught fire and is much more interesting to watch. But, no matter how well the fire burned, the best thing about a fire is that there can always be another one down the road. All it takes is a spark.

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~ by Chris Hibbard on October 31, 2008.

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