Showing posts from May, 2013

Make Your Writing As Clear as MUD

I always recommend that fellow writers look to film for inspiration.Readers think in a cinematic way.They are exposed to moving images constantly.We can learn much from the storytelling qualities of the movies.I particularly look to cinema to learn more about writing tense scenes of dialogue and to better present pacing and plotting.Most of the great movies of real storytelling have to be seen at home since so few of them make their ways onto the big screen.It is a rare treat to be able to go to the movie theatre and see a film that is a feat in storytelling.Nowadays the cineplexes more often showcase the latest action thriller in which everything is constantly being blown up.So I was very pleasantly surprised to be able to go to the movies with my daughters recently to see a movie that did just about everything right.Not only did it tell a beautiful, layered story, but it also presented a way of life rarely captured on film.One of my goals as a writer is to not only tell a good story…

Paying Homage

While in Louisville this week to participate in festivities honoring the Dalai Lama's visit I had the opportunity to linger at my favorite historical marker again.  You can read about my connection to this spot in this recent blog post about Thomas Merton, if you haven't already.  Truly a sacred spot for me, and many others.  I always get a boost out of visiting this marker while in Louisville.  I think it's important for us as writers to have places to go like this.  In England and Ireland literary spots abound because so much attention is paid to the rich literary history of those countries but often in America that gets overlooked.  When you can, seek out places that should be important to us as writers. I've been lucky to be in many places that were integral to the lives of writers like Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Margaret Mitchell, Lee Smith, Willa Cather, Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, Thomas Hardy, DH Lawrence, Denise Giardina, Alex Haley, Flannery O'Connor, A…

The Best Simple Advice

To be a better writer:READ.
Here are the novels that have had the biggest impact on me as a writer.They’ve taught me how to tell a story, how to write a sentence, how to make a plot, how to write a scene of dialogue.They’ve proven to me that all good writing is about emotion.They’ve taught me about life and about writing.This is an ever-changing, evolving list, but today these are the most important novels to me (lots of poetry and nonfiction has been important, too, but I'm focusing here on fiction).
Isabel Allende-The House of the Spirits Harriette Arnow-The Dollmaker Margaret Atwood-Alias Grace, The Handmaid’s Tale Larry Brown-Father and Son, Joe, Facing the Music Chris Cleave-Little Bee Emma Donoghoe-Room Willa Cather-My Antonia, O Pioneers, Death Comes for the Archbishop, The Song of the Lark Michael Dorris-A Yellow Raft in Blue Water Louise Erdrich-Love Medicine, The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No-Horse Denise Giardina-Storming Heaven, The Unquiet Earth Graham G…

Make Biscuits, Not War

Make art everyday, any way you can.

Work on your novel.  Or poem, essay, short story, play, screenplay.  Or a painting, song, sculpture.  film, photograph.  Most of all, expand your notion of what art is.  Anything that is made with care can be art, too.  The art is what goes into it almost as much as what comes out.  The art is in the making as much as the end product.  So if you can't put your energies to that novel today, keep your creative juices flowing by making art in your own way.

Bake homemade biscuits.  Plant tomatoes.  Hoe your garden.  Make a pie (give it to a neighbor).  Read a book to a child (performance art).  Walk in the woods and make an art of observation.  Have a dance party in your living room.  When my daughters were little, we did this almost every night and those are some of my best memories.  Develop all those pictures that are stored on your laptop and make a photo album that you can actually show to people.  Find a recipe you always wanted to make, go…


Very often when I am on the road and do a Q&A after a reading or presentation, people will hesitantly raise their hands and when called upon will ask:  "What inspires you?"  It's a question I always dread because the answer is too simple, and too complex, all at the same time.  When I give my honest answer:  "Everything," half the audience might think I'm being  facetious while the other half may think I'm corny.  But it's true.  As writers, we must be open to everything in the whole world moving us to write.  For me--and it doesn't have to be like this for everyone--writing feels like a kind of worship, or prayer.  Not just the act of tapping out words on the keyboard, but the actual thinking process of writing.  It is meditation, prayer, worship, living.  If that sounds overwrought, so be it.  

In my new novel I am often looking to the writings of Thomas Merton to guide my lead characters.  Merton was a Catholic writer,  poet, activist, mys…

Geography of Fiction

When writing fiction, it always helps to have a geography in your mind, a space within which you can walk around and orient yourself so that your characters know where they are, which way to move, where to stand, how to be in that space.

In my new novel most of the action takes place in Key West, Florida, although my main character is a man from rural Tennessee.  He sees the island from the point of view of an outsider so he thinks of it as exotic, foreign, even like a world that is the opposite of his own.  As one of the lines in the novel says, he has gone from "a world of trees to one of the sea."  He loves Key West, but he is forever missing his home, the fictional community of Harpeth River, Tennessee (based on several small communities along the Harpeth River in the area just outside Nashville).

Throughout the novel he is drawn back to a pivotal moment in his life that happened near the banks of the Harpeth River.  It's a moment that haunts him.  This is just one …

The Urge for Going

My new novel is largely populated by people who are running away with something.  Some of them are running from love, others from hate.  Some are trying to outrun their grief while others are in self-exile because of past mistakes.  All of them have had the urge for going that is so perfectly articulated in one of Joni Mitchell's best songs, and one of the cornerstones for my novel's soundtrack.  I encourage everyone to create a soundtrack for any long piece of writing they're doing.  My novel soundtracks usually have about 75 or 80 songs.  Some of the pieces show up in the actual piece of work but others simply inform scenes.  All of them help me to get to the emotional truths of my characters and even sometimes reveal things about my characters that I wouldn't have known had I not tried to understand the music with which they identify.  In this particular video it is not only the words and music that are important, but the images, too.  I must have listened to this …

Listen to Your Elders

I grew up surrounded by older people, and I stuck as close to them as I could.  I hid beneath kitchen tables, porches, and quilting racks so I could eavesdrop on their juiciest stories.  But I also piled into cars with them when they went to town and told stories about each house we passed, sat in John boats with them while they fished and gave tips on the best way to reel in a bluegill, walked the hills with them while they announced the names of trees and plants and tuned their ears to birdcalls so they could identify their songs.  Most of all, I listened to their stories.  Stories about hard times, old times.  Stories about ways of life that were gone with the wind.  But within those tales there was always something to apply to the right here and now.  There was always wisdom weaving itself in and out and around their words.

We don't mix generationally enough any more.  The young stay with the young, the old with the old.  And something incredibly valuable is lost because of t…

Going to Key West (Using Music-2)

Litte Fire is my first novel to be set completely outside somewhere I have actually lived.  The novel is essentially a road novel with the majority of the action set in Key West, Florida.  Since the book is about a man from rural Tennessee who has kidnapped his child and is on the run, he feels like Key West is the most exotic yet reachable place for him.  While writing the novel I was lucky to have help from friends like Annie Dillard, a resident of Key West, and the Studios of Key West, which offers lodging for artists.  I came to know Key West very well, spending a lot of time there not as a tourist but experiencing it through the eyes of my main characters, who were on the run and found it to be their strange new home.  One of the things that absolutely helped to put me there was choosing music that not only talked about the ocean but also songs that made me feel as if I was in Key West, even when I was back home in Kentucky, conjuring it while I tapped away on my laptop.  Here a…

The Murmuration

Above me, thousands of birds were moving together in a black swarm that rolled and turned.  They became a comma on the sky, then a thin dotted line, a black pond against the orange of evening.  And then, they moved down so close to the ocean that I could feel the breath off their wings. --Little Fire 

Wondrous Love (Using Music-1)

I don't know how to write without music.  Everyday I listen to songs over and over again while I compose scenes.  I know each of my characters' favorite songs, and I listen to them almost everyday while working on my novel.  And I also know songs that are important to particular scenes in the book.  So I listen to them throughout the writing day.  When I am not at my laptop I am always thinking of my novel and the people who populate it, so often I am singing the soundtrack to my novel as I work in the garden or walk in the woods or drive down the interstate. 
Music is my best resource for jump-starting my creativity everyday.  
Here is one of the most important songs to the novel.  For my main character, Micah, this song makes him think of how hard he once believed and how badly he wants to believe again.  In fact, when he hears this song, he is able to believe--if only momentarily.  Here is one of the all-time greatest voices--Jean Ritchie's--singing one of the best son…

Whitman's "Miracles"

In my new novel, Little Fire,  I'm exploring themes of parenthood and religiosity.  I'm thinking a whole lot about what it means to be a parent, how far we will go to be a good parent, how we must sometimes step back and  understand that what might be best for our children is not always the best thing for us.  I'm also thinking a whole lot about contemporary definitions of Christianity and how saying "I'm a Christian" might mean something totally different to you than it does to me because of those changing definitions.  I'm thinking about religiosity and even Christianity in a more ecumenical and inclusive way, too.  My main character, Micah, is someone who has only recently started to explore theology despite having been a fundamentalist preacher for the past ten years.  The two things that completely opens his mind are books and music.  He is lucky to discover writers like Thomas Merton, Willa Cather, and Walt Whitman and musicians like Patty Griffin,

I'm Back

After a long hiatus I'm finally back to blogging.  I'm currently in the homestretch of finishing my new novel, Little Fire, and every morning I am looking for inspiration to carry me through my writing day so I can finish the book.  For the next few weeks I'm going to try to share those writing inspirations with you.  You never know where the inspiration might be lurking: photographs, poems, songs, paintings, the woods, prayers.  I hope you'll check in with me and hopefully the things that help me to get this book written will somehow have an impact on you, too.  Some days I may not post anything and some days I may post three things.  I never know until the writing day draws its first breath.  Happy writing.  Happy reading. --Silas