A ruminant is any artiodactyl mammal that digests its food in two steps, first by eating the raw material and regurgitating a semi-digested form known as cud from within their first stomach, known as the rumen. The process of again chewing the cud to break down the plant matter and stimulate digestion is called ruminating. Ruminants include cattle, goats, sheep, camels, alpacas, llamas, giraffes, American Bison, European bison, yaks, water buffalo, deer, wildebeest and antelope. The suborder Ruminantia includes all those except the camels and llamas, which are Tylopoda. Ruminants also share another anatomical feature in that they all have an even number of toes.I, my friends, am a ruminant. Not literally (though I do have an even number of toes); what I mean to say is that the process of story creation is for me a ruminative process.
I realized this yesterday. Poor Patrick was trying to have a phone conversation with me, and I kept dropping the dang ball and staring off into space. I had been thinking about an idea for a new short story when the phone rang, and it was so intriguing that I couldn't keep my brain trained on the here-and-now. Chewing that tasty cud, chewing, chewing...what, honey? Did you say something?
There's a great scene in one of my favorite movies of all time, Blade Runner, in which Detective Deckard is using a computer scanner to examine a photograph for clues. It's a pretty crummy snapshot, but because Deckard takes the time to focus on different parts of the image, then enlarge and enhance those sections for clarity, he finds a crucial clue that allows him to solve the mystery before him. I realize that this technology is now used all the time as a plot device on TV shows like CSI, but believe me, back in the day (that would be 1982), this scene was unutterably cool. (It still is, in fact. Let's go pop it in the DVD player, shall we?)
Most of my story ideas come from dreams. The kernels of both novels I'm shopping around town, The Holly Place and ZF-360, were crazy, vivid nightmares, the details of which I wrote down in my Idea Journal as soon as possible after waking up. I'm the only person I know who enjoys having nightmares, by the way; all I can think about in the morning is whether the dream is a viable story idea or not.
In my experience, it usually is. Yesterday I wanted to start something new, so I went back through my Idea Journal and found a dream fragment from several years ago. The mystery and wonder of the original image grabbed me all over again, but it was only the most hazy of concepts. I methodically worked on the material--focus, enhance; focus, enhance--until details started making themselves known to me.
To work the cud, I have to get myself into an obsessive, almost trance-like state. That's when the process really starts to Flow. Of course, that's also when laundry, appointments, and family members run the risk of being ignored, because in the Flow, Time itself seems to stop and dilate. It doesn't, of course; it just seems that way, which can cause problems. Another problem is that the Flow is so delicious that it's hard to leave it behind and return to reality. It's the best drug ever.
I tell non-writers that writing is even more transporting than reading. Think of a novel that swept you away so thoroughly that you didn't hear the phone ring, didn't realize you were hungry or thirsty or exhausted, and when it ended you either wanted to cry or to start it all over again, because you loved being in that world that much. That's how writing is for me; that's why I do it.
And that is why I wrote almost not at all for the first twelve years of my mothering career. I didn't want to resent my kids for distracting me, so I gave up the cud--went pretty much cold turkey off that Flow crack--until I felt I could handle a more mature balance. Am I handling it now? I think so, but 20 years from now, my kids may tell their therapists an entirely different tale.
Now let me get back to my new story. It's called "The Summer Room," and I'm totally in love with it. Let's hope some editor feels the same way.