My youngest son has a cat named Knucks, a long legged and elegant creature who must be coaxed and seduced into letting me play with him or pet him. He will play, he wants to play, and he especially wants me to rub his long black nose so he can purr almost silently, nose buried deep into my palm.
But there are rituals to follow. I can’t just straightforwardly approach him, nor simply ignore him. He needs to know that I am engaged, paying attention, but he must be allowed to approach on his own terms. If I’m too direct, he dives beneath the bed and hides.
This is the relationship between my books and the collages I do. Every time I write a book, I think I might skip the collage. I can’t remember when I started doing them–some other writer suggested it, perhaps Susan Wiggs, who has been collaging for a very long time, or Jennifer Crusie, who does elaborate creations (as befits a former art teacher)–but I have stacks of them for every book since way back in my historical romance career.
Each time I think about skipping the collage because it takes several days and feels like Not-Working, and I’m usually doing it about the time that I feel that urgency to just get going already. Each time I end up collaging anyway, and what I discover, over and over, is that this is how a book is built, at least for me.
The timing is key. I don’t do a collage at the start of a book, or even when I’ve done a full proposal. It’s only when the book is fully back in my court, and I have plenty of time to let it bubble and brew and show itself. I’ve already laid down structure charts and scene maps on big neon post it notes that I stick to my office walls. Character sketches are written, and I know the arc of action.
I am at that place with my next book for Bantam. For a couple of weeks, I’ve been leafing through magazines at odd moments, tearing out a picture here and one there. A great photo of an older man with a rooster in his arms, a soft focus picture of a mountain, and a cascade of pink flowers. The rules are to shut off the rational part of the brain, that regimented left brain, and choose whatever captures my eye. This week I pulled out all my materials–the box of art supplies and crayons and pastels, the bag of yarns and foils, the stickers and scrapbooking papers, and of course a big stack of magazines, and started laying it out.
It did feel like wasting time at first. Shouldn’t I be getting back to those pages?
But within an hour, I remembered why I do this. A photo whispered to me: he lies about his age. Another said: she practices yoga to keep her arms healthy. There were all those flowers, floating like petals through the dark tale, and I couldn’t make sense of them, but there are so many of them they must matter.
After a couple of hours, I moved the materials out of my office and into a little nook in my dining room where I could spread things out on the floor and put the thick posterboard on the table at waist level and leave it there, rearranging the photos as they required, a little at at time. Meanwhile, I put my iPod on shuffle and plugged it into the kitchen speakers and baked some bread. Fiddled with the pictures, baked some cheese puffs that fell because I should have reduced the fat for high altitudes (“oh!” says the left brain. “Did you get that?”), and added a photo of a Paris boulangerie.
Two days of this. The collage rarely ends up being a work of art (though I do love a couple of them), and I honestly don’t seem to look at it much again, at least consciously. What is important is the process of allowing the material to steep, the characters to reveal themselves in the quiet, while I’m paying attention but not chasing them into hiding, trying to force them into something they don’t want. A collage is an act of seduction, artist seducing material.
Now I have an emotional map of the material, something wordless and unstructured to help guide me through the next months, as I dive into the (blue) (pink) (girls) (Paris) world of the book.
If you are a writer or other creative artist or crafter, how do you set up a giant project? Are you right or left brained?