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In one of the first workshops I took during my MFA program, Kate Bernheimer invited Willy Vlautin to talk about his book Lean on Pete. He wore a plaid shirt (red I think, or else blue) and sat with his hands folded in his lap. I remember thinking that he had to be the most down-to-earth writer I’d ever met. Kate told us he’d kept his manuscripts in boxes in the basement for years before showing them to anybody. Now he’s the author of four novels, the latest of which, The Motel Life, was made into a film in 2013. He’s also an acclaimed musician, I learned that spring day.
Someone in the workshop asked if he had ever wanted to give up on his characters—a great question. Vlautin leaned back, sent his fingers through his shadow of a beard, and said something along the lines of: No, because I give them a break. If one of my characters is having a hard day, if the fates have been especially cruel, I’ll send her to a Neil Diamond concert, or I’ll write her a song.
His second novel, Northline, came with a soundtrack performed with one of his band mates, Paul Brainard. We played a track from the CD in class after he left. Haunting, spare, character-driven—the symphonic twin to his prose.
I wrote album reviews for a stint while attending college in a little jazz town, Denton, Texas, and was a devoted concert goer. So the idea of combining my creative-writing ambitions with music, which had never before occurred to me, hit me like a brick wall of sunshine and goose feathers. Eureka! Music can help me to discover more about my characters. Soon after that class, I took my harmonica out of storage, cleared off the dust, and played something unrecognizable and wretchedly out of tune.
I’m still honing my musical talents, but the takeaway, for me, lies in the power of practicing several modes of creative expression—of giving yourself and your characters a reprieve. A friend of mine paints her settings in watercolor when she’s stuck or unamenable to writing. Miranda July, in an interview with Bustle, says she likes to alternate between writing and making films:
I don’t know how writers write novel after novel. If I wrote another novel now, I’d be so overwhelmed comparing it to this. And creatively, I don’t want to just be sitting there writing a novel. It’s fun to think about casting my next project and making a movie again.
When I don’t much care to move my characters forward, am too exhausted or enmeshed in everyday malarkey, I blow the dust off my harmonica, or haunt the Larimer Lounge on the behalf of my characters, or just let my heroine jump on a trampoline in the rain. And somehow stepping foot in parallel creative universe—a decompressed atmosphere—even for a few hours, blitzes away the melancholy, and for a while I can sail through writing like a shark through water.
Laura I. Miller recently joined the Lighthouse staff as program assistant. She received an MFA in fiction from the University of Arizona where she served as co-editor-in-chief of Sonora Review and managing editor of Fairy Tale Review. Her stories appear in Cosmonauts Avenue, Specter, Necessary Fiction, and Spork. She writes about books for Bustle.com and tweets @seagremlin.
“Resolution Write” is a blog series offering writing tips from Lighthouse faculty and members. We’ll feature posts throughout January to inspire writers who’ve resolved to make 2015 a productive and successful writing year.