Thursday, August 2, 2018

How Sandra Worsham Finds the Magic Place

In the ninth in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Sandra Worsham, author of Patterns (Third Lung Press), takes on the task of preparing to write.

Edgar Allan Poe drank. To get back to his place the next day, Ernest Hemingway's advice was to stop in the middle. Reading back over what he had written the day before would take him there. Robert Olen Butler, in his book From Where You Dream, says to close your eyes and let your mind wander and then to make notes, with your eyes still closed, on index cards. Dorothea Brande, in her wonderful classic called Becoming a Writer, says the secret is to get up thirty minutes earlier and go straight to your writing desk, to write before you read the newspaper or drink your coffee. She says that when we first wake up, we are already in the magic place, that we should take advantage of that without allowing the outside world to come in.

And what is this magic place? It is, of course, the subconscious, that elusive magical brain hidden underneath our main brain. It is a place we cannot control, a place where our words flow freely, where analogies come naturally, where we meet characters we didn’t know we knew. And, until we are in that place, we shouldn’t try to write fiction. The first task of a writer is to find the magic place.

My method of getting there is to read. When reading a story from The New Yorker, I can read only a few paragraphs before I am there, before I put aside the magazine and begin to write in my journal. If I am reading a book that doesn’t bring my subconscious to the surface soon, I stop reading that book. Certain authors do this for me better than others. When reading Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge, I soon found myself writing about my own teaching career and the students who had been in my class at Baldwin High School in Milledgeville, Georgia. I wrote about my student Albert, who signed all his papers, “Albert the Zero,” and who I watched late one afternoon as he walked down the dark hallway, his right leg shooting out from the side as he kicked one locker after another, all the way down the hall. When reading the early stories of Dorothy Allison, I found myself writing about my Aunt Erma and the way her husband, my uncle, got drunk and began yelling and hitting until my aunt took all four children to spend the night on the pews at the Baptist Church across the highway from their house. The poetic language of Jamaica Kincaid summons my dream state so quickly that I find myself lost in the world of words.

Another Dorothy Allison story, “Gospel Song,” from her collection Trash, begins, “At nine, I knew exactly who and what I wanted to be. Early every Sunday morning I got up to watch The Sunrise Gospel Hour and practice my secret ambition. More than anything in the world, I wanted to be a gospel singer.” This passage immediately puts the moving image in my mind, like a video gift, of my sister Linda and me sitting at the piano singing “Whispering Hope.” It is a summer evening, not quite dark, and Mama and Daddy have walked up the street to the Baisden’s house to ask them to put their phone back on the cradle. They are on our party line, and they often leave their phone off the hook. I sit down on the piano bench and open the old Broadman hymnal to page 466. Linda stands over my shoulder and sings soprano, while I sing alto. Out the screen door the cicadas hum the background base, like the solid sound under the melody of bagpipes. I feel my sister’s hand on my shoulder, her voice high above mine as I sing the bottom line “Whispering hope, whispering hope, welcome thy voice, welcome thy voice.” We are in that place that music takes you to.

And there you have it. I have found the magic place.