Some days I’m all business. I wear my uniform of tailored slacks, even-toned blouse, and blazer. Earrings: conservative with a bit of flair. I am going to the Loop, 23rd floor, conference room J, views of the lake from the reception desk window, coffee carts littering the hallway, dark browns and beige accents, smartly dressed people tapping on their phones while waiting for the elevator, discreet bottles of hand sanitizer on tables near the bathrooms.
These are my Words for Work days, and although I adapt to fit in with a client, inside I’m still the chaotic writer who has words and phrases flying uninhibited in her mind. I trust that this chaos will produce enough ideas for me to pluck just the right one when I need it. Like a traveller who picks up the local accent wherever she goes, I adapt my speech and language to accommodate my audience whether they are lawyers, market researchers, marketing/communication writers, or TV producers.
But I must do this without losing my creativity or my identity as a writer and storyteller.
I am comfortable being around their cubicles and sitting in their conference rooms because I spent much of my career in those spaces. I learned to be creative and chaotic at companies like Motorola, Sears, and Lands End, where I wrote every kind of employee communications imaginable: feature stories, health benefit legal language, website how-to’s, newsletters, project description sheets, ghostwritten magazine articles, persuasive arguments penned for a VP, and biographies. Lots of biographies.
I know this world and can draw it with my eyes open or closed.
Then there are my days when I’m at the coffee shop. My jeans are torn, my t-shirt is untucked, my shoes belong on a 14-year-old, and my leg is shaking from too much caffeine. I am just like all these other workers without an office, except that I do have an office. An incredibly wonderful loft studio where I love to be but where I find it hard to write. I need the messiness of this coffee shop and the frantic coming and going and the pressure of wondering if I need to talk to the woman next to me or how chatty I have to be with the barista.
These are my workdays, and depending on where I’m at and who I’m talking to, I change my outward appearance and aspect. I need to know where I am in order to decide how to act.
For most of us the landscape of our day-to-day life depends upon these two things:
Where we are and How we talk to people
The landscape of any story also depends on these notions of geography and narrative distance.
The energy I get from a conference room of corporate employees is so different from the energy of hurried commuters grabbing their coffee to go or electric-blue haired young men with headphones typing ferociously on their computers.
One is not better than the other. But each setting and cast of characters gives me clues on how I want to behave, what decisions I make, the conversations I choose to have.
As writers–fiction or non-fiction–you too have to constantly adapt to changing locations and characters, altering your narrator’s actions to suit her or his environment. Or perhaps, to fight against that environment.
Who knows? It’s your story. But to truly know it, to dig under the skin of a story, you must feel the geography of that story. You must understand how your character communicates and how you, the author, will communicate with the reader.
These are some of the most basic elements of craft–the ones easy to understand but difficult to master. They are also the parts of my stories that are like sign posts, pointing me in the right direction.