Billie Kelpin generously shares with me her thoughts on creativity and the writing process. Her website is billiekelpin.com. – Tucker Lieberman
T.L.: How has being left-handed affected who you are?
B.K.: I love this question because I truly think being left-handed in a right-handed world has given me a few insights and also a few challenges.
I always felt left-handed, much like any member of any minority feels his or her difference. It wasn’t until I started identifying more often as left-handed, talking more about being left-handed and noticing other left-handers that I felt part of a group that has a secret. I started to feel pride in how I adapt to the world once I realized I was adapting! I think one of the most significant comments to me was when my husband explained exactly why I always fumbled around opening a bottle of wine with a right-handed corkscrew in terms of physics. He explained that less torque is exerted on a corkscrew by a left-handed user. I bought a left-handed corkscrew from Lefty’s in San Francisco and have a lot of fun giving it to right-handed friends.
Realizing how much I adapt to the world, as do all left-handers, makes me feel proud in a way. It’s like the pride any of us has knowing secretly that we are meeting a challenge that others might not realize.
The biggest challenge in being left-handed, I feel, is to not feel awkward alongside right-handers. My favorite job ever was in an office where three of the five of us were left-handed! I was with my peeps!
How has your work in Deaf Education changed your understanding of language, art, and people?
I have almost a spiritual reverence for language because of my work in Deaf Education. The fact that we are connected culturally because of the language we speak and that our thinking is affected by language amazes me. I have the greatest admiration for people who are bi-lingual, tri-lingual, and beyond!
I find the teaching of English idioms fascinating and the ability to try to translate phrases like “take it for granted,” “off the record,” and a myriad of other phrases challenging and exciting.
In reference to art, I think that understanding the world visually and expressing that through the visual medium of sign language is a unique skill. An American Sign Language instructor I once had asked the hearing people in his class to describe sitting on a train and looking out the window. After watching all of us fumble awkwardly trying to relate the words of the scene into sign, he did one movement of his index finger representing telephone poles moving. A total visual representation of a complex sentence with one visual movement! Fascinating.
As for understanding of people, Deaf Education has taught me that all any of us wants is to be understood and to understand, no matter what form that takes.
How do you see the role of illustrations in children’s books?
The role of illustrations in children’s books is critical not only in picture books, but in chapter books as well. After I saw Julie Parker’s interpretation of “Short Stuff,” one of the dogs I wrote about in Lucky, the Left Pawed Puppy, I had a whole new idea for the story of that dog’s personality based on her illustration of him.
What finished project were you most satisfied with?
I think I was most satisfied with “The Perfect Husband App” that we are attempting to republish. It had over 8000 downloads without any advertising. I was satisfied that I had come up with a title that pulled people in. That simple app was an attempt to help couples to use phrases that seem to increase communication:
I’ll fix that, TODAY, Hon
You continue to fascinate me.
You’re amazing just the way you are.
You make me want to be a better person.
I think the response to that app was the part that was most satisfying.
In “Shoes of 9/11,” you talk about attachment to symbols as a way of making meaning from chaos. What’s a symbol that speaks to you these days?
The answer that comes to mind is a book written in 1986 by Robert Fulghum, All I Really Needed to Learn, I Learned in Kindergarten. The kindergarten rules are to be kind, respectful, and share. No bullying is allowed in kindergarten. Kindergarten is a place for exploring science and nature. It’s a place where we’re taught respect for each other no matter where we’re from. We help the new kid or the kid who’s in trouble. We are taught respect for our environment. It’s a place where making money has no meaning. So all in all, the symbol that speaks to me these days is the kindergarten classroom.
Is there crossover in your work aimed at kids and your work aimed at adults, or do you keep those separate?
There is a crossover in a story I wrote years ago, Polly and the Measuring Stick. That story started off as a children’s story, but now I think it would be considered an allegory for all ages. It speaks to the problem we all encounter when we compare ourselves with others. It has an important message for all ages. The thread running through all my work seems to be psychological — stories that explore who we are, how we got that way, and what to do with that information once we have it! This whole thing called life seems to me too important to not try to figure out.
How do you connect with other writers?
I am a member of Orange County Writers in California. I would encourage writers to keep searching until you find the group that is perfect for you. If you’re in a rural area, start your own writing group. Our OC Writers has an online calendar of events that any group could use as a helpful model.
What do you like to read?
I am one of the very few writers who is not an avid reader! Perhaps that’s why I struggle so much with writing a novel. I do a great deal of subvocalizing when I read which means I hear every word in my head and can only read as fast as I talk.
I’d like others like me to know that it is possible to be a writer if you’re not that enthusiastic of a reader. When I do read, I like to read essays on philosophy, politics or psychology. The dialog I use in short stories and novels is dialog I pick up from listening to speech more than I do from reading. I think that actually can be a very positive trait. The precise storytelling part is the hardest to pick up if you’re not an avid fiction reader.
What reaction do you hope people will have to your work? What do you hope they’ll take away?
Crying is always a good reaction! Laughing would make me happy as well! Seriously, I’d like it if my writing evokes some emotion or provides an insight that makes the reader’s own path in life more meaningful, perhaps more fun, or just plain easier in some way. Words are like gold to me. Authors who have put words together in that special way that reaches a soul have gotten me through the hardest of times and provided joy in the best of times. I’d love to be able to write one sentence that would do that for someone.
I’m giving away 100 e-copies of my new short story, “Pokerface,” for Kindle. The giveaway began this morning, and it was a delight to wake up and see that so many people have already entered for a chance to win! [Update: Entries closed on June 27, 2018.]
If you are excited to read it and don’t want to wait a week for the outcome of what promises to be a competition for the available copies, it’s only 99 cents on Amazon (and free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers). Thanks for your support.
Story description: Jack, a private eye in New York City in 1940, searches for a missing ruby after he is hired by a Brooklyn man who dabbles in ancient Egyptian magic. It might take multiple detectives to solve this one. A short story with a touch of the supernatural.
All people have a robust inner monologue. For some, it is strong enough to take the form of a “mental illness.” Regardless of whether a character’s inner voices seem to fall within a normal range, the message of that voice is still about who the character is as a person.
“In the past few years I have been working with some colleagues at the Schizophrenia Research Foundation in Chennai, India, to compare the voice-hearing experience of people with schizophrenia in the United States and India….in our sample of 20 comparable cases from each country, the voices heard by patients in Chennai are considerably less violent…”
He quoted one American as describing what his voices said to him: “Usually it’s like torturing people to take their eyes out with a fork, or cut off someone’s head and drink the blood, that kind of stuff.” Whereas the Indians’ voices told them “to do domestic chores — to cook, clean, eat, bathe, to ‘go to the kitchen, prepare food.'”
In this sentence in his 2006 book The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins similarly implied that the content of our hallucinations depends on our cultural assumptions:
“If we are gullible, we don’t recognize hallucination or lucid dreaming for what it is and we claim to have seen or heard a ghost; or an angel; or God; or — especially if we happen to be young, female and Catholic — the Virgin Mary.”
In other words, no one who did not have some prior cultural exposure to a particular god would hallucinate that god.
This observation applies to characters who are “mentally ill” and those who are not. A character’s inner monologue tells you more about who that character is than about their illness or about any figment of their imagination. Less obviously, the lessons a character takes away from their inner monologue tell you more about who that person is than about any “objective truth.”
And you may know this:
The characters you hallucinate tell you about you.
Fiction works by connecting with readers’ existing beliefs and leading them to new beliefs (even if those new beliefs only apply within the fictional world). Writers need to be aware of the scope of their ability to touch their readers’ beliefs. Here, I mention a couple ways that we shape entire worldviews and another way just to have fun with how our assumptions inevitably limit our perceptions.
Nellie Smith recently wrote that someone’s worldview—which was formerly, for her, evangelical Christianity—is “your gauge for what is true in the world” and “is not a collection of facts. It is an entire reality, based not on logic but on a web of ideas, all of which must be wholeheartedly accepted for any of it to work.” That means that any doubt carries the threat of undermining everything else you believe to be true. Thus, when arguing with someone, be aware that “you’re asking them to punch a hole in the fabric of their reality, to begin the process of destroying their world.” Let them come to it on their own:
“Realities shift when ideas bloom and ideas are slow and patient, creeping in through unguarded portals and establishing themselves without much fanfare. However well-intentioned you are, bludgeoning people with fact after argument after fact will only entrench them in their position and reinforce a perception of being persecuted by the world.”
Meanwhile, give them “empathy, honest conversation, and a whole lot of patience,” and be one of those people who Smith remembers as having
“respected me, who accepted me unconditionally, and who stayed in dialogue, never shaming me even when I said things that were ill-informed or demonstrably false….everyday human kindness can absolutely be the catalyst for change. Misconceptions can be worn down by the substantive grit of a real story. But know that it takes time. It takes lots of time.”
What’s the opposite of letting someone come to the realization on their own? Propaganda, I suppose. Cynthia Boaz, in her 2011 article for TruthOut.org, described Fox News techniques for swaying viewers. First it is important to recognize that their worldview—”what I’d call a ‘meta-frame’ (a deeply held belief),” as she puts it—identifies violence with nobility, morality, patriotism, piety, and power. They appeal to their audience’s Christian beliefs. They claim that they are on the side of the common people and that there’s an elite class that opposes them. They reject expertise and educational credentials. There’s character assassination, guilt by association, and scapegoating/othering. They engage in flipping (“taking whatever underhanded tactic you’re using and then accusing your opponent of doing it to you first”), bullying interlocutors into verbal submission, confusing the audience (by “insist[ing] that the logic is airtight and imply that anyone who disagrees is either too dumb or too fanatical to follow along,” or what I might call an Emperor’s New Clothes trick), or, when all else fails, changing the topic. All this serves the goals of panic mongering and revisionist history. Then they repeat the message over and over until it starts to sound real.
The above are two ways (there are surely more) to form a worldview: give the audience enough material so that they eventually tell themselves a story, or craft the story in a way that does not allow dissenting views and force feed it to them.
Once you have a worldview, you can play games with its boundaries without breaking it. One such approach was described in Jonah Weiner’s 2017 New York Times article on magic that explored the performances of Derek DelGaudio. DelGaudio believes that the idea behind a good magic show is to display reality in a way that gives it an aura of unreality the audience can’t resolve. The magic show succeeds insofar as the audience knows their worldview doesn’t account for what they’re seeing and they enjoy being challenged, seeing it as a playful interaction, not an assault on their ignorance.
All of this describes how fiction can work. At one extreme end of the spectrum (hands-off), the writer just gives empathy, honesty, and patience and lets the reader draw their own conclusions. At the other end (hands-on), the writer manipulates the reader into coming along for the ride with a violence-is-power metaframe by making them feel judged, stupid, or wrong for disagreeing or for having different preferences or interpretations on how the story ought to work. And, perhaps somewhere in the middle, the writer can just acknowledge that the reader has existing assumptions and preferences and can boldly play off them, hopefully to the reader’s amusement.
How does a novelist begin a new tale? Here’s a couple ideas.
In On Writing, Stephen King says that his books
“tend to be based on situation rather than story….I want to put a group of characters (perhaps a pair; perhaps even just one) in some sort of predicament and then watch them try to work themselves free.
The situation comes first. The characters—always flat and unfeatured, to begin with—come next. Once these things are fixed in my mind, I begin to narrate. I often have an idea of what the outcome may be, but I have never demanded of a set of characters that they do things my way.”
King’s method intimidates many writers. Here’s a blank page. Put down a situation, some characters…and then? Without planning, many writers feel lost.
It may alleviate some pressure to remember that there are different levels of creativity. Not every creative act needs to be expertly executed or lead directly toward a goal, and not every completed work will display eminence, genius, or commercial success.
“1. Big Cs represent eminent creativity.
2. Pro Cs are experts in the field who have put in a great deal of time (think Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell) to master their crafts.
3. Little Cs represent the creativity that everyone can access, from using fun ingredients in recipes, to editing pictures on mobile phones, to doodling while listening to a conference call.
4. Mini Cs are personally meaningful insights that are gathered from trying something new and learning about it along with yourself. For example, when you hear something and process it in a unique way, channeling it into something that only you can feel, believe, and own.”
Much of the writing process falls into the “Mini” category, constituted of little sparks that have personal meaning to you but might be hard to explain to someone else. Once you reach the place where you can share these creative bursts and they make sense to others, you’ve reached the “Little” category. After years of practice, you’re a “Pro.” Only a very few people are ever “Big,” so don’t sweat it. Sweat probably doesn’t get you there anyway.
Where I’m going with this: When you sit down to write a story and the blank page feels unmanageable, it may not be for lack of advance plotting. Maybe your internal creative process, not your story, needs to be broken down and made more visible. When you have a clearer command of how your imagination works and brings ideas to life, King’s model of writing might seem easier. Start with a situation and some characters. Let yourself have a series of creative explorations in private until you are ready to share what you’ve written. Keep practicing. Practice will get you to the pros. With luck, you, or your story, will go big.