I was lucky enough to attend Pam Houston’s reading this previous Monday (accompanied by friend and fellow blogger, Jenn Simpson). If you haven’t had the chance to see Pam Houston read, do it. I cannot state this strongly enough. Not only is the new book amazing, the woman is a sheer force: strong presence, strong personality, insightful, and pretty damn funny. Even though I’ve seen her read/heard her speak on four different occasions (twice in AWP and twice at the Taos Writers’ Conference), I was still captivated by her wisdom and her writing. Here is my evidence:
For those inclined, here’s her remaining Book Tour. In the mean time, straight from the writer’s hand (literally), here’s some writing advice I weened from Pam Houston.
Take a Regular Brain Dump
Pam Houston’s new book, Contents May Have Shifted is told in 144 vignette type stories. There are 12 different sections. Each section begins with a plane ride and is followed by 11 vignettes titled with a different location (“Madison, Wisconsin,” “Albuquerque, New Mexico,” “Fairbanks, Alaska,” etc). All in all, the book adds up to a whole lot of places that span the entire world. Though some of the locations repeat (“Davis, California,” for instance), many of them are new. One audience member wanted to know how she kept track of everything. Do you write things down, the woman asked, or do you simply remember things in such stark detail? (And believe me, when you read the book, the woman is a master at descriptions, but that is for another blog post or three..).
Pam Houston answered as follows: You know that part of the plane ride when the pilot lets you know you are an hour from your destination (fifty minutes, forty minutes, the time might change, but the message is the same: prepare yourself for the impending landing)? Houston uses that announcement as a signal. While other people use the restroom (her joke), she gets out her notebook and does a “Brain Dump.” Details, facts, memories. It doesn’t have to be complete scenes, coherent thoughts, or even complete sentences. Along with various facts, her goal is to capture “all the things that glittered” at her.
She recommended that writers do the same. Find a constant in your daily life–after you get home from yoga or after you drop your kids off at school–and use it as a signal to dump the contents of our brain onto paper (metaphorically, of course). That way, you have the details when you need them, and this stuff can become the raw materials of our creative work. Also, as an added bonus, whenever you are blocked, it’s easy to become unblocked. All you have to do is pull out your notebook and search for the “things that glittered at you.”