Tuesday, October 26, 2010


In a scene I'm working on, a character smokes. I don't smoke and never did. I've never lived with anyone who smoked openly. Slowly, slowly, I've worked texture and physical detail into the picture, snatching an idea here and there as it drifts by and tucking it into place. Or saving it for later.

Many of the smoking details I'm using turn out to be long-forgotten images from my childhood. My dad's business partner chain smoked in the way my character does. I remember standing on a chair, washing dishes and watching him light one cigarette from another at our kitchen table when I was 7 or 8.

My grandpa had a particular way of picking bits of tobacco off his tongue and wiping them on his pants. The inside corners of his thumbs and index fingers were stained brown from nicotine. His nails were broad and square and heavily ridged. His are the fingers I see when my smoker character holds a cigarette or spreads his fingers wide and uses them like combs to slick back his hair.

Mom's brother continually patted his shirt pocket as though to reassure himself that a supply of nicotine was available. If something interrupted him during a smoke, he stubbed out the end of the cigarette and tucked it behind his ear for later.

All those images were locked away somewhere in my memory banks. I search for details to flesh out the story and memories rise to the surface, insubstantial as smoke and just as pervasive.

My friend and teacher Crescent Dragonwagon calls her blog "Nothing Is Wasted on the Writer." (She's quoting someone, but I'm sorry to say I don't remember who.) She writes on the theme fairly often and, of course, it came up in the magical Fearless Writing workshop I attended in September.

Now that I'm writing like a mad woman, I understand "nothing is wasted" in a whole new way. All the hours I've spent watching people, observing their movements and listening to their patterns of speech, haven't been wasted time as I've always feared. Images and memories are flaring into phrases or sentences that light my story like matches in the dark--brief, satisfying bursts accompanied by sounds and smells and warmth.

I feel like a child with a brand-new toy.

Photo by: Dave Barstow


Deb Shucka said...

Just reading your words about your process is pleasure. Nothing wasted, ever. No accidents, either. It seems like all you've been through, tried, learned up to now has prepared you for this one moment in time - for this one book.

Anonymous said...

LOVE IT! Go Jerri go!



kario said...

See, all that people-watching isn't rude - it's a part of your craft ;-)! This is one of the most magical things about writing and I'm so pleased you're living it right now.

Carrie Link said...

So true that nothing is wasted on a writer. Almost wondering if that's a blessing or a curse!