Sunday, May 19, 2013

Cate Macabe on the Process of Writing

Cate Macabe

It is my honor to share with you today the words of Cate Macabe. She is the author of This New Mountain, a member of the Board of Directors for SouthWest Writers, and editor of the SouthWest Sage. You can read Cate's complete biography here. I asked Cate to speak to us about her creative process.



CATE: I imagine that the creative process has both similarities and differences in every individual, but I think creativity itself has three basic needs for everyone: exercise, stimulation, and an outlet.

A child at play is the perfect example of exercising creativity or imagination. My first memory of such things is of using my hands to interact as characters instead of using dolls. Later, crazy-haired trolls, GI Joe and Barbie became super heroes. The rocky mesa surrounding my elementary school was the surface of Mars and the swings were my rocket ships. When Star Trek (the tv show) came along, my brother and I took turns playing Kirk and Spock, because they were, you know, the coolest characters in the show.

Outside of play, books were my entertainment early on and, with time, my escape. These stories came alive in my mind, everything playing out as the words formed their images. Then as a young adult in the military – to counter the all-out, flatline boredom of endless hours of waiting – I mastered the art of visualization in creating worlds in my mind filled with characters and their adventures. If you knew me at that time, you probably thought I was merely staring mindlessly into space like everyone else, bored senseless. But I was, instead, living in my waking dreams.

My mind still goes off on its own sometimes, then I’ll blink and realize I’ve been out there in another “dream world.” Piles of books wait at my bedside every night; bookmarks evidence my involvement in each of these worlds. I also have a Kindle that’s filling up nicely. And I love to play with my eight-year-old granddaughter, though I have to stop myself from directing her imagination. Where I want a band of Lego pirates to move through a story from beginning to middle to end, she still delights in throwing her people into one adventure after another without regard to logic or order.

As far as stimulation goes, if given the chance, a child will play for hours with dolls or Legos or sticks and dirt. A new toy, a shiny rock, or a storybook can ignite a whole new creative world.

I find the simplest things spark my creativity, and usually when I’m not looking for inspiration. While going through my junk mail several years ago, I read about a ministry in the Philippines that addresses the needs of orphans who live in a cemetery. I began to wonder about their lives, and that led to my newest fantasy world and the trilogy I’m working on now called The Last Bonekeeper. I’m also writing a collection of short stories in the same Bonekeeper universe that was sparked by a simple creative exercise in one of Betsy James’ writing classes.

From a writer’s point of view, life experience adds dimension to our creative endeavors. After a certain number of years we all know what rage feels like, and heartbreak. We’ve been hungry and alone. We’ve known the joy of love. Watched people die. For everything in between, observation and study can fill in the gaps. Listening to coffee shop conversations. Walking in the rain. Volunteering at hospitals. Visiting a firing range. Eating new kinds of food. Traveling. Life can stimulate our creativity in practical and immediate ways or at a more subconscious and subtle level. And sometimes, for me, all the brain needs is a bit of rest. I often wake up in the morning with the best story ideas.

And then there’s the creative outlet. If you give young children crayons, they will create something, whether or not you recognize the outcome. They might tell you one of their squiggles is a dog, another is their binky, and a third is Mommy. Maybe in their minds that’s exactly what they see or maybe it’s what they meant to draw.

An artist just starting out might have an idea in her mind of what she wants to create, but when she goes to sculpt it or draw it or paint it, it doesn’t come out the way she imagines. She might not be ready for years to create that thing she sees in her mind, but she keeps practicing and working at it until one day, there it is emerging from her fingertips.

I think writing often works the same way. When we first start out, what we put on the page isn’t always what we have in mind. There’s something missing, but the more we practice the better we get at translating what we see through our mind’s eye into something someone else can see. There are times when I have to stop writing because I don’t know how to create a particular scene or portray a character arc. I have to put the manuscript away and come back to it later when time has changed me or practice has improved my technique. Or I’ve studied how other authors approach the same problem.

What makes one person more creative than another?

Maybe we’re all creative in our own way. Some people write, some invent practical gadgets or new ways of doing things. Others take a pile of ingredients and form them into a wonderful meal – actually make it look appetizing and taste great, and enjoy the process while they’re at it. I’m not one of those people. I like to color coordinate my food: baked chicken + boiled potatoes + corn = yellow!

Creativity can be nourished (and starved). And I think the ability to express creativity can be taught and learned. When I sit down to create worlds, visualization is my foundation. I see characters move through their world, hear their conversations, feel their emotions, and then transfer it onto the page.

Thinking about my own creative process has made me wonder how other writers and artists deal with theirs. What does your creative process look like? How does it differ from mine?


Like most private investigators, AJ Jackson has more than one foot in the fire to make ends meet – driving a tow truck and serving legal documents for local law firms. But not every PI is a mother of four, a grandmother of ten, an ex-gun dealer and former mental patient, or a descendant of a great Choctaw chief. This New Mountain is a memoir of Vinnie Ann “AJ” Jackson, a country girl with a go-to-hell attitude who must face her fears in order to keep her sanity and make a future for herself.

I'm looking forward to Cate's upcoming trilogy, Bonekeeper, which is coming soon! 

I want to thank Cate for generously sharing her time and wisdom with us. If you'd like to learn more about Cate, or her work, pay her a visit at her blog. She'd love to have you!

If you have a story that you'd like to share, drop me a line.

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