Monday, December 28, 2009

Guest Post By Jeanne Althouse: Writing Jasmine Man--One Writer’s Process

I know from my writer friends that the process of writing fiction is very individual. Some writers get ideas from the news, others from family stories, but I am often inspired by my dreams and use them to write short-short stories. Here is what happened one morning early:

That night I dream about an old man. His face is marked with liver spots and folds of wrinkled skin. His neck has disappeared into rolls of fat. Suddenly he grows backwards, to a time when he is young and fresh, with slender hips and smooth skin. I feel the excitement of spring, of romance. I want to touch him. When I reach down between his legs, I grasp a package of flowers. My hand folds around the petals; the perfume is released.

When I wake up, I smell jasmine. It is the vine on my deck, its fragrance coming through the open window. Or is it? The window is closed. I roll out of bed, reach for my robe, walk downstairs, make a cup of Earl Gray, and sit with my writing journal. Bits of the night dream are still clearing out of my mind, like wisps of clouds passing. I start:

6:35 a.m. 3-18-09 Old man. Vine.

I write down the time because I make a deal with myself that I have to keep writing for at least 30 minutes. The date and subject help me find my notes, if I ever need to. An old man, a vine: As I try to put together these two unrelated images in my head, I know writing about them will stretch my brain, force me to find new connections, exercise my action verbs, even if I don’t find a story. I start writing.

The jasmine man…

I like those words together. A musical sound. I say it out loud: jasmine man… I wonder: is he half man, half vine? What does he look like? I look down at the page. Keep writing.

The vine grew up his leg, wrapped around his middle and glued its fierce tendrils into his belly button…

Glued? Don’t like that word. Doesn’t feel right. I suck the end of the pen. I think about how dew covered leaves feel against my face, like the wetness of a man’s tongue in a deep, long kiss. That is definitely more interesting than how a vine grows. I put the pen back on the paper: never cross out, just keep writing.

In spring the ladies buried their noses in his white petals, soft as cloud, and some, intoxicated, kissed his leafy lips.

Now this sentence I like better—the sss sound echoes from petals to soft to kissed and I like how leafy lips rolls off my tongue, feels kind of like kissing. I say it again leafy lips. Okay stop reading out loud. Figure out what happens. Keep writing.

As summer progressed, the roots thickened around his feet, and their endings secreted themselves into the sole of his foot, crawling up his veins and arteries, searching…

I don’t like progressed. Sounds like a science essay. Fix it later. But the rest is interesting; the vine crawling up his veins and arteries…will his vine strangle him from inside his body? Or is vine man just getting old? Don’t stop to think. Keep writing.

By July his leafy girth had grown wide, giving him an obese look, a man of wide tee shirts, baggy pants, disappearing neck, and a waddle walk…

How will the ladies feel now about kissing an old man’s tongue? Ugh. Even his papery thin cheek with its folds of winkles? My pen hovers above the page. I force it down on the paper. Keep writing.

The jasmine man, no longer in bloom, with a pot belly of tangles drooping over his thin, bony stems…his leaves wilted and browning, he yearns…

It was an especially good writing day; I finished the whole story in one sitting that morning, although there was lots of editing later, including helpful suggestions from Aggie, my writing group and the editor Whitney Steen, at Pindeldyboz. If you want you can read the finished “Jasmine Man” at

For these short-short stories my idol is the writer Lydia Davis. My favorite writing book is—not surprisingly—From Where You Dream, by Robert Olen Butler. I’m constantly grateful to my once-a-month writing group and to Aggie and the writers at Kepler’s who help me decide which of my stories are keepers.

No matter where the ideas come from, the most valuable thing I’ve learned about the first draft process is the most simple: keep writing. Anywhere, anytime, anyplace. Every writer says the same. Keep writing. Something good will happen. Just keep writing.

Happy New Year!

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