One semester, when I was working towards a master of arts in writing at Johns Hopkins,  I turned in three very different stories that each happened to contain an interrogation scene.  One was the first chapter of a novel about an Irish Traveler who had stabbed a barman; one was in a spy novel, and one was in a surrealistic short story.  After the third one, I remember my instructor saying to me, humorously:  “What are you?  Turning into interrogation-girl?”   I laughed then.  But now, some years later, I find myself writing another  couple of stories in which interrogations figure prominently.  And though they are central to the stories I’m writing, not gratuitously injected, I do find myself wondering why interrogations are turning up again in what I write.

Perhaps the subject matters I choose as my themes have made such scenes inevitable:  a suspected criminal interrogated by a policeman; a suspected spy interrogated by his or her captors.  But these are not the only circumstances in which an interrogation could take place.  One could have a husband interrogate a wife (or vice versa), or a boss interrogate an employee, etc.

Interrogation scenes, when evolving organically from the story, are useful vehicles for bringing arguments out in the open, advancing conflict, and leading the story toward its climax.  I think that’s one reason why I gravitate towards them–they’re a good way to allow characters to argue.  A form of action.

But I suspect that I am also drawn to them because they bring to the fore a contest of wills and the issue of power:  who actually has it?  (Between spouses, who has power will vary according to the relationship established between the characters.  Is the husband a bully and the wife afraid of him?  Is the wife the stronger character and the husband’s interrogation an act of desperation?  Are they equally matched, like George and Martha, in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?)

Where power is unequal–where the interrogator appears to control the environment, hold all the cards–how will the person at a disadvantage deal with it?  Does he cave and crumble?  Does he betray?  Does she stand up to it?  Does she find a creative way out of the situation?  Does he or she have the strength or the bitterness or the stubbornness to stand on principle and refuse to give in?  And if they do, what are the consequences?  Does the power shift?  Who ultimately will win a battle of wills?  By putting a character under stress, an interrogation tests the character’s mettle and, in so doing, can quickly and effectively reveal his or her essential nature.



My Grand Experiment?

my cubicle

My little writing space

In a prior post, I noted that silence makes me restless; that I need a bit of noise, the strange–or at least the different–to stimulate my imagination when I write.  Lately, though, I’ve just been restless, plain and simple.  So I’ve decided, for at least the first three months of 2013, to embark on an “environmental” experiment.  I’ve started writing at The Writers Room D.C.

Created in the fall of 2012, and apparently modeled on the writers’ rooms they have in New York (quite a few in Brooklyn, I must say!),  the Writers Room D.C. is one large room, a wall of windows on one side, with 18 two-sided cubicles containing desks and lamps, in which serious writers (published or emerging) can have their own little writer’s space away from home and home’s distractions.  There’s a small open space where one can take a break to relax and read, and an anteroom with a little kitchenette (with a supply of coffee, tea, a small refrigerator, and a sink–restrooms are down the hall); lockers (where you can store your computer and/or work rather than carry them back and forth each day); a printer (for small jobs); and a small side room in which to make phone calls.  Oh–and you can bring coffee or tea into your writing space, but food must be consumed in the kitchenette.

For me, who usually needs the sense of freedom that wandering gives and the ambient noise of coffee shops–not to mention nibbling as I write–this is a new way of working.  The    immediate difficulty for me so far, of course, is the utter quiet in the work-area.  Though it may be a self-imposed reaction on my part, it feels like an enforced silence–like if I laugh at something I’m reading, I have violated it.  And sometimes, going feels like obligation, like I’d rather be out having an adventure.  But then again, who’s making me go? –Me.

On the plus side, going there does seem to be getting me to follow more of a regular work-schedule, and working side by side with others doing the same does alleviate that sense of isolation I feel when trying to work at home.  In addition, people will chat for a bit when they break to get coffee, and the founders are creating some small social events to help us to get to know each other.  Also, I don’t have to pack up my computer every time I need to go to the ladies room–a more important plus than one might think.

So how is the experiment working out for me?  It’s early days yet.  I’ve only been at it for about three weeks.  The proof will be in the pudding, as they used to say.  We’ll see how much I get written (of quality) in these three months.  So far, I have found that, although the silence is generally disturbing when I come in, once I get into the work, I can, to a degree, get engrossed in what I’m writing and forget that it is so quiet.  I do think that, for me, a writers’ room’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. That is, working side by side with other writers removes that sense of isolation, but when one is surrounded by other like-minded people, one is deprived of access to the unexpected encounter that provides new ideas.  Eventually, I will have to find some way to balance my time there with my need for the creative stimulation wandering gives.  I’m not used to bifurcating my time in that way.  But that doesn’t mean that I can’t learn to.

Where do YOU write?

The Chinese Arch through Starbuck’s windows.

3:15p.m. 10-1-2012

As I write this, I am sitting at a long community table in the Chinatown Starbucks on the corner of 7th and H streets, N.W.  Two older gentlemen in sweaters that make them look like academics are sitting to my right, having a lively discussion in Spanish.  A part of me is trying to pull back enough of my high school Spanish to follow it, but all I can pick up  is some sense that they are discussing education of Latinos (their word) in the United States, and perhaps something about Latino-Americans and Christianity.  Across the table to my left, a man with tufts of hair pointing straight up at the top of his head, his lips pursed in concentration, is working at a computer.  At the end of the table, a homeless man is drinking a coffee and reading a newspaper.  Outside the large windows are D.C.’s Chinese Arch and the landscape of the 7th street corridor.  There’s music coming from a speaker, heavy blues.  And I am stoked for action.

Some people need to get away from all distraction to obtain the peace of mind that allows them to create.  Not me.  Silence makes me restless.  It’s while I’m walking through city streets that I work out bits of plot or dialogue, stopping, as they come, to note them down on a yellow pad before I move on.  It’s in restaurants and coffee shops, where I can stop in the middle of a thought to stare at some interesting sight or let my mind temporarily wander over to some interesting conversation, that I develop and write parts of stories I’m working on.  I don’t know a single soul around me; what I write will have nothing to do with them; but sitting in their lively company helps me to concentrate.  So give me the company of strangers.  The stranger, the better.  There’s nothing like it to pull the ink from my pen.

Gotta go now.  Gonna write a story.

p.s.  What works for you?

Art, Prose, or Politics?

Today, I went, with a friend, to Barbara Kruger’s exhibit at the Hirshhorn Musuem here in D.C.  It is located at the bottom of the museum’s escalators and fills the entire lower lobby.  The exhibit is comprised solely of words and phrases:  “MONEY MAKES MONEY,”  “WHOSE POWER?”  “WHOSE VALUES?”  “WHOSE BELIEFS?,” etc., plastered on the floor, the ceiling, the walls, and the sides and undersides of the up and down escalators.  The print is very clear, but some of it is so large that you must walk along it, reading slowly, concentrating on each letter as you go, sounding out the words in order to comprehend the phrase.  Much of it is clever, but even where the phrases reflect well-worn thoughts, for example, about our consumer society (eg. “you want it, you buy it, you forget it”), the manner of display forces you to take it in slowly, focus, concentrate and think about the meaning rather than quickly pass it off as slogan and move on.  Some, like “BELIEF + DOUBT = SANITY,” seem particularly appropriate for this time of extreme views and little tolerance.  Clearly, the exhibit is political, or at least, consisting of social commentary.  But is this print a visual art?  Or prose?  Or both?

Whatever it is, it is impressive, and I encourage any who find themselves in my city to take a look.  And if you do, let me know what you think, and why.

Posted by Jessie Seigel at 10:07 p.m.

Welcome to My World–A First Manifesto

For the adventurous writer, no subject is forbidden, no device or technique off-limits.  The only constraints are those of one’s imagination and, of course, whatever devices ultimately work to tell a particular story well.  There are some who will try to narrow a writer’s world to one set of subjects, one genre, one style, one story structure or form, and/or one small group of devices.  But while there are standard ideas about traditional story structure that generally work, there is no recipe for the telling of a good story.

The devices and techniques that many writers call the tools with which they work, I call the toys with which we play.  Admittedly, for a story to be successful, it must hang together; must keep the reader’s interest; and, ultimately, express something that satisfies the reader’s expectations.  But there is no one way to do that, and the adventurous writer will play with all the toys in the toy chest with a sense of freedom and abandon, stretching their limits to see what they can do.

I propose, in this blog, to write about different ways one can play with those toys, along with bits and pieces of my own philosophy about writing, thoughts about what I happen to be reading (reading always helps to provide one with new toys), a bit about the adventure of marketing one’s work, and a bit about writer’s rights, too.

All those writers who like to play–and all those readers who have been curious about how a writer does what he or she does, the writer’s life, inner and outer–Welcome.  Come on in.  Let’s Play!

posted by Jessie Seigel at 8:30 p.m.