By Sofia Mostaghimi
To become less photogenic
Over the years my mother became less…
My ex-boyfriend started dropping off stray cats at my doorstep after we broke up…
– Notes of stories-in-waiting, from my notebook.
In 2012, when I was doing my MA in creative writing at the University of Toronto, some of us were paid ten dollars to participate in a study in which researchers sought to measure our creativity. We were asked to write a short story, make associations (things like “dog… cat”), watch videos and guess at the relationship between the actors (“Was the woman in the blue dress Todd’s boss or his wife?”), and decipher long sentences (“John said to Mary who talked to Liz who asked Larry to tell John not to say anything to Mary that…”).
I don’t know what my “score” was. We were never told; though feeling insecure as I was in my new program, I sometimes wondered about it.
The creative process is one that baffles and mystifies. When I tell people I’m a writer, their most common response is often, “It must be pretty hard, to come up with all those ideas…” I tell them not really. What’s hard to come by—though—is time.
Scan the internet and you’ll find various articles written about the creative process; it’s dialectical—no—it’s a byproduct of mental illness. Inspiration is akin to possession. Or else, cartoonish charts delineate famous writers’ routines (when I read these I’m always struck with how much damn money and free time these white, male writers had. How am I supposed to replicate a daily walk through the woods then write until dinner is served at sundown?). Or, and most comfortingly, that most writers write their masterpieces around age 40 (I have time!).
To create something from nothing is one way to look at it, but I think it’s the wrong way. What you’re doing, really, is transforming one idea or many disparate ones, into something new. Creativity is as much a process as it is a filter.
For fun, let’s explore a story idea I wrote into my notebook recently:
“To become less photogenic
Over the years my mother became less…”
I drew this idea from the fact that lately—and for reasons unknown and tragic to me—I am becoming less photogenic. My mother also recently pointed this out to me (I think a mother’s honesty may also be a key requisite to becoming a fiction writer).
I’m reminded of Nabokov’s Lolita here too: “My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident…”
So: photogenic can be a loaded word, wrapped up into ideas about youth, beauty, longing, loss, grief, and some indecipherable, innate quality in a person.
Now fiction gets more interesting for me when it deviates from my literal truth. I also wrote: “Over the years my mother became less…” Maybe I transformed it into “my mother,” because she deigned to tell me an annoying observation, or because I connected it to Nabokov. Whatever the case, I’ve got the beginnings of a story dynamic in those half-formed sentences. A young woman living with her mother, both aging (badly, bitterly), fading beauty in the age of Instagram and plastic surgery (hopes confounding with resentment), but also this idea of becoming “less”…
Still, we have a dynamic but no plot. Rookie mistake. Sometimes, it helps to crash one idea against another. In the same notebook, I found this one a few lines below:
“My ex-boyfriend started dropping off stray cats at my doorstep after we broke up…”
Alright, so now we’ve got an aging mother, possibly obsessed with her own fading beauty, and a grown daughter, living at home, whose ex-boyfriend is aggressively and literally insisting she become a cat lady.
I imagine my process to be the opposite of how white light splits and disperses through a glass prism.
But I suppose all creativity must also be drawn from some unconscious well within ourselves. I’m almost thirty. My mother is aging. I look like crap in lots of photos nowadays. I’m pulled between a desire to focus on my work and use up the last bit of my twenties in some roaring, fashionable way. I’m wondering what it’s going to mean for me, for my mother, to be not as young as we were? I’m scared of that. I am.
Maybe creative processes baffle so many because it isn’t sequential. It’s messy. It can’t be quantified, only felt. And I like that idea. I like that idea, a lot.
Sofia Mostaghimi‘s stories have appeared in The Hart House Review, Joyland Magazine, Flyway: The Journal of Writing and Environment, Echolocation, as well as two anthologies: Aestas 2014: A Fabula Press Anthology (3rd place winner) and You Care Too Much: Creative Women on the Question of Self-Care. A graduate of the University of Toronto’s Creative Writing Master’s program, she teaches, lives, and writes in Toronto.
Mostaghimi is one of the authors featured in The Unpublished City: a collection of works by Toronto’s emerging literary talents. IFOA and BookThug invite you to the collection’s release on June 22 at 7:30 PM as part of the Toronto Lit Up book launch series.
For more information, click here!