Last Thursday, I went to a book signing and talk by Diana Gabaldon, at Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena. I have never had the desire to actually attend a talk or book signing before, maybe because most of my favorite books are old and the authors. . . unavailable. I have been reading Diana's books for about a year now ever since my grandmother gave me the first in the series. I don't think I have ever enjoyed a series better, nor pursued a series so long without becoming exhausted by the style or characters (Little House on the Prairie was possibly the last that held my focus so long!) I could go on and on about the merits of Gabaldon's writing, style, depth, characterization. . . but that isn't what I want this particular post to be all about.
This post is about what an inspiring evening this was. I have heard Diana speak before (you can hear her podcasts on her website) but who knew she was full of such "on the spot" wit and humor and wisdom. She took questions from her readers in the audience (the crowd swelled well past the expected attendance and the bookstore staff seemed to be in shock) and every answer was an in depth explanation, containing examples, a little serious secret sharing, established trust and a little comic relief. I admit that I sat in awe of this amazing woman, her ability to command both the page and the room and her cool, even stride not only in this situation, but in life.
I took away one golden principle on this evening. Diana Gabaldon is a former university professor holding multiple degrees. She knew that she someday wanted to try to write a novel and so. One day. She began. Just like that. She chose a subject matter, she chose a period of history, she pictured one figure in her head (Jamie, our main male character) and then she sat down to write. "Where is he?" She asked herself. She pictured a room. "Who else is there? Who is that woman?" and she "saw" a gathering of men. "What are they doing?" and so, she began. This is not the opening scene in the book, it occurs about one third of the way through, and occurs after the main conflict is introduced in fact, but this is where she began, without even being aware of what her story would be about. This was her first kernel. The scene began to bloom and blossom around this first kernel, and then she saw another kernel, and began again there. The story takes shape around these kernels of action and drama, which at some point she "flocks" together with important details. I was surprised to learn that Diana does not have an outline for her novels, nor does she know where story is going to end up as she writes, she simply allows it to take her, while her attention is focussed on these kernels of inspiration. I don't know exactly how many books Gabaldon can claim in all, but I know that she has completed seven books in the Outlander series, all of which are enormous and powerful. I cannot imagine a more satisfactory success. She is currently writing book eight.
This principle of the kernel is transferable to multiple creative venues, and is so simple. Sometimes I discard my ideas because I don't believe that in themselves they are enough to complete a piece of work. I never let my ideas get farther than the protective custody of my brain. In doing so, I may be limiting my creative potential, never giving these ideas (or kernels) a chance to develop. Since listening to Diana, I have been challenged. What am I waiting for? An entire book does not appear in her head at one time, nor should an entire finished product appear in mine, no matter what I am working on at the time. But a single small idea, which seems insufficient, could provide the fuel to propel something that might just be worthy. Just maybe. Maybe not. But I ask myself this: when I am feeling the most energized and satisfied? When I am in the creative process. And so, why shouldn't I allow this creative energy to push me along? And so I will. I will begin with a kernel. I will use that energy to create a second kernel. And shall see where these lead. This is such a simple formula and yet risky to those of us who feel the creativity inside but are hesitant to allow it to lead. The fear of failure looms great and the censors scream "you are not worthy! You will never finish well!" But I will see Diana as inspiration, and use her kernel principle as a guide.
Because who wants to write a structured outline? And in truth, how in the world can you allow creativity to freely flow from structure such as that? And so, we shall start with a kernel, and just go. No apology, no censor, just get going with one idea. And then another. And another.
Here we are getting close and personal with Diana Gabaldon. That's my sister, myself, my grandmother and my Aunt (left to right). Sorry about the photo quality--I only brought my little camera!
Thank you, Diana, for an amazing evening of inspiration. And the principle of the kernel.