The Ever-Amazing Creative Process by Martha McKinley
People are frequently amazed at just how an idea comes to someone for a piece of art or a short story. Over the years, I have found that there is an interesting tale to tell about the origins of many a person’s creation, whether that be a clay sculpture, pop song, perennial garden, or main course at a dinner party. So indulge me while I share with you the backstory for my new novella, Get Real: The Art of Love and Belonging.
One September evening in 2009, as I was driving home from an Argentine Tango lesson with Jane, a new artist friend, we fell to talking about ourselves. I admitted to her that I wrote erotica, and if Jane were shocked, she didn’t reveal it. Coincidently, I was due to model with another person at Jane’s life drawing group the following week, and, as I had never done a model-pair before, Jane offered to critique our poses before we “went live.” Then she added, “Why don’t you write a story about that!” And so I did, about a real life situation that goes pleasurably awry—changing the names and biographical details, of course, to protect the innocents.
When I write, I generally want to tell a story that is believable, to let the reader accept the initial premise without having to battle those nagging doubts of “this could never happen!” But I also want to have an element of surprise and humor—so we don’t take ourselves too seriously. Hence, I start with actual instances in my own life or extract parts from a friend’s experience to provide a realistic point of departure, like with the above story, which I entitled Rehearsal.
I have written dozens of short stories, and usually, when they are finished, I am literally done with them. But after Rehearsal was composed, something happened to me. I became genuinely interested in the characters I had created, and so curious as to what might happen with them, that I had to write more just to find out. Six additional chapters followed over the next two years, each one of them intentionally headed with a word starting “Re-“ and ending “-al” (Retrieval, Revival, Requital,…,) nicely providing me with the book’s title, Get “Re-al.”
Get Real is the sensual love story of a married man and a divorced woman, common characters in many a novel, who encounter a common predicament: they fall in love despite knowing that “the marriage” is eventually going to get in the way of their growing affections. But the solution to their problem is unique (they craft a love triangle with another woman to try to deny their betrayal). The story, as it unfolds, illustrates to just what lengths we humans will go (bless our hearts), to justify something we so desperately want.
It’s known from numerous surveys that extramarital affairs are quite common for married women (25%) and married men (35%), even though a sizeable majority of people (90%) feel it is wrong. So naturally, in my novella, each main character has to deal with his and her angst about having an affair.
Cassie, a tile artist, although unmarried, feels she is violating the law of sisterhood by betraying a married woman (Marcos’ wife). Her way of asking the Universe for guidance is to go—not to the great world philosophers or spiritual leaders—but, rather, to her fellow artists, through their paintings. After all, art deals with timeless themes, and has done so for eons. And low and behold, she finds an answer to her query on the morning after “the rehearsal” as she is patiently paging through a volume of Henri Matisse paintings and comes upon Nasturtiums with Dance II. Interpreting the piece favorably for herself, Cassie placates her conscience and continues her affair unabashedly.
How did the idea for Cassie to look for wisdom through old artists come about, you might ask? Well, as I was writing and witnessing Cassie’s anguish, I had to wonder how she was going to try to justify her actions. I was in a serious quandary myself, as I wanted to portray a convincing character, and I didn’t know just how she was going to proceed. While stymied in what is now chapter three, I happened to be visiting a cousin of mine who owned volumes of art books, and I picked up one showcasing paintings of Matisse. Methodically, I paged through it. When I came upon the above-mentioned painting, I had a “Eureka” moment. Not only had I done what Cassie was going to do to seek her answers, but I had, equally importantly, found in that painting a natural way for the love affair to unravel and then be rewoven into the new fabric of belonging for all my characters to wear. It seemed as if a more perfect solution could not have been had!
Realistically, though, I’m sure that had I not had that epiphany, another solution to my dilemma would have been found, and it may have been so different that it would likely have led to a whole different plot line. But isn’t that the story of real life? The events that we view as so pivotal to our present day situation are really, in retrospect, serendipities that only seem to have been perfectly timed and life-altering. In the case of my novella, I’ll take that good fortune and be thankful for the fact that I happened to at least have been looking in the logical right place and was alert enough to find it at the right time.