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 Writer's Desk 

May 8, 2006
Vol. 4, No. 06


Making something out of old ideas

Antonia Ryan, OSB, NCR staff writer

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While cleaning out some old files on my computer at work, I came across a document called “Writer’s Desk raw material.” I opened it up. My long-ago notes to myself said:

“At this time of the year, my mind turns to the fact that the Goths invaded Rome in August in the year 410.”

How quickly I forget. It was news to me that there was ever a “time of year” when my mind turned to that fact.

“The Goths were just trying to get a piece of the Empire, like anyone would,” I wrote on. Well, yes, I suppose so.

After a few more lines about Goths, I got to a discussion of how “I like to go to the Broadway Café, a coffeehouse here in Kansas City.” I will spare you my belabored attempts to segue between Goths and coffeehouses.

I’m not sure quite what I envisioned for this abandoned Writer’s Desk. The basic, unifying idea of it has vanished into the ether. But I imagine that if I’d stayed with it, I probably could have made it into a decent column. I’ve always enjoyed that challenge about writing: taking disparate elements and weaving them together into a whole story.

When I was in college, my mom used to write screenplays. She didn’t do it all the time; only when she was going through some kind of transition in her life. (She used a book called How to Write a Screenplay in 21 Days.)

During the times when she was working on them, Mom would talk to us in the morning about the elaborate back stories and plot twists she was creating for these characters she had invented. She had pages of notes about their family histories. After a while of living with the characters every day, Mom would put the screenplay aside and never take it up again.

This used to bother me. I wanted her to finish it. I’d say that if she just got an outline down, I’d write the screenplay for her. I even tried to write a few scenes once, for a screenplay called “Black Ice,” but this didn’t work -- it was her idea, not mine. I didn’t know where she was trying to go.

Finally I realized that finishing the screenplay wasn’t the most important thing for Mom. She was trying to work through a question or a new idea. The characters helped her do that. When she was done turning it around in her mind, she didn’t need the screenplay anymore.

(Come to think of it, I read How to Write a Screenplay in 21 Days, too. The two screenplays that resulted from my efforts wound up in the trash can. Still, they were fun while they lasted ...)

Recently NCR ran a piece in the opinion section called “Biography and the search for meaning” by Dana Greene (NCR, May 5). The author quoted Albert Camus:

“ ‘People read biography,’ he wrote, ‘because they envy the coherence that lives achieve when recorded.’ “

I certainly understand that. I spend a lot of time recording my life. I keep diaries, I write down my dreams, I make picture albums. I save ideas, like the “raw material” about Goths and coffeehouses, and I have a whole binder full of possible stories. Someday I figure I’ll make something out of them.

The “Biography” article also refers to Søren Kierkegaard’s observation that life has to be lived forward but can only be understood backward. I see what he means there too. At some point, I have to stop recording everything and start living. Instead of writing in my diary, I could -- well, I could call my mom.

Benedictine Sr. Antonia Ryan is an NCR staff writer. Her e-mail address is aryan@ncronline.org.
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