Decades ago when I was in my early teens, my father and I were driving through the mountains of southeastern Oklahoma — laden with switchbacks, dips and hairpin turns — when we saw a motorcycle come toward us and flash past in the opposite lane. It was ridden by a helmetless Native American whose face was totally expressionless. Sitting behind him, a young woman pressed herself against his back, her eyes closed — whether in ecstasy or fear I did not know. The bike was moving so rapidly I caught only a two or three second glimpse of them. Still the impression, as you can tell, remained with me for a lifetime. My dad was also seized by the vision. I could sense him reflecting on their appearance and disappearance and I heard him mutter, “What about that? An Indian on an Indian.”
That solitary image remained with me in the brooding recesses of my awareness for forty years until it became the central vision, the cathartic scene of a novel that built itself around that impassive visage of the man on the motorcycle. My second published novel, The Medicine People, began in my mind with an imagined picture of that Native American standing silently in a jail cell, his hands around the bars, waiting for a certain person to come and speak with him, knowing the dialogue between them would permanently alter both lives.
That’s my creative process; that’s how stories develop themselves for me: I experience something striking and the retained memory of it marinates and evolves in the depths of my mind. The stories grow, sometimes as with Medicine from the middle simultaneously toward the beginning and end, but sometimes from the end backwards or even, conventionally, from the start to the finish.
Once the basics of the story have germinated and I have a grip on where they are going, the real fun begins. With my first published novel, Lacey Took a Holiday, I was inspired by a Natalie Merchant song that described a cowboy professing love to a drunken saloon girl. She wakes the next morning to discover he has disappeared. From that image, Lacey the character and Lacey the story took root in my thoughts. By the time I started actually writing the book, I knew where the journey was going to take this saloon girl. The actual writing process had more in common with uncovering a surprising and beautiful buried treasure than figuring out how to put the “flesh” of details on the “skeleton” of preconceived story. From that single original image, the story develops and completes itself.
That’s the basis of my little literary world. Writing is exciting and strange — how odd to think that an entire story can coalesce and emerge from the flotsam from my lifetime of disorganized observations and faded memories. And, for me, perhaps the most exciting aspect of writing is the notebook I keep by my bed with the basic images—some with partial outlines and possible characters — for two dozen “treasure chests” I haven’t yet begun to open. —- Laz Barnhill