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The Only True Genius in the Family - A Novel by Jennie Nash
Jennie Nash : Three Intangible Elements Novelist's Must Bring to Their Work

Three Intangible Elements Every Novelist Must Bring to Their Work

Part 1: Imagination

By Jennie Nash

Everyone always says that cancer changes you, and as a writer trained in the art of observation and a woman diagnosed with breast cancer, I was eager to see how. How would it change me? I was on the lookout for something big — some giant transformation — but the thing that came to me was just this: I developed a fierce desire to surround myself with color. I didn't know why it was important; I just knew that it was. Suddenly, I wanted to paint the walls in shades of a riotous summer garden.

My husband and I ended up remodeling our entire house, because you know how one things leads to another. And when it was time to actually choose paint, I traipsed off to the paint store, collected a bushel full of paint chips, and started to try to imagine sour apple in the laundry room and iris bliss in the halls. I kept collecting paint chips, but I couldn't bring myself to purchase even a $4 pot of sample paint. It seemed like such a big leap, such a big commitment. I was terrified of color.

My daughter, who was 13 at the time, took one look at my array of paint chips, settled on orange nectar, and never faltered — even when our contractor said, "Are you joking?" She wanted orange nectar, and nothing would dissuade her. When we finally trusted her instinct and put the orange nectar on the walls, the room became dazzling. The light seemed to gather there, and everyone loved being in the presence of the courage it had taken to embrace orange. I was inspired — but still, I couldn't take the leap of faith I needed.

Then one day I visited the home of a new friend. Her door was seedling green. I stepped into a foyer that was kalamata. Down at the end of the hall I spied a cabernet bedroom. "Your house is so colorful!" I blurted, as if my friend may not have noticed, "How did you do it?"

She seemed to know intuitively that I wasn't talking about paint cans and drop cloths. "You just have to give yourself permission," she said.

And so I did — and my house became a work of art. I awake to cool, brilliant green. I cook in a buttery yellow kitchen. I write in a soft pumpkin-office that juts off the front of the house like the prow of a ship and glows like California's golden hills at sunset. Even when it's foggy, it's bright and peaceful. And in that space, I have figured out why it was so important to paint the walls: I'm a writer, and white walls are like blank pages. They are, as novelist Jonathan Safron Foer said, both empty and infinite. They are full of possibility — but when I came so close to dying, I didn't want to live with possibility anymore. I wanted to create whole words, both on the page and in my life.

In my pumpkin-colored office, I became the thing I'd always wanted to be: a novelist. Surrounding myself with color was the key that unlocked my creativity. And, oddly enough, what I needed in order to pick paint that would make me feel alive — imagination, faith, and permission — are exactly the same tools I use to write a story that feels alive, as well.


Writing a story is the same as any other creative endeavor — it starts with a vision. People always ask a writer, "Where do you get your ideas?" as if there's some store where you can go and find them, sitting there on the shelf. Somebody once asked Willie Nelson how he thought of his tunes and he said, "The air is full of tunes. I just reach up and pick one." I love that image because it speaks a bit to the magic of creativity.

It's all about opening yourself to possibility of what's out there. You remember the way a fresh-picked apple tastes in the fall and imagine how that taste would be important to someone on the afternoon they first fell in love, and you try to put those thoughts into words. You imagine and remember. You imagine and see. You allow yourself to become full of secrets, full of associations, where every word leads to another, through passages of dark and light. Every single word leads, in this way, to the same destination: the truth of your story.

When I was writing The Last Beach Bungalow, I had to conjure up two houses. One was a house where a woman had lived for 32 years just steps away from the beach. I needed this house to be rich with layers and history. I needed it to be the kind of place someone could fall in love with. So the first thing I did was to imagine the most basic outline, and what I saw in my mind was something like a child might draw — a white picket fence, a white clapboard house, windows outlined in hunter green trim. As houses go, it was pretty plain.

I wanted my house to be vibrant and beautiful, and what I imagined adding to this picture were terra cotta pots filled with lavender. I've always loved that look but found it difficult to maintain because I always forget to water the plants on the porch. The lavender, in turn, made me think of a transom windows I once saw on a beautiful old Craftsman house in Pasadena, and that made me think of a front porch. I wanted this porch to be instantly welcoming — the kind of place a dog would lay all afternoon, the kind of place someone would sit and sip lemonade and watch the sun go down. So now I had a woman who chose to live in a handcrafted house, who had time to water her plants, and who liked dogs — and now I felt like I was getting somewhere.

But I still needed a hook — something that would immediately capture the attention of the character who falls in love with this bungalow, something to rally around. People do this when they decorate their houses, too. They latch onto a painting, or a ceramic vase, or a rug their grandmother brought back from Turkey. It's usually a thing that has a lot of meaning to them, which usually means it has something to do with a relationship. For my character, I gave her a grandmother who lived and died in a house in Maine. I imagined that this house had a fireplace made of river rock and that April, my character would have loved it because her grandmother had loved it. So I decided to give my house a very unique fireplace, too. It couldn't be river rock because it was by the beach in California. But I happen to love Catalina tile — the bright, mission-style tile from California potters, and when I remodeled my own house, I thought about putting in a fireplace made of this tile. I have to be honest here: I chickened out — and I regret it almost every day I look at my fireplace. So I gave my fictional house a Catalina tile fireplace — a burst of outrageous color that my character could walk in and be completely taken with. She sees it and identifies with it — and that's what hooks her on the house.

While you are writing, you need to go through this process. You need to let yourself sit and dream about the tangible elements of your story — the cities and houses and rooms where it unfolds. Paging through magazines can help. You might recognize the dog you were imagining in your head, or the man, or the boat, or the dress. You know how sometimes people will tell you about a new restaurant or a new book or a new movie that you have to see, and then three more people tell you about it, and then five and finally you say OK, I'll try it!? The same thing happens in your imagination. You may keep conjuring up a room that looks like the sky. You may keep coming back to that blue. You may remember it on a dress you loved in kindergarten or on a vase that sat on your mantel, and that blue has a spot in your mind. Give it the respect it deserves — and watch what happens. Fueled by an imagination set free, your story will come alive. •

Next: Part 2 — Faith »