Writing and "The Process"

All writers have a process that allows them to create. However, the art of "Writing" is often mistaken for that "Process." Hopefully this blog explains the difference, and inspires people to develop their crafts, become writers, or just keep on writing.

Monday, April 15, 2024

Writing Aside: Tom Hernandez

This morning I woke to, among other things, an email telling me that at 1:30 a.m., Tom Hernandez, co-founder of the WriteOn group in Joliet, passed away. In all honesty, I knew this email was coming. Everyone who knew Tom knew this email would show up. We had been preparing for this moment for a while, and yet when it arrived, I feel everyone realized they were never actually ready for it. Maybe we can never be entirely ready. And yet, at 1:30 this morning, Tom passed away.

As mentioned, this came as no surprise. A while ago, Tom notified us that he had a pretty vicious form of cancer. He would be fighting the good fight, but he acknowledged that this kind of cancer wasn't one to give up easily, and more often than not, it won the battle. This was a lot to take in, and the fight would in fact be real-life game of crack-the-whip for all parties involved. Eventually it reached a point of inevitability, and everyone found a way to process what the future would be. I took a slightly different spin on it. I made a decision that I would look at what I had learned from this horrible set of experiences, and that's how I will remember Tom.

We all know the classic action-thriller structure: Unwilling character brought into a struggle of immense proportions and forced to not only fight for their very existence against insurmountable odds, but to eventually rise up and be the hero, saving the world and walking away triumphant. It's pretty standard, and it's always good for some high-adventure fun. The classics, however, stand apart from the everyday action movie for one reason, and it has nothing to do with the outcome. Rather, it's all about how the story was told. Did we go into the Lord of the Rings books wondering if Sauron would ultimately conquer Middle Earth, leaving the civilized world in flames? Nope - we knew that good would prevail somehow. The real grabber, however, was the telling of the story, and how everything developed.

Full disclosure: When Tom first made his announcement, a part of me knew - knew - it wouldn't end well. I was supportive and rallied for his cause, but a part of me started preparing for that day I would get the email. However, a funny thing happened. Even though in my mind I knew how the story would end, I started paying more attention to how Tom lived those moments of his fight. I watched as he put forth goals to reach and different landmarks to achieve, how he took a special appreciation for what life he had, even as his very body tried taking it from him. Suddenly, I wasn't thinking about the end of the story, but rather the story unfolding in front of me. And it was fascinating. I learned about living from Tom's last few years of life, even though the story would soon end.

The final conclusion to me is this: We all have that end coming. Some day our friends and loved ones will get that email about us. Young or old, unexpectedly or foreseen, all of our stories end with that email. However, the part that counts the most, the only part that matters, is the story that comes before that final page. To the people seeing our story, we are the hero facing the insurmountable odds, fighting the good fight, and walking away having done the best we ever could. We inspire others around us to be better writers, better people, or just better. The end of the story will come, but people will remember the adventure, so it's up to us to make it a good one. 

Rest in peace, Tom.                

Friday, April 12, 2024

A Good Thing About Social Media

I will admit this, possibly to the surprise of my many former colleagues in the financial sector, but the writer in me misses my days back in economics. During that time, I would do a lot of writing, though a lot of it was actually reporting - discussing economic indicators, legislation, political shenanigans and so forth. I would report on those, analyze their impact, and then draw conclusions from everything I processed. If this is boring you already, you truly understand the broader world of economics.

Since this was reporting, the writing could be dry. Real dry. Like overdone toast in the Sahara dry. It was very business-like, very research-driven, and finding room for a personal voice was difficult. However, the writing was only half of the job. The other half was knowing what I wrote about so well that I could defend it like a doctoral dissertation, which also meant writing what I knew well enough to explain it to people who could throw questions at me from any and every direction - and often did.

Now, did it make a difference just how I wrote about the correlation between the Spanish peseta and the Portuguese escudo during the late 1980s? Not really. What had the biggest impact was being able to sit there, face senior management, and take fire from everything from currency discussions to whether or not that's the proper spelling of escudo. (My guess is few of you know the spelling for sure and even fewer care.) This was a constant test of my mettle, every question a make-or-break challenge. I assure you that all of those questions made me a better economist, sometimes even when I didn't have an answer because it got me thinking more about the subject.

Now here's where this all ties into social media. I have often extolled the benefits of writing workshops,  in part because it provides that same question-and-discussion format that makes things interesting. Well, one thing in particular that social media offers is about a bajillion pages for beginning writers, aspiring writers, creative writers, and all other kinds of writers. These forums have people posting totally random questions about voice, perspective, PoV shifts, how to structure a story, and so on ad infinitum. More importantly, responses come from everywhere. These aren't just dialogues with one board moderator, but with an entire community of writers, some of whom have the exact same questions, and plenty who can offer their own insights and their experiences. The best part? It's all there for you to jump into. If you have an answer, throw it into the thread. If you have a question, post it and let the answers pour in. And, of course, read the comment threads (though at your own risk - comment threads are notoriously volatile) and find things you like.

Now, the writer pages on Facebook might not be as exciting as the peseta:escudo relationship back when those were real currencies, but that's for you to decide. I've been writing for over twenty years, and I still find questions that challenge me. Furthermore, I often answer peoples' questions in a way that make me really think about my form and process before I open my big mouth. It's just like an interrogation by senior management, except there's less money on the table. 

The advice part of this piece: Hop onto social media and just join a few writing groups. I prefer Aspiring Writers United and Fiction Writers, but a simple group search under "writing" or "creativity" should provide a wealth of groups to work with. (And again, be careful with the comment thread. Seriously.)       

Friday, April 5, 2024

Making It A Special Day

As most people in the continental US have heard, a broad swathe of real estate across the country will be witness to a total solar eclipse (weather permitting). This most impressive of events rarely occurs in this country, and won't happen again in totality here for a few decades. Therefore, people are taking the day off, getting out their road maps (Google Maps at least), and figuring out just how to see this spectacle. Out by my place, we will not have eclipse totality (I think they say 94%), so a lot of people are driving two hours south to get the experience in full. They are making a real day out of it.

This kind of event - a rarity indeed - is one that will provide writers with plenty of inspiration for short stories, poems, essays, and whatever they want to create. I expect the eclipse will be followed by a wave of creativity hitting the feeds (along with a lot of people asking, "Why do my eyes hurt?"), followed by a creative lull. No surprise here. However, being inspired by this celestial event is the low-hanging fruit of creativity. Still just as tasty, but there are plenty to choose from. I would argue that every day can be eclipse day if you know where to look.

A poet friend of mine got the opportunity to kill some time in the Albuquerque airport waiting for her flight. If there is something that is the exact opposite of the wonder and awe of a total eclipse, it is probably the Albuquerque airport. So there she sat with nothing to do but listen to nearby musicians play for passers-by while waiting for her flight. Some people might bury themselves in a book, others might catch a quick nap. She looked around, listened to the music, and had her eclipse moment.

As a creative, she took in what was around her, what she had experienced during her time in New Mexico, and all the little things most people take for granted. She let it sink in, she found the inspiration (or maybe the inspiration found her) and she could not help but to write a poem about Albuquerque. By searching through that moment and all its little elements, it became more than just a day, it became special and unique. Everything came together and *BOOM* a poem happened.

Normally, I would present that poem for all to enjoy, but it's not mine; it's hers. However, I took it upon myself to realize that any given day can have some feature worth writing about - you just need to look. Sometimes you just need to feel what is around you, or see it all from new eyes. I mean, come on - Albuquerque? If that can inspire, anything can inspire. It just needs to be seen, heard, and ultimately felt. The writing is just the end product.

Since Monday will be Eclipse Day for me, my next post will not be until April 12th. Enjoy this natural wonder, use proper eye protection, and after all is said and done, maybe write something about it.            

Monday, April 1, 2024

An April Fool's Day Don't (for writers)

It's April 1st, the day people love to dread, or just dread. People find ways to fool and deceive those around them in interesting, mischievous, and sometimes plain old cruel ways. Maybe it's something as simple as unplugging your co-worker's keyboard while they are away from their desk, or sending out a silly memo that's obviously meant to be a joke. On this day we are all participants somehow - often unwillingly - and hopefully we learn to take things lightly, let the foolishness wash off of us, and go about our business, feeling a little lighter and carefree for the experience.

A warning to writers: Readers do not take pranks so well.

Now, part of writing a clever story involves playing a game with the reader. In the classic-twist-at-the-end story, it is revealed that something the reader assumed was in fact not true, or that something they took for granted was entirely different. In a way, this is playing a joke on the reader by cleverly leading them down a particular path just to say, "Gotcha!" at the end. It requires a certain amount of craft and skill to do this, and it definitely takes practice. However, there are right ways and wrong ways to do it.

If you and I were walking down the street and I suddenly punched you in the shoulder then shouted, "Ha! Gotcha!" that wouldn't be much of a joke. It would be a surprise, and not what anyone expected, but there's no humor there. Along a similar line, you have that thing kids do when they tell you to look over there, the when you do, they say, "Ha! Made you look!" Well, that much is true, and it played upon my expectation of seeing something, but it isn't exactly funny after the age of nine.

Too often, writers fall into the same trap. It can come in many forms, but they all have the equivalent effect of, "Ha! Made you look!" The writer creates a narrative, then it turns out that it was all just a dream, and the character returns to their life. The character pursues something that turns out to be nonexistent, and goes back to their life none the wiser. And the worst one - the character breaks from the story to have some sort of experience, then returns to the story and the experience never comes up again. These are the literary equivalent of failed April Fool's pranks and should be avoided at all costs.

So how do we know we are writing ourselves into a cheap little joke? The proof should be in the results, as in, there should be results or some form of consequences from whatever occurred. Think about the three examples in the previous paragraph. They all conclude with the character being unchanged, having just wasted time doing something that had no real impact on them. If the character isn't affected, why would the reader be affected? We have to approach these stories and think about how the reader will see a change (or a deliberate denial) in the world around them. The story needs to be impactful; it needs to make a difference. It doesn't need to be a profound statement, but the character at the end should be different in some striking manner. Like the example I mentioned at the end of the first paragraph in this post, if we feel a little lighter and carefree for the experience, then it was worth having. 

So, for anything you write, and for any joke you pull, make sure it has some intention, purpose, and casts a new light on some part of the reader's world. That's the difference between a good joke and just saying, "Made you look!"              

Friday, March 29, 2024

A Tribute to All Writers

I will be the first to say it has been a rough week. The most trying part of it has been long bouts of introspection, covering various eras of my life. And as many of you might have guessed, given the events of my last post, I have been thinking a lot about writing: what role it plays in my life, how it has shaped me, and where I am in this long writer's journey. Truth be told, I didn't come up with answers. If anything, I ended up with more questions.

However, it did put me into a mindset about just what writing is all about. What it does to us, what it does for us, and how it can live long beyond our time. I've had these thoughts before, and, as usual, I wrote about them. The result of this reflection was a piece that I read at the most recent writers' meeting - the Tinley Park League of Aspiring Writers. A few people requested copies of my work, then a few people suggested I simply post it on my blog so everyone could appreciate it.

So, without further ado, here is the piece I wrote about a writer's connection to writing, and all of its meaning:

It Continues

I am proud to say I am a crappy writer. Some people may protest and try to build my esteem, but let me offer context. When I say I am a crappy writer, this is because I now know so many adjectives that are far worse than merely crappy, and I have risen above those. In short, I have learned over the years to not chart myself on the goals I want to reach, but rather the milestones I have already passed. In doing that, my journey ahead is not anchored by one specific point, but rather an endless series of amazing paths leading toward a beautiful horizon. I am not tethered in my journey, but rather freed to move forth. And I continue.

If I have learned one thing from this journey of writing, it is that every word we place on paper expands us as people, elevating our existence to something greater, something unimaginable but wonderfully achievable. We start this adventure by learning words. Then, by sheer force of will, we start saying these words. They become the building blocks for greater ideas, and we grow. We create. And if we are wise, we push this process forward. We continue.

Eventually, we learn to write these words, each one leaving a footprint in the sands of time. Our ideas flow out of our bodies, taking hold first in voice, then on paper, then in the minds of others. Our conscience expands outside the boundaries of our heart and mind, and into the world. We reach other people, engage with them, take in their presence, and like the spark of life itself, our words expand into their hearts and minds. Our ideas live in others, taking on their own lives and purposes. They continue.

This is the power of the written word – to be a continuation of everything we are and that we can be. As these words nurture our being, our soul expands beyond the confines of our bodies, casting itself forth and touching others. It reaches other souls, merges with their passions and ideas, radiating out like waves in a pond, but getting stronger with every ripple. Our words become this pulse, this sound, this ever-growing signal of our presence. Those words continue.

With our written words, with our ideas, we can touch the world, we can reach the hearts of everything in existence. Even after my hands stop typing these ideas, the words will carry me through the ether, resonating with everyone they touch. Those thoughts, those ideas never end, carrying themselves through time itself, transmitting our deepest existence into the universe. It feeds into something so vast, so incredible, that our little bodies can’t comprehend its grandiosity. But those words, those ideas, that little part of us that we send out into the world becomes a part of this everlasting presence of the Universe forever. That part of us becomes part of existence’s indelible fingerprint through time.

It always continues.


Monday, March 25, 2024

Side Note: Chris Drnaso

I had a pretty busy day leading up to sitting here at my desk, typing up this post. Woke up early, played with the cats, had breakfast, got in some work, walked about 22,000 steps (just over 10 miles with my legs), and enjoyed the lightest of rain on a very pleasant spring day. All the time I was doing these things, I was thinking about different things I wanted to write about this afternoon. Definitely something about just what it takes to be a writer this time around, but I couldn't grab just one idea. By the time I got home from my long walkabout, I had centered around a basic premise and would see where it went. I sat down, fired up the computer, and prepared myself.

That's when I discovered that Chris Drnaso had died.

To understand Chris Drnaso was a bit of a challenge for me - the man was quite the enigma. He headed up our writer's group at the Tinley Park library - the League of Aspiring Writers (LAW, which, coincidentally, is meeting tonight). He's been a writer for a long time, but would be the first to admit he wrote his first novel as a personal "bucket list" challenge. (I did not know this at the time he mentioned his first book, but he had been battling cancer at the time - a fight he kept up for 17 years.) So, what started as a personal challenge to see if he could do it developed into another chronic condition - that of being a writer. He wrote several more books, each one a personal mission to create, to share, to immortalize an idea. He became a writer basically by the sheer action of writing. And from that he became a teacher.

I knew him as a very generous and giving person, but more important than that was his willingness to share. That's an important step for any writer to take - putting your work out there and taking in the feedback that allows you to discover more about what works, what doesn't, and how your own voice sounds. I know plenty of prolific writers who remain stuck in place because they can't muster up the moxie to put themselves out there and run the risk of growth. Chris did this happily, and was always very constructive in lifting others up as well. Even when he would explain how one of my submissions just didn't seem to work for him, he would do it in such a way where I knew exactly what I needed to do to up my writing game just a little bit more. And it always worked.

Now I am preparing to go to tonight's meeting. I have a piece of writing to share, and yet that's not the part that will concern me. The news of Chris's death is just getting around, and I am not sure if the LAW members know about it at this point. This meeting will be different, and even if we have a full house tonight, there will be an empty space that we just won't be able to fill. I think we will still get our acts together so we can read, and critique, and motivate each other to be better writers. I am pretty sure he would've wanted it that way.

Thank you, Chris.        

Friday, March 22, 2024

Stuck In the Corner

In case you are unfamiliar, the picture is Hinkum, one of my two cats. On one curious day, this little kitty jumped onto an unstable stack of crutches I had stored in my office (yes, I do go through more than my fair share of crutches). Hinkum's weight stabilized the pile as he sat on them, but if he made the slightest shift to get off, the collection wobbled, shook, and threatened to collapse. Hinkum was terrified, so all he could do was sit atop the crutches and howl pitifully for someone to come rescue him. I finally did, but not before taking a picture for posterity. (You can tell that Hinkum was not amused that I wanted to take a picture first instead before saving him.)

Poor Hinkum's plight stemming from that one stupid decision - which he has not repeated since - reminded me of what writers will go through constantly. They will write their characters into a corner, leaving them with no means of escape. Either the character is physically trapped, or has to make a decision that is against the character's beliefs, or some other situation where there is no justifiable way out. As much as we plan and plot and structure our stories, this will inevitably happen, and we are left there, howling for someone to rescue us.

Now there are a few ways to get out of this situation, but first let me discuss a couple that you should avoid. The worst one, bar none, is the one that I call, "Papa Smurf knows magic." Yes, I am referring to the cartoon character dating back so far it says something about my own age. Anyway, this is the route where, to escape the situation, the character does something that has not been previously discussed nor is fully explained, as if this little secret had been in their back pocket all along. This is sloppy writing, mostly because it cheats the reader of having all the information the character would have. It is a magical escape, but it comes at the expense of disappointing the reader.

The other one to avoid is often referred to as Deus ex machina, which is a fancy way to say, "Someone else unexpectedly bails them out." Again, this can be a cheat to the reader. When the protagonist is surrounded by the bad guys and he's out of bullets, you can't have the police suddenly show up saying they got a call and came running. This is an empty victory, and leaves the reader feeling the same way.

The way to get out of these corners has actually been in front of you all along. People don't like it, but it's necessary if you want to be fair to the reader. When we have written our character into a corner, when they are stuck in an irreconcilable situation, we need to take the tough medicine and unwrite that situation. If we want to use the Papa Smurf way, we need to write in a few scenes where this secret ability of theirs is demonstrated, preferably in a way that is relevant to the story. Furthermore, we have to check the rest of the major conflict scenes and consider whether they could've/should've used it there as well. Then we need to rewrite the big stuck-in-the-corner scene so it doesn't seem like the big secret is just the obvious way out. Otherwise, the story becomes painfully predictable.

This is similarly used in the Deus ex machina scenario - it's allowable if you include scenes of someone calling 9-1-1 and alerting the police, thus creating a rush against time for them to arrive before it's too late. This is difficult. Depending on the complexity of your story, this might require rewriting several scenes. However, if you respect your reader and want a genuinely solid story, it's a required step.

Or you could just leave the cat on the stack of crutches and go do something else. I do not recommend this option.