Friday, November 15, 2019

A Writing Prompt For All Ages

I always profess to have a pretty good memory. Don't get me wrong - I have wasted my fair share of time turning my house upside looking for where I left my car keys and cellphone (which are usually already in my jacket). However, when it comes to certain events, my long-term memory is pretty strong. I have memories dating back to when I was four, including relative context. As I get older, I start wondering why those memories stuck. That's when the writer in me comes out.

In my opinion, memories stick to us for a reason, and the best way to discover that reason is to write about them. Someone in one of my writing workshops wrote about conversations she would have as a child with her mother. She remembers the conversations well, which is even more striking since she was five years old, these conversations happened in the late 1940s, and her mother had recently passed away.

Yes - passed away. She remembers that her coping mechanism for losing her mother at the age of four was to think about her, visualize her, and talk with her. These conversations were very valuable, and she remembers them to this day. Now, skeptics might argue that there's no way to prove that the conversations were remembered verbatim or if there was some license taken over the decades. However, that's kind of the point. We start remembering the important parts - the context, the message, the purpose - and we see just why this memory stuck.

The earliest memory I have that contains value and information was sitting with my mother as she relaxed on the couch and wrote a news story on her ever-present yellow legal pad. She was a reporter at that time, and also a full-time parent, so quite often those two tasks would be combined. She would write her story, I would sit next to her and watch, and she would finish a paragraph and we would read it together. (I was literate at a very early age, and learned cursive by reading my mother's news stories.) No matter what the deadline was or how wrapped up she was in the reporting process, she would let me curl up next to her, lean in and watch her write, then read her story back to her, including talking through the big words. Even during the District 201-U teacher's strike, she let me read her story as she wrote it.

Maybe this is a little too on-point for why I remember this. Now that I write regularly. it's easy to see why such a memory stands out from all the other things I did when I was four. I don't remember what I got for my birthday or for Christmas, the status of my parents' marriage, or much of anything my brothers did, mostly because those memories aren't important (no offense to my brothers, parents, or Santa.) But I remember plenty of those moments learning to read from my mother's perfect cursive.

So where's the writing prompt? Simple. Write about the earliest memory you have. Explore it. Find every sight, sound and texture possible, and connect it to your life today. Search for why that one stood out while so many others fell by the wayside. It can be the simplest memory or a series of events, but explore it to see why it stuck for all those years.

Maybe yours has a simple connection like mine, but hopefully this simple prompt is also an exercise in discovery.

Monday, November 11, 2019

A Writing Lesson From A Veteran

I am fortunate to know several veterans who have served on fronts in the Middle East, Vietnam, Korea, and in World War Two. They come from all walks of life, people from all corners of our country brought to the same place to serve our country. Some saw combat, some were wounded, others never fired their weapon, but they all came back with stories. They had experiences that few could comprehend, and people who didn't served could never fathom. These are stories that everyone needs to hear.

"In Flanders Field"
Now, when people hear the words veteran and stories, it's easy to think about the war stories - a chopper pilot coming under fire in Vietnam, a unit fighting through an ambush, and all the other things that civilians see in the movies. While such stories are important, someone doesn't need to be one of the men raising the flag at Iwo Jima to have an important story. Rather, everything veterans went through, including training, bad meals, going overseas for the first time, and all those quiet moments of contemplation in a foreign land, are important stories because they describe a world few people know.

In almost every writing workshop I participate in, there's at least one veteran who wants to write their story. In one particular group, a gentleman arrived with this exact intention - to tell his story. We will call him Lenny. He had served our country proudly, but when he came home he went about the business of working, getting married, raising a family and so forth. His life had plenty of stories just from his work and hobbies, but now he wanted to revisit his time in the service. He sat down with our group, explained what he wanted to do, and before too long, he was writing about different episodes of his time in the service.

These weren't front-line stories by any stretch, but they fascinated everyone. One day he's a young man growing up on the south side of Chicago, then he's training for Navy service on the west coast, then he's thousands of miles away in equatorial heat, moving tons of high-grade explosives. These were insights into a world nobody else in the group had ever even considered, much less experienced, and we loved his stories.

What was also fascinating about this was watching Lenny grow as a writer. His writing wasn't perfect, but as he wrote, he got better. He got in touch with the heart of the stories, he developed a voice that was very much his own. When he showed up that one Wednesday evening, he admitted he did not have any real experience with writing stories. However, he dedicated himself to the process and told his stories, and in time, Lenny became a writer.

Incidentally, I left out one detail that might be the most important part of the story. When Lenny showed up for that first meeting and set out his goal, he was ninety years old. A World War Two veteran who served in the Pacific, he decided to start writing when he was ninety.

For those who say they are too old to become a writer, they need to meet Lenny.

This year, Lenny (whose actual name is Sylvester Kapocius) had his first book, "To Manus and Back," published, telling many (but nowhere near all) of his stories from his time with the Lion Four unit, loading ships from a base on Manus Island. As the editor of the book, I had the opportunity to learn a lot from his experiences. However, what I also learned is how one person's dedication can make anything happen.

Thank a veteran for their service today. And listen to their stories - they are more priceless than you know.

Friday, November 8, 2019

Why Are You A Writer?

There's been a lot of discussion here lately about the how-to's of being a writer. Well, let's set those aside for a moment and take this from a slightly different angle. So you want to be a writer? Well, I just waved my internet wand and - poof! - you're a writer! You now have all the rights and privileges bestowed on writers, you know the secret handshake, and you get the writer's discount at McDonald's. Now what?

The real hook to being a writer is not asking how you become one, but why you want to.

A guidance counselor once gave me this nugget of advice: "Give me three reasons you want to pursue that career. If you can't give at least three reasons, it won't bring any satisfaction." (Full disclosure: This is what led me to a career in economic analytics, not writing. That was a full and satisfying career, so I applied the same test when I decided to write.) Anyway, I discovered that sometimes, we want to do something or become something, but we never look at why  we want to pursue that craziness. So let's explore some answers people have given me.

"Well, I like to write." Excellent, but not a full answer. I hear that and it sounds like an unfinished sentence. I like to write... what? Any answer works, but something more is necessary. Even if you like to write about everything, explore a little more in-depth and discover what gets those words flowing. What is the highest high for your writing interest? Targeting a very specific part of writing that gets everything really going is critical to being a writer.

"I enjoy turning my feelings into words." This is one of my favorite answers to hear because it captures the magic of writing. Think about this for a moment - everything in the creative writing genre incorporates this technique of expressing very elaborate, abstract emotions using only a limited world of words. This is like magic, but it also places a lot of demands on a person. Writing is actually more than just feelings distilled to the page, so any writer who uses this as their answer should be prepared to explore the world beyond personal expression.

"I have a story to tell." This is my least-favorite answer to hear, but not for a bad reason. First, everyone has a story to tell. Everyone has hundreds of stories to tell. Some are better than others, but the main takeaway is that writing is only one of many ways to do this. If your prime purpose is to let everyone know about something that happened to you that will change their lives, that's not a healthy reason to pursue life as a writer. it might be easier to find someone who will write your story, and share an author credit on this life-changing book. However, if your idea is to share your many stories and ideas with the world as a way to entertain and communicate, maybe that's a more compelling reason.

"I've always wanted to write a book." Please stop. We all think about that big step, but it's a goal, not an interest. I've always wanted my name to be an answer to a Trivial Pursuit question, but that's hardly something I can pursue directly. That requires many other little steps that are nothing like the goal I want to achieve, and if I can't find interest in those little steps, I will never make it to the bookshelf.

The secret to the question of "Why...?" is exploring where your real interests lie. It is about focus and insight, about examining yourself and dissecting the question down to the little bits and pieces. Somewhere inside this deep bit of self-examination is the true answer of why you want to be a writer. It might surprise you when you see it, but when you rise up and can hold that one truth, then being a writer is surprisingly easy because you know exactly what goal to pursue.


Monday, November 4, 2019

How A Writer Earns Their Stripes

The last post was a wordy answer to the question I often receive at writing workshops: "How do I become a writer?" There are a lot of things that move people toward writing, but the act of 'being a writer' takes that extra push. It takes focus, habits, and no shortage of humility. But once we start incorporating those into our daily routine, does that just make us writers? Do we suddenly qualify as members of the writing community? Is there an initiation where we learn the secret handshake? At what point are we allowed to call ourselves writers?

I will offer this as my response. If we write, and in our mind we have dedicated ourselves to this end, then we qualify as an official writer. Maybe our rank isn't that high - in the US Army, we would be recruits without even a patch sewn to our uniform. But even Private No-Stripes is still a member of the army and can refer to themselves as such. We are probably looking for more than that when we write, so how do we earn our stripes as writers?

Like most things, we only really become that thing we want to be when we start acting like it. Like Private No-Stripes, we need to develop not just the habits, but the mindset to really move up in the world and not feel like a recruit. We need to focus, and write regularly, and act out those habits until we no longer think about them. Once we fall into the habit of writing as a way of managing our ideas, we become a writer. As we think about how to present an idea as a story or an essay, that writer in us grows. As our writer kit fills with tricks and tools and we use them more and more, we establish ourselves as official writers. We earn that first stripe, and nobody can question that we are writers.

More than likely, we will question it for a while, but that's a different hurdle to conquer.

I often mention the pen and stack of Post-It notes by my bed. This is a writing habit I developed years ago, and it was pivotal in the creation of my first published story. In the middle of the night, my mind starts throwing around ideas for no particular reason. We all get that restless mind thing now and then, but with me, it happens to the point where I decided to grab the weird ideas and write them on Post-It notes. It helped me sleep, but also provided fertile ideas for the writer in me. The pad will be tucked full of writing prompts, some of which are even readable.

These might sound weird, but here are a few:

  • Why are some colors allowed to be first names? (Scarlet, Violet...)
  • Does evolution know when to stop?
  • The deepest fear of the monster under my bed
  • My God-parents meet my Devil-parents
  • My cats learn to count
  • The suburbs of Heaven

Do any of those make sense? It doesn't matter. Somewhere in my mind, a group of tired synapses brought out some weird ideas, and get triggered when I read the note. As a person trying to sleep, I'm not concerned about writing. However, the once I am awake, writer in me sees a chance to explore. I saved them for writing prompts on those days when I want to write but don't have any ideas really jumping at me.

Does doing this make me a writer? Well, not on its own. However, acting upon it gets me closer. As I mentioned before, one of those little notes became my first published story, "The World's Biggest Snowball Fight." (a polished draft can be read at this site).

I like to think that such commitment was what gave me my first stripe.

Friday, November 1, 2019

So You Want to Be A Writer?

I get a lot of inspiration for these posts from the different writing workshops I attend. Questions come up from all kinds of writers, from those just getting their feet wet to those who have already been published. The process of writing is one of constant growth, so there are always questions to be asked, subjects to be discussed, and so on. However, after reviewing through my many posts, I realized I have stepped around one simple question: "How do I become a writer?"

This is a pretty simple question, but in my opinion, it's a deceptive simplicity. When any writer is asked this, there is the instinctive answer to start writing. That's true, but it's the easy way out. Rather, when I hear that question, I think about what the person is really asking. There is something more going on, and a satisfying answer will address that issue rather than the simple approach. So let's start there.

Whoever asks this question is likely fully capable of putting words to paper. When someone walks into my workshop, sits down, and asks that question, I go beyond those simple words. With a little exploration, the meaning of the question comes out. They are really asking, "How can I do what you all do? How can I become that person?" Those are questions I can work with. So let's offer a few simple steps on achieving that.

First, focus on one idea. Plenty of people want to write their personal story - but that's not just one story, so writing it seems impossible. Narrow down the life story to one message, one idea. Everyone has a life worth writing about, but explore it from one concept that defines the story you want to tell. My life story might be interesting, but spilling my guts out about everything that happened over the past 51 years would be confusing. Focusing on the stories that brought me from an economist's desk to writing fiction; that's more interesting.

Second, set aside all those hang-ups about not being that great. Nobody starts their writing career by being a great writer. Everyone launches their life of writing somewhere between horrible and tolerable. Even those with natural gifts still make simple mistakes, screw up the grammar, let stories wander, and all the other things that humans do. Accept the fact that your first works will need serious repair. You will fail. You will stumble and fall. You will feel genuinely dejected at times. These are all parts of being a writer.

Also, give yourself credit. Writing is not easy. It is brutal at times. The writer's development comes with plenty of growing pains, and plenty of scars from mistakes and missteps. All those cuts and scrapes, the skinned knees and bloodied lips, the constant bruises we acquire all teach us something. All that pain can be difficult to endure, so definitely give yourself credit for taking the beating that comes with growth.

Lastly, explore. If you want to write about your favorite memory, challenge yourself to explore what made it so special. Look for that deeper meaning. Examine it from all sides, and put the discoveries into your writing. This might not change the story you write, but it develops a habit of exploring the subject. As writers, our stories grow as we grow, and their details come forth as we develop that sense of exploration.

This is the long answer to, "How do I become a writer?" There's no easy answer; just many little answers. It's a neverending journey, so there is no one conclusive answer. This post merely offers advice, and there are my keys to starting that adventure.

Oh - and start writing.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Finding the Good in Bad Grammar

I am sure you've experienced something similar to this. You and some friends get together, say to go bowling. You get a few strikes, pick up a couple of spares, and close the game with a solid 148 - far better than usual. You are happy, and say, "It always a nice night when I bowl good."

At this point, a friend butts in with, "You didn't bowl good, you bowled well."

"Huh?"

"The proper way to say it is that you bowled well." This uptight friend continues, "A bowler is good. Bowling goes well."

"Whatever," you say, reminding yourself to no longer invite that friend for nights out.

Now, that obnoxious friend - who, in your head, might look a lot like me - is technically correct. He knows the grammar rules and the different situations for using good and well, and probably has good intentions in offering the correction. And as most people know, nobody likes that guy when he does that. They quietly hate him. He is the friend known as "The Grammar Nazi," and a buzzkill. Is this hypocrisy?

Maybe. The most important part, however, is that this is an opportunity for the writer in us to learn a few things. If we know the good/well distinction, or when to use "you and I" versus "you and me," that's just great. We can learn not by spreading the good word of grammar to the uncaring, but by listening to how often people violate these rules in conversation and nobody cares.

In the real world, people do not always speak with clean, eloquent, rounded structure. People use double-negatives, they split infinitives and leave participles dangling. Even when using proper English, there is a lot of room for error. After than, well, there's slang. Dialect. Euphemisms. Awkward phrases. At the end of the day, it seems like there are more ways to screw up a conversation than get it right.

That's where the lesson comes in. Consider all the great ways where bad grammar makes a conversation natural. People will say, "When I bowl good, you and me make a nice team," and everyone understands it. The Grammar Nazi friend might be very uncomfortable, but that's his problem.

While this is a guide for dialogue, it also applies to narrative voice - first-person in particular. A narrator who uses sinful, improper terms such as, "supposably," or "I could care less," connects with the reader due to their imperfection.

As a writer, let a few slip-ups offer some flexibility to the voice. Let the conversation be the kind you would hear at the bowling alley. Preferably, on one of those nights when that grammar friend was not invited.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Miscommunication and Dyscommunication

During a recent writing workshop, we had an interesting discussion about the difference in conversational English over the years - centuries, actually. Some commonplace words back then have fallen out of use, some did not even exist back then, and certain historical events created sayings that now define the language. The gap between, say, 19th- and the 21st-century conversation is pretty noticeable, but our language has evolved in many ways, and not recognizing them can make writing pretty hard to read. In the worst cases, it can actually send the wrong message.

One way that words have changed is through social media. In our rapid-fire online environment, it seems that words can transform as fast as the spread of one viral meme. It used to be that a catch-phrase would need to catch on when lightning struck from a commercial during the Super Bowl. Now, lightning strikes everywhere; the pages of Facebook transmitting new phrases and sayings that load context into simple phrases. Plenty of people hear, "One does not simply..." or "What if I told you..." and their mind goes to a meme reference. The reader now thinks something other than what the writer intended - miscommunication.

I always have to tip my hat to another form of writing that can be a problem - jargon. We know it when we hear it, but often we don't know it when we use it. The main definition of jargon is a terminology unique to a particular subject, but when the reader is not able to gather the meaning through context, jargon falls to the alternate definition, "Language that is incomprehensible or unintelligible."

Without getting partisan, let's just think about the current political environment. People staunchly within the camp of their preferred party circulate words that are standard English but carry a very loaded meaning to people within that camp. The words liberal and conservative have very simple meanings in our language, but along the partisan spectrum they can be toxic words said with a snarl and a cocked eyebrow, or with chest-puffing pride. As writers, we don't need to pour our own politics into our characters if we don't want to. However, we at least have to recognize that certain words can redirect our readers if we are not careful. If we want to put a political voice into our writing, then we can garnish our writing with all the political jargon we wish. If that's not our desire, well, maybe saying "a conservative approach" is better written as "a reserved approach," or "a liberal use" becomes "a generous use."

Now for the subject of dyscommunication. In case you did not know, the word, "dyscommunication" is not a recognized word in our language. However, it transmits a meaning in that its structure communicates a message through the simple prefix of "dys," as in, "dysfunctional." This word doesn't talk about when we fail to communicate a message, but when we communicates a different, or perhaps opposing message. This can be a question of context, of framing a sentence just so, and putting the inflection in just the right or wrong place.

We've all heard the story of the husband and wife preparing to go out for the evening, and the wife asks, "Does this dress make me look fat?"

The guy answers, "That dress doesn't make you look fat."

A simple story. However, it would help the writer to add some context to prevent the wrong message from being picked up by the reader. He could get up, approach her, say the line while admiring her. The message is reinforced, assuming that's what he meant. But what if he meant, "That dress doesn't make you look fat" (implication: you look fat with or without it) or "That dress doesn't make you look fat" (implication: you look like you are hiding your fat.) Adding a little emphasis or context prevent dyscommunication.

Next stop: using poor language use to effect.