Friday, January 15, 2021

Immersive Writing and the McRib

Alas, while the New Year brings us all hope and the promise of new beginnings, it also means a fond farewell to some things we have come to enjoy. Of course, I am talking about the end of the limited availability of the McRib sandwich at McDonald's. This acquired taste, this blue-collar delicacy is, as the ads say, "for a limited time only," and that time is up. We get our last sandwich, say a fond farewell as we eat it, then wash all the sauce off our face and neck, apologize to our arteries, and refuse to wonder what we actually ate. Yes, that season is over.

For those wondering what the McRib is doing as the lede to a writing post, it is a great example of a subject ripe for the art of immersive writing. While not everyone enjoys the McRib, plenty of people have never eaten one, and many ponder what it actually is, it has plenty of sensory and emotional triggers. Taste and smell, sight, even the word McRib is enough to spark an opinion about its merits. This is when we incorporate immersive writing.

Now, the art of immersive writing is fairly self-explanatory. It is relaying an experience in a way that coats the reader with the sensation of whatever happened. If someone is using this to describe a hike on a winter's day, the reader should feel a compulsion to grab a blanket or put on a sweater. Immersive writing about a headache should make the reader a little dizzy, and writing about the McRib should make the reader want to wash their face and rethink their diet.

To clarify, immersive writing is not simply bombarding the reader with details. Detailed description is not entirely necessary, in fact, because details focus mostly on one sense - visual. The picture with this post surely triggers some response, but sight is just of the five ordinal senses, and there are plenty of other sensations to appeal to besides what the eyes behold.

It's even worth mentioning that taste is not a sense that needs to be the dominant focus of an immersive McRib essay. Besides the flavor of a McRib being difficult to describe in a unique manner, the true appeal (to those in the pro-McRib camp) comes from sensory overlays such as texture, spice, and the slight sweat on the upper lip. These can be put in a positive or negative light, or just as points of fact - the important part is that they are done constantly and with continuing emphasis. 

The other part that comes with the immersive writing technique is just to double-dip the writing in cues that relate to those feelings. The writing should be dripping with descriptors and modifiers, slathered thick with metaphors and similes that relate to the subject, never leaving the reader too far away from a connection to the hickory barbeque sauce or pressed, shaped, mystery meat that is the McRib.

This also applies for the anti-McRib writing as well. If this sandwich isn't your thing, spin those words accordingly. People might not agree with you, but good immersive writing at the very least convinces the reader about your passion on the subject.

And on that note, I am going to have one last McRib sandwich, say a fond farewell, and then head to the gym and start the New Year by working those McRib calories - there are a lot of them to be burned off. I regret nothing.

Monday, January 11, 2021

What Am I Writing?

 In a previous post, Caring About Our Stories, I mentioned how we need to ask ourselves “Why am I writing this?” As we develop the mechanics of the Process, we need to ask a more refined part of this question: “What is the purpose of this?”

With anything we write, that question should apply to every part. For any essay, screenplay, novel, or short story, we should be able to ask that question about something as broad as the entire work itself, or as narrow as a particular word we choose. The answer doesn’t have to be perfect, brilliant, or even insightful, but if the answer isn’t obvious, we need to ask ourselves if that part is necessary.

In an earlier post, And So Begins the Process, I offered the example of my working manuscript called Easier than the Truth. In that post I demonstrated how to take a one-line idea and turn it into the bones of a story. Now we can follow through with that technique and apply our question of purpose to make sure this story focuses on what is necessary and leaves out what isn’t.

There’s the story in front of me, and I ask, “What is the purpose of this story?” This should be a very simple, concise answer, at least in the author’s mind. For this novel, it is, “To show how someone broke away from a life of denial and faced the harsh realities of their life.” One sentence; simple and to-the-point. As we start asking this about smaller and smaller pieces, the answers might be a little more elaborate, but they are just as important.

Now we narrow the focus from the story to a particular section. In Chapter 12, our protagonist, Tom, is driving to work early, with his friend, Phil, who is trying to catch some sleep in the passenger seat. “What is the purpose of this chapter?” This is where Tom explains his plan to bring together his out-of-control life. Simple and to-the-point, but we can still narrow this question further.

The next question would be, “What is the purpose of Phil in the scene?” Phil is skeptical of Tom’s plan and doesn’t think it’s a good idea. “What is the purpose of Phil trying to sleep instead of being wide awake?” It allows Phil to be dismissive rather than confrontational, thus allowing Tom’s plan to continue (plus Phil was up late). Again, it is… simple and to-the-point.

This can continue down to the individual words, but we won’t take it that far in this particular example. The point is that when we ask the right questions about our writing, the answers make our writing better. Then we can tell elaborate stories and explain complex ideas, yet our writing will be strong because it is simple and to-the-point.

Friday, January 8, 2021

Depression - Writing Through the Haze

With New Year's Day in the rear view mirror and everyone returning to an ordinary life (current events notwithstanding), as writers we need to resume our usual schedules. However, this is not very easy, given that returning to life means going back to winter weather, social isolation, and often credit-card bills from our holiday excesses. Given all this, it's not easy to just pick up the pen and go back to work. For some of us, it's even more difficult.

In this short post, I will discuss something that affects a lot of writers, and that plenty of creatives experience. It's not writer's block, but something similar that can suspend the process of our work. It shows up a lot in this time of the year, but for some of us it exists during all seasons. It can be worse than writer's block, and for an unseen problem it is all too visible to those afflicted.

Despite my generally happy demeanor, there is a darkness that follows me around constantly. It's not the usual sadness that comes with life's bad news, but but an ever-present cloud hovering about me. On a good day, I can ignore the mist and go about my business without too much difficulty. On other days, the darkness settles around me, immersing me in an obscuring fog that makes it difficult to even function. By function, that means more that just doing my writing, it means being able to get up and do anything. Given this, how can someone accomplish all their writing goals and meet their year's resolutions?

One thing I have learned over the years is to try and make my problems real, or at least recognizable. It's an old meditation trick to try and envision those things we cannot see, and by doing so, we can claim some control over them. This is where I bring out my writer's toolkit, and apply my creative skills to try and contain the beast.

A problem like depression does not have shape or form, so our first task is to try and feel what its physical traits would be. In my situation, my feelings envision depression as a dark cloud, a purple haze (and not the cool kind in Jimi Hendrix's psychedelic love song) that, at its worst, can blind my vision entirely. It is not like a wispy, feathery cloud but rather thick and solid, clumped like a heavy storm cloud on the horizon, the kind that makes you go inside and close your windows just in case. 

Now, what does it sound like? Feel like? If I were to think about it, it is not like a storm cloud, thunder growling from within. Rather, it smothers all sound, dampening any and all voices from the outside. It's cold and damp, as chilling as wet clothes. It covers every inch of my body, draining my energy and leaving me seeking the warm refuge of my blankets.

These little techniques are far from a cure - my purple cloud still hovers about me, shrouding me like a wet blanket. But sometimes, when I try to make it real and tangible, it can be a little bit easier to manage, and maybe, just maybe, I am able to write past the problems.

Monday, January 4, 2021

A New Year and Accountability

Now that we are getting back to our post-New Year's Day routines, some of us may have to acknowledge a few resolutions we made or wanted to make. I often talk about some promises we can make to ourselves as writers to push ourselves further down the road that is writing. Nothing big, nothing fancy, but hopefully doable. And as 2021 approached, plenty of people made a lot of other promises about what they would do and who they would become this year. However, we know that a lot of these situations are like going to the gym in January to lose some weight - a nice promise that doesn't make it to February.

No surprise that people don't always follow through - going to the gym is not easy, otherwise we would've already been doing it. Furthermore, it's all the more daunting if we do it alone, and this is the same for writers. In my workshops, we've discussed the value of writing groups and how they inspire each other. Along with inspiration, writing groups can help hold each other accountable for their actions. At the gym, we only answer to a scale or a treadmill. In a workshop, the dynamic can motivate us to do that much more.

When it comes to setting objectives for the year, some people will make them, others won't. For those who set some goals, only a few will achieve them. They usually have some people constantly prodding them to continue toward that goal. This isn't nagging (well, sometimes...). This is saying, "How has that outline been going?" "Any progress on your story?" or "You haven't brought in a chapter lately; are you having trouble?" These questions might seem annoying, but they remind us that we are not alone in this process. As writers, we might work alone, but when we have others checking in on us, we feel that we are part of something greater, and that we march with others.

An accountability system might seem like a lot of work, but it can be the most passive process to begin with. I had a friend who, to keep up with her promise to write down her dreams, placed a pen on her alarm clock, right over the snooze button, before going to bed. As weird as it may sound, she did this so she would literally place a pen in her hand every morning, and this forced her to either write or break the promise by putting down the pen. More often than not, this pen gesture made her accountable for her action, so she wrote something about her dream.

If that sounds too abstract, think about accountability through obligation. Sometimes, a way to make ourselves accountable is to turn our writing promise into a requirement for something we like to do. I've made no secret about my love of gin (right now it's a craft blend called Botanist), so obligation accountability would mean that before I pour a glass, I must write a haiku, or have a chapter outlined, or whatever. When I control my actions, I force myself to either keep my word or feel the guilt of having my gin without writing my haiku. Again, this method conditions us to take that extra effort.

There are a lot of ways we can push ourselves to make some good habits as writers, and whether it's by stick or carrot, as long as it gets results, it's worth it.

And here's a pro tip: It's not too late to make a resolution. If you want to commit yourself to a task, just find a way to help yourself reach the goal. Then just go out and do it.

Monday, December 21, 2020

One Last Little Christmas Note

I decided that for this short little post - the last one of 2020 - I would write a little something about Christmas. Normally, Christmas is not thought of as a writing time of year. Rather, it is about the togetherness of family, going to church, exchanging gifts, gaining weight and appreciating what we have. Well, things have changed this year, and not for the better. So how can we use the tools we have as writers to reclaim some of this most important of holidays?

I don't care how good a writer someone may be - they can still spread a virus around if they aren't careful, so the ugly facts on the ground still apply for 2020. I won't be going in public more than I absolutely have to, which means no church and no family on Christmas Day or the days surrounding it for that matter. I will celebrate in my own personal ways, but it will be different. The important part is my decision to also be a writer during this time. 

One of the skills we pick up as writers is the ability to process our thoughts and feelings in a way so that they come out on paper. We channel a lot of things into the world when we write, and by doing this, we can create some very special things.

A quick consideration for making Christmas particularly special during these days of COVID. For the people who you were hoping to see this year but can't, write something for them. Write a quick description of your favorite memory about you and that person. Write them a fun little holiday poem. Just write them an email personally telling them why you will miss seeing them this year. Use your abilities and tools as a writer to communicate those feelings in a very simple manner.

This may sound cheesy, but trust yourself as a writer. Trust that what you say will have meaning and feeling. And believe that when you do this, you will move the person in the way a gift should.

This definitely will not feel the same as it does in other years, but let's face it - nothing feels the same these days. The point is that it's not doing something to recover what things used to be like, but to try and live in the spirit of what things are meant to be about.

My favorite story for the season is How the Grinch Stole Christmas! With this, my main takeaway is that while the Grinch stole all of the trappings of the holiday, he only belatedly learned that the part he couldn't steal was the thing he never understood - Christmas involves a spirit, an attitude, that can't be taken away from us. Not by the Grinch, or by a virus, or anyone. And you can retain that spirit with something as simple as your writing.

So on that note, Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and I will see you with my next post, which will be Monday, January 4th, 2021, so Happy New Years as well.

Friday, December 18, 2020

Other People's Stories

I can't say this one enough but I need to say it now and then - the most important part of being a writer is writing. Now and then, I add to this that this next most important part is reading. Writers learn plenty from nourishing themselves with other styles and techniques, approaches, openings and wrap-ups. I don't know a writer who isn't well-read, and there's a good reason for that.

Now I would like to add a third qualifier to important things a writer will do, and that is listening. Particularly, listening to other stories. You may think this is the same as reading stories, but you'd be mistaken. We learn about structure and layout from the written stories, but other people teach us about voice and presentation, about mood and presence. These elements are crucial to any good written story, but we learn about them from storytelling.

The storyteller on my father's side of our family was Uncle Thurman. Having grown up in the Great Depression and fought his way through the Pacific during World War Two, he had a wealth of stories to tell, not to mention everything that happened after he came home in 1945 and established the rest of his life. The more relatable stories came from his career, family, friends, and just the daily routine from the place he called home, and he told each one with a devotion to making it come to life. He was regularly requested to tell the story about trying to get an extra egg out of the chicken, and he never failed to please.

One side note - a part of Thurman's ability to tell stories came from his passion for the old radio shows of the Forties and Fifties. They presented each story without the benefit of pictures or even hand gestures and facial expressions, so they had to create a world simply with the voice. He followed them religiously, and they became an important tool in his ability to tell a story better than anyone else.

It was about fifteen years ago that he started talking about his experiences during the war, and crafting them as stories rather than a few details of where he was and when he was there. Maybe there was a reason for this that I will never know, but as a storyteller he needed to express these parts of him after a long silence. I listened. I learned - about him and about how to reveal a world that most people could never understand. Needless to say, these stories had a different mood than the one with the chicken, but as a storyteller, he could recreate his tour through the Philippines to where we could feel the fear in the air.

Uncle Thurman died yesterday at the age of 95 from COVID-19. The man survived a world war, but this was just too much. Fortunately, he told us his life (or at least the parts he would admit to) and those stories will remain just as much of a legacy as his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren who sat around him, listening attentively.

I was just a nephew, but I listened too. Maybe some days I will write down his stories, but more than likely I will just use his techniques to tell the stories with the kind of passion he did. Except for the one with the chicken. That one's just tough to explain.

Monday, November 30, 2020

Leftover Writing Notes

Welcome back from the Thanksgiving break. This is usually the time when we all sit back, live off of leftovers for a few days, and really think seriously about exercising some more (and usually don't). Now, this year things are different. For a lot of people, there are not leftovers and no need to work off all that gravy weight. For some people (including myself), Thanksgiving was nothing more than a quiet day at home. But that doesn't mean there isn't something to feed off of later. I'm talking about finding stories within the events of Thanksgiving.

I always offer a disclaimer about brewing up a story from a day such as Thanksgiving, and this is no different. For any particular holiday, I emphasize the following:

  • The holiday is not the story
  • There are many stories within the holiday

Now you may want to jump up and scream, "Aha! You said you just had a quiet day at home! How can there be a story if you didn't do the holiday stuff?" Well, sit down and let me explain. 

First, as I said in the disclaimer, the holiday is not the story. Writing about what I did and didn't do over the course of last Thursday is not a story, it's a news article (and not front-page material). And to be perfectly clear, I did watch a couple of one-sided football games, which constitutes a Thanksgiving event in my book, and I did eat food. Instead of a nine-course meal, I made a reasonable amount of stir-fry Mongolian beef. So, no, the holiday is not the story. However, I hope that through a few of those strategically placed details, you see where the stories within the holiday may lie.

The news article style of story-writing is rather dry and doesn't actually make for interesting reading because it merely explains what happened. I ate lunch. I watched the game. I wrote. I watched another game. I cooked dinner. Yes, that's a story that tells about my day, and it is as dry as overcooked turkey. Rather, stories come when the writer isolates on one event and explains why that was worth focusing on. 

Look at the Mongolian beef I made for my personal Thanksgiving feast. As odd as that detail seems, that can be a story in itself. The explanation of that choice of a meal - the why in all this - becomes the story. I could write about the one year I was stuck in the city for Thanksgiving without any location to go to. I thought it would be a very sad day, so I went to the only place that was open - Blue Willow on Damen and Chicago (now closed) - and just ordered Mongolian beef. 

During the preparation, I had my own personal realization that the people at Blue Willow were working during this holiday and not complaining about it. To them, their thanks was recognized in a different way, and they did not need to specifically recognize it on the fourth Thursday of November. They prepared my food with a smile, handed me the bag, and wished me a Happy Thanksgiving. I went home, enjoyed my food, and thought over just what the holiday meant to different people.

So, as you reflect upon whatever your holiday involved, know that there are a lot of stories to be written about this recent Thanksgiving. Pandemic aside, there is likely a rich harvest of events to be written about, and the holiday is merely the setting - one of the little details while you explain why it was worth writing about.