Friday, April 3, 2020

The Writing Medium

I wanted to call this post "Writing Media," but too many pitfalls came to mind. I feared some people would think it is about writing for the media - not the point. Others might think it is about one way of writing - it is about many, and "Media" is plural, not singular (I know people who think media is singular and to them, the plural is somehow always medias - smh). And of course, the word "Media" sets off a lot of alarms with people and directs the wrong keyword searches to my page. Let's bypass all those.

When I talk about The Writing Medium, I mean the physical way we create our stories, poems, and so forth. I'll put this into three common categories - writing longhand (old school), typing (high school), or AI dictation (new school). I use all these methods at some point or another, and also discuss them in my workshop. Writers of all stripes generally carry similar feelings and relationships with these media, so let's take a look.

Written word. Whether pen or pencil, eraser or scratch-out, any and everyone who writes their words longhand appreciates a very intimate, detailed relationship with their piece. Writing is extremely tactile, magnitudes more so than typing - an endless staccato of uniformly smooth keystrokes. Our pen or pencil has its own texture, it presses against our fingertips as we feel the paper flow unevenly underneath the tip. Each sound and stroke is unique, from the swoosh of crossing the t to that pop when we dot the i. Whenever you feel jammed up and unable to write/type/dictate that perfect sentence, put a good old #2 pencil in your hand and roll the coarse wood across your fingers. The Pavlovian trigger will have you writing in no time.

Typing. This is a different experience, and depending on our career and our stage in life, typing can be very efficient but terribly sterilizing to the writing process. Think about a lucky personal accessory - that hat you wear on third dates or those shoes that make you feel like the boss of the room. If you wore that hat or those shoes every day, would they feel lucky every time, or would their magical luck wash away? When we type, we type emails, memos, reports, blah blah blah... so many boring things in life get poured onto a keyboard that the sensation loses its flair. I shift this by using my laptop keyboard for creative stuff, then attach a USB keyboard with a different feel for the boring stuff. Weird? Absolutely. However, the patter of fingers across the laptop keyboard like kitten feet makes me a writer again, while that clunky attached keyboard puts my mind into the simple frame of catching up on correspondence.

AI dictation. Finally, artificial intelligence has reached a point where we can dictate our stories and fill a word processor page virtually in real time. No more keyboard - I can write as fast as I can talk. What could go wrong?

Literally everything.

Let's just put it this way - the way we talk is not the way we write. We speak in the passive voice, we say "uh" and "y'know" too many times. Our spoken words are clumsy and untrained. Learn to craft your speaking voice into your narrative voice before entering the world of dictation, or you will spend more time rewriting your dictated book that you ever would've just by writing it.

And don't get me started on typewriters. Those just bring back bad high-school memories (which I will discuss in my next post).

Monday, March 30, 2020

Writing In the Age of Quarantine

To be honest, this post comes as a surprise even to me. One of the ongoing themes I present in this blog is to keep on writing. Make some time to write every day. Try writing something different. Challenge yourself as a writer. I end my correspondences with fellow writers with, "Keep on writing" (and this blog site). In short, I emphasize writing.

Well, things change.

The past few weeks in the world have been... different. A lot of people I know have been furloughed, laid off, or are on work-from-home situations that give them a lot of extra time to write. Unfortunately, it becomes too much time. Way too much. Imagine a simple diary:


  • Day 1: Feeling creative, starting that big project
  • Day 2: Wrote 2,000 words toward my manuscript! Loving this extra time!
  • Day 3: Got more writing in. Fingers kinda sore, but the creativity flows.
...

  • Day 12: Does this ever end? I see words wherever I look.
  • Day 13: I think I am writing myself in circles. This is getting maddening.
  • Day 14: I must press forward. Writing is all I can do now.

...

  • Day 25: All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. All work...

...

  • Day 41: My 1,600-page manifesto is complete. I will now start a new society...


Too much of anything can be unhealthy, even writing. Make sure to mix things up. There are plenty of ways to be a writer, and plenty of exercises can shape the different facets of your craft. Instead of pouring all your efforts into one thing, break it into different routines. This is what I do just to keep myself on my toes:

First day: Focus on main project
Second day: Main project, also but read something of a similar genre
Third day: Main project
Fourth day: Try writing something totally new -- poems, song lyrics, two-sentence stories, etc.
Fifth day: Editing day
...and repeat.

Let me explain what Editing day is, because it does not explain itself. When I need a break but still wish to be creative, I take some time to review an old piece. My job is not to see what needs correcting, but rather I examine it to see what I might do differently now, and see how my writing style has changed. The main reason I do this is to remind myself of both my progress as a writer and the brilliance that has always existed. It may sound vain or egotistical, but we all need to charge our batteries with reminders about how far we've come.

And lastly, on a more serious note, I hope everyone reading this takes special care of themselves and those close to them during this time. As hard as these days may be, there will come a point where we will look back on this and marvel at the strength and courage that got us through. Let's focus on that point, and do our best to help others see it as well.

And keep on writing.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Writers Never Die - They Just Stop Revising

My last post discussed a piece of poetry I dug up from decades ago. Here's a question for non-writers - do you own one piece of paper from thirty years ago with your writing on it? (More than a signature, please) Probably not. Now a question for the writers - how many revisions do you have of your last work? I can safely respond to your answer with, "Wow, that's a lot but I'm not surprised." It's more than just sentimentality - the written word carries meaning for those who value it.

Remembering Bughouse Square and the author who captured it
The point is, our written words do amazing things for us, and eventually for those who read them. My little poem from thirty years ago brought me back to that little room, #3004, in the prison-styled dorms of my freshman year. Another piece I wrote during a disability stint transported me to a sick bed, reliving the moment I decided I needed to write more. (For more detail, see my post, Starting Off As A Writer) Again, that piece of writing was almost twenty years old, but those words capture life.

This has all come back to me as I began the arduous task of helping my friend Linda work through organizing her late husband's things. Newton, her husband of fifteen years, was also my writing mentor and helped me get to where I am now, so this was not a labor as much as a service to his memory. I posted his passing here, and spent a while writing through my grieving process. Now, with my social life severely curtailed thanks to... well, you've seen the news - I was able to help Linda with the process of dealing with her husband and my mentor's effects.

And just like that, Newton came back to life.

The first step we took on was clearing out all of the drafts of his since-published books. I guarantee that for every page of final copy a writer produces, there are five pages of edits surrounding the desk. Newton had several books published, so you can imagine all the recycling bins we filled. However, picking up one page not only brought his story into the open, but also brought his mindset into the light. Notes on character dialogue and word usage reminded me how he would labor about things like a Mississippi accent or just when bad grammar made more of an impression than editorial perfection. I found his last draft of his novel, Bughouse Square, which I edited, and there were my notes scribbled across the pages. Next to most of the edits, Newton placed a simple check mark. It meant he accepted my change and incorporated it. He overrode a few of them, but that is a writer's prerogative.

Writing is powerful like that. Sitting among those literally thousands of sheets of paper, a part of him was there as well. This may sound sad, but it wasn't. This was a chance to remember the writer I knew, the master chess player, and the storyteller extraordinaire, all while setting aside his last days where his health and mind collapsed. And as writers, we have the give of placing ourselves in those pages, so others may relive our existence now and then, and connect with us long after we've written the last word.

I also extracted Newton's last work, finished but unpublished - Circle of Evil - and in tribute I will publish it posthumously this year for him and his wife, Linda. And for just a little bit longer, Newton will live again. He just can't override my edits this time.

Monday, March 23, 2020

That Poetry Moment

I always preface poetry posts by saying that I am not a poet; at least I don't consider myself one. I have written poems, and some say that is enough to earn the title. However, poetry requires a special touch, the element that separates drawings from art, singing from a vocalist, and activity from an athlete. This post will discuss just what that touch is, and how to nurture it along. Even if your goal is not to be a poet, it is applicable to any creative process.

A little backstory: I always liked to write, but as little more than a hobby. My calling, my passion was (and still is) for numbers. The straight-line predictability and sturdiness of an equation always intrigued me. No matter what my mood was, 2x+4y=9 would always solve to the same, simplistic line. In a chaotic world, that was comforting. However, that did very little when it came to the part of me that needed to resolve those emotional entanglements known as my life.

And now to college - the most tumultuous time of my life. I had packed my entire existence into the backseat of my car and went to college with no home to return to if I failed. Make or break time. My major would either be statistics or operations research (I eventually went for both), but I still had those electives. I took a communications course discussing the great plays, and read Ibsen, Strindberg, Miller and so forth, all while trying to tell myself this would somehow help me be a better statistician, actuary, or economist. A hard sell indeed.

One night, after a fun time reading Death of A Salesman while drinking gin and listening to disc 1 of Pink Floyd's The Wall, that moment found me. With my stress at full boil, a little alcohol buzz pushing away my inhibitions, and still very much in the rhythm of the song, Nobody's Home, I scribbled down a poem. It wasn't beautiful, it wasn't lightning in a bottle. However, it was the first poem I had written that was not an assignment. I wrote it because it needed to come out and I was just enough into a place where that could happen. So it happened.

The other day I came across that very sheet of paper in my college files. As I read it, I half-expected to do that thing where a writer reads an old work and says, "Pfeh! Why did I think this was good?" Nope. Not this time. True, it wasn't perfect. However, it captured the poetry moment. It took that frame of emotional tension and poured those feelings onto the page. Unrefined, without any doctoring or rationalization, these words spoke straight to my turbulent time in that dorm room.

That poem was the poetry moment.

When we write, we often take an idea and play it out with our many writing tools and creative influences. The difficult part can be maintaining that inspiration throughout. With poetry, we can focus on that one feeling and make it dominate the page. This, however, requires that feeling to enter our mind, fill our heart (or whatever) to the point of overflowing, and then spill across the page, unfiltered, unpasteurized, no added sugars or preservatives.

Emotions are powerful and at times terrifying and dangerous. We shy away from them more than we care to admit. However, if we, as writers, can muster up the courage to confront them and capture them in the safe housing of a sheet of paper, we will feel that poetry moment.

And when it comes to gaining courage, of course, I recommend gin.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Show, Don't Tell (But Sometimes Tell)

One of the first exercises we are taught as writers is the art of description. We write about some simple noun like, for example, an orange blob, and describe it with all five senses as well as emotive responses This exercise is tedious but it gets us used to thinking in terms of description, so if a future orange blob makes some annoying sound, we are ready to write it down. More to the point, this leads us to our next step as writers - the infamous "Show, don't tell."

Describing the simple can be very difficult
In short, this is the art of describing the interplay of object and setting, not just the subject itself. If I were to tell you about the orange blob, I can still be fancy about it. For example: "the orange blob sat on the table, the jiggly, amorphous form looking no more interesting than a Jello mould dessert at a picnic that nobody touched. It sat quietly, unassumingly, not making one sound or radiating any aroma to attract attention. The orange blob liked it that way." Not too bad, but it is strictly the tell side. The most interesting part comes from relating it to the Jello mould example, but technically that isn't part of the story. However, that part is interesting because it shows us something.

It's often asked, if a tree falls and nobody's there to hear it, does it make a sound? Meditation aside, the same is true for anything we describe - if nobody is there to see the orange blob, why are we writing about it? Indeed, once we have someone experience the blob - even if it's the blob itself - then we allow for interaction, and we can create the imagery through the blob's participation in the world.

Let's pretend that blob is an orange Jello mould dessert on a table, and it is thinking about its situation. We can describe it through the blob's participation. "He knew he looked tasty but he wanted to go home intact without strangers having picked and poked at him, pulling out the sliced fruit within. As the hungry dessert seeker approached, he stood perfectly still, not one jiggle in his perfect orange form. He resisted his natural Jello urge to shimmer and shine, instead being as inconspicuous as possible. His faint Jello aroma would be easily overwhelmed by the banana creme pie on his left. Victory came when the person seeking dessert cut away a huge chunk of pie. It looked painful, but it wasn't him."

In that bit, we now know why the orange blob is there, what it's thinking, and our description engages the world he is in. That scene could exist without the description though it would be weaker, and the description would be boring without the scene around it.

Now, I promised sometimes it is better to tell. After you learn all about show, don't tell, you learn when to break the rules. Sometimes, we can use simple, even boring descriptions to create a scene that, without saying it, engages the reader on a different level. Here's a simple description. "With Brahms playing on the stereo, Laura laid still on the couch, a slight smile on her face. The table next to her was cleared of everything save for an almost-empty mug of coffee, a picture of her boyfriend, and an empty bottle of sleeping pills propping up a simple note."

The scene is quiet, peaceful, perhaps boring at first. It is not interactive, the interplay nonexistent. However, the items on the table, while truly nondescript, move the reader to put together a story that is being told by their presence, and hopefully call 9-1-1. This trick works when the reader is engaged with the story and participating in its activity. A peaceful scene becomes a jarring splash of cold reality.

Most of the time, interplay is priceless for the perfect description. However, don't be afraid to let some dramatic moments do some heavy lifting as well.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Different Ways to Tell the Same Story

Spoiler Alert: This post uses details from the classic story, "Of Mice and Men" by John Steinbeck. If this is on your reading list, put this post aside, read the book (it's only 200 pages) then come back. 
Traditionally, a story in the conventional three-act structure brings our characters into the world, takes them on an adventure, brings them to a culminating moment, and they end up changed, for better or worse. Nothing wrong with this structure at all - it's very effective, and it brings the reader along a life path that is very familiar and comfortable. Our own existence is much the same - a linear movement from A to B to C and so on down the line. However, the nonlinear method - telling a story outside the order of events - has some advantages.

Of Mice and Men gives us the story of George and Lennie, two field workers going from job to job out in California during the Great Depression. This state of existence creates a solid base for their development, offering no biases for the reader and letting the story fill in the character. We learn that George is pretty smart, and that Lennie is a hulking man with mental impediments and control issues. As the story unfolds, we get little reveals that Lennie needs a caretaker in George. More importantly, we see in an escalating series of confrontations, particularly with their angry, annoying boss, Curley, that trouble is never far away. Confrontations with Lennie end with people getting hurt, and the second-act tension ramps up to the point where Lennie goes too far and kills Curley's wife. In one of Steinbeck's most tragic and memorable moments, George takes Lennie to a peaceful place, talks to him calmly, and shoots him dead.

From a writer's view, this is a textbook escalation story, with a build-up that not only ramps up the tension between the different character groups, but also acknowledges George's personal conflict about how to take care of Lennie. However, what if some of this information is revealed ahead of time - before it occurs in the chronological order of the story? With that technique, we create a new rhythm to this classic tale - for better or worse.

A common technique is to begin a story with a dramatic event somewhere well into act two. At one point, Curley attacks Lennie, and gets his hand broken by Lennie's immense strength. If we bring out this point first - the reader's first experience is a fight between Curley and Lennie - that impression starts off the story with an emphasis on Lennie's capacity for physical violence. He is not the gentle giant who we later learn has no impulse control, but rather a man willing and able to break someone's hand. Definitely a different note to start with, and it affects all the subsequent notes.

Now, if we start the story by first showing George taking Lennie back to their camping area, gun in pocket, ready to put an end to his companion, but do not go as far as pulling the trigger before going to how their story began, this creates suspense. We know that moment is coming, but will he do what we think he will? When we then see them as friends and George as a loyal caretaker, we think about that moment ahead and wonder how could we go from a friendly moment to imminent tragedy. In a story like Steinbeck's we do not need such an artificial build, as the story carries a very natural sense of drama. However, some stories that dramatically shift between the beginning and the end can benefit from the reordering.

The little reveals of information can do amazing things to a story. The next post will be not about order but about when to drop the elements that create a specific mood.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Blurring the Lines Between Good and Bad

Picture in your mind a villain. Not a specific one - let Boris Karloff and Alan Rickman rest. In your mind, make up the image of someone truly villainous. Male or female, human or otherwise - the only prerequisite is that they will be the antagonist to a story. Now once you have that together, focus on the stand-out traits and figure out a way to describe them in the story. Find some words that get the point across in a way that pleases you, and really puts that bad person on the page. (There's a purpose to this.)

Since this is a villain, it would not be surprising if all the descriptors had some kind of evil connotation or sinister overtone. Were the colors dark and shadowy, or perhaps blood-red? The definition of their face - strong, defined lines; angular features and distinct contrasts? Are there scars or facial hair? Perhaps a deformity or misshapen features that call to the reader for their unusual presentation. These are all perfectly acceptable villain features - nothing wrong here. However, what happens when we sort through those? Certain features are more typical of villains, but some are more appropriate for strong characters - good or bad.

The old Dick Tracy comics (and particularly the movies in the 1930s and 1940s) became a classic display of good versus evil as portrayed through character description. The good guys might not have been pretty, but they were presented with clear, distinct lines and consistent elements. They became the norm for the standards presented in Dick Tracy's world. It might be physically impossible to live with a jaw as well-cornered as Tracy's, but that squared jaw represented a very attractive trait and helped define him as a great guy.

The bad guys, however, were all different. They were deformed, misfit creations that didn't blend into the world but rather stood out as aberrations. They were scarred, misshapen entities capable of doing anything that society rejected because their appearance was against all social norms. They were the prototypical definition of the enemy, in every sense.

So far, nothing new here. However, what happens when we take a few traits of bad guys and give them to our hero? What if the villain has some heroic traits or pleasant features? Now we have gone beyond pulp comics and ventured into the realm of complex storytelling. A hero with a pronounced facial scar not only suggests a rich backstory, but the symbol also implies internal conflict and perhaps tragedy. Our hero wears the mark usually saved for villains, and perhaps this symbolizes a darker nature, or a weakness for doing the wrong thing. Maybe the hero is at risk of succumbing to darker influences, and that temptation will test them later in the story. It's not just a deformity at that point - it's a signal to the reader about a lot under the surface.

Oh, and pity the reader that tries to hate a villain with redeeming traits. A beautiful villain might not be so bad, but what if that antagonist also takes care of their sick mother? What if they have a moral code to follow? If our villain carries traits that aren't so villain-y, the reader becomes conflicted as well. The reader has to weigh the situation, and make tough choices. If the reader is doing that, I guarantee the reader is fully invested in your story.

The next time you draw the lines for your protagonist and antagonist, try smudging things a little. That wouldn't fly in Dick Tracy comics, but in narratives, it makes characters stand out.


Monday, March 9, 2020

One Writer, Different Voices

I've had the wonderful experience of a friend telling me, "I met (a certain actor) last week... and he is nothing like the characters he plays!" Of course, I was happy for my friend and that celebrity coup. However, a part of my brain had to stop and catch its breath. I thought, "You do know that (a certain actor) is actually an entirely different entity that the characters he plays, yes? The characters are written, while (a certain actor) exists entirely on his own, and often makes his own decisions on his words, mannerisms, wardrobe, and life choices." But then I thought how easy it is for us to blend together the art and the artist, as unfair as that may be.

On more than one occasion, a newcomer to my workshop will hear one of my pieces and later, say, "Your writing is different than you." Sometimes, that's a compliment; other times not. I look at it from the point of view that if I can write in a voice or style other than what I consider my natural way, then that's a good thing. The only real question should be whether that's how I want things to come out.

Being able to create pieces in different styles and with different voices is a healthy writing goal - this allows the writer the liberty of deciding the best way to deliver any message they want with the story, and convey it effectively. These should be like second languages or voice impersonations, where the creator of the piece vanishes and that alternate approach dominates the scene. We see that all the time in movies, particularly when (a certain actor) steps outside their usual good-guy role to portray someone who is morally dubious or downright bad. We should pursue the same thing as writers.

Consider a story centered around something very solemn - a funeral, perhaps. The character has to deliver a eulogy for a loved one, but has a lot of pent-up frustrations that need to be expressed. An emotionally volatile subject, easy to turn into something with real impact. It would be easy to write this in a very sobering, tough-life voice, making everything as dreary as possible and filling it with one frustrating revelation after another, but how can we change the product while retaining the story? What does another voice sound like?

Ever get to sit through a bad wedding toast? I mean really bad - like the drunken uncle making rude jokes and offering comments about the newlyweds so cringeworthy that you want to hide under the table? Where you actually feel embarrassed for the bride and groom? Where later, people still talk about the speech like a support group for Post-Traumatic Toast Syndrome? Gather that experience, collect the voice of that experience and bring it to our eulogy story.

We take all the mood of our happy wedding reception and move it to the eulogy. The funeral doesn't have to become a happy affair, but instead of attention turned toward tears and handkerchiefs, descriptions focus more on everyone wearing their nicest attire to send off the deceased in the respectable manner they deserved. Then here comes the speaker to give his eulogy, mourners anticipating the fond memories to be shared that will lift their spirits and bring closure to the moment. Then the eulogy begins with all the errors and gaffes of that same drunken uncle, and all those moods shift. The voice and mood of the story is not that of a funeral, it's of the wedding, and the effect, while distressing, gives a different result.

I always give consideration to the voice I want to use for a story before I even put a word to the page. And like any good writer, I give myself the liberty to change it afterward; after all, sometimes we all have those moments when we know something would work better; when (a certain actor) just isn't right for the part as written. Fortunately, we have the liberty to rewrite the thing as we wish, and we don't have to recast the scene.

(Samuel L. Jackson. Just saying...)

Friday, March 6, 2020

Workshop Warnings

Since I do the whole writing workshop circuit around my neighborhood, I get to see a lot of different ways a group can help its writers. Some provide a close and supportive community, others establish specialized groups to help with particular aspects of the process, and there are even those that take on a collaborative feel, with very active and integrated participation. Every writer needs to find what serves then best, and some writers (such as myself) gain benefit from more than one group. Today, however, I would like to bring out a few warnings about the bad habits that occur in some groups, and what might not benefit you in your pursuit of this noble craft.

Let's say I write a story and take it to a group. This story is about a person contemplating the meaning of life while having dinner in a Chicago restaurant, enjoying a well-done steak with heavy ketchup. As a writer, I am trying to find a way to walk through his thoughts about life with a symbolic connection to his meal, so I take it to the workshop. This will be our setup for spotting some of the situations that might give us pause.

Some people might jump on the obvious stand-out of the story: a well-done steak? With ketchup? In Chicago? Well, that does kind of leap off the page, but is it worth critiquing? Honestly, I do not know one Chicagoan who wants their steak cooked longer than medium-rare, and none of them dare have ketchup on it. However, that is not a criticism - that's an observation that has nothing to do with the writing. Now, if the writer wants this person to come off as the average Chicagoan, a criticism might be that Chicagoans usually don't put ketchup on steaks (or hot dogs). However, there is nothing wrong with that in general - it's a writer's choice, and perhaps a good one if the objective is to get the reader's attention.

A more dangerous area within writing groups is when it comes to interpretation. Not everyone in a writing group is going to see things the same. Some might see the contemplation of life while eating a steak as symbolic of how in the end we all get swallowed up by things, others might see how one life can offer sustenance to another, and so on. When a group offers what each reader sees in a story, it can show the writer which parts worked and what might've fallen short, and maybe draw out some insights they didn't see themselves. However, group members should discuss this not as whether they are right or wrong. If they do, it does not help the writer. Only the writer knows the truth in their words, and only they can feel who got it and who didn't. Now, if nobody in the group says they saw what the writer intended, maybe the writer did fail to hit the right notes. However, it is not the group's responsibility to tell the writer who is wrong. That's not a workshop - it's a judgment chamber.

Here's a couple of personal notes as well on some critiques that do not help me whatsoever. Let's say I read my man-with-his-thoughts-and-his-steak story to the group. Person A wants the steak place to be more like Morton's, because that's how they envision steak houses. Person B wants an emphasis on side orders, the completeness of the meal, and whether it's balanced. Person C is a vegetarian, so he didn't care for it. These aren't critics who want to help you grow. These are people who want to write your story in their words or integrate themselves into your works. This happens more often than some writers are comfortable with, and should be taken with a grain of salt.

The critiques that help me grow as a writer make me think about my process, my creation, and how I can better myself. A good critic will ask me questions about pieces and what my intended result was. Workshops should involve a good amount of back and forth, with each person's comment not being a judgment as much as one of many equal perspectives that make up a reading audience. If you can find a group like that, hold on to it closely.

And seriously, if you cook a steak any further than medium-rare, is it even a steak anymore?

Monday, March 2, 2020

The Secret Uses of Description

Yes, using a picture of my kittens to draw a few readers is utterly shameless. It is a draw from the non-writer crowd and totally exploits my cats, who get none of the proceeds from my posts. However, little Dinkum and Hinkum here have a purpose other than being cute, and it is all about what writers can do with description.

Dinkum (left) and Hinkum
My real inspiration for this piece comes from the John le Carré quote that referred to a cat. "'The cat sat on the mat' is not a story," he famously said in the first part of his often-mentioned line, referring to how there was nothing particularly telling about that line. After all, cats sit on things. Mats are often sat on, particularly by cats. It's a very blah sentence. Now, we can spice it up a little with some description, but this is not just the simple task of filling in the scene. Our description must not only contribute to the scene, but make it into something more.

Now back to Dinkum and Hinkum. If one of them was the referred-to cat on the mat, what are some descriptions we could use to fill in the previous sentence? We could use simple words like cute, adorable, and such, and they would count as contributors. However, what did we actually add to the story? "The cute cat sat on the mat" doesn't really offer anything new. Most cats are cute, so the reader is pricing that into the sentence. Cute and adorable are descriptive, but they don't say anything that's already assumed. As the saying goes, "Dog bites man" is not news. "Man bites dog" is news.

We could advance the description to their colors. In a story, I would need to point out that Dinkum is gray and white while Hinkum has the more distinct black-and-white markings. Now, the gray-and-white cat sat on the mat tells us which one. That's a little more information and definitely an improvement upon cute or adorable, but not by much. The sentence has more words and some more information, but it does not offer us anything outside the realm of the original sentence.

Did I mention that these little darlings are rescues? They were abandoned when they were two weeks old and I needed to dropper-feed them several times a day for almost a month. Why is that important? Look what happens when I turn that into a descriptor. "The rescued cat sat on the mat." That one word now turns the sentence into something that interests the reader. The description hasn't just filled in the blanks, but offered a new set of blanks that the readers wants to find out about. Our previous descriptors gave us image but little substance. "Rescued" offers little in terms of image, but makes it a story.

When we use description, we can use it to not just fill in, but build onto the story. Cats can be cute or adorable, but describing them as being rescued, feral, zombies, and so forth adds not just to the sentence but the story. Same with the verb. Sat is simple, but sat patiently implies the cat is waiting for something in the next sentence, eagerly gives some urgency, and so forth. As for the mat, if we describe it as the dog's mat, we sense impending conflict. One descriptor creates a lot of story.

The full John le CarrĂ© quote was, “The cat sat on the mat is not a story. The cat sat on the other cat’s mat is a story.” He emphasized the addition of the descriptor to mat rather than cat, which counts as well. However, I chose to emphasize describing the cat so I could show the picture of my kittens. Aren't they adorable?

Friday, February 28, 2020

Finding Focus and Holding Focus

Last Wednesday, I was fortunate enough to get the poet and artist Terry Foote to speak at my writing workshop at the Park Forest Public Library. He discussed his process and the journey he took in finally getting his book, Picturesque Poetry, out of his brain and onto the shelves. I don't want to give away the entire story, but one of the important takeaways was about focus. A writer's focus is a special thing, and it inspired me to write this piece.

For the beginning writer, focus is a very tricky idea. Anyone who wants to write a story will tell you that they have everything in mind - the characters are real, the developments vivid, the plot arc crystal-clear. This is a great start, but is it enough? In our mind, we can imagine the expression on Christ's face in The Last Supper, but as we know, there are twelve other people at the table. Their positions and interactions are just as important to the painting. After all, this grand mural isn't just called Christ's Face. Like any meal with thirteen people, there are multiple conversations, groupings, and several areas of character interplay. Our sharp focus on one person actually does not do justice to the greater work.

Part of our journey is about finding our focus. We need to not just see the trees but understand the forest as well. We need to discover all the different aspects of the broader picture, and start developing that as well, while remaining true to those trees we see so clearly. If this doesn't sound so easy, well, it isn't. That's the point. For a writer, the forest is the mood, atmosphere, underlying themes, and continuing messages surrounding the trees that are those main characters. Without all that support, those trees are just a couple of pieces of wood in an open plain.

A common problem writers often encounter in this regard is knowing where a story goes but not knowing how to get there. This is where they need to hold their focus on the characters but include their journey in that view. If the writer does not know where to take those characters, then the problem is pretty simple - they've lost focus on the bigger picture. It's easy to get lost in the forest if you only look at the trees.

Now, the other part of this journey is more often seen once the first is completed and outside eyes explore the work. Everyone's a critic, and plenty of comments will challenge your idea of the story you wanted to tell. The criticism will come in many waves, with things like, "I like more dialogue," "I was hoping for more action," or "This needs some wise-cracking sidekick like that guy we met the other week." Maybe there's a grain of truth in these comments. Maybe a few more conversations would spruce up the characters. Would a car chase help? A little humor? These can be valid, but this is your work. Your piece. At this point, the bigger question is, "Would this still be true to what I want to produce?"

If you are writing to make money, be prepared for big rewrites to make the story more marketable, more reader-friendly, more commercial. However, if you want to tell a story that conveys some part of your inner self to the world, Hold onto it tight. Constructive criticisms might help, but ask yourself each time, "Does this change compromise the story I want to tell?" You might have a realization that there is more than you thought, and that's fine. But through it all, hold your focus tightly. It's your story; own it.

And on a final note, Terry Foote will be speaking at the Park Forest Public Library on April 9th, at 7:00 p.m., presenting his art and poetry and speaking about his journey as a writer.

Monday, February 24, 2020

Meaning and Perspective

Today is never an easy day for me. It's a little easier every year, but it's never easy. On this day, a number of years ago, I unexpectedly lost my father. Without going into too many details, his last forty hours on this side of life were full of emotional turbulence. He was not conscious for the bulk of it, but for those around him, it was a difficult ride full of twists and sudden turns. The one thing that comes back to me every time, though, is a simple set of lyrics, and in hindsight, I learned a lot about meaning and perspective from that forty-hour stretch.

I got the call early Saturday morning that my father was in the hospital. Not many details, just the typical, "You better get over there fast" call. Well, getting over there fast was a two-hour drive, which had all the nervousness of sitting in place combined with the risks of driving a car 65 miles per hour down a toll road while fraught with anxiety. Frankly, everyone along I-90 is lucky they survived my commute.

My father back in 2007, carrying around
my head for good luck.
Which brings me to the lyrics. The song, "Shadow of the Day" by Linkin Park was all the rage on the Top 40 stations, so it got air time constantly. During my drive of anxiety, the last thing I was concerned about was finding the right music, so I left it where it was - a Top 40 station. This means that during my two-hour drive, I heard that song at least once and often twice. Through that time, one particular stanza stands out:
And the shadow of the day
Will embrace the world in gray
And the sun will set for you
Now, does this stanza mean something to you? Maybe it has deep meaning, or maybe it has enough movement for you to understand what it is getting at. However, as my mood changed during my driving, those lyrics changed.

My first trip to the hospital was mired in anxiety and the threat of loss, so these lyrics offered the threat of loss, of death. For two hours I asked myself whether my father was already dead; had his sun set? Well, he was still alive. Eight hours of surgery and all kinds of procedures, but this stubborn Army veteran made it. He would be touch and go for a few days, but he had survived something that should've killed him before he hit the operating table.

Driving home that night, the song comes on again, and now I am thinking about mortality. At some point, my father will die, but now I had time to embrace that idea, to get used to that eventual future. The lyrics meant something new because I was in a new place.

After an unsettled sleep, I again drove the two hours to see how he was doing. Again, the song comes on, and my more collected self thinks about the stages of life, and how as each new stage starts, an old stage fades to gray. My father would likely never be quite the same man again. For a man in his mid-70s, recovery would be a struggle that might take the cheer from his face. He would enter old age now, and need some attention. Life was changing, and the sun had set on the previous era.

About a half-hour after I arrived, his heart rate crashed and he died. After settling what to do and making the first arrangements for the funeral, I drove home. That damn song came on. I knew exactly what it meant. It was death. Finality. It was over.

As a writer, I think about that moment a lot. When I write a piece, the words change depending on the mood I create in the narrative. The same description can become many things depending on whether it's upbeat, somber, or whatever. It's like sarcasm - it survives on content, and dies without mood. When you incorporate mood, look at how the words are influenced. It can be a very powerful tool in a writer's kit.

My thanks to Linkin Park for the song, and to Dad for those extra forty hours - I'll remember them forever.


Friday, February 21, 2020

The Powerful Process of Simply Writing

Sometimes, dedication comes at a cost. To help promote books, writing, and literacy, I support my local library by holding a seat on the Board of Trustees. However, occasionally this creates a schedule conflict, and the Board comes first. So, the other day, my Library Board responsibilities meant I missed the opportunity to participate in a fifteen-minute flash-fiction session at a different library. For anyone who wants to discover things about their writing process, I highly recommend these.

They are very simple events. People get out their paper and pencil (or pen), are given a writing prompt, and for the next fifteen minutes, they write the first story that enters their head. Usually this is a narrative exercise, because it forces more creativity, but different groups do it different ways. Some allow people to use their laptops (I prefer to physically write for reasons I will explain later), other groups offer the prompts in advance. The point is, for the next quarter-hour, it's all about the writing.

The results of these endeavors can be wild and varied, and most of the creations are awkward little creations. Sometimes someone really knocks it out of the park, and often someone creates the kernel of a future story. To me, those parts aren't as important as the process part. We often discover a lot about ourselves when we enter into a process that frees us of self-consciousness and lets us focus on that one thing we want to do - write.

This is a bit of a giveaway about my age, but I learned proper typing technique in 1980 on an IBM Selectric in General Business in junior high. Before that, it was all about paper and pencil, learning print and cursive, and constantly stretching out my aching hand after every page of writing. My father found an old electric typewriter and gave it to me in high school for homework. Eventually, I learned typing on a keyboard, but writing was still my hardwired experience. Long before I learned that ASDFGHJKL; was the home row, my hands were writing down ideas, thoughts, love notes to girlfriends, ideas in my journal, and yes, poems and stories.

Writing in my mot natural form involves paper and pen. Now, I fully admit that I wrote my first novel on a laptop, and all subsequent manuscripts are courtesy of Microsoft Word. However, there is still a labor to that flow at times. I will be typing a narrative and that annoying red line will appear where I spelled something wrong. Now I'm thinking about that, and it breaks my pace. Other 21st-century interruptions hit as well, and I have to break my process to become the tech support guy. For a writer, it's annoying to not be writing.

This is why I enjoy flash-fiction sessions. For those fifteen minutes, technology, formatting, and all the technological invasions drift away, and I am that sixth-grader with the crude penmanship, writing that note to my secret crush (and we will leave her name out of this). I am relieved of all distractions and now let the feeling of that pencil in my fingertips wash away everything but my connection to the written word. I am more of a writer in that moment because I am no longer anything else. No tech support, no thoughts about keeping my fingers on the home row. I am just a writer, and for that time, I reconnect with exactly who I want to be in that moment.

Maybe flash fiction isn't your thing. Maybe you are younger than me (like the majority of people in the USA), and you connect better through a keyboard. The point is, every now and then, distill your process and spend some time writing with the purest process you can get; free of distractions, obligations, or preconceived notions of what you want to write. Wash away everything else, and give yourself that bit of time to remind yourself what it feels like to just be a writer.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Our Very Own Story

Today is a special day for me; a day that every person gets to acknowledge in their own time if they feel so inclined. No, I am not referring to Presidents' Day. Rather, it is my birthday. I have completed another lap around the Sun, and this is something that only 0.274% of all people can say today. With such a unique event occurring, how does one write about this? How does this special event become a story?

First, we should discuss what does and doesn't make this day special, because as I have discussed at length, a story comes from finding something that stands out from the ordinary. Even though less than 0.3% of the world shares this birthday, that still adds up to over 20.5 million people. Suddenly it doesn't seem as special when more people share your birthday than live in the state of New York. No, the date itself is not the story.

Of course, the exact day I was born might be more interesting. The top songs were Love is Blue and The Mighty Quinn - not much help there. I was born during the 1968 Winter Olympics. Maybe if my parents cared about the men's Slalom competition held that day in Grenoble, France, there would be a story, but they were not that into winter sports. Living in Chicago was enough of a winter sport for them. They also did not concern themselves with basketball, which means that the opening of the Basketball Hall of Fame that day meant nothing. No real story there.

In these cases, we can look for a story by finding something that happened in the world on that day that people react to, and tightening the focus to how that event that everyone knew influenced the very intimate event of someone's birth. My brother's first birthday coincided with the assassination of JFK - that quickly became a story that people can connect with since they knew the larger event, and could now connect the smaller event of a birthday party to that fateful moment in Houston.

Connecting the big with the small is a nice perspective story, as it can bring a stranger into the moment through a related event. However, the smaller event connected to another smaller event can provide a more personal connection that gives a story the feeling of a secret that the reader is being told. That brother of mine with the birthday during JFK's assassination - well, when my brother was born, my father could not be in attendance because he was with his family, saying farewell to his own father, who died three hours before my brother was born. My brother was named after my grandfather for that reason. Chances are, you've never met my grandfather or my brother. However, the story would be about coincidence and loss, and those events can connect a reader to the content, even without the actual event being experienced.

Where is the story for my birthday? Well, it's hard for me to know since I was very young at the time. However, I do know that I was born a little after nine in the morning, and by noon my father had been checked into the hospital for a health emergency (as you can tell, my father had a lot of bad experiences when his children came into the world). I know that I did not have a name for three days because my mother wanted some input from my father, but he was heavily sedated even as my mother was being checked out of the hospital. Eventually, she decided to name me after her father, although I think growing up with my first name, Baby Boy Pressler, would've been okay as well.

When we have our birthdays, they are days to celebrate ourselves. We rejoice with that 0.3% of the world, get our free drink at the bar, and let our friends sing to us. And if we decide to tell that story about us, we find the thing that people can connect to that is unique to us. There might be 20 million people who share that birthday, but finding that story that speaks to our moment is the best story we can write.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Love Stories

It's Valentine's Day - how could today's post be about anything other than love stories? We all know them, we've read a few whether we admit it or not, and there is an entire sub-industry within the writing community that thrives on love and romance. This seems like it would be the most natural thing to write about. Not all of us have experiences adventure, thrilling tales of derring-do, or epic fantasy, but love - it's everywhere. How can this be difficult to write about?

It's not difficult to write about. Writing it well, however, is a challenge.

Love stories are different than other genres in one very important way. Horror stories are full of horror, hopefully from the first sentence. Thrillers have the main character at constant risk. Science fiction creates an entire fantasy world to fill the pages. Those genres go cover to cover with the subject matter. Love stories, however, are different. In this genre, love is the destination, not the environment.

Before I go any further, there are a number of stories about two people in love and their relationship grows throughout the narrative. However, a story requires obstacles and challenge, and in these continuing relationship stories, the tension comes from that connection being challenged or threatened, and the reader hoping the two can find each other again. These are still love stories, but perhaps they should be called threatened-love stories.

Now, looking at the mainstream of this genre, maybe it would be too wordy to call these "falling-in-love" stories, but that's where the story lies. Two people meet, there's some kind of connection but there are hurdles to be overcome, challenges to be faced, and usually at least one of the characters is already in a relationship. This is where the bulk of the story is; this drives the narrative.

The part that makes the real love stories stand out is that our main characters experience love as the story develops, but it is not fully recognized, acknowledged, and made real for hundreds of pages. A good writer will give the characters moments together where the chemistry shows, perhaps even showing how each character feels but never communicates to the other. He is drawn to her, she is drawn to him, but they just can't bring themselves to tell each other. This is a very tense experience for the reader, who should want them to finally get together because they can see both sides of the situation, but things get increasingly hopeless as the world seems to be against them. They love each other, but they don't know the other loves them. "Incomplete love story" is also too wordy.

And, of course, there are the stories where the two people do find each other, but the world keeps pulling them apart. Whether it is a socially forbidden love like Romeo and Juliet, or any other set of circumstances that keeps a couple from being a couple, now the reader is with the characters in hoping they overcome the world's obstacles and are together happily ever after. Same level of tension, but as opposed to the previous example, the reader participates in the characters' adventure.

If you want to write a love story, don't think about the love part. Think first about what separates, what divides, and what resists. Think about the tensions, the complications, the troubles in the world that keep us from happiness. Think about the story, and make the characters do everything to overcome them in the name of love, because that's what people want to read about - doing everything to end up happily ever after..

But for now, go enjoy your Valentine's Day, then write about it Monday.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Writing Humorous Stories, Not Just Funny Ideas

Everyone knows that one funny person - someone who is the go-to for a good laugh, an entertaining story, or just that look on life that makes you smile. Writers can learn a lot from these people - delivery. presentation, and just how people make the simple story entertaining. However, writers can also learn that there is a big difference between the funny person, the funny story, and funny writing, and in particular how they are not always interchangeable.

I was invited to participate in a comedy slam this week, and I decided to jump in. It isn't stand-up per se, just amusing storytelling and wit. To prepare for this, I started thinking about some particularly amusing thing that happened and how I could do a funny five-minute set about it.

You guessed it - things got weird at that point. I realized there were a lot of funny, weird events that happened, but they weren't funny stories - just events. When I watched a pigeon fight a squirrel for a bread heel, only to see another pigeon steal it behind their backs, that was funny. Was it a story? Not really. I literally told the event in one sentence - a story takes much more. Watching two people walking down the street walk right into each other because they were both texting? Funny, and kind of a social statement, but where's the story?

One of the biggest mistakes beginning writers make is confusing an idea for a story, and humor is the same way. In that regard, urban wildlife fighting over scraps or Millennials walking into each other is funny, but not humorous.  Humorous takes something a little stronger.

Let's recall what makes a story: a character, an event, personal confrontation, and change. Someone encounters something that does not fit their way of living, thinking, or doing, and that interactions brings about some kind of result. When we work with humor, we take this story component and distort the framework. We stretch, bend, and contort, in hopes of exaggerating the aspects that will entertain our audience.

Of course, the immediate go-to is to make everything bigger, stronger, louder, and more absurd. This gonzo style of humor has its place, but it is far easier to fail at this than succeed. Rather, we write humorous pieces when we exaggerate one particular aspect of a story and expand on everything that this aspect touches. We allow one part to inflate itself beyond its reality, and let the distortions be the entertainment.

Have you ever been a passenger in the car of a terrible driver? Maybe they're not terrible, but their driving makes you uncomfortable? (Anyone who taught a teenager to drive immediately qualifies) This is fertile ground to point out every mistake that driver made in extremis and emphasize the reactions accordingly. Do they take a turn too fast? Describe the screeching of the two tires that remained on the road as you are thrown to the side, clutching onto your seat belt for dear life as the driver rips through that left-turn lane. Do they stop too hard? Then every stop is like a Heimlich in the gut as you jerk forward, your forehead so perilously close to the dashboard as the car jerks to a halt at the stoplight.

Those examples have no jokes, but the exaggeration brings the discussion beyond its reality, and hopefully entertains the crowd as well. As for me, I'll be trying that at the Black Road branch of the Joliet Library coffee shop, Thursday, during the comedy slam that starts around 6 p.m.

And undoubtedly, that experience - for better or worse - will make for some humorous writing.


Friday, February 7, 2020

The Hidden Story

A lot of my posts in the past two months have been about finding and uncovering stories rather than writing stories. Be warned - this is no different. However, this is more about a special kind of story. There's often a story that is right in front of our face, hiding in plain sight. These stories exist in a way that we don't fully appreciate until we are offered one little fact that changes our perspective. At that point, all we can see is the new story.

I have a print of an old map by Ortelius, a 16th-century cartographer, hanging in my living room. As a map it holds no value - it's one of those where Asia is way too small, Australia is merged into Antarctica. the Americas are horribly distorted, and some parts are just missing. Use this for navigating purposes at your own risk. Rather, I have it because it looks cool hanging by my wine rack and serves as a nice conversation starter. I also have it because it has a hidden story, and I let people study it for a while to try and spot it. They never do, but it's right there.

Sometimes the hidden story is very subtle. Look at the websites with strange photo positioning and you see how there might be someone looking through a window in the background, or a reflection in a mirror that ruins the scene. Those are details that are deeply hidden, but once you see them you can't unsee them. Those become interesting stories to write, and learning that technique is an art form.

Consider a story about three people talking. Simple, right? Well, a reader assumes that three people talking means they are talking to each other, which is called a conversation. However, if we play with the little cues that suggest a conversation, we can manipulate the scene so that it is actually two people having a conversation, while the third person is a ghost, or a shared memory they have, or a stranger talking to himself. We hide that fact at first but never lie about it - we just leave out anything that would imply two-way discussion with the person not involved. Then, when we reveal that fact, the reader notices that this has been right in front of them all along.

The thing about my map is that a little knowledge of history is involved. Not everyone is fluent in the details of the Age of Discovery, so it's hardly their fault that this detail is overlooked. However, once that key piece of information is introduced, their world changes. A good story does that as well.

Think of the classic whodunit where the guy and his friend head out to solve a crime. In this, the big reveal is that the guy's friend is actually the criminal who has been trying to foil the investigation without giving himself away. The writer not only has to map out the main story, but create a hidden story on how the criminal quietly plans things, creates red herrings, and misleads his friend. This creates a second story which is not written until the big reveal and then is explained. At that point, the reader can never read that story again the same way, and looks at it with this new knowledge. The world of that story changes.

The hidden story is a technique that demands intense attention to detail, not only to hide things in plain sight but keep the reader focused so intensely on the main story that they do not put together the hidden story until it is revealed to them.

Oh -- the map? Ortelius did this weird thing where he mapped out Antarctica and a number of coastal details. However, according to the accepted history of civilization, the land mass known as Antarctica was not seen by human eyes until the 19th century. It has been a subject of theory and conjecture, but never seen, yet this person had enough information to put it on a map.

And so we no longer think about the map, but the squiggly lines at the bottom that represent something that nobody knew about.

Monday, February 3, 2020

This Is Not About the Super Bowl

Believe it or not, it is a fact that not everyone cares about the Super Bowl. Yes, it might be the most-watched annual event in the world, but let's be honest - not everyone cares. Most of the world doesn't concern itself with American football, and within the United States, the game showcases only two of the 32 teams in the NFL. Ultimately, two fan bases have a vested interest, while the rest of the viewers are either concerned about how the score affects their office pool, how good the halftime show will be, the cool commercials, or whether the food at the Super Bowl party will be worth the effort.

So how do we find the story within this spectacle that people will want to read?

First, let's be clear: Writing a story about the Super Bowl does not mean writing about the chain of key events throughout the game. I have said this before and I'll say it again - that is called a news story, not a creative story. Yes, it explains the game and establishes a scene, but it does not create a story as much as re-creates a story. As writers, we can do so much more.

Second, there are a lot of potential stories to write about, but a writer's obligation is to find a particular story and explore that thread. The biggest mistake we make as writers is to try and do everything. We look at the game and see two young quarterbacks trying to win it all. We also see the struggles each team has gone through, how they performed in the playoffs, the effects of San Francisco and Kansas City both playing the biggest game of the year in Miami, and so on. There is the clash of cultures, the classic offense-versus-defense discussion, and who the real stars will be.

All of this does not make a story.

A story worth reading finds one point - a character, a situation, a specific aspect of the whirlwind that is the Super Bowl - and hones in on it. Usually, such a story can be boiled down to a one-word theme: friendship, rivalry, unity, etc. Then it needs some point of conflict, either between characters, between someone and their ideals, or merely one person fearing their team will lose. The theme brings in the reader, the conflict gets them reading, and the continuing tension keeps them reading to resolution. And, as you may have figured, none of these stories require an actual knowledge about football. Here are some simple ones:

  • A man goes with his girlfriend to a Super Bowl party, and while she is very excited because her team is playing, he feels awkward because he doesn't really care about football, but wants to fit in with her friends
  • Someone is with his friends, all rooting for their team, but he realizes that if their team loses, he wins $500 in the office pool
  • Two fans of opposite teams bond during the game, but it is tested in the end when one fan is ultimately confronted with his team losing

Those stories all involve the Super Bowl, all have the one-word identifier (conformity, challenge, friendship or rivalry depending on the ending), and ultimately require virtually no knowledge of football. They become stories anyone can appreciate because the stories are about human interests.

Of course, the in-game stories are just as interesting when they focus on one player, one aspect of strategy, or some particular detail. The importance is that the story targets one point and explores it in a way readers can relate to. However, I find it easier to write about the commercials during the game. The Groundhog Day commercial - awesome!

Friday, January 31, 2020

But Is It A Story?

I am reaching that age where I start telling kids about the long walks I took to get to school, dealing with rain, snow, mud, tornadoes, and wild animals just so I could get to class - and how I was grateful for the opportunity. However, as a kid my trip wasn't that bad. At best, it was a three-thousand-foot walk; longer if we took the sidewalks, but usually we cut through backyards and walked along easements leading to the far end of the playgrounds in the back of the schoolyard. It was close enough so I could actually go home for lunch if I ran. So that's what I did for my first five years of school. Not much of a story there.

Now, if I am telling the story of my life, I have to consider how to frame this particular situation. That walk to school is kind of boring, but it's a part of my childhood. So I have to ask myself, do I want to tell the facts on the ground when I was growing up, or do I want to tell stories about those days? That walk is a part of my past, but it's not a story. However, of those 900 days where I made that walk, there were events that stood out. Are those stories?

John le Carre famously said, “'The cat sat on the mat' is not a story. 'The cat sat on the other cat’s mat' is a story.” The point is that a story requires something to stand out, to be exceptional, to be a story. Otherwise it's just reporting. Who cares about the cat on its mat? However, once that cat is on the other cat's mat, it sets off a bunch of things. Why the change? How does the other cat feel about this? Will this escalate? That simple shift makes all the difference. Otherwise, it's just a thing that happened.

Let's look at my walks to and from school. There were leashed dogs along the way. Are they worth turning this into a story? Well, a leashed dog can be interesting, but does it change anything? Along that way was a particularly monstrous Husky/werewolf mix that would strain the heavy-gauge chain hooked to its fat leather collar as it tugged and barked and howled, craving the flesh of human children. Now is it a story? Not yet. And unless that dog either breaks the chain, turns into a human in front of me, or dies, it will never be anything more than background filler, no matter how vicious it may be.

The thing that made that walk to school a story was the one day when either the school or the town put up a chain-link fence across the one gap between the schoolyard and the easement. It couldn't have been more than a six-foot-high fence, but it cut us off from school, and we would have to backtrack and take... the sidewalks! The fence also had tar spread across the top rail to further deter us children from climbing the fence, as children are prone to do. This fence was a statement. A challenge. It was our third-grade Everest.

Now it's a story.

When we write about our experiences and discuss the highs and lows, we need to ask ourselves if we are just reporting the facts or if we are demonstrating how we faced the changing world around us. A story involves change, confrontation, and resolution either through triumph or failure. A story is an adventure, even if the adventure is merely a cat on the wrong mat. A story talks about a changing world. If the world doesn't change, then it's just reporting.

Monday, January 27, 2020

Focus vs. Blinders

In my last post, Stories Within Stories, I talked about exploring our stories to make sure we are not missing other opportunities. Indeed, I did get a few responses from the Facebook side of this post. Some people wanted to know what was wrong with just telling the story they want to tell and not exploring some greater meaning. Another comment emphasized remaining focused on one aspect and not letting the story wander. And of course, I heard the natural response that, "It's not that kind of story."

First, I love getting IM comments through Facebook, so keep those coming - it's a great way to engage and explore. More important, though, is that we should always explore our stories to see what is out there, even if we do not explore it. Focus is, of course, always important. However, I am reminded of the blinders placed on horses. They give the horse a sharp focus on the space ahead, but at the price of not seeing anything else. We need focus, but not blinders.

James Jones wrote a few very good novels fictionalizing his experiences in World War Two, and my personal favorite is The Thin Red Line. This book came out in 1962, at a time when some authors like Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., and later Richard Hooker decided to write about the gritty, visceral side of their experiences, and this story is no different. However, this novel shows the difference between focus and blinders.

The obvious focus seems to be the island-hopping campaign in the Pacific Theater during World War Two; particularly Guadalcanal. For a lot of people, this would be enough for an interesting story about events most people could never understand without being there. However, what makes it a larger draw is that is doesn't isolate itself to being a war story. Jones saw that war is, in fact, a very human story, and he brought that element into his narrative.

Now, there are plenty of other stories that were there for the taking: prior to entering the service, most soldiers had never left their home state, so experiencing the tropical Pacific could be a story unto itself. What about meeting people from across the country who now all gathered into the 27th Regiment? These are potentially fascinating stories, but proper focus means paying attention to those points that built out the story. So yes, those elements were mentioned and could've made another story, but The Thin Red Line kept a keen focus on the challenges of being human amidst the chaos of war. Richard Hooker's novel, MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors, applied the same techniques, but shifted the focus to different aspects of the human experience. Probably the reason why one became a popular sitcom and the other remained a dark read about World War Two.

The most important part of examining the inner elements of any story is to unearth any and all potential areas for discussion, and see the subject matter as the reader would. This is less a correction than an opportunity to add dimension to a story. The novel may already be a fine story on its own, but when the key details are unearthed, a fine story becomes a classic.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Stories Within Stories

In my different workshops, I get the privilege of helping people who want to write their life's stories for future generations. To me this is an honor and a privilege to keep such memories alive, but it's also a wonderful opportunity to remind people about the importance of understanding the past. The autobiographical narrative is more than just a chance to pass stories down to future generations; it is also a chance to remind everyone about how the world has changed.

I think we can all agree that if we were out and about one day and saw a parent publicly hit their six-year-old, we would be shocked, surprised, and possibly alarmed. What we did in response is another discussion - the point is that it would stand out among the events of our day. I can also tell you that for all the people of the generations beyond mine (70-years-old and above) who I have worked with, such an event was commonplace; even expected. Punishment would be violent at times - not just a spanking, but getting the belt, the back of the hand, or worse. And as horrible as this may sound in today's terms, that was very much the norm within certain groups.

That is where personal stories really become valuable - when we learn about the world people lived in just as much as the person living in that world.

Indeed, we live in a very complex world today. I don't need to list the many different subjects that start arguments in the media these days to convey the message that the social landscape can be a minefield. However, it's very easy to think that the things we bicker over now have always topped the list. Personal writing gets interesting when it shows just how different the world was within one person's lifetime.

The difficult part in writing about these critical changes is that those changes didn't seem like big changes when we first experienced them. Growing up in the Seventies, my father worked in Chicago and my mother worked locally, so I just accepted this as normal. However, most of the mothers in the neighborhood were homemakers instead of office workers. The one-income household with the father as breadwinner was commonplace. My mother stood out in that regard, but as a part of my life is was normal. Decades later I can see the importance of that situation in showing how the world was changing, and any story about my childhood should reflect that.

This being said, it is not mandatory for every story about my mother to include a discussion of her career pursuits, her political activism, or the roadblocks she faced professionally simply because of her gender. Those factors exist in every childhood story I have, but as writers, we are responsible for deciding when the content informs the story. If I want to tell the story of how my mother taught me addition with flashcards when I was four and rewarded me a penny for each right answer, maybe that's not the time to discuss her push for the Equal Rights Amendment. It's just about bonding with Mom.

So when we get to writing those life stories, look for the other stories we might be telling. So many things have changed in this world over our lifetimes, and the best way to teach people about our life experiences is to show them what the world looked like when we were their age. Remind them that the act of reading this blog post required a dial-up modem 25 years ago, a desktop publisher 35 years ago, a mimeograph 45 years ago, and access to a newspaper 50 years ago. Let that story come through just as loud - as loud as those dial-up modems.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Writing Burnout and Recovery

Sometimes, it is too easy to do things. Have you ever had that day when things are just feeling in place? Maybe you slept well, you are high on some good news, or the stars are aligned just right, but you now feel strong enough to take on any challenge - so you do. There's energy to exercise, so you have a huge workout. You are able to write, so you set out to create a masterpiece. You feel energized and capable, so you take everything as far as it can go.

Then that energy falls, and your burst of productivity becomes a slow, laborious task with no end in sight.

Now, depending on how this is interpreted, it might sound like a manic-depressive episode. Let's not confuse that with just having a good day and maybe taking it a little too far. For this post, I am talking about the latter, and how to rekindle the spark of creativity.

I went through professional burnout a number of years ago when I was an analyst. I felt at the top of my game, producing quality work and pursuing new projects. Then I shut down. My health took a slide, I lost weight, and it became difficult to function. It triggered medical issues that put me on disability for a few months. I couldn't quite figure out what happened, but for all that productivity and everything I had done, as I rested and recovered, I could not even think about doing my job again. I wasn't even sure it was possible. I was burnt out.

Writing burn-out is like most other cases of excess - too much for too long. It can be caused by a binge of writing that leaves us feeling depleted, which happens to everyone. Sometimes, once we complete a major project, like a manuscript, we get that "I don't want to write one more word" feeling. And of course,  we can have those times where we just get the feeling that we need to do something else. Anything else.  None of these feelings mark the end of the writing career. There's just the need for a timeout, preferably the right kind of timeout that eventually brings us back to the written word.

In a recent post, The Pause That Refreshes, I discussed some ways to recharge our creative batteries. Sometimes we just need to get some creative nourishment for our inner writer. Burning out requires something more. When we are burned out, we don't need a recharge, we need to replace the batteries. It is where we aren't just tired, we are fatigued, and we need to rest what we have used to excess. This sounds a little more drastic, but it does not signal the end of our run. We just need something more than a pause.

Intuitively, we think the recovery for writing burnout is to do something else, just like the cure for exhaustion is just a lot of sleep. Nice idea, but there's more. We need to remember what brought us to become that creative person. We need to find that part that woke up that young writer in our head, and stir those feelings again.

During my case of burn-out, I didn't rest until I felt I could build statistical models again. I read books that reminded me why I loved analysis. Every Tuesday I grabbed a copy of the New York Times and read its Science Times section cover to cover (about eight pages). I didn't try to be an economist; I tried to rekindle my interest in the analytical process. Once I restored that part of me, I couldn't wait to get back to work.

We need to remember what brought us to that point in our lives when we wanted to create. What inspired us? Motivated us? Something moved us to become a new person, and we need to find that. As we explore our lives and rediscover that spark, the burn-out resolves, and the creative embers ignite.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Weird, Wild Adjective Use

Sometimes, the simplest thing can spark a post, and I wanted to jump on this one while that hot little ember was fresh in my mind. The discussion was about the use of a particular adjective to describe a person. I had not noticed a problem the first time through. Then I read it again. And again. Again and again I went over it, and I began to really till through the grammatical soil to figure out just what made it seem off-beat. My final decision is that it was not grammatically perfect, but in that regard, it was brilliantly used and should stay in the copy.

Just as a reminder, an adjective describes or modifies a noun. When we think of these descriptions, we start with appealing to the senses and offering colors, smells, textures, etc. Even this becomes tricky because often words require some context to make them work. Describing someone as having "dark eyes" might be simply understood as a color or shading. However, describing the antagonist as such, particularly while they are doing particularly nasty things, can give "dark" a different meaning. "Dark" becomes a mood, not a visual, and the scene changes. In some cases for the better, but the meaning has to be understood in terms of context.

At some point, our adjectives wander into the realm of emotional description, which is the fifth dimension of senses - things suddenly bend around and fit a little differently, they evoke different meaning, such as "dark" did in the previous example, but now the rules go in many directions. Let's look at some simple adjectives as they might apply to three noun - a person, an idea, and an inanimate object such as a piece of cake (choose the flavor). See how these adjectives fit:

  • Robust
  • Thick
  • Intriguing
  • Genuine
  • Delicious
  • Exciting

Do any matches seem obvious? I've known plenty of thick people (myself included), intriguing ideas, and delicious pieces of cake. However, can an idea be thick or robust? Can an idea be delicious? Can cake be exciting? These seem like odd match-ups, but the right context makes them work.

As I mentioned in the beginning, the first time I read a particular description I did not notice a problem. Why? I had read it in context, and it fit together in one flow of emotion. It wasn't grammatically perfect, but it served the situation. In this regard, let's go back to our list. What is evoked by describing a person as looking delicious? Cannibal jokes aside, such a description evokes a feeling that whoever is doing the describing feels a hunger toward that person. Is chocolate cake exciting? Describing a slice as such shows a very strong, positive connection between the person and the cake, as if it means more than just dessert. And I have heard all those adjectives used to describe ideas - even thick - as a way of incorporating secondary emotions and perspectives into a scene.

So, is the grammar clean? Well, it's not perfect. If you are doing word association and you respond to "cake" by saying "genuine," there will be questions. However, the wordplay surrounding such a description can make for a very memorable description that will sound fine even though it's not quite perfect.

Monday, January 13, 2020

The Pause That Refreshes

No, despite the headline and the picture, Coca-Cola is not sponsoring my page (yet). This post was actually inspired by a comment someone offered me regarding this blog that got me thinking. He is in the process of putting together his own blog about golf. The ideas and a theme are there, but he sees the task as being pretty intimidating. After looking over my blog, he said, "Dude - you have all these posts; it's like they never stop. Don't you ever run out of ideas?"

Without being too smug, I answered, "I ran out of ideas after two months."

This is largely true, but of course there's a catch. Indeed, I started off with a bunch of ideas and a good amount of content, but that energy would only last so long. I knew there would be times where inspiration would be limited, someone's drama sapped my energy, I'm too sick to write, answerable to other obligations, and so forth. The bottom line is that while writing two posts a week does not seem like a huge task, sometimes that energy isn't there. And yet the posts are there, every Monday and Friday with regularity (except for special holidays). What's the magic ingredient? It's no secret - unlike the recipe for a delicious Coca-Cola.

In case the title didn't give it away, sometimes we all need to take a break from writing. Not everyone can write constantly. (Okay, a few people I know can write every day without a break, but they are freaks of nature - and they know who they are) The idea of taking a break from a regular schedule might seem to go against the grain of meeting a deadline, but hear me out. Taking a break doesn't mean stop being a creative person, and going back to writing doesn't mean just writing two posts a week.

I started this blog in April 2018, but I put it together in my head much earlier. For a couple of months I thought about what I wanted to say, topics I wanted to cover, and how I wanted to approach my audience. I started writing content long before opening the site, because I wanted to see if this was just a passing mood or something that would gain traction. I had about twenty posts already prepared before I opened shop.

Writers, just like everyone else, will hit a drought now and then, and I prepared for this. I gave myself permission to not create for a while if I burned out (I will address burning out in another post), but keep my mind open to the creative world. Sometimes that meant going for a walk and just looking around and breathing in the world without searching for the poem or story in the trees - just enjoying the moment while drinking a refreshing Coca-Cola. Other times I go to a museum or art exhibit - not to analyze or critique, but to take in the brilliance of others. (I recommend the American Writers Museum in Chicago as a nice bit of escape, and I believe there's a Groupon right now to cut down the cost at the door) During these times I am not a writer looking for inspiration, but a person walking through the world, catching my creative breath.

On the flip side, when the creative juices are flowing, I write. Not just my two posts a week, but also a few extra ones if I feel inspired. I wrote a four-post series on turning ideas into a novel in one sitting, which gave me two weeks of content. I posted twice a week, but did not limit myself to writing twice a week. I let the creativity flow like pouring a tall glass of Coca-Cola, and once that died down, I started looking for ways to catch my creative breath.

Being a writer doesn't mean writing constantly (except for the aforementioned freaks of nature), but it does mean being a writer at all times. However, we do ourselves a favor by occasionally putting down the pen and addressing the other parts of our creative self. We take the pause that refreshes.

And now I am going to get a cool, refreshing Diet Coke, and wait for the Coca-Cola sponsorship to arrive.