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.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Context Versus Words

I had a pretty unusual experience Wednesday. I was feeling pretty numpty and out-of-sorts, not sure what to do, so I wombled over to the library to do some writing. Going to the library was my best choice because it costs almost nothing, and since someone at the coffee shop snaffled my wallet the day before, I was out of money until I wangled a new debit card. So I was at the library, doing my writing, when I had a realization about words.

Now let's step back and look at that paragraph. Did you understand what happened in that brief story? Probably, or it mostly made sense. Did you know every word? No, you didn't. Don't lie - you might have interpreted some words, but I literally made up words to go in there, so you didn't know them for sure. Yet somehow, you translated my slang into a story that likely matched what I meant to say. This shows the importance of telling the story from a broad perspective.

In the dystopian novel, A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess, the story is filled with slang references that Burgess made up himself in a language called Nadsat. It's used liberally throughout the novel, without an interpreter to be seen. The book did not include a reference section, no English-Nadsat dictionary, just Alex talking about the adventures of he and his droogs, and the reader has to work their way through this situation on their own.

What makes this such a compelling technique is that the reader has to interpret these words strictly through context. The reader becomes an investigator, picking up the meaning of the oddball words by everything that surrounds them. The opening sequence contains this gem of a sentence:
"There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar trying to make up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening."
The wording is confusing, yet the context and a little deduction actually presents a simple scene of four guys figuring out what to do. It's very simple, yet the language makes the reader take an active role in reading the story. Now, A Clockwork Orange is definitely not for everyone, and often not included on many high school curriculum sheets, but the technique creates a compelling read.

Now, how does this work for someone who might not be writing about bizarre, futuristic places with alternative languages? Again, the technique is about letting context speak its own language. As a writer, you have the option of using any and every word you want, and even making up the ones that feel right. If the scene has a good feeling to it, then it makes its own contribution to whatever words are used. If Alyssa is furious at Tom and calls him a slank, does it matter what that is? No - it just expresses their rage. When Alyssa apologizes for calling Tom a slank, and warmly says that he will always be her snooterbootch, all we need to know it that the situation has been resolved.

A writer should feel free to explore language and try out new techniques whenever possible. When they are supported by context, the results are always positive, and bring the writer to a new level of ponkiness.

Monday, January 6, 2020

And So It Begins...

There is no escaping it. Today is the first day of a normal work week. No more holiday excuses, no more disorientation about how Thursday feels like Monday or how the short weeks have confused everything - this is a Monday that feels like a Monday and there's no more holidays to blame. Like it or not, we are back to our regular schedule. With that in mind, we also return to our regular writing habits.

After the holidays, I see a lot of creative people fall into two categories. First, there are people who used their time off to catch up on some writing. They knocked out a few short stories, the latest three chapters on their current works, or went through a dozen writing prompts and really got creative, but now the party is over and it's back to the routine. Then there are those who put down their writing pad, set aside the laptop, or otherwise took a vacation from that part of their mind. Shifting gears worked out fine, but now it's time to get back into gear. For both these groups, returning to the status quo just doesn't feel right.

To be honest, it shouldn't feel right - not exactly, anyway. This is a challenge that hits not just writers but all creative types. Spending a little time outside of our usual routine changes us; we grow during this time, and once we do that, our old clothes don't quite fit right afterward. We notice this as we return to our routines, but too often it comes with a sense of dread or this surrender to the familiar. As creative types, we should use these moments as opportunities to challenge ourselves to become more than what we know.

Let's look over the first category - the person who got a chance to do a lot of writing, and now has to return to the other life again. This can feel like withdrawal sometimes, with that regular dose of creative energy now reduced to the occasional fix. This is the chance to make a change in life (not to be mistaken with a New Year's resolution), and find a few extra minutes a day or an hour every week dedicated to getting that creative flow going. When we get a taste of what big doses of creativity can do, we can use this as a prompt to make it a regular thing. It's not easy, of course - nothing worth doing ever is. We just need to take a moment and ask ourselves, "Is that creative buzz worth it?" (The answer should be yes.)

As for the other group of people who take a timeout from their writing side to explore other parts of life, it's always nice to take a break but the return is never easy. I often tie this with the idea of going to the gym, and the parallel has never been more prominent. All week I've heard people in the locker room complain about how taking just one week off from their tennis game left them exhausted once they returned. I've never heard more complaints about aches, sores, and "How could I put on ten pounds from just two damn holidays?!" Yep - payback all around. This is when we need to tap ourselves on the shoulder and remind us why we do this in the first place. I don't go to the gym to hurt myself (which happens). I go to keep my weight under control and the ravages of time at bay. After a week away, I remind myself that those factors are still waiting, and I drag my sore self to the gym. Writing is even more powerful than that. We write for many reasons, and gain a special satisfaction from what we do. Reclaiming that satisfaction might be more difficult, but it's why we do this in the first place.

Every now and then, we need to rededicate ourselves to our craft. The holidays give us a great chance to remember why we do this wonderful thing we do, and how we are better for it. On that note, I am off to the gym - those holidays pounds won't fall off by themselves.

Friday, January 3, 2020

Post-New Year Accountability

Now that New Year's Eve is just a hazy memory and we are getting back to our routines, there's that little bit about resolutions. My last post, Writing Resolutions, talked about some promises we can make to ourselves as writers. Nothing big, nothing fancy, but hopefully doable. And as the new year approached, plenty of people made a lot of other promises about what they would do and who they would become in 2020. When I went to the gym today, there were a bunch of people living out such a promise. I'm wagering half of them don't make it to February.

No surprise that people don't always follow through - going to the gym is not easy, particularly if we do it alone, and this is the same for writers. In a recent workshop, we had a discussion about 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. However, our workshops can do so much more.

Last year, members of our group stated what they wanted to accomplish in 2019. As it turns out, some made it, others didn't. The ones who made it usually had 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 The 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 an inside tip: You don't have to wait to New Year's 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.