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

Monday, October 25, 2021

The Internal Story

The drive from a particular little town in Indiana to my particular little town in Illinois takes almost precisely two hours (assuming speed limits are obeyed). On one of these drives back to my little town, traffic was particularly bad so the drive was considerably longer. It took so long, in fact, that the Top 40 radio station I usually listen to started replaying the big hits it had played not too long ago. This means I got to hear Linkin Park's Shadow of the Day twice during my extended drive home. When I finally got home, I took off my jacket, sat down on the couch, and cried.

Now, this little bit is a first-person story told with the view of third-person perspective. It is a story I told about an event I experienced and now retell. All the events are factual, and while I omitted certain details like town names and the specific radio station as personal choices, the events and timeline all match reality. It was a very emotional experience, and will stay with me for the rest of my years. 

It is, however, not much of a story. 

Why is this not much of a story? Well, it's my story, but telling it from an outside perspective means the story is communicated without the very personal touch - in effect, my story without me in it. The emotions I felt were all internal at that time, so the outsider might not understand what was going on. From the outside, this is a factual retelling about a long, lonely drive while listening to a Top 40 station that ended in tears. That, however, is not where the storytelling is. The story is internal, and needs a first-person perspective to mean something more.

For those who do not know, Shadow of the Day is a great, though very sobering song about all things coming to an end. If I had included those lyrics, maybe the story gets a little more compelling, but it still lacks any personal reactivity. However, if I use the lyrics as a tool to play off the internal processes, then I can generate a whole array of feelings and emotions. In fact, the internal part becomes very reactive at that point - even creating its own mood.

Probably the most important part of the internal storytelling that would change this story would be my internal setting. That drive was the return trip from my father's funeral. He had died quite unexpectedly, and my coping mechanisms were having trouble processing such a life-altering event. Now, none of that exists in the story, but the inclusion of how I made that lonely drive along a crowded highway, my only company those very depressing lyrics, does more than fill in the gaps that ended with me in tears. It takes the reader on a journey through my mind, and they experience what I experience. That's the importance of the internal perspective when telling the true story.

The point here is simple. Just because an event happened does not mean the story begins and ends with it. The real story is an exposition of how events move us, change us, and shape the world around us. The fact that we drove for hours on the highway is not as good a story as how we react to the journey.

Friday, October 22, 2021

Writing in Times of Sorrow

Unfortunately, October has not been a great month for me. Despite a few good times, this month had some deaths as well, and in turn a few funerals and a lot of grieving. How we process this grief is different for everyone, but I don't think it's a secret that one of my emotional tools is to start writing about what bothers me. In the case of loss, this can be a powerful way to go through tough times. However, sometimes reality doesn't comply with what we want to express.

I think it's fair to say that October can be quite the grim month. A look outside my office window right now shows pewter skies threatening rain all day, people turning up their collars against the cold, damp wind, and leaves blowing about without much spectacle. In other words, October. It's the kind of somber day that makes us want to stay inside, heat up some tea, and enjoy the comfort of a warm blanket. It's not the day we want to have a funeral.

However, such was not the case the other day. The sun was out and the sky was clear, no wind to bother anyone or chill in the air. The temperature was in the low 80s as I pulled into the funeral home parking lot. This day - unusual for October - was picture-perfect for something special and happy. A picnic. A first date. A trip to the zoo. Anything but a funeral service.

How does one use the tools of writing to process such a mismatched moment of time? Is there a proper way to churn through the sadness, grief, and feeling of loss without somehow losing the other very real qualities of the moment? Can we retain the feel of a very beautiful day and still express the clawing sense of loss?

Sometimes, writing these things down as cold, honest facts allows us to face the reality of our conflicted feelings - that is often what makes writing difficult. When we write about the splendid October day, we get in touch with our sense of guilt that we would rather be outside than in a funeral home, saying our final farewell to a loved one. That might sound selfish and cold, but if it is true then it is helpful to us as writers. When we face the painfully honest truth, we grow. It's not comfortable, but nothing worth having is easy.

When I wrote about the recent funeral, everything was about discomfort. The warm weather made it uncomfortable to be outside in a suit and tie. The people smoking outside the funeral home looked desperate to escape the sadness on the other side of the doors. Everyone had that nervous politeness and awkward smile hiding their grief. People sat in quiet contemplation while their hand tapped nervously against their leg to release the anxiety. And when everyone went to the graveside service, they all dipped their heads away from the bright sunlight, as if guilty to recognize a nice day. 

I don't know if I will ever show anyone my writing about that day, and I have another funeral coming next week so there will definitely be more to come. However, I do know that by writing it down, I sorted out some of the more difficult feelings from that day. Furthermore, by going through that process, I grew a little as a writer. Maybe that's the only good thing I can take away from that day, but for now, it'll do.

Friday, October 8, 2021

The Joy of Writing Backwards

I hope nobody is thinking, "Writing a story is tough enough; why would I want to try and write it backwards?" And yet by the end of this, I hope you have an answer to this supposedly rhetorical question. In fact, some things are best written backwards. I am sure some authors would never admit to doing it, and others would just lump this in with the greater concept of revisions, but indeed it is done more often than one might think.

We all know the standard story structure - hero starts some kind of physical or emotional journey, overcomes obstacles, changes along the way then hopefully accomplishes goal. Easy stuff. We should know these components before we even start writing. That's the part we don't necessarily have to write with the backwards technique. However, we can start picking parts of this from end to beginning and discover what we will need to make this a full, rich, and entertaining journey.

Let's look at the end of this journey explained above. "Accomplishes goal." While we should already know what this is, we can do a little discovery by writing a draft of this scene first and exploring just what the important parts will be. In a standard whodunit, this is where the killer is unmasked. Well, what elements are required to conclude who the criminal is? As we write this concluding scene, we start noting all the parts that we need to reveal - other characters' alibis, connecting motives, ruling out different suspects, and how our crafty hero gathered this information. By writing this scene, we show ourselves all the ingredients we need to put together, and we can start thinking about what order they go in.

Oh - let's not forget the part of the story called, "changes along the way." When we write that big final scene, we establish the final version of the character. This gives us a chance to ask ourselves just what changed. Did they discover a friend was an enemy, that they had been living a lie? We start making notes about these changes, because they all have to be incorporated into the story - as we write the previous scenes.

With our backwards technique, we can then start to write the supporting scenes - the discoveries, the conversations, all the parts where some element is revealed. At this point, it's a checklist of all the elements we have noted from the two sections we've already written. We build them scene by scene, filling out all of the important parts then ultimately creating a story.

Which leaves us with the introduction. At this point it's very easy, because we have already explored the hero's journey. We get to start off the story as we wish, already knowing what this character should be in the beginning. We have taken the hero at the end, stripped away all of the growth and revelation, and left us with the person ready to go on an adventure.

This may sounds fairly complicated and possibly convoluted, and it is a difficult process. However, most writers unknowingly use this technique when they edit their work. They look at the ending, examine what they've said, then try and see if everything written prior to that leads up to that point. Then they go back through their text and check off everything point-by-point, which often requires a few big re-writes.

I would never recommend this to anyone who wants to start off by writing the Great American Novel, but try it with a short story. Write the concluding 200 words, think about what needs to be said for them to be powerful, then write the previous 200 word batches and so on until you reach the beginning. See what happens - it might just surprise you.


Monday, October 4, 2021

Writing Aside - Robert P. Brown

If you will indulge me, I would like to discuss the pros and cons of the writing workshop. While I consider workshops integral to really finding one's writing voice and developing one's skills, this is not to say that there isn't the occasional downside. The upsides are legion - exposure to different styles and skills, being able to think critically about your own work and others, and the input you receive from other members. The writing family that exists within those workshops is a benefit in its own right.

The downside is, of course, losing a member of that family. 

Robert Patrick Brown joined our group in 2015, bringing to it an inspiring attitude and a lifetime's worth of stories that he wanted to commit to paper. It's not like he had never written before - his works had been published in newsletters and other periodicals - but he wanted to up his game, so to speak. Furthermore, he wanted to pursue the biggest goal of all - writing the story of his life. 

I think it's worth noting that when he showed up at our workshop with the aspiration of turning his life into a novel, he was seventy-seven years old. And after he read a few of his stories, including life with the Chicago Police Department, his huge family, and indulging in his favorite hobbies, it became apparent that he might need more than one book to tell everyone about who he was.

The part that came through, however, without the need for a manuscript, was that Robert was just as much a teacher as a writer. His work as a teacher's aide was more than evident in his mannerisms, and how he would both engage in critiquing everyone's work but do so in a constructive manner that made people feel like they had genuinely learned something that would benefit them as a writer, and indeed as a person. He never had a negative word for anyone (even if they really deserved it), and raised spirits for everyone around.

That's the difficult part about the writing family - losing members to the ravages of time. Robert's health took a bad turn during (but unrelated to) the COVID epidemic, and it weighed on his every function. In his final days he struggled to complete most tasks, but with the help of his wife, Rita, he did complete a few short stories that will be published posthumously in the group's upcoming anthology, Lost & Found. Indeed, these stories remind us that with the written word, we can live on long after our mortal coil takes its last breath.

A writing group develops a closeness that is akin to family, but they are, like so many other social groups, the family we choose. In that way, the family is better for having embraced them by choice, even when we lose such a valuable member.

Rest in peace.