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, November 28, 2022

An Old-Fashioned Lesson in Showing vs. Telling

During my long stretches of carbohydrate-induced immobility thanks to the Thanksgiving feasting, I got to do things that required very little energy - napping, watching football, napping, calling friends and family, napping, and listening to the radio. It's that last point I want to focus on, because there are some delicious tidbits to be taken from such an antiquated medium. After all, when radio brought storytelling into the homes of the masses, it did so not just with the art and technique of the story-teller, but with the tricks used by a story-shower. As writers, we can learn from this.

Just so you know, I used the word radio deliberately to not confuse it with more complex stereo systems, high-quality reception and feel-like-you're-there sound definition. Back during the Golden Age of Radio, broadcasters knew that their audiences were gathered around a one-speaker receiver, struggling to hear their shows if reception was bad, listening over background noise and digging in their heels to listen to The Shadow. No high-end receivers, no noise-cancelling headphones - broadcasters had one shot to get the message across, so radio developed techniques that played on grabbing the audience's attention. The biggest one was showing a story - quite the stunt over a medium of sound.

How does a radio program show the story? In the exact way a writer should - by demonstrating the actions around them rather than narrating them. Often (though not always), radio shows were done in the first person, with only occasional the occasional voice-over to switch between scenes. There was often no narration, which forced the show writers to describe things through the characters' experiences, usually by interacting with those things in the scene that were important. Murder-mysteries would turn their eye for detail onto the key pieces of evidence, and spare the listeners the descriptions of the rooms, the property, etc. The listener became drawn to the main elements in the same way the main characters were, and captured by the mood of the moment.

Ah yes, mood. We all know the standard bag of tricks used in TV and movies to create an intense mood, and most of them are visual. Well, those tools didn't help on the radio, so these shows appealed to sound. However, it wasn't just sound effects (which were often ingenious and masterful in their creation), but music and vocal inflections that created their own environment. Writers need to focus on this kind of sensory appeal - not just describing, say, a foggy night on the wharf, but creating the call of a distant foghorn, the sound of waves lapping against the pylons of the dock. Writing a moody scene should be immersive, so much so that it surrounds the reader to where they are no longer reading a book on their couch, but feeling the chill of the damp air rolling in from the bay. 

When you write about a scene, go beyond the visual. Get into those other senses that don't get a lot of attention in the movies but move you as a person. Close your eyes, think about the various elements that move you, and put those into your writing. Have the characters feel those feelings, sense those experiences, and relate their responses. Show us exactly how the scene moves them and how the mood affects them.

And maybe, if you get the time, listen to some old-time radio shows and experience how it was done when visuals were not an option.

Monday, November 21, 2022

Thankful Writing

Given all the preparation the Thanksgiving holiday requires, all the logistics, meal-arranging, guest inviting and house visiting, I am going to keep things short and sweet so everyone can get on with the art of surviving the first of the main cold-month holidays. This won't be about being thankful, but more about giving thanks. And by giving thanks, I mean in that way only a writer can - by putting together a quick little piece of writing.

In my humble opinion, the thing writers never take full advantage of is how their ability to create scenes and emotions out of mere words can be used in everyday life. Writing a story or a poem is indeed an art form, but think about how interesting it is when that art form is translated into something everyone can appreciate without having to crack open a book or take time out to read your blog. That's when all that writing stuff pays off.

The best way I can think of when it comes to using writing in everyday life - and especially during the holidays - is the simple act of a toast. Everyone's gathered around the table, serving up another helping of something or the other, chatting about this and that, then someone clinks a glass, gets everyone's attention, and announces they would like to make a toast. As far as writers go, this is the perfect situation: a happy audience, perhaps some already with a few adult beverages in them, a festive mood, and nobody ready to leave. This is like the best open mic night you could ask for.

At this point, you make a toast and win the crowd over with your beautiful words and heartfelt sentiments, making it sound as impromptu as possible. Everyone is moved, and nobody knows you've been preparing those words for the better part of a week, sweating over just the right thing to say. As a writer, you are allowed to cheat like this. You can spend hours writing up an awesome toast, practicing, rehearsing, and getting everything just perfect, then dropping the thanks on the dinner crowd with a casual air of genuine feeling. It'll make the holiday dinner truly memorable.

Yes, this is kind of like weaponizing the talent of writing, but it is using it for good and not evil. As writers, we should look for opportunities to use our skills to interject beauty and emotion into the everyday world, and lift up those around us. Of course, if you wish to use your skills for evil, I can't stop you, but this is the holiday season where I try to be a little better than I usually am. Save the evil for January.

I will be in a gravy-induced coma this coming Friday, so my next post will be on November 28th. Happy Thanksgiving, and I hope you write a wonderful toast.

Friday, November 18, 2022

Holidays and Storytellers

I did a lot of thinking about this piece, wondering if it needed to be said or if I just needed to write it. Needless to say, here it is, so I hope you gain something from it. This is about the importance of not just the stories we write, but the stories we tell, the stories we share, and the stories we are a part of that future generations will share. And, indeed, that is where the holiday angle comes in.

Thanks to the relentless march of time, I am now a member of the oldest living generation on my father's side of the family. Pre-COVID, I had aunts and uncles who would tell stories about the many past generations of our family and all the weird little secrets and rumors. Which member of our family was thought to be a warlock? Did any relatives do jail time? Which of our grand-uncles fought in the Civil War? Each question had a story as the answer, and we would listen to the rumors surrounding our great-grand uncle, "Devil Dan," or the incident that put a grand-uncle in the Crowbar Hotel for a while, or the battles our many relatives who served in the Union army fought in. I appreciated every one of those stories as a family member. As a writer, I knew it would someday be my job to pass them along. Now, with my aunts and uncles no longer able to share those stories, that day has arrived.

This is where the holidays get involved. Hopefully, you all are back to having some kind of family gathering and a house filled with more relatives than once thought possible. I also hope that you have an older generation who shows up, has some food, settles into the softest chair, and tells stories of the good ol' days, because those stories are your stories to absorb and pass along. And, if I dare be so bold, it might be worth the time and effort to write down a few of those while they're still fresh in your memory. Or even better, put on your writer's cap and discuss those stories with the people who know them firsthand, thinking about just how you would tell this story. 

It may seem boring when Uncle George goes on about what it was like growing up as a Baby Boomer, but that is your opportunity. Think about how different that world was to our current life. Ask about things like not having highways, or what a party line was, or their favorite TV show as a kid. Go digging for details about the first polio vaccine, or hearing the Beatles. Find all of those little details, those golden nuggets of memories that sit at the core of who your relatives are. Does it sound like you're interviewing Uncle George instead of talking with him? Maybe. But the beauty of this is that you will discover stories you never knew existed, which will hopefully lead to more questions, more information, and more stories. And who knows - maybe Uncle George suddenly isn't that boring anymore.

I look forward to the holidays for this exact reason - the opportunity to share the wealth of knowledge that has poured down from past generations. And as for my mother's side of the family, there are still stories to be handed down to me, so I listen, I ask questions, and I get as involved as possible because I know that soon, I will be in charge of handing down those stories.

Needless to say, I write about them as well. And I hope you do the same.

Monday, November 14, 2022

The Deep Dive

I won't get into my various motivations for choosing this as today's topic. Let's just say that I have my reasons and hopefully you can benefit from the product of this choice. I thought I would talk about the two directions an emotional writing piece can go, and their benefits. And, while any type of emotional writing will unquestionably provide some form of catharsis for the author, there is a specific style can can truly foster growth as both a writer and a person -- the deep dive.

One of my better short stories involves the passing of my grandmother. I was eleven and she was the only grandparent I really got to know, so this was a particularly heavy loss. The story covers the standout points from when we first found out about her passing to the misty, overcast day of her funeral. It meant a lot for me to write about that time in my life, and processing it benefitted me in several ways. And, of course, any story about the loss of a loved one should pull at the reader's heartstrings, which it did, so it was a win for me. Thank you, Grandma Cleo.

However, a similar story about my father's sudden passing received far more emotional feedback from other readers, and I also felt some form of internal growth. I realized the biggest difference was that the story about my father's passing took a different approach. While my grandmother story covered the events and feelings over a period of four days, the story about my father was all set in one instance, one moment, that explored this loss. The story didn't cover a stretch of time but instead took one point and relentlessly explored it from stem to stern. It was a deep dive into that little crumb of time, and it worked amazingly well according to the reviews. Thank you, Dad.

The difference between the broad story and the deep dive is like the approach taken by a reporter versus that taken by a therapist. A reporter brings out the facts through a set of questions: Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How. A therapist, however, hears those facts and says (pardon the cliché), "And how did that make you feel?" The deep dive takes that one moment and explores it through the vector of emotions, and can drag up the deeper common elements of a particular event. This makes a story more than one that pulls at the heartstrings; it engages both the heart and mind at once, bringing the reader fully into the moment. The reader is no longer a sympathetic witness to events, now they have settled into the shoes of the author and made an empathic bond to the events. They are experiencing the story much closer now than just reading the facts that the reporter would discuss.

And, of course, the other part of the deep dive is that it challenges the writer to dig into the spots that might be sore or sensitive. As scary as it might feel, the writer can press on as far as they dare. The journey will be tough, and I will admit I shed a few tears while writing that piece, but I definitely came out the other side a better person, and definitely a better writer.

Writing the deep dive isn't always necessary, but it remains an ever-present challenge if you are willing. It's a daring way to approach a subject, but it always produces good returns. 

Friday, November 11, 2022

For Veteran's Day

For those who are interested, today's post will touch upon Veteran's Day. For those who are worried about it, yes, poetry is involved. Hopefully, you will read on, and hopefully you will appreciate both Veteran's Day and poetry a little more by the end of this post.

The poem I will offer as an example is, "In Flanders Field" by John McCrae. It was written in 1915 after the second battle of Ypres, supposedly after the death of the poet's friend. It quickly became synonymous with World War One and Veteran's Day, and even though this holiday is meant to recognize all veterans, living and deceased, this poem became intrinsically tied with today due to its birth in the War To End All Wars, despite it being specifically a requiem for the fallen soldiers.

In Flanders Fields - by John McCrae

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
    That mark our place; and in the sky
    The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
    Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
        In Flanders fields. 
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
    The torch; be yours to hold it high.
    If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
        In Flanders fields.

This haunting poem is very simple in its construction, yet pulls some clever tricks out to make it memorable. The first five-line stanza uses a rhyme scheme of AABBA - the first, second, and fifth lines rhyme with each other, and the third and fourth lines pair up as well - much like a limerick. This sets a pace that the reader mentally notes. Then in the second stanza, the rhyme scheme is again used, but it is abruptly cut short - like a soldier's life - closing instead with, "In Flanders fields" to mark the end of the stanza and the life. The third stanza goes back to the AABBA scheme and lets it complete itself, suggesting life goes on, but still closes with the Flanders field line, to remind us that those soldiers are still there and will be forevermore. This use of pattern (and breaking of pattern) moves the reader even though they do not know it.

The other part to note is the three stanzas are structured in a manner that gets across a strong point: Setting, impact, message. The first stanza describes the burial site during wartime in five lines, and the reader gets all the established information. Then the impact - soldiers experiencing human things, relatable feelings, all cut short by war. Then there's the message - to carry forth and honor those who fell in the field by never forgetting their loss. If the impact part is strong, the message section works very well because the reader has been set up for it.

This three-part structure of setting, impact, message doesn't have to be used just in poems. This is the foundation for short stories, essays, and most any parable meant to communicate valuable information to future generations. The persuasive argument will always establish the frame of context, show cause and effect, then connect the concluding message to it, whether in three stanzas, three paragraphs, or three chapters. And it works every time.

So on that note, I hope this helps you recognize the power that can come from poetry, and maybe you can recognize how messages can be delivered in high-impact ways. And speaking of recognition, go out and recognize a veteran's efforts today. It's the least we can do.

Monday, November 7, 2022

The Simplest Thing to Write

With election season in full swing, I look around the political environment and quietly compare it to the days of our Founding Fathers. Back then, the politicians stood out because of their capacity to think, to communicate thoughts effectively, and quite often to write down their beliefs in very eloquent essays and briefs. Such a person would be referred to as a Man of Letters - though nowadays it's more politically correct to call such a person an intellectual. Sadly, that same term is also used to shame someone by suggesting they're smarter than everyone. Watch the political ads - being an intellectual is not a big selling point.

However, the point of all of this is that these People of Letters didn't focus on writing stories or novels. They wrote the most simple things - their beliefs - and supported those beliefs with ideas and reason. Nothing fancy, nothing spectacular, just people saying, "I believe the following statement. The reasons I believe it are as follows, and here is what makes those reasons valid." As these people wrote essay after essay, they developed a very special set of writing skills focusing on the art of persuasion. This made them, for better or worse, some of the most influential people around.

Where are the people of letters, the intellectuals these days? Sadly, they are a dying breed. There are still journalists who produce excellent books discussing the state of world affairs, developments in the realms of politics, society, and so on, but they are a niche market. Most people stick to reading novels, and most authors inhabit the world of writing those novels. Maybe the occasional autobiography comes out, but they are often more storytelling than a persuasive essay. Indeed, the persuasive essay, as simple as it is, is becoming a lost art for the mainstream.

For this reason, I am recommending an exercise simply called, "Write about a belief." Start with a simple statement about, say, an incident that happened where your belief was challenged. Then just start writing about your belief, how you would defend that belief, and what points support how you feel. You can address opposing opinions if you feel like it, but it's hardly a requirement. The only obligation you have as a writer (or person of letters) is to be honest to yourself with what you say, and communicate things as precisely as you can.

Is this going to help you write The Great American Novel? Well, you'd be surprised. The more essays you write and the more you develop being persuasive in making your points, the stronger and more convincing your stories, characters, and plots become. Your creative mind starts to focus on the importance of different features, the significance of detail, and the ever-important believability. In short, your creative mind benefits from the intellectual side, and the result is inevitably better writing.

Hopefully this gives a little food for thought. So, hopefully, after you vote, take advantage of that high you might get from civic responsibility and write something about why you did what you did, and why it's the right thing for you to do. Or, at the very least, go vote.

Friday, November 4, 2022

A Modest Writing Proposal

Now that Halloween is over and the Holiday Season is in full swing, most writers are ready to head into the most important time of the year - NaNoWriMo. Yes, NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) starts in November and is known for the many writing challenges that accompany it. Obviously, the biggest challenge is to write the first draft of a novel in one month - a bold endeavor indeed. However, many other writing challenges are available for those who just don't have the time, patience, or fortitude (yet) to write that novel. That's what I want to talk about in this piece.

As I have mentioned many times before, the only requirement for being a writer is to write things out of self-interest. Once you write a poem, a story, a character sketch simply because you want to and not because you have to, then *poof* you're a writer, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise. The adventure has begun, and it's up to you to see how far you can go with it. And the best way to do that is to take on challenges.

Here's a simple challenge: For one month, write something every day. It doesn't have to be a story, it can be a poem, a description of your cat sleeping under the sewing machine, or just a discussion of a dream. The real mission here is to do something regularly, even if it is just a quick haiku:

Writing this haiku
Satisfies today's task for
my daily challenge

There. Done. Simple as that (let's pretend I wrote that on a different day than this post). This exercise, if done for an entire month, helps develop writing as a habit and not an exception, and flexes the creative muscles. I often relate regular writing to regular exercise. The first time you walk a couple of miles on the treadmill it will be exhausting, but if you do it for a month you will notice a difference. You might even want to add an extra mile on your walking sessions. The point is, you will have made it through the awkward adjustment part, and have entered the growth phase.

Here's an exercise I enjoy for NaNoWriMo month. Every week, I try writing something I would never have taken on before. I'd write about an ancient memory as seen through my adult eyes. Look at the world through my parents' perspective and write their viewpoints. Recently, I wrote about my personal recollections from having a seizure when I was twenty - a very scary event that forced me to really stretch my writing muscles. That's the purpose of these kinds of exercises - not to build endurance, but to expand perspective and add to our our creative toolbox. None of this has to be good, interesting, or worthy of sharing - it just has to be done. And if it helps you as a writer, why not do it?

And, as a much simpler exercise for those times when you just can't write, explore the rest of the creative world. Read a new book. Go to an art gallery or a museum. Search Google Images for Renoir paintings, and just admire them. Sometimes, when we just can't be creative, we can still participate in the creative world, and that's something as well.

Happy NaNoWriMo month, and keep on writing, or at least keep on creating.