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.

Friday, March 31, 2023

It's That Time of Year!

 After a technology-induced break from posting, I am back just in time to welcome that most special time of year - National Poetry Month! Yes, April is National Poetry Month as declared by the Academy of American Poets, and therefore a time when I feel obliged to say a little something about this particular art. Don't worry - I won't do too much about the nitty-gritty of poem construction. However, if you will indulge me, I would just like to explore the simplicity that can be found in a poem, then offer a little challenge.

When most people think of a poem, they think of a small batch of words that 1) rhyme, 2) don't take up much of the page, and 3) are way over their head. I feel a certain safety in wagering that a lot of people don't "get" the poems they read, and never give a second thought about writing one. However, I also feel that for the writer, poetry makes for a great exercise in distilling thoughts, ideas, and emotions down to their very core, and discovering what they actually mean. 

For most people who want to try out poetry but aren't sure they have what it takes, I always recommend starting with writing haiku - those little three-line Japanese poems. Though a genuine haiku is often about nature and captures its true essence in the third line, the most important part is that it follows a structure of the three lines having in order five, seven, then five syllables. Very short, very to-the-point. This structure forces the writer to boil the subject down to its core and put it together in very brief terms. But this effort is what poetry is all about:

Writing seventeen

syllables is enough to

create a poet

Sure, that haiku is also a quick way of saying things, but it gets to the essence of the point. And no, it wasn't that hard. The point is that with a little time and effort, you can start broadening your scope, taking more elaborate ideas and digging deep inside them to find the message, then writing a compact haiku that presents bigger thoughts:

Through my mind's window

A hopeful dream looking back

wishing it were real

The task I would ask of any/all readers is to take a minute or two every day just to grab some sentence, idea, or random thing you say, and fit it into this style. Find something - anything - from your day and reshape it into this structure. If you can do this all through National Poetry Month, every day, you will discover that every now and then, something will strike a chord with you. Some might be brutally simple, others might make you raise your eyebrows, but after writing thirty haiku you will be different, and for the better. You will have quietly developed a skill that can feed into the rest of your writing, if you let it. So enjoy, happy writing, and I am off to dinner:

Fries and a Big Mac

are tonight's drive-through dinner,

but it's nourishment

Friday, March 24, 2023

The Complexities of A Simple Story

For those of you familiar with the laborious art of sentence diagrams, do not be alarmed. This post is not about grammar. However, sentence diagrams are an interesting way to look at the scale and dimension of how, like sentences, stories are mappable things as well. But let me be clear: We will not be doing any sentence diagramming. Come out from under your chair - this is a safe place.

A not-so-simple sentence diagram
Now, for those of you who don't know and/or are too young to remember, there used to be this laborious chore every student went through known as sentence diagramming. The purpose was simple: break down a sentence into its component parts (subject, object, verb, modifier, etc.) and map out the flow of the sentence. The result, however, was quite the nightmare - as pictured. Also, this process had a side effect of turning a lot of people away from the language arts. Diagramming could take something as beautiful as an opening sentence and just suck all the air out of it, leaving it as just a big old word salad that you no longer cared about. Diagramming was not revelatory (in my opinion), nor did it help me write more intricate sentences. At best, it made me appreciate how my English teacher might have had more patience with me than my geometry teacher, but that's it.

Anyway, one thing that it took me a few decades to appreciate was not how the diagramming process works - nobody cares - but rather how a full dissection of a story bears a striking resemblance to the map of a story. A story, much like a sentence, as basic parts that structurally relate to each other, and to understand the story we should be able to map it out, so to speak. We should know our main character - the subject - and the who, what, where, when, and why of them - descriptors. We should have an idea of how each supporting character relates to our hero - subordinate clauses - and we should definitely have a feeling for how this story unfolds and how these characters interact (verbs and prepositional phrases).

If you want to write a story, lay out (in your head) a simple map of the character and any supporting cast; the smaller the story, the smaller the map. Put down your who, what, where, when, and why, and note how these parts go together. This should be your playbook for any direction that story goes. Furthermore, if you have written a story and some part doesn't seem to fit, see where that part lands on the map. Chances are, it's not connected in the way you thought, or at all, and you can just write it out.

See, I told you. No sentence diagramming. You just get to map your stories instead. Enjoy!

Monday, March 20, 2023

Spring Returns! (It's About Time)

By the time most people read this post, it will officially be Spring, 2023. Now, plenty of people have different rules of thumb for when their personal spring really starts. Meteorological spring starts on March 1st. For sports fans, spring starts with the first spring training baseball game, or for others, the onset of March Madness. Maybe it's seeing the first robin of the year. Does it really matter? Well, for me, yes. I find all those things to be great precursors for spring, which officially arrives for me with the event now commonly called, "Chicago-henge."

Much like the infamous Stonehenge, downtown Chicago was designed a long time ago as an arrangement of a bunch of large, vertical slabs of stone in alignment with the cardinal directions. The NSEW directional map of the city made it easy to get from here to there (except for Lower Wacker Drive, which still baffles scientists), but this grid also provided a celestial calendar of sorts. At the beginning of spring and fall, the Sun rises and sets precisely at the end of the streets of downtown Chicago, without fail. Some believe this allowed city-dwellers a rare chance to see an actual sunset, and was therefore considered an amazing feat of urban planning. Others call it a curse from the gods because that meant they would have to drive home staring into a setting Sun. Whatever the case, it is an impressive event, and marks the beginning of a new season.

When I see the phenomenon known as Chicago-henge, my thoughts drift toward the opportunity to start something new. As the city enters a new season, it becomes the chance to take that bold step forward into whatever unknown realm interests you. I know that in six months, the Sun will shift back, place itself between the buildings again, and that particular window will again be closed, so I had best make the most of it. But as a writer, what does this mean and how can I take advantage of it?

Now, ancient Chicagoans used this time between mid-March and mid-September to mark the period in the city where baseball games had meaning, but for a writer, it's different. This is the time to plan out that big project, to explore that big idea, to join a workshop or develop a writing habit. This new season is your season to step into some new writing grooves and give yourself six months to see how it goes. Six months. That's not asking for much in the larger scope of things. And when the Sun comes back to mark the beginning of fall, you can reassess whether you want to try something new, or if you've caught ahold of something that just might be pretty special.

As for me, I am going to put together the structure for my next novel. I will do the outlining, the character-building, the world creation, and get things rolling. A lot of this won't involve writing in the narrative sense, but I am using this window to see what I can make of this opportunity. My other novel will be coming out in a month or two as well, but for now, the focus is what to do now that spring is here. And that's my commitment.

For those out there who aren't sure what to commit to, just make it something you want to do but always wondered whether or not you could. This isn't about succeeding or failing, it's about trying. Give yourself six months to try, and once Chicago-henge arrived, take inventory of what you've done.

And of course, there's always those six months around winter as well.

Friday, March 17, 2023

St. Patrick and A Lot of Stories

Since I have lived in the Chicagoland area my entire life and have Irish ancestors that came right through Ellis Island on their way here, I am legally obliged to mention St. Patrick's Day in this post. After all, on March 17th, Chicago becomes Little Ireland for a day (or a three-day weekend this time), everyone wears something green even if their Irish roots are barely evident, and not only does everyone serve green beer, but they even dye the Chicago River green. This is a real event out here, and the city won't let you forget about St. Patrick and all the great things he did like driving the snakes out of Ireland.

Well, he didn't actually do that. And green wasn't exactly his thing (until you get into the shamrock story). And there's a bunch of other stuff that gets confusing. But don't let any of those things get in the way of drinking your weight in green beer tonight (and the rivers of green vomit filling the streets later tonight). And definitely don't let it get in the way of writing about St. Patrick's Day traditions.

In a post I did a while back, "The Tigers of Africa," I discussed how sometimes facts can get in the way of a good story, and we need to hold ourselves accountable to sticking to the truths on the ground - like how there are no tigers in Africa, for example. However, in recognition of St. Patrick's Day, I thought it might be worth mentioning that sometimes it's not about the factual accuracy of any particular event, but rather what we choose to believe about it, or what people believed at the time.

I'm not going to pick on old St. Pat - he did plenty of things worth note. The only downside is that over 1,500 years, very poor documentation left a lot of wiggle room about what really went down and how much substance underlies the story. For example: most people grudgingly accept that St. Patrick didn't actually drive the snakes out of Ireland - glaciers did. Now, whether the snake story is more a metaphor about driving away pagan beliefs, a supporting anecdote relating to other fabulous stories about his adventures in Ireland, or just creating a fable about why there are no snakes in Ireland is inconsequential. The bottom line is that people still discuss it, and when we write about it, we can throw that little bit in as common folklore. It doesn't have to be supported, strengthened, or even true - it just has to be believed. Now, if you write about this actual chasing of the snakes happening, you might be held to a higher standard. However, most people hear the factoid, connect it to St. Patrick, and move on. And that's okay.

Now, if you've ever been to Ireland, outside the cities it's very green and lush. Granted, most countries in the northern temperate zone are, but Ireland is very much so. So much so that people think it's the national color. Well, not so much, though all the people wearing green might lead you to believe so. That whole bit goes back to Gaelic traditions, the beautiful countryside, and the aforementioned shamrock. But the only important part you need to write about is that people associate one with the other - then move on. The fact that Ireland's official colors are green and blue and two-thirds of the Irish flag isn't green isn't important. What people believe is the part that makes for convincing writing.

Facts are something you have to contend with when you write, but keep in mind that writing about people and their beliefs can often steer wide of the truth, and that's okay. Maybe your character happens to know a lot about St. Patrick - that's fine, use it to enlighten your readers. If your character only believes the old south-side stories and thinks St. Pat was the first leprechaun, well, go with that for fun. Just remember how often facts can interfere with a good story, and as a writer, it's up to you to make sure the story wins out in the end.

Monday, March 13, 2023

Writing and March Madness!

It's that most glorious time of year that a surprisingly large number of people say they don't care about - March Madness. College basketball turns into a free-for-all of 63 games over a few action-packed weekends, full of teams from colleges we rarely hear about during the other eleven months of the year. And every office holds its bracket pools (despite rules against them) and comes together rooting for some unknown team to beat another one so one employee can take everyone else's money (I've won twice). But there is something we writers can learn from this.

For those who have never done the March Madness thing, it's simple: Two teams play, one loses and is out while the other goes on to the next game to play someone who won their last game. It's simple competitive elimination - best team in that game wins. And over the course of 63 games, the process of elimination leaves the "best team." In short, a wild, diverse, bunch of teams from all across the country is narrowed down to the best.

Now, this is a process I go through not just every March, but every time I start to work on a writing project. I think we all have a big pile of ideas flying around our brain, every one potentially a story. I have a small ledger's-worth of ideas for poems, stories, sketches, and other fine written works. Plenty of ideas just waiting to happen, but which one do I write about? Sometimes, we have such a logjam of ideas that we end up failing to create anything. I hope you can see where this is going.

When I am in this situation (which is just as much a curse as Writer's Block), I just turn it into my own form of March Madness. I write down the ideas that even remotely feel like I could do something with, and then I just pair them off. Then, one by one, I ask a simple question with each pair. "Which one moves me more?" The winner goes on, the loser waits for the next time I am stuck. And so it goes, me checking through each pairing and matching up the winners then knocking them out until one remains. Then, that one by definition is the one I can write about.

Now, in a way, this is not winning in the spirit of March Madness. This is actually a process of forcing myself to make decisions. When I have so many ideas that I can't write about just one, usually the problem is that I can't focus enough to write on just one thing. By breaking things down and ruling out different ideas, I am making little decisions and building myself up for something more decisive. Ultimately, the result isn't the important part. The fact of the matter is that all the ideas are workable; the problem is just me not choosing one. And through this process of deciding, I end up able to focus, to choose, and to write.

Now, I do enjoy March Madness and my brackets, but it's not everyone's thing. As I prepare myself for major disappointment, I know that the underlying process has a lot more functionality than just a basketball thing. It's a writing tool too, and that's what really counts. (That, and actually winning the office pool)

Friday, March 10, 2023

The Value of Your Writing

One little holdover I carry from my days in international economics is that I collect foreign money. To me, there's something fun about going through a collection of coins and notes from literally all over the world, and having them all in one convenient binder. In one place my Portuguese escudo will be next to my Italian lira and my Greek drachma, all under the watchful eye of my German marks and Spanish peseta. And of course, people often ask me about the real value of all this currency. My answer (at least in the cases mentioned above) is always the same: "Nothing." And yet, while it has no value as currency, to me it is worth a lot more.

All the currencies mentioned above were physically replaced in the market by the euro in 2002, rendering old notes useless because banks would no longer acknowledge them as a common means of trade. However, I don't collect them for the value. Rather, a part of me engages with the spirit of what they once were, and what they represent. I can look at my 50-rand note from South Africa (which still has value) and remember the first time I traveled overseas and traded in my dollars for this odd money from another hemisphere. I can look at my currencies from around Asia and think about how much of the world I never thought I would see when I was a child, and now here I am,  in New Delhi, holding a 100-rupee note (which still has value). What's the value? Not that much. What's the worth? Priceless.

Writing and the works we create have this same duality of existence. If you write a story about a particular adversity you've overcome, what is its value? Unless it won you a prize in a writing contest or convinced someone to give you a writing job, then probably nothing. However, never let that deter you, because writing such a story probably means the world to you personally, and that's a worth we need to recognize. It's also something we should feel ready to capitalize on in our own way.

Recently, I wrote a story about processing grief. That part alone has value to me, so if I had stopped there it still would've been a wise investment of my time, since the writing brought about some catharsis for me. However, I took it a step further. I decided to share the piece with a writing workshop to get some feedback on the shape and style, and any tips on how I could strengthen this ultimately fictitious story involving a very real process of managing grief. The advice poured in, the discussion was productive, and that could've been the end of it - mission accomplished. However, after the workshop, someone pulled me aside and thanked me for sharing this piece, as it helped them think about the grief in their life and how their coping mechanisms had been functioning. At that point, my piece of minimal value and infinite personal worth just paid off the best return possible.

I can't say every piece I write will change lives - the story about the first time I got super-drunk will, at best, turn people off of mixing Amaretto and beer (yes, I did that). However, I don't write for some big return in value. I write because the creation, the process, and the dividends of churning through my brain to create stories from mere keystrokes is worth more than even I can truly understand. And whenever you write something, think about what it is worth to you first and foremost. Its value to other people can't really be measured (like my old one-million Turkish lira note), so just write things that are worth something to you. Those will be priceless.

Monday, March 6, 2023

Following the Flow

About a lifetime ago, Chicago was buried under by a mammoth snowstorm which would go down in history as the Blizzard of '67. This was in the days before satellite imaging and hi-tech weather-tracking technology, so there was very little warning on just how bad this storm would be. Nowadays, we can see storms brewing days before they hit us, and we can track them in real-time. The technology is so advanced that I knew a week ahead of time about the storm coming into my area prepared to dump over a foot of snow on my house by Friday night. Well, three sad inches of snow later, one thing was clear: as much as we can see weather patterns, knowing where they will go is another story.

I bring this up to discuss a very interesting thing that occurs when we write. We can decide we want to write a particular story with a specific theme and a definitive purpose, but halfway through we feel something isn't quite right, and our writing is like walking into a strong headwind. Maybe we can identify just what is going wrong, maybe not. Whichever the case may be, the story has gone off-track and we are not sure why. It makes no sense - we are writing the story, so we should have full command over where it ends up, right?

Right. Just like we have command over which way the weather goes.

Just like those storms rolling in from the Great Plains states, we only know so much about them. We know what they are doing and the direction they should go, but that certainty has a pretty large range of error. With weather, we might not consider the rush of damp Gulf air rushing up from the south. In the case of writing, that unknown factor could be something our subconscious really wants to write about, but hasn't made obvious on the conscious level. This happens more than we think when we write, and can work to our advantage if we keep an eye out for it.

When I was writing my first novel, The Book of Cain, I was about halfway through the process of creating the whole story arc and such, and something wasn't right. It wasn't *clicking* for lack of a better term. The characters were there, the story moved along, but somehow, somewhere, the story arc tripped, stumbled, and came to a halt. Not the best feeling when the goal is to write a masterful piece of literature.

Kind of blocked, I had a few chats with different people, trying to figure out why I couldn't get the story where I wanted it to go. People offered me advice about how to get it back on track, but nothing fell into place. And then, tragedy entered my life, and with that sudden loss came a realization: The story I wanted to write wasn't the story in my heart. I had a much bigger, much deeper story brewing inside me, and a part of me was trying to tell that story but the rest of me was pushing the original tale that no longer felt sensible. In my grief, I realized the story I really wanted to write was there all along, but it wasn't the story I thought I wanted to write. I shelved a lot of my first draft, then set to writing the real story. That went really well.

When things aren't going right, step back from your work and ask yourself what you really want to write. Not what you want this story to do, but try to get in touch with what you are feeling. When a story feels like it's heading in the wrong direction, it might just be that you are not acknowledging where your inner writer wants the story to go. If you let yourself drift along with those feelings rather than your initial idea, you might just find a better story altogether.

Friday, March 3, 2023

Writing and What You Love

We always hear those usual clich├ęs about writing: "Write what you know," "Write what you love," "Write what you feel," and so forth. This is good advice, but a little too simplified for my liking. I am always skeptical about advice that can make a good bumper sticker, so I like to explore it a little. In a previous post, "Write What You Know? Really?" I took on that first saying and expanded upon where I think it really had value. Now let's look at the second quote (which will also include the third one - how convenient).

People often say, "Write what you love." Well, there are actually a lot of things to unpack in those four words, so let's see what is there through a simple example: Me. Anyone who knows me knows I love baseball. Players heading into training camp is the first day of spring in my book, and summer lasts from Opening Day until the playoffs. I watched baseball, I listened to it when we didn't have a television, I played it, I read about it, I studied it. Indeed, I loved it and still do to this very day. So, this should be something I should write about. Right?

What comes to mind when I say, "I am going to write about baseball." That's what I'm supposed to do, right? Write about what I love - baseball. Well, the problem with truly loving something (or someone) is that you love most everything about it. I love pitching strategies from batter to batter. An around-the-horn double play is one of the most exciting plays you'll see in any given game. Despite the steroids scandal, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa saved baseball in 1998. And don't even get me started about the designated hitter rule - if you bring it up, I hope you packed a lunch because it'll be a while. 

If you haven't figured it out, that's a lot to write about. Furthermore, none of it actually goes together. Writing all of that would just be dumping a bunch on info into a big word salad on the page. Frankly, that doesn't make you a better writer. What does help your process is drilling into one of the examples, and discussing it with passion and intensity. Don't discuss everything about baseball, but rather write about a particular aspect through the filter of love. Be passionate but focused, and remain on target throughout the piece.

If I wanted to discuss my love of the sport, I would take one of the subjects I mentioned - let's say the double-play - and let my intensity follow through. I would mention how in a short five seconds from the moment the bat hits the ball, the ball will travel over ninety feet to the third baseman, who then has to spin and throw it another seventy-eighty feet to second base where another infielder meets it while simultaneously tagging second base, catches the ball, switches it to his hand and throws it another ninety feet to first base before the batter tags the bag. I would explore this bang-bang play and all the action it contains, probably in 3-5 paragraphs, exploring details with passion and interest. I would let the writing broadcast my love of the subject. That is how we write what we love.

So, the next time you decide to write about something you love, give it a tight focus and then pour your heart into it. And hopefully, make it about baseball.