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1. How to Write for a 3 Year Old

Metafiction:
a literary device that poses questions about the relationship between fiction and reality.

Not the kind of thing you would ever find in a book for 3-year-olds.

Until now, that is. I didn’t intend to, honest.

It happened like this:

SSX b&w smallWhile writing Story Structure Expedition (which launches in two weeks) I found myself the unwitting protagonist in a Congo River nightmare.

Narrator — that’s the role I signed on for. From Brazzaville we would head upriver in search of the heart of a story. My thesis would prove first of all that the story heart exists, then explore its deadly nature.

Something happened. The essay morphed, it went rogue. Characters showed up uninvited and soon I found myself in  a novella. I didn’t ask to become fictional. I suppose it’s my fault for not blowing the whistle, which left me to face the consequences that befall any worthy protagonist.

I didn’t quite get it — me, a  fictional protagonist in my own story.

Would I have to suffer the story heart myself? The facts of fiction demand that the hero suffer a massive failure. Meaning what exactly—that my book wouldn’t get written? I would rather die.

I wanted to escape from my own story.

How meta is that?

OffYourBum, Columbus!Anyway, for comic relief I distracted myself by writing a children’s picture book.

I called it, Off your bum, Columbus! Explore the world!

A series of photographs would depict a woolly little character named Columbus who reluctantly abandons his storybook heroes to see the world with his own two eyes.

(Oh, yeah — Una Kitt — that’s my pen name.)

“Be a storybook hero yourself, Columbus!”

Do you see what’s happening here? My cute little alter ego is being made to suffer my surreal ordeal.

DSCN5539“If I was in a storybook,” Columbus asks himself, “what would I do?  Storybook heroes do something.”

Columbus confronts the very same metafictional existential dilemma. It’s a book for three-year-olds, for goodness sake!

“If this was a storybook, I couldn’t lie here all day, could I?” says Columbus. “If this book was about me, I’d get off my woolly whatsit.”

DSCN5544Columbus doesn’t have to wonder very long. The tide comes in!

Now he’s in trouble. Now up the Congo River!

I’m betting—in both these books—that readers young and old have a soft spot for the unwilling anti-hero.

I’m already finding out. Columbus launched this week and it’s already heading for #1 in its category. One reviewer liked the “ingenious concept that connected straight to the heart of my child’s imagination and to the way he already plays.”

Metafiction for kids. Who’d have thought?

If you have kids, or are a kid, or just want to see Columbus hit #1, here’s the Amazon link to save Columbus:

Go Columbus!

 

 

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2. How to Unhook from the “How-to” Habit

Reese hitchAnyone feel they haven’t read enough “how-to” books on writing?

Claudia in Mendoza, Argentina, says she hasn’t finished reading John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction.

Go for it, Claudia—Gardner is one of my favourites. But before you go, take two minutes to consider my argument for becoming a writer from the inside out.

First, a confession:

Back in the 90s, I devoured the ‘how-to” gurus — Gardner and Hague and Vogler and Egri and Goldberg and Field and McKee and Campbell and Walter and Ueland and Dillard. Those books still adorn my office, their authors looking over my shoulder as I type. How do I get anything done?

I even wrote one of these books myself. I’m looking over my own shoulder!

That’s the answer, Claudia of Argentina–the answer to the “how-to” dilemma.

Write your own manual.

Thereby will you finally be able to unhook from “how-to.”

7 Suggestions for Unhooking from “How-to”

#1. Consume fiction

Read your brains out. Good fiction and bad. Savour, chew, and digest buckets of it. Reflect on how the best writers did it. How she moved you. How the hell did she make me cry? And laugh! I fall to sleep at night replaying the scenes that blew me away, the scenes that turned the story around. What happened there? How did she do it?

I fall to sleep soothed by the art of fiction

#2. Fall in love with the art of fiction.

Write like a lover. I remember watching sports on television as a kid, and how the instant the game ended we’d bolt out the door, bounding like jackrabbits, to the playing field where we would emulate the champions. We played past sundown, playing our brains out, in the dark—Who has the ball!

I’m equally hopeless whenever I read Virginia Woolf. I rush to my manuscript and emulate the hell out of her. I wrote the 15th draft of my novel ROXY in an adrenaline rush after reading Mrs. Dalloway.

What a joy to write like a lover. We’re not mechanics. Mechanics think. Lovers love their characters ecstatically and to death.

#3. Love your characters to death

There’s nothing “how-to” about this dictum, because no one else can tell you how to love your protagonist to death. You invented him and only you know how to thwart him. But you have to do it, the hero must die. Just do it. It is (arguably) all that counts in fiction. There’s no “how-to” book out there that teaches you how to love your fictional characters to death.

To heck with “how-to”—what about “where to”?

#4. Forget “how-to” in favour of “where-to”

What’s the point of “how to” if we don’t understand “where to”? We wouldn’t buy an appliance without knowing what it’s for. So, what’s fiction for? What’s at the heart of fiction? Is that where it’s going? What’s it all about?

Reading the best fiction we learn (repeatedly) that the best protagonists are on a trajectory toward freedom from their lesser selves. That’s “where to.” That’s (arguably) all we need to know. We keep writing draft after draft until our protagonist has arrived. We know he’s there when he stops kicking and screaming. He’s got that far away look in his eye. He’s gone so far and is so disillusioned with his game plan that he has no alternative but to forsake himself. A higher cause descends. There’s no “how-to” about it. This may look like “how-to,” but it’s not. It’s about understanding the human condition.

#5. Don’t try to BE a writer

“How-to” tomes often coax us to be a writer rather than encourage us to do the hard work that would turn us into writers. That is to say, write your brains out. I’ll bet there are young writers out there reading less literature than “how-to” books. We’re being seduced into posing as writers “rather than spending the time to absorb what is there in the vast riches of the world’s literature, and then crafting one’s own voice out of the myriad of voices.” (author, Richard Bausch)

#6. Don’t get it right, get it written

I sometimes run a course with such a title. Students write at home, then come to class to watch scenes from powerful movies—scenes that give the audience their money’s worth. And by that I mean scenes that depict the hero challenging his own human condition. Challenging the right of his own beliefs to prevent his true happiness.

Immersing ourselves in fiction, we get a feel for a story’s essential payoff. We are astonished each time we recognize it. And then we constructively and lovingly critique each other’s work before bolting for home like jackrabbits.

#7. Write your own “how-to” book

Make notes on your own astonishment at how the best writers serve the art of fiction. Each of our understandings is bound to be unique. Your perspective is going to underpin your own advice about “how-to.” Write that book and put it on the shelf and let it breathe down your neck.

Go for it, Claudia of Argentina. Write your own manual out of love for writing.

Our own “how-to” will be born of the love of the art of fiction.

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3. If You Hate Story Structure

I hate story structureI was browsing Amazon’s Kindle Store this morning.

In the Story Structure Department I noticed a drama unfolding:

“Writing by the rules” vs. “Organic writing.”

On  one side it’s all structure and story engineering while the other camp is chanting, Don’t get it right, get it written!

But hold on a minute. The traditionalists insist that structure doesn’t mean formulaic.

The debate rages on writing blogs where the “rule rebels” get to express their disenchantment with the confusion of so many story theories. And who can blame them?

Enough already!

To hell with story theories

To hell with graphs and grids  and plot points and page counts and blogs and eBooks and audiobooks and podcasts and webinars and all those online courses with all their marketing savvy—that’s the growing mood out there.

One writing guru has published a title clearly meant to fan the flames of discontent. The subtitle of his book reads: How to Write Unforgettable Fiction by Breaking the Rules.

Who doesn’t like to break the rules!

Well, it turns out to be a pretty standard writing text. Can’t say that I’m surprised. The book’s author is an accomplished novelist, he knows very well what a story is. I’ll bet he knows the rules so well that he knows how to break them. He’s probably a master story engineer.

“Prose is architecture,” said Ernest Hemingway.

And if that’s too didactic, try this:

“Structure is only the box that holds the gift.” ~ K.M. Weiland.

That’s straight from K.M. Weiland’s bestseller, Structuring Your Novel.

The gift that lies at the heart of fiction

I love it.

If the rebels reckon they’re beyond story structure, then they should explore “the gift” that lies at the heart of fiction. Yes, there exists a scene in every good story that lies beyond story structure.

I call it the hole in the story.

A story is two stories separated by a gap

The most ruthlessly simple overview of story suggests that a good story is actually two stories separated by a gap.

A chasm so deep that the plot comes to a halt at the brink.

The plot seems to serve this purpose—to hound the protagonist into this existential nothingness. This scene—often called the “Act II crisis”—is structure’s gift.

Story structure exists fore and aft of this hell hole, which becomes for the hero a chrysalis of moral adjustment. This is the gift.

Here, in the heart of the story, the hero disavows himself of himself. All strategies, structures and belief systems fall away and the human organism finds itself in a position to transcend its own self-serving delusions. This is the gift.

I introduce this concept in my short eBook, Story Structure to Die For.

The heart of the story

Fiction moves beyond structure when the protagonist lands in the heart of the story.

The story heart knows nothing of story mechanics. The heart doesn’t do reason or rules. It has nothing but disdain for a character’s logic, strategies, and petty desires.

Here in the heart we encounter a story’s “sacred mechanics.”

Here the hero finds freedom from the rules that have been preventing his true happiness.

Free of rules! This sounds like the very place an “organic” writer wants to be.

But consider this:

If the rule-rebel-writer wants to love her protagonists sufficiently to deliver them to the gift at the heart of the story, she’ll need a structure to get them there.

A writer needs a story structure to love her fictional characters the way a writer ought to.

If thinking of “story” like this makes sense to you, let me know.

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4. How the Best Stories End (Part II)

Perfect SenseHow to fulfill an audience?

I mean, really fulfill.

I think I know what nourishes me.

The romantic genre, for example. Boy meets girl – boy loses girl – boy gets girl back. We’re meant to swoon at the “getting back.” And we do, sure, kind of.

But honestly, do we consume fiction to see characters simply get what they want? How banal. How everyday. How superficial. (I’m getting depressed just writing this.)

Case in point—the movie Perfect Sense.

Here’s a story that almost comes true. The film is on a trajectory for greatness, but with the final shot the writer turns his back on the story. He gives us the standard romantic convention—boy gets girl back—roll credits.

The writer opts to merely sate the protagonist’s desire. And for this we have given up two hours of our precious time?

Perfect Sense makes perfect Hollywood sense

Perfect Sense is your standard romance—boy meets girl, etc.—except that the story unfolds during a global epidemic in which the afflicted become deprived of their five senses. Smell is the first to go, then touch, then hearing, etc.

I saw it coming and was excited—billions of people rendered deaf, dumb and blind. Wow! Humanity will discover that the habitual doors of perception have actually been obscuring life’s true beauty. With the senses gone, pure consciousness will prevail…

And love will have its way with the world.

The perfect sense is love

(Didn’t I just write about this just last week?)

All over the world—in India, Mexico, Thailand—whole populations are moving beyond themselves, helping each other, falling into each other’s arms.

This isn’t boy-meets-girl love, this is impersonal love.

This is Big Love.

The best stories end with Big Love

We saw it in Casablanca, where the hero sacrifices the love of a woman for a higher cause. Love for the wider world—this is Big Love. And it doesn’t just satisfy an audience, it nourishes.

But look again—it’s not even the love that melts our hearts, rather it’s the pain of the sacrifice. It’s Bogart emerging out of smallness. It’s the escape from the small self.

It’s the birth of an evolved consciousness.

Okay, just call it “growing up.”

Oh, yeah… almost forgot… we were talking about Perfect Sense.

The boy, who has met girl and then lost girl, is just about to find girl again. They’re on a trajectory to fall into each other’s arms at the moment the disease renders them blind. Excellent. The screen will go black just before they find each other.

It’s a clever twist on the usual ending, which worked for Crocodile Dundee and When Harry Met Sally and scores of Hollywood romances before and since. But wait a minute! Something’s radically wrong here in Perfect Sense.

While the Big Love disease is sweeping the planet, our protagonists only crave each other. Their love is small, puny. No way I’m buying this ending.

I WANT MY MONEY BACK!

Can’t the director see what’s wrong with this picture?

Let this pair of protagonists find each other, sure, good. But by now they’re infected with Big Love, aren’t they? Petty personal preferences take a back seat to a world that so badly needs love to have its way.

These two characters have proven themselves to be great lovers in the standard, carnal, self-interested sense. Now it’s time for great love to serve the wider world.

That’s how the best stories end.

The degree to which Big Love prevails in the climax, that’s what determines our satisfaction with the story.

That’s what fulfills me, at least.

What more can I say with any certainty?

What satisfies you?

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5. And Love Has its Way with the World

The_Two_Faces_of_January_film_posterI’m not saying that The Two Faces of January is a great movie.

But the Viggo Mortensen character serves to show how many good stories end.

It goes like this…

And love has its way with the world.

You don’t hear it, no one says it, it’s the subtext. It’s even more “sub” than that. It’s what the audience feels in themselves:

And love has its way with the world.

The protagonist has his way for most of the movie. He may be charming but he’s self-centred, misguided, and self-destructive. (I’m talking about most fictional protagonists.) His way with the world has created mayhem and misery. It’s called the plot.

Now at the end, having failed utterly, what else can the protagonist do? He disowns his game plan…

And love has its way with the world.

Contrary to popular belief…

You know that happy-ever-after feeling—well, this is it. Think about it. The feel-good feeling rarely has anything to do with heroes winning or successfully manipulating people or events. Nobody achieves love. It’s transpersonal, isn’t it? Love is a grace.

Love does us.

Audiences feel good because their virtual heroes are done to.

Check it out for yourself—your favourite protagonists are probably those who finally get out of their own way so they can be done to by a force beyond their power to manipulate.

We’re talking about escaping from our “second nature.” It’s the one that prevents us from knowing the first.

Marcel Proust identifies this second nature as the heavy curtain of habit which conceals from us almost the whole universe.

CUT BACK TO:

The Two Faces of January and Viggo Mortensen lying dying on a street in Crete…

[SPOILER ALERT! Not really. Students of story aren’t concerned about spoilers. We consume fiction to better understand it! We want to know how fiction works. But I digress…]

Viggo Mortenson has been an incorrigible swindler, con man, and liar, and here in the final scene, with a bullet in his back, he has one chance to come true. And he better be quick about it.

Viggo has one chance to prove the film’s title—The Two Faces of January.

Janus, god of beginningsJanus is the Roman god of transitions, the god of gates and doorways, of endings and beginnings. Janus is depicted with two faces, one looking backward, one toward the future.

Viggo is Janus at the threshold.

Viggo’s second (bogus) nature is evaporating in the blinding light of his first nature. He’s glimpsing almost the entire universe. At the very least he probably wishes he could take back a whole lot of unfortunate history.

But of course it’s too late do anything more than die in truth.

Protagonist dies and yet audiences feel good—what just happened there?

Answer: Freedom trumps death. How does that work?

Answer: Because love is finally having its way with the world.

I’m falling in love…

I’m falling in love with this turn of phrase. It slipped out while I was writing the final chapter of The Writer in Love. My protagonist is likewise caught in a dead-end where he surrenders his game plan. He is Janus at the threshold of a new beginning.

As are most good protagonists.

As are we all in a moment of crisis.

Deep down I know that if only I would quit deluding myself, love would have its way with my world, too.

Isn’t writing fun!

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6. Seriously, I’m Working on my Novel

SeriouslyYou won’t believe me but…

As this shot was taken I was mining deep thoughts:

The price of freedom is death. ~ Malcolm X

I read it in a book called Death, the Last God.

All this death business relates to my work-in-progress, The Writer in Love. In this personal essay I suggest that “paying the price” is precisely what proves the fictional hero’s heroics.

The Writer in Love concerns itself exclusively with this “death” that takes place at the heart of a story. This is the scene where die-hard protagonists undergo a radical change of heart. They find themselves in such a deep dead-end that they have no choice but to surrender. Everything. Especially who they think they are.

We writers should be clear about our responsibilities to the protagonists we create—the hero must die. While most writing manuals mention this “Act II crisis,” I seem to be alone in suggesting that here is the reason readers read and writers write.

It’s worth a book!

But how do you write about something as amorphous as death? I’m trying to write about death as a station on the hero’s journey, but how to sound convincing? Death is without dimension or language. It has no shape.

A book needs shape. It needs limits and dimension. Otherwise, what are we spending $4.99 on?

Anyway, I badly needed to step away from the keyboard and spend the day processing new insights about how death makes life worthwhile.

My left footI must have been in a trance when I took this pic—why else would anyone snap a shot of their foot? I was probably musing over another quote from Death, the Last God:

“Ideas of finding happiness and serenity away from the inevitable suffering of death are the superficial desires of spiritual materialism. We have to find happiness and serenity in the inevitable suffering of death. And that is a very different journey from seeking happiness by getting what we want.” ~ Anne Geraghty

I love it. Happiness in death. Talk about a tough sell. It’s killing me!

DSCN5273Here I am having a heart attack. Just kidding. The shutter caught me bending down to examine what appeared to be my doppelgänger lying in the surf—a dead jellyfish.

I know what you’re thinking, that PJ is all spoof and superficial happiness on this Mexican beach, but the truth is I’m in agony. I’m stuck. And it’s not writer’s block, it’s worse. I’ve written myself into an existential crisis.

I didn’t plan it, but my essay morphed into fiction and I became the protagonist trying to write a book. (Yes, very meta, I know.) It’s a book that takes the shape of a journey to the story heart. I only wanted to be the narrator, but I have become a fully-fledged protagonist.

Es horrible!

You see, if I’m a protagonist, I can’t permit myself to escape the facts of fiction. Starting with, the price of freedom is death. As in, I’m going to fail so miserably at this book project that I lose all faith in myself. As in, this book is going to be the death of me.

Well, folks, it’s happening!

I’m proving the existence of the story heart by my despair at failing to finish this book. Fantastic! Of course, now there might not be a book. Which might have explained why I’m on the beach, had I not been refreshed by these latest musings on death.

Un amigoHere’s a friend I met farther along the beach. He was plucking out that Nat King Cole classic… Smile though your heart is aching / Smile even though it’s breaking…

What’s Nat saying here?—even though you’re dying, be happy, don’t worry, smile.

Talk about serendipity. I came to the beach mainly to digest a passage from When Things Fall Apart, written by that irrepressible little Buddhist nun, Pema Chödrön

Ms. Chödrön has calculated how long a person is required to “die” in order to disable the matrix of habits we mistakenly identify as “me.” Astonishingly, Chödrön has calculated it to the tenth of a second…

1.6 seconds.

One point six seconds!

Is she being facetious? Who cares? This is something I can run with. One point six seconds, that’s how long the hero is required to keep his eyes open in the blinding light of utter annihilation. (Sounds like no time at all, but consider that the mystic Nikos Kazantzakis called this the “supreme human achievement.”)

One point six seconds—suddenly I have the framework for my book.

My whole book concerns 1.6 seconds of time.

Now, that’s shape!

The price of freedom is death, and in 1.6 seconds you’re paid in full. And the price of my book will be only $4.99. That might be the best five bucks a writer will ever spend.

Dos cervezas por favor!

If not, you get your money back.

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7. Fiction, Freedom and the Meaning of Life

Zorba text“The superior virtue is not to be free but to fight for freedom.” ~ Nikos Kazantzakis

I know writers who would argue, “That’s just a man talking.”

Seriously, you’d spend $12 to watch a movie called The Valley of the Happy Free People?

No one has made such a movie and for good reason. Audiences don’t pay to vicariously experience being free, but rather to suffer the personal crises that open us to freedom.

Which explains why screenwriters write movies like Zorba the Greek, Casablanca, Thelma & Louise, and Good Will Hunting.

And American Beauty, Moonstruck, A Late Quartet, A River Runs Through It, Up in the Air, Out of Africa, The Artist, A Room with a View, and A Passage to India.

And Rocky, Sideways, Nebraska, The Matrix, Disgrace, Ordinary People, Of Gods and Men, On the Waterfront, The African Queen, Silver Lining Playbook, American Graffiti, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, and Labor Day.

Labor Day I saw just last night.

If you’re like me you don’t just watch movies, you examine them for how the writer does it. Does what? Frees the protagonist.

It happens in all the best fiction.

Every protagonist is on a trajectory toward freedom.

Let’s look at Labor Day.

Labor DayJosh Brolin plays Frank, an escaped convict. Ask him about freedom. His bid for freedom will intercept the lives of a mother and son living in small town USA.

Kate Winslet is Adele, who has lost all faith in herself in the aftermath of a divorce. She’s a prisoner of the belief that she’s an utter failure. She can hardly get out of bed. Don’t ask her anything.

Henry is Adele’s adolescent son. Since Henry is not the protagonist, he is not required to behave as though he were fighting to be free. However…

Henry has to bring his poor depressed mother breakfast in bed, for goodness sake. Ask Henry if he’d like to be free of the responsibility that weighs so heavily upon him?

Labor Day is unique for depicting a trio of characters who each find freedom early in Act I.

Most stories depend upon a merciless plot to beat the hard-headed protagonist into an awareness of how to solve their problems, but in Labor Day the miracle takes ten minutes.

Five minutes into the film, Frank shows up to kick-start the story. Injured from his leap out a prison hospital window, Frank politely but firmly inserts himself into the lives of Adele and Henry. The violence and trauma you’d expect to characterize an abduction are quite unnecessary in this case.

Adele blows convention out another window by acquiescing almost immediately to this stranger’s demands. She wants nothing more than to escape her sorry life. Perhaps to end it.

(To die and be reborn—there’s a freedom trajectory!)

Frank, Adele, and Henry foresee their salvation in this strange and sudden togetherness. But wait! They haven’t arrived in Freedom Valley yet. Not only would that be utterly boring, but it ignores Kazantzakis’ aphorism:

The superior virtue is not to be free but to fight for freedom.

The manhunt!

Kazantzakis will be happy to know that the police are closing in on Frank. The story becomes a fight to escape the forces that would annul these newfound freedoms.

Suffice to say that Adele, Henry, and Frank must remain freedom fighters into the foreseeable future. And I think that’s an accurate portrayal of the human condition.

However many jail breaks we execute, the walls of our human condition keep us under house arrest. The fight for freedom is an ongoing battle.

Which explains why The Valley of the Happy Free People strikes us as a bogus premise.

Freedom isn’t a place, it’s an attitude. Good fictional protagonists earn this perspective only after the plot has beaten the apathy right out of them. Now we realize that there are two ways to live, just as there are two ways to die.

“Free or not free—this is our choice in every moment.”

And that’s a woman talking, by the way—Pema Chodron.

Just had a thought…

Why doesn’t someone write a story about an escape from Happy Valley?

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8. Every Story Is an Escape Story

Escape Title shotHere’s a story theory of mine worth checking out:

http://writetodone.com/facts-of-fiction/

…published today on the Write to Done website.

I mean it when I say, “Check it out.” The next film you see or novel or read, examine it for the escape story it most probably is.

And if you’re writing a story, see if your protagonist isn’t escaping from some kind of prison. Of the different kind of escapes possible, one of them is the key to writing fiction that gives readers their money’s worth.

I’d love to hear your thoughts once you’ve read the post. You can comment here below, or on the Write to Done site.

I’m living in both locations for a few days.

Cheers.

PJ

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9. I Didn’t See it Coming

I didn't see it coming

I didn’t hear it coming.

For an opening line I think it works. What do you think?

See what coming? Exactly!

The reader is going keep reading to find out, and isn’t that the overarching purpose of the first sentence—to compel the reader to read the second sentence. Etc.

I was going to write a blog piece on “openings.” By examining the first paragraphs of my upcoming book, The Writer in Love, I would assess the effectiveness of my beginning, see if it…

  • Established a Central Question
  • Made a promise
  • Set a trajectory

But that opening line got hold of me and wouldn’t let go. It wanted this blog post all to itself.

I sure didn’t see that coming.

Then it hit me—that line echoed far beyond Page One. So innocently tossed onto the page many months ago, it infected the entire manuscript, becoming a major motif throughout the book.

The cheetah is the first and most obvious thing I didn’t see coming. It approached me from behind and grabbed my hand in its mouth and wouldn’t let to. True story. I didn’t see it coming was the perfect way to establish an essential fact of fiction:

Protagonists never see it coming.

Drama depends on it.

Protagonists don’t see what coming? That which will destroy them. For their own good! It’s amazing how many times we can hear the poets and the mystics say something like this…

“Our body is a ship that sails on deep blue waters. What is our goal? To be shipwrecked!”

And still we complain, “I didn’t see it coming.”

Neither do writers see it coming.

We get in over our heads, trust me. We get excited about creating the kinds of payoffs that give readers their money’s worth. We find ourselves writing about characters whose only way out of Act II is to surrender to the storm, and by that I mean forsake who they’ve always thought they were.

I didn’t see that I was laying a trap for myself by trying to write in depth about such sacred story mechanics. I was in way over my head. I was drowning, myself. I almost quit. I didn’t see that coming, either.

I wrote a scene in which I drown. (That was fun.) I didn’t see that coming, either.

I never expected to take almost two years to write The Writer in Love.

To be honest, I never anticipated becoming a writer. I was going to be a mapmaker.

I never thought I’d have children until I tended my grandfather on his deathbed.

Nor did I imagine my children having children!

I didn’t foresee my website vanishing a few weeks ago. I thought I’d lost everything. I was resigned to starting over, but most of it is resurrected, and with a new design. Look, I’m blogging again!

The cool thing about blogging is you can start with a line like, I didn’t see it coming, and see where it goes. Because we don’t write to explain, we write to find out.

We might equally say that we live to find out.

I’ve found out a lot while writing The Writer in Love. And it all started with this opening scene:

I didn’t hear it coming.

It hadn’t finished devouring the bait when my Bolex ran out of film, so I retreated but slowly, walking away through the elephant grass when it surprised me from behind by clamping down on my hand hard enough to hold me but not break the skin. The growl in its guts, I could feel the vibration in my arm if you can imagine that. And then in my own belly. It’s a funny thing when your life stops suddenly dead in its tracks, it’s not funny at all because there you are for the first time without a future. As for the past, well, it’s your fault—my fault!—I had been carrying the bloody bait in that hand. Of course, the cat could smell it. I could see that now.

I should have seen it coming.

 

 

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10. Case of the Missing Website

The VoidBeloved Subscribers…

You probably haven’t noticed but my website vanished into the e-ether for ten days. On the fifth anniversary of my blog!

My brother has been working hard to track it down, talk it down, and convince it to come home.

It appears to be back, but you can never tell for how long. It may escape again before I’ve appeased its wanderlust with promises I might not be able to keep.

Should that happen, it might take off with my subscription email list. In which case I’ve lost track of you. My worst nightmare! If you don’t hear from me for a while, manually log in to http://www.pjreece.ca and re-subscribe.

I hope it doesn’t come to that.

I’m sure I can come to some understanding with my blog. I suspect it’s feeling under-employed of late, what with my once-a-month postings. Perhaps that’s the lesson it wanted to teach me.

I’m going to make amends, starting soon with posts of the first few chapters of my new book. It’s almost finished. It’s called The Writer in Love, a hot and sweaty read.

I should add that the heat and stink issues mainly from the jungle river up which my literary expedition travels in search of the story heart. But there’s a little sex as well. You should hear crocodiles mating! Seriously.

Okay, that’s my quickie for today… hope this publishes before the digital house of cards collapses again.

Buenas noches.

PJ

Add a Comment
11. Case of the Missing Website

The VoidBeloved Subscribers…

You probably haven’t noticed but my website vanished into the e-ether for ten days. On the fifth anniversary of my blog!

My brother has been working hard to track it down, talk it down, and convince it to come home.

It appears to be back, but you can never tell for how long. It may escape again before I’ve appeased its wanderlust with promises I might not be able to keep.

Should that happen, it might take off with my subscription email list. In which case I’ve lost track of you. My worst nightmare! If you don’t hear from me for a while, manually log in to http://www.pjreece.ca and re-subscribe.

I hope it doesn’t come to that.

I’m sure I can come to some understanding with my blog. I suspect it’s feeling under-employed of late, what with my once-a-month postings. Perhaps that’s the lesson it wanted to teach me.

I’m going to make amends, starting soon with posts of the first few chapters of my new book. It’s almost finished. It’s called The Writer in Love, a hot and sweaty read.

I should add that the heat and stink issues mainly from the jungle river up which my literary expedition travels in search of the story heart. But there’s a little sex as well. You should hear crocodiles mating! Seriously.

Okay, that’s my quickie for today… hope this publishes before the digital house of cards collapses again.

Buenas noches.

PJ

Add a Comment
12. The Case of the Missing Website

The voidBeloved Subscribers…

You probably haven’t noticed but my website vanished into the e-ether for ten days. On the fifth anniversary of my blog!

My brother has been working hard to track it down, talk it down, and convince it to come home.

It appears to be back, but you can never tell for how long. It may escape again before I’ve appeased its wanderlust with promises I might not be able to keep.

Should that happen, it might take off with my subscription email list. In which case I’ve lost track of you. My worst nightmare! If you don’t hear from me for a while, manually log in to http://www.pjreece.ca and re-subscribe.

I hope it doesn’t come to that.

I’m sure I can come to some understanding with my blog. I suspect it’s feeling under-employed of late, what with my once-a-month postings. Perhaps that’s the lesson it wanted to teach me.

I’m going to make amends, starting soon with posts of the first few chapters of my new book. It’s almost finished. It’s called The Writer in Love, a hot and sweaty read.

I should add that the heat and stink issues mainly from the jungle river up which my literary expedition travels in search of the story heart. But there’s a little sex as well. You should hear crocodiles mating! Seriously.

Okay, that’s my quickie for today… hope this publishes before the digital house of cards collapses again.

Buenas noches.

PJ

Add a Comment
13. Hello world!

Welcome to WordPress. This is your first post. Edit or delete it, then start blogging!

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14. Who in their Right Mind Would Be a Writer?

a-m-boyle Struggling WriterA writer buddy of mine phones up and tells me to meet him on the first tee in 45 minutes.

Say no more.

I love hanging out with writers. I love their lack of common sense, their desperation, their vulnerability, their implausibility. Their impossibility!

Who in their right mind would be a writer?

I especially love watching movies about struggling writers.

Joe in Sunset Boulevard, and Roy in You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, and Henry in Factotum, and Charlie in Adaptation, and The Ghost Writer, and of course Miles (Paul Giamatti) in the film Sideways.

Miles (introvert, pessimistic, depressed) spends most of the story waiting to hear from his literary agent. The news won’t be good. Writers don’t show up in stories as symbols of success. They are setups for failure.

Someone should make a movie of my life.

Forget the first 40 years, they were altogether too glamorous. No, my life more truly started when my 13-year-old son called a meeting to say, “I’m in Grade Seven, Dad, and I’ve attended fifteen different schools.”

I said, “Wash your mouth out with soap,” but it turns out he wasn’t exaggerating.

“Pops, I want you to settle down,” he said.

So I quit shooting films, traded camera for keyboard, and decided that henceforth I was a writer. It was great. I soon became so broke that my son’s mother sent support payments from Hawaii.

Once, I forced my son to accompany me to the Welfare Office. They gave me so much money it was humiliating—rent, medical and dental care, bus passes, food vouchers, extra cash. I had to cut them off.

Though I soon acquired a stable of clients, every November it seemed I was scrambling to pay the rent. I sucked up my pride and hit the streets to sell door to door. Water filters, home insulation, sports videos, memberships, you name it, even vacuum cleaners.

I spent eight hours performing a demo for an Italian household. The extended family showed up to watch and applaud as my machine hoovered that mansion top to bottom. I thought they were going to adopt me. Alas, no sale.

I remember one cold, dark and stormy night somewhere out in Vacuumland huddling in a phone booth, demo machine in one hand and phone in the other as I listened to my agent promise me my script was all but sold. Alas, optioned three times, it’s yours, cheap.

One day the Revenue Department came snooping around to deny me my business expenses. It didn’t take her long to realize she couldn’t squeeze blood from a stone. Lost for words, she said, “Well, Mr. Reece…keep writing.”

Thank you, Ms. Klenck. And I did exactly that.

type-inI entered writing competitions—the 3-Day Novel Competition, Short Story Challenges, Screenplay Competitions, and Pitch-a-Plot workshops. But it is with special fondness that I remember the “24-Hour One-Act Play Competition”—all of us wannabe playwrights sequestered into one room.

Twelve hours into my scenario about a kid who is abducted off a golf course (well, they tell you to write what you know), I thought it would be wise to review what I’d written. I pushed back from my typewriter (that’s right, a typewriter!) and unenscrolled the paper from the rollers.

Typing on dot-matrix computer paperI was typing onto dot-matrix computer paper, you know, a continuous feed. I separated the sheets along the perforations and made a nice little stack which then fell to the floor. Thirty-five UN-NUMBERED sheets all helter-skelter.

I couldn’t organize the pages, couldn’t find the continuity, couldn’t put Humpty back together again. If I didn’t bolt from the room I was going to cry. It was 4:00 a.m.

Walking the streets, I was Miles and Roy and Henry and every fictional writer who ever agreed to let their creator thwart them to the point of despair and even self-loathing. Why weren’t the cameras rolling?

At a convenience store I suffocated my existential crisis with anchovy & garlic pizza. That I was a writer caused the proprietor to reflect on his own life, roads not taken, etc. Lamenting his lack of courage to lead an art-committed life, he said something along the lines of:

If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”

I knew there was a reason, besides my son’s ultimatum, why I was a writer.

At the same time I realized why I love movies about writers. As symbols of failure, writers depict Everyman at the brink of surrender. The struggling writer shows us what deep down we fear most—that the meaning of a life is to leave our old selves behind.

To be a writer is to have the courage to become unselved.

Spirits bolstered, I returned to the drama den—and damned if my abduction story didn’t win First Prize.

My words since then have earned me a million bucks, which, admittedly, spread over twenty years is a modest living. But I’m proud to count myself as someone struggling to bring forth what’s in him.

Who in their right mind would be a writer? I think that being a writer indicates nothing but right-mindedness.

But getting back to my son—I’d ring him for a golf game except the kid is doing so well that he’s off playing Pebble Beach. Last year it was The Old Course in St. Andrews. Next month Augusta National, it wouldn’t surprise me.

I might have to tell him to settle down.

PJ & son back then

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15. Who in their Right Mind Would Be a Writer?

a-m-boyle Struggling WriterA writer buddy of mine phones up and tells me to meet him on the first tee in 45 minutes.

Say no more.

I love hanging out with writers. I love their lack of common sense, their desperation, their vulnerability, their implausibility. Their impossibility!

Who in their right mind would be a writer?

I especially love watching movies about struggling writers.

Joe in Sunset Boulevard, and Roy in You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, and Henry in Factotum, and Charlie in Adaptation, and The Ghost Writer, and of course Miles (Paul Giamatti) in the film Sideways.

Miles (introvert, pessimistic, depressed) spends most of the story waiting to hear from his literary agent. The news won’t be good. Writers don’t show up in stories as symbols of success. They are setups for failure.

Someone should make a movie of my life.

Forget the first 40 years, they were altogether too glamorous. No, my life more truly started when my 13-year-old son called a meeting to say, “I’m in Grade Seven, Dad, and I’ve attended fifteen different schools.”

I said, “Wash your mouth out with soap,” but it turns out he wasn’t exaggerating.

“Pops, I want you to settle down,” he said.

So I quit shooting films, traded camera for keyboard, and decided that henceforth I was a writer. It was great. I soon became so broke that my son’s mother sent support payments from Hawaii.

Once, I forced my son to accompany me to the Welfare Office. They gave me so much money it was humiliating—rent, medical and dental care, bus passes, food vouchers, extra cash. I had to cut them off.

Though I soon acquired a stable of clients, every November it seemed I was scrambling to pay the rent. I sucked up my pride and hit the streets to sell door to door. Water filters, home insulation, sports videos, memberships, you name it, even vacuum cleaners.

I spent eight hours performing a demo for an Italian household. The extended family showed up to watch and applaud as my machine hoovered that mansion top to bottom. I thought they were going to adopt me. Alas, no sale.

I remember one cold, dark and stormy night somewhere out in Vacuumland huddling in a phone booth, demo machine in one hand and phone in the other as I listened to my agent promise me my script was all but sold. Alas, optioned three times, it’s yours, cheap.

One day the Revenue Department came snooping around to deny me my business expenses. It didn’t take her long to realize she couldn’t squeeze blood from a stone. Lost for words, she said, “Well, Mr. Reece…keep writing.”

Thank you, Ms. Klenck. And I did exactly that.

type-inI entered writing competitions—the 3-Day Novel Competition, Short Story Challenges, Screenplay Competitions, and Pitch-a-Plot workshops. But it is with special fondness that I remember the “24-Hour One-Act Play Competition”—all of us wannabe playwrights sequestered into one room.

Twelve hours into my scenario about a kid who is abducted off a golf course (well, they tell you to write what you know), I thought it would be wise to review what I’d written. I pushed back from my typewriter (that’s right, a typewriter!) and unenscrolled the paper from the rollers.

Typing on dot-matrix computer paperI was typing onto dot-matrix computer paper, you know, a continuous feed. I separated the sheets along the perforations and made a nice little stack which then fell to the floor. Thirty-five UN-NUMBERED sheets all helter-skelter.

I couldn’t organize the pages, couldn’t find the continuity, couldn’t put Humpty back together again. If I didn’t bolt from the room I was going to cry. It was 4:00 a.m.

Walking the streets, I was Miles and Roy and Henry and every fictional writer who ever agreed to let their creator thwart them to the point of despair and even self-loathing. Why weren’t the cameras rolling?

At a convenience store I suffocated my existential crisis with anchovy & garlic pizza. That I was a writer caused the proprietor to reflect on his own life, roads not taken, etc. Lamenting his lack of courage to lead an art-committed life, he said something along the lines of:

If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”

I knew there was a reason, besides my son’s ultimatum, why I was a writer.

At the same time I realized why I love movies about writers. As symbols of failure, writers depict Everyman at the brink of surrender. The struggling writer shows us what deep down we fear most—that the meaning of a life is to leave our old selves behind.

To be a writer is to have the courage to become unselved.

Spirits bolstered, I returned to the drama den—and damned if my abduction story didn’t win First Prize.

My words since then have earned me a million bucks, which, admittedly, spread over twenty years is a modest living. But I’m proud to count myself as someone struggling to bring forth what’s in him.

Who in their right mind would be a writer? I think that being a writer indicates nothing but right-mindedness.

But getting back to my son—I’d ring him for a golf game except the kid is doing so well that he’s off playing Pebble Beach. Last year it was The Old Course in St. Andrews. Next month Augusta National, it wouldn’t surprise me.

I might have to tell him to settle down.

PJ & son back then

Add a Comment
16. Who in their Right Mind Would Be a Writer?

a-m-boyle Struggling WriterA writer buddy of mine phones up and tells me to meet him on the first tee in 45 minutes.

Say no more.

I love hanging out with writers. I love their lack of common sense, their desperation, their vulnerability, their implausibility. Their impossibility!

Who in their right mind would be a writer?

I especially love watching movies about struggling writers.

Joe in Sunset Boulevard, and Roy in You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, and Henry in Factotum, and Charlie in Adaptation, and The Ghost Writer, and of course Miles (Paul Giamatti) in the film Sideways.

Miles (introvert, pessimistic, depressed) spends most of the story waiting to hear from his literary agent. The news won’t be good. Writers don’t show up in stories as symbols of success. They are setups for failure.

Someone should make a movie of my life.

Forget the first 40 years, they were altogether too glamorous. No, my life more truly started when my 13-year-old son called a meeting to say, “I’m in Grade Seven, Dad, and I’ve attended fifteen different schools.”

I said, “Wash your mouth out with soap,” but it turns out he wasn’t exaggerating.

“Pops, I want you to settle down,” he said.

So I quit shooting films, traded camera for keyboard, and decided that henceforth I was a writer. It was great. I soon became so broke that my son’s mother sent support payments from Hawaii.

Once, I forced my son to accompany me to the Welfare Office. They gave me so much money it was humiliating—rent, medical and dental care, bus passes, food vouchers, extra cash. I had to cut them off.

Though I soon acquired a stable of clients, every November it seemed I was scrambling to pay the rent. I sucked up my pride and hit the streets to sell door to door. Water filters, home insulation, sports videos, memberships, you name it, even vacuum cleaners.

I spent eight hours performing a demo for an Italian household. The extended family showed up to watch and applaud as my machine hoovered that mansion top to bottom. I thought they were going to adopt me. Alas, no sale.

I remember one cold, dark and stormy night somewhere out in Vacuumland huddling in a phone booth, demo machine in one hand and phone in the other as I listened to my agent promise me my script was all but sold. Alas, optioned three times, it’s yours, cheap.

One day the Revenue Department came snooping around to deny me my business expenses. It didn’t take her long to realize she couldn’t squeeze blood from a stone. Lost for words, she said, “Well, Mr. Reece…keep writing.”

Thank you, Ms. Klenck. And I did exactly that.

type-inI entered writing competitions—the 3-Day Novel Competition, Short Story Challenges, Screenplay Competitions, and Pitch-a-Plot workshops. But it is with special fondness that I remember the “24-Hour One-Act Play Competition”—all of us wannabe playwrights sequestered into one room.

Twelve hours into my scenario about a kid who is abducted off a golf course (well, they tell you to write what you know), I thought it would be wise to review what I’d written. I pushed back from my typewriter (that’s right, a typewriter!) and unenscrolled the paper from the rollers.

Typing on dot-matrix computer paperI was typing onto dot-matrix computer paper, you know, a continuous feed. I separated the sheets along the perforations and made a nice little stack which then fell to the floor. Thirty-five UN-NUMBERED sheets all helter-skelter.

I couldn’t organize the pages, couldn’t find the continuity, couldn’t put Humpty back together again. If I didn’t bolt from the room I was going to cry. It was 4:00 a.m.

Walking the streets, I was Miles and Roy and Henry and every fictional writer who ever agreed to let their creator thwart them to the point of despair and even self-loathing. Why weren’t the cameras rolling?

At a convenience store I suffocated my existential crisis with anchovy & garlic pizza. That I was a writer caused the proprietor to reflect on his own life, roads not taken, etc. Lamenting his lack of courage to lead an art-committed life, he said something along the lines of:

If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”

I knew there was a reason, besides my son’s ultimatum, why I was a writer.

At the same time I realized why I love movies about writers. As symbols of failure, writers depict Everyman at the brink of surrender. The struggling writer shows us what deep down we fear most—that the meaning of a life is to leave our old selves behind.

To be a writer is to have the courage to become unselved.

Spirits bolstered, I returned to the drama den—and damned if my abduction story didn’t win First Prize.

My words since then have earned me a million bucks, which, admittedly, spread over twenty years is a modest living. But I’m proud to count myself as someone struggling to bring forth what’s in him.

Who in their right mind would be a writer? I think that being a writer indicates nothing but right-mindedness.

But getting back to my son—I’d ring him for a golf game except the kid is doing so well that he’s off playing Pebble Beach. Last year it was The Old Course in St. Andrews. Next month Augusta National, it wouldn’t surprise me.

I might have to tell him to settle down.

PJ & son back then

Add a Comment
17. Email from the Black Hole

While mucking around Africa in my last post, I ran into Dr. David Livingstone. He was dying as he lived, by the motto:

“I’ll go anywhere as long as it is forward.”

The mail poured in. Readers often tell me what they think of me—by email as much as through the Comments function on this blog.

Mu McGregor Mu McGregor

One such e-essay came from Douglas Mu McGregor, whom I know as an artist, songwriter, and above all an incorrigible truth-seeker. With McGregor’s permission, here’s what David Livingstone’s deathbed scene stirred up for him:

Back in 1982 I arrived in Vancouver by Greyhound bus after a harrowing adventure in Mexico. I had just ended a relationship, I was sick, broke, and miserable. As I got off the bus I saw a large sign on a brick wall on the other side of the road:

“You Can Never Go Back!”

This made me highly exhilarated and incredibly sad at the same time. Going back was my comfort food, my Kraft dinner, my go-to for relief from the pressure of the now. My exhilaration came from knowing I had a blank canvas in front of me—I could do anything!

But why would the Now have pressure? Is it because the Now requires my unwavering presence, and is therefore a lot of work?

Most of us have the same idea about past-present-future. But if you are a forward-moving entity, you have to throw the conventional model in the garbage. If you are in the Now, you aren’t in the past. You are certainly not in the future. But being in the Now is moving forward.

When a contemporary artist faces a large blank canvas, it is intimidating. He makes his first stroke—he adds to that stroke—and soon he has a painting that has never existed before. Einstein said that if he wanted to create something new, he would start from a place he had never been before. This is exciting stuff because it is all newness.

I know a woman who is about 65 years old, who, 40 years previously had belonged to a cutting edge community involved in advanced psychology and meditation. She says the years spent there were the most exciting time of her life. With a far off misty look in her eyes (an indication that one is not present) she would show me photographs and explain how much she loved this time and how happy and alive she was. This was infers that she no longer is.

This is not forward-moving-ness.

My mom died last year. I celebrated her life and I loved her dearly, but if I were to continue poring sentimentally over old photographs and reminiscing about my poor old mom, I can hear her whispering loudly in my ear, “Get a life!”

Enter David Livingstone, who was quoted as saying, “Sympathy is no substitute for action”.

Forward movers are too busy to hang out in the twilight zone of what could have been, would have been, or should have been.

In the end, Livingstone was too busy meeting his maker to contemplate what could have been. Deeply religious, he was on his knees in direct communication with his God. He was in the action of the Now… or was he?

There is little sentiment in a forward mover. I like to say that forward moving is “progressive insurance for the now,” by which I mean that “forward!” is insurance against the morbidity of returning to sentiment and self-sympathy.

People in wartime often express forward-thinking. It’s hard to live in the past with bombs dropping on your head. You are too busy surviving the now to think about anything else. Interestingly, these same people will be forever reminiscing about their wartime experiences as the most alive time of their lives.

The key to being a forward-mover is to be busy as hell, to follow my passion and take no prisoners. And when I die and I meet my maker, with a straight face I can say: “God, I presume?”

That may sound like a good conclusion, but I’m not finished!

The question remains for me—was David Livingstone moving forward on his death bed? Alas, I suspect he was firmly tethered to his God. As for me, I confess to sitting out here in space tethered (umbilical-like) to the mother ship of my thoughts, feelings and emotions.

For me, an appropriate forward movement would be action arising in the black hole within me, from which no thought could escape. From the black hole, only the unthinkable is born…

A pair of scissors! Floating towards me through space!


I invite all readers of this blog to weigh in on my explorations and (often apocryphal) assertions. By email, or preferably in the COMMENTS section below.

 

Add a Comment
18. Email from the Black Hole

While mucking around Africa in my last post, I ran into Dr. David Livingstone. He was dying as he lived, by the motto:

“I’ll go anywhere as long as it is forward.”

The mail poured in. Readers often tell me what they think of me—by email as much as through the Comments function on this blog.

Mu McGregor Mu McGregor

One such e-essay came from Douglas Mu McGregor, whom I know as an artist, songwriter, and above all an incorrigible truth-seeker. With McGregor’s permission, here’s what David Livingstone’s deathbed scene stirred up for him:

Back in 1982 I arrived in Vancouver by Greyhound bus after a harrowing adventure in Mexico. I had just ended a relationship, I was sick, broke, and miserable. As I got off the bus I saw a large sign on a brick wall on the other side of the road:

“You Can Never Go Back!”

This made me highly exhilarated and incredibly sad at the same time. Going back was my comfort food, my Kraft dinner, my go-to for relief from the pressure of the now. My exhilaration came from knowing I had a blank canvas in front of me—I could do anything!

But why would the Now have pressure? Is it because the Now requires my unwavering presence, and is therefore a lot of work?

Most of us have the same idea about past-present-future. But if you are a forward-moving entity, you have to throw the conventional model in the garbage. If you are in the Now, you aren’t in the past. You are certainly not in the future. But being in the Now is moving forward.

When a contemporary artist faces a large blank canvas, it is intimidating. He makes his first stroke—he adds to that stroke—and soon he has a painting that has never existed before. Einstein said that if he wanted to create something new, he would start from a place he had never been before. This is exciting stuff because it is all newness.

I know a woman who is about 65 years old, who, 40 years previously had belonged to a cutting edge community involved in advanced psychology and meditation. She says the years spent there were the most exciting time of her life. With a far off misty look in her eyes (an indication that one is not present) she would show me photographs and explain how much she loved this time and how happy and alive she was. This was infers that she no longer is.

This is not forward-moving-ness.

My mom died last year. I celebrated her life and I loved her dearly, but if I were to continue poring sentimentally over old photographs and reminiscing about my poor old mom, I can hear her whispering loudly in my ear, “Get a life!”

Enter David Livingstone, who was quoted as saying, “Sympathy is no substitute for action”.

Forward movers are too busy to hang out in the twilight zone of what could have been, would have been, or should have been.

In the end, Livingstone was too busy meeting his maker to contemplate what could have been. Deeply religious, he was on his knees in direct communication with his God. He was in the action of the Now… or was he?

There is little sentiment in a forward mover. I like to say that forward moving is “progressive insurance for the now,” by which I mean that “forward!” is insurance against the morbidity of returning to sentiment and self-sympathy.

People in wartime often express forward-thinking. It’s hard to live in the past with bombs dropping on your head. You are too busy surviving the now to think about anything else. Interestingly, these same people will be forever reminiscing about their wartime experiences as the most alive time of their lives.

The key to being a forward-mover is to be busy as hell, to follow my passion and take no prisoners. And when I die and I meet my maker, with a straight face I can say: “God, I presume?”

That may sound like a good conclusion, but I’m not finished!

The question remains for me—was David Livingstone moving forward on his death bed? Alas, I suspect he was firmly tethered to his God. As for me, I confess to sitting out here in space tethered (umbilical-like) to the mother ship of my thoughts, feelings and emotions.

For me, an appropriate forward movement would be action arising in the black hole within me, from which no thought could escape. From the black hole, only the unthinkable is born…

A pair of scissors! Floating towards me through space!


I invite all readers of this blog to weigh in on my explorations and (often apocryphal) assertions. By email, or preferably in the COMMENTS section below.

 

Add a Comment
19. My Writing Process Blog Tour

Blog tour icon“How fiction really works”—that’s pretty much the focus of my blog.

Last week I risked wandering off topic with a post about my mother’s 100th birthday. And this week I’m buying into a game of “blog tag.” My mission—should I wish to accept it—is to answer four questions about…

My writing process.

I’ll do my best to make this relevant not only to writers but anyone who wants to see how I arrive at a final statement that goes like this:

Utter failure is the portal through which everyone (fictional or real) finds freedom.

Let’s go:

  1. What am I working on?

Something called THE WRITER IN LOVE. It was meant to bolster ideas I introduced in Story Structure to Die For, namely that a writer must “love her protagonist to death.”  The book begins as an imagined journey up the Congo River to the heart of darkness. There, deep in the jungle, unable to advance any further, and having abandoned all hope, I would jump ashore and plant my flag in the little understood “story heart.” Here, then, is an expedition into THE HEART OF A STORY.

Poets and mystics would support my claim that this heart lies beyond the story’s plot. The protagonist runs out of geography! Imagine that. The heart has nothing to do with time and space. It is a transcendental experience. To prove my point, I find it necessary orchestrate my own failure. I begin to question why a writer needs more story theory. I have to escape my own project. I abandon ship! And so what started out as a “how-to” book is looking more like a novel, and one with no boundary between past and present. I have no idea how to finish it.

  1. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Metafiction—is that a genre? Is there a genre where the protagonist discovers that his writer is also on board? And he becomes concerned that perhaps this writer doesn’t love him sufficiently or appropriately, and by that we mean she isn’t prepared to love him to death. But what kind of protagonist is it who wants to die? It makes no sense. It will make sense by the time it’s over. I wish it was over.

  1. Why do I write what I do?

I wish it was over.

  1. How does my writing process work?

Up at 6-ish o’clock. Two hours of writing before connecting to the wired world. Minutes removed from sleep and I’m back on that steamer heading up a jungle river. I love it. This discipline of jumping immediately into my work-in-progress is the best part of my writing life.

I often make the mistake of going over yesterday’s work to put a finer point on things. I probably shouldn’t. But I find it difficult to proceed if things don’t add up. Of course, I love rewriting. Endless drafts, that’s the name of my writing game. Without them what chance do I have of my writing becoming art? Rewriting, the weave becomes tighter. Subplots and motifs resound more deeply. Magic happens—I find out what it is I’m actually writing about.

As for my story-making process—yes I do practice what I preach. But what I preach is so simple—The protagonist will come undone. That’s it! That’s what readers anticipate. Beliefs systems will crash and burn. That’s what readers demand.

Utter failure is the portal through which every character finds freedom.

There, you see? I’ve just discovered why I write.  #3 — Why do I write what I do? To spend my life vicariously escaping to freedom.


Now, it is my great pleasure to introduce you to S.K. CARNES, a writer living in Friday Harbour on San Juan Island off the coast of Washington State. Sue is the author and illustrator of an award-winning children’s book, My Champion, and of a masterfully written novel, The Way Back, newly available on Kindle. If you want to know what a natural wordsmith sounds like, read Sue Carnes. Soon, perhaps next week, Sue will offer her own unique insights into her writing process. Sue’s blog can be found at http://susancarnes.wordpress.com/.

Add a Comment
20. I’ll Go Anywhere as Long as It Is Forward

Congo River circa 1880I’m mucking around south-central Africa in the year 1873.

I’m navigating my way through the heart of a story that started out as a faux-memoir about a journey into the “heart of darkness.”

Just when I felt sure I had morphed into pure fiction, I meet Dr. David Livingstone. On his deathbed.

David Livingstone, explorer and not-so-evangelical missionary, desperately needs help penning a letter—a response to a dispatch from his patrons in Europe. They have long been worried about his health and now they’re begging him to pack it in.

Give it up! Enough is enough!

Dr. David LivingstoneLivingstone has been years on the move in search of the source of the Nile. He’s so close he can smell it. And they want him to Come home!

“Tell them,” Livingstone says, “Tell them I’ll go anywhere…as long as it is forward.”

I’ll go anywhere, as long as it is forward.

There’s a mantra for a fictional protagonist.

My journey to Livingstone’s bedside begins with my literary slog up a tributary of the Congo River toward the heart of darkness. This is my work-in-progress, The Writer in Love. At the farthest reaches of this personal essay, the would-be protagonist (me), bogged down in a swamp-forest and despairing of not reaching the heart of his story, realizes he has “run out of geography.”

The protagonist runs out of geography.

I like the sound of that. It suggests the end of the plot within the realms of space and time. The story comes to a stop. Every good story grinds to a halt. Every worthy protagonist travels so far from home that he “runs out of geography.”

And yet the story is far from over. The major issues remain unresolved. So what happens? What happens to the most determined protagonists after their writer has (out of loving compassion) eroded the ground beneath their feet?

The hero moves forward in another realm.

Oh, really? Is that even possible? Does a study of fiction bear that out? More importantly, does it happen for real, in real life?

While the idea of transcending the plot may raise eyebrows, my essay-memoir-whatever-it-is serves up potent examples from Casablanca, The African Queen, and Out of Africa. Not to mention Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

But it is a real-life story that presents the most compelling evidence of an adventurer running out of geography. Conveniently, the event took place not far beyond the headwaters of the Congo River basin. Only three pages of narrative away—that’s all it takes!—and here I am at Livingstone’s deathbed helping him write that letter.

I’ll go anywhere as long as it is forward.

“Forward” served Livingstone as an article of faith in a vocation rife with disappointments, disillusionments, and dead-ends. It pushed him past the point of no return. It pushed him until he was running on empty, and it kept pushing him until malarial dysentery dissolved his intestines and he could no longer walk. Even then he didn’t want sympathy, didn’t allow his expedition to stop. They carried him until that became unendurable.

Now he lies dying in a daub and wattle hut. There being nothing more he wants from me, it is time to leave him alone.

At the door of the hut I turn to wish him Godspeed or whatever one says to someone about whom it is written* that they will die before dawn. Incredulous, I see that he has mobilized himself off his deathbed to a kneeling position beside his cot. I suppose he’s praying but look again—his palms are open upward. He’s not begging for anything, no, he’s offering. Offering what? What’s he got left?

Livingstone’s credo, like an inner flywheel still spinning, animates him even at death’s door. Forward! But to where? Can you imagine the nature of such a movement?

The Writer in Love is my attempt to explore that movement in fiction.

It is a protagonist’s forward motion in the aftermath of running out of geography that marks him or her as heroic. And if heroic strikes you as grandiose, then I invite you to consider that this everyday miracle (more so than the story’s climax) is what ultimately nourishes a reader.

Rick Blaine nourishes us in Casablanca. Likewise, Charlie Allnut in The African Queen. And the baroness Karen Blixen in Out of Africa. Their plots deliver each of them to the bitter end of who they thought they were. And if the protagonist isn’t exactly dying, he/she wishes they were.

Only now does our investment in their story pay off. The heroic disposition kicks in. Here at the deathbed of David Livingstone I’m seeing it with my own two eyes.

Dr. Livingstone has been beating his way around this African bundu for thirty years in the name of God and the Royal Geographic Society. His mapmaking days are over, he has run out of rivers and waterfalls and mountains. He has run out of time.

And yet as I watch Livingstone on his knees I feel no sadness at all. He may have run out geography but that’s so yesterday. The body is dying, sure, okay, I may even shed a tear for him, but corporeal does death not a tragic story make. Especially not when the protagonist on his deathbed says:

I’ll go anywhere as long as it is forward.

Instinctively a reader understands that the protagonist who empties himself has escaped the prison of his small self.

Look at Livingstone—he is still emptying himself. At the heart of the story, the protagonist discovers it’s the only way to move forward.

We don’t entirely understand how it works or where he’s going. It certainly doesn’t serve a protagonist to know such things. It’s only after the fact that we learn our trajectory was never other than toward this blessed emptiness.

As a wrap up to this piece, I’ll leave you with an account of David Livingstone’s death, as reported by his African lieutenants when his body—minus his heart—was delivered up for transport back to England:

Dr. Livingstone was kneeling by the side of his bed, his body stretched forward, his head buried in his hands upon the pillow. For a minute they watched him: he did not stir, there was no sign of breathing; then one of them, Matthew, advanced softly to him and placed his hands to his cheeks. It was sufficient; life had been extinct some time, and the body was almost cold: Livingstone was dead.*

*  from The Last Journals of David Livingstone (1869-1873).

 

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21. I’ll Go Anywhere as Long as It Is Forward

Congo River circa 1880I’m mucking around south-central Africa in the year 1873.

I’m navigating my way through the heart of a story that started out as a faux-memoir about a journey into the “heart of darkness.”

Just when I felt sure I had morphed into pure fiction, I meet Dr. David Livingstone. On his deathbed.

David Livingstone, explorer and not-so-evangelical missionary, desperately needs help penning a letter—a response to a dispatch from his patrons in Europe. They have long been worried about his health and now they’re begging him to pack it in.

Give it up! Enough is enough!

Dr. David LivingstoneLivingstone has been years on the move in search of the source of the Nile. He’s so close he can smell it. And they want him to Come home!

“Tell them,” Livingstone says, “Tell them I’ll go anywhere…as long as it is forward.”

I’ll go anywhere, as long as it is forward.

There’s a mantra for a fictional protagonist.

My journey to Livingstone’s bedside begins with my literary slog up a tributary of the Congo River toward the heart of darkness. This is my work-in-progress, The Writer in Love. At the farthest reaches of this personal essay, the would-be protagonist (me), bogged down in a swamp-forest and despairing of not reaching the heart of his story, realizes he has “run out of geography.”

The protagonist runs out of geography.

I like the sound of that. It suggests the end of the plot within the realms of space and time. The story comes to a stop. Every good story grinds to a halt. Every worthy protagonist travels so far from home that he “runs out of geography.”

And yet the story is far from over. The major issues remain unresolved. So what happens? What happens to the most determined protagonists after their writer has (out of loving compassion) eroded the ground beneath their feet?

The hero moves forward in another realm.

Oh, really? Is that even possible? Does a study of fiction bear that out? More importantly, does it happen for real, in real life?

While the idea of transcending the plot may raise eyebrows, my essay-memoir-whatever-it-is serves up potent examples from Casablanca, The African Queen, and Out of Africa. Not to mention Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

But it is a real-life story that presents the most compelling evidence of an adventurer running out of geography. Conveniently, the event took place not far beyond the headwaters of the Congo River basin. Only three pages of narrative away—that’s all it takes!—and here I am at Livingstone’s deathbed helping him write that letter.

I’ll go anywhere as long as it is forward.

“Forward” served Livingstone as an article of faith in a vocation rife with disappointments, disillusionments, and dead-ends. It pushed him past the point of no return. It pushed him until he was running on empty, and it kept pushing him until malarial dysentery dissolved his intestines and he could no longer walk. Even then he didn’t want sympathy, didn’t allow his expedition to stop. They carried him until that became unendurable.

Now he lies dying in a daub and wattle hut. There being nothing more he wants from me, it is time to leave him alone.

At the door of the hut I turn to wish him Godspeed or whatever one says to someone about whom it is written* that they will die before dawn. Incredulous, I see that he has mobilized himself off his deathbed to a kneeling position beside his cot. I suppose he’s praying but look again—his palms are open upward. He’s not begging for anything, no, he’s offering. Offering what? What’s he got left?

Livingstone’s credo, like an inner flywheel still spinning, animates him even at death’s door. Forward! But to where? Can you imagine the nature of such a movement?

The Writer in Love is my attempt to explore that movement in fiction.

It is a protagonist’s forward motion in the aftermath of running out of geography that marks him or her as heroic. And if heroic strikes you as grandiose, then I invite you to consider that this everyday miracle (more so than the story’s climax) is what ultimately nourishes a reader.

Rick Blaine nourishes us in Casablanca. Likewise, Charlie Allnut in The African Queen. And the baroness Karen Blixen in Out of Africa. Their plots deliver each of them to the bitter end of who they thought they were. And if the protagonist isn’t exactly dying, he/she wishes they were.

Only now does our investment in their story pay off. The heroic disposition kicks in. Here at the deathbed of David Livingstone I’m seeing it with my own two eyes.

Dr. Livingstone has been beating his way around this African bundu for thirty years in the name of God and the Royal Geographic Society. His mapmaking days are over, he has run out of rivers and waterfalls and mountains. He has run out of time.

And yet as I watch Livingstone on his knees I feel no sadness at all. He may have run out geography but that’s so yesterday. The body is dying, sure, okay, I may even shed a tear for him, but corporeal does death not a tragic story make. Especially not when the protagonist on his deathbed says:

I’ll go anywhere as long as it is forward.

Instinctively a reader understands that the protagonist who empties himself has escaped the prison of his small self.

Look at Livingstone—he is still emptying himself. At the heart of the story, the protagonist discovers it’s the only way to move forward.

We don’t entirely understand how it works or where he’s going. It certainly doesn’t serve a protagonist to know such things. It’s only after the fact that we learn our trajectory was never other than toward this blessed emptiness.

As a wrap up to this piece, I’ll leave you with an account of David Livingstone’s death, as reported by his African lieutenants when his body—minus his heart—was delivered up for transport back to England:

Dr. Livingstone was kneeling by the side of his bed, his body stretched forward, his head buried in his hands upon the pillow. For a minute they watched him: he did not stir, there was no sign of breathing; then one of them, Matthew, advanced softly to him and placed his hands to his cheeks. It was sufficient; life had been extinct some time, and the body was almost cold: Livingstone was dead.*

*  from The Last Journals of David Livingstone (1869-1873).

 

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22. My Writing Process Blog Tour

Blog tour icon“How fiction really works”—that’s pretty much the focus of my blog.

Last week I risked wandering off topic with a post about my mother’s 100th birthday. And this week I’m buying into a game of “blog tag.” My mission—should I wish to accept it—is to answer four questions about…

My writing process.

I’ll do my best to make this relevant not only to writers but anyone who wants to see how I arrive at a final statement that goes like this:

Utter failure is the portal through which everyone (fictional or real) finds freedom.

Let’s go:

  1. What am I working on?

Something called THE WRITER IN LOVE. It was meant to bolster ideas I introduced in Story Structure to Die For, namely that a writer must “love her protagonist to death.”  The book begins as an imagined journey up the Congo River to the heart of darkness. There, deep in the jungle, unable to advance any further, and having abandoned all hope, I would jump ashore and plant my flag in the little understood “story heart.” Here, then, is an expedition into THE HEART OF A STORY.

Poets and mystics would support my claim that this heart lies beyond the story’s plot. The protagonist runs out of geography! Imagine that. The heart has nothing to do with time and space. It is a transcendental experience. To prove my point, I find it necessary orchestrate my own failure. I begin to question why a writer needs more story theory. I have to escape my own project. I abandon ship! And so what started out as a “how-to” book is looking more like a novel, and one with no boundary between past and present. I have no idea how to finish it.

  1. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Metafiction—is that a genre? Is there a genre where the protagonist discovers that his writer is also on board? And he becomes concerned that perhaps this writer doesn’t love him sufficiently or appropriately, and by that we mean she isn’t prepared to love him to death. But what kind of protagonist is it who wants to die? It makes no sense. It will make sense by the time it’s over. I wish it was over.

  1. Why do I write what I do?

I wish it was over.

  1. How does my writing process work?

Up at 6-ish o’clock. Two hours of writing before connecting to the wired world. Minutes removed from sleep and I’m back on that steamer heading up a jungle river. I love it. This discipline of jumping immediately into my work-in-progress is the best part of my writing life.

I often make the mistake of going over yesterday’s work to put a finer point on things. I probably shouldn’t. But I find it difficult to proceed if things don’t add up. Of course, I love rewriting. Endless drafts, that’s the name of my writing game. Without them what chance do I have of my writing becoming art? Rewriting, the weave becomes tighter. Subplots and motifs resound more deeply. Magic happens—I find out what it is I’m actually writing about.

As for my story-making process—yes I do practice what I preach. But what I preach is so simple—The protagonist will come undone. That’s it! That’s what readers anticipate. Beliefs systems will crash and burn. That’s what readers demand.

Utter failure is the portal through which every character finds freedom.

There, you see? I’ve just discovered why I write.  #3 — Why do I write what I do? To spend my life vicariously escaping to freedom.


Now, it is my great pleasure to introduce you to S.K. CARNES, a writer living in Friday Harbour on San Juan Island off the coast of Washington State. Sue is the author and illustrator of an award-winning children’s book, My Champion, and of a masterfully written novel, The Way Back, newly available on Kindle. If you want to know what a natural wordsmith sounds like, read Sue Carnes. Soon, perhaps next week, Sue will offer her own unique insights into her writing process. Sue’s blog can be found at http://susancarnes.wordpress.com/.

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23. Email from the Black Hole

While mucking around Africa in my last post, I ran into Dr. David Livingstone. He was dying as he lived, by the motto:

“I’ll go anywhere as long as it is forward.”

The mail poured in. Readers often tell me what they think of me—by email as much as through the Comments function on this blog.

Mu McGregor

Mu McGregor

One such e-essay came from Douglas Mu McGregor, whom I know as an artist, songwriter, and above all an incorrigible truth-seeker. With McGregor’s permission, here’s what David Livingstone’s deathbed scene stirred up for him:

Back in 1982 I arrived in Vancouver by Greyhound bus after a harrowing adventure in Mexico. I had just ended a relationship, I was sick, broke, and miserable. As I got off the bus I saw a large sign on a brick wall on the other side of the road:

“You Can Never Go Back!”

This made me highly exhilarated and incredibly sad at the same time. Going back was my comfort food, my Kraft dinner, my go-to for relief from the pressure of the now. My exhilaration came from knowing I had a blank canvas in front of me—I could do anything!

But why would the Now have pressure? Is it because the Now requires my unwavering presence, and is therefore a lot of work?

Most of us have the same idea about past-present-future. But if you are a forward-moving entity, you have to throw the conventional model in the garbage. If you are in the Now, you aren’t in the past. You are certainly not in the future. But being in the Now is moving forward.

When a contemporary artist faces a large blank canvas, it is intimidating. He makes his first stroke—he adds to that stroke—and soon he has a painting that has never existed before. Einstein said that if he wanted to create something new, he would start from a place he had never been before. This is exciting stuff because it is all newness.

I know a woman who is about 65 years old, who, 40 years previously had belonged to a cutting edge community involved in advanced psychology and meditation. She says the years spent there were the most exciting time of her life. With a far off misty look in her eyes (an indication that one is not present) she would show me photographs and explain how much she loved this time and how happy and alive she was. This was infers that she no longer is.

This is not forward-moving-ness.

My mom died last year. I celebrated her life and I loved her dearly, but if I were to continue poring sentimentally over old photographs and reminiscing about my poor old mom, I can hear her whispering loudly in my ear, “Get a life!”

Enter David Livingstone, who was quoted as saying, “Sympathy is no substitute for action”.

Forward movers are too busy to hang out in the twilight zone of what could have been, would have been, or should have been.

In the end, Livingstone was too busy meeting his maker to contemplate what could have been. Deeply religious, he was on his knees in direct communication with his God. He was in the action of the Now… or was he?

There is little sentiment in a forward mover. I like to say that forward moving is “progressive insurance for the now,” by which I mean that “forward!” is insurance against the morbidity of returning to sentiment and self-sympathy.

People in wartime often express forward-thinking. It’s hard to live in the past with bombs dropping on your head. You are too busy surviving the now to think about anything else. Interestingly, these same people will be forever reminiscing about their wartime experiences as the most alive time of their lives.

The key to being a forward-mover is to be busy as hell, to follow my passion and take no prisoners. And when I die and I meet my maker, with a straight face I can say: “God, I presume?”

That may sound like a good conclusion, but I’m not finished!

The question remains for me—was David Livingstone moving forward on his death bed? Alas, I suspect he was firmly tethered to his God. As for me, I confess to sitting out here in space tethered (umbilical-like) to the mother ship of my thoughts, feelings and emotions.

For me, an appropriate forward movement would be action arising in the black hole within me, from which no thought could escape. From the black hole, only the unthinkable is born…

A pair of scissors! Floating towards me through space!


I invite all readers of this blog to weigh in on my explorations and (often apocryphal) assertions. By email, or preferably in the COMMENTS section below.

 

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24. I’ll Go Anywhere as Long as It Is Forward

Congo River circa 1880I’m mucking around south-central Africa in the year 1873.

I’m navigating my way through the heart of a story that started out as a faux-memoir about a journey into the “heart of darkness.”

Just when I felt sure I had morphed into pure fiction, I meet Dr. David Livingstone. On his deathbed.

David Livingstone, explorer and not-so-evangelical missionary, desperately needs help penning a letter—a response to a dispatch from his patrons in Europe. They have long been worried about his health and now they’re begging him to pack it in.

Give it up! Enough is enough!

Dr. David LivingstoneLivingstone has been years on the move in search of the source of the Nile. He’s so close he can smell it. And they want him to Come home!

“Tell them,” Livingstone says, “Tell them I’ll go anywhere…as long as it is forward.”

I’ll go anywhere, as long as it is forward.

There’s a mantra for a fictional protagonist.

My journey to Livingstone’s bedside begins with my literary slog up a tributary of the Congo River toward the heart of darkness. This is my work-in-progress, The Writer in Love. At the farthest reaches of this personal essay, the would-be protagonist (me), bogged down in a swamp-forest and despairing of not reaching the heart of his story, realizes he has “run out of geography.”

The protagonist runs out of geography.

I like the sound of that. It suggests the end of the plot within the realms of space and time. The story comes to a stop. Every good story grinds to a halt. Every worthy protagonist travels so far from home that he “runs out of geography.”

And yet the story is far from over. The major issues remain unresolved. So what happens? What happens to the most determined protagonists after their writer has (out of loving compassion) eroded the ground beneath their feet?

The hero moves forward in another realm.

Oh, really? Is that even possible? Does a study of fiction bear that out? More importantly, does it happen for real, in real life?

While the idea of transcending the plot may raise eyebrows, my essay-memoir-whatever-it-is serves up potent examples from Casablanca, The African Queen, and Out of Africa. Not to mention Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

But it is a real-life story that presents the most compelling evidence of an adventurer running out of geography. Conveniently, the event took place not far beyond the headwaters of the Congo River basin. Only three pages of narrative away—that’s all it takes!—and here I am at Livingstone’s deathbed helping him write that letter.

I’ll go anywhere as long as it is forward.

“Forward” served Livingstone as an article of faith in a vocation rife with disappointments, disillusionments, and dead-ends. It pushed him past the point of no return. It pushed him until he was running on empty, and it kept pushing him until malarial dysentery dissolved his intestines and he could no longer walk. Even then he didn’t want sympathy, didn’t allow his expedition to stop. They carried him until that became unendurable.

Now he lies dying in a daub and wattle hut. There being nothing more he wants from me, it is time to leave him alone.

At the door of the hut I turn to wish him Godspeed or whatever one says to someone about whom it is written* that they will die before dawn. Incredulous, I see that he has mobilized himself off his deathbed to a kneeling position beside his cot. I suppose he’s praying but look again—his palms are open upward. He’s not begging for anything, no, he’s offering. Offering what? What’s he got left?

Livingstone’s credo, like an inner flywheel still spinning, animates him even at death’s door. Forward! But to where? Can you imagine the nature of such a movement?

The Writer in Love is my attempt to explore that movement in fiction.

It is a protagonist’s forward motion in the aftermath of running out of geography that marks him or her as heroic. And if heroic strikes you as grandiose, then I invite you to consider that this everyday miracle (more so than the story’s climax) is what ultimately nourishes a reader.

Rick Blaine nourishes us in Casablanca. Likewise, Charlie Allnut in The African Queen. And the baroness Karen Blixen in Out of Africa. Their plots deliver each of them to the bitter end of who they thought they were. And if the protagonist isn’t exactly dying, he/she wishes they were.

Only now does our investment in their story pay off. The heroic disposition kicks in. Here at the deathbed of David Livingstone I’m seeing it with my own two eyes.

Dr. Livingstone has been beating his way around this African bundu for thirty years in the name of God and the Royal Geographic Society. His mapmaking days are over, he has run out of rivers and waterfalls and mountains. He has run out of time.

And yet as I watch Livingstone on his knees I feel no sadness at all. He may have run out geography but that’s so yesterday. The body is dying, sure, okay, I may even shed a tear for him, but corporeal does death not a tragic story make. Especially not when the protagonist on his deathbed says:

I’ll go anywhere as long as it is forward.

Instinctively a reader understands that the protagonist who empties himself has escaped the prison of his small self.

Look at Livingstone—he is still emptying himself. At the heart of the story, the protagonist discovers it’s the only way to move forward.

We don’t entirely understand how it works or where he’s going. It certainly doesn’t serve a protagonist to know such things. It’s only after the fact that we learn our trajectory was never other than toward this blessed emptiness.

As a wrap up to this piece, I’ll leave you with an account of David Livingstone’s death, as reported by his African lieutenants when his body—minus his heart—was delivered up for transport back to England:

Dr. Livingstone was kneeling by the side of his bed, his body stretched forward, his head buried in his hands upon the pillow. For a minute they watched him: he did not stir, there was no sign of breathing; then one of them, Matthew, advanced softly to him and placed his hands to his cheeks. It was sufficient; life had been extinct some time, and the body was almost cold: Livingstone was dead.*

*  from The Last Journals of David Livingstone (1869-1873).

 

Add a Comment
25. My Writing Process Blog Tour

Blog tour icon“How fiction really works”—that’s pretty much the focus of my blog.

Last week I risked wandering off topic with a post about my mother’s 100th birthday. And this week I’m buying into a game of “blog tag.” My mission—should I wish to accept it—is to answer four questions about…

My writing process.

I’ll do my best to make this relevant not only to writers but anyone who wants to see how I arrive at a final statement that goes like this:

Utter failure is the portal through which everyone (fictional or real) finds freedom.

Let’s go:

  1. What am I working on?

Something called THE WRITER IN LOVE. It was meant to bolster ideas I introduced in Story Structure to Die For, namely that a writer must “love her protagonist to death.”  The book begins as an imagined journey up the Congo River to the heart of darkness. There, deep in the jungle, unable to advance any further, and having abandoned all hope, I would jump ashore and plant my flag in the little understood “story heart.” Here, then, is an expedition into THE HEART OF A STORY.

Poets and mystics would support my claim that this heart lies beyond the story’s plot. The protagonist runs out of geography! Imagine that. The heart has nothing to do with time and space. It is a transcendental experience. To prove my point, I find it necessary orchestrate my own failure. I begin to question why a writer needs more story theory. I have to escape my own project. I abandon ship! And so what started out as a “how-to” book is looking more like a novel, and one with no boundary between past and present. I have no idea how to finish it.

  1. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Metafiction—is that a genre? Is there a genre where the protagonist discovers that his writer is also on board? And he becomes concerned that perhaps this writer doesn’t love him sufficiently or appropriately, and by that we mean she isn’t prepared to love him to death. But what kind of protagonist is it who wants to die? It makes no sense. It will make sense by the time it’s over. I wish it was over.

  1. Why do I write what I do?

I wish it was over.

  1. How does my writing process work?

Up at 6-ish o’clock. Two hours of writing before connecting to the wired world. Minutes removed from sleep and I’m back on that steamer heading up a jungle river. I love it. This discipline of jumping immediately into my work-in-progress is the best part of my writing life.

I often make the mistake of going over yesterday’s work to put a finer point on things. I probably shouldn’t. But I find it difficult to proceed if things don’t add up. Of course, I love rewriting. Endless drafts, that’s the name of my writing game. Without them what chance do I have of my writing becoming art? Rewriting, the weave becomes tighter. Subplots and motifs resound more deeply. Magic happens—I find out what it is I’m actually writing about.

As for my story-making process—yes I do practice what I preach. But what I preach is so simple—The protagonist will come undone. That’s it! That’s what readers anticipate. Beliefs systems will crash and burn. That’s what readers demand.

Utter failure is the portal through which every character finds freedom.

There, you see? I’ve just discovered why I write.  #3 — Why do I write what I do? To spend my life vicariously escaping to freedom.


Now, it is my great pleasure to introduce you to S.K. CARNES, a writer living in Friday Harbour on San Juan Island off the coast of Washington State. Sue is the author and illustrator of an award-winning children’s book, My Champion, and of a masterfully written novel, The Way Back, newly available on Kindle. If you want to know what a natural wordsmith sounds like, read Sue Carnes. Soon, perhaps next week, Sue will offer her own unique insights into her writing process. Sue’s blog can be found at http://susancarnes.wordpress.com/.

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