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I’m teaching a course in the fine art of blitzing a 1st draft and it occurred to me that I ought to know what a story is.
A definition of story, I’ll start with that. A writer who knows exactly what a story is will write more efficiently and won’t waste time unnecessarily. Here for instance, a definition from a respected source.
“Once upon a time, in such and such a place, something happened.”
Okay, true enough, sure, fine, as far as it goes. Next?
“A story is the journey someone goes on to sort out a problem.”
The experts have been arguing over story for a long, long time and this is the best they can come up with? Next.
“Stories are the flight simulators of human life.”
Stories, a practice for living? This is the conventional wisdom on this subject, and that’s reason enough to be suspicious. But no student of story should be caught dead buying into such a utilitarian rationale. How can anyone, much less a story-academic reduce the fiction experience to a training session? Training us to do what—navigate politely through a culture that’s underpinned largely by lies?
The same expert goes on to say:
“The main virtue of fiction is that we have a rich experience and don’t die at the end.”
Wait a minute. I consume good fiction so I will die at the end. Don’t die at the end is just dead wrong. That the hero “dies,” and the reader, too—that’s the virtue of fiction. Who are these people who say, Don’t die? Fiction has been telling us since forever that no one grows up who doesn’t die and die and keep on dying to old and outmoded versions of themselves.
Stand by—I feel my own definition coming on—but first more from my research vault:
“A narrative deals with the vicissitudes of intention.”
I like this one, first of all because I know what vicissitudes means. Secondly, it suggests that what we want is going to backfire. “Desire—it carries us and crucifies us,” says author-philosopher, Muriel Barbery. There’s a gutsy definition of story. Next.
“A story transforms the monster into a lover.”
I found this as a reader’s comment to an online article about Scheherazade. “Monster to lover” defines the dynamic at the heart of most good stories. It’s the radical change of heart. Heroes leave their monstrous narcissisms behind. And the upshot looks for all the world like love.
Addicted to stories—why, why, why?
My 25-year study of fiction leaves me convinced that the conventional wisdom about story overlooks its essence. The same blind spot characterizes discussions of Why We Read.
For example: We read to escape a world of troubles. Excuse me? Since when are stories about anything but trouble? “Trouble is the universal grammar of stories,” says story aficionado, Jonathan Gottschall.
Ditto for Why We Write.” Here’s Gloria Steinem: “Writing is the only thing that when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else.” I love that, but—why is that so? What is it about stories that has hooked us since the dawn of time?
What is it about us—our human condition—that is so addicted to stories? Perhaps I should begin the course with a definition of the human condition:
The human condition
A marvellously workable matrix of mental constructs, beliefs, delusions and lies—that’s the mind, that’s our culture, that’s us, that’s your average protagonist. In other words, the status quo of a fictional hero is a house of cards. We’re a precarious situation, and readers instinctively know it.
If you were to write a novel called The Valley of the Happy Nice People, readers would anticipate disaster. Probably be a best seller. Because the status quo is untenable, stories naturally depict characters on a journey toward something more real. Along the way, the blessed disillusionment occurs.
So, what is a story?
I’m working on it.
But it concerns characters trapped within the prison of their belief systems. And they escape the monstrosity of it. Or it’s tragic, and they don’t. Or they come to terms with their imprisonment, armed with a new and more all-embracing point of view.
In every case, the reader of the story is compelled by the hero’s trajectory toward the death of the false.
Not infrequently a protagonist will actually die in the aftermath of their awakening, and despite the death, audiences swoon.
Don’t die at the end? Who are these people who say don’t die?
No one should worry about thinking outside the box.
Because THINKING is the box!
Worry about that, instead.
As fiction writers, we needn’t worry personally about the existential angst that “thinking is the box!” might stir up. But we should concern ourselves with how “thinking” relates to the journeys of our characters. And it goes like this:
If we really love our protagonist, we won’t ease up on him/her until they’ve utterly finished with thinking. From opening gambit to the story’s major crisis—thinking reigns supreme.
Thinking reigns supreme
The hero’s goal, her motivation, strategies and actions through the beginning and middle of a story, it’s all a function of thinking. It takes the hero a long way, but (in a good story) never all the way.
Thinking takes our POV character from Page One to the brink of the story heart, but thinking should never be allowed to move her through the heart to the story’s resolution.
This is a basic principle I work with, and it helps me break down the story into two parts.
A super-simple overview
Story One portrays the character operating within his thinking box. It’s a magnificent box of powerful biases and beliefs which, when spent—when emptied utterly—opens the protagonist to “seeing.”
Is that simple, or what?
I have a habit of devolving into a rant at this point, because, although obvious to me, many story experts don’t grasp the significance of seeing vs. thinking. And yet the difference may explain nothing less than why we’re so addicted to fiction.
We yearn to see truth for ourselves
There comes a time in every struggle—if we’ve fought hard enough and failed—when we lose faith in ourselves. The hero grows tired of the sound of her own voice, and weary of the lies she’s forced to tell herself to sustain belief in her strategies. She rejects herself, her thoughts—the whole freaking box!
This is the moment of truth.
But truth is not served by a fictional character digging once again into her bag of tricks to come up with a last ditch solution. It’s just more box! It’s often called “thinking outside the box,” but as we know now, thinking IS the box!
Audiences get their money’s worth when the hero escapes the box for the freedom of no-thought (a few milliseconds will do) and the “seeing” that is the miraculous consequence. If you want to call that a religious experience, go ahead, please. Because it is powerful enough to give the reader a blast of authenticity. And that’s what’s addictive.
I’m designing a writing course for local writers here on British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast. I aim to present a few keys to writing a killer first draft. “Thinking is the box!” is one such key.
Not to overload the writer with rules, these basic principles and overviews will encourage the writer to write the most reckless-but-considered first draft possible.
And you — what are your guiding principles? When you set out, what are those big “story” thoughts without which you would never leave home?
Every writer should be so lucky as to have an idea virus eat their brain.
Here’s how it happens:
First you catch it.
Then you get it.
Once you’ve got it, you can kiss your old self goodbye.
This is the story of how existence conspired to throw the book at me—literally—and infect me with an ideavirus that set me free.
A book called Positive Disintegration
I caught it with two hands. Yes, there really was a book. I was living in Africa at the time. After all these years I still remember my roommate tossing it to me. He didn’t hand it to me, nor is tossing accurate, no, he chucked it at me. He’d run out of sympathy for me and my “Dear John” letter.
“She’s engaged to someone else already,” I said. “I’ve only been gone two months.”
The English was stiff and the syntax was Polish but I quickly got the gist of it—something about our mental development from infancy to full maturity (whatever that might look like) occurring through five hierarchical stages. Between each level lies an existential hellhole.
“Hey, Gary, thanks for this.” My roommate was an industrial psychologist.
Nothing is broken, we don’t need fixing
According to the book, each pothole on the road of life serves as an alchemical crucible. Our negative emotions start the process. So, please, we don’t need drugs. My suffering would propel me to the next level of integration.
The author prescribed creative expression—music, art, writing, whatever. The most imaginative thing I was doing in Zambia at that time was learning to fly, but my instructor had grounded me until further notice.
I started writing poetry. Who was I kidding? Next up, painting. Gary was not amused with my floor-to-ceiling murals in the living room. Movie making was next. I acquired film stock from the president of the local Cine Club, cheap black & white 8 mm film from Russia.
My friends dropped everything to help out. They heard I was shooting a movie called The End. The protagonist smokes himself to death. My script called for atmosphere, so we lit a fire in the living room. I could barely see the actors through the viewfinder. Now we all had tears in our eyes. It was great.
That night, sleepless, I processed the footage in the kitchen sink. To my horror, my developer kit was short the fixer. The silver halide would continue to expose. The film would turn black. I needed fixer!
It was gone midnight but I jumped on my motorcycle and raced across town through the dangerously dark and muggy streets of Lusaka, Zambia, risking potholes, speed bumps, bicycle thieves and black dogs.
I was speeding faster than I dared—for my film—for art! I was beginning to forget myself.
I dipped into a pocket of deliciously cool air and for a second I felt so alive that I even forgot my film. I had almost forgotten her! Dabrowski was right, I was growing out of myself.
I must have forgotten about gravity because I lifted off the face of the earth. From up there, here’s what I saw:
My despair wasn’t bogus, and yet it was lost in the greater scheme of things. There was this project known as Me, all about self-improvement, which is okay, I guess, except it looked so puny.
I was making myself my life’s work—my happiness—and, well, it’s just too small a work.
I never came back to earth
When I became a writer, Dabrowski’s hypothesis helped me to understand:
You won’t believe this, but upon my return to Canada I discovered that Dabrowski lived for six months of the year in my home town of Edmonton. Six blocks from where I lived! We became good friends. He would serve me strong coffee and dark chocolate while I told him the stories of my serial disintegrations. I can still see his eyes sparkle.
Count the times I’ve been run down on the road less traveled!
I was barely home from my travels in Africa and Asia when the gods pulled a U-turn and made roadkill of me yet again.
I was filming in the Canadian Rockies
I was shooting a film on the geomorphology of the high country. Think erosion. Even solid granite breaks up over time and washes to the sea. Everything disintegrates, including the human psyche.
After an exhausting day filming on scree slopes above a chain of turquoise lakes and then debriefing the tapes over dinner with the sound tech we drove to Lake Louise to be closer to our next location. It was midnight by the time we found a tent site on the perimeter of a campground.
We pitched our tent and fell asleep.
I woke at dawn with rain drubbing softly on the sagging canvas.
I heard something else.
I crawled half out to peer around the tent—
Grizzly! Not six feet away from me.
Front paws on the picnic table, she sniffed our cooler, our food supply. Last night we had unloaded the jeep and then hastily secured one end of our pup tent to the table before passing out.
I’m sorry! I told you, I’m not that smart!
The bear took a second to fix me in the cross-hairs of her cold gaze.
I nudged Ken and whispered, “Grizzly.” He wanted to see. I shook my head furiously. He stuck his head out, withdrew, looked at me: “Three cubs.”
Worst case scenario. Now what?
The tent collapsed.
The weight of the cooler and everything spilling out—bacon and steaks and yogurt, and bread, coffee, apples, raisins, nuts and milk and a week’s supply of Snickers Bars—it flattened the tent with us beneath it.
Four bears were sitting on us, eating. And not quietly, I might add.
While we lay still as death.
I thought of Fred.
Fred and I had played hockey at university. He was 6-3 and damned good-looking before he met the grizzly who left him minus one hip, a broken back, no scalp, half a face, and a chewed elbow, and those were just the physical injuries.
I was eroding inside, already.
I’d been here before, my life stopped dead in its tracks. (The cheetah comes to mind, remember?) My granite sense of self becoming “Fred,” I couldn’t muster the necessary thoughts to convince myself that life had meaning.
There was nothing left to obscure the fact that life has no meaning.
There was nothing left.
Hold that thought.
If you’ve read Story Structure Expedition, you’re familiar with how I recruited authors more eloquent than myself to do the heavy explaining through moments like this. Well, here we go again:
“Accepting that the world is without meaning, we are liberated from confinement in the meaning we have made. Knowing there is nothing of substance in our world may seem to rob that world of value. But this nothingness may be our most precious possession, since it opens to us the inexhaustible world that exists beyond ourselves.”
That’s it! What every crisis has taught me.
If Mr. Gray moves over we can squeeze physicist, Alan Lightman, into this dilemma:
“In our constant search for meaning in this baffling and temporary existence, trapped as we are within our three pounds of neurons, it is sometimes hard to tell what is real. We often invent what isn’t there. Or ignore what is. We try to impose order, both in our minds and in our conceptions of external reality. We try to connect. We try to find truth. We dream and we hope. Underneath all of these strivings, we are haunted by the suspicion that what we see and understand of the world is only a tiny piece of the whole.”
Lightman is describing the fictional protagonist waking up in the Act II Crisis.
At the heart of the story, heroes see the world as it really is.
Un-smart like me
I’m not saying I’m a hero, but I certainly have been serially un-smart. My talent for not being too smart for my own good has earned me the moral authority to enter the Act III of my life.
And now, writing from the perspective of the final act, I want to share with you some of my discoveries (however arguable they might be):
The meaning of a human life is to realize—by whatever means possible—that nothingness is our most precious possession
The best fictional protagonists do just that
Which aids and abets our own struggle to see the world as it really is
And that’s why we read fiction
And perhaps why we write it.
CUT BACK TO ACTION:
Behind the falling rain, low voices. The canvas was suddenly snapped back to reveal a uniformed park official standing over me with a rifle. He shook his head in dismay, or disdain.
I know, I’m an idiot, I’m sorry.
Mama lay in a heap, tranquilized, while her three cubs found refuge up a tree. Campers, soggy in the early morning rain, watched in disbelief.
I know, I know, I’m sorry! It’ll happen again, I assure you.
Good writers—like good protagonists—are never too smart for their own good.
[POST SCRIPT: All this “meaning” business notwithstanding, I didn’t sleep well in a tent for a few years after that.]
This coming-of-age novel by Caitlin Hicks plays out in the months between two famous deaths—Pope John XXIII and President Kennedy, in 1963.
I caught up with Caitlin Hicks to discuss issues important to fiction writers.
“What’s your book about, Caitlin? What’s its message?”
“Message?” she says. “No message. It’s a novel.” And a hilarious one, I might add.
And yet I don’t entirely believe her. Her story is definitely about something. I don’t give novels much of my time if they don’t appear to be about something. The story’s 12-year-old protagonist, Annie Shea, is too outspoken for the book not to say something.
Hicks soon confesses that she “had a question to answer with the story,” and so I ask her, “What question?”
“I’m not telling you!” she says. “I’m not telling anyone.”
She’s starting to sound like Annie, smart and sassy and skilled at digging her heels in.
“If you read the book,” says Hicks, “maybe you’ll find the answer.” Or maybe not. “Because it’s not directly answerable in an obvious way,” she says.
“Was your question answered for you?” I ask.
“Yes, but I’m not going to say what it was.”
Every good book has a secret centre
Caitlin Hicks is right to protect the mystery of her question. Readers love books that circle a central question, even if it’s never explained.
The best novels, like A Theory of Expanded Love, possess a secret centre.
I reflect on novels that have bored me—books whose point is quickly obvious. The hero’s trajectory is unambiguous, and so lacks mystery. The reading experience is mediocre, if not downright tedious. Genre fiction can get like that.
Perhaps this is why A Theory of Expanded Love is getting such rave reviews, because it is about something that is “not answerable in an obvious way.” Something to do with love. Or the lack of it. That’s my guess.
One of thirteen siblings, Annie Shea had to fight for face-time with her mother. “I had been tracking her around the house so she would notice me,” says Annie. Perhaps there’s not enough love in a large family to go around. Or does love expand infinitely? That’s a theme you can build a novel around.
“Whenever I have a question,” Hicks says, “and I create something from that question, it usually turns out to have some holding power.”
By holding power she means compelling. I know writers who want to take that word out and shoot it. It haunts them and for good reason. Compelling is the Holy Grail for novelists who want to write a book worth reading.
As long as I’m exploring…
“As long as I’m exploring then it’s interesting,” says Hicks. “My curiosity is everywhere in the book.”
Hicks may be touching the heart of the matter: As long as the writer is exploring, the story holds the reader.
Few writers speak of stories having an unspoken theme or core. One believer is Orhan Pamuk (Nobel Prize for Literature, 2006):
“[The reader] cannot help reflecting on the meaning of life as he tries to locate the centre of the novel he is reading. For in seeking this centre, he is seeking the centre of his own life and that of the world.”
I wonder if Hicks is trying probe the centre of her own life in the novel. Is her story fact or fiction?
Memoir vs. novel
Since Hicks and her protagonist were both raised in large Catholic families in Pasadena, California, I have assumed that A Theory of Expanded Love is autobiographical.
“Annie Shea is not me,” Hicks says. “This is not a memoir, it’s a novel. I’m not a redhead. Annie is so much smarter and confident. I may have thought what she thought, but I didn’t question things. I was a well-bred Catholic girl all the way up to graduating from college. I was going to confession every day. I was trying to be holy.”
For Caitlin Hicks, her real-life family wasn’t sufficiently pregnant with story material.
“I couldn’t write a memoir because I felt like I knew everything I wanted to know about my family. But then ‘the question’ came up, and I wondered why that was?”
Out of that curiosity a novel was born.
It’s a novel that explores family life through the antics of a pre-pubescent girl, and it made me laugh out loud. Annie is a girl whose desperation derives not from abuse or neglect but from a powerful urge to know how life works. Especially love.
That’s definitely it. Something about love. Love expanding to nourish every newborn heart. Is that it, Caitlin?
“It’s not really a secret,” Hicks says. “But I’m not going to tell. It’s unmentioned, but through the whole book you get a sense of what that might be.”
Here’s what I think:
Love is infinite, and when you read this novel you feel it shining through the young and rebellious Annie Shea.
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.
I 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.
I 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.
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—myfault!—I had been carrying the bloody bait in that hand. Of course, the cat could smell it. I could see that now.
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.
I 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, theLast 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!
Here 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.
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.
Here’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.
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…
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.
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?
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.
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:
While 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?
Anyway, for comic relief I distracted myself by writing a children’s picture book.
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.
“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.”
Columbus 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:
It launches today as an eBook on Amazon.com. Ninety-nine cents!
Two years of finding out the hard way, I might add.
I discovered what it’s like to be a writer trapped as a protagonist in his own fiction. It sounds crazy, I know. The more impossible my fantasy became, the more I knew something original might be happening on the page.
“A mind-bending whiplash journey,” says one beta reader, “into the heart of how and why a writer can write…memorable stories.”
Truth is, I headed up that jungle river with no such hifalutin hopes. My trip was fueled by a single question:
Does the story heart exist?
Does the story heart exist?
As if the heart’s existence needed proving, which I’m afraid it does, though perhaps not to anyone with the instinct to open a book that promises an expedition to that very heart.
Does the story heart exist?—I let this central question fire me up, can you tell? Listen to this, from the book’s Introduction:
[The heart] exists, all right. Ask the riverboat captain in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Though the heart is hidden upriver, Captain Marlow can smell it leaking. The dread essence lures him to the far side of sanity. He sure found out the hard way.
Ask Rick, the American expat in the movie, Casablanca. Mention the heart and he’ll break into a sweat as surely as if you were marching him at gunpoint to the brink of the abyss. “Go ahead, shoot me,” he says. “You’ll be doing me a favour.” Those are the words of a protagonist on the threshold of the story heart.
Ask that pair of mismatched mavericks in Out of Africa—the baroness Karen Blixen and the hunter Denys Finch Hatton. The heart of their story—as in so many of the best stories—lies in the surrender of the protagonist’s hardened principles. But to relinquish one’s precious beliefs is to die. So, die!
If I was to fulfill my role as protagonist in my own book, I might be required to go that far. How does a protagonist manage that? He can’t, of course. That’s the job of his writer. Which explains why I had to bring her on my jungle journey, dammit. It was all I could do not to throw her overboard.
(I mean, what kind of book is this, anyway?)
What kind of book is this?
Here’s what another pre-reader said about it:
A “metaphorical, philosophical, crossover between prayer, meditation, marching orders, poetry and fiction, that will tantalize your imagination and your soul.”
Would fiction have become our lifelong obsession if it had no heart?
Would stories ring true?
Wherever else should their meaning lie?
If not for the story heart, how would readers get their money’s worth?
Why would we even read fiction?
Why would we bother to write it?
Does the story heart exist?
You be the judge.
In the spirit of a book launch you can help bump this baby into visibility on Amazon’s best-seller page by grabbing an e-copy of it this week for 99 cents. And if you feel your mind bending a wee bit, go ahead and leave a short review on Amazon.
All of you, thank you. Whether or not you have the time to support this launch, thank you for being an important part of my life.
It’s a mega-watt moon shining down on western Tanzania.
That ragged ribbon of moonlight you see is a rough-and-tumble highway known in south-central Africa as the Hell Run. From Dar es Salaam on the Indian Ocean, this 1500-mile lifeline serves the heart of the continent.
A 5-ton truck speeds westward with its load of car tires in a metal cage. At the wheel, a hungry-looking Tanzanian, and beside him an over-stuffed Sikh bending a tire iron just for the hell of it.
Ten miles ahead, beyond a sleeping village, three youths are running along the road. What are children doing up at midnight? The boys stop where the road descends into a wooded valley and shout to someone on the verge of the gloom. That someone is a mzungu, a white boy. Me.
“Habari gani?” I say. I have no idea what they want.
I’m returning to Zambia after traveling north to Uganda, then hitchhiking south-eastward through Kenya and into Tanzania. Now it’s westward as quickly as possible to resume my duties as a hydrologist in Zambezi country. I’ve been gone too long, six weeks, so I choose to keep moving by the light of this impossible moon. I don’t get far. Those boys are waving excitedly.
“What’s up?” I shout. “Unitaka nini?”
Everybody talks about simba but how many have seen a lion with their own two eyes? Exactly. But I appreciate their concern.
“You saw the simba?” I ask.
“Simba eat man!” the oldest kid shouts.
“Yeah? Where?” I ask, skeptically.
“Just here!” He jogs down the hill to join me and points loosely, vaguely, into the near distance.
“When?” I ask.
While still not convinced, neither am I a fool.
The boys are brothers, children of the farmer who dropped me roughly in the middle of nowhere. As we approach the village I hear someone calling “Tobias!” The boys bound toward the village like jackrabbits. A vehicle is approaching. They’re waving it down, bless their hearts. The truck is stopping.
The older kid leaps onto the running board to negotiate the terms of this hijacking. The truckers step down to examine Tobias’ bribe, a tire, which the Sikh inspects in the light of the headlamps. He kicks it and growls and spits on it and tells me to climb aboard, not in the cab but in the cage, which he locks once I’m in, and I wonder if my odds of survival weren’t better with Simba.
Tobias and I shake hands through the bars as the truck moves ahead. It’s a mental snapshot that hasn’t faded all these years later—those boys as my guardian angels. It’s a romantic notion, isn’t it—angels. I don’t honestly do angels, and it’s just as well, or my life story would soon become tedious for its endless interventions of a divine nature.
Down into the valley we go. That laughing hyena at the wheel is targeting every pothole in the road. I’m safer the higher I clamber within that jungle of tires where I hang on like a monkey in a cage. Why do I get myself into these situations? Seriously, what is wrong with me? Let it never be said that I’m too smart for my own good. I’m just that little bit stupid, blessed with the essential naiveté that marks a fictional protagonist. Otherwise those angels I don’t quite believe in would have no cause to show up in my life. Not that I’m looking for trouble—who looks for trouble?—but if you were to accuse me of harbouring an urge to escape the gravity field of the known world, I would plead guilty without hesitation.
By the time we rise out of the valley I’ve made peace with the tires. They cradle me now. Peace is open savannah country by night, moonlit mile after magical mile. The earth is unearthly. I doubt heaven compares with this. Giant leafless baobab trees resemble elephants, mute herds standing guard on the grasslands, benign and protective. I have never felt so far from home.
The truck slows then stops for no apparent reason. The Sikh unlocks the cage and I reckon this for the scene where I’m murdered and robbed. Instead, he crosses the road to exercise his tire iron on a Mercedes abandoned in the ditch, stripping it of its tires in minutes. Welcome to the Hell Run. The African heaves each Michelin into the cage and off they go unaware that I’ve slipped away without a word of thanks.
The back seat of the Mercedes makes a perfect bed for the night.
I’m woken by the sound of a motorcycle, not the guttural rumble of a Harley but the unforgivable racket of a two-stroke Kawasaki. The sun is up and so is the hood of the Mercedes behind which someone is having a go at the engine. Someone dressed from head to toe in black. Father Manon, he calls himself.
“God helps those who help themselves,” he says, as he stashes a handful of electrical leads his saddle bags. He sets his goggles in place and says, “Allons-y! Let’s go, my son!” Saved again! This time by a priest from Chicoutimi, Quebec.
Father Manon drives as if he were immortal. He drives that Kawasaki with one hand so he can bless passers-by without slowing down. He blesses the chickens and the cows and the baobab trees. He blesses the ant hills! We speed along roads cluttered with people who lack the road-wise flow of urban traffic. Cyclists packing enormous sacks of charcoal waver and wobble within a spoke of death, and women balancing colourful bundles half again as large as themselves lead children-in-tow aside to allow us through.
I’m not sure if I’m being saved or not. Or if I want to be saved. I mean, why do I leave home in the first place if not to become lost? Think about it—doesn’t the human condition seem to demand our own undoing? The sages have been telling us since forever to risk everything, to leave everything behind.
I know, I know, easier said than done.
You’re reading this, you tell me—isn’t there something compelling about this picture of a young mzungu hanging onto the robes of a fake priest as he vanishes over the horizon deeper into the heart of Africa? To what end we can only imagine.
Maybe the real angels save us by leading us deeper and deeper into the heart of our own story. I don’t know, I don’t do angels.
But I seem to run into a hell of a lot of them.
(An earlier version of this story appeared here almost two years ago. In response to readers who have asked for more of these road stories, this will be an ongoing series. It’s time I got them all written down. But I don’t want to waste your time, so, please let me know if they speak to you.)
A little girl cries over her scoop of pistachio ice cream melting on the sidewalk.
How sad is that empty cone? And look at those tears. She hasn’t learned that gravity works against us till our dying day.
A gull with straw in its beak perches on the peak of my roof. Two hours ago I watched it mount its mate to fertilize the egg that would hatch in the nest that no longer sits on my roof because there’s no way a gull family is going to turn my roof into a guano factory this summer as it did last. No way!
Still, it’s sad.
Life never seems to work out, however well we arrange the pieces or play the game. According to most wisdom traditions, that’s good news.
My friend’s passing is sad and yet his absence leaves me with memories of his participation in our writing group over many years. In the empty space he leaves behind I find myself more determined than ever to write well and fast and publish again without delay.
That little girl, is she not the picture of sadness? But aren’t our saddest moments those that loom largest in memory? We look back at them as stepping stones toward our growing up. This ice cream failure can serve her in this way. I hope I’m right.
And a gull with no nest, how sad is that?
I don’t mind being sad. I don’t disparage sadness as a state of being.
I’ve often been told I look sad, and yet I often fall asleep at night feeling showered by gifts.
Sadness!—if I were a poet I would write an ode to sadness.
Such as the time I received the “Dear John” letter in the mail.
I don’t expect you to believe this but as I laid eyes on the envelope thunder mumbled overhead. As I opened the letter the room fell dark and as I read the deadly words the door slammed shut with a gust of wind that delivered such a deluge of tropical rain hammering on the tin roof that sadness seemed to bury me alive.
How long was I a ghost? You’ll have to ask my then-roommate because it wasn’t long before he couldn’t take it anymore and he tossed me a book, saying, “Read this.” Just tossed it and turned away without bothering to see if I caught it, as if I were a beggar in the gutter.
The scene is vivid in my mind, the trajectory of that book flying towards me, a second in time that became the hinge around which my life turned forever.
And all because sadness turned me into an empty begging bowl, I guess. And because gifts would seem to seek the empty place. Is that true?
If so, is that a paradox? Or does that make eminent sense?
I don’t quite know how to end this. I want to return to my writer friend, Rick (may he rest in peace), and to the girl and the gull and to all lovers who fly the coop. It seems I’m surrounded by events that make me sad, but what I want to say is that I’m sorrow’s willing victim.
I could even say that sorrow likes me. It pounds on my roof. It keeps trying to build a nest up there, for goodness sake.
The mystics say that’s good news.
And that little book that changed my life explains why that might be so. It’s called Positive Disintegration, by Kazimierz Dabrowski. He was no mystic, but he had all the reason in the world to be sad.
Perhaps that’s why he and I became such good friends.
If you missed my publishing news from my December post, it goes something like this:
Squeeeee! I have a book deal!!*
In the interim between the initial excitement and the editorial letter, there's a kind of a "did that really just happen" limbo. Luckily, I spent some of that time with family and friends but the following is a smattering of the (sometimes) bizarre reactions to my book news. 1. OMG! That's incredible! You've worked so hard for this!
The best reaction! Usually from the people who know how long I've been at this writing thing. My response: Thanks! I know, pretty wild? Still wrapping my head around it.
2. How much is your nice, fat advance check?
Yes, people really do ask this question! My response:
I get it, I do. Humans are curious creatures but um, really?!
3. You sneaky little devil! I didn't know you liked to write!
This was at a family dinner with a cousin I rarely see so I'll cut her some slack but for some reason this made me feel odd. As if I sit at my computer, twirling my moustache and laughing maniacally while I write. My response: Giggle. Blush. Mwahahahahaha... 4. What's the book about? Okay, totally legit question. My response:
5. Will it be a movie?
This question is asked with more frequency than I ever imagined, sometimes with genuine enthusiasm. My response: Um, well, no. It's a book. And I'm pretty stoked about that!
The funny thing is, all these reactions brought up a few unexpected feelings of my own. The most heinous and surprising one being: sheer terror. What had I done? Why not just perform naked karaoke to "Call Me Maybe" instead? My characters are my babies, and they will be "out there"...under scrutiny...possibly on Goodreads. Yikes.
And this got me thinking about #4. I think the real reason I don't have an elevator pitch is because I don't want a face-to-face snap judgement. What if the person replies, "oh, um, sounds good, please pass the blue sangria", or worse...no reaction at all.
Writing is such a fragile endeavor and mostly it's just you and the page with some idea of a phantom audience. It took a long time for me to share with others that I was even a writer in the first place (hence #3), I'm not sure why I thought I'd feel differently when I could finally say "My book comes out next year." Each new step brings its own set of fears.
So how about you Paper Waiters? How do you deal with bizarre reactions to your writing endeavors?
Editorial rejection has infected me like a demotivating virus. I have let it drive me from my office, until I rummaged in cupboards for Tylenol, tea bags and re-organization projects.
My ‘giraffe’ manuscript has languished for a few months. I know I should send out the manuscript to several new and different editors. Yet, I have had trouble pulling it out of the file drawer. It’s like my giraffe has entwined itself among the hanging files and is holding the drawer shut. I know if I coax him out, we may be able to find him a home. If he stays in the drawer, well...
that’s a sad way for a giraffe to go.
Optimism Search and Recovery?? (Photo by EPO: Wikimedia)
This is a notoriously subjective business. I have not tried hard enough and I will keep at it. Options include: smaller, independent publishers, agents, conference opportunities. I'm simply looking for ways to recover my optimism. I take heart in the success of other writers, especially my fellow Paper Waiters -- well done Robin and Brianna!
Anybody have ‘resurrection after rejection’ stories they want to share? How do you manage rejection? How quickly do you come back at it?
Most writers yearn to publish a book. No surprise! Writing conferences, blogs and professional journals are mostly aimed at book publication. Five years ago, I wrote about magazine publication as an option. Since then, the traditional book market (especially for picture books) is even tighter. And the digital/app market for picture books? Unless you are an author/illustrator, or your work is already illustrated, you're pretty much out of luck. Apps are expensive to make and developers usually look for established authors or a branded series.
So why not write for magazines? You'll get some rejection letters, but aren't they're always a part of the writing life? For non-fiction articles, you may have to write the dreaded query letter, but don't we all need practice with them? The only other disadvantages are smaller checks than a book advance and your moment of glory only lasts a month.
But consider the advantages:
1. You don't need an agent to submit. 2. Most magazine pieces are short - not as time consuming as producing a novel or picture book. 3. Using a different slant, you can often reuse your research for another piece. 4. You might see your name in print without waiting for years. 5. Often a wide audience sees your writing and you needn't spend hours on promotion. 6. You don't get wacky book reviews in professional journals. 7. Your magazine piece could earn additional money through reprint rights. 8. There are a bundle of contests and prizes to be won in the magazine world.
Next month I'll interview a senior editor at Highlights. Stay tuned.
We dined at one of the most respected French restaurants in New York City last week. After the main course, a woman pushing a two-tiered cart laden with cheeses arrived. “I am the commis de trancheur. Which cheeses would you care for?”
The ‘commis de what?’ We decided not to ask.
“A Brie, a Cheddar and a Blue, thank you.” My mother-in-law pointed as she spoke.
“We do not have a Brie. That is a Boursault, produced by Grathdale Valley Farm in Vermont. It is made from cows milk. The Guernsey cows are milked only once per day, and fed organic Bahiagrass laced with millet, sorghum, and clover. They add a touch of oat grain and rye. It is produced in small batches and procured only by the finest establishments. The farm is renowned for...” And on it went, for each new cheese we tried to select.
She lost me at Bahiagrass. And she never described the taste.
This pronouncement of facts by a waitress with a fancy French label supplanted our status as ‘welcome guests’ or even ‘diners who want cheese.’ We became ‘ignorant peasants in need of education.’
Is this what research-happy authors do to readers sometimes? Condescend, prove ourselves, or slip in one more fact, while ignoring the central plot point?
Just because you’re enjoying a meal, does not mean you want a lecture on the entire recipe. Research details, like herbs, should be carefully plucked, washed and chopped to support the plot.
Our cheese waitress left a bad taste in my mouth, like a spoiled sauce. With a similar feel from other servers, my emotional connection was fractured. I wouldn’t return, or recommend it. It was a reminder to me not to treat readers this way. Like restaurants, authors can depend on ‘word of mouth’ marketing as a key to success.
How to do it is another question. How do you keep the details in check? Have you ever found an author who put you off so much that you wouldn’t read them again, or you actively recommend against them? If so, why?
After a week's vacation in the "Land of Enchantment" (New Mexico), I have come home inspired and ready to write.
My only challenge... How do I recreate the diverse and magical spirit of this environment as a setting for a story?
Literature has long been inspired by place. The Grapes of Wrath, Gone With the Wind, To Kill a Mockingbird- each of these transports us to a very specific time and environment.
Much is involved in scene setting. To give a true sense of place, one must incorporate the following: physical environment, people, culture, language, and history. It is challenging to not let your setting interfere with (or upstage) your plot. It must be seamlessly woven in between your characters' actions and dialogue.
As I sort through my photos, maps, and free brochures, I think of the people I met, the cultures I experienced, the landscapes I hiked through. I'm not ready to resign my memories to a scrapbook or picasa gallery just yet.
But I am ready to share this adventure through storytelling.
What are some of the ways you incorporate a sense of place into your writing?
This week, Buzzfeed was one of several websites to focus on lists for writers. I have to admit, I got sucked in - I clicked on each one. So, for this week's reading pleasure, I give you my favorite lists of the week:
The ragged ribbon of moonlight you see down there—that’s a rough and tumble highway known affectionately in south-central Africa as the Hell Run.
And that 5-ton truck—look closer—it’s a load of car tires in a metal cage. At the wheel is a hungry looking Tanzanian and riding shotgun is a large Sikh. Up ahead, three boys stand on the road, forming a roadblock. What are children doing up at midnight?
And who’s that mzungu with them?
The mzungu is me. I’m the white boy making my way back to Zambia after steaming my way up Lake Victoria and then hitchhiking through Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania to resume my duties as a hydrological field officer in the Zambezi River basin. My last lift dropped me at the edge of this sleeping village, and I decided, what with a full moon and all, to keep going.
I was confidently vanishing into a valley when these kids called after me. I yelled back, “What?” and they said, “Simba!” and I said to myself, “Simba-schmimba.” So much talk about simba, but how many people have actually seen a lion with their own two eyes?
“Simba eat man yesterday!” the oldest kid shouted.
So, there we are as the tire truck approaches. The boys, bless them, are going to commandeer this vehicle. The truckers have no choice but to let me climb aboard, not in the cab but in the cage, which the big man locks, and off we go.
Oh, what a magical moonlight ride! I’m not sure I’ll live to see the dawn. Seriously, what’s wrong with me?
When the truck stops unexpectedly in the middle of nowhere, I’m sure they’re going to kill me, but, no, they’ve stopped to strip an abandoned car of its tires. The cage door opens long enough for the highwaymen to toss in the tires and lock the gate and here we go again.
What a moon! The earth seems unearthly. I have never felt so far from home.
I’m in God’s hands, now, although I can’t say I believe in what passes so conveniently as God. And yet…and yet I would appear to have faith in something. This brilliant night seems to hold something of value for me, but what? Truly, is there something wrong with me?
Years later, I discover the words of a writer who speaks about “faith in the joyous tragedy,” and I think, yes, that’s it! At the edge of the abyss—an inexplicable trust.
“Whoever was born with faith in the joyous tragedy, with enthusiasm for the ironic mystery; whoever sings YES; whoever risks disharmony because he desires beauty…”
According to Nikos Kazantzakis, a Christian mystic, this counter-intuition is “the supreme human achievement.” If he’s correct, then our everyday minds have things utterly ass-backwards.
“The Muse most worthy of the real man is Difficulty. She chases the easy victory away from life and art: the kind of victories that humiliate the victor.”
Does that explain why I was hitchhiking the Hell Run? A test of some kind.
“Life should not be comfortable; it isn’t to a person’s advantage to have it so. Nor should art. Never have the masterpieces of life or art been pleasant or easy. They are always rugged peaks to be ascended by the few.”
Kazantzakis, my brother! He says that contentment—even the absolute perfection thereof—only perfects our “little selves.” Easy victories don’t begin to serve our greater needs.
“If you respect your own soul, you have to spend yourself… be willing at every moment to gamble all you have, so that you may practice your strength. So that you may never lose the assured feeling that you can do even without victory and are ready to begin again.”
To hell with victory! Does the conventional mind even know what winning means? I mean winning in the larger sense? My everyday mind, what would it know about what Kazantzakis calls “the brave and hopeless YES!”
The brave and hopeless ‘Yes’
My first novel, , fictionalizes my Hell Run adventure. It was written before I had ever wrapped my wee brain around “the brave and hopeless YES.” And yet it perfectly defines my young protagonist as he negotiates his own Act II dilemma.
The essence of my novel—that’s it!—the brave and hopeless YES.
Look again, PJ—hasn’t it become your main article of faith as a writer? Perhaps it’s every writer’s act of faith. Is it? I’d like to know.
That dim landscape down there—it’s the writer’s life—and there we are hitchhiking the Hell Run of our imaginations, making our way along that ragged ribbon of moonlight by the grace of the brave and hopeless Yes!
(Quotes are from “England: A Travel Journal” by Nikos Kazantzakis.)
This dispatch comes to you from the hour of the wolf.
Not that I can’t sleep, no, the last thing I want to do is fall back to sleep. My brilliant idea would vanish. It came to me as I emerged from dreamland. You know, “when the mind is too weak to tell itself lies.”
When the mind is too weak to tell itself lies.*
The Holy Grail of altered states.
Here it is, pre-dawn, black bear still foraging for garbage in the alley below my office window, while my fingers prance around the keyboard as if they’ve broken out of jail.
The mind is too weak to tell itself lies! Write quick, PJ!
Conventional wisdom would appear to have no traction in the crepuscular hours. My principles aren’t up and running yet, they can’t obscure the truth. You might say that, having not yet showered or checked my email, I’m not quite me.
Trust me, I’m writing as fast as I can.
If this is an ode to early-morning drowsiness, we should hear from more writers. Novelist Nicholson Baker likes to arise with the birds because he finds “the mind is newly cleansed, but it’s also befuddled.” He discovered that he “wrote differently then.”
Joy Williams—I’ve quoted her before—she says,“A writer loves the dark, loves it, but is always fumbling around in the light.” She reminds me of artists who say they see better in the dark.
Marcel Proust took opium to induce the desired effect. Charles Bukowski drank. Some writers practice “morning pages,” streams of bafflegab becoming ever more truthful. At least that’s the idea. You shovel hard with great faith—and doubt!—endless shovelfuls of gravel, superficial overburden, tons of it. Somewhere down there lies the bedrock of meaning. Maybe.
What about monks? Every night at three a.m. the search begins anew for…what? Meaning? God? Freedom? A monk’s life is a Zen koan, a cosmic question. Never mind an answer—beware the answer!—just show up. Faithfully. Doubt keeps us coming back for more.
Thomas Merton was a Trappist monk-poet-existentialist. Here’s what he says about faith and doubt:
“Faith means doubt. Faith is not the suppression of doubt. It is the overcoming of doubt, and you overcome doubt by going through it.”
That’s it, that’s the truth. We have to push through. At dawn, my mind is too weak to warn me away.
Ah! The eastern sky is lightening. I gotta go.
An hour from now my best interests will be hijacked by appearances and the everyday mind, and I will be buried under gravel, again.
“I was ten and playing tag around a friend’s house, and stopping in my tracks as I passed the open bedroom door of my friend’s older brother. There was this teenager working at a piano, composing like a maniac, tinkling the keys, then making notations, oblivious of distraction, of football, of the sun shining outside. I saw in that moment what an artist was.”
Now, I’m curious—what exactly did I see through that doorway?
I should add that my friend’s brother was always at that piano, so that’s where “perseverance” comes in. He spent his youth in his bedroom with that piano and working so hard and with such focus it was frightening. Even still, what was it about a teenager at a piano that could so impress a ten-year-old that fifty years later the memory still serves to inspire me?
The music?—no—the jazzy phrases likely irritated my young ears. I remember the way he leaned forward to jab his pencil at sheets of paper propped on the piano. I recall an urgency. To get somewhere? No, he was already there! You see, he was somewhere else. He lived beyond the everyday world in which the rest of us ran in circles.
I wanted what he had.
His name was Tommy Banks. He went on to own the music scene in Edmonton, Alberta. His TV talk show went nation-wide. Eventually they honoured him with an appointment to the federal Senate in Ottawa. I owe Mr. Banks a huge debt of gratitude, as you can imagine.
Or perhaps I haven’t made that clear.
You see, that mental image of Tommy working at his piano has served as a beacon for me throughout my life. Guiding me toward what, exactly? Art of some kind? Yes, but certainly not music, no, I’m remarkably unmusical. So, what then? I don’t know. A way of being?
Standing at that open bedroom doorway, the ten-year-old is arrested by a possibility.
Imagine that—a pre-pubescent kid understands he has a choice of how to be. Among life’s possibilities, here is one that soars above the rest.
If I had ever wondered about the meaning of life, and I had, well, here is an answer. The teenager at the piano is the answer to my earliest existential quandaries. Here is someone who lives in this world but who ignores much of it. And look how alive he is!
The answer infects my entire life.
From then on I’m alert to artists and poets and mystics who make it their business to frame up that same answer. Leonard Cohen for example, musing on his own escape from the person the world expects him to be:
“Even though he was built to see the world this way, he was also built to disregard, to be free of the way he was built to see the world.”
That ten-year-old playing tag was stopped in his tracks by a glimpse through a doorway—a glimpse of a way to move beyond.
To be free of the way he was built to see the world.
“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.
What am I working on?
Something called THE WRITER IN LOVE. It was meant to bolster ideas I introduced inStory 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.
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.
Why do I write what I do?
I wish it was over.
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/.