Karmic Writing: Doing Becomes, by Eric Witchey

Karmic Writing: Doing Becomes

Eric Witchey

We write stories for as many different reasons as there are people who write. Some people write as personal therapy. Some write to set the world straight. Some write to heal others, and some to heal wounds from their childhoods. We have stories that instruct, deny, teach, explore, justify, and warn. We have stories that do all these things at once. Yet, aspiring writers still ask these perennial questions:

  1. How do I become a writer?
  2. Where do I start a story?
  3. What should I write?

In order, the truest answers I know are:

  1. By writing.
  2. With the writing.
  3. And whatever you write.

You may have chuckled in humorous agreement after you read the questions and their answers. You may have become a bit angry and resentful at my apparently useless and flippant answer. You may have just skimmed forward to get to the bits you think you need.

Please don’t laugh, resent, or skim.

The questions are legitimate.

The answers are true.

We have all asked them, and we have all had to answer them for ourselves and others.

Let’s look at them one at a time.

How do I become a writer?

The word “writer” is the agentive nominalized form of the infinitive verb “to write.” In the strictest sense, a person who writes is a writer. If that’s as far as we take the answer, the writers were justified in their little chuckle. The haters were justified in their little moment of resentment. The skimmers were justified in moving on.

However, I want to bring a bit of karma into the concept of becoming a writer. Some writers are born into families where professional writing parents read stories to them in the womb, where the family played endless word games for fun, where no TV was allowed, where a giant dictionary lived in the living room, and where telling stories to one another was a form of entertainment every night after dinner. From families like that, writers emerge into academic and commercial circles carrying the burden of “talent.” Those writers are not kidding at all when they say things like “Just tell the story,” “I know if it sounds right,” and “the characters just do what they are going to do.” For those rare and highly talented people who were genetically predisposed to solid language skills and then internalized the patterns of success in language and story at very early ages, “Just write,” is a true, complete, and self-sufficient answer to the question.

I wasn’t born into one of those families. Most people weren’t. Sure, we all have some degree of the magical thing called talent, but talent is just the degree to which you were genetically predisposed to then trained to early life fluency in language and story. Luckily, many successful writers had little or no talent when they came to the craft. They compensated by working hard. It turns out that behaving like a writer creates writers.

That’s what I mean by karma. One definition of karma is that every choice we make turns us into a person who has made that choice. Having chosen, we benefit from all the pleasures and pains that go with that choice. If we choose to drive on the wrong side of the road, we gain the freedom and joy that comes with being unconstrained by law. We might even live through the experience. We might also experience the accident and death that can come with having made that choice. Either way, we create ourselves into the person who experiences the result.

By writing, we become writers. Showing up every morning at the keyboard causes our bodies and minds to adapt to the task of writing. By attending seminars, classes, and conferences, we train body and mind to become sensitive to the patterns of success in behavior and technique that make a writer a writer.

A person who says, “I am a writer,” but doesn’t touch the keys is the same person not writing today that they were yesterday. A person who says nothing but does sit down at their desk and reads, studies, and practices the craft becomes a writer. Mind and body adapt to what we do. Writers write. Writing makes writers.

Where do I start a story?

The entry point to any story can be any moment in the story. By entry point, I mean the first text on the page. I do not mean the opening line. As you would guess from what has come before in this little essay, it means that writers write in order to figure out what they are going to write.

Since the first shaman spit pigment onto a cave wall, writers have been struggling with blank stone, clay, or page. I can’t count how many different methods of beginning I have studied over the years, and all of them have been correct. I will say that my all-time favorite came from Meg Chittenden, who taught the Carlo Rossi Method of plotting, but that’s another story and not really mine to tell. Here are a few non-Carlo Rossi entry points along with an example of each:

  • Start with A Theme: e.g.: Developing listening skills creates understanding, deeper respect for others, and greater success in family and life.
  • A Social Issue: Prejudice against intelligence
  • Personal, Emotional Issue: Unrequited love
  • Trauma: Limitations in relationships because of early life sibling abuse
  • Random Topics: A dirty coffee mug, a newspaper article about hauling ice from glaciers in Canada to L.A. as a water supply, and a Country Western Song. (This starting point actually became my sold short story “Running Water for L.A.”)
  • Idea in The Shower: What would it be like to be a spider living in the sewer?
  • Image or Images: My reflected house on a dew drop on the rust-damaged petal of a blue rose.
  • A fast Scene: Just wrote five pages as fast as I could. Now, is there anything in there to work with?
  • The Beginning: Her first day at Garver Road Middle School was triumphant and terrible in equal parts.
  • Someplace in The Middle: By the time Gordon arrived at the farm, the dogs had eaten most of the flesh from Millicent’s corpse.
  • The Climax: She held the flame of the sword close enough to his head to singe the hair of his beard and raise acrid smoke. When he closed his battered eye to avoid the flame, she said, “For my sister and my village.”
  • The Final Moment: Susurrate waves tickled his toes and tugged at the beach sand, washing away his foundations and forcing him to shift his footing from time to time. The Corrilla’s black flag disappeared over the horizon. The breath he’d been holding slipped past his lips in a long sigh before he turned toward home, his wife, and their new child.

Any one of these could become the entry point for a story. Any one can provide the spark that allows the writer to begin asking the questions that define context, present a problem for solution, and result in answers that drive the project forward toward completion.

What would it be like to be a spider in a sewer? Replace spider with rat and watch the film Flushed Away. Go back to spider, and ask what makes the spider worth following in the sewer? She loves her children—deep fried with vinegar and salt. Nothing in the sewer can satisfy her hunger. Why does that matter? Because she is the only spider of her kind in the sewer and the other sewer spiders shun her for her culinary peculiarities. So what? She can solve murder mysteries in the sewer, and that will bring her back to the bathroom where she meets her grown children but no longer only sees them as food. So, the sewer is a metaphor for her exploration of the shadow self and her resentment that her children are a part of herself she wants to recover by eating them, and the murders force her to recognize the deeper value of every life and the interconnectedness of each life to all….

The above example of uncensored, question-driven brainstorming would not end with the ellipsis. It would go on and on until enough silliness and non-silliness appeared on the page to allow the writer to begin to see a story worth telling.

The point is that writers start by starting. Any start is a start provided we keep going.

What should I write?

Did you read the bit about the spider? Did you shake your head and think, “Oh, for the love of…”? Now, go back and look at the list of starting places. Which one is the one we should pick as the story we want to write?

Exactly. Any of them. All of them. Just pick. The one that you picked is the right one. Don’t pick. Start a different way. Toss a coin and write about the glimmer of it spinning in the sunlight. Travel to a festival and write about carnies. Write about not being able to write. However you start is the right way to start. Whatever shows up in your writing is the right thing to write about. Later, you can do the work of turning it into a story.

One of the most disturbing phrases I hear from writers at conferences and in seminars is, “My story is about…” Compare that opening phrase to “This story is about…” Writing a lot of stories allows writers to learn faster, understand story more deeply, and discover which stories, themes, concepts, and issues are most powerful for them. Additionally, writing a lot of stories results in, well, a lot of stories. More stories provides a broader range for possible sales and reduces the worry surrounding any one story.

Let’s change the question just a little bit. Instead of asking “What should I write,” ask, “What the hell did I just write?” The answer will often be, “Huh. Well, I’ll be damned. That was fun.”

As one of the mottos of the Literary Non-Profit WordCrafters says, “Don’t be a writer. Be writing.” To become a writer, write. To start a story, write. To figure out what to write about, write. The shaman who spit pigment over their hand on the cave wall didn’t get it right the first time. They choked on ashes, ochre, and dust. They practiced. They experimented. They figured it out. The doing creates the doer. The doer does in order to create.

Livin’ my Best Southern Life, by Bayou Babe – Aka Cheryl Owen-Wilson

While attempting to come up with an idea for my blog, Bayou Babe spoke up and asked if she could take over.  What else could I say but ,“yes”.

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How y’all doin’ today?  This is my first ever blog so let me start by tellin’ ya a’ bit ‘bout myself.  I’m a’ southern woman livin’ my best life here on an Island in the fingers of the swamps what snake along Louisiana’s gulf shores.  My birth name is Gertie May Dupre, but folks call me Bayou Babe or BB for short.  I got tagged with that there nickname by a not very nice old boyfriend, who happens not to be with us any longer, but the BB stuck to me.  I might share how that come to be in another blog.   So why did I decide to create Livin’ My Best Southern Life?  Well, I was ease droppin; on somethin’ , Lena, was sayin’ at our weekly meetin’ of – Babies are for Huggin’ and Spoilin’.

Lena, is a’ city girl what married a’ right handsome Cajun man and now is none too happy ‘bout bein’ as she says, “dragged to the swamps” to live.  Anyhow, I heard her sayin’ to  Dorothy Jean, “That Bayou Babe, what an absurd name.  I’d never allow anyone to call me such a demeaning thing.  But she sure seems to live a charmed life even though I heard her husband fishes in the swamps and never graduated college.  Have you seen their home, must be up to their eyeballs in debt?  But you could eat off her floors any day of the week.  Wonder how she does it with two babies under four years old and no hired help?” 

I hear all the time how I got a perfect life, but Lena’s words are the ones what sparked me to share how I come by my life.  Course, ya gonna have to be a true Cajun woman to read this here blog, so Lena won’t be in on my little secrets.  It’s really not much of a’ secret to those a’ us who been born here.  I come from a’ long line a southern women what lived perfect lives.  Ya see it’s all in the recipes.  That’s what my grandmamma called them—her recipes.  They was passed down from her grandmamma and on down the line.  Now, these ain’t your add extra butter kind a’ recipes.  These here recipes are conjurin’s, and gris-gris’s, or whatever other word ya might want to call ‘em.

Thanks to one of those recipes, Lena come down with a horrible case a’ laryngitis right after that meetin’, bless her heart.  I might share that recipe sometime. but for this blog I decided on tellin’ ya  ‘bout how I come by my new cookin’ stove.  My old one was gettin’ a right thick layer a’ grease on it, not to mention the color!  It’s was a’ sickly pale, snot green.  Whoever thought that was a good color of the year, must a’ been color blind.  My new stove is stainless steel with a’ top what sparkles when I turn on the flame a’ the gas burners.  It sits next to the window in the kitchen where the curtains I just finished sewin’ waves to me.  The fabric I picked for them has lemon-yellow, checker-board squares surroundin’ blood red cherries with juice a’ drippin’ from ‘em.   We don’t get many breezes here on our Island, so I figured I’d conjure one up for this first day a’ cookin’ on my new stove, with my new curtains.  Took me a bit to recover my breath, but it’s worth it seein’ those curtains a’ swayin’. 

Now, as with any conjurin’, my new cooker did cost a price.  The blood stains I had to clean up after was a right chore, but I got it all figured thanks to Swamp Wife Daily.  They have the best solutions on how to get those pesky stains out. All it takes is equal parts  a’ vinegar, salt, and some water out a’ the bayou, collected right after a gator churns it up. 

But I’m gettin’ off track. I know I could simply write out a list for ya, like the recipes in my Talk About Good Cajun cookbook, but where’s the fun in that?  I like tellin’ stories better.  So here’s my story recipe for how I got my new stove.

First, I had to find someone who had the exact kind I wanted.  I had most lost hope when after months a’ lookin’ Mary Jane Butler was standin’ in line behind me at the Piggly Wiggly.  I heard her braggin’ and showin’ pictures of the exact stove I was a’ wantin’.  Well, let me tell ya, she and I had never spoken more than a word or two, but I invited her over the next day for a’ mornin’ coffee right then and there.   

When she got to my house, I kindly asked her to cut the cinnamon Bundt cake I’d baked, while I got us each a coffee.   A simple slip a’ my kitchen knife, ‘cause a’ the oil I put on it, and her little finger lobbed right off.   Then it slid under the, too heavy to be moved, cupboard  like I’d envisioned.  It was a shame it took off her whole finger.  I’m still not sure what I done wrong.  The recipe only called for tip of her finger, or in a pinch a small slice. 

Anyway, I helped Mary Jane wrap a towel like a’ tourniquet ‘round her hand.  I called her husband to come get her and while we was waitin’ I got on all fours pretendin’ to try and find her finger.  Of course I never did.  I was most apologetic when her husband come to take her to the hospital, even sent them off with half of the Bundt cake.  On the side a’ the recipe my grandmamma had written,  “always remember to leave whoever’s body-part ya used on good terms”.  When they was gone I retrieved the finger with my long gumbo spoon.  Then I followed the recipe by addin’ the spit from a horny toad frog to it before I taped it on to the back of one of my own little fingers.  I went ‘bout the rest of my day like normal, but every time I noticed her finger on mine I thought on how it had touched her shiny new stove.  When the sun was settin’ on the same day, it must be the same day, I buried her finger in my rose bed and sprinkled it with Holy Water.  The recipe says not to forget to use enough blessed water to saturate the dirt ya cover the body part with. 

The next night my husband Billy Joe come in from work wearin’ a big grin on his face.  When I asked why he was so happy he said,  “BB, you not goin’ to believe what I found on my way home today.  Come outside and see!”   

I tried my best to look surprised when I saw my new stove sittin’ in the bed of his silver Ford pickup.  When I asked him ‘bout findin’ it he said, “It was sittin’ on the side a’ the road pretty as you please, like someone left it there.  Must a’ fallen off a truck, but it don’t have a scratch on it. I tell ya it’s a miracle BB, a damn miracle.”

Did I mention this particular recipe only works on kitchen appliances?  Some need tweakin’, for instance, if ya wantin’ the whole lot, a stove, icebox, and one of them dishwasher’s.  Personally, I don’t like those automatic dish washin’ things, some of my best ideas come to me when my hands are covered in sudsy dishwater.  Sorry, I done gone off again.  

So, like I was sayin’ if ya be wantin’ more than one kitchen appliance ya might needin’ more than a piece of a’ finger.  Ya might be needin’ the whole finger like I got, or maybe even two.  Myself, I don’t think it’s best to be that greedy, plus think of how much cleanin’ ya’d have to do after!  For smaller things like my Kitchen Aide mixer, I only needed a whole thumb nail. 

Now ya see why knowin’ how to best clean up blood stains can come in mighty handy.  Ya might have to wait longer than a’ day for whatever appliance your needin’.  I think my gettin’ the whole finger sped my conjurin’ up a bit.  I know not all a’ y’all gots a’ recipe book a’ conjurin‘, so it pleases me to no end to pass on some a’ my own.  Every woman what inherits the book adds to it some a’ they own recipes, and sometimes I modify the ingredients from the old recipes.  It’s awful fun to see how it all comes out in the end,.

By the way, I heard from Mary Jane yesterday.  It’s been over a month since our coffee visit.  She said, “My hand is healin’ real nice, and I want to thank you BB for inviting me over.  Why if you hadn’t of I might still have that finger.  Did you know it was causin’ me so much pain with the arthritis?  Reverend Jimmy John says my piano playin’ is much better since I lost it.”

Before she hung up we was laughin’ and tellin’ stories like we been best friends forever.  Isn’t that just the way?  I got me a new cooker and Mary Jane is playin’ piano at Sunday church better than ever.  I hope ya enjoyed this here first edition of Livin’ My Best Southern Life.  My life really is perfect like folks say, and yours can be too, as long as ya willin’ to follow the recipes.

Like I said I’m addin’ my own recipes to the book.  Do y’all have any ya’d like to share? ‘Course I’d have to test it out before I added it. 

#mybestsouthernlife

#swampliving

#provenbloodstainremoval

#justafinger

#Recipes

“Violin in Red” an original oil on canvas, by Cheryl Owen-Wilson

Keeping the Door Cracked Open

Today Mary E. Lowd is with us to talk about her upcoming novel, The Bee’s Waltz, Book 2 in the Celestial Fragments trilogy, and the latest offering in the Labyrinth of Souls project. Release date 11/7!~ Christina Lay

Keeping the Door Cracked Open

by Mary E. Lowd

I got invited to write a Labyrinth of Souls novel because of a coincidence.  I had recently finished writing the third book in my Otters In Space trilogy, and it had been a brutal experience.  I’d spent months stuck in the middle, muddling about, unsure of how to proceed with the book.  And I didn’t ever want to get stuck in the middle of a book like that again, so I decided it was time to learn how to outline.

I’d had some luck using cards from a storytelling game deck as writing prompts for flash fiction, so I had an idea:  I would draw Tarot cards and use those to design the outline for my next book.  I happened to be talking about this plan at a writing date, and one of the other writers there told me about Matthew Lowes’ card game based on a Tarot deck and the upcoming novel line inspired by it — like I said, it was an amazing, perfect coincidence.

The very first game of Dungeon Solitaire I played was epic — on the way down into the dungeon, I gathered companions; at the bottom, I won treasure; and on the way out, I faced a treacherous battle right before reaching the surface, but all three queens showed up and blessed me.  I made it out and won!  I also won the perfect outline for a novel.  If you’ve already read The Snake’s Song: A Labyrinth of Souls Novel, perhaps you can see the resemblance.

Since I like writing animal characters, I decided to make the hero of my book a squirrel — a creature of treetops, trapped deep underground where she doesn’t belong — to increase the tension and stakes.  But I also knew this might make my book, when it was finished, a hard sell to a publisher who focuses on dark fantasy, since animal protagonists tend to lighten a work.  Animal stories are strongly associated with children’s literature, and I needed to make sure my book would be dark enough to interest Shadow Spinners Press.

Throughout The Snake’s Song, as I wrote, I made sure to press into the morally ambiguous nature of the actions the squirrel protagonist had to take to protect herself and how her journey was hardening her.  But at the end, I took my real stab at making the book dark:  I killed off the lovable, goofy otter sidekick.

I think, at some level, the way I sacrificed Fish-Breath on the altar of darkness at the end of The Snake’s Song was inspired by Martin the Warrior.

I was eleven when Martin the Warrior came out — it was the sixth book in Brian Jacques’ Redwall series, and I’d spent the entire previous year reading the first five over and over again, obsessively, on loop.  So, obviously, I was out of my mind excited to have a new Redwall book to read, and I devoured it immediately… only to be heartbroken by how Rose — a new mouse character — was unceremoniously murdered in the final pages, leaving the titular Martin bereft as he walked out of the new book and back into the first book I had ever read in the series, Mossflower.

Martin the Warrior was a prequel to Mossflower, and the budding writer in me (yes, I already thought of myself as a writer at eleven) was amazed by how this new book had reinvented the way I saw the beginning of a book I’d already read many times.

But the girl in me who hadn’t yet realized that feminism hadn’t fixed sexism before she was born was faced with a blow that would become all too familiar over the coming decades:  the character I identified with had been sacrificed on the altar of giving the central male character feelings and motivation.

So, of course, in writing my own book, I had gender-flipped the situation — Witch-Hazel is the hero, and Fish-Breath the one who must be sacrificed to prove the truly harrowing nature of the journey she survives.

But… I still remember being the heartbroken girl who didn’t understand why Rose and Martin couldn’t continue on together.  And so, I left the door cracked open.  Fish-Breath didn’t exactly die; he was saved at the last second by the All-Being who helps him ascend to her castle in the sky.  Something between death and life.

Skip ahead a few years, and a number of my readers saw the end, as I’d chosen to write it, as a cliff-hanger.  Certainly, Witch-Hazel must find her own way to the All-Being’s castle and rescue Fish-Breath! they argued.  And in all honesty, the thought had occurred to me.  I could see The Snake’s Song as the first chapter in a three part story — in the middle, Witch-Hazel would need to try to rescue Fish-Breath.  And I’d even done some brainstorming and outlining for what else Witch-Hazel would discover in the magical world she inhabits.

This is where coincidence intersects these books again.  The very day that I finished writing the third book in my space opera trilogy, The Entangled Universe, my beloved dog Quinn, who the main character’s best friend was loosely based upon, got sick.  By the end of the week… he was gone.  And I felt as bereft as Martin when he lost Rose or Witch-Hazel when she lost Fish-Breath.

A lot of the protagonists in my novels have a best friend who’s kind of goofy — usually an otter or canine — and Quinn had embodied that role for me in real life.  I still miss him so much, even though a year has passed, and I have new dogs in my life who I also love.  It is, of course, not the same.

Quinn died during the height of the pandemic when puppies were hard to come by, because everyone was home making sourdough starters and getting new puppies.  So, we got put on several waitlists for sable Sheltie litters, and I steeled myself for a long patch of living without a Sheltie grinning at me every day.

And then I started work on The Bee’s Waltz.  Writing Witch-Hazel’s journey through an enchanted world to find her lost otter friend was what got me through the months between Quinn dying and us finding a one-year-old tri-color Sheltie, Cole, who needed a new home.

When I saw Cole’s grinning face, it was like the lights turned back on in the world.  And he sat beside me — as Quinn would have a few months earlier — as I finished writing The Bee’s Waltz.

I’m glad I left the door cracked open between life and death for Fish-Breath, so that Witch-Hazel’s journey could continue through two more books.  And I’m even more glad that I had an imaginary world to disappear into for comfort when I desperately needed it.

I hope my books can provide that refuge for other people too.

Available November 7, 2021