Musings on Breathing Life into a Heartless Villain, by Pamela Jean Herber

 

What makes for a memorable antagonist?

I’ve been having trouble with the antagonist in my current novel-in-progress. She’s boring. I have a decent handle on how she operates in her world, and the role she plays in the story, but she feels more like a mathematical formula than a human being. What to do?… Go out in search of a villain I’m excited about who has similar traits to my antagonist.

An intriguing historical villain

In my travels through books, the Internet, and my own memory, I found a deliciously evil woman from the early 1800s who grew up in Bauzelles, France. Her name was Thérèse Humbert.

As a girl, Thérèse was betrayed by her own father. He had raised her to believe she and her family were wealthy aristocrats. When the truth came out upon her father’s death that she was not of nobility, and wouldn’t be inheriting great wealth, Thérèse was robbed of a station in society she believed she was entitled to. Without legitimate means to claim her place, she resorted to her father’s game. Fraud.

She continued to tell the tale of her family’s aristocratic standing. She was able to obtain credit based on soon-to-be received wealth, piling up huge debt buying a lifestyle that gave the appearance of wealth. Along the way, Thérèse’s husband, and her father-in-law covered her debts as best they could, perhaps to protect their own reputations. She convinced bankers to allow debts to go unpaid for long after they were due by weaving story after story of an impending inheritance and a favorable marriage by her sister.

Eventually, Thérèse was arrested, tried, and imprisoned, but not after she had wreaked havoc on the hopes, reputations, and livelihoods of numerous family members, friends, and business associates. These unsustainable ways lead Thérèse to betray her younger sister in the very way her father had betrayed her.

With only a brief sketch of Thérèse’s life, I’m hooked.

What makes Thérèse Humbert such an interesting character?

  • The fact that Thérèse’s father betrayed her makes her need for money and status believable and heartbreaking. Her actions were still unconscionable, but I sympathize with how she became capable of them.
  • She betrayed her sister in the same way she was betrayed. Wow. Just wow. This makes me worry for not just the family, but for all the descendants, and especially the sister. Will it be possible for her to break the cycle?
  • The younger sister could not have been deceived without the support of family members who knew the truth. Thérèse could not have successfully defrauded so many people without the support of her very victims: family, friends, and business associates.

In light of what I’ve found, what can I try out on my antagonist?

  • Provide a single and traumatic event that drives her need for money and status.
  • Show that her daughter is at risk of falling into the same patterns of behavior.
  • Populate the story with a network of people that support the antagonist.

The villain in the story doesn’t breathe on their own. The person the villain was before the damage, and the people in the villains’s life who have retained their compassion, they are the ones who bring the villain to life.

Fiction and Viktor Frankl, by Eric Witchey

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Fiction and Viktor Frankl, by Eric Witchey

In my small way, I try to continually expand my awareness of the experiences of others. I do this because I’m curious by nature and because to do so improves my ability to tell a story. Because I have been working on a fantasy story to support the marketing efforts of Dungeon Solitaire, I found myself researching death rites and rituals from various parts of the world. I also decided to reread Viktor E. Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning.

For any human being capable of compassion, reading Viktor Frankl is always a heady experience. However, my immersion in death rites and rituals somehow brought me to a moment where I was struck by how fully universal to the human experience his accounts of life and core integrity are. Perhaps I should have felt this before, and I certainly understood it before, but this time it hit me more deeply in both the heart and mind.

In my travels in the writing life, I have met some pretty rabid Zionists, a few really terrifying Palestinian poets, escaped hostages from the Palestinian hostage crisis, survivors of Guatemalan genocide, Serbs, Iranian ex-pats, righteous American ex-pats, escaped cold war Ukrainians, Holocaust survivors, Turkish intellectual Muslims, a Greek freedom fighter (against the Germans and carrying huge hatred of all Germans and Turks), a Catholic monk who fought on the German side in WWI and the American side in WWII, and all manner of extreme Christians who, more than the others, scared the hell out of me personally. That last one included a mercenary I met on his way to South Africa to fight for the Christian white-right to bring Apartheid back. I won’t add more to this list. It’s already long enough to make my point.

During my interactions with various people who held aggressive/defensive positions that made me nervous, I have tried to keep my fear in check and truly listen to their (sometimes insane and irrational) personal positions in order to seek some understanding of what motivates actions I cannot understand from the context of my white-boy, Midwestern, multi-religion upbringing.

Those extreme souls I met who had a sense of history, even if only from their own agenda-driven point of view or other-interpreted oral traditions, had one thing in common. They deeply felt, and were sometimes motivated solely by, their fear for their families and their futures. Often, that fear was grounded in their sense of history, and their sense of history was based entirely on which side of the experiences they were on.

Here’s an example. I was in a village in central Mexico, and the man I was staying with casually described how he really liked the new mayor because she was not corrupt. I asked how he knew she was not corrupt, and he said, “Because the cartel has tried to kill her twice.”

Well, that caught my attention.

I asked about the cartel and whether we were safe. He laughed and told me that of course we were safe. He said, “If you were in one of your cities, there would places you knew not to go at night, right?” I nodded. “Us, too,” he said. “We just don’t go to the wrong places at the wrong times.”

The casual conversation moved on, and he eventually described to me how the cartels weren’t really a problem to the people of the village. From his perspective, the American gun dealers were the real problem.

I kept listening. He kept talking. From his perspective, the cartels were like the weather, but the Americans sold death. From his perspective, the cartels were God-fearing people doing the best they could in terrible economic circumstances. They brought products in from the South, moved the products through the area, and passed them on across the border to the North. However, it was the Godless, money-hungry Americans who created the market for the drugs and who fueled the destruction of families by selling guns to both the government and the cartels.

The above is a very short description of an off-and-on conversation that went on for more than a week, but I hope you get the idea. Everything he said was true for him and his family in their lives in their world.

The flip-side of that story is also equally true. The DEA agent I met in Pima, Arizona who had lost two members of her family, one to addiction and one to gunfire, hated the Mexican government and the Mexican people for allowing the cartels, for trafficking across the border, and for making poison available on the streets in a way that killed her brother. She believed that the Pope at that time supported the trafficking and that Catholic confession was part of the reason the smugglers could do what they did without remorse. She was also correct from within her context.

Both people were deeply moved because of their connection to family history, family safety, and possible futures. Both essentially hated the other for what they considered to be good reasons. Both supported their positions from a combination of personal experience, family history, speculation, and verifiable fact.

An aside: Personally, the more I learned about the illegal gun trade and the multi-billion dollar flow of firearms from the U.S. to Mexico, the more disgusted I got with the whole situation. So, I wrote a story, “The Tequila Volcano.” It appeared in a literary journal last year, Timberline Review. It’s very short, and I recommend both the story and the journal.

When Viktor Frankl described both the deterioration of prisoners, whom one would expect to be supportive of one another, into brutal behavior toward one another and concentration camp guards, whom one would expect to be brutal but a few of whom engaged in acts of compassion and kindness, I was struck once more with the sad truth that no group has a lock on reality.

No person or group is entitled to perfect righteousness.

Frankl broke both the prisoners and the guards of the concentration camps into two essential groups: those who have core decency and those who do not. Neither guards nor prisoners were a homogenous front of virtue or brutality.

My life has exposed me to people from many traditions, to multiple holy texts, to people who have survived race and religion-motivated traumas, and to amazing acts of kindness and human decency from all regions, races, and holy traditions.

I do my very best to support the growth of the human heart. I do my best to find the commonality of experience and to avoid becoming bogged down in the destructive, isolating interpretations of ideology that are often used to fuel fear and justify destructive behavior. I cannot ever truly understand the devastation that is part of some family histories and historical identities. I can only do my best to dampen and block the perpetuation of fear and hatred in all its forms. I hope that my fiction explores mutual understanding, expands the development of compassion, and creates some sense of common ground in the human condition.

I believe that stories can help to heal the world. They lead the way to new thoughts, to expanded awareness, to a smaller sense of “I” and a greater sense of “we.”

So, I tell another story.

Which Snow Queen Character Are You?

by Christina Lay

We all want to be the Queen, but let’s face it; sometimes we’re the crow, the witch, or the hobgoblin.

I’ve been thinking lately about how a fairy tale penned in 1844 remains relevant in our culture today. Mind you, my thoughts never stray far from the realm of folklore and fairy, and working for the Eugene Ballet Company, listening to the brand new score for the brand new Snow Queen Ballet drift up from the studio below my office, I’ve been finding it harder than ever to concentrate on bookkeeping and easier and easier to drift into the realm of story.

Principal Dancer Danielle Tolmie as The Snow Queen – Photo Courtesy of The Eugene Ballet

The Snow Queen has always been one of those tales that didn’t sit quite comfortably with me. I remember watching a version of it on TV when I was kid. I was both fascinated and disturbed. I wish I could remember which of the many adaptations it was (I’m guessing this was around 1970) but as with other non-Disney, weirdly and honestly portrayed tales, it left me not knowing what to think or feel. That sense of unease stayed with me until I recently re-read the original tale and rediscovered a treasure trove of fascinating characters and stunning images mined from the archival memory of folklore.

Yes, it is weird as only a 173 year-old fairy tale can be, but Gerda, the very good girl, rescues her dear friend Kay and all is well in the end. I think what disturbed me was the lack of resolution regarding the Queen herself. The focal point of anticipation and wonder conveniently leaves on vacation when Gerda shows up at her palace of ice. (Hope this isn’t a spoiler for anyone). Maybe she was bored with Kay and was glad to get him off her hands.

I can only guess the movie version I saw didn’t send the queen away with no resolution, but who knows. The Queen remains a literary enigma, a mystery ensconced in a palace of ice who occasionally abducts little boys in order to have them move pieces of ice around on her frozen “lake of reason”.

Disney’s recent Frozen, very loosely based on The Snow Queen, is a sort of origin tale for the queen, exploring how a person might come to choose to live alone in a palace of ice. Obviously, zillions of movie-goers related to the concept of a person “frozen” due to the denial of their individuality; be it their artistic leanings, their sexuality, their personality, their natural talents. The story examines the damage inflicted when an essential part of oneself is rejected by those closest to you (in Frozen, Elsa’s own parents force her to suppress her astounding magical abilities out of fear). Many of us have experienced this on some level, and understand the urge to withdraw and hide our true selves to avoid further pain. In this case, we are the queen.

But there are many more characters in The Snow Queen and not all are so regal or impressively outfitted.

There’s Gerda, the lovely little girl who even the angels want to help. Gerda represents unconditional love and innocence. Something we can all relate to, right? Although she’s rejected by Kay, and even believes him dead, she won’t give up on him until she’s sure. She’s not terribly bright; her best idea to find out where Kay has gone is to throw her shoes into the river as a payment for knowledge, even after the river insists it doesn’t know anything. She does manage to get stuck on a boat and in the way of fairy tales, is carried toward her ultimate goal. Gerda also represents blind faith, and it works for her. Maybe we are Gerda when we throw common sense to the winds in order to pursue our dreams, loves, impossible wishes. Don’t the gurus always claim that when you follow your heart, the universe will aid you?

In contrast to Gerda is the robber girl, who is a psychopath with a heart of gold. She’s been raised by thieves to be violent, selfish and impulsive and yet she does help Gerda in the end. It’s not clear why, other than it amuses her more to see Gerda continue on her adventure than to murder her. I’m afraid I’ve been the robber girl on occasion. Not that I’ve every threatened to slit anyone’s throat, but the self-absorbed obsession with my own impulses isn’t entirely unfamiliar. I would venture to guess that in most people there exists an equal balance between Gerda’s unselfish goodness on one extreme and the robber girl’s amoral wildness on the other. Neither melds well to my sense of self, but I’ve been in both places.

What about the crow? Good natured, helpful, engaged but willing to risk his betrothed’s position at court in order to help out a stranger? And the crow loves to eat. The crow is about the most normal person in this entire fairy tale. Naturally he must die.

The old witch who lives on the river? She so enjoys Gerda’s company she attempts to erase Gerda’s memories of Kay in order to keep the girl by her side. The witch kills her many rose bushes so that the sight of them won’t trigger Gerda’s memories. In an absolutely lovely image, Gerda’s tears awaken the roses that have been buried beneath the earth and cause them to once again grow above into the sunlight. Then Gerda in her less than stable way runs around for a long while trying to get the roses to tell her where Kay has gone. The flowers have other things on their minds.

Flowers Return to Life – Photo Courtesy of The Eugene Ballet

I find the old witch more disturbing than the Snow Queen or the robber girl. Her manipulation is subtle, possibly even well-intentioned, and she could represent the authority figure who suppresses dreams, talents and nature in order to cleave someone to their side; depending on your perspective, this could be an entirely selfish quest to clip someone else’s wings or a rational desire to keep someone safe. Doesn’t every parent or lover have a little bit of this impulse inside them? Stay near, dear one, don’t venture out where you might get hurt, or lost, or worse, fall in love with someone else and leave me.

And then there are the hobgoblins, or trolls, if you prefer, who start the whole thing. The trolls have a mirror which when gazed upon, distorts whatever beauty there is into ugliness. They have great fun tormenting everyone with it and decide to take it to heaven to mess with the angels. Well, the mirror falls and shatters into a million pieces, but the shards still have their evil effect. Only now, the shards get into people’s eyes and hearts and make them see everything as twisted, bad and ugly. Obviously fragments of the troll mirror are still at work today, with hate and bigotry so prevalent in our politics and media. There’s no shortage of trolls at work eager to warp and twist reality into something monstrous that can conjure hatred. “Fearmongering” is word that is sadly useful here. Have you ever used gossip or lies in order to punish, manipulate or control? Yeah, me neither.

Kay, the little boy whose heart turns into a block of ice, represents the human side of the troll equation. It is certainly not uncommon to be infected with an attitude that turns everything grey, or threatening. Depression is like this, but so is prejudice; fear of the other. I hate to admit I’ve been under the influence of troll thinking more than a few times in my life. If we are exceptionally lucky, we have a Gerda in our lives who will stand by us now matter how big a prick we become, someone whose love might save us from our own worst impulses.

The Snow Queen clearly still touches our hearts and our imaginations. I’ve read the theory that Hans Christen Anderson’s character of the Snow Queen, a heartless figure sitting on her throne of ice in the middle of the lake of reason, was a reaction against criticism he’d received for writing fanciful fairy tales. Writers of fantasy today still have to defend the relevance of their “fairy tales”, despite the fact the genre has become hugely popular. People who don’t “get” fantasy fail to see the truth behind the tall tales. Perhaps they have a bit of glass in their eye. Fantasy is to literature as poetry is to language, it gives us the magical ability to say things in words that can’t be said in words. And now, in the wonderful way of human creativity, the poem is being translated into dance. No matter the medium, fantasy and fairy tales let us see beyond the clouded mirrors to deep within our souls and into the souls of others, connecting us in the dreams we share.

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If you happen to be in Eugene this weekend, don’t miss the chance to check out The Snow Queen, an original ballet choreographed by Toni Pimble, original score by Kenji Bunch.

 

 

 

Our Stories Can Save Us, by Eric Witchey

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Our Stories Can Save Us, by Eric Witchey

Human survival depends on how we manage our relationship with four, fundamental variables. The variables aren’t really in dispute, but the amount of time we have in which to change our relationship to them is. Simply put, the four variables are as follows:

  1. We live in a fragile, closed system, a little blue marble called Earth.
  2. Earth has finite resources: biodiversity, air, water, minerals, fossil fuels, etc.
  3. We have unchecked population growth.
  4. We rely on growth-based economies.

Yes, yes… I know. Solar radiation enters the system. There’s some hope there. However, we aren’t making new materials. We aren’t adding iron ore to our planet. We aren’t increasing the amount of natural gas and oil in the ground. We aren’t somehow magically manufacturing more water to add to the poisoned water and water ecosystems in a way that will fundamentally change the direction of the deterioration arrow.

The four variables stand, but we argue endlessly about what we should do to lengthen the time we have before those four variables result in an extinction level crash.

Note that I say extinction level crash and not the end of the world. As my astute Physicist brother once told me, “Human beings aren’t going to end the world. We will only end ourselves. The planet was here long before we were, and it will be here long after we are gone.”

And now you’re wondering how the four variables relate to writing.

Well, it’s like this. Telling stories is an ancient tradition that goes all the way back to the beginnings of language use. We erect monkeys have always told stories. We tell them to ourselves to justify stealing bananas from one another. We tell them to our friends and family to create bonding in social systems. We tell them to one another to make sure mistakes aren’t repeated and to ensure that our tribe thrives. One of the most common themes in the stories we have told throughout time is the theme of our village being better than their village. Every hero has a nemesis.

Want to see that theme playing out in a modern social context in America? Go to any Friday or Saturday night high school football game in the country. Observe the cheering, the colors, and the parking lot fights.

Harmless, right? Maybe. The value of team sports debate isn’t what this little blog is about. The point is that the “us vs. them” story is there to see. You can even observe the symbolic battle over land resources playing out on the field.

Don’t get me wrong, here. I love a good game. That’s really not the point. The purpose and value of story is the point.

Story telling is the easiest thing we do. It is also the most complex thing we do as human beings. Putting together a solid narrative, especially on paper, has more in common with interacting wave forms on the surface of the Pacific Ocean than it does with the linear, deceptive advice given to creative writing students. We put the little black squiggles in a row, and that creates an illusion of linear activity; however, the squiggles are just the medium of transfer for the story. The story in one mind is transferred through the little black squiggles into the mind of another person. Minds, unfortunately, are not so linear. They are messy places. They are endless impulses layered and ever changing, arranging, and rearranging into patterns that somehow magically become mind—thought, personality, memory, dreams, hopes, beliefs, learning, and maybe even soul.

Okay, I’m not all that sure about the last one. I have some opinions on what soul is, but I won’t go there in this blog entry. Maybe another time.

Story is, however, the human mind generating a dream-like experience based on sensory input. No two people read the same story quite the same way. No two people write a story quite the same way. Let’s just set aside the fact that no two people have the same life experiences. That, by itself, is enough to prove the last point. However, the endless shifts in levels of neurotransmitters, the organization of dendritic networks, the infinitesimal distances between axons and dendrites, the hormonal and electrical potentials, and the endless layering of all of these things and many more means that it is impossible for each of us to experience what any other person is experiencing when we hear or read a story.

Yes, we all tell stories. We all know that stories are essential to our survival. We all know that we are alive today because someone, somewhere way back in the dim past figured out how to tell a story that included the idea that a sharp stick held at the dull end can keep you alive a little longer than no stick at all.

We told stories to keep our families alive. We told stories to keep our tribes alive. We told stories to make sure everyone in our tribe knew how to behave to ensure that we would thrive. We told stories to explain things that made us uncomfortable because worrying too much about the bright lights in the sky meant we weren’t planting and reaping and breeding. We told stories to make sure that members of our tribe didn’t kill other members of our tribe, but it was totally okay to kill members of any other tribe trying to kill our mammoths.

These stories are part of who we are. They must change if we want to survive.

Every person on Earth lives in a closed system with finite resources, unchecked population growth, and growth-based economies. Any decision, personal or political, that does not mitigate or eliminate one or more of those four variables is a tacit agreement to genocide.

Sadly, we still tell ourselves stories that reinforce tribal behaviors like breeding means healthy tribes, acquisition of resources means more for us, control of territory means we are strong, and us vs. them.

Yet, as there has always been, there is some hope because of story tellers, shamans of the written word, wizards of the wave form and the mind.

If a corporation, government, or individual is telling a story that supports the use of growth-based economy in an ever-shrinking world, they are telling a story that asks millions of people to sacrifice their futures for short-term profit. If any organization tells a tale of policy that will increase population growth without providing compensating increases in resources for the new human beings, they are telling a tale of death for others. If we see a story on the news or on our feeds and it talks of the terrible crimes of protestors attempting to stop pollution, then we are seeing mercenary story-tellers attempt to shorten the time of humanity on this little rock.

For those of us who tell stories for entertainment and edification, fiction writers, we have an obligation to create stories that become viral in a way that suggests new modes of survival.

Heroism has at times been described as the successful search for the grail, and the grail has always been associated with healing and abundance. The stories of today, no less than the stick-holding stories of ten thousand years ago, are about creating visions for survival of the tribe. The only real difference is that the tribe is larger and more complex than it has ever been. We are one tribe that spans the entire Earth.

Story telling and story receiving are more complex than the interaction of wave forms on the surface of the Pacific Ocean. However, human beings have always been built to do this amazing thing—to share tales that will help us all survive. Those of us who tell the tales must step up and tell the stories that lead the imaginations of the members of our tribe to an understanding that holding the blunt end of the new pointy stick means having the ability to embrace people who don’t, and physiologically should never be expected to, think the way we do. We must tell the tales that show that every drop of water on this planet is sacred, that every hole we dig hurts us, that every child we force into the world must be fed, and that taking in order to have more means hurting people who will, by direct causal effect, have less.

Look carefully at every story produced and presented. Find the four variables in each tale. Does that story help slow population growth? Does that story reduce our dependence on the market growth that drives economies? Does that story slow the rate of use of nonrenewable resources? Does that story open the world to distant horizons so that our system, and the minds within it, are no longer closed?

-End-

Words

Words—A meaningful unit of language sounds. By Cheryl Owen-Wilson

Of late, I have been contemplating the power of words, to an even larger degree than the fact that they consume my writing life. I particularly like the above definition of “words” and pondered if I consider each word I utter, or write as a meaningful unit? Do you? In further thinking about the use of “words”, I found I had many questions. Could answers to these questions improve my writing?

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To Express Something

Do the people who populate your stories choose their words wisely—are they a man or woman of their word—as good as their word? Or, are they someone who just blurts out what is on their mind, without thought, no matter the consequence—a person who bandies words about?

Worded Correctly

I’ve known people who sit paralyzed at the thought of stringing sentences together for fear they will portray the wrong words. Many an author has shared the horror they feel at the thought of a first draft manuscript falling into the wrong hands.

Then there are those writers who break all the rules and intentionally use words incorrectly. In my writing I use southern slang and cadence, which results in many incorrectly spelled words. Can you think of an author who uses words incorrectly?

To Provide Information

I believe this particular use of “words” is what has had me so intently contemplating the immense power of words. How important is accuracy when using “words” to provide information? Do our readers hold us responsible for said accuracy? Should they? Does it depend on the genre your writing? In fantasy, for instance, must elves always have pointy ears? Do you as a reader take the time to research the information provided to you?

To Command

In using words to command, do the words themselves have to hold an element of control? Couldn’t the intent of a command come through without the commonplace words used, by the sheer nature of a character’s personality alone?

To Promise

In romance novels the unspoken promise of the word love is always present. Then there are the many definitions for the one word—love. In your story is it romantic love, love of a child, etc.? Then there is a broken promise. The use of words to relay whether the people in your stories keep or break promises, can be used to give your readers a deeper look into their personalities.

To Spread Rumor

The use of rumor can be used to plant false information in a story, without actually lying to our readers. After all we aren’t saying it’s true or false are we?

To Elicit an Emotional Response

We as writers strive tirelessly to accomplish this particular use of the written word—to elicit a response from our readers. It is our hook. It is how we draw them in and take them on the journey of story. When you know your characters well enough to care about them, then your readers will do the same. The emotional connection must always be present.

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To Put Words in Someone’s Mouth

I’ve always enjoyed the visual of this phenomenon. In my visual, I see someone actually shoveling words, from a pile kept in a wheelbarrow, into someone’s mouth. But more importantly, wouldn’t those words then enter that person’s psyche and alter their view of the world? For instance, negative words. Let’s feed our protagonist only a negative view of their world.   So when they are finally introduced to a kind or positive word, would that not elicit a momentous emotion from them as well as your reader?

The Turn of a Good Phrase

We as writers move words about like pieces on a chessboard as we edit and re-edit our stories. We also quote other authors written words. I often wonder if the writers I quote had the same tingling sensations I receive when I know a sentence I’ve written might be quote worthy. However, if something I wrote were ever to be quoted back to me, I’m pretty sure I’d faint dead on the spot.

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Words—They have the power to topple or rebuild empires.   For the creation of story, they are the only building blocks in our procession. Through them, we can reinvent and influence worlds from past, to present, to future. What words spoken or written have most affected your lives; your writing?

 

 

Creativity and Brain Hacks, by Eric Witchey

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Eric Hooked Up and Meditating

Creativity and Brain Hacks, by Eric Witchey

A few months back, several people suggested that I write more blogs about “your brain hacks.” At the time, I found that sort of amusing because all the writers I know do the best they can with what they have. We are all born with our physiological predispositions (talent), and we all work hard to adapt body and mind to the tasks we value (skill). So, I sort of figured everyone has their own brain hacks. I still do.

Recently, I made a little speech in Eugene, Oregon about how writers can use tempo tools to influence their creative states, idea production, and writing speed. After that speech, a good friend reminded me that I had promised to write about brain hacks. So, I took a look back at my world and my experience and considered what things I had to learn to do in order to write stories.

Here’s the thing. When I teach, I can’t teach things I do but don’t know I do. I can’t teach things that come to me intuitively. I can only teach the things I had to consciously learn. Whether by luck or by some perverse curse, I had to learn a lot. Again, whether by luck or curse, I had to learn to overcome certain physiological limitation of mind and temperament. Many writers do. Mindfulness meditation has been a huge help in overcoming my personal limitations, but that’s another essay.

So, here’s a brain hack I had to learn.

Creativity is a learned skill. It is a verb: to create, created, creates, creating, will create, had created, have created, will have created.

The brain is a pattern matching and inferencing system. It recognizes patterns, cross-references them, and correlates them to experiences. The activity in the brain can be, somewhat erroneously, described as interacting ripples of potential. When rippling troughs meet peaks, they cancel out. When peaks meet peaks, they amplify. When amplified ripples reach a certain threshold, we become aware of the “thought.”

So far, so good. That’s all automagical. We don’t even know it’s going on.

However, many people, writers included, believe without consideration that if the thought they have more-or-less fits the shape of a problem they have, they are done. Sometimes, they are, but my brain was a bit bent out of shape from the start, so I had to learn to express a thought, abandon it, and find another one, and another one, and another one… I had to learn to keep finding new ideas until I found one that would work really well in text in a story that would then be interpreted by the pattern-matching inferencing system riding around in the reader’s head.

Many writers call this “finding the third alternative.” Personally, I wish I only had to find three.

Instead of the normal three, I have to find ten, twenty, fifty.

Enter a guy I’ll call Brian the Brain Guy (BBG). He’s a psychologist who hooked me up to an electroencephalograph in order to study the ripples in the brain during creative activity. I won’t go into the tech or what happened, but I will say that it caused me to look at my creativity tool, my brain, differently than I had. I stopped thinking of it as a piece of standard equipment that either worked or didn’t, and I started looking at it as a tool that could be modified, sharpened, and improved. I learned that it could be trained.

So, I started ringing a bell every time I began writing. That is, I started to type, then I rang the meditation chime, then I continued typing. I typed as fast as I could, and I worked furiously until I fell into that magical trance of creativity called a flow state.

Fast forward a few years, and my brain has been trained to enter flow state when I ring a bell.

Here’s another hack.

I took a page out of one of my teacher’s playbooks and started using a metronome during brainstorming sessions. I start it slow, and I have to come up with an unjudged new idea for each tock of the metronome (an app on my phone now). Then, I increase the tempo. Automatically, the brain that has been delivering an idea per tock at slow speeds ramps itself up to present new ideas at the new pace. For the brain geeks who want to try this, I start out at a tock every ten seconds: six per minute. My fingers can’t keep up anymore at about fifteen per minute. My brain is willing, but my fingers are not fast enough on the keys. Considering that my original, uninfluenced pace was about one new idea per fifteen minutes (and sometimes per week), that’s a huge improvement.

Because when BBG had me hooked up he was observing and measuring particular wave forms, I started paying attention to biofeedback tools for inducing and maintaining those wave forms. This was particularly important to me because it helped me reduce the amount of medication I needed in order to manage the bent brain problems I mentioned above. Back then, it was hard to find such tools. Now, they are freely available on the internet. Here’s a link to one such “entrainment video” I use. Try it. Relax. Just let it run quietly while you are creating.

Don’t let it run while you are editing. Different brain states. Oh, and run it very quietly. The brain doesn’t need it to be loud. In fact, the brain will pick up on it even if you think you can’t hear it. I’m running it right now at volume 1 on my headphones. I have to concentrate on it in order to hear it.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EbU8rndchsk

Caveat: Some people experience mild dizziness the first few times they listen to a recording like this one.

Finally, I will give away the biggest, best brain hack I have ever learned.

Intuitive writing comes from the subconscious mind. It flows effortlessly through the fingers to the screen or page. It requires no thought, and when we come up for air from successful, intuitive sessions, we have no sense that time has passed.

Conscious writing requires self-aware thought, planning, execution, and repetition. We know we are doing what we are doing, and time drags out like the slow-motion shootout in the Matrix.

Before I give you the big brain hack, I want to say something important. In my personal experience, there is no quality difference between the two modes of production. Conscious, intuitive, or mixed, each has a distinctive, physiological feel. The results of the different creative modes are different in content. However, my records show that, at least for me, the revision time needed to take raw text to a sold story is exactly the same either way. The techniques applied are a bit different, but that’s all.

Okay, here’s the big brain hack.

The subconscious makes use of everything we are exposed to. EVERY FREAKING THING.

The more we consciously understand writing and creativity, the more the subconscious has to work with. People who avoid reading about writing, reading other writers, or studying creativity are limiting the raw materials available to the subconscious. The more we expose ourselves to grammar, punctuation, meta-descriptions of story, methods, processes, and techniques, the more likely those skills are to manifest in our flow state sessions—drawn straight up from the subconscious mind.

My best advice to the writers I meet at the conferences, seminars, and lectures I do is to constantly learn about the craft of writing. Immerse yourself in it. Practice techniques until they become part of the deep self from which dreams flow. Then, let it flow!

-End-

Eric’s Upcoming Speaking Events:

Is Writing Fun?

By Elizabeth Engstrom

Is Writing Fun?

Well, yes. And no.

Writing is fun when I’m engaged in a project that I’m excited about, when the words flow, the characters come alive, I have time and solitude in which to immerse, and the muse and I are aligned as one.

Writing is not fun when there are too many distractions, when the plot holes develop, when I’m tired and the words are stuck like molasses in my psyche, when I feel like everything worthwhile has already been written, when I feel like a fraud and/or incompetent, and when I feel all that pressure to compete in the marketplace.

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On a panel last April I was asked: “Will you ever retire from writing?” I’m sorry I gave the answer I did. I cited Chuck Barris of “Gong Show” fame, who said that when he quit the show he was going to move to the south of France and write books nobody would read.  That sounded glorious to me at the time, as I was struggling with editors, publishers, agents, marketing, and trying to write all at the same time. But I didn’t speak very eloquently about why that quote stuck with me.

What I should have said is: Do retired tennis players still play tennis?

Today I have fifteen books in print and am nearing the end of my writing career. I have the luxury of not worrying about much on a professional level. I write what I write. I abandon projects with abandon. I don’t cater to deadlines or others’ expectations. I don’t read my reviews (never have), and I don’t care what other people think of me or my work.

But it hasn’t always been this way. For decades, I struggled in the industry like everybody else.

Today, writing is fun for me. I’m working on a project now that makes me laugh out loud when I write, and at the end of the day I am wrung out and can’t wait to get back to it again tomorrow. There is no bleeding into the keyboard. There is no howling angst. I am not pouring my heart and soul into this work, I am playing, joyfully, with the talent I have been given, and I love it.

Will this project be successful? It already is.

So. What about you? Is writing fun?