Finding Pine Martens, by Eric Witchey

Which way is up, says the pine marten

Finding Pine Martens, by Eric Witchey

 

This is text. As writers, we manipulate text. We fiddle it. We rearrange it. We edit it. We proofread it. We test it and rearrange it again. We do this until we believe that the text matches the story living in our hearts and minds.

While engaged in this nearly obsessive focus on forcing the text to match up with the story, we sometimes forget why we engage in this insane effort to make the little black squiggles on a contrasting background line up in pleasing orders.

We do it to cause an expansive, revelatory emotional experience in the mind and heart of the reader.

Consequently, I think of myself as a reader advocate. I am not a writer advocate, nor am I an agent advocate, an editor advocate, a market advocate, a sell it to New York advocate, or a hit the Amazon number one slot in my sub-subgenre advocate.

As a reader advocate, I don’t give a rat’s ass if the story matches my vision. I only care whether the story causes the reader to have a vision and an experience that is emotionally powerful and satisfying to them—to that individual reader—to each individual reader.

As a writer and human being, that means that I am willing to give up my vision if I can see a path through the story that will give the reader a better experience. It means that sometimes the patterns of text that interact to allow the reader’s possible extracted or projected meanings can be manipulated in ways that allow the reader to experience something I did not plan but that I can bring to light.

It’s like the moment when we are looking for an eagle high in the canopy of the Northwest rain forest. We peer upward into the tangled canopy and only see the crossing of the branches, the fluttering of leaves, the intermittent release of rays of sunlight through the foliage… Then, as if the entire moment were structured to give us the gift of a vision, our minds resolve a pattern—the voracious elfin face of a pine marten peering down at us from the crook between two branches. Certainly, we weren’t looking for a pine marten. In fact, we hadn’t considered at all that we might see a pine marten because they are so rare and so elusive. However, that moment sweeps away all thought of an eagle because the weasel-cat-squirrel face of the pine marten is so much more immediately interesting and exciting.

Working with the patterns of text and the minds of readers who will interpret those patterns requires more than an understanding of grammar, punctuation, and the linear events of the story we plan to tell. It requires the mental agility to know when the patterns that we are creating can suddenly reveal a pine marten instead of the eagle we planned on. It requires a willingness to look at what is possible and release what is intended. It also requires the ability to reinterpret all of what has been done in favor of new, richer possibilities.

When I was in grade school, I became angry at a girl who often wore dirty clothes to school. She smelled funny. She always seemed dull and stupid. I tried to tell my father how stupid she was and how wrong it was for her to be in my class. My father became quite angry. He took me by the shoulders, knelt, made direct eye contact, and almost whispered these words: “Eric, righteousness is a crutch you use to avoid understanding.”

All thanks to my father for that moment of insight and understanding. My father was a reader advocate. No. Not quite. He wasn’t a writer, but he was a perceiver advocate. He wanted me to see more complex patterns of truth than my imposed judgments and expectations allowed. He wanted me to see facets and reflections and possibilities instead of falling back on small-minded, rigid patterns of righteousness. He was a good man, my father.

I did not understand that I had been looking for an eagle instead of seeing that the girl was a pine marten. I did not understand that she was from a very poor family—poor because their father had been taken from the family livelihood in the steel mill and then from the family by cancer, poor because they had lost their health insurance, because the widowed mother was very sick with what we all now think of as trauma-induced depression. I didn’t understand that the girl’s uncle had come to live with and help them and liked to have his niece sit on his lap a little too much. I didn’t understand that the only clothes the girl had were from their church charity bins. I didn’t want to understand. I wanted the world to fit my desires, expectations, and ideals. More than that, I wanted the girl to be lower in some way than me.

She was certainly not an eagle. Yet, she was the pine marten.

By releasing my righteousness, my desire to have her conform to my desire for simple, easily understood and imposed hierarchy and correctness, I came to understand the much more complex, more powerful story of her family and its universal connection to the struggle of all families.

Our stories are often like that. In our minds, our stories are clean and simple. We fiddle the text. We fix the text in an endless effort to get them to conform to our expectations, our sense of how they should be—of how they must be if we want to sell them. However, when we release our sense of what the story should be, we discover that what could be is much more wonderful and powerful.

Every story is a long line of little black squiggles in a row. That’s all it is. We, as creators, fiddle and fix and rearrange the squiggles. We, as human beings, can sometimes release our righteousness and step back and see what is possible. Sometimes, just every so often, we can stop looking for the eagle just long enough to see the pine marten and realize that our simplistic sense of what should be is the righteous crutch we use to avoid understanding the possible—the deeper, richer, more powerful truths that our readers could pull from our text, could find in our patterns, or could bring from their experiences and project into our words.

End

Trust the Path

By Cynthia Ray

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“As I looked back at the mountains and forest that had just held me in their jaws I realized I’d been given a gift with that phrase, Trust the Path, and I pass it on to you. It means that when you are lost and confused, you can trust the journey that you have chosen, or that has chosen you. It means others have been on the journey before you, the writer’s journey, the storyteller’s journey. You’re not the first; you’re not the last. Your experience of it is unique, your viewpoint has value, but you’re also part of something, a long tradition that stretches back to the very beginnings of our race. The journey has its own wisdom, the story know the way. Trust the journey. Trust the story.   Trust the Path.” Christopher Vogel from the Writers Journey

Vogels story begins with a hike that goes terribly wrong.  He becomes lost and as dusk descends, he panics.  At the point where he was ready to give up, exhausted, hungry and shivering, a voice whispered to him, “Trust the Path.” He looked around, seeking that path, but found nothing. He questioned that voice, but he looked down and noticed a line of ants moving in the grass. He followed the ants path, which eventually led to a narrow deer path, which, in turn, led to another, wider logging trail, which led to a road which led to the highway.

If he had dismissed the voice as foolish, not logical or unrealistic, he would have remained lost in the woods, and possibly died there. How often do we dismiss our own still, small voice of guidance? It whispers, or shouts, or nudges, but we have to be willing to trust ourselves.

The good news is, that no matter how deaf we may have been, or how dismissive in the past, the voice keeps whispering and once we start tuning in to it, it rewards us with even more wisdom. It is a beautiful gift that every single person has access to, if we will only trust it.

Trusting ourselves and listening to that voice, leads to surprising places that we would have never found with our logical, analytic minds. It can be the scariest thing in the world, but it is the only thing that can save us–it leads us out of the mire, or to the heart of our story, or at least to the next step of the journey, one small step at a time.

Trust the Path. Trust YOUR Path.

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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 a Sentence a Story?

Is a Sentence a Story?
By Cynthia Ray

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It is said that Hemingway once wrote a story in just six words (“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”) and called it his best work.

There are contests and websites dedicated to the one sentence “story”. Is one sentence a story? A haiku perhaps, an engaging thought or intriguing question, but is it a bona-fide story?

There are anthologies of 55 word stories, and books of 500-word fiction. They are interesting, artistic and sometimes haunting and beautiful, but when I  settle in on a rainy Saturday afternoon with a good book, I turn to longer, in depth, even rambling books, trilogies and Russian novels.

Is the one sentence story a sign that our attention span as readers has shortened, or have we simply added and expanded to the craft, playing with words in new and fun ways?

In my writing group, I got feedback on the length of my stories, and it reminded me of the fable of the three bears. Some were toooo long, some were tooooo short, and a few were just right, and it made me ask, “Is there a perfect length for a story?”

Some short stories were perfect in their 500-word essence. Others required 10,000 words just to get started. It made me think of the creative process; when I start a story, I don’t know how long it will be. I’ve started out to write a novel and ended up with a 3000-word short story, and I’ve started with a short story that turned into a much longer project.

In the end, word count is just another aspect of story telling, to be considered along with tone, theme, conflict, plot, characters and everything else. It is not that important to focus on, except when we don’t get it right. A story that is too long or short can leave your reader feeling bored, or unsatisfied, without knowing why.

As Neil Gaman said:

writing-quote

Lying Fallow, Going Wild and Writing in the Nude

By Cynthia Ray

Last week in her post, Liz talked about her literary compost pile. It is summer, after all, so I was inspired to continue with the gardening theme. The principles of fallowness and wildness can be applied to our creative lives.

fallow quote

Before the advent of chemical fertilizers, farmers would rotate crops to balance the nutrients in the soil, leaving some fields fallow for a season. Leaving fields fallow meant that nothing was planted there for the entire growing season. This allowed the soil to rebuild itself, and rest. This thousands of year old process continues to this day in many parts of the world, because it works.

Just doing nothing can be incredibly valuable. Have you ever tried to do nothing? No TV, no book, no writing, just sitting and doing nothing? It’s an under-utilized non-activity. It is not even trying to be “mindful”. It is just being.   How long can you do nothing? Fallowness, for me also meant taking a break from plowing the same old fields over and over again. I had to give up some non-productive, obsessive habits that depleted my creativity and time.

Giving up my habit of editing my manuscript before I had even got to the end of the first page, stopping at the first paragraph and going back over every word. I forced myself to just leave it be, and keep writing.   Not an easy task but a freeing one. It also meant for me to take more breaks, walk in the woods, dig in the yard and then come back to my project renewed.   Tearing myself away from a computer screen and immersing myself in nature is how I re-charge and give my brain a break.

wildflowers

Another version of this ‘leave it be’ approach requires letting a portion of your yard or garden go to seed, creating a non-domesticated space. This small wild area enables natural ecosystems to develop, attracting butterflies, birds and other creatures to abide there.  It can replenish and rejuvenate the soil/soul.

Letting ourselves be non-domesticated for a while, allows the wild to show its face. How could I be a bit wild? I experimented with writing in the nude. I thought it would be a way to symbollicaly drop pretense, and get to the heart of things. Later, I found out that this is not uncommon. A web search turned up several authors that used the technique:

  • When Victor Hugo, the famous author of Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, ran into a writer’s block, he concocted a unique scheme to force himself to write: he had his servant take all of his clothes away for the day and leave his own nude self with only pen and paper, so he’d have nothing to do but sit down and write.
  • DH Lawrence [who wrote the controversial (and censored) erotic book Lady Chatterley’s Lover, liked to climb mulberry trees, in the nude, before coming down to write.
  • Ernest Hemingway did not only write A Farewell to Arms, he also said farewell to clothes! Hemingway wrote nude, standing up, with his typewriter about waist level.
  • Benjamin Franklin also liked to take “air baths,” where he sit around naked in a cold room for an hour or so while he wrote.
  • Mystery writer Agatha Christie liked to write anywhere, including in the bathtub!

So drop those habits along with your clothes, sit around and do nothing for awhile and enjoy the rest of the summer!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Space Between

By Cynthia Ray

I’ve been exploring the space between things over the last few months, in my life and in my art. It all began with Viktor Frankl. In Mans Search for Meaning, he says, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Frankl.jpgWhat he said about the space between stimulus and response fascinated me, because our words and actions seem so automatic, I couldn’t imagine having that much self control, so I spent time observing, trying to find that space. After a while, I was able to slow down enough to feel the space between, but not enough to change or stop my response. I kept at it, and eventually, after much practice, I was able to slow down even further, and could remain poised there, between the catalyst and my reaction, long enough to choose a new and different response than I had automatically followed in the past. It’s an exhilarating and powerful tool, but like anything, requires practice.

But the space between things is much more than the space between stimulus and response. All of art is about the space between. Where things are placed, how far they are from each other in relationship to each other in a painting is more than just perspective. It is balance between what is and what is not. Music is the space between notes. If that is true, then writing is the space between the words.

space between notes

The Space Between Words: The Origins of Silent Reading by Paul Saenger talks about how the spaces between the words were consciously created to move us from oral to a written tradition. We take all of that for granted now, but it was not always so.

He says, “Over the course of the nine centuries following Rome’s fall, the task of separating the words in continuous written text, which for half a millennium had been a function of the individual reader’s mind and voice, became instead a labor of professional readers and scribes. The separation of words (and thus silent reading) originated in manuscripts copied by Irish scribes in the seventh and eighth centuries but spread to the European continent only in the late tenth century.” This resulted in the spread of reading and education among the common people, not just the elite.

Not only does the space between words give order to the story, and make it possible to find the story in the words, but those spaces also carry deep meaning and impact. What is happening in dialogue? What is not said? Sometimes what is not said is far more powerful than what is said and carries a message that can break us apart.  Its not the words that are said, but the ones that are not.  Sometimes the best dialogue is not dialogue.

I started watching what my characters were doing in the space between their actions, in the space between their dialogue, in the space between the catalyst and their response. It is a wonderful place to explore interaction, feeling and nuances.  Looking at what is not, rather than what is, or at what is between what is and what is not.

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If we slow down and take the time to pay attention to that which is hidden right in front of us, we can find those vast in-between spaces in ourselves and the universe we live in to inform our relationships, our lives and our art.

In the space between

the in breath

and the out breath

lie all the worlds

In the place

between heartbeats

all the worlds

tumble to silence

between one thought

and the next

stillness extends out into the universe

                                       C. Ray

Story Shaman’s Gift, by Eric Witchey

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Source: iStockPhoto, imgorthand.

The Story Shaman’s Gift, by Eric Witchey

Today, I received a letter from a friend, occasional student, and author. She knows who she is, and I thank her for reminding me of something very important. Our work as writers—our learning, stories, and teaching —are gifts to our readers, to our culture, and to other writers.

Once upon a time, I felt the need to thank one of my author heroes. In my formative years, and later as an adult learning to write, I lived in his stories for many hundreds of hours. Realizing that he was aging and had been very important to my growth as a human being and writer, I decided to send him a thank you note in which I described how I used to hide beneath the blankets of my bed on thunder-rattled nights in Northern Ohio. My military flashlight had a red filter to keep the enemy from seeing me while I read books in the dark. The enemy was my father, who would surely make me go to sleep rather than let me stay up reading until the wee hours. Thunder rattled the windows. Lightning turned my blankets into radiation shielding flashing with the glow of solar storms trying to penetrate my protections. For hours and hours at a time, I lived in the futures of my hero.

Later in life, I studied what he did and how he did it in hopes that one or more of my stories would transport a reader into new worlds in the same way. Later still, when my personal obsession with how stories work in the mind of the reader had fully matured into a need to teach useful craft skills, I returned to his work as an analyst.

When I wrote the letter, I just wanted to express my gratitude. I did not expect him to write back.

Ray Bradbury did write back, and he said two very important things to me. In his exact words, he said:

“When I was your age (mid-40s then), I had yet to write a decent poem or an essay I much cared for. Also I’d never written a play that I enjoyed. But in the following years I finally began to write some poems I liked, some essays, and some plays that were finally produced. It’s a matter of time and love.”

In my mind and heart, I heard:

We learn the craft of telling the tale of our world and the people in it every day until we die, and we give from our hearts until they stop. That is the path of the story shaman.

But, I forget.

Things eat at the soul: fifty rejections between sales, an agent who lied and killed deals, an ego-petty editor who went out of her way to tell me she tossed my requested manuscript in the garbage because she “couldn’t take all the manuscripts to her new office,” another story pirated, a family member dismissing writing as meaningless, another bill that means more time in corporate America, writing students who are proud of having never read a novel, petty writer pissing contests, and an endless march of swirling, chaotic, global self-destructive stupidity.

The little boy with the flashlight, Fahrenheit 451, The Illustrated Man, and The Martian Chronicles becomes more and more distant in heart and mind. The value of the life path of tales and teaching becomes hidden beneath ultimately meaningless, superficial modern tugs, tears, and turmoil.

Luckily, I framed that letter from Ray and put it on my office wall. Luckily, I had the father I had.

You see, many years after I hid under the covers reading with a flashlight, I came back home to Ohio and sat sipping scotch with my father. At the time, I didn’t know he would soon die. What I knew was that I loved him and we were having a moment. Thirty-something me confessed my nocturnal transgressions with Mr. Bradbury and others. Fifty-something him laughed and told me that he had known.

Who knew that a red-filtered flashlight made the covers glow from the inside?

He told me that as long as I was reading, he let me stay up as late as I wanted. If I was doing anything else, he made me go to sleep.

For a while, I sat quietly and considered this revelation. Finally, I asked him about school and how tired I must have been after reading all night.

He said, “Do you remember what you did during your days at school?”

“Not really,” I said. “I remember some stuff.”

“Do you remember the stories you read?”

“Every. Single. One.”

He nodded, smiled, and sipped his scotch.

Mind blown. Love. Gratitude. Tears.

This morning, facing this blog, in which I planned to write some intellectual drivel about figure ground recognition and its role in implication in description, I was feeling some resentment because it was interfering with my need to finish the final proofreading and revision of a long, long overdue novel, which I am pretty sure, in spite of kind assurances from my editor, is the worst story I have ever written and which I am terrified to let loose in the world. So, the child within was wrapped in a world-weary adult shell wrapped in depression wrapped in resentment covering fear. My steaming cup of coffee was the only bit of joy in my habitual, daily trudge up to my office.

Entering the office, I glanced at Ray’s letter on the wall. Still there. No change. Yeah. Whatever.

I read emails. Delete. Delete. Block. Block. Delete.

A note of gratitude for my work and help. Huh. Cool.

Okay, my morning suddenly contained two tiny bits of joy—cup of coffee and kind note from an author. I actually smiled. In fact, I got up and pulled down Ray’s letter for a read.

Ray was about love. He was about giving love through story to the world.

In the face of the crazy of the world, the crazy of damaged lives and twisted socialization, the crazy of our demons and destructive cultural constructs, writers tell stories. We write essays. We write poems. It’s about love. It’s about giving the gift of self and perspective to a father who knows the value of a novel, to a troubled child who lives in a wool radiation dome protected from a storm for one night, and to a world in desperate need of empathy and long-term perspective.

From the heart to the heart through words is the path of the story shaman.

Today, I am grateful for my life and all the people in it. Today, I will step through my darkness and arrange the little black squiggles on the white background in hopes that one person out there in our stormy night world has a red-filtered flashlight, a loving father, and an imagination that might help heal the world.

-End-