Three Lessons in Writing from a Blind Dog

GoldenPupFace

(Image Source: By Golden Trvs Gol twister –
Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18521767)

Three Lessons in Writing from a Blind Dog

Eric Witchey

Today, I give thanks for the lessons of a blind dog named Bud.

For eleven years of my life, I was lucky enough to be the companion of a blind golden retriever named Bud. He was a smart dog—a really smart dog. One of the reasons I picked him out of the litter was that I watched him develop. The dogs were boarded where I was living, so I knew him from birth. He was the first to figure out how to get out of the birthing kennel on his own. He was the first to figure out how to get back in to get a free meal from his mother when all the pups were out romping. He was the first of the pups to learn to come when called by name.

We became inseperable.

When he went blind from progressive retinal atrophy at about two years old, I was devestated. I thought my little buddy, Bud, was going to have to be put down. The breeder recommended it. My vet recommended it. My friends told me he would be too hard to care for.

I couldn’t do it. I kept him.

Thank God.

Bud taught me a lot about writing. He wasn’t much of a writer himself, but he was wise in the ways of creativity.

For example, he figured out that if he wanted to go for a run, he didn’t have to wait for me to take him on a harness. He walked around the back yard until he found the fence corner, walked some more until he found another fence corner, and slowly but very methodically triangulated on the center of the yard. Once he had found center, he began to walk in a circle around that center point.

I know. This sounds quite unbelievable, and I have to say that the first time I saw him do it, I was shocked. In fact, I thought maybe something else was wrong with him. He walked in a circle for a little bit. Then, he expanded the circle and broke into a trot. Finally, he expanded it a little more and ran full-tilt-boogy around and around and around the yard. He ran full out like he was wearing his napkin, carrying a knife and fork, and chasing a road runner.

This blind race would go on for a while, and with each lap around his running circle, the center of the cirlce would shift ever so slightly. Little-by-little, the center would shift until Bud the Blind Dog ran at full speed into the fence that bounded the yard. After he hit the fence, he stopped running, rested a bit, found his corners, went to the center of the yard, and started again.

Usually, he’d hit the fence a glancing blow and stop immediately running. Occassionally, he’d hit nearly head-on. Once, he ended up with a bloody nose and a cut on his cheek.

My friends suggested I tether him. My vet still thought I should put him down. Still a bit worried he was maybe a bit sick in the brain, I watched for a while to see what the hell he was about.

I decided he was fine when I realized that Bud the Blind Dog did this every day that we lived in that house with that yard.

I learned my first writing lesson from watching him run. Even though he couldn’t see where he was going, he could still run like the wind. When you he hit the fence, he returned to the center and started again. I also noticed that even when he was running in circles, he was actually covering different ground with each lap.

At another house we lived in, I came home one day and discovered that my helpless blind dog had climbed the willow tree in the back yard.

Yes, really.

He didn’t climb high or far, but he was up past the second split and out on a foot-thick horizontal limb nearly five feet off the ground. There, he stood, nose high, sniffing the breeze. There, he stayed for some time. Initially, I thought I should go save him, but some impulse held me back. Again, I watched. He did not seem to be distressed at all. In fact, his tail was high and wagging. Eventually, he carefully and slowly backed up along the limb and tried to back down past the place where the branch joined the trunk and down to the first split of the trunk. The effect was less than graceful. I ran to help, but before I got there, he slid, scrabbled, and fell to the yard below. He jumped up, wagged his tail, and trotted off across the yard.

I remember thinking that he had gotten up there accidentally and it wouldn’t happen again, but it did. A few days later, I watched him nose around the base of the tree, move back a bit, and bolt up to the first split and right on up past it to the second. He had a little trouble getting around and onto the limb he seemed to like, but he managed it like he had done it a hundred times.

Watching him, I realized had indeed practiced this bit of doggy gymnastics. It wasn’t accidental. It wasn’t random. He knew exactly what he was doing, and he knew why.

I did not, but I decided I didn’t need to know his reasons. He seemed very happy up on that limb. My best guess is that he could get his nose into the breeze better from that position, and he liked to smell the world beyond the yard. Mind you, I’m just guessing.

From his tree climbing, I learned that things that are supposed to be impossible are sometimes the best things to do because they let us find new perspectives. Even if doing them is a little painful when we have to back down or move forward, they can still be worth doing because they expand the edges of the world we live in. I also learned that practicing technique eventually leads to the ability to climb trees we can’t even see.

The third lesson, but certainly not the last, I learned from my blind dog was actually a lesson I learned from two dogs. The group of friends I hung out with during that time included a whole pack of various dogs. One was a young yellow lab named Corey. Corey and Bud were good friends. When the whole crew got together, we would put all the dogs out in the fenced yard to play. At supper time, we would call them all in through the back garage door. However, the rule was that no dog got fed until all the other dogs were in and sitting in their places.

Normally, this would be fine. However, Bud the Blind Dog had a little trouble finding the back door. The other dogs all came in and lined up, but they had to wait for Bud to fumble his way to the garage wall and nose his way along to the open door.

Now, I don’t know if Corey was naturally kind and helpful or just hungry and impatient, but I have good reason to believe the former rather than the latter. Anyway, Corey figured out that if she went and found Bud, gently took his ear or his scruff in her mouth, and tugged at him, he would follow her.

We would call the dogs. Corey, normally very obedient, wouldn’t come. Instead, she’d go find Bud, grab his scruff, and tug him to door, through, and up to his place next to the food bowl. Then, all the dogs could eat.

Bud seemed truley grareful, and the two dogs developed a lot of trust and acceptance of one another. Corey was the first self-trained dog’s seeing eye dog I ever met. She helped Bud find food, helped him find water, ran in circles with him sometimes, and even blocked his impact on the fence. She helped him hike with us, and she made sure she always knew where he was when we were in the woods.

From Bud and Corey I learned that sometimes, we need someone we trust to bite us on the neck and pull us through doors we can’t see if we want to succeed.

Looking back over the years, these three lessons have served me well. I have learned to run fast and hard even when I can’t see where I’m going. I’ve learned that when I hit the fences of life, I only need to rest a few minutes before finding my center and starting again. I have learned that doing what other people think is impossible lets me rise high enough above normal to experience new smells, smells that help me live life more fully. The new perspectives have been worth the bumps and scrapes and practice it took to perfect the techniques needed to climb. Perhaps most important of all and most difficult for me, I have learned the importance of trusting a few other dogs to see well and to help me find and move through doors I need but cannot see.

-End-

The Because-Because of Character Desire, by Eric Witchey

Tennis PlayerThe Because-Because of Character Desire, by Eric Witchey

The four-day 2017 Willamette Writers Conference was last weekend.

Don’t worry. This isn’t a conference recap essay. It’s a craft essay.

Still, I experienced a lot of things in a very short period of time, so it influences my thinking on craft today. Two things I experienced are worthy of note in this little essay. First is my time with the Young Willamette Writers. Larry Brooks and I spent a lunch with the up-and-coming kids nurtured by Teresa Klepinger and the Young Willamette Writers’ crew of kind mentors. The kids’ ages ranged from 9 to 15 or so, and they are pure hearts made of equal parts imagination and sponge. Second is the sad death of the dolphin Rinaldo that was part of the discoveries we made during the Write a Story Now group brainstorm and story development class I taught on Sunday.

Yes, these things are related.

Here’s how. In both situations I found myself on the verge of describing a little considered but terribly important aspect of story craft—characterization in particular. I call it the because-because technique. In both cases, time ran out. I walked away from the sessions feeling like I cheated my clients.

Many fiction writers, and certainly most selling writers, know that every character on stage at a given moment has an agenda they are trying to execute. How they execute their agenda “shows” the reader who they are. This is at the heart and soul of the vague and nearly useless writer instruction to “show, don’t tell.” God, I wish I had a dime for every emotionally empty adjective and concrete detail an aspiring writer put on the page and made me read.

Example:

She sat on the hot, beige vinyl of her twenty-year old, silver Toyota Camry. Squirming to keep her cheek sweat from staining her white tennis shorts and sticking her to the seat, she slipped the key into the ignition and twisted. The starter clicked twice then pretended it hadn’t noticed her effort to start the car.

The old adage (show, don’t tell) biases the aspirant in favor of describing the perspirant, her seats, her shorts, her car, etc. She does have an agenda. Here, she wants to start the car. That’s her scene agenda, and that’s what I’m writing about in this essay.

In both the class and the meeting with the kids, we talked about agendas. We talked about how they bring character to life by creating opportunity for the character to demonstrate who they are by taking action on their own behalf. We talked about how opposition of environment (the heat and the starter) can force the character to demonstrate resourcefulness, experience, and a level of desire. Opposition by another character does the same and adds another agenda and personality to the mix. Opposition by internal moral and psychological forces also places the character in a position where they must demonstrate who they are. In the Story Now class, we even talked a little bit about how changes in tactics can allow the reader to feel and internalize character personality.

What we didn’t talk about is how every character on stage has a because-because.

Example:

She wants to start her car because she wants to get away from the tennis pro because she loves her husband and doesn’t want any rumors even though she hasn’t done anything wrong.

The purpose of the because-because is expanding the frame of reference for personal agenda two levels in order to allow for more complex and plausible execution of agenda in scene. It also allows the writer to connect character to risks, stakes, and consequences in the mind of the reader by making behavior specific in ways that imply psychological underpinning motivations that may or may not be explicitly stated.

And every character has a because-because. Even the ball boy has a because-because.

Example:

The tennis pro wants to bed the first character because he is running a blackmail/web porn site because he wants a new tattoo that will mark him as a captain in the Russian mafia on American soil.

The groundskeeper wants to reorganize his shed because he believes that having everything in order helps him care for his golf course because he believes a true groundskeeper’s soul is connected to the land he cares for.

The club manager wants to get a reporter off his property because he wants to keep the respect of his corrupt, high-end clients because he is skimming a percentage of dues into offshore accounts he’ll use to be rid of those assholes once and for all when he disappears at the end of the year.

The reporter wants to interview the club manager for a puff piece in the Sunday Supplement because she wants to investigate the club members for corruption because she wants a breakthrough story that will place her name prominently in the history of journalism.

You get the idea, I hope.

Now, a byproduct of because-because agendas is that the writer can tweak them around to make them increasingly about the psychology and sociology of the character. Here’s a rewrite in that direction for The Ball Boy:

The ball boy wants to give her a new can of club logo complimentary balls because he wants his boss’s respect and a raise because he wants to shake off the stigma of his family history by looking worthy to be on a date with the first character’s teenage daughter.

The more the because-because is grounded in character psyche, the more powerful the interactions between the characters becomes. Here’s a rewrite of our first character’s because-because:

She wants to start her car because she wants to escape the tawdry advances of the tennis pro because she loves her husband and protects his reputation from rumors because she wants him to have a model wife for his developing political career.

Now, she has three becauses and is getting more interesting because we want her to escape because we want her to develop a spine and aspire to be more than a mere political symbol.

Each because, if it is connected to character psychology, also connects to reader interest.

Given all these becauses, the “showing” of the first paragraph and subsequent paragraphs change radically because behavior becomes more important and adjectives and concrete details only have value relative to character behavior and motivations.

Squirming on the Camry’s hot vinyl to keep her cheek sweat from staining her white tennis shorts or sticking her to the seat, she ducked low to hide under the dash, slipped the key into the ignition, and twisted. The starter clicked twice then pretended it hadn’t noticed the key. She let go of the key and pumped the accelerator with her hand.

A metallic tap on her window startled her. She ducked lower and twisted again. Two clicks.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

Trapped, she sat up and reflexively composed herself by checking her melting makeup in the rear-view before powering down her window. Of course, the window works. She sighed and turned to face her captor while already planning to use the broken car and calls to mechanics to keep him at bay.

The face at her window confused her. The hard angles and piercing gray eyes she expected had been replaced by the full, youthful cheeks and soft green eyes of the ball boy, Dennis.

She searched the parking lot for Valentine, her lascivious tennis instructor. The only other people in the lot were Staniss Cavendish, the club manager, and a pert, bouncy redhead millennial who seemed to be in his face about something. Stan with a girl half his age didn’t surprise her. It should have, but it didn’t.

“For you, Ma’am.” Dennis held up a clear plastic can of tennis balls.

Confused, she focused on his earnest, freckled face and dimples. He was such a cute boy. Hard working and cute. If she had been twenty years younger…

Well, that was not a thought to finish. He was what? Seventeen, maybe. A year older than Laurel? That was just the kind of thing she was trying to avoid. She smiled and said, “…”

I suppose I could write the scene for you, but I’d really rather you write the scene in order to test the concept. All the players are available. Four are on stage. They all have their agendas. They all have at least a because-because.

If I’m not mistaken, you are already visualizing the scene that will play out. If you do write the scene, drop me a line and let me know how the exercise goes.

Hopefully, I have now made up for having failed my students at the conference.

Here’s one last thought about the nature of because-because. It doesn’t stay the same. It just gives depth to the scene. Once the scene climaxes, new becauses may or may not come into being. To get the full power of because-because thinking, the writer will need to connect the becauses to the stress the scene causes on the character’s Irreconcilable Self. Sadly, that’s another essay.

I’ll be teaching this technique and many others in a four-week Saturday novel seminar in September. The class is offered by WordCrafters in Eugene. Here’s the link to registration.

http://wordcraftersineugene.org/classes/fiction-fluency-seminars-with-eric-witchey/

Luck and skill to all who write and send.

Warning: Any product advertisements that appear with this post were NOT authorized or endorsed by me in any way.

Burn the Scarecrow to Keep the Reader Awake All Night

scarecrow on fire(image source sanniely istockphoto)

Burn the Scarecrow to Keep the Reader Awake All Night

by Eric Witchey

I write fiction, and I teach fiction writers. In fact, I teach a lot. One of the recurring frustrations I have is that students talk about their long-form manuscripts under development in terms of chapters.

“Well, Chapter 7 is about how she stands up to the bully in her gym class…”

As a teacher, I have two problems with statements like this. First, it is an event-driven description of the story content. That’s a topic for another time. Second, and this is the point today, the student is describing their story in terms of chapters rather than dramatics.

Chapters aren’t really part of the development of a story. They are part of the final polish, and a sharp writer will use them for pacing by placing the chapter breaks carefully at spots that will force the reader to keep reading.

Given the student’s desire to improve by discussing their story and the above statement, the frustrated teacher me must start asking a long string of questions about character, premise, psychology, sociology, emotional arcs, intermediate emotional states, opposition of will, and on and on and on in order to figure out what dramatic story elements are in play at the moment under discussion.

So, this essay is a bit of self-defense. While it doesn’t describe the myriad issues implied or named above, it does take a look at just exactly what chapter breaks do.

Writers who write enough come to realize that the dramatic scene is the building block of all stories. I’m not going to go into all the variants and exceptions here because that’s not what this essay is about. Rather, I’m going to talk about how story questions and chapter placement influence the reader’s immersion and need to keep reading.

Before I go there, I want to define what I said above. A classic, dramatic scene transforms character emotion through conflict. The Point of View Character (POVC) or Main Character (MC) enter the scene carrying an emotional state and a personal agenda of some kind. Note that I said “or.” The POVC may or may not also be the MC. That’s a topic for another day, but think in terms of the narrative difference between Hunger Games and Sherlock Holmes. Hunger Games is in first person, present tense from the POV of Katniss. She is both POVC and MC. Sherlock Holmes is Watson telling the stories of Homes. Watson is the POVC. Holmes is the MC.

Where was I? Oh, yes. Ignoring the POVC vs. MC difference for now, the POVC enters the scene with an emotional state and an agenda. They then proceed to encounter opposition to their agenda. Like any normal human being, the have an emotional shift because of opposition.

Think about what it’s like to be having a good day on vacation until you try to pay for lunch and discover that your debit card has been cancelled because the bank thinks your lunch in another state is unusual activity. Emotional response to opposition of your agenda, yes?

Okay, so the POVC goes through a few attempts to get what they want. They try some different tactics. Their emotions change. They might succeed. They might fail. However, they leave the scene with a new emotional state (or the same emotional state for different reasons).

All good. However, a scene is not a chapter. A scene is just a dramatic unit in which character change is caused. Sometimes, a scene is a whole story. Sometimes 70 scenes make up the whole story. That’s one of the differences between flash fiction and a novel.

So, why is it that most of the time the first scene of a novel is not able to stand alone as a short story? Emotion happened. Conflict happened. Change happened. New emotion came out of it.

There are a number of reasons a first scene probably doesn’t stand alone. I won’t address them all here. Here, I’ll say that the first scene of a novel includes material that causes the reader to feel a sense of curiosity or urgency about what will come in the next and subsequence scenes. The text installs “dramatic story questions” in the heart/mind of the reader.

For the sake of brevity, I’ll define dramatic story questions types as 1, 2, and 3. They are, respectively, 1) short-term, 2) mid-term, and 3) long-term.

Long-term story questions are questions installed in the heart/mind of the reader very early in the story. They will not be answered until the end of the story. “Will Dorothy ever get home from Oz?”

Mid-term story questions are questions installed in the heart/mind of the reader in any scene in the story. They will be answered in some subsequent scene. “Will Dorothy make it from the Munchkin village to the Emerald City?”

Short-term story questions are questions installed in the heart/mind of the reader in a scene. They will be answered in that same scene. “Will the Cowardly Lion eat Toto?”

The scene is the dramatic building block. It changes character emotionally and psychologically.

The story questions keep the reader reading (assuming many other things have also been done well).

Assuming the POVC and MC are the same character, as they quite often are, their path through the story is scene-to-scene. Each scene generates questions. The first questions generated will be very short-term. “Why is Dorothy worried for Toto when she gets home?”

Before that question is answered, a mid-term question is launched. “Why are there storm clouds on the horizon?”

Before or at the moment the short-term question gets answered, a new one is launched. Before or at the moment the mid-term question is answered, a new one gets launched.

Now, here is the very important bit. If at any time all the short-term and mid-term questions have been answered at once, the reader will leave the story. Mind you, they might come back and pick it up to see how the long-term question comes out. However, that’s not a good bet.

Here’s where the chapter problem arises. Writers who talk about their books in terms of chapters tend to place their chapter breaks at the moments where several short-term and at least one mid-term story question have just been answered. It’s like they are placing their chapter breaks in the best possible way to release the reader from the story.

Placing the chapter breaks after the story is completely finished allows the writer to choose the moments just after a new story question has been launched. In other words, the writer will set the Scarecrow on fire and end the chapter.

Consider a reader who is in bed reading and has decided, “Well, I’m up too late. I’ll just read another three pages—just to the end of the chapter.” In the last page of the chapter, the Scarecrow is set on fire. Chapter ends. New chapter opens with the battle to put out the fire. Essentially, the chapter ended right smack in the middle of a scene. It ended right after a powerful story question was installed in the heart/mind of the reader. However, the climax of the scene is only a page away.

The reader justifies: “One. Little. Page. More.”

By the time that fire is out, a mid-term question has been launched. “Can Dorothy and her friends overcome and malice of the Wicked Witch of the West?”

The reader turns another page and decides that they will just read to the end of this chapter. It’s only seven more pages.

Okay, the example I used here is a classic sort of cliff-hanger, but the concept is not at all limited to cliff-hanging. Social and psychological story questions are often more compelling than such action-oriented, life-threatening story questions. It’s just easier and more fun to set the Scarecrow on fire in this essay than it would be to describe the deeper identity dissonance of a character’s realizations about themselves and whether they will take responsibility for damage to the fragile psychology of a child under their care.

Chapter breaks are pacing tools. They are not dramatic units.

-End-

Fiction and Viktor Frankl, by Eric Witchey

Label_Developed(image source: Alan M. Clark, cover artist)

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.

Our Stories Can Save Us, by Eric Witchey

Label_Developed

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?

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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

Creativity and Brain Hacks, by Eric Witchey

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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!

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