The Cyclic Deteriorating Fallacy of Personal Experience

Funny turtle flying on hang-gliderPhoto Source: Be_Low, iStockPhoto

The Cyclic Deteriorating Fallacy of Personal Experience

Eric Witchey

In memory of Maj. R. David Witchey, who fell from the sky and forgot to get up.

We have all done something that worked really well then discovered that the next time we tried it, we failed miserably.

As a child growing up in a small town, I dreamed of learning to hang glide. Once I was out of the house, I bought myself lessons. At the time, I lived in Idaho. Hang gliding was everything I hoped it would be. The instructor was sharp, and I knew I was in good hands. We flew tandem until he felt I had a handle on the “kite.” Then, I had to go through a sequence of practice and validation under supervision until I could be certified to fly solo. That process started on a short hill that allowed me to just get my feet off the ground but not go high enough to be dangerous. I demonstrated straight flight and landings before I graduated to a higher hill. On that hill, I had to show I could manage a launch, a left turn, a right turn, and return to center and a landing. Check. The next hill was higher and dropped off a lot faster. I don’t remember what I was supposed to learn there, but it was the last stop before I could take a kite out unsupervised.

The first day on that hill was glorious. Idaho clear blue skies, a stiff breeze but not a wind. The breeze came in toward the hill and hit the wall and rose in an updraft. I was about to feel my first lift into a soaring situation.

I launched. The updraft took me up like a dandelion puff blown by a child. I was a bird! God, it was wonderful! Ah. I remember now. I was supposed to show I could turn and follow the ridge line, turn away and follow it again, then make my way to the landing zone. So, I did. I pulled the control bar in a bit to bring my nose down and get some speed to make my turn. I followed the ridge a little, turned away, the followed it again. I had to keep pulling the bar in to keep from being swept upward, and part of me wanted to just let the kite go higher to feel the sheer joy of it. Since I was being trained, I followed the program. I landed safely. It was one of the more triumphant moments of my life up to that moment. Hey, I was only 19.

A week later, I returned to the same hill. The weather was a bit different, but not much. The kite was the same. The program was the same. If I did the flight successfully two more times, I’d be on my own.

So, I strapped in, lifted the kite, and launched.

For some reason, I started to sink immediately. Instinct made me push the bar out to lift the nose and gain altitude. Instead, I stalled. The kite twisted on its center and did a wing over. I plummeted toward the hill face.

The keel, the point, of the hang glider hit hard rock. The kite crumpled. My harness yanked at my chest. My helmet hit something and bounced off. Then, silence. Dead silence. Not even the sound of a breeze in the grass, and at that moment I understood what I had done wrong. The weather was a little different. I expected the updraft. No breeze. No updraft. When I started to sink, I pushed for altitude that my mind and body told me should be there.

Physics is a bitch. Gravity always wins.

My instructor clambered down the slope to me at great personal risk. I climbed out of the wreckage. He grabbed my shoulders and yelled, “Are you all right? Are you all right?”

I looked at the mess I had made and said, “I broke the kite.”

He said, “Fuck the kite! Are you all right?”

Did I say that I had a good instructor? I had just destroyed his training rig and split his helmet almost in two. Remember the helmet bounce? Completely destroyed the helmet. His concern was for my well being. I did not have to pay a dime for his equipment. Good man. I don’t remember his name, but I do remember he was a lineman for the phone company in Idaho. In case the universe ever brings him to these words, THANK YOU!

Now, here’s the thing. I had a powerful, good experience. The emotional impact was huge. The joy was very high. I wanted that experience again. I wanted it a lot. My mind and body remembered every detail of that experience and did everything right to have that experience again. However, conditions had changed. Failure was inevitable.

The cyclic deteriorating fallacy of personal experience works like this. We seek a result. Let’s say we send a hundred stories out to magazines and one of them wins an award and pulls a big cash prize. Three more sell. The rest garner rejections.

It’s only natural to look very closely at the one that won the prize and money to see what we did that we should do again. We would probably look at the other two as well.

Suppose we discover that each story had an unrequited love element, a female protagonist with red hair, and a mountain resort.

So, we write more stories with unrequited love, female redheads, and mountain resorts because we think, “Yeah. We’ve got it dialed in.”

So, we send out a hundred stories, but we only sell one.

Well, that one should have the best details for allowing us to sell more since we already did the love, femred, and mountain bit. The analysis shows that the story didn’t just happen on a mountain resort. It happened during ski season at the mountain resort.

So, now we write stories that have love, femreds, winter ski resorts.

And we don’t sell any.

In the same way that physics is a bitch, underlying principles of story are a bitch. Trial-and-error is biased in favor of the cyclic deteriorating fallacy of personal experience. In the same way making all the same moves in the hang glider resulted in a crash, isolating the apparent patterns of success from successive successful stories will result in a crash.

Unless…

We are very clear that the analysis and subsequent attempts to create results must include expansive experimentation based on principles rather than emotional impressions of success or failure. I call that playful experimentation (a.k.a., practice).

Playful Experimentation Based on Principles

One of my favorite quotes about success comes from the German flying ace Manfred Von Richthofen. “Success flourishes only in perseverance — ceaseless, restless perseverance.” For me, the perseverance part is not so difficult. I’m more-or-less built for it. Adding the ceaseless, restless part is the important bit to me. The ceaseless, restless bit means that I must constantly test my world and my boundaries. I suppose that’s why I have never really settled into a genre. Instead, I have bent genres and searched for how one informs another. I have assumed, sometimes incorrectly, that each genre has its own tricks and techniques to teach me. I have assumed that experimentation across genres would bring me insights and techniques that could not be had as long as I returned to the same hill where I had success and attempted to fly in exactly the same way as when I had that success.

To beat the fallacy of cyclic deteriorating personal experience, apply the principle of unsupervised play.

In fact, to keep writing from getting stale, I recommend many of the techniques used by children. In another essay, I describe the parallel play process, which in turn came from the restless, ceaseless experimentation with words and tales and forms and processes.

Playful experimentation requires several things adults are often in short supply of. First, it requires the ability to completely divorce oneself from any sense of risk. That is, the story a writer is playing with must not be under deadline. It must not be part of an expectation of material or pride success. It must not be for this magazine, that anthology, to that publisher. Playful experimentation requires the worry-free mindset of a child exploring a newly discovered, vacant field. The writer must be able dash there, and there, and over there while also pausing to pick up a stick to slash at weeds or turn into the spear of Ajax or into a rifle or crutch.

Second, it requires a sense of whimsy combined with a desire to understand. To approach writing as a thing of rigid process is not playful. To get to a space of discovery, the writer must be willing to do things that seem stupid in the moment but then, unexpectedly, force the subconscious to step in to create a pattern that becomes the discovery.

Third, it requires an idea of what can be done. Forcing the hang glider to go up without an updraft does not work. The principles of aerodynamics and gravity do not allow it. So, seeking out the principles that govern the reader’s internalization of experiences triggered by the words on the page is critical to creating combinations of playfulness that reveal new ideas and effects.

For example, most writers know that stories generally create emotional changes in characters by stressing those characters through conflict. It is a universal principle of stories. Some writers I know argue that without it, the text is not a story and falls to the category of mere personal essay or memoir. I would argue that few personal essays or memoirs are not stories. I would also argue that most, if not all, powerful personal essays and memoirs revolve around some core conflict.

I digress. Taking the underlying principle of conflict, one approach to ceaseless, restless experimentation is to employ the principle in an experiment of randomness. Pick a handful of silly things and try to employ the principle of conflict while connecting the silly things.

Personally, I often pick a principle, roll a set of ten-sided dice several times to come up with three or more random, four-digit numbers, then find those numbers on a long list of observations, objects, insights, and thoughts that I keep. I put those randomly selected elements at the top of a page then write as fast as I can in an effort to execute the principle. The randomness of the objects forces the subconscious to attempt to create a pattern connection between the objects. The chosen principle forces a construct that will either succeed or break. Either way, something is gained from the effort. Sometimes, seeing a failure unfold reveals new patterns, new methods of allowing the reader to see or feel the moment on the page. Sometimes, seeing the experiment succeed within the structure of the principle results in new understanding and skill in the execution of the principle.

Worst case for the above experiment is that the writer has fun and the brain is given a set of patterns (principles) to which it becomes tuned and to which it begins to, or continues to, adapt.

The important piece from the above is not the process. The important piece is that principle combined with play is a type of practice that keeps writing fresh and keeps the writer on a path of discovery that deadline-driven work, paid-for work, pride-driven work cannot provide. Mindfulness of underlying principles combined with playful experimentation results in discovery.

Had I considered the principle of aerodynamics and approached the day with a less rigid focus on succeeding with the defined exercise, I might have had more fun and been more inclined to discover what I could do on that day and in the days to come.

A week later, I did go back and fly again. I did it because I had decided to quit flying because I could not trust my ADHD brain to focus on all the conditions that allow a person to fly safely. Going back one more time was my way of proving to myself I was not quitting out of fear. Rather, I wanted to quit to stay alive.

-End-

What Did You Win, Eric?

 

Littlest Death: An Afterlife Fantasy (a.k.a., Littlest Death: A Labyrinth of Souls Novel):
Winner: Independent Publishers Awards Silver Medal for Fantasy.
Winner: International Book Awards for Visionary Fiction
Finalist: International Book Awards for Fantasy Fiction
Finalist: International Book Awards for Best New Fiction
Finalist: International Book Awards for Cross-Genre Fiction

What Did You Win, Eric?
by Eric Witchey

Last time I posted in this blog space, I talked about award sickness because one of my novels had just won the Silver Medal for Fantasy Fiction from the Independent Publisher Book Awards. Since then, that same novel has won First Honors in the Visionary Fiction category from the International Book Awards. It also won finalist (top five) positions in several other categories, including Fantasy Fiction. At the same time, another novel of mine won First Honors in the Fantasy Fiction category from the International Book Awards. Yet another book won a Finalist position for both cover design and short fiction. The books are, respectively, Littlest Death: A Labyrinth of Souls Novel from ShadowSpinners Press, Bull’s Labyrinth from IFD Publishing, and Professor Witchey’s Miracle Mood Cure from IFD Publishing.

Note: Thanks are in order here for Alan M. Clark for his cover designs for both Professor Witchey’s Miracle Mood Cure and Bull’s Labyrinth.

Has my good problem, Award Sickness, gotten worse? Yes. Yes, it has. Thank you for asking. On top of that, I now have another good problem. I now have conversations that go sort of like this:

“Congratulations! What kind of stuff did you win?”

“Uh. Um.” Eric looks down and shuffles his feet.

“Really,” they say. “Cash, like the Pulitzer or the Nobel?”

“Uh. No. It’s not like that.” Eric waves his hands as if to push the assailant away and avoid embarrassment.

“Well, what then?”

“Stickers?” It sounds so tiny and pointless to Eric, so he adds, “I won some really cool stickers to put on my books. And a certificate!”

“That’s it?”

“A silver medal on a ribbon. I won that, too.” He doesn’t want to say he could wear that heavy bit of kitsch around his neck if he wanted to shout to the world that he is the worst kind of self-impressed language geek.

This kind of conversation confuses non-writers who often think recognition of excellence means income or fame. Having won quite a few awards for my writing, I can say with some confidence that awards rarely translate into income or fame. Sometimes, but rarely. This absence of fame and fortune even confuses some writers, so it’s time to come clean on the whole award thing.

Here’s what I won.

On a purely material level, I won stickers, a medal, and several certificates.

On a marketing level, I won the right to have Littlest Death presented to an international audience at the New York Book Expo and at the Library Book Expo in New York. Also on a marketing level, Littlest Death press releases went out to 800 various media, blog, and vlog outlets for consideration for exposure. Oh, and I can put stickers on the covers that appear as part of the presentation and advertising on places like Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and GoodReads.

Yay! Of course, I have no idea what that means in terms of sales. I won’t know for months, and possibly years, to come.

From my personal perspective, I won validation for the Afterlife Fantasy genre, which is embodied by Littlest Death. I had been thinking about writing an Afterlife Fantasy for some time, but I probably would never have done it because it would not have fit into any existing marketing category served by the octopus imprints of the big five publishers. A book like Littlest Death would have made the rounds of the imprints for several years. I’d have received the usual “loved this but not quite right for us” rejection letters. Instead, it came out from a small press that isn’t quite so risk averse.

Most important from my perspective, I won validation for the creative process that resulted in Littlest Death.

When I teach, I often say that craft tools should be based on the underlying linguistic and cognitive principles that govern the reader’s internalization of emotion from story. The test of a principle-based tool is pretty simple. It must be all of the following:

  1. Useful as a descriptive tool for finished, text-based story.
  2. Useful as an analysis tool and solution predictor for revision of text-based story.
  3. Useful as a design tool for the production of text-based story.

To that end, I have spent about 25 years obsessively characterizing and recording tools that fit the above criteria into a personal catalog. I use these tools constantly, and I teach them to others. However, prior to writing Littlest Death, there were a few tools in my box that I believed fit the criteria but that I had never actually tested on the design level. I had only used them as diagnostic and revision tools.

I used the opportunity to write my Afterlife Fantasy to test the design power of the untested tools. Specifically, the tools I often used in revision and description but had not really applied during story design were:

  • Irreconcilable Self as a control for character psychological and sociological development.
  • Vertical Story Analysis as a design tool to support manifestation of Dramatic Premise (Lajos Egri) and Character Arc prior to composition.

I’m not going to explain these tools here. Sorry. It would take too long. I’m just saying that these tools have been in my box for a while, and I have used them to revise many stories that went on to sell. In fact, I used them to revise Bull’s Labyrinth, which won the International Book Award for Fantasy Fiction. I also used them to revise some, but not all by any means, of the stories in Professor Witchey’s Miracle Mood Cure. I had just never used them up front before initial composition, so I felt a little bit like a fraud when I taught them because I had only proven to myself that they worked on two of the three levels of proof for “tool” that I require.

Once Littlest Death went into print and I started getting emails from people who cried tears of joy while reading, I felt pretty good about having demonstrated the tools’ usefulness in design. Once Littlest Death won two awards and several finalist slots in competition against many thousands of other novels, I started thinking it might be worth considering a few more such experiments in design.

What did I win?

I won validation of knowledge, confidence in that knowledge, and the confidence that sharing that knowledge with others will be useful to them.

Success Sickness, by Eric Witchey

FNTCVR

Fantasy Silver Medal, 2018 Independent Publisher Book Awards

 

Success Sickness

Eric Witchey

Last weekend, I supported a local mini-conference here in Salem, Oregon. The conference made use of the Parallel Play program psychologist Brian Nierstadt helped me create sixteen years ago. Parallel Play has been the subject of other articles and will be again. For now, I want to focus on the fact that the conference was all about production and overcoming obstacles.

Aside: Special thanks to Chris Patchell and Debbie Moller, who did the bulk of the work to create the very successful, sold-out weekend. Special thanks to Willamette Writers: Orit Ofri, Kate Ristau, and Summer Bird. Also, thanks to the other professionals who donated their time to help the local community of writers: Rachel Barton, Erica Bauermeister, Elizabeth Engstrom, Devon Monk, Diana Pharaoh Francis, Waverly Fitzgerald, and Natalie Serber. My deepest apologies if I’ve missed anyone.

Now, it happens that on the Wednesday before the conference one of my novels received recognition from the 2018 Independent Publishers Book Awards (IPPYs). Littlest Death, cover show above and available in print or ebook on Amazon from Shadow Spinners Press (grin),  received the silver medal in the Fantasy category.

Result? I can’t write.

This is not a new experience. I know I’ll get past it, but I thought I’d take a second to write about this particular form of writer’s block because of the inspiring mini-lectures I was honored to listen to over the weekend. However, before I really get going, I want to point out that this is sort of a violation of certain social mores. In our culture, we accept that people can talk about the struggles, problems, obstacles, and especially the solutions encountered while striving to achieve our dreams. The gods know, I have done plenty of that both verbally and in writing over the years. We are much less accepting of people exploring the struggles, problems, obstacles, and solutions that appear because we achieve the things we strive for. Nobody wants to hear about how annoyed you are about the misleading Engine Warning light in your new Rolls Royce, but everybody wants know how you managed to, and by extension how they can, get a Rolls Royce.

So, at the risk of social shunning, I offer these insights into a problem I hope everyone has already overcome or gets the chance to overcome.

First, I’ll point out that there are two types of success sickness. They are “Anticipatory success sickness” and “recent success sickness.” They pretty much work the same way, and the treatment is pretty much the same, too.

Here’s how success sickness, which I sometimes erroneously call award sickness, works.

  1. The writer either anticipates or has received some new success—any new success. It can be as simple as a compliment from a teacher, a friend, or someone in the family.
  2. The writer sits down to write.
  3. The writer starts wondering either what they should write to succeed or what they did when they wrote the material that succeeded.
  4. The writer can’t figure it out, so they scrub the bathroom floor instead of writing.
  5. Repeat 2-5 until suicidal or new floor tile is required in the bathroom.

I first encountered success sickness after selling my first short story in 1987. I didn’t sell another story until 1997.

Well, that sucked.

Then, I won a slot at Writers of the Future and a place in the top ten from New Century Writers. New Century was a big deal then because Ray Bradbury was involved. Now, sadly, both Ray and New Century are gone. About the same time as the above two awards, I sold my first short story to a national slick magazine.

All good, right? I figured I was off to the races—a made man in the fiction family.

Then, number 2, I sat down to write and…NOTHING…3, 4, 5, and 3, 4, 5, and 3, 4, 5…

Well, that sucked.

After about six months of cleaning the bathroom and chatting with my new phone friends from the suicide hot line, I realized that I was in the loop of trying to recreate the success without understanding that the success had been created by not trying to create the success. In short, I had just been practicing my craft when I wrote the stories that won the awards and sold.

Sure, I wanted to sell stories and win awards, but I hadn’t been working on each story with the idea that I would do certain things in order to sell the story or in order to win an award. I had just worked on each story to make it the best story I could make it. I had practiced craft without regard for outcome.

That realization led to the idea that I needed to just work on stories and stop thinking about the successes, which of course is like telling yourself to not think about the proverbial elephant in the living room.

Sigh… Well, that sucked.

Once the tile in the bathroom had been replaced and I had tattooed the suicide hotline number on the inside of my wrist, I decided I needed to figure out how to trick myself into not paying attention to what I may or may not have done to contribute to the success I wanted to repeat.

My solution was to practice craft in a way that made it impossible to write a story that would sell. If I knew it couldn’t sell, then I couldn’t expect anything from it other than experience and words through the fingers.

Clever monkey.

So, I went back to the basic concept of practicing craft. I went back to my personal simplest form of practicing craft. I picked random topics to bind together into silly stories. That way, it would be impossible to believe I was creating saleable, award-winning material. Then, I picked a craft concept to practice. I called what I was doing my morning warmup, and I sat down every morning to a speed writing session in which I attempted to execute the craft concept I had selected while also incorporating the stupid random topics.

No pressure. No bathroom. No hot line. Just silliness and practice.

We are talking seriously random, here: My orange coffee mug; Mrs. McPharon’s black gravel driveway; The stinging fur on a caterpillar I found on Hogue’s barn. These are things from my desk and my childhood—totally unrelated. The concept to practice was, conversely, serious. It might be any of a thousand things, but it is always specific—something like “deliver implied intentions through indirect dialog.”

Five to fifteen minutes of speed writing attempting the concept and including the random topics was all I had to do. I started with one minute based on the belief that I can always sit down to do one minute. In a week or so, it became five. Later, and to this day twenty years later, it is fifteen.

Way back then, it took about six months before I stopped second-guessing every word and my writing became about the story on the table again. And, oddly, once I forgot to worry about how I had done what I had done, I did it again.

Well, that didn’t suck.

Except, then, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 3, 4, 5, and…

And begin again. New tile. Reacquainted with the hot line people. And back to five minutes and random topics at speed.

About six weeks passed, and I forgot to worry about how I did what I did, so I did it again.

… and 2, 3, 4, 5, and 3, 4, 5, …

You get the idea.

Fast forward to 2018 Silver Medal in Fantasy IPPY award, and 2, 3, 4, 5, and 3,4,5, and…

And back to five minutes of speed writing at the mini-conference. I did manage to put in several hours of productivity at the conference, but my stupid brain kept returning to what I had done to make Littlest Death an award-winning story.

Well, that sucks.

I’m hoping it will only take me a week or so to get to the point where I forget to worry about how I did what I did so I that can do it again. However, since I’m hoping that will happen, it will probably take longer since I now also have to forget to hope that I’ll forget to worry about how I did what I did before I can do it again.

Silly monkey.

The moral to this whole convoluted story is that sitting down to write something silly for one minute will lead to five will lead to fifteen will lead to an inevitable focus on the story at hand instead of what it might do once it’s finished because of what other stories have done in the past.

I will point out at this point that many of the stories I have sold were born during my warmup and became the story at hand. It turns out that choosing random topics to make it impossible to write a story is nearly impossible because the brain can, if given the freedom to do so, make a story out of pretty much anything. Sadly, that adds a whole new layer to this insanity of not thinking about what you did while you are doing what you are doing now so that you can repeat what you did. I think that’s another article.

Success sickness is the mind attaching itself to what was and what will be instead of resting in what is. Playful experimentation will bring the mind back to the here and now in which all successes are born.

Luck and skill to all who write and send.

-End-

Reconciling Fiction Techniques in Memoir

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Reconciling Fiction Techniques in Memoir, by Eric Witchey

Something new for my blog this time. Instead of waxing dreary on some topic of my own choosing, I’m answering a question from a person who took a class from me at the Write on the Sound Conference in Edmonds, Washington. The last time I was there, I taught a class that included a brief discussion of a concept I first presented in an article for The Writer Magazine in October of 2011. The concept is the Irreconcilable Self (I.S.).

The writer, a memoirist, dropped me a line last week. The question has two parts. The first part is whether the I.S. the writer is working with is precise enough. The second question is more of a presupposition about whether the I.S. tool can be used in memoire. Also, note that the writer used Wallace Stegner’s book, Angle of Repose, as a reference point. It has been a long time since I read it, so my examples from memory may or may not fit the experience of people who have read it more recently. I did not go back and check the book to verify my memory, which is a swiss cheese muddle of too many stories that often blend together.

The Question:

I’m presuming that the I.S. can apply to a memoir ‘character’ since I’m treating myself as the character? Good. So then, my opposing conflicts of ideals are — ideal notions of country/”smaller” living and (true) community not a neighborhood VERSUS ‘freedom’ of city life and anonymity.

My questions — is that SPECIFIC enough?? Or is it too linked to place and time? Do I need more soul-searching to really get at stronger conflicting notions here? I am conflicted in the idolization of country living vs the reality and want to expose that a little more via my experience, but also have notions and real experiences of longing for that country living.

The Answer:

Hi, again, Writer X:

First, I’ll be teaching an 8 hour seminar on this subject in Eugene, OR in May. I have a couple of memoirists already signed up. You don’t have to sign up for all six classes. You can just take this one alone, but I would recommend this one and the one in June for a full sense of how I.S. works in conjunction with other story elements. The people at WordCrafters can help with accommodations. The classes are set up so people can drive or fly in on Saturday and drive or fly out on Sunday. Anyway, here’s the link.

https://wordcraftersineugene.org/fiction-fluency-2018/ff-seminars/

Second, I always welcome “one-off” emails, but I can’t always answer them. Also, I’ll only answer one or two before I send you a contract to set up a formal relationship as a sort of piano teacher of words. Too many people think of me as a private encyclopedia of writing techniques if I let them, and I do have to fulfill my own obligations in life.

So, no worries. I’m especially happy to hear from people who have read my stories and taken one or more of my classes.

Interesting that you mention The Angle of Repose. Not many writers who contact me have read it. Stegner is brilliant. Before I talk about that, I’ll talk a bit about Irreconcilable Self.

When I teach I.S., especially in a short form venue like a conference (60 to 90 minutes, total), I teach it as a binary form to get the idea across. It can be more complex. The form I teach has two parts and relies on “I believe” statements in juxtaposition—something like this:

“I believe Romantic idealism is the only truth in this world.” Vs. “I believe deeply in personal honor and family honor and pride.”

This would be Romeo.

Notice that I have already put in more than one thing in the second “I believe” statement. The juxtaposition of these deeply held, untested beliefs is what’s important. The beliefs are deep and often, but not always, unconscious. They are, however, untested. The only way the character is able to believe both things at the same time is that the beliefs have not been tested in his or her life.

That’s the short version of I.S.

Now, Stegner. Keep in mind that Stegner is telling several stories. Lyman is narrating. He’s telling both his story and the story of Susan. Susan’s story includes the story of Oliver and Frank. Each of these major characters has an I.S. that generally functions beneath their consciousness and either drives or allows them to act in the ways they do. Each character has their beliefs tested. Lyman’s is tested by the telling of the story and the revelations that come because of that. His I.S. is something like, “I believe I am a good man from good stock” vs. “I believe the world and my family owe me for their betrayals.” His I.S. is tested by revelations and experience. He abandons the second belief, modifies the first one, and reconciles his experience into, “My choices create the love around me.”

Okay, I’m making this up on the fly, so don’t expect “correct” summary descriptions of a novel I read a long time ago. I’m just trying to give an example that might be useful for you.

Frank can’t reconcile his beliefs. He kills himself. That’s, more-or-less, the definition of tragedy. I’d say his belief was something like, “I believe I’m a good and loyal friend” vs. “I believe I love Susan beyond life itself.” Yeah, that doesn’t work out for him. If memory serves, he kills himself.

Oliver is something like, “I believe I’m an honorable, educated, man worthy of love and loyalty” vs. “I believe one more shovel full of dirt and I’ll strike it rich and save everyone around me.” Or, maybe, “I believe I’m a good husband and hard worker” vs. “I believe my worth is determined by the success of my next project.” I’d have to go back and reread it to do better.

Now, Susan, who is probably the most interesting character in the whole nested story mess, appears to be dragged through events, but she really isn’t. She’s just more subtle. Her I.S. is something like, “I believe in the trendy, romantic idealization of love and the West” vs. “I believe in family values and am a good wife and mother.”

The end position for a character who has resolved their I.S. (transformed) is one of the following:

  1. Experiences force the character to reject both beliefs and die (Frank). I might also argue that Oliver ends up in this position, but he dies emotionally and spiritually.
  2. Experiences force the character to reject both beliefs, but they find a new belief on which to base life choices and actions (Lyman).
  3. Experiences force the character to reject one belief and embrace the other (Susan).
  4. Experiences force the character to find a way to reconcile the two beliefs and live on in harmony with both (Nobody in that story).

Okay, on to memoir.

The chief problem I see when memoirists approach the use of fiction techniques in telling their stories is that they have difficulty stepping back to examine themselves for the underlying psychological, philosophical, and sociological understanding that fiction writers apply when working with made up characters. Finding your own I.S. is like trying to grab your shoelaces and lift yourself up so you can reach a book on the highest shelf. Even if you succeed in violating the laws of physics, you can’t let go of your shoelaces to reach for the book.

The various successful memoirists I have worked with have had to do extensive work in separating themselves from the character who represents them in the story. It’s much harder than making someone up from scratch, but the techniques are the same. For Memoirists, the trick is to do a lot of work figuring out what the core significance of the experience was both for the writer and for the reader. Sometimes, a very clear statement of the experiencing character’s main transformation will allow you to work backward into the land of unconsidered beliefs. Sometimes, deciding to assign an I.S. and then attempting to cause the story to conform to that I.S. will result in either success or failures that provide insights into what was really going on deeper down during the experience.

Regardless, one of the tasks the memoirist must always remember is that no matter what they think the experience meant to them, the end result is only useful if the reading experience means something to the reader. Those two positions are not in any way connected except through craft. Sometimes, they are two completely different meaning results.

I haven’t read your story, and I don’t know enough about it to name the I.S. for you. Frankly, that’s probably a bad idea anyway. However, I can say that once you know it, it is only one of three core control structures I teach. The other two are “arc” and “premise.”

That said, here’s how you described your I.S.: “opposing conflicts of ideals are — ideal notions of country/”smaller” living and (true) community not a neighborhood VERSUS ‘freedom’ of city life and anonymity

The description you provided could be translated into I.S. form like this:

I.S.: “I believe I will only be whole if I am a known, respected member of a small, rural community.” Vs. “I believe only the anonymity of city life will let me fully express who I am.”

Do keep in mind that at story open the character rarely knows they believe both things. Given the above I.S., I can certainly see how a story that demonstrates this conflict of values and transformation of a person could be told. I can’t, however, really speak to how your character and your character context will manifest these belief systems on the dialectic, tactical, conflict set, scene, sequence, or movement dramatic levels. I think that’s where you’re getting stuck. You have an I.S., but the translation of it into increments of stress and change caused by experience isn’t taking your story “from-to” in a way that feels both true and satisfying to you on the I.S. level. For that kind of analysis, I’d also need the premise, arc, and a synoptic outline that captures emotional change resulting from the conflict for each dramatic scene.

I don’t have time or space to do a full exposition of these ideas here, but I can say that by using the control concepts of arc, premise, and I.S., it is possible to analyze the story along the conceptual boundaries readers use to internalize emotions while reading. Subconsciously, readers look for moments of emotional change. In fact, physiologically, they respond to those moments before they have time to think about them. The speed of emotional response overriding the speed of cognitive response is one of the things that keeps readers in the story. Being able to name the I.S., being able to see how each moment of the story either stresses the character’s belief system or confirms it (which is another kind of stress since things will get worse because of confirmations), being able to incrementally move the stress levels toward a personal, emotional/psychological crisis in which the character experiences one of the reconciliation results described above, and being able to deliver the emotional power of that moment of transformation to the reader in a context that allows the reader to FEEL its value to them is, at core, what all story telling is about.

I’m sorry I can’t provide more insight than this. The woods are lovely, dark, and deep and…

Best of luck and skill to you.

Eric

 

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?

-End-