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-

Our Stories Can Save Us, by Eric Witchey

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Our Stories Can Save Us, by Eric Witchey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-End-

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

Let The Light Shine Through

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Let The Light Shine Through by Cheryl Owen-Wilson

Throughout history story has spoken. From papyrus pages, to the blue light of the electronic devices of today, story speaks.   And it speaks in many voices.

First there is the actual story. It’s spoken through the words woven together by the author. It will have a protagonist, an antagonist and hopefully an interesting plot.

The second story is spoken within the recesses of the readers mind. It speaks through the many filters of the reader’s own life experiences.

The third story remains silent, waiting for the reader to understand its language. It is the hidden voice, the underlying message, the writer intended the reader to receive beyond the story itself.

In my vision of these three scenarios I first see words dancing on a page. They line up perfectly to create the original story. But as they enter the readers mind, they rearrange and become filtered through that reader’s knowledge creating the second story. I visualize the final story as a bright light shining through each blank space on the page. This bright light is the underlying message the author hoped to convey to his reader.

A very simply analogy for this would be the story most every child has heard “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”. The light shining through this story is quite simple. Don’t lie.

What is the bright light shining through your story?

The words written above were to serve as my very simple blog for today. However, I felt compelled to add the following.

Today, many of my writing friends are struggling with creative paralysis.   Said paralysis is due to the aftermath of our Presidential Election of last week. I was also paralyzed for several days. So, I will address this strictly from my perspective.

I had a very visceral reaction to the headline in my local paper on November 9th. I knew when I went to sleep the night before, what the outcome would be. I did not anticipate my severe reaction upon seeing it in huge black lettering splashed across the front page. Such is the power of the written word. I’m not going to go into the “whys” of my reaction. But I do feel my journey to understanding and ultimately breaking through my paralysis bares relevance in regards to having an artistic block of any kind.

After my initial reaction to the newspaper, I attempted to plug ahead. I tried placing words on the page for my current work in progress. But the voices in my head, my muses, my friends, would not speak to me about my WIP. No, they were a mess, confused, angry and yes very depressed. I tried silence them, but they wouldn’t listen. So I sat down and listened to them. They had a lot to say. Then I did what I always do. I wrote what they had to say. What came of it was this poem. Not a great poem, but I hope my message does shine brightly through the words.

I Believe

I believe in equal pay, for an equal workday.

I believe in a woman’s right to choose. It is her body. It is her views.

I believe no one should dictate whom you can, and cannot choose as your life partner. With love there is no compromise, no barter.

I believe Mother Earth needs more tender loving care. Climate change is here. Just look. It is all around us. It is everywhere.

I believe the seeds of hate are sown through fear, and some wield it like a victory spear.

Above all I believe in the innate goodness I see shining from every face. Regardless of its color or its race.

Finally, I believe, it is what we believe that shines through between the blank spaces in our stories.

Once my voices felt heard, they settled back into the rhythm of my current WIP. However, when I started placing words to page, I realized I had a new, hyper sense of being. I recognized my antagonist had become darker, and my protagonist more determined in her quest. My plot had grown more complex and strewn with innumerable obstacles. When I began, I had a vague sense of a positive resolution in my story. While that hasn’t changed, I now know it will be quite a long road before the final victory.

Then there is the flip side of my creative mind. It is my painting world. I can’t wait to start placing color, much color.   You might even say a rainbow of color over large patches of red.

Yes we artists speak in many ways. We have many voices.

What is the first thing a civilization saves when it is threatened? It saves the writings and art created by that civilization, because it is the only way to record for all eternity the diversity of so many.

So dear friends if you’ve found yourself, if not blocked, at least at odds with your current environment, I encourage you to write. I encourage you to paint, draw, and create. Let your voices be heard, let the light shine through speaking loudly.

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“Story Time” Original Art by Cheryl Owen-Wilson

Creativity and Brain Hacks, by Eric Witchey

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Eric Hooked Up and Meditating

Creativity and Brain Hacks, by Eric Witchey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s another hack.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay, here’s the big brain hack.

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

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

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

-End-

Eric’s Upcoming Speaking Events:

Story Shaman’s Gift, by Eric Witchey

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Source: iStockPhoto, imgorthand.

The Story Shaman’s Gift, by Eric Witchey

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

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

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

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

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

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

In my mind and heart, I heard:

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

But, I forget.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you remember the stories you read?”

“Every. Single. One.”

He nodded, smiled, and sipped his scotch.

Mind blown. Love. Gratitude. Tears.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-End-

Creation Creates Us, by Eric Witchey

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Photo Source: iStockPhoto, dschaef

Creation Creates Us, by Eric Witchey

The world creates writers; writers create the world.

On the quantum level, scientists, specifically my brother, Dr. Nick, who is an actual Ph.D. Particle Physicist, say that our perceptions and expectations may actually influence the manifestation of phenomenon. They definitely influence experimentation.

Much has been made of this concept in the fields of science fiction and fantasy. It’s not a new idea. Writers have been using and abusing it since the thirties. However, we rarely step back and think about the concept as a social phenomenon. Self-help gurus twist it around and talk about it a lot. The Secret movement of ten years ago is an example. It touted the law of attraction and the power of visualization, but it forgot to mention the correlation of success with long, carefully considered, constantly focused hard work. It also forgot to mention the long list of ethical, moral, and legal shortcomings of the people it presented as champions of the program.

None-the-less, the long-recognized value of visualization as a predecessor to success has value. Even Olympic athletes work hard to see themselves performing and winning as part of their training. Of course, we also know that if ten athletes visualize themselves on the top slot of the podium, only one of them will actually end up there. That doesn’t mean the others didn’t perform better because of their visualization. It just means that in the end, we, as a people, prefer to recognize dominance rather than contribution and performance improvement.

Hm… I suppose a strong case could be made for visualization manifestation as a trope of fantasy magic systems.

However, I want to talk about Steve Martin.

No, it’s not a digression. I admit, however, that people who know me and my ramblings shouldn’t be chastised for jumping ship now because it very well could be a squirrel I’m about to chase, and that squirrel could end up climbing a tree and laughing at my readers.

But it’s not.

You see, Steve Martin, whom I’ve never met and who, as far as I can tell, is not related to George R. R., has been a part of my awareness of comedy, writing, and film since he first went on stage wearing an arrow through his hat and picking a banjo. His career has spanned decades and gone from early, totally silly stage performance to serious writing and acting that has enriched our culture.

Also, I long ago read somewhere that he likes inline skates. So do I. So, I admire him.

Because I admire him, I paid attention to an obscure interview some years ago. In it, the interviewer asked him how he came up with his particular brand of zany comedy all those years ago in the 70s. His response floored me. He said that as an aspiring comedian, he came up around the angry comedy of the Civil Rights and Viet Nam era. This was the period of comedians like Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor. Mr. Martin said that during that era, the era of the civil rights movement and protest against unnecessary militarism, military-industrial government corruption, population suppression (Kent State, Watts, and Chicago), and outright political corruption (Watergate), he saw a time coming when people would be exhausted and want a kind of humor that was lighter and more superficial. He invented his stand-up character with the silly hat, over-the-top delivery, and banjo in anticipation of that moment.

The moment came. The war ended. Nixon left office. The riots died down for a while.

Steve Martin leapt to the stage with happy energy dancing like King Tut and yelling, “I get paid for doing this!”

And, once again for people who follow my little essays, we come to the moment when we ask, “What the hell does this have to with writing and quantum theory?”

Right now, we live in the land of the political, ecological, military industrial train wreck we can’t stop watching as it happens. Most of us are sick to death of the endless wars, the obvious political corruption, and the corporate harvesting of our hard-earned money. Personally, I have lost two retirement accounts to corporate corruption, and for five years I fought with the banks to keep my house because I made the mistake of following their instructions in 2009. My trust landed me squarely in the debacle of fraudulent foreclosure scams. I was lucky. I was able to spend many thousands of dollars fighting. In the end. I managed to keep my house. Most did not, but that’s another story.

The point is that I’m not alone. None of us are. We are all just exhausted by the inefficient, ineffectual human stupidity all around us.

We are ripe for Steve Martin.

When I seek a new book to read, my emotional exhaustion means I don’t seek out the latest, greatest somber tome on social justice or personal triumph over childhood trauma.

I don’t seek out the classics unless I’m doing research.

I look for something that will make me smile and laugh. I look for a book that will give me a sense that the world can be right even though I know it is not. More and more, I look for books in which small groups of people, communities, come together to create actual, personal bonds. Better yet, I look for stories that show me those connections and make me laugh out loud.

So, this climate of emotional exhaustion and compassion fatigue is real. We live in it. We know it. We do what we can to fight it. We also, all of us, crave a kinder, lighter sense of life, community, and the world.

This deep, massive, underlying hope is an expectation, a proto-visualization of what could be—of what we want to manifest. As writers, we can give this nebulous hope form and put these visions out into the world as tiny seeds around which a new reality can crystalize.

Steve Martin may have once presented himself as “a wild and crazy guy,” but he also presented a sense of joy to the world, and around that sense of joy, others rallied. As his art matured, what began as silliness became satirical humor. His joy for life became both balm and social reform. It became a sort of call to action that people could embrace because laughing and joining together in common jokes let people address real problems in their hearts, their families, and the world.

Some weekend, when you are set up to binge a bit, walk through the progression of his acts and films. Go back and watch The Jerk, The Man with Two Brains, Roxanne, L.A. Story, Planes Trains and Automobiles, Father of the Bride, and Baby Momma. Watch the movement from the predominately silly with social undertones to the socially poignant with comedic undertones.

Do the same with the tales of Sir Terry Pratchett or with the progress of novels from Christopher Moore, to whom I am forever grateful for the greatest zombie line in all of literature, “First brains, then Ikea.”

Are these comedic writers created by their times? Are they creating their times? Are we, as writers, manifestations of the larger consciousness of the world around us, or are we creating the world around us by providing centers around which new visions of self and culture can be organized?

What we visualize can clearly influence our ability to perform. What we manifest in story can clearly influence the visualizations of the people around us. So, does our today’s project bring both salve and escape from our fear, anxiety, and fatigue? Can it? Can it be funny and provide insight and solution that creates a new world?

By all the muses, I hope so. Just for today, I hope my world includes something silly—something that makes me smile and laugh. I hope that my writing influences reality—creates an opportunity for others to visualize a better world in which people can look at one another’s differences, smile, and laugh because we all know we are all hurting and, in the end, we are all in it together.

-End-

Postscript: For people who are interested in taking a March 30th full-day class in Corvallis, Oregon from someone who does a very good job of manifesting humor and social consciousness, check out this link to a seminar offered by Willamette Writers on the River:

https://www.eventbrite.com/e/the-nuts-and-bolts-of-writing-and-selling-short-stories-tickets-21469413594