Free Time in the Time of Corona, Let’s Bitch About It

By Lisa Alber

I see many optimistic and supportive posts out there about how to survive — no, thrive during! — shelter in place. I’m past all that. I want to see posts by people who are flailing and not doing their best and going a little nuts. People, where are those posts?!?!? Those are the posts that would truly help me. Just to know I’m not the only one, you know what I mean?

(I live alone; this might be a factor. Heh.)

I re-read my last blog post, dated February 26th. Oh my god — seems ridiculous and hilarious now. I’d just gotten laid off from the day job and was full of hope about my new writing journey. Then a few weeks later, the Corona virus arrived and the shite hit the fan. My life didn’t change all that much — I was at home anyhow — yet it did.

The 2/26 post feels like a lifetime ago. I’ve been writing/revising most mornings, so that’s good. Yet it’s amazing how little I’ve accomplished. I like a desultory pace of life, but something about being forced into this pace has dulled my brain. I hear this is called “pandemic fog.”

There’s a difference between being at home building a new life and being forced to stay home feeling uncertain that I can build a new life (given the economy, etc). My neurotic tendencies are on high alert, ready to send me into a stressed state for no good reason. (Case in point: Yesterday, my inability to find the Cancel Subscription button on the sundancenow.com website.)

At first, I was all bustle and vigor. Hey, this is a lark! This is quite the fun little period! It’s peaceful and there’s no traffic and people are friendlier than usual! I have so much time and I’m going to accomplish all my dreams!

Now, it’s more like: Which streaming channel has the longest free trial period?

As a friend said last week, “This isn’t cute anymore.” The bloom is definitely off the proverbial rose, and I’m feeling it. (I WANT TO HIT MY LOCAL FOR A PINT, WITH FRIENDS OR NOT, I DON’T CARE!)

I have a half-baked theory that the protests surged when they did, in part, because people maxed out their tolerance for “me” time. God forbid we have time to ponder our lives, really THINK about who we are, what we want, and so on. It can be uncomfortable, even painful. Some people will do anything to avoid discomfort, no matter how short-sighted  and idiotic.

I have a high tolerance for “me” time. Even so, to lessen the impact of shelter in place on my psyche, I journal every morning. I’ll burn the journals after all this done, that’s for sure. Witness this gem from today’s drivel-fest: “Yep, got up earlier to get going, so that’s cool.”

Uh-huh. What’s the point of getting up earlier, anyhow? Who cares that I’m succumbing to nocturnal tendencies, lights out at 1:00 A.M.?

As the days pass in a blur of uniformity, I’ve also succumbed to binge-watching obscure foreign crime dramas. (Recently watched an Icelandic one called “Trapped.”) At first, I diligently walked the park every day to get out of the house, keep sane, randomly chat with people (socially distanced, of course). Now I don’t care so much.

A few days ago I realized I’d reached my lowest point when I bought a jumbo bag of Red Vines. Jumbo. Bag. One thing to eat Red Vines at the movies — which I don’t do anymore, anyhow — another thing to plop the bag on the coffee table, readily available while I binge-watch.

When all this was a lark, I grooved on cooking, and even baking. Now I’d rather go pick up a Papa Murphy’s pizza, or on a healthier note, Trader Joe’s ready-made salads. Not doing so well in the food department, generally. Standing in line to enter grocery stores feels too Soviet Russia, and who wants to be reminded of that country given the upcoming election? I surely don’t.

On that sourpuss note, I’ve officially reached the end of my tolerance for bitching. FOR NOW. Hope everyone is keeping healthy, mentally as well as physically, xoxo

The Enlightened Assassin’s Agenda

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The Enlightened Assassin’s Agenda

Eric Witchey

My agenda today is to move my readers toward more specific articulation of their character agendas. If there’s any overlap between handling dramatic characters in text and managing our own lives, it is purely coincidental and has little or nothing to do with me or my agenda.

In a recent conversation with a writer, I said something that she then sent back to me as an important quote. At the time I said it, the words meant little to me. Having them sent back to me as important to someone else made me look at them again. Here’s what I apparently said,

“The more specific you are on agendas, the more proactive the agendas become and the stronger the scene becomes.”

Hm, says I. Isn’t that like setting identifiable, quantifiable, achievable goals? In moments of hubris, haven’t most writers entertained fantasies of accolades, awards, and glory? Even the humblest of us have at one moment or another had J.K. Rowling’s name evoke at least a little wish to be richer than the Queen.

Of course, those visions of grandeur are generally beyond our control. Even if we follow the advice of every well-established writing productivity and personal self-help guru alive, we have to acknowledge that a number of things have to happen at the right times and in the right order. We can control how hard we work. We can control how focused on the craft we are. We can control how much we risk and how often we put ourselves out there for consideration. To an extent, we can control how we use our financial, physical, and emotional resources to pursue our paths to publication.

However, we can’t control where we started in life, our beginning cultural currency, the attitudes we were trained to and had to overcome, the beliefs we had to recognize were not useful, the dynamics of family and language that both support and limit us. We can’t control the coronavirus, the economic swings of the nation, the consolidation of publishers, changes in marketing attitudes toward various demographics groups, or the wind on the wings of the Peking butterfly.

Still, as one writing friend once told me, “Lightning can strike anyone, but it helps to put up a lightning rod.”

So, when writers meet to set our goals, we look for the things we can measure, execute within our limited awareness of the world, and pat ourselves on the back for achieving. We whittle away at the greater obstacles, and we hope the moment comes when the lightning rod of hard work and focused effort over time pays off by attracting a strike that powers us for our next sustained effort.

So why is it that as writers we create characters with agendas like, “She wants to feel respected by her culture?” Don’t get me wrong. I think that is an important theme, but it is pretty useless as a scene agenda.

When I talk about character agendas, I often parrot one of my teachers, James N. Frey, who said, “EVERY character on stage has an agenda they are trying to execute. Conflict is the execution of mutually exclusive agendas.”

My favorite scenario for describing this, which I may have gotten and modified from Jim, is the pizza delivery man at the door. In the scene, there are three characters. An assassin, the person who lives in the house, and the pizza delivery guy. The agendas are all working against one another:

  • Assassin wants to kill homeowner and slip away.
  • Homeowner wants the pizza guy to call for help.
  • Pizza guy wants to be paid for the pizza.

The stakes are life and death for the homeowner. The stakes are professional success/failure and maybe honor or several other intangibles for the assassin—perhaps even incarceration or death. The stakes for the pizza delivery person are minimum wages, tips, and maybe some distracting fantasy they have going on about someone else on their delivery list.

Which brings up another point.

If Pizza has some adolescent male otaku Japanese anime-driven fantasy about the hot schoolgirl he’ll be delivering too next, then he has another agenda that his current scene agenda contributes to. He wants to get paid so he can deliver the next to pizza to the object of his creepy obsession.

If Homeowner wants Pizza to call the police and live through the afternoon and, perhaps, get information about why someone is trying to kill them because their daughter will be devastated to lose another parent, they also have another agenda that their current agenda contributes to.

Assassin might also have an overarching agenda. Assassin wants to get finished, get paid, and move on to the next job so they can build a strong enough reputation to be able to pick and choose jobs that will let them influence the world order and eventually retire to a personal island in the Caribbean from which they believe they will pull world-wide political strings and usher in an age of greater peace and prosperity for all.

However, right now in this moment in this scene, knife to the skin over the homeowner’s kidneys, Assassin wants the pizza guy to go away. Right now, Assassin only wants privacy.

Right now, in this moment with the knife in their back and Pizza outside the door, Homeowner only wants Pizza to get a clue and call for help.

Right now, large veggie pie in hand, door open so they can only see Homeowner and not Assassin, Pizza wants to be paid and, if possible, tipped well—quickly.

The agendas are, to take a line from the gurus of goal setting, specific, measurable, and reasonably achievable. If achieved or not achieved, each agenda for each character has an immediate impact on the character’s wellbeing and life in the moment.

In the larger dramatic sense, each agenda also has an impact beyond the moment for all the characters on stage.

If Pizza gets what he wants, he’s off to the next delivery and his inevitable disappointment. Homeowner will not get what they want. Assassin will quite likely get what they want, but maybe not. The fight in the foyer is another conflict to play out.

If Homeowner gets what they want, they might survive and get information, but Pizza will not get what he wants. Assassin will not get what they want—at least not all of it. They may end up killing two people and losing the ability to slip away.

If Assassin gets what they want, Homeowner is dead. Pizza may or may not get what they want. Who knows? Perhaps Pizza will become an apprentice to Assassin.

The point for writers developing dramatic scenes is that:

“The more specific you are on agendas, the more proactive the agendas become and the stronger the scene becomes.”

If the scene opens with the setup described earlier and the writer sees each character agenda as something less specific, the potential of the dramatic moment changes radically. Starting with a vaguer agenda than discussed so far and moving toward the global, vague, more like a theme statements we get things like this:

  • Assassin wants to be the best assassin.
  • Homeowner wants to be a good parent.
  • Pizza wants to get a raise or something.

In this scenario, the Homeowner could be anyone. Pizza guy might be motivated to move quickly, so he could just drop the pie off and go. No reason not to if the ticket was paid over the phone or online. Homeowner might beg because they want to see their daughter, but the agenda statement doesn’t focus their choices to allow selection of a specific set of tactics beyond that. Assassin might see killing Homeowner and Pizza as becoming the “best assassin.” They might see killing one and getting away while people chase them as becoming the best assassin. There are a million “best assassin” possibilities here.

Let’s create broader, vaguer agendas further outside the dramatic moment.

  • Assassin wants to go on vacation.
  • Homeowner wants to be a good parent and chairperson of the HOA.
  • Pizza wants to go home and boost his buzz.

These agendas might be true, but they are not specific in the moment. The types of motivations this filter encourages don’t lend themselves immediately to tactic development.

If I’m Homeowner and chief among my concerns is that I want to be a good parent and head of the HOA, connecting parenting and HOA to evading assassin behavior is a stretch. It works for comedic effect, but in that case, it is actually quite specific and reveals the mental problems of Homeowner. Homeowner might be engaged with the assassin on the manager’s worst nightmare level of, “Do you know who I am? I’m the next manager of the HOA. Did Karen VanSitling put you up to this? She’s been after the chair for…”

Now, Assassin can kill them, and Reader will applaud. It’s all good.

However, Pizza might as well be an unused chair in this scenario.

Let’s get vaguer:

  • Assassin wants satori.
  • Homeowner wants the respect never received from their parents.
  • Pizza wants to rise to CEO of the franchise system.

Now, the agendas are bordering on themes that might be stated more like this:

  • Becoming a perfect killer is a type of enlightenment.
  • Adherence to early life rules and values never heals the wounded child within.
  • Ambition and diligence are the path to wealth and power.

These might be true in the story. Certainly, I’m not stating them as true in any context other than the context of a story. However, at the best they only provide nuance in the dramatic moment in a specific scene. These vague agendas/themes do not allow a writer to discover or design possible tactics for achieving an immediate result in-scene.

That said, a set of nested agendas such that each specific agenda is a contributor to a larger agenda might allow for development of details that would enhance the scene. This set of agendas might provide insight into exactly what each character would do in the moment. Assassin’s agenda might look like this:

  • Assassin wants to kill homeowner and slip away.
    • in order to build skills to become the best assassin.
      • in order to go on vacation.
        • in order to create spiritual balance.
          • in order to one day achieve satori through their art.

Suddenly, the blade at the kidneys will be held a specific way. The words whispered in the ear of Homeowner must be considered carefully in both context of the moment and in terms of how Assassin sees the moment in relationship to their higher-level aspirations. Consider how this cascade of agenda elements can affect a line like this one:

  • …pressed her back against the wall, using the door as a blind to cover her presence and the blade she held to Homeowner’s back…

If each layer influences the moment, the physical reality of the blade, the door, and the wall remain the same, but the language might change to something more like this:

  • Smooth, black silk slid between the skin of her back and the coolness of Homeowner’s stucco wall, and she brought her thoughts back from that distraction, returning her focus to the transience of breath, the inevitability of mortality at the point of her blade, and the rhythm of the pulsing jugular of Homeowner’s neck. A skilled assassin might see the vein’s rise and fall as a tell, but a Pizza delivery boy distracted by material gain, hormone-laden blood, and cold night air would not perceive the interconnections of life and death and knowing and unknowing in the words that would arrive on the wave of Homeowner’s next breath. Assassin found within the silence that gave a shape to the perception she would spend on those final, important words. Later, perhaps on the beach while meditating, she would savor the moment and seek the meaning within the words.

Homeowner said, “. . .”

Of course, I have made the leap to Assassin being the POV character. I’ll leave building the nested agendas of the other characters and writing the moment from their POV as a game to play later. The point here is that the agendas are nested. The outcome of the moment will have an impact on all the layers of each character’s beliefs and desires. To get the best result, the most immediate agenda—the desire of each character at this moment, in this breath, in this heartbeat—should be as specific as possible.

-End-

Be Writing

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Don’t Be a Writer. Be Writing.

With thanks to WordCrafters in Eugene, where I teach Fiction Fluency.

by Eric Witchey

A little late. A lot busy. The life of a writer who has the privilege of working.

Freelance for thirty years in October has allowed me certain perspectives. I’ve seen creative clusters rise, spawn careers, and fall to petty differences and self-righteous ideological splits. I’ve seen creative clusters rise, spawn careers, and… Spawn careers. That was the important bit. The rest was just human beings being monkeys who think they have to hurt other monkeys to have enough bananas. It’s the bit before they start fighting over the tiny, useless, insignificant bananas that’s important—the part where they are banding together and writing.

I’ve seen poor writers rise out of poverty and return to it again. I’ve ridden that ride myself, though things are pretty good right now. I may be on the rise. I may be on the fall. Who can say?

A few people who have called me friend have decided I’m a lesser human because they achieved their vision of success. A few people who have called me enemy began to call me friend when I achieved their vision of success. I have looked down on other writers for not being whatever it was that I thought they should be that day, and I have railed against people who looked down on me for not being whatever they thought I should be that day.

Writers and readers have ridiculed my work because it is “only genre” and, equally, because it is “literary and not imaginative enough.” Just this morning, I received a rejection letter in which the editor said, “I loved reading the story and the sense of the innocent imagination of the child character, but I wanted more depth.” Another editor rejected the same story a couple months ago because, and I quote, “Children aren’t that deep.” In college, a professor attacked me for being a technocrat. In high-tech, engineers attacked me for being “just an English Major.” I’ve been shamed for working from home and raising children. I’ve been envied for working at home and raising children. If we are honest with ourselves, envy or condescension, it’s all the same. It’s fear. Fear that what I am is not enough and I should be like you; fear that I might become like you; fear that if I see you as legitimate I can’t get the bananas I want because my path is not like yours. Fear.

People have stolen my work. I have received email copies of my own articles, sans my name, from friends who said, “This guy thinks like you do.” Once, I managed to get paid for one of my stories that had been pirated. More often, pirates have taken my work and turned it into money for themselves without a thought to my life and my effort. In a seminar, many years ago, I heard a teacher say to a student who was carefully picking up copies of the story we had just analyzed, “Why are you picking them up?”

“I don’t want anyone to steal my story,” the student said.

The teacher laughed then said, “You should be so lucky that people want to steal your work.”

Thanks, M.K. Wren, wherever you are. I’ve never forgotten. I am that lucky.

I’ve known honest, helpful agents. I’ve know agents who were liars and thieves. My name has been on black lists and white lists. Companies have tried to ruin me. I’ve witnessed, and even uncovered, some very shady doings within government agencies and corporations. I even worked as a consultant for ENRON on the project that blew up in their faces. I discovered that a company I worked for was a coke ring. Another was a front for actual spies. Another . . . And another. . . And another. . . I learned that an editor who won’t sign their own contract is not worth the argument, and I learned that when someone says, “It’s nothing personal. It’s just business,” that they have never been hungry or lived under a bridge. They think there’s nothing personal about food, shelter, and feeding self and others.

Freelance for thirty years. A lot of stuff has happened. Awards. Money. Friends. Lovers. Fans. Detractors. As Vonnegut says, “So it goes.”

I get paid. I write. Sometimes, I’m asked to give advice to agencies, entities, executives, and even other writers. Generally, the advice is ignored until the issues hurt enough. That’s very human. I know I often can’t see or hear things I should until I’m desperate enough to seek change. If only I had listened. If only they had listened. If only I hadn’t listened. It’s not my fault you listened to me.

Through all the years, I write. Today, I finished reading a novel. I revised a document that will help bring clean water to a village. I also wrote a few pages of fiction that are, well, meh. A rejection came in. This essay happened. I wrote. I got paid. I did my job.

The rest is just noise in a wind that howls in the back of the mind.

My friends at the WordCrafters in Eugene, an organization I often support by teaching, have a motto, “Don’t be a writer. Be writing.” They have stickers that say that. I have one on the door to my office. It faces outward so I see it every day when I walk in.

Today, I was not a writer. I was writing. It was a good day.

It was good because the whole time I was writing, I felt no pain from my life. I even smiled and laughed. If someone stole my work, I didn’t know. If someone bought my work, I didn’t know. No rejections got read. No sick children or dying family broke into that magical space where vision and feeling merge to become words on the page. Food and shelter were worries to imaginary people who only live in my heart and mind and, with luck, in the hearts and minds of others someday. Political turmoil only existed as a theme. Liars and fools and all the various types of lesser people my righteous stupidity lets me believe exist in various moments all existed only as shadows and echoes far beyond the walls of my office and the light of my screen.

I was writing. I was, for a few blissful hours, what I was meant to be and what I have trained to be, and in the being of that writer, there was no striving or regret or fear or hope. Only the dream made word existed.

Writing cures everything if you are writing instead of being a writer.

Luck and skill to all who write and send.

Tree House People and Cave People

By Lisa Alber

After four years of home ownership, I finally painted the interior. The previous color was what I liked to call “snotty beige/brown” – ugly and drab and too dark. It was awful, but now the paint color is lighter, warmer, and airy, and I love it.

I was reminded of a conversation I had with a friend about cave people and tree house people. Cave people like the coziness of enclosed spaces, and tree house people prefer open and airy. I’m definitely the latter. The only room in my house that’s cavelike is the bedroom that’s my office — I never use it. Instead, I sit at the dining room table in front of the sliders that look onto my garden. In the summer, I sit outside. I inhabit well-lit coffee houses and bistros, but never the silent cubicle rooms at the public library.

I can’t even work at a desk set against a wall. That’s too closed in. A desk against a window is fine though. On writing retreats, I’ve been known to shift the desk so that it’s facing the view (which is usually the ocean).

In my upstairs office, I dream of enlarging the window or putting in a skylight. The new paint color, pale narcissus, helps tremendously. As does the giant mirror that hangs directly across from the window. And also the track lights aimed at the mirror that bounce light off it and around the room.

I recently read an article about retirement living in tiny houses. Super affordable, energy efficient, and, you know, it’s quite the thing. I tried to imagine living inside a 400-square-foot tiny house, or maybe one of those shipping container homes. Could I do it? Honestly — could I?

The thought of it makes me itchy. The only way would be if the house was mostly windows and located in a warm climate where I could plant myself in an outside living space most of the time. Frankly, I don’t see it for myself. (I don’t live in a large house, but it’s bigger than 400 square feet!)

I have theories about why I’m a tree house person. I grew up in an airy, vaulted ceiling kind of house with great views. Also, I deal with depression, which is very cavelike and unpleasant. All that aside, in the end, we like what we like. The funny thing is that I’m not a big fan of heights, so you’d never actually get me into one of those tree house homes or hotels.

Brains Don’t Do Random, by Eric Witchey

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Brains Don’t Do Random

Eric Witchey

Every year over Halloween weekend, I go to a group of cabins in the mountains on the banks of the Mackenzie River here in Oregon. There, a little over a dozen writers and I settle in on Friday night and write scary stories. We set the goal of starting Friday night and having at least one story ready to read out loud on Saturday night. Most years, pretty much every writer gets a first draft of at least one story. Some of the more practiced and prolific writers will produce as many as three in a twenty-four-hour period.

Every year, someone finds out about this event and tells me I’m lying. “Nobody can write a short story that fast.” My response is pretty simple. I say, “Okay.” Then, I go about my business.

Every year, someone else who finds out about it says, “How can they do that?” There’s a hell of difference between the first person and the second. For the second person, I settle in and answer as best I can.

As near as I can tell, there are 4 components to being able to write 1 to 3 short story first drafts in 24 hours. The people who show up at Ghost Story Weekend have all four. If they don’t and they show up again, they generally have all four by the third year of attendance. Here they are:

  1. You have to believe it’s possible. See it happen, and you start to believe.
  2. You have to have internalized a sense of what makes a story. This is easy. If you grew up in a family that uses language, you automatically internalized a sense of story by the time you were three years old.
  3. You have to abandon the concept of making it good or getting it right. This is easy if you’re still four. It’s harder if you’re an adult; however, it can be practiced.
  4. You have to train yourself to produce in order to discover possibilities. See 3 for caveats.

The next step of talking to a writer who asked the second question usually involves them wanting to know how to practice 3 and 4. That’s a hard question to answer since no two writers are quite the same, but brains do have some common characteristics. Brains are all about recognizing patterns. Where no pattern exists, the brain will create one. Anybody who has looked at the night sky and said, “Look! There’s Orion!” has acknowledged this ancient and wondrous phenomenon of the human brain.

So, back to number 2. The brain knows what a story looks like. The brain knows you want to make a story. Now, you can plan a story. In fact, I often do. I’m not in any way suggesting that you should or should not. What I’m trying to convey is how 15-17 writers can, and often do, produce 1-3 completed short fiction drafts each in 24 hours. We are not talking good, though some are quite good. We are talking fun, finished, and shared. See number 3

Where was I? Oh, yes. The brain knows what a story looks like, and the brain will create a pattern even when no actual pattern exists. So, the real trick is telling the brain you are going to create story so that it starts trying to create story patterns out of the stuff around you. There’s a bit of a ritual to this. You can make your own ritual. I have one I use every day, which I will share shortly. However, the ritual for Ghost Story Weekend is kinda like this:

  • Decide to go.
  • Sign up to go.
  • Participate in the meal planning.
  • Start paying attention to ghost stories and all things Halloween.
  • Show up, have communal dinner, laugh, talk stories, write like hell, talk more stories, walk, more communal food, get anxious about the Saturday deadline, write like hell, print it out no matter how bad you think it is, and run to the reading.

I know. That’s doesn’t sound like much of a ritual. No arcane symbols were drawn (probably). No goats were slaughtered (certainly). No virginity was lost. (as far as I know). Still, the brain experiences all this as intention. Ritual establishes intention. The brain is internalizing these things as a set of instructions to get its shit together and start building ghostly stories in order to be able to create, produce, and deliver in a community where the tribe agrees this behavior is a good, proper, and rewarded. Human brains respond to tribal values. They get this stuff. They love a good fire and a little shaman tale-telling. Even more, they love to tell the tale.

Okay, but how do you practice at home to get the brain to play this game on demand. For me, it’s been about getting up every morning and doing some speed writing. I pick a writing concept I want to practice and three random topics from a long list I’ve built up over the years. The topics don’t have to be from a list. They can be anything. The first time I did this, it was a dirty coffee cup, a newspaper article I had just read, and a picture of a submarine. In the example below, the number came from rolling ten-sided dice. I go to that number in my list and use that topic. Here are the topics from this morning:

Concept: Push Pop (a.k.a., moving in and out of backstory in this case); 3084 Treatment center; 2243 Shaking, sitting on the bumper, after being lost in the back country. Freezing. Sweating. Relieved, and still trying to look like I belonged there. Like I meant to do that.; 0861 I always pre-read Christmas gifts I give. Doris.

Next, I check my watch or start a timer. I’m going to write as fast as I can for fifteen minutes. In that fifteen minutes of, literally, non-stop key bashing, I will try to execute the concept and touch all three random elements.

I start pounding keys in my attempt to touch each random thing while executing the concept. I don’t force the concept or the items. I just keep them loosely in mind while I let myself move into the mental space of allowing free association to flow through my hands. If typing is too slow, do this longhand. If you are going to use dictation as your dominant mode of composition, dictate. The goal isn’t to get it right or do it well. The purpose is to internalize patterns (concepts) while seeking to strengthen your flow state connection from brain/heart to your mode of composition.

In terms of Ghost Story Weekend, the concept would be Ghost Story.

The random topics can’t be tolerated by the brain. The brain needs a pattern, so it will almost automatically create one. Because of that, and no matter how impossible it seems, the mind will occasionally deliver the beginnings of an actual story. The more often you do this kind of thing, the more often it will deliver a story start. You don’t need to look for it or try to make it happen. When it does happen, you’ll know. You’ll be pounding away and have no thought in your mind of actually writing a story. Then, suddenly, you’ll go, “Huh. That’s a story. It just needs X, Y, or Z, and it’s a story. I’ll be damned.”

Of course, about then, the fifteen-minute timer will go off. You’ll think, “Shit. I was just getting rolling.”

So, you turn off the timer and keep rolling. I never place a limit on how much time I spend. I am always willing to continue beyond the fifteen-minute exercise. However, I do require at least the fifteen minutes.

Note: If you try this, keep in mind that it is very important to go as fast as you physically can. I tell people, and I mean it quite literally, if you don’t know what to write, write, “I don’t know what to write. I can’t believe that asshole wants me to do this stupid exercise…” Keep writing like that until something shows up or until the timer goes off. Over time, it gets easier. That’s the point.

Now, this ritual I have translates nicely into Ghost Story Weekend. At this point in my life and development as a writer, I get about three story starts per seven sessions. I get about one I really like per seven sessions. Add the ritual of intention that goes with attending Ghost Story Weekend, and the number of starts per seven sessions goes up. Normally, I need maybe three random topic sessions to find the first story I’ll draft at Ghost Story Weekend. Once I have one, others seem to come more easily, which I think is because my anxiety about getting the first one is gone. I can relax into the fun of the experience.

How do the other writers do it? I’m honestly not sure, but I think the combination of ritual, tribal values, and the brain’s innate need to find or create pattern is a part of the process for every writer in attendance.

The bad news is that this year’s event has been sold out since July. The good news is that the people who make this event happen have many other events coming up. Check out http://www.wordcrafters.org.

Here’s this morning’s warm up draft from the random topics above. When my time ran out, I couldn’t quite see a story, but I could see that the map, the compass, the cold, the idea of a planned life–all of these could be used to support a theme about a good life being built from the moments in which we are truly lost. We’ll see. I saved it. I always do. You never know when the brain will wake you up at 3 a.m. and demand that you complete the pattern it came up with while you were trying to sleep.

Concept: Push Pop; 3084 Treatment center; 2243 Shaking, sitting on the bumper, after being lost in the back country. Freezing. Sweating. Relieved, and still trying to look like I belonged there. Like I meant to do that.; 0861 I always pre-read Christmas gifts I give. Doris.

Sixteen miles was eight more than I had intended. The truck welcomed me a little after sunset, and the late winter freeze of falling night washed through the valley and my skin. Even before I reached the truck, my body betrayed my fear, relief, and nascent hypothermia. Still, my ego made me look around to see who else might have parked in the sno-park—who might see the late day cross-country skier returning to the safety of his truck and wonder what he had been doing out in the back country so late into the afternoon that another half hour would have seen him returning to the shelter of park, truck, and warmth in a racing skin in temperatures nearing 0.

I knew it was stupid. Part of me even knew it was cold, hunger, and dehydration, but pride kills people, and I was a person. Nobody saw me clatter over the plow piled snow ridge and the edge of the lot. Nobody saw me fall, strip off my skis, and hobble to the rear of my truck, and nobody saw me drop my ass onto the bumper of the truck even before I made an attempt to get my car keys from my fanny pack.

A vague, self-observing part of me laughed at my vanity. Another, less vague voice, smiled in relief.

Hubris? Pride? Narcissism?

Hypothermia. I started to shake in earnest, and I knew I needed to get my keys, get into the truck, start it, and crank up the heat before I would be able to put my gear away.

The fanny pack didn’t cooperate. Twisting it around to the front was a gymnastic workout. Finding the zipper took hours. Gripping it was like using frozen sausages as tweezers to pick up a contact lens.

The morning had been so pleasant—so full of joy and promise. A new home. A new job. My first outing in a new set of mountains. This was it—what I had worked so hard for, for so long. I had entered the world of productive white-collar citizens, and I was enjoying the benefits. I could afford the truck after seven years of bicycle only living. I could afford new skis after hand-me-downs from racers and always being five to ten years behind competitive equipment. I had new toys and a new skin instead of my coach’s high school skin.

The morning air was clear, crisp, and green wax cold. For me, it was perfect. Blue skies and squabbling scrub jays welcomed me to the Northwest forest. My trail book and maps were in order, and I had plotted my route—a short four miles, a shakedown route. An easy ski on a beautiful day.

No.

My hands shaking, the zipper finally gave. Digging in the pouch gave me a moment of panic. The keys weren’t there. If I had lost them on the trail, I was going to have to hike out to the main road and hope for the kindness of strangers.

Wax fell from the pouch. My compass. The emergency blanket that would have been my coffin if I had not lucked out and been directed toward the car by a couple back-country campers. I’ll never forget the concern and condescension on their faces—especially hers. I wished I had met her under different circumstances. He wasn’t worthy. He was a dick, and he would treat her like shit. Anybody who would tell a lost, cold man in the mountains that he was stupid didn’t deserve the kindness of a woman who shared her water and pointed out position on a map.

The keys fell out. Painfully, I groped in the snow for them. They couldn’t have gone far. The lot was paved.

Finally, my sausage fingers retrieved them. I managed to open the truck, settle in, start it up. A little afraid to look, I made myself check the gas gauge.

It was fine.

I had survived, and I would go home, but I would not tell the tale. Not ever. Not to anyone.

The first mile had been glorious. My body sang with the joy of stretching out my stride, finding my lungs and my heart rhythms, letting the winter song of roaring silence wash over me and sooth away the anxieties and frustrations of a week of dealing with code while surrounded by executive liars and bean counters who had no idea what went into the magic we did at our workstations.

The quarter mile sigh released all my memories of the week into the mountain air in one long, frosty misty cloud that I left behind.

I found my rhythm, and I knew I could keep it for an hour, which would bring me back to the truck around 11. I’d be back in town by 1. Shit, shower, and shave, and I’d meet Liss for an early dinner and a film. In the back of my mind, she was the next piece of my puzzle of life. I could already feel her next to me, my companion, my mate in life and all the struggles of building family and future. The vision was forming, and the trail ahead was clear.

-Stopped Here-

 

A Parliament of Crows: Horror that Happened (™)

Murder in the service of maintaining wealth and status. That’s not uncommon, but when it is done by seemingly “proper” Victorian women, three sisters who teach social graces in women’s colleges in the old South, the contrast sets us up for a good Southern gothic. Based on crimes committed by the infamous Wardlaw sisters against members of their own family, A Parliament of Crows, explores in fiction the emotions and the thinking behind such crimes. The novel was released this month under the new IFD Publishing imprint, Horror that Happened (™). I have changed their name to Mortlow and made some other changes to drive the story, yet I’ve tried to follow what history has told us about the Wardlaw sisters’ crimes. The tale unfolds from their respective perspectives, the chapters rotating through the three POVs.

Murders committed over the course of many years left the three Mortlow sisters, Vertiline, Mary, and Carolee, with many secrets to keep. Differing in personality, faith, and outlook, they were at odds with one another from the start—more so even than with those they killed. Jealousies, grievances, and mistrust threatened to break their loyalty and shared silence.

With a final crime, the murder of Mary’s daughter, authorities caught up with the sisters. They were indicted for murder and insurance fraud. That’s where the story begins. The backstories of all three are revealed as the court case proceeds.

The mystery here is not whodunnit, but how they found it reasonable to do what they did.

Concerning the title, some have asked if I meant owls, because a gathering of owls is referred to as a parliament. There is also a parliament of crows that is less description of them as a group and more something the group may do when they gather together in large numbers, say in an open field. In such gatherings of perhaps fifty or more crows, occasionally an argument breaks between one or more of the birds. The others seem to watch. When the argument is done, the crows turn on one of the participants, presumably the loser, sometimes maiming, killing, or even cannibalizing the creature. Some people who have viewed this phenomenon have likened it to a trial in which the defendent is convicted and punished. A parliament of crows is the term for that type of gathering. With the way the sisters go after each other and because they habitually wore black mourning clothes, I thought the title appropriate.

A Parliament of Crows, by Alan M. Clark, is the second novel to be included in the new IFD Publishing imprint Horror that Happened (™).

The outrageous is all the more extraordinary when we know it actually occurred. Horror that Happened (™), provides riveting stories in three catagories: True Crime, Based on a True Story, and Lifted from the Past. We hope you will come back to IFD Publishing for your high-quality reading entertainment.

—Alan M. Clark

Eugene, Oregon

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-