A Murder of Writers or a Writing Community?

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A Murder of Writers or a Writing Community?

Eric Witchey

Over the 29 years I have made a living as a freelance writer and communication consultant, I have experienced many different writing communities. I’ve worked among supportive and professional technical writers, and I have worked among corporate liars and thieves. I have seen students make it onto the NYT best-seller lists, and I have seen amazing, powerful fiction writers driven to their knees by the grinding, marketing-driven publishing industry. I have seen egoists in positions of power destroy the momentum of career paths, and I have seen agents steal from writers. Most important, I have been lucky to know some amazing, accomplished writers who give generously of themselves and constantly remind me that the lifestyle of a writer is a path of exploration, self-discovery, heart, mind, and imagination. That path is not the same thing as the business that is writing.

The single most destructive phenomenon to community among writers that I see is comparison. Whether it is comparison of self to other or other to self, the result is an implied false competition between people who could, and should, find common ground for cooperation.

Don’t get me wrong, here. I’m not saying that hard work and dedication are not important. I’m not saying we should give endlessly to one another without setting personal boundaries. I’m saying that the vision of success one person has should be different than the vision of success anyone else has.

In our culture, if you use the word success in casual company, visions of being high in the hierarchy of a discipline come to mind. Often, that hierarchy is defined by position, by power, by financial wealth, and by material acquisition.

For some people, material things are part of their vision of success for themselves. That’s not a problem unless they judge others based on what they have or don’t have. For example, I have one life-loving friend who gets excited when she buys something for herself with money earned by writing. It has always been fun to see her excitement and amazement that in her life she is able to do that. For her, that is success. Her success isn’t measured by more than others or volume. It is measured by a bill paid or a television purchased using money she earned with her imagination and skill.

Another friend of mine considers it amazing when he adds a rejection slip to his “collection.” Certainly, he wants more financial freedom for his writing, but I never get the sense that financial freedom means more money or freedom than others or respect for him based on the money he earns. For him, money is always about being able to write more stories.

I draw inspiration from people like these two. I look at my own place in the neurodiversity of the world of writers, and I think in terms of what I can do with what I have. Today, I wrote a new short story. That’s my success. Forty years ago, I couldn’t have remained focused long enough to do that.

Often, when I teach, I discover that the people I work with have diverse definitions of success, but they talk about success as if it is the same for everyone. Writers come into classes or meet with other writers, and they talk about how many stories are in the mail, how many sales they have, where they are with review numbers, where they are on various lists, or what awards they have won. Some talk about numbers of stories sold. Hell, I have a standardized script I recite when people ask me questions about what I write. However, success is rarely about the things that writers talk about or use as metrics for comparison. Success, that feeling of personal satisfaction, comes from a deeper, more personal place.

Here’s an example of how casually we writers can treat each other poorly. About fifteen years ago, I had won some awards and published a number of stories in various genres. While attending a seminar taught by my friend Bruce Holland Rogers, I partnered with a young woman for an exercise. We collaborated on a short piece. She wrote a line. I wrote a line. She wrote a line. I wrote a line. You get the idea.

She wrote about flowers and pastoral settings. I introduced bees, a horse, and a wounded rider. We went back and forth. Eventually, she said, “Why do you do that?”

“What?” I seriously didn’t know what she was asking.

“Make the scene ugly.”

Confused, I went back over what we had written, and I realized that I had been attempting to bring conflict onto the page quickly because we had so little room to work. She had been attempting to create a pastoral, poetic moment of beautiful language.

Was I wrong? Of course not.

Was she wrong? Of course not.

“I’m introducing conflict,” I said.

“What kind of fiction do you write?”

Now, any writer who has been a writer for any length of time knows that this question is always hammer-locked, round-chambered, loaded. So, I recited my script, “I have sold science fiction, fantasy, horror, literary, romance….” People who know me know this patter. In the moment, it was preemptive self defense.

When I was done, she said, “Oh. You’re only a commercial writer.”

That word, “only,” is a short blade to the gut.

I pulled out my broadsword. “Yes. I sell what I write.”

Ha! Take that!

Okay, now how sad is that whole exchange?

Both of us were only looking for respect for what we spend so much of our lives doing. Both of us managed to put the other one down. Neither of us got the respect that would have satisfied some aspect of our criteria for personal success. She looked down her nose at me because I’m “only” a commercial writer, despite my literary sales. I shot back just as much venom in my barbed, “Yes, I sell…” We didn’t succeed in building a story, nor did we succeed on any other front.

We could have. She could have talked to me about what I was trying to do. I could have talked to her about what she was trying to do. We could have learned technique from one another. We could have shared hopes and plans. I might have known an editor who would like what she wrote. She might have known a reader who might like what I wrote.

Instead, we tried to impose our visions of success on one another. We tried to force respect rather than develop understanding.

Is my material vision of success a new car? No. My car is 27 years old. I love it. I’ll cry when it dies. My material vision of success does, however, include the newish computer and monitor I’m using to write these words. Is my heart’s vision of success the NYT list? No. I get much more excited about a fan letter or my sister calling me up to tell me about the deep-heart crying one of my stories caused. Is my success about how high I can go in the imaginary pantheon of the gods of writing? No. My personal vision is more about how far I’ve come from the day my high school guidance counselor told me I had good eye-hand coordination and would make a good factory worker but shouldn’t bother with college applications. My success is about years of therapy, diagnostics, and learning to live in my own skin in order to begin to be able to tap the emotions that let me tell a story that people will read. I get excited about my distance from my starting point much more than I get excited about the apparent altitude others perceive.

In a room full of 100 writers, I know one thing. Not even one of them is neurotypical in terms of how our culture measures such things. They all sit alone in back rooms and coffee shops and basements putting little black squiggles in a row until they feel right, and they all hope that someone will pick up those little black squiggles and use them to trigger an imagined experience that is rich, powerful, and meaningful.

I’m sorry to tell you this if you are a writer, but that’s just not normal.

However, it is glorious. It is worthy of respect and honor. It is necessary to the culture and the future.

Your success may be one sentence a day—today. It might be calming down enough to sit at the table or adding an extra hundred words to your daily word count. Your success might be buying a microwave with writing money, or it might be to free up enough time this year to finish a novel. Your success might be hitting the Times list, but equally powerful and important to the individual, it might be getting out of a town that expects you to make tail pipes for the rest of your life when your deepest heart knows you were meant to tell stories.

Whatever your vision of your success, I salute it. May the new year, and every day of it, bring you close to your success. May the people around you respect you for your vision of your success. Most of all, may all the writers who believe community is possible remember that we are not a murder of writers. We are a community of diverse hearts, minds, and imaginations—a writing community.

-End-

Critical Thinking and the Noogie Man

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Eric Witchey

Recently, I went to a mixed company party where someone I barely knew actually gave me a noogie. Mind you, I’m a 60 year-old man. He wrapped a beer-fed arm around my neck, rubbed his knuckles on my balding skull, and playfully said, “There’s always at least one liberal egghead at these things.”

I refrained from ripping his balls off and feeding them to him because I actually like the hosts. That, and he was easily 20 years younger than me and outweighed me by at least 100 pounds.

Earlier that day, I had started reading an article about critical thinking. At the party, the concept came up in conversation. Being a communication consultant and writer, I felt very comfortable describing the content of as much of the article as I had read. This, apparently, made my new, large, personal boundary-challenged BFF uncomfortable enough to need to engage in some simian, physical dominance behavior.

Later on, awake at about 2am and staring at the ceiling of my Eric cave, I started thinking about what most people experience when their eyes pass over the phrase “critical thinking.”

My, perhaps ungracious, conclusion is that the phrase triggers a vaguely, barely recognizable in the mental background noise of their minds, self-affirmation of the belief that they are critical thinkers. They reinterpret the phrase to mean something like, smart people like me. It is a fleeting ghost of a thought that is barely recognized, if it is recognized at all. By the time it might be recognized, the eyes and mind are already on to the end of the sentence and the next sentence.

In the context of teaching, I have often wondered how to successfully demonstrate both the processes of and the value of critical thinking. Sadly, my success has been limited. It is a very hard thing to teach because learning it requires a proactive self-doubt combined with a desire to learn and, possibly, change.

Critical thinking, for a person who actually engages in it as a habit, looks something like this when they encounter a new phrase like—oh, let’s say, “critical thinking.”

What does that really mean? What does critical mean? Does it mean important? Of paramount importance? Necessary to survival? Does it mean analytical—to analyze, deconstruct, evaluate? Does it mean to attack—to minimize, to negate, to reduce to component insignificance?

Thinking. Hm… Present participle of “to think.” Could it be a progressive form instead of a participial form? Does it mean to engage in ongoing thought? Is the participial form a nominalization that means “the class of thoughts associated with the adjective critical?” If a noun prior to “critical” is the modified term, does it mean the modified preceding noun has thought capacity engaged in an ongoing process? Maybe it means that the preceding noun has capacity and the phrase is intended as a compound adjective in which the hyphen has been unintentionally dropped?

Interesting that I could generate so many speculations about such a ubiquitous phrase. I’ll run a search on the phrase in order to test the denotative and usage history against my own experience, assumptions, and speculations.

From Criticalthinking.org:

#1: A statement by Michael Scriven & Richard Paul, presented at the 8th Annual International Conference on Critical Thinking and Education Reform, Summer 1987.

Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. In its exemplary form, it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness.

#2: Critical thinking is self-guided, self-disciplined thinking which attempts to reason at the highest level of quality in a fair-minded way.   People who think critically consistently attempt to live rationally, reasonably, empathically.    They are keenly aware of the inherently flawed nature of human thinking when left unchecked.  They strive to diminish the power of their egocentric and sociocentric tendencies.   They use the intellectual tools that critical thinking offers – concepts and principles that enable them to analyze, assess, and improve thinking. . . .

From Wikipedia:

Critical thinking is clear, reasoned thinking involving critique. Its details vary amongst those who define it. According to Beyer (1995), critical thinking means making clear, reasoned judgments. During the process of critical thinking, ideas should be reasoned and well thought out/judged.[1] The National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking[2] defines critical thinking as the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.’[3]

From Daniel T. Willingham and The Federation of American Teachers:

In layperson’s terms, critical thinking consists of seeing both sides of an issue, being open to new evidence that disconfirms your ideas, reasoning dispassionately, demanding that claims be backed by evidence, deducing and inferring conclusions from available facts, solving problems, and so forth… (The article goes on to describe types of, studies in attempts to teach it, and problems in pedagogy).

From Dictionary.com:

disciplined thinking that is clear, rational, open-minded, and informed by evidence.

Okay, enough fiddling about with online sources that may or may not be subject to editorial scrutiny, peer-review, and general tests of accuracy and veracity. To my own bookshelves for real answers.

I think I’ll sample my very favorite dictionary, a big fat library edition of the 1947 Webster’s New International Dictionary, Second Edition. This book is the hernia-generating monster that, when I was a kid at Saturday morning story time readings, was chained to a pedestal inside the library front doors—as it should be.

Nothing. No entry.

I wonder why I had to wade through so many words that began with ‘co’ on the way to ‘cr?’ Well, that’s not relevant to the question I’m researching. Refocus.

Next on my shelf.

From the 1983 Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Deluxe Second Edition:

Nothing. No entry.

I would have thought that the Universal Unabridged Dictionary would be fatter than the merely International Dictionary, but it’s not. Maybe we lost a lot of words between 47 and 83. Not relevant. Still, I had to wade through a lot of words that began with ‘co’ on the way to ‘cr.’ I’ll figure out the root history to ‘co’ words another day. Refocus on the question at hand.

Okay, really, seriously! Enough fiddling about. Pull the definitive source from the shelf and torture my aging eyes with micrographic print.

From the Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary Vol. A-O, 1981. 21st printing. This is the dictionary that was never chained to anything because in full-print size, it spans 14 massive volumes. In micrographic print, which requires a magnifying glass to read no matter how young your eyes are, it is only two fat books made up of very thin paper. Herein, I shall find the complete history of the use of the phrase, “critical thinking:”

Not! Nothing. No entry.

So, the phrase is not treated as a word prior to 1983. Further research could tell me when it began to be treated as a single concept in phrasal form. Not now. Instead, maybe I’ll do a little bit of work to better understand the two words, “critical” and “thinking.” That’s the next logical step if my goal is to understand use in context rather than use over time.

Unfortunately, the OED micrographic print went on for a column and a half with denotative uses of “critical.” I can’t put that kind of time in on wading through lists of meanings in order to find deep understanding of something I’m not being paid to chase—at least not today.

Paid to chase. Hm? Is that why we don’t think? Are we all just chasing our next banana? No. Don’t go there. Not now.

Maybe I’ll write a blog entry about the semantics of denotative combinatorics some other time. I’ll match up each definition of critical with each definition of thinking to create all the possible matches as an exercise in possibilities.

Or not. Focus. Right now, I have to get to other things.

This is the point at which a habitual critical thinker might break out of the rapture of research. At this point, they have ceased critical thinking. They fall back on untested personal experience and speculation.

They read the comma and the next word and consider them as limiting variables in revisions of and reductions to the above possibilities and their relevance to a developing understanding of the possible intent of the author and to personal interpretation of their written effort.

I…

Oops. I mean, they. They do this because a part of me… I… they… them still feels the pain of Homo Neoneanderthalensis knuckles on my balding head.

Crap. Okay, I’m outed.

Reading smart stuff written by smart people makes me feel better.

Take that, Noogie Man!

Hm… Is imaginary revenge a result of critcal thinking? As my father used to say, “No matter where you go and no matter what you do, the monkey is still a monkey.” Interesting that my father used the second person, singluar pronoun. Until this moment, I have always universalized it and excluded myself.

Exhausted, I settled down and finished reading the article that had started all the trouble.

Critical thinking is treated in this culture as a symptom of some underlying disorder: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Attention Deficit Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Asperger’s Spectrum Disorder, Autism, or Antisocial Personality Disorder. As a culture, we treat people who demonstrate passionate curiosity and who actually focus on seeking diverse or nuanced understanding as if they are broken. We dismiss actual, credentialed experts as too educated to be useful, and we use ad hominem attacks to socially shun the curious by undermining the credibility of any non-credentialed, non-academic who engages in critical thinking. We place value on the presentation of confident, socially dominant behavior as knowledge rather than on the processes of productive, egalitarian exploration through conversation. Smart people learn to be quiet at mixed social gatherings because they are statistically much more likely to meet with shunning, sarcastic attacks like, “I didn’t know you had a Ph.D. in bullshit,” “You must have swallowed a fucking dictionary before you showed up,” “You always did think you were better than the rest of us,” and, my personal favorite, “How about those (insert sportsball team here),” than they are to meet a non-combative conversationalist.

The same person, engaged in conversation with others while travelling in educationally developed nations like Denmark, Sweden, France, Norway, and Finland is greeted with statements like, “You aren’t like most Americans I’ve met,” “I can tell you didn’t go to an American school,” “What a pleasure to meet an American who can talk about more than TV, sports, and their children,” and, my personal favorite, “You are the first American I’ve met who didn’t need to win the conversation.”

Can I claim understanding and objectivity in my thinking if, for me, the article amounted to cherry-picking? So, I have failed as both a critical thinker and as a good American. My research was not pure. My curiosity was not open to all possibilities. In the end, I just wanted to win against the Noogie Man. I am Homo Neoneanderthalensis. Sadly, Noogie Man will never read this, so I have only succeeded in giving air noogies to mind shadows in the comfort of my own home.

-End-

Reconciling Fiction Techniques in Memoir

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Reconciling Fiction Techniques in Memoir, by Eric Witchey

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

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

The Question:

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

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

The Answer:

Hi, again, Writer X:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This would be Romeo.

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

That’s the short version of I.S.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay, on to memoir.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best of luck and skill to you.

Eric

 

Three Lessons in Writing from a Blind Dog

GoldenPupFace

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

Three Lessons in Writing from a Blind Dog

Eric Witchey

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

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

We became inseperable.

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

I couldn’t do it. I kept him.

Thank God.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, really.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-End-

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-

The Sound of Writing

By Cheryl Owen-Wilson

I recently attended a writer’s retreat where each morning after breakfast we’d sit around a large table, laptops open writing. The unique sound of many fingers hitting keys surrounded me. At some point in the morning, my coffee fueled brain kicked in and the end of a chapter began to unfold. In that moment I realized there was a specific rhythm to the tapping of my fingers against the keys. Is there anything more satisfying to a writer, than that very distinct sound when words naturally flow, revealing story, like the petals of a perfect flower opening?

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On the flip side, when all around me was silent and my own fingers lay frozen on the keys I yearned for the sound to return. Many things have been written about famous author’s choices of writing tools. But while sitting in the silence of that room I wondered if the actual sound created by the tool itself, if that sound might have aided in the words created.

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I recalled reading how Ernest Hemingway wrote on a typewriter while standing. What a visual it creates. But can’t you also hear the sound the keys made while striking the page to form each and every letter? Those old typewriters had a most distinct reverberation when the keys were struck. Could it have contributed to the intensity in his novels?

I wrote my first short story on an electric typewriter. To this day I can hear its soothing whir as it helped my words come forth.

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Then there are writers who compose with a ballpoint pen. I’m always in awe of them. I’ve tried it. For every page I filled to the margins, I salvaged maybe five useable sentences. The remainder, were rendered as blobs of ink marked through again and again. I realize now, it was the scratch of the pen on paper. The sound. To me, it is nails on a chalkboard. And yet, when writing a quick note to work through an anger issue I might have, a pen, is my perfect instrument of choice —oh, wait—I get it.

shakespeare-writing

Now let’s go back in time a little, to say, Shakespeare.   When I read his plays I know I will be immersed in the—to my ear—lyrical cadence of his words. They easily bring to my mind the visuals of his time; cobbled streets, thatched roofs, etc. But the other visual, I always have, is of a solitary man bent over a desk, quill in hand scratching words onto papyrus by the flickering of candlelight. Scratching, the scratching of the quills point against the porous page, seeing him having to stop and dip it into the inkpot again, and again. Could it have aided in the cadence of the words written? Would the same sentences have come forth, if perhaps he had at his disposal a graphite pencil? Heaven forbid he would have used it to erase, or replace, even one word of his poetic prose.

Now let’s go back even further to when words were carved into rock or stone. How precise must the writer have had to be before taking chisel in hand? Can you not hear the pounding as stone gave way to create a simple idea, word or visual of what the writer intended to convey? The crude instrument along with the sound it created. How could it not have shaped what was being written?

What sound does your chosen writing instrument make? If you changed it, would your writing change? If your writing could have the impact of Hemingway’s would you not gladly pound away on old typewriter keys?

Now I’m not suggestion you go out, with chisel in hand and find some stone. But then again—maybe I am. After all it does feel some days like that is exactly what we are doing, doesn’t it? Chiseling words from our brain and placing them carefully into our story. Now, I like the sound of that.

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Fiction and Viktor Frankl, by Eric Witchey

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

Fiction and Viktor Frankl, by Eric Witchey

In my small way, I try to continually expand my awareness of the experiences of others. I do this because I’m curious by nature and because to do so improves my ability to tell a story. Because I have been working on a fantasy story to support the marketing efforts of Dungeon Solitaire, I found myself researching death rites and rituals from various parts of the world. I also decided to reread Viktor E. Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning.

For any human being capable of compassion, reading Viktor Frankl is always a heady experience. However, my immersion in death rites and rituals somehow brought me to a moment where I was struck by how fully universal to the human experience his accounts of life and core integrity are. Perhaps I should have felt this before, and I certainly understood it before, but this time it hit me more deeply in both the heart and mind.

In my travels in the writing life, I have met some pretty rabid Zionists, a few really terrifying Palestinian poets, escaped hostages from the Palestinian hostage crisis, survivors of Guatemalan genocide, Serbs, Iranian ex-pats, righteous American ex-pats, escaped cold war Ukrainians, Holocaust survivors, Turkish intellectual Muslims, a Greek freedom fighter (against the Germans and carrying huge hatred of all Germans and Turks), a Catholic monk who fought on the German side in WWI and the American side in WWII, and all manner of extreme Christians who, more than the others, scared the hell out of me personally. That last one included a mercenary I met on his way to South Africa to fight for the Christian white-right to bring Apartheid back. I won’t add more to this list. It’s already long enough to make my point.

During my interactions with various people who held aggressive/defensive positions that made me nervous, I have tried to keep my fear in check and truly listen to their (sometimes insane and irrational) personal positions in order to seek some understanding of what motivates actions I cannot understand from the context of my white-boy, Midwestern, multi-religion upbringing.

Those extreme souls I met who had a sense of history, even if only from their own agenda-driven point of view or other-interpreted oral traditions, had one thing in common. They deeply felt, and were sometimes motivated solely by, their fear for their families and their futures. Often, that fear was grounded in their sense of history, and their sense of history was based entirely on which side of the experiences they were on.

Here’s an example. I was in a village in central Mexico, and the man I was staying with casually described how he really liked the new mayor because she was not corrupt. I asked how he knew she was not corrupt, and he said, “Because the cartel has tried to kill her twice.”

Well, that caught my attention.

I asked about the cartel and whether we were safe. He laughed and told me that of course we were safe. He said, “If you were in one of your cities, there would places you knew not to go at night, right?” I nodded. “Us, too,” he said. “We just don’t go to the wrong places at the wrong times.”

The casual conversation moved on, and he eventually described to me how the cartels weren’t really a problem to the people of the village. From his perspective, the American gun dealers were the real problem.

I kept listening. He kept talking. From his perspective, the cartels were like the weather, but the Americans sold death. From his perspective, the cartels were God-fearing people doing the best they could in terrible economic circumstances. They brought products in from the South, moved the products through the area, and passed them on across the border to the North. However, it was the Godless, money-hungry Americans who created the market for the drugs and who fueled the destruction of families by selling guns to both the government and the cartels.

The above is a very short description of an off-and-on conversation that went on for more than a week, but I hope you get the idea. Everything he said was true for him and his family in their lives in their world.

The flip-side of that story is also equally true. The DEA agent I met in Pima, Arizona who had lost two members of her family, one to addiction and one to gunfire, hated the Mexican government and the Mexican people for allowing the cartels, for trafficking across the border, and for making poison available on the streets in a way that killed her brother. She believed that the Pope at that time supported the trafficking and that Catholic confession was part of the reason the smugglers could do what they did without remorse. She was also correct from within her context.

Both people were deeply moved because of their connection to family history, family safety, and possible futures. Both essentially hated the other for what they considered to be good reasons. Both supported their positions from a combination of personal experience, family history, speculation, and verifiable fact.

An aside: Personally, the more I learned about the illegal gun trade and the multi-billion dollar flow of firearms from the U.S. to Mexico, the more disgusted I got with the whole situation. So, I wrote a story, “The Tequila Volcano.” It appeared in a literary journal last year, Timberline Review. It’s very short, and I recommend both the story and the journal.

When Viktor Frankl described both the deterioration of prisoners, whom one would expect to be supportive of one another, into brutal behavior toward one another and concentration camp guards, whom one would expect to be brutal but a few of whom engaged in acts of compassion and kindness, I was struck once more with the sad truth that no group has a lock on reality.

No person or group is entitled to perfect righteousness.

Frankl broke both the prisoners and the guards of the concentration camps into two essential groups: those who have core decency and those who do not. Neither guards nor prisoners were a homogenous front of virtue or brutality.

My life has exposed me to people from many traditions, to multiple holy texts, to people who have survived race and religion-motivated traumas, and to amazing acts of kindness and human decency from all regions, races, and holy traditions.

I do my very best to support the growth of the human heart. I do my best to find the commonality of experience and to avoid becoming bogged down in the destructive, isolating interpretations of ideology that are often used to fuel fear and justify destructive behavior. I cannot ever truly understand the devastation that is part of some family histories and historical identities. I can only do my best to dampen and block the perpetuation of fear and hatred in all its forms. I hope that my fiction explores mutual understanding, expands the development of compassion, and creates some sense of common ground in the human condition.

I believe that stories can help to heal the world. They lead the way to new thoughts, to expanded awareness, to a smaller sense of “I” and a greater sense of “we.”

So, I tell another story.