The Fiction of Reality

By Matthew Lowes

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Photograph by Matthew Lowes

As writers of fiction we are always trying to project some sense of reality into our stories. We praise the vivid setting when it feels as if we’ve been there. We thrill at events when we can see them happening. And we love the character who seems to walk off the page, fully fleshed, and yes, real. But how does it happen?

The irony is that actual people experience their lives through a variety of thoughts that start to look a lot like fiction. We are, along with everyone around us, constantly telling ourselves who we are, what we’re like, what type of person we are, what we believe, where we come from, the kind of world we live in, and on and on and on. And very little of it has anything to do with what’s really happening right now. We are creating these self-fictions out of the perceptions, sensations, thoughts, and memories that arise in consciousness moment to moment.

Since this is happening in the minds of people all the time, seeing the operation of these self-fictions and understanding how they create conflict could be a great insight into creating fiction that seems real. In short, good fiction must contain the self-fictions of the characters within it. In other words, it must contain characters who have fictional views on the fictional world they inhabit. These views lie at the heart of all internal conflict, and one might say all possible conflicts.

Let’s look closer at what self-fictions are, how they form, and how they come into conflict with each other, with the self-fictions of other people, and with reality itself. A self-fiction is a story you tell yourself about yourself and/or the world. “I am a writer,” is a self-fiction. “I am a good writer”; “I am a bad writer”; “I am a lazy writer”; “I spent 20 years honing the craft of writing only to find out it’s not enough.” These are all self-fictions, and I think you can see, especially if you are a writer, that they are all self-fictions a single person could have. You can probably also see how these thoughts, if believed, will conflict with each other and with various happenings in that person’s life.

I am an American, a Mexican, a Muslim, or a Buddhist; I am a faithful husband, a loving wife, an angry person, a damaged person. Birth is a blessing; life is suffering; death is a bummer. The world is a beautiful place full of good people; the world is a nasty place full of selfish people; the world is made of stuff guided by physical laws; the world is an illusion; the world is God’s creation. And on and on and on. There are enough examples to fill an entire universe. Even something as ordinary as a tree can be a self-fiction. And in most cases, what people experience as reality may simply be a projection of these self-fictions in consciousness.

Such a situation is created through a repetition of thoughts. Every time a thought arises it may become a self-fiction if the mind grasps hold and believes it. The more it repeats the more grasping occurs, and the more real and binding its contents will seem. At this point the self-fiction takes root in the person, and it will continue to seem real and binding even if present experience or new thoughts come into conflict with it. Because all things change, and new experiences and thoughts always arise, conflict with these self-fictions is inevitable. Even the most seemingly accurate and objective self-fiction cannot be right at all times, in all places, and in all situations.

This is all pretty abstract though, so let’s create a more elaborate example. A man and a woman fall madly in love. The man thinks, he could never love anyone more than he loves her. They are made for each other, two people sharing the same love, the same life, the same being. Eventually he asks her to marry him. She says “yes!” and a whole new level of love opens up to them based on the depth, the sincerity, and the promise of this commitment. Of course, he has moments of doubt. Can he really be satisfied with this one person for the rest of his life? Why did she get so angry about the wedding cake? What if she turns out to be like her domineering her mother? They are just little thoughts in conflict with the established self-fiction of their relationship. But, he says to himself, they are in love and love perseveres. Marriage is for life and he is the kind of guy that can stick with someone through thick and thin. So the wedding happens and they start their life together.

Maybe you can see how this goes already, even without the details. While so far they have been sharing a wonderfully pleasant self-fiction, each has other self-fictions. She envisions a house in the suburbs, three children, and traveling the world. He envisions life in the city, no children, and a romance without end. Or whatever. The point being, things change. They argue about moving. She get pregnant but miscarries. His father dies. The stock market crashes. She gets a job that keeps her traveling all the time. A thousand other stories interact with their lives and every one starts to seem in conflict with the others and especially with the one in which they are in love. He starts to think about other women, but he could never have an affair. He’s not that type of person. Only he keeps thinking about it. Maybe if the situation came up … hell, maybe he is that type of person. Maybe everybody is! Maybe that’s just the kind of world it is. And one day, he find himself in a hotel bar with a woman he works with, and in that moment ….

This can go on and on, but it’s just playing various self-fictions against each other. It’s all self-fictions, all the way down. And the more the self-fictions conflict with each other and the situation itself, the more real and interesting the characters and situations seem. That’s because anybody with a modicum of experience knows intuitively that’s exactly what it’s like. That’s exactly what happens. And if the conflict increases enough, some kind of crisis will occur, and things will change. Some self-fictions will crumble, and others take over. And perhaps, if in an instant one sees through it all, the whole thing will collapse like a house of cards. Then what?

If you look at things this way, maybe you can consciously manipulate the self-fictions underlying your writing. That may mean both the self-fictions of your characters, as well as your own. In fiction, as in real life, these self-fictions can be obvious or incredibly subtle and deceptive. Every protagonist is a conglomeration of self-fictions that will come into conflict with each other and the world. Every villain has a conflict generating mass of self-fictions guiding their actions. Every POV character presents the setting and events of a story through the lenses of their own self-fictions.

In fact, if one gets right down to it, there may be little difference between real life self-fictions and fictional self-fictions in the mind of a reader, since real life self-fictions are themselves imaginary in some sense. Which means fictional places, characters, and events may seem real by being, in actuality, just as real as the self-fictions through which the human mind usually perceives reality. Indeed, every aspect of fiction can be examined and manipulated as a projection of self-fictions in conflict, precisely because this real life function of the mind may be what fundamentally makes fiction possible, present, interesting, and hopefully entertaining.

Tales and the Walk-by Hugging, by Eric Witchey

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Source: Nicolas McComber, istockphoto.

Tales and the Walk-by Hugging, by Eric Witchey

Why do we write? For money? For fame? For immortality? To validate our own view of the world? To prove something?

A recent experience at the grocery store brought new clarity to my answer to this question.

People who know me well know that I’ve been involved in a soul-sucking legal battle with corrupt corporate forces for the last five years. I more-or-less won that battle a couple months ago. Thank God. However, it was a terrible, wearing experience thrust upon me by corporate greed and corruption. About a month before that battle finally ended, I was feeling the wearying weight of it as soon as I woke up on a particular Thursday. I got up, engaged my autopilot, and shuffled off to the kitchen to fry a couple eggs and brew some coffee.

There were no eggs in the fridge. I had a Tourette’s moment and hoped the neighbors didn’t hear me.

I struggled making coffee. I screwed it up twice before I got a cup of coffee I could drink. I then discovered I had no half-and-half. Another Tourette’s moment.

I need cream. I can’t drink coffee without it. No, dammit, I refuse to drink coffee without it—and I don’t want any of that fake creamer crap, either. It’s not much to ask of the universe, but I do ask that my coffee have decent cream.

So, in rare existential form, I accepted defeat and acknowledged the fated fact that I was going to get a late start on the day. After making a list of three things to pick up at the grocery, I plugged in my earbuds to continue listening to my current audio book, The Disappearing Spoon, and headed down to Freddie’s, my local grocery.

In the more-or-less gray mental fog of my normal, pre-coffee dysthymic depressive experience, I found myself thinking about my brother-in-law’s illness, the periodic table, my lawyer, and the emotionally flat affect of the fiction I’d been producing. Somehow, I was pretty sure all these things were related, but I was too emotionally gray to force myself to tease out the relationships, preferring instead to let the words from the audio device intertwine themselves into my nonlinear interior monolog.

At the front door to the grocery, I encountered a crowd of very old people. Weaving my way through them, it dawned on me that I was seeing a crowd waiting for the bus service that takes otherwise house-bound seniors to get groceries. My 90-year-old British ex-pat neighbor lady, whom I take to doctor’s appointments and have tea with, had graced me with narrated versions of a few of her epic quests via these busses. The crowd seemed to be waiting, and a new thread showed up in my mental playlist.

Someday, if I’m lucky enough to live so long, I might be in that group. Do you think fiction groups and role playing games will be big in retirement homes when I get there? I hope so.

So, I passed on through, picked up my basket, and entered the store. Immediately, I was almost run over by a hurrying elderly woman. I saw her out of the corner of my eye and froze before we collided. It would have been like a Smart Car hitting a Peterbilt loaded with lumber. Just to be clear, her maybe 80 pound osteoporosis body was the whizzing Smart Car. My plodding, 180 pound meat suit was the overloaded truck.

I motioned for her to go ahead of me into the produce area. She nodded and hurried past, and I wondered what she might have forgotten. It occurred to me briefly that in such situations I almost always defer to others. I rarely feel like I’m late for anything, and I’m lucky that I don’t generally have to worry about my influence on other people’s schedules. Her bus was probably due to leave soon, and I certainly had no reason to slow her down.

Methodically, I found my cream, orange juice, and eggs while learning from my audio book that Madam Currie was believed by other women in her time to be a bit morally loose.

Just as M. Currie was gleefully pulling two male colleagues into a dark closet to show them a sample of material—material we would now call extremely hazardous—that glowed in the dark, I found a short checkout line at the 12 items and below lanes. I pulled my earbuds from my ears, put away my audio device, and prepared to engage with actual people.

A senior woman had beaten me to the line. She was engaged in a friendly chat with the checkout lady. From the look of it, I inferred that the old woman was getting in her once a week conversation with another human being, so I tried to relax and look unhurried in order to give her time to get her joy.

In the back of my mind, I wondered why I was doing that. Wasn’t I supposed to look like I was in a hurry and had very important things to do? Shouldn’t I cross my arms, scowl, and tap my foot?

I wondered what it would take to hype myself to that level of pointless behavior. I didn’t think I could it. I suppose that was because I wasn’t in a hurry and didn’t have really important things to do that hadn’t already been screwed by my lack of eggs and half-and-half.

So, I waited.

I scanned the tabloids.

I miss The World News Report. I used to read it in the checkout line. Now-a-days, I only see celebrity mags. There is not one single UFO alien bat baby hybrid LA housewife in the batch of broadsides. I wondered if that said something about our declining cultural sense of whimsy and humor?

The senior lady moved on, and the checkout lady checked out my “fewer than twelve items.” We said the normal things, and in mid-sentence, she grabbed something off the counter and bolted away as if I had just threatened to eat her soul. I checked my admittedly coffee-starved memory and confirmed that I had not, in fact, threatened to eat her soul.

She chased down the senior lady, who had only managed to get about ten yards closer to the front door. Apparently, the lady had left an item behind. The checkout woman and the senior chatted for a minute. The package changed hands.

In keeping with my previous musings, I thought to myself, this is where I’m supposed to get angry and say something rude. You’re not on script, Eric. Maybe with coffee I can be meaner.

The checkout lady came back and sheepishly finished ringing me up.

I saw a couple of boxes on the counter, and I asked if those might also belong to the senior lady.

Checkout lady sheepishly said, “No.”

I smiled, gathered up my bags, and for no reason I can name said, “It’s good that you are a kind soul.”

She lit up like a searchlight. We both parted, smiling.

I was smiling, but actually I was still living in my land of gray mists and muted mental tones. I was nearly to the front door when I realized she had felt guilty for making me wait while she helped the senior lady. A few steps later, I realized that I had said the right thing to let her feel some pride in what she had done. A few steps after that, I saw the Starbucks sign at the corner of the front of the grocery.

I thought I sprinted to the Starbucks, but I suspect I only managed a pre-senior shuffle. I had a gift card from my sister, and I planned to cut the fog with a serious coffee gift.

While waiting for my order, I watched the counter clerk and barista and realized that they had almost identical “I’m concentrating” expressions. While picking up my much needed 20 ounce, triple shot, vanilla latte, I asked the barista if the two of them were related.

She said no, and she asked me why I thought that.

I said, “You both make the same facial ‘I’m working’ expressions.”

Walking away, nursing my coffee, I heard the barista repeat what I said. The two women busted out laughing hard. I’m not sure why it was funny, but I’m glad it was.

In the lobby, there was still a crowd of seniors. I squeezed past a guy in a Steven Hawking wheelchair. He seemed about to panic because he was kind of boxed in and couldn’t easily shift his chair out of my way. He looked almost terrified.

I put a hand on his shoulder and gently said, “It’s okay. You’re fine.” He relaxed, and I slipped past him and moved on.

Crossing the lobby it occurred to me that I had just had a fairly nice sequence of interactions that took place mainly because I wasn’t in a hurry and have a habit of looking into people’s faces and thinking about how they feel and behave.

It’s a writer thing, or maybe I’m a writer because of it.

Anyway, I found myself thinking how sad it was that being in that “not in a hurry” space is not rewarded by our culture. Rather, our nation has one of the highest rates of anxiety illness in the world.

Still, I was only a few sips into my coffee, and this was all sort of mist-shrouded idle thought.

Outside the front door of the grocery, I actually met my neighbor lady friend—the bad-ass, blitz surviving war bride now in her tough as nails 90s. She was on her shopping run, and we had a smiling chat. I confirmed the next couple dates we had discussed for taking her to the doctor. She was thrilled. I was glad she was thrilled, and we also parted smiling.

I shuffled off to my car. On the way, my thoughts turned back to legal battles, flat fiction, bill paying, a lawn that needed mowing, allergies that would suck when I mowed the lawn, a deadline that was already past, and the general gray fog of living. At my car, I put my latte on the roof, fumbled for my keys, and heard a woman call out, “Hey!”

I was vaguely aware that I was pretty much alone in that part of the parking lot, and I had that little adrenaline moment where you realize that conversations that begin with “Hey!” rarely go well.

Keys a little tighter in my striking hand, I turned to face my assailant.

A fairly cute, red-headed thirty-something woman was walking purposefully toward me, her arms outstretched, her hands up high, and her fingers flipping in and out like people do when they are signaling that they are about to dock for a hug.

My assumptions were quick and fleeting.

She was a student I had forgotten.

She was someone from a seminar I had taught.

She was mentally compromised in an attractive, baby-faced, benign sort of way. She–

And she was on me and wrapping her arms around me.

I felt no fear or worry. I just accepted the hug and gave as good as I got. It was actually a very warm, caring sort of hug, and it was not at all what I expected—as if I had time to expect anything at all.

She pulled back, held my shoulders, looked directly into my eyes, and said in kind, sincere, and deliberate tones, “You, have a nice day.”

As she was turning to walk away, I said, “Thank you. You too.”

And she was gone. I was the victim of a walk-by hugging.

I have no idea what it was about. I speculated on whether she was behind me in the que or whether she had overheard me making arrangements to take my friend to the doctor. Somehow, I needed to equate the experience with some sort of reward for something I had done.

How sad that in that moment it couldn’t just have been two nice people acknowledging one another.

In that moment, the why wasn’t as important as getting groceries in the car and finding out if M. Currie scored in the closet. I gave up on speculation.

  1. Currie didn’t score. She just got accused of naughtiness that she didn’t actually get to enjoy.

While arranging things and self in the car, it dawned on me that perhaps our acquisition-based culture teaches us to be pricks to each other, but the universe actually does reward us for being in the moment and kind to one another. The rewards just don’t have anything to do with culturally ingrained symbols of status-based success.

The rest of my day was one, long smile. The lawyer called to tell me we were winning. A conference called to invite me to a long seminar of teaching before the actual conference. Writing went well. I even noticed some little sparks of actual emotion in my prose.

For weeks, I found myself wondering if I could get away with walk-by huggings. In the end, I decided the middle-aged, frumpy writer-guy would not get the same reception from his victims that the cute redhead got.

Why do we write? We write because we can, for just the time it takes to read a story, let people calm down and be in themselves and in an imagined community that includes emotional connection to others. We write because we can see beyond the kind of car, the prestige of neighborhood, and the status of a rung on the corporate ladder. We can tell stories bring people who would never meet or interact into one another’s lives for a little while, and when they look up from the stories, they can see one another a little more completely—a little more compassionately and clearly. We write because we can reach out to others and give them time and a hug that leaves them smiling for the rest of the day. We write because stories of hope translating into success and connection are desperately needed in a world that has taught us not to make eye contact with the person standing next to us.

And some of us write because we can’t get away with walk-by huggings.

-End-

Create the Narrative that Creates Our Future, by Eric Witchey

I post this today because this week, over 100 years after scientists first described the carbon emissions greenhouse effect, the President of the United States changed the national narrative on climate change (Svante Arrhenius, 1896).

Source: Alexandrum79 via iStockPhoto.

Source: Alexandrum79 via iStockPhoto.

Create the Narrative that Creates Our Future, by Eric Witchey

A person can be, at least for a little while, logical and rational. Most of us believe we are rational and logical.

Most of us are also wrong.

In fact, even among the well-educated, very few people receive the kind of training that improves actual logical, rational thought. People are trained to apply analytic skills to specific problems, but that’s not quite the same thing. Consider the flame wars that take place when two trained professionals have invested themselves in two separate solutions to the same set of problems. Each solution may solve the problems. Each may have been arrived at via skill and application of sound methodology. However, the battle of egos and emotion that takes place has nothing to do with rational, logical thought.

Human beings are physiologically built so that emotional responses have greater sway over decisions than conscious, executive function.

Certainly, cognitive training increases an individual’s ability to override that tendency. However, a system made up of many people, no matter how well organized, is always irrational. A crowd, a tribe, a company, a state, or a nation is always irrational. In order for a system of people to act effectively on a decision, the decision must fit with the dominant, emotionally satisfying narrative adopted by the individuals who make up that system.

In other words, we internalize stories and act on them as if they are true. Facts are quite irrelevant.

Why do you suppose salesmen and marketers are trained to evoke an emotional response rather than to present facts? Why do you suppose they round up and shoot the independent journalists during a military coup?

Only when facts embed themselves in the system’s foundational irrationality does a culture change for the better—be it a family, a tribe, a community, a county, a state, or a nation.

Cultural inertia is not the tendency of a culture to remain as it is unless acted upon by an outside force. Cultural inertia is the tendency of a culture to act according to an unquestioned narrative until the narrative changes from the inside.

Consider this popular narrative: “The only deterrent to violence is more prisons. If people know they will go to jail, they won’t do the crime.”

Ignoring the logical fallacy of over generalization, consider that it is possible that a potential criminal is so hungry, so afraid, so sick, so threatened by poverty and the absence of less destructive opportunity that the crime has great survival value because the potential gain translates into food and shelter. Even getting caught will at least provide food, shelter, and guaranteed medical support.

A system that acts on the deterrent narrative easily steps forward to embrace this addition: “The cost of prisons is too high for the taxpayer. Privatization can alleviate that cost.” If we believe the former statement, the latter statement is a fairly reasonable step toward the apparent betterment of the social system.

…Unless the private companies receive tax incentives and the judicial system is required to fulfill incarceration quotas in order to maintain profitability.

Here’s a statement that actions demonstrate people accept even if they don’t believe they accept it. “Water in a clear plastic bottle is more pure than tap water because utilities can’t be trusted and magic places exist in the world where water is perfect and we put that perfect, magic water in a bottle so you can buy it. And Convenience. And recycling. Good. Good. Good. Buy more.”

Of course, the more bottled water we buy, the less the local utility is financially viable and the more we complain about our water quality. In other words, we pay thousands of times more for water that came from a tap through a filter outside our town or city, and we thereby undermine the low-cost system that provides our water. And, for spending a lot more, we get the added bonus of loss of public infrastructure and additional layers of environmental damage in production, distribution, and post-consumption.

The facts are known. The facts are even known to most people on the street. The decision to buy that bottle of water is either unconsidered or justified in the moment.

We have serious science that speaks to crime rates, to gun deaths, to global warming, to water losses, to contamination factors, to floating oceanic continents of plastic waste, to the destructive economic effects of corporate feudalism, and to the endless repetition of domestic violence and crime as a result of failed social support and underfunded education.

The facts are available.

However, fact does not have enough social mass to create systemic change.

Factual knowledge has to become part of the tribal folklore that is repeated in ignorance as truth.

Huge campaigns to create the viral narratives that said that seatbelts are good, littering is bad, and cigarettes kill had to be undertaken in order to make the tribal truth a part of the unconsidered oral tradition of the many anthropological tribal systems that, combined, make up our nation. Only when the new narratives took root as fact in hearts and minds did the new narratives replace the old, profit-driven narratives.

Then, cultural change took place.

Interestingly, each of the above changes to national, internalized narrative came about because of the costs to the nation as a whole. Seatbelts translated into lost profits for insurance companies and to lost working person years in the national economy. The same for cigarettes. Littering? Well, that one may have grown out of the zeitgeist of a time when environmental consciousness was first gaining its legs and the power of a public service announcement hadn’t been fully understood by corporate interests. Frankly, I don’t know. I suspect that today the public service ads might be about caution while driving near the crews that our privatized prisons provide in order to keep our national byways scenic.

What is clear is that when a corporate, profit-driven narrative no longer generates profit, the failed story is abandoned. The corporation seeks new products, new markets, and new narratives.

Once a fact-based narrative takes emotional hold, it is much harder to supplant because action based on that narrative creates demonstrable long-term benefit.

People like benefits.

Case-in-point, ACA (Obamacare). Most people have already forgotten that Obama’s original plan was a single-payer solution that has been demonstrated to work in many developed countries. The Republican/Democrat compromise position was the ACA, which is actually based on programs that have failed in other countries.

The compromise came to be because for one side it got us closer to a working plan for the common people. The compromise worked for the other side because history had shown that the ACA would fail very publicly and result in a moment in which existing insurance companies would step up, “compete” across state boundaries, and save the day. The rhetoric was that the new competitive marketplace would result in fewer court cases, lower premiums, etc. None of these benefits of competition are supported by objective study and fact. In fact, the opposite is true (The exception is the court cases because people who buy insurance from a company in another state would have to go to that state to sue. Consequently, it would be harder to sue, so there would be fewer cases).

So, the planned failure was labelled Obamacare in spite of the fact that Obama’s plan was very different. Fortunately for millions of Americans, myself included, the anxiety over medical costs and affordable care was so great that a compromise position intended to fail ended up succeeding in spite of precedent.

The rhetorical association of the ACA with the current administration began immediately. “Obamacare” succeeded as a national narrative. Both advocates and opponents used the term freely. One side used it with pride. The other side used it as a pejorative.

The legal attacks on Obamacare became very serious when numbers started to show that the program might actually work because American healthcare is so screwed up that a system that failed in other countries actually improved the U.S. healthcare system.

By the time the more serious attacks began, it was too late. A new, non-factual narrative was nearly impossible to present to a nation that was clearly seeing immediate benefits.

ACA isn’t perfect. Neither is the single-payer system. The point here is that the ACA narrative’s success is based in the consumer’s emotional need and actual, subsequent benefit.

Facts can support cultural change for the better, but culture only changes when the facts become an emotionally compelling story that can be repeated by people who have no direct knowledge of the science that verified those facts. The change is sustainable when benefits reinforce the tribe’s emotional attachment to the narrative.

Corporate marketing people know the power of story. Ask one.

Politicians know it. They won’t tell you, but even an untrained observer can examine their rhetoric and point to carefully crafted narrative. A trained observer can tell you how and why the rhetoric was designed the way it was.

I know this firsthand because I have been hired to create narratives to present politically volatile concepts as positive change. I also know it because I am a story teller.

Story tellers have always known the power of an emotionally compelling narrative.

The Shaman was the story maker and teller—the conscience and consciousness of the tribe.

Consider that stories told by Sumerian shamanic leaders many thousands of years ago still influence beliefs and behaviors. ISIS justifies beheadings, destruction of property, and slavery based on the modified, interpreted, handed-down narratives from Sumerian stories. Evangelical Christians justify narrative modification of historical fact and science by citing handed-down, interpreted, modifications of the very same Sumerian tales. Both Israelis and Palestinians justify violent action against one another based on differing narrative modifications and interpretations of the same handed-down Sumerian tales.

Are you a little uncomfortable—maybe even angry?

If you are, you are proving the point of this little essay.

Stay with me. Take a breath. Check the facts later. The point of this essay doesn’t change because you are uncomfortable. It doesn’t change if the things I have said are true or untrue. Notice that the only thing actually cited in this essay is the first presentation of greenhouse effects by a scientist. That is a fact.

Right now, consider your emotional response in contrast to a rational response to available historical data. Factual data has no emotional content. Facts just are. If my little narrative above is wrong, it’s just wrong. If it’s right, it’s just right.

Where does the emotional reaction come from?

Regardless, the emotional response to a narrative that doesn’t agree with your own is real. No matter what the facts are, the emotion drives the desire to take action. Why do we live in a world of “trigger warnings?” When do we form those deeply held narratives that affect our emotional responses to everything in life?

We form them in early childhood.

Before we were five years old, we internalized most of the emotional connections to the narratives that cause our reactions in life. How old were you when you went to your first Sunday school class, heard your parents’ first atheist attack on organized religion, attended Hebrew school, went to temple, mosque, church, or synagogue? At what point in the development of your brain did the narrative that caused your reactions form?

The currently available linguistic and cognitive science suggests that a strong emotional response to material like the above is actually a survival response left over from the child who first learned the narrative. In the environment in which the child learned the narrative, acceptance, and by extension food and shelter, were connected to demonstrated belief in the adult-presented narrative.

We are not thinking creatures. We only think we are.

We are feeling creatures.

The facts are only good if they appear in narrative that supports emotional responses.

Little-by-little, linguists, cognitive scientists, sociologists, psychologists, historians, anthropologists, philosophers, and storytellers are making the knowledge of this phenomenon part of cultural awareness. I’m doing it right now.

Consider the development of the science behind our cultural understanding of climate change. The first presentation of the concept of greenhouse carbon emissions impact on the future environment was presented late in the 19th century—over 100 years ago. Not quite that long ago, I wrote bad poetry about climate change when I was in high school. Back then, the Carter administration worked hard to address the known issues of fossil fuel dependence and emissions outputs. Do you remember when coal-fired power plants were first required to install re-burners and scrubbers? Do you remember when catalytic converters were first required on automobiles? Thank you Jimmy Carter for all you have done for the individuals that make up our nation and for the planet as a whole. May you beat your cancer and live long. We need your personal interpretation of the handed-down stories of the Sumerians. I think you got it right.

Do you remember that before Reagan was governor of California, California residents could go to state universities for free? After Reaganomics installed the narrative that higher education is a personal privilege rather than a national investment in the future, no such luck.

Nationally, Reaganomics put an end to the liberal nonsense of the Carter administration.

The very successful electric car experiment disappeared without trace. New, horribly incorrect narratives about emission controls pushed deadlines out into the future. Education funding was cut. Private colleges were encouraged. Banking restrictions were cut. Some of us remember the first time we saw a credit card that offered a deferred 20% or more interest rate. Before Reaganomics, interest rates like that were illegal and, quite literally, only offered by loan sharks. Mining in federal lands became easier. Regulatory agencies became run by people from the industries they were intended to regulate. Okay, that last one was a lie. That wasn’t really new. It just got worse. Prison and schooling for profit gained support.

Am I making a partisan attack?

No. I’m registered an Independent. I’m pushing buttons to get people to test their personal narratives. Most of the above is verifiable public record. The sad part is that the bits people agree with, they won’t check. The bits they disagree with, they won’t check. In other words, as long as we are comfortable in our beliefs, we don’t bother with facts.

People who actually want to test their personal narratives, and this narrative, can simply go to the federal government sites (.gov–not .com, .bus, .edu, .org, or any other dot) that track and present law making, modification, and federal spending numbers. Go to several. Each agency is presenting its own narrative.

Hurry, though.

Legislation is in the works to make it illegal for citizens to access raw data.

Yes, really.

The government changes that move toward controlling the narrative are already visible. Actual raw data spreadsheets showing military and education spending were available in three clicks as recently as five years ago. Now, the raw data is buried. At the surface level, it is interpreted for us in graphs and charts. We have to dig for the raw data. In some cases, we have to submit a formal request via the Freedom of Information Act channels and hope to get a useful result someday.

118 years after a scientist presented the greenhouse gas problem, only very expensive disasters, clearly rising sea levels, public outcry, and some creative rhetoric has made the popular oral narrative of climate change shift from “Don’t be silly” to “Oh, shit. We better pay attention to this.”

Think about Al Gore on his world tour and receiving the Nobel Prize. Piggy-backed on his rhetoric of “Oh, shit” is a message about how we got to this moment by letting profit-based corporate story via political rhetoric override objective science.

It is no coincidence that at the same time this message is finally taking hold in our tribal consciousness, background attacks on funding to university research, attacks on NASA funding, and attempts to mandate “pragmatic usefulness” of federally funded research are underway.

So it goes.

The fight for the human ability to survive and thrive on this planet is about money and who tells which story to the tribes.

We fiction writers are storytellers. Whether we work with scripts, shorts, poetry, or novels, we reach deeply into the consciousness of the people who make up the tribes. We are often the first to reach into the consciousness of the tribes because we touch the youngest minds and hearts before they develop into consumers of political and corporate narrative. Because we are the shamans, the people who create the magic that forms conscience and the illusion of rational consciousness, we have a responsibility to look deeply and carefully at possible narratives that will become part of the emotional decision making that creates a future in which the planet is a place where human beings can survive and thrive.

The Sumerian shamanic leaders created the best narratives they could for their people. Their world was small and constantly threatened by famine, disease, flood, storm, and violent foreigners.

We need to do better. We can no longer afford simple, authoritarian, insular, prescriptive narratives. We can no longer afford us/them narratives. We most certainly can’t afford the profit as success narrative. It is quite literally killing us.

Our narrative about four simple variables will determine the fate of the human race. 1) We live on Earth, a closed system. 2) We currently rely on finite resources. 3) We have created competing, growth-based economies. 4) We allow unchecked population growth.

Any decision, personal or political, that does not mitigate or eliminate one of more of these four variables is tacit support for self-inflicted human genocide.

Humanity, created by god, gods, or random interactions in a chaotic system, is only an experiment in this vast universe. In modified, handed-down Sumerian terms, our god or gods loved us so much that he, she, it, or they gave us opportunity and free will. How we treat our world and, directly or indirectly, each other is entirely on us.

Tell a good story—a story that creates hope, tolerance, and survival.

-End-

Uniquely Normal is not Broken: My Best Brain Hack, by Eric Witchey

Punk guy looking at himself in a shattered mirror in the city streets

Photo by Stefano Tinti. Licensed through iStockPhoto

Uniquely Normal is not Broken: My Best Brain Hack

Eric Witchey

We live in a one-size fits all self-help culture. If we buy into the belief that we are broken that underlies almost all self-help books and movements, then the fundamental message tends to be the same. To fix yourself, you have to really want to change! Then, there’s the list of things you should change and how you should change them. Currently, the old religious ideal of faith, which often meant trust us to tell you what to think and don’t ask questions we can’t answer, has been replaced with manifest abundance by believing completely. If we fail, we must not have believed completely enough. If we can’t make the self-help system work, shame on us. We need more discipline. We need more energy. We need more education. We need more empathy. We need more… We are broken.

Yeah. Okay. Let’s just start with the understanding that I am broken. If I’m broken, then I’m like everyone else. That means I’m not broken. I’m uniquely normal. I’m good with that.

This week, broken me lost track of time because I was busy teaching a corporate class, writing fiction, doing book production, and being very disciplined about writing fiction and distance skating every day. On top of that, one of my editors sent back her recommendations for a table of contents for a collection of my stories. That caused a minor upswing in mood that created a break in my productivity due to wine and good food. Then, an amazing artist and writer, Alan M. Clark, sent me the first peek at the cover art for my novel, Bull’s Labyrinth, which will finally come out soonish.

While I was distracted by wallowing in my bliss, Monday suddenly jumped out of the temporal bushes, and my automated calendar sent me a reminder that I had a Wednesday deadline for a blog I hadn’t even thought about.

I needed a topic now!

Solution?

Human experiments on my friends!

I asked my friends on FaceBook what they wanted to read about this week.

My friends were great. They participated fully in my experiment. They responded with a good, solid list of topics interesting to writers. Several topics were even things I was interested in doing. In fact, I will get to all of the items on the list in later blogs. However, I chose brain hacks for writers for this week’s offering.

Well, that should be easy, I told myself. Just write a listicle of how-to production techniques. You know the kind of thing: “Five Things Every Writer Should Do before Breakfast.”

Unfortunately, the first attempt turned into an overly long description of the chemical relationship between L-dopa and dopamine and how dopamine levels influence the thought-to-action brain-body connection. Having no dopamine doesn’t stop you from being conscious, but it does result in being trapped in a motionless meat puppet. Watch Robert DeNiro and Robin Williams in their 1990 film, Awakenings. Great film, but I’ll warn you that it is not at all funny.

So, blog attempt #1 sucked. Nobody wants to hear about brain chemistry, organism adaptation to task, and how to build up that connection. Also, being conscious and trapped inside your body is a better topic for a story than a blog.

What people were really asking me for is a solution to their problems. At least, that’s what I told myself.

So, attempt #2 waxed philosophical about free will and how to reduce complex problems to smaller, more manageable problems then prioritize them into action steps.

Oh, just bullshit. Seriously, who doesn’t know that? Does it work? Sometimes. If it always worked, the self-help industry would just die. Think about it. If everyone who knows that trick actually succeeded in connecting their desires to their actions, who would buy a second self-help book or attend a second self-help seminar? Oprah, Dr. Oz, and Dr. Phil would be right out of business. Well, maybe not Oprah. She has a little more emotional depth and breadth of vision.

If you want procedural, emotional and self-discipline type self-help thinking, I recommend a combination of Julia Cameron and Stephen R. Covey. I do, heartily, recommend both rather than one or the other. Both have wonderful, valuable insights. Some might be useful to you. Some have been useful to me, but I don’t need to repeat what they have done.

Now, here I am in attempt #3. Brain hacks for writers. Yeah. Okay. Except, there’s a problem. You see, I don’t buy into the one-size-fits all self-help world. I’m more of a my-size-fits-me sort of guy.

You see, after 30 years of studying how writers write and how readers interpret the little black squiggles on the white background, I have come to the experimentally verified conclusion that my brain and yours are different.

I know. It’s stunning, isn’t it?

Worse than that, my life and yours are different.

Can you believe it? I mean, it actually turns out that based on their personal experience both Republican and Democrat pundits actually believe the stuff they say when they say it.

Similarly, if you face the blank page and your gut goes to jelly, you want to puke, and you end up cleaning the kitchen, you and I have something in common. However, the thing we have in common is neither cognitive physiology nor nurture trauma. In other words, my body is reacting to the fact that my brother liked to belittle me by creating sometimes elaborate scenarios in which he publicly humiliated me. You, on the other hand, may have attended a parochial school where writing was a punishment. While your body and mine are reacting the same way to the potential rejection and humiliation of failure on the page, we won’t respond to the same brain hack solutions.

In fact, some people’s experiences have caused them to need to write in order to prove they are better than other people. Some have adapted to the need to write in order to clarify their thoughts. Some need to write in order to get attention. Some need to write… and it goes on and on. It is unlikely that you and I write for exactly the same reasons or to fulfill the same needs in our lives.

Why do you need to write?

I have not one single clue.

However, I can say that my writing life turned a corner for the better after I was diagnosed with dysthymia with components of OCD. I won’t go into the physiology of my “disorder.” I’ll just say that the DSM diagnosis is a description of a set of symptoms rather than the actual physical underpinnings of that set of symptoms.

The important thing for brain hacking is that once I was diagnosed, I was able to begin exploring what was different about my brain from other brains. For example, I learned I also had dyslexia, for which I had found elaborate compensatory skills. Who knew I couldn’t do math in grade school because the numbers jumped around? Nobody ever tested me. I also learned that the ADHD I had been treated for as a child was considered a precursor to the problems I had as an adult. I learned that my addictions became a compulsion because of a need to medicate away pain. They became an obsession as a result of low dopamine. I learned the hard way that no amount of NA philosophy or community would change my physiology to allow me to be able to physically follow through on the choice to actually attend NA meetings on a regular basis (You just need to discipline yourself to attend. Call your sponsor. Give it over to your higher power.). You see, that advice could only work if I were physiologically capable of transferring my desire into the action of picking up the phone or going to the meeting. At the time, I couldn’t do that. Giving me that advice was, physiologically speaking, exactly the same as telling a quadriplegic they needed to choose to get up from their wheelchair and run. They can believe. They can want it with all their heart. They can try, but they are not going to run.

No, I’m not kidding or joking.

So, my recovery route was, initially, dependent on doctors and medication. Eventually, and with much hard work under the influence of good doctors and medication, the drugs were replaced by ten years of self-observation and supporting therapy that was specific to my brain.

It worked. I’ve been recreational drug-free for 25 years, and most days I manage my brain. A few weeks ago, I sold my 100th story. Not bad for a problem child, recovering addict.

Why do I put these things in my blog on brain hacks for writers? I put them here to show how uniquely normal I am and because the best brain hack I know I learned while in therapy. It has given me all my other brain hacks. It’s called meditation.

Read Jon Kabat-Zinn. His mindfulness movement does not begin with the idea that his readers are broken. He begins with the idea that only the reader can decide what the reader needs, and that comes from learning to sit still and pay attention to ourselves.

I’m not talking about our writer’s endless narrative of self-criticism.

My internal narrative goes like this on bad days, “Oh, for the f of J, Eric, pull your head out of your ass and get to work. Well, shit, here you are cleaning the damn oven. It could have been dirty for another day or even another six months. Just stop it. You should be working on that effing novella. Come on! What kind of wimp are you that you can’t even put down a sponge, turn, around and walk upstairs to put just one damn line on the page?”

This kind of thing can go on for hours and hours, sapping the joy out of everything I do because I’m not doing the thing I should be doing.

What a terrible word—should.

And, my friends, this is what drives the “you are broken” self-help industry. Call it guilt. Call it shame. Call it original sin. Call it whatever you want, but should is the filler of guru pockets and the killer of creativity.

So, if my brain/body experience is unique to me, how do I overcome the unique obstacles created by my brain?

Inventory. That’s pretty much my only real writer’s brain hack.

I pay attention to what I am doing instead of what I should be doing. I know what I want to do. I know what I want my quota to be. I know what my annual, monthly, weekly, and daily goals are. All of that is well and good, but if my stress goes up, my dopamine goes down. The more down it goes, the less likely I am to do anything that corresponds to my own thoughts and desires. The more I get into the should cycle, the more stress I create and the worse my control becomes—less directed action leads to more shoulding leads to less directed action. Beating myself up will only make it worse. When it gets really bad, I can end up playing obsessive hours, and occasionally days, of some computer game in order to escape from my own looping, self-destructive thoughts.

Eventually, I return my focus to my breath. I meditate.

That’s the simplest, most powerful brain hack I know. If I can, and I can’t always, and that’s fine, I stop and pay attention to my breathing—to the feel of my diaphragm shifting and stretching and contracting to move air in and out of my chest. I focus my mind on that simple, life-giving thing, and I let whatever thoughts come to mind come to mind. I acknowledge them and the emotions that drive them, and I let them go and return my focus to my breath.

Out of this one simple exercise has come many moments of understanding about how the metal-edged ruler of my childhood grade school classes influenced my love of and resistance to writing, about how my brother’s behavior influenced my need to hide from potential humiliating experiences by not writing, about how my mother’s attempt to run off to marry a priest influenced my behavior, about how and why some topics come quickly and others don’t, about my relationship to story, about my relationship to my sense of self and my place in culture and human history, about….

Yes, this is a simple exercise. It is, at its heart, Zen meditation. It is not in any way about emptying the mind. It is about focusing on the breathing. We have to breathe anyway, so we always have the tools we need with us. We simply will not, at least under any circumstances we survive, stop breathing. So, just pay attention to the breath. Focus on the diaphragm’s movement and the flow of air. Just let the thoughts that come to mind come. Note that the thoughts are there then return the focus to the breath.

That’s the whole thing. That’s the hack. Nothing else. It’s not about forcing the focus. It’s not about emptying the mind of thought. It’s not about making something happen. It’s just about paying attention to the breath, acknowledging the inevitable thoughts that shift our focus away from the breath, and returning our focus to the breath.

Sometimes, I can just take a few breaths and instantly overcome whatever limitation faces me. Sometimes, the reasons for my own limitations come in bits and pieces over years. That kind of self-discovery and understanding can’t be forced. All we can do is pay attention and repeat the practice over and over and over. We can do it walking, riding a bike, eating, playing an instrument, or while doing pretty much anything we do. It really is that simple. If it gets complicated, we’ve made it complicated, and that’s something to acknowledge before returning to the breath. We can forget to pay attention for days, weeks, or years. Then, when we remember again, the breath is there. We can just pick up again where we left off.

So, my diagnosis set me on the path of self-observation. After my initial experiences with more intrusive medications, my self-management practice stabilized into meditation and methylphenidate (Ritalin). I take the drug as little as possible, but I have found my breath while fishing, while running, while biking, while skating, while driving, while sitting in an easy chair, and while laying on my back in a room full of meditating people. My breath is always with me. I have made a habit of never leaving home without it.

From this one, simple practice, I have discovered that, for me and only for me, I can celebrate success if I practice fiction for five minutes a day. If I do five minutes of conscious practice each day, I win! I am always allowed to do more, but my daily success comes from sitting down and practicing some technique for five minutes.

You see, my obstacles have always manifested themselves on the way to putting my butt in the chair and beginning to type. Once I start typing, I’m fine.

I built my brain hack to match my issues. I discovered that I have very specific performance anxiety triggers. I found them. I built my hack so that I’m not performing. I’m only practicing. Sitting happens. Typing happens. Breathing happens. I’m also still discovering layers of triggers. The discovery doesn’t stop even if we design a hack that works.

What do I practice? Any technique I can describe and execute. I have dozens of how-to books to pick skills from. I keep my own running list of techniques I need to practice. I keep a list of random prompts. I pick one technique and three random prompts. I write for five minutes, trying to get the prompts into a story that demonstrates the technique. I don’t plan to succeed. In fact, I plan to have fun failing. However, my practice of returning to technique basics and having fun has resulted in stories that account for at least 50 of my sales. Of course, as soon as I start thinking of the practice as a story, it stops being a practice. Then, I need a new set of personal hacks. Those hacks are a topic for another post.

So it goes. Oh, the silly ways our brains sabotage us. . .

Other brain hacks include writing with other writers around me. Sometimes, changing locations is the trick. If I observe that the kitchen is getting wear marks on the counter because I’m cleaning it too often (I wish), then it’s time to go and write someplace where there is no kitchen to clean. My local city library has quiet rooms. Several of my local coffee shops have first-come-first-served conference rooms.

If I observe myself surfing the web for hours and hours, I go to a wifi free zone and shift to pen and paper for a while.

If I find I am bored with my own writing, I find another writer (or creative non-writer) to talk to about creative effort.

My absolute favorite people are the ones that can riff silly on any topic. Stories are often born from silly. My chosen brother Mitch Luckett, my biological brother, Nick, and another chosen brother, artist and writer Alan M. Clark, are great for that. Another chosen brother, Barry Buchannan, who is an infrastructure systems analyst, is also refreshingly good at it. Something new and fun always comes from conversations with these people. I go to my sister, Leonore, for wonderful, fun, imaginative explorations of body, mind, and spirit. I guess the short version of this hack is to go out, smile, be silly, and talk to people who have agile minds and a good sense of humor. Let the child within out to play.

As one friend of mine, Devon Monk, once told me, “It’s very important to get out and ride an elephant now and then.” New experiences feed the fire of heart and mind. Personally, I find that travel opens up my channels of creative energy. While travelling, abroad or just to the grocery store, I keep running lists of things I see, hear, smell, feel, taste, and consider. I especially keep lists of things that trigger emotional responses.

In fact, I have running lists of “Things that make me cry from joy,” “Things that make me laugh out loud,” “Things that make me tear up from sadness,” and “Things that make me wish for…”

You get the idea.

In the end, all these brain hacks, from getting up early and going straight to the keys before my dreaming mind has submerged to setting dead minimum time quotas that aren’t about quality or page and word counts, have come one-by-one from returning to my breath—my breath.

I cannot, and will never be able to, gain the correct and complete insight into your personal genetics, family history, physiological reactivity, and complex self-protections that will allow me to diagnose cause and prescribe management skills. Only you can do that for yourself. Even a really good therapist will only facilitate your discovery of your own needs and skills, so I do have to say that I really appreciate the good therapists I have known.

So, pay attention and engage in constant, restless, ceaseless human experimentation on you. I will be there beside you, at least in spirit, celebrating your realizations and the hacks you create for yourself, but I will have no expectation that your hacks and mine will match up. Even if they do match in form and execution, it is very likely that they work for us each in very different ways for very different reasons.

We are not broken. We are a complex manifestation of a biological, and perhaps spiritual, experiment that began billions of years ago. We are exactly what we should be. We are exactly where we should be. We are story tellers. Tell a story. That’s all we need to do. That, and breathe.

Now, I let these thoughts go and return my focus to my breath.

-End-

My New Pal

By Cynthia Ray

Recently, my friend and long-time love was hospitalized with a serious illness. Saying that he had a “brush with death” doesn’t come close to the visceral and gut-kicking experience. This is what it was like: Death grabbed me by the shoulder, spun me around and slapped me, leaving a throbbing bruise on my cheek, then pulled my face close to his and said, “You think you can ignore me? You think you can live your life as if I didn’t exist? I’m tired of being the invisible guest in everyone’s life. Wake up, sister! I’m your salvation.”

That got my attention. I sat next to my love, held his warm, living hand, and looked into his  eyes. Everything that was not important melted away; and most things seemed trivial and insignificant in that moment. The love we have always had for each other lit up the room.

Later, I wondered why we can’t connect like that all the time, not just with each other, but with family and friends, with strangers, with the grocery clerk at Fred Meyers.  When all we have is each other, why do we separate ourselves?

The experience forced me to reconsider everything in my life. What doesn’t matter anymore? What makes me feel connected and whole? What puts me to sleep? It is easy to become complacent and distracted; busy making grocery lists, doing laundry and balancing checkbooks while life goes on around us unnoticed and unfelt.  The sense of urgency and immediacy that I felt sitting on that hospital bed can fade away if I let it.

I don’t want to fall back into sleepy forgetfulness. After experiencing true, deep connection, nothing else will satisfy. Death is my new pal. He hangs around with me all the time; he says he doesn’t have that many friends, and it’s refreshing to have someone invite him in on a regular basis. The more I hang out with him, the more alive I feel.

This is more a blog about living than writing. However, there is a connection between writing and staying awake for me and I intend to continue to dig deeper into that in the coming months.

death

What the Hell Is Subtext? by, Eric M. Witchey

PunchingImpliedWhat the Hell is Subtext?
by Eric M. Witchey

I’m a lucky guy. A couple of writing groups in and around San Antonio, Texas recently pooled their resources to fly me to San Antonio to teach. Some were publishing professionals. Some were aspiring professionals. All were wonderfully kind and accomplished. While there, I even got to do some touristy things.

So far, I’ve written in general terms about things that were fun for me. Readers may now be thinking, “Get to the point, Eric.” However, if that first paragraph were in a short story or a novel, the reader would be, in the back of their mind, wondering what it means in the context of dramatic development. If, as would probably be the case, it added nothing to the reader’s sense of tension or character change, they would get disgusted, drop my story, and never look at another one of my tales.

Go, readers!

That’ll teach me economy in language. More importantly, it will teach me to figure out ways to imbue even apparently mundane passages with some additional layer of meaning, subtext.

Normally, I teach subtext by introducing students to a seminal article in discourse analysis. I then extrapolate from that article into the use of implication in dialog. Once that has become clear, I demonstrate how “subjective interpretation of setting through the character filter” can create an underlying sense of changing character psychology in the reader’s experience. That all takes a day or two, and it takes a fair amount of practice.

Did you catch the subtext? I’ll translate. “This set of very specific skills takes time and practice.”

However, I’m writing a blog entry, so I’ll try to give you the quick and dirty. I stopped short of calling this a shortcut. It isn’t. The time and practice is still necessary.

For my first bit of sleight of hand, I’m going to replace the term “subtext” with another term I think is more descriptive of the function of a number of techniques. The term is “implication.” Writers manipulate the text in order imply things that are not actually part of the explicit text.

Above, in the paragraph beginning with “Normally,” I described a longish process that wasn’t actually necessary if I just want to tell you what I’m about to tell you. However, I did put it in the blog entry, which tells the reader that I am either just horribly wordy or was implying something. The reader tries to fit what I wrote into their growing sense of the purpose of this blog entry. Since I then talked about a shortcut and the technobabble paragraph is more than I needed to write about the shortcut, the reader tries to find additional, underlying meaning. If they can’t, they think I’m stupid. If they can, they think I’m brilliant. In truth, they don’t even actually know they are looking for that subtext. The brain does it automatically.

In fiction, if a character says more (or less) than they would normally say or than they actually need to say in order to respond to their circumstance, some other meaning is being conveyed. The reader unconsciously examines text in conjunction with context in order to draw the special meaning from the text.

In practical application in fiction, it looks something like this.

“Honey,” he said, “I need to take the car to Bend this weekend.”

“The Metzgers are having a lawn party on Sunday,” she said. “Jennifer will be sixteen, and her oldest brother, the Army doctor, is in back from Afghanistan. Can you believe he wants to meet our daughter?”

She said a lot more than she would normally say in response to his statement about the car. In fact, all she had to say was, “Okay.” Of course, she might also have said, “No. We have a party to go to.”

Instead, she said, interpreting the subtext:

You have other responsibilities this weekend. Show some respect to our friends. Demonstrate that you at least pretend to care about their daughter. If you can’t pretend to care about our friends, then think about the returning soldier and how important his homecoming is. If you can’t get your head and heart around that, then at least think about the happiness of your own daughter.

To get all that from a couple lines of dialog, the reader needs a little more background. In fact, the reader needs the same things we need in the real world in order to interpret the wonderfully obscure things we say to each other. The following is a classic example is of people communicating by using implication:

“Honey, what time is it?”

“The ice cream truck just went by.”

The answer does not, strictly speaking, answer the question. However, both people know it is four o’clock because they share history that involves the ice cream truck.

Consider once more the car and weekend problem from above. In order for the reader to get the full impact of the indirect statement made in response to the statement about using the car, the reader has to be aware of the same shared experiences of the characters that allow the characters on stage to speak to one another in indirect ways.

We use this kind of implication all the time when we talk. In fact, it turns out that when we are trying to cooperate and get something done, we speak pretty directly to one another. If you and I are building a dog house together, I can say, “Give me that hammer.” Your answer might be, “Okay.” It might also be to hand me the hammer. Either way, it’s pretty direct and clear.

However, if you and I have some personal history with home projects not getting done, you might answer differently. Consider this dialog couplet:

“Give me that hammer.”

“And the paint brush, broom, and shovel?”

Now, suddenly, you are telling me I have a lot more to do. Additionally, neither one of us is having a good time.

Turns out that we figure out what these kinds of non-responses mean because they differ from direct, cooperative responses in one or more of the following four ways.

  • The response says more (or less) than is needed.
  • The response doesn’t appear at the surface to be a relevant to the initial statement or question.
  • The response isn’t clear.
  • The response somehow lacks the needed quality to be a full response.

The short list is quality, clarity, quantity, and relevance. Even so, this kind of communication relies on shared experiences. Those experiences can be shared within culture, community, family, or individual association.

Given the above, getting dialog to be indirect so that it implies more than is said is a pretty direct process. Start with something direct and revise it until is drips with additional meanings.

Draft 1:

“Take me home,” she said.

“Okay,” he said.

Draft 2:

She says, “My bedroom ceiling is more interesting than these people.”

“That guy,” he said, “spent last year in Tibet.”

“And my bedroom is warmer than this field.”

“They’ll light the bonfire in a minute.”

“Two cuddled under quilts is the best warm.”

“Oh,” he said. “I’ll just say goodnight.”

In draft one, the two people are being cooperative and direct. In draft two, one is being too clever, and the other is being a bit dense. A lot more is going on in terms of the psychological interactions of the desires of the two people. Of course, the passage could be improved—a lot. That’s not the point. The point is the implied meanings. In this case, the reader gets them because of shared experience in cultural context.

If, as writers, we understand our characters, their growth, their needs, and their backgrounds well enough, we can manipulate the text so that multiple layers of meaning appear from this kind of indirect interaction.

Narrative, when compared to implication in dialog, is both the same and different. If the narrator is external, the narrator can be seen as engaged in a sort of dialog with the reader. What has come before in the main story or in back story can be used as shared knowledge (the ice cream truck). However, narrative is usually more powerful if it has moved into the heart/mind of character.

The following two passages represent a transformation from one of the great traps into which writing instructors fall, focusing on the use of “concrete details,” to the use of those same details to imply more about the life of the character than is strictly accounted for by the text.

Yes, concrete details are necessary. However, students of the written word often focus too tightly on the detail and miss the point that the story is about a character who inhabits the fictional world.

Passage 1 (concrete details):

He entered through the south door and paused. He wore J. C. Penney docksiders, pale blue argyle socks, tan cotton Dockers, a burgundy, button-down Bugle Boy shirt, and a thin gold chain around his neck. His build was medium and toned. He had a sharp jaw line, straight nose, blond hair and blue eyes. He wore a businessman’s haircut. He looked to his left. He looked to his right. He crossed from the door to the dining room table and placed a small pile of envelopes on the table. The table was made of stained cherry wood veneer over a pine base. In places, the veneer was worn through and the pine was visible. The table had brass screws holding it together. Three chairs were mission, two were Victorian, one was a folding steel chair. He walked around the table, called his wife’s name, and exited the room through the north door.

Passage 2 (implication through the use of details):

Squeaking hinges announced his arrival and reminded him that Sharon had a honey-do list for him this weekend. He crossed the threshold into neutral ground, the dining room, paused, and turned his head to better catch noises coming from the kitchen. Concentrating on the sounds of the house, the ticks and creaks and movement of air through dry, old cracks in the walls and floorboards, the mail he held nearly slipped from his sweating hand. He gripped it more tightly and crossed to the dining room table, careful to tread lightly on the white-rubber balls of his topsiders. He sorted the mail so the bills were on the bottom then set the stack in a neat pile at Sharon’s place, in front of her martyr’s chair, the folding metal church chair she insisted that she use so no one else would have to be subjected to its indignity. He wiped his palms on the burgundy Bugle Boy she’d given him for his interview, then he thought better of it and checked to see if he’d stained the shirt with his own sweat. Satisfied that he was presentable, he rounded the table and headed for occupied territory–her kitchen.

I showed these passages to one of my writer friends. Their response was, “Eric, that’s just close, subjective narrative.”

Well, yes. It is.

That’s sort of the point of close, subjective narrative. We know the characters, their needs, their current desires, their underlying desires, their changes, their emotions, their back stories, their relationships, and their minds. Because of that knowledge, we can write in a way that implies many things that are not explicit in the text.

For example, we can write narrative that reveals levels of marital tension, the nature of personal fear, levels of social dominance, tacit agreements about control of territory, habitual behavioral dynamics, and the psychological underpinnings of two people who have driven one another to estrangement. Later, the reader will share this understanding with character and narrator. If done well, the reader won’t even know they have picked up on these cues. These things can then be exploited more deeply through indirect dialog and subjective narrative as a story moves forward.

The subtext of the opening paragraph, based on shared experience with my friends in Texas, is, “Thank you.”

I suppose I should stop now. This blog entry is late, and I have said a lot more than I needed to say in order to fulfill my responsibility to my cohort of shared bloggers.

Since I have written more than was strictly needed, there is subtext. The subtext is, to be explicit, that I believe this idea of implication (subtext) is very important for writers who want to enhance the reader’s experience of story.

The Epiphany or “Eureka!  I have it!”

By Cynthia Ray

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January 6th is the feast of the Epiphany in the Christian tradition, celebrating the arrival of the three wise men to the child Jesus.  While it can mean the literal recognition of the Christ within, this story may also be understood in a symbolic way to help us to understand where inspiration comes from and how to tap into it.

These Magi, or magicians, represent the conscious mind coming to the realization of the light or truth which the subconscious mind has given birth to after a long period of gestation-a personal epiphany.  The Magi were visionaries, they believed and followed a star that had meaning only for them.  Others may have seen the star, but only they knew where it would lead.

If we accept this, then how can we undertake such a journey?  Why would we want to go on such a perilous undertaking?  What star would we follow?

Recently I heard Ursula LeGuin’s famous award acceptance speech.  In it, she gives an admonition to writers and artists to become visionaries.  LeGuin says, “I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries — the realists of a larger reality. …”

Hear Ursula LeGuins speech here

Wow!  That hit me right in the gut.  As writers and artists shouldn’t that be our highest quest?  To be realists of a larger reality.  To show truth, to inspire, to lead.  If so, once our intellect, or conscious mind decides on the quest/question and sets the conditions, then the subconscious mind does its work, hidden in the deeps of the universal mind, where all truth awaits.  Follow the star.

In the Star Tarot card,  the two pots of water represent the two aspects of mind, the conscious and subconscious. The functions of the Star card are Meditation and Revelation; exactly what an Epiphany consists of.

The Star

Epiphanies are experienced as a sudden realization or illumination of thought.  They are often described as a “flash of genius”.  Archimedes illustrated this exactly when he jumped from his bath and ran naked from his house, exclaiming  “Eureka!  I have it!” after he discovered his groundbreaking method to determine the density of an object. Newtons theory of gravity is another example of an epiphany, triggered by his observation of a falling apple.  You have probably felt that way a time or two when something fell into place.

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In both cases, these scientists had spent a lot of time contemplating, thinking and focusing on specific problems with their conscious mind.  Meanwhile the subconscious, a beautiful fertile receptacle that allows and nurtures all seeds planted there, brought forth  seemingly miraculous answers to the questions posed.  These experiences are memorable to us and even seem supernatural, but they are the natural result of the creative process we put in place with our focus.

So in order for an epiphany to occur, there needs to be:

  •  A clear question
  • A desire to know and understand something
  • A time of contemplation and focused thinking, where one wrestles with the issue, studies and labors to understand

We could not do better than to consider Ursula’s admonition in this, looking for hope, a leading out of the dark and how we could express that in our art. What if we all asked, “What can I, as a writer/artist, do to show new ways of being to a world in need of awakening, of hope?”

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While the conscious mind is occupied with these things, below the surface, in the deep waters of our subconscious womb, things will percolate, grow and gestate, until they rise to our consciousness, born seemingly out of nowhere and “it all becomes clear.”

Embrace the knowing that our subconscious will eventually and inevitably give birth to what we are seeking and focusing on, whether it is the resolution to our characters dilemma in our story, or startling perceptions about mankind’s current state.  This is the star we must follow.

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Whether it is a shared wisdom we tap into and from which our Epiphany springs, or from our own personal depths, the fact is that there is a deeper wisdom which will answer all of our questions if we put them out there and meditate, contemplate and stew in them long enough.  What a powerful tool we have at our disposal!

Wishing you many Epiphanies in this new year, in a world that is a better place to be-because of you and your work.

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