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

 

To Purge or Not to Purge

By Cheryl Owen-Wilson

To purge, or not to purge, that is the question.  Whether ‘tis nobler to allow our minds to wallow in misery,  hoarding our past misfortunes, and sorrows.  Or to purge, to purge all from our being, so creativity may blossom and flourish in its wake.

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To Purge—The act of ridding one’s self of unwanted feelings, memories and conditions. In doing so, one hopes to experience a sense of cathartic release.

It’s a New Year, and along with the New Year many make resolutions for change. In order to do so, they look back at the past 365 days and resolve to make the new ones better. Some examples of mine would be—writing that novel, losing those pounds, taking that trip, and on, and on. However, I’ve discovered the old year will follow me into the new one unless I—purge. For me it was never a question, to purge or not to purge. What was my question for years was—how? I stumbled upon my answer over 10 years ago, when I wrote my first, end of year, Christmas Letter. Yes, I’m one of those people. But once again, through the power of the written word, a great mental purge was discovered.

I utilize the craft of fiction, poetry, and memoir in my annual Christmas Letter, and since I write about my husband, our seven children, five grandchildren, and myself you can only imagine the length of said letter. Our children have taken to calling it, Our Mother’s Annual, Award Winning, Best in Fiction, Family News Paper. I call it my, End of Year Purge, because, we’re a very large family, with many personalities, and lives, and my aging brain can’t possibly remember it all, no matter how hard I try.

So while the children’s title is all in jest, as I can attest that every word I write in the letter is the absolute truth, how do I accomplish this without giving away family secrets? I’ve found a collision of fiction, mystery, and memoir accomplishes my goal quite nicely.  It is all in the arrangement of words you see—such as saying—Betty (names have been changed to protect the innocent) spent a year exploring the many avenues available to a young woman in her 20’s. This would be my way of saying, without actually saying it—Betty, spent the year either jumping from job to job, or boyfriend, to boyfriend—you choose, as I’ve used similar phrases for both scenarios. There have also been a multitude of boyfriends, girlfriends and even the occasional husband, who’ve been featured in the letter and shown in photos only to be completely absent the next year, or replaced by another name and face entirely. This is where mystery comes in—are they buried in the back yard or been abducted by aliens? No one ever asks, and we never say. However, even with my creative narrative, the magic of the letter is that year after year it captures a chronological story of our family’s lives. Through the letter, I am able to celebrate the sweet memories and accomplishments of each and every family member, while also purging the nasty bits that occur with humor and cleaver word choices.

The second half of the Christmas letter is a poem. The poem is my way of embracing the positive world events of the past year, while purging the negative, and also remembering those whom we’ve lost. This year’s poem is shared below.

So dear readers I say purge.  Write it all down, and burn it if you must, but purge none-the-less. My purging not only frees my mind of clutter, it also creates a recorded history of both family and world events for my grandchildren to look back upon and read, many moons from now. I would love to hear what rituals you use to purge in order to clear the clutter, and begin anew.

Let Hearts Grow and Bells Ring Out                              

Let bells ring out while snowflakes fly, and let tinsel and glitter fall from the sky.

Let mystical enchantment surround us, one and all, while peace, love and happiness, hold us tightly in its thrall.

Once again our home has been transformed into a storybook, fantasy world, where even tiny, Grinch-like trees can bring magic, when unfurled.

For the Holiday Season, is upon us once again dear friend.  So let us take a moment over a hot chocolate, or perhaps a hot toddy laced with gin.

As we look back at the event filled year of Two-Thousand and Seventeen, where future historians, I am certain, will proclaim, “How could they’ve not seen?”

There’s a reality star twittering rants from within the hallowed halls of our highest house.  Facts have become “fake news”, while with nuclear weapons, he plays cat, and mouse.

But within the red and blue swath of these our United States, there is still much to be applauded; fueled by our many debates.

We marched by the millions, pink hats in hand, and from that momentous occasion, the #metoo movement began.

Thus, all now know, we do have a choice, as we stand speaking loudly in one, strong, united voice.

Then on to a lighter note, for the perfect stocking stuffer, we have a winner, but do we really, truly need, that double, fidget spinner?

I much prefer the momentary craze dedicated to the Unicorn’s vibrant rainbow hue. As it has given us, color-laden Frappuccino’s, bagels, and of course, Unicorn dip poo!

While here in Eugene, for those of us “Ducks” who bleed yellow and green, this years “civil war game” was an orange and black defeated, scene.

And Mother Nature chose this year to give us quite a display.  We watched in throngs—as day became night—what more can I say?

Other than, let us not forget the YouTube sensation, followed faithfully online, when April the Giraffe, gave birth live before millions, for the very first time.

Alas, many new beings entered this realm throughout the past year, but there were also those who left us. So, let’s give them a final, good cheer.

For Mr. Tom Petty, I know he now has wings, and has Learned to Fly, and is Free Fallin’ though a starlit night sky.

And Mr. Monty Hall is making heavenly deals, while listening to Fat’s Domino serenade him with Blueberry Hills.

Then Gentle on My Mind is a Rhinestone Cowboy riding through the clouds, heralded by the applause of adoring, heavenly crowds.

Finally, I throw my hat to the sky in memory of Ms. Mary Tyler Moore, and to Jerry Lewis, I hope funds for MDA continue to ever pour.

I now gaze out my kitchen window at our newly planted, crooked Dr. Seuss Tree, and it reminds me that by allowing your heart to grow, you can begin to see.

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So like the infamous Grinch of old, let all our hearts begin to grow, and grow, then perhaps through this great expansion of human compassion, seeds will sow, and begin mending not only fences, but also the divided borders across this earth. For isn’t that the true reason for this season, of renewal, and rebirth?

Love, conquers all they say, so let’s, let bells ring out, and let’s let love, have its way!

Three Lessons in Writing from a Blind Dog

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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.

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Reading Like a Writer, By Cheryl Owen Wilson

There is an intricate connection between being an insatiable reader and the desire to be a writer. I severed that connection for a time. Following is my cautionary tale.

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Once the writing bug wrapped its tentacles firmly around my mind, heart and soul I knew it would change some aspects of my day-to-day life, such as the minor examples listed below:

  • I eavesdrop on the intimate conversations of strangers. Then using anything at my disposal, I write down catch phrases, interesting quirks, etc. By the way you can actually write on toilet paper—carefully and with the right pen, but it can be done.
  • I wake in the middle of the night with a phrase whispering in my ear and it won’t shut up until written down.
  • My dreams are no longer just random threads of my life and psyche. They are now messages from beyond sent specifically to give me a story to write.
  • The food I eat is not longer just a good meal. No, now it must be described down the last morsel eaten—“Consuming the juices of the glistening, red, apple was akin to savoring honey dipped in Mayan gold.”

These are simply a few ways writing altered my life.  I had no idea just how it would change the one thing I’ve always turned to when in need of escaping my day-to-day reality—my reading life—that mental immersion of temporarily entering another world entirely.

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I’ve learned all writers come to understand the twin mirrors of being an avid reader, and the ravenous desire to write. However, as mentioned, in the beginning of this blog, I had no idea the two were so intertwined.

I discovered the dark side of this connection when I joined my first book club:

  • It seems not everyone goes through a book to discover what minute spark caused the author to write the book in the first place. Or in the case of historical fiction, not every book club member prints page after page of the actual history for show and tell at the book club meeting. I did. However, these two revelations and others didn’t alter my previous pleasure in reading. What did, was finding that I began to see the flaws in timelines, plot development, etc. This changed my reading escapism and I was not happy about this development.
  • On the flip side of noting the flaws in some of the books chosen I began to recognize the glaring genius created through the written word in other books. These authors made me question my own ability to create a well-written story.

Thus, I severed the connection and stopped reading entirely.

As you can well image it didn’t last very long, as this is when the realization struck—how closely they were related—reading and writing. So I began my journey to marry the two, so I might once again have the magic of being lost for days in another author’s sea of words.

This is when I discovered, a local writing organization Wordcrafters in Eugene’s life-altering monthly gathering–Reading Like a Writer—Part book club, part craft talk and part communing with your literature loving tribe.

  • Each month, a professional writer discusses a book that’s meaningful to them both as a reader and a writer. They share their favorite character moments and passages and all the things they love or find challenging. Then they tease apart elements of craft that inspire them, whether it’s the witty dialogue, how place serves to push characters to the brink, or the masterful interweave of plot and theme. There is then discussion for everyone to share at the end. You can read the book, so you can share what you loved, or didn’t love. Or you can just come to enjoy the talk and discover great new books and writers!

If there is not such a group in your area, I highly recommend you start one or find one online. My revelation in learning to read like a writer is this:

  • I find I can first enjoy the book as a reader, knowing I will possibly go back and re-read portions of the book as a writer. This allows me the escapism I so relish, while also giving me the invaluable lessons other writers have to offer.

I would enjoy hearing about your own experiences with reading and writing. Have you too had issues? When in the middle of a WIP do you read others works as well, or do you abstain until you’ve completed your project?

Our Stories Can Save Us, by Eric Witchey

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Our Stories Can Save Us, by Eric Witchey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-End-

Be The Reader

by Christina Lay

There’s no shortage of people who want to give writers marketing advice.  The problem is that given the ever shifting reality of the publishing world AND the world of marketing, what is true today might not be true tomorrow.  What works for one person might prove worthless for the next.  And then there are simply a lot of ideas out there based on guesses, conjecture, what worked for that guy, and advertising hokum.  We have to remember that from the e-mag mavins who sell ad space to the speaker/gurus who sell workshops, advertising is a business, and we are the target audience. They worked out an angle or pitch and then try hard to convince us theirs is a sure fire path to the bestseller list. The bottom line is the bottom line; buy my book so you can convince other people to buy your book.

lotsofbooks

The particular pitch that caught my eye and then made me slightly queasy was about turning readers into “fans”.  Fans are the super-readers who will buy every release, write glowing reviews, tweet about your appearances, and possibly stalk you at conferences. Every writer dreams of having a few.  In this particular workshop, they promise you will “learn how to serve them (fans) better” and also learn how to love “providing content and service”.  This is where my introvert writer self reaches for the antacid. I love how writing a novel is now “providing content”,  lumped in right along with all those endless bog posts, interviews, how-to articles, timely newsletters, fascinating tweets, friendly Facebook posts, eye-catching Pinterest pins, on-trend tumbler shares, and so on, and so on.

Without a marketing budget in the thousands, it’s true that all of these outlets are the best avenues open to writers to get the word out and let readers know you exist.  But how effective are they? This is the question that no one really has an answer to.  I do most of these things, and I do know without a doubt that it is better than doing nothing.  Writers can no longer rely on their publisher (if they have one) to do much of anything.  So yes, providing content beyond the books is pretty much a have-to if you want readers to know you exist.

About this business of “serving” your readers, I have to ask; do readers really want more than a good book? I’m no more of a guru than any of the people claiming the title, so I decided to look at my own habits as a reader, because I’ve been a reader longer than I’ve been a writer.  And I polled some friends.  Do we really want to be served by the writers we read? If so, how?

The most overwhelmingly common way a reader finds a new book is through recommendations by friends.  And, as far as I can tell through my very unscientific study this is still mostly done via face-to-face chats (in the three-dimensional world known as “reality”) and occasionally, through book clubs.  So one way an author can serve readers is to be willing to make appearances at book clubs.  This is something many gurus will poo-poo because instead of creating “thunder claps” with thousands of shares you might create a friendly murmur among dozens.  I’d argue, however, that the murmur ends up having a much more significant impact than the tweet that is lost among a sea of pointless twittering.

So what about friends’ recommendations via Facebook?  I honestly can’t remember ever following up on a post about a book, but I have had friends comment that they were interested in a book that I shared.

I’ve also never taken note of a book recommendation on Twitter. I do follow a lot of writers on Twitter, but it is only as a fellow writer, not a reader.  I get the impression that some fans do track their favorite authors this way, but I also sense that they are looking for giveaways more than book recommendations. The nice thing about Twitter is that it is free and relatively painless. If you’re blogging anyway, automatically posting on Twitter is a no brainer.

And what about blogging?  This is the most time-consuming, content-providing marketing activity a writer can engage in, but is anyone reading your posts? This one is harder to untangle, because I am constantly reading blogs as part of my activities online as a writer.  Would I be reading them if I wasn’t a writer looking for info and connections? I don’t know.  I can say this is the main way I’ve found new-to-me writers.  Specifically, an engaging excerpt is by far the most effective “content” as far as getting me to click that Amazon buy link.  I participate in a lot of blog hops and so end up reading a lot of short excerpts.  So what makes a writer stand out?  Simple— excellent writing.  It helps to have a professional looking website and easy to follow links to book blurbs and buy links.  It is also essential to always come across as a nice person.  If you go this route, you’ll find that most of your visitors in the beginning are other writers looking for connections, so be responsive, be helpful and whatever you do, don’t hide any weird viruses in your website that automatically sign people up for your newsletter, or any other creepy reverse stalking cyber-tricks (yes, this is based on actual experiences).

According to my survey, one of the most popular ways to find a new book is via the dreaded Amazon recommendation widget.  Dreaded because it is based on an indecipherable-to-the-common-human algorithm of great mystery and awe.  Skipping over that whole morass of conjecture and hoodoo, let’s just say your book actually makes it onto the line up of recommended books; what then? The cover is very important—make sure it’s professional and eye-catching.  Nothing turns me off quicker than an amateurish cover.  And then, once again the most important thing you can do is make a sample easily available, make sure it is perfectly edited and once again, excellent.  The definition of excellent is of course up to you and the reader, but you know what I mean.

What this all boils down to is that while you can bury fans in all sorts of giveaways, FB parties, chatty tweets, photos of your hunky heroes and on and on, what it really comes down to, in this reader’s opinion anyway, is–prove to me you can write.  All the social networking might catch a reader’s eye, but once the eye is caught, have an intriguing excerpt or sample chapter available for them to enjoy.

To wrap up, I’d say when faced with the overwhelming landslide of “Must Do” marketing activities, channel your inner reader and ask yourself what you want from a writer, and how you find them.  Then put your most excellent face out there, and keep on writing.

 

Finding Pine Martens, by Eric Witchey

Which way is up, says the pine marten

Finding Pine Martens, by Eric Witchey

 

This is text. As writers, we manipulate text. We fiddle it. We rearrange it. We edit it. We proofread it. We test it and rearrange it again. We do this until we believe that the text matches the story living in our hearts and minds.

While engaged in this nearly obsessive focus on forcing the text to match up with the story, we sometimes forget why we engage in this insane effort to make the little black squiggles on a contrasting background line up in pleasing orders.

We do it to cause an expansive, revelatory emotional experience in the mind and heart of the reader.

Consequently, I think of myself as a reader advocate. I am not a writer advocate, nor am I an agent advocate, an editor advocate, a market advocate, a sell it to New York advocate, or a hit the Amazon number one slot in my sub-subgenre advocate.

As a reader advocate, I don’t give a rat’s ass if the story matches my vision. I only care whether the story causes the reader to have a vision and an experience that is emotionally powerful and satisfying to them—to that individual reader—to each individual reader.

As a writer and human being, that means that I am willing to give up my vision if I can see a path through the story that will give the reader a better experience. It means that sometimes the patterns of text that interact to allow the reader’s possible extracted or projected meanings can be manipulated in ways that allow the reader to experience something I did not plan but that I can bring to light.

It’s like the moment when we are looking for an eagle high in the canopy of the Northwest rain forest. We peer upward into the tangled canopy and only see the crossing of the branches, the fluttering of leaves, the intermittent release of rays of sunlight through the foliage… Then, as if the entire moment were structured to give us the gift of a vision, our minds resolve a pattern—the voracious elfin face of a pine marten peering down at us from the crook between two branches. Certainly, we weren’t looking for a pine marten. In fact, we hadn’t considered at all that we might see a pine marten because they are so rare and so elusive. However, that moment sweeps away all thought of an eagle because the weasel-cat-squirrel face of the pine marten is so much more immediately interesting and exciting.

Working with the patterns of text and the minds of readers who will interpret those patterns requires more than an understanding of grammar, punctuation, and the linear events of the story we plan to tell. It requires the mental agility to know when the patterns that we are creating can suddenly reveal a pine marten instead of the eagle we planned on. It requires a willingness to look at what is possible and release what is intended. It also requires the ability to reinterpret all of what has been done in favor of new, richer possibilities.

When I was in grade school, I became angry at a girl who often wore dirty clothes to school. She smelled funny. She always seemed dull and stupid. I tried to tell my father how stupid she was and how wrong it was for her to be in my class. My father became quite angry. He took me by the shoulders, knelt, made direct eye contact, and almost whispered these words: “Eric, righteousness is a crutch you use to avoid understanding.”

All thanks to my father for that moment of insight and understanding. My father was a reader advocate. No. Not quite. He wasn’t a writer, but he was a perceiver advocate. He wanted me to see more complex patterns of truth than my imposed judgments and expectations allowed. He wanted me to see facets and reflections and possibilities instead of falling back on small-minded, rigid patterns of righteousness. He was a good man, my father.

I did not understand that I had been looking for an eagle instead of seeing that the girl was a pine marten. I did not understand that she was from a very poor family—poor because their father had been taken from the family livelihood in the steel mill and then from the family by cancer, poor because they had lost their health insurance, because the widowed mother was very sick with what we all now think of as trauma-induced depression. I didn’t understand that the girl’s uncle had come to live with and help them and liked to have his niece sit on his lap a little too much. I didn’t understand that the only clothes the girl had were from their church charity bins. I didn’t want to understand. I wanted the world to fit my desires, expectations, and ideals. More than that, I wanted the girl to be lower in some way than me.

She was certainly not an eagle. Yet, she was the pine marten.

By releasing my righteousness, my desire to have her conform to my desire for simple, easily understood and imposed hierarchy and correctness, I came to understand the much more complex, more powerful story of her family and its universal connection to the struggle of all families.

Our stories are often like that. In our minds, our stories are clean and simple. We fiddle the text. We fix the text in an endless effort to get them to conform to our expectations, our sense of how they should be—of how they must be if we want to sell them. However, when we release our sense of what the story should be, we discover that what could be is much more wonderful and powerful.

Every story is a long line of little black squiggles in a row. That’s all it is. We, as creators, fiddle and fix and rearrange the squiggles. We, as human beings, can sometimes release our righteousness and step back and see what is possible. Sometimes, just every so often, we can stop looking for the eagle just long enough to see the pine marten and realize that our simplistic sense of what should be is the righteous crutch we use to avoid understanding the possible—the deeper, richer, more powerful truths that our readers could pull from our text, could find in our patterns, or could bring from their experiences and project into our words.

End