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.

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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

Let The Light Shine Through

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Let The Light Shine Through by Cheryl Owen-Wilson

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is the bright light shining through your story?

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

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

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

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

I Believe

I believe in equal pay, for an equal workday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“Story Time” Original Art by Cheryl Owen-Wilson

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

The Quiescent Writer and the Path of the Five Whys

By Cynthia Ray

The 5 Whys is an iterative question asking technique developed by Sakichi Toyoda, used in process improvement work.  Questions are used to explore the cause and effect relationships underlying a problem.  Asking why at least five times is a way to get to the root cause of something.  I’ve used this technique to understand issues, but never on myself—until now.

Recently, a friend asked me how my writing was going, and I muttered something about not having as much time to write as I would like, being too busy, etc.  Later, as I mused on the conversation, it hit me like a chunk of nasty space rubble—all of my excuses were a sham; I was lying to myself.

I’d written steadily for a few years, but looking back over the past few months, it dawned on me that I was not writing at all.  I’d become a Quiescent Writer, which is to say, no writer at all.  Quiescence is a state of inactivity.  How the heck did I get here?  Heres where the Five Whys come in:

The First Why:  Why did I lie to myself about not having time to write? Sure, my time is limited, but time is like money; we choose to spend it on what we choose to spend it on and I was choosing NOT to write, and not because I didn’t have time.  Everyone has time, and much has been written about how to make time to write, how to motivate oneself to write.  It wasn’t that.  Then what?

The Second Why:  Why didn’t I want to make time to write?  Was I bored with writing?  No, I love creating worlds and working with words.  That still interested and fascinated me, but perhaps I wasn’t writing the right kind of thing?  Fantasy and science fiction are fun, but maybe I’m a frustrated literary crime fiction novelist?  Nah, if you aren’t writing, what does it matter what you are not writing.  I got the feeling I was avoiding something.  The cold splash of fear in my stomach told me I was on the right path.

The Third Why:  What am I avoiding by not writing?  The answer sprang up from my gut and brought tears to my eyes.  FEAR.  A giant red-eyed demon kind of fear.

The Fourth Why:  What am I afraid of?  What is the fear?  Of failing?  Maybe. I certainly like to be successful; I like to feel competent, but there’s more.  Mediocrity?  Yes, that’s there, I never want to be in the middle of the bell curve, I want to be better.  The fear came into focus.  I had reached a certain point of proficiency with my writing, and couldn’t seem to get to the next level.  I became frustrated at not being able to write through that ceiling.

And instead of pushing through, I stopped.  Like scaling a mountain, and halfway up realize you are out of shape, and instead of pushing through, or doing something to strengthen yourself, you just lay down and cry about not being strong enough to get to the top of the mountain.  I had just laid down and given up.  I was afraid that I would never be better than right now.

The Fifth Why:  Why did this fear of not being good enough paralyze me and stop me from doing what I wanted to do?  This vein of fear went very deep, to the very root of me and I didn’t want to face what it might say about me as a writer, as a person.  I stood on that chasm and visited with the red-eyed demon for a while.  Turned out he was a hologram, and not real.   I find that I am a courageous person, a brave person, and I decided to keep going.

I will be setting a new writing schedule, but taking a new gentler approach.  I don’t have to crash any ceilings or fight any demons.  I can sit on my patio and smell the flowers, and write to my heart’s content.   This journey to root causes of things will make me a better writer.  Why?  Sorry, I’ve reached the end of my answers for now.

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.