The Because-Because of Character Desire, by Eric Witchey

Tennis PlayerThe Because-Because of Character Desire, by Eric Witchey

The four-day 2017 Willamette Writers Conference was last weekend.

Don’t worry. This isn’t a conference recap essay. It’s a craft essay.

Still, I experienced a lot of things in a very short period of time, so it influences my thinking on craft today. Two things I experienced are worthy of note in this little essay. First is my time with the Young Willamette Writers. Larry Brooks and I spent a lunch with the up-and-coming kids nurtured by Teresa Klepinger and the Young Willamette Writers’ crew of kind mentors. The kids’ ages ranged from 9 to 15 or so, and they are pure hearts made of equal parts imagination and sponge. Second is the sad death of the dolphin Rinaldo that was part of the discoveries we made during the Write a Story Now group brainstorm and story development class I taught on Sunday.

Yes, these things are related.

Here’s how. In both situations I found myself on the verge of describing a little considered but terribly important aspect of story craft—characterization in particular. I call it the because-because technique. In both cases, time ran out. I walked away from the sessions feeling like I cheated my clients.

Many fiction writers, and certainly most selling writers, know that every character on stage at a given moment has an agenda they are trying to execute. How they execute their agenda “shows” the reader who they are. This is at the heart and soul of the vague and nearly useless writer instruction to “show, don’t tell.” God, I wish I had a dime for every emotionally empty adjective and concrete detail an aspiring writer put on the page and made me read.

Example:

She sat on the hot, beige vinyl of her twenty-year old, silver Toyota Camry. Squirming to keep her cheek sweat from staining her white tennis shorts and sticking her to the seat, she slipped the key into the ignition and twisted. The starter clicked twice then pretended it hadn’t noticed her effort to start the car.

The old adage (show, don’t tell) biases the aspirant in favor of describing the perspirant, her seats, her shorts, her car, etc. She does have an agenda. Here, she wants to start the car. That’s her scene agenda, and that’s what I’m writing about in this essay.

In both the class and the meeting with the kids, we talked about agendas. We talked about how they bring character to life by creating opportunity for the character to demonstrate who they are by taking action on their own behalf. We talked about how opposition of environment (the heat and the starter) can force the character to demonstrate resourcefulness, experience, and a level of desire. Opposition by another character does the same and adds another agenda and personality to the mix. Opposition by internal moral and psychological forces also places the character in a position where they must demonstrate who they are. In the Story Now class, we even talked a little bit about how changes in tactics can allow the reader to feel and internalize character personality.

What we didn’t talk about is how every character on stage has a because-because.

Example:

She wants to start her car because she wants to get away from the tennis pro because she loves her husband and doesn’t want any rumors even though she hasn’t done anything wrong.

The purpose of the because-because is expanding the frame of reference for personal agenda two levels in order to allow for more complex and plausible execution of agenda in scene. It also allows the writer to connect character to risks, stakes, and consequences in the mind of the reader by making behavior specific in ways that imply psychological underpinning motivations that may or may not be explicitly stated.

And every character has a because-because. Even the ball boy has a because-because.

Example:

The tennis pro wants to bed the first character because he is running a blackmail/web porn site because he wants a new tattoo that will mark him as a captain in the Russian mafia on American soil.

The groundskeeper wants to reorganize his shed because he believes that having everything in order helps him care for his golf course because he believes a true groundskeeper’s soul is connected to the land he cares for.

The club manager wants to get a reporter off his property because he wants to keep the respect of his corrupt, high-end clients because he is skimming a percentage of dues into offshore accounts he’ll use to be rid of those assholes once and for all when he disappears at the end of the year.

The reporter wants to interview the club manager for a puff piece in the Sunday Supplement because she wants to investigate the club members for corruption because she wants a breakthrough story that will place her name prominently in the history of journalism.

You get the idea, I hope.

Now, a byproduct of because-because agendas is that the writer can tweak them around to make them increasingly about the psychology and sociology of the character. Here’s a rewrite in that direction for The Ball Boy:

The ball boy wants to give her a new can of club logo complimentary balls because he wants his boss’s respect and a raise because he wants to shake off the stigma of his family history by looking worthy to be on a date with the first character’s teenage daughter.

The more the because-because is grounded in character psyche, the more powerful the interactions between the characters becomes. Here’s a rewrite of our first character’s because-because:

She wants to start her car because she wants to escape the tawdry advances of the tennis pro because she loves her husband and protects his reputation from rumors because she wants him to have a model wife for his developing political career.

Now, she has three becauses and is getting more interesting because we want her to escape because we want her to develop a spine and aspire to be more than a mere political symbol.

Each because, if it is connected to character psychology, also connects to reader interest.

Given all these becauses, the “showing” of the first paragraph and subsequent paragraphs change radically because behavior becomes more important and adjectives and concrete details only have value relative to character behavior and motivations.

Squirming on the Camry’s hot vinyl to keep her cheek sweat from staining her white tennis shorts or sticking her to the seat, she ducked low to hide under the dash, slipped the key into the ignition, and twisted. The starter clicked twice then pretended it hadn’t noticed the key. She let go of the key and pumped the accelerator with her hand.

A metallic tap on her window startled her. She ducked lower and twisted again. Two clicks.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

Trapped, she sat up and reflexively composed herself by checking her melting makeup in the rear-view before powering down her window. Of course, the window works. She sighed and turned to face her captor while already planning to use the broken car and calls to mechanics to keep him at bay.

The face at her window confused her. The hard angles and piercing gray eyes she expected had been replaced by the full, youthful cheeks and soft green eyes of the ball boy, Dennis.

She searched the parking lot for Valentine, her lascivious tennis instructor. The only other people in the lot were Staniss Cavendish, the club manager, and a pert, bouncy redhead millennial who seemed to be in his face about something. Stan with a girl half his age didn’t surprise her. It should have, but it didn’t.

“For you, Ma’am.” Dennis held up a clear plastic can of tennis balls.

Confused, she focused on his earnest, freckled face and dimples. He was such a cute boy. Hard working and cute. If she had been twenty years younger…

Well, that was not a thought to finish. He was what? Seventeen, maybe. A year older than Laurel? That was just the kind of thing she was trying to avoid. She smiled and said, “…”

I suppose I could write the scene for you, but I’d really rather you write the scene in order to test the concept. All the players are available. Four are on stage. They all have their agendas. They all have at least a because-because.

If I’m not mistaken, you are already visualizing the scene that will play out. If you do write the scene, drop me a line and let me know how the exercise goes.

Hopefully, I have now made up for having failed my students at the conference.

Here’s one last thought about the nature of because-because. It doesn’t stay the same. It just gives depth to the scene. Once the scene climaxes, new becauses may or may not come into being. To get the full power of because-because thinking, the writer will need to connect the becauses to the stress the scene causes on the character’s Irreconcilable Self. Sadly, that’s another essay.

I’ll be teaching this technique and many others in a four-week Saturday novel seminar in September. The class is offered by WordCrafters in Eugene. Here’s the link to registration.

http://wordcraftersineugene.org/classes/fiction-fluency-seminars-with-eric-witchey/

Luck and skill to all who write and send.

Warning: Any product advertisements that appear with this post were NOT authorized or endorsed by me in any way.

Musings on Breathing Life into a Heartless Villain, by Pamela Jean Herber

 

What makes for a memorable antagonist?

I’ve been having trouble with the antagonist in my current novel-in-progress. She’s boring. I have a decent handle on how she operates in her world, and the role she plays in the story, but she feels more like a mathematical formula than a human being. What to do?… Go out in search of a villain I’m excited about who has similar traits to my antagonist.

An intriguing historical villain

In my travels through books, the Internet, and my own memory, I found a deliciously evil woman from the early 1800s who grew up in Bauzelles, France. Her name was Thérèse Humbert.

As a girl, Thérèse was betrayed by her own father. He had raised her to believe she and her family were wealthy aristocrats. When the truth came out upon her father’s death that she was not of nobility, and wouldn’t be inheriting great wealth, Thérèse was robbed of a station in society she believed she was entitled to. Without legitimate means to claim her place, she resorted to her father’s game. Fraud.

She continued to tell the tale of her family’s aristocratic standing. She was able to obtain credit based on soon-to-be received wealth, piling up huge debt buying a lifestyle that gave the appearance of wealth. Along the way, Thérèse’s husband, and her father-in-law covered her debts as best they could, perhaps to protect their own reputations. She convinced bankers to allow debts to go unpaid for long after they were due by weaving story after story of an impending inheritance and a favorable marriage by her sister.

Eventually, Thérèse was arrested, tried, and imprisoned, but not until after she had wreaked havoc on the hopes, reputations, and livelihoods of numerous family members, friends, and business associates. These unsustainable ways lead Thérèse to betray her younger sister in the very way her father had betrayed her.

With only a brief sketch of Thérèse’s life, I’m hooked.

What makes Thérèse Humbert such an interesting character?

  • The fact that Thérèse’s father betrayed her makes her need for money and status believable and heartbreaking. Her actions were still unconscionable, but I sympathize with how she became capable of them.
  • She betrayed her sister in the same way she was betrayed. Wow. Just wow. This makes me worry for not just the family, but for all the descendants, and especially the sister. Will it be possible for her to break the cycle?
  • The younger sister could not have been deceived without the support of family members who knew the truth. Thérèse could not have successfully defrauded so many people without the support of her very victims: family, friends, and business associates.

In light of what I’ve found, what can I try out on my antagonist?

  • Provide a single and traumatic event that drives her need for money and status.
  • Show that her daughter is at risk of falling into the same patterns of behavior.
  • Populate the story with a network of people that support the antagonist.

The villain in the story doesn’t breathe on their own. The person the villain was before the damage, and the people in the villains’s life who have retained their compassion, they are the ones who bring the villain to life.

Which Snow Queen Character Are You?

by Christina Lay

We all want to be the Queen, but let’s face it; sometimes we’re the crow, the witch, or the hobgoblin.

I’ve been thinking lately about how a fairy tale penned in 1844 remains relevant in our culture today. Mind you, my thoughts never stray far from the realm of folklore and fairy, and working for the Eugene Ballet Company, listening to the brand new score for the brand new Snow Queen Ballet drift up from the studio below my office, I’ve been finding it harder than ever to concentrate on bookkeeping and easier and easier to drift into the realm of story.

Principal Dancer Danielle Tolmie as The Snow Queen – Photo Courtesy of The Eugene Ballet

The Snow Queen has always been one of those tales that didn’t sit quite comfortably with me. I remember watching a version of it on TV when I was kid. I was both fascinated and disturbed. I wish I could remember which of the many adaptations it was (I’m guessing this was around 1970) but as with other non-Disney, weirdly and honestly portrayed tales, it left me not knowing what to think or feel. That sense of unease stayed with me until I recently re-read the original tale and rediscovered a treasure trove of fascinating characters and stunning images mined from the archival memory of folklore.

Yes, it is weird as only a 173 year-old fairy tale can be, but Gerda, the very good girl, rescues her dear friend Kay and all is well in the end. I think what disturbed me was the lack of resolution regarding the Queen herself. The focal point of anticipation and wonder conveniently leaves on vacation when Gerda shows up at her palace of ice. (Hope this isn’t a spoiler for anyone). Maybe she was bored with Kay and was glad to get him off her hands.

I can only guess the movie version I saw didn’t send the queen away with no resolution, but who knows. The Queen remains a literary enigma, a mystery ensconced in a palace of ice who occasionally abducts little boys in order to have them move pieces of ice around on her frozen “lake of reason”.

Disney’s recent Frozen, very loosely based on The Snow Queen, is a sort of origin tale for the queen, exploring how a person might come to choose to live alone in a palace of ice. Obviously, zillions of movie-goers related to the concept of a person “frozen” due to the denial of their individuality; be it their artistic leanings, their sexuality, their personality, their natural talents. The story examines the damage inflicted when an essential part of oneself is rejected by those closest to you (in Frozen, Elsa’s own parents force her to suppress her astounding magical abilities out of fear). Many of us have experienced this on some level, and understand the urge to withdraw and hide our true selves to avoid further pain. In this case, we are the queen.

But there are many more characters in The Snow Queen and not all are so regal or impressively outfitted.

There’s Gerda, the lovely little girl who even the angels want to help. Gerda represents unconditional love and innocence. Something we can all relate to, right? Although she’s rejected by Kay, and even believes him dead, she won’t give up on him until she’s sure. She’s not terribly bright; her best idea to find out where Kay has gone is to throw her shoes into the river as a payment for knowledge, even after the river insists it doesn’t know anything. She does manage to get stuck on a boat and in the way of fairy tales, is carried toward her ultimate goal. Gerda also represents blind faith, and it works for her. Maybe we are Gerda when we throw common sense to the winds in order to pursue our dreams, loves, impossible wishes. Don’t the gurus always claim that when you follow your heart, the universe will aid you?

In contrast to Gerda is the robber girl, who is a psychopath with a heart of gold. She’s been raised by thieves to be violent, selfish and impulsive and yet she does help Gerda in the end. It’s not clear why, other than it amuses her more to see Gerda continue on her adventure than to murder her. I’m afraid I’ve been the robber girl on occasion. Not that I’ve every threatened to slit anyone’s throat, but the self-absorbed obsession with my own impulses isn’t entirely unfamiliar. I would venture to guess that in most people there exists an equal balance between Gerda’s unselfish goodness on one extreme and the robber girl’s amoral wildness on the other. Neither melds well to my sense of self, but I’ve been in both places.

What about the crow? Good natured, helpful, engaged but willing to risk his betrothed’s position at court in order to help out a stranger? And the crow loves to eat. The crow is about the most normal person in this entire fairy tale. Naturally he must die.

The old witch who lives on the river? She so enjoys Gerda’s company she attempts to erase Gerda’s memories of Kay in order to keep the girl by her side. The witch kills her many rose bushes so that the sight of them won’t trigger Gerda’s memories. In an absolutely lovely image, Gerda’s tears awaken the roses that have been buried beneath the earth and cause them to once again grow above into the sunlight. Then Gerda in her less than stable way runs around for a long while trying to get the roses to tell her where Kay has gone. The flowers have other things on their minds.

Flowers Return to Life – Photo Courtesy of The Eugene Ballet

I find the old witch more disturbing than the Snow Queen or the robber girl. Her manipulation is subtle, possibly even well-intentioned, and she could represent the authority figure who suppresses dreams, talents and nature in order to cleave someone to their side; depending on your perspective, this could be an entirely selfish quest to clip someone else’s wings or a rational desire to keep someone safe. Doesn’t every parent or lover have a little bit of this impulse inside them? Stay near, dear one, don’t venture out where you might get hurt, or lost, or worse, fall in love with someone else and leave me.

And then there are the hobgoblins, or trolls, if you prefer, who start the whole thing. The trolls have a mirror which when gazed upon, distorts whatever beauty there is into ugliness. They have great fun tormenting everyone with it and decide to take it to heaven to mess with the angels. Well, the mirror falls and shatters into a million pieces, but the shards still have their evil effect. Only now, the shards get into people’s eyes and hearts and make them see everything as twisted, bad and ugly. Obviously fragments of the troll mirror are still at work today, with hate and bigotry so prevalent in our politics and media. There’s no shortage of trolls at work eager to warp and twist reality into something monstrous that can conjure hatred. “Fearmongering” is word that is sadly useful here. Have you ever used gossip or lies in order to punish, manipulate or control? Yeah, me neither.

Kay, the little boy whose heart turns into a block of ice, represents the human side of the troll equation. It is certainly not uncommon to be infected with an attitude that turns everything grey, or threatening. Depression is like this, but so is prejudice; fear of the other. I hate to admit I’ve been under the influence of troll thinking more than a few times in my life. If we are exceptionally lucky, we have a Gerda in our lives who will stand by us now matter how big a prick we become, someone whose love might save us from our own worst impulses.

The Snow Queen clearly still touches our hearts and our imaginations. I’ve read the theory that Hans Christen Anderson’s character of the Snow Queen, a heartless figure sitting on her throne of ice in the middle of the lake of reason, was a reaction against criticism he’d received for writing fanciful fairy tales. Writers of fantasy today still have to defend the relevance of their “fairy tales”, despite the fact the genre has become hugely popular. People who don’t “get” fantasy fail to see the truth behind the tall tales. Perhaps they have a bit of glass in their eye. Fantasy is to literature as poetry is to language, it gives us the magical ability to say things in words that can’t be said in words. And now, in the wonderful way of human creativity, the poem is being translated into dance. No matter the medium, fantasy and fairy tales let us see beyond the clouded mirrors to deep within our souls and into the souls of others, connecting us in the dreams we share.

***

If you happen to be in Eugene this weekend, don’t miss the chance to check out The Snow Queen, an original ballet choreographed by Toni Pimble, original score by Kenji Bunch.

 

 

 

Our Stories Can Save Us, by Eric Witchey

Label_Developed

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-

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

Is Writing Fun?

By Elizabeth Engstrom

Is Writing Fun?

Well, yes. And no.

Writing is fun when I’m engaged in a project that I’m excited about, when the words flow, the characters come alive, I have time and solitude in which to immerse, and the muse and I are aligned as one.

Writing is not fun when there are too many distractions, when the plot holes develop, when I’m tired and the words are stuck like molasses in my psyche, when I feel like everything worthwhile has already been written, when I feel like a fraud and/or incompetent, and when I feel all that pressure to compete in the marketplace.

writing2

 

On a panel last April I was asked: “Will you ever retire from writing?” I’m sorry I gave the answer I did. I cited Chuck Barris of “Gong Show” fame, who said that when he quit the show he was going to move to the south of France and write books nobody would read.  That sounded glorious to me at the time, as I was struggling with editors, publishers, agents, marketing, and trying to write all at the same time. But I didn’t speak very eloquently about why that quote stuck with me.

What I should have said is: Do retired tennis players still play tennis?

Today I have fifteen books in print and am nearing the end of my writing career. I have the luxury of not worrying about much on a professional level. I write what I write. I abandon projects with abandon. I don’t cater to deadlines or others’ expectations. I don’t read my reviews (never have), and I don’t care what other people think of me or my work.

But it hasn’t always been this way. For decades, I struggled in the industry like everybody else.

Today, writing is fun for me. I’m working on a project now that makes me laugh out loud when I write, and at the end of the day I am wrung out and can’t wait to get back to it again tomorrow. There is no bleeding into the keyboard. There is no howling angst. I am not pouring my heart and soul into this work, I am playing, joyfully, with the talent I have been given, and I love it.

Will this project be successful? It already is.

So. What about you? Is writing fun?

The Fiction of Reality

By Matthew Lowes

image

Photograph by Matthew Lowes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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