Tales and the Walk-by Hugging, by Eric Witchey

Hug

Source: Nicolas McComber, istockphoto.

Tales and the Walk-by Hugging, by Eric Witchey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, I waited.

I scanned the tabloids.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Checkout lady sheepishly said, “No.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My assumptions were quick and fleeting.

She was a student I had forgotten.

She was someone from a seminar I had taught.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-End-

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

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

Photo by Stefano Tinti. Licensed through iStockPhoto

Uniquely Normal is not Broken: My Best Brain Hack

Eric Witchey

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

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

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

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

I needed a topic now!

Solution?

Human experiments on my friends!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I know. It’s stunning, isn’t it?

Worse than that, my life and yours are different.

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

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

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

Why do you need to write?

I have not one single clue.

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

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

No, I’m not kidding or joking.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a terrible word—should.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You get the idea.

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

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

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

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

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

-End-

My New Pal

By Cynthia Ray

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

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

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

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

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

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

death

The Monte Carlo Process, by Eric M. Witchey

atomicexplosion

Monte Carlo Process, by Eric M. Witchey

This week, I’m teaching fiction writing classes, so I’m thinking teacher thoughts. I’m also thinking about the Manhattan Project.

Yes, these things are connected.

During the Manhattan Project, according to Sam Kean’s The Missing Spoon, a wonderful book about the development of the periodic table, row upon row of women called “computers” were given pieces of large equations to solve. The experiments to which the equations belonged were theoretical constructs created by physicists. The fragments were functions as variables to larger, more complex calculations. In order to solve for a large number of possibilities, one variable would be changed in order to derive an outcome. This way, without modern computing, a thousand almost identical calculations could be tested for outcomes. Of course, the outcome they were looking for was a boom. Most results were useless, but the results that contributed to a boom were cataloged.

And what does this have to do with writing?

Any writer who has been at it long enough to become bored with what they do on any given day will, eventually, find themselves engaged in their own Monte Carlo process. The Monte Carlo process is different from mere trial and error. It is a test of a known construct with one minor modification.

In writing, on the simplest level, it is changing a character’s hair color. Suppose a young black woman, lean and willowy, grew up in a small steel mill town in Ohio during the rust bust of the 80s. She was part of a second generation Kentucky Coal family who had moved to the steel economy to support the war effort in the 40s. Her grandmother was a wilder, a sort of hedge witch, and her grandfather was a fallen, but not really a bad, angel. Of course, nobody in her family believed he was anything but a travelling salesman. Let’s call our young lady Sirona just for fun because that’ll get you some teasing in public schools (FYI: Sirona is a Celtic goddess of healing).

Obviously, we can go on and on about the life of our young lady. However, this is enough to illustrate the Monte Carlo process.

We take all the characteristics we have come up with for this young woman, and we write a few scenes from her developmental life. In each scene, we are testing her characteristics to see how they influence her behavior and the behavior of others. We might write her fist day at grade school. We might write her first kiss. We might write her earliest memory of the kitchen in the home in which she grew up. We might write a scene in which she is defending a bullied child, a cat, a dog, or even a tree. We might write a scene in which she is trying desperately to get out of the house for reasons we don’t yet know. We might even write a scene in which young Sirona heals someone or something. If I were doing it, I’d likely also play with scenes in which she encounters her long missing grandfather or has to deal with her thoroughly insane grandmother. I do like to play with insane people who turn out to be the only people who really understand the world.

I digress.

So, all of these scene tests are about discovering who our young woman will be on the page. None of them are scenes we plan to keep. None of them are scene we expect to be in the story in which she will be playing a role. They are just little writer games that we engage in to keep our own ennui at bay.

The above is all normal, but now we add the Monte Carlo process. Having actually done the above and not just wondered about convincing ourselves that we thought about it and therefore understand it, we change one thing about our young woman.

Just for fun, let’s make her hair a brilliant, fluorescent, natural, pale purple—not dyed. Actually, red will do, but I figured I’d get a little more extreme because of the witch and angel connection I discovered while writing the last couple paragraphs.

Now, we rewrite the same scenes. If, as is the idea, we allow the change to have an influence over the dynamics of the characters in the scenes, we will get a different set of behaviors from both the secondary players and Sirona. By doing this little trick, we come to understand both who she was before we changed her hair and who she might be once we have changed her hair. By changing only one variable at a time, we develop a sense of how she can become a more, or less, extreme influence on any story into which we might place her.

And, as with the Manhattan Project, the ultimate goal is a boom.

Every time a characteristic gives a more dynamic result on the page, we keep it.

While this process is a tool that does help in the development of character, it’s most likely that a working writer will not have time, or the inclination to spend the time, unless they are engaged in the writer’s equivalent of doodling. However, many of us do doodle in words. Additionally, many of us find ourselves teaching characterization, and one of the difficult things to get students to internalize is the fact that every aspect of character influences their relationship to the world around them. Something as simple as hair color changes the experience of the character in their world. One variable changed can mean the difference between meh and boom.

During one seminar I did for a bunch of truly creative middle school students, the kids had come up with a young woman troubled by family dynamics. Meh.

She was rebelling. Double meh.

She wanted a tattoo. Yeah, whatever.

She was expected to go into the family business. Yawn.

The business was a mortuary. What?

And all she really wanted in the world was to become a chocolatier.

Boom!

At night, she snuck out of her room in the funeral home in order to go to an abandon grade school where she had set up a little kitchen. There, she secretly made chocolate animals…

I love working with kids. They have no sense of how things “should be.”

So, back to the Monte Carlo process. Imagine you are teaching 15 creative people characterization and story development. As a group you come up with a set of character attributes that cover a range of physical, psychological, and social values. Each person has the same set of values, and each person is given the same set of circumstances in which they must place their character. In fact, you can give them a very constrained set of scene goals and outcomes. However, they must interpret setting through character, and they must come up with the conflicts and emotional changes in the scenes. Then, you change one variable for each and every writer.

They write.

The outcomes of the scenes might be the same, but if the writer has grasped the rippling nature of the change to one variable, the path to that outcome is very likely to be different in each and every scene. If it is not different from the paths the other writers took in their scenes, then the variable was not understood as an influence on who the character is and how they relate to the world.

Fifteen writers writing the same scene while only one variable has changed can provide the group with a huge leap in insight into how details really are critical to understanding character and how they behave on the page.

Boom

The Epiphany or “Eureka!  I have it!”

By Cynthia Ray

_64896162_3kings

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

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

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

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

Hear Ursula LeGuins speech here

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

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

The Star

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

eureka

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

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

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

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

geometria_

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

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

baby

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

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

sunrise_sky_

Writing Emotion

by Elizabeth Engstrom

I heard my friend Susan Wiggs say one time that the hardest thing in the world to write was the scene of a woman crying. I was happy to hear that, because that is also my experience.

I have no patience with scenes that have tears running down a point of view character’s face without any precipitating, gut-wrenching emotion. And that is damned hard to write.

I don’t know about you, but occasionally I have a genuine, world-class meltdown. When that happens, it’s hard to step out of myself to view my emotions so that I might capture the physical sensations along with the “fuck you and the horse you rode in on” attitude, but occasionally, I am able to do that. The physicality of a good cry is delicate and profound.

But those things that make us cry are not the only emotions that we—and our fictional characters—have. We have the blushing madness of infatuation, we have the soul-crushing realization of having been betrayed, we have the satisfaction of achieving something we never thought we would be able to do, we have nagging suspicions that drive us to obsession. We engage in fantasies far beyond what is healthy. We justify ourselves into true delusions (I can handle a couple of cocktails. I don’t eat that much ice cream. They’re just nickel slots—how bad could it get? I know he’s married, but…). All of these things come with intense physical reactions that many writers ignore for the expediency of either telling instead of showing, or just letting those tears run down a cheek.

But if you’re going to craft something truly worthy of your talents, you must step into the skin of your point of view character and describe exactly what he/she is feeling as well as thinking, and you must do it without “she felt” and “she thought”. Be it. Live it.

Let the tears not fall down her cheeks, but into your keyboard.

It’s harder than you know, but then you’ll have that satisfaction that I mentioned, and someday you will write about that, too.