Brains Don’t Do Random, by Eric Witchey

Ripples

Brains Don’t Do Random

Eric Witchey

Every year over Halloween weekend, I go to a group of cabins in the mountains on the banks of the Mackenzie River here in Oregon. There, a little over a dozen writers and I settle in on Friday night and write scary stories. We set the goal of starting Friday night and having at least one story ready to read out loud on Saturday night. Most years, pretty much every writer gets a first draft of at least one story. Some of the more practiced and prolific writers will produce as many as three in a twenty-four-hour period.

Every year, someone finds out about this event and tells me I’m lying. “Nobody can write a short story that fast.” My response is pretty simple. I say, “Okay.” Then, I go about my business.

Every year, someone else who finds out about it says, “How can they do that?” There’s a hell of difference between the first person and the second. For the second person, I settle in and answer as best I can.

As near as I can tell, there are 4 components to being able to write 1 to 3 short story first drafts in 24 hours. The people who show up at Ghost Story Weekend have all four. If they don’t and they show up again, they generally have all four by the third year of attendance. Here they are:

  1. You have to believe it’s possible. See it happen, and you start to believe.
  2. You have to have internalized a sense of what makes a story. This is easy. If you grew up in a family that uses language, you automatically internalized a sense of story by the time you were three years old.
  3. You have to abandon the concept of making it good or getting it right. This is easy if you’re still four. It’s harder if you’re an adult; however, it can be practiced.
  4. You have to train yourself to produce in order to discover possibilities. See 3 for caveats.

The next step of talking to a writer who asked the second question usually involves them wanting to know how to practice 3 and 4. That’s a hard question to answer since no two writers are quite the same, but brains do have some common characteristics. Brains are all about recognizing patterns. Where no pattern exists, the brain will create one. Anybody who has looked at the night sky and said, “Look! There’s Orion!” has acknowledged this ancient and wondrous phenomenon of the human brain.

So, back to number 2. The brain knows what a story looks like. The brain knows you want to make a story. Now, you can plan a story. In fact, I often do. I’m not in any way suggesting that you should or should not. What I’m trying to convey is how 15-17 writers can, and often do, produce 1-3 completed short fiction drafts each in 24 hours. We are not talking good, though some are quite good. We are talking fun, finished, and shared. See number 3

Where was I? Oh, yes. The brain knows what a story looks like, and the brain will create a pattern even when no actual pattern exists. So, the real trick is telling the brain you are going to create story so that it starts trying to create story patterns out of the stuff around you. There’s a bit of a ritual to this. You can make your own ritual. I have one I use every day, which I will share shortly. However, the ritual for Ghost Story Weekend is kinda like this:

  • Decide to go.
  • Sign up to go.
  • Participate in the meal planning.
  • Start paying attention to ghost stories and all things Halloween.
  • Show up, have communal dinner, laugh, talk stories, write like hell, talk more stories, walk, more communal food, get anxious about the Saturday deadline, write like hell, print it out no matter how bad you think it is, and run to the reading.

I know. That’s doesn’t sound like much of a ritual. No arcane symbols were drawn (probably). No goats were slaughtered (certainly). No virginity was lost. (as far as I know). Still, the brain experiences all this as intention. Ritual establishes intention. The brain is internalizing these things as a set of instructions to get its shit together and start building ghostly stories in order to be able to create, produce, and deliver in a community where the tribe agrees this behavior is a good, proper, and rewarded. Human brains respond to tribal values. They get this stuff. They love a good fire and a little shaman tale-telling. Even more, they love to tell the tale.

Okay, but how do you practice at home to get the brain to play this game on demand. For me, it’s been about getting up every morning and doing some speed writing. I pick a writing concept I want to practice and three random topics from a long list I’ve built up over the years. The topics don’t have to be from a list. They can be anything. The first time I did this, it was a dirty coffee cup, a newspaper article I had just read, and a picture of a submarine. In the example below, the number came from rolling ten-sided dice. I go to that number in my list and use that topic. Here are the topics from this morning:

Concept: Push Pop (a.k.a., moving in and out of backstory in this case); 3084 Treatment center; 2243 Shaking, sitting on the bumper, after being lost in the back country. Freezing. Sweating. Relieved, and still trying to look like I belonged there. Like I meant to do that.; 0861 I always pre-read Christmas gifts I give. Doris.

Next, I check my watch or start a timer. I’m going to write as fast as I can for fifteen minutes. In that fifteen minutes of, literally, non-stop key bashing, I will try to execute the concept and touch all three random elements.

I start pounding keys in my attempt to touch each random thing while executing the concept. I don’t force the concept or the items. I just keep them loosely in mind while I let myself move into the mental space of allowing free association to flow through my hands. If typing is too slow, do this longhand. If you are going to use dictation as your dominant mode of composition, dictate. The goal isn’t to get it right or do it well. The purpose is to internalize patterns (concepts) while seeking to strengthen your flow state connection from brain/heart to your mode of composition.

In terms of Ghost Story Weekend, the concept would be Ghost Story.

The random topics can’t be tolerated by the brain. The brain needs a pattern, so it will almost automatically create one. Because of that, and no matter how impossible it seems, the mind will occasionally deliver the beginnings of an actual story. The more often you do this kind of thing, the more often it will deliver a story start. You don’t need to look for it or try to make it happen. When it does happen, you’ll know. You’ll be pounding away and have no thought in your mind of actually writing a story. Then, suddenly, you’ll go, “Huh. That’s a story. It just needs X, Y, or Z, and it’s a story. I’ll be damned.”

Of course, about then, the fifteen-minute timer will go off. You’ll think, “Shit. I was just getting rolling.”

So, you turn off the timer and keep rolling. I never place a limit on how much time I spend. I am always willing to continue beyond the fifteen-minute exercise. However, I do require at least the fifteen minutes.

Note: If you try this, keep in mind that it is very important to go as fast as you physically can. I tell people, and I mean it quite literally, if you don’t know what to write, write, “I don’t know what to write. I can’t believe that asshole wants me to do this stupid exercise…” Keep writing like that until something shows up or until the timer goes off. Over time, it gets easier. That’s the point.

Now, this ritual I have translates nicely into Ghost Story Weekend. At this point in my life and development as a writer, I get about three story starts per seven sessions. I get about one I really like per seven sessions. Add the ritual of intention that goes with attending Ghost Story Weekend, and the number of starts per seven sessions goes up. Normally, I need maybe three random topic sessions to find the first story I’ll draft at Ghost Story Weekend. Once I have one, others seem to come more easily, which I think is because my anxiety about getting the first one is gone. I can relax into the fun of the experience.

How do the other writers do it? I’m honestly not sure, but I think the combination of ritual, tribal values, and the brain’s innate need to find or create pattern is a part of the process for every writer in attendance.

The bad news is that this year’s event has been sold out since July. The good news is that the people who make this event happen have many other events coming up. Check out http://www.wordcrafters.org.

Here’s this morning’s warm up draft from the random topics above. When my time ran out, I couldn’t quite see a story, but I could see that the map, the compass, the cold, the idea of a planned life–all of these could be used to support a theme about a good life being built from the moments in which we are truly lost. We’ll see. I saved it. I always do. You never know when the brain will wake you up at 3 a.m. and demand that you complete the pattern it came up with while you were trying to sleep.

Concept: Push Pop; 3084 Treatment center; 2243 Shaking, sitting on the bumper, after being lost in the back country. Freezing. Sweating. Relieved, and still trying to look like I belonged there. Like I meant to do that.; 0861 I always pre-read Christmas gifts I give. Doris.

Sixteen miles was eight more than I had intended. The truck welcomed me a little after sunset, and the late winter freeze of falling night washed through the valley and my skin. Even before I reached the truck, my body betrayed my fear, relief, and nascent hypothermia. Still, my ego made me look around to see who else might have parked in the sno-park—who might see the late day cross-country skier returning to the safety of his truck and wonder what he had been doing out in the back country so late into the afternoon that another half hour would have seen him returning to the shelter of park, truck, and warmth in a racing skin in temperatures nearing 0.

I knew it was stupid. Part of me even knew it was cold, hunger, and dehydration, but pride kills people, and I was a person. Nobody saw me clatter over the plow piled snow ridge and the edge of the lot. Nobody saw me fall, strip off my skis, and hobble to the rear of my truck, and nobody saw me drop my ass onto the bumper of the truck even before I made an attempt to get my car keys from my fanny pack.

A vague, self-observing part of me laughed at my vanity. Another, less vague voice, smiled in relief.

Hubris? Pride? Narcissism?

Hypothermia. I started to shake in earnest, and I knew I needed to get my keys, get into the truck, start it, and crank up the heat before I would be able to put my gear away.

The fanny pack didn’t cooperate. Twisting it around to the front was a gymnastic workout. Finding the zipper took hours. Gripping it was like using frozen sausages as tweezers to pick up a contact lens.

The morning had been so pleasant—so full of joy and promise. A new home. A new job. My first outing in a new set of mountains. This was it—what I had worked so hard for, for so long. I had entered the world of productive white-collar citizens, and I was enjoying the benefits. I could afford the truck after seven years of bicycle only living. I could afford new skis after hand-me-downs from racers and always being five to ten years behind competitive equipment. I had new toys and a new skin instead of my coach’s high school skin.

The morning air was clear, crisp, and green wax cold. For me, it was perfect. Blue skies and squabbling scrub jays welcomed me to the Northwest forest. My trail book and maps were in order, and I had plotted my route—a short four miles, a shakedown route. An easy ski on a beautiful day.

No.

My hands shaking, the zipper finally gave. Digging in the pouch gave me a moment of panic. The keys weren’t there. If I had lost them on the trail, I was going to have to hike out to the main road and hope for the kindness of strangers.

Wax fell from the pouch. My compass. The emergency blanket that would have been my coffin if I had not lucked out and been directed toward the car by a couple back-country campers. I’ll never forget the concern and condescension on their faces—especially hers. I wished I had met her under different circumstances. He wasn’t worthy. He was a dick, and he would treat her like shit. Anybody who would tell a lost, cold man in the mountains that he was stupid didn’t deserve the kindness of a woman who shared her water and pointed out position on a map.

The keys fell out. Painfully, I groped in the snow for them. They couldn’t have gone far. The lot was paved.

Finally, my sausage fingers retrieved them. I managed to open the truck, settle in, start it up. A little afraid to look, I made myself check the gas gauge.

It was fine.

I had survived, and I would go home, but I would not tell the tale. Not ever. Not to anyone.

The first mile had been glorious. My body sang with the joy of stretching out my stride, finding my lungs and my heart rhythms, letting the winter song of roaring silence wash over me and sooth away the anxieties and frustrations of a week of dealing with code while surrounded by executive liars and bean counters who had no idea what went into the magic we did at our workstations.

The quarter mile sigh released all my memories of the week into the mountain air in one long, frosty misty cloud that I left behind.

I found my rhythm, and I knew I could keep it for an hour, which would bring me back to the truck around 11. I’d be back in town by 1. Shit, shower, and shave, and I’d meet Liss for an early dinner and a film. In the back of my mind, she was the next piece of my puzzle of life. I could already feel her next to me, my companion, my mate in life and all the struggles of building family and future. The vision was forming, and the trail ahead was clear.

-Stopped Here-

 

Labyrinth of Souls

by Elizabeth Engstrom

It’s Christmas, so what could be better than a little self-promotion?

If the self-promotion includes the genius of others, that’s what could be better.

If the self-promotion also includes the ease of Christmas shopping for loved ones, that’s better yet.

Several years ago, Matthew Lowes wrote quite a brilliant solitaire card game called Dungeon Solitaire—The Labyrinth of Souls.

rule book

After reading the rule book, and looking at the amazing art that had been done by Josephe Vandel for not only the book, but the Tarot cards to accompany it, I was inspired to write a novel set in this fictional universe.

cards

Matt and I talked with other authors, many alumni of the infamous Ghost Story Weekends, about writing similar books. Christina Lay signed on to publish, her feet already solidly planted by publishing the successful anthology Shadow Spinners: A Collection of Dark Tales, and voila! a series was born.

current books

The basic rules of the solitaire card game (and you can watch Matt play a few games on YouTube), is that the hero delves into the underground, where he encounters a labyrinth. The cards the player turns over dictate what the character encounters down there. Monsters. Treasure. Light. Food. Deity. Some things he must have, other things he must vanquish, or avoid. At some point he must turn around and have enough resources to return above ground. Sometimes he makes it, sometimes he doesn’t.

Each of these novels is set within this realm.  Each one is completely different from the other. There is only one requirement: the hero must delve underground at some point in his quest.

These novels by Matthew Lowes, Eric Witchey, Stephen T. Vessels, Christina Lay, Mary E. Lowd, L.A. Alber, and me (your obedient self-promoting servant), are really good reads. Littlest Death by Eric Witchey has won awards. They’re fun, they’re daring, they’re exciting, and they’re like nothing else you’ve ever read before. Fantasy with a twist, always with a twist. And there are more in the publishing pipeline by Cheryl Owen-Wilson, John Reed, Pamela Jean Herber, Cynthia Coate Ray, and others.

Treat yourself. Treat your loved ones.

What’s better than receiving a good book for Christmas?

Nothing. Seriously. There’s nothing better.

Team Work

By Elizabeth Engstrom

About two years ago, Matthew Lowes, game writer/designer, asked me to edit the rule book for his new game, Dungeon Solitaire: Labyrinth of Souls. I got the manuscript, but it didn’t have any of the charts, graphs, or illustrations of the finished book. I couldn’t really follow the instructions, so I just carried on, looking for typos, sentence structure awkwardness, etc. Much of it was repetitive, as there are the Basic Rules, then the Expert Rules, which includes the Basic Game. Then the Rules for Two Players, which includes the rules for the Advanced Game, which of course includes the rules for the Basic Game. You get the idea. So my work was rote, and gave my imagination time to roam.

In the game, the player delves into the underground Labyrinth, there to meet monsters (Really? What kind of monsters?), find treasure (Really? What kind of treasure?), and encounter and endure all manner of adventures. At some point, the player must weigh how many resources he has left in order to turn around and make it back out of the labyrinth before losing all his light, or his food, or his life.

It’s a fun game. While reading through the rule book without real comprehension, I started to wonder: Who would delve into the underground labyrinth, and why? Pretty soon I had an idea. And then I had an idea of what kind of monsters that particular character would encounter, and what kind of treasure he would search for and find, or not find.

I finished editing, and when I returned the manuscript back to Matt, I said, “I could write a novel based on this game scenario.”

benedictiondeniedcoverjpg

Fast forward six months. The game came out to great acclaim, the accompanying deck of Tarot Cards with art by Josephe Vandel is exquisite, and a small group of writers got together to learn to play. Within a couple of weeks, ten or so authors signed on to write books loosely based on the Labyrinth of Souls.

My book is the first one to drop, only because I finished it first. Published by ShadowSpinners Press, authors to come include Matthew Lowes himself, Christina Lay, Eric Witchey, Stephen Vessels, John Reed, Mary Lowd, Pamela Herber, Cheryl Owen-Wilson, Cynthia Ray, and likely others. We plan a big launch of the first five books at this November’s World Fantasy Convention in  San Antonio, Texas.

The best part of this experience has been being part of the team. We’re all stupendously supportive of each other as we encourage the writing, the rewriting, the editing, the promotion. We even had a memorable weekend away, where instead of partying, the great room was silent except for the quiet tapping of keyboards. We helped each other that weekend with plot, character, and setting, and talked about the unique problems of writing a book that takes place underground. I’m not much for collaboration, but if this is what it tastes like, I will gladly change my opinion. I’ve read three of the novels-to-come, and they are extraordinary, each entirely different from one another.

I invite you to join us in the Labyrinth of Souls, to read these books as they come out, one every month, and bask, as I have, in the astonishingly unique vision each author has for this world.

OMG! Stories are Fractal, by Eric Witchey

Fractal Star

Computer Generated Image – A Mathematical Fractal Structure. Source: ClaudeLux from iStockPhoto.

OMG! Stories are Fractal

by Eric Witchey

One of the amazing things the human brain does is follow complex stories and derive satisfying meaning from them. The mind perceives and matches patterns, and it conflates those patterns into ever larger patterns.

Walter Kintsch, a researcher working in text recognition, understanding, and cognitive science long before his department decided to call him a professor of psychology and neuroscience, described this conflation as “chunking.” We now take the term for granted and abuse it in many incorrect contexts, but that’s another story.

Human beings can, in effect, see both the forest and the tree at the same time or separately. We can see “those three trees over there” even though they are in the forest. We can see “that stand of Cedars and Douglas Fir.” We can also see all of the above as the forest as a whole. We can even see a whole bunch of forests as the Pacific Northwest conifer biome.

On the language side of things, the same concept means we can see a little black squiggle and think, “letter.” We can see three letters as a syllable. A couple of syllables become a word. The words become phrases. We collect phrases into clauses, clauses into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, paragraphs into scenes.

This goes on and on: scenes to sequences; sequences to movements (acts); movements to stories (novels). We can even accumulate a satisfying group of novels into a series we can hold in our minds (Please, George R. R. Martin, finish yours. You once made me write a novella overnight. I know you can do it. Okay, I know it’s not the same, but please do finish).

This week, an interesting meme has been making the rounds. A group of mathematicians did a statistical text analysis of famous stories. They concluded that stories contain fractal and multifractal patterns.

Article title: The World’s Greatest Literature Reveals Multifractals and Cascades of Consciousness.

I read the article because I like linguistics and cognitive science. When these things touch on story, it always catches my eye. You see, as a writer I’m a little bit broken. It’s not enough for me to just tell the story. I have a financially unhealthy obsession with understanding how and why the story worked to create an experience in the heart and mind of the reader.

So, I read the article.

Then, I started laughing out loud.

Here’s why. Story tellers from the dawn of time have not only known what the mathematicians just discovered, they have been manipulating it and making use of it consciously since the first Shaman told the first instructional hunting tale by the light of a campfire.

A good story is made up of smaller, interwoven good stories. Additionally, a good story depends on the reader’s experiences to work.

I’ll explain further by first providing a couple of definitions of the term “fractal.”

Google definition: a curve or geometric figure, each part of which has the same statistical character as the whole. Fractals are useful in modeling structures (such as eroded coastlines or snowflakes) in which similar patterns recur at progressively smaller scales, and in describing partly random or chaotic phenomena such as crystal growth, fluid turbulence, and galaxy formation.

From the Fractal Foundation: A fractal is a never-ending pattern. Fractals are infinitely complex patterns that are self-similar across different scales. They are created by repeating a simple process over and over in an ongoing feedback loop.

Now, a multifractal is, in essence, groups of fractals that interact (are woven together). I’ll add that any use of the term fractal in our current cultural zeitgeist must include a reference to recursion and to the Mandelbrot Set, which is a set of numbers that, when applied through a function, can be placed in an algorithm that calls instances of itself in order to create an infinite geometric pattern made up of instances of itself.

Google the two terms: “fractal” and “Mandelbrot Set.”

You find millions of hits that include graphics of the classic example of fractal geometry. For the lazy geeks among you, here is the Wikipedia description of the Mandelbrot Set.

The Mandelbrot set is the set of complex numbers c for which the function f(z)=z²+c does not diverge when iterated, i.e., for which the sequence f(0), f(f(0)), etc., remains bounded.

My first exposure to the idea was in Jeffery D. Yetter’s basement in the 1980s. Jeff was an accomplished microchip engineer at Hewlett Packard in Ft. Collins, Co, and for fun in his spare time he explored various computational concepts. One, and this was around ’82 or ‘83, was the new fractal geometry that scientific computers, of the type to which he had access, could demonstrate by plotting out the Mandelbrot Set. I won’t go deeper into that experience in this blog post. It is important only in that it had a strong impact on my understanding of human pattern recognition.

For now, I’m just saying that the human pattern matching brain’s fascination with the construct is not new. Review M. C. Escher. Chase the concept of the chambered nautilus through art and geometric history. Hell, just read up on Dante’s cosmology, the Rosicrucian Rose, Free Masonry, or the Knights Templar. You can follow the history of the fractal rabbit hole all the way down into the next rabbit hole, ad nausea. Go for it.

The point here is that this “discovery” amused me on two levels. First, the scientists didn’t discover anything. They merely found a new way to plot a known phenomenon. Second, they speculated that their plotting method might be used to automatically categorize stories into genres.

That second one really cracked me up. It might end up as fodder for a whole series of articles on the nature of genre and the mathematicians’ misunderstanding of the concept.

Here, I’m more interested in exploring the idea that a story is an instance of stories, which are in turn interwoven instances of stories.

One of my many teachers, and in some ways one of the more influential, is a man named James N. Frey. Jim introduced me to many important things. One of them was Lajos Egri’s seminal work on play writing, The Art of Dramatic Writing. In that book, Egri suggests a concept he calls “premise,” which he goes on to show can be used as a controlling tool to help determine the course of a story.

Frey demonstrated the use of this tool to me over and over. I was pretty thick. It took me a while. Even so, he probably saved me ten years of failed trial and error as a writer. I’m not as smart as some of my peers, so I had to consciously learn things they took for granted—like how to tell a story.

My early understanding of the concept let me work it as a sort of statement of purpose for a story. For example, the entire play of Romeo and Juliet could be characterized in a premise of the form: X leads to Y. The form is important. A premise, in this context, is not just a concept or idea. It is more of a conclusion that is proven by the story.

Yes, we could come up with a dozen possible arbitrary fillers for X and Y.

Examples:

  • Love leads to suicide.
  • Romance leads to death.
  • Early adolescent romantic obsession amid family rivalry leads to rebellion, despair, and suicide.

Hopefully, you can see why the last one is more useful as a tool for describing what might and might not belong in the play—and that is what the tool is for.

By either defining or coming to understand a “premise” of this type for a specific story, the writer can test the contents of a story to determine if elements in a draft belong, should be revised, or should be cut.

Yes, that’s a simplistic description. A more robust explanation is not the point of this post. As did Jim, I teach week long seminars just to show people how to use this apparently simple tool quickly and effectively while engaging in story development or revision.

The fun part today is that this form of “X leads to Y” is one characterized aspect of the fractal geometry of story.

Each movement of the story (often called an act) is made up of an instance of the formula. If not, the reader has trouble tracking and conflating the myriad details of the story in a way that allows them to grasp the overall power of the experience.

So, Romeo and Juliet breaks down into movements (acts) like this:

Note: I use the term movements for novel writing reasons I won’t go into here. Romeo and Juliet is a play. Textual stories and plays to be acted on a stage are different in important ways when a writer is thinking in terms of development. For example, a play does not have, strictly speaking, a point of view character. The audience views all the characters on stage simultaneously rather than viewing the staged story through the internal, filtered experience of one character.

  • The premise for the overall story: Early adolescent romantic obsession amid family rivalry leads to rebellion, despair, and suicide.
  • Act I Premise: Early adolescent romantic obsession leads to frustration, anger, and new obsession.
  • Act II: Frustration, anger, and new obsession leads to romantic connection and joy.
  • Act III: Romantic connection and joy leads to fear, frustration, near despair, and slight hope.
  • Act IV: Fear, frustration, near despair, and slight hope leads to anxiety, concern, and grief.
  • Act V: Anxiety, concern, and grief leads to despair and suicide.

The five premises combine to demonstrate, complete, or build the overarching premise.

Inside each act are scenes. The scenes can also be characterized in the same way. One act is made up of a list of “X leads to Y” statements that allow testing of scene content to see if the scenes cumulative add up to the premise statement for the act.

In writing short stories or novels, movements are made up of scene sequences. A scene sequence is a group of scenes that culminate and an emotional/psychological shift in character from which recovery to a previous state is not possible.

Now, because story is emotionally and dramatically fractal, an instance of story can be made up of instances of stories. That is, Romeo and Juliet is made up of five acts, each of which is dramatically similar in form to the overall story. Each act is made up of sequences, each of which is dramatically similar in form. Each sequence is made up of scenes, each of which…

I hope you get the idea.

The article talks about multifractals. That is, they describe a sort of tangled fractal geometry. Consider for a second that a piece of flash fiction can be one small scene. At the same time, it can be a full story. It can be a complete set of conflicts and results. It is both forest and tree. Now, consider that multiple flash pieces can be combined to create sequences, movements, and even novels. Each piece can stand alone. Each piece can interact with other pieces on various levels. All can combine, be chunked, in ways that cause the reader to experience layered (multifractal) story. Writers just haven’t been calling the structures they work with by that name.

Ah, but we aren’t done quite yet. The thing that the mathematicians, statisticians, computer scientists, and cognitive scientists who discovered this new method of plotting out the multifractal organization of story content right down to the sentence level have missed is that the textual patterns they are plotting are actually the presentation of “chunks” that trigger the reader’s emotional reaction to content.

Notice that the act level premise statements for Romeo and Juliet are of the “X leads to Y” form, but X and Y are emotional states rather that events or actions.

Stories are about how people change and the consequences of those changes for the characters (or lack of changes in the case of tragedies). The reader automatically compares and contrasts the consequences in the story against their experiences in the real world. From that, the reader creates their sense of the significance they take away from the experience of reading the tale. In fact, the reader is constantly subconsciously testing their world against the world of the characters.

Nobody gets goosebumps, tears, or an ear-to-ear grin from reading a story they can’t compare their experience to on some level.

Over the years of practicing craft and teaching, I’ve marveled at this relationship between character emotional change and reader emotional states. I’ve also had to come up with a way of describing it in order to help writers develop and control stories. In 2005, I published a concept in an article in Writer’s Digest. It’s the ED ACE concept. The emotionally fractal nature of story really begins to pop out when examining story through the ED ACE filter.

The idea is that ED ACE characterizes the emotional logic the reader must be able to follow in order for a story to maintain dramatic continuity. All the elements of ED ACE must always be available to the reader either explicitly or through implication by the text. ED ACE works like this:

  • Emotion drives
  • Decision, which drives
  • Action (including speaking), which generates
  • Conflict (the opposition of wills), which results in a new
  • Emotion

The interesting part to me as both a writer and a teacher is that this pattern recurs in direct correlation with possible premise statements. It also recurs as instances of itself. That is, you can describe an entire novel with it. The C in that one novel-level ED ACE cycle then expands into ED ACE cycles that describe the movements. The C in each of those ED ACE cycles then expand into ED ACE cycles that describe the scene sequences that make up a movement. The C then expands into…

The sequence continues, as you would expect of a fractal tool.

While a pyramid graphic would be a better presentation because each level has an increase in the number of elements that make up the level above it, here’s what it looks like in a list. Each of the following elements can be captured by use of an ED ACE description:

  • Book Series
  • Novels inside a series
  • Movements inside a novel
  • Scene Sequences inside a movement
  • Scenes inside a sequence
  • Conflict sets inside a scene
  • Conflict inside conflict sets
  • Dialectic sets (emotional tactical changes (a.k.a. beats)) inside conflicts
  • Dialectic pairs inside dialectic sets
  • Sentences inside dialectic sets (though this is not always applicable).
  • Syntactic/pragmatic tension inside sentences

Generally speaking, development or analysis of story is a little more emotionally messy. After all, we are talking multifractals. I’m fond of pointing to the opening scene of Snow Falling on Cedars for an example of how these structures can be nested (entangled) effectively. However, selling a story doesn’t require that such nesting take place.

Also, the usefulness of the tool is limited once you get below the Dialect Pair level. However, the dynamic can be demonstrated, though not always, below that level. At that point, it is more useful to think of the patterns in terms of emotional resonance and contrasts rather than actual, full ED ACE cycles. Of course, if the ED ACE cycle is understood down to the dialectic pairs level, then the emotional/psychological states of the characters are also known. Word choice, setting decisions, background content, and even sounds can then be chosen based on those known emotions and what the writer wants the reader to feel.

At this point, people tend to think I’m nuts.

Well, yes.

Still, look up the Poe’s 1846 essay, “The Philosophy of Composition,” in which he describes the development of “The Raven” and having starting with sounds of grief and despair before building upward to the completion of the poem.

I’m nuts in a good way. Once you’ve finished reading this, try out the tools described below on “The Raven.”

The point here is that scientists have “discovered” a relationship between the reader’s experience and the dramatically fractal nature of story that writers have been aware of and taking advantage of for, literally, thousands and thousands of years.

Still not sure they have rediscovered one of the spokes of the wheel? Google “Fractal Storytelling.” The term, fractal, arrived on the scene in the early 80s, but the concept in story development is ancient. The spokes of the wheel have been repackaged and rebranded, but they still contribute to its roll.

Yeah, sure, Eric. Whatever. But what does that mean in terms of writing my story?

It means that many hours of trial and error can be managed in a way that lets us take advantage of the reader’s mode of organizing story in their mind. It means we can look at how story is processed by the reader, how emotional change is critical to that processing, and how the logic of emotional change is managed dramatically and collapsed into layers of ever larger generalizations.

With that knowledge, we can determine whether a line, a dialectic pair, a set, a … are contributing to the reader’s process of understanding emotional change within story.

So, what did the statistical analysis described in the meme article discover? Nothing? No. They discovered a method of demonstrating mathematically that these structures exist. They showed that stream of consciousness writing includes “idea cascades” that demonstrate a sort of fractal domino effect the write engages in while writing. They demonstrated that mathematicians can have fun thinking deeply about story structure. Now, they need to hook up a few folks to an EEG or tuck them into an MRI machine and read to them to see if they can find a correlation between emotional responses and the multifractal peaks and troughs their graphs show.

I’m running out of time and space, so I’ll demonstrate the above by providing an excerpt from a handout from a class I teach. The excerpt describes two layers of a silly little father’s day story I sold to Daily Science Fiction in 2014. The following example was written up for a seminar I taught at the WordCrafters in Eugene conference in 2015.

Here’s the gratuitous plug link for good folks doing good work:

http://wordcraftersineugene.org/

Try out the following techniques. Play with them. Break them. Let me know how it goes. My apologies in advance for the incomplete nature of the instructions below. Please keep in mind that the text was pulled from a 300 page book that accompanied the on-site lecture and exercises from a week-long seminar.

While the excerpt below describes prototyping a short story, the tool becomes much more useful as the tale becomes larger. For convenience, I have also included the actual short story at the end of this post. I’m not claiming it is a great story. In fact, its simplicity lets you see the patterns functioning. In a great work of literature, the patterns might (or might not) be intertwined at a level that would require computer statistical analysis for discovery and exposition.

Note: The except below includes a concept from an article I did for Writer’s Digest Magazine, the Irreconcilable Self. That’s a topic for another day.

Nested ED ACE Paradigm for Fast Prototyping

No two stories start at the same point in a writer’s process. Sometimes, we see an image. Story grows from that. Sometimes, we feel a character’s problems. Story grows from that. Sometimes, we know the climax, and story grows from that. Sometimes, we suddenly understand a climactic moment or a darkest moment or the emotional power of a turn of phrase that haunts us for days before we sit down to write. Story can grow from any of those.

The interesting thing, at least to me, is that no matter where a story starts, stories end up containing textual and dramatic patterns of success that readers rely on in order to draw meaning and emotional impact from the words on the page. Those patterns of success tend to appear in many, many stories.

While not all stories include the same textual and dramatic patterns of success, some patterns of success appear so often that they have value as planning tools. One, three, five, and seven act structures are patterns that appear over and over and receive conscious attention during story development. The concept of an act is a pattern of success. Christopher Vogler’s characterization of The Hero’s Journey is a dramatic pattern of success that is made up of many smaller patterns of success. The characterization of story structure as status quo conflict, inciting incident, rising action, climax, and dénouement is a useful, dramatic pattern of success. Another pattern of dramatic success is basic scene structure described as an establishing moment that displays scene agendas and is followed by interaction of opposing wills that lead to one of four possible dramatic outcomes (Jack Bickham’s Scene and Structure) such that the outcome ends the story or drives the next scene. Dramatic dialectic in dialog is a pattern of success. These patterns of success can be descriptive, but they can also be used as tools during development.

All of these meta descriptions are patterns of success that we can point to over and over in the stories we love. In and of themselves, they don’t cause a story to be good. However, ignoring the fact that they repeatedly appear in successful stories is a mistake. They contribute even if they don’t guarantee success in the mind and heart of the reader.

So it is with ED ACE.

If ED ACE is a functioning, fractal dramatic meta description tool and story drives the hidden irreconcilable self to climax/resolution, then it should be possible to describe traditional story dramatic development as a recursive exposition of ED ACE. In other words, if I can describe a story at many levels by using ED ACE, I should be able to design a story at many levels by using ED ACE.

Before trying to develop a new story, test ED ACE against an existing story to see if it is truly descriptive on many levels. In the “Describing a Story” section of this document, the process has been applied to a short, short story.

Describing a Story

The following is a description of a short story that sold to one of the more popular online science fiction magazines. Each table represents an ED ACE cycle in the story. The level numbers designate layers.

The nature of a project will change the way the numbers are used. For example, a piece of flash fiction may only use level 0 because the entire story is one, short conflict set. A short, short might have three conflict sets in one scene, like “Vincent’s First Bass.” In that case, 0 represents the overall story, which is only one scene. 1 represents the conflict sets within the scene. No additional layers are really needed. However, a novel might use all of the following:

  • 0 overall story.
  • 1 movements
  • 2 scene sequences inside a movement
  • 3 scenes inside a sequence
  • 4 conflict sets inside a scene
  • 5 conflicts inside a conflict set
  • 6 dialectics inside a conflict

The following sequence of tables represent a set of descriptive tests for “Vincent’ First Bass.” The level 0 table is a shorthand description of the overall story. The level 1 tables represent the conflict sets.

In the case of “Vincent’s First Bass,” the theme connected to Vincent’s Irreconcilable Self (IS) is self-acceptance. Vincent does not know he needs to reconcile his belief that he is loveable with his belief that he is isolated from love. He does know that he wants to please his rarely seen father. His efforts to please create greater strain on these irreconcilable belief positions. The strain grows until he is forced to resolve this irreconcilable self (I.S.) by fully embracing an aspect of self he has denied. That resolution provides solution and delivers the acceptance he craves.

In essence, Vincent’s distress forces him to discover a suppressed superpower. For me, that makes the story easier to write than a story demonstrating a more subtle development of IS. However, the descriptive process is the same regardless. This story just makes it very easy to demonstate.

The Lajos Egri overarching premise might be, “Confusion, anxiety, uncertainty, and a desire to please lead to family connection, confidence, love and respect.

0 (Level) Label: Vincent’s First Bass.

Overall Story.

Emotion Confusion, anxiety, uncertainty, desire to please
Decision To fish with Dad.
Action Fishes.
Conflict V vs. E.; V vs. Dad.; V vs. self.
Emotion Confidence, love, respect.

 

1 Vincent’s First Bass.

Conflict 1

Standing.

Emotion Confusion, anxiety, uncertainty, desire to please
Decision To stand.
Action Stands.
Conflict V vs. E.; V vs. self.
Emotion Uncertainty. Insecurity. Fear of embarrassment.

 

1 Vincent’s First Bass.

Conflict 2

First Cast.

Emotion Uncertainty. Insecurity. Fear of embarrassment.
Decision To Cast.
Action Casts. Fails.
Conflict V vs. E.; V vs. self.
Emotion Worse Frustration. Embarrassment. Insecurity. Certain of judgment by others.

 

1 Vincent’s First Bass.

Conflict 3

Second Cast.

Emotion Worse Frustration. Embarrassment. Insecurity. Certain of judgment by others.
Decision To try again.
Action Tries again. Fails
Conflict V vs. E.; V vs. self.
Emotion Even worse Frustration. Embarrassment. Insecurity.

 

1 Vincent’s First Bass.

Conflict 4

Third Cast.

Emotion Worse Frustration. Embarrassment. Insecurity. Humiliation.
Decision To try again.
Action Tries again. Succeeds.
Conflict V vs. E.; V vs. self.
Emotion Relief. Renewed confidence.

 

1 Vincent’s First Bass.

Conflict 5

Reasoning.

Emotion Renewed confidence.
Decision Share with Father.
Action Shares with Father.
Conflict V vs. Dad.
Emotion Confusion. Uncertainty.

 

1 Vincent’s First Bass.

Conflict 6

Retrieval.

Emotion Confusion. Uncertainty
Decision Reel.
Action Reels. Follows instructions. Invents term.
Conflict V vs. E.; V vs. Dad. V vs. self.
Emotion Relief. Acceptance. Pleasure.

 

1 Vincent’s First Bass.

Conflict 7

Fight Fish.

Emotion Relief. Acceptance. Pleasure.
Decision Fight fish.
Action Fights fish.
Conflict V vs. Fish (E).; V vs. self.
Emotion Fear. Insecurity. Frustration.

 

1 Vincent’s First Bass.

Climax/Resolution

Climax Catch.

Emotion Fear. Insecurity. Frustration. Fear of embarrassment.
Decision Fight.
Action Fights.
Conflict V vs. Fish (E).; V vs. self. Revelation.
Emotion Confidence, love, respect.

Finer levels of expansion are possible but not as useful for prototyping such a short story. For example, it is possible to describe dialectic pairs and beats in terms of ED ACE, but that level of detailed analysis is rarely useful during early prototyping.

If the tool is descriptive as an analysis tool, then perhaps it can be used as a design tool. Consider your story. If you can fill out the ED ACE paradigm at any level, then you can begin to imagine and manage the relationship of that level to other levels.

Note, however, that it is important to be sure of the level at which you are working. Crossing levels during use of this tool will result in confusion. The tool functions horizontally but not vertically across levels. That is, apply it to the novel as a whole or to the movements in order, but don’t attempt to apply it in a way that includes both the novel as a whole and the movements at the same time.

Before Beginning

Before beginning an ED ACE fast prototyping session, the author needs to know the answer to a key question. The level of depth at which the question is answered isn’t as important at the beginning. Later, as the process of development continues, the author will either create or discover finer and finer levels of detail. It is, however, important that the author answer the following two questions before trying to prototype the story:

  1. Who is the story about?
  2. What is the deep personal identity issue of which that character is at least partially unaware that will change (or not change if a tragedy) and allow them to experience life differently?

Often but not always, the main character, the person the story is about, is the character that:

  • changes the most,
  • has the most to lose on a personal (and identity) level,
  • is in the position of decision that will cause the greatest impact on others, and
  • represents the thematic heart of the story in terms of success or failure within the structure of the tale.

When fast prototyping, the author does not need to know how the character connects to the above list of dramatic functions. The author needs to know on some level that the character does connect to some, or all, of the dramatic functions in the list. The author also needs to know the character’s name, the expected core theme, and the character’s deepest internal limitations—their Irreconcilable Self. The irreconcilable self is the answer to the second question posed above.

It is possible to engage in this type of fast development without knowing the theme and IS. The prototyping process can be useful in finding the theme and IS. Once they are found, the process often begins again.

Fast Prototyping Process

While this process can be used as an analysis and diagnostic tool during revision, the purpose of this document is to present it as a development tool. The process described below presents a normal sequence for quickly developing core story elements prior to composition. That said, there is absolutely no reason that the process could not apply after composition of a discovery draft. In that case, it would be a tool for clarifying the discoveries in order to determine which bits of spontaneously composed text serve, or do not serve, the story.

  1. Start anywhere, but define Character until IS is clear.
  2. Once IS is clear, define top level ED ACE for whole story (See Romeo and Juliet example).
  3. Note that linear design is not the goal. Departure and return to tool is acceptable at any time for any reason.
  4. Define I.S. and the climax that results in or from I.S. resolution. Answer these questions:
    1. Does I.S. resolution drive the climax (death and rebirth followed by renewed focus and directed behavior)?
    2. Does the climax result in I.S. resolution?
  5. Brainstorm E steps by largest structure to smallest. Book before act; Act before movement; movement before scene sequence; sequence before scene. Feel free to fill in D, A, C notes as you go, but the real juice here is the E steps because they will let you brainstorm cooler D, A, and C content later.
    1. A Note on Emotional Anchor Points: Once the IS has become clear, it can be very useful to identify key changes to the character’s psychological and emotional makeup that must take place in order for the character to arrive at their moment of transformation. If climax comes either as a result of transformation or at the moment of transformation, then knowing these key moments of emotional change allows the writer to manage the emotional logic of the story and the construction of the scenes that will lead to the changes in a manner that appears to be organic to the reader.
  6. Evaluate each scene-level E step for veracity and power for intended audience.
  7. Find core moments (from whatever paradigm you prefer or from any mix you prefer: Hero’s Journey, Screenplay Structure, Darkest Moment, etc.).
  8. Brainstorm compelling scene moments that create and exploit the E elements of those moments.
  9. Brainstorm and fill in D, A, and C for all scenes.
  10. Speed write anchor scenes without revision.
  11. Reconsider scenes and test for believability of character emotional states and choices.
  12. Throw away material that does not work.
  13. Reimagine new material (brainstorm again).
  14. Fast writing.
  15. Repeat any steps at any time as needed. Normally, steps 4-14 are revisited a number of times. Steps 8-14 are revisited more often. Steps 12-14 are revisited most often.
  16. Once “finished,” the same process can be used to address flaws after beta-reader feedback or while in editorial cycle.

Vincent’s First Bass

Eric Witchey

Sold to Daily Science Fiction in February of 2014. Printed as a Father’s Day Story

 

“Go ahead,” his father said. “Stand up.”

Vince was a Vanderpender ninth-grader, and he’d seen flat-bottomed punts in his art history courses. Not that he liked art history. He was a math boy, but he’d seen pictures of men fishing from boats like his dad’s.

He and his dad had started rowing before sunrise. Now, they floated on glassy water in a back bay of Oleanta Lake in the rolling hill country near the Ohio river. Wisps of steam rose off the water, and a bird somewhere made a really spooky cry. At least his father told him it was a bird. A loon, he’d said. Vince wasn’t sure if the name was a joke or not. The cry sounded crazy, and he supposed someone might have named a bird that made that sound the loon.

“It’s safe,” his father said.

He nodded. The boat moved if Vince moved. He could feel it. It was action-reaction—simple Newtonian physics. He should be able to compensate. The variables were known: his weight, height, angle of lean, center of mass, the friction coefficient of the surface area of the bottom of the boat against the lake water.

“Fish are waiting,” his father said. “Daylight’s-a-wastin’, and they won’t wait forever for us to pluck ’em out’a the lake.”

His father? Vince barely remembered the man. He was weather-tanned and tall, broad like a weight-lifter but dressed in his olive green game warden’s uniform. He was a myth, a wild country legend that Vince’s mother despised.

Feet braced wide for a better center of gravity, he slipped his blue-jeaned butt forward off the front bench of the punt. Knees bent to create springs to absorb movement, he managed to stand.

“Good.” His father sat, hands on oars, making casual, micro-movements to steady the boat. “It’s really just physics,” he said. “I hear from the school you’re really good at that stuff.” His father handed him a fishing rod.

Vince managed to nod without falling out of the boat.

“The reel goes on the bottom,” his father said. “Open faced-reels hang down below the rod for balance.”

Vince let the reel drop low. The stem that held the reel to the rod slipped in between his fingers.

“Don’t worry, son,” his father said. He let go of an oar and adjusted his cap. “I’ll teach you what you need to know.”

Vince was sure he looked like a rank beginner. He hated looking like a beginner in front of this man, which was pretty silly since they’d only just met. But his father was a Fish and Wildlife warden, and for the first time he could remember, he was spending time with his father like other kids. Of course, he’d seen the look in his father’s eyes in the eyes of kids at school and in the eyes of other kids’ fathers. The look said it all. Vince was a geek.

“The rod is a spring,” his father said.

“Cool.” Vince heard the shake in his voice. A spring, he thought. Knowable variables. Algebra. No worries. He measured the length and taper with his mind’s eye. He bounced the tip to test material tensioning against the weight of the bulbous gold and fluorescent gold lure at the rod tip.

“Let a little line out,” his father said.

He bounced the tip again. The bright lure bounced. The silver, oval plate spinning on its side tinkled and flashed in the morning sun. No line came out. He tried to pull the line out.

“No,” his father said. “Throw the bale, Son.”

“The what?”

“The wire around the edge of the spool.”

Vince nodded. “Oh.” There was a rigid chrome wire around the edge of the reel. The line left the spool and slipped under a little guide on that wire. “Do I throw the whole rod?”

His father laughed at him.

Not good. Hot embarrassment burned his face. He should have said no when the lawyer came to Vanderpender for him. It was a moment of decision. He had created the wrong universe with his decision. He should have picked the universe in which he went to the chess tournament in New Mexico, but some other Vince was in that universe now.

“Sorry,” his father said. “You’ll learn. Try to relax. Hold the rod in your right hand and lift the bale away from the face of the reel until it clicks.

He listened. He did exactly what he’d been told. The bale clicked open, and the lure dropped like the lead weight it mostly was. It hit the bottom of the punt and made a metallic clank. Vince wanted to melt away and hide from the steady eyes of his father. “Sorry,” he said.

“No need,” his father said. “That’s supposed to happen.”

“Really?”

“Yup.”

He searched the tanned lines of his father’s face for signs of suppressed ridicule or judgment. All he saw was joy and confidence.

His game warden dad said, “Now, crank the handle with your left hand.”

He did. The bale snapped back over the reel face and picked up the line. The spool turned, and the lure lifted from the bottom of the boat.

“Stop.” his father said.

Vince did. The lure hung a foot or so off the rod tip. Vince started to feel a little confidence. He thought he was getting it. A counterweighted lever: reel underslung, fulcrum at his wrist, tapered fiberglass spring, eighteen inches of eight-pound test monofilament with plus or minus 3 percent elasticity and a two ounce weight dangling like a pendulum.

Manageable variables.

The boat rocked.

Vince almost lost his balance. It was a lot to keep track of: rod, reel, line, boat, balance. . . The equations danced in his head, but he managed to keep the numbers clean and ordered.

“It’s okay,” his father said. “My fault. We were drifting near a submerged stump.”

“We could crash?” Vince asked. “And sink?”

His father laughed again. The laugh echoed off the Ohio hills. The weird bird trilled it’s eerie response. “Bump and maybe rock,” his father said. “Even if we had a hole the size of a basketball in the bottom, the boat would float. The seats are full of buoyant foam.”

“Do I cast now?” Vince had once seen a guy cast while clicking through YouTube channels. The title of the video had been, “Surface Tension,” and Vince had thought the video was about molecular cohesion. Instead, it was about a man who went fishing after a fight with his wife.

“Yeah,” his father said. “There’s big bass in these stumps. With a little luck, you’ll pick one up.”

He swung the rod tip back and let the pendulum weight ride its arc. He felt the rod-spring load. He calculated the rate of load and the point of maximum arc. He pushed the rod forward against the maximum loading to increase the loading. He snapped his arm forward and let the rod tip unload.

The weighted lure came forward, swung fast around the rod tip, and spun in a fast eighteen inch circle around the whipping tip. The lure went nowhere.

This sucked. He was sure he had done the calculations right. The weight should have pulled line out and gone approximately thirty yards in a rising twenty degree arc over the plane of the water’s surface.

“Try again,” his father said. “This time get ready for your cast by hooking and holding the line with your index finger then throwing the bale.”

Vince nodded. He considered tossing the whole rod into the lake. He could probably get away with it. His father wouldn’t know it wasn’t just a stupid kid’s accident. Instead, he opened the chrome wire covering the face of his spin-caster. It rotated out and clicked into place. The gold and fluorescent lure dropped to the punt bottom again.

His father chuckled.

Vince’s face warmed. He avoided his father’s gaze, instead he looked away and off across the misty pond. Cold, wet air filled his nostrils with the smell of algae, muck banks, and the surrounding forest. This wasn’t his world. It was all wrong. He sniffed and blinked back tears. He’d made the same mistake twice.

“I’m sorry, son. I should have said to pull your finger in tight. Like this.” His father reached up and wrapped a large, calloused hand around Vince’s small, pale hand. He positioned Vince’s hand and finger. “Like you’re squeezing a trigger so the line doesn’t fall away.”

Vince reeled in his line. He pulled his finger tight against the line. He threw the bale again.

“We need to get out together more,” his father said. “Too much time in those math books makes you forget how to explore possibilities. If everything is by the numbers—all formulas and figures, physics and calculations—you start thinking you have to have a right answer every time. It’s just not true, Son. Some things don’t have right answers. Some things, you have just have to feel to really understand.”

Vince set the tip of the rod back. He flipped it forward. He pointed his finger at his target. The line released, and the lure arced out over the lake. He said, “Twenty degrees. Three meters of rise. Sixty meters of travel.” The lure splashed down.

“Perfect!” his father said. “That was perfect. You’ve been practicing.”

“Conservation of angular momentum augmented by the spring loading of the fiberglass tip resulting from momentum. The lure weighs 2.5 ounces, according to the package. The tensile strength of the line is 8 lbs. The thickness is negligible. Elasticity is maybe 3% over three meters. The coil friction in unwinding is a primary variable in achievable distance and must be weighed in a function against the acceleration imparted by unloading the fiberglass spring.”

His father stared at him, his olive green cap high on his forehead. “What?”

“Formulas and figures, Dad. A right answer.”

“Uh-huh.” His father recovered a bit. “Maybe there’s math for that cast, but there’s no math for the brain of a fish.”

“The Rule of Very Large Numbers. Chaos Theory and I suspect a certain amount of quantum synchronicity could be applied.” Vince grinned. Fishing was starting to make sense.

“You’re saying you can tell how to catch a fish using math?”

“I’m saying that if a person really needed to, he could probably figure out where the fish are and when they would bite by knowing a lot about where the fish aren’t and when they don’t bite.”

“I have to get you away from your mother and her damn boarding schools before you’re ruined,” his father said.

Vince was confused. He thought he’d done it right. He cranked his reel, and the bale locked shut. The rod tip dipped, and Vince jerked his arm up.

“Easy, boy. Take it easy. That’s just the lure hitting bottom. Water’s not deep here. Only about ten feet. Just reel the lure in.”

He nodded. He reeled. The line cut a V-shaped wake in the water.

“Feel the tip bumping? That’s the lure action, son. You want that. Reel too slow, the rod tip gets quiet. Reel too fast, and the lure spins differently. You need to get the lure to look like a fish moving along with a gimp fin.”

“Point five revolutions of the crank per second. Spindle rotation is 3.5 RPS. Tip bob at 2 BPS.”

“BPS?”

Vince grinned. “Bobs per second. I made it up.”

His father actually laughed at his joke.

The rod tip pulled hard. It went down almost to the water.

“Lift the tip.” his father said.

Vince lifted the tip of the rod over his head. He felt the deep drag of something heavy on the line.

“Okay, now reel enough to keep the line taught but not enough to drag the fish in.”

“How big is the fish?”

“I don’t know.”

“Then how do I know how hard to reel?”

“Feel it in your hands.”

“How?” Vince was frantic. He had no math for this. His numbers left him, and the line was darting to one side, the tip following. He tried to reel, but the rod bucked in his hand. He lost his grip on the crank.

The V slipped sideways one way, then the other. The bent rod tip followed like it was alive.

“Feel that?” his father asked. “You have to feel the fish now. Keep the tip high. Lead him.”

“How!? Where!?”

“It’s a big fish, boy. A damn big one.”

Vince recovered the crank. He reeled. He felt the pull of the fish, but it didn’t mean anything. It was just pull. His reel clicked. Line dragged out against the gears of the reel.

“I’m reeling, but the line goes out.”

“Good. That’s good. Just keep tension on the line.”

“The line’s still going out.”

“The drag is set to let a big fish pull without breaking the line.”

“How strong is the drag?”

“I don’t know.”

Vince didn’t like it. He didn’t like it at all. There were too many variables, too many possibilities. If he lost a big fish, his father would laugh at him again. He couldn’t lose the fish. Couldn’t!

The fish darted left hard.

“Keep him out of the logs!” his father called. He pulled on the oars. Vince almost fell. He lifted the tip to the right as high as he could. His mind raced. He wanted to see the fish, to know what he had hooked.

The answer came to him in a blinding flash, a white hot thought born of the need to see his father smile. It wasn’t Newtonian at all. It was a probability alignment problem. Quantum geometry. He had to force the correct configuration of line, rod tension, and fish movement. He might be able to create a synchronous probability point and access universal potentials.

He lead the fish with the rod tip. He didn’t have time to crunch the numbers. A perfectly correct answer would take years and computers he didn’t have. He had to approximate, to find the configuration. Odds were stacked badly against him. The dark energy rip expansion death of the universe had better numbers than him landing this fish.

He had to try.

“Feel it,” his father yelled.

Of course, he thought. His father understood fishing—could feel it. So could he.

The rod tip dipped. The fish turned. The boat twisted. The line made a sound like a piano wire breaking.

A universe Vince did not want to live in was about to be spawned by his failure. Vince’s mind raced, searching for the feel of the thing, the way of it, the moment of solution.

He found it in a white-hot flash of understanding, and the sound of the loon bird stopped. The tiny lapping of waves against the side of the boat went silent. He and his father stood on the still deck of the punt. The line went out from the tip of the rod to the surface of the water. Tendrils of motionless mist hovered in the silent air. Breeze-driven ripples stood in long wave lines, motionless, even where interference effects cancelled or amplified the intersecting wave forms. Fifty feet from the boat, a large-mouth bass hung in the air, frozen, surrounded by motionless water spray and refraction rainbows.

“What the Hell?” his father said.

“Hold this,” Vince said. He handed his father the rod. “Keep the line tight. Don’t let the rod tip dip.”

His father’s mouth gaped. Still, he nodded and took the rod.

Vince stepped out of the boat and walked across the surface of the lake to the fish. He carefully unhooked the bass then walked back to the boat. He put the bass in the five-gallon paint bucket they had brought for their catch.

“Okay,” he said, “Give me the rod.”

Silent, eyes wide, his father gave the rod back.

Vince gave the reel a sharp crank. The rod tip snapped upward. The line streaked up out of the water, slicing a line of spray across the surface of the lake. The lure shot back toward the boat, a steaming red-hot streak. It hooked his father’s cap and dragged it right across the boat and into the lake. Hat, lure, and lake boiled and steamed.

“What in Sam Hill?!” His father put a hand to his bare head.

“Sorry, Dad.” Vince reeled in the cap.

“Holy Mary and Joseph!” his father said.

Vince unhooked the warm, wet hat and handed it to his father.

The mist twisted. The ripples rolled. The weird bird called out across the empty lake.

He’d done it. Vince inhaled a lung full of the fresh, lake air. He’d caught his first fish, and his father seemed impressed. Finally, he looked in the bucket at his fish. It was a big one. Maybe six pounds. The fish thrashed it’s tail and splashed water up out of the bucket.

“You got it,” his father said. “It’s real.”

“Did I do it right?” Vince asked.

“You walked out there and got the fish.” His father pointed out over the water.

“I did okay?”

“How?”

“I didn’t do it right?”

“What did you do?”

“Are you mad at me?”

Vince’s father dropped his oars and let them float free in their oar locks. He twisted his cap to get the water out. He put the wet hat back on his head. “No, Vince. I’m not mad. I just don’t understand what you did. It all happened so fast. The sun must have gotten to me. I could have sworn you walked out on the water and picked up the fish. Hell, it looked like the fish just waited in mid-jump for you to come and get it.”

“I was afraid it would get away,” Vince said.

“So you walked out and got it?”

Vince nodded. Embarrassed that he hadn’t done what his father had wanted. “How was I supposed to do it?”

His father looked at the fish in the bucket. Then he looked at his son. “Boy,” he said, “You did it exactly the way you were supposed to. I just didn’t know you had it in you. I’ve never been more impressed by anyone or anything in my whole life.”

Vince beamed. He reached in the bucket to touch his fish.

“Can we let it go, Dad?”

His father grinned at him and nodded.

Shocked, Vince looked at his father. “If you like. I mean, I just did what you told me. I was afraid I’d lose him. You told me to just feel it.”

“Son, you’ve got a feel for it you didn’t learn from your old man, and if you’re willing, I’d sure love to learn it.”

“Sure, Dad.” Vince lifted the bucket and let the bass slip back into the lake.

-END-

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-

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