Reconciling Fiction Techniques in Memoir

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Reconciling Fiction Techniques in Memoir, by Eric Witchey

Something new for my blog this time. Instead of waxing dreary on some topic of my own choosing, I’m answering a question from a person who took a class from me at the Write on the Sound Conference in Edmonds, Washington. The last time I was there, I taught a class that included a brief discussion of a concept I first presented in an article for The Writer Magazine in October of 2011. The concept is the Irreconcilable Self (I.S.).

The writer, a memoirist, dropped me a line last week. The question has two parts. The first part is whether the I.S. the writer is working with is precise enough. The second question is more of a presupposition about whether the I.S. tool can be used in memoire. Also, note that the writer used Wallace Stegner’s book, Angle of Repose, as a reference point. It has been a long time since I read it, so my examples from memory may or may not fit the experience of people who have read it more recently. I did not go back and check the book to verify my memory, which is a swiss cheese muddle of too many stories that often blend together.

The Question:

I’m presuming that the I.S. can apply to a memoir ‘character’ since I’m treating myself as the character? Good. So then, my opposing conflicts of ideals are — ideal notions of country/”smaller” living and (true) community not a neighborhood VERSUS ‘freedom’ of city life and anonymity.

My questions — is that SPECIFIC enough?? Or is it too linked to place and time? Do I need more soul-searching to really get at stronger conflicting notions here? I am conflicted in the idolization of country living vs the reality and want to expose that a little more via my experience, but also have notions and real experiences of longing for that country living.

The Answer:

Hi, again, Writer X:

First, I’ll be teaching an 8 hour seminar on this subject in Eugene, OR in May. I have a couple of memoirists already signed up. You don’t have to sign up for all six classes. You can just take this one alone, but I would recommend this one and the one in June for a full sense of how I.S. works in conjunction with other story elements. The people at WordCrafters can help with accommodations. The classes are set up so people can drive or fly in on Saturday and drive or fly out on Sunday. Anyway, here’s the link.

https://wordcraftersineugene.org/fiction-fluency-2018/ff-seminars/

Second, I always welcome “one-off” emails, but I can’t always answer them. Also, I’ll only answer one or two before I send you a contract to set up a formal relationship as a sort of piano teacher of words. Too many people think of me as a private encyclopedia of writing techniques if I let them, and I do have to fulfill my own obligations in life.

So, no worries. I’m especially happy to hear from people who have read my stories and taken one or more of my classes.

Interesting that you mention The Angle of Repose. Not many writers who contact me have read it. Stegner is brilliant. Before I talk about that, I’ll talk a bit about Irreconcilable Self.

When I teach I.S., especially in a short form venue like a conference (60 to 90 minutes, total), I teach it as a binary form to get the idea across. It can be more complex. The form I teach has two parts and relies on “I believe” statements in juxtaposition—something like this:

“I believe Romantic idealism is the only truth in this world.” Vs. “I believe deeply in personal honor and family honor and pride.”

This would be Romeo.

Notice that I have already put in more than one thing in the second “I believe” statement. The juxtaposition of these deeply held, untested beliefs is what’s important. The beliefs are deep and often, but not always, unconscious. They are, however, untested. The only way the character is able to believe both things at the same time is that the beliefs have not been tested in his or her life.

That’s the short version of I.S.

Now, Stegner. Keep in mind that Stegner is telling several stories. Lyman is narrating. He’s telling both his story and the story of Susan. Susan’s story includes the story of Oliver and Frank. Each of these major characters has an I.S. that generally functions beneath their consciousness and either drives or allows them to act in the ways they do. Each character has their beliefs tested. Lyman’s is tested by the telling of the story and the revelations that come because of that. His I.S. is something like, “I believe I am a good man from good stock” vs. “I believe the world and my family owe me for their betrayals.” His I.S. is tested by revelations and experience. He abandons the second belief, modifies the first one, and reconciles his experience into, “My choices create the love around me.”

Okay, I’m making this up on the fly, so don’t expect “correct” summary descriptions of a novel I read a long time ago. I’m just trying to give an example that might be useful for you.

Frank can’t reconcile his beliefs. He kills himself. That’s, more-or-less, the definition of tragedy. I’d say his belief was something like, “I believe I’m a good and loyal friend” vs. “I believe I love Susan beyond life itself.” Yeah, that doesn’t work out for him. If memory serves, he kills himself.

Oliver is something like, “I believe I’m an honorable, educated, man worthy of love and loyalty” vs. “I believe one more shovel full of dirt and I’ll strike it rich and save everyone around me.” Or, maybe, “I believe I’m a good husband and hard worker” vs. “I believe my worth is determined by the success of my next project.” I’d have to go back and reread it to do better.

Now, Susan, who is probably the most interesting character in the whole nested story mess, appears to be dragged through events, but she really isn’t. She’s just more subtle. Her I.S. is something like, “I believe in the trendy, romantic idealization of love and the West” vs. “I believe in family values and am a good wife and mother.”

The end position for a character who has resolved their I.S. (transformed) is one of the following:

  1. Experiences force the character to reject both beliefs and die (Frank). I might also argue that Oliver ends up in this position, but he dies emotionally and spiritually.
  2. Experiences force the character to reject both beliefs, but they find a new belief on which to base life choices and actions (Lyman).
  3. Experiences force the character to reject one belief and embrace the other (Susan).
  4. Experiences force the character to find a way to reconcile the two beliefs and live on in harmony with both (Nobody in that story).

Okay, on to memoir.

The chief problem I see when memoirists approach the use of fiction techniques in telling their stories is that they have difficulty stepping back to examine themselves for the underlying psychological, philosophical, and sociological understanding that fiction writers apply when working with made up characters. Finding your own I.S. is like trying to grab your shoelaces and lift yourself up so you can reach a book on the highest shelf. Even if you succeed in violating the laws of physics, you can’t let go of your shoelaces to reach for the book.

The various successful memoirists I have worked with have had to do extensive work in separating themselves from the character who represents them in the story. It’s much harder than making someone up from scratch, but the techniques are the same. For Memoirists, the trick is to do a lot of work figuring out what the core significance of the experience was both for the writer and for the reader. Sometimes, a very clear statement of the experiencing character’s main transformation will allow you to work backward into the land of unconsidered beliefs. Sometimes, deciding to assign an I.S. and then attempting to cause the story to conform to that I.S. will result in either success or failures that provide insights into what was really going on deeper down during the experience.

Regardless, one of the tasks the memoirist must always remember is that no matter what they think the experience meant to them, the end result is only useful if the reading experience means something to the reader. Those two positions are not in any way connected except through craft. Sometimes, they are two completely different meaning results.

I haven’t read your story, and I don’t know enough about it to name the I.S. for you. Frankly, that’s probably a bad idea anyway. However, I can say that once you know it, it is only one of three core control structures I teach. The other two are “arc” and “premise.”

That said, here’s how you described your I.S.: “opposing conflicts of ideals are — ideal notions of country/”smaller” living and (true) community not a neighborhood VERSUS ‘freedom’ of city life and anonymity

The description you provided could be translated into I.S. form like this:

I.S.: “I believe I will only be whole if I am a known, respected member of a small, rural community.” Vs. “I believe only the anonymity of city life will let me fully express who I am.”

Do keep in mind that at story open the character rarely knows they believe both things. Given the above I.S., I can certainly see how a story that demonstrates this conflict of values and transformation of a person could be told. I can’t, however, really speak to how your character and your character context will manifest these belief systems on the dialectic, tactical, conflict set, scene, sequence, or movement dramatic levels. I think that’s where you’re getting stuck. You have an I.S., but the translation of it into increments of stress and change caused by experience isn’t taking your story “from-to” in a way that feels both true and satisfying to you on the I.S. level. For that kind of analysis, I’d also need the premise, arc, and a synoptic outline that captures emotional change resulting from the conflict for each dramatic scene.

I don’t have time or space to do a full exposition of these ideas here, but I can say that by using the control concepts of arc, premise, and I.S., it is possible to analyze the story along the conceptual boundaries readers use to internalize emotions while reading. Subconsciously, readers look for moments of emotional change. In fact, physiologically, they respond to those moments before they have time to think about them. The speed of emotional response overriding the speed of cognitive response is one of the things that keeps readers in the story. Being able to name the I.S., being able to see how each moment of the story either stresses the character’s belief system or confirms it (which is another kind of stress since things will get worse because of confirmations), being able to incrementally move the stress levels toward a personal, emotional/psychological crisis in which the character experiences one of the reconciliation results described above, and being able to deliver the emotional power of that moment of transformation to the reader in a context that allows the reader to FEEL its value to them is, at core, what all story telling is about.

I’m sorry I can’t provide more insight than this. The woods are lovely, dark, and deep and…

Best of luck and skill to you.

Eric

 

Interview Series: Interview with author Mary E. Lowd

By Cynthia Ray

The creative process has always fascinated me, and especially how it works for individual artists and writers.  I’ll be delving into this in a series of interviews with authors near and far.   In the first of this series, we meet Mary E. Lowd.  I met Mary in a writing group in Oregon, and I was immediately drawn to her quirky humor, and her warm, insightful stories.   She’s had three novels and more than eighty short stories published so far. Her fiction has won an Ursa Major Award and two Cóyotl Awards. Meanwhile, she’s collected a husband, daughter, son, bevy of cats and dogs, and the occasional fish.

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Mary, what can you tell us about your work, and yourself as an author?
I write science-fiction and furry fiction.  That means spaceships and talking animals.  I have been known to write the occasional piece of contemporary science-fiction, and some of the animals I write about can’t talk.  But mostly, I like to write stories that have spaceships and talking animals.  So, it should come as no surprise that the novel series I’ve been working on for the last decade is called Otters In Space.

I self-published the first Otters In Space novel in 2010.  Then I discovered the furry fandom, and I spent the next year tirelessly trying to sell my self-published novel to an actual furry publisher.  In 2012, Otters In Space was re-released by FurPlanet, and I could not have been prouder of that swirly emblem with two paw-prints emblazoned on the back cover of my book, pronouncing it a FurPlanet book.  Since then, I’ve had two more novels published by FurPlanet, a collection of short stories, and I’ve become the editor for their annual anthology ROAR.  The third Otters In Space novel is in the final editing phases now and will hopefully come out later this year or early next year.

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That’s good to hear.  I’ve been waiting for that book to come out.  It’s themes are very relevant to the environment that we find ourselves in today.  So, why do you write?
I write because I have to.  It’s what I’ve been doing my whole life.  Even before I could read, my mom encouraged me to tell stories, and she’d write them down for me.  Two of my earliest works were “Sally Cat and the Six Magic Balls” and “Salamander.”  One was a fantasy story about a cat (so, the kind of thing that I still write) and the other was a personal narrative of the day that I caught a salamander.

Once I could actually write the words down myself, writing became my escape.  Why would you spend a day in middle school when you could use the notebook paper in front of you to escape to the Serengeti where a poodle is trying to steal the throne from a blind lion?  (I believe that story was heavily influenced by Gary Larson’s The Far Side.)  I spent most of middle school surrounded by the cheerful woodland creatures of Great Oak Abbey, a place which bore a striking resemblance to Brian Jacques’ Redwall Abbey.  Then after reading C.J. Cherryh’s The Pride of Chanur, I moved to outer space with a crew of tiger-like aliens and spent all of high school on their spaceship with them.

These days, why would I live in a country that failed to elect its first woman president this fall when I could instead hang out in deep space with all kinds of animal-like aliens?  At this point, I’ve spent so much of my life writing that I get twitchy if I go very long without doing it.  Writing is something that I have to do, so I may as well make use of it.

I like your idea of hanging out in deep space.  I’ve heard they have a woman president on Mars.  But seriously, what does Creative Process mean to you?  What is yours?
There are a lot of ways to go about writing, and a strategy that works for you at one time may be a complete dead-end later.  So, I guess I believe that creative processes are always evolving.  As such, I’ll tell you about a strategy that’s worked out really well for me this year.

Last summer, I’d been stuck trying to finish Otters In Space 3 for so long — tying up loose threads and managing continuity with three previously published novels in the same world — that I was sick to death of writing a long work.  I wanted the freedom of writing something much shorter.  So I started playing something I call The Flash Fiction Game.

I got three decks of cards — two story-telling decks from a toy store (one fairy tale themed, the other robot themed) and a deck of animal guide cards.  In the morning, I’d draw a card from each deck, and by the end of the day, I had to finish a complete piece of flash fiction inspired by those three cards.  Animal + robot element + fairy tale element added up to furry space opera for me, so I wrote several dozen pieces of flash fiction set in my Crossroads Station universe by the end of the fall.  Some days, the cards clicked with each other, and it was easy.  Other days, I’d stare at those cards at a complete loss, and every word was a struggle.  But I’d still finish something resembling a complete piece of flash fiction, and finishing a complete story is a huge rush.

So, overall, I ended up with a bunch of stories — some mediocre, but some surprisingly excellent (five of them have been accepted by Daily Science Fiction) — and a huge boost to my confidence.  If you find yourself feeling lost or stuck, it’s a strategy I’d highly recommend giving a try.  Though, it won’t work for everybody.  That’s the thing about creative processes — they’re unique to each person, and even for a single person they’re always evolving.

Yes, the process is unique for each person; thats what makes it so interesting, but there are similarities, aren’t there?   Let me ask you another question.  What is the hardest thing you have worked through?
I nearly died when my daughter was born — if I’d lived in Jane Austen times, I’m sure I would have.  The recovery was brutal — both physically for myself and emotionally for my family, as my husband was deeply scarred by almost losing me.  Human reproduction is a cruel joke.  Of course, I’ve used those feelings to inspire stories.  One of my most successful stories — “Foreknowledge” (http://www.apex-magazine.com/foreknowledge/) — remixed many of my actual feelings into a fictional scenario.  It’s the story I’ve been most often told is my best; it also makes a lot of people cry.  I couldn’t have given it the same immediacy and power without mining my own experiences for kernels of truth.

Thank you for sharing that experience.  What a positive way to work through it.  What is the most revealing thing you have learned about yourself by writing?

I’m a cat who wishes she were a dog.  Or an otter.  I actually didn’t realize this directly from my writing; although, it was right there on the page, staring at me.  Even so, it took a fan coming up to me at a furry convention and telling me that he loved my novel because he’s a cat who wishes he were an otter too.  The main character in each of my novels so far is a cat who wishes she were a dog or otter.  If you don’t speak the language of animal archetypes, this means that I’m particular and persnickety, but I aspire to be care-free and fun-loving.  Though, I think it’s much more elegant and carries far greater nuance in the language of furries:  I’m a cat who wishes she were a dog.

And finally, if you were going to tell aspiring authors one thing, what would it be?
It will be hard.  It will get easier.   Write about animals — they’re fun to write, and people like to read about them.

Learn more at www.marylowd.com, or read much of her short fiction at www.deepskyanchor.com.

https://www.amazon.com/Otters-In-Space-Search-Havana/dp/1614500436
https://www.amazon.com/Otters-Space-Jupiter-Deadly-Volume/dp/1614501181
https://www.amazon.com/Dogs-World-Mary-E-Lowd/dp/1614502374
https://www.amazon.com/Necromouser-Other-Magical-Cats/dp/1614502838/

 

 

 

 

 

Our Stories Can Save Us, by Eric Witchey

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Our Stories Can Save Us, by Eric Witchey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-End-

The Lagniappe of the Inaugural Wordcrafters Conference

A photographer friend of mind uses the term “lagniappe” to describe the little extra that makes his pictures special.  He is always searching for it.  Sometimes it is the gift of the wind opening a petal just as the camera clicks, or a sunbeam illuminating a bird in flight.  It is unpredictable, but when it happens, it changes everything.

The first annual Wordcrafters Conference was full of lagniappe; little extras, unexpected gifts that added up to make the experience extraordinary, from the remarkable lineup of top-notch workshops, sessions and speakers to the craft labs which offered one on one time with best selling authors, to the Introverts Ball.

The lagniappe for me was the spirit and feeling of the conference.  During the conference Terry Brooks said, “Every time I write, I am reborn into the world again.”  Elizabeth George said, “When I write I feel whole.” Every writer in the room felt a kinship with them.  This is what it means to be a writer.  Writers are a tribe, a family and are connected by the passion that drives them.  This conference managed to tap into that deep well of inspriation and enveloped everyone who showed up in its loving embrace.

Best selling authors like Terry Brooks, Elizabeth George and Susan WIggs didn’t have to show up at an unknown conference in a small town in Oregon, but they did.  And not only did they show up, but they brought their passion and open-heartedly shared their experience, knowledge and presence because,  “We have all been where you are.”

The mentoring, the sharing and the generosity of all of the writers, presenters and authors surprised me.  Every presenter poured themselves into their work, answering questions and making connections. Every writer I know, from the seasoned professional to the first time published finds ways to take time from their writing to share their hard earned knowledge, either by mentoring, teaching, facilitating critique groups or blogging.  This conference pulled on that drive to reach out to others.  For example, newly published authors Lisa Alber and Christina Lay reached out during a ‘lunch and learn’ sesion and showed  what to expect when your first book is published.

We learned in Elizabeth Engstrom’s workshop on ‘How to Write a Sizzling Sex Scene’, that the most important part of the scene is the afterglow.  You know a conference is good when it’s over and no one wants to leave that wonderful afterglow.  People started towards the doors, but found reasons to stop and talk, to have just one more cup of coffee together before parting, to enjoy another laugh about the introverts ball or to exchange cards and phone numbers.

Mark your calendar for March 20th, 2015.  You need to be there.  In the meantime, may all your writing be full of lagniappe.