How Do I Pitch MY Genre? by Eric Witchey

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How Do I Pitch My Genre? by Eric Witchey

After teaching a class, volunteering to help Timberline Review sell subscriptions, and signing my newly launched novel at this year’s Willamette Writer’s Conference, I was walking along a hallway minding my own business and wondering if I could get back to my room to take a nap before I had to face another room full of 100 people. A personable guy said hi and caught my attention. He was a volunteer gate keeper outside the pitch and critique room where aspirants bring their hearts and souls for fine tuning before presenting them in ten minute chunks to agents and editors looking for commodities from which to make a living. Making eye contact, I became aware of my surroundings and realized that the room was understaffed and several people were waiting for a chance to get what might be critical advice. So, I volunteered to take a few pitches and help hone them.

Mind you, there’s actually plenty of help for this kind of thing. The conference ran pitch practice sessions before the conference. They ran pitch practice sessions at the conference. Most of the people pitching had practiced with friends, family, and crit groups. And, as a last chance for final revision and preparation, the conference had a pitch practice room, into which I walked.

I sat down, and the kind people at the conference showed four nervous writers my way—one at a time. I had fifteen minutes to help each.

The four writers had been coached to provide half-page synoptic summaries of their books, and each showed up with pages that did that. The idea, as I understood it, was to give a sense of genre, of character, of content, and of market potential.

Well, that list seems pretty obvious to most people. After all, a science fiction adventure isn’t the same as a historical romance, right?

Wrong.

What was not so obvious is that these people were terrified and clinging to every bit of advice they had ever been given in the hope that it would touch the hearts of jaded professionals and give up a result that would change the writers’ lives and let them connect their hearts through their words to the world.

Can you say, “TERRIFIED?”

One had a fantasy romance. One had a historical novel. One had a non-fiction book on how to talk to kids about sex. One had a cryptobiography. All had decent concepts that could fly in the market. Mind you, I hadn’t read the stories themselves. I only had access to a few pages of pitches and the problems the writers had encountered in trying to sell their stories.

So, we got to work.

In three of the four cases, I realized I didn’t have much to add to the long-form pitches the writers had honed. However, I did have the communication consultant skills and personal experience of 25 years of freelance work. So, I gave all three exactly the same thing.

Emotion.

Twenty years ago, in 1996, I pitched my first novel—a novel that later sold in Poland, but that’s another story. While practicing with my good friend Gail McNally (no, not the actress), I was proud of what I had done and of the fact that I had memorized my pitches cold. Gail listened kindly—eyes closed, nodding, pinching her nose. When I was done, she said, “That might work if you put the emotion in.”

Huh? Obviously, she had missed something because I knew it was a brilliant pitch. After all, I had read about pitching. I had talked to other people. I had carefully crafted my pitch. I had a 30 second pitch, a three-minute pitch, a full page pitch, a five-page synoptic outline, and a full synoptic outline. I was freaking loaded for literary bear.

What the hell does emotion have to do with selling the product?

So, long story short, I lost the argument and rewrote it all with an emphasis on character emotional change.

My first time pitch nailed an editor and let me choose between several interested agents.

Why? I now know it was because stories are not about things or events. Stories are about how people change emotionally and psychologically. Things and events only facilitate the changes.

Yes…. The things and events have to be “interesting and unique,” but they are only truly interesting in that they are connected to emotional change.

So, I helped each one of my three fiction charges fashion a one- or two-line pitch that captured the three Cs:

Character, Conflict, and Change.

You could say it is really only two Cs because Character is really made up of an emotional/psychological state, and Change is really just the character as they appear after they change because of the conflict. So, really, it’s just Character, Conflict, and Character, but that’s a bit confusing and doesn’t really sound right in a culture that likes to think in threes.

Essentially, we put our heads together and came up with statements like:

Soul and psyche torn down to nothing by the murder of her family, outcast 1940’s gay homemaker Millicent Monroe faces insurgent Nazis in the Iowa farmlands and consequently discovers deep connection to the community, land, and country that persecuted her.

Okay, that’s not really one of them, but maybe I’ll write that book. We’ll see.

Anyway, three of the four walked away with a similar statement and some communication consulting advice about how to speak, how to make eye contact, when to pause, and how to manage the transition to their larger already prepared pitch.

One, however, didn’t. That one makes the other three all the more interesting. The fourth person had career as a sex education lecturer, consultant, and therapist. She had a values-neutral book about how to talk to kids about sex. Her problem was also emotion, but it wasn’t the emotion of the book and characters. Her problem was that every time she pitched the book, people’s “sex stuff” came up and interfered with their ability to see the product she offered. Her problem was that she needed to disarm her audience’s emotions in order to allow them to look at her work.

That was interesting, so we worked the same problem from the opposite direction and provided her with language that identified her platform and established a context in which the content created result for the readers who bought the book. We brainstormed keywords that would frame the conversation in terms of platform, product, and market. I also recommended that she add an additional agent I knew to her pitch list.

Results?

Over the following couple of days, one-by-one, each of the four sought me out to share their excitement and success. Each one hit—and not just once. They all got requests from every agent and editor they pitched. All of them.

Why?

Here’s the bit that isn’t as obvious. These writers had been prepared by professionals to walk in and deliver fairly lengthy pitches that made use of the time available—ten minutes. Those pitches might have done fine by themselves without my help. However, agents and editors don’t take pitches in order to hear the story that takes a book-length manuscript to tell. The take pitches to filter the masses through sieve in order to find the writers who control character and story. If a writer truly controls the craft of presenting character and story, then the writer can state character, core conflict, and change succinctly.

Conversely, if a writer can state character, core conflict, and change succinctly, it is likely that they control craft well enough to deliver story. When a writer succinctly states the emotional core of character, the conflict that changes them, and the new emotional makeup of the character, agents and editors hear much more than is stated. The result is that they sit up, quite literally, and start to ask questions that can only be answered by reading the manuscript. So, the pitch creates a conversation that leads to a request for pages.

In the unique case of the non-fiction writer, the emotionally charged material wasn’t the problem. The problem was to help people see the product rather than let their emotional response to product become the primary experience of their encounter. It is really a mirror image of the same problem.

But it’s different for different genres, right?

Nope. Genre doesn’t matter on the heart and story level. Never has. Never will. Genre is marketing category. Yes, you don’t pitch space opera to a commercial woman’s fiction editor. Don’t be entirely daft. However, genre isn’t story. Genre is only a taxonomic label for expectations concerning things and events. Sometimes, genre influences the mix of techniques used for telling a story, but genre has nothing to do with heart and soul and hopes and dreams. The story comes from the writer’s heart and seeks to touch the reader’s heart. Pitching is about letting a potential buyer know that the writer understands heart and controls story craft well enough to deliver emotion to the reader.

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A Dose of Old-Fashioned Encouragement

By Cynthia Ray

 Encouragement means to hearten, to instill courage. It is when someone sees the potential and promise in us that we are only dimly aware of, if at all and makes it known to us. It is surprising, inspiring and a gift. Encouragement comes from the French word, Coeur meaning heart.

On the other hand, the word motivation is derived from the Latin “motivus”, a moving cause-activating properties. Motivation is about engaging the mind and the will to get something done.  Motivation is about a kick in the butt, encouragement is about opening someone’s eyes to their own potential.  Motivation might get you to do something, but encouragement can change your life.  I don’t know about you, but something about motivational quotes and posters makes me want to run screaming for the nearest door.

It is interesting to note that the use of the word encouragement has declined since the 1800’s, while the use of the word motivation has skyrocketed. A word that barely existed before 1900’s came into vogue as part of the study of psychology, and interest in what motivated the worker. Today we have careers dedicated to motivating others to “be the best they can be”.

I started thinking about the power of a few simple words of encouragement after I participated in a recent Facebook challenge. The challenge invited me to post my own nature photographs every day for seven days. The reception of and response to my photos surprised and encouraged me to consider things in a new way, to understand my creative “stamp”. This inspiring and contemplative experience showed me how others perceive something about me through the pictures I shared, that I had not considered or seen myself and gave me a push to expand beyond the preconceived borders I’d put on myself.

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When I first started writing, the encouragement of seasoned authors and mentors was the spark that set me on a path that enriched and changed my life. That’s the thing about encouragement. It is life changing. We can do that for each other.

All we have to do is pay attention, and reach out. We may never know how our words and actions impact someone, but recently I ran into a young woman that I used to supervise in a doctors office. She’d had lots of potential and I worked with her to develop it. She told me how my belief in her and encouragement had led her to pursue a career as a physician’s assistant, which she had not had the confidence to do before that.

Young people, new and emerging artists, writers, visionaries need us to see the potential that lays dormant, and to reach out and affirm in them what they might know but be afraid to do or be so they can go on to change the world.  Set off some sparks!

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The Beauty of Broken Things

By Cynthia Ray

Webster says a blessing is “something that helps you or brings you happiness.” What if we are lonely, or living in poverty, or addicted to drugs and alcohol, or facing foreclosure, or losing a job?

Do we expect life to be without pain or sorrow?  Do we expect everything to go well all of the time?   No, and yet we are always surprised by loss, pain and sorrow.  We don’t expect it to happen to us or someone we love.  It is always out there, happening somewhere else, to someone else; until it isn’t.

I have come to appreciate the shadows and the sorrows of life.  All of the pain, suffering and brokenness in my life created a space in which I could do inner “alchemy” to become the person I am now.

I look at friends who have suffered with debilitating disease, with loss, with grief, and see them transformed by the experience, shining  like a lantern to me, giving me hope and inspiration on my own path.

People that have struggled and experienced pain may become like the Phoenix that rises out of the ashes to become a new thing, a better thing than they would have been had they never suffered.  In the middle of the fire, the burning is pain; in rising from the ashes as a new thing is victory.   That victory then is a help and hope to those who are still burning.

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If you are broken now, you know that you will become whole. If you are whole, you know you will become broken. And in that cycle of breaking and healing, we become more human. All of our stories are about the human experience, in all of its exquisite beauty and all of its horror.

If  there was no sorrow, no conflict, no unhappiness, no war, no greed, no pain, there wouldn’t be any stories. Stories are always about the brokenness. I don’t know about you, but without stories, life would be shorn of much of its meaning and beauty.  Stories show us the way.

Each of us hold a piece of the whole story, and when we tell that unique and special story, our voice adds to the symphony of voices singing, speaking, laughing and crying, weaving a fabric of humanness that keeps us connected.

Today, I am thankful for all of you writers and readers, for your stories, for your voice, for your unique “you-ness”.  Know that the world would be less perfect and beautiful if you were not in it.

 

Childhood Terrors

By K. Ferrin

At the edge of a small town deep in the mining country of the upper peninsula of Michigan is a place called The Pits. At least that’s what everyone under four feet tall called it.

The Pits looked like two lakes on either side of an earthen road, cupped gently in the arms of two hillsides. Anyone from outside would look at the steep tree-lined hillsides and the steely grey water and find it beautiful. But those of us who lived there knew otherwise. They were not natural lakes, you see. At least not completely. They were the collapsed water filled remains of what is reported to have been the greatest iron mine in Michigan.

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Everyone under four feet tall knew the dark history of the mines. 100s 1,000s 10,000s of miners gave their lives in service to the mine, and untold more died in the numerous collapses that eventually turned underground tunnels into the deep water filled pits that exist today. In 1940 it collapsed again taking a 150-foot section of heavily used roadway with it, killing no one at least a hundred people as it went.

None of the bodies were ever recovered.

The Pits, you see, were bottomless. No one had ever been able to determine their depths, though researchers tried for ages. The earth around them was pitted with miles and miles of abandoned and now underwater mines. And there were creatures that lived there. They were the reason children drowned in the Pits every year, and why their bodies were never recovered. We all knew someone who’d seen them, flitting shadows just below the surface of the water, or a glimpse of movement out of the corner of an eye. Mermaids, of a sort, but with mouths full of razor sharp teeth and a thirst for human flesh. Preferably those under four feet tall. That or ghosts. Also with a preference for eight year olds.

It turns out the history of the mines, for those of us over four feet tall, is not nearly as exciting. While almost certainly some miners lost their lives on the job, there is no history of these mines being any more dangerous than any others. By the time the mines began collapsing they had been long abandoned, and while one car did indeed plummet into the Pits when the road collapsed, there were no fatalities. There are still flooded tunnels beneath all that water, but The Pits are only about ninety feet deep. Not exactly fathomless.

But those stories stuck with me all these years, locked away in the vault of a writers’ mind, only to emerge decades later in the pages of a novel. Feral mermaid type creatures with mouths full of jagged teeth waiting for the fateful misstep of a careless sailor.

As adults we are terrified less by the monsters under the bed and more by the monsters that  walk amongst us and seek to do us harm. But as writers, it is worth plumbing the depths of these childhood terrors for our writing. At some point the innocent and terrifying ‘what if’ of childhood is replaced with the adult certainty of ‘not real’. But deep down inside, all of us are still terrified of the dark unknown. Reaching back into stories from our childhood can help us tap into those things that most deeply frighten and disturb us. Excellent fodder, I think, for shady writers such as us.

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

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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 Quiescent Writer and the Path of the Five Whys

By Cynthia Ray

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Epiphany or “Eureka!  I have it!”

By Cynthia Ray

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

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

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

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

Hear Ursula LeGuins speech here

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

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

The Star

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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