One Legendary Evening

By Elizabeth Engstrom

There is a legend that tells of Ray Bradbury and Robert Heinlein sitting down in front of the fireplace one evening with a bottle of brandy, and each of them burning one million unpublished words. To date I’ve been unable to authenticate this legend, but it doesn’t really matter whether or not it is true. I like to think it is, and I choose to think that for many reasons.

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The main reason I like this story is that it tells me that I am not alone with my quirky propensities.

I have a propensity to keep everything I write. I’m not the only writer whose filing cabinet is filling up with unpublished, unpublishable writings. Why do we cling to these things? Because we may look at them some day and discover that they had mutated over the years into something useful?

This lore also tells me that even the great writers—the writers of legend—have dead end ideas, bad books, worthless prose. They don’t consider their every word golden, and neither should I. (Tony Hillerman says he has a whole file cabinet full of first chapters.) They practice their craft, and don’t subject their fans to their practicings. I thank them for that.

I wonder what went into that fire of Heinlein and Bradbury. What brilliant poetry, intriguing concepts from the minds of those two gentlemen will be forever lost to our body of American literature? With Heinlein long dead and Bradbury recently so, what would Christie’s get for those manuscript pages on the auction block?

While I long to read fresh material by these two men, I’m glad they had the courage to reduce those pages to ashes, rather than to let me at their files of rejected prose and aborted projects. Why would I want to lessen my opinion of them by reading their worst, when I have been privileged to read their best?

How was this plan conceived, and how did they go about choosing what went the way of the flames? Were these things unpublished because of the authors’ internal editors or the editors of some publishing house? Did they ball up the pages and toss them in with cavalier bravado, or did they gently, reverently, lay stacks of pages upon the logs? And what did they talk about as they fed the fire? Did they tell bawdy jokes, or gossip about other writers and their work or their love lives, or did they complain about the changing aspects of the publishing industry? Was this an unburdening, cathartic evening, or a memorial service filled with melancholy of stories that could have been?

Two men who wrote with typewriters and carbon paper, pre-computer, pre-Xerox, each burning the equivalent of ten 100,000-word novels. It gives me pause.

Some day, I hope a writer hears about the same ritual as performed by me and one of my contemporaries, and considers it with the same amount of speculation. But to have a million unpublished words is a huge undertaking.

I best get busy.

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-

Pain and Productivity

by Christina Lay

I’ve been trying to write about this subject for a long time, but it’s one of those topics that has always been little too personal, a little too close to the bone, to get any objectivity on. I start writing and I get defensive. But tonight as I sit down to write a post due tomorrow, and another due the day after tomorrow, grim reality hits home once again.

Damn, I say. And then I wonder, is there anything helpful to be gained by shining a bit of light on this back-riding monkey of mine? Well, let’s take a look at where I was when I first tried to write about it, nearly two years ago:

I’m here because the voices in my head have driven me write this blog. These are not the ordinary writerly voices of characters whispering dialogue and plot suggestions to my fevered imagination. These are the voices of The Committee. You know, the raging discussions about shoulds, wants, have-to’s and why-the-hell-nots. Some of the voices come from bottles: pill bottles to be exact.

No, I’m not an addict, but I could be. Sometimes painkillers (legally obtained, mind you, NSA internet scanning friends of democracy) are my best friends. At other times, they lurk in the kitchen cabinet like an evil troll under the bridge, luring me to my doom.

The conversation goes somewhat like this:

Me: Damn, my back/neck/hip hurts, but I need to write.

Cyclobenzaprine: If you want to get any sleep tonight, you’d better take me now.

Fairy of Good Intentions: But if you do that you won’t be able to concentrate long enough to finish that novella/blog post/chapter/submission.

Tramadol: Or you can take me and not give a shit.

Troll of Unworthiness: Suck it up, loser! Only the weak and worthless let a little back pain interfere with the relentless pursuit of their dreams! Not only should you not medicate, but you should stay up really late!

Coffee: I’m up for that.

Fairy of Good Intentions: If you’d listened to me, you would’ve finished yesterday instead of watching Veronica Mars on Netflix.

Me: Okay, Cyclob you win, but I’m going to stay up late and write gibberish thanks to you.

Troll: Well, as long as you suffer for your art.

I’ve often wondered how much more productive I’d be without this chronic back pain of mine, but let’s face it, I might not even be a writer if I didn’t have the physical limitations that I do. I might be a ballerina or one of those annoying Globe Trekker people. I might be a different person, in other words, so it’s useless to speculate or write stupid blogs about.

Frieda Kahlo is one of my inspirations. Not because I’m a huge fan of her work but because she overcame great physical challenges to create it. I know my problems pale in comparison, but I’ve set her up as a challenge to myself when the pain and the painkillers conspire to distract me from my goals. And the goal is always to get something done. There is always the next something. The next story. To stand still, to medicate, is to let the story die.

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Whoa. Melodramatic and bit sad. I’m happy to say that overall the intensity of my chronic pain has lessened and I don’t face these kind of nights nearly as often. And with a little perspective, I can now see that what is sad is not that I am tragically afflicted with a bent spine, but that I am so damn hard on myself.  The only thing that dies when I fail to write is my sense of humor.

I’m not sure where I got this fear of stopping. Maybe I was a shark in a previous life. But there, now I’ve done it, I’ve pushed through the pain to write about pain and ask, how important is productivity? How important is making deadlines? We can only face one hurdle at a time and answer the question anew every time, but the important thing to remember is to be easy on ourselves, no matter what we decide to do or not do.

I know I’m not the only one who feels driven to ignore the body’s warnings in order to keep moving, to achieve, push, strive and continue on when really I should just lie down with an ice pack on my neck. The world will not end if my ShadowSpinners post is a day late. The story will not die. The words might be different tomorrow, as I might be different. Less grumpy, more refreshed and ready to write, ready to play in the garden of my imagination.

Immersive Writing

by Christina Lay

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This post was inspired by doing what I’m about to suggest you don’t do: that is, stop in the middle of your writing time in order to research something online. The ironic thing is, the research I stopped to do made me dwell on just why it’s not such a good idea (the stopping).

I decided I needed to look into hypnotism right now and find out what exactly a hypnotist does these days. I assumed there’s not a lot of pocket watch swinging at work, but I did find out that “ocular fixation” is still a common practice.   Fascinating as that is, it’s not what I’m here to talk about (see how pesky those interesting tidbits can be?)

What caught my attention was this bit, snipped from Wikipedia, on the topic of “hypnotizability”, which is a great word, by the way. Research done by Deirdre Barrett on the susceptibility of subjects to hypnotism suggest that ” Fantasizers score high on absorption scales, find it easy to block out real-world stimuli without hypnosis, spend much time daydreaming, report imaginary companions as a child and grew up with parents who encouraged imaginary play.”

In my opinion, fantasizer equals writer. The article goes on to talk about self-hypnosis and how those with a high hyponitizability score find self-hypnosis easy to perform. It dawned on me that what I do when I immerse myself in writing is very much like self-hypnosis.

Is this a good thing, you might ask? I believe so. When I achieve a state of full immersion, of dreaming the story, I reach that zone where “the story writes itself” or “the characters speak and I transcribe”. It’s the place where I can’t write fast enough to keep up with the words and images flowing out of my mind. This is writer nirvana.

I’ve had friends marvel at how fast and how much I can write in a sitting (let’s put quality aside for the moment, shall we?) I’m talking about a place where story rules. It isn’t easy to achieve or maintain, and it is exceedingly difficult to find the time to make it last as long as I’d like, but I thought I’d share a few of the things I do that help me self-hypnotize into a highly productive state. I’m sure you’ve heard these suggestions before, but maybe with the idea of reaching a semi-trance or meditative state, the suggestions will resonate in a different way. And as usual, this is me sharing my experience, not burdening you with a list of “shoulds”.

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  1. Write every day. Or as close to it as possible, even if it’s for only half an hour, or ten minutes. The idea is to keep the juice of the story flowing. When you’re working on a novel especially, you have many balls in the air. In order to keep each ball airborne, you can’t stop thinking about where each ball is. If you touch base with your story every day, I believe your subconscious works to keep the balls from dropping. So when you sit down, instead of starting from a place of inertia, trying to remember who did what last week, the long list of decisions you’ve made are still at your fingertips and ready to feed the day’s new decisions. It is much easier to maintain an internal consistency of character voice and motivation if you speak with your cast on a regular basis.
  2. Write at the same time and place. This is important for the idea of self-hypnosis. You are sending the message to your mind; now is the time when I write. This is the place where I sit for long periods and Dream. Get used to it. Your writing space is where you put aside all other concerns and focus lazer-like on your characters’ journey through imaginary space.
  3. Write in the morning. Walk straight from dream time to the computer, or notebook, detouring only to the coffee pot. Don’t open our email. Write. In this way you will capture the strange and unpredictable flow of your subconscious. I don’t tell my boss this, but I save my best mind for writing, which is my mind before it gets weighed down with the fuss and bother of daily life. Some people are night people, I know that, but if at all feasible, give first thing in the morning a shot. Even journaling before getting out of bed can give your creativity a boost.
  4. Don’t worry about the words. Now, before you stalk off in a huff, let me tell you one of the best pieces of writing advice I’ve ever read. Natalie Goldberg said that writing is like sex—when in doubt, keep your hand moving. Now this is assuming you’ve done your homework, taken so many workshops you have CRAFT oozing out of your ears. You’ve listened to critiques, you’ve internalized the do’s and don’ts and now you’re off to the races. Keep writing and don’t fret over finding the exact right word. Instead of the dreaded internal editor, bring along your internal coach, the one telling you not to drop your left while you jab with the right. You know, your own little Burgess Meredith in the corner telling you not to use so many damn adjectives, or whatever. Listen to little Burgess, but don’t forget you’re in the ring. You’re telling the story now. You’re letting your characters speak. One of the worst pieces of writing advice I ever read (I forget who said it) was to write as if your editor was standing behind you, plucking pages from the typewriter the instant you were finished, and taking them off to the printer. Which means every line has to be perfect before you move on. That way, my friends, lies madness. Not to mention a blank page. Fix it in the rewrite.
  5. Do your research ahead of time, or outside of your immersive writing time. Oh, how I do love the big juicy world wide web. But we all know it’s a black hole of fabulousity and even when it’s not, tuning out in order to look up what that thingy on the whatsis was called in Great Britain during the Regency will break the spell, wake you up and the hypnotic state will be disrupted. Sure, you might find inspiration for a blog post, but what’s more important? Besides, it’s really a good idea to soak your brain in knowledge ahead of time. Research inspires as well as informs, and will enrich your story as you go, helping in the immersive process. Just underline the questionable bits and keep going.
  6. Write when you’re not writing. Tell yourself your story. Slide into the skin of your characters. Visualizing scenes from their point of view whenever you have the chance will aid you when it comes time to spell it out in words. Part of the writer’s agony is the fact that our words never quite live up to the story in our head, but the more we can really see, smell, hear and taste the world of our story the easier it will be to enter that world when we’re sitting at the keyboard. This is a good thing to do when you are performing mundane tasks, or just going to sleep. Be careful when driving, though.
  7. Defend your perimeter. No email. No stack of bills to pay. No compulsively checking your phone to see if New York has called. Now, this is not to say you should remain immobile for hours. Actually, moving is highly recommended for long haul writing sessions. Be careful what you choose to do however. I find walking the dog is a great way to do moving meditation. The dog walks me as I continue in a daydreamy space, nutty professor style. You know what it is you can do to move and be balanced without disrupting your train of thought overly much. Shower, do yoga, fold clothes, whatever, but know that you are still writing.
  8. Set your alarm. If this becomes affective for you, you will forget to go to work or feed the children, and misadventures will ensue.

 

One of the most important factors in all of this is time. The more breathing room you can give your writing, the more chance you have of reaching a fully immersed state. But don’t think you have to have hours. I’ve had hours, and it is wonderful, but when life goes sideways and I only have half an hour, I find I’ve trained my brain well enough that I can sit at the keyboard and, if I resist the email and the bills, I can slip write into a deep writing state and channel my characters enough to get down a page or two.

The best secret of all about being a tried and true fantasizer is that writing is fun. Yes, it really is. Give it a try, and watch the magic unfold.