The Essential Ingredient of Story

by Christina Lay

Story:

An invented prose narrative shorter than a novel usually dealing with a few characters and aiming at unity of effect and often concentrating on the creation of mood rather than plot. – Merriam-Webster

A plot or storyline. Or an account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment. – Oxford Dictionary

A narrative, either true or fictitious, in prose or verse, designed to interest, amuse, or instruct the hearer or reader; tale. A lie or fabrication. – Dictionary.com

Story is the full sequence of events in a work of fiction as we imagine them to have taken place, in the order in which they would have occurred in life (as opposed to plot). -The Balance

A description of how something happened – Idoceonline.com

What makes a story a story? I’m sure we all have a fairly good idea of what ingredients are needed to turn a collection of words into a story. I know I do, and when I was recently given the opportunity to judge a flash fiction short story contest, I didn’t hesitate to cull about half the submissions on the grounds of “this isn’t a story”, which then got me to thinking about why.

No doubt, it’s much harder to craft a complete story in 400 words or less than in say, 3,000, but it is possible. It’s even possible to craft a story in six words. This classic example is often attributed to Hemmingway:

For Sale, Baby Shoes, Never worn.

Why is this a story? This string of words has action (something being advertised for sale), a character or possibly more (infant and mother, maybe parents), and a conflict/problem (never worn implies a miscarriage or early death).

Clearly, much is left to the reader’s imagination and certain ingredients that you might consider essential to story are left out. Some definitions of story include setting as a required element. There’s none here. Some also describe a story as requiring a plot. Not so much.

So really, when you boil story down to its bare essentials, what do you really need? Jerry Oltion, a successful and prolific writer of science fiction stories, came up with the concept of the “foot stool” story, in which he boils down story to “a character in a situation with a problem”. The challenge is to weed out all the unnecessary elements and write a straight forward story using only those three “legs”, or ingredients.

Going back to those flash fiction pieces that didn’t meet the basic requirements, what was really missing? Certainly they all had a situation, or setting. Most had a character or two. Few had “a problem”. Most of them described a series of events. But in the end, what really kept them from being a story in my opinion was that, although some things happened, there was no indication that anything had changed. Suzy might have walked to the market and bought a tomato, but her state of mind never altered. She wanted a tomato, she got it. The End. No obstacles stood in the way of her getting a tomato and her lack of a tomato caused no particular hardship. She didn’t lose her wallet on the way. She didn’t live in Alaska and find herself taxed with making a Caprese Salad for her exacting in-laws only to find there were no decent vegetables to be had. Nope. Just a nice walk to the market to buy a nice tomato with ample funds for no apparent reason.

This, I believe, is the crux of story. Not only does a thing, or a bunch of things happen, but someone or something changes. The essential ingredient is change; an emotional shift, in both the character and the reader.

Many of the rejected flash fiction pieces struck me as prose poems. Not that a prose poem can’t also be a story, but in this case, the intention (or unintended result) of the writer’s efforts was more of a mood piece, a description of a place or a time. Partially due to the nature of the contest, the pieces tended to invoke one emotion –nostalgia—and that one emotion didn’t change, develop, or grow. Some of the pieces were quite lovely, but static, like a pastoral landscape. This does not make for compelling fiction.

The six word story example is dramatic. The reader goes from a neutral situation, For Sale, to maybe warm fuzzies or fondness or even revulsion (it happens) at the idea of Baby. Then, with Never Worn, there is a shift, an emotional impact. We know nothing of this baby and its parents, but chances are, empathy is invoked.

One of the most important things I ask myself now as I embark on telling any story is how will my character change? What affect will this event or series of events have on them or possibly the people around them? Why? These crucial questions then can lead to many more story-building leads, like why is this happening now? Is it inevitable? What choices and obstacles will my character face as they resist or embrace the change?

If I can’t answer the first basic question –how will my character change—I then have a question for myself. Why am I writing this? Is this a story, or a poem, or something else entirely?

 

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-

Five Ways National Novel Writing Month is Improving my Writing, by Pamela Jean Herber

For those of you who are not familiar with National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), it is an annual event scheduled for the month of November, which is hosted by nanowrimo.org. Hundreds of thousands of people across the globe accept the personal challenge to write a 50,000 word first draft of a novel in 30 days. This year I succeeded for the eighth time in ten attempts. Along the way I’ve learned a few things about how to work toward quantity and quality simultaneously. These are the first five that come to mind.

1. Maintain Mad Typing Skills

It’s only obvious that typing speed and accuracy will help in pounding out those 50,000 words. However, my ultimate goal is to write a story of value to myself and others. So, I maintain a skill level that renders typing to the instinctual level, where I’m not thrown out of the land of story to search for a key or fix a typo.

2. Exile the Censor

Even with mad typing skills, the words can come haltingly. This is where I tell myself that no one ever has to see anything I write. Even then, sometimes it’s uncomfortable to come face to face with my own raw thoughts and feelings. Allowing my imagination to flow freely through my fingers has taken practice. Writing as fast as possible has proved to be the most effective way for me to get over myself. The benefits are great here, not only in word count but in connecting more fully to my inner storyteller.

3. Set the Timer

Timed writings serve multiple purposes. First, by starting out with short sprints and increasing them, you can build stamina, get your brain into writing shape. Then by setting the timer to the same length for multiple sessions and then switching to another, you will develop a sense of the relationship between word count and speed. Also, by maintaining a habit of timed writings your words will gradually take on shapes that fit the time lengths.

4. Write to Constraints

This is where the fun part begins. By now you are able to write with such velocity that you can dial it back to focus on story. Start by giving yourself random prompts to write to, either to a specific time length, or simply allow the words to determine the length. This is not easy for me. I’m still strengthening my ability to take multiple elements such as character and setting and place, and insert them into the story place in my mind. But it’s getting easier. Once you’ve achieved competence at impromptu story writing, you will be on your way to writing to an outline.

5. Transition from Time Chunks to Story Chunks

Here we are at number five, where the previous four come together. I like to think of this as the place where I inhabit the time-word count-story continuum. Now, instead of focusing on timed writings, write to story chunks. These can be scenes, chapters, whatever. The chunks might be loosely defined or highly specified. They might come directly from the outline to your novel. The timer isn’t off limits here, but may not be necessary.

Use these five practices to remove obstacles to putting words on the page, and to tune your imagination to your inner storyteller. Then go out, or stay in, and write the best shitty first draft of a novel you can.

Now that’s a story!

By Elizabeth Engstrom

Last weekend we took the train to Seattle to see a Seahawks game. We do this every year, and hilarity rules. It’s always a good time.amtrak

On the way home, the train hit a deer. We, in the second car from the engine, thought we had hit a rockslide. The noise was astonishing. Turns out the deer took out the entire air system under the train, which included brakes and toilets and air conditioning. We were dead in the water, stuck in a little alcove with no cell service.

Four hours later, another train pulled up alongside, and we carefully stepped directly from our train to the next, and soon we were on our way home.

It took us twelve hours for a six hour trip. Annoying. Inconvenient. But is it a story? No.

Yet many friends suggested this was the start of a new book, or a new story. But it’s not, really.

So what makes a story? An interesting setting. An interesting conflict. An interesting protagonist.

There was nothing really interesting about our predicament. The crew was kind and helpful, the passengers patient and understanding. And we all knew that Amtrak has its issues with under-funding, sharing the track with freight trains and common delays. I take the train frequently. I know about the delays, as do most people who take the train on a regular basis. It’s part of the deal.

An Interesting Setting: Stories set on trains are always fun for people who love trains. But Amtrak? Not nearly interesting enough a setting. The Orient Express? Now you’re talking.

An Interesting Conflict: There are only three plots: Man vs. Nature, Man vs. Man, and Man vs. Himself.

There was only one real conflict on this trip, and it had to do with the poor deer. We were ten minutes from Portland. Maybe if we were in the middle of the Serengeti, or hundreds of miles from any kind of civilization, we could conjure up a nice conflict.

An Interesting Protagonist: Not that I saw. But then, just as a good president is made by the conflict he faces, a good conflict is what makes an interesting protagonist. What normal person aboard that train would rise to the occasion to battle the conflict and become everyone’s hero? Hmmm…

I collect interesting settings in my Compost File. I also collect interesting protagonist names and character flaws, and I am always on the lookout for interesting conflicts. But they don’t always fit together. It takes a certain amount of magic for the three to click together, and when that happens, the story begins to tell itself.

Re-read The Flight of the Phoenix for the best possible example of an interesting conflict, played out by an interesting protagonist in an interesting setting.

And I, for one, will continue to ride the rails, happily so, searching out story ideas, even when it is inconvenient.

Making Waves with Particles, by Eric M. Witchey

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Making Waves with Particles,
by Eric M. Witchey

(Image source: Damkier Media Group via iStockPhoto)

Story meaning is both a wave and a particle.

The classic double slit physics experiment works quite well when applied to stories. In fact, slits aren’t even necessary for the experiment. All a writer needs is a pair of eyes, or even just one eye, or even braille. For this little thought experiment, think of the eyes, eye, or fingertips as one slit. When a story passes through that slit, the particle scatter patterns emerge.

Take a look at this text. Here is an ‘A.’ Here is a ‘B.’ Notice that the text you are reading is really just a long string of little black squiggles on a white background. One squiggle after another, the little squiggles appear. Readers scan the squiggles. Every now and then, a little extra white separates one group of squiggles from another group of squiggles, and the reader recognizes that a word has ended and a new one has begun. The squiggles make word patterns, and the word patterns appear in rows, lines.

Lines group together. Paragraphs appear. Scenes appear. Chapters appear. All the little particles line up in rows one after another until they have marched one particle at a time from the first letter of the first page to the last period of the last line on the last page.

Letters, words, lines, paragraphs, etc. are the scattering of the particles on a backdrop. The reader’s eye, eyes, or fingertips pick up each little squiggle and combines it with the next to create words. The reader picks up each word and pulls the meaning from it and combines that meaning with the next. One after another, the reader picks up individual meanings and combines them with other meanings. Patterns emerge.

Notice that in the last paragraph, the description of the reader’s experience included an interesting shift from recognition of the little squiggles to the pulling of meaning from the emerging patterns.

The second slit is the mind’s eye, the eye behind the eye, which is a calm pond into which the particulate words fall like pebbles. Each pebble creates a ripple. The ripples expand and interact. A ripple peak meets a trough, and they cancel into a moment of calm water. Two peaks meet, and they create a new peak that is higher and stronger than either one alone. These rippling interactions of meanings add to or subtract from the power of the reader’s experience. Each ripple has amplitude and frequency. The driving power of the ripple is emotion, and the power of the emotions cancels and amplifies.

A yellow dog playing with a boy is a happy thing to read. A yellow dog dying is a sad thing to read. Alone, each has power in and of itself. Combined with a story’s many other ripples, all of which combine to amplify or cancel, the second image becomes the tear-jerking end to Old Yeller.

Perfect, particulate words and events are not enough. Emotion captured in an individual line, a conflict set, or a single page is not enough. Awareness, intuitively or consciously, of how the particle patterns and wave patterns are related and how the wave patterns interact allows a writer to create the contrasts and amplifications that keep the reader’s mind and emotions focused on the story that emerges from the page. The emotional power of an ending depends on how the ripples created by the first word of the story are amplified or cancelled when combined with subsequent ripples.

For your consideration, examine the following short story for the patterns of particles and for the complimentary and contrasting wave interactions. Please, if you see the particle/waves duality and the power of the interactions between waves, leave a comment and let me know. I hope you enjoy the experience.

The following story was a finalist for the Eric Hoffer Prose Award and was first published in The Best New Fiction of 2012. All typos and variations from the published version are my fault and not the fault of the editors. Also, Dr. Hansey is a real doctor. He was my doctor. Use of his name is my bow in his direction. Without him, I would still be sealed in my own metaphorical car in the sun. Namaste, Dr. Hansey.

 

Reunion

Eric M. Witchey

 

The sealed car is heating up under August sun. Gordon lets the sweat roll down from his stubble hairline, along his neck, and under the collar of his linen cabana shirt. It reminds him that he’s on an outing like a normal person.

A family reunion. Lots of people go to them. Now, he does, too.

He tells himself family reunions are happy things. When he was a kid, he remembers them being happy things. He especially remembers galvanized steel tubs filled with water and ice nests cradling huge, sweet watermelons.

For some reason, the memory of one family reunion includes a fixation on a nearby swimming pool he and the other kids weren’t allowed to go to. The chlorine smell of the water, sounds of splashing kids, and squeals of joy and laughter tortured them in heavy August heat.

He supposes the pool, like many memories in his life, is burned into his mind because he couldn’t have it.

Like Sussette.

She still dominates his thoughts, but his meds helped disconnect his actions from those thoughts. He’d finally gotten to the point where he could leave her alone. He’d even deleted her old number from his cell phone. With Dr. Hansey’s help, he’d almost deleted her new one twice. That day would come pretty soon, he was sure.

But the meds hadn’t made it so he could get out of the car, so he watches his family reunion from inside the protective, purifying oven of glass and steel.

Kids run back and forth across the park lawns. Some play soccer. Some play chasing games. There are so many kids. Chaos on the hoof, and he can’t imagine any good will come of it. They’ll crash into things, spill things, break things. If he gets out, they’ll bump him. One might even touch his skin.

The sweat on his neck chills and makes him shudder. That’s what he tells himself.

He’d been a kid. He remembers it whether he wants to or not.

It’s just crazy to sit in the car because he can’t stand the thought of them bouncing around like agitated molecules. They touch everything. They scream and squeal.

He must have been like that. Must have been.

What if he had gotten together with Sussette? They would’ve had kids. She wanted them. She desperately wanted them. He wanted her. He would have agreed to anything to have her.

The restraining order was pointless, really. She had no idea how much power she had over him and how little power he had over her. If she’d asked, he’d have followed her from two feet or fifty yards. He’d have done anything for her, but she hadn’t seen that.

A Frisbee hits the side of the car. The plastic on metal thud startles him. He ducks and sucks in a lung full of hot, vinyl-tainted air. When he realizes he’s okay, he lifts his head enough to peer across the seat and out the passenger side window.

A laughing eightish-year-old boy runs to the car, sees him through the window, and mouths the word, “Sorry.” Then he snags the disk, spins, and lets it fly back toward the field of loose molecules.

Gordon checks the door locks. None of the kids are near him now. He’s safe, and he does a breathing exercise to relax a little, then he thinks back to what it was like when he was a kid.

The first thing he remembers is that he could fly. It’s always the first thing he remembers. He had to be naked, and the day had to be sunny, too. He remembers the warm sun on his skin felt good, like ripe watermelon on the vine tastes — a sweet, spreading liquid rightness flowing into every shadowy nook and cranny of his body and mind. He used to lie down in a field of clover and close his eyes. While his eyes were closed, when the rightness filled him full and replaced every heaviness in him, he would stand up and fly. It wasn’t a super power sort of flying––that fast, driving flying that tore at the air and pushed it aside. It was more of a leaning into the breeze, hands slightly out from his sides and palms forward. He leaned and let the cool air touch his chest, belly, and arms––let it gently lift him from the earth like a kite with no string.

By turning his hands and leaning, he could slide along the waves of wind and rise and fall and move forward or let the wind push him back.

In the heat of the car, he closes his eyes and tries to find that feeling of freedom, of rising above all the ugly stuff that had become his life.

All he finds is orange heat behind closed lids.

All he feels is the drip of sweat on his neck and off the tip of his nose. He can’t even find the smell of the clover or make the heat of the car into the delicious warmth of sun on his bare skin.

“Gordon!” The voice is his mother.

She found him flying in the clover field. Her anger, fear, and shame made her scream, grab, and drag him to the house. She sprayed him with cold water from the hose they used to water the dogs.

“Is that you? Come on out here. Let me look at you!”

It’s not his mother. It’s a man’s voice.

Someone pulls on the car door handle. They tap on the glass. “Gordon!”

He keeps his eyes closed, willing them to believe he’s sleeping, trying to push them away from the car with his thoughts.

He has learned to visualize what he wanted to happen in his life, and he wants that voice to take its body back to the pavilion where barbeque is cooking and adults chat and trade lies and laughter.

The knocking on the window gets harder. “Gordon! Are you all right? Gordon! It’s Andy! Gordon!”

Andy. Of course, it’s Andy’s voice. His cousin. They had played together at these things.

Ball?

Yes––until Andy hit him in the head with a bat.

And running and jumping games.

He remembered Andy pushing him down a flight of three concrete steps.

Now, adult Andy yells at him to leave the protection of his metal shell. If he did, he’d have to walk across the grass. The bouncing, laughing molecules might touch him.

Grown up Andy probably has kids. Maybe the Frisbee boy is Andy’s kid.

Gordon keeps his eyes shut. Andy calls for him a couple more times, then the visualization works and Andy goes away.

Gordon is about to open his eyes when he hears people coming. Many voices. Excited voices. Talking, almost yelling voices. Andy’s is mixed in with them.

“. . . locked in, and I couldn’t get him . . .”

“. . . a hundred and fifty in there. We have to . . .”

“. . . get Zach. Quick, get Doctor Zach . . .”

Too many voices. Too much noise. Even the adults have become loose molecules. The sun has heated them all into agitated Brownian chaos and craziness. He should drive away. He wasn’t ever going to get out of the car. He knows that now. It was pointless to drive the two hundred miles to this stupid park thinking he’d gotten well enough to somehow join his family and act normal.

He opens his eyes just in time to see an arm swinging toward the passenger window. In a slow motion of terror, he sees that the hand on that arm holds a tool of some kind––a red plastic handle with a metal point sticking out of it. The metal hits the window. A spider web of fractures appears, radiating outward to all the edges of the window. The whole thing bows inward, and every tiny fragment of glass frees itself from all the others and explodes inward toward him, showering him in the fragments of his own sheltering window. Cool wind chases the glass with the smell of chlorine and mowed grass.

Then the door is open. Hands reach in. Too many hands. Andy’s hands. Other people’s hands. A pair of child’s hands.

He pushes himself away from them, kicking and pressing his back to the driver’s side door.

Grasping hands find the master lock switch on the key fob dangling from the ignition. The lock on the door behind him pops.

His door opens. He’s out, dragged onto the hot asphalt, surrounded, and held down. It’s a nightmare, the opposite of flying.

He screams and struggles to get up.

“Heat stroke,” a voice says.

“Hysterical,” another says.

They all say things, make noises, talk at him. He can’t hear them all, not all of them, not all at once.

He fights, but they hold him.

“Get back!” Someone yells. “Everybody, get back! Give him air. Give him room.” The someone makes them pull away.

One man, a man with curly red hair and a trimmed beard, kneels next to him. Blue sky surrounds the man’s face. He is a bearded balloon floating in the blue sky. “Gordon?”

Gordon manages a nod.

“I’m Zach, your second cousin. Do you know me?”

He shakes his head.

“It’s been a long time.”

He nods.

“Do you know where you are?”

He manages one word. “Reunion.”

“That’s right. You’re at your family reunion. Do you think you can you drink some water?”

Gordon looks around at the loose circle of towering, momentarily frozen, molecules. Andy’s there. It’s Andy, for sure, taller and fatter, but still Andy with his dark eyes and narrow lips. Five children of various ages stand around his legs. Gordon closes his eyes so he doesn’t have to see them.

“Stay with me,” Zach says.

Gordon opens his eyes. “Hebephobia,” he says, “and OCD.”

“Shit,” Zach says. “Get back! You kids, get back! Go play! Now!”

“Is it contagious?” Andy steps back a few paces.

Gordon closes his eyes against the horrors of his family reunion and tells himself he’s home in his basement lying in the dark on the hard concrete floor. Mowed lawn and sweat smells combined with the hot asphalt against his back makes it hard to believe himself.

“Just keep the kids away, Andy. Get them to the pavilion. You go with them.”

“Is it contagious?” Andy sounds scared.

Somewhere inside, the Gordon lying crying and bleeding at the bottom of three concrete steps catches his breath and smiles.

“Go!” Zach says. A few seconds later, he says, “You can open your eyes if you want to.”

Gordon does. He and Zach are alone.

“Can you sit up?” The second cousin doctor helps him sit. “So, is this some sort of therapy for you?”

“I thought I could do it.”

“You’re here.”

“But I couldn’t get out of the car.”

“You’re out, now.” Doctor Zach tries to be a normal person and chuckle. It sounds flat and wrong. Zach pats him on the back.

“I have to leave,” Gordon says.

“I’ll explain it to them.”

Gordon looks at the pavilion full of people, at Andy standing there with a kid under each arm, talking excitedly with a gray-haired woman and a couple of younger men. The younger men keep looking Gordon’s way.

“Do you think,” Gordon says, “you could wait to tell them?”

“It’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

“No. That’s not it.”

“Why?”

“Just wait. Let Andy’s germs worry him.”

“I’m not sure––”

“Just for one day.”

Zach turns and looks at the pavilion, too. When he turns back, he’s smiling, and the smile looks real. “I’ve known Andy a long time. I think I can do that.”

Gordon nods and lets Zach help him to his car.

When he gets home, Gordon strips, goes out into his privacy-fenced back yard, and lies down in a patch of clover. He closes his eyes and lets the summer sun make his skin delicious. After a while, the delicious starts to sink in deeper and deeper until he’s sure it feels just right, just like he remembers. He stands. Eyes closed and arms at his sides, he leans into the breeze and rises into the embrace of summer winds.

 

 

The Ding Dong Effect

Approaching this Christmas Day blog, I feel a bit intimidated by rites and ritual, myth and mayhem. I feel as though I ought to say something profound about this time of year, the celebrations to call back the light, the quiet repose of death and renewal, the collective deep breath we all take as we gather with loved ones and prepare for the new year.

Instead, I think I’ll write about Ding Dongs.  You know, the Hostess Cupcake confectionary delight that is a cream filled chocolate cake wrapped in hard chocolate coating?  I thought about Ding Dongs because I’ve been thinking about Magic.  Fellow ShadowSpinner Cheryl Owen-Wilson wrote about it a few weeks ago in relation to Christmas and storytelling, and I’ve been thinking about the loss of my personal Christmas magic ever since.

When does the loss of Christmas magic happen?  When we quietly give up the belief in Santa?  When we get too old to get overly excited about gifts? When a loved one dies, leaving an empty place at the table that trumps the pleasant, sparkling fantasy of a world where everything is okay for just one night?  When does that One Night get taken away?

For several years now I’ve grieved the loss of my childhood fascination with all things Christmas.  The magic didn’t die abruptly, but faded, buried beneath financial panic, grief, tension, stress and remorse.  It didn’t go lightly into that good night, for I am a magical thinker, addicted to fantasy, and always have been.

When I was little, my mother used to put Ding Dongs in my school lunches. Being withdrawn and strange, I developed a ritualistic way to eat Ding Dongs, an elaborate peeling off of the hard chocolate coating, nibbling away of the cake in a certain pattern, and then licking the cream out of the hull before devouring the rest.  I convinced myself if I did this exactly the same way forever, I would become magic.

Not learn magic, or get some magic beans, but become Magic.  Like Glenda the Good or Samantha on Bewitched, I’d be able to wiggle my nose and make all right with the world.

Like Santa, I don’t remember when I gave up faith in the Ding Dong ritual, and therefore, no one can prove to me it wouldn’t have worked!Ding_dongs

There are two ways of looking at this; 1) I was exhibiting early signs of a psychotic break with reality or 2) My child mind stumbled across the magic of mindfulness.  I like number two, because I find it very easy to compare both the swirl of Christmas and the manic, stress-filled world of publishing with a riotous, chaotic cafeteria stuffed with a hundred grade-schoolers spinning out of control on corn syrup and gluten (pre-diagnosis days).  It’s perhaps regrettable that I latched on to the meaningless ritual of eating a cupcake rather then say, learning to play the violin, but in my own way, I found a way to ground myself, center into what I was doing, and envision a goal.  It’s no surprise that I discovered the power and magic of storytelling around this same time.

As an adult, I apply the Ding Dong Effect to laying down words, one after the other, and believing in the world I am creating while ignoring the clamor of the business side of things, the marketing, submitting, networking and fretting.  If I keep the focus on this act of sitting at the computer and typing glyphs into the magic box, I will become a writer worth reading.

Yes, I was a strange child and that strangeness has lived on within the adult, manifesting in the socially acceptable release of story telling.  Sometimes I think I believe too much in my stories. Sometimes I still think I can conjure rightness and delight in the world by Making Things Up.

For now, I’ll try applying this story spell-casting onto Christmas, and write the magic back into my world for just one night. Here’s hoping your own Christmas Story has come true, with or without the aid of Ding Dongs.

Whose Ride Is It?

by Eric Witchey

I read fiction because I love a ride through unexpected twists and turns.

Opening a new book is like settling in under rubber-padded restraints in the fiberglass shell of a tiny capsule shaking under the pull of a chain as it rolls up an inclined rail toward the peak of a hill beyond which lies the unknown.  With each word, my adrenaline surges. I anticipate the moment the chain lets go and I hurtle through time and space, pressed and pulled by the ups and downs and twists and turns of human experience molded by the g-forces of plot, sociology, and a cosmology I discover for the first time with each page turned.

It’s my father’s fault, this thrill addiction.  He put me on my first ride when he opened a dog-eared copy of A.E. Van Vogt’s “The Silkie” and read to me by the light of a camp fire.

That’s why I read.

I write for the same reason engineers build faster, scarier rides.  Somewhere along the path, the fascination with the ride became an obsession, and the obsession led to study and analysis of where each tiny, savored thrill was born.  The need to know how fast, how far, how much it took to make a scream erupt from the lips of a rider became a new kind of thrill.

But whose ride is it—the reader’s or the writer’s?

Every writer who has written a first draft has handed their work to someone only to see the tale evoke the same reaction as a ride in a wheel-barrow pushed by a limping man.  Of course, a first draft may have moments of scream generating power, but it also invariably has gaps and dead end forks in the track.  A reader thrown off the ride offers the writer no second chances.

During revisions, we writers often find the story has lost its emotive power over us.  No longer thrilled at the discovery of new hills, new twists, new nuances of character psyche, we may abandon the work or begin new work.  Often we assume the reader will feel the same absence of power what we feel, so we begin creating a new ride in which we can find new highs and lows.

This is a moment of truth for a writer. It is the moment at which the writer has to decide to whom the story belongs, for whom the writer is building the ride.

If the ride is for the writer, the ride is over.  There are no more surprises—no more thrills to be found in the writing.  The emotional power of the images in the writer’s head is complete, fully crystallized and experienced.  The writer has ridden the ride to its end, squealed in delight, screamed in fear, cried at the pain of sacrifice and the ecstasy of love born in their dreamer’s soul.  The writer is exhausted and ready to head for their favorite watering hole for a drink and a sit in the shade.

On the other hand, if the ride belongs to the reader, then the writer is just starting.  The writer knows where the reader should throw up their hands and scream.  Will the reader do it?  Will the reader cry?  Will the reader laugh out loud while sitting in a work place cafeteria turning pages to get to the next dip and the next twist?

Probably not.

About the time the writer is finished developing their own sense of the ride, the reader is only just beginning to be able see framework that suggests the possibility of a ride.  Peaks and troughs and twists and spins in the mind of the writer can be a long, flat track up on stilts to the reader.  It may be high and long, but it is ultimately boring.

To pour the adrenaline into the blood of the reader, the writer has to decide that it is not enough to ride their own vision.  They have to decide to make that vision live in every soul-catching, tear-wrenching, scream-generating detail in the mind of the reader.

To do this, the writer has to come back to the fiction with dual vision: the memory of the ride they have ridden and a self-imposed discipline of innocence that allows the writer to admit to only the images and evocations created by the words on the page.  This discipline requires that the writer ruthlessly revise the text to grab and drive the heart of someone who is coming to the story for the first time, someone who is caught in the restraints looking up the track to the peak of the hill and anticipating the best ride of their life.

The writer has to give up ownership of the ride and give it over to the reader so when the chain stops pulling, when the car hovers at the peak in a meta-stable moment of Newtonian decision, the reader looks out over the track unfolding below in hoops and twists and curves and loops, and the reader screams and reaches for the corner of the page to turn it.

We have to go back to the thing we have built and check every scene for rising stakes, to see that each character is affected emotionally by their experience on the page, to strip away words that flatten the peaks and fill in the troughs the reader craves.  We have to look past our own memory of intention and see how each word adds a beat to or takes a beat from the heart rate of the reader.  When a scene opens on a peak, it has to feed the reader into a trough and bring them to the next rise.  When a scene opens in a trough, it has to fly upward and spin and twist and dump the reader, screaming, crying and laughing, into a turn they could never have anticipated.

When every rider screams in delight, when the most stone-faced rider blanches and smiles as he takes a wobbly step away from the car at the end of the ride, then the writer can smile and head for the drink the shade and begin to dream a new ride, a bigger one, a scarier one, one that will set fire to the blood of a child inside the circle of magic light cast by a camp fire.