Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Care and Feeding of a Writer Committed to Staying Alive and Reasonably Sane and Happy!

I’ve spoken recently with several writers who are overwhelmed by their struggle to write intensely personal and emotional stories.
One has been hit by waves of emotion and fear because he finds himself feeling as if he’s reliving decades-old betrayal perpetrated by those closest to him. The writing has begun to feel like a prison keeping him locked in with ghosts of childhood trauma.
Another is so frightened by the possibility of exposure, he has transported his story across time and space and culture—jumping 200 years and 1,000 miles to write about a world that is almost completely foreign to him.
I’m no stranger to times when writing was difficult; I’ve named those my “writing crazy” periods. (Picasso had his blue period, right?) I was born anxious (maybe that’s why I wailed when the doctor pulled me out of my mother and into the world). Given certain tendencies of my nature and a creative life that includes many uncertainties, it’s no surprise I make occasional references to my various panic attacks and (mild) dissociative reactions, obsessions, acting out, and really very fleeting delusions. (I can say with confidence, however, that even in my darker periods, I never reached the point of molding tin foil hat-wear to block a)  the radio waves sent by aliens or b) the attentions of a nagging feline with suspect intentions who parked on my sun roof.) I have spent serious time in my life delving inward to explore and understand as best I can my own psyche.
It’s nice to reach a place in life where details of my own creative struggles can be fodder for jokes. But when/if you find yourself writing material that elicits emotional backlash, that’s no joking matter.
I don’t believe that pushing “heroically” through emotional exhaustion and overwhelm serves the writer or the book or one’s mental health. And while writing can have therapeutic benefits, it can also take us to scary internal places. If the experience becomes overwhelming to the point where you question your ability to function normally, it is vital to reach out for support from a counselor, therapist, support group—so you can regain your sense of equilibrium and balance.
When I speak to writers, singly or in groups, I talk about the importance of taking time away from the intensity of writing, taking time to rest and breathe and find a place of balance where one can stay connected to the work without becoming overwhelmed. If you lose your sense of balance or your sense of humor, it’s definitely time to spend the day at the spa or a week at the beach or whatever suits your lifestyle and your budget.
If you lose your sense of humor, you risk your characters losing theirs as well. Readers crave and demand drama and they want to experience emotion; they want to be moved to tears and anger and laughter and forgiveness. They usually do not want to spend too much time with a character (you can also make that “writer”) who is exhausted, burned out, cranky, humorless, and depressed. (At least not unless that character is a foil and the rest of the book has a whole lot of comic relief.)
In order to give readers what they want—and provide deeply satisfying emotional experiences that pay off—the writer must reach a place where the narrative on the page has been processed so it’s not so raw, not so wrought that the writer isn’t able to consider the reader.
A quick rule for everyone (including writers): if you are feeling depressed, anxious, fearful, manic—to the point where you are not sleeping, eating, or functioning at “your normal”, reach out for help from a qualified mental health professional.
For some intensely personal narratives, the writer lives and writes in the place where emotion and detachment bump up against each other. I don’t believe there is any handy rule when it comes to proportions: two cups emotion and two and a quarter cups detachment? But you do need to reach a space where you can let go and have enough distance to consider the effect you want to achieve for the reader; and that is the space that allows you to revise effectively and make calculated editorial decisions and perhaps even bring humor to stories that might have seemed completely devoid of humor at the time.
A first draft tends naturally to elicit the wildest and rawest writing. That’s fine—as long as you know you can cope with the various waves of emotion that might be released internally. Writing should never endanger your mental health; it might be a way toward healing. Discomfort is okay; dysfunction is not.
You must always take care of yourself. If that means time off and away from the page, so be it! Our important stories do not go away just because we take breaks. But our ability to render those stories effectively increases when we live and love, learn, risk, replenish, and have fun.

Saturday, April 04, 2015

More Thoughts on a Writing Life: The Long View

I've quoted below from writer Benjamin Moser's thoughtful "Bookends" essay for The New York Times, January 27, 2015.

"We never know if we are doing it right. Even the best writing will never have the immediate, measurable impact that a doctor's work has, or a plumber's. To discover if we are on the right track, we can, and do, become obsessed with our "careers," which is the word we use for what other people think of us...there is something dreary about wanting writing to be a real job. The sense of inner purpose, so often unmentionable in a society enamored of professionalization, distinguishes a writer from a hack...a writer--independent of publication or readership or "career"--is always a writer. Independent, even of writing. Writing, after all is something on does. A writer is something one is."

Monday, March 16, 2015

The Memorable Character Line-Up

lineupA writer friend trying his hand at fiction recently asked, “…since my protagonist is a woman, what traits might both men and women find appealing in her?”
My first response: Whether readers are male, female, gay, straight, transgender or some combo thereof, almost everyone is drawn to someone who passionately and actively yearns for something we consider meaningful.
The person on the page who truly catches our attention, emotion and heart is the character who shows desire, yearning, drive and who takes all steps possible to achieve their desire, no matter if the pursuit is misguided, and no matter the cost. (Remember “misguided” for later.)
That said, almost everyone roots for an underdog, or a Robin Hood, or someone who shows courage when facing overwhelming adversity, or a reluctant leader or hero, or that person who stands up for others in need.
Sometimes the positive character traits list reads like a singles ad: Kind to kids and pets, sense of humor, reasonably intelligent, and, if you’re “the one”, faithful!
I believe a story-worthy antagonist will also possess at least one heroic trait and may love animals, too. (Think Silence of the Lambs.) Never allow any character on the page who has no more depth than a paper cutout!
You don’t have to like a protagonist to want to read about them.  A prickly main character might be more challenging to handle but there are plenty of them in the annals. These are the charismatic eccentrics. In film, Doc Martin’s irascible nature is tempered by the fact others care about him and can see through his schizotypal tendencies; Sherlock Holmes (in his many embodiments) has Watson to humanize him—and no matter how socially challenged and conflicted Sherlock might be, he’s brilliant, he shows courage, and he is passionate about truth, even when it comes to his own vices!
Remember I mentioned misguided a few paragraphs above? What a character yearns for desperately is probably not what they truly need. And they have attached intense meaning to the object of their desire. The “why” they want what they want. So they should inevitably encounter obstacle after obstacle and eventually face a dilemma—and a dilemma has no real solution.
All of that is a topic for another post, however it does mean that the characters we love—and the characters we love to hate—are filled with inner conflict. (Well, why should they be any different than the rest of us?)
My final thought today on creating memorable characters is this: I do not like questionnaires or quizzes or filling in medical histories or undergoing background checks. Too dry and methodical and boring. The same is true for me understanding my characters. These days, I’ve learned that I want to spend time with them when they are interacting with others. I eavesdrop when they are laughing, fighting, ranting, making love, meditating and medicating, shooting baskets, and racing down a perp. The interactions I overhear may not absolutely end up in my next book, but I get to see how two characters act with and react to each other. I see from both sides and I believe in parity.  (BTW, as writers we should be voyeurs, but our protagonists cannot inherit our tendencies when it comes to passivity—they must jump from the shadows, metaphorical sword in hand!)

Thursday, February 05, 2015

The Ultimate (Narrative) Climax

An eloquent and elegant statement by French writer Anatole France of what happens to the hero at the climactic turning point of the most profound narratives, those books we love and those stories that have the power to transform us:

“All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another.” 

Sunday, January 11, 2015

How To Focus and Hone Your Ideas Without Taming Them: 10 Easy-Peasy Strategies to Get to the Heart of the Book(Story, Essay, Blog) You Want to Write

If you’re one of those people who ask how, when, where writers get their ideas, it might be hard for you to imagine the need to get a handle on Idea Overwhelm. But when it comes to generating ideas, many Creatives struggle with too much, too many, too fast! The ability to sift, hone and focus ideas and material is crucial to every writer’s success.

Here are 10 ways to begin to get a handle on your wealth of creative material:

  • Go for your hot spot! Write your passion! Life is too short to choose tepid subjects. You will only end up boring yourself and your readers. So use free-writing, free association, bubbles, clusters and all the right brain techniques you know to get to the heart of your writing and your life. Start by asking yourself, “What am I passionate about writing and why?”
  • Define your writing goal: You want your writing to impact your readers. Ask yourself these questions and give yourself five minutes to answer them: A) What do I want to accomplish with my writing? B) Who am I writing to? C) What one thing do I want my reader(s) to take away from this blog/story/book? When you are finished, take a break and repeat.
  • Make lists, and more lists, and sub-lists: This might seem obvious but putting pen to paper and fingers to keyboard and working your way from the general to the specific is an extremely powerful tool when it comes to focus—and organization.
  • Looping: I’ve heard this focusing technique called by various names but by any name it is powerful and easy. A) Write for 3 to 5 minutes. B) Circle a word that jumps out at you from your writing. C) Write about that word. D) Keep going and repeat as needed.
  • Pitch ideas to a few trusted friends over happy hour: This is one I really encourage for nonfiction writers, especially those focused on self-help/how-two markets. Prepare your “pitch list” and invite a few trusted friends to your informal bounce or pitch session. Relax them (and yourself) with a glass of wine or some herb tea or a few yoga stretches (honest, it will loosen everyone up). And then pitch your ideas. When you get those totally blank expressions, move on to the next item on your list. And get your friends involved, asking questions, inviting their ideas. (Try to catch this on tape when possible.)
  • The terrible-twos self-interview: This one is self-explanatory; I use a notepad, keyboard, or, even better, a digital recorder and I start with a statement—for example: “I want to write an essay about my aunt’s last months of dementia.” Why? “Because I am passionate to understand.” Why? “Because I am mystified by so many stories from friends about their experience with dementia.” Why? “Because it is so poignant to watch a person you are close to forget so much of their life.” Why? “Because it raises questions of what makes you, you, and me, me.” Why? “Because in the midst of forgetting almost everything else my aunt remembered that I was getting married to a man she’d never met and she figured out how to use the phone even though she’d been unable to make a call for more than a year.” And so on and so on… Your goal is go deeper and get to the heart of your drive and desire.
  • Sketching: I am no skilled artist but it does help me to sketch out ideas using stick figures and color and words on a pad.
  • Write for one person: For me, I have several target readers I write to. When I’m writing on my coaching blog, I might write to one client because I know my message will interest him/her. Sometimes I actually am answering a specific question someone asked me. When I’m writing a novel, I write to a trusted friend, lover, family member. In all cases, my chosen reader isn’t aware that I’m writing to her/him. And sometimes, I’m writing to several people. I have no hard and fast rules but I find it helps me get to the page and focus and keep going when I’m challenged. I know some writers secretly dedicate each story they write to someone who has inspired them. See if this is helpful to you.
  • Imagining, visioning: I talk to writers a lot about their process around developing ideas. I hear many of them describe their work in visual terms as “weeding the garden” and “whipping up souffl├ęs, some rise, some don’t” and “experimenting with various collages”. If you have an image, a hobby, something you respond to viscerally, see if it can help you in the honing and discovery process.
  • Jezebel at the Ball: If you’re a fan of classic cinema you will remember the scene in the 1938 film Jezebel when Bette Davis makes her daring entrance at the ball in her strapless red dress (trimmed in black lace) while all the other girls are wearing virginal white with their shoulders demurely covered. Writer and teacher Leigh Anne Jasheway-Bryant tagged this “The Red Dress Theory,” to inspire her students of comedy writing. The idea is simple—you can’t take your eyes off Jezebel dancing in her red dress because she is bold and daring to the point of dangerous. When you are evaluating a sea of swirling ideas, look for the one that stands out just as clearly as Jezebel!

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

WRITER TO WRITER: 12 Possibly Relevant Tips at Year’s End

  1. Do not take your moods too seriously (exclusions to this rule include clinical depression, bipolar disorder, and the like; if any of these apply, seek expert help and do not skip your meds!) because the dark hole you inhabit today may well presto-change-o to a snowy peak tomorrow, and either way, you still have to face the blank page and write the next paragraph/page/chapter/repeat.
  2. Do know what makes your skin crawl, your stomach turn to mush, and your brain freeze because chances are at least some of your characters share your fears and, writers, this is useful knowledge.
  3. Do know what fills you with anger and despair, catch the passion and use it in your stories.
  4. Know who and what you love, get some of it every day, and be sure to share with others.
  5. Know there is time (there is always time until you are under dirt and you probably wouldn’t be reading these rules if you are under dirt so there is time).
  6. If you want to go faster, slow down.
  7. Know that there may be a part of you fighting to keep your stories from the world, and that same part of you will not fight fair, and you must learn to listen, acknowledge, and set very firm boundaries because chances are, that part of you is not a grownup and is terrified for your well-being and lives in a very early and primal place in your psyche.
  8. Remember, not everyone faces the same inner-demons but everyone faces at least one big ole’ hairy-scary so know you have company and be as brave as you can.
  9. Laugh loud and when people look at you, laugh louder—as long as you are not being cruel, laughter is always appropriate.
  10. Honor the Winter Solstice as a time to rest, go deep, be very still, and nourish yourself—preferably with chocolate and possibly with tequila.
  11. Never forget Kurt Vonnegut’s 6th tip: “Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them, in order that the reader may see what they are made of.”
  12. Oh, and ditto his 7th tip: “Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.” For that matter, even if you’ve heard them a hundred times, listen again to his 8 tips: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VyQ1wEBx1V0

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The View from Here: One Writer's Thoughts on Viewpoint

Any in-depth discussion of viewpoint or point of view (POV) is a complex undertaking because viewpoint is perhaps the most intricate element of fiction. Because in this blog, I aim for simplicity, I will cover a few basics, and, with the examples interspersed, encourage you to register and reflect upon your impressions.

For the moment lets consider point of view as the person and perspective used to narrate the story. More simply yet profoundly put by author and teacher Janet Burroway, viewpoint is the vantage point from which a story is told, and “…it is finally the relationship among writer, characters, and reader…”

You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. From ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN by Mark Twain:
How lucky were they? A heat wave in the middle of the school holidays, exactly where it belonged. Every morning the sun was up long before they were, making a mockery of the flimsy summer curtains that hung limply at their bedroom windows, a sun already hot and sticky with promise before Olivia even opened her eyes. Olivia, as reliable as a rooster, always the first to wake, so that no one in the house had bothered with an alarm clock since she was born three years ago.From CASE HISTORIES by Kate Atkinson

In creative writing 101 the possible viewpoints are categorized as first person (I; this narrator may be central or she may be peripheral), second person (you, not commonly used), close or limited third person (she/he; the viewpoint belongs to a central character), and the third person omniscient (authorial voice or persona created by the author to allow an overarching viewpoint encompassing convincing shifts of viewpoint between multiple characters). They each have their strengths and their limitations.  Let's take a few moments to consider them one by one. 

1st person: 
My great-grandmother Morrison fixed a book rest to her spinning wheel so that she could read while she was spinning, or so the story goes. And one Saturday evening she became so absorbed in her book that when she looked up, she found that it was half past midnight and she had spun for half an hour on the Sabbath day. Back then, that counted as a major sin.From CROW LAKE by Mary Lawson
When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem's fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury. His left arm was somewhat shorter than his right; when he stood or walked, the back of his hand was at right angles to his body, his thumb parallel to his thigh. He couldn't have cared less, so long as he could pass and punt.From TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee

2nd person:
You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy. You are at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head. The club is either Heartbreak or the Lizard Lounge. All might become clear if you could just slip into the bathroom and do a little more Bolivian Marching Powder.From BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY by Jay McInerney

Close 3rd person:
The girl gripped the steering wheel with both hands. Her fingers were pale where knuckles stretched skin, her arms were thin as sticks. Bones--not flesh--defined her body. Toes on toes, her bare feet pressed the accelerator flush against the Honda's floorboard. Her head scarcely topped the dashboard, but she saw the narrow horizon of blacktop change suddenly to desert and barbed wire. From A DESPERATE SILENCE by Sarah Lovett
Omniscient/authorial 3rd person:
TREATS OF THE PLACE WHERE OLIVER TWIST WAS BORN; AND OF THE CIRCUMSTANCE ATTENDING HIS BIRTH. Among other public buildings in a certain town, which for many reasons it will be prudent to refrain from mentioning, and to which I will assign no fictitious name, there is one anciently common to most towns, great or small: to wit, a workhouse, and in this workhouse was born: on a day and date which I need not trouble myself to repeat, inasmuch as it can be of no possible consequence to the reader, in this stage of the business at all events: the item of mortality whose name is prefixed to the head of this chapter.From OLIVER TWIST by Charles Dickens

The choice of person—who speaks—will be your primary viewpoint or POV decision. There will be other choices having to do with distance or intimacy of tone, degree of omniscience (in 3rd omniscient), form (written story, reportage, confessional, etc.), and reliability of narrator.  But the most important consideration for now with viewpoint is that, within the first words, paragraphs, pages of your story, you are making a contract with the reader and you risk losing your reader if you decide to break that contract later in the narrative.

One final point about POV or viewpoint when using a peripheral narrator, a character telling someone else’s story—the character perceiving the story should be the character most effected by the story. (Think Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby: he tells the story of Jay Gatsby but at the end it is Nick who is alive and profoundly changed by what he has witnessed and relayed to us, the readers.)

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. "Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”From THE GREAT GATSBY by F. Scott Fitzgerald

A few words about "voice": your voice as a writer is distinctly recognizable, a combination of tone and style that let's readers know you are you. Keep writing and don't worry about finding your voice because it's already yours. To quote Janet Burroway once more, "Worry about saying things as clearly, precisely, and vividly as you can. Make your language as rich, flexible, and varied as you can make it. In other words, seek to voice, and your voice will follow."

Consider more viewpoint selections below, and as you read--from the first word onward--register everything you can about the viewpoint the author has chosen:

Savitsky, the commander of the Sixth Division, rose when he saw me, and I was taken aback by the beauty of his gigantic body. He rose—his breeches purple, his crimson cap cocked to the side, his medals pinned to his chest—splitting the hut in two like a banner splitting the sky. He smelled of perfume and the nauseating coolness of soap. His long legs looked like two girls wedged to their shoulders in riding boots. From "My First Goose", THE RED CALVALRY STORIES by Isaac Babel
Sister John of the Cross pushed her blanket aside, dropped to her knees on the floor of her cell, and offered the day to God.Every moment a beginning, every moment an end.The silence of the monastery coaxed her out of herself, calling her to search for something unfelt, unknown, and unimagined. Her spirit responded to this call with an algorithm of longing. Every moment of being contained an indivisible—and invisible—denominator.She lit a candle and faced the plain wooden cross on the wall. It had no corpus because, in spirit, she belonged there, taking Christ’s place and helping relieve his burden.Suffering borne by two is nearly joy. From LYING AWAKE by Mark Salzman
Manuel and his wife were poor, and when they first looked for an apartment in Paris, they found only two dark rooms below the street level, giving on to a small stifling courtyard. Manuel was sad. He was an artist, and there was no light in which he could work. His wife did not care. She would go off each day to do her trapeze act for the circus. From LITTLE BIRDS by Anais Nin