3: Story and Symphony
It is a typical Friday night. I get home from work just before six. The house is empty at first. I turn on the television or the radio to fill the space. I look out the window. I notice the way the last ray of sun reflects off the house across the street. I feel relieved and worried that I have not made any plans. Lately, the weekends I enjoy most are the ones when I am alone.
It is comforting to sit in a quiet house, but not at first. Entering solitude is not as simple as walking through a doorway. It is more like waiting at the station for a train that does not keep to a schedule.
Saturday morning I awake saddened that my home is still empty, overwhelmed by the vastness of a blank day after a busy week. I watch television while I eat breakfast. Around 9:00 am I check in with family via phone or email. Then I tidy the house, make the bed, have a shower, and start the laundry. The idea of writing trails me like a kid sister from room to room.
It is lunch time. The need to write begins to hum a gentle tune as I prepare a salad. After I eat I turn on the kettle. Before the water is boiled my laptop is ready, the writing song is stronger. I close my eyes, take a deep breath, glance at the page, and type.
The words are slow at first, forced. Long pauses sit between words and sentences and paragraphs. I wait patiently for my train of thought to move forward. I breathe into the pauses. I let the words rise onto the page as if they are emerging buds in springtime.
Each pause is like stepping onto a new stone toward solitude. The words do not scroll across my mind’s eye as they do when I am walking. The words bubble up from a place deep within my creative spirit.
As I write this post I am trying to be aware of the meditative journey to solitude through the writing process. I am surprised that when I write from this place I am not aware of logic. I am not conscious of what I have written in the previous sentence or what I will write in the next sentence.
I spend hours writing in solitude. Suddenly, it is night. The afternoon’s sun has faded, dusk has turned to darkness. It is time to prepare dinner. Once I arrive at a state of solitude it is with me until I leave the house for work on Monday morning. I feel peace. It is in this place that I do my best work. Continue reading
Do. You. Sometimes. Break. The. Rules? Avoid delicious adjectives. Use fragments. But sparingly. Double space, include two-inch margins, include name in top right (or was it left?) corner. Number your pages. Send file in PDF or DOC or else. Comedies must have happy endings. Triple check your facts. Do not include voice over in a script. Show, do not tell.
Ensure your writing champions all others in brilliance and brevity, at least as far as this writer is concerned, it is important to connect to your effervescent, colourful, delightful, and intriguing audience using as many tricks as you know how to guarantee that your reader will not be able to take a breath, pause, or reconsider starting your work and leave the page before you have shared all that you need to share. Vary your sentence length. Run-on sentences are not permitted.
Is it possible to write freely? Can I write in a boat floating on a moat, eating oats, wearing haute, and dancing with a goat? Can I tell stories right to left, down to up, out to in? Can I shoot my plot into the air like fireworks at the fair, see where the events dare to land?
She: How did this begin?
He: Poetics. Aristotle.
She: I blame Strunk.
He: White too.
She: And Shakespeare.
He: Muggles! Continue reading
How do you decide which pieces of yourself you will share with your audience? Sometimes when I write I choose superficial topics. I write about a trip to the grocery store or a memory of writing an exam in high school. Sometimes when I write I linger in the comfortable stories of my childhood, of my adolesence, of my every day. Sometimes when I write I think of my mom and dad and friends and coworkers and boss. Sometimes I wish I had an alias.
I have never stood naked in front of a crowd, but some days when I share my writing I feel bare, exposed, open. I feel like everyone stares at me with x-ray vision that pierces through my clothes, through my skin and blood and bones, into my spirit. I feel like a contestant on American Idol stuck in the moment between when the song is finished and when the judges share feedback. The air tastes like saltine crackers. My hands are cold. My breath is short. Tears of anticipation puddle in the corners of my eyes.
A couple of times a week I walk along Lake Ontario. I sit by the water and watch the waves roll in and out. The sun warms my face. I feel connected to God and country and family and life in general. One Saturday morning I realized that being near open water, feeling the sunshine and the breeze and the peace, that I was wholly myself. Expectation and ego, gone. Past and future, irrelevant. This is me, I thought. Right here, right now, I am me. This feels good. I closed my eyes and slipped into the moment. Vulnerability did not exist. I felt safe.
In solitude we connect to our true selves. We write who we are, but we also choose what we write. Why does a state of being that feels so safe in meditation look so frightening when it is translated to the page? Should writers bare their souls? Continue reading
By nature creativity is good. It is about bringing something into being, about channelling emotion and imagination into a productive task. Writing can be joyous and fulfilling and engaging and inspiring and bright. But writing can also be scary and depressing and boring and dark. Creativity has a shadow.
This afternoon I watched parts of Whitney Houston’s funeral, her homegoing, on television. Rev. Jesse Jackson said “Life is sunshine and rain, it’s joy and pain.” The same can be said for the artistic life.
Whitney Houston, despite her beauty, talent, and success, was haunted by the same insecurities as writers and artists who toil away unrecognized. We wonder if the work is good enough. We worry that our audience will like the work. We doubt that we can pull it off, finish the work, sustain the creative energy required.
What is it all for? Who do we hope to impress? What change do we crave when the project is over? I am just a hack. No one reads my work. No one will care if I ever write again. Why is it so hard to write just for writing’s sake? I am stupid. I am lazy. My story is boring. My poem is moronic. People will laugh. My friends will mock me. Why would anyone ever want to read what I have written? I will die alone in my writing room staring at a blank page. Continue reading
Once upon a time there was a writer. Every day she preached to her characters. She told them to reach their full potential. She reminded them failure is not an option. She challenged them to find their passion.
It’s a dog eat dog world, she said. Follow the yellow brick road and keep your head above water. Life is a highway. Drive it. Seize the day. You’re worth it. The future is in your hands. I am your number one fan.
And if along the way you step on someone’s toes, remember there’s always tomorrow. Give a warm welcome to choice. Choose the path of least resistance. Take a leap of faith and get it together.
As you step into this story, dear character, know that the journey has just begun. Embark on the journey. Keep your chin up. Today is the greatest day ever!
Please keep in mind, the future is not all fun and games. In a wink, you can wake up realizing you have burned the candle at both ends. What goes around comes around. Take care of yourself. Offer your two cents as you fly the coop. It’s as easy as pie.
Know the ropes. Know the score. Hold your horses. Life is a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get.
And when you are feeling down in the dumps or you are scared stiff, please know that you’ll pay through the nose if you don’t pull it together. Let your light shine. Love your neighbour. The truth is out there. You might find a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It is a dream come true.
And once in a blue moon go out on a limb. Take risks. Soar to new heights. Be the next American Idol.
Writers know to avoid cliches, tired phrases. One of my writing teachers said that cliches are death to your writing. Dialogue can be cliche and predictable. Characters say the things we expect them to say. Good writing introduces the details we do not expect. You want your writing “to make it new.” Continue reading
All writing is rewriting. Revision is an important piece in the writing process. It goes beyond simple editing for grammar and style. Revision is about looking at the work from different perspectives. I have always encouraged my students to work through the revision process in phases, focusing on a different element of the work in each phase. I spend more time in the revision phases than I do in the writing of the initial draft. Aim to get the first draft down on the page as quickly as you can, then engage in the revision process to clarify your vision.
Editing is a process. Bringing a writing piece from its idea through its first draft is about generating energy and gathering resources. The rewriting is about peeling back layers to show the truth. The rewriting also gives a writer/editor an opportunity to orchestrate the story arch, deepen characterization, and set-up patterns to transport the reader.
I love the revision process. I love shaping the words on the page to create just the right amount of tension, to create music through the placement of short and long sentences, and to create momentum through cutting wordiness and unnecessary diversions. Continue reading
This week we explore story and symphony. The idea came from Daniel H. Pink’s book A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainer’s Will Rule the Future. Pink writes:
“Symphony, as I call this aptitude, is the ability to put together the pieces. It is the capacity to synthesize rather than to analyze; to see relationships between seemingly unrelated fields; to detect broad patterns rather than to deliver specifc answers; and to invent something new by combining elements nobody else thought to pair.”
Indeed, how we put the pieces together is what makes our stories unique. The more pieces you acquire the more options you have to use in your writing. I find comedy to be more difficult to write than tragedy. So today I thought it would be good to add to our comedy toolbox.
Which stories do you most like to read? Why? What are you drawn to as a reader? How do the stories we watch and read and hear relate to our work as writers? How do you create a compelling story? Stories are metaphors for life. Not life itself, but like life. Storytelling is the most natural form of human communication.
To write a compelling story you need an active protagonist, strong antagonist, clear and focused conflict, high stakes, and an over-arching dramatic question. The function of story structure is to progressively build pressures, gradually revealing the characters’ personalities. There are four elements of structure: controlling idea, inciting incident, clear and focused conflict, and an over-arching dramatic question.