Posted in Storytelling

The Story Gatherer and the Fairy Chairs

For a few weeks now I’ve been grappling with recent rejections. One day I’m strong and tough skinned and two days later, the disappointment at not having sold my novel creeps in and wraps its greasy little paws around my neck.

This morning as I sat in bed with my tea, I asked myself if I was depressed. No, not depressed. I didn’t want to hurt myself or anyone else. I wasn’t planning on staying in bed all day. Joy of life? Well, it was a little compromised, a “down, but not out” sort of thing.

I talk out loud to myself sometimes, a habit that amuses my husband but helps to bring me clarity.

Me: What do you want to do?

Me: Go into town and look for stories. I want to be a story gatherer today.

Me: Okay, take your camera.

So I did. I drove into Lithia Park and began to wander the artisan stands at the edge of the creek. I talked to a photographer who told me about his printing technique. His beautiful pictures were too perfect for my taste, but I appreciated that he’d captured the essence of the trees that shade this area like giant sentries.

I talked to a woman who makes brightly colored pillows and potholders. She told me about how her crafts are only part time and the rest of the time she works for her ex-husband in his construction business. She spoke in glowing terms of how they had found peace with each other.

People’s polite narratives are not that interesting. I long to see the heart of the matter, the source of meaning, fueled by angst and distress. It wasn’t until I got to the third booth, and met the woman who made fairy chairs, that I was ignited by a story.

I snapped a picture of the chairs.”

She pointed at my camera. “You should ask first,” she said with a thin edge of razor like sharpness.

“Sorry. Do you mind if I take a picture?”

She nodded.

“When did you start making fairy chairs?” I asked her.

“I had a life altering experience,” she said. “Something that changed me irrevocably.”

Story. There it is, asking to be felt, asking to connect.

“What happened?”

“Nine years ago,” she began, “my house burned down. I lost everything. I needed to do art so I could heal. I needed to make something from the ashes inside of myself.”

I was enthralled. The violation of expectation had turned this woman’s life on its head. Her heart and soul and been consumed by the flame of that fire. And she’d found her way back, down a path of mourning to the place where fairies dance. Suddenly I knew that I had to have a chair for my writing muse.

Carefully, while believing in magic, I chose the one made of abalone shell. I would put it on my desk, and now my writing muse would have a place to sit. I took a few more photographs and we said our goodbyes.

The essence of the story is this:  the fairy chair lady took brutal loss and morphed it into art, sharing the energy of healing with others. She understood the place of all consuming flame and the ashes left in the wake. Everyone has times when they must pick themselves up and keep moving forward, dust themselves off and find beauty in grief. We are never alone as much as we think we are.

And that, my friends, is the story I gathered in the morning light of a Saturday morning in Lithia Park.

Is there a story that is touching your own heart?  Please share.

2017-02-19 11.31.02

Posted in Comedy, Tragedy and What the F...?

Process, Preparation and Prose

iStock_000072638051_SmallI am not a writing coach. I am not a writing teacher. I can’t tell anyone how to write. So much for disclaimers. What I can do is share my process. Writers are always sharing their damn process. Most of us love to huddle over a cuppa and tell each other ad nauseam how the heck we do it. In my younger days, I used to talk about sex like this. Now I’m in my sixties. Nuf’ said.

If you are someone who writes by the seat of their pants, this essay is not for you. Stephen King, the grand Pooh-Bah of pantsing is holding court elsewhere and maybe he’ll let you buy him a beer and you can talk about us mere mortals who must prepare everything that we write in order to earn the name author.

You know that the name author comes from the word authority, right? When you write, you are an authority over what you write. You become the god that sees everything and everyone in the world you write. And why would you write about anything unless you took this position?

But it’s not as easy as sitting down and just letting the words rip, is it? Wish that it were so. Writing is hard work. It means getting a good idea (that’s not easy either) applying process and doing the preparation before you ever write a single word of prose.

Process: For me this is the Larry Brooks template. I sketch out that structure with first plot point (inciting incident), mid point (the protagonist becomes the warrior), second plot point (against all odds, the protagonist sprints toward resolve) and ending. Yep, I don’t write a word until I know the friggen’ ending. And it is on this framework that I hang my preparation. I’d like to believe that discovering your story gets easier, but I don’t think it does. I’ve sat in enough Larry Brooks classes, listening to broken manuscripts to know that knowing your story is what separates the women from the girls.

The Dreaded Synopsis: The first time I had to write a damn synopsis, I about pulled my hair out. I couldn’t do it in a half page. I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea of boiling 80,000 words down to 300 in order to tell you my story. Now, I write out a synopsis as a matter of fact. Do you know your story well enough to write a synopsis? If not, you need to begin again. An early synopsis will hit the first plot point, mid-point, second plot point and resolve. I don’t discover the story as I am writing along. I am aiming for the milestones along the way which my scenes must support.

Robert McKee tells the story of the great film, Casablanca. The script was about 100 pages. The treatment for the film was about 300 pages. What? That story was so well-known to its authors, scene by scene that once implemented, it became a classic that would never fade away. Novel writing, if we respect it, should be the same–careful, thoughtful preparation.

Preparation: I am in my office with door closed. I snarl at my dog if he looks at me like he has to go out. “You just went out. Go lie down.” Don’t dare knock. Don’t dare interrupt. My nose is pressed to a yellow legal pad. My hand is cramping. I am writing out everything I know about the character, who they appear to be and who they really are. This involves pages of questions. Some things I circle. Some things I cross out. I begin to see scenes and since I know what my plot points are, I know basically where I have to steer the car. At the end of a couple of hours I have filled pages and pages of questions and answers. This exercise will go on for weeks.

It’s all about the questions and “what ifs” at this point. Who are the people surrounding the character and how do they reveal the character? What do I know about my life experience that can inform this character? If the antagonist is involved in criminal behavior what non-fiction book do I need to look at to help me? (I like Sean Mactire’s Malicious Intent for such things.) And on and on it goes until I finally see how to construct the four sections of the book. Then I begin a scene list and from there a sketch of each scene, carefully placed so that the sequence of scenes slowly ramp up to the plot point climax.

Prose: Finally! It’s hard for me. I like to play with words. I love to construct sentences and paragraphs. I delight in whatever cleverness I can muster. But delight to soon, and you are screwed. Writers, especially rookies, like me, must remember that readers like your stuff not because of clever sentences, but because of good story. At the end of the day your good writing is just the prerequisite and your story is what matters.

Lost in a sea of yellow legal pads and questions that demand answers, I work on a new story for new novel. As much as a whine about it, I can’t imagine myself doing anything else. Process, preparation and then prose. That’s the work and I do it every day whether I want to or not, striving for excellence. Craft and the very best that you know you can do. Constant study. Read everything. Watch films. Always be looking at and for “story.” It’s not just the novel you are writing, it’s a friggen’ lifestyle. I labor under the belief that this is how I become better at my craft. “Do the work,” says Mckee, “and the results will follow.”

Posted in Comedy, Tragedy and What the F...?

Happily Ever Whatever

Basically, we all tell the same stories. The characters and the settings may be different, but the stories are the same. We long for certain stories and certain endings with our whole lives. One of the endings that I long for is the “ride off into the sunset” ending where everyone lives happily ever after. The story that I am in now has harsh, jagged edges. If you have read my “About” page, you know that I suffer from a lack of courage sometimes—what a psychologist would call “dysthymia.” It usually comes in the middle of the night, when I am sleeping soundly and I don’t know about it until morning when I wake up with what feels like someone sitting on my chest ready to strangle me.

Fear is an old and unwelcome friend that seems to find a way to seep under locked doors like yellow smoke, wrapping its self around me. Though I cannot explain the how and why of such events in my life, I have learned to live with it. This morning, I got out of bed, feeling the physical symptoms of the dysthymia and I did deep belly breathing for ten minutes. I am doing that even as I sit here writing. Writing is another tool. Giving voice to the demons seems to make them less, and gives me some small sense of power: I am not a victim.

When I get like this I wonder if the rest of the world has it all figured out and I have somehow missed the bus. I feel guilty for the challenges life throws me and embarrassed by its sorrows. Now, I know this is temporary because I have lived with the on again off again condition for all of my adult life. I have read way too many self-help books; attended enough process groups to be equal to the processing of a Velveeta Cheese block, and prayed myself to sleep in hopes that the fear and sorrow would leave me. Still, even this morning, I don’t feel like a victim, I just feel uncomfortable, and I know I have tools.

In my musings about these states, I wonder about the guy who works hard all day and goes home and takes a hit off of a joint to take the edge off of the day. Does he have demons too, albeit un-named? Or the woman who pours the third glass of wine alone in her kitchen…is she lost in sorrow too? I think we have given psychology way too much credibility over such things. Is it possible that the sorrows and fears of being human are just part of being human and don’t really deserve a diagnosis? Does having a diagnosis make things worse?

So, I will make another cup of tea, take a walk with the dog, keep breathing deeply and know that as the day wears on, the physical symptoms will fade and my mind will be on other things. I would love happily ever after in a life with out challenges. It seems like such a friendly place. I just don’t think I would be willing to give up the textures of the shadow that in a strange sort of way make my life rich, interesting and creative.