Friday, October 30, 2015

I Live in This Mess!

This is the first of a two-part topic.  In this post, I'd like you to consider exploring a "mess" from your life.  It can be anything: a literal mess and what caused it or an emotional mess and your conflicting feelings or a logistical mess and the convoluted plans you made to thread your way through it.

As you write about your mess, consider:
  • Why the mess occurred
  • Who else was involved in it
  • Which aspects of your life were tied up in it
  • How you felt as you resolved it (if you resolved it)
  • How it has changed your approach to things (if at all)
Why concentrate on mess?
  • Messes often occur in times of growth and transition.  They mark the process of your development and the strength of your character moreso than the initial and terminal points of your journey do.
  • Messes generally result from moments when your control over the situation lessens.  Sometimes, you manage to reassert control.  Other times, you learn to disengage and let the mess pass you by.  Still other times, you may become stuck, which can result in hoarding.  Examining these times in your life reveals a great deal about your priorities, abilities, and coping mechanisms.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Why?

Why you remember or why you want to tell this story may be the most important question we can ask and the hardest to convey effectively in our writing.  Often, it feels that words fail to express the sheer import of events close to our hearts and many times the feelings and truths most clear and obvious to us are difficult to communicate.

Yet I certainly wouldn't stop trying.

So here are some ideas to help you think about locating and expressing your whys:

  • Not in your story, but to yourself, fill in the blank to the sentence, "This story is important to me because ____________________."  
    • Write and rewrite that sentence until you can succinctly state your because in less than 10 words.
    • Don't be afraid if it doesn't come out right away.  Big feelings and big truths may be simple at heart, but they are felt and experienced in complex ways and are often buried beneath multiple layers of memory, rationalization, and emotion.  It can take time to dig them out, and that's okay.
  • Look for ways, events, or memories that illustrate that truth at other times in your life.
    • Write these less important stories first.  They will give you the practice you need to tell the crucial story that you want effectively.
    • Consider that you may introduce portions of these stories later, in and around the story you really want to tell.
  • Look for moments to emphasize that truth in this initial story.
    • When you are finally ready to write this story, you want to consider issues like uniting imagery, foreshadowing, and changing distance in the event.
    • Write and rewrite if this particular moment is important to you.  Sometimes we say that we don't have time to rewrite, but if your goal in this one memory is to communicate an important truth to your family, I can guarantee that your emotions and the complexity of your associations with the event will absolutely cloud that first draft, the second draft, and many others.  If it's important to you, make the effort to really do it.  Write it once or twice and then set it aside and come back.  Repeat as often as needed.  
    • Don't give up if your intended audience doesn't get it.  Some may never get it, but others will.  Those others may just be the family of your heart.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Where?

When I was a freshman in college, my neighbor down the hall spent a long night trying to convince me to switch my major to geography.  In her defense, she was more than slightly drunk when she argued that geography was a perfectly marketable degree.  However, one of her comments stuck with me.  "I didn't know until I walked down the streets of Prague how very much of the city's workings had revolved around the ebb and flow of the Moldau, on its path, and on what traveled along it and in it."

I had spent two summers before, actually, exploring place in stories and had suddenly been aware of the role of where in the workings of my daily life and rituals.

On occasion, place can play a major role in your stories.  Stories that can either be written around place or ones that are enhanced by a sense of place include:

  • A story in which your physical perspective allowed you to see something coming but not to do anything about it.
  • A story in which your physical perspective allowed you to intervene first or cause the motion of the story.
  • A story in which your ritual or actions were necessitated by the physical set up of something.
  • A story in which the flow is interrupted by physical distance or obstacles.
  • A story in which your perspective changes grossly over the course of the story (such as those stories of places that were overwhelming as a child but decidedly underwhelming later).
As you tell these stories, however, resist the urge to lay out the setting in essay format (there was a chair by the door, which was beside the steps, etc.) but try to add the details into the action of the story (as I crept back up to my bedroom, I slowly opened the door halfway, avoiding cracking it on the chair behind it and thus giving away my midnight run to the kitchen).

Friday, September 25, 2015

When?

Some parts of life happen on a schedule, but other milestones can come as a surprise--from your first word to your first funeral.  Occasionally, the time that something happened to you becomes important to how you perceive it.  Consider writing moments of perspective changes based upon time:

  • How did you perceive the birth of a child after losing/not having one of your own?
  • How did you perceive someone else's success after a failure of your own or someone else's failure after a success of your own?
  • When did you enter puberty compared to other kids, and how did that change your outlook on things?
  • When did you move out on your own for the first time?
As in all stories about changes in perspectives, make sure to start your story before the shift took place or we will never understand the magnitude of the change in you.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Minor Characters

Last week, we talked about the Do You Know list.  Today, I'd like to talk a little about a Who You Know list.

When we write our life stories, we have a tendency to stick with the events of central characters of our families, what those talking about creative writing might call scenes within the A-story.  But most stories (and lives) have subplots, or B-stories, which add flavor to the whole.  Many of those minor characters are some of our most beloved, from Dickens's Tiny Tim to Lucas's R2-D2.  Adding their stories to your own collection will add flavor and tell us so much more about the time and community in which you have lived.

Consider these questions:

  • Which of your acquaintances has made a significant impact on you?
  • Which of your neighbors has always stuck in your mind?
  • Who had a unique outlook on life?
  • Was there a person who, because of their routine, you frequently met while going about your daily activities?
  • Is there a person with whom you were not necessarily close but who always managed to provoke an emotional response from you (could be happiness, amusement, annoyance, comfort, etc.)?
Consider adding you thoughts on them to your work as well.



Friday, September 11, 2015

We're back!

Welcome back!  As we meet again to begin writing, I wanted to share the Do You Know? Survey developed by Robyn Fivush and Marshall Duke that underscored the importance of storytelling in the family.

The Do You Know Scale

Please answer the following questions by circling "Y" for "yes" or "N" for "no." Even if you know the information we are asking about, you don't need to write it down. We just wish to know if you know the information.

1. Do you know how your parents met?Y N
2. Do you know where your mother grew up?Y N
3. Do you know where your father grew up?Y N
4. Do you know where some of your grandparents grew up?Y N
5. Do you know where some of your grandparents met?Y N
6. Do you know where your parents were married?Y N
7. Do you know what went on when you were being born?Y N
8. Do you know the source of your name?Y N
9. Do you know some things about what happened when your brothers or sisters were being born?Y N
10. Do you know which person in your family you look most like?Y N
11. Do you know which person in the family you act most like?Y N
12. Do you know some of the illnesses and injuries that your parents experienced when they were younger?Y N
13. Do you know some of the lessons that your parents learned from good or bad experiences?Y N
14. Do you know some things that happened to your mom or dad when they were in school?Y N
15. Do you know the national background of your family (such as English, German, Russian, etc)?Y N
16. Do you know some of the jobs that your parents had when they were young?Y N
17. Do you know some awards that your parents received when they were young?Y N
18. Do you know the names of the schools that your mom went to?Y N
19. Do you know the names of the schools that your dad went to?Y N
20. Do you know about a relative whose face "froze" in a grumpy position because he or she did not smile enough?Y N

Score: Total number answered Y.
(excerpted from Duke, Marshall P. "The Stories That Bind Us: What Are the Twenty Questions?" Huffington Post. Posted: 03/23/2013 10:09 am EDT Updated: 05/23/2013 5:12 am EDT.  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/marshall-p-duke/the-stories-that-bind-us-_b_2918975.html Accessed 9/11/15 at 9:00 AM.)

In their research, Fivush and Duke found that children who knew the answers to these questions were more resilient than those who didn't.  Unfortunately, that really only tells half the story.  If you dig a bit further into the research, you will find that those who showed the most resilience didn't just know the stories of their families (and communities), they knew how they fit in--they knew their place in the world.  The stories that they knew were not always the happy ones, either.  Those that showed the most promise knew stories of overcoming difficulty, of losing everything and rising from the ashes again.

Brene Brown constantly reminds us that we humans are wired for connection, that we seek love and belonging.  Love and belonging, however, is a made thing.  The possibilities for it are always there, but we strengthen them through choice, cement them through anecdotal tales, and immortalize them in our written stories.  How or what will you choose connect in your stories today?

Friday, October 10, 2014

Distance

Ask any writer, and they'll tell you the same thing:  writing can be a very emotional process.  I frequently hear even fiction writers lament writing difficult scenes for their characters.  These stresses only become compounded when you write them about your own self.

Today's post is about ways of distancing yourself from the hurt to begin getting those scenes out when you are ready.  Please note that dealing with trauma is not easy and it is not always advisable to do so on your own.  Before trying to deal with very difficult memories, I suggest that you have a plan for dealing with those memories, be it a group of friends you can call and talk to, plans to do something fun and relaxing for yourself, or even, in some circumstances, additional meetings with a therapist.

Distance works two ways.  When you are writing something for the first time, increasing the distance between you and the subject can allow you to approach the topic and still feel psychologically safe.  After you've gotten the difficult topic out, or when you just want to deepen the impact that any other of your pieces may have, you can work on decreasing the distance between the reader and the subject.

Here are some simple tactics you can use to approach both issues.

To increase the distance between yourself and your subject:

  1. Consider writing in the third person.  This simple technique allows you to step outside yourself a little bit, and sometimes that's just enough to do what you need to do.
  2. Consider using imagery to buffer the emotional violence from yourself.  Cynthia Ozick's "The Shawl" is an excellent example of imagery used to mitigate violence as Ozick consistently uses images of flowers and butterflies to soften the horror of a Nazi concentration camp while still endowing it with a sense of revulsion at the jarring disparity of the metaphor and image.
  3. Consider telling.  Yes, when you get to a point that you want to share your story, you will want to flesh out your story and do more showing than telling.  But when you are first setting out the rough outlines, sometimes telling is a big enough step.  Later, when you feel safer, you can go back and show.
Once you've gotten through the initial telling, you can now decrease the distance between the topic and the reader.  You may feel that this step is not necessary, but, especially if you are trying to help others gain understanding and empathy toward a situation or topic that may not be common.  Decreasing psychological distance helps the reader get into the head of the character and gain vicarious experience and understanding.

These first techniques are the most common in decreasing psychological distance:
  1. Write in the first person.
  2. Write in the present tense.
  3. Write in the moment.  Use dialogue and don't gloss over actions.
  4. Describe the physical sensations of the feelings your character has (shortness of breath, sweaty palms, etc.).
These last techniques are ones I find helpful:
  1. Tap the common emotions.  Not everyone has faced your problem, but everyone has likely felt fear.  By describing your fear well and pairing that feeling with your problem, you can open the gate for empathy between your reader and yourself.
  2. Make the world smaller.  While there may be many links to other topics, narrowing the field will help the reader focus on that moment.
  3. Use your flashbacks well.  Flashbacks, like metaphor, link two things that don't necessarily go together. You can use that link to increase the emotional impact of an event by pairing it with another similar or more significant one from another point in time.
Best wishes on your writing!
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