Friday, January 25, 2013

Small Projects as Practice

Okay, now I am in no way suggesting that you should put away your long memoir plans or anything like that, but skill-building and practice has been a theme that I've been pondering since November when Nicki Grimes talked about writing her book Bronx Masquerade.  In essence, she suggested that sometimes we're not ready to write our most important stories (haven't we just been talking about this very issue?) but that as we attack other stories, we become better equipped to write the ones we are most anxious to tell.

We've been talking about recognizing who we are and how we've changed and translating that into memoir, story arc, etc.  And we've also been talking about how hard that pivotal story is.

We also talked about setting intermediate goals and small projects to stay on track with our larger goals and bigger projects.  Selecting and executing these intermediate goals and smaller projects is what I want to talk about today.

  1. Select a change in yourself or an important realization/epiphany that you have made in your life that has (a) changed you; (b) changed the way someone important to you views you; or (c) changed the way you interact with the world.
  2. Elaborate:  Why is this change important to you?  How have you/others changed?  
  3. Establish a baseline.  How did things operate before this change?
  4. Pinpoint the change.  What was the exact moment that the change happened?  Ignore Howard Gardner's assertion that all change is gradual and consider Kathryn Schulz's idea that we never experience wrongness while we are wrong. 

    What I mean is this:  Every time there is a change, yes, subtle shifts occur beforehand that prepare us to question our beliefs and practices and lead us to believing and acting differently.  Truly, Howard Gardner is right.  All cognitive change is gradual.  However, Kathryn Schulz is also right, and her description of change is the one that most of us experience and that best translates to story.  Yes, all of those subtle shifts do happen, but most of us are only aware of them in retrospect.  In other words, we don't know that we are changing our minds until our minds have changed.  We may not come to a solid conclusion, but we begin actively distancing ourselves from what we were/did before.  This is the moment that we are looking for.  It will serve as the pivot of the story.
  5. Paint the picture. (More on this momentarily).
  6. Put it all together.
When you attack steps 5 and 6, you actually need to revisit steps 2-4 and lay out your evidence.  This time, I want you not to think of the evidence that we think of for essays.  I don't want you to think of historical fact, special dates, or famous quotes of others.  I want you to translate those to story items like this:
  • Historical facts → Vivid descriptions of the way things were ("Mama always baked a pie crust using lard instead of butter," etc.)
  • Special dates → Vivid descriptions of pivotal days (Think of the smell and lighting that you remember when your husband proposed.)
  •  Famous quotes of others →Your exact thoughts and words (or the best that you can approximate)
Once you have a list of evidence, you need to make it vivid.  We've talked about vividness before but essentially, these are the main points:
  • Incorporate the senses:  Mama always baked a pie crust using lard instead of butter.
    • sight:  Mama always baked a pie crust using copious globs of white lard instead of butter.
    • sound:  I always knew from the first thunk of the rolling pin that Mama was baking a pie crust using copious globs of white lard instead of butter.
    • touch:  I always knew from the first thunk of the rolling pin that Mama was baking a pie crust using copious globs of soft white lard instead of cold hard butter.
    • taste:  I always knew from the first thunk of the rolling pin that Mama was baking a pie crust using copious globs of white lard instead of butter, and my mouth would begin to water for the flaky pastry that I knew would surround an even more succulent filling.
    • scent:  I always knew from the first thunk of the rolling pin that Mama was baking a pie crust using copious globs of white lard instead of butter, and, as the tart fruit scent of baking fruit mingled with the aroma of golden wheat, my mouth would begin to water for the flaky pastry that I knew would surround an even more succulent filling.
       
  • Incorporate the intelligences.  Mama always baked a pie crust using lard instead of butter.
    • linguistic:  You're writing, so don't worry about this now.
    • visual/spatial:  When I heard the thud in the bottom corner of the kitchen, I knew Mama was digging for the rolling pin and her pie crust, made with lard and not butter, was sure to follow.
    • inter/intra-personal:  When I heard the thud in the bottom corner of the kitchen, I knew Mama was digging for the rolling pin and her pie crust, made with lard and not butter, was sure to follow.  I knew to stay out of the kitchen.  Mama only rolled pie crusts when she was good and mad.
    • musical:  When I heard the thud in the bottom corner of the kitchen, I knew Mama was digging for the rolling pin and her pie crust, made with lard and not butter, was sure to follow.  I knew to stay out of the kitchen.  Mama only rolled pie crusts when she was good and mad. Listening hard, I could gauge her anger by the tempo of the thud-whoosh noises as she brought the pin down on the near side of the dough and applied pressure across the surface.
    • logical/mathematical:  When I heard the thud in the bottom corner of the kitchen, I knew Mama was digging for the rolling pin and her pie crust, made with lard and not butter, was sure to follow.  I knew to stay out of the kitchen.  Mama only rolled pie crusts when she was good and mad. Listening hard, I could gauge her anger by the tempo of the thud-whoosh noises as she brought the pin down on the near side of the dough and applied pressure across the surface.
    • bodily/kinesthetic:  When I heard the thud in the bottom corner of the kitchen, I knew Mama was digging for the rolling pin and her pie crust, made with lard and not butter, was sure to follow.  I knew to stay out of the kitchen.  Mama only rolled pie crusts when she was good and mad. Listening hard, I could gauge her anger by the tempo of the thud-whoosh noises as she brought the pin down on the near side of the dough and applied pressure across the surface.
Now, you need to apply the emotion.  I am running out of time here, but very quickly, you would do this by including physical descriptions of your thoughts and feelings.  See the bolded sections below.

When I heard the thud in the bottom corner of the kitchen, I knew Mama was digging for the rolling pin and her pie crust, made with copious globs of soft white lard instead of cold hard butter, was sure to follow.  I knew to stay out of the kitchen.  Mama only rolled pie crusts when she was good and mad. Listening hard, I could gauge her anger by the tempo of the thud-whoosh noises as she brought the pin down on the near side of the dough and applied pressure across the surface.  I held my breath, debating first if I might have caused this anger (and what the best escape route to avoid meeting Mama was) and just how long she might stay mad.  The tension in my shoulders would slowly ease as the silence between thuds lengthened and the movement of the pie pan changed from sharp metallic clangs to slow heavy scrapings.  As the tart fruit scent of baking fruit mingled with the aroma of golden wheat, my mouth would begin to water for the flaky pastry that I knew would surround an even more succulent filling.  I poked my head around the corner to catch more sounds and wondered if it was safe to descend into the kitchen.  After all, I didn't want to miss my chance of catching the first slice of hot cherry pie.

I have not used precise words for my emotions (although I clearly labelled Mama's), but I think that the narrator's emotions--apprehension, hope, and anticipation--come through in the descriptions.

Your job is to complete a smaller story or series of stories using these strategies to prepare yourself for your bigger story/larger goal.

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