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.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Burning the Candle at Both Ends: How NOT to Be Overwhelmed

Years ago, psychologists conducted a rather cruel test on preschoolers.  They left them in a room with one marshmallow and told them that if they could wait, they could have two marshmallows.  Then they left the room and never came back.  Peering through a one-way mirror, they watched and waited as the children squirmed and eventually ate the marshmallows.  They then recorded how long each child waited and, years later, correlated that score with overall success and coping skills in later life.

The results were clear:  kids who could wait did better in life.

Recently, this experiment has been resurrected and revised, and the results are...well, interesting.  As researchers are exploring causes for the inability to wait as well as coping strategies to allow a child to wait, the rest of us can use some of the lessons to help us approach overwhelming tasks as well.

  1. Keep the big goal in mind. (Plan backward.)
  2. Look away from distractions. (If something distracts you, block it out.)
  3. Connect with others.  (Find support.)
  4. Celebrate strengths.  (Buck up.)
  5. Carry on.  (Follow, adjust, and carry out your plan.)

Friday, January 11, 2013

Writing Toward that BIG Moment

Okay, so last time we talked about your character arc vs. your core character (or how your personality has changed over the years vs. how it has stayed the same).

Today, we're going to focus on those character-changing events (often the climax of a memoir) and, more particularly, on the scenes leading up to and away from them.

Why not start with the climax?

Well, the climax in a memoir is really hard to write, most likely because living through it the first time was painful and your psyche has put up all sorts of blocks to try and keep you from having to live through it again.  It's hard to access the memory (not necessarily that you have forgotten much of it--although you may have--but making yourself relive it in order to put it down is painful).  Once you have gotten it down, it will likely be missing a lot because most of us can't tell the whole truth the first time.  It's not that we are consciously unwilling.  It's just that it's very difficult. 

It's rather like swimming in the ocean.  Unless you're diving in from off a cliff, you need to wade through the shallows to reach the deep waters.  And so that's what we're going to look at.

Step 1:  Identify the deep water.  What is your climax or personality changing event (epiphany, what have you)?

Step 2:  Identify several prior events that led you to the epiphany.  Contrary to popular belief, most of the time, our minds aren't immediately changed.  It's a slow process.  Howard Gardner spent an entire (rather depressing) book studying the process (see Changing Minds if you're interested).  If you really examine your life, you can probably come up with at least 4-5 events that set you in the direction of the change.

Step 3:  Identify several events after your BIG event that demonstrate how you have changed.

Step 4:  Pick one and get the gist of it down.

Step 5:  Revise.  Make sure you are demonstrating both your core personality traits as well as the ones that are changing.

Repeat steps 4 and 5 as necessary.  After you have written several of these scenes, you will likely have begun to have dealt with many of the psychological blocks that were standing in your way of accessing your climax.  As these blocks diminish, and as you feel comfortable and brave, try your hand at your climax.  Expect that it's not going to come out right the first time.  You didn't learn to walk in a day.  Chances are that this will take more than a day as well.

Good luck!

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Creating Continuity in Your Writing

Change vs. Balance:  Harm/Care vs. Reciprocity

What does that mean?

Well, before I get to what it means, let me just start with what brought me to this place:  comments.

Specifically, I came to ponder the relation of change versus balance and harm/care versus reciprocity through comments such as these:
  • The most important thing about story is change.
  • All of our stories need to illustrate justice.
  • It's boring when nothing changes.  I don't care about it.
  • Nothing is happening in my stories.
  • My stories don't seem to fit together.  They're just stories.
  • At bottom, there's an esprit de corps, a unity, a feeling that we're all in this together.
And I came to realize that all of these comments address some very fundamental aspects of human nature and, thus, about the nature of the stories we come to expect.

First, on our character:
  1. We are born with a temperament.  Most mothers have a good grasp on their child's temperament before the child ever leaves the womb.
  2. We are changed through experience.
  3. We are hardly ever completely changed--we are still recognizable through our temperament (change vs. balance).
On karma/the rules of life:
  1. All mammals are generally concerned about the care and/or harm of fellow members of their species (normally within family groups, but up to and including all members of one's "in-group" however one defines that in-group).
  2. Many mammals, and humans to a spectacular extent, believe that reward and punishment should be the result of one's actions which impact the care or the harm of others (Shunning occurs in animal groups too!).
  3. When the harm/care event and reward/punishment step have been completed, society goes back to a kind of balanced state of normalcy (again: change in the form of the harm/care event vs. balance in the form of the reward/punishment step and reciprocity in that the harm/care event initiates the reward/punishment step).
This particular post will be locating the stable and changing elements of our character, unifying our stories, and recognizing that harm/care and reciprocal events that likely cause the changes to our character.

Rather than thinking cold about the words that describe your fundamental character, I suggest that you find descriptions of yourself first.  It is much easier to react to prompts than it is to delve them up out of nothingness.  Places that you might find descriptions of yourself would include:
  • The notes left in your high school yearbook
  • Old scrapbooks
  • Cards from friends
  • Your horoscope:  Eastern, Western, Celtic or other
Once you have read a description of yourself, ask yourself whether it fits you.  Now take a piece of paper and write down how you see yourself.  Ask yourself how you were when you were younger and how you are now.  When you have finished, you should have a list of three descriptions:
  1. Your core temperament
  2. Your younger self
  3. The you of the present
From here, look at your collection of stories.  Ask yourself three questions:
  1. How well does each story portray your core temperament as well as your self at that point in your life?  If the characteristics are missing, consider emphasizing them--usually with more colorful words for your own actions (instead of "walked" use "stomped," "sidled," "ambled," etc.) or telling asides (e.g., he asked for my help--as if I would ever say "no" at that stage of my life).
  2.  How well does the collection portray why you are the way you are?  Have you included the incidents that really changed your life?  Have you put them in places that they make sense (i.e., have we learned enough about you from previous stories to understand why the experience in this story affected you so much)?
  3. Have you included the stories that set up the important incidents?  These stories build your conflict.  They come to show us the type of person you are and the type of karma (for lack of a better word) you and those around you are building for the *big* events (the climax in fiction).
For this week (and don't worry if you don't do this since I'm finally posting now):
  • Review one story from your collection.
  • Evaluate how well it portrays *you.*
  • Try to strengthen your verbs, thoughts, and comments to more appropriately characterize yourself both at the core, then, and now (and remember that many memoirs have a reflective voice that indicates the author's perspective at the present time).
  • Make a list of stories that this story relates to--and hold onto it for next week!


Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year to all of you life writers out there! 

For those of you who attend our group meetings at the Plum Library, our next meeting will be January 4, 2013, at 10:30 AM.

For those of you who simply follow these posts as a spur to write, writing posts will begin anew on the 4th as well.

Best wishes for a happy, healthy, and productive new year!
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