Friday, October 10, 2014


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!

Friday, October 3, 2014

Life Is Beautiful

Recently, I've heard a bunch of people start talking about how their story is "supposed" to go, and I want to examine that idea and how it relates to the life writer.

First off, while many people would say that there's no "supposed to" in writing, I would say that it depends.  Sometimes there is indeed a way a story should be written.  Such times include:

  • Writing in a recognized format: an editorial, essay, or poem.
  • Writing to a specific genre:  mystery, romance, bildungs roman.
  • Writing for a specific audience:  children, specialized groups.
In these cases, clear expectations for the form exist.  A story meant for these purposes most likely needs to conform to those expectations in order to achieve the success the author likely hopes for.

But most of us are writing for our families.  What then?  Why do so many of us labor on "supposed to"?

In my mind, the answer to that question revolves around a few basic ideas, all of which focus on our own expectations:
  1. We have an expectation of what our audience (family, friends, etc.) can handle.  We often try to keep back information not only out of fear of hurting someone but also out of fear of coloring their perceptions of the imperfect people that we commonly have known.
    1. PRO:  Yes, you can't take it back once it's out, so a little caution here can prevent a lot of heartache.
    2. CON:  The struggles of the past often validate and instruct those with similar experiences.  Not sharing or whitewashing may, on the lower end of consequence, merely appear like white lies, while at the higher level of consequence, may seem to invalidate those who struggled with the same situation or person.
  2. We have expectations of how a story should go.
    1. PRO:  Looking at other successful works can greatly enhance the readability and understandability of your story.  We are programmed to recognize tropes, and fitting your story to a trope makes it more accessible to others.  Similarly, looking at the style of others may help you tell your story in a more entrancing way.  Using other works as a guide can help you develop a depth and skill in your writing to which little else can compare.
    2. CON:  We miss the possibilities of our own stories and underestimate their value.  We have a tendency to push a story into one trope instead of considering how it might be others.  Does the grappling with your faith make a tragedy as faith is lost or an unsolved mystery that still continues?  Is the story of your marriage a happily ever after romance that ends at the wedding or an adventure that continues into unknown territory?  Pigeonholing your story deprives you of the richness of evaluating your real experiences for the depth and complexity they may have.
  3. We have expectations for how our life should work.
    1. PRO:  We have goals, and that keeps us pushing forward in life.  We often write our stories in light of these goals, which often provide the conflict and the impetus for action.
    2. CON:  We tend to ignore parts of the story that we didn't see coming, that we feel didn't turn out as well as could be, or that we don't think should have happened.  As I love to say in science, the most telling data is that data that doesn't come out as expected.  How else would we have come to understand gravity, super conductors, plastics, or antibiotics? All of these things existed before (or the laws that create them existed), but none of them were harnessed until someone paid attention to something that seemingly made no sense.  Those ways that life twists in unexpected directions may make the most interesting and most telling life stories.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Time out: Weighing Positive Criticism

This week we are taking a quick break from our previous topic and digressing a bit about a very important issue:  not sloughing off positive comments.

In many critique groups, most comments focus on areas for improvement, and that focus is, indeed, important.  But far more important than recognizing one's weaknesses is recognizing one's strengths.

A writer's strengths contribute to his voice, his style.  For instance, Alexander McCall Smith and Sue Grafton are both writers of bestselling mysteries, and yet their styles diverge greatly.  The sentences of McCall Smith's novels move in lazy, lyrical rhythms composed of simple words.  Grafton's sentences tend to stretch longer and bristle with precise detail.  One could hardly find two styles more different, and yet the styles work in each case.  Readers of one of these authors do not long for the storytelling style of the other because the method of the storytelling fits the stories being told.  That fit does not mean the authors never revised their works (they did), nor does it mean that their work leaves no room for improvement (every work has room for improvement).  But it does mean that what works is worth developing. 

Now, let's look at that development.  Often when we offer positive critiques of a piece of writing, we are nonspecific.  We say things like, "It was beautiful," and "I loved it," which is fine, but only if we follow those generalities with specifics.  "Your use of long sentences to describe bedtime reminded me of lullabies," or "Your repeated reference to your mother's walk emphasized not only her personality but also her choices in life" both say so much more.  They are the types of comments that can help you identify the techniques that you use well and can employ in other areas, which, of course, brings me to the next point.

When we point out what works, many times we are dealing with a piece in which other areas aren't working.  As you point out what works, you may be able to suggest ways in which these strengths could be applied to those other areas.  For instance, given the comments above, when we say, "Your use of long sentences to describe bedtime reminded me of lullabies," we know that the bedtime scene is working.  But perhaps the morning scene is not.  Because rhythm worked at night, we might be able to suggest changes in rhythm or sound that might work in the morning.  When our criticism is derived from a writer's strengths, we offer the writer far more in terms of usable advice.

Therefore, I seriously exhort you not to hurry past positive comments and not to leave negative comments sit with no parallels to strengths.  The question is not whether we are strong enough to bear criticism (which is another topic for another day because, to some extent, we over value such strength) but whether we are getting the most benefit that we can from a critique group.

Finally, I propose using the following quick guidelines to help you in identifying strengths in a piece of writing:
  1. On the first reading:
    1. Note areas of interest with check marks or other notations.
    2. Note areas of empathy with emoticon-like notations.
    3. Note areas of rapt attention with brackets.
    4. Note areas that don't work with non-judgmental notations like question marks or comments like, "Hmmm...".
  2. After you have finished, glance over those sections that worked and try to identify what made them special.
    1. Consider the diction (use of specific words).
    2. Consider the syntax (use of specific sentence structure).
    3. Consider the senses appealed to (sight, sound, smell, touch, taste).
    4. Consider the intelligences activated (musical allusions that propel the piece, visual or spatial cues to action, movement that betrays meaning, logic that enlightens the reader, inter- or intra-personal innuendos that either heighten or resolve conflict, turns of phrase that are particularly apt).
  3. After analyzing what worked, look over areas that don't work.
    1. Consider why they aren't working.
    2. Contemplate which of the author's strengths might improve them.
  4. Finally, make your comments to the group.  Even those who didn't write the piece can learn from this kind of criticism.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Intelligences and Senses Part 3

Once again, our focus on intelligences and senses highlights ways to make our "showing" more telling.  In other words, by paying attention to the way our details highlight ways our brains work, thereby moving our writing from merely descriptive to poignant and powerful.

This time, we are going to focus on the kinesthetic portion of our writing.  By the kinesthetic portion, I mean anything that gives us insight into the body or movement.  The two are discreetly different, but both can reveal volumes about your story.

Issues of the Body:

In Romans, Paul writes:

For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin. For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. (Romans 7:14-15)

Now, I don't want to get spiritual here, but this description accurately details one of the central conflicts in our stories--our desire to do one thing with our minds and our body's desire to do another.  You can amplify the conflict in your story through the awareness of what your body desires and what you desire.  Obviously, we find the most common use of this dissonance in romance novels where the hero or heroine commonly attempts to stay away from trouble.  But we also find great use of this dissonance in stories of trying to stay up, trying to achieve a difficult task.

Other times, the body and mind are in agreement on an issue, but the use of the body's cues can still emphasize a moment.

Issues of Movement:
 The process of movement itself can greatly enhance a story.  How do you move through the house when you come in?  How does that movement change if you're returning in the afternoon or late at night?  Nearly every mystery novel has a sneaking scene--and the sneaking adds to the suspense!  But issues of movement need not be confined to sneaking.  Think about the ways you choose to drive--on back roads, on main roads, zigging back and forth, staying in one lane, etc.  Each decision says something about your mood and who you are, and these insights can add meaning to your story.

Write a new piece or revise an old one to emphasize the kinesthetic aspect of a portion of the story.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Intelligences and Senses Part 2

So we've been talking about the intelligences and how they help us paint pictures in our stories.  As we mentioned earlier, most of our memoirs are fundamentally about interpersonal relationships (our relationships with important people in our families) or intrapersonal knowledge (our own thoughts and feelings).  But we can paint a picture of those relationships and the growth of them through using our senses and the other intelligences.

Today, I want to talk about using music to help reveal interpersonal relationships.  You can use music to reveal interpersonal relationships in several ways.

The most obvious use of music is a blatant reference to a song.  For example, I could write a story of "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring."  I would start with my earliest memories of the song, its rocking rhythm, its long phrasing, my father weaving on his chair, eyes closed, as he caressed the song out of his bassoon.  Then I would move on to understanding how the song mattered to our family, that it was my paternal grandmother's favorite, that it had been used at every wedding since her own (and maybe used in her parents?  I should ask), how I came to hear that song and think of her and of family.  Then I could move on to the recent funeral of my grandfather, where the song was played again, this time by my cousin, who looks so much like all the men in my family (including my father), who wove with his oboe as my father had with his bassoon, and how now I, like my grandmother, can't hear the song without dry eyes.  This case is a blatant, but no less powerful, way of using a song ("Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring") to add power to a story (the flow of family changes, from weddings to funerals and generations of music lovers).

The second use is slightly more interwoven.  In this case, you would probably still identify the song, but you would also include lyrics or phrases from the song into the story itself.  For example, a lot of people use music (or playlists) to keep them in tempo in exercise or some other prolonged activity.  In this case, you would explain the activity and weave in the words and/or rhythms. For instance, I could write about the time I absconded with my father's messianic music that he'd received as the church choir director and used the beat for the dance for aerobics.  I could add in the words and beat into my description of my workout, my mother's repeated requests that I go downstairs where I didn't make the china cabinet rock with my jumping, and the place where the dog barked along with the song (or with my workout, I could never be sure).  In this case, the song is present in more than the reference--it is linked with the action.

The third use is one of assonance (the use of repetitive vowel sounds), alliteration (the repetition of initial consonant sounds), and consonance (the repetition of internal consonant sounds).  Careful use of these sounds give prose a musical quality and often create a rhythm based on the length or ease with which the sounds are said.  Hard sounds will give the feeling of an obstacle--they may slow you down, or they may add to a feeling of prancing excitement.  Soft sounds are often used to speed up a section or to quiet it down (as a lullaby).  Long o's and u's soften and sadden a piece.  Short i's usually add joy and excitement.  One of the best examples of assonance, alliteration, and consonance in the telling of a story is in Edgar Allan Poe's The Bells

The fourth use of music in story is to use the characteristics of music (its rhythm, chorus, bridge, etc.) within the structure of your story.  A terrific example of this use is the song "Sunrise Sunset" from Fiddler on the Roof (lyrics here).  Even though the song is a poem, it's also a story in which each stage of childhood is recounted until the child has reached adulthood.  The chorus returns again to the sunrise and the sunset.  You can follow the same use of chorus in your own story.  Perhaps you too want to talk about the aging of a child.  You can describe each stage as a single day, using the passage as a choral structure.  Or, you can use other uses of chorus in your stories.  Perhaps you have a repeated question--How are you?, Where have you been?, etc.--that you can use to set off the portions of your story, giving them a verse-like structure. One of our Share a Pair ladies did that this year as she began and ended her piece with the same words.  She could also have used it more frequently if she had wanted, although it's fine the way it is.  I just wanted to show you how the structure can be used.  Similarly, you could choose to use the echo between parts that a cannon shows if you want to explain similarity between generations.  For example, I could tell a story of my dad trying to do something with his tongue sticking out, repeat a story of myself following a similar pattern, also with my tongue sticking out, and follow it up with a story of my son concentrating on a new task, also with his tongue sticking out.  If I choose to repeat sentence structure, verbs, and images, I essentally invoke the power of melody over the story.

So, your assignment this week is to use any (or all) of these uses of music to enhance a story that you want to tell.  I can't wait to hear them!

Friday, January 3, 2014

Different Pictures: Interpersonal Relationships

One of the driving forces of many life stories are changes in interpersonal relationships.  After all, many of us are writing for our families, which, in and of itself, implies a tightness of relationship.

Often, however, when we are writing our stories, we are so firmly fixed on what is happening that we don't take the time to tell or show what that means to us (to quote a member of this group, "What does it mean?" and "How did you feel?").  To make the story and its action matter to the reader, you have to be able to show both--and showing doesn't always mean with your eyes.

In this blurb here, I want to give an example of showing through feeling.

"Beth, what are you doing?"

I could feel my cheeks redden even before my sister-in-law finished her question.  I could almost see my sweat steaming up in front of me before I sank down on my butt from my all-fours position to face her.  I twisted my shoulders toward her and felt my back groan as my spirit sank.  I had wanted to do her a favor so that she could rest, but, like everything else in my husband's house, I was now certain I had done this wrong, too. 

Or maybe not.

Sister-in-law's eyes crinkled, and she stroked my baby nephew's soft cheek with one finger.  He blinked bleary eyes at me.

"I just wanted to clean.  You can rest."  My fingers, suddenly itching, twisted the cool rag I had been wiping the floor with.

"Thanks," she said.  Her lips didn't smile, but her eyes did as she and my baby nephew turned and headed back up the stairs.

I let out the breath I'd been holding and turned back to the floor.  My cheeks cooled to their normal temperature as everything else went back to sweating in the South Korean August heat.

In this section, my feelings are amplified by my physical feelings.  While this section isn't perfect by any means, I hope it shows my internal turmoil regarding my relationship with my in-laws as well as challenging it with my sister-in-law's response.

Assignment:  Select a memory that reveals something about one of your relationships.  Write your story of that memory and use your senses to amplify your feelings regarding that interaction.