Saturday, March 27, 2010

From a prompt

One Saturday night, she had dinner with an old lover, a guy she liked a lot but with whom she had little in common. They had never been serious about each other; in fact, they’d used each other as back-ups, making a date to spend some time together when both were lonely and no one else was on the horizon.

Don was moving to Alaska. He had been at loose ends for years, dissatisfied in his middle-school teaching, wanting something else in his life. At one point, he had put out to sea on a big sailing yacht to go around the world, but something had soured the trip and he had come, more restless than ever. He’d been unwilling to reveal any details, and she’d realized that one of the things that didn’t work between them was her need to tell stories and his need not to.

She knew he was hoping for a sexual farewell, but she’d fallen in love several months before and she still believed (six months of happiness to go) that her new man was the one. So at 10:30 she kissed Don goodby in his car and went into her apartment to gather things together for the night with her lover. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw something slip around the edge of the building into the side yard, but it was quick and she wasn’t sure. Once in her apartment, she didn’t hear anyone in the old house, and Beverly’s apartment below her was dark, no light showing through the heat vent in the floor.

She wasn’t in her apartment more than 10 minutes. She washed her face, freshened her simple makeup, and gathered papers to grade until John got off work. She fed the two cats and left the tiny window out onto the apple tree open so they could come and go as they pleased.

She thought again about what she had seen as she came in. She listened for any unusual sound in the old building but it was silent. No one home but her. She got her bag and went down the stairs. She locked the apartment door, conscious as always that its hollow core and door knob lock was scant protection. She turned off the hall light as they always did and stepped out onto the porch. There was no one there and she breathed a sigh of relief and headed down the steps and across the lawn.

He must have been waiting for her. Funny that that was her first thought when he grabbed her hair and pressed the sharp point between her shoulder blades. She felt paralyzed with fright, with surprise. Why was she surprised? Somehow she had known he was there, that he had gone around the house looking for something. Why not her?

She was conscious of his smell, clothes long unwashed, and something sweet, hashish maybe. His voice was low and rough from cigarettes. “Which car is yours?” and he pushed her towards the street.

“I don’t have a car,” she lied, and without thinking about it, she threw her keys under her Celica. How did I know to lie? she thought. How did I know to throw the keys away?

He pushed her down then into the grass along the parking strip and she fell on her knees. Out of her mouth came a voice she didn’t recognize. She was so shy she couldn’t ask for directions on the street when she was lost. Now someone in her body was screaming for help.

The man hit her then, cuffed her head several times, and then she realized she was alone. She had not felt him leave or heard him run away. The voice that was not her own went on screaming for help. Help came right away. A bicyclist stopped, a couple walking down the other side of the street came over to her.

And all the vividness of every second faded, and she came back to ordinary time. The bicyclist helped her upstairs. He called the police. The woman of the couple got her a glass of water. She told the story again and again. She gave his description but it was vague, too dark to see. But she would recognize his smell again, she was sure of it. The policeman smiled at her foolishness.

The police found Beverly’s kitchen door ajar, the lock jimmied. Across the freshly painted floor were large footprints.

She asked the police to call Beverly, to tell her not to come home that night. Then the police left, the couple left, the bicyclist walked her to her car and she drove to John’s. She felt exhausted and hyper-alert.

About four months later, the man passed her on the street as she walked home one Saturday afternoon from Safeway. It wasn’t her mind that recognized him but her body and the pulse of fright and surprise that echoed through her. She told John but she didn’t call the police. What was the point?

Friday, March 26, 2010

What is the narrative arc?

One of the current terms familiar to most editors and many writers is "narrative arc." Narrative arc and plot are directly related but they are not the same thing. And the arc is closely related to the motivation of your characters. What does your main character want? What keeps her from getting it? How does she finally triumph (or get defeated) in the end?

The basic narrative arc looks like a pyramid. The line at the bottom is the chronology of the story, the left-hand third rising to the apex is the complications, the right-hand third descending is the denouement. Of course, the apex doesn't have to be in the middle and many stories go up and down as the protagonist gets closer to what he wants and then it slips away (the film Casablanca is a classic sample of one kind of narrative arc where the hero keeps thinking he will get the girl, then she slips away, comes back, slips away.

But in any fiction, the character has to undergo some big change, be it triumph or disappointment. Without it the story falls flat.

Note that many fiction writers do not plan out the narrative arc before they write the story or novel. Once they have a first draft, they go back and read each chapter and see where it falls on the arc. Robert McKee, a famous script doctor, recommends assigning a plus or minus to each chapter to indicate whether the action is rising tension or falling. It's a great thing to do on your plot line. More on that tomorrow.

Creativity as inner work

Following on yesterday's blog, I want to further explore creativity (writing, painting, gardening, any form of creative self-expression) as inner work. We might even call it spiritual work. According to Anne Wilson Schaef, an innovator of process work, leading a spiritual life means being fully engaged in the processes of life in each moment. This is the Buddhist idea of "chop wood, carry water." Whatever task you are involved in, give it your full attentionhether it's doing the dishes or writing a short story.

For us creatives, that seems particularly important. When you're writing, attend to your writing. If you feel a need to take a walk and clear your head, bring your wandering mind back to your writing, back to whatever choices and decisions you need to make about characters or plot or description or the argument and support of nonfiction. When you're painting, give it your full attention to make shape, line, volune, color choices. Engage your whole self in the process.

Although I came up here to write this week on my novel, I've had a difficult time staying engaged. After my inner critic slapped me around for a while and I fought back, I did settle in and write 2+ new chapters. But many things have been distracting. Jake's death, some physical ailments, too many fun things to do (read a novel, play canasta, do some watercolors) and work things too. I'd promised a couple of clients that I'd be available to then as I knew they had tight deadlines and I value their business.

The truth is I'm in a low spot, with grief and pain and distractions. And that's the inner work that I need to do right now, the process I need to engage in.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Why write (paint, pot) if I can't make a living at it?

As my favorite money blogger, Trent Hamm (The Simple Dollar), says things that provide genuine personal value to you are never a waste of time. I agree completely. This is probably the best reason to do creative work, whatever the medium: for your own personal enjoyment.

In our American culture, we tend to expect people to specialize in one thing they're good at and then make money from it. This is especially true in the arts. It's okay to play soccer or pick-up basketball if you're not pro material, but because the arts have a product (we paint paintings, write poems, pot vases, sculpt objects, write novels), it is assumed that we will try to sell our products and only be successful if we do so. What's more, we'll only be really successful if we sell a lot of product or make a lot of money.

The reality is, though, that many of us will never write a NY Times bestseller or win an Academy Award for our acting or sell a million copies of the songs we write. We may even be terrific at what we do, but in today's world, success is as much luck as anything, and because we live full lives, we often don't have the time or energy to market ourselves full time and find that lucky coincidence.

But that's no reason not to create. Creating is an essential part of being human. We're designed to sing and dance and draw and put stuff together and play with color and play with words. We're designed to express ourselves. If it brings you joy, if it is of personal value to you, go for it. It is not a waste of time.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

When the rule outlives common usage

"Each person needs to know what they want." "He had a real good time." "The cat licked it's paw."

I encounter these sentences in my editing work all the time and I dutifully correct them because they are all grammatically or mechanically incorrect. Here are the corrected versions.

Each person needs to know what he or she wants (singular with singular).
He had a really good time (adverbial form modifying an adjective).
The cats licked its paw (the possessive of it has no apostrophe).

But we hear and see the incorrect versions all the time, so often in fact that we absorb them right into our speaking and writing. Usage is beginning to outweigh the rules.

American English has what is called a descriptive grammar, where the grammar rule describes common usage. Other languages, like French, have a prescriptive grammar, where the rules are decided by an august body of writers and grammarians.

Those of us in the business of helping writers adhere to current rules often have to give such sentences as those above double consideration. If it is a doctoral dissertation I'm editing, all three situations would get corrected. If it's fiction and these sentences occur as dialog, I'd correct only the last one (punctuation is still correct within dialog) but I'd leave the two usages alone as part of the natural speech pattern. However, if it's fiction and not dialog and not told in first person, I'd correct the apostrophe and query the author as to what he or she means to convey by the casual usage in the other two.

Things are changing in the language all the time and we editors try to stay attentive to what's happening.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Words to watch out for

I was perusing the bookshelves here at my brother-in-law's place and came across a book called The Writer's Art by James J Kilpatrick. It's a 1984 book of advice to writers. There weren't lots of ideas I hadn't come across before but he has a marvelous section on words that are often confused and good explanations for the difference so I thought I'd share some with you.

Alternately/alternatively: Alternately means one after the other (the squares on a chessboard are alternately black and white). Alternatively means one or the other: We could go to the movies or, alternatively, we could go out to eat.

Apparently/evidently: Use apparently when the matter is in doubt (he apparently had a heart attack but we're not sure) and use evidently when we are pretty sure that it's true (He was short of breath, sweating, and complained of chest pain; evidently he was having a heart attack).

Bad/badly: I feel badly means there's something wrong with your fingers. If you feel bad, you're sick, depressed, worried, etc.

Compose/comprise: The whole comprises the parts, the parts compose the whole. Only composed works in the passive. The whole is composed of the parts.

Infer/imply: To infer is to deduce (he inferred that I didn't know what I was talking about when I made four basic errors); he implied that I was an idiot.

Nauseous/nauseated. Nauseous makes people sick; nauseated is what we become.

A pair of twins is four people. He was one of twins.

Prone/supine: If you're lying on your back, you're supine. If you're lying on your belly, you're prone.

Sensuous/sensual: Sensuous pleasures are pleasures of the senses (smell, sight, taste, touch, hearing); sensual pleasures are pleasures of the body.

Try and/try to: He will try to arrive on time (correct); he will try and arrive on time (common but incorrect).

Monday, March 22, 2010

Declaring yourself as a writer

In the mid-90s, I encountered the Artist's Way by Julia Cameron at a retreat center. As I purchased the book, the woman at the little bookstore asked me if I was an artist. For the first time in my life, I said yes, that I was a writer.

I wasn't really. I had been a college professor for close to two decades and I did write some. I had written a doctoral dissertation and I had written half a dozen articles and papers to read at conferences and book reviews. That was part of my job and my work towards promotion and tenure in the academic system. But because I wrote things, I guess I was a writer.

But that's not what I was declaring in that little bookstore on Orcas Island. I was declaring myself a creative. It wasn't a conscious decision to say yes to her question. It came from some deeper part of me, some deeper knowing. And over the last 15 years, I have stepped into that declaration. I've written hundreds of short pieces, a memoir that was a finalist for an Oregon Book Award in literary excellence, completed a novel, and begun a second. I had no inkling on that June morning in 1996 that I was going to do any of those things but I did know the potential was there.

When we declare our intention, whether it be conscious or no, the universe steps in to support us. That's why I advise all my coaching clients to begin introducing themselves as writers or painters or potters or weavers, even if they're just beginning. For we create our reality with our words; it's an amazing power that humans have.

Just as we don't always know what will come out on the blank page when we sit down to write or draw or paint, we don't know wht will come in our lives until we declare ourselves open to have it happen. Give it a try and let me know what transpires.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The inevitability of creative anxiety

In a recent commentary on one of our creative coaching exercises, my teacher Eric Maisel said this: “Artistic anxiety is more like a ground of being, intrinsic to the struggle, than a symptom to be relieved.” I found this striking.

Somehow I’ve long had a misconception that real artists and writers always feel joy, calm, clarity, excitement, even authenticity when they are at work. I haven’t perceived them as being confused or lost, anxious or worried. And so because I am anxious when I sit down to work on a chapter or make a new painting, I’ve felt there was something wrong with me.

But here is Maisel saying it’s natural, a part of the creative process. He goes on to say that creatives are often meticulous in their habits and that they try to “bind anxiety through vigilance and carefulness.” (That sounds like me in most aspects of my life.) At the same time, their art, no matter what the medium, requires them to get bold and messy, to strike out into zones where they have not been before, where things are unpredictable and very likely chaotic. No wonder there’s anxiety.

It is tempting to stay with what we know. Short stories, if those have gotten praise. Poems of a certain simplicity or eye for observation. Abstract paintings with only technique to show for them. If we stay with what we know, we stay safe, and the anxiety is lessened. If we get bolder, take on a bigger challenge, we step into that unknown space of chaos and lack of control. And the anxiety goes way up—because, well, we may create crap, especially at first. But there we also have a chance to create something new, something wildly our own. Maybe it’s down the road a little but there’s something important about that willingness to risk, that willingness to see anxiety (our version of stage fright) as a part of the game, no more, no less.