Change=Story=Life

Ruby Falls, Chattanooga, TN

It’s amazing how after you pick a word for the year, it keeps showing up in your daily life.  For instance, I started reading a book on the craft of writing, Wired for Story by Lisa Cron, before the holidays.  When I picked it up after the new year, I opened it up to the chapter where I left off.  It’s titled, “Courting Conflict, the Agent of Change.”  And there’s my word staring back at me 😉

But it was just what I needed to read.  It’s a reminder of what makes a story.

“Story is about change, which results only from unavoidable conflict.”

Ironically, in real life, “The brain is wired to stubbornly resist change, even good change.”

It’s a great paradox.  We avoid change to stay comfortable, yet we long for new experiences.  Story is one way for us to experience something without actually having to live it.  It’s also a way for us to prepare ourselves for a given situation, in case at some future point we find ourselves in that same situation.

So as a writer, don’t be afraid of putting your characters into the most dire straits.  The greater the risk, the greater the reward, and it creates the ultimate suspense!

But what about in life?  Sure, we want to avoid conflict, but at the same time, we don’t want life to pass us by, never doing the things we dream of doing, just because we’re afraid of change.

“All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy, for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter into another.”  –Anatole France

I think what change calls for is a big dose of bravery.  And where can we find that?  Look no further than in stories–the stories of others who have been through similar circumstances as well as the stories found in books.

I just finished reading a book by one of my new favorite authors, Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms by Katherine Rundell.  A white girl from Africa loses her father and is sent to an English boarding school where she encounters mean girls and culture shock.  Talk about change AND conflict!

Whether you find yourself in this particular situation or not, there’s a lot of wisdom to be learned by following the girl’s story as she runs away from her troubles.  Here are some of my favorite quotes.

“It is real life that takes the real courage, little wildcat…  Although life is very beautiful, it is also very difficult.”

“Hiding and panic go together.  There is nothing in this world that is worse than panic.”

“I do know how difficult school can be, my love.  I hated it myself.  If you go back, it won’t be like cartwheeling in the sunshine.  It would be more like cartwheeling into the wind.”

“But it would be the best possible training.  It would make your arms strong…  And your heart.  You could build a cartwheeling, wildcat heart.”

So go after what you want, even if it means change.  Because in the end, you’ll find you’ve changed, too.  You’ll be stronger for it, and your dreams will become reality.  And boy will you have a good story to tell!

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Notebooks of the Mind

I came across an interesting concept while reading an article in the SCBWI Bulletin called “Jotting Things Down” by Anne Sibley O’Brien.  She referenced a term called “Notebooks of the Mind,” which I just thought sounded so cool!  And mysterious.  But what does it mean?  Did you ever keep a journal or diary growing up?  Or what about when you had that great thought or idea while standing in line at the grocery store or sitting at a restaurant and you had to scribble it down on a napkin so you didn’t forget it.  All of these scribbles and sketches cumulate into “Notebooks of the Mind” or windows into our soul.  A lot of it seems meaningless at the time, and truthfully, much of it may never amount to anything tangible.  But it’s fodder.  Fuel for that project you’re envisioning or maybe something else yet to be discovered.  And when you go back to it, it’s like walking through a museum of memories, which is also fun.

If you’re not convinced of the importance of jotting things down, remember this:  “Creativity did not descend like a bolt of lightning that lit up the world in a single brilliant flash.  It came in tiny steps, bits of insight, and incremental changes.  Zigs and zags.  When people followed those zigs and zags, ideas and revelations started flowing.”  -Keith Sawyer, author of Zig Zag

Benjamin Franklin didn’t just get hit by lightning.  He kept notebooks, too.

I have my own journals at home.  20 or so of them, actually, collected over the years–consisting of poem fragments, stray thoughts, jumbled up text, old ticket stubs, magazine collages, scratches, and sketches.  Some of it will never see the light of day, but it’s useful nonetheless.  My small treasures.  The Notebooks of MY Mind.

What’s going on in my brain?  Here’s a sneak peek, circa 2003.

notebook of my mind

Now, I want to know, what’s going on in yours?

 

Emotional Truth Will Set You Free

Caged Bird

As many of you know, renowned author and poet Maya Angelou passed away on May 28, a day after my birthday.  I’m heartbroken to say the least, as she was one of my favorite authors.  She inspired me as a poet and writer.  I first read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in high school.  Her story compelled me to read the rest of her autobiography, which I own.  I have many of her books of poetry, as well.

What made me connect to her story exactly?  Emotional truth.  She was not afraid to tell her story.  And even if she was, she told it anyway.  She told the story that was uniquely her own in a way that no one else could.  Her voice (her song) was unmistakable and true.  There is power in telling the truth.  It doesn’t have to be the universal truth, it just has to be your own experience.  Honest and raw.  Naked on the page.  Blood and tears.  Ironically, this is what gives readers hope.

A caged bird wants something.  Freedom.  And we can all relate to that.  It gives us something to root for.  We hear its sad, beautiful song and we want to see that little bird fly.

I began writing my emotional truth in poetry.  I started out slowly.  Quietly.  Going to open mic events at my university.  I soon earned the nickname “Quiet Storm.”  Each time I went, I shared a piece of my emotional truth.  And each time I let my words out, my voice grew stronger.

Something else amazing happened.  The audience reacted to my poetry.  People started coming up to me after readings.  People that, at first glance, I would never guess I had anything in common with.  I could never predict how they would react to my words, but they always felt something.  A connection.  That was powerful.  Connection through shared stories.  I never wanted that feeling to go away.

There’s a wonderful quote by Dr. Angelou on her website.  “A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.”  What’s your song?  Don’t be afraid to share your story.  Not only will it set you free, but it just might start a chain reaction.  Thank you Maya for being the catalyst for me.  You’re free now and probably somewhere flying.

autobiography of Maya Angelou

 

 

Mind Worm

When I attended the Midwest SCBWI conference last spring, I had the chance to hear author Franny Billingsley speak.  She talked about the power of fear and how important it is to understand what scares your main character the most and then exploit it.

To explain this, she started out by introducing the term “Mind Worm.”  Yes, it really exists (at least metaphorically speaking)!  The Mind Worm burrows into the brain and in so doing discovers an individual’s dreams and fears.  The Mind Worm then has the power to create an event that forces the person to go on a unique adventure designed to help the person learn something deeper about him or herself.

Now I’m going to let you in on a little secret.  The writer is a Mind Worm!

How can you be a Mind Worm for your main character?  Start by pushing your character out of his or her comfort zone.  Push your character to her limits.  Make him squirm.  Make her jump right out of her skin!  A powerful antagonist can help with this.  So can an unforeseen event or tragedy.

Then see what happens.  Guaranteed the character will be forced to grow and change.  Which is what we want, isn’t it?  That’s how we create someone to root for and maybe even identify with.  Someone to believe in.  And once your readers are invested in your main character, they’re ten times more likely to follow him or her until the end.

So my advice to you today is:  Be a Mind Worm.  See where it takes you.  More importantly, see where it takes your character.

Go to the Well

People go to wells for many reasons– water…wishes…words?

I enjoy receiving book recommendations.  Recently someone suggested On Writing Well  by William Zinsser.  Since it’s a guide for nonfiction writing, I paused before picking it up.  But then I thought, why not?  Thank goodness I did.  Turns out the wisdom found in its pages works for all kinds of writers.

Here are some highlights!

“Ultimately the product that any writer has to sell is not the subject being written about, but who he or she is.”

When writing, go in search of humanity and warmth.  “Good writing has an aliveness that keeps the reader reading…”

My favorite chapter is titled “Clutter.”  Follow this advice to help declutter your writing.

  • Don’t follow a verb with a preposition (“order up”)
  • Don’t add an adverb when the verb itself does the job (“smile happily”)
  • Don’t add an adjective that states a known fact (“tall skyscraper”)
  • Avoid using qualifiers that weaken the sentence (“a bit,” “sort of”)
  • Avoid using phrases that don’t mean anything (“in a sense”)
  • Avoid following up a sentence with another sentence that essentially says the same thing.  (You can also cut sentences that give info readers don’t really need to know or can figure out on their own.)

Astonishing fact: “Most first drafts can be cut by 50 percent without losing any information or losing the author’s voice.”

***How do we get our own style?***

Trick question!  “First…learn to hammer the nails, and if what you build is sturdy and serviceable, take satisfaction in its plain strength.”

If anything, “Sell yourself…Believe in your own identity and your own opinions.  Writing is an act of ego…Use its energy to keep yourself going.”

Here’s some advice on fear and confidence from humorist S. J. Perelman.  “The reader has to feel that the writer is feeling good…Even if he isn’t.”

“Writers have to jump-start themselves at the moment of performance, no less than actors and dancers and painters and musicians…You also have to [be the one to] turn on the switch.  Nobody is going to do it for you.”

And what’s my new mantra from this book?  “Get on the plane.”  You never know where your words will take you.  But they won’t take you anywhere, unless you have the courage to write them.

Alone and Writing

How do we fight the loneliness that creeps in when practicing our craft, which by its very nature is quite a lonely business?  Here are some tips!

According to writer Natalie Goldberg, we should “use loneliness.”

“Think of sharing your need to talk with someone else when you write.  Reach out of the deep chasm of loneliness and express yourself to another human being.”

Poet Rainer Maria Rilke suggests making “a pact with aloneness.”

“Your pact with aloneness will be your support and solace even in the midst of unfamiliar situations.  It is through that aloneness that you will find all your paths.”

Samuel Beckett writes, “A voice comes to one in the dark.  Imagine.”

“But if on occasion so disheartened it is seldom for long.  For little by little as he lies the craving for company revives.  In which to escape from his own.  The need to hear that voice again.”

I think that inner voice is the one that helps us tell our stories.  The one we can only find while alone in the dark.  Can you hear your story calling you? 

The Simplest Cure

Have you ever had one of those days when your writing goes terribly wrong?  You might have spent hours typing away at the computer only to find that your main character is whiny, cliché, or worst of all…boring.  What should you do?  Before you burn your manuscript and take another day job, pause for a moment.  I think we all know the solution on some level, but it is so easy to forget.  See if you can answer this question correctly.  When we have trouble with our writing we should:

a) consult a style manual

b) consult a shrink

c) read another novel in the hopes of soaking up some of its greatness

d) rehash the novel with a friend

Technically, any of these answers could apply or none of them.  But I just realized, to my surprise and delight, that the best therapy for a bad day of writing is actually more writing.  Try it!  I dare you…

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