How do I Become a Better Writer?

Image courtesy of Sias van Schalkwyk via stock.xchng

That wasn’t exactly the question she asked me.

More it was, “He was awesome. How did that happen?!”

I didn’t really have time to research an answer, and part of me felt, Hey, I‘m not a teacher, how do I know?

But thankfully I was stopped by a phrase that popped instantly into my head.

Tonguepolishing.

Or should that be two words?

Tongue Polished.

The designation refers to old, old stories that are elegant in their simplicity, and may even contain absurdities that are so entrenched that that they are simply accepted without any attempt at explanation.

Folktales. My little corner of enjoyment in the esoteric.

Image courtesy of Ove Tøpfer via stock.xchng

In our own, more prosaic, lives, we still experience the tongue-polished story.  These are the stories that make up the Family Lexicon.

A Lexicon is like a dictionary (a collection of words), but more specialized. Linguistically it’s a catalog of a given language’s words. The way I use it here is just to give a name to that collection every family grows as it creates its own culture with specialized language, stories and lessons learned.

The longer a story’s been around, the longer it’s been told and re-told, the more streamlined it gets. Often it loses some of the random, irrelevant facts. Frequently the teller is no longer recalling the event itself, but rather the best words with which to describe it.

But that’s not the case, at first.

Something happens (Baby born before we get to the hospital!) and you talk about it because it’s extraordinary, an adventure. But what do you tell? what part did you play in the story? What words you use are not usually the main thing you’re focused on. In those first days, you’re only remembering.

It’s at this point you may begin to see there’s more to storytelling– and, therefore, writing– than most of us think about at first.

There are four levels of work involved in writing, and this, I believe, is part of what complicates the process of learning how to write. It’s this 4-step process, unidentified, that I think gets people in trouble.

  1. Image courtesy of D. Sharon Pruitt via stock.xchng

    Idea generation. You have to come up with something to write ABOUT.

  2. Translation from idea into language.
  3. Translation from head-language to language-on-the-page (this essentially means holding onto the words you’ve come up with long enough to get them onto the page).
  4. The physical act of recording the words.

Some people get stuck at step-1, and that has almost the easiest solution. Even if you never know what to write about, you might be awesome once you get started.

If this is you, there are all sorts of books for sale and even free options on the internet to get you started: just Google writing prompts.

For step-2 (image into language), assume that time will be involved. Give yourself permission to make a few running jumps.  Throw some words at the idea (like spaghetti at a wall) and see what sticks. If you’re a natural talker, use that facility with language that you already have. Talk to a friend, talk to yourself or your pet. Talk into a recorder of some kind, and see if you like what it sounds like later.

This is what you do in that early stage of storytelling. You say what you remember. Other people remember it differently, or your listener has a question. The next time you tell the story you shape the transmission differently, based on what you learned from your earlier audiences.

You’re half-way through the process, and it’s something you’ve done all your life!

Continue reading »

Courage– Revisted

Image courtesy of Colin Brough via stock.xchng

It takes one kind of courage to look straight at  your life, compare where you are to where you want to be, and then dive into making your life the one you want to live.

It is another kind of courage (more in line with General Sherman’s definition) that has us look straight at the cost of something, and choose it anyway.

Both have been coming into play in this “year of courage” (as I labeled 2013).

I have had a string of successes and delights this spring.

  1. I adopted a dog that was just what I wanted (still learning how to train him ;])
  2. We had a family vacation in Hawaii that was almost completely stress-free and got me far enough into my novel that the momentum meant something.
  3. I finished my first 10 speeches to achieve my “competent communicator” award in Toastmasters
  4. I finished my novel last week, and am now letting my story-brain rest, working on non-fiction writing instead (blog, WynMag).
  5. I’m wrapping up a last few editing of WynMag projects and the first issue will go live soon. (And I’m ahead on my submissions for the next issue).
  6. I’ve got the children signed up in a homeschooling program for next year (that we will actually start this summer), so that we have more financial flexibility to explore and experiment with curricula to find what will work best for our family.
  7. We’ve sold the rabbits (most of them, anyway), bringing us down to pet-levels.
  8. Our second round of baby goats is due this week (and we know better what to DO this time, so the enjoyment level will be even higher).
  9. The children will complete their first year of “away school” next week, and I won’t have to be the bad-guy, sending them on with empty hopes that people might change, and the slightly less-empty hope that there’s not many days left.

These are all tied, in my mind, to the first type of courage.

Now comes the second kind.

Image courtesy of Sarah Peller via stock.xchng

In the process of getting healthy on a mental/emotional level, I’ve come to recognize a series of needs that I must not just balance or juggle, but meet.

  • Writing
  • Exercise
  • Right eating
  • Sleep

These are the non-negotiable for internal stability.

But having those covered allows me to see there’s a second tier that really enhances the first tier.

  • Clean Space
  • Calm companions
  • Achievable, completable goals
  • Spiritual pursuit (singular)

I suppose having spiritual pursuit in the second category is going to look bad to some people, but it’s true. Until I am stable physically and mentally, asking the hard questions and pushing in any realm that has Deep Meaning is simply asking too much.

One of my biggest problems, all through my mothering journey (I can’t remember much thinking about it before then), was an image of a robot changing its own batteries. That’s how I saw “self-care”.

Continue reading »

Brokenness, Healing and Art

I just got through The War of Art by Steven Pressfield last week.

My library had it on CD, which meant that my laundry finally got folded.

Pressfield starts out by defining resistance by its action and power, tying it to our main difficulty in writing (okay, he actually is very careful to keep the talk about ART and whatever one’s contribution to the world is. But for me, that’s writing).

Problem #1: Getting Started

He has a whole series of specific examples of delays to beginning the work, but especially because of my experience with depression, and the upcoming launch of Wyn Magazine, I was intrigued by Pressfield’s comments about (and waiting for) healing as a tool of Resistance, to prevent the beginning of a Great Work.

Image courtesy of Mihai Tamasila via stock.xchng

According to Pressfield there are whole communities of people investing such effort and resources into getting well that they aren’t doing much else.

In his book he says some people feel they need to be healthy before they can do, or make their art.

I have felt this way in a vague sense, thinking that what I wanted to say would have more legitimacy or authority if I’d passed some point of competency, but the idea of doing nothing until that point is a straightjacket of terror.

Why ‘terror’? (That is a rather melodramatic word, but it’s the best I have just now.)

Because without my art I am locked in the long white corridors or darkened rooms of myself. There is no escape. And that is terrifying.

Writing is the walking.

One foot in front of the other to travel these endless hallways, and slow familiarity teaches what direction could be more useful, and I eventually see a door, and my momentum feeds itself until I slam into that crashbar and break into the open air.

Image courtesy of Jenny Rollo via stock.xchng

I’ve had encounters with others, or their words, who feel that they cannot produce art without the brokenness inside them.  Elyn Saks, in her Ted Talk quoted poet Rainer Maria Rilke who said, “Don’t chase my devils away, because my angels may flee too.”

I have wobbled on both sides of that line, and the perspective I find most-comforting is what Pressfield expresses in his book. He insists that healing is not a prerequisite, because the part that needs healing is completely separate from the part that is creating.

The experience of brokenness can make the creating part of you more useful, but somehow, in this one-way economy, that brokenness can only add depth to what already is.

I like this model, this container of words, because it suggests that the reasoning of second quote—about needing to keep the demons around—is misplaced.

Continue reading »

Courage

Courage is a virtue recognized in every culture.OneWord2013_Courage150

Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at its testing point, which means at its point of highest reality.

A chastity or honesty or mercy which yields to danger will be chaste or honest or merciful only on conditions.

–C.S. Lewis

In The Mystery of Courage, author William Ian Miller asserts courage is unique among the virtues because it is the only one where stories of its opposing vice are less gripping or tantalizing than stories of the virtue. ;}

This is a story of my rediscovering courage.

~

There are two kinds of courage: physical courage and moral courage.

Both types, as General William Sherman observed, involve a full awareness of the risk involved, and a willingness to endure that risk.

There is an additional, third element within moral courage, and that is a driving motivation of some deeply-held principle.

When, at the end of December, I designated 2013 as a “Year of Courage” for me, I was not looking at these definitions.

I could not tell you what danger I felt was arrayed against me, or the mental math that I undertook to decide what made the risk worthwhile, or even what risk I felt I was taking.

Image courtesy of Bina Sveda via stock.xchng

What I could tell you is that months off of a two-year depression I was still a fearful person.  Not consciously, but pressed by a friend I admitted that I made most of my decisions primarily through the matrix of safety.

I did whatever I could to minimize every kind of risk, but it didn’t make me feel any safer, only claustrophobic.

Then, during Thanksgiving break, I read a blog post that made me ask, “What could I accomplish if safety wasn’t my primary objective?”

Continue reading »

Speaking Practice #1: Start as You Mean to Go On

I gave my first speech at Toastmasters today.

Posting here at UT will probably be limited to speech-topics and/or the speeches themselves while I push through this speaking track. (There are 10 speeches in the first book, and my goal is to do one/week as long as the children are still in school.)

Part of what I find interesting about this start is comparing it to the first time I gave an “Icebreaker” speech.

It was literally my first blog post, almost 7 years ago. It had three precise points, and a reasonable structure. This one dismisses the possibility from the very beginning.

I started blogging at the same time I (tried) to start speaking, and blogging is what stuck. Instead of wondering what to get up and say, I made notes, some of them incredibly short, of complete thoughts.

I got used to “capturing” ideas. And organizing them (somewhat) and presenting them. Continue reading »

The Brain is an Amazing Thing (Reading Notes)

Leaving aside for the moment that I agree with the people who dismiss the left-brain/right-brain distinction of analysis/logic vs. creativity/innovation, the fact remains that brain scans do allow for observation of activity within the brain.

Image courtesy of Julia Freeman-Woolpert via stock.exchng

One of the things Shadow Syndromes brings up is how brain activity changes as a person moves from sadness or grief into an actual (say, clinical) depression.

In sadness, and in any normal emotion, PET scans reveal an active left-brain (I found this alone fascinating, as some proudly “right-brained” individuals straw-man “left-brainers” as dull intellectual robots).

Dr. Mark George (a psychiatrist and neuroscientist) has done PET scans on grieving and depressed individuals, and has an interesting theory about sadness becoming (morphing into) Depression.

As a person moves into depression the left-brain activity shifts from more-than-usual (in sadness) to less-than-usual.

“The overactive left brain of the sad person, he believes, eventually burns itself out, becoming the underactive left brain of the clinically depressed,” (p. 86)

This makes me think of the commonly designated role of the left-brain (thinking-workhorse) and Chesterton’s observation that it is the logician, not the poet, who goes mad, and King Solomon’s solemn warning that with increased knowledge comes increased sorrow.

It makes me think of the college worker’s observation that depression after the semester ends is attributed to mental fatigue.

But as I continued to read, and the book described the (measured) tendencies of the Right-brain, and I’m forming a new theory.

I wonder if the book will discuss this eventually.

The Right-brain, tied in public consciousness to creativity and innovation, is somewhat responsible for the negative part of our understanding.

A stroke that damages the right side of the brain, to the point of paralyzing the entire left side of the body, is taken surprisingly well, according to observation. The jaunty, we’ll get through this, and Its only temporary, override even medical advice. Continue reading »

The Fine Balance in Growth

What could possibly threaten something of your size?”

“My size.”

“Yes, frej, of your size. Surely there is no predator larger than you?”

Lindorm turned his head from side to side, hungry to speak, but wondering how he dared. This would be used against him.

“Every lindorm continues to grow all his life,” he whispered, hoping she was the only one to hear. “If the creature is foolish enough to stay on land his own weight will crush the life out of him.”

~

The  life-cycle of the Lindorm (limbless dragon, or giant snake, for those of you just joining the story) has an awkward twist, in that here is a creature that is a terror both on land and in the water.  Best as I can piece together, the females must navigate as far up the rivers as their bulk will allow them to travel, and leave their offspring on the shores to disseminate into the nearby terrain.

Ostensibly this will give them a better chance of survival, considering the always-increasing size of the long-lived water lindorm.

But being the brilliant, master-predators that they are on land, how do you get them back in the water, where the average human will have less of a chance to run into them? (This is the challenge of the cryptozoologist– to explain both the unlikely creatures plausible existence, and why they’re not seen more clearly or frequently.) Well, you have my lindorm’s explanation there above: as the mass of the monster increases, so does the strain of living on land.

Some instinct, therefore, calls him to the water.

But too soon, and the young lindorm will become Chiclets for the established sea creatures.

So this keeps the population in check, but also shows why the ones that remain are the cleverest (in a definitely-creepy way) of the species.

So why am I thinking of this just now?

Well, I’m approximately one week away from returning to my novel, and shooting to have it submittable by the end of the year. Continue reading »

Story Beyond the Chase

Feeling chatty today? I’m feeling chatty.

Ruth, over at Booktalk & More, recently started a discussion about the novel heroine Marguerite, where she pointed out our culture’s obsession with the “chase” part of a romance, to the extent that we expect the story to trickle away once the chase is over.

In a sense this blog title is already a misnomer, because movement is required for any story, and chasing is a fun movement before or after the relationship is solidified.

I’ve mentioned before that “the moonlighting curse” isn’t strictly logical, and I appreciate how that (2nd link) article puts the focus clearly on the skill (and guts) of the shows’ writers, rather than what the actors do onscreen (Seriously, EVERYTHING is being done on television now to some critical acclaim, and it’s all about the Story and the way the it’s told).

But I digress.

Continue reading »

More Doesn’t Keep Being More

Image courtesy of Claudio Jule via stock.xchng

In contrast to the popular saying,

Money can’t buy happiness

there is this study that shows a fairly tight correlation between money and a lot of good things. (Here’s another eye-opening view, if you go in prepared for anger and crass language.)

I liked reading about this study when it came out, because I’d always thought along the lines that money has got to simplify a LOT of things and how most of the “simple freebies” that are cozy and fuzzy-edged in any story aren’t so accessible.

I mean, I do those things, and they’re not necessarily cheap and accessible.

  • Musical instruments you actually *want* to play are a pretty penny.
  • Pets/animals take work and money.
  • Craft supplies that are enjoyable to use usually can’t be found at the thrift store
  • Even simple “hanging out” with friends involves cost to someone– either in transportation, food, or entertainment.

Free is really less common than storytelling will admit.

It is this common sense awareness of increased money = improved life that gets us into trouble.

When we see, Oh, more money is better life, we don’t see that topping out– until it does.

This is why you don’t see movies about poor people realizing their two jobs plus night school are eating away at their family life and just. not. worth it.

It’s the rich executive or the workaholic mom who have to choose family over acquiring even-greater wealth.

~ ~ ~

All that to say that we educated types have the same relationship with information.

Continue reading »