I pursued my first English degree with the intention of being a science fiction writer. I wrote a lot more in my teens and twenties and my stories were filled with the concerns of a young man: pursuing adventures, making a difference, falling in love. The Bart who wrote then is a very different person from the person who writes blogs and training documents and journalism pieces now. Aside from my additional 20 years of life experience, the tools I use to write have changed as well. Continue reading “The Tools You Use”
I write to pay my bills. I’m a technical writer, that’s what I do. It’s a great pleasure that I’m able to turn something I’m able to do reasonably well into cash and groceries.
But that is nonfiction, and work done on behalf of someone else’s idea or business. I still write for myself. Why?
First, it might be helpful to explain what I consider “writing for myself.” This would include:
- Journal writing
All of these activities serve personal, what some might call “antisocial” purposes because they are for my own benefit and enjoyment, not necessarily others’. Note that I am not a published/paid writer in any of those categories, so why do I bother?
I’ve been writing fiction since 1978 or so. I’ve been writing poetry since 1984 or so. I’ve been keeping a journal since 1988. Again, not for profit. Occasionally I’ve let others read the stuff, but not as a regular habit anymore. So why do I bother?
Maybe writing is just a hobby? A literary form of therapy? I write in these various forms for my own personal enjoyment. Sometimes I learn something. Sometimes I just feel better afterward. Sometimes I want to say something about the state of the world (or my reactions to it) and saying it straight out is not the most effective way to do it. If I have things I want to say or think about, why not just mull them over in my head? Why bother with the physical activity of putting pen to paper or fingers to laptop keyboard?
Maybe because writing is my way of leaving monuments. I was here, I lived, I had ideas, I mattered: here is the proof.
If you write, what compels you to do so?
In a posthumous release of his correspondence, science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein reported to a friend that he had not been writing and had felt miserable and sick with a cold that wouldn’t go away, but once he started writing again, he felt 100% better. Something similar can happen to anyone who feels the creative urge.
Writing, for those of us who treat it as a natural and necessary part of ourselves, is essential to our health. It can be the source of our income, to be sure, but it is also sustenance itself. The very act of writing feeds our soul and helps us sort out the world. Writing is there to help us make a roadmap through the world, calm us when we’re irritable, allow us to rant and vent our rage when doing so publicly would be socially unacceptable. Creating something new–especially new worlds, characters, or situations–is exercise for the imagination.
It’s sad but true: my fiction writing has dwindled over the years. In fact, I can directly trace my loss in fictional productivity to starting my career as a paid technical writer. I dropped from writing anything from half a dozen to a dozen stories a year to two or three to one to writing every other year. I felt sad at the change but considered it a necessary by-product of spending all my day in front of a computer, hacking out words for other people’s use. By the time I got home, I had very little energy to write for myself.
In truth, my imagination has gotten flabby, much like my body can do due to lack of exercise. I have a lot of incomplete stories in my files–stuff I started and dropped because I felt the ideas stupid or the execution lacking and I lacked the energy or interest to rethink the story and fix it.
It’s one thing to write bad fiction (and trust me, I have plenty–note that I’m a professional technical writer, not a professional fiction writer). It’s something else again to transform the sow’s ear into a silk purse. That requires inspiration, alchemy, and careful feeding of the Muses, but mostly it demands a lot of hard work and a commitment to Heinlein’s dictum that “You must write. You must finish what you write.” After a long day at the office, it can be very easy to go slack on your own stuff, especially if no editors are clamoring for it and you have no deadlines to meet. So I’ve been lazy.
I’ve also been somewhat down lately. Lots of little things piled on to give me a Class A First World funk. Trust me, given a choice I’ll take my problems over anyone else’s any day, but that’s not to say that the marvels of middle age don’t vex me from time to time. I have worries and annoyances and things in my life that irritate me or make me seriously unhappy, just like everyone else. So yesterday morning I made a list of a dozen things I needed to do to get some feeling of control over my grouchy disposition. By the end of the day, I’d done maybe two. I went home from a social gathering feeling less than productive and not particularly proud of myself.
As I am prone to do when I’m in a funk, I lecture myself. I was giving myself a good earful in traffic about my general laziness and ingratitude for the gifts I’d been given in life when something strange began happening in the long-neglected imagination center in my brain. Hey, you know you could write a story about that, my subconscious was saying. My conscious mind stopped lecturing and said, “What?” Yeah, my imagination continued, you could write about someone seriously gifted going lazy. Why would he do that? What would make a genetically modified super-genius decide to underperform? So my logical conscious mind joined in the fun and started playing with ideas.
The story had practically written itself in the back of my brain by the time I got home. At least I had the structure, the main character, and the motivation. The rest was filling in the blanks. I think the story ran around six pages. Maybe ten. Whatever. But wow, did I feel better afterward! I had accomplished something, I had done something creative again, and I slept with the comfort of being myself again. My subconscious, rewarded for doing such a good job and nudging me out of my funk, treated me to a lot of various and confusing dreams, but it was like, “Okay, you wrote that, so here’s a bunch of other thoughts I’ve been storing up. What about this? What about this? What about this?” It’s a blur now, but there was enough stuff churning around that I’m sure the important thoughts will come back.
And all it took to restore myself was writing again. If I was feeling really ambitious, I’d try to get that story published, but let’s not get crazy. Silencing the inner critic is a blog for another day. For now, all I can recommend to writers who are in a funk is the same old rock ‘n’ roll: write it down, baby. Get it all out. You’ll feel a lot better.
Human beings have been telling each other stories for millennia. Why? What, exactly, is a story, and why do we bother?
A story is a narrative about an individual or group in conflict with the universe–another person or people, nature, forces within, etc. A story includes moments of danger and suspense: will the hero(ine) survive? Will they succeed in their mission? How will that success occur?
Stories fulfill a deep need in our natures for our existence to make sense. We want to believe that we can overcome dangers that face us in this universe. We want to believe that the values we defend mean something and that, even if our existence ends, those values will continue on after our death. The interplay of good and evil (or protagonist and antagonist) engages our emotions. The ratcheting up of suspense adds to the suspense of the moment and raises the stakes. All these things tell us what stories do, but they don’t tell us what stories can and do say.
Looking over human history, we’ve had stories that involved gods–superhuman versions of ourselves–as well as human heroes and villains, dragons and other terrifying creatures. We have told stories that challenged the forces of nature; defined ourselves as independent beings; saved villages or nations; fought tyrants or ambitious people like ourselves; and confronted the dark forces of the emotions or motives within ourselves. We continue to tell stories that force us to confront the dangers of the technologies we create or the evil we do in the present day.
Sometimes we tell these stories in the language of the present day. Sometimes we set them in the past. Sometimes we set them in the future. Sometimes we set them in realities completely different from our own. The motives for storytelling–even if the environments, moral structures, heroes/heroines, or tactics and tools change–remain the same. We are always trying to explain ourselves to ourselves. The stories that impressed me the most at an impressionable age were from science fiction and religion, giving me forever an interest in science, technology, and philosophy.
So the question I have for you is: which stories have you read (or written for yourself)? Which stories resonated with you and told you, in a convincing way, “Yes, life is like this, it’s about this, we should be this?”
Update: This post is quoted (nearly) in its entirety in Gutsy Choices: Action Steps for Super Life Change by Russell DeWitt. Aside from my little bits of wisdom below, I commend it to your attention for further reading.
This post was prompted by a question from my friend Russ. The specific request was:
[P]lease tell me what benefits the world of writing has done for you in your development as a person?
Since childhood, I’ve done multiple forms of writing, from fiction to school assignments to work products and journaling. School and work products are necessary for intellectual and professional development–development of the mind. Story telling is an exercise in creativity: imagining things that never were, jumping into the unknown of our subconscious and making it known through characters, actions, and places. Journal writing is an exercise in self-analysis in literary form.
Each of these forms has its own virtues and develops a different part of the whole mind.
Fiction writing is the equivalent of a mental quest or vacation. I’m trying to tell myself or other people how I see the world. Fiction helps me express myself. Sometimes it helps me solve problems or express I see in the world. Maybe some of my stories have brought some good to those read them.
Journal writing, for me, is the tool I use to fix problems with myself. I’ve been keeping a regular journal since I got a typewriter for Christmas 27 years ago. Sometimes I write with the assumption that someone else will eventually read my thoughts, most of the time my audience is myself. I’ve speculated on how to make the world a better place, identified ways to improve myself or to find fault with myself. Sometimes my journal is a one-sided therapy session where I explain what I’m feeling, either in handwritten or electronic form. My journal lets me plan, vent, grieve, shout, laugh, and pontificate in ways that might or might not be acceptable to others, but it helps me clarify who I am to myself.
Has writing made me a better person? That would be harder to say. I look back at my journals from years back with some embarrassment, either because my half-smart philosophies at some point in my past now seem childishly wrong or because problems that cause me pain today are all too familiar and haven’t been resolved. Some problems I’ve resolved, others have arisen to take their place. And yet I keep writing, in a constant quest to better myself and to understand myself and my place in the world.
I write because that’s what I do and how I perceive the world. It is so much a part of me I hardly know life without it. When I am gone, my writing is all that will remain. Perhaps that will be enough to speak to the ages.
The premise for Homer Hickam Jr.’s latest novel is intriguing enough to make you want to read it and hilarious enough that you expect to be entertained. Carrying Albert Home: The Somewhat True Story of A Man, His Wife, and Her Alligator will do both. Hickam, best known for Rocket Boys (a.k.a. October Sky), has pieced together a love story based on stories his parents told him while he was growing up in Coalwood, West Virginia.
Years before Homer Hickam Senior and his wife Elsie raised their boys in a small mining town, they had other dreams, loves, ambitions, and adventures. Homer’s mother Elsie spent some time after graduating high school in what would be my future home town, Orlando, Florida. She lived with a “rich” uncle (who would eventually lose most of his money in the Depression) and fell in love with an up-and-coming actor and dancer named Buddy Ebsen. Yep, that Buddy Ebsen–he of later Jed Clampett/Beverly Hillbillies fame. Ebsen left Orlando for New York and later Hollywood to pursue his acting career. Elsie mooned over him, but eventually went back home to West Virginia to marry a boy she admired, Homer. As a wedding gift, Buddy sent an alligator from Florida, who became the Hickams’ pet, Albert.
If keeping a four-foot alligator in your bathroom and walking it around on a leash seems a tad odd, even dangerous, you probably wouldn’t be far wrong. That seems to be how Elsie Hickam lived her life. Eventually, Homer Sr. lays down the law and says, “It’s the alligator or me!” Elsie seems willing to accept Homer’s ultimatum, but only if he agrees to drive the gator back to Orlando to give him a decent home. What follows is a road trip that feels like a mashup of Forrest Gump, It Happened One Night, and Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck (more on him in a bit). In the pre-Interstate Highway era, long-distance travel across the U.S. was still a bit of a challenge, even with road maps, and Homer and Elsie get themselves into a series of adventures and predicaments as they make their way gradually southward to give Elsie’s alligator a home.
While the reader knows the eventual ending–the husband and wife will eventually settle in West Virginia and raise Homer Hickam, Jr.–you’re not certain how, and it certainly doesn’t seem like it will end up that way. If this book is a love story, it is also an exploration by Hickam of answering the question of “Who were my parents?” As Hickam put it when I reached out to him on Twitter, “It was a book I needed to write.”
Elsie does not like living in Coalwood and tries to convince Homer to escape with her. Barring that, she hopes to escape the coal-miner’s life with Homer. She’s strong-minded and up for any adventure. Her favorite saying seems to be, when an opportunity is presented to her, “I always wanted to be an X (nurse, pilot, actress, etc.),” and hijinks thereafter ensue. The adventure of Carrying Albert Home, then, is a story of two people struggling in a marriage with vastly different expectations for their lives. Homer, a serious, literal-minded coal miner, is happy to live, raise a family, and die in Coalwood. Elsie, who had spent time in secretarial school in sunny Florida, hopes for a more exciting, adventurous life with someone like the actor Buddy Ebsen.
Along the way from West Virginia to Florida, Homer’s future parents face dangers from bank robbers, moonshiners, labor disputes (with Homer taking one side and Elsie the other), minor-league baseball in the rural south, smugglers, and a few celebrities along the way, including Ernest Hemingway and the aforementioned John Steinbeck. All of this happens, with various twists, turns, and side trips while keeping Albert the alligator in tow and a mysterious rooster who joins them along the way. Elsie’s adventuring spirit and Homer’s diligence and doubt about his wife’s love move the story forward in the way common to many love stories. Instead of two single people seeking love, we experience instead two imperfect people struggling in their marriage.
I did note that this book appears in the fiction section (the subtitle includes, after all, “the mostly true story”), not the nonfiction section. This is a novel based on true-or-not stories Homer’s parents told him over the years. Perhaps they’re tall tales, perhaps they’re the real McCoy, but the individual adventures drive forward a love story that is worth reading because it involves real, married people. It’s a poignant reminder that struggles, challenges, and adventures are not just for courting but can and should continue after a couple becomes man and wife.
English department creative writing majors have this dictum beaten into their skulls early and often: “Show, don’t tell.” Intellectually, I understood what the profs meant: describe situations rather than have the narrator explain what happens in a particular scene. However, it wasn’t until I read The Emotion Thesaurus that I understood how this dictum translated into actual writing practice.
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Imagine you’ve got a very emotional story to tell. We all know how much emotion is internalized, in feelings or words. However, your publisher has dictated two important rules:
- Thou shalt not write interior monologues.
- Thou shalt not explain the meaning of an event in the narration.
I’ve been guilty of this for years, which is one of several reasons why I make my living as a technical writer, not a fiction writer. But here’s where those two rules force the writer to get better at his/her craft: if you can’t as Author explain how everything fits together, you have to depict the impact through characters’ dialogue, physical actions, or other descriptions of behavior. Again, the point of this approach to writing is that some of the burden of understanding the story is given over to the reader. Another advantage of this type of writing–should you be so inclined–is that it is much easier to translate “external” writing into TV or movie productions because everything is right there on the page.
On the flip side, stories that are very internalized or are overburdened with narrative explanation are notoriously difficult to translate into visual images. The only film I know that did a halfway decent job of this was Dune, which was a stinker on other levels, but captured the internal monologues of Frank Herbert’s cerebral series well.
What The Emotion Thesaurus does is provide the writer with a range of emotions, their definitions, physical signals, internal sensations, mental responses, cues of long-term emotional effects, and cues to repressed emotion. Through all of these, the writer can better “method act” their characters into life through words alone. I found this visceral approach to “show, don’t tell” so worthwhile that this lesson alone was worth the price.
Not sure what I mean by show vs. tell? I’ll try an example to see if I can depict it honestly.
Jerry saw the news: Chicago nuked by terrorists. He couldn’t believe it: half his family–or more!–wiped out in the mother of all fires. And for what? He swore revenge right there and then.
Jerry turned on the TV, saw a wide-eyed reporter with pursed lips and watery eyes explain with a shaky voice, “…terrorist group has claimed responsibility for the destruction. First incorporated in 1837, the city of Chicago has been utterly obliterated by a high-power hydrogen bomb. The casualties…” The news reader choked up, paused, and composed herself. “At a guess, over five million people died in the initial blast. How many might be injured or suffering from radiation burns will take weeks or months to determine as emergency crews from neighboring cities attempt a rescue effort. Because of the electromagnetic pulse and the extent of the damage, we’re only getting fragmentary images, mostly from people in Indiana, Wisconsin, and Rockford, where damage was bad, but survivable.”
The images on the screen were shaky, but featured screaming voices, anguished cries, faces contorted with pain or burns so horrific that blur spots were insufficient to cover the blood or discolored flesh on the screen. “I must warn viewers, that some of the images you are about to see, are extremely disturbing….”
A spasm crossed Jerry’s face. He poked at the mute on the remote, then dropped it as his hands began to shake. He began reciting names as his eyes touched on every cherished face, young and old, and every familiar South Side apartment building, restaurant, and church in the pictures on his wall: “Momma. Daddy. Regina. DaSean. Malcolm. Mokeena. Auntie Jessie. Auntie Carmela….you bastards. You stupid, f—ing bastards!”
The crawl under the news reader’s face shared casualty figures, statements by the President, by Congress, FEMA, the Red Cross… “Who did it?” He shouted at the TV.
Teeth clenched, Jerry picked the remote off the floor and jabbed repeatedly at the mute until the sound came back on. “…nce again, the Department of Homeland Security has confirmed that Al Qaeda has claimed responsibility for the attack, which is unprecedented in the history of terrorism and this country…”
Jerry’s lip turned up in a snarl. He spat at the screen, not caring about the mess. “Okay, that’s fine, you bastards. You’ve made up my mind for me. I will m-make it my mission in life to destroy you.”
But before he took any action in that direction, Jerry collapsed into his recliner and cried long and hard for the next two hours.
Obviously the “Tell” version is a lot shorter, but the “Show” version gives the reader more time to experience and feel the moment along with Jerry. We’re able to “see” Jerry’s character better. “Telling” is brief and, pardon the expression, bloodless. We don’t have a sense of the event nor of Jerry’s reaction to it. Okay, now I get it.
The trick becomes–will I get better or different stories out of this lesson? Time will tell.