Seeing Things: One Writer’s Call

The old weathered post wore a sculpted head, its curves elegant, shapely. Rising from the sand, it framed the right edge of the vista that spread beyond the crest of the hill that led me to Lake Huron.

As a teen living near the lake, I walked along shore to think. Up the hill I’d scramble, my feet sunk in sand. At the crest, I’d pause to gape: that horizon stretch of blue-silver with the post anchoring the corner of the picture I always imagined taking.

Then one day I climbed the hill and—no post. Gone. Disappointment surged through me. Later, when I lamented to family members about the missing post, they said, “What post?”

The post became my symbol for that Something About Me—that part of me that noticed things others didn’t. My physical eye saw details like the post. My inner eye saw other details—emotional currents, nonverbal signals.

This seeing, at times, propelled me into isolation. It wasn’t an attribute I prized. My pain echoed in the words of Lara, the character from the Russian novel Doctor Zhivago. For Lara also asked, “Why is it my fate to see everything and take it all to heart?”

As teachers encouraged me to write—to record what my seeing revealed, this trait gradually became a gift. I began encountering ways of understanding this seeing. Catherine Marshall’s novel, Christy, taught me that God might be the One asking me to see. Christy’s mentor explains, “God had to take my little girl hands off my little girl eyes.” This idea electrified me. I understood. Be willing to see. This was what He asked.

Other reading confirmed my calling to bear witness. Another Russian, poet Anna Akhmatova, showed me how needed is this skill:

In the terrible years of the Yezhov terror, I spent seventeen months waiting in line outside the prison in Leningrad. One day somebody in the crowd identified me. Standing behind me was a woman, with lips blue from the cold….Now she started out of her torpor…and asked me in a whisper, “Can you describe this?” And I said, “I can.” Then something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had once been her face.

A recognized poet—her power to see and to name—stirred a desperate woman’s hope. I would try. I would try to look around me, to be the one to see. My seeing was a gift, the writing too—to be the one who would.

Excerpted from Creative Juices: A Splash of Story Craft, Process & Creative Soul Care (2019)

 

 

Word Craft and Wood Craft

Longtime nonfiction writer Larry Cheek, who wrote for national magazines like Arizona Highways, learned something of life and craft as he used his hands to build a thirteen-foot sailing dinghy in his garage.

His slow learning and adept noticing, his quiet, patient work along with his frustrations and discouragement, letting his hands learn the feel of wood—when it’s wet enough to bend or dry enough to glue. His hands learned; he learned. And over a year’s time, his hands built his sailboat, Far From Perfect, that in full sail transported him to the dock at Whidbey Island, ready to teach MFA-level writers about writing craft.

Cheek’s woodworking lessons, recorded in his book The Year of the Boat, echo lessons about word working.

Woodcraft teaches how to hone the lip of a piece of wood to fit with another, how to sand and smooth so splinters will not ruin your next voyage. Story craft teaches how to listen so hard to words that you hear beneath them—their cadence, their musicality. How you use dialogue and plot and characterization. How you use words to describe, to bring to life the world of story.

Dream Details: Corkboards and Character Pics

Corkboard lust. I have it in spades. Not one. Not two. Not even three. No, four corkboards hang in my writing room, filled with pictures. Crammed full, I should say.

These pictures guide the most basic ingredient of all in my fiction writing: specific details. They help me see my characters. It doesn’t matter that I’ve now traveled with my characters Trish and Maria and Pastor Goodman for ten years. The pictures support me like training wheels on a kiddo’s bike. They stabilize my mental image of a character’s face, hair, hands, pose.

Old pictures of a young Candice Bergen—yeah, that award-winning actor—saturate my description: the square watch face, the pigtails, the sunglasses on her head. Another Bergen shot in warm light is an extreme close up where her fingers curl around her forward blowing hair. These pictures coax me to see Esther, co-protagonist Trish’s mom.

Another actor coaches my ability to see Trish herself. I had clipped pictures of an Eddie Bauer model—who, like Trish had long blond hair. But then I saw Another Earth and Brit Marling in action. Trish! Marling’s appearance delivered needed specifics: dark level brows, a steady and direct gaze.

And what of Matthew Goodman? The face and hair of actor Bruce Greenwood feeds my imagination. Goodman needs good looks to succeed in broadcast. Greenwood, although now aged past my character, maintained a boyish yet dignified appearance. How? The deep forehead, the thick hair, the wideset eyes.

These pictures and their ready availability on corkboards fuel my imagination—and the dream details I need with which to lull my readers.

Excerpted from Creative Juices: A Splash of Story Craft, Process & Creative Soul Care (2019)

 

 

 

The Backlist: A Town Like Alice (1950)

He was an aeronautical engineer by day and novelist by night. Oxford educated and bit of a pilot daredevil, he tried to keep his writing success—of which he’d have much—apart from his day job. So, as an engineer, he was known as Nevil Shute Norway. As a writer, Nevil Shute.

Shute completed his first novel in 1923 at 24 years old. His second was published three years later, and from there, minus a six-year break, he finished a novel every two years.

A Town like Alice remains one of my favorites. This 1950 WW2 novel, made into a film twice and a radio production once, is my old friend whose company I revisit again and again.

Protagonist Jean Paget speaks to me. She is a quiet British typist whose penchant for the Malaysian language from childhood saves her life—and seventeen others.

Jean follows her brother back to Malaysia as a young single only to be caught unawares with other expats in the tsunami of Japanese overthrow.  Herded with thirty-two British women and children, Jean begins the walk that will kill many. There are no prison camps for women. Instead they walk. Twelve hundred miles.

As the scraggly band head east and arrive near Kuantan, Jean encounters two Australian POWs, one of which is Joe Harman.

If this story has sunk into my bones, then it’s safe to say that the war stories the novel is based on sunk into Shute’s bones too. For example, the seed from which Joe Harman lives is the Australian Herbert James “Ringer” Edwards who survived a 63-hour crucifixion.

This novel became an international best seller. As I read it for the fifth or sixth time, I know why. Shute’s characters speak to the readers of his day. Joe and Jean try desperately to return to normal, but because of war trauma, cannot. So, they create a new normal.

After my MFA where I was so focused on fiction craft, I worried. Would I still love A Town like Alice? I found Shute’s omniscient narrator a little dated and saw that he cheated a bit with point of view. But the story still rivets me.

Jean. She’s so self-effacing and smart—and kind. She assess a situation and acts. And Joe. If his Australian phrases like “a fair cow” leave me a little puzzled, I don’t mind. I hear his slow speech and just really like him.

The last film production was 1983. Actor Bryan Brown plays Joe—and is Joe to me. But the story aches for an updated version. Soon? I hope.

A Town like Alice. A story worth remembering.

 

Valuable Tools: Old-fashioned Journaling

Journal? I grumbled. Me?

I was stuck. My subplots were knots where I needed lines. But how could I get going again? An answer haunted my mind: Journal! That familiar tool? How about a magic wand instead?

Of course, I knew journaling’s benefits. Writing theorist Peter Elbow has long promoted prewriting exercises like brainstorming or listing. These approaches do for us what we, from northern climates, do to our car on a winter’s day: we run the engine while in park. And though our car only sits in one place in those few moments, something important happens.

Another expert, Dr. James Pennebaker, cites research that connects physical health with expressive writing, i.e. journaling. And creativity guru Julia Cameron compares morning pages—again journaling—to a spiritual alignment.

Me journal? For figuring subplots? I eyed my resistance. “You should journal every day,” a voice said. Fingers had wagged at me over journaling, and now shame cooled my desire.

Bah-hum-bug.

I overrode my resistance, though, and reached for a pen. I dug out my long-neglected notebook and wrote one paragraph.

Something within me loosened. An idea arrived and brought along an idea’s best friend, energy. The knot slipped loose. I opened my manuscript document and wrote.

Excerpted from Creative Juices: A Splash of Story Craft, Process & Creative Soul Care (2019)

 

Gold Stars & Other Fine Rewards

Miss Sorenson had me at “Hello, class. Welcome to fourth grade.” She was kind, not like that other one, who had once rapped my knuckles at recess. Even more importantly to my nine-year-old values were Miss Sorenson’s suede pumps. These pumps were the color of a purple crayon.

Her glamour fascinated me. But Miss Sorenson motivated me another way: her glittering gold stars. Like many teachers, she topped good homework with a five-point sticker. Was her approach original? No. Thousands of elementary teachers place gold stars on noteworthy assignments. Why? Because it works. Think B.F. Skinner.

This spring, I purchased a packet of gold stars from Spring Grove Variety. Now these stars glimmer on scene cards that hold good writing and on book titles I’ve read for class. Each time I award myself a star, positive memory surges through me. Fourth grade accomplishments. Miss Sorenson. Those purple suede shoes. Well done, I think. You did it!

My reward system isn’t limited, however, to literal gold stars. An ice cream cone, a walk, a day off will do. Giving me a gold star helps quiet the Critic’s voice and keeps me heartened. I achieved my goal. And I notice.

And what will be my gold star for getting a book contract? I have no doubt. Purple suede shoes.

Excerpted from Creative Juices: A Splash of Story Craft, Process & Creative Soul Care (2019)

 

The Famous Brian Doyle and His Masterful Word Play

His hands fluttered. The Pacific Northwest writer—middle height and slight with a feathered do from the 90s—was about to address the MFA students who had filled Captain Whidbey’s Inn. I worried. Could this nervous guy do it? I was to learn: boy, could he. Here was no ordinary writer. This was Brian Doyle.

Doyle, who succumbed to brain cancer last year, knew how to speak. He knew how to write, too. Doyle upped the standard of university magazines and anthologies with his whimsical insights. He was, after all, the master of word play.

For example, his stunning lyrical essay, “Joyas Voladoras,” teaches me. It teaches me the value of a wandering structure minus the enumerated transitions indoctrinated into us by English professors everywhere (like me).

What first reads like a nature article on the wonders of hummingbirds soon moves to its focus:  hearts. The blue whale heart—the largest heart—is explored, and then the human heart. All along in his meandering musings, he’s showing me word play.

Take this sentence about the blue whale: “[The baby blue whale] is waaaaay bigger than your car. It drinks a hundred gallons of milk from its mama every day and gains two hundred pounds a day, and when it is seven or eight years old it endures an unimaginable puberty and then it essentially disappears from human ken, for next to nothing is known of the mating habits, travel patterns, diet, social life, language, social structure, diseases, spirituality, wars, stories, despairs and arts of the blue whale.”

Did you see Doyle’s word play? “Waaaaay,” “mama,” “unimaginable puberty” and so on. We won’t even mention that the sentence held 70 words, which breaks William Zinsser’s readability caution by about 50 words.

So, Doyle offers a gem while breaking composition rules, spelling rules, readability rules. And I love it! (Just don’t tell my students.)

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