Tag Archives: Writing

Make Your Story: Face the Shadow

1 May
NyxPergamonZA

Nyx, Goddess of Night; the Altar of Zeus ~200 BCE

Consider parts of your life-story that you never tell.

You don’t often think about your story when you tell it, because, really, why should you? If someone asks you your heritage, where your family is from, how many brothers and sisters you have, what your parents are like, who your grandparents were, those stories come spilling out fast-fast, without much thought. You tell it the same way with the same rhythms, the same half-smile on your face. And why not? You’ve told those stories the same way your whole life. It’s not like your story ever changes, and, anyway, it’s often a pleasure to relate such stories. Especially to writers like you.

But when people ask you about yourself, you deliberately avoid certain chapters, too. You have to. The person you didn’t marry. The career path you had to forego. A character from your past that you refuse to discuss. These parts of your story are “too much information,” you’ve learned. Offensive.

In this process, you are like Jehovah dividing the world into Night and Day, shedding your personal light on a very small number of scenes while relegating most of your life to night and shadow. When I say “shadow,” I’m talking about the moral need to bring order to one’s life, to deny unwanted aspects of yourself while “promoting” aspects you admire. Carl Jung called this part of ourselves “Shadow,” and he knew what he was talking about. It’s not a bad thing. One must make necessary, moral decisions when concocting a face for the civilized world.

And yet, that process is akin to lying. It’s a lie by omission like creating nothing but clean-white portraits in a clean-white space and spending your days airbrushing out blemishes. That might make a nifty business practice but artists consider the unconsidered. She’s willing to look at pain, her own, she shares it, doesn’t look away, and makes something beautiful from her hurt.

I can tell you as someone who has spent nearly my entire life eclipsed by one of my parents’ dense, dark Shadows that the process Jung describes is totally understandable, at times forgivable, all-too-human, and, yet, so bewildering it’s horrifying. It’s not easy or pleasant, but the Shadow is a human fact. And considering the undesirable , unwanted parts of being human is what writers and artists do.

So consider the shadows of your life while reading my posts in the “Make a Story” series. I challenge you to consider moments in your life that you believe don’t fit into your life-story.

Before jumping into the Writing Prompts below, come up with three stories/scenes from your life that might make good material but which you don’t usually tell about yourself. Give them three quick easy titles for easy reference. Don’t worry, I won’t make you write them out! But I will ask you to play with these scenes.

WRITING PROMPT #1: Without telling the actual stories themselves, write 500 words as fast as you can about what themes you see in these three scenes. What dynamics are similar in them? Do they match up with other themes in your life-story? How do you feel when you consider writing these scenes and how hard would it be to include them in your life-story? Write 500 words. Keep your hand/fingers moving. Don’t stop until the word count is met.

Writing Prompt #2: Choose one the three scenes. Pretend it’s a scene in an excellent movie and you are writing a review of it. Describe how the actor(s) nailed it. Describe how the cinematographer shot it to make it so sad, harrowing, or passionate. How was it edited to make such an effective sequence? Be inventive. Have fun with your imaginary movie. Do this for all three scenes, if you like. Write 500 words. Keep your hand/fingers moving. Don’t stop until the word count is met.

Writing Prompt 3: Choose a symbol for each scene. Choose three hard, bold images that appeal to you and write them down or find photos and place them on note cards. Pin the cards over your writing space. Maybe you won’t include the actual scenes, but perhaps these symbols will appear in your irresistible pages, resonating in your skeleton and bear cosmic meaning for you and you alone.

For now.

Make Your Story is a series of articles by novelist Barth Anderson about things you might consider when writing your life-story, autobiography, or when mining personal material for your art. 

In approaching your life story, consider that you might not know it as well as you think you do. Consider your own life the way you might consider a stranger’s. Consider it unknown territory. Consider what you’ve never considered before.

Make Your Story: Typing the Truth

30 Apr

Consider that your life-story isn’t a bee-line.

It’s at least four stories told in concert whose voices, if executed well, will surge and sing out at different points like four-part harmony or four-piece jazz with solos.

One of these storylines could be very old, maybe a previous generation’s that carries through to your present story. If you choose correctly, this one will act as a firm thumping bassline throughout, one that you (and your audience) will return to often because the past is crucial evidence about you. It needn’t be ancient but it would be best if it were open-ended, unfinished, and not a flashback.

Which old story will you choose?

Is it your birth story? How your family came to live where you were born? Why you are named what you’re named? An ancestor’s decision still echoing in your life now? A story only you know? A secret or a lie or a still-secret lie? Could you do that? Make that secret lie known? Make it part of your story?

WRITING PROMPT #1: Write your birth story or story behind your name so that the last line of your writing ends with, “…and that’s how I came to be sitting here typing these words.”

WRITING PROMPT #2: 500 words. Write the most dangerous truth you have ever written. The one that could destroy lives. Don’t hold back for fear of offending or betraying or hurting anyone else. Type it. Then delete your writing or burn it it if you want to.

Or begin your memoir from there.

veritas

Raffaele Monti’s “Under the Veil” of Veritas, Roman Goddess of Truth. Destroyed 1936.

Make Your Story is a series of articles by novelist Barth Anderson about things you might consider when writing your life-story, autobiography, or when mining personal material for your art. 

In approaching your life story, consider that you might not know it as well as you think you do. Consider your own life the way you might consider a stranger’s. Consider it unknown territory. Consider what you’ve never considered before.

Make Your Story: Make Your Hero

29 Apr

Consider heroism.

Do you grasp your heroism already or are you writing in order to catch a glimpse of it? Either way is good. Just be aware which is you before you start writing.

Be aware that tracking a plot isn’t enough to describe a “hero’s journey,” and rising from nothing isn’t in itself heroic. Exemplary, yes. Brave. But heroism is a trait, not a journey, and I don’t think Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell are correct that killing the dragon is enough to be a hero. Many people, kindly grandfathers and selfish douchebags alike, can and should take rightful action to save their own skins.

It’s why someone kills a dragon that matters. Heroes act out of compassion. Heroes are generous. They give it all away to kill that dragon.

It’s important to point this out because the “lowest common denominator” approach to defining heroic status in the wake of Joseph Campbell’s and Carl Jung’s theories about heroism don’t serve narrative or memoir well. The Jungian formula is “You did a thing you were anxious about = You ARE Heroic.”

Now if that’s personally meaningful to you, I approve. That matters. To you.

But when it comes to telling a life-story, you must face the reality that you are opening such a claim to scrutiny. Some say self-sacrifice makes a hero, not just facing dragons. Some say audacious acts of bravery in the face of superior numbers make a hero. Don’t be surprised if many readers are skeptical or simply don’t agree that your story’s protagonist is heroic simply because you’re using the “hero’s journey” as a format.

So consider some questions before you begin.

Am I a hero or a protagonist in my own story? Am I willing to cast myself as “un-heroic”? Am I aiming for realism or heroism?

If you gave your hero a motto, what would it be? Is your heroic motto validated by the story’s end, or will the hero exchange it for another after the climax? Who “wins” in your story: the hero’s motto, the hero, or the world?

Arrange some of the stories/scenes that you want to relate in your life-story on note cards or on a spreadsheet. Divide them up in three piles/sections: SHOWS COMPASSION; SHOWS SELFISHNESS; HAS REVELATION. Does your protagonist seem heroic to you? What do your hero’s revelation/revelations consist of? What is this hero’s particular journey about? Is heroism a status that your character wishes to receive? Do you wish it for your character (who is you)? Why?

Why are you writing this story? Do you have something to give by telling it? Is it, in and of itself, an act of self-sacrifice? Is telling it a heroic act? A gift?

You are always the protagonist in your own story, but are you the real hero of it? Imagine for a minute, it’s not you. Who is the true hero? Who has acted so heroically that you would not be you without their generosity, bravery, audaciousness?

WRITING PROMPT. 500 words right now. Choose one. Or keep writing and use all three. (1) Describe a personal anecdote in which you came off as selfish, egotistical. (2) Describe a personal anecdote in which you showed generosity and were exceedingly selfless. (3) Describe a scene in which someone else acted “heroically” for you.

Make Your Story is a series of articles by novelist Barth Anderson about things you might consider when writing your life-story, autobiography, or when mining personal material for your art. 

hero

Make Your Hero

Make Your Story: Flashbacks

28 Apr

Make Your Story is a series of articles by novelist Barth Anderson about things you might consider when writing your life-story, autobiography, or when mining personal material for your art. 

In approaching your life story, consider that you might not know it as well as you think you do. Consider your own life the way you might consider a stranger’s. Consider it unknown territory. Consider what you’ve never considered before.

Consider your flashbacks.

Your life-story isn’t one long flashback. It’s a narrative that incorporates a handful of flashbacks to create a particular dramatic effect of your choosing.

When you look at old pictures of someone you didn’t know twenty years ago, this dramatic effect is instant, often comical. You see them in funny haircuts and wildly different clothes. Their cosmetic game is entirely different. On point, but – wow. The effect is jarring because you know them as one person, but two decades earlier, they were someone you barely recognize.

This is elemental storytelling 101. Storytelling is change. A character was this, but then they became that. Flashbacks perform this change instantaneously while also setting up further plot-points, for greater change down the line. Dramatic gas for multiple storytelling engines: flashbacks.

But more than a fun costume change, a well-considered flashback can be used to drop your life-story’s main character right into boiling water. That’s a stronger dramatic effect than the reader seeing you in acid-wash jeans and a mullet: The character we’ve come to identify with was in trouble as a kid. That’s going to cut closer to the reader’s heart.

And yours.

What was “the boiling water” when you were twelve? When you were four? What made that water so dangerous and hot to begin with? Why in the world was a four-year-old thrown into boiling water? Who did that to you? Who tried to help? Why couldn’t they stop it? Why didn’t you perish? What was the fallout from that horrible scene?

The answers to those questions will create dramatic tension/contrast with the main narrative of your life-story.

You don’t have to flashback to agony and pain, of course, but whatever mood you set up in the main narrative should be contrasted in flashback. If it’s a humorous story in the “now,” then maybe the flashback should show something somber. If the mood is dour in the now, consider flashbacking to color and a dance of emotion.

The worst thing you can do with a flashback is make a static image of yourself that makes the flashback stand as a prop, an old-fashioned jacket that doesn’t get worn and has no effect, dramatic or aesthetic, on the story as a whole. This is a kind of forgetfulness on your part, letting the memory of a memory stand in for actual observation from you as a writer. To avoid this, you need to see yourself in the past the way you see yourself now, someone faced with possibilities and choices — yes, even as a child you had choices. Previous choices will make flashbacks dance. Consider those around you if you are remembering a time when you were very young. The people around you-as-a-child had thousands of choices to make that had a bearing on what you became, the choices you eventually made when you were older. They might have more to do with you than you realize, even if you think you know your story.

Exercise time:

Consider a flashback scene. Consider a time when you were very young. But rather than writing from the point of view of you as a child, write it from the angle of someone near you, back then. Drop yourself into a fierce, sharp, or passionate agenda of someone responsible for you. Or opposed to you. Account for that character’s agenda in your scene. If they are a villain, make them villainous, but make them round and believable with tone and realness. 500 words. Keep your pen/keyboard moving. Go.

lethe

Gustav Dore, “Dante Submerged in the River Lethe”

 

 

Make Your Story: Welcome to the Beginning

27 Apr

Make Your Story is a series of articles by novelist Barth Anderson about things you might consider when writing your life-story, autobiography, or when mining personal material for your art. 

In approaching your life story, you should consider that you might not know it as well as you think you do. Consider your own life the way you might consider a stranger’s. Consider it unknown territory. Terra incognita. If you don’t, you’ll miss diamonds hiding in the shadows and truths you never considered. Consider what you’ve never considered before.

Consider your life-story’s beginning.

Where would you start? Don’t be too chronological. If you were going to start writing your story right this minute, what would the first scene be? Consider a vibrant welcome for your reader as she walks through the doorway of your story. Consider your most crucial moment. Consider your greatest triumph. Consider what’s actually fascinating to other people. About you.

What’s the hook to being you?

#makeyourstory

Janus god Sculpture

Janus, Roman God of Doorways

Make Your Story: Treasures from the Underworld

27 Apr

Make Your Story is a series of articles by novelist Barth Anderson about things you might consider when writing your life-story, autobiography, or when mining personal material for your art. 

In approaching your life story, you should consider that you might not know it as well as you think you do. Consider your own life the way you might consider a stranger’s. Consider it unknown territory. Terra incognita. If you don’t, you’ll miss diamonds hiding in the shadows and truths you never considered. Consider what you’ve never considered before.

Consider the darkest. Consider the most painful. Remember that time you had to walk through the underworld.

Do you remember what you were most afraid of being true while you made that trek? So afraid that you probably don’t ever tell that part of your story aloud, because you can’t bear to say the words, report what actually happened?

Let that stay unsaid – keep its mystery potent – but create a single vivid concrete symbol for it. It could be a cursed treasure or a white-eyed demon. Your underworld symbol can be frightening or it could be random, dreamlike. It can be mythic or culturally known, but it’s best if this figure resonates with threat and menace from your unspoken fear so that it hums that way in your story/performance, too.

#makeyourstory

 

Dore_Gustave_21_Curs-d_wolf_thy_fury_inward_on_thyself_prey_and_consume_thee

Gustav Dore, “Cursed wolf, thy fury inward on thyself prey and consume thee.” (1857)

 

 

Cliches are the Opposite of Truth: KILLING THEM ALL

14 May

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Cliches are your worst enemy as a writer.

They’re death to you because a cliche is someone else’s thought, and, worse, it’s a phrase or image from your culture’s collection of junk-thoughts that are most often said to fill up dead, silent, useless space.

Such words are not golden. They’re trash.

Cliche is the mark of someone who is uncomfortable with their own turn of phrase, who doesn’t know how their own creativity works. That’s the opposite of a writer’s task.

Cliches are fine for office emails. But as a writer, you must l-o-v-e LOVE creating your own original thoughts, striking your own observations. Simply repeating the stock phrases, pieces of wisdom, plot devices, character traits, and story lines of so many others is inexcusable for a writer. Read tons and learn to spot tired cliches (or better, trendy statements that will SOON be cliches). Weave diamonds with your sentences and make reality out of thin air.

To do that, you need to write in the truth of the truth. You can’t do that if your brain churns out cliches, which are sentiments, ultimately. Symbols of feeling, and not a feeling itself.

“That’s the way it goes.”

“It is what it is.”

“I love her more than life itself.”

“Curses, foiled again.”

These are symbols of feelings. They’re melodrama, not drama. You can write a cliche in the first draft, that’s cool, if it’s a place marker for where you can drive in your shovel and dig up the gold later.

Let me show you exactly how to do this. Answer me, por favor: In the story you’re writing right now, what does your main character want more than anything? Write it out in a single sentence as an “I” statement. Make it emotional. Make it hurt. Break your own heart with that sentence.

If you need some inspiration, take Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride as an example: What does he want more than anything? Revenge. He says it when he first meets the Man in Black and repeats it frequently throughout The Princess Bride. He wants to kill the six-fingered man and pay him back for killing his father. Boom. That’s it.

Now…that’s a cliche. And in the storybook world in which writer William Goldman operates, he lets that tired cliche stand through the whole movie. But he is going to deliver a twist that makes it all work and freshens the cliche with real feeling. Goldman knows that revenge is not the heart-breaking “I” statement, nor is it the real truth of Inigo Montoya, the real feeling that his character feels in the pit of his heart. REVENGE is something fine to write on a note card next to your hero’s name. But when writers say “write the truth,” this is what they’re really talking about:

“I want my father back, you son of a bitch.”

That’s the line. Montoya doesn’t want revenge, really, and Goldman knows it. But he holds it back, let’s Montoya come to that line in the most dramatic moment so the line is yanked our of him. Finally, facing the villain of his dreams, Montoya says, “Promise me riches! Promise me everything I desire!” He doesn’t say, “Ha ha! Vengeance is mine!” or “Now I have you!” Goldman is too good a writer for that. In the final moment when Montoya finally has his quarry cornered, Goldman let’s the real feeling out, and it’s like a gunshot. We realize this is not just a cliche storybook fairy tale. There’s a true feeling to be experienced.

That’s your goal in writing your character’s greatest want. If you can’t give yourself a sob, raise a shiver in your own skin, or imagine readers looking up from your book in sheer awe when you distill that character’s longing down to a single sentence (and then use it when it’s most effective in your story), then you haven’t hit the truth of your character’s truth yet. Get closer. Jump the rails and sneak past the symbols of feeling, the sentiment and cliche, the stories your teachers, friends, parents, and family approve of. And write the fuck out of that character.