Gone for a While…

Just a quick update to let any readers I might have know that I won’t be blogging until after August 10th.

In addition to being a writer and a graphic artist, I am incredibly blessed to be a Young Life leader. Tomorrow morning I will be leaving for a summer camp in Canada with the rest of my leadership team and twelve high school kids.

I am so excited for what these next days will bring!

My day, basically.

Speaking in Silence.

“I closed my mouth and spoke to you in a hundred silent ways.”

— Rumi

I love this quote, not only because it is a beautiful idea, but also because it sparks an interesting idea for writing… Would it be possible to write a scene where two people hold an entire conversation without speaking a single word? I will have to try it out and see what happens.

If anybody has written or read a scene like this, I’d love to see it! Comment with a link or a book recommendation if you have one.

Biggar is Shrinking.

Today I used a prompt for Setting which required me to write about Biggar, Saskatchewan, which is apparently a real town. The catch? I wasn’t allowed do any research. Biggar, Saskatchewan would become whatever my mind created. Fun, right?

So, Biggar, Saskatchewan, I apologize for this rather drearily insulting portrayal. I’m sure you are a lovely town.


derelict-1496718

Biggar, Saskatchewan, was shrinking, even eight years ago when I first came here. In fact, if it weren’t for the signs at the edge of the highway, you could drive right past and never know it existed. Most people don’t even notice the signs.

The five hundred or so permanent residents (including women, children, and bobcats) at the time all had an air of having gone far beyond caring about much of anything, and the town’s appearance reflected that attitude. Paint was left to chip and curl away from the walls of the houses, which were streaked with lichen and moss. In the Spring, melted snow puddled in the muddy yards and on the sagging porches, where people had to learn which boards were safe to step on. Venetian blinds hung crookedly, or were forgone completely, leaving the mineral-stained windows to be covered with squares of faded tie-dye left over from the hippie days. 

In the middle of town, the few dingy little businesses clustered together, showing a wary, almost hostile front to the world. Flies buzzed aimlessly around the check-out counter of the general store, and dashed themselves against the streaked windows. The girly posters slapped up on the walls of the convenience store attached to the gas station showcased burnt-orange bodies in high-waisted, French-cut bikinis, and the single hairdresser’s shop still offered business in front and a party in the back. After all, why keep up appearances — it’s not like there’s any competition to worry about. Off to the edge of town, the long-abandoned motel sat empty and gaping to the wind. Most of the doors were forced years ago, by looters looking for things to sell, or bored young people looking for excitement and a place to get away.

These days, most of the young people have gotten away for good, moving on as soon as they could find work to take them away. In consequence, hardly any new children have been born to take their place. The people who are left are all of one kind: Taciturn and suspicious; with dug-in heels and set ways. The only thing binding them together (besides a hatred of civilization and Big Government that runs deeper than their hatred of each other) seems to be a shared philosophy of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Perception and Point of View.

Lately I’ve been reading a fantastic book from the editors of Writer’s Digest called Crafting Novels & Short Stories. Crafting Novels & Short StoriesThe first two sections, on Characters and Plot & Conflict, were magnificent and exciting. Section three, on Point of View, I was less than excited about beginning. Basically, my thoughts were “Yeah, yeah, first-person, third-person, omniscient, limited, yada yada yada I KNOW all this…”

Which should teach me a lesson. One of the chapters, “Using Perception to Enhance Your POV” by Alicia Rasley absolutely blew my mind. In it, she shows you how to Examine your POV character’s way of seeing the world, and how that can change the arc of the story.

For example, which of the five senses is dominant in your character? Is he visual, auditory, or tactile? What is your character’s temperament? Is she an optimist or a pessimist, emotional or rational? What is your character’s personality style? Their learning style?

She blows wide apart the classic middle school exercise of “using all five senses in a scene.” Think about it: How many of us actually notice things with all five senses? I haven’t met a single one, as far as I know. And what a relief, as I’ve certainly read (and written, to my everlasting chagrin) plenty of scenes that are completely bogged down in too much description. Those are the scenes we all skip, right?

At the end of the chapter, she includes a list of nine questions to ask your POV character, which you answer in their first-person voice, to help you define their perception. I did the exercise with the main character of my struggling little WIP (the first chapter of which I shared in this post), and it really helped me to see how much I already knew about him, as well as highlighting some confusions that he has about himself which will clarify the conflict.

Needless to say, I am completely stoked.

Peel Your Own Image from the Mirror.

Love After Love

by Derek Walcott

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

I love this poem. It captures so beautifully the longing and ache of recovering from heartbreak, and the joy of rediscovering yourself after you have been buried in someone else for so long. Or even if you haven’t experienced this kind of heartbreak, the world has such a way of ripping your heart to shreds in whatever way it can.

Oh, and if you’re more of an auditory person than a visual one, here’s a lovely voice doing a lovely reading:

My Sister’s Clothes.

Disclaimer: I don’t have a sister. Many of the pieces of writing I share on Fridays are written in the first person POV, but don’t (please, please don’t) assume they are in any way autobiographical. I assure you, I will tell you if they are. I just happen to write a lot in first person. It’s simply what I’m most comfortable with, for whatever reason.

So, without further ado, here’s this week’s bit of non-autobiographical nonsense.


As I got up from my desk to stretch and straightened the front of my blazer, I suddenly saw myself as a thirteen-year-old, looking down at the unfamiliar new shape of my chest in a bright yellow tee shirt. Funny, I can’t remember now if the shirt was mine or my sister’s. 

Two years older than me, she seemed so grown up, so poised. Everything stayed in place, and she never stained her clothes or knocked things over with surprising elbows. I was always “borrowing” things from her, although I knew it meant facing her inevitable wrath later. She wanted to keep everything separate, but the more she shut the doors between us, the more I tried to break them down. 

I wanted so desperately to be close to her, so I wore her clothes. My child’s brain somehow believed that if I wrapped myself in her, I could pull out some of her essence and hold it for myself. That if I could take on her garments, I could also take on her grace. 

When I visit my sister now, fifteen years later, I still find myself wanting to run straight to her closet. Sometimes, I do.

Avoiding Cotton Candy.

A common whine for me is that it is so much easier to come up with depressing story ideas than happy ones. I mean, I can cook up gloom, doom, death, and destruction at the drop of a hat, but every time I try to think of something uplifting, I end up with cotton candy. Boring. Not good. So, in the interests of figuring out how to craft a story that is both happy and compelling, I enlisted the aid of my fantastic brother, Seth, to analyze one of our favorite happy stories, the movie Letters To Juliet starring Amanda Seyfried as Sophie, Vanessa Redgrave as Claire, and Christopher Egan as Charlie.

(Total spoiler alert on this trailer, by the way. But it’s a nice overview in case you haven’t seen the movie. You should watch it anyway, because it’s adorable.)

I know, I know, it looks like complete fluff. I mean, its based around falling in love on an Italian road trip, for heaven’s sake! Yet somehow it manages to hold your interest, and I wanted to know how, so I can hopefully harness some of that for my own work. So here’s what we discovered as we discussed it:

While the story is primarily a romantic comedy, each of the main characters have deeper emotional vulnerabilities. Sophie has insecurities about herself based on being abandoned by her mother at an early age, which leads her to subjugate her own desires to what other people expect from her, and to stay in a relationship that is clearly not working. Claire walked away from true love because of expectations and responsibilities, and has been regretting it for fifty years. Charlie lost his parents in a car accident as a child, and that caused him to become overly cautious, and to safeguard his emotions behind a wall of “realism.”

Any or all of these motifs could have been handled in a dark way, but in this story we are only shown glimpses of them, and they are always embedded in something positive, like humor, relationship building, or simply the beauty of the surroundings. Most of the story is focused on the characters moving beyond their vulnerabilities; Claire comes to find her true love, Sophie elects to follow her true passion and write about the journey, and Charlie throws caution to the winds and has fun for a change.

Still, the emotional risks of the journey are obvious enough that by the time you reach the crisis, when they are afraid that Claire’s Lorenzo is dead, and all of Sophie’s insecurities are brought to a head by Charlie accusing her of using Claire and telling her that she “doesn’t know a thing about real loss,” we aren’t left with a feeling of “Whoa, that came out of nowhere.” You begin to feel like this could really be the end of all of their hopes, so that when Claire gets her happy ending, there is a real sense of relief, and you are even more anxious to see Sophie and Charlie get theirs.

Now, I’m not saying with all of this that I want to write chick flicks, or their literary equivalent. But I think the key for me was realizing that vulnerabilities don’t have to be the primary focus of the story in order to have an impact. They can, and often should, be embedded in lighter things.

The Dumb Struggle.

The author who benefits you most is not the one who tells you something you did not know before, but the one who gives expression to the truth that has been dumbly struggling in you for utterance.

– Oswald Chambers

While I love books that tell me something I did not know before, egghead that I am, I must say that this is absolutely true. There is nothing quite like the feeling of encountering something that inside yourself has been nothing more than a dull ache, or a fizzing along your spine, translated into perfect prose. Those are the moments that make your heart leap into your throat, that make you scramble for a notebook and pen (or smartphone, in this lovely era of interconnectedness), that make you run to find someone to share your excitement with.

What a precious, valuable thing we writers are charged with!

The Noble Work.

Well, this week’s writing has either been trash, or it has been good enough that I’m not sure (at this point) if I want to share it here, or develop it into something really good. So instead, I’m going to give you the first bit of my novel-in-progress, which is actually the product of last year’s National Novel Writing Month, and what made me realize that I could actually do this whole writing thing.

I call it “The Noble Work” for the simple reason that I don’t believe it is. But it has its points, and I’m going to soldier through to the final draft, whenever that may come. If nothing else, it is good practice.

A reminder: this is nowhere near finished. In fact, it’s only the second draft, so don’t expect brilliance. But if you like anything you see, I’d love to hear about it.

Anyhow, hope you enjoy this bite.


 

I’m on edge, like every nerve in my body knows nothing will be the same. Like all my cells are being exchanged in this one single day, instead of taking seven years, like they’re supposed to. It’s been so long since I’ve blinked that I’m not sure I still can. My eyeballs feel like they’re shrinking and cracking open. I sit huddled sideways in the back seat of the white van, my hands gripping my shoulders and my chin propped on my wrists. The seat belt is digging into my side, but I’m too nervous to make it more comfortable.

Watching the landscape slide past the window makes me shaky and sick to my stomach. For all my seventeen years, every window I’ve looked out of has had its own particular view, as familiar and solid as a name, but the views outside these windows never stop changing. When we left the Center this morning, there were the trees and bushes I was used to, but after a while nature gave way to buildings, taller than even the tallest trees I had seen. And people. So many people. They seemed to cover the ground. It was like watching bacteria through a microscope. I almost believed that I saw some of them split apart and become two. But none of them looked the same. That was the scariest part. Not one single person looked like the next. While we were in the city, I was glad the windows were so dark. Otherwise, I would have felt like the whole world could see me.

Now the big buildings have changed to small houses. One or two floors each, with yards. It’s kind of unbelievable how much they look like the movies. I never quite believed places like this existed. But they do, because here they are. It’s such a crazy feeling, I almost forget how nervous I am, staring at them. But then the van slows, and I can hear the driver and the man in the gray suit muttering numbers. And I realize what these houses mean. We’re almost there. My heart starts to pound hard, like it’s trying to knock my lungs out of the way. I try to focus on inhaling and exhaling evenly. I wish I could close my eyes.

I see the man in the suit straighten up in his seat a moment before he speaks. “Fourteen-oh-nine. That’s it. Pull in here.”

My throat is tight from trying to suck in air, and the sound of the driver shifting into park is deafening.

The man in the suit turns and looks at me. “I’ll just run up to the door to make sure everything is in order. Stay put. I’ll come and get you when everything is ready.” I just look at him. He doesn’t need to tell me to stay put. Where the heck would I go? I notice he doesn’t use my name. He doesn’t even call me “kid,” like Rodney used to. Maybe he isn’t sure what to call me.

He runs up the paved path to the door and knocks, and I allow my eyes to wander and take in my surroundings. House 1409 is shaped just like the one next to it, but flipped the other direction. They would look like mirror images, except that House 1409 is pale gray, and the other one is green. The grass is separated from the house by a strip of beauty bark, and that makes me feel a little better. I used to be able to see a strip of beauty bark at the base of the wall under Dr. Sherman’s window.

As I try to decide whether the door is red or brown, it swings open. A woman comes out, followed by a man. Their eyes slide straight past the man on their porch, and narrow as they look at the van, as if they’re trying to see through the windows. I’m pretty sure they can’t see me, but I still feel exposed.

The man in the suit steps toward them, and he must be asking a question, because they both drag their eyes away from the van and stare at him for a moment before nodding their heads. Then the man in the suit hands them a bunch of papers on a clipboard, and the couple bend over them, frowning, as he points to the places where they have to write something. There are a lot of papers, and lots of places for writing, and I’m glad of that. I know there is one more person inside that house, and I want him to show himself while I’m still in the van. It’s stupid of me, because I already know what he looks like, but for some reason I just have to see him before he sees me.

Eventually they finish with the papers, and he still hasn’t come out. The man in the suit takes back the clipboard and starts walking back down the path towards the van. They must be ready for me now.

I’m not ready. I fix my eyes on the shadowy doorway, willing him to show himself. I want to stay in here, protected by the dark windows. But I have no choice.

The man slides open the door of the van, and it’s like all my safety has slid away with it.

“Okay, everything’s set. Come on out.”

Before I have time to move, the driver says, “I’ve been keeping an eye on the other houses. Nobody’s watching.” He hasn’t looked at me once since I got in the van, and I wonder if he’s talking to me or the man. Maybe both of us.

Checking my breathing one last time, I make sure all my facial muscles are relaxed and under control, so they don’t register any of my thoughts. As I step out of the van, I’m afraid I’ll fall apart like I did this morning. But when I raise my eyes to the house again, everything else fades away.

There he is.

He’s leaning against the door frame, half in, half out. He must have appeared while I was focused on making it out of the van. Our eyes lock, and even from this distance I can see his eyes widen and then blink, his jaw slackening. I can’t blame him. It has to feel pretty weird, watching yourself walk toward you.

 


Okay, well, that felt weird. I’ve been taking time off from the book, so I can attack the next draft with fresh eyes, so this is the first time I’ve looked at it in over a month.

 

A Rhetorically Dissipated Day.

Guys.

I have not yet written today.

Do I feel bad about it? Am I berating myself for my irresponsible laziness?

Not really, no.

I spent the day reading The Elements of Eloquenceby Mark Forsyth, otherwise known as “The Inky Fool.” (The links are to the book’s listing on Amazon and Mr. Forsyth’s blog, respectively, by the way.) I’ve studied the rhetorical devices before, and I’m not going to lie, I found them mind-numbingly dull. In fact, I was bored out of my gourd. But this book, ladies and gents, THIS BOOK IS HILARIOUS. And I’m actually learning. I mean, listen to this definition of Pleonasm:

“Pleonasm is the use of unneeded words that are superfluous and unnecessary in a sentence that doesn’t require them. It’s repeating the same thing again twice, and it annoys and irritates people…”

“… I have never said the words ‘free gift.’ It would seem a sinister thing to say when gathered around the Christmas tree. ‘Here’s my free gift, and, as an added bonus, here’s a festive Christmas card.’ People would think I’d gone mad. Yet, if you wander into a shop or make the terrible mistake of turning on the television or radio, you will hear of havens that are safe, cooperation that is mutual, and prizes that are, it turns out, to be won.”

Come on. If that isn’t the best way to make the definition of Pleonasm stick in your head, I’d like to see your way. He also has his fantastically British way of putting things working in his favor, and demonstrates the various verse meters with “te-TUM te-TUM te-TUM” and “higgledy piggledy wiggledy woo.”

I’m sold.

Add to that the fact that he quotes everybody from Shakespeare to P.G. Wodehouse to Katy Perry as examples, and I’d say that my day has been well spent.

Note: I don’t intend for this blog to become a book-review blog, but I simply couldn’t resist, in this case. I’m enjoying it so much. Just call it part of my toolkit, and it becomes as much a part of my writing process as anything else.