Writers Journey: Writing is Ancient...

Writing is an ancient pursuit; in fact ‘writing’ existed before we wrote at all.  Stories have been a constant companion to human beings since before recorded history.  Before we had reason and science we had stories and when there was something we didn’t understand we strove to acknowledge it somehow through telling a story about it.  Stories are also a way to remember what is important.  It’s important as a writer to set aside all personal ambition for a moment and really stop and consider the history of the art of words.  We take words for granted so much today.  Nearly everyone can speak, and a lot of people can write.  Today it’s easy to push aside the veneration that writing, that story-telling in particular, deserves. Even an examination of language will confirm that language itself is special, even sacred.  Ancient Hebrew did not contain vowels.  It was conjectured that one possible reason for this omission was to preserve the sanctity of what was being written down for those initiated into its secrets.  If vowels are the ‘breath’ of words, then omitting them stole breath from those trying to read without understanding.  And when we look into the history of language itself, we begin to see in these examples just how important language was and still is today.  Consequently, if this fascinated you then I recommend reading David Abram’s book The Spell of the Sensuous: perception and language in a more-than-human world.  It’s an exploration of language throughout history and reveals more fascinating insights into language itself. When I talk with most aspiring young writers today, their main ambition in writing is to become famous first, and published as a byproduct of that fame.  Never mind the fact that fame itself is such a...

Writers Journey: Writing is Hard...

There are things you should know as a new writer. There are things you should remind yourself as a working writer. The biggest of these is that writing is just hard work for most people. It’s not as fun as people think it is and once you do two or three paragraphs, it gets harder and harder to keep pulling out material. I once heard a great analogy for writing as a process: Writers, unlike other creatives, first have to make their material from scratch. A potter sits down with a lump of clay for example but a writer has to first make the clay with which to work; clay in the shape of the first words of any rough draft. Then a writer gets to work with those words like a potter works with clay. Making the clay can be boring stuff and very hard work besides. In this respect, writers are stuck with an extra layer of work above and beyond other artists. I would say that only a composer of music has the same experience. The composer must first have a piece of music with which to play his or her instrument. On top of that, nonfiction writing is quite difficult even for creative types. Technical writing is hardest of all; even technical writing about artistic endeavors. To explain the process of craftsmanship takes a certain type of person; one who is a good teacher, really, a good expositor. In art school, for example, some of the best fine artists can’t articulate how they do the most basic things. If asked how they made a certain stroke, they would be hard pressed to put that experience into words. This makes sense because many artists are drawn to a non-verbal medium in...

Writers Journey: Poetry and Prose...

I touched on prose and poetry earlier and would do so again now.  The difference is important to determine if only superficially for now. Poetry is a heart-felt expression of a vision that unites people by its utterance.  Poetry speaks to the spirit like a photograph capturing an intangible moment with words that are not often sensible and yet dive down beneath rationality into something within everyone that beats a little deeper.  It is not that prose cannot do this within its structure as well, and I would argue that prose itself may contain moments of poetry within it, as so well-shown by J.R.R. Tolkien’s the Lord of the Rings or lines by James Joyce, such as “Soft morn, City.”  It is more that the vehicle of prose is a different animal, looking to share an experience which is longer than a vision and therefore cannot be a photograph of the ineffable when it must be a long chain unfolding into tangible experience. A good story will bring something new into the world.  So will a good poem.  Both are capable of bringing the reader a new awareness.  At its best, prose pushes past materiality and consumerism into a realm that pulls the reader up out of a sea of merely surviving and into possibilities.  Sometimes witnessing these truths, these possibilities, hurts as a reader, particularly when times are very tough.  It is a good storyteller that will mediate the message to the reader in a way that wakes us up like a man in a Russian classic, so that we exclaim, “Gentleman, I’ve had a good dream.”  We keep that dream, rather than refuse it, because even if it hurt a little, it empowered us. A well-written story seems to slide deeper into...

Writers Journey: Too Long Didn’t Read Culture...

We live in a too-long–didn’t-read culture today. (tl;dr) No one feels this more than the aspiring novelist. The poet may have a better chance at success in such a short-attention-span marketplace. The difference between the poet and the prose writer is worth mentioning either way. There are novels that are filled with poetry. And there are nearly novel-length poems. But the genres are separated by a small distinction in that prose is largely carried by the mind; poetry by the heart. For all of James Joyce’s poetic wording in Ulysses, the story is driven by the rational mind along some essential plot. Whereas a poem goes where the heart goes, even if it is as long as Virgil’s Aeneid, which may be said to have a fragment of plot within its mythic design; the chief ambition is to evoke emotion. A novel evokes an experience that may further produce emotion. Today, we rely on recording devices as our memories. That reliance has advantages but also with it comes the disadvantage of poorly sustained personal memory. A glance down a common list of symptoms for today’s many modern illnesses will reveal ‘difficulties with short and long term memory’ as frequently listed. Sometimes I wonder whether or not this is simply a universal symptom of the human condition today. In the ancient times, poets like Homer had whole ballads the length of The Odyssey and The Iliad in long-term memory, able to call upon those tales at festivals and recite them before an audience. They were trained to do this of course but they came from an oral tradition in which their culture valued recitation of verse at least once a season of every year. We rely very heavily on books to provide us with entertainment...

Writers Journey: On Subject-Matter...

In the last article in this series, I jokingly suggested that a fiction writer might be able to take any subject-matter as their premise as long as their characters were interesting.  Here I would like to pause for a moment and mention that there are some subject-matters that seem dull and some subject-matters that are dull. Insight is the main quality to determining which is which.  Insight followed by a certain amount of sensitivity.  But what is insight?  Merriam-Webster defines it as “the power or act of seeing into a situation: penetration” and also “the act or result of apprehending the inner nature of things or of seeing intuitively.” It’s a good phrase:  seeing into a situation.  When we are looking at subject-matter that may appear dull, it takes a certain level of penetration, of intuitively seeking the inner nature of something that brings its inner luster to the surface.  Like many precious stones that come out of the earth looking like unformed lumps of dull matter, it takes a writer quite a long time of concentrating to determine whether or not something is of any use.  Raw sapphire or emerald appears deceptively uninteresting.  But given the right cuts it can become a faceted gem. A writer may not cut into her subject-matter in order to find and reveal its facets, but should be able to take the reader through the subject-matter in such a way that the journey within becomes as clear as cut crystal.  Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener is a good example of a tale that reveals facets within what might appear to be dull material.  What could be more mundane than the work of a scrivener? Bartleby worked at his craft until one day he answers his employer with what soon...

Writer’s Journey: True Characterization...

Compared to any other form of writing, the novel is the most psychological, followed closely by the short story.  A short story may not have as much time for psychological delving, and by its shorter word count, becomes limited in introspection, but the greatest function of both narratives is to delve the inner soul or consciousness of its characters as much as possible. E.M. Forster said that a “novel’s success lies in its own sensitiveness, not in the success of its subject-matter.”  By sensitivity, it’s the empathy of the author in question.  A writer must be keen enough to pick up the reflection of the world around them, even if they are writing about a story that took place in another time or on another world.  Character is that reflection; character brings any subject matter to life.  To find character, one must treat the novel as a psychological journey. The word psychological may be off-putting to several people but it’s the best modern word for the subjective narrative experience.  There are novels that are less psychological and focus almost entirely upon pure story-telling, but they are usually classified as adventure novels, or exist in a category of some field like science-fiction where the play of words is focused upon technology and world-building for a good reason.  Isaac Asimov is a good example of this.  And we only need to look at Robinson Crusoe for a classic example of an adventure tale. But the psychology found in novels is not to be equated with modern concepts of weekly therapy sessions, so-called happy pills, or even how the writer feels about his or her mother.  It’s more subjective in its analysis and was traditionally known as building character.  It becomes social psychology when readers pick up...

Writer’s Journey: Ordinary Masks...

The act of writing fiction is a psychological exploration.  Unlike the stage play or film script, a novel or short story derives its form from the ability of the reader to crawl into a character’s state of mind, their point of view, understand the motivations, and hear the internal narration that is happening there.  In E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, he illustrates this point well with an anecdote of Queen Victoria which could go either way; biography or fiction.  In fiction we know Queen Victoria is not amused; in biography we are told. As a person matures, they develop somewhat artificial personalities or masks while confronting unpleasant aspects of the world. These personalities are social constructs that allow a person to become a bank clerk or a personal assistant; to become mothers and fathers or pet-owners; and later for some people even to write fiction.  Even an author has a social mask. Because of this, a writer must learn how much of any personality is truly artificial, and must, in the discovery of this fact, play with the material that these artificial constructs create in every day life. As children, we related directly to life, but we did so mostly without any conscious attention to what we were doing. We had formed no adult personality at that time and our experience was direct. The aphorism posed by Pablo Picasso can be instructive here: “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” Picasso probably wasn’t advocating regression into irresponsibility and graham crackers by saying this. Instead he was insisting that the creative adult must combine spontaneity with wisdom, and to once again take life as it comes, moment by moment, the way that we once...

Writer’s Journey: Truth Bears Repeating...

“What is important is that, time after time, the stories themselves are true. I don’t mean simply that Neil Gaiman’s history is good history and that his myth is good myth – although they are. I mean that you will understand yourself and the world better for having read them, and that you will have been both ennobled and troubled by the experience; that this is not just art – all sorts of ugly and foolish things are art – but great art.” – Gene Wolfe, Introduction to The Sandman: Fables and Reflections In this quote we see another way of phrasing the role of fiction in the world. Humanity has a short memory but by the seventeenth century, it was the advent of the printing press which was responsible for much the same glut of material published as we now see on the World Wide Web. Possibly less in volume, but with the same difficulties as the current literary crowd has observed today. Quality control, mainly. In those days novel reading was a scandal, and novels were seen much as soap operas are seen today. Most works of fiction were published anonymously, or by unsupported authors without any gatekeepers. (Does this sound like the net today?) There need be no judgment call on this. It’s an inevitable process of creation and there are days when a dime-store novel is satisfying for its own merits. There are days when you need to find an obscure reference or opinion on something online and it’s there. The point in bringing this relevant period of history up and comparing it to the self-publishing renaissance of today is that once before we learned that the power of story was in the lasting truth of its vision. Gene Wolfe...

Writer’s Journey: Aspire...

Sometimes a writer has something to say, but won’t know what that is. It lies buried deep beneath the surface in the unconscious and it may take a story to trigger it. If someone asks a writer what he’s going to say with a piece of work, the writer might feel pressured for a grand answer before his unconscious even knows what words to choose to express it. It can be difficult to express any theme or core of the material before actually writing. For some writers it is impossible to get there except through the characters and plot which unfolds a page at a time. A writer may feel a strong impulse to write about an angry young lord who was stripped of his title and inheritance. If asked why she’s compelled to write about this particular character, there may be no rational answer; just a compulsion to explore this archetype and to bring it to life through certain details and encounters. By doing so, the writer will find more than a story. At some point the character she has chosen may come upon a situation where he finds himself about to enact a deed that will send another character into some misfortune. That moment is part of the writer’s grand design, or theme, and it could only have appeared by following the character of the story step by step. In this way the writer has something that she wishes to say, but she may have no idea just what that will be until that moment arrives in the plot line. And then it will rapidly unfold perhaps as a surprise but always with some underlying feeling by the writer that it had somehow been there all along, waiting for the right moment...

Writers Journey: Begin...

Before I began, the page was a blank space. In the Japanese language, the radicals that create the full kanji pictograph for the word ‘line’ are a thread, over white or blank water. That is probably because even in ancient times, people saw the blank page as a vast sea over which one small thread seemed barely visible; thus they probably felt as daunted as we do. Usually a writer is compelled to begin when she has something to say. That is different from having an idea. Behind every generated idea there must also be something worth saying. Some of the most memorable journeys were made by authors who were wrestling with some problem they wanted to understand, or some point of view that they felt as a cry to be generally understood. This compulsion is what can propel a writer over the ‘white or blank water’ and make the first few marks on a pristine page. This applies to fiction and nonfiction equally. It’s a mistake to feel that just because we write fiction we are exempt from saying something important in the subtext of our words. A setting and a character is not enough. A writer can spend years building a world from scratch, or researching a setting and characters. But until that compulsion to say something arises, there will only be note-taking and contemplation. Sometimes it’s simply the need to be understood that triggers the writing flow. Sometimes it’s a desire to impart a certain world view or ethic. Very often, a writer begins a piece because they have someone in mind to speak to, even if the narration may never show it. A mother writes a story for her child’s bedtime. A young lover writes a poem or short story...

Introducing: FB Kelly...

F.B. Kelly is the pen name under which this married couple and writing team work their magic.  The pair live in Seattle, Washington.  With each partner published individually before they joined forces, they found even more pleasure in working together on crafting stories of magic, whimsy and romance. We spoke with this pair about how they write together and why: How long have you both been writing? Ben:  I think I seriously started dabbling with writing stories since high school.  I was a highly imaginative child and I always told myself stories but it was in high school that I started writing them down. Fiona:  I think I was telling stories at a very young age, usually walking around and enacting them in the back yard.  I was writing a full-fledged ‘novel’ about a space station at the age of nine.  I’m sure it was at least ten pages long.   When did you decide to co-write? Fiona:  We’ve been co-writers for nine years now.  It just sort of happened on a whim one day. Ben:  It started by accident really. Fiona:  But we realized it was really funny and entertaining so we kept doing it.  And then we got married which was pretty serious and then we ended up wondering what to do about our first anniversary present. Ben:  She told me it was paper for year one. Fiona:  So I asked him, ‘You know we have all these stories that we’ve told over the years.  Why don’t we pick the one that seems the most like us and actually put it into print?’ Ben: Having studied design and book layout, I thought ‘Why not?’ It’s something we could do ourselves and I’d discovered lulu.com in art school, so I knew where to...