Your Story Submission is Just an Audition

Journey III was listening to an interview of actor David Tennant (Dr. Who, Jessica Jones) the other day and he said something I think we’d all benefit in hearing.

Tennant was recapping his successful acting career and mentioned that he’d had to audition for a part recently, which was something he hadn’t done in a long time. Successful actors often get to skip the audition given their status as a known commodity, so an audition is rarely required. Tennant is a very funny man, and his story harbored no malice or jealousy, but he did mention in passing how an audition is very competitive, and that on this day he was bested by someone else who showed up and did a better job.

This made me think about the process of getting published.

As writers most of us are unknown. We send our little envoy along, our speaking part if you will, in hopes of impressing an editor enough to put our story in their publication. When the story comes back rejected, we feel a wash of negative emotion, from despair to disgust to anger, and believe simultaneously that the editor is a fool and we are delusional to think we’d ever succeed at writing in the first place.

But what if we had to audition? What if we had to physically carry our story in hand, down the littered sidewalk and into narrow alleys, up steep stairs into a crowded room with chairs lining the walls, nowhere to sit, the competition staring into our faces with polite contempt while we wait for our name to be called. During the wait, our resolve diminishes. Fatigue sets in as we study the pages in our hands – our best work. How embarrassing. The room is warm, stuffy, the air disgusting as we breathe in the fear and self-loathing of everyone else, just as they breathe in ours. And finally our name is called, and we step behind the door with the frosted glass window, the loose glass rattling once as the door shuts too loudly behind us. Seated at a table in what amounts to a tiny classroom are three strangers, experts, who are about to listen to us read our story, judge us to our faces, letting us know as we finish that they will be in touch.

At home we are sure others must have done better. In excitable moments we rise in the feeling that maybe, this time, we did it right. We remember how we stumbled in our reading, how we misspoke the line when Clara revealed to her mother that she was contemplating a divorce. How could we have botched such an important moment?

When the call comes, sorry, we’ve chosen a different option. Please contact us again for future opportunities. Spurned, we are outwardly grateful for the opportunity. Will try again soon. Have a lovely day. And then for an hour, we completely give up.

Thank God it isn’t quite like that. Writers are spared the physical confrontation with our judges. Our envoy makes the trip for us, and stands in for our audition beside hundreds of others. Once in a while, we get the part.

Every successful actor is no different from every successful writer. Whether by person or pen they showed up, did their best, walked away for a time to return once more and try again. This is you. Many times you will be bested. But show up for each opportunity, again and again. Get better. One day you will get the part. Each chance is only one audition. Whether you failed or succeeded the time before, remember that it’s the next time that matters most.

blog sign3

(You Have Been Granted) Permission to Tell

sincere3Last night I read yet another list of things writers should consider about the writing process. This particular list comes via Walter Benjamin, a Twentieth Century philosopher of German and Jewish descent. Benjamin’s advice is excellent and, of the 13 things he lists, one in particular stands out to me because I had the very same thought two days ago. List item 11 states: “Do not write the conclusion of a work in your familiar study. You would not find the necessary courage there.” I identify the following two words as key in this valuable recommendation.

Familiar – Familiarity is an invisible lining over every aspect of our lives. We cannot see it most times, rarely think about it, and usually only reflect on it when it’s absent. For the writer striving to achieve raw and unedited authenticity, familiarity is a barrier to risk. Psychologically, the four walls of our sacred space are counterintuitive to the terrifying necessity of truth. This is one reason why it’s important to travel. As we experience unusual things over the course of our trip we break the barrier of familiarity, and our senses come alive in that child-like way so important to artistic awareness.

Courage – Permission to tell is the mantra of every writer. When we talk about “telling” in writing, we are talking about the unedited, unapologetic, painful truth about people and events in our stories. This honesty is the hardest concept to grasp, because it goes against the nature of everything we’ve been told about manners. We don’t often tell the truth in the day-to-day because it’s uncomfortable. People can be offended. The truth hurts. More than one writer has acknowledged the dichotomy between mannered living in the real world and the brutal conduct they impose in the writing world. There is no room for manners in writing. The job of the writer is to get the real story onto the page without reservation, and that takes courage.

In my quest for an authentic voice I realized that if I want to reach my goal I need to write in an environment where I feel like I’m getting away with something. After all it’s guilt that keeps me from telling in the first place, so it makes sense to me that if I am going to cross that line I need to do it in a place that doesn’t remind me a whole lot of my comfortable, happy life. Mr. Benjamin seems to agree. “You will not find the necessary courage there.” The personal and the creative are never entirely separate. There’s no way they can be. This is why it’s so terrifying to write truthfully. In public spaces, where strangers surround me, I can honestly reflect on my characters, and hone in on what is real about them and authentic about the story.

In the larger world I feel bold, and I am courageous and alive in ways that the sedation of home denies me.

 

blog sign3

On Writing and the Source of Our Material

reflection3I return to adage, as so often I do, because adage is what we seem to live by as much as any mythology, and the adage to which I return is something we have all heard many times before: writers must write what they know.

This concept, writing what we know, is as mysterious as it is seemingly obvious. What if the writer doesn’t know much? What do I, as writer, actually know? There is no shortage of reasons and factors to stop a person from writing, and the adages we attempt to live by can be as stifling and emotionally handicapping as any negative voice we’re already hearing.

So what does a person who wishes to be a writer actually know? What is the source of our material?

In his book Soul Mates, author and psychologist Thomas Moore discusses something that answers the question for me, and perhaps exposes a lifetime of source material for any writer willing to do the work not only of discovering this wealth, but also of improving their lives in the process. The concept centers on intimacy with our own soul.

Moore discusses this intimacy as a sincere, deeply contemplative understanding and, more importantly, acceptance of the complexities and “irrationalities” of our own soul. What is important to note here is that this understanding that the soul is irrational, and that many of the questions we have about ourselves and our lives will never be answered – may even be unanswerable – opens us up to life concepts that we may be unconsciously hiding from.

“Life will follow upon reflection, if the reflection is deep and patient enough to touch upon the central issues of the soul,” Moore writes. “We can trust that a genuine shift in imagination will result in a change of life”(40-41).

This is precisely the process for telling stories. What we further gain from reflection on our own soul is insight into the human condition as we perceive it. The rush we feel in inspiration is the current of energy behind truth and meaning. The more we perceive the closer we get to the all-important truth and accuracy of story and the value and meaning of life.

Moore continues with, “we don’t take an attitude of perfection; rather, we draw closer to those things that we feel as imperfect and let them be the openings through which the potentiality of the soul enters into life” (41).

Each of us posses a soul (according to Moore) that is imperfect and irrational. We strive to understand this even as something in us pushes to avoid it. It seems to me that this is the heart of story, the heart of what it is we seek when we write about our characters. The difficulty in writing, therefor, often comes in the resistance to getting at the honesty of our irrational selves. Speaking for myself, it’s scary to contemplate my own secrets, my own heart of darkness. By getting to know these things better, however, we understand ourselves, and our fellow souls, deeply and intimately. And our writing can do nothing but benefit from such a revelation.

 

Works Cited

Moore, Thomas. Soul Mates. New York: Harper Collins, 1994.

 

blog sign3

Hiatus in Review

Hi friends,

It has been a fast and frenetic summer and I have been thoroughly consumed by the events of the many dog days passed. My sincere apologies for being absent.

This morning I submitted a story for publication for the first time in a long time, and let me tell you, it felt good.

Taking this step, to submit my story, reminded me that it’s important to come back to the work even if you’ve been away a while. So if you’ve been away, too, come on back. There’s no time like the present and it feels great.

Shallow Character Development Is No Lazy Way To Be

20131209_182451I envy writers who, from the beginning, appear to know their characters at a deeply intimate level. Aware of the nuances and motives of these figures, their stories come together with resonating power, under the illusion that this is a story which must be told by order of the laws of physics.

I’m not one of those writers who understands his characters quickly. In recent weeks I’ve gained more insight and true understanding of my protagonist than I had when I started writing my novel two years ago. In fact, it took walking away from the project for almost a year before I could see whom my character is and where she needs to go to be fully realized. That concerns me. I can’t afford to spend two years on every character I create before I understand them well enough to get the story right.

I think this lack of character development by young writers is why there are so many underwritten and half-finished novels in the world. Story is largely, if not entirely, about character, and without really understanding our characters we can’t expect tell a story well. It’s one thing to know about our characters, but it’s an entirely different thing to understand them.

My current novel-in-progress features a protagonist who is strong enough to voluntarily leave the sanctuary of her home in order to lead a pursuing menace away from her loved ones. In the early drafts of the story, however, she is portrayed as timid and polite, stereo-typically feminine, essentially a rag doll being thrown about by circumstances that do little more than drive the plot with no regard for the condition of the person she is supposed to be. She shows none of the strength and character of a person who is willing to leave the security of the familiar and leap into the unknown in a bold and self-sacrificing way. Only recently did I fully grasp this fact, and can finally say that I know what this story is about and how to represent this character in a way that is somewhat refreshing and not stereotypical. But this after two years of just thinking!

There is a deep-conscience thinking required to understand our characters. We have to think beyond the facts of their background and appearance, think our way to the core of their motivation and see what their actions tell us about who they are. We have to think beyond the surface. This is why writing is so hard. The thought that goes behind the story is tedious and demanding. We are required to push ourselves, over and over again, to understand concrete aspects of psychology and motive. We have to be aware of real-world mental health issues, fears, and desires. All of that takes concerted effort. If we don’t make the effort then we are being lazy, and our writing comes across as lazy, and our books become lazy and unemployed.

I’m slow in this regard. It takes a lot of effort to see through the fantasy of my characters in order to determine who they really are and how they should be portrayed. My deep thinking takes a long time to develop. So often my brain turns in circles, caught on the whirl of a wrong notion, waiting to break free into chance and chaos that leads back to something better. A long process indeed.

Maybe the place to start is with an analysis of myself. Once I understand the character within me perhaps I will more readily understand the characters in my stories. It stands to reason. In the end, we really are writing about ourselves.

The Third Guarantee – Death, Taxes, and . . .

Change.

Whoever said there were only two guarantees in life forgot the critical third. Transition is the fundamental state of our existence.

It has been one month since my last blog entry and the delay has been directly related to the reality of transition. I’ve moved yet again, and have thrown open the doors on my life to the whimsy of the unknown.

At the end of summer I will leave my post at the lighthouse and head in the direction of new things, some defined, others obscured by indetermination. I am on the path of freedom, continuing my hero’s journey, the fantastical tale of my own life.

Writing will remain part of this journey and some of the details will be tracked here, through this blog. My projects are delayed for the moment, but they are not forgotten. My goals remain the same in the writing process.

Transition is everything in a creative life. I leave with you this, a post I wrote as a guest blogger in 2013 for Writer’s Relief wherein the aspect of transition is discussed at the microcosmic level. If you have not read this I hope you enjoy it. If you’ve read it before may you be reminded again of the value of transition. Either way, thank you for continuing with me.

http://writersrelief.com/blog/2013/05/psyched-to-write-overcoming-the-transition-barrier/

I’ll be back soon!

T.J.

What Are Words For?

Storm sky

My mood is in synch with the ocean today. Overhead the sky is thick with storm clouds. Rain threatens to come ashore, moving up from the south. I sit on a point extending a quarter mile out into the water, surrounded on three sides by the sea. The water itself is calm. The surface is as flat as I’ve seen it in days. The color of the water mimics the sky, though darker, heavier. The sky is textured, brushed with cloud and a hint of light. The water is solid, motionless, pensive. The sky is dependent on the water which seems to hold it up, appears to keep it from sinking below the surface. In my mind I am the sky, in my heart I am the sea.

For all writers there is a turbulence below the surface that demands attention. Everything is story. We tell ourselves these stories and they define our lives. True or false we live by the mythology we create. What we believe is what we are, and story is the way we try to understand our lives in relation to many things. Primarily we strive to understand our relation to ourselves, our relation to others, and our relation to our environment. The tool we use for communicating these ideas is words. Spoken, written, painted, sung, posted, played, and shouted. Words to define, symbols to express, and for the writer every day is a psychosexual urge to say the things inside our hearts and minds.

On days like today the creative erotic is high. Dark skies and deep water move me to contemplation, and stories and characters well up from my mind in medias res, coming onto the internal screen mid-conversation, with all of their hope and angst and words . . .  yes, words fully formed. These words carry emotion and all of the energy that bears a life. They are the ocean holding the weight of the sky. Our words are the measure of a current, sharp and electric, painful sometimes, powerful when we apply them and don’t scornfully cast them out of our mouths as though they can be wasted. For the writer especially, there must be accountability and intent. I have been guilty of slinging words carelessly myself, but that is a sin. A writer must own all of the words he uses, as many before us have learned, because they will remain after we are gone and, fairly or unfairly, we will be judged by them.

What are words for? They are for living and for love. They are for motivating the human race to temperance. They are to communicate new ideas, which are the essence of our development as a species. There is a responsibility that comes with words, but we shall not shy away from using words. The writer is the cultural steward of words and is accountable for assuring that words live on, that they are used accordingly and not cast off as less than urgent.

On a day like today the ocean holds the sky. The words used to convey that fact bind the ocean and sky so that they do not evaporate too quickly. Without words the bond may well go unnoticed, the sanctity of the moment lost, the love affairs – with our lives and with each other – becoming shallow or perhaps altogether non-existent.