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.

 

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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.

Des Fruites de Mer – A Poem

Des fruits de mer

 
I knelt beside a tide pool, cold,
the brackish water swirling black,
and studied there a fragile skirt,
a disembodied jelly head.
And I in giving nothing much
toward purchase price of this event,
paid my respects to that great sea,
its living things, as well as dead.

Then at once the abandoned shell
of a red abalone snail
blushed brightly in the dragging surf
and took me near the water’s edge.
This I gathered to carry home.
And there with treasures standing by,
one in the hand, one in the mind,
I thought upon the bounty that
the sea had given me that day –
a shell, the surf, a spray of mist,
salt on my tongue, the sting, the taste.

But best of all, with its great eye,
did judge my worth, no more, no less
than any other passerby,
and blessed with memory instead,
a tattered hood – a jelly, dead.

*Poem originally published in the Summer 2014 California Writers Club Literary Review

The Role of Time In Success

day of the week clockQuality takes time. I wrote the first draft of my current novel-in-progress over a four month period beginning in January 2013. I am now on a third rewrite and the whole project has been completely revolutionized thanks, in part, to taking my time. The thing that happened over time is that the story really took root in my mind. The response of beta readers gave me a lot to think about, and after sitting on it and letting things evolve, both consciously and subconsciously, a whole new narrative developed – a right and exciting narrative that I’m even more enthused about today.

Will you like the final version? I have no idea. What I do know is that being in a hurry to produce something for the sake of getting it out into the world is a mistake. Haste makes waste, and judging by the slew of underwritten works out there these days we’re swimming in it. Waste, that is.

Of course, bad writing is bad writing, and it’s no sure thing that T x W = Q if the writing is bad all along. What time offers is a chance to let things grow into their proper state. For example, the protagonist of my novel comes across in the earlier drafts as stoic, frightened, lost and, frankly, boring. Really she’s underdeveloped. All of the characters are underdeveloped in the early version because, as with real people, it takes time to get to know someone. Not only that, but it takes time to find the right POV, the right storyline, and the right protagonist. The new version of my protagonist is sarcastic, a little edgy, and more fluid. I hope she’s also more interesting. The point here is that an idea doesn’t come fully loaded with all of the answers. There is much to discover along the way. This is part of the joy of writing. Writing, like life, is a journey. And like life it’s the journey that is the point much more than the destination.

Be mindful when letting time work on you. While there is merit in setting your work aside and ‘forgetting’ about it for a while, the real value in giving things time is in thinking and thinking about where the story is and where it needs to go. Returning to my work-in-progress, I knew that I didn’t have the story I wanted. I had an ok story, and I was very tempted, even encouraged to let it fly. What I did instead was give up. I worked on some other things, finished them, and even began a new novel in line with the first. For a little while I didn’t plan to go back to that book. But through encouragement and a little brow-beating I did return. I admit as well that in my absence from the book I thought about it. And as I began to inch closer to returning I started to reimagine how the story should be told. I applied myself to understanding the story I had versus the story I wanted, and began to see how I could tell the version that was in my gut rather than the underdeveloped one that first came out. The time factor yielded this new thing, much closer to my original intent for the story. Weeks of sleep and fatigue, despair and elation, boredom, distraction, and myriad other things resulted in a new paradigm for the old novel.

It will take more time to see what the final outcome is, but I’m ready now to carry on and finish a book the right way. There’s no time frame for when it will be ready. It could be six months or another year. What I’m happy to report at this juncture is that we’re underway again, and with a much better product thanks in large part to taking the time it needed for the real story to reveal itself.

 

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