Friday, 29 March 2013

What T-rex Stole

Our brains are amazing propagandists that delude us into thinking our left brains equate to our whole selves.  In the face of dreams, creative projects, scientific breakthroughs and intuition, many of us ignore the right brain chugging on, manufacturing magic.

How can this possibly happen?  The simple answer, language.

Think of your first memory.  How old were you?  Most people cite something from after they learned to talk.  The filing system in your brain puts memory into the language program for easier retrieval.  We think of ourselves as this sequence of verbal memories stashed away in the left brain.

Sometimes, however, a memory doesn’t have time to be connected to language.  You’re at the skating rink and someone veers at you.  Without much thought, you veer out of their way.  You probably remember it and perhaps even in great detail.  But unleash T-rexes in your rink, and things change.  If you’re not eaten, suddenly you’re outside, running in your bare feet and you don’t know how you got there.

That’s because the part of our cognition that we identify as ‘self’ – our left brain – is just too slow in these situations to record the detail.  If you’ve been in an accident or unexpectedly received bad news, chances are there are holes in your memory of it.  The science people have learned that the entire memory is still there, but filed without language.

This is important to everyone’s experience, but if you’re a writer, your craft separates you from vast amounts of your own experience.  That doesn’t shut the right brain up.  Your right brain lives in the ever present, is the wild and savage and gorgeous part of yourself.  It creeps up in the rude thing you said at last week’s party.  It’s dancing around your dreams.  It’s why you don’t like the guy in the orange windbreaker.  It’s painting metaphor and conflict in everything you write.

So I know that the exercises I passed along to you are difficult.  You may even have physical responses to admitting what’s in your core.  The right brain isn’t used to being seen in the daylight.  But it is gold.  Put the work in, know your bits, meet your archetype, explore your core. 

Trust me.  My work in trauma has taken me into the wilds of many a psyche and the core is where your spark of divinity lives.  Let there be magic.

Friday, 22 March 2013

Ellie Mae & Vampires

Has it been a week of intimacy between you and your obvious bits?  There’s more to come but first, I’ve been asked, can these exercises be done by non-writers?  Certainly.  They’re meant to stimulate communication between the left and right sides of the brain which, unfortunately, do not speak the same language.  Next week, I’ll explain in more detail why this cross brain communication is important.

When last we met, you were left dangling an archetype and your psyche’s core.  These should have a combustive interaction, so hopefully you didn’t get into too much trouble.  The energy between your archetype and psyche core reflects the idea of protagonist and antagonist, or the source of conflict and tension, regardless whether expressed in writing or daily life. 

Although symbolic, the archetype usually is the more conscious of the two, thus the protagonist.  This doesn’t necessarily mean the ‘better’ bit, but the one more recognisable and relatable.  Here are the known qualities or factors in your expression of self and in your writing.  Yet as a symbol, an archetype is like an outlined picture waiting to be coloured in by your individual nuances.  Or in Writing Closet terminology, manipulating your obvious bits can take an Ellie Mae archetype, change her genre and come up with True Blood

The next step is to extrapolate your archetype.  For instance, my documentary film archetype, Witness, can be ratcheted up from bystander to supporter, from Witness to Sin Eater to Pariah.  I’ve increased my archetype’s activity level, but not its essence.  Any archetype that can be ratcheted, will accommodate greater risk, elicit more tension and yes, move naturally along a dramatic arc. 

That arc comes into being when your archetype as protagonist interacts with the antagonist, the ‘savage voice’ or psyche’s core, as I termed it.  Typically people describe this core in less traditional words, more usually as a state of being than as an actual entity.  The unconscious or hidden nature of the core makes it more difficult to define in a complete form and allows it to harbour all sorts of forbidden treasures.  It’s not uncommon for our core to have what are typically ‘negative’ characteristics – coldness, savagery, wildness, fire, lust.  It’s a dark bit of magic located in the right side of the brain. 

Coming from the right side of the brain, the core can never be taken at face value, however.  It’s like trying to hold onto a melting ice cube on a summer day.  What looks solid can be the protective layer around something molten; the discordant sound that’s a singer’s voice now silenced; the fleeting spectral that’s actually a stationary person who’s usually ignored.  The best way to see the core clearly, is look for its absence in your archetype. 

The core of a Witness archetype could be a cave dweller, a hermit, someone removed from discourse with others.  The hermit could be religious, misanthropic, a prisoner, or pushed out of the lime light so often that she’s retreated from all hope of starring in her own story.  Cores typically are a drama inside themselves, a contradiction of desires and talents thwarted or rejected.  They get their expression through the arc of the archetype, add depth to the protagonist’s character by zeroing in on their personal flaws, such as instigating a crisis of faith in an exorcist.  While the archetype and core may not be perfect opposites or ‘shadows’, there should be a tension between them.  It’s in that tension that your narrative lies.

You can take any archetype and create a story from it, but by knowing your own, you first give your writing authenticity.  Secondly, you learn to recognise both archetype and core when they sneak into your writing under other guises, so prevent them from sabotaging what you want to say.  I hasten to say, I doubt you can silence them when they show up under cover, but at least you recognise their voices.

All your bits, obvious and secretive are what make your contribution unique & irreplaceable.  They only have voice through yourself, so get to know them.  They’re going to be around for a while.

Friday, 15 March 2013

Mind Your Bits

Last week I asked you to give me three parts of yourself.  Your responses blew me away.  If I’ve not answered your email, I’m working my way toward it.  It’s not too late to give me one if you haven’t yet.  It would be lovely to read it.


Now.  If we collect readers as we do friends, then we must acquaint them to us in the same way.  How would you introduce yourself to someone who isn’t you?  A writer must know herself before she can be authentic with others. 

To know yourself better, begin with the obvious bits, as I called them.  While I suggested nationality, region, gender, genre, and topic, don’t confine yourself to those.  Think of aspects that you relegate to tick boxes on application forms, but generally take for granted.  When you have that list, which one would be the first word you use to describe yourself as a writer?  To illustrate, let’s start with nationality. 

Hello.  I am an American writer.

You know your nationality, but what type of nationality is it?  You could always have lived in your country of origin, currently be exiled from it, have returned home after living abroad or have never lived in your own country.  You could be well travelled inside and outside your country or have stayed in a thirty mile radius.  You could be seventh generation or the child of immigrants.  Any of these possibilities affects your relationship with your country and your expression of nationality. 

In the Writing Closet, we consider things outside our door to be equally important.  Staying with nationality, a writer from South America, for instance, faces different challenges in forming a relationship with a European reader than a North American writer does.  To know your specific challenges, investigate how the world looks at your obvious bits.  Don’t ‘imagine’ how the world sees you; research it.  Listen to the misconceptions, biases, negative and positive opinions.  Look into the murky pool dividing who you think you are from what the world considers you to be.  Identify what’s living in there.

Something as simple as nationality turns out to not be so simple after all. 

Add another bit to your first one.  If we use regional attachment or ethnicity, is your subgroup in conflict with your country’s dominant culture or are you part of the hegemony?  When you’re living at home, which outweighs the other in your identity – nationality or region?  When you’re living away, be it inside your country or overseas, which do you present to the other culture?

Now that we have two bits, let’s use myself as an example of what a writer can do with this self information.  Although I’m American, I see myself primarily as Appalachian.  This subculture is not well understood inside the US, even less so in the UK where I now live.  My regional identification is probably why non-Americans see me as atypically American.  Being a minority makes me not-what-they-expect and I should never forget that.

If I go all Appalachian on my reader, there’s an immediate distance between us which creates tone.  The exotic, dark, bizarre, menacing (Deliverance) or farcical, homespun, foolish, naive (Beverly Hillbillies) or traditional, steady, secure, moral (The Waltons).  So same writer, same bits but starkly different tones.

‘Going all Appalachian’ doesn’t mean I only write regional fiction.  In fact, I rarely set my work in Appalachia, yet inevitably Deliverance, the Beverly Hillbillies and The Waltons make an appearance whether I want them there or not.  My rewrites never fully eradicate any of them.  What never shows up in my writing is Sex in the City, no matter how hard I try.  I can write about New York, but it will always be as an Appalachian writer. 

The obvious bits add depth and colour to your writing.  And you’re not just nationality.  Are you sure of your gender or your genre?  How well do they fit you?  Do you want to be confined to either?  Do you express them in traditional, experimental or totally idiosyncratic ways?  Or do you suppress them?  How do they fare in your country of origin? 

As a writer, it’s best to be forewarned about these aspects of your writer’s voice because your reader always hears them.  You can put on any costume you choose, but you cannot become a coloratura soprano when you’re a contralto.  It’s rumoured that all God’s chillen got a place in the choir, so be a goddam contralto and proud.

Write if you have questions.  Next time, archetype and hopefully, the core of your psyche.  Go forth and know your bits, hon.

Friday, 8 March 2013

Pixilization Not Allowed

In my early twenties, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published a travel article of mine about Australia.  It wasn’t the first thing I'd published, but it was the first noticed by my social circle.  They phoned me at work, waved congratulations across the Boulevard of the Allies.  I didn’t write for five years after that.  Not – I didn’t submit.  I didn’t write.

Few writers can hope to be anonymous.  Words expose us, even when they’re disguised in fiction.  When we commit words to page, we bare a shoulder, undo a button, slide down a zip without the modesty of a well placed fan or a dob of pixilization.  Not too scary a proposition until the What-Happens-Next.

The What-Happens-Next is the friend of a friend at a party who’s read your story and has an opinion.  The interview, the comment at the end of the blog, the tweet, the email that says you aren’t an invisible voice or an omniscient narrator but a human expressing imperfection. 

I see you.

Jon Walker, the author of Five Wounds and Pistols! Treason! Murder! recently said that we collect readers the way that we do friends.  If you’ve seen a copy of Five Wounds, you could believe Jon had each book individually printed for a friend.  There’s something decadently reader-gifting about his book.


Although your writing begins expression in a solitary space, it’s ultimately about relationship.  Our readers want to hear our voice and respond, sometimes not kindly, but sometimes with such clarity, they make us better writers.  While it takes courage to toss parts of ourselves out there, do resist the temptation to either micro-manage the trajectory or to turn your back on reader response altogether.  Wait for your words to land; wait to see what comes of them.

Whatever comes next, it isn’t personal.  It isn’t about your worth as a human being.  It’s about your identity as a writer.  Laura Fish, author of Strange Music and Flight of the Black Swans, once said that each writer is a layer in the growing structure of their literary genre.  Without your layer, the genre goes in a different direction.  You’re an important member of the literary tribe.


I say you're on a quest.  It's called being a writer.  Like any good quest, the crucial journey is the internal one.  Who you are seeps into your writing and exposes itself to random scrutiny.  The less you know about your identity, the more it flaunts itself.  Chances are, what you're not seeing is exactly what your reader will hone in on and speak about.

Do three things for me.  First, make a list of what type writer you are.  The obvious bits.  Nationality, region, gender, genre, topic.  Next, look for an archetype that identifies yourself.  Hero, wise old woman, fool, sin eater, monster.  Lastly, sit with your archetype surrounded by the weapons of nationality, region, gender, genre and topic.  Listen to the savage little voice you usually ignore.  Feel that singular emotion you don't want to express.  Discover what object lies at the core of your psyche – a stone, molten lava, ancient oak, wounded deer.

If you get that far, drop me an email and we'll see what happens next.  Come on.  Risk it.

                                          Monster by Diana Afanador

Friday, 1 March 2013

Deadlines & Diazepam

Deadlines.  Time management.  Self sacrifice.  Giving 110%.  At home with your 2 bar heater and a stinking coffee pot on New Year’s Eve, pulling the last drop of creativity from the reserve of reserves.  We all do it.  But sometimes, you shouldn’t.

Most writers I know fall into two camps.  The ones who procrastinate and the ones who have to be pulled away from the desk because their unwashed bodies smell up the house.  I fall into the latter group; those are the people I address today.  Please sit down, because my next sentence is going to upset you.

Sometimes, you need to miss the deadline.  Heresy, I know, but let’s get a little crazy. 

Let me tell you about my week.  (I’m an Appalachian writer, so I can’t make my point without a digression.)  Ten days or so ago, my husband filled the fridge with ready meals and went to London to see the Queen.  Well, it turned out to be Charlie, but the impact on myself was the same. 

Here I am in a house with all the amenities and no other human.  I don’t get dressed until a break in the creative flow for fear the dog will want a walk.  When we do go out, I confuse poor Big Nose by reciting dialogue as I hoist him over stiles.  I eat standing up.  I go to bed with the computer and reams of manuscript.  I wake up and write notes.  I’ve got the energy of a spaniel on No Doze.

When my husband comes home, I press through the world of my mind into the world I share with him.  The next morning I wake to someone panting at the side of the bed.  My husband’s back has gone out.

If you’ve had to take care of someone with a bad back, you’ll know how ridiculous I was to think my life could go on as normal.  Once the central heating went out, it became a week long picnic in the living room interrupted by house calls from the GP and trips to Neurosciences made possible by my husband crawling down the front steps on all fours.  In the middle of this, I had a deadline.  With a week to go, piece of cake, right?  If I wrote like my son does, probably.

                               He's writing, I swear.

My son has a wonderful creative process.  On the outside, he does everything but write.  At some moment inspired by the gods, he commits his work to paper in nearly completed form.  He makes it look easy but while watching telly, braiding a rug, cooking Thanksgiving dinner, he’s diligently at work.  My process includes a kinaesthetic aspect which is clearly visible.  Without that process, there’s plenty of words, but little creativity. 

Which didn’t stop me.  However, my husband (or the diazepam) decided he could walk.  What he did was fall into the dog’s bed while Big Nose was in it.  When the laughing stopped and I got them both in their respective beds, I realised that just because you can walk, doesn’t mean you’re going to reach your destination.  I could send 300 pages in, but I owed the characters in my novel better than that.

Deadlines are good.  They give us an end stop but they aren’t the goal.  Forgive yourself for being slower than some editor or competition wants you to be.  Let your writing mature in its own time.  Let your process be about the writing, not the deadline.

                                     Big Nose gets his revenge.