Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Storyteller’s Legacy

Some folks get the chills from touching a fossil fish. It swam the warm seas of Wyoming fifty million years ago. How do you even take that in? Humans do so by picturing it, an act that plays a major role in how we fathom the unfathomable. Visualizing images is the wellspring of plot, which is the wellspring of story.

In “The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human,” Jonathan Gottschall argues that the oral storytelling tradition may be as old as language itself, and that the first peoples to tell stories had an evolutionary advantage over others.

Even if this is only partly true, it gives significance to every story. Whether about a spaceship, widower finding unexpected happiness, or linguistics professor seeking the meaning of language, every storyteller joins a tradition that weds entertainment to morality, that makes story both individual and personal yet part of something larger than self.

In “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” T.S. Eliot says that “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.” He had poetry in mind, but surely his observation applies to every writer, every artist: “The emotion of art is impersonal.”

He praises “tradition,” which “involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence…Someone said: ‘The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.’ Precisely, and they are that which we know.”

Again, if his premises are even partially true, they bring responsibility and opportunity:

~ Read a lot. A novelist recently complained to me that friends scorned him for “just” reading. “Oh, so you’re not really doing anything then, right?” Wrong. Reading is among the most important aspects of the writer’s craft, not only so you can know what’s been done well but so you can know what’s been done. Period.

~ Seek objectivity. This means finding strength, morality, beauty, and intelligence in all your characters (even those you personally despise).

~ Let your plot speak for you. That’s what being a storyteller means.

~  Value your story more than its teller. That creates the greatest stories of all.

Tip: Being a storyteller is quite an honor. Treat it accordingly.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Tune Out to Tune In

We all know about the disappearance of quiet, much less tranquility. Many people, including writers, still enjoy wilderness camping. But they often enjoy it with enough devices to keep them Linked In so continuously that even in the wild they lose touch with their own thoughts. “What’s the harm?” is the consensus. And so long as you have breaks where your mind can flow without distraction, why, yes, no harm at all.

Tip: Continuous external feedback limits the free space needed for creative solutions.

In “Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence,” Daniel Golen calls “open attention” a source of “serendipitous associations” —an opportunity for “utter receptivity to whatever floats into the mind.” In Nicholas Carr’s review of this book in “The Times,” he lauds the “fresh insights” that emerge from “productive daydreaming.”

Look up “open attention,” and you’ll encounter material about emotional healing and forgiveness. Hridaya Yoga defines it as “the natural expression of a consciousness which is not preoccupied with achieving one thing or another. It is an impersonal attention, free of attachments, judgments, labeling.”

Perhaps you’re not into that. Perhaps, even if you are, it seems irrelevant to your life as a writer. Yet every novelist encounters problems: Exposition at the opening, the big Set Scene, the climax, the theme, the logline, and so on. Those are the standard ones. Personal issues also besiege: The sentence that refuses to smooth, the metaphor that won’t unmix, and the detail floating just out of reach.

The standard approach is to sink your teeth into the problem and grind away until it loses—or you do. Yet if there’s enough quiet, enough “open attention,” no one has to lose. Including your readers.

If a question floats in your awareness while your mind’s gently open, you can ponder without grappling and brainstorm without censorship or interruption. It’s hard to be creative when frustrated and harder still to be creative when stimuli, however appealing, bombard you. In fact, the more appealing, then the greater the distraction.

Listening to yourself may seem egocentric and disconnected. But you’re not writing your book on a social network. You’re not revising your book as a team effort. It’s your book, and you have to hear yourself well enough to write it. That daydreamy space is your greatest source of inspiration, partly because only you can have it. Meditation? That’s optional. Whatever works for you. Freeing your mind to solve problems as only it can? Far less optional. Let the phone buzz while you...just listen, inside instead of out…

Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Identity of Story

How much can you change a story and have it be its genuine self? Classics like “The Great Gatsby” endure numerous iterations, emphasizing certain variables and eliminating or altering others. This latest Leonardo DiCaprio version preserves many of the most famous lines and states the original themes so blatantly that F. Scott would drink himself to death even faster if he had to hear these lines.

But, aside from the disparities between film and fiction, is this still Fitzgerald’s story? Nick Carraway has become someone else—a fiction of screenwriter imagination. And because every narrator impacts story so powerfully, the transformation of Nick changes everything.

His most famous lines come near the novel’s opening: “Everyone suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.” Fitzgerald assures us that this is a reliable narrator, an antidote to “careless” Tom, Daisy, Jordan, and even Gatsby. Nick’s the human embodiment of the eyes that oversee a landscape of shame. In the film, though, Nick becomes voyeur rather than conscience, less an outsider than someone intent on sampling insider privileges.

The end of the film resurrects Fitzgerald’s vision, as a morose Nick muses that no matter how much we hurl ourselves forward, we remain doomed to endless retreat. This ending resurrects the original, suggesting what gives story identity.

It’s not character names. It’s not quite plot. No. Readers sense story identity through three avenues:

Point of view.
~ Your narrator is your reader’s window into your story. This controls what readers see, how remote that feels, and whether the view is pristine or occluded. Nick Carraway is a very particular window into the worlds of Gatsby and the Buchanans. Does your narrator succeed in emphasizing or concealing what you intend?

~ Voice.
Storytellers bewitch via authenticity combined with charm, humor, or majesty. But a genuine personality that’s long-winded, passive, and effete bewitches no one. Is your voice not just unique but one that readers want to hear long after the story ends?

~ Theme.
Plot is only a vehicle for delivering vision, and you can’t reduce any theme worth its weight in plot to a platitude. Do your themes embody a vision that’s yours alone?

Tip: Love and respect your story enough to protect its inherent integrity.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Handling the Landing

 Novels and air travel share much in common. Imagine your flight leaving early, smoothly ascending, flying without turbulence, and gracefully gliding back to earth. Ten minutes early, no less. Alas, another aircraft occupies the assigned berth. Twenty minutes later, no one can recall the applause-worthy flight and descent. All the travelers take to baggage check is how long they waited to unclick the seatbelt.

The ending overshadows everything else for all passengers, including novel readers. It’s no time for self-indulgence from the one in charge. Imagine the Captain slowing just prior to destination to ask, “Weren’t those mountains majestic? Sure hope you folks saw the brilliant neons of Las Vegas as we flew over. And, by the way, did you notice how we changed altitude, as needed of course, to insure a safe and swift arrival?” Is this guy nuts? You can remind yourself what you enjoyed or discovered, thank you very much.

But you’re no pilot, you say. Happily, this has nothing to do with you. Unhappily, you’re wrong. Here’s how the landing can bump, bump, bump.

~ The Let-Me-Spell-It-Out-for-You Ending
However smart we actually are, we all like to believe we’re just a little smarter still. Nothing defeats that happy confidence faster than a patronizing summary, especially during the last few pages, or worse yet, the final paragraphs. Who’d forgive that?

~ The Lingering-at-the-Gate Ending
You’ve nailed the climatic point.  All signs read “go.” But you’re early. Best to delay? Stretch things out a little longer. Don’t let them rush away. Fine, so long as you know they’ll never forgive you.

~ The Lurch-to-a-Grinding-Halt Ending.
You’ve heard that agents and publishers prefer about 70,000 – 90,000 words. You’re at 92, 479. So you—just stop, without synthesizing sub-plots or clarifying the role of choice in fate. Why not? So long as you know they’ll never forgive you.

~ The Landing-at L.A.-instead-of-Philly, But-Maybe-They-Won’t-Notice Ending.
Hold on. Why am I here? How’d I get here? True, I’ve arrived. I’m no longer en route, which is sort of good, except—I feel as if I’ve awakened from someone else’s dream. After signing on for a particular journey, no one wants to descend somewhere else, clueless about why or how. Who did this to you? You’ll never forgive them.

Every moment of a novel matters. What matters most? The first page. It gets you off the ground—with a soar or a groan. Then the last page. It’s what you remember when you tell your friends about this book.

Tip: The landing leaves people applauding or lamenting. Which do you want?