A Picture vs. A Thousand Words

This past weekend, Bobby and I visited the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk to see a glass exhibit, and while there we discovered Giovanni Battista Langetti’s “Prometheus,” which had been in the museum’s storage vault for some time awaiting restoration. Now that it’s back to full splendor, the painting hangs alone in the upstairs foyer, a grim sentinel who greets visitors on their way to the second-floor galleries.

You couldn’t walk past without seeing it. The piece is enormous, its rich shadows and vivid colors combined in a beautiful depiction of an appalling scene. Prometheus—who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humans—lies chained to a mountain ledge. Skin and muscles of his brow wrinkle and writhe even in the stillness of the artist’s oils. Whites of his eyes stand out around blown pupils as he stares, panicked. His mouth stretches so wide you can almost hear his scream. Knotted muscles cover every inch of his naked body and all four limbs, including their associated phalanges, contort in futile attempt to escape. Beside him sits the eagle, dispenser of justice sent by the gods to eat Prometheus’s liver. Every day he endures this torment. Every day it begins again. Every day. For eternity.

Standing before that painting, I felt the thief’s dread, his terror. I easily imagined the madness that surely crept in, the suffering he must have experienced on a daily basis even before the eagle touched him. Just knowing what lay ahead would be torturous. I’m familiar with the myth of Prometheus and his theft of fire. Nonetheless, seeing that painting drove home with morbid finality the revulsion I didn’t feel from reading the tale.

That is the power of the visual. That is why our writing teachers tell us to “show,” not “tell.”

In this past week’s fiction class, my short story “Last Call” was up for critique. While everyone suggested improvements or noted flaws, everyone loved the story. I can’t tell you how good that made me feel! (Sorry for the exclamation point, Lydia!) Several people mentioned in their written comments how my description of a nebula popped a visual into their heads, or how Max’s reaction to news from home provoked in them a visceral reaction. I breathed a sigh of relief, I must admit, because I’ve been tweaking that story since February of this year. Of course, it was my first ever short story attempt, but I loved the concept so much I could never bring myself to set it aside and forget it. Now I’m glad I didn’t.

It ain’t easy to paint pictures with words, especially when word-count is so important. I’ve sometimes found it difficult to know when to just come out and say, “Sam told Jane the bad news. Jane fainted,” and when it’s better to say, “Sam’s voice echoed in Jane’s ears, tinny and surreal beneath the hissing roar that threatened to drown him out. All the color drained from her face. A grey film painted everything in sight as if someone had drawn a fine veil over her head. She watched, mesmerized and nauseated, while a darkening tunnel sucked the room away, and the floor rushed up to catch her.” Okay, maybe that’s not my best effort (hey, it’s Monday with a vengeance), but you can see what I mean. Readers need to see what’s happening. And if I can’t show them in imagery, then I must bind their emotions to those of my characters, and pluck them as needed to drive home a plot point.

Granted, sometimes it’s easy to go overboard. A fellow student in class wrote at one particular paragraph on my manuscript, “Words on words on words. Wordy McWordy Word.” After I stopped laughing, I tried to figure out how I could make it better. I certainly notice when a writer has gone on far too long about a particular point; unless it’s necessary to the story, Professor McWordy can deflate all the power from the narrative, not to mention send you spiraling into an unwieldy word count that no agent or publisher will take on.

The key, I think, is as in most other things in life—to strike a good balance between the words and the images they paint. I’ve heard teachers say over and over that words in written works are valuable real estate; every single one must be absolutely necessary to the whole.

So I dance between too much and not enough. Don’t all writers do that same jig? I promise, if I ever figure out the exact formula that works every single time, I’ll write my own “how to” book and share the secret with the rest of you.

Nailing the Target

Bobby and I watched (finally) the 2014 movie Lucy last weekend. I saw the teaser online and thought, “What the heck?” The snippet blew me away so much I texted Bobby at once and said, “We have to watch this movie.” Ever the obliging husband, he brought it home from the library the next day and we watched it that night.

Wow. Just … wow.

The plot is based on what would happen if humans could access 100% of their total cerebral capacity. I’m not sure if it’s a fresh idea, but the film astonished me regardless. I’ve liked other movies by this writer/director (Luc Besson), so that was no surprise. But for me, a movie or book or short story that provokes new avenues of thought is always worth a look. The story was great all by itself—action-packed, dramatic, tense, lots of cool special effects—but it was the profound concept behind the story that really knocked me out.

What if we could access our entire cerebral capacity? What would that do to us? How would it change us?

Now before you go talking about real science and whether or not Lucy followed all the rules in the book, let me just say that Pinocchio didn’t follow the rules of logic and realism either, but it is a classic story, one that’s been entertaining readers for generations, as well as teaching valuable lessons. A bazillion other movies and stories fit that same description: classics that entertain and enlighten, even without confining their plots to provable, testable science. It’s fiction. Remember?

And isn’t it the fiction writer’s job to ask “what if”? to confront us with ideas that don’t fit inside that box we keep hearing so much about?

Before I watched the flick, I read some of the reviews, not all of which were favorable. The Atlantic called it “the dumbest movie ever made about brain capacity.” Rolling Stone called it “a buzzkill.” Others were more positive. Screen Rant reviewers called it “thought-provoking science fiction.” The Independent called it “a complex thriller” that would “blow your mind.”

The point is that no story (movie, book, whatever) is going to appeal to every single audience. That’s why targets are so important. Lucy is not targeted at audiences who just want fast-paced action thrillers. Though that is part of the movie’s appeal, it is more than that. Much more. The action/thriller crowd found it “dumb” because Besson’s screenplay also includes philosophical monologues and scientific data and clever blips of symbolism, analogy and foreshadowing, scenes, dialogue and concepts that require thought that dives beneath the surface. Besson’s story was written and directed at people who like that aspect in fiction.

Me? I’m still trying to nail down (in my own head) how to write to a specific target. Mostly I find myself writing material I would want to read. Not sure whether that’s the right (write) way to go, but it’s what I know. For now, anyway.

Therapy, the Search for Meaning, and Other Reasons to Write

Monday nights are my Busy Nights. Balance the books, do the laundry, update the website, etc. So last Monday when I got The Dreaded Phone Call about an elderly person in my life and had to deal with life and death decisions, it threw me off my game, thus my late post last week. I’m still dealing with that whirlwind, but more than one of my writer friends have advised me to write about my grief.

Believe me, I will.

I know many people who deal with Life’s hurdles in silence. They don’t reach out to others for support or, gods forbid, assistance. That ain’t me. I try not to do it a lot, but my trusted support network is phenomenal. (You know who you are.) When I talk to a friend about a worry or a concern, it’s like I’m talking to myself as well, feeling my way through the issue toward some sort of resolution.

It’s the same when I write. I’ve mentioned before that my spirituality and my quest for meaning often shows up in my stories. So does my grief for lost loved ones, or questions on ethical and moral dilemmas, or attempts to determine where I stand on social issues. If I can put a character into a similar situation, their process of navigating the problem helps me see solutions I might have missed otherwise.

Maybe that’s why I am so interested in writing a trans character, or one from a country I know little about, or one from an impoverished setting. I strive to live in a loving, compassionate way, and to extend those courtesies to the people around me. It pains me when I find I have done or said something hurtful to another, so I seek to understand life experiences that differ from my own, in an effort to avoid that risk. Writing about them in a respectful way requires me to learn as much as I can about the characters, and thus understanding grows. Right?

My loss is still too fresh to be a story yet, but it’s waiting its turn. Already I feel the pieces of it floating in my head and my heart, and when they find the best combination and the most effective setting, the story will almost write itself. I can wait. The end of a human life brings much busywork for those who are left behind, tasks that offer at the same time a welcome distraction from the grief and a daily reminder of the loss. I undertake it because I must, but I am making mental notes. For the story that will come.

Reach for the Stars

Last Saturday I took a class at my local writing center entitled “Nearby Stars and Exoplanets,” by Dr. John Aguiar. Wow! I’ve done a bit of personal study in the last decade on this subject, and on space exploration, as well as our own solar system and how it works, but it’s been a while since I last read up on the subject. I can’t tell you how exciting it was to see just how many new discoveries have been made. At one point in the presentation, Dr. Aguiar showed us a slide of some of the surprises discovered by the Kepler mission, which focused on a relatively miniscule cone of space (3,000 light years) over a period of several years. In that tiny segment of what first appeared to be “empty” space, it found thousands of exoplanets. Thousands. And that finding likely severely undercounts the actual number. After the power of speech returned, I commented that we aren’t alone after all. Dr. Aguiar joked that it was actually starting to feel a little crowded.

Of course I’ve never thought we were alone, but that’s a topic for another post.

I’ve said before that as a writer, I don’t want to be constrained to what I already know. My imagination is bigger than that, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Besides, there are plenty of experts out there to help me get the details right. The trick is to find one who is willing.

The novel series I’m currently working on is based on backstory that involves the effects of solar weather on the Earth. I am certainly no physicist, so way back when I began sketching out the details of the backstory (which is foundational to the rest of the series), I searched the Internet for articles and resources that would answer my bazillion questions. I “met” (online) a few professors who helped me design my worlds, but one expert in particular—Tom—was instrumental in guiding the structure of critical space weather elements on which I would rest the entire novel series. Despite his integral role in a major governmental program, and international speaking and collaboration commitments, he always managed to find time to answer my questions. Even after I edged into confidential territory and he had to redirect my curiosity into more public access areas, he continued to provide indispensible input. I couldn’t have built a believable story without his help. Tom has moved on to other projects, and now I usually direct my questions on similar subjects to my friend William, an engineer who works with satellites and related systems.

My point is, don’t be afraid to ask questions. If one source is unable (or unwilling) to help, find another one. It’s like querying; if we send to one agent or editor and they say no, we send to another. Right?

Do know, though, that some genres of fiction may involve security issues related to your questions. One doctor friend refused to give me information I could use as a plot device to kill a character in an undetectable way, not because he thought I planned to actually kill someone, but because it would be a really bad idea to put something like that in a book that millions of people will read. (Yes, millions. Think positive, right?) Rodney William Whitaker (writing as Trevanian) had a footnote in his novel Shibumi to that same effect. Tom couldn’t answer what, exactly, it would take (as far as space weather) to bring down a country’s electrical grid, for obvious reasons. Back then, I also asked questions of a banker friend about how bad things would have to be to shut down world banking. She looked at me with a sort of horrified expression and said, “You should be careful, Drema. Asking questions like this will bring the men in black sedans to your door.” Maybe that’s why the electric company did not respond to my requests for a tour of their power station.

Whatever you want to write about, there is someone out there who can answer your questions, or tell you where to find resources that will serve the same function. There’s just no reason in this day and age, when we can talk to people from all around the world without ever leaving our comfortable desk chair, why a secretary (or a housewife, or a retail sales associate, etc.) should not write a science fiction novel, or a murder mystery, or whatever she wants. If the story concept excites you, I say go for it.

Critical Mass

I wrote about critiquing once before (Like Minds and Other Sounding Boards, May 22, 2017), and said at the time that it is hard to sit and listen to people critique your baby, the words you’ve sweat and bled over. Now I’m back on that topic to change my tune.

I’m currently attending my second 6-sesson fiction workshop at The Muse Center in Norfolk. This time, the facilitator is Lydia Netzer. She’s awesome with her astute observations and her quirky comments that catch me off-guard sometimes—in a good way—and I’m really enjoying myself. I’ll probably take her class again. Sessions like that are so helpful! One week before each class, half the students submit a 15-page segment of their work. During the class, each of us gets a chance to offer critical input to the writer – what worked, what didn’t, any patterns we see in the narrative, foreshadowing, and so on. It’s incredibly helpful, and not only when the class critiques my work. Reading the work of others or listening to the students in the class offer input on someone else’s work is also useful and informative.

Classes aren’t the only way to accomplish this. Beta readers are also helpful, as I mentioned before, whether or not the readers are themselves writers (though fellow writers can offer more focused and technical input). I’ve called on beta readers numerous times, and have served in that capacity for fellow writers. Same as with the fiction class, both sides of this coin are useful to the aspiring writer (and probably accomplished ones too). There is actually a website called Critters Workshop that seems to be set up for this very thing. I keep meaning to check it out, but here I am still talking about it.

The one thing I haven’t yet found is a regular writer’s critique group. The one I mentioned in my earlier critique post never actually met again after I joined them. (Was it something I said?) After this long a wait, I decided to look elsewhere. I know it won’t necessarily be easy to find just the right one, but at the moment, I’d be happy to find one at all. For a couple of years now, I’ve been searching for one that meets near my home because I didn’t want to spend an hour or more behind the wheel to get two hours of networking and critique. (Time, people; it’s a four-letter word.) So far, the only ones I’ve found that meet regularly are all at least half an hour away, and that’s on a good day. If traffic snarls, which is a frequent occurrence, that half-hour can stretch on. I thought about starting one in this area myself, but when I mentioned this possibility to my hubby, he laughed and said “You know what will happen if you do that.”

“No, what?” I said, all innocence.

“You’ll end up running it. It’ll be your responsibility to keep it going.”

I opened my mouth to protest, but shut it again. Unfortunately, he’s right. If I’m the one who starts it, I’ll likely be the one who has to send reminders of our meetings and schedules of submissions, etc. It doesn’t sound like a lot of work, and it probably isn’t. But when you add that to all the other tasks that make up already full days, it’s not something I could maintain. So I’m looking again, because the critique process is proving so helpful to me.

Mind you, I still haven’t been published. But I can see an improvement in my work after it’s gone through this process. I don’t accept every change that is suggested. It’s important to keep in mind that every reader is different. Some will like your work and others won’t, no matter how you write or revise. But if six out of six readers all point out something in the narrative or dialogue or plot as problematic, chances are it needs a tweak. And sometimes, other writers can point out a better way to resolve the plot. In our last class, half the students agreed on a plot point change for my story “Murder of Crows,” so I made the change yesterday and set it aside. When I read it again this morning, I liked it much better.

In the end, your stories or essays or narratives are your own. You decide what goes and what stays, but it pays to listen to input from others. I highly recommend classes or other critique opportunities to anyone who is trying to break into the writing world, as long as you understand going in that you will get both positive and negative feedback. And that’s exactly what you should want. Your mom or your sister or your best friend can tell you how great your story is all day long, but if someone isn’t also pointing out the problems with plot and characterization and technical details, your work will never be as good as it could.

Writing On Eggshells

Gods know I hate to offend people or step on their toes. So it upsets me to find that something I’ve posted on social media or something I’ve said in passing was hurtful. That’s not to say I haven’t on rare occasion given voice to a sentiment I knew would be hurtful. I’m only human, and I do have a temper. I can think of a handful of times where I felt the situation warranted bald truth and did not hold back. But in all those cases, the recipient of my verbal barbs knew without a doubt that my words were intentional. Most of those individuals are no longer in my life, and I am better off without them.

More often, my offenses are unintentional either because I didn’t think before I spoke/wrote, or because it never occurred to me that my words could possibly be interpreted as affronts. Areas of sensitivity seem to be multiplying by leaps and bounds in recent years, or maybe they’ve always been there and we are only now being made aware of them. I try to be mindful of words and phrases that exacerbate the disempowerment of women, racist mindset, gender or sexuality bias, or dialogue that might trigger victims of violence. I make every effort to speak inclusively of people with differing physical or intellectual capacities, and to be mindful of class or cultural bias in my imagery.

But I have to admit that it’s hard to keep up sometimes with all the “proper” terms for addressing these issues, almost as hard as it is to successfully dance around all the potentials for upset. I suppose that is a testament to my privilege. While I am a woman, and can speak first-hand about the struggles women face every day, I am cis-gender, with white skin, of at least average intelligence. I am unhampered by long-term illness or chronic pain or other debilitating physical conditions. I’m not financially wealthy, but I have a roof over my head, food in my belly, a working vehicle and a steady job. I have good medical insurance, so I’m able to see a doctor when I need one and obtain necessary medications. I want for very little, but I am keenly aware that my good fortune is not as common as we might wish. No matter how careful I am, it is far too easy for me to inadvertently say or write something wrong without realizing it until the offense has already been given.

Fiction, at least, allows the writer an opportunity to wield a seemingly careless bludgeon with the hands of an unlikable character. It isn’t the writer’s words or actions the reader will detest; it’s the villain’s. Even a protagonist can demonstrate a failure to display “proper” or “honorable” actions, as long as they redeem themselves in some other way. Behind the façade of fictional tales, writers can say indelicate things in poignant or impactful ways, address sensitive issues in relevant ways without taking too big a hit from readers. We almost expect that sort of thing in a story that isn’t real. Look at the old Star Trek episodes (even Next Gen, or some of the other variations of the franchise). Most of them weren’t even subtle in their “hidden” messages.

Writers of non-fiction, however, have no such shield. They must weigh every word against intent and guess at the reception, then forge ahead and hope for the best. Unfortunately, the outcome is not always everything they wanted—sometimes far less. Even the simplest of statements can easily be taken out of context and become fodder for insult, whether or not it was ever intended as such.

I’ve written in a prior post about how to pen lifestyles unlike my own experience. There, I was mostly concerned with creating a realistic character portrayal. Here I’m asking a different set of questions:

  • Where is the line between authentic expression of emotion or opinion and withholding that expression out of respect for others’ space or, at the least, the desire to remain inoffensive?
  • Can we as writers keep ourselves small, so as to not intrude on those around us, and still write something worthy of our craft?
  • Can our words still have any significant impact if we are always cushioning the blow?
  • How many readers can we expect to follow volume after volume of pablum with nary a chewy morsel?

There are many flavors and shades of Truth, maybe as many as there are humans. Defenders of any one camp disbelieve—and sometimes protest—the truth of those in the other camps. The truth is, we may never bring everyone to agreement on most things of importance. Perhaps the secret is to write one’s own Truth, as honestly and clearly as we can, to know ahead of time that not everyone will like what we say (what was that old adage about making an omelette? Apologies to my fellow vegans) and be ready for that before we print our words, to be willing to defend one’s position when necessary and, when we see we are wrong, to apologize and change position. Life, culture, society is ever-evolving. We have to be able to grow along with it if we hope to remain standing or—in our case as writers—to keep writing relevant works.

Writing For the Birds

I love haircut day. I get to sit in a chair and be pampered by my friend Ashley, who always seems fascinated by whatever project I have in the works at any given time. So this last visit, I somehow found myself summarizing for her the “finished” short stories I’m pitching just now. Half of them are heavy with birds – two especially so. She squinted at me in the mirror and said, “Okay, what’s with the birds?”

I had to laugh. It’s a pattern I hadn’t recognized until that moment. I do love birds. I’ll stop the car (safely!) to go back and park somewhere so I can watch egrets or herons on the hunt in the numerous waterways around our area. I look for pelicans or osprey when crossing the longer bridges. All crows, shimmering and sometimes playful, are named Jerrald. I’m always thrilled to actually spy a shy bittern or catbird, or a yellow-bellied sapsucker (yes, there really is a bird by that name). I know by sight (and some—those I can hear, anyway—by sound) many birds common to my region, and have several dog-eared birding books where I look up those feathered beauties I don’t immediately recognize. I’ve written here numerous times that those things that are a part of us must surely show up in our work, so the imagery of birds in my work should be expected. But it made me wonder what other patterns my words demonstrate. It also made me wonder if this was a strength or a weakness.

Certainly there are writers who frequently include a specific motif across multiple works, like John Irving’s bear or Samuel Beckett’s bicycle, or even the cameo appearances made by Stephen King and Alfred Hitchcock in the films associated with their works. Irving waved off any significance to his recurring bears. As far as he was concerned, they were simply a common appearance in his everyday life, thus they also appeared in his stories. For Beckett, who was once a keen cyclist, a bicycle often symbolizes the light of hope or love for his characters. Hitchcock’s cameos were a playful attempt at self-portrait, a permanent mark of his role in the production. King just loves being in front of the camera and brings his remarkable sense of humor to most of his brief roles.

For me, birds symbolize many things, from freedom to spirituality, from beauty to the mundane. The idea of flight gives wings to my imagination! I remember once, during lunch break in my car on a particularly frenetic and harrowing day, I sat with the windows down in a Wendy’s parking lot and tuned out the traffic noise. Instead, I leaned back, closed my eyes, and imagined I was a bird. I flew up out of my car and over the parking lot, past the crowded boulevard and the crackerbox neighborhood beyond to the park a few miles away. I swear I could feel the sun on my back and the rushing wind in my feathers. The sense of liberation lent an exuberance that followed me the rest of the day and lifted me out of my earlier sense of despair.

In hindsight, I see that the birds in one of my stories are surreal spirits sent to do that very thing for a character anchored to unending responsibility despite fatal illness; they lift her out of her earth-bound life and into the clouds above the canopy in her homeland. Another story portrays them as saviors, too, though in a slightly more ordinary way. In a third, they are spirits of place, as well as a shared connection between two unlikely friends that transcends daily life. In my novel series, one particular rare bird is seen as a spirit of transcendence.

For the most part, I didn’t set out to write birds as such hefty symbols. They just turned out that way, and I’m not surprised, given their importance in my life. I wonder if readers down the road will see in them the same things I do now, but that isn’t up to me. Every reader must take away what they will, and that’s okay.

I’m not sure I’ll intentionally put birds (or any other specific motif) into every book or story I write, only those where it makes sense. I think that from now on, however, I might be more vigilant to recognize those symbols as they make their way onto the page, instead of waiting for Ashley—or any other reader—to point them out. Perhaps that way, I can use them more effectively.

What about you? How do you use motifs or symbols in your work?

Long-stemmed Roses

Yesterday, Bobby and I walked on the beach in the chill Autumn drizzle. Among our discoveries of a tiny moss-like crab lurking among the branches of a beached coral, a string of shells, and darting sanderlings, we found a long-stemmed pink rose. Far past its prime, the thing looked sad, dejected, and Bobby asked me for its story.

I glanced in his direction. “It’s story?”

“Yeah. You know, how did it get here. Whose was it. Where did it come from. Its story.”

As we walked, I told a tale of lovers on a cruise ship, one of whom gifted the other with the flower before they fought, and the flower got thrown overboard because it was too painful a reminder of something lost. I rambled about a wedding party taking creative pre-ceremony photos at the beach and when they picked up their equipment and props to go home, the flower got dropped. It wasn’t missed until they were miles away, too late to go back for it and after all, it’s only a flower. Or perhaps it is a clue to a murder. Maybe a young party-goer from one of the beachfront condos had a little too much to drink and slipped out for a waterside stroll to clear her head. Someone followed her, hoping for a little romance and when she refused, things got violent. The flower is a clue because the young killer gifted her with it earlier in the evening and she left it behind in the condo when she went out. Only the person who gave it to her in the first place would have brought it back to her later. (I know. Weak. My defense is that it was an on-the-spot prompt with no time for thought.)

So now I have a new story concept on my list of potential projects. When I was adding it, I read through the list and was struck by how many intriguing ideas are written there. Writing them in that book and nurturing the ideas into what may become great stories is very much like growing a rose garden. I know they aren’t all destined for long-stemmed bouquets, but all have potential to produce prize-winning blooms. In their early stages, I can’t know which ones unless I tend them regularly, one each evening, maybe two on a weekend.

With so many rose bushes, my biggest “problem” is deciding which flower to water on any given day.

Here’s an overview of my current “garden.” I am presently working on book two (and by connection, book three) of a novel series, four incomplete short stories, and several poems. In addition, I’m searching for magazines to print the six completed short stories already on hand, nursing ideas for another novel, taking a fiction class series, and reading as much as I can in various genres, savoring other people’s “roses” so that I can know what makes a good one and what flaws I want to avoid in my own blossoms.

Sometimes, garden maintenance overwhelms me. Each rose is exciting in its own way, and I certainly don’t want to plant a seed only to let it wither and die. At the same time, if I see a rose will die whether I tend it or not, I’m likely to set it aside and work on another instead. I don’t know how other gardeners maintain a large plot, but even a master rose grower has to start somewhere before her canes produce winning blooms.

If it sounds like I’m complaining, I’m not. I’m just thinking out loud, so to speak, trying to make sense out of a crazy, self-imposed regimen of learning when to fertilize and when to prune, and how to recognize when a rose has reached its prime and is ready to share.

How about you? What’s flowering in your garden? How do you manage its regular maintenance?

Some Reassembly Required

I’m a little embarrassed to admit that it took me more than fifty years to realize that the old saying “Life is what happens while you’re making other plans” means exactly what it says. To understand that this moment—not the one when I finally get my act together and all is right with the world—is Life. The body slam of that sudden insight was like rounding a corner to come face-to-face with Wonder Woman only to find that she is far shorter than I imagined, with mismatched socks and bad breath.

That epiphany spotlighted what I’d missed, or perhaps willfully ignored. I have spent far too much time wishing “tough” times behind me and longing for the “good” era of my life. Now, in my middle age, nowhere near the life I envisioned at 18 or 25 or even 30, I find myself in an unexpected role, pursuing a career I never dared to dream of, brought here by adventures and experiences I could never have predicted. Sometimes that awareness is cold water in my face. Other times it is a warm blanket on a chill night.

I can’t help but compare this to storytelling, and the art of writing.

Have you ever seen kintsugi? those pieces of broken pottery repaired by gold-dusted laquer so that the cracks are actually highlighted? The idea therein is that the cracks are part of the piece’s history, that we should embrace the repairs rather than reject them. It’s the same with us. Our flaws make us more beautiful. More interesting. More real. Those cracks are often where stories come from in the first place.

Don’t believe me?

A baby was born into a happy home where her parents adored her and provided every opportunity for advancement. The girl took advantage of this priceless gift, pursuing and excelling at the things that made her heart sing. After high school, she went on to a lovely, affordable college, graduated with high honors and no crippling debt. In the years that followed, she continued to work in her chosen field, which fulfilled her in almost every way. She met and married the partner of her dreams, built a family, bought a beautiful home in a lovely, safe neighborhood. Their credit cards were paid every month. The family never wanted for anything. Their cars never broke down and they were never late for work. Their children were beautiful, well-behaved, with high marks in school. The whole family was happy and healthy, and no heartache or tragedy ever touched them. And they all lived long, satisfying lives. The end.

How much of that book would you read? Probably not much. It’s boring. There’s no escape in such a story. As counterintuitive as it seems, the suffering of the protagonist makes the story more compelling, doesn’t it? In the end, even if she doesn’t “win” (however you define that concept), the story is in the struggle. In the cracks. We don’t skip over the tragedy in a novel only to read the parts that give us the warm fuzzy. More likely than not, we couldn’t understand the warm fuzzy without seeing how it is informed by the tragedy.

I’m still new at appreciating my own brokenness and the idea that life is a pot-holed road. Even so, I find that these flaws hold not only new stories, but clues toward understanding older ones. Perhaps, as the kintsugi artists portray, there really is gold to be found in every crack. We just need to know how to see it.

Write. Right?

I signed up for another 6-session fiction class, where students write and submit, then critique each other’s work. I’m excited, but I’m also nervous, as I am anytime I share my stories with someone else.

(That’s crazy talk, you say; don’t you want to get published? Won’t that mean others are reading your words all the time? Yes, but that’s not the same. Readers in a library or gym or living room half a state away—or half a country or half a world—won’t sit across the table from me while they poke holes in my plots. Yes, I’m sure I’ll be critiqued by anyone who ever reads my stories; but a small, intimate classroom setting hits closer to home. It’s a small difference, but compelling nonetheless. I wonder if I’m in good company?)

I do know, though, that the critique process builds better writing. This will make my second 6-session fiction class. Last time the workshop was facilitated by Lamar Giles. This time, our fearless leader is Lydia Netzer. Both Lamar and Lydia are published authors, so as a student I know I can learn from their experience.

To tell the truth, I’ve been in a writing slump. Oh I have lots of ideas. They just never seem to go anywhere. I keep noting them in my little book of ideas. Meanwhile, I’ve gone back to my novel series, which has been languishing for months while I worked on short stories.

This weekend, I took the time to fill in most of the gaps in my plan for book 3 (book 2 was already plotted and outlined). It looks so wonderful to see all those little colored stickies up on my board, each one a brief note of my intent for that scene. Together they form a sort of road map that will lead my plot through all the essential points up to the crisis and denouement. They give me a target toward which I can aim the arrows of my words.

Even so, some days are a struggle. I’m tired. I’m brain-fried from my day job. I can’t think of a single elegant thing to say. The words I put in my characters’ mouths are stilted, spoken in the wrong voice. On those days, I might write 500 words in three hours, all of which must be rewritten the next day. I must admit, I’ve begun to shy away from the computer on those days. Maybe that’s a mistake. Maybe that’s the source of this slump. ‘Coz writing is hard, y’all. It’s tempting, when I’m tired, to make excuses as to why I shouldn’t even try.

Bobby enticed me outdoors for a few hours earlier today, which I needed, but it was harder to come back to the blank page than I wanted it to be. I did it, though. I wrote almost a thousand words in book 2 (even if I do have to rewrite them later – who cares?), then I switched over to this blog post so I could try (TRY) to describe how I feel when it’s a struggle. If you write, you already know. If you don’t, these words probably won’t suffice. Still, it’s worth the effort. It’s good practice. So here I am, at my computer, even though I’m blah.

Right. Onward. Butt in Chair, Hands on Keyboard, Typing Away Madly – otherwise known as BIC HOC TAM. (Borrowed from Brad Parks, and a darned common slogan for writers online, apparently.)

Doesn’t matter if it’s perfect. Just write, Drema.

Just write.