Your Life as Fodder – Or How to Grow a Story

So often I hear people say they want to write but they struggle coming up with ideas. That they feel compelled to write at all tells me they already have ideas. It could be that they just don’t know how to get them outside themselves (remember the jar full of frenzied bees?). Or maybe they don’t know how to transform their ideas into a story and execute it. Or maybe they don’t believe anyone would care to read what they have to say. To all of that, I say this…

First of all, believe in yourself. (You can do it!) Second of all, you’d be surprised at the difference sharing your story can make for another person. (Really.) And third of all, if you really believe you’re out of ideas, simply look to your own life and go from there. (Your life is magical, mystical source of fodder.)

I’m not saying that you ought to write personal essay (unless that’s what you want to do) but that you can take snippets from your life and turn them into fictional stories. Treat those snippets like seeds that you can plant (put them on the page – just get them out of your head – and see what starts to sprout), water (stay with it, tend it, and add what’s needed – trust yourself to know), and prune (edit, cut, and relocate). When you commit to the growth of a story, it will grow.

Here are a few examples of events, phases, facets of my life that I can use to create fictional stories…

  • I had always wanted to experience living in an apartment building and managing it for the benefit of free rent. My personal story didn’t quite go that way – I managed SEVEN buildings (while working two other jobs), and I got a measly $250/month credit on my rent. My romantic fantasy became a horrible reality – the worst job I’ve ever had. (And that’s saying something.)

    Upper management was difficult to work with due to systemic dysfunction and a total lack of awareness that change was needed. One person, in particular – the Assistant General Manager with a bull-in-a-china-shop presence who perpetually, even angrily, chomped on a big wad of gum – was consistently rude and dismissive – even cruel. To me. I worked non-stop with no one to give me a break (even though they “sold” the job as one with TONS of flexibility – they lied). Some residents were demanding and rude. Some were lovely. The building was a “charming” old one in downtown and fraught with problems. I also got up close and personal with the homeless problem in ways I wouldn’t wish on anyone. I saw the underbelly of humanity.

    I moved into the apartment of the previous, beloved maintenance man who had died just a few months before. Management neglected to tell me he died in the apartment (until I asked). But it all worked out because he left a calming presence in the space. And the maintenance and painting crews were fun guys and treated me well. They were, by far, the best part of the job. Think a Raymond Carver-esque short story.

  • Just before taking the manager job at the apartments, I lived in an artists’ community. Sounds cool, right? It wasn’t. Rampant disregard for authority by residents who were underdeveloped emotionally and mentally, partially due to the enabling of the manager who was a lovely person as a person I’d want to know outside that context. You can bet that, someday, the people I met there will wind up in a screenplay, as will the four sane people I also met there. Think One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with art and lots of weed and alcohol.

  • When I was 11, I came home from school one day. My grandma was there, as usual, and I could tell she had been crying. When I asked her why, she stalled, but I eventually learned that when she arrived at our house that day, she found a note on the kitchen table – It was a narrow sliver of torn, lined paper, just wide enough to accommodate two sentences – from my dad saying he was leaving us. I remember immediately going to my parents’ bedroom closet to find his half of the closet empty except for the several naked dangling hangers. The image of that emptiness was seared into my brain and serves as a metaphor for the emptiness his decision made in my life. While I long ago came to terms with that period of my life, it’s an image I can use to tell a story about family, selfishness, grief, infidelity, insanity, growing up too soon, strength, and more. Think a Joyce Carol Oates-esque short story.

So, if you’re compelled to write a story but can’t think of what to write, take some time to scan through your life and all the experiences you’ve had. You’ll find more ideas than you can handle. To start, make three lists:

  • Events/phases – like my working as a manager or living in an artists’ community
  • People – like the brutal Assistant General Manager or the uplifting maintenance crew and painters at the management company, or the enabling but very likeable Manager and “crazy” residents at the artists’ community
  • Images/objects – like the image of my parents’ half-empty closet and all those meager empty hangers

If you’d rather not write about yourself and your life, spin off from one small thing from your life and see what happens. The truth is… we can tell more truths about humanity through fiction than we can through writing from our life experience, anyway. So free yourself up. Draw from your life, then let your imagination take over. Not only will it free you up, but you also won’t have to concern yourself with being called out on “the facts.”

Give it a try and let me know what you come up with in the comments below.

Sending you mad writing mojo…

The reason you aren’t writing #4

image from honeybeehaven.com

Imagine a bunch of bumble bees in a jar. The lid’s closed tight, and they want OUT. Frenzied, ricocheting, banging off the sides of the glass, slamming into each other. Getting more and more agitated.

This is your brain when you have TOO MANY ideas and thoughts. This is what happens when you hang on to those thoughts and ideas, thinking you can write it out in your mind, thinking you can figure it all out and have it all in order when you “have time” to get it all on the page.

The truth is, you won’t figure it out UNTIL you get what’s in there onto the page. So set the angry bees free, and do a word dump.

This may very well be my favorite phase of writing. It’s when I get to take all those crazy, frenzied, non-stop, LOUD thoughts in my head and purge them. Word dumping is similar to freewriting, but word dumping is more conscious.

Unload onto the page or screen (keyboard is a-okay for this process) every thought that comes to you about your character, story, scene, or plot without worrying that it makes sense, connects in any meaningful way, or has anything to do with your current plot or character trajectory.

Just get it all out. You can shape it later, much like a potter or a sculptor would. (I know, I’m mixing my metaphors… But you get what I’m getting at. Set the bees free, then throw the clay. All right?!) When a potter sits down at her wheel to start a new piece, she knows that a bowl or a vase or a cup won’t magically appear. She must first throw the clay to have something to work with.

Likewise, Taoists believe that a sculpture already exists in a block of marble and it’s the sculptor’s job to remove what isn’t needed. Get your thoughts outside yourself; then and only then will you be able to know what you’re working with and what you don’t need.

Set the timer for 10 minutes, and go.

Begin your writing exercise with the following phrase.

The thing I love most about my main character is _________________.

Let me know how it goes in the comments!

Sending you mad writing mojo…

Amalgamation – or How to respond when someone asks, “Is this about you?”

According to Merriam-Webster, amalgamation is “the action or process of uniting or merging two or more things.” This can show up in the merging of businesses, the fusion of two different music styles, and the blending of two cultures.

In the world of writing, amalgamation happens consciously and unconsciously. Some writers intentionally draw from their personal lives, use real situations but change names to protect the innocent (and themselves from being sued), use their home town or state as the milieu for a story, and much more.

For other writers, like me, amalgamation happens unconsciously. It wasn’t until I was partway through the second draft of my in-progress novel, Miranda’s Garden, that I realized Crystal, Miranda’s (my main character’s) neighbor, is an amalgamation of both of my grandmothers. And I realized Miranda’s husband, Len, was an amalgamation of my first and second husbands and my cousin, Keith. I also consciously use Illinois and Colorado as settings for the story because I’ve lived in both areas long enough to be able to write about the terrain and because cornfields and mountains play an important part in the story, as metaphor.

An excellent example of a current author who uses amalgamation – and acknowledges it (although I’ve never read that he’s used this word to describe it) – is James Frey. Frey was in Portland recently talking about his newest book, Katerina. While at Powell’s City of Books, he indicated that he did, in fact, go to Paris in his early 20s to write and he did, in fact, date a model named Katerina, just like the character in the book. He said he also made up stuff.

You may recall Frey from the 2006 debacle when he and his book, A Million Little Pieces, rose to fame as a beacon of recovery after landing on Oprah’s Book Club list and was then knocked off her pedestal after it was discovered parts of the book were fictionalized. This unfortunate turn of events came about for a few reasons: Frey had used real-life events and embellished, Frey’s publisher thought it best to position the book as a memoir, and Oprah – to spare her precious ego and because she was clueless about how literary genres function – came out like God on the Day of Reckoning to publicly castigate and shame Frey.

This cluelessness is common, and I’ve seen it a lot after sharing my work and while attending public readings and exhibitions of others. Some readers/listeners/viewers feel the need to pry into the “truthfulness” of a story – even when that story is deemed fictional. Many will assume that the use of the first person “I” indicates a story about the writer. Or if the story is presented in third person point of view, there’s often the sly, “This is really about you, isn’t it?”

When I screened my feature film, Found Objects, some people commented on the similarities between the main character in the story and me. Yes, she was a creative soul who had lost herself in the domestic sphere of the nuclear family consisting of a husband and three kids. Yes, I drew from a couple of incidents – like the day my son, Spencer, came home from school and said he’d learned that physical touch can help us live longer (which from then on, for a long, long time, led to him saying, “Hey, mom, I wanna live longer” whenever he wanted a hug). And yes, the husband had wanted to be an architect, just like mine had, which I chose to use only because it aligned well with my use of houses and spaces as metaphors for our Selves. The rest was a story about a character that grew in my mind, became her own person, and had her own story to tell.

One of my professors from grad school had the perfect comeback for the is-this-about-you question: “Will knowing this allow you to take in the work differently?” In my experience, the answer has always been ‘no’.

Those who understand how the creative process works understand that whether we’re writing about ourselves or not is immaterial. It’s the story – the work – and its emotional impact that matter. In a world so fraught with accusations about what’s fake and what’s real, we must remember that, in many (most?) cases, truthfulness is subjective. If you and I live an event, we’ll both have different truths about it and what it means. As Albert Camus said, “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.”

Whether we’re writing fiction or memoir, you can bet there’s a complex blend of “lies” and truths. Memoirists often condense events and timelines, and they conflate characters. These decisions are usually done for the sake of economy of language among other reasons. Does it matter if a memoir isn’t completely factual? I don’t think so. Of course, there are ways to let readers know when we’ve made adjustments to “reality” (a note at the front of the book will suffice) if that’s important to you. But this is for every writer to decide.

When deciding whether or not I deem a book “good,” I don’t care much about the conventions of formatting or doing things “by the book,” and I won’t take the time to sleuth about to find out if the author did her/his research (for fiction) or lived through an event in the book (for memoir).  For me, what matters most is the emotional truthfulness of a story. If I read a book – fiction or memoir – and it touches me, resonates with me, and stays with me for days, I’m satisfied.

So… put the heart of your story first. Tell it with all the emotional truthfulness you and your main character can gather. Then decide how much you want or need to stick to the “facts.” It’s yours to tell.

Fill-in-the-Blank Flash Fiction Friday – October 5

Here’s your Fill-in-the-Blank Flash Fiction Friday* opening sentence.


Like clockwork, _________________ walked out to the orchard at noon sharp, and a _____________, _______________, apple fell to the ground and rolled right up to the scuffed toes of her/his _________________.


The “Rules”

  • Fill in the blanks.
  • Finish the story in 1,000 words.
  • Post your story in the comments section below by the next Friday.

I’ll post the winner** on my social media sites AND

you could wind up in the Fill-in-the-Blank Flash Fiction Friday book
I just might maybe publish at the end of the year

Sending you mad writing mojo….

Johnnie
XXXX


*Writing is serious business, but sometimes it’s fun to have fun.

**Selection of the winner is arbitrary and depends on my mood, what I’ve eaten or haven’t eaten, how much sleep I’ve had, and my constantly shifting tastes…

Perspective + POV: How you look at things changes how you look at things

This past weekend, I headed out to the Oregon Coast for a business retreat with a group of phenomenal visionary business builders. We stayed together in a house right across the road from the beach; we savored sumptuous food prepared by our uber-talented, in-house chef, Zach; we cavorted (for real… we danced around); we shared our brilliance with each other through short presentations; we set goals.

When I hit the road to make the two-plus-hour trip with my friend, Krista, I was prepared to hunker down and work (the transition from summer to fall does that to me), and I went with the idea that I’d make the best of sharing a house with 11 other people (we introverts loooove our alone time).

My perspective took a turn after the first day, partially due to witnessing the genius of my fellow council members (and getting to know them better as people) and partially due to the skill with which Michael, our fearless leader, was able to go with the flow and adapt to what transpired. And part of it was also me simply deciding to change my perspective, dive in, and be present.

This came in the literal sense when we did an impromptu group polar plunge into the cold ocean waves right at the moment summer shifted to fall. Symbolic and exhilarating, for sure. This act woke up my adventurous spirit, which led me to do something I’ve dreamed of for a long, long time… I did stand-up comedy. It was short, and I had the best crowd possible… The set up with bright lights and a live mic made me feel legit. And I know I’ll do it again… with a longer bit and to a larger crowd of people I don’t know at all. And I woke up even more.

The point of all this is that perspective is malleable like clay. It can shift without warning, spurred by some external force or situation, or we can make a conscious choice to shift our perspective on our own. Our view of ourselves, other people, situations within and out of our control, and life in general, shapes our days and our lives.

Perspective also shapes the lives of our characters and their stories; and it applies to the angle from which we approach a scene, to the Point of View we use to tell a story, and to the way we think about our writing.

Here’s a POV writing tip

 Think about how scenes in movies are shot –
long shots (LS), medium shots (MS), close-ups (CU), extreme close-ups (XCU).

Each one creates a different emotional experience for the viewer and determines the distance between the viewer and the character.

The same is true when writing for the page.

Try these exercises

First, write and rewrite a few scenes using the LS, MS, CU, and XCU approach.
Notice how the tone and mood change.

Next, if you aren’t sure which POV to use in your story, play around with giving everyone a shot at having the stage or being the focus of the “lens” and see what happens.

So often people don’t want to “waste time” doing exercises, but sometimes those exercises lead to the jewel your story’s been missing. Give it a try and let me know how it goes in the comments below.

Sending you mad writing mojo…