Stories about strangers – writing to create connection with people, even if you never know them

I recently wrote about how strangers can enhance our writing, and I want to elaborate more on that here, based on scenarios I witnessed outside my apartment window over the course of a few weeks.

Here in Portland, we’re experiencing an epidemic in homelessness, and as a downtown dweller, I see the effects of this problem firsthand. Camps are frequently set up, then dismantled, in the two-block circumference surrounding my apartment.

Several weeks ago, a couple set up their tent right across the street from my four large windows that overlook a fairly main thoroughfare downtown. The city’s MAX train run right by, and during the day, there’s a pretty steady stream of cars. At night, the motorized traffic ebbs and I become more aware of foot traffic.

A few weeks back, I saw a couple pitch their bright blue tent, which took up about a 5′ x 7′ area, and they put out a small welcome mat. They left no footprint other than this. One morning, when I opened my blinds to start my day, I saw the man standing outside the tent wearing his usual dark grey, wool coat over a pair of jeans and a white t-shirt. A knitted tan beanie covered his head. The woman stepped out in a pair of colorful yoga pants and a hoodie, and she began to run a lint roller over his shoulders and down his back. The man picked up the walking stick that lay across their welcome mat every night – the walking stick that I imagined he had carefully crafted from a limb; it was perfectly carved and polished and it added another dignified dimension to his already dignified appearance – and he set off down the street.

Later that day, while I was riding the streetcar, I saw him on the corner looking for cans in the garbage, and later that day, I saw him return to their tent with a bag of groceries. I watched them share a granola bar and a bottle of water.

At this point in my observations (and I’m sure I’m starting to sound like a voyeur, of sorts), I couldn’t deny their humanity, the grace with which they lived each day (from the snippets I witnessed), and their pride in their home… and a story started to blossom in my mind.

I needed names for these two, maybe partly because that’s what the writer in me does… but maybe more as a way to give them some humanity – a need I had, not as the privileged bestower of something they already possessed. He looked like a Mark to me, and she, like a Maria. If you’re a writer, you might be able to understand what was happening here for me… my writer’s mind was forming a story – not out of exploitation, but out of seeking to feel a connection through a story. It’s second nature.

I considered, several times, leaving them a note – or telling them in person if they were home when I was outside – ‘thank you’ for being such good neighbors. They were quiet, respectful, clean, and tidy.

Over the course of these several weeks, I saw people stop by to socialize with them and move on. A new man showed up and pitched his tent next to theirs. His footprint was larger and more disheveled, and a few days later, the police came and arrested the man. They took him and a little plastic packet of something away – but not before going back to his site and collecting his shoes for him. Mark talked to the police, and from what I gathered, they were allowed to stay. I watched him tidy up his neighbor’s site and neatly cover it with blankets.

Within a couple of week’s time, another couple made the sidewalk across the street from me their home, right next door to Mark and Maria. They had more and they were loud. I could hear their voices through my opened windows, and I could see Mark talking with them, but his soft-spoken voice never made it across the street. By now, the weather had warmed, and he had shed his wool coat for a tan corduroy blazer and continued to walk the streets with his walking stick and have people over in the evenings – many of them much younger males. With his staff, long-ish white beard, and dignified presence, I imagined him to be the wise sage in the community.

I imagined him to be an artistic soul… a wood carver or a painter. And I imagined Maria to be a dancer. I imagined them living a creative life together for years until a series of events changed the course of their lives and put them on the streets. I imagined the effort it took to maintain the sense of dignity I saw in them, their quiet and poised presence. I wondered whether either of them had kids and if so, where they were. Maybe these two had been imperfect parents to the point of estrangement… I don’t know.

But if this were the case – if they had made such a mess of their lives that they found themselves alone (but together), sleeping in a tent on the cement in downtown Portland – they seemed to have a powerful aura of pride and self-respect about them. Maybe this quality they exuded was redemptive, and maybe the redemption came after year upon year of bad choices and missteps, or maybe they were victims of the system…

Eventually, the people who set up camp next to them brought chaos and clutter, and someone called the police, who came and made them all pack up and move. I watched Mark talk with the police, then set out to remove his and Maria’s belongings from the tent and pack them in a few knapsacks. I watched him dismantle their bright blue tent and roll up their welcome mat, and I watched them walk away down the sidewalk to find another spot they could call home.

A few days after they left, I was on my way to a meeting on foot, and I passed Mark on the sidewalk.I saw him coming toward me, and the impression I had of him through the window was doubled, tripled, quadrupled as he passed me. His weathered but kind face, his tired but kind eyes, an obvious sense of peace emanated from him.

I almost said something to him. I almost stopped him. But I didn’t. At that moment, I was at a loss as to what I’d say. I doubted my own ability to say anything to this man from my privileged position that wouldn’t come across as condescending or trite. (I think part of my one-sided connection to Mark and Maria was that I have had – many times in my life – the there-but-by-the-grace-of-God-go-I thought. I have felt close more times than make me comfortable…)

I let him walk on past and I have not seen him since. I still wonder what their real story is, and I kick myself for not stopping him to say something. I, as a person who values people’s stories so much, froze from fear. I failed to reach out and connect. I wish I knew their story, and I wonder what they would think of the one I created. Would they feel honored, insulted? Would they think it funny and naive that I even tried?

I still can’t explain my draw to these two, and I will likely always remember them as Mark and Maria, the homeless artist and dancer who live one day at a time and have found a way to experience grace and humility amidst daily uncertainty about their survival.

Maybe I’ll always think of them this way because to think otherwise might just break my heart.

How understanding the solar plexus chakra will improve your writing

A common expectation from readers is that we show them the development of our characters. Readers want to see characters learn and change. A common method for creating this expected arc is to create plot points that put characters in situations that will challenge their modes of operation, create friction, and require new decisions to surpass the obstacle and reach their desires.

When we embrace the elements of the third chakra – the Solar Plexus chakra – we can begin to look at our characters in a more complex way. We can take their awareness about themselves and the world – in relation to their responses to other characters – that we discovered by looking through the lens of the second – Sacral – chakra to allow our characters to turn those reflections from others back on themselves. This is where self-awareness comes from, which informs a character’s sense of agency in the world.

This is not to say that all characters will achieve high levels of self-awareness over the course of their individual stories, or even if they do, that they’ll use the awareness wisely. In fact, most of them will not. But as the writers of their stories, we need to be able to discern what we know about them and what they know about themselves, which will inform how much agency we give them. And we need to be able to impart those differences to our readers.

What do your characters know about themselves, and what do you know about them? Does your main character have a strong or weak sense of agency? That is, does she/he take action or just let life happen?

How understanding the root chakra will improve your writing

One of the first steps in creating a character is to understand their backstory. Whether we use the details about each character’s past in the actual story or not, we need to have a clear and compassionate understanding of our characters’ histories.

Oftentimes, we have an inkling of our characters – even when writing from real life experience in a memoir – and our tendency is to write and write until we stumble across their desires and the motivations for those desires. In fact, it is likely even more difficult to get to the core of characters in memoir because we’re so very close to it all – so emotionally attached to our version of the story.

Whether we’re writing fiction or memoir – or something in between – we need a way to approach characters’ emotional inner workings, and an effective method to accomplish this is to explore the Root Chakra because this chakra is about our origins. It will take you to your characters’ emotional underpinnings.

What do you know about your characters’ family of origin, and how does it inform her/his desires, motivations, and behaviors?

Stories, gifts, and turning 60

I turned 60 today. And I made a decision.

I’ve believed for a long time that it’s important to celebrate ourselves on our birthdays – the day we left the spirit realm and entered the material realm to begin the endeavor of creating a life-long collection of stories that come together, in the end, to tell the overarching story of our lives. I’ve celebrated myself every year on my day for years. This year, I did something new.

I had a birthday month. I created a list of activities and events that I love, and I filled in people I’ve known for years about what I was doing with the idea that they could come along to anything that interested them. No obligation on their part and no need on my part. I figured whether 10 people or zero people showed up, I’d be enjoying activities that mean something to me.

I savored a wine tasting; attended a book and paper fair; hit the dance floor; had a fun, intimate dinner with some of my faves; ran a 5K; took a stroll through the Japanese Gardens; wandered through lavender fields, sampled lavender teas, and bought lavender flower sugar and a lavender plant at the lavender festival; and I went to to the Blues and Brews Fest at The Gorge. And I got to see some of my favorite people.

One of the absolute highlights was a surprise camping trip with my grown kids… the first trip I’ve had since I was a kid that I didn’t have to plan and execute myself. And believe me, I ate up lying in the hammock and reading my Kindle while they made dinner as much as I reveled in the time we spent together, the laughs and the stories we shared – as we always do… pure bliss.

Leaving the city behind for a while to soak up nature’s vibes – something I used to do on a regular basis – was just what I needed. And it added to the set of stories my kids and I share with each other.

Each of our lives is made up of stories:  the ones other people tell us, the ones that happen to us, and the ones we create. This month has signified the further evolution of the ever-evolving, ever-growing story of my life.

And I have many things to be grateful for.

This morning while I was walking to a meeting in downtown Portland, feeling content and satisfied with my life, thanks to the experiences I’ve had this past month and much more, I had the revelation that this feeling doesn’t need to stop. And so, from now on, I’ll be celebrating myself every day, which means honoring what’s true to me, what makes me feel happy, safe, content, fulfilled, and nourished.

You see, I’m making up for lost time. There were many years when I and the people around me didn’t celebrate me. And it took me a while to learn how to do that.

I plan to live a long time, and the thought of doing life this way – each day as a celebration – makes me want to live even longer, and that’s a good thing because I have a lot to see and do.

We all have stories, and oftentimes those stories have meant a fair amount of struggle to unravel the past, time spent worrying about what other people think, feeling that we aren’t “good enough,” and needing others to fill voids in us that only we can fill.

I’ve been enjoying life as a content, self-contained entity for a long time, and while it’s been liberating to live this way – being happily aware that while I have all I need within me – seeing everything else as a gift makes each day that much sweeter.

With every walk around the sun I accomplish, I find more to be content with and more to be grateful for, and I have to say, it’s a mighty fine feeling.

So tell me… how are you celebrating yourself today, and is it telling the story you want to tell?

Five Non-Negotiable Must-Dos to Maintain the Health of Your Writerly Body and Soul

Whether we want to admit it or not, we writers are sensitive souls. We write because we notice more than others, which means that, through all the observing and processing, our systems are bombarded, infiltrated, and taxed to the point of exhaustion on a regular basis.

We must take regular reprieves and preventative measures to keep our vessels in good working order. And while some – if not all of – the items in the list below may seem obvious, it’s easy for us to forget. As a reminder, here are five essential, absolutely non-negotiable must-dos to maintain the health of your ever-sensitive writerly body, mind and soul.

1) Get enough sleep. See? I said they may seem obvious, but how many times do you stay up late to gulp in just one or two more episodes of your recent TV series binge? (Okay, maybe I’m talking more to myself than to all of you.) More and more, scientists and the medical community are speaking to the fact that we need a certain amount of sleep for our health, on all levels. When we sleep, we not only rest and replenish, but we also tune into our subconscious, which is crucial for us writers. And if you’re someone who remembers your dreams, there’s so much great fodder there for your next excellent story.

2) Drink plenty of water. Again, maybe obvious, but how many times do you realize that the day is nearly over and you’ve only had one or two glasses of water – if even that? The adult body is believed to be about 60% water. If we don’t maintain that level of liquidity, horrible things can begin to happen. Not only does our skin and mouth dry up, we can get dizzy or lightheaded, tired, and develop headaches. Who wants to – or can – write when they’re lightheaded, tired, and nursing a headache? More severe symptoms of dehydration include confusion, rapid heart rate, fever, and even seizure or shock. 

Imagine the cells of your body and your brain tissues plump and elastic, fully hydrated and ready to serve the wealth of stories that live in my imagination every time you imbibe a glass of clear, refreshing water. If you work at home, keep a glass out in plain sight in a location you walk past several times a day as a reminder. If your budget can tolerate it and your taste buds like it, quaff some electrolyte-loaded coconut water on the daily to keep your system happy, supple, and ready to churn out all those words shoring up inside you.

3) Walk outside. Kill two birds with one stone. After hours at the keyboard or at your desk, hunched over pen and paper, give your body a break and go for a walk outside. Not only will you keep your muscles from experiencing ennui, you’ll get some sunlight on your eyes – always good for your mood, and you’ll get next to nature – always good to keep us grounded and tuned into the earth’s natural rhythms, which will help the writing flow.

4) Eat healthy brain food. And again… this may seem like a no-brainer, but sometimes, we writers can get on a roll and forget about eating. Of course, doing this once in a while, when we’re deep in flow and lost in our story world, isn’t going to do much harm. In fact, it can be a good thing, in terms of clearing us out to make room for more creative solutions to our story problems.

But regularly foregoing food – especially, healthy brain food – can have lasting effects that can harm our physical health, including our brains, and, in turn, our ability to create. Here’s a good list of The Top 50 Best Foods for Your Brain. If you’re like me and have a lot of food sensitivities, there are plenty of other foods you can substitute that are equally good for your brain.

For me, here’s a typical brain food-rich day:

Breakfast – Hot buckwheat cereal with chia seeds and blueberries

Lunch – Salad made with romaine lettuce, celery, chopped carrots, and sweet corn, topped with virgin, cold-pressed olive oil, apple cider vinegar, Himalayan sea salt, and fresh herbs, like parsley, cilantro, and basil

Dinner – Baked sweet potato with grass-fed butter, Himalayan sea salt, and pepper OR sliced baked parsnips, zucchini, and multi-colored carrots tossed with fresh pesto OR beets baked and drizzled with melted coconut oil or nestled atop a pile of romaine along with dollops of herbed goat cheese, topped with cold-pressed, virgin olive oil and apple cider vinegar.

Plenty of water throughout the day with a 17-oz can of coconut water keeps me hydrated and happy, and snacks include blueberries, dates, Brazil nuts, and pumpkin seeds. And in the evening, some dark chocolate and wine are a luxurious treat at the end of the day.

5) Meditate. It’s SO good for us. It gives us a breather from all the rampant thoughts that bounce around inside our brains day after day. It slows our heart rate. And it expands time. As the old Zen proverb says, “You should sit in meditation for twenty minutes every day – unless you’re too busy. Then you should sit for an hour.”I start my days with meditation, and it always leaves me feeling that I can take on the day with MORE time to spare. On the days I scrimp, I can tell.

For writers, it’s a great way to quiet our minds and give our characters the space to talk to us. They’re ready and waiting, and when we give them the room, they’ll always tell us what’s next, whether we like it or not.

I’d love to hear what you do to keep your vessel – your writing machine – your physical body, mind, and spirit – in prime working order so you can honor your call to write and tell stories.

Leave a comment below and let me know!

Sending you mad writing mojo…

Johnnie
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