Stories we tell ourselves

Recently, my husband and I watched a movie version of Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “WHO AM I THIS TIME?” with Susan Sarandon and Christopher Walken. Christopher Walken’s character, Harry, is so shy he only talks to women if he’s “in character” in a play. No one really tries to connect with him until Susan Sarandon’s character arrives in town with the phone company. It’s an endearingly awkward tale that shows how our internal narrative affects our view of ourselves and others.

It’s a joy to watch the characters in “WHO AM I THIS TIME?” give up the old “truths” and find a way to live that’s the envy of the whole town. This is a classic way to create an interesting fictional character.

The Reverse Backstory Tool is a fun and effective way to create a character who’s ready to jump into a story and bring it alive. It’s a handy bookkeeping tool for the relationship between the character’s external and internal goals, the character traits that will help or get in the way, and the lie that the character must disprove in order to win.

Click to download a PDF of the tool Reverse Backstory Tool – Becca Puglisi

I found another example of “The Stories We Tell Ourselves” in The Church at the Well podcast series. Kevin Fitton talks about “I’m Too Busy.” He connects the leisure time research of Professor John P. Robinson (University of Maryland) and Brigid Shulte’s OVERWHELMED to the Biblical story of Mary and Martha.

The “I’m Too Busy” lie has so much potential for rich characters. Harry acts out a version in the hardware store and in the theater. He uses his activity on- and off-stage as a shield.

What are your favorite stories where characters grow and change? Have you ever rooted for a character to overcome that blind-spot?

Source: The Reverse Backstory Tool appears in Appendix B of THE NEGATIVE TRAIT THESAURUS by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.

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Marc Chagall’s stunning gift of reconciliation

"Your Word is Lamp unto My Feet." Stained glass window in shades of blues with flying angel and candelabra by Marc Chagall/ Charles Marq. Pfarrkirche St. Stephan, Mainz, Germany, 2016.
“Your Word is Lamp unto My Feet.” Stained glass window by Marc Chagall/ Charles Marq. Pfarrkirche St. Stephan, Mainz, Germany, 2016.

St. Stephan’s church in Mainz, Germany has stunning stained glass windows. The church burned on February 27, 1945 and Marc Chagall designed most of the current windows in the late 1970’s.

The windows show love stories of all kinds: Colorful people and angels float in a sea of blue glass. In light of the Holocaust, I was especially touched by the window of Abraham pleading with three angels to spare Sodom and Gomorrah.

“The windows in the church of St. Stephen were intended by the artist as a token of friendship between France and Germany, a pledge of international understanding and of the peace which we all need so badly.”

–Klaus Mayer [Genoveva Nitz, translator]. St. Stephan in Mainz, 8th rev. English edition. Regensburg, Germany: Verlag Schnell & Steiner GmbH Regensburg, 2015.

Marc Chagall was 91 years old when he designed the first windows. But when he was 98, he created several more and gave them to the church as a gift. He died a few months later. That’s a life full of art and faith, generosity and forgiveness.

An awe-inspiring role model. I don’t think I would be strong enough to be this generous after the destruction and the grief of World War II. I hope this for us all: that we find many ways to reach out in friendship, while it’s still easy.

Have you used your skills or talents to bring people together in friendship? Was it a special cake or meal? A painting or an ice sculpture? A story or poem? A replacement water pump? I’d love to hear about it.

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If it’s fixed, should you break it? Revision and the magic wardrobe

Printed papers cut in all different sizes and laid out in order on a colorful carpet. With a box of chocolate cookies for motivation.
Cutting apart a manuscript to find the story. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

A writing and interior design metaphor. My life unintentionally provided me with another writing metaphor this weekend.

We moved to Germany three years ago and kind relatives gave us two huge cupboards to hold our camping, photography, coats, linens and suitcases.

Closets are rare in Germany so wardrobes without magical countries are the norm. The cupboards helped us a lot but didn’t exactly fit in the space we had for them so when our family heard that a refugee family needed them, we decided to give them up.

Breaking up is hard to do. We now have ‘broken” the system we had for storing everything and it causes the usual sorts of “Why can’t I find my lens cap?” sort of pain that you get whenever you move into a new place. I’ve been missing my pocket compass for a couple of years.

So, was that dumb?

The new vision. Maybe. I hope we find a new way to put things together so we can use them and make our apartment more hospitable. I have a vision of everything put neatly away in some brilliant solution à la Apartment Therapy. Or of more joy in our daily life as promised in THE LIFE-CHANGING MAGIC OF TIDYING UP.

When it’s worth it. I may never create the order I hope for, but a fresh attempt usually makes the apartment feel more like home.

Revision. The thing is, I get this same question from my internal editor whenever I’m re-working a piece of fiction. My internal editor can’t see my vision. “You’re going to make it worse.”

When it’s worth it. But attempting a revision of my novel is worthwhile if I can make its heart shine through.

Forgotten treasures. When I rearrange a story and cut it into new pieces, it helps clear out the underbrush. After we emptied our cupboards, my sister-in-law found my compass clipped on a bag I planned to give away. I’m famous for getting lost and I’ve really missed it.

It’s so nice to get a sense of direction. Re-seeing what’s in front of you can help, both in writing and in re-organizing a home.

How about you? Do you have rules of thumb for when it’s worth making a mess? What’s the tipping point for you? Have you waited too long to “break” something? I’d love to know how this works for other people.

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“It happened so fast”

In the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Michelle Kwan skated an amazing and beautiful program without apparent effort. You can watch it here:

What touched me most about this performance was what happens at the end. At about 4:58 in this video, while waiting for the judges to put up the scores, Michelle Kwan tells her coach: “It happened so fast.”

After years of preparation, the experience went by in four minutes. No time to savor it. The artist falls out of her dream and back into the ordinary world. No wonder we grieve.

I say we, because we all have a creative side to express. A pie that lingers in the memory, a riot of color in a garden, a word or story that tells us what our lives are about, a bridge that crosses a gorge, or a computer program that delivers the goods: these are all things that exist in the imagination first. And we all grieve because no matter the kind, all beauty is transient.

Elizabeth Gilbert’s iconic TED talk about creativity is about this experience of being visited by creative genius.

Daphne Gray-Grant’s recent connection between figure skating and writing sent me down this rabbit hole of Olympic YouTube videos. She writes about competition, practice, taste, critique, and hard work that are common to both writing and figure skating. I’d like to add Elizabeth Gilbert’s transcendence to her list.

All of this argues for enjoying the practice and hard work that lead up to transcendent moments when we think: “It happened so fast.”

As unreliable as the creative process may be, it’s our source for moments of clarity, connection, joy, or insight. The few moments in my life when I’ve experienced unexpected ability in some tiny way were both puzzling and addicting. The natural question is: “How can I make that work like that again?” The answer is probably: “I have no idea” AND “Practice.”

Michelle Kwan’s masterful performance makes me want to practice more. Not so I can achieve at her level, but so I can achieve at whatever level I can. I take joy in the routine work, not just the impossible hope that I might be ready if called on.

Questions for you: Are you inspired by Michelle Kwan’s performance? Is figure skating like any creative work that you do? What do you think about Elizabeth Gilbert’s ideas about genius and creativity?

 

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What do gardens, libraries and exploring have in common?

Tree like a cathedral, with flying buttress sort of trunks. Huge canopy of leaves and the trunks more than twice the height of a person.
Fantastic tree in the botanical garden. Orto Botanico, Palermo, Sicily. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

Planting a tree in Palermo a few hundred years ago means a gigantic tree is still living today. A botanical garden is a living library and so is a zoo, an art museum, or a national park.

These storehouses of genetic variability are important because today’s shortcoming may be the key to success in another era. A library works the same way: the ideas and stories in books are passed on to the next generation and they make new stories of their own.

A book is a kind of seed that grows into someone’s life and becomes what they make and do in their lives. Each library leads to the next and reading in one library might mean writing a book for another. In the same way, planting one garden makes seeds for the next.

Malcolm Gladwell’s THE TIPPING POINT applies epidemiology to the transmission of ideas. A epidemiologic causal chain describes the path of an outbreak: a reservoir to a portal of exit to a mode of transmission to a portal of entry to a susceptible host.

You break the chain in as many places as possible to prevent disease. Or connect as many links as possible to spread ideas.

Libraries, gardens, art museums, and forests are all idea reservoirs. When we explore the world around us in these places, we are susceptible hosts.

What matters to me is the way both libraries and gardens illustrate God’s generosity and the abundance in our lives. Scarcity has no place in a garden or in a library. Tragedies may destroy them–drought, fire, water damage, flooding, war–but gardens and libraries are a kind of sharing that can always be started again. Once they begin, they multiply.

In an unfamiliar place, I orient myself by sticking to the main path. I gradually extend my boundaries so I see new things, but still know where I am.

I make forays. My husband tends to surround a new place by going all around the edge.

I explore books in a causal chain, finding the ones connected to the ones I’ve already enjoyed. I’m not sure it matters how we explore. Only that we do.

Why do reservoirs matter so much? We need them to grow. To become someone better than the old you? Maybe. I’ve always valued the ability to surprise people with unexpected skills because they didn’t see how long it took you to learn them. Rising out of obscurity can be so entertaining.

But for me, Patrick O’Brian’s famous line from his Aubrey–Maturin series: “There’s not a moment to be lost” expresses the value of our lives. Our explorations of the huge, amazing, varied world bring us more than self-improvement. Our discoveries, the seeds we plant, the books we read and write, as well as the people we love, make a difference for the future.

What will you explore today?

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6 ways THIS JOURNAL BELONGS TO RATCHET shows its warm and funny heroine

1 Image of handout available as pdf. Link is below image.

Click here to download Six Ways to Reveal Character handout as a pdf with links to Karl Iglesias’ website and to WRITING FOR EMOTIONAL IMPACT.

I’ve been studying Karl Iglesias’ insightful and practical WRITING FOR EMOTIONAL IMPACT while reading Nancy J. Cavanaugh‘s funny, charming, and warm THIS JOURNAL BELONGS TO RATCHET for Middle Grade readers.

When I went back over my notes, I realized that THIS JOURNAL BELONGS TO RATCHET uses all six of Karl Iglesias’ ways to reveal character on the page. The strong characterization kept me reading, even though the story has a potentially challenging structure: Ratchet’s handwritten language arts assignments. The story is so well constructed, I stopped noticing the writing assignments.

Note: the handwriting font worked perfectly on my Kobo e-reader and was very easy to read.

  1. NAME AND DESCRIPTION. The main character goes by the nickname of Ratchet. Cavanaugh ties the unusual name to the universal emotion of a father’s love for his daughter. Ratchet got her nickname because of “the way [her] help makes all [her father’s] jobs easier.” She describes her father “like a young Albert Einstein wearing a greasy T-shirt and ripped jeans.”
  2. CONTRAST. Ratchet’s internal conflicts come out in her writing assignments: “And wish/ I didn’t wish for so much/ Because I know Dad/ Tries real hard.” She and her environmental activist father are a classic “odd couple.” She’s longing for shiny new school supplies and clothes and feels like a “fish out of water” in the rec center’s GET CHARMED class.
  3. OTHER CHARACTERS. The boys yell insults based on the current gossip about her father whenever they walk by Ratchet’s house. Her father’s activism affects Ratchet directly. Other characters are affected by Ratchet’s behavior and her willingness to share her mechanical knowledge.
  4. DIALOGUE. Because the book is in journal-format, the whole story is told in Ratchet’s voice. She quotes her father and his attitudes, background, and worldview shine through: “Those idiots would spend their time rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. They don’t even have the sense to use the brains the Good Lord gave them.'”
  5. ACTIONS, REACTIONS, DECISIONS. Much to Ratchet’s embarrassment, her father wears T-shirts with slogans like: “Is it me or is this place a festival of idiots?” to the city council meetings. As the story progresses, the slogans change. Both Ratchet and her father keep secrets from each other, but I won’t spoil the story by saying what they are. There’s a great incident where Ratchet helps someone the reader really doesn’t think she will help. Both Ratchet and her father are put under pressure in ways that really make their true character visible.
  6. MANNERISMS, SYMBOLS, PROPS. The story is told in Ratchet’s “Homeschool Language Arts Journal” so the book itself is her prop. Then there are the mechanic’s tools and engines that play such an important role in making the story go. And a very important box.

These 6 Ways to Reveal Character are from one tiny section of Karl Inglesias’ WRITING FOR EMOTIONAL IMPACT. It’s worth reading the whole book, even if you’re a chicken like me and have to skip the SILENCE OF THE LAMBS’ examples. There are also a few FINDING NEMO examples. Maybe someday he’ll write a new edition including Middle Grade books.

You can probably tell how much I enjoyed reading THIS JOURNAL BELONGS TO RATCHET and how inspired I am by Nancy Cavanaugh‘s craftsmanship. Have you read it? What did you think? I’d love to know.

 

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Why people can’t hear you OR how to write wicked dialogue

Marie Forleo’s video, 5 Reasons People Don’t Take You Seriously, shows how we get in the way of our message, and what to do about it.

My writer-mind couldn’t help thinking how to use these tips in reverse. Inside a novel, conflict built on miscommunication is quite fun.

Here are Marie Forleo’s tips for clear communication and how to use them backwards in fiction:

  1. Fancy words obscure your message. I hadn’t thought about the way verbal playfulness could be misinterpreted and her example makes it deliciously opaque, I mean, clear: Screen Shot 2016-03-04 at 11.47.58 AM

Shakespeare gives fancy words to characters who don’t understand them. Now I’d like to add a malaprop-prone character to my work-in-progress.

Taking the opposite approach, Dorothy Dunnett’s character, Francis Crawford of Lymond, uses complicated words and obscure Latin quotes as weapons, tools for seduction, or as a dazzling smoke-screen.

Maybe, the more delightful the language is in a story world, the less useful it is for getting your point across in the real world. And vice versa.

2. Lose the “dumb” disclaimer. Instead say: “What about this?” I’ve seen this speech habit associated with women and girls. Imagine a villain who suggests ideas with disclaimers that turn out to be clues.

P.G. Wodehouse’s character Wooster combines “dumb” disclaimers with fancy words in an endearing way. [If you like Wodehouse, you have to read his lovely interview about the art of fiction.

3. Use “Yes, and” instead of “Yeah, but.” I’m not good at this one, but 🙂 I’ve heard it before. My current heroine could get into a lot of trouble with “Yeah, but” and if I gave her this trait, I might learn it myself. I love the idea of a character trying to get a seat at a table, round or otherwise.

“If you haven’t been invited to give feedback and you really want a seat at the table, “Yes, and” will help you get one.” –Marie Forleo

4. Instead of blasting people with your ideas, get people intrigued first.

Remembering to breathe is key, both in fiction and in real life. This is also the way to pitch a book idea at a writing conference.

The natural tendency is to blast listeners with everything you know and love about your story, to try to anticipate everything that people would want to know, or to list every detail that could entice them into wanting to know about the story. (Did you fall asleep during that sentence?)

The most powerful way to catch someone’s interest is to tell part of a story. And then shut up.

This is called a “hook.” 🙂

5. Follow-up. Don’t apologize and be mousy. Try language like this:  Screen Shot 2016-03-04 at 11.55.17 AM

Good advice to follow for query letters.

“Mousy-ness” is the reverse of the character trait in tip #1. It’s another kind of smoke-screen that says: “Don’t look at me too closely.”

What do you think about Marie Forleo’s tips? Do you have favorite fictional characters with confusing speech habits? I’d love to hear about them.


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