Category Archives: How We Create Magic

And Then the Cat Jumped on Those Hounds

ancient Greek bard

Tell us the story of sushi

Last week I was telling someone about going downtown to ride the giant Ferris wheel here in Atlanta, and she commented on how I tell stories. By coincidence, a few days later I was talking to a woman who I met recently, and  to my great surprise, it turned out we know people in common who are devoted storytellers. I mean they are serious about it and attend events at which people get up and tell stories, and they’ve even induced me to attend a few times.

On the subject of telling stories, I’m just now finishing the draft of a revised novel (called Birds Above the Cage). While working on the revision, I spent a great deal of effort on how the story moved along, thinking about whether the dramatic moments came too soon, and so on, what I thought of as pacing. If you think about it, what is pacing? It’s an element of storytelling.

I’ve given examples here of telling a story in a personal conversation, of getting up in front of people to intentionally tell stories, and of treating the flow of a novel as telling a story. People love stories, and both children and adults will sit enthralled to hear a story well told. If we go way back in time to Homer’s Odyssey, in addition to the book being a story, there are multiple scenes of someone telling a story to a group that sits quietly listening. Storytelling is so important to fiction that modern fiction is often categorized as to what type of story is told, what we call genre. Thus we have detective novels, romance, science fiction, and so on, but no matter what type of fiction a person writes, even if the story doesn’t fit one of the common genre categories, telling a story is important.

I don’t think I’m a natural storyteller. With a lot of effort, I can do it (as in the last book of short stories I put out, I’d Tear Down the Stars). Maybe I’ve listened to too many stupid cliches about the south, about how people down here are natural storytellers, sitting on the wide front porch, mint julep in hand: “Did ah tell yall ‘bout the time the hounds got loose?” I’ve been led to think that for some people telling stories must be easy, maybe, but it’s hard as hell for me.

Why do people like stories? Important disclaimer here: I don’t actually know anything. If you’re looking for real knowledge, maybe you should stop here and get back to watching Homer Simpson videos. But here’s what I think:

1) It’s just entertainment. A story can pass the time. That was part of the appeal when the bards of Homer’s time told the stories that eventually became the Odyssesy, and it’s the same reason TV shows like “Breaking Bad” become so popular.

2) Perhaps as a variation on entertainment, storytelling may meet a desire for titillation or prying into someone else’s life. To use another ancient example, Oedipus killed his father and married his mother (go find a modern story to match that for straightup weird and icky), or from Victorian novels, how about Rochester’s insane wife locked in the attic? I’m gonna guess that both Oedipus and Rochester didn’t want anybody knowing about that.

3) Though we are mostly not conscious of the fact, I think stories often meet our need for somehow making sense of the world, our need for mythology. So we tell stories both to shape events and to interpret them in ways that allow us to understand our chaotic world a little more.

And here’s a story to finish up:

I first heard of sushi when I lived in California, so long ago Bruce Springsteen was still new. My wife went one day with friends to San Francisco, then came home and told me about this sushi thing, and I thought, well, it will be a cool and pleasant day in Hell before I eat raw fish, by God. Yet last week I emailed a friend here in Atlanta and told her I was in the mood for sushi, something I now love so much I’d eat it once a week if I could afford it, so there we were at the Mall of Georgia, waiting forty minutes for a table at a place where the sushi rolls were as big as footballs, and I’m only exaggerating some. While we were waiting, we walked over to a beef jerky store, and I never imagined there could be such a plethora of dried, flavored meat in one small store. The owner even said he sometimes has alligator and kangaroo, but sadly was out of both. Something they did have, however, was novelty items—are you ready?—of packs of insects. Now in recent years, I have thought about whether I’d eat insects on purpose, and I thought “OK, crickets, maybe. Really really fried.” But one thing I knew I’d never, ever eat, swear on a pickup truck full of holy Bibles, was fucking larvae. Jeeesus, who would even think . . . but I had had a couple of glasses of wine at my friend’s house before we went out. So there I was picking up a pack of “Larvets” thinking Hmmm. It said they were fried, so I bought them, because everything is OK fried, right? On Tuesday back home, with a cold beer, like the bold adventurer that I am, I picked up one of those challenging little critters, trying not to think about what it actually was, and crunched it up. It had a remarkably close flavor to potato chips, so I ate them all. I’d probably do it again.

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The Final Point of View

Greek vase painting

Third person: He decided that being naked was better than wearing armor.

An airplane was flying above a river in the book I was reading a couple of weeks ago, and the pilot was shooting at two people on the river. The chapter ended with him shooting. Before I read on later to find out what happened, I was thinking these two characters in the canoe can’t be killed, because they’re so important that the author has let us be inside their mind in earlier chapters.

Most fiction is written from one of two points of view, or “person” to use the technical term. When it is written as if a person is directly telling it to you (I ordered a piece of lemon pie and winked at the waitress), we call it first person. When it is written as if the narrator is describing someone else, using he or she or they, we call that third person (she wondered why the weird guy winked at her when he ordered the pie). There is also the rare and usually awkward second person (you walk into the diner and see a lemon pie in the glass case, and you think about how your mama used to make it).

The book I was reading was in third person, as we watched the plane fly overhead and turn around to come back, but to say that something is written in third-person is to drastically oversimplify the possibilities. In the real world, for instance, I can talk about someone who is standing beside me or someone across the room or someone living in another city, and I can talk about someone who I know very well or who I’ve just seen.

So when the bullets began to hit the water, the author could have put me inside the plane, in the canoe on the water, or standing on shore. I could also have been simply watching, or I could know what a character was thinking.

I’ll categorize four possible types of “third person” point of view. 1) Omniscient from a distance: the story can talk about someone as if looking at them and in the next paragraph talk about what’s happening across town. 2) Omniscient up close: the reader can be told things the character doesn’t know, but the narrative follows the character around and stays right with that character. 3) Not omniscient, but physically close to the character: this is like a camera with a close-up, so that the reader can only experience exactly what the character experiences, but we’re outside the character’s head. 4) Inside the character: now we are inside the character’s head, listening to their thoughts and feelings.

These third-person points of view can be extremely different from one another, and they can even be mixed in ways I’m not getting into. Here in the tedious real world where we while away the hours, we actually only know in depth what’s in our own head (if even that), and as much as we might want to, we can’t normally watch people when they’re not around. Through the magic of fiction, however, woohoo! I’m inside your brain while you’re thinking about . . .  whoa! I’ll just back on out of there.

One of the things a writer is able to do is leap about among all these possibilities. In the last book I wrote, for instance (The Invention of Colors), I had chapters in third person talking about one character, alternating with first-person chapters where a second character narrated, saying “I did this and I did that”. This was no great innovation on my part, as I read books like that years ago.

It’s also possible, working only in third person, to be very close to one character for a while, follow them around, then suddenly move to another character, who is now looking at the first one. I’ve been in multiple writing groups where the advice is to avoid doing that. When such advice is offered with a justification, such as “you’ve made the story too confusing to know what’s happening”, then it is good advice.

Oftentimes in a writing group, however, the admonition not to shift point of view is given as if it were a rule in a Soviet prison camp. This Is What You Must Not Do. Lucky Leo Tolstoy that he lived before that time, as he often broke the rule. Maybe he never belonged to a writing group. Of course, if the writer does shift around on the point of view, readers are free to hate it, and such shifts can, in fact, be jarring. But also interesting.

In the book I was reading, with the potential killer in the airplane, I realized my reasoning was wrong that a character could not die because the writer had allowed us inside a character’s head. Although my reasoning was wrong, in that case, fortunately, the bad guy missed, the people in the canoe were OK, and later in the book the evil pilot crashed his plane.

Nevertheless, some writers will let you experience a character’s thoughts—and then kill the character. I think at some point in the past I even read a book where we were inside the character’s head at the very moment of death. That’s pushing the envelope.

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Enough Already

The Guggenheim Museum

A museum. A lake.

Let’s start with some vague, useless advice for writers: Show, don’t tell.

Charles Dickens, at the beginning of A Tale of Two Cities, wrote, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light—” Now if he had known enough to take this book to a writing critique group, someone could have said, “Hold it, Charlie, hold on. You’re telling us, dude. Show us how it was the best of times. Did people have big houses? And this age of wisdom thing. Like what? Were they making scientific discoveries, finding new moons?”

Aside from the fact that the phrase “show, don’t tell” is so abstract as to squat dumb in the corner, one of the aspects of writing that writers must frequently deal with (perhaps constantly deal with) is how much detail to give.

If I say, for instance, “The attractive woman sitting at the bar turned and looked at the man who had come in”—that sentence can be sort of interesting with its implications. But what if I say “The woman sitting at the bar, with a silk scarf around her neck, turned and looked at the man who had come in.” Does that detail with the scarf make it more interesting? Or what about “The woman sitting at the bar, wearing a silk scarf, turned and looked at the man, a slight smile crossing her face.” Is it more interesting, or does it not matter?

How much detail is right? Would it be even better to know that the bar stool where she is sitting has a back to it, that the bartender is a bald man with a diamond earring, and that the man who just came in is shaking the water off an umbrella? Do you need to know that the woman is from St. Louis, that she’s 42 years old, and her hair is dark brown? How much is enough?

This week I finished a chapter I’ve been working on for the current novel, and I’m pulling out a couple of examples to illustrate the problem of deciding how much detail to use.

In one part I have a man and woman go into the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. That’s the one designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, where the walkway spirals round and round the open center, so that you can walk from the lobby up about four or five stories. Here are possible details I could have used in describing that: the curve of the walkway around the space, the white painted interior, the vault of the ceiling, the giant glass skylight looking like a huge spider’s web, other people in the museum, the crowding, the ticket desk, the sounds of people talking, the cost of a ticket, particular paintings on the walls.

After the Guggenheim Museum, I had the couple walk about a block into Central Park, where they went up some stairs to look at the reservoir, a large lake surrounded by trees, a fairly surprising sight when you’ve just come off the helter skelter of Fifth Avenue. Here are possible details I might have used for that description: the path, trees on the other shore, standing under similar trees, size of the trees, kind of trees, other people passing by , the weather, the view of buildings on the other side, clouds or birds or planes in the sky, the wide expanse of water, light reflecting off the water.

In both instances, I used the details in italics above, but not the others. Would the writing be better with more details? I don’t know, but I had a reason for limiting them, as I wanted to move the chapter along, to keep a sense of something happening with the characters, so I didn’t want the writing to slow down into long descriptions of New York.

Part of the basis for my decision about detail was the context of how I wanted the writing to move at that point, the feeling I wanted in the scene. It was not necessary for the reader to see the Guggenheim very much, as it was the third museum my characters had been in, but the lake in Central Park was in contrast to what we had just been reading about. I wanted the reader to really see the lake and feel that contrast, so I used more description.

How much detail is enough? There is no answer. It is always a guess.

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Somebody Get That Dog a Bowl of Water!

A dog

Sono un cane parlante

A week ago a friend sent me a link to a site where a writer was talking about his writing process, about how he arrived at the final text through a somewhat random process of discovering things, but definitely not a process based on having a clear plan in mind from the beginning.

Writing random stuff? No plan in mind? Don’t really know where you’re going?

Hey, I have the same writing process!

I wonder if that writer’s process also includes going to kitchen every evening to get dark chocolate. And if so, does his writing process involve stopping in the kitchen to look at the dirty dishes in the sink and think, “Goddamnit. Who’s gonna wash this stuff?”

Because that’s how I write. I mean, you can’t just sit and push on computer keys while you’re writing. Who would do that? You’ve got to walk around some, go look in the mirror to see if you’ve changed in the last few hours, get out the vacuum cleaner and leave it standing in the middle of the living room, as a guarantee that you’re definitely going to vacuum within the next week.

I also think about the plot when I’m writing, things like “What reason does this character have to go to New York?” or “Maybe I’ll add a talking dog, people like dogs,” or “Do I want this book to be about trying to find the light of reason in the existential darkness of life, or about a man who finds a kitty?”

Being the observant writer that I am, I’ve noticed that people really like kitties. Or . . . wait a minute, I could have the kitty meet a talking dog. Hold on while I write that down.

Boy, that next novel is practically going to write itself. Sometimes it’s just a joy to be a writer.

Then there’s all those other times. I’ve mentioned on this blog, just last week, if your memory goes back that far, that I’m revising a novel I finished writing back in 2000. You understand that the word “finished” in that sentence means “wrote a piece of crap”. Which is disappointing, because at the time I didn’t think that, but now I do. So what if at some point in the future I look back at what I’m writing now and think “Oh, my God, why didn’t you just blind yourself before you wrote that?”

That’s a spooky thing about art, of any sort. What if it’s terrible, but while you’re doing it you don’t know that? What if it’s like being insane and everyone knows it but you? “No, I’m fine. Really. Here, did you read my novel?”

I’ll tell you something about the last two books, that is, the one I’m on now, plus the one before (The Invention of Colors). Both of those books at one point had four main characters, two male and two female. Over the course of floundering through both of them for years, like a really drunk mud wrestler, I came to the point with both books of taking the male characters and reducing them down to either background or secondary characters, focusing on the females. In both cases, the novel finally came together and started to make more sense. It wasn’t easy to throw away so much writing that I had worked on so hard for so long, but the books got way better, which did provide some compensation.

Here’s a little brainstorming for the next book. What if the talking dog and the kitty form a musical group? How great does that sound? Then they’ll have a reason to go to New York.

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Happy Delight Cookie

small bridge

Don’t forget a pillow

You’ve been to a Chinese restaurant, I would imagine. So you know that after you finish your General Tso’s chicken, or whatever you might have, they generally bring you little clear plastic packets with strangely folded, pale brown objects inside, sometimes served with orange slices. Thus appears the fortune cookie.

Whenever I’ve ripped open the plastic packet and cracked my cookie in half, to read what is written on that tiny slip of paper, I’ve never liked the uninteresting fortune. They say things like “Plan for many pleasures ahead” or “The time is right to make new friends” or “Your ability to juggle many tasks will take you far”.

What the hell? Those are fortunes? Those little slips of paper should have all said, “You will open cookie of very great banality.”

No sir, if I were the fortune cookie writer, we’d get some literary interest in there. Now I understand there’s only so much you can say. There’s not a lot of space, so the fortunes are kind of the pastry equivalent of Twitter messages. That just means the limited space available needs to be devoted to imagination.

I don’t think every fortune has to come with an implied smiley face. Has anyone ever used the phrase “feel good” about Tennessee Williams’ plays? And yet they’re highly regarded, even though they plumb the darkness of our existence. Can’t a fortune cookie do the same? So here are some suggestions for improved fortune cookie messages and why I think they would be good.

You will live briefly under a bridge.

At first glance this sounds negative, but note that very optimistic adverb—briefly. It’s not like you’re going to spend the rest of your life down there.

If you are having trouble dating, maybe you are thinking of the wrong gender.

Here is an inducement to self-examination, and in these more enlightened days of the twenty-first century, this happy fortune says “Look how broad your options are! Twice as many!”

Many people are more ugly than you.

Imagine how this statement will raise the self esteem of someone who has just finished their fried rice and is feeling insecure. Then the cookie arrives, and suddenly, they feel better about themselves.

As an adult, you can be glad you didn’t waste time learning math.

This happy fortune makes the diner feel good about the time they spent in high school not paying attention in class.

I might also add a few fortunes invoking whimsy, because Whimsical would be my middle name if my parents had named me that.

You will get very drunk and shave off all your body hair.

The person reading this might take it as a prediction, as something to look forward to, perhaps, or they might take it as a warning of something to avoid. It is their choice.

Your elephant will become flatulent tomorrow.

This could be a very useful fortune, telling you what to do—put the elephant outside—and telling you when you need to do that, tomorrow.

Your intestinal flora rejoice at your good fortune.

I’m pretty sure that must be true. I mean, why wouldn’t they?

You see how much better fortune cookies could be? It just takes a willingness to go beyond the norm, and I frequently go beyond the norm. You will eat happy delight cookie, then search for car in parking lot.

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Five Hundred Miles From the Ocean

wine and cheese

Hey, you need a poet here

Three days in a row last week I went to poetry readings where I stood and read poems that I wrote all by myself, poems with mystery, pathos, and commas. Lots of commas. I think a profusion of pausing adds to the pathos.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that such a chain of readings will never happen to me again. For the only time ever, I read poetry in public three days in a row. That’s kind of like a world premiere, isn’t it? I mean, if a world premiere involved very, very few people, and those few spread out over several days. Plus one place had cats.

The highlight was day three, when I had the opportunity to spread my tiny wings and fly around the room chirping repeatedly. Once a month the Unitarian church in Atlanta (the big one with the circular meeting space) sponsors an event called Wine, Cheese, and Spoken Word, with a featured poet. This month, while other folks took care of the wine and cheese, I supplied the words as the featured poet.

I’ve known for quite a while that I was going to do the reading, so I had time to make necessary preparations, such as writing some poems. I knew this event would involve about a 20-minute reading, then a short open mic, then another 20-minute reading. Several weeks ago when I was thinking about this, around the time of the winter solstice, it occurred to me to use the solstice as an inspiration. So I decided that with two sets of reading, I’d do the first half as poems of darkness, and the second set as poems of light, moving from darkness to light, as if my poems were the solstice and I was, hmm, what would that make me, the earth tilting on its axis, I guess.

I was pretty pleased with that idea, and as it happens I have plenty of poems that lurk in the darker side of life as well others that celebrate the light. I like to have variety in my writing, or else I get bored doing it. When I’m doing a reading, I also think of it somewhat as putting on a show. It’s not just reading, it’s performing. (Whether or not I’m actually good as a performer would be another question entirely.) To enhance the performance—in my eyes—I wore a black shirt for the first half, then I changed to a white shirt for the second.

Speaking honestly—and I don’t plan to keep that up—I can say that I didn’t particularly look forward to doing the reading. I didn’t exactly mind it, I wasn’t the slightest bit nervous, and when I finally stood up in front of people, I actually loved it. And yet, strangely enough, I didn’t really want to do it. I don’t think I can explain that dichotomous psychological phenomenon.

I did have sense enough to use the event to push the two books I’ve put out, as much as I’m ever going to push anything. On the stairs I set up the posters of the two book covers, and I had a few copies of the books on a table for sale. It was my friend who organized the event, however, who suggested that I read a few pages from the short story collection, and after I had finished reading she stood up and promoted both books more than I would feel comfortable doing.

On the whole, it seemed like a decent night. I tried to read with a little bit of flair, and I sold a few books and signed a few books. At the end, no one offered to carry me around the room on their shoulders with tears of joy streaming down their faces, so . . . I don’t know. I guess people liked it well enough. And there was the black and white shirt change. Let’s not forget that.

I’ll end this by throwing in a verse from one of the darkness poems (called “The Cost of Music”):

Lucinda is deeply afraid of tidal waves,
the way they thunder in suddenly and nothing escapes.
Although she lives five hundred miles from the ocean,
she says not all waves are made of water.

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Now I Know My ABCs

wooden alphabet blocks

Let’s see what we can make out of this.

A couple of weeks ago I went to an event where I had been asked to come read some poems I’d written, and afterward someone asked me and the other poet questions that I suppose you might pose to a writer. Unless my memory is leading me astray (but what are the chances that’s going to happen, huh?), we were asked when we began writing.

When we began?

I’m inclined to give an answer that sounds smartass, but for a change I don’t mean it that way. I started writing in first grade. I still remember my teacher teaching us the alphabet, like a priestess, unawares, opening up the most powerful secrets in the universe to a room of six-year-olds. When she was done, there we were, our tiny hands holding the keys to open the doors that hold everything.

The reason I’m not being a smartass here is that I don’t remember when I started writing. Did I start? Was there a time when I didn’t write and then I began? I’m sure I never made a decision to be a writer. Nowadays I wish I could remember some sort of epiphany of inspiration, a moment when I thought, “Ohhh, this is what I want to do!” That could be a cool story, but it didn’t happen.

My mother used to keep scraps of evidence thrown up by the world as proof her children had done clever things, or at least something slightly interesting. One of the things she saved was a letter I wrote that was published in the local newspaper. My epistle was a letter to Santa Claus, written in third or fourth grade, and on the one hand this was evidence that our local newspaper would publish damn near anything. At the same time, my letter involved more than hoping for a bag of puppies and a BB gun, as it mentioned wishing something for Russia and China. (Whatever I was hoping they would get, they probably still don’t have it.)

A few years later in life, I moved closer toward my future career as a jack-of-all-crapjobs, poorly paid writer. I don’t know how old I was, but it was not more than sixth grade, and without being required to, I wrote my first short story. This literary jewel concerned a rich man who died in a car wreck and on his car radio some ironic song was playing. I could not have described the song as ironic, as it was many years later before I finally figured out what that baffling word “irony” actually meant.

For all I know, I’m making a false assumption here, thinking these two examples show how I was unusually interested in writing from a very young age. My assumption is that other kids my age weren’t doing the same thing, and I don’t actually know that. Maybe we all wanted to write, but other people stopped wanting to.

By high school I could describe what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a writer. At that age I guess you don’t normally say you are a writer, but rather you want to be one, as if it’s something that you’ll do some day, but not yet. I knew I wanted it, though, and it seemed like the natural trajectory I had been following already for years.

And then right after high school I stepped boldly toward my destiny and began writing a novel—about a boy who was in high school. And you’re thinking “How is he not embarrassed to write that down and tell people?” Gaahh-jeez, that sounds like a terrible idea for a book. Indeed. And God saved me from that drivel after only a hundred pages. In my defense, I will point out that any idea I could have had at the age of nineteen would have been terrible. I was learning my craft, however, which included one afternoon when I sat pulling novels off my bookshelf, going to the last page, to see how many pages a novel was supposed to have.

When did I begin writing? I think it’s a reasonable question, but I don’t have an answer. Or I want to give an exaggeratedly symbolic answer, one of the things I’ve learned to do as a writer.

I was in the womb waiting for the alphabet.

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