Life is challenging. Each day we wake with a fresh start, a new hope for something better and it is up to each of us to reach as high as we can to attain what will make us happy or conversely, allow the latest obstacle to overwhelm us. No matter what the size of today’s struggle is, the power is ours to defeat it as long as we put in the effort.
Inside of us is a tiny seed of ambition that will only grow if we locate it and subsequently, use our time and energy to nurture it. Nothing is as satisfying as watching that seed grow into a full fledged dream come true. For some, its raising a child to adulthood and for others its a job or a new home. For many its all of those things.
Writing, like life, is daunting. As an author, I glimpse an idea and I toss it around in my mind and like a handful of snow rolled around on the ground until it becomes a jolly happy soul leading a line of children marching down the street, I give it life. Although I admit there are times (more than I care to let on) that I think it is too difficult, or overwhelming and I come shamelessly close to giving it up; murdering my idea before it has the chance to take its first breath. And if I dare to envision each step of the long challenging process ahead, from writing draft after draft, to revisions and edits and pursuing a publisher, I am sure to throw in the towel and find something else less intimidating to do instead.
But then where will I be at the end of the day when I reflect on my accomplishments or lack of..?
That’s easy. I will still be pacing back and forth at the bottom of the mountain, looking up at the top wondering what it looks like up there and how it would feel to climb higher than the clouds, actually reaching success.
So, as I roll around my idea, giving birth to my dream, I decide to take one step at a time without looking at the peak. Somewhere inside me is the strength I need to make my way to the top, and only I can find and nourish it as long as I keep moving forward and never give up.
I once blogged about “the writer’s dance” which is the partnership between writer and reader, one leads, the other follows but both are needed equally to dance. Best Selling Author Anita Shreve told “The Writer” magazine author Hillary Casavant in her April 2014 article “You have to make the reader an equal partner”, quoting advice from novelist John Gardner.
She explained how in her book “Stella Bain” , which took her 3 years to write and nine drafts, she changed the point of view, tense and location. She had written the first draft in first person from the perspective of the title character, but after a while she realized that the story needed other key pieces of information from the main character’s own past to be withheld, which could not be done using that viewpoint.
When writing the story, the writer must always keep the reader in mind. What pieces of information would be too much of a give away- ruining the surprise, what pieces must be furnished bit by bit. What should the writer allow the reader to see at different points of the story. What will please and excite the reader most?
“Most of writing is problem solving”, says Shreve, ” a challenge to tell the individual pieces of a story in an authentic way and allow the reader to instinctively know what’s happening through a gradual unveiling of detail.” Her story Stella Bain, she describes as a “mosaic, a collection of hazy moments that clarify for the reader as the story progresses.”
In Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s “The Language of Flowers” we see young Victoria Jones progress through a bunch of troublesome experiences, each one providing us with a sneak peak at some horrible incident from her past and it allows us to feel her pain yet wonder what is causing it. We can not stop reading until we find out what picture those hazy moments come together to paint. The writer takes us from the first “connect” the dot point to the end, knowing when to allow us to enter a scene and when to shut us out, until we reach the final scene and the picture is complete.
Just as we learn about people and their pasts in our own lives, brick by brick as we build the foundations of relationships and ultimately come to conclusions about why our neighbor is afraid to fly, or why our co-worker keeps getting divorced or why our partner can’t be a good parent to our children, we must imitate this in our work. Unravel your story slowly while building suspense so that the reader is permitted to come to know the characters while sympathizing with them all the while. Then when the reader enters that final scene she not only has come to know the character she routed for, but she has become her, if only for the moments of her reading journey. You as the writer will have perfected the dance and ultimately have made her an equal partner and she will be forever grateful.
A person’s choice of words can tell us a lot about that person. Within minutes of engaging in conversation we get a sense of where they have come from in life, what part of the country they may live, how they live and even who they are. Whether their language is filled with southern drawl, short choppy one syllable words, street slang or words like emolument or insalubrious we listeners form a picture of who they are. Just as we all have our own style of clothes that we wear: a little black dress for a saturday evening party verses a skinny pair of jeans for an afternoon lunch with the girls, we also have our own style of vocabulary.
Stephen King tells us that his “commonest” tool of all, the bread of writing, is vocabulary. In his book “On Writing” he talks a lot about the writer’s toolbox and the placement of the tools. He tells us to “put vocabulary on the top shelf of your toolbox, and don’t make any conscious effort to improve it. (You’ll be doing that as you read, of course… but that comes later.) One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones. This is like dressing up a household pet in evening clothes. The pet is embarrassed and the person who committed this act of premeditated cuteness should be even more embarrassed.”
So be yourself in life and in your writing and your little black dress will always have a place where it fits.
In life there are those who “do” and those “who get done to”. Some of us work hard toward success, whether it is an educational goal, a career dream or simply a pursuit of happiness. Happiness comes in many different shapes and sizes and colors. For some, happiness is impossible without a constant turning of the wheels complete with a daily “to do” list in hand and feeling of being productive. On the other hand, there are others who rise late, move slowly and can not bear the thought of having an agenda to follow. The “active productive addicts” act. A thought comes to mind and they’re out the door before you can say “wait”. The “passive late risers” pass. A thought comes to mind and they say “maybe later” and procrastinate until someone comes along and pushes or pulls them through their tasks. Active versus passive.
Like people, verbs can be active or passive. With the active verb, the subject does something. However, with the passive verb, something is being done TO the subject. The subject lets it happen. No fight, no struggle, it just rolls over and allows it. Like some people, right?
Although there ARE some instances when passive verbs can be more appealing, they’re few and should be avoided whenever possible.
In Stephen King’s “ON WRITING” memoir on craft (Do NOT scoff at the idea of Stephen King if you do not like horror or thriller genre- the man is a GENIUS and MASTER of the craft of writing and knows his stuff!) he writes: “I won’t say there’s no place for the passive tense. Suppose, for instance, a fellow dies in the kitchen but ends up somewhere else. THE BODY WAS CARRIED FROM THE KITCHEN AND PLACED ON THE PARLOR SOFA is a fair way to put this, although ‘was carried’ and ‘ was placed’ still irk the shit out of me. I accept them but I don’t embrace them.” Sometimes it just works because it fits the way the writer wants his reader to see the scene.
BUT King warns us to be selective in our use of passive verbs. He reminds us ( I say “reminds” because we all knew this at one time…) that active verbs give life to the sentence. They make the sentence shine, dance, sing or whatever we- as writers and creators- want the sentence to “DO”. Active verbs are like active people (in my opinion); they are interesting and we want to hang around with them. They grab our attention and they hold it. They entertain, teach and enlighten. They do not get entertained to, taught to or enlightened upon. They are the leaders and we follow.
In King’s “On Writing” he tells us how E.B.White writes in his introduction to THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE,”A MAN FLOUNDERING IN A SWAMP, AND THAT IT WAS THE DUTY OF ANYONE TRYING TO WRITE ENGLISH TO DRAIN THIS SWAMP QUICKLY AND GET THIS MAN UP ON DRY GROUND, OR AT LEAST THROW HIM A ROPE.” And remember, King says” “The writer threw the rope, not The rope was thrown by the writer.”
Whether you are merely a regular person living your life, waking early to catch the worm or staying in bed until your husband or wife tells you its time to start your day, whether you are the active or passive verb of your life, you are the creator of your own destiny and will reap what you sow.
But if you are the writer and you want your story to glow, to sparkle and mostly to make the best sellers list, there is no getting woken up by someone else, because if you use mostly passive verbs, the worm will not be caught. It is the active verb who CATCHES the worm while its passive cousin still sleeps soundly waiting to be woken up.
The autonomy of the human experience turned into art is key in the teaching of the famous poet, William Stafford. He has said “I don’t want to write good poems. I want to write inevitable poems.” He advocated that “the research for what you are writing is your whole life.” That applies to writing short stories, novels, poetry and just living out your dreams in your everyday life.
As complicated as life can be for all of us, Stafford reminded us that it’s ok to be simple, to use simple words to tell a story.” We do not need to make our work more complicated by looking so hard for the right words or the right way to express ourselves. It’s ok to make a mess when we are writing, just as long as we keep going and do not give up. Somewhere buried in that mess there is a neater line or a paragraph or story that we can use another day which has the potential to blossom into the artwork we had envisioned and thought we were not capable of producing.
Isn’t that true of life as well? Don’t we perpetually make a mess of things and then feel the overwhelming desire to give up, throw in the towel and walk away,or worse yet, make the situation worse by placing blame where it does not belong. Too often we neglect to find the value of life’s lessons and we forget that we do learn through our mistakes if we are only wise enough to dig through the mess of our consequences. To unbury the lesson deep down and despite however heavy it feels, to pick it up and carry it forward in our pursuit of creating happiness.
William Stafford said “Writing a poem is easy, like swimming into a fish trap. Analyzing a poem is hard, like swimming out of a fish trap.” We must not be afraid to live today messily if need be because tomorrow we must be able to see beneath the mess for the shining piece that works and revise it and mold it into the fine polished piece of art that we had dreamed about when we began our journey. It is autonomy of our human experiences that create the final piece of art work that we are left with to rejoice in and admire in the end.