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The Ebb and Flow of the Tide

In one moment the tide flows toward land, toward stability, and in the next moment it ebbs away, out to sea, toward uncertainty.

I remember when my children were little, how I’d watch them wait for the right moment to leap forward, for the exact instant when the wave before them would expose her vulnerability so they could take her on.  But, I also remember thinking if they weren’t mindful of the ocean’s great power, they risked getting caught in her grasp and pulled out to sea.  Therefore, it was important they learn how to distinguish between the wave they could ride and the wave they could not.

In writing, authors create scenes that surge ahead like waves crashing upon the beach, propelling the plot forward. Writers follow those scenes with sequels, to afford our characters the chance to catch their breath, to think about what just happened or what could happen next. To reflect inward, to contemplate and to change.

Our stories, and our lives, are threaded together by strands of action and reaction, scenes and sequels, rising and falling. Our plots depend on this for survival, and so do our lives. Just as the sea depends on the balance of its ebb and flow, to prevent flooding or disparity, our stories rely on the scene and sequel dynamic.  Action and re-action.  Something happens and consequences follow; sometimes good, sometimes bad. Our characters sort through those actions and consequences by way of thought and emotion, before they engage in the next scene and start all over. 

Like the characters in our narratives who fight their way through the current, rather than float lazily through their conflicts or succumb to the undertow, we individuals learn to expect, and manage fluctuation and change, the back and forth of easy times and difficult times, the moments when things may go our way and the inevitable times when things will not. We learn to understand and appreciate the necessary influence of balance and change, to recognize and respect the changes of the tide, and the ebb and flow of the ocean, and of life.

A foolish person would challenge the rising and falling of the sea, and yet floating lazily with inactivity or taking a passive approach can as easily throw him off course like a piece of sun- bleached driftwood tossing about in the surf, with no direction or probability of finding a way to safe ground, of finding that firm piece of land to which he might anchor himself.

Our stories, and our lives, are about movement, then stillness. Activity, and rest.  Conflict, then resolution.  Turbulence, and peace.  Cause, and effect.  Contemplation, and decision.

Or vice versa.

It is all in the ebb and flow of the tide.

Our characters, like people, grow more in the stillness that follows movement, within the sequel period, post- scene, during the internal dialogue or narrative, where they ponder inward and make decisions.  It is in the deepest and most quiet layers of our minds that peace and resolution await us, rather than in the busy, noisy moments of activity.

Rushing in to greet us, the tide teases, and fools us, before she turns away, leaving us as quickly as she descended upon us.  We watch her in awe.  We admire her.  And we fear her. We deliberate.  We dodge.  We fight. We stand strong against her wrath on stormy days and we lay back and glide when the weather is sunny and calm.  We decide. We act.  We can be knocked down by her force, or we can gather the courage from within, to choose the wave most suited to take us back to shore.

Our characters overcome obstacles throughout their stories, as individuals  do through out life.  They make mistakes and they learn or they don’t learn and they flounder. They might drift aimlessly out to sea, or become trapped in a rip tide, or on the other hand, they might learn how to leverage the right wave that will transport them home.

We rise above the surface or we drown.  We succeed or we fail.  We change, or we remain stagnant.   We gain faith or we become stuck.  A story without scenes bores the reader and a story without sequels leaves our readers empty and shallow.   Each scene should include tension, suspense, stakes, conflict, or decisions to make, and each sequel should follow with reflection, success or failure, peace, resolution or change. The scene/ sequel relationship offers our readers insight, inspiration, a lesson, and growth, like the tide that deposits sorted seashells, trumpet whelks,  and glittery sea glass as treasures in the sand.

Moreover, the non stop cycle of creation, like the ebb and flow of the tide, reminds us there is always something happening behind the scenes, something meant to be, even when our characters, and our readers, do not readily recognize that.  Even when this idea is so far over the horizon that individuals cannot see it.   

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, wrote in Loss and Gain, the following;

When I compare

What I have lost with what I have gained,

What I have missed with what attained,

Little room do I find for pride.

I am aware

How many days have been idly spent;

How like an arrow the good intent

Has fallen short or been turned aside.

But who shall dare

To measure loss and gain in this wise?

Defeat may be victory in disguise;

The lowest ebb is the turn of the tide.

In his poem, Longfellow points out that peace and happiness often come from sorrow and difficulty. From his own losses in life, Longfellow gained an insight and strength that found it’s voice in his poetry. His words live on not only for their verse and tempo, but for the courage and hope they inspire, even in the face of anxiety, indecisiveness, fear, sadness, suffering and failure.

In Loss and Gain,  Longfellow writes about disappointment and regret, of longing, and the wisdom we gain through humility and patience, of the hope that comes when we are able to develop faith in ourselves, grow confidence in one another and believe in something much bigger than ourselves.

While it is okay to stand at the ocean’s edge, watching in awe as the ocean’s waves tumble toward us,  we must remain mindful of her tendency to knock us down, and silence our urge to dodge the wave we have the capacity to take on.  We must resist the undertow lurking beneath her that threatens to destroy us every day, and we must take our chance on the most fitting wave with the most potential to transport us toward safer ground.

For, it is in the ebb and flow of the tide, in our stories and in our moments, and in our lives, that individuals build strength, develop patience, discover potential, become confident, overcome weakness, and let go of fear.  And it is in the changing of the tide that we decide when and how to steady ourselves between the most turbulent of breakers and the calmest of swells, where the resolution and peace for which we have been searching eagerly awaits us,  like the mother watching her children stumble and fall only to rise back up again, each time more confident than the tumble before.

Then, at the end of the day, as the sun sets in the sky, and the children’s fingers are wrinkled from being submerged in the ocean for so long,  the mother wraps her children in towels, and in love and fulfillment, while the ebb and flow of the tide behind them continues on. 

Trees in the way.

A few weeks ago I had a tree removed from my back yard.  After years of standing in our way, cluttering our space outside, the tree’s sudden disappearance made way for me and my family to enjoy the outdoors we have always loved so much.

Hogging every inch of the tiny patch we were allotted out back of my townhouse, that tree stood only within two feet of our back porch- until one day the president of our townhouse board committee asked me if I would like the tree taken down, to which I answered, resoundingly;  “YES!”

Often, the course we choose in life is influenced by the obstacles in our way, whether or not their placement is our own doing, someone else’s fault or they are there because of their natural existence.  Regardless of the reason for those barriers, it is up to us as to how we react to them; whether we find a way to work around them, or remove them entirely.

During the process of writing we draft until our manuscripts are ready for submission, cleared of  flaws and clutter.  A word that does not belong, a sentence that has no importance, or an idea that has no significance could jeopardize our manuscript’s chance for publication.  Despite our project’s potential, it risks getting discarded like an empty water bottle drained of further purpose.

In writing, we are told to “kill our darlings” (cut out the flabby parts that distract from our story),- certainly not an easy thing to do.  We writers love words. Each time we revise our drafts we cut out a piece of ourselves until we end up with a tight, well-toned manuscript, void of hodgepodge; ready for publication. 

In life, as we travel through our covid-19 virus days, ..weeks, ..and months, counting the time until we are once again free to do the things we used to do that made us happy, we have become more aware of the obstacles in our way.  Although we have seen them before, knowing they exist, those roadblocks never stood out as they do now.  Before, in our other life, the life we lived before March 2020 came crashing down upon us, those hurdles were just there, and there was little we thought we could do about them.

Until now.

Like writing first and second or eighth drafts which we edit and revise, individuals have the opportunity to change their own life stories, to clear out the obstructions cluttering their own space.  Time, for instance, is one of those obstacles in the way.  There are no extra minutes in the day to call a loved one we haven’t seen in a while. There is no time to become technically savvy enough to stay in touch more often through streaming services.  There is definitely no way we could we rise a little earlier in the morning each day to exercise, prepare a healthier meal or take a class to improve our lives.   And carving out a little more time here and there to help a neighbor, volunteer or attend mass is out of the question when there is so little time already.

Similarly, the lack of money, communication issues, and worries are among many road blocks too large to push aside.  Donating to the local charity seems impossible when we have bills to pay.  Taking the family on vacation is out of the budget when the mortgage or rent is due. 

But, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we COULD get creative, cut out some flab here and there, “kill the darlings” that distract from the quality of our life stories, or tidy up the disarray that blurs our possibilities.

So many hurdles  to overcome, so many obstacles in the way.   It’s nothing we did.  Just trees in our way.

Likewise, these past few months since the pandemic caught us all off guard, sickness, deaths, lockdowns, isolations, loss of jobs and businesses, wrongful deaths amongst countless others gone unnoticed, rioting, looting and police-bashing have become additional obstacles in our way, all of which prevent us from engaging in honest dialogue, and subsequently attaining and sharing peace and unity amongst us.  They have become blinders robbing us of our sight, barricades imprisoning us, stumbling blocks cutting us off from the freedom we took for granted, and roadblocks in the way of the happiness we forgot we have the power to maintain or create.

It is time now for us to remove the blinders, get rid of the clutter in our space in order to allow us to see our potential more clearly.  If we have the ability to write, to create a piece of art from a blank page that has the power to resonate with others, then we have the ability to remove the obstacles in our way.  We only need to see them for what they are and to build upon our strength to know when it is the right time to cut them down, or to “kill our darlings” and revise.

The tree that once stood in our way, preventing my family from enjoying our summer space, year after year, was my own fault, despite its natural existence. Had I known it would be as easy as asking a board member to remove it, we could have enjoyed the outdoor freedom we love so much, and felt deprived of for so long, a lot sooner.

No point in blaming myself, or for any of us to blame ourselves or others.  It’s the direction we take now that matters. It does not need to be anything we did or didn’t do.  It’s what we do now that counts.

After all, they’re just trees in our way. And trees CAN be cut down.

Look inside. Find your true home.

When contemplating a topic for this bi-monthly edition of my blog for March/April, I stumbled across James Scott Bell’s suggestion in “ Plot and Structure”;  All writers should periodically take a good look inside themselves.   He explains that we should create a “personality filter” through which we might generate our plot ideas. To this point, I would go further to suggest individuals in general could benefit from this idea to look inside themselves to identify his or her true values the way writers look inside for ideas. 

A value can be defined as a person’s principles or standards of behavior; one’s judgment of what is important in life. They are the beliefs and ideas that guide individuals in their thought processes and behaviors, and have the ability to help people understand the difference between right and wrong.  Value is meaning or worth, or lack thereof.  A value can be positive or negative; demonstrated in the belief that family is important or that people are generally caring and good, versus the belief that individuals are powerless to change their own fates or personal situations or that the world is unfair and everyone else’s viewpoints are wrong.

Dig deep. Explore.  Roam around inside your heart and your mind for a while.  Pay close attention to what you see and feel there.  Is it something you are proud of; then embrace it and share it with others.  Spread it amongst us.  If, on the other hand, it is something you know you should change, do something about it. 

Writers know what they will do when they find something they do or do not like inside, or when they find something they want to understand better or see more clearly.  They write about it. 

Andy Stanley, a pastor, writer and communicator who has produced tons of sermons, often preaches about this idea; “The value of a life is always measured in terms of how much of it is given away”, meaning the extent to which we give ourselves to others determines who we really are. Just as writers put energy into dissecting what interests us, or what drives us toward sharing a message or lesson, individuals should spend time looking inside themselves for their own values.

“What do you care most about in this world?”  How could the author write without having the courage to explore this question, and then, more importantly, to face or share the answer, even if there is no answer.  It is the things for which we are most passionate or curious that give life to our greatest stories (think “theme”). Similarly, it is the values human beings hold most dear that guide them through their daily thoughts, words and actions and influence how they ultimately behave and treat others.

In so many ways, writing is connected to life, which is the reason I interweave my writing lessons with life lessons in my blogs. Looking inside ourselves as writers to find our next story is no different from looking inside ourselves as human beings, to figure out and acknowledge what it is we most care about in life.

In L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz, it is the protagonist’s  quest for a place to feel safe, loved and accepted, and her eventual recognition that it was right there all along, the place from which she started her journey,  inside her own heart, that would always be home.   

Similarly, in the The Greatest Gift,  a short story written in 1939 by Philip Van Doren Stern, on which Frank Capra produced and directed Its a wonderful life, we recognize the value of family, friendship, and love of and from others.  After all, “ No man is a failure who has friends”.

Unless we determine what it is that we truly value as a writer; what fascinates us, interests us, infuriates us, confuses us, drives us, we will struggle to develop a plot that  connects in a meaningful way with our readers, and similarly, unless we as individuals open the door to our soul, to evaluate who we really are and what we value most or more importantly, what we should value most, we will never become the best we can be.

As Andy Stanley says, with regard to leadership, in his The American in the Mirror sermon, our nation will never be greater than the Americans in the Mirror.  It is who we are inside that allows us to succeed as caring and complete human beings, or on the contrary, sets us up for failure. 

So, I say; Take a deep breath and dive deep, look inside.  Be brave. Do not hide from anything you find there. Rather, confront it, acknowledge it, inspect it and if it is something that needs to be changed, do something about it.  Face it and fix it.  Put others first if it is something that is getting in your way.  Or, if on the other hand, you are one of the rarer individuals who realize what you find is what should have been there all along, embrace it.  Nurture it. Grow it, then share it with the rest of us.   Spread it between and over and around us.  Let it cover us all like a blanket under which we are able to come together as one, feeling united and safe.

One does not need to be a writer to ask these difficult questions of ourselves, or to spend the time exploring within our own minds and hearts in order to find and face what we do, do not or should value, to uncover an idea for a story.  There is no better time than now, for individuals in general, to follow James Scott Bell’s suggestion to look inside, when our world has suddenly become unhinged, to take this journey. Perhaps once we have each spent some quality time there, on our journey inside, and we have made our own discoveries, we will recognize our true home, once we return.

First lines

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”  This was the first line in George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-four, 1949).  Readers understand from this beginning that something must be out of balance; something must be wrong.

Clocks do not strike thirteen.

In writing, as in life, beginnings are everything. Whether we are meeting a protagonist for the first time in chapter one of a new story, or we are meeting a new colleague at a mandatory company meeting, first impressions are…well,…. everything!

And, these first impressions are shaped within…. about 2- 5 seconds.    There are no “re-do’s” in first impressions. 

First lines  mean everything in writing.  The goal is to bedazzle the reader.  Strike her with something so out of the ordinary or unusual that she MUST read on to find out more.

And, this is where I must leave you.  At this new beginning for 2020.

This is my new first “re-beginning” of a bright new year of blogs, after taking a hiatus for far too long last year!

I apologize for the last few months of absence, as I was pre-occupied with other areas of my life.  I know that is no excuse, yet it is all I have to give.

I offer the promise now, to continue with my blog posts every other month from here on through the rest of this year.

And that is my first line of this year; my beginning, for this bright new year ahead of us…. the start of a BRAND NEW decade, which I know will be filled with promise, and hope and faith, and above all else, the absolute love of reading and the unending desire to write… and learn and live…..

Noise

In our stories, as in life, we “write” ups and downs like eager adventurers on a never-ending ride at life’s amusement park, taunted by the noise of life ( both the external clamor surrounding us and the internal racket in our heads), by which we are goaded upward one minute and knocked down the next.  But, unlike the confused and fearful individuals who scurry away from the turmoil, the writer seeks out life’s noise in order to study it, understand it and ultimately to embrace it. 

The writer’s  creativity depends on her ability to see up close the elements that make life’s noise necessary, and the sounds that give it its rhythm. 

In writing, our narratives depend on the intricacies of life that make living difficult for so many, seemingly easy for others, sad for plenty and happy for some. Writers borrow real life moments from the stories that surround them, from the instances that have the power to connect individuals to one another, and the emotions that could unite people as one.

A writer does not limit her task to providing all the answers, but to the job of creating a desire in readers to ask the questions. To want to know, and to want to care.

Without the desire to place oneself right smack in the heart of life’s noise, or to stop long enough to listen to the analysis  within, the writer may end up with nothing but unfinished pages.

Without life’s noise to dissect, there is nothing to write about. 

Without a note, the song won’t get written.

Without the desire to listen, writers, like individuals,  remain deaf to the very things that make life worth living, and to the stories we were meant to create and to read.

Every now and then the noise outside us, and within us, grows so loud that it becomes difficult for the writer to finish her pages.  It overwhelms us, so we shut down.  We tune ourselves out or take a break. We run away from life’s commotion, and from ourselves, and from one another.

Then, with faith and time to reflect and to realize why we need the noise, after a while, when the silence grows too big,  the pandemonium suddenly  begins to drift back to us, and we welcome it. We have come to recognize  the value of the individual sounds that created it and we start  to listen again.  And to write again.

And if we are open and brave enough, to live again.

The Cherry Blossom Tree and the Garden of Our Life.

In this month of resurrection and rebirth, we seek the hope we might have lost somewhere back in the dead of winter, when the trees were bare and the ground lay cold and hard. It is in the budding cherry blossom trees decorating the streets with their pink boughs extended gracefully at their sides, that we find beauty, hope and the promise that something better is around the corner. And it is in the words of the stories we write that we transfer that same promise to our readers. Like the sweeping cascades of soft, pink petals fluttering gently in the April breeze, the writer’s words of aspiration flow across the page, from the mind of the author to the heart of the reader.

From tiny seeds planted deep in the rich soil prepared ahead by the gardener, the cherry blossom tree rises over time, and year after year she reappears before us, to reveal her promise to those who will pay attention. Each time she returns, she reminds us that despite the harshness of the winters she faces- year after year, she remains resilient, courageous, unafraid and faithful for tomorrow and something better.  She does not let adversity get in the way of her reawakening each season, or from sharing her bravery and optimism with us for the short time she is with us.  It is in her strength and her beauty that we glimpse the hope she inspires, as long as we are willing to open our hearts and our minds as wide as we open our eyes, to acknowledge, appreciate and accept her gift.

Her soft, velvet petals fall from her branches, like words read from the page, to be remembered in another time or in another season or chapter, when they are more needed or relevant. The cherry blossom tree no longer feels pain. It is her calling to remind us that the life we are given is beautiful and short, and it is in only our own power to make it meaningful. It is in the story we write that we are meant to help our readers feel or learn, and ultimately to bloom like the plant ideas to which we give life. Like the flowers to which we tend in our garden and the cherry blossom tree we admire, the lesson in our story shall be the book we eventually publish and share with others, or the seasons of the lives we have sowed and reaped, as people who want to make a difference.

Helen Suk, a freelance writer and travel photographer said the following in one of her blogs;

     Tied to the Buddhist themes of mortality, mindfulness and living in the present, Japanese cherry blossoms are a timeless metaphor for human existence. Blooming season is powerful, glorious and intoxicating, but tragically short-lived — a visual reminder that our lives, too, are fleeting.

     Why don’t we marvel at our own passing time on earth with the same joy and passion? Why do we neglect to revel in life when it can end at any moment, or in the grace surrounding us everywhere: our family, friends, a stranger’s smile, a child’s laugh, new flavors on our plate or the scent of green grass? It is time, cherry blossoms remind us, to pay attention.

In Japanese culture, sakura as the embodiment of beauty and mortality can be traced back centuries. No one in history personified this metaphor more than the samurai, the warriors of feudal Japan who lived by bushido (“the way of the warrior”) — a strict moral code of respect, honour and discipline. It was their duty to not only exemplify and preserve these virtues in life, but to appreciate the inevitability of death without fearing it — in battle, it came all too soon for the samurai. A fallen cherry blossom or petal, it’s believed, symbolized the end of their short lives.

It is in our brief lives here on earth that we must make the best of what we have been given by our creator and gardener, and what we have learned, and share with others, even if it is within only the brief moment of time we are present. It is not the years we are here that make the difference, but the moments we make count, and the love we plant and nurture, and the stories we create, that make the difference. In words, the author and his message lives forever.

It is in the messages we sow that our readers reap the meaning of life and love and faith, that will linger until the final season of their time here on earth. Like the cherry blossom tree that is reborn each season of spring, and the lord who was resurrected despite the weeds of our sins, the story we write shall convey a moral that should last until long after our readers finish their last chapter.

Writing and life are as connected to one another as the root of a tree is to its leaves and its branches, its buds and its flower. In writing, we live and we teach and we learn, and in gardening we give life, we sow love and we reap the results of our labors.  If only we could understand that writing and gardening and life are the same.

Life is about beauty, and labor, and love and planting and sowing and reaping, and if only we, as the gardeners and writers of our lives, could fully understand that, subsequently; all of our gardens would grow weed-less-ly, thriving with color and hope for the future seasons to come. Then, our stories would be about turning the adversities of our lives into flowers, and the harsh seasons we face time after time into lessons of hope for someone else who needs our promise desperately, and to making the most of the brief time we are here, as we were meant to do when we were planted by our gardener.

Just as the cherry blossom tree comes into our lives each Spring of rebirth, we as individuals and writers and gardeners must learn to share the beauty of our years and our stories , and our lessons of life and love to our readers, despite and because of, whatever adversity we have faced, for we have all faced many. It is for the sake of those looking to us the way we look to the cherry blossom tree year after year -that we are reminded of hope and rebirth and the resurrection of our lord Jesus, and the faith that will nurture and guide us through whatever harsh seasons we are yet to face in this garden of our life.

Starting Over

Martin Luther King once said;   Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.  By taking the first step upward we are at least on our way toward someplace more elevated than the place from which we stand idly.

Likewise, in the 1970’s song; We’ve only Just begun, The Carpenters sang these lyrics:

Before the risin’ sun, we fly

So many roads to choose

We’ll start out walkin’ and learn to run

(And yes, we’ve just begun)

By taking the first step, we start something. We head in a direction.  We begin. But, what if after we start our ascent we realize we made a mistake.  We miscounted a step, or we misjudged our footing, and slipped. Or, perhaps we realize as we stand at the precipice of recognition, this is not the right staircase for us at all.  We should be climbing a different staircase that leads to some other destination.

Moreover, in the 1965 song; Turn, Turn, Turn, the BYRDS sang about turning back to see how we have done and consequently, in recognizing our mistake -if we made one, or where we slipped, they tell us it is not too late to change our direction. There is always time and opportunity to try again.

A time to gain, a time to lose

A time to rend, a time to sew

A time for love, a time for hate

A time for peace, I swear it’s not too late

To everything, TURN, TURN, TURN, There is a season, TURN, TURN, TURN, and a time to every purpose, under Heaven.

We are not required to continue our trek up the same staircase if we realize it is not the one we should have chosen, and in fact, it is more than okay to turn back and start over.

Whether we are looking to start a new relationship, or launch a new job or career, begin a new life in a different town or in a new school, or embark upon the next season of our life, it takes courage and determination to close one door before we are able to open another one and start over.

It is the same in writing as in life and vice versa.

We get halfway through our story, and something happens.  That something does not feel right anymore. Our story lost its momentum. The characters no longer tug at our heartstrings they way they did through the beginning chapters, and suddenly we no longer know where we are headed; the destination upon which we were once focused has faded from our view. 

In other words, our plane has run out of fuel and it is about to take a long, slow nose- dive into nowhere. Unless we can find a way to refuel.

In “When It’s Time to Start over”, Author Ruthanne Reid writes about her own experience in recognizing the need to start over from scratch;

         I couldn’t just give up on the book. This book contains too much of my soul; it couldn’t just become a trunk novel. I had to find a way to finish it. So last week, I did something insane and bold and also boldly insane: I started over from scratch and wrote it fresh from page one.

        I share this long and rambling tale to help you out. There will come a time when something you’ve been working on forever needs to be put aside and started from scratch.

Often, we have become immersed in our story, or in our life situation, so deeply that we have a  hard time identifying, or accepting that it is time to give up on what is not working.  We may feel comfortable, safe, or too invested in our current circumstance or story, despite feeling deep down that the narrative, the relationship, the person, or the situation is no longer good for us, that it has no place in our future. Yet- ironically,  the more we direct our energy toward the something, or the story that is not working, the more doubtful or lost we become.

What we tend to focus on expands, especially if it is negative, no longer working or not good for us.

If we spend our energy trying to revive something that is not working- only because of the time and energy we have already invested, we expand upon our disappointment, anxiety  and impending failure. Its like trying to fix a recipe after we have already added the wrong ingredients. Nothing we can do at that point will make it taste right.

It is time to throw out the bad batch and start over.

Similarly, how many of us start a new diet and then, after falling off the wagon we give up because of our slip up. Rather than focusing on the added weight we gained or the dessert we regret eating, we should instead, redirect our focus from where we went wrong to what we need to do right; to eat better, to exercise and to drink more water. 

Expand upon the positive, upon the goal at the top of the staircase, and throw away what does not work.

Ruthanne Reid further provides us with food for thought with these questions; 

          Do you keep trying to write more from a specific point, only to find the new stuff just isn’t right and has to be abandoned?

         Do you keep editing and editing and editing the old stuff?

         Does the beginning thrill you, but no matter how long you’ve been working at it, you  just can’t find your way to the end?

         Have you been working on the same !@#$#^ book for more than a year?

        Then you, my friend, need a fresh start.

Like emptying our closet of our outdated clothes that no longer fit, it is time to take a deep breath and throw out what does not work.  Whether it is the manuscript upon which we’ve spent months writing, or the relationship we thought would remain permanent, our second, third or seventh draft or attempt toward our objective, or a bad habit or lifestyle, it is time to discard what does not work and start over.

Kimberly Key, in Psychology Today’s “ Tips for starting over and rebooting your life”, says:

     the squeaky wheel gets the oil, the problem will get the energy, which only serves to reinforce the rumination. They key is to focus on the opposing force of the problem -the solution.

Her suggestion is a reminder of the idea that the same recurring themes show up everywhere; in stories, situations and places, (and in my blogs!), expanded upon from and to varying perspectives. Closing one door to open a new one requires opening oneself to change and metamorphosis, while adhering to the basic rules and themes of life that our heavenly father put in place for us.

To  further illustrate Key’s point to focus on the solution, rather than on the problem, she uses the seven deadly life sins of pride, envy, sloth, greed, anger, gluttony, and lust in her message, like pointing to themes in our writing;

     Numerous stories throughout time teach caution about succumbing to these behaviors. The message is reinforced to us at a young age by parents, teachers, books, and the media. For instance, recall Star Wars, episode 3, where Anakin Skywalker transforms into Darth Vader after allowing fear, envy, anger, and pride to mask his heart and intuition. In the episode, Yoda warns Anakin not to focus on the dark side of the force.

    Like Darth Vader, human beings focus on the dark side of the force much of the time.

Rather than focus on our weakness or mistake and flounder there with it as it drags us further down, writers must confront the story that is not working, just as individuals must face the relationship that is failing, or the situation that is holding them back, head on.

In “ On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft”, Stephen King, tells aspiring writers to;

     Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s  heart, kill your darlings.

By courageously discarding what no longer works, we gain the opportunity to pursue and potentially fulfill the hopes and dreams we deserve, or write the book we were meant to write.  By cutting the strings, we free ourselves to rise higher, to reach a place far better than the place from which we have held ourselves prisoner.

Letting go of what is not working frees us to write our better story

I don’t know about anyone else, but whenever my computer freezes, or I have any type of technical issue, the first instruction I’m given by my IT guy is to turn the computer completely off, before rebooting.

Like we must do with the computer that stopped working, the recipe that failed, the story that fizzled, the relationship that hurts us, or the situation holding us back from becoming our better self,  we must shut whatever is not working down.  Throw it away.  Change direction.  Turn, turn , turn…

Consequently, when we do reboot, we will be able to start over from scratch with the right words, the better or best words; the words that were always meant to be to begin with. 

Crossing the Finish Line

In writing, it is easy to lose our way as writers, the same way it is easy in life, to lose our way as individuals. We stare at the blank page- whether of our next story or of the next day, trying with all our might to draw the right words out, onto the paper, because we know how much power words have to affect us, the individuals around us and our outcomes.  Our words can build or destroy, depending on how, why and when they are used. 

One way we can avoid getting lost is first to recognize what is important to us, or what gives us the most pain, or on the other hand, the most hope.  What must we do to inspire the change we need?  What steps must we take in order to induce that change, and what path must we follow in order to move away from the something we know has been wrong, to free us to move toward the something better,  that we need or deserve? What will it take to propel us through the starting gate, and then ultimately- to guide us across the finish line, way off in the distance?

An inciting incident pushes our protagonist through the gate, and then subsequent cause and effect events (or scenes), keep her moving.  There will be times she will stumble over obstacles, second guess her decisions and actions, and even hit rock bottom somewhere along the way, before she will reach the point of no return- when there is no way she can turn back toward her past or the place in which she once felt safe. Along her journey she will make sacrifices or endure pain, and she will attract accomplices, supporters and enemies like moths to the light.  Antagonists will try to crush her, or at least to prevent her from attaining her goal. She will need to remain focussed and strong if she is serious about making it to the next stage of her journey, and then on to the stage after that, and so forth.

Runners use mile markers placed along a course to identify how far they’ve come and how much further they have to go.  Along the route, aid stations are staffed with supporters who hand out water or towels for relief and comfort, and sidelines are crowded with spectators who share words of encouragement and praise. Family and friends wait patiently among the fans, scanning the runners for their loved ones, worrying, fretting, shouting, and finally clapping their hands until they become raw.

The course is rugged, uneven, never-ending, and full of numerous steep hills. Yet, despite these challenges or because of them, the runners reach inside themselves for the faith and spirit within, and around them -to their supporters or loved ones for reassurance, the same way writers reach from their thoughts for the right words, to spill on to the paper, to create something or somewhere better.

In the well known movie and one of my personal favorites;  Forest Gump, what was it that made Forest run and why did he run for so long?  How was he able to keep going and going, and why did he want to? From where did he get his strength and his desire to take off, and continue?

Dr. Rob Bell, a Sport Psychology Coach or as he is sometimes referred to, “ a Mental Toughness Coach”, wrote this about Forest’s reason for running;

Forest Gump was in pain. He was hurting. He was at his bottom.

And we’ve all been there, at our bottom. It’s different for everybody. But, it’s where change takes place. It’s a motivating factor.Desperation. Frustration. Hurt. Pain.

That’s the reason Forrest Gump started running that day. And the bottom we hit is what causes our own change as well. We need to want to change and get better so badly, that we will do whatever it takes. If we are comfortable, then we need more pain before change will occur.

Now, (he continues to say), the past is okay to look at, but we can’t stare at it. The reason Forrest Gump started running WAS NOT the reason why he kept running. He certainly didn’t keep running his whole life. His why changed along the way.

He said it later near the end of the running sequence montage of the movie, “You need to put the past behind you before you can move on.”

Does your why also involve other people, or is it just about you? Would have Forrest kept running if it wasn’t for all of the people who joined him? Perhaps so, but there’s no denying that he did have a lot of company with him. He ran for three years, two months, fourteen days, and sixteen hours. That’s usually enough time to run past the pain. Depends… I do know that running helps.

Whether the rock bottom is our protagonist’s to drag herself up from, or our own to climb out of, it is the inciting incident or life changing event, that promotes the need to move away from one (bad, painful, negative, broken, worn, heartbreaking, traumatic…..) moment or situation, toward something better or different, that pushes us and our characters forward.  Whether it is pain, a bad decision, a conflict or someone, that pushes us outside our box, or through the gate, it is change that ultimately empowers us to cross the finish line in the end. Or perhaps, it is actually the act of crossing the finish line itself that truly allows us, or our beloved character, to change and not the other way around.  Perhaps, it is in taking the steps and the chance, without knowing if we will ever make it across in the end, that promotes the change within ourselves that we needed to begin with.

William Faulkner said; Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad.But its the only way you can do anything really good.   By recognizing what it is that we want to move away from, and that we need to at all, and why, and identifying what we want to move toward (something better), and recognizing that we are never alone on our journey, while pacing ourselves from marker to marker, stage to stage, chapter to chapter, and remaining mindful to make the right decisions, or choose the right words,  to lead us forward and not backward, the distance to the finish line will grow shorter, until we make it across, at last.  And in that instance, we just might recognize that there is no real finish line, because we will always be moving forward, the same way Forest Gump kept on running.

This entry was posted on February 27, 2019. 1 Comment

Writing Good Beginnings

We’ve heard that an individual forms his or her impression of someone new within mere seconds of introduction…..  It is the same for our readers.  Within the first paragraph or first page of our story, the reader forms her opinion, deciding at once whether or  not our story is worth more of her time.

Last month I wrote about the importance of endings, but it is not possible to reach, or write a good ending without writing a good beginning to send the reader off on her journey, excited and eager for adventure.   By turning the first lines of our narrative into an invitation the reader can not refuse, the writer reels in her reader like a fish on a hook.  Hence, the term to “hook the reader”, or to wet the appetite of the audience enough to make them want more.

Some ways to write good beginnings include: 

Describe the setting so the reader can identify with her surroundings.

Ask a question, or leave out a piece of information,  to make the reader wonder.

Start with a conflict.

Start in the middle of some kind of action  (in media res) and work your way backward.

Start with background information.

Have the protagonist introduce herself in an interesting manner to allow for the reader to connect with her, or to develop some kind of emotional relationship with her.

The beginning of the story sets the tone for what is to come, just as we like to believe the beginning of each new year allows us to begin with a fresh start. As an important part of our story, (many would argue that it is the most important part), the beginning should act as a foundation, like the foundation upon which our home is built.  It is almost a separate entity, while still a part of the whole. The beginning is the place where our readers are getting to know the characters, the setting, the theme and the plot, like arriving guests in our foyer where they receive their first glimpse of the other party attendees, or gain a sense of the environment into which they’ve been welcomed. 

However, while it is important to establish these important criteria early, the writer must be leery to avoid over-doing it, to walk a fine line.  To this point, Cris Freese, a technical writer, professional book editor, literary intern and former managing editor of Writers Digest Books points out that many times opening scenes fail because the writer tries to tell too much about the story too soon;   “what readers need to know to read the story is not what writers needed to know to write it.”  Freese continues to say that writers explore their characters’ voices and histories, the setting’s idiosyncrasies, the plot’s twists and turns and detours and dead ends, the themes’ nuances and expressions before writing the opening scenes.  He continues to explain that writers should think on paper there, in the beginning, “stretching” their way into the story and that “stretching is a crucial part of the writing process, but just as stretching before you run is paramount, it’s not part of the run itself. It’s preparation.”

What Freese is trying to say is that while writers need to draw in their readers, they should remain mindful to leave out the parts of the beginning that obscure the actual action, to allow the reader to arrive at the  “big story idea” sooner, like cutting off the fat to get to the meat.  While the writer must know before hand those parts, he does not necessarily need to write it all out in his beginning.  Provide just enough without filling in too many blanks too soon. 

One way to do this might be for the writer to  start the story in media res, or in the middle of the action as a way to plop the reader directly into the scene, and then more of the exposition and detailed setting can be filled in gradually, afterward, once the reader IS, indeed, hooked.

Another important task to remember, when writing a good beginning, is to include an “inciting incident”, or  an event that will disrupt the protagonist’s every day existence, gradually leading her away from the beginning and into the middle, toward the “doorway of no return”, or the first plot point.  This is where the reader becomes fully invested in the journey. 

Writing a good beginning is like knocking over the first domino from which the remaining dominos are able to fall neatly into place, like connecting the dots- one by one,  or gradually filling in the blanks. 

Moreover, the beginning should establish the point of view, whether it is first person ( “ I “ am telling the story), omniscient third person, as if it is a God-like narrator (OM)  telling the story from all points of view- getting into everyone’s heads, third person limited (he or she ) or the less traveled POV: 2nd person; “you take a left turn, you add two cups of milk…”  .  Additionally, as stated earlier, the beginning should introduce the protagonist and her conflict or quest to the audience, as well as to briefly describe the setting of the story.

Once this first domino is set up correctly, the connecting theme, plot and everything else in line should slide neatly into place.  It may sound contradictory and challenging, but it is in finding the right balance and selecting the most appropriate opening for your story that makes a truly good beginning.  

In one of the most famous first lines of any novel;  A Tale of Two Cities, written by Charles Dickens in 1859, the reader immediately gets a sense of where the novel is headed, even before we meet the main characters: 

     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, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Opposing threads of duality and paradoxical elements of society and the danger of mob rule forge their way through the story, tied together in an unending struggle that reflects  a time of enlightenment and hope, while simultaneously mirroring the darkness of despair on the other side. Tensions between family and love, hatred and oppression, and chaos and order, battle one another within dualistic characters on both sides of the channel. Thriving within the two cities of London and Paris, dwells contrast and similarity, portrayed by the characters who reside there. This is evident within the very first paragraph, revealing what is yet to come.  Not too overdone, yet just enough to hook the reader and provide a clear view of what lays ahead.

Like the sun rising over the horizon at the start of each day, gifting the world with fresh aspirations of the possibilities ahead, writing good beginnings gives rise to the hope for and anticipation of what rests between the first page and the last.  Like the moments of our lives, from our first breaths to our last, it is the beginning we write that launches us forward.  Like the preface that lays out the blue print of our time on this earth, the beginning we write sets each of us up for our destinies.  It is easy to write a good beginning when we do not have a map to which we are committed to follow, because we can make up what we want as we go, but it is the challenge of writing good beginnings, placing the right words on a blank page,  starting with a clean slate, when we are serious, honest, creative and determined, that distinguishes us as human beings, and as writers.

It is from setting up the first domino, from making the decision as to who we are and who we want to become, and where we, as writers decide we want our stories to go, and who we want our protagonists to be, and what we want our characters to show our readers, that we are able to most affect the next domino in line, and from which each domino thereafter, will gradually fall neatly into place.

The writer can always edit the first draft of his beginning, but it is in his best effort, with honesty, clarity, and originality, and from the utilization of the tools in his tool box, that he writes his best final draft!  No publisher, nor editor, nor agent, nor teacher, nor principal, nor judge, nor parent, nor boss has the power to change the beginning each one of us writes.  It is up to us as writers, readers or individuals in general to decide on how or if we want to write our own good  beginnings that will launch us off toward our futures, and the endings we will eventually write later on down the road.  No excuses, no lies,  no punishments, nor judgments, nor anything or anyone else can alter the beginnings we write. 

Only the author of his own story can write or re-draft his own good beginning.

End of Story

Just as individuals change over the course of their lives, the protagonist in our stories must change in some way, by learning from her mistakes and failures, either ultimately rising above the ashes of her struggles, or on the other hand, submitting to her inner demons at long last.  Our characters in our stories, like individuals in life, set out on journeys to travel, and create dreams and goals to pursue, but it is not until he or she actually writes the ending that it all becomes real.

Writing experts tell us in order to end our stories well, we must not allow our hero to be rescued by someone or something else. Rather,  the hero must demonstrate to readers that he has grown, or changed in some way, over the course of the story, on his own, through his own lessons and struggles.

Is it the first lines of the story, in which we set up the direction of the journey, that are most impactful or is it the last lines that resonate most with the audience?  Is it what we end the current year with that matters or the promises we make for the new year ahead that makes us better writers, parents, children, spouses, partners, siblings, co-workers, friends or neighbors?  Is it the culmination of the lessons we learned or taught, the good deeds we performed through the current year, the love we shared or received, the peace we made despite the challenges, the memories we created, or rather, the resolutions we write with our expectations listed in chronological order on January 1st ,that have the most impact on our lives and on others?

Beginnings are important, but endings tie the stories in our fiction, and our lives, all together. It is the endings we write, and that we reach in our lives, that makes our stories, and life, most meaningful and real.  We can write all the great beginnings we want, but they would remain as only dreams, wishes or hopes until our characters actually trudge through each chapter, or we as individuals pass through the phases of our lives, to reach the point in which we are able to write a strong ending; one that reflects the success of actualizing the hope of those first lines, or one that loops our ending back to the beginning of our story- that moment in which we first set out with expectations, daring to place words on a blank page, having no idea what would be in store for us later on, down the road.  Standing shoulder to shoulder with other runners waiting by our side at the starting line is exciting, but actually persevering to  the finish line is what makes our efforts worth while, important to us and real.

In Charles Dickens’, Christmas Carol, the first lines read as follows,;   

     Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner.  

While this beginning certainly reels the audience in, setting  readers up for the dark theme of the story, it is the ending that resonates long after the story is finished; 

            Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us.” “And it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!”, 

Ebenezer Scrooge went from a bitter and angry man fueled by greed and selfishness, to a changed person with an open heart and renewed eagerness to give to others what he had held exclusively close to himself, having forgotten what truly matters in life.  By the end of the story, the reader sees an individual filled with peace and happiness, where a miserable, hate -filled man once stood. It is the ending of the story, and Scrooge’s metamorphosis that touches the audience.

The “write” ending might loop the end of the story around to the beginning, leading the reader back to the first lines, highlighting the moral of the story, or the point the author desired to make.  In Wally Lamb’s, I know this much is True, the reader not only learns something, but she feels the emotion and meaning  the author slowly built through the previous acts leading into the story’s ending,

     “I am not a smart man, particularly, but one day, at long last, I stumbled from the dark woods of my own, and my family’s, and my country’s past, holding in my hands these truths: that love grows from the rich loam of forgiveness; that mongrels make good dogs; that the evidence of God exists in the roundness of things. This much, at least, I’ve figured out. I know this much is true.”

This final passage sums up the story, tying the end to the beginning, providing added depth to the theme and the author’s point, the same way the ending to our own year illuminates the good and  the bad moments, highlighting our successes and our failures while reminding us of what is most and least important to us.

In a recent Hallmark movie, Small Town Christmas , one of the main characters makes the following comment when pointing out what matters to her, to a friend;  “ It is what matters. That’s all I care about. End of story.” She uses the term end of story, to emphasize her point, putting any ambiguity of what is real and what matters most to rest. Done. Finished. Nothing else matters.  The end.  End of Story!

Whether it is the end of a story, the end of a relationship, the end of a special day, the end of a good or bad year, the end of a discussion, thought or idea, or the end of a lifetime, it is the last lines we write that sum up who we really are in the end.  The ending today could determine the direction of the road ahead of us in the next chapter of our story or in our lives or afterlives,  if we pay close enough attention.  We can hope for a better year ahead, for our New Year’s resolutions to come true, but it is where we land at the end of each year that is our reality.  It is the ending we write that reflects the real truth of who we are, and who our characters came to be in our fiction.

Like our characters in our stories, it is who we became, who we are now in this moment at the end, and the lessons we learned and taught, the love and peace we shared, the struggles we overcame, and the  memories we made, that makes the difference. It is truly as simple as that. End of Story!

Wishing everyone a healthy and happy new year ahead in 2019.  May the beginnings you create come true in the year ahead and may the ending you write at this time next year reflect who you set out to be in the beginning and your success at arriving there in the end.