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.

The Whole Point (of theme building).

In order to illuminate the human condition through story, the writer should burrow deep into his own values and beliefs, because it is those values and beliefs that drive his thoughts and behaviors.   By identifying what matters to him, he is able to give the story profundity, quality and meaning. Whether the writer intends to weave theme through the narrative or not, when he first starts out, he must make his story about something. He might start by first coming up with a theme upon which he desires to create his story, or he may write the story first and identify the theme later, (before revision, of course), however; regardless of the road he takes, he must choose one if his goal is to engage the reader in a meaningful manner. While the story’s plot should excite the reader, it is the theme that ties together the universal human connection between story and reader.

Some questions the writer might ask himself before, during or after he writes his first draft could include the following:   What makes me feel happy or sad, or angry?  What drives me?  Are people inherently good , or evil?   Do we become who we are through genetics or through the environment in which we grow up?  What is it that breaks my heart in society,  or in the world?  What do I think is the true meaning of life, the reason we are really here? 

By asking ourselves these questions, we recognize what matters to us, and likewise, what matters to our readers. While some themes are monosyllabic, meaning they come from one word, such as love, death, friendship, belonging, family, loss, betrayal, or sacrifice, other themes can be implied.  Some examples of these types of implied themes include,  good verses evil (William Golding’s, Lord of the Flies, Harper Lee’s, To Kill a Mockingbird, George Orwell’s, Animal Farm) , money can’t buy happiness (F.Scott Fitzgerald’s, The Great Gatsby) , crime does not pay (James Bond movies) , be careful what you wish for (Pinocchio), perseverance pays off (Rocky), or no man is a failure who has friends (borrowed from Mark Twain, by Frank Capra’s Its a Wonderful Life).

As the underlying thread that ties together the plot with the characters, descriptions, and settings, the theme relates the story to real life. Through the theme of the story, writers connect their readers universally to the point the writer is trying to make. However, the writer must hide his theme in the story’s background, to allow his readers to draw their own conclusions, rather than make them feel they have been preached to or lectured. 

Moreover, through the use of symbolism, motifs and characters, writers build the theme as a way to reflect who they are and what they value and believe in, to the reader.  Consequently, that theme resonates with the reader because what matters to the writer usually matters to or affects the reader as well.  However, as stated previously, the writer must do this subtly because the reader does not want the writer to convince her to think the way he does, or feel the way he does, but to come to her own conclusions.

Take for instance, one of my favorite novels; F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, in which Fitzgerald uses the famous green light as a symbol to represent the American dream (the achievement of happiness through wealth), which Jay Gatsby strives to acquire, yet never does. Further, the green light, combined with Fitzgerald’s beloved character, Daisy, personifies the love Gatsby is never able to attain, for which he ultimately makes the biggest sacrifice. 

Without theme, the story is like a meal with no flavor, or a rainbow without color. Through the character’s behaviors, tied to the symbols and motifs in the story, the writer discloses the main point of the story. 

In the end, a writer writes from what he feels in his heart, or from his own values and beliefs, and it is from digging deep and asking questions of himself, that he is able to convey his message.  Ultimately, this process enables theme to work its magic and it is from that magic that readers draw emotion, a lesson, or change, and that, at the end of the day, is the whole point.    


     In fiction, the writer introduces his readers to a crisis or a quest of some kind, through or toward which our protagonist will journey.  As tension continues to build throughout the story, often by way of unrealized desire, the character eventually reaches that moment of complete despair in which hopelessness consumes her and she must make a decision,  altering her, her situation or her life.  It is that change (or character arc)  to which the reader relates, through what writers call the universal connection, or from which the reader feels an emotion or learns a lesson.

     Choreographing each of the acts that pull all of this together, like a needle pulling thread, the writer draws in and holds his reader captive.  As in life, with individuals in their daily lives, each decision our characters make and each act in which they initiate or participate, reaps outcomes,  not only for themselves, but for those they love, hate or know.  Our stories are built on an escalation of tension, like the framework holding together the structure of a tall building, one beam at a time.   The story’s tension will ebb and flow, allowing the reader to take a breath in between, while it is the duty of the writer to maintain the reader’s attention all along.

     Tension is built from reactions to actions, or as writers like to say; scenes and sequels. Every action, whether physical or mental, reaps a reaction, and every scene reaps a sequel. To hold the attention of the reader, the writer builds strong and powerful scenes that create enough drama or suspense to keep the reader turning the pages.  In contrast to real life, in which most of us try our best to avoid drama and tension (at least we like to think that), it is the escalation of tension in our fiction that compels the reader to stay up late at night, reading past bed-time, further connecting her universally to the character’s tension- filled struggle.  When the reader witnesses the character react to the action, altering the character in some way, as mentioned earlier, the reader identifies with or feels for her, even if only for the brief time she ensconces herself in the scene.

     Take the protagonist, Jay Gatsby in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, for instance, in which the main character’s life ends in a tragic outcome as a result of an action, (scene and sequel, action and reaction).   Gatsby refuses to accept the life into which he was born, therefore; he attempts to reinvent himself into someone he is not, but dreams to be. This isolates him from others and ultimately,  destroys him.  His tragic outcome is an indirect result of that facade, and a direct result of his decision to cover up for the love of and inspiration in his life, Daisy when she strikes and kills Myrtle in Gatsby’s car.

     Likewise, in  Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, we observe a different type of reaction to an action, still a scene and sequel sequence, however; in contrast to the poor decision- making in The Great Gatsby, we see Atticus Finch act as a role model for his children, making the right decision to defend Tom Robinson, proving Tom not guilty of assault.  Further, when Atticus is treated badly by Mr. Ewell, instead of reacting in a confrontational manner, which would further aggravate a bad situation, Atticus walks away, teaching his children, and the reader, a lesson about honor and integrity.   

     As in life with people, the actions of our characters in our fiction reap outcomes, sometimes positive outcomes and sometimes negative outcomes, but always through tension.  While we know that some individuals in real life are actually drawn to drama like moths to the light, (rubber necking on the highway, reality t.v., gossip, etc ) , rather than avoid it as most of us would like to believe, it is certain that at least for our readers; they are, without doubt,  drawn to the story through that tension, drama or suspense,  and unlike in real life, that is always a good thing.

Rejections are inevitable.

In writing, and in relationships, rejections are inevitable. When we give someone (a love interest, a family member, a friend, an employer, or a publisher) the power to save us, we also give him or her the power to destroy us. It is our response and the manner in which we handle that destruction that decides our fate, not the rejection itself.

We must not live in fear of rejection, whether it comes within a relationship disappointment and a broken heart, or a manuscript brush off and a disenchantment. James Lee Burke, an American Mystery Writer, said, “ Every rejection is an incremental payment on your dues that in some way will be translated back into your work”.  Paying our dues  is another way of saying “work hard, learn from your mistakes, while keeping in mind that you may not necessarily enjoy the process in the meantime,  in the end the pain will have been worth it”.  Heck, for anyone who exercises, we  know without pain there is no gain (of muscle, not unwanted weight- of course!). 

Rejection, if used properly, is a tool in our writer’s box that helps us become stronger or better at what we do. We must get back on the horse that bucked us if we want to learn how to ride. Likewise, a profound phrase quoted by Ronald Reagan and Winston Churchill reads as follows;  ”There is nothing so good for the inside of a man than the outside of a horse.”   What better way to most fully learn than to be taught through rejection. It is the forsaking that pushes us forward, not the medals, trophies or prizes we obtain the first time we succeed.  If we become complacent with the first award we receive, we lower our ceilings before we have had the chance to discover the taller buildings out there- with higher ceilings to reach.

Walt Disney was told he lacked imagination when he was rejected. (Can you imagine that one?)  Albert Einstein couldn’t process lessons in the “normal/ traditional” manner in which other students would and was subsequently, rejected.  Likewise, Charles Darwin, who published The Origin of Species, dropped out of school at one point, and Dr. Seuss’s first book; To Think I Saw It on Mulberry Street was rejected more than 25 times before it was published. Even Margaret Atwood, Stephen King, J.R.R. Tolkien and J.K Rowling were rejected before getting published.  In fact, many great writers are rejected countless times before they make it, yet they advise new writers;  To allow rejection to discourage us, we seal our own fate and we have no one else to blame but ourselves.

In one of 26 rejections received from all major publishers, Vladimir  Nabokov was told;  “I recommend that your project  be buried under a stone for a thousand years”. Despite that grim advice, Nabokov found a publisher in France who agreed to publish Lolita.  Those publishers who had initially rejected his manuscript eventually published it, selling more than 50 million copies.  Nabokov could have read the advice he received to bury his manuscript, and walked away, giving up on himself and the potential readers who would be deprived of his work, but instead he used those words like fuel to drive him further and harder.  And guess what- it worked!

Rejection is inevitable, so use it to your advantage. Rather than feel broken -hearted or disappointed, allow the rejection to help you get better and stronger at what you do and who you are,  or who you want to become. Whether it is in your writing process, working through a relationship, or playing a sport, rejection in some form will always work its way into your life. It is your response, and how you deal with it that gives it the power to defeat you, or on the other hand, to embolden you, and that power is always only yours to give away- or to put to good use.

Writing to Learn Who We Are and to Make a Difference

The dramatist, novelist, and playwright, George Bernard Shaw, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1925, said; one uses a glass mirror to see his face, but he uses works of art to see his soul. We know that writers write to tell a story, or to entertain, to teach or inspire, but we also write to learn who we are, and in doing so, we learn about one another.

Prompted by the combination of curiosity, imagination, reflection and opinion, we are driven toward our craft like a moth propelled toward the light on a warm, summer night.  What interests, beliefs or passions do I have that interest another?  What frustrations, regrets, or struggles could lurk inside me that might cause me to behave one way and another individual to react differently? If I learn who I am, and who I am not, will I learn about others?  Will others learn about themselves from my work?

Some writers hear a story in the news, or from a friend, colleague or loved one, that affects them so deeply that they would have more luck cutting off their own shadow than to let go of the impression.   Reaching inside to touch the writer’s soul, the story throbs like an open wound that won’t heal.  It inspires her to question herself, her motives, the possibilities, the differences, and those of others.

She wonders what pain could be so bad that a parent would suffer the lives of the children to whom he or she gave life? What could have possibly caused such deep and destructive madness?  Was the line that separated rational from irrational thinking so frail?  Similarly, why did the politician put himself and his own family before the people he pledged to serve and protect?  Does selfishness and greed truly run that deep and if so, where does it come from and could anything truly ever satisfy that need?  Likewise, why did the business owner turn the young man away simply because he was different?  Couldn’t the employer see the integrity, honor, morality and ethics inside the boy as clearly as he could see the blue jacket he wore?  Or did he have no time, energy or compassion to bother looking?  Moreover, why couldn’t the head football coach see what was so obvious, that the high school sophomore merely needed a mentor, someone who cared and believed in him, and would make the boy feel worthy, unlike the way his father had made him feel all these years? 

What is inside me that draws me to this story?

How does a person become who he is?

What lurks inside each one of us that has the potential to cause us to treat one another so carelessly?

What is inside me that could be inside others?

What is in others that could be inside me?

What drives us to think the way we think, or feel the way we feel?  Or act the way we act?

We all have questions, whether we are writers or not, but it is the writer, (or motivated individual), who digs like a locust seeking a nest in the sand, tunneling deeply for solution, who seeks to find the dwelling place within himself, rather than settle for building his house upon the sand. The writer  knows that it is inside the tunnel where he will find meaning and security, to help him fight the external influences surrounding him, rather than seek outside where life’s pressures have the power to suck him into self-destruction, or sweep him away like a broken shell in the rip-tide.

Like the locust on its quest, writers dig for an outcome, a solution, the puzzle piece that fits, an answer, or hope.  YET, unlike the oblivious and shallow, self-serving  locust, (greedy politician, irrational bad parent, or arrogant and dispassionate coach…)  it is deep within ourselves, as writers and human beings, where we should seek the answers that are universal, because what is inside each of us eventually metamorphoses into, or helps to create, what is outside us. For, isn’t it true that whatever compels some one else could surely, in a different circumstance, influence each one of us and, likewise; whatever might drive me could sway another?

William Kenower writes, in the September issue of Writer’s Digest;  You are not your books, your awards, or your rejection letters, or your fan mail, or your website. You are what interests you most, what pulls your attention like a magnet, what wakes you up with a jolt of excitement, the ideas that crave expression. Nothing is more unique to you than what’s going on internally, within the confines of your own mind.

In other words, you are not what you create on, or want from, or receive from, the outside. It is what is inside each one us that matters, and that contributes to, or creates, what is outside us, not the other way around. It is what is inside of us that makes us who we are and it is the desire to learn who we are, to learn what interests or excites us, what we believe, and what we feel and think, that inspires us to write (and to live how we live).

Kenower has a line in this article that I love: he writes that he would like to say he never looks for himself where he is not, meaning he wishes he could admit that those external rewards or forces do not drive him, the way his desire to learn who he is and how he thinks and feels should drive him.  Yet, like each of us, he is human and admittedly, we all look for ourselves at times, in places we shouldn’t.  We look to the external reward; the paycheck, the trophy, the win, someone’s appreciation, praise, respect, admiration or love, for satisfaction, but it is what is within each one of us that truly matters and ultimately, what creates, contributes to, or obtains all of those things on the surface.

It is within us that we find the greatest lesson to share, and the most profound story to weave, because we are all connected in this life and each one of us, (or someone we know or love), at one time or another, has shared , or will share, the same desires, dreams, challenges, failures, pains, insecurities or questions. We all, at one time or another, have a similar tale to tell.

Likewise, Maria Walley tells us that we (writers, ..yet really any artist)  are in the business of selling our vulnerability.  After all,  she writes, we’re taking the innermost parts of ourselves, our ideas, and translating them into words intended to provoke thought, and in some cases (many cases- in my view), emotion. It can be painful to do, but it’s also what makes good writing worth reading.

It is the ability to be human that resonates with the reader and it is the tender spots the writer hits upon that the reader studies most closely, dwelling upon longer, to which she pays more attention, that allows her to see her own reflection on the page.

We can not turn in a direction we do not see, or toward a preference, inclination, or opinion to which we do not understand, therefore; it is those moments of awareness, recognition and familiarity to which our readers relate, rather than to the make and model of a neighbor’s car, the number of trophies an athlete displays on his shelf, or the size of the bank president’s paycheck, that excites or interests the reader most. The allure and appeal of the external reward is merely the backdrop for the internal magnificence of what is truly complex and captivating inside each one of us…. that has the power to inspire the most, and to make the biggest difference. 

Writing to learn who we are is to write about ALL of us. Although truly solving the puzzle of the internal workings of our minds is daunting, it is the process itself that propels us forward in our craft. To pursue what inspires us, should be the journey the writer pursues, not merely the external payoffs we might receive.

Gertrude Stein said; A writer should write with his eyes and the painter paints with his ears,  meaning we seek with our senses, with our questions, and with our hearts.  Consequently, we spin together that which we see inside and around us, that which we hear, and that which we question, and we mix it together, before spilling it outward in its color and brilliance, onto the page, or the canvas, of our work, for all the world to ponder. 

Like an open wound before the surgeons hands are upon it, the writer’s vulnerability and internal workings lie exposed- for the reader who opens herself and her own vulnerability and pain with us, as we , the writer and the reader together- as one,  await its repair, even if that healing comes only in the form of self-recognition, self-inquiry, resonance, hope or acceptance.

Yes, we write to tell a story, to entertain, to teach, or inspire, and maybe even to make a living, but we also write to learn who we are and in doing so, to learn about one another, and likewise, we learn about others to learn about ourselves, and ultimately, we write to make a difference.