Sunday, July 29, 2012

What’s the story?

Everyone who writes hears the advice: write what you know. In fact, I believe that even when the story seems completely manufactured, it is still based on what the writer knows. What makes the difference is how the writer interprets what he or she knows. That is the writer’s voice.

Many people just love a good story, know one when they read it, but never think they can put one on paper. Everyone has a story, and everyone can tell a story.

Many writers begin with what is basically a memoir, a story constructed around some period of time or event that has remained in the writer’s mind and life.

One of the reasons for writing a story is to share what the writer has learned or experienced. Every day brings knowledge and challenges, rewards and penalties, if only we take the time to look. And all of that can be described in words. Writing is a way of preserving the experiences that make a life.

How many times have you thought that you would like to know more about your parents or grandparents: how they grew up, the tests and prizes that life brought, the happiest and the saddest times they experienced? Others will want to know the same things.

Memoirs often turn out to be stories that find resonance with people who have never heard of the writer, but trying to tell your story to a wider audience doesn’t have to be the reason for writing it. You should write your story to preserve it for those who come after, for your children and their children and so on. That is what storytelling is about. It began before language began, when fire was new and human life began to move beyond waking, hunting, eating and sleeping. The first writers used pictures not just to commemorate an event, but to leave a record of it for those who came after. It was a long time before words became writing and writing became history, but always, always, the urge to preserve and pass on what happened, why and how and to whom, has been part of the human story. It should be part of yours.

Begin with a simple notebook, the kind you used in school perhaps. Begin with your earliest memory. This is, after all, your story, so it should be about what you remember. Along the way you may find an event or memory of an event that is so singular that you will recall details that will help tell the story more fully. You don’t even have to try it out on family members. Let them read what you have written if you want, but if that is not something you want to do, then just write for yourself, and to leave something behind that is uniquely you. If nothing else, writing your story will help you understand it.

What’s the story?

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Big Fish, Little Fish

You’re a fish in a pond. It doesn’t matter what your size. If all the others get scooped up, are you going to see yourself as the lone survivor, or the biggest fish in the pond?

There is a point at which taking charge becomes leadership. It happens when ideas and actions coalesce into forward, not retrograde, movement. When that moment is achieved, change happens. Progress becomes the signature of the leader. When nothing happens, or when things seem to move backwards, rot sets in.

Watching fish in a pond, seeing them move about in what looks like Brownian motion, is like watching politicians. Most seem unable to understand the difference between leadership and opposition. There is only so much food, so much oxygen in the pond. There are plenty of open mouths, lots of flapping gills, but no progress. Every fish seems focused only on its own stomach, with little care or concern for the others who must live or die in the same water. When one gets hooked, pulled up to be a carnivore’s dinner, the others seem content to swim on, happy only that they were not caught, not pulled from the water. People, on the other hand, are not fish. We should be able to understand that we are related in many ways to the others in our pond, and that we need to think beyond the next mouthful we are asked to swallow.

It seems to me that today we have far too many fish who want to be the biggest in the pond, even if it is because they would be the only one left.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The cost of convenience

I began using a typewriter regularly when I was perhaps thirteen, maybe younger. We always had one in the house, thanks to my mother. She had started her adult life as a secretary and office worker, had learned those skills in high school, and carried them with her throughout her long life. She never matriculated to a computer, but did have an electric typewriter in her last years, so she was keeping up.

Anyway, I was introduced to the typewriter early on. The pure mechanics of it drew me, watching the keys come up from the amphitheater-like setting, making their marks and returning to their seats, much as speakers must have acted in the forum of Rome centuries before.

Machines and mechanical things have always been at the core of my life, I think, and perhaps that is what really set me on course to become a writer. F. Scott Fitzgerald once said: "You don’t write because you want to say something. You write because you have something to say." To that I would add: "And you have a means of saying it."

The first typewriter I actually owned was an ancient Underwood portable. Black, with gold scroll work painted on the frame, white keys with black letters. It had a little bell that went "ding" at the end of the line or when you used the carriage return. Along with the clacking of the keys, it all made a kind of symphony that played along as background music to the words themselves. I was fascinated watching letters form words, words become sentences, paragraphs fill pages.

I have written by hand, of course. There are times and places where that is the only option, and writers are compulsive by nature; we will not be denied the opportunity to put words on paper. I use a computer today because, among other things, finding typewriter ribbons isn’t as easy as it used to be.

My last typewriter was electric, and could almost keep up with my fingers. The only other typewriter I ever owned was so small it fit in my briefcase, weighed only a few pounds, and was so "portable" that I had to make some clamps I could use to keep it from jumping around on the table as I pounded it. Yes, pounded. I once had a secretary who said she could tell what my mood was from the way the typewriter sounded when I wrote. If I was writing something that called for emotion, I punished the keys by hitting them very hard. If the mood was light, so was my touch. When the writing itself was going well there was a kind of flowing chatter from the keys. In later years, when I switched to electronic keyboards, I often broke them by pounding too hard. Fortunately they make stronger keyboards today, because I can still hit the keys pretty hard when I’m really steaming along.

I am limited to a very sturdy laptop now, with a keyboard that is smaller than the ones I grew up with, but I have the advantage of spell checking, cut and paste, typeover and insert; all functions that once required scissors, paste, white-out, fresh paper and even carbons and onionskin and special hard erasers. And I can rewrite with greater ease. There was a time when, if I made a change in page one by adding or subtracting a line, then the whole document would have to be retyped. Secretaries don’t like to retype the same thing over and over anymore than writers do, so you can imagine what a new world this electronic typing and printing have opened to people like me: people who don’t get it right the first time.

It has led, on the other hand, to what I’m sure are sloppy writing habits. Simply because editing and retyping caused so much extra and wasteful work, I wrote more carefully, gave more thought to the words I used before I used them, paid more attention to original organization.

This new way of working is certainly more liberating, but it can release the writer from careful thinking. That is a terrible price to pay for a little convenience.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Finding inspiration

"Finding" is often linked with "loss." In writing though, it has more to do with discovery. I begin my writing session every morning about the same time, expecting to achieve something useful before I stop for lunch. If I am working on a story that I have already begun, picking up where I left off isn’t very hard. Reading the last things I wrote, looking at notes about where I was planning to go next, are all I need to get the flow going. But what about starting with a clean screen or sheet of paper? That requires inspiration.

Looking for things that will start the words flowing is a sure way to miss what’s really already out there. My own way is to simply begin by writing whatever is in my mind as my fingers hover over the keys. It may even be "I have no idea what I want to write today," or something even less inspiring. I have decided over the years that the first words are really unimportant. It is sort of like starting a car. You have the battery in place, there is fuel in the tank, and everything turns over as it should. As soon as you get things moving, the engine fires and begins running by itself . . . most of the time.

I find inspiration in words and also in actions. Seeing something on my morning ramble with Teddy the dog, looking at the birds coming and going to the feeders on the deck, watching a squirrel or rabbit or chipmunk, glimpsing a deer or bear on its way to the river, or sometimes just looking up at the sky, following the movement of the clouds are all things that make ideas surface in my mind. The words that inspire me may be as simple as a story in the newspaper or an e-zine in my email, a recollection of a conversation from the night before, or a line in a book I read before bed. The writer’s craft is being able to recognize among any or all of those stimuli the essence or germ of a story. It may become an essay or a chapter in a novel or a story that stands alone in 200 words or less. Part of the thrill of writing (for me) is seeing something real and true come out of the chaos that is life. I sometimes do sit down and plot a story or an essay, but the final draft seldom matches the original outline.  One must begin somewhere.

Years ago I read an interview with a well-known writer. He responded to a question about his writing habits by saying that every morning he sat down, rolled a clean sheet of paper into his typewriter, and began. If he didn’t have the first word already in mind, if he had no idea where he was headed, if he was suffering from that mysterious malady known as "writer’s block," he would, he said, simply begin with the word "To." It seldom failed him, he reported, but when it did (as it sometimes must), he would simply write: "To hell with it," get up and leave.

That’s enough inspiration for today.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Life in the country: Rehearsal

I was going to write about bears and such this week, but a change in the weather has focused my attention on other country matters.

Friday night, about nine o’clock, the heat, which had reached a record 99.7° in our courtyard, was swept away by the same winds that knocked out power across a wide belt of the northeast and mid-west. It was replaced by darkness. We have an automatic generator that comes on-line if the power is off for 30 seconds, and stays on until service is restored. Well, so far that restoration hasn’t happened. And the sub-station the telephone company uses to provide our internet service has no backup, so we also lost our internet connection. I’m not complaining, mind you. We can cook and wash and run fans, and our freezers are running and we have water and lights. No A/C because the generator wasn’t set up to feed that power-grabber. In the past we have not been without power very long, and we generally can count on cool, dry weather here in the mountains. A hot day now and then, but we haven’t really needed air conditioning often, and our power-outs usually last no more than a few hours or a day at most. Not this time. As I write this we, along with millions of others, are looking at the third full day of heat, and no power company service. For us it is tolerable, at least for the rest of today. Our propane tanks, however, are running down to the bottom. We usually get a fill about now, or maybe in September, and it isn’t ever the full 200 gallons, but today, or tomorrow or whenever the truck gets here, we will probably need every drop of that.

So we are very conscious of power use and needs. We turn out lights, we put fans on low, we use water from the rain barrels rinse dishes. As long as our laptops don’t run out of battery, we can use them, but not to get on the internet.

What this is all about, of course, is what science tells us to expect more of: higher temperatures, greater demands placed on the "grid" that supplies power which in turn will generate more heat and less service and so on. We aren’t ready for this most places. Suppose we run out of propane? We’ll get by. But suppose this becomes the way we live for years in the future? Will we be able to accommodate? Are we ready to conserve what we do have, against future needs? Can we push development of alternate ways of living, given that our schools are seeing cuts to budgets, college is becoming more and more expensive and probably less and less relevant and rewarding? How will be grow ourselves out of the decline we are in? I want to believe that America’s ability to find creative and useful solutions to our problems is still part of our national strength. We are about to find out, I think.

What we are doing today, this weekend before our Independence Day celebration, is finding out more about who we Americans really are. We will discover again the strength and creativity to solve our problems and move forward.

This is a test. Do not call your repairman. Fix it yourself.