Sunday, September 28, 2014

Tell Me a Story

Two stories in today’s news were about people who take risks. One was about the eruption of Mt. Ontake in Japan. The sudden (and unexpected) event happened while about 150 people were climbing; an adventure that is very popular in Japan. At the time the news story was written, at least 30 people had succumbed to the violent but natural event, trapped on the mountain in the path of the falling rock and flowing lava following the eruption.

The second story featured a young woman (early 40s) who, in three years, has hiked solo 10-thousand miles. Starting in Siberia, walking, hauling a custom-made trailer and more than 150 pounds of gear, Sarah Marquis survived her journey despite weather, terrain, disease, hunger, thirst and threats to her life by assailants ranging from wild animals to Mongolian horsemen.

Two stories that a writer could have invented, but didn’t need to. I mention that because I’ve often been asked, “Where do you get your ideas?” A perfectly natural question from those who don’t write or tell stories, I think. If I were not doing what I do, I wouldn’t know where to look for ideas, I suppose. The truth is, of course, that life, the world around you, the events of the day, provide all the garden a writer needs to grow a story from seed.

Fiction writing is much like gardening or farming, you see. An idea, a word, a passing thought, a scene witnessed or experienced can be the starting point for any storyteller to create a tale worth telling. Writers (at least this one) are explorers of a kind, you see. We find a beginning, an idea or event or act, and from that we look at what led to the act, what the act was, and the consequences. Sometimes it is as simple as retailing the beginning, the middle and the end with the embellishments a writer may add. Story ideas are often buried in someone else’s history or experience that leads the writer to look for creative explanations, motives, even outcomes.

Years ago I added to my library a small, almost pamphlet-sized book outlining 101 basic plots. The author had written the book from the perspective of a screenwriter (for silent films, I should point out). The idea of basic themes or plots (the ancient Greeks recognized only 7) applies to any fiction writing. What changes is the voice or point of view of the teller, the writer. What makes it work, what makes any story work, is either the true-to-life plot, or the skill of the writer in getting the reader to apply what is called “suspension of disbelief.” It is often written as “willing suspension of disbelief,” but willing or unwilling, the reader must participate in such an act. If the storyline is so true to life that the suspension is unnecessary, so much the better.

All of this might seem off the track (trail) I began with hikers climbing a volcano or trekking alone across a vast continent, an ocean and yet another continent. It isn’t, though. What struck me about both stories were two things: the magnitude of tests we can invent for ourselves, and the depth and breadth of strength we can find within ourselves when we need to, or really want to. It is what life is made of, and what makes life at all interesting and challenging.

If you think you have a story to tell, know that it has been told before, has been around for perhaps as long as campfires and wooly mammoths and saber-tooth tigers. That shouldn’t stop you from telling the story in your own way, your own voice. You might not tell it better than anyone else, or you might find a perspective that is new and unusual.

We all have stories to tell.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Hello, Old Thing

I love old things. Cars, buildings, books. Especially books. There is something about paper that has aged and not disintegrated that stimulates a sense of peace. Anything remaining so stable in an unstable world brings with it a sense if well-being.

Like most writers today, my books are available in digital format, just as is this essay. You can buy paper copies (which I prefer), but if you’d rather read an impermanent image, that’s fine, too. Reading is what is important; communicating ideas is what is important. Sharing knowledge is what is important. I’m not in any way opposed to the digital revolution, as long as the old ways are preserved as well.

Much like an old house, an old book has a personality that has yet to be imprinted on the new version. There are marks and smells and tactile sensations from holding and touching paper. The slick dust jacket, the hard boards that make the cover protective and at the same time substantial, the smoothness and shading of the paper itself, all work together with the words, the story, to make a package one may hold and absorb and enjoy, put away and then, whenever one wants or needs it, the pleasure can be repeated.

There is some speculation today about when, not if, the traditional book will disappear from our lives. I suppose for some, that is a welcome prospect. For others it must be a scary future; a world without books. If that thought disturbs you, then consider this: words written on something physical, be it rocks, clay tablets or animal skin, tree bark or paper (the ultimate extension of that technology), has been happening continuously and regularly for thousands of years. Printing, a method of copying an original multiple times, is also old. Movable type, first used by the Chinese perhaps a thousand years ago, is still with us. Scrolls, hand-written or machine-duplicated, still command attention. When it is important, it is printed. When it is beautiful, it is replicated. It will, I believe, continue to be an important technique for sharing information, ideas, art, imagination and the very tools of all that, the words themselves, for as long as we are able to communicate with one another.

There is a place for digital books, I know. Making words available to more people in more places, where conditions may make holding and moving books from place to place (think flying in today’s world where limits on the number and weight of suitcases can demand a choice of books or clothing), and you can appreciate a device weighing a pound or so that has the world’s library at one’s fingertips. Think about children living in such cultural poverty that they have never seen a book, looking at the words of a favorite story on a small screen for the first time. Consider the number of people who cannot claim a permanent place to sleep or be with family, but who can see your work on the ubiquitous cell phone. For those people, in those places, the digitization of whole libraries and cultural history of a nation can be instantly available when the inexpensive and reliable digital world is in their hands.

I publish in digital, but I also publish on paper. I do not own electronic copies of my own books, but there is a place in our home library for printed copies of them. When I sell books in bookstores, they are paper, bound in covers that attract the buyer. That same buyer may go on-line to find out more about me or the book, might even look at sample pages, but the best thing that happens, in my view, is when a “hard copy” moves from shelf to hand. Then I know that the buyer, the reader, will have a three-dimensional experience: the texture, the scent, the look of words and pages held and read all at one time.

It may be an old idea, but it is one that will remain long after the bits and bytes dead.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Rhythm of Winter

Light weight and light colored clothes to the back. Heavy darks to the front. Blankets out to air, thin covers to the laundry. Gloves from the closet shelf, lined caps and hats on the hall stand. Sweaters unfolded and allowed to hang and unwrinkle. Boots checked for water resistance and treated.

Outside, the deck furniture gets cleaned and stacked. Covers to keep them that way appear from the storage chests against the side of house. Final cuts of the paths around the fields and the large grassy areas near the buildings. Gutters cleaned and checked.

At the outdoor furnace the woodshed gets refilled. Trees stacked last Spring become short logs ready for the splitter. Snow blades get cleaned and checked and ready for mounting. Tire chains for truck and tractor are repaired and ready to roll.

The rhythm of winter strums in the air. The gardens slow and stop producing. Leaves begin to turn and then to drop, coating the land and manmade surfaces with orange and red and brown that crunch when dry, are slippery after a rain. Those fruits and vegetables we have finally harvested after the short, late-blooming summer slow in growth, fail to finish, must be pulled and composted to prepare for the next growing season.

Spring is so far away, but it will come. Still, we feel we’ve missed the summer that, when we were young felt long and short at the same time. This year it has been all too short. Our compatriots in the west would have loved our rain, but we felt cheated by the seasons. The slowness of summer is giving way too quickly to the tedium of winter, and we aren’t so happy about that.

The rhythm of winter beats slowly.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Authority is a Responsibility

There was a time in my professional life when I worked with researchers to help them make better presentations.

I always began my sessions with two things: a demonstration of common faults, and a mantra to give the speakers a mental support post. Classes in public speaking generally focus on voice projection, enunciation, and how to stand and move on a stage or lecture platform. Those are skills many otherwise assertive and vocal people lack when they stand before an audience of their peers. Developing those abilities however, demands more than physical moves and voice control.

The common faults are easy to demonstrate. Using the podium as a rock, for instance: grabbing it and holding on as if one were about to be blown off the stage by a tornado. Another is pacing back and forth from one side of the stage to the other, distracting the audience and getting tangled in the microphone cord. There are others, and techniques to overcome them. Those techniques are demonstrable, and can be learned. The mantra is much more difficult, especially if you are new to being the center of attention among  strangers. Public speaking, whether it is a conversation with a small group or a presentation from the stage of a large auditorium, requires a certain mind set.

“The podium is your authority,” I would say. I would repeat it many times in the days we met as a group: The podium is your authority. Standing at the lectern, or simply being introduced as the speaker, you are granted a position of authority. People will believe what you say or take issue with your assertions and conclusions, but if you are challenged, you have a bigger hammer than someone in the audience. The same is true for writers.

When you have published an article, or a story or a book, the very physical properties of the printed word lend heft to your opinions and conclusions, your assertions and your interpretations. That applies especially to electronic publication, whether an e-zine or social media site.

Being published, and thereby becoming an authority, brings with it certain responsibilities as well as rights. One must at some point take responsibility for one’s assertions and beliefs, especially it they are put forward by the professional and public “you.” That responsibility extends, it seems to me, to whatever mischief one may create, or harm one may cause. It is a heavy responsibility. But the originator is not the only one responsible.

As a reader, just as when you are part of a live audience, you have a responsibility to probe for the truth of what you hear and read. Do you trust your source? Believe everything you hear? Support as true everything you read? And is it possible to do that? Given the amount of information coming our way every day, every hour, from reporters, researchers, even politicians, do you have time to examine every news report, book, television program or even conversation critically and objectively? If you don’t, then you may be contributing to misinformation, misunderstanding and mischief in general.

In this modern world, one cannot believe everything one hears. Or reads. Or sees. So here’s a simple way to pursue truth: when the first news reports of an incident or event come to you in whatever way you receive news, put it aside. Wait a few days or a week before deciding on its validity. If the facts reported first don’t change materially in that time, then you have a solid podium on which to lean. You have authority.

You have a responsibility to seek the truth; it is what makes us free.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Labor: It's What We Do

Labor Day: A grand idea, this notion that we respect and reward work. Labor: The act as well as  the people who commit it. Over time that motif has degraded somewhat to simply a long weekend or day off. For those who work alone, who are the smallest of small entrepreneurs, it is probably just another day. I know it is for me. How about you?

When I was young (I was once), Labor Day was a time for picnics, speechifying (mostly political) and no work; like Sunday, only a Monday. Stores were closed, families gathered (it was the end of summer, too, and school started the next day), and public speakers tried to make workers feel they were important. And of course they were.

Labor, even 50 years ago, was committed by people. Machines were there of course, but they were operated by hands attached to real arms. We were just beginning to move into autonomous tools, but it wouldn’t be long before we, the hands and heads of work, would start turning over our skills to machines that were smarter (mostly), safer (mostly), cheaper to operate (always) and (sometimes) better at accomplishing intricate, repetitive tasks. Now even that is old.

For some of us the idea of work has long been doing something without assistance, without direction from people or machines, of being both the CEO and the Foreman and the Grunt. That’s what writing represents for me.

Labor day? Every day is labor day. Even when I say I’m taking a day off, part of me remains behind, working even when no new words appear on the screen. I’ve evolved through the whole history of the work of writing, too. From scratches in the dirt with a stick, through crayons and pencils on any surface I could reach, to paper and blackboard. The process still includes hand-written portions, in notebooks and on scraps of anything that will take a pen or marker or pencil, though most of what I write is here, on the screen, in a digital code I cannot really visualize. It’s one of those things I have to accept and then go on.

How do you spend Labor Day? For me it is much like any other day, except that there are some places closed, some people I might need to talk to who tell me with an automated message that they are “out of the office until Tuesday.”

Of course that doesn’t include everyone. I spent nearly 20 years in a rescue squad, and I know very well that days and nights and dates and dinners are all subject to change when the calls go out. Those folks who do that today, who respond in fire trucks and police cars, ambulances or aircraft, tankers or tanks don’t call a halt to their work to honor or be honored.

So when the calendar shows me it is Labor Day (the one with capital letters), I stop and give  thought to those who contribute to our world everyday, and especially to those who make our lives safer, more secure, and more satisfying, even if they can’t take the day off.

May everyone have a reason to celebrate this day.