Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Janus Effect

Somewhere along the way to delivering a finished story, a writer must go through what I call the Janus Effect. Janus, you will remember, was the Greek god generally depicted as a head looking both ways; the god of beginnings, and by extension, of endings, the god of doors.

When a writer begins a new story there are several things that should be accomplished. First, of course, is deciding what the story is about; the plot line. How will your story begin, what will happen to advance it, and how will it end? It is possible to begin backwards and determine the end of the story before deciding how to begin it, or even how to tell it. Regardless of where the writer begins, the story eventually must have a beginning, a middle and an end. Pretty basic, isn’t it?

Hard on the decision to write a story comes the fleshing out: deciding who is in the story, why they are in it, what they will contribute. The writer must also give time and thought to what the characters look like, how they speak, their movements both physically and within their place in the storyline.

Location is another fundamental of any story. The where can be as important as the why and the what and the who and when. But these are all matters every writer understands, I think. The five W’s are among the first rules of writing and are not negotiable. Without answering those questions at least indirectly, no story can really be a story. But that still leaves you with the Janus Effect: looking at your story from two directions, if you will.

The first face is writing the basic story in your head, following the plot line from the opening to the end of the line: getting it down, putting it on paper, making sense out of what you want to say. I think in another essay about writing non-theatrical films, I’ve described reaching the point at which the client asks how the script is coming, and the answer I would give: "Finished. I just have to put it on paper." That wasn’t a dismissive response, but rather, a true one. Writing, the physical part, is really the end of the job for a writer. The work begins in one’s mind, is developed and fleshed out long before it all comes together on paper. When I sit down to write a story or a script, I do it when I can see and hear it in my mind. To do otherwise is a struggle, trying to control and contain rapid fire thoughts that are created like sparks from a piece of metal dragging along under the car: bright and noisy but too scattered to be useful. When the words are ready, they pour out and fill the pages. And that’s the first aspect of Janus.

Looking the other way doesn’t mean ignoring what is in front of you. It is looking at the story from the reader’s or viewer’s place. The thrill of writing sometimes causes us to ignore what the reader knows or doesn’t know, perhaps doesn’t even understand. So when you read from the reader’s perspective or position or knowledge node, you should discover what you left out, what you need to expand or what means nothing in the overall story and can be deleted. You get to the end, but perhaps it isn’t the end you had in mind, or expected or even wanted. And now the work begins.

Writing, you see, is fun, can be challenging, is sometimes hard. It’s part of the package, though: telling a story isn’t just saying what’s in your head. It is forming the parts into a model others can see and understand. First, of course, you must have a story to tell. Second, you need an audience to hear the story. First you write to satisfy your own desires and demands. Then you write for your readers.

That’s the Janus Effect.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Thanks For All That

So we approach the end of the year. In another month, in less than 30 days in fact, we will cross the line from Fall to Winter. The days will stop growing shorter and barely perceptibly, begin to lengthen. Who can be unhappy about that? In a world of uncertainty, such fixed points are more than welcome.

As years go, 2015 hasn’t been so terrible. I can say that because we are still here, still working (though at a somewhat slower pace), still getting up every morning and going to our own bed every night. Well almost every night. We have traveled a bit more this year than in the previous five or so; more than 12,000 miles between May and November. We have seen much, shared a lot, said a few hellos and more than one goodbye. It hasn’t always been what we wished, but we are at least here to wish at all.

Since Thanksgiving is this week’s focal point, it seems a good time to look back and acknowledge the good things that have happened, recall the things we’d rather hadn’t come to pass, and try to see the future. Having family return to the neighborhood, to within an easy walk, is one of those things one thinks about as age asserts itself, but in today’s world that doesn’t often happen (unless we’re talking about twenty-somethings coming home to regroup). No, we’re talking about one moving back to a tenth of a mile along the road, that was part of our original purchase, and another who has married and is about to begin the exciting process of building a new home across the road that bisects our farmland. The prospect of so much family so close is a cheering and warming aspect for this coming winter. And then there are the success stories of other family members whose destiny lies beyond our sometimes inaccessible hideaway. The good things have been balanced by the loss of one member of us, but still it has been a year with new promises, and promises fulfilled. One cannot expect more from life.

We welcome each day, sometimes with trepidation, with anxiety about what new horror has been unleashed in the name of ending horror from our lives (whether we like it or not). But we welcome each day because the alternative hasn’t breached our shores yet. There are too many signs, too many symptoms to ignore the fact that our way of life is threatened. Perhaps it is envy, as we’d like to believe, but more than likely it is a misguided philosophy that preaches one idea, one ideology for all, with some extras like jealousy and envy added. What ever it is, of course, we as a nation, and we as individuals, will deal with it, overcome it, and hopefully grow stronger. But there is a danger.

In seeking to protect ourselves, we run the risk of assigning to every threat the same weight, the same intensity that the most egregious act or proposed act of hatred and violence can create. We can fail to see (or maybe we don’t want to see) that managing such human enterprises as hatred and jealousy cannot be done with irrational, ill-considered responses. Fences will not stop hate. Killing will not stop hate. Jails will not stop hate. Ignorance will not stop hate. Some as yet undetermined mix of strength, knowledge, creativity and desire to heal, will.

So Thursday, Thanksgiving Day, we will come together in groups small and large. We will recognize the strength our way of life gives us, protects us and makes us strong.

And for all of that, let us give thanks.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Can you Just Say "No?"

There comes a time, I guess, when civic duty and personal time cross, and the result is a strong desire to say "no." I’ve been saying "yes" for so long now that it has become a habit. One of the challenges of growing older is learning to say "no."

We have made our annual trip to the beach, and I’d rather be there still, but other things demand my time. Voting, for instance. A few days after our return from the coast we voted for local office holders: County clerk, treasurer, sheriff and others. In our county those are the races that draw the greatest number of voters. It has to do with size, as much as anything. There are fewer than 2,500 full-time residents, and about half were born here, and about half are from somewhere else. Most have roots in the county, some dating back two hundred years. That accounts, perhaps, for the high turn-out for local elections. Almost everyone is related to someone who is running for office.

On voting day I was up by four O’clock. The precinct where we vote is less than a mile from our home, in the volunteer fire department building, and for some years I have volunteered as one of the official officers of election. And since I was an active member of the volunteer fire department for some years, I still have access to the building, and I usually arrive early enough to open the doors and start setting up for the Six O’clock opening.

Getting up early isn’t the hard part. Even staying at the table as long as the polls are open (until Seven O’clock in the evening) isn’t all that taxing. Of the slightly more than 100 registered voters in our precinct, somewhere between 60 and 70 per cent usually show up, especially for local elections like this one. That’s a pretty high turnout, we are told, but not more than three of us can handle. Still, by the time we close, open the ballot boxes, tally the votes (this year performed by a wonderful optical scanner) and fill out all of the official paperwork it means getting home around 9:30 or later (sometimes much later, if we have to count the votes by hand). It’s a long day, yes, but because it is important to us, because it is where we feel the responsibilities of governing ourselves, it isn’t an unpleasant job. Besides, we get to see our neighbors, share news and stories, and generally enjoy the process. It is, after all, what we as a nation wanted way back in 1776: the right to determine who will lead us, who will do the hard job of making freedom work.

Now a week has gone by, and we are nearly at another milestone day: Veterans Day. Recall that on the 11th day of the 11th month at 11:00 AM in the year 1918, World War I ended with the signing of the treaty of Versailles. "Armistice Day," it was called then. It was "the war to end all wars," and it didn’t. What we have today is ours because we as a people don’t let go of our dream.

Keeping that dream alive and well demands that we do what is asked of us in support of our way of life. We can’t leave it to someone else. If we do, chances are that eventually that "someone else" will try to take it away from us. We have no choice but to say "yes," when we’re asked to volunteer our time in support of our way of life. I can’t deny, however, that I’m ready to share that responsibility. So when you get the call, asking for your time, just remember who you are, where you live, and why you wouldn’t live anywhere else.

There are so many places where you would not only never be asked, but you would be harshly treated if you tried to participate, so if you get a call asking you to volunteer, forget the word "no." Just say "I will." And be happy that you can say that.

Election Day to Veterans Day is not a very long time, but for too many people today, it’s a week they may never know.

And don’t you forget it.