"Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart." ~ William Wordsworth

The Writing Life Too

And if you're reading this, it means you're not writing.

Monday, May 28, 2007

The sky is a mysterious mosaic of clouds although it will be clearing up later with highs in the 70s. Today I wrote a poem for Memorial Day and later I’m going to visit an old cemetery that is nearby to honor the veterans buried there.

I haven’t attended a Memorial Day parade since I was a kid. I grew up in a small town in northern Wisconsin, and we attended all the parades throughout the year, sitting curbside amid a cheering crowd. Like the annual county fair and the fourth of July fireworks, these celebrations were bright sparks in the calendar. I can remember that in many parades candy was thrown to the kids and we’d scramble after it like monkeys. 

And I remember parades as raucous celebrations, except for the Memorial Day parade when the crowd responded to the proceedings with occasional bursts of solemn applause, then dispersed to the cemetery to lay flowers and flags on headstones. In all our small town parades, there were usually fire trucks, tractors and shiny equipment from the John Deere dealership, floats made by local merchants, the high school band, and a ragtag group of Veterans straggling down the street, some so old or frail they were pushed in wheelchairs.
I’ve been watching the News Hour on PBS for years now, but since the Iraq occupation, whenever I’m home at night I try to turn it on. You see, at the end of each show a segment is broadcast in remembrance of soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq. There is a graphic of a yellow-hued sunset, then each soldier’s photo is shown in silence. When this segment comes on, I stop all my thoughts and focus sharply on the photos. Sometimes the newly dead are so young that all you can notice is their youth and wasted promised, especially when they’re shown wearing a prom tuxedo or their first official military photo in an ill-fitting cap. Sometimes the men (and occasionally women) are in their thirties or forties or even fifties, so you’re certain that their deaths have devastated families, left behind children without a parent. As the photos appear on screen, one after another, I will myself into a stillness and let my feelings of loss and sadness wash over me.

Friday, May 25, 2007

The sky is pearly and scattered with clouds, mysterious looking in the after-dawn glow.

As I mentioned in yesterday’s blog, last night we launched Voices From the Street. First there was a party at the newly remodeled Armory—a gorgeous building, then we headed to Powells. I shared the stage with Genny Nelson who founded Sisters of Road cafĂ© here in Portland and also Lisa Gray-Garcia. She has written a book Criminal of Poverty, Growing up Homeless in America. After hearing her read a portion of the book, I bought a copy. She’s freakin amazing and the book is about how her mother became mentally ill when Lisa was 11, how they then became homeless and Lisa became their sole support. Lisa is also affiliated with POOR magazine and info on this organization is at www.poormagazine.org.

I give lots of talks to people, sometimes to hundreds of people in a room and if I’ve had a good night sleep, I’m usually not too nervous and can often be glib and relaxed. Last night when I got up to talk I thanked Powells and audience for coming, then I thanked the narrators –the people who were without homes who came into Sisters of the Road to be interviewed for the book. And then I thanked them for their beautiful lives. At that point, I about lost it. And the years of working on this project with its many difficulties and all the emotions I’d been dealing with lately, and all the terrible sadness I’d felt while reading about all these people’s lives, surfaced. And I could barely read—hell, I could barely stand. But I did and here is what I said:

Humans are born with an instinct for language and from this instinct, coupled with a need to connect and a need to understand the world around us, came storytelling. Over the millenniums, storytelling traditions have enraptured humankind and continue whenever two or more people gather at a kitchen table, a park bench, a party, or on adjoining bar stools. We are fortunate to be a species with such a deep longing to pass along stories.

Stories were tools that explained how to hunt, plant, cook, shape tools, and raise children. Stories explained the patterns found in things. Stories explained human nature and taught the listeners about bravery, greed, generosity, and sacrifice. Stories named the things of the world such as trees, flowers, and animals, and they passed down ancestral names, and culture and beliefs. Stories explained evil and the mysteries of the spirit world. Stories explained how there was order in the world, and brought comfort to listeners during times of hardship, hunger and danger. Stories sought answers for why people are sometimes cruel, why innocents suffer.

Early stories were also concocted to explain birth, death, love, and loss. They were told by shamans and elders but also by ordinary people, in fact by everyone. To understand how the stars decorated the night skies like diamonds splashed on black velvet and how the rivers formed; or stories that tried to decipher why the earth rattled with quakes and thunder and lightning ripped open the sky.

So humans have also always made sense of the world by telling stories. Stories help us sort and process the events and traumas of living, and help us understand important truths.

Everyone is a storyteller, everyone reflects on his or her past and filters those experiences into stories.

Stories bring meaning to suffering and tragedy.

Storytelling touches many lives and creates legacies.

Storytelling is transforming and empowering.

Stories give meaning to human experiences, especially pain.

And when stories are told and listened to, dignity is awarded to the speaker.

About four years ago I was approached by Genny Nelson one of the founders of Sister of the Road to write this book. I teach a series of workshops and classes and Genny was a student writing a memoir about her years working in Old Towne among an often overlooked group of people. She explained how the staff of Sisters was in the process of interviewing hundreds of homeless people, then transcribing these interviews. As she talked about the project, I imagined that these hundreds of stories were like pearls buried under miles of ocean, more precious because they were located at a vast depth.

At first I took home about a foot-tall stack of transcripts of interviews, but as time went on I would read the thousands of pages of transcripts by downloading them from a database. And as I read, something happened to me. I felt like I was stepping into an alternate universe, as if I’d fallen into a wormhole of sorts where a whole hidden world was unfolding with all its dramas and joys and pains and dangers. And as I read I recognized that themes were emerging and from these themes I created a table of contents. While I read, I also researched information about people who are homeless and discovered that there are a lot of theories and statistics about homelessness, but because many people who are without housing move around a lot or are sometimes on the streets and sometimes housed, that statistics are often not reliable. I also noticed that there weren’t a lot of human faces and voices attached to the research.

As I began working on the book I remembered something a friend told me years ago when I lived in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Her name is Karen Royster and she was then the Director of the Hunger Task Force and observed that America has a punitive attitude toward the poor. With her comment in mind, I wondered about what happened to us as a country since the days of the 1930s when during the Great Depression millions of people were homeless and out of work. I wondered why our compassion and understanding has faded, since back then, most Americans recognized that circumstances led to homelessness, that people down on their luck deserved empathy, not condemnation. I wanted to find all the pieces that led to homelessness and point out that poverty is rampant in this country, that the policies begun in the Reagan administration have contributed to homelessness, that the government essentially got out of the business of building low-income housing in the 1960s, there simply are not enough job opportunities or sustaining wages for millions of Americans, and not enough support and help for our veterans who were traumatized or injured by their service to our country.

While working on this book I came across astonishing statistics, such as that about 25% of people living on the streets are veterans. (35% of the people interviewed for Voices From the Streets were vets) The Veterans Administration estimates that approximately 300,000 veterans are homeless each night in America and more than a half-million will be homeless in a given year. From all I’ve researched, this figure strikes me as low, although I will add that most of the vets on the street are from the Vietnam War era. The number of homeless Vietnam-era veterans is now greater than the number (more than 58,000) who died during that war.

As I worked on the book I struggled with a lot of emotions and terrible feelings of sadness and cynicism. I watched as this government launched us into an illegal occupation of Iraq squandering billions of dollars and plunging the country dangerously into debt. At this time the billions spent on the Iraq occupation could have built 4.2 million housing units—enough housing for the millions living without shelter in this country as well as those displaced or made homeless by Hurricane Katrina.

And please, let’s not forget Hurricane Katrina. Because if don’t believe in the reality of poverty in America look again at the photos and images of the people clinging to rooftops and drowning in the streets of one of our major cities. Remember how they were essentially abandoned for days amid the heat and the water and the dead bodies. Remember that we’ll never really know how many died amid the floods and chaos, just as we’ll probably never know how many people live among us in our alleys, and under bridges, and camped in doorways and parks and empty buildings.

As I read the transcripts of these amazing interviews, and by the way, hats off again to the employees and volunteers who were the interviewers for their fine work and huge hearts-- I was amazed at the depth of their conversations, by the narrator’s searing honesty and how intimate and sad and funny and poignant and sweeping were their life stories. It felt like being present at a birth with all its sounds and smells and tears and the great amazement of a new life coming forth.

When I was poring over the transcripts selecting narrators’ stories for this book, I wanted to represent a wide range of experiences and backgrounds and types. I was looking for stories that had a narrative arc—a beginning, middle and end. I wanted to show you cause and effect and especially the devastating effects of homelessness on a person. I wanted to show you the poetry of their lives. But mostly I wanted you to recognize them as we would recognize our neighbors, our friends, our cousins, our sisters, our brothers, our mothers and fathers and children.

I was searching for eloquence and honesty and I found them. I was looking for open-hearted people and for hopeful people and people without hope and for idea people and people too burned out to come up with solutions. And I found them all and you can meet them in Voices From the Street.

Some of these stories have never left me and I could sit down with you right now and describe certain of our neighbor’s lives and how they came to be without shelter. By analyzing the thousands of pages of transcripts from our narrators’ interviews, I learned that a large portion had had unstable childhoods—that they lived in foster homes, orphanages, moved constantly because a parent was in the military, or had factors that caused childhood instability such as violence, abuse, addiction, mental illness, divorce, death of a parent. I learned too that most homeless people simply have more bad luck than most us along with more health problems.

I worked on this project for more than three years through all Portland’s seasons, as rains drenched my windows and sun bleated through, through ice storms and heat waves. Again, although numbers are hard to come by, in the three–plus years while I worked on this project it’s likely that at least 500 people who live without homes died on the streets of Portland of exposure, pneumonia, and other causes directly related to homelessness.

Because make no mistake, although many homeless people can find a meal in our town and even medical care, and while many people who are homeless have friends and allies and institutions that help them, they still are in danger, still discriminated against because of laws written directly to limit their freedom and by police who sometimes brutalize them, and they are still isolated and they are still outcasts. The streets, for all the good works of lots of well-meaning people and institutions, are still brutal and perilous and violent and are not the place for the most fragile among us to be struggling to stay alive.

In the telling of our tales, we find a way of living with our pain, a way of transcending the sorrows and tragedies and losses that come with being human. When we each find our healing stories and tell them to at least one other person, this simple act moves us deeper into the soul of the world.

Here is my hope: over the many months that I read these stories and worked on this project, these stories became part of me. I hope that happens to you too. And in the reading of this book if you can take away just a glimpse of the lives depicted here, if you can feel the need to change what needs to be changed, to speak what needs to be spoken, then the great human span of storytelling has once again done it’s fine and intricate work. And I hope you too can see past the stories and into the hearts of these men and women giving voice to their reality, and that you most of all, see their worth in all their burnished and gemlike hues.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

The morning sky looks like lake water at dusk and the day promises to be bright and warm. Prognosticators are forecasting a hot summer—last year we had 21 days of temperatures over 90. I’m hoping this summer won’t be a repeat ………

I think we are all brought into the world with profound spiritual or karmic lessons to learn. Mine is about letting go and I suck at it. Like many people, I’ve collected an amazing bundle of heartaches over the years and have not always known how to handle these losses and setbacks and ripoffs, especially when they involved blatant unfairness or were associated with mentally ill people.

So here is what I’m trying to let go of. Today I’m going to help Sisters of the Road launch a book I wrote for them called Voices from the Street. In it I’ve captured the voices of hundreds of people who lived or still live on the streets of Portland, Oregon. It is based on more than 600 interviews and I worked on the project on and off for over three years. Here’s the catch, the book I wrote, as all books was imperfect, but it was beautiful. The version of the book that is being published has a terrific layout and most of the stories from the homeless narrators are intact, but the publisher cut out most of my chapter introductions, analysis of various issues, and a gorgeous author’s note.

I don’t own the copyright on this book and it was the oddest, saddest feeling to skim through the ARC (advanced reader copy) and notice how the voice, unity, flow and context were missing. How it’s now choppy and odd and incomplete. I had often heard about how some movies were badly damaged in the editing phases but had never had this experience before since the other three publishers I’ve worked with have enhanced my books by their editing. I keep wondering, who did I kill in a previous life and owed this bad karma to?

But….I’m trying to let go. I’m still happy this book is finally out in print. It’s an important chapter in this country’s history and the people who are depicted in its pages deserve the dignity of having their stories heard. And Sisters of the Road, a Portland organization that has been feeding and helping homeless people for over 28 years deserves recognition for their compassionate work. So I’m going to the book launch today and I’m going to try hard to act gracious and I’m giving a talk at Powells and I’m going to mention that the money this government has squandered on the Iraq occupation could have been used to create 4.2 million housing units. That’s more than enough to house all the homeless people in this country and the people displaced from Hurricane Katrina. Think about it.

I’m writing this blog to let you know that rain and sometimes a deluge falls in every writer’s life. This isn’t the only career blow I’ve been dealt this year—but I’m focusing on my next projects and the future. I keep telling myself “Next!”

When I attend other conferences authors talk about their career missteps and bad luck all the time. I’ve heard about book divisions being cancelled just as an upcoming title is about to go to press. About disreputable publishers, wacky agents, and grievous misunderstandings that cannot be remedied. At the recent Pennwriter’s Conference a keynote speaker, Victoria Thompson described in detail the ups and downs and mistakes she’d made in her writing career and how she’d kept reinventing herself. Several times. At one point she was offered a book deal to write a series and she said she uttered the stupidest words of her life: “I’d get bored writing about the same characters over and over.” Oh yeah, these days, she’s writing a series. Her upcoming is Murder in Chinatown.

So if you want to be a writer, be prepared for kicks and bruises and realize that with persistence, other opportunities will arise. Meanwhile, I’m hoping my karmic debts are finally paid in full. Happy writing.

Monday, May 21, 2007

I suppose the fact is that to be interested in writing novels, you have to have a passion for reading people and their behavior and their lives. You are sort of an everlasting observer, and it’s not really a conscious decision. From as far back as I can remember, I have spent my time watching and listening, and wondering about what I watched and listened to. Janet Frame

Back in Portland and the skies are again sullen and threatening rain. I teach writing workshops at conferences around the country and last night returned from the Pennwriter’s Conference which was held in a hotel in Pittsburgh. Besides going out for dinner on Saturday night, I spent four days either in a hotel, on a plane, or in an airport and in desperate need of exercise and fresh air. And my layover in the Atlanta airport yesterday was less than delightful since it’s boiling with people and noise and the chirping-beeping of dozens of carts hauling around people who cannot navigate the throngs of travelers. Not to mention that my seatmates on the plane (I was squeezed into the window seat) were loud, fat and rude. So I’m happy to be home and glad this place received a good drenching yesterday since my garden needed it.

When I travel to conferences I try to attend all the keynote speeches and I try to meet various editors, agents, and authors from around the country. No matter where you’re at with your writing career, there is always something to be learned from these folks. I sat next to Nancy Martin at dinner on Friday night and learned that she’s written at least fifty books, one of her Harlequinn books sold five and half million copies and is still in print, and that she, like many writers, has reinvented her writing career at least once. In her case, she bailed out of romance writing and now writes a suspense series called the Blackbird Sisters. She blogs at TheLipstickChronicles along with pals and fellow mystery authors. I picked up the first three books in her Blackbird Sisters series and the writing is sassy, fast-paced and fun and it’s clear she’s an author steeped in craft.

When I travel to conferences and when I teach around the Northwest I meet a lot of delightful people. But over the years I’ve also met a number of people who are cynical and bitter about the publishing world and their chances of getting published and also others that are just plain wacky. It’s easy to predict that that both these types will probably never get published. I’ve also heard many of these aforementioned writers opine about the miserable lives of published authors and speculate that authors are lucky, addicted, crazy, and depressed, or possibly suicidal.

Now, it’s true that the writing life requires a lot of patience, persistence and fortitude And it’s also true that the many of us are not exactly well compensated for the many hours spent in front of a computer or otherwise dealing with career details.

But the more published authors I meet, the more I’m convinced about what a great life this is. It’s not just that I can sit here in my pajamas with my radio humming in the background while the rest of the world is commuting to their cubicles. It’s because writers can teach readers what it means to be human and perhaps shed light on how the many heartbreaks, losses, and setbacks of life can be survived. Perhaps we can help people find meaning in their pain, help someone find solace or laughter when they most need it. Perhaps we can help readers choose joy rather than misery.

And you know what? If Hemingway had been a plumber or a dog catcher it's likely that he would still have offed himself. And ditto for Stephen King and his addictions. That’s simply how their brains are wired. If you believe that depression and writing is synonymous, or misery and writing are the same, you need to find another way to spend your time or find ways to unravel your troubled emotions and thoughts so that you can stay focused on what is important, telling the timeless tales of humanity.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The sky again is the palest blue, with a few clouds drawn in like feathers. I woke up at an ungodly hour and have been working on the chapter on writing for kids, then went back to bed. The past few days haven’t been particularly productive since I’ve been worn out by traveling over the weekend.

On Friday night after a day of driving (I had made a stop in eastern Washington) on my way north and had left Portland at 10:15 and arrived in Wenatchee at 6:45, too late to attend a function at a winery, not to mention too tired and cranky from driving through hundreds of switchbacks. I have almost no depth perception so maneuvering my way through these hundreds of switchbacks is not my idea of a good time. Also, I just don’t want to drive that far to reach any destination, simply because I don’t have the time. Spending a day flying to a conference is wearing enough—I’ll be doing that tomorrow as I head for the Pennwriter’s Conference in Pittsburgh, but driving there, ugh.

So anyway, as I was staying at a nice hotel in downtown Wenatchee, i ate a quick dinner and slammed down a few glasses of wine then went out for a long walk just before dusk. Wenatchee is in the central desert of Washington and is set in the upper Columbia River valley—I followed the meandering Columbia a lot over weekend and now have a much better idea of how it cuts a path through this region. Here in the Portland area it’s as wide as lake and is heading directly west where it dumps into the Pacific at a roiling conjunction of danger, wind, and deep water.

As I was out walking through the town—a charming place by the way, full of wonderful old frontier buildings that house various antique stories, coffee houses and gift shops (a real downtown that you don’t see that often any more)—I was remembering my trip to Washington D.C. about a year ago when I was wandering around through the various tourist sites. I was in town to teach workshops at the Writer’s Digest Conference and sign books at the B.E.A. And I was reminded of Washington because both towns have thick, sultry air even in May. I mentioned how warm it was in Wenatchee to one of the people on the conference committee and she said, “well, it’s summer, after all.” And I explained that summer didn’t start for six more weeks. But there I go, making friends everywhere.

On the way back to my brother’s farm on Saturday night, I drove down Highway 97, then headed east. Got lost once for about 15 miles and ended up traveling along the Hanford site. I believe it’s called the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. As I doubled back toward the proper road, I kept thinking of all I’d been through this year—it’s been mostly a year of writing and work—and I passed miles of tumbleweeds and nothingness. I’m sure there are places in Nevada much more barren, but I felt like I was the only soul left on the planet and it was empty and strange, a perfect place for murder, or for a space craft to land, or a government to hide things that shouldn’t be hidden.

Yesterday I finished reading a Young Adult fantasy book called Pendaragon, The Merchant of Death. The series, written by D.J. Machale began in 2001 and has sold over a million copies and follows the main character Bobby Pendragon on adventures in parallel universes. The book is clever, well paced, and with just the right blend of the real world with alternate world (Denduron) so that the reader feels like a visitor along with Bobby. The book and the series raises this question: Imagine what it would be like to discover you aren't the person you thought you were. Machale, who says that his favorite all-time book is Call of the Wild has written eight of the ten-book series.

When I teach various fiction workshops I often begin the day by giving the writers about 25 pointers about what makes for compelling fiction. And one of the first things you need to do as a fiction writer is base a story around a single, dramatic question. It seems to me that MacHale has hit upon a great one.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Again the sky is a pale and promising blue. I’m heading out of town in a few hours to teach at a conference, and low on sleep, I’m feeling like I’d rather cut off a few toes rather than spend hours highway driving. So while I love teaching at conferences, I need to travel there in a plane…..

So tomorrow I’m teaching a workshop on memoir writing in modern times and here are some of the things I’m going to say about this exciting but difficult to write genre.

People live by stories. Since humankind developed language stories have soothed us, enraged us, frightened us, explained the bizarre happenings of the planet and the mysteries of the human heart. When stories are well crafted they engage our intellect and emotions, stir our senses and memories. Forever woven in the realm of stories have been life stories—tales of what is true, what has hurt, what has passed.

And as a form of life stories, memoir begins with "one heart speaking to another heart" and the important notion that we all have a story to tell. It will always feature a writer trying to make sense of events in the past, be they bruising or hilarious. Memoir stems from our need to witness and describe what we have survived. Memoir is "intimate journalism," and can be extraordinary or fantastical stories exploring the human condition and heart through the prism of ordinary people's lives.

30-40 years ago when a writer had a story to tell, he’d write a novel, today often he or she writes a memoir. A shift of interest has occurred . Mass culture, a burgeoning media, tabloids, 24-news cycles, and even cell phones have all left readers hungering for true stories of ordinary and extraordinary people.

We live in a world so complicated and uneasy that people have a special need to testify. In a rapidly-changing culture, people have a need to reveal their experiences, but also to compare the past and present. And more and more, we are sorting through the data of life by writing it down. According to psychologist Kate Hays the act of writing about our past offers valuable "self-reflection, exploration, continuity and discovery." Most importantly, memoirs have inherent drama because they are about true events.

But while writing is therapeutic and affirming, writing a publishable memoir requires topnotch writing skills and narrative techniques along with restraint, reflection, and analysis. Today, more than ever before in modern times, we live in an era of confession and self disclosure. People of all types are eager to spill the most intimate details of their lives on Dr. Phil or Oprah, in poetry, in plays and essays, and, most of all, in books. However, at the same time we’re confessing there is a break down of passing along family stories and an oral tradition which has been the hallmark of humankind for thousands of years.

In this gap between storytelling and confession, memoirs have risen to become an important publishing genre. Several key memoirs have especially kindled interest in memoirs of ordinary people—The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr, This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff and Frank McCourt's 1996 best seller Angela's Ashes.

Here are some of the chief characteristics of memoirs:
Memoirs always have a shape or structure, not merely a list of facts.
It unified through a coherent structure and themes.
The story is as complicated and layered as a novel.
It creates a strong sense of place and brings history alive.
The depth lifts the story of lives beyond mere reporting.
The events and experiences recounted have emotional weight.
Readers can divine meaning and direction about their own lives by reading a memoir.
Fundamental questions are asked and answered about what it means to be human, to be alive.
The subject does not need to be glamorous to be interesting.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

The best way to send information is to wrap it up in a person. ~Robert Oppenheimer

The morning sky is the palest blue promising warm weather. Yesterday it was 80 and the heat seemed shocking. On Saturday night I gave a talk at a Cover to Cover, a bookstore in Vancouver, Washington about the essentials in fiction. During the talk I mentioned that sometimes a main character is static, but that generally they’re static characters if they appear in a series or have extremely heroic traits. I used James Bond and Sherlock Holmes as examples. In the question and answer section a writer mentioned that he was writing a novel with a static protagonist.

Generally, creating a static protagonist (the person most hurt and changed by the story events) this is a bad idea, if not impossible. The reason is simple: stories are about people responding to change and transforming because of story events and pressures. If tomorrow someone you loved dearly died in a car accident, it is likely that you’ll forever be changed by this death. You’ll feel more vulnerable, mortal, you’ll have doubts and regrets. Perhaps because this person always urged you to write, you might buckle down to write a novel. Or, maybe you’d resolve to spend time with the person’s children or to take up a volunteer gig in honor of his or her memory. Do you see my point? Life, and especially life depicted in stories, is bruising, frightening, difficult. As in life, fiction characters change by brushing up against trouble.

A character's difficult path of growth through an emotional need, overcoming a fear, limitation, block, trauma or wound is called the character arc. The arc is the internal change that the protagonist goes through from the beginning of the story to the end. It can be positive, (think of Joan Wilder in Romancing the Stone) which results in a happy ending or negative one which creates a tragedy. Most protagonists will display a character arc as Jem does in To Kill a Mockingbird. The static character arc, in which a character stays the same throughout, is exemplified, by Jem’s father, Aticus Finch.

In most fiction, with exceptions such as thrillers and series fiction, the protagonist will be changed forever by the events of the story. There is always something lacking in a protagonist, some need, some unfinished business, emotional or childhood wound, or serious flaw that keeps him or her from success and happiness. Often character arc refers to the movement a character makes from unhealthy behavior or thinking, to realizing he’s making a mistake, to changing views and behavior. Character arc takes us into the character’s heart and true nature. Growth through an emotional need, fear, limitation, block, or wound does not come easily for a character. Usually, the character is forced to grow against his or her will. In fiction, the character arc is an important factor for keeping the tension high and the conflict boiling.

Sometimes, the character arc may dip downward if the protagonist is tempted by some outside force or chickens out, but unless the story is a tragedy, he always returns to his heroic self at the end. The character arc begins on page one or whenever we first meet the protagonist in the inciting incident, which is the first change or threat he must face.

Let’s say the protagonist of your story starts out as a person who has loved and lost (his emotional wound) and now buries himself in his work, determined never to trust love again. Perhaps he had a father whose love he could never quite achieve, leaving him feeling he needs to strive harder, aim higher in order to be worthy (emotional need). Because he must change and grow during the course of the story, his inner goal, the one he does not acknowledge on a conscious level, can be to learn to trust. To learn this lesson, he’ll meet someone worthy of his trust, although he’ll fight his attraction until he gives in so the story’s ending proves the completion of the arc.

Friday, May 04, 2007

The morning sky has a silvery cast to it and lately if weather would be described as mental illness, the past few days were schizophrenic. There were bursts of sun, thunder, lightening, hail, and at least two rainbows, pounding rain, and showers.

On Wednesday I managed to squeeze in two walks between thunder storms and while I was walking I was thinking about a conversation I’d had with a friend down in L.A. and I was thinking about a client’s manuscript I was working on and what needs to be fixed in the story, and about how I’d like to write a book about the mistakes I mostly commonly see in manuscripts. And I was wondering how I could somehow make this book sassy and a bit funny, but yet not insulting to writers. So pondering this I kept walking along, skirting puddles and noticing the deepening shades of green, and how the azaleas and rhododendrons are now joining the spring chorus, when my memory somehow tripped into an unexpected scenario. And for some reason-- perhaps it was the shades of fuchsia I was spotting, in my neighbor’s yards--I started thinking about the lipstick marks left on tissues and toilet paper in my childhood.

But let me explain. When I was a kid I had seven aunts. One was my age but the others were older and they were womanly, glam, and exotic. The had big hair, spiky heels, stylish outfits, and all the accoutrements of adolescence and womanhood-- perfume, make up, hair spray, lacy lingerie, and men. And as they billowed through space they always left a trail of flowery scents {I can still recall the exact smell of AquaNet hair spray} and mysterious lipstick prints on folds of tissues. These days the lipstick brands sold don’t require much blotting, but back then those lip prints were as crimson as spring tulips and perfumed and utterly sexy.

I have rarely seen an image as powerful as those lipstick prints.

So, you’re probably wondering what does lipstick blottings have to do with writing.

Those lip marks were so chock full of promise and mystery and magic. They signified a world I hadn’t entered yet and rites of womanhood. They spoke of timeless notions of beauty. Cherry bright lips could turn a woman into Marilyn Monroe, a femme fatale, a heart breaker.

I believe that writers need to go through life collecting lipstick prints and use them in their writing. Small moments, details, and images that whisper volumes or roar to the heavens about a person or situation. Emblems of humanity, delivered with color and restraint.