The Sacred Work of Storytelling

Nearly two weeks ago, the sun disappeared (at least if you were in the direct path of the eclipse). For a few minutes, the air grew cooler and the birds grew quiet. I couldn’t help but think about how ancient people must have viewed an eclipse. They may have wondered if the sun would come back. Their worry may have made them anxious enough that they came up with elaborate rituals to appease the Sun and make sure he (or she) didn’t abandon them altogether.

But who came up with the rituals, the story, the cosmography, that explained why the sun disappeared and what must be done to ensure it always returned? Priests, you say? Priests may have performed the rituals, but the person who created the myth the rituals were built around was undoubtedly the tribe’s bard or storyteller. She or he might not have had the position officially, but they were the members of the tribe with the imagination and the gift with words to explain the phenomenon.

The word religion comes from a Latin word that means"to tie or bind". And that’s what religions do—they tie the events of the world together and make sense of them. They also bind people together in a shared experience, even if that experience is a re-enactment or ritual connected with the story created by the storyteller. Storytellers make sense of the world. And that’s why I believe we will always have need of them, not matter how sophisticated the world is.

Just look at the rabid following of The Game of Thrones series. It keeps gaining momentum and attracting more viewers (and readers). We dissect and analyze the episodes and return to them over and over, trying to figure out this world George R.R. Martin has created. We want to know the "why" for all the details in this world and we want to make sense of the events that take place. Martin, the storyteller, has created a grand myth, an imaginary world that people discuss as if it were totally real.

That’s what writers do, and that’s why storytelling is so important. The worlds we create as writers connect people. In making sense of imaginary worlds, we help people make sense of the real world. (Which at times is proving to be just as horrific and terrifying as anything Martin has created.)

Despite the multitude of fans, there are plenty of people who consider TGOT escapist fiction and therefore, silly and unimportant. But I would argue the series isn’t trivial or a waste of time because it binds us together and gives us a story that we share. As we reflect on the meanings of the myth, we reflect on our own values and what is important to us. We are forced to confront questions of good and evil and what is involved in making those distinctions.

A recent study showed that reading fiction tends to make people more empathetic in their choices. Experiencing things from the viewpoint of a fictional character teaches us to get outside our own world viewpoint and look at things in a new and more empathetic way. Maybe storytelling can’t change our turbulent, chaotic and violent world, but it can help us make sense of it and connect us in meaningful ways.

Storytelling is ancient and at the heart of the very essence of what it means to be human. So next time you get totally discouraged and want to give up writing, remember that the work we’re doing as writers is sacred and essential.

Perspective Lost and Found

Sometimes, if you take a break from your current WIP for an extended period of time, you lose focus on it. The next time you sit down it becomes hard to recapture the tone, the pace, the perspective on the work that you had when you started it. This can sometimes be especially true for those who write series, between books. This is what I'm struggling with now.

The first book in the series was so much fun to write, and I had all the time in the world to play with it, make it fun and exciting and frankly just wing it. That one was a phenomenal success. Now, faced with the daunting task of writing the second, having taken a few months off to write two other books (one a part of another series, the other a stand alone) I find myself struggling to make this one meet and, to some degree, exceed the first.

The problem is tone and perspective. There is a particular mix of chaos and complexity to the first thriller that made it so popular, the sense of not knowing what was going to happen next. But also a sort of Romancing The Stone pseudorealism to the action, things a little too fantastical or whimsical to ever happen in real life, but still fun to read. That's what I want to recapture in the sequel, while upping the stakes.

Here is how I got past the block.

First, I reread the first book, taking notes on things that I might revisit in the second book. Not just big things but little things that might make the reader chuckle to see reprised. Then I outlined the second book. While I've sometimes done this in the past, I usually just wing it. In this case it was absolutely essential that I outline the book, to help me with pacing. Lastly I watched several of my favorite pseudorealist action movies; the aforementioned Romancing The Stone, The Man With One Red Shoe, Knight and Day, the Indiana Jones flicks, etc.

When it's time to write, I set my Pandora to music conducive to the mood I want to cultivate, certainly not brooding or mellow, but not hard and driving rock either. Something strong, but also quick and exciting. For me, often, soundtracks to other movies help.

Lastly, I sit and before I touch the keyboard, I take a brief moment of meditation, wiping my mind of any ancillary concerns or stresses, concentrate on the feelings I want to put on paper. Then I write. I don't stop, I don't take breaks, I don't go back and edit myself. I write. I push away any other thoughts that may stray in, and I keep writing, building a momentum that will hopefully stay with me when I do walk away from it for a meal or whatever.

I know I'm doing it right if I find it hard to walk away, if even when eating or running errands or watching TV, I keep thinking about my book and feeling excited about what I'm writing, eager to get back to it.

So that's what works for me. Let me know if this helps you, too.

The Trouble With Muses

A fellow author shared an in-depth look at her writing process on her blog. It was so methodical and logical. I was overwhelmed with envy. All of you writers who can plot and outline and plan—you don’t know how lucky you are. I’ve tried to do those things, but I’m always thwarted by my muse.

My muse doesn’t care for plotting and all that boring stuff. She prefers to follow her instincts. Because of the hundreds of books I/she has read over the years, my muse figures she knows how stories work and can create them without all that plotting crap.

Most of the time, I can’t really argue with her. I’ve published sixteen books and finished drafts of several more. So obviously, her way works…sort of. But there are times I get frustrated with her and can’t help wondering: If my writing process was more organized and structured, would I not be only more productive, but also more successful?

Because not only am I at the mercy of my muse in terms of the creative process, but also when it comes to what book I write at any given time. If not for her, I’m certain it would be easier for me to write the books that would advance my career. Instead of bouncing around from sub-genre to sub-genre, I could keep going in the same one, or write the books in a series one after another instead of having gaps of years between them.

Even though she’s made me what I am as a writer, my muse can be aggravatingly arrogant. Not to mention capricious, moody and stubborn. And she’s getting worse as she gets older. It used to be a lot easier to control her. In the past I sometimes insisted she get to work on a certain story. Forced her to help me write books that weren’t really what she was interested in at the time. Now, granted, those were not my most successful or best-reviewed books. But at least I had the illusion of being disciplined and responsible in terms of my career. Now if I tried to make her work on a book she had no interest in she would just laugh at me, or go off and sulk.

And the truth is, without her, I can’t create. I can write blog posts and letters and even blurbs. But I can’t write fiction. No short stories or novels. For that I need her. And she knows that. Knows I’m at her mercy and without her, I’m someone who’s literate and can put words together but who lacks the creative spark to tell stories and make them come to life.

My muse doesn’t ever seem to get older or mature. She remains a stubborn, bratty child. Because that’s what she is, my childish self. Before I grew up and learned to pay attention in school and do what I was told. She is the daydreaming, fanciful child inside me. The one who spent hours in imaginary play, alone, outside in the Midwestern countryside, spinning stories in my head and sometimes telling them to myself out loud, with no one to listen but the birds and butterflies and caterpillars and the flowers and the trees.

I grow older, and hopefully, wiser. But my muse doesn’t. She remains frozen in time. With all the gifts of her childish outlook and all the flaws. I can’t tame her or make her mind me. I’ve learned not to try. And so I coax and nudge. I coddle and indulge her. Anything to keep her by my side. Without her, there’s no magic. No creativity. I’m just a boring, ordinary…adult.

The Story In My Head

There’s a recent TV commercial that shows people listening to audiobooks, and as they listen, the story comes to life around them. A woman on the beach listens to a science fiction story and her surroundings alter into an inter-planetary landscape. A young man caught up in a historical novel looks up to see his breakfast table peopled with characters in eighteenth-century garb. It’s a great commercial, and reminds me vividly of how the stories I’m writing take over my life. Or at least, they used to.

For years, I carried the world of whatever book I was working on around in my head. While I did laundry or the dishes, I would find myself transported to a longhouse in ninth century Norway or a castle in eleventh century Wales. As I checked out books for patrons in my job at the library, the young mother with toddlers would transform into my heroine in a medieval gown. Fetching music CD’s for a young man in a t-shirt and cargo shorts, I envisioned my hero in chain mail and tattered surcote.

I would think about my story before going to sleep at night, when I woke up in the morning and those times during the day when routine tasks allowed my mind to wander. My body might be functioning in the everyday world, but my mind was elsewhere, consumed by the struggles and passions of my characters.

Much of my writing time was in the morning before work. Often in the middle of a scene, I would realize I had to quit or I would be late. I would get up from my computer in a trance-like state, grab my coat, drive to work, greet my coworkers and take my place at the circulation desk. Then, and only then, would I leave my story completely behind and re-enter the reality of my life.

For so long, having a story alive in my head was a constant. Then, a few years ago, it left me. I no longer walked around seeing historical landscapes or struggled with my characters’ dilemmas during the work day. Unless I was at the computer and actively writing fiction, I seldom thought about my books. Writing and my stories became a separate part of my life.

The change may have come about because I was so discouraged about my career. So many editors and agents had failed to engage with my characters and come to love them, it started to feel like they were real only to me. I decided I was writing mainly for myself. As a result, my stories became less compelling and consuming. My characters lost their flesh and blood power and grew transparent and frail and fictional.

Another reason for the change might be that my head became filled with other creative urges. My mind’s-eye saw plans for my garden, or remodeling ideas for my house. I imagined scenery from the trips I was planning, rather than the landscapes of the stories I was writing. Now that I had the time and money to indulge my longing for beauty and adventure in the real world, I started to rely it, rather on the world in my head, which had been my companion since childhood.

Taking a year off from writing fiction to indie-publish several books didn’t help either. I spend my creative energy thinking up cover images and blurbs, rather than planning novels. When I finally got back to writing fiction, it was much more difficult. The books didn’t follow me around, demanding my attention. I could shut them away, limiting the power of my stories to affect me to the small amount of time I was actually writing. Because I wasn’t spending as much time with them, solving my characters’ problems took a lot longer. I should have been able to write faster, since I was more experienced and had more free time to write, but it was taking longer and longer for me to finish a book.

But something happened over this past year. I once again started to feel that real life wasn’t enough. My garden lies dormant half the year. The time between trips stretches into months. There are no compelling home improvement projects to obsess over. What’s a girl to do? Well, write, of course. And not just write, but let the story take over my life.

It’s there waiting for me when I wake up. Niggling in my consciousness during the day. Blooming into life as I try to fall asleep. The story in my head is back. I’m so glad.

Let us write, let us write, let us write!

Oh, the weather outside is frightful
But the tale inside’s delightful!
And since we’re so erudite
Let us write, let us write, let us write!

blue-snowflake‘Tis the season for holidays and gifts and snowfalls. We just emerged from a powerful storm, and are facing more as we approach the new year. The ski areas are euphoric, but for those who don’t ski, the colder temperatures and ice aren’t welcome.

For the first time in my life, I’m traveling during the holidays. My husband, John, whisked me away to Puerto Vallarta. He needed a vacation, he said, and I’m reaping the benefits, writing this under palm trees and in a bone-friendly seventy-five degrees.

In this idyllic tropical paradise, I’m also writing chapter nineteen of my work in progress, The Red Bridge, book four in my fifteenth century Gypsy historical romance series. In this chapter, it’s mid-May, with weather that varies from soft, spring-like afternoons to chilly mornings and evenings.

How does one write about goose bumps and the chill of pre-dawn while basking in summer temperatures? Don’t ask a writer that question. It’s all in the amazing gift of imagination we possess in such great quantities.

In this tropical heat, I recall a faithful dog and the “fine power of frost,” of ice and air so cold that spittle crackles and freezes before it hits the ground. Yes, I’m thinking of one of the most memorable short stories I have ever read, To Build a Fire, by Jack London (1876-1916). It was a sixth grade required reading assignment that I found mesmerizing. I recall learning much later that London wrote that story from a beach chair on one of the Hawaiian islands, and experienced disbelief that anyone could write such convincing prose about the perils of death by freezing – while lounging, carefree, under a tropical sun. Such was London’s skill, and such is the magic of fiction. We can change our environment any time, just by stepping into the pages of fiction. No matter how oppressive the cold, our minds are free to roam warmer or cooler worlds. We need only use our imaginations and, thankfully, no matter the financial climate, it’s free.

For inspiration, you can read an adaptation of London’s amazing short story with just a click of the mouse, at http://learningenglish.voanews.com/content/short-stories-to-build-a-fire-by-jack-london-139130564/114744.html

Do you recall a time when fiction took you to a radically different world or environment? A time when fiction healed or rescued you from harsh reality?

Over the Hills and Far Away

On the drive to Deadwood
On the drive to Deadwood

A report from South Dakota: Cool Writers, A Controversy and a Rock Star

Deadwood, South Dakota is 385 miles north of Denver. You shoot straight through Cheyenne, parallel the eastern border of Wyoming and watch trains tugging their long snakes of coal. The road climbs east through the Black Hills. In late September, gold aspen trees dot the high country.

Deadwood is clogged with casinos. The conference hotel for the South Dakota Festival of Books is reached only by walking past the slot machines and blackjack tables and finding an elevator in the back corner. All of downtown, in fact, is loaded with hotels and gambling tables. There isn’t one grocery store in town, although there are plenty of places to eat. And drink. The entire town is listed on the National Historic Register. Other than the slots, it has an old-west vibe.

During a jam-packed weekend, however, the festival transforms the town. Some 70 writers offer presentations in such places as the town library, the elementary school gymnasium, Deadwood City Hall and upstairs in the creaky-floor grand ballroom of the Martin & Mason Hotel (built in 1893). The festival also coordinates a series of programs in nearby schools and universities, all part of a busy few days in celebration of books and writing and reading. The words “books” and “festival” belong together, don’t you think?

William Kent Krueger was the star this year (Sept. 24—27). He was the keynote for RMFW Gold in 2014 and, of course, just as affable and easy-going in Deadwood as he was when he came to Denver. His book Ordinary Grace was the pick for the “One Book South Dakota” program. Kent was everywhere and was easily spotted every morning in a hotel alcove, writing away. On Saturday night, he was interviewed in front of a huge audience by South Dakota’s own Sandra Brannan. He stayed with writing his kinds of mysteries, followed his own path, and the work paid off. Ordinary Grace blew up.

Harold Johnson
Harold Johnson

I met Harold Johnson. He’s from La Ronge, Saskatchewan. That’s 1,200 miles straight north of Denver. He traps and hunts and lives off the land. He also has a Master of Law degree from Harvard (with no high school diploma). He served in the Canadian Navy and worked in mining and logging. He gave an interesting presentation on the power of story that challenged the notion of what’s real and what’s not. Fascinating. His latest book is Corvus, which “examines the illusions of security we build through technology and presents a scathing satire of a world caught up in climate change denial and the glorification of war.” Thoughtful guy, extremely likable. He smoked a pipe. His father was Swedish. His mother was Cree.

At the book signing area, I sat next to Garth Stein. Garth wrote The Art of Racing in the Rain after watching a Mongolian documentary about dogs and reading a poem by Billy Collins, “The Revenant.” The Art of Racing in the Rain was on the New York Times best-seller list for 156 weeks. That’s about three years. He sold precisely 1.2 bajillion books. Garth said he had no problem writing the follow-up book, based on a new idea. He’s a writer. Writers write. One really kind guy. He said when he started The Art it was different, but good. He had a hunch it would do well. So did his wife.

Garth Stein
Garth Stein

I met Ann Weisgarber, from Sugar Land, Texas. She’s friendly, easy-going, warm. She couldn’t interest any publisher in this country to put out her first novel, The Personal History of Rachel DuPree. Then a publisher in England picked it up and she was short listed for England's 2009 Orange Prize and for the 2009 Orange Award for New Writers. In the United States, she won the Stephen Turner Award for New Fiction and the Langum Prize for American Historical Fiction. (Many other awards, too.) New York is now paying attention. So is Hollywood. Viola Davis optioned the book (JuVee Productions, her company). Ann Weisgarber—a picture of class. Take a minute. Go to her page. Check those wonderful reviews.

My panelmates at City Hall were Sandra Brannan (South Dakota’s own favorite crime writer) and Tom Bouman, whose Dry Bones in the Valley won the Edgar Prize for best first novel. It doesn’t get any bigger in mystery writing land for new writers. Tom read a passage he prepared—and transported us all to the early morning woods on a hunt in Pennsylvania. He concluded by pointing out there is no perfect story, no perfect book.  And that’s why we love it—we get to keep writing. And trying. Kent Krueger sat in the audience for our panel and asked thoughtful questions. Ann Weisgarber, too. Sheesh.

Sandra Brannan, Tom Bouman
Sandra Brannan, Tom Bouman

On the first night of the festival, the organizers held a reception for authors at the nearby Opera House in Lead. (That’s “Lead” like “need” not “Lead” like the tip of your pencil). Fielding questions while sitting on stage, writers and poets talked about what inspired us to write. One long-haul truck driver (Rod Hoffer) said he wrote young adult stories for his grandkids. He said he wrote during the times when his trailer was being filled—or emptied. Writing was a passion. He smiled a lot.

Then Charles Shields pulled the pin on a stink bomb. He’s a biographer. He wrote a biography of Harper Lee some years back.

Here’s what he said—that he starts every project only after a clear evaluation of whether it will make money.

William Kent Krueger at the Lead Opera House
William Kent Krueger at the Lead Opera House

You could feel the room tense up.

William Kent Krueger rose in defense of those who write, you know, without money in mind.

Here’s the tail end of what Kent said:

“And I think that in the end it’s not going to matter whether you become rich and famous because you will have spent your life following your passion. But what I also believe is this—if you do that, eventually, you will discover the writer you were always meant to be and you will write the stories you were meant to write and the doors will open for you.”

Eloquent? Very. Listen:

Yeah, the applause was pretty strong. And music to my ears.

I’m sure Charles Shields is a nice guy too but I’ve never met a fiction writer who thought in those terms.

The minor controversy didn’t impact the terrific weekend. There were more writers to meet—Minnesota’s upbeat Faith Sullivan, Colorado’s own Pam Houston, South Dakota writing mentor Linda Hasselstrom, and California’s quite smart Ron Carlson (Five Skies, The Signal, Return to Oakpine, Ron Carlson Writes A Short Story; one of my favorite writers in the country).

And then Robert Plant showed up. I didn’t see him. He was there to see Kent Nerburn (13 books on spirituality and Native American themes). Robert Plant, yes, came to Kent’s panel.

(The Led Zeppelin cover band “In the Led” are due to play the same conference hotel on Oct. 16; wonder if Robert Plant spotted the poster in that hotel elevator! What would he think??)

I drove home not thinking about money. I drove home thinking about writers and all their many varied passions.

The South Dakota Festival of Books is one ultra-friendly conference that pulls in lots of talented writers.

Bet on it.