Notes on (surviving) the writing life
Welcome to my blog on writing and the writing life. I also blog on research subjects at Baroque Explorations. For either one, if you subscribe (see lower left), you will be notified whenever there is a new post. I promise that you won’t be swamped with emails. And, of course, you will be able to unsubscribe at any time.
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I’ve been addicted to the theory of the Hero’s Journey as story structure since I read Cambell’s groundbreaking work,The Hero With a Thousand Faces, in high school. It’s at the core of virtually every book I admire on plot: The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler, Save the Cat by Blake Snyder, Story by Robert McKee, The Anatomy of Story by John Truby, to name a few.
Yet, increasingly, I’ve been bothered by the feeling that there’s something missing, something that doesn’t quite fit the structure of a Heroine’s journey.
The Heroine’s Journey
The proposed structures felt a little forced to me. The strength of Cambell’s work is that it arose out an examination of popular stories. He began with what worked, and then looked for why. I didn’t feel that those proposing a structure for a Heroine’s Journey were evolving theories by examining actual stories.
Right away, he has my attention. How many times have I wondered why every Hero’s Journey seems to involve a battle (what Corbett points out Ursula Le Guin called the “gladiatorial view of fiction”).
Corbett goes on to demonstrate that it isn’t conflict that creates movement, but desire.
“Conflict is desire meeting resistance.”
The three basic plot lines
Corbett states that there are “typically three plot lines in any meaningful story.” To summarize:
- The desire line… (outer pursuit)
- The yearning line… (inner pursuit)
- The connection line… (the relationships that help or hinder)
He points out that, “The most compelling stories unify these plot lines.”
(I’ve abbreviated greatly. Be sure to read his post in full.)
So far we’re on fairly familiar terrain, but Corbett differs in that he emphasizes the importance of the connection line.
The importance of connection
The traditional Hero, typically, is something of a loner. He acquires helpers and overcomes enemies, but emerges the sole victor. This model doesn’t really work for the Heroine, somehow. At least not for my heroines, much less for the heroines of the novels that truly move me.
Gin up as much conflict as you want, without desire to generate movement, yearning to create meaning, and other people to provide emotional richness and texture, all you have is sound and fury, and we all know how that phrase ends.
I was a Young Adult book editor in my 30s, editing a series of novels aimed at teen reluctant readers. It wasn’t PC — even more so at that time — but I came to the private conclusion that, in general, boys were drawn to stories that made their muscles twitch (conflict), while girls, frankly, liked to cry (connection).
This is a gross generalization, of course, and there are plenty of exceptions, but I do think it speaks to my own basic issue with the traditional conflict-based story structure.
We may be born alone and die alone but we grow through our engagement with the world—specifically, other people.
This is so refreshing. I’ve ordered THE ART OF CHARACTER; Creating Memorable Characters, for Fiction, Film and TV, Corbett’s book on writing. I look forward to learning more from him.
I haven’t posted here for some time. It’s not that I don’t have a lot to share — I do! — but, rather, whenever I think to post to my blog I realize that I really should be writing … or revising … or researching …
You get the picture.
For all of the above reasons, this wonderful cartoon on procrastination by Debbie Ridpath Ohi really resonated with me:
Perfect, don’t you think?
More anon … although not likely until the end of April. I’m on a tight deadline to reign in this MS. It’s not due until July 1, but May is going to be taken up with moving-back-to-Canada turmoil, and as for June … our daughter is having a baby! So, given all that, I want to have most of the challenging parts of Draft 6 blocked out before we head north, with only the little fiddly parts left to smooth out.
I hope you have a wonderful spring!
(Back to revising the outline my outline. ;-)
I’ve been flailing, I confess: in Excel plot worksheets, in piles of plot index cards, in Word files summarizing my plot (or trying to), in books on plot, in on-line courses and YouTube videos on plot!
I saw all this as a sign of a project in trouble. I simply couldn’t figure it out! It occurred to me that I was “finished” — but not in a good way.
So last night I was reassured reading A Technique for Producing Ideas
The first [step in producing ideas] is … to gather raw material.
… it you have any sizable job of specific material gathering to do it is useful to learn the card-index method of doing it.
You take one fact [on an index card], turn it this way and that, look at it in different lights, and feel for the meaning of it. … You bring two facts together and see how they fit … like a jig-saw puzzle.
… it is almost like listening for the meaning instead of looking for it.
When creative people are in this stage of the process they get their reputation for absentmindedness.
First, little tentative or partial ideas will come to you. Put these down on paper. Never mind how crazy or incomplete they seem: get them down. These are foreshadowings of the real idea that is to come, and expressing these in words forwards the process. Here again the little 3 × 5 cards are useful.
The second thing that will happen is that, by and by, you will get very tired of trying to fit your puzzle together.
Tell me about it!
Let me beg of you not to get tired too soon. The mind, too, has a second wind. … Keep trying to get one or more partial thoughts onto your little cards.
after a while you will reach the hopeless stage.
Can he read my mind?
Everything is a jumble in your mind, with no clear insight anywhere.
When you reach this point, … then the second stage … is completed, and you are ready for the third one.
In this third stage … you drop the whole subject and put the problem out of your mind as completely as you can. … Listen to music, go to the theater or movies, read poetry or a detective story.
In the first stage you have gathered your food. In the second you have masticated it well. Now the digestive process is on. Let it alone. … if you have really done your part in these three stages of the process you will almost surely experience the fourth.
Which will be?
Out of nowhere the Idea will appear.
This is the way ideas come: after you have stopped straining for them and have passed through a period of rest and relaxation from the search.
Do not make the mistake of holding your idea close to your chest at this stage. Submit it to the criticism of the judicious. When you do, a surprising thing will happen. You will find that a good idea has, as it were, self-expanding qualities. … Thus possibilities in it which you have overlooked will come to light.
1867: Double-page hand colored wood engraving featured in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated newspaper titled, “A Happy New Year.”
This and other delightful historical New Year’s Eve images can be found here.
I especially love this rural frolic:
It’s not even 9:00 here in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, and already I can hear fireworks.
Happy New Year, one and all!
It is always hard for me to read biographies about Josephine. I’ve yet to read one I don’t have a quibble with. The same holds for a “Great Lives” BBC broadcast I listened to recently on Josephine. It pleases me that Josephine was chosen as one of the “Great Lives,” but there were a number of statements made that I very much question. One statement made was that she was very promiscuous. I ask you: How many lovers does a “very” promiscuous woman have?
How many lovers did Josephine have?
For Josephine, there was General Hoche, and—as is claimed — Director Barras, and — also claimed — Captain Charles.
Although there is no absolute evidence regarding Josephine’s involvement with General Hoche, I personally believe that he might have been her lover. We really know nothing concrete, but Hoche was a lovable, attractive man, and she could very well have loved him.
Regarding Director Barras, the question posed on the broadcast was, “What did she have to offer him?” The question was rhetorical: I.e. nothing, it was implied.
Au contraire. My historical consultant, Dr. Catinat, an authority on Josephine, told me that what Josephine had to offer were connections to wealthy Caribbean bankers, contacts she had made as a Freemason. (Women could be Freemasons then.) Barras, although powerful, was very much in need of financial aid, and Josephine was able to put him in contact with men who could help.
Josephine received money from Barras, no doubt, but Dr. Catinat felt that in balance, Barras was the one who came out ahead. This perspective is never mentioned. Instead, it is assumed that because Josephine was receiving money from Barras, she had to be sleeping with him.
Several mentions were made of the cartoon of Josephine and her friend Therese dancing naked for Barras, as if this was something that actually happened. They failed to note that the cartoonist was from the UK, which was at war with France. Enemies delight in portraying the enemy in a vile light. Again, while writing the Trilogy, I checked with my knowledgeable French consultants, who declared such stories untrue.
Was Director Barras heterosexual?
Dr. Catinat also told me that Barras was homosexual, possibly bisexual. He had no progeny — in spite of claims that he had many female lovers. I am personally inclined to think that he was more homosexual than bisexual, but there really is very little to go on.
Long ago someone told me that, in her opinion, Josephine was a woman who enjoyed the company of Gay men. Frankly, that rings true to me. Josephine was bohemian, and she loved men and women of the theatre and the arts.
And what about Captain Charles?
Which leads us to Josephine’s third so-called lover: Captain Charles.
Hippolyte Charles, too, had no progeny — that we know of — and although we know next to nothing about his personal life, in manner he was gay as a tea party. Supremely fashionable, he enjoyed dressing as a woman.
Furthermore, at the time when Josephine was supposedly having a torrid affair with the Captain, she was quite ill, suffering from fevers and violent headaches, likely brought on by a premature menopause (the result of her imprisonment during the Revolution).
The portrait of Josephine as a woman having a torrid love affair at this time is hard to fathom. I don’t know about you, but I simply cannot see Josephine in the bed of either of Director Barras or Captain Charles. And even if I could, would these three lovers make her worthy of the label “very promiscuous”? I think not.
The BBC broadcast mentioned that Josephine was mesmerizing to men. Yes, she certainly was. What they failed to mention is that she was well-beloved by women as well. As a rule of thumb — at least in my book of Observations of the Human Species — is that a promiscuous, manipulative, calculating woman is given a wide berth by other women. Josephine was trusted by women.
I rest my case.
(For more on this theme, see Josephine: Saint or Sinner? (Who knows?)
What have I been doing?
Other than spending quite a bit of time in Physio Therapy to help my Hip Bursitis (ouch!), I continue to wrestle with the Moonsick outline. It’s a big job, but I’m happy to report that it is coming along.
Great links to share…
The news continues to be dire. I am given hope by the resilience and creative joie d’vivre of the Belgians in their response to the order not to post telling photos to social media during the lock-down. National emergency? Belgians respond to terror raids with cats. This one is one of my favourites:
This YouTube video of people dancing on a Paris Metro is pure joy to watch.
I belong to a FaceBook group of authors, and now and then one of the members asks for help with coming up with a title. One of the authors posted a link to a Title Generator. It may never come up with a usable title, but it’s fun.
I started writing historical fiction because I wanted to imagine a world “peopled” by horses. I no longer have a horse of my own, and my riding days are behind me, but I continue to be captured by these beautiful creatures. This video on wild horses is stunning.
Have a great week!
I’ve been recently inspired by Twyla Tharp’s book THE CREATIVE HABIT: LEARN IT AND USE IT FOR LIFE.
Here are some quotes:
Some people find … the moment before creativity begins … so painful that they simply cannot deal with it. They get up and walk away from the computer, the canvas, the keyboard; they take a nap or go shopping or fix lunch or do chores around the house. They procrastinate. In its most extreme form, this terror totally paralyzes people.
After so many years, I’ve learned that being creative is a full-time job with its own daily patterns. That’s why writers, for example, like to establish routines for themselves. The most productive ones get started early in the morning, when the world is quiet, the phones aren’t ringing, and their minds are rested, alert, and not yet polluted by other people’s words. They might set a goal for themselves—write fifteen hundred words, or stay at their desk until noon—but the real secret is that they do this every day. In other words, they are disciplined. Over time, as the daily routines become second nature, discipline morphs into habit.
The routine is as much a part of the creative process as the lightning bolt of inspiration, maybe more. And this routine is available to everyone. Creativity is a habit, and the best creativity is a result of good work habits.
In order to be creative you have to know how to prepare to be creative …there’s a process that generates creativity—and you can learn it. And you can make it habitual.
It takes skill to bring something you’ve imagined into the world: to use words to create believable lives, to select the colors and textures of paint to represent a haystack at sunset, to combine ingredients to make a flavorful dish. No one is born with that skill. It is developed through exercise, through repetition, through a blend of learning and reflection that’s both painstaking and rewarding. And it takes time.
If art is the bridge between what you see in your mind and what the world sees, then skill is how you build that bridge.
That’s the reason for the exercises. They will help you develop skill. Some might seem simple. Do them anyway—you can never spend enough time on the basics.
Everything is raw material. Everything is relevant. Everything is usable. Everything feeds into … creativity. Without the time and effort invested in getting ready to create, you can be hit by the thunderbolt and it’ll just leave you stunned.
It’s vital to establish some rituals—automatic but decisive patterns of behaviour—at the beginning of the creative process, when you are most at peril of turning back, chickening out, giving up, or going the wrong way.
Who is Twyla Tharp?
A few great links to share
• Masters of the Everyday: Dutch Artists in the Age of Vermeer. Be sure to click through the individual paintings and read the explanations. It’s wonderful how you can zoom in for a close look. I especially liked “The listening Housewife.” For a review of this exhibit, read this post.
• Why Your Critics Aren’t The Ones Who Count, an inspiring— and funny—Ted-type talk by Brené Brown.
What I’m up to
I’m having a hard time with the revision of Moonsick. I keep stirring the pot, but it’s slow to thicken. This beautiful photo of “Man in a fog” by Harman Wardani feels perfectly expressive of my state of mind.
Reading Tharp’s book, I realized that I have a ritual that triggers creativity: I record the day’s writing goals in a notebook and — bam! — I’m off to the races.
You may have noticed that my website is being revised (so that it will be visible on all devices). It’s still in the construction phase, so please bear with us.
The world news continues to be both distracting and extremely distressing. This cartoon, which I posted to FaceBook, has been getting a lot of “likes,” so I gather most everyone feels the same: