Category Archives: Writing

Determined to Be Visible

This month’s post is about a sign from the universe—or a remarkable coincidence, depending on your philosophy. Either way, it’s the story of how the title of my upcoming book came to be.

When I try to explain the organizing principle of my collection of blog posts, I expect to be received like someone speaking Mycenaean Greek. But people seem to “get” it, and almost immediately. First, I tell them I had to come up with a way to group my posts into chapters. Then I ask, “Have you ever heard of archetypes?”

Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychology, introduced archetypes to the modern world (though the idea dates to Plato). I think of archetypes as characters, which can be found in movies, plays, novels, religions, and myths. Examples include the Goddess, Hermit, King, Rebel, and Warrior. Present-day authority Caroline Myss (pronounced “Mace”) defines archetypes as “psychological patterns derived from historical roles in life.”

According to Myss, twelve archetypes make up who we are. We all share four universal archetypes (Child, Victim, Prostitute, and Saboteur), but the other eight vary from person to person. I decided to figure out my dozen archetypes and use them to categorize my writings. I reasoned that if I truly embodied these “fundamental forces,” my blog posts, which are expressions of me, should reflect them. (With me so far?)

Caroline Myss’s Archetype Cards

As I mentioned, everyone has the Child archetype. But in her written materials, Myss identifies variations:

  • Wounded (suffers a traumatic upbringing)
  • Orphan (is excluded from the family circle)
  • Magical (sees beauty in all things)
  • Nature (bonds with natural forces, befriends animals)
  • Eternal (remains young forever)
  • Divine (is united with spirit)
  • Dependent (is needy, self-focused)

Unfortunately, I didn’t identify with any of them.

A neighbor’s newspaper

As I walked my dog one morning, however, I listened to Myss’s archived podcast (she used to have a radio show) about the Invisible Child. When the program ended, I felt I had found my Child archetype. Within seconds of making this observation, I encountered a newspaper at my feet. Just below the fold was a headline in big red letters: “DETERMINED TO BE VISIBLE.” I had never received a more obvious sign—or experienced a more stunning coincidence. (If you’re curious, the article was about Leonard Nimoy’s widow, Susan Bay Nimoy, whose short film was about to debut at Sundance against enormous odds.)

Myss states the following regarding the Invisible Child:

There’s nothing comfortable or pleasant about feeling that, as a child, you were invisible. . . . The positive end of the Invisible Child is that it can bring out in a person the opportunity to create an extraordinary journey toward visibility. Because developed in you is a yearning to become a visible person. And the option is that you can become a visible person through creativity, through clever, clever paths of using your imagination.

I could see that my book was a step in my journey toward visibility. Naturally, I appropriated the newspaper headline for its title.

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Long Story Short

Gazebo in the main square, Canary Falls

I’ve asked around, and it seems normal not to want to look at something you’ve created after it’s finished—though I’d hate to think Shakespeare read Hamlet just the once. The subtext here is that I finally completed a writing project! My creative coach, Ziva, had tasked me with entering the Writer’s Digest Short Short Story Competition. I was still drafting, editing, and proofreading thirty minutes before the deadline.

After I submitted the piece, I never wanted to see it again—which didn’t stop me from tossing and turning that night as I reflected on its flaws. These gyrations were purely mental, as there was a 45-pound dog lying across my legs. While my feet fell asleep, I lamented numerous aspects of the work I had delivered with my entry fee:

  • Length. The composition was based on a synopsis I had written for a story intended to be 3,000 to 5,000 words. Contest entries, however, were limited to 1,500 words (hence, “short short”). Telling the tale was like trying to squeeze a size-ten foot into a size-six shoe.
  • Word choice. Every time I proofed the story, I would change certain words—and then change them back in the next pass. I should have changed them one more time.
  • Perfectness. I had only two weeks to write the story, so I wasn’t able to craft it to the level I desired. Ziva had advised me to take my perfectionism down to 70 percent, even speculating that 70 percent could turn out to be 100 percent. I still don’t get the math.

The result of the exercise described above appears below. Should you decide to read it, please forget the negative things I just said about it. To pique your interest (or save you seven minutes), the story is about a combat journalist who experiences a close call in the field and returns to her hometown.

Canary Falls

Thirty-seven-year-old Leigh Forrester had been scared before: When she started prep school mid-semester. When her first boyfriend asked her to have sex. When a 1974 Ford Cortina collided with a black bear, making her an orphan. But as a cable news reporter from the globe’s conflict zones, she possessed a preternatural composure. Untrained to deal with dangerous situations, and protected only by a helmet and bulletproof vest, she never considered she could die. Her determination to capture major world events, sustained by adrenaline, insulated her mind from such thoughts. Nor did she worry when her lover, Michel, a war photographer, hadn’t made contact since Christmas; he always resurfaced.

Embedded with U.S. Marines in the volatile Helmand province of Afghanistan, Leigh confronted her vulnerability. On a bright, brisk morning, as she recorded footage outside a reopened clinic in a district liberated from the Taliban, rocket fire from the city limits spread mortar bombs over the area. One landed on the hunter-green Afghan police truck in which she had traveled, sending shards of metal and glass in all directions. Shaken, Leigh realized she needed a respite from peril. She didn’t even wait for the network’s approval. Rather than return to the Notting Hill flat she shared with other combat journalists, however, she wanted to feel the comforts of home.

Leigh walked into town carrying her duffel bag as the sun, still below the horizon, started to color the sky. She barely remembered arriving in Canary Falls, though she knew she must have taken planes, trains, and a bus to get there. She feared she had a concussion from the blast and made a mental note to visit the physician—for as much as a mental note was worth to a person with a brain injury. She had heard Dr. Starr passed a while back and was replaced by a young woman.

The local diner, Logan’s, hadn’t opened yet, but Leigh noticed activity inside. Approaching, she marveled that the business looked just as it had in her youth: mint-green walls, mismatched tables and chairs, tchotchke-stuffed shelves. The eponymous proprietor, who already seemed old when she was a girl, unlocked the door and led her to a hickory stool at the counter, next to an antique cash register. He gave her a big breakfast free of charge.

Leigh set off toward the Dandelion Inn, where she planned to spend a week under a floral quilted bedspread. The breeze carried spring’s freshness, with a hint of summer’s warmth. “I used to love a day like this,” she thought. “In this picturesque New England burg,” the correspondent in her added. After a few minutes, she stopped in front of a two-story, sky-blue house with a wraparound porch. Fifteen years earlier, she had sold the dwelling, furnished, to a young family. She wondered if the Kims still lived there and, if so, why “FORRESTER” still appeared in faded black letters on the white mailbox. Aware she might be committing a felony, Leigh eased the metal door toward her; it creaked a tune she recalled from childhood. Inside was an envelope bearing a single word in a graceful hand: “Leigh.” She slid her thumb beneath the barn-red wax seal, impressed with a calligraphic C. A shiny key fell into her palm. She must have sent word ahead and forgotten.

The walls were still buttercup yellow with white molding. Vintage rugs still dotted the maple floors. Leigh recognized her grandfather’s cushioned rocking chair, beside the brick fireplace with a built-in niche for logs. Her gaze lingered on a framed photograph of a radiant couple on a beach, holding hands as they ran in the surf; she always thought of her parents this way. Leigh crossed the living room to a lampshade painted with violets, which she recalled “improving” with a purple crayon; she fingered the fabric, which was unmarked.

Upstairs, Leigh filled the claw-foot cast-iron tub from a faucet mounted on the rim. She stripped, lowered herself into the steaming water, and closed the pink pinstriped curtain around her. Settling back, she sought to understand how her home from ages eight to eighteen had remained intact and immaculate since she exchanged it, following her grandmother’s death, for enough cash to leave her comfortable. Did the Kims never move in? Do they rent the place out to vacationers? She would go into town and question the selectman or the gossip, whichever she encountered first. Back downstairs, in her old bedroom off the kitchen, she dressed in khakis and a white button-down shirt; in the field, she would add a scarf or jacket as necessary.

Through the textured glass of the double front door, Leigh thought she saw a carriage, drawn by two white horses, waiting at the curb. Indeed, roses, tulips, irises, and dahlias filled the spokes of the wheels. A plume of white feathers adorned each steed’s head. “Welcome home, Leigh!” the townsfolk shouted upon seeing her. When the team reached Main Street, Leigh found herself in a parade. The thoroughfare was lined with people displaying congratulatory signs and shaking ribbons on sticks; they smiled, waved, and yelled her name as she passed. Leigh viewed a truck-drawn float decked with streamers up ahead, and heard a marching band behind. She never expected such a reception, despite being a television personality. She laughed, her eyes filling with tears, and blew kisses to the crowd.

The procession ended in the main square, where lemonade was served, and a three-piece band played Dixieland. Leigh joined former friends and acquaintances, though none could provide insight into the old Forrester cottage. A message spread that a community barbecue would take place at five o’clock. Exhausted, Leigh excused herself; she was hoping to see the new doctor. On the walk over, she mused at the demographic shift in Canary Falls. The inhabitants seemed generally older, with a smattering of middle-aged folks and hardly any children. Perhaps others of her generation had also moved away.

The name on the shingle confused her: “Dr. Richard Starr.” She should have checked her sources; the doc’s wavy hair was still carrot-colored, without a trace of gray. “You’re the picture of health,” he announced, after examining her, “and will probably live forever.” He attributed her mental lapses to the trauma she suffered. Strolling home, Leigh noticed a familiar-looking dog with a curly brown coat. “Babette!” she called out. The mutt trotted over for an ear scratching and went on her way.

Burgers, ribs, chicken, trout, and vegetable kebabs cooked on innumerable grills. Side dishes—corn on the cob, zucchini, asparagus, sweet potatoes, coleslaw, baked beans, biscuits, ambrosia—were ubiquitous. Assorted pies, cakes, and cookies blanketed a long table. Donning the sleeveless plaid-print red dress she wore under her gown at her high school graduation, Leigh wondered if this cookout was being held in her honor. Her answer came after sundown, when Zack St. James, the town selectman, invited her up to the central gazebo, its columns wrapped in garlands of white stargazer lilies. Zack directed everyone’s attention to a theatrical screen hung on a building bordering the square. “Leigh Emily Forrester, this is your life!” his voice boomed over the mic.

The highlight reel mesmerized her: Running around the house in Dad’s gigantic shoes. Getting a shot, slurping a milkshake. Swinging on the veranda with Gramp while it rained. Riding in a car, blindfolded, with members of a secret society. Crossing into Darfur on a moonless night. Making love with Michel in his Paris apartment. Lying on the dusty ground in Bost, bloody, unmoving.

The final image faded, but Leigh remained transfixed. “Could I be dead?” she murmured, staring at the blankness.

Zack held the microphone to her lips.

“Am I dead?” she demanded.

“As a doornail, dodo, or mutton,” he replied, garnering laughs from the audience.

Someone squeezed Leigh’s right hand. She turned to see her mother’s sparkling eyes. When her knees gave way, her father caught her on the left. Behind each parent stood a set of grandparents. A sweeter reunion could not be imagined.

“While you get reacquainted,” Zack interjected, “I’d like to thank the former residents of Canary Falls for making this homecoming possible. You all got together and, through collective concentration, created this remarkable replica of the hamlet we cherished on earth. Sudden transitions can be difficult, but as you can see, Leigh is doing wonderfully.” The assembled souls applauded. “Soon you will be returning to your usual forms and roles, but for now, enjoy the party!” They cheered. To Leigh, he added perfunctorily, “Your guides will be in touch.”

Assuming she had eternity to catch up, Leigh took her leave after a while. In her mind, she still needed sleep. As she neared the house, she was startled by a shadowy figure on the steps.

“The village is adorable.” He used the French pronunciation. “Just as you described.”

“I am a journalist,” she responded. “Or was. You know you’re dead, right?”

Michel grinned. “C’est la vie.”

Hand in hand, they went inside.

Yes, Coach!

Seven months ago, I started a writing project: a collection of short stories. I surprised myself by completing synopses for 10 short stories in 12 weeks; the synopses average a little over 1,500 words. Following such a promising kickoff, my plan was to spend a month writing each of the 10 stories. But I got stuck on the first one (“Story 1”), a redo of a piece I had submitted for an online course a few years ago. I logged approximately 4,500 words of a projected 6,000+.

I knew I needed to see my creative coach, Ziva.

We met two days ago in her white Dodge camper van, parked with the windows down in the scenic lot of the local natural history museum. (Ziva was hosting houseguests, so we couldn’t conduct our session at her condo.) I thought she would tell me how to get “unstuck” so I could finish Story 1 and move on to the other nine. But turning to face me in the cab of the vehicle, she blew my mind with a quick-and-dirty way to produce my entire first book (“Book 1”): a curated compilation of my blog posts.

I loved her idea for speedily transforming content (that already exists!) into a publication. I will pull my 77 blog posts off the Web, put them in Word, organize them into sections, cut the ones that don’t fit (or that suck), write an introduction and maybe section intros, do some editing, format the manuscript, and distribute the document through CreateSpace (Amazon’s self-publishing tool). I assume this activity is meant to be psychologically liberating and affirming, and to provide a sense of accomplishment.

Before my 90 minutes with Ziva were over, I had enthusiastically accepted three additional assignments, none of which was to complete my partially written story:

  1. Hone one of my synopses for the Writer’s Digest Short Short Story Competition. (That’s two “Shorts”s; entries must be 1,500 words or less.) The deadline is two weeks away.
  2. Write synopses for 4 additional short stories for “Book 2,” my short story collection (with a new target of 12 to 14 tales total).
  3. Set up an underutilized room downstairs as a writing den for myself. I am tempted to enlist a professional organizer to tame the space—or “kill the monster,” as Ziva puts it.

I’ll get back to Story 1 eventually, possibly in the spring. I kind of miss it already.

All Q, No A

I have spent a full month writing (but not finishing) the first short story of a planned collection of ten. (Eight, actually—I expect to ditch the weakest two. They don’t know it yet.) At this point, I can safely say I have more questions than answers. The opposite would probably be worse, though; having more answers than questions might feel like a multiple-choice test, and tests are stressful.

In the last four weeks, the following mysteries, among others, have presented themselves to me:

  1. QsHow much craft should go into a first draft? I’m a poet and I didn’t know it.
  2. Do they call it a draft because it has holes? Come on, I’m serious.
  3. Which is more important: sticking to the schedule, or taking the time to get it right? Within reason, as defined by a perfectionist.
  4. How much is too much backstory? Do you need a narrative providing the history of this question?
  5. Is it normal to crave frozen yogurt? Chocolate-vanilla swirl with rainbow sprinkles.
  6. Is it okay to write to entertain, rather than to be literary? My dream is to have a story published in a middle-school anthology.
  7. Literary magazines have length limits, so am I shooting myself in the foot (or accomplishing some other gory metaphor) by writing 5,000- to 6,000-word stories? Sounds like a job for an editor!
  8. How fully realized should the main character of a short story be? Same question for secondary characters. Screw the tertiary characters.
  9. How much time should I allow for research? Isn’t it easier to make facts up?
  10. How important is it to follow rules about writing? I’m not much of a lawbreaker.

I welcome answers to any of the above, and the sooner the better!

A Numbers Game

old londonReflecting on the second season of the classic TV series The Twilight Zone, creator Rod Serling observed that a third of the episodes were “good,” a third were “passable,” and a third were “dogs.” I just finished writing synopses for ten short stories in about as many weeks, and I can only hope for a similar breakdown. Fingers crossed, there’s something worthwhile in there! You see, for each story idea, I could have spent more time searching for the characters, plot, and setting that expressed it perfectly. Instead, I latched onto the first scenario that seemed to work.

The bad news, then, is that the stories arising from this initial effort could be better. The good news is that I am in possession of ten fleshed-out story ideas rather than one or two (or maybe zero, the perfectionist in me opines). The even better news is that there’s tremendous room for improvement! According to author Jacob M. Appel, “Profit comes from book number five.” In other words, it’s a long road. And I’m finding comfort in the fact that I’ve left so much material untapped.

In the process of nailing down the parameters for these soon-to-be short stories, unexpected themes emerged: houses, heart conditions, 911 calls, first kisses, small towns, murder, religion, prison, motherhood, empathy, England, technology, and the late 1800s. Perhaps a psychoanalyst could help me figure out why these elements recurred—though I’m not sure I’d want to know the answer. Unsurprisingly, some stories also feature dogs, baked goods, and references to Shakespeare.

synopsis filesStarting September 1, my plan is to write one story per month for the next ten months. This is when the real research happens, the characters are developed, the plot details are filled in, the setting is described, the dialogue is crafted. (I’m using the passive voice here, which probably means I haven’t yet accepted that I will be doing all this work.) My main goals are to entertain and surprise. Correspondingly, my greatest fear is that my writing will be derivative, hackneyed, and predictable.

Or that I’ll go back into the files from the last three months and see, repeated over and over, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”

So Far, So Good

 

Grace Kelly charades

Grace Kelly playing charades aboard an ocean liner en route to Monaco, 1956

I have completed the first month of my 16.5-month plan to write 10 short stories. Oh, the excitement of being 6 percent of the way toward my goal! Some highlights since June 1:

  1. I watched a Writer’s Digest tutorial about how to craft a collection of short fiction. I learned the six key principles to consider in putting together a book of stories. It would be indiscreet of me to divulge those principles here; if we were together in person, however, I would have no qualms about pantomiming them to you. The tutorial’s presenter, Jacob M. Appel, offered to share PDFs of his work. I read his story collection Einstein’s Beach House and highly recommend it.
  2. I decided that two stories I wrote (or partially wrote) for a class a year and a half ago are salvageable, with changes (and endings). I may try to publish these pieces, once revised, as I continue to write the others.
  3. I refined my list of story ideas (now numbering close to 200). The challenge will be figuring out what on earth I meant by some of the shorter entries, such as “birthday,” “maintenance,” and “walk-in.” (Thanks, self.)
  4. I said I was going to limit my reading about writing, but I couldn’t resist buying a book called The Emotional Craft of Fiction. If there’s one thing I want to accomplish with my writing, it’s to engage readers with emotion. Unless that emotion is hatred for my writing.
  5. I ordered a guide for getting stories published; it lists fiction publications, contests, and the like. I had it shipped via snail mail because, well, you can’t publish something that isn’t written yet. When it finally arrived, it was a book about finding a literary agent! The customer service person submitted a replacement order and told me to keep the extra book, with the following advice: “Do whatever you would like with it, be it donation or origami.” I think I’ll keep it, in case I need an agent 15.5 months from now. Plus, I don’t know how to do origami.

twilight zoneThe overall theme of the stories I’d like to write (at least for this current experiment) is a subversion of reality that reveals human nature; accordingly, I have been binge-watching The Twilight Zone on Netflix. Rod Serling, creator of the classic series, said, “Coming up with ideas is the easiest thing on earth. Putting them down is the hardest.”

And coming up with cool ideas that Serling didn’t already come up with is nearly impossible.

Nice Job! Not.

sumi-e

The other day, I was chatting with a new resident at my mother’s retirement community. When I told her (solicited) that I was a writer and editor, her response was nearly explosive—about how ill-suited she would be to such a line of work, due to an auditory learning challenge she shares with her son. I maintain a running, mental list of jobs I would be terrible at myself. Here is a sampling, accompanied by the reason(s) for my inadequacy:

  1. Taxi driver. I get nervous with people in my car, have a terrible sense of direction, and would probably decline to “step on it” if asked. I do, however, drive my husband to and from the airport frequently. His name for this service begins with B and rhymes with Uber.
  2. Roofer. I would look down, get dizzy, and fall off—the first day. Years ago, the twin boys across the street, about six at the time, would play on top of their house—as I watched in horror, wondering if I should call Child Protective Services. Incredibly, they are still alive.
  3. Alaskan king crab fisherperson. I have an intense aversion to drowning, hypothermia, and crippling injuries. The hours are long, cold, wet, and dangerous, whereas I prefer short, mild, dry, and safe.
  4. Restaurant server. I lack the upper-body strength to carry a bunch of plates at once. When I was a girl, I saw a waitress pour a tureen of scalding soup down a patron’s neck. I went on to enjoy my own (delicious split pea) soup, but the incident stayed with me.

This month, I have considered adding a profession to the list: nurse. With my mother in the hospital for four days and in a skilled nursing facility for sixteen (and counting), I have witnessed the dedication of nurses, certified nursing assistants, and nurse’s aides up close. These men and women possess all sorts of demeanors—friendly, businesslike, sweet, funny, comforting, cheerful, encouraging, serious. But universally, they are patient. And hard-working. And flexible, moving ceaselessly from patient to patient, wherever and whenever they are needed.

Thank you to Adam, Alex, Daisy, Feybe, Franklin, Marion, Nicole, Sandra, and Vic, who represent many others.