Out for a walk and had a thought. . . Three months later I finally did something with it. Procrastination at its worst. Maybe there’s a meme in that one?
Month: April 2016
Out for a walk and had a thought. . . Three months later I finally did something with it. Procrastination at its worst. Maybe there’s a meme in that one?
Laws are like sausages; it’s better not to see either being made.*
By which, of course, we mean that there are some things that we simply must enjoy and not worry about how they came to be. And there are some things that we cannot enjoy if we know how they are made.
All of which has very little to do with what we’re talking about today, but I like the aphorism and it does imply something about ingredients and that, friends, is why we’re gathered here today.
In our last post, I talked about how I’d recently competed in and finished the BattleFrog obstacle race series 8k run in Charlotte, NC. I gave you a brief overview of what it was like competing in the mud, as well as the horrible exertions I had to endure to make it across the finish line on my own two feet. As opposed to the relatively small, but statistically significant, number of people who had to be driven over the finish lines on the back ends of the medic trucks.
Essentially, I took that one memory and made a short memoir or personal essay from it, focusing not on any one thing, but, rather, on the memory as a whole. I took the event and created my memoir as essentially a timeline of smaller events. This happened and then that happened and then that happened.
While this can be an effective manner in which to relate a memory and turn it into a
memoir, it’s not necessarily the best. As I mentioned previously, to successfully sell your memoirs, you’re going to need to find a way of taking an intensely personal experience and making it into something that you can relate to a wider audience.
Sure, your mom, dad or cousin might buy a memoir that’s only focused on you, and has no applicability to anyone other than you. . . Though I’m pretty sure you’re not going to be making many sales beyond those three people. Even if the cousin is a conjoined twin, I still say they’re going to share a copy rather than purchase two. That’s aside from the point, though.
To create a story that’s relatable to a wider audience, I find it’s necessary to take part of the event and focus on the more meaning rather more than on the actual thing that happened.
For instance, I casually remarked that I’d done this obstacle race because a year previously my wife had run the race while also saying with absolute certainty that I was not in good enough shape to finish it with her.
That bit, right there. . . That can be the basis for any number of different takes on the actual event, as filtered through the eyes of a married man. I could focus on the bit about being a man and hating to have my athletic prowess questioned (even if my most difficult exercise is walking the dog [well, strolling with the dog while he sniffs and waters every three feet]). I could focus on the depth of stupidity to which I will gleefully excavate myself when I think I need to show I am . . . a man! Both of these could easily support comedic retellings of up to 1,500 words. Easily.https://embed-ssl.ted.com/talks/esther_perel_the_secret_to_desire_in_a_long_term_relationship.html
Or, I could go in a more serious direction, and talk about the distance that grows between long-married couples, lamenting the breakdown in communications which can lead to resentments and anger. This decision also could benefit from bringing in outside sources, such as books I’ve read about how to invigorate a long-time relationship, or how to deal with anger. Maybe even include a clip from the Esther Perel TED talk that’s created quite a high level of interest among those who study relationships and love.
The reason I made mention of those two (possibly three) directions is because I think that they could lead to the most viewers or readers to the memoir. While not everyone might be in the mood to read about the Saturday where someone they didn’t know went out and did some sort of exercise thing or other. . . Almost everyone can identify with doing something stupid just to prove a point that probably wasn’t even being made by someone else and was all in their head. Although, oddly, I think I might identify a bit too closely with that, looking back on some of the things I’ve done.
I also think that most people in a relationship could identify with or want to see how someone else handled discovering a growing chasm between themselves and a partner. It can be quite shocking, especially if it comes from something so seemingly innocuous as running an an obstacle course race. The feeling of suddenly discovering what you thought was solid ground is actually loosely aggregated silicon grains sliding across a sharply declining slope is both recognizable and frightening at the same time.
We’ll move to the related subject of getting comfortable being naked in public.
Yes. Really. It is related. Promise. Well. . . You’ll just have to come back next time and see, won’t you?
*This aphorism often is attributed to Prince Otto von Bismark, though a more likely origin is from John Godfrey Saxe. FSM, I love stuff like this. Seriously. I know this makes me more of a geek than most are comfortable admitting, but this stuff is fascinating. Simply fascinating.
I. . . am in pain.
I am in . . . a lot of pain.
And I did it all for you, my friends. All for you. I can’t believe you made me do this. I mean, seriously. It’s no joke this whole pain thing.
Though, perhaps I should back up and explain just a bit before I continue with the rant and the lesson within the rant.
A year ago, in a fit of manly bravado, (my wife signed up to do the race and completed it with some friends of hers. When I inquired as to whether I could come along with her that
day and cheer her on, she didn’t hear the cheer her on part and thought I was volunteering to come participate with her. To which she replied, quite quickly and without any
forethought, “But you’re not in good enough shape.” Which lead me inevitably to the website where I signed up two days after she crossed the finish line) I signed up to compete in the Battlefrog Obstacle Race Series.
The Charlotte version of the event graced me with the opportunity to cover 8 kilometers (about five miles) of running, interspersed with 22 different obstacles. Each and every single one of them designed by sadistic former U.S. Navy SEALS with a taste for torture.
Each obstacle was designed to test (read damage with intent to humiliate) every part of your body. Not only did we have to climb walls, we had to climb walls that were leaning
back over us at a 60-degree angle. Like so. No, this was not easy. Had I stopped to think
about it, I’d probably never have agreed to do this.
But when my inner caveMAN rears his head, there’s not much thinking involved.
Out of 1,219 people participating in the race, I finished 895th. Which, now that I think about it, is pretty darn good. I was hoping to finish, but wasn’t all that certain I would. Feeling pretty good about beating out the other 224 people in the event. Even better, I finished 30th in my age group. Out of 51, so that’s almost the top half.
I finished in under two hours and only gained approximately 3.2 pounds of mud ingested into various bodily orifices. (Friends, I’ve got mud in cracks I didn’t even know where places that I had cracks.) After I crossed the finish line and gloried in the sensation of the heavy medal being lowered around my head, I staggered off to the festival grounds, desperately in search of food.
It was right around then that I really wished I’d thought to actually eat something before heading out to the race four hours before. Skipping breakfast before an endurance workout. . . Not a good idea. Still, I survived.
Which meant I could live to the next couple of days, to experience the torture of overworked muscles trying to let me know just how much they appreciated me not training for the silly event. Those piercing screams heard and reported through most of south Charlotte on Sunday? Yeah, sorry about that.
So, I hear you thinking, that’s all well and good. But why did he blame us for his pain? It’s simple. I blame you for my pain because a) I’m kind of whiny that way and don’t like to take responsibility for doing the spectacularly stupid things that keep happening in my life so frequently and b) to make a point about your unexamined life.
Last time out, I talked about how you can look at experiences through different lenses and come up with different stories. I also promised that I would talk about how you’d know which memories would make for good stories.
To my mind, the best way to have a good story that you will want to write about and others will want to read is to actually go out there in the real world and live a story. That’s right. . . When they tell you to write what you know, that’s actually sound advice up to a point. The important point is for you to get out there and have the sorts of experiences that not everyone will be able to attempt. Do the things that not everyone can do.
Then come back and think about what you’ve done. If you’re like me, that thinking part following one of these adventures often takes place in either a hospital emergency room or the guest suite at the local constabulary. You’ve got to think about what makes your story unique. What makes your story something that others will be able to connect with, even if they’ve not ever had the experience you just did.
Sort of like I just did above.
Next time, I’d like to take another look at the Battlefrog race and see if we can break it down a bit more to look at what — exactly — makes for the important pieces of a story.
Take care, friends.
The darkness ate the world, leaving behind only the soft susurrus of moving air gently swirling past my ankles, bare in the night. Seeing nothing, feeling only my soles against the hard, cold surface beneath them, my nervous system seemingly extended out from me in all directions, willing for there to be something, anything other than the darkness.
I stepped forward, praying I was right, praying I knew where I really was. A sharp pain lanced through my foot, the skin parting for the smooth, hard metal shoving its way inside me.*
Last night? When I woke up? I had to go to the bathroom? I didn’t turn on the light and I stepped on a pin? It hurt!
So, friend. . . Out of curiosity, which do you think makes for the better story? Which of these versions do you think will make people want to read more, to continue giving me their time, attention and focus? Which one of these grabbed readers by the eyeballs and refused to let go?
Will I ever stop asking rhetorical questions to which we all know the answer and really wish I would get on with the flapping post?
Yes. Yes I will.
These stories cover the same memory. Yes, I did once stumble through my darkened house in the darkness of night’s middle. Yes, I did step on a thumbtack. No, I still haven’t figured out what a thumbtack was doing on the floor in the first place since we didn’t have a bulletin board and hadn’t for years.
The only difference between the two story beginnings is that one is told with an eye toward drama and one is told just about as blandly, as offensively, as boringly as I could make it in a few words. (Yes, a few words. I mean, it’s not like these words are free or anything. They do cost. Words don’t grow on trees, mister.**)
I know what you’re thinking. The answer is, no, I don’t know how we’ll get the chickens to wear corduroy, but that’s not important right now. I’ll tell you what I’m thinking. I’m wondering if maybe one of those two story openings are true and maybe one isn’t.
The purpose of this blog is to talk about how we can take our memories and turn them into good stories. I stand by that purpose. However, I also believe the way we tell stories has a direct impact on whether or not people want to read it. Think about it.
These two guys? They floated down a river on a homemade raft. It’s Huckleberry Finn, a classic of American literature by Mark Twain.
There’s this sailing ship, right? And the captain is sort of crazy. And they go fishing for this really big fish. It’s Moby Dick, by Nathanial Hawthorne, another American classic.
There’s this guy who goes looking for his lost love in a really creepy place and he finds a guide to show him around. It’s Neuromancer, a science-fiction classic by William Gibson. No, it’s not The Divine Comedy by Dante Alegheri. Don’t be silly.
There’s this girl? And she falls in love with a sparkly vam– You know what? There’s just no way to talk about that story that’s more boring than the way it was published. Let’s consider the point made and move on.
As long as my memoir deals with the events that happened to me, I feel telling the story for maximum effect is just fine. Which doesn’t mean that I can start dragging in exciting things that happen to other people or what I think might be a fun thing to have happened just because it sounds cooler than what really happened. No, we stick with the truth.
Only, I’m thinking we might want to consider telling the truth. . . on fire.
All right. So you’ve got my justification for seeing my memories through the lens of an old-time pulp adventure magazine. I’m thinking it pretty much works out okay. As far as justifications go, that is.
Next go round, I want to talk about how to pick the memory you want to light afire.
There are two kinds of people in this world: Those who divide the world into two kinds of people and those who don’t.
No, wait. True, but not the bifurcation for which I was searching.
There are two ways to approach a blank computer screen, staring at you, demanding to be filled with information, riveting information, information that will change the lives of readers and the destiny of nations and the course of civilizations: fear or eagerness.
Despite the last sentence above, I see a blank screen as an invitation to dive in and begin creating something, anything. Nature abhors a vacuum. (Much to the dismay of the Orek people, who keep having to replace Mother Nature’s vacuum system almost every week.) I abhor a blank screen.
If you’re the type who sees a blank screen and immediately your fingers begin itching for a keyboard so you can start filling that screen. . . We’re good. You can come back next time. Class dismissed for you. Go out and do something. Get some experience so we can strip mine that little memory, rip it into its constituent engrams and rebuild it into a story worth telling.
It’s the rest of you I want to talk to today. The ones who still are fixated on the whole blank screen sentence up above. Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey, you! Down here. Right.
Good. That’s good. Time to let go of the panic (at least a little bit) and concentrate (at least a little bit) so we can get to writing (at least a full page). (What? You thought I was going to advocate for only writing a little bit? We’ve got a lot to learn about each other, friend.)
So, the idea of a blank screen fills you with fear? Makes you quake in your Joseph Campbell high heels? Makes you tug on that full, manly beard and mumble about doing the dishes? (Hopefully one or the other because Joseph Campbell doesn’t make shoes big enough to fit the beardy types and no one likes to write with sore feet.)
There’s no need to fear a blank screen. The odds are very low that it will bite you or otherwise do you physical harm. The only damage that’s going to be done to you is by you. Or, more accurately, by your poor frightened brain.
People afraid of a blank screen are a little like my oldest son, Sarcasmo (Names changed to protect the not-so-innocent-but-still-likely-to-complain-incessantly) when faced with a roller coaster. He hated the things when he was younger. He would start to build up the idea of the roller coaster in his head until it was some massive monster, barely slapped together with dry chewing gum and goblin spit. Taking him to an amusement park was a waste of money because he was not getting on anything that moved fast or had the possibility of intentional loops.
Until the day he went with friends and they teased him into going on a roller coaster. (I didn’t say they were good friends) Forcing himself to step forward one foot after another, Sarcasmo climbed into the coaster car and prepared for the worst. Which never happened
He later told me he kept expecting to be torn apart, or feel like someone was trying to twist his brain around in his skull. And it never happened. The roller coaster wasn’t nearly as bad as he’d built it up to be in his head.
Now, insert you for Sarcasmo and blank screen for roller coaster. It’s the same deal.
People will build up the idea of a blank screen so much, they begin to fear it. They begin to fear it because they believe they must produce deathless prose the moment fingers touch keyboard. They must outwrite Shakespeare, out copywrite Don Draper each time they see a blank screen.
That’s a load of . . . bunk. Throwing my bunk stuff flag on this one.
Precision and nigh-perfection come with rewriting. And rewriting. And rewriting some more. Before you can get there, though, you have to write. And that does not have to be perfect. Or pretty. Or even likable. It just needs to be there so you can work on it later.
In fact, let’s make this formal.
You, hereinafter known as “the writer,” are formally given permission to produce sucky first drafts. It’s what you do with the sucky first draft when you’re done that determines your worth as “the writer.”
When faced with a blank screen. . . type. That’s it. Just start typing. It doesn’t matter if it’s any good, or even on point. Just type. Sort of like what I did to start the post. (Which was kept in there as an example that I could point to from down here.) I typed out a stupid joke and that enabled me to get warm and start warming to the topic from there on out.
That’s all you have to do.
It doesn’t matter what you type, as long as you begin to type away. Once you’ve got some words, that fear will simply melt away.
Let’s get to it.