Write a story that begins with the phrase “We’re in this together, right?”
Write a story that begins with the phrase “We’re in this together, right?”
I’ve ranted about this whole memory-isn’t-real thing before. It blew my mind then and it continues to set off miniature mushroom clouds of awe inside my brain when I circle back to the realization that every time we pull up a memory we are actively imagining it into being. (What kind of damage are all of those awe-explosions doing to the insides of my brain, I wonder?) But that’s not the real question that I want to ask. What I want to know is this: what makes a reading experience true for you? What makes a memory true at all for that matter?
Whoa, you say. That’s some heavy philosophical stuff for a Monday.
In grade six, I was a loner kid. Naturally, I read a whole lot of fiction and as a result, I found some pretty cool friends in all of those fictional characters. My favourite book of all time was Anne of Green Gables. I’m sure the prose was excellent. The plot grabbed my attention too. But what kept on bringing me back to this particular book was entirely different.
Confession: my first crush was on Gilbert Blythe from Lucy Maude Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables. Alongside Anne, I noticed his dark, curly hair, his hazel eyes and headstrong nature. He was the cutest, most awesome human being who ever lived to grade six Lauren. Except, of course, for the fact that he never really existed in the first place. (Don’t worry, I got over him. I’m happily married now to an awesome guy who is way cuter). Shhh! Don’t tell my book boyfriend!
But here’s the thing that gets me. At the time, my pre-pubescent little mind was all a flutter with my fabulous book boyfriend, because he felt so real. What made that experience real for me? Like any great read, the emotional payoff of any story is in the details. It happens when we are able to hover in the moment, see the sun dapple the ground where our book boyfriend sits and feel the thick, sweet lavender wafting on the breeze. The way that same breeze lifts up the fringe of his slightly wet hair, the corner of his shirt…
Okay, you get the picture.
It’s real, because we get to see all of the details. Writing to create a shared memory that holds emotional resonance is a strange phenomenon. (How many other little girls were dating my book boyfriend at the same time as me, for example?) Besides that point, there is also the notion that when we write down a story—whether it be pure fiction or memory distilled on the page, we are engaging in the act of fiction writing simply because there is no way to create a purely true memory. As soon as the true moment passes, that moment is gone. When we recall it again, it is actually a new memory that we call into being. So if we consider our experiences reading fiction, can it be that it is in some way pleasing because when we return to the moments on the page, they are fixed, yet detailed just as finely as a real, lived moment? There is the guarantee of a moment in time that lives forever just as it was intended without all of the messy re-imagined details. Maybe this is why fiction is so enjoyable? It’s predictable, sort of, but also manufactured to feel true.
What about cultures that don’t champion the written word the way we do in ours? How do those cultures perceive truth, memory and story? As a writer, I think that this idea is kind of freeing when you realize that truth or memory isn’t fixed in any way. When I write something, I am in the moment and I experience all of the details of the scene as if it were true. In a sense, for that moment, fiction becomes truth. As a reader, the same is true. Why else would I have a book boyfriend, am I right? Once again, I return to the phrase: truth is stranger than fiction. Is it? How can truth be stranger than fiction if, in fact, a remembered truth is itself fiction?
Have you ever had a book boyfriend (or girlfriend?) What makes an experience for you more real than others? What makes the stories that you love to read seem real to you?
Writing is sometimes like playing chutes and ladders. As a kid, I played this game like crazy. I loved the feeling of excitement as my little plastic game piece climbed up the board, getting tantalizingly closer to the goal. Every time I slid down again, I was even more determined to climb to the top.
Similarly, the writing process often goes like this:
The climb: write draft feverishly for days at a time. Draft gets finished.
Nearing the goal: THIS IS THE BEST DRAFT EVER! I AM CLEARLY BRILLIANT!
An unexpected slide: Begin editing again. (Enough said).
The climb: Write feverishly. Again.
Somehow, in the middle of the process when a draft is coming to an end, it becomes clear that a “finished” draft is missing something crucial at the beginning. It sounds counterintuitive, but I think that the unexpected slide is an extremely necessary part of the writing process. Ever heard of the phrase “hindsight 20/20?”
In life, this hindsight business is really not that helpful. Sure, you can see later that driving around the nearest town yelling “FABUTAN!” out of your window with a group of hyped up friends was not actually the height of coolness in high school, but you won’t realize it until it is too late (aka adulthood –yet another YOUNG ME stunt I’d like to forget).
The beautiful thing about writing is that hindsight is actually useful. When you find yourself sliding downwards into another editing trap, remember that all of those insights that you just had are now useable in your next draft to make it better.
Even Dante & Virgil in Dante’s Inferno had to journey downwards through all of the levels of hell before they could start that climb up to heaven, after all. …Not that I think writing is like being in hell, or anything. Usually. Mostly. Okay, sometimes.
Write a scene involving an umbrella and a character named Margot.
One of the best parts of writing has always been the imagined places that result from hours of scribbling on papers. Stepping away from the writing desk sometimes feels like a good rest, when I know that I’ve written something that I care about. Never mind whether the grammar is correct or whether or not the plot makes sense (that will come). Sometimes, some of the best stories that I have written (and gone on to publish) have come from story starters and prompts. There are lots of excellent books that provide some fun and interesting prompts, but as an experiment, I’ve decided to create and share a new writing prompt every week on Wednesday, just to see what comes out of them.
Join me, if you like and we’ll see where this new adventure takes us.
1. Write a scene including the words guidebook, lurk, artlessness, ocean & book.
What sorts of prompts do you find lead to your best stories? If you use prompts for freewriting or other writing adventures, how often do you use them?
We were like contestants on a game show: How Well Do You Know the Happy Couple? Talk at first was limited to questions strictly involving the bride and groom. How did you meet? Who were they to you? A slender woman in her late twenties who looked disconcertingly like Veronica Mars (but let’s call her Contestant Number One) began to steer the conversation towards the present:
Contestant Number One: So, what do you DO?
Me: I write.
Contestant Number One: So, like, you make money at it?
Me: … that’s…debatable.
Contestant Number One: Like, that’s all you do?
Five years ago, I would have met these questions differently, with a sort of ironic shrug. “I’m an artist,” I might have said. “There’s no way I’ll be working at a desk job.” Present me was more reserved and a little embarrassed. Shouldn’t I be somewhere by now? Then a disturbing idea struck me: it occurred to me that I have no idea what I’ll look back on and laugh about five years from now.
Even more disquieting is the notion that it is impossible to know what will have changed in five years. What am I doing right this minute that will seem completely absurd later on?
I can think of one early occasion when I tried to bake a cake in Home Economics class. Remember Young Me? You might have met her in In Defense of Future Me. If you haven’t met before, let it be known: Young Me does some pretty absurd things. On this particular occasion, Young Me was in a big hurry to finish the cake before anyone else. Being first was oddly important. All I had to do was dump in the ingredient list…mix and bake. Right?
Sure, Young Me, sure.
What resulted was a mess of goo that strongly resembled a cross between dog slobber and that gunk that forms in the eaves troughs every fall after a rainstorm or two. My home economics teacher surveyed the “cake” skeptically and then cut herself a slice. I handed her a fork with trepidation and she took a bite. The look on her face slipped from polite disinterest to a rainbow of surprise, mild repulsion and finally settled on a classic: horror.
“How much salt did you put in this?” she asked me. By then, she had set the offending cake down onto the melamine counter and pushed it aside.
I shrugged. “Just what the recipe said to do,” I said. The class erupted into a giggles as I took a bite of my own humble pie (cake) and realized my mistake. One cup of salt and a pinch of sugar does not a tasty cake make. (You’ll be happy to know that I have since learned how to bake a cake that tastes like, well, cake).
The thing about humble pie is this: it might make you feel a bit small. But if you look back—if only for a moment—you’ll realize how far you’ve come. So maybe it’s okay to forgive yourself for being where you are right now. Sometimes, I think it takes a little humble pie to make you see the progress when you look back.
These days, you can’t go five steps—or five clicks on the Internet—without reading about some psychological term to describe the state of humanity. Keeping up with the Joneses on Facebook? You’re probably feeling the effects of objective self-awareness, or what I like to call the “every-one-I’ve ever met is the next J.K. Rowling and I’m not” phenomena, whereby one feels like a steaming pile of cow dung post-Facebook crawl. (Or, more aptly titled, the stalk of shame). Ever found yourself desperately trying to fit in? That’s called normopathy. (Don’t worry, it’s totally normal). Aporia, compersion, dysphoria…there are more terms to describe the human state than you might think. Who cares? You exclaim. I’m an artiste, not a Freud wannabe!
Except here’s the thing. Knowing a little bit about how the mind works can be pretty useful for a writer these days. Sure, there’s the whole getting inside your character’s psyche aspect (more on that later), but that’s not all. I’m thinking more specifically about the writing practice. Perhaps it’s because when I sat down at my desk this morning all I really wanted to do was go back to bed and scan Facebook for hours like a digital nomad. Maybe it’s because sometimes sitting down at the desk to write is pretty dang hard. So instead of jumping right to the writing, I began to do a little research (aka the world’s best way to avoid writing).
What I found was fitting:
It’s called the Goal-Gradient Effect and what it does is create an illusion of progress. Essentially, we work harder to reach a goal when we think that it is closer than it actually is. If you’ve ever found yourself at your favourite restaurant or coffee place, punch card in hand, on a fairly regular basis because you’re SO CLOSE to getting that free cup, that’s the goal-gradient effect. It’s the difference between handing out empty punch cards with ten spaces versus a punch card with twelve stamps and two holes already punched out when you receive the card.
This got me thinking. Sure, this is kind of a sneaky trick for those corporate bastards to play on us. But what if it could be used for good and not marginally evil corporate stuff? What if we could harness the idea of the goal-gradient effect for the good of writing productivity everywhere? If it’s true that the shorter the perceived distance to the goal, the more motivated people are to reach that goal, then why not apply it to goals while writing?
Instead of sitting down at the desk and glowering at the stack of unedited chapters, think: “Just one chapter. Just two pages.” Then give yourself a reward—just like those sneaky corporate bastards!—(except yours will be more unique and just for you). For example, when I really don’t want to write, I put a plate of cookies just out of reach on my desk. Every time I look up, I think: “Just one more page and I can have a cookie.” If you don’t like cookies, (a) WHY??? And (b) use something that is more to your taste, like…broccoli…or something equally boring.
Next time you sit down at your desk to write, remember your friend the goal-gradient effect and use a little corporate trickery to get yourself motivated.
Have you ever had to trick yourself into writing? What sorts of ways do you keep yourself motivated?
Ran Kivetz, Oleg Urminsky & Yuhuang Zheng, The Goal-Gradient Hypothesis Resurrected: Purchase Acceleration, Illusionary Goal Progress, & Customer Retention. Journal of Marketing Research. 39. Vol XLIII (Feb 2006), 39-58.