What is Truth?

I’m a big believer in the dictionary, but I don’t think it will help much here.

For a writer, the truth is very complicated. Some of the truest things we write are fiction. And yet, some of the coldest facts we can muster are not nearly the whole story.

Once, long ago, I sent an essay to a literary journal and the editor actually called. Imagine my surprise at a real voice on the phone, thick with smoke, a little older, taking his time. “This isn’t an essay. It’s a short story,” he said, and I didn’t know how to answer.

The call alone and the news of interest were surprise enough, but it was his assessment of the piece that was the shocker.

And, like a country lawyer, he proceeded to trot out his evidence, dragging on his cigarette while I tried to take in his meaning. Character, tone, dialogue, setting—it read like a story to him, he insisted, and there was no convincing him otherwise.

In the end, I agreed to let him publish it as fiction, because what is truth, anyway?

Why, even before a writer puts down a single word, the distortions begin. From the formation of his concept, to the information he chooses to use or discard, to his word choice, to the polish of his sentences in accordance with a certain desired tone . . . at every pass, the writer makes decisions.

And when he’s finished, did he capture the truth? Reasonable minds will differ.

Photo credit: morguefile

What Secrets do You Keep?

As a writer, you’ll collect a great deal of information from others. You can hear a lot, if you’re listening. If you’re asking questions, you’ll hear even more. What you use from what you gather is for you to decide.

Absent an agreement to the contrary, here are the rules I follow:

  • If someone says it’s a secret, it is.
  • If someone suggests it’s a secret, it is.
  • If someone should suggest it’s a secret, it’s a secret.

That last one, I learned the hard way. I was writing for a newspaper then, an article on the tough financial times of the day, and one of my sources told me some very private information that put her in a difficult light. I asked her: Are you sure you want me to know this? Are you okay with this in print?

I believed her assurances, the article ran, and indeed she came to regret her decisions.

I take the blame for that. I knew better and should have insisted.

The only good thing about the situation was that it was short-lived. The news in the morning was eclipsed by noon. Still, and though decades later, I remember the ashen-faced figure who turned up at my door, the newspaper clutched in her hand. I don’t remember her name, but I’ll never forget those eyes.

Photo credits: two women, Israel Papillon, sxc; taped mouth, Google Images

Our Craving for Illusion

Readers want illusion. They want to be fascinated and charmed, and why not? And we writers have to use our witchery and glamour to provide this desired state of being. It doesn’t matter what we write, as anything agreeable will do. Even when reading the daily news, a reader still appreciates the illusion of being drawn into the scene, mind and senses engaged.

But how about the truth?

Yes, a reader may want that, as well, and maybe even a steady diet of it.

But this doesn’t take away from or even stand at odds with his craving for illusion. For no matter what he’s reading—fact or fiction—he’d like it to be presented agreeably and made as fascinating and as charming as your wizardry will allow. Add some enchantment, and he might even read to the very end.

Photo credit: Foxiq, sxc

The Element of Time (and God)

Recently, I bumped into author Jon Winokur—online, that is, where everyone meets. I recognized his name from the first communication, as I have one of his earliest books, The Portable Curmudgeon.

The email said that he gave this site a thumbs-up mention on his blog, and so I sent a thank you. Using Twitter, I spotted this on his bio line: Jon Winokur is the author of numerous compendiums and online adventures, and “has been in a bad mood since 1971.”

Geez, is that all?

ME: Thanks for the mention. But just to tell you, I’ve been in a bad mood since about six months of age.

WINOKUR: Trying to top me, eh? Well I’VE been in a bad mood since I was an embryo!

And off it went at a stiff clip, a dozen exchanges, straight back through time.

Next, it was the Garden of Good and Evil, then string theory, and after that the Big Bang. When I pressed for details, he claimed to have been at the conference table where such things were decided. In fact, his bad mood even preceded this, he insisted, as it was he who had called the meeting.

Selah, take that.

Heck, he even went to high school with God. Heck, I AM GOD, he claimed, the capital letters a nice touch.

It was a 140-character game of one-upmanship—but it got me to thinking about how a writer uses time.

Time is an element, as much as tone, or voice, and all the rest. Whether 300 or 30,000 words, where does the writer start, and in which direction will he head?

Winokur began with today and unwound things to the beginning—to God, the ultimate purported cause of everything.

Now, Winokur isn’t God, of course, but he is a writer, and that means he gets to decide. It’s up to him to determine when he will reach into his toolbox, pull out his mighty clock, and put it work.

Check out: Jon Winokur on Twitter@AdviceToWriters and AdviceToWriters.com.

Photo credits: blue clock, Ivan Prole, sxc; clock lineup, Miguel Saavedra, rgbstock.com.

Tell Stories that Matter

We all tell stories, and creative people—from the boardroom to the alley—tell the best ones.

A good story is something that strikes us as interesting, informative, maybe, and above all engaging. If it were a food, it might be described as meaty, or juicy, or fresh. Stories that don’t really matter are optional, like the whipped cream on dessert.

But how do we find a good story? How do we write what matters?

The answer to this question is always the same, and it was confirmed again lately at a festive little gathering where I ran into a friend.

In as private a moment as one can find in a crowded kitchen, not far from the bar, she mentioned that she was caring for her mother who lived several states away. In the beginning, her mother knew her, but now she doesn’t, and so a formality has settled over their visits, as if strangers just meeting.

“She may not know me, but at least she likes me,” my friend said. “She thinks I’m nice, and she likes my voice.”

She is nice, of course, and she has a nice voice, as well, which she put to work reading aloud to her mother to help fill the hours. She plucked the books right from her mother’s own bookcase on the theory that she would like them, and she did.

And then, she came across her mother’s very own diaries, right there on the shelf, and so she started reading those—the story of her life read back to her and in her own words.

What it would it be like to have your life narrated just as you recorded it, but heard now as if a stranger to the tale? Would something jump out as important? Would it entertain and satisfy? As perhaps surprises no one, mother and daughter were amply engaged.

It got me thinking about the stories that matter, and how to find them, and the answer never changes. The one story we care most about is always our own.

The storyteller who knows this has something powerful at his disposal.

Capture that in what you’re doing—some genuine quality that mirrors back to the reader a little piece of his own personal stake in the world—and you have a winner.  No whipped cream needed.

Photo credit: girl writing in diary, Nick Campbell, sxc; girl looking in mirror, Alex Bramwell, sxc.

Start Here for Success

Every few days, it seems, someone sends me a sweet little video and within a second of viewing, I’m hooked. In the beginning, the point to the film is not the point. It’s the mood, music and visuals that draw a person right in.

As always, I’m struck by how many resources other art forms have at their disposal. The video that came this week was simple—only two people and an elephant seal required—but it still conveyed a charming little moment at the beach. The ocean sparkles, the penguins strut, the sun shines, and we see a brief courtship unfold between a lady and a seal:

http://video.yahoo.com/watch/7335347/19170235

But what if a writer wanted to whip up that beach and that tenderness on the printed page? He has only his words and the means of recording them to do so.  No surf, no sand between his toes, can he still capture that spirit of friendship, that smile, or the moment when she tosses back her head in satisfaction . . . ?

It might seem that the filmmaker has the advantage—all he has to do is lift his camera and shoot. But that comes later. The success of his venture, same as for the writer, hinges on step one, never mind what subsequent tools are brought to bear, camera or pen.

Step one is permission. Everything good starts here: no censorship, no limits, no problems, no worries. Just go for it, permission granted.

After that, the filmmaker, like the writer, can his push tools to the limits, or even break with them entirely if he pleases. It isn’t the tools that determine the outcome—it’s the freedom to use them to pursue the vision. And once permission is granted, there isn’t any story that can’t be told.  Just say yes, and have at it.

Photo credits: workman, Geri-Jean Blanchard, sxc; sculptor, Mano Bustos, sxc

A Tip from a Psychic

I grew up with a father who was a doctor, a man of science, and a mother who possessed a vibrant spiritual life anchored in a strong connection to the psychic world. This made for a lively household, underscored in no small measure by mother’s exuberant and curious spirit.

My mother worked at redirecting energies. She meditated at dawn, analyzed dreams and communed with the dead. She knew and consulted a wide range of psychics, looked them up all over the world, did healing work, read auras, went to lectures and workshops, had book discussion groups, invited spoon benders to dinner, championed certain physicists, was at the forefront of the hospice movement, and trusted her instincts.

As her daughter, I grew up with certain benefits, including frequent physic readings. These were by letter, by phone, and if possible in person, like the one I did in Toronto, which I’m I’m still thinking about decades later.  I was in my early teens, no idea which end was up, and sat face-to-face with a small, serious man who said only two things, but both came true.

First, regrettably, I would have two abscess teeth to consider coming in quick succession, and before the year was out, and he was correct.  Next, I needed to make much better use of a dictionary. Now, that one shocked me. The exact meaning of a word, he said, was not something to take lightly. All sorts of words should be looked up and understood with great specificity, he insisted, especially the ones you think you know.

He was right about this too. Not long after the encounter, I was polishing off a speech about Franklin Delano Roosevelt and, dictionary in hand, discovered that I had misconstrued the meaning of the word “gentian.” Perhaps I thought it stood for gent or gentleman, is all I can imagine, but I was wrong and can still recall how close I came to standing before my class, my courage mustered and my voice strong, and calling the 32nd president of the United States a little blue flower . . .

Photo credits: fingers capturing sun, SendPower; gentian by Rocket000, wikimedia.

Playing it by the Numbers

I spent 8 months learning to blog. I needed 10. There were 3 blogs I studied most intently, but some 50 passed before my eyes.

Current wisdom suggested 30 finished pieces before I launched. I had 48 ideas and partial sketches of 10, but 0 finished. The shortest piece came together in 30 minutes. The longest took many hours, over days. The longest piece is no more than 400 words. The shortest is 93. The number of pieces I’ve walked away from until I can figure out what’s wrong is 3.

I have viewers in 66 countries, including most of Europe, Southeast Asia, China, India, South Africa and Australia. The most views I’ve received in a single day is 450. The most in a weekend was 655. The least views were a pitiful 1. The most popular topic had some sex appeal, though 2 readers linked the subject of that post closer to the idea of “enchantment,” which I liked better. The blog has run 4 months, twice a week, 32 posts, and with 259 comments and several discussions generated.

Along the way I’ve picked up 2 nice champions and some pleasant fans. Total page views are 1,752. A surprising 3 times I was drawn into online conversations I never thought I’d have, 2 of which I’ve written about. Along the way, many things happen in real life and you read 0 about it here. This is a blog for writers, not a diary, though real life is certainly a feature.

Every 2 months or so, I evaluate my data and will seek the casual but purposeful counsel of 5 generous people in this process. 3 come from business and the café will be involved. 1 will be at her kitchen table, and 1 will be at mine. In 2 more months, I’m at the 6-month line, half-way to a year. I’ll look at the big questions then: fulfillment, satisfaction, and value.

A writer can learn a lot by his numbers, even if loosely gathered. People who favor words don’t always see this, but it’s a handy tool in the toolbox—nothing greater than this, but nothing less, either, and so easy to do.

Photo credits: graph by Gabriella Fabri, sxc; calculator by Stefan Gustafsson, sxc