Month: December 2014

What’s your earliest memory, sunshine?

It turns out that when you retread your memories over and over again, they become less “your memory” and more “the memory of your memory.”

After 9/11, some researchers went out and recorded people’s memories of the event, three thousand people’s worth.  Eleven months later, they asked the same questions, and thirty-five months later.  The memories were sixty percent accurate after a year; fifty percent accurate after three years.  You’d think you’d remember 9/11 accurately, but you only feel that you do.

By now my earliest memories are rotten, mostly.

I was born in Cheyenne, Wyoming, while my dad was stationed at Fort Cheyenne, or Warren AFB, as it’s actually known outside my family.  We call it Fort Cheyenne because otherwise there’s a story about my father that won’t work:  On his initial flight out there, he was sitting next to a guy from New York who was terrified that they would be attacked by Indians, hatchets and war paint and all.  Dad confirmed that this would be the case and let the guy stew all the way out there.

My father sneaks up on you.  He drove me to tears once trying to convince me that one equals two.  He could “prove” it all he liked (he took a lot of math in college) and I couldn’t find the error, but he couldn’t make me say that he was right, and he wouldn’t let go of it, so I wept all the rest of the way home.  I remember that it was pitch dark out, and the dashboard lights of the Phoenix, and the silhouette of Dad’s face, looking twisted and evil, as we hit the rutted gravel road between Lee’s Corner (our mail drop) and the farm.  The cratered blacktop had been replaced by then; he must have been driving me back from playing pep band at a basketball game, which would have made me around fourteen.  I still think it was a nasty trick.

But Cheyenne.

I want to say that I remember Dad in a flight suit with a beard, grinning at me. Mom has a picture of him in uniform, which may or may not be in a flight suit (he didn’t train as a pilot), and which may or may not show him sporting a beard, or which may be two different pictures entirely.  I could ask her, but the point is that I don’t actually remember.  I have a living memory of my father in a flight suit, grinning (and often rubbing my face with his beard), but I don’t know if it’s real.  It feels right, but then my husband has a beard, so I can easily insert the relevant details.

He worked in the missile silos. I always imagine him as the guy who’d have to push the red button (which, in my imagination, looks like it belongs on a game show) and send the missiles off to Russia, although he was just some random newbie at the time, and, given his sense of humor, I certainly wouldn’t have trusted him with it.

I don’t actually remember anything from Cheyenne.  I have personal stories that I’ve been told, the kind that revolve around my quirks of personality back then.  The day that I wept because Dad cut his beard off, and I refused to recognize him (a lot of my early childhood memories involved my weeping uncontrollably; I get the pudding giggles, too).  The way I would get up early in the morning and pull out all the records – carefully, without damaging them – and play with them until my parents woke up.  (Did I put them on the record player?  No idea.)  My love for the Donnie and Marie Osmond show was apparently legendary.

If I actually remember anything, it’s a golden color of light, sometimes with floating flecks of dust, sometimes without.  The carpet was shag rug.  I remember whicking my hands over the rug to stir up the dust in the sunlight.  A TV set on short legs squatted on the floor, but it was off.  A kind of low half-wall divided one room from the other, although I can’t remember whether it was topped with wood or with plaster.  I can imagine feeling both.  I don’t remember toys, or the Osmonds, or my parents.

The light felt like happiness, not a momentary kind of emotion, but a pervading satisfaction with the universe itself.  The light that shines down on ET before he gets taken home often reminds me of that light, although it’s much colder, both in temperature.  This was the light that seduces cats, comforts saints, and presides over summer vacation.

It’s probably not important whether it’s a real memory or not; I still treasure it.  We moved to South Dakota when I was two.

Game Changers

 

I’ve been thinking more about memories, memoirs, telling personal stories rather than just fictitious ones.

So how do you start a memoir?  Where?  I’m tempted to look it up.  “Top 10 Ways to Start Off Writing Your Memoirs.”  “You Weren’t Paying Attention, Were You: 5 Strategies for Assembling Your Past Without Pissing Off Your Relatives Too Badly.”  Surely the Internet knows all.

This morning, I stopped and looked at John Cleese’s memoirs at Costco, while Lee and I were looking for Christmas cookies on sale.  It started with the first time he performed, I believe.  Which made sense, if you think of “John Cleese” as being summed up as “a performer,” and the sum total of his life as being “my development as a performer,” “performing,” and “aftermath of being in Monty Python and a few other things.”  It’s what people want to know about; the rest of his life is a lagniappe, local color.

What, then, is the story of my life?  I’m not dead yet; I can’t really have been said to have achieved much.  I’m not an achiever.  I’m ambitious, but that’s not the same thing.  I haven’t done anything worthy of note, and I can’t remember details for shit (or be bothered to pay attention to them in the first place).  So what is there for me to say?

And yet – the world has moved on since I was a kid, and there are things (good and bad) that we’ll never get back, and if someone doesn’t write them down, where are they?  And I find that being part of a family in which all possible embarrassments are kept secret means that a lot of my inherited history has vanished, and I don’t want to do that to my daughter.  I rely on the fact that most of my dad’s family are very ADD-like.  I tell people that fact (if it is a fact) all the time.  I can’t shut up about it.  Here are people who should have been on drugs.  Instead they broke horses.  Among other things, it helps me understand, when my daughter brings her (almost invariably) ADD-diagnosed friends home with her, why they have no idea how to cope with anything.  Their families didn’t have those myths.  They don’t know what to do with people of high energy.  My family knew what to do about ADD (on the one side) and depression (on the other).  Mostly.  There was one of my cousins who destroyed himself with heroin after his father refused to understand his need to be creative.  A waste of time.  A cautionary tale – but nobody will take anything from it, if it’s never told.  There are reasons for me to write things down.  So I will.

There were no Christmas cookies on sale at Costco.  The receipt-checker girl at the exit wanted to know if we’d found what we were looking for.  She recommended we check for cookies in the cookie aisle, because they’d been moved; there had been Swiss cookies around there somewhere for $3.  Off we went, not because at that point Lee particularly wanted the cookies, but because she was nice.  I’m a sucker for nice.  We didn’t find the $3 Swiss cookies, but later went to the Trader Joe’s nearby.

The furor of the newly-opened Trader Joe’s obsession has died down to the point where the aisles are navigable, although it still takes more than the normal amount of interpersonal radar to avoid backing into someone behind you.  Is there something about the store design that invites collisions?  Is it that so many things are distractingly packed onto the shelves that it is impossible to keep one’s sense of personal space intact?  Trader Joe’s calls for a certain type of customer, summons them like demons in fact:  it places a hundred entitled middle-class people in a fishbowl with each other, forcing them to face each other’s taboo rudeness like a nightmare or a horror movie about mirrors.  We have seen the monsters, and they are not us.  Definitely not us.  It’s impossible not to back into someone.  I must have apologized twenty times in the ten minutes we were there.  Trader Joe’s feels like some kind of elaborate joke.  I imagine each member of the management, upon being hired, is taken to a room full of monitors looking down on the customers, and forced to watch them interacting with each other for a full double-shift, at the end of which the new manager’s faith in humanity is both destroyed and restored: everyone is self-centered when distracted; everyone is delighted when they find exactly what they didn’t know they wanted yet; it is so easy to push people around like cattle; it is conversely easy to make people smile, with a few kind words at the checkout aisle.

I like to think about what repeated activities do to your brain:  How does playing World of Warcraft rewire you, versus EVE Online?  What does being on Facebook do to you, versus Twitter?  How does Trader Joe’s compare to Costco?  At one point, we had memberships in both Sam’s and Costco:  Sam’s was cheaper and often more convenient, but usually left me in a worse mood than when I went in.  Costco leaves me feeling compressed by other people, but not necessarily hateful (unless it’s a Saturday).  Leaving Trader Joe’s has consistently made me want to stop shopping for the day.  Who ever heard of that?  A place to shop that makes you want to go home.  Not even WalMart makes me want to do that, and I hate WalMart.

At Trader Joe’s, Lee bought cookies, even though we had just been discussing how eating too much over the holidays has made both of us want to go on a diet, not to loose weight, but to stop feeling so yucky.  I found green tea with coconut, lemongrass, and ginger, despite having a full shelf of tea in the cupboard, post-Christmas.  The guy at the checkout counter praised my pre-chopped kale choice; his bagger debated some other kind of bagged mixed green versus the kale.  They cared, or at least pulled off a convincing performance of caring.  They were nice; they talked to me like I was a person, even though I clearly was only a customer, a piece of meat, a mark being drawn through an elaborate con job that most places have forgotten how to play.  We’ve forgotten, in a world of minimum-wage retail:  don’t forget the kiss-off.  It’s so rare that we’ll pay more for it, every time.

Family Stories (Where did they go?)

Finally reading Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, which, if you don’t know it, is a writer-book that starts off by advising writers to dig into their pasts.

For some reason it struck me this morning that, although both sides of my parents’ families gossip and definitely have a few legendary stories, neither side really shares stories as a matter of course. Mom did a bunch of work trying to put various photo, album, and video projects together for both sides, but there’s a difference between a project where you try to preserve photographs with a few names at the bottom, or a film where someone narrates what’s happening, and a tradition of telling stories.

At first I had to wonder if it was just me; I’m not around them a lot anymore, being out in Colorado and all. But then I was thinking about Chris, and I realized I had no idea of how she met Grandpa or anything like that–and Grandma Alice, I have almost zero stories about her at all. And how did my Bouzek grandparents meet? No idea. No idea about any of my relations on that side of the family that I haven’t personally met, either, with very few stories about the ones that I have. I didn’t know Grandma had sisters until I was twelve or so, when we went to a funeral.

Then I look at my writing habits: I write almost nothing about things that actually happen in my life, other than brief Facebook mentions. When I process memories or the past in writing, it comes out as fiction. And yet neither side has a fiction-story-telling tradition, either.

I wonder where that comes from, the not-having-tons-of-family-stories thing.

I think Mom and Dad met at a basketball game, rival towns and all, and flirted or argued with each other, I can’t remember which, then didn’t see each other for quite some time, but then Mom (who had already spent at least a year of high school living away from home with my Aunt Catherine, the artist) got a job cooking for the Knippling family farm one summer, and then ended up going to the same college that Dad did. Did she intentionally chase him? No idea.

Mom tells stories–I was always jealous of her as a kid for her storytelling prowess–but they’re mostly ones involving her personally, which kind of limits things. My Aunt Margie told stories, but usually when I wasn’t listening, if that makes sense–when the kids were down in the basement somewhere, Margie was upstairs telling stories. I’d catch a snippet here and there, but rarely the whole thing. For example, it was from her that I heard that Dad was sick as a baby, and they didn’t know if he’d make it.  What he had, I never heard.

Is it just that I was too young or oblivious to hear most of the stories when they were getting passed around?  I can totally see both sides of my family censoring themselves when kids were around:  they’re not big cussers, but I can see them filtering out less-than-flattering stories, if nothing else.

It could also be that they aren’t storytellers, most of them: South Dakota isn’t conducive to it.  First, the men are pressured to talk very little at all, so you’ve lost half your storytellers right there.  Here’s how South Dakota man talks on the phone:  Yup.  Nope.  It’s the woman’s job to do the gossipin’, the men’s to do the doin’.  Second, the whole state’s one small town, and if you get caught telling unflattering tales about someone, well, you could get ostracized for years.

Are there skeletons in the closet?  Probably.  But probably not so many as all that.  Probably it’s mostly just attrition and assumptions and ability and opportunity.  But I do regret it.  And it’s the unflattering stories that, really, I like best.

 

 

 

 

How to Make a Story a Classic*

 

*Research in progress.

 

Lately I’ve been having–or, rather, subjecting other people to–conversations about how to make stories that are better than well-crafted.  I’m at this weird point where I acknowledge that becoming better at my craft is going to be a lifelong project…but there’s something more out there to writing than just craft.

The first part of this realization came with understanding that writing isn’t just about the story that’s on the page; it’s about what happens in the readers’ heads.  For me, this came in the form of doing research about con artists, brainwashing, cults, etc., and realizing that a lot of what these people do to cheat and bamboozle their victims is what I’m trying to do as a writer:  create a lie so plausible that the person will fight their own best interests to defend it.

Granted, the most a writer’s probably going to do to you is keep you up all night when you have to go to work in the morning.  But still.  There are writers that I will drop hardcover money on a preorder, no questions asked.  Who wouldn’t want that kind of irrational loyalty?

It’s something more than the run-of-the-mill reaction to a decent book:  “Oh, that was good.”  Reader sets book aside, moves to next book on TBR list.

Some writers get to jump a reader’s TBR list.

Why?

And, above that, what makes a story endure over time, across cultures?

Here’s what I’ve been putting together lately on the subject:

  • There are classics in every genre, in every art form.  (Lee mentioned classic cars.  Yes, of course cars are an art form.  Huh.)
  • Not everyone likes every classic that they’ve been exposed to.
  • The work that wins awards isn’t necessarily the work that endures (which might be why there are such things as lifetime achievement awards).
  • The difference between a classic and a cult classic is hard for me to define.  It seems like classics were popular on release (or reasonably so), while a cult classic overcame obscurity.  I saw a definition online that was something like, “a classic is loved by a large number of people, while a cult classic is loved by a large number of people in a narrow field.”  …and maybe that’s a better definition.  Not sure yet.
  • Tons of stories have been based off Joseph Campbell.  And aren’t classics.
  • Not everything that’s a classic is based off Joseph Campbell.  It might be that Joseph Campbell supporters accrete all other stories and backsplain them into being based off Joseph Campbell.
  • Classics don’t just happen because they’re pushed by the gatekeepers:  think of all the movies that sank despite huge advertising budgets.
  • The biggest driver of sales–at least, in the back streets of indie promotion upon which I often lurk–is word-of-mouth.  Not advertising, not promotions, not sales, not contests.  These things are all damage multpliers to word of mouth.   One form of this thinking is the “1000 true fans” idea.

So far, all of that is mostly about what a classic is not.  It is not a specific type of story, told according to a specific type of formula.  It is not bought and paid for; there is something intrinsic to the story itself–but it doesn’t hit every single person the same way, and that’s okay.  (Universal emotions not required.)  A story can be disliked by some people and still be a classic.

But what are the traits of a classic, then?

  • The story has to be reasonably technically proficient, although it does not need to be above-average in every respect.  There are lots of problems with, say, Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  And yet it is a classic.
  • The story has to affect your emotions and engage your mind to the extent that you suspend disbelief.  This is harder than it sounds.  For me, most published stories–good, competent stories–don’t do both, or, often, either.
  • The story spreads via word of mouth.
  • The story has to stick with you.  It’s can’t be just Well, that was good.  It has to endure.
  • The story itself–or a quote or scene from it–becomes shorthand for expressing some emotion or concept.
  • Annnnnd probably a bunch of other points that I haven’t considered yet.

An example:

Between The Avengers and Firefly, I’m going to say that The Avengers is a good movie, but it’s Firefly that’s the classic.  It’s a hair of difference–they’re both technically very good, and I would say that some of the scenes in The Avengers are more technically proficient as writing than anything in Firefly (the fight scene over Loki that Cap has to break up).  Both engaged the emotions and suspended disbelief for a large number of people, me included.

But it’s Firefly that’s the more memorable, and that has entered the language.  Browncoat.  Firefly invented a new word.  It might not be around forever, and it’s not much more than “A fan of Firefly, tending toward some fairly anti-establishment views,” but it’s a new word.  And the only thing keeping Firefly off the air was that word of mouth took time that Fox didn’t want to give it.  It’s to the point where you are mocked at writers’ conferences if you can’t discuss story elements via Firefly, although I would argue that The Avengers makes a more useful example most of the time.

You can control for making a story technically proficient.

Can you do anything about the other points?

I think you can.  Some writers write one classic and that’s it (they may write many very good things, too, just not classics), but others can hit it over and over, even if they don’t hit it every time.  Stephen King: there’s a reason he’s popular, and it isn’t because the publishers promote him.  (Granted, some of his books carry the weaker ones.)

Is there a science to it?  Probably not–and yet there are probably some principles.

For one:  probably a story with integrity is more likely to become a classic than a story that is merely technically proficient.  That is, a story in which all the elements are used in harmony with each other, as required to handle the story:  the plot matches the characters matches the language matches the conflicts matches the themes.  The example that pops into my mind here is LittleBig.  But that’s kind of obscure, so…Dumb and Dumber.  The plot is stupid.  The characters are stupid.  The themes are stupid.  The jokes are stupid.  There isn’t an element of that movie that isn’t stupid…except for the technical proficiency that went into every element of making that movie as stupid as it was.  I busted a gut.  Their dog van…

Compare that to The Mask, which was a good movie made in the same year, but not one to endure the generations.  (Yes, 1994.  It’s an entire generation.)

I’m pretty sure integrity is going to be important (even though, at the moment, it’s almost always beyond my deliberate control).

But the element that I’ve been working on the most lately is memorability.  Memorable scenes, memorable characters, etc.  Right now this is a laborious process.  I write something, then I go, “Was that memorable,” take the most memorable elements, and rewrite it.  Lather, rinse, repeat.

Does this mean I understand what my readers will remember?

Nope.  I’m just barely getting to the point where I get what I’ll remember.

It’s frustrating.  Ego-busting.

I used to be able to get away with a single pass, when I was shooting for technical proficiency–sure, I had to clean things up, but I didn’t have to tear things out two or three or four times to get even start getting close to what I wanted.  I hope this phase doesn’t last forever; it’s annoying.  But…it seems to be working.  The stories that I do this on sell faster, anyway, and I can tell stories apart without having to go back and check on them.  The earlier stories where I did this accidentally are the ones that I still like, even though I can see flaws all over the place.

What else?

No idea, yet.

I have a long way to go, and, honestly, every time I touch on this I feel like an arrogant idiot for pretending that I know, or can reasonably guess anything, but it keeps coming up:  How do I sell more stories?  How do I get them to hang around longer?  How do I build a fanbase?  If I kind of get how each element of a story works and can write it more or less competently, what is the next thing?

Right now?  Memorable.

I’m putting together a list of resources related to this topic (and post-craftsmanship topics in general).  I haven’t gone through all of it, mind you.

Here’s what it looks like so far:

  • Story, by Robert McKee
  • Plotto, by William Wallace Cook
  • Writing the Blockbuster Novel, by Albert Zuckerman
  • Drawing on the Power of Resonance in Writing, by David Farland
  • Hogfather, by Terry Pratchett
  • Story, by Robert McKee
  • Tales from the Perilous Realm, JRR Tolkein
  • The Writing Excuses Podcast
  • The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man
  • The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways our Intuitions Deceive Us
  • Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals about Our Everyday Deceptions
  • The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales

If you can think of more that I should add, please let me know!

 

 

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