Holistic Writing Pt.2

“Write from the soul, not from some notion of what you think the marketplace wants. The market is fickle; the soul is eternal.”  ~Jeffrey A. Carver

Take any ordinary shirt and a pair of pants, picture them in your mind, and now picture them on you. Picture that same pair of pants on someone else you know. Then someone else. Quickly, the obvious truth becomes that they look absolutely different on each person. The craft of writing is the same way. We use similar words, most of us. All of us who use the same alphabet use the same letters. The same characters that make up the words of ‘Macbeth,’ make up ‘The War of the Worlds.’ The writer makes all the difference.

I don’t expect this to be a shock to anyone, rather I intend for that simple illustration to be a lead-in to the purpose of this post: What you do as a writer defines your fiction. Let me expound on that a little. As an example, there are certain things that I naturally tend to do as a storyteller. I never, ever, show all of my cards to the reader. Some authors do, and some readers love them for it. I don’t. I am fascinated by the idea of perception and the power of assumption and how those things play into the daily lives of my characters and their relationships with others. I’m equally transfixed by the utility of a reader’s assumptions about what will or won’t happen in a story. That seems to be the driving force, not  behind how I plot, but how I show that plot … how I reveal the events. I love the gentle unfolding of things, be they awful, terrible or beautiful. I write, in a sense, how I like the stories I read to be told. ‘The Village’ is one of my favorite movies for a reason.

Consider your favorite authors and your favorite stories told by them. What are their tendencies? What is the foundation upon which they craft worlds? It’s easier to detect someone else’s ways than our own. We aren’t able to see ourselves as accurately as we see others. Why is this important? Well, for starters, it helps ground you. When things like, reviews for instance, come around … if you know who you are as an author, and what your cornerstone is, then your internal structure is less likely to come crashing down around you.

Do you write with a lot of description, or do you prefer to leave a lot to the imagination (I’ve been told my work is woefully bereft of detail)? Do you excel at dialog, or is your best work done in conveying the subtler aspects of human interaction … the slight turn of hand, or bodily gesture? Do you like drama or do you show all your cards to the reader from the very beginning?

These things are important because when they come into question later, you’ll know in advance that regardless of how the critic felt about it, you did them on purpose. They are part of your signature, per say. I was talking with a friend earlier and it came to light that as authors, we’re trained emotionally in a similar way to how our bodies are physically trained to deal with homeostasis. Right now, are you aware that your left foot isn’t hurting? If I randomly picked a part of your body that was hurting, then pick another part of your body that wasn’t and bear with me. Why weren’t you aware of it? Because nothing was wrong. Your body is designed to only send signals for things you need to pay attention to … to problems that need to be addressed.

As authors, we see criticism much in the same way. Suggested “solutions” automatically equal problems in our manuscripts. We’re trained to only pay attention to the negative, because our sense of balance and literary homeostasis tells us to do so in order to fix what’s “wrong.” Even if nothing is wrong at all.

As authors, we never believe the good reviews. There is a dark side of us that believes those people must be lying. Even the mediocre reviews are suspect. Yet, when the negative reviews come around, we cling to every sentence as if … not only is this person unquestionably a literary authority, they are suddenly keenly educated on the ins and outs of not just stories in general, but our story and all of its intents and purposes. We grant these nameless voices titles and power that they, frankly, don’t have. We’re built this way. We’re wired to see things this way. Those few of us who thrive and flourish under scrutiny should consider yourselves blessed because you are the exception. You’re able to appreciate that your left foot isn’t throbbing right now.

Never mind that you wouldn’t spare this guy a second glance in line at Wal-Mart. Once they’ve penned something about your work of love, they’re deemed “knowledgeable.” Or worse, “educated.” Sometimes they will be just that. Educated. And in truth, it depends on your definition of the word. But in reality, I’ve known an awful lot of quasi-intelligent morons. You know exactly what I’m talking about. The kind of people who still say certificated like it’s a real word.

And that’s part of being a holistic writer—understanding and being familiar with how we are interdependent on our writing and the worlds we create. In a sense, we’re not just what we write, but how.

Now, on another note, assuming what I’ve said is true and holds water, this means that we’re keenly apt to feel threatened when our writerly constructs are under fire. When someone says that how we’re writing is wrong, or lacks skill or interest or any number of things, we fold first. Emotionally anyway.

“Remember: Writing can get you fed to a lion whose teeth draw your whole face into its foul wet breath and cut your skull with knives. There’s no soft way to put this. A black hole swallows you up. Willpower’s no help. Getting in print is like beating cancer but losing a lung, staying in print is hopeless. Your best work goes begging…..Today’s paragraph comes, a word from the heart of the universe, and shines in the darkness, unquenched. And you ask for power, wisdom, and love as you make the anvil sing.”   ~Donald Newlove

Bottom line: Writer, know thyself. It’s the only protection you have against the instant gratification of this fast food world … this five minute mass … this three minute throng of misguided souls who are only passing through your worlds, the ones you create. They don’t live there. You do.

Bonus Round:

Here are a few questions to ask yourself. And keep in mind that your writer identity may change over time … and that’s perfectly normal. But, you’ll go a long way on that path just by knowing who you are right now.

1. Does suspense play a part in how you reveal information to your readers, or do you lay it all out on the table in the beginning?

2. What POV do prefer to write in? First, third? Present, past? Why? Would you ever try a different POV or tense on for size?

3. What genre do you prefer and why? Would you feel comfortable trying on a different genre for size?

4. Do you give lots of detail, or do you leave it up to the reader?

5. Do you plot in advance, or wing it?

6. How do you feel about sequels?

7. What kinds of themes do you weave into your work? Religion, politics?

8. What kinds of things do you incorporate into your writing that are only for you? If you don’t put anything in your work for yourself, why not?

9. Are happy endings important for you? If they are, are you capable of writing a tragedy?

10. What are your pet peeves? Do you like chapter titles, etc?

11. Are there issues that you tackle repeatedly in your narratives (child abuse, etc)?

12. Are you a social author who likes to hear the public’s opinion, or are you private? Do you read reviews or avoid them?

13. Do you work within the familiar or do you stretch to be original (both are OK, so be as truthful with this one as you can. Some authors excel at the familiar)?


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The Most Dangerous Game

“People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within.”  – Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

I’m going to do my best to put this into words, despite my suspicions of their inadequacy to convey what I’m feeling.

We’re told as artists, from reliable sources, not to take things personally. Yet the act of being an author, or musician, or painter, is quite tied to our intimacies and close relationships. Any career that deals, even a little bit, with reputation is by default a career of duality. The self is suddenly shifted from a thing of sole possession, to a commodity to be bought and sold.

Don’t kid yourself—as an author, you are your writing. That simple truth is the reason why many authors choose to publish under pen names. It protects them. It shields them from some of the inherent pitfalls of this industry. In retrospect, I wish I’d used my pen as a true pen, instead of a novelty leftover from when I was a girl who once dreamt of being an author.

Why?

Because—just like in Son of Ereubus, nothing is what I thought it would be. I don’t feel like I thought I would. I am not reacting as I thought I would, and there isn’t a damn thing I can do about it.  Blogging only goes so far. “Getting over it” only goes so far. “Holding your head up” only shuts out so much.

I mentioned, months ago, that everything was changing for me. Part of that change includes  sudden interest in my life, attention from people with whom I’ve tried desperately over the years to rekindle relationships—with whom I’ve tried to start friendships with, in some cases. It’s a double-edged sword. I am both grateful and heartbroken: Grateful because the support has been overwhelming; heartbroken, because it has nothing at all to do with me as a person.

I am now the equivalent of my accomplishments. This isn’t universally true—of course–there are some folks who have been in my life and been by my side since long before any of my dreams started to appear even remotely possible. This post isn’t about them.

So, with all of that in mind, let’s talk about relationships for a moment.

Brutal honesty, while honorable in some circles, is simply cruel in others. Siblings, parents, close friends and spouses often bear the brunt of our less-civilized selves, in part because we know they love us and that they aren’t going anywhere … when in truth, they should be granted only the best of what we are as human beings. They deserve our highest respect and deepest consideration. Yet, we seem to reserve those things for veritable strangers … people we want to impress or from whom we have something to gain.

We are not immune to this as storytellers.

Our fellow authors deserve nothing from us but the kindest regard and the sincerest empathy. Instead, we’re often consumed with jealousy or simply too absorbed in our own pursuits to realize how our actions affect our peers in publishing. It all stems back to this childish competition mode that a good majority of writers fall into … as if one person’s triumph has anything at all to do with yours.

Seriously, as a whole, authors can be the most self-serving assholes on the planet. I’ve watched writers tear each other apart, disregard favors, back-stab and sabotage till they’ve flat run out of ideas. Then they wait till opportunity knocks. If you don’t have any clue what I’m talking about, then good for you. But, read on anyway because if you stay on this career path, you will eventually understand me. It might take moving up the food chain a few notches. The darkness of human nature, in some ways, seems at its most raw and excitable in the creative world. Maybe this is because we deal with the soul on a daily basis. I genuinely don’t know. And religious authors are not exempt from this untoward behavior. They just do a better job of hiding their nastiness.

Not all authors are this way (yet those who are, are unavoidable). Some of us will genuinely do anything and everything we can to help out other people. We want to see others succeed because we remember what it was like to feel the all-mighty Power of Suck. Hell, I’ve given shards of my soul away for the benefit of others, and you know what … it was worth it. I’d do it over again in a heart beat. The problem though, is that a great portion of up-and-coming authors are downright selfish. Pure and simple. A great many mid-level authors, who’ve been in the game for years are even worse. They’re not just egocentric, they’re ravenous and exhausted from treading proverbial water. They’re tired of being the sum total of their achievements to their friends and family, and especially strangers, and some are out for blood.

And in a way, it reminds me of the 1932 film ‘The Most Dangerous Game.’ Why? Well, here’s the plot (courtesy of Wikipedia):

Famous big game hunter and author Bob Rainsford  swims to a small, lush island, the sole survivor of a shipwreck. There, he becomes the guest of Russian Count Zaroff, a fellow hunting enthusiast. Zaroff remarks that Bob’s misfortune is not uncommon; in fact, four people from the previous sinking are still staying with him: Eve Trowbridge, her brother Martin, and two sailors.

That night, Zaroff introduces Bob to the Trowbridges and reveals his obsession with hunting. During one of his hunts, a Cape buffaloinflicted a head wound on him. He eventually became bored of the sport, to his great consternation, until he discovered “the most dangerous game” on his island. Bob asks if he means tigers, but Zaroff denies it. Later, Eve shares her suspicions of Zaroff’s intentions with the newcomer. The count took each sailor to see his trophy room, on different days, and both have mysteriously disappeared. She believes their host is responsible, but Bob is unconvinced.

Then Martin vanishes as well. In their search for him, Bob and Eve end up in Zaroff’s trophy room, where they find a man’s head mounted on the wall. Then, Zaroff and his men appear, carrying Martin’s body. Zaroff expects Bob to view the matter like him and is gravely disappointed when Bob calls him a madman.

He decides that, as Bob refuses to be a fellow hunter, he must be the next prey. If Bob can stay alive until sunrise, Zaroff promises him and Eve their freedom. However, he has never lost the game of what he calls “outdoor chess”. Eve decides to go with Bob.

Eventually, they are trapped by a waterfall. While Bob is being attacked by a hunting dog, Zaroff shoots, and the young man falls into the water. Zaroff takes Eve back to his fortress, to enjoy his prize. However, the dog was shot, not Bob. Bob fights first Zaroff, then his henchmen, killing them. As Bob and Eve speed away in a motor boat, a not-quite-dead Zaroff tries to shoot them, but he succumbs to his wounds and falls out of the window where below are his hunting dogs, it is assumed that the dogs kill him for good.

Head on a wall anyone? There are days when this plot certainly seems to do a damn good job hemming up the publishing industry. And it certainly sums up what it means in this current climate to be an author in general. Whether it’s by fellow scribes, or old friends, we’re hunted once we’ve joined the game … one way or another. We can deny it all we like. But, we’re in this for better or worse. We agreed to this. Didn’t we? This most dangerous game?

 

Holistic Writing Pt.1

“General Systems Theory, a related modern concept [to holism], says that each variable in any system interacts with the other variables so thoroughly that cause and effect cannot be separated. A simple variable can be both cause and effect. Reality will not be still. And it cannot be taken apart! You cannot understand a cell, a rat, a brain structure, a family, a culture if you isolate it from its context. Relationship is everything.”

– Marilyn Ferguson
The Aquarian Conspiracy

I’ve finally found a way to explain how I view writing: In an interview for Suspense Magazine, Shannon Raab asked me about my writing style. For whatever reason, it struck me then, that in addition to being what I consider an elemental writer, I’m holistic in my approach to fiction. Well, and writing in general. Take, for instance, the titles of my blog posts and the addition of a quote (normally) at the beginning of each one. The titles are usually taken from the end somewhere … this post being an exception since I’m talking about a general concept. This is a good example of looking at something as a whole, instead of piece by piece.

And with that simple admission, I realized more about myself as a story-teller, as a Fantasist, than I have through the reading of countless books on the mechanics of writing, the creative self or on the craft of fiction.

What is a Holistic Writer? Well, considering that after googling it, I came up with nothing (save some bits on quantifying English-as-a-second-language students), I suppose the burden rests with me to define it. So here’s the world according to Garp … er … Chancellor …

Five Key Aspects of a Holistic Writer

1. A Holistic Writer views a story from the outside in; not chapter by chapter, or line by line, but first as a whole. Like Holistic medicine, everything is integral. Everything works together. Visualizing your fiction in a completed state, even before you begin, is no different than visualizing the brain/body connection.

2. A whole is the sum of its parts. Sentence structure, cadence, plotting, characterization, even if all of these things are mastered on their own, they are nothing unless you know how to use them all at once. Each is a cog in a machine, and without perfect timing, you’ve just got a bunch of really pretty, yet utterly useless, gears. As the saying goes, ‘You can teach me how to write, but you can’t teach me what to say.’

3. A Holistic Writer, when he/she does look at the individual parts, he/she looks at them in relation to how they work within the system. For example: If something feels off in your characterization, it helps to look at how the other variables are affecting your ability to properly work with those characters. Is your plotting rushing your characters’ needs to develop naturally? If your cadence is off, could your sentence structure be the cause of the discordant rhythms in your prose? If you continuously run into plot holes, instead of immediately reworking your entire plot, check your dialog and see if the problem isn’t how your characters see the plot, and therefore how they’ve conveyed it to the reader … the problem could be perception.

4. There is more to being a Holistic Writer than just how you write, or how you view your writing. It also encompasses how you relate to your work on a personal level. Your personal life and emotional well-being will affect how productive your are, how in-tune you are with your fiction, and how easily you will address issues when they come up. Your eating habits, what you feed your body and brain, will also correlate to your level of ability. Yeah, sometimes a writing binge will follow on the tails of a night of heavy-drinking, or staying up for several nights in a row … but remember, we’re looking at this as a large picture. Even Hemingway reportedly wrote while sober.

5. Speaking of notoriously disturbed, brilliant authors … does it seem like the most skilled authors were/are connected to their writing in ways that the hobbyist isn’t? This is what I’m talking about. A Holistic Writer, is never not a writer. At the grocery store, he/she takes note of the tantrum of the five year old in front of them because it relates to a hissy fit thrown by Jane Doe in WIP#45. The Holistic Writer doesn’t take off, or compartmentalize their life, in the same way that a gymnast is always a gymnast because what they eat, how they sleep, what they do in their off time, and how they organize their schedule, all affect performance. And don’t be mistaken … as an author, Holistic or not, you are performing. We have an audience, a stage, and a whole cast of characters. The only difference is that as an author, you’re the stage manager, the actor, the playwright, the costume designer … you get the drift.

I’m not done writing about this … it’s a concept I’ve only begun to explore, and it fascinates me. But, it’s late and I’ve had the most productive writing day I’ve had in YEARS. So, needless to say, I’m wiped out. But, those are the top five components of being a Holistic Writer. Here they are again, summed up this time. A Holistic Writer …

1. Sees their work from the outside in.

2. Understands their work as the sum of its parts.

3. Sees those parts only in relation to each other and the whole.

4. Sees their fiction in relation to their person.

5. Cannot separate their writing life and their everyday life, because they are one and the same.

The Etiology and Treatment of ‘Authoritis’

Authoritis is an unfortunate syndrome, which has only recently begun to receive attention from mental health professionals. It has, however, been in existence for ages and was only considered to be more than merely an ‘inconvenience’, with the invention of the Gutenberg press in 1440. With the dawn of the information age, it is now a recognized syndrome (Gore, 1983).

Those suffering the condition in years gone by were told to “take two aspirin and see if the urge passes (source anon).” Despite a history of clinical neglect, it is estimated that more than half of all books found in brick and mortar stores, were penned by someone suffering some form of Authoritis, also called an ‘author’. According to the DSM V-TR (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), American Psychiatric Association (2009), there are five characteristics required to warrant a proper diagnosis of Authoritis.

  1. Adolescent onset
  2. Cyclic anti-social behavior
  3. Cyclic psychosis; to include hallucinations (auditory and visual)
  4. Obsessive behavior; to include insistence of imaginary creatures called, ‘agents’ and ‘publishers’
  5. God complex; consisting of claims that one has ‘created whole worlds,’ and ‘characters’.

Clinical Features of Authoritis

ADOLESCENT ONSET

Clinicians aren’t certain why the syndrome begins in adolescence. It has been recorded in some children, as early as the age of six—though it is usually a less severe form of the syndrome and studies have shown that 78% of children, who demonstrated three or more characteristics of the disorder, would later develop full blown Authoritis (R.L. Stine, 1990). Typically, adolescents will begin by writing in what is called a ‘diary’: Recent research has shown that diaries are ‘gateway’ perpetuators and may serve by their use as an early indicator of the syndrome. Curiously, some adolescents may throw the term around loosely in reference to their identity, though it has been proven that while children showing signs are more likely to develop the syndrome, only 35% of adolescents claiming the diagnosis, ever go on to develop more than the characteristic God complex.

CYCLIC ANTI-SOCIAL BEHAVIOR

This aspect of Authoritis, despite the hallucinations and psychosis, is the single most prevalent symptom reported by the friends and family of those with the syndrome and is typically what prompts interventions and eventual medical treatment. The author will be perfectly social one moment, only to sink into a depressive anti-social trance. This trance will often find the author sitting in one place for extended periods of time, often more than five or six hours straight, sometimes staring at nothing but a blank sheet of paper or computer screen. Phone calls, visits from friends and family, personal hygiene and health are all abandoned in favor of engaging in a trance or a trance-like state. Any attempt to break the author of this behavior has proven to be detrimental to the concerned friend or relative, and in some cases, fatal.

In the most critical cases, this anti-social behavior becomes what is known as a ‘writer’s block’. Hygiene is said to be at a critical low and will typically be accompanied by crying, cussing and screaming fits.

CYCLIC PSYCHOSIS

For those living with an author this may be the most unsettling characteristic of the syndrome. The author is often seen speaking to themselves, sometimes repeating the same sentence in a variety of tones or voices (King, On Writing, 2001). At times, particularly after a lengthy trance-like state, the author will even use more than one voice and appears to be conducting entire conversations between multiple personalities. Any attempt to question the sanity of this action results in a blank look, followed by aggression or the abrupt closure of the psychosis—which will only resume later with greater intensity. Clinicians recommend, in order to minimize the severity of the episode, that the author be left alone.

OBSESSIVE BEHAVIOR

This is reportedly the most curious behavior of authors. Despite habitual assurance that ‘agents’ and ‘publishers’ do not in fact exist and even if they did, they wouldn’t have any desire to see the author’s penned psychotic episodes; those suffering Authoritis press on and insist that their delusions will prove true by the achievement of ‘publication’ or representation by an ‘agent’ or some other ephemeral creature (Critique Circle, 2006). While half of all books are rumored to have been penned by an author, this is believed to be a classic situation of correlation not equaling causation (Miss Snark, 2005). This shared delusion among authors has even held its own against the adversity of being shown without doubt that books are indeed created and placed in brick and mortar stores by monkeys.

*As a side note, the CLC, or Coalition of Literary Chimps, is outraged by the publication of this article and is threatening libel, claiming that this will project their members into the spotlight and out of obscurity where they have remained since leaving NASA (CLC, 2009).

GOD COMPLEX

This is the easiest symptom to identify, merely by the author’s own need to habitually tell others about the worlds they have created (Facebook, 2006-2009). It manifests very early in the syndrome, and is seen by medical professionals as progressive in nature, sometimes leading to multiple worlds, characters and volumes of written or printed material to validate the author’s creative and God-like abilities. It is said, with no uncertainty, that this characteristic is directly related to the psychotic episodes, though some authors have been found to record words amounting to nothing more interesting or ‘creative’ than the phone book (Left Behind Series, Jenkins & LaHaye, 1999).

Causes of Authoritis

With the official, medical, recognition of Authoritis, there has been a concerted effort at identifying its cause. So far, there are several models to consider:

Sociological Model

Most authors are woefully bereft of gainful employment. Some individuals who were discovered by the monkeys and had their books created, make the incorrect assumption that it was because they are authors and thus subsequently they report that this is their livelihood. This has been shown as unfounded time and time again with little or no impact on author’s claims (Harlequin, 1994). Other authors may be so incapacitated by the syndrome as to be unable to do anything else but write, which leads to poverty, eventual hermitism and in the most severe cases, suicide (Hemingway, 1961).

Biological Model

So far, cross-culture and regional studies have shown that while creativity may run in families, there is thus far no evidence that parents suffering the syndrome pass it on to their children (Tolkien Jr., 2007).

Psychological Model

There are a significant number of psycho-social and psychiatric based theories explaining Authoritis, the most notably being: Organized Schizophrenia. There are several more that claim the syndrome is not of any biological origin at all, but due to a lack of attention in early childhood; evidenced by the presence of imaginary friends and need to color on inappropriate things (Sesame Street, 1987).

Treatment of Authoritis

Treatment of Authoritis has proven most elusive. There have been centers created for the practice of group therapy (Also called MFA’s), and many institutions are offering classes in an attempt to help those suffering the syndrome cope with it .They are usually referenced as ‘English’ degrees, though very little evidence may be found relating their existence to effective management and in some cases may even cause the frequency of the psychotic and anti-social behaviors to increase significantly. They have however gone on to serve as more proof that being an author is not actually required to write books, as many non-author students have gone on to be discovered by the monkeys (Harlequin, 2005).

Prognosis

Prognosis of Authoritis is bleak. Medication has shown absolutely no effect whatsoever on the lessening of the syndrome’s most cumbersome manifestations. Authors can expect, however, a normal life-span. Despite this positive revelation, most authors will write for years or even decades before Alzheimer’s sets in or the syndrome mysteriously disappears. There is said to be some correlation between the loss of ‘agent/publication’ delusions and the remission of Authoritis.

This article was written after reading the brilliant ‘Etiology and Treatment of Childhood’ by Jordan W. Smoller, which you can find here: http://www.pshrink.com/humor/Childhood.html