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The Writer's Life and the Allure of the Keyboard

How many arggghs are there in arthritis? What a drag – the thing I love to do most in the world is now so painful that every time I think of something to write I ask “is it worth the pain?” Every task around the house is judged according to its impact on my hands. (A friend called it ‘wrist cycles.’) Do I really want to spend my now-limited wrist cycles on pulling weeds, untangling that extension cord, chopping a big pile of carrots, peeling beets, sorting junk in the garage?


Admittedly, I'm still productive using the Dragon (speech recognition software that is perhaps more accurately described as speech approximation software) but sometimes I get sick of yammering on out loud and correcting ridiculous errors on the Dragon’s part. But there’s still something second-rate about dictating instead of typing. Typing feels more private, secretive, as if thoughts and words could be kept from parts of one's own brain, apparently. A microphone just doesn’t have the allure of the keyboard.

The keyboard has been my shield (if I write it down it can’t plague me); it is my segue into the world. It is my paint brush, my guitar. When I was a teenager I would watch television in a recliner with my hands clasped in front of me typing all the dialogue on the backs of my hands, including all the punctuation and carriage returns. For hours at a time. Not the ads, but all the dialogue of all the shows.

 

I was motivated in part by my mother’s typing speed-- legendary in the family-- so it felt like family tradition when I hit 120 words per minute. I have slowed quite a bit and last year sat in the office next to a much younger woman who typed that fast, nonstop, for hours at a time, as I once had. Unnerving. The contrast between how I used to type and how I type now was so disheartening that I asked to move desks.

My first typewriter was a small white manual Corona and as if it was yesterday I can see opening my bedroom door and seeing the desk lamp shining on the white typewriter, the only light in the room. Beckoning. Between one of my years in college I went to Washington DC on an internship with the National Organization for Women (NOW). At that time, I wanted to become a lawyer and advocate for women. I'm not sure what the other tasks were among the staff (this is a world before email that keeps us all at keyboards all the time) but I missed typing so much that I volunteered to type the NOW president’s speeches. I had to have a keyboard under my fingertips.

I only have a few objects that I consider heirlooms and two of them are typewriters. My mother had a behemoth of an IBM Selectric and the ball bouncing and twisting was one of the bright sounds of my childhood. I have it in the garage zipped in a plastic blanket bag. I also have my grandfather’s field typewriter, very small, that originally came in a black box with a self-contained stand – the legs folded out from a special compartment. It sits next to my mother’s, honored objects both.

#JessWells, #arthritis, #writerslife

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Six Ways That Setting Can Drive Plot

Setting is not simple backdrop, like a green screen on which a film is shot. Setting in fiction plays an important role in plot and characterization. Whether you write sci-fi, historicals, or modern fiction, your setting can make or break your story. So, what are some of the keys to a well-drawn fictional world?

Four Major Mistakes with Setting
Setting is frequently considered the easiest and most fun part of writing. A writer seems happiest when describing rooms, clothing, smells in the air, the look of the lights, the weather. This focus makes sense, since we’ve spent a lot of our lives deciphering objects and their meanings. As fiction writers, we’re focused on the close-in vision of things. Big-concept people write essays. Fiction writers know that it says a lot when the curtains are torn versus curtains festooned with gold thread.
But I’m finding that there are at least four major mistakes with setting. Many writers:

 

  1. Over-do it with too much explanation and description, getting lost in the wallpaper and descriptions of the light.
  2. Make it inconsistent with theme or the characterization
  3. Leave it too shallow by describing just the house. For all the time spent on descriptions of rooms, not enough time is spent on the geologic, geographic and structural underpinnings of the fictional world -- the rivers, bridges, tides, and swamps etc. We rarely take the time to step back and look at the larger landscape.
  4. Most frequently however, we waste it. When it’s written as if you’re just painting a picture, you’re wasting the setting.


What Is a Setting That Works?

Setting is a mirror of the character: imagine a character who is immaculate in his dress but has a messy room (denoting someone who considers public appearance important while more genuinely being a slob), or an old man who lives in a basement hovel, invited into a ridiculously splendid mansion. Setting denotes social status and class background, as well as character attributes such as thrift, the tendency to hoard, forgetful disorganization, etc. For example: “On the last street in the village, down past where the earth bridge had caved in, Rebecca made her home amid the stubborn roots of an old bush.” What does this tell us about Rebecca’s class standing? Her inclusion in the community? How close to the edge she is living? How prosperous is a town with a caved-in earth bridge?

But most importantly, and most frequently overlooked, is the fact that setting can drive plot.

Six key ways that setting drives plot:

  1. Provides congregation and diversity
  2. Controls the movement of characters
  3. Hightens tension
  4. Establishes authority
  5. Challenges the protagonist in his/her quest
  6. Assist in disturbing the status quo


Let’s take each of those in turn:
1. Provide congregation and diversity: a setting can orchestrate the meeting of people who wouldn’t ordinarily congregate. Think of the crossroads where there is the unexpected arrival of travelers with no other connection. Or, think of the day care center where people from different classes, racial groups, age groups in different parts of town all meet in the same place. What about the barbershop, the post office, the communal garden? And then of course there is the neighborhood bar, frequently described in stories and film because characters emote heavily, and then leave.

2. Controls movement of characters: setting allows you to control the ebb and flow of action. If your story is set on a ship, for instance, there’s no way your character can simply walk away from difficulty. Subway cars that break down trap a small number of people together with no way out. Settings also present obstacles that keep groups of characters separate, simplifying your work. People in the village won’t see the mountain folk until the summer when the pass is open. Every time you have a geographic or physical barrier between characters, your plot is easier to manage than when everyone has total access to everyone else all the time. A physical barrier answers the questions: “Why didn’t she just leave? Why didn’t they know?” Physical boundaries can act as bottlenecks, which allows you to control their meetings, put them into conflict, or tie all the ends together (e.g. the storm abates, the supply ship arrives etc.)

3. Heightens tension: setting increases tension by adding deadlines to the completion of the hero/heroine’s journey. For example, the wormhole closes on Tuesday and the captives must extricate themselves in time; the tide goes out early in the morning and your characters must be on the ship or lose their chance at starting over in the New World. Setting can help you answer the key question in any story: “Why now?”

4. Establishes authority: setting can allow a single character or group of characters to have information that they can leverage. Think of the boy in the belfry and what he can see that no one else can. What about the shepherdess on the hill above town? Setting can also designate special routes for special people such as hidden caves, secret passageways, the hole in the wall gang protected by the obscure entrance to their hideout. And the sudden access to information or authority, created by a change in the setting, can be a powerful element in a story. Imagine a hole that is suddenly created in the floor of the maid’s room that allows her to hear secret conversations in the master bedroom below.

5. Challenges the protagonist: setting can also act as the goal for the protagonist’s journey. There was a reason that the ring had to be thrown into the fire of Mordor instead of any other fire. There’s a reason that apocalyptic stories frequently involve a journey to the radio station, or the last boat off the mainland. Setting can also create dependencies between characters that wouldn’t be there otherwise. For example, only Gollum knew the way through the Swamp of the Dead which made the Hobbits continue to rely on him. And setting is a great way to kill off characters when they have finished serving their purpose.

6. Assists in disturbing the status quo: setting can be an important catalyst that sets the story in motion. Think of the blizzard or the flood that cuts off parts of town and makes unlikely people band together. Think of the train wreck or the storm that sets your characters in previously unknown territory. A drought drives people off the land…and so on.

I was taught that a good story is like a machine: there’s no room for any superfluous cog, screw or washer. Likewise, setting isn’t just “atmosphere” – it has a job to do to move your story forward.



I teach a workshop in The Literary Landscape: Settings That Work Hard for Your Story at The Writing Salon, at the recent Rally of Writers, and elsewhere. Please join me if you can.

#JessWells, #TheWritingSalon, #writerslife,

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Buddhism for the Hyperactive ...Or...Noisy Buddhism and the Beloved Monkey Mind

I used to think I was too hyperactive for Buddhism. I have a visceral reaction to phrases like “clear your mind” and “treat thoughts like clouds that will pass by” (a lovely visual but one that devalues the thought.) It felt like yet another instance of the pressure I have been under all my life – sit still, stay on task, march in a straight line, don’t daydream, be more like an accountant and less like a dancer. The superiority of the quiet and contained, left-brained and linear! Arggh!

 

Even walking meditations were a struggle for me because my fellow practitioners were covering 3 feet in five minutes as I was sprinting around the retreat grounds. I found no joy in trying to go to an empty place. To sit still and drain my mind sounded like Orwellian hell, like Stepford spirituality. But then I was introduced to the power of the mantra.

Loving My Monkey Mind

In Buddhist practice one is encouraged to contain or suppress the mind that jumps from topic to topic, distracting you with a mind-bauble here and a silly thought there – the Monkey Mind. As an alternative, I think of a hummingbird, which I consider my totem animal. But I am an artist and in many ways, I consider my monkey mind to be the best part of me. New ideas come from mental wandering, from allowing your mind to jump from a grocery list to a new idea for water conservation, to a great idea about the organic food supply chain, to a child’s toy, and a remembrance of a store in France. Creativity comes in the spaces between two decisions, in the unusual combination of things previously unrelated. And that’s the way both daydreaming and the monkey work: they allow the combination of things previously unrelated.


(In contrast, a man I know insisted that his young children pack up all the elements of one game before getting out another. Hearing that made my monkey holler because a creative environment would let the child take Lincoln Logs and add them to a Lego house topped with doll clothing and stuffed bears. Creativity, in this case literally demands being out-of-the-box.)

Allowing my monkey the freedom of mental association drives my life. My monkey is responsible for all my art and my livelihood as well. She has thought up the plots and twists (and even the metaphors, I’ll bet) of every story and novel I have written. As a freelance marketing manager my monkey thinks up product ideas, TV scripts, odd ways to achieve a goal. My monkey has put food on my table for decades; she keeps the roof over my head and the joy in my life. I love my monkey mind. I would dress her up if I could, make grateful offerings to her and always encourage her to run wild.

Upon hearing this, I’m imaging that devotees will tell me that I am misinterpreting the concept, that there is a time and place for the monkey though not in the temple. But she is a monkey – untamable, unpredictable, somewhat annoying in her glorious unpredictability. Besides, it might be one of the only times you listen to her – in the gumpa, where the clutter of the world falls away and your monkey shows you wisdom. Your daydreams are tremendously powerful, metaphorical and visual communications with yourself. They have important messages. Why aren’t we encouraging one to breathe deeply, be calm, and then pull the thoughts to you, like trying to scoop falling leaves to your chest.

Still, the first time I got on the mat, 23 years ago, I was very pregnant and wanted tools to be a better mother, with better coping skills I could pass on to my son-to-be. So, I kept at my Buddhist practice, hoping for a breakthrough.

Every Mantra Counts

I moved from Vipassana Meditation (focused on the breath) to Mahayana Buddhism with its focus on the recitation of mantras. And not just a single mantra, chanted incessantly (the monkey will have none of that – she needs variety as well as action.) Tibetan Buddhism has at least eight core mantras that are each suitable for different situations. Mala in hand, I started memorizing them. Bingo! I found that mantras block out all other thoughts, focus the mind and calm the spirit. Vipassana Meditation and Mahayana Buddhism: same goal, different technique. With mantras, the hyperactive child is not told to sit still but is given a quiet activity requiring focus. I don’t have to renounce my hyperactivity and Monkey Mind when I can harness it. I can say mantras as fast as I can walk; I say them behind the wheel; I say them before going into a meeting with combatants; I say them for the health of our freighted world. It’s not something I do for five minutes in the morning and hope it will carry me through the rest of the day. I say mantras whenever I am challenged by strife, anger, injustice.

For the Betterment of Others

This brings me to another beef I have with the current trendy focus on mindfulness and the breath. In the New York Times article “The Price of Mindfulness Inc." the author suggests that “The people I know who take time to meditate – carefully observing thoughts, emotions and sensations – are sincere in their appreciations to become less stressed, more accepting and at least a little happier.” Described this way it seems to be a self-serving goal. At best, mindfulness sounds like “I will fix me and what’s good for me is good for the world.” In contrast, all Mahayana Buddhism mantras are for the betterment of all sentient beings. The outward focus is an important part of Mahayana Buddhism: you start mantra recitations by declaring that the motivation for them is to better the world; then you say the mantras and then afterward you dedicate the merits of the mantras to the betterment of the world. The article identifies mindfulness as “best understood as a skill, one acquired through hours of sometimes uncomfortable contemplation.” But if one is chanting mantras one not only gathers the benefits of mental focus but also can make a difference in the world by changing the cosmic vibrations. I believe that brain waves affect physical reality and so chanting for peace, compassion, health, forgiveness, and absolution make a difference. (I’m surprised that after the 60s there are still skeptics about the power of a “good vibe.”) To me to just sit and meditate to lose stress is to leave un-harnessed the potential of all that brainpower, at best, and is a self-cherishing pastime at worst.

I say there’s room for a raucous, Noisy Buddhism, with mantras said out loud with bells, shouted at the top of one’s lungs with joy, accompanied by Latin percussion instruments and terrific feet stomping, walking, dancing, and working. Honoring the Buddha in all of us, honoring the creativity of the Monkey Mind and staying dedicated to making the world a better place.

#JessWells, #Buddhism #monkeymind

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The Mathematics of Fiction

I have seen it so many times: the look of a young writer who is calculating the odds that they will ‘make it’ in literature. They are checking the ranking of their book on Amazon.com, the hits to their blog, books sold, hours clocked, word count checked daily, tracking shares and likes or any other mathematical measure to give one solace, or some faint indicator that they are approaching their goal of success, at the same time that they practice an art that always raises the bar on quality and holds many in obscurity without reason.

It is akin to using a ruler to judge the taste of cake.

Since we do these numerical calculations while we know that the quality and impact of art cannot be measured with mathematics, I would like to offer some additional math about fiction and the writing life:
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Good Storytelling Techniques are Required for Family Stories

The key elements of good storytelling apply to writing the story of your family. I teach a five-week course or one-day workshop that focuses on the keys to storytelling, which I think are: 

  • concentrate on the place where the action is greatest
  • be very clear about the catalyst for change– the pogrom, the famine, the opportunity
  • begin on page one with as much of a punch as you possibly can
  • evoke many if not all the senses
  • make sure that all characters are nuanced. Even villains must have redeeming qualities or flaws that can be understood.


The Personal Advantages of Writing Your Family Story
Anyone who writes, and anyone contemplating writing knows that it can be a daunting task. The New York Public Library article also reminds us of the personal advantages of writing this story: a better understanding of your family and therefore of yourself; the ability to see a common thread that has driven your ancestors and yourself. There’s the therapeutic nature of writing about your family and the sense of resolution it can provide. It is also an investment in yourself because of its reflective nature.

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The Advantages of Fictionalizing Your Family Story

I am obviously a big fan of historical fiction (two of my novels are based in the Middle Ages) and I tell my students writing their family stories that there are advantages to crossing the line into fiction – either fictive biographies or historical fiction.

First, fictional characters can be the personification of important forces in the story.

 

Status quo: You may not have any evidence that someone told your grandmother that a woman can’t open her own blacksmith shop but since the establishment of the status quo is essential to showing the adventurous nature of your grandmother, you need to introduce this idea. However, these ideas must be personified within a character, they can’t just be a vague social pressure that is described.
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Turn Off the Tree Lights for a Natural Christmas

‘Tis the season for increased energy usage but I’d like to suggest something else: let’s do away with Christmas lights on the tree and the house altogether. Let’s go for a natural light Christmas. 

Watching Before the Flood I am reminded that oil fuels our transportation section but the coal industry is the primary source that fuels the electrical grid so anything we can do to reduce electrical consumption can help battle climate change. Anything at all. Especially now that the White House will be driven by climate deniers and potentially even heads of oil companies, everything we can do, counts. Think of the trade-off: rising sea levels; increased tornadoes, hurricanes and typhoons; and out-of-control wildfires, versus twinkly lights inside a house that is already lit, or outside while the occupants are inside.  There have been plenty of suggestions

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How and Why You Should Write the Story of Your Family and When to Veer into Fiction

Happily, my new course on “Crafting the Story of Your Family: For Writers and Non-Writers Alike” at The Writing Salon has begun and I am reminded of what the New York City Library has listed as one of their “20 Reasons You Should Write Your Family History”: the historical and literary record needs more material from previously underrepresented people – women, people of color, the poor and working-class, the disabled. In short, if you think the historical record is too filled with privileged white men, get writing.



The Social Advantages of Writing Your Family Story
In this culture filled with megastars, it’s hard to remember that, in fact, you and your ancestors count. “The entire story of mankind has come to us from individual voices from the past,” some say. Family histories and first-person narratives are important historical documents that fuel research, social histories and fiction. They provide the sparkle that enlivens and provides depth to data on birth dates, names of children and day of death.
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Thurber, Burleigh and Dvorak Were Key to the Birth of American Orchestral Music

Jeannette Meyer Thurber

‘Had Jeannette Meyers Thurber put her name on the institutions she established, she would be as well-known as Carnegie and Rockefeller.’ That statement piqued my interest while enjoying the lecture series from The Great Courses entitled “Music as a Mirror of History”, taught by the very engaging professor Dr. Robert Greenberg, Music Historian-in-Residence with San Francisco Performances.

An accomplished but obscure woman? Just my sort of treasure hunt.

Thurber established the National Conservatory of Music of America in 1885 – the first of its kind and an endeavor that some say ushered in the first orchestral music with a distinctively American sound. But in a very radical stance for the day, Thurber championed the rights of women, people of color and the handicapped to attend her school, sometimes on full scholarship. This was 1885—not too long after the Civil War -- and her school was racially integrated, promoted women, and had an inclusive stance toward the handicapped.
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Please join me Oct. 22nd for a Special Reading at The Writing Salon, Berkeley

San Francisco Bay Area writers and readers: Please join me at The Writing Salon in Berkeley on Oct. 22nd, 7-9 p.m. as I read new work, introduce my student Agatha Hinman to her first public reading, and share the stage with Karen Bjorneby and her student.

I'll be reading from my unpublished collection of short stories, The Disappearing Andersons of Loon Lake, featuring a story that is particularly appropriate for an audience of writers.

The event is free but space is limited. Refreshments will be served and my books will be available for sale.

Please join me at The Writing Salon, 2121 Bonar St., Studio D on the Second Floor, Berkeley CA, 94702, October 22, 2016, from 7-9 p.m.

Looking forward to seeing you!
Jess
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