Finding the eternal thread

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I’ve been working on a theory. Let me know what you think.

It has to do with some of the stories and characters that I find most compelling and why. I’ll give you an example: That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis.

It’s the last in C.S. Lewis’ Out of the Silent Plant sci-fi trilogy, and features a young college fellow’s slide towards darkness and his wife’s efforts to rescue him. I read it several years ago, and while I don’t remember a lot of the plot specifically, I do remember being invested in their stories to the point of practically physical distress.

I remember thinking about this specifically while I was reading. I don’t remember when it happened, but at one point, I actively questioned why I was so invested while I was reading. It’s not that it wasn’t good writing by any means, I’m very fond of Lewis and especially this trilogy, but I do remember being surprised because of how, well, normal it was. I mean, there are definitely elements of the strange–something sinister as my friend Sarah put it–but the story was also, in some ways, plain, at least in comparison to the world-hopping high stakes novels I’m used to.

Then I realized, I wasn’t just interested because of what was happening on the surface. No, I was interested because what I was reading had a soul on the line. It wasn’t just Mark’s marriage or career. It was Mark himself, and what would happen to him not just in the next few days, months, or years, but for eternity.

This, I think, is the eternal thread, that knife’s edge between death and life, good and evil, and when I see people tread it, see them danging in the balance, I’m captured.

I think of other examples of this in literature, the men of Rohan in The Two Towers, George in Of Mice and Men, heck, even Kylo Ren plays with this. In each, you see the inevitable march towards decisions that will mark a lifetime, those turning points towards good or evil, freedom versus chains. They open me up to a larger reality, a vaster scope, and it isn’t just in writing. Many other kinds of art or day to day life have it too.

Which brings me to the question of what exactly it looks like when woven into a story. How does one wind it into the great tapestries of their creative work, and when? There are many, many stories I adore that don’t outright hinge on a singular point of salvation for example, many that I find just as impactful and meaningful as those listed above, and still others that try and do so without success.

So what is it that really earmarks something as having that thread, even if it’s buried deep beneath layers and layers of other stitches? At first, I’ll admit, I found the question frustrating. Mad Max: Fury Road doesn’t mention Jesus at all, and I used to cry telling people about it. Likewise, our good friends George and Lenny don’t find some happy ending (at least that we see), and yet I see the thread there too.

Except, that’s kind of how life works, which is the beauty of the thread.

You see, ultimately, all human lives end in tragedy or comedy. There are, sadly, some of both. This is why happy endings and sad ones can be equally True, and it’s also why, to a certain degree, all stories have this thread. Are characters turning to good or evil, light or darkness? This, though sometimes as foggy and gray as Solomon’s vapors, it always true, and something that with wisdom, we can begin to discern.

That being said, even with this understanding, what does it actually mean? What does it tell us about the stories that most draw us in, and how to tell stories ourselves? Personally, I think I’ve found it useful in reminding myself what I am uplifting in the stories I tell. Am I celebrating and hoping for a turn towards the light (as my Father does), or am I beautifying evil, justifying what is wrong as right, when in fact I should compassionately cling to good with love and understanding in sight for the lost? That is perhaps one practical function of it from a strictly technical perspective. Another perhaps just to remind us of the journey we are all on.

I suspect there is much more to be gained.

So, what do you think, friends? Does my theory hold up? Do you see the eternal in what you read? Hinge points for a soul? If not (or even if, I suppose), what else do you see? What most captures you, in writing or in other forms of art and why? What examples do you have, and if you’ve had any success in capturing it in your own work, how did you do it? Let me know in the comments below! I’d love to know.

Writing tips from down the road, part 2

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Hey all,

Last month I gave you some tips on writing I’d learned over the last 10+ years of writing with the promise of more. You can check that post out if you’d like to catch up. Otherwise, let’s dive right in!

  1. Celebrate others. This one is very important, not only because it takes the spotlight off of yourself (very important for fighting the pride of points one and four from last post) and in general promotes you being a more lovely and less selfish human being, but also because it is inspiring and thrilling and will propel you to your own new heights. Going to things like author events, spreading the word on books, authors or events you like, or otherwise being a supportive member of your writing community is exciting. It also builds courage, both for them and for you, and gives you a sense of context, both as a writer and within the world at large. Every author you meet has a different life, a different story, and when you celebrate that, celebrate them, you begin to understand more of why you are important too, the gaps you fill and the stories that only you can tell. Additionally, since so much of this business is word of mouth, encouraging others to read or attend things you like is a really practical way to help authors you like (and reading at large, which will of course in turn help you). Plus, sometimes it just feels nice to be nice.
  2. Do the work. Success comes from work. Though some get very lucky and their work takes off like a rocket, there was still a great deal of work involved outside of and before those circumstances, and even more for those who do not suddenly find themselves riding a shooting star. This is probably the most common piece of advice given to new writers, and I, like all the rest, will agree not only in that this step is crucial, but also in the fact that there simply are no work arounds to this suggestion. Luckily, if you really are a writer and want to be a successful one, even at the worst and dirtiest of your work, when you are elbow deep in weeds and sewage in your terrible first, second or whichever draft, you will also find the work satisfying and enjoyable, because you will know why you are doing it, what you are working towards, and hopefully will have some kind of vague image of what it will look like when you are triumphantly finished to guide you along the way.
  3. Work in order. One of the greatest mistakes I’ve made in my writing career (as a direct result of points one and four, I might add) is working backwards (as mentioned last post). Most of us like to imagine what our finished work will look like, what it will be like to cross that first milestone or finish line, but this kind of thinking, the fantasy of it, can get in the way of actually doing, and the blind pride and confidence that can accompany it can also get in the way of actually fixing the bugs your story has. Stories cannot be made from the outside in. You can not begin with clothes and skin and work in towards a spine and organs. Stories, like any other kind of creature, must first have bones and fluids before they can put on their makeup, their purses, their polish, and jewelry. This is a mistake I have often made in thinking the first skeleton I put together was the right one for any given set of bones, and I cannot imagine the work, pain (past and future), and stress I could have avoided had I realized this at the start. If you are a “pantser” like me, it is fine to romp through your first draft, to fly past inconsistencies and abrupt changes and vomit all over the page. It is not okay to come back with bows and blue ribbons, tacking them on like gold stars to work that you know is poor. Write it, rewrite it, and keep rewriting until you know it’s right. This advice is also true of your career at large. Neil Gaiman describes writing goals in terms of mountains, the top that you must consistently align your life towards, and the steps you must climb to get there. If this means taking jobs you would rather not, working hours you would rather not, or otherwise doing anything you would rather not to get where you eventually want to go, do it. If you can’t or won’t make sacrifices for your story, if you aren’t willing to take the small steps, don’t bother. We must always remember balance (come up for air) but if you aren’t willing to hurt a little for it, you probably aren’t a writer (and that’s fine. Go, be free and find the other things that you really do love. If you really are a writer, you will come back after time after all, with the strength and wisdom to accomplish the task).
  4. Go get ’em, Tiger. For an absurd amount of time, I didn’t understand why I was not a successful writer. I talked about writing a lot, I obsessed over polishing my poorly structured novel, sometimes I even blogged. Why wasn’t I successful? Why wasn’t I published? Well, besides the fact that for many of the reasons listed above my work wasn’t good, I also wasn’t actually trying to get published. I wasn’t entering contests, I wasn’t submitting short stories, and I wasn’t really taking the deeper steps I needed to get where I wanted to go. Writing is hard, and putting it out there can be even harder. What if people don’t like what you’ve written? What if they’re mean or say no? Well, if they do, oh well. That’s life, and the fact is no matter what you write, it will never be perfect, and that’s okay. Do everything you can to make it the best you can, and then get it out there. In her book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anne Lamott says “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor,” and she’s right. It’s scary and hard and sad to get rejected, but publishing is even harder, and if you don’t go after it, if you don’t hunt it down like some crazy person in the woods, it’s not just going to curl up in your lap like an oversized lapdog, raining down success and happiness however that looks to you. Your story is important. You are important. Clean it up and take the risk.
  5. Feed yourself with intention. This feeds in to the neck and neck rival to the advice of “write” regarding writing, and that is to read, or, depending on your project, to see, to hear, to taste, to touch, to experience, to play or otherwise. Humans are social creatures. We need the world around us and cannot survive on just our own little islands. When you’re stuck, read a book, see a movie, celebrate others. This is part of the joy and beauty of these things. Surround yourself with inspiration, seek out the things that feed you and the stories inside (I’m looking at you, Jesus), and your urgency in writing will become more real, your desire to improve and share more sharp. You will be reminded why the stories humans tell are important, what different genres are capable of, and the boundaries we should rightfully keep, push or break. On the flip side, recognize when your “inspiration” is becoming an excuse. It is easy to justify that next episode of your favorite binge series as feeding your muse, (don’t worry, I’m guilty too), but just as overfeeding your pet without taking them for walks is going to lead to something unpleasant for both of you, feeding your mind without providing an outlet for all of the lovely things it is absorbing is not going to get your very important story from self to paper. Additionally, consider what it is you’re feeding your mind, the quality and content of your inspiration. Think of it like a diet. Sometimes you should splurge a little, sometimes you should broaden your palate, other times you might need to pull a Michael Phelps and eat twelve turkeys a day with protein powder for stuffing. It’s all going to depend on where you are, what you’re writing, and what your goals for it are. Don’t take yourself too seriously though, work hard, and remember that anything, even the most unexpected, foolish or insignificant thing can be infinitely inspiring.

Welp, that about sums up what I have for now. So, what about you? What advice or tips would you give? What would you tell your younger writing self?