In storytelling, the term, universal truth can often stop a writer in their tracks. Simply put, that truth creates a common frame of reference for the story. Like classic myths, this “truth” also rises above culture and language. We recognize it instantly—it resonates deeply.
Shakespeare was a master at theme and universal truth. And he’s the best example of a writer who mastered those aspects of the writing craft and remains relevant to this day. Among his MANY stories, Romeo and Juliet is still popular because of its universal and relatable themes. I remember balling my eyes out in the 7th grade when my sister and I went to the Rose Theater 4 weekends in a row to watch Romeo and Juliet.
Tattooed on my sappy teen-age soul is the last scene; both Romeo and Juliet die because they both believe the other is dead. SOB, SOB, SOB, went the pre-teen girls. They died for love, unable to bear living in a world without each other. We cried through our popcorn, we cried through our Dilly Bars, and we cried so loud that on weekend 5, the theater owner finally tossed us to the curb. Then in the 1980s when we had VCRs, (link added in case you’re too young to know what that is.) Anyway, we got the video. Then we locked everyone out of the house, curled up with popcorn on the couch on a Saturday morning and again, we cried.
WHY does a story capture our hearts in such a way? Generally, it’s the universal theme and truth; love, longing, desire, loss….
The Universal Truth can be anything that grounds the story along familiar lines; lost love, a dying parent, a betraying spouse, man’s (or woman’s) best friend (Dogs), a funeral, a wedding, or a family holiday dinner, to name just a few.
In literary writing a universal truth is an emotion or experience that the reader can relate to, no matter their language, upbringing, race, or life experiences. For example, when Tolstoy wrote, ‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ Most readers with a family immediately understood and agreed, making it a universal truth that transcends culture, privilege, time and space.
Additionally, a key component of a powerful personal narrative (essay) is a “universal truth,” also called “a life lesson.”
Life Lesson Examples:
Be true to yourself.
What goes around comes around.
You can’t always get what you want. (but you might get what you need)
Face your fears. (overcoming)
What goes around comes around (Karma).
You reap what you sow (you get out of life what you put into it). To survive is to live
A universal message is a message that resounds beyond the story—a message that has meaning even when you strip away the book’s details.
For example, the main theme in Gone with the Wind is survival during a time when traditions, ways of life and thinking, love and understanding are gone with the wind, like in the South during the Civil War, or any story during or post war. To submit that tradition, way of life, love and understanding can all be GONE WITH THE WIND, is a universal statement that was based on, or an extension of the universal theme of survival.
Why has Gone with the Wind been popular for so long? There are a lot of reasons (good and bad), but the strongest of which is the universal themes of the story. Survival and courage in a time of crisis, never giving up in the face of impossible odds, and of course the refrain “Tomorrow is another day” make the story timeless. Anyone, regardless of age, gender, orientation, religion, time or space, can hang on to. Readers and movie goers relate to the characters on some level or another. Because of this, it’s tough to pigeonhole Gone with the Wind as era-specific; it could be any era, any place, any time. Having said that, it certainly is a creation of its time, but the larger more universal themes and truths make it a timeless story.
Right now, sitting here at my computer, everyone under quarantine, my dog is bored, my husband is watching the tv on LOUD, and I’ve gained four pounds that I will call the quarantine four (like the college fifteen) anyway, I’m kinda liking that mantra, Tomorrow is another day.
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Did you know the first writer’s group was started in 400 BC. Yeppers, The Socrates School was a group of thinkers; Socrates and his students who pondered the weighty questions of life and contributed vastly to Western philosophy and ethics through their writings. It’s nice to know we writer’s groups have such deep, inspirational roots.
However, today’s writing groups need to rethink and reimagine how to function in the face of the CoronaVirus2020 outbreak. I‘ve had to re-examine why, and IF I want to continue to facilitate a writer’s group in a new format, online. I’ve never been a fan of online classes and workshops for myself, but necessity requires change; must move with the times, and all that.
Initially, I felt a loss for the social interaction of my weekly meeting. As I’m sure many do. I enjoyed seeing my group (20 plus writers) as they entered the classroom, talking about their projects, their personal journeys and just chatting with like minded creatives. I loved the energy in the room. I also observed on their faces that often, those two hours on Thursdays were a reprieve from everyday life. There is great power in being part of a group, finding your tribe so to speak, and I miss that. It’s hard to grasp that our safe place is now a potentially dangerous one, but it is what it is. Grandma always said, “This too shall pass” and it’s true. At some point we’ll meet in groups again. For now, and the next 60-90 days, we need to return to why we sought and or belong to a writing group in the first place.
Afterall, what is a writing group? A writing group is a tribe of like-minded people who come together in pursuit of the art or craft of writing. Or, in Socrates case, to provide the foundation of Western civilization.
In moving our group online (as I’m certain Socrates would have done) I’ve reexamined what I can provide, or not, in that new setting. For me, what I can bring to the table (or the microphone) is craft and critique. Those are my focuses, because these two subjects/practices have always improved my own writing. So, on with it then.
The first rule of a writer’s group is like that famous line author, Chuck Palahniuk introduced in his novel Fight Club, “The first rule of Fight Club is you do not talk about Fight Club.” That line is a wonderful chorus throughout the book, as well as a plot/structural device for the story. But no words in recent history have been parroted more often. That refrain was so powerful and ultimately popular that it’s now considered cliché. But clichés get a bad rap. Despite the golden rule in writing, of avoiding clichés (like the plague, HA!), it’s important to remember that popular phrases become cliché because they work. They are powerful, become popular, and are oft repeated. So, the challenge to writers is to create our own compelling phrases so we too, can write what ultimately becomes a cliché.
I know, I know, that was a writing lesson buried in a seemingly unrelated article. But hey, it’s all relative. Back to writing groups: EVERYTHING that is read, said, or critiqued in writing group, stays in writing group. TRUST is the first pillar of any successful joint endeavor.
Additionally a successful group starts with a shared vision. For example;
- To focus on the craft of writing, irrespective of genre.
- To offer one another thoughtful critiques and support.
- To encourage each other to share stories.
- To provide a weekly deadline so members will be inspired to put pen to paper (or fingers to pad) and write
- To become stronger writers through becoming better editors.
- To give feedback as we work on rough drafts of our memoirs, short stories, and novels.
While awaiting our live regrouping, we can do all these things online. And maybe right now, with all the stress we’re facing we can again provide a reprieve from everyday life.
However, if your reasons for being in a writing group are more social than educational–which is totally fine–online may not be satisfying for you as it is near impossible to have much socializing going on while reviewing work. So, in addition to what can be addressed in a writers’ group, it’s important to look at your reasons/goals for being there.
What are your writing goals? What do you hope to achieve? Given your objectives, reflect on why you want to participate in a writing group. Most people have several reasons for seeking a group. Here are some examples:
- Learn writing tips and enhance craft skills
- Get more feedback on work
- Desire for deadlines (forces them to write)
- Become a better writer/editor
- Belong to a group of writing contemporaries
- Share support, motivation, and encouragement to share stories
- Share a passion for writing
- And so on . . . .
If the online group you are considering has goals that are in alignment with yours, then go for it. If they do not, then take the next couple months to write. Who knows, you may birth a manuscript if you embrace this as a time of seclusion and self-reflection. What’s most important is that you keep your writing life alive during this challenging time and that you do that in whatever way suits you best. Just keep writing and look forward to the sunny days when we can get together in person and talk about writing and the writer’s life.
I made my husband strip down on the back porch. That’s right, I greeted him after a grocery store run and made him change clothes right there in the carport. While he did that, I disinfected the groceries on the back porch (in rubber gloves, of course). . . As a person with a challenged immune system, I am as stressed out (angry, frustrated, scared) as the next person about this coronavirus situation. I’m doing EVERYTHING possible to socially distance myself to the point of self quarantining since it all started and denying my poor puppy her fun days at her camp—she’s SO bored.
I haven’t left my house in since last Monday. And I sterilize, wash my hands until my skin is raw, and sneeze into my elbow. The last 2 weeks I have had a cold and probably a sinus infection, which is not uncommon for me, but it’s been scary. With every sneeze, ache, or pain I’ve wondered, is it the coronavirus?
As a writer, I don’t respond well to stress; I shut down. I can’t create when stressed, and I tend to not want to write about what’s stressing me out, so instead I binge. Not just on potato chips, but also on tv series; this week it’s The Indian Doctor and The Witcher (for the 2nd time). I take notes on stories or characters to be used later when I do feel like writing. I watch with a tablet and a pen, and frequently pause the program so I can make notes. That’s as good as it gets when I’m stressed. Otherwise, I’m looking forward to feeling good enough to go walk my dog, do some yoga, start destressing and figuring out what the new normal is going to be. I can’t imagine what the retirement account I worked, saved and invested in all my life, looks like right now. But, I can’t do anything about that right now; it is what it is.
Folks, we’re in this coronavirus chaos for a long time. The new normal will be very different from what normal was 10 days ago and everyone needs to grasp that FACT.
I liken it to the first time I was diagnosed with cancer; everything that came after a short 15 minutes in my doctor’s office, looked, felt, and would always be different, because I was different. I was awakened and transformed. Awakened to the possibilities of the life I still had, and whatever time was left, and transformed in the way one is when they’ve seen something they can’t unsee, or experienced something—a death, a broken heart, a tragic car accident, an illness—and now at the edge of that knowledge, they are a different person, awakened and transformed–there’s no going back.
Therefore, as a country, it’s time for the US (and the global community) to wake up, take care of one another, and be prepared for next time; be smarter, awakened to the possibility of new viruses, the need for supplies, cooperation, and humanity.
WE WILL BE DIFFERENT NOW. Nothing will go back to normal. For those of you who are saying things like, “it’s not my problem,” or “it’s not fair” or “it doesn’t affect me”, it’s time for you to grow up. YOU and everything you know is already changed; the only real question is, who will you be in the face of this transformation; your worst, or your best self? Let’s hope for the latter.
If you are a writer you can choose to use your voice to spread the word that this is real, this is DANGEROUS and we are all in it together. If you can, help the elderly get the supplies they need, if you have a sewing machine then make hospital masks, if you can give blood give blood. If you have a platform on twitter, Instagram and Facebook then encourage social distancing.
Otherwise, STAY HOME, STAY HOME STAY HOME, STAY HOME STAY HOME, STAY HOME STAY HOME, STAY HOME STAY HOME, STAY HOME STAY HOME, STAY HOME STAY HOME, STAY HOME STAY HOME, STAY HOME
A hero (protagonist) is presented with a problem, challenge, or adventure to undertake. Once this happens, there’s no returning to normal, no lounging in her ordinary world, because the CTA (call to adventure/action) has upset that applecart…she must act. Remember, a story is about a character doing something.
A CTA can be as subtle as a letter arriving, or the death or illness of a family member that forces the protag to return home. How many stories have we read/seen about a reluctant protag turning home? Why, because they tap into universal themes that resonate with audiences of all genres and all demographics.
Examples of over the top, life altering death defying CTA’s are;
In the Hunger Games when Katniss Everdeen volunteers for the 74th Hunger Games in place of her 12-year-old sister. It’s the call to action that sets the story in motion. Primary Theme; Survival.
In Breaking Bad it’s when Walter White gets the news that he’s dying. He doesn’t tell his family, but instead goes on a unique journey to ensure his family’s financial security. Themes; Begins on Survival, and the importance of family themes, then graduates to sin, regret and envy, and the corrupting influence of greed and power.
Count of Monte Cristo, when Edmond Dante is unjustly imprisoned and his desire for revenge drives him to escape and retaliate. Themes are a delicate balance between, vengeance and forgiveness, power and powerlessness. These universal themes are why that story has been told and retold since Alexandre Dumas wrote it in 1844.
So, in your story, can you identify your call to action? Does a letter arrive? Does your protagonist have to return home? Does your protagonist have to volunteer for something in order to save someone else? Was your protagonist just given a death sentence? How can you use that CTA to develop character and set your plot in motion?….Without a call to action, what’s the point?
REMEMBER, there are twelve stages to the Hero’s Journey, The Call to Adventure is only one.
- Ordinary World: This step refers to the hero’s normal life at the start of the story, before the adventure begins.
- Call to Adventure: The hero is faced with something that makes him begin his adventure. This might be a problem or a challenge he needs to overcome.
- Refusal of the Call: The hero attempts to refuse the adventure because he is afraid.
- Meeting with the Mentor: The hero encounters someone who can give him advice and ready him for the journey ahead.
- Crossing the First Threshold: The hero leaves his ordinary world for the first time and crosses the threshold into adventure.
- Tests, Allies, Enemies: The hero learns the rules of his new world. During this time, he endures tests of strength of will, meets friends, and comes face to face with foes.
- Approach: Setbacks occur, sometimes causing the hero to try a new approach or adopt new ideas.
- Ordeal: The hero experiences a major hurdle or obstacle, such as a life or death crisis.
- Reward: After surviving death, the hero earns his reward or accomplishes his goal.
- The Road Back: The hero begins his journey back to his ordinary life.
- Resurrection Hero – The hero faces a final test where everything is at stake and he must use everything he has learned.
- Return with Elixir: The hero brings his knowledge or the “elixir” back to the ordinary world, where he applies it to help all who remain there.
Consider writing a 500 word narrative of the scene where your character receives their call to action/adventure.
Regardless whether you’re a Plantser (an Outliner) or a Pantser (one who writes by the seat of their pants)—I’m a combo, a PLAN-ANTSER…HA! Did I just coin a term?—Anyway, no matter how you approach your short (or long) story, I recommend a basic story structure, like the classic, 3-Act. Aristotle wrote that a tragedy, (a type of plot) should be divided into parts: a beginning, a middle, and an end. He also believed that the events of the 3-part-plot must somehow relate to one another as being either necessary or credible. And so, we have the 3-Act-Structure.
The 3-Act Story Structure (Thank you Aristotle)
TIP: Before you design your structure consider first, what is the profound change you want your character to experience by the end? Why? Because the answer to that question should fuel your story through all 3-acts, delivering theme, character arc, and a satisfying resolution.
Act 1: BEGINNING – Set up. Introduce your characters; establish the story world, theme and tone. Here, your protagonist should be called to action, due to some sort of crisis point (inciting incident) that shakes up their ordinary world and launches them into a new one.
Act 2: MIDDLE – Conflict. Avoid saggy middles by plunging the protagonist and allies deeper into even more difficulties and obstacles. Often things get worse and they need to re-group and get back on their feet, before things can get better.
Act 3: END – Resolution. This is where your main character(s) figures things out, and actually develops the courage, or a plan to face their demons, slay their dragons, and solve their problems. As a writer, you should always write towards a satisfying ending. That’s why I started with the TIP of knowing what you want your character to experience, their ARC, by the story’s end.
This is a typical story structure is a good starting point if you want to write short stories. I also do this for novel length stories as well. Smart guy, that Aristotle, he sure knew what he was talking about.
And here’s a little you tube (6 minutes) with additional ideas on structuring short stories, starting with Anne Lamont’s acronym ABDCE
Hey Scribes! This video is for you. So sorry we had to cancel our weekly Edmonds writing group today, but we don’t have any protocol or real understanding of the Coronavirus just yet, so, an abundance of caution seemed to be wise. ANYWAY, on to what we were going to cover today; #Shortstories. In this clip that I made in my cozy nook at home, I’ve read a couple examples of the beginning of short stories for things to ponder as you imagine your own. We’ll dig in next week. Meanwhile the stories I’ve chosen as my examples today are Lauren Groff’s Delicate Edible Birds, and Jo Ann Beard’s, The Tomb of Wrestling. I love them both.
SO, hopefully my short message will keep you in the writing groove because next week we’re going to start looking at short stories. And in case you are wondering, a short story is; Traditional, 1500-5000 wds — Flash Fiction, 500-1000 wds — Micro Fiction, 5-350 wds Remember,
“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Maybe by Hemingway, but nobody is sure.
Anyway, here’s my video, it’s about 10 minutes.
Harvey Weinstein is GUILTY!!! Duh! But YEY!
Beyond the Hero’s Journey, there’s no denying it, rebellious female characters—from Katniss Everdeen to Olive Kitteridge—dominate literary fiction.
Following the countless cases of male victimization and sexual harassment in the headlines lately, it seems that fictional heroines reflect a mood of defiance with the world that men have programmed and ruled. There’s a new movement of modern-day heroines who are damaged, flawed or even unapologetically ridiculous. Some who still seek romance, sure, but others who just as self-assuredly seek a one-night stand with or without a man. And while she may change in the progression of the story, divulging strengths and tactics that astonish us, a woman’s conformity is no longer required.
Carl Jung’s archetypes are the building blocks of the story world. In Chris Vogler’s book, The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, he teaches about the vital use of archetypes in storytelling; the hero, the mentor, the threshold guardian and so on….
Beyond those central standards are the 8 FEMALE ARCHETYPES writers should be paying close attention to.
According to Jungian psychologists, there are 7 feminine archetypes prevailing in modern society—the Mother, the Maiden, the Queen, the Huntress, the Wise Woman, the Mystic and the Lover, to which I add, the emergent, Mermaid.
The Mermaid Archetype is emerging in today’s troubled world. This seductive, wild, Mermaid represents the feminine power of water—strong, loving, nurturing, self-indulgent and gorgeous, yet at the same time untamable, belligerent and outrageously independent—picture Aquaman’s mermaid mother, played by Nicole Kidman. She is a shapeshifter, a turbulent temptress, representative of both the loving abundant features of the ocean and the raw immense power of the seas and its undercurrents. Love and adore her, yes, but don’t piss her off!
These newly resurrected and empowered archetypes are used in modern day literature, on screen, and they now permeate society far beyond the secret whisperings of Jane Austen, to the anger of Lizbeth Salander, to the controlled madness of Gone Girl, and the literal Mermaid in Aquaman.
Archetypes have a language all their own. In the DNA of that unspoken language we often find the words and images essential for communicating our (personal and fictional) otherwise indescribable inner worlds (thoughts and feelings). Inner and outer continuously seek one another, and it is the sacred labor of the writer (or artist) to bring the two into artistic relationship; to reach deep into the hearts and minds of readers and provoke a rich and enlightening story experience.
Writers should be having fun with these emerging archetypes and should be delving DEEP into their imaginations to tap these mythic like women, Amazons or Mystics, for the multi-layered storytelling of which the world hungers.
Oh, and did I mention, Harvey Weinstein is GUILTY!!!
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We must get all the cantankerous, crabby, complaining stuff out in order to clear the path for what’s to come.
As a fiction writer, I find this to be an invaluable tool. Often it’s tough to get my brain to stop obsessing about the day; my grocery list, meetings, phone calls, arguments, what time does my husband get home, and for goodness sakes I need to call my mom, and etc.…the day at hand. I need to get through those twenty-foot reeds to get to the creative side of my brain, and sometimes I just can’t get through them on my own. That’s where the morning pages come in. Writing LONGHAND, which means no typing, gives you access to your subconscious mind in a way that does not happen when using a computer. In addition, it’s good for your brain, science says so. Don’t believe me, read this Forbes article.
I like to think of my shadow self as the seven dwarfs; Grumpy, Dopey, Doc, Happy, Bashful, Sneezy and Sleepy.
The seven dwarfs symbolize different aspects of our self (dark and light sides).
Happy embraces the universe from a delighted state of mind and emotions.
Sneezy repels or banishes anything unwholesome that comes from the world.
Bashful helps us return to our secluded cosmos, giving us respite from the world.
Grumpy is the part of us that struggles against light.
Doc leads the parade in whining and complaining. Doc is the intellectual side that keeps us in touch with spiteful reality.
Sleepy is the turn-the-power-off apparatus within us, enabling us to take a break from chaos, to shut down when we need time alone.
Then there’s Dopey who embodies our naïve, innocent nature wonderfully unaware of the perils whirling around us.
Once I’ve written my way through those disruptive dwarfs, and they are all down for their nap, I start my writing journey and when I’m lucky I often arrive on Snow White’s doorstep—my inner writer.
Snow White symbolizes the purity and innocence that exists within us all. She beautifies the scenery of our mind, our thoughts, and feelings. She echoes our innermost radiance and reveals our most imaginative intelligence.
From this safe creative space—dwarves hushed—I can create.
And once I’ve started creating, I delve deeper into the stories I’m trying to tell. It’s only then, when the dwarfs are quiet, and Snow White is safe, that I can access my even darker self and craft an antagonist, aspiring to one like Snow White’s Queen.
The Queen—Snow White’s antagonist—represents our inner demons, the untamed ego, greed and the desire of self-gratifying pursuits. The Queen is the false (image) of self—the truest representation of a shadow-self.
Anyway, for me to arrive at a place where I can write a protagonist and an antagonist worth exploring, I need to silence the voices inside my head—That’s tongue-in-cheek, people. I do not really hear voices in my head. Just workin’ an analogy here—That means those annoying dwarves must take a nap. They have to behave, be quiet, and let me write.
Therefore, I allow them to have their say first, like toddlers; once I’ve listened to their wants, needs and complaints, they can go down for nap. QUIET TIME!
Moreover, for me, one way to achieve that goal is through morning pages, afternoon pages, writing in my car, or maybe sitting in a cafe in Florence writing my morning pages while my husband climbs the Duomo.
Keep writing everyone. Silence those dwarves, but let them play on occasion.
I know this is sacrilege, to speak against To Kill a Mockingbird, but speak I must; First, like everyone else of my generation I loved the movie, liked the book and the story lives on in my childhood DNA. However, now in the 21st century it should not be overlooked that To Kill a Mockingbird was written by the alabaster-skinned, Harper Lee, a privileged daughter of the Old South.
When I ask writers what their favorite books are, many raise their hands and say, “To Kill a Mockingbird”, to which everyone in the room nods as if to say Amen, can I get a witness! Oops! That’s my Baptist upbringing oozing out… Anyway, then I ask, “When did you last read it?” Inevitably the answer is, “In grade school.” So (I ask) “How NOW is that one of your favorite books when you read it 5 decades ago?”
When I go further into discussion of the book, the story, even the mistakes and typos, everything (except Lee’s style, which is beautiful) they can’t seem to recall much beyond the moral lesson—that take away that caused a generation to take a passive pause—And then they recall Atticus, Boo and Scout, because they are part of our mythos now.
Anyway, you gotta wonder; is loving TKM considered as American as apple pie and ‘can I get a witness’???? Is having issues with it as sacrilege as burning the red, white and blue?
Toni Morrison once dismissed the novel as a “white savior story”, except that Atticus failed to save Tom Robinson. I agree.
To me as a writer, and now as an adult reader, the devastating flaw in Lee’s creation of Atticus is his passiveness and acceptance of rampant, murderous racism as the status quo. As the designer of his character (the author) rather than having him assigned by the court to defend Tom Robinson, I would have had him insist on serving as the innocent man’s lawyer—not because it’s his occupation but because it’s his duty. This assertion would have energized him and the story. He tells Scout, “Every lawyer gets at least one case in his lifetime that affects him personally. This one’s mine, I guess.” Could he be more passive and unaffected? Could his moral compass be more limp-noodled? Tom Robinson’s damnation by the jury should have ripped the very fabric of Atticus Finch to shreds. But it didn’t because at his core, he too, was a racist, he expected it all along and just went through the motions, with a ‘that’s just the way things are’ attitude. And it’s that attitude that brings us back to the inescapable white woman sensibilities of the author.
Oh sure, Atticus was passively valiant when he stood on the steps of the jail blocking the rope totting white mob from reaching Tom Robinson—but that kind of bravery lacked fortitude and conviction, he was just doing his job, an empty gesture.
However, I think the typical American who revers that book would rather not consider the apathy, laziness, and lack of moral conviction of Atticus Finch. Rather, they indulge in the cute voice of a little girl named Scout who spoon-feeds her girlish moral observations in a way that is not too uncomfortable to digest.
TKM doesn’t ask us to challenge our scruples (like Huck Finn did) no, it allows us to just sit back and be charmed by that little girl, so satisfied by the decency of her father.
Loving and extolling Mockingbird eases our self-blame, and in doing so, absolves us of accountability. It feels good, it feels right, to cherish this novel—AMEN! It feels like it’s what we’re supposed to do. It seduces by attaching itself to our nostalgia and then by satiating our flaccid conscience like the junk food on which we mindlessly indulge. Yep, as long as there are Atticus Finches in the world, someone will step up and take charge, and you yourself can remain in your reclining chair, popcorn in hand watching movies that make you feel like you’ve agreed with the moral thing to do instead of getting up and doing it. We Americans prefer our morality boiled down into easy bite size titbits, and so the lax-a-daisy one-liner-ethics of Mockingbird were and remain appetizing for millions.
Aside from TKM’s Black/African-American stereotypes, of which I am not qualified (as a white woman) to discuss with the fervor they deserve, there are other toxic messages. As writers, we have the potential to send messages, intentional or not, good and bad, via our stories, that are more far-reaching than we imagine.
For example, Imagine that you are an African-American seventh-grade boy in Mississippi today, and are asked to read TKM. Then imagine that it reinforces your haunting suspicion that you are treated differently because of the color of your skin, and that you’ll never get a fair trial if you are suspected of something, like Tom Robinson.
Or, you’re an underprivileged, white seventh-grade girl in Anywhere USA today, asked to read TKM. Then, sadly, you are raped, but after reading that book and digesting other social observations, you stay quiet, believing that people don’t believe girls who say they’ve been raped, like the book says, everyone should have doubted Mayella Ewell.
I could go on and on about how toxic the messages of TKM are, or the changes that have not occurred these 50 some years later, but don’t worry, I won’t. What I will say is that if you are a writer, then please create all your characters (primary and supporting) with more verve and vigor than the limp noodled morally ambiguous Atticus Finch.
In addition, when you’re in a writing group or class and you’re asked, “What are your favorite books” at least have read said books in the last decade. When a writing instructor asks you that question, she/he is asking you what/who influences your writing and the stories you tell. They are also asking you why those influences have stayed with you, what’s evocative about them, why do they matter??? So, when people tell me TKM is their favorite book I invite them to re-read it now and then let’s talk. So far, no takers.
Climbing down off my soapbox now. Scattered Rant is over.
“The wonderful thing about writing is that there is always a blank page waiting.
The terrifying thing about writing is that there is always a blank page waiting.” J.K. Rowling
I just returned from a whirlwind trip through Scotland. Our last stay was the Balmoral Hotel, one of Edinburgh’s most luxurious hotels, where J.K. Rowling finished her final book in the Harry Potter series. Devoted, and wealthy fans pay almost £1,000 a night to stay in the room, which contains the marble bust she signed after completing her last HP book.
All the doors on the 5th floor were white, except one. My room was 5 doors down from the now famous ‘purple door’ that is room 552, and has the famous ‘J.K. Rowling Suite’ brass plaque, and where just behind that enchanted door, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was completed.
One night, while heading downstairs to meet my brother for dinner I heard a group of people chuckling, shivering, and twittering while taking pictures. Though they were all in their 40s, they stood, posed, and giggled as if 12-years old on the precipice of the purple door with the JK Rowling brass plaque. I offered to take a group shot. They posed like they were excited teens on graduation day. Then, over the next few days I noticed groups getting off the elevator in search of the famous door. “Our tour guide told us where to go.” One man said. I pointed the way. He was kind enough to take this kid’s picture by the purple door. 🙂
Great, I thought, strangers are coming in to take pictures, and I’m just a couple doors down. That didn’t make me feel terrible safe, until I realized all these touristy HP fans were reduced to giggling children in the presence of that door. I smiled every time I saw a group of them exit the elevator, fresh out of the rain, down coats zipped, but cameras ready. What a gift JK Rowling’s novels have given to kids of all ages.
National Novel writing month (NANOWRIMO) is next month, November. Now back in the states, I’m due to give a talk next week in preparation for that upcoming 30-day writing challenge. I’ll talk about creating the habit of writing, possibly plugging into the NANOWRIMO community and how to overcome obstacles on the path to completing their writing projects. JK ROWLING is a great, if not the golden example of a person, a writer, who can make it through anything – single motherhood, depression, financial difficulties and rejection upon rejection from the publishing world – who persevered and went on to publish one of the most popular series of all time.
We all want to write a bestseller (right?), so – being fresh off a 10-hour flight home from Scotland – it seems an opportune time to review a bit of J.K. Rowling’s quotes and sage advice to writers.
- J.K. Rowling said: “What you write becomes who you are… So make sure you love what you write!” One of the reasons the Harry Potter books are so infectious is because the reader absorbs and is transported by her sheer delight and love of the world she created – and all the characters in them. If you’re passionate about how and what you write, you’ll entice readers into your fantasy world. So write your passion. Readers will follow.
- “Be ruthless about protecting writing days. Do not cave in to endless requests to have “essential” and “long overdue” meetings on those days. The funny thing is that, although writing has been my actual job for several years now, I still seem to have to fight for time in which to do it. Some people do not seem to grasp that I still have to sit down in peace and write the books, apparently believing that they pop up like mushrooms without my connivance. I must therefore guard the time allotted to writing as a Hungarian Horntail guards its firstborn egg.”
- “You’ve got to work. It’s about structure. It’s about discipline. It’s all these deadly things that your school teacher told you you needed… You need it.”
- “I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me.”
- “Write what you know: your own interests, feelings, beliefs, friends, family and even pets will be your raw materials when you start writing. Develop a fondness for solitude if you can, because writing is one of the loneliest professions in the world!”
- “Write something that a publisher would want to publish (it only takes one, but it might take a while to find them. If you are turned down by every single publisher in existence, you will have to consider the possibility that what you have written is not publishable). Next, you need to approach the publisher, either directly, or (which is advisable if you can manage it) by securing an agent who will act on your behalf. The best way to find agents’ and publishers’ addresses is to consult ‘The Writer’s and Artist’s Yearbook’, which is updated every year (Double-check that you are writing to the right person/people; don’t, for example, send science fiction to a publisher of medical textbooks). Wait. Pray. This is the way Harry Potter got published.”
- “Sometimes you have to get your writing done in spare moments here and there.”
- “I always advise children who ask me for tips on being a writer to read as much as they possibly can. Jane Austen gave a young friend the same advice, so I’m in good company there.”
- “Perseverance is absolutely essential, not just to produce all those words, but to survive rejection and criticism.”
- “What you write becomes who you are… So make sure you love what you write!”
- “All a writer needs is talent & ink.”
- “Failure is inevitable — make it a strength.”
- “You have to resign yourself to the fact that you waste a lot of trees before you write anything you really like, and that’s just the way it is. It’s like learning an instrument, you’ve got to be prepared for hitting wrong notes occasionally, or quite a lot, cause I wrote an awful lot before I wrote anything I was really happy with.”
- “I just write what I wanted to write. I write what amuses me. It’s totally for myself.”
- “Moments of pure inspiration are glorious, but most of a writer’s life is, to adapt the old cliché, about perspiration rather than inspiration. Sometimes you have to write even when the muse isn’t cooperating.”
- From JK Rowling’s twitter; “I plan a lot. This particular novel’s plan comprises a vast, complicated, colour-coded table showing all the suspects, with blue ink for clues and red ink for red herrings.” After J.K. Rowling finished the first book in the Harry Potter series, she realised she’d given away the whole plot of the series. So she had to rewrite it, and hold back a number of integral plot points.
Planning and plotting are essential. It took five years for her to create and develop every last detail of the Harry Potter world. Every part of Rowling’s books was planned, right down to how the Wizards and Muggles interacted, what the education was like, how magic helped in life and how the wizarding world was governed. She also plotted out all the events of the seven books before she wrote the first.
- Rewriting is equally essential. She rewrote the opening chapter of her first book a total of fifteen times.
- “Fear of failure is the saddest reason on earth not to do what you were meant to do. I finally found the courage to start submitting my first book to agents and publishers at a time when I felt a conspicuous failure. Only then did I decide that I was going to try this one thing that I always suspected I could do, and, if it didn’t work out, well, I’d faced worse and survived.
Ultimately, wouldn’t you rather be the person who actually finished the project you’re dreaming about, rather than the one who talks about ‘always having wanted to’?” J.K. Rowling’s website.
- “Resisting the pressure to think you have to follow all the Top Ten Tips religiously, which these days take the form not just of online lists, but of entire books promising to tell you how to write a bestseller/what you MUST do to be published/how to make a million dollars from writing.
I often recommend a website called Writer Beware (https://accrispin.blogspot.com) to new and aspiring writers. It’s a fantastic resource for anyone who’s trying to decide what might be useful, what’s worth paying for and what should be avoided at all costs. Unfortunately, there are all kinds of scams out there that didn’t exist when I started out, especially online.” J.K. Rowling’s website.
- And finally, from J.K. Rowling’s website; “Ultimately, in writing as in life, your job is to do the best you can, improving your own inherent limitations where possible, learning as much as you can and accepting that perfect works of art are only slightly less rare than perfect human beings. I’ve often taken comfort from Robert Benchley’s words: ‘It took me fifteen years to discover I had no talent for writing, but I couldn’t give it up, because by that time I was too famous.’”
Keep writing, aim high no matter the odds, and if you need a nudge check out the NANOWRIMO community. Cheers, Mindy