Before I mount the podium here, allow me to thank you all for your suggestions for the content and focus of Storyfix moving forward.
The clear leader is the call for more story deconstruction, with good showings for genre differentiation, sub-plotting, short story structure, first plot point confusion, multiple protagonists and POV, scene execution, keeping a little pansting in a planning process, writing memoirs, structuring a series and more on beat sheets.
Great stuff, guess I”ll be busy for a while. Keep ’em coming, I’m all ears.
And now for today’s sermon…
So I was sitting in church this morning when it hit me.
Saying that — the “C” word — some of you have already clicked off. Nothing tosses up a wall quicker than the mention of religion or belief systems, so allow me to caveat the hell out of this right up front.
Almost as high as the wall that springs erect when it is suggested that you can’t write a story that works without understanding and planning the elements of its composition in context to the limitations of your chosen process.
No, this isn’t about church. Or God. Or anything you believe in that regard, or in contradiction to that regard.
This is about writing from the heart.
Our regular pastor was sick today, he’d lost his voice and had been unexpectedly sentenced to a month of utter silence (perhaps proving that it is not only publishers who indeed work in mysterious ways). So the associate minister had to step in last minute, which I imagine was a bit like what Josh Groban felt like when, at the age of 17 he was summoned to stand-in for Andre Bocelli in a modest little duet called The Prayer with none other than Celine Dion, and at no less a venue than the television performance of the Grammy Awards.
All that turned out rather well for Josh, but today’s shot at congregational stardom seemed destined for a different outcome
To be honest, it was hard to watch at first. The poor guy was visibly nervous, overly reliant on hand-scribbled notes that seemed out of order, allowing too many awkward silences peppered with a preponderance of “uhs” and “ums” adding to an otherwise syrupy level of tension in the room. While it was a safe and supportive audience, but it was not unlike watching a fourth grader sing his first solo from Oklahoma on parent’s night. Wearing braces.
And then something happened.
Our young pastor departed from what seemed like a hastily-assembled script to tell us a story. It was about a recent day when he’d ventured downtown to volunteer in a relief effort for homeless people, which literally took place beneath the bridge where these folks camped in discarded furniture boxes each night.
He’d drawn the short straw and found himself — I kid you not — washing the feet of folks who hadn’t bathed since Obama took office. As he did, his faith tested mightily, one old fellow began to tell him a story about losing everything to alcohol — his wife, his children, his career, his health, his faith, and nearly his life on frequent occasions.
The young minister was humbled and moved, and by the conclusion of their time together the two had reached an understanding about life, faith and the reasons to press forward when all seems lost. His point was that the experience profoundly changed him, that he felt served by the man whose feet he was soothing rather than the intended other way around.
The Book of Ruth had bombed, but the story of a pair of blackened feet held in the hands of an unworthy stranger with an agenda caused time itself to slow enough to facilitate processing.
The three minutes of that story were nothing short of a narrative miracle. I’d always hoped to see one in a room with a cross and a pipe organ, and this morning it happened. Because this perfectly nice, well-intended young minister with a great haircut and zero public speaking skills had suddenly, through a process of completely disappearing into the story he was telling, transformed into an eloquent approximation of Sir Lawrence Olivier doing a Shakespeare monolog.
There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. And while the sinner in me sat among them with the same rivited focus and humble acceptance of the power of human connection, the writer in me realized this was something I needed to tell you about.
Because that state of passion, tempered by grace, is precisely what we’re shooting for when we are choosing and assembling out stories. The degree to which we reach that level defines the probability of our story reaching an audience.
It wasn’t the first time I’d scene this miracle play out before my eyes.
A few years ago at a weekend-long writing workshop I asked everyone to “pitch” their current work-in-progress to the group. Like singing for the family, you could see utter terror manifesting on the collective faces, almost as if they’d just been told they had to sit through a lunch with Dick Cheney in the Haliburton executive break room.
This exercise would go down after some 20 hours of intense focus on the infrastructure of stories, the relationship between the six core competencies and the packaging of it all into an elevator pitch that might compel a cranky agent to beg for more.
One woman, a lovely person and a fine writer, had been working on the same story for several years, a history novel set in Mexico about the rebellion against Spanish oppession in the early part of the 19th century. Meaty stuff , complete with an astounding heronie, a passionate love story and enough political grist to make David McCulloch green with envy. The kind of story that, when done well, turns dreams into careers.
When it came her turn to pitch she assumed the position in the center of the living room at the conference center, a tablet of notes held in hands that were literally shaking. It was apparent from the opening nod that she wasn’t sure where to begin — she had to be reminded to tell us the title of her novel — and there were tense gaps between set-up and plot points and character backstory and agenda, all as if someone had dropped her notes off the balcony and she was reeling them off in the order she’d plucked them up from the floor… blindfolded.
After a few minutes of this I interrupted her by reaching forward and taking the notes from her hands. I smiled with geniuine hope as I sat back down and quietly said, “Okay, from the beginning.”
The ensuing moment of silence was epic.
It was as if the ghost of Margaret Mitchell had entered the room and hijacked the writer’s countenence. She closed her eyes, drew a deep breath, and then, visibly relaxed — she looked like a different person within seconds — she began to speak.
The story emerged with masteful command, flowing from set-up to conflict to personal agenda with seamless ease, floating on the music of fluid language that was as if it had been read from the polished manuscipt itself. The group was held spellbound, captive not only to the story but also in wonder at this woman who had temporarily lost and then lockd on to a story she knew as if she had lived it.
I’ll never forget that moment, the way she wept as the group rose as one to our feet to applaud her command of both the boldness of her thrusting plotline and the deft touch of lives changed and intertwined in pursuit of something larger than themselves.
You could almost smell the movie deal. And it smelled a lot like Antonio Banderas and Jennifer Lopez.
It made me realize, and remember, that everything we want as we strive to understand the process of story planning is destined for that same level of competence and peaceful assurance. Sometimes it requires several drafts to get there, each exploiting the last to trim and tweak and breath life into stillborne moments. Sometimes it take a long countship of dancing with ideas and structures and elemental relationships, waiting for the moment when it all falls into its place with organic ease, leaving nary a glimmer of light between the pieces that might expose a gap of storytelling weakness.
In story development, we are working toward that moment when we can put down our notes and step away from our maunscript and allow the dramatic narrative to pour out of us with breathless passion and an assured proficiency that comes from the collision of elements as they meld into theme, where character and plot merge into a sum in excess of their parts, and where a listerer is enraptured by the mere notion of it being possible, a life lived and an adventure taken on pages that have yet to be filled.
Like an architect who never left the side of the builder, there no intersection of parts or sweeping arc of roofline that esacpes our understanding in terms of mission, function and effectiveness in our stories. Nothing is there by chance, even when it was summoned in a moment of impetuous creative lightning timed perfectly to a specific moment in the narrative sequence.
Sometimes what we think of as organic kismet is nothing other than our subconscience kicking in something it already knows will work, even when you don’t. But if you haven’t given your subconscience enough story grist to chew on, it’ll never happen that way.
We must write with this end in mind. With the intention of owning our stories before and as we write them, and to a degree that calls for nothing less than the artful assembly of language that is capable of penetrating the thick yet eager resistence of human comprehension.
It’s a miracle when it happens. Like love itself, it sometimes chooses us, but we must always choose it in return. And with that choice comes a price, paid over hours of lonely communion with spirits of our own conjuring who demand our blood and our pride be spilled onto every page… in a proper order… at a proper pace… and with a reason to be there.