Like the dead mouse your cat proudly drops at your feet, 2020 has offered a number of unasked-for gifts. Fashion masks. The return of the shag haircut. Zoom school. And a new phrase: Social distancing.
Did you ever hear it or say it before this year? Me neither. Ever curious, I looked it up. It turns out “social distancing” was first used back in 2003 at the time of the SARS epidemic, although no one in particular is credited as the author of the term.
The World Health Organization apparently finds the phrase regrettable, and would like us to think of physical distancing instead, since that’s the real message. To prevent the spread of COVID-19, you can socialize all you want; just not in person.
In our writing, narrative distance is one of those writing craft topics too often overlooked. Here’s the question to ask, and you have to answer it sentence by sentence: What distance have you put between your...
The story of Thanksgiving that I was taught growing up was mostly a bunch of hooey.
That familiar fiction of friendly Pilgrims and helpful Native Americans getting along feels terrific to tell and hear, if that’s the only story you know. It has no bad guys. It both instructs and inspires. If only we could all be so peaceful, welcoming, and cooperative!
The problem, of course, is that it’s not the truth. There’s a gut-wrenching history of slaughter and appropriation just outside the margins of the tale that I was taught as a child.
In terms of writing craft, we’re talking about point of view. Who’s doing the telling? To whom? And, importantly, to what end?
It’s said that history is written by the victors, but serious historians are always challenging the narratives offered by their predecessors. New research and new perspectives can’t change what happened in the past, but they can...
Today I had an adventure, and it was all about cheese. (I promise this will end up being about writing, so just bear with me for a minute.)
Call me the hero of the tale. My mission was to grocery shop for Thanksgiving. My partner and I are safely COVID-bubbled, and my son and his partner will be coming for an outdoor meal, to be served at opposite ends of my ample-sized terrace. As far as I was concerned, I was cooking for a regiment.
Now, I grew up in an Italian family, and I spent the first 53 years of my existence as a New Yorker. On holidays, I want Italian specialty items — I’m talking prosciutto, olives, really good imported cheese — and I was not raised to purchase them from a supermarket, uninterestingly wrapped in plastic!
No! You go to Little Italy! You head to the Italian market and elbow your way to the counter and you get the good stuff. (Here’s where I used to shop, in case you’re curious.)...
Writing is a paradoxical pursuit. It requires us to be wildly, freely imaginative, and meticulously disciplined about how we express those imaginings.
It sounds like the old rubbing-your-tummy-while-patting-your-head-trick. Luckily, we don’t have to do those jobs at same time. There is the drafting hat, and there is the revising hat.
When we’ve got the drafting hat on, we must (must!) drop our attachment to writing drafts that are "good.” We must suspend judgment and be willing to spew raw matter onto the page. We must do quite a bit of this, to sniff out the character and her need, and unearth the shape of the story we want to tell. Much of our drafting will take place in this freewheeling mode of discovery.
I call it the messy mudpie stage. A writer should stay in this mode for as long as she needs to be there. But at some point during the first draft, or perhaps after it’s complete, it’s time to take off the mud-splattered...
When I was eighteen years old, I had a truly extraordinary stroke of luck
It was 1980 and I was an acting student at NYU, in the fall of my sophomore year. I was not a great student, honestly. To succeed in the New York theatre was my dream, but there was much about it that flew way over my naïve suburban head.
But luck found me nevertheless. After attending an open audition for a new musical with a score written by Stephen Sondheim, one of my idols, I was cast in a Broadway show.
Recall that I was eighteen. I was a student. My resume was a list of all the school plays I'd been in during high school. How could this happen?
Nevertheless, it happened. That show was called MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG, and it was directed by Broadway legend Harold Prince.
There are so many great Hal stories. Many have been told and retold, but one that sticks with me was his career-long practice every time he opened a new show. Whenever...
When, oh when are these writing tips going to serve up some cute cat pix?
Today’s the day, gang. Look at that little orange cutie in the drawer. Cute! Cat! Pix!
It’s a nice diversion, right? But also unexpected. At least, I expect you’ll find it so!
Yesterday I wrote about how important it is to keep both hero and reader informed about where the story’s heading. That promised ordeal at the end of the second act is no surprise. It’s the climactic scene we’ve been waiting for all along.
The ordeal is the destination you tapped into your hero's GPS at the end of the first act, or the very beginning of the second. Now, after all the trials and revelations of that long expanse of middle, the moment has come. The promised destination has been reached. Finally, the story announces, in its perky robot voice, "You’ve arrived.”
And then, something unexpected happens.
That Wizard of Oz...
You know I love a good pithy saying. Here’s one I made up, just for you: Good books get read; great books get reread.
Think of the books on your shelves. Most of them you’ll read once, but the ones you absolutely love you will surely read again and again.
A great book is a friend for life. The better you know it, the more you love to reread it — and you can take that as proof that great storytelling does not depend on keeping secrets from the reader.
A common authorial misstep is to conceal the hero’s true mission from the reader.
Why do this? These authors mistakenly assume that secrecy equals suspense. They hope that the reader will keep reading in order to find out what’s really going on.
It’s a false hope, alas. The reader keeps reading to find out not what the climactic scene of the plot is, but how that scene turns out.
Will the Wizard help Dorothy get home to Kansas? Will...
“How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” It’s an old joke, and the punchline, of course, is “practice!”
“Head north on Broadway and make a right on 57th Street” is also a correct answer, but it limits itself to physical circumstances only. Such literal-minded directions might get you to the door of the building, but they won't make you a world-class player. Only many, many hours of tush-on-bench with guidance from a worthy instructor will achieve that outcome.
My ruminations yesterday about story energy are the fruits of a lifelong practice in the storytelling arts. A mix of study, mentorship, and a huge volume of hands-on doing has served me well. To incline toward action is advice worth its weight in gold; if you don’t write a lot, your writing will not improve.
If your writing is not all you wish it were, that’s all the more reason to produce more of...
Yesterday’s talk of tricksters got me thinking about the archetypal energies that infuse every story. I call them energies because I consider storytelling a form of energy.
If that sounds a bit vague or metaphysical to you, consider this: A story is not its physical form. It is not the book between hardcovers; it is not the film on celluloid or digital data; it is not the little clickable box on your Netflix home page that takes you (at last!) to the new season of The Crown. Now you know what I’m doing this weekend!
Story is a non-physical phenomenon that connects both author-to-reader and reader-to-reader. It’s the deep engagement with fictional characters in a made-up world; the feeling of having taken a journey with those characters and being altered by the trip, just as we are affected by the events of our real lives.
Oral traditions may manifest in written versions that later get made into...
Sometimes my Path of the Storyteller students get that furrowed-brow look. They’re trying to invent, trying to write well, trying to get to the end of a draft, all the while knowing that many revisions will be in store before the book is “done.”
That’s when we talk about the need to be playful. We’re just making stuff up here, people! We writers have total power over what happens on our pages, and a boundless capacity to invent, toss, and invent again. If we do our jobs well, we will have created something that never existed before. A new story! What could be better? There ought to be much joy involved.
It’s a good writing practice, too. As your story picks up pace and builds in intensity, a few well-placed moments of levity are always welcome. This is where a bit of trickster energy might be just the banana peel you’re looking...