Understanding Story, Plot and Narrative

Rip Van Winkle

“Rip Van Winkle” is the quintessential American short story.  It is compact, has an impact, and a beginning, middle and end that you can read in one setting.  More importantly it has humor.  The story is full of meaningful descriptions and imagery.  “Rip Van Winkle” is simply enjoyable and fun to read.  Like other short stories, it is influenced by historical features of the time when it was written.  And, the story has a message.  It is no coincidence that “Rip Van Winkle” is the archetypal American short story.  It was published in 1819 by Washington Irving who created and helped define the characteristics of the American short story.  This short story, because it is such a classic model, is a wonderful vehicle for literary analysis.  In this post I will use “Rip Van Winkle” to illustrate a few literary terms.  These terms are story, narrative, plot and fable.

Story, plot and narrative are related topics that should be discussed together to fully understand the differences.  According to M.H. Abrams in A Glossary of Literary Terms, story is the series of events that make up any work.  Plot refers to how a work is structured.  A narrative is the details and descriptions of events, places and characters. The three make up the substance of a literary work.

If story is simply the events and characters in the story, the plot is how those events are arranged to create the effect that the writer is going for and narrative is the details that engage the reader and support the build up to a climactic event.  A good analogy for these three terms is planning a trip, plotting on a map all the things you want to visit, and communicating the lovely vacation to your friends back home.  Once you have that visual representation of the things you want to do and people you want to visit (story), you can plan the best route for visiting those things (plot).  When you visit your great-grandmother who has lived in Tuscany all her life she will relate the significance of each thing you saw and any events you experienced in that beautiful region (narrative). 

In relation to Irving’s tale, the story is about a man who avoids household chores, avoids his wife, helps all the other people in the village, spends long afternoons chatting at the inn, falls asleep for twenty years and spends the last years of his life without a wife, without chores and doing all that he loves best.  The events are well plotted out to give the reader a clear and sometimes humorous picture of life in early America.  Life at that time, in this country, was raw and full of potential.  Being able to redefine oneself and one’s country was a heady experience.  Irving, while defining the American short story, was giving a sense of the American experience at the beginnings of this nation for the reader.  It is through the richly detailed imagery in the narrative that the story comes to life for us.  One scene gives us a vivid picture of the characters and life way back then.  Dame Van Winkle “would suddenly break in upon the tranquility of the assemblage and call the members all to naught; nor was the august personage, Nicholas Vedder himself, sacred from the daring tongue of this terrible virago, who charged him outright with encouraging her husband in habits of idleness”. 

In even fewer words as in the “fairy mountains”, where Rip Van Winkle meets the magical beings and their powerful liquor that send him into a very long slumber, we are told many things.  All manner of fey creatures must live in the fairy mountains.  Such beings are never depicted as sharing the morals that humans live by.  They do not even experience the passing of time in the same way.  The reader knows something out of the ordinary is going to happen.  The short story takes on the qualities of fairy tale or fable right in the opening paragraphs.

The fable is a short story that provides a message about how we should live our lives.  Unlike a parable which is shorter and quite often contains religious doctrine, a fable teaches us about morality.  Parents have used fables for time out of mind to teach their children how to behave properly.  Fables ensure a shared sense of morality that facilitates groups of people living together in society.  The tale of “Rip Van Winkle” is such a story, but a somewhat complicated one.  In “Rip Van Winkle”, Irving explores the Puritan work ethic and its desire to become more divine-like through good works.  Then, he compares this to the American desire to be free, to just be, to live fully or as people say today, live large.  This short story was influenced by ideals upon which this country was founded as stated in the Declaration of Independence – the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  The main character represents the American while his wife represents the puritan.  Rather than state outright which is the better way to be or live as fables often do at the end, Irving instead conveys his moral through the telling of what happens to Rip Van Winkle after he awakens from his twenty year sleep.  In the end, Rip Van Winkle has not changed at all.  However, he is happier than ever just being himself and only having to do what he has always loved best.  He doesn’t seem to regret the twenty years he spent sleeping high up in the fey mountains.

As far as fables go, it’s a great one with a good message that has come to signify the individuality and independence typical of Americans.  Be yourself.  It seems that Washington Irving had his finger on the pulse of America.  He really understood the foundations and founding of this nation.  Irving understood the spirit of the country and its people while seeing the lack of this character in our literature.  With his writing, and “Rip Van Winkle” in particular, he helped to characterize and define American Literature and especially the American short story. 

Writers on Writing: Kim Antieau

Kim Antieau photo
© Kim Antieau
Used with permission

KIM ANTIEAU is a prolific writer, researcher, librarian, publisher and blogger. She has published 20 novels, six collections of short stories, four non-fiction books and numerous short stories, articles and poems. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband, and fellow writer, Mario Milosevic.

ANGELA: Where do your ideas come from?

KIM: I get them from everywhere, from what I read, see, hear, experience. For me, my stories come from the ground up, so it often makes a difference where I am—geographically. I get more stories from some places than I do others.

ANGELA: Why do you write in the fantasy and/or non-fiction genre?

KIM: Fiction: I don’t really write in any particular genre. The stories just come to me, and I write them. Nonfiction: If something moves me in some way, I’ll write about it. It’s how I communicate with the world.

ANGELA: What are you currently reading?

KIM: The Golden Age of Botanical Art by Martin Rix, Energetic Boundaries by Cyndi Dale, and An Illustrated Record of Chinese Civilization.

ANGELA: What is one of your all-time favorite books and why?

KIM: Terrastina and Mazolli by Mario Milosevic. It’s a novel told in 99 word chapters. I love it because it’s kind and beautiful, quirky and hopeful. (Yes, Mario happens to be my husband, but it doesn’t matter. It’s still one of my favorite books.)

ANGELA: What is your writing process?

KIM: A story comes to me; it rolls around in my imagination for a while; if it needs researching, I’ll research it. Then I sit down and write it.

ANGELA: How frequently (and for how long/how much) do you write?

KIM: I write in spurts. I can write every day for hours at a time, but then when I’m done with a project, I can go months without writing anything. Of course, that’s with fiction. Even if I’m not writing fiction, I’m usually writing nonfiction or a blog post or something.

ANGELA: How much time do you spend revising?

KIM: When I finish a piece, I read it right away and fix up what I call the stupids. I also determine at that point whether the piece has merit. If it actually needs a major rewrite, I just let go of it. Nothing can kill a story more than a major rewrite (at least for me). Stories come out whole cloth for me, so if there is a major flaw or the writing is bad, it can’t be fixed, in my view. I can redraft: Throw out the whole thing and start from the beginning. If the piece does work and just needs some editing, I’ll edit it and then give it to Mario. He’ll give me his two cents. I’ll incorporate his edits. Then I put the manuscript away for a bit. When I have some distance, I bring it out and read it again, edit it, and then it’s ready to go.

ANGELA: Do you already have ideas lined up so that you could immediately start the next story?

KIM: I always have many novel ideas. I don’t know what I’ll write next, though. I let the Muses decide at the time.

ANGELA: Do you always start the next work immediately after completing one?

KIM: I try not to start immediately after I’ve finished a long project. If I do, the piece is usually awful. I need down time. I need time to fill up again.

ANGELA: What do you do about writer’s block?

KIM: I whine about it to my husband. It’s not so much writer’s block as sitting my butt down in the chair block. When I’m ready, I’m ready. When I’m not, I’m not. If I’m suffering from a bout of depression or I’m just having trouble for some other reason, I’ll ask my husband to give me a word count deadline. He’ll say, “Give me 500 words by lunch.” And usually that works. (I write about a lot of this in Answering the Creative Call, by the way.) I don’t know why it works, but it does.

image of book covers

Connecting and keeping up with Kim Antieau:
Green Snake Publishing

Interview conducted in July 2015.

Writing: Structure and Organization

graphic of an outline

The structure and organization of writing is critical to effective communication. There is a standard format that can be followed regardless of the purpose or intended audience (two important elements that were discussed in this post). The following framework will help you successfully convey your thoughts and ideas. You may recognize it as the format your high school English teacher taught you for writing essays. But it works for all types of communications!

All writing should have an introduction, body and conclusion.

  • In today’s world of information overload, the best way to get your ideas across and to have any hope that people will remember what you wrote is to state what you’re going to discuss, provide the material, then summarize what was written.
  • Using different language each time will help you to reach a larger portion of your audience and deepen people’s understanding of what you’re trying to communicate.
  • The introduction and conclusion can be as short as one sentence each.

The introduction must state what your writing is about and prepare readers to receive the knowledge you will provide.

  •  Is there any background data needed in order to understand the overall topic or specific points?
  • Are there terms that should be defined?
  • Start general, ease into more specifics, and end very focused.

Always include a thesis statement or statement of purpose at the end of the introduction or in a separate paragraph immediately following the first paragraph. This can be expressed in one sentence or a whole paragraph. To compose the thesis or purpose statement, answer the following questions.

  • Why are you providing this material?
  • Why is it significant?
  • What will be discussed in the body paragraphs to illuminate and support your objective?
  • How do you expect audience members to use the data?

There should be at least one body paragraph where you expound on the introduction.

  • It will be helpful to your readers if you provide examples, similes or metaphors to relate the intelligence to knowledge they already possess. These types of connections not only engage your audience more, but it makes understanding your perspective easier.
  • To take comprehension and deepen it to belief, provide some type of evidence to prove your statements. A simple fact or anecdote should be sufficient.
  • Keep each body paragraph to one main idea. If you have 3 points to make, you will write 3 paragraphs.

Each paragraph should flow smoothly from one to the next while building upon the information provided in the previous one.

  • One way to accomplish this is to use transition words such as furthermore, in addition, next, although, and consequently.
  • A better method is to tie each paragraph back to your stated purpose. A thesis statement is, after all, both the purpose of your writing and the glue that connects together each point made in the body.
  • Effective passages have an introductory and concluding sentence. Body paragraphs are like miniature versions of the whole. Using transitional words and phrases at the beginning and end of each paragraph ensures an effortless stream of expanding knowledge through your writing.

The conclusion should succinctly summarize what you’ve written.

  • This helps your audience remember all the data in between the introduction and conclusion.
  • Start specific and end very general, the opposite of how you began in the introduction.
  • The thesis statement or statement of purpose should be restated in new language.
  • A useful conclusion will connect the big picture to something your audience already knows, aiding in comprehension and recall.
  • An outstanding conclusion will tell the audience what they should do with the information they just received.

This way of organizing writing will enable you to share your knowledge skillfully with any audience. You can also use this framework for presentations and speeches. Effective communication can take different forms. But, when you resort to speaking, you’ll want to notice what you do with your hands, the expressions that show on your face, how you stand, and how you move your body.  Don’t forget to pause during speeches to give people a chance to make the connections between your points, and be prepared for interruptions. In some ways, it is much easier to write to people than to talk with them!

Seize the Moment – Grab a Short Story

image of two books

[T]he story demands that you become a fuller participant in said experience. There won’t be any long authorial seduction of the reader; you need to be primed when you show up. And no chapters full of backstory, set-pieces, window-dressing, etc. Of course, all readers should be alert and dedicated all the time, but a novel is more likely to forgive you a brief lapse in attention here and there–a short story will just spit you back out, the end.”

Justin Taylor

A short story is a complete story in a very small package. As a reader of a short story, you fill in the details about the characters and their lives. A good one will have you thinking about it, in different ways, for a long time after you’ve finished reading.

Short stories use the same elements as novels but they tell a complete story with far less words. Because they are shorter, it doesn’t mean they are easier to write. Short story authors revise and rework their stories, looking for the best word to convey their meaning. They have to do more – express more, convey more – with less. In addition to having fewer characters, short stories often cover a very short time span. Some stories cover a few hours or a few minutes. A lot can happen in that small amount of time. Sometimes, but not always, a character’s whole life changes in the space of a few minutes.

Short stories also have some unique and unusual characteristics. Depending on the source you refer to, these works can be anywhere from 1,500 to 30,000 words. That is quite a range. In grad school, I wrote a paper on Isaac Asimov’s “The Last Question”. This short story covers several trillion years of history in about 4,500 words. My analysis of the work was several pages longer than the story itself!

Another interesting feature of this type of literature is that they often end in a sudden, dramatic fashion that has a lasting impact. Sometimes there is a moral we are left to consider. This is in contrast to the novel. The ending of a novel is often the anti-climax, also called resolution, where most plot lines are tied up with a nice bow (unless there’s to be a sequel), the climax having occurred in the previous chapter. With the short story, it frequently ends with the climax. No loose ends are tied. We are often left wondering how it all works out (or doesn’t). As readers, we decide that by filling in the gaps with our imagination or by trying to figure out what the author meant. Either way, there is much to think about when reading short stories.

A distinguishing attribute of the short story is that it is meant to be read all at once. Depending on the individual reader, that can be a good thing or bad thing. Some people prefer the slow build up of the novel, while others enjoy the condensed, tight, brief story that can read in under an hour. It is surprising that, in this busy world where people never seem to have enough time, short stories are not a lot more popular. Whatever your preference, short stories continue to be a significant part of American literature.

What have you found to be the most striking aspect(s) of the short stories you have read? Do you prefer short stories or novels? Why? Please comment below.

Writers on Writing: Nina Kiriki Hoffman

images of author book covers

NINA KIRIKI HOFFMAN is an award-winning author of fantasy, horror, and science fiction. She has been nominated for every major award for her short fiction in the fantasy and science fiction genre.

ANGELA: Where do your ideas come from?

NINA: Ideas are all around. I always have at least a pen and a piece of paper, more usually a notebook, for jotting down title ideas, snatches of interesting conversations, strange thoughts I get from situations I observe. Sometimes I prod my muse by rolling dice or coming up with writing prompts. Sometimes I get ideas from dreams. I also read voraciously and watch TV, and those things feed into the idea bank.

ANGELA: Why do you write in the science fiction/fantasy and/or horror genre and/or for teens?

NINA: When I try to write realistic/mimetic fiction, I get bored. I like to write stories that include magic or things so far unknown; I like wider possibilities than the ones I know from real life.

Many of the things I’m drawn to write have a teen mindset, because I think that’s my own mindset. I’ve always resisted growing up. I think I’m in some sort of twilight zone at this point, because being a teenager has changed so much since I was one. It’s a bit confusing.

ANGELA: What are you currently reading?

NINA: I’m reading the Rizzoli & Isles books by Tess Gerritsen. I just finished reading Julie Smith’s two New Orleans mystery series about Skip Langdon and Talba Wallis, and her Rebecca Schwartz San Francisco mysteries. Been on a female detective kick for a while. God bless the library.

ANGELA: What is one of your all-time favorite books and why?

NINA: GRIMBOLD’S OTHER WORLD by Nicholas Stuart Gray. I read this when I was thirteen, and it totally invaded my mind. I’m sure I’m still stealing ideas and scenarios from it. Gray used tropes from English myth and legend. He did beautiful things with cats, second worlds, trolls, wizards, lost princes, magic spells, and even Faery, though he didn’t call it that. All in beautiful language.

ANGELA: What is your favorite literary technique/device/element to use in your writing?

NINA: Um, I don’t think I have a favorite. It’s all woven together, whatever it is. I just want to get from here to there in the story.

ANGELA: What is your writing process?

NINA: For the past seven years, I’ve written almost exclusively in food courts and coffee shops and bookstores. I had cancer, surgery, radiation, and chemo in 2007, and two deadlines, so I was very sick and writing under pressure at home, and it left me with an allergy to my own office. I hope I can get over this, because coffee shops and bookstores don’t stay open late enough for me. I write on a MacBook Air. I am sure I am not ergonomically correct.

ANGELA: How frequently (and for how long/how much) do you write?

NINA: I write four days out of seven, or sometimes more, for stretches of three or four hours.

ANGELA: Do you already have ideas lined up so that you could immediately start the next story?

NINA: Nope. I let my fingers do the walking when the time comes to start again. Open a new file and see what appears, though, as I said above, I’m constantly collecting scraps and fragments I could use.

ANGELA: Do you always start the next work immediately after completing one?

NINA: No. I’m lazy.

ANGELA: What do you do about writer’s block?

NINA: Use naps and journaling upon first waking up to kickstart the flow again.

Connecting and keeping up with Nina Kiriki Hoffman:

Interview conducted in 2014.

Writing Tips for Smooth and Engaging Writing

Effective communication is the sharing of information that others pay attention to, understand, remember and use.

Are you ready to take your writing to the next level? Check out the following strategies to communicate more effectively. They are not just meant for college students or people who write for a living such as technical writers or authors. Even if you only communicate via email with your boss and peers at work, following these guidelines will have your co-workers taking you, and what you have to say, more seriously. You will also be more appreciated for sharing information that is useful, easy to understand and meant specifically for the people receiving it. What more could anyone ask for?

  • Know your purpose. To be effective, writing must have a purpose. What do you want to communicate? Why are your ideas important and/or why do you want to share the information? Where is the best place and what is the best format to disseminate your ideas? Answering these questions will help you share your knowledge more successfully.
  • Focus on your audience. Especially in a work environment, you will be appreciated for enumerating the ways your ideas will benefit others. How, specifically, can this data be used? Why should it be important to them? An effective writer doesn’t just provide information. They explain to their reader what’s in it for them. There is nothing wrong with writing simply to express but, in the long run, you won’t have very many readers if you don’t deliver something useful. And, you’ll have more readers/fans/happy coworkers if you make it easy for them to understand and use your ideas in ways that make their lives better.
  • Write to your audience. It is helpful to think about who your audience is so that you can tailor your writing to them. You don’t want your readers to feel that you are “talking at them” or “talking down to them”. Use language that they use. Explain new information but not things they already know. Good writers engage their audience. Use ‘we’ and ‘us’ where appropriate. If warranted, be conversational. When writing to an academic audience, be formal. When communicating with management, focus on solutions rather than problems. If you don’t spend time considering who your audience is and how to engage them, you may very well lose them.
  • Start general and get specific. In a previous post, I stated that an effective way to write is to say what you are going to say, say it and then tell your audience what you just said, using different language (and varying amounts of detail) each time. The best way to do this is to begin general and introduce your topic. Then, express what you want to communicate in sufficient concrete detail. Finish by succinctly summarizing the provided information and don’t forget to state the reason for your communication including the benefit to others.
  • Vary sentence lengths and structure. Many people have a tendency to write mostly medium, long or short sentences. This can be boring for readers, especially if you write mostly medium or long sentences. While editing, you can break up long sentences, join up small sentences and rearrange sentences to create a more engaging read. But, don’t do this randomly. Think about what your expressing in each sentence and determine the best way to do that. Use short sentences when you want to make an impact. Use longer sentences when communicating related bits of information. Intersperse that with medium sentences to create an effective flow.
  • Use better words and a variety of words. Although writing style ultimately depends on your purpose and audience, in general, it is always a good idea to avoid slang. To make your writing sound more educated, without sounding arrogant or stuffy, use words such as large instead of big, significant rather than important. Avoid repeating the same words over and over as that is boring and unimpressive. The thesaurus feature in Microsoft Word makes it easy to use an assortment of words.
  • Read your writing out loud. This is very helpful in making sure that our writing flows smoothly and helps us catch grammatical errors.

These strategies may seem daunting at first or a lot of effort but, like anything else, your writing will improve the more you apply them to your work. Writing is both a practice and a process. Typos, grammatical errors, wordiness, repetitive vocabulary, and similar sentence structure can all be corrected in editing. The more you employ these practices, the easier it will be to write smoothly and effectively and engage with your audience. These approaches will soon become second nature and you’ll know it when you spend less time editing, other people take more notice of you and your writing, and more readily recognize and adopt your good ideas.

Experiencing Drama

drama sign

Good night, good night. Parting is such sweet sorrow that I’ll say good night until tonight becomes tomorrow.

Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, Scene 2

Drama imitates. Poetry animates. Short stories fixate.

While these three forms of literature share common elements, they often use them differently, or for a different end. Short stories focus on a small slice of life. You could even say they exaggerate a moment or highlight a defining moment, but leave you to work out what it all means. Poetry brings things to life. Like the kids game of Twenty Questions, poetry looks at the characteristics and qualities of an object that is animal (living), vegetable (growing) or mineral (inanimate), (basically anything). A poem beautifully, lyrically and often rhythmically describes something in such detail that it becomes real for the reader. Drama, again, is a different animal.

Drama imitates life by displaying it in front of your eyes. The audience sees and experiences the interaction (i.e. movement, dialogue), emotions, and background for scenes of life. At the same time, much is left to the imagination. Since the entirety of a play is acted out upon a stage, in front of an audience who can hear stagehands moving props, it cannot provide the same rich detail that is found in a film. The audience fills in the gaps as they watch the action and listen to dialogue and music. This often happens on a subconscious level. As participants in life, we have our own drama – our comedies and tragedies – which makes the watching of plays a partially unique experience for each of us.

It is because of the employment of our imagination, beliefs, and experiences that plays seem so real even though they are really just an imitation of life. Without the projection of our life on the play, it would be lacking, hollow, a fake.

I saw my first professional production of a play during my sophomore year of high school. With our teacher, we took the commuter train to San Francisco, ate lunch and went to the American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.) to watch Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”. We had already read the play and knew what to expect, but to see it acted out right in front of our eyes was mesmerizing in a way films often are not. It is a shared, participatory experience that actively involves your senses, emotions and intellect. The energy and emotions of the audience influences the players upon the stage. Popular movies, while evocative, lack the reciprocity of emotion that is an essential part of a play.

A good analogy for seeing a play versus watching a movie is listening to music. Even if you’ve never been to a play, I’m sure you’ve had the opportunity to listen to live music. It moves you in more ways than listening to the same tune on an MP3 player or on the radio. Drama, like music, is best experienced live. Give yourself the gift of watching a play today.

Writers on Writing: Louise Marley

photo of Louise Marley
© Louise Marley
Used with permission

LOUISE MARLEY is a prolific writer of science fiction/fantasy and historical fiction with strong female characters. She has been awarded the Endeavor Award three times. She has written under the pseudonyms Cate Campbell, Louisa Morgan, and Toby Bishop. Ms. Marley used to sing professionally with the Seattle Opera and music features significantly in several of her novels.

ANGELA: Where do your ideas come from?

LOUISE:  I always have more ideas than time to write them!  I’m particularly inspired by images, sometimes ones that pop into my head (always grateful for those) and sometimes ones I observe in the world around me, in a piece of art, or even one that comes to me when I’m reading another writer’s work.  Some of my favorite books, such as THE CHILD GODDESS, began by thinking of an intriguing title, and then developing a story to fit it.  People often offer their ideas to writers, but it rarely works out; I think our ideas have to be specific to our own creative process.

ANGELA: Why do you write in the science fiction/fantasy and/or romance genre?

LOUISE:  I’ve never written romance, but I love fantasy and science fiction, mostly because I love reading in those genres.  I also love historical fiction and have been working in that field for several years now (under my pseudonym, Cate Campbell.)  I do think we should write what we love to read.  We bring our passions and enthusiasms to that work, and I believe it shows.  With historical fiction, the research and the details of other historical periods fascinate me.  With fantasy, the freedom to create, to play in alien worlds and explore the characters who populate them, is a joy.

ANGELA: What are you currently reading?

LOUISE:  I’ve just finished a historical novel, IN PALE BATTALIONS, by Robert Goddard.  It’s set in the same period I’ve been working in, post-World War I, and I found it interesting, but not a complete success.  It’s been a popular novel, and I think people who love an intricate plot probably love it for that reason.  I found the characters unconvincing, which shows my particular bias–I think stories only succeed if I, as a reader, believe the characters’ behavior and choices.

ANGELA: What is one of your all-time favorite books and why?

LOUISE:  I love Connie Willis’s wonderful time-travel novel, DOOMSDAY BOOK.  Connie is great at character and plot, and this was a book I couldn’t put down the first time I read it.  It has everything–good science fiction, excellent historical research, high stakes, and a lot of tension.  And, of course, Connie’s great, clean writing!

ANGELA: What is your favorite literary technique/device/element to use in your writing?

LOUISE:  I don’t know if I have a literary technique!  I do like drama, and so in every scene I try to find something that makes the scene memorable.  I absorbed this principle from my work in opera, back in the day, and it has served me well as a writer.  One of the things I love about writing fantasy or science fiction is that I can create big-picture scenes.  I suspect some of my novels have an operatic feel!

ANGELA: What is your writing process?

LOUISE:  I tend, with a novel, to start with my idea, and write about fifty pages.  Then (in an act of discipline), I stop and write a brief synopsis.  This is to have an idea where I’m going, to keep myself from wandering off in too many different directions.  Sometimes the synopsis helps as I develop the plot, and sometimes I never look at it again, but it gives me a sense of structure and organization.  I try to always know the ending before I get there!
ANGELA: How frequently (and for how long/how much) do you write?

LOUISE:  I write every day, as a general rule.  Two hours is probably my average, although when I’m on a deadline I can write four to five hours.  I write in my study, or on my deck, or–often–in a coffee shop, with white noise around me.  The day just doesn’t feel right unless I’ve spent some time on the work-in-progress.

ANGELA: Do you already have ideas lined up so that you could immediately start the next story?

LOUISE:  I never lack for ideas!  So, yes.  In fact, I have two book ideas waiting to be addressed when I finish the current one.  And then there are short stories to be written as well!

ANGELA: Do you always start the next work immediately after completing one?

LOUISE:  I do.  Often, as I’m putting the finishing touches on a novel or story, the next one is niggling at me to get started.  If that didn’t happen, I would know I needed a rest.  (See the next answer!  :-))

ANGELA: What do you do about writer’s block?

LOUISE:  I agree with Anne Lamott on this issue.  I don’t really believe in writer’s block, but I do accept that a writer can be tired, or as Lamott says, “empty.”  Sometimes a rest is in order, but that doesn’t mean watching tv or doing something else that fills the mind with non-writing materials.  It means taking a walk, going for a drive with the radio off, or simply sitting somewhere in solitude, allowing the mind to roam and refresh.  I walk a lot, which is helpful.  I also practice yoga, which seems to feed my writing with energy and focus.  I also write before I do something else, like reading a book I’m enjoying or watching a television program (love Downton Abbey!)

Connecting and keeping up with Louise Marley:

Interview conducted in August 2014.

The Writing Life: Survival Lessons

Survival Lessons book cover

I am a prolific reader. I’ve always loved escaping into amazing realms. From school days spent in the library, avoiding bullies, through today when I am fortunate enough to earn an income reading, editing, and writing, books have been like a best friend. They are a source of comfort, inspiration, and a well of infinite knowledge. Books continue to amaze me and stir an awe of people and life that is more important now than ever before. What more could anyone ask? Except, perhaps, to share those adventures in reading.

I love writing about books I’ve read. But this is not a simple review. I want to share how we can all benefit from something I read in a book. That book is Survival Lessons by Alice Hoffman. This might seem like an odd choice for a blog for writers, but writing is a solitary experience. We may bounce ideas off friends to expand on our topics beforehand. And we may ask people to read and provide feedback on our work, but the middle part is fairly solitary.

Survival Lessons is all about choices. Choosing your heroes, choosing to enjoy yourself, choosing how you spend your time, choosing to plan for the future, all choices that we can make to live a more meaningful life. This should be easy for us. Writers make choices all the time. But how often do we choose to put ourselves, our wants, and our needs above everything else, including our writing? Self-care is challenging for many people, but writers spend a lot of time in their head and often neglect body and soul. So, here are a couple of suggestions to live a more balanced, connected, thoughtful, and joyful life.

Choose Your Friends

“I began to talk to neighbors in their eighties and nineties, people who had previously been nothing more than nodding acquaintances. I discovered what interesting lives they’d led and how much they have to say. Once I slowed down and took the time to ask questions, I realized they had a thousand and one stories.”

Alice Hoffman

It’s very important to have some balance in our lives. Maintaining friendships is critical. We need people who like and accept us, just as we are, and who make us feel good. People we can talk with about anything, not just writing. It’s too easy to get lost in our heads. We need to be grounded and be in our hearts sometimes, to stay sane and healthy.

We need people to look up to. Who inspire us. So, if you have good friends, hold on to them. Show them that you appreciate them. If you don’t have good friends, you need to find some. This is a daunting task at any time, but a real challenge during a global pandemic. You can meet people through organizations like Meetup and Eventbrite which offer events like virtual game nights, Zoom book clubs, online writing groups, spiritual meetings, and much more. It’s a great way to create some balance, have fun, learn, and meet people.

But you don’t have to sit in front of your computer. You can also go outside and talk to a neighbor. Everyone has stories to tell. You can make a friend and learn new things about yourself and life, make connections, and get inspired.

Choose to Give In to Yourself

“A puppy is never a mistake, though it is often a mess…  Sometimes that’s what you need most of all, not to be alone. Sometimes a dog knows that before you do.”

Alice Hoffman

We can learn a lot from a dog. They can teach us how to love life and live in the moment. Our relationships with dogs are a lot less complicated than those with other people. They love us with their whole heart and are always ecstatic to see us, even if we only went outside to put the trash in the bin. They are always there for us. They let us know when it’s time to eat, time to play, time to walk, and time to sleep. A dog won’t let us spend too much time writing to the exclusion of all else.

A dog saved my life once. After a profoundly difficult time in my life, he found me and taught me to love again.  Living with a dog can make you laugh, cry, scream in frustration, be joyful, and fill your heart with love. I can’t imagine life without a dog. They truly are a human’s best friend. You know what people say, life is better with a dog.

I think this book, which provides concrete ideas to improve life, can help anyone who is struggling – and I think we are all facing new and challenging difficulties during this global pandemic. We can always grow, learn, and love as long as we are alive. There is a significant difference between surviving and thriving and Survival Lessons can help you move closer to thriving. The more grounded and balanced we can be as people, the better writing we will do.

What are your tips for living a well-rounded life? What helpful books have you read lately?

Connecting with Poetry

photo of Bodega Bay
Bodega Bay © Eileen Rackus
Used with permission

“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute.  We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race.  And the human race is filled with passion.  And medicine, law, business, engineering – these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life.  But poetry, beauty, romance, love – these are what we stay alive for.”  

Tom Schulman, “Dead Poets Society”, 1989

Like many people, I began writing poetry in my youth to deal with painful feelings I had no other way to manage.  Through sharing my poetry, and reading what others have written, I found that I was not alone in my feelings.  Throughout my life, poetry has been my refuge, my solace, my salvation, my inspiration. 

In college, I took an introductory poetry class.  Regularly, we recited poetry to each other in the courtyard.  Standing closely, face-to-face, looking into the windows of the soul.  Reciting poems to people we knew only superficially had a profound effect on all of us.  If you haven’t experienced this, it may be difficult to imagine the bonds that developed.  Who could imagine that you could learn everything you need to know about a person based on their choices of poems and on the beauty, elegance and, often, passion with which they were recited?  The intimacy of attentively looking into another person’s eyes as they tell you the joys, pains, and meditations that we all relate to was a little uncomfortable at first but it became one of those indelible experiences that alter you irrevocably at the deepest, most fundamental level.  You can take the measure of a human by their poetry, what they read and what they write. It informs about their morality, their truth, their vision, and their fortitude to be true to their artistic vision of truth and beauty.

Poetry can be many things to many people.  The following passage from “Poem in October” resonates with me and speaks to my deep connection with nature, tending and feeding it.  What does it speak to you?

   These were the woods the river and sea
         Where a boy
            In the listening
Summertime of the dead whispered the truth of his joy
To the trees and the stones and the fish in the tide.
         And the mystery
            Sang alive
   Still in the water and singingbirds (Dylan Thomas, 1934)

When my father was dying, too young, quite before he’d had a chance to live his own life rather than always sacrificing for his family, “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night” helped me express my unspeakable pain.  How does it make you feel?

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light (Dylan Thomas, 1951).

After a tumultuous relationship ended, I found myself again with the help of Derek Walcott’s Love after Love (1986).  Can you relate?

Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life

“Poetry is the literary vehicle which is not only an aid to living but a means of living. For example, an encyclopedia can offer information on elephants. You can discover where they live, what they eat and how they breed. This information is for practical purposes only. You can grasp the ivory of the elephant, but not its soul. The encyclopedia will not touch on its majesty, wild grandeur, strength or power. The poem can turn the elephant from a museum specimen into the highest concrete visual image that comes alive in the mind of the reader. For the living elephant, we must turn to poetry.” IB Iskov, “Why Poetry is So Important

From a young age, poetry has been a significant part of my life.  From helping me deal with overwhelming emotions, singing my joy to the world, expressing the deep sorrow and anger at my father’s passing, to helping me learn to love myself again, poems have been a recognition and expression of my humanity.  It connects us all to each other and anchors us to life.  If you don’t already have a relationship with poetry, I hope this inspires you to develop one.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.  (Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese”, 1993)