Writing and Other Afflictions

"If it was easy, everyone would do it." –Jimmy Dugan, "A League of Their Own"

Category Archives: experiences

Connecting To Your Readers

The whole reason we read fiction is to find a connection to something else. It may be that we want to imagine a new world, that we want to live someone else’s adventures, that we want to escape our life for a short time, that we want to find out how someone might handle a certain kind of conflict, but in order to do any of those things, the story has to connect to us in some way. The characters have to be human and going through things that we can at least imagine ourselves going through, or else the story doesn’t grab us.

(Yes, there’s a lot about world-building and description and realistic characters. Those are all for other postings. Bear with me, here.)

We were watching “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles” with Mark’s parents. It’s a great Thanksgiving movie. It also engages us because anyone who’s traveled has probably encountered one of the litany of problems that befall Neal Page (Steve Martin): late for his flight, flight delayed, trapped next to irritating passenger, flight re-routed, hotels booked solid, robbed, train broken down, annoying bus passengers, and so on. We know how he feels: he just wants to get home. What makes the story good is that although we can sympathize, Neal’s plight is taken to the next level, exaggerated for dramatic effect. But the base connection is there.

What makes the story great is the underlying message of looking past someone’s flaws to find the real person inside, which is a lesson Neal not only learns about Del (John Candy), but also about himself. He’s not aware of his flaws in the beginning of the movie–he thinks he’s a pretty good person. By the end, he’s not only seen that Del is a good guy and a friend, he’s also seen his own flaws, but understands that he’s a good person underneath as well. There’s connection there, too, but it’s on a subtler level. We’ve all known someone who made a bad first impression, and maybe second and third. We’ve all done things from time to time that weren’t in tune with our better nature. This movie tells us that that’s okay, as long as we learn from it and gain a little patience and understanding.

This goes back to what I’ve said a couple times about writing from life. Take little snippets from your own life. Chances are, at least something about that experience is universal. Expand on it, exaggerate it, but don’t lose that universality. That’s where people will engage with your writing. That’s where you’ll make your connection.

Where To Get Inspiration

One of the opportunities afforded by this convention is the chance to talk to people and hear their stories. This is why you need to carry around your little notebook: because if you’re ever stuck for a character motivation or a character type, the best place to refer is real life. That doesn’t mean you have to lift a story whole cloth exactly as it was told, but you can take elements of it. There are usually a couple key elements to a good story that make you think, “wow, someone really did that.” Use that with your own characters. One of my problems is that I try to make my characters too realistic, when a few elements of outlandishness are usually helpful in making someone memorable. And outlandishness is usually a characteristic of a good story, one people will go out of their way to tell you.

Also, think about that when telling stories of your own. What makes the stories from your past interesting? Do you have any stories that were *almost* a disaster? How would things have gone if they had turned into disasters? What odd behavior did you see in the people around you–like that ticket agent who was clearly having a bad day when she harassed you about the minor issue with your itinerary, or the girl at the Starbucks who took three tries to get your order right, and told you that she just wasn’t processing English correctly that day?

All of these elements are real. Write them down, remember them, refer to them, use them. I often take small occurrences that stuck in my mind from life and use them as textural details in my stories–and you can take the small occurrences that form the basis of other people’s stories and use them as well. The more sources you can draw from, the more textured and real your stories will feel.

A Milestone, A Reminder, An Experience

This is the 100th post of this blog. I think it’s traditional to yammer on about how I never expected and looking back and some other measure of blah blah blah. Truth be told, I started this blog with the intention of getting to 100, and beyond. I regret that it took me this long, but I am pretty proud of every entry.

The reminder, as I return from nearly a week with no internet (what do they talk about there in the backwoods of Pennsylvania?), is that in order to write convincingly about life, you have to go out and experience it. Not necessarily firsthand–I have never been drunk (true), but years in a fraternity watching and talking to people who were have allowed me, I’m told, to paint a rather convincing firsthand account of someone getting drunk. For me, travel is essential to experience. There is a feel to anywhere that is not here that is subtly different from here, and although you might imagine it, you can’t know it well enough to describe it to someone else unless you’ve been there.

For instance: Pittsburgh is a city in the midst of revitalization, but the surrounding areas crawl very slowly out of the past, walking backwards so they never lose sight of it. Innovations surprise them–a Home Depot? A Best Buy? Once they are safely visible in the past, they become accepted. But these towns, these hills do not seek out change in the way the Bay Area does, my home of Red Queens running as fast as they can to keep up with each other. I have the feeling that this is true in many rural areas, but agricultural rural areas have a different feel from industrial ones. The plains of Iowa and Illinois and Indiana have the slowness of the land, the sureness of the seasons and the patience of clouds. Pittsburgh’s body is coal and its bones are steel, and it has the weight of industry, the permanence of metal, but also the inevitable decay of rust. In the center of the city, where the three rivers meet, old stone sits in the shadow of new glass, the birth of an urban center in the new era. Steel and coal are still the life of the land, but their day is in the past, retreating every day.

I find it necessary to renew experiences from time to time. Memories can be tricky things, and sometimes we remember fondly things as better than they actually are. All of which is a roundabout excuse for me to talk about Dunkin’ Donuts, specifically the Boston Cream variety.

There are no Dunkin’ Donuts in California, though Krispy Kreme has made inroads. DD tried years ago but couldn’t sustain a presence here. Having grown up in the Philly area, I have many fond memories of Dunkin’ Donuts (at the age of sixteen, with a Cinderella license invalid after midnight, I drove to our Dunkin’ Donuts at three in the morning to pick up supplies for an all-night party that was going on and found no fewer than three police cars in the parking lot; I stayed in the car and escaped arrest, I was sure, by sheer luck). In my recent trip, I passed through the Dallas airport, which is blessed with a small Dunkin’ Donuts stand. Now, I eat donuts maybe twice a year. But the lure of a Dunkin’ Donuts Boston Cream was too much to pass up. We brought it home, and…well, there is a unique smell when you open a Dunkin’ Donuts bag. It’s something in the icing, a sugary aroma combined with the wax of the bag that is immediately identifiable. After inhaling that, we ate the Boston Cream, and I am here to testify that it is every bit as good as my memory. The dough is perfectly sweet and soft, the custard creamy with a rich vanilla-egg flavor that the chocolate icing blends perfectly with. I don’t even want to drink the milk I’ve poured because it would wash away the taste, and there’s something particularly delicious about eating it here in California, hundreds of miles from the nearest of its kin. But eventually you have to, because the icing also makes you thirsty. And then the taste enters into the realm of memory.

What’s your Boston Cream? What kind of details do you spice your writing with?

(There is, not surprisingly, more to read about Boston Cream/Kreme/Creme donuts…above image and one link from cake tourism blog)