For the past few years I’ve been developing Tools to assist me in my career as a fiction writer, songwriter, and poet. In preparation for pursuing those careers.
I have decades worth of Tools regarding my business-careers as a business, copy, and non-fiction writer, and inventor (and as a poet, I’ve been a poet since I was about age 8 or so), many of which I have been posting to my Business Blog, Launch Port.
But here in Wyrdwend I’m going to start making it a habit to post some of my more useful Writing Tools in the form of Templates. I’ll arrange them all into a sellable book, or e-book, or workbook, something like that, maybe in a year or so. I’m too busy right now.
I’m giving you permission to use these tools, or to use them as idea-generators to make your own. Tools, as opposed to actual Works, I consider more public property than proprietary or personal intellectual property. Yeah, in book form I’d consider them mine, but in this form, if you find them useful, then use away.
Each week, barring some unforeseen exigency, I’ll be posting a different Tool, or a different kind of tool (writing, songwriting, poetry, etc.) that you can make use of in developing your own works. Some of these tools I modified from tools suggested to me by others, some contain partial information or design components from other sources, many are entirely my own creations.
To start I give you a very, very simple and easy to use tool. Nevertheless it should (if properly employed) contain vital and succinct information about your Work (Book or other Major Work) that you can use as an elevator pitch, to formulate a written pitch, or to simply keep the fundamental and primary elements of your work clear, distinct, and easily marketable.
Linn Ulmann spent her childhood trailing her famous parents as they traveled the world. As the daughter of director Ingmar Bergman and the actress Liv Ullmann, two legends of 20th-century cinema, her “home” shifted time and again. The one constant was a Swedish island, Fårö, where she returned each summer to visit her father.
Now, she’s fascinated by the way our surroundings shape us. In her interview for this series, the author of The Cold Song used a short story by Alice Munro to illustrate the way setting drives her writing, and how place and memory help dictate the stories we tell.
The Cold Song concerns a cast of characters affected by the disappearance of Milla, a 19-year-old au pair working in a coastal town south of Oslo. After two years, her body—and the grisly manner of its death—is uncovered by three boys searching for buried treasure. With this act of violence at its heart, the novel explores the unexpected ways a crime haunts people who knew the victim, inflaming their secret sources of guilt.
Linn Ullmann is the author of five previous novels, including Before You Sleep and A Blessed Child; her work has been translated into more than 30 languages. She spoke to me by phone from her home in Oslo.
Linn Ullmann: When my father died six years ago, and we were selling off his property on the island of Fårö where I grew up, I kept a diary in a big, black notebook. It was a strange thing: a book that mixed notes on practical arrangements with ideas for the new book I’d started writing then. (This book was a mix of the book I did eventually write—The Cold Song—and another book I didn’t write, about the death of a father.) The notebook was a reading diary, too. In between meetings about the funeral, and what to do with his things, and how we were going to bury him, I was reading Alice Munro.
I’ve read her in many stages of my life. I love the way her voice just sucks you in, the way her stories walk you as if to the unexpected edge of a cliff, towards moments that—in their violence or sense of life-changing possibility—are like sudden free fall. During that time of mourning, I’d written down this passage from her story “Face”:
Something had happened here. In your life there are a few places, or maybe only one place, where something has happened. And then there are the other places, which are just other places.
This quote—“Something had happened here”—resonated so much with me. I found it very moving because of where I was right then: starting a new book, having just lost my father, in the only place I had ever really called home. At the time, this was a very desolate island with a few sheep farmers living on it. Fårö was my home until I was three years old—and though I moved very, very many times, I returned every summer for the rest of my life, until my father died. These lines struck me on a profoundly personal level, and I had no choice but to write them down.
I’ve just re-read the story now, and am again blown away by it. It’s impossible to retell a story by Alice Munro, because there are so many ins and outs and digressions, before everything comes together in this surprising, magical way—but this is a strange love story about a boy who has a wine-colored birthmark over half his face. As a child, he’s friends with a girl about his age. Twice, she tries to make her face look like his—once, using red paint, and again later in a more permanent, devastating way. She does this out of love, or a destructive thing that love can sometimes be: “I love you so much that I want to be you.”
There’s so much else in this story, which gives the whole broad arc of the narrator’s life. We learn about his relationship with his father (who, moments after his son is born, remarks, “what a chunk of chopped liver”). We learn about his career as a successful radio actor, before TV—an industry his birthmark bars him from—takes over broadcast drama. But what sticks, in the end, is the moment in the basement of the childhood home where the little girl splashes red paint on half her face and says, all hopeful, “Now do I look like you?”
At the time, this gesture deeply wounds the boy, and his family interprets it as an act of terrible, mocking cruelty. The two children are never allowed to see each other again. It’s only as an adult that he learns—the afternoon of his father’s funeral—that she later used a razor to cut his same mark on her face. This act—of fidelity? Of shame? Of atonement?—casts the moment in the basement in a totally different light. Perhaps she was a person who identified with him so completely, that she was willing to trade her unblemished face for his. The narrator begins to realize that exchange in the basement was a crucial moment of his life; even though he didn’t realize it at the time, it may have been the closest he ever came to having his marred face looked upon honestly but without reproach, with something like love.
There’s no big sign saying Here’s the turning point. There’s no Sliding Doors scene that tells you, “Here’s the big moment!” But by the end of the story, we sense that this is what matters most to this character, as he looks back. After the revelation at the funeral, he decides not to sell the house where he grew up, where the exchange in the basement happened, as he had planned. Instead, he lives inside it for the rest of his life.
In other words, he comes to see that the childhood house will always be his reference point, his stage of greatest significance. I think it is this way for many of us: There is maybe one place, when we look back, where something happened. Or only a few places. “And then there are all the other places,” Munro writes: important too, but not distinct, not above all else. Those precious few settings where something happened are where meaning resides—they contain the story, they are the story. Yes, I think that, to Alice Munro, story is place—the two are that deeply connected. You do not have a story of a life without an actual place. You can’t separate one from the other.
I think that’s why she’s intensely local in her fiction, like many other great writers (Faulkner, Joyce, and Proust come straight to mind). Munro’s stories unfold in remote places in Canada that I’ve never been to—but in these geographically small places, whole worlds play out. The best writers provide a sense of events unfolding in this specific place, a place that informs and feeds the characters and events. What comes first: the place or the story? The story or the place? With great fiction, it can be impossible to distinguish.
I’ve been a reader of authors who have a strong sense of place, because in my own life I’ve been somewhat placeless. I always traveled as a kid, and went to a new school every year. I lived in New York, I lived in Norway, I lived in Sweden—we travelled around, we moved, and I continued doing that into my adult life. I have been something of a placeless person—so I try to find that in literature, I guess. I seek out books and authors who are very place-specific. For me, in a way, the experience of sitting with a book is the closest thing I have to “home.”
And this reminds me of another Munro line, from her story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain”:
There are places that you long for that you might not ever see.
Some places you never actually experience yourself, but are always important in your life anyway, even if you never go. Places you learn about through literature and other people’s stories can take on intense personal significance, as Munro’s Canadian hamlets have for me. I have this second quote written with the lines from “Face” in that big, black notebook; I probably wrote them on the same day. Somehow, I feel like these two passages—because they are about place in literature, and where things happened, whether a physical place or interior place—are what Munro is all about.
In my own work—the way I actually write—place plays an essential role, too. A choreographer I whose work I love, Merce Cunningham, was once asked, “How do you start a dance?” He said, “Well, you have to begin by showing up.” I think that’s brilliant, and it goes for writing, too. You can have all these novels in your head, all these characters and ideas, but if you don’t actually show up to your writing day—the physical place where you get the work done— you have nothing.
The characters, too, need to “show up”—the story needs to happen somewhere. Again, Munro: “Something happened here.” That line could be the epigraph to everything I write. The “here” is every bit as important as the “something happened.” For me, the two cannot exist without each other; setting and character respond to and inform one another.
When I begin writing, I need to have a place. It can be a small: even a single room, though I like to be able to see the layout, the colors, the objects inside. I need to have that stage so that my characters have a place to move around. If I can develop that sense of place—and that other crucial quality, the narrative voice—then I feel sure I will find a story, even if it takes some time. If I don’t have the place, and I don’t have the voice, I’m writing without a motor. It all becomes just words. But once the voice comes, the “here” comes next, and then the “something happened”—what we call plot—follows from it.
In this way, writing becomes a listening experience—a way of being responsive to what you have written, and letting it guide you. Some writers say “the characters come to me,” or the “characters become alive to me at night.” Bullshit. I don’t believe that my characters are alive. But the process requires a form of artistic listening, of understanding the consequences of the decisions you’ve made. If you are lucky enough to find voice and place, there are real consequences to those choices. Together, they limit the possibilities of what can possibly come next—and they help point the way forward. Your role, then, is to not stick to your original idea—it is to be totally faithless to your idea. Instead, be faithful to voice and place as you discover them, and to the consequences of what they entail.
That’s why it’s often more fun fumbling around with notes and good ideas before the writing actually starts—it doesn’t require as much intensive listening. Most writers start out thinking “I’m going to write about such-and-such grand idea.” That’s fine when it’s all up in your head. But the minute you start putting words down, you begin to confine yourself to certain possibilities, and you must be prepared to abandon what you thought you were writing about before.
There is a Norwegian novelist who says “Writers must beware of their own good ideas.” You have this great idea, and then you start writing—and maybe something happens, and your voice starts taking you places. But if you start to think, I’m going away from my great idea, I have this wonderful idea! I need to get back to my idea—you stop following the consequences of the place and voice you’ve chosen. This is a mistake. You see a lot of decent books and plots that are fantastic—the writing might even be really good—but still somehow feel completely dead. I think that’s because there’s a great idea, a compelling premise, but a lack of honesty that can only come from listening closely to your writing. Those beautiful moments when you’ve just got to put the book away for a while because it’s so intense—we have a Norwegian word, smertepunkt, which literally means “point of pain”—can only come from this kind of honest listening. And Alice Munro is an absolute master of it. She dares to take the consequence of a voice, and a place, and follow them to where it takes her.
Place dictates who we are and how we see—this is true in life, as well as fiction. I see it in the way my father wrote about his first impressions of Fårö in his autobiography, Magic Lantern:
If one wished to be solemn, it could be said that I had found my landscape, my real home. If one wished to be funny, one could talk about love at first sight …. This is your landscape, Bergman. It corresponds to your innermost imaginings of forms, proportions, colours, horizons, sounds, silences, lights and reflections. Security is here. Don’t ask why. Explanations are clumsy rationalizations with hindsight. In, for instance, your profession, you look for simplification, proportion, exertion, relaxation, breathing. The Fårö landscape gives you a wealth of all that.
He decided because of the shape and the light and the proportions that this was where he was going to live and work. And that place is the central place in my life, too. I think probably reading these Alice Munro stories right after his death was why I copied over those quotes. They struck me—because he was dead, and also because I was mourning the fact that I was also losing my place. The island, the house on it, that’s all going to disappear now—and all the memories there, too. You cannot separate memory and place. There are certain places, if we go there, either in our writing or in reading or in life, that conjure up our deepest memories. And memories are all about who we are.
I always wondered if it really was my place. That became the big dilemma in the years after my father’s death: Was it my place, or was it his place? Places are always complicated in that way.
The island is not a place that says “Love me. Look how beautiful I am. You’ll be happy here.” It is not a place that tries to charm or seduce you. It’s beautiful in its starkness, in all its different rocky greys. There are old stone formations, called rauks, that are millions of years old. Red poppies grow in the summer. In the winter, there are countless shades of white. The surrounding sea, the Baltic Sea, is a broken sea: it’s losing oxygen, is filmed with algae on it, and very still. A dead ocean. It’s beautiful, but severe. The nature and the temperament of the whole, stark place—yes, you might fall in love with me, but I don’t know if I’m going to return your love ever. I know that I love the place, but I don’t know if the place loves me.
With some of the greatest loves you have, that’s the dilemma you have to live with.
Recently I have been involved in a number of different projects that have left me little time for blogging. I have been writing the lyrics for my second album, Locus Eater, I have been writing and plotting my novel The Basilegate, I have been putting together a crowdfunding project for one of my inventions and one of my games, I have been helping with and compiling material for my wife’s new career as a public speaker, and helping my oldest daughter prepare to enter college. In addition I have been speaking with and seeking a new agent. I have even been preparing a new paper on some of the work of Archimedes and what I have gleaned from it. Finally I have been preparing my Spring Offensive, which is now completed.
All of which have kept me extremely busy.
However I have not been entirely ignoring my blogging either. In background I have been preparing a much improved Publication Schedule for all five of my blogs, my business blog Launch Port, my design and gaming blog Tome and Tomb, my personal blog The Missal, my amalgamated blog Omneus, and this blog, Wyrdwend.
Now that most of these other pressing matters are well underway and on an even keel this allows me more time to return to blogging.
So below you will find my new Publication Schedule which I’ll also keep posted as one of the header pages on my blogs.
So, starting on Monday, March the 15th, 2015, and unless something unforeseen interferes this will be the Publication Schedule for this blog every week, including the Topic Titles and the general list of Subject Matters for that given day. That way my readers can know what to expect of any given day and what I intend to publish for that day. I will also occasionally make off-topic post as interesting material presents itself.
Wyrdwend – 11:00 – 12:00 AM
Monday: First Verse – Poem, Song, Music Tuesday: Tuesday’s Tale – Short Story, Children’s Story, etc. Wednesday: Highmoot – Reader Discussions and Commenting, Reblogs Thursday: Hammer, Tongs, and Tools – Tools, Linked In, Essay, Non-Fiction, etc. Friday: Bookends – Serialized Novel, Graphic Novel, Script Saturday: The Rewrite – Reblog best Personal Posts, Review Sunday – Sabbath
We’re total suckers for self improvement: The self-help industry brings in billions of dollars each year from countless books. All that encouraging advice can feel empowering and commonsensical, offering a simple path to a better life.
But there’s a problem with this approach. “Reading a self-help book is like buying a lottery ticket,” writes social psychologist Timothy Wilson in his newest book Redirect. “For a small investment, we get hope in return; the dream that all our problems will soon be solved without any real expectation that they will be.”
While the power of positive thinking—the seeming bread and butter of self-help as we know it—is a nice thought, according to Wilson, there’s no evidence that simply thinking positively actually works. We can’t just will ourselves to be happier a-la The Secret. “Our minds aren’t that stupid,” says Wilson. “It’s not like you can just tell you mind, ‘Think positively.’ You’ve got to nudge it a little more along.”
In Redirect, Wilson offers an alternative he calls “story editing,” based on the research of social scientists over the years. This approach operates off the premise that we each have a core narrative or story that we tell ourselves about who we are and what the world around us is like. It’s a story that influences our choices and way of experiencing the world. But it’s also one we play a major role in shaping for ourselves.
Using specific writing exercises, according to Wilson, we can begin to shift that story and redirect our way of thinking. “Writing is an act of creation. You are creating as you go,” he says. “That’s what can make this personally so helpful.”
Write through a challenging problem
We can never simply write painful or difficult events out of our lives, but we can make them far more graspable and change our relationship to them, according to research by psychologist James Pennebaker. Over the years, Pennebaker has developed an approach he calls “Writing To Heal,” that uses writing exercises as a way to help people deal with difficult events their lives.
To try the Pennebaker writing exercise, think of an event or worry that’s been most on your mind recently. Set aside 15 to 20 minutes at the end of the day to write about that specific problem. Do this for four days in a row, setting aside at least 15 minutes at the end of each day to record your thoughts. As you write, don’t pause or second-guess yourself—just write without stopping.
Through his research over the years, Pennebaker found that this simple four-day exercise helped improve people’s health, and well-being in various studies. “It’s how we deal with setbacks that’s so important,” says Wilson, who has worked with Pennebaker over the years. While the writing exercise can be difficult at first, people tend to gain clarity as they continue doing it. “Often what they first write is jumbled and unorganized,” says Wilson. But eventually “they view what happened to them in a way that makes more sense.”
Distance yourself from negative experiences
Research has also shown that having some distance from a difficult event allows us to step back and better understand it. There’s a writing exercise Wilson calls the “step-back-and-ask-why” approach that allows us to create this distance and understanding in order to reframe negative events.
To do this exercise, close your eyes and bring yourself back to a specific moment or event that was upsetting to you. Then, in your mind, try to take a few steps back from yourself in the moment so that you can see the story unfolding as if it was happening to a distant version of yourself. Write about what that distant version of yourself is thinking and feeling. One way to do this effectively, suggests Wilson, is to write in the third person, rather than the first person, which automatically builds some seperation between you and the moment you’re writing about.
Don’t simply rehash a play-by-play of what happened; instead, try to explain why it happened. “Don’t recount the event,” Wilson writes. “Take a step back and reconstrue and explain it.”
Determine what your best possible self looks like
There’s a reason Saturday Night Live‘s “Daily Affirmations With Stuart Smalley” was such a hit in the ’90s. That focus on self-affirming mantras is practically begging to be made fun of, yet even today, you’ll find that same advice given in total earnest.
But as Wilson points out in his book, rather than telling yourself you’re doing the best you can and are the best you can be—a pretty text-book self-help mantra—try actually imagining what the best version of yourself might look like in the future and what you need to do to achieve those goals.
He calls this writing prompt the “Best Possible Selves Exercise.” Like the Pennebaker prompt, take 15 to 20 minutes a night for four nights in a row to do this exercise. Imagine your life in the future as if you’ve achieved all your life goals. Write not just what those life goals are, but also how you will be able to achieve them. “Focus on the process of achieving an outcome rather than the outcome itself,” says Wilson.
Imagine all the things that could have gone wrong
Gratitude journals are another self-help go-to, but research has shown they can actually have the reverse effect of making you feel less happy. There’s a pleasure to uncertainty—not being able to pin down the specific details of an event were was pleasing.
While reducing our uncertainty about negative events can help us bounce back from them more quickly, reducing uncertainty about positive events can take some of the pleasure out of them. Wilson calls this a pleasure paradox: “People want to understand the good things in life so that they can experience them again, but by doing so they reduce the pleasure they get from those events,” he writes.
For example, research has shown that asking people in a relationship to tell the story of how they met their partner doesn’t make them particularly happier. But ask those same people to write about the many ways in which they might not have met their partner or their relationship might not have worked out and they get much more pleasure out of the exercise. “People don’t like to do that, but when they do, it makes the relationship look special again, at least for a little while,” he says.
This translates well into a writing exercise Wilson calls the “George Bailey Technique” named after the protagonist in It’s A Wonderful Life. For this exercise, think of one of the most important or special events, relationships or accomplishments in your life. Then imagine all the ways in which it might not have happened. Doing this can introduce mystery and excitement back into the experience again.
Maintain a sense of purpose
These last two exercises aren’t so much writing prompts, as they are calls to action. In their studies of what make people feel happiest and most fulfilled, social scientists have found that having a clear sense of purpose is critical. This means reminding yourself of what your most important goals in life are and finding ways to move forward on those goals, says Wilson.
He identifies three ingredients to well-being: hope, meaning, and purpose. Writing exercises that help reframe the way you feel about negative events in the past can help create a sense of hope and meaning, but it’s also important to maintain goals that provide a sense of purpose in your life. “We all have some choice over what we want to pursue and those of us who are really lucky can get paid to do it, but plenty of people find other ways,” says Wilson.
Do some good in the world
Research has shown that it’s not simply having a sense of purpose that contributes to our well-being, but that those who help others are actually happier than those who don’t. These people have a greater likelihood of forming bonds with others and having a positive image of themselves.
“If you want to have a positive outlook and feel like a good person, go out and be a good person,” says Wilson. “The mind is a very good observer of ourselves.”