Category Archives: Inspiration

Moment of Truth: A Word on the ‘Epiphany’

Recently, I had an epiphany over my protagonist’s epiphany. In revision, I saw that he had a sudden flash of insight towards the end of the story. Which is fitting, of course, because it often takes a plot-length’s worth of time for conflicts to gather and emerge. The interesting part is that I didn’t plan my main guy’s hasty manifestation. It wasn’t part of my master plan, my pre-story outline, my scenic design, my line-by-line breakdown. In truth, I never saw it coming, and frankly neither did my character. Just…boom. Revelation.Divulgence.Disclosure.Epiphany.

Dictonary.com defines epiphany in four ways. Based on the context of this post, I will share with you numbers three and four, respectively:

3. A sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something, usually initiated by some simple, homely, or commonplace occurrence or experience.

4. A literary work or section of a work presenting, usually symbolically, such a moment of revelation and insight.

zeev manor → in Landscapes

As an undergraduate studying literature, I loved the concept. I reveled in character epiphanies; I wanted to have epiphanies in my own life, and I thought for certain that I would. Anytime I struggled with indecision or contemplated worldly conundrums, I’d look inside myself (or sometimes, up at the sky) and say, ‘Come on, Vision! Bring it on!’ And I’d wait…and wait…and wait. I’d go to bed confused, and I’d wake up confused. Eventually, my so-called issues dissolved,  and I’d somehow know I was wiser. But there was never any instant gratification. No blast of insight. It’s like Emerson once said, “The years teach much which the days never know.”

But in literature? It was fabulous. I’d wait for it. I’d take the characters’ new-found knowledge with me. Add it to my list of personal philosophies. Nothing beat the ending of John Updike’s “A&P,” or the myriad of reflective wonderments in  James Joyce’s Dubliners.  And how great was it when the concept of racism dawned on Scout Finch and Huck Finn?

But these days, as I come across new and exciting forms of literature, I wonder…is the classic epiphany necessary? Do characters need to have epiphanies in order to be fully realized? I might suggest that this is especially true in the case of short stories, but certainly has its place in novel-dom as well.

So I ask you…do all protagonists need to epiphany (Can this word be used as a verb? Epiphanize? Epiphinate?)

Here is where I run into problems with this notion:

1. Unclear definition: I used to get it—or at least I thought I got it. It’s pretty clear cut, right? Just look at the definitions above. Actually, no, it’s not. Does epiphany have to be a grandiose discovery? Instant knowing? A blast of understanding so powerful that one is forever changed? Or could it be…well, slower? An evolution of thought, as opposed to a revolution of thought. Sure, our characters learn, they grow, they transform, but all at once?

2. Unrealistic portrayal: They say art imitates life, but I can’t remember the last time I had an epiphany. With each year that passes I gather strength and wisdom, but it’s done through trial and error. And only when I stop and think about my path do I notice the differences. In fact, I’d argue that epiphanies don’t actually exist in life at all. Anything I’ve ever learned or uncovered about myself, I likely—somewhere, somehow—already knew. In other words, epiphanies are dormant thoughts, emotions, and experiences that haven’t yet erupted, and in certain cases, never will. So to give a character a sudden jolt of understanding? I just don’t think it works. It needs to be set up, so to speak. The character needs to be on the very path that leads to epiphany from the beginning.

Here is what I know for sure:

Your characters should struggle. They should fail. They should try again. They should fail again. They should completely and utterly unravel. They should hurt others. They should hurt themselves. They should forgive. They should redeem. They should regenerate. They should triumph. If somewhere along the way, they just happen to blindly fall victim to the almighty epiphany…well, then that’s awesome for them.

What’s your take on epiphanies? Do your characters have them? Are they always necessary?

17 Comments

Filed under Breaking the Rules, Inspiration, Writing Process

Yes, I love Women’s Fiction, and here’s why…

I’ve become a glutton for Women’s Fiction, or, in other words, the new PC term for the once aptly named “Chick Lit.” It makes sense, as a kid I spent hours watching Lifetime movies. I’d revel in the scandal of it all—psychotic backstabbing, sultry betrayal, and opportunistic behavior. Sunday afternoons were the best, I’d tune in for the 12 pm, 2 pm, and 4 pm showings of the latest (and greatest) segments of MILFs in distress, power charged (female) attorneys intertwined in violent scandal, and of course, the smooth talking,  muscular, glistening-with-sweat (or tanning oil) male counterparts who treated them—proverbially of course—like s**t.

Thankfully, my ‘girly-girl’ literary choices go beyond Susan Lucci on the page. I don’t read Danielle Steel—whose novels turn to Lifetime flicks as ice turns to water—nor do I delve in genre romance novels, though I have read one or two and haven’t hated them, but found the standard formulas to be as fixed as a magician’s hat trick. On the contrary, the great works of Emily Giffin, Sarah Pekkanen, and Kristin Hannah go a tad beyond the made-for-television-movie level.

In truth, the three new (I say ‘new’ as in new to my personal reading experience) authors of the Women’s Fiction genre I’ve been in short, not reading, but devouring lately have got me ‘hating the haters’ so to speak, those of you who claim these literally denizens are, and I’ll paraphrase, “shallow,” “petty,” “frivolous,” and “small-minded.” In fact, and I assert they are instead, “witty,” “relatable,” “entertaining,” and yes, “significant.”

These are characters that are living the ‘Cosmo Girl’ lifestyle many of us dreamed of growing up. What’s more, is that through these characters’ struggles with family, career, love, and weight gain, we get a clear picture of the way these coveted lifestyles sometimes turn out. Plus, in some ways didn’t Jane Austen do the same thing?

It’s not shallow, it’s our lives. It’s our experiences. It’s figuring out what it is we really want, and how to go about getting what we really need. It’s the constant juggling that is expected of women. It’s the people who screw us, and the people we screw. It’s like reading about you. And what’s even better? You get to experience it without the trite dialogue, the impeccable, yet unrealistic hair, make-up, body type, and clothing, and of course the commercial breaks. Lifetime gives you guilty pleasure; Women’s Fiction gives you conundrums, heartache, perseverance, and in the long run…real pleasure.

Check out these author websites if you aren’t familiar:

http://www.emilygiffin.com/

http://www.sarahpekkanen.com/

http://kristinhannah.com/

8 Comments

Filed under Books and Literature, Inspiration

What is REAL writing? (The case of the babbling brook)

On a recent walk, I treaded upon what some might call a ‘babbling brook’ that ran adjacent to the family-centered park. The water was shallow; heavy, smooth, moss-covered rocks made for slippery pathways from one side of the stream to the other. No frogs, no mallards, maybe a couple of crayfish, and only about fifteen feet away from a plastic playground supported by pieces of shredded tires, and bordered by thin wooden planks. Still, it was canopied by an assortment of trees, and  daggers of sunlight jutted through the leaves’ crevices. Not exactly Yellowstone National Park, but a quiet (ish) place for reflection.

But then I hollowed out all the surrounding noise, and listened…what a sound! Mellifluous as a cello. The brook had such consistency, such purpose, such continuity.  The water knew which direction it was going, and there it went, with unyielding persistence. I sat on a nearby rock and wished I had brought my journal. What a perfect place to write! I could compose the proverbial Great American Novel out here in the partial shade, geese honking from up above, and the echoes of children’s laughter tickling my ears.

Then it hit me, and it seemed too, the water stopped flowing. No I couldn’t.  Who writes sitting atop a rock? My butt would cramp up. What about those unexpected gusts of wind? It’d screw up the pages in my journal—blowing ‘em this way and that. Bugs. Mosquitoes. I might inhale a fly. And am I nuts…children in the distance? Children in the distance? Mid-chapter you’d start to see my handwriting changing, first  the letters would form into a tight hybrid of print and cursive, as though I were writing faster; then, eventually, the words would be bigger, thicker, darker, as though I were writing harder, thus angrier. And can we all agree that angry writing equals poor writing?

There was a time when I yearned for those peaceful sanctuaries where inspiration was conceived and great ideas were born.* But I’ve realized that real, productive writing doesn’t happen that way. It happens at home on the computer. Long, long, hours on the computer. Plus, as far as I’m concerned, inspiration can go to Hell; writing doesn’t get done that way either. Writing gets done by sitting in a chair (not a rock) in front of the computer. Writing gets done a second, third, fourth, etc. time…wait for it…on the computer! It’s rigorous, it’s trying, it’s wearisome, and unlike the babbling brook that travels in one fluid direction (I’m not taking weather into account at the moment) while real writing takes many turns, and often ends in a place where one never even began.

A first draft of a poem? OK, maybe. Ideas? Yes, definitely. A well-crafted, sweat-over, labor-inducing novel, collection of stories, or other long work? Let the babbling brook be. And leave those crayfish alone.

*Cliches intended

8 Comments

Filed under Inspiration, The Writing Life, Writing Process

Ideas for Writing: Five plot-centered prompts to get started!

Be kind, please. I’ve never actually done something like this before. Well, OK, that’s not 100% accurate. Once in a grad class, a professor asked us each to create our own writing prompts. Then he read them (anonymously, thank goodness) out loud and we all picked one for a free writing exercise. He didn’t withhold his opinions, however, on which prompts were worthy and which ones were crappy. I remember when he read mine, he raised his eyebrows and blinked three times in row, a facial expression that could only be construed as: Whoa, this one’s out there. I still believe very much in my prompt! In fact, I included it below–see if you can figure out which one received the ‘look.’

Anyhow, these are some original writing prompt ideas. In this segment, they relate to the plot points of a novel, story, poem, etc. If you’ve seen any of them before, it’s pure coincidence. As far as I’m concerned, they all come from my intrinsic writing brain:

1. A woman is standing at her kitchen sink washing dishes, when she notices, from out the window, a solitary, red (or any color, really) balloon floating in the vast sky. This reminds her of a significant childhood experience. Write about it.  OR A solitary, red balloon is floating in the vast sky. Tell the story of how it got there.

2. Four teenage friends are trying to get into (any concert) back in (any year). Write about their adventure.
For example, it’s 1978, and four high school sophomores from New Jersey are just dying to get access into CBGB’s. How does the night unravel? This may or may not require some research.

3. An old man from the World War II era is taking a long train ride to visit his grandson. When a  strange woman takes a seat across the aisle from him, he is suddenly taken by a distant memory–the day he lost his virginity to a prostitute while in the service. This also may require research.

4. A little boy (or girl) gets separated from his mother at a carnival, and witnesses something that terrifies him. Tell the story from the child’s point-of-view.

5.  A young man sees a young woman in a movie theater, and swears he knows her from someplace. He barely watches the film, because he is trying in vain to figure out why she seems so familiar. After the credits, he follows her outside and approaches her. Who is she? What happens?

This is a fun exercise because it not only gives my readers potential ideas, but it gives me ideas too. Any of these prompts can twist and turn in directions a writer never expected. That’s really the beauty of it all, isn’t it?

Anyone else want to contribute? Pen your own writing prompt below!

3 Comments

Filed under Characters, Inspiration, Plot & Structure, Prompts & Writing Ideas, The Setting, The Writing Life, Top Ten Lists, Writing Tips

What are your writing obsessions?

I’ll admit, I’m ripping this one off an old college professor. In a poetry writing course some years back, she asked us to consider our “poetic obsessions.” She even brought in some of her own compulsions from her office within the same building. Vintage advertisements from a younger America, books with brown, image-less hard covers and yellowing pages, china cat figurines with chipped ears. She spread it all out on the long conference table. Told us to sift through it, get inspired, write a poem. “We all have our own obsessions,” she said, “obsessions which fuel our writing, whether we’re aware of it or not. Go home and scan your bedrooms, work rooms, or other places you may sanctify. Examine your bookshelves, closets, dresser drawers. What seems to come up over and over again? These are your obsessions. And I’ll bet you anything that from time to time, they inexplicably show up in your writing.”

I was eager to come home and observe my space for my obsessions. I went straight to my office, and just as my professor said, I noticed some patterns. Flowers, for one thing. Fake flowers. Feather flowers, glass flowers, plastic flowers, wooden flowers. On my desk, shelves, end tables, etc. Then there was my lighthearted fixation on the occult: astrology books, psychic books, palm reading cards. I also have a greeting card with a painted fairy balancing the scales of justice on her shoulders. LIBRA it says in fancy font across the bottom. I have posters, calendars, and books on Elvis Presley. Numerous more books on rock ‘n roll, and Rolling Stone compilations, etc.  I was surprised to find I had more than one book on England–some simply images of the countryside, some tour guides, and some chronicled histories, including an anthology on the kings and queens.

My photo albums are chock full of pictures of myself as a child. On an antique step ladder that I use for decorative purposes are photographs of my grandparents as children. I have another framed picture of my father and uncle as young boys. Then there are the lighthouses–tiny knick knack versions of course. My grandfather–formerly of the Coast Guard–was an avid collector. I also have an image of a lighthouse I took with my digital camera on the background of my computer. And cats…paintings, books, and a humorous tapestry that says, “The more I get to some people, the more I like the cat.” Plus two real live ones that like to rub against my face as I write.

I could go on (Thomas Kinkade desk calendar, prints, and collectors’ coffee table books), but I’ll stop and say this: At one point or another, all of these things have turned up in my work. We all write for various reasons, and sometimes we get too caught up in the ‘business’ side of it–publications, queries, conferences, platform building, etc. and while these elements of living the writing life are both important and thrilling, I think sometimes we forget that writing is a subliminal, unconscious process that can help us connect to our hidden depths, those things that make us who we are. Writing is channeling, it’s drudging up the dirt, and these ‘obsessions’ of ours are symbols, or keys have you, that unlock what we consider to be important.

So I’m interested…what are YOUR obsessions, and do they, perhaps inadvertently or not, reveal themselves in your writing?

5 Comments

Filed under Inspiration, Prompts & Writing Ideas, The Writing Life, Why We Write, Writing Details, Writing Process, Writing Tips

Just maybe

“We, and I think I’m speaking for many writers, don’t know what it is that sometimes comes to make our books alive. All we can do is to write dutifully and day after day, every day, giving our work the very best of what we are capable. I don’t think that we can consciously put the magic in; it doesn’t work that way. When the magic comes, it’s a gift.”
—Madeleine L’Engle

It’s true. I wonder everyday if what I’m writing is good enough, interesting enough, worthy enough. I dreamed that one of my short stories received an honorable mention in a particular contest. When I woke, feeling jubilant no doubt, I realized that I never submitted that story to said contest. I’d let the deadline pass, assumed another rejection. My dream woke me up (no pun intended). What I really let pass was an opportunity.

They’ll be more contests. Not all is lost. But maybe my subconscious is telling me that it’s possible. Everyday I pray, not for success or fame or bestselling novels, but for belief. To dare believe I can do this. Perhaps it’s working? I’m pushing myself to break through?

I’m not sure that what I’m doing is groundbreaking. To be honest, that’s not really my intention. All I truly want is to believe. Yes, that and both the liberty and leisure to able to write more. My whole life maybe. This sounds so pseudo-inspirational. But to me it’s actually very important. Regardless of what happens.

So I won’t stop. I’ve been rewriting my novel and discovering all the things it didn’t have the first time around. Now it does. It brings me personal happiness each day. In this endeavor that’s all I can hope for. If not for that, I don’t have much. I’m glad I’m learning to understand this.

2 Comments

Filed under Breaking Through, Inspiration, The Writing Life, Why We Write, Writing Details, Writing Fears, Writing Process, Writing Tips

Doubt II

What IS writer’s block? I used to think it meant “not knowing what to write.” I don’t believe that anymore. It’s got to be more complex than that. The Gotham Writer’s Workshop–based in NYC–sends out a newsletter, which often includes a mini-interview with established authors. The first question each author is asked? ‘What are some methods for overcoming writer’s block?’ (I apologize, this is not the question verbatim). Nine times out of ten, these writers will claim that the proverbial ‘block’ is nonsense. Most will swear it’s an invention of the mind. Some say there isn’t enough time for writer’s block, because there is just too much writing to do.

I have absolutely no reason to doubt them. They’ve published, sold, gained readers, etc. And quite frankly, I don’t think I have it–the ‘block’ that is. Because, in the current stage of my novel, I know what I want to write. I know what is going to happen next. Usually once I sit down to work on manuscript, new ideas come, old ideas get trashed, the characters’ voices take over my thoughts and so on and so on. In this sense, I agree. The best way to cure writer’s block is to WRITE! Sit down, and scold yourself. Say, ‘you may not get up from this chair for one hour. After that you are free.’ Surprise, surprise. Writing gets done.

So, if the lack of flowing ideas is the surface of this awful affliction, I think my current problem goes a few layers deeper. See, I haven’t posted on this blog since March 4th. My plight is more complicated. It’s doubt, and it’s back. I’ve written about the D word before. It goes something like this…what if my idea doesn’t have a place in the current market, what if deep down, my story is total crap, even if I do publish, will anyone care, how many people even read this blog? What do I really want to come from this story? Am I too old? Am I running out of time? Can I call myself a writer if I have virtually nothing to show for it? And then, the big question: Is it even worth it?

I’d write all day if I could. I love it. Plain and simple, that’s why I do it. But these questions consistently flow through my mind in a steady stream. I know this much. I will complete my novel. I promised myself I would. So I will. After that….???

Leave a comment

Filed under Inspiration, The Writing Life, Writer's Block, Writing Process, Writing Tips

What’s going on down there?

“When I start on a book, I have been thinking about it and making occasional notes for some time—20 years in the case of Imperial Earth, and 10 years in the case of the novel I’m presently working on. So I have lots of theme, locale, subjects and technical ideas. It’s amazing how the subconscious self works on these things. I don’t worry about long periods of not doing anything. I know my subconscious is busy.”
—Arthur C. Clarke

Lately I’ve been writing even when I’m not writing. I’ll be in the car, the shower, a restaurant, the grocery store, and I’ll be completely lost inside my own head, not just thinking about writing, actually writing. The descriptions, the dialogue, the action…all of it. In my head. I’m convinced that I sometimes move my lips along with my thought process. I’ve often caught total strangers. giving me questionable looks.

The other afternoon I worked tirelessly on revising my novel. When I stopped, I went downstairs to feed my cats. As I stood at the counter, the two of them circling my feet like sharks, suddenly I thought of the perfect thing for character X to say. I slopped the food in their bowls and raced back upstairs. Wrote one extra line of dialogue. Then wound up spending another half-hour at the computer.

I’m even doing it in my sleep. Really. I’ll wake from a image-less dream where I hear the flow of a narrator’s voice echoing in my mind. It won’t necessarily be coherent material. I’m not even sure if its my book. But it’s writing. It’s definitely writing. Very strange.

New scenes develop out of nowhere. Friday night I saw a news brief about a 90 year man who still owns, runs, and operates his own barbershop. Suddenly I had an idea for a scene in the book. Not a scene, really. A ‘clip.’ There’s a difference. A scene runs at least 700 words (or more), a clip can be under 300. This barbershop notion turned out to be an important clip though. It established an early hint of something that was to come. It worked beautifully.

I think I’ve been enmeshed with the story long enough now to where this kind of stuff happens on its own. In the beginning, yes, I had to actively seek out inspiration. But the wheels have been turning for nearly a year and a half, and it’s true. The subconscious is an amazing tool. I’m beginning to think that so much of writing is to learning to activate this way too often dormant oasis that lies in all of us.

Leave a comment

Filed under Characters, Inspiration, Plot & Structure, Revision, The Writing Life, Writing Process, Writing Tips

Autonomy

“Writing is like being in love. You never get better at it or learn more about it. The day you think you do is the day you lose it. Robert Frost called his work a lover’s quarrel with the world. It’s ongoing. It has neither a beginning nor an end. You don’t have to worry about learning things. The fire of one’s art burns all the impurities from the vessel that contains it.”
—James Lee Burke

This is essentially true. But as both intrinsic writers and student writers we do learn rules. Lots and lots of rules. Endless rules about characterization, plot, structure, dialogue, thematic undercurrents, and on and on. And yes, there is a basic format to a piece of writing. It has to be organized–this organization takes on many, many, forms, but it still must have a form.

So maybe we can ‘learn’ things about writing, but it seems like everywhere I look the rules are being broken. Maybe that’s why Burke is saying the ‘learning process,’ in a sense doesn’t really exist in writing.

I’ve heard countless critiques about my characters and their lack of dimensions, yet then I read a published piece in a literary magazine where the characters don’t have names, backgrounds, anything. They’re shadows who live in a timeless space. Do we learn the rules to ignore them? Or is there a certain recipe to follow regardless?

I think every piece of writing must work in spite of itself. It has to operate in its best capacity as it stands. Any reader can tell when a story, poem, essay has value. It’s isolated from every other story, poem, or essay. Maybe once an intrinsic learns all the learns he or she can pick and choose the ones he or she wants to incorporate into the piece.

As a child I learned how to print my letters. Then I learned cursive. Now my handwriting is a unique hybrid of the two. Maybe writing is like that. But then again, I don’t really know.

Leave a comment

Filed under Breaking the Rules, Breaking Through, Characters, Description, Inspiration, Plot & Structure, Revision, The Writing Life, Writing Process

If you look closely…

“We’re past the age of heroes and hero kings. If we can’t make up stories about ordinary people, who can we make them up about? … Most of our lives are basically mundane and dull, and it’s up to the writer to find ways to make them interesting.”
—John Updike

Tonight I had dinner at my grandfather’s house. I’ve worked many hours in the past two days, and taught various classes. Before heading to Grandpa’s I decided to stop at a county park near his house and relish in twenty to thirty minutes of down time. I think it’s crucial for intrinsic writers–or your everyday introvert– to do this occasionally. I’m both. A writer, an introvert. It’s crucial. Reflection periods. I used to think that more people ought to do this. But today it occurred to me that if everyone did it, then parks like mine would be swamped with run-of-mill thinkers and philosophers like myself. And that would just kill my vibe.

Either way, I’m always surprised to find that others do the same. Today, a kooky woman parked her car next to me and proceeded to empty out the contents of her trunk and back seat into the mesh wire garbage bin planted in front of the man-made pond. Afterwords, she just…chilled…in her back seat, retrieving pieces of paper off her car floor and reading aloud to herself (I could tell; her lips were moving). My first thought? Are she and I the same breed?

Speaking of backseats. When I initially pulled into said park, an Acura SUV had been trailing behind me. Get off my ass, I’m thinking. You’re really staring to irritate me, Lady (introverted philosopher or not, I’m still from Northern Jersey). She kept moving her vehicle to the side, like she wanted to blast past me, but kept herself from doing it. She pulled into the same parking lot I did–naturally– and by this point my ‘Zen Zone’ was wavering. She breaks next to a black Mercedes. An older man steps out from the Benz, and leans into the talk to the aggressive Acura driver. Meanwhile, I kill my ignition and wait. I’m just dying to see what the bitch who was trailing me looks like. When she gets out of the car–I’d say mid-forties, long reddish hair, in shape–and she and the old man slip into the back seat, which by the way is clandestinely hidden by oh-so-illegal tinted windows. Valentine’s Day affair? I kept waiting for the car start rocking back and forth.

A little while later, a man in mid-fifties parks to the other side of me. The second he shifts gears he rubs his face with his hands. I hear you, Man, I thinking. I need it too. When a flock of geese take off in a V-Shaped flight, beckoning loudly enough for the world to hear, his eyes follow them as mine do, and again…I’m surprised. I’m surprised to find there are others like me.

I think as intrinsic writers, if we pay attention, there are cues and stories all over the place. Parks and sanctuaries, though they seem uneventful, are a haven for those who want to shut down. Who want to watch the simplistic lives of wildfowl. Who think they can be themselves because no one else is watching…

Leave a comment

Filed under Inspiration, Prompts & Writing Ideas, The Writing Life, Why We Write, Writing Details, Writing Tips