Weekend Edition – Getting Out of Your Head Plus Writing Tips and Good Reads

Getting Out of My Head

Meghan Sargent

My daughter, proudly atop Sargent Mountain in Acadia National Park

Last Saturday’s Weekend Edition was slightly abbreviated, but – as I said in my post – for all the right reasons.

The photo I shared was an  in-the-moment selfie of me and my daughter just before hopping in the car with my beau and heading five hours north for a few days of hiking in Acadia National Park, one of our favorite places to visit and the perfect place to celebrate the summer solstice. Though there was, as usual, a slew of hurdles to clear before we were actually on the road (including turning around twenty minutes out because I realized the spare key I’d meant to leave for the cat sitter was still in my purse), the effort and last minute scrambling was so worth it. We had a magical trip.

As writers, we live in our heads. We create whole worlds up there, including places, people, and the stories that they inhabit. We spend long hours behind the keyboard, usually in complete or semi isolation. Much of our day is spent in stillness – butt in chair, only our brains and fingers skittering across the otherwise tranquil surface of the moment. We have our routines and our talismans. We willingly embrace a creative grind that non-writers might consider a cruel and unusual punishment.

But sometimes, it’s good to get out. Out of your head. Out of your chair. Out of your routine.

acadia dogwood

Cornus canadensis (aka creeping dogwood or bunchberry), Acadia

And that’s just what we did. Acadia National Park is a stunning natural treasure. The mountains, though small, hold a wealth of trails that lead through astonishingly diverse landscapes to stunning views of Mount Desert Isle and the surrounding chain of smaller islands. Many of these trails include long stretches of granite stairs that were built into the sides of the mountains back in early twentieth century … without the benefit of modern tools and technology. Once the holiday haven of America’s elite – the Rockefellers, Fords, Morgans, Vanderbilts, and Carnegies – the island now welcomes over two million visitors each year, many of them hikers.

We were among those two million, and we did our fair share of hiking – 10 to 12 miles each day, two peaks on the first (Dorr and Cadillac) and three on the second (Gilmore, Sargent, and Penobscot). It felt so good to get outside, to move, to venture into new territory. Best of all was being able to share the experience with people I love. I am so grateful that my ten year-old daughter has taken to hiking like she was born to it. She’s a trooper and a half, and – even better – she has the fever for it.

Stones from a Bar Harbor beach

Stones from a Bar Harbor beach

The interesting thing about stepping away from my keyboard is that while it does help me clear my mind, it also has a way of filling it back up to overflowing with new ideas, thoughts, and questions. Out there on the trail, without so much as a pen in my pocket, I felt like some long unused lines of communication had suddenly crackled back to life and were transmitting an endless stream of inspiration. The world around me seemed brighter and sharper, each plant and stone and mountain stream seemed to speak to me of their stories.

Though our writing comes from internal sources, it is influenced by everything around us. Our experiences – what we do, see, read, feel – are the raw ingredients for our stories. I imagine my experiences lining the honey-colored shelves of a kitchen witch’s pantry. Here in this sea-green bottle is a day in the mountains collecting photos of wildflowers. See how the light sparkles inside with all the colors of their petals? There, in a small paper box tinged with the bright colors of autumn, is the afternoon spent building a girl-sized birds’ nest with my sister. And inside this seashell is the memory of warm sunshine in November and pink skies rumbling across the soft sea.

Love your words. Cherish your stories. But don’t forget to get out into the world. It’s full of just what you need replenish your stores of creative magic.

 

What I’m Writing:

flash fiction challengeI didn’t do any writing while away, and this week has been mostly playing catch up and adjusting to my daughter being out of school for the summer. I did, however, come across an upcoming writing event that might be just the thing to kick my inner fiction writer in the butt. The Flash Fiction Challenge is an annual event. Here’s how the event is described on its website about page:

The Flash Fiction Challenge is an international creative writing competition, now in it’s 6th year, that challenges participants to create original short stories (1,000 words max.) based on genre, location, and object assignments.  The event is organized by NYC Midnight Movie Making Madness, an organization that has been holding exciting creative competitions since 2002 and is dedicated to discovering and promoting a new wave of talented storytellers.  NYC Midnight aims to provide the prizes and exposure necessary for writers to take their next big step towards writing professionally.

There is an entry fee ($39), but I’m feeling like that’s a completely reasonable cost if registering for the event will get me to push my fiction practice to the top of my To Do list for a few days, instead of letting it languish at the bottom of the pile beneath my marcom projects.

The event includes four writing challenges that take place in three-day sprints in August, October, November, and December. Writers accrue points based on placement in each of the challenges as judged by a panel of writers and publishers.

I might be crazy, but this sounds kind of fun.

What I’m Reading:

book moon sistersWhen I was a kid, my family watched The Wonderful World of Disney each Sunday night. Our only television was in my parents’ bedroom, so me, my parents, and my younger sister would all pile on the bed together, often with dinner. (If we were really lucky, dinner would be my mom’s homemade pizza.) I don’t remember all of the stories we watched, but I do remember clearly that any sign of an emotional bit always sent me sliding off the bed to sit with my back against the footboard where no one could see me bite my lip to hold back the tears. I never wanted to cry in front of anyone.

As I get older, I’m losing my inhibitions about showing tears. I cry openly at movies, in my own living room and even in public theaters. I also cry at books.

Just this morning I finished The Moon Sisters by Therese Walsh, an author who also happens to be the cofounder of one of my favorite writing blogs, Writer Unboxed. The Moon Sisters is a beautifully told and captivating story of grief, redemption, release, and acceptance. The last few pages brought me to tears. I don’t want to give away too much of the story (there is a surprising twist at the end), but here’s the cover blurb:

After their mother’s probable suicide, sisters Olivia and Jazz are figuring out how to move on with their lives. Jazz, logical and forward-thinking, decides to get a new job, but spirited, strong-willed Olivia, who can see sounds, taste words, and smell sights, is determined to travel to the remote setting of their mother’s unfinished novel to say her final goodbyes and lay their mother’s spirit to rest.

Already resentful of Olivia’s foolish quest and her family’s insistence upon her involvement, Jazz is further aggravated when they run into trouble along the way and Olivia latches on to a worldly train-hopper who warns he shouldn’t be trusted. As Jazz and Olivia make their way toward their destination, each hiding something from the other, their journey toward acceptance of their mother’s death becomes as important as their journey to understand each other and themselves.

Like all my favorite books, this one had a touch of magic, but it was the kind of magic that is firmly based in real life. That is, perhaps, the best kind. I enjoyed the story and the characters. The language is, as many reviewers have said, “lush” and has a lyrical quality that is heightened by the poetic perceptions of Olivia who has a condition called synethesia. Another very enjoyable read and one I recommend enthusiastically.

And let’s not forget the blogs. Here are a few of my favorite writerly posts from this week:

 

Finally, a quote for the week:

pin magic in writing

I hope each of you found a little magic in this past week, and I hope each of you gets to have a little adventure in the one coming up. Keep those creative larders well stocked! 

Jamie Lee Wallace is a writer who also happens to be a marketer. She helps her Suddenly Marketing clients discover their voice, connect with their audience, and find their marketing groove. She is also a mom, a prolific blogger, and a student of the equestrian arts, voice, and trapeze (not at the same time). Introduce yourself on facebook or twitter. She doesn’t bite … usually.

Children do not want nice stories

Many adults who want to write for children make the mistake of assuming that children want nice stories. Our mature perspective distorts our memories and deceives us into believing that only unicorns, fluffy bunnies, and fairy godmothers populated our childhood fantasies. We have forgotten our own dark natures. We assume that because, as adults, we find children to be “cute” and endearing, they must see themselves that way, too.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Little girls are cute and small only to adults.  To one another they are not cute.  They are life-sized.  ~Margaret Atwood

Earlier this year, I attended Grub Street Writers’ annual Muse conference. Author Tayari Jones expanded on Atwood’s observation, “Kids are not cute,” she told us, “They are not cruel, innocent, the future, or closer to nature. To each other, they are life-sized. They convey and inhabit the full range of their experience and emotions – which are as complicated as yours and mine.”

Try to remember what it felt like to be a kid.

Did you ever feel “cute?” Did you feel like your feelings were less intense or less important because you were a kid? I bet you thought your feelings were more intense and more important because you were a kid. Children, from the first spark of self-knowledge through the tumultuous teen years, experience the world in a much more visceral way than most adults. Their perception has not been dulled by deeply ingrained assumptions or painted by the opinions of others. Children live more fully in the “real” world than we do. They trust their senses and their instincts.

“I’d felt something move. I’d felt the knocker twist under my hand as I’d banged that grinning imp down on the door. I was not so old that I would deny my own senses.” – Neil Gaiman from the short story Closing Time

But children also have the advantage of living simultaneously and fully in a world of their own making. In his fascinating book, The Storytelling Animal – How Stories Make Us Human, Jonathan Gottschall dedicates a lengthy section to the nature of children’s make believe:

“Grownups have a tendency to remember the land of make-believe as a heavenly, sun-kissed, bunny land. But the land of make-believe is less like heaven and more like hell. Children’s play is not escapist. It confronts the problems of the human condition head-on.”

He goes on to call pretend play “deadly serious fun.”

Gottschall’s words, along with the examples of stories made up by children, reminded me of just how frightening and often violent my own childhood dreams and fantasies were. My nighttime visions were full of ghosts and monsters, being lost, being chased, falling, and other nightmarish things. My games were full of adventure, crisis, and trouble. I played at being an Amazon warrior, a dragon tamer, and a magical priestess of the forest. I enacted the invasion of Earth by alien species. I handed down death sentences to traitors and slew my enemies on the battlefield.

This isn’t to say I didn’t also search for unicorns and admire bluebirds. I did.

I invented an entire subgenus called White Deer. They were wise and noble creatures with a complex hierarchy, jeweled antlers, and a traveling court that disappeared into the mist at sunrise. My point is, most of my preferred play – my most memorable play – revolved around things that weren’t nice – kidnappings and war and beasts of every description.

Think about the stories that captivated you as a child.

Were they nothing but rainbows and lullabies, or were they inhabited by trolls, evil queens, and haunted houses? Think about the stories that have taken young minds by storm in recent years. A few that come to mind immediately for me are Harry Potter, A Series of Unfortunate Events, The Hunger Games (which, technically is young adult), and Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. Each involves its fair share of tragedy, violence, and death. Even seemingly tame stories like Roald Dahl’s Matilda include their share of bad people and terrible happenings. Enduring classics like C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy are built around great conflicts, wars, and a deep, unflinching look into the eyes of evil.

There are plenty of favorites on my shelf that are “nicer” than these fantasy and adventure stories – The Wind in the Willows, Winne-the-Pooh, and Tales of Brambley Hedge , just to name a few. But I find that the books my daughter wants to read are either rife with danger or full of gut-busting belly laughs. She does not find “nice” appealing and is easily bored by sweet tales of idyllic childhoods. She is, of course, only a focus group of one, but I’d be willing to bet – based on bestseller charts – that she’s not alone in her tastes.

When writing for children, do not rein in the full range of human experience and emotion. Do not soften the blows or dilute the nature of evil. Children use stories to learn about themselves, each other, and the world. They are naturally drawn to stories that give them a deep, truthful picture of these things. It does not matter if the story takes place on familiar city streets, in a fantasy land full of dragons, or out in darkest space. What matters is the veracity of the human element …

… and we grownups know that human nature is not always nice.

Do you write for children or young adults? What kinds of themes do your stories explore? Have you ever found yourself holding back in a subconscious effort to protect your reader? What inspires you to write for these age groups?

Jamie Lee Wallace is a writer who also happens to be a marketer. She helps her Suddenly Marketing clients discover their voice, connect with their audience, and find their marketing groove. She is also a mom, a prolific blogger, and a student of voice and trapeze (not at the same time). Introduce yourself on facebook or twitter. She doesn’t bite … usually.

Image Credit: Wesley Fryer

How to Create Story Tension in 6 Life-threatening Steps

I’m prone to using nature metaphors to explain marketing principles, but this past week I had a Real Life experience that not only gave me an idea for a new metaphor, it very nearly gave me my first anxiety attack and, I’m pretty sure, took a few years off my life.

My beau and I were vacationing in Acadia National Park. It was my first visit and I fell hard for the place. The coastline is full of rugged nooks and crannies, the skies are full of osprey, and the mountains are full of granite staircases that weave a solid yet mysterious path through pine-scented forests, between enormous boulders, and up otherwise impassable cliffs.

We began our day’s hike on the Black and Orange trail (so named after the school colors of its builder, a Princeton man who spent the last three years of his life constructing this massive stone stair and amphitheatre in honor of his wife who was lost on the Titanic on her way over from Europe). The day was gray and the weather forecast called for rain to arrive around lunchtime, but after we’d completed the short hike up to the amphitheatre, we couldn’t bring ourselves to turn back. The trails through the mountains of Acadia are so alluring. You never know what gorgeous vista or impressive example of granite engineering may lie around the next bend.

So, we continued to follow the trail that coiled around the side of Mount Champlain like a stony serpent. It was more than just the beauty of the scenery that drew us on. From what we could tell, the path we were on led to the Precipice Trail – the most challenging hike in the park. Continue reading