Writing and the Act of Immersion

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Photo by Rich Sanders

Oddly, when I am scuba diving I think about writing. Long boat rides, open space, and the feeling of being insignificant on the vast ocean plays with the mind. Five or six miles out on the Block Island Sound, the ocean opens up. It is hard to see the shore, and with the typical New England fog, you may not see the shore for hours. Guys chat about their gear, exotic dive sites, and skills they have acquired. I listen and join in, but I think about writing. When we are gearing up to dive, we stop chatting and we get to diving. Gearing up for a dive includes settling into a mental process of checking and rechecking your gear and getting into the water.

Falling into the water is exciting, the waves, the wind, and the noise falls away and you are under the sea. Diving is about the experience, about immersion, looking and seeing. I often think of being a witness to the event, not a participant. You move into different senses. Once, moving over the side of a sunken freighter, I came across a small school of sand sharks circling. I sat on the edge of the ship like a child and watched them slide and move around me. All I wanted to do was be the faithful observer so I could report back. The worse thing to do when you dive is think about diving.

Writing can be like diving, but it is technical in a different way. There comes a time (like diving) when you have all the gear, tools, and training. There comes a time when we don’t need another workshop or process book to inform our writing. Now, you need to slip into the water – listen to your prose. That sounds as foreign as diving into the murky abyss, but it makes sense. One of the most intriguing elements of fiction writing is developing and creating characters and plots that begin to take on a life of their own. That moment when your characters are cast into something new, something surprising – that is the moment when you aren’t creating but are turning that hard work into being a faithful observer, reporting back to the page all that you are seeing.

In the article “When Characters Talk, Writers Listen” by Karen Dionne, she discusses how the creative right brain can be the key to creating without creator interference.

“I’ve always considered myself a highly creative person. But if Kring is right, I’ve been letting my left brain exert too much control — at least in the very early development stage. That’s not to say there isn’t a use for an outline — all three of my published novels were produced working off of one. But there’s a certain magic that happens when we turn off the left brain entirely, if temporarily, and let the right brain take control.”

It probably won’t surprise you that the verbal elements of thinking and speaking are located in the left side of the brain. When I am not writing well, I will stop and say out loud, “This is not going well.” So, it makes sense that I have rich and meaningful experiences when I can’t verbalize my diving, and too, it is critical to the creative process.

Every writer approaches writing with a different spin or preference. I find some of my best writing is by way of writing as exploration and thinking. The sophisticated act of trusting your creativity, your imagination, and your ability is not something that comes right away. Creatively, the act of intuiting the world of a character and what they will do next is power when you bear witness with the reader.

In creating meaningful prose, you are also creating meaningful experiences. It is through our writing tools (character, plot, setting, pace, and so on) that focus our skill set. But there is more. Understanding the importance of a good character is a skill, but knowing when to let that character move into uncharted territory is when we shift from practice to craft. Knowing when to push figurative language forward to accent moments and pull other things apart is not just writing the next chapter, but adding a lyrical beat to the rhythm of the novel. Take the accumulation of all you know and think about writing and let it go. Fall into the current and write. I find the more I let go and trust those skills, the better the writing comes.

Next time you get ready to write, take a deep breath. What will come will come. Trust your instincts and your training. Know your limits, but don’t let them define you. Stop reading and begin writing. The adventure will not be in vain.

When I come back from the sea, I don’t like to talk. I want to hold on to that sharpened sense of awareness and observation. After writing for a few hours, I feel the exact same way. Recompression takes time.

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Tell Stories, Not Information

Without context, a bulleted list of information is just information – easily memorized and easily forgettable. A story resonates by providing meaningful context that strikes an emotional chord while delivering relatable data. Remember this the next time you write a report, build a presentation, or give a speech.

On Lying Down

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Image via Flickr by Hoshi_sae

By Daniel Asa Rose

“You there, in the second row, sit up straight! Shoulders back!  Don’t slump!”

Thus spake Mrs. Z, titan-ess of fifth grade discipline, who was also known to grab and twist our wattles when she needed to dispatch us to the principal’s office. (We didn’t really have wattles yet; she was obviously working out some envy issues.)

Then there was this, from an otherwise kind-hearted piano tutor: “If the keyboard was a gun, Middle C should shoot you squarely in the belly button. So sit up straight!”

And this, out of the mouths of everyone else from dental assistants to school bus drivers: “If you hunch over, you’re going to grow up crooked / morally corrupt / with charity toward none.”

Youth takes a lot of advice from age on the subject of posture. Which is odd when you think about it, for who knows better by natural inclination how to sit – kids with their shiny new skeletal systems or pinched old Mrs. Z? Even if we tried, we fifth graders couldn’t slouch less gracefully than Mrs. Z in her missionary erectitude.

All the noise we took from our elders on the subject – most of it revolving around the antic notion that we couldn’t be sufficiently creative in our work if our backbones weren’t vertical – would be of merely historical interest if it weren’t for the fact that those words continue to rattle in most of our adult brainpans all these years later. To this day we reflexively believe we’re somehow ethically obligated to sit up straight in our seats. Even now, you’re probably unconsciously auto-aligning some overworked spinal discs simply because the subject has arisen.

Relax! Slouch down! Breathe easy….

Only that way can you write the great American novel….

Larrys-KidneyYes, I’m here to tell you how unlearning those injunctions may actually improve your creativity; in particular your writing. It certainly did mine, beginning a few years ago in backwoods China, where I was on an extended stay to get my cousin a kidney, something I’ve documented in my new book, Larry’s Kidney. My hotel room was so tiny I dubbed it the Super Two. I couldn’t fit into the corner desk. I looked around the room and saw nothing but my queen-sized bed. Could I take my laptop there?

For years I had hauled my laptop with me around the globe, filing travel essays for an Esquire column from Fiji, Finland, Florida. I’d long marveled at how effortlessly I could tote my research and my rough copy with me to any far-flung destination I chose. But I’d never thought to simply hump it across the room, from desk to bed. And so everywhere I went I had been locked into not only the same posture patterns enforced by Mrs. Z, but the same writing patterns she’d emphasized, too. “Subject and verb must agree! Write complete sentences! Chop chop!”

Something miraculous happened when I took my laptop to bed. As I reclined, I found all of Mrs. Z’s quasi-biblical injunctions melting away – not just the ones about how I was supposed to position my body but the ones about my writing habits, too. How I was supposed to finish the first paragraph before I went on to the next. How I shouldn’t let run-on sentences clutter my page. How hyperbole was suspect, humor should be constrained, and a summary graf should wrap things up nicely with a bow. It was as though those archaic writing commands had taken root in my musculature many years ago, along with the postural ones. Threatening to ossify my creative life as well as my carriage.

As I allowed myself to slump – on a delightful continuum from halfway down with the laptop on my lap to flat out with it on my chest[1] – Mrs. Z’s words vanished. Gone were the outworn negative words I’d imbibed before I knew any better. I was not “lazy” to be lying down, nor was I “loafing.” I was not a layabout, a slacker, a slug – amazing how so many of those terms had the ramrod straight letter “l” in them, like a built-in guilt-inducer. In my new asana I resembled something less quantifiable: back angled, knees up, like the “w” in “writer.”

The writing flowed. As my breathing relaxed and deepened, something unlocked inside me. The schoolmistress-y voices of my childhood melted away, replaced by other, more forgiving ones. My mother, tucking me into bed when we both knew I was pretending to be sick on a school day. Early girlfriends, discovering with me the joys of joint horizontality. What a slew of sweeter associations I had in bed than I had at my desk! Writing was not a fifth grade task to be strictly graded by Mrs. Z. It was not about deadlines, nervous tension, cramming, cramping, backache, being blocked – all the things I had connected it with for decades. It was about ease and freedom, lightening up instead of bearing down. It was – wait, was it all right to think this? – not even work at all. It was play.

No wonder so many writers I admired had done their best writing in a recumbent position. James Joyce. Proust. Walker Percy. Edith Wharton. Collette. All those poets. Mark Twain used to lie in bed, dropping pages for his secretary to transcribe. D.H. Lawrence would stretch out beneath trees, scribbling as effortlessly as breathing. Tellingly, Hemingway stood to write, as though at perpetual attention. Maybe that was why Mrs. Z had so over-admired the military brevity of his sentence structure?

Over the next year, I lay around a lot. I came to see that right angles are rare in nature, and that forcing ourselves into not one but two such artificial angles – sitting up with our feet on the floor – was imposing unnatural stresses on ourselves. I realized that recumbency is the instinctual preferred position of the unencumbered: nursery schoolers lying on their bellies to draw, teenagers lying on their backs to take in a rock concert, Romans when they were at their life-enjoying, grape-nibbling best.

Within twelve months, the book was done: written in bed. My previous book had taken me ten upright, uptight years to write (granted, Hiding Places was three books in one: childhood, present-day odyssey, and Holocaust tale) – but this one was done and delivered in a year. And it was a more organic process throughout. Instead of tucking my tummy in and folding my shoulders back, I sprawled, slouched, even snoozed from time to time, bringing the light of my dreams back with me onto the page … and I’d never been more productive.

Maybe applying your butt to a seat works for you. In which case, by all means keep at it. But for those of you tempted to liberate yourselves from the old chair-and-desk, do not let your own Mrs. Z stop you a moment longer. Permit her to rest – she probably wants to anyway. Hush the scolding background soundtrack of your childhood schoolmarms and … slouch. Your wattles, as well as your reading public, may thank you for it.

[1] Always with an inexpensive lap shield attached to the bottom, deflecting heat and potential radiation.


Learn more about Daniel by visiting his website DanielAsaRose.com and his author pages on Amazon and Goodreads.

Larry’s Kidney is available in paperback and ebook from Harper Collins, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Indie Bound.

Living With Fear

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Image via Flickr by frankieleon.

The subway is cold and sparsely populated—ideal travel conditions—but I am still clawing at my keychain, struggling to unscrew the small cylinder that holds the chalky white pills that keep my heart from exploding. My throat’s already closing up, head so light it may actually float off my shoulders. I imagine it bobbing against the top of the subway car like a balloon. No one will probably even notice. This is, mercifully, New York City.

The attacks have assaulted me since I was a kid, wriggling out of car seats and pews and classroom chairs. Escape, in the beginning, is found atop a toilet, in the private cell of countless bathroom stalls in gas stations and church basements and school hallways, muffling gasps and tears until the waves of panic finally cease. The bathroom stall is safe because four walls protect me from anyone discovering my secret. Skillful at muting sobs in the cups of loosely clenched fists, I practice variations of the same lie: not feeling well, something I ate, a stomach bug; a migraine.

By the time I am in college, the attacks prohibit me from driving more than twenty minutes without pulling over to call 911. By the time the paramedics come, I am a mess of relief, all sloppy smiles and droopy arms. The blood pressure cuff feels like a cozy blanket. Once again, I am secure.

For a long time, I thought the attacks would go away, and sometimes they did—for years. But through some mysterious mix of genetic wiring and the slightest trigger: lack of sleep or food or a simple off day, they have, at times, left me incapacitated. It wasn’t until I stopped fearing them that I learned to live with a mind that can grow volatile, even uncontrollable, because I know, eventually, the danger will pass.

During my last spate of anxiety, I found myself writing a lot. Creativity was an escape from the fear I had of my anxiety, and by proxy, myself. But creativity itself takes courage, whether confronting the darkest parts of a mind unraveling or submitting, ironically, a piece on the empowerment of making the first move in relationships.

The more I accepted my anxiety, the easier life became. Instead of reaching for my antianxiety medication, I dug inward. After Googling “breathing exercises,” I found extensive research on “belly breathing:” deep breathing from the diaphragm. I bought a yoga mat and began regular sessions stretching while maintaining close awareness of my breath. At the gym I practiced my own version of cardio: a “soft” workout involving low intensity biking while listening to classical music. For the first time, old goals—writing more for the public purview, visiting more with friends—became possible again. By managing my anxiety in a unique, personal way, I reclaimed my old self.

My creativity is not yours. There is no correct path to becoming creative because, as humans, it is already an innate part of us. Breathe into it, accept it. Celebrate it. Most of all, accept the fear that comes with a life worthy of participation, a life bursting with possibilities—if you allow it.

Inspiration: Fiction Flows from Reality

Thrill Kill by Brian ThiemBy Brian Thiem

I arrived at the city park just as the sun was rising, the mist still hanging low over the dew-covered grass. A uniformed officer in the parking lot pointed me toward a stand of trees at the back of the park where more patrol officers were clustered. Halfway there, I saw my homicide victim, hanging from a tree with a rope around her neck. One of her legs was suspended from the tree with another length of rope in what looked like a bizarre dance pose. As I got closer, I saw the woman was naked except for a piece of charred cloth stuck to her leg, which I later learned had been soaked in gasoline and lit on fire.

All fiction writers use real life experiences in their novels. It might be as simple as how a man’s voice sounded when overheard in a restaurant or the way a lover’s face looked before a kiss. After working a career with the Oakland police department, much of it in homicide, my experiences are a bit different from those of many writers.

I think the line that separates our real life experiences—those events writers draw upon in our writing—and the creative or made-up stuff is blurred. The farther back the memories are and the more we live in our fictional make-believe worlds, the fuzzier the line that separates the two becomes.

Thrill Kill, the second novel in my Detective Matt Sinclair series, opens with a fictional rendition of the scene I described above, which was a murder I investigated in 1989. That scene is permanently imprinted in my brain. Toward the end of the scene, my fictional detective fights to control his emotions—shock, anger, disgust, compassion. Did I experience similar feelings at that homicide scene years earlier? I don’t recall. Maybe I buried them to better do my job, just as my fictional detective was struggling to do, but when I wrote that passage in my novel inside the close point of view of Matt Sinclair, the emotions felt real.

As I wrote that opening scene in my novel, I set the story aside, tapped into the creative part of my writer’s brain, and created a fictional character with a rich backstory to inhabit the dead woman hanging from the tree. Still in my fictional mode, I got back into the story with the coroner’s deputies arriving and cutting the victim from the tree. My detective sees her face for the first time and my writer’s brain flips a switch.

I’m back in homicide more than twenty years ago. I was called to a motel that catered to drug dealers and hookers on a report of a dead woman in a room. She had no ID on her so I figured it would be twenty-four hours until the coroner could roll her prints and see if she was in the system. A dozen cops were there and canvasing the area for witnesses and information. They were apologetic about being unable to ID her, knowing that would delay my investigation a day. The coroner’s deputies flipped the body and I saw the face. I recognized her as Dawn Campadona, a street hooker I had arrested years earlier when I worked Vice.

I take that memory and fictionalize it so my detective recognizes her, the woman hanging from the tree, as someone he had arrested her years ago. I refer back to my character profile and change her first name to Dawn. All of a sudden, the darkness from the opening scene in the novel has a glimmer of light. Dawn was a pretty girl who had come to Oakland with a dream, only to die a death she didn’t deserve. In the novel, my detective is wondering—just as I possibly was when I saw the real Dawn lying there dead—if he might have done something differently when he arrested her years earlier that would’ve changed her fate. Real memory or fiction? I don’t know.

That is the way my novel takes form, flowing from memories of the past to make-believe—from the real world to fiction—from the familiar to the creative. As a writer, I’m successful when readers accept my make-believe story as something that feels real enough that it could have happened. Drawing on my past experiences and fictionalizing them gives my crime novels a level of authenticity—a sense of realism—that not many other crime writers can do.

You can learn more about Brian Thiem on his website brianthiem.com and his author pages on Amazon and Goodreads.

The first novel in his Detective Matt Sinclair series, Red Line, is available now from AmazonB&N, and IndieBound.

You either have it or you don’t know it

We’re all creative on different levels. Being creative doesn’t translate to possessing the talent to draw or paint beautiful pictures, it can mean solving complex problems using solutions no one else dreamt possible. Next time you’re about to tell someone you’re not creative: stop. Be patient. You will discover and develop your creative talents over time.