The Heroine’s Journey

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The success of the latest Wonder Woman film has drawn attention to the role of the strong heroine in storytelling. This article by screenwriter Ken Miyamoto takes on the classic hero structure by Joseph Campbell and discusses how the heroine’s journey is cast a bit differently (but not any less powerful or transformational).

I actually wrote about this topic in graduate school (part of that essay was published in the online mag Women Writers ) and I was largely informed by Ursula K. Le Guin’s writing (which came out in the 1980s!)–check out especially her essay “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction.” Here, Le Guin posits that the novel resists the classic “hero” story; that, like a medicine bundle, it’s a bundle of words and relationships. Science fiction, like that from Le Guin, Margaret Atwood, Marge Piercy and Joanna Russ, in particular pose challenges to patriarchally-infused storytelling that Campbell laid out.

Film, with its use of multiple modes (language, visual, music) perhaps needs a more streamlined, recognizable structure, but it’s good to see teachers and screenwriters recognizing and discussing that ways that in this day and age, we need to reconceptualize Campbell’s monomyth. Interesting stuff, and I like how Miyamato brings this full circle to talk about how looking at story in this way brings new depth to stories and films–whatever the gender.

A Gem for Writers: Dan Koboldt and the Science of Fiction

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As a writer, I never know what I’ll be researching next. In the course of writing my previous novel, I learned about adoption laws, the Vietnam War (and specifically the phenomenon of children fathered by American soldiers) and dogs, not to mention re-learning the geography of New York City. In the past few years, I’ve become fascinated by British history, especially the Restoration period. That had to have been my least favorite class as an English major! For my nonfiction work, I’ve had to research mobile technology trends, child development, and healthy digestion. Yet in putting a story together, you never know what will become interesting to you. Even if you’re not the most “science-y” person, you might find yourself drawn to learning about something related to your writing project that you otherwise might never have been interested in. I think that’s one of the aspects of writing I love the most (besides getting lost in another world)–getting curious and learning deeply about something new. And it’s always helpful when we can find some brief, well-written nuggets to explain a concept, either to help us move us along or to point us in the right direction for further research.

This post started with me wanting to share this post giving advice for using the woods as a setting. In exploring the blog where this appears, though, I found I’d uncovered a treasure.  Dan Koboldt is a research scientist who has also published fantasy and science fiction. He has a  “Science in Sci Fi/Fact in Fantasy” series– the latest post is about linguistics in the film Arrival; other posts cover planet habitability, rogue viruses, schizophrenia, and  closed ecosystems (he calls on other experts to help him out). There are also posts about rock climbing and, as I mentioned above, using the woods as a setting (Koboldt is also a bow hunter).  Looks like a great resource for anyone interested in the science behind the stories and will definitely be added to my list of links.

 

 

 

 

Success is what you make it: Last day of Nanowrimo 2016

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“You get to decide what success means in your writing life.” –Sage Cohen

Today is the last day of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) 2016. I participated this year, having set a goal of 30,000 words. This is my fifth novel manuscript, but in so many ways I still feel like a beginner. Every writing project is different, and you learn something from each one. You build on what you’ve learned and strengthen those skills.

I fell short of my goal by about 4,000 words, but I wrote most days, and I’m overall pleased with what I accomplished:

  • I established a new routine of a near-daily writing practice on top of other work, self-care, and family;
  • I figured out how to overcome what I saw as blocks (“can’t write at work”) by just sitting down and doing it;
  • I let myself trust in the process. While many writing guides and teachers urge you to map out a plan for your novel ahead of time for NaNoWriMo, I didn’t do that. I am writing historic-biopic fiction, and so I did have a lot of material to work with, and had previously written a screenplay with the same material, but I realized that this version of my project was calling me to do something else with it. I let myself dive in and do something less traditional, something more intuitive, something that called on me to break free of a pre-existing structure. Since my project was also heavily researched, I also had to learn to trust that I’d done “enough.” (I did do a little research along the way, and had books close at hand, but there comes a time when you have to trust that you’ve done enough);
  • I learned to forgive myself for the days I planned too much or didn’t get to the writing. I looked at whether I was unrealistic or I had let other things get in the way, and learned from that.

Overall, I feel this month was a success, in that I laid down a solid foundation for my novel, and ultimately I think that’s the point of NaNoWriMo. Having accountability check-ins with a Facebook group and an online writing partner was really helpful in moving me on, as well as the encouragement and support of people close to me. Mostly,  again and again, I’m reminded of how key it is to believe in yourself.

My writing guides were also really helpful here. I re-read portions of Heather Sellers’ Page after Page, reminding me to cultivate love for my writing and to not just see it as something I had to get through. I’ve also been reading Sage Cohen’s Fierce on the Page: Become the Writer You Were Meant to Be and Succeed on Your Own Terms (Writers’ Digest Books, 2016). I have to credit her for the idea for this post–that I can decide what success means for myself, and that I don’t need an external measure. While NaNoWriMo is great for providing structure, accountability and inspiration, ultimately it shouldn’t be a stick you beat yourself up with–it should be a prompt to get you writing the book you want to write, and I’m thankful that it’s been there for me to do that. So thanks, Sage, Heather, NaNoWriMo and my Facebook writing partners. Maybe I’ll see you again next year!

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Writing Prompts: Energize Your Writing Practice

 

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          Writing prompts can be a great way to get your pen and mind flowing. I always start every writing class (and sometimes my literature classes) with writing exercises. Students are encouraged to spend this time writing freely and without self-editing for anywhere between 5 and 15 minutes. I give them a prompt, but if they prefer, they can just free-write or journal. I usually ask for volunteers to share, but I never  coerce. Any feedback is positive, because we know these are just rough beginnings. Critique at this stage is not helpful.

This post was actually inspired by doing a writing prompt myself. I have been irregular with my writing for the past few months and really feeling like I need to get back to it. A timed writing exercise is helpful when you are in this state because it’s low-stakes and fairly easy. That’s why it’s great for students. It’s also a tool for transitioning ourselves from the busy-ness of our lives to the focused attention of writing. While diving into a larger project sometimes can feel overwhelming, a low-stakes 5-10 minute exercise can energize us.  And the same holds true for myself as does for my students–positive, encouraging attention is what’s in order here, not immediate self-editing or critique. Leave that for a later stage. You may find you want to come back to the writing and add more to it, and going into editor mode can shut this down. Be sure to keep it generative.

One of my favorite types of writing prompts are list-making. I have started almost every semester of writing classes with asking students to create the following lists, which are adapted from Philip Gerard’s book Creative Nonfiction:

  1. 10 things you remember
  2. 10 things you know ( can be facts or “truths” learned)
  3. 5 -10 identities (for example, sister, teacher, waiter, football player)
  4. 5 people in your life or people you admire or look up to

These are to be done quickly, using just quick phrases. I then ask students to pick one of these and write more about it. Freewrite whatever comes up related to it. Try for a page. We then move on from there to try to incorporate sensory details and narrative structure.

I tell my students to hold onto these initial lists. Whenever you are stuck for something to write about, you can go back to these lists. They are great for generating material, and students have always been able to find *something* to write about.

If you are deep into a project, writing off of random prompts may not be appealing to you. With limited time, we may prefer to spend that time focused on the project. But prompts can help here, too, especially if you’re stuck. There are some great prompts and questions that can help in the revision process – and that will be the topic of my next post! Sometimes, also, if we are feeling uninspired or unmotivated, a little bit of a writing “warm-up,” even if it’s unrelated to our project, can get us going and may even provide some new perspective.

There are a lot of great sites that offer writing prompts. Here are a few.

Life in 10 Minutes has a list of prompts that you are encouraged to use as a 10-minute writing exercise in memoir and creative nonfiction. Look for opportunities to submit your work to them at their website.

Brian Klems gives a lot of creative writing prompts for fiction writers at Writers Digest.

Poets & Writers offers prompts for poetry on Tuesdays, fiction on Wednesdays, and creative nonfiction on Thursdays. You can sign up for an e-newsletter to get these prompts.

Creativewritingprompts.com offers a whole array of different kinds of writing prompts.

Or, use “writing prompts” or “writing exercises” in your search box. If you want to focus on a specific genre, add that too.

Want more? Check out Bonni Goldberg’s book Room to Write: Daily Invitations to a Writer’s Life or Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones.

I would love to see ideas for great writing prompts or resources for them. Please feel free to share in the Comments section.

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Belief and Creation

Lately, I’ve been working a lot with this idea of beliefs we carry around with us. It is similar to that idea I’ve written about previously with the “voices in your head.” Some of these beliefs can be helpful, like the belief that all people are inherently good. This belief can help us be more compassionate and forgiving, and also expect the best. Some, however, can be toxic, and have insidious effects on our ability to be our best selves, and especially to create.

What are the messages that keep us from creating? Many artists struggle to believe that what they do can matter. We compare ourselves to doctors and humanitarians and emergency workers and police officers and teachers and military servicepeople and wonder, what right do I have to create?

But creation is one of the most basic human impulses, needs, and gifts. For many artists, the act of creation puts us in touch with not only ourselves, but with something much deeper, more spiritual, something beyond ourselves. Getting in touch with that, and the modelling we provide to others to do the same, can be the difference between hope and defeat, between love and hate, and between violence and compassion.

To create is to be human. If we are not creating, then what are we fighting for? Helping others is great – and we need to all do our part in making the world a better place. But without writers and artists and musicians, how could we find ways to express ourselves, to connect with others and to connect with that deeper strand of something that connects us all? Sometimes a book, or a poem, or a painting, or a song, or a dance, can be as powerfully healing as any medicine we can get in a pharmacy or any treatment we undergo in a hospital. In the end, it’s all part of the flow of existence, and each of us has a role to play. That’s the belief I choose to have, and the one that sustains me.

There have been a lot of  good books that have been written about this idea.  Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic, a recent one, is definitely worth a read if you are a writer or any kind of artist.

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photo credit

Reading Sappho

This post popped up in my Facebook feed. I love how the author shares how scientists analyze the poem to give Sappho historical context, astronomically. And then there’s the bit about translation: “Her renditions rock like a Rush concert.”

Astronomers crack the secret of this gorgeous poem by Sappho