Category Archives: How to Think Sideways
Ok, that previous post about goals and goal-shyness didn’t do a damn thing for me.
Honestly, it was kind of a farce, to think that summing up my notion of “success” would take me anywhere. I’m too thick for that, I think. Instead it just made me avoid this blog. Way to go!
Actually, I’ve been plugging away at those “goals” but only because I carry a mental microscope everywhere I go and the smaller the step the more manageable it seems and thus I can progress. The big picture things? They have to stay firmly tucked in my subconscious (which loves big themes and concepts like crazy) where they’re not allowed to make me feel guilty about my day to day inching along.
So, I set small goals for five weeks and it worked really well (simply: Read the next HTTS lesson. Conceive of x number of possible scene ideas. Plan x number of scenes from last week’s ideas. Write x number of scenes from last week’s planned scenes.) It worked up until last week when a combination of too much busy-ness (from taxes to passport renewals in Berlin to city-gov’t paperwork to an editing job) intersected with a serious need to re-assess the story.
Next week is a holiday for the kids, we’re going traveling and I’m going to keep on working on my story as I can, but not because I someday want to pay my bills with this thing.
I actually found my biggest motivation: Life is short and there is much to be done. If I don’t do it, I won’t feel good.
There. That’s what keeps me going.
November 12, 1936.
Hailed as an engineering marvel (which it was), the Bay Bridge, like its younger, still-being-built counterpart, The Golden Gate Bridge, did something to link the imaginations and dreams of people to their sense of place and possibility.
On one side of the event there was a distinct celebration of technological prowess, a symbol of the ways a society could pull itself out from the catastrophe of an economic depression through modern science and the application of man-power to shape material reality. Where some parts of the country were currently plunged into battle with the forces of nature revealed in dust storms and drought, here was evidence that thirty years after a destructive earthquake, people could survive and flourish and accomplish great things.
They have builded magnificent bridges where the nation’s highways go;
O’er perilous mountain ridges and where great rivers flow.
Wherever a link was needed between the new and the known
They have left their marks of Progress, in iron and steel and stone.
There was never a land too distant nor ever a way too wide,
But some man’s mind, insistent, reached out to the other side.
They cleared the way, these heroes, for the march of future years.
The march of Civilization-and they were its Pioneers.
Poem by Evelyn Simms, read at the opening
There were touches of the mythic in the perception of what it meant to modify land in such powerful ways, to connect that which nature hadn’t connected, in short, to bridge distances that had once been taken for granted as being unbridgeable. These projects, undertaken for public welfare, inspired confidence in a time of uncertainty and gave rise to the celebratory in spite of the challenges faced by people in their daily lives.
That there was a nod to beauty, not just utility, was an important part of the construction process and the meaning made manifest by these bridges.
It’s this meaning and the ability people have to channel its energy into works of lasting importance, to be able to find forms that suit a place and a time but which have lasting relevance, that is of interest to me and is at the heart of the story I’m writing; not just as a theoretical exercise, but that my characters are coming to terms with this kind of meaning in their own lives, figuring out how they fit into the scheme of things and how their lives are being created out of forces invisible to the eye but archetypally present. My challenge is to turn something “sensed” in what these bridge projects conveyed – both on the human scale and beyond, to what is greater than individuals, greater than the realm of a particular time and place – into a fictional representation. Not exactly a counterpart, I wouldn’t go so far as the hubris that I’m writing the equivalent of the Bay or Golden Gate Bridge, but it’s a companion tribute and a creative endeavor with its own sense of “livingness.”
I’m trying to let the creative work develop its own fullness, let its light shine through. Ultimately, it’s not a novel about bridges or even bridge construction – but at heart it’s about the ways we build bridges to connect what has been kept distant and how the mythic and the creative intertwine.
SF Chronicle article on the SF Bay Bridge 75th anniversary.
Bay Bridge official site.
A new artistic vision for the Bay Bridge.
The Sentence is a tool to keep a writing project focused and I’ve worked over GOTS’ Sentence many times inthe past two years in an effort to refine that focus, or, in the case of last year’s massive setting shift to reflect the most important elements of the story.
It’s interesting to note how a story can change so much yet still remain the same project. To illustrate that, here are several incarnations of my summary. The first is the actual first attempt to figure out what in the world I was working with.
- A five year old passenger in a wreck that leaves her brother in a coma is sent to her grandparents’ while her mother gives all her attention to the injured boy. In a strange environment and with no friends, Kimmie discovers an unlikely and dangerous ally who sends her on a journey to restore her brother from unconsciousness.
Wordy, wordy, wordy, but I was merely working my way toward my point. Gradually I cleaned it up and had something I could work with for a while.
- A dubious fairytale ally helps a little girl far from home discover the path to recovery from the trauma of a car wreck that left her brother in a coma.
I started working with that as my guiding principle – it gave the most important details of the story around which I could work new information and plot expansions.
Eventually, as detailed in The Convoluted History of GOTS, and What GOTS has Turned Into, I realized I was on a tangent, a wrong track, for this story. It has themes it wants to maintain and the decisions I was making for the story weren’t working for them. Not that I have an ulterior motive in writing this, or that the entire point is the “message” but that this story has fundamental characteristics, or dare I say, needs, and that to deviate from them would be to undermine it.
I’m not going to out and out list those themes (sorry, no Cliffs Notes version of GOTS), because if I succeed in making the story I want, you’ll be able to find your own in it and I will have done my job well without hitting you over the head with blatant explanations.
Most recently, I started working again after a several month hiatus (encompassing an international move) and I started with the Sentence as written in the previous post. It’s obviously related to the last pre-setting-shift version, but with significant alterations.
- A dubious fairytale ally gives a gifted student the means for her injured father’s recovery but immanent homelessness requires relinquishing her dreams to save her family during the Depression.
With the help of How to Think Sideways members to whom I offered a longer description of the story, I was able to work out a new and improved summary. This is where I’m currently basing my story, what keeps me focused.
- When a math-whiz risks her dreams to support her family during the Depression, a double-dealing frog promises the cure for her comatose father if she’ll sign her talents over to him.
Even rereading it now I find a few places where it isn’t perfectly consistent with the amorphous-but-still-fully-formed-in-my-unconscious story that wants to be written. Every now and again I’ll revisit the Sentence and see if I can get it to reflect the project more succinctly and fully, but for now it works.
No, no, no – don’t panic! I’m still plugging along with GOTS. I just realized (again) this week that Big Project Titles intimidate me. So no longer am I going to dangle it over my head, I don’t need the torment.
Instead I’m just going to keep up the small steps that are part of the whole picture. Yes, I’m fooling myself intentionally – obviously I know I’m working on a novel. But there’s a voice that says (with a whine): gee, don’t you wish you could “write a novel?” How come you’re not “writing your novel?” You’re not very committed to “writing a novel” are you, if you’re not actually writing it? etc etc. And that voice can officially shut up instead of freezing me up.
This week has been full of small steps (which look large in comparison to the months of no activity I’ve had recently) and I am pleased to keep keeping on with them. They’ve involved clustering, and today a revisit to the Dot and the Line, HTTS’ Lesson Five.
The Dot and Line work are integral for me, even though they’re difficult, because I was not granted an intuitive understanding of the conflict in my story other than that which is completely obvious. In the past I’ve tweaked the Dot with great results (the spoke shape Holly uses never worked for me, I’m more of a list maker at heart), and from the walkthrough I saw that it was possible to draw a three (or more)-pronged line to show conflict between multiple facets.
It’s good to be developing the story again – and not succumbing to hopelessness that I’d be able to come up with the depth the story needed.
Mind mapping/clustering seems to be a good way to generate and record random half-thoughts that might eventually be used. Yesterday I spent some time mapping both what the Golden Gate Bridge means in this story and what’s important about the setting being San Francisco. I brought my SF map to Germany and yesterday looked it over – an exercise in both reminiscence and imagination.
With the map I was also able to think about whether or not it’s feasible to pull in a sunset seen from the East Bay, setting through the GGB. Just a thought I had – and I guess it would mean that at some point I’d need to determine where on the horizon (during which particular season) the sun actually appears to set… Probably too much research than I need to be getting into at this point, but I did write the possibility down on my cluster.
This morning I stepped away from physical objects and put down “Characters” as a central circle for a cluster and promptly stalled out. Maybe “Characters” is too broad for my creative mind – but I did something I’m learning to do more often and it helped. I opened up my cheap notebook and wrote out about being stumped by “Characters.” Eeventually I turned from that page and clustered a little about one of the main characters, asking questions and getting more detail.
Asking questions is key, especially, “What if…?” and simply writing out what’s in my mind, journal style seems to help. These are things that I need to be consciously aware of having in my toolbox. I’m also finding that though I recognize that such things as a “toolbox” with “tools” in it is symbolic, it helps to accord them a degree of imaginal or magical reality. I have a toolbox in my mind, and it’s in the studio of my mind where I work to bring words out into the world.
My next step is to continue with the clustering and then to go back and look through HTTS lessons (and walkthroughs) – backtracking a bit to make up for having pushed GOTS to the background.
Oh heavens it’s been a long time between posts. That’s an indication of how much attention I’ve been able to give to GOTS over the past few months. The reason? I’ve moved to Germany!
That’s gone and stirred my imagination up with another story idea that I have promised to put in safekeeping until I finish GOTS. So, into a little wooden box painted with some sort of traditional design it goes… something like this maybe:
Meanwhile, I engaged in some symbolic shopping in order to give myself the sense of starting anew (my Muse likes new) even while I’m keeping my WIP from the past. I am now in possession of an orange folder, a hardbound orange notebook (substantial enough that I give this project some credibility, inexpensive enough that the inner accountant doesn’t threaten to fire me), and some tiny little orange index card (who knew Germany was the land of All-Sizes-Index-Cards?)… See that beautiful bridge up in my banner? That’s the color and the meaningfulness to it all.
So I’m backtracking somewhat to remember where I was with this (to fit in my process that means I have to re-engage by re-writing some of my clusters and notes – somehow my hand MUST be involved in getting my mind to open up). It’s going to be sporadic due to my simultaneously feeding and cleaning up after my family, trying to live in a house that’s unfurnished, setting up basic utilities (still no internet at home ’til Thursday) and working with repairmen who don’t speak English any better than I do German, and getting some part time copy editing work to make up for the huge initial expenses we’re dealing with, but BY GOLLY, I’ll have planned enough that I can take part in this year’s NaNoWriMo.
I’ve missed this.
You may have noticed that I sometimes refer to my creative side as my “Muse-mind.” This is a term I use intentionally and, thus far, without explanation under the assumption that you pretty much get what I mean. The concept of an artist having a Muse is, of course, well known, though probably regarded as anomalous except in certain Romantic literary and artistic circles.
It is possible to see the trajectory of the Muse concept as one that encompasses both the Greek notion of three, then ultimately, nine goddesses who bestowed gifts of creative output and sentiment on mortals as well as later (mostly European male) artists finding their creative source embodied in actual women (as in Dante Alighieri’s case with Beatrice).
Of course, given the Enlightenment and subsequent eras’ preference for rationality and biologically proven reasons for human actions, these ideas fell out of favor. I doubt, too, that upholders of Christian doctrine approved of something that sounds so like heathen idolatry. Personally I don’t require completely materialistic explanations of everything or adherence to such religious tenets, so I’ve had the pleasure of toying with this idea that’s experiencing a resurgence.
In the past few years of learning more about my creativity, including what works, what doesn’t, how I avoid dealing with it and ways I’ve been conditioned to think about it or value it, I’ve come across an ongoing revitalization of the idea that there might be such things as “muses.” What’s interesting to me is that the notion has evolved over time and has come to incorporate some of the findings and theories of (mostly Jungian) psychology as well as a willingness to look back to ideas that were shaped by early humans’ recognition of an animate world filled with varieties of sentience and states of consciousness.
By 2009 I had begun to read many writers’ thoughts on inspiration, creativity, the unconscious, and archetypes. Almost simultaneously, I came across the notion of the useful (and perhaps imperative) concept of a personified Muse from several different sources. Elizabeth Gilbert’s TEDtalk (embedded below) considers the Greek notion of one’s genius being something not wholly personal or subject to “ownership” but rather something one accesses or is given to use for particular work and it really struck a chord (and still moves me, two years later). Gilbert’s experience and the lesson in How to Think Sideways on personifying one’s Muse gave me a huge sense of relief and tools with which to actively nurture what until that point had felt like an arbitrary burden because of an underlying fear that there might be no way to encourage any flourishing while still feeling the pull of potential. It felt capricious and mystifying. In some ways it still does but learning to give (“imaginary”) form to my imagination was the first step in making this a mutual, reciprocal, engagement with the source.
As William Stafford’s poem, “When I Met My Muse,” indicates, a generally unspoken but widely understood sense that it is one’s unconscious that adopts or receives a conceived form in order to facilitate engagement or communication between the conscious mind and the source of creative generation. Matt Cardin, whose highly recommended site, Demon Muse, is a great source of detail on this topic, says,
“In broad terms, everything a writer or any other creative artist needs to know about the psyche can be stated in a pair of linked propositions: First, your psyche — your entire inner world of thoughts, memories, emotions, drives, etc. — is comprised of two major levels, the conscious and unconscious minds, each of which plays its own discrete and proper role in the creative act. Second, your best gambit is to regard the unconscious mind as a separate presence, a personified entity with which you work in collaboration. And that’s it. That’s the whole truth in a nutshell. Everything else is just elaboration.”
And though it may seem very farfetched when put forth in the form of belief (“Do you really believe in muses?” I can imagine being asked) as though they’re non-corporeal spirits floating about independent of everything, the whole concept is really one that one’s unconscious has to accept or deny, by trying it out imaginatively. It’s a matter of whether or not it works for a particular artist, a choice of lens with which to understand things, let’s say. Not everyone needs or wants a muse, many benefit by having the option. Something important, though, is that although the rational mind can justify the process with psychology terminology and awareness of the symbolic nature of the muse, the symbol still has to be treated with respect, with commitment, and with awareness that it simultaneously has a life of its own that wants to be lived. Only then can it find its power, no longer repressed.
The archetypal motifs of the Western religious tradition seem to have lost their effectiveness for the larger portion of civilized humanity or, at best, have been depotentiated to the level of a “merely psychological” reality. -Terence & Dennis McKenna (The Invisible Landscape)
Personally, my Muse-mind has a specific form it likes to be envisioned with, a name, and certain character traits (including a preference for Muse-mind rather than “My Muse” when being introduced to people) some of which I may share in a future post. Meanwhile, enjoy the video and Matt’s site to explore the ideas further..
By the way I hurry by my GOTS project papers you’d think I was avoiding the whole thing. You might be partially right. It seems I’m much more comfortable writing about working on it than I am actually tackling it. See, here I am blogging.
Why is this? It’s partially that I am consistently reminded (whether or not it’s correct remains to be seen) that this project is going to challenge me on every level.
PERFECT rearing its ugly little head? One clue may be that I never feel capable of doing it justice. But then I don’t work on it, so of course I fail that task. Is it this simple?
It’s taken me two weeks to realize that considering asking for lightning strikes for projects unrelated to this is a bad idea as it would only serve to distract me from that which is making me uncomfortable. Better to just get to the marrow.
I’m not really the kind of person to turn everything into some sort of personal, emotional drama, so forgive me as I try to shake myself out of it by giving play-by-play details. It just turns out that I think more clearly in writing and that it’s usually writing that helps me recognize that there’s a path out of whatever dark forest I’ve wandered into. The writing creates the path, perhaps.
The job for me now is to spend the next two days honing in on what element of the story has me stuck (and scrabbling to escape) and then look for a lightning strike to break the bond.
I sometimes wonder if I’m expecting too much this early. I don’t have many personal details about my main character, but I have some critical ones. I don’t have many details about the situation she finds herself in, but there is a critical change that occurs that sets the whole thing off. But I still feel lost because I don’t know what other characters are necessary or what’s really supposed to happen in huge chunks of the story.
What I really need is a stretch of uninterrupted time and a sworn promise from myself that I will not get up to clean the bathroom, the oven, or decide to organize part of the garage. Even though all those things need to be done.
So far what has worked to just get ideas out there is the clustering. So I think I’ll relax about the number of clustered pages I create and let them keep coming. At least there’s that (though I fear I’ll be swamped with the unorganizable after this).
I love that Holly (re)introduced the technique of clustering to us. I’m sure it was offered as a tool sometime in high school, right around the time we learned to outline, but I used it only infrequently.
In my first HTTS go-round, I turned my Sweet Spot Map into a Sweet Spot Atlas just by writing it into a hand sewn book. There’s so much room in my book, it’s a little overwhelming, but it also helps me face the fact that I have given my creative life permission to take up more room. Little by little my SSM is growing.
For my 2008 NaNo novel (before HTTS), I did a little clustering, but really started in on it for my first HTTS project. With the Walkthrough’s Lesson Two demo in which Holly clustered for her current book project, I realized I hadn’t tried giving GOTS its own SSM. I spent some time last week doing that and it yielded some insights and possibilities which I’m so happy to welcome into the stew in my mind.
What I’m working on now, is taking that “stew” and trying to figure out a way to let my Left Brain, who takes one look at the cluster-mess and goes, “eww, you really want me to look at all the scribbles as if they mean something?” have an easier time making sense of it. My Muse-mind LOVES t0 make the cluster bubbles, my rational side throws its hands up in despair.
I thought, however, since my logical and organized self likes lists, that making a list might be a way to make all the information useful (rather than just fun to collect).
Among the clustering pages I made which are not SSMs, which will only be posted under password protection, were ones organized around two problem areas I’m looking for solutions to.
The one I’m working with here had to do with a sense that I need to carefully approach how I represent the fairy tale element of the story. I’m basing this story in the reality we (mostly) all inhabit. Earth, 1930s, California, regular people. At the same time there’s a very important connection with the fairy tale realm and I have a particular sense of how the two are supposed to relate.
So, in an attempt to translate a half-page of bubbles into something useful, here’s the information presented in list form. Just having written the information down may have been enough, but it’s likely that I’ll need to go back and add to what’s here or insert things midway or make sharp turns elsewhere.
It was interesting to find that as I followed some branches further in I got into the detailed workings of the story itself – so this started out as a “talk” about the tone of the book and ended up with a few specific questions and ideas to be sorted out later:
- **Fairytale element has to be subtle and believable**
- -not overly otherwordly or intrusive
- – a natural progression and regression to something Artie used to know but has forgotten
- – not so much another realm, but a return to an inner realm
- – she has to go somewhere she’s touched before
- – her dad’s book is key
- – her mom’s been hiding it
- – coloring/puzzles/mazes/riddles
- – comic book expert brother? helps solve clues/codes/ciphers?
- – had to have been introduced naturally, by her dad?
- – why would mother reject it?
- – because she rejects father for hurting her
- – mother: he has stars in his eyes.
- – she resents his freedom
- – maybe he couldn’t be tied down or “pinned” down by relationship?
- – he’s imaginative, artistic, hard to get him to be responsible in a conventional way
- – but he’s still around
What I see is that I quickly turned to story specifics which don’t appear to be directly relevant to the original problem, except that having written it all down it’s as though I’ve put a bookmark in my mind, a mental sticky note, that will remind me of what is required as I write the story. One thing I find, though, is that it’s the reality-based aspects of the story that allow for the fairy tale elements. So long as I keep true to the characters’ true needs and motives, I think the cross-reality aspects can be balanced.
Question for you: How do you capture both the creative flow that clustering offers AND allow the clusters to become a useful planning tool? Are they mostly just idea sparkers or do you have a way to integrate the information systematically into your planning?