How Writing Expunged My Nightmares

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I never finished high school. I was short one credit: Math. A subject I hate more than pig’s brains fried with onions (which I will never eat again, no matter how much I don’t want to offend Albanian naval officers who jump ship in Halifax in the 70s and move to Fredericton where they give house parties featuring Albanian cooking and fried pig’s brains being an Albanian delicacy).

   Regardless of the school’s requirements for graduation (which they changed the following year), I wanted to go to university. So I wrote the college entrance exams and passed, which left me with a choice: attend high school for another year to take one course in a subject I hate…or…go straight to college and take subjects I love.

   Went to college. Got an honors degree in English Literature. Still don’t know what a cosine is. Don’t ever want to know what it is.

   So, everything was going smoothly until about five or six years after I graduated. That’s when I started having nightmares. I was back in high school after being away for a while; in fact, it was the exact same school that wanted to torture me with Math for another year. 

   Only different.

   I didn’t know anyone. Couldn’t find my locker. When I tried to ask questions, the students walked past me as though I were an invisible ghost. Somehow I managed to find my locker. Nothing inside it made any sense. The books were a mystery. My schedule was a mystery. Everybody was in class and the halls were empty. I was alone, trying to figure out what class I was supposed to be in and where it was. I was terrified and puzzled. I was afraid I was going to flunk if I didn’t get to my next class soon.

   Suddenly, I was sitting in a classroom. (You know how dreams are. You’re here, you’re there.)

   It was a French class. I hadn’t been to any of the classes and the finals were coming up in a few days. I didn’t have a clue the material I was going to be examined on. The text  book was in a foreign language (well…yeah). I couldn’t hear anything the teacher was saying; in fact, I couldn’t even see the teacher. The students around me were all looking straight ahead at some place where the teacher was supposed to be. They were expressionless and completely unaware of me, negating any hope of help from my fellow students.

   I started to worry. I looked at the text book. All that stuff I was supposed to know in just a few days. I was doomed. I was going to flunk French. I’d come back to high school just to fail. 

   Wait a minute! I’m back in high school? Why the hell am I back in high school? I have a college degree. 

   At which point, I’d wake up all sweaty and stressed out but relieved that I wasn’t going to flunk French. Yay!

   I had this dream two or three times a month right up to the time, years and years and years later, when a fellow by the name of J. Richard Jacobs invited me to submit some stories to an anthology he was putting together called Twisted Tails. They were stories with a twist at the end that caused revelation, shock or whatever wasn’t expected. A surprise. 

   I was experiencing a serious case of writers block at the time. The novel I was working on was mired in a complete lack of here’s-where-I’m-taking-this-next. Everything had just stopped dead. But there was this invitation to write some short stories, so each evening I went to the coffee shop where my daughter was working and wrote four short stories in pencil. Yep, pencil. 

   One of the stories I wrote was called School Dazed. It was my nightmare revealed in pencil. Of course, I had to redo it in Word to submit to J, but there it was…right in front me like a confession. 

   The story was published in the first Twisted Tails anthology…and guess what? That’s right, I never had that dream again. The same happened with a recurring nightmare I had about being caught in a labyrinth of horrors in a haunted house I’d visited when I was a teenager. And that really bad case of arachnophobia? Wrote it away. 

   I tried writing a story about a man who won the lottery, but apparently it just works for nightmares. 

   Now, where was I going with this? Right…writing can be therapeutic. More on this later. In the meantime, if you have a recurring nightmare, try writing a short story about it. 

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Don’t Say A Word

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So there I was…with a finished novel after just eight years. Not that it took me eight years to write it. I took about four years off to study photography and another couple of years to apply some of that studying to the actual pursuit of picture taking.

During this time, I used the storyboard for my novel as an example of story boarding in my Writing Hurts Like Hell workshops. I also talked about the novel profusely, to anyone who would listen. I even posted excerpts on my blog.

Let’s turn the clock back a bit…to long before I started the novel…way back to the days of Sinclair Lewis. He and his wife would never utter out loud the title of his book Main Street for fear that another writer would pick up on it psychically and use it. Which, of course, assumes that writers are somehow psychically connected.

Maybe so, maybe not so.

I finished the novel over a year ago and put it aside for a few months before going through it for one last round of revisions. Then, I started contacting literary agents. Lots of them. After a few weeks, they started getting back to me with the usual death threats and warnings of legal action. I’m used to this. I bask in the dark light of agent rejection and use it to fuel my enthusiasm for the impossible.

But I didn’t like some of their comments, especially the ones who said things like:

‘We don’t need another Three Faces of Eve book. What the hell were you thinking when you wrote this garbage?’ 

‘Have you seen the movie Seven Sisters? Obviously you have, because this novel of yours is just a rewrite of the movie with a different title, different characters, different story line and different concept. And different uses of the word “and.” Rejected!’

Bastards.

But now that the word’s out, I can talk about the word. The name of the novel is The Weekly Man, not Six Brothers and One Sister. Both have seven main characters.

Seven Sisters has three women born the same day in a society that only allows one baby, so they hide their identity and each of the sisters can go outside their home one day of the week and they name themselves after the day they can go out (i.e., Monday, Tuesday…you know, days of the week).

The Weekly Man has seven personalities living in the same body. The one who was born in that body on Monday exists every Monday (but isn’t named after the day). The one who was born in that body on Tuesday only exists on Tuesdays (and he isn’t named after the day either). So, a different personality each day, ending with a female personality on Sunday (but she’s not named Sunday).

In Seven Sisters, the characters all know of each other’s existence; in fact, they live together. In The Weekly Man, the characters (even though they live in the same body) don’t know of each other’s existence until they’re in their 30s and they start meeting on social media. It took over a year of research and banging my head on table tops in the coffee shops around the city where I did my writing to work this out.

In Seven Sisters, the characters are focused on keeping their existence secret from the rest of the world . In The Weekly Man, the characters are kept secret from each other. Seven Sisters is a serious movie. The Weekly Man is humor. For instance, the Tuesday character is trying to murder the Thursday character but can’t because the they don’t exist on the same day. And, of course, the Sunday character is thinking about getting a sex change.

Now, I’m not saying that the people who wrote and produced Seven Sisters picked up on my idea through some kind of psychic connection. I would never say such a foolish thing, Sinclair Lewis or not. However, I did learn a lesson from this: When you start a novel, finish it. Don’t talk about it. Don’t be distracted by photography or other pursuits. Don’t use your novel’s storyboard in your writing workshops.

And don’t let the agents get you down when they point at you and laugh. It’s their job. It’s nothing personal. Well, the death threats are kind of personal, but I get those all the time, and not just from agents.

I guess the thing to do is sit on the book for a couple of years until there’re all new agents out there who don’t watch movies and have never read books on multiple personalities. Yeah…a couple of years.

In the meantime, I’m working on another novel. But I’m not going to talk about it. And I’m sure as hell not going to say the title out loud.

Attack of the Blue Eyed Zombies

zombie 2018-121 copy

A friend recently posted a Tweet on his Facebook that I found interesting. It was from a woman, whose name was hidden under a red highlight. It went like this:

Stop complimenting people’s blue eyes. It’s basically complimenting whiteness. Less than 1% of non-white people have blue eyes. No one ever says someone with brown eyes has beautiful eyes. Brown eyes are beautiful. I love mine.

Complimenting whiteness? What the hell? Suppose you have a husband or wife who has blue eyes. You’re not supposed to say something like, “My god, you have beautiful eyes.” 

Here’s how I commented:

I’ve complimented many people on their green and brown eyes. I think this complaint is going over the edge of political correctness and I really hate it when people like this tell me how I should react with other people in a way that takes away my right to be an individual because they have a ridiculous personal problem.

This tweet is reverse discrimination. If you’re white, then yoau’re getting something you’re not entitled to get…because you’re white. And you should feel bad about getting the compliment because less than 1% of non-white people have blue eyes. And this is your fault. Because you have blue eyes. And you’re white.

Bullshit. 

We’ve always lived in a world where no matter what you say or do, you’re going to make some people happy and piss others off. We get through this by doing or saying the things we believe in and to hell with that annoying group of people whose ire you awaken by expressing yourself.

And yes, there are certain things that are unacceptable under any circumstances. Walking up to a stranger and putting a bullet in their head is never good. Calling someone a racist name is bad. Saying or writing words to incite others to commit crimes is wrong.

But increasingly, I’m seeing swarms of self-righteous people making up arbitrary rules on language, behavior, purchases, preferences, opinions and…well…everything. 

A friend of mine unfriended me on Facebook over a disagreement we had about an article in which a woman felt that she was somehow being denigrated by men who opened doors for her. I’ve seen women open doors for men. Does this mean they’re denigrating men? 

It seems like everyone with a pet peeve, no matter how petty, is using social media to control others with their inane pronouncements on conduct that, unfortunately, gather a certain amount of momentum from a population that’s so afraid of doing the wrong thing and being criticized by others that they take this garbage seriously. 

The problem with this is that it keeps us focused on small matters of personal presentation rather on the larger matters such as the death of our planet, the increasing likelihood of nuclear war…you know…stuff we should be thinking about instead of wondering if it’s OK to tell my daughter that she has beautiful blue eyes.

Thinking Hurts

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Thinking hurts.

Think about it.

No, don’t think about it…you’ll hurt your head. But if you were to think about it, if you were to endure the pain, you might ask yourself, “Why does thinking hurt?”

Let’s look at this question and see if we can answer it. Without thinking. The obvious truth throws itself across the path of our search for an answer: Because it’s complicated and it means looking at things from all angles whether I’m comfortable with them or not and maybe being faced with opposing views that demand that I make a decision or even a series of decisions with one decision creating the need for yet another decision and possibly another and another and maybe I don’t agree in my gut with those decisions but I know they’re right in my mind and this might just require that I act on the decisions arising from my thinking and that means getting off my ass and doing something or I could just sit and think and rethink and counter think and get all angsty and depressed because I started thinking and now I can’t stop because once you start thinking it’s like taking your thumb out of a dam that’s leaking all around you and now you can see those leaks.

Got that?

You could drown in the truth…just by thinking about its possibility. I guess that’s what really hurts about thinking: Once you start, you have to decide whether you’re going to finish the thought, or whether you’re going to drop the thought and just let it dangle in your head like a discontinued piece of yourself.

Having to finish a thought can be tough for the above started reasons: It can lead to truth. Truth can be a bitch. You might have to do something.

Not finishing a thought can be tough because its incompleteness will park itself just under the surface of your days like a broken tile that you have to continuously avoid stepping on.

And then there are the unobvious truths about why thinking hurts:

  • We might have to stop fooling ourselves
  • We might have to admit we were wrong
  • We might have to admit someone else was right
  • We might start asking questions
  • We might start getting answers

And who, these days, really wants to hear answers to their questions? I mean, isn’t it enough to just ask the question? And just leave it at that? Personally, I have a hard time dealing with the questions. I don’t need a bunch of answers to complicate things. When the questions are just hanging there, swinging in the wind, thumbs out for a ride on the answer bus, you don’t have to do anything but drive past them. But if the bus stops…

Ouch!

Something to think about.

 

(www.biffmitchell.com)

Can Anyone Write a Novel?

I suppose I’d have to pare this down to the essence of writing a novel: Can anyone tell a story? On this point, I’d have to say, “Yes, anyone can tell a story, but some will tell a mesmerizing story while others will put their listeners to sleep.”

So really, it’s a matter of teaching poor storytellers how to tell their stories better, and the further question is: Can poor storytellers be taught to tell their stories better? And again, I’d have to say, “Yes, of course! But they’re really going to have to work at it.”

So how do you teach someone who can barely explain how to boil an egg how to create a cast of exciting characters acting out their dynamic lives in a compelling world?

They Have to Change Their Life Style

First, they have to change their life style. In the decade plus that I’ve been teaching creative writing workshops, I’ve had a surprising number of students who didn’t seem to belong in a creative writing workshop. They weren’t necessarily shy or quiet spoken; they just didn’t generate much interest in what they had to say. Just gonna give you the facts, mam. They spoke with a flatness that left their words forgotten seconds after they were mouthed. This was just the way they talked and it carried over to the way they wrote (at least 99.99% of the time). It was the way they thought, the way they lived their lives. They lived on the left side (of the brain, that is) where everything is well-delineated shades of gray or simply black and white. The trick was to get them to use the right side of their brains on a daily basis…not once a week or two or three times a week, but every day of the week and, if possible, several times daily.

This one actually has an easily identifiable solution, but not so easy for the student to actually do. It doesn’t require a lot of effort…it can be done without any preparation and no follow-up is required. It’s a no-brainer, which is why I call it mindless writing.

I’m not going to get into a lot of detail on this technique. If you want more in-depth information, I suggest you buy Dorethea Brandte’s book On Becoming a Writer. The basic gist is:

  • Set a time to write (5-10 minutes)
  • Pick a topic (could just be the word banana)
  • Write about it without stopping (no editing and no stopping to think)
  • Stop when you reach the time you set

Done in the morning, this exercise primes the right side of the brain for creative thought throughout the day. Done several times a day, it helps break down the barrier to the right side of the brain that left-brainers put up because they’re not used to thinking that way, they’ve been taught not to think that way, or they believe deep down inside that they don’t have the ability to think that way.

Again, done several times a day, mindless writing can change the fundamental way a person views their life. I’ve seen it happen repeatedly over the years.

They Have to Read

They have to read. And read. I knew a man who wrote one of the longest novels I’d ever seen by a first time novelist. He boasted that he never read fiction and rarely read non-fiction, but he wanted to be a writer. He asked if I could take a look at his novel and I agreed. Just a few paragraphs into it, I could see that he really didn’t do a lot of reading, but I read the whole thing. It was painful. Descriptions were matter-of-fact with no emotional connotations, the characters were lifeless throwaway caricatures, modulation was replaced by a flat line of overly technical and inert action, and there was no real point in calling it a story because there wasn’t much of a storyline. He obviously didn’t know how to tell a story and I’m assuming it was because he just wasn’t familiar with the concept of story.

Writers earn their storytelling ability by reading stories, writing stories and reading more stories. What they do when the read, is listen to storytellers telling stories. And that’s a learning experience.

Maybe at some point in a writer’s life, if they’ve written a dozen novels and write every day and don’t have time to read because they’re writing…maybe these writers can get away with not reading, but I’d bet a week’s wages they read a lot before they wrote those dozen novels.

They Have to Write

Yep, they have to write, consistently, every day (whether mindlessly or otherwise). I’ve had many students who couldn’t write worth a damn when they started my Writing Hurts Like Hell workshop and they couldn’t write much better by the end of the workshop, but they followed up on what they learned in the workshop and kept writing on their own, every day, and it paid off. One of them even wrote a couple of plays that were produced and received great reviews.

Writing is a cumulative thing; the more you do it, the more you build on it and the better you become at it. It could be just five minutes of mindless writing in the morning. It could be five minutes on a scene written over lunch. The morning writing and the lunch writing might be bad writing, but they’re writing. Professional athletes have good days and bad days, but they perform consistently and that consistency makes them professional athletes.

There’s a deluge of exercises, processes, procedures, methodologies, approaches, techniques, and insider tricks and tips currently being pushed on the burgeoning market for would-be writers, especially in the explosion of baby boomers with lots of time to write and lots of storytelling to do. But they’ll need to change their life style, read more and write more before they finish that first novel.

Storytelling has never been for the privileged few, it’s always been for those who want to tell a story, and putting the story on paper or in cyberspace is just another way of telling the story. So, yes, anyone can write a novel.

(Visit me at biffmitchell.com)

Can Creativity Be Taught?

NOTE: I have a workshop coming up on creativity and a friend sent me an email asking if I really think that creativity can be taught. Here are my thoughts on that.

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I’ve been teaching creative writing workshops for over a decade. I’ve had students who I thought were wasting their money taking the workshop because they were so gifted I didn’t think they needed any kind of workshop to do some amazing things. Unfortunately, they couldn’t put those gifts together long enough to actually write a novel, or even a short story.

I’ve had students who seemed to be totally without a right brain hemisphere. Anything that wasn’t strictly logical, in proper sequence and in complete conformance with pre-defined expectations was beyond anything they could even begin to comprehend.

But here they were, both groups, taking a workshop on creative writing. They wanted to write a novel. They wanted to make something like they’d never made before. They wanted to peer into that well of unpredictable thought residing in the neglected regions of their right brains, and maybe surprise everyone, including themselves.

Granted, some people will never make any kind of meaningful contact with their right brains. They’re not interested and they have no curiosity about what they could do; they’re satisfied to just keep doing what they’ve always been doing. They love the security of the known and predictable and don’t want to change a thing. Even if there might be a powerhouse of creativity waiting to be released. They don’t want it.

But for most people, there’s always that tantalizing sense of curiosity, those moments when they look away from the leger software or the charts and graphs of the next big proposal and they think for just a few moments about a story or incident they think would make an exciting novel. But they don’t know where to begin or how to begin. And once the sweet mists of the fantasy evaporate, they certainly don’t believe they could ever write such a novel.

These are the ones who make up the majority of students in my workshops. They’re the ones during the introductions in the first class claiming they have no talent or talking mostly about the boring work they do or saying almost nothing at all. But they listen to what one or two others say about what they want to write, and they hear their excitement and they’re getting goose bumps as they shift uncomfortably in their chairs.

On one hand, they feel like they don’t belong there. On the other hand, they are there. They’ve paid money to be there. They’ve taken time off from whatever else they were doing with their lives to be there. And I point that out to them in the first class: “You’re all here because you want to be here…because something inside you brought you here. And it wasn’t my awesome hair style.”

That something is the urge to create. We all have it. In some of us, it boils over when we’re still babies, using Lego to construct massive buildings at the age of .5 years. In some of us, it’s squashed under guarded pressure to keep it at bay like a lump of coal that forever falls short of becoming a diamond. For some, it’s always just under the surface of their lives, flirting with their minds and inspiring the occasional daydream of writing a novel or a play, painting a mural, learning to play the guitar and writing a song…just under the surface. Like an itch.

Those ones that need to scratch are the ones who sign up for my workshops. They come in shy and unsure but, if they survive the first class, they’ll be back.

It’s that first class with a stupid simple exercise that gives them a glimpse into their creative potential. In that first class, we do the mindless writing exercise. Everyone writes for 10 minutes without stopping to revise, judge or think. They just write, even if they go off topic, even if they just write, “I hate Biff. I hate Biff. I hate Biff.” for 10 minutes. When the writing is done, everyone reads. And after each person has read, the entire class applauds.

I’ve seen the most creativity-resistant people gaze in awe at what they’ve written when they’re not judging or evaluating something they’ve done, when they’ve just let themselves do it without any expectations or guidelines. The total anarchistic bohemian rhapsody of it.

We do a lot of mindless writing throughout the duration of the workshop, and everybody reads, and everybody applauds. And we do other things, like mental and physical awareness. You’d be surprised at how much of life you miss when you’ve spent a lifetime learning to focus on one thing at a time and disregard everything that doesn’t apply to the moment. We lose sight of just how much there is in a single moment. We see the glorious tips of mountains in the distance, but we miss the shard of sunlight turning a patch of snow into a glittering bed of light. Or we see one glint of the sunlight and miss everything else.

One of the exercises we do is called Knowing the Moment. We go outside to the street or a park. We look around and make notes of things we see. We close our eyes and listen. You’d be surprised at what you’ll hear when you’re actually making yourself aware of what you hear. Noises in the background or in the distance that are always there, but un-noticed. With our eyes closed, we smell the air. On a city street, where you might usually smell food cooking in restaurants, you might smell the after shave and perfume of passersby. On one of my favorite streets for this exercise, you can actually smell the aging of older buildings. We ask ourselves, what can I feel? Generally, it’s cold or hot. On closer inspection, it could be a barely detectable current of air. To tie it up, we identify the single most overwhelming thing that affects our senses. It might be something you’ve experienced on your way to work and it’s always been there but you’ve long since stopped noticing it. But when you’re truly in the moment, you’ll be aware of it.

We do mindless drawing. It’s like mindless writing. You put pen to paper and let the ink flow where it will flow. Initially, the drawings will be clumsy but, after doing this for a few weeks, the drawings will start to take on a more defined and repetitious form as the exercise increasingly stimulates the right side of your brain. I find this is a great exercise to do at work. Every hour or so, I draw for a few minutes. It keeps my creativity stoked during the day…and it’s relaxing.

Want to really surprise yourself? Try asking yourself questions. If you take a certain route to work, ask yourself why you take that route. If you eat the red ones first, ask yourself why. Few of us question our lives. We just accept them as they are and to some extent ignore them rather than explore them. Questions about the mundane things in your will force you to use both the left and right side of your brain. Careful with this one, though…you might end up changing your life.

As an instructional designer, I’ve learned over the years to design adult learning according to the 20/80 principle which states, usually correctly, that out of a body of information, an employee only needs 20 percent of the information to accomplish their tasks. We do this with our lives, the difference being that we focus on a lot less than 20 percent. I’ve noticed this in young people. As they grow older, they ask fewer questions. They’re less and less interested in the things outside their immediate realm of action and interest.

Add to this the fact that creativity is rarely rewarded or sought after in our schooling systems, which are geared to manufacture productive members of society, working and spending machines. Carved and sharpened to work and consume, we tend to ignore all those things that don’t systematically contribute to a material end. If it doesn’t get us a grade or a job, it may as well not exist.

Yes, some people are highly creative and use that creativity to excel at everything they do, but these folks are in the minority. The rest of us follow the rule book and stay safely snuggled up inside the box where we shield ourselves from any thoughts, ideas or originality because it might bring attention to ourselves and we might actually have to do stuff we’re not used to doing.

This is pretty much the condition of most of the students who attend my workshops. They’ve cut themselves off from being the 100 percent of themselves to being at most one percent of themselves. They know the 20 percent to get the job done, but they’d be lucky to know whatever infinitesimal percent to get their lives done.

But I have yet to see a single person who stuck around for the second class who didn’t get back in touch with their creative selves and start thinking with the right side of their brains like they’d never lost touch.

So, can creativity be taught? Probably not. That would assume teaching a person who’s never been creative, which would eliminate about 100 percent of the human race. At one point, no matter how early in life, we were all creative; we were all open to our right hemispheres, we all asked questions and wondered about things. But somewhere along the line of life, we lost it.

But, we can be reminded of what we’ve lost and then do the things we need to do to get it back.

***

If you’d like to hear more about the workshop, send me a message at biff@biffmitchell.com. Next workshop is June 16 – 17.

Free Marketing Book for Writers

Book Cover

It’s no longer enough for writers to just write books. Increasingly, publishers expect their stable of writers to play a role in marketing their books and, the smaller the publisher, the larger and more crucial that role becomes. It was with this in mind that I wrote the first edition of this book over a decade ago.

I completed the third edition for this book eight years ago, so many of the links no longer work, some of the options are no longer relevant and, definitely, there are many new options for writers to market their books.

However, this book can still provide a starting point for writers who know nothing about marketing and don’t want to pay thousands of dollars to a marketing agency without first trying a few things on their own.

The idea behind the book is to provide writers with a quick overview of marketing options offered online and break each into three parts:

  1. A short description of the option
  2. How it can be used to market your books
  3. A list of online resources for further exploration

The book follows a format of define, demonstrate and explore. This allows you to read through the book, pick a handful of options and start using them right away. Most of the options are either free or inexpensive. As you become comfortable with whatever options you’re using, you can add others.

Becoming familiar with, and using, these marketing options step-by-step (without being overwhelmed) will help you identify new options and assess their usefulness in your personal marketing.

Always keep in mind the immortal words of Gangshen Barto: “No great product was ever greater than its marketing.”

You can download the book, no strings attached, at www.biffmitchell.com.