Searchlights & Signal Flares


Tiny Lights' On-line Writer's Exchange

How do you know what your story's about? (10/15/10)



Featured writer: Susan Starbird



Contributors this month:
Arlene L. Mandell
Becky Povich
Claudia Larson
Rodney Merrill
Sara Baker
Susan Bono
Susan Starbird


How do you know what your story's about?

by Susan Starbird

I have to have faith that the story will eventually emerge, because it's never clear in the first draft.

The writing I admire (my own or others') must tackle some deeper/darker philosophical question or taboo. I write the first draft and then set it aside while in the back of my mind I wonder, "Where's the problem here?" If I'm lucky and spot the problem on the horizon, I can then race toward it in subsequent drafts.

In the memoir department, I hold before me as models the great obituary writers who manage to reduce a life to a theme that makes you mourn the person whether or not you knew him/her. Most of us can't do that good a job on our own lives, but taking in one's hand the pen of the elegist
sometimes helps me find the story.

Susan Starbird publishes susanthemagazine.com and recently wrote the autobiography of a one-celled organism.

What’s It All About?

  by Arlene L. Mandell

Searching for one's story seems to be a very 21st century preoccupation. Can you imagine Tolstoy, two-thirds through his epic, sipping tea and wondering: Is this about war . . . or peace?

To avoid such existential angst, I write short pieces, often delete the first stanza or paragraph when I edit. As soon as I get to the end, I stop. If what's left is good enough, someone usually publishes it.

Arlene L. Mandell, at last count, has been published 596 times (not including work produced in the early years writing for newspapers and Good Housekeeping magazine).


How do you know what your story’s about?

  by Becky Povich

Finally, a question that won't cause repetitive wringing of hands, frequent wiping of brow, persistent frowning and/or continual mumbling.
I do not write fiction. I don't create plots and characters. I don't have to wait for voices to speak to me….well, at least not fictional voices.
I write personal essays and I'm working on my memoir. Therefore, I already know what my story is about. It's about ME and the people around me, from my childhood up until now. It's about all types of memories: happy, sad, bittersweet, lonely and amusing. Sometimes it's about regrets, but also about hope and love and joy. It's about my life and how I've seen and experienced my world around me.

That's how I know what my story is about. I just don't know how it will end.

Becky Povich continues to write and enjoy life every day. To learn more about her, check her blog:
www.beckypovich.blogspot.com, and/or you can e-mail Becky at:
Writergal53@aol.com.


How do you know what your story’s about?

  by Claudia Larson

Some stories are already fully woven, wrapped on a long piece of cardboard, ready to be unrolled like yards of fabric. Other stories appear line by line, word by word, on stepping stones hidden in a deep fog.

Curiosity draws me to follow the fabric, the stones.

Claudia Larson lives in Sebastopol, CA, never knowing which story will appear.

How do you know what your story's about?

  by Rodney Merrill

I don't. Not really. Not in the beginning.
For me, a story starts out as a sort of slide show. Hazy daydream images pass before me, all related to some common event or situation or theme. If a picture is worth a thousand words, four or five of them demand a story. Yet, the story is not always apparent. Sometimes the images yield little more than a sensation that is pleasing or disturbing.

The theme of those images derives from the narratives of meaning available to me. What that thematic relationship is has to be deciphered and put into words. To me, deciphering and putting into words is pretty much the same thing. Rather than "discovering" meaning by "digging deeply within," I see the process as one of building knowledge through conversation, through interacting with the images using the tools of interrogation and the conversations available to me within the social and historical context within which I find myself.

In this regard, I do not find outlining very useful. For certain purposes which call for tools of linearity, the outline is a worthy and efficient tool. For explicating sensational images, however, outlining tends to render the multidimensional flat.

Free-writing likewise works well in certain situations but is terribly time inefficient. Whatever the immediate benefit received in the drafting stage is quickly taken back plus gratuity in the editing stage. Great billowing stacks of free association must be prepared, peeled and pared. And despite the richness of material, it may refuse to yield an intelligible story.

What usually works for me is to replace both outlining and free-writing with an "idea map" or "radiant thinking," as Tony Buzan calls it The Mind Map Book. If I have five images, for example, I might draw five circles on a page and label each with a trigger word (a feeling or thought) that seems to encapsulate the image. Then in a free association process somewhat similar to free-writing, I would radiate other ideas or feelings around each center bubbles. Sometimes, as I add these ancillary ideas, I realize I really need to change the guiding word in the center. So it goes until the process runs out of steam.

Often, I can step back and look at the map and know what my story is about. How do I know that I know? In NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) terminology, I see it, I hear it, I feel it. If I looks right, I listen to how the idea sounds. If it sounds right, I check my core for how it feels. If how it looks and sounds feels right, that's it!

Rodney Merrill lives in Astoria with Kate, crazed ultra-marathon runner and wife of 26 years. He also keeps company with much loved dogs collectively known as The Three Muttsketteers. When not showering the dogs with love disguised as pestering, he pounds at the keyboard reassured by the promise that the odds favor that even a chimp will eventually, albeit fortuitously, write something brilliant.

There’s Gold in Them Thar Hills!

  by Sara Baker

Deciding what my story's about brings to mind images of a prospector's undaunted search for gold in endless rivers and streams. His sense of adventure, his belief in himself, and the possibility of finding gold motivate him and give him great resolve even when those around him think: "That guy's gotta be crazy….he'll never find one tiny speck of gold."

Yet, the prospector knows his craft and how to find the golden treasure; his practice and instincts in reading the river help him discover the best river to pan for gold. So, he finds a spot where the water is not too deep yet moves just swiftly enough to keep the water clear—clear vision is critical to his success as are his comfortable boots and clothes, for discomfort will certainly thwart the process!

Every day he quietly pans and sifts becoming one with the river and his technique—faithful to his cause. As he sieves, he classifies the material down to a manageable size. He has learned that large nuggets are rare, so he is content with refining until he recovers mostly fine gold. He speeds up the process by screening out the useless rocks and gravel looking for valuable gold specks and priceless nuggets.

The prospector doesn't fear getting his hands dirty, for often large rocks, clay balls, and roots can obstruct his view of the gold he hopes to uncover. Long ago he learned that clay balls in particular are gold robbers, so he breaks them up. Ultimately, both his intuition and inspiration guide him, and the prospector finds exactly what he's seeking.

Knowing what my story's about is similar to the prospector's quest for gold in the perfect river; I search the endless, rampantly running story ideas flowing through my mind, seeking the ideal story. Sometimes, this steady flow muddies the waters so to speak. Yet, the story ideas that ultimately work are those that are just deep enough and move just swiftly enough that they flow clearly. Then, I have a clear vision of the characters, plot, setting, and theme.

Like the prospector, I must find a quiet place; must be faithful to my cause—in my comfortable clothes—and, no matter how clever the story line or character, I must readily refine what I write by screening out useless ideas and meaningless characters, dialogue, and scenery. Also, I must be willing to get my hands dirty and eliminate the clay ball robbers we writers know as fear and procrastination.

With daily practice I sift through the rapid current of story ideas and acquiesce to my intuition and inspiration and find an instinctive knowing what my story's about. Funny, sometimes I imagine myself to be as resolute as that gun-slinging Looney Tunes cartoon prospector, Yosemite Sam, who so often said, "There's gold in them thar hills!"


Sara Baker is a freelance writer, technical writer, editor, and recently retired teacher who currently lives in Allen, Texas. She has been happily married to her soulmate for 27 years. She can be contacted at
sab_1529@yahoo.com


Finding and Forgetting

  by Susan Bono

Yesterday, I heard the old hen giving her triumphal cackle, a sound so rare I had to listen carefully to be sure she wasn't sending out an alarm. Sure enough, a few hours later I found a blue egg nestled in the sawdust-filled laying box. Before I carried my prize back into the house, I happened to look up and see the sweet promise of a thumbnail moon directly overhead in the fading blue sky. My husband was due home from work, our youngest son was in the kitchen fixing dinner, and our oldest son was just crossing the Golden Gate Bridge to join us for the evening. I had time to lay the table and make the salad before the travelers arrived. I took another look at the moon and felt the weight of the egg in my hand just before the phone rang.

I had forgotten the moon by the time I picked up the phone, never suspecting it would be someone from my hometown with news of an old friend's death. By the time I put the receiver down, the sky was dark, the dinner preparations unfinished. I realized all my stories are about loss, but if I look carefully, they all have a moon and an egg in them.


Susan Bono is looking high and low in Petaluma, CA.

How do you know what your story's about?

  by Susan Starbird

I have to have faith that the story will eventually emerge, because it's never clear in the first draft.

The writing I admire (my own or others') must tackle some deeper/darker philosophical question or taboo. I write the first draft and then set it aside while in the back of my mind I wonder, "Where's the problem here?" If I'm lucky and spot the problem on the horizon, I can then race toward it in subsequent drafts.

In the memoir department, I hold before me as models the great obituary writers who manage to reduce a life to a theme that makes you mourn the person whether or not you knew him/her. Most of us can't do that good a job on our own lives, but taking in one's hand the pen of the elegist
sometimes helps me find the story.

Susan Starbird publishes susanthemagazine.com and recently wrote the autobiography of a one-celled organism.

Searchlights Editor:

Susan Bono

Columnists:

C. Larson, B. Povich, M. Petty, C. Crawford, T. Sanders

Columnists Emeriti: Christine Falcone, David S. Johnson, Betty Rodgers, Jordan E. Rosenfeld, Betty Winslow


Susan Bono is a writing coach, editor and freelance writer living in Petaluma, CA. She has published Tiny Lights: A Journal of Personal Narrative since 1995, along with its online counterpart here at tiny-lights.com. She conducts creative writing classes in Petaluma and Santa Rosa and co-hosts the quarterly Speakeasy Literary Saloon at the Aqus Café in Petaluma. She's on the boards of Petaluma Readers Theatre and the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference. She is still writing a postcard a day. Her most recent publishing credits include Petaluma Readers Theatre, KRCB’s Mouthful, Milk and Ink, and Passager Magazine.

Marilyn Petty is a dyed-in-the wool Midwesterner, a long-ago émigré to California and a fortunate resident of Sonoma County, CA. She taught weaving through the SRJC for 8 years and was the reporter, essayist, editor and publisher of the Redwood Empire Handweavers and Spinners Guild for 10 years. When not tangling with yarns, she is unknotting words, writing poetry and personal essays. She putters in the garden when words fail her.

Catherine Crawford is a former technical writer, editor, and course materials developer for high tech industries. She has taught college English at the four-year degree level, published two award winning chapbooks of poetry, and written articles for 52perfectdays.com, a Portland, Oregon online travel magazine. She works as an editor in Vancouver, Washington. Her email: greenwriter1960@gmail.com

Claudia Larson, in her childhood, wrote long letters to her best-friend cousin and enthralled herself by writing a heart-rending story of two orphans. She writes fewer letters nowadays and prefers writing poetry and memoirs of her North Dakotan farm girl days. She is not yet an orphan, has six siblings and lives in Sebastopol, CA.

Becky Povich lives near St. Louis, Missouri. Although not young in "people years," she's only been writing for ten of those. Getting her first book completed, a memoir, is her current short-term goal. She can be reached at Writergal53@aol.com, or visit her blog at www.beckypovich.blogspot.com.

Theresa Sanders lives in suburban St. Louis, Missouri, where she is completing a novel. A former award-winning technical writer and consultant, she managed a Documentation and Training department before turning to her first love, creative writing. Her stories appear regularly in the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. Theresa welcomes email and would love to hear from you. Contact her at: TheresaLSanders@charter.net

Thanks to all who participated this month. It's good to know you're out there! We're looking forward to hearing from you and those you inspired sometime soon! Check this column each month to see what's new. Return to Searchlights & Signal Flares menu for future topics and guidelines.

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