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365 Creative: January 2, INTERVENTION for WRITERS!

January 3, 2012

2012 is finally here and…I have hardly written anything at all.

I am constantly mulling over stories in my head. I have three that are hounding me right now, in fact. They’re all fiction (I’m not even going to get into the non-fiction that browbeats me daily) and two of them are already well developed on paper. The digital version of paper, that is. The third story refuses to coalesce, and will have to be slapped around very, very soon.

I’ve heard that writer’s block is just a big myth, and that to write all one must do is apply ass to chair.

This makes sense, on one level, but after many years of sweating blood over the design of sentences and structure of paragraphs, I think it also makes sense to say that writing is more complicated than that.

Sometimes, you see, the stories refuse to behave.

Plot can be the problem but in my experience much of it boils down to character. Defining character motivation and deeply understanding your characters is the key to helping the story become what it must be. Without strong, defined, and understandable characters your story will likely hit a point at which it fizzles out.

Somewhere I heard that this is called reaching a fatal flaw. Suddenly, the characters deflate. The storyline collapses. And in my experience, this often has to do with a improperly written character.

I have one story that fell apart on a fatal flaw. I closed that document and didn’t look at it again for several years. When I did, however, it was as though I was coming to it for the first time. I didn’t remember writing many of the lines, but I instantly knew what was wrong. I’d completely screwed up one of the characters. I took an afternoon and began recrafting the scenes with this character. These scenes were short but pivotal to the story itself. Without reworking the character, nothing about the story could work.

Now, the story holds together and is progressing! I hope to finish it this year.

The key to sorting this particular story out was twofold, however. Yes, the first part involved tucking it away on a separate hard drive for several years (which is not the ideal way to crack through a story flaw, of course) but the second part was this, and took far less time:

I had my characters run an intervention on me.

I framed it like a short story–I wrote about myself as I am, arriving home late one night after an unproductive day to find my driveway lined with vehicles. An old pickup truck with Arizona tags…a minivan…a rustic two-wheeled cart designed to be pulled by a person. I parked, confused beyond measure, and went inside to find that my living room was filled with strangely familiar people.

What ensued next (and it’s not done yet) was a writing intervention. I let my characters talk to me as though I was sitting in the same room with them all. And by all, I mean they spanned all the stories that were troubling me. All packed together in the same room. They all told me why I needed to finish their stories. They all explained to me what was wrong with the stories as I’d already written them.

And along the way, I got to know my characters so very much better.

If you’re stuck, give this a try. This technique works even if your work is predominately non-fiction. Writing a memoir? Have the iteration of the self you’re writing about intervene. Writing a family history? Meet your ancestors in an old cafe.

And who knows, you might find that after your intervention you not only have the clues to the work that has troubled you, but also, perhaps, a cool short story to boot.

Here’s a short excerpt of my intervention. Would love to read yours if you write one!

~~~~~~~~

I open the door and see a room filled with people who look oddly familiar…but not.  My husband, Chris, stands on the far side of the room with his arms crossed. The slightest hint of a smile plays on his face as he looks up at me. Suddenly, it disappears. This is serious.
“Hi honey,” he says. Everyone else grows quiet, and all eyes are on me.
“Hi…” I say, as I glance from person to person and try to get my bearings. “What’s going on?” is all I can manage.
“Well,” Chris says, crossing the room. He leans behind me to shut the door, then gently takes my purse and computer bag from my shoulder and sets them down. “We’re all very concerned about you, love, and…well, things are kind of serious, so please hear everyone out.”
“We only want the best for you,” someone says. I look from my husband to the people in the room and pinpoint the woman behind the unfamiliar voice. She has blonde hair pulled into a messy bun. Wisps falling around her face cast shadows against her cheekbones. Her eyes are swollen, like she’s been crying for days. Months. Years.
“I’m sorry but how is it even possible to want the best for me when…well, I don’t even know you,” I offer, shrugging my shoulders.
“But you do,” she replies, smiling. “You created me.”
“And me,” says the little girl sitting by her side.
“Me too,” comes another reply, and everyone in the room starts to nod. Them too, apparently.
“I what?”
“You created us.” A tall man in an old stained cowboy hat steps forward. His voice is graveled with old age and he grips one of Chris’s Negra Modelos. His fingers are long and thin. Old brown skin desiccated over enlarged knuckles. I decide he’s the one who drives the old truck I saw in the driveway.
Before I can reply, Chris puts his hands on my shoulders and says, “why don’t you sit down for a bit? I think these people have a lot they’d like to say.”
As I sit, Chris leaves the room. I’m on my own.
The strangers regard me.
“Maybe we should start with introductions,” the old man says, pulling on his beer. He finishes it off, and contemplates the empty bottle, then looks up at me.
“Where’s your trash?” he asks, indicating the bottle in his hand.
“Actually, we recycle glass,” I say, and gesture to the recycling bin behind me.
“Oh,” he says, eyebrows knitted. He lets the bottle drop into the tall bin with a crash.
“Got another?” he asks, seconds after the empty leaves his hand.
I just look at him. “Who are you?” I finally ask.
“John Burns,” he says, then walks around me to the fridge and pulls the door open in search of another beer.
“John Burns…” I repeat, watching him. Then I narrow my eyes and ask a risky question.
“Don’t you mean Jack Burns?”
“Don’t call me that!” he says, whipping around.
I smile, innocently.
“Nobody calls me that. Not anymore.”
He grabs another beer, and closes the fridge door. I watch him as he roots around in the silverware drawer for a bottle opener. The bottle cap flies off the top of the beer and rolls across the kitchen floor. Burns makes no move to pick it up, instead leaning into the counter and tipping the bottle against his lips. He takes a long drink, wipes his mouth on his sleeve, and levels his eyes at me.
Says nothing.
“I’m Lily,” I hear a voice say. I turn in the direction of the sound. The girl sitting next to the woman with grief swollen eyes smiles at me, just a little. Her dark brown hair is cut into an angular bob at her jawline, and she has a small heart sticker on her cheek. She’s sitting cross legged on the couch, her slip-on shoes at odd angles to each other on the floor below.
“Hi Lily,” I say, and smile back. I remember her. For a moment I try to recall where I left her in my story….the story about her parent’s breakup and the subsequent drama that came to a sudden end in the middle of things. I shift my gaze to Lily’s mother. Cate…yes, this is Cate. I left these two, along with a host of other characters in some limbo of mistaken motivation several years ago.
“How old are you now, Lily?” I ask.
Lily frowns at me and looks up at her mother. I realize that this is a dumb question the second it escapes my lips.
“Just as old as when you wrote me,” she says, looking back, then down at her hands. Her fingernails are flecked with pink polish.
“I haven’t been doing much since then, really,” she finishes, mumbling.
“You know what the problem was,” another voice chimes in. This time, an older woman with silver hair is the one talking. I don’t recall her name and she doesn’t remind me.
“The problem?” I ask.
“Yes,” she replies with stern patience, “with our story.” She tips her head toward Cate and Lily and then I remember. She’s Cate’s mother, a pivotal figure in the story whose motivation and overall demeanor never seemed quite accurate.
“The problem,” she continued, “is that you wrote me wrong in the beginning. I don’t know who that woman preoccupied with the sick Jack Russell terrier was.” She crosses her arms and regards me, a look of what I understand to be pity on her face.
You poor pathetic writer person, I imagine she’s thinking, you don’t even realize you’re playing with people’s lives here….
“So what would you suggest?” I ask, thinking that I might already know.
“I suggest you write me truthfully,” she says.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. layer permalink
    January 10, 2012 11:58 am

    wow. love this. i’m sure i have more than a few characters who would love the opportunity to get me in a room and give me what-for (and not just in the current novel). i may have to give this a go…

    – lauren

    • ana june permalink
      January 10, 2012 12:02 pm

      Thanks Lauren! It really is a helpful (and fun!) exercise. Let me know how it goes if you decide to try it! 🙂

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