Category Archives: writing

Going into the dark

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“The space Hunt’s fiction inhabits is the dark dark itself, which, she writes, is ‘unknowable, unlit, mysterious, and disappearing.’ ‘You can have one foot in a spot that’s grounded,’ she says, ‘and one foot out there in the dark, the night, the unknown, which is so tempting, and for me is the place where mystery is sighted. I can’t not go into the unknown. Where the scary music is playing and people say, ‘Don’t go in there,’ I’m the person who says, ‘What’s in there?’ I must know.”

Lucas Loredo, interviewing Samatha Hunt (“The Dark Dark”) in Kirkus Reviews

Going into the dark, I think, is the author’s first duty. That’s where our stories come from, from truths that are greater than logical, everyday world truths because they include dreams, imaginations, ponderings, and whatever goes bump in the night.

When Hunt writes in Mr. Splitfoot, “These woods are where silence has come to lick its wounds” she’s not stating anything logic can support. But we know what she means and what she means changes us the minute we consider it and know it. Perhaps, thinking of this quote, we go into the woods, hear silence at work. and understand something knew about our world, or at least, ourselves.

The writer either has to go into the woods first and discover this “truth” or s/he has to imagine going into the woods, almost like a shamanic journey, and discover what silence does. Then s/he places this discovery into a poem, essay, or story. This is not to say that writers must think and write like Samantha Hunt (though it helps); but writers must go into the unknown one way or another. That’s where the new stories are.

Whether you literally or figuratively go into the dark woods to listen to the silence or to the occasional screams and pleas that shatter that silence, you are doing something chaotic, uncontrolled, fearful, and possibly dangerous. The greater the chaos and danger, the more spectacular–and potentially transformative–the story. No pain, no gain, as people say.

The resulting story, as author Jane Yollen says–echoing Emily Dickinson–is truth told on the slant. In other words, “All storytellers are liars. We make up things to get at the truth. The truth of the story and—if we are lucky and have revised well—the truth of the world as well.”

You have probably heard–or discovered in a physics class–that when a tuning fork is struck with a hammer, a nearby tuning fork will vibrate at the same frequency. As I once wrote in a review of a book about the blues, and why that music is so powerful, “In his 1967 inquiry into the nature of man, Man in Search of Himself, physicist Jean E. Charon writes that inasmuch as the material in the unconscious is in archetypal form, works of art communicate it via an innate knowledge shared by artist and viewer in a language which ‘awakes unconscious resonances in each of us.'”

Hunt – Wikipedia photo

When a reader finds silencing licking its wounds in a poem or story and is the kind of reader attuned to such ideas, s/he will see the truth of those words at a slant, so to speak. They will convey a truth, an idea never considered, bring forth a new way of looking at wounds and woods and silence that was–in this reader–waiting to be born. Thinking of Yollen again, this is what she calls “life in truth” rather than “truth actual.” Truth actual is the apparent logical workings of the everyday world, what we expect in credible news reports and expert testimony and scientific studies. Life in truth includes the realities behind the ever-addictive illusion of a logical world.

Darkness, the place where seeds germinate to create the flowers we will one day observe, is the same place where writers’ stories germinate. As Hunt says, writers want to go into the dark to see what’s happening there and then write a story or a poem about it. Or, maybe even a blog post.

Writers seem to learn at an early age that the ability to see in the dark is a prerequisite to telling a good story.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of Conjure Woman’s Cat and Eulalie and Washerwoman, magical novels that are on sale on Kindle on 7/21/17 – 7/23/17.

 

 

 

Teach your writing students not to follow the crowd

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“I have no doubt that writing can be taught—but here the burden of responsibility falls mostly on the teacher, not the writer. By this I mean that writing must be taught in a way that emphasizes discovery and growth of the student-writer’s voice, rather than emphasizing adaptation of a writer’s voice to a history of literature or to current trends in literature. I believe that this is the best way to foster originality and freshness in young and so-called ’emerging writers.’” – M.B. McLatchey

Writing programs are sometimes criticized for emphasizing the best of prevailing styles of storytelling so that students end up stuck in conformity, to turning out more or what’s already been turned out by the successful writers of the day. If so, then the teachers are basically saying, “Based on the evidence, this is what editors and publishers want now, so you need to supply it.”

When I was in school, my teachers emphasized the best of the past, the so-called canon of novels we were all supposed to read to become educated. Plus, those books purportedly showed us what we needed to do to become successful authors.

We need to read new stuff and old stuff because we want to be storytellers and for us little is more enjoyable than a good book. In reading, we discover what works and what doesn’t, for we are either pulled into the tales or we’re not. At this point, the students won’t need prescriptions from the teacher so much as a blank piece of paper and a wide open door.

The sky’s the limit out there. Go find it without charts and maps, outlines, lists of DOs and DON’Ts, or recipes for success based on either history or the trends of the day. Given a chance, the student will find his/her voice and style. When s/he returns to the classroom, we can talk about the results–is there a compelling story on the page or not? If so (or if not), we can lead the students into figuring out why there is or isn’t.

If the teacher says “this is why it works” or “this is why it doesn’t work,” then those pat answers begin to channel students down roads being used by the writers that teacher admires or dislikes. When the student sees (without being led) why his/her stories are working, then s/he is ready to emerge from the classroom with the capability of telling unique stories and organic styles that belong to them alone.

–Malcolm

 

How well do you remember events of ten or twenty years ago?

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“Memory is fiction. We select the brightest and the darkest, ignoring what we are ashamed of, and so embroider the broad tapestry of our lives.” ― Isabel Allende, Portrait in Sepia

I first read Portrait in Sepia when it was released in 2000. As I re-read it for the first time this past week, I thought “how ironic this is that this is a novel about memories and I’ve forgotten most of it.”

The storylines of books tend to run together for me because I read a book per week. However, Allende is one of my favorite authors so, logically, I ought to remember more of each novel’s details. Except for high energy action books, I tend to read novels closely; I don’t scan sections or skip descriptions or conversations to get to the so-called “good parts” (as some people call the pivotal scenes).

Several weeks ago, I re-read The House of Spirits, a novel I read in 1982 when  it came out and one other time before this year. Again, the details were so hazy it was almost like reading the story for the first time. I can understand why high school and college literature teachers tell us they re-read the books they teach every semester that they reach them.

Even though I forget so many details of novels, I discover new things every time I re-read them. So, in addition to the surprise at how much I’d forgotten, there’s the excitement of seeing a character or an even in a new way.

When people ask me about my childhood, obviously I know most of it. Or, maybe I don’t. If I can’t remember a book in any detail several years after reading it, how reliable is my memory about anything in my past or the country’s past? Sketchy, at best. Though family Christmas letters have long been mocked as falsified (or carefully told) versions of what a family did during every past year, the only way I could be sure when I did something thirty years ago was looking in a binder of old Christmas letters to see what year something happened.

Things get worse when I realize that after using fictionalized bits and pieces of things I saw or did in some of my own novels, I begin to see that the line between what I really did and what a character did in my novel has gotten a little blurry.

We’ve heard often that those who witness traffic accidents and other events are often unreliable. They think they have a clear picture of the event when, in fact, they don’t. They think their view of an event was like that of a stationary security camera. In  reality, they glanced away at noises, movements of other people, etc. What they didn’t see, they think they did see because the mind fills in the gaps with what it thinks probably happened. They don’t know they’ve done this, and experts say that a lie detector test won’t pinpoint discrepancies in their versions of events.

An article in the current “Writer’s Chronicle” deals with this issue for the authors of memoirs and historical novels. It’s called “The True Story? How to Deal with Evidential Gaps While Writing a Biography,” by Viola van de Sandt. What really happened during such gaps often comes down to circumstantial evidence. Sometimes, important events can only be sketched in and presumed through fragments of diaries, articles, letters, etc.

I have often wished I’d kept a diary, a cut-and-dried account of daily events. I tried multiple times, but could never stick with it. So I have a lot of gaps in my own personal history. As Allende’s protagonist in Portrait in Sepia said, “I try desperately to conquer the transitory nature of my existence, to trap moments before they evenesce, to untangle the confusion of my past. Every instant disappears in a breath and immediately becomes the past; reality is ephemeral and changing, pure longing.”

I assume my memory is faulty. It’s been proven to be that way many times. Who I am and what I think I saw of daily events is more of an approximation than anything else. If you have a foolproof method of keeping track of your past, I’d sure like to know how you do it.

Malcolm

My novels At Sea and Mountain Song are partially based on my own experiences. But I can’t promise you I know the fact from the fiction in them.

 

Monday Musing: Beautiful Landscapes

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“Think of a memory in a beautiful landscape—maybe from a family vacation, or your favorite childhood destination. Now think of a scene from a story, novel, or movie that describes a landscape, and that has stuck with you. What makes these moments special? So many of the memories and stories we share are connected to place—to the landscapes of the Earth and the landscapes of our own imaginations.” – “Carving Stories from Trees” in Poets & Writers

Key West when postcards could be mailed for a penny.

Poets & Writers Magazine has a daily online writing prompt or “Craft Capsule.” I enjoy reading these even if I don’t follow up and write something based on the prompt.

For those who grew up in a wonderful place and enjoyed day trips, or went on yearly summer vacations, or traveled after graduating from high school or college, the landscapes we saw in the past are a gold mine of writing prompts and potential short story or novel location settings.

Our family traveled every summer. This meant many long days in a car, most before air conditioning. We saw sites from Fort Ticonderoga and Niagara Falls to Key West, Mammoth Cave and the Smoky Mountains. Even though I didn’t keep a diary, my memories–incomplete as they may be–make a wonderful starting point when I’m thinking up a new story.

Since I’ve been to these places, it’s less difficult to find a book, magazine or a website to help me fill in the details. I came away from those vacations with a strong sense of each place. And, that’s almost more valuable than a guidebook.

Perhaps you have memories of long-ago trips that might serve as writing prompts and short story locales.

Malcolm

Click on my name to visit my website.

The many worlds of fiction are calling you away

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“I know I walk in and out of several worlds each day.” – Joy Harjo

I won’t try to second guess what Harjo, winner of the 2017 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, meant exactly when she mentioned several worlds. If you’ve read her 1983 book She Had Some Horses, you might suspect–as I do–that her “several worlds” are more than figurative. The title poem, which I can never read often enough, says the horses are sand, are maps, contain ocean water, are the sky’s air, fur and teeth, breakable clay, and splintered from a cliff. Throughout the poem, those horses are everything else.

Nothing figurative there. I see it as real because when I’m there, reading, I’m in that world, and she did not say, like sand, like maps, like fur and teeth, etc. When you read and when you are where the words take you, you are no longer in your safe bed or your easy chair or at your desk. You are in a place where “She had horses with eyes of trains.”

NASA Photo

If you write, you are where the words have taken you, perhaps with Joy Harjo, in a place where “She had horses who licked razor blades.” The typewriter, yellow tablet, or PC slip away, and now you see the bright cold day where the clocks were striking thirteen, where the screaming comes across the sky, where there was a dark and stormy night where the rain was falling in torrents, where Mrs. Dalloway bought flowers for herself, or where stars are living and dying.

If you read and/or write, it is hard not to talk in and out of several worlds each day. The words conjure you there. Those words are your quantum entanglement, placing you simultaneously at one place and another place, and the place with the strongest attraction is where you attention is, often more within the book than your safe bed or easy chair. Perhaps the call of sleep, the ringing of a phone, another person entering the room, or a thunderstorm will draw you away from the horses “who whispered in the dark, who were afraid to speak.”

That sudden change of worlds can be like dying or being born. It’s often wrenching like being pulled suddenly out of weep water or stepping into a fire. Sometimes the worlds blur the way dreams and waking moments tangle together at dawn. Sometimes you’re sure you safe bad is made of sand, is a map, contains ocean water, is fur and teeth, breakable clay, and a splintered sliver from a red cliff. Worlds can tangle for readers, writers, dreamers, and anyone else with an free-ranging imagination.

You become a shaman when you read or write. To the logical observer, you appear to be a man or woman reading in bed or a man or woman writing a book at his or her computer. They can’t quite see that you are the sky’s air and the ocean’s water.

Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the magical realism novels “Conjure Woman’s Cat” and “Eulalie and Washerwoman.”

Writing Prompts from Hell

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Disclaimer: The devil didn’t make me write this post.

  • A man buys a round trip ticket to hell without reading the fine print on the on the ticket. He’s dressed for a warm climate because he’s heard stories. When he arrives in a hand basket, hell looks like the Mauricio García Vega painting shown here. He looks for a lover to share the experience with.
  • A 737 crashes into a farmer’s empty chicken house in a ball of flame that’s so large it scorches the low-hanging clouds. Before he can call 911, the passengers and crew walk out of the chicken house as though nothing unusual has happened.
  • Your protagonist learns on page one that he has one hour to live. Since he was on a quest to find the Fountain of Youth, he goes on Twitter to find a quality person with whom he can share his secrets so that once he’s gone, the journey will continue.
  • A stick falls into a mud puddle during a rain storm.
  • A young woman sincerely believes she’ll bump into her soul mate by running up the down escalator. Her friends have warned that she won’t accomplish her goal if she’s thrown out of the store/airport/theme park, if she’s arrested, if she gets sent to the asylum, or if she gets pulled down into the gears and ends up looking like chopped liver, all of which will discourage Mister Right.
  • A man believes he’s died when, if truth be told, he’s merely roaring drunk and trapped in a house of ill repute. Luckily, he has plenty of money and decides death is really the way to go. “Bless his heart,” says the madam, “what’s going to happen to that poor fool when he wakes up.” They decide to keep him drunk so that he won’t discover the truth of the matter.
  • A minister is discovered having sex with a woman who’s not his wife on the communion table by church goers who arrive for Sunday morning services several hours earlier than expected. After a brief discussion, everyone decides there’s a way to make this event a win-win moment for everybody.
  • Two roads diverge in a wood. Several hikers decide to test Robert Frost’s poem and determine whether the problems (if any) of taking one road or another amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.
  • After a man hypnotizes himself into believing he is totally innocent of any discretions, errors in judgement, jilting of lovers, or ever saying an hurtful things, he keeps meeting people who think otherwise. He must decide whether or not they are lying and, if not, whether the easiest way to remain innocent is by murdering those who claim to have evidence that he’s guilty OR simply to run like hell. As the story unfolds, readers learn this choice wasn’t easy.

Disclaimer: If anything bad happens while you’re using these writing prompts, you’re on your own because I don’t warrant that they are safe or any damn good at all, and further that they’re displayed here merely as curiosities.

Malcolm

Cool, an error screen instead of a book piracy listing

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After going through several e-mail addresses, my persistent publisher (Thomas-Jacob) has gotten a pirated copy of my novel Eulalie and Washerwoman removed from one of those sign-up for free downloads sites. We have no idea how they got a PDF file: we’ve never released the book in that format. Did they create it from the Kindle edition, use conjure, break into my house while I was having a late-afternoon glass of wine? We may never know. But, the error screen is a welcome sight when we click on the link.

Florida Folk Magic Stories: Speaking of conjure, your response to Eulalie and Washerwoman and Conjure Woman’s Cat has been wonderful. Thanks for your support. I said I wasn’t going to write another conjure book because it was time to move on. But people kept asking when I was going to have it ready. Er, well, I dunno, maybe later.

Novel in Progress: Okay, I’ve changed my mind and have gotten started on the third book which will be called Lena. I know how it begins: things don’t look good for Eulalie. I have no idea how it ends. Finding out is just as much fun for an author as it is for a reader.

Review: My colleagues and I at Thomas-Jacob Publishing don’t review each other’s books on our blogs, Amazon or GoodReads because, quite frankly, it wouldn’t look good. I think it’s okay for me to include the link of a review of one of those books written by an impartial (and sometimes, hard to please) reviewer: Big Al’s Books & Pals.

Big Al didn’t see the ending coming. I have to admit it: neither did I.

Satire: For those of you who missed the last post, it’s another one of my “Jock Stewart” satires: Feds Bust Sneezeweed Resisistance Movement Scam. The headline alone tells you this is solid news reporting.

For Writers: For actual solid news reporting, check out Melinda Clayton’s How to Set Up an eBook Ad with Amazon Marketing Services at IndiesUnlimited. If you’ve looked into Amazon book ads and found that the setup resembles a Greek tragedy written in Greek, this handy post will help your sort it out.

–Malcolm