Working Hard or Hardly Working
I stated that I was dedicating some weeks to do some physical labor, as opposed to what I usually do, which is write, read, edit, edit some more, read some more, and sit around dreaming. And go to lunch, every day.
I was successful. I tore down an old deck and hauled away the wood; cut down a large tree and hauled away the trunk and branches; and replaced an old window with a new window. This week will be another week of labor – replacing three more windows; cutting up old deck wood into woodstove-sized pieces; and preparing a house to be stuccoed.
In my evenings, surprising even me, I edited two new novels, submitting one to an editor, and went through a proof for a new Mogi Franklin mystery that will be published September first.
Woohoo! – I got to do both of the types of labor that I like to do and I did both of them well.
Which labor do I favor?
That’s a good question, because the answer is “both, provided I can choose to do whatever I want on any particular day.”
It’s an issue of competition. Declaring a certain time period to be dedicated to one type of labor or another, or, in fact, declaring a certain time period for family, for vacation, for helping others, for concentrated walks, for some other block of activity, is my way of decreasing the competition between the different forms of labor. It decreases the frustration associated with not doing something that I want to do because I’m doing something else.
I have the greatest admiration for those writers who get up in the morning two hours before the rest of the family so they can write. There are many stories of people who do so to have the peace and concentration they need to write. Or they go off for a week to write undisturbed. Or they write at night after the family is in bed.
In my case, it’s important to be able to choose. I’m a fair-weather type of laborer. I understand why people have to work outside when it’s very cold or very hot or very windy or very wet, but I’m sorry that the work requires it. I worked for a carpenter once who treated working in the worst weather possible as a badge of honor. He wanted it to rain hard just so he could bundle up in his rain gear and prove himself on the battlefield of labor.
He and I didn’t get along very well. I did the work, but I think rain in the morning is a sign to sleep late and rain in the afternoon is a sign to quit early.
Sometimes, I need to do literary work. Sometimes, I need to do physical labor. Sometimes, I need to do neither, contemplating instead all that I’m not doing. That was referred to by Hemingway as “taking time to store up for the times to come”, an attitude that I like. Of course, you’re saying, it’s because I’m a retired fat guy with a pension. I accept that as valid criticism; it is a significant advantage.
It makes it no less important, though, that writers and other artists must know themselves to be able to manage themselves, especially in terms of creativity, inspiration, pace, and balance. We all have work. The major thing is that we should have control over the work and not the work over us.
Inspiration Is Hard Work
In 1994, Ray Bradbury wrote Zen in the Art of Writing, an autobiographical book about his life of writing. The book is phenomenal, and the stories about his growing up are entertaining and memorable. He was a fascinating writer with an unbelievable passion for telling stories. Here’s one quote from the book that gives you an idea of his dedication to writing:
“But how did I begin? Starting in Mr. Electrico’s [a circus character that visited his town in 1932] year, I wrote a thousand words a day. For ten years I wrote at least one short story a week, somehow guessing that a day would finally come when I truly got out of the way and let it happen. [that’s more than five hundred stories!]
The day came in 1942 when I wrote “The Lake.” Ten years of doing something wrong suddenly became the right idea, the right scene, the right characters, the right day, the right creative time. I wrote the story sitting outside, with my typewriter, on the lawn. At the end of an hour the story was finished, the hair on the back of my neck was standing up, and I was in tears. I knew I had written the first really good story of my life.
All during my early twenties I had the following schedule. On Monday morning I wrote the first draft of a new story. On Tuesday I did a second draft. On Wednesday a third. On Thursday a fourth. On Friday a fifth. And on Saturday at noon I mailed out the sixth and final draft to New York. Sunday? I thought about all the wild ideas scrambling for my attention, waiting under the attic lid, confident at last that, because of “The Lake,” I would soon let them out.
There was another reason to write so much: I was being paid twenty to forty dollars a story, by the pulp magazines. High on the hog was hardly my way of life. I had to sell at least one story, or better two, each month in order to survive my hot-dog, hamburger, trolley-car-fare life.
In 1944 I sold some forty stories, but my total income for the year was only $800.”
I can only gasp at that level of creativity. Louis L’Amour, the famous western writer, set a goal of not only writing one short story a week but selling the story to a magazine to be able to support his family.
I’m way down the scale on such ambition. I met my goal for the winter of writing another Mogi Franklin mystery, plus a short adult fiction story. They are both finished and lying idle while I get some distance between them and the final edit. Whether they get published or not waits to be seen.
Now I’m on break from writing. It’s Spring coming into Summer and I’ve got other things on my mind – building, rafting, backpacking and such. I’m taking a trip to Alaska in June and will be on the lookout for a new story. I grew up on The Call of the Wild and I would love to find the inspiration to produce my own version of a young person’s tale of adventure.
I can’t produce at the level of Ray Bradbury, but I will do what I can.
The Way We See
I’ve been talking about how we see through frames. A “frame” is a processor between our eyes and our brains that takes the true image of what we see (physically, emotionally, spiritually, inwardly, outwardly) and puts it into a “reference frame” that explains, enhances, or interprets what we’re looking at.
A frame orients our thinking a certain way.
Here’s an example of frames taken to an extreme: The Truman Show. This is a movie made a while back with Jim Carrey as a guy named Truman. Truman’s entire life, from birth on, has been filmed as a television program, but he doesn’t know it. It’s the ultimate reality TV. Truman lives a regular life while, in fact, millions of people are watching him. He doesn’t know it, but his whole environment – home, streets, buildings, the ocean, the weather – is a stage, the individual pieces of life are props, and there are zillions of cameras everywhere. Truman is surrounded by people he believes are real, but, in fact, every single person around him is a character actor, including his parents, relatives, friends, neighbors, co-workers, and even the casual people on the street. Each of them is under the stage direction of one man, the man who created The Truman Show.
Every person is fake, except for Truman, and every person watching the show knows that the show is fake. It is not life but entertainment.
Every person in the cast, every camera operator, every scriptwriter and every viewer at home looks through a frame where everything that is contrived, manipulated, and pretend becomes reality, for the purpose of seeing how Truman reacts. Truman doesn’t have that frame. His emotions, his actions, his behaviors, and his beliefs are based on everything he sees and experiences as being real.
There’s one scene where Truman is freaking out because he’s beginning to sense the falseness around him. His best friend consoles him, convincing Truman that he’s just having a moment of stress, that everything is real, and everything is just fine. While they’re talking, Truman hears what his friend says as if the friend is giving him heart-felt advice, when actually, the best friend (an actor) is repeating what the director is telling him to say through an earpiece. It tears your heart out to see Truman being manipulated, in every way possible, by a world of lies and falsehoods.
If Truman was taken out of that world and shown the TV program that everyone else is watching, then he would be looking through the same frame as the rest of the world.
What’s my point?
Our lives don’t involve the polar extremes of reality that Truman’s situation contains, but we all deal with internal mental frames that color the way we see what we see. A writer needs to know that. Without question, the writer has to be in the business of understanding the frames through which his readers view reality and, especially, has to be in the business of understanding the frames through which they see reality.
Why? Because writers deal with truth.
Whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, the writer is in the business of revealing the human condition to their readers and that takes knowing the true state of the human condition. Life in the raw. Life unaided. The bones of life without any flesh.
If it’s a character in a mystery story, the reader needs to identify with that character, be able to see themselves in that character, and have sympathy or hatred that is an honest revelation of how the reader sees that character.
The writer is in charge of making that happen.
If it’s a memoir, where the writer is recalling and describing a trauma suffered in childhood, the words they use must cause emotion in the reader, must inform them as to how a child feels to be in that trauma, and must pull out sympathy or shock or horror at the trauma.
If it’s history, the writer must deliberately construct an event with order, depth, and description to make the reader resonate with the common threads of the event. It must make them feel like the writer understood what it was like to there. History is a description of the human condition, best presented as life in the raw.
The writer is, foremost, an observer of life. As they watch, they need to see and understand the frames used by subjects, characters and readers; they need to see the progress from event to event, from emotion to emotion, and from behavior to behavior – in reality, in truth, not pretended, not imagined.
In the raw. That’s where the reality of any story lies.
Here’s a quote from one of my favorite writers, Anne Lamott, in her book Bird by Bird, Some Instructions on Writing and Life:
“Because for some of us, books are as important as almost anything on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die. They are full of all the things that you don’t get in real life – wonderful, lyrical language, for instance, right off the bat. And quality of attention: we may notice amazing details during the course of a day but we rarely let ourselves stop and really pay attention. An author makes you notice, makes you pay attention, and this is a great gift. My gratitude for good writing is unbounded; I’m grateful for it the way I’m grateful for the ocean.”
The Way We See
Riding long distances with three children in the backseat of an un-air conditioned 1956 Plymouth was sometimes a trying situation and, to keep us entertained one time, my dad pointed to a fly buzzing around in the car with us. He asked how fast the fly was flying.
I cannot accurately judge the combined mental strength of the three boys in the backseat, but it was a question that made us ponder for several minutes. If the fly started with us, and then got out of the car when we stopped, then the fly must have covered the same distance during the same amount of time as we had, so it must have been flying as fast as the car was going, which was about fifty miles an hour, tops (it was a flathead six, for those of you who must know such things).
However, even to us, it didn’t seem like the fly was flying fifty miles an hour. The fly, on average, seemed a lot slower.
The explanation was offered that the fly didn’t have to fight the air resistance, so fifty miles an hour seemed reasonable. The problem was, as my mother pointed out, the fly seemed to fly just as fast going forward as it did going backward, leading to the obvious conclusion was that if it was flying fifty miles an hour going forward, then it was also flying fifty miles an hour going backwards. Also, she pointed out, when the fly lands on the back of the seat, it is not flying at all, and yet was making progress down the road.
Those of us in the backseat weren’t the sharpest tools in the shed, but it seemed we had made even less progress towards a good answer.
My dad complicated the situation. If we are inside the car with the fly and could measure its speed using a yardstick and a stopwatch, it was probably flying the usual speed of a fly, which is about 4 to 5 miles an hour (for those of you who also needed to know that it was a flathead six). On the other hand, if one of us was standing alongside the highway and measured the speed of the fly as the car zoomed by, then the fly would, indeed, be measured at the same speed as the car, plus or minus a little if it was flying forward or backward.
I think my Dad was just looking to befuddle us, which was not hard to do, but that fly has persisted in my mind to this day. To be completely honest, I still am trying to find a way to succinctly express the absolute truth about the situation.
Using the words “frame of reference” helps.
I talked about “frames” in a previous blog – how, even presented with the same scenery outside a car window, for instance, we each see different things dictated by the “frame” through which we see things. That frame is defined by our mental attitude at the time (whether looking as a videographer, a photographer, a tourist, a geologist, a historian, etc.) so that we register a different experience from the person beside us, even though we are looking at the same thing.
One class of “frames” that we commonly use is a “frame of reference”.
Remember that your algebra teacher talked about a “frame of reference” because when you draw an x-y graph (two axes crossing at right angles to each other) and you locate a point on that graph, you get a measurement for x relative to the crossing of the two axes (called the origin), measured along the x axis, and a measurement for y relative to the place where the two axes cross, measured along the y axis, and the resulting x and y measurements form the (x, y) pair that names that point. The teacher then pointed out, usually in a cavalier way, that if you moved the point of origin, then the measurements changed and the (x, y) pair had different numbers. You had changed the “reference point” of the graph.
If the teacher would have quit right there, you would have been alright: life seemed simple and straightforward. But your algebra teacher proceeded to talk about straight lines, curved lines, greater than and less than, and circles and parabolas and asymptotes and sine waves and that’s when you decided to become a writer.
See, to the writer, the fun in the backseat was not answering the question of the speed of the fly, but that the middle child would always make up an answer opposite the answer of the oldest child, who was always a foot smarter than the other two of us, while the youngest child looked at his mother with pitiful eyes, hoping she’d give him the answer. It all resulted in a barrage of “yes, it is” and “no, it’s not” and degenerated into a race of each of the three boys trying to make it to “stupid” line before the others.
Conflict! It’s what a writer lives for.
Every beginning “how to write” book will tell you that you have to have “conflict” to have a good story. A good story is always told against a backdrop of drama and using conflicting frames of reference is a standard way to get characters to battle each other. It works even better if each character has considerable investment in their own respective positions.
After a few minutes of the ensuring war in the backseat, I’m pretty sure that my Dad regretted asking the question. A minute later, he swatted the fly.
The Way We See
I was traveling with a friend the other day, passing through the Jemez Mountains on the way to Albuquerque. My friend was visiting from California and had never been in New Mexico before. I thought that driving through the mountains would be a good introduction to the range of scenery that New Mexico has.
As we were driving it made me think about how we see things.
I, being a simple person, love the complexity of the landscape: the vast meadows of the Valle Grande, the stark cliffs above Jemez Springs, the mud-colored uniformity of the Jemez Pueblo, the change from a mountain environment to the arroyo-dominated sand and sagebrush flatlands. I saw each of these as a separate gift for my eyes.
I’m not sure what he saw, because he looked mostly at the screen on his GoPro and the screen on his smart phone.
First, he is a professional videographer. That’s his business. He works in the film industry, in advertising and marketing, and in creating messages and images on the screen for video audiences. He was, in fact, during our trip, taking video that would later be part of a long production about his trip around the Southwest.
Second, I am not a videographer. I see what I saw and, though being delighted in it, have only memories, which are more and more fleeting these days. My appreciation for the sights was immediate and then faded away.
Our little trip made me think of the different ways we see things, and I want to use the word “frame” in talking about it.
We see things in “frames”. That is, if I am in a “scenery” frame of mind, then I see landscapes filled with geology, trees, animals, water features, and register what I see in terms of beauty.
If I am in a “photographer” frame of mind, then I may be mentally arranging people, things, or backgrounds so that the photograph will have more of what I think is quality or content. I’m trying to make a “better” photograph.
If I am in a “history” frame of mind, which I often am in, I see the Valle Grande and think about Spanish Land Grants. That reminds me of the struggles New Mexico continues to have with historical land ownership. I also think about Jemez Springs as being one of the choices of the Manhattan Project, and then I wonder about Pueblos having independent nation status.
If I am in a “tour guide” frame of mind, then I will be reciting stories as I drive my guest along our route.
If I’m in a “thinking” frame of mind, I may not see anything out the window. I’ll be preoccupied with thinking about something else.
My friend, I believe, didn’t see anything like I saw it, and I’m not sure he’ll remember any of my scintillating historical highlights. He was seeing scenes from a movie not yet made. He saw pieces of a video that he was collecting and I’m sure that he was already doing his first edit. He was probably already imagining the reaction of the audience to his production, as well as balancing the amount of time that his New Mexico portion of his trip will play against his Colorado portion, his Utah portion, and his Death Valley portion, all of which he’ll see on his way back to Los Angeles.
If he does remember any historical highlights, they will appear in his memory as the narration that accompanies his video.
None of this is bad. How many times have I driven somewhere over and over, and then, on a trip when I’m not driving, say, “I’ve never noticed that before!”?
It’s because we see things differently at different times.
That’s my introduction to the next few blogs. I want to talk about how we see things because, as writers, it’s our job to control the frames that appear in our stories. Whether it’s a frame that shows us who a character is by what they think, a setting that creates the backdrop of our story, or an underlying frame that supports the purpose our book, it’s up to us to make the reader see what we want them to see.
Don Willerton has been a reader all his life and yearns to write words like the authors he has read. He's working hard at it and invites others to share their experiences.