Setting the Tone

This week, my family and I visited Crazy Horse and Mount Rushmore.  In comparing the two, I found a lesson for writing.

In many ways, these two places are similar.  Both are large-scale carvings in the sides of the Black Hills, which you can see without actually visiting the sites.  Both cost money to visit (although the price and purpose of the charges are different).  Both include a museum, visitor center, sculptor’s studio, and of course, gift shop and café.  Both tell two stories: that of the sculptor, and that of the people memorialized by the monument.

Even with all of these similarities, the two feel very different.  My mom and I discussed this at length, and my general impression is the tone, and the way in which the stories are told.

Crazy Horse is busy, and not because of the number of people.  You can see the sculpture from the parking lot, but the first thing you do on arrival is go into a building and into a theater to watch a movie about the making of the monument.  After the movie, you come out into a beautiful room with windows that look over the memorial, with a scale model of the finished sculpture.  Even in that space, designed to encourage reflection, the walls are covered with pictures of donors, paintings of Native American scenes, display cases full of artifacts, and a model of how the entire space will look when complete.  The other viewing area, where the larger scale model is kept, is a lovely outdoor deck with a great view of the mountain.  In order to get there, though, you have to go through rooms filled with Native American artifacts, not to mention the gift shop.  Even the sculptor’s home and studio are visually noisy, with paintings, art, furniture, and other pieces sculpted by the artist.

Crazy Horse is trying to tell too many stories at once, so none of them come across effectively.  My strongest takeaway impression was that they depend on the public to pay for the project, and unfortunately that registered mostly as a request for money.

Mount Rushmore feels like a monument.  As you park, the presidents are visible above trees, next to a large stone entry.  Walking through the archways, you can see the sculpture framed by trees and marble.  The path, lined with flags, leads directly to the large viewing terrace.  Even though it’s filled with visitors, the experience is breathtaking.  There are also trails that lead to the base of the mountain, with additional viewing areas and signs about each of the presidents on the mountain.  The gift shops and café are literally peripheral to your experience; they are on the side of the path, behind you, and below you as you first walk out to see the mountain.  The sculptor’s studio houses only models of Mount Rushmore, with information about the process, and every building possible has windows with views of the heads.

Mount Rushmore is also telling many stories, of each of the presidents as well as the artist and the politicians who supported and funded the project.  Here they are all told as echoes of the same story: America is awesome.  I walked away feeling patriotic, inspired by the people who are represented on the mountain and the people who made it happen.

There’s a lesson here for writing, too.  We want to tell many stories, in order to make the novel layered and interesting, but we need to be careful.  The stories we choose, and the way we include them, should all work together to tell a bigger story.  We don’t want our readers feeling overwhelmed by the noise, possibly even putting the book down before the end.



Living in Other Worlds

I can’t remember a time when I lived only in this world.

Currently, of course, I mentally visit worlds created by others by reading as well as the worlds that have developed in my own mind.  Today I found myself reflecting on my childhood, and I realized that this has always been the case.

Obviously there was a time before I could read, although for me it is lost to the fog that replaces the details of early childhood.  (My mother loves to tell the tale of my indignant reaction to the first library visit in elementary school – “They made us check out a book but didn’t teach us how to read it!”)  The lack of reading skills didn’t prevent me from visiting the realms of imagination, as the adults in my life made sure to read to me often.  As soon as I could read for myself, I was never without a book (or three).

It isn’t just books, though.  The building of worlds has always been a part of my brain as well; as a child, the worlds were often based as much on history as fiction, but that doesn’t make them any less valid.  When I would play outside I would often drag my sled through the grass, crossing the prairie in a covered wagon or questing to the North Pole on a dog sled.  I collected sticks for firewood, turning bushes into my shelter, to survive being lost and alone in the woods.   My own mental adventures started out based on the lives and exploits of others, but they didn’t stay that way for long.  As I got older, this tendency to escape through books or my own imagination only grew.

When it is needed, my brain is fully involved in the real world.  I will, however, take any chance I get to escape to another place.  I can’t imagine life in only one world.

Nothing is New

Today I was reminded that there is no new tale, as every tale has already been told.  There is simply a new way of telling an old tale.

Writers, do not despair.  This does not mean that your creative efforts are in vain.  Yes, there are echoes of other stories in yours, and yes, there are similar characters and relationships.  It is this way for a reason.

Don’t think of this as copying, since it is not.  You are not telling the same story.  Rather, think of it as an ability to reach to a human truth, a universal concept to which others can identify.  It is the same as a gathering, where one personal tale leads another to tell a similar one, and another contributes their experience.

Find the right connection, the right truth or person or experience, and your tale can echo not just in other tales, but through generations as well.

Even Non-Fiction Needs Stories

I am greatly enjoying the non-fiction book that I am currently reading.  It was mentioned in an earlier post, thanks to its intriguing first sentence, and it has lived up to the promise of that opening line.

It also led to a realization for me: stories are important in non-fiction.

Obviously, these stories aren’t made up.  (Otherwise it wouldn’t be non-fiction, right?)  True stories can be just as captivating as imaginary ones, and peppering a non-fiction text with them helps bring the reader along and illustrate important points.  In the case of this book, I’ve read about Las Vegas showgirls, a battle between an eagle and a cormorant, and some of the earliest attempts at human flight.  The stories can be personal tales of the author, like the encounter with a murre in the middle of the road.  (“That’s how I found myself walking down a country lane in pitch darkness, talking soothingly to the seabird chewing on my hand.”)  They can also be true stories of others, as in the oft-repeated tale of Frank Chapman’s birding excursion in the streets of late-1800’s New York City.  On this trek, he documented over 40 native species; the birds were not on branches, but dead and mounted on hats.

Storytelling is our main way of communicating with each other, and the use of stories in non-fiction shouldn’t be surprising.  It turns out the best science (or history or any other subject) writers are as good at turning a tale as some novelists.  Theirs just happen to be true.

I Wonder…

Growing up, my mom used to start sentences with “I wonder” a lot.  We’d see a car driving north with Florida plates: “I wonder where they’re going.”  A strange dog would run through the neighborhood: “I wonder where he came from.”  We’d see an interesting grouping of people who were obviously together: “I wonder how they know each other.”  You get the idea.

Now, I have no idea if my mom’s mind continued on to explore the possibilities of her wondering.  (My mom reads the blog, so maybe she can tell us.)  As a child with a big imagination, I can tell you for sure that my mind did.  I would make up stories to follow those “I wonder” statements, and even to this day I still do.

Sometimes the stories are simple.  The lady driving up from Florida?  She’s going to visit her brother’s family in Wisconsin.

Sometimes they are elaborate.   The strange dog in the neighborhood?  He and his mama ride with a trucker who’s stopped for a while at the gas station a few blocks away.  His mama’s done this route dozens of times and knows dogs all over, but she’s too old to climb up and down at every stop anymore.  So she sends him around to visit all her friends and acquaintances, carrying her greetings and bringing back all the latest local canine gossip.

And sometimes I try to make them as outlandish as possible.  All those people together in an interesting configuration?  They work together.  As spies.  From Mars.

These creations of my imagination have proven to be rich ground for developing my writing mind.  I’m glad my mom’s offhand comments made their way into the habits of my mind!

If Dogs Could Talk, Mine Would Have a Story…

When I came home from work and got out of my car, my dog Eli walked up to me.

This doesn’t seem like an interesting beginning to a tale unless you know that when I get home, he is usually in his crate.  In my bedroom.  In my second floor apartment.  Then, you begin to realize that the dog greeting me as I leave the car sets off alarm bells.

Of course, my first thought was that my apartment was broken into.  But when Eli and I walked up to the door, it was still closed and locked.  Nothing was out of place.  It wasn’t until I went into my bedroom that the mystery was both deepened and answered.

Eli had pulled one of his pillows into his crate and shredded it.  He’d also tried to pull one of my pillows in, which didn’t work but may have aided in his collapsing the side of his crate.  That left him free in my room.

I left a window open.  It has a screen, leads onto my porch, and I wanted the airflow while I was gone.  When I checked in, the blinds were damaged and the screen was torn, meaning that Eli had gotten onto the porch through the window.

My best guess is that one of two things happened.  Either he was still so freaked out by whatever it was that he jumped through the railing to get to it, or he got stuck and couldn’t figure out how to get back in, so decided to leap for it.  He probably landed in the bushes, since he has scrapes and bruises on his face and front legs, but I’ll never know for sure why he had his adventure or how long he was outside.

In the end, I’m just happy he walked up to me.  The only time Eli’s been ‘lost’ was when my ex forgot that he left a gate open and then let the dog out into the yard.  I was really freaked out and pretty much cried the entire 45 minutes that we searched for him.  (Eli turned out to be on the next street over, apparently on his way to visit his girlfriends.)  If I had come home to the mass destruction and NO DOG, I would probably be a mess right now.

This is one of those times I wish dogs could talk.  I’d love to know what inspired his adventure!

Old Ideas, New Life

You may not know this, but Dragon was an old idea I had for a novel long before I wrote Butterflies.  I returned to it because I was re-inspired and my brain began working on the tale.

Another story morsel from days gone by has reappeared in my creative world.  Something sparked its emergence from the dark recesses of my mind and now I’m playing with names and ideas.

Of course, it’s not Chasing.  But much like Dragon, I’m tempted to let my imagination run with this.  At least then I’ll be writing again!

Now I just need to think of a nickname for the story…

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