Mar 04

Beating a Dead Horse

Cliches! Oh how we writers hate them and are horrified when we find ourselves using them. We do everything we can to banish them from our heads. But this may be the very reason they have such power over us–the forbidden is always that which arises first, I’ve noticed. So I say write them down. I’m not saying use them, but you have to get them out before you can find the fresh take.

When the words are flowing for me, I put down the dreaded cliche (or equally dreaded almost-right word) and make it red. Then, the next day, I just riff on those words or cliches. I write down everything I think of in the riffage session because what starts to happen is the words go deeper. They start to line up and suggest other words and ideas. And when I have a whole string–I’ve had as many as thirty words in a row–I start to look at the chain I’ve made.

Red words!

Is there some deeper idea I’m actually getting at? Is there some other feeling I’ve masked up to now by the “wrong” cliche or word choice? Is my character screaming and holding a huge sign that says “I AM ACTUALLY SAYING THIS!” What is the story trying to tell me?

This is why those long word/idea strings are so important. If you just run through them in your head, you’ve lost your whole train of thought. And that train is leading you somewhere. You need to be able to see all the cars because the thing you’re looking for is the engine.

The engine is what’s really at the heart of your story. It’s the emotion that’s fueling the story in the first place. You might think it’s ridiculous not to know what that is–if you’re writing the story, you must know what it’s about, right?–but, just like in real life, there is what’s happening on the surface, and there’s what’s really going on underneath, and it’s not always easy to find, or face, what that is.

Sometimes you realize the engine is actually parts of two or three of the ideas you’ve recorded. Sometimes in the list of wrong words, looking up more synonyms for that one that showed up three times reveals the engine. And sometimes the engine can only show up because you’ve gotten those thirty other words out of the way.

The more you struggle with finding the right word, the more familiar you get with that itchy feeling that arises when it’s not the right word. That itchy feeling is a signal–you’re on the wrong track. You’re not yet clear about what’s really going on in your story.

Because ultimately, you’re not really struggling to find the right word. You’re struggling to find out which deep, quite voice inside you is fighting to get itself on the page. And all those red words are the barriers we put between us and what shows up when we turn over the rocks in our souls. No wonder I’ve got strings of thirty words! Give me words, dear god, so I don’t have to look at the creepy crawly things that live in the dark of my mind.

Sometimes the engine takes its time showing up. I’ve had stories with several word/idea strings in them up to the final edit. For those tough ones, I know there’s something not clear in my exploration of what that story is really about. (Dialogue in your final scene is another indicator of trouble–if you can’t decide what a character should say, something’s not clear!) If everything was clear and flowing the way it should be, I would know what word was needed.

That’s when I start again at the beginning of the story. We are building themes, symbols, and meaning from the first word on the page–we are expressing a deep emotional truth–and in a well-strung-together story each word and idea leads to the next and follows from what came before. If I can find those breaks in the links, understand what they’re really calling for, and fix them, often by the time I get to that red train, it’s obvious what word or idea needs to be there. But I can’t be afraid of diving into my own swirling inner world.

“Wrong word/idea,” then, is not just a stylistic choice. It’s also a red flag for something you haven’t yet understood about what you’re really trying to do. And cliches, then, are even worse–they’re the short-cuts writers use to avoid a truly examined life.

But what of the power of cliches? There’s no denying their power to evoke. And a brilliant writer can tap that power and use it to make a ho-hum image indelibly imprinted on the reader’s mind; but only if he or she can bring that inner world to bear upon it.

Cliches are the only way to tap into your reader’s mind and know what you’re going to get. And that’s where we can slam the engine they think they’re driving into the rock wall of their own expectations. Take this one from Margaret Atwood:

“You fit into me

like a hook into an eye

a fish hook

an open eye.”

Aw, that’s so sweet! says her reader after the first two lines. As writers, we know exactly what that reader is thinking: they’re lovers, they’re meant for one another, the reader can safely assume a hundred thousand things about how they function together as a couple.

And then the mental image formed by the last two lines.


From “warm fuzzy relationship” to horror story in six words and the reader’s imagination. The second image is as powerful as it is because of two things: the power of the feelings evoked by the initial cliche, and the power of Atwood’s ability to nail those feelings most of us shy away from.

Try and get that image out of your head. It’s been in mine for twenty years.

Feb 15

Bullshit stories

It’s rare that someone looks you in the eye and tells you the truth.

I don’t mean about the little things, like “Does this soup need salt?” or “Do you, um, know what happened to my shoes?”–I mean the big things.

I was talking with a friend recently about a dynamic that frustrates me in my relationship with my husband and I got to that most common of phrases, “I mean, what’s up with that?”

He paused for a moment, a look of wry amusement on his face, and said, “You’re a bitch, Theresa. That’s what’s up with that.”

It was so unexpected, so honest about that dynamic, and so undeniably true I burst out laughing. How could I not? He’d hit the nail on the head, squarely, and I could either waste a ton of energy denying it and taking it personally and shooting the messenger or I could use that shock to crack open a possibility in my relationship I hadn’t seen before.

I had the same response when I saw this picture:


Oh yeah baby! It was another one of those moments where I encountered something and within seconds its tentacles had slithered through my entire head, connecting everything together in a new and undeniable way.

We all have a bullshit story. It’s that tiny, poisonous whisper that most of the time we don’t even hear anymore, but that still has the power to bring us to a complete standstill in life:

“I’m not lovable.” “I deserve to be treated badly.” “I’m not allowed to exist.” “Whatever anyone does to me is fine because I’m a bad person.” “If I stick up for myself, I’ll get killed.” “It’s too scary to try. Just don’t.” “Being open with people hurts too much.”

There are thousands of others but they all boil down to the same thing–stay safe. Curl into a ball and don’t risk sticking your neck out.

And if you’re a writer and you’re not aware that that voice is there and how it affects you, the things you write may be technically good–great–even brilliant, but they won’t touch anyone (talk about bullshit stories). Readers will move through your story, laugh, feel the tension, maybe even cry a bit if something sad happens, but your words won’t snake into them, curl around their hearts, and wake them up at night because there’s something there that affects them, too, a niggling little feeling that what’s happening on the page isn’t isolated to the page, that it’s actually happening to them, right here, right now, and they’d better pay attention.

Great literature does this. J.D. Salinger, Margaret Atwood, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry Miller, Jennifer Egan, John Steinbeck, Kate Chopin, George Orwell, Orson Scott Card, Barbara Kingsolver, Zora Neale Hurston, Flannery O’Connor, Shirley Jackson, Joyce Carol Oates, I could go on and on (and I’m not even listing the non-fiction writers who do this, like Nietzsche and Heidegger and Kierkegaard, to name a few), but the thing that makes them great, besides an obvious level of mastery of their craft, is that they aren’t speaking from their bullshit stories.

When I read these writers, I’m not just reading a story. I’m seeing the machinery inside all of us. I’m getting an in-depth picture of what it looks like to live out a bullshit story and what it takes to break free of it.

My contention has always been that literature is a conversation, not a lecture. As a reader it’s my responsibility to join in by bringing to bear all my experiences in life and seeing what that author has to say about them. When I engage this conversation, I have a chance to engage amazing minds who have thought deeply about what it takes to be human and what we need to do to reach that goal.

Hamlet: everyone talks about his hesitation, and how relieved they are when he finally acts at the end. But when I join in that conversation, with the benefit of my own bullshit stories squarely in my sights, I see the true tragedy of a man lost in his head, completely unable to connect to his heart, to the extent that he sacrifices everyone he loves, including himself. To me, Shakespeare is screaming a warning of one of the great dangers of his, and our, age: beware the death of the heart under the tyranny of the intellect.

As someone who spent most of her adult life living from her head, completely shut down emotionally, I feel the seriousness of this warning and see the impact of losing sight of one’s heart all over my life. Here be tragedy, indeed.

When I read The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood, I threw the book across the room when I finished because I thought she’d completely cheated me as a reader by how it ended. Who couldn’t see that the Painballers deserved to be killed in a long, drawn-out manner? But I was haunted by that ending. Atwood is a master at this kind of conversation and I knew something deeper was happening there.

Throughout the book, I was rooting for the good people, gnashing my teeth until I got the pleasure of seeing the bad people die. And the Painballers–they’re so bad–they kill people, rape women, turn women into sexual slaves; they’re vicious beasts with no redeeming human qualities–you just feel yourself go rabid with wanting their death. And in the end, Ren and Toby have the perfect opportunity to kill two of them….and they DON’T.

This isn't me. It's my soul screaming at the injustice of them living.

But what I got was that throughout the whole book I’d been identifying with the good characters because that’s how I see myself. I’d been horrified by the bad men, disgusted and afraid of them…..and at the end of the book, my blood lust at wanting them to die? I WAS THEM. I was not like Toby at all. Given the chance to forgive and uplift or crush and destroy, I’d chosen to crush and destroy.

It was a watershed moment for me, as a writer and a person. As a writer, what an amazing amount of trust Atwood placed in her readers. How many got no further than their reactions to the end and swore never to read another Atwood novel? How skilled do you have to be to write a story that is so physically embodied by your readers they may not even notice which character they’re actually emulating?

And as a person, I had the devastation of seeing one of my bullshit stories so strongly there was no way I could turn away from it. I wanted to kill the Painballers in exactly the ways they’d killed people throughout the book. As horrified as I was by them, they are in me, and if I don’t pay attention to that, that poisonous whisper could wreak havoc in all sorts of situations.

I’m not saying I’m going to go out and kill anyone, but that “killer instinct,” that desire to destroy someone, that’s a feeling I’m all too familiar with. It comes up, for instance, when I get hurt emotionally or when I think someone’s done something to make me look stupid. My mind goes into overdrive figuring out ways to make sure that person goes DOWN–I am cutting, rude, snide….a bitch. And here we are full circle, a poisonous whisper traced both through honest friendship and amazing literature.

So in terms of writing and life (some claim there is no distinction there ;) ), you can’t put a better poster on your wall than the one above. We can write things that do nothing but scream our bullshit stories–or we can write things that expose those stories, rip them open, and chart them so others can lay that map over themselves and see something, too.

Being a writer is a service to the greater good of humanity. That’s a grandiose statement, but look at the list of names that back it up.