Write a story every day, part 3: The Threat

After I encouraged you to write a short story every day, I said that finding a story concept is the easy part. What’s the hard part?

Most writers would agree that the blank page or computer screen can be terrifying. What exactly are you going to write? Will it be any good? Do you actually have something to say? And if you do say something, will people listen to you? It’s terrifying to think that nobody wants to hear what you have to say, and terrifying to think that people will indeed hear you—and disagree passionately with your precious words.

Even if you don't mean to show your writing to anybody but yourself, it’s terrifying to write. You can't fathom what is going to come out, what you’re going to say and how you’re going to say it. The unknown, the uncontrolled, the uncontrollable all lurk within.

Whether real or imaginary, these threats will always be there. The hardest thing when you write is to write despite the threats.

For me, most writing sessions start with a meditation of sorts, lasting from a few minutes up to an hour. I may be sitting at the computer or walking to a café or doing the dishes while I meditate. And the unspoken subject of the meditation is: “Do I agree to act despite all the threats? Or do I refuse to act?” The actual writing session starts when I finally agree to act.

I agree to try and write a short story about the Devil’s pedicurist in Chinatown.

I agree to try and write a scene involving the protagonist of my new novel.

I agree to try and write a blog entry.

I don’t know what’s going to come out, but I agree to it. If some awfully inept piece of writing emerges, I agree to it. If I reveal my handicaps as a writer and human being, I agree to it. If I make a fool of myself, I agree to it. If I face the unknown and it takes a bite out of my soul, I agree to it.

Day by day, page by page, I agree to face the threats. And to gain my own agreement, I must enter a particular frame of mind. I’ll tell you about it in my next blog entry (if I can get myself to agree to it).

New lessons from the balloon: The Upper Body

All right, then. You’ve been talking to a balloon and discovering plenty of things about sound and vibration. You might as well use the balloon to make other discoveries. Grab a partner for this exercise. Stand facing each other. Hold the balloon lightly in your hands, about a foot or so away from your midriff. Ask your partner to place her palms on the backs of your hands, touching you as lightly as you’re touching the balloon. Tell her to keep touching your hands steadily, then start moving the balloon slowly. It doesn’t matter how you move the balloon: turn it clock- or counterclockwise, move it away from your body or closer to it, move it up and down in space.

Watch your partner as you move the balloon. Most likely she’ll contort her whole body in an effort to follow your hands and the balloon as they move here and there. She might scrunch her head and neck, raise her shoulders, shorten one side of her abdomen, and so on. She won’t be aware of her misuse; and, once she does become aware of it, she'll claim it’s “normal” to move like that.

In truth all she needs to do is to make the articulations of her arms—from shoulders to fingertips—mobile like the joints of a marionette. Then, as you move the balloon, your partner can make constant adjustments to all her arm joints, bending or unbending each as needed, lifting or dropping her elbows, her upper arms, or her forearms. Her head, neck, and trunk don’t need to move altogether!

Take turns holding the balloon and moving it. Then make the exercise more complex. While moving the balloon, ask your partner to sing a children’s song. You’ll be amazed at the effects on her arms: she'll hold them so stiffly you won't be able to move the balloon. Her efforts at singing distract her from paying attention to her arms, and she misplaces her intentions and her energies—as we all do, more often than we care to admit.

The balloon teaches you about your perceptions of yourself and of others, your understanding of what is normal or abnormal, the working of your arm joints, the way you apportion energy and effort as you move. After working with the balloon for a while, go play your instrument—be it the cello, the piano, the oboe, or the didgeridoo—and see what you can do with the wisdom you learned from the balloon.

Write a story every day, part 2: The Trick

A few weeks ago I described how I go about writing a new short story every day: I choose a premise and improvise upon it. Coming up with premises is the easy part of the process—I’ll tell you about the hard part later. But suppose you’re stuck for a theme on which to improvise. Here are a few suggestions. Sit down with a notebook and a pencil, clear your mind, and write a story!

1. “The Devil needed a pedicure, so one Saturday morning he decided to go to Chinatown.”

2. “Snow White came home from a stroll in the forest and found a strange dwarf asleep on her bed.”

3. “One day not long ago, I received a phone call from my mother. She had been dead for twelve years.”

4. “Saint Peter got fired from his job as the gatekeeper of Heaven. It was my fault. Let me tell you exactly how it happened.”

5. “Genghis Khan had a soft spot for his pet guinea pig, until the day Fuzzy went one hair too far.”

6. “God and the serpent made a bet, the outcome of which nobody could have foreseen.”

7. “Sam Thorne woke up one day, only to discover that his entire right arm had disappeared.”

8. “The battle of the sexes started with a simple misunderstanding.”

9. “One day deep in the forest, the bear and the wolf decided to sit down and try to settle their longstanding feud. They retained me as their stenographer.”

10. “The lawyer had a throbbing toothache, so he went to see his dentist. The two of them soon regretted their fateful encounter.”

Lessons from the balloon: The Voice

For this exploration you’ll need a sound system and a balloon—a regular rubber balloon like you see at children’s parties, round and plain, blown to about the size of your head.

On your sound system, play a CD of something lively, vibrant, and variable in dynamics and tone. I love doing this exercise to the Golden Gate Quartet—four guys with very different but well-blended voices, singing tunes of a Biblical bent with tremendous rhythmic vitality. But anything sonorous will do. While the CD is playing, hold the balloon in your hands, as lightly as possible. Walk over your sound system’s speaker; stand right next to it; and place the balloon against the speaker.

The balloon captures the vibrations from the sound system and magnifies them. And the vibrations make the balloon come alive, all sounds, all voices, all musical elements making their own individual vibrations. Sound becomes tangible, something you can hold in your hands. You have to do it to believe it. And even when you do it, you won’t believe it.

After doing this for a while, turn the music off and do another exercise. Hold the balloon (always with a light touch) close to your mouth and speak into the balloon. Yep—the balloon also captures your voice and makes it tangible. Try speaking high, low, soft, and loud. Lengthen your vowels to enhance the vibrations: “Leeeeengthen your vooooooowels.” Do the exercise with a friend: ask him or her to stand facing you, the balloon between your mouths. Take turns talking. You’ll hear and feel the differences between your voices.

While talking into the balloon, push your head back and down into your neck, shortening the neck and spine. Your voice will change considerably, and so will its vibrations. I bet you’ll like your vibrations better when the neck is lengthening and the head well-poised.

Moral of the story: Each sound has its vibration, and the sounds of a well-coordinated musician have the liveliest vibrations. Become attuned to this phenomenon and you’ll develop your field of perception, your coordination, your aesthetics, and more besides.

Write a story every day, part 1: The Task

Around Christmas last year, I felt compelled to write a couple of short stories. One fictionalized my father-in-law's house in Huntington, Long Island (and I mean the house and the people in it). Another was a psychological horror story about a woman losing her mind while trying on clothes at the post-Christmas sales. Okay, maybe I don’t cope very well with the holidays. But something good came out of my distress. I enjoyed writing the stories so much that I decided to write a short story every single day, starting January 1st.

And I’ve done so, except for a couple of weeks in April when I wrote character and archetype studies instead of short stories. This is how I do it: I sit somewhere with a notebook and a pen. It could be at home, at a café, riding the subway, or—in the case of the horror story I mentioned—at Ann Taylor’s on the corner of 3rd Avenue and 52nd Street in New York, while my wife tried on clothes. I think for a moment, lasting from a few minutes up to about twenty minutes. I run a few ideas in my head, discarding the overly ambitious, the clichés, the dead ends. Then I settle on a premise, and off I go.

“Sarah Whitcombe had three fears, and three fears only.”

“The Queen of England accidentally locked herself in the bathroom.”

“The vulture and the hyena liked going out to dinner together.”

Armed with nothing but the premise, the notebook, and my imagination, I write away, essentially improvising upon the chosen theme and aiming, if possible, to create a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Some of my stories are good enough to belong in a book one day; others are unspeakably bad. But if you want to improvise freely, you need to suspend judgment and let things be. What counts isn’t the result but the process: the willingness to face the blank page every day without exception, the steady development of craft, and the insights deep into one’s own psyche. (Some of my improvisations made me afraid of myself!)

Go on. Sit down with a notebook and a pen. And let the demons come out and have their say.

Rich is better than poor

Writing manuals unfailingly tell you two things: (1) Write every day; (2) Establish a minimum daily quota—two pages, five hundred words, what you will—and meet it, come hell or high water.

For years I struggled against these tyrannical injunctions. To me the daily quota requirement felt like a small payment on a credit card with high interest rates—it doesn’t matter how often you meet the payment, you end up owing more and more. Quota = bankruptcy.

I suspect you’re just like me, passionately opposed to tyranny. And up to your eyeballs in credit-card debt.

Know what? Tyranny will always be with us, but there are ways of avoiding writer’s bankruptcy. Stop thinking like a debtor, start think like a saver.

Forget about the quota. Instead of making fixed, obligatory decisions about how much to write beforehand, look back upon the work day and survey whatever you did write. Buy an elegant little agenda covering a week on two pages—an Italian design, say, with a soft black cover and a silk page mark. Every night before you go to bed, make a brief entry on it recording what you wrote that day, with an emphasis on newly written pages. Then your output agenda will work like an old-fashioned passbook savings account, showing you the steady progress of your wealth.

I used to be an irregular writer, sometimes not writing for weeks in a row, and never knowing exactly how much I was writing and when. After I chucked the quota paradigm and started using an output agenda, I’ve become much more productive. I write new materials every day without fail; I can visualize the unfolding of each project on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis; I can catch trends, positive and negative, such as neglecting a particular project for too long. I get so much pleasure flipping through my agenda and seeing how much I’ve “earned” over the months that I feel compelled to continue writing every day.

I first read about the output agenda in Breakfast with Sharks by Michael Lent, a sympathetic writer who knows how to give constructive advice.

Stop the fight!

Tap your head with your left hand and rub your stomach with the right one, and you’ll sense the mutual influence between the right and left arms. This we call bilateral transfer—a dialogue between the two sides of the body on matters of position, movement, tension, relaxation, and balance, all of which affect the body’s overall coordination.

The legs also affect the arms, and vice-versa. Play a fast, loud passage at the piano while holding your feet off the floor. If the active support of the feet and legs is missing, the arms must work much harder. This is quadrilateral transfer—the interplay of energies between all limbs.

The dialogue between the left and right sides of the body, and between the upper and lower limbs, never stops. Like all dialogue, it can be a collaboration or a fight.

To get a fight going, hold a heavy paperback in one hand and a light bulb in the other. Each hand has a specific job to do, but each hand confuses the other and is confused by it. One hand “wants” to relax, the other “wants” to firm up. Their opposing intentions get crossed, and the body and brain go haywire.

Try another experiment. Write a short sentence by hand on a piece of paper. Now write it again, and while writing tug at your hair with the free hand. Make the tug be strong and rhythmic. You may be surprised at what happens to your handwriting. (I did this experiment with my wife, and her handwriting actually improved, becoming bolder and more legible. She did mis-spell a word or three, though.)

Because of bilateral transfer, musicians sometimes misdiagnose their technical problems, becoming convinced that the left hand, say, is to be blamed for some technical accident when in reality it’s the misuse of the right hand that causes the left hand to go awry.

Suppose a cellist is struggling with a tricky passage that challenges her left hand: a trill followed by a large shift along the fingerboard. The left hand is fast and busy, doing different things in quick succession. Meanwhile the bowing arm does something simple and steady. The average cellist focuses on the busy left hand, giving it thought and care. Naturally, her thoughts are coated in emotion: eagerness, worry, impatience, anger. At the same time, the cellist takes the right hand for granted, assuming its role is minor. The passage remains frustratingly difficult, and the cellist puts ever more energy into the left hand and involves her neck and shoulders in the effort.

But if the cellist changes her focus from her left hand to her bowing arm, bilateral transfer comes to her rescue. The right arm proclaims, “My gestures are easy, firm, intelligent; my contact with the string is stable; I have a lovely connection to the back, the pelvis, the legs, the feet, the floor.” It’s a message of intelligence and comfort, with a positive emotional charge. The left hand receives the message, absorbs it, lets itself be influenced by it—and acquires some of those universal qualities (strength, contact, connection, comfort) even though its specific tasks are different from the bowing arm’s simple gestures. As if by miracle, the passage suddenly becomes much easier to master.

In sum, bilateral and quadrilateral transfer are both potentially harmful or constructive, depending on how you go about it.