On THE ARTIST’S WAY and the Truth in Fiction

I’ve kept the Post-It from September 2005

I’ve mentioned before that I attended a diversity program called “Women Supporting Women” in late September 2005. When I declared to the other participants in that program, “I will write a book before I die,” one of the women in the group handed me a Post-It note. On that Post-It, she wrote a quote from Julia Cameron, “Sudden problems in my life usually indicate a need to work on my art.” She also jotted down the titles of two of Cameron’s books, The Artist’s Way, and Walking in the World, and recommended I read them.

I wasn’t sure I had “sudden problems” in my life, though I did feel I was at a crossroads. So, as a good student, when I returned home, I went to the library and checked out The Artist’s Way. It appeared to be a book that might be helpful to me as I flailed at how to become the writer I wanted to be. Its exercises were as much about self-awareness as they were about artistic endeavors.

I quickly realized I would need my own copy of the book to highlight and mark up. I bought myself a copy and worked through it in some detail. Over the next year, I also bought Walking in the World and Vein of Gold, both by Julia Cameron, and a few years later when she published Finding Water, I bought it.

In the twelve years since I attended that diversity program, I have read all four of these books at least twice (as well as a couple of Cameron’s other books). Most of them I’ve read three or four times. I’ve highlighted my copies until there is as much yellow as white on the page, and their paperback spines are all broken.

While it would be an overstatement to say the books changed my life, they certainly have contributed to my growth as a writer. First, they encouraged me to proclaim I am a writer—which is very difficult for beginning writers to do. Second, they told me to do a little bit every day—write three pages, take one small step toward my goal, do something physical or repetitive with my hands or legs when I’m stuck creatively. Third, they provided tools for me to use in examining my life, in determining where I’m on track and where I need to change.

I was already journaling before I read The Artist’s Way, but Cameron’s encouragement of daily “morning pages” made me a more faithful scrivener. When I retired from my job at the end of 2006, I made a commitment to write in my journal every day, and I haven’t missed more than three or four days a year for the last eleven years—I don’t always write in the morning and I don’t always write as much as she recommends, but I write. The exercises in Cameron’s books have provided topics to write about when I’ve felt empty. As she says in her books, when the same subjects come up over and over in morning pages, it’s a signal that area of my life needs to change. (And there are always a few areas of my life I need to change.)

I’ve been less diligent about incorporating her concept of “artist dates” into my life. These are weekly times of play, where one goes on a small, solitary expedition to fill one’s creative well—anything from a concert at the Philharmonic to browsing through a fabric store (I’ve done both on my artist dates). Even though I don’t go on artist dates regularly, I’m more aware now of when I could use a shot in the arm, when I need exposure to something different and playful in my life.

Earlier this year I read through The Artist’s Way and did many of its exercises for at least the fourth time. What amazed me was how much I’d grown since the first time in late 2005 or early 2006. The first time I worked my way through the book, I was not at all certain that I could be a writer, nor did I know how to go about making myself into one. I needed Camerons encouragement. During the years, I have become a writer, and I’m proud of myself.

This time, I focused on the spiritual aspect of the artist’s journey. I wrote the following affirmations to myself:

1. God intends me to have a writing life, to be a writer, at least at this stage of my life.
2. My stories speak of human frailty and fallibility, of people trying to do their best, sometimes succeeding and sometimes failing—as such, they speak the truth.

Those statements are far too wordy to be memorable affirmations that I can use when I need to give myself a pep talk. So I shortened them:

1. I am a writer.
2. My stories speak the truth.

It may seem strange that I write fiction, yet tell myself “my stories speak the truth.” But fiction is only good if it faithfully portrays the human condition within the confines of a story with a beginning, middle, and end. As such, fiction often clarifies the truth in ways that real life cannot. After all, everyone reading this has not yet experienced the end of life’s story.

I’m not done with my journey along the Artist’s Way. As Cameron says in the epilogue to that book, “Growth is a spiral path, doubling back on itself, reassessing and regrouping.” I will probably reassess my life and my work using her exercises in the future, and I hope twelve years from now I can see that I have grown even more.

What affirmations do you tell yourself? And when have you found that fiction speaks the truth?

Memories: A Creative Blend of Fact and Fiction

Many of the posts on this blog are about my memories. My theme, after all, is “one writer’s journey through life and time.” And what is our journey, if not a collection of memories?

Last week, the Wall Street Journal published an article entitled “The Value of a Flawed Memory,” by Sue Shellenberger. The thrust of the article was that even inaccurate memories help shape who we are.

Ms. Shellenberger writes:

“A growing number of researchers say memories are not just a storehouse for facts but also a creative blend of fact and fiction that helps people tell meaningful stories about their lives, set goals and envision the future in a realistic way.

“It is commonly believed that storing a memory is like making a video, but long-term memories are never literal replays. They’re mental constructions of facts, inferences and imagined details that people patch together after the fact.”

A creative blend of fact and fiction. A mental construct patched together of facts, inferences, and imagined details. It sounds so amorphous. Yet this is who we are—this weaving of what really happened, what we think happened, and perhaps even what we wish had happened.

As a lawyer, I saw many examples where two credible witnesses swore that opposite events had occurred—the light was red, no it was green. I have experienced this in my own memories as well, where one family member recalls something one way, and another recalls it completely in reverse.

T 17 mo & M 2 wks

Me at 17 months, and my newborn brother

I have memories that probably are not really memories. For example, my younger brother was born when I was just seventeen months old. It’s doubtful I have any real memory of when he was born. Yet I can feel myself sitting in the chair with him when he was just days old—the shiny chintz of the fabric cover, the soft flannel of his pale blue blanket. And I hear my grandmother telling me what a good big sister I am.

Could this be real? Or did I construct it later from the picture and from the constant retellings of the story by my parents and grandparents?

Does it matter? The Shellenberger article is quite clear—it doesn’t matter. Whether our memories are accurate or inaccurate, real or imagined, psychologists say they shape us. They form our self-identity. They help us set our goals in life. They create cohesion in our lives and help us make sense of the world around us.

So whether I remember my brother’s birth or not, the story became that I was a good big sister.

I write novels (fiction) and memoir (non-fiction). But I keep my novels historically accurate and I embellish my memories in this blog to tell a story. As I wrote in one early post, the French use the same word “histoire” for both fiction and history. Similarly, “mémoire” in French can mean memory or report.

The line between fact and fiction is blurry. Sometimes the blurring just happens. Sometimes we blur it on purpose.

When have your memories turned out to be false? Does it matter?

Real Life Does Not Make Good Narrative

burroway coverI’ve been reading Janet Burroway’s book, Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. I started it a few months back, and every so often I dip into it again. I’m not reading it linearly. I started with the chapters on character, then moved to theme and setting, and last week I read the first chapter of the book on “The Writing Process.”

In that chapter, Burroway discusses the old advice to write what you know. She says that writing exactly what happened to you at a particular time is the least likely way to produce good fiction (her emphasis). She states:

“To the extent you want to capture ‘what really happened,’ you remove your focus from what will work as narrative.”

That sentence stopped me cold and made me think.

Burroway goes on to say,

“Between the fiction writer and reader it is the revelation of meaning through the creation of character, the vividness of scene, the effect of action that take priority over ordinary veracity.”

Writers, think about that. What happens to us in real life does not make good narrative. When we attempt to recount the literal truth, we lose the story and its meaning. Only by shaping our narrative can we get at what matters.

Real life doesn’t have a story arc. It doesn’t have characters designed to reveal a theme or an archtype. (Real people are too complex and inconsistent to be good fictional characters). Our real life takes place in settings that are messy and usually mundane.

Writers have to shape real life to make it into story. Burroway focuses on fiction writing, but she acknowledges that even in memoir and other nonfiction writing, which must “maintain a basis in fact,” some shaping is necessary to make it compelling to read.

“Even the most factual account of a personal experience involves choices and interpretations—your sister’s recollection of the same event might be entirely different.”

I repeat: What happens to us in real life does not make good narrative. As we tell our stories, whether we are telling them to ourselves, to friends and family, or fictionalizing them, we are making choices. We edit as we tell the story. And that becomes the basis for our memories, our myths, and our epics. There’s a reason that in French “histoire” means both story and history. Both story and history come from our editing of real life.

As I write about my life for this blog, I have found this to be true on a small scale. Some of my posts contain “truthy” dialogue—true to the spirit of what happened and how I and my family members interacted. But rarely could I attest that the words in quotes were actually spoken. Still, adding the dialogue makes a better story.

In other posts, where I’ve tried to be more factual, I find I’m fighting boredom—mine in writing about the event, and most likely the reader’s in reading about it. Sometimes humor doesn’t translate without the backstory. Sometimes an event that was meaningful to me seems pointless as I try to tell it to others. There’s no story in my telling, unless I reshape history.

I’ve written before that one nice thing about writing fiction is that I can make up the facts. I’m not bound to the literal truth, as I was as an attorney making a case. I can edit out the extraneous and the inconvenient.

And so I do, both in this blog and in my novels.

Our stories are more meaningful when we shape them, for ourselves and for each other. Unfortunately, we must always come back to real life. It may not make good narrative, but it has to be encountered and embraced as it is.

When have you edited a story from your life for others?

What Is Story (Redux)? . . . And a Sense of Urgency

My first post on this blog went live in January 2012, but I didn’t start a regular posting schedule until March of that year, so I consider March my blog’s anniversary. This blog is now three years old.

I deliberately set the blog’s theme “Story and History” to be broad enough to let me write about almost anything I wanted. My first post was titled “What is Story?” and began:

This blog is about story and history — my story, the stories in my historical and contemporary writing, and the stories of the world as it was and is.

How am I doing on my plan to write about my story, the stories in my writing, and the stories of the world around me?

My posts deal much more with my family than I anticipated, and less about my writing and about the world as I see it (though I’ve covered a lot of Oregon Trail and Gold Rush history in my posts).

Perhaps I focus on family because of what I’ve had to deal with over the last three years—my mother’s decline due to Alzheimer’s, her death last summer, and my father’s sudden death in January. Perhaps I’ve focused on family because to tell my story necessitates that I write about the people who made me the way I am—which began with family. My story requires writing my own history.

Perhaps I don’t write about my writing, because the last few years have been a struggle to feel productive as a writer. I’ve been on too many boards and committees, and I’ve had too many family issues to spend the creative time writing that I want.

Nevertheless, I have accomplished certain goals in the last three years. When I began this blog, I had not yet published a novel. I accomplished that life goal in late 2013 (under a pseudonym).

Now my goal is to publish at least two more novels—the two on the Oregon Trail and California Gold Rush that I have drafted. I am confident I will meet this goal, though my timeline has been much slower than I had hoped.

MC900149882As I wrote on January 28 of this year, I am editing my first Oregon Trail novel again, hoping to whip it into publishable shape. I am proud to report that as of last week, I had edited about 60% of it for my critique group, and I’ve got it below 130,000 words. (I’d like to end up around 120,000 words, but I think it’s going to be 125,000 or so.)

My critique group has been through a little more than a third of the book. As soon as I finish my edit for them, I’ll go back to incorporate their comments into the novel. I still hope to have all that done by Labor Day.

The good news is that as I edit I still like the book. The bad news is I still have a lot of work to do.

I have a greater sense of urgency now than I did three years ago. As I said, my father died suddenly in January. My husband had a good friend who was in his early sixties who died later that month. Last week one of my critique group partners died after open-heart surgery.

We know not the hour.

And yet, we plan as if we have time. Life is a balance between striving for more and being ready.

In March 2012, I wrote about achieving our dreams by telling our stories. I haven’t achieved my dreams yet, but I will continue to tell my stories.

I wrote in another post in March 2012:

My challenge to you today is to ask yourself:

— What is your future story?

— What do you want your life to be in five or ten years?

I leave you with these same questions again today.

From the Perspective of a Point of View Nazi

Point of View Anchor Chart

Point of View anchor chart, from Teaching with a Mountain View

In my critique group, I’m known as the point of view Nazi. I am usually the one to notice when a writer has crept from one character’s point of view to another’s in the same scene. And I usually push my writing partners to go deeper into their protagonist’s point of view, showing not only action but also thoughts and feelings of the main character.

Point of view (POV) is defined as the eyes through which we see the action of a story. Selecting the point of view character is one of the most important decisions a writer makes. Usually, it is best to write a scene from the point of view of a character with a strong stake in the outcome of the scene. However, some writers choose to use a character who is more emotionally detached to provide a more objective perspective.

There are several points of view that writers typically use:

1. Omniscient (where the author flows from one character’s point of view to another within the same scene). Sometimes the author includes his or her own editorializing about what’s going on. This is an “anything goes” point of view, but readers may have trouble following what the author is saying.

2. First person (which forces the writer to stay in one character’s head at a time). This provides immediacy and depth, but restricts the action to scenes where that character is present.

3. Distant third person (where the author describes action from one character’s point of view, but doesn’t show much of that character’s thoughts or emotions). This POV is like writing through a camera on the character’s shoulder.

4. Close third person (which does go into the point of view character’s thoughts and feelings). This POV is more like writing through a chip implanted in the character’s brain.

Occasionally, an author will use a second person point of view, but the four options above are most typical. Moreover, the omniscient POV was more frequently used in the 19th century than in today’s writing.

Some writers stay in a single character’s point of view throughout an entire novel. Others move from one POV character in one scene to another character in the next scene.

Most writing instructors tell authors not to change points of view in the middle of a scene. When writers violate this “rule” of one POV character per scene, my POV Nazi hackles rise, even though the only real rule for writing a book is that there are no rules.

And most of the time in short stories, writers stick to a single POV character throughout the whole story, because the length of the piece doesn’t permit much character development otherwise.

Woman with typewriter.I’ve found that writers run into POV problems most frequently when they slip into the omniscient point of view from first or third person. All of a sudden, the reader is thrown out of the head of the original POV character and is seeing the scene from someone else’s point of view or from outside the scene (as if viewing from the GoodYear blimp). This gives my POV Nazi vertigo.

When I write, I find the following techniques useful to stay in one character’s point of view:

Point_of_viewFirst, I put myself in one character’s head and tell the story from that character’s perspective ONLY. It helps me to pretend that that character has a camera on his or her shoulder, like a cinematographer. In essence, I become that character while I write the scene. I only see and hear and smell and taste what that person sees and hears and smells and tastes.

Next, after I’ve written the scene, I go back to add in that character’s thoughts and emotions—whatever I imagine that character thinking or feeling. The setting and the action of the scene ought to evoke some reaction or response from the POV character, and that’s what I layer on my story, like icing on a cake. They might be feeling something in response to what they are sensing (the weather, sounds, smells, etc.), or they might be thinking about something in their past, or they might be thinking about something as irrelevant as how nice a piece of buttered toast would taste at the moment.

If I were really good, I could include these thoughts and emotions in as I write the scene the first time. But I find that I usually have to get the action down on paper first, then layer in more about my character’s thoughts and feelings.

One of the things I struggle with the most as a writer is getting into my characters’ emotions. Maybe it’s because I’m so into my characters that I think everyone should know what they’re feeling—after all, I know, so it should be obvious to my readers! Or maybe it’s because I’m an “S” not an “F” on the Myers-Briggs scale, and I have trouble expressing my own feelings. Nevertheless, my writing is better when I take the time to dig more deeply into my POV character’s head.

I’ve heard writers argue that writing from only one character’s point of view at a time limits what they can describe in the scene. Yes, it does. A writer has to be willing to do that. Some writers aren’t, and they write in omniscient point of view. But I find the omniscient point of view annoying—all that flitting from head to head—which is why I’m a point of view Nazi.

One way around the limited perspective of first or third person is to have other characters interact with the POV character during most scenes in the story. The other characters have some reaction or response to what the POV character says or does. The actions and dialogue of other characters adds their perspectives to the story, but ONLY in ways that the POV character can see or hear.

Keep in mind that not everything can be done in dialogue. I’ve seen some writers overuse dialogue where narration would work better.

Writers, what helps you stay in the point of view you have chosen for your story?

Haunting Book: The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak

Book Thief coverI’ve posted about other haunting books set during wartime (see here and here). The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak, is as haunting as any of those featured in my earlier reviews.

A writer friend of mine gushed one day, “You’ve got to read The Book Thief. It’s so wonderful. And I am the Messenger. Zusak’s language is so good. Every writer should read them.”

She is someone whose opinion I value, so I tried The Book Thief. It was wonderful—beautiful language, a poignant and riveting story. I wasn’t so crazy about Zusak’s first novel, I Am the Messenger. The Australian writer Zusak was more successful in portraying Nazi Germany than in writing about his native country.

The Book Thief is the story of a young girl, Liesel Meminger, whose mother sent her to live with a foster family in Germany during World War II. She is the book thief of the title and steals books from a wealthy woman in town. Her foster family also harbors a Jewish man, and much of the novel deals with the relationship between Liesel and the Jewish Max Vandenburg.

Although the novel has been marketed to a young adult audience, it is a dark and tragic tale, and the narrator is Death. Some readers think Zusak’s choice of perspective is weird, but it worked for me. Death stalks the characters from the very beginning of the story, when Liesel’s little brother dies and she steals her first book, The Gravediggers Handbook. Death is omniscient, while a human character would not be, allowing for a rich story that sees more than Liesel possibly could.


The characters in The Book Thief were unique: Liesel herself, trying to survive her childhood during wartime; Rosa Hubermann, the gruff foster mother who worries about feeding the child; Hans Hubermann, the artistic foster father who worries he cannot feed Liesel’s spirit and so teaches her to read; the Jewish refugee Max Vandenburg who also feeds Liesel’s love of books; the neighborhood rapscallion Rudy Steiner, as trapped by the war as Liesel is; and the rich mayor’s wife Ilsa Hermann who permits Liesel to steal books from her library.

Death himself is a compelling character. Who knew Death has such a wry sense of humor? He tells us early on:

You are going to die.

In The Book Thief, Death is overworked in wartime and compassionate toward his customers, not the Grim Reaper of Ingmar Bergman films. He needs a vacation and a distraction. Death explains himself:

. . . why does he even need a vacation? What does he need distraction from?
. . .
It’s the leftover humans.
The survivors.
They’re the ones I can’t stand to look at, although on many occasions I still fail.
. . .
It’s the story of one of those perpetual survivors–an expert at being left behind.
It’s just a small story really, about, among other things:
* A girl
* Some words
* An accordionist
* Some fanatical Germans
* A Jewish fist fighter
* And quite a lot of thievery

That, in a nutshell, is the story.

The childhood friendship between Liesel and Rudy develops into puppy love (more on Rudy’s side than on Liesel’s), and the reader yearns for their adolescent infatuation to mature into adulthood. Even Death seems to root for them. But will they survive the war to let it happen?

Although the plotline is often harsh, the moments of kindness in The Book Thief give the tale a humanity—even from Death—that I found both tragic and sweet. Zusak writes about the randomness of life and about how we can change its course through how we treat others. His prose is unsentimental and lyrical, tragic and sweet.

Not everyone dies in the course of the novel, though Death does greet many of the characters. I won’t tell you who dies and who survives. All I’ll say is that I cried.

The Book Thief makes a strong case for the power of words and of writing to maim and to save. As Hitler’s Mein Kampf killed a nation and much of a continent, so Max’s words and Liesel’s own become balm for the soul.

I have not seen the movie, but I’d like to see how much of the mood of the novel was retained. The book has almost 70,000 reviews on Goodreads, so I won’t go into any more detail; you can read about it there. I’ll just say, every writer should read The Book Thief.

What book would you recommend to writers?

Musings On My 250th Post

wordpress image 2WordPress keeps excellent statistics for bloggers, and so I realized recently that today’s post would be my 250th post. This milestone seemed worthy of comment.

I’ve been blogging for about two-and-a-half years, for most of that time twice per week. I’ve written before about lessons I’ve learned blogging, and I wrote recently about the value of blogging. I won’t repeat what I said in those posts.

I will say, however, that blogging regularly for so long has taught me the difficulty of writing well consistently. I am very proud of some of my posts, but others feel like they were dashed off to fill the space. (And some were.)

Unlike with novels—which take months and years—or short stories—which take days or weeks—my blog posts get no more than a couple of quick rewrites after the initial draft. I need to have a theme for the post and tell the story almost right the first time.

Blogging has taught me to write quickly and to a deadline. I’d learned these lessons at other times in my life, such as when writing briefs as an attorney with a heavy caseload, or when editing employee communications with a fast turn-around time. But on this blog there is no one else to cover for me, to fill in when too many priorities compete for my time.

What I am most proud of is that I have kept to my blogging schedule despite deaths, illnesses, injuries, holidays, and the general frenzy of life.

I set out when I retired from the corporate world to become a writer.

Writers write.

I am writing, therefore I am a writer.

I have kept the commitment to myself to write.

And I appreciate you, as readers, coming back to greet me post after post.

It amazes me how readers find this blog. Some of you are friends, but some of you happened upon the blog after typing some odd query into a search engine.

lbffWordPress provides me with a list of queries that people have used to find my blog. Among the top queries WordPress reports—other than the to-be-expected query “theresa hupp blog”—are “little bunny foo foo origin,” “family pictures”, “banana cream pie history,” and “accidents on the oregon trail.”

Funny what people search for on the Internet, but all of these topics have been the subject of posts I have written. (Well, maybe not the history of banana cream pie, but I have written about making such a pie.)

Here are a few of the oddest queries that have recently led readers to me:

  • “name a tall tree family feud”
  • “tomboy with broken leg”
  • “leg xray copy indian”
  • “can i leave my husband when he is studying for the bar exam”

I can guess which posts these queries picked up, but I don’t really want to be known as a source of wisdom for women wanting to leave their husbands during the bar review process. After all, I stuck by mine . . . and he stuck by me.

Still, writers are grateful for readers, wherever they come from.

What led you to find my blog? Whatever it was, thank you . . . and please come back!