Gateways to the Divine

Sunday, May 26, 2013
I finished reading Julia Cameron's Walking in This World this past week. This is the third in her series that started with The Artist's Way. I've written about The Artist's Way and how much it has influenced me in my writing journey before. It's been several years since I read that book and, as I was struggling with plotting the sequel to Faith, Hope, and Murder, I thought I might benefit from more of Julia's wisdom.

I was right.

Creatives are different from other people. On the one hand, they feel the need to make things, whether that be a song or a novel or a painting or a sculpture or a recipe. They feel restless and uneasy when they do not create. On the other hand, they often reach a point in that new creation--sometimes even before they start--where they feel that it's not working, that they'll never be able to create a work of art again. Creative people are filled with fear and doubt.

Julia Cameron addresses those fears and doubts in her books on creativity. I think one of the most important results of this is knowing you're not alone in how you feel. We're surrounded by people who don't understand our need to create. A spouse questions why we need to go to the computer or the studio after dinner instead of watching TV with him or her. Friends think writers who write full time during the day don't "work" and so ask them to pick up the kids at school or volunteer for a project that will suck up writing time or just call to chat. We resent this, but feel we're wrong to feel that way.

She also gives you specific tasks to complete that address the issues creative people face. Feel stuck? Make a list of small creative things you could do. These include putting photos in an album or re-potting a plant. Feeling down on yourself? Make a list of ten positive adjectives to describe yourself. Feel like it's wrong to be selfish about taking time for yourself and your art? Make short lists of what you'd like to try, to own, to be if you allowed yourself to do so.

In addition to her creativity tools of writing morning pages and taking an artist's date once a week to "fill the well," Julia Cameron adds the artist's walk in this book. This is a walk once a week in a quiet place to be alone with your thoughts and listen.

Listen to whom? The Great Creator, as Julia calls that spiritual power. Because, in this book, she develops the idea that all creative endeavors come from somewhere outside yourself. This is often referred to as the Muse, or, as Stephen King puts it, the boys in the basement. Every writer knows that their ideas are not entirely their own. While you might start with something as logical as a writing prompt, at some point in the process, art flows from God into you.

We used to have a more conscious recognition of this. From cave paintings that expressed the prayer for a successful hunt to the masterpieces of the Renaissance, art was created for the glory of God. I often think that the fact that I started writing again at the same time I began to rediscover my faith was no coincidence. I didn't realize it at first, but it's become obvious that once I started listening to God, I was able to hear the stories I wanted to tell.

Thinking of it in these terms, that, as Julia says, all art is a form of prayer, takes the ego out of the creative process. I want to write. I want to be published. I want to make money from my writing. All of those sound selfish. But thinking of writing as communion with the Great Creator and knowing that is what really drives me is a revelation. A calling, if you will. I've started to think of my writing as an act of the soul. And a gateway to the divine.

Is It A Book or A Movie?

Sunday, May 19, 2013
I recently took a class on story structure for novels and, for about the thousandth time, wondered whatever happened to studying books in order to write books. I blame Christopher Vogler, who wrote a wonderful book called The Writer's Journey. Vogler is a Hollywood consultant who was (and is) called in to save movie scripts. He had noticed that all successful scripts could be seen as following Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces. This structure is also referred to as The Hero's Journey. Vogler's theory is that ALL movies (and, by extension, stories) can be seen in light of a series of specific events. In his book, he illustrates this with movies as different as Star Wars (an obvious example) and Romancing the Stone (not so obvious). Writers latched on to this guaranteed formula to a successful story.

And it wasn't only scriptwriters. Novelists found Vogler's book invaluable in plotting their stories. I was one of the ones who embraced his theory with great enthusiasm.

The thing is, while stories in all forms have much in common, the medium they're told in, whether as a movie or a novel or a poem or a ballad or even a mural like Guernica, changes the details of how they're told. Not everything is a movie.

But teachers of classes on plotting tend to think it is. A couple of years ago I took a plotting class and the teacher informed us in advance she would be using three movies to illustrate plotting. She recommended that, if we hadn't seen them before, we watch them before the class began. In that way we'd have a common basis from which to discuss the class lessons. And that worked for me at that time.

This year, however, I was looking for a bit more in terms of plotting my latest mystery. For one thing, a series mystery doesn't follow the Hero's Journey plot format as closely. For another, there are specific requirements of the genre that have their own challenges. Above all, a mystery is a puzzle. Modern cozy mysteries have added other elements, specifically a romance subplot and a tendency to have a craft or shop as the amateur sleuth's home base, but without the puzzle of whodunnit, you've got a romance novel or women's fiction, not a mystery.

A mystery isn't only the story of the protagonist's journey; it generally involves many people's journeys to get to the point where the sleuth solves the crime. Each suspect has a backstory that has to be developed and carefully exposed. The victim has a story. And, of course, the killer has a story. Many of our favorite detectives have no journey at all. Sherlock Holmes is the same character in the first story as in the last. Jack Reacher is the lone vigilante throughout. Stephanie Plum has a car blow up in every book. But because the people around them change, mysteries are rich and complex stories.

So I decided to take another class on what I thought was plotting that would help me develop the multiple threads I needed in my book. Except the instructor used movies as examples. Even when talking about The Hunger Games or The African Queen or The Help, she referenced the movies, not the books.

When a book is made into a movie, a lot of stuff gets left out. There are only two hours to tell the story, not the ten or more it takes to read a book. Also, there are parts of a book that don't translate well to the screen. A long introspective passage by a main character would be a boring monologue in a movie. And we all know about movies where the ending was changed from the book.

So it didn't surprise me that the teacher had a problem following all the threads of one of my classmate's stories. It did dismay me, though. It sounded like my classmate had a wonderfully complex science fiction story with worldbuilding and multiple races and all the things that go with that kind of sweeping story. The instructor wanted her to simplify it.

What I kept wondering throughout the class is why the instructors never use novels any more to teach people how to write novels. Does reading take too much effort? If it's too hard to read say, three novels (like the three movies we were asked to watch for the other class), what in the world are these people doing teaching classes on how to write novels?

Has our attention span become so short that we can't finish a meaty story? Does that explain the crossover popularity of Young Adult novels?

I've decided I'm done with taking classes on how to plot a novel or how to tell a story. I think I'll read books in order to write books. Which was pretty much what Stephen King said:
Read a lot. Write a lot.


Tucson Spring

Sunday, May 05, 2013

 I think we appreciate spring in Tucson more than other places in the country. Oh, that's not to say that places like Minnesota (Snow? In May? Really?) or Maine or New York don't celebrate the arrival of warmer weather, new growth, and birds singing happily in the morning. But, in the desert, the predominant color is brown, highlighted by muted greens. In the spring, everything blooms.

Today I'm featuring photos taken with my iPhone on my morning walks these past two weeks. I have no idea what the name of the first plant (above) is, but the number of blooms and the deep green was just gorgeous.
This pink bloom, sheltered among the cactus, really caught my eye.

This is a cholla cactus, sometimes referred to as the jumping cholla for the tendency of bits of it to get attached to your clothing on a walk through the desert.

Another nameless yellow flower.

This is a tumbleweed, already losing some of its glory. I know because I was fooled by three of them in my back yard last spring. They pop up as very pretty green bushes covered in purple flowers. I debated whether to let them grow or pull them out. I made the wrong decision. By mid-summer, they were masses of tangled brown branches. Definitely weeds.

An ocotilla. Most of the year, these are bunches of brown sticks. In the spring they're covered in tiny green leaves and show these glorious orange blossoms. Ocotilla branches are often used for decorative fencing in Tucson.

More lovely color by the roadside.

Even the fence can't hold back this beautiful bloomer.

Later this month, the saguaro cactus will start blooming. And, when the monsoons come, we'll get that marvelous perfume of the creosote bush in the air. I love the desert.
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A Clash of Kings
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