Category Archives: motivation

The Gift of Fire

Myths abound of the writer who began producing stories from an early age – the writer whose parents showered his every effort with praise and encouragement, who attracted notice in school for his precocity, who won awards, and who ended up with a book deal by age twenty-two. Perhaps they are destined to be one-hit wonders (anybody remember Anita Loos?), or perhaps they did have a spark of genuine talent.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

You mean this was a book?

The Mozarts of the world aside, our precocious preschooler has no greater talent than you did at that age. Maybe, when you were five, you did think you wanted to write stories. Maybe you even wrote some. But unlike the guy with the book deal while he still has acne, no one encouraged you or took interest.

It’s a bad deal when that happens – but it happens to a very many individuals. Probably most move on to something that they were encouraged to do and are perfectly happy with whatever that is . . . but then, I can’t count how many people, eyes downcast, have murmured to me, “Yeah, I always wanted to write a book. . . .”

A movie metaphor does well here. At the beginning of the 1981 movie Quest for Fire, the Ulam, a tribe of early Homo sapiens who has thus far only managed to gather fire from natural sources, habitually keep embers in a bone cage and tend it at all hours. When the tribe is driven from its shelter at the start of the movie, filmmaker Jean-Jacques Annaud emphasizes the importance to the tribe of saving this fire-containing cage – especially when it ends up falling in a marsh. Thus, the tribe sends three of its best to find fire; the men, Naoh, Amoukar, and Gaw, battle nature and other human species in their quest and eventually do return with a burning ember tucked away in the bone cage.

Fire good.

Fire good.

Throughout this movie, fire – whether an ember or a bonfire – is literally the most prized “possession” of the Ulam. How does this illustrate my main point? Well, as Picasso said, every child is an artist – every child has the divine fire of creativity. Some children are fortunate enough to be born to parents who stoke that fire; most of us aren’t. Most of us find ourselves hunched in a wasteland with a bone cage containing one . . . tiny . . . burning ember.

That may well be you. Maybe one, tiny, burning ember is all you have –- but you do have it. How many times have you had to cross rivers while you carried that cage aloft, or hidden in caves to keep it dry while the heavens rain down torrents?

Well, you did that for a reason. You could have done as so many others do and moved on, but you didn’t. You didn’t, because like the Ulam, that creative fire was your most prized possession. Do not tell yourself that the Universe is against you, that if only your parents had encouraged you, that if you had only been able to go to college. Because the Universe started you out with the gift of fire, and the reason you’re reading this right now is because you still have it.

You don’t need to be young to stoke that fire. You don’t need a degree in Creative Writing. You don’t need money. You certainly don’t need your parents to back you up. You don’t need anything but the will to preserve that ember and the patience to fan it into a bonfire.

And this is the day you start.

What Bad Movies Can Teach You About Writing: Part Two

As I wrote in my last post, bad movies can teach you a lot about how not to write. This week, we’ll look at one of the most awful movies of all time – The Evil Dead. Long before the Syfy channel cashed in on the “movies that are so bad they’re good” genre, film buffs were enjoying this 1981 cult classic from Sam Raimi.

Just in case you actually don’t know the plot of this wretched bit of cinema, it unfolds like so: A group of college friends, intending to spend a weekend relaxing in a cabin in the woods, discover a strange book in the cabin’s cellar. They then play back a tape recording on which the previous tenant muses on the book. It’s through this recording that the group discovers that the book is bound in human skin and written in human blood.

Strangely, this is not enough to make them flee; instead, they continue listening to the tape. The voice on the recording pronounces incantations from the book, then reports that this has raised the demons mentioned in the book. These demons have possessed his wife, whom he must now dismember. Naturally, this recording raises the same demons, who possess several of the group; the possessed then do away with all but one of the group (the ever-entertaining Bruce Campbell, playing Ash).

Quite apart from its entertainment value (which, if you have not seen it, you really must), The Evil Dead can teach writers much about giving characters consistent and believable motivation for their actions. Examples of poor decision-making abound in this film, but I’ll give you three.

  1. The tape recording drives Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss) to hysteria. Then, when a storm drives a tree through the cabin window, she begins to hear strange voices in the woods. Naturally, as anyone would, she goes outside alone and unarmed, calling out, “Who’s there?” Then, clad in a nightgown and slippers, she begins to wander in the woods. Why this action has no rational motivation: Do I even need to explain it? No reasonable person would wander around in the woods at night, alone, unarmed, and in slippers, especially after hearing mysterious voices in those woods.
  2. As Cheryl wanders in the woods, the trees come to life and attack and rape her. When she escapes and returns to the cabin, once again hysterical and clearly having been attacked, the group pooh-poohs her story. Even more ridiculous, Ash must be convinced to drive Cheryl – who is actually his sister – into town to stay at a hotel (although this plan falls through). Why this action has no rational motivation: True, generally when someone claims to have been attacked by trees, the first impulse is to consider the person nuts – but Cheryl has clearly been attacked by something. This should have been reason enough for the group to abandon their vacation plans. But the incoherent motivation is compounded when Ash is reluctant to drive his own sister into town – if not because she is hysterical, then for medical attention.
  3. When Ash does attempt to drive Cheryl into town, they discover that the bridge connecting their part of the woods with town has been destroyed. Ash thus return with Cheryl to the cabin, where the other two women, Linda (Ash’s girlfriend, played by Betsy Baker) and Shelly (Sarah York) have a great time playing psychic games with cards. Why this action has no rational motivation: No one is troubled by the destruction of their route back to civilization, especially when they have obvious evidence that at the very least, wild animals lurk outside. This bizarre reaction is aggravated by the smashed cabin window, which provides easy entry for those wild animals. What’s more, why are the other two women settling down to an enjoyable game of cards, instead of comforting their companion, who has been attacked?

Almost none of the characters’ behavior in The Evil Dead is rooted in believable motivations. The characters’ failure to take a single reasonable action throughout this film is so egregious that it will cure even the most inobservant writer of the habit of forgetting to consider motivation when crafting a story.

So if you’ve never watched it, do so. Not only is the movie fun for playing Mystery Science Theater 3000, it’s a valuable lesson in what not to do in your fiction.

Excuses, Excuses, I Hear Them Every Day

When did you first start writing? When you were a child? A teenager?

As Picasso said, all children are artists. But most creative children lose the habit as they become adults, getting caught up in more lucrative pursuits. These individuals don’t look back, never considering taking up creativity again, not even as a hobby. But some people always regret that they didn’t keep writing.

Perhaps you are one of those individuals full of regret; perhaps you wish, deep down, that you could be a writer — a real writer. You imagine yourself at parties, cocktail in hand, possibly in a tweed jacket and John Lennon glasses. “Why, yes,” you’d say, swirling your cocktail casually. “I did just sign a book deal.”

I’m reminded of a James Joyce story, “A Little Cloud.” In this early short story, Joyce describes Little Chandler, a man anticipating a visit from a successful writer friend. His imagination stoked by his literary chum, he thinks of acting on his long-suppressed impulses, perhaps writing some poetry, for he’s always fancied poetry. However, unsurprisingly, by the end of the story, Little Chandler has decided that a poetry career is impossible for him. He has responsibilities, after all, choking, crushing responsibilities.’s the truth: You’ll always have responsibilities. Even if you have the luxury of quitting your job and writing for eight hours a day, you’ll still have to take the recycling out, do your laundry, and clean the litter box. You cannot avoid responsibilities, and you cannot put off writing because of them.

Devote a special time of the day to writing. Block that time off as faithfully as you would a massage, and turn off your cell phone. Draw the blinds, and inform your spouse or roommate you are absolutely, one hundred percent unavailable at that time. This time is as important for your mental health as showering is for your physical health.

Some people simply rise early in the morning and write before anyone gets up. Some people write late at night, after everyone is in bed. Some people, such as myself, can’t do either, so one trick I used when I worked in an office was to write longhand in a notebook over my lunch break. I usually managed five pages that way, and I wrote quite consistently, even looking forward to it.

The point is, stop denying yourself the joy of writing because of imagined obstacles. You don’t have to write anything awesome, and no one ever has to see it. Don’t be fooled by the guy in the tweed jacket and hip glasses; a writer is one who writes — period.

If a Black Cat Crosses Your Path, Pet It: Or, Don’t Rely on Superstitions

As writers, we have the sense that the power in our writing is magic. We don’t think of ourselves as the deliberate, logical creators of the words we write; no, we tend to assume it’s all the work of a fey being whispering the words in our ears. As such, when it comes time to write, we can latch on to superstitions or gimmicks that we think drive the perfect words.

Mostly this happens because when we do, by some mysterious means, manage to write something we think is perfect, we assume something other than ourselves drove the creation. If we used a certain pen to write a manuscript, well, then, it must have been the pen, and we’ll never use another kind. If we were wearing those fuzzy slippers when we wrote that perfect chapter, then they are lucky slippers, and we’ll wear them again next time.

Those, however, are the rather normal superstitions. Others include writing each manuscript in a new spot, or, the superstition goes, the spirits of the last work will interfere with the progress of the new work. Or how about this one: no chapter may have thirteen pages, or the entire work will fail. A pluviophile (someone who loves rain) will only write when it is raining, and one writer had to smell rotten apples while writing.

Certainly, at times, when we are really “on,” the words do flow as if spoken by an unseen force. And at other times, nothing you can do will make the words form themselves the right way. But, though I’m not normally one to knock superstitions (I rather like them), really, it’s not the fetish that’s behind the good parts of your writing. You know what it really is? It’s you.

Yes, horrible and frightening as it is, you and your own mind are the power behind your good writing. The talisman you rely on may, indeed, put you in a mind to write or give you the sense of safety that you need to write well, but believe it or not, good writing can happen without them.

Aleksander SolzhenitsynFor example, when I was in college, I wrote very little. My excuse was that I needed an uninterrupted block of time to write, and with classes, studying, and work, I just didn’t have that time (so I said). I knew this was an excuse, and I finally admitted it when I found out that the writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote his work One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich while imprisoned in the Soviet Gulag. According to legend, he wrote a few pages each day, memorized what he had written, and then destroyed the evidence.

Well, color me ashamed. If Solzhenitsyn could write while in a brutal prison, I upbraided myself, what’s your excuse?

The fact is, if you are relying on a gimmick to help you write, then you really don’t have faith in your own mind and powers. That’s the real issue with relying on a trick to produce good writing. For the time may come when the pen you love is discontinued, or you may have to move to a desert. Will the writing stop then, or will you learn to rely on your own mental powers? And if you can do it in that circumstance, can you do it now?

Learn to Make a Mess: On Befriending Your Process

Oftentimes, you’ll come up with a great germ of an idea for a story. You’ll dash off to write it, but when you do, you’ll find yourself meandering, following twists and turns that your erratic right brain dreams up seemingly out of nowhere.

Eventually, you end up with a jumbled mess of a draft—plot twists that go nowhere, holes you forgot to fill in, and characters whose situations you forgot to resolve.

If you’re not the sort of writer who outlines before embarking on a project, you’re almost certain to end up with such disarray. While I could take this opportunity to urge you to outline beforehand (and I probably will at some point), I’m going to give you a different bit of advice.

Getting muddy.That advice is to take heart. When you muck about in a draft, you do, invariably, toss up a lot of mud. In fact, you end up with piles of it. Writing is like that: lots of digging around in the earth and getting yourself covered in ick. But while you do dig up a lot of useless mud, you also inevitably stumble on some gold.

And that’s the whole point of the rough draft—finding the gold. When you get to the end of your draft, and you’ve got a sinking feeling that you’ve got a lot of dren, take the time to go back through what you’ve written. My bet is that pieces of the real story are hidden there in all the garbage.

Those are the pieces you want to keep and stitch together into the story you meant to tell. If you’re really the kind of spontaneous writer who refuses to outline, then this is a process you must learn to embrace. Befriend it. In fact, learn to enjoy the ride. Accept that this is how you write, get out your shovel and work boots, and make a mess.