Saturday, June 30, 2018

Letters from Marilyn - Update 26

Two things have been on my mind this past week: time and causality.

Time, in the purest sense of the word, is defined as the system of those sequential relations that any event has to any other, as past, present, or future; indefinite and continuous duration regarded as that in which events succeed one another.

In connection, causality is defined as the relation of cause and effect. 

When I was in college, my writing professors would have us participate in various freewriting techniques. The one I remember the most is called loop writing, in which the writer engages in a topic of choice for a timed interval. When the timed interval is up, the writer goes back to underline three or four key words, or even phrases, in their writing. One underlined segment is selected, and it becomes the starting point of the next timed interval. In essence, the writer is writing in a loop, a continual chain of ideas that are the result of the previous.

If we could describe the way our minds work, 90% of the time I would state that mine is in a loop. One idea is a result of another, and so on and so forth.

This brings me back to my opening remarks about time and causality. Every writer needs a little help every once and a while, and for me, that help comes in the form of my various books on the topic of writing. I pulled The Making of a Story: A Norton Guide to Creative Writing from my shelf a few days ago, skimming the chapters for assistance on the structure of my beginning chapters.

The author, Alice LaPlante, has a chapter focused on the definition of plot. I flipped right through the first few pages, my mind scoffing at the need to review a chapter about plotline. I am a teacher of writing, I thought. Why, as someone who has a degree in English and communications, would I need to review a chapter on plot? 

Ego can be a writer's biggest enemy. As I scornfully continued flipping, a heading caught my eye: "A Word about Causality." What are the odds? I pondered. I have been thinking about that word all week! Curious, I paused, and this passage jumped out at me:
"Why did I leave out the word causality when formulating our definition of plot? It seems as though that would be a prime determinant of the plot points chosen. And it is, it is - but I'd rather imply it (after all, we do say that the series of events brings about the desired effect) than build it more directly into the definition. [. . .] To put too much stress on the fact that every plot point must have its own particular consequence is to undermine the subtlety of many stories and novels."
Voila! And that, dear readers, is how I pinpointed why I have been struggling with my beginning chapters: I have been overthinking it, seeing the beginning as the start of the plot in which every detail, every interval of time, needs to have an underlying reason. It was a very humbling moment in my process. Thank you, Alice LaPlante, for your wise words on the subtlety of story and how it impacts "complexly motivated behaviors."

For all my fellow writers reading this, I am sure you are nodding your heads sympathetically in understanding, having been in a similar predicament yourselves. For my non-writer readers, here's what this means in a nutshell: time and causality are fluid writing components, meant to guide the process but not necessarily set events in stone. 

The purpose of these updates - if you think back to the first one years ago! - has been to keep you informed on Letters from Marilyn. Phase 1 was to share excerpts from M's letters while I took notes and laid the groundwork. We are now in phase 2: updates on the writing process and excerpts of chapter drafts. 

I am sharing a draft of the beginning with you (finally, I know!). I chose the beginning because I've written a lot about it and my process. It's just a teaser, only five pages - and will only be online for a short time. A note about structure: I am writing this novel in four parts, one part for each year Marilyn was enrolled at Augsburg, along with a prologue and epilogue. I did make the decision to switch to third-person point of view, mainly to incorporate other characters' thoughts. I feel that third-person POV deepens reader perception of Marilyn and the people in her life.

Here is the link. Enjoy. Love always, dear readers.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Letters from Marilyn - Update 25

Do you ever wish you could freeze time? Just to hold onto a moment for a little longer?

I have been re-reading M's letters, trying to find the words to launch her story. I have written middle chapters and end chapters, but no beginning chapters. When I place the cursor at the very start of that first page, I find myself staring at it, watching its pulsing and blinking like the ticking of a metronome. It feels like the cursor is waiting for me. Waiting for me to give it letters to form words, and words to form sentences.

Beginnings are the hardest. In writing, in starting over, in taking a step forward into an uncertain future. It is hard to change beginnings, after all. You can alter your path, change your steps, erase your words, create a different ending. But that first moment, it can never be taken back. And since my last post, I have felt without words, stuck staring at a blinking cursor on a blank page.

I have had this mental block for months. I have spent hours, days, weeks pondering how to find the words to lift the fog. I have been on countless drives to nowhere, hoping that the clear roads and skies would somehow clear my mind. I have read dozens of books, believing that immersing myself in a story would perhaps spark ideas for Marilyn's.

But interestingly, it is not others' stories that have kick-started M's beginning, but rather my own. I pulled my notebooks from storage a few weeks ago, choosing to reread what I had written as a young girl, then teenager, college student, and now adult. Focusing on my day-to-day life, some entries are silly, others thoughtful, several with a bitter sorrow and regret, but many with moments I had found to be most important, a milestone in my growth as a person. And I wondered:

Do you ever wish you could freeze time? Just to hold onto a moment for a little longer?

To illustrate this question with my mental connection to M's beginning, I want to share one of these moments. In July of 2006, I was on a trip with a group of young people and adults from my community. For those of you following my timeline, I was seventeen years old. Our final destination was San Antonio, TX. We had traveled to the South Padre Islands for some initial work prior to our time in San Antonio, and were now making our way back north. Our original arrangements for the evening had fallen through, and after a majority vote, we made the decision to stay overnight in Corpus Christi. Tucked into a bay of the Gulf of Mexico, Corpus Christi was an ideal location to rest before making the next stretch of our journey.

It was a breezy evening, unusual for a July night in Texas. The dusky twilight was on the horizon and we were exhausted, but we chose to wander down to the outdoor pool of our lodgings. The cerulean blue of the water was enticing, but then we discovered something else: the arched opening that led directly out to the beach. We could hear the ocean waves so close, and pretty soon we were laughing and racing each other to the shoreline, our exhaustion forgotten. One of the chaperones in our group had also joined us, acoustic guitar in hand, and soon our full group was assembled on the beach, as if we had summoned each other by thought. 

The stars were blazing in the indigo sky (it's true what they say about the stars in Texas!), and as we sat there in the fine white sand, the ocean stretching out before us, singing songs together, I wanted that moment to never end. I felt free. 

I had written about this moment, wishing I could freeze time, to make it last just a little bit longer. But, of course, life is a series of moments that flash by in a blur. In some ways, that moment is preserved in my notebook, a memory of a time that to me, felt perfect. 

To this day, I cannot pinpoint the exact reason why this moment was so pivotal to me. Perhaps it is because it held many of the things I value: the outdoors, wide open skies, music, and a group of people who had taken me in as one of their own. And as I re-read more notebook entries and more moments, I discovered a common theme for me: oftentimes the moments that have the most meaning are also the ones that are unplanned.  

The more I pored over my old, dusty notebooks, the more a beginning for Marilyn began to take shape in my mind. And so just as I did with my own stories, I went back to re-read hers. But this time, I have recorded her moments, weaving them together to launch a beginning that is her. One that is reflective of her bright soul and vivacious personality. I am reading her moments that she describes so vividly - and I know that in my writer heart, these are the moments she wished she could freeze in time. 

Creating her beginning is going to take a while. I have written in a frenzy today, with new chapters saved and this update getting posted well beyond a twilight dusk. As you go about your weekend, dear readers, I encourage you to consider these questions: do you ever wish you could freeze time? Just to hold onto a moment for a little longer?

Love always.
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