Discovering the Poetry of Truth

"The greatest mystery
is unsheathed reality itself."
Eudora Welty

For a number of reasons, people tend to avoid cemeteries. Often burial grounds are either associated with a feeling of loss and sadness or, for those with overactive imaginations, a general creepiness fueled by too many campfire stories and low budget Hollywood horror films. Cemeteries are not exactly a walk in the park, yet it’s undeniable they maintain an important role in our society by enriching our lives with an awareness of ones brevity and connecting us to those who have gone before.

Call me strange, but I love cemeteries. They remind me of a short story anthology you would find at a garage sale—a little weather beaten, a bit out of date, but full of quickly read tales waiting to be discovered. Only, these tales aren’t fiction, they really happened. These tales are full of people just like you and I, who experienced a gamut of life’s events, who knew what it was to laugh, to cry, to love, to dream... Perhaps that is what makes them even more powerful. Who doesn’t love a true story!

Just up the road from where my grandparents lived, there is an old cemetery and church that dates back to the 1840’s. My great grandparents are buried there, as well as a great aunt and uncle. When I was younger, I remember roaming the cemetery after Sunday service, fascinated by the old stones and inscriptions. Sometimes I’d pick wildflowers that grew on the fringes and secretly (so that my parent’s wouldn’t think me crazy) leave them on graves of strangers. I’d wonder who the people were and if they were among the many that once filled the small church. And looking for some sort of connection to these people who lived a century before, I’d always think about the seat I’d sat in that particular Sunday (since the seats were relics themselves) and wonder if this person or that person might have sat in the same seat during their lifetime.

Not too long ago, I had the chance to return to the Captina Cemetery and do a little exploring. I visited the graves of my relatives, then made my way down the hill to faintly remembered graves. There’s a large stone with the names of three children and their parents, all who died on the same day. Larger granite stones mark graves from the 50’s and 60’s and fractured stones that are no longer decipherable lie stacked on the edge where the woods reclaim the land. Halfway down the hill, I came across two stones dated 1834. I didn’t remember the stones from my childhood and was surprised by the well preserved inscriptions. The first stone said “In memory of Nancy, consort of Harrison Massie, who departed this life March 23rd 1834, Aged 23yrs, 2 months 19 days.” A similar stone sat beside Nancy’s stone. “In memory of Roxanne, daughter of Harrison and Nancy Massie, who departed this life Aug 23rd, 1834, Aged 5 months, 15 days.” It took me a second to do the math before I realized the mother had died after giving birth to Roxanne and the newborn, for whatever reason, died 5 months after her mother. Curious, I searched the area for the husband and father, Harrison Massie, but his stone wasn’t there.

It was starting to get dark and I reluctantly walked back up the hill to leave the cemetery. On the way home, I thought about the two stones and the one that was missing, finding it strange that sometimes all we will know about a person’s lifetime is the date of their birth and death. I was reminded of why, when I was younger, the old cemetery held such a drawing power for me. The simple stones of people like Nancy and Roxanne Massie were puzzling in that there was so much more I would like to know about them, but will never know. Likewise these strangers, with their eternal secrets, bring us closer to something beyond ourselves—a time and place we can only imagine.

As a writer, I value these experiences, the kind that draw me to people and places I know nothing of. I love the guesswork and the challenge it provides. There is something significant about stretching the mind and imagination to discover things that are known and unknown. Perhaps that is why I am passionate about travel and experiencing new cultures. As a Spanish proverb says, “Experience is not always the kindest of teachers, but it is surely the best.”

For a writer, it’s not only about keeping the mind active, it’s about telling the story. But we do strange things when we find an experience or idea we want to set to paper. We boil it down until we are sure there is nothing but the richest of contents left, but at the end of the process feel that there is still some ingredient missing. We add a little of this and a little of that. Still, it isn’t quite right. After time has cooled the strangely colored brew, we remember why we began writing the story in the first place. At this point you have to ask —do I venture into the unknown or do I stick with the facts? Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing foolish about putting your imagination to work, but sometimes truth is the missing link, the element that is most inspiring.

Next time you happen across a cemetery, or a newspaper article, or an event in your day to day life that captivates you, discover the poetry in what is true. If you find you are stuck after too much imaginative additives, return to the place where you began—the truth behind the inscription. Perhaps in these mysteries, in the recognition that real life is often stranger than fiction, the greatest story lives.

Going Beyond the Ordinary

"If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence."
George Eliot, Middlemarch

One of the greatest gifts a writer can have is the ability to transform the ordinary into extraordinary. Have you ever read a story where the simplest action or object is described with such insight you become mesmerized by something you would normally overlook? This experience can change our perspective on life and the world around us, proving if we dig beneath the surface, there is often more than meets the eye. But as a writer, how do we chip away the ordinary to get at the diamond core?

George Eliot’s quote, though focused on sound, has a lot to offer about the process. “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life,” she says, we would hear the world around us in a way quite different from what we hear now. As writers, we are taught to observe and transcribe, but what if observation involved more? What if our senses were infused with “keen vision and feeling” that went beyond the ordinary?

We don’t posses super human abilities, but that shouldn’t hold us back. True, we can’t hear grass grow or a squirrel’s heartbeat, but we know things, lots of things. We know the word love is a weak explanation for what we really feel about someone close. We know the familiar, unique smell that tells us we are home. We know the feeling of a knot working in our throats when we are upset. And we have an imagination. Even if we have never been in love or been white water rafting or baked an apple pie, we can imagine what it would be like. No, we are not super human, but we are human. It’s not about the abilities we are lacking; it’s about how we choose to use the abilities we have.

Sometimes, this means thinking outside the box. If we were to write only what is true, we would all be liars (and we wouldn’t have hugely popular series such as The Chronicles of Narnia or Twilight). Every writer knows it is nearly impossible to replicate in words an experience or object exactly the way it exists in real life. Some writers find they are more comfortable writing about things that are anything but real. This only proves our imaginations are a powerful tool. We will always want to embellish the truth, make it poetic, and iron out the wrinkles of reality. So how do we use this tool to our advantage?

Consider Eliot’s quote once more. Before reading it, had you thought about the sound grass makes when it grows or what a squirrel’s heartbeat would sound like? I hadn’t. In fact, I’d never thought about grass making a sound because I’d never considered it being capable of such a thing. Aha! Now we are going beyond the ordinary!

Here’s another example. Let’s imagine an old barn sitting in a field. Instead of thinking about the ordinary aspects of the barn, lets pretend we have the keen sense of vision and feeling Eliot describes. Get your mining gear out. Go beneath the surface. Stop thinking about the barn in terms of color, dimension, and the materials holding it together. Consider instead the barn’s history, the events it has witnessed, and the stories it might tell. What does the barn see and hear? What would its voice sound like if it could speak? What does it feel? Think about what events might have influenced the overall mood of the place. Perhaps a tragic event took place in the barn. Say someone committed suicide. Or maybe something wonderful happened there, perhaps an engagement or a special birth (think about the Christmas story and how that changed our view of a manger).

By viewing ordinary objects in this way, it’s possible to get at the heart of what makes even the ordinary, extraordinary. Ultimately the descriptions we find often get at what we really think or feel about the things we are describing. Oddly enough, sometimes imagination can produce a truer picture than our five senses.

So next time you are struggling with description, don’t take the boring route. Use your imagination to dig beneath the surface. Think outside the box, ask questions, and go beyond the ordinary!

Creating Characters

“A writer begins by breathing life into his characters. But if you are very lucky, they breathe life into you.” Caryl Phillips

I passed her every evening on my way home from work. No matter the weather, she wore the same oversized khaki coat and blue winter hat, her hair pulled back into a careless bun, no makeup. If I had to guess I’d say she was probably in her mid 60’s.

We’d cross paths in the same place, same time, every evening. I didn’t know where she came from or where she was going. I knew nothing about her. Perhaps that is why she fascinated me.

When I changed jobs, I took a different route to work and didn’t see the woman anymore. A couple months passed and I forgot about her. Then, just the other day, I was on my way to town when I saw the khaki coat and winter hat. An odd sense of familiarity rose up in me as we passed. How strange, I thought to myself. I don’t even know this woman yet, dare I admit it, I miss passing her on my walks home. She was an unusual person, captivating, full of mystery. Since I knew nothing about her, I’d imagined the possibilities—she was an environmentalist and cat lover from Romania…a primary school teacher who loved to cook…a homeless widow who’d lost her job at a factory. A wealth of characters and plots had sprung up, all because of this stranger. One day I hope she makes it into one of my stories.

What I love most about creating characters is that despite their fictional existence, they hold a nearness to the living, breathing folk we fashion them after. Think of all the societies and clubs that have sprung up in honor of beloved book characters— people who do not exist. We identify with them, often seeing ourselves or others in their likeness. It seems that good writing, though it may be categorized as fiction, is in fact a sharing of truth—what we know to be real about life and living.

Perhaps in this way, we write not only to share our knowledge of life, but to know we are part of something bigger. One of my undergrad professors always encouraged her students to view writing as an ongoing dialog of the world. When we wrote, she challenged us to ask ourselves, “How am I contributing to what has already been said?”

Characters are a vital contribution to a successful story, as well as a pulpit from which the author can share a unique tête-à-tête with their reader. Characters inform, influence, and can even make a reader laugh or cry. And they do so because of their realness. Characters are the thing a reader connects with, and often what they remember long after the story is finished. Ultimately, it is not a characters function in the plot (what they do) that makes them truly memorable; it is who they are.

Creating characters is kind of like being a mad scientist. We gather bits and pieces of humanity and fashion them into this creature we hope will spring to life on the page. More often than not the experiment fails. But with a bit of ingenuity, we as writers are able to breath life into a character. And if we are lucky, in a remarkable exchange, our characters return the favor, creating a connected awareness not only of the story’s heartbeat, but also of our own.

A Kind of Magic

“Writing can be difficult, but sometimes it feels like a kind of magic.” David Almond

I didn’t study writing until my senior year of college. For the first time in my life I was writing creatively not for the pure love of it, but for class requirements. Sharing my writing to be critiqued and graded was a new and strange experience. It was like arranging my imagination on a plate and going before the likes of Gordon Ramsay, fearing I had overdone a character, underdeveloped a scene, made the ending too sweet.

Writing is often categorized as a skill that, much like any other undertaking, can be improved with study and practice. While there’s nothing wrong with studying writing (heck, I got my MA in it!) I think writing courses should come with a warning label—proceed at the risk of your own creativity. What’s the danger in studying something you love? Your work becomes just that—work. While you’re busy worrying about deadlines and studying things like focalization, structure, and register it’s easy to forget why you fell in love with words in the first place.

Maybe writing has always felt “like a kind of magic” to you. If that’s the case, you’re incredibly lucky (and you can stop reading at any time)! If you’re anything like me though, inspiration can at times be as elusive as the willpower to face a blank page. I’ve wrestled with doubt more times than I can count, but ultimately I’ve come to realize the problem isn’t due to a lack of ability or talent. The problem lies in losing sight of what drew me to writing in the first place—that magical quality of writing that Almond describes; the
thing that literally produces goose bumps and butterflies in the stomach.

Think about the first time you sat down to write a story or a poem. I guarantee you weren’t thinking about focalization. Not even close. You probably weren’t worried about what people would think of the writing either (because you had no intention of sharing it). Remember what it felt like—writing for the pure joy of it? Writing for yourself? If not, you my friend need to plan a second honeymoon. Here are some ideas to get you started:

Dig out some really old writing. Once you’ve blown away the cobwebs and gotten past the initial horror of re-reading something you never wanted to see again, try to remember what prompted you to write the piece. How did you feel when you were writing it? How does it differ from your writing now? Appreciate each piece’s strength and effort.

Be a child again—play in the rain/snow, pack a picnic and go exploring, ride your bike farther than you’ve ever gone before, swing on a swing set, catch butterflies, fly a kite, finger paint, build a fort (outside or inside!)…anything that frees your mind and lets your imagination soar.

Read a picture book.

Draw/color/paint illustrations to go along with a piece of your own writing or your favorite book.

Read a beginners guide to writing—not only will it prove how much you’ve learned over the years, it will remind you what it felt like when you first started out on the writing path.

Buy a writing prompt book (I recommend
Room to Write by Bonni Goldberg). Set aside time each day or week to focus on one prompt. Forget about the rules—write whatever comes to mind!

Change your writing atmosphere/location. Take your computer (or pen and paper if you want to be more conspicuous) to your favorite restaurant or café to write. Or if the weather is nice, why not a trip to the park!

Share a piece of writing you’ve kept to yourself. This is a great way to get fresh perspective as well as advise.

Choose your favorite fairytale/nursery rhyme and adapt the characters to people you know in real life. Retell the story.

Go to the library and explore the local history section. Have a look at the archived newspapers on microfilm if your library has them. Some libraries also keep pictures on file. Find a story or picture that holds your fascination. Write about it.

Attend a book signing or authors lecture. It’s usually free and a great way to learn about what keeps other writers inspired. It’s also fun to watch authors at events and realize you could be at your own book signing one day!

Join a writing group. It’s obvious for anyone in search of creative support, but it really does make a huge difference! You’ll be amazed at the inspiration you gain by being in the company of fellow writers.

How do you keep the “magic” in your writing experience? I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas!