Archive for Story and Storytelling

Empathy, the least comfortable of human emotions.
~Frances Gray Patton~

An important technique of fiction writing is Deep POV (Point of View). This technique uses the third person point of view in such a way that the reader feels as if she is inside the person’s head—or heart—for that scene.

Which means, as you read, page after page goes by, the words disappear, and you feel as if you’ve experienced what the character experienced. Tears, pounding heart, knotted stomach are signs that the writer has done her job with deep POV.

Why does that matter? Because, as Lisa Cron in her book, Story Genius, writes, “just like life, story is emotion based…In a story, if we’re not feeling, we’re not reading. It is emotion, rather than logic, that telegraphs meaning…”

To tap into that level of emotional connection, the writer has to know her characters, and, whether villain, sidekick, or heroine, she has to empathize with them.

Remember Darth Vader from Star Wars? Do you think George Lucas had some empathy for this character who was doomed to live his life behind that mask, knowing he had once been admired and even loved?

Empathy gives creative power in other forms of art, as well. Painting, music, dance, and theater all convey either pure emotion or use story as a vehicle for emotion.

Yes, you can connect mentally to the structure, design, composition, use of color, contrast, etc, but in order to really have an impact, the emotion—and therefore the empathy—has to be there.

Think of Michelangelo’s “Pieta”, the power of the grieving mother in that piece. Think of Picasso’s “Guernica” and the horror and anger and even despair there. Think of the dark emotions of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. The power of those works arises out of the creator’s empathy.

Empathy is defined as the ability to sense other people’s emotions or to share and understand another person’s emotions and experiences.

To truly reach depth and understanding in your creative work, you need empathy.

Empathy—often a hero’s greatest challenge—is also crucial to a successful, meaningful life.

How you use empathy—in your life and work—matters.

I love books, in any format. If you are a writer, then you love books too. And, I bet you were introduced to their magic early in your childhood. I also bet that, like me, you have memories of several favorite books that introduced you to that magic and set you on the path to storytelling.

Three of my favorite impression-making books that I read before I turned twelve and that even today are still magical are:

The Fairy Tale Book: A Deluxe Golden Book. The Fairy Tale Book Published in 1958, this large format (10×13″) book was a Christmas gift to my siblings and me from an aunt. The illustrations, by French artist Adrienne Ségur, are rich in detail and have a delicate quality to them that captured my imagination. The collection of 28 tales range from the well-known, like Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella, to the lesser known (at that time) Donkey Skin and Green Snake. And the stories originated in France, Germany, Denmark, Russia and Japan, and from sources that included Hans Christian Andersen, The Brothers Grimm, Madame d’Aulnoy, and others. One of its stories, “The Wild Swans”, inspired the name of my weaving business, Nettles & Green Threads. This book gave me a deep and lasting love of fairy tale and fantasy. I still have it.

The Secret Garden. This edition, published in 1962 and illustrated by Tasha Tudor, was a gift from my maternal grandmother, also for Christmas. I loved this story about a young girl who struggles to find a place to belong and a boy who longs to walk again. But I especially loved the idea of a secret place where you could be yourself while also working your own magic in alignment with Nature, a place where you could create beauty.

Little Women. Oh yes, I read this book before I was 12. And in it, I discovered that there was a character who, like me wanted to be a writer, who longed, more than anything, to tell her stories, who was both actor and observer of her life. And it was one of the first books I read where everything doesn’t end happily. I cried and cried when Beth died. But, then loss is most definitely part of life, isn’t it? I knew that, had experienced it already, but still — in a story? Yes, in a story. That book made me a grow up as a reader — and a writer.

Magic books, each one. Books that captured me and held me until the last page, the last story.

What about you? What books introduced you to the magic and power of storytelling?

Stories are the creative conversion of life itself into a more powerful, clearer, more meaningful experience. They are the currency of human contact.
-Robert McKee

Now that we are formally into spring, I’ve enjoyed a full week of watching birds at the feeder just outside the window where I work at my computer. Birds at the feeder

The red-winged blackbirds, the true harbingers of spring, the grackles, and the cowbirds are all back and vying for seed. The woodpeckers, which have been here all along, are eating like mad. We have downy, hairy, red-bellied and, yes, pileated woodpeckers coming to dine. The pileated doesn’t bother with the feeder, of course, heading straight instead for one of the many trees in our woods. And yesterday, I watched a yellow-bellied flicker peck for his breakfast in our yard.

It’s hard to write and work sometimes because there is so much life I watch through this window. Something is always changing, happening. A myriad stories occurring within a short distance of my keyboard.

You are surrounded by stories in your environment, your family life, your work, in the news, and in nature.

One of the statements I hear from people who want to write but don’t is, “I don’t know what to write about.”

While every writer may have an occasional moment of that, most of the time, writers are so busy absorbing and soaking up everything, every story going on around them that the trouble is not one of not knowing what to write about, but rather one of picking one out of the wealth of stories bombarding them every day.

If you are ever stuck for a story idea, just look out your window. Then…

Pick a character, in a setting, with a conflict. Add a twist.

Oh sure, you say, it should be that easy. And how could I possibly write a story from birds at the bird feeder?

Oh geez, don’t get me started. For example:

One day, a young girl (character) sits at her bedroom window even though it is laced with frost (setting). She looks at pictures of her dead father (conflict) holding her and playing with her when she was a small child. Her father loved feeding the birds in the winter. She looks out her window and notices that the bird feeders are empty now. Her mother hasn’t bothered to fill them since… Then she notices what looks like a bird on the ground not moving.

Hurriedly, she pulls on her boots and coat and scurries outside with a container of seed, hoping that the poor bird isn’t dead. But when she sets the seed container on the ground and squats to check out the bird with red wings, she sees that the wings don’t belong to a bird at all but to a… (twist).

Where did your mind go? There are at least three or four other scenarios with characters and settings I could come up with just from looking at the bird feeders out my window.

Look out your window. The window of your office, car, bedroom, or train. Look, find a story, tell a story.

And if none of those windows inspire you then look through the window of your dreams or the tarot.

You have a story. The question is which one? And will you tell it?

And if you need help with that story or defining which one you want to write, schedule an hour with me for a Writer’s Breakthrough. I’ll help you identify what is holding you back, explore various story or development questions to trigger insights, and determine your next scenes, chapters, or actions. 60 minutes, $147. Email me to schedule your breakthrough.

After nourishment, shelter and companionship,
stories are the thing we need most in the world.

~ Philip Pullman~

This past Thanksgiving, Bob and I traveled to Virginia to be with our oldest son, his wife and his two sons, all of whom were struggling with a virus that resulted in stuffy noses and coughs.

In addition to preparing the feast, Bob and I also took over care of the two boys, Andrew, 3 ½ years, and Ryan, 18 months. The weather and temps were mild so we took them outside for walks and into the backyard to search for bugs (Andrew) and play in the sandbox (Ryan).

On one of our walks, Andrew suddenly became upset by an ant on the sidewalk and wanted me to pick him up. I tried to assure him that the ant couldn’t harm him Read More→

The Magician of the tarot is number one in the Major Arcana (Arcanum = secret knowledge), often called the Fool’s Journey. The Fool travels through consciousness (outer concerns of life), to the subconscious (the search inward) and finally to the superconscious (spiritual awareness).

Most people travel through these stages more than once as their lives and circumstances change.

Writers and creators make this journey with each project, starting with the Magician and the discovery of the power to Read More→

The Universe is made of stories,/ not of atoms. ~Muriel Rukeyser

Our oldest son and his wife came for a visit recently, bringing our grandsons, one-year-old Ryan and three-year-old Andrew. Andrew went home at the end of his visit with us with a fine collection of stories.

Stories about roasting marshmallows over a big fire with family and friends. Stories about fishing for tadpoles with a friend of his dad’s that he grew up with. Stories of hiking to a waterfall with his mom and dad, and going for a very brief ride in Pop-pop’s MG. And then there was all the baking of cookies and coffee cake with Grandma.

Bob and I read stories to Andrew and Ryan There's a Nightmare in my Closet that were favorites of our sons when they were little boys, stories like Read More→

Believe in your own identity and your own opinions. Writing is an act of ego, and you might as well admit it.

~ William Zinsser

Author William Zinsser died last week. He wrote the book On Writing Well.

I love the idea that to be a writer, I must first believe in my own identity and my own opinions. Isn’t that, after all, where voice emerges? Because who I am determines what I write, how I write, even my word choice and rhythms.
How do you write well if you don’t believe enough in your story and your ability to convey it? Perhaps that is where blocks arise. When you and I lose that sense of self and a belief, an ego strong enough to believe, that the story we want to tell is worth telling.

Bob and I are visiting Los Angeles this month, the land of many stories. I know I’ll hear them from

Jason & Chris

Jason & Chris

our two younger sons, Christopher and Jason, and from their friends. We continue to be impressed by the creative directions and lives that Christopher and Jason manage to chisel out of an environment that could so easily overwhelm them with the false or egotistical stories of “it’s all about me” and “I’ll be anything you want.”

Without a strong ego, it is too easy to become everyone or no one.

A strong ego in your creative work does not mean being egotistical. It means being well-grounded in who you are, where you come from, where you are going, and what your story is. Each of our sons has a distinct voice and story.

So Bob and I expect to be well-entertained during our time with them as we sit around soaking up our their stories and those of their friends.

I’ll also find the time in LA story-land inspiring and motivating for my own work.

If you’re feeling blocked or hesitant about your writing, ask yourself if you believe enough in yourself and your story.

Really believe. Do you?

Fire is a good companion for the mind.
~ May Sarton ~

Fire. Not the element you’d normally associate with spring. And yet, if it wasn’t for the heat, the fire of that ever-nearing sun warming the Northern Hemisphere, snow and ice wouldn’t melt and fill the rivers, and lakes. And the moisture in the air would fall as snow instead of rain.

At this time of year when it is often still too cool to do without heat, Bob and I warm the house with fires in the woodstove, nicely contained.

Yet uncontained, unrestrained fire can destroy a home, a community, or a forest and take lives with it. Like all of the elements, fire can be both friend and foe.

In the tarot, the element of Fire is usually represented by the suit of Wands, candles symbolizing the aspects of spirit, creativity, career and work. In the Northern Hemisphere, it represents the direction of the South, source of more heat from the sun. And, in the zodiac, the fire signs are Aries, sign of spring, Leo and Sagittarius.

Thinking about Fire, he appears as a wonderful Read More→

We all end in the ocean
We all start in the streams
We’re all carried along
By the river of dreams
In the middle of the night

~Billy Joel, River of Dreams~

In classical Greek thought and other ancient world philosophies, it was believed that the simplest parts that made up the world were the four elements of Earth, Air, Fire and Water. Each of these four elements was believed to have certain qualities and characteristics associated with it. This post  and three future posts look at these elements and how you as a writer can use your awareness of the element when developing characters, setting, conflicts, and themes in your stories. And how they are represented in your creative process.

These four elements are present and represented in each of the four suits of the Minor Arcana of the tarot. Water is represented by the suit of Cups and is associated with three of the 12 signs of the zodiac, Read More→

Copy of Travel & Writing- Flights of the For this post in this special series by Beth Barany and I on Travel and Writing, we share about the importance of following the bread crumbs of curiosity when you travel in order to discover new stories, settings and information. Look for more posts from us every other Wednesday. And get information on Beth’s Paris retreat, and my VIW (Very Important Writer) retreats here in the Catskills.

When Dorothy set off on her journey through the land of Oz, she was kindly instructed by Glenda, the good witch of the North, to “follow the yellow brick road.” She had one destination in mind, Oz, and so she stayed on that yellow brick road. She did have adventures, true, kind of in spite of herself, but she seldom strayed from that clearly defined yellow brick road.

For me, traveling is all about the opportunity to get away from the usual and expected, the known and the routine. Some of the best experiences, discoveries and stories are found on the byways and side roads.

So when Bob and I traveled to Tuscany, Italy, almost a year ago, we researched and laid out our own rough itinerary instead of signing up with a tour group. We didn’t want to be locked into others’ schedules or destinations.

On a recommendation, we made a last minute decision to drive to Assisi from Arrezo. After parking outside the town, we walked up steep streets, stopping to look at whatever caught our interest, including most of the churches.
Then we walked into the tiny church, Santa Marie delle Rose, expecting to see the usual paintings, tile work, and gilding.

Instead, we halted in surprise and awe.

In the nave of the small church was a unique art installation, simply titled, “Maria,” created by Italian artist, Guido Dettoni della Grazia. The artist had shaped a form that fit his hands and represented the different aspects of Mary such as Mary at prayer, Mary pregnant, Mary holding her child. Not the just the Catholic Mary, according to the artist, but the universal Mary. The form was then replicated 33 times, signifying the number of years that Jesus lived in the world, each time in a different wood. The forms looked like they were floating in their individually-lit six-foot plexiglass tubes mounted in and around a large omega on the floor with an equally large alpha suspended overhead.

A docent explained the exhibition to us as Bob and I walked through it, caught by the play of light and shape. I knew that Bob would enjoy looking at the varieties of woods, being a woodworker. But I was caught in the magic and spirit of the place, in a sense of mystery and the mystical, and in the stories represented in the exhibit…the archetypal and spiritual ones and the artistic and individual ones. I found myself, at one point, moved to tears.

At the end of our time there—I had to force myself to leave—we bought a melamine reproduction of the form. It is the only thing I brought back from our trip to Italy to memorialize our time there when we decided to follow the bread crumbs of curiosity. It is the reminder of the reward for not taking the well-marked, well-defined yellow brick road.

The best stories are most often found when you follow the bread crumbs. Trust yourself and your instincts and you’ll be rewarded with unique experiences and stories that continue to resonate.

If you’d like to take a trip into the exhibit at the Santa Maria delle Rose in Assisi, Italy, then click here.

And wherever you travel, follow the bread crumbs.

And check out Beth Barany’s post on following the breadcrumbs here.

VIW (Very Important Writer) Retreat Days: These days are for intense, focused planning and problem-solving, and can be done via phone or Skype ($397 for a half day) or in-person ($597 for a half day). Full day retreats are also available. Email me for more information or to schedule your retreat.