The Writers Road Trip

The Writers Road Trip.

This is a reprint of an article we wrote for The Writer in the World.

Descended at least culturally if not genetically from the ranks of our most exulted literary road warriors – writers like John Steinbeck, Jack Kerouac, and Ken Kesey – my wife Karen Walasek and I have exercised and exorcised our wanderlust cyclically throughout our forty year marriage. There have been many, many journeys punctuated by periods of growing and transplanting roots. In the first twenty years of our marriage we lived in sixty different homes. We moved so often that family and friends were annoyed at having to repeatedly revise their address books. Banana boxes housed our possessions during those tempestuous early years.

We drove east, north, south and west, crossing the continental United States at least fourteen times. Most of these journeys were made by car, though a few began with planes or trains, and there was one drive-away rental car that we wrecked in Zanesville, Ohio during a snowstorm. We hitched home from Tucson to New Jersey for Christmas one year and got stuck on a milk run Greyhound from Pecos, Texas which became the scenic backdrop for my novel, Jam. Talk about long, strange trips.

As a novelist, songwriter and artist, I think of traveling as the little known tenth muse. I call her Varvara, or Βαρβαρα if you are Greek. Varvara delights in our discovery of ourselves through the strangeness of others. She coaxes and teases, leading by a trail of the tiniest breadcrumbs, whispering in her raspy alto. Her song is like the tug of the stars on my heart.

Most writers have used prompts. I assign timed ones to my students as a way to bypass the censor and get down to the deep stuff. A month long road trip is a bit like immersing your whole body in a writing prompt. Motion occupies the conscious mind and lets your creative self – wander – absorbing the peoplescape. All you have to do is copy down your impressions.

We began referring to these trips as vision quests after our “vacation” to New Mexico in the early 1990s took a surreal detour from the normal planned family excursion. Karen was about to attend her first Goddard undergraduate residency as we set off from our home in eastern Pennsylvania during the hottest part of summer toward the Southwest, bisecting Tennessee on Interstate 40. Our favorite movie at that time wasThe Milagro Bean Field War, Robert Redford’s 1988 film version of John Nichol’s novel. The movie became a template for our trip as we wandered around New Mexico in search of Joe’s bean field. It was a sweaty trial, six of us pressed into an overheating Volvo wagon. We didn’t know that the town they used in the film was chosen more for aesthetics than fact (the novel was a fictionalization of a real water rights war) or that plastic bean plants were driven into the dry soil for the filming.  Ruby Archuleta’s goad to Charley Bloom, the reluctant editor of Milagro’s alternative paper La Voz, surfaced as commentary on the deficiencies of our preparation: the air conditioning “wasn’t up to it.” The voice of our muse, Varvara, narrated the inner landscape as the sun purified us.

We didn’t plan it, but a member of Karen’s Goddard cohort lived at the mouth of the road to our primitive campsite. She prepared Anasazi beans, brown rice and corn bread, a gift that connected our modern family to the indigenous cliff dwellers of an ancient land. Looking outside her kitchen window at the neighboring straw bale adobe buildings across the fields, she explained that Joe’s actual bean field had grown right there, next to the Pilar Yacht Club, a whitewater rafting outfit.  Back then we were surprised, called it serendipity (which is another favorite movie.) These days we know it was part of Varvara’s plan.

Road trips have always punctuated the geographically stable stretches of our marriage. It’s a cycle independent of season.  We grind through our daily lives, making small headway in our various endeavors when the tumblers unexpectedly align, opening our sights to new possibilities. Once again, that lock has fallen open.

We bought a new/old SUV and a DSLR camera. We will journey across the north to Vermont through Canada, diagonally dissect the southeast to visit our farm in Tennessee and then power on to Prescott, Arizona via Interstate 40, retracing our earlier journey through Taos. We plan to return home to Oregon along the coast of sun parched California.

In this post Clinton/Bush/Obama culture, this road trip promises to braid new stories with the journeys and vision quests of the past four decades. Varvara is whispering themes of resistance, indigenous identity, and the impulse to decolonize as we head out to embrace the country’s changing narratives, both dominant and otherwise.  It is going to be a trip. We even bought a mini refrigerator and a blender for the car with plans to make yogurt and sprouts on the road. Maybe kombucha, too! You can come along.

Most importantly, we are journeying with our senses and writing muscles tuned. As the fabric of the land and American psyche impresses itself upon us, we are hopeful she will feed us with wonder and possibilities for a more resilient future. This summer, Karen is beginning her fourth degree, a low residence PhD program in Sustainability Education at Prescott College. And I am embarking on my third, also in sustainability, at Goddard’s Vermont campus. Both happen in August. Updates can be found here. I hope you will join us for the ride and do let us know if we are in your neighborhood. We’d love to connect. Who knows what plans Varvara has for all of us?

This is not the first road trip and it will not be the last.

Additionally, we are running a crowd funding campaign Wishlist on GoFundMe. Most of these items are going to become necessary before we are done (some, like flushing the fluids in the car are necessary now) and there are a few luxuries on there – check them out. We would love it if you just want to donate the item if you have it or can provide it. Contact us via social media or email.

I will update this post when the campaigns go live.

 

Updates for our preparations (we are leaving August 1) can be found here in successive posts as they develop – so please follow our blog as well. As said, after we depart, we expect to publish updates, which will include articles by Karen and Ron, photos and videos (if we get a Go Pro, we will publish Finn Cam – the record of Finn’s adventures from a dog’s eye view) every couple of days. I hope you will join us for the ride and do let us know if we are in your neighborhood. We’d love to connect.

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The Shape of the Thing

Writing has a form. Beyond understanding and becoming competent in the traditional elements of fiction (such as plot, conflict, character, setting, point of view, etc.) understanding the language of form can help a writer uncover the (metaphorical) shape of the work. “The Shape of the Thing” refers to the whole form your writing takes, from the twist and turns of a sentence to the more global view of the plot puzzle.

One way to examine the shape of a novel (short story, memoir, essay, etc.) is to look for a character’s arc following a pyramid map. As old as Aristotle, this shape includes rising action, falling action, climax and denouement. The study of The Writer’s Journey (based on Joseph Campbell’s work) adds the influence of myth and archetype in modern dramatic works.

When we take the study of shape and patterns such as found in permaculture and apply them to writing, we uncover a myriad of framework tools that can guide a written work. One way we learn is through example and copying that example. Copying shape is no different. In our workshops we help writers:

  • Identify the shape of a craft-based habit in a published work.
  • Reduce it to a general rule.
  • Apply liberally.

Come prepared to play with forms, use diagrams and reduce plot points to post it notes that will swirl around the page. Knowing the shape of your work will help you with the most important aspect of your writing— knowing the shape of your story. Come and expect to have fun at our workshop at the Writer.ly Pub Camp on November 15, 2014 in Seattle for more.

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 Come hear me talk  at Seattle PubCamp on November 15th. As one of my friends, you get $60 off the regular ticket price when you use the promo code “friends.” Hope to see you there! Yes, I want to go!

NOTE: This article was written by Ron Heacock and Karen Walasek.

Writing Great Stories 1

booth-dog

I have been teaching a memoir class at Mount Hood Community College called Writing Your own True Story. I am working too hard, but I can’t help myself. The way I teach writing includes a whole lot of talking, assigning reading (usually to prove some point or introduce some concept) and then assigning short writing exercises. When the students turn these assignments in I have to read them and make constructive comments, praise parts that I really like (while proving reasons and a direction to go for growth).

Once a week I create a lesson outline with a PDF of the reading. Aside from staying organized and keeping my class update, the majority of my work is reading and deciding how to comment. I enjoy it, but it is time consuming. I only get paid for two hours a week (I currently have 8 students, but I am supposed to be able to handle 15.)

It is a simple formula. And my students are moving along. Everyone seems happy (most of the time). But if I add up all the prep work and the reading and mark up time, I am working more like twelve hours a week instead of 2.

I don’t know what sort of work you do, but if you have to work six times as much in order to get paid, burn out is not far behind you. I have a hard time doing less – I mean, I am serving the students, not the college.

I realized this morning that I am not going to be able to continue at this pace.

So I am working on alternatives.

One of the problems that I have found with many writer’s blogs is that they give great advice, but there isn’t anyway to clarify the concepts and try them out in a controlled environment. Unless you are enrolled in a class or a workshop, (or an MFA program) you have to flounder along alone until you decide that you have mastered a particular step.

I think the non-college student, aspiring writer, needs more options for professional feedback. So in between posting stories, I am proposing to build a portal through this blog where writers can try exercises and get feedback on them without investing hundreds or even thousands of dollars. As time goes on and I see if there is interest in this program I may expand the prompts, tips and assignments. But for now, each will be a simple concept followed by a 500 word test run.

There is a popular method of marketing gaining prevalence these days where you provide a basic service or product for free, but you charge a small amount for added value. I have heard it called a Freemium. This is what I am proposing. I will post a small article on writing every few days. You can read it and enjoy it, do it or not. No strings attached. But as an added value, you can post your work at our Submittable site with a nominal fee.

I will attempt a fast turnaround, but if this idea picks up I reserve the right to take up to one month to respond. As (if) the idea gains acceptance, I will develop more extensive projects with additional cost – I do not expect and assessment fee to ever exceed $20.

There will be some collateral reading, but in order to satisfy copyright issues, I will only be suggesting the texts. Later I may create a method to provide this reading as a part of the blog –

Stay tuned for updates.

Basic Elements of Fiction

Whether you are writing fiction, creative non-fiction, or memoir, you will benefit from the skills a fiction writer relies upon to create engaging characters and situations as well as detailed and believable scenes and environments. Think of it as a set of tools (nod to Stephen King’s On Writing) that you can keep at the ready in your writer’s virtual toolbox.

In order to have a reasonable conversation about writing we will need to start with a language so we all know what we are talking about.

We can start off with the basic elements of fiction (as said, these are really the elements of creating living characters with engaging stories). That 7 basic ones are:

  1. –Plot – The series of occurrences which transpire
  2. –Setting – Where is the story taking place      
  3. –Tone  The tone in a story can be joyful, serious, humorous, sad, threatening, formal, informal, pessimistic, and optimistic. MOOD
  4. –Style – What unique way is the story being told – distinctive vocabulary and choices in expression
  5. –Point of view – Who is telling the story
  6. –Character – Who are the actors in the story
  7. –Theme – What is the story about.

This list can be expanded or reduced. Depending upon form (short story, flash fiction, novella, novel or epic) some of these elements may be reduced. More on that to come.

So one way to make your stories better is to be sure you are including all the important aspects of each of these elements. As always, you can get really caught up in this, so try to treat it lightly and keep it simple.

My favorite place to start is with Character. And one way to learn about what works is to try it.

Lets do some character sketches. 

The easiest character to write about is yourself. You know  (or at least you have tie chance to…) this character better than just about anyone else. But in order for it to be a creative exercise you should flex your creative muscles. So for today’s exercise, I want you to write a biography with one small difference. I want you to lie. Make up every detail. Embellish it with your creativity. And only include one true fact.

Now don’t go off the rails. This should be believeable. Coleridge coined the term Suspension of disbelief, which is a little weird because it is a double negative (which if you remember anything about math, which I often do not, means that two negatives together create a positive). What he was trying to say is that the writer’s job is to create an illusion of truth. And as long as the reader believes it, then the writer has a chance to succeed.

As soon as the reader steps back from the writing and say, “Hey, I don’t think that is possible,” then the construct of your imaginary world disappears.  It is hard to recover after that. So suspend the readers disbelief by never pushing them too far. Even if it the truth, your job will depend upon making sure it is a believable truth.

Keep you attempts to 500 words or less. Put in a lot of details. See where it gets you. and stay tuned for more about character and the elements of fiction in my next post.

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If you would like feedback on this assignment, please visit our Submittable site. Follow the instructions. I will respond. See Conventions Here

Submit to HillHouse Writer’s

NEXT LESSON: Direct and Indirect exposition.


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writing better stories by Ron Heacock is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at http://wp.me/p4fgRf-V.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at ron@hillhousewriters.com.

Thanks to George Booth for the detail of his amazingly appropriate cartoon: Write About Dogs.