Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

June

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jun• 01•20

Peace Rose, named to celebrate the end of WWII

Write in the Midst of Chaos

Written By: Jessica Morrell - May• 31•20

I was awakened early by thunder yesterday. We don’t get a lot of  thunderstorms in the Pacific Northwest  and so I stayed in bed just listening.  It’s been a nightmare week in the United States. Another black man murdered by police in Minneapolis. Righteous anger, outrage,  and protests over systemic police abuse  at some point shifted to riots, looting, fires, destruction, terror, and despair. Violent militia groups are taking advantage of the situation and wrecking havoc.

Monsters roam our streets. Troops in our streets another hellscape.

You don’t need me or newscasts  to tell you that we’re living in terrifying, uneasy, and unnerving times. As our cities burn all I can think is how I’ve lived through this before and how neighborhoods do not come back from this level of destruction. And now during a pandemic how will communities rebuild?

So many unknowns and terrors.  We’re floundering amid failed federal leadership, seemingly impossible odds, and an unnerving uncertainty. And besides our burning cities, invisible, minuscule DNA materials can slip into our cells with the power to kill us and people we love.

Uncertainty is painful and can be numbing. It creates anxiety and worry during the best of times. But these days it means we don’t know what the future will bring and if we can survive it. If our battered republic can hold.

We’re already grieving more than 100,000 deaths of our fellow US citizens. And now another black man choked to death after centuries of racism, injustice, and abuse of power.

All the grief these deaths have caused is unimaginable.

All the rage is justified.

Here’s my small suggestion: No matter your  situation or coping methods, take notes about your day-to-day experiences, coping methods, interactions or lack of interactions, and deeply felt emotional and physical reactions to the multiple crises we’re all living through. While the future is unknowable, what’s happening within you is discernible.  Do you feel trapped, paralyzed, stumbly? Are you leaving home and experiencing new freedoms as your state eases its restrictions?  Are you living in a city where you’re terrified as dark falls?

Julio Cortez, Associated Press

Julio Cortez, Associated Press

Do you have small kids at home so you have little time to tend to your own fears because you’re cooking, cleaning, and keeping cooped-up kids engaged?  Do you have no answers to your children’s questions about the lawlessness in our streets?

Then dial into the nitty-gritty of this shared nightmare and  your inner world and write it down.

Do not censor your thoughts or worries. This is the time to leave nothing unsaid. Write raw and scared and hopeful and worried and out of your depth.  Write about the powerful ache of loneliness and your fears of violence.  Write when you’re paranoid and lost and you need a vacation from your family or long to leave this battered country.

What does it feel like when your world looks like a battlefront, when rumors are ricocheting around you,  when even grocery shopping feels scary, when you feel choked by wearing a mask?

Are you noticing/feeling solidarity and hope amid the strangeness? Are you optimistic that there might finally be social justice and equality?

If you’ve read my words here or in my columns or books you know I preach the gospel of writers’ notebooks. Recording with your hand observations, inspirations, memories, and data. Writing by hand is good for the brain and your mood. Here’s more information on the topic.

Why write in the midst of chaos?

So you are never desensitized to horror.

Because story telling and truth telling needs to stir our  readers’ most primal emotions. Because the majority of people on this far-flung planet also experience your most primitive, unnerving emotions.

Because fiction and nonfiction often need an unsettling atmosphere to create needed tension.

Because you need to learn how write dread. misery, pain, fear, and grief effectively.

Because paying attention will help translate disgust, body language, and churning emotions onto the page.

Because even in the midst of savage truths stories teach us how to cope and hope.

With deepest sympathy for the family and friends of George Lloyd.

Keep writing, Keep paying attention, Keep safe.

Summer reading

Written By: Jessica Morrell - May• 25•20

When I think of long-ago childhood summers, I think of reading. Dappled light filtered through maples is easing through my bedroom window or a heavy storm is pounding at the panes, and I am worlds away, lost in a story. There is nothing like the simple luxury of reading a good book.

With this in mind, I’m providing this link to The New York Times  wonderfully curated list of Summer Reads. These days I’m reading Paulette Jiles gorgeous novelSimon the Fiddler. Let me count the ways that Jiles is a writer’s writer. Glistening and hardy prose, impeccable research, quirky and endearing characters, and a poet’s eye for the world. Set during Reconstruction, it’s the tale of itinerant musicians scraping together a modest living amid uncertain times. Oh, and there is an epidemic underway that they’re trying to outrun.  Music holds the tale together and deeply speaks to the protagonist as in this lovely passage: “He knew he didn’t play music so much as walk into it,  as if into a palace of great riches, which opened into still other rooms, and in these rooms were courtyards and fountains with passageways to yet other mysterious spaces of melody, peculiar intervals, unheard notes.”

I promise Jiles’ figurative language, demonstrated in this passage, will inspire. And her characters will thereafter live within you.

With a debt of gratitude to all who have served this country and their families.

Keep writing, keep reading, keep washing your hands and wearing masks.

Silver Linings

Written By: Jessica Morrell - May• 15•20

The sky is still full  of gloom here, but it’s not supposed to rain today and the birds have lots to say. It’s getting late to plant dahlia bulbs so I might nestle some into the ground today and then attend a socially distanced, backyard dinner later.  Yesterday while I ate lunch (scrambled eggs with smoked salmon and mozzarella) I turned on CSPAN. It was a hearing on the US coronavirus response by the Energy & Commerce  Subcommittee. The silver lining is that US manufacturing of needed medical supplies might return more fully to this country. There could also be more coordinated efforts to stockpile needed supplies in the future, maybe before the next pandemic strikes.

I’m wondering if like me, you’ve found silver linings to our situation. If you’re seeing everyday kindnesses big and small demonstrated around you. If you’re cooking and baking more, gardening more, reading more, cherishing friends more, and spending more time with your kids. I hope you’re enjoying quiet streets and drivable rush hours. I hope spring is lending its usual promise of renewal.

I also hope you’re writing and noticing how downtime is creating some ease in your daily routines. However, I realize that people with children home from school might not have that luxury. But if you’re not homeschooling and turning your house into an all-day diner, maybe you’ve felt the sweet relief of downtime. Maybe you’ve realized that when you’re not multi-tasking and staying busy all the time that your creativity is enhanced. Maybe you’re even napping without guilt.

And I hope you’re filling or restocking your creative well. Returning to beloved pastimes and hobbies along with learning new skills or information. Pulling in inspiration from a variety of sources–online museum tours, podcasts, reading, watching great dramas or fascinating documentaries. Because as everyone knows, a well should never run dry and good writing comes from an interesting mind.

What I’m reading: History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund    (warning: you will be struck by writer’s envy, especially since this is her debut novel.) The story follows the teen narrator Linda who lives with her parents  on a lake shore in an abandoned commune in Minnesota. I was transported to the familiar scenes of  lake country and freezing winters and the miseries of adolescence. It’s a story twisted around secrets and tragedy spun with Gothic echoes.  She’s the kind of writer where you’re struck again and again by artful language and unexpected imagery.  I filled two notebook pages with her phrases and word magic.

What I’m listening to: Sugar Calling with Cheryl Strayed. Cheryl is phoning authors over 60 to discuss their perspectives on the way we live now. Her guests so far have included Billy Collins, Amy Tan, Margaret Atwood, and  George Saunders. Their conversations are delightful and listening in will make you feel more connected to the literary community and humanity.

Unlocking Us with Brene Brown is another worthwhile podcast because Brown is simply wise and has years of research to back up her advice about how to cope in our sometimes-harrowing times.. Here’s a link to an episode about keeping calm and dealing with anxiety.

What I’m watching: Becoming, on Netflix based on Michelle Obama’s book tour  It’s simply heartening to watch genuineness, normality, and compassion. (warning it might make you cry and want to travel back in time) Here is more info.

I cannot lie, but I love watch people cook and geek out over delicious flavors. The Chef Show on Netflix currently is satisfying that need. It’s a takeoff of sorts on the delightful film, Chef and reunites Jon Favreau the actor in the lead roll and chef Roy Choi his mentor. They cook with celebrities and chefs and their mouthwatering creations will make you hungry so consider watching with a full stomach.

As someone who once worked in restaurants I also enjoy the diversion afforded by Restaurants On the Edge. In the second season the cast travels to far-flung restaurants in need of help. I’m now convinced I want to visit Solvenia and finally learn to gather wild mushrooms. In Oregon, that is.

Then for Downton Abby and Julian Fellowes fans there is Belgravia a period drama that begins on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo. Full of scandals, scheming villains, elegant drawing rooms, and upstairs-downstairs contrasts, I promise you’ll be sucked in. I especially like how Fellowes manages to depict class differences that should make us all think about how they’re replicated today. It is shown on EPIX, but you can also stream it.

Keep writing, keep stocking your well, have heart.

A pause…

Written By: Jessica Morrell - May• 14•20

photo by Anni Roankae

If  you’ve been stopping by, thanks for doing so.

My pause here is ending and I’m going to start posting helpful advice and inspiration for writers again.

I’ve been bumbling, enjoying, deploring, gardening, cooking,  chafing, and pondering my way through our current state of at-home uncertainty.  Also dancing in my living room, connecting with friends and writers, editing, reading, and wasting time. (Pinterest–need I say more?) Then there is my usual all-day news consumption with some letup on weekends.

That long list of house projects created with such optimism–barely touched. But I have given away and sorted books, watched the sky, walked amid springtime glories, planted trees,  filled my house with lilacs and  now roses, luxuriated in the perfumed air, and am adjusting (somewhat if truth is told) to wearing a mask.  Throw in a few Zoom and Skype sessions and life is skewed, but still rich and inspiring.

That is, if I get to bed at a decent hour.

That is, if I don’t try to imagine the future.

Would love to connect with you via an email (my full name including page at gmail.com) on twitter or facebook.

Please keep washing your hands, social distancing, and supporting all our front-line heroes.  See you soon around here.

MAY

Written By: Jessica Morrell - May• 13•20

April

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Apr• 01•20

The Writer’s Way: Decisions, choices and moral dilemmas

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Mar• 16•20

The cornonavirus pandemic news is nonstop and unnerving as death tolls rise and the federal government’s woefully weak response is causing panic buying and mass confusion. I’m not going out much these days, but when I’ve ventured forth in the past few weeks the eerie, nervous atmosphere is unsettling.  A spooky, living-in-a-sci-fi movie state of mind.

Meanwhile, timing be damned, I’m reading Chuck Wendig’s apocalyptic  novel Wanderers about an epidemic of sleepwalking. Well, it’s not exactly sleepwalking, but a group of people are flocking together on a silent, trance-like, mystifying quest. They cannot be stopped; their blank-faced stares are as vacant as empty tombs, their condition a mystery, their destination unknown though they’re heading west. Did I mention it’s almost 800 pages?

The wanderers don’t eat or sleep and attempts to gather blood samples are unsuccessful because their skin can’t be penetrated. If someone attempts to stop them, amid soul-shattering shrieks, their temperatures rise and they explode. As in unthinkable bloody splatters.  Did I mention the story will not ease your worries, because as you read (it was published in July, 2019) the plausibility is skin-prickling and the science well researched?

I’m mentioning Wanderers because it has multiple viewpoints and the main characters are revealed and defined by the decisions they make in response to moral dilemmas. Because fiction tests characters. These difficult  choices between right and wrong, opposing desires and options cause tension and drama.  Because fiction provides no easy answers.

Moral dilemmas reveal:

  • backstory influences
  • convictions, positions, and beliefs
  • loyalties
  • characters’ investment in outcomes
  • character growth, arc

Back to Wanderers, because weighty decisions are made throughout the story. Compassion, common sense, and human rights are on the line. Scientists are struggling mightily with understanding the frightening behaviors. Hysteria and bigotry fuel the whole.

I’m mentioning Wanderers because moral dilemmas shape and deepen so many good plots.

The story begins with Shana waking to find her younger sister Nessie missing. The girls already have enough problems since their mother walked out on them. Nessie, 15,  is walking along a road as if in a trance, but there is no waking her, no touching her, no stopping her. As she trudges along barefoot other walkers begin joining her, mostly one by one.

Benji is a disgraced former CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) scientist and virus-hunter. His backstory is key: while investigating the conditions in a giant hog-raising operation, he skewed his findings to stop the horrendous conditions he finds. Readers learn about the crowded, diseased animals living in a nightmare, the potential for a disease outbreak seemingly inevitable.

He’s pulled into the story when a computer called Black Swan insists that he join the scientists and government agencies attempting to solve the situation. Can he redeem himself and learn why the wanderers are afflicted before its too late? Since he’s broken the rules before will he break them again?

Shana, terrified for her sister,  chooses immediately to stay close to protect her mile after mile. At first her father begs her to return home, back to the obligations of their farm and cheese-making operation, but she insists Nessie needs her and the police escort cannot keep her safe. Even though her sister is unreachable, even though she’s scared. After Shana and her father argue and she tells him they feel abandoned by both parents, he buys a ramshackle RV and joins Shana and the shepherds. Shepherd is the term applied to family members and others who accompany their loved ones.

Then there’s Matthew Bird, a small-town pastor who is inspired to preach about the wanderers, connecting them to the End Times and satanic influences.  Unfortunately the conservative preacher has played into the hands of right-wing extremists.And who will stop the extremists who want to take out the wanderers?

A brain-injured former cop is drawn to the pilgrims and immediately risks all to stop a shooter.  An aging rock star comes aboard. He has a deeply-held secret that threatens all aspects of his life. In fiction, it’s important to force characters to choose when he or she would rather avoid it.

A few more thoughts on tough choices:

  • Principled choices and decisions will always create actions and consequences. They always drive the story forward.
  • Unprincipled choices and decisions typically cause chaos, pain, and also propel the story ahead. An example from Jurassic Park happens when the park employee-computer whiz leaves the grounds to sell off dinosaur DNA. His actions, taken during a horrendous storm, opens a Pandora’s box of disasters and life-and-death consequences.
  • The ramifications from all important decisions should be long lasting.
  • The higher the stakes, the higher the drama.
  • The choices often underline the genre type. A suspense story is often based on finding justice so decisions will hold a lot of weight and consequences.
  • Don’t provide characters easy answers. Corner them, stress them out, push them past their limits.
  • Know your fictional casts’ moral codes.

Search out the important dilemmas in stories, noticing the enormous variety and possibilities. Are there shades in right from wrong? Is the crime story about sorting real justice from mob justice; truth from lies? Are actions based on loyalties,  faith, science?

Keep writing, keep dreaming, keep washing your hands

And please consider supporting indy bookstores and small businesses.

The Writer’s Way: Perfecting Character Reactions

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Mar• 02•20

Overcast here this morning, the plum trees are blossoming in pale pink splendor,  and the few tulips that the voles didn’t eat are ready to bloom. I’m not above staging an all-out war on rodents, but I might need to plant tulip bulbs in pots from now on.

I’ve been working on manuscripts lately where I’ve noticed that the characters’ reactions to events, stress, or trauma are sometimes bland or repetitive. That is, every time a character is afraid, has misgivings, or worries he or she feels it in  his or her stomach. Or hairs on the back of her neck rise. Or eyes go wide with surprise.  Or worse yet, characters rarely react or react inappropriately as the dialogue just rattles along with nary a raised heartbeat or adrenaline rush.

But it’s in responses to pain, fear, and loss that make  a character indelible. Because characters are best revealed under stress. And as in real life, our responses to trouble define us. If your characters don’t feel, neither will your readers. And if emotions don’t lead to further actions, then part of fictional chain is missing.

This means a writer’s job is to garner emotional expressions from a variety of sources. One method is to study actors, observing facial expressions, gestures, and body language. This is especially powerful during live theater performances. I especially pay attention to how actors walk onto the stage conveying the essence of their roles with posture, costumes, gestures, voice quality. Try noticing your first impressions of every actor you’re watching in films and television. It’s also fascinating to notice if your first impressions are accurate.

I’ve seen two live relays  from Moscow of the Bolshoi Ballet at a local theater this winter. And I’ve come to understand why the troupe is legendary in their 243rd season. Before the performance a host explains the story that is about to unfold and interviews dancers and others involved in the production.  It’s fascinating to watch the dancers demonstrate how they’re conveying emotions via movement and grace. Embodied. Emotion in motion. Because ballet is about putting movement to the feelings expressed in the music and moment.

Choreographers don’t simply teach dance steps, they teach how to interpret feelings. I also saw a recent Metropolitan Opera showing of Porgy and Bess. Frederick Ballentine who plays Sportin Life explained how the choreographer Camille Brown taught him to become wolf-like and predatory via his body language. He creates such dynamism in the role and I couldn’t keep my eyes off his lithe, slippery moves.

There has even been a study done of human brains reacting to dance steps and the emotions they portray. The study showed that even when a dance wasn’t choreographed to depict emotions the audience still tried to create a narrative from what was unfolding. You can read about the study here.

Along with studying professionals and people you encounter in daily life, really  sink into your characters when you write. If your character is being chased by a monster where and how would he/she feel the terror and panic? What about handling a difficult physical challenge like climbing a rock face? If your character loses someone how will he/she react? Where does he/she hold grief? I recently lost a beloved aunt before Christmas and came to understand the expression heavy-hearted because it felt like there was a large stone lodged in my chest. When I read her obituary and studied the photo next to it with her smiling eyes, the reality of her death hit hard as a punch.

I’ve mentioned here before that often writing action scenes is akin to method acting, but this suggestion bears repeating. As you write the scene, you try to feel what the character feels. If you cannot conjure the emotion in the moment, then you dredge up memories. So if your character has just lost a beloved spouse, then you remember back to your own losses, especially the potent ones. If I was writing the scene I’d remember my mother’s funeral. I’d remember leaving behind a relationship and the bewildering grief of starting over.

Your next step is to find fresh expressions to convey the loss. This is where close reading and recording other writers’ language comes in. Expand your characters’  reactions by recording the best ones you encounter in your writer’s notebook. And while you’re not going to lift them word by word, I can assure you that jotting down examples will prime your creativity.

One more thought: read outside your comfort zone whatever that might be. I promise it will expand your repertoire of emotional responses.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

 

 

March

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Mar• 02•20