Reaching or Digging? Writer Unboxed Redirect

Puppy Gidget's first trip to the beach, she didn't know whether to reach or dig, so she did both.

Puppy Gidget’s first trip to the beach, she didn’t know whether to reach or dig, so she did both.

I’m delighted to have another essay featured on Writer Unboxed today, and I’d love to have your input (here or there). I’ve recently been thinking about High Concept as it relates to the market versus exploring deep themes in my work. (I’ve been focused on the latter, hopefully not too much to the detriment of the former.) Can you think of favorite novels that would rightfully be called High Concept? I’m curious. Please stop by WU and see what it’s all about.

Sorry, I see how long it’s been since I’ve posted here with any regularity. I’m still focused on my current rewrite. But I expect I’ll have a lot to explore once I reach “The End” of that project. Thanks for sticking with me!

Life’s Too Short

A Powerful Cliché: As writers we’re supposed to avoid clichés, but the title of this post happens to be a special one for me. There’s a lot of power in those three words. I’m living proof… for the moment. Allow me to explain by starting with a quote:

“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.” ~ William Hutchinson Murray

Unlike the title, that quote’s a bit long, but I still love it. I first read it in Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art in late 2003. It really resonated with me then and it’s only grown more meaningful for me since. If you’re wondering what the quote has to do with the title, I hope to show you in the next few paragraphs.

Mag Black and whiteMoment of Commitment: Over the past holiday weekend, I found myself retelling the tale of our life-change. My wife and I had been discussing the possibilities for a year or more before we committed to moving to our cottage in the woods and dedicated ourselves to living a more fulfilling life together. I’ve written about it before, but the retelling got me wondering which of the events was the one that tipped the scales and nudged us past hesitancy. I think there was one particular inciting incident, and it may sound strange to those who’ve never truly loved a pet. It was the death of our beloved Maggie, in September of ’02. Although we didn’t leave our business and move to our cottage for another year, Mag’s passing was the tipping point. More on that in a minute. For now, suffice to say it was the day my wife and I started routinely using that old clichéd phrase: Life’s too short. The more we said it, the more sense it made.

Tragic Impetus: As sad as our dog’s death was for us, it wasn’t the actual beginning of our life-change. There was an evolution of mindset. I think that evolution may have begun on September 11, 2001. Such a strange and tragic day. The earth seemed to tilt off of its axis that morning, and for so many it took a long while for it to return to spinning as it once had. I’m guessing for some, it still hasn’t fully righted itself. I don’t personally know anyone who was wounded or killed that day, but it was a definite mindset shift. I won’t trouble you to explain the details, as we each have our own personal version of it.

A Movie? Really? Shortly after that mindset shift came the next in a series of life-altering moments. Again, it may seem trivial for those who don’t share my lifelong ardor. This next moment came in the form of the release of a movie. Yep, a movie. And a movie based on a fantasy story, at that.

On December 19, 2001, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring debuted in theaters across the U.S. My brother-in-law and I went to the film’s first showing on Saturday the 20th. Beforehand I’d been skeptical. But I held a hope that the film would recapture my first favorite book. I remember sitting in the theater. The opening was a female narrator reading backstory. I still wasn’t convinced (although the footage of elves and men fighting orcs on the plains of Gorgoroth was pretty cool). But when the actual opening scene began, a panoramic view of the Shire, I was instantly spellbound. I whispered to my bro-in-law, “Does it look as good as you hoped?” He leaned over. “No,” he whispered. I turned and raised a brow. “It’s even better,” he added. We were grinning like idiots by the time Gandalf made his appearance.

So how was the release of Fellowship so life-altering? It reminded me of my former self. It reawakened the boy who had wanted so fervently to connect with story that he dared to imagine himself as the storyteller. I went home and immediately dug out my old box-set of LOTR and started reading. It was the first fiction I’d read in many years. I instantly fell back under the spell of well-told story.

Regained Perspective: Rereading LOTR helped me to make sense of a world that didn’t seem to make sense anymore. It reminded me of the real meaning of friendship and loyalty, of Frodo_Aragornthe importance of finding one’s own definition of honor in the face of death. For the sake of employment, I lived in a place I did not love, devoting much of my time and energy to earning a secure financial status. The Lord of the Rings reminded me of the significance of beauty and the exploration of emotions. It reminded me to appreciate a shared love. And of what the true ideal of home meant to me.

Canine Life-lessons: I mentioned the death of our Maggie earlier. When the day came, I was almost a year into the reawakening of my former self through rediscovering fiction. Saying goodbye to our girl was one of the most difficult and moving moments of my life. My wife and I both immediately knew things would never be the same afterward. She left us on a sunny autumn Friday morning. We couldn’t face going to work, so we drove to our cottage in Michigan, still in shock. When we arrived, before we even got out of the car, we were reminiscing about how excited Mag would get on the days we came to Michigan. She had known even before us—this was home. This was where we belonged.

Maggie had been with us through most of our successes in business. The presence of her spirit in our lives had been such a blessing—vital to our wellbeing during difficult years of hard work. But her life was over, and it had seemed so damn fleeting. Looking back on them, those years had been a blur. Because of her, we knew. None of the rest of it mattered. We belonged at home, exploring what really mattered, and finding it together.

Maggie taught us the true meaning of the words: Life’s too short.

Providence Moves: It was a bold step, leaving a lucrative business and moving to a cottage. But every step since we committed ourselves has been providential. In other words: “A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way.”

The move home led to much more reading, including Steven Pressfield’s Gates of Fire. Which led me to his website, which led me to The War of Art, which led me to the above quote as well as this one: “Are you a born writer?… In the end the question can only be answered by action. Do it or don’t do it.” Which led to me scribbling the beginnings of a story in a notebook while I waited at a jobsite for the concrete subcontractor, about a Gothic boy who was a scion and the warrior-girl who was secretly his guardian.

The Providential Road Goes Ever On: From a tentative beginning, and through a mostly secret drafting of my trilogy, I was led to exploration of the craft and business of fiction. Which led to Writer Unboxed. Which led me to finding myself as a writer—and thereby as a person. As well as all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings. Including some of the most wonderful and meaningful friendships of my life.

Mag on PinehurstSo those three words, life’s too short, the real wisdom of which was only learned because we gave our hearts to a dog, has led to all manner of insight and opportunities, the likes of which I could never have dreamed would come my way. So thanks, Mag.

What about you? Have you committed to a bold step? If so, has Providence moved for you, too? 

[Black and white photo of Maggie by Mike Lanka, of Lanka Photo]

Ambushed by Theme

“Starting with thematic concerns is a recipe for bad fiction. Good fiction always begins with story and progresses to theme; it almost never begins with theme and progresses to story…  But once your basic story is on paper, you need to think about what it means and enrich your following drafts with your conclusions. To do less is to rob your work (and eventually your readers) of the vision that makes each tale you write uniquely your own.” ~Stephen King (from On Writing)

A Slave Market in Rome, Jean-Leon GeromeIt’s Just a Simple Story: That’s what I kept telling myself and others while I worked on what became my epic fantasy trilogy. I started with a young man who is an heir to his clan’s chieftainship, and a young warrior-woman assigned to be his guardian. I kept reminding myself I was just telling their simple story, through the next six or so years and six hundred plus thousand words of prose. Um, yeah, it sort of spiraled on me.

But I honestly always considered the story simple, and rooted in the characters. I only stopped when I felt I’d told their story. Only in hindsight can I see the themes that arose in the telling. And, in the spirit of the trilogy’s epic length and breadth, quite a few themes did indeed arise. I suppose the most central and overarching one would be the importance of embracing one’s own freewill over an externally imposed fate, as I explored here.

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” ~ Flannery O’Connor

Reading back over the trilogy and thinking long and hard about what was bestowed upon me in the process, I’ve come to realize I’ve been ambushed by my muse. I set out with no intentions of addressing thematic concerns or to make any statements on societal issues. But no few such issues and concerns arose in spite of my intentions. In hindsight I see: racism, sexism, militarism, the imposition of religious dogma, obligation to family, and duty to community versus self-determination, to name a few. As an example of one of the totally unanticipated issues that my muse sprang on me, I give you slavery.

Muse-Induced Enthrallment: When I set out, I knew the ancient Roman Empire would play a substantialKirk Douglas as Spartacus role in the story. And I was also aware that Romans kept slaves. I mean, I have seen Spartacus. But I hadn’t thought too much more about it.

Very early in the plotting phase of my trilogy, I was looking for a reason for my protagonist’s father’s clan members and followers to have been kept completely separated from him through his childhood. An idea struck me: they had been defeated by the Romans, and were enslaved, as the conquered often were. It seemed so natural. Such a simple little layer to my simple little story. Oh, you sly muse. But, slave to her will that I am, I shrugged and added it to the storyline.

Little did I know that by book three, I would be featuring the POV of a Germanic slave-boy. Or that I would have a former slave reevaluating everything about his goals and motivations after seeing the slaves beneath him in a new light. Or that I would feature a highborn Roman, utterly accustomed to being constantly surrounded by slaves, come to question slavery because of newfound emotions instilled by a new slave in her service. By the end of the trilogy, the story is heavily entangled in the issue of slavery.

History’s Dirty Little Secret: Although it’s not really a secret if you look at the record, slavery was little more than a footnote in my school history lessons on, “The light of the A Roman Slave Market, by Jean-Leon Gerome (1884)western world,” as St. Jerome called the empire. By the time slavery reached its peak in the fourth century, slaves made up one third of the empire’s population, and over 40% of the city of Rome itself. Keep in mind, at this time Rome’s population was around one million (that’s 400,000 slaves, for those who haven’t had enough coffee to do the math).

Regarding the Goths, the subjects of my story, I’ve seen estimates of as many as 40,000 Gothic slaves being held in the Roman homeland by the start of the fifth century. Keep in mind, Constantine changed the official religion of the empire to Christianity in 313, and the Goth Ulfilas translated the Bible into Gothic and successfully converted the majority of Goths to Arian Christianity in the mid-300s. By the year 400, these were, for the most part, Christians keeping Christians as chattel.

“Beautiful writing is more than pretty prose. It creates resonance in readers’ minds with parallels, reversals, and symbols. It conjures a story world that is unique, highly detailed, and brought alive by the characters who dwell there. It offers moments of breath-catching surprise, heart-gripping insight, revelation, and self-understanding. It engages the reader’s mind with an urgent point, which we might call theme.” ~ Donald Maass (from Writing 21st Century Fiction)

Muse Gift: So although I say my muse ambushed me with themes, I consider her little surprises wonderful gifts. Slavery is one of the oldest and greatest crimes against humanity. It hadn’t been on my radar at the onset, but it became a prominent element in the goals, motivations, and conflicts of several of my major characters.

Although I do not lay claim to having achieved the “beautiful writing” Don refers to above, I aspire to it. Slavery became a vehicle to explore intense human emotions, such as shame, humiliation, elitism, compassion, love, hate, and vengefulness, to name a few. I’ve now viewed anew the destructive and subversive power of slavery, not just for the slaves, but for the slaveholders, and the slave-dependent society. As a theme, it offers detail, depth, and complexity to my story world.

Whether or not you believe they are muse bestowed, I know that seeking out and pondering the themes and symbols that arose in the process of storytelling continues to move me closer to achieving that depth of engagement with readers in Don’s quote. As a side-benefit, I continue to learn a lot about myself and what I think in the process. That’s a thematic win.

What surprises have you found in your work? Have you been ambushed by theme? How does it enrich your story?