Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Live a Better Story

The beginning of my pursuit of writing began last year. I started reading a book recommended by a creative writing professor at Vanderbilt called Writing Fiction, a Guide to Narrative Craft, by Janet Burroway. Writing Fiction is a text that walks the reader through the many elements and qualities of a compelling story and provocative writing. Like Donald Miller in his new book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, I have gotten excited as I connect the components of what it takes to write a good story to what it takes to LIVE a good story. Story is a theme I am thinking about daily. How do we live out this narrative we experience as life and how does it connect to the larger Meta-Narrative? These questions have reinforced for me anew my hope in the Christian story laid out in the Bible and have pushed me to ask myself how my personal story fits in that larger mystery.

Guided by Donald Miller's latest blog entry, Living a Good Story, An Alternative to New Year's Resolutions, I have decided to apply the elements of writing a good story to living a better story. As outlined in his post, instead of New Years Resolutions, I am going to "think in narrative rather than goals. The goals get met in the journey of the story."

To start, a story begins with a character who wants something enough to endure conflict and suffering to get it.
" order to engage our attention and sympathy, the protagonist must want, and want intensely. The thing that the character wants need not be violent or spectacular; it is the intensity of the wanting that introduces an element of danger."- pg. 33, Burroway.
So, here's question number 1. at the start of 2010: What do I want? Though I have several desires for this year, I think I will only focus on a few to be intense about. :) The "intensity" thing wears me out a bit. I'm not sure how much danger I want. Though, if I look at it that way, I can always avoid danger by choosing several TV shows to really be into this year. I could make sure to catch every episode, sacrificing all that comes in my way. But, I remember quickly, that doesn't make a good story. And who wants to look back at the end of 2010 and say they had a great year keeping up with what happens to Quinn Fabray's baby (not saying that a healthy obsession with the love triangle of Quinn, Finn and Puck is wrong, it just isnt very soul-fulfilling, in the end.)

One of the things I do want is to grow as a writer. I am willing to give up some things: mainly money (MFA programs are no joke). I will battle the fear that I am wasting our families financial resources. (They could be used to send Ellie to camp or get Atticus stellar drum lessons, or even more guilt: to buy Dave professional photography equipment that will grow his business! O the guilt!) I also have to let go of my deeply imbedded bad theology that leads me to believe that "nurturing my creative self" is selfish and, honestly, a bit new-agey. (Yes, I KNOW that God is Creator and by creating I am "imaging" him. But knowing something and believing it are two completely different things altogether!)

Another component that makes a good story, as outlined beautifully by Mr. Miller, is the "climactic scene". Writers know a story always leads to the pivotal scene. All of the action is leading up to that one event.
"They know their entire movie is heading toward that scene where Frodo throws the ring into the fire. And they write the movie to get him there."
That leads to Question #2: What scene am I headed for? What is my climactic scene? I am currently applying for grad schools. Its fairly exhausting work. I had to study for the GRE and suffer the pain of having my intelligence quantified by that stupid left-brain dominated exam (My boss told me to stop ripping the scab off that wound, but clearly I enjoy watching the blood letting!) I also had to write twenty-five pages for a writing sample. I have to still write a critical analysis of a literary work, and so on. However, this IS all headed somewhere: To my first "Writers in Residence" experience! I am applying for low-residency MFA programs that will include 7-10 days on campus going to workshops, writing, dialoguing, and editing my and others' pieces. In effect, I get to spend a whole week taking my creative self seriously! I get to call myself a writer!

I picture myself in a group of the cool kids (or, to be more realistic, a weirdo ecclectic group of socially awkward, potentially introverted, writer-types) discussing the political, social and spiritual problems of the world and then inspiring one another to write about them creatively (all while eating our lunch from a plastic tray from the university's dining hall). The scene includes my sitting underneath a tree on the university lawn writing til my hand falls off, sitting in an auditorium taking extensive notes from a lecture given by one of my favorite writers...Donald Miller, perhaps?

Don advises that, "Once you have that climactic scene in mind, you’ll know the scenes it takes to get there. Also, write this stuff down. Even if you just throw it away, write down what that climactic scene looks like, smells like and feels like. It will get in your brain and like a good protagonist in a great movie, you’ll wake every day knowing what you are supposed to do with your time."

Characters don't want to change. We really don't like it. We fight against it. We sit on our couches and watch too much because we like comfort. Characters in a story need INCITEMENT, something that forces them to change. "An inciting incident is the event in a movie that causes upheaval in the protagonist life. The protagonist, then, naturally seeks to return to stability. And in order to do that, he HAS to solve his new problem. In Taken, Liam Neeson’s daughter is kidnapped and he MUST find her."

Question 3: What will force me to do this? Well, first of all, embarrassment. I have just told the blogging world my goal. If I don't do it, if I flake on my deadlines and don't get into any school, I have to admit it. Bringing people into my story has helped. Melinda Franklin (as previously defined as my Editor) and my other writing partner, Leslie Mitchell, have read my short story, spent time editing it, and care what I do with it. I will let them down if I don't follow through. They will have wasted their time. I do not want to let them down! Telling people my deadlines, for example, is another way to incite me to action. January 15th and March 1. All the schools I am applying to are due around then. Now, see there, I HAVE to turn them in on time because some of you are going to ask me about it. And, again, I do not want to fail you. :)

I will also need to make some extra dough for it to happen, and I think that fits in the "overcoming conflict bit", but I will try to figure out the inciting incident that will force me to make the money to pay for tuition. I'll need more time to think of that one. I'm not really motivated easily there. Any suggestions?

As I continue to pursue being a better writer, and the small hilly obstacles on the horizon get closer, I see that they are not actually hills, but mountains. Maybe Donald Miller's conference in Portland will inspire me! Don directly applies literary concepts and techniques that he has learned at various conferences about how to write a better story to how to life a better life.  Do you wanna go with me?

Check out the conference link here: or watch his video add for his conference:


  1. As always you come at the perfect time.. i need to combat the overwhelming urge to collapse and give in - i need to realise if indeed i am a " character who wants something enough to endure conflict and suffering to get it"

    i hope so.

    funnily enough seeing it in narrative does seem to work wonders!

  2. Don't let me down.

    Melinda, Editor (I sound so important I could weep)

  3. great post as usual. you are going places.

    hmmm... an inciting incident that will force you to make money for tuition. i guess i could purchase that canon 7D. that might apply a little more pressure when you check our bank balance. ???

  4. 6 days left for deadline number 1. get moving girl! love reading your blog posts..they inspire and 'incite' me. :)

  5. lovely! so happy to have found it and to find you figuring out what ignites the passion. Still working on that myself...I might be getting somewhere. We miss you! (I said Ellie's name at church on Sunday and Eliza almost cried.)