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A Day in the Life of a Writer: Wisdom from McKee

I’m reading McKee’s Story along with one of my writing partners, and we’re both finding gems. Sure, screenwriters are the intended audience, but story structure is story structure. My favorite lines so far:

“But fact, no matter how minutely observed, is truth with a small “t.” Big “T” Truth is located behind, beyond, inside, below the surface of things, holding reality together or tearing it apart, and cannot be directly observed” (24).

Reminds me of quantum physics. Y’know how an electron seems to know when it’s watched? And it won’t move if you’re looking at it? At least, that used to be the case, but now they’ve found a way to trap an atom in a vacuum so they can watch it jump. Kind of sad, really. No more mystery. But Truth–now that is not something you can trap in a vacuum.

Sometimes little “t’ truth can magnify big “T” Truth, but the writer must lay those words down lightly, respectfully. For example, please don’t write an overwrought scene between a victim and her abuser and expect the reader to take away anything but a grimace. Seriously. Knock that shit off.

If you want to portray abuse, and you want to use “accurate reportage,” as McKee puts it, show everything but the victim, and refrain from telling your reader what those facts mean.

For example, a living room snapshot:

A clear glass ashtray sits neatly upside down on the rug, empty, but Shelly smells cigarette smoke. No, it smells more like a barbecue, she thinks.  It’s a distant scent, like it’s coming from the patio down the street, wafting through the window. The front door slams and she ducks in reflex, and suddenly the scent is up close. She hears a car peel away from the house at the same time she realizes she is sitting, naked, on a small pile of burning cigarettes.

That needs tweaking, but it should give you an idea of how you can give small details without hitting your reader over the head with angst. I think the angst is inevitable in a rough draft. Just eradicate it in your rewrites so your reader doesn’t want to stab his eyes out.


Wrestling with the story

For the past few years I’ve struggled with what I –and others–have perceived to be a gaping hole in my memoir.  Today I realized that the gaping hole is actually the end of that part of my story; I think I need to focus on excavating what I already have and delete what comes after.

I have wanted to fill the hole with my years as a mom, since I learned to understand my mother as I learned to understand myself.

But I have resisted this, and now I get why:  those years are not about Mama and me. They are part of another story.

Such a freeing revelation.

I realized this as I was reading Emma BrockesShe Left me the Gun at 2am this morning.  She writes,

It is a virtue, we are told, to face things, although given the chance I would go for denial every time–if denying a thing meant not knowing it. But the choice, it turns out, is not between knowing a thing and not knowing it, but between knowing and half-knowing it, which is no choice at all.  (I don’t know the page number, only that it is location 99 on my Kindle.)

I half-knew my mother was dying, but it felt like not knowing because every time I re-read a letter from her, I re-discovered that she had cancer.  I, too, choose denial.

So as I’m reading Brockes’ story, I’m inserting myself into the text and peripherally excavating and then I read this:

If the landscape that eventually emerged can be visualized as the bleakest thing I know–a British beach in winter–she stood around me like a windbreak so that all I saw was colors. A therapist once described my mother’s background…as the elephant in the room….” (location 122/Kindle)

Did Mama windbreak for me?  I see that I have been resting in that choiceless place of half-knowing.

Resting. Resisting.

Because I’m afraid of what I’ll find in the excavation. Not about Mama, but about me.

I relate to both the author and her mother–I see myself in both roles because my childhood experience is similar to her mother’s.
So I am excavating my own childhood, too, and evaluating my role as mother, since I severed ties in an attempt to protect my children from the poison of my past.


About the book:

Buy it.
My favorite thing right now, a third through, is the way Brockes keeps the reader at her side on the journey. I have an idea of what she will discover about her mother, but I am hoping for more details (which, by the way, reminds me that memoir IS story, and suspense is delightful).  The story–and the way she tells it–will make you reflect on your own relationship with your mother, which to me is the mark of a terrific storyteller.






NaNoWriMo: Day 13

About a year ago, as I was finishing up my thesis for my MFA in Creative Writing, I had a stroke. A small thalamic stroke, they called it. It happened on the day my thesis was due; I think I’d just emailed it when I noticed I was feeling numb on the left side of my body.  When I say numb, I don’t mean to the core.  It was just my skin that was affected by a tiny pinhole of a stroke in the region of my brain that controls the sense of touch.


Is it coincidental that something erupted in my brain when I was writing about being molested as a kid?  I think there’s a connection:  my body finally said enough of this bullshit.  After two years of dredging up childhood abuse, it was just time to stop.   And so I have, for over a year.  I was afraid of causing another stroke if I went back to revise, even if I was balancing it out with all the good in my life.  The brain is the one thing in my body that I don’t have a handle on –a stroke isn’t like getting period cramps or even a headache.  That sucker hits you with no warning, not even a pop to let you know a blood vessel’s awry.

I have two symptoms that remind me of the stroke:  the ball of my left foot feels like it’s asleep, and the left side of my gut has what feels like a brick in it.  That brick is my barometer for stress.  Most days it’s a faint sensation, but when I’m feeling any kind of stress, the heavy feeling comes back full force.


I’m a little jittery about writing. I wonder if I can trick my brain into thinking I’m writing about someone else, or if I can pull back enough to be able to view events from a distance—and it is a distance, of years.  Writing it, though, makes it immediate.  I have no trick for creating psychic space, but I’m hoping that this year off has worked some time-magic and I’ll find the psychic safety net is already there.
Here’s to the brick in my gut.

NaNoWriMo: Day 6

Apparently it was of catastrophic importance that I clean house today.   After waking at 3:59am thanks to booming music from the neighbors, I cast a bleary eye at the kitchen and must have made a subliminal decision to clean because that’s what’s I’ve done a good deal of the day.  (I went back to bed at 4:15, although my neighbors did not. Music went off at 5:38am.)

I have not written for three days; I’ve been stuck.  This is ironic, given that I’m revising one work, and the other’s been in my head for a couple of years. I just —sit.

Here at the keyboard, my muse hibernates, yet manages to throw shiny distractions out.  Okay, so it’s not my muse doing that. It’s a little demon called perfectionism.  That thing made me get up yesterday and go for a WALK, which otherwise would be good medicine, but it was procrastination at its finest. I can rationalize a walk, and cleaning house, even sleeping. I’m an expert.

F.E.A.R. Tony Robbins states that this is False Evidence Appearing Real.  So I must ferret out what scares me the most and call it what it is: a ghost.  No, not a ghost; they scare me, too.  What’s not scary?  I could follow Sandler’s Water Boy visualization of babies, but that’s just not for me.

A scarf isn’t scary.  And it’s silly enough to make me giggle.
Oh. God, now I’m delirious. Please, just let me write.  Even if it sucks.

So, once more into the fray.  I’d really like to have something of note to report on Day 7.

A day in the life of a writer: trashing pages

I forgot to mention that I’ve been working on the same pages for several months. Not every day, just for my monthly assignments. I got them honed to bland acceptability, and realized yesterday that I will have to trash them all.

I was kinda proud of those pretty words and at least two of the characters. But as interesting as all that was, it went nowhere. Well, except to a tight, windowless, baffling corner. It just wasn’t working. I’ve been struggling to make my characters do something interesting, and one of them drove off, another went haring off after that one, and the last just sulked in her office.

There was some funny dialogue, but the story itself was like a face with no eyebrows or lashes. Or lips. No nose.


So I’m starting over from scratch with characters who have agendas, and already, before word one, I know the story will take off.

I’m sharing this because I know there may be other writers who are fighting a bland storyline. If that’s you, try working with Debra Dixon’s Goal, Motivation, and Conflict. You’ll be relieved to discover that the problem is fixable.