Living in a Narrative Culture

Some days are like slogging through a desert.

Some days are like slogging through a desert.

During this last week while I’ve juggling several different aspects of my life and making myself exhausted and frustrated, I’ve been pulled by memories every which way. The stories of my life. Moments of clarity, moments of pure joy like stomping hard in a rain puddle. Exchanging moments of personal history with co-workers. Knowing failure intimately. A realization emerged from all of this: I am not the only one drawn to stories during times of high stress.

The Writer November 2016

The Writer November 2016

I read on the city bus commute to and from work. This week I was reading the newest issues of The Atlantic Monthly and The Writer.  The November 2016 issue of the latter is chock full of interesting ideas and information, especially about computers and blogging. Megan Kaplon interviewed the food blogger Elissa Altman about her blog Poor Man’s Feast and her recent memoirs.  One of Altman’s comments stuck out for me. She was talking about how we live in a “narrative culture,”  programmed to expect that all the loose threads of a story will be tied into a neat bow at the end. She continues:

“…life is not really this way: we don’t all live happily ever after. That’s fantasy; that’s fairy tale. Reality is steeped in the unknown, the discomfiting, the ambiguous.”

This comment slapped me flat on my forehead. Duh! I’ve been consuming novels lately like a starving woman and now I know the reason for my urgent reading. I’ve been trying to keep reality at bay! Even in our nonfiction, we want there to be a “happy ending.” But are stories for escape or for learning? Or both? And as a writer, am I a teacher or an entertainer? Providing the reader/escapist’s drug of choice?

Our world right now threatens us. The media each day bombards us with stories of destruction, death, discrimination, injustice, pain, and fear. It doesn’t help that America has a candidate for president who fuels all the fear and paranoia. No one individual, however, has control over it all. I don’t. You don’t. That sense of powerlessness leaves us fearful as well. We don’t know when the terrorism will stop, if it will stop, if we will be a victim, if someone we love will be a victim, if the hatred will increase and spread to consume us. We want to be safe, secure, and happy, and to be successful. We want good things not bad. So why have we ended up with such a frightening place to live?

Photo: Marina Shemesh

Photo: Marina Shemesh

In stories, we read a beginning, a middle full of conflict, obstacles and suspense, and an ending, usually one in which the protagonist achieves his or her goal, although sometimes not.  When we read this structure in a story, it creates a sense of control over a narrative that we do not have in real life. So, I read mysteries and thrillers, and these stories feel familiar to my real life, so their endings (where the protagonist prevails as well as justice) give me a sense of control I don’t have in my life. I learned a long time ago that I have control only over my own thoughts, feelings and behavior.

Change can be difficult and requires openness to learning and ease of adaptation. Change is the only constant in the universe. We will have it in every day of our lives, both tiny and massive. Reading books can anchor us so we can tolerate and embrace change in our lives. We share our stories, too, with friends and family every time we tell them about our experiences. We live in a narrative culture.

I think the human need for story, for narrative, is a little bit of genius to enable our survival.


Writing Sex

book-cover-keytorebeccaDuring the last week, I’ve been reading a thriller written in the early 1980’s by Ken Follett entitled The Key to Rebecca.  I’d read his The Eye of the Needle when it first was published and loved it. Follett had written an explicit sex scene in that book, as I recall, so the sex scenes in Rebecca haven’t been a surprise to me. On GoodReads, however, I read several comments complaining about the sex scenes in Rebecca being too explicit, even pornographic.

As a writer, I appreciate that it’s difficult to write sex scenes, and I’ve written before at this blog about writing love scenes and writing sex scenesRebecca provides a good example of how to write successful sex scenes that reveal character and move the story forward. Follett does a masterful job of this.

First, in Rebecca, Follett reveals motivation for each character with stunning (and refreshing) clarity. We learn early what Alex Wolff wants that will drive his behavior. He is a user. He uses people to achieve his goals. Part of this strategy is to ferret out their weaknesses, assess their strengths, and then figure out how to gain power and control over them to achieve his goals. Sex is a part of his arsenal. He recognizes that he does not see sex as an expression of love or affection. It is about gaining physical pleasure for himself as well as power over his partner. He calls it “lust.”

Cairo, Egypt (photo: public domain)

Cairo, Egypt (photo: public domain)

Major Vandam’s motivation focuses on insuring that the British defeat the Germans in Egypt. He works in military intelligence in Cairo but possesses a much higher level of integrity and morality than Wolff. Sex doesn’t really enter into his personal actions to achieve his goal because 1) he’s focused on his job and taking care of his son, 2) he’s a recent widower and 3) he doesn’t see sex as a tool of control and power. He is a lover not a user. However, his job requires him to recruit people who may end up in the thrall of the lustful Wolff, and he’s not above encouraging his operatives to use sexual attraction to gain Wolff’s interest and lure him out.

And finally, there’s Elene Fontana, who’s real name is Abigail Asnani. She wants to go home. What “home” means for her, however, remains a mystery to the reader for a while, as well as a mystery to Elene, for what she thinks she wants may not be what she really wants. She has been traumatized in her childhood, and has spent the last few years working as a kept woman for a series of wealthy businessmen. She has used her body and her beauty to survive in Cairo, but deep down she’s not happy about it. Her ambivalence toward sex will provide interesting developments as the story progresses and she meets Vandam.

Understanding the characters gives the sex scenes during the story meaning. Seeing how they respond in that intimate, vulnerable situation reveals character. Some of the sex scenes function as a way to move the story forward as when Wolff recruits his “friend” Sonja, with her own sexual goals, to seduce his target. Reading a sex scene essentially devoid of emotion can be disturbing unless the reader can put it into the context of the characters’ motivations.

ken_follettOnce or twice I thought, as I read, that a sex scene could have used a bit more editing to increase suspense in the layering of motivations and action. But otherwise, I thought Follett succeeded in the way he made sex an important element of the story. The next time you read a novel that includes sex scenes, ask yourself about the characters’ motivations, how the sexual behavior reveals character or moves the story forward. Sex, after all, is a part of human life and can be a powerful tool in a writer’s toolbox for creating riveting stories and human characters.

Stephen Hough’s Rules for Concert-going

Pianist Stephen Hough (Photo from

Pianist Stephen Hough (Photo from

I’ve written about how to attend a classical music concert before on this blog here and here.  Stephen Hough agrees with me!  I wanted to share his thoughts about attending the BBC Proms.  Enjoy!


Learning and Growing as a Writer

Thanks to "No, I do NOT have too many books!" on Facebook for photo.

Thanks to “No, I do NOT have too many books!” on Facebook for photo.

“…you cannot grow in the great art form, the integration of action and contemplation, without (1) a strong tolerance for ambiguity, (2) an ability to allow, forgive, and contain a certain degree of anxiety, and (3) a willingness to not know and not even need to know. This is how you allow and encounter mystery….”           — Father Richard Rohr

Allow and encounter mystery. Collaborating with my imagination means allowing and encountering mystery. I have no idea how it works, I just know it does and that’s enough for me. I tolerate not knowing, ambiguity, and anxiety in order to participate in this collaboration because I know it works, it’s fun, and it is deeply satisfying.

Above my desk is a post-it in light green and on it I’ve written “TRUST in the PROCESS.” Let go of control. Play. Trust my imagination. As I’ve been working on Perceval’s Shadow this past week, I’ve realized that my imagination demands that I tell Evan Quinn’s story even if it takes me five novels to do it and a totally unknown amount of time. That is certainty I’ve not felt before. It rides on a sense that even though I’ve been away from Evan and his story for a while, he has not gone anywhere, but has waited patiently for me to return. I find this both reassuring and spooky.


Then today, as I was digging through my pile of notes for things to write at this blog, I found the quote above, and a list entitled “Lessons Learned from a Private Investigator” without attribution. I suspect I’d saved the latter because of the note about the website where the writer had found the list:  This website is for a private investigation business in New York that also has a blog. The writer, a mystery writer, noted that he/she spent a lot of time researching websites, blogs, and books by police, agents and private investigators for her/his writing and had found this particular website’s blog. The list could be also titled “Lessons Learned from My Years as a Writer.” Here’s the list:

  1. Always be learning. Learn by doing and observing others.
  2. Know thyself. Know your strengths and where you need help, and don’t be shy about either.
  3. Differentiate yourself. Don’t be ordinary. Create a brand.
  4. Authenticity. Being genuine and authentic is very attractive these days when the world is wrought with fake and “Buy my book.”
  5. Stick to your principles. Be honest and straightforward. Protect your reputation.
  6. Be helpful. Good things happen when you lend a helping hand.
  7. Don’t be everything to everyone. Pick your genre, find your readership base, and avoid trying to write for every reader out there.
  8. Do work you are proud of. If you write slow, so be it. If you write Christian, erotica, YA, whatever the style, voice, genre, own it.
  9. You are never the smartest or dumbest person in the room. Ask questions. Learn more. Help others do the same.
  10. Don’t stop thinking of new ideas. You’re in a creative environment, and change is happening all around you. Be constantly seeking ways to be unique.
  11. Adapt. This industry changes fast. Roll with that change.
  12. Embrace technology. Yes, that means learning ways to publish, brand, and network, whether you like it or not.
  13. Follow the facts. Make decisions or form opinions based upon fact, not rumors, gossip, innuendos, or half-truths.
  14. Be inspired. Be aware of the world around you.
  15. Do great work. Don’t shortchange the quality of your writing.
  16. Be skeptical. Operate with a critical eye. Don’t fall for the latest class, how-to, software, or book that claims to teach you the perfect way to (fill in the blank).
  17. Persistence. Probably the most important of the list, persistence carries you through those times when you think you should not be writing.

And then I would add two more, two very specific things:

  • Read everything but especially read what you love because that is what you will write. I learn something from every novel, essay, poem, short story, or nonfiction book I read.
  • Write something everyday. Even if it’s only a paragraph in your journal or a letter to a friend, write, write, write.

If you haven’t already found it, here’s my job description for a creative writer.

Keep writing, learning, and growing!

Credit: Walt Disney

Credit: Walt Disney

Getting Started

What happens is I write a first sentence, then I read the sentence that I’ve just written, and then I immediately erase that sentence; then I begin anew by writing another first sentence for a completely different story; then another first sentence for another story, so on and so forth.” Courtney Eldridge, Unkempt

This week, Ideas have inundated my mind. Ideas for essays. Ideas for characters. Ideas for cleaning. Ideas for what to read. I experience no shortage of ideas. The challenge from Ideas is to lasso them, get them to stand still long enough for me to write them down. Writing first sentences can be that way, as Courtney Eldridge writes in the quote above. Also returning to a large writing project after several years.

Photo: Marina Shemesh

Photo: Marina Shemesh

It astonishes me that it’s been nine years since I’ve worked on Perceval’s Shadow or P2, the second novel in the Perceval series. A lot has happened during those nine years, of course, and I’m grateful that I captured so many of my ideas on paper nine years ago before moving on to P3, Perceval in Love. I had finished the first draft!  I’d written a chapter by chapter synopsis! I had extensive notes on the characters and their motivations, as well as rewrite notes, and notes on what I needed to do during the first rewrite, i.e. research. The actual writing of the first draft is the easy part, true. What happens next, though, separates the real professional novelists from the amateurs.

The first step in re-entering Evan Quinn’s world to work on the P2 first revision is to read through all my notes. Write down any ideas that come to mind. Done.

The second step is to read through the first draft with pen and paper close by to make notes along the way. I’ve just begun this step. It’ll take me several weeks as I do this work when I’m not at the part-time job or doing other things for life. I’ll be looking at the structure first and foremost. Then the plot points. Then the story. The characters and their development. I’ll make a note of any questions I have about locations or anything else that I’ll need to research.


The third step is the actual revision work. Chapter by chapter, page by page, paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence, word by word. I won’t be paying as much attention to grammar, syntax, spelling, or word choice in this revision as I will the bigger issues of structure, character, plot and story. Dialogue, too, but I lump dialogue in with character. The overarching question for this revision is Does it all go together and make sense?

I’m excited. I’ve been thinking about this novel for a long time. My curiosity has finally won out — what did I write? Does it work? Is it exciting? What about the characters? Will I love it?

emerging sculpture

This process resembles the way Michelangelo worked on his sculptures, taking a huge chunk of marble and chipping away at it to find to form within. Then shaping that form in the marble, revealing the lines, curves, crevasses, shadows and surface textures emerging from the stone. It takes time. Patience. Dedication and obsession.

I hope I’m up to the task.