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What If?

Module Three in Donald’s storyline conference is called, “Inciting Incidents.” The writer in me loves the alliteration in those two words and I also like that the first word is often a misnomer used by little kids for “exciting.” It’s a cute play on words.

In stories, characters don’t take action unless they have to. Bilbo Baggins had no desire to go on an adventure — “Nasty disturbing things! Make you late for dinner!” But Gandalf marks his door, nonetheless, and deftly selects him as the lucky 14th member of the dwarves’ quest. All of sudden, Bilbo finds himself being shoved out the door without any pocket handkerchiefs and off he goes.

Harry Potter would have continued to just be the kid bullied at school if Hagridhadn’t shown up to whisk him away to Hogwarts.

Rubeus Hagrid
Rubeus Hagrid

In the Bible story of Joseph, the inciting incident is Joseph sold as a slave and taken into Egypt. In the Godfather, it is when Michael’s father gets shot — until then, he didn’t want to get messed up in the “family business”. In Gone With the Wind, I would say the inciting incident is when Ashley marries Melanie — all the rest of the novel is Scarlett’s scheming to get him back.

People tend to seek comfort, security and stability, and unless some action or person throws their lives into upheaval, they stay the same.

People look at other people’s lives and say, “I wish my life was exciting like theirs.” But, they may not know that an exciting life is just an inciting incident away.

Sometimes, inciting incidents happen to us. We lose our job. We have a car wreck. We meet someone. Someone invites us to somewhere amazing.

But especially in America, we insulate ourselves from this possibility. In many ways, we are like hobbits — we like our first and second breakfasts and hate to be late for dinner and when faced with an adventure … we tend to discount them as nasty, disturbing things!

The secret of a life that is also a good story is this: we must open ourselves up  to inciting incidents. We prep ourselves to say ‘yes’ when the moment comes.

And, if opportunity fails to knock, we own the power to create our own inciting incidents.

I met a darling older lady at one of Paul’s art shows. She said, “I always said I wanted to travel. One day, I realized that I was saying the same old thing all the time and I hadn’t even bought a passport. I went and got one. A week later, someone invited me to Brazil in a week and since I had my passport, I had little excuse to say ‘no’. I had just gotten hired at a new job, but I decided that this was too good an opportunity to pass up. I told my employers that I was going and made the necessary adjustments. I ended up meeting important political officials, staying in palaces, and doing things I could never have imagined before I bought that passport.”

An inciting incident is buying that passport.

It might be writing, “Chapter One” at the top of a paper. Or, it might be putting money down at a recording studio to record that song. It could be buying the ring and proposing. Or saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the question. It might be ending a relationship and walking out the door.

In Module Three, you’ll list inciting incidents that force you toward the ambition you defined within each role.

For example,

Writer: I’m going to write the novel. I’m going to finish it. I’m going to set a deadline and follow it. Then, I’m going to a writer’s conference and pitch it to someone.

Wife: Paul and I have built our lives on dreams of adventure. We bought our passports last summer. Next, we need to get out of the states. Inciting incident might be buying the plane tickets.

Mother: I started to plan dates with each of my girls, one-on-one. Then I got distracted. I should start it again. For some reason, relationship building with them as a group doesn’t offer the relationships I want with each of them. I must set aside alone time. I must not allow my time with them to fill up with tasks. The daughter in front of me is the focus. If they are important to me, they should see it by the time I lavish upon them. I don’t want them to be boxes I check off. I don’t want to them to be “my duty”.

Friend: Fun usually comes last for me. To me, having fun is getting things done. Task-oriented, I tend to view that coffee date or that trip out-of-town as an “interruption”. C.S. Lewis says, “Life is the interruptions.” I must open myself up to the many “interruptions” that come my way and participate fully in them, without guilt or impatience. I want to relax and feel the joy and peace with friends or family. Taking a break from being inside my head helps my thought processes to flow smoother. I never walk away from “friend-time” empty-handed. I’ve always gained something important to my life.

Inciting incidents are all about taking action. A list of inciting incidents should contain action verbs:

leave, go, take, jump, run, dive, speak, pray, buy, sell, talk to, dance with, enroll in, sign up for, write a song for, tear down a wall, plant a tree, rent a jet ski, bring flowers to

A great way to stimulate inciting incident ideas is to play the What if? game.

The What if? game is a tool writers use to get their stories moving. What if my character quit his job? What if my character popped the question?

By doing this, a writer can choose a potential new direction for his story.

The key is to brainstorm without judgment. Ask yourself What if? and let loose. Allow the ideas to be as crazy as you like. Want to connect with your daughter? Buy her a pony, take her to NASA, sail around the world. No ideas are off-limits.

From there, you’ll actually narrow down some inciting incidents that are exciting yet actually doable.

What if I took the summer off from running the kids around to finish the book?

A good quality example of a Dartmoor Pony. The...

What if I took Elsa on a trip to visit her dog we had to give away?

What if I bought a pony for Dagne?

What if I played basketball with Ingrid?

What if I signed Greta up for an open-mike night and watched her sing and play?

What if I signed up for a writer’s conference? What if signed up for a webinar? What if I went to New York to visit a publishing company or an agent’s office just to learn about the business? What if I wrote to another writer I admire to ask for advice?

What if we took a trip around the states?

What if we left without ever intending to come back?

What if I bought tickets to Italy for Paul and me? Positano? Mmmm. Or maybe Mexico — kayaking in the Sea of Cortez?

Vue de Positano depuis la Plage

What if we said goodbye to teaching?

After brainstorming, I should narrow the inciting incidents to things  I can actually do.

1) Plan that trip with Elsa

2) Sign Dagne up for horse-riding lessons

3) Play basketball with Ingrid

4) Take Greta “busking” — just learned that word — it’s when musicians play on the street for money.

5) Sign her up for an open-mike session.

6) Buy a passport for Greta. Over the course of the next year, buy a passport for Ingrid and Dagne.

7) Go on a trip with Paul, just the two of us. We can’t afford to get out of the states, yet, but we can still go kayaking somewhere cool. We live in one of the most beautiful places in the world. Enjoy it!

8) Sign up for a writing webinar. It’s less money and less risky. I should just try it.

9) Take a trip through the Redwoods and visit Scott and Dawn in Santa Cruz for a birding/surfing expedition.

I have a list of inciting incidents. Next, I should take action and do them! Donald says,

To make a story happen, the character has to do something. It’s time to jump into a better story!

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Bucket Lists

I just published an article on Bucket List Publications, an online magazine that is all about people accomplishing their dreams. Lesley Carter, the editor, encourages you to submit your own bucket list. Through donations from investors, Lesley helps people cross off an item on their bucket lists. She’s a legit traveler in the field of dreams. Her husband and she quit their jobs, sold everything, moved to their dream scene in Southern California, and started accomplishing things on their bucket list including starting an online magazine. Pretty cool!

Anyway, I submitted mine and included both dreams within my reach and dreams far beyond it:

1. finish the novel

2. get it published

3. bird in South Padre Island with my family

4. see the elegant trogan

5. do a pilgrimage on the Camino d’ SantiagoImage Detail

6. walk the Pacific Crest Trail with llamas

7. visit Patagonia

8. relax at a beach for a week

9. visit a great art museum with my family: MOMA, the Art Institute in Chicago, the Louvre, or the Prado

10. spend time with my grandmother in Sacramento and write her life story

11. backpack Europe

12. spearfish in Greece

13. sail on the Mediterranean

14. listen to a live symphony

15. take my daughters to a ballet

16. plan a surprise trip for my husband — he turns 40.

17. read Tolstoy‘s War and Peace

18. family camp around the states

19. create a steady income from my writing

20. attend a writer’s conference and meet agents

21. sea kayak in the Sea of Cortez

22. surf and bird in Hawaii

23. make homemade pasta

24. read Huck Finn with my family and discuss it

25. volunteer at a soup kitchen

I would love to hear from my readers. Please share yours with me or Bucket List Publications. May you dream big and may many of them come true!

Just as I was about to push the publish button, I remembered some more:

The Radcliffe Camera in Oxford, England as vie...

26. literary pub crawl through Great Britain

27. attend a literature class at a college in Oxford

28. ride a bike across Portugal and visit the wineries

29. become a literature professor

30. see Boston with my best friend

Brainstorming My Backstory

I attended Donald Miller‘s Storyline Conference in Portland on Monday and Tuesday. Paul told me to forget all responsibilities and go.

So, I went.

The title (like many of Donald’s titles) is confusing. It implies that the conference is for writers, but it’s not. The goal of the conference is to use what writers know to write a good life. We started by defining story, which is the account of a series of events. But a story can be hopelessly boring when it doesn’t go anywhere or we don’t like the characters. As the main characters in our life stories, we need to desire something enough to work to get it and take some risks to get there.

My next few blog posts will show my working through these exercises. If you want to join me — great! And post it so we can all map it together. That’s how the big-wigs do it — everything goes up on the whiteboard and they begin to work out the plot points with everyone pitching in to help.

EXERCISE ONE/Your Backstory

This exercise is to list all my “story turns.” A story turn is something that happens to the character which cannot be reversed. Positive or negative, life will never be the same. A person between 30 and 40 experiences between fifteen and twenty story turns. This is not a list of happy or sad events, it’s a record of Rubicons: points of no return.

Some questions that might help me reveal my story turns are these:

1) What three or four people have had the greatest effect on your life? Do you remember them saying or doing anything that changed your life?

* My mother gave me a strong moral compass, a sense of right and wrong. Her sixth sense (which she called The Lord) caused her to catch me whenever I did wrong. Her strong intuition made me afraid to cross her advice. She was smart and convicted. I wanted to forgo college for awhile and travel — either work as a nanny in Europe or on a Mercy Ship. She convinced me to go away to college. No one knows what would have happened if I followed my own wants, but my going to college definitely set me on a course that changed my life.

* Pil was my “tico” boyfriend in Costa Rica while I was on an exchange program. By that time, I had left behind my childhood faith, enamored with some sort of All-knowing Being or Unified Spirit in the world. I enjoyed learning about the Mayan, Aztec, and Incan religions and about anything that wasn’t familiar. With Pil, I had a strange spiritual experience that brought me to a crisis of faith. The experience was so powerful that I accepted my childhood faith and have no reason to doubt it.

* I returned home and got extremely sick. My first day feeling well (about a week later), I met Paul. Though I had sworn off relationships, I fell head-over-heels in love. I still hoped to travel, but I got married and helped Paul finish college. Then, I went back to college. And he continued college. Elsa arrived a month before he received his master’s degree.

* My sister Elida caused me to go to Europe twice more after going with my parents. The first was sort of a bachelorette party before I married. The second happened a year ago September. I turned down two full-time jobs, started a blog, and left for Italy. Somehow, gutsy moves are accompanied by Elida.

* Our best friends, Robin and Jason, have chiseled our dreams with us. These past two years, Robin helped me to stay firm in my decisions to turn down the full-time jobs to write. Both of them have encouraged me to write and helped me to set goals.

* Peter Thomas accepted my first magazine article. He said, “Well, it’s obvious you can write.” Those words meant the world to me. Regardless of his ability to judge, I took those words as a confirmation to follow my dream. Between nursing babies and homeschooling and chauffeuring and being in love, I kept writing.

* When I was pregnant with Elsa, I thought I’d stick her in daycare like everyone else was doing. I had a great job. Paul just got his teaching degree. We had school debts to pay. It was my mom who said, “Danielle, you’re not going to stick her in daycare.” She says things like that — just sort of speaks things into existence. I knew I couldn’t do it. And when I saw Elsa, when she was there, I didn’t want to. Elsa started me on a whole new course in life — homemaking.

2) What is your single greatest accomplishment? I think of a school I started with Heather. Facing teacher cuts, we decided to found a school based on Charlotte Mason method in the middle of a recession and in a town that was hard hit by the recession. It was a brazen thing to do. We actually succeeded. Everything was ready. The rest is a sad story. The plan was hijacked by the administrator we chose. Even though it wasn’t a lasting success, I feel like the fact that we got it to the point we did was a huge accomplishment. Other things that come to mind are my blogs which were written under extreme financial difficulties and pressure. We risked a lot for me to stay home, home educate, and write rather than work. And my family. I am very proud of who we are, how close we are, the things we find important. Growing a family requires sacrifice and love and courage. I think we have that.

3) What was the saddest day of your life?I was really broken up when I thought I had a path to run on (Bend in the snow) and it turned out to be a disappointment. I was really sad and scared when Greta had some unexplained health problems as a baby. I shed some bitter tears with my sister over the things she’s experienced with the breakup of her family.

4) What were the educational milestones of your life? I graduated from college in 1994 with a B.A. in writing and lit. I went back to school to get my teaching degree and received it in 1996. I wish I’d never done that. I wish I had the courage to pursue the writing. It didn’t seem practical back then. I was making nothing at the newspaper. Still, I wish I had stuck it out.

5) What was your first real job? I worked at a bookstore when I was a teen. When I was in college, I worked three jobs one summer to buy a car — babysat, washed dishes and bussed, and worked on an assembly line at HP. My first real job was a paid internship at the Graphic newspaper as a writer. I worked a bunch of temp jobs before landing my first teaching job as an ESL teacher in Hillsboro.

6) What are your greatest relational memories? Meeting Paul. Marrying Paul. Honeymooning with Paul. We camped all over Washington and Montana and slept in the back of a little pickup. I love traveling with him. We have so much fun. We hike and explore and there is no friction. Everything is so easy. We had our girls, each in a new place: Elsa in Portland, Greta in Kennewick, Ingrid in Vancouver, and Dagne in Prineville. My grandparents took all the kids and grandkids to Chile. That was pretty amazing. Speaking of that, it was the traveling that made my favorite memories. My parents took us on a trip around the states. We backpacked in Europe for a month. Paul and I took the kids to South Padre Island, Texas on an epic trip around half the states. Anne went with us.

7) Have you lost somebody you love? No one to whom we’re very close. Paul’s grandmother just passed away. We were lucky to have just visited her and see her in good spirits. My grandfather died a few years ago. I spent time with him as a child but we weren’t very close. I miss him though. We’ve had loved aunts and uncles go, but they were not sudden or unexpected.

8) What was your greatest mistake?I wished I would have traveled with Paul after getting my B.A. and started straight into writing. I wish I would have believed in myself then. I wish I didn’t feel conscience bound to be “practical,” but just forged ahead with my passion for words.

This was just a brainstorming session. I’ll make the actual list another day. I’d love to read other readers’ answers to these questions. Please share.

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