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Storyline Conference

Climactic Scenes

Stories are defined by their climactic scenes.

Imagine the foggy airport and Humphrey Bogart telling Ingrid Bergman:

…I’ve got a job to do too. Where I’m going, you can’t follow. What I’ve got to do, you can’t be any part of. Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you’ll understand that. Now, now. Here’s looking at you, kid.

Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in a romant...

In that scene is the pain of love lost, the joy of sacrifice, the satisfaction of what is fitting — what is right, good, noble and lovely, the immensity of the world and its problems, the delicate and fragile beauty of our hearts and emotions, and the last famous line is said with the innocence of children playing at life, teetering on the brink of disaster with a wide-eyed faith.

Stories are best when they have climactic scenes.

Life isn’t so clean. We can’t always engineer the scenes like we want. Nineteen years ago, Paul told me to pull over on the Marquam Bridge in Portland. He supposed I’d be expecting a proposal in the woods or on a lake. He got down on his knee with the cityscape spread below us and the cars whizzing by us. After I said, “Yes, yes, yes!” before he could get the words out, he said,

Put the ring on. I had a terrible dream that we dropped it between the slats of the bridge.

After I slipped the ring on, he wrapped me in his arms and kissed me, with the cold wind whipping up from below us. A few moments later, revolving red lights flashed and a police car pulled in behind us.

“Are you all right?” he asked.

“More than all right,” I gushed. “He just proposed to me!” I was hopping with excitement.

‘Well, that’s just great,” he said. “Now, will you please get in your car and move on? I’ve had two or three calls that someone is trying to commit suicide!”

Un-engineered.Random. But memorable.

Life is stranger than fiction. Sometimes you just can’t make this stuff up.

Donald warns that you can’t get too set on a climactic scene. They have a way of disappointing us if we try too hard. Create a scene and move towards it, but keep an open mind to change. With life, characters don’t behave like we tell them to. Even our own hearts betray us.

But we shouldn’t throw them all away in a sweep of realism and practicality. I guess we need to keep seeking the idyllic, the romance, and the secret surprise in life.

In Module Six of the Storyline Conference, we’re supposed to dream up a climactic scene for each of our ambitions.

As a writer, I’m surprised that this assignment stumps me.

I’ve been writing steadily for two years now and have only made a smidgen of money. A few weeks back, I had a breakthrough. I enjoyed the perks of a writing assignment in a free hotel room in Astoria. I woke up in a luxurious bed at the Cannery Pier Hotel.

Our room perched 600 ft. out on a pier in the water. Immense ships dwarfed the boutique hotel as they passed through the Columbia River channel just yards away. Guided fishing boats emerged from the fog like ghosts. My sister, Elida, went with me. We trotted over to Columbia Coffee Roasters just over the trolley tracks.

The peach scone was … better than my own scones. I’m no slouch. And the coffee … mmmmm.

Interviewing an artist who is pursuing her own dream was the cherry on top of a great day! I thought, this is what I want to do. Meet people. Experience places. Write about it.

It wasn’t really a climactic scene though. Climactic scenes have some pain in it. Suspense. A more appropriate one would look more like Will Smith in The Pursuit of Happyness when he shows up to that interview with only one shoe on.

This is a failed attempt at gathering apples in an old orchard on Gray Butte. We drove out there with our cardboard boxes and our ladder, but the apples were picked or wormy or sour.

We’re not unhappy. The weather was fine; the company was lovely … but it just seems so much lately is laced with disappointment. We drove to a pear festival near Hood River. Again, the company was wonderful.

But it rained nonstop.

Our camper isn’t waterproof because we’re desert dwellers. And well, the missed opportunity for a perfect day is absolutely acceptable when it happens once in awhile. But, lately, as it falls on the end of a string of sighs … it wears a body down.

It feels that fate foils our efforts. In the days of the cabin, when the snow fell sweetly around our home and ambition hadn’t crept into our hearts, it felt like fate conspired with us to make memories.

The snowshoe tracks glisten in the moonlight. The long talks. Dreams shimmered just behind the gossamer veil.

A climactic scene with Paul would be one without rain or wormy, sour apples. A climactic scene would be a true escape — an all-paid vacation, a reprieve from the worry and the grind.

These are complaints that shouldn’t be written. These are the whines of a very blessed person. But I’m revealing the poorness in my spirit. I’m hoping to inherit the earth. I’m honestly sharing the desires of a woman who shouldn’t ask for more. Why am I wanting more? Is it the approach of a new decade? Perhaps I’m just tired.

A climactic scene with my daughters would be similar. An escape from the worry. A confirmation that I’ve made the right choices. A seal stamped by God that affirms my decisions. Have I raised them right? So differently. Will they be lonely? Will they reject it all? Will they regret? I want to give them a scene they won’t regret. A reason to boast. Will they be proud of me?

My grandmother passed away yesterday morning. It is too painful to write much about it. Today, I can only think about her traveling to Brazil or Hawaii, coiffed and breezy, chatting and laughing, working in her garden or cooking something tempting for breakfast, giving her opinion unasked (but right), knowing what she wanted, getting what she wanted, and if she didn’t, making what she had the very best of the best, she knew herself, there was little wavering, she was bold and bright and beautiful, and I’m going to miss her very much.

Death is anti-climactic. When I go, I want to have lived. I welcome the tears if they have a purpose, a meaning. I dread them if they are empty and soulless. And tears are only void when they are never accompanied by climactic scenes of restoration and happiness. Come quickly, I say. Come quickly.

 

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Anticipating Conflict

I’ve been on vacation and started a new job, broke my collar bone playing softball but on the mend, and I’m back on track now. Still working through Donald’s Storyline conference. Last post, I outlined why conflict is good — why it is needed for a story to become great. Although I like to read tragedies, I have no intention of living one. None of us do. We want the conflict we experience to propel us, not squash us.

Therefore, we need to anticipate conflict. And we need to have a plan of action as to how to overcome it.

In Module Five, I’m supposed to list the conflict I will likely face as I head toward my ambition. For each role, I need to outline the challenges I’m most concerned about.

1. Writer: I want to write. I want to get paid to write. I want my writing to matter. I want to influence. I want a say in the world. My writing ambitions are to clarify my blogs and their corresponding audiences so they can find each other and to finish the novel.

Physical challenges: Scheduling! Four daughters in sports, sports, sports. Homeschooling. Elsa’s taking part-time classes and I have to take her there. New job in tutoring. There aren’t enough hours in the day.

Characteristics I Need to Develop: Prioritize. Efficiency. My house still doesn’t have pictures hanging up. Boxes sit collecting dust in the corners. We don’t have a couch in the living room. Why? If I really, really want something, I should sacrifice to get it. I recognize that I am blessed enough to have choices and I must make the right choices. I could sacrifice the homeschooling so I could write. I could sacrifice the kids’ activities so I could write. I could sacrifice having a nice, hospitable home so I could write. I choose sacrificing the pretty, decorated home. I write while I’m in town waiting for the kids to finish. I write in the mornings and the evenings and every other tiny chunk of time that I have. The characteristics I need to develop is decisiveness in my priorities, diligence in pursuing them, and perseverance in the face of rejection.

Financial Challenges: We still need to eat while we pursue our passions. I keep trying to find jobs that support what I love. I’m teaching in a model that reads the classics. I got a writing gig for a magazine. Yeah! I schedule my tutoring during kids’ sports activities so the driving into town is for a job and not just extra activities.

Skill Deficiencies: Social networking. I am extremely task-oriented. I must recognize that my writing is important but it’s people that will connect me to jobs, gigs, publishers, blogs, etc. This is also where I’ll find depth and meaning and beauty. If I can remember to press out into my family’s and friends’ lives and to find time to connect with people, this will give me balance and … perhaps the keys to my future!

Relational Complications: Sometimes I’m tempted to dive into my novel without any distractions. Wholeheartedly, I want to pursue my goals at the expense of everything else. This would be a mistake. It would uproot me. It’s a temptation. Many writers write at the expense of their relationships. I have to remember to live.

2. Wife: I want to be Paul’s best friend and companion. And … I hope to be less critical and more supportive. Let Paul be Paul and me be me. To respect who he is and respect who I am.

Physical challenges: I want to get in shape. Paul actually likes doing things that would get me in shape. Instead, my days are so filled up with running in the morning, playing softball and volleyball at nights, or running the kids around that we rarely have time for long hikes and climbs. Moreover, we live in a beautiful spot, but most hikes are a 45 min. drive. I just don’t relish getting behind the wheel more than I have to.

Characteristics I Need to Develop: I think the main thing is that I need to plan ahead. We have the type of life that “hijacks” what we really want to do. All of sudden, we’re at the gunpoint of immediate emergencies (a tourney, practices, school activity) running in the opposite direction of where we want to go. Perhaps it’s because we have a family of strong individuals who are all vying for their “thing” to be first. So, maybe I need to set boundaries and make sure that activities Paul and I love to do together gets placed first in the schedule.

Financial Challenges: I wonder if I’ll ever wake up in the morning and not feel the knot of fear about how we’re going to get by. I’ve looked our problem over again and again and our financial woes would be solved if I just went and got a good job. But our least favorite year was when I worked full-time. And though we had enough money for everything. I think we really discovered that, for us, it’s not worth it.

Skill Deficiencies: It’s hard for me to plan activities that Paul likes because I’m not the expert at it. I feel insecure about planning things in his area of expertise. I’m willing to go, just reluctant to initiate.

Relational Complications:I believe the relational complications just come from the lack of time. I’m hoping that when Elsa gets her license, we’ll have more free time together.

3. Mother: I’m strong on the teaching side. I could improve on the fun side. Since I’m writing a lot, I’m in deep thought a lot. I want to be present when I’m with them. Remember to greet them with kisses in the morning and bless them with prayers at night. I want to notice when they withdraw and interrupt their thoughts with hugs and listening. I want to partner with them in their growing up, forming their beliefs and attitudes and habits.

Physical challenges: none

Characteristics I need to develop: to just relax and remember what it is like to be a girl. I need to become a girl again sometimes so I can understand what my daughters want and need.

Financial Challenges: too little cash can cause resentment. We need to get our finances simplified and in order. Since Paul has gone into ministry, our cash comes in little bits and pieces. We don’t have a single amount we can budget. I’d like to get to a point where we can budget.

Skill Deficiencies: I’m task-oriented. The girls play for awhile and I ask them if they’ve made their bed. They giggle on the floor and I ask them if they’ve brushed their teeth. They jump down the stairs and I ask them if they’ve started school yet. I need to play sometimes, giggle on the floor, and jump down the stairs. Having me smile and play at times makes the tasks easier.

Relational Complications: Since I broke my collarbone (my right side), I can’t do hardly anything because I’m in a sling. The girls have pitched in wonderfully. I didn’t realize how capable they were. Anyway, just bragging a bit — no relational complications.

4. Friend: I debated between this slot being “daughter” or “sister”, but I was able to solve it with “friend” because my family members are included. Ambitions: This sounds selfish, but I want to receive from these people. I admire them. I want to learn from them. I want to glean what they have to offer. My life involves a lot of producing — writing, homeschooling, teaching, tutoring, cooking, scheduling, etc. My friends offer me a chance to rejuvenate and regenerate.

Characteristics I Need to Develop: Perhaps I just need to slow down, so I have more time for relationships. I hope the speed at which I operate is not just a habit, but a phase of life. I hope that because of the ages of my kids and the activities they are in, because of the homeschooling and my working, I’m not just filling my life up with busyness just because I don’t like to slow down. I want to be able to form deep, lasting friendships.

 

Three Reasons Conflict is Good

Still working through Donald Miller‘s Storyline Conference.  This week is about conflict. Every storyteller’s greatest friend is conflict. Without conflict, a story cannot and will not be meaningful.

Yet, we avoid conflict… and we shouldn’t.

Here are three reasons why.

1) Conflict lends value to our ambitions. When it’s hard to get, we value it more. Do you remember that scene in Tommy Boy when Chris Farleyis so excited that he got a “D”? Yeah. He was really happy. More happy than an honor student getting an “A”. Sometimes, it’s harder for people who have it easy to be happy. Donald uses mountain climbing. Somebody who climbs a mountain will value the view more than somebody who gets dropped off by a helicopter. I had a hard time agreeing with this one, because climbing a mountain is pretty much free. I’d have to work many hours to pay for the helicopter. And the helicopter ride (if I didn’t get sick) might be pretty awesome. But, you see, the conflict for me would be less the physical obstacles and more of the financial obstacles — the chances of my affording a helicopter ride are slimmer than reaching the summit of a mountain (at least the day climbs around here). Still, I guess I’d still prefer the mountain climbing. The helicopter would be nice … once. I’ve gotten off the topic — the bigger the obstacle, the more value we receive from the accomplishment. Good news for those of us who have lots of obstacles? Lots of potential value.

2) Conflict creates a bond between people. Ok. I know I’m steeped in middle grade fiction now, but that’s because I’m writing some. Hermione, Harry, and Ron become extremely close as they fight Voldemort and all their adolescent fears together. Legolas, Gimli, and Aragorn are against each other at first, but closest of friends by the end. Military platoons. Championship teams. Rock bands. Well, some of them at least. The people who form the lawsuit in Erin Brokovich — at least the movie showed it that way.  Stand By Me. Engaging in conflict with someone will cause greater unity and deeper friendships than if the conflict were absent.

A warning — deeper friendships form if we recognize and name the common enemy. When conflict arrives and it doesn’t have a romantic twist, we, like many rock bands, just break up. Conflict divides, in this case, and it makes for a terrible story. I cried for days after watching The Way We Were. Perhaps because I was pregnant. But still, watching a marriage dissipate is one of the saddest stories ever. Tender is the Night was the same way. I avoid those. In these cases, your story only serves as a bad example — instructive but sad.

If we’re going to face conflict, face it with someone. Don’t blame each other. Don’t turn on each other. We are not sharks or dogs. We are humans. Dig deep. Find what is good and true and loyal. Grasp it. Share it.

3) Conflict builds character. In order to grow, to change, I have to face hard times. Conflict probes our inward character to discover whether I have courage. What am I made of? If it were easy, could I be sure of myself? Satan brings this argument up to God about Job: it’s easy to be good when everything is going his way. Take it away and he’ll curse you. Supremely successful, wonderful family, plenty to eat and drink, respect in the town — what else can a man ask for? But when it’s all gone, what will Job do and say? That’s the premise. That’s why I love Flannery O’Connor stories. She always surprises the main character completely and the reader gets to see what he’s made of. It’s kind of uncomfortable, but instructive. How would we act if one of our nice little platitudes didn’t work out the way we liked?

Conflict is painful. But how we face it makes all the difference.

I read a Facebook post today from a friend who is fighting a brain tumor. Happily married with two little sons, she is fighting to live. She shares tough moments. Usually, she shares the poignant, sweet moments. She remembers to thank people for little things. Everyday, she adds to her story — with enemies like CANCER and DEATH breathing down her neck she lives her victories by every moment she chooses to live and not give in to despair. Perhaps she’s already felt and lived far more of those great heart-pounding moments than those who live long lives in safety and ennui. Those dear, sweet moments sharpened by impending loss cannot be contrived any other way than by the path she is walking, must walk. As C.S. Lewis once wrote to Sheldon Vanauken, who lost his sweet wife and best friend — they are “severe mercies.” Today, she shared a blog from a woman whose husband has Lou Gehrig’s disease. Let me share it with you too. Read “Accommodations” and admire a life lived bravely.

Both tragedies and comedies are deep, beautiful stories that instruct and awaken our deepest desires and fears and loves. They cause us to commiserate, experience joy, admire — they cause us to feel. While living our stories, remember both comedies and tragedies experience conflict. We can’t know how our story is going to turn out. A comedy is just a tragedy redeemed. What can we do but hope redemption is around the corner if we persevere? And what can we do but persevere in the face of hopelessness in our tragedies? That is, if we are heroes.

Whether my story is a comedy or tragedy, I can be a hero. I can persevere, hope against hope, and love with everything I have until the last breath.

Module Four: Cast of Characters – Who Am I Telling My Story With?

 

 

Still going through Donald Miller‘s Storyline Conference — following the exercises. The Storyline conference helps people to take the elements of a story and apply them to life, so that I’m living a better story. Thank you to all who commented on last week’s module about inciting incidents. I loved the feedback! In this module, Donald describes how writers often consolidate the many characters that are bouncing around in their heads so the audience can identify with them as the story progresses. Many wonderful characters created by writers are composites of many experiences with different people.

The idea is to go deep rather than wide. In the age of social marketing, we have more shallow relationships than ever, and it’s negatively affecting our stories. Having too many undefined characters steals time from the people we love. The truth is the average person is only capable of about twelve deep and meaningful relationships. And deep, meaningful relationships are a key component to a powerful story.

 

Levine supper

 

Experiencing a great moment with a loosely connected person will not have the same emotional impact as experiencing it with someone I’ve invested much time and effort.

 

 

 

All human beings matter — each one is priceless. But we are only one human being with the limited capability of deeply connecting with a limited number of people. A writer must identify a cast of characters that will play a part in their story. Sometimes, the writer chooses not to chase down the sideline story of a wonderful character because it doesn’t further the story arc of the main character. Likewise, in my life, I will need to identify and streamline the cast of characters I do life with and invest in those characters to create poignant moments that have deeper meaning.

 

 

 

My storyline should act as a fluid decision filter. I am not considering some people as more important than others. I’m identifying and naming those whom my story affects and whom affect my story. For example, I have people in my life who are “kindred spirits.” The moment I met them I felt a connection, a likeness in mind and heart, but … unfortunately, we live far apart. We stay connected somewhat. I’d love for them to play a larger part in my story, but the reality is it doesn’t make sense.

 

 

 

Primary Relationships: These are people I say “I love you” to and they say it back without feeling awkward. These characters give the most intimate emotional strength and support.

 

 

 

Important Relationships: These are people I care about. They are my closest friends and confidants, but I may only interact with them once a week or even less. These are people from whom I gain some degree of emotional support.

 

 

 

Other Important Categories of Relationships: These are people who come and go within my story. These people can be listed in broad categories like Facebook friends, classmates, coworkers, spouse’s friends, etc.

 

 

 

My Enemies: As I live a better story, people will work against me. Some people don’t like it when I succeed. I shouldn’t be

 

 

 

Lord Voldemort on the back of Professor Quirre...

 

surprised if I meet resistance as I live a better story. It’s unlikely to have an enemy so evil as Professor Moriarty or Voldemort. Most enemies will be less flat. In fact, enemies are far less romantic than truly evil forces. My friend, Robin, calls them “hair shirts.” Hair shirts were something worn by monks as a way of mortifying the flesh and doing penance.

Most of our “enemies” are just that — hair shirts.

 

 

 

They will have complex motives and may believe they are doing right by opposing me. I should predetermine my attitude toward them. Decide now to love my enemies. I find it interesting that enemies will grow as I follow a better story. I am tempted to play with this conditional statement.

 

 

 

If you have no enemies, you have no influence or impact.

 

Is that true? I mean, I’m a mother. I live a quiet life. I try to do my duty with love and creativity. Will that have no impact? I disagree. I think that my positive relationships will have an impact too great to measure. But, as I write more often, especially essays, I must recognize that if I say anything that has any power, there will be a negative fallout. People will criticize. People will scorn, mock, imitate, parody, spoof, deride, attack, etc. How will that affect me? Do I believe in what I do enough to pursue it in the face of all that?

 

 

 

 

 

My Cast of Characters: I’ll tie my relationships to my roles.
 Wife: Paul is a wonderfully colorful character in my life. On Tuesday, we hung his (still wet with paint) art show at Green Plow minutes before his flight. He flew to San Jose to meet with one of those kindred spirits I wish we lived closer to. They’re birding in SE Arizona. As we raced toward the cafe, his spirits lifted.

 

 

 

He said, “Well, I got it all done!”

 

 

 

I retorted, “You always get it all done. That’s your problem! Every instance reinforces your habit to procrastinate.”

 

 

 

 

 

He laughed ruefully and patted my leg in thanks for all the help I gave.  And off he flew. Today, I got a text message from him: painted redstart, phainopepla, ash-throated fly-catcher, Mexican jay, rufous-winged sparrow, black-throated sparrow, greater roadrunner… Bingo!

 

 

 

I’ve learned to appreciate the tension he creates in my life. I sometimes engage in “what if” questions about marrying someone who makes decisions quickly, who lives prudently and cautiously, who knows how to follow a ‘to do’ list from beginning to end.

 

 

 

Boring.

 

 

 

Paul’s playful, spontaneous personality causes inciting incidents to pop up all over in my life. I used to resent them because it made me feel out of control. Early in our marriage, I had to come to a decision about my frustrations with wanting Paul to be different than he was. I discovered I would never want a man in my life that I “could control.” How terrible! I wondered at myself for always seeking to gain it. A better story releases control, allows for the whisking away, the risks, the whoosh! of an inciting incident.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The only stories about controlling people that we like are when something happens to completely knock their socks off. Paul knocks my socks off.  If I had to do it all over again, I’d choose him in a moment. I tell him that too. Often.

 

 

 

 

 

Mother: Elsa wants to go pro in tennis. Greta wants to write songs and sing them. Ingrid may become an engineer. Dagne may be a scholar. It’s amazing to be a part of these stories. I often struggle between chasing my own dreams and fostering theirs. Balancing the two is difficult sometimes. I think mothers tend to sacrifice their own dreams too quickly and too completely. This martyrdom is sensed by their kids. Children of ‘martyr’ mothers either feel resentful because they know they’re the cause of their mother’s unhappiness — and this causes guilt and shame or they feel entitled to the same sacrifice from everyone. In other words, they become takers. This world has too many takers.

 

 

 

Children need to know the world doesn’t revolve around them. They need to sacrifice too. The definition of a dysfunctional family is when one person (or a group of them — like the children) is always at the center. A balanced family is when each member takes turns at being in the center.

 

 

 

Also, mothers tend to place children’s needs over their husbands’ needs. Marriage is forever. From the day they are born, children start to leave. This is the natural way of things. After all that giving and raising and sharing and sacrificing, they’re off. And who is left? Mr. Right. I don’t want Paul to be a stranger when it’s all over. I want us to feel a sense of completion of a job well-done and a sense of excitement for the next phase of our lives together.

 

 

 

Moreover, a loving marriage is the best gift we can give to our kids. If we have broken homes, then the next best gift to our children is to form the most positive relationship we can with their father or mother. Who can fathom the depth of security and happiness from children who see their parents love each other? Or, at the very least, treat each other with respect.  It is the foundation of their hearts. Marriage first. Parents second. Personal fulfillment should fill up all the crooks and crannies of time. I try to model to my children to never stop searching and seeking.

 

 

 

 

 

Friend: The other day, the sliding door of my van locked and wouldn’t open. The kids had to enter through the trunk or climb over the seats from the front doors. My dishwasher broke. My rent check bounced. And Paul was gone. Sounds like a country song, I know, but this is my life sometimes. That morning I received a song on my phone from our best friends, the SJs. Aine, their oldest, sang La Vie en Rose. I just felt happy… and loved.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A few days later, Paul was struggling with an important life-decision. The SJs sent us another song, sung by Robin, about chasing your dreams. Best friends are the best. I’m thankful for friends who live great stories. Elida and her love of art and travel. The SJs and their music. Heather and her farm in Italy.

 

 

 

Writer: I just began to attend a writers’ group where we read our stuff to each other and offer feedback. These other writers inspire me. They help me be accountable, give me confirmation when I’m on the right track and steer me differently if I’m not. We’ve only had two meetings, so we’re not to the “I love you, man” stage. But, when my novel is published (I speak that when into the universe loud and clear), they’ll definitely make the acknowledgements.

 

 

 

Teacher: I just started a new path in my teaching career — tutoring in the classical method. I’ll be tutoring students in Latin, logic, and debate. I’m fascinated. It will bring me into the circle of some old acquaintances and some new ones. I chose this path as a way to structure my teenage girls’ schooling at home and to provide a forum for the discussion of ideas. I love to learn. I despise inefficiency and time-wasting. This is, by far, the most efficient way of learning I’ve found yet. A wonderful essay on this is Dorothy Sayers’ The Lost Tools of Learning.

 

 

 

Overall, this model of applying the elements of a good story to my life is helpful — especially as a fluid decision filter. I’m discovering that it’s easier to make decisions — good decisions — decisions that integrate my beliefs and my “real” life. I spend less time agonizing over decisions. I no longer live at the mercy of what is practical or generally acceptable. The magnetic pull of societal expectations has less pull. I don’t even feel trapped by money (or lack thereof). “Doing without” morphs into romance when I’m in hot pursuit of destiny and meaning.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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!

Part 2, Module One: My Roles

 

 

A storyline is a fluid decision filter. (I’m going through Donald Miller‘s storyline conference).

I don’t know about you, but I have the hardest time making decisions. I believe that most Generation Xers do. It’s perhaps because our parents allowed us so much freedom.

Instead of handing us a canvas and saying, “paint this”, our parents said, “Anything is the canvas. Everything is the paint. You can do anything!”

They were being generous and kind. We were just overwhelmed with the bigness of it.

Isn’t it nice to go to places like Europe and have just two or three choices and not hundreds?

The effort of decision is one of the greatest time-wasters of all-time. Those who are great, don’t spend a lot of time hemming and hawing. They act. They do. They go. Failure is a given that is taken in stride.

So. This idea of using my storyline as a decision filter is pretty inviting. I could use a decision filter. I could use some “policies” that help me to say ‘yes’ to this and ‘no’ to that.

And really, isn’t that a definition of creating? From dividing the light from the darkness or the water from the land, or choosing this canvas over that one and those colors instead of these, or dividing the notes from the silence and placing them on the paper.

Creation is a series of decisions.

Donald says,

When we live in reaction we spend an enormous amount of time managing relationships and tasks that don’t come from our central passions and so don’t belong in our stories. As you create your Storyline, you’ll also be creating a decision filter through which you can edit your life. Some tasks will naturally fall away, and even some relationships will change so they are no longer taking up your emotional space. In stories and in life, less is often more.

Paul and I once had a conversation with someone who is hugely successful. He shared with us in many ways, but the sentence that stayed with me was…

Most people can only do one thing well. Very few people can manage two. What is that one thing you want to do?

What is the one thing I want to do? Write.

But I also want to romance my husband and homeschool my kids and be a fun mom and play sports and make sure my girls have every opportunity within our power to offer and be a good friend and a good sister and a good daughter and I want to make my home a home and cook delicious meals and fill it with beautiful things and dress nice and have my hair look good and exercise and …

Come on, women, I know I’m not alone in this. Don’t you feel the pressure to be everything? And what about men? Our generation has seen more men than ever sharing the load that was once “women’s work”. Does that exhaustion hit them too? And do you often ask,

Which item am I going to drop today?

Because to keep them all juggling is feat of acrobatic prowess. Problem is … one wrench thrown in on the business and it all comes tumbling down.

Donald says,

A story is simply a character that wants something and overcomes conflict to get it. It’s not that hard, actually. What’s hard is keeping all the stuff out of the story that shouldn’t be there. Many writers will turn in a manuscript with twice as many words as the final story. The secondary process of writing is all about editing.

So it follows we have to edit our life too.

But not on a rigid outline, because the creative process can get bound up if we’re too structured.  We have to let the characters in our lives speak for themselves and pursue their own ambitions, but we have to keep the story on the path we’ve chosen.

Therefore, we need a fluid decision filter.

Something that acts as a guide, but allows for the spontaneous and the spark of destiny to enter.

I want to write. But that’s not all I am. Writers don’t live in a vacuüm. They are wives, husbands, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, friends. But if I want to write, maybe I must say ‘no’ to Sunday school teacher or full-time teacher or part-time teacher. Maybe I have to say ‘no’ to too many excursions with friends or being completely in charge of the housework. My house might never get decorated. My wardrobe may be lacking.

Life is about choices. Saying ‘yes’ to this means ‘no’ to that sometimes. We are extremely blessed to have these choices at all.

Donald starts us off on this exercise by having us list the main roles you play in life. Since I’m a female, my choices include these: mother, sister, friend, employee, wife, daughter, boss, business owner, physical being, spiritual being, athlete, artist, writer, gardener, etc.

Of course, like the good Protestant girl my mother brought up, my first role should be ‘spiritual being’.

But I’m not going to follow that inclination.

Why?

Because I don’t like to compartmentalize it. I don’t want God to be a box I check off each day. I love Him. I seek to know Him. But I’m here in this world with duties and desires and dreams.

I hope He infuses every role I must fill while walking this earth. I hope He doesn’t get the top box in my life but saturates every part of my life.

After listing the roles, we’re should follow it with the ambitions we have as we fill this role.

An interesting story is simply a character that wants something and overcomes conflict to get it.

1. Writer: I want to write. I want to get paid to write. I want my writing to matter. I want to influence. I want a say in the world. My writing ambitions are to clarify my blogs and their corresponding audiences so they can find each other. I’m doing the writing. I need to do the clarifying. Working on that.

On the fiction side of things — I must find time for the creative side: my middle grade novel is stalled … again. I need to finish the first draft and not get bogged down in analyzing it too much. I tend to edit as I write. When going for great novel, I must not get bound up in the process. Write it all. Fix it later.

I just became inspired with a children’s book idea. Should I get sidetracked and follow this path or stay on the main course?

2. Wife: I want to love Paul and excite him. I want to be beautiful, to turn his head. I want to be his best friend and companion. I hope to keep up with him, even challenge him. My goal as a wife is to be easy to love and hard to leave.

Not in a fearful-anxious-striving-to-please sort of way, but just an honest want to please the one I love.

And … I hope to be less critical and more supportive. Let Paul be Paul and me be me. To respect who he is and respect who I am.

3. Mother: I’m strong on the teaching side. I could improve on the fun side. Since I’m writing a lot, I’m in deep thought a lot. I want to be present when I’m with them. Remember to greet them with kisses in the morning and bless them with prayers at night. I want to notice when they withdraw and interrupt their thoughts with hugs and listening. I want to partner with them in their growing up.

4. Friend: I debated between this slot being “daughter” or “sister”, but I was able to solve it with “friend” because my family members are included. Ambitions: This sounds selfish, but I want to receive from these people. I admire them. I want to learn from them. I want to glean what they have to offer. My life involves a lot of producing — writing, homeschooling, teaching, tutoring, cooking, scheduling, etc. My friends offer me a chance to rejuvenate and regenerate. I hope that I also can give to them — that I’m a good listener, that I offer advice prayerfully and cautiously, and that I’m just plain ol’ fun.

 

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