writing technique

Bear Grylls, here we come!*

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Hemingway said it succinctly, and seductively: “A writer’s job is to live life, and then to write about it.” How romantic is that? Hard to resist, I admit it.

Judging by the fruits of his labors, it’s easy to think that he meant that advice literally. No! We should reject any such narrow understanding.

Tonight at work, another slow night, I had time to spot-read one of an admired series of detective stories, full of (seemingly) factual description of a locale. It was fun, but it quickly felt like a device, enlivening stretches of conversation. Sitting around in diners necessarily involves a good deal of yakking. The author creates a rhythm (tight shot/wide lens) with abundant attention paid to decor, street scenes, etc. I try to break up discussion also. I use interior monologue in the same way.

Reportage of observations and journalistic-style research is one approach to storytelling. (Isn’t that what Truman Capote did?) I think it works best when it has a strong emotional component. And I grant that recalled sensory information would certainly include terrific stuff that we probably could not concoct, that simply wouldn’t occur to us. I don’t worry about that in my thing. I’m not writing that kind of a story.

I lean on psychology, relationships, motivations, reactions to circumstance, and, most of all, as much as all the rest combined, on what my characters make of it all. I am big, not on what my fools do, but on what they think. I give very little physical description (Hey. A cat is a cat is a cat. It’s his intellect that sets him apart), something I’ve worried about, but not enough to deal with it. In one spot I interrupted, admitted my snub of scene-setting, and banged together a castle from here and there in my history books, and made a joke of it: There! Some description for you. Happy?

Nuts-and-bolts detail can be a welcome, wind-in-your-sails patch in the midst of the struggle that is birthing a captivating fiction. Me, I like my physical to be short and stylish, I save on-and-on for foibles and flaws. That’s the real that I luxuriate in. The loving depiction of the design of a landmark diner in old Quebec doesn’t enthrall me.

What fascinates me is who people are, not what junk they hang on their wall. Psychology, even though I mangle it for comic effect, is my stab at experience-exploitation. I write, not textbook stuff, I write the street-level neuroses that I, sadly, possess in abundance.

You’ve heard of method acting. I do method writing. I inhabit my critters. Some aspect of every one of them mirrors my own unfortunate ways of dealing with the world. I write my own tics and squirms into every damaged soul. That’s my smooth-sailing, territory well known to me, while I try to figure out what comes next. When I can coast a bit, I do, gladly. I buy time with a variety of strategies, while I wait for answers to assemble themselves and tumble onto the page.

Use experience of whatever variety you possess to enrich your down-the-rabbit-hole, to make it so buyable that readers are willing to swallow whatever you throw at them.


*Bear Grylls is that guy who roams the world, wrestling pythons, eating bugs, Hemingway-esque adventuring on the cheap. (I don’t believe you’ll be dragging a camera crew with you.) Invest in a backpack and a sleeping bag, you’re good to go. Live off the land, for zilch!**

**Grubs are a first-rate source of protein, says my husband. Roasted, delicious. (He spent a couple years as a short-hop pilot on the Ivory Coast.) He’s the one with the extraordinary experiences. But he doesn’t write.



4 thoughts on “Bear Grylls, here we come!*

  1. GD Deckard says:

    I couldn’t agree more with, letting writing assemble itself and tumble onto the page. Forget remembering, just write and experience will guide you. Don’t describe that first kiss. Boring. Show the changes it brings. Great piece, Mimi!


  2. mimispeike says:

    Tumble onto the page. Contrary to most of the advice that we get. But I am unable to do it any other way. My editor told me, those who outline, and have a goal in mind, have fewer problems with trajectory, etc. The pantsers have more surprises, are more creative with their lurch-here-there-everywhere storytelling. Whatever. I write a scene. Other possibilities come to me and I bang them in. (Footnotes are great for that.)

    I make a mess. My story is a mess, I admit it. (In places.) I’m doing my best to bang it into shape.

    The prognostication that annoys some readers is my inept way of of moving forward. I don’t have real roles yet for incidental characters, invented on the spur of the moment to fill a short-term need, but I’m sure I will find delightful uses as I push through the fog blanketing the road ahead. I am too attached to my idiots to dump them. I work on their psychology, and slowly begin to see daylight. My character studies are going to pay off sooner or later.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Perry Palin says:

    I’m a Hemmingway fan. I can’t argue with his charge “to live life, and then write about it.” He didn’t have the research resources we have today. It’s still better, I think, to describe things we’ve lived, than to describe things someone else has lived, or to make things up out of whole cloth.

    I’ve never sold a story (yet) longer than about 8000 words. Is a novel different? I don’t know. I let my stories “tumble onto the page” in a “lurch-here-there-everywhere” no plan process. Then in editing I remove everything that doesn’t support the message of the story. I discard a third to a half of the first draft, and the second draft is better than the first. And the third is usually shorter yet and better still.

    I use physical description of places and people, I hope, in ways that support the story. It’s a mistake to put in description, however artful, unless it moves the story forward. Go ahead and write what a person has put on a wall, as a telling part of a character study.

    Another of my readers told me last week that he wished he’d known me when I was living my first person coming-of-age narratives. Those stories are all fiction, but I describe the kinds of places the readers know, and the characters have emotions I have known. When my readers think the stories are real, I call that a win.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. atthysgage says:

    My own life experiences are pretty dull, at least on a Hemingway-scale. Personally, I’d rather write about places I’ve never actually seen, people I’ll never actually be. Not that my own thoughts and feelings won’t percolate up through that imagined soil, but there’s a transformative process that occurs, turning it all, hopefully, into something rich and strange. At least strange.

    As far as writing physical description goes, I often find it to be not much more than the necessary portaging between the smoother sailings of dialogue and character interaction. To my surprise, that portaging often turns out to be far more vivid and vital than I imagined it ever could be when I was slogging through it the first time. Then again, sometimes it’s just a slog.


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