The other night, I read a ten minute version of my life at a reunion meeting for a retreat I did in February. As I reflected on growing up, I realized I have a deep sense of gratitude of all those writers who allowed me to escape into the worlds they created. There are many reasons for stories, but escape is not necessarily a bad one.
My childhood friends describe the house I grew up in as a sub-zero refrigerator. Thank you Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Victor Hugo, Ray Bradbury, Frank Herbert, John Steinbeck, and all the rest for taking me away when I needed to be transported. Even Joseph Conrad. I did not like Heart of Darkness (the horror, the horror!), but it has influenced so many other works that I’m glad I read it.
Until I thought about my old author friends in this way, I hadn’t really thought about the possibility of my writing providing refuge for someone else going through a hard time. I don’t know if it changes anything, but my next step is to write out my own story in more detail as Jen Grisanti recommends in her book, Story Line.
Gorgeous sentences, breath-taking images, metaphors that lead to a flash of insight… there are all great things. But are they the most important? Go read the series Lisa Cron is running at her site, Wired for Story, “Everything You Learned About Writing is Wrong.” At first, it bothered me. I love great writing, but she has a point: we read and tell each other STORIES. It is first and foremost about the story and we writers can forget that as we learn the craft of writing (and it is important to master the craft of writing – I still laugh at the image of a high school English teacher I know hurling The DaVinci Code across her living room after a few paragraphs, cursing the level of writing). My first pleasure in reading was getting swept away into another world. I was not crazy about the world I was in, so escape was blessed relief. Your readers want to get swept away into the world you’ve created. Tell them a great story. Then go back and rewrite it until your prose is sterling.
It’s not an either-or proposition – the great books are great stories well-written – but start with your story. Sometimes it will come to you in a piece and sometimes you will discover it along the way, but pay attention to Mark Twain, “I like a good story well told.” He went on to add, “That is the reason I am sometimes forced to tell them myself.”
Writers are not known for their social skills. Here’s an article on the 20th century’s most reclusive authors. However, most authors who last have engaged in a fair amount of self-promotion. Mark Twain comes to mind. And his autobiography is out. He would have loved all the social media available now. You can be reclusive – maybe people will find your books. You want the odds to tip in your favor, find a way to get the word out and either be or get comfortable doing it. Unless of course you only write for yourself.
What does this have to do with Mad Men? Not drinking, tempting as that may be when a writer must face the public. No, it’s about what your characters wear. Faran Krentcil takes a look at the women’s fashion in Mad Men. In one episode, many of the choices are designed to blend in with the sets (wallflowers, nudge, nudge). The Fashion File is a great resource for dressing your characters, to discover how to reinforce character and themes. Example, you ask?
In “Blowing Smoke,” cigarette campaigns and ruinous addictions both stoke the plot and influence the costumes. When Don Draper wrote an anti-tobacco manifesto for the New YorkTimes, he didn’t just have an ironic cancer stick in his hand. He also had an ash-colored suit and tie that referenced his nicotine clouds, Roger’s “black spot on the X-ray” comment, and the boardroom suggestion that the agency was “decaying.” In fact, a quick survey of the SCDP senior partners in their first meeting in this episode shows them all in various shades of gray, black, and white — skeleton colors, if we’re being honest. Add Faye Miller at the end of the table with a jagged black-and-white blouse, and the bleak at-death’s-door vibe is palpable. They look like a pile of bones.
What your people wear can reinforce themes and motifs. Something to think about. Keep writing.