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The Secret Writing Sauce

I often hear things of interest to writing and the writing life when I am driving around in my car. I hear them on the pop rock station my radio is still tuned to, even though I no longer have teenagers in the house. I hear them on the station that on Thursdays plays three songs in a row by the same artist and tells stories about the making of the music. And I hear them constantly on my local NPR station, which is why I write a check to them every year in support. (The plea that always gets me is the one where they say, “How many times have you stayed in your car in the driveway listening to the end of a story?” The answer is, “So often, I think my neighbors are worried about me.”)

The other day I heard a teaser for a piece on NPR’s Science Friday on how telling stories to robots makes them smarter. I was like, “Whoa, WHAT?”  I thought it was going to be a story about how robots could be taught emotion from stories. Later I went to the NPR website to listen to that podcast and it turned out to be a fascinating discussion about using stories to teach a robot manners and morals. All good stuff – but not what I had hoped for. What I had hoped for, however, was contained in a story that was linked to it – a story from 2015 about a guy who was actually teaching computers to tell stories.    

The work featured was from Mark Riedl’s Scheherazade. Riedl is the director of the Entertainment Intelligence Lab – “the premiere venue for emerging, high-quality research on the role of intelligent systems in creating, understanding, and interactive management of narratives.”

Posted on the NPR site was this example of a story written by Scheherazade, the computer:

With sweaty palms and heart racing, John drove to Sally’s house for their first date. Sally, her pretty white dress flowing in the wind, carefully entered John’s car. John and Sally drove to the movie theatre. John and Sally parked the car in the parking lot. Wanting to feel prepared, John had already bought tickets to the movie in advance. A pale-faced usher stood before the door; John showed the tickets and the couple entered. Sally was thirsty so John hurried to buy drinks before the movie started. John and Sally found two good seats near the back. John sat down and raised the arm rest so that he and Sally could snuggle. John paid more attention to Sally while the movie rolled and nervously sipped his drink. Finally working up the courage to do so, John extended his arm to embrace Sally. He was relieved and ecstatic to feel her move closer to him in response. Sally stood up to use the restroom during the movie, smiling coyly at John before that exit. John and Sally also held hands throughout the movie, even though John’s hands were sweaty. John and Sally slowly got up from their seats. Still holding hands, John walked Sally back to his car through the maze of people all scurrying out of the theatre. The bright sunshine temporarily blinded John as he opened the doors and held them for Sally as they left the dark theatre and stepped back out onto the street. John let go of Sally’s hand and opened the passenger side door of his car for her but instead of entering the car, she stepped forward, embraced him, and gave him a large kiss. John drove Sally back to her home.


We can all read that story and recognize it as a narrative, but we can also agree that it is flat and dull, wholly lacking in the secret sauce that we come to story for.

The question, of course, is then, well what IS that missing thing? What IS that secret writing sauce that holds our attention and rivets us to the page and makes us feel something deep and essential?

I happened to be working this week on a webinar I am going to be giving today about the memoir H is for Hawk – a webinar about why this memoir by Helen Macdonald has taken the world by storm and what we can learn about our own work from it.  (You can still sign up and either join me live at 9 am PST  for the webinar or get the recording.)  So I have been immersed in writing that was the opposite of flat and dull -- writing that is imbued with that secret thing. You can feel it almost any random lines from the book. For example:

“There is a time in life when you expect the world to be always full of new things. And then comes a day when you realise that is not how it will be at all. You see that life will become a thing made of holes. Absences. Losses. Things that were there and are no longer. And you realise, too, that you have to grow around and between the gaps, though you can put your hand out to where things were and feel that tense, shining dullness of the space where the memories are.”


And this:


 “Nature in her green, tranquil woods heals and soothes all affliction,’ wrote John Muir. ‘Earth hath no sorrows that earth cannot heal.’ Now I knew this for what it was: a beguiling but dangerous lie. I was furious with myself and my own conscious certainty that this was the cure I needed. Hands are for other humans to hold. They should not be reserved exclusively as perches for hawks. And the wild is not a panacea for the human soul; too much in the air can corrode it to nothing.”


No computer would ever put the words “tense, shining dullness” together in a sentence, or grasp the sorrow in the passage of time the way that first paragraph does.

And the writer seeing Muir’s words as a “beguiling but dangerous lie” and being furious at herself for her “conscious certainty” just takes too much self awareness and introspection and layered understanding for a computer to grasp.

Even the line “hands are for humans to hold” is so simple and straightforward – and yes, maybe a computer could come up with that line -- but the way it is used is packed with so much meaning and emotion, and it’s hard to imagine a computer ever grasping those layers. This writing is the product of a human in touch with her own humanity.

Just for fun, I went back to the computer’s story and edited it so that we could see precisely what was missing, and where the writer (if a computer actually had volition) could go back to try to repair it. I wasn’t paying attention to the grammar and the structure of the computer’s story (where there are a lot of problems) but just to the emotion and meaning.

Take a peek at what I did HERE and you will see how often I am asking, “Why?” and also “And so?”

Because that’s what we come to writing for. That’s what we are desperate to experience and feel – the why of it, the meaning of it, the sense of what things mean to another living soul.

Next time you sit down to work on your own writing, think of the souls on the other end of the exchange who will one day read your work, , hoping to make a connection. They’re cheering for you! 



What a Stonemason Can Teach Us About the Creative Process

Now that the New Year is upon us, I have made a commitment to my own work – to finishing the novel that I started under Lisa Cron’s Story Genius tutelage. I made a weak commitment at the end of 2015 and did not see it through so now I have to get serious. Towards that end, I did two things to make my vows stick:

1.)  I promised my agent I would get her 100 consecutive pages of the new book by February.

2.)  I promised my mastermind partner that I would post every day in our shared chat how many minutes a day I worked on the project.

In other words -- accountability squared. Nowhere to hide.

Why minutes per day and not pages?

Because creativity is not always about production, progress, or moving forward. Many times you have to go backwards to go forwards. Many times you have to throw out the last three weeks of work.  I wanted a process that honored this.

Also, sometimes I have only worked 6 or 8 or 14 minutes a day, and you can’t normally write a good page in that period of time. But you CAN organize files. You CAN scan a paragraph to see what it needs. You CAN think about a character, do a bit of research, evaluate how a scene is working, move a chunk from here to there.

It’s only day 15, but here’s the thing: minutes add up. Progress is absolutely being made. Pages are being generated, the story is being told. And the most important thing that has been generated is momentum. I’m doing it.  Yesterday, in fact, I came back three times to the project, for a total of about 90 minutes. I couldn’t stay away. I wanted more minutes.

I notice that a lot of writers who are new to the creative process feel a certain panic around how messy it is. A book that comes out seamless, chronological, neat and whole is a hot mess while it is being made – and oftentimes, the whole time is being made.

When I approach my project for my minutes per day, I feel the unsettledness of it in my stomach. I approach with a certain amount of worry – and even dread. Something has to be untangled and solved, and ugh, the only person who can do it is me.

But here’s another thing: the untangling is fun.  Putting your mind to the task is very satisfying.

I know that this is also true about all creative endeavors. It’s a large part of the reason people are drawn to make things.

I recently heard a riveting interview on NPR about Jamie Masefield, a renowned jazz mandolin player, who became certified as a drywall stonemason – a process that includes a 7-hour long test.

The finished walls are gorgeous – smooth, fluid, rhythmic, perfect in their organic-ness. (Take a peek at Jamie’s walls here.)

But the process? It literally starts with a pile of stones. Total chaos.

And while you are building, you have to both think fast and think about the long- term goal of making something as timeless as anything humans can make. “It takes creativity and discipline,” writes NPR correspondent Angela Evancie. And, I would add, a tolerance for chaos.

Masefield compares the work to playing jazz. Evancie writes:

“It's tempting to think that Masefield inhabits two totally different creative worlds. However, he says jazz and masonry have something fundamental in common, and points to a musical practice known as "playing changes.

`When we're playing changes, we're soloing over those harmonic changes in that particular tune — and so you're very quickly making decisions about what you're going to play," he says. "When I'm doing stonework, I often feel like we're in the midst of playing changes, because every stone you place needs some consideration. But you can't dwell on it all day long.’”

Jazz. Improvisation. Building a stone wall. Writing a novel or a memoir or a non-fiction book. It’s all fundamentally the same thing.

I have a pile of words. I have an infinite variety of ways I can put them together. I want to make something that has an impact, and that lasts. I can let that reality paralyze me, or I can move forward, one word at a time.

I thought I would share one stone that I put in place yesterday – the fruits of the luxurious 90 minutes I spent.

I started with this exchange between a woman whose lover lies dying and the nurse in the hospital ICU. The nurse asks if the woman is the patient’s wife.

“I’m a friend,” I said weakly.
“I’m sorry,” the nurse said, “We're going to have to ask you to leave.”

The exchange did what I wanted it to do, which was establish that my character’s decision to not marry this man (and to protect herself from the pain of love) was now going to cost her – big time. But the more I read it, the more I felt that it was flat. It didn’t have any rhythm or beauty. It didn’t elevate the moment in any way. So I went back to it and added a phrase:

“I’m a friend,” I said weakly, feeling as though I could literally taste the inadequacy of the word.  
“I’m sorry,” the nurse said, “We're going to have to ask you to leave.”

But that addition only made me see that what I had here was an opportunity to let the reader into my character’s mind – to let the reader see what friend meant, what love meant, what this particular man meant. So I added to it:

“I’m a friend,” I said weakly, feeling as though I could literally taste the inadequacy of the word. A friend was someone you had lunch with every now and then, who you sent a birthday card to in the years you remembered, who you ran into at the gas station and asked how things were going and then drove away and forgot about until the next time. A friend was a nice addition to a life, but Henry was the center of mine.
“I’m sorry,” the nurse said, “We're going to have to ask you to leave.”

This was better. This was beginning to please me – but I saw opportunity for going deeper. How was this man the center of her life? How was love different than friendship? If I didn’t put it on the page, no one would know. I would be leaving the opportunity unused. So again I went in and added more:

 “I’m a friend,” I said weakly, feeling as though I could literally taste the inadequacy of the word. A friend was someone you had lunch with every now and then, who you sent a birthday card to in the years you remembered, who you ran into at the gas station and asked how things were going and then drove away and forgot about until the next time. A friend was a nice addition to a life, but Henry was the center of mine. Henry was the first person I wanted to tell good news and bad, the first person whose advice I sought out, the only person I could be with when I was furious or sick or elated. He was the only person I could travel with, the only one I could sit next to in silence while reading, the only one I ever wanted to go home with after a party, no matter how many beautiful, witty and clever people I’d spoken to that night. I hadn’t gone to the movies without Henry for 15 years, because he would laugh out loud while it was running, spend just the right amount of time analyzing it afterwards, and at night just before we fell asleep, he’d say something profound and moving about what the movie had taught him about life or love or guilt or regret.
“I’m sorry,” the nurse said, “We're going to have to ask you to leave.”


There are parts of that sentence that are clunky and can be made better, but I love where I got in the 90 minutes I spent on it. It feels effective. It feels solid.

At the end of his interview, Masefield beautifully explains the goal of such work:

"At the end of every day of doing stonework, I can look back and hopefully say, 'That looks good, and that's what we've done today, and that's going to last a really long time.' It's similar in music. If you're lucky enough to play some really great music one day, you can look back and say, 'Well, we've got that.' That's recorded, or the audience has heard that. Hopefully that's had an effect on them in some way that they're taking home with them.”