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What Would You Tell Oprah?

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On Saturday, I attended Oprah’s SuperSoul Sessions at Royce Hall at UCLA.  (That's Oprah ^ as she looked from my high-on-the-balcony seat.) I jumped at the chance to hear Cheryl Strayed, a writer who has a lot to teach us all about how to connect with readers, and Marie Forleo, an entrepreneur who inspires me to run a great business. There were many other speakers, as well, and a thousand lessons packed into a very full day.

It was, to be honest, a little overwhelming. How can you take in so much inspiration in one sitting??

I took copious notes on Marie and Cheryl and the first few speakers.

Here’s a gem from Cheryl Strayed:

“Writers come to me with a stack of pages, surprised to hear that a stack of pages doesn’t make a book. A book takes a greater sense of concentration.”

AAHHH -- I just love that! It’s so simple and so true, and I also love that makes it seem so do-able -- Concentration! Okay! I can concentrate!

And here’s a gem from Carol Myss, author of Anatomy of the Spirit, among many other books. 

“The instrument to heal is the soul, not the mind.”

I love that, too – it’s a comforting thought for a woman who tried to “think” her way out of chronic migraines. (Hint: it didn’t work…)

As the day went on, however, and the inspiration kept coming, it got harder for the speakers to make an impact. I realized that I was tuning out the ones who didn’t know how to connect well with the audience; instead of paying attention to their message, I paid attention to the flaws in their performance. I began simply analyzing what worked and what didn’t.

You may not be surprised to hear that the exact same thing that works for speaking to a live audience of 2000 also works for writing a book. It comes down to two simple things:

  •  Tell a story
  • Make a point

I’m not here to throw anyone under the bus, and I won’t name names, but if Oprah invites you to give a SuperSoul Session, you better have a good story to tell. Rambling all over the place without a cohesive narrative is a recipe for boring your audience. Hooking them with one narrative problem, making them curious about how it turns out, letting them inside your head where they can feel what you feel, on the other hand, will allow you to have them eating out of the palm of your hand.

A good story is very often not dramatic.  Marie Forleo KILLED her presentation, and the story she told was a mix of two extremely basic narratives:

  • A tale about how she and Josh, her beloved, almost missed an airplane flight on a trip to Barcelona. (Call that Story Present.)
  •  A tale about a plastic orange-shaped orange transistor radio her mom used to listen to as the mom went about fixing things around their house when she was a child. (Call that the Flashback Story.)

Neither of these two stories seems that riveting on the surface, but Marie wove them together masterfully – the Marie in Story Present learning a lesson from the Marie in the Flashback Story about how everything is “figure-out-able.”

A good story always operates on two levels -- the surface level and on the deep level, and Marie’s story did both. Ostensibly, it was about making this airplane flight, but really it was about learning how to value her beloved and learning the importance of balancing work and life.  When she told us how she broke down in tears, fearing that they wouldn’t make the flight, she is talking about the trip to Barcelona to be sure, but she is really talking about her sense of self – and we, the audience, felt it, on both levels. We got it, on both levels.

The two stories were chosen on purpose to make the Big Point that Marie came to Oprah’s stage make – that everything is figure-out-able. That there is no roadblock you can’t get past, no problem you can’t solve, nothing in life that should stop you from going after what you want.

Marie, in other words, had something to say.

One thing. One point. One Big Idea. She left all the other thousands of other points she could have made at home.

I came away from the day with a renewed sense that this is what each of us – the book writers of the world -- needs to do, as well:

  1. Concentrate – because a stack of pages doesn’t make a book.
  2.  Know your point. If Oprah invites you to speak to her people, and sits in the fourth row staring up at you as you do it, what are you going to talk about? What’s your one big thing? Your one point? You don’t get to make 12 points – just one. What is it? That’s the idea that should drive your book, as well.
  3.  Tell a story with a deep-level purpose – one that gives the reader what they come for: the chance to feel something they need to feel.

I also came away knowing that what you wear on stage matters -- a lot.  It’s not a frivolous thing; your clothes say so much about who you are. So as long as we’re imagining being on Oprah, imagine that you have now won an award for your book. You get to go to the ceremony, and if your book wins, you get to go on stage to accept it. What are you going to wear?? What do you want it to say about yourself as a writer?

This is a real question for my client, Tracey Cleantis, author of The Next Happy and the forthcoming Self Care is Not a Stupid Candle. The Next Happy has been nominated for a Books for a Better Life Award. These are some of the books that were nominated in the past; Barnes and Noble features them on their website:

The award ceremony is this coming Monday, and Tracey graciously invited me to be in New York with her in the ballroom when they announce the winners, along with her agent and editor and some of her pals. I’m flying out this weekend to toast her great success. I'm so excited to join her for her big day!

What is she going to wear?

Here’s the picture she posted on Facebook:

 

I'll let you know the outcome, as well as the outfit, next Tuesday.

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A Little Lesson in Why

Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman in "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice." (Warner Bros. Pictures)

Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman in "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice." (Warner Bros. Pictures)

(Warning: spoiler alert for Batman v Superman fans.)

Readers of this newsletter know that I am constantly hammering away at the fact that you have to ask why about everything you are writing – why are you motivated to write this particular book, why you want to make the point you are making, why your ideal reader should care, why your characters do what they do, want what they want, and struggle the way they must struggle.

I do this because readers come for the why, and it’s the why that gives story its emotional power. Without it, your writing will be flat and unable to draw the reader in. It’s easy to know the what of the world – we see it every day as we go about our lives. It’s almost relatively easy to know the how of the world – biology gives us that, and chemistry and physics and medicine and economists. By the why? That’s what we’re all desperately trying to figure out all the time and that’s what stories allow us: a chance to see why people do what they do.

Last night I saw Batman v Superman -- not my usual choice in movies but my daughter and her boyfriend are visiting and he’s a big fan, so off we all went.

These superhero’s stories are entirely built on why.  Batman and Superman’s why stories are well known and straightforward – one lost the love of his parents early on, the other gained love he never thought he would have.

The one I didn’t know much about was Wonder Woman. She is introduced in this movie, and in the LA Times yesterday there was an interview with Gal Gadot, the actress who plays her. The interviewer asks Gadot about a battle scene in which she smiles before going in for the kill. Here is her reply, in which she is recalling a conversation with director Zach Snyder:

 

“After we did that take, Zack came to me and he said, "Did you just have a smirk?" I said "Yeah." And he asked, "Why? I think I like it, but why?" "Well if he's gonna mess with her, then she's gonna mess with him. And she knows she's gonna win." At the end of the day Wonder Woman is a peace seeker. But when fight arrives, she can fight. She's a warrior and she enjoys the adrenaline of the fight.

 

Even in comics come to life, in a superhero movie where the strokes are painted broadly, why is at the heart of everything.

It was one smile, one smirk, but the director stopped everything to understand it, and the actress had a deeply thought-out why.  It wasn’t random, it wasn’t accidental, it wasn’t an afterthought: it was the story itself.

 

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The Drama of Story

On Valentine’s Day, I saw a world premier of a play at The Old Globe Theater in San Diego. It was staged in a tiny little theater in the round – just 250 seats, with no seat more than 5 rows from the stage – and the premise of the play is that it takes place during a semi-final tennis match at the US Open.

Think about that for a minute – a tennis match, played on a tiny stage with audience members on every side. How on earth could that even work?

The Last Match by Anne Zeigler not only worked, it was riveting and moving – and it was a master-class in what stories are really about and what it takes to tell a good one.

Here are four key lessons reinforced by the play:

1. There are two levels to every story.

The first level is plot – in this case, the tennis match. This is what happens, what transpires, what we see at first glance. If someone were to ask me what The Last Match was about, I would probably say, “A tennis match.” That was the frame of the piece – the shape of it. I would, however, be missing the whole point, and if you are writing a memoir or a novel (and in many cases a self-help/how-to book) and you are only focusing on the plot you would be missing the whole point, too.

The second level is the real story – the why underneath the what of the plot. Why do the characters do what they do, why do they care about what is happening, why does it matter to them – and why, by extension, should we (the reader/viewer) care? This is where the true power of story lies. Zeigler clearly knows this in her bones – because on the stage made to look like a tennis court, she brought to life all the desire and rage and fear and yearning of two tennis stars who both want to win.

Why they each want to win is what it was all about.

2. We bring our past selves onto the stage of every story.

It’s so easy to think of any narrative as chronological – a straightforward shot from here to there – but that is, again, to only focus on the plot and to miss the heart of the thing.

Story – which as we just saw, unfolds on a different level – is often not chronological in the least. Since story is about a character’s inner struggle to  make meaning of certain events, it naturally involves their entire past, and it often loops around on itself and back again like a Mobius strip.

In The Last Match, Zeigler made this truth manifest.

One tennis star, Russian phenom Sergei Sergeyev, is a young upstart trying to fulfill the destiny of his great promise by beating the man who had been his idol as a child. He was battling the demons of insomnia and abandonment – things that had plagued him since his parents died in a car crash on the way to see him play. He was battling a demanding girlfriend who we couldn’t quite understand why anyone would bother with (why, why, why?) until we saw exactly why he would.

The other tennis star was the aging legend Tim Porter, thinking about when  to call it quits, trying to hang onto his glory, trying to quell the fear he knows he will feel if he gives up his identity as a tennis star. He was battling the demons of expectation and responsibility, now that he was (after a painful journey of infertility and loss) a new father – expectations of himself, of his son, and of his wife, and responsibility for his family’s financial and spiritual wellbeing.

So much hung in the balance for these two tennis players, and because we were let inside the consequences of the match, the audience came to care for both of them immensely.

All of this was done through some brilliant staging – the two men’s significant others marching, leaping, and slouching onto the tennis court/set to re-enact key scenes from their lives, to bring key questions and answers into the players’ minds.

This is exactly the way memory works – intruding, arriving unbidden, flashing across the stage of our lives.

Yes, the plot moves forward in time, but the story spins around it as it goes.

 3. Nothing is neutral

One of the most powerful elements of The Last Match was the way that Zeigler had the two tennis players literally playing off each other, like improvisers – where one actor starts a conversation and another picks it up and runs with it, crafting their own tale from the raw material he was given.

Tim Porter would be in the midst of a memory and Sergei Sergeyev would be sitting on a chair on the “sidelines” with his head bent and covered by a towel until that part of the story was done -- UNLESS a Tim Porter memory triggered something in Sergei, either literally, because they shared the same memory, or conceptually. If this happened, Sergei would leap up and take over, telling his own tale. It was a little like a relay race, with the baton being handed back and forth between the players, and it was dazzling as the audience was taken deeper and deeper into each man’s story.

Similarly, events in the tennis match itself triggered thoughts, ideas, opinions and emotions. These events included interactions with the crowd, the referee, and the other player, glances at the women in the stands (who sat in the theater aisles as if the players’ boxes), a wrenched back, a won point, a lost game.

So you had these two actors who on one level looked as though they were playing a simple game of tennis, but who on another level, were being plunged into darkness, lifted to heights of joy, and made to struggle with the most seminal moments of their lives.

The key concept for all of us here who are trying to write good books is triggered.

Things in a life (if you are writing memoir) or a novel (if you are writing fiction) or an argument (if you are writing non-fiction) trigger thoughts, ideas, opinions and memories. And by things, I mean events in the plot, other characters, dialogue, decisions – everything. Nothing is neutral to you or mein our real lives – so why should things be neutral in the books we write?

The answer is that they shouldn’t. Everything has the potential to trigger a deeper dive into a character’s life, into your own life, or into the argument you are trying to make to your reader.

Writers often struggle mightily with how to fold flashbacks and backstory into their work. They think of it as a separate thing – something you stop the story to drop in. Backstory and flashbacks, however, are the story. They are the heart of the story. They are how we get to the why that we (the reader) are desperately tracking as the plot unfolds.

If you think about flashbacks and backstory exactly the way I am describing the playwright did – as opportunities to add meaning and power to your story – you will find that they have a place on every page, in small and large ways.

4. Lessons about story are everywhere.

I learn so much about story every day – by reading the newspaper (okay, three of them), reading books, reading blogs, going to the movies, going to plays. It's all a chance to understand story better – to feel how it works, to know how to wield its power. And every once and awhile, you come away absolutely dazzled – which is what happened to me with this play.

Make sure you are consuming stories while you are trying to write them. It makes you a good literary citizen, for one thing, and it will teach you so much of what you need to know.

 

 

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