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What Michael Lewis Can Teach Us About Writing in the Real World

I went to see The Big Short last week. As someone who has worked as a writer, editor, writing instructor and book coach for 27 years, I am not a person who has a natural understanding or affinity for numbers, but I am a reader of newspapers, and I have a mortgage, and I am a generally aware citizen, and care about the state of our world, and I am just as susceptible to the buzz of a big movie as anyone else, so I thought it would be an interesting way to spend an evening. It was – though not in the way I expected.

I went to the movie with my husband, who has an MBA, is a CFO, and worked on Wall Street for several years after college. He is, in other words, a person who has spent 27 working with numbers. Throughout The Big Short, Rob was belly laughing. Totally cracking up. And I kept looking at him thinking, “What? What?” Afterwards, he declared that he loved the movie. He thought it was hilarious and important – a masterwork.

I understood the storyline – Adam McKay worked hard to make sure that someone like me would – and I understood what an important point the movie was making about our banks and our culture. It was, in that way, quite frightening, and also motivating in terms of making sure I continue to be an aware consumer and citizen. I also recognized that some of the acting was amazing, because I largely forgot that I was watching Brad Bitt and Ryan Gosling – which is hard to do.

But what I took away from the theater was this: a million questions about how it was done.

Not every movie – or book -- causes that reaction in me. I saw The Force Awakens over the holidays and also Spectre, and loved the experience of those movies. They were fun – Star Wars even despite the obvious plot holes and plot repetition. But with a movie like The Big Short, which by all measures shouldn’t work (a movie about banking and bankers and the arcane facts of trading?), I am just dying to know how.

How did the writer get the idea? How did he know it was a good idea? How did he organize the material the way he did? How did he choose whom to give a POV? How did he convince anyone else this story was a good idea? How did they get Brad Pitt?

When I came home from the theater, I hit the Internet to answer my questions. We live in extraordinary times, that we can do such a thing – just instantly get answers to almost anything. I learned all kinds of interesting things about casting, and the bit with Selena Gomez, and then I happened upon an article by Michael Lewis about his surprise that the movie got made at all. I want to share it with you today, because it’s a beautiful and profound explanation of what it means to be a writer in the real world.

What do I even mean by that? Well, it’s pretty easy to be a writer who sits in her room alone and never shares her work with the world, but to be a writer who thinks about her reader, and who thinks about the marketplace, and who is brave enough to want to be read and to do what it takes to make it happen – that’s hard. That's what I mean by being a writer in the real world. It’s what I work to help people become, and it’s what I want to be in my own work.

In this article, Michael Lewis shows us how it’s done – step by step, from the moment the idea hit him, through his exploration of it, through the doubt he felt about it, and all the way until the big movie rolled into the theaters. I annotated in yellow the passages throughout where he shows us these things, because it’s not always explicit. But it’s there – a subtext to everything he is writing. I explained my thinking so you can see exactly what I mean. I hope you take inspiration from it for your work in 2016.

>>>> CLICK HERE TO SEE ANNOTATED PIECE

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What Harrison Ford and Stand Up Comedians Can Teach Us About Flashbacks

At the start of a new year, we look back in order to look forwards, and I think it’s worth noting that this is also one of the main actions of writing. I thought I would take some time today to talk about writing flashbacks – why we do it, when to do it, and how to do it.
 
Before we get there, a quick definition: by flashback, I mean any time in a fictional narrative or a non-fiction explanation when you stop the main story or flow in order to look back at something that happened in the past, in order to make sense of what is happening in the present. There is no form of writing that doesn’t employ this technique in some way, shape, or form.
 
Why Even Write a Flashback?
 
Readers turn to books to help us make sense of a world that often doesn’t make very much sense. Our lives don’t always have clear arcs or neat resolutions, and they certainly don’t have the clarity that comes from following a step-by-step how-to guide laid out by an expert. Whether we are reading a memoir, a novel, or a non-fiction book, we are seeking a deeper understanding of the world, of the other people in it, and of ourselves.
 
Each of us goes through the world with our own belief system, our own way of thinking and knowing. We can’t actually walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, but we do have the ability to imagine what that would be like, and it is that imagining that expands our understanding.
 
That imagining is also extremely individual. If I say to you, “Picture a castle on a hill,” you will see something very different than I do, based on where you live, where you have travelled, what you have read, and how many Disney movies you have watched.
 
We write flashbacks in order to let our readers into those specific, highly personal thoughts, in order to invite them into our minds and our way of seeing, because that is the closest anyone will ever come to getting inside someone else’s head.
 
So we write flashbacks to give our readers insight and understanding. It’s as simple and as profound as that.
 
 
When Should You Write a Flashback?
 
In my definition, above, I explained that a flashback lets us look in the past in order to make sense of the present. The past can be yesterday, an hour ago, five, fourteen, or thirty seven years ago, but they key to when to take us there lies in that definition: in order to make sense of the present.
 
You should only use flashbacks when the present demands that we know something from the past. You should not use flashback because you the writer decided that the reader needs to know this thing and you picked an arbitrary place to dump it on us. We hate that. That feels like a lecture. What we want is an invitation.
 
The best way to learn how this process works in writing is to watch it at work in your own life. Pay attention to what causes memories to come into your mind, to what brings you in and out of the recollection, to how long they last and how detailed they are.
Let me give you an example of how this recently worked for me.
 
Like millions of my fellow humans, I was recently in a theater watching the new Star Wars movie. When Harrison Ford showed up on screen as Han Solo, tears instantly came to my eyes. I imagine that tears instantly came to a lot of people’s eyes (I mean, he’s with Chewie, on his battered and beloved and dependable old ship, and he says, “We’re home,” and it’s a lovely moment.) The question is, though, why did tears come to MY eyes? What specific understanding was I bringing from that past into that moment that was different from any one of the millions of other teary-eyed movie-goers?
 
If I were writing about that moment (in a memoir, or transposed in some way to a novel, or in a non-fiction book about, say, the power of a shared cultural moment), I would be leaving the reader completely out if I didn’t answer the question. I would be letting the reader flap in the wind by bringing up my teary eyes without also explaining what it meant to me – an omission which would confuse and frustrate them. Or I would be leaving them to interpret for themselves why I was crying – which would mean I gave up my authority.
 
I owe it to the reader to explain my tears so that they can understand what I am feeling, and whatever larger point I am making in even choosing to talk about Star Wars in the first place.
 
The past that brought tears to my eyes in that one silver screen second has many layers, but the two most prominent layers for me were:
 

  • The fact that grey-haired Harrison Ford looks alarmingly like my dad (who is on the right, below); and that my dad has always been quite like a superhero/action figure to me, with all the power and all the limitations of that job; and that because of the same devil-may-care attitude he and Han both have, I have never been completely sure that my dad would survive any of his many adventures; and the fact that, unlike my dad, Han can always be counted on to swoop in to save the day. The split-second appearance of Harrison Ford’s face yanked all of these thoughts up to the surface in a sudden bittersweet wave of affection and regret. That alone would have given the moment meaning, but there was more:
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  • The fact that I was 13 years old when the first Star Wars movie came out, and this time I was sitting in the theater with my husband and our grown children, and all this time has passed and Harrison Ford has grown older and I have grown older, too, and on top of all that there was a time that is now receding into the past when (because of a cancer diagnosis) none of us were sure that I would have the chance to grow older. And yet there we were – my husband and my children and I -- having made it to that moment, which brought up a whole different sent of intense emotions about mortality and chance and love and loss, just as complex and nuanced as the other wave.

 
Do you see how, if you knew none of those things, my teary eyes at Harrison Ford could be mistaken for straight up movie nostalgia, or for something else entirely?
 
You need the intel from the past in order to understand my tears. If I were writing about those tears, it would be my job to give you that intel and to give it to you the moment I told you about those tears. If I waited, I would lose the opportunity, I would lose momentum, and odds are good that I would lose you – because SO WHAT that I got teary in Star Wars? Everyone got teary at Star Wars.
 
Flashback allows you to answer that so what at the moment the question is raised, which deepens the hold you have on your reader because it deepens the meaning of what you are trying to convey.
 
How to Write a Flashback
 
The key to making flashbacks work is to enter and exit them in a seamless way. They are part of the story you are telling or the point you are making – not a separate thing. But you need to give the reader distinct cues and clues as to what you are doing.
 
Those cues almost always have to do with the passage of time – days and dates. It often feels heavy handed to write these kinds of sentences – Three years before… or The last time I was in a movie theater… or I suddenly remembered my tenth birthday party… but those straightforward cues are necessary.
 
In the Star Wars example, I might write this:
 
Tears instantly began to burn my eyes and I felt my throat close up. I felt silly – why was I crying at Harrison Ford’s sudden appearance? – and I looked at Emily to see if she had been impacted by the moment in the same way. She hadn’t been. She sat watching the movie unfold as if nothing momentous had occurred. [This is “story present.”]
 
It was then that I realized that my 20-year-old child simply didn’t have the same deep history with mortality that I had.  [This is a statement of my point in telling this story…]
 
She had only been three when I was diagnosed with cancer. [Note the use of ages to bring the reader back in time… we are now entering the flashback.] I remember that once we decided to tell the girls, we gathered them in the living room to try to explain what was happening. We told them we had something important to say, and while her older sister was antsy about the gravity of the moment, wanting to escape it, Emily seemed to sink into it. She sat there with her little forehead wrinkled in concern, her green eyes drinking everything in.
 
“Your mom has a sickness called cancer,” Rob said.
 
“That’s what Grandma died from," Carlyn said.
 
“Yes,” I said, “But the kind I have is different. We don’t think it’s as bad.”
 
“Are you going to die?” Carlyn asked.
 
Rob took my hand. “We don’t think so,” he said, “We’re going to work with the doctors to do everything we can to make sure she doesn’t.”
 
“Okay,” Carlyn said, convinced, and got up and left the room. 
 
Emily stayed. “What’s cancer?” she asked.
 
Rob took a pencil and drew some shapes on a yellow lined piece of paper. He then explained how cells divide, and he turned some of the shapes into larger shapes.
 
“How will the doctors make it go away?” she asked.
 
Rob explained how doctors had tools to remove the cells that divided the wrong way, and he erased the dots. This seemed to satisfy Emily – but she never asked what death was. She never asked what it meant to die. Perhaps, at age 3, that simply wasn’t part of her worldview. Perhaps, like any child, she simply couldn't imagine her mother not being there.
 
Sitting in the darkened theater next to her 17 years later [Note the use of time to bring the reader forward in time and back to story present] – having lived all those years, having survived – I felt immense gratitude for the opportunity I had to raise my children to adulthood. I felt immense gratitude to be alive.
 
Suddenly it didn’t seem silly at all to be so moved to see Hans Solo return against all odds, yet again.
 
 
Here’s another good way to learn how to go in and out of flashbacks: watch sketch comedy. The best comedians often fold stories within stories and you can HEAR how it works.
 
With my kids home for the holidays, I was invited to watch all kinds of great videos, clips and sketch comedy routines that I might not otherwise ever know about, and among them were some comedy routines by John Mulaney. I found him quite hilarious, but he does use strong language and scenarios that might offend some people, so I tried to find a clip that showed what I wanted to show without going too far.
 
In this clip, Mulaney is telling a story about how great it is to have a girlfriend going through life by his side and in the middle of that story, he breaks to tell a story about what life was like before his girlfriend. It’s a flashback. It happens to be told in an over-the-top extreme way, for the biggest laughs, but it’s flashback nonetheless. 
 
20:35 -- The start of the girlfriend story.
21:19 -- The restatement of his theme (“Before I had a girlfriend, I had no standard for how I should be treated as a human being”) and the segue to the flashback – a story about how life was without the girlfriend.
21:49 – Repetition of the theme and the flashback story -- the story about Delta airlines (so funny, I crack up every time!)
23:28 -- End of flashback, back to girlfriend story, where she calmly and logically recommends Southwest, thereby proving the theme of the whole routine: life is better with the girlfriend.
 
 
Here’s to telling great stories and writing great books in 2016!

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How to See the Story

                                                             One of Mary Reaney's beautiful designs

                                                             One of Mary Reaney's beautiful designs

Over Thanksgiving my kids were talking about the concept of a “lame superpower” – which I take to mean a superpower that would be cool to have, but also somewhat useless in comparison to actual superpowers such as being invisible or being able to time travel. One such lame superpower that was discussed, for example, was the ability to wake up with a smile in your face every day – before coffee.
 
This whole train of thought led me to think about a superpower that I believe many writers possess – and one which I believe we should all seek to strengthen. It’s the ability to see stories – to see the resonant moment in our own work, to see the core of the point we are trying to make, to see the idea that is strong and powerful and everlasting and not just the next shiny thing in front of us.
 
I think this would be a powerful asset, because sometimes the story is so maddeningly elusive. I have a client whom I shall call Joanne. I have been working with her one on one for a year – and she has been working hard.  She never misses a deadline, she estimates that she has written 500,000 words, she is willing to throw things out, to start over, to try again and again and again. And yet only this week did she really SEE her story.
 
Here is what she wrote about it:
 
 I feel excited about the story as if it were a new idea.  I can see how it plays out and, most importantly, I understand why I’m telling it.  I am embarrassed that it took so long to get here, but my sweet spouse’s reaction was pure delight: I found the key piece of the story!

I kept looking under the lamppost where the light was brighter.  I kept looking there until you suggested I wander over to the dark side of the street where more interesting things were happening if I’d stick around long enough to look and listen.

 
[This is Jennie and I didn’t want to include the next part but this writer made it a requirement of my using her words, so here it is…] I would not have gotten here without you.  It’s that clear.  You showed me what we missing, time and again, and the last piece helped click it all together. Thank you a million times over!
 
A year to see your story isn’t actually so bad. That’s actually somewhat fast. I have taken three times that long to find a story I was writing – and that was only after an editor led me to it by my nose. (In a post in the next weeks I’m going to write about what you DO once you have this aha moment – how you write forward, how you revise, how you use this information…. I call it The Golden Thread. Stay tuned for that!
 
The truth is that sometimes the words get in the way of the seeing, or the world, or our doubt, or a million other things. But like Joanne, when we see it, it’s so clear.
 
I am going on a trip this weekend with a friend who has just embarked on a grand adventure in her life. She is an interior designer who has a newly empty nest at home. She loves to travel, and loves to make spaces beautiful, and she has made a commitment to transform ten houses in ten cities in ten years. This is a commitment to how she wants to live in the world and how she wants to work – not from one home base, but from ten home bases. We are travelling to New Orleans, where the first of the ten projects is underway.
 
All I can see here is the story. It is like a neon sign flashing in the night! Who wouldn’t want to know how she chooses the cities, how she chooses the spaces, how she populates the spaces with lovely things in under a week  ( a one woman extreme makeover), how she meets people in the new place (the realtor, the woman at Restoration Hardware, the professor from the college down the road, the owner of the building…) what she does when she visits the new city, why she does it, and what lessons she will take to the next city on the list (which will be Rome)?
 
I see in stories and my dear friend simply does not… she is not chronicling the first of the ten, not writing blog posts about it, not taking pictures of the process, not taking notes. Part of me is jumping up and down and screaming, “Story, story, story!!!” I feel as thought my heart is about to burst.
 
But another part of me is realizing that my friend is not a writer. She tells her story in different ways, through furniture and art and fabric and rugs and even the glasses in which she serves drinks. A few weeks ago, she held a cocktail party for all the new friends she has met in her new place, and I have been to her parties so I know what they are like – warm, friendly, festive. I am certain that everyone who came enjoyed themselves and marveled at the lovely surroundings and felt the enveloping glow of a woman who likes nothing better than to host a party in a pretty space – even for people she has only just met.
 
I would tell the same story in a very different way – I mean, I can just SEE it: ten chapters, a through-line about making the world more beautiful and being at home in the world, a thread of how-tos about the stores visited, the money spent, the secret list of things that you can buy at Target that you don’t need to buy somewhere more expensive.
 
I have the power to see this story – but not the motivation to tell it.*
 
Having both the story and the motivation?? Maybe that isn’t such a lame superpower at all.
 
* Yes, yes I know that I could actually write my friend’s ten houses story on her behalf. But I have so many of my own stories to tell – I don’t need to borrow anyone else’s. And since you asked (ha!), my dog story is going just fine, thank you. I have a character who is writing a twist on Romeo & Juliet-- I basically need a play within a play within the story -- and so on my weekend outing, I will be reading some Shakespeare and thinking about the fabulous movie, Shakespeare in Love, and trying to tell myself that I can do this. 

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