Crafting The Unconventional Story

I’ve been writing a long time, and when I go back and read my earliest works written in the 1980s, I see a lot of experimentation and non-conformity while still sticking to the basics of story structure: a defined beginning, middle, and end falling neatly within the boundaries of the standard plot sequence.

Although I have never strayed fully from the unconventional (and those who have read Cold Rock understand what I mean), I have tried, unsuccessfully, to play on both sides of the fence, breaking into traditional markets with rather unconventional works. I have had little patience for the game, and I have made the decision to stick with self-publishing. It gives me unlimited creative license to publish my works while still reaching my core group of readers. If more comes of it through word-of-mouth because my readers like what I am doing, then more power to the self-publishing approach.

So yesterday, I started reading Into The Woods, a book on story structure by John Yorke, which takes the works of story analysts like Joseph Campbell and story strategists like Christopher Vogler to the next level.

I am no stranger to Vogler’s work, and I have been using the 12-stage journey he outlined years ago in many of my works.

Yorke challenges such structures and ultimately asks two vital questions:

  1. Most analysts of story, such as Vogler, posit completely different systems, all of which claim to be the sole and only way to write stories. How can they all possibly claim to be right?
  2. Not one of them asks: Why?

And herein lies the main question. There is no doubt that the story analysts are correct; they have identified what works with readers and viewers for centuries, and they have offered reliable story structures for creatives to use in the most predictably formulaic style that meets with success nearly every time. Ask them why and most writers and directors will say it has something to do with what we’ve been experiencing all of our lives; it’s what we are used to. It’s built into our DNA.

Probably one of the most indefensible but satisfying answers ever spewed, and the meta-conscious generations of the 21st century aren’t going to buy it for much longer.

I’ve had the extraordinarily good fortune of working with two writers living in Australia who are not afraid to take risks, to bend the boundaries of those conventional structures, and explore the connections with readers in very unconventional ways. It has made me a stronger writer, and it has given me greater confidence to develop my writing through my own eyes, and not necessarily through the more narrow confines of what traditional publishers are looking for.

Yorke is absolutely right. Creatives — writers, artists, musicians, producers — need to understand why that connection exists with their audiences so they can abandon the more formulaic structures of story and still connect as strongly — maybe more powerfully than ever — with their readers and viewers.

What This Means For Creatives

We, as creatives, need to continue to boldly experiment with form, crafting unconventional ways to reach our audience that don’t necessarily follow a story structure identified by Joseph Campbell in the middle of the twentieth century.

In other words, we can’t let numbers dictate our craft of story, and just continue to crank out the formulaic pieces that publishers want that are going to sell the highest number of copies and pull in the highest number of dollars.

I believe and know that this is continuing to happen all too often. My hope is that, with the explosive opportunities offered in self-publishing, creatives of all kinds will begin to take greater leaps of faith in experimenting with their structure and approach to storytelling.

Give yourself the freedom and the license to create, to experiment, to discover uninhibitedly the storyteller within you that, in your own unique way, still connects and resonates deeply with your audience.

An Open Letter To God: Are You There?

are you there god 2

photo: rus vanwestervelt

Dear God:

Are You there? Lately I have been wondering, as a few things have happened around our world that makes me question what’s really going on.

Well, I guess it is a combination of things. I mean, bad stuff happens all the time. No real change there. The change is in us, and the way that we are living our lives.

It’s really beginning to concern me.

I remember when I was in fifth grade, our teacher took us to the library to pick out a book (or two) for the winter break. I was an avid reader by that time, and I was going through the books we had pretty fast. Most of the nonfiction titles were about sharks or ghosts, and I had already devoured them. When it came to fiction, though, I read anything I could find. I walked over to the “New Arrival” shelf, and I found a book that I had never heard of before. It came at a time when I was curious about all things related to God and spirituality. I distinctly remember thinking that this book was there, for me, at that exact time.

I took the book to the librarian to check it out. She read the title, then put the book behind her on a separate shelf. She looked at me with disappointment.

“I’m sorry, dear. You can’t read that book.”

I looked at her incredulously. I had never heard of such a thing.

“What do you mean? I’m in fifth grade! I thought we could check out any book here.”

“You can,” she responded. “But not this one. It’s not appropriate for boys.” She waited for me to leave, but I just stood there. I was an ornery kid.

“Why isn’t it appropriate?” I asked.

All she could do was get angry at my persistence. “It just is! Find another book. Look around you. We have plenty of other titles that you will like.”

I left the librarian, and the copy of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, by Judy Blume, remained on the back shelf and out of my reach.

Later that day, I found out from a girl friend of mine that the book had stuff in it about bras and menstruation, and I immediately decided that I had heard enough and would be happy to find another book before we left for the break, even if that meant rereading about sharks and ghosts.

I admit, though, I was pretty bummed. I thought that the book was about God, that it was there for me, on that shelf, for a reason. And that librarian? She could have recognized why I was interested in the book in the first place. A little redirection to the God shelf would have been pretty appreciated.

I’m wondering how many fifth graders today are wondering about God and looking for answers. I know that, if I am now, at the age of 48, then others must be as well.

So, God, instead of going to my local library (where, by the way, I can now read any book I want without being questioned because it’s all self-serve when it comes to checking books out), I thought I’d come directly to You today.

Are You there, God? It’s me. Rus.

I want to tell You why I am so confused right now. It’s not about these tragedies that are happening around the globe and, terrifyingly enough, right here in the States. Like I said before, I get that (I don’t like it, but I get it).

I am confused because I feel like I know too much. I have read too much about the history of religion, and I question the validity and the motivation of our historians to capture certain religious events. Even more specifically, I question the timing and the similarities between the development of Christianity in relation to other religions.

Or should I not get too hung up on all that stuff? Should the hows and the whys regarding the past not matter to us in the present?

To be honest, God, If it were a purely historical thing, then I don’t even think I would have the need to write you. Wam, Bam, Thank you for the facts, Ma’am. And I’d be on my way.

(Probably not too appropriate here in this context, God. Sorry ’bout that.)

Anyway, this is why I am hung up on this.

photo: rus vanwestervelt

photo: rus vanwestervelt

I feel Your presence. I feel Your love. In all things. I listen to the holiday songs, and I feel You. I see the icons of Christmas, and I don’t see dollar signs or material goods; instead, I feel You.

When I don’t think about all the things that I have read, and when I stop comparing it to how historical or significant events are archived today with so much bias and subjectivity, where seemingly unrelated agendas govern the accuracy of actual events, everything is different.

But I do think about them, and that’s the problem. I’m finding it so hard to follow my feelings when my head is telling me something so different. It’s just so hard to let go of all of that thought stuff and just believe.

Isn’t that how it worked before we had all this stuff written down? Why did it have to get so political about who wrote what, and how?

Earlier today, I asked a few friends about how they knew You existed, and the answers that I got were right in line with us believers having a personal relationship with You that transcends the written word.

Believe me, God. As a writer, it’s very hard to acknowledge that anything should transcend words. But when we write, we are just trying to understand, aren’t we? To put things in a relative context that makes us understand something a little better? In this case, I think it has done just the opposite.

Anyway, here’s what they said.

Mark offered a quote from a band called, Live: “I don’t need no one to tell me about heaven. – I look at my daughter, and I believe. I don’t need no proof when it comes to God and truth, I can see the sunset, and I perceive.”

That’s pretty clear to me, God. You exist in all things, now and forever. Check.

Natalie went deeper with her thoughts, bringing to light in a strong reminder that Nature offers proof that something greater than us exists. “Why does something greater than ourselves (nature) have to be attributed to a deity? I believe there is a higher power than mere humans, but I think nature in all her glory is more than enough to believe in. That way, I can remove judgment and feeling from the equation and just accept what is.”

I couldn’t agree more that the spirit of the higher power existed long before we could write anything about it. It existed, and we as humans reacted to it in the best way we knew how.

Bernadette: “Something inside a belief, a feeling and yes faith. Who or what created all this? Even scientifically speaking, all this energy starts and ends where and why … I know in my darkest hours that my faith and God carried me through it. I don’t believe in “my god” or “your god” over Allah or any other named [deity]. I believe in one God who does not discriminate; he/she loves everyone “as is”; the rules I find to be man made and not God driven at all. The God I know is for all people, all of the time. Even the nonbelievers.”

Again, we are back to the origins being before any written documentation. Beautiful, Bernadette.

Adam: “The quest to understand ourselves as spiritual beings requires belief in a spiritual realm, one which explains the origins of the universe, the world and of us as individuals, and our relationship with the creator. My belief comes from an understanding that we are spiritual beings, created by a spiritual deity. This is the framework through which I see the world. I understand maths and science as manifestations of the creative language of a creative God.

photo: one of my favorite students!

photo: one of my favorite students!

Each culture has its sacred texts, including atheists, to explain origins and meaning. The opening chapters of Genesis do not explain how the world came into being, but explains why it came into being, because God wanted relationship with the creation. And the resultant Bible is the history of that relationship.

How do I know God exists? I know the relationship I have with him and the communion with the saints. I have seen, and heard, many physical miracles of healing; have heard prophecy and words of knowledge, which, like a scientific theory, must be weighed carefully and proved.

The natural world is therefore a reflection of a creative God, a sign to direct me to the one who made it. I see it and know it most when I see people enacting the commandment to ‘love thy neighbour.'”

God, isn’t Adam awesome? (whoa– If there are no coincidences, I’m pretty excited here about mentioning God and Adam in the same sentence, and knowing you both). When he says that the natural world is a reflection of a creative God, it makes perfect sense to me.

I don’t need the words as much as I need to connection with the natural world, the communion with all that transcends us as humans. And yet, as Adam says so eloquently, we can also see You through the kindness of others.

Katie couldn’t agree more with what Adam shares: “Grace, any moment of someone else sticking their neck out for you or lending a hand, especially when we don’t deserve it, to me is a reflection of the original, ultimate example of this kindness. It’s something that even in today’s world, none of us have time for, goes against ‘every man for himself’ survival instincts, and yet its still everywhere.”

Deborah sees you, God, in everything around her: “You need only to look around to know that God does indeed exist. He is there in all of nature, in the falling of the leaves off the trees in autumn, and in the budding of leaves in spring. When you truly look around and realize what nature has to do in order to complete this cycle each and every year, than you know that a higher being is in charge.”

Jim, ever succinct, agrees as well: “The balance of chemicals in your blood stream, the Natural Order of the Universe, the Beauty of Nature – all evidence to me.”

So God, I guess writing does help us get closer to you in some ways. When my friend Lisa wrote, “That’s why it’s called ‘faith’; I just know,” it’s probably one of the simplest, yet most convincing statements I’ve read in a long time. Tonight, writing helped me understand more of what I believe, and why. As well, my friends’ writing put to shame my concerns that you might not be there anymore. Through their words, I feel Your love. And that’s probably the greatest way to receive Your love, through the kindness of others.

Phew! I feel better already!

Thanks for all You do (this is getting awkward).

Yours,

Rus

(p.s.: I think I might write an “Are You There God?” book for boys. All of this might have been a little simpler if that had been on the “New Arrival” shelf all those years ago.)

Postmarked: Piper’s Reach Ends – My First Response

I have had the pleasure of following the 3-season serial epistolary novella online for the last 18 months, and last evening, the final letters were posted. You can read this post HERE, or you can view the website HERE with all three seasons intact (hurry, though; this will disappear in a few weeks in preparation for greater things).

My first reaction was one of heartfelt devastation. Last week, I realized how it was going to end (or so I believed then), and my assumption was correct. But the way in which it was fulfilled was done with both brilliance and simplicity: a three-letter ending that leaves the door wide open for further writings, should the authors, Jodi Cleghorn and Adam Byatt, choose to go in any such direction. They certainly don’t need to, as the story they began on April 10, 2012 is a stand-alone masterpiece that does not need the wraparound winds of further stories. With that said, doors are open. We as readers can only wait and see.

My first response is a literary one. I offer a short story that I penned many years ago, that somehow seems appropriate to share with the Postmarked authors and readers today. It is titled, “Alice Flows.” I did not change a single word to fit the ending of Postmarked; as you shall see, though, there are some similarities that might explain my affinity for these characters, as well as for this story.

I tip my literary cap once more to Jodi and Adam for the journey they have shared with us. I am a better writer, reader, and individual for the experience. Writers around the globe, pay attention: taking risks with our words and our form is a dangerous thing at times. It is through these risks that diamonds emerge through the many rocks cast on the literary cairn. Jodi and Adam have given us more than a story; they have given us the courage to explore new ways to tell timeless stories. I am grateful for all they have given to us, both in the present and for years to come.

So, here is my literary response. I will have many more reflections to follow in the days to come. I raise my glass of chocolate port to each of you and congratulate you for providing a reading experience like no other.

 

Alice Flows

 

Sunset nears. The rocks are glazed with ice that traps daylight’s last few hues, and the water of little hunting creek that flowed through here just weeks ago now remains frozen as if caught in mid-thought.  This is just not the way it was supposed to turn out for Alice and me.

“What now?” I ask.  But she does not answer. How can she?

The ice beneath my boots melts from the warmth and the weight we bear upon this time-smoothed stone, and I feel as if Alice and I have thwarted winter’s call¾if but for this moment spent in quiet desperation.

We never thought that death would come so soon, nor did I ever imagine that this creek might be frozen when the day arrived to carry out her wishes. Alice wanted to be returned to these waters within three sunsets of her passing; how were we to know that winter would arrive so early?

“We were not yet done with autumn,” I whisper to her in my arms. “But autumn, she seems to be done with us…”

*    *    *

 The William Houck area of Cunningham Falls State Park, between Frederick and Hagerstown, is adorned with Maryland’s highest waterfall¾78 feet to be exact¾and the very popular 42-acre lake that is frequented by anglers, boaters, swimmers, and even scuba divers.  Alice and I had known this section of the park quite well; since in our twenties when we first married, we had visited Houck several times a year, getting to know some Thurmont folks who opted for this smaller tourist attraction in lieu of the more commercialized Ocean City and Deep Creek Lake resorts several hours east or west, respectively.

It wasn’t until our drive to the park just six weeks ago that Alice wanted to go to Houck’s oft-unmentioned sibling, the Manor Area, before succumbing to the cancer that had taken a disturbingly silent-yet-terminal residence within her.

For years, Alice and I had joked that the Manor Area seemed like an afterthought. Without the diva attraction that the falls provided Houck, Manor was destined to be seldom more than a hang out for local teens or a scant celebratory meeting place at its shelter for birthdays, anniversaries, reunions.

So Manor remained, without Alice and me, until this past October when we approached its entrance, and I felt Alice’s faint pulse as she squeezed my hand weakly.

“Jared,” she said. “The crowds might cheapen this somehow for us at Houck, you know?” Her soft-spoken words flowed from still softer lips, seemingly untouched by the death that dwelled within. As much as the cancer had stolen from her, she held on tightly to the inner peace that radiated such kindness and gentle ways.

Alice was right about the crowds. When the cancer surfaced seven months ago, we pared down our social circle, and even strangers at the falls would somehow dilute the reason we had come.

We entered Manor and scanned the lot for others; autumn had bloomed brilliantly in a cacophonic canopy of browns, oranges, reds, greens. I parked along the northern bank of little hunting creek, abandoned.

Alice was happy.

She left me in the car and headed to the water. Within a few steps, she was past the picnic bench and at the bank, looking west, then east, then west again. In both directions, the creek veered to the left and rolled out of sight around a bend.

I gave her a moment at the water’s edge before joining her. There wasn’t much to look at. Having visited Houck for so long, I couldn’t help but think that Little Hunting Creek¾maybe 15 feet wide where we stood¾was blushing, the runty kid sister of the Homecoming Queen. It was hardly more pronounced than the small spring from which it originated in the Catoctin Mountains, and I scarcely believed that little fanfare could be made further downstream, even where it joined Big Hunting Creek and then, eventually, the Monocacy River.

This absence of pomp and circumstance freed the sounds of the crisp water churning over rocks and dipping in and out of stone-bed pools; winds whistled through leaves and broken bark and brought to us the fragrances of  wild sarsaparilla, spice bush, and even pine sap. We stood there for several more minutes, acclimating ourselves to the richer sounds of squirrels scurrying for winter’s keep and the softer sights of sunlight sifting through leaves like light through stained glass.

This is why we are here, I thought. We are all here for some sort of spiritual sun-worshiping, but, unlike those at the other end of the park, we have come to touch the sun before it touches us.

*    *    *

With a firm patch of earth now under my feet, I stand without sound as the sporadic road traffic nearby hums a sing-song of comings and goings. Very close, I think, and a poor musical substitute for the water that once rushed over these rocks that run east to west, around the bend, no end in sight.

The unadorned, brown urn I carry with Alice’s ashes is heavy, yet the weight does not bother me as might holding one of these stones from this creek. It is the weight of ever-present thoughts, more than anything, reminding me that her remains are in my arms, cradled with the same fragility of a newborn life, a compact world of endless possibilities unexplored, unrealized.

I leave the bank and join the creek’s bed of iced-over rocks, seeing that a smaller stream, trickling from under a pool of frozen water, has somehow eluded winter’s icy grip. I hold Alice close to me as I leave this safe patch of earth, but as vigilant as my steps may be, I slip on a small, flat rock that sends me¾and Alice¾into the air…

*      *      *

Alice removed her sandals and walked effortlessly to a shallow pool formed by some of the larger rocks. From this pool flowed a tiny, constant stream of water that trickled over smaller pebbles: a miniature Cunningham Falls gleaming with promise.

There stood Alice, centered, visibly at peace.  On the ride up, she had talked about meditation and transcendentalism and that Buddha stuff that helped her focus, maybe even live a little longer. Here she stood now, focusing, perhaps hoping for a few extra days. She had said that meditation made her cancer seem nonexistent, suspended; there was an abeyance about it, she had said, where as long as she stayed centered, as she clearly was now,  life would never cease flowing through her; death would come only in the most physical of senses.

I had never been so deep to meditate and see things that way. I had always spent my time turning over rocks, looking for a marbled salamander, finding perhaps an eastern newt. Or, I had spent my time looking for things that don’t seem to belong; maybe they have a greater glow, a greater effervescence about them. They stand out, catch my attention, beg me to be taken from here. Or so I believe. I just cannot leave without some tangible treasure.

Alice stood there in that pool, her arms open wide, her face to the sky. Leaves dropped, some on her, some in the water, swept away, down the river.

Then she looked down, kneeled into the water, cupped her hands as she dipped them and pulled up a pool filled with her reflection. She brought the water to her shoulders and arms till beads ran off her fingertips and back into the pool and down the little falls.

With her hands still wet, Alice pressed them against her neck where she had first found the cancer. She held her hands there, as if somehow cleansing the area, purifying it, making it innocent once again.

“You okay?” I called out to her. She nodded briefly, barely acknowledging my concern as she seemed too focused¾if not too weak¾to do much more.

As I continued to watch her, Alice scooped up half a palm of ground stone that formed a miniature cairn in her hand and knelt down into the pond. She looked at the tiny pile of sand, then to the water that surrounded her waist. The ground stone was but a mere fraction of the life pool around her. She brought her hand down to the pond and let the water flow¾a swirling fluidity that broke the cairn down, tiny grain of sand by tiny grain of sand, carrying each through the gate, over the rocks, beyond the bend, and on and on.

I was downstream of her. Painful as it was, I decided to remain, not battle the waters coming down to me. To walk upstream at this point seemed to go against some natural force of what was to be. I waited.

She walked toward me, taking each step carefully along the slippery rocks, following the water’s path. She did her best to stay immersed in these waters, as deeply as possible, even if only being wet to her ankles at times.

I offered her my hand, and she kissed me gently on the cheek and rested her head on my shoulder.

“I’m ready,” she whispered. I wrapped my arms around her and held her close to me, but after a moment, she gently pushed away. With her head down, she walked slowly to the picnic bench and sat.

I took one more glimpse of the river upstream where it turned to the left, bending then disappearing. As my eyes sifted down to the pool where Alice had immersed herself, I noticed two flat rocks leaning against and supporting each other, framing an area where some of the water was running through.

I looked over at the bench where Alice sat, as she brushed a few remaining granules of sand from her hands. I thought how I often was the one who did more of the leaning than Alice; I had spent my time feeding off of her strength when I felt it should have been the other way around. Our closest moment had now been frozen, immortalized; yet there we remained, so far apart.

*   *   *

I catch my fall with one hand, blood now flowing from it as I balance the urn in my other hand. I try to stop the bleeding myself, but the cut is too deep.

I crouch, precariously perched between the obscure, trickling falls and two supporting rocks, comrades leaning more or less on each other.

We never considered how this part was to be done. Just dumping her ashes into this scaled-down stream would choke its flow, and stagnant water would most certainly freeze with these temperatures.

I recall Alice’s last moments here, bending down and allowing the small pile of ground stone in her palm to be lifted by the water’s rush and carried away. It had been at that moment that she had made up her mind how to proceed with all of this. The solution, however tough until that moment, seemed natural and almost relieving to her, as if this were the last great decision she would have to make.

There is nothing relieving about this for me, though. I know how to follow her directions, fulfill her final wishes, allow her to flow with her earth like she always tried to do while she was alive.

What I don’t know is how to live life without my Alice. I don’t know that inner peace that she knew. I don’t know anything but the soft touch of her lips, the I-love-you’s in her eyes, the whispers of comfort in her words.

I fear I won’t know how to carry on after today. I won’t have my Alice; I won’t have love.  

I turn the urn on its side and immerse it into the small stream. As I slowly remove the brown lid with my bleeding hand, the urn swallows the water, and a wisp of air¾much like a sigh¾escapes as Alice’s ashes flow downstream. Suddenly I feel unsteady on the rocks, dizzy with the finality of having to say goodbye to her. I do everything I can to keep my focus, reminding myself that this is what she wanted. This is what she needed. But the emotion is just too much for me, and I drop to my knees. My hands around the urn dip deeper in the icy water, and I shut my eyes to force back the tears as much as to bear the sting of the freezing water.

This is all too much. I cannot bear to say goodbye as she drifts away from me, around the bend, on and on, out of my sight. There was so much to do, so many words unspoken. We were never meant to be separated so early.

I open my eyes to see if she is gone. At first, I think the sting in my eyes has painted the river red. I close my eyes, open them to the sky, and then bring them down to the creek.

Still red.

I look at the urn under the water and see the ashes continuing to flow, but they are joined by my own blood: mingling, journeying as one with my Alice.

I cannot explain the overwhelming feeling of love this brings me. It is unlike anything I have ever known. Yet, it is everything Alice always talked about: love transcends the material, the physical, she said.

This moment with her makes the spiritual eternal for us both.

I wait for the last of Alice’s ashes to wash from the urn before I emerge from the creek and walk back to the frozen banks. From there, I see the lingering hint of red make its way around the bend as the sun slips below the horizon. In my sorrow, I feel a hint of a smile return to my face as a soft breeze whispers its comfort, as if Alice herself is telling me everything’s going to be all right.

I place the urn on the picnic bench. My hands are covered in tiny grains of sand as the bleeding stills, and I resist the urge to brush them clean. I came here to let Alice flow, and I leave with a treasure like any other: the sands she now mingles with, over the rocks, beyond the bend, on and on and on.

 

####

 

 

A Tale of Two Interviews: Defining Moments for Jude and EL as Piper’s Reach Nears Its End

IMG_1744Earlier today, I had the time to catch up on the recent letters posted at Postmarked: Piper’s Reach. Many things struck me as I found myself once again lost in the world of EL and Jude, but one thing remained with me throughout the day:

The Interviews.

For Jude, the interview is with Rebecca (Jude’s letter dated Sunday 31 March, 2013). In his first face-to-face with his wife since the separation, Jude is given the opportunity to “come clean” and offer a full apology and new promise to Rebecca.

He is not shy in making the offer:

“I am truly sorry for lying to you. For cheating on you. For betraying you. For exposing you to shame and ridicule. For abandoning you and the children.”

Rebecca leaves the door open for this to happen. She responds: “What do you want from me?”

He responds immediately: “Forgiveness. Trust. A chance to repair the damage.”

And then writes to EL: “Rebecca spelled out in no uncertain terms that I was not to see you again, to have no contact with you.”

Yet, he chooses to come to EL anyway. Regardless of whatever reason it might be, whether it is justified by readers or by Jude himself, he failed the interview. He had returned to Rebecca to ask for her forgiveness, her trust, a chance to repair the damage. He was given it, and immediately dismissed it with his decision to see EL.

It makes no difference what parameters he might set for EL (however ridiculous they might be to ban her from entering Piper’s Reach); in fact, just remove anything and everything about EL out of this picture for this one thought: if you isolate his words and his actions with Rebecca – and then his decisions made directly afterward, you see the very definition of Jude Smith.

When Hamlet shouts at Polonius: “Words, words, WORDS!” we begin to see and understand a character who is more caught up with the thought of the actions, and little more. All the ponderings, apologies, and analyses mean nothing when compared with actions. Jude suffers from the same illness, where words mean little in the shadow of his actions, including his blatant disregard for Rebecca.

It is not Jude’s tragic flaw that he has an inability to act; we have seen him conduct many actions that are followed by profound apologies and beggings for forgiveness. It is Jude’s tragic flaw that he knows nothing of standing by his decisions and following through with his actions. The follow-up words get in the way of the actions meaning anything of authenticity and significance.

In the case of Rebecca, he has asked for forgiveness. He has been given the parameters to be allowed back into her life. He breaks them immediately and lies to everyone about the motive of traveling to Sydney.

In the case of EL, he offers his help and provides her with similar parameters (of the concrete nature to stay out of Piper’s Reach). But when he is watching her during her interview, he almost admonishes her with his own wishes that she would have told him more: “Even just a hint of what you were going through so I could have been there for you like I was so many years ago.”

More words, words, words from a man who is driven only by his need to perpetuate endlessly the cycle of help, act, and hurt, which leads to guilt, apology, and absolution (We need look no further than Jude’s words to EL in his Wednesday, 3 April, 2013 letter: “…to again be there for you like I promised; to give these letters and make restitution and gain absolution”).

He has the chance to be there for her the very next day at the second interview. Yet, his inability to see opportunity or follow through with his own words or intent, is strikingly apparent in his closing words: “I am not sure what I’ll do tomorrow. I want to be there for the other interview, to again be there for you like I promised….”

Words. promises… Words. promises… Words. promises. . .

EL’s interview, on the other hand (as it is described by Jude), seems authentic, freeing, where he compares her to Christ’s crucifixion and then resurrection, or the rising phoenix from the ashes. We—the readers—are given every reason to believe that the absolution from this interview is a life-changer.

EL does not seek absolution; she does not ask for it; she does not even beg for it. She receives it despite the attacks she endures. With the lights and the cameras rolling, she is “naked” to the world, revealing and releasing layer after layer, as Jude puts it.

Maybe that is clearly the difference between EL and Jude. As EL sheds her layers and seeks genuine rebirth and resolution, Jude believes he can have the same thing by piling on the layers of more words, more apologies, and more promises.

We are near the end of this incredible story, and I still cannot fathom the details of its eventual conclusion. It does not matter. What Adam Byatt and Jodi Cleghorn have done for readers around the globe is truly astounding. This journey of debate, of discussion, of prediction and speculation is worth any turn of events yet to come.

And, I daresay, after we have all read those final words of Postmarked: Piper’s Reach, the discussion among us all will continue for many months to come.

 

Best Blog Writing on Creativity And The Arts: My 2012 Review

My 2012 was filled with literary opportunities and relationships, both here in Baltimore and around the world. Along the way, I learned a great deal from several writers who take great risks with their words and paved the way for other writers to do the same. I contacted 13 writers, and 7 responded with links to some of their best pieces published in 2012.

an eighth writer, Dan Cuddy, sent me some work that wasn’t necessarily published as articles on his own site; instead, he sent me notes and letters sent to other writer-friends. This sonnet, written in October 2012 to Clarinda Harriss and Moira Egan, struck me rather deeply:

Writing sonnets demands order, the kind
That assembles red-coated soldiers wearing
Black boots, polished like their obedient minds,
And having them strut cold regal bearing.
Writing parades its form, and in a sonnet
The tune is old indeed that the feet march to,
Though modern quirks appear, bees in the bonnet,
And maybe words like somewhat quaint “hark to”.
The discipline though is just surface order;
Within the uniform a human squirms and sweats,
The words’ emotion’s outline, purpose, border.
All is restrained, tamped down, the frets, regrets.
Quaint sonnet form sometimes girdles the heart.
The war within held so stiff, sedate, apart.
~Dan Cuddy

I am most grateful to Dan, Adam, Alyssa, Bernadette, Cara, Jodi, Laura, and Rob for answering the call to share their work. Please continue to support these wonderful writers and all they are doing to encourage us to write — and to publish — the very essence of what makes us uniquely human.

And now, without further ado, I present the writers who encouraged and supported me with their own words throughout 2012. Thanks, all. May you continue to do your service to writers around the globe.

 

Adam Byatt

Adam is an English teacher and occasional drummer sifting through the ennui, minutiae and detritus of life and cataloguing them as potential story ideas.  They are pretty much a pad of sticky notes on the fridge door.

Occasionally he finds loose change.

He inhabits Twitter as @revhappiness and writes flash fiction and blogs at A Fullness In Brevity

In 2013 he intends to continue the collaborative epistolary narrative, Post Marked: Piper’s Reach with Jodi Cleghorn, and has plans for a novella, a work of non-fiction on creativity and the odd short story or two.

Adam’s Links:

Don’t Wait For Permission

Tell Me Your Story

Confess Your Creativity

Creativity As An Adventure Of The Soul

Alyssa Bailey

Alyssa Bailey is a UNC-Chapel Hill December 2012 graduate who is preparing to make her move to New York City to start her career in the magazine industry. In 2012 alone, she studied abroad in Paris (her first time out of the country!), interned at Women’s Wear Daily in Paris and at ELLE magazine in New York over the summer, and finished up her French and journalism degree in Chapel Hill one semester early.

2013 Plans: To settle in New York and snag a job as an editorial assistant at a top fashion or women’s interest magazine. To truly embrace post-grad life and continue to learn from others around her. To be bold, a resource and just someone who takes chances and makes stories. Also, of course, to find time to write about what she takes in every now and then.

Alyssa’s Links:

Uncertainty— a post on uncertainty, probably one of the hardest things for me (and most people) to cope with and the journey to tolerating and even embracing it.

Someday— a post on the idea of someday people, that lost long-term love interest you play with the idea of ultimately settling down with, even though you’re in different places for the foreseeable future.

Hidden— a post on hidden interests and how they show there is more to people than we think and how that secret side is worth learning.

Spark— a post on sparks and the difference one person and chemistry can make.

 

Bernadette A. Moyer

For 2013, Bernadette will continue to fundraise for children’s causes and basic human needs like food, clothing and shelter for the poor. Her next book titled Just a Few Things I Learned Along the Way is expected to be published in the Fall of 2013. Her personal web site is www.bernadetteamoyer.com, and she can be found on Facebook; her blog posts can be found at redroom.com.

Bernadette’s Links:

You Need To Make Peace With Yourself

I Am A Writer

When A Man Loves A Woman

 

Cara Moulds

Cara Moulds holds a Masters of Liberal Arts from Johns Hopkins University and Administration & Supervision Certification from JHU, and is a National Board Certified Teacher.  As a former high school administrator, she is skilled at helping people set goals and achieve success. She is the founder of  The Spiritual Power of Creative Living, where she writes and vlogs on incorporating spirituality and creativity for success in your professional and personal life. Cara is also an accomplished  fine art photographer with a permanent exhibit at the Claudia Mayer Cancer Resource Center at Howard County General Hospital in Howard County, MD. Most recently, she is the co-founder of the Creative Counsel For Artistry & Inspiration.

Cara’s Links:

The Courage To Write

Moodling Today

Grace And The Horse’s Electric Fence — or How To Identify Limiting Beliefs

Honoring Resistance To Do The Work

 

Jodi Cleghorn

Jodi is an author, editor and small press innovator with a penchant for the dark side of humanity. Published in anthologies in Australia and abroad, she was the 2011 recipient of the Kris Hembury Encouragement Award for Emerging Artist. ELYORA is her first novella.

Jodi’s Links:

How Truancy Taught Me the Importance on Endings

Friend or Foe: The Impact of Your Belief System on Writing

How I Catalogue the Chaos

How I Found My Way Back to the Light

Laura Shovan

Editor of Little Patuxent Review, Laura Shovan was a finalist for the 2012 Rita Dove Poetry Award. Her chapbook, Mountain, Log, Salt and Stone, won the 2009 Harriss Poetry Prize (CityLit Press, 2010). She edited Life in Me Like Grass on Fire: Love Poems (MWA Books, 2011) and co-edited Voices Fly: An Anthology of Exercises and Poems from the Maryland State Arts Council Artist-in-Residence Program (CityLit Press, 2012), for which she teaches.

Recent accomplishments: poems to be published by Quarrtsiluni and Seminary Ridge Review in 2013, reading at Minas Gallery January 6 at 4 PM, working on a children’s novel-in-verse. In February, participating in a literary exchange with poets from North Carolina. In March, attending AWP for the first time, representing LPR.

Laura’s Links:

Poetry Friday:  Now You Know the Worst” The recent post is a response to the Sandy Hook shootings. It includes a poem by Wendell Berry. The posts looks at children creating art as a means of coping with violent events.

The most popular post from my National Poetry Month series, “30 Habits of Highly Effective Poets” was Dennis Kirschbaum’s hysterical look at writers’ block. Dennis’ first chapbook is coming out from Finishing Line Press in 2013. I’m very excited for him! He’s a Maryland poet.

Last, I’d like to share a truly magical moment from one of my school residencies: “Poetry Friday: Mummy of Lady Teshat.” The post features an ekphrastic poem written by a fifth grade student. When she read the poem to her class, it was electric. One of the highlights of my entire teaching career.

 

Rob Diaz

Rob Diaz spends his days writing computer software and his nights chauffeuring his children around his hometown of Hamilton, New Jersey. Rob is a vegetarian, an avid organic gardener and a trumpet player; he is also a professional coffee drinker. He writes fiction in which coffee, vegetarians, the number thirteen and the natural environment play pivotal roles. For the past two years, Rob has been writing a regular column for Write Anything and starting in 2013 he will be writing for Today’s Author. You can also visit him on his blog: Thirteenth Dimension.

Rob’s Links:

Footprints

A Change In Perspective

The Advice Of The Old

 

Part II of III: Interview with Jodi Cleghorn and Adam Byatt, authors of Postmarked: Piper’s Reach

In April 2012, two Australian writers — Jodi Cleghorn and Adam Byatt — began an ambitious collaborative project traversing an odd path between old and new forms of communication, differing modalities of storytelling and mixed media, all played out in real and suspended time. The project has at its heart a love of letter writing and music.

It’s called Postmarked: Piper’s Reach, and I am hooked.

Late last month, as Season Two was coming to a climactic conclusion, I found myself so intrigued by the development of the story — old lovers reunited through letters 20 years later — that I collaborated with authors Jodi and Adam about their Postmarked: Piper’s Reach project. I sent them eight rather detailed questions, and they returned a 4,000-word missive that gives us all more than we could ever hope for.

Their website includes copies of the handwritten letters sent to each other in “real time,” as well as numerous other interviews and relevant material in experiencing fully the Postmarked series of letters.

What follows is the second of a three-part interview (part one was published on December 17 and can be read here; part three will run on December 21).

*** *** ***

RVW: Have there been situations in the first two seasons where you felt limited by the epistolary form? Authors who have, in the past, published their work annually solely through the print medium are now finding the need to satisfy fans’ cravings for more writing between books via blogs and social media networks. Have you thought about possibly utilizing the website and social sites such as Facebook and Twitter to provide more details and supplementary materials (character sketches, maps of Piper’s Reach, etc.) to fill in the gaps created by the epistolary form? Or, do you see this as the ultimate challenge in brevity, revealing everything to the reader through letters only?  

ADAM: The letter is the ultimate challenge in brevity. The voyeuristic nature of reading private letters is a greater benefit to our readership and the narrative than lots of background information. We know we are writing a narrative, but also aware we are writing letters. There is a fine tension between the two and I think we’ve been successful. The readers have had to take Jude and Ella-Louise at face value and extrapolate from the letters the shared history and experiences. I feel it makes for a more authentic reading experience as the readers are able to follow their reconnection and current history.

JODI: I think the fact there is new content every week assists with feeding the fans’ cravings.

It was my need to explore beyond the epistolary constraints that saw the creation of additional content. But it’s a literary spoor (left mainly by me) and rarely talked about, much less pointed to. Search through our blogs and you’ll find smatterings of short stories, vignettes, scripts and poems that compliment (I hope) the letters. I even managed to get Adam to write something PMPR related without him knowing it.

ADAM: In our initial planning, Jodi and I were going to write the notes Jude and Ella-Louise passed to each other during high school. We wanted to develop a measure of authenticity about our characters, explore the development of their relationship and who they were as teenagers but it lasted for only two notes.

It would be fun to develop their backstory through images, web pages, twitter feeds, but ultimately I want the narrative to speak for itself.

JODI: The music is really the only steadfast supplementary tool we use, in and out of the letters. While Adam and I absolutely will never discuss future plot points we will drop “a new EL & Jude” song into Facebook or Twitter. It’s like a secret language that doesn’t break the NSP.

ADAM: And we have talked about writing a screenplay for television for Piper’s Reach and that may be an opportunity to develop the backstory and relationship when they were in high school.

JODI: Complete with agreement on the opening scene of Jude pulling up at his folks’ place, and going inside to find EL’s letter there. Which of course provoked discussions about what song would be playing on the radio and what song would accompany the flashback of EL and Jude at The Point during the opening credits!

ADAM: We have a Facebook page—originally set up to bring both sides of fandom together, but more recently we’ve encouraged Posties to return to the website and comment on there.

JODI: My hope is one day PMPR will have the same ardent following that Constantine Markide’s Fourth Fiction had in 2009 along with the rampant commenting. Though I wonder, if we’ve already seen the rise and fall of the blog as the central platform for commentary?

ADAM: What if we were to offer the original letters for sale?

RVW: When writers compose stories, they usually have the luxury of drafting an outline, selecting a theme or point of character evolution that readers can relate to and take with them long after the story has finished. In its simplest terms, the writer gets to craft a bigger purpose to the piece. In Piper’s Reach, however, the writing is so reactionary to the letters that are received, and there isn’t much of an opportunity to really create that bigger purpose for the story (aside from the virtual immediacy of the story unfolding as it might in real life; in some ways, it rivals The Truman Show where we are voyeuristically experiencing their story one letter at a time).  The NSP is part of the magic that is so appealing to readers. What temptations do you face in resisting collaboration about the direction of this story and in developing that bigger purpose for the readers? What do you do to keep those temptations in check?

ADAM: There is a bigger purpose to Post Marked: Piper’s Reach, which is on the blog, and in rereading it, we have fulfilled those aims. In particular, we have fulfilled the narrative purpose by exploring the lives of two individuals reconnecting in real time. It is a “real life” narrative and mimics and mirrors the lives of individuals.

JODI: In Season 2 we see EL and Jude mirrored not just in the words they write but in the way these letters are written, sent and read: huge gaps of silence then mad outpourings; distance; uncertainty; utter disconnection. It’s the sort of thing you could never cleverly plot or plan for: the simplicity of process as metaphor.

ADAM: The temptation in breaking the NSP is to “solve” the problems we have created for our characters, but it would be contrary to what we have established.

JODI: As such, the temptation has been huge for me in the last six weeks not because both narrative threads are a magnificent crescendo, but because the narrative is so broken, an absolute tangle of the past, present and future—I was afraid of creating inconsistencies if the letters crossed.

Adam and I discussed this and we conceded, if need be, we’d corroborate on a series of dates (such as when the trial began/finished) and basic events (what happens at the trial) and leave the rest of it to interpretation and reaction. We haven’t had to do that, because to date we’ve kept events fluid—both EL and Jude in limbo from their combined and individual predicaments. When dates and events require permanence, or the narrative creates it, we know how to approach it.

ADAM: Both of us are invested in our characters, who they are and what they have become. We created them and they operate how we understand them. Trying to tell the other how to write their character would contravene the purpose of the project. I keep the temptation in check by thinking ahead.

JODI: I resist the temptation by thinking backward! By talking to Adam about what has passed.

For example: I dropped Ginny into a letter, Adam fleshed it out and once committed to paper it’s free for deconstruction. When we talked about it, we found (not surprisingly) we came at Ginny and Bill from very different angles. What will emerge is Ginny and Bill as a reflection of life; how we interpret it through our own filters. EL absolutely thought Bill wanted her to tell Jude (she calls it building a bridge between them) but we find out from Jude’s letter Bill was shocked Jude knew.

Ginny and Bill’s story will become an artefact of how the different roles we play in life shape the narratives we develop and share—what Bill tells Jude is very different to what he tells EL, defined by his different relationship (and inherent expectations) with the two of them. When I dropped Ginny into the letter, it was only because EL told me! I saw her and Bill on the beach and Bill pointing up to the house. All this cleverness is only accessible in hindsight!

Readers are free to take the example of Bill and Ginny and reflect/speculate on what it means in terms of the narrative EL and Jude share. What truly shapes it? What is the purpose of it for each of them?

ADAM: We deconstruct each letter once it’s read, talking over what we said and what happened. It helps to understand each character further. I can foresee a proper collaboration in the future where we sit down and map out the narrative arc and thematic purpose, but the immediacy of this project gives Post Marked: Piper’s Reach its own thematic concern and purpose.

At some point we may have to break the NSP and decide where to end the narrative, or it may simply come to a natural conclusion.

*** *** ***

Be sure to read Part Three of this three-part interview right here on December 21, 2012. We encourage your comments and input about the epistolary form, the series, and the authors during the run of this three-part series.

Author Interview: Jodi Cleghorn and Adam Byatt from Postmarked: Piper’s Reach

In April 2012, two Australian writers — Jodi Cleghorn and Adam Byatt — began an ambitious collaborative project traversing an odd path between old and new forms of communication, differing modalities of storytelling and mixed media, all played out in real and suspended time. The project has at its heart a love of letter writing and music.

It’s called Postmarked: Piper’s Reach, and I am hooked.

Late last month, as Season Two was coming to a climactic conclusion, I found myself so intrigued by the development of the story — old lovers reunited through letters 20 years later — that I collaborated with authors Jodi and Adam about their Postmarked: Piper’s Reach project. I sent them eight rather detailed questions, and they returned a 4,000-word missive that gives us all more than we could ever hope for.

Their website includes copies of the handwritten letters sent to each other in “real time,” as well as numerous other interviews and relevant material in experiencing fully the Postmarked series of letters.

What follows is the first of a three-part interview (parts two and three will run on December 19 and 21, respectively).

*** *** ***

RVW: The form that you have chosen – epistolary – provides both advantages and challenges, both for the writers and the readers. Up to this point, the letter writing has been exclusively between Jude and EL. Throughout both seasons, though, you have introduced minor characters that have played a rather significant role in the story. Have you considered the possibility of having the two main characters write letters to – or receive letters from – some of those secondary characters as a means of furthering the depth of the plot and the backstory?

ADAM: Writing an epistolary narrative limits the focus you give to the characters and to the readers. It is a narrow perspective for the reader, that of the individual character and his/her choices of what to talk about in a letter.

Expanding the scope of the narrative to include other characters/narrators has not entered our discussions, and may yet, but for the foreseeable future, secondary characters will remain as sidelines to our main protagonists, Jude and Ella-Louise.

JODI: Laura and I did actually talk about this several months ago (Adam hits the floor and says, ‘You never told me this!’ (Adam – “You never told me this!”) I’d been brewing the idea of sending EL away for the trial for a while and part of the process was considering the implications of breaking the normal lines of communication. And Laura was keen to write, enamoured with the whole concept.

I saw a pile of Jude’s letters gathering on a bench somewhere (Ava’s house, EL’s cottage) and wondered at what point Ava would write to Jude and say, ‘I’m sorry. She’s gone and I don’t know where she went.’

Then… ‘EL and Jude happened’ at the McCracken House and I knew EL would never disappear without a word, not to Jude. Not even in the wake of his silent departure.

The possibility ended with Laura’s own insight into Ava: ‘She would just ring Jude.’

ADAM: Secondary characters (like Bill, Jude’s father) provide another perspective to Jude and Ella-Louise and their predicament. These characters add depth of understanding to how Jude and Ella-Louise act/interact/react, but the reader is only able to see what Jude and Ella-Louise share. It allows Ella-Louise and Jude to remain true to their own agendas and ideas. The story is about their relationship and to alter it now, adding in additional narrators, would alter the trajectory of the narrative.

JODI: And for all intents and purposes the idea of communicating via handwritten letters is really an archaic idea in this hyperconnected world; it belongs to twenty years ago, much like EL and Jude. I’m not really sure whom else around them would have a buy-in via this mode of communication. Rebecca, perhaps: yeah I know, how many readers would love there to be a letter from Rebecca to EL? Or Marion: a cease and desist order from the woman I’ve always had in my head as being utterly over-protective of her only son! Or Zeke: a lovelorn letter born on clouds of plaster dust and promises. Or one of Season Two’s new players: Bryan, Ginny Laine, Dario?

RVW: Because you have a No-Spoilers Policy (NSP), I imagine it is quite the challenge for each of you to resist the temptation to “steer” the story in one direction or another based on the new details you reveal (especially about the backstory) in each new letter. Is it like a game of chess, where you are plotting letters two and three in advance? Or is it a more fluid, write-as-you-receive approach?

ADAM: We do try and steer the narrative in one direction or the other, in very subtle ways. Jodi is a master of it; she has been responsible for providing a lot of Jude’s backstory, although I am the one responsible for dropping them into the predicament they are in now, when I didn’t think it would go there.

JODI: I drop hints (though I’ve learnt subtly is lost on Adam and Jude) or make mention of something (Ginny Laine, a busted knee) and let Adam build on it, but ultimately PMPR has been a huge lesson in letting go. I can’t definitively commandeer the narrative in [insert proposed map-capped ill-conceived direction], but yes, we both have the power of influence.

ADAM: Jodi did try and steer one narrative angle that I completely missed.

JODI: Oh yeah…I totally tried to drop a pregnancy into the mix, because a weekend of rampant sex with no real thought to the consequences begged a life-long consequence. I wanted to see how Jude dealt with that!

But I set up very early on in my head that EL couldn’t have children. So I pushed a direction I knew it couldn’t go, but Adam wasn’t privy to any of this, which meant it was a thread that could absolutely have been picked up. Ultimately the push failed and I learned the narrative is its own beast to which I serve. Not the other way around.

ADAM: As a character, Jude is not privy to the information held by Ella-Louise. In a similar way, because Jude was not a fully-fledged character at the beginning of the series, more a generic ‘everyman’ character, defined and developed as the series progressed. Thus, he sees things in a linear fashion, cause-and-effect.

Therefore it is a fluid write-as-I-receive approach. After reading once, I read the letter a second time and make notes as I go on the back of the envelope, recording what happened and what I might plot in terms of where I want to take Jude. I react to what Ella-Louise writes (as if I were Jude) because Jude is a more reactive character; he lacks the forward momentum Ella-Louise has. He can see that she is driven in ways he is not; she has an agenda which conflicts with who he is and what she wants him to be.

I have one or two ideas up my sleeve about what I want to do to Jude (but Jodi has begged me NOT to crush Jude too harshly) but it is dependent on what transpires between each letter.

I know where I want to take Jude, but do you want me to take him there?

JODI: I’m a big picture person. I throw threads in all directions and wait to see if at some point they can be gathered and pulled together (or not!). Adam’s is a more linear framework, compared to my nebulous approach. In an organic narrative both approaches fit together beautifully.

I’m super patient, prepared to wait months, across ten or twelve letters for a plot point to develop. It’s like taking a Polaroid but having to wait weeks and months to see what the final photo is. A bit like waiting on the outcome of Jude and EL’s first meeting.

ADAM: As we approached the school reunion in June, part of me wanted Jude to fall, and to fall spectacularly. Jude and Ella-Louise had been flirting with their history, recounting past experiences and the modern Jude was still in love with the girl he knew twenty years ago.

Throughout Season 1 Jodi and I (unspoken mind you due to the NSP) danced around the issue of “would they or wouldn’t they?” We were both hoping they would.

JODI: But, the better I got to know Jude, the more I resigned myself to the fact they wouldn’t. It seemed implausible for Jude to seduce EL. I felt, if it were left to me to write the post-reunion letter, I could not push him to do that. And EL, well despite still being in love with Jude, she had begun a retreat from flirtations months earlier. I couldn’t see her pushing their relationship toward the bedroom (and frankly I think she was too scared of the possibility of being rejected: thus we got, ‘If you touch me I’ll shatter.)

ADAM: I was tempted to let Jude remain as he was, unable to do anything. It was a text from Jodi that tipped the scales and gave me the impetus to push in a different direction.

Jude’s act of adultery at the end of Season 1 changed the narrative dramatically and has made for an interesting second season, particularly with Ella-Louise separated in Sydney. It leaves them physically separated and unable to deal with the current situation while Ella-Louise deals with her past.

*** *** ***

Be sure to read Part Two of this three-part interview right here on December 19, 2012. We encourage your comments and input about the epistolary form, the series, and the authors during the run of this three-part series.