Friday, 21 December 2012

Beginnings, Endings, and In-Betweens

We've discussed beginnings, and to some degree, endings, as well as moving full circle in our writing  . . . 
The winter holiday season always stirs up additional thoughts about cycles, the patterns of joy, sorrow, and movement through time that is particularly noticeable as we review our lives at year’s end and simultaneously look forward to the New Year with anticipation and maybe even a little dash of apprehension.

This year the stakes are ever more poignant with the infamous Mayan long count calendar cycle that ends today. For the Maya, this date signified the start of the “World of the Fifth Sun”,  in a way, what the New Year has always signalled in all the world’s cultures of which I have any knowledge – a transformative day, a time to turn over a new leaf, to make a new beginning.

But this winter solstice, for the first time in 26,000 years, the sun rose to conjunct the intersection of the Milky Way and the plane of the ecliptic. This movement formed a cosmic cross, a metaphorical embodiment of the Tree of Life that is sacred to many of the world’s spiritual traditions. This alignment of our sun within the heart of our galaxy is said to open a channel for cosmic energy to flow, raising all beings on our planet to a higher level of vibration. Perhaps this isn’t such a stretch of the imagination, living as we do in a world composed energetic particles.

So let the cleansing begin in this sorrow-plagued world. We have jellyfish days of epic proportion far too often now. Perhaps this is no different in the present era than in the past – we are after all, living in Samsara, a dimension of sorrow, suffering, and brief, illusory beauty.

For me, 12/21/2012 is also a meaningful date because the numerological vibration is clear in the repeating digits. From a numerological perspective, these digits reduce to the number eleven when added together, a karmic figure. Eleven is said to be a “master number” signifying the potential to push human limitation into higher spiritual perception. Oops, looks like the Mayans could see this potential for human enlightenment centuries ago through their calendric and astronomical observations!

As far as the massive natural catastrophes predicted by some self-made pundits (probably to sell books), I suspect that the global climate chaos wrought by some combination of human mismanagement and nature is one of Earth’s most pressing problems and will play out for years to come, perhaps symptomatic not only of illness but of our planet’s natural tendency to balance and heal itself.

For the masses of ordinary citizens around our globe, 2012 has been a year of great trial and tribulation socially, economically, and politically. The common man has stepped forward to question a world in which the lion’s share of resources are held by the wealthy, and the perpetual “war on terror” seems to merge with a perpetual war for diminishing resources. As 2012 began, the Occupy movement that arose worldwide in 2011 morphed from street theatre and protest to a quieter and more practical level of grass roots activism. Occupy is alive but in a transformed state.

Each nation has its particular struggle, and here in America, we are clearly contemplating our long-time relationship with violence and firearms. In the past week, the US was thrust once again into the glare of its violent past and present and its commitment to individual liberties, which seems  to manifest all too often at the intersection of the freedom to bear arms and mass shootings, this time of young innocents who never should've  had to face the terrible demise they endured. Not very different, as it turns out, than the constant snuffing out of young lives by drones or terrorists or warfare (legitimate warfare – legitimate rape?) in easily forgotten, far-away places.

If the current events of the past year are not fodder for storytelling in both fiction and nonfiction, I don’t know what is. I have not yet been inspired to write about the startling events of past year except in brief nods on this blog, but I’m sure one event or another, or maybe several, will percolate through my consciousness and emerge in in my work in the years to come.

I think most writing is like our long view of life – we begin on a noisy, showy, inspired level to write the framework of our story, then we progress into the subtle and quieter levels of revision to polish the finer details, reviewing our initial journey. Along the way, we’ve endeavored to write a strong hook and close with a firm and memorable ending that ties in a circular way back to the hook, answering the questions stimulated by the story opening. If we’re career-conscious writers, we’ll probably leave some room in our wrap-up for a sequel, or an expansion of a short story into a novel, or room for an essay to grow into a longer narrative.

But what about the unremarkable passages in our lives and the narratives between big events in fiction? These are the memorable jellyfish and sundog moments of real life, and the big plot points in novels or the highlights of nonfiction. These middle moments are the daily-ness that provides a balance to life’s emotionally charged situations and are a respite from those highs and lows. But these in-betweens serve a different purpose in literature as transitions that connect the major points or scenes and by necessity, must move a story forward.

In fiction, these quieter scenes may flesh out the story with descriptive passages that explore the character arc or flesh out a setting or a new setting, or that focus upon dialogue or scenes of various combinations that ratchet up the tension for the next intense plot point. Some fiction genres like thrillers or suspense are generally plot-driven and may require almost constant conflict and action to satisfy readers. Romances and literary fiction often have slower-moving action and more character-driven scenes. Narrative and creative nonfiction both require a certain amount of quiet, supporting commentary to support salient points.

In all writing, the middle of the deal those quiet moments between the most interesting stuff  is where it’s easy to get bogged down and put your reader to sleep. Like this spot, perhaps. What stops the story and what keeps it going? Sometimes novels bog down because the stakes aren’t high enough. It feels like the protagonist is just hanging there spinning her wheels while everything is happening around her. Maybe there are neglected subplots that need more exploration. In nonfiction, we writers sometimes don’t dig deep enough into our research and fail to thoroughly explore our topic. In all cases, the result is a sort of unfleshed skeleton masquerading as a story.

Or perhaps we muddle the middle and don’t discover the mess we’ve left behind until well after the first draft. I have a first novel like that. I never quite knew exactly where I was headed or exactly how to write some key scenes properly and this shows, even after a half-dozen revisions. I’m a “seat of the pants” sort of writer, driven to discover exactly what the story is as I write it, which sometimes fails miserably. Some of my novel is clearly salvageable, but some chapters need to be dragged screaming to the recycle bin.

Don’t be afraid to follow your heart, but beware – we can spin our wheels in real life and still survive in a relatively normal but unenlightened way, but this muddling along doesn’t work in writing. Every bit of what appears on the page must move the narrative forward and keep the reader turning pages. In other words, we can vary the rhythm of a piece with slow, quiet in-between scenes, but there can’t be any boring, disconnected parts.

Sometimes what we thought was the story is simply a huge warm-up or an outline that leads us to dig deeper into the real tale. Maybe we’ve followed the least interesting slant in nonfiction or told the story from the wrong character’s point of view in fiction, and a deeper examination helps us find the real story arc.

Another stuck in the middle point may be writer fatigue – we simply lose our way in the middle of the piece and must regroup and refocus upon the protagonist’s dilemma or the essence of our nonfiction to recapture the story, or perhaps slow down to make the necessary additions or deletions to polish the work.

Like today, the writing process includes quiet, contemplative moments when the best work is a review, a time to tread water and scope the horizon for the next good wave . . . I’ve watched surfers paddle around the breakers for hours on end, surfing only a few times on the very best waves. They are patient – and poised, waiting in a state of focused concentration.

Sometimes the best wave is yet to come. Sometimes all we can do is wait and trust our writing process or trust that we’ll know the proper time to end an old course of action or start a new one. Be aware, keep your eye on the rhythm of the writing waves, and cruise with the best one when it arrives!

Photo by Puja Robinson, 2010


  1. A brilliant piece, Kate, which includes wise advise. Venturing into the waves requires some preparation. Writing well can be a hard swim, requiring creative muscle. For me personally, the muscle comes from dedicated exercise--lap after lap after lap.

  2. Thanks Arlene. As usual, I feel like I've left many things out that should have been said . . . I love your hard swim / lap after lap analogy!

  3. I agree with Arlene, Kate. Brilliant! Art really is life, not just analogously, but literally, I think.

    We write our lives in our living of them, as you note, through those high and low points and quite, slow periods in-between. As in writing we edit and revise our lives accordingly, recording them live (in our actions and talk) for contemporary readers (those we bump into in the present) and for posterity.

    Very intelligent summary of where we are as a race, at this juncture in cosmic time, with the stakes for survival being so high.


    1. Meant "quiet" slow periods…


    2. Great to see you here, Carl! I'm glad you "catch my drift!"