I See Stories

In M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense, the diminutive protagonist eerily proclaims that he “sees dead people” to a child psychologist played by Bruce Willis, which foreshadows the plot twist to come. While the memorable, oft-quoted line has persisted in pop culture both as a source of spookiness and parody, it captures the “sixth” sense the boy possesses. I, too, have a sixth sense, but it’s not one worthy of a movie starring Bruce Willis or anyone really (seriously, why waste the time?).

I see stories. Everywhere. I spent the past four days at The Fifth Semester writer’s program taught by Ann Garvin and Erin Celello where I roomed with eight other writers looking to take our writing (and our publishing hopes) to the next level, so I was in a great writing mood this weekend. Each morning, I got up at my usual time and trekked down to the nearest Starbucks to get that heavenly concoction that allows me to function on a daily basis. As I sat there, downing my Venti latte, I watched the comings and goings (or in some cases stayings) of those around me.

Despite being in the area for only a short period of time, I began to feel like a regular at that Starbucks (this is a common thing for me when it comes to Starbucks). On the first morning, I noticed an elderly lady sitting huddled near a window at the front of the shop. She had a cup of coffee on her table but I didn’t see her take a sip suggesting she had finished her drink a while ago. She remained frozen in place looking out the window anxiously as if she were waiting for someone whom she knew would never come. She wore large, smudged glasses, from her profile, I could see she bore the weathered look of someone who had lived a hard life.

At first, I thought she was homeless and had come into the coffeehouse to rest, but she was better dressed than the typical homeless person; although, she did wear a rumpled overcoat on a warm morning. As I sat there observing the world around me, my attention returned to the old woman again and again.

At one point, an older man, regal with a well-kept, silver beard, appeared in the door way and ambled over to the woman’s table. He sat across from her and folded his hands in front of him on the table as if he were contemplating what to say or listening carefully to what she said except she didn’t say anything as far as I could tell. She continued to stare out the window ignoring his presence, but the man didn’t seem to mind. His face remained expressionless, stoic. He sat there for a long while before he stood up again and walked out the door. I watched him walk around the outside of the shop toward a bus stop and disappear from my sight. The woman didn’t budge.

When I finished my coffee, I walked outside and turned toward the bus stop and there sat the old man leaning back on the bench inside the glass canopy on the corner of the street smoking a cigarette. He didn’t notice me as I walked by, but I could tell he wasn’t waiting for the bus; he was simply sitting there while he smoked his cigarette. Up close, I could see the ratty edges of his pants, the stains on his well-worn jacket, and the tears in his sagging, button-up shirt. A scent of sweat and pungent body odor filled my nostrils as I passed by him.

The next morning felt like deja vu. I walked to the Starbucks at about the same time, and there sat the old woman alone in the exact same spot and huddled in the same position against the window as if the shop were so crowded that she had been pushed against the glass. I wondered if she had even left the store, but the coffeehouse did close at some point the previous night, so she had to leave. I purchased my coffee and a muffin (the damn muffins are like crack) and sat down in the same seat as I had the day before – yes, I was mimicking the old woman in a way. After a while, the old man appeared in the door again and went to her table. He sat there in front of her and said nothing as far as I could tell. He leaned back in the chair and kept his eyes on her. Once again, the woman did not appear to respond to him.

By this point, I was beyond curious about the couple. I started to create a story around them to explain why they seemed so close yet so far away from each other. I wanted to explore why the woman persisted in an almost-catatonic state despite all of the activity around her. Why did she simply ignore the man? The ideas floated around in my head and as I went about my day at the writer’s program, I couldn’t help but wander off to the world I was creating about the elderly couple at the Starbucks. I see stories. You may see their story here soon. Stay tuned.

Five Years In

I took last week off from writing, one of several one-week sabbaticals I take during the course of the year. It helps clear my mind and gives me a creative reboot. Since writing is not my primary job and I’m not working on any contract at the moment, I can afford to be somewhat whimsical with my schedule. After all, it is summer, and I’d rather be outside than sitting in my familiar chair pounding away on my keyboard.

While I was outside enjoying the weather, a milestone quietly passed. On July 1, 2012, I began my quest to become a published author. It was then that I first sat down in my chair in the wee hours of a weekday morning and began my daily habit of spending an hour writing. After many years of randomly creating and then abandoning stories like candy wrappers in a post-Halloween binge, I had finally committed myself to some sort of plan – a plan to become a better writer and complete what I started. Here I am five years later, and I’m still going strong.

Over the course of those five years, I’ve written seven novels. While all but one sit in the proverbial desk drawer, each of them is finished in the sense that I have completed at least two drafts, sometimes more. Each has taught me something new about writing because the mistakes I made in them became glaringly obvious as I reviewed them and had others review them. Protagonist is too weak, point-of-view shifts too much, and too much backstory are some examples of the problems I uncovered in my storytelling as a result of writing these novels. The feedback has been invaluable, and with each critical assessment, I tackle the next novel with more knowledge than I had before. That growth is imperative if I ever hope to become a published author.

Many writers tell aspiring authors to “just write,” and that I have done, but I have also worked to hone my craft by reading novels and observing what established writers do. When you’re a writer, you read differently. You notice things that may go unheeded by those simply interested in a good book. For example, I’m currently reading The Reconstructionist by Nick Arvin. It’s a literary novel that slowly reveals an intriguing subplot as the novel progresses. Arvin’s use of the subplot is unique and has me thinking that I can use such a convention in one of the story ideas I have. Stephen King will tell you that you can’t write if you don’t read, and he’s right. Reading is studying your craft.

Reading isn’t the only thing I’ve done to improve. I’ve attended conferences to meet writers and agents and get their feedback on the work I’ve done. This, too, has been tremendously helpful. Steven James’ and Robert Dugoni’s Novel Writing Intensive was one of the best four-day weekends I’ve spent in learning mode. The Pacific Northwest Writer’s Association has also provided endless resources to help me get better. The only complaint I have is that I don’t have enough time to consume everything I’d like to learn. I spend my daily hour writing, and anything beyond that, including learning, is gravy.

Later this week, I will take the next step in the learning part of my journey. I’m attending the first session of The Fifth Semester in Chicago where I’ll spend time with Dr. Ann Garvin and Erin Celello, two experienced authors and teachers. They put on what amounts to a MFA (Master of Fine Arts) boot camp twice per year that starts in Chicago and finishes in New York six months later. This intensive study and feedback session helps authors get on the track to publication. Of course, there are no guarantees, but the learning experience, like the others I have undertaken, should help me take it up a notch, and that can only mean good things when it comes to writing. I’ll share more after the first session.