Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Moving From One Genre to Another

by Kathleen B. Jones
Ten year ago, I published a memoir, Living Between Danger and Love. The book explored how a student's murder had affected my life. While I was writing the book, I had some rather amazing dreams, some of which wound up in the narrative. Others I stored for...well, I wasn't sure for what.

One dream in particular continued to haunt me. It was a dream about my mother. In the dream, I could hear my mother enter the room where I was sleeping.I could feel her slide her hands under the covers and begin to hug me. And then suddenly her comforting caress morphed into something threatening. I remember calling out in my sleep for her to stop. And then I heard her say this: "Tell the rest of the story."

Sometimes, it turns out, we aren't finished with a subject when we finish a book. Sometimes the subject begs to be continued. That's what happened in this case. But as I returned to the story I realized what I needed and wanted to do with it: I wanted to turn it into a play.

I turned back to the book I had written and from it began to extract the threads of another narrative, one more ancient and mythological than the story I had told. As the threads began to weave themselves I could see the outlines of Homer's ode to Demeter-- goddess of agriculture, originator of the seasons--emerging in the pattern they were making.

Demeter and Persephone. Mother and Daughter.  Connection and Loss. In the myth, Persephone is playing in the field, away from her mother, when she sees a flower. Charmed by it, she reaches to pluck it. But when she does, the earth splits open wide and she is taken by the lord of the underworld to live with him. Demeter, is grief stricken and goes in search of her daughter. She condemns the earth to lie fallow until she can be reunited with Persephone. When she learns where Persephone is, she demands her return. Zeus agrees, but only if there is a compromise: Persephone can stay with her mother for part of the year; then she must return to Hades.

The myth helped me give the story I had already written about mourning and loss a deeper dramatic structure. As I began to immerse myself in writing the play, the dreams I had encountered before returned to my consciousness with renewed purpose. They became the vehicle for the invention of new characters--fictional characters, including some ghosts--whose role was to help the protagonist along the journey she was taking to confront the past and be changed in the process.

The play is called The Origin of the Seasons.  What's it about? A student's murder provokes a woman professor to confront her own guilt about a traumatic loss in her past. It's Demeter and Persephone upside down:  In this case, the daughter searches for the mother. What happens? Well, that's what the play explores. I hope to have a full draft very soon. And to stage a reading of it sometime later this year.

Monday, April 4, 2011

My Enlightening Encounter with the Art and Craft of Telling A Story

The publishing industry, like the rest of the media world,  tends to chase trends. Case in point: Books on storytelling. A rash of them have surfaced in the past several months.

They range from movie mogul Peter Guber’s Tell to Win (Crown Business),  a celebrity-peppered primer on the basics of storytelling for business purposes, to Learning Little Hawk’s Way of Storytelling (Findhorn), which is steeped in Native American wisdom and practices around the art of the verbal narrative.

I had my own personal encounter with the hot topic of storytelling while preparing for the SDWW launch party. Most everyone read from their books.  I decided to tell a story about how, while researching my book, Day Trips from Orange County, I discovered a magic point, one seemingly impervious to the laws of nature, in Southern California. I came up with a slew of charming moments, colorful scenes and high and low points around the incident. But when I timed what I thought was just a little tale, it clocked in at 15 minutes.

 It was supposed to be five.

How could I possibly tell this story in such a short time?

Now keep in mind that I have spent my life telling stories. I have my growing up Italian-American stories, how I got started as a rock critic story ( which I have reiterated to  many journalism students), how I moved to California stories, how I met my husband story,  my travel to India stories, favorite and not-so-favorite celebrity interview and rock concert stories,  the ups and downs of working in stories,  my book writing stories and on and on. I’ve got hundreds of them. We all do. That’s why memoir (speaking of publishing trends) is taking up more shelf space, real and virtual, then ever. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the rise of storytelling books and memoir is occurring simultaneously.

We are our stories. However, we normally don’t tell a Cliff Notes version in front of 200 people. That’s what I had to do at the SDWW launch party.  The effort turned out to be an eye-opener. The process of refining and editing my spoken story gave me a fresh perspective on the story principles I employ no matter what the form –books, articles, screenplays, even business documents.

I discovered that my writing functions basically around three tent polls, under which everything else fits.

1. Immediately Pique the Reader's Interest
If they don’t begin, they will never finish. In the case of my talk, I decided to raise the notion of a magic point in my first sentence. This was a San Diego crowd. Southern California is known for many things, but magical aberrations of nature is not one of them. Know your audience and discover in your subject what will strike a note of wonder in them or even just curiosity. If possible, plant the hint of your story’s ending somewhere within your opening lines. It can be just a key phrase that, in the end, acquires more resonance than the reader ever suspected when they first read it.

2. Keep the Reader’s Interest
Obvious, right? But how is the trick. Editing my talk underscored the importance of knowing what facts and details to leave in and  leave out. If you are writing literature or poetry, you can intoxicate an audience with the quality of the prose –the juxtaposition and rhythm of words and phrases, an imaginative yet telling metaphor.  Descriptive details of tiny moments or observations often constitute the most memorable passages of novels. In the case of more factual material, you can keep your reader with clear organization, exceptional knowledge and insight.

In my quest to tell a great story, many of those little details that I cherished met with their demise. Ultimately they were a distraction and did not serve my ultimate goal --keeping the audience asking “What happens next?”

To do this, create, if possible, an escalating series of questions and answers: Raise a question in the reader’s mind. Create uncertainty about the answer or the outcome. Provide the answer, but in the process, raise another question.

Add a twist or an unexpected turn about midway through the narrative.

And, of course, for the ending…

3. Give the Reader a Pay Off
As a writer, you take people on a journey. You need to land them in a place that is not only logical, but emotionally meaningful, if possible, on more than one level.

I edited my story on the Southern California magic spot to its most salient and dramatic points for my audience and therefore kept the story moving while maintaining color and personality. ( I was the central character in this story, which I conveyed through my words, but also my presence, voice and gestures. Creating a central character for non-fiction writing is another blog.)

Although I spoke at a brisk pace, I think I kept the audience. Of course, you cannot scan your readers' faces to see if your writing is maintaining interest. But I’ve found that if I remain passionate about what I am writing from the beginning to end, so most likely will the reader.

By the way, that magic point in Southern California? It’s in the Rancho Palos Verdes Peninsula.