Formularies: A Magical Mystery for Writers

CampChaosA Camp Chaos Outpost at Cailleach Bhur Caer

“Writing, a socially acceptable form of getting naked in public.” Paulo Coelho

“I’m a writer. If I seem cold, it’s because I’m surrounded by drafts.” (unknown)

Sometimes I think I have permanent St. Vitus disease of the fingers. I never stop writing or typing. The actual name of the ailment is Sydenham’s chorea, which is exemplified by “uncoordinated jerking movements that affect the face, feet, and hands.” Yep, sounds about right though I shouldn’t jest about a serious illness resulting from a childhood infection. But it fits; I bet many of you have it too. You raise your eyebrows when you’ve written something strange. You tap your toes when words are flowing and glowing; perhaps you even move fingers across phantom keyboards in your sleep. St. Vitus, the patron saint of dance and neurological disorders, was a Sicilian pagan from a wealthy Roman family; he became a martyred christian. What I really meant to say is I’ve never had writer’s block, though I do have writer’s angst over the quality and quantity of the words I commit to paper or computer screen.

We borrow existing words and phrases, assimilate and reshape, re-imagine—we don’t typically invent words, though we do smash letters together to form sniglets and audition new versions of words, which eventually get added to English Usage dictionaries. Our writing styles have many names, such as pantsers (follow the Nike slogan just do it); daydream believers (rely on visual clues, incubation, & inspiration); plotters (dutiful planning, outlines, characterizations…), and then there’s the style I use, not sure what to call it other than the camp chaos concept (part life is messy, part ball juggling, part bewitchment, part all of the above).

I work concurrently on many stories in multiple genres. My theory is stories are beings or thought forms that literally enchant us. These thought forms needle their way into our brains like the tiny aliens did in the TV show BrainDead. Sometimes the magic lasts for a single moment, sometimes for hours—until the spell is broken by a real world intrusion, a change in the weather, or the call of nature. Sometimes the enchantment spell simply runs out of energy.

I was still in pigtails and petal pushers when I asked my dad how to organize a story—was there a magic formula? He said there were many formulas; he drew a few diagrams and provided some outlines. But are any of these formulas magical I would ask? He would only say “it depends.” He shared two techniques with my pigtailed self, and dozens more over the decades. The first was the classic newspaper technique: who, what, when, where, and why (or why not?). I pestered him and learned the WHAT question was about framing wants and needs. The WHY question was about problem solving and obstacles. This technique works well for fact based stories and non-fiction articles and compliments the Snowflake Method used by some mystery writers.

The second technique was how to write a book report. He knew I’d have no problem with rule #1—read the book first (and study the title, table of contents, and preface, if applicable). He used house building analogies to explain other rules—establish the foundation or premise/purpose of the book; identify the author’s façade or style of writing (and relate a few bits of personal info about the writer); and note the level of craft quality and accuracy (are claims backed up or explained?). Describe what is unique or common about the book; make objective use of pros and cons; ask does the end result satisfy (but don’t give away the ending)? Finally, check what others have written about the book and compare/contrast. These techniques served me well as I cranked out school papers, stories about wild horses and talking dogs, and a few awful, comic plays I made my younger siblings recite.

About that same time I stumbled upon the marvelous book Le Petit Prince by Antoine de St. Exupery. The book’s narrator crash lands in the Sahara desert; he says he became a pilot because when he was young, he would draw thoughtful pictures adults didn’t find interesting. He concluded adults lacked imagination and curiosity; and he chose to become a pilot rather than an artist. In the desert, he encounters a small, blond headed child (from another planet) that asks him how to draw a sheep…and the artist in him is reborn. If you read the book carefully, you discover phenomenal formulas for love, forever friendships, and knowing when and how to let go. I vowed I would never lose my sense of wonder and curiosity—so far, so good.

I became a formula hunter. In school, I learned mathematical and chemical formulas. In recipe books, I found formulas for piquant sauces and the perfect mile high cake. In college, I was taught formulas for success and how to draw figures proportionally and produce artwork that applied Fibonacci’s golden means formularies. In books on prestidigitation and ancient magic, I found curious recipes and formulas for achieving nearly any goal except one—the formula to guarantee you wrote nothing but genius articles, poems, and stories. Unless you found a genie’s lamp and made your wish manifest—there was no magic writing formula, or so it seemed.

I observed that many of my school chums struggled to fill a 3×5 card and cringed at the thought of completing a five page history or English essay. I had no problem prositizing, and earned spending money helping them research and lay out the bones of their papers. In my 20s I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and marveled at Pirsig’s ingenious Brick School of Writing technique. He was frustrated—he wanted to help his students find something to write about. When he gave them a broad topic, few were up to the task of turning in a gradable paper though they all had basic to intermediate writing skills and weren’t lazy loafers. So he innovated, he narrowed the topic again and again until the subject was reduced to ‘write about the upper left-hand brick.’

Eureka—one student turned in pages of insightful prose. She had been stymied because of fear of being unoriginal. However, she did have a unique perspective about how she saw the brick, and how the brick linked to the wall, the building, and the town. Mystery solved—sometimes that’s what it takes to open your flood gates—narrow your focus to one brick, one thumb, a single kernel of corn. Pirsig’s formula was dazzlingly simple—it sparkled with magic glitter.

I narrowed my search to formulas that speeded up and improved the craft of writing, I visited the haunts of famous writers. I moved to Key West (home to Hemingway, Elizabeth Bishop, Tennessee Williams, and Shel Silverstein) for a time; and drank numerous chocolate pot de crème at Les deux Magots in Paris’ Left Bank while imagining James Joyce, Julia Child, Albert Camus, and James Baldwin writing there. I wondered—was the light better in these places, the mood more conducive to creating, or did the stars align differently then? I journeyed to prolific writer Colin Wilson’s home in Cornwall (and tried my best to outdrink him); ate Shrimp n Grits in Pat Conroy’s low country (Charleston, SC); and tramped around Dickens London; Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables; John MacDonald’s Travis MeGee marina (sadly there was only a plaque to note McGee’s fictional mooring place); James Joyce’s crayon on cardboard Dublin; Yeats Sligo shores in Ireland; Poe’s Baltimore; Dorothy Parker’s NY City Algonquin Hotel; Tom Robbins Oregon coast; and Victor Hugo’s Guernsey. I asked ‘did you leave some magic writing dust behind?’ I found more plaques and fascinating graffiti, but no writing formulas were etched into scarred wood tabletops or plaster walls.

Of course, some people go mad staring a one brick, or a pattern of yellow wallpaper in a room. At one point, I wondered if I should rename my camp chaos concept as a Psychaotic writing style. But I kept writing. I followed classic techniques for creating technical specifications, instructional manuals, and scientific lab books. Could I apply these methods to creative writing? I read countless books of poetry—might formulas reside here—in code? I watched movies and entered scene and character outlines in composition notebooks. I searched for patterns and story themes beyond the canonical list of quest, adventure, rescue, escape, revenge, riddle, or underdog. I could summarize a movie plot in 50 words or less and identify the genre even when the adverts said something else. I recognized that the technique of situation, complication, questions, crisis/climax, and resolution was used often. I revisited my dad’s analogy regarding building a strong house of writing by installing a solid foundation of knowledge, and adding what’s needed to create cottages of fiction, mansions of travel treasures, or how to labs of non-fiction…

I embraced the title apprentice writer even though it didn’t hug me back. I completed Creative Writing and World Literature courses and obtained degrees. I worked for Fortune 500 companies and all my positions involved writing. I continued to scribble in journals, and wrote travel pieces every time I went somewhere new. My holiday cards included a yearly missive of the world at large and unabridged opinions and statuses. I edited graffiti on bathroom walls (and left a few ditties myself). I annotated nearly every book I read (and owned) with comments and questions. And I paid attention.

I sent out search parties and burned incense to attract the muses. Decades ago I’d read Ray Bradbury’s most excellent How to Keep and Feed a Muse. He says the art has fallen out of fashion and we’ve become muse blind. As he described how to summon and keep a muse, I saw echoes of Pirsig’s Zen passion to understand quality and the Little Princes hunger for love and meaning. Greeks and Romans thought everyone had talents (gifts) that should be set free by awakening a spirit—a genius or daemon within us. Stephen King once joked he had a ‘half-wild beast’ muse within him. I grew impatient waiting for Calliope or one of her sisters to appear. Luckily, I gazed sideward, and spied a few male muses. I was ecstatic, until I realized a few of my muses were misogynistic and a few were rather impertinent, and dare I say, estranged from society?

Glimmers of formulas began to dance around me, little motes of sparkly mentor dust that flashed out SOS’es… They blinked it’s not about the words, nor about the stories. It’s about how we respond to and animate words and stories we pluck from the ether, or our memories or DNA. It’s about how we distill and reattach raw materials, images, sounds, tastes… It’s called a craft and an art for a reason—it’s crafty! It makes many demands; it requires time, tools, tears, tenacity and audacity, silence, patience and pin-point purpose…and shapeshifting. You need to morph from reader to writer to character viewpoint constantly. It requires a worker of magic.

The formula for writing excellence lurks at crossroads with dark reputations, at the intersection of your soul and what you don’t know. It flitters in the margins of time—dawn, twilight, high noon, and midnight. It lingers at the graves of and in tiny attics and rooms where great writers wrote masterpieces. It isn’t a seed—it’s Athena fully formed in Zeus’ brain and yours. It’s a big bang waiting for you to set it off. It’s what was, is, and will be if you turn the right key. Formulas are everywhere, but don’t mean a thing if you haven’t got the right ingredients. Good luck building a house of words if you haven’t laid a solid foundation. Castles in the air and sandcastles crumble. I finally solved the mystery of the repository location of magical writing formulas. Unfortunately, it’s not conveyable—no magic ever is. You must find your own formula, however, I can tell you how this formula begins. Here goes: This is who I am and am not—naked me—flawed me—evolving me. These are my truths; my lies, my scars, my geography, the names I’ve been called…my situation, complication, resolution…who, what, when, where, why…

 

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