Category Archives: Journey for Authority

Intelligent Inspiration

Toddlers teach us the lesson of the tantrum. They hold their breath until they turn blue, then they scream and kick and writhe in anger for interminable periods of time. There is a scientific explanation for the phenomenon.

Feeling becomes emotion of violent living through chemistry. Frontal lobes of our brains recognize the shortage of oxygen as a grave threat. Panic sets in, triggering primitive brain structures to stimulate the release of adrenaline which becomes norepinephrine in our brains. This is the neurochemical which leads to the fight/flight response.

Evolution. The tantrum saves our lives because we fight or flee with the strength of our chemically enhanced prowess. We survive.

Reminder: For the next few months, this blog is dedicated to my reflections on a book by Ashley B. Hart II, PhD, called An Operators Manual for Combat PTSD: Essays for Coping.

PTSD is a learned condition of living these episodes of tantrum-like fight/flight reactions to stimuli, internal or external. It could be a noise, some smell, a light/shadow combination, an unexpected touch, or maybe a dream or wakeful intrusive thought. Maybe just a conflict or feeling, and we are off on a tantrum, a wild ride or dinosaur dump, lasting up to three or four days.

There is a solution. Breathe. Yes, it could be that simple. Recognizing the signals in time allows us to stop the chemistry.

  1. Exhale (as in a deep pool of water, coming to the surface);
  2. Inhale through the nose slowly and deeply to a count of one thousand one, one thousand two, filling lungs to maximum capacity;
  3. Exhale through the mouth even more slowly to a count of one thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three, one thousand four;
  4. Visualize your clear space (safe zone, medicine area, sacred place), some peaceful, serene place where you are powerful;
  5. Repeat a second time;
  6. Repeat a third time;
  7. Stop at third, fourth, or fifth.

The key is to recognize signs of the tantrum before you start holding your breath. We have been conditioned, and the only defense is conscious awareness of our feelings, especially of our bodies. Remain alert for the warning signs.

  1. Any recognized feeling trigger;
  2. Chest tightening;
  3. Tongue pressed to roof of your mouth;
  4. Fists clenched;
  5. Biceps or triceps flexed;
  6. Jaw set;
  7. That tiny voice in the back of your head that can’t quite seem to say, “Stop!”

Look around you. Still alive? Cool. That wasn’t so bad.

Monitor your feelings and your breathing. Give yourself a pat on the back for preventing the dump. It might be wise to linger awhile in your clear space—besides, you are happy there, free but not vulnerable.

Our conditioning will not be unlearned. Our amygdala will not shrink back to healthy size and our hippocampus will not grow back the normal volume. That is okay. We can cope with the symptoms and the triggers. All we need are awareness and inspiration.

 

Wonderful World

Many are the wonders of this world, and among the greatest is wonder, itself. The human mind has the ability and inclination to consider not only what is, but what might be. We manage perception, conception, and volition. We remember and forget. We analyze, interpret, interpolate, extrapolate, and decide, and we do it in intimacy with a complex organ in our head, the human brain.

We learn. Yeah, well, so does the transmission in my wife’s car. Last week we took it in for a checkup, and the memory was reset. It is a bit smoother this week, and we seem to be getting better gas mileage (at least, when I drive).

Oh, how I wish I could reset parts of my memory. That is a part of the story of BEYOND THE BLOOD CHIT, attempting to prevent certain memories of traumatic events. Okay, I was wondering, a real power of writing fiction.

There is no such thing as learning as there is no such thing as intelligence. There are many things that can be called learning and many forms of aptitudes that can be called intelligence. In simplest terms, we can categorize learning as behavior or something else which I shall call cognitive, requiring thinking or cognition.

So what?

Well, the condition we diagnose as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is the result of behavioral learning. Part of it is through training. There was a time when I could disassemble and assemble an M-14 rifle or caliber .45 pistol in a few seconds blindfolded. I was also trained to react to shots being fired in my direction.

How does one know if the shot is in one’s direction? Well, if the projectile exceeds the speed of sound—rifles, for example—it breaks the sound barrier and leaves a sonic boom. This is called a ballistic crack, a frighteningly distinctive sound, as it passes hopefully overhead.

I react as if on instinct. I drop, look, and try to return fire. If my rapid assessment is that I have been caught in an ambush, I must do something very counterintuitive. I must get up and run directly toward the bullets. Sound dumb? Well, if I am in an ambush, I am in a killing zone, trapped between two or more lines of fire which may include command detonated mines. All other directions are within the trap. I have to run over the ambush or die.

Survival is a great motivator even for learning. In basic terms, stress produces a reaction among the five Fs. FEAR is the first reaction. Our strongest inclination is to FLEE, and we run into more trouble and probably die. FIGHT is the reaction of choice, at least giving us a chance for survival, so we run into the fire. FREEZE is the most dangerous, staying in the killing zone. The fifth F is for your imagination or another time in our discussion, but it makes no sense in an ambush.

We learn to react by fighting because it means survival. We learn a whole lot of other behavioral responses to threats of combat with no real thinking at all. A smell of gun smoke or nuoc mam (fish sauce), the sight of black pajamas or jungle shadows, sounds of ballistic cracks or fireworks, the feel of damp air or rucksacks, tastes of metallic fear or oily sweat. Any may trigger an F response without any thought.

We have learned how to live in combat.

How do we live in good, old, USA? How do we enjoy 4th of July fireworks, deer hunting, Asian restaurants, or tropical vacations? How do we, back in the bosom of our families, live, hope, and trust, again.

Many of us never do. That is what I would like to change.

Part of the condition that is PTSD can be labeled behavioral, but that is related to changes in the brain. We shift our response control to our automatic brain rather than our thinking brain. The amygdala grows in size and importance for processing perceptions, sending data to our primitive brain (our dinosaur brain) and we react without thinking. The hippocampus, which holds bits of information for thoughtful processing (our working or short-term memory) shrinks. Yes, the structures really change in size.

Combat makes us less thoughtful and more automatic in our perceptions and reactions. That may well have kept us alive. Now, it makes us miserable.

My approach to recovery is awareness, acceptance, and adaptation. We have to learn, but our brains are damaged. Cognitive learning is more difficult. Our working memory is diminished and less effective. Hyper vigilance interferes with concentration. Constant, low grade rage squelches hope. So what?

We learn new ways of coping including making modifications in our own learning strategies. We accommodate our limitations. We learn to learn. We learn, again, to wonder, hope, and trust.

Enough. Next week I’ll try to give you a glimpse of PTSD from the inside, the feel of a dinosaur dump (wild emotional ride on our primitive brain).

Does Writing Have to Hurt?

Ernest Hemingway has been quoted: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

A cursory search reveals a number of such references to pain and writing. As a journeyman writer, I have a few thoughts on the subject. I am writing about these thoughts in an attempt to place them in some cognitive structure of my muddled mind.

Many past writers of renown seem to have been troubled souls. I cling to a notion that reflection and introspection lead to trouble, and trouble arouses emotions. Many of these emotions hurt, especially if suppressed. They fester into anger and guilt.

Writing is an art form that allows expression of emotions through words on a page (or screen). Fiction is creative expression of emotion with the pretense of being imaginary. The writing of fiction becomes cathartic as suppressed emotions are vented through a narrative medium of characters and literary devices.

Instead of talking about myself, these other guys have this problem. How do they deal with it? In the labor of writing, I also process my own feelings. At least, that’s my journeyman’s hypothesis.

Readers love emotions. We like to identify with characters and partake in vicarious feelings with the detachment of fiction. We temporarily feel the pain of fear, rage, betrayal, and loss only to look up and close the book. I suppose we feel better, but mostly we feel without getting overwhelmed.

My conclusion is that emotions sell books.

The craft is the creation of art that expresses life so that readers can swim in emotions without drowning. The more realistic a story becomes, the deeper the experience (and the danger of drowning). I suggest that is why some readers prefer cozies and fantasies, lest they realize the story is about them. There is comfort in deniability.

Enough of what my friend calls Seventies Psychobabble. Why must the emotions be painful? The honest answer is, because in my case, I’m just not that funny. And, I am not nearly joyful enough.

Essentially, only pain motivates me to sit at the keyboard and bleed. Comedy is a substitute for the bleeding. If I could write humor, I would.

Joy is an emotion. I can, occasionally write that, but I am not motivated because I am comfortable enjoying my own moment. Then, readers seem to seek out their own cathartic “pleasures” in reading material (and other art forms). Joyful people don’t seem to find a need to read joyful material the way perfect melancholy personalities seek painful reads. Blood sells books.

Keep writing, and enjoy the journey (even though painful). It beats most alternatives.

Why Write What We Do Not Know?

Say, what? How can I write what I don’t know? I always heard the advice, “Write what you know.”

Absolutely. Do write what you know, but if that is all you write, you aren’t going to learn much, and learning is one very important reason for writing.

I came to this conclusion with disarming lack of speed. I have written and graded more essays and term papers than the IRS could count. Okay, that’s hyperbole. The reason I wrote and assigned literary composition was that I believed it was a powerful learning process. I was right, it is.

Even though I believed in the value of writing as a learning tool at a cognitive level, I never grasped it emotionally until last week. My writing group, Write on the Edge (.org) asked me to speak and sign my books, Beyond the Blood Chit. My premise was that writing this novel became a part of my combat PTSD recovery process through learning.

The idea isn’t new. We can find quotes by famous authors referring to writing as an adventure in exploring uncertainty. No, I’m not going to give references, but I would love for you to provide some in comments on this blog.

We can only write what we know. If we try to write what we don’t know, we fail. Is this a paradox?

No.

We begin to write what we know in an effort to explore what we don’t know, and this may be conscious or subconscious. It is a valid inquiry process. We start with the known and use it to illuminate the unknown. Writing is the tool through which we view and learn, or at least flirt with the possibility of learning.

Somewhere during the experience of writing this novel, originally called, “LG”, I recognized that it was about combat PTSD recovery. I admit that this recognition was empowered through a VA recovery program including individual and group counseling. It was also potentiated and developed by personal friends willing to discuss their own experiences and views.  

Like other activities of life, learning is a dance. We learn, use what we learn to inquire, learn more, and continue to inquire, constantly changing our minds. Sometimes we add new knowledge to old. Other times we modify what we believe to accommodate new tenets. Occasionally we reject old, dear, beliefs to acquire new and conflicting ideas. Writing helps us to do all of these.

So, I started writing a story called “LG” about a Vietnam Veteran, like me, who was trapped in some kind of internal dilemma. Blood Chit emerged as an icon for part of that confusion, the perceived duty to serve, help, and even rescue others. My friend’s tattoo of a daggaboy (retired cape buffalo bull) became the symbol for the other part, the longing for escape from this duty to my private water hole of safety. None of this was in my mind when I began writing, and some only emerged well into the rewriting process.

Because of this writing, only because I finished the novel and tried to market it, did I find out what the real story is about. That’s a lot for this old man to learn.

Finally, by agreeing to discuss the writing process with my colleagues, I have come to understand another piece of the mystery. What we learn depends upon our willingness to doubt, wonder, and work the processes of inquiry. It depends upon a commitment to write what we do not know.

Inquiry is not for the feint of faith or those convinced of their own certainty, but for those who want to know more.

For all people with a longing need to know, I personally recommend writing. Enjoy the journey.

How Shall I Start My Story?

Your story must begin with a hook and a promise, but we’ll get to that later. In fact, I advise you to get to the beginning of your story after it has been written. Seriously.

Recently, a friend told me he was having trouble with the beginning of a chapter in his nonfiction work. I told him to start somewhere else. It sounds too simple, doesn’t it? There is no such thing as too simple. That’s like a woman too pretty, a motorcycle too fast, or a vacation too much fun. What does that even mean?

My first lesson in beginnings came my freshman year at UW-Madison. I would watch my roommate sit for what seemed like hours moving everything except his writing hand. He could not begin his English 101 assignment for the week. The paper remained blank. I became rather famous in that little dorm because my mandatory English class was going well while everybody else seemed to struggle (Thank you, Ms. Marshall, my high school senior English teacher).

The beginning is the toughest part. Many years later, while I was teaching Science to high school freshmen, I required them to write. I taught them what Ms. Marshall had taught me: Say what you are going to say, say it, and say what you said. How can you begin telling me what you are going to say if you don’t know? I told them to write the introduction last.

Here’s how I did that. Suppose my daughter came to the classroom door. (I look at one student, then another.) Would you please introduce her to the class? Inevitably, I would get the answer, “I don’t know her.” Good. Now, how are you going to introduce your essay if you don’t know it, yet?

True, for expository writing I always emphasized outlining. If you have a detailed outline with a thesis and conclusion, you might be able to write the introduction—because you already know what you are going to say. Well, if that is how you want to write fiction (a plot-driven story) then work the outline first. Still, I don’t understand how I can know the characters well enough to introduce them in the beginning of the story.

The answer is, write some of the exciting stuff, first. Write the scenes that come to mind, the ones that stoke the fire in your imagination. Get to know your characters at their best and worst. Allow yourself to wonder how they got here or there—and where they might go from here. At this point, I can make a decision about writing a character-driven or plot-driven (or, milieu-based) story. If it is character driven, I need some detailed biographies. If it is plot driven, I must write a detailed plot outline. If it is milieu based, I must flesh out the rules and other details of the context and setting.

Then, I write the story. I finish it. The end is the second most difficult thing to write (unless you are writing something with bedroom scenes of your parents, as historical fiction or creative nonfiction). Now, when I know how the story goes all the way to climax and resolution, I can write the beginning. I can make a promise that I know I will keep because I already have.

The beginning, hopefully the first page if not the first line, includes a hook. Maybe it is a baited hook, something that entices the reader to go on to the next line, paragraph, page, and chapter. I don’t know how to explain this (another blog?). The bait depends upon your audience (and genre). I know enough about fishing to respect the dual importance of presenting the bait and setting the hook.

Here comes the promise. The beginning of your story must be an honest offer of the kind of story you are going to deliver. Language, style, tone, setting, and characters all matter, but the reader must know before the end of the first chapter, and maybe by page three, just what kind of story is offered.

One little confession, here: I don’t look at the beginning first when I evaluate any piece of writing. For a novel, I open a random page to get a feel for the language, characterization, and movement. If I accept these, then I go to page one. I know, I’m eccentric, but it is a habit developed by reading a ton of research papers, professional and amateur. If it is slutty, I put it down. If it is trite or cliché, I put it down. If it is beyond belief, I put it down.

So, write your beginning only when you are proud of your completed story and you will be better equipped to write an honest promise that hooks the reader. If you do that, you just might hook an agent and an editor.

Keep writing, and enjoy the journey.

What Is a Story?

By definition, a story is an account of real or fictitious events (as history) usually narrated (told) as by spoken or written words, pictures, symbols, and/or artifacts. History is the root word from which story is derived. Narrate is a term grounded in a word meaning knowledge or knowing (as Gnostic). So, a story is some account of events told by someone having specific knowledge and point of view. Yeah, well…

A story is trouble for somebody about whom we have some care and concern. At least in the American Novel, there is some expectation of conflict escalating to climax and resolution. We might say there is a kind of recipe or format. A specific pattern of format for story expectations might characterize a literary genre. Readers look for very different plots in Romances, Mysteries, and Erotic Novels.

A story is a promise (Bill Johnson, www.storyispromise.com). The author presents a situation in which one or more characters face personal conflict which escalates to seemingly impossible conditions. Action and tension increase. Trouble abounds. Defects in personal and/or group character traits complicate the troubles. Outcome is not certain; however, the audience demands satisfactory conclusion.

Oh, one more thing. The story must stretch the audience’s belief without breaking it. Genres differ, here. I cannot become a fan of Horror or Science Fiction because it is very difficult to maintain the suspension of my disbelief (I am a skeptic). Erotica and Romance escape my naïveté. Military and Nature milieu stories must be accurate or true to my experience else I stop reading.

One example is a famous book that claimed the moon was visible in different phases at different places around the world simultaneously. I set up a sun-Earth-moon model in my living room and learned that the author was wrong. I discounted everything else in the story. It became unbelievable to me and the author not credible.

Similarly, characters must be believable. Fortunately, the range of normal and abnormal human psychology is so vast in my experience that little could be more extreme than historical accounts of real Wisconsin residents. Still, a character must stay in character unless that kind of abnormal psychology is part of the story.

Plot trajectory must also follow some generally predictable patterns with a few surprising specific twists. Random conflicts and resolutions (strangers appearing, magic events, unexplained coincidences) are believable only within limits of context. It breaks the story promise.

A story is a promise kept. The writer offers a promise of interesting characters with believable traits including defects, a milieu of setting and circumstance offering trouble, and a sequence of events with plenty of building conflict. The reader/audience has a right to expect all of this with some unpredictable events and a satisfactory outcome. And, the promise must be offered in the first few pages. That’s all.

In fairness, I remind you that my views come from on-the-job training. I have no formal education in narration or novel writing. You can get your own training by writing, reading, and searching views of successful writers you appreciate. You can find all sorts of discussions of story, narration, myth, and symbolism online. One topic I am interested in investigating is the range of emotional appetites of various audiences with regard to characterization and story structure (plot or conflict curve). We read to experience emotions.

One last thing: Feel free to teach something, to make a statement of observation regarding the meaning of the experience of life. You can tell a story that adds something to the great narrative of human history.

With all of this formulation, remember to be original. Keep writing, and enjoy the journey.

How do you get story ideas?

The question goes to the nature of creativity, and it gets complicated and controversial.

The simple answer is, I look for them. I ask for them, and they arrive. The complications and controversy appear as I try to explain HOW that might happen.

Last week we took one news story and imagined a fictional plot, some milieu, and a few characters that might be developed. News items, especially strange ones, are stimulants to the imagination. It’s a quick way to get started.

“Michael” is another. When asked how he knew things in the movie, John Travolta’s angel character answered, “I pay attention.” It can be that simple. Pay attention to what is happening around you. Go to the mall or park. Better yet, go to a household auction and watch people. Go to a NASCAR race and imagine the lives of the individuals and families in the stands. Try Lambeau Field. Go wherever you have fun, and then pay attention.

Getting ideas is not my problem. I have them stacked up like cord wood waiting for the writing. I have the second novel in draft waiting for the first rewrite. The third, also a sequel, is pressing for me get started (I am prewriting). I have actually begun a few lines of the fourth novel, a prehistoric prequel. Then there are the nonfiction projects. Urgency is what I am feeling.

I would like to say that I don’t ask for any more story ideas, but I do. It’s a subconscious thing. I wonder. At the end of the first novel, I wonder what might happen to all these people of my imagination. I wonder what might happen, if…. Real prayer is subconscious.

Hence, the dream. I believe my story idea was a response to subconscious questions/concerns/prayers. Here comes another question (and story idea): Whence cometh answers to subconscious questions/concerns/prayers? While we’re at it, why not also ask, whence cometh questions/concerns/prayers? Yes, another story idea—or, maybe a nonfiction project.

Writing generates stories. It is a process of self discovery, of finding out what I think and feel at various levels. It reveals personal love and fear, acceptance and anger, cognitions and prejudices.

Ready to start? Take a walk. Pick up an item as simple as a stick or stone. Take it home. Put on some meditative music (I like R. Carlos Nakai) and ask the item to tell you a story. Write it down. STOP!

Don’t think about it so much. Just write. Give yourself a brief time limit (maybe 7 minutes).

Writing is a process of logical you communicating with creative you. It is a journey of art and craft. Let it happen.