Write Like You Run

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Mason-research2

These index cards represent the research for 23 books and many magazine articles. Writing is for endurance athletes.

The request came late November. A children’s book packager reached out asking if I had to time outline, right, and research 6 nonfiction books. Oh, and by the by, could I get those done in 6 weeks?

It was grueling work. I rose around 5am every morning. I worked until my various day jobs required me to leave the house. I returned in the early evenings to eat a quick dinner, wash dishes, and then settle back at my desk to resume the project until midnight or 1am. I gathered research facts on index cards which I could easily shuffle into outlined chapters. I drafted crappy paragraphs. I revised them into mildly improved paragraphs.

I repeated the process day after day.

I am no soldier. I moaned and griped when glopping out of bed or trudging back to the desk with the same relative energy and personality of ear wax. I couldn’t do this! I was spent. I’d already had a long day. My brain was shot! I should just forget about it and go back to bed.

That negative, sinister, doom-and-gloom voice every person hears whispering from time to time…. It has successfully talked me out of many accomplishments, big and small, over my lifespan.

But I knew every hour I put off was an hour I could not afford inside this contractual deadline.

As the weeks passed and raw fatigue slobber-gnawed on my spirit, I delighted one evening when a different voice whispered out of the mental ether.

This one had a defiant, dauntless, take-charge edge. It was as warm and steady and confident as the light from an oil lamp. Best of all, I recognized it as the same voice that arose when I started learning how to run longer distances.

20181221_104832I am not a natural or gifted runner. Even so, I enjoy it immensely. I get hours of meditative time out on high desert and alpine trails. Time spent in the precious present moment. No past regrets to haunt me. No future events to boogey-man me. Just the sprawling, limitless now.

Joys aside, I struggled with form and pacing when I needed to attain half marathon distances. Miles short of my daily or weekly training goals, I would often putter out and walk the remainders. Then, one day, when my goal was only 1.5 miles away and my feet were aching and my leg muscles were screaming louder than Eddie Van Halen’s guitar solos and I was on the verge of tears thinking I’d have to yet again quit and fail to reach a set goal…the lamplight voice emerged.

You can do this, the voice said as a matter of fact. You can keep running to that tree. It’s only a few feet away. Try it.

Its tone was so declarative. It neither mandated nor manipulated me with guilt. I couldn’t help but follow its suggestion. Just before I reached the target tree, the lamplight voice indicated another tree further ahead. You can make it to that one. And so I did.

20181223_124551Tree by tree, I hit my goal that day. On future runs, that inner coach always emerged. It was there on race days, guiding me to the finish line.

And here it was again, when all I wanted to do was cry and punish myself for taking on a ridiculous project with a ridiculous deadline.

You can do this. You can do anything for about 30 minutes, it coached me.

Yes, I thought. Yes I could.

30 minutes passed and I had more words on the page. I was also warmed up and on a roll. Now the ideas were flowing fast.

You can do 30 more minutes, the lamplight voice indicated without pomp or demand.

I sure can, I thought.

And by midnight or so, I had a yet another chapter drafted. And at last, the entire project was done. On time.

I enjoyed a brief break for the winter holidays. And then, the book packager reached out again. They had 10 books authored by others in need of a dynamic voice with supercharged language–my specialty. Could I…?

Yes, I replied. Yes I could.

Oh, and could I take on writing and researching 4 other books due in 4 weeks?

Yes, I replied. I absolutely could.

I am not advocating for extreme assignments with catastrophic deadlines. I am, however, here to say that we all have little voices in our heads. Each one tells us a particular story about what is and is not possible. Luckily, we get to choose which voice we listen to.

The Secret Wisdom of Nature by Peter Wohlleben

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Wohlleben_secretnatureHe who writes about nature’s intricate webs needs a quick tutorial from he who writes about Charlotte’s web.

Wohlleben, Peter. The Secret Wisdom of Nature: Trees, Animals, and the Extraordinary Balance of All Living Things; Stories from Science and Observation. Trans. Jane Billinghurst. Vancouver, CAN: Greystone Books, 2017. Print.

 

Genre: nonfiction (nature)

 

Summary: Wolves impact river levels. Beavers influences where trees grow. Earthworms control wild boar populations. Forest trees eat salmon, which helps the trees grow faster and healthier. Wohlleben illuminates and explains all of these curious, unexpected, seemingly impossible connections scientists are discovering between organisms and nature.

More than merely fascinating, these organic bonds and interactions are crucial. Once disrupted, the broken relationships lead to ever more cataclysmic ruptures. When any one population disappears or booms beyond the balance, all other organisms across a natural system are threatened. As one example, Wohlleben looks at how a proliferating elk population mows down soft, sweet riparian trees that beavers eat and build with. If beavers can’t dam rivers, then other water-dependent plants go thirsty and die. The animals relying on those plans for food must relocate or else also die.

The consequences intensify when we stop to consider the mass extinctions of entire animal species over the last several hundred years. Human activities have largely divested the planet of some 8,000 plant and animal species, according to the Smithsonian Institute. Add to that another 15,000 species under threat.

Our booming cities and suburban sprawls erase entire habitats. Our lifestyles chew through fossil fuels which rapidly alter the planet’s temperatures, further disrupting ancient cycles and the mysterious relationships Wohlleben chronicles.

Spoiler alert: Wohlleben proffers slender hope. He advises readers to join a local forestry class or outdoors survival group. Perhaps get more time outdoors in order to cultivate a passion for the spaces we need to preserve.

 

Critique: I am not certain this text adopts the most effective structure for an international translation. In nearly every chapter, Wohlleben’s examples begin with a global context, then narrow down to a specific instance isolated to his native Germany. No doubt, this structure appealed to German readers who could conceptualize a world problem through a familiar lens. But an American readership can’t really relate to Berlin’s wild boar dilemmas. And wouldn’t all readers everywhere feel more compelled if a chapter’s scenario began with an isolated, local predicament that mirrors or micro-illustrates a broader, global crisis?

Besides structural setbacks, the text also suffers from translation hiccups.

Wohlleben is a natural storyteller. His tone feels as cozy as A.A. Milne (Winnie the Pooh) and as animal-loving as E.B. White (Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, The Goshawk). Unfortunately, the translation to English corrodes this intrinsic style. As I read the opening chapters, I found my attention continually sliding off the page. Paragraphs bogged down with the clause-y, conditional verbs that I continually tell my students to beware.

For example:

“Forest agencies are offering to step in and help…”

“Timber was becoming increasingly scarce because it was being used so heavily as fuel and building material, and people were not giving trees time to grow old.”

“In Yellowstone, however, in addition to declining elk numbers, there was something else going on. Thanks to the presence of wolves, the elk’s behavior was changing, and what was triggering this change was fear. Elk began avoiding open areas…”

This passage goes on to describe how the elk “were retreating…”or else “were constantly scanning” and so on.

For writers, the poor writing red flags are not just rising, they’re blasting out of bazookas in these examples. Anytime a sentence involves a “to be” verb phrase (there is/was/were/are…), that sentence has veered into passive voice territory. Passive voice describes when the typical order of operations in a sentence inverts. Usually, a sentence lines up the subject and verb. A someone or something does something. The cat sleeps. The boulder fell. A change occurred.

 Passive voice use a “to be” phrase and puts the doing before the thing. There was a change.

What’s the big deal? As E.B. White (same as above and of the classic Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style) notes, that inverted structure creates a wordier sentence which bogs down the reading experience. Thus why my attention slid off the page.

Another tell-tale sign of passive voice are diluted, weak, clause-y verbs. Were retreating. Began avoiding. Are offering. Was being used. “To be” verb clauses barnacle themselves to perfectly good verbs. Why waste ink on were retreating when you could say the elk retreated?

I have my students find and fix these problems in the news articles and ad brochures I bring to class or tutoring sessions. Below are the problematic passive sentences and a quick, concise fix:

Forest agencies are offering to step in and help.
Forest agencies help.

Timber was becoming increasingly scarce because it was being used so heavily as fuel and building material, and people were not giving trees time to grow old.
Timber became scarce…

(That’s ok, but if I choose better verbs, the whole sentence improves by leaps and bounds.)

Timber dwindled as people relied on it for fuel and building material; trees lacked essential time to grow old.

In Yellowstone, however, in addition to declining elk numbers, there was something else going on. Thanks to the presence of wolves, the elk’s behavior was changing, and what was triggering this change was fear. Elk began avoiding open areas…
In Yellowstone, other anomalies unfolded. Elk behavior changed. Fear triggered new habits as the elk avoided open areas…
They retreated…
They scanned…

I’d love to recommend this book to all the world’s would-be Greta Thunbergs and passionate climate change fighters; however, I’ll most likely recommend it to writing coaches who are passionate about fighting writing change.

The Language of Spells by Garret Weyr

Did you say dragons? In turn-of-the-last-century Vienna?? Enchanted and entrapped as everyday working Joes??? What ought to be a most marvelous storytelling feat turns into a lengthy, dozy tellingstory book.

Weyr, Garret. The Language of Spells. Illus. Katie Harnett. Chronicle Books: San Francisco, 2018. Print.

Genre: middle grade fantasy

Summary: Grisha the dragon and his first best friend, Maggie — a young, human girl — set out to find and free the seventy or so dragons Sleeping-Beauty’ed and buried underground by a power-hungry sorcerer.

Critique: You know those old, possibly apocryphal, world maps which pointed to their own outer edges — those fringes marking the extent of human exploration — with dire Here Be Dragons! warnings? I feel obliged to put similar warnings around this book…

Here Be Exposition!

For anyone unfamiliar with the literary component called exposition, I shall unbriefly elaborate. Exposition explains. It’s the information sections included in a book to summarize past events, ongoing actions, or a character’s thoughts and feelings and motivations.

When you’re not reading exposition, you’re most likely reading scenes, which are the moments when characters interact, talk, conflict, pick locks, unload groceries, kiss, dig tunnels, spy, gossip, or eat turnips.

Imagine you’re reading about Tillie, a supermarket cashier who’s beeping items over the scanner while the shopper unloading the cart prattles on about pineapples and their secret homeopathic applications. The point at which the text begins to explain how back in 1992, Tillie developed an extreme aversion to pineapples in the midst of a disastrous, tropical honeymoon getaway is the point at which you are reading exposition.

One minute, you were observing an interaction, gathering clues about the characters, making judgments and assumptions, forming opinions, and anticipating what’s to come. The next minute, you pause your work so that the author can inform you. Fill you in. Get you up to speed. Tell you a thing or two, rather than show you.

In good writing, exposition and scene go hand-in-hand. One is not better than other. Each involves the reader in a different way. Scenes make you work and spark your curiosity while exposition affirms your budding theories. In the best writing (which is also the best kind of storytelling), you never notice the narrative switching between the two tactics.

But in this book, you cannot help but notice that you are perpetually in exposition. Chapter after chapter, the author tells you this and tells you that. You are told that the dragons with golden eyes are put to work as tour guides in old museums and castles around Vienna. But what you want is to see this dynamic play out. You want to witness some of those interactions. You want to experience this strange, unfamiliar world where these chosen dragons must work or be eliminated; where these fire-breathing work-a-day Joes gather once a week at 2 a.m. at a hotel bar to share old war stories.

Heck, you want to hear those war stories, but instead, you are told about young Maggie sleeping under the nearby bar table where her poet father and his eccentric artist friends gab until dawn (amongst themselves and not with the dragons, by the way). You are told her entire backstory, about her mother’s tragic and untimely death, about her troubled interactions with other children, about her homeschooling, and her wanderings through the city on its new cable cars.

And bear in mind, much of what I have described here doesn’t arrive until you’re halfway through the book. The preceding chapters have been telling you about Grisha’s time enchanted and entrapped as a teapot.

Yes, you heard me right. You’ll spend nearly half a book watching a dragon teapot watch the world the change.

And so, dear readers, believe me when I tell you: He Be Exposition! Here be a book that opts for tellingstory instead of storytelling.

My Bearings

The bear track halted my run. It and a string of identical cousins imprinted the sandy trail ahead of me. If I paid no attention to the crescent moons pressed by the claws, the tracks resembled a child’s delicate footprint. Rounded, plump indents. Chubby toes.

The cherubic tread traveled north on the trail, the same direction I was going.

A thought shoved stiff rebar down my spine: how fresh were these tracks?

I am no practiced or professional tracker. I have friends who are. If only they were there with me. Or, if only I had cell service! Then I could beam them some pics and they could tell me, “Bah, those tracks are weeks old. You’re fine.” Or, “GET THE HELL OUTTA THERE!”

The other shoe prints and horse hoof indents decorating the trail all appeared mottled with time or wind-smudged; their edges indistinct. Only my marks and the bear’s were crisply defined, trodden atop all the others.

A wintry gust shoved through the canyon. It pried under the insulated clothing and licked goosebumps across my skin.

I traced the tracks backwards. How long had I shared the trail with them without notice?

Quite a while.

My stomach dropped somewhere below my knees. That bear might be only a few yards ahead! And I was miles from the trailhead, completely alone.

With clumsy, shaking hands, I unsnapped my water pack and rummaged its pockets. I heard in my stooped position nothing but the chrrgg-chrrgg-chrrgg of adrenaline-laced blood surging through my system. At last, I procured the little canister of pepper spray.

As I slid the pack back on, my nostrils scoured the breeze for that unmistakable tangy, musky bear body odor. When I smelled nothing but the cold, many thoughts crowded in. I was being irrational. Bears avoid people at all costs. Even if those tracks were fresh, odds were good that my scent and my noises had probably prodded the bear to jog way ahead and hide to evade me entirely.

I resumed my run. Calm returned gradually and with it came the question I’d been taught to ask whenever my overactive imagination led me too far into fear’s terrain: Does this feel familiar?

While my imagination serves my writing well, it often skews reality for me. When I am afraid, I can spin a thousand fictitious narratives around the potential causes and outcomes. But those scenarios bear zero connection to the reality of the moment. They are usually a facade, a replica or facsimile, compiled from some past trauma.

Essentially, from a young age I became adept at buying fear’s tickets and riding the panic coaster through every loop dee loop.

When I asked myself if this fear in this moment and in this place felt familiar, I readily answered: yes!

On another wintry day in this very canyon where the sandstone cliffs resemble shortbread castles and baggy elephants, I had experienced fear. Perhaps exactly a year ago, I hiked this trail. At that time, I was facing the last winter and holiday season I’d ever get with my beloved best friend. On some level, I’d probably elected to do a strenuous hike because I needed to prove that I could endure. That I could survive the looming loss.

How could I possibly go on writing without this most trusted reader delighting in my creations? Who would I be without this person in my life? I was certain the answers to these questions awaited me at the end of the hike.

Back then, this trek was arduous for me. I’d packed gobs of food and water. The eight or so miles took most of the day for me to walk, with plenty of breaks to rest my aching feet and legs. I can still remember how I wanted to turn back after the first couple miles. No way could I complete this hike. But I did, practically staggering the last mile back to the car.

Fast forward, and here I was, out for a leisurely run. I knew I’d finish the circuit in hardly more than an hour.

The irrational fear dusted up by those bear tracks had nothing to do with the present moment. They stirred up fear I’d known in the past.

I marveled at my transformation. My skill. My strength. My power. That girl in that situation was a thousand miles away.

And the bear tracks? Gone. Although I never saw them veer off the trail, they did vanish, freeing me to forge my own way forward.

 

 

Photo credits: “Rock Creek Trail” and “Sandstone Castles” copyright Jennifer Mason; featured image “Canyon Curves” also copyright Jennifer Mason; “Black Bear Tracks” by K Young CC 3.0.

When the Words Breathe

A five-week beginner meditation class? Right now? In the middle of letting go…processing loss…the death of my wildest dreams?

Yes, please!

For the first class, I and fifty other beginners settled on the zafu cushions at the local Dharma Center and listened to the instructor’s lectures on mindfulness, the Four Noble Truths, accepting the inevitability of suffering as a path to ending pain, and loving-kindness. I spent solid hunks of hours, eyes closed, mind quiet, awareness focused solely on the body and the breath. I knew only the contours of the present moment.

Inhale.
Exhale.
Notice: I am breathing.
Repeat.

Meditation was a cinch!

At the end of class, we novices received a homework assignment: meditate every day. For as many minutes as we wanted. At any time of day.

A week passed and we beginning meditators congregated at the Dharma Center yet again.

“How was the practice going at home?” the instructor inquired.

We all shrugged, hoping to pass off guilt as nonchalance because hardly anyone actually did the homework. Or maybe we did for a day or two, but then…well, a million factors fouled up repeat attempts. A nagging voice owled in the back of the head insisted: there wasn’t time, and besides, what good would it do, and wouldn’t it be more satisfying to binge The Grand Tour?

That was certainly my experience. Meditation didn’t fit in the morning routine. It didn’t slide anywhere into the afternoon. And before I knew it, 11pm haunted the clocks and no way was I going to stay up even later to sit and breathe.

Tomorrow. I’ll do it tomorrow! Cross my heart.

And then…tomorrow’s 11pm arrived with no meditation accomplished.

I marveled at my wild, insatiable inability. Didn’t I feel fabulous after meditating in class? Yes. Didn’t I find a stronger, swifter ability to identify my negative, self-defeating thoughts and habits and work through them? Without a doubt.

So why couldn’t I make the practice happen? Why couldn’t I get it to stick? And why did this mystifying resistance feel so familiar?

Oooohhhh, riiiiight. I had the same trouble, the same reluctance, establishing a reliable daily writing practice.

Plenty of writers struggle with what the pros call “B-I-C,” or butt-in-chair” time. And just like the meditation practice, writing habits suffer from those myriad competing factors.

Time. Work. Family. Pets. Time. Add to all that the inner voice—the one made of turpentine and bolt rust—which hisses: What’s the point? It’s not like you’re any good. No one’s going to bother reading that drivel. Published anything lately? Or…ever?

And yet, in order to succeed (master writing skills, complete a project, or revise a story), the writer must create a solid writing habit. Likewise, if the novice meditator is to ever acquire equanimity (or just a smidgeon of enlightenment), she must develop the practice.

“Even the Dalai Lama practices meditating every day,” my instructor kindly coached.

With only a couple classes left and no still no devoted practice in place, I weaseled the conundrum, ripping it open to find the solution in its guts. Showing up to class was easy. I never missed it. Of course, I had paid for the class; whereas, I paid nothing to meditate at home. Was the solution a penalty jar to which I would pay a fine each time I failed to meditate? Probably not. It hadn’t helped the writing. Pay to take a writing class—hell, go in debt for an entire graduate program—but when the course is over, no one and nothing is around mandating you sit down and write…at home…for free.

What else made attending class so easy? What other factors made the act of showing up to meditate one night a week so intractable?

Well, the “classroom” in the Dharma Center always had the essential supplies set out and ready for use. A cushion was there waiting for me. Also, the instructor always had a topic to explore, a purpose for being there, a technique to try during the guided meditations. Finally, each class always concluded with a spoken reminder—an invitation—to return for more practice. “See you next week. Same time,” the instructor said.

As an experiment, I replicated these classroom facets at home. I set up my little meditation space: a cushion, a blanket, and a timer were now waiting for me. I then considered the purpose of my at-home meditation. I pondered the technique or focus I could apply. Then I designated my class time: the next day at such-and-such time. I spoke the invitation aloud. When the appointed time rolled around, to my delight, I showed up, I sat down, began to breathe, and listened as the bolt rust voice gurgled up and did its best to dissuade me.

I was neither surprised nor discouraged. The voice arose in the actual meditation class, too. The instructor knew it would and told us novices to simply notice it and return the attention to our breathing. As time expanded, the voice diminished. The timer dinged and I voiced the invitation to return, “Same time tomorrow.”

It’s been a few weeks since class ended, but my daily practice continues. It has solidified into my routine. And to my fellow writers, I offer this approach if you are struggling to pin down your own regular writing practice. Set up the writing space and set out the supplies. Make sure a chair, paper, and pen are always there, waiting for you to arrive. Plan your “lesson.” Consider what you will do when you arrive at the writing space. The purpose can be open (I will write) or specific (I will write chapter one). Or, you can experiment using an exercise from a craft book. Then appoint the “class time.” Tomorrow at 6 a.m. or 10:30 p.m. Maybe plug it into your calendar, as you might a real class.

Finally, when the time comes, arrive at your space. Take your supplies in hand. Notice the turpentine talk, and without buying into its narrative, simply write.

Write one word.
Write another.
Notice: I am writing.
Repeat.

Let the words flow as effortless, as limitless, as essential as breath.

Images (from top to bottom): “Meditation” by Worlds’ Direction (PD); “a bit clumsy” by Vicki DeLoach (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0); “Meditation” by Scott Schumacher (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0); and “Pen” by Jorge Letria (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).