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Memory & Adventure 4: Dedicated and Discovery Research

Image courtesy of Claire Thompson

The following exercise comes to us thanks to the amazing Melanie Rae Thon, who has generously provided me with an expansive set of exercises that will be published here over the coming weeks. This particular exercise is the second part of a mini-collection, and the first part can be found here. They are meant to be completed in order, so go back and finish the first three if you haven’t already. Enjoy!

Necessary (Dedicated) Research

By now it should be obvious you will need to do an enormous amount of research in order to evoke the whole environment and your particular experience(s) within that environment as vividly and precisely as you wish! And you will have to make choices about what is important and what is extraneous.

Exercise Four is another extensive list of all the research you need/want/hope to pursue, and the kinds of sources you might consult.

Every project requires research of some kind. Sometimes we need to do “traditional” research, go to the library or cruise the web looking for information. Even writers like Nancy Venable Raine, Mary Oliver, Norman Maclean, John Wideman, Leslie Marmon Silko, Tim O’Brien, and Terry Tempest Williams who work with autobiographical material must do a great deal of research (exploring various texts, interviewing family members, learning the history of their communities, talking to other victims of trauma or illness, reading their own journals, looking at photographs, watching birds, exploring the environment, etcetera) in order to make their stories and poems vivid and accurate.

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On the Ingrained Biases of the Literary Canon

Image courtesy of CCAC North Library

The books of the literary canon were written almost exclusively by straight men of European descent. There are exceptions: a handful of Russian authors, a few white women, a smattering of hispanic authors, and so on. But these make up a fraction of a fraction of the list of “classic books.”

So, let’s just start by saying, you know, this is a problem. And it’s a problem not just because of the exclusionary qualities, but because it’s a self-perpetuating issue. We teach students that books of a certain nature are “good,” which informs the definition of “good books” for those who will define the literary canon as it continues on to new iterations. And not just a problem because it’s a self-perpetuating issue, but because it threatens to limit one of the core benefits of reading as a practice: The cultivation of empathy through increased awareness of experiences dissimilar from our own.

But let me step back for a second and talk at this from a few different angles.

My Experience with the Canon

I want to be clear that the books in the canon are worthy entries, and there have been only a handful that I’ve regretted reading. Some of my favorite books (Picture of Dorian Gray, The Great Gatsby, Brave New World, etc.) are classics written by white dudes. So, really, I’m feeling more like a concerned citizen here than a rioter. But I also feel I have enough perspective that I can speak on this issue.

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Memory & Adventure 3: The Whole Miraculous World

Image courtesy of Groman 123

The following exercise comes to us thanks to the amazing Melanie Rae Thon, who has generously provided me with an expansive set of exercises that will be published here over the coming weeks. This particular exercise is the third part of a mini-collection, and the first part can be found here. They are meant to be completed in order, so go back and finish the first two parts if you haven’t already. Enjoy!

Loving the Whole Miraculous World

I have come to believe in the underlying interdependence of all living beings through time and across space. Thich Nhat Hanh shows us that no matter where we begin, even if it is with something as ordinary as a piece of paper, we will be able to find a pattern of inter-dependence that connects this being or this object with every other being or element or form in the universe! In the film What Darwin Never Knew and in the essay “The Germs of Life” we encounter the idea that every life form on earth is a biological relative of every other form!

Wherever you see life—that is you! The dissimilarity, the strangeness between humans and other creatures is here removed!
~ Albert Schweitzer
from First Sermon on Reverence for Life

In The Tiger, John Vaillant investigates a complicated web that includes the ways political, environmental, spiritual, technological, and historical circumstances ultimately influence individual lives (tigers, trees, humans, et al!) in a remote area of Russia.

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Memory & Adventure 2: Moments of Wonder

Image courtesy of Eryne G.

The following exercise comes to us thanks to the amazing Melanie Rae Thon, who has generously provided me with an expansive set of exercises that will be published here over the coming weeks. This particular exercise is the second part of a mini-collection, and the first part can be found here. They are meant to be completed in order, so go back and finish “Matters of Life and Death” if you haven’t already. Enjoy!

Moments of Wonder

Try another brainstorming list, this time focusing on Moments of Wonder. Think about times when you have been astonished by something you encountered out in the mysterious world and/or deep in your own secret environment (clouds, snow, cold, mosquitoes, bees, cliffs, madrona trees, a river running gold with tannin, a coop full of pure
white pigeons, subalpine firs that had become snow ghosts (whose lower limbs were taking root in soft dark earth deep beneath snow even as you watched them), a man with hooks for hands who came to your rescue, reflections of trees in a river with fish swimming in the treetops, singing whales, a limestone cave, a howling coyote . . . ).

Your examples may focus on an encounter with single being (e.g. the coyote across the arroyo), or a whole experience (e.g. traveling out to sea, listening to—or even swimming with—the whales).

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Memory & Adventure 1: Matters of Life and Death

Image courtesy of Brendan Ross

The following exercise comes to us thanks to the amazing Melanie Rae Thon, who has generously provided me with an expansive set of exercises that will be published here over the coming weeks. This particular exercise is not meant to be completed all at once. Rather, it’s a set of lists, meditations, responses, and ways that you can move those earlier portions into creative work. Enjoy!

Wilderness always speaks to human beings of Transcendence: in the widest possible sense it says, You as a Human Being are part of a System which is not just about your needs and your concerns. Like it or not, you’re part of something immense and very mysterious.
~ Doctor Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury
In Part Five of the film series Planet Earth

Memory and Adventure
Entering the Wilderness: Impermanence, Interdependence, and Compassion

I hope this series of meditations will inform your work directly or indirectly. Individual choices about form, genre, balance, etcetera are all spectacularly open! Please feel free to translate/transform/re-imagine these explorations in any way that makes sense for your unique explorations. My questions are meant to open, not confine—to suggest possibilities that lead you into your own territory with more curiosity and awareness, more passion and wonder.

This experiment is designed to “break down syntax,” to jolt us outside the comfortable parameters of our rehearsed autobiographical narratives, to help us appreciate the complexity (and chaos) of our own lives and make us more responsive to (and curious about) the wide variety of human (and more-than-human) experience we encounter in fiction, memoir, poetry, drama, film, the nightly news, our daily lives …

(with thanks to Anna Deavere Smith for the three questions that first inspired this meditation)

Part 1: Brainstorming
Matters of Life & Death

Have you ever been close to death? (Your own, or someone else’s—a loved one’s, or a stranger’s?) Think of illness, injury, wild risk, accident. Consider the deaths of non-human beings (birds, deer, fish, insects, saguaros, cities, rivers, glaciers, frogs, lilies—a golden spruce, a belovéd chinchilla—a creature you dissected, an egg you consumed, a pork chop you devoured . . . ). List as many as you can. Some may exist in “clusters.” Consider times when you feared for the life of someone / something you loved, whether or not that being was in real danger. Think about times when you felt responsible for the harm that another being suffered.

Have you ever witnessed or committed a crime? Have you been the victim of a crime? Have you ever been accused of something you did not do, or escaped punishment for something you did do? What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done? What’s the worst thing that’s ever been done to you?

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Reader Entry Point

Over the last six months, I’ve read about 10 books I didn’t like. Now, I’m not here to vent about the frustrations involved. And I’m not here to bad-mouth the stories; most of them failed by being mediocre as opposed to outright bad. But the experience got me thinking about what, for me, makes books “fail” in this way.

The Concept of a “Reader Entry Point”

I’m sure there are many different ways for a book to fail. However, the common thread I found in the aforementioned works was that they failed to engage me. Engagement is a complex topic, and I’m confident that readers will vary pretty greatly on when and how they become engaged with a story. However, over these last few months, I’ve tried to think through what need to find a story engaging.

I’ve decided to call this “thing” that makes me engaged my “entry point.” It’s the point in the story where I’m not just willing to be there but willing to become invested. Without that investment, I honestly don’t think a book can give me a satisfying experience. And the later in the story this entry point is found, the more I’m likely to find the book hard to push through.

Fundamentally, I think the entry point requires that I have something or someone to care about. And once I care about that single element of the story, I’m much more willing to follow the story, become emotionally invested, and be patient with the imperfections of the work. At that level, I’m confident that all readers are the same. But at the level below it — what sorts of somethings and someones will work for them — it’s likely to vary widely.

My Major Entry Points

Despite the highly subjective nature of this topic, I wanted to explore the things that tend to work well to get me into a piece.

  • A sympathetic major character.
    I don’t want or need this character to be perfectly good. I don’t want or need them to be charming beyond reason. In fact, I don’t even need to like them. But I do need to feel sympathy for them and the situation they’re in. I have to recognize something human in them that makes me want to push forward. If I have at least one key player who fits into this category, I’m much more likely to become engaged.

    In Neverwhere, I find the main character’s quirks, his mundane challenges, and his sense of the world to be highly relateable. As a result, the bizarre things that happen to him are far more intriguing, and it feel compelled to follow Gaiman as he presents the rest of his world and story.

  • A plot with meaningful stakes.
    I tend to disagree that every good story needs conflict, but I do believe that every great story needs something to be at stake. If you give me a plot where it’s clear what’s being risked, what might be gained, and those outcomes feel meaningful within the confines of the story, I’m likely to follow along even if I haven’t been won over on other fronts. And if you can do this starting from the premise of the story, it really amps up my engagement.

    In A Simple Plan, the early discovery of millions of dollars makes the stakes and the goal incredibly clear. I’m pulled into the story despite having no strong feelings about the characters or the setting, and that suspense follows for the remainder of Scott Smith’s story.

  • A fascinating setting.
    The setting has to be pretty damn good to win me over on its own, but it’s certainly happened before. Whether it’s the magic system of a fantasy world, the compelling politics of a sci-fi adventure, or the seedy underworld of a transgressive literary tale, the setting can do a great deal to win my patience while the plot and characters are gradually being introduced.

    The Name of the Wind got me interested through providing a well-developed setting. It took more than a hundred pages for the first intriguing plot point to happen, and it took even longer for me to like the lead character. Both eventually happened, but if the setting hadn’t interested me, I likely would have dropped the book before Patrick Rothfuss had a chance to introduce these other elements.

With these thoughts in mind, I’ve started to pay attention to this question in my own work. Who are readers supposed to care about? Are the stakes meaningful and clear? Is the setting rich and developed enough to bring the reader in?

But I also know that this list is incomplete. As a result, I’m very interested in a discussion of how the experience varies for you. In the comments, let me know what gets you to buy into a story, and provide examples where you have them.

Write on,