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5 Personal Truths About Writing


by Lillian Csernica on February 4, 2015

I’ve been writing in one form or another for most of my life.  I’ve been a professional writer, i.e. I’ve been getting paid to write, for the past twenty-one years.  (Yes, that’s right, my career is now legal in all fifty states. :-D)  There is a whole lot to learn about writing, and about being a writer.  Tonight I want to share with you some personal truths that I’ve distilled out of all the how-to books, the conventions, the writing classes, and the writing itself.

  1. Good writing hurts.  Dorothy Parker once wrote, “Never never dip your quill/In ink that rushes from your heart,” but that’s exactly what we have to do.  If it doesn’t make us laugh or cry or get so angry we want to throw things, then how can we expect it to move our readers?  Some writers say you have to be willing to write about what scares you, what you can’t bear to think about, what causes you so much pain you spend a lot of your energy avoiding it.  Example: I really don’t like to talk about my miscarriage.  I lost my first son.  I had to bury my baby.  Nothing on earth could possibly hurt that badly.  I have a story underway that features a woman who ends up in the psych ward by accident.  The seventy-two hour hold forces her to get in touch with the recent loss of her first baby.  I’ve read parts of the story in my writing class with tears streaming down my face.
  2. Fortune favors the prepared mind.  Louis Pasteur said it first.  I was a screenwriter in Hollywood for a while.  How did this happen?  I sent a letter to a martial arts star asking where I could get some promo photos of him because I wanted to use his image as the model for the hero in the novel I was writing at that time.  Two weeks went by.  One afternoon the phone rang.  It was him, calling me to talk about more than just some photos.  The crux of the conversation was simple: Did I know how to write screenplays?  I answered with an honest no, but I also said my best friend knew how and could teach me.  The star asked me to come up with some ideas to pitch to him and he’d call me back the next day.  My best friend and I came up with one historical and one contemporary premise.  When the star called back, I pitched the ideas and he liked what he heard.  That led to several meetings, two screenplays, and one offer for one of the screenplays.  We didn’t get as far as the green light, but we got a whole lot farther than we might have.  All I’d originally wanted was some headshots.  I ended up hanging out with movie stars.  Not a bad deal, even if it didn’t turn into long-term money.
  3. I can write anywhere, at any time.  This is a skill I’ve had to develop thanks to never knowing when I might end up in the ER because my older son has had a severe seizure.  When my younger son comes home from school, I need to be available for homework and conversation and to be the reassuring presence he needs.  I’ve written at my son’s bedside in the ER at 4 a.m.  I’ve dragged myself through a scene in late morning after a sleepless night thanks to insomnia.  I’ve edited manuscripts in the car going to and from doctor appointments.  Don’t talk to me about “being in the mood” or “courting the Muse.”  I live with clinical depression.  I’m NEVER in the mood, and I damn well write anyway.
  4. We must by any and all means encourage our children to use their imaginations.  My son Michael cannot speak.  What he can do is paint and play Story Dice and use adaptive communication equipment that helps him talk to his teachers and his classmates.  My son John is ASD with speech delay and sensory processing disorder.  It’s very difficult at times for him to deal with frustration or anxiety.  His imaginary friends, adopted from books and movies, help him cope.  His talent for drawing helps him express what he can’t manage to verbalize.  For both of my sons, their imaginations are the keys that unlock the cells in which they might otherwise be trapped by their special needs.  All children need to develop their imaginations as a crucial tool in the learning process.

    What’s so great about imaginative play? In his book Natural Childhood , John Thomson writes: “If the imagination is well nurtured in its first dawning, it can be a sheet anchor throughout life. Imagination in play provides the basis for the child to grow up and eventually to live in the outside world.” The idea here is that if children are given ample time to create and live in the world of the imagination that they are building skills they will need to become flexible, successful adults. Thomson goes on to say “To give full scope to the imagination, the child needs only simple things to play with. She does not need toys that are too ‘perfect’ and her creativity can even be hampered by this type of toy, because there is nothing for her imagination to work on.”

    From a series of articles by author and educator Elizabeth Slade


  5. Tell the stories that only you can tell.  When I was 18, I spent two months living in the Netherlands.  One weekend I took a bus trip to Paris.  There I was, sitting in the shotgun seat next to the bus driver, feeding him orange slices and M&Ms while he told me stories about being a tour guide.  I am the only person who can tell this story.  When I was 6 years old, I woke up one night and heard this horrible noise like a growl that stopped and started, stopped and started again.  I thought it was one of the monsters from “Scooby Doo.”  Many years later I realized it was just my father snoring.  There are probably children who can tell comparable stories, but only I can tell that one.  Only I can describe the few inches of the baby blanket my mother-in-law had been knitting for my baby James.  We wrapped him in it when we laid him in his little white coffin.  The silver crucifix from that coffin hangs on the wall beside me as I type this.  Only I can say these words. 

 What are your personal truths?  About writing or about whatever is most important to you?

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Filed under autism, Depression, Family, fantasy, Fiction, Goals, history, romance, Special needs, Writing

How to Mine Your Life for Stories


by Lillian Csernica on July 23, 2014

Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.

— Flannery O’Connor

You don’t have to be writing a memoir to take a look at your own life and see what might be useful in your stories.  We’re supposed to write what we know, right?  Who could possibly tell the stories we’ve lived through better than we can?  Let me offer a few highlights from my own adventures.

1.  I’ve been dead.  Yes, that’s right, D-E-A-D.  On August 29, 1987 I died in a car accident on Interstate 5 heading north.  I was driving my boss’ station wagon from Long Beach, CA to Black Point in Novato, CA, former site of the Northern Renaissance Faire.  The two right tires blew within seconds of each other.  The car went out of control and rolled two and half times, coming to rest on the roof.  My body was found on I-5 South, across a forty-five foot culvert.  Who found me?  A LVN and an Air Force Paramedic.  What they were doing driving south on I-5 in the middle of the night, I have no idea.  They called it in and tried to get an Air Ambulance, but the nearest ones were still too far away.  An ambulance from Bakersfield, CA came out, the paramedics scraped me up off the highway, and took me to Kaiser in Bakersfield.  I regained consciousness three days later in the ICU.  Do I remember being dead?  Yes I do.

2.  When I was in kindergarten, I was chosen to play Santa Claus because I was already taller than everybody else in my class with the exception of the teacher.  This was my first appearance on stage, and I liked it.  Costumes, theatrics, the performing arts, and Christmas have all played central roles in many of my more noteworthy adventures.  I trace it all back to cross-dressing as Kris Kringle when I was just six years old.

3.  I was in high school when my best friend Andrew decided somebody deserved his wrath in the form of toilet-papering his or her house.  I’d never done this particular prank before, so I was all for it.  That was my first mistake.  Neither of us had a car, so we contrived an elaborate plan that involved the two of us going to the movies and getting a ride from my mother.  We were within walking distance of our target.  How we got our hands on all the toilet paper we needed I can’t quite recall.  I remember walking out of a grocery store with my arms full of the big multi-roll packages.  I trusted Andrew to get us to our target.  That was my second mistake.  We had a high old time, festooning the trees and pitching rolls over the rooftop and draping the car in the driveway with much hygenic bunting.  The occasional car would drive by, forcing us to dive behind the nearest hedge or bush or bumper.  Now if we’d been really evil, we would have gone looking for the garden hose and soaked it all.  That makes toilet paper almost impossible to clean up.  We congratulated ourselves on a job well done and took off to meet our ride at the movie theater.  The next day at school, the story about the toilet papering was the hot topic of the day.  Everyone wanted to know who did it.  Everyone also wanted to know why that particular house was chosen.  Nobody who went to our school lived there.  Andrew had missed his target by a good two blocks.

4. From age sixteen to eighteen, I studied Turkish-Moroccan bellydancing.  My teacher was a wonderful lady from Saragossa, Spain.  As I improved and occasionally taught a class for her, my teacher would take me with her on what were then called “belly grams.”  These were singing telegrams, except of course they were delivered by belly dancers.  One night near Christmas my teacher called me up out of the blue and asked if I could come with her on  a party call.  (Nobody with any sense ever goes on these jobs alone.)  It was one of my father’s visitation weekends, so I was at his house, but it didn’t take long to get into my costume and jewelry.  My teacher had been hired for a bachelor party in an extremely high class neighborhood.  One piece of art on the walls there would have put me through college.  There were about ten men there in the game room, which featured a wet bar, a pool table, and one of those cone-shaped gas fireplaces in the corner.  It’s not easy to work a room when the best you can do is work your way around the pool table, but we had a good time.  The guest of honor and his friends were good tippers, I’ll say that for them.  At one point I was shimmying past a fellow who’d been holding a cold beer.  He chose that moment to tuck some folded money down the back of my coin belt.  I all but shot straight up to the ceiling!  When our time was up, my teacher and I made a graceful exit.  We heard later there were two more acts after us.  Those guys really were generous.  At home again, I was taking off my costume and money was spilling out all over the place.  I do not want to tell you where I found the ten dollar bill!

5. The week I spent in Yokohama, Japan for the 2007 World Science Fiction Convention has supplied me with so many stories I could write a book with a story for every chapter.  There was the wonderful security guard who helped me and my best friend find the post office where the international ATMs were kept.  The reception held by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of Japan was the most fabulous event I’ve ever attended, complete with the U.S. Ambassador from the Ministry of Trade and the Mayor of Yokohama.  I met my friend Massimo there, the gentleman from Torino, Italy who edits ALIA and translates Japanese into Italian.  I had a conversation in Japanese with a cat, who answered me.  When we were trying to find the Yokohama Hard Rock Cafe, a nice young man offered to show us where it was once his mother came back.  Sure enough, they led us all the way through the very extensive shopping mall to the very doorstep of the Cafe.  I love Japan.  I can’t wait to go back and see what further adventures await me.

So you see?  What might seem like a trivial incident to you can become the basis for a story.  I could take the Santa Claus moment and make it the reason my heroine feels safer when she’s inside a costume.  The toilet paper incident could become a case of mistaken identity that snowballs into a horrible climax of payback.  The bellydancing lends itself to all kinds of stories.  Humor, romance, espionage, woman in danger, cultural exchange!  All of those could also arise from my adventures in Japan.

Because I lived through all the above events, I know how it felt to wear the costumes, to live in fear of the police showing up, to trust my teacher to keep me safe in what could have become a dangerous situation.  Japan was wonderful, but there were moments when I was lost, and no one around me understood a word I said.  I walked into one restaurant and the waiter said, “No English.”  I knew he meant more than just the language.  That brings to mind the weekend bus tour I took to Paris when I spent the summer living in Holland.  The tour guide we picked up in Paris didn’t like Americans.  The Dutch ladies on the bus closed ranks around me and made it clear the tour guide had better mind her manners.  The negative experiences might have more power than the positive ones.  That’s up to each of us to decide.

We cannot approach our lives with a poverty mentality.  Every day we’ve been alive has been full of sound and color and emotion and meaning.  Look for the moments that stand out, for the memories still charged with emotion and intensity.  Take that raw material and reshape it into the inciting incident, the problem situation, the change in the status quo that launches your main character on his or her struggle to solve the problem.  Use those moments for complications, for crises, for climaxes.  You will be surprised to learn how much you really do know.

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