Tracking and Storytelling

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Feline track, probably a bobcat. Rainier, WA, 2017.

A few years ago, in the context of wilderness survival training, I got interested in wildlife tracking. I love watching animals but wildlife tends to make itself scarce unless it’s accustomed to humans, and most of us make too much noise to get close and aren’t willing to sit still long enough for them to come to us. (Hunters are a notable exception.) Wilderness Awareness School out here in the Northwest offers, among other interesting classes, an intensive course of training on tracking animals. I signed up, and had the first class over the weekend.

There’s a lot involved in tracking, but mostly it seems to amount to being observant. I’ve been hiking and camping all of my life but looking for animal signs is a different way of interacting with my environment. I move more slowly, make less noise, spend more time examining things that seem disturbed or out of place. One of the course instructors described tracking as a form of pattern recognition. I suspect it’s also a matter of recognizing when a pattern is broken.

One of the most interesting elements of tracking–a technique the school also uses for aidless navigation–is storytelling. Tracking, traveling, and storytelling are some of humankind’s oldest behaviors. There’s something primal about combining them.

When I was at Clarion West, the writer Paul Park told us that a story is an accumulation

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Elk track, Rainier, WA, 2017.

of specific detail. That’s a definition that I’ve never forgotten. When you’re tracking, you’re gathering details, uncovering them, like a good journalist: who was here? when? what were they doing? why? where were they coming from, where did they go? This kind of storytelling serves a practical purpose–in the days of hunt and gather, kill or be killed, an eminently practical one. The activity I engage in out of curiosity and a desire to better know the natural world was once a matter of survival, and in some parts of the world, still is.

The story you tell when tracking is made up, but not out of whole cloth. You’re gathering those specific details and assembling them into a picture so vivid that, last weekend, I sat in a wash in the forest with over a dozen other students and all of us could picture the mother mountain lion and cub that had passed through that exact spot in the recent past. We assembled that story out of our observations, the promptings of our teachers, and our imaginations, and told the story to each other. And now I am telling it to you.

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Baby birds in their nest by the Suiattle River, June 2015.

The role of storytelling in tracking is obvious. What about the role of tracking in storytelling? A writer will say that a story isn’t so much made up as discovered; Stephen King describes writing as a form of archaeology. If storytelling developed out of the human need to tell one another what happened–there was a mountain lion here with her cub, there were deer here, a squirrel shredded some Douglas fir cones and I heard him shrieking at me from the treetop here–then the process of story creation within our minds is indeed an act of discovery. And it’ll feel like a discovery even when we’re completely making it up.

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On a wilderness walkabout, June 2016.

I used to write fast. I have reams of stories from those days, churning out the million or so words that suck until you start getting out of your own way, developing your skill, understanding how the stories you read actually work, and get to the good stuff. As it turns out, both tracking and writing require quiet of mind, attention to the task at hand, a careful uncovering of detail, and a willingness to sit still.

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intuition, rationalization, and characterization

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I read a lot. Writers should, in general, and not just the sort of stuff we ourselves write (or want to write). I also work as a librarian and there’s a cliché about librarians and reading that isn’t as accurate as people think, but which happens to be true in my case.

Anyway, this week I started Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, which turns out to be one of those books that has a way of connecting up with other things I’ve read recently.

Or maybe not so recently. As I absorb Kahneman’s construction of System 1 (quick, intuitive thinking) and System 2 (slow, logical reasoning) I am reminded of another book I read two decades ago, and still widely recommended in self-defense circles: Gavin de Becker’s The Gift of Fear.

Both books examine two modes of human thought, but do so from different perspectives and to different purposes. Kahneman, I think, is trying to get at why and how we react, judge, choose, and believe the way we do, often in ways that observers would view as mistaken–and why we’re so bad at recognizing our own mistakes. De Becker was starting from a similar place, but with a much narrower focus: the purpose of The Gift of Fear is to train your intuition–Kahneman’s System 1–to sort real danger from something that might seem dangerous but is really innocuous, and to trust that intuition when in a life-or-death situation. That might seem at cross purposes from Kahneman’s assertion that System 1’s conclusions are frequently suspect, but I don’t think it is. System 1 is at its best when there isn’t time to sort through rational responses and pick the best one. Most of the time, we aren’t in that kind of situation–and I can point to instances when I was, and System 1 served me well (avoiding a car accident, catching a falling object before it hit the floor and broke, responding to and de-escalating a physical threat).

What does this have to do with characterization?

If we’re trying to create convincing characters, one of the ways to add depth to them is to think about their System 1 and System 2. What do they believe–and what do they really believe, perhaps not even consciously? What things are they so experienced at that when they have to perform them, they do so at the System 1 level? (For example, most of us in the United States are good enough at driving a car to handle it reasonably well under normal conditions, avoid crashes, etc. But very very few of us are capable of doing the same on a racetrack.) How do they react to the unexpected, and how do they rationalize it afterward? What unconscious, intuitive motivators lead them to make mistakes that readers and other characters will recognize, but they will not?

I often say that I don’t care whether a character is likeable, as long as they aren’t boring. Unlikeable characters in whom we are nonetheless interested and might even sympathize with can be some of the most intriguing examples of System 1 and System 2 in conflict. A character whose System 1 thinking betrays negative or even evil impulses, but whose System 2 thinking constantly strives to either override or justify them is more interesting than a character who is just evil for evil’s sake or who never makes a mistake because their intuition is always correct.

Even if a character’s System 1 and System 2 are largely in alignment, finding ways to incorporate both into that character’s beliefs, personality, and behavior adds depth and nuance. Such characters tend to be more interesting to watch or read about than those who never engage in self-reflection, act in ways that turn out to be contrary to their own interests, or make mistakes. If one of the purposes of story is to help us understand ourselves, then informing our writing with research like Kahneman’s can help writers accomplish that purpose.

New publication: “Arkteia,” See the Elephant

I’m very pleased to announce this publication; “Arkteia” is a story close to my heart, and just happens to be the first story I workshopped at Stonecoast. The arkteia was a Greek ritual chiefly associated with Artemis’s sacred site at Brauron, not far from Athens. In the ritual, girls between the ages of around five and ten served as priestesses, “dancing the bear” in a placatory ritual connected to a myth involving the killing of a bear in the sacred precinct. This was not the only place where the killing of a sacred animal was said to have angered the goddess–a similar act purportedly led Artemis to keep the winds from Aulis until Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia.

Both the goddess Artemis’s connection to bears and the thoughtless intrusion of humanity into wild places are important background themes to this story. Enjoy!

writing, day job, and civic duty

There’s a lot going on, and only so many hours in the day.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, in these politically turbulent times. Though, I’m not sure any time isn’t politically turbulent. Certainly the more I read of political history, the more I’m persuaded that political turbulence is part of the human condition. The specifics might change, if possibly less than we think.

Like most writers, particularly those who’ve been writing for awhile but are new to being paid for it, I have a day job. It works out to a job and a half: forty hours at work, another twenty to twenty-five a week working on fiction. That doesn’t leave a lot of time for much else, though I fit in as much as I can. (Writers are stereotypically introverts. I am not.)

Our times are politically turbulent, but civic engagement in the United States has been declining for a long time. I tend to peg the beginning of its current decline to sometime in the late 1970s, though I’m depending on historians and political commentators to support that as I was in nursery school then. I’m hopeful that current conditions represent an ascendancy, though the options for said engagement beyond voting (and contributing money, if one’s in a position to do so) are fairly limited.

But another thing that civic engagement demands is time. Time to go to meetings, to call or write one’s representatives, to find or form the organizations necessary to get anything done in the civic sphere these days (particularly if one doesn’t have money).

It feels selfish, sometimes, to turn those hours before and after work and on weekends to writing, when there is so much in the world that needs doing.

On the other hand, thinking of art as self-indulgent or something solely to be pursued at leisure, as having no inherent worth, is so characteristic among the dominant powers in our society, that spending a few (or many) hours on something that might turn out silly or strange or not at all begins to feel like a form of resistance.

Watching Wonder Woman

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I’ll just get it out of the way up front that I’ve never been more than a dabbler where comics are concerned. Aside from a few series that I followed back in the 90s (notably Sandman, Hellblazer, and Strangers in Paradise) it’s a world I haven’t spent much time in. Partly it’s a preference for narrative, partly the sheer volume of comics available means that I’d never have time to read enough to get really cognizant (though I did pick up Invisibles after reading about Alan Moore and Grant Morrison’s wizard war, because I am a sucker for occult rivalries), and partly that the superhero concept doesn’t do a whole lot for me. (Though I read a lot of mythology and there’s a case to be made–plenty of people who know a lot more about comics than I do have made it–that superhero stories are myths of modern times.)

But I do love stories about badass women, and there just aren’t enough of those. On that score Wonder Woman is immensely satisfying, not least because the more common trope for badass women is for them to become that way through some tragic brutality. Those are important stories too (not least because there’s no shortage of tragic brutality in the real world) but it was refreshing to see a woman who kicks ass because in her world, it’s normal for women to kick ass. (Dear DC: please make a movie about the Amazons heavily featuring Antiope, and make sure you bring Robin Wright back to play her, because that was an inspired bit of casting.)

There’s such a shortage of women-led action movies (and the roster of women-led superhero movies is even shorter) that it’s hard not to set all one’s expectations on this one movie. Yet even under the weight of all those expectations, Wonder Woman largely holds up. Yes, the plot’s rather thin, but the set-pieces–focused, as they should be, on the title character–are fantastic, the character interactions shift neatly from comic to serious and back again (though the dialogue is at its best when it’s screwball-comic) and, until the final third, click along in that satisfying way that stories do when characters have been well drawn, their relationships solidly established, and the stressors on those relationships are clear. There are a lot of blink-and-you’ll-miss-them neat little moments that all build to the choice Diana has to make in her big boss fight. It’s not Shakespeare but the writing more than met my expectations for a superhero movie.

One doesn’t really see superhero movies for the writing, though. One sees them for the spectacle, the battles, the big boss fight at the end. Here, too, Wonder Woman more than delivers. To be honest I was satisfied by the time the movie got to the fight on the beach–and by the end of the scene I felt like I’d been granted a second dessert. It both established the Amazons as utterly badass–taking on modern weapons on horseback, with swords and bows, and winning–and established that they can be hurt, even killed. That means Diana can, too, superpowered as she is. But she goes out into the world anyway, and she does it because it’s the right thing to do. That the movie successfully sells this as her motivation is a testament to how it respects its characters.

And there’s plenty more where that came from: not least the scene where Diana literally goes over the top which, based on my totally unscientific poll of people I know who’ve seen the movie, was the moment that made the whole thing for them. (Incredibly, that scene almost wasn’t in the film.)

About the only place the movie didn’t quite work for me, to be honest, was its mythology. This isn’t just because I’m a mythology nerd (though I am); I wasn’t expecting Wonder Woman to hew closely to ancient Greek myths concerning Zeus and Ares and the Amazons (and since Greek mythology itself isn’t internally consistent, it would be a silly expectation anyway). But, while Ares is an adversarial figure in Greek myth who’s widely disliked by the other gods (except Aphrodite), the conflict as depicted in the movie was more Jehovah-v-Satan than Zeus-v-Ares. Trying to fit the Christian understanding of evil and human nature into the Greek mythos is like expecting a penny loafer to fit like a stiletto heel. It doesn’t quite work, and the result was a lack of focus when it came to the big boss fight toward the end. That Wonder Woman would go toe to toe with Ares was pretty much a given, and the actor playing her adversary looked to be having a really good time getting to play someone really villainous for a change. But it’s the one part of the story that I thought could have done with another pass.

On the other hand, if that’s my biggest complaint about a summer blockbuster based on a comic book, well, it’s a mild complaint indeed. Hollywood has maybe, finally, figured out how to make a woman-led superhero movie.

I hope we don’t have to wait a decade-plus for the next one.

In the Weeds

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One of my projects this spring has been writing a novel synopsis. It’s the first time that I’ve done this and I realized when I started drafting it that on some level I’d never expected to reach this point: now that I had, I had no idea what I was doing.

As I often say in my dayjob life, the lovely thing about the Internet is how much information you can find on anything you might care to know about–and the terrible thing about the Internet is the same. All the same, I put together what seemed like a reasonably consistent scenario for what a synopsis should look like and how to write one, drafted it, sent it off to one of my writing groups, and am now in the process of revising it in response to their feedback.

That all makes the process sound very simple, and it is simple, but also difficult. You discover things about the book while trying to summarize it this way; at least, I do, though perhaps it’s different for someone who’s on their fifth or tenth novel rather than their first. I identified a few lingering holes concerning character motivation and plot, and found a way to incorporate a development that didn’t occur to me until the third or fourth revision pass on the manuscript.

Years ago, I went on a camping trip on the Washington coast. The park had a forest between the campground and the ocean, and then a large dune between the forest and the ocean. During the trip I went for a walk in the forest alone, threading narrow paths between clusters of Sitka spruce and occasionally getting turned around as my sense of direction failed me. At last I ascended the dune and could look back on the thick forest behind me. Somewhere among those trees was the campsite where I’d started out.

I’m sure the metaphor here is glaringly obvious, but I tend to remember that moment when I’m this stage of a project. At some point I’ll be done, although not as quickly as I’d like to be.

American Gods, the show

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I got pretty excited when I heard there would be an American Gods TV adaptation, and even more excited when the cast announcements started coming out. I wasn’t familiar with Ricky Whittle, the actor who plays Shadow, but he sure looked how I imagined the character, and Ian McShane is so perfectly cast as Wednesday that my husband, who has never read the novel and is only vaguely familiar with the premise, observed that McShane looks like he’s having the time of his life.

I haven’t read the book in a long time, so I can’t say how well the first episode works in terms of being an adaptation of its source. Once I heard about the show, I deliberately didn’t go back to the novel. I don’t like to read the books adaptations are based on too close to watching the adaptation. I wind up being distracted by the changes, and have a hard time judging the work on its own merits. I also wasn’t crazy about American Gods when it first came out. I’d been a fan of Gaiman since the Sandman series and thought his style worked better in a medium with a visual component. But that was the very thing that made me think that American Gods would work well as a show.

Does it? I’d say so far, so good. I had my doubts with that opening scene, because I am really not a fan of voiceovers or narration in TV or movies. The scene is also so over the top in places (that arm flying across the screen with a sword still gripped in its hand!) that I wondered whether it was supposed to be funny. As a mythological obsessive I knew exactly what the scene was for and what the outcome would be, even though I haven’t read the book in years and this scene isn’t in it anyway. But as the first scene of the first episode of a new show, it didn’t fill me with confidence.

Then we moved to the present day, to Shadow in prison, and everything was fine.

As I said earlier, Whittle looks the part. He’s remarked in interviews on how he worked to get that look right (including hitting the gym), but he also has a collectedness of affect that contrasts with all the crazy shit going on around him. At first I was wondering whether that was going to work on-screen, even though Whittle’s manner is true to the character, until the scene in the cemetery with Audrey. (Interestingly, an article in AV Club indicates that that scene originally went differently. I’m glad Gaiman convinced the showrunners to change it because, among other things, Shadow’s reaction demonstrates that he’s not being passive.) There’s a lot going on in Whittle’s performance, and it’s kind of easy to miss because of all the wild stuff going on around him, but it’s there. I’m interested to see where the actor takes this role.

McShane is great, of course. Perhaps I’m biased; Ian McShane could sit on a stool reading Google search results and I’d probably enjoy it. He’s just having so much fun–and making what he’s doing look easy, which is a hallmark of a master at his craft. At the same time, though, he doesn’t take over every scene that he’s in. There’s plenty of room for everyone he’s sharing the stage with.

Somebody asked me what I thought about the Bilquis scene. I thought it was fine, in the sense that the showrunners made the right decision in how they filmed it. They pretty much had to do it as written or leave it out entirely. I haven’t watched all that much television, but my sense is that this particular sex scene is unique, and not solely for its climax (sorry not sorry). I’m reminded, in the novel and again when watching this scene in the show, of another scene from Gaiman’s work, this time in Sandman. That scene involved Ishtar, not Bilquis, and it was in a strip club, not a bedroom, but it’s about the only other pop culture example that comes to mind of a literal sex goddess for whom worshipers will literally give up everything. (I’m sure somebody will be along with others–feel free, as this is something I’m likely to take up further at some point.) That’s important for this story, but it’s also important as something we see all too rarely. Most of the (straight) sex I’ve seen on TV has involved either subjugation of the women involved, or terrible consequences afterwards–for her.

Overall it’s a promising beginning. One thing that American Gods has done successfully from the outset is establish its reality, and that reality is distinctly weird but no less concrete: the gods are real and they’re at war. I recently re-watched season 5 of Buffy, which has a god in it, but the entire point of Glory was that she was in a reality where she didn’t belong. The title of American Gods rather indicates that its gods won’t be disposed of so easily.

Thinking about stories

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The Pixar in a Box series on Khan Academy is fascinating in how it breaks down the behind the scenes process of one of the world’s most impressive storytelling bodies. I’ve long been impressed with Pixar’s ability to tell a compelling story that works for so many audiences; even when I’m less enamored with a particular film than I might be (I didn’t care for Up, for example), I can’t deny that they do it right, with interesting characters, inventive plots, and delightful settings.

The Art of Storytelling is of interest even if one isn’t writing for film, or for that matter writing at all, because it gets to what I think is the heart of the storytelling compulsion. It’s not about writing what you know in the sense of what you have the factual background to cover; a story isn’t a technical manual, and these days it’s easier than ever to find an expert in whatever knowledge you need for a story, be it firearms or mushrooms or the weather on Mars. I think the “write what you know” saying neglects to define its terms: what a person knows might be summed up as the totality of their life experience, beliefs, and values. One way of getting at that is to think about one’s favorite stories and why they are favorites, which is a module in the Art of Storytelling.

When I picked my desert island movies, the three I came up with were Thelma & Louise, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Strange Days. It’s not that I think these are the best movies ever made, though I do think all three are very good. It’s that I walked out at the end of each of them thinking to myself, “They get it.”

Most of my characters are women, though they aren’t always my protagonists. These three films all feature badass women juxtaposed with injustice. In reflecting I found it curious that while I write a lot of women, and at least a few of my stories have dealt thematically with injustice, none of them have thrown the two together with quite as much verve as my favorite desert-island movies have.

The Art of Storytelling also takes you through creating your own what-if scenarios, a thought experiment by no means confined to science fiction (though science fiction writers sometimes act as though we have a monopoly on the question). I guess what I’m saying is that if what comes out of this exercise is something that owes more to Thelma & Louise, Fury Road, and Strange Days than anything else I’ve written so far, it perhaps shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Reading one’s work

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Some months back I heard about a local open mic and reading series called Two Hour Transport, focused on science fiction and fantasy. The invited writers were local and generally not rock stars on book tours, but people who’d had a certain amount of professional success. I’d at least heard of most of them, even if I hadn’t read their work.

I like doing readings. I mean I get massively nervous and often wonder whether it was a good idea to sign up and all of that, but that’s just stage fright. If I don’t get up in front of people occasionally I start to wonder if I can really do it, even though I’ve been teaching for over a decade and have done some acting as well. I’m nowhere near well known enough to be invited to read anywhere, so open mics it is. And one geared toward SF is perfect for me. Seattle has quite the community of SF writers, something I haven’t taken nearly enough advantage of in the time that I’ve lived there, and one of my mentors recently emphasized the importance of networking since I’ve just about finished the book. Plus, it’s just nice to read for like-minded folk, and hear their work as well. Everything I heard at last night’s Two Hour Transport, open mic and invited alike, was at least good, and some of it was very good indeed.

The other reason to read one’s work aloud, though, is that it highlights improvements that you probably won’t happen upon otherwise. It’s easy to forget that stories were oral before they were written–though now, with the ubiquity of digital media, we are perhaps beginning to remember this–and there’s immense value in hearing one’s story even if the principal way that people will consume it is through reading it in silence. In some sense we’re still “hearing” it, even if we’re not doing so consciously.

The excerpt I read last night was from “People of the Wild”, which was published earlier this year in Persistent Visions (and check out the awesome art they paired with it!). Even though it had been drafted, revised, critiqued, and had the magazine’s editors’ eyes on it (I read from the published version), I found myself making tiny tweaks to the excerpt as I read: smoothing out a phrase here, omitting an unnecessary word there. Huge changes, no, and nothing that would have substantively changed a reader’s experience of the story. But sometimes, if a paragraph or sentence feels awkward, or something about a scene doesn’t seem to be flowing, or the whole thing’s pacing seems off, reading the text out loud can pinpoint the problem quicker and more effectively than any number of beta readers and red pens.

I’m working on making reading aloud part of my process. Every writer’s process is different so I’m not going to assert that everyone needs to do this. But I’ve gotten good results with it. So might you.