Helena Writes #4: On forcing the arc

Helena Writes
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Helena Clare Pittman, one of the Center’s most dedicated teachers, has written, painted, and taught her entire life. In her monthly Helena Writes series, she shares a lifetime of wisdom, one pearl at a time.

In her fourth post, Helena tells of how her story Counting Jennie came into being and shares not one but two tips for your writing practice that might surprise you.

Late October

Fall is late in coming this year. Our leaves, here in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains, are usually blazing reds, yellows and oranges by September— two, sometimes three weeks in. Branches are bare by mid-October.

But the trees in my woods are as full and green as summer, even after first frost three nights ago. Just a few yellow bits catch the setting sun, and nothing much to sweep off the porch.

I look out at the sea of beech and hemlock, deep green, nearly black in the farthest thickets. I don’t want to think of the implications of this beautiful, dense old October wood pulsing with life—not today. The trees feel like my guardians. The air is so rich with oxygen, I felt drunk to breathe it when I first arrived 22 years ago. We breathe together now, I think.

And lately, I picture the trees around me as I seek the stillness in the heart of night, to sleep. I’ve gone through phases of solitude—from loneliness to euphoria, been too often dulled to the living throng I’m in the midst of. It’s taken me a long time to feel the trees so keenly, and my good fortune to have come here. Maybe it’s taken this very slow-moving fall.

Counting Jennie

A Grain of Rice, my first book, took two years to germinate, as I’ve written here, and five years to sell. Counting Jennie was another thing altogether. That story came from a walk on Long Island where I used to live, a walk with my friend, Jean.  Though I didn’t yet know it, Jean would be the model for Gerald Jinks’ sister, Jennie, in the series of books about the Jinks family.*

A story-writer is an open channel for stories. I was waiting for a counting story.  Jean is a quilter. We walked slowly, talking, savoring a beautiful day. We came to a house with an old picture window. The vertical marks of the bed of straw where the glass had cooled caught the sunlight.

“Look at that antique picture window,” I said.

“Yup!” answered Jean.  “Thirty-six panes.”

I laughed.  “Said by a quilter!”

“Said by a counter,” said Jean.

“What? Huh? What-d-ya-mean?” I asked, stopping on that sidewalk.

“I count things,” said Jean.

I had no pen, no paper but I was wild with excitement. My counting book had arrived. When I got home I wrote Counting Jennie from start to finish and sent it off to my editor who accepted it immediately, and it became the fourth and last book of the four-book contract that produced the Gerald books. I was in a stupor of happiness.

Then came the pictures. They took 14 months, me up half the night designing and painting, wondering who had given me this crazy assignment? Jennie keeps count of everything in her head—cats, dogs, red cars, green cars, blue cars, underwear on clotheslines—like Jean. Sounds compulsive, you say? To break the ice, I began asking auditoriums of children when I made author visits: who else does that? It never fails, hands shoot into the air, a good third, every time.

*Gerald-Not-Practical; A Dinosaur For Gerald; One Quiet Morning; Counting Jennie, Carolrhoda Books/Lerner Publications

An offering: Staying with said

When writing dialogue, stay with the word “said.” I can use it endlessly. Not “state,” not “opined.” “Said” is relaxed, it flows, never intrudes. “Said,” “asked,” “answered.” They’re simple.

Sometimes I use them so often they become choral, chant, poetry. In parody, one can tinker: blurted, snorted, chortled, and, opined and stated. The writer should disappear, the language too—words are there to convey. But look at writers you like and see how they do it. This is what I make of it.

A practice: Forcing the arc

Begin. Let a piece rise and fall to finish, all in your one-writing sitting, for a reflection, or a first draft of a story.

We do this naturally when we tell stories—to friends on the telephone, to family. A short piece, a segment of a longer work, a chapter or sub chapter, an entity, is born. Those are hard to dismiss. Then, I feel I’ve got something “in the bank,” so to speak, at the end of an hour or four hours of labor. I stumbled on this method first by writing picture book stories, then by writing along with my classes, to share out loud. That pressure is a good discipline for me: writing through from start to finish, to revise, perhaps, later. Start to finish, start to finish, rather than trailing off. Gravity and inertia are always working. If I have an “unresolved” piece of something, it has little existence in me and I can lose interest.

But if I know, by writing through to even a temporary resolution—by forcing the arc, giving a beginning and middle an ending that works as a last word—then something whole is called into life. A last word causes a silence, a hush, that works backwards. It announces, that is the story. What comes before it will function organically as a story or a short stand-alone piece that may have the potential to give life to something larger.

A last word causes a silence, a hush, that works backwards. It announces, that is the story.

If I insist that I complete an arc, a rise and fall, then I’m in good shape.  As long as a piece works as a whole, it can be revised. A folder of whole, unedited pieces builds a body of work that pulses like my woods. It has thrust—something that calls to the writer, I’m alive! Those pieces can be worked on, start to finish and start to finish again, and submitted to the market place. They are my calling cards—short stories, picture books, maybe a chapter, with a book proposal.

I live in an ecosystem of hundreds of acres of woods, work piles and folders of stories, paintings and paints. All of it throbs with life and keeps me working in this full, full solitude of mine.

Will you or have you tried Helena’s method of forcing the arc? Share with us in the comments!

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