What It’s All About …

Two things; Growing up I hated the act of writing. On the opposite end of that spectrum, I loved the act of telling a story. Some say they are one and the same. They are not. I present to you my reasoning:

In order to write a story, you must have  a story to tell and the means to tell it (type writer, computer, paper, tissue, yellow sticky notes, etc …). In order to tell a story all you need is the story, a mouth and oxygen. A captive audience helps in both instances, but you don’t need to be able to write in order to tell a story, even a bad one. 

As a kid, I hated the act of writing. It wasn’t so much I hated writing, as a whole, but the fact that at least four times a school year I had to do term papers (like all other kids at my school and probably in countless schools around the state and country). Being forced to write on subjects I didn’t care about soured me on the whole writing ‘thing.’

Only once, in seventh grade, did I actually enjoy writing papers. That was in Mr. Hayes’s English class. Mr. Hayes wasn’t all that old at the time, maybe my age now (mid-forties). Thinking on it now, he reminds me of Rowan Atkinson from the British comedy, Mr. Bean, that aired in the nineties and ran for all of fifteen episodes. He was short and wore brown pants quite often and button down shirts. The one outfit I remember distinctly was the brown pants and the light yellow button down. He wore black rimmed glasses and his dark black hair was thinning.

He may have been a precursor to Mr. Bean as I know him, but he was a good teacher, and the only one who even remotely got me to enjoy the mandatory writing assignments we had to do. Let me see if I can explain this:

Each week he passed out cue cards. They were nothing more than half a sheet of laminated paper with story prompts on them. He would start at the head of each row of students, count out the cards and hand it to the first person on the row. That person would take a card and then pass them to the next person, who would do the same thing. He did this with each row until everyone in the room had a cue card. All the prompts on the cards were different. (If you ended up with a prompt you had already done, then you just raised your hand and he would give you a different one.)

The goal on each Monday was to write a story that was no less than two paragraphs short and no more than a page long. At the end of class, we turned our papers in with only the date and the prompt number on it. That is right, we didn’t put our names on it (at least not until we received the stories back on Friday). The next day Mr. Hayes passed out the stories and the students read them out loud in class. If you got your own story, you still read it. On Friday, he passed the papers back out, but before he did that, he polled the students to see who they thought wrote each story. That was fun and funny, in and of itself, especially given the reaction of the students. Then he called out the numbers of each paper and the authors raised their hands and received their paper back.

We did this the entire year. And I enjoyed it. At the end of the year, we were allowed to take our papers home. Like I said, it was the only time while I was in school that I enjoyed the act of writing. I still have those stories. Well, most of them.

Other than that, I hated writing. I loathed the thought of writing term papers and researching encyclopedias and books with, at best, vague information. With the exception of Mr. Hayes’s seventh grade English class, I did no creative writing the rest of my school career. Not like I did that year.

On the polar opposite side of hate, I enjoyed telling stories. The act of verbalizing a story to someone or a bunch of people thrilled me. I could see their faces and I knew immediately if they were into the story or not. I could be animated, wave my hands like a maniac, run around the room, make noises and faces and sit down and squat and gyrate my hips if I wanted to. I could be quite the clown. The only thing that confined me from telling a good story is the lack of knowledge about some things, but I didn’t tend to tell stories that I had not either experienced or seen first hand.

If you have followed my blog for any length of time, you have probably seen me mention my grandfather and his made story telling skills. He captivated people with his voice, with the inflection in it, with the way he smiled and the gestures he made. He was always in control and every time he told a story, I was on the edge of my seat, rapt with interest. I watched how he moved, his facial expressions, everything about him. Then I tried to tell stories like him.

I have failed miserably.

No one can tell a story the way he did. Well, maybe Morgan Freeman, but that’s it. No one else.

Here, my friends, is where the rubber meets the road: before I ever began writing, I could tell a story. I had a good teacher. My grandfather passed away before I really took to writing. He never got to see me get a story published. He never got to hold one of my books in his hands.

I said all of that because I believe in order to be a good writer you have to be a good storyteller first. I tell you all of that because I believe there is no right or wrong way to write. Sure, there is a way to write, but the act of writing a story is the same as creating a painting or sculpting a statue or any other creative endeavor: for the most part it is personal and solitary, and each person has their ideas on what works and what doesn’t work.

As I mentioned a second ago, telling a story is personal, even if the story itself is not. A writer gives you part of him or herself when they put something out there. It is terrifying. It can be an ego crush. But it can also be exhilarating. Getting a story published is like a drug, and the high is high and the come down from it is difficult. It is addicting. And there is nothing like it.

I’ve done a lot of thinking lately, and the conclusion I have come to is simple and not even remotely close to an epiphany. In order to be a good—no, a great!—writer, you must enjoy what you are doing. When I was a kid, I hated writing. I did not enjoy it at all. So, I did it as little as possible.

When I got older, I started enjoying it. I can’t explain why that happened, but it did. And that is a wonderful thing. I think it is much like the way my grandfather enjoyed telling stories. I think that is why he was so good at it.

If I would have had a chance to ask him what I needed to do to be a good writer, he would probably say, tell a good story. That, Faithful Readers, is what it is all about. And that is why I work so hard to tell you great stories—I have big shoes to fill. Until we meet again, my friends, be kind to one another.

A.J.

 

How I See It: Greatness

Sometimes the world pulls you down. It does. The hustle and bustle of it all can be exhausting. Trying to live up to everyone’s standards (not to mention your own) is daunting and often times a complete exercise in failing. You work, work, work and feel like you are getting nowhere. You often feel you don’t matter or you don’t make a difference anywhere or you whisper to yourself, ‘there has to be more than this.’

It’s frustrating. Cumbersome, even.

We are so wrapped up in our place in the world we often forget to just stop, and literally, smell the roses. Or, in this instance, see the clouds.

This morning, on the way to work, my wife commented about how beautiful the clouds were. I looked off to my right as we crossed the Jarvis Klapman Bridge. The Gervais Street Bridge was just across the way, cars zooming by, the drivers on their way to their destinations, the Congaree River passing beneath it (and the bridge we were on as well). Off in the distance the clouds hung low in the sky. They were bathed in colors of light purple, pink, orange and gray with the underbelly of them (further off in the distance where the sun was trying to peek through) lined in silver and white. It looked as if those clouds had been painted up there. I felt I could roll down the window and touch them and paint would come away on my fingertips.

It was more than beautiful. It was amazing. It was awesome. It was splendorous. It reminded me of how great God truly is.

As the morning has gone on, I keep thinking about the image of those clouds, of how it looked like a painting—a great, truly majestic painting. It also reminded me that there is greatness in every person. Yes, I said every person, and by every, I mean EVERY. SINGLE. PERSON. You can be an athlete and be capable of great things. You can be a musician and be capable of great things. You can be a teacher and be capable of great things. You can be a child and be capable of great things. You can be homeless and be capable of great things.

You can be a writer and be capable of great things.

The thing with greatness is so often it comes from within yourself. It is accompanied by hard work and dedication and a burning desire, but it is in every single one of us, and yes, that includes the homeless person, or those who most would consider lesser people. You can be religious or not and still do great things. You can be rich or poor and do great things. Skin color, sexual orientation and gender does not matter. Neither does political beliefs.

Greatness has nothing to do with who you are but it has everything to do with WHO you are.

Confusing? Yeah, it can be.

Here is how I see it: Greatness has nothing to do with what people think of you, but who you are on the inside and what you think of yourself.

To steal a quote:

A winner is not someone who wins. It’s someone who tries and isn’t afraid to lose.                                     –Nusrat Sultana

Greatness will never be about winning and losing, no matter what society says, but about effort and belief in yourself. It took me a long time to figure that out. Sometimes, I still struggle with the concept.

I’ve worked for years to become a publishable writer. Then I realized it doesn’t matter if I’m publishable—most people can get published or even publish their own work, so it is a subjective term, in my opinion. What matters is that I continue to work on my talents of telling good stories, and for me to take them from good to great. I am going to be honest, I will never be where I want to be as a writer. I feel the greatness I want to achieve is a goal that may never be reached, but I will continue to strive for it. Why? Because I believe in myself and my abilities.

I also believe that you, Faithful Readers, want greatness. This is partially why I strive hard to make each story better than the last. I want you, the readers, to want to read my work and not feel you wasted your time with me and my words. If you feel you have wasted your time, then I have failed both you and me.

We, as a society, associate greatness with money. The more money you have the greater you are. We put our self value in money, money, money. I don’t want my greatness or how I value myself to be associated with the dollar. Don’t get me wrong, I would love to make a lot more money doing this than I do right now. I would love to be able to support my family doing the thing I love to do most: tell stories. But the great writers aren’t just great because they are rich. The great writers—the truly great ones—touch people with their words. This, Faithful Readers, is what I want to do. I want to touch you with my words. I want when you put one of my stories down, for it to linger with you as you walk away.

As I think about those clouds again, I go back to something I say at the beginning of some of my stories or blogs: Picture this, if you will. I like to paint pictures with my words. Whether they are dark and disturbing or soft and encouraging, I always strive to paint the most beautiful of images for you to read through. This, I believe, lends to the effort of trying to become great at the craft I so love.

I hope you enjoy the pictures I paint with the palette of words I use. If I do (or even if I don’t) would you mind leaving a comment below, letting me know. If I can improve on something, please let me know this is well.

Thank you for allowing me to touch you with my words. Thank you also for your time. I hope you have a wonderful day. Until we meet again, my friends, be kind to one another.

A.J.

You can find me at these wonderful places:

A.J. Brown Facebook Fan Club

A.J. Brown Facebook Author Page

A.J. Brown Amazon Author Page

A.J. Brown Storyteller Website

@ajbrown36 on Twitter

Wattpad

Email: ajbrown36@bellsouth.net

 

 

Shooting Marbles, A Lesson Learned

Not too long ago I wrote a longer short story titled, The Forgetful Man’s Disease. The story is set in the old Mill Village in West Columbia. It was a place I spent a lot of my childhood. The main character is based on my grandfather and many of the characters within the story are based on people I knew from the area.

Tonight, my brother-in-law, Stephen, came over and we talked about Dredging Up Memories, my second novel. (If you don’t have a copy of it, you can get it HERE). While we were talking, he on the couch across from me, and the house somewhat warm and a crime show playing on the television in the background, the subject turned to my grandfather.

I couldn’t help but talk about him and a particular story he told me.

My grandfather was a good guy. He preached and taught Sunday School for many, many years. He told great jokes—his timing was impeccable. But even better, he told awesome stories. Some of them have ended up in some of my own stories. One of them I would like to tell you about right now. It is a touch of real life that no one gets to see too often.

When I was around eleven, my brother and I began to grow apart. He was thirteen and the things we once had in common were nonexistent. Before that, we had been thick as thieves. We argued a lot and the first of several fist fights took place not too long before my grandfather asked me if I wanted to shoot marbles ‘out in the yard.’

Of course, I wanted to shoot marbles. I loved marbles.

My grandfather took me out in the yard and wiped the sand away from a small area. He drew a circle and we poured my bag of marbles into it. He picked a medium sized cow and I did the same. We walked a few feet away and began to shoot the cows at the marbles in the circle. For several minutes we played, each of us knocking marbles out of the circle, claiming them and putting them in our own separate piles.

When there were only two marbles left in the circle, my grandfather stopped playing. He looked at me and said, “Let me tell you about these two marbles.”

This meant he was going to tell a story. I always looked forward to his stories.

He plucked the two marbles from the circle and held them in his palm. He said, “This circle is your family. These marbles are your family members.” He motioned to the marbles in our two piles when he said that.

He then held up the two marbles. “These two marbles are you and your brother.”

He set them back in the circle and took his cow—what most folks would call a shooter—and took a shot at the two marbles. The cow struck home, scattering the two marbles. One of them left the circle. The other one remained inside.

As my grandfather always did, he told his story without a ton of dramatics, but with a straightforward message.

“Even if your brother leaves the circle, he is still your brother. That will never change.”

He picked up the marble that had left the circle and set it next to the other ones.

“Your family will always be your family. Your brother will always be your brother.”

He stood, patted me on the shoulder and nodded. I think he was proud of himself. He then walked off, leaving me looking at the two marbles in the circle and thinking about the lesson he had just taught me.

Though my brother and I would drift apart over the years, he has always been my brother. And that was his point. We would always be brothers, no matter what happened, no matter what direction we went in.

When I started writing, I tried to capture the flare my grandfather had with telling stories. Sometimes I succeed. Other times I don’t. But here is what I shoot for every time: I want my stories to stick, like my grandfather’s lesson that day. If you remember one of my stories and if one of them moved you, then I have done my job. It is what my grandfather did, and those are hefty shoes to follow in.

One more thing: that was the last time my grandfather and I played marbles. Yes, his lesson stuck.

Until we meet again, my friends, be kind to one another.

When A Story and Song Are Alike, But Different

Have you ever heard a new song and thought, ‘hey, this isn’t half bad.’ At some point in that song things go astray and you shake your head and say ‘that doesn’t really fit with the song.’ It made you stop, right? I bet you even had that confused expression on your face, the creased brows, curled lip, maybe even the sideways tilt of the head.

The first time I heard this song I did just that:

The song starts with the guy practically talk-singing, not really singing at all and then, what? What the heck happened? They actually sang the chorus.

‘Wait a minute,’ I said with my brows creased, lip curled and head slightly tilted. Yes, I was confused. ‘Hey, is this the same song?’

Turns out it was. At the end the dude starts talk-singing again, which totally went with the beginning of the song, but not the middle. What? What?

Here’s the thing: the song kind of grows on you and after you listen to it a couple of times, you realize, ‘hey, maybe this is supposed to be this way after all.’

It’s an epiphany.

Okay, do you have all that?

Stories are the same, well with a little exception.

Have you ever been reading a story and thought, ‘hey, this isn’t half bad.’ I bet you have. Then, at some point during the story, the character does or says something completely out of, well, character. So you stop reading, go back and reread the last few lines and you still can’t figure out what just happened. You go back, read again. And again. And again.

Oh, wait a minute. There it goes. I understand now.

There’s that light bulb moment where you get it and all is well with the universe.

Except, it isn’t.

The similarities between songs and stories that seem to have parts that don’t make sense in them end there.

If a song throws you out the first few times you hear it, it’s okay. It still can grow on you like a really bad skin disease. Not that a skin disease is a good thing, but songs have a chance to redeem themselves by listening to them until you start to like them.

Stories don’t have that benefit. If a person is reading and all of a sudden things come to a grinding halt because something doesn’t make sense or something doesn’t sound right, then there’s a problem. Sure, the reader can read that part again and again until they get it, but the flow of the story has been disrupted. The great feeling of a moving piece has been ruined. Even if a reader gets it on just the second read, it lingers in the back of their minds and they never really forget it.

‘How was that book, Herbie?’

‘Which one?’

‘The one you just finished.’

‘Oh, it was good, but there were a couple of spots that didn’t make sense.’

‘Really?’

‘Don’t get me wrong. The book was good, but there were a couple of times where I had to reread a part to understand it completely.’

That should never happen. As readers, you should never have to stop and reread anything, unless it’s good. If it confuses you, then it’s a problem

As writers, we have to try and make as much sense as possible without spoon-feeding the readers everything. The stories have to unfold and our characters have to be realistic. Scenery and descriptions need to be as realistic as possible—they’re characters as well. There has to be action tempered with character development.

I’m not a big fan of just writing what everyone else writes, or in the conventional style that everyone else writes in. I like to tell stories in an easy style, conversational tone and all. I also experiment with narration and story style. It keeps things from getting boring for me.

In the short story collection I have been putting together over the last few weeks, there are a couple of unconventional pieces; stories told not quite like the others. I like them.

When I am done with this collection, I think I may have to do another one down the road. One that is strictly non conventional in the storytelling. But that’s for later on.

During the selection process, my wife Cate, read every story in consideration. She pointed out things, including parts that made her say, ‘huh?’ It is at those parts where I have fallen down in my storytelling. Thankfully, she’s great at catching things for me. She pulls no punches and has stabbed me through the characters more than once.

Writers please get someone to read over your stories. Someone you trust, and not necessarily someone who is going to tell you, ‘oh that’s great.’ You need someone who is going to tell you there is an issue, someone who will tell you, ‘hey, I got confused here.’ Those are your best friends in this business.

Writing stories is similar to songs, except they have to make some bit of sense in the end and can’t lose you along the way. Readers are less forgiving than all of us who love music. Keep that in mind when writing that complex plotline.

Until we meet again, my friends…