I was chatting with a friend yesterday, and she was explaining why she wasn’t writing anymore; it was a long tale of interesting diversions (and socially responsible ones!), and she said that one thing that is taking up her creative mojo is introducing Japanese culture to foreigners. She provides a tea ceremony experience that is more than just people sitting on a mat, drinking the traditional bitter tea and having a taste of the beautiful tea sweets. She asks them to think about why the tea ceremony came about.
How much do you know about the Japanese tea ceremony? In many schools of tea philosophy, it’s very ritualized, and kids can join tea ceremony clubs in high school, while adults can study further and become teachers. Everything is prescribed: you fold your napkin this way. You rinse the teapot that way. You admire the tea bowl, take a drink in a certain manner, wipe the rim, then pass it to the next guest for them to admire, drink and wipe.
This ceremony often takes place in a very small, humble hut with a little door that looks like it was made for Little People. Big people must bend over and enter – the official line is that it shows humility and a lack of pride.
But my friend asks people to look beyond that. She gave two examples of why the tea ceremony developed the way it did, during the era of warring samurai. First, the huts are too small to draw a sword in. No fighting allowed, and a lot of these guys who got together for the tea ceremony would have loved to have gutted the guy on the next cushion. Second, the reason why the drink is passed around and everyone partakes is because this way, everyone can be sure the drink is not poisoned.
Sure, humbleness, the beauty of the imperfect, wabisabi, blah-blah-blah. But, behind all that, there was a lot of drama going on. In the midst of terrible slaughter and fighting, the tea ceremony was a place out of time and drama where enemies could sit together and discuss things. The tea ceremony has several stories behind it.
In the same ways, we can take a second and third look at our own stories when we are stuck. For example, you might have a very particular kind of bar in your story because your Girls in the Basement (aka: your subconscious) told you to. In my case, it’s a cabaret bar in 1970s Berlin.
On the surface, it’s a great choice. Dancing, music, romance! Great aesthetic design that I can describe to enliven my prose. Exotic!
But underneath, the place drives a lot of the decisions I made about the story. It shaped the characters – what kind of people would turn up at a bar like that? I certainly hadn’t planned on a leprechaun drummer and a heroin dealer showing up when I started the story. The setting encouraged their arrival and put constraints on their actions after they were there. It gave them a reason to show up. And I’m very glad they did. The heroin dealer turned out to be a bit of a plot bunny – there for just a moment to move things forward into the next act. But the leprechaun turned out to be a major player in the story and in fact, the series.
So, next time you are stuck, it might be worthwhile to take a closer look at the places and characters you’ve chosen. Ask: Why? Why would my Girls choose a summer camp out in the wilderness as a setting? Sure, a lot of people have shown up to staff that camp, but who else might be waiting in the wings, ready to twist the story into something interesting? My leprechaun is a shoemaker, a drummer, a successful businessman and an old softie when it comes to romance. Why is that? What freedoms do these roles give him? And what constrains him so much that he’s ready to bust out in action to get free?
All the major parts of the story should be working on at least two levels; and some writing teachers would argue that EVERY part of the story should be a major part of the story, so no slacking with uni-tasking elements. Dig down deep and find out what’s going on behind the official reason you put that thing in the story. It might help you find more story.