The Runaway Yellow Mustang

One of the bonuses of fall (besides the obvious: spices, pumpkins, orange-yellow-rose, sweaters, scarves, etc. etc.) is that the leaves fall off the trees and you can see what’s been hidden for 7 months. This is especially fortunate for us, as we live on the 8th floor and our windows are surrounded by trees. Across the street there’s a parking lot for an apartment building, and for the first time all year we can see it.

There are a bunch of cars in the parking lot (you didn’t need me to tell you that, I’m sure). Lots of residents exercised adult sensibilities when they were purchasing their cars, and there are rows of gray and black, some silver, several white, and one or two deep maroon.

But one person—one blessed, carefree, personality filled person—has a bright yellow mustang.

 

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Unfortunately for this picture, even though the leaves fell, the trees are still there.

Honestly, it stands out like a sore thumb.

But at the same time, it is refreshing, bright, and, well… Yellow. Which is the color of sunshine and bumble bees (inside the black stripes, of course) and daffodils, all wonderful things.

I continue at the risk of drawing an analogy that’s too complex or far-fetched.

It’s easy to feel like the yellow mustang in a world full of gray and silver cars. Some of what defines me is absolute: my faith, my family, my husband Curtis (he’s very wonderful), my definite introverted personality. Other parts of who I am are a choice: cheerful, buoyant, thoughtful, and careful.

The absolutes are like the parts of the car that it can’t run without—engine, axles, gears, tires (a proper mechanic could lend a lot to this analogy).

The choices are like the aesthetics: leather or upholstery, fancy chrome rims, and the paint job.

The problem with people (myself included) is that we struggle to see past the yellow paint. This in turn makes our interactions with most people about as meaningful as a drive-by speculation on the color of someone’s car. We assume that everything we see on the outside is everything they are on the inside, and go from there.

It’s not practical. It’s not relational. But it’s certainly easier.

Looking past the paint is hard—it takes work, it takes sacrifice, and it’s not always comfortable.

But it’s so worth it, because under the paint people are individual, odd, and beautiful, and so much more than just yellow, or gray.

The color is very important, but the buck shouldn’t stop there.

Seeing What You’re Headed Towards

I work in a rectangular building that was built squarely on a compass. Translation: it faces N,S,E, and W, instead of the half directions.

Yesterday at closing time, there was a grim glowering storm out of the east windows, and a dazzling, orange-yellow creamsicle sunset out of the west windows. My office-mates who sit on that side of the building had no idea that a storm was brewing, 45 feet away.

Sometimes you’re 45 feet away from something delightful. Sometimes you’re 45 feet away from the worst storm yet.

Usually you only see the one you’re headed towards.

Practice looking around you to see more than one thing.

Excitement Lives in the Young

Every week we go to youth group. We play games, have lesson and small group times, and try to help two or three dozen high-schoolers understand that they’re not alone, they’re not as awkward as they feel (and even if they are it’s totally okay—spinach gets stuck in everybody’s teeth sometimes), and not knowing what you’re going to be doing in two years isn’t the end of the world.

They’re fun, they’re kind, they’re smart. They play sports, they do drama, they read books, one of them even volunteers at a museum in her spare time. They’re learning what growing up is in a safe environment, one where they are reminded of what matters, their parents keep them safe, and they don’t have to pay their own electricity bills.

They’re excited about life, because it’s full of possibilities.

They’re excited because they’re young enough to sleep well and forget the hard things.

They’re excited because they haven’t had a job they didn’t like, a boss who was unkind, or a college roommate who doesn’t understand what being courteous is.

And they should be. Writing excitement into young people is crucial (unless you’re styling the moody artist type—that’s a whole different set of attitudes), because it’s so relevant to the young, and so refreshing for everyone else.

Learn to capture their excitement, because excitement is half of what makes life… Well, exciting.

Nuance

Nuance gives interactions depth. The change of tone, the raised eyebrow, the subtle shift in posture—all of them indicate attitude and feeling. It’s what makes story interesting, movies gripping, and real life easier to interpret. Without nuance, face to face interactions lack a certain emotion that we depend on to understand what’s really going on. Even stranger to stranger interaction has subtle nuance, whether discomfort, disinterest, or delight.

Nuance differs from person to person, but some things are universal. Do you look up to the sun with your eyes closed when you go outside? Are you constantly picking at things with your fingers? Do you lean in when you’re listening, cross your arms when you’re upset, yawn when you’re bored? Subtleties help us process interactions—without them we can’t tell what the other person is thinking, unless they come straight out and say it. Was he leaning out because he wasn’t listening? Why didn’t she nod? What is all the yawning about?

In the same way, writing nuance into your story clues your readers into what’s really going on, and triggers the imagination to help tell the story and fill in the tiny missing pieces. Without nuance tips, we won’t know the tone of the story.

How do you write nuance into a story?

#) Understand what nuance is. You can’t write it unless you understand it. Fortunately, it’s an easy thing to learn. Eighty-five percent of social interactions that you witness are full of nuance—and once you start looking for it, it’s everywhere.

#) Read for it. Find popular writers (both current and classic) and read their work. Do they use nuance well? Poorly? At all?

#) Practice. This is the dead horse that I’ll flog forever, when it comes to writing. The only way to get better is to practice, even when you don’t feel like it, even when you have nothing to say. Look at the objects on your desk and write a story about them having a conversation. If your desk is empty use your shoes. If you’re not wearing shoes, write it about the wall and the paint. If you write in a gazebo, maybe you’re in a public park and there will be people walking by… You get the picture.

Nuance is invaluable to writers. Perfect the art.

Scribbled Insights

I have a lot of scraps of paper taped up around my desk, full of scribbled insights. I’ve gathered them through the months, and put them up to remind myself of the things that are important in life: making wise choices, loving people, living for God.

One of them says, “Our default assumption is that people who choose their words carefully are quite smart.”

It needs no explanation, and lines up with a proverb.

“Better to be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.”

Also self-explanatory.

When you’re in a creating position, think carefully about what you say and make. It pays off in the long run.

How to Be a Better Storyteller

A bad storyteller could tell a crowd the most exciting news piece of the year (the breaking of a 108 ‘curse,’ for instance), and put his audience to sleep. A good storyteller could talk about a trip to buy a package of napkins, and hold his audience’s rapt attention.

It isn’t the story that makes the story good, worth reading, interesting; it’s the storyteller. When he starts to tell a story, he resumes the responsibility to guide, to entertain, to make the audience feel like they didn’t waste their time.

In light of that responsibility, how do you become a better storyteller?

#) Practice. It’s the number one advice for getting better at everything. You don’t get better unless you try. Trying takes time. Practice telling your story—develop your craft. Try different words different places, use bold expressions, make dramatic story-telling moves that you’re scared of. Tell your story in the mirror. Tell it to your mom (and then someone who loves you a little less, for more critical feedback), tell it in the dark, tell it to the flock of birds at the pond. The more you do it, the better you’ll be.

#) Watch/read/listen to other people. It’s hard to develop a craft well in complete solitude. The lucky thing about developing your art is that sharing is allowed. If someone else does something that you admire, that’s completely brilliant, try it. Tweak it, change it, make it yours, but don’t be afraid to grow by imitation. Other people come up with amazing strategies. Using them isn’t wrong—it’s like adding a tool to your tool-chest.

#) Say what matters. In this busy, flustered, over-worked and under-rested society, people only want to listen to things that matter to them. If they don’t see any reason to listen to what you’re saying, they won’t listen. Think about what people want to hear, think about what matters to them. They want to hear virtue, kindness, human triumph through herculean struggle. They want to hear stories that make them cry, or roar with laughter, stories that end with a warm feeling all over, or the bright resolve to be a change in the world, to make a difference.

#) Pay attention to your audience. If they’re not paying attention, or you’re not getting any feedback, if 7 of the 12 people are sleeping, maybe it’s time to reconsider how you’re telling your story, and change things up.

Being a storyteller is a privilege; being a good storyteller is a gift. Appreciate the privilege and the gift, and do your best to be better. The world could use more of those people (us).