Friday, December 20, 2013

Making Time for The Voices in My Head

My head is a crowded place these days, even more so than usual. I'm one of those weirdos who walk around talking to imaginary people. Most of the time the conversations take place in my brain, although sometimes the words slip out into real life. (Putting your hand to your ear is a great remedy when this happens - people just assume that you're talking on a headset...)

I love the voices in my head. Some would tell you that I'm nuts, which isn't far from the truth, but talking to imaginary folks is one way I work through story lines, "hear" dialogue, and learn about my characters. We find creative ways to kill other imaginary people and then to catch the murderers. Or not. It's the part of the writing process that I enjoy most. So having noise and distraction whirling around my brain are the norm for me.

But lately, it's gotten worse.

I can only blame it on the time of year and how busy we are. My husband is a musician and December is his busiest rehearsing and gigging month by far. Add holiday parties (and several birthday parties) to the mix, family gatherings, and gift shopping and wrapping, and time seems to whip by at supersonic speeds! It's wonderful and I wouldn't trade the time or experiences for anything, but I'll bet you know exactly the kind of joyful exhaustion it brings.

All this activity has invaded my already crowded head with its lists, its preparations, its late nights. And it's intruding on my "alone time" with my characters.

You know what? I've found that I miss it, that I actually need that time with my imaginary friends to maintain my sanity. Strange, eh? There's something about talking with fictional people that's soothing. For some reason, they're a balance to the season's joyful exhaustion. I feel more rested if I take time to listen to them, and I'm probably a nicer person overall if I've had a chance to chat with my imaginary friends.

This year's holiday season will soon draw to a close and I'm looking forward to getting back into my less crowded head and letting my characters have more space. And next year, I'll do a better job of making time for me and my imaginary friends. So, how do you cope with the season's busy-ness?

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Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Power of Storytelling

Words hold such power. Think about it. A single word, a phrase. They have the ability to evoke or change emotion, to transport us, to entirely alter our perceptions. But there's something special about the spoken word that leverages the power of story. A good story when told by a talented speaker captivates. It can move us as almost nothing else can.

My brothers and I were lucky to have parents who read to us and quite happily, to others. I still remember my mom reading Where the Red Fern Grows to her elementary school classes. Do you know the book? It's about a country boy named Billy and his coonhounds, Ann and Old Dan. Reading this story was a ritual for my mother as the school year drew to a close, and one she and her students loved equally. She was a music teacher and has a beautiful alto voice. 

The kids would sit and listen for part of each music class, perfectly still as the story progressed day after day, until my mom would break down in tears and be unable to finish. (If you've read Where the Red Fern Grows, you'll know exactly the point in the book I'm talking about.) The kids would be in tears, too, but there was always one student who would pick up that book and bravely carry on, letting my mother weep with the rest of the students.

I'd forgotten these memories and how powerful verbal storytelling is until I spoke to several classes of junior high kids a few weeks ago. The librarian invited me to talk about the writing process, from idea generation all the way through to book production and marketing. Some students were really interested and asked thoughtful and sometimes clever questions. Others goofed off. Some slept. Most were enthusiastic when talking about their favorite book or movie.

They were typical teenagers in full hormonal bloom, and fifty minutes was far too long a time to expect them to sit still. So when the first class erupted into outright fidget mode, I asked if they'd like to hear me read from my books. They provided a loudly unanimous, "Yes, Mrs. Woods!".

Cool. Very cool (even if Mrs. Woods is my mother). But then terror struck and I wondered whether this was such a smart thing: is there any tougher audience than a group of restless and bored 12 and 13 year olds?

You know the amazing thing? All fidgeting ceased as soon as I started to read. The kids leaned forward and paid attention. Those who were asleep even woke up. I'd like to think it was the quality of my story or the entrancing lilt of my voice that captivated them, but I think the reason is far more basic.

There's something primal in story time. Something that connects all of us to each other and to a wider experience. Hearing a story takes us back to the days of triumphant hunting scenes painted on cave walls, or to the Middle Ages when troubadours traveled from village to village singing the news and telling stories of heroism and romance through song. Why are stories so powerful?

Storytelling engages both sides of the brain, the intensely logical left side for dealing with language and comprehension, and the creative right side for processing metaphor and 'seeing' the story. But they also affect the chemistry of the brain. Paul Zak, director of the Center for Neuroeconomic Studies, has researched the way that people respond to stories, trying to understand the power of their impact. He found that even the simplest story can trigger the release of cortisol - a hormone that causes the 'fight or flight' response - or the release of the love hormone, oxycotin.

The meaning of all this? There's powerful, heady stuff in storytelling.

While these effects occur for stories in both written and verbal form, there's something unique about a story shared through the voice. I've toyed with the idea of recording my books, and have dipped in and out of Stephen Woodfin's blog series on Venture Galleries regarding how to create audiobooks. But after my experience with the junior high kids and being reminded of the power of the spoken story, I'll be going back to re-read his advice, taking it a little more seriously this time.

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