WRIT LARGE: Ch 17, Part 2
We don’t go in for the whole introductory session where we each tell the group a few fun facts about ourselves; from experience that has the opposite effect to what we’re trying to achieve.
“Oh, the whole team-bonding, tell us three things and we’ll guess which one is a lie,” says Sandra. “I attended a conference once, where a woman said she’d slept with Johnny Depp, Bill Clinton, and Snoop Dogg.”
“Which one was the lie?” Olivia asks.
“They all were.” Sandra sips her beer. “That was her point. We could make up any crazy story and who was going to prove us wrong? If you want people to be real, put them in a situation where they have no choice.”
“Like Survivor,” says Jeff. “Any reality show where people are taken out of their comfort zone. Get them over the first few days when they’re generally showing off and finding their niche, and then off comes the veneer and you get to see what’s underneath.”
I tell them that our retreat is usually in the Kimberley region of Australia. Glamping on a whole new scale where the writers get to connect with nature, with the ocean, the wildlife, the incredible scenery, and simply spend some time learning to be themselves again. Because until then, no one quite understands how much of ourselves we gloss over to present the version we think is expected of us.
“Do you have set activities that you use to trigger bursts of writing?” Kim asks.
I ask people to bring one personal object with them, I say, that they could use to tell a story. I add that they would be surprised to hear some of the stories that rise to the surface. One woman I’d been acquainted with for many years, brought with her a tiny bronze mouse. It was special to her, a gift from her grandmother, and it was the only thing she managed to salvage when she escaped an abusive relationship. She told us things that were so horrific that we were moved to tears, including the fact that she considered murdering her ex-husband and the only reason she didn’t go through with it was because she didn’t believe she could stand up in court and lie that his death was accidental.
Olivia clamps a hand over her mouth and watches me wide-eyed. “Oh my God, that’s horrible. Did she include that in her memoir?”
She didn’t, I say, because although the telling gave her some release, she realised that it wasn’t the story she needed to tell the world. The real story was about the angels in unexpected guises who helped her to survive.
“Wow,” says Parvati. “You never know do you? What someone is going through, I mean.”
“Almost sounds like you regret being so ruthless,” says Rob.
“Oh, I wouldn’t go that far.” Parvati winks at Jeff. “Ruthless sells, right?”
“Well, to a point,” says Jeff.
I continue telling them how I sometimes ask the writers to dress in something completely out of character, while they write a short sample of their memoir. Imagine Tony, I say, in a pair of white stilettos, or Parvati in Tony’s police uniform. I gesture to Tony and ask how he thinks he might have felt cooking the mackerel with pinched toes and blisters on his heels, wearing the shoes to please someone else.
He swallows a mouthful of beer and picks some mackerel from his plate with his fingers. “I get what you mean,” he says. “And I probably wouldn’t be eating the meal right now.”
I nod. The point of asking the writers to walk in someone else’s shoes is to get them to think about how they feel while they’re writing, I say. A pair of stilettos would produce an entirely different piece to say, tennis shoes, or worn combat boots.
“So,” says Jeff, cross-legged on a cushion, “the story you told us must be an extreme example. How do you coax the right story out of someone? How do you see past the horror to find the angels?”
I explain that the writing process takes the person on a journey of transformation. We’re not defined by one story. We’re a myriad of stories and when we start digging deep, we find the ones that bring us joy and positivity, as in the example of the woman with the bronze mouse who rediscovered her saviours.
“You got a story to tell, Jeff?” asks Nathalie.
“Oh, I have hundreds of stories to tell, but I don’t much fancy getting sued over them.” He laughs and raises his bottle to the fire.
“How do you choose the authors you take to your retreat?” Sandra asks. “Or is it an open invitation, first come, first served?”
I tell her that it is an open invitation, but that there is a selection process once applications are received.
“So, you read a sample of their work and choose the ones you think will bounce off each other?” asks Olivia.
“That would never work,” says Todd. “You get the authors to send in a video of themselves in their natural habitat. Like a library or sitting behind a laptop in Starbucks.”
“Is that what you guys had to do?” asks Olivia. “Did you glam up and do something wacky in front of the camera just to get noticed? Surely, that’s not what the producers are looking for, is it, Jeff? Someone who can act quirky for three minutes?”
Jeff laughs. “Not everyone play-acts in front of the camera. We realise that telling people to show us their personality in three minutes means that some will interpret that as be loud, be extravagant, be edgy. But you’re right. We try to see beyond the clothes, and the fake laughter, and the spiel about cycling across America on a unicycle. The best video applications are the simple ones. For example, someone got through to the next stage because we liked his choice of background music. We barely listened to what he was saying.”
I suggest that even so, the process is still subjective. Many fantastic authors never get published because agents and publishers looking out for the next bestseller are always being subjective, in the same way that many great players will never make it onto Survivor if they don’t connect with the production team.
“Do you get a say in it, Jeff?” Olivia asks.
Jeff dips sushi into wasabi and chews his food, thoughtful. “Personally, no,” he says, “although I do get to meet potential cast members during the process. It’s a collective decision, and we have to consider the group in its entirety. Someone may stand out way above everyone else and not make it onto the show because they don’t fit that particular tribe that season.” He shrugs. “I can’t sit here and say, do this and you’re guaranteed a place, because what works one season, won’t work the next.”
“Were you guys nervous about meeting Jeff in your interviews?” asks Olivia. “I can’t imagine telling my mum that I’ve been invited to an interview with Jeff Probst.” She glances across the fire at him now. “Actually, I can’t imagine telling her that I’m camping on an island with him right now.”
Jeff raises his palms skyward. “You can tell her I’m just a regular guy.”
“Trust me, there is nothing regular about this experience.” Olivia is grinning, the flames from the campfire making her cheeks glow.
“So, how do you choose which writers will join you at the retreat?” Jeff asks.
I answer that I generally choose the ones who I believe will gain the most from the experience.
“Maybe that’s where you need to shake things up a bit,” he says. “Sometimes the ones who won’t gain quite as much, are the ones who bring out the best in others. We all bring something to the table. How long have you and Olivia known each other?”
I explain to the other tribe members that Olivia and I have been thrown together quite by serendipity, and yet we have already shared some experiences that I will never forget.
“You’re welcome.” Olivia grins at me.
“And has Olivia made you see things or people in a different light?” Jeff asks. “I guess what I’m trying to say is, in your own words, has she made you walk in her shoes for a while?”
I laugh and tell them about the matching designer jackets that we wore for the Doubles-Poker game. I add that the attire did nothing for my poker face and that our championship title was solely down to Olivia’s skills and manipulation. I think about our first meeting with Cathie at Universal Studios, Singapore, and say that yes in fact, I did view someone through Olivia’s saturated heels for a while.
“There you go then,” says Jeff. “Had Olivia applied to attend your retreat, she probably would not have been accepted, am I right?”
Given that she has no writing experience, I say feeling quite sheepish, he is correct, and that I have always thought along the lines of writing abilities rather than personal experience and personality.
“I have no story to tell though,” says Olivia.
“I think you would find you have plenty,” says Jeff. “Think about it tomorrow night after you’ve spent a couple of days in the presence of these guys.”
I found the ideas of how to get to know someone better intriguing. I've often played two truths and I lie with my students, but I like the idea of someone bringing a special item instead. It's funny what some see as valuable. I can't wait to hear more of Olivia's story.
The plot thickens... As a 'method writer' (something I came to naturally rather than reading about), I thoroughly agree with the idea of wearing another's shoes - though I take it further. When writing my most recent book, a historical novel, I ate Victorian food having researched recipes my characters would have eaten (not exclusively but heavily), practiced Victorian crafts (eg, decoupage, wildflower pressing, egg decorating), read letters sent to my characters, books my characters actually read (it's based on real artists, with an additional fictional character), washed and used home made toiletries and remedies as they would have done (again, not exclusively) and generally immersed myself in Victorian books, newspaper articles, music, aromas, music and fashion (though I couldn't afford the original clothes, sadly, but I already know my way around a corset). I'd have loved to spend a night in the glorious house it's set in but had to make do with visiting it and enjoying the archives and beautiful garden - still largely as it was at the time my book is set.
Previously, I deliberately chose to start a nature blog as I'm inclined towards workaholism, wanted to include more nature in my life, and knew that harnessing my inclination towards immersion in my work would be beneficial to my life. It was and I now engage with nature every day without thinking about it - while also being mindful in nature on a regular basis - and it inspired another book. There have been other 'method written' books too.
Reality feeds and inspires imagination and imagination feeds and creates reality: it's a much more two-way process than I realised when I started my 'writing journey' and, looking back over work I did as a child, it's clear I've always used stories to shape my life and my life to shape my stories (as everyone does, I think). I think I'd better stay away from writing suspense/thrillers given my preferred approach ;-)
All of which is to say, great chapter - thanks for sharing. Look forward to finding out what happens next (idea of video applications is my idea of hell though - and not always the best way to find out what someone is like as it judges the external: important for TV, of course, but less so for discovering what someone is really like).