Write Awesomely

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

JSB, Grand Canyon

In last week’s post I mentioned I would be driving all day, and that was quite true. Mrs. B and I needed to get out, get away, do something different. Cindy suggested we motor to the Grand Canyon, just to spend a day looking at something big, majestic, unsullied and quiet.

Turns out my wife’s instinct was right on the money. Scientific research suggests that several benefits flow from the experience of awe—“from happiness and health to perhaps more unexpected benefits such as generosity, humility, and critical thinking.”

In The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative, Florence Williams emphasizes the need to get away from anthrophone. This refers to the soundscapes created by things like cities, cars, planes, machines, lawn mowers, sirens, neighbors with a teenager who is taking up the drums, and such like. The thing is, that noise goes into our brains and triggers our “fight or flight” receptors. Over time this can create chronic stress, a very real danger to our collective health and well-being.

On the other hand, natural sounds like a gentle breeze, flowing water, and singing birds are interpreted by our brains as relaxing and rejuvenating. In this state we are more creative and less hostile toward other human beings (hmmm…maybe people should only be allowed to tweet when in a forest).

Photo by JSB

The Grand Canyon is something to behold. If you’ve never been there, put it on your bucket list. Plan to spend at least four hours just looking at it. You can drive to various viewpoints, or take a shuttle bus tour, a helicopter flight, or even ride a mule for an overnight stay at the bottom. We opted for the viewpoints.

Grand Canyon = Awesome. Good for the soul.

Writing awesomely = Good for the reader.

What does it mean to write awesomely? At the very least, it means giving your readers more than a by-the-numbers story. Help them feel something beyond numbers. Tap into the inspirational. After all, that’s what the great myths were for. A hero overcomes tremendous odds so that we, the audience, might exhibit the same courage on our own journey through life.

Heracles kills the Hydra. He does so with a mixture of courage, strength and thought. Since cutting off one of the Hydra’s heads means two more heads replace it, Heracles has his nephew, Iolas, put a torch to each cut to cauterize it. And thus he dispatches the monster. Hey, maybe you can do the same when it seems your bills are like Hydra’s heads.

Or maybe you face a seemingly insoluble problem. If you approach it wisely, like Theseus in the Labyrinth, you can kill your personal Minotaur and find a way back to the world.

In our modern storytelling, we have mythic heroes of various stripes teaching us valuable lessons. Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis) in Now, Voyager, shows us that inner strength and beauty can be developed even under the worst of circumstances. Atticus Finch teaches us that sometimes a losing battle is morally imperative. Heck, even Dirty Harry Callahan shows us that sometimes you have to do whatever it takes to save the innocent—especially a busload of children in the grip of a mad killer. Do you believe that? “Well do ya, punk?”

Driving home with Elixir in the trunk.

So one of the ways to be awesome is to be intentional about the meaning of your story. In my book, The Last Fifty Pages, I talk about the idea of a “life lesson learned.” My friend Chris Vogler, in The Writer’s Journey, calls this the “Return With the Elixir.” It’s what takes a story from tale to myth, from entertainment to exaltation. Why not go for it, every time out?

To prepare, take a little time each day to get away from the anthrophone. There are abundant apps and sites with nature sights and sounds. A fifteen-minute break every now and then seems almost a health mandate these days. So get quiet, forget about Twitter, and maybe the boys in the basement will mix you some elixir.

What is awesome to you? What natural sites have lifted your soul? 

What works of fiction have elevated you, given you a takeaway that is more than entertainment?

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47 thoughts on “Write Awesomely

  1. Works of fiction bigger than entertainment?
    IRELAND – By Frank Delaney
    and
    THORN BIRDS – By Colleen McCullough

    What is awesome to me?
    Well… I live in Alaska… where do I start?
    Perhaps this bit of prose I wrote as I returned from visiting the house I spent the latter half of my childhood and youth in will give an idea.

    Coming Home
    I hadn’t been ‘home’ in nearly twenty years. But then, what is home? The place you were born? Where your family is? The place your heart is?
    Is it my parent’s house in the state where they’ve lived these more than forty years. Among the fields and low rolling hills of Ohio. Listening to the crickets and cicadas. Where the wooperwill leads the songbirds at night. That is certainly their home. That is the place I went to school, where all of my childhood friends were. It is where I learned to read and write and ride a bike. It is where I learned to play in the woods and drive a car. It’s where I went on my first dates, although they never came to anything. It was where I met God, which came to be everything.
    But I was born in a different place. In a land of ice and snow. Mountains and tundra and forests. Bear and moose and caribou. Eagle and ptarmigan. Salmon, orca, beluga whale. That is where my blood first flowed and where the cleanest air on earth first entered my lungs like a spirit mother. Whenever I leave the Greatland where my flesh was made, I hear her calling me to come home soon. She always holds a place for me. My bones ache to return and sit at the feet of her stony fortresses, among trees that stand vigil at the edge of the earth. To the blessed land of pure water. Where the sea and the soil give of themselves and the ground yields its treasure to my wife’s loving hand as she harvests the wild bounty of the forest. Where my children’s blood pulses with the same spark of life with which I began this journey.
    The place of my childhood is a fond memory. The family I have there among the rolling green and humid hills, parents, sister, brother I dearly love. But I know where my home is. Where my wife’s smiling face beckons and my sons grew strong.
    Where the spirit of Alaska whispers on the cool glacier breeze, “Come home son, come to your home.”

  2. I remember going to the Grand Canyon and wondering where the heck it was. Then we approached the rim and looked down. Wow!
    When we visited the Natural Bridge, you had to hike in a ways, and the Hubster kept looking down, but you had to look up.
    It’s important, I think, to broaden your focus.
    Which I have to do in this WIP. There are no serious stakes for my protagonist. In real life, the little problems can overwhelm, but I’m not sure my readers will accept that.

    • I had exactly the same reaction the first time I saw the Grand Canyon as a kid, on a road trip with the fam. Took my breath away. The other time that happened was when I was 13 and went snorkeling in Hawaii. I put my masked face in the water and saw I was surrounded by incredible colors and beauty. I went WOW through my snorkel!

    • “Make It Matter” is good mantra to use for every scene, every emotional arc, and the whole plot of the novel. If it doesn’t matter to the viewpoint character, it won’t matter to the reader.

      Series books, particularly mysteries, have a massive problem with making it matter. If it’s just another murder to be solved and there’s no emotional involvement, then the book is read or tossed away, and promptly forgotten. If you give the main character a strong emotional stake in the outcome, the reader will stay.

      If the writer can’t make each mystery matter, they tend to use emotional subplots involving the crime solvers or the viewpoint character’s family or hometown. In the best case scenerio, the subplot reflects back on the murder thematically. For example, the hero must face the death of his father and their issues of abuse at the same time as he is chasing a serial killer who targets elderly men which may indicate he was abused by an older man when he was little.

      I’m always available for anyone here who needs some advice or someone to talk out a novel problem. I may be retired from teaching writing and book doctor advice, but I like to keep my hand in.

  3. Ah, the Grand Canyon. One of the natural wonders of the world in my home state that people from Las Vegas think is in theirs.

    You write of the quiet, the majestic, the wondrous that percolates from nature, into one’s soul. It is there. And it is wondrous. Maybe

    Were the Grand Canyon a symphony, a bombastic tympani roll and the triple-tongued notes of a trumpet trio would start the morning.

    Or, or so we could surmise from the words of Henriette Mertz in her book, Gods from the Far East: How The Chinese Discovered America. She believes that that a number of Chinese Wonder Stories took place outside of the Middle Kingdom, that the number of lis (a li is a Chinese mile) from one place to another would place the adventures in or across the ocean. Or, near other continents. She believes, based on descriptions in the Wonder Stories, that Chinese entrepreneurs essentially set up a tourist service, where a wealthy Chinese nobles and similarly wealthy citizens could sail from the eastern shores, across the ocean we now call the Pacific, to a spot somewhere down around San Diego.

    The nobles would offload and begin their trek inland. Mertz sites findings in recent times of caves where Chinese footwear has been found–who knows if it’s true or not; we’re talking WONDER Stories–in caves as far inland as around Kansas. The footwear, she surmises, were so that wealthy Chinese people could change their shoes. She further believes that the expeditions eventually wandered around to the Grand Canyon, a place, she says, that the Chinese stories described the place as where the Sun came from.

    If that isn’t busy enough for you, then how about the beliefs foisted by History Channel’s Scott Wolter in his periodically-renewed program, America Unearthed, in which he presents his idea that the Knights Templar, or perhaps Jews from Jerusalem, brought the Ark of the Covenant to America, carried it across the continent, and hid it somewhere in caves below the rim of the Grand Canyon.

    Or how about those who claim that there hidden cities underneath the rim of the Canyon, and to prove this, they cite supposed U.S. National Park Service regulations that forbid flying below the rim. The now-defunct Phoenix Gazette newspaper believed this as far back as April 5, 1909. Well, supposing the writer DID miss his April 1st deadline and an editor thought, oh, what the heck . . .

    And then, various tribes believe their ancestors came FROM the Canyon, and they hold the Canyon sacred, occasionally holding ceremonials in various places. The Havasupais have their community at the bottom of the Canyon. Supai Falls are themselves breath-taking and lovely.

    So, we much as I wish–and I do so wish–that the Grand Canyon were a QUIET and majestic place, I guess I have to settle for the fact that there are and have been in fact a lot of people traipsing through, down, around, and up, the Canyon.

    I wish I could hire Daffy Duck (or was it Bugs? Or was it Elmer Fudd?) to blow his whistle and yell “QUIET!” and everything and every creature would hush.

    Perhaps, then, we could enjoy the Canyon as indeed a quiet and majestic place.

    • Wow, Jim, thanks for all that. Talk about fodder for a novel or two.

      And yes, what would true quiet be like at the Canyon? We found spots that were mostly quiet, though not far enough away from the picture takers and even one phone talker!

      • Try the Grand Canyon’s North Rim at Tuweep. It’s an arduous journey (unless they’ve paved it since we were there), 68 miles of 4-wheeling, through holes that could have swallowed our Jeep, and over stones that almost tipped us several times. An abandoned NPS Ranger Station at the end, and . . . nothing else. The wind. The river far, far below, after we got the courage to stand that close to the edge. Eagles looking like tiny dots against the vastness of the place that can’t have changed much in a thousand years. I put it in a book situated in and around Pipe Springs National Monument.

  4. The Grand Canyon looks amazing. It’s on the must-see list.

    Like Basil, I’m surrounded by nature, wildlife, and beauty (NH is on a much smaller scale than Alaska). I begin each day by watching the sunrise and feeding all the wildlife in my yard. Whenever I feel overwhelmed, I step outside to mingle with my furry & feathered buddies, and my stress melts away. Or I go for a walk in the woods. No better therapy, IMO.

    The Last Fifty Pages is one my favorite craft books. Thank you, Jim!

    • I envy you, Sue. Instant awe any time you need it! Being a city boy all my life, I wonder how I’d do in that condition…anyway, thanks for the kind words about my book. Carpe Typem!

  5. The Bright Angel Trail fills me with awe. A few steps down. Halfway down. All the way down. It’s the photo on my Facebook Page.

    Once my writing group rented a cabin a Mt. Baker. The plan: write, look out the window, get inspired, write, view the mountains, write, breathe. When we arrived, all the windows were all covered—the place was being painted on Monday. The owner was like, “Oh, really, you wanted to look out the windows? Sorry.” The negotiated discount didn’t inspire me much.

    I second THE LAST FIFTY PAGES. Why not go for it!

  6. Glad you got to visit the Grand Canyon. Arizona is awesome, but then I’m very biased. From the time I was a little kid growing up in the very flat state of Maryland, I knew I would head west. I had to be around the mountains. At the time, I didn’t know AZ was my destination–I would’ve been happy in MT, NV, AZ etc. But it’s been almost 24 years now & AZ is home (to me & about 6 billion other people 8-). Everywhere I look, there are mountains. They are my grounding wire to the natural world.

    RE: Montana: if you haven’t been to Glacier National Park, you need to go. It was on my bucket list since childhood & the dream came true in 2018. Can’t wait to re-visit someday.

  7. For six years we lived in Prescott AZ, about a two hour drive from the Canyon. Whenever out-of-state visitors came, taking that drive was a must. One time, while we stood at the rim, and while everyone else was struck by the natural wonder of the Canyon, some ignoramus (not from my group) said, ‘What’s the big deal? It’s just a hole.” I wanted to pitch him over the rail and let him personally see how big a deal (and how deep) the Canyon actually is.

    Nature should never be taken for granted, no matter how big or how small. And neither should its power to heal the mind and soul.

    • We did stop in Prescott to visit friends. Loved the town, though it’s growing fast with a lot of California refugees (ack!). We stayed in a quaint “motor hotel” that’s been around since the 30s, right near Courthouse Square.

      • We were fortunate to live there in the 70s. From friends who are still there, we got out at the right time. Hard to believe we left 40 years ago. Lots of good memories. Re your “motor hotel”, I’m assuming you’re referring to the Hassayampa Inn. Always loved its name.

  8. In my neck of the woods the Columbia Gorge is there to fill me with awe, not far away, as is our spectacular Oregon coast. But there’s awe right outside my door, the night sky, which I reconnected with when Comet NEOWISE shone in the evening sky in late July.

    Since, then, when the sky is clear, I’ve gone out with telescope or binoculars to view the sights. Before dawn, it’s especially quiet, even in the suburbs. Just this morning I viewed the Orion Nebula and the Pleiades, giving me a nice dose of awe to start my day.

    As for fiction, the closest I’ve come to awe recently was reading Kate Atkinson’s “Case Histories,” the first of her Jackson Brodie mysteries. Her P.I. hero must unravel multiple cases at the same time, and the way the past brings several disparate cases together in the present did fill me with awe and wonder at the end.

    Thanks for another great post!

    • Dale, you reminded me of the one time I saw the Milky Way, out in the desert at night. Amazing. And there was true quiet, too. Would that I could go there once a week.

  9. One of my fave books of all time is The Hiding Place…words can’t express my emotions every time I re-read it.

    I live within sight of Mt. Adams and Mt. Rainier. I’ve never seen the Grand Canyon (want to, maybe someday). The view of these two mountains never fails to reduce me to smallness…and they’re pretty average as mountains go.

    I’ve been to Texas, Georgia, Minnesota, lived in LA for a time, Mexico, and traveled to Vietnam once. I haven’t been anywhere that rivals my little corner of the world in Yakima, WA. I go outside with our German Shepherd and do a walk-about on our five acres-about twelve miles away from town on a hill-for a breather.

    And, this summer, I bonded with the four praying mantis living in my outdoor plants. Fascinating bugs…just watching them sit still and wait for lunch to come along is inspiring! 🙂

    • I’ve waited for lunch like that, at Tommy’s Burgers in L.A.

      And I agree with the majesty of the Northwest. I worked one summer in Neah Bay, on the Makah Reservation. Amazing.

      • 🙂 Tommy’s…

        Major’s here in Yakima…best burgers in town…except for Miner’s (No connection…) Miner’s was the ’60s hangout for everyone from teens to 60 something bikers, and still is.

  10. Deb, we Pacific Northwesterners are blessed with awe-inspiring landscapes all around us. I went to Iceland in August 2019, and that was spectacular, but so are the Cascades 🙂

  11. Thanks so much for sharing your travel experience from last week, Jim, as well as your wisdom on a weekly basis.

    I have two awe-inspiring places which I suppose are on either end of the life spectrum. One is Muir Woods north of San Francisco. It almost feels like a sacrilege to speak while one is walking among the redwoods. The other is St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 in New Orleans just outside of the French Quarter. It is closed except for tours, so it is difficult though not impossible (…) to visit it. Needs must.

    Literature. This one is a deeply personal choice: Misery by Stephen King. I read it at least once a year as a reminder of the exhilarance of escape and as a cautionary tale about bad choices.

    Enjoy your next trip, Jim. I hope it happens soon!

    • There’s something about cemeteries in New Orleans, right? I’ve never been to one, but spooky tales about them are abundant.

      Misery! I need to read it again…but that movie…oh, the movie! AHHHH!!

  12. I agree the American west is awesome! We’ve had the good fortune to have visited some of the spectacular sites including the Grand Canyon, Arches National Park in Utah, Yellowstone, the Badlands. We even made it to Basil’s Alaska and were stunned by the raw beauty there.

    However, for pure amazement, I think of the famous picture taken by the Cassini spacecraft as it passed by Saturn on its way out of our solar system. The camera turned back and took a picture of a tiny blue dot approximately a billion miles away. The Earth. I don’t even need to look at the picture anymore. It’s etched into my brain alongside the words “Awesome” and “Gratitude.” (If you’ve never seen the picture, just google “Cassini spacecraft picture of earth from saturn.”

    The literary work I think of as awesome isn’t really fiction. It’s “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl.

    One tiny point of detail, Jim. Let’s not forget that Theseus was able to find his way back out of the labyrinth because of his resourceful (and awesome) girlfriend, Ariadne. Remember the clue of Ariadne.

  13. “Be awesome to each other.” Bill & Ted. “Let nature be awesome to you.” JSB.

    In ancient times when I was taking sociology in college, I read a study about mice and over-population. Too many mice in an area caused violence, anger, and stupid and suicidal behavior. Take a bunch of the mice away, and they chilled out. I see this so much in humans and their behavior. So, yeah. Finding some nature away from other humans is a very good thing. And cut off your dang phone and music while you are at it. Silence and lack of contact won’t make you crazy unless you already are.

    Popular genre’s core is both moral and mythic/archetypal. The closer we come to this as writers without being obvious, the more we connect with our readers’ mind and heart. Readers of popular fiction in most cases expect that good will triumph over evil, and love of some sort will conquer all. Maybe that’s the comforting bed time story even adults need, but it is what it is.

    • In Bill and Ted terms, the Grand Canyon was “non-non-non-non-heinous!”

      Myths (and thrillers) are a means of “fear management” in the community, which is essential to its health and continuing existence. Connect that way, and you’re in a classic stream of literature.

  14. Oddly enough, CBS Sunday Morning did a piece today on the importance of nature in stress relief. JSB, they must have been following your script.

    My parents took me to visit the Petrified Forest and Painted Desert, followed by the Grand Canyon back in the early 70’s. I was way too young to appreciate the beauty. On the same trip I experienced a sandstorm in Phoenix. I was not too young to be terrified of that bad boy. I hope to return someday.

    I spent many years in western and central New York. The Genesee River gorge, encased in Letchworth State Park (built as a CCC project back in the depression), is called the Grand Canyon of the east. The three water falls are truly spectacular. Every visit (and I’ve been several times) I see something different. Last time I stood not fifty feet from a massive golden eagle perched in a tree overlooking the river several hundred feet below.

    A hair farther south is Watkins Glen, of racing fame. That gorge is much narrower, but equally breathe taking.

    Some of my best writing has been done in the tranquility of nature. Back in the summer of 2015 my wife had a short-term work assignment near Philadelphia. We lived in out fifth-wheel at a campground an hour north not far from Quakertown. Since the library wasn’t convenient, I often dragged my chair down to the pond to commune with the bullfrogs and dragonflies while writing longhand. I sometimes go to the parks here near St Louis, but city parks are not the same—too many people. I often wish I could go back to my pond.

  15. This is a true story, I swear.

    Many years ago, going through a rough patch, I was offered the chance to spend a week alone at a friend’s cabin on a tiny island in the Bahamas. No phone, just a ham radio. I had one book with me, James Clavell’s “Shogan.” I got lost in that book, with its images of medieval Japan and especially the hills sitting in the sea like green turtles.

    One morning, I took my book out to the deck, which overlooked a wide bay and the jade-colored hills of a neighboring island. A small yellow bird flew down next to me. I held out a finger and it hopped on. We sat and looked at each other for a long time, then it flew off.

    I’ve always tried to pair book and travel destination after that. But nothing has ever come close.

  16. The Grand Canyon is on my bucket list. I live in Mississippi, in the high country as people from the Delta call it. No mountains…but each morning I get up before dawn and pick up the newspaper for my older neighbors and the night sky is there in all of its radiant beauty. A black background (and I can understand why the night sky is described as velvet), sometimes with the moon visible but often only I only see the brilliant stars. It is a magical time of day and reminds me of God’s awesome power.

  17. Anthrophone.

    Never heard that word before! But now I know what drove me to tell my husband one night that if he didn’t get me out of Fort Lauderdale, I was going to jump off our condo balcony. We moved four months later. I don’t remember what a police siren sounds like anymore. 🙂

  18. So glad you and Cindy got out for a bit, Jim. If Wyoming is on your bucket list–for instance, Yellowstone–I would suggest you do it in late spring before school is out or after school begins in September. But check on the weather first. Yellowstone is amazing, but horribly packed with far too many people during summer, and today, here in south-central WY, our temp never got above 7 degrees, and there were 60 mph wind gusts. Our first snow was Labor Day. Still, having lunch while bison circle the car, or watching the black bears eat, or spying a black wolf on the mountainside, are experiences to remember from Yellowstone.

  19. I’m with you, Jim. The Grand Canyon is one of the most Awe-inspiring natural sights on the planet. I’ve been fortunate to see it from both ground and air – one perfectly clear day on a flight from Vancouver to Phoenix we sailed over the center at 35K feet and… the colors… absolutely impossible to put into words. I’m not even gonna bother tryin’. Thanks for this!

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