Meet Matt Geiger. I met Matt by responding to an ad in the local Buyers Guide. I was new to Mount Horeb and searching for connection and opportunities to meet my neighbors. So, instead of throwing out the Guide, I took a look. (It was a lonely night and one never knows where inspiration and connection can be found.) I didn't find anything until up in the right-hand corner on the last page was a small ad for a reporter. I applied and Matt (the Managing editor) asked me to send my resume and a writing example. I sent him a recent All Write Wednesday blog. I figured he wouldn't be interested. I figured wrong. I have been writing articles on the Town of Blue Mounds board meeting for 5 months now. When I shared my new writing job with a friend she gave me Matt's first book, “Raised by Wolves & Other Stories.” He has since visited my writing circles where he has astonished and inspired us all. Matt Geiger’s debut book, “Raised by Wolves & Other Stories” won First Prize in the Midwest Book Awards and was named as a Finalist in the Next Generation Indie Book Awards and the American Book Fest. His new book, “Astonishing Tales!” was named by Cyrus Webb as one of the best non-fiction books of 2018. He currently lives in Wisconsin with his wife and their four-year-old daughter.
Playing With Words by Matt Geiger
We are a narrative species.
Each animal has its own special adaptations that allow it to survive, and sometimes even thrive, in a hostile world. Giraffes have their long necks. Cheetahs have their speed. Birds of paradise have their resplendent plumage. Turtles have their shells. Wolverines have mandibles shellacked in bone marrow.
And we have our stories.
When other species are young, they play with their gifts, honing their adaptations to a razor’s edge. The baby pronghorn jumps and runs, practicing maneuvers that will one day keep its haunches just out of a pursuing wolf’s snapping jaws. The baby tiger stalks a leaf.
We play, too. We play with words. And once we are good enough, we play with stories. Because stories are how we survive. They are how we elude the devils that pursue us, and they are how we give meaning to magnificent little lives that, when you think about the scale of the cosmos, and billions of years that our earth has been here, and the 200,000 years that our species has been walking and wondering, are so very small.
One of the most important things stories do is to help us really see the world around us.
There is a bumper sticker, popular in the part of the country where I live, that proclaims: “If you aren’t outraged, you aren’t paying attention!” I think the opposite is true. Outrage is easy. Outrage will come to you. You don’t even have to try. Your phone will deliver outrage directly to your eyes, which will instantly transfer it to your amygdala, where it will fester and eventually cause you to lash out at your fellow human beings, before it eventually gives you a heart attack or a stroke.
You don’t have to pay attention to be outraged. Outrage is for the lazy. What you really need to pay attention in order to see, is all the beauty, and all the humor, that paint the spaces between the anger in our vast world. Those are real, and they are here with us, but it is they that require effort on our part. It is they that require vision. If you don’t see them, you aren’t paying attention.
And that is where stories come in. You have to be observant, and you have to assume your readers are not. Yet.
Stories help us see the world around us. They disrupt our habitual perception of the world, shaking us out of the autopilot we use to get through our days. They make us really see. And once we start really seeing the world, what we find is not horrible, cruel, evil, ugly things - which we knew were there all along - but rather beautiful, funny, wonderful things.
Beauty and humor mean nothing if you do not see them. You, as a writer, show them to people, really put them in front of people, and say, “look!”
The first step is simply to stop and see the things right in front of you, which is what most novels and short stories do. There is even a word for it (in Russian): “Ostrananie.” It means “to make strange” or to “defamiliarize.” When writers employ ostranenie, they use semantic or linguistic shifts to slightly change the reader’s perspective, and they give the gift of sight. They make the reader really see the things in the story, by showing them in the illumination of strangeness, and the result is a gift.
And with that strangeness comes intimacy, and the opportunity to share.
I’ve written before that there are really only two times in life when we really, really see things. The first time, and the last. What you try to do when you write, is to let people back into the world, so that they can see it as if for the first time, but before it’s the last.
Out minds already know this. Each night while we slumber in darkness, our brains go to work, flooding themselves with ideas and images from our ordinary lives, but made strange. And in your dreams, when your mother rides in on a Huguenot, or your boss morphs into a homunculus in a jar of spirits on the desk in front of you, your mind sees the problems that lay before you in the real world, and works to solve the puzzles of everyday life.
If you write humor, you want your readers to laugh more; not just when you tell a joke in your book, but out there, in the big, messy world. You want your stories to make them see more humor in the real world.
If you write horror, you don’t just want your readers to jump on page 130, when a monster jumps out of the shadows; you want their skin to crawl a month later, when they have to go into the basement to change a lightbulb.
If you write romance, you don’t just want them to fall in love with your characters; you want them to be more able to give and receive love in the real world.
Words are merely symbols. “Love,” “hate,” “beauty,” “death” - they are not the things they represent. But they can make you see the things they represent.
Anton Chekhov, one of the greatest writers of humor and tragedy, knew that a comprehensive view of the world is impossible, but he also showed us, through his stories, that little bursts of insight, meaning, and humor are possible. That’s why we have our stories, our species’ adaptation, which help us to see the world, and to share it with those around us.
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