depression, Personal growth, writing

It all comes down to how you look at things

So, I lost my court battle to move back to the USA.

It’s taken me some time to process this, and I still have anger regarding it; as I said in a previous post, it has felt like the death of a loved one. The future that I’d built up in my mind no longer exists, and I’ve been coming to terms with that. Now, I’m faced with more of the same, which isn’t actually a bad thing — my life revolves around my children, taking them to and from school, feeding them, teaching them, playing with them. That would have translated over into my new life, so I haven’t lost everything thank God. It’s the loneliness, the quietness that I wanted to leave. I have no one here. The British have a phrase for it — “Benny no mates.” It’s something I first learned when watching a Peter Kay stand-up routine years ago, and incorporated it into my identity immediately. Even writing this, I’m ashamed at the level of self-pity that I’m wallowing in. That’s another bad habit I need to fix.

“They” always say, “When God closes a door, somewhere He opens a window.” I think that’s the kind of thing one has to tell oneself when shit doesn’t go the way one planned. But, if there was any window cracking open in this slammed-door-in-my-face scenario, it’s that I’ve got the chance now to focus on the one thing that truly is part of my identity — writing. Somewhere between 2015, when I applied the first time to go home, and this year, I’d developed the idea that when my kids were both at school full-time, I’d just stay home and write. Who has the chance to do that??? That’s an amazing opportunity. Maybe, just maybe even more amazing than the one I’ve given up (teaching writing at university in my home town, near my family). Yup, I’d get by for as long as possible on child tax credits and the like, and just force myself to stay at home and focus on creating.

Throughout my life, I’ve never really known where I’m supposed to fit in or what I’m supposed to be doing. I’ve gone through more phases than the moon cycles throughout the year; I’ve kissed the Torah as it made its way past in a Jewish synagogue; I’ve lived on a marijuana farm in Tennessee; I’ve learned African djembe rhythms from the greatest Guinean teachers; I’ve driven a taxi in downtown Detroit; I’ve driven across four States to see the greatest living poet of our time, nearly killing myself in the process; I’ve sold everything, from doors to shoes; I’ve edited speeches for a women’s revolutionary group in Afghanistan; I’ve lived in England. Those are not even half of the adventures I’ve had. Throughout all of it, I’ve discovered things about myself — that I’m not Jewish, gay, Hindu or any of the other religions out there, for one thing. I’ve also learned about those cultures and identities, and in the process, was able to appreciate them more. But one thing I’ve always known is that I’m a writer.

If I wasn’t, then I’m sure that after all of the above, I’d just be plain insane. Maybe it’s similar to the idea of an actor getting into character — I knew if I was going to write about people, I’d have to know the many different people that are out there. It’s led me to appreciate people more, and I can understand more than ever that when someone speaks, it’s from their own unique cultural worldview, and when they speak, what comes out of their mouth reflects their perspective that’s been built over the course of their lifetime and their experiences. That’s why I can understand why someone in the South identifies with the Union flag; it’s not at all about racism for them, it’s about where they grew up, probably the songs their mother sang to them as a child, it’s about a unique musical heritage, a reverence for God and the beauty of their natural surroundings — and most of all, about being proud to belong to something that stands for all of that. I can also understand why someone else would think that the union flag is offensive; it stands for all the negative things that the USA is trying to move on from; its very existence is an affront, representing a long line of dead black bodies that shows every sign of continuing into the future. To be “proud” of something that represents the total destruction of another’s freedoms is a sickening mindset that they could never be able to understand. In their minds, it’s impossible to reconcile a cultural heritage that was built on denying someone every right, from being able to own property, receiving an education, to being able to protect their children from sexual or physical abuse.

It’s a symbol, for both, and that’s the most astounding thing for me: it’s a flag, a piece of cloth — but it can mean two totally different things to people. Neither, in my opinion is wrong. How can anyone assume to dismiss someone’s entire cultural identity, for everything they ever knew and experienced and continue to believe in? And equally, how can anyone say that cultural identity is more important than the abuses inflicted on a large percentage of the population? Being a writer means I know both views are important. I think the inherent difficulty is the matter of personal belief — whether the person who identifies with that union flag also believes in the inferiority of black people. I believe many people assume this belief, with no proof whatsoever that the person in question holds these opinions. Of course there will be some who embrace both: some people will identify culturally with the union flag, and also believe in the inferiority of the black person. However, beliefs on racial superiorities and inferiorities are not confined to people in the southern half of the United States. Racism can be found in all areas, in all countries. It’s a belief system, nothing more. It is important to confront these beliefs, but no one can ultimately expect to govern the realm of the mind. What one can do is to ensure that the laws provide an inescapable, unbreakable foundation for preventing such evil to dominate again, no matter anyone’s personal beliefs.

So this is just one example; there are hundreds of symbols out there that stand for one thing in the eyes of one person, and mean something completely different to someone else. As a writer, I’m interested in each person’s story, for all stories are valuable to me. I am the teller of the tale, not the judge of the worthiness of the characters about whom the tale is told.

And so, as my own tale remains unchanged, for now at least — I will work on the one thing that I know, the part of me that supersedes all phases and stages of who I’ve realized I’m not. I’m a writer, I know that much, and even though I’ve received a crushing blow, at least I can still go on doing what I know how to do, even if I continue to be a Benny-no-mates. From what felt like a position of powerlessness, I can try to find my way to an acceptance, and appreciation, for what truly could be viewed as a position of freedom.

It all comes down to how you look at things.

Drawing, Journaling, mindset, self care, writing

Looking Again and Seeing What’s Really There

drawingToday is Sunday and I just woke up around 11AM and wandered downstairs. I had been writing in my journal (I’ve been writing in it a lot lately), in general feeling sad because of the court situation next week. Since I had just woken up, I didn’t have my glasses on yet. I was trying to just capture impressions of the room; I wrote about the sounds of the birds and the clock ticking. Then I looked over to my right and I saw this small ceramic vase of flowers on my table. They were white carnations with a few red dotted here and there. I was struck for a moment at how pretty they seemed in the light that was streaming down from the large window in my living room. I didn’t have much else to do so I decided to draw it in my journal. I haven’t done any drawing since high school, and the more I drew the more fun I had with it. I have a cousin who, when I was feeling down and depressed, said “make something.” That always stuck with me, and I remembered her words as I went along; I was drawing in a black ballpoint pen, and then I started to color in the carnations with my children’s colored pencils. They have about a million colored pencils that we keep in a huge biscuit tin, which happened to be on the table next to me. As I kept going, I realized that some of the pencils needed sharpening, so I hurried upstairs to get my eyeliner sharpener from the bathroom. As an afterthought, I grabbed my glasses too.

When I returned to my seat on the couch, I sharpened the pencil and continued coloring in. Then I looked back up at the vase of carnations. At this point I had my glasses on, and I felt jolted, like a bolt of lightening struck me. Without my glasses, everything had seemed completely different; now that I could see clearly, I was able to tell, for the first time, that the flowers weren’t even carnations. Actually, the red ones were carnations, but the white ones appeared to be a type of mum. I looked around at everything else I’d drawn, which by then had included the whole scene before me — the dining room chair, the table that the vase sat on, the window and the other houses in the distance. Now that I could see clearly, it gave me a whole new perspective. Things seemed so striking, due to the light falling and highlighting certain details, like the tufts of upholstery that had come apart on the dining chairs. I hadn’t really noticed them before. In the distance, I could see the roofs of the houses, which were not straight lines as I’d drawn initially, but curved upwards in a dainty finish. The trees were all different shades of green, and I went through every green pencil in my children’s collection, testing out each one. One tree had brown trees, with a tinge of purple. The more details I drew, the more exhilarated I felt. It reminded me of the line in Genesis, when God created the world, he “knew it was good”. That’s how it feels for me when I’m writing, and it’s amazing when you create something that wasn’t there before, and you are amazed at how good it is. I don’t mean to say that I’m good for creating it, but that, without any other necessary speculation or confirmation, you know inside that it’s good. Just like I knew that this scene before me, which were just average items — a pen, a vase, a chair — when I looked at them, and saw them as the light shined down, it was as if I saw these things for the first time.

What was exciting was that it reminded me of how a child sees the world. I wrote yesterday that I’ve been operating on autopilot for a long time. What is the antithesis of autopilot? It must be something like today; an awakening. Seeing things again. Putting your glasses on and looking at everything again. It made me feel remarkably better, and I mentally thanked the good advice of that cousin, with her two-word pearl of wisdom: “make something.” I think I stopped seeing things for a long time, because I wanted them to be a different way. But when I truly looked, and saw things as they were, I saw how beautiful they were, flaws and all.

I’m not an artist, and I know it. I don’t have to be, I just have to try to capture what I see, just like in writing. We have to capture those finer details — the lacy ruffle of the carnation petal; the tufts of tattered old upholstery on those hand-me-down chairs; the orange roof patch, obviously new, set off against the field of black tiles surrounding it. We have to show what we see, including those flaws, and we have to remember that no matter what, when we step back, it’s good. That’s not down to interpretation, either — if you’ve put your heart into something you made, even if, like me, you didn’t have the right shade of brown and your tree ends up looking a little bit purple, just go with it. Who knows, it might be kind of like what God went through when he came up with the platypus.

When was the last time you drew a picture? I recommend it; writers have to use different techniques to keep their minds focused. If you see something that strikes you as beautiful, or interesting, try to draw a picture of it. It’s amazing what the mind goes through as it tries to peer closer and closer at what’s truly there — think of it as a detail-seeking expedition. Feel free to share your drawings here in the comments!

Keep writing!

depression, mindset, Personal growth, self care

Autopilot and the Wish List

I’ve been reflecting a lot lately on the concept of character. Not just as a writer, as someone creating a character; because even to be in the position of creating something like that, that person has to go through a questioning process to understand themselves and the world and their place in it. I’ve been going through a major change lately, I’d say over the last two years. I’ve been aware that I’ll be turning forty in 2017 probably five years in advance, and the closer it gets to my birthday this year, the more inward I’ve been feeling. I don’t feel apprehensive about the age part of it, but that in getting to this age, it proves beyond a doubt that time does not stop; that this is not some reality television show in which I am the main character. Around about the time I turned 25 or so, I started to truly become aware of the subject of dying. It scared the shit out of me for some time, and I can remember walking around knowing that everyone I laid eyes on — young, old, rich, poor, man, woman — they would all die some day. And they knew it, too, or at least knew enough to try to avoid risks of bringing it on too soon. Dying always happened to other people; it was just one of those things, at least that’s what I’d always thought about it and what I assumed other people thought about it. If that wasn’t true, I doubt people would place emphasis on half of the crap that they do, like Daylight Savings Time, Black Friday or social customs like shaking someone’s hand. In the French language, there is a formal “you” and an informal “you” and if you use the wrong one, it can be awkward. That’s the kind of thing I shake my head at — we’re all going to die one day, so what does it matter if you use tous or vous?

These are the kinds of things I would think about as I got older. Then something happened that I never expected to happen, which was that I had children. I always wanted to have children, but I never thought that I’d be lucky enough to experience it. In a way, I always viewed parenthood as the most selfish and irresponsible act one human could commit: who the hell are we to call forth life, to put another person into this chaotic state, of having to learn signs and signals and understand the meaning of them all, with the pretty much universally accepted guarantee that you’d die before them, hence never truly ensuring that they got through this “business” safe and happy? Why? Because we want to love something and take care of it (what, like a pet?), or because we are so jaded in our own experience that we long to taste the novelty of childhood again? It’s truly the most selfish act anyone can ever commit, and yet people do it all the time and sometimes completely recklessly so. I don’t know why I wanted children, but I did (it’s wired into our historical psyche, to be sure) and even now, when I see my kids, I get a sense of happiness that I can’t explain. I always say to them, “I’m so lucky to be your mom.” Because to me, I’m the lucky one, despite the fact that, technically they’re the ones who owe me their lives, etc. It’s really me who is fortunate they came into my life, they’re not fortunate that I put them here (they never asked to be here, after all). Sometimes I am too impatient with them; sometimes I should take more time with them, spend a bit more time in that small world where everything is a wonder. And I’m sure that there are a thousand other ways that I fail them on a regular basis. But, so far there is no limit to the sacrifice I would make for them; this has been proven to me in large and small examples. For instance, despite being extremely tired, I continue to get up, and feed them in the morning. Not just sometimes but every single day. It’s a small thing but it’s also a big thing, because if you don’t feed your kids, well, you’d be a pretty terrible parent. Meeting their physical needs is the bottom line really. But then again I’ve sacrificed in other ways, in situations that I never realized I’d have to choose against my own wishes so that they would be happy. People tell you that’s what it’s really all about, and it should be. It is the only way that we, as the parents, can reconcile the ridiculously risky move of making other human beings.

And this is one of the things I’ve been thinking about as I turn forty. My daughter, who’s six, says to me now that she wants to grow up and be a mommy. It reinforces that sense of urgency that I took for granted at the time I gave birth, which is really becoming apparent to me only nowadays. As I approach forty, it waits for me like an entity of its own; it knows I’m approaching, and it waits, patiently, as I stumble toward it. I feel like I’m going to an important meeting, only I don’t know who it is I’m meeting.

And then recently I realized what the hell is going on in my mind. The person I’m meeting with is supposed to be me — only not the me who screws up and makes mistakes all the time, but the me who I want to be. And I’ve been trying to change into that person, while also fighting this other part of me who won’t give up the ghost. And that part of me is the one I should really considering; not the idealized version of myself but the one that I think needs to change so much. I had this really great opportunity to teach writing at a university in Michigan, and I’ve been rushing towards that goal as if it seemed part of the whole “turning forty” plan to get my shit together. It felt like fate, the way it happened. I’ve always wanted to teach and for me to get the chance to teach writing is something akin to the way I felt when I had my children. I never thought such a good opportunity could happen to me. And it’s sad really that I think that way, that good things don’t naturally happen to me, but it’s as if, when they do, I’m surprised beyond belief, like I don’t deserve it. Because that’s how I have always operated. Well, it turns out, at the moment I’m writing this, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to take that job or not; I won’t now until next week. But the irony is, if I don’t end up taking the job (my dream job) then it will basically be because of my children, because the courts deemed it against their best interests to be so far from their father in England. So, this is the example I was referring to above — it just may be that I will have to sacrifice this opportunity, this dream that I had, because of my children. And if that’s the case, I’m just going to have to accept it. Because that’s what being a parent is about. Yes, it’s about getting up and feeding your children every day, even when you want to sleep. But it’s about the big things too. It’s about the decisions you have to make when the choices come down to being either your kids, or something else, and you’ll always choose your kids. You’ll always choose that feeling of happiness you feel just watching their little bodies running and jumping around. Because they give something without even knowing it; and it’s not something you can buy in a store or see advertised on television. It’s just them. Just them being themselves; asking endless questions that you get annoyed answering; it’s you explaining how this ridiculous world works, long after you’d forgotten you’d learned all its rules and were simply operating on auto.

So I’ve been hit fairly hard with the idea that I am potentially/in all liklihood going to lose this job. It’s left me in a pretty bad state lately. I’ve been preparing for this job, creating lessons and making course syllabus and things like that. I’ve been constructing lessons based on a lot of ancient material on rhetoric, and that’s been interesting. Rhetoric, this dirty yet important concept in the history of mankind: is it a tool to manipulate the masses? Or is it a way to express those key concepts that everyone feels and most people learned to accept or ignore long ago? This has led me to study the ancient orators who had a lot of things to say (yuk yuk) on rhetoric, so consequently I’ve been studying a good deal of Aristotle, Cicero and Quintilian. It’s fascinating to me because when I read these old masters, I get to verify a nagging question I’ve been wondering for awhile, which is basically that everyone on earth, from time immortal, experiences the same feelings of fear about the unknown; people from the past have always fought wars with each other; there were always Hitlers, there were always the Ghengis Khans of every generation, and then there have always been people like me: people of little consequence who just kind of go through it, without knowing what the hell any of it means; they try to be happy when they can, through the shared meaninglessness of the latest music, technology, books, etc. And then they die. This has been happening for centuries. And the thing is, when you read people like Aristotle, and even Plato before him, even THOSE guys were sitting around at the time, wondering how to make meaning out of any of it. It made me laugh when I read that Plato believed that the plays that were being staged at the time should be censored, so that young people would not be influenced to the murderous or other bad behavior they would see on the stage. Isn’t that exactly the same thing people still say (only in modern days, about television programs or video games)?

I’m very fond of Cicero. I’ve only barely begun to read the astounding amount of things he wrote; he was prolific and I may never have the time to finish reading his work. But he talked about the importance of gardening. In fact, the Greeks did too; I believe Aristotle even created a school of philosophy that took place in his garden. So the idea of gardening has been on my mind. Today is Saturday, the day that my kids go to their father’s house overnight. Saturday just kind of happened to me this week; I’ve been in a daze since Tuesday when I found out that I’d not gained the support of CAFCASS in my request to move to Michigan with my children. What a hell of a week this has been. Tuesday, I was suicidal. And I’m not saying that to be dramatic; I’ve suffered from depression all of my life and never felt as close as I did on Tuesday to actually going through with it. That feels shitty to say, but it’s true. And what’s scary to me about that is not even that I had the feeling of wanting to die, but that for the first time, the idea of my children did not act as a barrier to following through on it. I always thought I could handle those thoughts, because in the end I believed I loved my children too much to abandon them on purpose. But something just broke inside my mind on Tuesday; it was this whole thing about forty. It was the ripping away of this vision I had of myself and what I wanted to accomplish in my life — FOR my children. It was like a candle that someone just came along and blew out; CAFCASS didn’t just blow out the flame of my dreams of moving, but they blew out my ability to see anything. I was in the dark. It’s like if Plato had let all of the people come out of the cave in his famous allegory, only to march them back down into the darkness again. They’d seen what was out there, the beauty that was possible, but they couldn’t have it. They couldn’t look at it or be a part of it. I remember saying to my mother, I think it was Wednesday at this point, but I said “I feel like someone died, or as if I had a breakup.” It felt like a forced parting, the idea that I would not, after all this time and all my daydreams and all my planning — be able to move back home, to take up a job that would be the first in my life that had anything to do with the one thing that interested me. It was a forced parting, or a death of someone — it was the death of me or the vision of me that I was working so hard towards and was just within my reach. It would have paid more money than any job I ever had, and the best part was that I would have had a lot of time for the kids, because I only had to work nine hours teaching in the week to make enough money to live off of. It felt like God was putting all of these stones in front of me as I walked. I didn’t know that a path was there but as I took every step, a path appeared. I felt like I was heading towards the vision of myself that I always wanted to be, and the vision of myself that I wanted my children to see of me. And that was gone, in an instant; snuffed like a candle flame, leaving me with nothing.

And man did I struggle with that for a few days. It was probably the hardest few days of my life. It’s right up there with the week my stepfather died. I spent the first day just shaking my head, inwardly shocked at how stupid I’d been. I had been so caught up in this idea that God was placing the path down for me with each step, that I’d not given any thought to the idea of failing. I was 100% certain that the CAFCASS report would come back in my favor, which is the odd thing really because the guy from CAFCASS who wrote the report did state that my reasons for wanting to go were perfectly valid and that my plans were very well thought out. So why turn me down? I’m not sure exactly. But one thing I noticed was he made this very dismissive comment about how I could just “get over it” (the job) and made a reference to my previous attempt to move back to the USA in 2015: “She did it once, she can do it again.” It felt like a suckerpunch. I realized (not for the first time, since as they said, I tried in 2015 to move back home but was denied then too) I DO NOT HAVE POWER OVER MY LIFE. And no matter how hard I work, how great plans I put in place, I still have no power or authority to rule my own life. This guy, who never met me aside from one brief conversation, got to rule over my life and say where I could live, where my children could live, and basically what job prospects I could pursue or whether I would continue to stay in Britain, living off of government handouts. Interesting, isn’t it? This is the hand that feeds me, the hand that rocks my cradle; I wanted to climb out of my cradle, and feed myself, but I’m not allowed to go. They don’t think I can look after my children the way I say I will, apparently. They think what’s in the best interest of my children is to stay here in England, where they’ve always lived; seeing their Dad, who they’ve always seen part-time. They don’t care what opportunities they’re taking away from me, because I can just get over it. I did it once, I can do it again.

And so I’m angry, a bit. But the anger is tempered by the fact that I can’t do a damn thing about it. I can’t just go without my kids. I’ve thought about it, but how could I leave them behind? Living out the dream of who I want to be, without them around to see it, is meaningless. Besides, they were part of the dream: everything I wanted to do, I wanted to do FOR them. BECAUSE of them. So to go without them would be pointless, because I can’t really be happy if I don’t have those two around, because they are the only things that really give me happiness. True happiness, not the kind that you get from checking a goal off your bucket list. They ARE the bucket list. On the other hand, I can’t just snatch them away either. Not only because it’s highly illegal (the US and the UK are dual signatories to The Hague convention on international child abductions; it’s a felony) but also because in doing that, I’d basically have to cut off their relationship with their Dad. Who, despite never being able to work things out with me, is a good father to them. I’m not going to deny it. So running off and making a felon of myself and cutting their Dad out of their lives, who poses a positive relationship for them, would be hurting them and me. Again, pointless.

So, here I am. It’s Saturday. I’ve been kinda farting around all morning, watching YouTube videos. Then, I decided what the hell, I might as well go outside. Which is odd for me, because much like a vampire, I do not tend to spend time outdoors. But it was a beautiful day today (a rarity in England) so I decided to do some yard work. Hell, I guess I must have been truly inspired by Plato and Cicero. I felt the need to tend to my garden. Which truly has been a source of neglect lately; the grass was overgrown and there were weeds growing everywhere. I was particularly struggling with this weird type of vine that grows on top of other plants and bushes. It’s like a type of vegetal velcro; it’s sticky when you touch it, and after you’ve handled it, you find yourself covered in its tiny little hairy seeds that attach itself to everything.

And as I’m cutting this vegetal velcro (since I don’t know what else it’s called) I’m thinking about why the Greeks and Romans thought it was so important to garden. It’s a bit like making the bed, in my mind. You make it, but then you sleep in it again, so you have to make it again… and so on. I cut the grass, and the grass grows back, and then I cut the grass. And as I’m considering this, I’m starting to notice another feeling, which is a deep sense of RELIEF when I start to see how good the front yard is looking. Why???? I don’t know, but I just know that every time I walked over all those weeds that were growing in between my cement porch slabs, it annoyed me. But I dismissed that feeling, telling myself there was no point doing anything about it — because I was going to be gone soon. I was so sure I’d be moving to Michigan that I didn’t feel obliged to take care of simple jobs like yard work. And as I’m pulling away all of these weeds and picking off these little seed balls from my clothing, I’m thinking about this and how I’ve been neglecting not only the yard work but other things too. I’ve not been doing the house work much (and I’ve never been a domestic goddess in the first place, so when I say I was neglecting it, that means things were going downhill enough for even ME to notice). I’ve also been neglecting myself lately, and this has been a conscious thing. I used to be utterly fastidious in my hygiene habits, showering every day without fail. But lately, I’ve not been bothering. And I’ve even acknowledged that I’ve not been bothering. I can literally SMELL myself, and it annoys me, but much like the yard work I just ignored it. Why???

And this is the thing I am confronted with, as I’m pulling the weeds in my front yard: at what point did I accept that I do not need to put any effort into anything, and what is the reason why? I’ve been alone here, in this tiny terraced house, which is so small and awkward that I have to drag my lawnmower through the back door to the front door because I have no access to the back of the property. I’ve been confused, for a long, long time. Maybe I stopped putting the effort into making myself presentable(if not look good, then at least nasally acceptable) because I’ve been living a kind of fantasy world. I’ve been living too much in the future — the “me” that I might magically awake as on my fortieth birthday, while the real-time me is falling apart, much like my garden. In all of my attempts to get to this idealized place of where I thought I should be, I was ignoring the only one who could get me there: me.

This is why it is so difficult, now that this flame has been blown out, taking with it my ability to see anything. Everything was dark because without this fantasy to push me forward, I wouldn’t be alive at all. My life had become a metaphorical Amazon wish list: “Some day, I’ll have this situation, and this situation, and this situation…” It was all lined up on a piece of paper in my mind.

And where do I go from here? The one thing that made me feel like I wasn’t going to fail at being forty was the idea that I could be living my life, taking care of my kids, providing for them doing what I love to do. Writing is my life, and the fact that someone was willing to pay me to teach other people how to do it is crazy to me! It confirmed to me that I was actually good at something, and that I could make a living from it. Regardless of whether I had financial success as a writer wouldn’t matter, if I could still make money teaching people how to write. I could be wrong, but I just feel like that opportunity isn’t going to happen again.

It might still happen. I could be writing all of this down for nothing, because I ended up hiring a lawyer because some time between Tuesday and Friday, I realized I didn’t want to give up. I have been waiting ten years for this and I’m not going to just give up without a fight. I realized that I don’t think that I should have to choose between my children and a job that makes me feel worthwhile and happy. This situation sucks; I’m pissed that I’m being placed in this position, but I want to prevent it from happening again. Because essentially, I’ve given up my freedom. I’ve given up my control; nobody is forcing anything on me that I didn’t submit to in the first place. So I need to learn from that. I am responsible for tending to my garden. And I spent a lot of time out in my yard today, trying to decide whether the bushes and plants were a better analogy for human beings in general (a parasitic weed will grow all over you if given the chance; left to its own devices, it will flourish because the sun shines and the rain falls on all life, the weeds and the flowers both) or whether it was a better analogy for the internal mindset. It can be both really, but I like the idea of using it as an analogy for an internal mindset, because if I just ignore myself, if I ignore the exasperation I feel when faced with my own neglect, then that shows an internal decay. I am suffering inside. And outside, everything will be strewn with weeds, dumping their seeds anywhere they can latch on, hence perpetuating a cycle of chaos and neglect.

I’ve shared before on this blog about the importance of self-care. It was a glaringly obvious lesson for me today: we are responsible for our self care! We must not ignore the jobs required in keeping the internal mindset healthy. We cut the grass not because the grass will stop growing once its cut, but because it does NOT stop growing. Keeping it trim only makes life easier: we know where we’re walking; we can see clearly; hence keeping it trim prevents an injury. It’s less dangerous when the grass is trim. But, as I witnessed in my pure sense of relief at seeing my garden free of weeds, taking care of yourself feels good. Why? Because, it’s the difference between being someone’s child and having a child. A child needs to be told to do something before they do it; they need an explanation or an understanding of why it’s needed. That’s their job; they have to make sense of the world around them. When you’re not a child anymore, you’ve learned how this life works, and you know when you just gotta get on with things. Somewhere in between making sense of the world, and finding that nothing really makes sense so you start operating on autopilot — there’s a place where you know that autopilot isn’t really ideal, because things get chaotic. That’s the place that I’m hoping I’m approaching as I get to forty.

Personal growth

Proudly Look Stupid

Let’s get one thing straight: when Jefferson Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” comes on the radio, I will be turning the volume up. I will start singing along, at the top of my lungs, and I don’t care who sees me. Sure, it’s the epitome of 80’s cheesiness. And yes, I always think of Andrew McCarthy as I’m singing. It’s a pretty ridiculous song, and any music snob would likely snort their macchiato through their nose if it came on and I refused to change the station. Why is it that I insist on letting this song run the course of its entire 4 minutes and 26 seconds, singing along until the last chorus fades? Why do I get annoyed if a radio announcer starts talking before I’ve had a chance to shout out, “Hey baby!” as the song ends? I’ll tell you why. Because as I’ve grown older, I’ve discovered a very important ability in life: learning how to proudly look stupid.

I actually Googled the phrase “proudly look stupid” and got a whole slew of images fit for purpose: George W. Bush with dreadlocks; Vladimir Putin with a man bun; a mug shot of the Queen; and a whole lot of images which caused me to honestly experience, for the first time, being “nonplussed.” Oh, and then there was this guy: Weird-crazy-funny-people-6

I don’t know about the rest of humanity, but when I was growing up, my thoughts focused very much on the concept of not looking stupid. Fitting in, as it’s known. This was so important to me that I actually remember sporting a six-inch-high 80’s bang that took a half can of hairspray to stay in place. Why??? (No, seriously, why — not why did I do it, but why did anybody do it — this was not a hairstyle that occurred naturally anywhere in nature nor did it have the finesse to necessarily be called “art”. It was just goofy.)

Sometimes, not wanting to look stupid actually leads you to look stupid, doesn’t it? It’s the reason my bedroom was decorated with photographs of members of New Kids on the Block. I know many people might say that about NKOTB – “it was the 80’s/90’s; everyone was doing it!” but this is exactly the point of my post. I’m more ashamed of having photos on the wall of a band I didn’t especially like, than the fact that I listened to their music. I remember feeling a little bit weird at the time, like being afraid to say anything about how the whole idea of New Kids might be a little… well, dumb. But no… my friends were into it, so I made myself learn their names and life stories, what brought them together as a band and what inspired their music. I spent a lot of time investigating this topic, and I didn’t even like them very much. In the end I probably managed to convince myself that I actually cared about them.

It’s a form of inauthenticity. I’d be more impressed if I met someone who said “you know what? Yes I listened to NKOTB back in the day, and I actually still put the album on sometimes, because I love it.” That’s how I feel about the Jefferson Starship song. I think for awhile, secretly in my head, when it came on the radio I’d be like, “YES!” while I tried to stop my head from moving along to the beat. Sometimes I would even change the radio station, telling myself this was poor excuse for music. Then I got a little older, and dared to allow myself to leave the station on. Add a few years to that, and I was sheepishly admitting to myself that I did indeed like this song, while somehow wondering if there was a support group for bad music lovers that I might need to start anonymously attending. Eventually I got to the point where I’m at now, which is “screw everything else; I’m turning this up and people can think what they like.”

Sorry, we just ran out of lovers. But, we still have each other.

No, it’s not the musical equivalent of King Lear, but you know what? I’m gonna sing my heart out to it, because if I ever did find that special person who filled those lonely crevices deep in my soul, (even if they did happen to be a mannequin) I imagine that I, too, would feel unstoppable. The fact that it was the theme song for “Mannequin” makes it even more useful for my thesis, because here is a movie all about a man looking like an idiot and learning not to care. I remember a point in the movie when Andrew McCarthy’s character goes from being this lowly back-room guy sweeping the floors, to the guy who becomes responsible for the store’s most successful window displays. It’s a transformation, certainly — at the start of the movie he is failing at every area of his life; but then this crazy thing happens to him and he learns not to go against it but to move with it. He starts experiencing a sort of clarity in his life, even while knowing that everyone around him thinks he’s crazy. In the scene where he exits the bathroom holding the mannequin under his arm, passes the crowd of eavesdroppers with that knowing twinkle in his eye, I learned then a very powerful secret: we’re all a little bit crazy. Being crazy is being human. Those who learn to shrug off their so-called faults are the only ones being honest with themselves. And with honesty, comes freedom.

It reminded me of another movie, “Serendipity,” which is also set in Manhattan. There’s a scene where Jeremy Piven’s character, Dean, tells his friend Jonathan Trager (played by John Cusack) “You are a jackass. You’re like my oracle. You’re out there and you’re making it happen.” He’s referring to Jonathan’s frenzied pursuit of a girl he met years ago, whose full name he never knew and consequently had no information to find her. Yet, he kept looking, despite the fact that he had a perfectly good relationship with another woman, who he was supposed to marry the next day. Dean quotes the Greek philosopher Epictetus, who said “If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid.” Throughout the movie, Dean is constantly talking about the subject of living with passion, while Jonathan is actually practicing it. And both of them know that looking in every used copy of Love in the Time of Cholera in New York is crazy, but if they ever had any hope of finding Jonathan’s lost love, that’s what they had to do.

Dean insists that looking foolish is admirable, because Jonathan’s “out there,” as Dean says, “making it happen.” In this film, it’s Dean’s character that actually transitions, not Jonathan, even though he is the main protagonist. Being an obituary writer at the New York Times, Dean felt all of his passion leave him, until finally his marriage breaks down. Helping Jonathan find his true love, and not settle for a “good enough” life with an equally beautiful, caring woman who just happens to not be “The One,” is what inspires Dean to begin fighting for his own marriage again. At one point he ends up convincing Jonathan to keep going, despite Jonathan’s doubts that he is on the right path and should just give up. It’s Dean who pushes Jonathan to keep going, because he realizes that there’s something inspirational in his friend’s craziness, and that looking stupid was okay. He understands that risking everything, like Jonathan does, is worth it in the pursuit of authenticity.  “The Greeks didn’t write obituaries,” Dean says, as he buys some flowers from a vendor in the park. “They asked one question when a man died: did he have passion.” He looks up at Jonathan, holding the flowers. “How do I look?” he asks. After a moment, Jonathan smiles and says “like a jackass.”

I enjoy Dean’s references to the Greeks. In fact, aside from the absurdity of the plot (like any woman is really going to allow a gust of wind to prevent John Cusack from contacting her) there’s a lot of philosophy underpinning “Serendipity” which makes it perfect for reflecting on the nature of our existence. Is having faith stupid, or is it important? What if Jonathan never did find the love of his life; could he be okay with marrying Brigit Moynahan? At what point would he have walked out on the marriage, shrugging himself free of the cloak of fakeness? The idea of genuine vs. fake runs throughout the movie, and is visible especially in the scene where Molly Shannon finds a table of fake designer goods on the street. “OOoooh, Prada! I love Prada!” she beams; when her friend points out that it actually says “Prado,” indicating that it’s a fake, Molly Shannon’s character just waves her hand in the air, dismissing that fact. She doesn’t care if it’s fake; it’s the concept that she has something she thinks she likes. It might not be the real thing, but, as she explains, she can use a magic marker and turn the ‘o’ into an ‘a’ and no one would be any wiser (including, it seems, herself). Could the main characters do the same thing with their pending marriages?

A lot of us walk around in a cloud of inauthenticity. There’s a lot of stuff that pads out the lining of my ego… for instance, if I tell a joke and no one laughs, I actually point this out. I need that laughter like a dog salivates over a piece of bacon. A dog will do all kinds of stupid things for that piece of bacon, and I’m the same way. If after such a stupendous display of wit, the person to whom I’m speaking fails to reward me appropriately, I will re-tell the joke, despite the unfailing tendency of it becoming less and less funny the more explanation I give. Obviously, my need to impress overrides my need for enjoyment; if this weren’t true, I would just learn to wave it off. If I was authentic about it, I’d laugh it off in my head, and say to myself, “it’s okay. you are funny.” But I don’t; and there is a sense of desperation, as if the only way I can really tell if I’m funny is if someone else tells me so. Like the dog’s owner, throwing the poor thing the strip of bacon because they feel sorry for it, I often wonder how much people give me pity laughs. Can other people sense how desperate I am for their approval?

That desperation is a source of non-control. Because, like I said above, when you’re honest, then you set yourself free. I believe that, once a person accepts their shortcomings, throwing an uncaring shrug and their caution to the wind, that’s when they become truly powerful. Andrew McCarthy had the power to bring Kim Catrall 2,000 years into the future, and be the greatest window dresser in Manhattan. But actually he wasn’t — he just let everyone think it was him, because by then it didn’t matter to him what anybody thought.

I have a love affair with Taco Bell that defies the capacity of human understanding. A tub of pintos and cheese is, to me, what the madeleine was to Proust. But it took me quite some time to be able to admit that. Once I did, it felt great! I no longer had to be a closet Taco Bell junkie. Now I make jokes about it (and you’d better laugh at them) randomly declaring that I’d like to be buried next to a Taco Bell, or get married in one. I think for awhile I was ashamed of it, because for one thing, Taco Bell itself is not authentic. I guess real Mexicans barf just seeing their ads on TV.  I’m aware that this does nothing to promote the breakdown of American cultural stereotypes.

Furthermore, I grew up in a place called Redford, which was only separated from Detroit by the boundary line of Telegraph Road (so again, not authentic). Even though I grew up saying I was from Detroit (except to people who were actually from Detroit) I knew I wasn’t. I wanted to be. Being from Redford was like being Jan Brady — the younger, less attractive sister. Not quite rednecks, definitely sans culture of any sort, we Redfordians pined for the danger of the big city, while still being too chicken shit to cross Telegraph Road without locking our car doors. Detroit was the Marcia Brady to those of us from Redford. In Detroit was world-class art and architecture, fantastic food, and an actual gateway to another country — Canada! For us culture-less worms from the suburbs, it was exotic, dangerous and exciting.

But, try as I might, I’m not exotic, dangerous or exciting. I eventually made it out of the suburbs, travelling as far as London, where I found myself wandering through Borough Market with a person who clearly regarded himself as a foodie. He lifted a glass cloche from a small nest of wildly expensive black truffles, gesturing me forward with a smile. I was excited just to be within fifteen feet of such decadence; I’d seen the Barefoot Contessa practically peeing herself with joy over just a bottle of oil infused with them. But when I leaned in to sample the heady aroma, I could not help but grimace in disgust. I imagine this experience to be akin to when someone first tries an opiate. “Keep coming,” as they say in all those anonymous support groups. “It gets better.” I’ve tried caviar — or gritty, bumpy fish lumps, as I call them. I tried to swish mouthfuls of red wine around my “palate,” feeling ridiculous the whole time. (Did you know there are actual kits that you can buy to train your nose for drinking wine? You can buy a case filled with tiny glass vials; the vials contain only scents — tobacco; blackberry; old wood. They cost about $100.)

Much of settling happily into authenticity is a simple matter of separating truth from fiction.  And what’s true for me might be fiction for someone else. Philosophy has a lot to tell us on this subject. Kirkegaard suggests that “One must make an active choice to surrender to something that goes beyond comprehension.” Of course, he was talking about religion. But I imagine it applies to any situation where everyone else around you is extolling the virtues of something or other, which you just feel is damned ridiculous. Sorry, but I don’t want to feel tiny fish eggs popping against my “palate” because they taste horrible. I don’t want to pay an arm and leg just for a fungus that grows underground, that stinks worse than any other mushroom I’ve ever had. Where can I get a burrito (and not a real one)? The truth is, I may have traveled around a bit, but I’m still a girl from Redford; Jan Brady, self-realized.

So I’m going to keep proudly looking stupid, because what is the point of living under a veil of inauthenticity? We will be dead soon. I will die, you will die. The people sitting in their cars at the stoplight who can obviously see me rocking out with Jefferson Starship will also die one day. So what do I care if they witness it? Let them think I’m crazy.

Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure… than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.
-Theodore Roosevelt




The difference between 2D and 3D characters: OBJECTIVITY

This is a subject close to my heart, because this is how I feel not just about the writing process, but life in general. Sometimes, we as human beings get so tied up with our own “networks” of knowledge and personal beliefs, that we often filter out opposing viewpoints because we must only allow those opinions in that agree with our own. Not only is this harmful to us (because a lack of challenge prevents us from strengthening our own position; “being right” therefore becomes more about an ideological soapbox than about defending something we truthfully believe in) but it is harmful to our writing.

One thing that I try vehemently to overcome in my writing is the creation of the 2D character. 2D characters lack vitality; their appearance in your story leaves a reader’s attention waning. If you’re not vigilant about turning those 2D’s into 3D’s, then your book will end up being consigned to the neverending pile of unfinished, half-read books. Is that what you’ve been slaving away for, all these months/years? No; you want your story to be so addicting that your reader can’t put it down; you want to dazzle your reader with not just your ability to put a sentence together, but put one together in such a way that it makes them think again about everything they’ve ever believed. At least, that’s the kind of story that I long to create. I don’t put my heart and soul into building up a story, stealing precious moments moonlighting with my manuscript, just to have half of it read. Certainly, I’m aware that my ego, when it comes to writing, is fragile, and my expectations are high. But I don’t think it’s impossible to seek out great storytelling. If my readers are my customers, I want my customers to be completely satisfied. If I expect anyone to bother paying for something I created, then I would expect that they demand excellence, just like they would if they were dining at a fine restaurant.

Readers have the right to expect you to bring your a-game. And if you hope to have any chance of sticking out in their memory, when they sit and think back to all of the books they’ve ever read, then you’ve got to get your characters on the 3D. And how do you do that? Well, let’s look at what it means to be 2D. 2D characters are on daytime dramas; they’re beautiful; they always say the right thing. If they’re flawed, it’s in an adorable way. Not a realistic way. When they’re angry, it’s because they’ve got a right to be, and whenever they speak, it’s with conviction. They would never know what it’s like to try to give themselves a pep talk behind the locked door of a bathroom cubicle, trying to get up the gumption to tell someone they are angry. They would never know what it’s like to be put on the spot, demanded their opinion, to which they had no way of responding except by revealing their total ignorance of a subject. Do you see what I’m getting at? The 2D character has no flaws, or if they do, it doesn’t control them or consume them in any way. People might want to be the 2D character, because doesn’t everyone want to be beautiful and say the right thing all the time?

The 3D character, on the other hand, is one that your readers already know. They don’t just want to be the 3D character; they already are the 3D character. That’s why they keep reading, because they recognize something in that character, which is something that the 2D character always lacks: frailty. The one essential trait that every human being understands, and that we all try to hide. We don’t even realize that everyone else on the planet experiences it; we just walk around in our own frail universe, totally oblivious that anyone else is experiencing the same thing. If you, as a writer, can harness some of that frailty that you naturally already know just given your experience as a human being, then you will be able to tap into the source of the 3D character.

Let’s look at frailty. What does it mean? Frailty denotes a sense of breakableness; or maybe even something that has already broken before, and has been put back together again. Think of a porcelain teacup. If it drops, it’s going to break. If it’s been broken already, it can be mended, but it will never hold tea the same way again. Do you ever feel like that? Something might have happened to you somewhere along the path of your life, and it’s like you can’t put yourself back together again the same way. Just like a broken teacup, you might feel like your purpose might never be realized again, like the thing that you were put here to do has been damaged, because you’ve been damaged. You go on, your pieces glued back together, but you’re not the same. Now you’re afraid of being dropped again, of shattering again. You’re afraid to be picked up and held; you are afraid to be filled for fear of being unable to hold it in. Not only are you afraid of that, but you’re afraid of anyone knowing that you’re even afraid, because if they knew how afraid you were, they’d think you were silly (because you assume that you’re the only one who’s ever been dropped and broken.)

This is frailty. And when you write, you have to put yourself into that role. You’ve got to create your character inside and out; not only do you need to describe their physical features like their eye color or their gait, but you need to create their past. You’ve got to know the exact thing they’re trying to run away from, because your job is to help them to face it head on. This task becomes even more difficult, however, when we are faced with having to give a megaphone to those characters with whom we disagree. So this becomes a sort of spiritual challenge for the writer, because we have to be completely willing to put everything on the line: our beliefs, our comfort zones. We have to make ourselves get into that position that we always try to run away from in every other situation: we have to stop for awhile, and lend an ear to what we don’t always want to hear.

It’s too easy these days, because if we disagree with someone or something, we can just change the channel, or close the internet tab. We go and find something else, something we agree with. We’ve become completely determined to only see things “our” way, ignoring the fact that there are a few billion other people out there, and not all of them are going to agree with us. When you’re writing, you can’t be the one to change the channel; you’ve got to be the one to stop yourself as you notice your hackles going up, and you need to tell yourself to sit and listen. This is your research, not only into what someone else has to say, but into how you, as a human, might overcome this all-too-human defense mechanism of putting everyone and everything you don’t agree with into a “them” category which fits so nicely opposed to your “me” or “us” category. In reality, life isn’t like that. Don’t let yourself forget the fact that everyone is frail. If they’re flawed, it’s because they’re human. Being flawed, and learning to deal with those flaws, is the whole definition of the human condition, and that’s what you’re trying to understand as a writer.

I’m not perfect, by any means. But I realized not too long ago that I have surrounded myself in this ridiculous expectation of only seeking out the company of those who believe what I believe, or like what I like. How will that benefit me as an individual? The answer is, it doesn’t. Whether in writing or in life, we have to put ourselves out there; we have to be the one to jump onto the dance floor first, make a bit of a fool of ourselves, just to show others that it’s okay. There is no way in life to have the good without the bad; no character is 100% “evil,” because even the best-written bad-guys have something in their past that justified their crossover. So go ahead, write that horrible sadistic wife beating drunk, but remember that he can’t have just appeared one day like that. He’s had an entire life’s worth of experience that led him to this point, and you have to explain them. We don’t have to feel sorry for the guy, but we have to understand why he is the way he is. (Or she — maybe it’s a woman beating up a guy.) Go ahead and write that racist skinhead character, or the horrible sexually-abusive figure of authority. Yes, confront that shadowy figure that scares those of us in real life more than the idea of monsters or zombies. But show us why: show us the frailty. Show us that, given the same set of circumstances, we too might have gone down the same path.

And then, just as you’re developing that 3D character, along comes the opposition: equally as flawed, equally as vulnerable. But this is the protagonist: he (or she) also knows what it’s like to be frail, but their response to it is different. The protagonist juxtaposes the antagonist; they work against each other. When one goes up, the other goes down. As soon as one gets ahead, the other one grabs him by the shirt collars and brings him back down again. This is the eternal fight baby; it’s what it’s all about! God versus the Devil; good versus bad, whatever you want to call it. It’s the struggle and you have to show it as such. Show us every ounce of sweat and every spume of blood as it goes flying, because — if you’ve written both of your characters in true 3D fashion — we know them both. We understand why one of them throws a punch below the belt, and why the other one would never do that. We know who we want to win (always the good guy) but we enjoy watching the fight come to its inevitable conclusion.

So, to sum up: in writing and in life, dare to listen to all sides. I always think of the line from The Desiderata: “As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all people. Speak your truth quietly and clearly, and listen to others, even the dull and the ignorant, for they too, have their story.”

For they too have their story, a story which you are responsible for telling.


Getting to Know All About You: Characters and the Different Processes for Making them GREAT

Today’s topic was requested through one of my oldest pals, who happens to write characters as her job (cool sounding job!). I believe she writes technical copy for software programs, in an attempt to understand how and why customers might buy their products. She had some great questions for me, regarding what my process is for figuring out what my characters are like and/or whether I base them on real-life people. She also had some fantastic feedback about how reading this blog was like reading a character in my life story, which, let’s face it, is the most touching thing I’ve heard this millennium!

So after considering it a bit, I realized that I try to come up with the idea for the story first, and then I ask what kinds of characters are needed to make the story work. If the story is more plot-driven, I’m going to consider the strength of character to be paramount, because plot-driven stories can’t take off when you’ve got a weak character. However, if the plot is driven more by a message I’m trying to get across, then the characters might get away with being less than striking; the message takes time to build, like a chess game that you’re playing with the reader. You give them a pawn or two, building up momentum, while your bishop slides diagonally closer, eventually succumbing to their rook, but they hadn’t seen your knight as it suddenly appears, blocking their Queen. Everything they thought they’d known has just been turned on its head — suddenly they see their King has no way out. Bam! You deliver the message; checkmate. This kind of plot takes some easing into, and your characters are merely messengers, acting as necessary to get that message across.

And then you have plots that are character-driven, which is the other way around. I’m always drawn to the juxtaposition: think fiery young Mattie Ross, pitted against the bumbling, aging Rooster Cogburn in True Grit (1968) by Charles Portis; consider neat-freak Felix Unger, holed up in an apartment with the hygienically-negligent Oscar Madison in Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple (1965). This dynamic works because it allows the reader to learn about the characters just by having them react to each other. In these cases, it’s mostly all about showing, and not telling, and it can create opportunities for buzzing dialog while the plot just rolls on. It’s fun to write when you have a juxtaposition. So try it — put a conspiracy theorist with a lackadaisical hippy, or a brainiac scientist with a lofty poet. The plot in a character-driven story is not always the most important thing — exactly how the two opposites are thrown together is not nearly as important as what ensues once they are. And the best part about writing these characters is that everybody knows a Felix Unger, or maybe they’re the Oscar Madison of their social circle. We know what it’s like to be annoyed, or to be the annoying one, which is why it’s so easy to get emotionally invested in the juxtaposition. Polar opposites are memorable simply because they’re polar opposites (just think, would Lorelei Gilmore’s story be so endearing if she didn’t have to run away from the staunch and humorless Emily Gilmore when she was sixteen?).

Once you decide on your plot, then it’s time to hone in on those characters. So how do we create great characters? There are really so many ways to do this, that you’re never without options for tools to use. I really enjoy the character questionnaires in K.M. Weiland’s Outlining Your Novel Workbook: Step-by-Step Exercises for Planning Your Best Book (PenForASword Publishing, 2014).  Basically what Weiland does is asks you to get to know who you’re writing about, before you even attempt to write anything. This is a technique often used in creative writing workshops, as well; if you feel like you’re getting stuck writing a character, try writing a side piece from their perspective. Not as part of your story, but as a supplement to it, like a diary entry written by them, in first person. How would that character react to a good situation? What about a bad one? Give them a random event or two: they lose their job (how do they react?) then they go home and find their spouse in a tryst with the neighbor (then how do they react?). Once you complete this side exercise, try going back to your manuscript again and writing. Hopefully, you should be able to feel a bit more comfortable with how that character might behave, or what he or she would say.

Another thing that is important, for any writer, is giving their character detail. Details are like seasonings, in that they can take the flattest story out there and breathe life into it. You need to put a little bit everywhere, not a lot in one big spoonful. And there’s not much that is superfluous — if you think that what happened to your character that fateful summer spent at camp forty years ago still impacts their life today somehow, then write it. If you know that your character keeps a jar of lotion in the drawer of her nightstand, next to some photograph that she gazes upon every night, then write it. What are the character’s motivations? What were his/her parents like? Were they careless dictators, pushing them constantly toward achievement, only to make themselves look good? Or did they let the nanny raise them, barely involving themselves at all? Your character’s background is important, because it gives them a depth that’s necessary for a reader to believe them. The reader will likely not believe that a woman would kill her children, for instance — but give them the backdrop of a slave’s life in Civil War-era America, a la Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987), and it starts to make more sense.

This is the part about being a writer that’s not just challenging, but exciting. It’s like a little game that you’re playing with your reader, and it’s a game they want you to win. Your job is to entertain them, to tell them a story. Just how far will they let you take them? A good writer can get them to see the plausible, but a great writer can get them to believe the impossible.


There’s only one you – and only you have the voice to prove it

Today I’m going to discuss, as previously hinted, the topic of your writing voice. To me it’s one of the most important aspects of writing. Any type of writer, whether they’re a mystery, historical fiction, non-fiction, thriller, etc, they all have their own voice that’s unique. In my opinion, having a unique perspective means that you can go ahead and tell that story that might have been told since the beginning of human experience. Sure, you can take that story, whether it’s boy-meets-girl, coming of age, fable-with-a-twist or all of the above, and make it your own. This is good news for everyone, because as my grandmother used to say, “There ain’t nothing new under the sun.” No one is going to be able to write something that’s not been done before, and that’s ok. Readers don’t expect a brand-new plot; they’re used to the age-old formulas that work, and they work because readers are familiar with them. It took me ages to understand that. As a writer, I thought I was expected to produce something that was new and exciting, like a new science fiction world. Some people can do that, and do it well — but I’m glad I never attempted to go that route, because it wouldn’t be my style.

And that’s what voice is. Voice works in two ways; the first way is it’s your own voice that you’re using to craft your story, and the second way is it’s your own voice that’s speaking to you, telling you what you should and shouldn’t pursue. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely think that we should challenge ourselves, especially if we are inspired by the way that someone writes or a new technique that we find really exciting. I remember when I read The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, and I was completely blown away by the way she told the same story from multiple points-of-view. It was truly a thrilling experience to see how the different characters reacted to the same events that went on around them, and I imagined Kingsolver at work writing it, thinking how much fun it must have been putting on the different hats of her characters and writing from their perspective.

But I’m not sure that the same style would work in my writing. Maybe some day, if something calls to me to frame a story in that way, I can, but forcing myself to do it just because I saw how well it worked for Barbara Kingsolver would not be staying true to my own voice. Yes, it’s great to have writer heroes that we aspire to. Personally I really admire J.K. Rowling, not just because she’s had commercial success, but because she went from writing Harry Potter to that amazing story of The Casual Vacancy. That was a great book, in my opinion, and I admired that she had the guts to go from the world of Harry Potter to telling this touching story showcasing the fragile ego still at work in Britain’s modern class system. (Of course, the TV version was pigeon poo compared to the book, but ain’t that always the way it goes?) J.K. Rowling listened to her own voice, that said “you know what? write that story you’ve been thinking about for the last decade or so. It’s time to break free from Hogwart’s and show the world what else you’ve got.” And I’m glad that she listened.

It bears thinking about, however, the way a voice can change over time. I’m sure for a long time, while she enjoyed the commercial success of Harry Potter, she may have felt confined to that box; maybe she didn’t believe the public would accept a different story from her, especially not a story of a smack addict and her two kids suffering at the hands of her neglect, all wrapped up in a seemingly non-important framing of a vacant seat on the local council. J.K. Rowling probably wrestled for awhile before deciding that she could show everyone, including herself, that she had more to contribute.

As writers, there are definitely the doubting voices, and everyone can attest to that. Those are almost always the ones we pay attention to, and why is that? Why do we listen to the negative voices and shun the positive ones? Are we just naturally masochists, or is there more to it? Personally I believe that it’s built into the human consciousness to doubt ourselves; even people who don’t write know what it’s like to doubt themselves, which tells me that it’s pretty tightly ingrained somewhere within our historical context. I’m sure at one point in time, back in the caveman days, we had to make decisions thick-and-fast, like whether we could outrun a saber-tooth tiger. In those old situations, it paid to heed our natural warning signals, because bad decisions had probably much graver consequences then. But now, a few millennia later, this doubting has become excessive. Sometimes I also wonder that we feed the doubt because we are stalling for time, because just possibly we aren’t really ready to discover how totally awesome we really are. It’s become unattractive to root for yourself, too (which is another reason we flame those fires of doubt). Sure, maybe it does sound a bit egotistical to say, “Hey, I AM awesome!”

But really, if we don’t learn to say that to ourselves, we’re holding ourselves back. That’s what tapping into your writer’s voice is all about: giving yourself the room to be amazing.

We have to start by responding to that voice that says “No, you can’t!” by asking ourselves: what if I do chance it? It’s not like I’ll die, right? It’s not the saber-tooth tiger coming after me now. If it’s horrible, no one has to see it. What’s the harm in trying? If nothing else, you’ll be returning to that spot of writing just for the pure pleasure of it – not because it could be a commercial success, turned into a crappy three-part made for TV movie that does no justice to the brilliance of our novel. At least once a week, I think we should all just “dabble,” doing that one thing we’d like to do but for whatever reason we’ve not let ourselves. Let’s just do it for the FUN of writing. That’s the first step to developing your voice – you’ve got to give it the room to speak.

The second step is to know that what comes out might be quite crazy. You could write something that scares yourself. Maybe you’d be embarrassed to show it to anyone; you could be staring at the cursor blinking away on the screen, having just written something totally shocking, mostly for the reason that you can’t believe YOU wrote it. And you know what? That’s GOOD! When you let that authentic voice come out, you’re going to learn that you know way more about creating multi-faceted characters than you realized. Dare to only write characters who, when they start talking, only say the things that you’ve never had the guts to say in real life. That’s when your writing goes to another dimension, and you will amaze yourself.

There is only one you out there in the world. It might be hard to remember that, because we are only the most recent in a long span of lives, with a lot of the same hopes and faults as generations of humans before us. And yet, our DNA is unique. Our fingerprints are unique. And the experiences we have been through are different than anyone else’s. So give yourself the breathing space to let all that out, and see what fantastic things come from it.