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.




How is writing like sawing a plank of wood?

This topic was inspired by my recent decision to remove a plank of wood from where my computer sits, in this makeshift cupboard thing that was built in my bedroom (before I moved in). I was always hitting my head on it and it would also make it really difficult to talk to my family and friends on video chat, because my monitor would show the top of the plank which was covered in a drippy white paint job. I’d always considered removing it, but yesterday I decided, “today’s the day.” I surmised that the plank could be removed without compromising the rest of the support structure, so I got out my little handsaw and got to work. I recorded myself doing it, in different stages, because I wanted to prove to my Dad that I’d been able to remove the plank without the whole thing crashing down. (Also, I did it to amuse myself later.)

The first thing that I should explain is that this handsaw was a piece of garbage to begin with, when I bought it two summers ago for £3 at Wilko. I was looking for just a little garden saw at the time to take down a couple of small bushes in my front yard. It did the trick at the time, but since then it’s generally fallen into a state of disuse. The teeth on it were jagged and pointing in different directions. Because of this, it took me a long time to complete the job. While I was sawing away I had lots of time to contemplate my reasons for doing this, and I gave myself the task of trying to find out how it could be a metaphor for writing. “How is sawing a plank of wood like writing?” I asked myself. And here are the answers I came up with:

  1. Sawing a plank of wood is like writing because if you start off with the wrong framework that someone else gave to you and you think it’s going to fit into your formula for success and the plans you have in mind, it’s not going to work. You’re going to have to remove pieces of the framework to adjust for you. Writing is an individual process, which is why there can be so many people who do it so beautifully. A creative writing teacher can offer the same one-line writing prompt to her students, and get thirty different and equally amazing results, because writing reflects the individual. When I write something, I bring all of my experiences to the table, the good and the bad. None of my “mistakes” that I’ve made in life are unworthy for reflection. Every single thing I’ve learned in my life, including about relationships and what I’ve learned about love and growth, are all going to come out in my writing. If I’m trying to fit all the “me” inside someone else’s writing framework, it’s quite possible it won’t feel right. Adjustments must be made. You can always admire other writers, but you have to seek out your own voice. There might be a particular style that you wish you could emulate, and that’s good. Having ideals is important, and only in reading other works will you be able to get better at honing your own voice. But it is YOUR voice that you need to let come out. (More about writing voice in future blogs.)
  2. Writing is like sawing a plank of wood because if you don’t have the proper tools, it’s going to take you a very long time to get where you want to go. What are the proper tools in a writer’s toolbox? First of all it’s your own state of mind; your relationship with yourself. How will you ever be able to develop your own voice, if your mindset denies your desires? You need to develop a good relationship with yourself. I don’t know about you, but I experienced a lifelong problem with depression until I was about thirty-five years old. I know it’s kind of cliche for a writer to be depressed, and we’re supposed to take our pain and write through it, producing something brilliant, etc. But in my experience it was a cumbersome thing that followed my every decision. I doubted myself constantly, including my ability to generate ideas to even being “worthy” of writing. I’ve made mistakes in the past and relationships and with my life path, and these always seemed like problems that all added up to my unworthiness to become anything, least of all a great writer. Or even just a writer. So my suggestion, if you have this problem with mindset, is to fix it by whatever means possible. We are human beings, and we have to be kind to ourselves. If you need therapy, or medication, or just a change in routine that means you get out more and pursue positive relationships, just do it. Try everything. You are worth the effort, and turning off that voice of doubt will do such amazing things for your writing. Other important tools are understanding the type of writing that you want to produce, which means reading up on the structure and techniques of the genre you’re writing in (i.e., if you’re writing crime fiction you’re going to want to learn police procedures, crime scene science, etc, whereas historical writing will obviously require a great understanding of the era about which you’re writing). You’ll also want to read up on topics like plot, character development, “showing” and not “telling”, and other various important techniques.
  3. Writing is like sawing a plank of wood, because you can start off with the general idea of where you want to go, and you can dive in with a full view of your plans laid in front of you. But then halfway in you realize it’s all wrong, you could have done it a different way, you see gaps in logic within your plot line, or your characters are more 2D than 3D, etc. You take a break, step back and realize the awful mess that lies in front of you: a half-sawn off plank of wood hanging from its frame; sawdust covering everything; your muscles are cramping and you feel tired. At this point you could abandon the project altogether, right? But you still have to clean up that mess. Or, you could go back and start over in a different way (but that might take longer). OR — you could keep going. Saw through that plank! Listen to your writing voice, and back up your own original ideas. Yes you can make adjustments when necessary, but stick to your original plan. Every writer has to produce their rough draft before anything else happens. Even Thomas Hardy, at one point in time, was sitting in front of his manuscript for Tess of the d’Urbervilles and probably wondering why Tess had wandered out into the middle of Stonehenge, and how to get her to the scaffolds that awaited her. And if you think William Faulkner didn’t have his doubts about crafting a story around a family carrying a coffin containing their mother’s dead body forty miles away to Jefferson, well you’d be wrong. If you think he didn’t wonder if this was too crazy, too weird, too unrealistic, too morbid to be written about, his characters too depressing — it’s not true. I assure you he had his doubts, but he managed to see it through, creating the amazing piece of literature of As I Lay Dying, containing that amazing shifting point of view which you know he had to struggle crafting and even accepting that it would work. He started with an idea, and he began on the journey just as his characters began theirs, and just like them, I promise you, he got stuck, he waded into the river chasing Addie’s coffin, and he pulled it back out again. True brilliance on the page is not the product of a natural talent that has the ability to generate genius in one fell swoop. Every great writer will have wondered, at some point, what the hell they were thinking and how do they fix their mess. But you can rest assured that they continued sawing that plank. And once they finished the rough draft, that’s their first real breakthrough. Then the massive work of revision begins, and the writer again must continue sawing the plank. When all the sawing is done, and the sawdust is swept away, you can step back and look at what’s there — and I guarantee you, it will be a thing of beauty.

Writing is like sawing through a piece of wood, because you, the carpenter, must keep your tools in top shape, and you must be working in the best framework for your needs, not trying to be fit inside someone else’s ideas of great writing. But equally as important is simply finishing the job. Saw through that plank!!!!! 



Building a Writer’s Platform, and Other Modern-day Nonsense that I’m sure Hemingway wouldn’t have put up with

I recently read a very depressing book about how to find a literary agent, which basically said that you couldn’t get an agent these days unless you had a major internet following. The author of the book suggested blogging as one way of building an “author platform” which, in order to grow large enough to catch the attention of the literary agent, has to be massive and will therefore take twenty years to grow. As I said, this was depressing to read. I really have no clue what to blog about, and I don’t feel it’s the type of writing I want to be doing, and actually runs the risk of harming my writing by taking time and energy away from the true writing I like to do, which is storytelling. But, I figure in twenty years, despite not having a clue about blogging, who knows? I might have gained such a huge fanbase that no agent would turn down the chance to sell to my massive following.

So, there we go. I’m blogging, despite the fact that I don’t really want to. And lucky you, whoever you are, reading this: you get the pleasure of reading something written by someone who didn’t want to write it nor even knows what to write it about (hey, is it everything you dreamed it’d be?) Because this is what writers are supposed to do, I guess, in this day and age. It’s actually kind of sad for Hemingway, because he would have really been adept at the whole 160-character mentality of Twitter, if only he were writing in modern times. He would have probably advocated for an even smaller character count, actually. And just think if Shakespeare were alive today, slaving away at his growing email list (he’d no doubt draw us all in with a tantalizing free e-sonnet offer). Jane Austen is just lucky she never had to create a YouTube channel (although I totally would have signed up for Dorothy Parker’s).

This is the side of stuff that I don’t know, and I’m barely willing to learn. I have a hard enough time making sure my characters do the things they’re supposed to do, like fulfill their destinies within their intended plot lines. Do people even know the gravity of my responsibilities? I’m responsible for shepherding each of my characters through the horrible destitution that befalls them, and bring about such a profound change of mentality that they emerge at the end a different person altogether. These characters have to be believable, relatable, relevant, complex, and they have to be so good at these traits that the real people reading about them forget their own lives for awhile. Wow, when I put it like that, I feel like I should give myself a raise.

So these are the things I work on. This is what I find important — putting more stories out there into the hands of people who appreciate stories. Every writer has their own version of what’s worthy of being written about; some people choose fantasy or horror or science fiction. I just choose the basic format — how people relate to each other. How they relate to themselves. I find that fascinating. I find the human spirit fascinating, and my characters never disappoint me in this regard. I can hit them over the head with the heaviest of clubs, and they will rise again, fighting harder. They will see their goals to an end, more determined than ever. That, to me, is worthy of writing about.

I don’t look at writing as a “hobby” but more like a passion. Sewing is my hobby. It’s fun and I like to do it for awhile, but then I might leave it for awhile and go surfing the web, not stopping until I’ve learned the entire history of the subject of “milk” on Wikipedia. Maybe I’ll return to sewing afterwards, or maybe I’ll find some other way to entertain myself. But writing is more than passing the time, or practicing a hobby, because you can walk away from a hobby, and not spend hours of time away from it, still working at it in your mind. Anyone who has this level of dedication to anything is practicing art, not a hobby, in my opinion. And this dedication is what I want to continue working on, to get better at every day, honing my ability to finely interweave subplot within plot, create diversions, distractions, surprises. I want to learn how to be better and better at expressing human thought, and contemplating those age-old questions that generations of human beings before me had inevitably, at one time or another, asked themselves: “How do I love without losing myself?” “What will become of me when I die?” “What, if anything, is worth going to war over?” “Can I get away with tearing that little piece of mold off the bread and eating around it?”

These are the passions that writers keep returning to, and when it’s going beautifully and the dialog just flows naturally and the plot comes together, you get a high that’s better than any out there (I’m extrapolating). But there are the other times, when your character doesn’t want to grow with the labels you’ve placed on him or her; there are times when you feel like you don’t really know your character at all, and they question it too. It’s like having kids – you have all of these visions for what they might grow up to be, but they grow into these amazing people that are so much better than what you envisioned. If you can get out of your kid’s way, that is — and the same is true for a writer’s characters. You can just sense the resentment in your main character’s mind, as he wonders how you could ever expect him to run (and win) a local election when all he wants to do is dance! “What the hell?” he seems to ask you over your shoulder, as you struggle to piece his story together. “Don’t you know me at all? I would never do that. I would never say that.” Suddenly you’re consumed with doubt, and it’s not long until your entire plot outline begins crumbling to the ground. You abandon the project for awhile, but find yourself struggling with it as you stare at the ceiling at night.  Eventually you stop fighting your character’s need to dance. He belongs on Broadway; stop with the podium debates and put his name in lights already.

And so you’ve learned, just like you do with kids: when you stop forcing them to perform in a role you arbitrarily made up for them, they suddenly have the freedom to say what they ought to be saying, and do what they ought to be doing. In this way, writing can be a madness, too. Of course these people aren’t real — we’re creative, but not crazy, right? Well, there is a level of craziness to writing, and if you’re like me, you’d jump at the chance of finding a 12-step group where you can finally utter the words “Hi, my name is ___ and I’m a writer.” The first step is admitting that we are powerless to our craft, including the craziness that comes from interacting with imaginary people. It’s like the belief that every person has something that he or she is meant to do. For literary characters, this is true, and telling their story becomes an intimate project that, in the end, the writer feels completely honored to have been a part of.

But nowadays, writers are having to split their time between the worlds they create and the mouthpieces by which their potential reading public can get to know them by. Writers these days can’t even get the attention of a publisher without going through an agent, and before an agent will give you the time of day, you not only have to have finished your novel, but paid a couple grand to have it edited, too. What??? Isn’t that the editor’s job? Nope. The writer pays for editing services, not to mention publicity. This is why the words “day job” exist, because a career in writing is expensive, and time consuming! Long gone are the days where we were only responsible for sitting in front of the typewriter, making the magic happen by pecking out 90,000 words over a few rolls of ink ribbons and couple of reams of paper.

So, there you have it folks — whoever you are — this is my blog, that I didn’t want to write. As boring as it sounds, my blog is going to be about writing (because what the hell else does a writer blog about???) I was actually pleased that this blog already existed; apparently my plans for building this writer’s “platform” was on my agenda a year ago. So that means I’m now only 19 years away from my big break.

I’m going to go now and remove the strange looking taco theme that seems to be in use on this blog; I’m also thinking I should try to flesh out some of the content (like, actually put something into the boxes, instead of leaving them to say “This is a text widget. The Text Widget allows you to add text or HTML to your sidebar. You can use a text widget to display text, links, images, HTML, or a combination of these. Edit them in the Widget section of the Customizer.” Or I might just leave the text widget to announce its own usefulness; it kind of underscores the idea that this is all so generic.

Hemingway didn’t have to deal with generic. He got to go off watching bulls be stabbed and go sport fishing in Cuba, then came home to write about it. Damn you Ernest, you had it so easy….


Dude, where’s my novel?

I have recently finished my first novel.

Or, I thought I did.

After paying someone to proofread it, and sending it out to several beta readers, I paid someone to format it into .mobi and stuck it on Kindle. I was extremely excited; it was my first novel (aside from the romance novel I wrote when I was 15, but more on that later).

However, there are a few things that I’ve found within the last week or two. The thing is, I’m not happy with my finished product. It doesn’t feel, well, finished. There are adjustments I want to make. I think I rushed it to print, because I have other ideas that I want to work on.

So, I’m going to take it down, re-write it on Scrivener (a newly-discovered program I just downloaded today) and then go through the entire process again, until it feels right. I’m not looking forward to it, because now I feel like it’s not the big accomplishment I thought it was. But, provided I finish it, then I can have that whole moment of celebration again, and then finally move on to my other projects.

If you happen to have read the book (i.e., Mom) then I’ll explain what I think I need to do: I need to create more negative traits in one of the main characters so that it displays a greater change by the end of the book. I also need to elaborate on one of the other characters whose story just kind of appears towards the end of the book.

So, I am nearly at the end of this blog (which I have only started because I read it was imperative to my marketing strategy). It’s all new to me (blogging) and I feel like I am writing to no one, so it feels strange. Eventually I would love to move on to meatier topics such as the creative process and what I enjoy writing about, because I’d like this blog to be about my writing life.

To be honest, said life is very isolating. I feel the need to meet other writers, who can appreciate the neurosis of putting your best effort into something and worrying wildly about how it will be received, and then feeling completely deflated when someone says “it was nice.” That’s why I always say that my ego, when it comes to writing, is a “fragile little boat”. It’s waiting around for someone to swim out to it and climb aboard.