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.

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writing

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.

writing

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.

 

 

writing

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!!!!! 

 

Uncategorized

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.