Friday, August 14, 2015

The Big Nothing, Small Deaths, and How a Dilemma is Vital for Storytellers

Two days into 2014 I had a ‘New Year’ conversation with a good friend.  Our talk turned to Noam Chomsky. I’d just seen Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy?, an animated documentary Chomskyon the life of the linguist, philosopher, and political activist by French filmmaker Michel Gondry. (It is, btw, a delightful and provocative film.) Chomsky had been an early influence in my friend’s academic life. We touched briefly on Chomsky’s atheism and his belief in (I paraphrase) the “big nothing” that follows death.
The topic of what comes after—nothing or something—tugged at me more than usual, due I think, to winter’s dark days and long, cold nights, new relationship commitments, the holidays-with-book-deadline, my ex-husband’s marriage to his new partner (on the Winter Solstice), and the fact that my daughter, who is 10-going-on-30, seems to be growing up at the speed of light.
But—because I am a writer of fiction and not a philosopher—I quickly moved our conversation away from the “big nothing” to focus on the countless small deaths we each experience in a lifetime. By “small deaths” I mean the dilemmas we face—a dilemma being an impossible problem, one that cannot be solved. The only solution to a dilemma is self-transformation, and transformation comes about when we are able to change the way we view the world, so the old way of seeing is dead and a new way is born.
Dilemmas drive the turning points in our lives; they also drive our stories, whether they are comedies or dramas.
Best-selling author and creative writing teacher Alan Watt:
“At the heart of every story is a dilemma. If we’re not sure what our story is about, let’s consider this for a moment: Problems are solved while dilemmas are resolved through a shift in perception.”
90 Day NovelI happened to pick up Watt’s book, The 90-Day Novel in the fall of 2010, when my daughter was turning seven. I had just heard a book deal I’d worked on for more than a year seemed to be dead in the water. A week later, while I lay in bed next to my husband, he announced that he couldn’t be married anymore and he was leaving. He added, quite coolly, that we could share custody of our daughter fifty-fifty. After that miserable night, the sun rose as usual, and we somehow managed to get our daughter to school without her knowing how much our world had changed.
And I began the fight to hold the family together.
I refused to accept what I knew to be true: the marriage was broken beyond repair (we’d both been unhappy for years). I dragged my then-spouse to marital therapy (one session and it became divorce therapy). I begged, pleaded, stopped eating and kept up an insane work schedule—and got through the days with the help of manic spin classes and anti-anxiety meds.
This is how I saw it:
At all costs I had to keep the family together.
I could not survive giving up my daughter half of the time.
I would not admit the day was fast approaching when we would break the news to her.
She could not bear another disruption of attachment—she is adopted and she spent most of her first year in an orphanage.
I could not/would not let go of my dream of our family.
I was desperate to hold onto a badly broken marriage in order to keep my family together in order to provide my daughter with a happy, stable family…well, you see the impossible logic for an insoluble problem.
Our divorce therapist quietly told my husband his job was to own his anger and step up to the plate; my job was to see the truth in front of me.
But I had seen the truth—I’d seen it for a very long time—and I’d intentionally blinded myself to it because we shared a child.
But the force of truth eventually pushed me kicking and screaming toward the inevitable day—I’d have to say one of the worst of my life—when we broke the news to our daughter that we were separating. She blanched and cried out. And then she crumpled into tears.
That night the three of us lay down on her bed. She fell into a fitful sleep. My husband left. I don’t think I slept at all. When my daughter woke the next morning, she reached for me and said, “Mama, I remember, and I know it wasn’t a bad dream.”
A part of me died that day.
Another part stepped up—I knew I would fall apart many times over the next year. But I would also hold it together and work with my husband and we would do what was best for our daughter. I’d reached a point of surrender—and we all began to slowly, sometimes agonizingly, build a new way of defining “family”. We began to heal.
I share this personal history because it is the experience in my life so far that has taught me the most about writing meaningful stories. It showed me (seared through me) how desire, life and death stakes, dilemma, all-out struggle, surrender and transformation are the forces at the heart of our lives and our stories.
Needless to say, reading The 90-Day Novel and Watt’s precise analysis of dilemma and the force it exerts in life – and in memorable fiction – hit home for me that fall.
To quote Alan Watt once more because, for me, he has caught what is at the heart of story:
“When we recognize that our hero does not have a problem, but rather a dilemma, our story begins to wake up. If our hero has an impossible problem, how the hell are we going to solve it?
We’re not. And neither is he. He’s going to surrender. He’s going to reframe his relationship to what he wants and in doing so, he is going to begin to work with the reality of his situation.”
Desire, dilemma, life and death struggle, surrender and transformation—the heroes of our best stories will walk through fire to reach a new way of being in the world.Sarah Lovett
And after all that? Maybe the “big nothing” or the “after life” or…I leave that to you.
And I finish this post with one more quote, this from renowned American literary critic Harold Bloom:
“Falstaff—like Hamlet, Don Quixote, and Mr. Pickwick—is still alive because Shakespeare knew something like the Gnostic secret of resurrection, which is that Jesus first arose and then he died.”

Note: I am re-posting this blog in its entirety by request; it was first published on the Algonquin Redux website where I am a regular guest blogger.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Shadow and Light, Yin and Yang—Driving Your Story from the Dark Side into the Light


vaseAround 1915, Danish psychologist Edgar Rubin developed his vase illusion (sometimes known as the figure-ground vase), an intentionally ambiguous visual tool for studying human figure-ground perception. It is known informally as the “Rubin vase” because the central image is a vase or goblet, in this case filling the white space. But if you focus on the black background around the vase, it usually takes very little time for that “background” to morph into two black faces in profile, their noses almost touching each other.
One of our brain’s jobs is to interpret visual patterns in the eye created by external objects. To do this effectively, we need to be able to distinguish objects from their background. Rubin’s vase illusion is a tool that marks human changes in perception: the viewer may see the foreground as primary and the background as secondary, or visa versa.
We storytellers often build our narratives by tracking “the light”—in this case I’m using “light” to refer to the arc of our protagonists or heroes. Sometimes we focus on light to the point of excluding all but the most superficial consideration of the dark forces of antagonism opposing our protagonists.
“Light can only be understood with the wisdom of darkness” 
                        KA Chinery, Perceptions from the Photon Frequency
But viewing images of Rubin’s vase can remind us that we have a powerful tool we sometimes forget to use. We can freshly envision our stories by shifting our focus from the primary object or “light” (the protagonist), and refocus our attention on the ground/background or “dark” (the antagonist/forces of antagonism). When we do this the antagonist appears suddenly in focus like Rubin’s “faces.”
If you were one of the millions of TV fans hooked by the long-running series, DEXTER, based on the bestselling books by Jeff Lindsay, you’ve experienced getting seduced to the dark side—in this case Dexter’s viewpoint, his code of honor, his locus of “right”.  The twist here: serial killer Dexter is the protagonist.
“Every light has a dark shadow just like the moon has night.” Bazil Patel
Not every story has a villainous antagonist (and very few have a psychopathic protagonist), but all stories must have forces that act upon, stand in the way of, challenge and push back against a hero yearning and acting to reach her goal.  Forces of antagonism may include human (alien, zombie) foes, social, political and historical forces, forces of Nature, and the protagonist’s internal antagonists, such as false beliefs, self-delusions, demons, hungry ghosts, and old emotional wounds or trauma—all the old baggage.
I’ve had writers tell me they hate seeing their characters suffer—and while I understand that protective impulse, I also know it must be avoided at all costs. Readers come to know and identify with characters by watching them make the hardest choices under increasingly intense pressure.
If you don’t believe me, follow Kurt Vonnegut’s Rule #6: “Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.”
“Darkness is a great opportunity to discover the divine face of the light.” Mehmet Murat ildan
Our antagonists have immense potential to drive our heroes, challenge them at every turn, and push them to the ultimate test—in the process causing our protagonists to build new capacities to face challenges and to forge resilience while propelling our stories to compelling and satisfying endings.
By fully exploring the arc of opposition in all its forms—as well as we explore the arc of our hero—we may find that the crafting and drafting of our stories comes more quickly, with more ease, and, ultimately, with more fully realized characters, than if we focus more exclusively on protagonist alone.
Ultimately, storytelling is a dance between yin and yang, dark and light. So let your imagination dance between those energies, just as your eyes dance between Rubin’s figure and ground, his vase and faces.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Wants, Whys, Lies & Ghosts

Spend an hour with other writers or take a class and you will hear this advice: Figure out what your protagonist wants!” Variations on that question include: What does your hero desire? What does she yearn for? What does she lust for? What is her story goal?

Sounds easy enough, right? Your intelligence operative wants to stop an imminent terrorist attack. Your detective wants to solve the crime.  Your au pair wants to fall in love with Mr. or Ms. X. Your corporate V.P. wants to finally earn the damn promotion! Your archaeologist wants to find the treasure after decades of searching!

Your protagonist’s “want”—or story goal—is most often something external, of the world, tangible, that can be measured, expressed actively and represented visually.  This journey toward the outer goal can be thought of as a metaphor for your hero’s inner emotional journey.

“External struggles ignite reader interest and curiosity while internal and interpersonal struggles engender empathy.” Steven James, Story Trumps Structure: How to Write Unforgettable Fiction by Breaking the Rules

Once she’s in gear, your hero will pursue her “want” as if it’s the only thing that matters in the world. That’s because, to her, it is. Think obsession. She pretty much believes it will solve most of her problems and the problems of her world, too. It might even make her feel whole—even though she probably doesn’t realize she needs healing, and she might deny her obsession.

Chances are, at the beginning of your story, your protagonist is emotionally off-kilter, off-balance—or she’s on balance but soon to be knocked off her center. She is missing something and she probably doesn’t know what that something is—or maybe she doesn’t even acknowledge the empty place inside of her. We humans—and our fictional characters—are masters of denial.

So now, she’s convinced that by accomplishing her outer goal, her world will be in balance again.  We know that’s not true, so why doesn’t she?
“Wounds are often kept secret from others because embedded within them is the lie—the untruth that the character believes about himself…” Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi, Negative Trait Thesaurus

Want What Why?  
It’s time to look at why she wants what she wants? Sure, it’s a detective’s job to find out who did the crime and track the perp down so he can “do the time”.  But we need to look for the inner meaning your detective attaches to achieving her goal. To fit the needs of fiction, the “why” refers to the meaning the protagonist attaches to the “want”.  

Remember the “want” (story goal) is most often external, visual, tangible, but the “why” is internal, emotional, and visceral. For example, your detective wants to solve the crime so she knows she can bring justice for the victim and balance seems restored to the world at least momentarily. Your au pair wants to fall in love to prove (to herself) that she’s lovable. Your corporate V.P. wants the promotion in order to feel validated in the eyes of her cohorts. And when your archaeologist finds the treasure, she is positive that it will be her life’s legacy.

Think about it, we all attach meaning to the things we want and strive for, right? (Think about why you want to sell the books you write—now there’s a bag to unpack!)  Often, we can’t verbalize the internal meaning we’ve attached to our worldly goals, but—never doubt it—those meanings exist. Here comes the hitch, at least in fiction, the protagonist’s meaning is based upon a lie she believes to be true, a.k.a., a false belief.

Ghosts and Lies
Some of us are more haunted than others, but we all have “ghosts.” This is a term you might hear in a scriptwriting workshop. “Ghosts” are also called emotional “wounds”. Most of us have dated someone (or too many “someones” L) with “emotional baggage”. Use whatever term gives you the most juice.  Ghosts are profound experiences in life—-traumatic, acute or chronic. They often occur early in life—the loss of a parent, the witnessing of a murder, childhood neglect or abuse, or rejection by a first love. The list of possible ghosts is endless. What matters is that this wound shapes our worldview and continues to haunt us. The same must be true for your protagonist: she has a ghost that haunts her. (I like to use the term, “hungry ghost” because, in some way, it does not allow her to rest.)

Note: Your character may never actually understand that hungry ghost, but you, author, need to understand what it is and how it drives her to make things harder for herself. P.S. You don’t have to reveal the hungry ghost to the reader—that’s your choice.

We humans fight to maintain the illusion of control—over our lives, our world, our experiences. If we’ve been victimized, we tell ourselves we are to blame in order to believe if we change something about our behavior, our appearance, our worldview, then we will protect ourselves from further victimization. We tell ourselves a lie—and we work very hard to hold onto our false belief.  Our characters do the same thing. (Blaming ourselves is often preferable to believing we are at the whim of fate and world forces.) Someone who was rejected by her first love might tell herself, “I am not lovable. There is something wrong with me that I must fix in order to be lovable.” A rape survivor might tell himself, “My rapist recognized that I’m weak, so, to protect myself, I must never allow myself to be vulnerable again.”  Someone who loses a sibling to illness might suffer from survivor’s guilt so intensely, she tells herself, “It’s my duty to save every soldier in the unit—or die trying.”

You get the idea. But if the inner motivation for the hero’s “want” is based on a lie, then what?

Then you—and she—need to figure out what she needs. And what she needs is the truth.

“At the heart of every story is a dilemma. If we’re not sure what our story is about, let’s consider this for a moment: Problems are solved while dilemmas are resolved through a shift in perception.” Alan Watt, The 90-day Novel

Want Versus Need—the Dilemma
In the most memorable stories, the protagonist ultimately faces a dilemma between what she wants and what she truly needs in order to become more fully human, more whole. Unfortunately for the hero—but fortunately for the storyteller—even if she accomplishes her worldly goal, she will still feel empty. Your au pair may seduce the man or woman of her dreams—only to realize that she still does not feel worthy of love. Her “hungry ghost” will continue driving her to pursue external validation; it will feed her the lie that gaining love from the “right” person will make her feel lovable. But the truth is, until she discovers how to love herself, she will never be whole. Said another way: when she learns to love herself unconditionally, then she will be capable of giving and receiving unconditional love to and from others; but she will no longer desperately need it. And that is her true transformation because she has profoundly changed how she views herself and her world.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Georgia O'Keefe's Ghost Ranch NM

I was a guest speaker this weekend with Valerie Plame Wilson, former CIA NOC and my coauthor for the "Vanessa Pierson spy-thrillers." We were invited to talk to a smart, witty group of journalists at the New Mexico Press Women's annual conference, "The Power of Storytelling." This year's event was held at Ghost Ranch, near Abiquiu, NM. Famed painter, Georgia O'Keefe, visited Ghost Ranch  in 1934; she was so drawn by the astounding natural beauty she spent many summers in residence, painting the countryside and soaking up the solitude. Eventually she managed to purchase a few acres and a house from then-owners Arthur Pack and Carol Stanley. Today, visitors may hike around many of O'Keefe's favorite subjects. This trip, my friend and I climbed for an hour to take this photo of Chimney Rock. A striking flat-topped mountain rises at the southern boundary of the ranch; Pedernal is the subject of many of O'Keefe's paintings. "It's my private mountain," O'Keefe said. "God told me if I painted it often enough I could have it."

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Care and Feeding of a Writer Committed to Staying Alive and Reasonably Sane and Happy!

I’ve spoken recently with several writers who are overwhelmed by their struggle to write intensely personal and emotional stories.
One has been hit by waves of emotion and fear because he finds himself feeling as if he’s reliving decades-old betrayal perpetrated by those closest to him. The writing has begun to feel like a prison keeping him locked in with ghosts of childhood trauma.
Another is so frightened by the possibility of exposure, he has transported his story across time and space and culture—jumping 200 years and 1,000 miles to write about a world that is almost completely foreign to him.
I’m no stranger to times when writing was difficult; I’ve named those my “writing crazy” periods. (Picasso had his blue period, right?) I was born anxious (maybe that’s why I wailed when the doctor pulled me out of my mother and into the world). Given certain tendencies of my nature and a creative life that includes many uncertainties, it’s no surprise I make occasional references to my various panic attacks and (mild) dissociative reactions, obsessions, acting out, and really very fleeting delusions. (I can say with confidence, however, that even in my darker periods, I never reached the point of molding tin foil hat-wear to block a)  the radio waves sent by aliens or b) the attentions of a nagging feline with suspect intentions who parked on my sun roof.) I have spent serious time in my life delving inward to explore and understand as best I can my own psyche.
It’s nice to reach a place in life where details of my own creative struggles can be fodder for jokes. But when/if you find yourself writing material that elicits emotional backlash, that’s no joking matter.
I don’t believe that pushing “heroically” through emotional exhaustion and overwhelm serves the writer or the book or one’s mental health. And while writing can have therapeutic benefits, it can also take us to scary internal places. If the experience becomes overwhelming to the point where you question your ability to function normally, it is vital to reach out for support from a counselor, therapist, support group—so you can regain your sense of equilibrium and balance.
When I speak to writers, singly or in groups, I talk about the importance of taking time away from the intensity of writing, taking time to rest and breathe and find a place of balance where one can stay connected to the work without becoming overwhelmed. If you lose your sense of balance or your sense of humor, it’s definitely time to spend the day at the spa or a week at the beach or whatever suits your lifestyle and your budget.
If you lose your sense of humor, you risk your characters losing theirs as well. Readers crave and demand drama and they want to experience emotion; they want to be moved to tears and anger and laughter and forgiveness. They usually do not want to spend too much time with a character (you can also make that “writer”) who is exhausted, burned out, cranky, humorless, and depressed. (At least not unless that character is a foil and the rest of the book has a whole lot of comic relief.)
In order to give readers what they want—and provide deeply satisfying emotional experiences that pay off—the writer must reach a place where the narrative on the page has been processed so it’s not so raw, not so wrought that the writer isn’t able to consider the reader.
A quick rule for everyone (including writers): if you are feeling depressed, anxious, fearful, manic—to the point where you are not sleeping, eating, or functioning at “your normal”, reach out for help from a qualified mental health professional.
For some intensely personal narratives, the writer lives and writes in the place where emotion and detachment bump up against each other. I don’t believe there is any handy rule when it comes to proportions: two cups emotion and two and a quarter cups detachment? But you do need to reach a space where you can let go and have enough distance to consider the effect you want to achieve for the reader; and that is the space that allows you to revise effectively and make calculated editorial decisions and perhaps even bring humor to stories that might have seemed completely devoid of humor at the time.
A first draft tends naturally to elicit the wildest and rawest writing. That’s fine—as long as you know you can cope with the various waves of emotion that might be released internally. Writing should never endanger your mental health; it might be a way toward healing. Discomfort is okay; dysfunction is not.
You must always take care of yourself. If that means time off and away from the page, so be it! Our important stories do not go away just because we take breaks. But our ability to render those stories effectively increases when we live and love, learn, risk, replenish, and have fun.

Saturday, April 04, 2015

More Thoughts on a Writing Life: The Long View

I've quoted below from writer Benjamin Moser's thoughtful "Bookends" essay for The New York Times, January 27, 2015.

"We never know if we are doing it right. Even the best writing will never have the immediate, measurable impact that a doctor's work has, or a plumber's. To discover if we are on the right track, we can, and do, become obsessed with our "careers," which is the word we use for what other people think of us...there is something dreary about wanting writing to be a real job. The sense of inner purpose, so often unmentionable in a society enamored of professionalization, distinguishes a writer from a hack...a writer--independent of publication or readership or "career"--is always a writer. Independent, even of writing. Writing, after all is something on does. A writer is something one is."

Monday, March 16, 2015

The Memorable Character Line-Up

lineupA writer friend trying his hand at fiction recently asked, “…since my protagonist is a woman, what traits might both men and women find appealing in her?”
My first response: Whether readers are male, female, gay, straight, transgender or some combo thereof, almost everyone is drawn to someone who passionately and actively yearns for something we consider meaningful.
The person on the page who truly catches our attention, emotion and heart is the character who shows desire, yearning, drive and who takes all steps possible to achieve their desire, no matter if the pursuit is misguided, and no matter the cost. (Remember “misguided” for later.)
That said, almost everyone roots for an underdog, or a Robin Hood, or someone who shows courage when facing overwhelming adversity, or a reluctant leader or hero, or that person who stands up for others in need.
Sometimes the positive character traits list reads like a singles ad: Kind to kids and pets, sense of humor, reasonably intelligent, and, if you’re “the one”, faithful!
I believe a story-worthy antagonist will also possess at least one heroic trait and may love animals, too. (Think Silence of the Lambs.) Never allow any character on the page who has no more depth than a paper cutout!
You don’t have to like a protagonist to want to read about them.  A prickly main character might be more challenging to handle but there are plenty of them in the annals. These are the charismatic eccentrics. In film, Doc Martin’s irascible nature is tempered by the fact others care about him and can see through his schizotypal tendencies; Sherlock Holmes (in his many embodiments) has Watson to humanize him—and no matter how socially challenged and conflicted Sherlock might be, he’s brilliant, he shows courage, and he is passionate about truth, even when it comes to his own vices!
Remember I mentioned misguided a few paragraphs above? What a character yearns for desperately is probably not what they truly need. And they have attached intense meaning to the object of their desire. The “why” they want what they want. So they should inevitably encounter obstacle after obstacle and eventually face a dilemma—and a dilemma has no real solution.
All of that is a topic for another post, however it does mean that the characters we love—and the characters we love to hate—are filled with inner conflict. (Well, why should they be any different than the rest of us?)
My final thought today on creating memorable characters is this: I do not like questionnaires or quizzes or filling in medical histories or undergoing background checks. Too dry and methodical and boring. The same is true for me understanding my characters. These days, I’ve learned that I want to spend time with them when they are interacting with others. I eavesdrop when they are laughing, fighting, ranting, making love, meditating and medicating, shooting baskets, and racing down a perp. The interactions I overhear may not absolutely end up in my next book, but I get to see how two characters act with and react to each other. I see from both sides and I believe in parity.  (BTW, as writers we should be voyeurs, but our protagonists cannot inherit our tendencies when it comes to passivity—they must jump from the shadows, metaphorical sword in hand!)