At one point, when I was living at home again after college – under my mother’s roof with no idea of a future for myself, I actually set out to commit suicide by taking Valium with alcohol.
But after the first pill, I got to thinking about how things change. At the moment life seemed pointless, but if I died there’d be no option for improving things, and things did have a way of changing, and would probably look different the next day.
I fell asleep around then, and woke up the next day, indeed feeling differently. And lots of things have changed for good and bad since then, including meeting friends who’ve become important influences, having all kinds of adventures and creating some cool stuff. I hadn’t even discovered SF fandom at that point, or written a single novel.
I’ve never again set out to kill myself, but the urge has occurred from time to time, when circumstances have seemed hopeless.
I get mad at myself for it. It’s like this person who has been with me my whole life, enjoying every good time, wants to ditch me when the going gets rough.
You know how much influence our thoughts can have on our feelings. (I say influence rather than ‘control’ for a reason*)
If my self-talk all dwells on the things I want and don’t have (a mate, children, car, big house, money), or the uselessness of my works (how little I’ve impressed people I’ve striven to impress, etc. etc) and how impossible it is that I’ll ever improve matters, it tends to darken my spirits and make life seem like a dreary wait for the inevitable grave.
If my self-talk focuses on what I can enjoy here and now, I tend to stay in pretty good spirits. Also known as counting blessings and adopting an ‘attitude of gratitude.’ (All those ‘attitude of gratitude’ inspirational sayings are perfectly correct. I’ve collected a lot on one of my Pinterest boards – a lot are about inspiration and creative work, etc too). If nothing else, this focuses my thoughts on the resources available to make any changes to my situation. It’s also a kind of magic. Focus on resources makes it easier to contemplate things I can do here and now to at least improve matters, if not solve every problem in existence.
Of course, being grateful for blessings doesn’t address issues that represent real problems.
It’s easier to feel optimistic about life if I’m actually doing something (small or large) every day toward reaching my goals. To this end, I establish weekly goals. A certain amount of progress on the current novel, making a dentist’s appointment, etc. I keep myself honest by checking in with a few friends every week. “Never give up, never surrender!” (Galaxy Quest)
And we can’t just ignore feelings of sadness, frustration, anger, despair or other ego-based needs. As a writer, I tend to view all my feelings – even difficult ones like sorrow and frustration and impossible desires – as resources. Strong feelings are the stuff dreams are made of – or, at least, the stuff good characters and stories are made of.
I just need to keep some perspective, not be overwhelmed or carried too far away. Having a sense of compassion for myself helps this. Imagining a love greater than my own helps me find that compassion in myself. Conceiving a compassion great enough to embrace the worst of my feelings leads me to conceive a compassion embracing all of us, even at our worst. It’s the kind of perspective that can enable me to relate to my villains as well as my heroes, and knowing that acceptance in my own heart keeps me from giving in to the worst I could be.
(*from our Discordian teachings we know that an excess of control can break our spontaneous and playful creative spirits.)
Cross-posted from The Writers’ Vineyard: A number of my stories, including the novel, ‘Wonder Guy,’ feature a fairy godmothers’ union.
I’ve wished for a fairy godmother so often it’s probably what led me to start writing stories about them. The thing with fairy godmothers is that they are not genies or magic wishing wells. They don’t grant any and all wishes.
Cinderella, for example, and supposing her story real, probably wished for something or other everyday — if only to escape the notice of her step-mother or find some relief for her aching back or knees. As it was, she never asked for a ball gown or a carriage. She wished to attend the ball to which she’d been invited.
The fairy godmother stepped in at this time, when she never had before. She supplied more than was asked. A tricky genie or devil’s bargain might have sent Cinderella to the ball as she was: on foot, ragged and filthy with ashes.
Why did the fairy godmother step in at that time and not before? Why did she do everything to assure that Cinderella would not only attend the ball, but shine there? That she would show off the full potential of her natural beauty and catch the eye of the prince? That she would appear as a member of the respectable nobility and worthy of a like respect? This all suggests that the fairy godmother was motivated not by the letter of the wish, but by the spirit, that she had Cinderella’s best interests at heart all along.
Cinderella is a story, of course, and I can only imagine myself in the place of the fairy godmother and surmise her reasons and motives. Perhaps her powers to interfere in the natural course of events were limited, so that she could do only so much and she had to choose her time wisely. If she could only help once, she had to make sure that what she did would count to the best effect. By awaiting this one opportunity, she could change the whole course of Cinderella’s life for the better, using only a few small bursts of magic.
Choosing the moment required a broader understanding and perspective than Cinderella had. She could wish a thousand times for a thousand things and having those wishes granted might ultimately have done her no good. The fairy godmother’s perspective must have included an understanding of the affairs of the whole kingdom, the tastes of the prince, a sense of how a great many lives and goals interacted with each other and would be affected by what she did.
As I said, there have been many times in my life when I’ve wished for magical intervention. I’ve had my heart broken. I’ve lost a home to foreclosure. I’ve lived in poverty and lost loved ones to death, watched helplessly while they suffered from disease.
Death and disease and poverty have been with humanity from the start. Even supposing they are real, it may be that some things are beyond a fairy godmother’s powers to cure. It may be that there aren’t enough fairy godmothers to meet the demand. Perhaps I have already benefited in ways I never knew. And it may be that the moment has not been ripe for reaping the best effect from the application of my own fairy godmother’s help. Like the hero or heroine of any story, each of us is limited in our knowledge of what the morrow will bring and of the full consequences of our actions – or the fulfillment of our wishes. I like to think that if the fairy godmothers are out there, they do what they can, acting from superior wisdom, to produce the best possible results.
This started as one of those Facebook memes, but it was a fun exercise, and I encourage everyone to stop and think about what writing means to you.
1) I’ve been a day-dreamer since I was a child, and I’ve wanted to turn my daydreams into stories since I learned to read. I see writing as a kind of magic that turns insubstantial daydreams into something of substance that can be shared with the world.
2) We are capable of imagining anything we can conceive, and we can enjoy the fruits of our imaginations despite whatever the world may throw at us – debility, poverty, incarceration, old age and the prospect of mortality… I see fiction as a way to keep my mind open to what may seem impossible – and a way to share that sense of endless possibilities with whoever cares to read my stories.
3) It’s all too easy to lose hope in a world where we encounter disappointment, losses or frustrations every day. Fiction allows us to create alternate outcomes – I see it as a way to offer solace and reclaim power in the face of Life’s losses and disappointments.
4) I do most of my first-drafting in longhand, with pen and paper. It’s messy and virtually illegible.
5) I’m something between a ‘pantser’ and a plotter. I usually have a good sense of the over-arching direction of a story, but once I have a draft I need to take a second look at the structure and do some plotting to heighten dramatic tension.
6) Sometimes writing is the hardest thing in the world. Literally every single other thing there is to do or be in the world seems more interesting and inviting and I’d swear I just don’t have anything to say.
7) It’s not about me. Anything that is about me has been thrown against a wall and turned into something else – or it wouldn’t hold any interest for me. Writing is an art because it becomes a surprise to its own creator.
Cross-posted from The Writers’ Vineyard
In response to an RWA article advising romance writers to avoid polarizing topics, SF writer, John Scalzi responded to the effect that one’s political attitudes are part of one’s identity and experience of the world from which is drawn anything a writer might produce of any unique worth.
This makes me wonder who I am as a writer. Am I trying to tailor my stories to please everyone? And by so doing, denying some part of my personal truth?
Is a desire for truth necessarily polarizing? The truth is that the world contains people with widely polarized views. If I want my work to reflect reality to any extent I need to include characters with strongly held and divergent opinions. I need to reflect what I have experienced as true, hopefully, without becoming pedantic about it. In respect to the intelligence of readers, it’s best to present my evidence, meaning the sorts of experiences I know to be real, and let the readers draw their own conclusions, even if some of my characters draw conclusions like my own.
In the cause of engaging more readers, we’re encouraged to write sympathetic characters. The fact is, nobody is universally likeable. There are probably people out there who hated Mother Theresa and thought Gandhi was a pill. People who are trying to please everyone seem to me less rather than more likeable. Giving characters polarized views isn’t going to change this state of affairs.
In any case, I think the sympathy is in the writer. Every human being has an a-hole, is born selfish, and retains selfish interests throughout life – and none of this makes them impossible to love. Babies are loved because it’s in the interest of the species – it’s in our hearts to love them – no matter how self-occupied the little hedonists are.
It’s the writer’s job to sympathize with her characters – even the nasty ones. They won’t all be the heroes or heroines of the story, but they will all have viewpoints and see themselves as the protagonists of their own stories. Their goals and methods may be unsympathetic, but they will have been somebody’s baby at some point in life, and there’s always room for a little sympathy for that beginning that went somehow awry. If nothing else, we can sympathize with unmet needs and lost potential, with the wrong turns taken.
That said, romances do tend to be more concerned with personal relationships than with the political affairs of the world at large.
Writer Lois McMaster Bujold, in her much-cited guest of honor speech at Denvention, pointed out the different story expectations held by romance readers and f/sf readers. Romance readers expect a story to address the emotional issues involved in building intimacy in interpersonal relationships. Avoiding polarizing topics may be appropriate for some romances – such as short, category romances too tightly focused on a single relationship to allow time for other issues.
Fantasy/SF readers are more concerned with world-building and political issues. I write crossover urban fantasy-romances where I’m concerned with satisfying the expectations of both fantasy/adventure readers who care about broader world-building and romance readers concerned with interpersonal relationships. Writers of Womens’ Fiction or single title romances may also want to involve readers who care about the broader issues, however polarizing they may be.
That is to say, the political views of the writer and characters may have more or less of a place depending on the sort of story being told.
Cross-posted to The Writers’ Vineyard
Recently, I came across a blog post by writer Mindy Klasky, concerned with what a writer might choose to share on social media. Should we treat posts like the traditional holiday letter consisting of a list of triumphs, sharing all the good news and none of the worries? Or, do we share too much and come off as drama queens? What’s the middle ground?
I try to be matter of fact about my life, for good or bad – the facts are the facts. Some events carry intrinsic emotional weight, whether losses – of loved ones, homes, jobs – or wins, like accomplishing goals achieved after long struggles.
Other events are subject to a lot of interpretation. Whatever the facts of a situation, however we feel as an initial response, our choices and attitudes can play a huge role in how the events ultimately affect our lives.
We can make conscious choices to look for positive interpretations. For instance, I recently started a new job that I could have chosen to consider a step down in life. After all, I have six years of post-secondary education; I have years of training and experience as a graphic designer and I’m now working as a security guard.
On the other hand, I’m working second shift, and slow periods allow me time and opportunity to write. And also, the work involves a lot more walking than I’d ever do if left to my own devices. A recent visit to the doctor shows some weight loss and my blood pressure improving from borderline to normal. My pride may suffer, but my health is improving and I’m practical-minded enough to prefer it that way.
After the initial discomfort fades, we can turn distressing events into entertainment. Arriving at my bus stop following a long day at work, near midnight on an icy winter night, I hated being barred by a police barricade from my apartment building. But the story of the manhunt for a gunman in my apartment complex made for a good story to share with coworkers the next day.
The point is not to play Miss Mary Sunshine. A lot of things in life hurt. Some losses can never be healed, and it’s important to acknowledge those realities. But we can make things a little better than they might otherwise be by choosing to appreciate what advantages we can find in whatever situations life hands us.
We can make the effort to avoid buying into the kind of defensive thinking that makes negative assumptions about the character and motivations of others. We can look beyond ego-based reactions at not getting exactly what we want when we want it, and gain a broader perspective on our own lives and on life in general – the kind of perspective a writer should have on the lives of her characters.
The conversation started out about laundry.
In response to my coworker’s inquiry on what was happening with me, I mentioned doing a couple loads of laundry before work. Both the regular clothes and a load of linens.
The young man (mid-thirties seems young to me these days), call him Sean, replied by talking about what a task it had been for him to sort out clothes to give to Good Will and the Salvation Army – leading me to cringe, just thinking of the similar task awaiting me, given how it’s been over a year since I moved into my tiny apartment and I have many more clothes than I actually wear or have room for. We commiserated on the issue of too little room for our stuff.
But, he wasn’t talking about his own stuff so much as his mother’s. She died little more than six months ago – at age fifty-eight – and he’d had the painful task of going through her belongings and having to dispose of them, while every thing he gave up meant another loss: a loss of mementos, reminders of personal history, of the life he remembered growing up.
I’d lost my own mother just the previous May, and my father when he was only fifty-four. I was able to commiserate. When he said that he’d been having a lot of trouble sleeping since his loss, I suggested that a grief counselor might be helpful.
The conversation reminded me, later, that I may have some unaddressed issues of my own. Those unpacked boxes of my old clothes, my reluctance to let go of favorite clothes I’ve worn to rags, the way a whole big part of my life seems to have been in mothballs lately… I’m something of an artist (see http://www.dreamspell.net if you don’t believe me), but I’ve only poked at drawing or crafting projects in the past year and a half since my own mother’s death – instead, my favorite pastime has been playing computer games to zone out, achieving as numb a state as possible.
Sean said his loss had hit him especially hard since it came at a time when he considered himself otherwise very happy, thinking life was really going his way.
My mother’s passing came at a time when I should have otherwise been on top of the world, having just realized a life-long dream with the publication of my first novel, and looking forward to the publication of my second novel a month later.
Instead, it presaged a time of huge upheaval, as I was also out of work and in the process of looking for a new residence – without the means to support one – as it was, I moved three times within three months, going from place to place, to my brother’s spare bedroom, before I finally came to roost in the tiny apartment where I’ve been for the past year.
In retrospect, I can see signs of trauma in my behavior, how withdrawn I’ve been – almost paralyzed in some ways, doing little more than the minimum requirements for survival. It could have been a lot worse. I’ve stayed positive in a lot of ways, moved forward with writing, found work, kept up with friends – but there’s a sense of avoidance, as if poking into certain areas would be like putting weight on an injury. Hearing about my coworker’s loss and his task of sorting reminded me of my own situation, especially, the juxtaposition of loss in the midst of success.
I suggested to Sean that we need to define happiness in a way that recognizes the fact that life will always include pain and loss. A true happiness must be based in this reality, will require that we take what love and light we have to bring as comfort into the darkest corners and hours of our souls.
Well, I’ve smoothed out the language, but that’s the gist of the thought and it seemed to help.
Hearing about his loss and the follow-up work of disposing of his mother’s possessions reminded me of issues I’ve been avoiding. Sometimes the perspective offered in the stories we share turns out to be necessary to the whole process of unpacking our own stories, sorting the past into what’s meaningful and valuable before we can let go of the rest.
When I talk about writing, it always seems to come around to how everything contributes to the writing process.
Everything we see: writing calls upon an inner artist to take note of light and shadow, subtleties of hue and texture, details of dress, expression, physiognomy. And it calls on an inner theatrical director who notes significance in gestures, unspoken glances and manners.
Everything we hear: writing calls on the inner musician for the cadences of speech, the tones that strike the heart or convey what words belie, the tempo of events, the sound track that evokes the passion of the actors in events.
Every thing we encounter and use in the world enriches the writer’s work with an understanding of the roles played by the objects in our daily lives, and of the work, crafts and sciences that combine to create them.
The more we know about the world, its history, the workings of our communities and societies and our place among other species and the cosmos, the more we can bring to our stories, the better founded they are. Though the nature of a story determines what fits – and imagination is, as the great Albert Einstein said, more important than knowledge.
The characters in our stories can echo and reflect but never completely capture the character of people we meet and care for in our lives. Not that I’d really want to draw too true a character sketch of anyone I know – characters in stories can be bigger than life. They can be simpler than real life ever is – more comprehensible.
Real people tend to try to simplify themselves to put limits on their potential, to fit themselves into predefined slots, but the reality is bigger than that, broader and deeper, and our stories are only the better for recognizing that as well.
We can know no one as well as we can know ourselves – and if you’re at all like me, that job is never complete. In writing, I’m continually surprising myself with what I didn’t know I knew, or felt or understood. Writing is an act of discovery even more than an exercise of knowledge and experience. Let us go forth and explore the undiscovered countries of our stories!