Thursday, June 25, 2015

Don't Wanna

Zestful Blog Post #112

When you don’t feel like writing, what should you do?

Your first option is to not write. Of course. Millions of people, from all walks of life, enjoy the act of not writing on a daily basis. But if you’ve already made the decision to be a writer, you believe you really ought to write, you’ve enjoyed writing in the past, you know you have something to say or at least something you need to explore—you have to figure out a way to produce.

I’ve known writers who get in trouble when they equate writing to some other activity that requires proper enthusiasm. Like nobody is going to climb a mountain if they don’t feel like it, right? You’ve got to have enthusiasm and passion for any climb, besides physical conditioning.

For years, whenever I recognized that I was in a slump, I tried to make myself want to write. Tried to change my attitude somehow, tried to gin up enthusiasm. Tried to struggle against apathy. Struggle upon struggle. Gosh, what fun.

It is true that writing is a craft, and thus a writer benefits from adopting the mindset of a craftsman (this word applies to both sexes, because it’s more rhythmic than ‘craftsperson’ and because I say so). A craftsman takes materials and tools and makes something. Fine. You can build a chair even if you’re having an off day. It will still be a chair, serviceable and perhaps even beautiful. But there is more.

Gradually, when I became a professional—that is, when I started to earn a significant portion of my income from writing—it all came clear. All you have to do is show up and start working. No matter if your immediate results suck. Just show up on the page and see what happens. If you do that faithfully, you learn that the magic will come IF you work. The work itself produces the magic.

[I taped this postcard to my current notebook.
Here's a guy who struggled, but he produced, boy howdy did the
son of a bitch produce. And he found the magic.]

I have to re-learn this every time. I think, man, I don’t know how to get going on this story / article / blog post. What’ll I do? Then I just get started, in some random place, perhaps, with just the grain of an idea to explore. I know that if I work on an idea or angle and find that’s NOT the right path, that’s OK, I’ll have eliminated one possibility. But invariably, if that first angle conks out, it always shoots out a little spark of some new idea or possibility. And then I’m on my way. It might not be smooth from then on, but I’ll be producing material, and I know it will all come together, sooner or later.

Anyone who cares deeply about the quality of what they produce—chair-maker or author—and who sticks with it, learns this. It's incredibly freeing. Creative gurus have spread the word for ages, but the word still needs spreading. The magic’s already there. Show up, get to work, and go find it. Better yet, let it come to you.

What do you think? To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.

If you'd like to receive this blog automatically as an email, look to the right, above my bio, and subscribe there. Thanks for looking in.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Power of Structure

Zestful Blog Post #111

The Power of Structure

Last night I watched a movie from 1952 called “The Crimson Pirate”, starring Burt Lancaster and some other people who don’t count because Burt Lancaster is the best ever. I love him, especially in roles where he gets to do acrobat stuff, which he does in “The Crimson Pirate”. (In case you’re not a Burt Lancaster aficionado, he was a circus acrobat early in his career. Which helps explain why he’s so graceful onscreen, whether he’s drinking a cup of coffee while glancing at someone or swinging from the crow’s nest to the yardarm or whatever the hell those things are called.)

[Avast, ye scurvy dogs! Photo by ES.]

The film is basically a pirate spoof, complete with madcap soundtrack, and it’s actually a lot of fun. “Pirates of the Caribbean” ripped off a bunch of elements of it, particularly the guys-walking-on-the-sea-floor scenes.

You could watch this movie and brush it off as lightweight entertainment. And it is. But here’s the thing. Lots of people think there’s not much to it. Like, hey, let’s make a goofball movie and make a million dollars! (Or: Let’s write a cheesy book and make a million dollars! Right.) But it’s good lightweight entertainment. What makes it good? Attention to the structure of the story. I stand by this and will support it. Read on.

Writers make a mistake when they write crummy, careless material and think it will work because there’s humor in it, or they have a unique premise. Roland Kibbee and Waldo Salt, writers of “The Crimson Pirate”, took care to craft a satisfying story structure, a.k.a. plot. They could have gotten away with a simpler structure, but because they included elements of epic stories, they elevated the movie to zany excellence.

Key example: Burt’s first mate isn’t that much of a team player, and he thinks Burt isn’t ruthless enough to be a great pirate leader. He sneaks around, spying, hears some partial information, and based on that leads the pirates to mutiny. This forces Burt to be even braver and more inventive, in order to overcome the mutiny. He does, and at this point you basically forget the first mate. He’s served his purpose as a stumbling-block for the hero. Much excitement is going on. The pirates are in a struggle to help liberate an island from the unjust rule of the British, whose navy ship is trying to destroy the pirates.

But! The first mate shows up again just before the final battle of the pirates against the miserable limeys. You think he’s going to ruin things again for Burt, but he reveals that he’s ashamed of having double-crossed Burt, and sacrifices himself to help the pirates win. He’s learned that some things are more important than treasure, like the dignity of a downtrodden people. First mate stays at the helm of the pirate ship as Burt and all the others slip overboard to swim secretly to the King’s ship and take it over. The King’s guys think the pirate ship is bent on shelling them, so they blow it out of the water first. While they’re busy doing this, the pirates have boarded them and quickly overpower them. Burt kisses the pretty daughter of the rebel leader. Yay, the end.

So: If you’re still with me, and I hope you are, it’s the arc of the first mate’s character—and you can almost miss it!—that elevates this movie from mundane to affecting. When you have a character who does a 180: from bad to good, or from good to bad, you’ve got something compelling. The sequence here: Selfish bad guy, change of heart, repentance, self-sacrifice to help the cause.

You are thinking perhaps of Sydney Carton in Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. Yes. You can think of more, no doubt, in great stories all over the place.

Structure. You can think it through, focus, and write it.

p.s. I passed the lifeguard final exam.

What do you think? To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.

If you'd like to receive this blog automatically as an email, look to the right, above my bio, and subscribe there. Thanks for looking in.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Underthink It

Zestful Blog Post #110

If you joined us last week and read my post about undertaking YMCA lifeguard training, you might be pleased to know that I passed the water-skills test and was accepted into the program. My classmates and I received our official rescue packs (photo below), yay.

A particular thing happened during training that I want to share, because it bears on a creative life. Forgive the training details, but there is a point.

[In here you keep your breathing mask and gloves. Photo by ES.]

Everyone in my class is 16-18 years old except me. (My birth date is a matter of public record but I wish it weren’t.) Our instructor is a veteran lifeguard and aquatics manager. One evening we were in the pool practicing water rescues, using a piece of equipment called the rescue tube. This is a thin, flexible float with a strap that you keep slung over your shoulder all the time you’re on duty. In an emergency, you can swim out and use it to help you rescue someone. We learned how to approach a facedown victim and flip them faceup while at the same time rolling the person onto the tube so you can start rescue breathing and tow them in.

This is not easy. I tried and tried to get my ‘victim’ onto the tube but she’d (we’re all females in this class, thankfully for the teenage hormone factor) slip off, or I’d be unable to sink the thing enough to wedge it under her past her neck. Our instructor kept coaching me, but I couldn’t do it. I kept trying to remember each micro-step of the process, which we learned in the classroom, and applying them one by one. Everybody else got it after one or two tries. I worried that the instructor thought I was a clumsy idiot. Finally I figured out the missing piece (you have to pull them onto the tube, not push the tube under them) and now I’m confident with it.

A couple of nights later we started in on backboard extractions. The bitchin part of this one is sinking the board exactly right so it comes up correctly beneath the victim. It takes a surprising amount of strength and agility to do this, because the board is very buoyant, and not stable in the water unless the victim is centered on it just so. I was slightly gratified to see my young concrete-thighed, swim-team companions struggle to get it right. When it came to my turn, the instructor shouted, “Don’t overthink it, Elizabeth!”

That was all it took. I kicked up, put my weight on the board, and zoomed it under the victim and it came to rest perfectly.

I was like, yeah. Get the gestalt of the thing, view it as a whole, do it in one move. Based on my struggles with the tube technique, the instructor knew exactly what to tell me.

After class I pondered the creative process. It’s easy for writers and other creative humans to overthink things, which leads to doubt. Is this the right way to do this? What if it isn’t? Gosh, I don’t know!

So, good advice for us all: Relax, know you can do it, don’t overthink it. Or, since we prefer positive admonitions to negative ones: Underthink it and see what happens.

What do you think? To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever. [BTW, I promise I won't keep finding ways to bring up my lifeguard training.]

If you'd like to receive this blog automatically as an email, look to the right, above my bio, and subscribe there. Thanks for looking in.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

A Blogger Takes Action

Zestful Blog Post #109

[Pre-blog note: My webmistress figured out why so many people couldn’t leave comments on this blog, and we have changed the comment function accordingly. If you blog on Blogspot too, you might find the following explanation interesting. If not, spare your brain temperature and skip this graph. If you have third-party cookies disabled, it wasn’t letting you finish your comment. It was a shortcut that Google was using to store the comment, but it basically was a flaw, because it had this negative ramification. The new comment function no longer requires third-party cookies. So hey, if you’ve been stymied before, I invite you to give it a try. If you still have problems, please please tell me via email.]

One of our gang, a follower of this blog named Patricia Hilliard, left this comment on my recent post #107, which was about bloggers having original ideas (or not):

“I sit down to write a blog and realize many of us have the same ideas. There's a need for action and accomplishment. Something we writers find difficult since it involves getting out of our chairs. But if we do, and come back to our chairs, we'll have something really worth reading. WE NEED BLOGS TO BE WORTHY OF THE TIME TO READ THEM.”

I commented back, “Amen!”

In that spirit, and in the spirit of zestful living, I’ll share something new: I’ve been training to pass the physical test for YMCA lifeguard certification.

When I was a little kid my mom sent me to swimming lessons at the local high school, where guys on the swim team basically shoved us into the deep end and pulled us out if we sank. Never was a good swimmer, though I could tread water in an emergency long enough to get hypothermia and die anyway.

After my shoulder surgery about a year ago, I did rehab exercises in the pool, and found it fabulous. Then, as I paddled around, I thought, wouldn’t it be great to learn to swim really well? I’d always felt sort of ashamed when in the water with people who actually knew how to swim.

So I surfed around on line and found Terry Laughlin’s Total Immersion DVDs, and joined the Y and started teaching myself a decent freestyle stroke. Recently I got the breaststroke and butterfly DVDs as well, and started work on the breaststroke. A few weeks ago one of the lifeguards and I were shooting the breeze and she said she thought I should go through lifeguard training, because they always need guards.

At first I was like haha, but then I thought, “Well, what if I could?” I would not just be a post-menopausal woman; I would be a BADASS post-menopausal woman.

“You could do it!” said Brenda, herself a badass post-menopausal woman.

On the first night of class, you have to demonstrate a variety of swimming and diving skills. If you fail, you get your course fee back and you slink away in shame. If you pass, you go through the 9-day course on lifesaving, advanced first aid and emergency care, CPR, and AED (the defibrillator thing). If you pass the exams, you’re eligible for employment as a lifeguard at the Y. I learned you can work as little as one 4-hour shift a week, get paid (OK, minimum wage), plus get a free membership, which in my case would combine to make a positive cash flow of more than $2,000 per year. Plus, besides the honor of possibly saving lives, I’d like to get a look into that subculture of guarding. I’m already learning the main line of dialogue, which is, “Was that thunder? Did you hear thunder?”

So I’ve been going to the pool with the list of requirements and an empty Altoids tin, and practicing. I swim to the middle (the deepest part of this pool), sink the tin, then go back to the end of my lane. Swim out, find the tin, dive down to get it, return to surface, tread water for 1 min without arms, then return to side not using arms, carrying tin. They make you dive for a ring instead of an Altoids tin. Altoids tins rust on the inside, I’ve found.

Swim 100 yards of freestyle, then 50 each of breast, sidestroke, breast head up, freestyle head up, and backstroke no arms using frog kick. Short underwater swim as well. The head-up strokes are a beeatch, because your lower body wants to sink in compensation for your head being out of the water. But they are the ‘safe-approach’ strokes when swimming to someone in distress.

So OK, I’m taking a risk telling you this, because I haven’t passed that physical skills test yet. It’s coming up TOMORROW NIGHT. Wish me luck.

p.s. Writer’s Digest is running a huge sale for a few days. You can get my book and everything else for 40% off, even stuff that’s already on special. Use promo code FFSUMMER40.
What do you think? To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.

If you'd like to receive this blog automatically as an email, look to the right, above my bio, and subscribe there. Thanks for looking in.