Thursday, August 31, 2017

Envy is Your Friend

Zestful Blog Post #227

Well, I bet that’s a blog post title nobody’s ever used before. Before I get to that, though, here’s a link to an interview of me done by Lynne Bernfield, a Sarasota-area psychotherapist who runs an internet radio show about creative people. She was particularly interested in the fact that while I always wrote, I didn’t have the drive to be a novelist from a young age. Actually, I tried to avoid the path of being a fiction writer, but eventually it sort of chased me down. I found Lynne to be a perceptive and thoughtful interviewer, and am grateful to have the chance to tell my story.

On to today’s theme. Not long ago, my colleague Ryan G. Van Cleave asked if I’d give him some quotes for an article he was writing for The Writer, a magazine for, yep, writers. The article (in the August 2017 issue) was about writer’s envy, and Ryan interviewed several other authors about the subject as well.

Here’s what I said:
“For years, I couldn’t even read novels by living authors who were more successful than me, which was almost everybody. In those days if I read a novel by a dead guy or gal, I could appreciate it without stress, because at least I could mutter, upon closing the cover, ‘Haha, you’re dead and I’m not!’
“Although I’ve envied other writers (and still do), I know I’m envied sometimes. Whenever I realize someone is envious of me, I’m like, ‘You poor dumb shmuck, you have no idea that my life is a boiling cauldron of failure and anxiety.’ But I always act super-cool and confident.
“How to conquer envy? A confident front is half the answer. The other half is to commit to being the best you can possibly be; to do at least most of the things you want to do; to meet and even exceed the goals you set for your life. Throw regret to the dogs and meet every day without excuse or self-doubt.
“Also this: If we say it’s OK to be envious, envy loses its power. Because everybody is envious at times.”  [end of quote]

Seriously, the reason envy feels so bad is that we try to suppress it. After all, it’s one of the Seven Deadly Sins (per Western Christian canon, though it’s often listed as greed, which really isn’t the same). And then, because suppression is usually a lousy strategy, we feel guilty when we feel envious, which just makes it worse. We feel we shouldn’t be envious, so if we are envious, that makes us just extra crummy people. So we get down on ourselves at the same time we’re trying to fight the envy, which is just a loser road.

[Portrait of Envy by ES]

The correct way to approach the issue is to be OK with envy. Hey, welcome it! Make friends with it. As you can see from the photograph of Envy I managed to take when we met up recently, Envy might seem fearsome and ugly, but look—it’s holding a bouquet! The bouquet is a gift! And it’s for you! Now, how can that be bad? It can’t. It’s good! Envy really has no power at all—it’s just a big guy who wears lipstick and a little gold skirt and wants to be liked.

So my message today is welcome envy if it ever comes around—and all the while, keep working like hell on your own show.

What are your thoughts on envy? To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.

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Thursday, August 24, 2017

The Power of Unexpected Story

Zestful Blog Post #226

As you may know, I’ve gotten a gig teaching a class in story writing at Ringling College of Art and Design. Last week, about 15 other new faculty members and I were obliged to attend an all-day orientation session. The agenda looked tedious: presentation after presentation from department heads and support teams, speech after speech. But first, all of us had to introduce ourselves and say a few words about our background and what we’re going to teach.

I was a little more than halfway back in the room. I listened to the intro stories, which all went as expected: “I’m [Firstname Lastname], and I taught [subject matter] at [this college, that university] for [X] years. I got my Ph.D. in [subject] from [alma mater], and I’m just so excited to be here.” A few of my colleagues mumbled or spoke softly, as if afraid someone might hear them.

So you know me, right? I was like, this is gonna be a long day, and already we can use a little relief. About five people before me, I started to think about what I’d say. My turn came. I spoke clearly and deliberately, in a cheerful tone.

“I’m Elizabeth Sims. I used to run the liberal arts departments at Harvard and the Sorbonne—in Paris.” Heads instantly turned in my direction and postures straightened. I went on, at the same pace, “I was the boss of both of those programs, at the same time.” Dead, attentive silence. “But I got kicked out of both places because of a series of really juicy sex scandals.” Every last pair of eyes was riveted to me, and people started to laugh incredulously. “So here I am at this fine institution. And guess what I’ll be teaching! Story writing! Making up stories. You see how it works.” Full-on, relaxed laughter. “The truth is, I’m an author and writing authority, and I’m a contributing editor at Writer’s Digest magazine. My degrees are from Michigan State University and Wayne State University—in Detroit. And now on to [name of person sitting next to me].” That person waited a moment for the room to settle down before resuming the ordinary story format. I hoped strongly to be one-upped, but nobody tried it.

During breaks, some of my colleagues came up to talk. One said, “I want to be in your class!” Another wanted my card so she could have me come and talk about storytelling to one of her classes. Another asked, anxiously, “Did you plan that? I mean, did you plan that?” Another simply said, in a low, awed tone, “That was great.” Such a tiny little thing; such fun, positive impact! I guess one reason my performance was so impressive was that the top administrators of the college were in the room. The people you’re supposed to really behave in front of.

I had already engineered a similar success a few years ago when, after arthroscopic shoulder surgery, I was sitting in the physical-therapy waiting room with a few other patients. Everyone started discussing why they were there: knee replacement, knee replacement, wrist tendon. I nodded sympathetically until they all turned, politely, to me. I gestured to my sling and explained that my arm had been torn off in a terrible car wreck, but doctors had reattached it during a grueling 17-hour operation. Judging by their slowly widening eyes and dropping jaws, I could have gone on about how I stanched the bleeding myself and used the severed arm as a club to ward off an aggressive grizzly bear, but Marcia, who had driven me to the appointment, broke in with the truth. (I believe I posted this on Facebook at the time, so forgive me if you already heard it.)

Other than to have fun telling you about my little shining moments, my point here is to remind us that story, when unexpected, can hit people strongly. You can have a lot of fun with story, on the page and off! It’s a gift! Find your balls and give it! Look for opportunities, and then report back to us, OK?
(For more on this subject, see post 145, Lying is Good for You.)

Do you have a story about a time when you fun-lied? Tell us! To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever. Photo by ES.

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Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Thematic Rule of Two

Zestful Blog Post #225

I like to use twos in writing.

If you have a work in progress—fiction, that is—most likely you have a theme in there somewhere. Take a little time to think about it and look for ways to develop it. Does love conquer all? If so, throw in more hate and see if you can shake love’s foundations. Or, perhaps, is love meaningless—and noble action the only valuable thing for a human to dedicate himself to? Ramp up the romance and see if the dispassionate seeker can be swayed.

A good technique is to explore more than one theme; then they can carom off each other and build complexity. A tough guy with a drinking problem is a bit of a cliché; what if you have your addicted detective fighting for the right to adopt a five-year-old orphaned beauty queen? Whoa, dude, that is off the wall. It can become a main plot, or a strong subplot. You’ve got a man’s struggle with inner demons, and you’ve got a needy child in limbo. This opens up all kinds of possibilities: family, the circle of life, exploitation, vulnerability, love and sacrifice.

You can jolt some juice into your work in small ways, too. Instead of simply having two characters disagree, have one throw a chair. Or if you already have a fistfight going, make sure somebody ends up with life-changing injuries, instead of just a black eye. Let your characters abandon themselves to their fates—and hey, fate is another theme right there. How do your characters think about it, what do they do to try to beat it, cheat it, or meet it?

[Rocket and capsule, U.S. Project Gemini. Two guys were in there, all the way up and all the way down. Photo by ES.]
When you feel stuck, sit back and throw out some possibilities involving twos, or even threes.

Oh, my God, they’re twins! That’s how the alibi got past the D.A.!

Get out now! It’s not just a twister, it’s twisters plural, coming from opposite directions!

Success in love and achievement both! Wow, what could go wrong now?

I betrayed not only you; I betrayed myself as well.

We’ll use not one decoy, but two. It’s foolproof, I tell you!

You see how it works. The rule of two is an easy technique to visit any time your fiction needs a boost. 

Have you used the rule of two in writing fiction? Tell us about it. Or, if you simply have a good recipe for soft, warm cookies, let us know. We’re getting hungry. To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.

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Thursday, August 10, 2017

Mad Scientist's Guide to Fiction

Zestful Blog Post #224

This post is a meaty excerpt from my article, "Fiction Lab," in the September 2017 issue of Writer’s Digest magazine.

For my 10th birthday, I requested and received a chemistry set. It came with all the cool stuff, but the experiments in the instruction book were feeble. You knew what was supposed to happen; nothing exploded, nothing grew over the top of the test tube. I started to think outside the kit. I took apart Christmas lights to create dollhouse lamps, but achieved only a blown fuse and some smoke. When my mother got hold of a fetal pig for me to dissect, I hooked it up to a dry cell in an attempt to trigger reflex motion. I succeeded in giving myself a shock.

Then a school chum told me he’d learned the recipe for gunpowder. It’s hard to fathom now, but children in the 1960s could and did obtain the raw materials for making explosives. The local pharmacist sold me as much potassium nitrate as I wanted, no questions asked, 15 cents an ounce. From there, life got a lot more interesting. (Surprisingly, I emerged from childhood with my eyesight, hearing, and all fingers and toes intact.)

My young mad-scientist days taught me some basic lessons in creativity. Now, as a writer of fiction, I create different sorts of things—equally incendiary and no less fun.

A mad scientist is passionate about a vision of something new. Perhaps because of that, she might seem somewhat unbalanced (hence mad). She’s eager to try anything to bring about success, and willing to endure sacrifice. A mad scientist’s spirit is indomitable and fearless. Most important of all, she’s ready to pick up after a failure and try a different formula. All qualities, as you’ve probably deduced, that would serve a writer just as well.

When your daily pages are looking stale, or your ideas aren’t flowing as fast, free and fun as you’d like—step into your fiction lab and try these approaches to tap into the mad-scientist spirit. 

Throw out the instructions.

We’re talking about a mad scientist, not an ignorant one. Textbooks serve a purpose—one must learn at least the rudiments of one’s craft before breaking new ground—but they can also become a crutch if we cling to them too tightly.

The poet Ezra Pound encouraged Ernest Hemingway to push beyond his journalism training to write short vignettes for The Little Review. Hemingway hadn’t written much fiction yet, but he penned a few vignettes of just a paragraph or so each, then he wrote more of them. It was bold to produce such short things and call them finished pieces; nobody else at the time was really doing that. But Hemingway wanted to write tight and true, and brought war and bullfighting to life with bluntness and cruel beauty in those brief but powerful portrayals.  Later he interspersed them with short stories to form his first collection, In Our Time, which brought him fame. Those vignettes that blew readers away in 1925 are no less effective today.

In 1980, Jean M. Auel broke new ground with the launch of her Earth’s Children series (The Clan of the Cave Bear, etc.), which endowed her preliterate primitive characters with emotion and powers of thought equivalent to those we associate with modern humans. I don’t know where she got the idea, but it sure wasn’t from any classroom I’ve ever heard of. Readers are still buying those rule-smashing stories today.

The point here is to not be constrained by convention. If you’re moved to try something different but a little voice says, “Wait, that’s not what we learned in the workshop!”—then stop and consider. Sometimes the “No!” and its attendant discomfort are really cues that you need to say, “Yes!”

What lies beyond the textbook is your own vision. To bring it into focus, find some stillness. Unplug from all the online crap and let your mind settle down. Contemplate your writing project, at whatever stage it’s in. Pay attention to any thoughts that come up about it, and write them down, whether they’re ideas about plot, or hunks of story, whatever. Even apparent junk tends to morph into original material if you stay open and give it enough time to move beyond stock advice and become wholly your own.

Stock the shelves with interesting supplies.

Of course, to remain perpetually in creation and experimentation mode, you do have to look beyond your own brain.

Dashiell Hammett read widely, seemingly without rhyme or reason: a Shakespeare play after a book on horology after a history of the Balkans after a memoir of a cowboy. This kind of reading was a sort of fertilizer for his brain. The Maltese Falcon didn’t have a clockmaking cowboy from Albania in it, but it did have tight time frames, wild action and international quarreling.

Consider anything and everything fodder for your fiction. Breakthroughs can happen when you draw information and inspiration from unlikely sources. Court transcripts, for instance, can yield amazing material. If your romance novel is lagging, why not look up the transcripts from some juicy, high-profile divorce cases? You won’t necessarily pluck from them word-for-word, but you could come across details that spark novelty.

Comb through belongings left over from your childhood. Remember what it was like to sneak around the neighborhood pretending to be a secret agent. Call up your most humiliating memory from the baseball diamond or Sunday school.

Learn to see possibilities in films, fiction, cereal boxes, weapons catalogs—anything! Throw things together in ways nobody else has dared to try; juxtapose wildly. Drop poison into a sculptor’s clay. Make a planet grow arms and legs. Impose no restrictions! Tinker to your heart’s content.

. . .

Make another one.

If you quit after one attempt, of course, you wouldn’t be much of a scientist—more like a curious visitor. There is tremendous power in setting to work anew, and seeing the next project through to the end. Make yourself at home in your lab. Construct it to suit your purposes not just for a wayward afternoon, but for countless days of discovery and wonder.

The world looks to artists to leave the general comfort zone, then report back. If you do that with intention and verve, again and again, it’s only a matter of time before you’ll look down at a creation and notice something different, something fabulous.

Your heart will race and your blood will pound and you will raise your fists and shout, “It’s alive!”

[For now, the whole article is available only in the current magazine.]

Did you ever blow anything up? Do you have any suggestions to share on this topic, or what the hell, any other? To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever. [Photo by ES]
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Thursday, August 3, 2017

The Fun Of It

Zestful Blog Post #223

Some years back, in conversation with a flute player, I asked why she played in the local symphony. We didn’t get paid, yet everybody faithfully showed up at rehearsals and concerts. Some players put more effort into it, others less. This flute player was a committed player with excellent skills. I played percussion.

“I just love to play the flute,” she said, smiling, then repeated, “I just love to play the flute!” Fair enough. Then she asked, “Why do you come to symphony?”

No one had ever asked me that before. I said, without any conscious thought, “I come to serve the music.” I think about that from time to time, as I’ve segued into (amazingly) getting paid to play in semiprofessional ensembles. The music must be served; it needs good players to do it.

It used to bug the hell out of me when a particular section mate would shrug off my attempts to help him play his part right or even come in at the right place. “Hey, I do this to have fun,” he would whine. I'd turn away in disgust and think, People buy tickets to come and hear us play, and they expect to hear and see everybody doing their best. (You lazy asshole.) The worst was, this guy had a degree in music and tutored young percussionists.

Fun isn’t whacking the drum carelessly and coming in whenever you guess is right. That is self-indulgence. Fun is keeping track of every measure, then playing the notes exactly as written on the page, with sensitivity, so that your playing melds with everyone else’s playing, as well as with the conductor’s baton, so that the whole becomes much more than the sum of its parts. That’s satisfaction. That’s fun. You’ll feel like smiling while you’re doing it, even silently laughing with pleasure.

The analogy with writing is real. A committed writer shows up on the page and puts it out there. You serve the words, you serve the writing. A quality result is far, far more than the sum of all those sentences and punctuation marks. And there’s everything right with fun! Having fun is the best way to do it: when it works, it’s fun, when it sings, it’s fun, when you’re in the zone, in the flow, it’s fun. A commitment to that kind of fun is sublime.

I might note that anthropologists and linguists believe human song almost certainly preceded language, which squares with the fact that paleolithic flutes predate—by far—the earliest known writing on clay tablets. As music developed, so did speech, writing, and literature. Literary forms got longer and more complex, and the novel emerged, arguably between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries. The corresponding musical form, the symphony, also emerged around the end of that period. The Greek word 'symphonia' means agreement or concord of sound.

Part of the gorgeous game of life is being present and making the most of every situation. The percussion section of an orchestra doesn’t always have parts to play, as for instance in most violin concertos. (Cymbals and drums tend to overpower a small solo instrument such as a violin.) So you sit out those pieces. The tradition among professionals is to sit or stand quietly and pay attention to what’s going on, first because it’s respectful, second because it’s pleasant to listen and evaluate what everybody’s doing, and third because you often learn things. And sometimes, fourth, if you’ve moved to a seat in the rehearsal hall well beyond the edge of the stage, you’re asked by the conductor how the balance is, and you can helpfully report that the French horns are slightly obliterating the soloist during the coda.

I remember being appalled seeing a young percussion player listening to pop music on his headphones during a rehearsal featuring a good regional soloist. He ignored what was happening, live, in front of him, as well as the example the rest of us were setting.

You’re supposed to take advantage of the opportunities that come your way, and you’re supposed to understand that something that might not seem like an opportunity just might be one. And that is fun.

What do you think? You are heartily invited to post a comment. Just click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever. [photo by ES]

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