Thursday, February 22, 2018

Using Fickle Memory

Zestful Blog Post #252

Nearly two years ago, I wrote a post here called "To the Ballpoint," about using ballpoint pens for writing longhand. I reminisced about a TV advertisement for Bic pens, starring the Olympic ice skater Peggy Fleming, and lamented that I couldn’t find the spot on YouTube or anywhere. I recalled in rigorous detail Peggy’s thrilling performance at the 1968 Olympic games in France, her gold medal, and then the television ad where the Bic pen was strapped to her skate and given Olympic-style punishment, with Peggy spinning around as the pen point dug into the ice. Then after the ice, she takes the pen and holds the tip in a pan of fire, then writes the amazing word BIC on a large pad of paper. OK, right. I so wanted to find that commercial on line. But it wasn’t there. I googled “Peggy Fleming Bic pen TV” but—nothing. Why, God, why?
Just a few days ago, I got a notice that a reader of this blog had put up a comment on that post: “It wasn’t Peggy Fleming. It was Aja Zanova. There is a YouTube video with that commercial.”
I was stunned. Surely this could not be right. Of course it was Peggy Fleming in that advertisement. I would have bet every dime I had that the skater in that ad was Peggy Fleming. Not only had I remembered that commercial, some of my other correspondents here remembered it as well. But! I looked it up using Aja Zanova’s name, and son of a bitch if it isn’t true! Here’s the the YouTube link! The commercial starts 18 seconds in.

 And it is exactly the commercial. The beautiful skater, wearing one of those dresses, the Bic pen strapped to her ankle, the announcer’s cheesily overexcited commentary, the ice chips flying as the pen fairly screams from the punishment. The unstrapping and holding of the pen point in the pan of fire. Everything.
Except it isn’t Peggy Freaking Fleming! Who the hell is Aja Zanova??!! Well, she was a super famous, two two-time world champion from Czechoslovakia, who skated during the 1940s and 50s. Here’s her wiki storyThank you, dear reader MH! Thank you a thousand times for finding and sharing the truth! The mystery of the missing Peggy Fleming YouTube had been preying on my mind, just softly, in a far corner, all this time. I haven’t been able to ascertain what year the Bic pen commercial debuted. Hey, if anyone can find out that one, I’d be grateful. But isn’t it wild that right now, during the winter Olympics 2018, we get definitive word on this?
So for the past few days I’ve been thinking intensely about memory and its fickleness, and applications of same in fiction. Of course, faulty memory has long been a feature of police/crime stories, where a witness gets something crucial wrong. (Ripped from the headlines, for sure, as there are any number of real-life situations like this. Thank you, the Innocence Project.) Too often, though, I’ve seen the technique abused, where the author just bails out of a tight spot by employing faulty memory as a cheap twist.
If you’re considering using faulty memory in a story, all you really have to do is make it plausible. But what does that mean?
One, give it enough background to make the mistake believable. You could actually weave a bit of theme in there, by showing incidents of faulty memory occurring early in the story—laying some groundwork.
Two, give the person with the faulty memory a lot of depth and detail. Show us the inner thoughts of that character, show how things get twisted around. These things take time in real life, usually; let that work to your advantage here.
Three, do a bit of ‘method writing,’ drawing on the feelings you’ve had when you realized your memory about some specific event or thing was wrong.
Four, create significant fallout. A character confronted with the truth has choices. They may stubbornly believe they’re right, in spite of direct, incontrovertible evidence that they’re wrong. This can lead to an endless spin cycle of self-justification for that character, where that moment of wrongness takes over their life, making them incapable of moving forward in any honest way.
Or the realization of being wrong can lead that character to try to make amends. Or to try to create a different reality by altering evidence, or committing some related crime. Or deciding to get revenge on whoever showed them up as wrong. Lots and lots of possibilities.
I might note that a situation involving faulty memory can be significant in a plot without having to do with violent crime. It can start with something like:
You borrowed that black turtleneck from me.
No, I didn’t.
Yes, you did.
Remember when I had that idea for…?
Yeah, no. That was my idea.
Ah, dig it! What a wonderful world of fiction--and figure skating--lies ahead!

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, February 15, 2018

I Love You

Zestful Blog Post #251

I’ve told you before that I love you. Here and there in this blog, as a little tagline, mostly, I’ve done so. Time to say it again: I love you.

On the first day of class at Ringling College last fall, I told my students I loved them. This was perhaps ill-advised, as I had just sat through hours and hours of lectures and presentations for new faculty on how to behave around students. Things to avoid doing and saying, things that could be taken the wrong way. The experts didn’t specifically forbid telling your students you love them; they probably figured nobody would be that clueless. But I thought, Just be yourself. Might as well start now.
Context, of course, is a thing. The class laughed when I made some wry comment, and I was so happy they got it. “I love you,” I said. “I love you so much.” Startled, they laughed at that, too, which was fine. They understood what I meant. Warm human feeling. When something similar happens when I’m talking to a group at a conference or what have you, I do the same thing. And they get it. Just a little dose of warm human feeling.

It’s not all business. So much, so much is sheltered beneath all of our surfaces.
There it is for today: I love you. You are my friend, and I’m your friend. Let’s never forget that.
How do you feel? 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, February 8, 2018

Wringing Direct Experience

Zestful Blog Post #250

I so much don’t want this to be a brag post. Because I hate reading brag posts, and so do you. I just want to make a point and give some reminder-style advice about getting everything you can from a direct experience.

The other day Marcia and I journeyed from our home on Florida’s Gulf coast to the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral to witness a bit of history: the inaugural test flight of the Falcon Heavy rocket, part of Elon Musk’s SpaceX program to improve rocket science and eventually get humans to Mars. Super big rocket, super complicated, with a fun payload of Musk’s Tesla car with a ‘guy’ in a space suit at the wheel. The launch represented a host of firsts, so although it’s a gamble to drive all the way across the state to see a space shot that could get scrubbed at the last minute, we decided to buy tickets and take the risk. (We’d observed a Space Shuttle launch for free from a grassy knoll in Titusville, but this time we wanted—apart from a closer experience—nice washrooms and the opportunity to buy and consume hot loaded nachos.)

And yeah! The launch was fabulous, but I won’t bore you with the blow-by-blow. [Delete: Yeah, first we got gas at that Chevron over by the cafĂ©, then, you know, the weather was pretty nice, and like the traffic was really heavy the closer we got to the center, you know, and we tried to see the rocket from the causeway but we weren’t sure which thing sticking up in the distance was it, plus there was some haze at that hour of the morning…] Delete delete

So what’s the point of this post?
1)     To be alive to the vastness of experience.
2)     To go after it.
3)     To improve your abilities to extrapolate and synthesize. This is the piece of greatest importance for writers.

To illustrate, no blow-by-blow, but here’s a partial list of my experiences and impressions from launch day:

Cursing endlessly at the drivers who disobeyed the signs and roared ahead of us rule-followers queuing up for miles in the right lane as told. Entertaining Marcia with inventive curses. Hatred surging in my heart for people who cut ahead, but not debilitating hatred.
Is that a great blue heron? Or a crane? You’d think there’d be gators in that big ditch.
Gigantic guy in a gigantic back brace.
Smells of cooking hot dogs. Yeah, nachos. More sunscreen.
Woodstockian sea of people looking in one direction, over the roofline of the IMAX building, knowing it isn’t time yet.
Little girl in astronaut jumpsuit walking through the crowd with head high, hoping to be taken for a real astronaut.
Anxiety. T-minus keeps getting longer.
Murmurs. Shouts. Adrenaline. Tachycardia.
The brightest fire in the world! A rend in the fabric of reality!
Sonic booms, plural!! Sternum vibrations. Dude!
My God. My God. Look at that.
Face wet with tears. Friendship 7. The things imagined, the things made real.
A French fry plopping at my feet from the sky, having presumably been dropped by an overstimulated gull.

The point is, there’s so much waiting for you that you don’t expect. Space shots are extraordinary, and not everybody gets a chance to see one. But lots of other stuff happens that you can get out for and find way more than what’s front and center. City council meetings. Climb that hill, just for kicks. Ballgames. Prune that cherry tree. The movies. The lumpy blanket in the back seat. The sound of the cork popping, the cookie crumbling, the cows coming home. The look on that woman’s face when her boyfriend whispers to her. The guy on the ladder throwing a hammer to the guy on the roof. The grace of the catch! The feel of the breeze: What side of your face feels it? The young student copying the Vermeer in the museum, her easel and paints, tiny green splash on her white sneaker. The fear in that foreman’s voice. Scrape the ice off your windshield. Close your eyes. The dogs say goodnight.

1)     Say yes.
2)     Write bits of it down.
3)     Draw it. Try.
4)     Say yes again.
5)     And again.
6)     Take everything with you as you set to work.

When you practice feeling the whole of an experience, you can better bring detail to what you write, and you can better invent details with which to deepen your writing.

On this rocket day, I made notes in my journal, drew crummy pictures to help myself remember. Pencil shavings in the grass. Took some pictures with my phone camera. But it’s the stuff in graphite on paper that’s gonna endure. That’s the stuff you’re going to want to go back and look at. It’s so simple.

We have so much on our minds. Don’t forget to be here as fully as you can. I’m not saying anything new. But I’m saying it my way, dammit. Writers, feel it all. Say yes to it all. And capture a highlight or two. Or a lowlight. Whatever is distinct. Do it in a word, a line. Don’t stress over it. If it’s not fun, decide that it’s fun.

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, February 1, 2018

Giving Characters Credit

Zestful Blog Post #249

Our characters can open their own American Express accounts, but they need us to give them the credit they deserve for complexity and incomplete intelligence.

It’s impossible to know everything, so it follows that it’s impossible to acquire and apply all knowledge and all skills in all ways. We agree: There are ravines in everybody’s knowledge and skill set. But it follows that there are also odd peaks. Sometimes those peaks are unexpected. Fictional characters are the same. We learn from life.

I told my Ringling College students the following little story last term and realized I should share it here too. I was walking through a parking lot next to a marina and noticed a couple of guys struggling with a boat on a trailer. Seems they were trying to secure it properly. The guys were the dirt-baggiest, crummiest-looking, gap-toothed pair I’d seen in a while. Ragged clothes, grimy hands, greasy hair, dangling cigarettes. The pickup and trailer were a filthy, rusty mess, and the boat looked like it might have been seaworthy when Admiral Farragut was firing on New Orleans.

Something slipped with a clunk, and one guy said, “Hey! You ass, it goes the other way.”

The other guy said, “Don’t call me an ass.”

The first guy said, “I was speaking metaphorically.”

As God is my witness.

[The steely gaze, the brass buttons… what can you shout but “Farragut!”]
Too many of us, when writing characters and dialogue, oversimplify. A dirtbag kind of guy wouldn’t know the word ‘metaphorical’, let alone use it properly in a sentence, right? Yeah no, wrong. He certainly might. He might not know who Admiral Farragut was; then again he might. He might be able to calculate pinochle scores in his head, but he might waste all his money on lottery tickets. But if he does, he might not be able to bear his kids not having shoes that fit, so he starts dealing a little meth on the side, so they can wear decent sneakers. Who knows? Maybe he’s going to night school for electronics.

By the same token, a character who is smart and accomplished might not be able to chop onions properly. Might borrow money at rates only a fool would agree to. Might get a pilot’s license, then decide to keep going in the fog at low altitude because it’s only a little ways to the airstrip. Might insist on getting a prescription for antibiotics when sick with the flu.

A while back, I encountered disagreement from some writing friends as to whether a six-year-old boy would know and use the word ‘masculine’. There’s no hard rule, because it depends! If he’s heard it at home or somewhere, yeah, he certainly could know and use the word. If not, not.

Grab the freedom to let your characters be as complex and contradictory as the people you meet in life. Therein lies authenticity.

What are your experiences with this subject? 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.