Monkey

Monkey

Monkeys aren’t always this cute…

Cute little buggers, aren’t they? Adorable as they are, they can also stand for an addiction or a problem you just can’t seem to kick. A bad habit. A burden.

How do you get rid of the monkey, or at least keep it manageable? Like any problem, the first step is to acknowledge what it is. Although I have several that cling to me, correspondence seems to be one that I struggle with on a routine basis. Phone calls, letters, emails, tweets, you name it, I’ve let it slide. A few days or even a few weeks later, I’ll be playing catch-up and apologizing for my absence. That’s a serious problem, because writers need to keep those communication channels open and information flowing freely back and forth.

So that’s the problem. Probably doesn’t seem too daunting to you, but for me it’s a constant annoyance and something I want to change, because it could stand in the way of succeeding as a writer. I could lose opportunities to network, opportunities to submit or publish my writing, if I don’t fix it. The question is not only am I WILLING to change, but how COMMITTED am I? Here’s where you sit down with yourself and really think about what’s at stake if you don’t change. Is it important to you? Why?

Change can be difficult. Period. Please don’t go overboard and try for perfection, here! Set small, manageable goals at first and step your way up to where you eventually want to be. For example, my goal is to post a blog entry this week. Success! And I’m feeling pretty good about that. Perhaps I’ll add another small goal in another area, such as answering tweets within 24 hours, and see how that goes. If that’s too much, I’ll know I stepped up too fast and have to back that expectation down a bit. Even if you don’t make it, treat it matter-of-factly instead of chastising yourself—remember, the goal is not perfection and beating yourself up never helps. You might even want to stay at a certain level for a few weeks and allow that to become comfortable before bumping it up a notch.

And if you totally derail along the way? You’re not alone! Relapse is common when you attempt to make a change. Take a deep breath and give yourself the gift of a clean slate before trying again. Examine what got in the way of continuing your new behaviors and think how you might address that. If you need help, get it—pride’s great and all, but if whatever you want to change is important enough or damaging enough, throw pride out the window. I know it’s tough, how well I know—but you can do it!

All right, no more monkeying around—time to show this monkey who’s boss!

The Lady or the Tiger?

Today I wanted to write about two completely different topics. The “Should” monster popped up and chastised me, urging me to pick one and roll with it. But the monster’s not as big as it used to be, and I kicked it into a corner instead. So here goes.

First topic: Amazon’s decision to create the Kindle Indie Bookstore. There’s been a good deal of discussion about the profitability of self-publishing for authors who either cannot or refuse to go the traditional publishing route, and arguments about whether releasing a glut of unvetted books will have any impact on the overall quality of literature. I’ve been warned not to self-publish for fear of turning off agents and blowing potential deals when I do seek traditional publication, and encouraged to do it because circumvents gatekeepers, with a higher percentage of profit from each book sale.

How will Amazon’s decision affect e-book self-publishing? Hard to say. The storefront does highlight indie books that have sold well, which may give better quality books a leg up. In addition, having your own category could be perceived by some as a nod to legitimacy. Then again, segregating the entire category may eliminate the chance for readers to “stumble upon” some of these books while browsing among their traditionally published cousins, or mark them as the dross of the publishing world. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

Second topic: Scientists have discovered that reading fiction can change your personality (read the Quill & Quire article). Subjects were given either a short story or a simple list of plot points to read, and then administered a standard personality assessment. Those who had read the story exhibited personality changes, while those who read only plot points did not. This does not surprise me, but I’m pleased to hear there’s now empirical evidence to support fiction’s influence on readers. In my former life as a psychologist-in-training, I was introduced to narrative psychology—understanding how we, as human beings, make sense of our and others’ experiences by developing a narrative, or story.

We have an important job as writers. By writing stories, we change others and shape the world we live in. It’s easy to become discouraged by the submission and rejection process, thoughtless questions from others about what’s taking so long to get published, the insinuations that what we do is both easy and meaningless. Not so.

I guess I see both topics as “Lady or Tiger” issues: Self-publish or go the traditional route? Quit writing or keep going? Both choices have their up and down sides, their heartaches and ecstasies. In each, there’s a ray of hope because we have choices, and we do make a difference in the world. The evidence is in our favor now, isn’t it?

Leggo my ego!

LEGO Eggo

Writers eat criticism for breakfast!

Nope, not a misspelling–I really did mean ego. In this case, I’m referring to it in the vernacular as a sense of self-importance, such that we believe our work and the products of our imagination are unassailable.

This is where the trouble begins. How do you improve your writing? By hearing and acting on constructive criticism. But let’s be honest, shall we? Hearing that criticism can be agonizing, threatening to our egos when we aren’t sure of ourselves. I know I’ve wanted to run away from it sometimes or clamp my hands over my ears as I babble “la la la la la, can’t hear you!” And I know this isn’t productive–not everyone is going to think our writing is the best thing they’ve ever seen, as beautiful and porcelain-perfect as babyskin. If that were the case, all of us would be instant New York Times bestselling authors, right? Well, I don’t see my name on that list. Not yet, anyway.

Writing is an intensely personal process in many ways. Our ideas, our thoughts, and our feelings are poured out into written form, an imperfect translation of the soul, and when someone critiques that translation it can be crushing. We respond violently, defending our ego from the external threat. “They just aren’t able to appreciate me,” we bluster between licks of the wound, “why can’t they see how talented I am?” So we tune out the criticism and slog along, no wiser.

Did you spot the fundamental flaw? What is being critiqued, anyway? Words on a page. Execution. The match with another person’s unique taste. But you, the person? Hardly. It’s like saying a picture of you is the same thing as the living, breathing you and that because someone doesn’t enjoy that picture, you are worthless. And that’s baloney, because there never has been and never will be anyone else like any of us, ever again. As much as we’re all alike, we’re different–and that means you have something to offer.

So let’s turn the process around. Instead of letting our worth depend on someone’s judgment of words on a piece of paper, unhook the two. Start with remembering what you want to say, the joy you take in writing, all of the great things you are. Write it on a piece of paper in fruit-scented markers and hang it over your desk, record it as your mantra and play it back after the twentieth rejection slip comes in, tattoo it on your forearm if that works for you (and please don’t take all my advice literally, thanks very much–I don’t want hordes of angry family members coming after me to demand monetary compensation for the laser removal treatment), whatever works best.

But DO listen to constructive criticism. Does your story’s pace seem slow or draggy? Cut material or use more active verbs. Too much of a trope? Tropes are hard to avoid, but try for a twist that no one would’ve expected. Comma junkie (my personal problem)? Edit the crap out of your piece and yank the commas out as ruthlessly as weeds from your flower beds. Be honest with yourself and consider feedback not as an attempt to brutalize you, but as the means to becoming a superlative writer. How else do you think you’re going to achieve that goal?

And remember, even the most successful writers still receive criticism throughout their careers. Get used to it. It’s part of the gig. Pour syrup on it and swallow it down as you leggo your ego–bon appétit!

Special thanks to Eric Hunter at The Art of LeGogh for the spectacular photo of one of his awesome LEGO creations!

Can you feel me now? Good!

Okay, just realized that this post’s title could come across rather in a different way than intended, but bear with me here, people. What I’m referring to is emotion and writing that evokes an emotional response, that wrenches your gut and makes you weep or laugh out loud. That’s what I aspire to produce so much of the time, but achieve only part of it. I frequently wonder what makes certain movies or stories so emotionally satisfying and others flat or just plain annoying.

I’ve been following Doctor Who for a few years now and haven’t been entirely satisfied with the newest season until the last episode. When Vincent Van Gogh is transported to the present-day Musée d’Orsay and sees his paintings on display, hears how influential his work has been, he’s moved to tears. And I cried right along with him, feeling that profound joy at knowing one’s work has made a difference. In one short episode, I developed a connection to him and felt much of what he felt–empathy, in other words.

That’s what I think makes for great stories, that strong connection to and investment in what happens to the characters, particularly the protagonist(s) or “good guys.” How many times have you sat through a horror movie with vapid, flat, one-dimensional characters that you don’t care about? I’ve sometimes found myself rooting for the monster instead because I actually had feelings about it!

So how do you evoke feelings for and about your characters? I’m no expert, but I can speak from my own experience, both as a reader and as someone who trained to be a psychologist. Making what a character experiences something that readers can relate to seems important. Losing a loved one, especially when we as readers have come to love that person too, feels like a small death of our own hearts…and sometimes not so small. When a writer allows him- or herself to fully experience their own emotions and allows characters to be themselves, be real people with flaws and weaknesses and desires, those feelings tend to come across on the page and move us as well.

There have been times in the past when I’ve cried or been incredibly happy for a protagonist in a movie or a book, and certain other people boggle at the sight. “What in the world are you crying for,” they say, “it’s not as if they’re real people!” I beg to differ. For me, they’re very real. All stories profit from suspension of disbelief, and when I’m presented with someone who could be real, fully rounded and believable, I fall for it and believe they really are. And I feel accordingly.

So maybe, in the most roundabout of ways, what I’m trying to say is that my job, as a writer, is to help my reader clap their hands and believe in fairies so that the magic doesn’t die. We all know that the world encourages us to be practical, to believe in only what we can see, hear, and touch, and that the ability to imagine dwindles as a result. Perhaps that’s our task, as writers–to break the wicked spell of disbelief and breathe life back into our readers, kissing them awake gently sometimes and beating out a thunderous tattoo in their sleeping ears at others.

So what I want to know is, can you feel me now? I sure hope so. Otherwise, prepare for delicate kisses, soft and light as butterfly wings, or a big bass drum to rouse you from your slumber. I won’t spoil the surprise of which one it will be…it’s better this way, don’t you think?

Shadowboxing

Shadows.  Areas where light cannot penetrate, when obstructed by an object. That part of ourselves that we repress and try to bury, reluctant to admit that it exists at all. Why do I bring this up?

I came face-to-face with my own today. And I was disturbed, to say the least. Generally, I like to think of myself as a good, decent, and relatively soft-hearted person. Someone who tries to do what’s right, and sticks up for the underdog.

The problem is, people like that don’t write the things I put down on paper today…or do they? According to Jung, “in spite of its function as a reservoir for human darkness—or perhaps because of this—the shadow is the seat of creativity.” Okay, I suppose I can buy that, although I’m still uneasy with it.

I wrote this piece, a short story about demons and demon possession, specifically for a particular anthology. I was trying to disturb the reader, to shake them up, but I didn’t expect to feel it myself. And in turn, about myself. We all have the persona, or mask, that we show to the world, reserving our truest selves for our most intimate relationships; and, I would argue, there’s always some part of us that we never share. For me, a lot of that is shadow material, some of which spilled over today into my conscious and even public life, a dark earthquake sending out temblors to rattle my self-image.

And how others see me. I’m quite good at keeping my and others’ secrets, and I can’t say whether that’s fortunate or not, because secrecy is sometimes essential to preserving trust. People used to tell me things, you see, and they often weren’t very nice things–but that’s what I signed up for, when I did counseling. I worry about someone, perhaps a former client or current friend/family member, reading what I’ve created, seeing my darkness, and wondering how in God’s name they ever thought I was a good person to have any sort of relationship with. Because in every story I write, there’s some part of me being brought into the light.

Jung wrote that “everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.” So I suppose that by writing this story and presenting it to others, making it conscious, I’ve let a little more light into the blacker depths of my psyche. In any case, I’m being honest. And I believe that’s truly important when writing, just like it was when I was doing counseling (although I think I’m more honest now), because it improves the instrument I’m working with–me.

So although I’m doing a little shadowboxing today and fussing over what that means, I don’t think I’ll be stuffing that part back down anytime soon. Stretching the boundaries of the self might be painful and letting the darkness out into the light scary, but I agree with what Shrek says after belching: “Better out than in, I always say.”

Ogres are so wise.