Realizations and light bulbs

It’s been too long since I’ve written a blog post.  It’s also been that long since I’ve written anything of import.  I’ve pounded the keyboard on occasion, but it just didn’t go anywhere.  My get-up-and-go got up and went.  I pondered over it, tried to get over it, but the words just wouldn’t come.

Finally, I realized what had happened.  I was not writing because I was fixating on what I might do wrong.  Whoa, Nellie!  How the heck did that happen?

I’ve always felt I have a thick skin.  I can handle any kind of writing criticism.  Even a critique or a passing comment I totally disagree with is food for thought.  These people are readers.  Readers with their likes, dislikes and attitudes will hopefully, eventually be picking up a book with one of my stories in it or God willing, one of my novels.  What they think may or may not impact what I write, but awareness is good.  In an excellent eBook I just read, Making Story: Twenty-One Writers On How They Plot, edited by Timothy Hallinan, one of the contributing authors, Yrsa Sigurdardottir, said “If the people you ask to read over are trustworthy, they are not out to sabotage your work but help you.  So listen to them and make judgment calls for each criticism, putting your ego to one side as you do this.  Receiving criticism by e-mail beats reading the same in the review section of the paper, hands down every time.”

At a writers critique group I attended in July, one of the critiques I received was in my estimation over the top.  I came to realize the critique was less about my writing and more about me.  It was payback for probably more than one faux pas committed by yours truly.  Admittedly, I have trouble determining where the invisible social lines are drawn and find myself stepping over them occasionally.  I usually realize my mistake belatedly and try to make amends.  In the back of my mind I always worry about where those dratted lines are, but don’t always get it.  As I told another critiquer, I try to be nice, but I can be incredibly stupid.

I believe this reviewer’s take on my writing was as honest as it could be, but the way it was delivered aloud in the group and on the story she handed back to me was condescending, sarcastic and mean.  This kind of thing doesn’t happen to me often and I was totally unprepared.  What shocked me more than the review was that it led to a gradual paralysis of my ability to write.  It wasn’t that I thought I had no talent.  It was because I was too afraid of whom I might offend, insult or otherwise prod into a repeat.  It wasn’t about my writing.  It was about me.

Well.  That was then.  The only reason it worked so long on my psyche is because it took me so long to admit to myself it mattered what people thought of me.  When I was reacting on a purely subconscious level, it was devastating.  I’ve been living in the country, away from city and academic life too long.  My ability to recognize this kind of dynamic had been on hiatus.

The silver lining is that it woke me up to the possibility of more, but also the ability to recognize it for what it is and cope.  If I aspire to write on a salable, commercial level, I open myself up to be a target for more of the same.  There will be those who don’t like my writing and those who don’t like me.  I am sure some of them will be vocal or well-read.  Now I am more prepared.

So here I am, putting it out there again.  If I step on your toes, feel free to let me know.  It’s is much preferable to belated, oblique vengeance.  My obliqueometer is faulty, but it’s under repair.

While floundering with all of this, my novel has been percolating in my head.  I hadn’t quit, I was just stymied.  Realization upon realization – I need to rewrite the dang thing.  I’m mostly happy with the writing.  What I’m not happy with is the focus.  It doesn’t have any.  That’s why I’ve been having so much trouble developing a plot.  I hadn’t really settled on a core theme and story parameters.  Reading the above mentioned book has been a revelation in that regard.

I appreciate all who have been patient and understanding as I struggled toward another light bulb moment.

What do kids and YA or youth writers have in common?

Kids and those who write for them have to face a lot of the same decisions.  There is one large difference, of course.  As writers, we struggle with these decisions for our characters.  For adolescents and young adults themselves, the decisions are personal.  They agonize over the first time they want to ask a girl for a dance without being forced by a gym teacher.  They struggle with the challenges of dating and the social pressures regarding drug use and sex, and all that is influenced by the pendulum swings of hormones.  Nostalgia just took a turn for me.  Ah, angst – I remember it well.

As writers, we have to decide how we’re going to present these situations and how they are going to affect our characters.  Young Adult publications run the gamut of idyllic stories that seem intent on setting a wholesome example to edgy stories that reflect the slimy underbelly of the reality in which some children live.

In the novel I’m writing my protagonist is a fifteen-year-old girl.  She’s a pretty normal, sassy teenager but events are going to change her reality and she’s going to have to adapt.  Will she start cursing like a sailor, will she kill somebody in a fit of rage, will she and the guy she’s been making goo-goo eyes with have sex?  Not sure yet, but it’s been on my mind – thus this post.

I can understand the motivation of some parents and educators to only let kids read books that can serve as an example of exemplary behavior.  That’s what I wanted for my kids and want for my grandkids.  I would prefer they never experience adversity and never have to make difficult choices.  In order to ensure that, we would have to move back to Eden.  That quest would be fraught with everything I tried to shelter them from and is an impossibility, whether you believe it ever existed or not.

I spoke to a psychologist many years ago about how to handle it if you suspected someone was contemplating suicide.  This came up because my son suspected a friend of his was contemplating suicide.  Her advice was to ask them point blank – ask if they were thinking about it, if they were planning it and how far into the planning they had gone.  She assured me I would not be putting ideas into their head.  They were not going to say, “Why didn’t I think of that!” and start planning a suicide if the thought wasn’t there in the first place.

I have extended that advice to include any emotional place a person, adult or child can find themselves.  We chose what to read based on our needs, likes and dislikes.  If it’s of no interest to us we won’t read it.  If our children read something that relates to them and their lives or brings up something they’d like to understand, it opens the door for dialog with us as parents and educators.  Just because we don’t want them to experience or be faced with a thing doesn’t mean they aren’t.  Telling them they can’t read about difficult realities also tells them we don’t want to talk about them, effectively shutting the door to dialog.

I tried to write this blog post objectively and give equal time to both sides of the debate, but I find I’m just not objective enough about it to do that.  The journalist in me cringes, but the parent, grandparent and writer in me has to take a stand.

Monday’s Kick-Ass Prompt of the Week (KAPOW)

The last post was about separating personal biases from those of your characters in your writing.  Today, in 300 words or fewer, write a piece that shows a character’s bias clearly.  It can be fiction or creative non-fiction and it doesn’t have to be negative, in fact let’s strive for the positive.

I’m simplifying the prompt posts by following the prompt with my answer to it.  Soon I will change the past posts to incorporate the pieces written for the post into the post itself instead of on a separate page.  Much simpler for you and for me.  When I update past posts, hopefully you won’t be inundated with notifications.  I’ll try and not let that happen.

If you decide to write a piece for the prompt and post it to your blog, please let me know  about it in a comment, or post the piece itself in a comment.   I’m looking forward to seeing what you come up with.  Comments are appreciated.  Kind critique is also appreciated.

PERSPECTIVE

by C J Gorden

“We weigh the same,” said my daughter, Mandy, as she and her best friend, Naomi, came out of her room to look in the full-length hallway mirror.  “How come my jeans fall right off your hips?  It’s not fair.”  Looking over their shoulders comparing derrieres.  Naomi’s eyebrows were raised as if the reason for the mystery escaped her.  Mandy’s scowl said she just wanted her recently acquired hips to disappear.  Hmmm.

They’d come home on the bus together after school to get some girl time.  Later, after we’d taken Naomi home for supper, I broached the subject.

“So, did you guys have fun this afternoon?  What was going on when you were swapping jeans?”  Her scowl was instantly back.

“I’m getting fat.  Look at me.  All of a sudden my hips are huge!”

“Huge?  Why do you think they’re huge?”

“She’d have to wear a belt to keep my jeans up.  She’s not getting fat.  She has these little skinny hips, like I used to have.”

“I’ll let you in on a secret kiddo.  She’ll probably grow a woman’s hips too, if she’s lucky.  She’s just a late bloomer.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

I explained (again) how babies come into the world.  This time I included the mother’s bone structure in the hip area and how that relates.  She mulled that over silently and I left her to it.

Several days later, Mandy and Naomi were again trying on each other’s clothes.  Naomi pulled up Mandy’s jeans and let go, which promptly dropped past her posterior.  I heard Mandy’s laughter coming from just out of sight.  Her hand appeared, finger pointing at her friend.  “You are going to be in labor forever!”

Bias – for it or against it?

What effect do our biases have on our writing?  For that matter, how do you even know you have a bias?  That’s easy; we all have biases.  They come from having life experiences and drawing conclusions or emotional associations to those experiences, often with limited data.

For instance, I am only familiar with one person who wore a toothbrush mustache:  Hitler.  I think due to the enormous negative impact Hitler had on the world at large, men for the most part quit wearing that style mustache.  When I see a toothbrush mustache, I think of death camps and Nazi war crimes, no matter that the mustache was not responsible.  That is a bias.

Your biases and my biases are our opinions on a given subject, our slant, our views.  I may say I would never name a child of mine Hildegard because I knew a Hildegard in grade school who made my life a living hell.  That, my friend, is a bias.  Attorney bashing is a national pastime; it is also another bias.  What do people hope their children become besides doctors?  Yup, lawyers.  Social standing and prospective income notwithstanding, everybody needs one or the other eventually and hopes for a discount.  Is that a bias?  You bet.

Biases are a fact of life.  Our characters have them, but they should have their own, peculiar to them as individuals.  I’m not advocating that what we write be free of bias, but that we are aware everyone has them and we are judicious about them in our writing.

You can’t write without bias.  How flat would our characters be then?  We just need to be aware of the fact of and inescapability of bias as a facet of humanity.

Here are a couple of resources regarding bias in writing:

“Have Bias, Will Write” is an article by Scott Warner.  You can find it here.  He explores bias in such writings as the New York Times and Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain.

There are no end of biases to choose from.  “Biases in Science Fiction” is an article by Steven Novella that you can find at the Neurologica blog here. This article explores the biases of science fiction writers concerning designs of ships for star travel and how they depict gravity and thrust.  It sites such works as Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica and 2001, A Space Odyssey.

You’re not the boss of me

I am all for independent thinking.  Don’t tell me what to write and don’t tell me how to write it.  Well, maybe suggestions would be okay, but only if I ask for them.  In a perfect world, anyone who reads my writing would just be completely impressed.  That was my initial sparkly fantasy about being an author.  Since then, the realities of writing have intruded into my psyche.  That hasn’t been a bad thing.

The written word (as well as other forms of story-telling) is powerful.  It has the ability to bring people to a subject or situation they may never have considered before, and it has the potential to sway opinions.  In anything capable of wielding such power, responsibility is intrinsic.

Wait just a minute!  Hold the phone, Charlie!  Say what?  Yeah.  That was my reaction, too.  What does this mean to me? I thought as my initial fantasy faded into an ethical quagmire.  Well, I’ve had many moons and several opportunities to think about it since then.

These are my choices: I can write in a way that benefits and gratifies both reader and community, or I can squander my efforts on biased, badly researched, self-serving writing.  I’m not saying I won’t write controversial issues.  I’m not saying I won’t write in controversial ways.  Authors of some of the classics presented in high school English classes were considered muckrakers when they were published, on a par with yellow journalism.  Their controversial writing stirred up the powers that be and precipitated change.  Prime examples are The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, which is about the meat packing industry a hundred years ago and Silent Spring by Rachel Carson in the 1960s, which brought the dangers of pesticides to light.

My point is they had a point and it was for the betterment of society as a whole.  Does that mean you can’t write a light piece that doesn’t tackle the big questions plaguing us all?  Nuh-uh.  My largest work in progress is a young-adult-turns-vampire story.  It’s not going to turn society on its ear nor re-write political rhetoric.  It’s going to entertain.

That said, my novel has interpersonal conflict and portrays social issues.  It’s a given.  It’s about a 15-year-old girl, her friends and relatives and they’re living in this world.  Any time you have a varied cast of characters launching on a quest it’s bound to happen whether in this world, on another world or in another universe.  Some things are universal.

My bad guys will think themselves good guys but will suffer consequences for bad choices.  My good guys will have an assortment of foibles and will sometimes make bad choices.  Again, there will be consequences.  All this comes about through conflict, just like real life.  Ask any teenager.

While preparing for this post I found sites that have tackled the issue from several viewpoints.  They are worth a look and are presented in no particular order.

First is William Mastrosimone, who is a movie writer in Hollywood and has impressive credits.  He wrote this article called “Confessions of a Violent Movie Writer” for a site that is no longer active but the information is still there for educational purposes.  You can find it here.

Another is at Media Literacy @ suite 101.  Called “A Writer’s Responsibility:  To Move and To Change,” it’s authored by Katherine Ward.  She aims her post to writers with a writing degree and assigns them a greater ethical burden.  I have to disagree on that point.  It doesn’t take a degree to write effective fiction or non-fiction, although it can’t hurt.  The onus is inherent to the writing, whether or not the author has a degree.  That said, the post is a good one.  You can find it here.

Next is not one but two posts by Annie Neugebauer on her blog by the same name and subtitled “The madness.  The heartbreak.  The writing.”  Amen, Sister.  I read the blogs in reverse order.  She refers to the second post in the first, which I found in a Google search.  The first post is titled “Disagreeing with Books: Writer Responsibility and Reader Accountability.”  It can be found here.  The second post was written earlier and is titled “Why I’m Tired of People Ragging on Twilight.”  It is a post that addresses the same issue from the back door and can be found here.

I’m compelled to mention a book called Writing and Responsibility by Carl Tighe which is apparently a text book.  I’m sure any student can attest that would account for the hardcover price tag of $110.00 at Amazon but you can get it for Kindle or in paperback for under $30.  I haven’t read it, but I intend to buy it with my next paycheck.  The editorial reviews on Amazon are sterling and the author’s creds are impressive.  Amazon’s offering is here, but I’m sure it’s available elsewhere as well.

Balancing writing ethics and personal freedoms is something each of us has to decide for ourselves.  My stand is firm, but if I should read a compelling enough argument or fictional situation, I might have to revise my view.

Thoughts?  Speak!  Please.

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