Friday, July 24, 2015

Character, personality, empathy, story...


How do you create compelling, distinct characters, convey personality, create a sense of empathy, and tell a story...with a limited number of words?

While I can't answer that question, I know it when I see it, feel it, and thought you might enjoy this lovely example.  

We not only get to know the four friends, but the narrator as well....

The Four Friends
Ernest was an elephant, a great big fellow,
Leonard was a lion with a six foot tail,
George was a goat, and his beard was yellow,
And James was a very small snail. 

Leonard had a stall, and a great big strong one,
Earnest had a manger, and its walls were thick,
George found a pen, but I think it was the wrong one,
And James sat down on a brick 

Earnest started trumpeting, and cracked his manger,
Leonard started roaring, and shivered his stall,
James gave a huffle of a snail in danger
And nobody heard him at all. 

Earnest started trumpeting and raised such a rumpus,
Leonard started roaring and trying to kick,
James went on a journey with the goats new compass
And he reached the end of his brick. 

Ernest was an elephant and very well intentioned,
Leonard was a lion with a brave new tail,
George was a goat, as I think I have mentioned,
but James was only a snail.

                           A. A. Milne (1882-1956)

               

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

In my day...

I was looking for a pair of normal jeans and not having much luck.  So I went into the giant Levi shop (All Levis All The Time) filled with hope!  Surely Levi would be able to deliver a pair of regular jeans.

Think again.

Fabric dark, cheap feeling, and like ever other jean product available on the market "stylishly" torn, big holes at knees or strange white blobs of wear on the legs in places that would never, naturally, get worn.


Or multiple peculiar holes all over, as if they'd been left hanging in some automatic weapons firing range and had been peppered good. Or both...



I look at the young clerk and confessed: "You know, I just feel it is my job to wear out my own jeans.  It doesn't seem right to have it contracted out to some machine or child laborer."

He nodded sympathetically. (The customer is always right).

Yes, in my day we had active lives.  We did stuff.  We wore holes in our jeans without any outside help. Yep, not even from our disinterested non-helicopter parents.

Our jeans were authentic.  Artisanal.  Indeed the work was just about as local as you could get.

When you look at the language being used now to market and enhance our present possessions, foods and lifestyle, beneath the words, you can hear this wild, inchoate cry against the virtualness of much of our present existence: instant, effortless, convenient.  But somehow insubstantial, unsatisfying.

Unearned.




Sunday, May 24, 2015

There are two kinds of people in the world...


As the joke goes: One: people who think there are two kinds of people, and Two: people who don't.

Yes, exactly!

There are a myriad of kinds of people, but there are often strong dividing principals around a specific point that offer insight into choices, opinions, actions.

The classic example is that there are Lumpers and Splitters: those that habitually aggregate things (information, whatever) into piles, and label those collective piles.

Or people who see things as individual, unique elements that are distinct.

You can see the pros and cons of each.  The efficiency (and inaccuracy) of Lumping.  The time-consuming inefficiency (and greater accuracy) of splitting.

We all are Lumpers and Splitters in different areas of our lives.

We tend to be Splitters in areas of interest or importance to us, knowing and delighting in the myriad nuanced differences of a "thing," be it horror movies, romance novels or football.  For many, the sentence, "I don't watch horror movies (any films)/read romance novels (books)/like football (sports)" dismisses the entire genre (or the entire medium, in a bigger Lump).  Often accompanied by a dismissive, "They're all the same."

But to a fan, a Splitter, interest and knowledge in something transforms your world from black-and-white (yes/no) into a universe of color like in the movie The Wizard of Oz.

So for example, Lumpers might roll all scary movies into a ball of "horror" and make blanket statements about them.

But to a Splitter, there are many types of horrorper Steven King there are three: the gross-out; the unnatural; terror. But other Splitters parse it differently: supernatural/unnatural; slasher/splatter; disaster.   All usually include elements of suspense, fear, mystery. And there is a truly infinite number of varieties on these themes with strong opinions and preferences for individual types.

As a fan of romances novels, I will keep myself under control, simply noting that three initial Splits could be contemporary, historical, fantasy.  But each one of those then can be subdivided into suspense, paranormal, mystery, sexy, sweet, and so on. Again, with an infinite number of sub-genres, mixing and matching to please different palates.

Footballwhile seeming for some of us to be "all the same" (bunch of guys running up and down a patch of "turf" in matching outfits, trying to move an inanimate object in one direction or another)—in fact is also full of subtlety.  You heard it here first! Coaches, owners, players, injuries, penalties, sanctions, criminal investigations, finances, fans and more all contribute an ever-shifting kaleidoscope of the game.

There are many circumstances where we simply have to Lump.  We can't retain, effectively present or make decisions when we consider all the complexity of a large number of things.  A business presentation starts with an "Executive Summary" offering in a single paragraph, the top-line conclusions of what may be a lengthy and nuanced piece of work.

We often judge others by a single action (perhaps cheating) and label and Lump the person a cheater.

But really, their action may have been specific, isolated in a particular situation, or an area they deem gray, (low level fudging on their expense report ) whereas other areas may be scrupulously black and white (the integrity of their work, their commitment to their job).

Lump it.  Split it.  But don't dump on either one....


Friday, April 24, 2015

Romance Writer's "Research"


Can we address the absurd queries about romance authors doing "research," nudge, nudge, wink wink?  Does anyone ask mystery or horror writers how many people they had to disembowel before they could write their story?  I don't think so.

(And of course, there is the fact that if they answered, they'd have to kill you).

It's also delightfully contradictory, as others often accuse romances as being utterly unrealistic stories--that also apparently must be based on personal experience.  Hmmmm.  You must choose one or the other, but you really can't have both those complaints simultaneously.

There is a dictum: write what you know, but luckily, it's not a requirement.

Write what you can imagine.

Write what you think about, care about, fantasize about, dream about.

Write to explore what you don't fully understand.

Write to open minds, to touch hearts.

It's called fiction because you make it up...

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Power corrupts...

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”   Lord Acton

Well, no, actually.

Power allows existing personality traits to manifest themselves--it may enhance, but it doesn't create the traits.

Naturally military dictators willing to kill and crush all opposition to achieve power aren't likely to be the nicest of people.  They are already "corrupt." Though they may have initially put on a mask of niceness to get support, the moment they achieve their goals, the mask falls and their basic dictatorial personality is manifest. Absolute power does not corrupt them--it is simply an enabler to allow a preexisting condition to express itself.

Unfortunately, since they themselves are quite unpleasant people--willing to do anything to achieve power--they often assume everyone else is the same, and can be quite paranoid. And to paraphrase the joke, just because they are paranoid doesn't mean they are not hated and that everyone is indeed out to get them. Again, the traits were all there to start off with, power is not the cause, though it does enable the effects.

But examine people that have not acquired power through force. Look at people who were born into power--kings and queens--to see how the opportunities that absolute power offers is always transformed by the personality in power throughout history.  Even though England's present royalty doesn't have much actual power, you just know that Prince Charles would not go around beheading people (except for a few architects perhaps) if he had absolute power. There's even variety in dictators,  Stalin, Tito, Castro all present quite different profiles in power.

Even the "power" of modern day celebrities demonstrates a great deal of variety. Some achieve power through talent and/or luck, not trampling on others (actors Vs reality TV stars).  Some actors are clearly total egocentric jerks (and worse), using and abusing their spotlight.  Others clearly are fairly normal human beings.

So don't blame power. It's just a door opener to the jerk within...




Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Bully Pulpit


Did you know that  Emerson's saying is "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds," not, as I had heard for many years (and found very confusing), 'Consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.'

I understand that rigid adherence to consistency can be problematicfollowing the letter Vs the spirit of a law or requirement can be absurd.

But in general some level of consistency seems like a good thing. Inconsistency can be unfair.  It's untrustworthy, can be arbitrary and impossible to work with or depend on.

So when someone is strongly endorsing some belief and presenting the profound rightness of their opinion and the unbelievable wrongness of alternative positions—when they demand that others change their minds and believe whatever the speaker believes, it begs the question whether that declared "truth" is adhered to consistently across the board by its passionate advocate.

That only seems fair, right?

Some people are convinced that their belief trumps all others.  And that everyone that believes differently is wrong, bad, indeed evil.  They believe that any action to convert or convince others of the error of their ways is justified, and if unconvinced, exterminating the unbelievers is a justifiable solution (figuratively or literally).

Unfortunately, that applies to many early versions of present religionsI'm thinking the Crusades and the Inquisition, for exampleand for some, this attitude remains true to this day.

Bullies and bullying are not just in playgrounds or schools, they are all around us.  And like those bullied children, we rarely have the courage to stand up to them or call them out.  In fact, we can be complicit.  For even as we cheer at watching a triumph-of-the-underdog story, we delightedly click on some over-the-top hate-filled rant, or pillory someone for a politically incorrect faux pas.

Indeed bullies seeking the public eye often gravitate towards a position that is on the moral high ground, so they are given a pass on their bullying behavior.  They are "saving" some unarguably sympathetic element that cannot speak for itselfand thus cannot reject its self-appointed "savior" as a self-serving, manipulative bully (e.g. animals, children, environment, etc.).  Their statements of caring are specious and inconsistentthey talk and talk, but do not walk the walk.

If they truly cared about what they so passionately claim, what other behaviors might we reasonably expect them to exhibit?  What are they actually doing to meaningfully help those they are the alleged advocates and supporters of?

For the most part they just like to dictate to others how to live their lives.  But no matter how many flags they wrap themselves in, or selfie halos they snap on, they are bullies, and there is no practice to their preaching.

Just how consistent are they?  Really, that's not a foolish question.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Court of Public Opinion

I learned one thing when I served on a jury.

Well, in fairness, I learned more than one thing, but one thing really did stand out, and I've never forgotten it.  

Perhaps because it was so obvious.  Perhaps because at the time, the people I shared my revelation with felt that it should hardly have been a revelation.  And perhaps it shouldn't have been.  

But OMG it is something I truly wish everyone actually felt was not only obvious, but something they should live by on a daily basis.

My particular case was excruciatingly boring and interminable (yes, even the Judge went to sleep once), but the experience truly reinforced the home truth: 

Don't judge before you have heard both sides. Really.  Don't.

Now in life, you often don't have the opportunity to hear both sides.  

So pop quiz: what shouldn't you do?  

Correct: don't come down on a final judgement.  

Sure you can have an opinion, but acknowledge that you're shooting from the hip and your aim and accuracy will suffer for it.

Of course, it is fun to judge othersit can be enormously satisfying and quite entertaining but not if you start to take yourself and the numerous equally uninformed others seriously.  If you plan to make a serious judgment you have to investigate all sides and unemotionally do your homework. And it's hardly reasonable to take other opinions seriously unless they've listened to all sides and done their homework, right? 

But reason doesn't seem to have much cachet right now.

A favorite childhood tale was a friend who had a somewhat...difficult relationship with her older brother.  Her favorite method of pulling his chain was to wallop him, then shout, "Mommy, Johnny's hitting me!!!!" Mom would, naturally arrive just in time to see with her own eyes Johnny retaliating, and send him off, no excuses.  Eyewitness account!

Our judge instructed us in our role as a jury, noting that it was up to us to discern the truth from the information we were given.  "Ask yourself," he requested, "why someone is saying something.  Figure out what their motives might be, what the repercussions might be, and assess the information accordingly." (Like: will it sell more papers? Get hits? Go viral? Make me famous? Yes? Think about it.)

Good advice.

But in this self-obsessed, self-revelatory, boundary-less world of private/public yammering, everyone is a self-anointed judge, jury and executioner.  That is until someone points out the accused wasn't even there, or the visuals were utterly misinterpreted, or the victim was actually the perpetratoror vice versa.  Oops!

Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. [Matthew 7:1-2]

I appreciate the power of stories, books, filmswhateverto put us in the shoes of those pilloried by public opinion.  And, I hope, offer us some insight and restraint in controlling our own often irrational and thoughtless behavior.  

Bullying isn't just the province of the young.