Wednesday, September 23, 2015

How do you read?

I was discussing a book with a friend and commented that I still read like a 12-year-old. Then realized that comment might need a bit of explanation!

For me, that means that my reading experience—even after all these years and all the books—is one of total immersion, utter commitment to the characters and story.  I believe in the characters—they are people to me—and I enter the space they inhabit for the duration of the story.

I see authors and their work—or really any creator/creative act, whether it's creating a story, a painting, a piece of music, a song—as having a similar relationship as a parent might have in creating a child.

Sure, you've created it. And yes, you have significant responsibilities towards it, and a deep connection with it. But it is not you. You do not own it. It has the right to self actualize in the best way it can.

Your job as a creator is to enable it to be the best it can be. Not just on your terms—though your role is a significant one—but to achieve the three part balance: of what you have to offer, what the creation itself needs, and what is needed to enable it to survive in "the world."

So to all the author/creators that incorporate helpful feedback—sometimes painful to hear—a giant thank you for your dedication to making your "child" the best it can be. For setting aside your ego for the sake of the work. And the same in my experience goes for editors: for not bringing personal preferences and agendas to the experience, but appreciating that your shared role is to enable that "child" to be the best it can be and face a challenging world with strength, self confidence, and the ability to withstand "The Heart-ache, and the thousand Natural shocks That Flesh is heir to" (to quote Hamlet). There should be a balance that is ego free for parent/creator, for editor/teacher, to be open to delivering, hearing and incorporating what is best for the child/work.

This perception has helped me understand and believe in the value of the role of an intelligent external opinion in the development of a work, and thus the external party's 'right' to challenge the creator's vision if it doesn't feel right, doesn't feel like it is best serving the work.

But my understanding of my reading style has also has helped me understand my own often quite passionate dislike of a story! Yes, I am sorry to say the offending work is often a very well reviewed, award-winning literary 'masterpiece.'

I realize that in 'literary' or groundbreaking stories authors can have a goal, a point of view, something they wish to illustrate or challenge. And they have chosen the compelling medium of storytelling to express that point. Their characters and plot serve the author's vision. The character's lives, their actions and reactions, the events that occur in the story may at any point in time be subordinated to that Vision. Manipulated to do their creator's bidding.  The character's integrity, consistency, their very selves are just a pawn to the author's desire to present an idea, to illustrate a point, to surprise, to break new ground.

I know my horror and sense of betrayal is...well, perhaps naive. One could argue that the author created these characters; surely he or she can do whatever she likes to them?  But for me, those characters are real, and they are not being respected. It's like watching parents force their musical child to play competitive sports, or harp on marriage for career minded one—or vice versa!

Luckily some stories deliver on both—offering profound insights, breaking new ground, opening minds and hearts to a new perception though the humanity and vivid evocation of their characters and the believability of their story. Those are the stories I treasure.

So just saying my recent foray into Pulitzer prize-winning fiction has not been a very successful reading experience for me! But this realization has also helped me understand why a good friend can totally adore a story that I have found emotionally bankrupt—and enabled me to stop thinking that my friend is an idiot!  I now realize that we read differently and derive sustenance and delight from different things.

And that's not a bad thing.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Some sweeping generalizations and celebrating stereotypes:

Copy line on movie ad (no, I can't remember the title) with armed woman: Wife. Mother. Hero.

Why is a women defined by her relation to others? Would any man be described as Husband. Father. Hero.? I don't think so. More like: Explorer. Visionary. Hero.

It's all about what he does, who he is. Hers is about who she is connected to. That's why women traditionally have an honorific that links them to their male partner: Mrs. Or lack of partner: Miss. Vs men, who are just Mr. Their status as a partner is deemed irrelevant.

For instance: a man does not need to be reminded to put his oxygen mask on first. His default is to think of himself first, others later. And he expects others to think the same wayto first take care of themselves, then perhaps consider others. That may be why he doesn't thank you (you female person) for your selfless act. He thinks you're crazy. Or stupid. Or both. Or maybe just trying to ingratiate yourself with him, as he tends to think hierarchically, so sees favors in a transactional manner. Not that a man isn't capable of a selfless act, it's just an unlikely part of his daily routine.

Women often think of others first, themselves last. For many that's their default (yes, even if they're not mothers). And they expect others to think the same way. And of course they (female people) take it personally (perhaps with a long-suffering sigh) when they discover there's no parity, and they're not very high on anyone else's list. Perhaps even more irritatingly, they may be thought of as being an idiot for taking care of others and not bothering to take care of themselves.

Each sex is 'modeling' behavior that the other guy just isn't picking up. Neither is exactly right, but not entirely wrong, either. And it doesn't align.

Men tend to see things hierarchically, competitively, with winners and losers, while women tend to be more collegial and consensus driven, focusing on making something work. (Hey, my title promised "Some sweeping generalizations and celebrating stereotypes," don't say I don't deliver!). Deborah Tannen's Talking 9 to 5 offers some great stories of how these different basic assumptions can create miscommunication, misunderstanding and problems.

In many cultures, women traditionally have had little to no direct power and have had to work with indirect power: influence, relationships, connections, being liked, finding people to partner with. For a woman, helping others, doing favors, etc. is often a way of establishing friendship and usually inspires thanks, gratitude and likely a return favor in response—if the recipient is a woman.

But if the recipient is man, he may well see the gift as an effort to curry favor, confirming his status as the superior: the one to whom gifts and honor are due. Thanks are not necessary and no return gift would ever be given, as that would mean Giver and Givee were on the same level, which is not an acceptable idea when a hierarchy has just been established to Givee's satisfaction!

Women may view support as a circular, mutually beneficial experience. For men, it is likely more linear, a bottom up effort to propitiate and curry favor of the leaderswho may then have an obligation to protect their underlings. Like a feudal lord getting his due from his dependents, he will have to try to stave off the barbarian hordes if they show up, or build a walled city to protect them, but he's not partners with his serfs.

You can see how misunderstandings and disappointments might abound!

And why romance writers and romance readers are a necessary ingredient to our lives....

Isabel Swift

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.


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...