Friday, December 28, 2007

modern brokenness

In yesterday’s recast of Terry Gross interviewing Mark Ruffalo she got to that inevitable question, “What does acting mean to you now?” I love his simple, truthful answer: “It’s…my way to be fully realized as a human being. It’s my relationship to the world…”

When artists succumb to whatever medium invites their relationship to the world—be it acting, painting, playing music, writing—they often slip into the place where they feel the human experience in a way they can’t otherwise. It’s instantaneously cohering and alienating, which adds to a sense of the delicious complexity that makes us feel alive.

Take this morning, for instance. I’ve got my son’s skis and ski poles in one arm, and a plastic bag in the other. I’m following the pug around in the sodden side yard as he looks for that all-important dumping ground. A very human situation—one to which most multi-tasking suburbanites can relate. But the particular clumsiness that followed—the capturing of the steamy logs in a glove-sized plastic bag while the skis and poles tip and tumble, the inevitable buzzing of the cell phone in the zippered pocket, the complete lack of grace as the shit squeezes back out the bag and onto a shoe and the ski pole spears the blind dog—redemption only comes from imagining a scene in which a character finds herself in such a predicament, only then can the artist transcend the defect of her own humanity and forgive herself her unique brand of compromise and clutziness.

The ways in which we find ourselves abjectly human are small ways indeed. Small, clumsy and full of, what Ruffalo referred to as, modern brokenness.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Okay, Rachel, you asked for it!

One of my favorite characterization exercises starts: there are two kinds of people… It’s a way to investigate polarities. You know, heroes and antagonists. The writer will automatically align with one type, while the other becomes less sympathetic. But all good writers are anthropologists, and at some point, you must turn off your subjective engine, thereby creating whole, fully-vested characters.

In real life, no such filtering mechanism exists. Our humanity prevents it. As we slip along our individual continuums where utmost confidence is at one end and abject cowardice at the other, we are our own heroes and antagonists.

Yesterday I interviewed a client to tease out the approach, tone and message that would become the voice of the website we’re building her. Like many entrepreneurial women in my demographic, she was experienced, enthusiastic, talented and driven—her main obstacle: she felt that nobody would take her seriously. She feared giving off the energy of a groupie instead of a leader. At times of lucidity and inspiration she envisions the work she’d like to do, is capable of doing and would do well, but ultimately, she allows herself to be consumed with doubt.

There are two types of people: those who embody the luxury of confidence and those who stand on the sidelines second-guessing themselves. But, they are often the same person. On the same day even.

The other thing I did yesterday was ski. I ventured up the snowy mountain in a bus full of teenagers, my boyfriend, two good friends, my sons and their friends. I haven’t snapped on a pair of skis in over a decade. Man, have they ever shrunk. They’re lighter and easier, even if the mountains, wind and chairlifts are not. When we arrived for our night-skiing adventure we were greeted with pin-prickly ice delivered via a flesh-searing gale. Lifts of consequence were closed. Only two were open, the easiest two.

Which, after my ten year hiatus, was just fine with me.

Down the Buttercup green trail I snowplowed, and even turned without incident. After the third or fourth run down the baby slope I felt plenty confident. Even when the chair lift chair hip-checked me—I was still a hero. 18 months of Pilates have produced strongish quads and decent flexibility, so I didn’t puddle into rubber legs or back ache. Until.

Yes, there’s always an until.

“Let’s go up the Daisy lift,” says the boyfriend. “We’ll get a longer run.”

My eight-year old needed some convincing. He’s a new skier, and on the ten minute lift ride above the tree tops and through hurricane blizzard horizontal snow, he kept asking the questions that set you up for failure. The what-ifs of doom. “Suppose I don’t get off the lift at the top,” he says. “Is there any way to stop it?” And, “Has anyone ever fallen off?”

At the top, he was stiff with trepidation, and had his poles in a spearlike grip, pointing at me. By the time I had him arranged correctly and shoved off the chair, the chair was, indeed, lifting and turning, causing me to bail late, leaping into the black blizzard in the general direction of the ramp.

It was a rather unpretty moment, one ski off, tumbling down, my scarf (yes, a scarf—who wears a scarf skiing?) unfurled and whipping in front of me, obscuring what little vision I had. It was the sort of wind up there typically reserved for films with titles like “Stranded at Base Camp.” You know, the ones that feature crashed planes and eventual cannibalism.

It doesn’t take much to collapse the confidence of a human being. A little wind, a ski you try to put on backwards for five minutes before you figure it out. Sometimes all it takes is the fleeting perception that you’ve just invited the scenario for a broken bone.

Nothing like that happened, and we skied down just fine, but the arc of the adventure offered the polarities that I embody every day. I’m great. I suck. And as I push along on this, the shortest day of 2007, I want to keep it close, this notion of two kinds of people, and use it to fuel the work that awaits on the page.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

the art of seduction part II

I apologize for the incoherent and incomplete post of yesterday.

What I meant to address was, the benefits of withholding for both plot advancement and reader investment. The way this works is the same way enjambment works in poetry. In a poem, when a poet ends a line in such a way that the audience overwhelmingly anticipates the word or idea on the next line, but then is surprised by a subversion of that assumption, the poet has succeeded in a glorious manipulation that actually results in buy in.

Enjambment literally means "to straddle." It's an incomplete thought that continues after the reader has aligned herself with the pause and has made some assumptions about its trajectory.

Take for example this passage from Milton's Paradise Lost:
… now conscience wakes despair
That slumbered, wakes the bitter memory
Of what he was, what is, and what must be
Worse; of worse deeds worse sufferings must ensue.

Between lines three and four is the sort of enjambment that wakes up a reader. It's the unresolved becoming the surprise, full of gravity and emotion. It's about subverting expectation and producing the lift we call art.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

the art of seduction, part I

In workshop we talk a lot about delaying gratification as a way to heighten tension and keep the pages turning. The unresolved circumstance not only intrigues the reader, but, in a weird way, seduces the reader by extending the invitation of ownership.

This is where genre and literary fiction meet, I think. That crazy little thing called plot. Formulaic, received text does not do this, however. When you withhold information while tap-dancing and pointing in the other direction (which is what happens when writers rely on adjective-laden description and exposition), you do not engage the reader as much as lull him.

Good fiction does not lull, it engages. It creates and inspires and confounds. It demands that the reader sit in the driver’s seat of your story.

We sometimes use dialogue to pull this off. Dialogue that and presents and reroutes, but doesn’t result in immediate answers. Avoiding didactic resolution is key here. I want to go on, but, crap, I must now go off to work and leave this meditation mid-thought…

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

the q vs q question

My new strategy is to not worry about 1200 words. Not to resign to failure necessarily, but not to see word count as the goal.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve set myself up for the same results. I get ambitious, get motivated, perform, and then retreat. This has happened so many times in my writing career that it galls me that I don’t learn from it.

The way I best serve my project is through continual engagement, meaning, giving myself to it every day—even if only for a half hour.

Strangely, I had a similar epiphany at my son’s parent-teacher conference the other day. The teacher was showing me sloppily executed work. The math pages were 75% wrong. The writing was crooked scrawl. We both know he can do better, so I asked the teacher to describe what was going on during these assignments. He hemmed and hawed and had no idea. So I presented a likely scenario, one informed by an ongoing discussion I’ve had with my son about the expectations in his classroom.

Carson did not take to reading quickly. He’s one of those reluctant readers: distracted, active, much more eager to actually do things rather than receive information passively. A normative third grade teacher’s nightmare, in other words. Carson has an IEP to help give him the extra attention needed to get him up to speed, and goes to a reading teacher four days a week. Consequently, he misses the directions for whatever work is being done in class. When he comes back a half hour later, he is told by his harried teacher to just “see what the other kids are doing and do that.” He is then expected to catch up and do all the work, and if the work isn’t done, he has to sit out recess until it is.

“It occurs to me,” I told the teacher, “that our goal is for Carson to do quality work with attention and focus. Is it really necessary that he fill out an entire math sheet, or write out a three-page journal? Are the numbers the important thing here, or can we alter the expectations to help motivate Carson to produce his best work?”

The teacher agreed to modify his expectations—we’ll see if he follows through. But recently I realized that those same guidelines might apply to me. Now I know that the whole “boot camp” idea is to realign priorities and get a work in progress to the finish line, but somehow the whip is missing the mark. I don’t just want to produce any old finished manuscript. I want to write a book I’m in love with. I want to care so much about my characters that I’m codependent on their behalf—just like in real relationships!

So, without further adieu, I'm shifting my focus to quality over quantity. I’m going to keep my word meter up on this blog, however. I like adding, turtle-like, the smear of daily paragraphs to its measure. And---I’m cautioning myself to avoid slipping into a “precious” feeling about my work. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be my best.