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.

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