Archive for category The Mind

Landscape–the Map of the Story

I had a strange recovered-memory incident last week. It was morning; I was getting dressed. I put on shorts, and an old camp shirt.

For those not familiar with the style, this is a short-sleeved, not-tucked-in, collared, button-up shirt that is rather square in its shape. I liked this style a few years ago, not so much now, but it was hot, the shirt was weather-and-task-appropriate, and I was in the mood for it. I put it on and walked out into the day’s hot, dry weather, where I was assaulted by memories of a summer camp I went to as a child.

Stanley Ranch Camp was located north of L.A. in rolling hills near Saugus. The terrain was desert chaparral, and daily temperatures in the middle of summer hit three digits every day. The camp offered swimming, horseback riding, lanyard making, fire building (yes, in 100 degree weather, in Southern California, by 10 and 11 year olds), hiking, campfire singing, and quiet time after lunch, when it was too hot to do anything else.

I remember getting heat rash, skinning my shin badly, disastrous lanyards, steep hills to climb, being dehydrated, and failing to get my fire started. We slept outside each night, on cots, under oak trees; no one worried, apparently, about mountain lions, rattlesnakes, coyotes, or ax murderers. The bathrooms were outhouses. We didn’t shower; that’s what the daily swimming was for. Half the stuff we did then wouldn’t be allowed today. It felt a bit like Moonlight Kingdom, except none of us had any wilderness skills whatsoever.

As I ran through all the memories of people, activities, and locations, up came a complete mental image of the entire landscape. First the images were individual, like a slide show. Then I strung the pieces together, and suddenly I was remembering the entirety of the camp–a time-traveling Google Map, courtesy of my brain. I was surprised to find how strong my emotional connection was to the setting of that camp, how much fun it was to revisit. I guess I really did like the place, even if most of the memories seemed to involve injury or extreme discomfort.

The Internet told me that Stanley Ranch Camp has, in fact, endured all this past half-century, and I found it returned to its “original location” last summer, a site now operated by VT Ranch, Camp & Conference Center. I Googled that, and their site had a map. And, yes!!! My memory of the landscape was correct in all its particulars, not counting some new paving, new buildings, and other buildings torn down or repurposed. The pool, the sports field, the mess hall, and the amphitheater are all in the same positions I remember.

Landscapes are powerful in our memories, and settings are powerful in fiction. I think of the Congo in Heart of Darkness, or 1940s Los Angeles in any Raymond Chandler novel. For future or fantastic landscapes, I might think of Ian McDonald’s mid-century Istanbul in The Dervish House, or Westeros and Essos in George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series. And Moonlight Kingdom was all about setting, wasn’t it? Have you ever seen so many maps in a movie? Setting is essential to story; it is a character in and of itself, bound by time as well as space, and interacting with the characters and the reader’s imagination. Ideally, we become immersed in it, irrespective of whether it comes mostly from our real world, or that of our imagination. We go on vacation (or to summer camp) to escape our mundane lives. We read fiction for the same reason, and there is no shame in that.

The Stanley Ranch Camp of my memory did exist, but once it crossed over from mere historical reality to become entwined with my childhood memory banks, it became more important as a idea than as the humble place it actually was. It became a character in my memory. Because it was all activities, all the time, because every hour of every day was planned for us, my time there had something of the quality of a script, a teleplay. Difficulties at home, uncertainties at school, and nascent adolescent social anxieties did not figure in this script. I had a role, the role of camper, and I knew how to play it. Heat rash and dehydration were part of the plot. It was like going to the movie theater on Saturday afternoon…and getting to be in the movie.

Wrinkled, and in the great outdoors. What landscape to explore next?


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Finding “Moi”

Gustave Flaubert famously said, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” When I searched the phrase, I came up with a number of results, many of which were student or professor pages asking what he meant by the statement. Some of the answers looked for biographical points of similarity; others looked for similarities in personality traits or temperament, and they found a few. None of the results matched my take on the statement.

When Flaubert says that he and Bovary are the same person, he is merely stating a fact every writer should embrace. Our memorable characters are us, and if they are not, they are not memorable.

Any real person is, of course, too complex, and too multifaceted to fit into a fictional character. No fictional character, however complex, has the dimensions of a real person. Nonetheless, we need to recognize our characters, and we need to know them well. We need to be able to pick the pieces of them out of our mirror.

We need not always be conscious of this process when creating our characters, but we can be.

John Glore, Associate Artistic Director at South Coast Repertory Theater, taught a playwriting seminar back in the ’90’s. He had an exercise that went like this: List a dozen of your own personal characteristics, i.e. fun-loving, stubborn, and so forth. Next, split the characteristics into groups of three, four items each, in any way that seems to make sense to you. Then, use the three trait-clusters to create three separate characters. Finally, a comet is going to hit and destroy the Earth in ten minutes. Write a ten-minute play with the three characters reacting to this event.

A fun exercise that makes a good point: Just because they’re all c’est moi doesn’t mean they’re all alike. Au contraire, we’ve got all sorts of folks living inside us. The trick is discovering who they are, and where they live.

As writers, most of us do this very well, and quite unconsciously. The first appearance of a character in our brain may be inspired by someone we know, a mother-in-law, an ex-boss, an acquaintance, or even someone famous. For that inspiration to flesh out and begin breathing on its own, so to speak, we need at some level to be moved by that character’s situation, to learn where they’re coming from, and to empathize with them, to feel something about where they’re going. We need to invest ourselves in them. This is true of villains as well as heroes, monsters as well as saints.

Every successful character has at least one over-arching priority, one desire, belief, or goal. More often, they have conflicts clusters of needs, desires, and goals, two or more of which conflict with one another. The good characters are a little bad, and the bad ones, a little good. The key to moiness is to empathize with your verbally abusive, chemically dependent, good-for-nothing, s.o.b., and to be quite judgmental toward your law-abiding nice guy or gal.

Most of the time, the author doesn’t want to be too recognizable in his/her characters. There are exceptions of course, but the thing that prevents us from creating characters that are too recognizably nous is that we cannot truly see ourselves as others do. We have the perfect view from the inside, but only others see the outside. When we look in the mirror, we might as well be wearing goggles with Vaseline smeared on them. We’re flipped: left is right, and right is left. We focus on the blemishes. Our image is distorted, like that map of the U.S., as drawn by a New Yorker. We are so used to ourselves, we don’t see anything remarkable there. The last thing I think of when I look in the mirror (especially first thing in the morning) is “Oh, look, what a fascinating character!”

But I guess I am. And I know you are, too.

The Crowded Mirror


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Serendipitous Artistic Journey–A True Story

The year was 1987.

There was this blank wall at the back of the family room. The previous owners hung framed mirrors back there and it looked good, but we wanted something different. So much to do, moving in, though, so we let it slide.

Our friends were all beginning to buy large-screen TVs that were the size of a two-car garage. We thought of putting a TV on that side of the room, the only side it would fit on, but our old (even then) cable line would not extend that far from the source without significantly degrading our signal. And those big old fat-butt TVs were really expensive. We carried on with a small TV that fit in the niche built for that use on the opposite wall.

I tried various pieces of art on the wall, but nothing was big, or bright, enough. It’s kind of a big wall, at the end of a fairly long room.

One day, some time in the mid-nineties, my husband brought home an original oil painting from a charity auction. I hope it was a good charity, and that the money was put to good use, because I did not fall in love with this piece of art. Nonetheless, the painting was large, it was bright, it filled the space, and the colors–mostly orange and blue–went. It hung on the wall for eight to ten years. I never liked it that much, and each year, I liked it less.

One day, I took the painting down and foisted it off on an antique and collectible shop. I left it there on consignment, with the understanding that if it did not sell in thirty days, it would be donated to charity. I was asked if I wanted to be notified in the event it did not sell, to be given an opportunity to take it back. I did not.

Once again, I was left with a blank wall.

One Christmas, I attempted to hang a bunch of angels and lights up there, but really, it looked pathetic. Lame. Back to the blank wall.

So I had an idea: What if I took close-up photos of my backyard roses and hung them in an arrangement of eight? Right size, right colors. Off I went to Ikea to buy eight cheap, black, eight-by-ten frames.

Just beyond where they had the frames I was attracted to an oddity (not an unusual experience at Ikea). It appeared to be a package of three rolls of gauzy, jewel-toned fabric. I thought it was the type of fabric sold in craft shops: sheer, pretty stuff you might ruche around the tree, or over a mantle, at Christmas. I can always use more of that stuff, I said to myself, and purchased it, along with the frames.

Once home, I began printing up my photography.

The effect of all those roses was lame, almost as lame as the Christmas decorations had been. Even before I even framed them, I could see I had myself another dead end.

I decided to look at the fabric I’d bought, to cheer myself up.

Turned out, it wasn’t fabric. It was art.

It was a triptych of an out-of-focus orchid. The entire three panels measured about eight by fifteen feet all together. It was awful, and I could not imagine anyone hanging this thing up, it was so ugly.

But the colors were beautiful, jewel tones ranging from ruby, to gold, to emerald, to sapphire, to amythyst. I thought for a moment I could still use it to ruche around during the holidays, but then I read the tag: No washing, no drying, no dry cleaning, and no ironing. The material was an uber-unnatural polyester; I couldn’t use it for anything. There was nothing to do but take it back.

But then, like a zombie, not thinking, I brought over my eight frames. I began laying them down. At first, I attempted to put them together, to keep the orchid together. No. I placed them again, choosing to frame the prettiest color rectangles.

I had my wall. I had my art piece. The year was 2010. It took twenty-three years to fill my wall.

The Incredible Family Room Art Happening

What I learned from this serendipitous artistic journey:

1. Had I known what I was buying, I wouldn’t have bought it. Therefore, it is sometimes better not to know what I’m doing, and to do it anyway.

2. I returned to Ikea a week or so later, and saw the ugly triptych displayed on the wall. Had I taken note of it, I would have known what I was buying, and would not have bought it. Fortunately, I was oblivious. I learned that being oblivious can sometimes be a good thing. I would argue that this is a different lesson from the first. The first was lesson was the value of ignorance; the second, obliviousness.

3. Sometimes it takes twenty-three years to fill a blank wall. I need to learn patience.

4. It is good to let my zombie-self take over some tasks sometimes.

There it is: Ignorance, obliviousness, patience, and zombie-ness, all working together, solved my art problem.

Photo: I took it. All rights reserved.

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I Must Be A Gardener, Because I Measure So Inaccurately

You don’t want to build a house from my blueprints. The house would not stand. You would not want to write a novel from my outline, because I am a gardener.

During his interview at Worldcon last week, George R. R. Martin gave us something to think and talk about as respects a writer’s process. Alec Nevala-Lee blogged on it earlier this week. You should read that post here for what Martin said, and what Alec says, to get the context:

The gardener/architect contrast was brought up several times in various panels, and it seems to me all but Alec identified as a gardener. Is no one else brave enough to identify as an architect? Does it seem less artsy or cool to build your story in a linear fashion, brick by carefully considered brick, than to toss a ton of seeds onto your bed, stand back, and hope something beautiful flourishes?

Whether Martin made all the gardener-writers feel suddenly more cool is unimportant, but knowing who you are is of the utmost. I do know being a gardener is not all that much fun. We can’t-write-an-outline folks are branded early on, in school. We are taught outlining, and are expected to be able to do one, and then write a paper based on the outline. Like one Chicon panelist, whose name I can’t recall, I too wrote the report first, and then did the outline, and then turned in the paper. Yeah, I got the grade, but I also got the sense of being different, of being fundamentally flawed, because of my inability to do something so simple as to create in a linear fashion.

Many of us humans have the tendency to do this very thing: model the format that is against our nature, because we are given to understand that it is the “right” way. When the “right” way doesn’t turn out so well, we feel the failure. We can freeze up and get blocked.

I prefer–my brain prefers–to construct a story by coming up with a situation. A bit of contemplation, and I have a beginning. I may know a bit of the ending; at least, I decide if it’s mostly happy, or mostly sad. The tone of the ending is clearly contained in the beginning, although the details may be fuzzy. The middle is a dense fog that will not burn off for quite a while. My first-draft middles are usually hideous. I’ve no idea what I’m doing. The characters all flatten to two dimensions, and perform stupid, pointless, completely uncharacteristic tasks. Then, suddenly, they come alive and have a satisfying ending.

When I’m writing a short story, I can get through this okay. I only have to slog though thirty pages or so, and when I go back and reread that first draft (an excruciating experience), I can nonetheless find one or two paragraphs in the middle that don’t suck. Little tiny bits that are true, and not dreck. I build on those. Somewhere around the third draft, I get the flash, the revelation, of what the story is really about. The fog lifts from the middle. By the with or sixth draft, I’m good to go.

The process, scary enough in short story form, becomes an author-killer at novel length. I lose track of the tertiary characters. I am unsure enough of the main plot; subplots are therefore impossible to conceive. My main characters go all bland about chapter 5. Secondary characters threaten to take over, as it is clear the author isn’t doing her job. The middle third of the first draft is more than bad; it is unreadable, even by me.

Over the years, and by this method, I have watched my pile of unfinished novels grow and mock me.

I am determined not to die like this, and I believe I have stumbled on the solution. None of us can expect to work in ways against our nature. On the other hand, none of us can be 100% gardener, or 100% architect.

When I redesigned our back yard, I measured out three rectangular raised beds vaguely reminiscent of cloister gardens I had admired. Cloister gardens tend to be square, and our yard was a flat rectangle, but so what. No need to be literal here. I measured badly, and then I brought a contractor in to measure properly and build it. Those rectangular beds were my structure. Within those beds, I planted whatever I wanted. I placed a few rocks here and there, and a few garden ornaments. I knew I wanted roses for color, succulents for form and texture, and perennial herbs for background and hummingbirds. That was it. I loved the result. The trick was that I needed structure, but only the simplest plan I could get away with.

The California poppies were a whim.

When it comes to the novel I’m working on, I finally realized, after decades of despair, that I needed to measure, however badly, however simply. I needed to take my situation and guess at what kind of plot structure it sounded like. I have a convent in a space habitat. Hey, that could be a closed door mystery, where we get to know the vicim a bit, the victim dies, an investigator is brought in and finds the situation to be quite confusing and the witnesses/suspects difficult. It wasn’t much, but it was enough for me to break through. I had found my three rectangular raised beds.

Left brain/Right brain is another way of saying Architect/Gardener. We can place ourselves on one side or the other, but we can’t be all one way. We need both sides of the brain. I will be mindful to respect both my sides in the hopes that both, working together, will serve me and my project well.

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I Am Overwhelmed, and That’s A Good Thing

For this post, I need to check every category box and tag every subject that could possibly be, because this applies to everything.

But I won’t. It would be too overwhelming.

I am overwhelmed by my e-mail, particularly since I started following a number of blogs. I am overwhelmed by chores, and projects around the house that seriously need doing. I am overwhelmed by the amount of music I want to hear, TV shows I want to see, movies to see, and books to read. I am overwhelmed by The Song of Ice and Fire. I am overwhelmed by requests from my family, friends who want to do things, and strangers who want me to sign their petition. I am overwhelmed with working on my novel.

This is all good, because I enjoy nearly all of what I am overwhelmed by, even the chores. Chores have, after all, easily recognized results. Laundry=clean clothes. Cooking=dinner. Cleaning=Not having your hand stick to the handle when you open the refrigerator. Results aside, finding a way to enjoy the mundane everyday of life is a healthy choice.

Feeling overwhelmed, when done as a way of life, is less healthy. By the term, “way of life,” I’m seeking to differentiate “overwhelmed,” the feeling, from the outside circumstances that may trigger the feeling. Okay, that’s a little confusing. Let me explain.

I feel a little ashamed to call myself “overwhelmed.” I am not besieged by troubles at this point in my life, I’m not coping with illness, family trouble, work trouble, children trouble…what problems I have are small potatoes when compared to troubles others have, and even pale in comparison to past times in my own life.

Overwhelmed is the feeling triggered by what I encounter each day. Overwhelmed is the reaction I choose to have to all that. I am overwhelmed because I am open, willing, and able to throw myself into what’s happening. At times, I’ve responded to the world by wanting to retreat and withhold. My experience tells me that sort of isolation leads to feelings of uselessness and futility. I’ll take feeling overwhelmed, thank you.

Writing makes me seek the overwhelming. Any creative activity, but writing most of all. I have to be actively working on something, and it has to be going passably well, but there is something about the rush of bringing the world-in-my-head to life on paper that makes me feel fifty feet tall. Yeah, I think. I can do that! And that, and that, and that…. There is a connection between creativity and grandiose ambition. It’s problem-solving, turned into a game. Feeling like a good writer makes me fly about my world like a superhero, righting wrongs, changing light bulbs, giving out good humor to all I meet.

I might even be on top of things for a short while, and if not caught up, at least within shouting distance of not feeling overwhelmed. And then, something happens, like the flu, or a vacation, or Christmas. Extra tasks are added, days are taken away, and every aspect of life devolves into a messy pile of stuff to do. Stuff I want to do. And feeling overwhelmed.

And I tell myself, Enjoy. It’s better than the alternative.

Feeling overwhelmed?

Ask this bird for help.

Photos: Speculativemartha. All rights reserved.

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Words, Picture, and Music, Part 3

Oh, those old photographs.

  • Faded wedding photos
  • Ridiculous extra copies of professional school and activity photos of our daughter
  • Really bad vacation shots
  • Very unflattering photos
  • Blurry photos
  • Accidental shots of foot or car interior

Somehow I can’t get rid of these either. In the case of the first item, I should take the negatives and get them put on a disk, which I can then upload to my computer. I would see them then. I find looking through photo albums depressing somehow. I can’t bear to do it. Is it a sign of getting old?

And yet I love seeing certain individual photos. One irony of the digital age is that I look at these uploaded photos way more often than I ever looked at them placed in an album or tossed in a shoebox. About four years ago, I began a project of sorting through old snapshots, scanning, and uploading them. A tedious exercise, and sure enough, I ran out of energy for it about 5% of the way through. Nonetheless, I found some treasures. Here’s one:

My dad, and my daughter, 1989.

Every generation needs that photo. Here’s another:

Our grandmother can’t restrain me from attacking my cousin’s face.

The farther back in time we go, the fewer photos we have, and the more precious they become. With lightweight, automatic cameras, we began taking rolls and rolls of snapshots. We were still limited, however, by how much film we had and by how much it would cost to process. Now, we never have to worry about wasting a shot. We take pictures of stuff we might buy at the hardware store. With digital, there is no longer any such thing as “wasting a shot.”

So I keep this:

Um, not exactly in focus.

The story’s good. A few years back we were visited, several years in succession, by a mother bobcat who chose to raise her family near/in our backyard. Above are two of the cubs. But oh, wait…

One of a litter of four. Mostly in focus, soul successfully captured.

So why is the fuzzy photo still in my iPhoto library? Dunno. Maybe I really think the camera does capture the soul. And maybe I think that by discarding a photo of someone, I am murdering his or her spirit? That’s pretty dramatic, and pretty powerful, of me. Also, it doesn’t explain why I still have the accidental shots of car interior or foot, which I choose not to include here.

There may be no easy explanation. Pictures have a hold on us, and that’s just the way it is.

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When Browsing Becomes A Waste of Time

I’ve touched on this before in a post on the loss of the brick and mortar bookstore.

I’m forgetting how to browse, forgetting I need to browse, and I’m feeling guilty when I do. It seems a waste of time (and sometimes money) because most of the time, I find nothing. Of course, when I browse, I’m not looking for anything in particular anyway, so I should not feel disappointed, should I?

When shopping, whether for books, music, or clothes, I have two possible frames of mind. Frame number one: I know what I want, and just need to find it. For instance, a book. I may have a choice between pb, hc, or ebook, but that’s all the thinking I need to do. Type on the title; click when it comes up. Ditto with music. If I absolutely need something specific in the way of clothes, I’ll hunt for it at a large chain like Nordstrom, either online or in person. (Sometimes I’ll look online, then go pick it up in person.)

The second frame of mind is the browse, and that’s when I just want to see what’s out there. I will browse for clothes at a cut-price place like Stein Mart. I don’t go there for something specific, like a basic dressy tee shirt in taupe, because 90% of their stuff is actually kind of weird. There’s a reason it’s 50% or 80% off. It’s a weird color, or has an annoying ruffle detail, or is cut oddly in such a way as to flatter no living human. They aren’t going to have what you’re looking for, in other words, but they might have something in the 10% not-weird stash that you like, and that fits, and that is a great buy. Just as often however, I leave empty-handed.

Browsing music is easier than it has ever been. With iTunes, Apple nailed this one. Genius it isn’t; maybe they should call it Above Average, but still, I can easily spend forty-five minutes (my optimal browsing time) clicking around from here to there. Whether I buy anything or not, I’ve had fun, and I’ve learned something. And, unlike in my youth, I no longer have radio stations or record companies choking off my choices. On the contrary, public radio, of all things, is a tremendous source for finding new music–KCRW in Santa Monica, California, and NPR’s All Songs Considered are two of my favorites.

I’ve already gone over the loss of bookstores, and how that’s choked off my book browsing activity. iBooks chokes me in a way that iTunes does not. Their “browse” section leaves off most of what they have. They seem only to feature bestsellers, most of which don’t interest me and anyway, I already know about them. Their treatment of speculative fiction is abysmal, though no worse, I suppose, than my local Barnes and Noble. I discovered a “Sci-Fi and Fantasy under $6.99” button though, and that is actually a good place to find the mid-list titles, including interesting self-published selections.

Nonetheless, technology is driving me toward the non-browsing mode of shopping, and instead to go to the reviews, the recommended reading lists, and the like. I have read that most books are sold by word-of-mouth; my trouble is that few of my friends and loved ones read what I like to read. I need to expand my word-of-mouth to word-of-screen. I just haven’t gotten quite into the swing of things yet.

This post feels like a ramble (like a browse of thoughts?) and I feel the need to move on.

I hope I don’t lose the ability to browse, as I’ve had some great discoveries in the process. It’s a wonderful state of being–passive, yet alert. Meditative, humbly open the Universe’s offerings. I emerged calmer and somehow wiser, and sometimes with a fabulous prize of something new and unexpected.

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