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Life with a two-year-old has become a continual battle of nudity vs. clothing. My munchkin has learned how to strip off every stitch of clothes, and I’m perpetually aware that I’m one turned back away from turds rolling down the hallway. Ah, to be two and uninhibited.
Somewhere in our early years we realize that we shouldn’t let the neighbors see us doing a naked dance through the window, and somewhere a little later, we learn that there are certain other aspects of ourselves it’s best to hide from the neighbors, too. And it’s true, of course. The neighbors won’t think it’s cute forever. We learn to be self-conscious. We find out that people judge and compare. We learn the concept of embarrassment.
But what does it mean for the writer?
In the artist of all kinds I think one can detect an inherent dilemma, which belongs to the co-existence of two trends, the urgent need to communicate and the still more urgent need not to be found….
What more fruitful way to redressing the balance than by portraying one’s inner world in a work of art and then persuading other people to accept it, if not as real, at least as highly significant? Part of the satisfaction which a creative person obtains from his achievement may be the feeling that, at last, some part of his inner life is being accepted which has never been accorded recognition before. Moreover, since art became an individual matter rather than a task for anonymous craftsmen, creative work is generally recognized as being especially apt for expressing the personal style of an individual (which is of course closely related to his inner world). The value we place upon authenticity is often exaggerated; yet there is a sense in which it is justified. However good a painting or a piece of music may be, taken quite apart from its creator, the fact that it is or is not another expression of the personality of a particular artist is important. For it either is or is not an addition to our knowledge of that artist; a further revelation of that mysterious, indefinable and fascinating thing—his personality. (D. W. Winnicott, quoted in Anthony Storr, The Dynamics of Creation, 58.)
Fear of honesty often holds me back as an artist, but the desire for honesty is what drives me. There are the fears of what people think, always. Will people see themselves in my characters? Will they see parts of me I’m not sure I want to share? Will I create something only to be rejected? Unless you’re a brazen person with an incredibly high self-esteem, these fears probably pester you, too.
Everyone is hiding something. But underneath their makeup and clothes, they’re naked. It only takes a trip to the grocery store checkout line to see that we’re delighted to find out that even the beautiful people don’t look so good when their cellulite isn’t airbrushed. Photos of celebs without makeup sell magazines. Eavesdrop on any group of new moms, and you’ll hear sighs of relief when one admits to stretch marks and saggy boobs, or another says they just can’t drop that last 10 pounds. We find comfort in being allowed to see each other’s flaws, in realizing we’re not the only ones who have problems. And if we want to make a real connection with the soul of a reader, to make them believe that we (and our characters) are human like them, we’ve got to be able to get naked, too.
Sometimes we don’t do the right thing or feel the “right way.” Sometimes our faith is faltering and doubt consumes us. Sometimes we’re angry and broken. And sometimes, everyone else is, too. Even the beautiful people. We find each other in the secret alleyways of literature, and we give each other hope.
Being a writer is brave work. It means having the courage to look at yourself naked, cellulite and all. I challenge you, especially in your early drafts, to be unprecedentedly bold. Ernest Hemingway once said, “Write drunk. Edit sober.” No alcohol is necessary to write without your filters on, though. Write so honestly you surprise yourself. Later, you can edit and revise, change details here and there to disguise yourself appropriately. An honest character doesn’t have to look and sound just like you–or your annoying big brother. And remember, if all else fails, there’s always the pen name.
So get in touch with your inner two-year-old and write like the neighbors aren’t even there. Don’t be afraid to jiggle ungracefully down the hall, in serious need of a bath. You just might do your best work yet.
By Lindsay Bandy
It’s date night at the Chinese Buffet. You grab a slightly wet plate and look over your steaming options. There are the dishes you’re pretty sure you’ll like, some you already know you hate, and others that you have no clue what they are, but you’re willing to give them a try. You take a miniscule helping of this and that, then decide what to take a heaping helping of for round two.
I like think of my Nook as a veritable smorgasbord of literature. I do a lot of sampling. I do some feasting, too. So here’s a question to consider: How many free samples do you have on your Nook or Kindle right now? Of those, how many have you actually clicked “Buy Now” and downloaded? How many books do you or your kids glance over at the bookstore and put back without giving them…
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Got antagonists, anyone?
A while ago, I was pretty annoyed with Someone. I was going over my mental litany of everything that really irks me about this person when my sweet daughter said out of the blue, “Mommy, isn’t Someone just so wonderful?” And I was like, what? Yeah, sure. Wonderful. I walked down the hall mentally muttering.
But this exchange didn’t go away in my mind like I wanted it to. I began to try to think about what my daughter saw in this person that I was missing. There are good things. There are annoying things, too, I reminded myself defensively. But there really is good. And there are reasons beyond my knowledge for how this person behaves, just like they only know the tip of the iceberg about me. Things have happened to them that I have no idea about. Things have affected them in ways that just wouldn’t affect me the same way because of personality or past experience. It’s not an excuse, but it sure helps in dealing with people when you can remember this. And it helps you as a writer, too.
As writers, we notice things. And sometimes, being the perceptive breed we are, we especially enjoy noticing other people’s faults and our own glowing attributes. In her blog post “The Moral Villain,” Becca Puglisi offers this suggestion for developing your antagonist: “Unearth his backstory and show readers that, at one point, he was human. It’s a good reminder that we’re all just one bad experience away from becoming monsters ourselves.”
Read the whole fantastic article here: http://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/2013/12/moral-villain-giveaway.html
Characters that are pure evil or pure good are neither believable nor interesting because they’re not realistic. Even the young Hitler, villain of villains, was crushed by his mother’s death from cancer and his own failure at achieving his dream of being an artist. One of my favorite antagonists is Thomas Barrow from Downton Abbey, because there are times when I have so much compassion for him and want the best for him, even though he’s slimy and devious and conniving. He’s human. And didn’t we love Sybil because she knew that?
We loved and identified with Tris in “Divergent” even when she wouldn’t forgive Al, even when she beat Molly to a pulp, because as a protagonist and heroine, she was still human like us. Good people mess up. Bad people got bad for a reason, even if we don’t think it’s a very good one. It’s true in real life, which is why it has to be true in fiction, too.
I would suspect that as writers, the reasons our characters sometimes fall flat is that we fall flat. Our heroes are too perfect because we put so much of ourselves into them, thinking WE’re perfect. Our antagonists are too one-dimensionally evil because we fail to see the backstory possibilities in the antagonists in our lives. Admittedly, it’s all much easier in fiction. After all, after we round them out, we can give our antagonists what they deserve, making sure they’re properly humiliated, imprisoned, or dead.
It’s harder in real life, when we’re usually stuck putting up with them indefinitely…but that’s where it counts! Let your quest for rounded-out, believable characters help you to notice more about the real people in your life. I want it to make me more compassionate. Your writing life should help you live your real life better – that’s the point, right?
So happy to be blogging with Eastern PA SCBWI!
By Lindsay Bandy
Did you participate in Picture Book Idea Month (PiBoIdMo)? If you did, and you have 30 ideas, hooray for you! But, even if you’re just kicking a couple of ideas around in your mind, here is my advice on what to do next:
Make a playdate!
In her book “Smart Moves: Why Learning is Not All in Your Head,” Carla Hannaford says, “The human urge to create comes from the play impulse.”
For me, the most inspiring of the PiBoIdMo daily blog posts was Day 8: Mike Allegra’s “The Play’s the Thing.” I think as writers, we are aware that our work is also our play. But I would encourage you to find a kid or two and let them play with your ideas with you. Nothing makes a kid feel more important than having a grown-up need their help. Being an author’s helper is pretty…
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Teaching a writing class at my local senior center has been an unpredictable experience. My numbers are up and down, depending on therapy appointments and whether or not my wheelchair-bound students have rides. Conversation goes anywhere from meeting our husbands, to beating cancer, to faith, to helping neighborhood kids cheat on their homework. Some of my students write eloquent poetry/prose, and others’s writing is very straightforward and simple. But the one constant is, I’ve heard a lot of great stories! People have been amazingly open books, and that’s special. I feel pretty honored to hear the stories these people have to tell.
So far, I’ve used mostly selections from Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems for sample texts, even though my students are mostly writing prose, because it’s a great way to give a short burst of inspiration on a given topic. However, I like to mix all the things I love together in a literary casserole, so one week, we used The Wonderful Happens by Cynthia Rylant. Can I pause for a second and say how much I love this picture book? I read it as often as my girls will let me. We got it from the library one day, and it now lives at our house. (We didn’t steal it from the library. We bought our own copy.)
The assignment I gave was to write – in any way meaningful to them – how the wonderful happens each day in their lives right now. We do a lot of looking back, but focusing on the good in life right now is important for anyone, young or old. As they’re creating a collection of stories to share with people in their lives, I felt that this was an important ingredient. Here is a small sampling from the book:
Up a white fence climbs a red, red rose
A wonderful rose.
Someone loved flowers and asked a seed to grow
And the wonderful happened….
I made a sample of my own that followed the pattern and went like this:
In a little laundry room sit piles of pink laundry,
My daughters painted, rolled in the grass, and ate spaghetti,
And the wonderful happened….
I love the way my girls get messy, even if I don’t love doing loads and loads of laundry. I encouraged my students to record as many things, big and small, that they could that brought them joy throughout the week. Their work vared greatly in form and content, but my favorite comment came from a sweet lady who said:
Every day, I thank God that I can focus on what I can do now, instead of what I can’t do anymore.
Wow, I thought, I need to remember that when I’m 75. Wait, no, I need to remember that NOW! Every stage of life brings “can’ts.” When you’re a kid, your life is full of so many “can’t yets.” When you’re a senior citizen, the “can’t anymores” are hard. But every moment of life is full of “can’t yets and can’t anymores.” In my life now, I can’t go anywhere alone without a babysitter, including the bathroom. Some days, I can’t sit for five minutes without hearing whining or fussing, can’t sleep through the night, can’t see my living room floor even though I cleared it the night before. But what a great time of life this really is, full of wonderful “cans!” And no matter how many “can’ts” my life will have in the future, I CAN always choose to focus on the Wonderfuls – even on the whiniest, grumpiest days when everything spills and naptime doesn’t happen. So can you!