Getting Naked….

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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.

On Villains Real and Imagined

Got antagonists, anyone?

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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?

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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.

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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?