It’s a new year, and with the start of a new year, we traditionally make resolutions. Over the last several years, I have focused my new-year’s-mind on being kinder, listening more closely, supporting more causes in which I believe. I think I’ve become a (slightly) better person for those past resolutions. This year, though, I need to look inward.
I’ve been struggling with a kind of lingering depression for several years, now. It has not been clinically diagnosed, but I also know it’s more than just mood swings or the odd blah feeling. I function fine at work, and I carry on my family chores and responsibilities. My creative soul has been drowning, though.
I have known for a long time that I waste too much effort comparing myself to others’ success. Others’ popularity. Others’ epicness. I had thought that the best resolution for me this year was to be more accepting of others’ accomplishments, but it has to go deeper than that. The real answer came to me from a cooking show, of all things.
The show “Chef’s Table” (available on Netflix) did a portrait on Jeong Kwan, a Buddhist nun in South Korea. In her interview, she said the above, as well as the following:
“If you free yourself from the comparing and jealous mind, your creativity opens up endlessly.”
Jeong Kwan said these words in regard to her cooking, but I have taken them to heart for my writing. She equates the art of making wholesome and natural food to spiritual enlightenment. I believe that the same can be done with writing. Creating characters and stories has given me strength over the years. I’ve learned from the conflicts of those characters, and letting them speak, fight, and sing through my pen has opened my eyes to perspectives and ideas that might not have occurred to me otherwise.
I know my journey to this greater enlightenment and peace will not be easy, but every journey worth making takes effort. I hope to become a better creative, and a more well-rounded person, for that effort.
How do you deal with jealousy? Have you made any resolutions in the new year?
Several weeks ago, we took the family up to visit my mom, to help her clear out the old house. As we were throwing away my father’s seemingly lifelong accumulation of magazines (among which we did find some vintage Playboys which, sadly, were not as groovy as we’d hoped upon flipping through them), I started to ruminate on how many stories were in those old National Geographics, Air and Spaces, and even the Playboys, and how many unknown moments had been spent reading them. And here we were, just throwing them into a dumpster like so much trash. So it was during a rest break that I asked my husband:
“Do you think it’s foolish of me to keep things like my stories, when I’m the only one who cherishes them? I mean, nobody’s going to care about them when I’m dead.”
He replied, “Well, since you’ll be dead, you won’t care, either.” That didn’t help my mood any, until he added, “But, they bring you joy here, now, while you work on them and when they’re finished. And, everybody needs that joy in their lives. That’s what art is for: to make people feel things. Even if you’re the only person your work affects, they still give you something greater than the mundane in your life.” He patted my knee and smiled, and pushed himself up again as he added something else: “Besides, most artists don’t get recognized until after they’re dead, so, if that happens, at least you’re in good company.”
“Thanks,” I said, half-snarling at him. But, he was right, in articulating a perspective I’ve often had of my own work: that I need to love my stories. Because nobody else will, but, more than that, because those stories are a source of such great joy for me. Without them, even with so many blessings I already have, my life wouldn’t feel half so full of beauty.
Pictured above is a 2″ binder holding my printed collection of “Finding Mister Wright” short stories, 21 in all. Each red sheet indicates where a new story starts; my (fuzzy) thumb is added here for size reference. Now, my favorite authors of late have been crime novelists Craig Johnson, Henning Mankell, and not at all least or last, the gifted Ross Macdonald (whose graceful and insightful flair for repeatable descriptions I’ve tried and failed on more than one occasion to emulate in my own fiction), because I believe wholeheartedly in reading other – better – authors not only to enjoy a ripping story but also to make me a better writer in return. But, there are days when I like to go back and read the stories I’ve made, too. To see how far I’ve come, and to remember what conflicts and passions pushed me to write each one, yes…but also because I just plain love those characters. I love finding their stories with them; I love giving them lives that are beautiful and sad and worth every fighting moment. It’s exciting and fulfilling to look at those stories and know I made these. They may have started in my head as floating words, phrases, and ideas, but I made them stories. Nobody could have done that for those characters except me.
Someday, when I’m dead, someone will just throw my stories into a dumpster. I won’t care then. But for today, these stories give me joy. They make me feel greater than the mundane. And shouldn’t that make them worth it?
We all have stories we’ve read that we love. What are the stories you’ve written that you love?
…but, for some reason, many of my characters have difficult relationships with their own fathers. It’s the reverse of the Disney Princess situation, where it’s the mothers who are missing (seriously: many Disney Princesses just seem to not have had mothers at all!). In the majority of my stories, main characters challenge their fathers, are estranged from their fathers, their fathers are dead, or some semblance of all three. I honestly don’t know where this particular character detail comes from, since I had a pretty good relationship with my own father, and I honestly did love him. I think the admission of that love is what I’ve enjoyed exploring through these stories of children challenging and reconciling with the patriarchs of their families. Or, maybe it has something to do with the idea of The Patriarch being emotionally removed from his children, so he doesn’t show a lot of love to them. Whatever the reason, the fathers of my characters tend to get the short end of the stick. That must be the reason why, when my characters grow up and have children of their own, they are so determined to be openly loving men to their kids.
Chie, from 1 More Chance!, which I wrote between 2009-2011, rebelled against her father in her choice of boyfriend, but that was a tame conflict compared to the stark animosity Amber showed to her father in Fearless, whose first draft I wrote for NaNoWriMo 2011. Daniel’s conflict with his father, written over the last few weeks
and linked to below, is somewhere in the middle between those two perspectives…and, I have to admit, related to some of my own feelings about my dad, which I haven’t examined too closely since he died in 2014.
[~13K words / 51 pages Calibri DS-
PDF opens in a new window]
This story plays with time in a way I haven’t attempted before, but I’d recently read a novel that jumped back and forth in time in a similar fashion, to share story details between scenes, that I found interesting. I don’t know if I was completely successful in my attempt – I wondered if I should have done more jumping, just to break things up – but I always enjoy writing these characters, and the opportunity felt right.
Two of the guest characters in this story are returns for me, while another is based on a university colleague, and another is an homage to a writer friend’s adventuring archaeologist. I really enjoyed bringing back my own characters into this fold, and I do hope my friends don’t take offense to me envisioning them and their creations in a way that fit into my story. But, that’s the beauty of relationships, right? You never know where they’re going to take you.
On thinking more about it, the challenge of writing this story that I really enjoyed wasn’t so much the technical aspect of skipping around in time or between worlds of my making, but the Daniel character’s uniqueness in this situation, in that he is both a child and a parent, struggling to find the balance between both aspects of himself.
How do your personal relationships with family or friends affect your characters and their stories? Do you ever find yourself writing a little bit about yourself in your stories? From a technical perspective, what are your thoughts on time-jumps in storytelling? I’m happy to hear your answers to any of these questions!
(And, if you’re hearty enough to actually read the story, I’m interested to hear your thoughts about that, too!)
Sometimes, separating the writer from the character is hard. We find ourselves putting our own traits into those of our protagonist, so they become mirrors of us. They may share the same taste in music, food, or hobbies. Their favorite sports team may be ours; that song on the radio we just can’t stand may make them grind their teeth, too.
One trait that I’ve noticed that comes through in all of my favorite characters is an interest in cooking. Their proficiency levels vary (from Chie’s ignorance about what “simmer” means, to Marshall knowing the recipe for drop scones so well he can make them in his brother’s kitchen without a book), but they always enjoy cooking. It may have different meanings for them – a desire to please, a need to control, sometimes just a way for characters to relax or get to know each other better – but even those meanings are from my own experience.
Even though I’m not actively writing while I do it, cooking allows me the freedom to let my mind wander. It’s a time of day I usually spend alone with my thoughts, and those thoughts almost invariably turn to my stories and characters: Does Paige sneak chopped vegetables from the cutting board while Daniel looks away? Does Ross sway with Amber as she stirs some sauce? Does Axton have to stop making breakfast because the hounds won’t settle down?
No matter who the character is – doctor, dancer, reckless bounty hunter – they’re all me, in a way. I’m no doctor; I’m barely a dancer; I couldn’t track a skip to save my life. But there are more basic traits we share between us, like joy for art, work, and – sure – cooking. In honor of that sense of sharing, I thought I’d share a bit of a recent cooking experience: curried shrimp and mango soup. The photos below detail the real-life steps I took, but rest assured as ingredients were browning, bubbling, and coming together in that Dutch oven, my brain was equally bubbling with ideas for where my next story should go. And, of course, there’ll be cooking.
If you’re interested, here’s the recipe, originally from Eating Well:
- 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 2 stalks celery, sliced
- 4 cloves garlic, chopped
- 1 serrano chile, minced (optional)
- 2 tablespoons curry powder
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- 2 cups seafood broth or stock or clam juice
- 1 14-ounce can “lite” coconut milk
- 3 ripe mangoes, diced
- 1 1/4 pounds raw shrimp, peeled and deveined
- 1 bunch scallions, sliced
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- Heat oil in a Dutch oven over medium heat. Add onion and celery and cook, stirring occasionally, until beginning to brown, 3 to 5 minutes. Add garlic, chile (if using), curry powder and thyme; stir constantly for 30 seconds. Add broth (or stock or clam juice), coconut milk and mangoes. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to maintain a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes.
- Puree 3 cups of the soup in a blender. (Use caution when pureeing hot liquids.) Return the puree to the pot and bring to a simmer. Add shrimp and cook until pink and firm, about 3 minutes. Stir in scallions and salt.
What personal traits – if any – do you find you share most commonly with your characters? What do you see your characters doing when you’re cooking, doing the wash, or some other regular chore? Do you think you’ll try the curried shrimp and mango soup recipe? Let me know in the comments!
These last several weeks, I’ve felt mostly horrid. It’s been a rather hectic fall semester, with new projects to complete as well as new fires to put out. My students are either going through Senior-itis or studying abroad, so all the work they would ordinarily do falls to me, too. This isn’t actually that awful – what takes my students twelve hours to do, I can do in half that time – but it does mean tasks pile on through the week. Add to that my sleeping schedule is wonky due to changing weather and light, and I’ve felt sluggish and unmotivated.
I’ve also been working on a story edit.
When I edit, I try my best to concentrate on that story. It helps me keep overall voice and continuity better than notecards or Scrivener can do. I still read while I edit, because I learn more by example from my favorite authors on what’s important in a story, how to keep plot threads moving, and when to dangle, when to pull up, and when to trim loose. But the only writing I’ve done for the last month or so has been rewrites of an already-finished draft. Rewrites are good: I changed two whole chapters, cleaned up more than a half-dozen more, and had one character do a near-180 flip on me. It’s all better for the story as a whole, but it was sucking me dry.
I discussed this with my husband, who reminded me that “[r]ewriting is still writing.” But, he is much more comfortable working from what’s already on the page. The blank page doesn’t bother me; I just start writing words off the top of my head. In fact, it’s hard for me to find blank pages in my notebook when I need one, because so many of them are filled with first lines, initial ideas, or jots of dialogue. For some people, that’s all the writing they need to keep going. For me, all of those little notes and ideas are merely warm-up, like stretching before a workout. Have you ever just stretched and not followed up with the real workout? My body reacts poorly to that. It wants to work hard and make a sweat. Why couldn’t I see what that stretching-and-not-working was doing to my writer’s brain?
On my Thursday morning commute, I decided to open up a blank document. I just couldn’t face again one of the annoying scenes in the edit I was trying to make work. I began typing off the top of the head…and, over the next two days, I typed out over 4700 words of a new free write.
I haven’t felt this good in a long time.
Friends and colleagues – real writers – supported this, with cheers like, “Writing is therapy!” and “Writing is the best medicine.” I had apparently forgotten how sapped I get when I don’t allow myself the freedom to write something new and for fun.
Editing strengthens a story. It’s an integral part of making the story the best it can be. And, I do enjoy it, especially to see the finished product. But, sometimes, I have to let myself just write, for the pure joy of the story, the characters, and the process itself.
“Breathe, another ‘Finding Mister Wright’ short-fic”
[~4750 words/16 pages; PDF]
Clicking the link above will take you to the latest chapter in my “Finding Mister Wright” slice-of-life series. It’s about love and family, fatherhood and brotherhood, and the big and little changes those things cause in us. It’s a free-write, so it’s choppy in parts and rambling in others, but I decided not to edit it despite that. Part of what brings me back to these characters time and again is how much joy and love they have for each other, and how much of the same I have for them. I doubt they’d be so therapeutic otherwise.
How is your writing journey progressing? What do you do when you find yourself in a writing or editing funk?