Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Gift ≠ Identity

For just under two years, I couldn’t play bass. Or any guitar, for that matter.

Not because I lacked the talent for it (although some may beg to differ), but as the result of an unfortunate injury that has nothing to do with the picture at left.

I was working in a juvenile detention center at the time, and one day, while supervising a recreational sport activity, it happened.

Don’t assume it was a malicious act by some young punk with a bad haircut and attitude to match. He was simply running laps around the gym like a hyperactive squirrel on a hamster wheel, while everybody else was lined up, ready to return to the main facility.

As I tried to slow him down on his next lap, my finger got caught in the folds of his rolled-up sleeve, and when he twisted away — laughing as if we were playing a game of tag or something — every joint in the index finger of my left hand was dislocated.

The next day, my entire finger was twisted in a slightly corkscrew pattern and had taken on the hue of a Concorde grape (the darkest shade of purple I know).

And it hurt. A lot.

Playing guitar — and especially bass — was out of the question. And as the months dragged on, I was forced to consider that, at age 27, my passion for music might henceforth be limited to listening instead of performing.

When it comes to owning the gifts we’ve been given — whether music, art, creative writing, dance, etc. — it’s a common struggle for many to fully embrace their gifts as a significant part of who they are. Non-creative types have been known to snidely denigrate artistic endeavors as ‘hobbies’, far less down the scale of worth than, say, ‘real’ careers in maths and sciences.

I have several artistic friends who have given workshops to challenge/encourage creative artists to stand up and say, “I am an artist. It’s who I am.” For those who haven’t felt the freedom to “own” their artistic gifts, this is both necessary and validating, and I fully support the idea.

At the same time, my involuntary two-year sabbatical from playing music also serves as a reminder to not equate my identity with my artistic gifts. Whatever gifts I may have flow out of my unique identity, but they do not constitute the absolute be-all and end-all of who I am.

It’s still difficult, at times, when people ask me what I do, to respond with breezy confidence: “I’m a writer.” It’s still tempting to qualify it a second or two later by adding: “Well, actually, I work a lot of construction gigs to put food on the table, play in number of bands to put gas in the car, and I write when I can but I don’t make much money at it.”
As if financial remuneration is the ultimate validation. (cf. Taylor Mali’s thoughts on What Teachers Make)
I was fortunate — and grateful — to recover the ability to play music again, about twenty months after the initial injury. I’m grateful for the lessons learned during that season, specifically about not locating my identity and personal worth in my musical ability.

And when it comes to creative writing, I’ve also learned to embrace the other side of the gift/identity coin: what I do with the creative gifts that I’ve been given is an expression of my identity, not the source.

Now, if y’all will excuse me, I’ve got a novel in its fourth draft that needs my time and attention.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Character Sketch (it's a secret...)

Creating characters that are genuinely interesting = putting in the time & energy it takes to write their ‘back story’.

Characters are like real people: they have likes, dislikes, hopes, anxieties, dreams and phobias. They have families, friends, and life experiences that helped shape their thinking, beliefs, instincts, reactions, and motivations. Real people are a wonderful, messy, walking mass of contradictions, and believable characters are the same.

You may already have a good idea what your characters will be like, but it’s amazing how much fuller they become with a solid backstory that unpacks why they’re like that. For example, activists are typically galvanized by some injustice in their own lives, and cynics are often disillusioned optimists. Without knowing the ‘why’, the characters aren’t fully formed. Even if the specific events that galvanized the activist or frustrated the optimist don’t make it into the finished manuscript, the writer must understand what makes these characters tick.

There are many ways to do this, so there is no standardized system that works for everyone. My approach to creating back stories evolved over time, and is still evolving. But as a starting point, here’s what I’ve discovered:
  1. Many creative writing experts suggest using a grid-like checklist that includes things like: positive/negative personality traits, motivation/goals, hidden past/trauma, relationships, what does success/failure look like, and so on.
    I’ve done these charts. They are great for getting the ball rolling, but they never felt like enough. There was always a sense of something missing. Useful, yes, but more as a starting point.
  2. I've found it even more helpful to write out a literal ‘story’ about your character(s). Tell their family history, the events that shaped them, their hopes & dreams, triumphs and disasters. What injustice lit a fire under the activist? What disaster/betrayal caused the optimist to lose hope?
    The checklist approach is helpful in a ‘bullet point’ manner, but writing short biographies of your major (and secondary) characters brings them into well-rounded life. Suddenly, the question “would (insert character here) really say/do this?” moves from quasi-guess to confident decision.
  3. This one may be peculiar to my own addled writing process, but character sketches and back-stories are written long-hand. That’s right — paper and pen. I just sit down and start writing. It’s proven to be the most reliable way to unleash creativity.
    In my case, it could be a throw-back to my junior high days when my mother’s manual Underwood typewriter was my weapon of choice. Nobody at age thirteen wants to retype and retype, so I’d sit there — hands poised over the keys like a calcified bird of prey — until I was sure what I wanted to say. This creativity-throttling habit may have leaked into my laptop from time to time. So, going completely old-skewl with pen and paper is creatively liberating.
Psst... It’s a secret...

Here’s the hard part: after writing out such breathlessly thorough sketches for your major characters, it’s ridiculously difficult to resist the temptation to include every single detail so your readers will know the characters as intimately as you do.

Resist that temptation.

On the positive side, feel free to sprinkle hints and pieces of their back-story throughout your manuscript. Just don’t front-load your first chapter with an info-dump on each character. Pace yourself (and your readers), and let the mystery of each character unfold throughout the novel.

Another temptation to avoid is the dreaded Prologue.

For the novel I am currently working on, I invested a lot of time in world-creation, and I wrote — yes, using pen and paper — a lengthy treatise on their local history, geography, and civic development, spanning several generations. It resembled something you’d get in a high school Social Studies class.

It was fun to write, and I was so pleased with what I’d created that I foolishly entertained the idea of including the whole thing as a Prologue.
For about ten seconds, and then common sense prevailed.
World Creation’ is simply the back-story of the society where your novel takes place. It’s vitally important for the writer to understand the ins and outs of the fictional world, but unless you’re J.R.R. Tolkien, few readers really need or want the entire history.

Again, feel free to sprinkle tidbits and a short paragraph or two here and there — where it truly helps move the story forward — but don’t give in to the temptation to explain every cultural nuance with its complete historical context. The writer needs to know the whole picture, and the Social Studies world-creation is invaluable in keeping the fictional society consistent, but don’t do a massive info-dump and call it a ‘prologue’.
(It’s also widely whispered that editors and publishers skip prologues as a matter of principle, so you’re not doing yourself any favors by submitting a manuscript that depends on one.)
So, in a nutshell:
  1. Do your homework.
  2. Scatter seeds throughout your novel.
  3. Hold some secrets.
P.S. Give the ‘pen and paper’ method a try sometime. You never know.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Altar Ego

Perhaps you’ve heard the old joke: “The only problem with a ‘living sacrifice’ is that it has a tendency to crawl off the altar…”

Like all good jokes, it contains a cringe-worthy element of lamentable truth.

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship” (Romans 12:1).

On paper, it just makes sense that — following the example of Jesus, who gave His life on our behalf — we would reciprocate out of gratitude and worship by offering ourselves to God as living sacrifices.

But when the rubber hits the road, it’s not aways that easy. The implications of allowing God to have a say in how our day-to-day lives unfold is more uncomfortable than we realized. Offering ourselves to God as a “holy” sacrifice — does holiness imply that my morals and ethics may have to change in order to be the living sacrifice that God considers “true worship”?

And the imagery of ‘sacrifice’: that level of helplessness isn’t appealing. Even if we sing that God is a good, good Father, there is something within us that balks or cringes when we are faced with the level of trust required to offer ourselves as living sacrifices.

It’s hard to get ego to stay on the altar. We like to have the final say, the ultimate control, to be captains of our own fate. Many of us like the idea of Jesus as Savior, but find it difficult to surrender to Him as Lord.
(It’s almost as if we want God to save us on our terms: rescue me from the consequences of my sin, Jesus, but don’t interfere with how I live my life.)
“Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect” (Romans 12:2).

Change the way I think? Jesus, I’m just a wee bit offended that You’re implying I might not be thinking straight. I’m perfectly capable of discerning God’s will on my own.

There goes that ego, crawling off the altar again.

I’ve heard sermons, homilies, and devotional talks on Romans 12:1-2 since my earliest days of paying intellectual attention to my faith — cf. Saint Anselm’s “faith seeking understanding” — but the longer I’m a Christ-follower, the more I’m challenged by these two pithy verses.

Pride (ego) isn’t the sole domain of the International Guild of the Arrogant & Unreflective, or those diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Everyday, garden-variety pride rears its ugly head each and every time we find ourselves balking at the idea that Jesus might want to ‘interfere’ in our morality, ethics, attitudes, speech, and worldview.

Romans 12:1-2 reminds me of a simple (yet humbling and difficult) truth: Jesus is Lord, and I am not.

Me and my ego need to stay on that altar.