Perspective

At some point when we reach our late 20s, our perspectives harden like freshly-poured concrete forming a sidewalk or a driveway. From there it’s unlikely that our perspective will change much despite evidence that suggests it should. As we get older, confirmation bias stretches its dark tentacles deeper into our brains and squeezes harder making it even more difficult to shift our perspectives. Everything that supports our view of life is acknowledged; everything else is ignored. I imagine there’s an evolutionary reason for this. We keep doing what has kept us alive thus far, and if we’ve made it this far, then we must be doing something right. Right?

As a writer I spend a lot of time observing what’s happening around me, how people are reacting or not reacting to the world around them. I play a game of “What if?” quite often as I’m always thinking about story ideas. I’m inherently a skeptical person, so when I’m presented with rigid dogma or thoughtless conventional “wisdom,” I habitually ask myself “What if the opposite were true?” The most interesting stories often lie at the intersection of two different perspectives, or as I like to muse, two different realities.

When I reached my 40s, I realized something had subtly happened to me over the prior decade, something that had not really dawned on me until it was too late. I had lost touch with the rest of the world in a way I couldn’t explain much like flotsam on the beach gets buffeted by the waves until it is dragged out into the middle of the vast ocean far from any land. Age does that to you. The world belongs to the young, a collective consciousness that surges into the mainstream and spits you out the other side like a remnant of a bygone era. What was once a fresh and engaging perspective becomes tired and worn.

Writing allows me to assume different perspectives, to step into another’s skin and try it on for size. It also forces me to consider what it’s like for someone else in a very real way, not in some superficial attempt at empathy. To make the story authentic, I have to be deeply thoughtful of perspective. How would it feel to be this character? How would this character react to this situation. The opportunity to do this is rewarding in its own right, liberating even. I feel subtle shifts in my own perspective because assuming another’s is so taxing that I cannot help but be affected. Is it possible to break free of our own constraints?

Years ago I moved my family to China for my job. Before I interviewed for the job, I had never been to mainland China. My vision of the nation was exactly what you’d expect from an American, exactly what is displayed on the myopic television news. I imagined staunch Communists parading in the streets in abysmal outfits drooling the party line, but the reality was anything but that. Instead, I found an engaging culture with a rich history bursting at the seams. Sure, there’s the creepy big brother government lurking in the background, but that wasn’t the only thing that defined the nation. My perspective shifted. Being there and putting myself in the shoes of Chinese citizens changed my perspective. The same thing happens when I write.

It is possible to change my perspective in spite of the gravity of confirmation bias. I’ve come to the conclusion that only a fool would go through life and not change his perspective based on new evidence, even if it were anathema to him at another point in time. The world belongs to the young, but even a middle-aged writer can test the waters of something new. It’s all a matter of perspective.

Concept: The Castle on the Hill

The first time her husband, Alfred, punched her, Anna Modena stayed on the floor for a while, not because he followed up the punch with a swift kick to her rib cage but because she couldn’t believe what had happened. She’d been punched and kicked before. Her father had done it plenty when she was growing up, but she had never expected her father’s ghost to come alive in the man she had married. She had escaped one horror to land in an atrocity. She couldn’t win.

After her wedding night, she learned to adjust like she had adjusted with her mercurial father. She was just 17 years old then, but she felt much older when it came to rules of the world around her. She knew that she couldn’t talk back to a man, that she should do what she was told the first time, and that she should always be on guard for a punch. These rules helped her stay on her feet and kept her alive, but it was her imagination that kept her sane.

She didn’t care much for anything except for her daughters. Those four girls provided the only welcoming light in the dim, double-wide trailer they rented at the end of Victoria Lane in Norwich, Alabama, a small town wedged against the northern edge of Interstate 20 just west of the state line between Alabama and Georgia. Megan was the oldest at 13 and reminded her of herself when she was young except that she had stayed in school and planned to go to college to be a doctor. Brittany, a child whose conception still brought Anna nightmares, was 12, just ten months younger than her older sister. Christina and Emma likewise were close in age only separated by 18 months at 10 and 8, but Emma’s difficult birth had put an end to Anna’s child-bearing days at the ripe old age of 23. She didn’t know what else she was good for and neither did Alfred.

The afternoon sun pushed through the heavy curtains in her living room exposing the dusty air that surrounded her as she sat in the old chair that formed one end of the semi-circle in front of the TV. The vinyl-covered cushion sighed under her weight as she shifted to get more comfortable. A man and woman argued on the talk show that played quietly before her, but she mostly ignored it. The girls would be home soon. That brief interlude between the girls arriving home from school and her departure for her job was her favorite part of the day. With Alfred at his day job, she’d have the girls to herself as she did every day during the school year.

A large vehicle grunted outside, but it didn’t slow down in front of her driveway, so she knew the bus had yet to arrive. Disappointment washed over her. If the bus was early, she’d have more time with her girls before she left. Instead, she feared it’d be late, and her precious time with them would be rushed. Finally, the roar of an exasperated engine surged and stopped near her mailbox. The exhale of the brakes gave Anna hope that she’d soon see her children. The bus roared to life again and ambled away from the stop, and as the noise of the vehicle faded into the distance, she could hear the animated cackles of young kids talking and laughing as they walked down the main street through the neighborhood.

Tiny, muffled voices arrived at her door, and Anna tensed as if she were waiting for intruders. She still felt overwhelmed with joy when her daughters returned home even though it happened like this every day. She missed them. She hated not being able to spend the evenings with them like the other mothers did, but her job put food on the table. She waited.

The door knob glinted in the dull light as the door swung open and Christina poked her head around its metal edge. The sunlight from outside enshrouded her like an angel descending from heaven. “Mama?”

“Chrissy! How was school?”

A smile wrapped around Christina’s face when she finally saw her mother sitting in the living room. “Okay,” she replied in the universal response she gave to every inquiry about her school day.

“Mama!” Emma shrieked as she trailed her sister through the door.

Both girls ran to Anna and wrapped their arms around her. She kissed the tops of their heads and hugged them close.

“Do you want a snack?” she asked. They shook their heads eagerly. Anna stood up slowly. The bruise on her left hip screamed at her and made her catch her weight on her right side. She almost tumbled over, but she steadied herself on right leg shuffling toward the tiny kitchen with her youngest daughters in tow.

She peered out the front window as she walked to the kitchen. The next bus would arrive soon she thought as she grabbed packets of crackers from the mostly-empty pantry and sat them before her eager daughters. As she poured them some milk, she heard a bus rumble to a stop outside her house again. Its air brakes hissed in a momentary pause before it rolled on down the street. Anna tensed and took a deep breath.

It took longer than usual for Brittany to open the door. She stepped through it quickly shutting out the flash of outside light before Anna’s eyes had a chance to adjust. Brittany had a grim look on her face as if her backpack contained some unbearable weight. She said nothing to anyone as she made a beeline for the bedroom she had once shared with her older sister. Her youngest daughters stayed quiet, but Anna could feel their eyes on her.

“Finish your milk,” she said finally. “And clean up your mess.”

The crinkling of the plastic wrappers seemed louder than it should have been as the girls busied themselves with cleaning up. Anna sighed and returned to the chair in the living room relaxing for one last moment before she had to leave for work. The girls joined her and sat on the floor before the TV.

“Why don’t you turn it to a cartoon?” Anna suggested. Christina gladly obliged and the girls sunk, zombie-like, into the odd world of a cartoon that Anna didn’t recognize. Anna smiled at her girls basking in the glow of the TV. Emma peeked over at her at one point but quickly returned her attention to the cartoon.

Anna wished she could sit there with them until it came time to put them to bed, a luxury she only experienced when one of them was sick, but work would beckon soon, and she’d trudge off down the street to catch the bus into town while Brittany put herself and her sisters to bed before Alfred came home. The monotony of her life weighed on her, threatened to pull her under. She squeezed her eyes shut for a moment and it all disappeared, not her daughters, but everything else. This other life, the one she wanted, existed out there. It kept her sane for she would otherwise crumble to the earth amid the sea of insults and bruises and despair.

A heavy knock rattled the thin door on the trailer. Anna opened her eyes to see the dust swirling in the light that broke through the curtains near the door. Christina and Emma looked back at her as if they had never heard an unwanted knock at the door, their expressions startled and uncertain. Anna winced at the pain in her throbbing hip. She stood up and stutter-stepped before she steadied herself and walked to the door.

When she opened the door, a short, stocky man dressed in all black stood before her. He wore a baseball cap with an unrecognizable logo on it and reflective sunglasses that captured the startled and puzzled expression that Anna felt at that moment.

“Good afternoon, ma’am. Is Mr. Modena home?”

“No, he’s at work. I’m his wife. Can I help you?”

The man tightened his lips across his face as if he were upset that Alfred was not home.

“Please give this to Mr. Modena. It’s very urgent.”

“What is it?” Anna tentatively took the paper from his hand. She looked at it as she waited for him to explain it. The tiny words crammed onto the pages befuddled her.

“It’s an eviction notice. You’re six months behind on your rent. The landlord has filed a motion to evict you.”

The rest of his words failed to reach her. She stood there watching him speak, his stern jaw flexing each time he mouthed a word. She felt like she was watching a muted TV. He finally pivoted away from her and returned to the SUV he had parked on the street. She wavered in place for a moment before she stepped back into the comforting darkness of her living room. She shut the door behind her. The girls, enthralled by the cartoon, ignored their mother. Anna took a deep breath and walked into the kitchen where she deposited the notice in the trash. It was time to leave for work.

 

A Writer Must Read

I often tell my kids that they have to read to learn. There’s simply no way around it. This is especially true when they’re no longer in school and they don’t have teachers and assignments forcing them to read. While they may dream of a day when they don’t have a long list of reading assignments, the truth is that they will (or should) spend the rest of their lives reading. Hopefully, they’ll enjoy it. My wife and I began reading to them almost from the moment we brought them home from the hospital, and over the years that’s turned into family reading time each night before bedtime. As a result it’s not unusual to see my kids lumbering around the house with a book in hand without any assignment hanging over their head.

While most of my reading is done for pure pleasure, as a writer I must read. One of the most salient nuggets of advice Stephen King delivers in his memoir On Writing is just that: A writer must read. It’s necessary to get better. You have to observe the craft in its finest form (or not so finest) to really understand how to improve your own work. There’s no way around it, nor are there any shortcuts. If you’re writing and not reading, you’re limiting your potential as a writer.

Reading is what brought me to writing in the first place. Way back in fourth grade when I pulled Richard Adam’s Watership Down from the top shelf of the musty, old school library and checked it out, I started down the path to being a writer. That book subsumed my imagination and took me to a different world. I loved it so much that I read it twice (it remains the only book I’ve read more than once). After I read that book, I decided I wanted to create wonderful stories like that. I wanted to become a writer. Three decades later I took that first step toward being a writer, but by then, I had read many more books and learned much more about writing.

Every time I pick up a book, I learn something. I learn new words, new ways of describing something, or a new approach to creating a scene or imagery. I’m currently reading Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. The way she creates a scene is remarkable – a prime example of “show, don’t tell.” Her use of imagery and words puts the reader right in the middle of her stark, apocalyptic world, which is equal parts horrifying and mesmerizing. The novel spans several decades, but she manages the time shifts expertly so that the reader doesn’t get whipsawed by the jumps along the timeline. I’ve learned a lot from reading her book, and it will make me a better writer.

I could go on and on with examples of how I’ve learned about the craft of writing from reading. Wally Lamb taught me the true art of character development with his books that often delve deep into the psyche of his protagonists (see She’s Come Undone). Khalid Hosseini taught me how to bring the setting alive and make it just as much a part of the book as the main characters (see A Thousand Splendid Suns). Jonathan Franzen, a true literary genius, taught me how to weave a beautiful story from the seemingly mundane interactions of the characters (see The Corrections). His stories aren’t for thrill seekers, but they are beautiful in that they capture the emotional reality of life vs. some fantastic version of it.

There are so many books to read, and so little time, especially as I’m trying to squeeze in time to write myself. Nevertheless, I will always make time for reading, whether it’s just before bedtime or on the train to work, because reading is necessary for writing. A writer must read.

No Place for Ego

The ego gets a bad wrap. Most people associate it with arrogance, self-centeredness, and myriad other bad personality traits, but the reality is much different. Everyone has an ego – an innate sense of self-esteem or importance. I could argue that the ego is the foundation upon which self-preservation rests, the backbone of our primordial “fight or flight” instincts. In other words the ego keeps us going in the face of threats to our existence. On a less dramatic scale, the ego gives us the stamina to move forward despite feedback that suggests we’re wasting our time. That could be good or bad depending on the circumstances, but for a writer it is a necessary condition of employment.

Like many matters of art, writing is judged based on personal tastes, which are formed through a complex mix of experience and emotion throughout life. If I put two people in front of a classical painting in the middle of the Louvre and ask their opinion of the piece, I’ll likely get two starkly different opinions. Some paintings, like DaVinci’s Mona Lisa, are universally loved and admired (However, I bet I could find many people who hate it), but many others are subjected to the partial perspectives of the viewer or reader as it may be. While some opinions may carry the weight of an “expert,” no opinion on the matter of taste in art is necessarily more valid than another, but opinions are as varied as the people who provide them.

To take this example a bit further, I present my wife and me, both of whom are avid readers but have very different tastes in what is considered good in terms of books. We have enjoyed some books together, but my wife didn’t enjoy one of my most favorite books, Shantaram. Despite the fact that we share many similar likes and dislikes, we’re often on opposite sides of the reader spectrum. I prefer books in the literary genre with expansive, flowing prose, but many readers would find these stories dull and slow-moving. This doesn’t mean one genre is better than another; it’s a matter of taste, which is as varied as those who read the stories.

Understanding this reality is important for a writer. It’s no accident that many writers (or artists, in general) throughout history have been prone to neurotic or odd behavior (Think: Van Gogh, Dali, etc.). The slings and arrows of opinions can be quite difficult to absorb even if you understand this fact of life. What garners praise from one reader may prompt kvetching from another. It’s hard to know what to make of it all. Does every opinion warrant a change? Does every piece of feedback that is negative mean that the writer has failed?

To some extent, yes. The point of writing is to communicate effectively whether for pleasure or informative purposes. If the reader experiences little or no pleasure or is not informed, then the writer has failed, at least with that particular reader, but any writer who seeks to assuage every reader’s sense of satisfaction will never write because such a a feat is impossible. Even great classics of literature have their detractors. Such is the case for every other writer.

Given the flurry of opinion, it’s hard to stay focused. Writer’s have to pick and choose what feedback requires action, and that’s not always straightforward. I do know that no one becomes a writer to boost their ego. If anything, the ego is the only thing that keeps us going if only because it’s a flickering flame in a rainstorm that just happens to stay lit long enough until the next story is finished.

Where To Next?

This past weekend I ran a half marathon. My goal during the race was to keep as consistent a pace as possible without falling off in the latter stages of the race, which I’m prone to do. One of the course guides rode near me on a bike the entire time and he would periodically call out my pace to me. Almost without fail, he’d report that I was running the same pace whether I was on a straightaway or on an incline. In the few instances where he told me I was falling off, I’d shake myself out of my racing trance and kick it into another gear. Having someone monitor me like that and give me a shot in the arm when I needed it helped me perform better than I probably would have otherwise. It felt like I had an impromptu coach by my side. I thanked him (breathlessly, of course) when he peeled off near the finish line and let me cut through the crowd by myself. I came to a stop on the other side of the tape and bent over to catch my breath. After I grabbed some water, I ambled over to a bench and took a well-deserved break.

It’s no shock to anyone who knows me that I often find parallels between running and writing – after all both of these activities suck up most of the little free time I have. After attending The Fifth Semester a few weeks ago and getting some good advice and guidance from the coaches there, I feel like they’ve helped me stay on pace, at least with my current project, but much like that race this weekend, I’m hunched over sucking wind in need of a break after making my first submission to my coach. As I mentioned in my last post, the rewrite of many parts of my novel took much longer than I had expected. I’m not sure I was “on pace” the whole time, but I did cross the finish line for that particular race.

Having a coach does help. External feedback helps. It’s easy to get wrapped up in my own little world in a race or in writing, so having someone tell me when I’m drifting off pace helps me pull it back together. A few years ago, I worked with a wonderful editor, Kathy Williams, at Strategic Finance magazine when I was doing a series of articles for them. ¬†She was very good at her job, and she made my writing infinitely better, especially since the writing was technical and dry. Despite the topic, she made my articles pop off the page. She seemed to know where to add and subtract, and her suggestions were usually spot on. I loved working with her and often wished she worked with fiction writers. A good editor or coach can make or break a piece because many writers can’t see the forest for the trees, myself included.

This morning, I can still feel the residual soreness from the race this past weekend. I can also feel the doldrums between projects settling in. I’m in the process of re-reading Into the Caldera (the editing never stops!), but I’m also laying the foundation for my next project. I’ve decided to tackle one of my more recent ideas titled Pine Mountain. I posted the opening chapter here a while back. The story about a man who loses everything and returns to his hometown to put his life back together puts me back in the literary genre, and it has many interesting plot points that I cannot wait to explore. As usual, I kind of have a sense of where this story is going, but I won’t know for sure until I start writing. I’m at that stage of writing where I’m standing at the start line and I realize that I have a long distance to run and it feels a little overwhelming. Nevertheless, I’m eager to get started on what’s next after recovering for a bit.

(Re)Write

At first glance a writer’s life seems idyllic. Work often involves a comfortable chair and a steady stream of coffee nearby. The commute is to-die-for since it usually involves a small number of steps from bed to said chair (no more sitting in pointless traffic!). The dress code can range from comfortable to embarrassing and no one will report you to HR (although your spouse and/or kids may complain). Also, I’m certain that if I were a full-time writer that the after-lunch nap would be an acceptable practice. That’s what I tell myself anyway.

However, like everything else in life, it’s not that simple, and I’m convinced that the word idyllic is an adjective much like unicorn is a noun in that it describes something that does not exist (sorry, if I’ve burst your bubble about unicorns). While I can sit and write for hours with nary a pause, writing something that is cogent and delightful is a different story (no pun intended). Writing is hard. Of course, if it were easy everyone would have a best seller in bookstores on Amazon.

I just finished my umpteenth draft of Into the Caldera. If you’ve been following this blog (you can be forgiven if you’ve fallen asleep and missed a few, okay, a lot of posts), you may remember that I started this novel with gusto back in July of last year. I pounded out the first draft in under three months and then started the editing process, which took me through more loops than a game of Candyland. I eventually ended up at my recent writing boot camp with a novel that still needed more work despite months of effort on my part. Quite frankly, I was tired of it and longed to work on another idea that had me excited (I’m always excited about the next idea; the current one – not so much).

By the end of the long weekend at the boot camp, The Fifth Semester, one of the instructors, Ann Garvin, had breathed new life into my novel. She proposed a couple of ideas that really invigorated the story and got me excited about the project again. I began writing, or I should say, rewriting in earnest that weekend. I thought her suggestions were just what the novel needed to finally come to a finish. On the surface, these ideas seemed easy to implement, but the reality was quite different.

A novel, like any complicated object, is built in layers. The layers themselves may be simple, but when the whole is put together with all of the connections, the finished piece is complex and intertwined. Removing one simple part or idea is like trying to remove one thread from an intricately woven sweater. There were only two ideas in the story that I wanted to change based on Ann’s suggestions, but those changes impacted other parts of the story that then had to be changed to make the book coherent. Like any book, I had a good amount of foreshadowing of future events and references to past events in the narrative, so when I completely changed some things that happened, I had to go back and adjust the references or, in some cases, completely remove them.

Once I changed the story elements, the dominoes fell and I found myself stuck in an endless loop of rewrites. I’d read and re-read the story only to find yet another reference that was incorrect or made no sense. At one point, I wondered if it made more sense just to start over, but once you invest your life in a 70-thousand word story, it’s hard to trash the whole thing. I kept writing and rewriting until I thought I had a coherent draft ready to send to Ann. After much work, I finally sent her the draft on August 16th, which was more than a few weeks past when I had hoped to send it to her.

I’m sure she’ll find things that my tired mind overlooked. I’m sure I will, too. I’m re-reading the story again purely from a reader’s perspective to see how it flows. The changes I made were major in that they change the tone of the story dramatically. I basically took a sharp turn on the novel with my rewrites, but I think it makes it a better story. Nevertheless, I’m sure there are many more rewrites in my future with this story. The writer’s life isn’t so idyllic after all.

Sleep

My wristband buzzes me awake, not in a shocking, sudden way, but in a persistent low-frequency hum. I tap it without looking to turn it off and stare into the space of my bedroom as my eyes and my mind adjust to being awake. A quiet solitude fills my house at this hour, an ungodly one to most.

My wife sleeps next to me, still in her slumber. She lays on her left side cuddled up on her side of the bed. The warmth of our bed beckons me to stay, but I know I have to start my day. Now. Before I leave the comfort of this space, I roll over next to her and wrap my arms around her, this beautiful woman. In the ambient light, I can make out the curves of her body, the hallmark of her attractiveness. I gently move my hand along her side and kiss her on her back. She doesn’t stir. I don’t want to wake her; I just want to leave this one token of my love for her.

The day ahead calls like a screaming baby in the middle of the night. I pull away from my wife and leave her to sleep for another hour or two. I move in the dark to avoid waking her, slipping out of the bedroom and down the stairs to start my day. The day awaits impatiently, and I jump on the fast-moving treadmill that thrusts me through the long, stress-laden hours that I barely remember when all is said and done.

The day starts with perfect clarity in those predawn hours. My mind is sharp and alive with intriguing thoughts. My creativity bursts at the seams, like a genie rattling around in a bottle that could explode. In these precious few hours when I can think of things that really interest me, I let these thoughts roam free until I have to herd them all into a corner of my mind and begin the march toward the tiresome routine I have followed for more than two decades.

Tiresome. That’s a word that captures the essence of what becomes of me as the day zips by like a meteor ripping through the night sky. The sharp-edged rock of my day gets worn down by the incessant waves of never-ending demands and imagined pressures until it is worn smooth and benign.

I limp home joining a depressing chorus of zoned-out office workers on the train. I escape into my book for the train ride, my final escape from the harrowing day. Sleep calls for me in the slow-motion dance before bedtime. The weight of the day is no longer bearable by the time I return to my bed next to my wife.

Once again in the darkness of our bedroom, my body collapses into the mattress. My mind suddenly finds a spark before I push all thoughts aside to get some much-needed sleep. My wife, in her favorite position on her left side, slowly drifts off to sleep. I push myself next to her and wrap my arms around her listening to the soothing rhythm of her breathing as she finds sleep, a rhythm I know so well. It is here in the darkness next to the woman I love more than anything that I finally see the day for what it is, another opportunity to be alive and to love this woman. I kiss her on the back again before I too succumb to sleep.