Shameless Joy

I don’t know if you have noticed, but there are a lot of things to be fearful and upset about in this world. I can so easily be swallowed up in a down-the-toilet-bowl swirl of my twitter feed that it makes me want to crawl into bed and hide under the covers. Forever.

But then there is the other side of the coin. The moments of joy that come into my life every single day. A beautiful sunset, a visit from a beloved friend, or a tv show that moves me to tears all remind me that there are wonderful things in this world along with the bad. But I still have a difficult time experiencing both.

Part of me feels guilty for smiling at my daughter’s goofy dance when there are kids elsewhere are torn from their parents because of rules I don’t believe in. I feel the stirrings of shame at feeling proud at accomplishing a writing goal when the polar ice caps are melting.

To help me reconcile these two extremes, and keep from going crazy(read: crazier), I am going to try something new. I will be working incredibly locally, focusing on what is within my control. I will try to dwell and ruminate in the joy I experience. I will also try to take in these massive stories of sorrow only long enough for me to take what actions I can, and then moving on. I am going to recognize tragedy in-the-moment and then wallow in my joy.

It’s kind of a reversal for me, but it sounds like such a relief.

For the month of February, I am going to try on the hat of actionable optimist who dwells on the joy, shamelessly.

Ice Skating and Character Arcs

Sometimes in the sturm und drang of the internet, something flutters to the surface of the cesspit, untarnished and beautiful. Something like Jonathan Van Ness’ progress videos as he learns to ice skate.

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Jonathan is a charming fifth of the cast on Netflix’s “Queer Eye” and host of the podcast “Getting Curious.” While he is an expert in many things, he is bravely choosing to share his process of learning something completely new. What he is sharing isn’t flawless, but it is real. It is so refreshing to see behind the curtain of social media perfection to see a capable person striving to learn something new.

In my sheer joy I texted my BFF Amanda:

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I think we don’t see adults learning something new more often because as a society we somehow think of it as shameful. Surely adults should know everything already? Children are the only ones we force to learn. I think if respected people shared what they are learning more openly it would make children less resentful and adults less ashamed.

Have you ever met an adult who refused to learn how to use their cell phone? It isn’t a generation gap to blame, it is a willingness to learn that is missing. Because an important element of learning is failing, looking silly, and being publicly embarrassed. And as we get older we seem less willing to make ourselves as vulnerable as we need to be to learn something new.

I’ve just finished reading the book “Grit” by Angela Duckworth where she compares the difference between ‘growth mindset’ and ‘fixed mindset’. Those with a fixed mindset have a tendency to think of the world in black and white terms. An individual is either intelligent or they are stupid. They are talented or hopeless. Those with a growth mindset have the perspective that effort can change intelligence. That practice can develop talent. Unsurprisingly, those who believe that they can change their circumstances often are the same ones who put in the tremendous effort necessary to learn, grow and ultimately …change their circumstances.

Now, of course, I am going to bring this all back around to writing. Because I am, after all, me.

via GIPHY

A growth mindset ties in perfectly to discussing character arcs. A story works best when a character learns a lesson and leaves the story different than they began it. (Ideally, the reader/viewer leaves changed too, but that part is out of the artist’s control.)

For example in my work in progress, my two protagonists begin the story with fixed mindsets. Though their worldviews are very different from each other they are both unwilling to question, let alone shift, their personal philosophy. The plot works on my characters, as their point of view is challenged again and again, until finally, they break. The breaking point for me is about the midpoint of the story. Then comes the second half as they practice and test their new point of view.

On the other hand, my villain is confronted by as many, if not more, challenges to his fixed mindset. Unlike my heroes, he refuses to change his mind. Instead, he doubles down on his worldview to disastrous consequences.

I love reading because I get to see characters go through the hard work of growing and changing. It helps to inspire me to follow in the footsteps of protagonists and not my villains.

Optional writing homework: Think about what core beliefs your character has at the start of your story, then think about how they will change at the end. Consider what kind of events or strife will challenge them enough to change this deeply held belief. Do exercise with your protagonist, a side character, and your villain.

Terror and Growth

“Great people do things before they’re ready. They do things before they know they can do it. And by doing it, they’re proven right.” – Amy Poehler

As a woman of a certain upbringing and disposition, I want everything I produce to be perfect. All the time.

Logically I understand that it is an impossible standard, but emotionally I just really really want things to be perfect. Hence, I am terrified of taking the next step in my writing and start to consider publishing. Continue reading

How to Fix “The Last Jedi”

Star Wars is one of the mega-dynasties of filmmaking, and everyone has an opinion. Today you guys get to hear MINE.

Since this is a space to talk storytelling, I want to momentarily set aside things like aesthetics, sound design, and performance to instead focus on comparing The Last Jedi and The Empire Strikes Back.

The stories are similar. In Empire: heroes Han, Leia, and Luke are being tracked and harassed by The Empire. In The Last Jedi : Our heroes Rey, Poe, and Finn are being tracked and harassed by The First Order. Both are the second installment in trilogies, both are set in the Star Wars Universe, and yet one is a beloved cinematic classic and the other I found really disappointing. Why? Continue reading

Pitchapalooza 2018

I want to share with you all that I learned while putting together my very first attempt at a book pitch.

NaNoWriMo is teaming up with The Book Doctors for Pitchapalloza 2018! In addition to offering prizes, they will be broadcasting a live critique on March 15th. I am excited to tune in then to hear the pro’s advice on how to put together a good pitch. (They are collecting submissions until February 28th, so if you have something awesome to pitch check out the rules.)

Continue reading

Gender, Pronouns, and Storytelling

One of the many perks of having a child is that I have the opportunity to read a lot of children’s books. I have a great collection. Some are old classics lovingly saved by my parents, some are new gifts from friends and family. I love being able to look again at books I remember being read as a child, as well as reading the offerings of a new generation of picture book authors.

I find myself paying close attention to how gender is assigned to characters in these stories. In children’s books it seems that gender doesn’t play a very important role. There is no romance, there often isn’t even a traditional hero’s journey plot. And yet… It seems to be that so often the ‘default’ gender of the protagonist is male. This is particularly interesting to notice in characters that are animals or inanimate objects.

For example, take the “The Little Engine That Could“. I was shocked when I read it for the first time in (at least) twenty five years. The train that breaks down? Female. The three trains that refuse (or are unable) to take the toys and food over the mountain are ALL male. Then along comes our heroine, the Little Engine that Could. When I read this as an adult I was applying all kinds of analysis to the choice of gender in this story. In one sense it is about women helping women. In another it could be about men thinking of women’s work is beneath them. (The toys and food were for children after all). Is it condemning or condoning that women feel obligated to do work that men either refuse or are unable to do?

I know I’m probably taking things to far. Reading too much into a simple children’s story. But I also know that a culture’s views about gender is taught to each generation through the stories we tell. That is reason enough for me to be careful.

Why are both The Little Blue Truck (beep beep) and the antagonist dump truck male? Why is The Very Quiet Cricket a boy? Why is The Very Busy Spider a girl? There is no reason at all story-wise that these characters even need to be assigned a gender at all.

I worry about the subconscious lessons I could be teaching my daughter: The only stories worth reading are about boys. The girl characters are nice and hard working and the boy characters are bold and curious. Her brain is absorbing so much so quickly, I wonder (and worry) what she might be picking up by accident.

My imperfect solution? I switch the pronouns of the characters every few readings. That way I know she cannot attribute the actions the characters take with a particular gender. The same character who is nice and hardworking will be a boy one day and a girl in tomorrow’s reading. I do this with heroes and villains alike, being sure that it isn’t always an boy vs. girl situation either.

I want my daughter to see herself in characters regardless of their gender. She should know that women and men can be brave and cruel and kind and thoughtless. Instead of establishing limits of how a female “should” behave, I want stories to open up worlds and adventures for my daughter. Because, that is what storytelling does best, it opens up possibilities.

Starters and Finishers

I loved reading Gretchen Rubin’s book, “Better Than Before”. Throughout the book she suggests that through knowing yourself better, you can manipulate yourself better. Something I have found to be a powerful tool in self improvement. In particular Rubin loves to divide people up into two groups. The aspect I want to discuss today is the difference between starters and finishers.

Starters love taking the first scoop in a tub of peanut butter, and cracking the seal on a fresh tube of toothpaste or chapstick. Finishers, by contrast, scrape clean a peanut butter jar, push out the last of the chapstick, or squeeze out the last toothbrush full of paste from the tube.

I am a hard core starter. I think I am in the majority here. Continue reading

Time and Creativity

Happy New Year!

Another year of storytelling is at my back and another year of storytelling possibilities stretches out in front of me. Which is a good thing. Mostly.

As you may be aware, holiday celebrations can bring up strong emotions. And for me, New Years is an annual review where I suddenly discount accomplishments (new home! new baby!) and focus on projects left incomplete (WIP novel).

So I am going to give you the pep talk that I need to hear in the hopes that there are others of you out there that need it too. So pardon me while I slip into my enthusiastic camp councilor voice and cheer you on and present your merit badges.

Congratulations friend, you have successfully prioritized creativity in your life for another year! This is a huge accomplishment in a world that can seem uncaring. You were able to tune out the siren call of twitter arguments, piles of laundry, and dumb cell phone games to keep appointments with yourself to create.

You have learned so much this year! You are a more skilled writer, careful reader, and thoughtful commentator than you were twelve months ago. And while you might not have a certificate to show others all that you’ve learned, it will show up in the work you produce from how onward.

You are creating around you a tribe of creators. By giving to creative communities, sharing yourself, and your ideas you have tricked brilliant people into hanging out with you! Ideas that have rattled around in your echoey head for years are suddenly spoken aloud and met with encouragement, thought provoking questions, and given new life.

Hopefully these three badges will help balance the scales as another New Years passes without having written ‘the end’. Now is the time to celebrate, appreciate, and dig in your heels for the year to come.

Happy New Year!