I used to free write as a way to spark creativity, and I ran across this old one (14 years, what?!) and it spoke to me again. I thought I’d share.
I am woman in all my denied raging femininity, full of unexpected curves to get lost among, full of — just full. I touch beyond myself unwittingly, drawing close and pushing away in the confusion of clashing hormones and post-menstrual tenderness, lost in my own gestures of grace.
Know that I must protect myself from my own curse of giving ness, lips unwilling to form one syllable No, one wide to an advantage-taking world. And yet I am selfish. But I am warm and soft and my breasts form as good a pillow as any, and if child-bearing hips were the criteria for a good woman I win, hands down.
The small things of admitting my womannness I flatly refuse; I will not migrate to lavatories with the herd, and I am not what you would call a domestic wonder, and I carry a wallet instead of a purse. How lost am I between estrogen and testosterone, and when will I admit that I bleed? Somewhere in this curse and Lessing I will find my way, and you will see i m y eyes the generations that shall call me Mother.
The following did not happen. Since 2019 is the year I write, I need to write, and this is where I’m starting… fiction that is more truth than fiction, and the person in the story is very much me, doing things I do, but this particular sequence of events is out of sequence, and fictional. But I guess I’m hoping there are struggling Polymaths out there who, like me, struggle with rotating obsessions and wondering at midlife or later what they want to be when they grow up.
I was sitting in a coffee shop, sipping a double latte, extra cream, and nothing much was going on. I felt like I was sitting in a bubble of voices, carried on them, but not really understanding them, not part of them, not even looking at their owners. I was looking out the window at a glorious blue day, but I wasn’t really part of that either.
Being a polymath is a long string of triumph and frustration with yourself. You get really, really good at learning new things, and at failing and being cool with that. The next thing will get better. If you do a next thing; you might just as well decide that you’re done with that activity and obsessed with something else today, and sometimes it’s like a switch flipped and you’re just not in love anymore. Thanks for the good times, Photography, but I’ve met Poetry and we’re… well… in love. It’s not you, it’s me. It’s always me.
Anyway the blank page sits before me again, and I feel like this is where I live my life, on the edge of the greatest idea I’ve ever had. This is it, I think, my life’s mission. Only when I’m not on the edge of that eureka, I’m worried that I don’t have a life’s mission.
I sighed and put my too-hot latte down. How do you know, you know? How do you know what you’re supposed to do when one day you’re so fired up you can’t sit still and the next day you’re bored out of your mind with the same thing? In my mind I am having this conversation with a meet-me-at-the-coffee-house friend that I don’t have today.
I clapped my poetry book closed without so much as a new mark on it and trudged back to the counter. “On second thought,” I said, “I’ll take this to go.”
“Sure thing,” the barista said cheerfully, and dumped the cup into a styrofoam (ugh) mug with a cardboard cuff and a plastic lid. I’m part of the problem, I thought glumly as I accepted today’s contribution to the local landfill enveloping that sweet, milky, caffeinated addiction, and walked out into the street, which seemed quiet after the buzz of coffee house conversation. The poem about conversation buzz and caffeine buzz lands in my head not ten steps out of the door, naturally. Should I find a park bench and write it anyway? Nah. It’s not that good.
I wonder sometimes how many of these ideas I let go might have been The Epiphany if I gave them time and nursed them. I just know for sure that I’ll see a bald eagle sitting ten feet from me in a tree, or a perfect rose, or some other thing I’ll curse myself for not having my camera for. Any one of them could have sent me running back to my photography obsession, if I caught the shot, if I was focused on one thing.
Sometimes I’m here, in flux, in between obsessions and worried I’ll never amount to much because I’m all over the place. On the other hand, I know something about a lot of things, and we need people in the world like that, too, right? Right?
It turned out, after all, not to be an eagle or a rose, but a baby bird, in the middle of the sidewalk, its paper thin, translucent throat stretched out in supplication, its peeping faint but audible half a block away. I stopped close to him, peering up into the just-budding branches of the tree above me. The nest was a mess and there was no putting him back in it.
Luckily, feeding baby birds is on my long list of things I know how to do, because I once worked for an avian veterinarian, fostering baby birds and syringe feeding them. I am not a certified wildlife rehabilitator, because that would have taken focusing on a thing for a long time and it’s not that high on my list of obsessions, but I know some things, and I know some people. I dumped the remains of my latte, carefully wiped out the inside of the cup with a pocketed napkin, lined the cup with more napkins, and scooped the little fellow into the cup while his head bobbed, hoping mom would find it and regurgitate him some food. “Sorry, my dude,” I told him, wrapping my hands around the cup to warm him against the spring chill. “I haven’t eaten any worms today.” I’d take him home, get him some food to syringe-feed him, and then find someone who could legally raise him. I get questions like this all the time, from my friends. I rescued this baby bird, what do I do with him? I just got a new crock pot, you have some good recipes I can make in it? I need photos taken for my son’s first birthday, would you do it? I rescued this kitten, I’m planning a protest, I’m painting my bedroom, what’s a good app to meditate…
“You know, Harold,” I say to a baby bird newly christened Harold, “maybe being a Jill of All Trades isn’t the worst thing in the world.”
If I’m willing to find a way without a crop, gizzard, or worm breakfast to regurgitate for him, he could not agree more.
I’m listening to a podcast called the Ten Minute Writers’ Workshop in which they interview seasoned writers. Nobody has any reason to be interested in my answers to these questions since I have nothing more than a few poems published, but I’m answering anyway. Someday, when I’m famous, someone will come back to this post and give a crap, yeh? Never know. And yes, I’m interviewing myself. I might interview some of my fellow writer or artist friends later, that’d be fun.
What’s harder the first sentence or the last?
Oh, the last, definitely. The first sometimes arrives in my head whole and ready. The last, that’s the thing you want the person to close the book or look away from the poem and stare off into space thinking about what you’ve just said for a good ten minutes, and then carry it around with them for at least part of the day. People fish around for a “hook” for ages, but for me it’s all about the resonance that stays at the end.
What’s the best advice you were ever given in a creative endeavor?
When I was learning oil painting, my painting teacher told me, “Don’t be afraid.” Which was her way of saying Just Do It. Sit down and put something on the canvas/page. What’s the worst that could happen, right?
What’s your best time of day to write?
I’m totally a morning person. Whatever I do first thing in the morning sets the tone for my whole day. If I put off writing till evening because of something else going on, I’m likely to either not do it, or not like what I’ve done.
Do you have any rituals for writing?
I’m made of rituals. I get up in the morning and do my Morning Pages/Journaling with a good black tea with cream and sugar at my bedroom desk, then (hopefully) I meditate, then I stroll down to my studio with a second cup of tea and get to work on whatever the current obsession is, usually either art, or currently writing my first novel. I turn on my little iCube speaker, put on thinking music — Jim Butler for brainstorming, my Epic Movie Music Pandora station for cranking out writing. I do the brainstorming first, then the writing, hopefully.
Plotter or Pantser?
Yes? I started NaNoWriMo with no option but to Pants it, and I really disliked it. I am now backing up and doing my plotting. BUT, that said, I think diving in and doing real time writing was important too. I intend to write some back story and interpersonal character scenes this month that may or may not ever make it into the book, but letting the characters actually function on the page makes things happen that pure outlining probably wouldn’t. So I think I’m in the process of developing a process.
What is your fantasy job other than writing?
Do I have to pick one? I wanted to be a horseback riding instructor when I was a teenager. I still would love to rescue and train horses. I want to be an artist, I want to illustrate children’s books, I want to do a little bit of everything in life. Oh, and who doesn’t want to be a National Geographic photographer?
The world looks completely different when you are creating. I have always noticed this when I’m painting. You finish up a painting session, and then you go outside and the trees are suddenly a collection of shapes and shadows and lights. It’s your right brain putting the world together the way IT sees it, and it’s really nice, because most of the time your left brain is the boss.
But I noticed it again when I went to the movies last night and saw Doctor Strange. Here in the throes of trying to craft a story, I saw the movie as just that… I saw the character arc, and the protagonist-antagonist dynamic, the rise and fall of the action, the flow between where the protagonist is prevailing and where he is knocked down and almost out.
And I ate. it. up. Love the movie, by the way, and while I will be talking about the story here, I will not spoil it for you. I’m enough of a New Age geek that I absolutely adored this movie. Nature of reality, damn, let’s have more stories about that, with special effects that mess with your head, woo!
Anyway, the monumental character flaw of the protagonist absolutely slaps you in the face here. He reminded me of House from the TV series of the same name… medical genius but arrogant as heck and a real ass about it. But House (at least as far as I watched the series, which honestly wasn’t that far) never really resolved that flaw. Ultimately Stephen Strange gets pretty self-sacrificing (not saying more than that!) in solving the problems that plague his world… problems he never asked to be involved in solving.
I have a pretty solid background setup for Once a Rebel, 10,000 words (ish) in, but I realized two things about my book watching the movie: my character is not flawed enough, and I am not thinking nearly epic enough as far as the challenges that face her.
So I’m going to talk for a moment about character flaws. Specifically, about protagonist flaws. Here’s a link to a list for your writerly use, with a list of possible character flaws. Please click and open it because otherwise the rest of this blog post won’t make that much sense to you.
First of all, looking at that list, you need to be really careful about this. There are two reasons you want your main character to be flawed, which essentially boil down to one, the second one.
It makes a good story… static characters are not interesting.
The reason it makes a good story is because your protagonist is in actuality a stand-in for your reader, and you want them to identify with your protagonist.
So, while you must have a flawed protagonist, they cannot be too flawed. You don’t want an axe murderer, probably not someone who sleeps around, probably not an extreme racist or skinhead or something. There are certain character flaws that are unforgivable in a protagonist. It’s easy to err on the side of making them too likeable, so making them hate-able probably isn’t a worry. It’s more likely that the writer will give them flaws that are more like quirks. Some examples from the tropes list above: forgets to eat, fear of thunder (unless thunder figures into your story or your world pretty heavily), heavy sleeper.
So ultimately, the character’s flaw and basic fear need to play into the conflict you’re planning, because the conflict is the catalyst that causes the character to change. In Doctor Strange’s case, his towering ego and mastery of science has to get slapped down in order for him to embrace becoming a beginner again in learning the occult arts and looking at reality in a different way.
Here’s the important takeaway: the protagonist’s flaws should be big enough to make it a question of whether they will overcome them and sort out the conflict. And the conflict should not be just a series of bad things that happens to the character, but something she has control over if she does overcome her own inner obstacles.
So, my plan for today is to sit down with that list and think about George’s personality as I’ve already established it, what her great fears and flaws are, what her desires are, and how those are going to play into the conflict I haven’t quite sorted out in my head yet, in hopes that those concepts will generate the conflict.