Writing Under the Influence – Revisited

WHAT’S PLAYING: Ann Savoy “C’est Si Triste”

I was having trouble with the opening scene of my novel in which my protagonist is inebriated. I knew what I wanted to say, but couldn’t figure out how to describe the world from her less than reliable point of view.

I have a good deal of experience with being under the influence, what with my enduring fondness for all things tequila. So, I figured writing about it would be easy.

Not so much.

You see, though I still enjoy the occasional cocktail, I usually tap out after two drinks because I am one of the most obnoxious drunks you’ll ever meet. I don’t get belligerent, depressed, or overly affectionate, but something much, much worse.

I get creative.

Crazy ideas pop into my head and I hop around like a coked out bunny rabbit, trying to get everyone to join in on the insanity. Fortunately, my friends discovered the best—and only—way to distract me is to keep plying me with alcohol until I pass out.

The last time I got drunk at a party, the night went something like this:

 

ME: Hey, why don’t we all go out and get tattoos?

THEM: Great idea, Jacqui. Why don’t you have another drink before we go?

ME: Okay. (Five minutes later…) Hey! You know what we should do? We should go rock climbing!

THEM: It’s midnight and you’re afraid of heights.

ME: I am?

THEM: *sigh* Here, have another margarita.

ME: Okey Dokey. (Three minutes later…) Hey! I got an idea! Let’s all go off the grid! The girls can wear gingham cotton and the guys can wear assless chaps!

THEM: *stare* Okay. You should definitely have another drink. Now.

ME: Roger that. (One minute later…) Hey! We should all…zzzzzz.

(By the way, if you’re laughing at this, it’s only because you haven’t had to put up with it yet.)

Anyway, back to the character, I tried several tactics to describe the world from her inebriated point of view. Then, I thought about how I view the world through tequila-tinted glasses. I always feel perfectly fine, but nothing is where it’s supposed to be. Walls move around. Stairs and door handles suddenly require a PHD to operate. And the ground seems to shuck and jive beneath my feet. In other words, the world is off-balance, not me. Invigorated by this new information, I went back and rewrote the passage, and you know what?

It works.

And mom said I’d never learn anything from the bottom of a bottle.

Your turn. How do you deal with sobriety-challenged people/characters in your life?

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A Lesson in Perspective

WHAT’S PLAYING: Skylar Grey “Dance Without You”

I’m 6’2”, which is tall, especially for a woman. So, you can understand why most people are surprised when they learn that my family calls me “Stumpy.” That is, until they actually meet my family. My father is 6’6” and my older brother is 6’7”. Both my sisters and my mother are 6’4”. Hell, even my great-grandmother is 6’4”, and she shrank. I have a cousin who stands a full foot taller than me, and he’s only sixteen. So, as you can see, compared to rest of my family, I’m…well, stumpy.

 

But out here in the real world, I’m practically a giant. For some reason, many people take this to mean that I’m either stupid, athletic, or have nothing better to do than answer irritating questions.

“You’re tall! How tall are you? Do you play basketball? Do you have trouble finding clothes, shoes, men, etc.?”

To which I usually respond: I know. 6’2”. No. Sometimes, no, and seriously?

(Sheesh. And people wonder why I don’t like to leave my house.)

 

Annoying questions aside, I suppose I understand. I’m probably one of the tallest women they’ve ever seen; while back home, I’m the runt of the litter.

I guess it all depends on your point of view.

Which brings me – in a roundabout way – to perspective. Also known as point of view, perspective is how the narrator of a scene or story views what is happening. So much of who we are colors how we perceive the world: personal experience, relationships (past and present), state of mind, etc. The list goes on.

Not only does perspective affect how we see the world, but also the way in which we relate to others. We are all shaped to a certain extent, by our experiences. We all have baggage.

The same holds true in fiction. Or at least it should.

When choosing a perspective from which to write, an author has to consider all these things and more.

In reality, it’s much easier. All you have to remember is that while my family may get away with calling me Stumpy, I’m still a lot bigger than most of you.

And that I have a black belt in Taekwondo.

How I Deal With Politics…In Writing and in Life

WHAT’S PLAYING: Flight of the Conchords “Robots”

My family likes to argue about everything – politics, religion, abortion, gay marriage, Occupy Wall Street– you name it, it’s up for debate.

This makes holidays especially stressful as dinner conversations usually end like this:

 

Not pretty.

Inevitably, someone will turn to me and ask, “What do you think?”

Me: “Um…please pass the cornbread.”

When it comes to politics and religion, I subscribe to the “ignorance is bliss” philosophy. Mostly because I have enough to worry about without getting entangled in useless arguments. That’s not to say that I don’t care about crucial issues like healthcare and unemployment, I just don’t see the point in debating them over the dining room table. I may be wrong, but I don’t think that yelling at each other is going to put this country to rights. The way I see it, if someone is truly unhappy with the way things are, then they should do something about it. Get involved, write your Congressman, or better yet, run for office. Don’t just sit there and whine.

As you can imagine, this point of view makes me less than popular among my relatives.

 

Still, in the interests of full disclosure, here’s a short list of where I stand on today’s hot-button issues.

Gay marriage: For. Simply because it’s nobody’s business. As far as I’m concerned, it’s no different from marriage between heterosexual couples. 

Abortion: For. Again, none of my business.

Occupy Wall Street: Mixed. While I agree with their sentiment, the lack of personal responsibility irks me. Here’s a link to an article that perfectly sums up my views on the subject:  http://www.csmonitor.com/Commentary/Opinion/2011/1031/Occupy-this-One-of-my-friends-works-on-Wall-Street.-One-camps-in-Zucotti-Park

Politics in general: meh.

Religion: not going there.

For some reason, the above topics tend to turn perfectly normal, well-educated adults into a pack of screaming morons willing to resort to blows in order to get their point across. I have a hard enough time maintaining a façade of maturity. Why jeopardize it for something so pointless?

 

I adopt the same attitude when it comes to writing. I’m not trying to change people’s minds or get them to support a cause. All I want to do is tell a story. That’s it. Period.

I’ve written plenty of stories that feature protagonists with whom I have nothing in common, politically or otherwise: thieves, murderers, bigots, and religious fanatics. I’ve written about heroes, villains, gays, lesbians, bisexuals, victims, predators, rapists, saints and sinners. When it comes to writing, they’re all the same to me. Characters created and shaped in service to the story. Nothing more.

What about you? Do you think writers have a duty to help people become more aware? Or should they limit themselves to entertaining? (I’ve read plenty of stories that do both.) Do you think things like politics and religion should shape literature? Or should they be left out so that the story can do what it does best?

Personally, I think I’ll continue to embrace apathy.  

If only to get through family dinners.

Environmentally Unconscious — Recycling Words

WHAT’S PLAYING:  Susan Enan feat. Sarah McLachlan “Bring on the Wonder”

I am a consumer. I love my Keurig coffee maker, bottled water, and gas guzzling muscle cars. On top of that, I don’t recycle and the closest I’ve ever come to gardening is the produce section at my local grocery store.

The odd thing is that most of my friends, if not all of them, are environmentally conscious. One couple even decided to experiment with raising goats for lawn maintenance. (That’s right. They prefer to use smelly, ornery creatures that  require constant care, instead of a lawnmower that can be neatly parked in the garage and forgotten about after use.) Another friend spent the last two years traveling to some of the most exotic spots in the world including BaliThailand, India, and Peru, where she spent most of her time immersing herself in different cultures and communing with Mother Nature. (Personally, I do my best communing from the comfort of my temperature-controlled, bug-free apartment.) To their credit, aside from the occasional reproachful look when they see me drinking bottled water, my friends tolerate my consumerism with good-natured resignation.

My friends will be happy to know, however, that I have recently started to recycle, though not in a way that will benefit Mother Earth.

Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch said: “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – whole-heartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscripts to press. Murder your darlings”.  And William Faulkner repeated this sentiment in his more often cited quote “In writing, you must kill your darlings.”

These quotes refer to the fine art of revision. Of taking the manuscript you’ve sweated and bled over for months if not years, and systematically removing every word, phrase, character or scene that doesn’t belong. It doesn’t matter how clever it is or how beautifully worded. If it doesn’t serve the story, out it goes, ostensibly never to be heard from again.

Personally, I’m against murder, especially when I’ve put so much effort into the process. Don’t get me wrong, I’m ruthless when it comes to cutting, but I like to think of it as putting my “darlings” in a coma. I’ve come far enough in my writing journey to realize that not everything belongs in a story. Some phrases, characters, scenes, etc. are meant just for me. They exist only to make me a better writer. These are my darlings, and I let them sleep in a special file, only to resuscitate them later in a different story. A sort of Writing Protection Program, if you will.

I’m not saying that every word I write will end up in print someday, but when I find myself searching for a particular image or turn of phrase, I’ll know where to find it.

And it won’t be in the graveyard.

In Distress — Getting into Your Characters’ Heads

WHAT’S PLAYING: Nicki Minaj and Rihanna “Fly”

Recently, I read an article about two adult siblings who sued their mother for “emotional distress” due to bad parenting.

You can read the full article here:

http://abcnews.go.com/US/adult-children-sue-mom-bad-parent/story?id=14407409

After reading their litany of complaints, my first reaction was “Are you f-ing kidding me?! What a couple of spoiled, entitled douche bags!” When I was a kid, instead of a new toy, my mother would give me a stick and tell me to go play outside. On hot summer days, while other kids were enjoying sno-cones and freeze pops, I had to make do with frozen beef jerky.

After my initial burst of outrage, I tried looking at the situation from a writer’s point of view, unfiltered through the lens of my own experiences. In my ultra-pragmatic mother’s world, a parent’s only responsibility was to provide their children’s basic needs: food, clothing, shelter, and love. (The last item became optional once the kid got past a certain age.) If I wanted something, I had to work for it. It was that simple. Then again, my mother was a blind seamstress raising three kids in one of the poorest states in the country.

The lawsuit siblings grew up in a very different environment, with unique perspectives. Maybe money was the primary way of expressing affection in their family. (Who needs hugs when you can get hundreds?) The point is that, without knowing what went on during their formative years, I was in no position to judge them. At least, not as a writer.

Many times, characters in my stories will act and speak in ways that I wouldn’t. Those are the times I have to become a method actor of sorts, sifting through false memories of parents, friends, childhoods and environments. I have to get inside each character’s head to see what makes them tick. Then, after I’ve assembled a complete dossier, I ask myself if it was really just the abuse that turned this person into a killer/sexual predator/complete asshole. Sometimes people just are who they are, childhood environment notwithstanding.

As a writer, I want to be able to write well about anything and anyone. Whether or not I choose to is beside the point. I want the choice. And so, I think, should you. So, go ahead. Dive deep into your characters’ psyches and see what kind of disturbing images you come up with. Maybe your next great idea will involve a serial killer or a sexual predator.

Or maybe even a couple of spoiled, entitled douche bags.

Writing Lessons From Mom (Part 1) — Motivation

WHAT’S PLAYING:  Sting “Fields of Gold”
 
Director: “Ok, when I say ‘Action!’, I need you to walk over and punch Jim on the nose. Got it?”
Actor: “What’s my motivation?”
Director: (Blank look.) “To get to the other side of the room and punch Jim on the nose.”
 
When I was about ten, a fad swept through my neighborhood. Whenever one of the cool kids was asked to do something, he or she would look up, cock an eyebrow and ask: “What’s my motivation?” (Sort of a snarky way of saying “Why should I?”)
 
That summer, I decided that I was going to change my image from painfully shy bookworm to ultra cool loner. I swaggered around the neighborhood, dressed in black and draped in silver costume jewelry (and sweating like a whore in church because it was July in Missi-freaking-ssippi). I even learned how to raise one eyebrow that summer and thought that made me the very definition of cool. For one whole day, every time someone would ask  me to do something, I would call on my newly acquired skill, cock an eyebrow, and say, “What’s my motivation?” I even said it to my mother once.
 
Just once.
 
My mother subscribed to the spare-the-rod-and-spoil-the-child philosophy and if there was one thing she could not stand, it was a disrespectful child. Needless to say that my “cool” makeover ended with a sore bottom and great wisdom: When your mother asks you to do something, your sole motivation is to avoid pissing her off.
 
As a writer, I’ve had to reverse my thinking. Every time a character says or does something, I have to constantly ask myself why. Why would Jim/John/Nancy walk through that door/poison his wife/mix plaid with stripes? Why would my hero or heroine put themselves in jeopardy in order to save someone else? Why is my villain working so hard to oppose my hero or heroine and vice versa? Without suitable motivation for their actions, characters just don’t work in fiction.
 
While it’s true that we all do things for no reason in real life, that just won’t fly in fiction. Whenever I run upon a character (no matter how cool or unique or well-drawn) who runs pell-mell through a story without rhyme or reason, I usually put the book down and won’t pick it up again. As writers, we have to ask a lot of our characters. So go ahead. Ask.
 
What’s your motivation?
 
But, whatever you do, don’t ask my mother.