The Creativity of Desperation

Loki: How desperate are you, that you call on such lost creatures to defend you?
Nick Fury: How desperate am I? You threaten my world with war. You steal a force you can’t hope to control. You talk about peace and you kill ’cause it’s fun. You have made me very desperate. You might not be glad that you did.—Conversation from The Avengers (2012)

1ad6dc97f8f4a88a8f643e68e0036c40If you’ve seen Marvel’s Avengers movie, you’ll know just the scene in which this conversation takes place. (Click on conversation above to get more of the context if you’re wondering what they’re talking about.) Fury’s words ran through my mind today as I drove home. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

While waiting for a meeting with the pastor at church, I picked up a magazine and read part of an article about a woman in Zimbabwe. With nine kids to feed and no money, this woman knew the meaning of the word desperate as she struggled to put food on the table. She developed innovative ways to grow crops and was soon able to feed not only her kids but others in a similar desperate situation. I wanted to jot down some of the quotes she used and other specifics, but my meeting began, and I had to put down the magazine. I didn’t get a chance to grab it afterward to finish reading the article. But during the half-hour drive home, I thought about how often I’ve felt the ragged edge of desperation.

Looking back, I can see a trail of desperate situations like bad breadcrumbs. Were any of these situations a matter of life or death like that of the woman in Zimbabwe? No. But desperation has many faces. Here are some of them:

My undergraduate years at Northwestern University, A.D. some year (I’m not saying which year): Having partied way too heartily, my GPA plummeted. One afternoon, the dean of my program called me into her office and demanded to know why the school should allow me to remain. Academic probation was a possibility, but that was the dean’s decision, based on how persuasive I could be at that moment and how willing I was to prove myself from then on. How desperate was I to get my act together and avoid expulsion? Very.

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First apartment: My roommate and I weren’t getting along and I had just been dumped by my boyfriend, even after we talked about getting married. I came home one night around midnight to find my boyfriend with my roommate. They were just talking, I was told. But when I said, “I’m outta here” and grabbed a suitcase, neither tried to stop me. In fact my boyfriend asked if I needed help getting my stuff to the car! I spent the night at my old home—with my parents. How desperate was I to move out of that apartment though I lacked the money to do so? Very.

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Grad school, Vermont College of Fine Arts, 2011: I’d been failing miserably at my essay writing (keep in mind that my master’s program is a writing program) and barely squeaked out 14 pages of fiction, though I was supposed to turn in about 30 every month. My advisor at the time wrote a letter to me stating, “You might feel that the wrath of God has hit you, and it has.” She proceeded to tell me what I needed to do to remain in the program, which included scenes to write (which would total about 60 pages—double the amount I usually needed to turn in) along with new essays to make up for the crap essays I’d handed in the last couple of months. How desperate was I to once again get my act together academically? Very.

October 2012: At the company I worked for, the bosses called a meeting. The news was bad: the whole staff would be laid off before Thanksgiving—the start of the holiday season. No severance pay. How desperate was I to find a job to meet my monthly obligations? Very.

Last year: I submitted a novel to agents for representation and faced rejection not once but 16 times. (And no those were not my only rejections. I’ve acquired many over the years.) Some agents did not offer feedback. How desperate was I to write a novel with a sound structure and a marketable concept? Very.

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As the old saying goes, “Desperate times call for desperate measures.” (And this saying might have derived from something Hippocrates said. See here for details.) In each case, I had to overcome my natural reticence, fear of failure, or inertia and get creative about finding a solution.

Desperation still pushes me down the path of creativity. But what about you? When was the last time you felt very desperate? What did desperation drive you to do?

I would’ve stopped this post at those questions, but a discussion in the last post about Bumble the Abominable Snowman from Rankin/Bass’s Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer prompted me to show a photo I took of Bumble on top of my wardrobe.

002Samuel L. Jackson and Tom Hiddleston photos from pinterest.com. Bad GPA tie from zazzle.com.au. Novel rejection image from baneofyourresistance.com. Love rejection image from slices-of-life.com.

Managing Misfits

RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEERThe other day I was thinking about a scene in the holiday classic, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Yes, I occasionally have odd thoughts like that, despite the season. If you’re not familiar with this Christmas special, go here. (I’m not the only person thinking of Christmas in July. Many stores start selling Christmas decorations in July.) As a red-nosed reindeer, Rudolph has always felt like a misfit. So when he travels to the island of misfit toys with his friends and fellow misfits (like an elf who would rather be a dentist than make toys—see elf above), they feel right at home.

MisfitToys

Some of the misfit toys

When I was a kid watching this show, that scene was always poignant to me, especially when the doll (above) later starts crying because she’s unwanted. Also the toys sing a sad song. If you have few minutes, check it out below. Maybe like me, you’ll want to move to the island to take care of the toys.

I can understand a kid’s reticence to play with a train with square wheels or a water pistol that only squirts jelly. But I never understood what was wrong with the doll. She seemed okay to me—not at all a mistfit. I remember asking my older brother what he thought was wrong with the doll. I think I remember him shrugging and giving me a “Who cares?” look, but I wanted to understand her pain! Perhaps beneath the surface, she had enough angst to fill a young adult novel. But her issues remained hidden.

At first I wondered why the scene went through my mind recently. But now I know: because I’m having trouble conveying my characters’ emotions in a way that satisfies a reader. With some characters, I’ve barely scratched the surface of their psyches. Yet I expect readers to care based on scant visuals like a tear rolling down a character’s face (like the doll). But readers, like my beta readers, aren’t fooled by cosmetic things like that. They don’t want see my character’s tears if they’re not ready to shed their own at the character’s plight.

unikittyPlumbing the depths of a character’s emotions is very difficult for me, perhaps because I’m so good at hiding my own emotions or blocking emotional trauma. If I don’t want to feel it, I block it. That’s why I resonate with what Princess Unikitty suggested in The Lego Movie. In the quote below, she’s talking about ideas, but just substitute negative emotions, and you’ll understand where my head is at sometimes:

Any idea is a good idea except the non-happy ones. Those we push down deep inside where you’ll never, ever, ever, EVER find them!

But negative emotions have a way of coming out. And they need to come out in healthy ways of course, according to psychologists. But for characters in books, the emotions need to be shown, rather than told, so that readers connect with their lives.

We are our characters’ pipeline to pain. To use a cliché, our pain is their gain. Characters are believable if they have a bit of our interior life. If they’re misfits (some of my characters are), we need to show that by harkening back to our island of misfits experiences. Nobody wants to feel pain. But if we want to go beyond the teary doll syndrome (see the second paragraph if you’re not sure what I mean), we have to feel it, then show it in a believable way. And by we I really mean me: the Queen of Blocking.

Are any of your characters misfits? How do you show it?

Rudolph image from thatericalper.com. Misfit toys image from 3.bp.blogspot.com. Princess Unikitty from http://www.lego.com.

Mover and Shaker: Is That You?

    MTLLyarGc   1024px-Salt_shaker_on_white_background

Ever feel certain you know the definition of an idiom, but when you start to describe it on paper, you discover that you’re not really sure of its definition? That’s how I was with mover and shaker, a phrase coined by poet Arthur O’Shaughnessy in his poem, “Ode.” The phrase might seem familiar if you’ve seen Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971). Here is the first stanza ala Wikipedia:

We are the music makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams;
World-losers and world-forsakers,
On whom the pale moon gleams:
Yet we are the movers and shakers
Of the world for ever, it seems.

Before I get to the definition, let me ask you this: who would you consider to be a mover and shaker (past or present)? Bill Gates, one of the founders of Microsoft? Mark Zuckerberg, one of the founders of Facebook? Oprah Winfrey? Margaret Thatcher? Abraham Lincoln? Any famous actor, producer, or writer?

Often we take our cues from those on whom society shines a spotlight. So, before I looked up the definition of mover and shaker, I had a preconceived idea that certain qualities were prerequisites. A mover and a shaker, I assumed, had to be

• Confident
• Strong
• A squeaky wheel
• An extrovert
• A winner or someone determine to win at all costs
• Pushy
• Competitive
• Driven
• Highly motivated
• Exceptional
• A corporate CEO
• A celebrity
• A leader on a national level

A mover and shaker, according to Merriam-Webster.com, is

A person who is active or influential in some field of endeavor

Note that the definition only includes two adjectives: active and influential.

You might keep that thought in mind as I briefly move on. I was talking to my sister-in-law the other day about my nephew, who is in the midst of a national scholarship competition, having already won our state competition. My first thought was, how was he planning to crush the competition? I know. I sound like a stage mom, ready to scream at a kid to go out there and dominate! Intimidate! And my sister-in-law mentioned that she tried to instill within him the need to have the eye of the tiger. “But,” she said, “he’s not very competitive. He just wants to get through his presentation.” In other words, he’s fine whether he wins or loses.

So after that exchange, I wondered whether or not a quiet person could be considered a mover and shaker. As I pondered this, I thought of Rosa Parks, who didn’t say a whole lot, but whose decision to remain seated on a bus influenced many people.

I also thought about my parents, who always told me I could do anything I set my mind to do. They worked hard to make sure I received a good education and didn’t date the wrong people. :-) Neither is a corporate CEO or a leader on a national level. But they’ve done their best to guide me. So in my book that would qualify them as active and influential, even though they’re not celebrities.

Another person I thought about was my nephew, who sometimes slips songs on my computer that he wants me to enjoy. That’s influential. He’s also active about telling me corny jokes.

Okay. I know what you’re thinking. I’m totally clueless about the notion of being a mover and shaker. All of the examples I’ve given don’t seem powerful or huge. But I would say, “That depends on your definition of powerful.” Is a sunset or a sunrise powerful? Neither adds to your bank account. And both occur whether you notice them or not. But maybe when you notice, you’re inspired to write a sonnet or forgive someone or simply go on living. If that’s not powerful, I don’t know what is. It’s the same with the people in our lives.

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Maybe it’s time for a paradigm shift in regard to mover and shaker. Think about the people who have been quietly influential in your life, who influenced you to follow the career path you’re now on. Perhaps you’re that person, one who seeks the good in others or who works quietly behind the scenes to help others succeed. Or, perhaps you help persuade others to consider the impact their actions have on the environment. Maybe you’re an advocate for those who can’t speak for themselves.

Your actions have weight and meaning. Even if you don’t have a talk show or haven’t been asked to guest host for someone else’s talk show, you are a mover and shaker. And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Salt shaker and sunrise from Wikipedia. Moving van from clipartbest.com

Reminders

Recently, being without Internet access for over a day was a reminder of how things used to be. (Don’t worry. I had enough chocolate to compensate.)

I’m old enough to remember when the Internet we know today was just an infant (when commercial ISPs became available in the late 80s to mid-90s). Back in the early 1990s, for me the word Internet meant the result of one of my volleyball serves. (Internet = into net or, if you’re from Chicago like I am, in da net. Ha, I crack myself up.) For interconnection, we had email on a pitiful scale where I worked—software we thought was cutting edge. We had no inkling of the technological advances soon to come. And that was back when I worked on a tiny Mac Classic at the office and later a larger desktop model—in the Mac II family.

At home, I had an old Mac PowerBook 160 with a 40 MB hard drive and four MB of RAM. You read that right. Four megabytes of RAM!!! Oh yeah, I was cooking with fire. Feast your eyes on this baby (below). I had to look on the Internet (namely here) for a photo of it, because that computer is long gone from my life! 

   Powerbook_100_pose-600x554  Shrine Of Apple: Macintosh PowerBook 160

Look at it. Cuddly, lovable. . . . Good times.

The guy at the computer repair shop I constantly visited begged me to get another computer. When the laptop finally crashed too often to be of any use, I went without a computer for a while, except for the one I used at work. And back then, I was at the office seven days a week sometimes. Around 2001, I finally moved on to my first PC—a Gateway with a 3½-inch floppy disk drive. Remember those? The disks seemed to corrupt really quickly. I lost the middle section of a novel when a disk went bad.

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I’ve since had other computers. But I won’t bore you with all of the details, since I began this post with a discussion about the Internet. So let me get back to that. Though the Internet is convenient and offers so much information right at the proverbial fingertips, ironically, I’m much more productive without it. In fact, I feel a little embarrassed by how much I accomplished while offline (namely, a huge chunk of my novel revision), simply because I was not checking email every five minutes, reading blogs and other articles, or looking up goofy cat pictures like this one (which I found here).

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Or this one (found here):lolcatsdotcom8dfwmlznjd0drnnz

Why am I embarrassed? Because, sadly, this proves how much time I usually spend procrastinating. I have only myself to blame.

I remember back in the 1990s when I used to goof off playing SimTower—the product of someone else’s fertile imagination (OpenBook Co., Ltd. and published by Maxis). I spent hours coming up with the right combination of offices, condos, elevators, and restaurants, trying to keep my tenants happy. I probably spent more time playing that game than I spent building my own fictional world. And that was when I was trying to break into screenwriting, particularly at the Disney Studios. Instead of revising my awful screenplay (which was 24 pages too long), I was stressing over whether some people in a computer game were happy. But what about the people in my story? I didn’t really know them. Unfortunately for them, I never paid attention with to them with my whole head. And by that I mean my mind and senses fully engaged.

  SimTower_Coverart Simtower

So, being without the Internet and its conveniences has caused me to think deeply about the ways I’ve often sabotaged myself by clinging to the convenience or entertainment of technology. I’m reminded of the wisdom of Andra Watkins of The Accidental Cootchie Mama blog, who once challenged her readers to unplug sometimes. (Sorry. I don’t have that exact blog post link.) When we make a conscious effort to unplug and get out into the world or get necessary tasks done, in some ways, we’re preparing ourselves for the coming zombie apocalypse, during which all technology will be useless and we have to get back to basics (like knowing how to swing an axe).

Do yourself a favor. Unplug. Unwind. And while you’re at it, perfect that axe swing.

Cats from LOL Cats. Mac computer from Old-computers.com. PowerBook 160 photos from Shrineofapple.com and Smashing Lists.com. SimTower images from Wikipedia. Floppy disk meme from here.

Have a Nice Day, Somebody

The day started off in a not-so-great fashion. I needed to say that right off the bat so you’ll understand. But as I headed to the mailbox at my apartment building (trudged is probably a better word), I discovered a random act of neighborliness:

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Someone had gone out of his or her way to leave a little bit of beauty outside the main door. Just seeing that made my day. I couldn’t help thinking, Awwwwwww.

In a day when many of us increasingly feel distant from neighbors due to the transient lives some of us lead, it’s nice to know that people sometimes make an effort to reach out, even in gentle ways, without expecting anything in return.

Speaking of having a nice day, I’m glad to do the neighborly thing by giving away two copies of Bound, a fantasy novel by the delightful Kate Sparkes (see interview here).

   sparkes_profile bound_promo

The winners, thanks to the random number generator are

Andy of City Jackdaw and Professor VJ Duke!!!!

I can’t argue with the random number generator. It chooses whom it will! Winners, please comment below to confirm. You can also email me at lwashin301(at)comcast(dot)net. Please make a note of the change in email address from my usual blog address. When you email me, please provide the email address you use with Amazon.

Getting back to random acts of neighborliness, back when I wrote textbooks full time, the designer on my team told me that she made a habit of purposely dropping change on the ground. (Not all of the time—just occasionally. And no, I won’t tell you where she lives.) When I questioned her about that (and no, I wasn’t trying to find out when she planned to drop some change), she said she did it to give a kid the thrill of discovering money on the ground. This was another Awwwwww moment for me. Recalling how much fun it was for me to find money on the ground back when I was a kid, I was touched by her desire to make some kid’s day.

We have the power within us to make or break someone’s day. Which will you choose? How has someone made your day with a random act of neighborliness?

The Butterfly Effect

If you’re a chaos theory fan, your palate might be set for entirely different fare than what I’m about to present. This is not a post about Edward Lorenz or the effect the flapping of a butterfly’s wings may or may not have on hurricanes or tornadoes. Instead, I want to discuss a butterfly sighting and the effect it had on my life. (Let this be a lesson to you if you’re new to this blog: keep your expectations on a low setting and your phasers set to stun. Sorry. I couldn’t resist using an old Star Trek reference.)

First, call me Multitasking Marie. I flutter from one thing to the next—revising a manuscript; writing curriculum; writing blog posts; watching the behind-the-scenes documentaries of the Harry Potter movies; beta reading; checking email; reading blogs—sometimes within a short window of time. I also fit in a bit of The Sims: FreePlay. Okay, maybe more than a bit. This is my mantra of sorts: Go here. Do this. Now, now, now, now, now

The-Sims-FreePlay

Consequently, I sometimes have the attention span of a gnat, especially when I try to squeeze in too many things at once. But when I headed out to my car to zip off to church Sunday morning (in a hurry as usual), I came to a complete stop. Why, you ask? The sight of two monarch butterflies fluttering around my car.

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I didn’t take this photo.

I usually see one at a time. Never before had I seen two at once outside of a nature film. I couldn’t grab my phone fast enough to snap a photo. Monarchs flutter fast, like gossamer floating in the breeze. Off they went to the weeds and wildflowers in the field near my car. The scene was so idyllic, it took my breath away.

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A butterfly-less corner of the weeds and wildflowers. (Remember, I told you I didn’t get the photo of the monarch butterflies.) I can almost picture a zombie lurching through this field, because that’s the way my mind works.

The only thing the scene lacked was a bunny sighting. Oddly enough a friend later that day told me a story about a bunny—one that was hardly idyllic, since it ended in tragedy.

The image of fluttering butterflies usually is a very positive, relaxing image, and it was a contrast to my frantic hustle and bustle. But the fluttering butterflies reminded me of some manuscript feedback I recently received: questions and comments from beta readers like, “I don’t understand what’s going on. Why would he do this? Can you flesh this out?” These comments reminded me that I hadn’t slowed down enough to fully inhabit the scene—to give it enough life so that a reader doesn’t have to ask, “What’s going on here?” Instead of making sure that the character motivation was clear or other physical aspects (i.e., the spatial order of each character) were presented well enough, I fluttered off to another scene, leaving a reader behind with questions. When I reread the scene, and this time really focused on it (something I should have done before handing it to a beta reader), I realized what information I had forgotten to provide to help a reader track the action.

Sometimes a writer needs to trust a reader to figure things out without spoon feeding him or her. But sometimes a writer lands too lightly in a scene and seems too eager to flutter off someplace else—just like a butterfly or a busy multitasker. As in everything else, balance is necessary.

Monarch photo from butterfly-photo.blogspot.com. Sims image from Nokipedia.

Have a Daisy of a Day

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always found daisies to be cheerful flowers. I took the picture below well over a week ago, but I kept waiting for just the right time to use it. I thought I had to have good news or experience a day where everything seemed to go my way, like in the song, “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah. In that way, the daisies would seem appropriate. Well, that “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” day hasn’t come. And since we’ve experienced a ton of thunderstorms in my area lately, I was convinced that a daisy photo didn’t seem fitting; therefore, I needed to save the photo until I’d reached a “daisy-worthy” day.

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Ever do that—save stuff for when you think you’ll find an occasion worthy enough for it? I’m reminded of my mom who only used her best plates on special occasions. But that changed after one of her closest friends died of breast cancer. Mom realized that life was too short to save the good plates for a so-called special occasion. With life as precious as it is, every day is special.

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Not my mom’s china pattern

So, with that in mind, I decided to go ahead and run the photo. If you take a closer look at it, you’ll see a fly on the capitulum of one of the daisies. (Please don’t be impressed that I know what that is. I Googled, What is the center of a daisy called? There. That knocked me off that pedestal.) I didn’t realize the fly was there until I snapped the picture. I took another photo, thinking that the fly ruined the first photo. Yet the fly’s presence reminded me of what life is like sometimes. Instead of a daisy day, where everything seems cheerful, sometimes there’s a fly on your capitulum (or in the ointment if you were waiting for that idiom to be used). People irritate you. Your child becomes ill. Your paycheck’s late or you’re laid off. Your dog needs expensive medication. Flies in the ointment.

Maybe you’re having a day like that now, a day coated with sadness or irritation. Instead of one fly, maybe a swarm has come your way (or mosquitoes). So my wish for you to have a “daisy of a day” might seem insane. But I can still wish for that—that you would find hope and cheer despite your present circumstances.

If you’re having a daisy of a day without my having to wish for it, do someone a favor today. Don’t wait for a special occasion to celebrate that person (like a birthday or an anniversary). Do it now. Make today a daisy of a day for someone who might need it more desperately than you know.

smiley face

Have a great fourth of July!

China plate from collectable-china.co.uk. Smiley from ncv.unl.edu/woodlab.