Suits Me to a Tea

I’m a coffee drinker for the most part. But I love a good, hearty tea when the autumn weather turns nippy. How about you? A new favorite is Trader Joe’s Harvest Blend.

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Recently, a friend and I conducted an informal taste test of herbal teas. Among the cinnamon tea blends, we concluded that Trader’s Joe Harvest Blend was the best tasting. This is our opinion, of course. Yet others who tried the tea quickly headed to the store to buy it. They then gave tea bags to other people who then bought their own box of the tea. Yes, my friend and I are tea pushers. The first bag is free. 🙂

Isn’t it interesting that something steeped in hot water can produce such a rich, memorable flavor? Sounds like life, doesn’t it? (Work with me here. It sounds like life, doesn’t it? Just nod your head.) When we’re in hot water—troublesome circumstances—the flavor of our character is revealed. Are we bitter, as some tea is when steeped too long? Or do the “hot” circumstances bring out the best in us?

The subject came up as I recently pondered my reaction to disappointing expectations and problems. As others announced the joyous news of book deals, I contemplated the lack of positive news in my mailbox (including a no for the YA book I queried earlier this year). I soon realized that a thread of bitterness had crept in and wound itself around me, leaving me complaining and paralyzed. Kind of like a mummy in a sarcophagus. Only . . . mummies don’t really complain, do they? And if they’re of the undead variety, they’re not really paralyzed either. Instead, a mummy might break out of his or her sarcophagus and lurch about, terrorizing villages. So that metaphor is a bit labored. But you get what I mean.

A couple of quotes struck me recently:

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I guess it’s time for me to stop whining and do what I know to do: write and keep going. To celebrate the power of persistence, I’m giving away a box of this Harvest Blend Herbal Tea and some crocheted leaves. (If you want to know more about these leaves, click on crocheted leaves to get the pattern, which was designed by Michelle at The Painted Hinge blog.) I’ll choose a commenter at random. Feel free to comment on a tea you love or some aspect of autumn you love. Or talk about which quote above speaks to you. Perhaps you have another favorite quote about persistence. Winner to be announced Friday, November 6.

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Thomas Edison quote from pinterest. Harriet Beecher Stowe quote from viacharacterblog.org.

The Human Drama

I’m inspired by different media. In a previous post I mentioned that I love animation. When I was a kid, I had aspirations of being a cartoonist, a writer, and an architect. (I would have been a really busy adult.) Alas, I quit my habit of regular sketching after my senior year of college. And my architectural drafting teacher in high school told me to give up the dream of being an architect, having disapproved of my “bowling alley” corridor designs. So, a couple of those dreams died early. But I can still appreciate the efforts of others.

I love a documentary, especially a profile of an artist—a behind-the-scenes look at what he or she does best. Chefs are artists whose medium is food. So as I watched Jiro Dreams of Sushi, I expected my mind to dine. But I what feasted on was not the main course but a side dish. I’ll tell you what I mean by that in a minute.

516b4Ek48kL__SX500_Image from Amazon.com

The 2011 documentary, directed by David Gelb, profiles sushi master, Jiro Ono. His work ethic made him a legend and made a meal at his ten-seat restaurant (Sukiyabashi Jiro) in Tokyo worth 30,000 yen ($307). How good is this place? It earned three stars in the Michelin Guide. So what does that mean? Let’s ask the Michelin Guide:

Three stars reward exceptional cuisine where diners eat extremely well, often superbly. Distinctive dishes are precisely executed, using superlative ingredients. Worth a special journey.

To employ a cliché and an oblique reference to a Jack Nicholson movie, that’s as good as it gets. Oh, and did I mention that at the time the documentary was filmed, Jiro Ono was 85 years old and still working? Or that an apprenticeship in his restaurant takes ten long years?

Articles like this have been written about Jiro’s business advice or this, challenging whether Jiro indeed is the best at what he does. And I intended to write a post on Jiro’s tips for success. But interestingly, what I found most intriguing is not Jiro’s achievement—as great as that is. No, his oldest son Yoshikazu, the one waiting in the wings to inherit the business—that’s the story I found most compelling.

Imagine a profession you didn’t want or dreams you have that must die because a parent has other plans. There are many for whom this situation is a reality. We catch a glimpse of this reality—Yoshikazu’s reality—in the documentary. While others debated whether or not he, the heir apparent, can hold on to the legacy established by his father, I kept my eyes on the interactions between the family members: the respect of Yoshikazu as he described his father’s wisdom; the love and pride of Jiro as he introduced his oldest son to his (Jiro’s) old school chums; the camaraderie of brothers (Yoshikazu and Takashi) reminiscing.

That’s the human drama behind the business tips. And I almost missed it in my scramble to jot down the how-I-did-this sound bites. Sadly, this is a lesson revealed through my own writing.

You see, I have a habit of thinking plot first, character second. In my desire to hit all of my plot points, I was missing the human drama: the people in all of their messy glory. Over the years, my advisors and beta readers challenged me about my “plotty ways.” And this documentary serves as another reminder to see the person behind the pearls of wisdom.

While I was a student at VCFA, A. M. Jenkins, a faculty member and one of the four advisors I was privileged to have, passed out frienship bracelets to all of us as a reminder to put character first. I think I’ll dig out that bracelet (it’s buried on my coffee table under a pile of papers) as a reminder to make the human drama paramount in every book.

Diamond in the Rough

aladdin-4897Remember that scene in Disney’s Aladdin (1992) where evil vizier Jafar was told to look for a “diamond in the rough”? Okay, maybe you don’t think about these things as often as I do, so just nod your head, even if you don’t remember that scene. Anyway, this diamond in the rough—Aladdin—was the key to Jafar’s nefarious scheme to retrieve Genie’s lamp in the Cave of Wonders.

But those of us watching the movie realized early on that Aladdin, the street rat, was a diamond in the rough. Sure, the narrator told us. But we would have figured that out eventually, and not just because Aladdin himself sang about there being “so much more to me,” and had great hair and surprisingly sparkling teeth for someone living on the street.

Ever see a rough diamond? If not, you can if you watch this video. But you might check out a company called Diamond in the Rough, which sells—you guessed it—rough diamonds. Their philosophy:

The cost of cutting and polishing a diamond adds only a tiny fraction to its price. Even if the diamond goes on to become polished, its polished price is still determined by what it was worth in its original, natural rough form.

I find this company fascinating because for them a diamond’s most important quality is its character. If you check out their website, you’ll see the traits that make up a diamond’s character (color, carat, clarity, and shape). If a diamond hadn’t already received full marks in character, they wouldn’t sell it.

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The aspect of a character’s being a “diamond in the rough”—someone worth writing a whole book about—became clear to me, starting in my first semester at VCFA. My advisor told me to write a short story using a character from the novel I was failing miserably to revise. Before I entered the program, I had written and revised the novel, and even sent it around to agents. After multiple rejections, I entered the MFA program and set out to discover how to rework the novel. I decided to start over with it. But every word I wrote felt forced. After three months, my advisor suggested that I take time away from the novel and relax. And relaxing still meant writing—this time a short story.

I chose a character, an elf, a tertiary character with little life beyond the one chapter in which he appeared. He was like a movie extra whose job was to walk through a scene. Well, 45 pages later (for me, that’s a short story), after I became better acquainted with him, I realized I had a diamond in the rough, a character I could polish and allow to sparkle in his own novel.

The same thing happened in my fourth (and last) semester. Consequently, my current work in progress stars yet another character mined from the same novel I had written and tried to rewrite that first semester (and second and third). This character at least had a speaking role in that novel, but little presence beyond a few scenes. Unlike the novel I couldn’t successfully rework over three semesters, the first book of her journey is complete. (Still working on the elf’s book.)

But in my current book, another diamond in the rough showed hidden facets I didn’t see at first, but my advisor and other classmates saw. While this character would have been condemned to just a walk-on role, he is now the companion on the journey my main character takes and has become the main character in the second book of my duology.

These experiences showed me that sometimes something has to die in order for new life to begin. I’m not just saying that because Easter just passed. I’m saying that because an entire novel—hundreds of pages, years of work—had to die in order for these “diamonds in the rough” to live—characters whose stories would never have been told. Did it hurt to bury that novel? Yep. But these characters needed to be pulled out of my overpopulated novel and allowed to roam about the open land, living their own lives like . . . uh . . . free range chickens. (I’ve been dying to mention chickens for weeks. Glad I got that in.)

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Got a diamond in the rough? How did you discover this character? How will you polish him or her?

The lyrics of Aladdin’s song, “One Jump Ahead,” were written by Howard Ashman; music by Alan Menken.