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.

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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.