Monday, July 30, 2007

Heroes, Villains, and Cognitive Dissonance

An interesting experiment from the world of psychology: When people were asked to describe an instance in their lives when they had hurt someone, most insisted that their harmful acts had been either justified or unavoidable. They also portrayed their actions as having caused only brief pain to others.

But when people were asked to describe an incident when someone had hurt THEM, they invariably described the actions as senseless, immoral, and despicable, never “unavoidable.” They also reported the pain as lasting a long time. Ironically, the hurts described were basically the same—betrayals, lies, acts of unkindness. (If you’re interested in reading more about this experiment, just Google Roy Baumeister, the social psychologist who conducted it.)

The technical name for this is cognitive dissonance. It seems that when we do something that hurts others, a part of us knows our action is despicable. This is true both on an individual level, such as when a man cheats on his spouse, and on a national level, such as when one country attacks another and causes the deaths of hundreds of thousands—or even millions—of innocents. Since most people believe they are fundamentally good people, these actions produce a conflict, or dissonance. People solve this dissonance either by reinterpreting their actions to minimize their responsibility, thus recasting their actions in a different light, or—in the case of the massive civilian casualties in Iraq or the WWII concentration camps in Germany—rejecting whatever evidence might prove something too unpleasant to assimilate.

Of course, this is all happening at a subconscious level, and not everyone does this to the same extent. In fact, some people spend years beating themselves up for transgressions that really were largely avoidable. Which leads me to wonder if certain cultures are more prone to collective cognitive dissonance than others. Many Germans, for instance, have spent the last sixty years in a paroxysm of guilt over WWII. The United States, however, still has yet to face the truth about everything from the genocide it perpetrated against the Native Americans to the atomic bomb it dropped on Hiroshima to the more recent invasion of Iraq.

But I’m drifting from my point here, which is that as writers, we need to remember this: most people don’t see themselves as evil. So no matter how despicable your villain, he needs to be the hero of his own story. He needs to see his actions as justified. That’s when the richest—and most chilling-characters are created.

Friday, July 27, 2007

An Update on the Corner

I thought you all might be interested in seeing this view of my office—the same corner shown in the October 05 photo I posted yesterday. And yes, that’s my daughter home from Europe and trying to make it up to her cat, Thomasina.

Thomasina’s still holding a grudge.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Thoughts on an Anniversary

This weekend it will have been an entire year since we moved back into our house post-Katrina. The house was still far from finished at the time, but we felt such an intense need to be home that we rushed it. We had this idea that if we were in the house we’d be able to spend more time working on it. In fact, the opposite happened. Once we were actually in the house, we slacked off. Life took over.

I wish I had taken pictures of the house as it was a year ago. Then I’d be able to look back and see how much progress we’ve made—all the boxes we’ve unpacked, all the furniture we’ve replaced. Instead, I see what isn’t finished. The upstairs hall is still just plywood. We still need new carpet on the stairs. The arched windows are still raw openings (arches are REALLY hard to do). The front gallery is still a torn mess. Just yesterday I noticed that the baseboards in the entry were never nailed in or painted. How do you forget something like that? The list goes on and on. When we didn’t make our “we’ll be finished by Christmas” goal last year, we said, “Next Christmas.” Now we’re saying, Christmas of ’08. Ha. So I look at other pictures, like the one I've posted here taken sometime in October 05. Then I remember how far we've come.

A month or so ago I thought I’d found someone to rebuild the gallery. One of the brothers was about to get married, but they promised they’d start as soon as he got back from his honeymoon. Maybe his wife strangled him on his wedding night or something, but he seems to have disappeared. Such is life and rebuilding in post-Katrina New Orleans.

Sometimes it all gets to me. Sometimes I think we’ll never be put right again. I see signs of progress every time we drive into the city. Ruined commercial buildings from the Ugly Decades of the twentieth century are starting to be knocked down—finally! New business buildings are going up, here and there. I try to focus on that, rather than the miles and miles of largely empty houses and storefronts.

In the months after Katrina, city officials worried about what they called the “jack-o’-lantern effect”—renovated homes scattered amidst rows of dark empty houses. It’s what we now have. On my street, we have only something like half a dozen empty houses, but in many neighborhoods there are twenty empty houses for every one that’s inhabited.

I heard the other day that the 17th Street Canal on the Metairie side is collapsing. The Corps of Engineers isn’t going to do anything about it because they can’t figure out why it’s happening and “routine maintenance isn’t their job.” The parish is saying it’s collapsing because of what the Corps is doing on the Orleans Parish side of the canal. And I’m thinking, Yo, people! Just fix it, all right!!

When I was in Florida recently, people were surprised when they heard the city wasn’t back to normal. With the exception of the narrow tourist strip along the river—the French Quarter and the Garden District—New Orleans today is a Third World country. The death rate has soared. It’s a national disgrace, only no one seems to know about it, no one seems to be holding our president and his minions accountable. In another month, it will be two years since Katrina. Who’d have thought?

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Yoga of Writing

One of the aspects of practicing yoga that makes it ever fresh—at least for me—is the knowledge that no matter how many times I do a routine I’m still improving, every day, a little bit at a time. As long as I keep pushing that edge and keep my awareness on what I’m doing, my poses keep improving. Writing should be exactly the same way.

Unfortunately, it often isn’t. We all know writers who hit it huge and then slide into a well-worn, easy trough in which they basically keep repeating themselves until they either die or retire. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to hurt their sales. Once they become a “name,” the sales are essentially assured.

In my experience, there are two basic types of writers—those who think they’re great writers, and those who think they’re not, and they usually hold to these opinions whether they achieve success in the marketplace or not. Those who think they’re great writers are so convinced of their own greatness that they admit to no need of improvement. After all, they’re already great, right? And then there are the writers who are constantly pushing the edge of their ability, who scrutinize their works for ways to make them better, who try new ways of telling a story or developing a character. And they keep trying to improve, no matter how financially successful they may become. It’s an attitude that keeps their writing ever fresh and surely, for them, helps keep it fun.

So here’s to pushing the edge.

Monday, July 23, 2007

In Defense of the Inner Critic

This guy gets a lot of bad press among writers. He’s blamed for everything from writer’s block to a lack of originality and a fear of experimentation. The common consensus is that he should be banished from the writer’s kingdom for the duration of the creative phase.

I suspect we all view the essence of our creative endeavors differently. At its best, crafting a story is a mysterious process only dimly understood. I learned a long time ago that if I’m having trouble with a scene or character or plot point, one of the best ways to handle it is to go for a walk, take a shower, or just go to sleep. (“Are you sick, Mama? Why are you laying down?” “Oh, no; I’m just contemplating a plot problem, honey. Wake me up when it’s time to start dinner…”) Why? Because whether we’re writing fantasy adventure stories or carefully plotted thrillers, our subconscious plays a huge role in the process. Part of learning to write is learning to trust our subconscious.

So what does this have to do with the Inner Critic? Steve Malley has a great description of the Inner Critic as a pedantic old scholar complete with wire-framed glasses. One can hear him tut-tutting over split infinitives and indefinite antecedents. More than just a Grammar Queen, this is the guy who tells us that our prose is s**t, that we can’t write for s**t, that we must be an idiot to think we can write a book anyone would want to read. This is the guy we really don’t want perched on our shoulder when we’re in hot pursuit of our story. When we’re blazing off into uncharted territory, self-doubt or even self-awareness can be fatal.

But this Inner Critic has an altar-ego, and he’s the guy I like to have along when I’m writing. This guy has nothing to do with self-self doubt and everything to do with storysense. This is the guy who tells me a scene is going on too long and I need to wind it up. He tells me I don’t have enough conflict in a scene, or that I need to come to a better understanding of a certain character’s motivation before I write any further, or that I’ve written too many action scenes in a row and I need what Dwight Swain calls a “sequel.” He’s a critic in the sense that he tells me when I’m going astray, but it might be more helpful to view him as a guide, like a yoga master gently helping me into the correct form for downward dog or tree pose.

I suspect there are writers who are so purely in touch with their inner storyteller that their stories simply unfold in flawless detail and all they have to do is write them down. I’m not that lucky. I frequently find myself starting to go wrong, and I’m thankful for that gently guiding voice that tells me I’m making a mistake and how to fix it.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Writing Ugly

This brilliant turn of phrase comes from Charles over on Razored Zen. It’s about turning off the inner critic that all too often squelches our creative drive, and just “letting it all hang out” as they used to say back in the Sixties. Other writers have talked about the “shitty first draft,” but I never felt it was helpful to call someone’s creative output “shitty,” even if it is a first draft. “Writing ugly” has the advantage of referring to the process, not the writer or the product. A subtle difference? Yes. A silly one? I don’t think so.

The problem is, no matter how we phrase it, it’s still so hard to do, especially for certain personality types. To quote Charles again, “You don’t blame yourself for your morning face and morning hair, and you should treat your writing the same way.” Well, maybe it’s one of those X vs. Y chromosome things, but I actually DO blame myself for my morning face and morning hair! I have a very, very hard time accepting anything less than perfection, whether it’s in my house, my garden, my diet, my exercise program, my appearance, my writing, my mothering—you get the idea. And since no one—least of all yours truly—is ever perfect, that means I’m always beating myself up for a thousand real or imagined shortcomings.

So how do we do it? How do we get ourselves into a first-draft mind-set that allows us to just tell a story without worrying about how it looks? After all, no one else need ever see that first, rough draft. As Steve Malley in his great continuation of this thread put it, They call it a rough draft for a reason, folks.

Is it enough to simply tell ourselves to relax and let go? I guess it depends on how well you listen to yourself. Time constraints can sometimes help. I certainly write uglier now that I have two book contracts than when I was “only” doing one book a year. Romance Writers of America periodically runs what they call “Book in a Week” marathons, where groups of writers pour out as many pages as they can in one week. Yet other people are paralyzed by time constraints.

Then there’s the old computer vs. longhand angle. Computers are wonderful tools when it comes time to rework subsequent drafts, but they can be a curse at first draft stage. I suspect I write faster up at the lake in longhand partially because there reaches a point where you simply cannot rework the written page and must move on (although I confess there’ve been many times when I’ve actually copied out a page—I can only tolerate so much mess).

Perhaps part of the secret to writing ugly is having confidence in your ability to come back later and smooth out the wrinkles. I frequently leave blanks when I’m writing—sometimes for a word, sometimes for an entire sentence or two. When what I want to say just won’t come, I’ll stick a “plain words” rendition in parentheses and just keep going. Often, I fill in those blanks easily on the second or third pass. Although I have to admit that sometimes the entire manuscript will be reworked and polished and I’ll still have half a dozen blanks that I simply can’t fill. Then I admit defeat and rework the scene.

Yet I don’t believe we should ever turn off our inner critic entirely. I’ve found over the years that when a scene “just isn’t working” it’s usually for a very good reason. Either I’m in the wrong POV or I’m trying to force characters to do something that moves my plot where I want it to go but is completely wrong for the characters. Or maybe I haven’t spent enough time exploring their motivation, or I haven’t given them enough motivation. In other words, I’m writing ugly because I’m writing wrong, and I need my inner critic to tell me that so that I don’t waste too much time going off in a wrong direction that’ll require a lot of backpedaling.

As Steve Malley says, it’s all a question of balance.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Back Again

Hi everyone. I'm back from having a great time in Florida with my daughter. This was my first trip to Miami, so we had fun exploring the Everglades and the colorful Art Deco architecture of Miami beach, and eating wonderful seafood, and just listening to sound of the surf breaking on the sand.

I did not enjoy all the hassles of flying in this twisted age of the American Empire. But I did somehow manage to get seventeen pages written, so I'm well on track to making my page quota for the end of the week. Now, if I can just get my big black cat to forgive me...

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Some Numbers for Thought

A few interesting statistics from Paul Campos, a professor of law at the University of Colorado:

Since September 11, 2001, 14 million Americans have died. Of these,
*untold thousands died needless, agonizing deaths because they lacked health insurance.
*over a quarter million died in car accidents.
*some 200,000 were shot to death. And no, that’s not counting those who died in Afghanistan and Iraq.

On that cheery note, I’m off to Florida tomorrow. See you next week!

Monday, July 09, 2007

And the Page Count Is…

I made it. My target for my writing spree up at the lake was to hit page 225 once the new chapters were typed up, and I exceeded that by hitting page 235. Yes.

Unfortunately the clock is now ticking on another week and I’m already starting to fall behind, what with the MERMAIDS galleys and the Q&A my in-house publicist wants done and the new website I’m having designed and the trip to Florida to visit Daughter #1 that I have planned for the end of the week (assuming she manages to get back from the Far East in time). And then there are these really neat out-of-print books, the Village London series, that I recently discovered and ordered from used booksellers around the world and they’ve now started arriving and they are oh-so-tempting, since they’re full of all sorts of wonderful little historical tidbits. Except Daughter #2 will be home from Europe before I know it and I’ll be sucked into the whirlwind of getting her ready to go off to college, and I need to have the first draft of this book finished by 1 September. Only, I also really need to get the upstairs hall painted because…

Breathe, Candy. Breathe.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Revisiting Hell

The galleys for WHY MERMAIDS SING are due back in New York on Tuesday. Because of the long time lag in publishing, that means I’ve been spending the last few days rereading the book I wrote right after Katrina—the book I thought would never get finished. I had sent the proposal for MERMAIDS off to my agent right before the storm hit. And then I didn’t write another word for more then six months.

At first my days were spent driving back and forth from Baton Rouge, mucking out the house, dragging what couldn’t be salvaged out to the curb, tearing out walls. Even after we moved down to my mother’s house in Metairie, we still had to drive up to Baton Rouge once a week for groceries. While we waited for our stripped studs to dry out, I set about the painful task of attempting to restore my antique furniture. And then it was time to start putting up walls, finish Sheetrock, and do all the million and one other things needed to put a house back together. I spent my days in paint-splattered clothes, joking that with the cost of labor in New Orleans I could make more money installing Sheetrock than I could writing. Actually, it wasn’t a joke. After all, the only reason I’d acquired the skill was because good Sheetrockers were impossible to find in New Orleans. They still are. But I digress.

Sometime around February or March I realized I had to quit working on the house and start working on my book. My deadline was looming. Only, how could I? We were rebuilding the house ourselves simply because we couldn’t find anyone to hire. Even putting in 12-14 hour days, Steve could only do so much on the weekends; I was the one working on it seven days a week. I was desperate to rebuild my nest, rebuild some kind of normal life for my traumatized chicks. I kept saying, how can I just quit and sit down and start writing? How can I write when I live, breathe, sleep, dream Katrina?

In the end, of course, I realized I had no choice. At first I set up my computer in my mother’s backroom. Then Steve and our friend Jon got the paneling up in my office and I started writing in here. The floor was just a concrete slab, there were no baseboards or crown moldings or doorframes or window frame (actually, there’s STILL no window frame!). There was no kitchen in the house, although one of the bathrooms upstairs still functioned. The neighborhood was filled with the sound of air compressors and hammering and sawing. I kept saying, I can’t write like this! I’d write half the day, then give in to the compulsion and go off to do Sheetrock or sand trim, seal tile or paint ceilings. In the end, the only thing that saved me was the miracle that is the lake house.

Yet somehow, the book not only worked, but worked amazingly well. The only problem is that as I go through the galleys, I find that I can only read about thirty pages at a time and then I need to put it aside and do something else for a while. I find myself remembering the time I was assaulted by a raving lunatic at one of the city’s few functioning gas stations (people were seriously losing it in those days). I remember sitting next to my dying aunt and listening to the hospital rep apologize for the fact they were using orange FEMA blankets, but their laundry service had flooded. I remember the miles of flooded cars choking the streets of New Orleans, the boat abandoned just two blocks from my mother’s house (where the water stopped). I remember the huge flies that seemed to mutate after Katrina, and the smell. Who could ever forget that smell? And then I go pick up the galleys again.

And I wonder, is it there? Did the heartache and the trauma and the craziness of it all somehow bleed into these words about an English Viscount chasing a tormented killer through the streets of 1811 London?

I don’t know.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Skiing Off a Cliff

There’s one thing to be said for skiing off a cliff or being broadsided by a truck. Apart from giving you a new appreciation of how quickly life can go spinning out of control, it definitely tends to shift your perspective.

I was ruminating on those life experiences Monday as I was flying down the interstate at 85mph (hey, this is Louisiana). And because I’m a writer—which means I’m always seeing analogies even where there aren’t any—I thought it might hold the key to why I manage to get so much written when I’m up at the lake.

There are all sorts of prosaic reasons, of course. No internet. No piles of laundry and dirty refrigerators beckoning to be cleaned out. The freedom to listen to my inner body clock, which means scribbling away until 4 am and sleeping guilt-free to 10 or 11. And then there’s the blessed sound of silence, and the soul-lifting inspiration that comes from the sight of sun glistening on breeze-licked waves.

Those are all, obviously, contributing factors. But I suspect a major key to my uncharacteristic prolificacy up there is that going to the lake yanks me out of my routine everyday patterns. It shakes me up, breaks my habits, sets me free to be different. Cocooned alone in the lake house, I can immerse myself in my story and then simply let it flow out of me. When I want a break, I go walk around the lake or grab a paintbrush. But the story stays with me. In me. My world becomes the lake and my story.

I have a friend who has written all twenty of her books in longhand while sitting in a coffee shop. The other day I told her I thought maybe she had something there, that I’d noticed I’m actually far more productive when I’m up at the lake and writing by hand. You know what she said? “Really? I’ve just started composing at my computer because it seems faster.” Of course it is, theoretically, since one eliminates the step of having to type up what one has written. It’s why I shifted to composing at the keyboard years ago. But I suspect she’s feeling a burst in her productivity largely because her process is now different.

I can still remember the heady days of the first book I ever wrote, scribbling by hand, dashing after my story with no outline and little forethought. Over the years—I’ve been at this twenty years now!—I’ve learned how to do so many things so much better. But in the process something was lost. Something I recapture—at least partially—sitting on that porch swing with a notebook propped on my lap.

So here’s to being shaken up—preferably in a nonlethal way. If you normally compose at your computer desk, go sit out under a tree and write by hand. If you outline, ditch it for a day. If you don’t outline, try it. Light candles and play Gregorian chants. Or douse the candles and turn off the CD player. Get up at 5 am and write while you watch the sun come up. Or write by moonlight in the stillness of the night. Why wait to be clobbered by a hurricane to try something different?

Monday, July 02, 2007

Louisiana High

I’m back home again and even though I’ve been hard at work, I feel as if I’ve had a vacation. I’ve spent five days sitting on a porch swing with a notebook propped on my lap, gazing at a sun-sparkled lake, listening to wild geese and bullfrogs, and sleeping late. And this is a job?

Seriously, I came home with two notebooks filled—I won’t know the real page count until I get it all typed up since I write in longhand when I’m up at the lake. But I feel very, very good about how much I managed to accomplish. And I even got the lake house’s dining room painted!

There was a time I found the drive up there a chore, but I discovered I’ve come to enjoy even that part of the experience. There’s something liberating about barreling down the freeway in my little yellow bug (technically it’s Danielle’s little yellow bug, but she’s gone for the summer and I still haven’t replaced my car), letting my thoughts wander where they will and belting out “Country Roads” with John Denver. Although there’s a certain twist of irony to being stuck in traffic on the Bonnet Carre spillway and listening to Rocky Mountain High while staring out at a Louisiana swamp.