Saturday, February 26, 2011

Flawed Characters

Why are we drawn to them?  You know the ones I mean.  

Don Draper from AMC’s Mad Men comes to mind.  Super hot, suave, and deeply flawed…but in all the right ways.  It’s hard to find anyone who hates him or isn’t at least captivated by how far down he can go.  Maybe it has something to do with just how good he looks in a suit.

Walter White from AMC’s Breaking Bad is another one.  Not so hot, but seriously screwed up.  It’s exquisite torment to watch his character slide ever further down that slippery slope from good to evil.  Pair him with Jesse, his counterpart and similarly flawed sidekick, and you have a storytelling masterpiece.

Quint from Jaws.  Crazy as a loon, tormented by his past.   Let’s face it:  He needs more than a bigger boat, if you know what I mean.

Iggy from Joe Hill’s novel Horns.  Poor guy woke up one day to find out he was turning, quite literally, into a devil, complete with horns sprouting from his head.  Talk about a bad day! 

I guess I’ve always been a fan of characters with deep personal flaws.  That’s what makes them interesting – on paper, at least.  On paper, they can be fixed, fiddled with, made good or bad with the flick of a pen or a liberally used Delete key.

Just don’t get me started with those flawed individuals we meet (and often date) in real life.  There’s only so much you can do with those characters.  :)

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Thanks, Mom & Dad

I thought of my parents yesterday, my mom still with me and my dad gone for six years now. 

They raised five kids and worked full time, but that never stopped Mom from losing herself for a few minutes every day in a novel.  My dad got home from work each day covered in soot from working in a metal shop, and, after washing up, he would sit and read the newspaper, cover to cover.   Later, he’d retreat to his room and devour any and all nonfiction books on the subjects that interested him. 

This is where my love of reading and writing came from.

This past week I started tutoring at a local community college.  It’s been an eye opening experience.

On my second day, an older guy walked in.  He was probably in his late forties, his hands were calloused and scarred from years of hard work.  He carried a briefcase full of books.

When he sat down, he didn’t know where to start.  He fumbled with his papers, his syllabus, his textbooks, a writing journal.   We sorted through each assignment, but he still couldn’t put into words what exactly he needed help with.  He asked me to look at an essay he had turned in, but didn’t have it with him.  He asked me to look at his journal, which had received high marks, though he didn’t know what – or if – he should change anything in it.  Then we looked at his syllabus.  He wasn’t sure which assignment was due on which day and which book he needed to look at first.

After about fifteen minutes, he sat back with a frustrated sigh and said, “I’ve been working with my hands for thirty years.  I drove a truck my whole life, so I only listened to the radio, I never had the chance to read before.  I have a lot of thoughts.  I just don’t know how to get them out of my head.”

It made me think of my parents.  It made me realize how lucky I am to have grown up in a home where reading was important.  My parents taught me how to get my thoughts out of my head.  Not everyone gets that chance.

There’s a popular bumper sticker that reads, “If you can read this, thank a teacher.”  I think it should say, “If you can read this, thank your parents.”

So that’s what I’m doing now.

Mom & Dad, thank you.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Be Gentle, It's My First Time

I remember the first time I went to a critique group.  It was agony.   Not only did I have to share stuff I wrote, I had to read it out loud. 

I was panicky, short of breath, my voice cracked.  It was terrible.  When it was over, there was a moment of quiet before anyone spoke.  It was the longest fifteen seconds of my life. 

Comments started slowly:  “I like this, but what about doing this instead?”   What?  Did the reader really say she liked it?  Yay!

And then, “The voice is strong, so strong that it might overshadow the plot.  Would you think about toning it down a bit?”  Hmm, that sounds about right.  That’s really helpful! 

And finally a derisive laugh, followed by, “Rube?  Seriously, you couldn’t think of another way to say it? You had to use the word ‘rube’ ten times in one story?  I mean, come on.  What am I reading here?”  Ouch, dude.  Harsh. 

I remember it like it was yesterday.  I still remember my face getting hot, what I was wearing, the feel of the table under my hands, and the name of the person who figuratively pushed my face in the mud.  That was six years ago. 

Critique – and accepting critique – is an important part of writing.  No one gets better without it, but feedback delivered without kindness can be crippling. 

A dear friend had the opportunity to attend a writing conference this week where her work was critiqued by some folks in the Big Leagues.  She had one good experience and one not-so-good experience.   She came away feeling as though she had been personally attacked.  She came away doubting her amazing ability.

Not cool.

To those in writing groups, remember that there is a person on the other side of that page.  Be honest, but kind.  Your words will stay with them for a year, or six, or longer.   Don’t cripple them, encourage them to be better, because better is always underscored by the idea that their work was good to begin with.

For the past couple of years, I’ve had the good luck to be part of a writing group that is kind and talented and funny and, most importantly, honest.  I couldn’t ask for more. 

To them I say thank you – you’ve made me a better writer and a better person. 

And to my friend who got her writerly feelings stepped on, don’t give up.  Don’t let the naysayers win.   

You are better than that – which means you were pretty darn good to begin with.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Getting Better

So I was thinking today that there are things I probably should be better at.

On the way to school this morning I heard the DJ say that some study (surely designed to make women feel bad about themselves) said that women today are not as good at domestic skills as they used to be…you know, back before we had JOBS and stuff.  Well, duh.  We had more time then.  And husbands.  And we wore chiffon gowns and pearls to vacuum while we smoked cigarillos and drank martinis.

But after three hours navigating snow-covered highways (I guess I am a pretty good driver), I had plenty of time to think about that report.  It was right.  I’m not good at a lot of stuff that I probably should be good at, and not just domestic stuff.

I can cook a few things, but was thinking I would like to know how to bake a pie.  No, not one of those frozen jobs you toss in the oven for an hour because I always end up burning them.  I want to make a REAL pie with a GENUINE HOMEMADE crust that flakes when you pluck it with a fork.

I also want to be able to sew better.  Just think of how much money I’d save if I sewed buttons back on instead of buying new sweaters.  I mean, buttons actually come with most of the things we buy.  There has to be a reason for that, right? 

And I want to be a better at math and science.  I want to know how to do fractions – I want to know why some letters equal numbers.  (I hear that really happens!  Numbers AND letters – imagine!)  

And I want to know more ‘stuff,’ especially stuff that goes on in other countries.  I want to know more about the Middle East.  I want to know how to speak Arabic.   I want to know their history.  Oh, and I want to know more about South America, too, specifically Che Guevara.  Don’t ask why – I have no idea.  I just do.

OH – and religion!  I probably should know more about that than what I pick up from the monthly Watchtowers dropped off at my door while I’m hiding in the bathroom.  (Oh, okay…like I’m the only one who does that, right?)

Those are just a few of the things I want to be better at.

What do YOU want to be better at?  

And what do you think is stopping us?