Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Will Gripe for Advice

It’s easy to complain, and it’s something we all do. We detail our grievances to seek sympathy, to release that energy negative experiences generate, to bond with others, as part of thinking something through, or sometimes we complain just to pass the time. And once in a while, we do it, at least in part, in an attempt to share wisdom, to help others avoid the pitfalls inside which our feet failed. Or at least that's how we frame it.

As plaints slink past our downturned lips, oftentimes those friends with whom we chose to share grief shine sympathetic faces, bob nodding heads, clasp our hand in tight fingers, and through it all provide that validation we really seek. Or at least the good ones do. And the mouths of those precious few really good friends tighten just noticeably, eyelids press closer, as anger wends its way through their chests. Enmity on behalf of us.  True empathy and righteous outrage at the wrongs to which we have obviously and unjustly been subjected.

Authors complain, and some of their readers complain, and sometimes it’s about each other. A poor review is one very poignant example, such as when a reader leaves a scathing critique of a novel on a big bookseller’s web site. It might be couched as a warning to others, but it’s often little more than a collection of bloodletting words, phrases chosen for their ability to negate, to depreciate, and to obliterate. 

Sure. Sometimes the texts contain grains of truth. Or at least the writer’s truth. In those cases, it’s the vitriol that offends, whether outright disdain or shrouded contempt lurking beneath the emotionless, objective-seeming prose. But compassion is not among whatever motivates those who post these reviews. Nor is decency, or thoughtfulness, or courtesy. Instead, the pen-drunk, sadistically gleeful reviewer objectifies the author. S/he either makes crass assumptions, or, perhaps worse, never stops to imagine the impact their words will make on the author at all.

And despite the author’s intellectual knowledge that these reviews constitute no truth, no real truth anyway, every word of these reviews, these complaints, slice rills into the flesh underneath the author’s skin that resist closing back up, even unto the passage of weeks.

Maybe in part to help each other walk these valleys of the shadows, writers group together, both formally and not. And sure enough, not long ago a reviewer skewered one of the writers belonging to a group I joined. 

Now let me step back just a smidge and contextualize this. I am a relatively new author. My first book came out in September of this year. My second book won’t be out until next summer. Most of the high-ranking, and high-prestige, members of this particular group have many books out, and the reviewer’s victim just happened to be one of those.

That review, one she bemoaned in our yahoo group’s internal message system, was my first taste of this bitter phenomenon. In her note, the slighted author cited the review and then spent a line or two describing her valiant efforts to brace herself against the undeserved blow.

Incensed, immediately affronted, I clicked through to the web site and pored through the review. And yes – it was as bad as she had said. Despite the fact that this particular author has refused to speak to me (for unfathomable reasons) throughout my tenure in this group, I felt outraged for her, as I would for anyone subjected to such cruelty. The reviewer had spent three, maybe four paragraphs ripping her book to shreds, but penned not one word that might negate the sting s/he knew, or should have known, it would cause.

To relieve their itching, I let fingers fly across the keyboard. In my response, I chided him. Tried to explain that while he had the right to his opinion, and that we all know that not everyone likes everything, he should have left meanness behind. In an attempt to trigger thought, and guilt, I added a rhetorical question: Had he thought about how his words would wound the author?

To our yahoo group’s site, I posted a note detailing my response. My defense.

And got none in return. The author I had defended offered not one word.

And so now, at the crux of this story, you discover my real purpose. To complain. Because one other reason, though perhaps the rarest, is that people share grief with the hope that their listeners have insight that they do not, experience, common sense, or can see something they have missed. In short, they seek advice. 

What she did – what they all did - what I see as the flippant dismissal of a plebian author who had come to a sister author's defense – hurt my feelings. Profoundly. Made me feel angry. Sparked a shallow rivulet of inclinations ranging from posting a hoity-toity, slightly snarky note (using phrases such as “junior high-esque”) to the group, to silently withdrawing my response on that bookseller’s web site, to quitting the group. 

But I did none of it.

After all, sometimes the best thing to do, especially when you’re not sure where to take an idea, is to not complain. Not share, and not take action. And so I didn’t. Not to her, not my friends, and not to anyone. Not for more than two months. 

But for some reason that slight has rested uneasily in me. 

And so I decided to post this complaint. To seek advice, because although I think I know quite a bit about general compassion and have, I think, a strong sense of morality as well as loyalty, I am greatly lacking in experience in writers groups’ etiquette and fear to follow my inclinations, voice my outrage, without just a little more insight.

So, and borrowing a handful of my son’s favorite author’s words: What would you do if your mother asked you?

Friday, November 5, 2010

Minute Zero

Day Zero. That – “the” – day that something happens that changes your world forever. 

We humans count time before and after each one of those. Assign meaning to events, and our conceptions of them, based on how we felt, and what we thought, on each side of those days. “Before my father died . . .” versus “Since I lost my father . . .” or "While Clinton was president . . ." as compared to "After George W. Bush assumed the post . . ."

It’s important, I think, to be exceptionally cognizant of the Day Zeroes in our writing. Why? Well, most of the time, our characters are barreling full bore toward one of those days, or are living in the aftermath of one, and are now trying to parse the world and its details, make new meanings, in light of the emotional reckoning delivered by the transitions that day rendered.

When we think about Day Zeroes, we usually reduce their function to a simple loss of innocence: “Before the bad day, Ngami smiled easily at children’s laughter, but after losing her child, she can no longer bear the sound.” (I disagree with this oversimplistic and reductionistic perspective, but that's a subject for another post.)

Often, very often, we’re dealing with the reconciliation of two Day Zeroes in our literary work. Maybe a protagonist, for instance, has gone through something terrible, and here, in our pages, in our hands, our broken woman is going to learn to trust again.

I think all writers understand how fundamental Day Zeroes are to our stories. But I also think we give them too much weight – or rather, we assign them too much weight, and when we do that, we render our stories less believable.

Every day we – all human beings – experience important events, both positive and negative. Make important decisions that manifest consequences. And each time, we emerge changed. A little more jaded, a little less tender, a little sadder, a little more needy, and maybe a little wiser. Our experience might recalibrate any single factor, though it is likely that it has altered more than one thing/perception/thought/proclivity, perhaps even in opposing ways.

And, on an even smaller scale, every single interaction we have alters our perspective. We collect information as we walk the world, and as we do, we develop expectations about it. How people will act. What things are likely to happen. And when they happen differently, even just by a hairsbreadth, such as when someone smiles instead of smirks, it forces us to reevaluate. These are what I think of as Minute Zeroes.

As we drag our characters down the various roads we paint for them, we need to try and keep both Day Zeroes and Minute Zeroes in mind. If you can show your readers the small changes, maybe just by a lifted brow that expresses their surprise, it helps the reader understand who they are – at their core – and by doing so, we readers might just recognize our own experiences and identify with your protagonist just a bit more, too. 

And holding hands with your protagonist as she walks helps you, the author, know her even better, which in turn leads you to understand what direction she’s actually going, and what thoughts and beliefs will lead her there – is Ngami growing more cynical, or more optimistic? – and knowing what road Ngami is walking will help you discover exactly what needs to happen at the upcoming Day Zero, and beyond, to take her precisely where you want her to be.