Photo courtesy

Photo courtesy

Your main character faces a life or death situation — he’s been grievously wounded and must find help or she needs to elude an assassin — how do you know what your character is thinking and feeling?  Especially if you’ve never been in a life or death situation yourself.  I’ve seen some very melodramatic answers to this question in literature and movies.  In truth, when survival is threatened, certain things happen that affect how your character will think and feel.

Humans are wired to survive.  It is a primal instinct that will focus the mind like a laser.  All the senses sharpen.  The threatened person assesses the threat in order to take the action that will most likely insure survival.  I believe people who deal with chronic illness, who must spend more time in a hospital than they’d like, and who are forced to deal with the medical community and insurance companies, often deal with life itself in a survival mode.  So, if your character has a chronic illness that he or she must deal with daily, keep in mind that your character won’t be reacting to life in the same way a healthy character would.

When your character is threatened with death, the first thing that happens is fear.  It’s very rare for someone to face a dire threat without fear.  Fear is a normal emotional response to any kind of threat and is part of our signalling system that tells us that the threat is real.

Fear triggers physiological changes.  The first thing that happens is an increase in cortisol and adrenalin levels in your character’s blood stream.  They cause the heart to beat faster and respiration to increase.  They also will cause the entire body to go into survival mode, so all non-essential processes will go on hold until after the threat is gone.  Adrenalin often feels like a tingling throughout the body.

Fight Or Flight UncertaintyYour character now enters the fight or flight response.  Part of this response is the laser-like focus on the present and immediate surroundings I described earlier.  Now, your character’s personality will influence his choice.  If he’s an aggressive personality, perhaps he’d more likely fight than find a way to escape.  Or if your character is passive and you want to force him into a defensive stance, he may react very differently.  If there are other people present for whom he’s responsible, that adds another layer of pressure and stress.  Will he defend and protect them?  Will they join the fight?  Or will they find an escape while he’s fighting?  Threatening situations reveal character.

What’s your threatened character thinking?  First of all, she’ll be assessing the threat, then assessing flight or fight.  It happens very fast, almost instantaneously, this thought process.  When writing it, short sentences will give the feeling of the high speed of the thoughts.  In fact, long sentences will slow down the pace of the scene and you want it to be faster.  Your character’s mind will be focused totally on the threat and how to neutralize it or get away from it.  If you decide to have your character fight, she’ll be looking for her opponent’s weaknesses or looking for weapons.

Remember, too, that after the threat is gone and your character is safe, there is a residual reaction, especially physiologically from the cortisol and adrenalin.  It’s often called the “adrenalin crash” and it begins with full-body trembling.  It’s possible for your character to faint, especially if he doesn’t sit down and breathe deeply with his head between his knees.  EMTs and medical personnel working in emergency rooms are very familiar with the adrenalin crash — they can experience it after a particularly challenging emergency.

As an example, I recently faced a life-threatening situation: major abdominal surgery.  Surgeons take great care to reassure their patients that all will go well in the operating room, but the bottom line is that anything can happen.  I trust my surgeon to take care of me.  But I still was nervous during the pre-op preparations.  My mind was very focused on my immediate environment, the people around me, and the procedures.  Happily, the surgery was a success, but my survival response continued during my post-op hospital stay and my first month at home.  I was very much in survival mode.  Not much other activity got done.

I was thinking, however, about survival…..



They’re Back!

Photo courtesy of MOA/Courtney Perry

Photo courtesy of MOA/Courtney Perry

September has arrived and with it a new concert season for the Minnesota Orchestra.  They have begun with a jaw-dropping, sold-out gala concert last night at Orchestra Hall in downtown Minneapolis.  Unfortunately, because I am still recovering from major surgery, I was unable to attend.  However, thanks to Classical MPR, I was able to “attend” by listening to the radio broadcast.

Soprano Renee Fleming was the guest soloist, and she has a voice that can make me cry as well as stun and amaze.  (She sang the national anthem at the Super Bowl last year.)  Her breath and pitch control made for some of the most beautiful moments in the concert.  She began with a new work, a song cycle, written specifically for her by a Swedish composer named Anders Hillborg.  He set poems by Paul Strand to astonishing music that reminded me a lot of game music — evocative, expansive with open intervals as well as strings sounding like insect wings rubbing together — and Ms. Fleming’s voice pierced through it, floated above, and fleshed it out.  What a journey.  I really want to hear this work again and again.  This performance was only its second.  Will Ms. Fleming record it?  I hope so.

Photo courtesy of MOA/Courtney Perry

Renee Fleming with Minnesota Orchestra (Photo courtesy of MOA/Courtney Perry)

Next up for Ms. Fleming were two opera arias, one extremely famous and the second not.  The first was Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro” from Gianni Schicchi.  The second aria Ms. Fleming described as “Carmen on steroids,”  “Ier della fabrica a Triana” from Riccardo Zandonai’s Conchita.  She followed the arias with three songs by Leonard Bernstein — two from West Side Story and one from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  For me, these songs were the least successful of the evening.  Ms. Fleming’s voice was a bit too heavy, and her technique too operatic.  But she made me cry during “Somewhere.”  And the tears continued when she told the audience that she would sing “Take care of this House” in honor of all of us who treasure our Minnesota Orchestra and worked so hard to save it.

Osmo Vanska conducted the Orchestra last night and chose the Overture to Maskarade by Danish composer Carl Nielsen.  Between the Hillborg and the opera arias, Vanska and the Orchestra continued the opera theme of the evening with the sweet, peaceful Intermezzo from Mascagni’s “Cavalleria rusticana,” and the powerful, dramatic Overture to Verdi’s “La forza del destino.”  While I totally enjoyed these opera selections, I craved more symphonic music that would spotlight the Minnesota Orchestra.

Photo courtesy of MOA/Courtney Perry

Osmo Vanska conducting the MN Orchestra at Gala Concert (Photo courtesy of MOA/Courtney Perry)

It came in the final work on the program: Ottorino Resphigi’s The Pines of Rome.  Ah, the precise ensemble playing, the discipline, the true ppp and the controlled fffs.  I felt like I had arrived home to the most beautiful, most familiar and beloved voice there is.  This Orchestra remains at a high level of artistic excellence that I’m certain Osmo will hone until it has reached a height far above where it was before the lockout.  We are in for a truly wonderful 2014-15 classical music season with the Minnesota Orchestra.

I was sorry not to be able to attend the concert last evening, but my surgery was far more extensive than any of us had anticipated (even the surgeon), and my recovery has suffered one major setback, slowing it to slower than a snail’s pace.  I am inching back to my former writing schedule, starting here.  As I haven’t written about the MN Orchestra for a long time,  I thought it would be fun to return with it — we are both returning to our “normal” lives…..



Hiatus, Folks

Just to let you know that I won’t be writing here for the next 2-3 weeks as I deal with surgery, the hospital, and my first days home again.

I shall return.

Gina's Eyes

My Empty Head

Not one idea for a post this morning or even yesterday or the day before.  I want to write something.  But my head is full of life concerns, not literary concerns.  How do I, as a writer, deal with this?  Frustration.

Books everywhere

I’m actually more concerned about which book to take to read in the hospital.  I cannot make up my mind.  From past experience, I know that it’s impossible to get into a literary novel.  Genre stories are better.  So, I’m looking at mysteries and science fiction.  On the mysteries side: P. D. James because I haven’t read her in years and I have a couple of her books already.  A friend has offered a Jo Nesbo mystery, and I’m intensely interested in reading his work.  On the science fiction side, I’m considering a novel by Charles Stross.  I’m also toying with possibly taking We by Eugene Zamiatin.  I’m already taking the wonderful magazine Fantasy & Science Fiction so maybe a mystery would be better.

Hospital reading is highly personal.  What to read when you’re not feeling all that great?  In the past, I’ve taken a Kathy Reichs mystery, a literary mystery that I could not get into and still have not read, a Janet Evanovich mystery that was also quite funny, and magazines like The Atlantic, The Writer, and Granta.  Sometimes general interest magazines are really the best bet.  They’re easier to read in small chunks and go with the flow of constant interruptions.

Sometimes, though, I’ve not wanted to read anything.  In that case, I’ve watched TV for hours and hours.  The hospital has cable TV — I do not.  I remember being really surprised that now cable TV channels run commercials.  I thought the whole point of paid television was NOT to run commercials.  What a disappointment.  During one hospital stay, I discovered the delightful and very funny show Monk on cable.  It was the perfect antidote to that particular hospital experience.

Adrian Monk (Tony Shalhoub)

Adrian Monk (Tony Shalhoub)

This time, I am taking my Sony Walkman which also has a radio, and a few CDs.  I want to see if music has a beneficial effect on my experience.  I am also taking my Falun gong (qigong energy exercises) with me to do when I’m able to stand for longer than five minutes.

What about writing?  Well, I am taking a notebook and pens, and my pocket calendar in which to note events.  I discovered during my last post-op hospitalization, that morphine does not enhance writing but makes it physically more difficult to do.  I wrote very slowly and dozed between words.  My handwriting also was barely legible.  Eventually, when I wasn’t on the morphine anymore, my writing improved and I wrote more.

Hospital stays are ironic, actually.  You expect to sleep a lot, rest in bed, not do much, right?  Well, that’s not really the case, at least for surgical patients.  I expect that I’ll be roused out of bed early the next day in order to stand and walk a few steps.  By evening of the first day, I expect to have walked at least five times and be able to walk on my own to the bathroom and back.  There are a LOT of interruptions — lab techs for blood draws, nurse assistants to check vitals, doctors with their residents, physical or occupational therapists to start you on the exercises to help build your strength so you can be discharged eventually, volunteers with offers of magazines or conversation, and so on.  And the welcome interruptions of friends visiting.

And look at this: I’ve written nearly 600 words about topics related to writing that deal with my upcoming hospitalization.  There really is truth to the saying to just write even if your head is empty….

Credit: Walt Disney

Credit: Walt Disney