Being a Fearless Writer

One of my vivid memories from working with an editor on Perceval’s Secret: She told me that I was a fearless writer. Why? Because I had followed my main character where he was going instead of stopping him and making him do something safe and acceptable. The choice Evan makes toward the end shocked me when I wrote it in a white heat. It was as if he controlled me rather than the other way around. It took me a week to recover.  But when I read over what I’d written, I realized that as shocking as it was, it was still inevitable given Evan’s thought processes and background. I made sure that the set-up was there, i.e. the reader could follow Evan’s thoughts throughout the book and right up to the moment he makes that shocking decision.

Stephen King just reminded me of this experience of mine working with the editor on my novel. I had not thought of King as a fearless writer, actually.  Up until this past week, I’d read only one of his novels, Salem’s Lot, which hadn’t impressed me much, but then I’m not big into vampires and horror stories. I do love mysteries, thrillers, police procedurals, and serial killer stories. It’s very satisfying to me when the perp is caught and right prevails in these kinds of stories. The King novel I’m reading right now falls into the serial killer/thriller/mystery genre and it’s titled Mr. Mercedes.  It’s the first book in a trilogy with the retired police detective Bill Hodges as the main character.

In Mr. Mercedes, however, King reveals just how fearless a writer he is. He not only takes the reader inside the serial killer’s mind and life, he also takes the reader inside the minds and lives of his victims. This makes their victimhood all the more devastating, also ratcheting up the reader’s emotions to be absolutely behind Bill Hodges as he tries to figure out who the killer is and catch him. It’s one thing to set up victims as King does, and quite another to set up the reader to fall in love with a character who looks safe but turns out to not be safe at all. When I read that section of the novel, I was shocked.  I also admired what King had done. He’d been fearless.

Being a fearless writer can be very, very difficult. After all, we want our work to be read and loved.  We want readers to love our characters, hate our villains. But readers can smell a cop-out a mile away. Writers who are fearful about following their characters’ leads will wrest control of the story away from them and create more “acceptable” action, dialogue, and motivations. That is, being cautious about what they write, not only in subject matter but also in the types of characters in their stories. No extremes. No graphic violence. No questionable ethics or motivations. This caution may reflect the writer’s sensibility, core beliefs, and desire to please. But readers understand that darkness lives in the hearts of all humans, and it’s far more interesting to show characters wrestling with that darkness than ignoring it.

Let your characters tell their stories, be who they are, and behave the way they will. They need you to write and share their stories, exactly as they are, not the way you might think the reading public wants it, or the way you’re most comfortable writing it. Being a writer is not comfortable.

 

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Maestro or Maestra?

Mariss Jansons conducting

“Hmm, well. Well I don’t want to give offence,” said Jansons, “and I am not against it, that would be very wrong. I understand the world has changed, and there is now no profession that can be confined to this or that gender. It’s a question of what one is used to. I grew up in a different world, and for me seeing a woman on the podium… well, let’s just say it’s not my cup of tea.”

On Thanksgiving, Classic FM published at its website an article by Lizzie Davis about the renowned Latvian conductor Mariss Jansons and his reactions to changes in the conducting world over the course of his career.  Mr. Jansons is 70 and has been conducting professionally since he was 28.  He belongs to a generation that would not have considered a woman capable of conducting a symphony orchestra or any other kind of musical ensemble. I was surprised at the amount of vitriol leveled at Mr. Jansons for this comment. He was honest. He puts his comment in the context of his world and his experience. We can disagree with what he said, but I think condemning him for being sexist is going a bit far. Yes, he’s old. He’s not caught up with the rest of the world in his view of the world and acceptance of capable women who contribute so much. He’s honest about that, too. (Mariss Jansons issued an apology here.)

Maestro or Maestra? When I was conducting research into conductors and conducting for the Perceval series, I’d occasionally hear what I considered to be rather illogical statements from conductors — a few of the men were quite well known. Age definitely influenced their thinking most often. Anyone under 40 today does not remember a time when women did not have the freedom or opportunities they have now, and were often restricted to “female” occupations like teaching and nursing when they did have to work. Men ruled, so men made the rules in society. Male expectations of women focused on sex, family, cooking, housekeeping, in other words, taking care of and obeying men. Women were not expected to go out in the world and accomplish other things. This is the world that Mariss Jansons comes from and hasn’t left, really.

Women fought hard to get to where they are today, and they still must fight, because there are still men who want to go back to the way things were. I believe that quite a lot of the sexual harassment, abuse, and rape that is now being revealed after being hidden for so long is just one more step in women achieving equal status with men in American society. The sexual misconduct has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with men establishing power and dominance over women. They use sexuality as a tool for control. And by trying to perpetuate the message that women are the “weaker” sex and not capable of doing anything but be wives, mothers, and keepers of homes, men are still trying to control and dominate women. Some women still prefer to be controlled and dominated by men because the men give them security and stability, and the women don’t have to be responsible for their own lives. Women conductors are not part of this category, clearly.

During my research, I also learned that conductors don’t generally have a lot of time to attend concerts conducted by other conductors, so it doesn’t surprise me if Mr. Jansons has not seen many women conducting orchestras. We have many more now than when I first began my conductor research years ago, and some have become famous — for example, Marin Alsop, JoAnn Falletta, and Xian Zhang, among others. At the Minnesota Orchestra, there are currently two women conductors on staff: Sarah Hicks and Akiko Fujimoto.  Kathy Saltzman Romey conducts the Minnesota Chorale, the chorus that works most often with the Minnesota Orchestra. As far as intelligence, musicianship, and performance ability, women stand equal to men on the podium. (If you want to check out a list of female conductors, they are here, or do a Google search on “list women conductors.” You may be surprised.)

Conductors are human beings, as imperfect, flawed, subject to ignorance and misinformation as any of us. My favorite illogical comment by a conductor, of course, was about the height of conductors. That conductor (who was shorter than me) stated emphatically that tall men make terrible conductors because their height slows them down. I’m sure all the conductors out there who are over six feet tall would disagree….

Filling in the Holes

It’s been a tough month and a half in life. But this past week I’ve had more time for writing fiction, and my mood has improved greatly as a result.  I continue to work on the Aanora story with building excitement.  The rough outline is done up to the moment before the climax, and I know the very last scene.  But that climax has me stuck.  I’ve put my characters into what seems to be an impossible situation, and I haven’t a clue – yet – how they’ll get themselves out of it. At this point, I tell myself, “trust the process.” My imagination will come up with something plausible.

In the meantime, I’ve been writing this story in a way I’ve not done before, i.e. I’ve been skipping around…a lot. I’ve been writing scenes as they come into my mind.  In the past, I’ve usually written straight through from beginning to end, then I’ve gone back and rearranged scenes as necessary.  I’ve also not outlined the plot points as I’ve done with this story.  So, this story has demanded from the start that I take a different approach.

I call it “filling in the holes.” I write skeleton scenes, or write one scene in a section and leave it to skip to a different section. The next time I can work on the story on my computer, I write another scene or two, and then return to scenes I’ve written earlier and edit, add details, or fill in dialogue and action. My imagination tells me where it wants to play and I go there.

As a result of this approach, I’ve discovered that I’ve had a significant number of false starts, action that turns out not to work, and scrapping whole scenes to start over. At one point a week ago, it hit me that I hadn’t made the stakes high enough for my characters and that’s when I figured out what the villain wants and how it conflicts with what the protagonist wants. For me, this is a particularly strange way of working. In the past, I’ve laid down a first draft, printed it out, and then gone through it carefully, asking questions about what each character wants and what he or she will do to get it, if the action, dialogue, scenes are moving the story forward or not, what the purpose of each scene is.

And another thing I’m doing differently with this story: I’ve broken it up into sections and each section has a title. Now I realize that my imagination wanted it this way to have playful titles — yes, I am using the word “play” a lot in one form or another because this story has been all about playing — playing with the characters and action, and playing with my imagination more than anything else. Playing with a detail, an action, a block of dialogue, to see what will work best. The sections make it easier for me to write in short bursts, as has been necessary with my current work schedule and life, and to write something in one section, then leave it to write in another section without losing track of the story.

Play.  My imagination has prescribed for me the perfect medication for the serious stuff life has been throwing at me lately. I’m happiest when I’m writing fiction, and being able to play with the Aanora story recently has been a respite and sanctuary, as well as lifting my mood. The serious life stuff will always be there, and in its way, it feeds my creativity by giving me life experience. But I love the way working on the Aanora story has given play back to me.

What is your deepest fear?

Dark Demon by ChrisCold

Writers deal with fear everyday. We fear success.  We fear failure.  We fear submitting our work to strangers. We fear hearing from those same strangers after submission. We fear the blank page.  We fear our own humanity and that we are inadequate to the task of writing and telling a story others will want to read and enjoy. Have I about covered it? Do you have a fear that’s different?

Fear is a tough thing to fight because it’s tenacious.  Just when I think I’ve gotten the better of it, it sneaks up and grabs my throat, sending my stomach into a tailspin, and sending me back into the darkness.  I’ve been one of those people envious of people who can be fearless. Either they fear nothing or they hide the fear very well. And I suspect they have a totally different perspective on the world.

When afraid, the human body goes into a flight or fight mode and certain hormones are released to help us deal with the danger. Those hormones can be damaging to our bodies if released all the time. So being fearful for long periods of time is not only bad for the psyche, but also bad for the body. Years ago, I used to meditate every day for at least half an hour. It worked wonders. I don’t remember now how I got out of that habit. Then several years ago, I began practicing Falun gong, a movement meditation from China based in Buddhism. I loved this practice.  I always felt so centered and strong after it. I got into the habit of doing this practice every day for 30-40 minutes (the first 4 movements), and I felt great. Then I had to have surgery and I stopped the Falun gong.

Falun Gong Exercises

Recently, I’ve been trying to return to Falun gong as well as adding a yoga practice to help with improving balance and strength. I’ve run into the same problem with this wonderful plan that I have with writing — I leave the house at 6:50 every morning during the week and return between 6 and 6:30 at night.  In order to get at least 7.5 to 8 hours of sleep, I’m in bed by 8:30 every night to get up at 4:30 the next morning and start all over again. I’ve been trying to fit writing into this schedule with little success. There’s just not enough free time. I’m now thinking of taking some writing to work with me and working on it over my lunch hour.

Feeling centered and strong physically can really help in fighting fear. But it doesn’t really address the cause of the fear. That’s usually in the mind. Maybe a writer has been told over and over as a child that he doesn’t have the smarts for intellectual pursuits, and writing falls into that category for him. Or she’s been told that her purpose in life is to marry and produce children, to exist for the benefit of those children and the man she married. Going outside of expectations creates fear in the mind.  Low self-esteem can also produce fear in the mind — I’ve struggled with this one myself for years.  Isn’t it sad when parents cannot celebrate their child’s uniqueness, her intelligence, imagination, and artistic abilities? My parents’ reaction to my artistic pursuits was “Can’t, can’t, can’t.”

Anger can be an effective counter to fear. That’s how I was able to pursue music and writing in spite of my parents’ messages and expectations for me. I still did not enjoy any support from them for what I was doing or what I accomplished. I realize now that most of my fear comes from them — the fear that they passed onto me when I was too young to understand and internalized it. Knowing this, understanding my own mind’s fearfulness helped me not only to play music in college and then to write, but to be able to understand a fictional character’s fears and where they might originate.

It’s worth it to figure out where your fears originate. They won’t just go away if you choose to ignore them or to develop tricks to get around them. But I want to end with a quote I read recently from Marianne Williams, author of A Return to Love:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?”

 

Future Classics

Music Score by the blue deviant fox

Those of you who are regulars here at Anatomy of Perceval will recognize the title of this post.  It’s the title of the concert the Minnesota Orchestra gives at the end of the intense week called the Composer Institute.  Seven young composers from all over the country come to Minneapolis to work with Minnesota Orchestra musicians as well as attend seminars about the business of being a composer. The Minnesota Orchestra rehearses each composer’s submitted work, and then at the end of the week, performs all the pieces in concert. It’s my favorite Minnesota Orchestra concert each season.

While this season’s group of composers offered interesting listening and quite a variety, I’m still waiting for the composer who will feel challenged to write tonal music using melody, harmony, and maybe even a form that makes sense. The first half of the concert stood out with pieces that lacked resolution at the end.  I wanted to shout, “It’s OK to resolve the sound at the end!” The entire concert also offered a tour of sound effects, including human voices talking, interspersed with the instruments playing tones, sirens, and lots of glissando.

I thought three of the composers managed to achieve a goal with their pieces. One composer talked about being influenced by the sight of the night sky, the points of light that are the stars, the immensity of the blackness, and a feeling of being inside of that night sky. We are a part of the universe, of course. But I understood the sensations she talked about because I’ve had them myself. The night sky is an amazing and profound sight. The sounds she began her piece with were all staccato points of sound.  Gradually, the staccato sounds open into a vast flow of sound that seemed to swirl around us through the air. I was quite enchanted by this piece.

Another composer talked about his work with his mentor, the composer Steven Stucky, and how working with him had influenced how he composed the piece he’d brought to Minneapolis.  His piece was probably the most tonal of the seven, with lush strings and restless woodwinds.  The third composer was inspired by his Arabic heritage and a famous Arabic singer, Umm Kulthum. He incorporated Arabic music in his piece as well as Western tropes. It was mesmerizing.

My history with the Composer Institute begins in 2006 when I attended the rehearsals as part of my research for the Perceval series.  Evan Quinn is a conductor who encourages young composers, and he meets a Maori composer with whom he becomes good friends. I wanted to learn what composers go through to get a piece performed by an orchestra — it’s a lot harder than you’d think. It was interesting, also, to see some parallels with the writing life. What has been a near constant every year: the dearth of music I could hum as I left Orchestra Hall.  While I understand (and support) the composer’s need to be true to his imagination and what flows from it onto the staff paper (or screen), I often wonder if what they are composing is in fact what they truly want to listen to. Writers often comment about writing what they want to read and hoping that other people will want to read it, too.  It’s possible for both writers and composers, however, to produce such inaccessible works that no one but them will want to read or listen to it.

In writing also we talk a lot about “voice.” Each writer has his or her own unique voice. I think of composers having unique musical voices also — Beethoven doesn’t sound at all like Brahms who doesn’t sound like Shostakovich, etc.  When I attend Future Classics, I hope to hear a strong, unique musical voice that’s comfortable with itself. Each year, I go away disappointed (except for one year, a composer brought a couple movements from a symphony he’d composed and his musical voice sounded quite mature). It’s not easy to compose music.  It’s not easy to write fiction or nonfiction or poetry. Both demand that struggle to find the voice and that takes time.

I look forward to next season’s Future Classics. While this particular concert can be challenging, it’s never dull and usually gives me a lot to think about for days afterward. Special thanks to Osmo Vanska and the Minnesota Orchestra for continuing to support young composers and new music.