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?”

 

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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.

 

Writing in Pieces

Yesterday, while cleaning out e-mail (I am forever cleaning out e-mail! Who isn’t?!), I found a blog post by a blogger, Lindsey Gendke, I’ve been following for several years now. She’s a writer, a mom with 2 pre-schoolers, and published author. Her blog post that I read yesterday was from October 23, and she wrote about how to get unstuck when stuck in the mud of writing and life. She suggested writing ideas on index cards. I confess, I’ve done this at times. Not to come unstuck, but just to organize projects.  It’s a good way to keep up with idea generation, though — carry a pack of blank 3×5 index cards and write one idea per card.  Then the ideas are preserved for later scrutiny and development.  After dutifully turning back my clocks and watches last night, I went to bed.

This morning I woke up thinking about writing in pieces.  Using index cards is one way to write in pieces.  It’s the method I used for keeping track of research for a paper in school, and it’s something I’ve done occasionally to map out plot points. Although I think the index cards idea triggered my thoughts about writing in pieces, it’s not what I mean when I say writing in pieces. I mean breaking a writing project down into manageable pieces to work on.  For a novel, that might be chapters, or even sections of chapters. Or scenes, which I did when I was writing screenplays — I wrote scene by scene (usually handwritten on a legal pad).  Prose fiction can also be broken into scenes. And they do not necessarily need to be written in order.

My work this past week on the Aanora story involved a lot of thinking about several different scenes (Monday through Friday), and then yesterday working on the rough outline to capture my thoughts about those scenes. I’m surprised at myself, actually, that I’m fleshing in an outline before I’ve written very much, but it’s helping me organize my thoughts, reveal what I need to research, and helping me see just how viable the story idea is, i.e. well worth developing and writing. As I was working on the outline, I realized that I was starting to break the story up into pieces that did not necessarily relate to plot points but involved 1-2 scenes for each piece. So when I woke up this morning thinking about writing in pieces, I realized that this was the way to go for the Aanora story, and perhaps I could write on it during the work week as a result rather than waiting to the weekend.

So my task today, after I finish this post, is to figure out the specific pieces, open a separate Word file for each, and then see if I can figure out how I get from the place I managed to outline to yesterday to the ending I have outlined. I’m very close. And I realized also this morning that this is the first story I’ve written in which the main character really doesn’t get what he thinks he wants, but he gets something better.  That was a surprise to me, a happy one.

The Aanora story is gaining momentum, folks! And I’m feeling quite happy about that.

A Week Off

I’m taking off this week from writing a full blog post.  The Aanora story has been demanding my time and writing, so I’m focused on that this weekend.

Hope all of you are writing well and reading all the time, too!

Truth in Fiction

Photo: Marina Shemesh

This morning, I read a really interesting article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune about how demagogues use lying as propaganda (“Trump may not be Hitler, but he has the techniques”). It’s difficult especially when a large portion of an electorate believes lies as truths and believes that anyone else is lying. Demagogues are good at creating that Big Lie, too. Reading this commentary, however, also got me thinking about truth in fiction, and how writing fiction, by definition, is actually making stuff up which could be called lying.

In Perceval’s Secret, indeed, in the entire Perceval series, none of the characters are real people. It’s set in 2048 – how could I possibly know what really happens in that year now? The story is not real either, i.e. nothing that happens in the story actually happens.  How could it?  None of the characters are real. I made it all up.  Why?

At the time I began writing the very first draft (and I thought it was a short story, not a novel), I was interested in the experience of exile, of being forced to leave a home country in order to have a better life, or pursue an occupation, or be free. I didn’t think that the average American really had any conception or comprehension of what that experience is like for their fellow humans on this planet (I still don’t think they do). Then Evan Quinn appeared in my mind while I was listening to a live orchestra concert at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis and I had my main character. As I began writing and the story developed under my fingertips, it changed a bit from a straight story of exile to one of voluntary exile and what Evan Quinn would do in order to be able to leave an America that in my mind resembled the USSR of the 1970’s and 1980’s.

I found with each revision that Evan and his story was revealing things about how Americans think about their country and the world, how they perceive people in other countries vs. how they perceive themselves, and that American Exceptionalism would eventually damage if not destroy American democracy. Nothing destroys exceptionalism faster than oppressing the population of a country the way the government in the Perceval series oppresses America. At the same time, the government must wage a relentless propaganda campaign assuring the population that what they have now is better than what they had before and they are stronger and more powerful in the world as a result. The propaganda campaign is all lies. This is something Evan discovers when he arrives in Europe on his tour. Demagogues and fascist governments usually cannot risk their citizens having a lot of outside contact because then their citizens will have access to the reality and see the lies.  Unless, of course, the citizens are so indoctrinated that they don’t believe what they see outside their own country.

So all my made up stuff in writing the novel, this fictional story, was revealing things that struck me as being true about humans, true about Americans in particular, and true about oppression. It is in agreement with what another writer once said (I don’t recall who now) that writers lie to tell the truth. I think it’s also the reason why humans need stories in their lives.