Category Archives: Characters

Creative Mind Under Stress

The recent suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain sparked my mind to return to my interest in what happens when psychological trauma rules a mind and life rather than the mind confronting it and healing. I didn’t know either Spade or Bourdain so I’m not writing about them specifically. But I chose to make the protagonist of the Perceval series a 30-something American man, Evan Quinn, who suffered severe psychological trauma as a child and who has an aversion to any kind of psychiatric treatment because in his America the government uses psychiatric treatment as an instrument of mind and behavior control as well as a way to make someone disappear. I wanted to explore through Evan Quinn the possibilities of untreated psychological trauma. How does the mind deal with the psychological trauma? How do the mental coping mechanisms affect behavior? How do they affect the person’s thinking? Just as the physical body has its responses to trauma, so does the human mind to psychological trauma.

When a person experiences a life-threatening situation, or a situation the person perceives as life-threatening, and the person is powerless in that situation, the mind experiences psychological trauma. Some examples (not all the possibilities) of such a traumatizing situation: natural disaster, car accident, combat in war, being the victim of attempted murder, being mugged at gunpoint, being raped, and especially for children, being abused physically, sexually and/or emotionally. Once the threat is over and the person is safe, it’s important for him or her to talk about the experience, to debrief. This includes talking not only about the facts of the situation but also how the person felt, what the person was thinking during the situation, and what, if anything, the person did in response to the situation. For example, I live in Minnesota, and during tornado season over the years I’ve heard of a small town being hit by a devastating tornado, and then witnessed residents of the town talking about their experience with the media, being heard and supported, helped and comforted. This is actually a very important step toward healing the psychological trauma of the natural disaster. But what happens when the traumatized person cannot talk about the event immediately afterward and receive support, help, and comfort?

Evan Quinn experienced abuse as a child growing up. He was a powerless, defenseless child abused by a person he trusted to protect and defend him. For any child, this betrayal and injury can have a devastating effect on the child’s psyche including dissociation at the time of the trauma. When there’s no outside intervention to protect the child afterward as there was none for Evan, the mind copes by compartmentalizing the thoughts and emotions of the memory of the trauma. In other words, the mind puts the memory away in a closet. The memory isn’t gone, though. The mind takes steps of its own to protect itself and the child. So, for example, the child may become quiet, sad, afraid, and hyper-vigilant in contrast to previous behavior. The child’s thought processes change. It only takes one trauma to do the damage, and subsequent trauma reinforces the mind’s coping measures. Each person is a unique individual, and so each person will respond in a unique and individual way to a psychologically traumatizing event(s). There is a common coping mechanism, however, that manifests as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Evan Quinn has PTSD. He’s grown up living with his abuser, putting the memories of the abuse away in a mental closet even as he remembers witnessing his father abusing his mother and her response. He makes it to adulthood because of classical music and his friendship with the Caines, especially with his mentor in music, Joseph Caine. In Europe, he’s far away from his abuser and he’s finally safe. It’s usually at this point that PTSD begins to really make itself felt because the circumstances no longer require its coping and protective function. Memories will pop out of the closet in the form of flashbacks, also affecting mental function, sleep, and emotional control. For women, depression is common, as well as acting out in inappropriate ways. For men, there can be acting out, sometimes violence, paranoia, as well as depression. Hallucinations, auditory and/or visual, are not uncommon. A profound sense of hopelessness and uselessness, deep hot rage and short temper, and despair can pervade daily life. None of this happens all at once but develops over time. PTSD is a symptom of unresolved psychological trauma.

In Perceval’s Secret, Evan begins to become aware of his PTSD and it’s recognized by Klaus Leiner who offers Evan help. Evan receives other offers of help, but his aversion to psychiatric treatment and his belief that there’s nothing wrong with him prevent him from accepting those offers. The PTSD affects his thought process and the choices that he makes. How his life progresses after that is what the Perceval series reveals. My big discovery, as the writer that Evan chose to tell his story, was that power plays a crucial role — having power over others, being powerless vs. feeling powerless, and the desire to feel powerful vs. actually being powerful in oneself. And I feel often that I am only scratching the surface of this complex human experience and condition, as well as its relevance to current human life.

 

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Revision Work, or, Now the Fun Begins!

Two weekends ago, I finished the first draft of the Aanora novella. I printed it out, tucked it into the working file, and there it has remained and will remain for at least another 2 weeks. Last weekend, I worked on my short story “Light the Way,” tweaking certain parts and checking on the use of language in it. I think this story is about ready for submission, and my next task for it is to develop a list of publications for it. This weekend, my plan is to tackle another short story that needs far more work. It has been drifting through several rewrites because I can’t seem to settle on what the main character is truly about. This morning, while getting dressed, I was thinking that maybe I needed to give her more vulnerability than I have in previous drafts.

Revision work. Probably the real work of creative writing.

A recent article in The Writer about something unrelated to revision sparked some ideas for me for this problem story. I realized that I needed to get to know the main character better. She has been a cypher to me really, and I think that’s been a huge problem. Next, I realized yet again that withholding information creates suspense or tension. There’s an element in this story that I think I introduce far to early. One of my early drafts kept this element hidden, with only hints and glimpses through most of the story. I’m thinking that my original impulse regarding that element was probably correct. And third, I’ve always known that the main character was a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, but I’d been waffling, I think, on whether or not she’d accepted that fact of her life and if she had, what was she doing to heal? I’m fascinated by the psychological and behavioral results of untreated PTSD which is often a result of early childhood psychological and physical trauma. So does this character accept American society’s reluctance to face the ugly fact that PTSD is not only something combat veterans and disaster survivors experience, or does she push against that reluctance?

These are good questions. When approaching revision work, questions are a writer’s friends. Questions generate thought and ideas. Questions could have answers or just more questions. The process of working through questions can untangle the worst of a messy draft. The important thing is to open to those questions, let them percolate in the mind (and the imagination), and to be patient. I have a post-it note above my desk that reads: Trust in the process.

The following 4 questions are also on a post-it above my desk and are essential for narrative structure as well as character development:

  • What does the character want in terms of this story?
  • What is the character willing to do to get it?
  • What is the character’s primary emotional vulnerability?
  • What is the character’s biggest fear?

These questions address the main character, but they can also be asked of all the rest of the characters, especially those that are potential or actual obstacles to the main character.

Every writer has his or her own way of approaching the revision process. In my experience, there is no right or wrong way, only the best way for each writer. I need a lot of thinking time, as well as time to noodle around with the questions that I have, time to play with possibilities without feeling I must commit to any one direction. I’ve only just begun thinking about this particular short story this weekend. It will probably take many more weekends before I’m satisfied with the answers that my imagination provides for me.

Evan Quinn has been nagging at me as well. Last weekend I was writing notes for Perceval’s Shadow and thinking about my approach to its revision process. But Evan knows he needs to be patient and let me get this short story revision done first. (With a fulltime job now, it’s impossible for me to be working on more than one writing project at a time.)

 

 

Re-reading a Classic: “To Kill a Mockingbird”

Today in Minnesota, our weather resembles an Alabama summer day. The Finches would recognize this kind of weather and the storms that follow it. While re-reading Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird recently, I was aware of the weather that she described, especially during the summer. They didn’t have air conditioning in 1935 in Alabama. No one moved very fast when the sun floated high in the summer sky, the temperature was north of 90, and the humidity interfered with normal evaporation. But children seem unaffected by weather extremes, especially the children in Lee’s novel.

The first time I read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, I was only a little older than Scout Finch. At that time, I was also under the influence of the movie starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch. We had gone as a family to see the movie, and afterward my parents allowed me to read the novel, one of the first adult novels I’d read. In my young mind, I wanted Atticus to be my father, Jem my brother, and I wanted to be Scout. As a family we talked about the movie, but I didn’t talk about the book with anyone. Talking about it could dilute its power I thought.

Reading Lee’s novel as an adult and a writer is a much different experience.  From the first sentence I was acutely aware of the distinctive narrative voice Lee created to tell this story. I knew immediately that it was an adult Scout although there is no clue as to how old she is when she’s telling the story. There’s also no clue as to her audience. So it is as if she’s speaking directly to me as the reader. This technique was pure brilliance for this particular story. It gave Lee the opportunity to scrutinize the adult world of that time and place through an intelligent child’s eyes, one sensitive to her brother’s moods and curious about everything and everyone. Jean Louise, “Scout,” Finch is by far one of those memorable characters that can follow a reader for years after completing the novel.

Atticus is another. Far from perfect — and Scout notes his imperfections when she notices them — he’s a man who’s a single father at a time that would have been unusual, and he doesn’t seem to have any plans to marry again anytime soon. This was something I loved about him this time around. He stands up to his sister and anyone else who would try to tell him how to lead his life or suggest that it was time he marry again. And I loved the way he defended Calpurnia — the only mother Scout had ever known — as well as treated her with the utmost respect. When I was a kid, I thought Atticus was about as far different from my own father as any two people could get. But on this reading, I realized that they actually shared a similar philosophy about relating to others. With my father, that philosophy actually hid his deep prejudices from public view.

My favorite scenes in this book have followed me from childhood until now. The first is the scene of a conversation Scout has with Atticus on their front porch in the evening of a day that has been particularly trying for Scout at school. Atticus explains to Scout the notion of empathy — imagining yourself in another person’s skin and his life to understand his point of view better. Another is the extended scene of the mad dog when Calpurnia calls Atticus home to deal with it and how surprised Scout and Jem are at their father’s hidden talent. You can live with someone and still not know everything about him or her. The scene in front of the jail at midnight when Atticus guards Tom Robinson from a potential lynch mob, and Scout, Jem, and Dill show up to protect Atticus. The school scene when the children are back in school after Tom Robinson’s trial and Cecil Jacobs does a current events report on Hitler’s persecution of the Jews in Germany. The teacher, without a hint of irony, explains to the class that it’s wrong to persecute the Jews and it would not happen in America because America is a democracy, and the persecution comes from being prejudiced against the Jews, and just how wrong it is to be prejudiced against anyone in America because America is a democracy. What a sly writer Harper Lee was! And to this day, I still see a very young Robert Duvall as Boo Radley, standing in the corner of Jem’s room.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons via MGN

Harper Lee’s writing inspired me to work hard at my own writing during the last two weeks. It has made me take special notice of the narrative voice I’ve chosen for different pieces, and how I’ve created the tone of the work. It’s made me think about how she accomplished the scenes she included and why she structured them the way she did. But the most important effect of this novel on me from this reading is feeling a kinship with Harper Lee as a writer, understanding what she probably went through during the writing process, and admiring and respecting this inspiring novel all the more.

How to Know When It’s Really the End

For the last few months, I’ve known most of the story and plot of my Aanora story, except for the climax and how my characters would resolve it. Sometimes it’s better not to know everything before writing in order to be open to the characters and their motivations, behavior, thoughts, and emotions. When I began this story, I knew very little. As I wrote, I began to see possibilities, and part of my writing process on this story has been to explore those possibilities. I knew from the beginning the very last scene, however. My challenge, I knew also, was to get there.

While some writers outline a story in detail, I tend to do rough and tumble outlines, i.e. throwing ideas down on paper for the different sections of the story. Sketch out scenes to test their place — do they work in the context of this particular story? Ask myself a lot of questions about each of the primary characters — what do they want? What will they do to get it? What is their primary fear? What is their primary emotional vulnerability? Each character is a potential conflict or obstacle for the protagonist. Who is the villain? I couldn’t answer this question for a long time. I thought it was this one character who kept popping into my mind, but then I suddenly realized that character was not at all what he seemed. When I dug deeper, I discovered a layer of the story that gave me the path to the climax although I didn’t know it at the time.

I did a rough sketch of the climax and realized that I’d created an impossible situation for my characters. A no-win situation. What I didn’t realize, of course, was that the villain provided the way to resolve it. Instead, I decided to just write my way to the climax and hope that by the time I got there, I’d have the answer to how to resolve it. “Trust in the process” the note says over my desk, and I decided I’d do just that.

Credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech.

Last Saturday, as I was writing closer and closer to the climax, I realized, no, it wasn’t closer and closer — I was there. Indeed, there my characters were, facing down the villain, surrounded, alone, with apparently no way out. I wrote right up to the moment the villain demands their surrender and I stopped. I couldn’t write any farther because I really didn’t know what would happen next. What did my characters want? What were they thinking? Feeling? Did they have the intelligence and imagination to figure out how to get out of this alive?

The real questions were: What was I thinking? What did I want? Did I have the intelligence and imagination to figure out how to get them out of the situation alive?

When I put away my writing last Saturday, I was in despair. I knew I was close to finishing the story. I wanted to finish it. The doubts poured into my mind. I decided to focus on other things like chores, British mysteries on PBS, and getting a lot of sleep. The next morning, however, I still didn’t know what to do. I read the Sunday newspaper over breakfast, then got in the shower. What a magic place a shower can be! With the water beating down on my head, the sweet scents of the soap and shampoo, feeling clean and relaxed and warm, my mind swimming around with my imagination. In fact, I wasn’t even thinking about Aanora. The idea just emerged, like a diver rising up through the depths of a lake to break the water’s glittering surface in the sunshine. There it was. The answer.

The right answer. How did I know? I felt it in my bones, a tingling through my muscles and skin, a mental settling down into the deep, comfortable chair of that ending. The action could not be any other way for this story and its characters. They need to work together, but at the same time, Aanora needs to step up and do her part. She was, after all, the reason they were in this pickle. Total excitement! The ideas started to flow fast and furious — ideas for other parts of the story in order to set the stage properly for the climax’s resolution.  But last Sunday, I had the time only to write notes so I wouldn’t forget. Today, after living with the ideas for five days, I get to finally step inside the story again and write the climax and resolution. I’m so excited.

Trust in the process.

 

Update: Aanora Story

On July 23, 2017, I first wrote about the new character in my writing life, Aanora, and how she appeared. It’s now been eight months and what I thought was going to be a short story has turned into a novella of almost 13,000 words so far, and I’m still writing the first draft. Aanora herself has evolved and grown, and her magic has given me the opportunity to play around with narrative and action in ways I’ve not had before. I definitely see the appeal of Fantasy stories, but Aanora’s story is most definitely in the realm of Science Fiction.

The fourth planet in the Reederian 7 system loomed large on the view screen. The green and brown land masses competed with cobalt blue water that covered about half of the planet. Wisps of white cloud floated here and there. No volcanic or seismic activity registered on the starship’s instruments.

A brief description of Aanora’s planet. It is M class, teeming with life, but Aanora is the only sentient on the planet.  She describes the other life forms as being on the cusp of sentience. That idea really intrigued me. What does it mean to be on the cusp of sentience? The Planet of the Apes series of movies explores this notion, from what I understand, but I haven’t seen the most recent movies. The wildlife on Aanora’s planet is not friendly toward humans, however, but predators of them.

Standing in front of the granite wall was a tall figure wearing a long gold-shimmering sage green hooded cloak. The hood covered the figure’s head and left the face in shadow…. The figure’s arms rose…. Pale humanoid hands pushed back the cloak’s hood to reveal a female head with long black hair streaked a coppery red. The oval face appeared smooth and youthful, with a small nose. Her mouth opened in a radiant smile, her brilliant emerald green eyes focused on the captain as a golden light shimmered all around her.

Aanora’s first appearance in the story. She had emerged out of a granite cliff in which she was merged while the backs of the human explorers were toward her. She has abilities that the human explorers find both inspiring and intimidating. I’ve learned that she’s an accomplished diplomat, and her life has intersected humanity’s often. She has lived on earth, worked in a coffee shop. She is also over 200 earth years old. Her story has drawn me away from earth and demanded that I look at the Milky Way Galaxy as well as the larger physical universe with all my curiosity. It has been both fascinating and intimidating.

And what is her magic? I had originally thought of her as being a wizard, but I was quite wrong about that. What appears to humans as “magic” is really nothing more than her normal abilities. Aanora comes from a different dimension, a different universe with different laws from ours. She takes human form because humans were the first sentient beings that she met when she first entered our universe. I have yet to discover what motivated her to come into our universe, although I have a feeling that it will come up in this novella I’m working on now. And I’ve already seen that Aanora has many stories surrounding her life that I could explore if I so chose. A rich and deep character is an incredible gift from the imagination.

The villain in Aanora’s story has actually changed several times. The most recent one is directly related to Aanora and her presence in our universe rather than the human explorers who discover her. The questions that have come up now are about what role the human explorers will play — will they help or hinder Aanora? Are they innocent bystanders in a much larger conflict or victims? — and just how they all get out of the nearly impossible situation they are heading for. I know the ending, but I don’t yet know how I’ll get there. As it stands now, writing this story in pieces has actually served my writing process very well.  I have two more sections to write and then I’ll have a complete first draft.

I am astonished.