Another writer’s opinion on how to mine your pain for stronger writing….
Monthly Archives: November 2013
by Lillian Csernica on November 27, 2013
For A Lady Who Must Write Verse
Let your rhymes be tinsel treasures,
Strung and seen and thrown aside.
Drill your apt and docile measures
Sternly as you drill your pride.
Show your quick, alarming skill in
Tidy mockeries of art;
Never, never dip your quill in
Ink that rushes from your heart.
When your pain must come to paper,
See it dust, before the day;
Let your night-light curl and caper,
Let it lick the words away.
Never print, poor child, a lay on
Love and tears and anguishing,
Lest a cooled, benignant Phaon
Murmur, “Silly little thing!”
I’ve been having running conversations with my two best friends, also writers, on the subject of improving the depth and meaning in my writing. Both have advised me to work with and through the considerable amount of trauma I’ve experienced. Car accidents, surgeries, family upheaval, my sons’ disabilities. Yes, it could always be worse, but I do have some rather weighty material to draw on.
Right now I’m up against a good example of what could be an opportunity to prove my friends right. In the short story I’m working on right now, I’ve come to the scene where the hero is forced to watch his father get eaten by the monster. If the hero’s father had taken the hero’s warnings seriously, this probably wouldn’t be happening. Part of the conflict between the father and the hero is the hero’s refusal to play along with his father’s corrupt business practices and participation in a major cover-up. To the father, that translates as the son being a real disappointment to him. As the hero watches his father suffer a really horrible doom, the hero isn’t thinking his father is getting what he deserves. The hero sees this as the culmination of being such a disappointment to his father, even though the hero knows he’s made the better moral choices.
I’m having a really hard time writing this scene, even though I understand it and I’ve got the action blocked out on paper. Why? Because November 18th would have been my father’s birthday. Daddy died seventeen years ago, one month before Michael had to be delivered by emergency C-section. This is a very hard time for me. Thanksgiving is all about family gathering together and being grateful for who’s there to share the feast. My father never got to see his grandsons. I know how much he was looking forward to me having children. Daddy would have make a terrific grandfather, taking the boys fishing, playing games with them, and best of all, going bowling. Every time we take Michael and John to the bowling alley, I feel like Daddy’s spirit is there with us.
So you can see the trouble I have with making my hero watch as his father gets eaten by a monster. It’s easy to kill characters you hate, characters that might be based on people in real life who have given you reason to dislike them. It’s much harder to kill characters you love, especially when they’re based on people in real life whom you love. I don’t know how Joss Whedon or George R.R. Martin stand it, I really don’t.
Now let me say that my hero’s father isn’t much like my own father. My fictional world is probably better off with one less corrupt business executive. That’s not the point. My main concern is my hero and his emotional turmoil. How can I sit here at the keyboard and take the empathy that even now has tears running down my face and translate that into the words that will express my hero’s suffering and the decisions he makes based on it? I don’t know, honest to God I don’t, but I have to find a way. I have to draw on my pain and reshape it into the pain as it is experienced by my hero, in a way that will resonate with my readers.
Dorothy Parker wrote, “Never never dip your quill/In ink that rushes from your heart.” To get to the level of writing I want to achieve, that’s exactly what I have to do. I have to take that quill and stab myself in the heart, over and over again, keep that ink rushing out, and write my stories from the very essence of my heart. I’m going to cry a lot, and I’m going to get headaches, and I’m going to get sick to my stomach. Nobody ever said it was easy being a writer, and anybody who thinks so is a fool.
I will complete this story. I will do right by my hero and my father. And then I will move on to the next story, sharpen the next quill, and spill my metaphorical blood across the page. Because I am a writer, a storyteller, and this is what I do.
by Lillian Csernica on November 22, 2013
Today I had to accept the fact that my son John may not outgrow all of his symptoms of autism. When he was first diagnosed, the neurologist was optimistic. Than was ten years ago.
John is having a really hard time in some of his high school classes. Some of the content is too abstract for him. The workload is intense, much more so than in middle school. His anxiety behaviors are more frequent and noticeable. His stress levels are high and we’ve had to increase his dosage of medication.
Today I had the annual meeting with one of John’s caseworkers. We discussed John’s difficulties at school. My husband and I had hoped John would be capable of graduating from high school with a diploma. That would limit the services available to him after graduation, but it would be proof of John’s intellect and capabilities. If John takes the other option and receives a certificate of completion, there’s a postgraduate program he can be in from age eighteen to twenty-two. (That’s the program Michael will enter next year.)
Our caseworker helped me understand that I had to consider the reality of John’s capabilities, and what kind of future would guarantee him the highest quality of life. What would be the point of pushing for a high school diploma if the stress of achieving it turned these four years into a nightmare of stress for all of us? Would it really be best for John to push for that diploma which might not really do him any good after graduation? The certificate of completion doesn’t have the same cachet, but it would mean four more years of support and services to help John mature into the independent living skills and community integration that will help him move on into adulthood.
I want the best for John. I want him to have all the opportunities and choices and hopes and dreams out there waiting for him. There’s a problem with these two statements. They begin with “I want.” This can’t be about the future that I want John to have, not if it means pushing him to struggle through classes that demand too much from him and attempt to wring from him results that are beyond his comprehension and therefore don’t do him any good anyway.
I had to live through this once already when I finally gave up any hope of Michael learning how to walk. I had to live through it again when John was diagnosed. This is how life is for the parents of special needs children. This is why we celebrate every victory, every bit of progress, every triumph no matter how large or how small. Doing that is part of what helps us live through the crushed hopes.
I love John and I hope we can find the right way for him to discover what’s best for him. I hope John can learn how to build a future that brings him all the joy and satisfaction of a life well-lived.
Tomorrow is John’s fifteenth birthday. He wants to go to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, so that’s where we’re going. Then we’ll go pick out his birthday cake and come home to the party and the presents and all the other surprises that await. We will celebrate this handsome, smart, talented young man who has so many discoveries ahead.
by Lillian Csernica on November 14, 2013
The smartest thing I ever did in high school was joining the Speech and Debate Team. I talk a lot anyway, always have, so it made sense to harness a natural skill and train it so I could apply my speaking skills in the most useful ways possible. Besides, I like trophies. Wave one of those in front of me and it’s a powerful motivator.
Writers use their verbal skills on paper. Sure, we talk to each other, brainstorming and talking shop in the coffeehouse or via Skype or on our cells. Many of us prefer the wonders of technology as a buffer between us and other people, even our friends. Face to face encounters can be a real strain. Why? Speaking for myself, I can’t handle more than a certain level of noise pollution. There are restaurants I avoid not because the food isn’t good but because the interior design makes the acoustics painful. Also, there are some people I know whom I enjoy a great deal, but I can be in their physical presence for only a limited time. Some people just wear me out. As extroverted as I am, when I’ve hit my limit, I go into my office and shut the door and hole up in my private sanctuary. I’m sure you can relate.
In our brave new world of e-books and G+ hangouts and podcasts and other means of transmitting interviews, writers don’t have to stand up in front of live audiences to do their self-promotion. That’s fine, but it’s also very limiting. If you’re successful and you build a following, sooner or later you’re going to have to leave your sanctuary, get out there and do a local author reading at the library, a book signing, maybe even a book tour. Since I work mainly in fantasy and romance, I have the advantage of attending SF/F cons. I haven’t been to any Romance Writers of America gatherings yet, but that’s been a problem with logistics, not motivation.
When you meet your public, you will be doing public speaking. Even if you’re just sitting in the conference room at the library, or behind a table in a bookstore, you’re still “onstage,” so to speak. Being on panel discussions at conventions calls for public speaking skills in the truest sense. Yes, I know this terrifies some people. Studies have shown that many people fear public speaking more than they fear going to the dentist or even death itself. When I started out on the Speech Team as a sophomore in high school, I was quite nervous. I had a good coach, I knew my topics, and believe me, I practiced for hours. Still, the fight or flight response pumped me full of adrenalin. So I do understand.
Now I’m going to indulge in some naked bragging here. During my senior year on the Speech Team, I won fifteen trophies, ten of which were First Place. I went on to participate on the Speech and Debate Team at my local junior college. By the end of my second year there, I’d won three gold medals at the state level, and two gold, one silver, and one bronze at the national level. I retired Number One in California and Number Five in the entire U.S.
Why am I telling you this? Because public speaking is your friend. Once you get over the initial anxiety and learn the secrets, you can actually have a good time at it. Don’t take my word for it. I happened across an article that inspired me to write this post:
I have a good time at conventions for several reasons, but one of the most important is that I really enjoy being on panel discussions and swapping ideas with other writers. The audiences are made up of highly intelligent, widely read, and often opinionated fans who are a pleasure to meet and who have a lot to contribute. I’m often the moderator on panels because I’m comfortable with the role and I can direct the discussion so every panelist gets his or her share of speaking time. More than once this has taken the load off the assigned moderator who really did not want the job. That person might have been more of an expert on the panel topic, but the fear of public speaking made that person want to hang back. Understandable, but self-defeating. For writers, conventions and other public appearances are all about self-promotion. You want to project confidence in yourself and your work.
One really good way to get some experience with public speaking is to join your local chapter of Toastmasters. They have an excellent training program and they’re all about being supportive of the people who want to learn what they have to teach.
- How to Cope With Public Speaking (mukeshbalani.wordpress.com)
- 5 Ways to Step Up Your Influence Through Public Speaking (klout.com)
- Discover 20 New Tips for Public Speaking That Can Help People Become Better Speakers – V-kool (prweb.com)
Here’s a list of critters that might provide inspiration for some really strange writing. Enjoy!
by Lillian Csernica on November 9, 2013
Today I took John to see “Thor: The Dark World.” It’s a great movie. Plenty of drama and passion and vengeance and gorgeous costumes and really wild special effects. John and I both wore our “Loki Charms” T-shirts ( from Bamboota!). I also had my special Thor and Loki earrings on that I made from figures I bought off eBay or Etsy or somewhere like them. The theater staff had a great time reading all the jokes written on our shirts.
When John goes to the movies in an actual theater, there is a whole lot more sensory stimulation than he experiences at home:
Visual: Big action on the big screen, and we’re sitting in the dark.
Auditory: Quiet dialogue, loud dialogue, the soundtrack, and all the crashes and explosions and possibly even screaming and shouting.
Tactile: The stadium seats rock a little. They’re also cushioned differently than the furniture we have at home. People are behind him and in front of him and even beside him.
Olfactory: The smell of popcorn!
Gustatory: A hot dog (unusual for John), salty popcorn, and cold lemonade.
Now there sits John, processing all of this sensory input. Is it any wonder he talks during the movie? Fortunately, I’ve gotten him to the point where he whispers. He talks during movies at home too, and I’m always shushing him there too. Well, not always. There are times when it’s very important for me to listen to what John is asking or saying. His questions or comments might seem completely obvious on the surface. Sometimes I get impatient with the distraction. That’s when I have to remind myself than John is asking about or commenting on what’s happening in the movie because he’s not sure he understands what he’s observing. That, or he’s pretty sure he does understand and wants to double-check on that with me.
He wants and needs VALIDATION.
Part of that is sheer confirmation. It’s me saying, “Yes, John, that’s right!” That’s all it takes. Part of it is a kid’s sheer excitement over the air battle between the bad guys in their spaceships and the good guys in their version of Harrier jets. John and people like him just want to keep checking their impressions against a “master,” so to speak, so they know they’re still tracking correctly.
Validation is more complicated and more important on so many levels. There’s a scene between Loki and Frigga, his adopted mother, that takes place inside Loki’s cell in the dungeon. Loki’s dialogue is usually snide and sarcastic, or it’s euphemistic, satirical, and full of double entendre. It’s hard enough for somebody on the spectrum to process straightforward human speech, much less the verbal artistry of the God of Mischief. So John asked a few questions. He was quiet about it, and nobody shushed us. The twentysomethings behind us were a little on the rowdy side, so they might not have even noticed.
The next time you’re at the movies, or a baseball game, or some other form of public entertainment and you find yourself becoming annoyed by that person who can’t stop talking or fidgets a lot or gets really really excited when the crowd cheers or other noise levels rise, I ask you to stop and consider the possibility that the person has sensory processing issues and he or she is doing the best that he or she can. If you see this person with somebody else who appears to be acting in a supervisory or caregiving role, odds are good you’re looking at a person with some kind of special needs. Please, err on the side of compassion.
Speaking as the mother of an autistic child, that would make you a superhero in my eyes.
by Lillian Csernica on November 7, 2013
By Lillian Csernica on November 6. 2013
If my life has taught me anything, it has taught me that I am a fool. The older I get, the more convinced of this I become. After all, the evidence just keeps piling up. It’s amazing how bone-deep that foolishness can run. When I think back over the many different ways my foolishness has manifested itself, some really stunning examples stand out:
I have insomnia, so I exist in a perpetual state of sleep deprivation. That goes a long way toward explaining the bizarre things that can happen to me first thing in the morning. A minor example is the day I put the box of cereal in the refrigerator and tried to put the orange juice inside the kitchen cupboard. Took me a minute to figure out why that one wasn’t working. Fortunately, I did not think of lying the orange juice on its side and shoving it to the back of the cupboard shelf.
One day my son John was about to go out for the afternoon with his aide, a nice young man of Spanish descent named Dario. I was running around doing too much at once, my feet and my mouth moving too fast for my brain to keep up. That resulted in me handing John the money for gas and incidentals and then leaning over to kiss Dario goodbye. Perspective kicked in just before I crossed the line concerning Dario’s personal space. We both shied back with a yelp. I realized my mistake and apologized profusely. By then Dario had been working for us long enough to know what a goofball I can be, so he cheerfully laughed it off.
Early in my marriage my rocket scientist husband decided to take advantage of my trusting nature. We were shopping for groceries, and this particular incident happened in the produce section. I was picking out items I needed for a particular recipe, concentrating on the list of ingredients I had with me. Suddenly Chris called out, “Put down those mushrooms! They’re covered with fungus!” I let out a yelp and dropped the one I was holding. Only then did the truth hit me, accompanied by Chris laughing himself silly. He’s pulled that kind of thing on me more than a few times over the years, so I’ve learned to watch out for what I call his “Mr. Wizard” voice.
For someone as observant as I’ve trained myself to be, it’s amazing how often my Inner Fool ambushes me when I’m simply not paying enough attention. One day I was out running errands with my family and we stopped for lunch. I needed to wash my hands, so I walked into the restroom and stood at the sink doing exactly that. It didn’t occur to me to lock the door because all I was doing was washing up. The door opened and I came face to face with a very shocked man. I had a moment’s total confusion about why he’d opened the ladies’ room door. Right then I glanced in the mirror and saw the row of urinals stretching along the wall behind me. Oh dear.
Once in a while one of the worst symptoms of my Inner Foolishness will manifest itself in terms of me concocting some elaborate plan. This symptom usually comes out in one of two forms. Either I have reason to create a payback scheme against somebody who has given me grief so intense it brings out my misguided Machiavellian urges, or I get caught up in somebody else’s drama and allow myself to be carried along in the wake of their personal upheaval.
My most memorable Machiavellian moment occurred back in the days when I was still working at the Northern Renaissance Faire. I had discovered a woman whom I believed to be my friend had in fact been conducting a campaign of deceit and character assassination behind my back. What she did not take into account was all the conversations we’d had that involved the exchange of personal hopes, dreams, likes, and dislikes. In trying so hard to pretend she was my friend, she had given me all the ammunition I needed to expose her vital emotional organs to the mockery of the entire Faire community. I got quite carried away with plotting her total destruction. Then it occurred to me that the more complicated a plan is, the greater the possibility of something going wrong. Or, in the words of that famous quotation, “If you go seeking revenge, you’d better dig two graves.” Thank God I had an attack of sense and realized what a colossal waste of time and energy this plot would be. I just knew I’d end up taking some collateral damage right in the teeth and failing to achieve to glorious vengeance that never does seem to work out right.
It’s a great relief to realize your own foolishness. It frees you from the burden of maintaining a facade of sophistication and worldly know-how. If you embrace your Inner Fool, expectations fall away, agendas crumble, and you’re free to just roll on through life without the constant fear of looking stupid. You know that sooner or later you will, and that confidence brings with it a certain relaxation envied by the people who are still ruled by their need to look cool.
Mr. Gaughran offers excellent insights.