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Saturday, July 30, 2016

The Tone of a Story is Not Written in Stone

The last few weeks I have been trying to portray what I thought would be a simple scene: a woman makes lunch for her long-lost childhood sweetheart, his wife and their daughter.

The problem is that as I write the scene and let it unravel, there is so much resentment in the room it is almost stifling! 

Having lived through similar situations (not in the details but in the aggregate), it is painful to write. You relive the horror and find yourself trying to put distance between your soul and the written page…

There is a push/pull thing going with the mother and daughter, trust issues with the husband and wife, old wounds between the man and his old friend, and the natural nervousness of entering a new situation (meeting new people and meeting your past).

The struggle is in how to write the scene so that I show the different dynamics, and how I let the narrator express what is happening without copping an attitude and taking sides. But then, the idea of an unreliable narrator that has an agenda is so much more fun!

I keep writing and have a mélange of color on the page as each version reveals itself and awaits cohesion. I don’t mind the chaos. In fact, I find it refreshing to deal with a narrator that has more gossip than journalist running through her.

As a writer, you do not want to detract from the story itself. At the same time, you want your reader to enjoy the story. I think this narrator can add color commentary that the characters cannot make themselves, and point out some ridiculous moments that happen in life but, unless you have an active inner voice, they never get called out properly.

Because a story may be worth reading if it includes the words, “And girl, you will never guess what she got caught doing in that bathroom—well, it was only cause they heard the crash and her cussin’ and taking the Lord’s name in vain!” It will always be much better than telling it with clinical detachment. 

Just as one starts to play up with the narrator, you realize the story could be funny in the telling if not in its own reality. That changes the telling and makes the process a little nuanced; and the writing that had gotten wooden and convoluted, suddenly is fresh and full of possibilities... Nothing is written in stone: changing the tone of your story does not change the events. When stuck, maybe letting the narrator set the pace might help advance the story in unexpected (and delightful) ways.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Writing When People Disappoint You

People can easily break your heart because they don’t live to meet your expectations of them. People don’t live toeing the line that you call “standards”. People do not take actions based on how it may affect you or your feelings.

People do as they feel they must – sometimes to their own detriment – and the consequences are so far down the line of things to consider that they are almost non-existent.

This is why most people get a look that screams, “Mistaken identity!” when you proclaim they have broken your heart. They have no idea how anything concerned with them and them alone could possibly affect you.

It’s not that you don’t matter; it’s that they never even considered it.

Of course, it’s easier to believe that the offender is an unfeeling bastard, an ass, or a sociopath. But every story has more than one side… Remember the old adage that for every story there is your side, their side, and the truth.

Because you ascribe great things to a person, based on the potential you see in them, does not in any way motivate their actions nor guide their conscience. Your hopes and aspirations for others do not fuel their morality or their sense of being.

The next time your heart is broken, remember this. Remember that you were barely a consideration in the outcome. It won’t hurt any less. The disappointment will not lessen. In fact, it will isolate you in your grieving…

Why remind you of this then?

People will disappoint you. Cry if you must. Feel it, but move on. You have very little to do with it, and are likely to have very little to affect a rehabilitation.

When, and if, you become a determining factor in that other person’s decision to live ethically; then be prepared to accept or decline your role (there will be expectations of you). Otherwise, it’s every man for himself.

I know it sounds stone cold bitchy! It is not. The reality is that we as a people are a community only as long as we need each other, but we live and die deep within our own skins. Giving and freely sharing of ourselves takes extraordinary efforts and most people are not willing to sacrifice their “individuality” in the pursuit of sparing hurting your feelings.  

The writer in me needs to say that one of you disappointed me. Deeply. When I write about it, it will be raw and broken and unforgiving—but it will likely be honest and heartbreaking (those two often go hand-in-hand).

Writers quilt the broken pieces of life and put together art that comforts or confronts. The love--bruises and tears and all--remains but does not affect the storytelling. The story just is.

And so, history simply repeats itself: people will disappoint you, and writers write. 

Friday, May 13, 2016

What if Political Dystopia is our Just Desserts?

Politics in America are turning into an interesting amalgamation of theater and storytelling. This particular national election cycle has elements of circus and reality television: bizarre and postmodern, apocalyptic and revolutionary…

This presidential election is both Dada and anti-Dadaist.

Clearly, logic and reason are rejected outright; and the critical prize is who can meme out a narrative that is the most entertaining or inciting.

Forget about not being in Kansas anymore. Culturally, we have broken the mold of everything we used to be and are entering a completely new ball game.

If this were happening in some tiny island in the middle of nowhere, we’d be bored with it in a day or two of itinerant coverage (“Oh those [fill in the backward culture here]!”). The problem is that we are one of the largest, wealthiest, and most powerful nations on the planet, and what happens in the USA truly affects the rest of the world.

Extrapolating the possibilities from the choices before us, in a historical context, turns out to be depressing and horrifying. On the other hand, narcotizing ourselves and letting our subconscious pick up parallels to Stephen King or other dystopian stories seems far safer.

It’s easy to ignore it when even your inner child is running around in your head, screaming, “We’re all going diiiiiie! Doomed. We’re doomed!!!”

If you step back, you can see some camps spinning their unique narrative; while others are expertly creating an intricate web for a larger (dare we say, epic) story.

Many have theorized that life is but a dream—an idiot’s dream. But this feels more like television than any dream I’ve ever had… everything happening now is the marketing for the launch of the world’s biggest reality television show ever.

I remember people being infuriated when St. Elsewhere ended their triumphant six-season run on network television by suggesting that the entire thing had been nothing but the musings trapped inside the head of a small autistic boy playing with a snow globe.

What if we’re nothing more than the musings of an anarchist stoner’s moribund dreams as he overdoses in some rat-infested dark alley somewhere?

But what if it's worse than that? What if P.T. Barnum was the Second Coming and this is the ending we all deserve?

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Narrative is All About Perspective

Yesterday New York City had its presidential primary. And it was a contentious little contest.

We made a thing of it and I accompanied Mom to the local high school to cast our votes. It was sunny and beautiful (allergies aside).

It only took a few moments to do our civic duty, and as we headed out, we shared an elevator with a young mother and her toddler. He was mesmerized by a sheet of stickers portraying the top of the Statue of Liberty. It proudly declared in red, white and blue, “I VOTED!” (The enthusiasm here is mine and not so much for the sticker’s design.)

Board of Election volunteers hand those stickers out to those who come in and perform their civic duty. It’s silly, but apparently, we live in a world where even this requires some kind of patronizing acknowledgment, “Oooh, good citizen! Here, have a sticker.”

(For the record: I didn’t need gold stars when I was in school, all I needed was the acknowledgement that I earned the highest grade I could. The only time one ought to be singled out for participating in an activity is when it took some effort to get in on it – if it’s something anyone can do at any given time, there’s no need to celebrate. Just effing do it and shut up about it.)

The boy in the elevator, about 3 years old, examined his colorful stickers with something that resembled reverence, but if you have any experience with children you’ll know it was the far more common avarice.


Everyone had a different narrative yesterday. Hillary did the return of the prodigal adopted daughter. Ted Cruz withered under the pressure of the sacrifices he makes for us all. Manhattan voted for Kasich, giving the top two Republican forerunners the finger. That’s right, Manhattan went all punk on the GOP and double barreled the bird!

When we each tell the story of our third Tuesday in April of old ’16, each of us will have a different story to tell. The facts of the day will probably find their way into history, one way or another, and remain somewhat true to each of us (depending on everyone’s definition of truth); but our story of it will vary because what is truly important in the moment will be very personal. 

To one little Brooklyn boy, yesterday was the day he ruled his elevator kingdom and he owned all the stickers.

Friday, April 8, 2016

On Being a Writer: the well-meaning brain

“So, being a writer is, like, a total blast, right?” a well-meaning person said to me recently. “You can do whatever you want, whenever and stuff. OMG! I am sooo jealous!!!” (Eloquent, she wasn’t.) 

Some days are easier than others; depending on what level the brain is operating.

I am suffering from a well-meaning brain period. I am not writing because I have been preoccupied with other tasks, and my brain (well-meaning as it is) has helpfully offered this advice, “Don’t worry, child! I’m keeping notes up here for you.”

I could make time to write any time, but as I am my own boss, “I ain’t got no stinkin’ deadlines. I can write whenever I want!”

But when I do, I have been trying to find the most ridiculous excuses not to…

At the same time, when I am not writing, I am still thinking about writing. It’s not so much an obsession as it is an ongoing exercise where I keep trying to make a story work, but there is something missing because it feels hollow.

There’s no point in writing down something that doesn’t work – I am editing before I get it down on paper, which is lethal to the process and I prove it by not having much down.

The well-meaning brain still assures me, silently but confidently, “It’s okay, girl! I got your back.”

I need to focus. Sit and write. Read when that doesn’t work. Research when that’s exhausted. Maybe adding a little structure wouldn’t be a bad thing, brain, accept a little discipline to make it all better!

The well-meaning brain, upon realizing that I reasoned what I need is a deadline, suddenly has gone quiet and reminded me of a Sam Kinison routine because suddenly the well-meaning brain had nothing to say! Perhaps it believes that if it stays quiet I will forget and get back to a rousing game of Bejeweled Blitz or something equally intellectually numbing.

I joke about it, but lacking structure can be freeing but also a hindrance. Sometimes structure is what propels you through the rough patches.

March Madness is over and I don’t have to worry about taxes until next year. Back to work, and brain, get out of my way!

If you assumed being a writer was easy, I laugh at you. Internal dialogue is an ongoing thing where you weigh the pros and cons of actions, setting, character motivations, interactions, themes and all sorts of details about story; it also involves the business of writing as well as all the other things that preoccupy the human race – from love to finances, to what’s for dinner and a million other details… You learn to quiet it so you can sleep, but mostly it is like an untamed beast that runs wild and free.

Of course, I am gloriously entertained by my imagination. It creates a well-meaning brain character that delivers pithy dialogue and I think it does so in a fake Southern accent to make me laugh. But even this is just a distraction, another excuse, not to sit and get to work.

Please visit that page for the extraordinarily inspiring work of Archan Nair
Some days you have to be stern with your inner child and say, “Alright, kid, stop trying to impersonate a writer and move over. Back to work, brain!”

Monday, March 14, 2016

Basketball as Salvation

I love March Madness. For a few weeks, as spring greets us, student athletes from colleges across the US compete first for the championships in their regional conferences, and a coveted spot in the annual tournament. And then, there are four frantic and beautiful rounds of single elimination games leading up to the crowning of a new champion the first weekend in April.

I could wax poetic about the skill and stamina, the strategy and the speed and strength, and the dance. If you don’t like basketball, nothing I say will convince you. Basketball is a love borne early that lasts a lifetime.

My childhood team, the Vaqueros (cowboys) were a legendary championship team that may be likened to the Bulls of the ‘90s but who played with the speed and intensity of college hoops. Of the 16 years I spent in Puerto Rico, they won eight championships (not counting regionals). 

My first live game, against the nemesis team, broke records when one of its legendary players reached a ridiculous landmark of points, before the three-point line was even instituted, and he did it from mid-court. Nothin’ but net!

I was there with my Mom and her god-sister. It was a day when I experienced a multitude of highs, followed by a day where family ties were ruptured, broken, and permanently damaged, and which began a descent into a private hell I will never shake…

Joy, elation, and then misery—but at the heart of it, to cut through the pain, basketball. Always basketball. Basketball as (escape) salvation.

Just as with music, I’ve attached precious memories to games and tournaments throughout the years. You know how you can hear a few bars from a song and it can literally transport you across time and space to a specific moment with a very specific someone? Basketball brings me that joy as well.

Four years ago, as March Madness flourished and many brackets bled, I found myself writing a short story (How Nadine and Libby Escaped Destiny), based on a comment about a song. Later that year, I was further inspired and had a dozen more stories -- and these became Because She Was a Woman.

Get your own copy!
There is no guarantee that basketball will inspire me to write great stories during this year’s tournament, but I do know that the games do inspire many passions and memories of emotional milestones and breakthroughs. So if not now, maybe later. But now, basketball!

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Diversity in Spades

Some of us were joking recently that every binge-watching experience is potentially research for a writer. It sounds silly, but you can learn about pacing, character development, dialog, story arcs, and script writing in general.

If you look at it that way, then it’s not just killing time or wasting it altogether… At the very least, what you watch determines how you may (or not) want to do in your own work.

Yesterday, to get our heads out of the political coverage, we began to watch “Rosewood” from the pilot on. 

Do we need another procedural in our lives? Probably not, but we certainly need something less intellectually taxing than “Continuum” for a week or so.

Let’s be clear about this, Morris Chestnut is hot. It doesn’t hurt to watch him. He looks good in a suit, in a smock, in a tee shirt, and other levels of undress. Plus, he smiles pretty.

But that’s the best that can be said about this show. This is a cynical attempt to match Shonda Rhimes’ levels of diversity but BIGGER, MORE, MORE! Say what you will about the landscape of TV dramas; this show has diversity in spades!

The lead is a strong Black man, a doctor, a rich one in a classic penis car. He is dying, but has an almost cartoonish optimism that verges on the comical. His, now-retired, strong Black mother joins his practice. He works in his private lab with his sister and her lesbian fiancée (a perky blonde).

I will not touch the idea that a Black man would allow others to refer to him as "Rosie" -- but y'all know people get stabbed for far less than that. Let's get real! But I am willing to ignore that. Honest. THIS is me not mentioning it ever again. See?

The other lead is a tiny and aggressive Latina detective with the emotional maturity of a rotting potato. She is grieving and perhaps that's why she can never see the big picture (ever).

How this woman made detective is a mystery, and how she can be as arrogant and obnoxious in her self-righteousness is hilarious because she is wrong more than she is right (Dr. House wasn’t as opinionated as this twit.). She does not understand the concept of being objective; and she is one angry little time bomb that should not be running around with a gun—

which leads us to the recurring character of the “psychiatrist” who can’t see how dangerous this woman is and allows her to continue to work in the field, when clearly she needs meds, anger management, further counseling, and working with inanimate objects like paper files!

Then again, this mental health professional is a woman who breaks up with her boyfriend so she can treat an emotionally unstable person who is having erotic dreams about her boyfriend and by whom she appears to be threatened—oh never mind, that storyline is too stupid to repeat!

That’s without even addressing the supposed physiological problems with the pathologist. I was a preemie and realize some of us grow up to be healthy specimens of sexiness. That said, a preemie delivered at 26 weeks with a heart condition does not grow up to look like Morris Chestnut.

We will continue to watch this idiocy until Mom tires of looking at that fine brother strut through the Miami-Dade area, but this ain’t research. I couldn’t justify this, if I tried!

The only reason to watch this show is to objectify the man. Of this, we are guilty.

** It you can't read a review without stars, I give it two: one star per peck!