Monthly Archives: September 2017

The delicate sensibilities of a writer

THE PRINCESS AND THE PEA

I’m sitting at my computer feeling sorry for myself, and I get a sign from God: a hair is annoying me by touching my wrist.

I look down, don’t see it.

But I feel it, and I know it’s there, so I reach down anyway, and pull that thin white invisible hair up with a ‘Gotcha!’ feeling – and I know what He’s trying to tell me today, just this minute, just for now: if you can feel a single hair on your wrist, and KNOW it’s there, you have the sensitivity you need to write.

It has been a tough time. The Amazon ads don’t work – I have not yet figured out properly how to attract the people who click on my ads to continue on to buying, followed, it is hope, by reading, and then by whatever post-reading effort a reader might make: review, recommend, …

Winter is coming.

The days are significantly shorter, and today is the Fall Equinox.

One more time, I have not used the summer well, and now it’s over.

I think the hummingbirds are gone – I haven’t seen one at the feeder in days. I wish them well, on their long and unbelievable journey to Central America. If I manage to move, as we hoped to, I won’t be here to see them next year – I will ask the next owners to put up the feeder. Maybe they will.

Or maybe they will decide that all these perennial flowers – the bee balm for the hummers, the black-eyed Susans, the butterfly bush, the lilies – are too much trouble to weed, and they will replace them with lawn.

If we are still here next spring, when things need weeding and pruning again, I will have failed – but the urgency isn’t making anything faster.

New beginnings.

I just want to be in a different place for the next thirty years, if God grants me that many. A place with other people around – we have become very isolated, and it’s not going to get better.

The cul-de-sac at the end of the street needs new children on tricycles.

I can clean the windows, with assistance, one more time, but it is getting to be an almost impossible task.

It hasn’t been a good year, what with fires in the West, hurricanes in the Southeast, and earthquakes in Mexico. And genocide in Myanmar. And stents in my arteries.

Will California really be better? I remind myself the Big One hasn’t hit yet. I’m scared of moving, but more scared of staying.

The real reason?

It’s too hard to write when I keep getting interrupted by things I can’t do well needing to be done, and I’m hoping that will be minimized when I no longer feel responsible for a house. And I have a narrow window here to make use of a gym and a pool to improve what capabilities I can, and I want to do that before it’s too late.

So I can write.

I’ve missed my 40s, 50s, and almost all of my 60s due to disability; I think living in a place where someone else is responsible for almost everything has the potential to be better.

I want to be selfish.

Does this resonate? Time passing and opportunities drying up before you get to use them?

 

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Fiction: the SECOND-BEST path to empathy

DIRECT EXPERIENCE BEST PATH TO EMPATHY?

En carne propia‘ – ‘in your own flesh’ – is always the best way, subject to the limitation that reflection is necessary to develop empathy, and a certain amount of facility with the concept of sharing something emotional with another human being, which is not necessarily evident in all cases of shared experience.

Having cancer does not confer automatic empathy with other victims of the disease.

And direct experience also has the flaw of actually being divisive if the two people with the same experience have reacted very differently, and they put that down to some inherent quality in themselves. This results in the ‘I got cancer, and I did X, and now I’m far better than those lazy sods who won’t make the effort to do X…’ phenomenon.

Because direct experience doesn’t include another person.

You’d think it would make people empathetic, or at least sympathetic toward the others in similar circumstances, but no.

Fiction is a largely underused way to deliberately develop empathy

The fiction-based trick is that you can be pulled into experiencing what another person – a character in a book – experiences, IF there is enough information in the writing.

On August 22, 2017, I had a guest post on Big Al’s Books and Pals, and I posted the link to that article here. The title Al chose out of the ones I supplied as suggestions was ‘Want to be someone else? Read fiction.’ Which is true, but didn’t mention empathy. My bad – I should have chosen my own title.

I had a couple of interesting conversations there with readers of the blog who commented, and that was the extent of the feedback.

I’m reproducing the whole post here:


Fiction is uniquely positioned to develop and increase empathy, because it provides a way around and under and through the barriers most people put up around their hearts and minds.

Humans think in stories. Why? Because we spend our lives learning the rules that ensure our survival.

Our brains are wired to learn in two ways: first, by direct personal experience – a hard way to learn some rules. Our feelings then cement the lessons, make them unforgettable.

And second, by empathy – acquiring knowledge through the experience of others.

For this, reading fiction is the best way to learn. The rub is the experience has to feel real for it to serve that purpose, exactly as if it happened to us. And the way we do that is through our emotions, which are engaged when the experience is ours.

Fiction is better than facts: facts have no emotional component to make them stick. We store them away, hope to remember them when we need them. Going on a hike across the desert? Bring water. Check.

Fiction is better than non-fiction: reports of the experience, say, of crossing the Antarctic in the middle of winter, are both entertaining and raise in us sympathy for the sufferings of the explorers. Poor guys!

And reading fiction is much better than video input for one simple reason: we can’t pretend video is happening to us when it is so clearly happening to someone else. Sympathy, not empathy.

And that’s the key: reading fiction is the best way we have to feel the emotions created by experiencing something as directly as possible without it happening to us. Because, as we read, we have to put in the effort to create, out of black marks on a page, the actual experience in our minds.

Listening to stories works almost as well, but requires a storyteller, and the emotional component is affected by that teller.

Reading is just you and the book.

Oh, and the author.

Most fiction invokes the sympathetic response in the reader – the entertainment value hooks the reader, and we’re off on an adventure. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this, because we need entertainment to relax after our own lives, however crazy or calm. Lots of entertainment.

But the best fiction aims deeper: to ‘grab the jugular.’ To ‘feel like a punch in the gut.’ Or the dreaded, to make you think. Which is really to make you experience, to fully engage your empathy, to make you feel as if it happened to you. To teach you. To change you.

Here is where another of the rules of life comes into play: humans hate being preached to. The preaching is an overt attempt to change the reader or the listener, via logic backed up with emotion. Usually negative emotion, fear: you are bad, you will go to hell, you must change! You are bad, you will destroy the Earth, you must change! If you touch the stove, you will get burned, don’t!

So the author without the moral authority of the preacher or the physical authority of the dictator has to be sneaky. Covert. Tease and wheedle rather than command. Better still: make you complicit in your own change. Make you want to change.

And how does the author do that? By pulling you in with superior entertainment value (remember, we need lots of stories) up front, and by layering the experience which creates the empathy for the new experience under that. Great stories, story moral picked up by the reader from being the character, having the story happen directly to him.

We then come full circle to Show, Don’t Tell. Show the character having the divorce or being attacked by terrorists or marrying the prince. If you have your parameters right, if you’re telling the story the right way, the reader has identified with the character, and the reader is getting divorced. The reader has to escape the terrorists to save the President. The reader walking down the aisle just realized the rest of her life is proscribed by royal protocol.

The author’s power is very real.

Authors don’t always use this power to its fullest, because there is a final step: choosing the purpose of the empathy, choosing the change for a higher aim: the good of humanity.

Sounds horribly preachy, doesn’t it?

What prompted this post is that I don’t like a recent way this power is being used, to push an agenda which makes me sick to my stomach: the proposal, supported by carefully crafted stories, that people who are defective/handicapped/ill should remove themselves from the world because they are a burden to other people, and that this frees the other people to go on to something better.

Disabled people already face an uphill battle in many areas of their lives. Having society go back to an earlier model of disability which says that ‘they’ are a burden to other people, and therefore don’t have the right to the same hopes and aspirations as the ‘normals,’ is a huge step backward. To encourage them to consider removing themselves is a further abuse against their rights to live and to love.

As an author of fiction, I have the following tools:
I know how to create sympathy and empathy.
I know how to appeal to men and women.
I know how to entertain.
I know how to bury something deep in the fabric of a story.
I know how to make you identify with a character.
I know how to create situations that test the limits of character and privilege.
I know how to manipulate your emotions.
And I know that ‘disability porn’ – using disabled people to be ‘inspirational’ – is roundly despised by disabled people everywhere.

By picking the right story to tell, I believe I can make you buy my premise that disability is not the end of life as you know it.

Now that I’ve revealed many of my secrets, you still have to decide whether you’re going to let me try. And then decide if I know what the heck I’m talking about.


Why repost my own post?

Because I don’t think readers of the original blog, which sends out daily emails with reviews of indie books, are used to posts that are not a review, and I’m hoping the ideas will resonate with readers of this blog.

 

Physical or Mental: Why it Matters

It being Labor Day – and so many of us ME/CFS people remembering how much we used to be able to work, this post seemed especially relevant. Treating a physical illness as mental is bad for two reasons: the physical illness doesn’t get researched, and solved; and the real mental illnesses don’t either.

And my perennial: follow the money. Whose interest is it to keep ME/CFS classified as mental? Those who (mis)treat mental illnesses and have invested their professional careers in it.

The Self-Taught Author

This is the second in a three part series of articles looking at related issues. The first article can be found here, and explores Dr Sykes’ reply to the ME Association regarding the Science Media Centre’s recently coverage of new biological evidence in ME/CFS.

This article is going to explore the broader topic of why it matters whether the disease is considered physical or psychological.

Dr Sykes believes that, “Any organisation serious about CFS/ME should not care whether the causes of and treatments for an illness are physical, psychological, or a combination of the two.”

What an extraordinary statement. I would have to argue the opposite: Any organization serious about ME/CFS absolutely must care.

An example outside of ME/CFS

In 1980 the claim was still being made that incest occurred in fewer than one in a million women, and that its impact was not particularly damaging. (Bessel Van der…

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Come into my parlor says the writer to the fly

LET ME SHARE WITH YOU, DEAR FLY

Let me show you around.

Let me show off the carefully constructed room I have created for myself, and I want you to see.

Constructing the tough scenes

I have spent over two weeks crafting the scene I just finished.

I have known for almost all of this century what would happen here: this scene has ONE main job.

It is a pivotal scene: without this one scene, the second book of Pride’s Children, NETHERWORLD, comes to a screeching halt.

The way I write, though, that is not unusual.

Perennial preparation

Outside my window a pair of goldfinches is systematically eating every single seed on the drying heads of the coneflowers planted just, it seems, for them and for this purpose. I never see them at other times of year – the little yellow and black birds, tiny compared to the big fat robins that eat the worms, tinier still compared to the crows and pigeons, and microscopic compared to the hawk that lives around here somewher (in themiddle of suburban NJ!), but bigger than the hummingbirds whose feeder I need to replenish today.

But for the goldfinches to have this feast, a whole host of details must have gone perfectly: the perennial plants were introduced years ago, the weeds have been removed (now by my assistant, as I can’t do much of that any more), the fertilizer was applied, and, most importantly, I have kept that same assistant from removing the drying seedheads of this year’s crop as garden debris. Yes, it would look a lot tidier, but the whole point of the garden was hummingbirds and butterflies – and the other wildlife that eats the various seeds and drinks the different flower nectars.

It is still a surprise to the writer

Anyone who reads this blog knows I’m an extreme plotter. Hundreds or thousands of pieces have pre-planned scenes (yes, there is a bit of give – I’m not a psychic) where they will ‘happen.’

This particular scene had the regular mix of other bits attached – some pieces are identifiable as recommended by Save the Cat, Blake Snyder’s books for screenwriters, and others come straight from Donald Maass’ The Fire in Fiction.

I have known about the details for the past two years.

But the details as executed, oh!

And it was still very hard work – three weeks of it – to turn this collection of plot points and character bits, events and revelations, new leads and old connections – into something that I felt would take me there, and be so real I couldn’t imagine changing any of it (now – the weeks have been nothing BUT changing the HOW).

So I can take a reader there with me, invite that reader into this scene, one of the rooms on this long house tour of mine, and have the reader feel at home and comfy in the plush padded armchair whose footstool has a hand-embroidered tapestry cover.

It is finished now

And it is real, and reliably causes my brain to load the experience.

So it’s ready to eventually share. Here’s a taste:

Andrew snippet

Don’t say I didn’t warn you. What? Where? Why? I promise it all connects.

I’m on to the next.

And the goldfinches have gorged themselves for now.