The Because-Because of Character Desire, by Eric Witchey

Tennis PlayerThe Because-Because of Character Desire, by Eric Witchey

The four-day 2017 Willamette Writers Conference was last weekend.

Don’t worry. This isn’t a conference recap essay. It’s a craft essay.

Still, I experienced a lot of things in a very short period of time, so it influences my thinking on craft today. Two things I experienced are worthy of note in this little essay. First is my time with the Young Willamette Writers. Larry Brooks and I spent a lunch with the up-and-coming kids nurtured by Teresa Klepinger and the Young Willamette Writers’ crew of kind mentors. The kids’ ages ranged from 9 to 15 or so, and they are pure hearts made of equal parts imagination and sponge. Second is the sad death of the dolphin Rinaldo that was part of the discoveries we made during the Write a Story Now group brainstorm and story development class I taught on Sunday.

Yes, these things are related.

Here’s how. In both situations I found myself on the verge of describing a little considered but terribly important aspect of story craft—characterization in particular. I call it the because-because technique. In both cases, time ran out. I walked away from the sessions feeling like I cheated my clients.

Many fiction writers, and certainly most selling writers, know that every character on stage at a given moment has an agenda they are trying to execute. How they execute their agenda “shows” the reader who they are. This is at the heart and soul of the vague and nearly useless writer instruction to “show, don’t tell.” God, I wish I had a dime for every emotionally empty adjective and concrete detail an aspiring writer put on the page and made me read.

Example:

She sat on the hot, beige vinyl of her twenty-year old, silver Toyota Camry. Squirming to keep her cheek sweat from staining her white tennis shorts and sticking her to the seat, she slipped the key into the ignition and twisted. The starter clicked twice then pretended it hadn’t noticed her effort to start the car.

The old adage (show, don’t tell) biases the aspirant in favor of describing the perspirant, her seats, her shorts, her car, etc. She does have an agenda. Here, she wants to start the car. That’s her scene agenda, and that’s what I’m writing about in this essay.

In both the class and the meeting with the kids, we talked about agendas. We talked about how they bring character to life by creating opportunity for the character to demonstrate who they are by taking action on their own behalf. We talked about how opposition of environment (the heat and the starter) can force the character to demonstrate resourcefulness, experience, and a level of desire. Opposition by another character does the same and adds another agenda and personality to the mix. Opposition by internal moral and psychological forces also places the character in a position where they must demonstrate who they are. In the Story Now class, we even talked a little bit about how changes in tactics can allow the reader to feel and internalize character personality.

What we didn’t talk about is how every character on stage has a because-because.

Example:

She wants to start her car because she wants to get away from the tennis pro because she loves her husband and doesn’t want any rumors even though she hasn’t done anything wrong.

The purpose of the because-because is expanding the frame of reference for personal agenda two levels in order to allow for more complex and plausible execution of agenda in scene. It also allows the writer to connect character to risks, stakes, and consequences in the mind of the reader by making behavior specific in ways that imply psychological underpinning motivations that may or may not be explicitly stated.

And every character has a because-because. Even the ball boy has a because-because.

Example:

The tennis pro wants to bed the first character because he is running a blackmail/web porn site because he wants a new tattoo that will mark him as a captain in the Russian mafia on American soil.

The groundskeeper wants to reorganize his shed because he believes that having everything in order helps him care for his golf course because he believes a true groundskeeper’s soul is connected to the land he cares for.

The club manager wants to get a reporter off his property because he wants to keep the respect of his corrupt, high-end clients because he is skimming a percentage of dues into offshore accounts he’ll use to be rid of those assholes once and for all when he disappears at the end of the year.

The reporter wants to interview the club manager for a puff piece in the Sunday Supplement because she wants to investigate the club members for corruption because she wants a breakthrough story that will place her name prominently in the history of journalism.

You get the idea, I hope.

Now, a byproduct of because-because agendas is that the writer can tweak them around to make them increasingly about the psychology and sociology of the character. Here’s a rewrite in that direction for The Ball Boy:

The ball boy wants to give her a new can of club logo complimentary balls because he wants his boss’s respect and a raise because he wants to shake off the stigma of his family history by looking worthy to be on a date with the first character’s teenage daughter.

The more the because-because is grounded in character psyche, the more powerful the interactions between the characters becomes. Here’s a rewrite of our first character’s because-because:

She wants to start her car because she wants to escape the tawdry advances of the tennis pro because she loves her husband and protects his reputation from rumors because she wants him to have a model wife for his developing political career.

Now, she has three becauses and is getting more interesting because we want her to escape because we want her to develop a spine and aspire to be more than a mere political symbol.

Each because, if it is connected to character psychology, also connects to reader interest.

Given all these becauses, the “showing” of the first paragraph and subsequent paragraphs change radically because behavior becomes more important and adjectives and concrete details only have value relative to character behavior and motivations.

Squirming on the Camry’s hot vinyl to keep her cheek sweat from staining her white tennis shorts or sticking her to the seat, she ducked low to hide under the dash, slipped the key into the ignition, and twisted. The starter clicked twice then pretended it hadn’t noticed the key. She let go of the key and pumped the accelerator with her hand.

A metallic tap on her window startled her. She ducked lower and twisted again. Two clicks.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

Trapped, she sat up and reflexively composed herself by checking her melting makeup in the rear-view before powering down her window. Of course, the window works. She sighed and turned to face her captor while already planning to use the broken car and calls to mechanics to keep him at bay.

The face at her window confused her. The hard angles and piercing gray eyes she expected had been replaced by the full, youthful cheeks and soft green eyes of the ball boy, Dennis.

She searched the parking lot for Valentine, her lascivious tennis instructor. The only other people in the lot were Staniss Cavendish, the club manager, and a pert, bouncy redhead millennial who seemed to be in his face about something. Stan with a girl half his age didn’t surprise her. It should have, but it didn’t.

“For you, Ma’am.” Dennis held up a clear plastic can of tennis balls.

Confused, she focused on his earnest, freckled face and dimples. He was such a cute boy. Hard working and cute. If she had been twenty years younger…

Well, that was not a thought to finish. He was what? Seventeen, maybe. A year older than Laurel? That was just the kind of thing she was trying to avoid. She smiled and said, “…”

I suppose I could write the scene for you, but I’d really rather you write the scene in order to test the concept. All the players are available. Four are on stage. They all have their agendas. They all have at least a because-because.

If I’m not mistaken, you are already visualizing the scene that will play out. If you do write the scene, drop me a line and let me know how the exercise goes.

Hopefully, I have now made up for having failed my students at the conference.

Here’s one last thought about the nature of because-because. It doesn’t stay the same. It just gives depth to the scene. Once the scene climaxes, new becauses may or may not come into being. To get the full power of because-because thinking, the writer will need to connect the becauses to the stress the scene causes on the character’s Irreconcilable Self. Sadly, that’s another essay.

I’ll be teaching this technique and many others in a four-week Saturday novel seminar in September. The class is offered by WordCrafters in Eugene. Here’s the link to registration.

http://wordcraftersineugene.org/classes/fiction-fluency-seminars-with-eric-witchey/

Luck and skill to all who write and send.

Warning: Any product advertisements that appear with this post were NOT authorized or endorsed by me in any way.

Team Work

By Elizabeth Engstrom

About two years ago, Matthew Lowes, game writer/designer, asked me to edit the rule book for his new game, Dungeon Solitaire: Labyrinth of Souls. I got the manuscript, but it didn’t have any of the charts, graphs, or illustrations of the finished book. I couldn’t really follow the instructions, so I just carried on, looking for typos, sentence structure awkwardness, etc. Much of it was repetitive, as there are the Basic Rules, then the Expert Rules, which includes the Basic Game. Then the Rules for Two Players, which includes the rules for the Advanced Game, which of course includes the rules for the Basic Game. You get the idea. So my work was rote, and gave my imagination time to roam.

In the game, the player delves into the underground Labyrinth, there to meet monsters (Really? What kind of monsters?), find treasure (Really? What kind of treasure?), and encounter and endure all manner of adventures. At some point, the player must weigh how many resources he has left in order to turn around and make it back out of the labyrinth before losing all his light, or his food, or his life.

It’s a fun game. While reading through the rule book without real comprehension, I started to wonder: Who would delve into the underground labyrinth, and why? Pretty soon I had an idea. And then I had an idea of what kind of monsters that particular character would encounter, and what kind of treasure he would search for and find, or not find.

I finished editing, and when I returned the manuscript back to Matt, I said, “I could write a novel based on this game scenario.”

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Fast forward six months. The game came out to great acclaim, the accompanying deck of Tarot Cards with art by Josephe Vandel is exquisite, and a small group of writers got together to learn to play. Within a couple of weeks, ten or so authors signed on to write books loosely based on the Labyrinth of Souls.

My book is the first one to drop, only because I finished it first. Published by ShadowSpinners Press, authors to come include Matthew Lowes himself, Christina Lay, Eric Witchey, Stephen Vessels, John Reed, Mary Lowd, Pamela Herber, Cheryl Owen-Wilson, Cynthia Ray, and likely others. We plan a big launch of the first five books at this November’s World Fantasy Convention in  San Antonio, Texas.

The best part of this experience has been being part of the team. We’re all stupendously supportive of each other as we encourage the writing, the rewriting, the editing, the promotion. We even had a memorable weekend away, where instead of partying, the great room was silent except for the quiet tapping of keyboards. We helped each other that weekend with plot, character, and setting, and talked about the unique problems of writing a book that takes place underground. I’m not much for collaboration, but if this is what it tastes like, I will gladly change my opinion. I’ve read three of the novels-to-come, and they are extraordinary, each entirely different from one another.

I invite you to join us in the Labyrinth of Souls, to read these books as they come out, one every month, and bask, as I have, in the astonishingly unique vision each author has for this world.

Burn the Scarecrow to Keep the Reader Awake All Night

scarecrow on fire(image source sanniely istockphoto)

Burn the Scarecrow to Keep the Reader Awake All Night

by Eric Witchey

I write fiction, and I teach fiction writers. In fact, I teach a lot. One of the recurring frustrations I have is that students talk about their long-form manuscripts under development in terms of chapters.

“Well, Chapter 7 is about how she stands up to the bully in her gym class…”

As a teacher, I have two problems with statements like this. First, it is an event-driven description of the story content. That’s a topic for another time. Second, and this is the point today, the student is describing their story in terms of chapters rather than dramatics.

Chapters aren’t really part of the development of a story. They are part of the final polish, and a sharp writer will use them for pacing by placing the chapter breaks carefully at spots that will force the reader to keep reading.

Given the student’s desire to improve by discussing their story and the above statement, the frustrated teacher me must start asking a long string of questions about character, premise, psychology, sociology, emotional arcs, intermediate emotional states, opposition of will, and on and on and on in order to figure out what dramatic story elements are in play at the moment under discussion.

So, this essay is a bit of self-defense. While it doesn’t describe the myriad issues implied or named above, it does take a look at just exactly what chapter breaks do.

Writers who write enough come to realize that the dramatic scene is the building block of all stories. I’m not going to go into all the variants and exceptions here because that’s not what this essay is about. Rather, I’m going to talk about how story questions and chapter placement influence the reader’s immersion and need to keep reading.

Before I go there, I want to define what I said above. A classic, dramatic scene transforms character emotion through conflict. The Point of View Character (POVC) or Main Character (MC) enter the scene carrying an emotional state and a personal agenda of some kind. Note that I said “or.” The POVC may or may not also be the MC. That’s a topic for another day, but think in terms of the narrative difference between Hunger Games and Sherlock Holmes. Hunger Games is in first person, present tense from the POV of Katniss. She is both POVC and MC. Sherlock Holmes is Watson telling the stories of Homes. Watson is the POVC. Holmes is the MC.

Where was I? Oh, yes. Ignoring the POVC vs. MC difference for now, the POVC enters the scene with an emotional state and an agenda. They then proceed to encounter opposition to their agenda. Like any normal human being, the have an emotional shift because of opposition.

Think about what it’s like to be having a good day on vacation until you try to pay for lunch and discover that your debit card has been cancelled because the bank thinks your lunch in another state is unusual activity. Emotional response to opposition of your agenda, yes?

Okay, so the POVC goes through a few attempts to get what they want. They try some different tactics. Their emotions change. They might succeed. They might fail. However, they leave the scene with a new emotional state (or the same emotional state for different reasons).

All good. However, a scene is not a chapter. A scene is just a dramatic unit in which character change is caused. Sometimes, a scene is a whole story. Sometimes 70 scenes make up the whole story. That’s one of the differences between flash fiction and a novel.

So, why is it that most of the time the first scene of a novel is not able to stand alone as a short story? Emotion happened. Conflict happened. Change happened. New emotion came out of it.

There are a number of reasons a first scene probably doesn’t stand alone. I won’t address them all here. Here, I’ll say that the first scene of a novel includes material that causes the reader to feel a sense of curiosity or urgency about what will come in the next and subsequence scenes. The text installs “dramatic story questions” in the heart/mind of the reader.

For the sake of brevity, I’ll define dramatic story questions types as 1, 2, and 3. They are, respectively, 1) short-term, 2) mid-term, and 3) long-term.

Long-term story questions are questions installed in the heart/mind of the reader very early in the story. They will not be answered until the end of the story. “Will Dorothy ever get home from Oz?”

Mid-term story questions are questions installed in the heart/mind of the reader in any scene in the story. They will be answered in some subsequent scene. “Will Dorothy make it from the Munchkin village to the Emerald City?”

Short-term story questions are questions installed in the heart/mind of the reader in a scene. They will be answered in that same scene. “Will the Cowardly Lion eat Toto?”

The scene is the dramatic building block. It changes character emotionally and psychologically.

The story questions keep the reader reading (assuming many other things have also been done well).

Assuming the POVC and MC are the same character, as they quite often are, their path through the story is scene-to-scene. Each scene generates questions. The first questions generated will be very short-term. “Why is Dorothy worried for Toto when she gets home?”

Before that question is answered, a mid-term question is launched. “Why are there storm clouds on the horizon?”

Before or at the moment the short-term question gets answered, a new one is launched. Before or at the moment the mid-term question is answered, a new one gets launched.

Now, here is the very important bit. If at any time all the short-term and mid-term questions have been answered at once, the reader will leave the story. Mind you, they might come back and pick it up to see how the long-term question comes out. However, that’s not a good bet.

Here’s where the chapter problem arises. Writers who talk about their books in terms of chapters tend to place their chapter breaks at the moments where several short-term and at least one mid-term story question have just been answered. It’s like they are placing their chapter breaks in the best possible way to release the reader from the story.

Placing the chapter breaks after the story is completely finished allows the writer to choose the moments just after a new story question has been launched. In other words, the writer will set the Scarecrow on fire and end the chapter.

Consider a reader who is in bed reading and has decided, “Well, I’m up too late. I’ll just read another three pages—just to the end of the chapter.” In the last page of the chapter, the Scarecrow is set on fire. Chapter ends. New chapter opens with the battle to put out the fire. Essentially, the chapter ended right smack in the middle of a scene. It ended right after a powerful story question was installed in the heart/mind of the reader. However, the climax of the scene is only a page away.

The reader justifies: “One. Little. Page. More.”

By the time that fire is out, a mid-term question has been launched. “Can Dorothy and her friends overcome and malice of the Wicked Witch of the West?”

The reader turns another page and decides that they will just read to the end of this chapter. It’s only seven more pages.

Okay, the example I used here is a classic sort of cliff-hanger, but the concept is not at all limited to cliff-hanging. Social and psychological story questions are often more compelling than such action-oriented, life-threatening story questions. It’s just easier and more fun to set the Scarecrow on fire in this essay than it would be to describe the deeper identity dissonance of a character’s realizations about themselves and whether they will take responsibility for damage to the fragile psychology of a child under their care.

Chapter breaks are pacing tools. They are not dramatic units.

-End-

The Sound of Writing

By Cheryl Owen-Wilson

I recently attended a writer’s retreat where each morning after breakfast we’d sit around a large table, laptops open writing. The unique sound of many fingers hitting keys surrounded me. At some point in the morning, my coffee fueled brain kicked in and the end of a chapter began to unfold. In that moment I realized there was a specific rhythm to the tapping of my fingers against the keys. Is there anything more satisfying to a writer, than that very distinct sound when words naturally flow, revealing story, like the petals of a perfect flower opening?

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On the flip side, when all around me was silent and my own fingers lay frozen on the keys I yearned for the sound to return. Many things have been written about famous author’s choices of writing tools. But while sitting in the silence of that room I wondered if the actual sound created by the tool itself, if that sound might have aided in the words created.

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I recalled reading how Ernest Hemingway wrote on a typewriter while standing. What a visual it creates. But can’t you also hear the sound the keys made while striking the page to form each and every letter? Those old typewriters had a most distinct reverberation when the keys were struck. Could it have contributed to the intensity in his novels?

I wrote my first short story on an electric typewriter. To this day I can hear its soothing whir as it helped my words come forth.

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Then there are writers who compose with a ballpoint pen. I’m always in awe of them. I’ve tried it. For every page I filled to the margins, I salvaged maybe five useable sentences. The remainder, were rendered as blobs of ink marked through again and again. I realize now, it was the scratch of the pen on paper. The sound. To me, it is nails on a chalkboard. And yet, when writing a quick note to work through an anger issue I might have, a pen, is my perfect instrument of choice —oh, wait—I get it.

shakespeare-writing

Now let’s go back in time a little, to say, Shakespeare.   When I read his plays I know I will be immersed in the—to my ear—lyrical cadence of his words. They easily bring to my mind the visuals of his time; cobbled streets, thatched roofs, etc. But the other visual, I always have, is of a solitary man bent over a desk, quill in hand scratching words onto papyrus by the flickering of candlelight. Scratching, the scratching of the quills point against the porous page, seeing him having to stop and dip it into the inkpot again, and again. Could it have aided in the cadence of the words written? Would the same sentences have come forth, if perhaps he had at his disposal a graphite pencil? Heaven forbid he would have used it to erase, or replace, even one word of his poetic prose.

Now let’s go back even further to when words were carved into rock or stone. How precise must the writer have had to be before taking chisel in hand? Can you not hear the pounding as stone gave way to create a simple idea, word or visual of what the writer intended to convey? The crude instrument along with the sound it created. How could it not have shaped what was being written?

What sound does your chosen writing instrument make? If you changed it, would your writing change? If your writing could have the impact of Hemingway’s would you not gladly pound away on old typewriter keys?

Now I’m not suggestion you go out, with chisel in hand and find some stone. But then again—maybe I am. After all it does feel some days like that is exactly what we are doing, doesn’t it? Chiseling words from our brain and placing them carefully into our story. Now, I like the sound of that.

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Interview with an Editor

This next interview in our series takes us inside the mind of a professional editor.  Here at Shadowspinners we usually look at things from an author/writer point of view, but this time, I wanted to explore how editors look at the art and science of writing and their intersection.

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Garrett Marco is independent editor, as well as an acquirer for several small presses; he works mainly with science fiction, fantasy, and romance, and has experience with memoirs, travelogues, creative non-fiction, and many niche genres.  You can find out more about Garrett here.

Garrett, what is it you love about editing?  Why do you do what you do?
I love stories. I can always talk about narratives and characters and settings and whatever else until someone tells me to shut up. I want to get my hands in there and help dig meaning out of intent.  I’m also motivated by the passion I see in my clients’ projects, and helping them bring those to fruition.   I enjoy helping them tell their story in the best possible way, and working with them until the process is actualized.  It’s all about the efficacy of communication.  How effective is the writer at getting what is in their head out onto paper?  Are they conveying what they want to convey?  Do all the pieces fit together? Telling a good story is 10% writing, and 90% editing.

Mainly, I do editing for private parties — those self-publishers needing a skilled and affordable editor, and some who just want to learn how to be better writers through editing and revision. My services range from query critiques and line edits to narrative consulting and ghostwriting.

What motivated you to become an editor?
Circumstance. And a girl.  I joined a campus lit journal to spend time with a crush then found out I had a bit of a knack for editing. Looked at a few essays for beer money, reading student stories, and writing terrible, TERRIBLE fiction of my own. After college, I joined a critique group, exposed them to my aforementioned terrible fiction, and made an impact as a critique partner. Another member of the group dropped my name in a conversation with another editor, and soon I was on contract with an indie press.

That led to freelance opportunities, which helped me cement myself as an ‘official’ editor. At the same time as these meatspace activities, I’d gotten involved with online writing communities. I found myself frequenting reddit.com and the /r/writing subreddit, where I found a niche as a competent voice of editorial reason. Now I help manage that community as a moderator — we have over 200,000 thousand subscribers and thousands of daily users.

That’s quite a journey.  I’ve always wondered if editors think differently than writers.
Editing is interesting; you have to get technical about something that is creative.  It is about structure, systems and knowing where you want to be at the end.  When I was in middle school, I was introduced to scientific outlining, and it taught me how to organize my thought processes, and was a great help.  I see an outline as a flower, from which the story blooms.  There are other methods of outlining too, such as the snowflake method  that are interesting and can help different kinds of writers.  Breaking a story down, and putting it back together in a new way is a lot of fun.  The funny thing is, when I write, I am a pantser.  I create only a basic outline and go from there.

That’s surprising.  Tell me about your creative process?
It’s all over the place. Completely dependent on the project and those involved. Emotional. I’m mutable, flowing — like water. Sometimes there’s an outline, and sometimes I use the seat of my pants as a flotation device after the inevitable crash. Then, once the easy part of the draft is over, I read and edit the story on and off until I feel good enough about it to put out there. Practically, I keep a specific time and place for writing to make sure I actually, you know, write.

What is the hardest thing you ever had to do as an editor?
Turning down work is the hardest thing to do as either a writer or editor. Having the vision compromised, you know? I’m not saying it’s necessarily a bad thing, just the hardest thing.

If there was one thing you would like to tell submitting writers what would it be?
FOLLOW THE SUBMISSION GUIDELINES!

Yes, I have heard that. Any tips on how to rise to the top of the slush pile?
Pay attention to what you can control and forget about what you can’t. Take care of those technical details, address the agent correctly, apply the same standards you’d give to your manuscript to your cover letters and queries, etc. An editor can’t evaluate the work accurately if you don’t make sure those i’s are dotted and the t’s crossed. We editors are robot people, and we appreciate functional organization and communication!

Since editing is an investment in time and money, it is an important decision for a writer.  How does one find an editor, and how do you know if they are the right one for you?
Whenever I get asked this question, I point to this reddit post by Michael J. Sullivan.  In short, you can find an editor like you find any other professional, and you know if they’re right when you find yourself arguing with them about punctuation for hours and come out still wanting to give them money.

Interviewing Garret made me think of this quote attributed to Steve Martin about editing, and after talking to him, I don’t think it has to be this way.  We can move between the two seamlessly.  What do you think readers?

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Deadlines! Oh, the Horror!

by Elizabeth Engstrom

Nothing in my office happens without a deadline.

Deadlines mean that I get stuff done. On time.

If I don’t have a deadline to meet, I’d rather be digging in the garden, knitting, having lunch with a friend, or outside reading a book. If I don’t have a deadline, then I have time off.

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Whenever anyone asks me to do something, my first question is: What’s my deadline? And if that is reasonable, I put it on my calendar. If it’s an extended project with many steps, I put intermediate deadlines on my calendar to make sure I meet the ultimate deadline.  The last thing I want is to be chained to my desk for three or four days at the end of a long project because I failed to schedule properly and allocate my time wisely.

My calendar is my lifeline to getting things done. Rarely do I miss a deadline. It happens, but it’s rare.

When I sign a contract for a book, I agree to submit the manuscript on a certain date. When the publisher gets that contract, they set all their intermediary deadlines for catalog copy, cover art, interior design, for copy editing, publicity… there are many,  many steps that a book goes through from the time I submit it to the time that it is published. All those intermediary professionals put my book on their calendar and schedule time for it.

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If I miss the deadline (that I agreed to, by the way—if the deadline on the contract is too short or looks like it will pinch, I change it before signing the contract), then all those people miss all their deadlines, all the way down the line. And it isn’t as if the publisher doesn’t have other things to do that they can just accommodate an irresponsible writer. They have long memories for things like this.

So I make my deadlines. Even if it isn’t a book contract, other people depend on me to be on time, see to my commitments, take other peoples’ time and energy seriously.

Imagine, if you will, hiring a contractor to build your new deck. He’s to arrive on Monday morning at 8am, but instead, he waltzes in Friday around 3. You’ve prepared for him, you’ve inconvenienced yourself for him, and he hasn’t taken his business seriously enough to show up on time. Likely to use him again?

Meeting deadlines is a courtesy to everyone involved.

But not only is it a courtesy to other people, it is an act of kindness to myself. I get to have those days of digging in the garden, jumping up and going for a spontaneous bike ride, taking off for a day at the beach with the husband and the dog. My conscience is clear, my calendar allows it, and I am free to have fun.

My calendar is my lifeline to having a peaceful life.

And I have deadlines to thank for it.

Marilyn, Perfectionism, and Quitting

MarilynBy Lisa Alber

I spend last Friday night with Mom. One of our Friday movie nights. My mom is 85 years old and has dementia. She still lives at home with my sister who lives at home (not because of Mom, she just does) and two caretakers who come and go. We like to watch old movies together. Mom seems to be able to follow them, well enough anyhow.

Last Friday we watched an old Marilyn Monroe movie from before she hit sex symbol status. “Don’t Bother to Knock” (1952), a noir-ish thriller in which Monroe plays a deranged babysitter. I was fascinated by her performance. She was still herself, that Marilyn thing, but she wasn’t yet typecast or peroxide blond or shimmying rather than walking. She played dramatic quite well.

When I think about Marilyn Monroe, I think about perfectionism. It’s said that she was a perfectionist, and that this was one of her obstacles (among many) to getting to the set on time, to knowing her lines, to being prepared. She wasn’t a flake; she was crippled by the need to be perfect. It’s a low-self-esteem, all-or-nothing, kind of thing.

I know about this. I’m on that spectrum, but not extremely so. Thankfully. But just enough that I’ve had good discussions about it with my therapist. I had never considered myself a perfectionist. I mean, come on, I rarely make my bed. In person, I’m the disheveled sort. No perfectionism here!

Yeah, no. That’s not what perfectionism is, though it can look like perfectly coiffed hair and made beds. My perfectionism is more the getting-straight-As thing. The problem with perfectionism is that it is an illusion, and living in the land of illusion only causes suffering. I was thinking about all of this in March for my last post: A Confusing Lesson in Resistance and Illusion.

Perfectionism is all about trying to create your worth because your internal sense of self-worth isn’t the best ever. You think people will only like or love you if you’re perfect. You don’t have the sense that you’re worthy all on your own, just as you are. Isn’t that the sense we get from Marilyn Monroe? That she was chasing this illusion?

How exhausting. For me, like I mentioned, it’s more about getting As. I want to do well in my chosen activities. Novel writing is the activity that causes me the most suffering. Seriously. I could be as perfect as I could possibly be, write the best novel I know how to write, and get no joy — no contract or no sales or no reviews. That’s where the illusion lies: that I need all this stuff to be happy as a novelist, because then it will all be just PERFECT.

So what ends up happening? Instead of having a dream, the dream has us. It owns us. Everything is the illusion of that future place where everything is perfect, if only we could get there. So we strive, and strive, and find no satisfaction in our current place because we aren’t at that future perfect place yet. And, oh the suffering, because no matter how well we write (or do whatever it is) or fast we write, or how well we engage in social media or go on book tours that we have to pay for ourselves, we aren’t on the bestseller list — !

I’m exhausted just having written that. I’ve been in that striving place since 2001-ish. And, as I told a friend last night: “This may sound pessimistic, but I give up. I’m not going to strive anymore. I want to live my life, and I want to write novels as part of that, but I give up on being owned by the dream.”

I’ve decided to quit the dream. That’s it. And that may sound horrid, but it’s not. Because quitting the dream is quitting the illusion and the perfectionism and the unhealthy striving that goes along with all of that. In fact, “quitting” is quite possibly the healthiest thing I could do for myself right now. Quitting isn’t a bad thing even though it has a bad rap.

I’m not quitting writing — no way — and you’ll see a new novel out in August, and I’m working on something totally different right now. I’m just quitting the Marilyn Monroe.

If you’re curious about the quitting topic, check out this NPR “Freakonomics” broadcast about quitting: http://freakonomics.com/podcast/the-upside-of-quitting/

And here’s an article I found about perfectionism versus *healthy* striving, which clarified a few things for me: https://cmhc.utexas.edu/perfectionism.html