Free Time in the Time of Corona, Let’s Bitch About It

By Lisa Alber

I see many optimistic and supportive posts out there about how to survive — no, thrive during! — shelter in place. I’m past all that. I want to see posts by people who are flailing and not doing their best and going a little nuts. People, where are those posts?!?!? Those are the posts that would truly help me. Just to know I’m not the only one, you know what I mean?

(I live alone; this might be a factor. Heh.)

I re-read my last blog post, dated February 26th. Oh my god — seems ridiculous and hilarious now. I’d just gotten laid off from the day job and was full of hope about my new writing journey. Then a few weeks later, the Corona virus arrived and the shite hit the fan. My life didn’t change all that much — I was at home anyhow — yet it did.

The 2/26 post feels like a lifetime ago. I’ve been writing/revising most mornings, so that’s good. Yet it’s amazing how little I’ve accomplished. I like a desultory pace of life, but something about being forced into this pace has dulled my brain. I hear this is called “pandemic fog.”

There’s a difference between being at home building a new life and being forced to stay home feeling uncertain that I can build a new life (given the economy, etc). My neurotic tendencies are on high alert, ready to send me into a stressed state for no good reason. (Case in point: Yesterday, my inability to find the Cancel Subscription button on the sundancenow.com website.)

At first, I was all bustle and vigor. Hey, this is a lark! This is quite the fun little period! It’s peaceful and there’s no traffic and people are friendlier than usual! I have so much time and I’m going to accomplish all my dreams!

Now, it’s more like: Which streaming channel has the longest free trial period?

As a friend said last week, “This isn’t cute anymore.” The bloom is definitely off the proverbial rose, and I’m feeling it. (I WANT TO HIT MY LOCAL FOR A PINT, WITH FRIENDS OR NOT, I DON’T CARE!)

I have a half-baked theory that the protests surged when they did, in part, because people maxed out their tolerance for “me” time. God forbid we have time to ponder our lives, really THINK about who we are, what we want, and so on. It can be uncomfortable, even painful. Some people will do anything to avoid discomfort, no matter how short-sighted  and idiotic.

I have a high tolerance for “me” time. Even so, to lessen the impact of shelter in place on my psyche, I journal every morning. I’ll burn the journals after all this done, that’s for sure. Witness this gem from today’s drivel-fest: “Yep, got up earlier to get going, so that’s cool.”

Uh-huh. What’s the point of getting up earlier, anyhow? Who cares that I’m succumbing to nocturnal tendencies, lights out at 1:00 A.M.?

As the days pass in a blur of uniformity, I’ve also succumbed to binge-watching obscure foreign crime dramas. (Recently watched an Icelandic one called “Trapped.”) At first, I diligently walked the park every day to get out of the house, keep sane, randomly chat with people (socially distanced, of course). Now I don’t care so much.

A few days ago I realized I’d reached my lowest point when I bought a jumbo bag of Red Vines. Jumbo. Bag. One thing to eat Red Vines at the movies — which I don’t do anymore, anyhow — another thing to plop the bag on the coffee table, readily available while I binge-watch.

When all this was a lark, I grooved on cooking, and even baking. Now I’d rather go pick up a Papa Murphy’s pizza, or on a healthier note, Trader Joe’s ready-made salads. Not doing so well in the food department, generally. Standing in line to enter grocery stores feels too Soviet Russia, and who wants to be reminded of that country given the upcoming election? I surely don’t.

On that sourpuss note, I’ve officially reached the end of my tolerance for bitching. FOR NOW. Hope everyone is keeping healthy, mentally as well as physically, xoxo

The Enlightened Assassin’s Agenda

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The Enlightened Assassin’s Agenda

Eric Witchey

My agenda today is to move my readers toward more specific articulation of their character agendas. If there’s any overlap between handling dramatic characters in text and managing our own lives, it is purely coincidental and has little or nothing to do with me or my agenda.

In a recent conversation with a writer, I said something that she then sent back to me as an important quote. At the time I said it, the words meant little to me. Having them sent back to me as important to someone else made me look at them again. Here’s what I apparently said,

“The more specific you are on agendas, the more proactive the agendas become and the stronger the scene becomes.”

Hm, says I. Isn’t that like setting identifiable, quantifiable, achievable goals? In moments of hubris, haven’t most writers entertained fantasies of accolades, awards, and glory? Even the humblest of us have at one moment or another had J.K. Rowling’s name evoke at least a little wish to be richer than the Queen.

Of course, those visions of grandeur are generally beyond our control. Even if we follow the advice of every well-established writing productivity and personal self-help guru alive, we have to acknowledge that a number of things have to happen at the right times and in the right order. We can control how hard we work. We can control how focused on the craft we are. We can control how much we risk and how often we put ourselves out there for consideration. To an extent, we can control how we use our financial, physical, and emotional resources to pursue our paths to publication.

However, we can’t control where we started in life, our beginning cultural currency, the attitudes we were trained to and had to overcome, the beliefs we had to recognize were not useful, the dynamics of family and language that both support and limit us. We can’t control the coronavirus, the economic swings of the nation, the consolidation of publishers, changes in marketing attitudes toward various demographics groups, or the wind on the wings of the Peking butterfly.

Still, as one writing friend once told me, “Lightning can strike anyone, but it helps to put up a lightning rod.”

So, when writers meet to set our goals, we look for the things we can measure, execute within our limited awareness of the world, and pat ourselves on the back for achieving. We whittle away at the greater obstacles, and we hope the moment comes when the lightning rod of hard work and focused effort over time pays off by attracting a strike that powers us for our next sustained effort.

So why is it that as writers we create characters with agendas like, “She wants to feel respected by her culture?” Don’t get me wrong. I think that is an important theme, but it is pretty useless as a scene agenda.

When I talk about character agendas, I often parrot one of my teachers, James N. Frey, who said, “EVERY character on stage has an agenda they are trying to execute. Conflict is the execution of mutually exclusive agendas.”

My favorite scenario for describing this, which I may have gotten and modified from Jim, is the pizza delivery man at the door. In the scene, there are three characters. An assassin, the person who lives in the house, and the pizza delivery guy. The agendas are all working against one another:

  • Assassin wants to kill homeowner and slip away.
  • Homeowner wants the pizza guy to call for help.
  • Pizza guy wants to be paid for the pizza.

The stakes are life and death for the homeowner. The stakes are professional success/failure and maybe honor or several other intangibles for the assassin—perhaps even incarceration or death. The stakes for the pizza delivery person are minimum wages, tips, and maybe some distracting fantasy they have going on about someone else on their delivery list.

Which brings up another point.

If Pizza has some adolescent male otaku Japanese anime-driven fantasy about the hot schoolgirl he’ll be delivering too next, then he has another agenda that his current scene agenda contributes to. He wants to get paid so he can deliver the next to pizza to the object of his creepy obsession.

If Homeowner wants Pizza to call the police and live through the afternoon and, perhaps, get information about why someone is trying to kill them because their daughter will be devastated to lose another parent, they also have another agenda that their current agenda contributes to.

Assassin might also have an overarching agenda. Assassin wants to get finished, get paid, and move on to the next job so they can build a strong enough reputation to be able to pick and choose jobs that will let them influence the world order and eventually retire to a personal island in the Caribbean from which they believe they will pull world-wide political strings and usher in an age of greater peace and prosperity for all.

However, right now in this moment in this scene, knife to the skin over the homeowner’s kidneys, Assassin wants the pizza guy to go away. Right now, Assassin only wants privacy.

Right now, in this moment with the knife in their back and Pizza outside the door, Homeowner only wants Pizza to get a clue and call for help.

Right now, large veggie pie in hand, door open so they can only see Homeowner and not Assassin, Pizza wants to be paid and, if possible, tipped well—quickly.

The agendas are, to take a line from the gurus of goal setting, specific, measurable, and reasonably achievable. If achieved or not achieved, each agenda for each character has an immediate impact on the character’s wellbeing and life in the moment.

In the larger dramatic sense, each agenda also has an impact beyond the moment for all the characters on stage.

If Pizza gets what he wants, he’s off to the next delivery and his inevitable disappointment. Homeowner will not get what they want. Assassin will quite likely get what they want, but maybe not. The fight in the foyer is another conflict to play out.

If Homeowner gets what they want, they might survive and get information, but Pizza will not get what he wants. Assassin will not get what they want—at least not all of it. They may end up killing two people and losing the ability to slip away.

If Assassin gets what they want, Homeowner is dead. Pizza may or may not get what they want. Who knows? Perhaps Pizza will become an apprentice to Assassin.

The point for writers developing dramatic scenes is that:

“The more specific you are on agendas, the more proactive the agendas become and the stronger the scene becomes.”

If the scene opens with the setup described earlier and the writer sees each character agenda as something less specific, the potential of the dramatic moment changes radically. Starting with a vaguer agenda than discussed so far and moving toward the global, vague, more like a theme statements we get things like this:

  • Assassin wants to be the best assassin.
  • Homeowner wants to be a good parent.
  • Pizza wants to get a raise or something.

In this scenario, the Homeowner could be anyone. Pizza guy might be motivated to move quickly, so he could just drop the pie off and go. No reason not to if the ticket was paid over the phone or online. Homeowner might beg because they want to see their daughter, but the agenda statement doesn’t focus their choices to allow selection of a specific set of tactics beyond that. Assassin might see killing Homeowner and Pizza as becoming the “best assassin.” They might see killing one and getting away while people chase them as becoming the best assassin. There are a million “best assassin” possibilities here.

Let’s create broader, vaguer agendas further outside the dramatic moment.

  • Assassin wants to go on vacation.
  • Homeowner wants to be a good parent and chairperson of the HOA.
  • Pizza wants to go home and boost his buzz.

These agendas might be true, but they are not specific in the moment. The types of motivations this filter encourages don’t lend themselves immediately to tactic development.

If I’m Homeowner and chief among my concerns is that I want to be a good parent and head of the HOA, connecting parenting and HOA to evading assassin behavior is a stretch. It works for comedic effect, but in that case, it is actually quite specific and reveals the mental problems of Homeowner. Homeowner might be engaged with the assassin on the manager’s worst nightmare level of, “Do you know who I am? I’m the next manager of the HOA. Did Karen VanSitling put you up to this? She’s been after the chair for…”

Now, Assassin can kill them, and Reader will applaud. It’s all good.

However, Pizza might as well be an unused chair in this scenario.

Let’s get vaguer:

  • Assassin wants satori.
  • Homeowner wants the respect never received from their parents.
  • Pizza wants to rise to CEO of the franchise system.

Now, the agendas are bordering on themes that might be stated more like this:

  • Becoming a perfect killer is a type of enlightenment.
  • Adherence to early life rules and values never heals the wounded child within.
  • Ambition and diligence are the path to wealth and power.

These might be true in the story. Certainly, I’m not stating them as true in any context other than the context of a story. However, at the best they only provide nuance in the dramatic moment in a specific scene. These vague agendas/themes do not allow a writer to discover or design possible tactics for achieving an immediate result in-scene.

That said, a set of nested agendas such that each specific agenda is a contributor to a larger agenda might allow for development of details that would enhance the scene. This set of agendas might provide insight into exactly what each character would do in the moment. Assassin’s agenda might look like this:

  • Assassin wants to kill homeowner and slip away.
    • in order to build skills to become the best assassin.
      • in order to go on vacation.
        • in order to create spiritual balance.
          • in order to one day achieve satori through their art.

Suddenly, the blade at the kidneys will be held a specific way. The words whispered in the ear of Homeowner must be considered carefully in both context of the moment and in terms of how Assassin sees the moment in relationship to their higher-level aspirations. Consider how this cascade of agenda elements can affect a line like this one:

  • …pressed her back against the wall, using the door as a blind to cover her presence and the blade she held to Homeowner’s back…

If each layer influences the moment, the physical reality of the blade, the door, and the wall remain the same, but the language might change to something more like this:

  • Smooth, black silk slid between the skin of her back and the coolness of Homeowner’s stucco wall, and she brought her thoughts back from that distraction, returning her focus to the transience of breath, the inevitability of mortality at the point of her blade, and the rhythm of the pulsing jugular of Homeowner’s neck. A skilled assassin might see the vein’s rise and fall as a tell, but a Pizza delivery boy distracted by material gain, hormone-laden blood, and cold night air would not perceive the interconnections of life and death and knowing and unknowing in the words that would arrive on the wave of Homeowner’s next breath. Assassin found within the silence that gave a shape to the perception she would spend on those final, important words. Later, perhaps on the beach while meditating, she would savor the moment and seek the meaning within the words.

Homeowner said, “. . .”

Of course, I have made the leap to Assassin being the POV character. I’ll leave building the nested agendas of the other characters and writing the moment from their POV as a game to play later. The point here is that the agendas are nested. The outcome of the moment will have an impact on all the layers of each character’s beliefs and desires. To get the best result, the most immediate agenda—the desire of each character at this moment, in this breath, in this heartbeat—should be as specific as possible.

-End-

A Writer Finds Hope Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic

by Cheryl Owen-Wilson

I’m receiving varying messages through my artistic virtual channels.  Some of my friends are sheltered in place writing, and painting for hours on end.  Their creations, I am certain, will reflect the circumstances surrounding their current reality.  Those feelings, those never before felt nuggets, will flow through them onto a blank page, or canvas.  For some the message will be easily understood, in full display for all to see, while for others it will be hidden, like the Easter eggs I wish my grandchildren could be searching in my back yard on Sunday.

Then there are those who say they can’t seem to create a thing.  I hope for them to have clarity soon, because I find being able to immerse myself in any creative endeavor the best way to soothe my frantic nerves.

Unfortunately, I have not been sheltered in place.  But luckily, there are only a few of us working in the now closed facility, and we can easily manage the six-foot distances, and then some.  As a small business manager, I have been going to my quiet office and attempting to make sense of with the mountains of paperwork necessary to keep said business viable and able to reopen when allowed.  I hope to have dug myself out of this important task by next week. And like many of my creative tribe, I hope to be able to allow myself the grace to not force creativity, permitting it to instead flow easily, and at its own pace.

It seemed fitting since it’s National Poetry Month, and also because this poem begged to be written, that I carve out time to place it’s somewhat chaotic voice upon the page.  Is it the poem’s voice, or my own?  I leave you with these thoughts to ponder as you read on…

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C is for the many closets and cupboards which will be sorted and left spotlessly clean.

Who can sit to write when those cluttered spaces whisper and beg for a bit of much needed hygiene?

But rest assured, when all is put to order, your creativity will kick in.

The laptop, pen and paper,  will come out, and your writing will begin.

 

O is for the oath you took, once self-quarantined,

Yes, we all had this eloquent, if not, foolish dream.

To sit, and not get up until you’ve written at least a thousand words a day,

please for our own sanity, and those with whom you live, let that vow slip away.

I promise it will all be, okay.

 

R is for the mounds of reading you will undoubtedly get done.

Please don’t forget, when your massive pile is down to one, or none,

remember to support your local bookstores, in any way you can.

After all, when your books were published were they not your biggest fan?

 

This O is for those organizational skills not so readily seen, but who have now magically been awoken.

Those stories tucked in desk drawers and saved in computer files are calling to you. Send them forth, for they have spoken.

Now that it’s done, don’t you feel better?

No don’t begin to obsess over some phantom rejection letter.

 

N is for a different type of novel.  The one you’ve labored over for years, the one you know needs just one more revision.

Let’s let this one go.  Why, you can even call it your pandemic decision.

Think of the mighty fire it will create outdoors.

While you keep a six-foot distance as you roast yummy, melting, smores.

 

A is for all the other artistic skills you may possess.  Rip up that shirt or dress,

and make masks so those in need can stress, less.

Or what about planting something green, be it a flower or a vegetable.

Think of the accomplishment when you’ve grown something deliciously edible.

 

V is for the victory and validation you will feel,

when one of those stories comes back with a contract deal.

By then I’m certain you will be able to socially celebrate.

But if not, Zoom with willingly hook you up with at least one writing mate.

 

I is for the insecurities you will have as you sit quietly with all this time to think.

When it gets too much to bare, please call someone before you succumb to that 3rd or 4th  drink.

I is also for the abundance of imaginative stories and illuminating art that will be birthed from this pandemic.

I have been assured of this phenomenon by friends both alchemic, as well as academic.

 

R is for the formidable resilience each and every one of us will possess.

After we’ve come through this arduous cosmic test.

And what about all the budding new relationships that will be born,

as they visited virtual movie rooms, while eating popcorn?

 

U is for the Universal Unity which will ultimately defeat this foe.

Through our joint socially distancing efforts, we can, and will, stop its flow.

Then think of all the varying stories, from every corner of the world, we will write,

Of the time when human beings around the entire earth stood still, to fight.

 

S is for the symmetry this virus has allowed us to glimpse.

Dolphins swimming in Venice’s canals is not mere happenstance.

Where once there was death,

Mother Nature has been allowed to take a long, overdue breath.

Now it is up to we the human race to follow suite.

How do you feel about a socially sensible reboot?

 

What creative projects have you taken up, or completed as you shelter in place?

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