Warning: this is a no-edit zone…
For most of the past decade, I’ve been answering questions for other writers–nearly 2,000 of them, when you combine my library group and the Aids4Writers group at Yahoo. Some responses, I share with the others on the lists. Some are too specific and personal to share with anyone other than the person who asks.
Over the years, I’ve been asked just about everything that can be asked on the writing craft, the business, and about life as a writer. Many inquiries have set me to seeking expertise. Many have been heart-wrenching for the challenges presented in them. They’ve kept me on my toes, and a huge number of them have made me really think about many different things.
But in all these years, and in all these inquiries, I don’t think I’ve received one more sobering than one I received earlier today from a writer who clearly is in a hard place. And because I realize that it’s all too easy for all of us to awaken and discover ourselves in a hard place, I am addressing this through the group.
When I received this inquiry, my initial reaction was to fire off a response–quick–but I realized that careful consideration–thoughtful, careful consideration–was required. You see, this inquiry impacted the writer. Not just the work, or just one aspect of the writer, but regarded a topic so intricately woven into the fabric of the human being herself that it cannot be separated from the writer.
And something that significant requires all the care one has to give.
So I’ve spent the day thinking about this. Accomplishing little else, because the weight of this challenge is heavy; the burden bulky and unyielding. And so I’ll share with you now my thoughts on this issue, and I hope from all the recesses of my heart that it will be sufficient to help.
In examining deep characterization and focusing intently on bad qualities in people, the writer writes: “Only now I’m so incased in finding those bad qualities in people, I can’t see the good ones any more. Where did all the good people go, how do I draw those good and decent characters out so my stories have equal balance. NO, please do not tell me to let Calgone take me away; I seem to have lost sight of what balances the person. Suggestions welcomed how do I reconnect and write the good stuff again?”
When I read the full text (what’s above is an excerpt), I thought, this is one of the reasons so many writers become alcoholics and engage in drug use–to escape; seeking refuge. Many writers fall to depression. Many grow cynical and some despondent.
We don’t want to do any of that. It’s all destructive. We’re constructive people. And yet we do focus so intently, feel so deeply, engage so strongly that we can become victims of these things unless we take precautions–and unless we are disciplined in our actions and are determined to not become victims. It’s not easy to see, hear and feel all we do and not be adversely impacted. And yet our profession requires that we be impacted to write with clarity, conviction and authority. And that’s a paradox that often lands us center square in a dilemma.
We must engage. We can’t disengage and do our jobs well. So what do we do? How do we engage without becoming victims?
We control our engagements and, as I suggested in The Common Sense Guide for Writers, we write with passion and compassion–and that compassion includes being compassionate with ourselves. We write with passion or we aren’t convincing. We write with compassion because those we write about deserve it–it’s part of the respect package that every living thing deserves–and we, the human beings in the writers, require it.
So what we need are tools. Tips on how to do that. And what follows are a few. Note that most of these suggestions are perspectives and attitudes the writer can adopt. Note that they require perspective, mindset, discipline and compassion. Respect for self as well as others. Care, concern, compassion are as important as logic and analysis.
1. Objective Observer. Yes, we study people, their behavior, their actions and motivations. Yes, studying them intently is essential to portraying them in our stories. We get up close and personal. But that doesn’t mean that we absorb what we observe into ourselves. Only that we see, we recognize, we imagine.
Sometimes we do want to adopt new traits or opinions, ideas, attitudes as a result of our observations. But when we do, we should absorb those observations because they make us wiser and stronger people (positive attributes) and not negative ones.
So it’s important to look at people’s qualities–good and bad–and to seek to understand them. But it isn’t essential to us to make them our own. We have to try to be objective observers.
Seek the truth, see the truth, and know the truth. We relate it in our stories. But choose not to accept and absorb the negative aspects of that truth. It is not a part of us and can’t become a part of us unless we choose to make it so. Choose to be an objective observer.
2. Like attracts like. Whether it’s a magnet or thoughts, like attracts like. If you focus intently on negative qualities in people or in situations, that’s what attracts you.and what is attracted to you. It’s universal law. It’s scientifically explained. If all you’re seeing are bad qualities, it’s not because that’s all there is, but it’s all that’s attracted your attention and to all that you’re attracted.
Our protection is in turning this around and playing the flip side. Imagine a set of scales. One side is heavy with Bad qualities. The other side is empty. But if you place Good qualities on that side, the scales achieve balance.
So make a conscious effort balance the scales. That is essential to all human beings but particularly to those of us who spend so much of our time and lives in creative pursuits. Study bad qualities. But deliberately study good qualities, too.
Some writers are more susceptible to negative influences than others. If you’re extremely susceptible, then know it and actively counter it with balance. The fix need not be anything elaborate. In your mind, put a good quality on the scale. Or use a simple list. For each negative quality you add to the list, in an opposing column add a positive one. If the influence isn’t that strong, then study and balance simply by noticing the good qualities in others.
Little things make an enormous impact, particularly in comparison. An example: Today, I was watching the 9/11 coverage on the news. The tragic loss of life, the irrationality of bombing innocents, people jumping out of the towers, all the orphans and widowers and widows… I was as outraged as the day it all happened. Totally inflamed. And then on the screen before my eyes, I saw President Bush shaking hands with people. He stopped to talk to a teenage girl. She bent his ear a good while. He teared up, hugged her, talked and listened and hugged her again, giving her shoulder a fatherly, comforting pat. He walked down that line of people, hugging, kissing cheeks, comforting and caring. Now I won’t say I always agree with this man, but I will say that he’s a good comforter. I saw the change in the expressions in these people. I saw him tear up with them. And I suddenly noticed that I wasn’t as angry. Resolved, yes, as much as ever. After all, the bastards want us dead. But the anger had softened under compassion’s hand.
The lesson in that is to engage but let compassion’s hand soften so that you understand what you’re engaging from an insider’s perspective (passion) but compassion allows you to have a more balanced reaction.
3. We see what we expect to see. When you’re looking at human beings expecting to see bad qualities, you will. You’ll miss seeing the good (even a stopped clock is right twice a day, so there is good in everything) because you expect to see bad.
I’m reminded here of the self-fulfilled prophesy. “I can’t do it, I can’t do it, I can’t do it.” Tell yourself (or someone else) that enough, and they will be believe you. So much so that it’ll come to pass–you or they can’t do it–because your faith in it happening (or not happening) was resolute.
I don’t recall who said this, but I’ve had it written on my favorite quotes wall for years. “Image it and it will be.” We create first in thought and then act to make it manifest. That holds true whether we are manifesting something bad or good.
You made a conscious effort to notice the bad. Thought it, then acted on it. You created that notice of the bad. Make that same conscious effort to notice the good. You know you can create it–you’ve done it already so it is possible to create the notice in good. In creating both, you achieve balance.
We do see what we expect to see, so expect to see good.
I know a young man who had a penchant for trouble. Others expected him to get into trouble and he didn’t disappoint them. When I was consulted on how to help him turn his life around, my advice was simple: Expect his best–and let him know it.
He’ll make mistakes, we all do. But when he does, let him scrape his knees and then help him up and love him through it. Just never stop expecting his best. Why?
Expecting his best is expressing faith in him. Belief in his abilities, capabilities and his judgment. It’s saying, “I believe in you.” And that inspires people to rise to the occasion, to prove to themselves and to you that your faith in them is well placed. It must be sincere. It must be honest. But faith can and does move mountains.
You see, the truth is that you can’t change someone else’s course. Only they are at the helm of their ship, making their choices. But you can inspire them to make wise choices, to consider wise choices worth making.
5. Goodness is like happiness. It doesn’t come from without, it comes from within. It’s a choice we make. We can be good or see good with the same ease we can be or see bad. We decide.
In the 9/11 film footage yesterday, one viewed and experienced many emotions. Shock, fear, outrage–moments of unstinting heroism, deep sadness, great tenderness. In many, suffering the worst brought out the best.
Some experienced the full range of emotions witnessed, conjured. Some got stuck on shock or fear. Some were numb to the shock and outrage but deeply moved by heroism. Some mourned again, as if not five years but five minutes had passed.
Each person chose their reaction. Whether that reaction was deliberate and conscious or unconscious; one s/he drifted into and just stayed. Remember, no choice is a choice.
I’ve seen people whose lives were destroyed. Who had lost everything they owned. Who were dying and knew it. And they were happy. Not at the destruction or loss or at their own deaths, but at the choices they’d made and the lives they’d lived. They looked at their big picture–their entire life–and not the single if significant event–and had few regrets.
There is power in choice. Every day when you wake up, before you put your feet on the floor, you can choose to see good in people today. You can be determined to notice random acts of kindness, kindnesses, the things people do to reach out to one other.
I’m not suggesting you play ostrich and bury your head in the sand against anything bad. I’m not suggesting you play Pollyanna and pretend the bad doesn’t exist. I am suggesting that you choose how you react to good or bad. You choose how much of your focus and attention and emotion you grant it. Choose to see good in people. It’s there. Waiting to be noticed and taken out for a spin.
4. Define good. Society gives us what it deems definitions of good and bad. From the cradle to adulthood others define it, and the older we get, the more definitions we have because our circle of influence widens.
But their comes a time in our lives we don’t just accept or reject others’ definitions. We create our own. And, while we’re not to judge others because we don’t walk in their shoes, know all they know, feel all they feel, we do make judgment values.
Those values vary from person to person. We’re human, so we have a lot in common, and that typically extends to the judgment values we place on good and bad. But we have differences, too.
For example: One man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. One’s act of kindness is other’s interference. One’s compliment is another’s insult.
In the same day, based on the same post, I’ve received notes that I’m a bleeding heart liberal and an uptight conservative. An idealist and too rooted in reality. I’ve gotten notes on my books that claim I know exactly what it’s like to be in that position, and ones that say I don’t have a clue.
The posts and the works haven’t changed. What is different is people’s perceptions. Their value judgments.
I can’t make value judgments for others. I wouldn’t presume to do that, or do it even if I had the power or ability to do so. That’s each individual’s right and responsibility. And isn’t it wonderful that it is?
You must decide what is good and what is bad. And resolve yourself to being aware of the difference. Goodness is within and without in equal measure. You can seek it in yourself, encourage it to emerge and nurture it–in yourself and in others. Or not. You choose.
All of this said, remember that we’re all human. We have flaws or we wouldn’t be, we’d be perfect. Judge harshly and you will see more flaws than goodness. But goodness is still there.
And so I close, hoping that this has been helpful. That it’s been enough, and it offers you the tools you need to again achieve balance. I hope that something in it inspires you to seek the good in people. Otherwise, you’re headed for a lonely, bitter existence. And that would be a tragic loss, to and for you, and for others whose lives you might have touched.
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