Two Steps Forward Six Steps Back

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Did you ever have a week or a day even when you thought “My life is going pretty good maybe now that I solved the problem, I can have some breathing room?” But instead you soon find that what you thought was put away nicely in a box wrapped with a bow has popped open leaving you clinging to the ribbon as you are hurled six steps back?  (If you grew up in the Eighties you may remember a song with the line “2 steps forward 2 steps back” I didn’t use that because I have found that in my life the steps backward are never equal and are usually at least three times worse. )

This has been one of those weeks when I realize no matter how much I can research, ( note to self for hundredth time OCD researching is not always the answer-I have found studies that prove this), no matter what I have planned– events take a turn, people let you down. It is as if I am in the Monopoly™ game (as the little dog of course-did you ever wonder who ever chose the flat-iron?)  But back to being in the Monopoly™ game –I don’t get to pass GO and I must go directly to jail. In the game, jail was a respite if I was down to $20 and couldn’t afford to land on a hotel property.  I would be safe for a few turns.  But it doesn’t work that way in life. So instead of seeking respite, I panicked.  Yup, and by that I mean either I was screaming in my car, taking it out on others, or paralyzed by fear.  This week I pulled a panic trifecta!

As a child, I had always thought, well actually I was told that I could restore certain situations. I could fight for a certain person and once he/she was safe they would see all I had done to help.  He/she would be grateful and never make the same mistake. Yet this was not the recent turn of events. So, I am left feeling like a failure and so worn that I have nothing left to give.

Interestingly enough, when writing a manuscript, this is precisely what we must give our main character. We need to induce fear in our characters either physically or emotionally. The more they stand to lose, the better. Characters need obstacles in order to have readers keep turning pages.

So, I am trying to look at my six steps back and use the gamut of emotions I have spewed to push my main character two steps forward.  This just might be a win-win process. The character discovers something new about themselves and it is cathartic for me, sort-of like a spiritual journal. When I am able to use my experience and emotions to broaden the scope of my main character I usually find this to be a source of comfort, at least for the time I am writing.  When I was writing The Last Cherry Blossom, I discovered that a turning point for my main character happened when she finally realized it was NOT all about her. She did not move forward on her own (not completely anyway) and she did not take 6 steps backward alone either.

At the end of the day or in this case my blog, I have to remember it is not about me. I had read in a dotMagis blog post that instead of asking “Why me?” ask “What will I do with this situation?”  Sometimes my answer is going back to bed, pull the covers up comfy cozy (with marshmallow crispy treats and chocolate on the nightstand at the ready) and call it a day. Other times asking that question gives me pause and I remember that I can do this with God, with family, and with my friends.  For a character in my rough draft it may take more time for soul-searching and many tries to get it right.

Just as there will be times when I can help someone.  But when I can’t, my feeling of guilt at some point needs to be displaced by love and acceptance of the people or situation I was desperately trying to fix. Once I come to that realization, which by the way is never immediate– usually many days in a panic trifecta stage.  But eventually I hope to realize that I did my best, I acted out of love, and now must find a new way to handle the way things are now.

Though frustration and doubt pave the path for anyone’s six steps backward, there will eventually be opportunity for a main character and yes, for us to leap two steps forward once again.  But, I suggest having marshmallow crispy treats or chocolate on hand, ’cause it may take a while…

What helps you deal with the time you take six steps backward?

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Stop, Look, and Listen

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Did your parents say this to you before you crossed the street on your own for the very first time? My Dad would jokingly tell me to also watch out for trailer trucks and trains. We didn’t live near any train tracks, but he wanted to stress the importance of paying attention. My husband reminds my daughter and myself that whenever shopping alone, we must notice our surroundings to avoid a bad situation. Unless of course you are a courageous, cane wielding Ninja—which sadly, I am not (but maybe I might write about one).

Today you rarely see anyone walking without conversing on their phone, texting, or listening to an MP3 player. As a result, you have to be even more cognizant of what is going on around you. Not just so you won’t fall off the curb and scuff those adorable shoes you just bought on sale, but also when you are with other people.

Every now and again do you get an email/text from someone and say, “Huh? What do they mean by that?” Emails/texts can be very confusing, especially with all the initialisms (like OMG). You can’t see the other person’s facial expression or hear the tone in their voice. Did they mean that remark as a joke even if it wasn’t followed by LOL? Now, I am the first to admit that most of the time I am not smart enough to own my smart phone. And yes, I still type my texts in full sentences most of the time. But I am sure I am not the only one who ever misunderstood the intention of a text/email.

One or two more emails/texts usually clarifies the intent. But when we are with someone, do we really notice if our friend or family member is twirling the ends of her hair or biting her lower lip because she is nervous about something. What is that they do to get our attention to what they are really trying to convey? When my daughter was a toddler I worked from home. I was constantly tempted to always be “on the job”. There were times that I had to make business calls. Of course, she would decide that was when she needed me most and came up with quite a clever way to get my attention. Perhaps you have heard of this method-she would call ‘Mommy!’ over and over and over again.

When I ended my call, sat down with her, and listened to her ‘story of the day’; her face lit up! Then she went about her business and didn’t really need me again –until I made my next call.

There are times now when I am in the middle of writing or checking my email that I am half listening to what she is telling me. She resorts to what still works to get my attention. Yup, an oldie but a goody- “Mom, Mom, M-O-O-O-O-M!” That is usually enough to make me stop and really be present with her. I can also watch her reactions to my responses and gauge if she really understands what I am saying. Or if she is just telling me what she thinks I want to hear. The one exception to this rule is that I can always tell when she is rolling her eyes at me whether she is facing me or not. She really hates that.

When I am writing I know that the reader will have no idea what the character is feeling unless I show them. My main character, Yuriko, in my manuscript The Last Cherry Blossom, balled her hands into fists and tapped the sides of her legs whenever she was anxious. Her best friend would place a lock of hair behind her ear when feeling the same emotion. As I work on my characters I make a spreadsheet (with the ancient tools of pen and paper). I have columns in which I list( I love my lists) assorted facial expressions or body language I have observed real people using in various circumstances. I then decide which one would work best for whom I am writing about. That way I can keep track of each character’s emotional cues so that I am consistent throughout the story. (While working on my many, many revisions, my agent recommended the book The Emotion Thesaurus, A Writer’s Guide To Character Expressions by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. It is a great resource!)

If I do not put the effort into creating a character that is realistic then the reader will not want to put the effort into reading the next page. Just as when I am with someone, I need to invest my attention to what they are saying or reacting to at the moment. I would want them to do the same for me. Most of the time I think I do okay, at least I hope I am. I find that happens in my prayer life as well.  Sometimes I feel like I am just going through the motions and not getting as much out of it as I should.  I am so grateful that God can always make time to notice me and what is going on in my life. Even if I still need a reminder every now and again.

This weekend I will be attending the SCBWI Carolinas, To Tell A Tale conference. I am definitely looking forward to soaking up as much as my  ol’ brain can handle. I am big into taking notes (but you know that already). However, I also need to stop myself so that I look at the presenter and really listen to their great advice so I may truly enjoy and participate.

Have you ever received a message that had you asking, “Huh?”

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What’s in your storage?

 

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Recently I traveled back up north to sort through and collect personal belongings of a loved one who passed away earlier this year. On the plane ride home, I attempted busying my thoughts with something other than, please, please no turbulence and why are we packed in so close, that I can see the drool of the person sleeping next to me? So, I began to ponder the unsettling notion that someday, someone, would look through the belongings in my home or storage place after I am gone. That person may look at it and realize no matter how much you know someone you can’t possibly know everything about him/her.

We have all bought that exercise equipment that is now a clothing rack or the work out videos/DVDs(you know the ones- like Belly Dancing Your Way to Zumba) that are now in a crate along with your hospital bill for that one time you tried Belly Dancing Your Way to Zumba, but ended up in the ER. Those are items we all can relate to. However, there are some items such as books on how to master a particular craft that you never saw that person do(nor ever heard him mention), or CDs on how to learn a language you had no idea he wanted to learn that may surprise you. Attached to each of these personal items, he stored away ideas, dreams, and a  hope that someday his dreams would come to fruition when the timing was right.

Why is that we keep certain objects? What is it that makes us value one item over another? I am still fleshing out my characters  in my current rough draft.  So I am trying to pinpoint his/her favorite belongings. While trying to figure out what they cannot live without, I need to develop some reasons why they can’t live without it. Is it a treasured item because it is sentimental or is it an item that is practical like a flashlight? I may never use this information directly in the story, but it gives me one way to get inside the characters’ head and heart. This process will come in handy when I want to create some turmoil for the character– what happens when this item is lost, stolen, or destroyed? Are they able to develop coping mechanisms, do they give up, or seek revenge?

Of course there are some items you can never get back. When my mom’s home in Hiroshima was destroyed by the bomb, all current pictures of her and her family were burned. However, she still had her memories of the people in her life. Also, thankfully some pictures of when she was younger were in a different location.

Then there are the items that are one of a kind. When we were young we most likely latched on to a particular doll or stuffed animal. Mine was Raggedy Ann and believe me by the time I was 5 she was definitely very ragged indeed. My mom had just sewed pantyhose around the face for the third time to keep the cloth from falling off and protect what was left of her hair(I yanked most of it out-not sure what that says about me), so, my parents bought me another Raggedy Ann doll. I did not play with that new doll. I wanted the original doll –with its balding head and nylon covered tattered face.

I did not learn from my experience, because when I found out what stuffed animal my daughter loved I went out and bought an identical one in case she lost it. When I would wash her bear, I would attempt to switch it out and she would have none of that-she knew it was not her original “stuffie”. I then did what every logical parent would do in that situation. I waited till she was sound asleep, washed it immediately, and hoped to return it before she would realize it was missing. That worked most of the time.

We were attached to these items for the feeling of security they brought us. As I looked through my loved one’s storage unit, I found items that linked him to his birth mother which he never got to really know because she died when he was a toddler. That gave him a sense of security. Also, I found all the letters/cards that I had ever sent him. Some back to when I was only 8 years old. He also had all the cards my daughter had made for him in the past 18 years. It made me smile because he found them important to keep because we mattered to him.

So even though I had no idea he wanted to master Chinese, or why he had all these cook books when he did not cook, I did know he loved us. Well, I knew that already because he had told me many times, but it reminded me that I did not need to know every aspect of his life to be important in his life. So I hope someday when people look at my stuff in storage, they find among the “what was she thinking?” stuff, some mementos that remind them of their importance in my life.

So, tell me, what’s in your storage?

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