Monday, December 16, 2013

A Season for Sharing

It's nearly the end of another year. In a few weeks, a new one will almost certainly start, and the old one will blink out of existence except for in that flat way the past remains in pictures and on film and in flashes of memory before it begins the alarmingly short trip to becoming legend.

So many things happened this year, and so many didn't. Great people died. Great people were born. Awful tragedies occurred. Unbelievable wonders followed. And we all rode along in our little boats, or big boats, and did our best to steer while wondering what it all meant and trying to snatch moments to look at the stars.

The year for me began in rough waters. After having spent the previous six months climbing out of a sadness that had grown from a deep loneliness and uncertainty, Jonathan and I took one of the best trips of our lives to ring in the New Year in England.

But soon after returning home, I broke my arm in a bicycle accident. I know: a broken arm isn't a big deal. Even surgery on a broken arm isn't that big a deal. I mean kids survive it all the time. But the last thing I needed was to be stuck at home, unable to do basic things for myself, unable to go out on my own, and feeling lonely, not to mention high from the pain medications.

Don't get me wrong; Jonathan was absolute amazingness wrapped up into one very patient and loving human. But he had a job to go to. So I got depressed. Seriously depressed. There's no point airing every single dirty bit of my laundry, but I will say I went lower than I had gone those six months prior in 2012. At least briefly.

Eventually, though, as almost always happens, I started getting better...

and better…

and better.

By March, I was moving again. I've been working out and getting more and more healthy ever since, which has been a quiet but major change taking place slowly, work out by work out. I've never felt stronger or more energetic than this year, in spite of its setbacks, and perhaps because of them, which is one lesson to be learned, while the other is that, as soon as I was up and out again, the sadness began to fade. So it's good it all happened. To know your weaknesses, where your dark places begin and how to make them end, that's a powerful bit of knowledge for anyone.

All the while, I'd been trying to teach through the pain and weakness and had done a pretty damn good job of it. In fact, if I had to say what I've done the most of this year, it'd be teaching, thinking about teaching, planning to teach, coming home from teaching, grading stuff my students hopefully learned while I was teaching. Teaching, teaching, teaching. And loving it even more when the sun came back out in spring and the whole place started to bloom!

I got back into what I love.

And then had the blessing of a week on the beach with family. If you're an ocean person, I mean one who feels an immediate calm at the sound, the smell, the depth, the spirit of the sea, you'll know why this moment meant so much after the ones preceding it. In all its mystery, the back and forth of the water is immensely comforting.

Soon, spring was turning into summer. That's how things are here in Georgia. It's as if the three seasons besides summer are just small breaks from summer till we get back to summer, during which the mosquitos and humidity try to ruin all the glorious green and the beautiful blazing sunshine. Not to worry about any of that this year, however, because it rained, rained, rained, rained, stopped raining for a second as if to catch its breath, and then rained some more.

But in spite of the rain, the world kept doing its turns while little things happened, while hundreds and hundreds of moments passed. Like the moment when a little boy grew up.

Like the frozen moments in the art gallery when we were sucked into a painting, or at the aquarium when we couldn't help wondering how it might be if the massive, clear wall started to crack and the life behind rushed out at us.

Like the moment when we told each other happy anniversary for the 11th year in a row.

Just life. Happening and happening over and over again from person to person.

At the first hint of fall, in a rare moment of embracing the pure artistic and spontaneous spirit I had in the old days, I cut my hair off and hitched a plane to Scotland, both of which I would do again right this second if I had to choose all over again.

It was an absolutely perfect trip. Quiet moments with friends, a moody blustery hillside, words upon words written from chilly rooms over the Loch Ness valley. It wasn't like a movie. It was better than that. It was real.

By the time I came home, it was most definitely autumn.

You know how autumn is--everything that follows comes in a great rush until just after Christmas when it slows down again into the cold gray days. I've had Christmas music on for weeks. Presents have been bought. Festive outings have taken place. Stockings have been hung by the chimney with care.

Meanwhile, I started and finished the first course for my TESOL certificate, during which I looked through many possible windows into my future. I wrapped up my twelfth term teaching and learned my schedule may soon slow dramatically. And I finished a complete first draft of the latest novel I've been working on.

Besides that, it's been sleeping, eating, laughing with Jonathan, taking walks downtown, having dinner with friends, writing letters, baking cakes, sitting on the porch, playing guitar. Stuff. Every day stuff. Nothing happened that wasn't overcome. Happy days were had and sad ones too. I worked hard, napped hard, had ups, had downs. Some days I was mean and selfish. Others I was kind and generous. 

I lived life in this body on this path.

My hope for 2014 is to do exactly the same: come out the other side having helped someone, having grown, have cried and laughed, having traveled, having hurt and healed, having cried out for meaning, and having continued to walk toward balance and peace and freedom of mind and heart.

And here's the same to you, friend. Merry Christmas. Happy New Year. Thanks, as always, for reading.

All my love for another year ahead
~ Robin Egg

Friday, December 6, 2013

On stories that write themselves

It's a comeback tale! In spite of teaching classes, taking classes, Thanksgiving travel, sickness, and many days when no writing was done at all (see plateaus in the graph below), my little novel got to just over 50,000 words in the 30 day time limit!

But finishing isn't what was great about this year's NaNo. You know how writers sometimes say, "The story just wrote itself," and you want to punch them in the face? Well punch me in the face because I've figured it out. As a result, it's the best NaNo novel I've ever written. Wanna know the secret?

I knew my characters.

What do I mean by that?

1. I did not write extensive character sketches about what color shoelaces each character prefers. I did not know all of their likes, dislikes, physical features, or personality quirks. I didn't know their entire histories or what their futures would hold. For a couple, I didn't even bother giving them a decent name. It's a draft. That stuff can come later.

2. What I did know was every single character's motivation (what he or she wanted) and conflicts (what was going to get in the way). Every major player was on a journey, not just the protagonist. Every. One.

So here's the big secret: Stories don't write themselves. Characters write them.

If you take, say, five characters, give each of them universal goals, and throw them all on a farm or a spaceship or a medieval estate, they will behave and progress naturally and create many of their own conflicts. Whether the combination is interesting enough to read is another issue. That's why you follow the main character's storyline, the one that came to you as the seed of the story that got you excited about putting it on the page. Build in realistic obstacles for your protagonist, given the situation and setting, but get them to their goal in the end, and let the other characters have lives too. The main story will follow the ups and downs of your protagonist's journey, but just like in real life, everyone isn't riding your train.

The stronger the characters, the more meaningful the goals, the more tangible the settings, the more believable the relationships: the better the story. Focus on those. Pull from people and places you've known, struggles you've gone through, scenarios you've imagined. These are what make a story unique. But don't waste your time trying to invent brand new goals no one's ever thought of. That's impossible. The goal is always to overcome, whether the protagonist is successful or not, whether the goal honorable or not. It's the circumstances and the players and the style that are new, not the hopes and dreams of your characters. Those are what make a story relatable. You didn't think Harry was the first outcast to become savior of a world, who had to die and be raised from the dead and beat the ultimate bad guy and learn to accept his burden with grace, did you?

Think about every story you've loved. Whether it took place in a time machine or in the turn of the century slums of New York, whether the main character was a fallen hero or a young Jewish girl, the story was about love, life, loss, courage, friendship, change, etc. The universals. Your job as a writer isn't to come up with a new human condition, it's to build unique characters and places and circumstances around the human condition that already exists.

And when something isn't natural to the character or the world you've built, you'll know it. It won't have gone to plan, and that'll be frustrating. But it'll bug you every time you get to that part of the draft. You'll feel like you can't ever create a strong story, like you're a bad writer. Don't. Spend that self-loathing energy on starting again from the point where things went weird. Make what happens next realistic to the world and characters on the page instead of forcing it into the shape you thought it would take. It's less about killing your darlings and more about accepting the fact you can't always tell the future, even of your own creations.

I guess this is why stories sometimes go left when we meant for them to go right, because when that monster you created showed up as a conflict for your main character, you hadn't thought through the fact that one of your secondary characters would be in the perfect position to save the day, and logically would have to do so or else the story would seem contrived, at which point you have to say to yourself, "Did not expect that," and just like in life, realize you had an ally where you thought you'd just had an acquaintance, and move forward from there.

'Tis all the NaNo wisdom I have for one year, fellow writer, but it's served me well. Here's to another finished draft in need of a good polishing.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

A Growing Understanding

In July, I wrote a post about continuing education options I was considering. Two of those courses are now over and the third will end next week. Here's a bit about the Metaphysics course I took through Oxford's Continuing Education program. I'm proud to say I received credit for my work this term, especially since it was quite hard. I have mixed feelings about the course material and the online format, but I'm glad I took it and would definitely consider taking another. Why? Because I crave perspective. It informs my life, my heart, my point of view, and my writing. Below is the final response essay I wrote for the class. It's a decent sample of my narrative academic style, which I don't have much of on the blog, and it gives an honest account of what I learned.
A Growing Understanding
            Over the course of this term, my understanding of metaphysics has more than undergone a complete change: it has been born. In signing up for the course, I assumed that many areas of the discipline bled into other areas, but I did not know the topics metaphysics covered, to what degree, or that scholarship and major advancements in the field have grown both by layering and by splintering off until incredibly precise arguments and counterarguments have been formed. Just when the reader expects an issue to be settled, another point of view not yet considered will be elaborated on, and therefore another pathway taken.
           Before the term started, I could not have given a definition of metaphysics, listed any of the arguments set forth in any conversations about metaphysical theories, or even mentioned a single name of someone well-known for his (I say ‘his’ because I did not come across the work of females in the field) essays and arguments about metaphysical topics. I will attempt here to summarize a few things I have learned, and I will thread information throughout about the academic and semantic sides of the discipline, which I also had no knowledge of prior to taking this class.
            From the beginning of the course, I established a rough idea of what metaphysics is at a basic level. In my own words, I described it as having to do with being, whereas epistemology has to do with knowing. In other words, if two people discuss what change is, as we did in class, they are discussing what something is, but if one of them questions how the other one can be so sure her definition of change is correct, then they have slipped into an epistemological argument. That is how I kept the two separate and how I will always attempt to simply define metaphysics, which seems appropriate since the arguments we read often defined one idea in contrast to another. In fact many were a direct response to a previous argument, such as the conversation-style arguments of Plato’s dialogs.
            However, things became much more complex from there on out. The language in the readings is dense, often goes in argumentative circles and on tangents in order to catch any objections, and is sometimes slightly antiquated and highly technical. Therefore, a major aspect of learning about metaphysics that I had no expectation of was learning how to read critical work about metaphysics, a skill I am afraid to say I did not come anywhere close to mastering, a deficiency that made the subject inaccessible to me many times.
            That barrier notwithstanding, I did pick up on new ideas and learn the foundations of many metaphysics theories and the arguments used to support them. In response, I was able to begin developing my own questions and begin answering them. For example, in answer to a question asking for a sample of an ontological dispute, I asked: Does a universal, innate knowledge of right and wrong exist? I could not answer the question, of course, but asking the right questions seems to be a major aspect of metaphysical disputes.
            I pondered other things as well, like whether or not the physical properties of something like the pumpkin on my table are actual or are dependent upon the perceiver, in fact, whether existence itself is reliant on perception. I learned what it means to be a hard determinist, which, in my understanding, is not about the fact that one might have freedom in a given moment to choose the red scarf over the blue, but that one does eventually decide, and that the decision is based on a long series of past events along with basic laws that rule the universe. In other discussions, as with the questions about Hume’s causation arguments, I found myself frustrated in feeling something is ultimately true, but not knowing how to prove it with a logical argument or how to counter my critics’ objections. Still, I knew I must find a logical answer and meet my critics, in order to create an answer worth considering. So then, even the experience of struggling to find an answer, and coming up short, was useful.
            Of all the topics discussed, the most affecting and fascinating for me were two. The first was the ‘one over many’ question and the ideas that followed, and the second was the space-time discussion. I never came to a conclusion about the ‘one over many’ question, but I am intrigued with so many of those what questions: what is an individual entity; what makes it what it is; is it a single quality of that entity that gives it a character, or a bundle of qualities; do those qualities belong to that entity, or do they exist somehow outside of the entity? This stuck with me and still has me asking: What am I, what makes me up, and why? Do my characteristics connect me to others with similar characteristics—do my Forms exist if I cease to exist?
            As for the space-time discussion, I have always had a sense that there is more to time than a straight line, and could happily take an entire course on the subject! The concept of the fourth dimension opened my mind considerably, and, more importantly, made absolute sense. Movement through time or space, I learned, may be seen best through the lens of change, which is also the best way to describe how such a young and immature understanding of something I knew little about before has now grown into the first steps of comprehension. In other words, I may still be in the cave, but there is most certainly a loosening in the chains that hold me.