It’s all in your mind (well, actually it is)

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One of the best teachers I ever had was professor Ron Spatz at University of Alaska Anchorage, who was then the head of the Creative Writing Department and also the editor of the prestigious Alaska Quarterly Review literary journal.

Ron Spatz was one of those people with the unusual gift of bringing out the best in people. He didn’t settle for second-best from anyone, and had an uncanny way of knowing when someone was handing in something less than they were capable of. I could fill a book, I suppose, with great Ron Spatz-isms. But there is one lesson he taught us eager would-be writers that has really stayed with me, even 15+ years later. It’s a simple idea, really, but it’s influenced every piece I’ve ever written since, and even the way I deal with people in “real life.”

It’s this:

People act according to the way they see themselves, not according to who they really are.

Told you it was a simple idea. At least, it seems so on the surface. In reality, it’s profound, and remembering this can help us understand how people (characters) behave, both on the printed page and off.

For example, suicide is epidemic among young people – especially in Alaska, where I live.  Say a character loses his job, laid off with a bunch of other guys. If my character sees himself as unredeemable, a hopeless failure, that this is just further confirmation that he can’t do anything right, he might consider suicide. Whereas most people would consider being laid off just temporarily bad circumstances and never consider such a drastic response.  It’s that self perception, whether accurate or not, that makes the difference.

A woman who’s been told she’s “loose” or “immoral?” Odds are she’ll act that way, dress that way. If she’s sexually assaulted, she might even think she deserved it. A teenager who’s always been treated like a thug will probably act like one. A man who thinks he’s not very smart will probably never try for a mentally-demanding job – even if he’s actually got an IQ of 130.

Of course, our self-perception isn’t always formed by the opinions of those around us. That jobless, thirty-something loser living at home? He would never date anyone with less than supermodel good looks because inside, for whatever reason, he believes he’s worth it. On the flip side, we’ve all seen brilliant, beautiful people engage in self-destructive behavior (the supermodel in an abusive relationship, the amazingly talented singer who refuses to audition for a musical, and so on) because they don’t think they’re “good enough” in spite of the opinions of those around them.

mr rooney   “I did not achieve this position in life by having some snot-nosed punk leave my cheese out in the wind.”

 The funny thing is, we all have our blind spots – those instances in which the way we perceive ourselves doesn’t *quite* sync with the rest of the world. This can make for great character development too. Remember Mr. Rooney in Ferris Beuller’s Day Off? He thought of himself as a man on a mission – a rather righteous one at that; his students thought he was a nutcase. Or take Mr. Darcy, for example. Until the venerable Elizabeth Bennet set him straight, he had no idea what a stuck-up, priggish jerk he really was. One of the best ways I’ve ever seen this pulled off was with the Addams Family movies – Gomez and Morticia actually think it’s everyone else that’s strange, not them.

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“Weirdos.”

So tell me what you think. Have you found this to be true? Do you know anyone with a blindspot like Mr. Rooney? Has there ever been a teacher in your life whose advice stuck with you years later? Let me know in the comments!

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For Mother’s Day I Want A Heap of Guts

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People in your works of fiction always think the story is about them.

It is.

And, it’s not.

For example, I have spent hours (okay a lot of minutes) trying to convince my mother that my novel MOTHER MONA is not about her. It really isn’t.

She’s in there though – just a wee bit of her. So is my beloved mother-in-law. So am I.

MONA, my main character, is a woman who’s lived her life restrained by fear. Fear of connecting, fear of leaving her comfort zone, fear of leaving an alcoholic husband. Fear of germs. Of spiders. Fear of looking stupid. Fear of fear.

See, there’s me in there. Certainly not that bad, but one of the perks of having a vivid imagination is that not only do you view the world in a way that makes people think you’re at least a little bit nuts, you also have the capability to imagine every little possible thing that can go wrong. And, I hate spiders.

So here I’ve gone and written a novel. Now, Mother’s Day is in a couple days and if you follow any kind of media whatsoever, you’ve been inundated with gift ideas for Mom. My kids have been asking me what I want (clean house, long nap, vacation to someplace warm, lots of hugs and kisses – not necessarily in that order). Then that Little Voice said, “What do you want? Guts.” Not the moose kind (been there, done that) or the fish kind (done that too). The writerly kind. Yeah.

So my Mother’s Day gift to me? The guts to query. For you non-writer types, that means I’ve spent months writing a novel, and weeks and weeks polishing it until my eyeballs bled, and now it’s time to send a blurb about it to literary agents to see if they like it well enough to represent me. The blurbs are called queries. So “to query” literally means “to rip your heart out and wave it in front of the whole wide world to criticize or reject or maybe even laugh at.”

Gulp.

I went bungee jumping once. Years ago, in Florida. Bouyed by copious amounts of liquid courage and the effrontery of my husband, who said I’d chicken out. I showed him. From 1,000 feet, I jumped. It was terrifying. And wonderful. And ever since, I’ve been able to look back and say to myself, “Ha! You did that! You can do anything!” and “I told you so” to my husband (which is also fun because it doesn’t happen often).

Today, I’m jumping. Leaping off the big fat, scary query cliff is my Mother’s Day gift to me. Tawanda!

But I still want all the hugs and kisses from my kids. And the long nap.