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

cat-lion_mirror

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.

addaams

“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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Research is vital (and fun!)

Research is an important component of writing – even in fiction. Of course the common advice is to write what you know, and that advice is absolutely dead on. However, details matter. So for a writer, it pays to educate yourself.

stove

Toward that end, I spent a wonderful afternoon at a friend’s house learning how she cooks on her woodburning stove. Mona, the main character in my novel MOTHER MONA, is a city girl who rarely cooks for herself at home. Most of her meals involve take-out or the salad bar at the local organic grocer. However, when she travels to a remote Alaskan cabin to be with her sick daughter, there’s no grocer for miles. Nor is there any electricity, gas or running water. Mona has to learn to cook on her daughter’s woodburning stove. And Mona learns, as I have today, that it involves as much art as science.

Luckily for me, today’s lesson involved baking three loaves of fresh whole-wheat bread. YUM! My friend Athanasia has been cooking on a woodburning stove for years. She’s lived the off-the-grid lifestyle for much of her life, and let me tell you she makes it look easy.
bread
It’s not. And we didn’t even go into the wood-chopping part.

I took notes on when to close the main regulator, when to turn the bread so it doesn’t all brown on one side (because the fire is hotter closer to the wood box), how to manipulate the burner rings on top to accomodate your tea kettle or fryer (cast-iron cookware is heavy!) and how to make your house smell pretty simply by adding a bit of dried lavender buds to the bread-warming drawer.

Of course, any good researcher will tell you thoroughness is of vital import. And so, as I drove home I tore off and ate about a third of the steamy warm loaf of whole wheat she sent with me. Oh yeah!

Sadly for Mona, her first few tries at woodstove cooking come out looking nothing like this. But let’s just say that’s an area in which I already have plenty of expertise. I’ve already done that research, thank you very much.

kettle

NOTE:                                                                                  (It’s hard to tell from the photo, but the bottom of this kettle is actually inside the stove here. The fire box is directly below it. That round piece you see normally lies flat, but can be removed so the bottom 1/2 inch of the kettle fits directly over the flame. There is another ring that also can be removed to accomocate a frying pan. How cool is that!)