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Archive for the ‘Rambling’ Category

What Do I Put in a Letter?

I’ve been trying to encourage friends, fans, and social media acquaintances to write me letters this spring, as I have 51 beautiful envelopes just waiting to be stuffed with correspondence, and I intend to use every one of them before the end of May.  Several people have expressed an interest in trying out this whole handwritten correspondence thing, but weren’t sure exactly what sort of things they should put in an old fashioned paper letter.

Now, I’m certainly not Emily Post, but I’m not sure the old fashioned rules about letter-writing really apply anymore anyway.  I think email, social media, and texting have changed the purpose of letters from what it may have been even a decade ago.  Sending important news by postal mail is ludicrous when we have Facebook and email, and Twitter and text messages seem made for daily small talk.  So what does that leave to put in a letter?

As with any medium, consider its unique strengths when deciding best how to use it.  What makes a paper letter unique?

  1. Personality.  Even if you don’t try that hard, and even if you don’t have a strong writing “voice,” your unique handwriting as well as your choice of pen and paper will make your letter stand out from another person’s in a way that emails do not.
  2. Permanence.  Okay, who are we kidding, most people will eventually throw your letters out, but perhaps not! The chances of a paper letter being kept, perhaps read again months or even years later, are significantly higher than with email, and astronomically higher than with a Facebook or Twitter post.
  3. Openness.  Paper correspondence is the only form of person-to-person communication that defaults to being generally available for perusal by anyone in its vicinity.  It isn’t hidden behind a login; it is freely available for third parties to peruse now and in the future.
  4. Sentiment.  The very fact that the message is on paper gives it a +3 to Nostalgia and also tells the person that you sat down and did a thing specifically for them, hand crafted a message unlike any other.

And so I offer a few suggestions of how one might take these qualities into account and use them to generate ideas about what to write.

First, throw “correctness” out the window.  All the old rules about what constituted civilized correspondence were created when we didn’t have word processors and emails to keep things neat and uniform.  Do things on paper that you can’t in email.  Doodle in the margins, underline and draw asterisks, play with the arrangement of the words on the page.  Write in spirals if that’s your kind of thing. Slip in a movie ticket stub or a piece of ribbon.  In short, be you.

Second, write about things that will still matter in six months.  If possible, write about things that will be even more interesting in a decade than they are now.  What is just so today about today?  How can you capture it?

Third, write things that you want to share.  Come at this from a spirit of generosity, not only to your chosen pen pal, but to anyone else who might pick up the letter and find it interesting.  Be courageous.  Give people a glimpse into yourself, confess interesting and little known facts, even navel-gaze a bit.  You are leaving a bit of evidence of yourself out there in the world, and have little control over its ultimate destination.  Ask yourself, “What would I put into a bottle and float out to sea?”

Lastly, put your heart into it.  Anyone who receives a letter from you knows that you spent anywhere from ten to forty-five minutes (and at least 50 cents) doing something just for them, so there’s no need to feign nonchalance.  The cat is out of the bag.  Be affectionate, be free with your praise.  Say the things you’d be too shy to say if you were looking the person in the eye.  The distance and the lack of response-pressure frees up both of you, allowing for more intensity, more honesty.

Some of these suggestions tend to balance each other in interesting ways – an enclosed rose petal won’t last a decade, and a confession of undying lust might not be appropriate to potential third parties – but that’s the art of it: balancing the unique qualities of handwritten correspondence and finding the perfect combination to suit you.

Please feel free to send any and all experiments to:  Mishell Baker; P. O. Box 78670, Los Angeles, CA 90016.

It’s Hard Being Right All the Time.

Take out a blank sheet of paper and a pen.  Go ahead, I’ll wait!

Now number down the left hand side, one through five, and draw blank lines after each.  Got it?  Okay.  Here is the exercise.  Fill in those five blank numbered slots with five things you are wrong about.  Just five.  Go on, I’ll still be here when you’re finished.

Having trouble?  I thought maybe it was just me.  I thought maybe I was the only person on the face of the earth who was right about everything.  What are the odds there’d be two of us?

All right, I’ll stop being a smartass and get to my point.

It’s hard being right all the time — and it can ruin your writing.  At some point in your life, whether through fiction or through an essay, you are going to try to convince people that your take on something is the right one.  Unfortunately, unless you’re a truly extraordinary human being, you will begin this endeavor without first thoroughly and genuinely empathizing with your opposition.

All people believe that they understand all there is to understand about their opposition, just as all people believe that their side of an issue is the correct side.  How do you know if you are one of the huge number of people who are wrong about one or both of these things?  One way is to ask yourself these three questions:

  1. Would anyone I respect actually do/think the things I’m arguing against?
  2. Would any member of the opposition look at my portrayal of them and say, “Yes, that’s me exactly”?
  3. Is there anything in my writing that would make people on my side of the argument uneasy?

If the answer to any of these questions is no, you might be throwing punches at a straw man.  Swinging your fists at nothing makes it pretty easy to win a fight.  But if winning is less important to you than provoking change (or at the very least thought), it may be in your best interest to spend a few moments entertaining the most bone-chilling of questions:

What if I’m the idiot here?

Slip inside your opposition’s skin for a moment.  Retain all your intelligence and powers of reason.  Now find some way, via mental gymnastics, to catch at least a dim glimpse of the truth held in the other side’s point of view. This may take a while.  We’re not looking for a perfunctory nod of “Yeah okay I get it.”  We’re looking for true empathy, the sincere, visceral, emotional experience of holding that point of view.  You’ll know when you have it, because you’ll feel incredibly uncomfortable.

If it helps, imagine it as an alternate universe in which your opposition is actually correct.  Imagine yourself a protagonist in a story set in this parallel world where there really is a God, or where women really are less intelligent, or where people really did evolve from apes, or whatever it is you’re trying to argue against.  Now imagine how you would feel about someone who insisted that the rules of the (now nonexistent) real world applied to this alternate world.  Imagine what harm would come if people in power tried to run the parallel world by the rules of the real one.  Try to viscerally feel the destructive stupidity of that.

This is an extraordinarily difficult but necessary thing to do, and it’s easy to spot writers who haven’t done it (see checklist above).  Only when you are able to phrase your opposition’s side in a way that would make them say excitedly, “Yes!  Exactly!  You get me!” are you at the very beginning of the process of mounting an intelligent counterpoint.

Sometimes, in the course of researching the opposition’s viewpoint, you’ll actually talk yourself over to their side.  And if you do, you should be proud, not ashamed.  Integrity only matters if the thing you believe is actually right.  If not, by all means, please change your mind.

The Art of Being Wrong in Fiction

At the risk of sounding like a Myke Cole groupie (I know he comes up in my blog a lot), his books are a classic example of two sides of an issue given their due respect.  To grossly oversimplify, the two sides of the argument in his books are military vs. mage.

  1. Military: Magic is dangerous on an epic level when uncontrolled, and our job is to protect citizens from threats.  So we train and control mages so they can use their powers for good.
  2. Mage: I didn’t ask for these powers, and yet I’m being penned up and supervised like some sort of criminal.

My natural modes of thought predisposed me to sympathize with the mages and to be appalled by the way the military blithely walked right over their civil rights.  But here is the amazing thing.  All throughout Cole’s books, he kept changing my mind. 

Just when I would be furious at the military for treating mages so cruelly, I would be shown an example of how that same rigid military discipline unlocked mages’ potential and led to amazing acts of heroism.  I’d be shown how selfishness and lack of cohesion caused untold destruction.  And I’d start to think, “Okay, I guess the military are the good guys in this story,” and gamely I’d switch sides.

But then in the very next chapter I would be shown some example of how easily the military’s hierarchy and traditions could be abused to do something inhumane.  So I’d switch sides again only to be shown in the next chapter why the military did that seemingly inhumane thing, and how catastrophic it can be when civilians try to demand their individual rights in the middle of a war zone.  And suddenly I’m looking down my nose at the selfish civilians again.

Eventually, Cole’s stories do choose a side, of sorts.  But you can’t forget the way you sympathized with the other side, and it makes some of the confrontations especially tense and heartbreaking.  There are no idiots in these stories, only frightened people using the rules they understand best to cope with a situation that no one truly understands.

And guess what?  In life, there may not be as many idiots as you think there are, either.

Why I Haven’t Read a Novel Lately.

I’m halfway through a draft of a novel.  When drafting new prose, I don’t read other novels.  That’s not unusual; many people worry about unintentionally aping another writer’s style.  But I’ve got a whole other level of crazy going on.

Years ago, I spent a few months doing pro bono freelance writing and editing for a nonprofit whose aim was to get art and music into local public schools.  At one of the meetings someone told me an anecdote about her friend Jacob*, a university art professor, and his five-year-old daughter.  Their reported conversation went something like this:

Daughter: Daddy, what do you do for work?

Jacob: I teach grownups how to draw.

Daughter: (aghast pause) … You mean they forget?

I’ve been thinking about that conversation lately because I’ve been dealing with a child who, contrary to everything I understand of children, simply would not draw.

I was always the kind of child who would be quiet indefinitely at a restaurant if you handed her a pen and the back of a paper placemat, and so I have always assumed that children naturally drew pictures for pleasure, whether they were good at it or not.  I thought that self-criticism was a faculty that came much, much later to spoil the fun.

But this little girl, far past the age when this was developmentally appropriate, would only ball a crayon up in her fist and make merciless, crayon-snapping scribbles on any paper given to her.  Sometimes she would ask other people to draw things for her, but if she tried to draw so much as a circle, she would look at it, say “That’s not right!”, in a tone just this side of panic.

There was no pressure for her to perform, especially not at first.  But eventually my concern began to bleed through, and made it worse.  I wasn’t concerned about her skill level, but about her dread of the process.  Aren’t children supposed to run to you excited about a portrait that looks like spaghetti dropped from a great height?  They’re not supposed to stare moodily at their work and feel crushed by its inadequacy.

Some had tried to demonstrate the fun of drawing for her by doing it themselves, but I quickly realized that part of the problem was her comparing her drawings to adults’, so I categorically forbade any adult to draw anything for her, no matter how she begged.

Last week, we had a breakthrough.  She asked me to draw her a rose.  Instead of gently declining the request the way I usually do, I said excitedly, “Hey, want me to show you how?”  We sat down, and with hands firmly behind my back I instructed her to draw a circle, and then a line coming down from it.  “Look!” I said.  “It’s a rose!  Now you can make it any color you want.”  I’m not sure why this was the breakthrough, but suddenly she spent half the afternoon drawing lollipop “roses” in every color.

The next week, I instructed her to add an extra line to the lollipop, and called it a person.  She caught onto this quickly, and then within a few hours, without my even being in the room, she was drawing intricate people (for her age), people with limbs I hadn’t told her how to draw, people with hair and smiling mouths and the right color clothing to match the Disney character she had in mind.  As if she’d suddenly caught up to a year and a half of delayed development in a matter of hours.

But it wasn’t her mastery that delighted me.  It was the way she grabbed my hand and dragged me in to show me.  The way she insisted on taping them to the wall, herself, to look at in perpetuity.  The way she stopped thinking of art as pass/fail, and instead as a way to communicate something inside herself (in this case, a deep fascination with the movie Tangled).  Instead of seeing what the drawing wasn’t, she could finally see what it was.

I find myself envying her.  I wish that, knowing how flawed my work is, I could still feel happy about it.  I wish I could be proud that, to whatever limited extent I’m capable, I captured something that is important to me.  But I’m the little girl sitting in front of a piece of paper near tears, looking at what the grownups drew and knowing I can never, never, not in a million years, do that.  It’s as paralyzing for me as it was for her.

So no, I won’t be reading any of my favorite authors, not until my drawing is finished.  Will that stop me from being crushed by shame over its weaknesses?  No.  But at that point my shame cannot undraw it.

*Not his real name.  Not for his protection, I just honestly don’t remember.