Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Protagonist Problem

Although I have not been working on my works in progress recently, sometimes I think about them. I have written most of two novels (and a very sketchy beginning of a third). The first novel is at the stage of the first draft being three quarters complete. The strength of this one is in its characters, and its primary weakness is plot. I became stuck, unable to bring the themes together into a satisfying conclusion. 

With the second novel, I completed an overly long first draft a few years ago with the help of a couple of NaNoWriMo Novembers. This novel has a more complex structure and plot than the first one, essentially a coming of age story nested within a coming of age story. Although most of the story is told from the female protagonist's perspective, some of it is expressed by the antagonist (who is my favourite character in the book). As well, a third character pops in midway through, briefly, and I have realized that she is quite important to the story, as her perspective serves as a counterpoint to a core identity problem that the protagonist is struggling with. I think I need to add more of this third character's voice. 

This second novel is at the revising stage. Doing the revisions seems so daunting that, while I have written a bunch of notes on what I need to do, I haven't really begun revising. One of my first readers made an excellent observation about my protagonist. We see the protagonist in adulthood and as a child. She is a white woman/girl who is concerned about and at the same time implicated in racist attitudes and social practices. My reader asked why she is so conflicted, as she seems to be doing and saying all the right (anti-racist) things. I was unable to answer this question at the time. 

Now, a couple of years later, I have come to recognize something that I am calling the protagonist problem afflicts both of my novels. While I have been able to develop the other characters quite well and have a good sense of their motivations, perspectives, and flaws, in both novels I have somewhat of a blind spot about the protagonists. I have trouble seeing why they do what they do. I am too close to them. My blind spot about these main characters is almost like the blind spot I have about myself and that each of us has about ourselves - that inability to look at one's self and actions with any kind of objective distance. However, I want to quickly point out that neither of the protagonists is autobiographical; I am not either of them and their experiences are not mine (although I recognize that there is some of me in each of my characters and in the dilemmas that they find themselves in).

Moreover, I feel ambivalent about each of these two main characters. Neither is a hero that is easy to identify with. In the first novel, the main character feels smugly superior to the two other significant characters that she has been thrown together with, and yet also is profoundly lacking in emotional self-awareness as she grieves a death of someone close to her. 

In the second novel, the main character is likeable as a young girl, but when we see her as a woman, she has isolated herself from her family. She has become judgmental and focused on efficiency and career, and is not very effective in being able to form or sustain relationships. The trouble is, how do we care about her and the situations that she is in throughout the book if we don't like her? 

The protagonist problem is this. I am writing each of these stories primarily from the point of view of the main character. Because I am seeing the world from her point of view, I suffer the same kind of lack of insight and self awareness that the character has, or that any any first person perspective has. I as the writer lack narrative distance, and this makes it hard for me to see the main character as a fully rounded complex person. Moreover, in both novels, I have given the protagonist have some personality characteristics that might not make the protagonist particularly endearing to the reader. 

I think that when I finally go back to writing and revising these works in progress, I am going to have to find a way, as the writer, to step back from the two protagonists. By stepping back and taking a longer view, I hope to see them as the characters that they are, interacting with the other characters on the stage of their story. 

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Making a Life

A little bit of contemplative time can be a dangerous thing. Rob has been away for a few days, and on my own this weekend with plenty of reflective time, I find my mind turning to the "Big Questions."

Blinkered by the daily toil, drowning in a sea of busyness, I do not often pause to wonder. I just get on with the task in front of me at the moment, and attempt to manage my way through the myriad of urgent matters clamouring to be next on the agenda.

How on earth did I get here?

I am not asking how humans came to exist, or how society evolved, or from whence came my soul. Rather, in this rare moment of lifting my nose from the grindstone, I suddenly realize that I find myself in a certain job (with all its complexities), in a certain city, with a pattern of regular activities, and a particular network of family, friends, acquaintances, and work colleagues. I have been going along, year-by-year, caught up in the immediacy of decisions and details, and all the while the minutiae have added up, and altogether this has come to constitute my life.

My thoughts this morning reminded me of a New Wave band I used to listen to throughout the 1980's, and in particular, one song. I rushed to the Internet to find it, because although I have the album (remember LP's?), it is packed away somewhere in a box in the basement. The song is Once in a Lifetime, and in it, David Byrne of the Talking Heads speaks rather than sings some parts of the odd and existential lyrics.

Here is the first verse of the song, and a link to the music video:  

Talking Heads -- Once in a Lifetime

And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself in another part of the world
And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself
Well...How did I get here?

For me, this captures perfectly the sense of of lack of control, or dislocation I sometimes feel when I contemplate the course of my life. The following quote from an interview with David Byrne elaborates on the concept in the song:

In an interview with NPR, Byrne said: "We're largely unconscious. You know, we operate half awake or on autopilot and end up, whatever, with a house and family and job and everything else, and we haven't really stopped to ask ourselves, 'How did I get here?'" Songfacts

Most of the time, I like to believe that I have significant control over the life that I have. I have choices. I have chosen to have this job, to live in this city, to have these particular hobbies, and to spend time with this set of people. Outside of work, any given day, I have choices about how I will spend each hour of the day. At work, the job itself places many constraints on my time and attention, but still I have decisions to make and choices about how to focus my efforts. I think of the many fascinating strands of people, places, ideas, experiences, relationships, things, and creative processes that together over time make up my life. Lifting my head up out of the minutiae briefly to survey my life more broadly, it seems rich and satisfying.

And yet, so much of it is by chance, or dependent on external factors and the actions of others. Some of it I control, yes. I am fortunate to be privileged within this society in many ways, which has given me a greater breadth of choice than many citizens have. But for so much of life, people only really have control over their own responses -- to global events, societal practices, and even daily circumstances -- and quite limited ability to affect the broad sweep of events. Sometimes, the range of influence of any individual and means to engage even right in the here and now can seem woefully limited.

For example, I believe in the democratic process, so I vote. I do so knowing that my one vote contributes only in a very small way to the final decision. At various times, I have further contributed to the democratic process by holding membership in a political party, by volunteering during elections, and by donating to what I deem to be worthy causes. I read to educate myself about the issues at municipal, provincial and federal levels. In my workplace, I strive to create opportunities for consultation and collaborative decision-making. And yet, many times governments have been elected that are not the ones I would have chosen, and which I believe are making poor decisions for our country. At work, oftentimes, the committee process leads to mediocre and status quo decisions, rather than to bold innovation and making things better. Ultimately, my personal ability to make a difference is very limited and that can be so discouraging.

We are facing global warming. There is poverty across the world, including right in my community. There is war, inequality, mental illness, corporate greed, and environmental destruction. The current industrial approaches to agriculture are destroying our soil and water, killing the honey bees, limiting access to and diminishing the variety of seeds, and contaminating our food with pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics, and GMO's. I feel that I should be doing something about all of this, and at the same time feel helpless to make a difference.

Knowing what I know now, and if I truly had the chance to choose, would I have chosen this life that I have? But how could I have chosen it? I could never have even imagined it with all its complex twists and turns.

Do the little tasks that I toil away at truly make a difference, or should I put my efforts elsewhere? My time on earth is just a tiny little blip, and yet I feel such a sense of responsibility to live my life in a way that makes a difference. When I ask, "How did I get here?" and look at the sum of my life to date, I scrutinize my life in terms of the unknowable, the big existential question: "What is it all for?"

If the metric by which I evaluate my life, ultimately, is whether or not I have made a difference, I fear that I have fallen short. Yet what arrogance to think that I, just one small person, should have the power to effect big changes. Maybe, after all, it is the accretion of little things, moment-by-moment, day-by-day, year-by-year, that really is what is all about.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Greasing the Muffin Pan

This morning I made muffins for breakfast. I started with the tried and true basic muffin recipe out of a thirty year old Red Roses cookbook, and improvised from there. 

Rather than two cups of white flour, I switched half a cup of it for whole wheat flour. I threw in about a tablespoon of brewer's yeast, left here by a visiting friend who cooks vegetarian and whole grain foods.  I added chopped walnuts and dried currants to the dry ingredients. I had a small amount of mashed yams leftover from last night's dinner, so I added that, and also a couple of tablespoons of cooked quinoa, also left over from dinner. I mixed them up, popped them in the oven, and there was breakfast. The muffins were delicious. Rob ate five. 

One thing that I do not enjoy doing when making muffins is greasing the muffin pan. I have a lovely stoneware pan, a gift from a friend. It is large and heavy, and when I lift it down from its home in the cupboard above the refrigerator, still in its original box, I always smile and remember my friend who gave it to me. And then I sigh, put a dab of butter on some waxed paper and grease each muffin cup. Maybe the reason I don't like this part is because I always end up with greasy fingers. The butter gets into my skin and under my fingernails, and is hard to wash off. 

It seems to me that many tasks of life have a component in them that is off-putting, unpleasant, or even sometimes severely anxiety-provoking. Sometimes for me, that one component can be not just a little bump in the road, but a brick wall that is hard to get past. 

Greasing the muffin pan is a mild and almost silly example. But the fact is, if I let my aversion to greasing the pan stop me, I would never make homemade muffins. I would lose the satisfaction of making and eating them, and my family would lose the opportunity to enjoy them as well.

Here is another example. I love to ski. Every winter, it gives me great joy to ski as many weekends as I can. The last two winters, we have taken a March ski holiday with dear friends in another province, and we are planning to do the same again this March. Both times, we have had a wonderful week of skiing and spending time with our friends. 

But every morning at the skihill, when I put my ski boots on, my feet hurt. The boots cut off my circulation and squash my insteps down. Sometimes the pain is quite extreme from the pressure on my insteps, and also once I take the boots off to thaw my feet. 

I have good quality, properly fit boots with customized heat moulded inner boots. These are better boots than I ever owned before when I was younger and poorer. But unfortunately for me, I have wide feet, high arches, short strong calves, and poor circulation. I have never found any brand of boot that is actually comfortable. I have learned all kinds of tricks, like making sure my boots are warm before putting them on, wearing thin socks, buckling the boots loosely at the start of the day, and unbuckling them for each ride up the chair. Later in the day, once my body has warmed up to exercise and my feet have adjusted to the boots, the pain is minimal and my feet don't get as cold. 

Still, I know that every ski day, I will have to put up with painful feet and frozen toes for the first three or four runs. Then I'll go into the lodge and weep while defrosting my feet. After that, my feet will be fine for the rest of the day. I refuse to let a little thing like pain stop me from enjoying a wonderful day of skiing.

Here is a work related example. Like many people, I suffer from fear of public speaking. Yet, throughout the different jobs in my career, I regularly have had to speak publicly in a variety of situations. I have led meetings of the senior leaders of a large organization. I have taught small classes and classes of 250. I have been interviewed on television. I have spoken at national and international conferences. I have led a ceremonial event in a darkened theatre that seats 750. 

Every first time that I have had to speak in a new type of situation, I have become highly anxious. I have experienced sweaty palms, the feeling of almost fainting, and the sensation of hearing sound coming out of my mouth but being unable to understand the words that I am saying. I have had wordlessness come over me, when in the middle of a sentence, I suddenly have become frozen, unable to finish the sentence. With everyone's eyes upon me, the silence has seemed to go on and on. 

You would think that having experienced public speaking fright once, I would have avoided that type of situation forever after. But no, I am not that easy on myself. I have made myself do it again, and again, and again, until I have developed ease with that particular situation. And then I have signed myself up for tasks that up the ante, and require me to speak to larger or more critical audiences. 

I am not trying to torture myself. I am not trying to purposely seek out public speaking situations. It's just that if I am going to be able to my job well, I have to take the public speaking part of it in stride. As my career has progressed, the level of public speaking required also has risen. If I had taken the easy way out, I would never have learned to how to manage in public speaking situations, and I would not have learned to cope with the anxiety. The focus isn't me, but rather the instruction, the presentation, the interview, the meeting agenda, and the celebration. 

So, I guess the point I am making, which isn't especially profound, is that we grow when we don't let ourselves take the easy way out. This is the case in creative endeavours, like oil painting or writing a novel, and at work, and also in the little everyday things of life, like making muffins. 


Sunday, November 9, 2014

Karen Margulis, Pastel Painter

Tonight, I would like to feature the work of an amazing artist, Karen Margulis. She works in pastel, and has a fabulous sense of colour and design.

Ribbon of Blue

The painting above is titled Ribbon of Blue. It is available for purchase on her Website and also can be viewed on her blog.

I really like this painting because in this composition, the blue zigzag of water draws the eye right into the space. As well, she has used colour to provide dramatic contrast and yet at the same time to develop the image as a unified whole. Finally, I like the way that she has not overworked the painting, but has left areas that are suggestive or somewhat unresolved. This adds interest and keeps me looking at the painting for a long time. An example of this are the marks just above the line of the horizon. My eyes keep going there as I try to understand if I am seeing clouds, or birds, or smoke, or perhaps the suggestion of far away hills.

As well as being a marvellous artist, Karen writes thoughtful posts on techniques and her artistic practice. For example, in recent posts, she has talked about strategies she uses to give herself permission. One such strategy is finding ways to give oneself permission to stop working on a picture before it loses its freshness and becomes overworked. Another strategy is to use poor photos as references, which is more likely to result in colour improvisation and greater looseness, rather than rigid copying of what appears in the photograph. 

I have added a link to her blog to my blog roll. Follow it or any of the links above to enjoy more of her work. 

Sunday, November 2, 2014

A Writing Life, Deferred

What is special about October 31? Well, Halloween, of course -- but what else?

October 31st is the day before November 1st, and November 1st is the first day of the month of NaNoWriMo. NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month, a month when writers across the globe form a mutual support group to cheer each other on in each one's individual quest to write a 50,000 word novel in a month. 

On Halloween night, I read a fellow writer's social media post about her writing plan for her novel this year. Then I signed onto the NaNoWriMo website, miraculously remembering my user name and password from several years ago when I last participated. I'm still listed there, though my webpage is blank, my past years' records wiped away. I cruised the forums a little, nostalgically. Then I logged off and spent this whole weekend not writing. 

It's not that I had other pressing things I needed to do this weekend, just laundry, groceries, and a few errands. I spent half the day on Saturday in my pyjamas on the couch. I read a whole novel, a journalist's series on the contemporary challenges of finding work, and browsed through quite a few pages of Kathi Weeks's scholarly book, The Problem With Work (2011).

Frequently over these two days, the thought that NaNoWriMo had started popped into my head, and I fought the urge to run to my computer and write. I felt sad that I was not participating this year, again. 

But there simply is no point. I cannot do my job and be a committed writer too, not both at the same time. My job has been chewing up 12 hours a day, Monday to Friday, and lately it has gobbled up part of each weekend as well. When I come home at the end of the day, I am tired and hungry, and many days I have no words left in my head. Just as often, the work scenarios are still racing through my mind most of the evening leaving little space for anything else. 

In the evenings, I fit in some exercise, time with Rob, phone calls to kids and friends, some daily home tasks like paying the bills or sewing on buttons. By Friday, I am in a haze of exhaustion, and barely able to hold a conversation, never mind write. 

This weekend, true enough, I could have spent some hours writing. But then I would have had to put it aside until next weekend (if I was lucky), or maybe several weekends hence. It is hard to write with continuity and passion in the little dribs and drabs of time that I have.

I have participated in NaNoWriMo before in the hours between and around work. But work then, although busy, did not demand so many hours or spend me as thoroughly as my current job does. Also, I had to absent myself from everything else for the month of November, which I did willingly in the past. But now, there is less and less of a life outside of work, as work has grown to take up more and more of my time and energy. 

This is quite the Faustian bargain -- this job OR a life. The life that is left over after work is a skinny little thing with no room for the writing life.

And it's not just me being overly dramatic, or poor at managing my time. In the macho culture of this type of organization, you have to suck it up and work, work, work, all the time. Or you leave, or get pushed out.

A couple of days ago, I was reminiscing with a colleague about a big collaborative writing project on identity that I was engaged in several years ago. I could hear myself enthusiastically describing that project and how interesting it was. I loved doing that kind of writing and work, and I suddenly realized how much I missed it. 

I have not completely stepped away from writing. This blog is my primary writing practice now. I do some writing at work, but mostly of an interactive, functional type (e.g., email, brief reports). Sometimes (rarely), I write a poem. I still think about the nuts and bolts of writing, especially when I am reading a well-written novel or blogs on writing, and sometimes I still daydream about my stories in progress, or ones that I might write someday. 

Right now, I am pinning my hopes on retirement. I have not ceased to be a writer. I just will be going about it in sequence rather than in parallel in the current and upcoming stages of my life.