Forgiving yourself for what you did “on purpose”

Window with six panes looking out on a street with church and palace towers in the distance.
Forgiving yourself can change your perspective. Image: View of yellow palace housing University of Bonn from Greek/Latin library. © Laurel Decher, 2017.

Whack! The little girl smacked her tiny rainbow umbrella down on the restaurant’s marble table with an unexpectedly loud crack. No one was hurt; nothing was damaged–or even knocked over–but her eyes widened in horror.

“But I did it on purpose!” A storm of tears followed and she hid her face against her mother. I wanted put an arm around her and say, “We’ve all done things on purpose. I’ve felt exactly the same way. And so did St. Peter.”

When we see the shocking results of something we’ve done “on purpose” we’re dismayed. Sometimes we hurt someone we love and that makes it even worse. But sometimes a “small” failure horrifies us needlessly. We send ourselves off into a spiral of critique and hurt ourselves most.

This morning, I’m trying to start work on the umpteenth revision of a particularly stubborn work-in-progress. Instead of an umbrella beating a marble table, I’m beating up on myself. The familiar inner critic’s comments show up right away: I made this mess of a draft, I did it to myself, it’s my own fault.

A classic case of I-failed-and-I-did-it-to-myself.

I only know one remedy. Go somewhere private–like the middle of the forest–and confess my limited-ness out loud:

I can’t do this by myself. I need help. I tried and I failed. Forgive me for my shortcomings. Forgive me for my ludicrous resentment of the shortcomings of others. Let me hide my face for a while.

It always surprises me. As soon as I stop making myself the center of the universe, I can show my face again. Relief! I’m not the boss. I can start again with a lighter heart.

It’s so deceptively simple and it saves so much heartbreak.

What helps you when the critical voices threaten to shut you down?

Resources:

Carolyn Kaufman’s excellent blog posts:

Defeating Your Inner Critic Part 1

Defeating Your Inner Critic Part 2

Brené Brown’s TED talk on shame and vulnerability is a good intro to her work on living a whole-hearted life.

An inspiring conversation about courage with Brené Brown and Oprah Winfrey

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Writing Gratitude Countdown (4): The Gift of Feedback

Worker in orange vest squeegees windshield of ICE train in Dresden Train Station.
Who helps you see your work clearly? © Laurel Decher, 2016.

This is the fourth post in my Writing Gratitude Countdown. It’s a series about people who’ve helped me on my writing journey so far. I’m taking a moment to say a heartfelt thank you!

(You can find earlier posts here: 1. The Gift of Attention , 2. The Gift of Permission, 3. The Gift of Hospitality.)

4. The Gift of Feedback: the value of clear sight

a. How critique works: The earliest critique group I can remember was in high school, in my Creative Writing class. I think my beloved and brilliant writer friend Zina got me to sign up. Mrs. Chloe Vroman and her Creative Writing class at Provo High School. This is where I learned that it’s easier to see inside someone else’s story than inside your own. And that the right critique can open up the story for the writer. I wish I’d said thank you before it was too late! 😦

b. How a group works: Smart and funny Colin Ryan led me to my first critique group in Vermont, led by lovely, hospitable Margie Sims. As well as sharing her writing expertise, she modelled simple organization, communication, snacks, structure. Later, the group became a collaboration between me and the industrious and highly capable JoAnn Carter. All of them taught me how to make a safe space for writers.

c. How writers can sabotage their own success and how critique partners (CP’s) can save them: At the Ockenga Writers Publishing Workshop, I found another group of thoughtful, generous readers. (I wrote more about the Workshop here. My dear friend Eileen first invited me there and it changed my life.) My patient CP’s put up with my unconscious but annoying thrashing* until I finally learned to stop it.

We encouraged each other to keep on going and believe in each others’ work. A vote of confidence is so valuable! Thanks a million million Girard and Jeanne Doyon and Lisa Morrison!

*thrashing–the neverending revision of a single piece of work, generally prompted by waiting for someone else to tell you what your story should be about.

d. How critique groups raise the bar: I’ve written about how I became a part of The Winged Pen here. This group of power writers is the epitome of “set your sights high.”

I call this the calculus factor after the feeling I had when the girl next to me in calculus class asked questions until she understood everything on the chalkboard. It opened my eyes: “Oh, we’re actually supposed to know this so we can use it.”

Gratitude is an interesting lens. The more I look through it, the more I see how I’ve been helped. When writing is a wall that blocks the way forward, it’s useful to remember what kinds of help are possible.

Another unexpected benefit: it’s fun to reconnect to people I’ve lost track of. I’m enjoying the successes of my long-lost friends and mentors! Well done, all of you! It’s an honor to know you.

Happy writing!

So that’s my fourth installment of gratitude for my writing journey. (The earlier posts are: 1. The Gift of Attention , 2. The Gift of Permission, and 3. The Gift of Hospitality.) More to come!

If you’d like to share about people who helped you see your own work clearly, please feel free to comment. I’d love to hear about it!

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A Mini-M.F.A. in the Psychology of Character

Metal sculpture of modernistic man on horseback dividing his patterned metal cloak with man on the ground.
How do you know what your hero is capable of? A modernistic St. Martin cuts his cloak in half to share with a poor man. Mainz, Germany.

This week, I’m over at The Winged Pen, writing about the The Negative Trait Thesaurus and The Positive Trait Thesaurus along with my penfellow, Rebecca J. Allen, who’s writing about The Emotion Thesaurus.

All the Thesaurus flurry is in honor of Angela Ackerman’s and Becca Puglisi’s newest volumes, The Urban Setting Thesaurus and The Rural Setting Thesaurus.

I have two more reasons to like these these books that I couldn’t cover at The Winged Pen, so I share them with you here:

  1. A lot of practical story theory in a small space. The Foreword for The Negative Trait Thesaurus, written by Carolyn Kaufman, Phys. D., and the introductory chapters that follow are full of insights that will get you writing. They cover character-building, villains, how to reveal flaws, and suggestions for how to deal with difficulties. This is really a mini-M.F.A. in character psychology.
  2. Deepen your fiction and make compelling and original characters. The introductory chapters for The Positive Trait Thesaurus cover how characters “worth rooting for” are the “ultimate hook,” how positive traits relate to character arc and how they develop.

Read more at The Winged Pen.

Happy writing!

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Stories we tell ourselves

Recently, my husband and I watched a movie version of Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “WHO AM I THIS TIME?” with Susan Sarandon and Christopher Walken. Christopher Walken’s character, Harry, is so shy he only talks to women if he’s “in character” in a play. No one really tries to connect with him until Susan Sarandon’s character arrives in town with the phone company. It’s an endearingly awkward tale that shows how our internal narrative affects our view of ourselves and others.

It’s a joy to watch the characters in “WHO AM I THIS TIME?” give up the old “truths” and find a way to live that’s the envy of the whole town. This is a classic way to create an interesting fictional character.

The Reverse Backstory Tool is a fun and effective way to create a character who’s ready to jump into a story and bring it alive. It’s a handy bookkeeping tool for the relationship between the character’s external and internal goals, the character traits that will help or get in the way, and the lie that the character must disprove in order to win.

Click to download a PDF of the tool Reverse Backstory Tool – Becca Puglisi

I found another example of “The Stories We Tell Ourselves” in The Church at the Well podcast series. Kevin Fitton talks about “I’m Too Busy.” He connects the leisure time research of Professor John P. Robinson (University of Maryland) and Brigid Shulte’s OVERWHELMED to the Biblical story of Mary and Martha.

The “I’m Too Busy” lie has so much potential for rich characters. Harry acts out a version in the hardware store and in the theater. He uses his activity on- and off-stage as a shield.

What are your favorite stories where characters grow and change? Have you ever rooted for a character to overcome that blind-spot?

Source: The Reverse Backstory Tool appears in Appendix B of THE NEGATIVE TRAIT THESAURUS by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.

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Why people can’t hear you OR how to write wicked dialogue

Marie Forleo’s video, 5 Reasons People Don’t Take You Seriously, shows how we get in the way of our message, and what to do about it.

My writer-mind couldn’t help thinking how to use these tips in reverse. Inside a novel, conflict built on miscommunication is quite fun.

Here are Marie Forleo’s tips for clear communication and how to use them backwards in fiction:

  1. Fancy words obscure your message. I hadn’t thought about the way verbal playfulness could be misinterpreted and her example makes it deliciously opaque, I mean, clear: Screen Shot 2016-03-04 at 11.47.58 AM

Shakespeare gives fancy words to characters who don’t understand them. Now I’d like to add a malaprop-prone character to my work-in-progress.

Taking the opposite approach, Dorothy Dunnett’s character, Francis Crawford of Lymond, uses complicated words and obscure Latin quotes as weapons, tools for seduction, or as a dazzling smoke-screen.

Maybe, the more delightful the language is in a story world, the less useful it is for getting your point across in the real world. And vice versa.

2. Lose the “dumb” disclaimer. Instead say: “What about this?” I’ve seen this speech habit associated with women and girls. Imagine a villain who suggests ideas with disclaimers that turn out to be clues.

P.G. Wodehouse’s character Wooster combines “dumb” disclaimers with fancy words in an endearing way. [If you like Wodehouse, you have to read his lovely interview about the art of fiction.

3. Use “Yes, and” instead of “Yeah, but.” I’m not good at this one, but 🙂 I’ve heard it before. My current heroine could get into a lot of trouble with “Yeah, but” and if I gave her this trait, I might learn it myself. I love the idea of a character trying to get a seat at a table, round or otherwise.

“If you haven’t been invited to give feedback and you really want a seat at the table, “Yes, and” will help you get one.” –Marie Forleo

4. Instead of blasting people with your ideas, get people intrigued first.

Remembering to breathe is key, both in fiction and in real life. This is also the way to pitch a book idea at a writing conference.

The natural tendency is to blast listeners with everything you know and love about your story, to try to anticipate everything that people would want to know, or to list every detail that could entice them into wanting to know about the story. (Did you fall asleep during that sentence?)

The most powerful way to catch someone’s interest is to tell part of a story. And then shut up.

This is called a “hook.” 🙂

5. Follow-up. Don’t apologize and be mousy. Try language like this:  Screen Shot 2016-03-04 at 11.55.17 AM

Good advice to follow for query letters.

“Mousy-ness” is the reverse of the character trait in tip #1. It’s another kind of smoke-screen that says: “Don’t look at me too closely.”

What do you think about Marie Forleo’s tips? Do you have favorite fictional characters with confusing speech habits? I’d love to hear about them.


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Why we need broken things: lowering the risk of creation

Teapot with new wire handle on a round beige teapot with a cracked lid.
Broken things can be an invitation. Image © Laurel Decher, 2016.

Accepting imperfection is part of what makes us human. I’ve watched this video about the beauty of mistakes about five times already. I first saw it in a great Coursera course about creativity. Neil Gaiman’s commencement address says something similar: make mistakes and make good art.

Moving from one country to another with my family, I’ve thought a lot about the broken things. There’s this desire to take the “best” things with you. New markers, clean erasers, favorite books, jeans with whole pockets and shirts with all their buttons need apply.

In a nutshell, this doesn’t work. Junk is an inescapable part of civilization. First of all, there’s that odd phenomenon that happens with every move. The things you know you left behind came with you and a few things you knew you wanted can’t be traced. But even if you don’t move, your existing, fully-functional belongings will be happy to wear out, develop holes, break, or shrink.

Presto! Fresh junk.

For example, we have a chronic teapot problem. The tile floor and the tea lite stove conspire. Yes, empty tea pots crack under the heat of a single candle. We’ve proved it repeatedly.

At the Second Hand Kaufhaus (Kaufhaus=Department Store), I bought a replacement teapot for 20 cents. It was the “right” kind for us because it was designed to have the handle on top rather than on one side of the teapot. Only it didn’t have the handle.

Small triumphs give us courage and self-esteem. We bought molding and copper wire and paper covered wire and my youngest and I made this handle. I sawed my finger a very little bit with the dull saw, but my youngest and I were very pleased with ourselves. I wrapped it and put it on the shelf as a Christmas present for my husband.

Unfortunately, the present fell to the floor before making it under the tree. When my husband opened it, the lid had broken neatly in half.

But then came a surprising reversal: He spent Christmas afternoon with Patex glue, bonding with his “new” teapot.

(Epidemiology caveat: Not sure it’s healthy to drink tea made in a glued pot. I didn’t search PubMed to find out.)

Do we need a certain number of broken things? After this experience, I wondered if a small amount of brokenness and disorganization in our lives is an invitation to participate.

It’s a kind of redemption. When we imperfectly repair a teapot, we invest ourselves in it. There’s a little glow every time we use it that says, “I saved that.”

“Craftmanship of risk” is a concept from David Pye and mentioned in the beauty of mistakes video above. When we make something new, we don’t know what’s going to happen. There’s an element of risk: maybe it won’t work. Maybe it’s all for nothing.

A broken thing is an invitation to create. It invites us to take a risk. If you have a brand new house with newly painted, perfect walls, you might have to overcome inner resistance to mar the perfection with a hole to hang up a picture. A broken thing or an imperfect thing is closer to our level.

“People are beginning to believe you cannot make even toothpicks without ten thousand pounds of capital. We forget the prodigies one man and a kit of tools can do if he likes the work enough.”

–From Barb Siddiqui’s review of David Pye’s THE NATURE AND ART OF WORKMANSHIP published in 1968.

If we like the work enough, if we find joy in it, even with its imperfections, we can make marvelous things. Broken things are a way to practice.

There’s another bonus to broken things: If we’re willing to fix them, that usually means someone wants them. That’s a built-in audience.

 

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