Making Shiny and Making Meaning

Slight change of direction in this week’s post, but it still applies to writing and thinking… So I’m going with it. You’re welcome to come along!

The inspiration for this post actually comes out of my work shop. One of the things living there  is a rock tumbler. It’s been running almost constantly for over a year and a half and makes polished stones for display and for free form and primitive jewelry. I feel like I’ve been developing pretty decent skills with it and have gotten some quality stones out. Until recently…

In recent months two changes happened in the opperation1) I started using an aluminum oxide pre polish instead of the silicone carbide I’d been using at that step and 2) I started using a new mix of tumbling rough from one of my suppliers. The quality of the results tanked. Some pieces came out fairly well, but some just didn’t come out at all.

At first I wanted to blame the mix of stones, but no it was all good stuff. Maybe there was a mix of harder and softer stones, that could cause problems… So I re ran with material that I knew was all the same hardness. the same problems happened.

Then I wanted to blame the new pre polish. I switched back to the old standby product and it got a little better, but same problems… by this point I’m actually getting depressed about the whole thing… Maybe I’m just no good at this… No, I’ve gotten good results before, it must be the materials…No I chose good materials, maybe it’s me…

I decided to try one more time with some different stone I’d been saving for a special occasion (which I knew was good). This lot came out great!

Now I had a real head scratcher… Same hardness of stone (all quartz in both), same abrasives, filled properly, used a mix of sizes in each… why two different results?

Then it hit me… The good batch was all random shapes, the material that wasn’t coming out well had a mixture of random pieces and pieces of slabs. And not a few slabs, but half give or take… and it was the slabs that weren’t coming out good. The random shapes would slide around and polish each other, but the slabs were stacking up, not sliding past each other and generally messing with the tumbling action! It explained the difference, they were the ones not polishing and they were the ones not in the batch that came out well.

This was not a problem I’d read about anywhere. I had to find it and solve it myself. Now that I know what’s going on, I can reduce the amount of slabs in the mix, break them up smaller, or better yet try some of the other things I’ve had in mind with them (I hadn’t been pulling them to cut individual stones (got a whole ‘nother stack for that) but maybe I should be more choosy and pull them out!).

I had made a couple mistakes: It didn’t occur to me that the slabs were a problem in the tumbler; I was lazy and didn’t pick out the better slabs (and break up the others); and I allowed myself to blame my materials and be down on myself unfairly.

It was when I actively problem solved and thought that the problem became apparent. It was when I was willing to look at what was really wrong that the solution appeared. It was when I put forth constructive effort to change that things got better.

Now, what does this have to do with writing (or anything else)?

It’s process.

I could have just refused to admit anything was wrong, and nothing would have gotten better.

I could have just run around asking others, and may never have found the answer (never seen it written anywhere till I wrote it!)

I could have just gone on to something else instead of trying to change, and I would have missed out on stuff my wife and I love!

Instead I chose to examine the situation. I was willing to admit that I could be making mistakes. I took considered action and experimented. I observed incorporated the information and acted again.

Sometimes we are not good at something. Sometimes, even when we are good, a project just isn’t working out. We can overcome and achieve!

It is good to seek for information outside. It informs us and leads to potential solutions.

We have to think and act for our selves too… No matter what information or how good the information we get from outside we have to apply it appropriately for ourselves.

In doing this we have to set our egos aside. We have to be willing to be wrong (and admit it when we are wrong). We have to be willing to change ourselves.

We also shouldn’t blame things on ourselves unfairly. The part of my problem that came from the change in polish was due to the new polish and not any internal failing of mine. The correct action was to change the polish back (the thing that I could fix) and not to blame myself for the fact that aluminum isn’t carbon.

Some times we will find things that we just can’t change or fix. If we want to go on we have to work out a way around them. To quote the Serenity Prayer “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”

I can’t change the fact that there is an ocean between me and Hawaii, but I can find a boat!

The reality is we do have the capacity to learn and to change. If something we’re doing isn’t working fix it! To do that we have to be willing to really look at what’s going on, be honest with ourselves and take action.

Sometimes we need to back off and try something different. Sometimes we just need to sit down and take a break. Some times we need to learn more. But, if we just bang our head against the problem and assign blame we aren’t getting anywhere (and often make it worse).

Know that we have the capacity to be more than we are. Know that we can find solutions (even if that solution is to seek help!). I have that power and so do you…

See you next week.

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Romance and story…

Note: A lot of the stuff in this week’s post comes from me as a reader… As a writer I’m really still trying to figure out how to do this right!

This week I found an unexpected point of agreement with one of the student workers in my wife’s office, we are both leery of romance fiction (Note: neither she nor I am leery of romance in fiction, just the romance fiction where the romance is the front and center item of the story).

For some, my own dislike for romance is fairly obvious, I’m a guy! But (surprise, surprise) maleness does not imply an aversion to romance anymore than femaleness implies an addiction to romance. There are cultural differences in how romance is seen and dealt with but guys can be interested in romance. To quote Billy Gram: “The word romance; according to the dictionary means excitement, adventure and  something extremely real. Romance should last a lifetime.”

Excitement? Adventure? Last time I checked guys value those, and basic psychology will tell you people want to be loved and appreciated no matter what their gender or sexual orientation.

As a young creative writing student I found that my class, as a group, preferred to avoid romance in stories. It was just as well, none of us were skilled enough to deal with it in writing, and very few were experienced enough to deal with romance in life. As for myself, at that point I was rather alone and really didn’t want to deal with it.

Writing romance, and about romance, without enough experience in life is reeeaaaly hard to get right.  You have to understand romance to write romance well. There is much more to it than candle light dinners and sexual innuendo! Danielle Steel put it this way: “Lust is temporary, romance can be nice, but love is the most important thing of all. Because, without love, lust and romance will always be short-lived.”  And for my dollar not just any flavor of love will do. To quote Marilyn Monroe: “Experts on romance say for a happy marriage there has to be more than passionate love. For a lasting union there has to be a genuine liking for each other, which in my book is a good definition of friendship.”

OK, here is a big block of why I support romance in fiction, but not romance fiction. You need time and space in a story to show the love and friendship. You can do that  in story parts that aren’t romantic. You also need the contrast, the time and space where romance isn’t happening. There is even an argument for a romanceless romance. Natalie Portman has said, “I always think the most romantic books and films are the ones where the romance doesn’t happen, because it makes your heart ache so much watching it.” I think that is part of the draw and the power of romance in fiction, hoping for what could be  and mourning what could have been.

The second block can be summed up as “less is more”. We as humans tend to seek out the things that we desire. If we are willing to work for something (and reading is work) we often maximize our return on those things. Two weeks ago I watched my eight year old niece dig through a five gallon bucket of rocks to pick out shiny green stones less than 1/8 of an inch in size, people who want romantic meaning will work just as hard to find it in their fiction. People who really want it, will extract every last bit.

The thing about this is that the law of diminishing returns is real. We hit a point where we are getting less and less out of each bit of rock/romance/whatever, and then another point where we just don’t want any more.

I like cheesecake (I really like cheesecake) but if I eat seven or eight whole cakes, I really don’t want anymore for a while. The same thing applies to romance in fiction. If it’s all romance, romance, romance you get overloaded, but if you have some romance while other things are going on you can be nicely satisfied but not overstuffed.

Another point under the less is more principle is that it is hard to suitably describe and fulfill some one’s desire for or ‘perfect’ image of a romance. Sometimes it is better to put together a framework and let the reader/viewer fill in the details. This allows the reader to create their own perfect version and cuts down on “that wouldn’t happen” complaints.

Remember the non-romance romance? Trust your material and process, the people who want a romance won’t mind assembling the parts you provide and the non romantics can move on to something else (the same rule applies to sex and fight scenes. The more details you provide the more likely you are to have some ‘expert’ try to shoot you down).

Now, all that said, romance in fiction is highly desirable. My background is in psychology and I am highly interested in character. What do the characters think? What do they want? What motivates them?

Romance is a strong desire and motivator. It really has a place in fiction, just don’t over do it and spoil it! Honestly I do like stories where there is a romance or romantic element, it’s just that if that’s the only thing going on it overloads me fairly easily.

Want to make your romance really interesting? Drop it into the life of a character who is not really a romantic. Watch it ingrain itself in the thought process of someone who is not experienced with it, doesn’t think he/she can have it or has something to do. These things can really draw up the romance’s power (probably not telling real romance people anything new here, but I have to say it anyway). These stories also inherently must have something else going on…

The point is that romance is an important and normal part of human life. It is an important and intensely interesting thing, but like other important and intensely interesting things if you over focus on it, it isn’t healthy for your life or your story (and conversely avoiding it can be just as bad).

So give your hero a girl (or give your heroin a guy!). Make him/her work for, and on, that relationship. But have something else going on in their lives and your story, it really helps.

Well, till next time…

The Power of Names

This last weekend I was at a family reunion, and in spite of my best intentions (but just in line with my predictions…) I didn’t get much writing done. What I did get done was lots of thinking, playing with shiny rocks and metal, and watching people.

One of the more fascinating things to watch was people interacting with the younger nieces and nephews, the ones who had no idea what health care reform is, how to play Monopoly, or even how to tie their shoes. One thing those kids did have a handle on was who the were!

One young niece had just learned that her mom had a name other than mom and was working on which name she used and which one other people used. And then there was her twin brother. There were two things you could call to get his attention, his own name or “Dodie”. Woe to the person who called him Dodie, unless it was his twin sister. Most people would receive a stern rebuke for calling him Dodie (well as stern a rebuke as a three-year old can give), but when his sister used it there would be an immediate and positive response. Sometimes his sister would even get a response on a heroic level (again that’s heroic at a three-year old level), like the time he tried to push a full on queen sized blanket up a spiral slide because his sister was at the top and wanted her blanky.

This all got me thinking about names…

Names are by necessity abstract, they are symbols. They are words with the power to represent concrete objects and beings, but also to represent ideas (sometimes both).

How many of us have heard, or said, the statement, “He doesn’t seem like a <insert name here>.”  The name represents the person (it’s his name), but also an idea about a kind of archetypal person; one that this individual doesn’t seem to fit.

Other people can seem to typify a name they are given. In fact a single individual may fit one name perfectly while being a ‘odd fit’ for another.

We have many names and many kinds of names: first names, given names, family names, nick names… It’s not surprising that we fit some names better than others, and some names fit us better than others.

Names are not just titles, symbols or descriptors. They are indicators and influencers of identity. Ursula Le Guin’s Earth Sea trilogy makes much of names and the power of names, it’s an idea that’s been around for a long, long time.

Real world examples tying into belief in the power of names can be seen in tribal and religious names (like baptismal/christening names…) used only within a certain group. Other names are taboo in certain places and circumstances (that’s why a lot of us use screen names on-line…).

The reality is names do have power, but it requires two things. First we, the named individuals, have to give the name power. We have to give it value and meaning to us. Second, it is not enough just to know the word or symbol, you have to know what it means. How does the name fit and describe the person.

Why does the name Farangian apply to me? Why do people at some “day jobs” independently add  the title ‘sir’ to my first name? (they really have and it’s people who don’t know each other…) Why did certain individuals in college come to refer to me as ‘The Lord High Executioner’?

Names can help us understand who we are and what we are. People will do, think and say things that they might not otherwise because of a name. People will act against their own interests and principles to protect a family name. A name that includes you in a group can be a powerful thing. I know more than one person who has explained doing acts of utter heroism with the simple phrase “I’m a Marine”.

The names we accept for ourselves, or give ourselves, have tremendous power, even when no one else knows them.

Here is the true power of names: not some arcane ability, not some mystic tool, but the power to represent, to understand who we and others are. The meanings we give names are powerful and affect how we deal with ourselves and others.

Research has demonstrated that placing students into a group on the basis of reading level, essentially labeling or naming a child as having a certain level of skill and proficiency, changes how teachers (both in the immediate setting and future potential teachers) interact with a child. The children come to fit the group that they have been named to (D. Stipek: How Do Teachers Expectations Affect Student Learning. Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall. Found on Education.com Updated on Jul 20, 2010). Real world changes in behavior happen because someone chooses to accept and believe a label, a name.

The same thing happens on a personal level. Lets take two hypothetical individuals Erick and Debby.

How will Erick live if he defines himself as “Erick the pot head”? What if he sees himself as “Erick the survivor”, or “Erick the creative problem solver”?

What happens to Debby if she accepts the title “Dirty Debby”? What about “Daring Debby”, or “Debby the daughter of God”?

What happens when the different Debbys meet the Ericks?

When we know our names, not just what the word is, but what it represents, that is power. At the same time our names are abstract, they are not written in stone. We have the power to change our names, change what they mean. We have the power to take new names that better fit us and the situation we are in (or want to be in).

Really knowing our names and those of the people around us is powerful in that it helps us to plan, to make choices and decisions. When we know who the people we’re interacting with are we can better predict what they will say and do. But remember NO ONE short of God and we as individuals knows all our names (assuming we as individuals know all our names!) and people can surprise you.

So dear reader, till next time… If you know your name, who you are and what that means, good for you! If not, (or if you want to change it), take some time to think about who you are and what you want to be. Choose a name for your self; choose what it means. Choose a name that you can grow into. You have that power!