Improv for Writers

Writers have much in common with actors. We mine our own emotional experiences for words on the page and actors do the same with faces on the screen. Recently, I received “Improv for Writers” as a holiday gift, and the book goes even further than my analogy does.

Still slogging away deepening my character’s arc, I wanted to know more about her son. He lives in New York, he’s just married, he’s 31. But why is he living in New York? Because I wanted two adult children living on opposite coasts away from their mother. That serves my main character well.

But. Isn’t it expensive? What kind of job does he have? Oh, he works on Wall Street. Oh, he is one of those guys who writes computer programs that work so much better than humans in picking out winning stocks. Okay!

What these brilliant math coders figured out is that taking OUT the emotion is what makes an algorithm so much more accurate than a human at choosing winning stocks. Because humans have emotion. Computers don’t.

So now I have a way for Jane to interact with her son as they seek to find resolution to a complicated family tragedy. He is all about taking the emotion from the equation. Her daughter (his sister) is nothing BUT emotion. That took me maybe a half hour of improve on Saturday morning to figure out.

On Sunday I got the book, Improv for Writers, that claims to help me “generate infinite ideas” by “letting go of control as a creative person and trusting your imagination to create.” I already knew to trust my imagination, but I am not always so great at the initial letting go of control.

But. Work needs to be done. Original and creative work on Jane’s arc. And Jorjeana Marie promises that the “real power behind letting go of control as a creative person is trusting your imagination and ability to create.” Yes, please, I’ll try some of that.

The book is full of prompts both light and dark, both funny and tragic. And Chapter 14 is all about character. I didn’t count the number of prompts just for digging deeper into character, but there are many. Simply turning to that chapter made my writing juices start to flow.

It’s that kind of book. You can skip to what you need right away if you seek a specific kind of help for your story (like I do) or if you are totally blank for ideas, let’s say for a blog post (like I often am on Monday morning) you can start at the beginning or anywhere else that grabs you and says YES. THIS.

I’m beginning to suspect there is no writing occasion or situation that cannot be improved with improv. And particularly at this busy time of year, when writing hours are in short supply, I love the timed writing suggestions for freeing up creativity around character, plot and setting ~ and so much more. Even blogging. 🙂

Author Mission Statement

I wrote my author mission statement awhile ago, as suggested by Colleen Story. It’s good to know what you really want from writing because it saves time and trouble. Your journey as a writer in the world will become less about the shiny next thing and more about what will serve the unique writer you are and want to become.

“I am motivated by creative fulfillment. The tougher the work, the more diligently I seek transcendence. I’ve gained emotional resilience by traveling into the world, observing all I see and distilling the essence into story. My writing features strong women tested by tough circumstances.”

Since writing out this statement, I’ve looked at it often, and it always centers me and settles me back into what is most important, in writing and in life. Every writer will have a different mission statement. It feels like I always intuitively knew this about my writing self, but I couldn’t quite put it into words until now.

Thanks, Colleen!

Bad Mood Rising

Things were tense around here the other day. And by “things” I mean Al, my husband, was tense. And I do not make it easier on him, because when he gets tense, I get tenser. When he gets angry, I get angrier. When he’s in a bad mood, I catch it like a cold. If I could change just one thing about our relationship, I would change the way we interact in tense times.

It’s not even like those fights (some might say “disagreements” but at our house it’s louder than that) are about anything important. What’s happening underneath the surface tension is not even evident to us. We just get locked in battle and both end up defending our side and things just snowball.

It’s ridiculous. I hate it. I want to change the way we are with each other when things are not perfect. So of course I googled it. “What to do when my husband starts fight” or some such pithy search term.

I found out some interesting things. First, Al didn’t start the fight. I did! Because he was tense, I could tell by the way he was acting and the things he was saying and finally I was just sick of it and yelled at him to stop being so mean.

“I’m not being mean, you are!” Al said. Yes, at 64 years of age, this is the level of our discourse when we are upset.

Note that I “yelled” and Al “said” ~ he might have said it in a fed-up tone. We have been here before. All too often. I’m so tired of it. But I’ve also grown used to it. I had just about given up hope for change. I’d just have to “put up” with him when he was in a bad mood.

Then an article from Psychology Today gave me a much needed new perspective. And a way to fix the way we fight. It is true that I can’t change Al’s bad mood. It’s in the house, and I have to deal with it. Because I easily “catch” other people’s moods (and this is true for many people, not just me) it’s almost as difficult for me to change the way I deal with Al’s moods as it is to make it like his bad mood never happened.

But hey, I love learning, so I read on. We can’t control that another person has a bad mood and we can’t control that we catch that bad mood. What we CAN do, although it’s tricky, is to temper our reaction to that mood. For example, I yell. What I can learn to do instead is to take a breath and think about how I want to yell in the moment, but remind myself that that’s what I always do, and it makes things worse, not better.

So I can feel the way I’m catching Al’s mood, feel the emotion of it, and, instead of yelling, think about a better way to respond. I did start out responding better. Yelling was not my first response. First I tried to be compassionate. “I know how you feel.” I reminded him of a specific instance that had happened to me (losing track of important paperwork) which was exactly what he was irritated and upset about. I think I said “I know how you feel” three times in response to his irritated “Where is it?” His bad mood wasn’t soothed by my empathy. So I got out my journal and vented a little bit in it. That always helps me. His bad mood didn’t like that, either.

So then I yelled. What I could have done was just say “I need some space for a little while” and take my journal into my sweet little writing room. That would have solved everything. Al wouldn’t have said anything to that. He would have been okay with me leaving the room, dignity intact.

Part of what I begin to feel when the yelling and swearing starts is embarrassed and sad. I do not like yelling and swearing at my husband. I want to act mature and loving at all times at my age. But because my emotions are so many and so huge at these times, some get buried under other ones, which makes me even angrier. Because anger is the top emotion for me when we fight.

Al is calm and I am excitable. One of the many things I loved about him from the first was how zen he is. I wanted to be like that! I still do! Al would have gotten over his bad mood fairly quickly had I not lost my temper. Instead, he dug in when I yelled, as he always does. A man has his pride, even a almost always calm man.

We both want to win. But I realize now that I want to win at more than who can yell the loudest (it is always me) and who can swear most creatively and fluently (again, always me). I want to win at taking my own emotions in hand. I want to learn to be excellent at controlling my reactions. I still want, after all these years, to be calm like Al. With disagreements and a lot of other things, too.

So yesterday I told Al that I am up for his bad moods and tense moments in future. And I really need to be as he is retiring soon and we will be together a lot. We will be together in our little Florida condo much longer than we’ve ever been before. So any moodiness on Al’s part (and there will be moodiness and even, occasionally, snark) will be good practice in taming my own angry responses.

I’d like to tame all kinds of my typical responses, and not just to Al. For example, my craving response to even the thought of sugar. I can think about my favorite bakery’s white chocolate cranberry scones for hours a day for several days. Not even kidding. What this does is set me up for failure, because the next time I am in any store that sells any type of sugary treat, I will buy a lot of it and eat it all.

If I could tame the beast that is my response to just those two things, it would be a big life win for me. Mental and physical. So, I’ll see how it goes. And I’ll keep you posted!

Teenage Parents

Mom and Dad on far left, with aunts and uncles.

I had no interest in reading Demi Moore’s biography until a reviewer mentioned she’d had a tough childhood. The adjective was stronger than “tough” maybe “horrific” — something that made my ears perk up. To come so far from where she’d started, enduring some form of ongoing abuse as a child, was a story I wanted to hear.

As a scandal rag addict, I knew the public parts: the marriages, the movies, the Kabbalah. I didn’t know much about her childhood or how she got from there to stardom. I’d seen her on General Hospital back in the day. I remember she was on a bed typing on a keyboard with the laptop sitting in front of her. As an image, it was all wrong. Writers sat at desks, like I did in those days, or, like I’m doing now, they have their laptops in their…laps.

“Jackie Templeton” was no writer, but all these years later, Demi Moore has achieved that status. Her story touched me and kept me glued to my chair, my eyes on the pages until the end. I thought I knew about the marriages, but she went deeper. She did an emotional dive, revealing the lack of a strong intimate connection with Bruce Willis and her age-related insecurities with Ashton Kutcher. She talked about raising her three girls and the heartache of their teen rebellions. She was brutally honest about herself and her various addictions to alcohol, pills, dieting, and Ashton.

She looked at her childhood in all it’s messiness, without disguising the very worst aspects of her rocky road to growing up. It inspired my post today. Demi’s parents were 18 when they married, and she gave them lots of leeway because of that, but no way around it, they were about as emotionally abusive as you could get. Sure, they were young. Is that an excuse? Maybe so. My mother was 16 when I was born. Barely. She’d had her 16th birthday the month before I made my appearance. When she was barely 17, she had my brother, and then, not even yet 18, she prematurely had my younger brother. Finally, the Pill came and she scored a prescription as soon as humanly possible.

Like Demi’s family, we moved a lot. The difference was, my mom was always leaving my dad and bringing us with her. One year we went to three different elementary schools. My mom worked as a waitress and we hardly saw her, and my dad never visited us at all. He once came to the door and he stayed there, out on the stoop. I ran up to the door and said “Hi, Dad!” I was eight and so excited to see him. He said “Hi honey,” and a few weeks later we all moved back into the family home. It was a dream come true for me. I loved my dad so much. My mom? She was a heartache.

Of course I loved her, but I never felt loved by her. We kids were always told to go outside and play and we were not allowed in the house. If we wanted a drink of water, there was a hose outside. We came in for lunch and then were told to get right back outside. Before we were all in school, she would often say she couldn’t wait for us to be gone all day. She gave us grudging kisses goodnight, with no bedtime stories or any affection, ever. If we were sick, well, we weren’t allowed to be sick. She never believed in tummy aches or anything like that.

She did all the things a mom is supposed to do. She fed us three meals, washed our clothes, made sure we took baths and got to bed on time. She kept a clean house. But it was always abundantly clear to me that we were a bother and she couldn’t wait for us to be anywhere but in her sight. She used the line a lot “Get out of my sight.” My dad, when he was home, if they weren’t broken up at the time, was a loving presence. I knew why he stayed out at the bar. She wasn’t nice to him either. Mom was a screamer. She never talked if she could yell. And when she talked, her tone was never nice. Always nasty.

I knew there was something not right with her. She didn’t act like other moms. In my young mind, she didn’t love us, she didn’t really even like us. We still loved her. She didn’t physically abuse us other than a slap across the face when we talked back. She liked to say “Wait until your father gets home,” but my dad was a pussycat. He was a loving affection guy. One of the first things I remember him saying to me was in reply to a question I asked from my crib. “Are you going to spank me?” and he said “I never spank little girls.” He smiled at me and gave me a kiss on top of my head.

At the time, I thought that couldn’t be true. Because it’s one of my first memories, I never figured out why I thought that he wasn’t telling the truth. Now I realize my mom had probably scolded me and said Dad was going to give me a spanking. Well, he didn’t. And that wasn’t the only time he intervened when my mother was inflicting some form of punishment on me. She got more inventive and vindictive as I got older. I had to wear the clothes she chose for me, and the older I got, the less I liked her style.

When I was fifteen, the age she was when she got pregnant with me, she brought a few empty grocery bags into my room, told me to pack and leave the house. I was scared but I wasn’t sorry to go. Years later, it occurred to me that she’d been trying to live her life through me, and I was not cooperating. I smoked pot and refused to wear a bra. My boyfriends had long hair. She wanted me to be an airline stewardess, utterly impossible because I wore glasses and was too short. She wanted me to wear the clothes she thought were cute and have the boyfriends she liked. I was so much my own person we were in constant conflict.

And when I turned the age she had been when I was conceived, she shoved me out, no qualms. I tried to live on my own but I couldn’t even legally get a job at first. I bounced around with family and friends, finally I quit school for a semester. I wanted to finish with my class and graduate, so I begged her to let me move back. She agreed I could live in her garage. September was fine. October was chilly and finally by November that garage got too cold.

My dad, as he had so many times in my life, came to my rescue once again. He’d moved out and had his own house by then. He was getting back together with my mom (they were always breaking up and making up) and I could live in his house for my senior year of high school. I did have to pay the bills and buy groceries with my little fast food job, but he didn’t charge me rent. So my family lived on one side of town and me, the black sheep, lived on my own way on the other side of town. Somehow I pulled it together enough to graduate with my class.

When I finally had children of my own, Mom warmed up to me. She loved my boys. She was so angry with me when I divorced their dad, but cooled down when I met the man I’m married to still today. Everybody loves Al, including my boys. As you might expect, I’ve had a shitload of therapy. I’ve got more baggage than a movie star on vacation. But I’ve learned a lot, and always the hard way. These days my mom has been saying she never had a childhood. I do have sympathy for her, but I don’t tell her what’s in my heart: for some of us, childhood is just something to be endured.

Another Adventure

I have always been a traveller, a wanderer, if only by reading. But I’ve had many real life travels, too, and today I’m heading off to another adventure. Luckily, there’s the Kindle now so I don’t have to pack actual books, which I love but I love having clothing options more. Our destination today is Seattle for a week.

We’ve rented an Airbnb condo five minutes from where my son and grandkids and super DiL live. Since our boys (and grandchildren) live quite a distance, we don’t often get to do typical grandparent activities like watching a soccer or T-ball game. This week we get to do both. I think this is my fifth or sixth time in Seattle.

When I was young and fearless, I hitchhiked to New York City, to Key West and Colorado. Those were magical trips. My eyes were opened wide to a very big world outside of my little town of Taylor, Michigan. It’s impossible to capture those moments again because I’m older now. I’ve tried anyway. New York City has changed since 1972 and Key West is far different than the tourist-free paradise it was in 1974. The Rocky Mountains are probably the same, which is weirdly comforting.

I doubt I’d hop on the back of the motorcycle of a and take a winding road high up the mountain side, in fact I’m certain I would not. That guy on the motorcycle cured me of hitchhiking forever later that night. Either him or the drunk who crashed his truck on the freeway in the rain with me and my friend in it. It’s fun to be young and carefree, but bad shit happens and travel is safer and more comfortable with a plane ticket and my trusty Kindle.

I’ll take some photos and store some memories of family and always wonderful Seattle. I’ll take writing break and refill the creative well. Most important, I’ll get my granny time in and see you next week.