Archive for June, 2010

How to get pushed into your story

A story is a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it. And your life is a story.

I don’t know about you, but I sure hate the conflict part. Some people seem to thrive on conflict and the stimulation of heated back and forth exchanges, but it makes me want to hide under the covers.

Donald Miller, author of A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life, attended one of screenwriter Robert McKee’s infamous weekend workshops and quotes what McKee said about conflict and character development:

‘You have to go there. You have to take your character to the place where he just can’t take it anymore.’  He looked at us with a tenderness we hadn’t seen in him before.

‘You’ve been there, haven’t you? You’ve been on the ledge. The marriage is over now; the dream is over now; nothing good can come from this.’

He got louder. ‘Writing a story isn’t about making your peaceful fantasies come true. The whole point of the story is the character arc. You didn’t think joy could change a person, did you? Joy is what you feel when the conflict is over. But it’s conflict that changes a person.’

His voice was like thunder now. ‘You put your characters through hell. You put them through hell. That’s the only way we change.’

Sigh. I wish it didn’t have to be that hard.

That’s why screenwriters have to introduce “inciting incidents” into a screenplay, because characters have to be forced; they don’t choose to move or take action. Humans naturally seek stability and comfort so they need an inciting incident or they won’t enter into a story.

The inciting incident is how you get a character to do something; it’s the doorway through which they can’t return.

Unlike with creating scenes, it’s harder to create our own inciting incidents. They are usually forced upon us. I hate that part too.

When daughter #2 was diagnosed with type 1/juvenile diabetes at age 4 that was an inciting incident… it wasn’t any easier when daughter #1 was diagnosed with it seven years later…each job loss and financial difficulty was an inciting incident I could have lived without… marital strain and other relationship conflicts were inciting incidents I gladly would’ve taken a pass on too.

Like anyone else, I’ve spent my share of time on the “I can’t take it anymore” ledge.

Yet without inciting incidents there isn’t a story. Dang.

But, ultimately, the view is a lot better from the ledge than it is from under the covers, I guess.

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Sometimes you have to make a scene

Good stories contain memorable scenes. And your life is a story.

Donald Miller’s book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life is all about what it’s like if you choose to live your life as a great story. His thoughts are based on his experience editing a movie about his life.

In one chapter he talks about creating memorable scenes and says this is as important in our lives as it is in creating a film.

I’ve forgotten so many details of my past but it’s true that the scenes stand out… sitting in the back of a pickup with friends while zooming through an Arizona desert… getting lost while driving with my bridesmaids through endless Illinois cornfields on the way to my wedding… crying with sadness in front of my boss as she was in the midst of giving me a glowing job performance review… giving birth to my fourth child at home…

Rather than simply wait for such scenes to happen to you, it’s OK to create a scene with the specific intent to make something – even something very ordinary – more memorable. And I’m not talking about parties or other expected scrapbook-worthy things (those are cool too but I’d be pretty much doomed if the scenes had to be something worthy of being photographed and scrapbooked).

For example, my oldest daughter offered to walk her 8 year old sister to her swimming lessons during the two week session because her little sister had been begging for alone time with her. She stays there at the pool during the lesson and reads (and gets a glimpse of the pool mom subculture while she’s at it, but that would require a separate post of its own).

As profoundly ordinary of an activity as that is, I’m certain my 8 year old will remember this scene of her big sister taking her to the pool for a very long time.  Certainly longer than if I had schlepped her there (unless I had succeeded in making a scene by not blending in with the other pool moms while there, but there I go digressing again).

Miller gives an example of a friend of his who wanted to participate in his daughter’s excitement of getting asked to go to prom. When she came home with the dress and rushed to show her mother, he knew that saying “nice dress” would be inadequate.

So he put on a suit and asked to be photographed with her. The daughter was startled, but clearly got the memo that her father thought she was special and looked great. They ended up spending the evening dancing and talking in the living room with her mother.

I guess the point is that you don’t have to fly to Hawaii to create a memory like this . You can make a scene right at home too.

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It’s always interesting to get inspiration about a topic such as marriage from an unexpected source – in this case rock music.

As an aside, marriage is a topic that’s been written about to death and one I normally avoid writing about. The only book on marriage that interests me is Erma Bombeck’s A Marriage Made in Heaven: Or Too Tired for an Affair. She tells the details of her 45+ year marriage and the book is refreshingly free of advice and “make marriage work” mantras.

OK, back to marriage and rock music. It’s not a very Hallmarky way of going about it, but one can learn a thing or two about marriage from some of the songs U2 has released over the past 30+ years. And from their lead singer Bono, who has remained faithfully married to his childhood sweetheart for almost 30 years.

Rock music often speaks of romantic relationships at a base level (sex) or the other extreme of sappiness. Fortunately U2 doesn’t take that approach.

In a Rolling Stone interview in 1987 Bono said:

“Rock & roll, it seems, is caught up in juvenilia. Relationships are at the level of sex in the back seat of a Chevrolet. Now I’m interested in what happens further down the road — the violence of love, ownership, obsession, possession, all these things. And I think rock & roll is wide-open for a writer who can take it all down.”

This is why U2′s music has been helpful, because it explores the gray areas and the painful areas of marriage that make it hard to remain committed.The U2 song All I Want is You is a meditation about this commitment to his wife Ali.

Here’s what Bono has to say about commitment:

I don’t think being married to someone is so easy, really. But I’m interested in the idea of marriage. I think it’s madness but it’s a grand madness. If people think it’s normal, they’re out of their minds. I think that’s why a lot of people fall apart, because they’re not prepared for what it is. Once they’ve made that commitment, they think that’s the end of it, now they can rest easy.

Grand madness. Yep. Pretty much.

I’ll have more posts from time to time in this U2 Primer on Marriage series so stay tuned.

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I suppose that sounds kind of counter-intuitive, doesn’t it?

Andrew Sullivan wrote a long chapter about friendship in his book Love Undetectable and says our modern fixation on eros/romantic love is such that “it has acquired all the hallmarks of a cult. It has become our civil religion.”

This means, of course, that friendship no longer has the exalted status it once did, when friendship was viewed as equal to married love. Thus, love (eros) is the great modern enemy of friendship.

Interestingly, Sullivan (a Catholic) partially blames churches for the idolatry of eros in today’s culture:

“[the church] is now our culture’s primary and obsessive propagandists for the marital unit and its capacity to resolve all human ills and satisfy all human needs.

Far from seeing divorce and abortion and sexual disease as reasons to question our society’s apotheosis of eros, these churches see them merely as opportunities to intensify the idolatry of eros.

Friendship is an antidote to this idolatry because, at least according to Aristotle and Augustine, friendship is bound up with the notion of virtue.

Now, I’ve heard this a lot before, that virtue is central to friendship, and I always get a little perplexed. I can’t say I’ve ever entered into a friendship with the specific intent that the friend would help me become more virtuous.

Sullivan expands on this in a helpful way by quoting Aristotle:

And the best works done and those which deserve the highest praise are those that are done to one’s friends.

Sullivan also says:

Someone is not a true friend because it’s useful for him; he is a friend in order that he might be useful for someone else.

That’s pretty cool. Although this is something of a paradox because Sullivan also makes the point that friendship is a reciprocal relationship between equals and friendship isn’t at all about the mutual fulfillment of needs:

A friend will only rarely ask a friend for money, or for lodging or for a favor. He will not want to strain the relationship…this is why a true friend is relieved when a friend no longer has to stay in his house or owes him money or is best by sickness. For then the friendship can begin again…liberated to breathe the oxygen of independence.

This is a relief to me because I’m the queen of “I don’t want to be a bother.”

Maybe I’m not so off base after all (although writing these posts on friendship makes me see how I so need to get my act together as a friend. Ahem). The key, I guess, is reciprocity, which maintains the oxygen of independence rather than polluting it with neediness.

This independence leads to a second way that friendship counter-balances the fixation on eros…it makes possible an honesty that can’t flourish to the same extent in marriage or in a romantic relationship:

We are constantly told how happy marriages and successful love affairs are built on complete honesty, but that is obviously bad advice. All love requires something of an illusion about the other person…

Friendships, in contrast, have enough space that bracing honesty can be a tonic. They are places where the trust is so great, and the distance sufficient, that nothing is out of bounds for discussion, even the most intimate secrets and humiliating truths. For in love, humiliation is a real and constant threat; in a true friendship, humiliation is an impossibility.

What do we tell our friends? We tell them everything. And we are not afraid of embarrassing ourselves or boring each other.

I’ve said before that communication is overrated in marriage. When it comes to friendship, however, this is not the case.

I’ll close with a quote from Cicero:

And this is what we mean by friends: even when they are absent, they are with us; even when they lack some things, they have an abundance of others; even when they are weak, they are strong; and, harder still to say, even when they are dead, they are alive.

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Remember the Peanuts character Frieda who was ever so proud of her “naturally curly hair” and was always quick to show it off?

Well, I had naturally curly hair as a kid too but was far from proud of it.

You see, proper haircutting techniques for curly hair didn’t exist in the 1970s and 80s.

Also, now it’s common knowledge that a brush should NEVER touch curly or wavy hair – it should only be combed and only when wet.

But back then that wasn’t exactly common knowledge and oh did it show. If I had known about not brushing curly hair, I might have actually been able to have a social life and been spared a lot of teasing.

Anyway, because of that, I got a kick out of this post by Seventeen Magazine Project (an 18-year-old recently spent 30 days following the advice in Seventeen Magazine and blogged about it).

She’s started a campaign for teens to send in photos of themselves holding signs with messages directed at the mass media.

A girl with naturally curly hair sent in her photo, which was in reaction to a recent Seventeen Magazine article about “how to make your hair behave” if you have “thick waves, curls and poufy hair.”

Yay! Take that, mass media.

One of my teen daughters has naturally curly hair and, to my great relief, is routinely praised by her peers for it and never teased. This is because I’ve done at least one thing right in raising her – kept her away from brushes.

She’s also kept herself away from Seventeen Magazine and, after looking at this photo and giving it a thumbs up, said ”why read those magazines when there are books?” Excellent question.

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Mark Twain once said he could live two months on a good compliment.

I have evidence that a good compliment can last for at least three years but more on that in a minute.

First I need to address the question on the mind of at least three of you who have recently wondered to me if giving me (or anyone) a compliment is the same thing as approval.  After all, according to this post of mine, approval is a bad thing, right?

Well, in my opinion, giving a compliment isn’t the same thing as approval.

Approval is as damaging as criticism when it’s an overall atmosphere in a relationship. Particularly a relationship where one person is an authority figure. For example, teacher/student, boss/employee, priest/parishoner, parent/child. It can also creep into marriage or in friendships if one person is needier than the other.

In relationships like that, approval can become like a drug. One hit is never enough.

Approval will make you complacent and afraid to try new things.

So when asking someone for advice, make sure you are truly asking for information that you don’t already know. Too often, asking for advice means you are really looking for approval and no one, ultimately, can give you approval, so it becomes a never-ending quest.

Anyway, just wanted to clear that up, because I’d hate to think anyone would hold back on giving compliments because of that.

A compliment is a form of praise. I like what C. S. Lewis said about praise:

The world rings with praise — lovers praising their mistresses, readers their favorite poet, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their favorite game — praise of weather, wines, dishes, actors, motors, horses, colleges, countries, historical personages, children, flowers, mountains, rare stamps, rare beetles, even sometimes politicians or scholars.

I had not noticed how the humblest, and at the same time most balanced and capacious, praised most, while the cranks, misfits and malcontents praised least.

Except where intolerably adverse circumstances interfere, praise almost seems to be inner health made audible.

Isn’t that last line especially cool? “Praise almost seems to be inner health made audible.”

Three years ago while buying something at Shopko the clerk gave me a compliment that I remember to this day and will probably always remember because it gave me such a lift. More importantly, it gave me a template for how to give a compliment because it’s never been my forte.

Specificity and spontaneity are the key to a really good compliment. “Nice dress” isn’t as memorable as, “I love the color you painted your living room wall because it’s so calming and makes me feel rested. I want to paint a wall this color.”

Unexpectedness is another key to a good compliment. You expect someone to say “great speech” after you’ve given a speech. But you don’t expect a compliment when you’re checking out at Shopko.

But, really, any praise is fine, don’t worry about it, because it’s likely that what you’ve noticed as being praiseworthy is something the other person didn’t realize was noteworthy at all, and you’ll make their day. Or even their next three years.

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Home, Home on the Driving Range

Yesterday afternoon it was 86 degrees and sunny and for some reason I decided my options were the following:

* Mow the backyard OR

* Go to the driving range at the local golf course.

I chose the driving range.

As I’ve emphasized before in my previous golf posts, for me golf has mostly been something to do with your hands while you talk.

But for some reason I got it into my head late last summer that going to the driving range on a weekly basis could be a fun thing to do. I only went once last summer and yesterday was the first time I’ve been this year.

My two youngest daughters insisted on accompanying me yesterday even though I assured them that watching me hit 30-35 shots would be as boring as could be.

I had hoped that by going on a hot weekday afternoon we’d have the driving range to ourselves but, alas, another person was there, which meant I had to shush the girls regularly.

I put them in charge of handing balls and tees to me, which they did happily, and I proceeded to unhappily hit lots and lots of slices. The vast majority of my shots were 125-175 yards (I only brought a 3 wood with me), so I was pleased about that. But it’s impossible to focus on the good things when you are also making errors (kinda like real life).

I kept making adjustments to my grip and stance and back swing and it seemed the less I paid attention to correcting the slice, the better my shots were.

The downside is that, during those shots where I hit it well because I wasn’t paying attention, I was unable to recreate it for the next shot because I couldn’t remember what I did.

See why I prefer that golf simply be something to do with your hands while you talk? When golf becomes all about golf then it heads too quickly into OCD territory. Before you know it you find yourself coming home from the driving range and doing google searches about how to fix slices when you could be, oh, having a life or something. This is one reason I haven’t ever pushed golf to my kids and encouraged tennis instead.

When I was down to my last 3 shots yesterday I was exhausted and could barely hit them. I secretly hoped I had made golfing as unappealing as possible to my daughters and that they would beg never to come back to the driving range.

But as we left  they both asked about taking lessons.

It’s probably just because they are still young enough to think that the things mom does are worth emulating.

Or maybe they were just taken with my talk of pink Flying Lady golf balls (my preferred golf ball).

But who knows. Maybe it means in a few years I’ll have two golf companions and golf will again assume its rightful place as something to do with your hands while you talk.

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Touched by an angel?

When I was two years old my maternal grandmother died unexpectedly. It was bitterly cold on that January day in 1969. My mom bundled me up and loaded me into the car so we could to make the half hour drive through the countryside to her mother’s apartment so my mom could start making arrangements.

The roads were icy and the car ended up in a ditch. There was no way for my mom to back the car out. She had already been in tears during the drive because of her grief and now she was panicked, as it was dangerously cold and she was stranded on a remote country highway with her two year old.

Suddenly a farmer on an old tractor appeared. He motioned for her to stay in the car and he hooked up a chain and pulled us out.

He was only wearing a flannel shirt and wasn’t dressed to be outdoors in the bitter cold. There were no barns, garages or other buildings nearby and my mother was very perplexed as to where he came from.

After the car was safely out, my mom stepped out of the car so she could go thank him. He and the tractor were nowhere in sight.

She’s convinced he was an angel. I can’t argue with that.

I posted the above story as a comment in this post about angels on Rod Dreher’s blog yesterday. Check out that post and some of the other angel stories in the comments there if you enjoy that sort of thing.


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What It Really Means To Be a BFF

The phrase “one soul in two bodies” most likely makes you think of marriage or a romantic partnership, right?

Yet Paul O’Callaghan, an Orthodox priest and author of The Feast of Friendship, says “one soul in two bodies” is one of the most ancient metaphors for friendship.

Friendship doesn’t get the attention marriage and romance does, so I appreciate Feast of Friendship and will touch on some of the main characteristics of deep friendship he discusses in his book.

1. Similar temperaments – When it comes to marriage, opposites often attract. This is not so with close friendships.

O’Callaghan says the sense of unity in friendship occurs when friends have similar temperaments. He cites the Myers-Briggs temperament indicator, which is based on the work of Carl Jung.

When moments of “synchronicity” occur, such as uncanny similarities in thoughts, feelings or activities that seem almost psychic in nature, it’s at least partially because the two people are hard-wired in a nearly identical way.

2. Creativity – O’Callaghan says it’s vital to understand how friends stimulate our creativity.

Whoa: “Friendship is creative, but it’s the friends who create one another.”

So often our friends see in us a potential for goodness we cannot see ourself. Through their love for us, they bring unsuspected aspects of our ourself to life.
Or sometimes we see these possibilities but are not able to touch them. It does not matter. Our friends touch them, our friends draw them out of ourself. Through them we are put in touch with the deepest, most promising aspects of ourself. They lead us to discover ourself in ways we had not known before.

3. The Unconscious and Archetypes - Friendship largely takes place on a conscious level, but unconscious forces are powerfully active within it. O’Callaghan draws on Jung again to explore this.

Sometimes a friend embodies an archetypal image for another, such as mother, sister, conquering hero, wise sage, etc.

More whoa: The symbolic role played by a friend in one’s life “may be vital to personal integration and wholeness.”

O’Callaghan says that just like there is a greater “collective unconscious,” there is also a collective unconscious within deep friendship that forms and characterizes that particular friendship.

4. Fruitfulness – Friendships “dead-end” when the focus is only on each other, therefore the power of friendship should not be limited to the friends themselves.

When there is deep unity “the relationship becomes an interpersonal person.”

It becomes necessary for the friends to find a common vision or cause larger than themselves. “For a relationship, like an individual, must reach beyond itself or wither.”

He gives as examples ministry, social service, prayer, common projects, and building institutions.

5. Distance – True friends relish the distance between them as much as the communion that unites them. This keeps friendship from turning into self-love, idolatry or narcissism.

O’Callaghan quotes author (and well-known blogger) Andrew Sullivan:

To ask what a friend is for is to mistake the nature of a friend. A friend is for herself and for nothing else. If you enter into a friendship to be less lonely, then it is not friendship.
6. Secrecy – Not secrecy in the sense of things deliberately being kept from others, but in the sense that there are so many things unique to the friendship – euphemisms, private jokes, nicknames, a language all their own – that an outsider couldn’t ever understand it because it’s a world only the friends can inhabit.

Finally, O’Callaghan says that the nature of true friendship is “embedded in the fundamental mysteries of the Christian faith.” He refers to an ancient church ritual called adelphopoesis, which was a sacramental rite for the blessing of a friendship.

Unfortunately this ritual fell into disuse a long time ago so I guess it’s up to us to bless and celebrate the feast of friendship.
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Fun Friday: Xanax and Wine and Mercy

Several months ago I learned a tip from another writer about how to improve your focus and concentration while writing (or working on any project that requires that you sit still and focus).

No, it’s not a Xanax and wine cocktail, as tempting as that might sound sometimes!

It’s to pick a song you like and play it on constant repeat while working.

I do this a lot. It even works if kids are in the background making lots of noise. Something about hearing the same song over and over as you write or work really makes it easier to focus.

This week I did a lot of writing in the backyard and the song I listened to over and over was Mercy by U2.

This song was left off their How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb album, for reasons I can’t understand. It’s an awesome song and the lyrics are among the best U2 lyrics ever. Rumor has it this song will be on their next album.

The other song I listened to a lot was Xanax and Wine. This was another song left off the Atomic Bomb album but included in the iTunes complete U2 collection.  Great lyrics once again.

If only U2 had ditched the Vertigo song and included that one instead. Oh well. Speaking of Vertigo, here’s a song called Native Song that’s an earlier version of Vertigo. It hasn’t made it to my “music to listen to obsessively while writing” rotation yet but I like that version much better than Vertigo.

It’s interesting how, sometimes, a musician’s best work is the stuff way off the beaten path rather than their mainstream work.

OK, off to do some more writing with Xanax and Wine – the song that is, not the real thing. Alas.

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