Adopted Characters

I haven’t done much freelance writing lately.  Honestly, my focus has pretty much been 100% on getting the new brewery up and going.  That focus, by the way, is not gonna slow for at least a year. With everything I have to do, I do not expect to even open the doors until next fall, and even that will take an awful lot of blood, sweat and tears.

Some opportunities, however, still come up…

Even when I don’t seek them out, I have enough friends and contacts who know what I can do to feed me “snacks” from time to time. Look, when you’re known in certain circles for certain emotional things, the work kinda finds you.

I sometimes wish it didn’t.

A snack came my way recently…one I wish I had refused.  I certainly thought about doing so, but the money…

I was asked to rework an ending for a video game.  It was the “bad” ending, yes, but it still was a prominent part of the game…and one that needed attention.  The money wasn’t great, but it was better than what I get in my only-the-healthcare-matters “real” job, so of course I said yes…

All I needed to do was craft some character notes, and write a suicide note and eulogy.

Fuck.

I did it, of course.  I did it because I always do.  I don’t make promises that I don’t keep.  I wish sometimes that that was not the case, but I always deliver*…

*Not always on time, but I always deliver in the end.

So, I finished it…then I called out from work today and opened a new bottle of scotch.

I also cranked up the music.  A lot of music.  An amount — and volume — of music that I’m fairly certain had my neighbors calling the landlord.

Whatever.

I needed it, both the booze and the music.  They weren’t “my” characters, but I adopted them, and that means I built some feeling for them. They weren’t ”my” characters, but still I broke myself to turn out material that mattered…

Then I went and reminded myself of courage, and what it all really means.

Look, I like blues and rock and a certain amount of folk inspired music.  What I can’t stand is complete country.  I hate “hillbilly” music almost a much as I hate sell-out, commercial shit.  Which means I can’t stand 90% of what is called “country” today…

But, well, sometimes the meaning of the song transcends any categorization.  I’ve mentioned it before, but, well…this particular tune has a story that bears repeating:

I can think of no greater sign of courage, nor of love, than what Steve Earle did with the song below.  He took a song from his son, one that he never saw or heard until after his son’s suicide, and he recorded it.

Dear God, I can’t imagine the kind of strength that took.  When I need to remember courage and devotion and love…yeah, this song is all I really need.

More importantly, when I need to remember just how much art can heal and inspire, all I have to do is think about the story, and listen to this song:

Life, in Short

A dad, using a wadded gum wrapper to play tabletop hockey with his young son…

The mom playing a game with that boy’s toddler sister about using a “real” cup rather than the normal sippy one…

A grandmother, at the next table over, embarrassing her middle school grandkid with stories from her younger, wilder days…

Two guys, both in Lions gear, up at the bar arguing Michigan versus Michigan State — just when it gets heated, they remember they are both Lions fans and the commiseration starts…

A young boy and an old man, both doing the same pee-dance on their way to the restroom…

One observation.  A few words.  That’s where the characters — and their stories — start.  That’s it, one simple observation.  You take that observation and build from there:

That dad, he remembers his own father.  He remembers the distance — the distance not of neglect, but of absence due to work and need.  He won’t let that happen, not to his son.  His wife?  As she plays, she remembers the miscarriage, and the tears they shared for her lost child…

The grandmother wants to connect, wants to build something real with her granddaughter, but the distance is so vast.  Was it really so long ago that she herself was twelve and embarrassed and confused by her grandmother?  Death came before that gap was bridged, and she had long ago promised herself to be more than a memory, distant and faint, to her family…

The boy worships his grandfather.  The boy wants to be his grandfather.  He copies everything the old man does, every move and mannerism.  He can even mimic his voice.  He knows nothing of the pills and medical bills.  He knows nothing — not yet — of the memories, either.  Nothing of the nightmares that still haunt from time to time.  Nothing of the sound of the guns, nor the loss of platoon-mates…

There is something to be said for a “scenes of life” story.  For a story that uses the protagonist as a sort of voyeur to follow — and get sucked into — the lives and dramas of those around her or him.  An old shared-universe fantasy series had the Vulgar Unicorn; sci-fi had Quark’s Place; the good ol’ days of style and mystery had Rick’s Cafe…

The temptation to build a story out of vignettes has a lot of power, to be honest.  Look, you all know that I love characters.  Stories, to me — good stories, stories of meaning and power — are about characters, rather than plots.  As a writer I believe firmly that the plot is there to move things along, yes, but in service to the development of the characters,  The plot provides the conflict and stress, the climax and resolution, that our characters need to grow and change and become more than they are.  When the plot is the be-all, end-all — when the plot determines everything — well, then you have…nothing.

That grandmother I mentioned above?  She doesn’t have to save the entire freaking world to have a story to tell.  No, she just has to have a story that resonates.

I freely admit that I much prefer to write about characters because it lets me focus on the flawed and the broken.  And, look, we are all flawed and broken in one way or another — some just happen to be more so than others.

Arguably, the characters in the tiny vignettes I posted above are all broken in their own way…and that is what we writers need to both understand, and work with.

I hated him in high school, when I was forced to red his stuff, but the more I read and learn, the more I appreciate the insights of a certain “staple” writer:

“Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but – I hope – into a better shape.”

Oh…that writer?  Charles Dickens, in Great Expectations.

{Musical Note — a bit of old school becuuse, well…hell…why not?}

Wait…I’m Dracula?!?

I had two posts stacked up, ready to post…

Yeah, the important word in that sentence is the verb: had.

One of the benefits of getting ahead on posts, by the way, is that you gain the time and distance you need to read and honestly evaluate the material before you hit the “Publish” button.  On review, both of those posts saw me hit the trash can icon rather than the button to post them.

One of those posts I kinda regret nuking, but only because it was basically harmless.  It was, in all honesty, just an exploration of the meaning and impact of a couple of songs.  Unfortunately it also wasn’t any more than that; it offered nothing new, nor anything particularly interesting for anyone but me.

That is the great danger of this kind of writing, by the way: the urge to devolve into internal monologues and self-absorption.  It is all too easy to forget that even a blog has to have a point.  Even a blog has to work to communicate something to its audience.  A work that is nothing more than the stream-of-consciousness spouting of internal thoughts and feelings with no purpose is a diary,* not a blog.

*Or freaking “Prufrock”…but, then, I hate that damned poem.  “Dare I eat a peach…” my ass.  Harrumph!  Those who love that poem, however, have a totally different opinion.  YMMV.

One of those posts that I deleted, however, had a core that did have something to say…even if that core needed to be stripped of the bitter, half-drunk trappings with which it was surrounded.  Now, what got me started on this particular post was re-reading that bit, while simultaneously thinking about a couple of discussions with some new friends…

Just like when I was living in Yellowstone, I find myself surrounded by — and socializing with — those who are significantly younger.  That’s not entirely bad, to be honest.  There is an energy and an honesty to youth that those of us who have weathered more of life’s shit can quite easily lose.  I know I personally have lost quite a bit of that energy and hope.  Unfortunately, youth also owns a callowness and naivety that can grate on your damned nerves…

One kid — 19 or 20, and dreaming of wealth and better things — talked about getting into “affiliate marketing” and “drop shipping”.  Now, whether you go old school and call them pyramid schemes, or adopt fresh new terms, those things are still nothing more than vehicles to abuse the young and stupid.  Sorry, Ethan, but that’s the truth…

Others with girlfriend/boyfriend troubles…

The loss of an apartment, and couch-surfing with friends and acquaintances…

When you get right down to it, the pure naive belief that the world makes sense, and that the universe is — of all life’s dirty words — “fair”…

I’m still utterly convinced that Dracula, and his particular brand of magic and mesmerization, is nothing more than an allegory for someone with decades of life and experience living among the young and naive.  A deep, dark part of me — one that I don’t invite to parties — knows it could manipulate these “kids” into, well, pretty much anything.  Experience can predict response; wisdom can guide impetus and action; cynicism can manipulate reaction…

God, I’m an evil bastard.*

*Errr…actually I’m a writer.  Which amounts to the same thing, when you get right down to it.  Who else but a serial killer or a writer would ever Google shit like “castration” and “eunuch” and actually read the damned results?!

“Why would you do that?” is the cry, of course.  “Why would you ever abuse the naivety and inexperience of the young?”

Just wait until you are over forty, then go talk for a half-hour with someone who is less than half your age!  You have two choices at that point: nostalgic memory for your own youth, or bitter cynicism at everything you have lost…

Shit, someone should write a story about that!

Wait, I think I might have that covered…

Okay, so someone should open a brewery where that can be written!

Ummm…well…I pretty much have that covered, too…

Shit…wait a damned second!

Did I just take away my last excuses for not producing my long-brewing fantasy series?  Dammit!

Old Habits

I went to the beach today.  The weather is just starting to turn fall-ish, and a couple of hours sitting in the sun and breeze, watching the boats go by, seemed like just the thing for a relaxed “me day”.

Now, astute readers will remember that I (finally!) started sailing again a year ago, after an all-too-long layoff.  Before that break from the water, I was actually pretty good.  I could handle a boat in all sorts of weather without embarrassing myself.  I even took part in a handful of competitions, both as crew and as captain.  But nowadays?

Nowadays, I’m lucky if I don’t end up capsized on top of the damned dock; but that’s not the point.  No, the point is I was watching these sailboats…and getting all holier-than-thou judgmental.  “Trim your jib, man!”  “Good God, who taught you to take in a spinnaker?!”  “Tack…tack…TACK!  For the love of all that’s holy, tack you jackass!”

I think I need to switch to decaf.

Ahem.

The point of the above is falling into habits.  Actually, it’s more than that; the true point is about falling into old habits.  Being confident — arrogant, even — in my own abilities, to the point where I can and will criticize others, is an old habit that I once thought I had outgrown.  But, no…scratch deep enough — as I did this morning — and you will still find the self-confidence that borders on arrogance.  Of course, if you scratch even deeper, you will find also all those insecurities, doubts and fears that are so much a part of that damned black dog…

But even those aren’t the old habits I wanted to write about.  No, what pushed me to write this afternoon was a bit more mundane, but far more insidious: The habit of survival.

Oh, I don’t mean survival when trapped between starvation and an angry grizzly, nor survival when trapped between fight or flight.  No, I mean survival when trapped between…existing and living.  When trapped between fatigue and need.  To boil it down even further, I am talking about survival when excitement is deferred — and oh-so-distant — while you hang suspended between apathy and doubt.

That existence, that habit, by the way — the one suspended somewhere between success, apathy and doubt — that is one I think every freaking writer can identify with.  For me, that old habit rears its damned head when I take on “other” work to make ends meet.  It comes when the paychecks are regular, and the days fall into the miserable rhythm of go to work, come home, get paid.  Lather, rinse, repeat.  Week after week.

Often, you don’t even realize how quickly time passes in that existence.  You just think to yourself, “I’m tired, I’m not gonna do the extra stuff today.  I can make it up later.”  Then, before you know it, it is already the next weekend…and you are still tired.  There are still excuses.

To put that insidious old habit in the words of the song I am appending below, you flinch.

It’s natural, you know, to flinch.  We all do it.  The trick is to realize when you are doing it…and to learn to fight that impulse.  That flinch — that existence — can become a lifelong habit all too easily.  The choice belongs to no one but you…and to me.

It’s like giving up drinking*, you just have to say to yourself, “Not today.  I’m not going to flinch today.”

*Ahem.  Hush now.

{Musical Note — Yeah, I know, I’ve been linking Dave Hause songs a lot lately.  In my defense, I’ve also been listening to him a lot lately!}