Posts Tagged ‘security’

The Post: Under the Pier – Setting as Character, Part I

March 15, 2008

I’ve seen writing books and articles that talk about “setting” as character. For some stories setting may just be the convenient place to locate a tale that could happen anywhere. Though, I have to wonder if that’s really true. I suspect on some level, setting is always a character. I have to think the author chose the particular locations for a reason, if only to give a certain emotional feeling or atmosphere to the story.

In Under the Pier, it’s a main character. I can’t imagine it taking place in California, North Carolina, or even New Jersey. There is a unique combination of influences: history-from witches to rebellion to World War II; independent Yankees who kept farming or going to sea, refusing to quit and finding innovative solutions for their problems, even though the land stinks for farming and so many died at sea; ethnic and immigrant work ethics, religion and beliefs; family ties; blue collar industrial types, and a pragmatic, no-BS attitude that sees through and hates charm and flattery. That butts head-on against Yuppie, new money, old money, universities and the intellectuals. You have the heritage of rebels like Sam Adams, abolitionists like John Brown and Harriet Beecher Stowe, and those strange independent types who would spend a year living alone on Walden’s Pond writing a book, thrust face to face with investment bankers, world politics, and cutting edge research. Where else would a large town mayor be accused of Mafia ties and the people still want to keep him in office because he revitalized the region?

The climate is difficult – as steamy and hot as the south in the summer, yet bitter cold with Artic winds in the winter. The short growing season and poor land make it difficult to earn a living farming. The sea brings nor’easters and claims fishermen as karmic payment for men daring to venture out there. And yet, they keep going.

Crammed right in each other’s faces are the poor and rich, intellectual and backwoods, new and old. The small geographical area makes it a pressure cooker because it shoves these groups right in each other’s faces. Like all places where boundaries meet, the participants cross back and forth between the two sides all the time. You can walk into a diner on a tougher side of town and have a truck driver on one side of you and a neurosurgeon on the other. People are pragmatic. If they want good diner food, they go to where they can get it and it doesn’t matter what walk of life they come from. Tough blue collar dockworkers raise sons and daughters who go to Ivy league colleges and have letters after their names like “PhD.” In fact, it’s almost an unwritten law in those harder places that you make sure your kids work hard, “get an education” and get a job where they don’t have to “do what their parents had to do to get by.” In a culture where immigrants measure progress in generations, the force and focus is always on making sure that next generation moves up a notch and has that “security” the previous generation never had.

So in looking this over, if this isn’t a character in its own right, I don’t know what is.

Under the Pier is set in one of those boundary places that straddles the worlds of commercial fishermen, dockworkers, manual laborers, and factory workers, vs the “new moneyed” rich tourists who fill their restaurants, the higher class well-educated intellectuals, and old money.

Max lives in the world of diners and auto body shops, commercial fishermen and the wharfs downtown. Her grandmother, Connie, is a widow, and has worked in Rosa’s diner all her life. It’s where she met her husband who came back from Vietnam and drove trucks for Grunder’s Moving and Storage until he died. Her grandmother’s total focus was to make sure her kids had the security and respect she didn’t have when she grew up. It’s all about prestige, money, position, getting ahead, but it’s really about security. If you have the others, the thinking is, you have the security. Connie’s youngest son is one of those who have crossed the line. He’s a post-doctoral researcher dating another PhD whose love is all those undersea critters. Her oldest daughter is a business consultant married to a successful doctor and lives in an exclusive area in Farmington CT. The biggest worry of Connie’s life was that middle daughter, Alicia, Max’s mom, who threw caution out the window, followed her artistic heart to Cape Cod, and worried her mother to death because she rejected most of her mother’s values….at least on the surface.

So the “personality” of the place, creates the personalities of the people who live there. From those personalities and the fact they’re all thrown up against each other, you get, story conflict.

Coming up next: Place as Character, Part II: Specifics of the Story’s locations and the research behind them.

The Post – Writing: Fear, Luck, or Burn the Ships?

February 5, 2008

I know I am lucky because I have a chance at a dream. I have the rare chance to write my books, my blog, do what I’ve dreamed of. There are moments though, where I’ve considered that a curse, not luck, and I suspect there are at least a few writers who share that. It’s scary.

It’s like the time my husband and I moved from CT where we were born and raised, to North Carolina, where we’ve lived now for 18 years. We’d decided we needed a different environment. Ours was killing us – between climate, work problems, cost of living, we needed a change. We checked out this “North Carolina place” and after some initial uncertainty, decided, “yes, that’s where we want to be.” It took us about a year before my husband found a job that was right. The offer even included relocation costs, something not as likely today. It was exactly what we’d dreamed of. But when the person in North Carolina called and said, “We want you for the position. If you want the job, it’s yours,” we froze.

In that moment, all the eagerness to get the job, make the move, obtain relief from the circumstances draining us and our marriage, evaporated. In that moment terror flooded both of us. The moment of truth – if you want it, it’s yours. Now came the real questions – DO we want it? CAN we do it? We thought we could, but up until that moment it was a dream, not reality. Could we really leave all we knew behind? Go to a place we’d spent one weekend in? It was the equivalent of choosing to jump off a cliff. We knew there would be no turning back if we did. Financially, it was stay or go. No changing your mind once you chose.

My husband and I looked at each other. The question hung in the air. “Well?” We recovered after a few moments, gritted our teeth and said, “It’s not getting any better here. I guess . . . we jump.” With that, we invested our whole souls to make that choice a success.

My writing dream has that same feel. Each day I watch others go off to jobs that maybe they love or hate, jobs they choose or need, and I sit here, with the opportunity to create my dream. All it takes is for me to say “yes” . . . and just do it. I feel the weight of the responsibility, and the wall of fear comes up.

Katherine Paterson spoke a bit about the fear: “With each new book we must dare failure, or worse: mediocrity.” There are the questions: What if I try for that dream and find out that what I wanted all my life, I can’t do? What if I fail? What if I try and nothing happens, or I try, and it’s downright terrible? And if it is, it will be a very open, very public failure. As Paterson also said, “Writers are very private people who run around naked in public.” No hiding the results once you put it out there.

All the years I worked at other jobs to pay the bills, take care of my son, whatever, and didn’t have the chance to try for the dream, it was easier in two ways. First, love or hate the job, I came home with a steady paycheck. No matter what, the mortgage got paid, groceries came home, the car was repaired. I had worth and value because I provided security. It came in a paycheck. Not only was my home life secure but my identity got validated as well. The paycheck gave that, too. If I wasn’t who I said I was, would they really pay me? Second, the weight of having to answer that offer from life – it’s yours if you want it – was lifted from my shoulders. Because it wasn’t an option, I didn’t have to answer. Because I didn’t have to answer, I didn’t have to find out whether I could do it or not and risk humiliation, even if that humiliation was only in my own mind. So I had financial security, value, identity, and I could escape the question I felt God was waiting for me to face.

There’s that truth that a dream is always perfect. The moment you try to pin it down in the real world, it never, ever measures up. I read an interview someone did with Billy Joel one time. He spoke of the songs he heard in his dreams, wondrous bits of heaven. Perfection. Then he woke up and tried to capture them. Now I consider him a tremendous singer and songwriter and a hell of a success, given the body of work he’s created. Yet he said that nothing he’s ever created measured up to what he heard in his dreams.

So if someone considered a success by the world, feels he’s failed, where does that leave me? His work got the financial security. He had a job title and identity validated by his paychecks. God asked him the question, “Will you create?” and Billy Joel did it. Yet he feels it didn’t measure up to his dream. What do I do? Why? And how?

I don’t know how anyone else would answer those questions. For myself, I’ve gotten some glimpses at my mortality. I only know I can’t meet God and say, “Well, I meant to, but . . .” I could get away with that answer before. I can’t now. I also couldn’t look my husband in the eye, the man whose hard work is giving me this chance, and say that. Or my son, or my friends. However, I think the absolute worst would be having to look me in the eye and say that. I think God, my husband and son, my friends, would forgive me, accept me, and who knows, God might even give me another life to try again. But would I forgive myself? Maybe that is what hell is. So why would I do it? Because I would never forgive me if I didn’t.

The question hangs before me: the job is yours if you want it. Deep in my heart, win, lose, fail, or as Katherine Paterson put it, be mediocre, I know what my answer is.

The remaining question is – How? I could say that if I’m terrible, at least I know I tried. But then maybe that’s not quite the right attitude, either. In the movie, The Empire Strikes Back, Luke tells Yoda he’ll try to lift his spaceship with his powers. Yoda immediately jumps down his throat. “NO! Do, or do not. There is no try!” Maybe the answer is that it’s how you show up to do the work that makes all the difference. It certainly made the difference in our move to North Carolina knowing there would be no option to turn back.

There’s a scene from the movie “Hunt for Red October,” that illustrates it. The captain, played by Sean Connery (who looks better and better as he gets older), is leading a select group of officers on a mission to defect and deliver a new, deadly silent Russian attack sub to the Americans. It is treason. If discovered, they’re dead and they all know it. Their consciences drive them to do this so that such destructive power cannot be used by their superiors, yet at one point their resolve fails and they want to quit. At that moment the captain tells them there is no going back. Moscow knows what they are doing because he sent a letter to their superiors stating their intentions. His men freak. In their eyes, he’s signed their death warrants for sure. They know that every ship in the Russian Navy will be out there to hunt them down and kill them. They demand to know why he did that.

His answer: “When he reached the new world, Cortez burned his ships. As a result, his men were well motivated.”

When there is no going back, you have only yourself to work with. It is “Do, or do not. There is no try.” You have only your motivations and faith, or the lack of them, to fall back on. What do you believe? When Luke could not raise his spaceship, Yoda did it for him. When Luke said he couldn’t believe it, Yoda’s answer was simple: “That, is why you fail.”

So my answer to how you do it is: Burn the ships. There is no turning back. Do or do not, there is no try. And believe. Because if you don’t, that is why you fail. I cannot control the outcome of the effort – whether my writings will be read, published, make a dime, validate me and give me value- but I can control how I do the work. And I only know that if I don’t do it, none of those things will matter.

The Post – Thomas Paine and the inner rallying call

February 3, 2008

I posted Thomas Paine’s quote from Common Sense, yesterday – “A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right.”

Being a history lover, particularly of the American Revolution, I always love to see what kinds of thoughts and words propelled so many people to throw away every last bit of “status quo,” and “security” to wage war against the 18th century superpower so as to right injustice.

I used to go to the racetrack in Saratoga, New York, every summer with my family. We’d have our $10 or $12 to spend on bets and knew that once that was gone, that was it. So we chose wisely. Even as kids, we knew that yeah, you could walk away with many months of allowance money if you won on the 100:1 shot. We also knew we’d actually go home broke from the racetrack that day because the 100:1 shot never came in. So we passed on it. Given the power of the British in the 1700s, colonial America would have been doing great to even be considered a 100:1 shot. So for that many people to still roll the dice on themselves and go for a dream, you just know there had to be powerful motivators. I look at Thomas Paine’s words and rank his as one of those motivating forces to fight injustice.

I also realize they have a timeless quality. Yes, they applied to the circumstances that let to the Revolution. They also could be a rallying flag for battles against other injustices such as those against race, religion, sexual orientation. Many thought slavery was right. For centuries many just accepted that a long-standing institution was not wrong. These days people make derogatory jokes, or poke fun at certain religious or ethnic or sexual groups, and because “it’s always been that way” it’s assumed it’s okay. I realize Paine’s words do have a rallying quality to fight those battles, no matter the century.

It occurred to me, though, when I posted them, that most people read those words and perceive that the battle, the threat, the enemy is “out there.” The British, or the Jews, or the gays, or the Irish or the Muslims or whatever group is currently the problem. I wondered though if even Thomas Paine knew that his words were really a call to a larger battle.

I stood in front of the mirror and for a split second, caught a glimpse of the real enemy. The true battle, underlying all others, is within. Our beliefs. Biases. Our view that “I’m fine but it’s them” – “those people” – “they’re the problem.” Even the most open-minded liberal who supposedly loves everyone might be surprised to look in their hearts and see the real answers to questions like: Who did I judge today? Who did I decide I was better than? Who did I proclaim a failure because they did something I didn’t agree with so they must be worth less than me?

The reality is we all do it and we do it so often we don’t even notice it. We do it because we always have, and because “a long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right.” But every once in a while, in the small second between thoughts of, “Well of course I’m better because I do this, and of course, they’re worse because they didn’t,” there’s that fleeting glimpse of the enemy. I see the enemy staring back at me in the mirror – the person whose heart is so sure it’s right, it’s hardened against anything else. The mind that is like a full glass of water – no room to add any more – so that no room exists to ask questions like, Am I really that good? Are “they” really that wrong? Or the most important question of all – “What if we’re all really the same, no better or worse than the other?”

No answers this morning. Just questions. When Voltaire said “Judge a man by his questions not by his answers,” maybe he was simply pointing out the importance of asking the questions. Questions can bring you to the mirror. The answers are perhaps less important. In fact, maybe the answers are the same for all of us. In the end, we all struggle with the same things because we’re all human. So it’s the questions, the stopping to ask, that matters. Deep down, we probably already know the answers, no matter who we are.

And by the way, don’t assume because I asked these questions, I won’t see that enemy staring back at me in the mirror tomorrow morning. I don’t think it ever leaves. I think it’s somebody that maybe just softens over time, and eventually might stare back at us and say “Yeah, I have been kind of a jerk, haven’t I?”