Tuesday, July 27, 2010

"Noises, Off!"

As a small girl (yes, about that small,) I remember being in Kindergarten. I liked to draw. In fact, I was pretty good at it. (No pride here.) One day my teacher asked us to create a self portrait, then proceeded to demonstrate how we might draw ourselves on the board. Fundamentally, I agreed with her…until she got to the feet. “This is how I make shoes,” she told us, adding ovals for feet. All excitement deflated. I had a great way for drawing feet. I’d done it a hundred times, but suddenly I couldn’t remember how. No matter how I thought, my brain only spouted back the demonstration. Frustrated, I finished the picture, but those feet bother me to this day.

All through school, it agitated me when people said they could draw, and then copied someone else’s work. It wasn’t art in my mind unless it was original. (And what kid doesn’t have a million original ideas an hour?)

As artists, (and people,) I feel there are too many “noises”. Too many influences. These range from TV, books, music, and web, to authorities or “professionals” (don’t get me started on this one). We each have our sensitivities, the chink in our armor, weaknesses where we take anyone’s word or advice over our own.

On the subject of outside voices, Jane Green, a NY Times best selling author advises: "Writing is entirely subjective, and as tempting as it may be to give your book to your six best friends, your parents, your siblings, your Great Aunt Sadie, for validation as to how talented you are and to hear how much they love it, too many cooks will spoil your broth, and you will end up with so many opinions, your head will be spinning."

Opinions are just that: a belief or judgment that rests on grounds insufficient to produce complete confidence. Some are good. Some are validated. Some are ridiculously biased and off kilter.  

A warning to the wise on being influenced: Voices, there a hundred thousand voices out there. After reading a good book, I find myself gravitating toward the writers “voice”. Even mimicking them. (Writing is my weakness.) Occasionally I want to borrow a sitcom character--because they were so well written! Thanks to an audio sensitivity, I can’t listen to music while writing. Understand, I write music. It’s constantly playing in my head, therefore: change the soundtrack=change my world.

But it’s not enough to simply silence these "noises".

In the later years, I created a “sphere of influence”. When needing to complete a project (art or writing), I’d surround myself with all the pieces or peripherals I wished to include—literally a circle, and I’d sit on the floor in the center. From multiple vantages I’d create a unique piece, entirely my own, entirely my style, but with the helps I’d gathered, the intentional ones.

We need to be individuals. We need to turn off the noises and surround ourselves with those things that matter most. Be courageous enough to tell your Kindergarten teacher she drew the shoes wrong! Be brave enough to forge your own way rather than copying what’s already being/been done. Be confident enough to throw away the letter where one agent insists you rewrite your entire best-selling story. (True story from Jane Green.) Be you.

What noises do you deal with? How do you manage them?

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Radical Red Randal: EAT MORE CHEESE!

Most people probably notice the quirky reference at the end of each e-mail/letter/phone call, and shrug it off as a bizarre personality quirk. Occasionally one or two ask, “What’s with the cheese?” I give one of three responses: Cheese is the best food on the planet, cheese makes you happy, or cheese makes the world go round. Very few dig further. Those who do discover Randy.

Randy was born with epilepsy. How bad? We don’t know, but by the time he was diagnosed at two years old, enough brain damage had occurred that he would never function higher than a 6 to 8 year old. He was my older brother.

Everybody was Randy’s friend—especially those who looked at him funny, or he’d just met. “This is Lisa, my friend,” he’d introduce, or, “This is Eric, my friend.” He didn’t know the meaning of a social bubble, and he didn’t care. You could never be lonely or an outcast with Randy on the scene.

He rocked out to Michael Jackson, and he’d beat you up on Thursday (always next Thursday), and he had to be wearing red. Later in life he decided he wanted to be a Ninja Truck Driver. He planned to cruise the country in his awesome red semi, and marry Shania Twain.

And he loved cheese. His favorite meal consisted of a jiggling bowl of mayonnaise, topped with ½ lb of cheddar, microwaved to perfection. It was not uncommon to walk into the bathroom and find a 5 lb block of cheddar stowed behind the toilet for “later”.

He slept in the room next to me. Even with a handful of medicine at each meal, seizures happened one to three times a day. He had to be locked in at bedtime, in case he decided to raid the cheese and had an attack while on the stairs. I listened as he rocked, fetal position on his creaky mattress, and hummed himself to sleep.

In Special Olympics, he competed as a runner. His first race, he told Mom about his sore foot. “Why is your foot sore?” she asked. He put his locker key in his shoe—because he didn’t know where else to put it. He'd been running on his key the whole time!

He matured, and my parents decided on a group home—a great place he could socialize with others in Special Olympics, and where he’d be able to live, to a degree, an independent life. He had twenty-four hour medical assistance and supervision; a dream come true! Because of this, the school district tore Randy out of his current school (for his senior year)—away from all the kids he’d grown up with, the ones who loved and understood him. We could tell he was sad, but that smile, ever giant, ever cheesy fooled the rest of the world.

My brother was never an embarrassment. Even though he drooled and you couldn’t possibly eat a birthday cake he’d blown out (See the open mouth?), you couldn’t feel bad about claiming him, and he always got down to the heart of the matter.

While my husband, (then boyfriend), was away for two years, I dated a few guys. I even brought one home from college with a group of friends. Randy didn’t hesitate. “Hey Crystal, remember when I told Matt he could marry you?” Yeah, thanks Randy.

Later in life he started calling me his big sister. He’d introduce me that way. Although the 6 year age difference couldn’t be mistaken, he did it to show his love and respect.

After one Special Olympics competition, he wore his silver medal everywhere. “Look Matt, I got second place.” My husband had the audacity to ask how many people had been in the race. “Two,” Randy replied. We chuckled. Then we learned the other runner had a physical handicap. Randy was proud of his metal because he let his “friend” win.

At twenty-six, while experiencing a seizure, the back of his neck hit a kitchen counter.

Paralyzed. He couldn’t walk anymore. We’d come to visit and he’d pull himself up on the table and make his way across the dining room. “I’m going to be running,” he’d promise, and we didn’t doubt it.

His insurance got slashed. Therapy dropped to twice a week. Randy stopped making progress. Eventually he had to move to an assisted living facility, a place where he lay in a bed, day in and day out, waiting for people to visit.

Every stop was a joy. It got harder after he couldn’t talk any more, or when we could tell his bedsores were causing him immense pain, but he always greeted us with a smile.

He never complained. Of all the rotten things he’d been through, he never complained. He was always happy, and always eating cheese, or cheesing it.

He never did get to fulfill his promise to run. On Christmas day, 2005—well after the festivities of the day, (because Randy would never interrupt us celebrating the Savior’s birth,) he finally let go. Gathered as a family, we rejoiced that he was free, that he could finally leave the suffering and jam out to Michael Jackson. Still, his death is one of the hardest things I ever experienced. We realized only after his passing, it was not us serving Randy all our lives. He was serving us.

So you ask, why the cheese? Cheese is the best food on the planet. Cheese makes people happy. Cheese makes the world go round.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Dicken's Infection: Too Many Characters

Dear Dickens,

I love you, but you write TOO MANY CHARACTERS into a single story!


Crystal Collier

AKA: Your greatest fan.

I have mixed feelings on this subject. Strong characters make my world go round. I believe in writing lives that feel realistic and complex—which means conflict surrounded by conflict, people surrounded by other people. (Unless they live on an island in the middle of a lake, surrounded by security fences and high voltage warnings. Hello Uncle Henry!)

How many different individuals do you associate with in a given day? (That number’s going to be smaller for a recluse like me…unless you count social networking.)

I’m in the process of reading WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL by Donald Maass.

Great book. In strengthening characters, he talks about regular relationships and suggests a method of crunching several people into one: “Combine roles”. Grab hold of that burger flipper in the story (MC’s best friend), and mesh them with the by-night taxidermist--the one who operated a tattoo shop in Mexico ten years back and gave your protagonist his first ever tattoo. Now let’s mix him with the agoraphobic neighbor who spends his free hours with a beebee gun, waiting for magpies to invade his yard. Suddenly, this character has a great deal to offer. The Dicken’s method would have been to introduce each of the characters individually: the burger flipper, a by-night taxidermist, an old best-friend whose tattoo shop closed its doors, and the angry neighbor whose only outlet is pelting birds.

Not saying this is the best or only method to cut down on character overload. In some instances a plethora of characters is desirable, but in most cases (as with Dicken’s), it makes for whiplash, head scratching, and a lower self esteem on the reader’s behalf. (“I swear I should remember who that is…”)

I say the solution, if you’ve got the Dicken’s infection (like me), is to introduce no more than one or two characters at a time, and make them memorable! That’s one thing Dicken’s did well. Who can forget John Jarndyce with his easterly wind (BLEAK HOUSE), or Little Emily--whose innocence could win Ebenezer himself (DAVID COPPERFIELD), Sydney Carton—the Jackal (TALE OF TWO CITIES), or Miss Havisham—mentally ill woman who still wore her wedding dress decades after her fiancĂ© ditched her (GREAT EXPECTATIONS)?

When the character enters, set them apart. Bob steps into the office wearing a tutu. He lost a bet. I mean seriously, who’s going to forget a business man in pink? Angeline is introduced while using a high heel to hammer flies in her cubicle. Rodney asks the MC if he can pick the raisins out of his cafeteria oatmeal.

Finally, never place emphasis on a character unless they are pertinent! Every character in Dicken’s stories seemed worthy of a name and description. If they’re not going to make more than a thirty second appearance, why bother with a name? If we’re never going to hear from them after the second chapter, why bother with a description? Toss out a detail and let the reader fill in the blanks.

How many characters is too many?

Tuesday, July 6, 2010


At my house we’re having NaNoWriMo in July (National Novel Writing Month). Why you ask? (Or maybe you don’t, but I’m going to tell you anyway.) We live in Florida. Who wants to be out in 90 to 100 degrees with 100% humidity? You in the back? Well you can have it! Above and beyond that, I lead a choir, and November (the actual NaNo month)/December are my busy season. Call us freakish if you want, but because we homeschool, we keep any schedule we like—which means December/November and most of January are our “summer” vacation.

Because we homeschool, my 9 yr old, 5 yr old, and 3 yr old are constant. Don’t get me wrong, I love them to DEATH,  but “he hit me”, “she took my toy”, and “he’s breathing my air”, are huge distractons to my coveted two hours of writing a day. Then again, are they?

After my oldest was born, I went back to work for a while. A short while. My baby was growing up, and I was missing it. My husband and I sat down and agreed, we could do without the second income. I would stay home with our children. (And write—of course!) That didn’t mean he was making bukoo bucks. In fact, he was part time, we were both in school, and we gave up a lot of comforts. No big screen TV. No house. No second car. No matching couches…

I’d like to say it got better, but we still limp by on one vehicle, my couches still don’t match, and I’ve pretty much given up on the idea of EVER owning a house—that is, until I make my millions from writing. Ha, ha. (Oh, and no big screen, unless you consider 27 inches big.) The point is, I’m here, with my “distractions”, because they won’t be around for long. They’re the ones that will last even after my five minutes of fame. When the hollowness of attainment and lip-service reviews consume my days, I imagine I’ll be anxious to find a few more “distractions” in my life: the kind that love unconditionally.

What are the true distractions in your life?