Tag Archives: fear

Despair for the World

Credit: dronagirl | morguefile.com

Credit: dronagirl | morguefile.com

When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives might be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

-Wendell Berry

Follow Up on A Curious Thought

New Harry Potter (c) Jim McKay

New Harry Potter (c) Jim McKay

Two weeks ago I wrote a blog about new scientific research which maintains that the brain doesn’t recognize the difference between an imagined act and one actually carried out. This scientific discovery intrigued me and brought a fundamental question to mind. What does our brain’s presumed inability to distinguish between imagination and reality mean for creators and purveyors of fiction? I offered no answers, only the question.

One of my readers, Donna Marie, came back with an interesting and challenging response. Here it is:

I agree with pretty much all you said, only—and you probably knew there would be an “only” lol—I don’t quite buy the “brain doesn’t know the difference” thing. That may be true in people who truly can’t distinguish reality from fantasy (someone very close to me suffers from schizophrenic issues and his imagination can control him, creating severe paranoia), but although the brainwaves may operate the same way, we, as humans, most certainly can distinguish (for the most part) what is real or imagined.

I know that, as a reader, I want to read a book that feels real. I want to be that absorbed, that moved. And a powerful enough book can alter lives, for sure, but as real and strongly as I felt the characters in the Harry Potter series were, and I felt very deeply about the outcome, there was never any confusion about reality. So that’s the only beef I have about that statement from the researchers, unless I’m taking it too literally.

I’m glad to have this challenge posed, because I had some of these same questions in my mind, even as I framed the blog. It’s possible that she and I are both taking the neuro scientists’ statement too literally. What, indeed, does it mean that the brain doesn’t distinguish between the real and the imagined? I assume this statement comes out of the fact that when scientists read brain activity, the brain gives the same kind of physical reading to imagined fear, for instance, as it does to being confronted by a fearful event in real time.

And yet we all know that we are perfectly capable of reading or hearing about traumatic events without being traumatized ourselves. In fact, sometimes we even seek out scary stories to make ourselves feel more alive or to build up our capacity for facing fear. I have written in the past about my son, Peter, as a toddler, who loved a picture book that had a bear in it, though he was terrified of the bear. Each time we read it, he had to snuggle close and cover his eyes before we turned the page where the bear lived. And yet he asked for that book again and again and again, clearly seeking that small frisson of fear the bear created for him.

Our understanding of brains is primitive still. For instance, do we even understand the distinction between brain and mind? So if the brain lights up—or whatever it does when being examined—in the same way for an imagined activity as for a real one, does that mean that the mind recognizes no difference between the two? All our experience says otherwise. I would never go hang gliding, pursue a criminal down a dark alley, consort with werewolves (should I find any werewolves about to consort with), but that doesn’t keep me from reading about/imagining such activities. Whatever my brain may do with the experiences, the person I am recognizes the difference between real and imagined.

So even if this failure to distinguish between imagination and reality is nonsense on one level, I am fascinated to know that imagination has such a physical impact on our brains. I don’t know exactly what that impact means for us storytellers, but I am certain of one thing. This new knowledge supports a fundamental assumption we all live by . . . stories spun out of our imaginations matter.

And that I find heartening.

A bit daunting, too.

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Writing about Not Writing

blank-computerIt happens every time. I hadn’t expected it this round, but there it is, reliably waiting for me. As soon as I send a major project out to find its way in the world, I seem, every time, to step off into a vacuum.

Peggotty is with my agent, Rubin Pfeffer. (Peggotty is the verse novella that I was calling Patches until I remembered I had a better name tucked away.) There will be further work to do on it, of course. I certainly hope there will be further work as I always want the privilege of working with whatever insights an editor can bring to my manuscript. But it will take some time before any of that happens. In the meantime . . .

Ah . . . in the meantime is the problem.

In the meantime I’m floating out here, wondering what to do with myself, wondering why I got up this morning, wondering whether I’ll ever write anything again as long as I live!

A bit melodramatic? Of course. I admit it. More than a bit predictable, too.

I seem to go through this kind of awkward transition every time I complete a piece I’ve been working on for a period of months, though I haven’t always recognized the every-timeness of the phenomenon. I remember once saying that to someone who had been around me and my work for a long time, “I feel as though I’ll never write anything again,” and she replied, “That’s what you said last time, too.”

I was shocked. I had thought—I believed ardently—that I’d never in my entire career been in such a place.

But there I was, facing the fact that I’d felt it, said it, believed it many times. And yet, of course, I did write something again. In fact, since that particular revelation I’ve written many somethings.

This time, though, I thought I’d be immune. Didn’t I have a novel waiting, a novel I was eager to return to? I’d written nearly 200 pages of it before getting stopped, and in the months since I’d put it aside for other projects, it had remained with me almost constantly. I was ready to start again with a new structure, with newly conceived characters. And I was even excited about starting over.

So this morning, in preparation for moving back into the manuscript, I sat down to Blue-Eyed Wolf to reread the opening scene. It’s a scene that has remained essentially unchanged from the beginning. It’s a scene I was confident formed a strong opening for my story. But as I read, I found my heart sinking. Was this what I planned to immerse myself in for the next months? Really?

There was something wrong with it. Or if there wasn’t something wrong with the text, then surely there was something wrong with me!

Is this that same old place? I ask myself, the one where I can never do what I’ve just done again. Will I wake up tomorrow morning or a week from tomorrow morning and immerse myself once more in words and characters and story? Will I forget these doubts ever seeped into my soul . . . until some good friend who has heard me whine too many times reminds me?

We writers have nothing to work out of except our own minds, and minds are tricky stuff. Or as Anne Lamott said, “My mind is like a bad neighborhood. I try not to go there alone.”

My mind is capable of such marvels . . . and of such self-aggrandizement and distortion, such pettiness and cruelty, mostly toward myself. I’m reminded of the bumper sticker that comes out of Buddhist mindfulness practice, “Don’t believe everything you think.”

So . . . what do I do when I’m never going to write again as long as I live?

Well, I’m a writer, so I sit down and write about not-writing. What else?

“Refusing Them the Right to be Hurt”

 This is a letter I received from a fellow writer and reader of my blog after I talked last week about one reader’s reaction to A Very Little Princess, a young novel of mine some adults consider too painful for young readers.

bk_honorThank you, Moira. I will let your good letter speak for itself:

Dear Marion Dane Bauer,

Your latest webpage column, “Really Touched Me,” really touches me in a very pertinent way right now.

The book I’m writing was originally going to be short and about a single incident. I reread “On My Honor” for inspiration. But, quite unexpectedly, my book grew, collecting and incorporating characters, scenes and life experiences I’ve gathered over the decades. I love the story, and I love writing it, but one thing is always at the back of my mind. The story has to do with a girl who’s 11 and 3/4ths (she would insist that I mention the 3/4ths) who must make a choice about facing a grim reality of life. The choice is imposed upon her by a beloved aunt. My protagonist mulls over it for days, and, thinking that since what she must do is deemed of no consequence by two kids her age and by adults whose opinions she’s asked for, she decides. Her choice blows up her interior world. But no one else thinks it should bother her, and certainly not as much as it does.

If I write it well, I hope that the reader feels my protagonist’s moral and ethical crisis and the pain that comes with it. But what lingers at the back, and often in the front, of my mind is, will it hurt children? Should I protect children from this pain? Will parents and possibly librarians and booksellers be as angry with me as they are with you about “On My Honor” and “The Very Little Princess?”

Nothing can stop me from writing the story—I love it too much, I want to share it, and one of my particularly aggressive characters would NEVER let me rest if I didn’t—but now and then I think, “Maybe I should just self-publish it and give copies to friends. Would an agent or publisher even want to read the entire manuscript about a girl who must choose whether to kill, and what a person should feel about killing?” But now I ask myself what you ask in your column, “… should the book have been withheld from those who would be touched, who would, perhaps, even grow a bit larger emotionally for accompanying this story journey?”

Your column reassured me that, whatever the outcome concerning finding an agent or a publisher, and any future reactions from adults, I have no choice but to allow my character to make *her* choice. With fictional children, as well as real ones, to refuse them the right to be hurt in learning the whole of being alive is to restrict the quality of those lives.

Thank you, thank you for your column. It’s just what I needed to read just when I needed to read it.

Very best regards,

Moira Manion

And Moira, I’m sure your story—with all its pain—will be exactly what some young readers need as well.

The Question of Courage

courageA couple of weeks ago I talked about my father and the role he played, in a rather perverse way, in encouraging my unlikely career as a writer. I asked my readers, “What gives you the courage, the drive, the against-all-odds determination to seek out a working writer’s fraught existence? And what keeps you struggling with it, day after sometimes discouraging day?”

Here are some more responses to my question:

Janet Fox said this:

I have such a similar story, in a way. My mother was a frustrated writer. She wrote children’s stories at a time I was off doing everything else but writing. She died suddenly, and I found a batch of her unpublished work among her papers, and that’s what started me on my path today.

So now I write for my mother—not because she discouraged me, but because she never saw her work in print. Every success I have, I think, “You’d love this, Mom. You’d be happy.”

I don’t want to die without having made every effort to write the best possible stories. For my readers, of course, but also for my mom.

So once again the motivator lies in a relationship with a parent. It would be interesting to know whether, if I were talking to people who write for adults, the motivation underlying their careers would, so reliably, go back to the primal parent/child relationship.

Carol Brendler took the conversation in a different and interesting direction. This is what she said:

I have never thought about the courage it takes to become a writer. I know all about persistence, but have never considered how brave it is of me to try this work. Wow. Where did it come from, this courage? From a deep-seated need to prove to an indifferent world that I do indeed have something worthwhile to contribute to it (beside producing one very smart and handsome child)? Is it a play for attention? Or is it simply that I have no marketable skills or aptitude for anything other than playing with words and telling tales? None of these seem courageous. Let me think about this some more, because I’d really like to think that I might be courageous.

After reading Carol’s comment, I had to stop to ask myself why I used the word courage? I decided that the word came out of precisely the kinds of questions she poses: Can I stand in the face of an indifferent world? If I do, will anyone ever notice? Can I accept the fact that playing with words and story is my sole talent and take ownership of that talent, no regrets allowed? No one gets past those kinds of questions without courage.

Sandra Warren, whom I quoted last week, also took on the question of “courage.” This is what she said:

Our writing isn’t what takes courage. It’s the believing that it’s good enough for someone else to read; good enough to want to get it published; good enough for a publisher to want it; a belief strong enough to sustain us through the process–the rejection that surely comes–to stick to it, persist and not quit; that’s the part that takes COURAGE.

Where my courage comes from I’m not sure. All I know is that deep down I have this strong belief that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.

And that’s exactly what I’m talking about, the courage that keeps us at a task—often for years—because we believe in what we’re doing and choose to go on believing even when the world has yet to support us in our conviction.

I especially like that Sandra ends with “All I know is that deep down I have this strong belief that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.”

What better place to end this discussion?