Showing posts with label creative process. Show all posts
Showing posts with label creative process. Show all posts

03 January 2020

What I Really Think About Sensitivity Reading


I've been a mental health professional and psychotherapist for 35 years, a published writer of novels and short stories for 13. I live in New York with its kaleidoscopic population. For almost 20 years, I've conducted my therapy practice in cyberspace, ie all over the world. Either personally or in one role or another, I've known a vast variety of people intimately. I've heard the secrets and the candid thoughts and feelings of people of every race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic background, from homeless to celebrity, from nun to murderer, from serving military to self-proclaimed anarchist, from survivor of child molestation to convicted pedophile. I've worked with prostitutes and flashers and gamblers as well as the whole spectrum of sex and gender. I've heard from dozens of cops how 911 really felt to them. I've helped hundreds of alcoholics and drug addicts get clean and sober.

Empathy and imagination are the tools of my trade-—or let's call them my superpowers. My body of work attests to my high degree of competence at my trade, indeed, both my trades. If I were a surgeon setting your broken leg, would you insist I couldn't do it without instruction from you because I'd never had a broken leg myself? If you don't like that analogy, consider this: I've spent my whole personal and professional life living with, interacting with, working with, treating, writing about, loving, and in one case raising successfully the ultimate aliens: men. And male writers have been doing the same with women, with varying success. [Pause while I resist the temptation to name names.]

How those who haven't walked the walk, especially of the marginalized, can possibly write authentically about such characters has become one of the burning questions of our time. I don't think censorship by the thought police, aka sensitivity reading, is the answer. Redaction in the name of reverence is the enemy of creativity and pure poison to art itself.

In the 1980s and 1990s, when I worked as a clinical social worker in and later directed alcoholism treatment programs in New York, many staff were recovering alcoholics who used their own experience as an integral part of their treatment technique, much like sponsorship in AA. Credentialing for counselors was in its youth. Many clients in treatment also went to AA, where they were told that "only an alcoholic can help another alcoholic." (At the time of AA's founding, no effective treatment for alcoholism existed.)

I made a conscious decision not to "confirm or deny" when asked if I was an alcoholic myself. Rather than using that stuffy expression, I told them they would have to find another way to decide whether or not to trust me. My professional experience taught me that some clients wanted to hear I was just like them, but others wanted to be assured I wasn't as damaged as they were. Some of my clients were the deeply hurt or angry partners and family members of alcoholics, who wanted to hear I was not another alcoholic. And how about the bipolar clients, the ex-prostitutes, the survivors of child abuse and sexual trauma I treated? Did every one of them need to hear I was like them-—or not like them? Once I lost control of disclosure about myself, it would be gone forever. The only solution was not to disclose anything about my personal experience.

When my first novel about recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler was published, I knew that I'd be asked the same question: "Are you an alcoholic?" I made the same decision again. By then, 2008, readers were looking authors up on the Internet and so were potential clients for the online therapy practice I was now engaged in. One mention on Facebook of what I was or wasn't, and once again, I'd lose control over who knew what about me. And it would unquestionably affect people's judgment about whether I was qualified to write what I wrote, treat whom I treated, or know what I knew I knew. As I've learned over and over, people believe what they want to believe. So I had and have no intention of making myself vulnerable to their judgment.

It's not only online that people continually try to break the boundaries I've set for myself. I wish they wouldn't, although I'm no longer amazed at the way people think they have a right to personal information about someone they don't know. Unfortunately, one of the "family rules" of our society is that it's okay. I've had AA members who've read and enjoyed my book tell me so on the street, which is lovely, and then ask if I'm in the program myself-—demonstrating their imperfect grasp of the concept of anonymity. I've given a reading from my story in Me Too Short Stories and had someone come up, tell me it was wonderful and they're going to buy the anthology, then say, "Was it based on personal experience?"-—oblivious to the fact that they've just asked a perfect stranger in a crowded public place, "Were you molested as a child?"

I'm no longer flustered by such questions. I have a standard way of dealing with them firmly but kindly. I say, "I don't disclose that information." If more is needed, I say it's a policy that I apply to everyone. I may even explain it as a matter of my being a mental health professional. But it's really about my right to myself as my own intellectual property, which is akin to my integrity as a therapist and my creative material as a writer. Only I control what anyone knows about my personal experience. Anonymity means that a person in 12-step recovery has the sole right to share that information outside a meeting room. Confidentiality means that only the client has the right to decide who knows what he or she tells a therapist. And intellectual freedom mean that only I as a writer have the right to decide what I write. Short of hate speech, anything else would be kowtowing to the thought police. I'd give up writing rather than settle for appeasement to such an Orwellian distortion of the concept of freedom of speech and creativity.

Elizabeth Zelvin is the author of the Bruce Kohler Mysteries, the Mendoza Family Saga, and three dozen short stories. Most recently, she edited the anthology Me Too Short Stories. Liz's stories have been nominated three times each for the Derringer and Agatha Awards and appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. In 2020 so far, her stories will be published in AHMM and Jewish Noir 2.

24 February 2013

I Was Just Wondering


by Louis Willis

I’ve been wondering about character creation. Not so much how you fictionists, or is it fictioneers (I’m not sure of the difference but that is a subject for another post), create characters, but I was just wondering how you manage to stay sane while doing so. Specifically, how you give each character a personality that distinguishes him or her from other characters, even minor ones.
Actors take what the playwright or screen writer has written and make the character their own, becoming the character. You fictionists, on the other hand, have to create several characters in one story, sometimes in paragraph or even one sentence. I was just wondering if you become each character in order to create him or her, to give them personalities, including the various emotions each must have to be believable. 

I began thinking about how fictionists create characters while reading A Free Man of Color by Barbara Hambly in which she, a white writer, created the black male amateur detective Benjamin January. I decided to write a post about creating characters after reading the short story “Pansy Place” by Dan Warthman (AHMM January-February 2012) that Rob mentions in his January 16 post. The protagonist, Jones, is white and Akin, the young man who goes along with him to confront the bad guys, is black. He reminds Jones of himself when he was young--a tough, no nonsense kind of guy. In addition, Warthman created a believable damsel in distress, L’Vonte, Jones’s cleaning lady, and Konnie Kondrasin who was Jones’s agent when he was taking on dangerous jobs. In all, including the three bad guys and L’Vonte’s boyfriend, there are eight characters he has to give different personalities with different emotions, though he gives the bad guys a collective personality.

In these two examples, the characters are of different races. Even when you create characters of the same race but different gender, you may have to be a woman and a man in the same story, and that has to do something to your mind. In the delightful story “Acting on A Tip” (EQMM July 2012), which Rob also mentions, the female author, Barbara Arno Modrack, creates Marty, a very believable male protagonist. He is an ex-alcoholic, ex-journalist who has moved with his long suffering wife Jenny and their youngest son to a small town where he helps catch a serial killer. Modrack has to first think like a man (assuming men and women think differently), switch bodies and be his wife, switch again, and be the teenage son, and finally switch and be the killer. She doesn’t give us the interior thinking of each character. We see the action from Marty’s perspective, but certainly, Modrack had to give each character a little personality to make them, even the minor characters, convincing.

In creating characters, you base some on relatives, some on friends, and even some on strangers, but mostly they come from your imagination. No matter, you still must give them different personalities with the accompanying emotions, and creating those various emotions, my friends, must take a toll on your minds, doesn’t it?

I was just wondering how you do it and still maintain your sanity.
To all of you a big

07 July 2012

Home Alone


by John M. Floyd


A few weeks ago our family--my wife and I, our three children, and their spouses and children--spent a week in the mountains of east Tennessee.  Thirteen of us, five of whom are under the age of seven, lived together for six days in a four-story, six-bedroom cabin, and somehow managed to do it without any major arguments or threats to life and limb.  I can't say we were roughing it, because the place included a pool table, hot tub, Wi-Fi, and seven TV sets--but, to our credit, none of the TVs even got switched on, except for the night our oldest son plugged his camera into one of them to show us a movie he'd made of a kindergarten music-program featuring one of his kids.

Anyhow, we had a great time; the weather was cool and clear and totally unsummerlike for the whole trip.  Every day after breakfast, the Floyd clan hiked up and down mountains until two of us (guess who) were wheezing and had our tongues hanging out.  Lunch was always a picnic somewhere along the trail, and by five o'clock or so we were usually back at the cabin, where we had a group supper and got all the kiddos calmed down and in bed.  The eight grownups then sat around on the deck and snacked and propped up our sore feet and visited until the wee hours.

You guys go ahead--don't worry about me . . .

But my column today, believe it or not, isn't about road trips or backpacking or family reunions.  It's about writing.  Because on the first of those six days in the wild, I was recovering but still suffering from a head cold and chose to stay behind while the rest of the family packed up and trudged off into the black forest.  From eight o'clock until around four-thirty that day, I sat around by myself, taking it easy and occasionally taking in the view.  And writing.

I wrote for most of the day, and while I wish I could tell you I was writing a SleuthSayer column, I wasn't.  I was writing a short story--what used to be called a mini-mystery and is now called a "solve-it-yourself" mystery--for a magazine called Woman's World.

I was surprised at how smoothly it went.  Part of it was the quiet and the solitude, I guess, and the knowledge that there really wasn't anything else to do while the rest of my crew were off someplace having a good time.  Whatever the reason, the ideas and the words seemed to appear in my stuffy head without much effort at all.  It did, however, take some effort to make them appear in tangible form, since I was using an ink pen and a yellow legal pad I had thrown into my briefcase for the trip.  (My iPad worked well for e-mail and websurfing but I had not yet--and still have not--installed a word-processing program on it.)  I do actually remember how to write words by hand, though, and within half an hour I had jotted down a rough draft on the first four sheets of my lined pad.

The cutting-room floor

The rewriting was the only thing that was hard.  I do a lot of rewriting, and always have, but I'm a bit spoiled; after all, editing my own work on a computer screen is easy.  On paper it's not.  I did a few markouts and additions and other corrections on the sheets I'd already written, but most of my revisions were accomplished by starting over and writing a complete second draft, and then a third.  And since these WW submissions must have a short and very specific wordcount, I even wound up (don't laugh) counting the words each time, right down to every "a" and "the."  Which can be a tiresome job, and a reminder of how things "used to be."

When I was done I had filled a dozen pages, the first eight of which, of course, were now worthless.  The last four pages contained the almost-final draft of my handwritten story.

By then it was past lunchtime, so I gobbled down whatever food I could find in our Ponderosa-sized kitchen, caught a nap, and then took my better-(I hoped)-but-not-yet-completed story out onto the third-floor deck to read it over. I have always--even during my college and Air Force days--been able to do some of my best thinking when my feet are elevated to at least the level of my head, and one of the adjustable lounge chairs was just right for this phase of my creative process.  By the time my weary and sweaty kinfolks had returned from their day's adventures, I had made all my final edits and had a story in hand that now was . . . well, I won't say perfect--but was as perfect as I thought that particular story could be.  I had a product that was ready to be taken home, typed, and submitted to the WW fiction editor.

Post-production notes

Every day after that, I hiked through hill and dale with the rest of the family; my cold was better and my story was finished and safely packed away.  When we wrapped up the week and had driven the five hundred miles back to our house in Mississippi I did indeed send that story off into the world to try to make something of itself.  I haven't yet heard anything back about it, so I don't know if it'll prove to be a winner or a loser, but at least I'm satisfied with it.

I've completed several more stories since then, but all of those have been written right here in this chair in my home office, using my trusty iMac.  My future plans include installing the Apple version of MS Word on my iPad, but until then, on any trip I take, I plan to again pack plenty of paper and a few Foray rollerball pens.  Just in case I find myself grounded for a while.

Call it a wilderness survival kit.