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Part IV, Looking at All Sides

By Remy Benoit

Writing is work, hard work. So is building a life; so is finding yourself...

In his book, The Smallest Things make the biggest difference,, Ray Haring, Ph.D., quotes Jacob Riis.

Riis was a photographer of the nineteenth century who used his camera to photograph and document tenement life conditions, a problem I wrote of in my book, Letty. It is, as we all know, a problem that we are still trying to overcome.

Trying to bring public awareness to the plight of the tenement dwellers was not easy. The Ash Can School of painters applied their brushes to canvas to show what life was like there.

In Riis’ words, as Haring quotes:

When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing on it. Yet, at the hundred and first blow, it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before.

So it is with our lives, our thoughts, our words, and writing.

We feel we have made progress, only to backslide and have a rough day.

But if we keep on thinking in a positive vein, living in the now, writing down the words, we do make real progress and begin, as Michelangelo said of the stone he sculpted, to let out the figure, in our case the real person, within.

Sometimes a simple change in a daily habit helps the sculpting along. Perhaps you could put your right sock on first instead of your left one, or have your coffee on the front steps instead of in the kitchen. Getting yourself out into the fresh air often helps to clarify your perspective. You could do what a friend of mine does and bicycle down country roads, quietly taking in the sights and sounds of nature; imagining what lives were, and are, being lived in the houses he passes. Perhaps one day he will write of that for us.

There are those of us who take to the big waters, to boats, to fishing poles to re-create themselves. Tidal waters remind us of the ebb and flow of life, ease us with their rhythms, give us what I call “no time time” something we all need to center and quiet ourselves.

I like to watch the sun set on Lake Ponchatrain. There are often visible on the horizon line the tiny images of sailboats; the roseate setting sun colors the two skyscrapers on the shore line and the usually frothy clouds above them.

This kind of connection helps you to feel what a vast creation you are part of and helps you with questioning what your role is in it.

Sometimes I ask myself if I was on one of the sailboats, where would I be going?

The answers we get to questions like these are often filled with things we should know.

I ask you to persevere, gently, at your own pace, on your own path and to be peace. And to remember that you are already loved, unconditionally.

Ray Haring, The Smallest Things Make the biggest difference. HealthSpan Communications, 1999.

We read books to find out who we are. What other people, real or imaginary, do and think and feel is an essential guide to our understanding of what we ourselves are and may become. — Ursula K. LeGuin

Individuals, as well as cultures/civilizations/countries/empires, have periods of growth and decline, and times when they are just quietly simmering.

I would like us to examine the extreme ends of things: growth and decline; life and death; success and failure; addictions and control; materialism and spirituality.

While stands the Coliseum, Rome shall stand; When falls the Coliseum, Rome shall fall; And when Rome falls-the World. — Lord Byron

If the time period you have chosen is one of growth, what are the factors that contributed to that growth?

If you look closely, even during the so-called Medieval years, the "Dark Ages," there were forces of growth at work, albeit, perhaps, slow growth. Look to things like annual trade fairs, caravans transporting goods and carrying with them news, exchanging ideas. Look to the Crusades, to the slow growth of a merchant class; to the need for protection of emerging trade routes; to the need for centralized government to protect the people.

Ask yourself, what was given up for that protection; what was gained?

Ask yourself, research, what rights were given up under the Third Reich for economic stability. What rights are being given up in your own country today for 'security?' How many restrictions can be put on things like freedom of speech before it ceases to exist?

If your time period is one of decline, say the dwindling of the power of the Roman Empire, you must again ask yourself why was it declining?

Read The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. What is there that his descendants ignored?

What happened to the Senate that took away its power, both collectively and individually?

Are there patterns that you see emerge that you can compare with your own times?

During the Sixties here, there was a lot of comparing of the United States and the decline of Rome Can you find any justification for that?

How does the growth, stagnation or decline of his world impact on your character?

What role does war play during these time periods?

Is the time period you are writing in, or living in, primarily that of a guns or butter economy?

How does your environment and time impact on your life?

Civilization is a movement, not a condition; it is voyage, not a harbour. — Arnold Toynbee

Just as civilizations rise and fall, so do we.

What are the birth and death rituals of your personal time period?

What do they tell you about the culture?

What are the birth and death rituals of your character's time period?

How do they reflect the religious point of view of the people you are writing about?

How do these people, your characters, in their own time and place, measure success and failure?

How do they define success; how do they define failure?

How do they treat those who follow their own paths?

If one man gains spiritually, the whole world gains with him, and if one man fails, the whole world fails to that extent. — Mahatma Gandhi

If your character is one who has moved aside from what life should be as defined by his/her culture, how is the person treated by others? Is she encouraged, or is she told to do what she should be doing? Who and what has determined what should be done? If he is going against the accepted life style, what is in his character that makes him strong enough to do it? Share his/her vision or dream with your readers. Make them understand, show them exactly what makes this person tick and yet leave enough space for the reader to slide into that person and feel what he/she is feeling.

This is a good time to look around yourself again.

Who is supporting your dream for a writing life?

Who is treating your desire to write with patience indulgence, humoring you?

Who is actively discouraging you?

Give serious thought to who you share your efforts with.

Consider Thoreau's words:

If one advances confidently in the direction of his own dreams, and endeavors to live the life he has imagined, he will meet with success unexpected in common hours.

What does that mean to the writer? It means writing something everyday, everyday.

It means reading other peoples' work.

It means listening, observing, keeping notebooks.

It means giving your writing your attention.

It means, making a commitment.

It means determining the purpose of your writing.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull was rejected 18 times. Kipling was told he had no command of the English language; Melville was asked who would want to read about a whale?

Accept the idea of rejection. It is going to happen, and happen, and happen again.

Get yourself a bulletin board; pin up the rejections, draw cartoon faces on them, and sit down, and write, and submit it again.

Make a collage of the rejection slips with bits and pieces of things you like pasted on it the sharp stones overcome on my path... or something like that.

Don't try to write like Hemingway, but read his little book, A Separate Feast.

Develop your own style. Speak for yourself.

If you want to write about success, read people like Og Mandino, Gerry Jampolski, Wayne Dyer, and remember, As a man thinketh, so he is.

If you want to become aware of the price of success read biographies of people you think at first glance have it all, and find out the price they paid, the lessons they learned.

If you want to write about pain, learn about pain other than your own, go to any website for Vietnam Vets, or PTSD 101: or to a websearch relating to the pain you are feeling.

If you want to learn about overcoming pain, look for the web site for the Bamboo Bridge, or Point Man International, Alcoholics Anonymous, Alcohol and Drug Referral Network, Verbal Abuse, Child Abuse, Battered Women, Battered Males, or again, under the topic of your pain.

Read other works on unrequited love, physical limitations, abuse, devotion to a cause, etc. See how other people handle their lives and try to determine the factors as you see them that make for success or failure.

What was your greatest defeat, success?

What were those of your character?

What is the gain or loss in any decision? Weigh these in your personal life in your journal and write them into your character's life.

Think yourself into your time period.

How would it feel to have to walk anywhere you wanted to go?

How would that change your life?

If your character lives in a pre-automobile world, imagine and write his reactions to a ride in a sleek, fast car. That kind of writing gives you insights into his head and heart, and will help you give him more depth.

What kind of addictions does your character have?

What kind of control does he have over his life?

Who does your character allow to control him, and what control devices are used.

If you want to see how one man chose control of how he felt about things, read Victor Frankl's work.

Is your character a "material girl," a spiritually oriented person? What are the priorities of the people around her? Does she fit in, or stick out?

What would a 'material girl' be in ancient Rome; in Victorian England, in the US in the Twenties? What kind of characteristics would these material girls share with one today?

Ask yourself how much of yourself you are writing about. We all have many, many layers.

What are the things that motivate your character?

What does he want?

To what lengths is he willing to go to get it?

What in her is keeping her from getting where she wants to be?

What messages would you or your character like to convey to others?

In short, what are the conflict points?

Your life is filled with conflict points: demands being made on your time, heart, head. If your character has no conflict point(s) what is the story about? What is there to bring the reader to pain, sympathy, encouragement, or other interactive emotions?

In any way you can, reading books, going to museums, listening to music, put yourself into that time period. Try to live, at least one day but preferably many days, as you would have lived then. Try to live that day as different people.

Watch movies about your time period and critique them. What was done correctly, what was incorrectly?

Watch out for anachronisms. People in ancient Rome don't check their watches and readers are very quick to point out where writer's fail in accuracy.

While your character will run through a stream of emotions and incidents, her development must be consistent, even accounting for back sliding after learning a lesson. I once showed a student teacher how she would lose control of a class in minutes by being inconsistent with the students. If your character is not consistent, true to her character, you will lose your readers.

Research your topic well, make your character "real." Have your character reflect his time period, his station, and his dream. Have your character ask questions of others. But, also, learn when you have done enough research and it is time to let that go and just do the writing. Even when you are researching you should still be writing. A book does not have to be written from page one to the end. It can be written in bits and pieces put together by you as a consistent whole.

When you are tired, when the "flow" is stuck, find someone who feels worse than you do and help them any way you can. It will break the dam.

Hints: Very often works that will offer you great assistance with your research are out of print. Try Inter Library Loans which network across country and can pull things from college libraries. The only draw back with this is that they are usually only 2 week loans with stiff penalties for returning late.

Also for out of print books try Alibris.

One final thought. There are a few times in history that are considered special times; times where growth seems to literally be in "jumps." The Renaissance was one, the American Revolution was another. Many people today feel that we are living in one of those "jump" times ( see work Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge ). There are a number of people today writing about the "possibilities" of our time. See what you can find, perhaps, what you can do.

...writing outside, chapter...things fall in place...fill soul places...
if we, honey, if we do nothing, we help maintain - we help, IT, whatever it is that we know to be wrong to carry on... to continue the hurting....
but when we give it ourselves, when we give it our loving...we begin, ever so slowly, one word, one smile, one person at a time, to take away the source of the hurting... as we give it us, we find ourselves. February, 2001.

If you are writing to heal, you must do this. You must name, call it by its name, whatever it is: to face it, to talk with it, to put it to rest. You can do this in essay form, in poetic form, or in a novel. You can, of course, chose non-fiction, but sometimes that is too up close and personal and better worked out through a fictional character.

But you must name it and then work with it. When the story is done, you will find that you have turned much of the pain, anger, hurt into healing, not only of yourself, but by sharing, with others.

You may find your journal is the best place for this. You might want to try letters, but if you use letters that are to be sent, then remember in attacking you are reinvigorating: revitalizing, giving new life to the pain. Write for resolution, not for continuance.

It is the naming of the thing: bringing it into the light by giving it a name...ah, didn't the ancients give names to things to gain power over them...just as certain things, gods, demons, could not have their names said aloud because in the naming you summoned them, called them forth, gave them power...well, with some things when you name them, you box them, restrict them, place them within certain parameters and thus contain them.

You even get to throw the whole box away if you choose because it may just have lost any relevance at all, and is just cluttering up your mind and your space for creating.

There is no room for something new to come into your life unless you get rid of, give away, throw away some of the old.

Taking back from it the power you gave it.

Taking back from it the space you let it take in your life, in your head, in your heart and soul. Be willing to face the resistance of those who bring out the big guns to try to keep you from leaving the herd.

Leaving room for a new gift from the universe.

Energizing and empowering yourself.

There are things in our lives we must do that take away their power over us, to be able to move into our own.

And once we have done that, we can move on.

And then you can begin to incorporate it into your character.

You might want to use the voice of a Civil War soldier to express your pain.

You might want to tell the tale of a ballerina gone lame to speak of your inhibiting illness.

There are endless possibilities from times and places in history.

We can then reflect: why did I follow the course that I did? Why did I give this power to this thing/place/person/job whatever over me? Who contributed to the hurt I felt? Did they do it deliberately or out of ignorance? How and where do I find the strength to forgive them?

What was the short term/long term gain of continuing to carry pain? What was its loss? Why don't I need it anymore? How have I grown away from that me?

If your pain includes friends lost in battle, part of you lost in battle, how can you honor friends, memorialize them in your writing? How can you talk with your lost pieces of soul and help them to come back to you in your writing?

Translate those answers to your character's voice and situation.

What now?

What next?

What I am choosing to be now?

Where am I to go now that I have freed myself of all their expectations, condemnations, and my own pain, and am beginning to live me with all that I am and can be?

It is at that point that you see how immense the universe is, how may possibilities there are. That, of course, ah Jacques, Liberte, makes you see how difficult it is to choose, how much the words personal freedom entail.

But now you are acting, not reacting.

You can use a character in a story to show others how being caught in a reactive mind set just keeps you spinning in a whirlpool of conflict, and a path not taken.

Choose an historical figure from the time you are writing in, or from your own time who lived an "examined" life. What was this person's life like as a child? What kind of "inner child" did she carry as an adult?

Was his inner child nurtured, obstructed, held down, or honored?

What boxes did he have to fill with unwanted layers and then dispose of?

What techniques did she use to fill and throw away the boxes?

What can you learn for yourself and your character from this person's actions?

What have you learned that you can pass on to others?

How do you feel about using your pain, your new found answers and peace, to help others?

The means by which we live have outdistanced the ends for which we live. Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men. — Martin Luther King Jr.

You must be the change you wish to see in the world. — Mahatma Gandhi


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This item is part of historian, author, editor, and educator Remy Benoit's ongoing weblog for Veterans, writers, students, and others who believe in learning from and making history; including thousands of articles and posts and the free writing seminar, Using History for Healing and Writing.

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