Tag Archives: writing

Mapping the Story

Lately I’ve been thinking about how much living a life resembles writing a story.

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We love our stories, whether they be in the form of songs, film, books (digital or tangible) or spoken language. We love the nonfiction of history and science, memoirs and fiction. Story has anchored me to life since before I learned to read.

During my writing hours I’m engrossed in creating characters and weaving them together. One scene gives rise to another. There must be action and movement. There must be some kind of story logic. Every word must help drive the story forward. Characters need to be believable and recognizable in their behavior and growth. As an audience, we want to see characters change and learn. We want to commiserate with and applaud our favorite characters. We want them to do well.

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As a writer, I don’t have total control or knowledge of my story. I create a rough outline, characters and setting and start writing. If I’ve done well with my characters, the act of writing animates them into becoming collaborators rather than pawns. I’ve learned the characters who remain passive and one-dimensional are weak and need to be reworked. I may have a direction I want my characters to go in, but strong ones frequently refuse to comply with my outline and notes and we wind up sitting glaring at one another with our arms folded, my character looking out from the laptop screen at me at the keyboard. The flow of the writing stops then, until I set aside my rigidity and work with other possibilities.

This is exactly like life. How often have we gone down a blind alley and wound up with our noses against a brick wall but been too stubborn or exhausted or despairing to retrace our steps and choose another direction? How often have we taken a well-worn path of anxiety and wound up in a trackless desert or marsh, floundering, miserable and lost?

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As we journey through the story of our own lives, however, our view is from the bottom of the valley rather than from a high mountain from which we can see the whole thing. We live our stories one moment at a time, losing sight of the beginning and never knowing the end until we reach it. Our lives are filled with things like visits to the bathroom, brushing our teeth, lost car keys, bills, errands, flat tires and dead car batteries, and colds.

But these details, so ubiquitous in what we call “real life” add nothing to a great film or book. They’re not sexy and entertaining. Nobody wants to watch Wonder Woman floss her teeth or cut her toenails. We don’t see our favorite heroes spending hours hunched over their phones, tablets and games.

We can’t tell the sweeping story of our lives while we’re living them. We know when things feel good or bad, but we don’t look beyond that most of the time. We’re more concerned with our discomfort and disappointment than we are with the inherent ebb and flow of life.

We don’t think about what our story requires. We don’t see our most difficult times as turning points essential to our story.

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As a writer, however, I know tension, conflict and obstacles are necessary. They create movement and growth. They create change. They force characters to reveal weaknesses and summon strengths. They teach resiliency and test faith.

What would it be like if we could watch our own lives as though watching the next big superhero movie? What if we could revel in the setting we find ourselves in, even if we decide to escape it and find a new one? What if we chose to feel inspired by the unpredictability of our unfolding lives and heartened by the way obstacles shape us?

What if it was all an essential, beautiful part of our story?

What if . . . ?

My daily crime.

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All content on this site ©2019
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted

Spinning My Wheels

Sometimes I spin my wheels.

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I map out a week, a day, a list of directions with mileage and time apportioned to each part of the journey. I ascend the stairs to my expectant workspace, turn on a lamp, plug in a single string of red Christmas lights, light a candle and lift the laptop lid. Outside my windows, tiny snowflakes fill the air. The old-timers here say, “Little snow, big snow,” meaning small flakes indicate significant accumulation. I don’t know if this is always true, but I notice the size of the flakes. As I check the weather forecast, my e-mail and the headlines, my gaze is drawn repeatedly to the window. The hypnotic falling snow is the same color as the sky. Disordered ranks of brown cattail stalks stand ankle-deep in the sleeping pond. An infinity of branch, needle and twig is adorned with an even greater infinity of frozen white crystals, falling soundlessly and blurring the colors of stone and wood.

No snowflake ever falls in the wrong place — Zen saying.

It is then that my wheels start to spin. I have set aside this morning to write. I stare at the laptop screen, fingers on the keyboard. Nothing happens. Seeking inspiration, demanding creativity, I make notes, review notes already made, catch up on reading from favorite blogs and my current stack of books. I search for some solid traction so I can move through the day according to my tidy, efficient plan, but I find myself returning to the window, spellbound, empty of creativity or inspiration but full of wonder at the subtle beauty of the winter snow.

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It’s the contrast that catches my attention. My aerie is filled with books, beloved objects, the tools of my life. The warm sticky scent of a red candle fills my space. The red desk lamp I bought at Goodwill more than 10 years ago lights my worktop. My comfortable chair and footstool beckon me to sit and read. The room is warmed by the chimney that rises up through it from the wood stove below. I hear my partner talking to our old cat in his office below me; not the words, but the loving sound of his voice that is reserved just for her. He is at his work and I am at mine, cocooned in our private spaces in our slouching farmhouse with lights and heat and the rinsed breakfast dishes stacked on the counter waiting for hot water and soap. We have things to do today, errands to run, people to talk to. We have plans and intentions.

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But outside, just beyond the single pane of glass in the old attic windows, is a monochrome world, delicate and cold, still and peaceful. The snow falls without effort. Each flake finds a resting place on the bodies of the trees or the water or the earth. The wood and stone have no place to go and nothing to do. They dwell in the vast power of simply being. The snow settles lightly.

I think about living minimally, weeding out my clothes, the week ahead, money, the perfect Christmas gift I can never find for a loved one, and whether or not we’ll make it into town to do the errands today. I think about drafting a query letter to send out with my first manuscript, which I just finished editing for the fifth or sixth time. I think about reviewing the water rescue information I’ll need next weekend when I travel with a couple of colleagues from work to get deep-water lifeguard certified. It will be a busy week. My careful plan blocks out this morning for coming up with this week’s blog post. I will write … I will begin now … My idea is … Ready, set, go!

My wheels spin, and I look out the window at my little black car, which is wearing a white blanket, and recognize the sinking feeling of no traction. No amount of urgency or frustration makes snow, slush and mud into solid ground. No amount of bullying makes my creativity compliant. I get up. I sit down. I glance at my journal, reread a paragraph in a book, look at some poetry. I feel restless and resentful at my own recalcitrance.

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Outside, the snow falls, serene and inexorable as the fading light here in the last handful of days before winter solstice. I open the window and lean close against the hushed, frigid world outside it. My little candle, my lists, my inconsequential blog and my plan for this morning make no impression outside the window screen. It’s time for sleep and dreaming, time for rest. The forest knows, the earth and water know. They lie peacefully under the low sun and the long nights.

My wheels spin, making a noisy mess, throwing clods of half-formed ideas, provocative questions, lingering music of beautiful words, comments and conversations and observations, going nowhere. No traction. The morning is passing. I have not accomplished what I wanted to. I’ve neither rested with the winter snow nor produced a post. I’m torn between self-disgust, resignation and amusement. I think about heavy, cold chains; red, numb hands; wet jeans and sodden gloves; the steady clicking of hazard lights; the feeling of being late and time running out; the texture of wood ash, cat litter, sand and salt thrown onto snow and ice; and the futile laboring of spinning wheels.

The morning is gone. In half an hour we’ll try to go into town. My partner is out with the snow shovel. I shut the window, sit down and open the laptop. I type “Spinning My Wheels” and begin to write this post.

My daily crime.

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All content on this site ©2018
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted

Emotional Deception

My partner and I have been watching Lie To Me, a television series that ran on Fox from 2009 to 2011. The show is based on the work of Dr. Paul Ekman, the world’s greatest expert on facial expression.

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I am absolutely fascinated.

All my life I’ve been extremely aware of body language and what I’ve always called the “energy” of the people around me. I’ve frequently had the experience of picking up the hidden emotions of others and taking on responsibility for them, a result of ineffective boundaries. When I was trained in emotional intelligence I cleaned up my poor boundaries and many other destructive habits. I also began to openly and unapologetically trust myself after a lifetime of cognitive dissonance caused by the difference between words and nonverbal cues.

Now, at last, I have real world validation for the way I can sometimes “read” others. It’s not magic, and I’m not a freak, a fantasist or crazy. Science now recognizes the universality of human facial expressions for basic emotions (fear, surprise, contempt, happiness, sadness, disgust, shame), and technology allows us to slow down video footage and capture microexpressions, which occur in much less than a second, as we speak and interact with others.

Our words can lie, but Dr. Ekman’s work reveals that our bodies give away our emotional experience in all kinds of ways of which we’re not even conscious. The way we hold our hands, a slight shoulder shrug, the way we move our heads, how we direct our gaze and small, fleeting expressions that pass across our faces with the help of 42 complex muscles can contradict our words.

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We know that some people have a great deal of difficulty reading and interpreting body language and subtle cues, while others are skilled at it. Paul Ekman’s work and research makes it possible for anyone to consciously learn how to detect emotional deception. Every episode of Lie To Me incorporates not only a story line told by actors, but also footage from real people — politicians, leaders and other famous and infamous folks — displaying exactly the same facial expression or body movement. It’s amazing.

Some people are difficult to read. I’ve worked hard to develop a stone face and have often been told I’m opaque. My oldest son is extremely provocative, and my expressionless countenance stood me in good stead when he was a teenager and woke me in the middle of the night to tell me he was going to ski naked at midnight with a girl in one hand and a bottle of whiskey in the other. Any show of outrage or upset only egged him on, so I learned to control myself. I’ve also had some exposure to narcissists and other Cluster B people, who feed on emotional energy, and I know the best way to deal with them is to become a grey rock, that is to be so completely flat, uninteresting and uninterested that they move on, a technique far more effective than trying to get rid of them directly. Yet even though I may be harder to read than average, I know my body language gives me away every time, or would to a trained observer.

(Fortunately, my teenage sons were not trained observers. Let us be thankful for small mercies.)

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Sedating substances and Botox injections can interfere with or blunt muscle movement and smooth out microexpressions, but eventually we all give our truth and lies away. We can’t help it. Microexpressions and body language are often totally unconscious on our part.

I’ve been told I have an intense gaze that can make others feel uncomfortable. I suspect this is a function of the focus and presence necessary to evaluate how the people around me present themselves as I compare what they say with what their expressions and bodies tell me. If I feel confused or receive a mixed message, I always go with body language. Words lie too easily and too frequently. We lie to ourselves and we lie to each other. When I experience cognitive dissonance as I observe and interact with others, now I no longer tell myself I’m making things up. Even more importantly, I don’t allow other people to make me feel bad and wrong. Nobody likes to have their cover blown, and someone with things to hide is naturally not going to appreciate feeling exposed. Rage, denial, projection, gaslighting and other abusive behavior can all be effective distractions from the truth.

A lie comes with a cost. The truth may come with a cost as well. We navigate our lives between the two, making the best choices we can. I have no desire whatsoever to uncover the secrets and lies of others, but I am interested in being able to evaluate if there are secrets and lies. I don’t believe we owe others 100% of our emotional truth, but every healthy relationship and connection requires some level of trust, and I don’t want to be with people I can’t trust. I think of mixed messages as a red flag.

It’s amazing to learn, after all these years of mysteriously and often uncomfortably picking up more information from others than I ever wanted to know, that inconsistency is a red flag. Words that are incongruent with facial expressions and body language are untrustworthy. My ability to recognize concealed emotions is not hateful or crazy.

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Frequently we don’t seek to deceive others as much as we wish to deceive ourselves. The lies we tell ourselves are perhaps the most powerful of all, and we protect those kind of lies the most ferociously.

It’s important to understand that recognizing the presence of a lie does not mean we know the substance of the lie or why it’s being told. As a writer, I find that why infinitely interesting in its possibilities. What kinds of things do we conceal? What motivates us to do so? What are the consequences of our various lies, great and small, to ourselves and to others? How do our bodies unconsciously communicate our emotional deception? If we spot emotional deception in someone we’re close to, what do we do with that information? What kinds of lies are terminal in relationships, and what kinds survivable? How do we forgive ourselves and others for emotional deception?

The looming presence of social media in our culture means many of our daily interactions, perhaps most, are not face to face, which greatly diminishes the complexity and depth of human communication and makes emotional deception easy. Body language is invisible. Tone, pitch and other verbal clues and idiosyncrasies are unheard. We use sanitized little emojis to represent our meaning, or at least to represent what we want others to believe our meaning is.

Paul Ekman has written several books I’m looking forward to exploring, and one can take online classes and learn more. I intend to learn a lot more.

Detecting emotional deception. My daily crime.

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All content on this site ©2018
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted