Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Stronger Together, But So Far Apart*

Great American Melting Pot
I was wrong.

I’m a white Catholic with a college degree, just short of a masters. I test as moderate on political tests (like this Vox questionnaire). And near 50, I’m no longer a starry-eyed idealist.

But I grew up believing in the Schoolhouse Rock song “The Great American Melting Pot” reflected America. I thought our openness made America American.

I was wrong.

Perhaps it’s because I’ve lived most of my life in multicultural blue-areas: Cleveland, Columbus (OH) and Los Angeles. But I love, and have always loved, meeting people from different cultures. They’ve enriched my life.

Heck, I got straight A’s in university Spanish by conversing with Mexican cooks and dishwashers in the restaurant I worked in. I ate tasty goat and lamb kabobs at a Persian colleague’s wedding. And had an Indian friend whose parents were members of Gandhi’s non-violent “army.”


Each interaction enlarged my America. Exposure made me less about me, more about them, and enlarged my sense of “us.”

Back in January, I reckoned 75% plus white people dug Schoolhouse Rock, and would reject Trump. Sure, I understood that racists exist. I’ve got a brash and vocal racist uncle. But in my worldview, racists were the butt of Mel Brooks jokes in Blazing Saddles. “You've got to remember that these are just simple farmers. These are people of the land. The common clay of the new West. You know... morons.”  

I was wrong.

Further, our forebears faced xenophobia. “Irish need not apply.” Labeling Italians, many of whom were here illegally, as WOP’s (Wop is short for WithOut Papers). The hunting of Catholics and Mormons. Etc. I figured their descendants would remember.

I was wrong.

It turned out that I’m an outlier among white males, who based on exit-polling voted 70% for Trump. And their number one issue was immigration.

Not that I’ll ever change my mind. I will still be open to people, regardless of race, color, creed or sexual orientation. But I now see that racism and anti-”them” xenophobia lie at the heart of many white Americans’ worldviews. Worse, I’ve seen a populist Trump ride that wave to victory.

I still say, “God bless America.” But my view of America has changed. Even in jaded middle age, reality can still shred your remaining ideals.

Who knew?

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Using the 7 “Primitive” Defense Mechanisms to Juice-Up Your Characters

Defense mechanisms.

We all use them to protect ourselves when reality gets "real". Problem is, they're easy to locate in others -- just read the personal sniping in the comments section of any political article. But they're hard to see in ourselves. Since seeing oneself objectively takes hard work.

Perhaps that explains why writers seldom employ defense mechanisms in their characters. Since when behind a point-of-view character's mind, we identify with them. And thus, find fessing-up to having blind-spots makes us uncomfortable? Who knows.

Regardless, when characters use the same defense mechanisms we all do, they become believable. Not despite, but because of their contradictions. And once learned, defense mechanisms are easy to deploy in your work. And once deployed, they add depth with scant effort.

Fiction Writer's Guide to the 7 "Primitive" Defense Mechanisms

1) Denial 

We deny reality to avoid the pain of having our preconceived notions shattered. We may be so afraid of something harmful, and thus ignore it.

To illustrate, consider this line uttered in the emergency room by a patient suffering from cirrhosis of the liver. “Do I drink? You mean alcohol, like an drunk? Hell, no. I only drink beer.”

2) Regression 

At age 36, actor Sean Penn found a paparazzi photographer hiding in his hotel room. A healthy adult in their mid-30’s would call security to remove the man, and perhaps press charges. Penn, however, acted like an adolescent, dangling the man from his 9th story balcony.

That’s regression. When facing a stressful event, we “regress” to an earlier stage of development.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Why Adverbs Suck for Fiction Writers (unless you need them)

Kill your adverbs -- except the ones you need.
by Leo Walsh.
The first agent I met at a 1990’s writers’ conference table glowed after hearing my novel pitch. She loved the idea, a Shakespearean tragedy with Ninja warriors on a science fiction world. So I handed her my the first chapter. She read, scowling, and thrust it back saying, “Adverbs, adverbs, everywhere… kill ‘em, then stop by again.” 
Confused, I skulked away. Kill adverbs? Why limit your linguistic toolkit? 
 Well, that agent was right. Overusing adverbs weakens your writing. To Illustrate, I lifted some text from an early-draft of a thriller I started but lost interested in. The section isn’t bad. And yet, it contains three “problem” adverbs that weaken the writing. These problems many plague writer’s group submissions I’ve read.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Genre versus Literary Fiction – Are The Two are Meeting in the Best 21st Century Novels?

A man reading great books
by Leo Walsh.
My late-80's humanities professors -- and the powerful critics who influenced them -- focused student attention on hard-to-read works: like Ulysses by James Joyce, JR by William Gaddis and Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. Each took work to understand. But once you solved the puzzle each author posed, these books told gripping, humorous and psychologically and sociologically complex tales.
My teachers said these novels laid-bare the path towards literature’s future. They took the high-Modernist experiments of Virginia Woolf and James Joyce and would catapult them into the 21st Century.
Problem is, the critics failed to notice that those high-art techniques, though effective, also had limitations. For instance, when James Joyce tried to reproduce a Dubliner’s sleeping consciousness in Finnegans Wake, the entire artifice falls apart. The story gets buried under layers of language and allusion that most people find incomprehensible. Even people like me, who loved Ulysses, despised Finnegans Wake.
Because, unlike Finnegans Wake,  Ulysses told a story a regular person could follow -- albeit after work.. And despite some hyper-creative word-play and experimentation, the novel’s humanity shone through the often-thorny text.
Finnegans Wake's failure should have set alarms blaring.
Unfortunately, it didn't. The critics and academics held fast. And predicted that 21st Century writing would grow ever more complex.
They were wrong.