Four Principles of Survival My Characters Taught Me

The gate at Auschwitz -- for Survival post
The gate at Auschwitz (“Work Sets You Free”)

 

As many of you know, I was recently honored to receive an invitation from Psychology Today to join their impressive roster of bloggers. I’ll be cross-posting here what I blog there, so regular visitors here won’t miss anything. But if you have any comments on my blogs that you think the Psychology Today community would appreciate, do stop by and share your thoughts. Here’s the link. Below is the entry I posted there on April 17, 2016.

A story has haunted me from the moment I read it. It haunts me still. It’s a true story set in a death camp: March 1945, and the German forces are on the run. An inmate tells a young psychiatrist he has had an auspicious dream: a voice promises to answer any question the man asks. The man wants to know when the camp will be liberated. The voice gives him a specific date, March 30.

Dr. Viktor Frankl -- for Survival post
Dr. Viktor Frankl

The night before the prophesied liberation no Allied armies appear, and the man falls ill. The next day he is delirious, and the following day the man dies of a disease his body has resisted throughout his years of imprisonment. In Man’s Search for Meaning, the book in which this story appears, Viktor Frankl writes: “Those who know how close the connection is between the state of mind of a man—his courage and hope, or lack of them—and the state of immunity of his body will understand that the sudden loss of hope and courage can have a deadly effect.” Speaking of his comrade, Frankl explains, “His faith in the future and his will to live had become paralyzed and his body fell victim to illness…”

Even as a youngster I knew that terrible things happened to people. I yearned to know how these people survived. This was at a time when Hollywoodized battles from World War II played nightly on the TV, the days of “duck and cover” and Sputnik. Paranoia was in the air.

Nothing would have alerted an outsider to my unconscious data-gathering, (well, maybe the perpetual furrow between my brows), but I was like a lot of kids who seem normal, (that shudder-inducing word that conjures its opposite, abnormal). I can’t say how young I was when I began taking notes on the subtle and not-so-subtle variants of suffering. Decades would pass before I realized that this is the proclivity of the novelist, observer and recorder of human miseries.

I create characters. My characters have a will and destiny of their own. They come from me, but are not me. They are separate entities that dwell in a less egocentric part of my psyche. As such, they often surprise me with their wisdom.

Martin Buber -- for Survival post
Martin Buber

And so, unbeknownst to me while I was writing it, The Conditions of Love, my debut novel, has at its thematic core my childhood inquiry about resilience. How do we survive the afflictions that besiege us? Martin Buber wrote: “The world is not comprehensible, but it is embraceable.” The word embraceable, with its fleshy emotive overtones, reveals something about Buber’s philosophical stance. For him, all life was encounter, a meeting between I and Thou. “All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware,” he wrote, and I would add, “all journeys offer secret lessons and meaning to be mined after the journey is complete.” This seems to me the heart of hope. Self-awareness requires hindsight, but hope is forward-looking.

Through what I call a writer’s hindsight learning—what the writer doesn’t know she knows while she’s writing the book—I’ve distilled four principles derived from the characters in The Conditions of Love, each of whom has a talent for surviving.

  1. Keep your heart open.

Bitterness has a tangy sweetness, as does resentment and revenge. They shine brightly with allure but their pleasures are brief. Keeping one’s heart open sounds treacly, but it’s a kick-ass practice that requires rigorous faith in what is unseen and rich with possibility.

  1. Recognize the absurd in your situation.

Even under monstrous circumstances, or dreadful circumstances when mind, body and spirit have begun to wither and love has gone to hell, humor may rise up to break through the armor of fear or despair. In its bleakest, blackest form, humor can be a life-saving way of acting out.

  3Confide in a friend: animal, mineral, vegetable.

We need the Other. We need some one or some thing to listen and bear witness. We’re pack animals and suffer more in isolation.

  1. Trust your creative instincts.

I love that Mern, the mother in my first novel, a single working-class woman raising a daughter in the Fifties, kept herself sane (well, sort of sane), by constantly changing her hairstyle and looks to mimic famous movies stars. Maybe our most outrageous instincts offer the most original boost to our resilience.

Whether we are storytellers or not, the things that obsess, fascinate, and concern us deserve our attention. They are, I believe, clues to our deepest longings that wish to become known. The sorrowful story of the camp prisoner who succumbed to typhus when his dream of liberation proved false could be our story if we lose hope. Hope is the jewel in the crown.



Girls at Risk: The Enigma of Resilience and What I Learn from My Characters

It may not surprise readers of fiction that fiction writers have a very intimate relationship with our characters. We hear their voices waking and sleeping. Their stories live in us, they become family, that is, family we choose. Or perhaps I should say, family that chooses us. When I talk about my characters to a new audience, it’s almost as if I am introducing family members to strangers.

My characters reveal their stories to me, but not all at once and not in any linear way.  And not surprisingly, the complications that arise in their lives echo subjects I’m drawn to. One subject that has concerned me for some time I call “Girls at Risk: The Enigma of Resilience.”

Gala Eluard by Max Ernst 1924One of the threads in my debut novel, The Conditions of Love, is emotional resiliency, what qualities enable us to flourish despite bad beginnings. I didn’t realize I was writing about this subject until after I finished the book. I call these post-publication revelationsWriter’s Hindsight Learning.” It’s what the author doesn’t know she knows while she’s writing the book! What I mean is that when I’m engaged in the discovery aspect of writing, moving the story forward scene by scene and trying to be a good listener to my characters, I’m not in an analytic mode. For me, writing is a process of discovery. The themes pick me. This might sound counter-intuitive, even counter-productive, but it isn’t. It’s about trusting your unconscious mind to lead you where you need to go. That means I don’t outline or write out a plot before I begin. It means risking being in the unknown. It means suffering the woes of creative vulnerability. But I know no other way to get to the deeper layers of a story, to the story INSIDE the story.

In fiction as in life, nothing destabilizes the identity of a young person as profoundly as turmoil in the home. I don’t mean this in any judgmental way. Quite the opposite. As a writer, I’m compelled to examine and speak the truth about the light and darkness inherent in human beings—the guilt, the sorrow, the joy, the indiscretions, the desire for freedom, the desire to survive no matter what.

By destabilizing one’s identity I mean the confused and painful experience of not knowing who one is or where one belongs. It’s the feeling of rupture from the familiar and stable structures of one’s life. These can be existential crises that set us on a journey to find out who we are.  We ask ourselves, “if this and this and this are no longer true in my life, who am I now?”

“You are not going to use me an an excuse again.” James Dean as Jim Stark arguing with his parents (Ann Doran and Jim Backus) in Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
This dilemma—of finding one’s true self against the background of loss and impermanence—is at the core of The Conditions of Love, and now I see it shaping my second novel, a work in progress called Digging to China.

In both my novels, the young protagonists find themselves in home environments that are about to be disrupted. Their mothers are going through big changes. Their fathers are either absent, (Eunice in The Conditions of Love), or about to be left behind (Reenie in Digging to China). In his book, The Child, the psychologist Erich Neumann wrote: “Once we appreciate the positive significance of the child’s total dependency on the primal relationship, we cannot be surprised by the catastrophic effects that ensue when that relationship is disturbed or destroyed.”

1721mandalajungSomething Carl Jung once wrote has always haunted me and in some way has been an impetus for my work.

“What usually has the strongest psychic effect on the child is the life which the parents (and ancestors too, for we are dealing here with the age-old psychological phenomenon of original sin) have not lived.” —Carl Jung, Introduction to The Inner World of Childhood by Frances G. Wickes (1927)

As a writer, I’m very interested in the entangled and entangling relationship between parents and children. In both my novels, the mothers are the major destabilizers in their daughter’s lives, while their fathers are absent and idealized. The unfulfilled desires of the mothers affect their daughters. These desires are either thwarted or encouraged by the decades they live in.

In The Conditions of Love, Eunice’s mother, Mern, has a craving to be a movie star. Hollywood and what it represented in the Fifties is quite different from the Hollywood of today. It’s hard for us to imagine how significant movies were in the Fifties. Movies stars were these gigantic, dazzling national icons. Everyone knew who Marilyn or Bogey was. So, we have a mother who yearns for a richer and more exciting life, and a child who yearns for a normal family.

marilyn monroe handprintsBut I have sympathy for Mern and hope readers will too. Her creativity is stifled. The novel is set in the Fifties before Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique, before the birth control pill, and women’s lib. Mern IS over the top, but what can she aspire to? She’s trapped in her single mother, working class life. To be discovered as a starlet was one big dream for a lot of American women at that time. Of course this situation is horrible for her daughter. Indeed, a set up for calamity.

In Digging to China, Reenie’s mother Nate is caught up in the political turbulence of the late Sixties. The novel begins one week after Robert Kennedy’s assassination, in June I968. In the course of the novel, Nate becomes radicalized and an activist for social justice. In Digging To China, specific political events precipitate internal transformation. Reenie becomes caught up in the dissolution of her parents’ marriage, and like Eunice, is launched on a journey of self-discovery.

Here is the opening of Digging to China. Reenie is listening to her parents fight in the room next door. You’ll hear how her imagination serves her in providing a sense of magic and wonder that leads to empowerment as she plots how to escape her distress.

Maplewood, New Jersey

May, 1968

Cages

 

They are at it again in the bedroom next to hers. Slippers thrown across the room, her mother’s scorched voice exploding in disgust. Her father commanding Control yourself, Nathalie. Reenie waits in the void of their aggrieved voices, ear to gap, the silence, and imagines her father smoking by the window, mother tense at the edge of the bed, cigarette butts burning to ash in the big glass ashtray. Her mother is Jewish and unhappy. (No one but Reenie notices this association, what she thinks of as her mother’s Jewish strangeness, the vague smile that twists into anger, the constant argument in her eyes.) Temperamental. Stubborn. Infuriating. Words her father labels her mother to be avoided at all costs, though Reenie is nothing like the brave and beautiful Nathalie. Nothing at all.

 

She should be used to this live rage scattershot in the night, but its randomness (her mother mutely seething at dinner, her father preoccupied but polite, cheerful even) undoes her, the violence chipping away at her confidence. Now she sits up in bed, hands clammy, heart sinking in a sea of blood and plugs her ears, Row row row your boat useless against the parental gale. Wakeful, she can’t not listen: her survival depends on it.

I want my fictional worlds to accurately convey the paradoxes, confusions, and moral dilemmas of human beings. Novels give us the experience of being alive in another person’s skin. How would we know about worlds we could never enter otherwise without our Toni Morrison, our Tim O’Brien, or Khaled Hosseini. Novels are direct avenues to compassion, something our world sorely needs to cultivate these days. And I have to say, writing my characters has taught me so much about risk, survival and resiliency. This is the great mystery of being a writer. We are transformed by what we write.

Varo_Armonia Continue reading…



On Writing, Climbing, and Resilience

http://www.dreamstime.com/stock-photo-female-climber-rapelling-off-cliff-image28558900A number of years ago, I did something I thought I’d never do: I scaled a forty-foot inflatable climbing tower, jumped into a net, and was belayed down to earth. How did this happen? I was with my daughters, one of whom was on the Outward Bound team that had set up the towers on a cross-country bike tour to raise awareness for girls Outward Bound expeditions. We were in Chicago’s Waveland Park, and I was standing around watching teen girls grab the rubber handholds and scramble up the towers like monkeys.

A curious thing happened. As I observed these limber young women, I suddenly felt my own body get juiced. Inside my head a voice was prompting me to go for it. You can do this, Dale. Never before had I been propelled to take this kind of physical risk. And heights? I don’t even like to look down from high-rise windows! Then how to explain what came next? I turned to my astonished husband and said I am doing this! (Spoiler: climbing that tower was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done, and it sure helped to have a squadron of my daughters’ friends yelling, “Dale rocks!”)

Anatomy of an Angel Damien Hirst IMG_7213Every angel is terrifying. I find myself quoting this line from Rilke’s Second Duino Elegy often because it clarifies so many situations. It seems that when we come face to face with the magnitude of who we are and the vast possibilities inherent in our lives, we often retreat in fear. But that breezy summer day I latched my harness and donned a helmet, I wasn’t thinking about angels, symbolic or otherwise. I was focused on which footholds to place my feet and how far to extend my arms. I wasn’t looking up at the clouds or down at the ground. Earth and sky had dissolved. What existed was my heartbeat, the burn in my calves, my breath in gulps.

After the climb, my daughter Jessica, who with her partner, Troy Gosz, now runs an amazing non-profit program called FLYY* which serves youth-at-risk through wilderness programs, explained that the towers are used as educational tools to teach confidence and climbing skills, but also provide a concrete, physical metaphor for how we face life’s challenges.

Climbers who try to race to the top of the towers often handle their fears the same way, rushing through difficult situations to get them over with as quickly as possible. Other climbers start slowly and cautiously, but speed up at the end gaining confidence as they go, while yet others begin energetically and poop out at the end because they haven’t paced themselves and have run out of steam. That’s what happened to me. A few feet from the summit, my strength failed. Arms and legs splayed against a swaying rubber cylinder, for several long minutes I could move neither up or down and so hugged that blasted tower with everything in me and prayed I wouldn’t fall off.

http://www.dreamstime.com/stock-photo-rock-climbing-image24416860During the pause, something shifted. My mind refocused, veering away from fear toward the shouts of encouragement from below. Excuse the cliché but soon onward and upward I went, one step up at a time, until, voila! miraculously I’d made it, panting but victorious. At that moment, I couldn’t have guessed how frequently I’d return to my climbing experience as a touchstone when I’ve needed to unfreeze from fear. Here I’m thinking of Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous aphorism: You must do the thing you think you cannot do.

Writing a novel is more like scaling Mt. Everest than climbing a rubber tower: bravery, resilience, and unshakable determination are required. How many times did I despair that I would never finish The Conditions of Love, or if I did, never sell it. How often did my self-confidence flag? Doubt is one of the Five Hindrances to enlightenment in Buddhist thought and I can see why: doubt is a contagion of the mind that infects the creative spirit, an energetic equivalent of a mind on strike. While writing my novel, when self-doubt buckled my knees, I’d pull my climbing achievement out of my back pocket and remind myself that without practice and a strong inclination to vertigo, I’d climbed a forty-foot tower. I had done the thing I thought I couldn’t do. I could also write a book.

doubt6aI don’t mean to sound Pollyannaish. I don’t believe we can do anything we set our minds to. Accepting one’s limitations seems paramount to maturity. But… but…especially when it comes to creative work, for most of us discouragement, doubt, and stasis plague the process. But – what if that’s not a bad thing? What if, when we feel stuck, we think of it as a pause rather than an end stop, a reminder to see how far we’ve come? What if we take some deep breaths, push away the demons and attune to the encouraging voices? Hand over hand, foothold after foothold, ever so slowly if need be, we climb to the summit.

Afterclimb

*FLYY is a community-based non-profit that offers wilderness expeditions, intensive parent/guardian skills and support groups, and ongoing community-based aftercare for teens and families. FLYY serves as a catalyst and resource for youth and families to transform their outlook, their capacities, and their contributions to others. For more information, you can visit their website at www.flyyexpeditions.org.