Since we’ve been in what I like to call, Consideration-for-others-because-I’m-not-an-asshole Lockdown, few of us have bothered much to get out of pajamas, much less dress up. That’s fine by me! I’m a writer so comfy jeans and a sweater are my go-to grabs in the morning. Even when we go out in this casual part of the world, slacks and a little bit nicer sweater are all that’s required. Couture? I might as well dress up and put on a fashion show for the local cows.
It’s been a while since I’ve been somewhere like Venice, Italy, where I generally make an effort to dress well out of respect for the locals there who always look fabulous. I also have a horror of being one of those Americans in their Disneyland T-shirts, runners, and yoga pants or shorts that really set off their cellulite. Nothing against having a little mottled fat, we all do, but do we really need to parade that stuff around 16th century palazzos and cathedrals? It’s just a bit…uh…tacky, but mostly it’s disrespectful. If you threw a elegant cocktail party and people showed up in flip-flops and tank tops would you be happy? With any luck, I’ll be back in Italy in December, but luck is wavering like a heat haze in the distance right now and what looks like my jewelled city waiting for me could be a sloppy mud hut of a mirage.
It’s also been a while since I’ve had to dress up all the time, for a living. Personally, I’ll be happy if I never have to wear makeup or get my hair done again. Honestly. Once you’ve spent two to four hours everyday in a makeup chair listening to not always so benign gossip you get realllllly tired of it. Especially when special effects are involved. I don’t even want to go into spending hours waiting for a plaster mold to dry on your face with straws stuck in your nostrils so you can breathe.
Then there are the clothes. The ones you have to get into every day in your dressing room after hours of fittings. Sometimes, like in “On Deadly Ground” I wore the same suit for at least two months. On the soap it was a constant fashion show. Once they left a price tag on a white turtle neck for me to put on under a sweater, and it was Armani, $900. Then of course, there are appearances, openings, galas, award shows and charity benefits where you cannot wear the same thing twice. I spent so many of those events just wanting to get home, throw on my cozies, and wash my face.
When I moved from my home in LA, I left almost all the glam there. I sold tons of jewelry, most of my designer formal wear went to resale shops, and tons of it went to local thrift stores. I was moving into a simpler life as a writer in rural beauty.
Everything I’d ever wanted.
But then Covid-19 happened and we were stuck at home without the option. I, as well as 83.9 percent of the world, got depressed. I was sad and lacking in energy, which, for someone nicknamed Action, is not acceptable.
I needed to buck up and to make other people smile. The grumpy ol’ man inside my head shook his gnarled fist at me and said, “Get off your ass and quit your damn moping, loser. And keep your bad attitude off my lawn!!”
Long ago my voice coach told me that when you feel lost and defeated you just have to do something, anything, just get started. So I decided to dress up and go take pics doing normal stuff. The photos were silly and fun, and harder than it looked. But it worked. I got a great reaction, and the responses were filled with smiles.So I did it a few more times and I will again.
My coach was right. Every time I get off my butt and do something; hike, cook, write, take pictures of nature, whatever, it revs me up, and I can do more.
So do something creative.
Then share it.
And just maybe,
It’ll get a smile.
I know some people don’t like rain, but after living 35 years in Los Angeles, every time it rains at our new home in Washington State I cannot stop smiling.
The energetic atmosphere, the wind, the moisture, and most of all the sky itself thrill and amaze me. Every moment presents a different quality of light on the water, every evening introduces new colors to my visual vocabulary.
The days are shorter here, which works just fine for me. It’s twilight by 4ish, and night by 4:30. Since I prefer to do most of my work in the earlier hours, that just means I get to get up earlier and knock off earlier, leaving long luxurious evenings in front of the fire.
Recently our daughters and their boyfriends visited. I had warned them that they would have to make the most of the daylight, so on the first morning, the surfer among them came bounding down the hall at 7 a.m. in his pj bottoms, arms in the air, calling excitedly, “We have to get everybody up. It’s gonna’ be dark soon!”
It was funny, because it’s true. We repeated the line often during their visit and it became the vacation mantra, one or the other of us would attempt to rally the others to get going to lunch or a hike or a trip to the beach to gather oysters because…“It’s gonna’ be dark soon!”
It wasn’t until after they left and Christmas flew by that I realized what an apt motto it was. I mean, it’s true in so many ways. The twinkling holiday lights will shine for few weeks only to be packed away, summer’s brilliance dims, youthful relationships that kindled warmth fall away as lives get complicated, and eventually we all wander into death’s shade.
It’s gonna’ be dark sooner or later. Well, soon enough. And while that can be sad, depressing even, it doesn’t have to be. It can actually be comforting in its offer of perspective. We know the sun will set, winter will come, we know intellectually that everything, even the planet, even the universe, will eventually come to an end. All the better to remind ourselves to run down hallways, along beaches, up hillsides, through meadows, shouting, “It’s gonna’ be dark soon!” to celebrate the light that we have now.
One of my dearest friends and mentors was a lifelong sufferer of Crone’s disease. I remember, back when he was in his forties, going for a test that would tell him if the disease had flared to an uncontrollable point, one that would mean his untimely demise. He had to wait 24 hours to get the results.
“You would think—hell, I thought,” he told me, “that would be one of the worst days of my life, that pressure, that unknowing.” He smiled and shook his head. “Turns out, it was one of the best because nothing, and I mean nothing, bothered me. Nothing was important. Someone cut me off in traffic? Not worth getting angry about. My soup was served cold? No big deal. My family is fighting? It pales in significance compared to the pronouncement of a death sentence.”
In short, he said, it was amazing. Everyone shone brighter, and he appreciated every small thing. After the news came that he would likely live a few more years, the elation faded, and things went back to being annoying and frustrating, but he could still laugh things off better than anyone else I’ve ever known. Once, when I was bitching about graffiti in my neighborhood, he asked, “Can’t you just see it as urban art?” I couldn’t, so I stressed and fumed ineffectually. But he could. Where I saw a problem, he chose to see beauty.
That was the amazing David Beaird. He was a man from whom I learned so much. One of the best writers I’ve ever met, though he wrote plays and movies instead of books like I do. My favorite of his movies, ‘Scorchers,’ opens with a very brave three-minute monologue given by one of the finest actors I know. The monologue talks about growing up and swimming in a river lit golden by sunlight, yet when he tried to tell grownups in a position of authority that he found this legendary place, they told him there is no such thing as golden river. He was crushed and hurt, but, he goes on to say, they could never make me believe it didn’t exist because, “I swum in it.”
It’s a glorious piece of writing, and one of my favorite acting performances. You should look it up.
This last year, my friend David passed away, the lifetime of pain and disease finally caught up in spite of his amazing spirit. His widow, who is a remarkable human in her own right, came up to visit me a few months afterward. She told me about the long wait in the hospital once he’d lost consciousness, and the vigil of family of friends. The best of those friends was the actor who performed that golden river monologue a thousand times on stage and once for the movie, Leland Crooke.
We talked about the fact that Leland had always been David’s muse as well as his best friend. Then she showed me something wonderful. While she and Leland had sat bedside, unsure if David was aware of anything around him, Leland began to speak those beautiful words in the golden river monologue to the man who wrote them, for only him. My friend very quietly recorded the moment.
The image is something I will not forget. Two men, lifelong friends, one on life support, the other sitting in a chair beside the bed, delivering a private performance. He recited from his heart those words about believing in things that you know to be true no matter what anyone in a position of ‘authority’ tells you. No one can deny the existence of that golden river because, once you’ve swum in it, it belongs to you. It is beautiful, it is magical, and it is real.
I have been honored to love so much, to live so fully, and to have experiences of my own like that golden river. Places and moments have happened for me that I alone remember, that only I know to be true.
So, I think, it’s important to see that night will inevitably fall, bringing an unknown eternity or the sweet relief of nothingness. Life is fleeting, slippery, and finite.
And if you remember that, then you will wonder at all the beauty around you. You can go and search for your golden river every day. Maybe for you it will be a silver mist that swirls around in a forest, or a glint of rainbow prisms through a dew drop. Your moments may be huge, or they may flash past, but if you absorb them into your heart, they will live with you, and no one can ever take that away.
So today, I shall run in the rain, and splash in puddles, and slip into the forest to sit still and listen to the drip of moisture onto moss and leaf, the subtle, soft thump-thump of life.
And tomorrow I will get out bed and my spirit will shout to get up and play, because, “It’s gonna’ be dark soon!”
Because of that perspective, the river will shine a more brilliant gold.
Whenever someone finds out I’m a writer, (because I tell them) their first question is always, “What do you write?” by which they mean, ‘what genre?’
How do I sum up my work in a word? I wish someone would tell me. If you’ve read “Invisible Ellen” you’ll know why. It’s comedy, it’s drama, it’s fable, it’s reality, it’s socially conscious, it has story and it’s character driven, and while it’s primarily about two women, it’s not ‘women’s fiction’ perish the narrow-minded dismissal! I understand why people ask, they may prefer cozy mysteries or violent thrillers and are jonesing for their next hit, but I can’ t help them there.
Well, I could. it might be much easier for me to stick to a genre, write the same kind of book again and again. For publishers, it’s easier for them to button hole a writer into a small, easily promotable group. But the entire idea that anyone’s entire body of work can be filed under one word is lamentable. Not to say that writers like Rex Stout aren’t masters of their genre, practically creators of their own library sections, but that is because their work is so complex and compelling to start with, they are anything but simple.
Full disclosure, I have written books based on a label by contractual agreement. In fact after my first book “Loaded” was purchased, the publisher ordered two more books described thus: “Mystery thriller with a romantic entanglement.” So…at least that was two labels in one. I always bucked the identity of ‘romance writer’ not because I don’t love a good romance as much as the next red-blooded, sex-crazed female with a penchant for tactile mental imagery and the well-described monkey noises that accompany them, but because I know so many writers who write romance so much more deliberately and, frankly, so much better than I do. Romance is just not my passion, if you’ll forgive the awkward juxtaposition of nouns.
Which sends me spinning off on one of my tangents; I do this a lot. I’m just cruising along on a big merry-go-round of topical reasoning when something suddenly snags my mind’s eye, I lose my grip on the painted pony of focus, and the centrifugal force slings my thought process into free flight, tumbling my head over my ass off into another part of the zoo. I might return to my original point but I might also spend the rest of the essay admiring the zebras, sorry.
Anywho…speaking of herd animals, isn’t it a relief to sometimes be one? I mean, to just say, “Yeah, I’m not even going to try to lead the pack in this field, So-and-so is so brilliant at it that I might as well not bother.” Giving up on the aspiration to do something or be something you respect and admire is sort of life’s version of screaming “Uncle!” while simultaneously enjoying the experience of having your arm folded up your back like a dislocated chicken wing. There are so many amazing vocations that I would love to conquer, like painting, or astrophysics, but—even making the wild assumption that I had the talent and propensity—without at least one more lifetime of devotion to the cause, I’m not likely to give Monet or Neil deGrasse Tyson a run for their money. Therefore, I content myself with gazing covetously at the transformation of pigment into emotional impact, and listen with rapt reverence to the simplified explanations of a superior intellect.
Not everything. Never give up on everything. Keep something, I say. Find a couple of things you love and even if you stink, you will find fulfillment in the doing if not the adulation that may never come. There’s a lesson in that, is it the proficiency or the laurels you crave? Do you want to act or do you want to be famous? Those are two very different goals, and it is the latter inclination that makes an artist. But then, you never know, maybe your first novel will be ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.’ I mean, hey, you never know until you try.
Meanwhile, let me climb back onto the carousel of my original thought process here. Why do we feel the need to pigeon-hole everyone and every thing? Okay, maybe it works for some things, like B movies and restaurant types, if I feel like pasta I won’t go to a BBQ pit, but people and creativity? That’s just nuts.
Because I don’t want to be chained to any one thing. If I do something for a while and it works for me but I weary of it, I’ll move on. I’ll write books on topics and characters that interest me, I just don’t have the time and energy for a project that isn’t worth six months to a year of my life.
And here’s something I’ve found out not from writing, but from reading. The books I love the most, the ‘break-out’ books, are almost always true originals, impossible to stuff into a cubby-hole with a computer-printed genre-label gorilla glued on the cover.
Screw that. There are true examples that fit any given description, but there is no description that is true about every example. White people aren’t all racist. Politicians aren’t all crooked, (well, a few aren’t!) Blonde women aren’t all vapid. Not every athlete is a bad student. Some mysteries are magical. Some dancers are clumsy. Good people die. Bad people do kind things sometimes.
Life, like literature, is a whirlwind of variety, constructs that grow or crumble, even things we build on foundations that can be washed away in the worst of a storm. If you look at the sum of someone’s work like a house they are putting on the market, before you buy, you need to see more than the real estate agent’s brochure. And while it takes extra time and energy to walk all the way around and through a house, judging the structure by the curb appeal alone leaves you ignorant of the floor plan and no understanding at all of the possible lives and loves that would be constantly changing inside. And don’t forget that everyone has the potential, at any time, to redecorate and redefine.
So…if anyone can help me with a quick phrase to sum up ‘what I write’ please, I’m begging you, I’m down on my scrubby knees chanting for clarity. Share it! As far as summing up my life and divergent personality in a simple adjective, give it up. It can’t be done. Not by me, or you, or anyone. Not about me, and not about anyone else. There is always more, layers on layers, basements and attics and add-ons, carpeting over hardwood floors, recessed lighting with a couple of bulbs burned out, a backyard filled with weeds on one side and a garden on the other. You can choose to live in a mid-century modern, mission style, or Victorian. You can occupy living rooms, bedrooms, tiled kitchens, and even spend time completely away from that home, possibly in the occasional muddy camp-site. Hey, I’ve done a bit of wallowing, every one occasionally makes a lateral move to our lower selves, so wipe that gunk out of your eyes and follow me to the showers.
But for heaven’s sake, stop limiting your vision, there is so much more to see.
If you want to change, do it! But be ready for resistance.
I watch a man, a father I think, pushing a baby in a stroller who is maybe a year old.The father rolls his son right to the edge of the sidewalk overlooking the crashing surf below so that there is nothing but salty air between the child and the sea. He crouches next to the child and points out over the shimmering water. There are no words, nothing but the gesture, yet that simple wave of an arm is a lecture on eternity, a tutorial on infinity, of all things. It is a master class in perspective.
Later this day, I stand in line at the grocery store. There are several people ahead of me and only two checkers open in the village-sized store. The older woman ahead of me who is blocking everyone from passing because she seems unaware that anyone else exists, begins to complain loudly. This is an outrage, she complains, she has valuable things to do with her time. Her cart is filled with wine and expensive specialty items. And still she complains. When she looks to me to bitch along, I say, “I have been too many places where parents cannot feed their children for me to complain that I have to wait a few minutes for all of this.” I wave my arm in direction of the unbelievable bounty and choice available to us. “Whenever I have to wait,” I tell her, “I remind myself how fortunate I am to have so much abundance.”
Her face twists in sour indignation, but before she can wind up to vent off more entitled outrage, I shrug comically and say, “Hey, how else you gonna’ keep your sense of humor?”
What I really want to do is scream at her, “There are hungry children on the street outside! They will go to bed hungry!” But it will do no good, this woman has no experience in her ken that allows her to shrug off even this slight inconvenience because she has no gratitude for what she has, who she is, where she lives, the privilege she was born into, nothing. She has a grossly limited perspective. She knows only that the world is ‘supposed’ to be the way she wants it to be, the way it has always been for her.
It’s really such a very small way to think.
How do you change that in a ‘me first!’ society? Can you teach empathy? The issue, of course, is that it’s a matter of standards and awareness. To what do you compare any given thing? Do you see yourself as a member of a vast universe or as the center of the only story you know. The creator or the victim?
Let’s take my writing career as a sample. I have published eight books, I’ve had many people enjoy them very much, (which is the best metric for me), I’ve had glowing reviews, and I adore creating other worlds and lives. I am lucky. Compared to someone who has always wanted to write but who has never had the time, the agent, or the publisher to do so, I’m a success! Whoo hoo, go Shari!
But, if I look at the fact that I’ve never had a best-seller, I’ve never had a movie made from one of my books, and I’ve never been featured in Oprah’s book club, then I’m a resounding failure. Boo Shari.
So what do you think? I think it’s writer’s choice whether to call myself a winner or a loser.
Okay, I know some of you are choosing the latter description with a little too much enthusiasm, fair enough. That propels us into the realm of judging our worth based on what other people think about us, but that factor is so unknowable and immeasurable that the science to gauge it hasn’t been discovered yet.
So let that go, for now, focus on the question of whether you think yourself a success or a failure. Should you be happy with your lot in life or distressed?
Each person’s answer depends on what test they use to arrive at an answer. And what’s your time frame for this assessment? Is it what you are experiencing in this minute that counts? The last year? The bottom line of a balance sheet of your total life? And what goes into that accounting? Money made? Happiness felt? Relationships failed? Tears wiped from another’s face by your compassion? Will there be a statue of you or your name on a bridge when you’re gone? What standards apply?
Watching that man with his son on the edge of the ocean was such an amazing reminder to me to look up, to see and imagine the possibilities beyond my limited vision, to remember that there is so much more out there.
I don’t believe in bumper stickers or tattoos, because I have changed my mind so very many times, and I hope I always will, because the option to that is to stop learning and stagnate, fester, and rot. But if I were to have any kind of constant message or symbol to remind me who I am and what is important, it would be one simple word.
This too shall pass.
Ironic, I know, the idea that once I’ve rotted, or hopefully been scattered as ashes in some magnificent redwood glade, I will be far more enlightened and connected than in life. I don’t necessarily believe in life after death, but I do believe that energy and love never die, just morph into something new that is absorbed into a universe hungry for the infusion. I for one will be grateful to return when the time comes, I hope. It does not frighten me that I will be forgotten. It makes no difference to me at all. But making the world a better place while I am a part of it— that is everything.
Try it, for one day, instead of constantly needing to tell yourself how important you are, how fabulous, how great, and especially instead of having to think yourself more important than others, think this…
You will die. All this will be forgotten. It’s just a matter of how long. Even those who are desperate to believe they will be remembered (be immortal) throughout history must face the fact that all human history will eventually end. Even this planet. Only the echoes of our energy and our love will remain, reborn and blended into something new, something even more wonderful.
So, for today, be mortal. Run to the edge of the ocean, or the top of a tall building, or stand in the rain, or listen to Mozart and weep, and know that this moment is magnificent. Say hello, offer a kind word, slip a twenty in a sleeping homeless person’s shoe, laugh like a child.
It isn’t what you absorb, but what you project that matters.
It isn’t how you are remembered, but how you are that counts.
So count yourself lucky.
Know that your breath is shared by seven billion other people.
We’ll all be gone before too long.
Leave something of worth, something more than a memory.
And when I’m gone, if you do think of me, I hope you smile.
It’s a funny thing about beginning a novel. Sometimes you swim, sometimes you’re in over your head, and sometimes you have a slog for a while before you make that splash.
The trick of course, is enjoying it all. Being creative comes easily to me, it’s what I do. It might be cooking, or acting, or planting seeds, or producing a film, or helping my charity raise money—all of them are worthy pursuits as far as I’m concerned. But creating something new, something memorable, and most importantly, something that touches people can be as elusive as the Loch Ness monster. You’re pretty sure it’s down there but you can’t prove it…yet.
I find myself here again. I have an idea that I love, I’m inspired to do something with it. The characters are there, but mostly still in the green room waiting to go on, or trying on outfits in wardrobe. The story is forming and changing and messing with me even as it emerges, but it’s not solid yet. It’s like that dream I have where I’m back on The Young and the Restless, due on set in an hour and no one has my script for the day. And that’s not a bad thing. Without all the floundering around and wrong turns, my story would be a simple repeat of paths and roles I and others have taken before. To find something new, you must wander, you must get lost, you must drown just a little.
The trick is not to panic. I won’t say to just keep your head above water, because that would mean you miss all the colorful coral and currents that run below. Diving deeper is often good, just don’t get indulgent and pass out before you see light again. And here’s what liberates me.
I can delete it all. Or just some of it. I can divorce an idea or a portion of it and keep custody of the kids. I do this often. I must have written a dozen novels that have never yet seen the bedside lamp of a reader or the screen of a Nook, but they are still there for me. They weren’t wasted. There’s no accounting for what an editor will like, or a publisher feel they need in their fall line up, much less what the reading ‘public’ will deign to declare ‘popular.’ If I could guess that, I’d work less and be bored more.
But producing the predictable is a life poorly lived as far as I’m concerned. Long ago I gave up doing what people thought I should do and started living my own life, and since then it’s been brilliant. Sure there are tough times, setting a good example for your kids isn’t always easy in this materialistic world. One example would be a father taking their ex to court to cut his child support, not contributing to his children’s college education, but somehow being able to afford his expensive luxury car and his multiple houses. I can’t tell you how many women go through this kind of thing. I’ve served on enough juries to know that the decisions in any given case has a great deal to do with the judge’s whim. I was sued by a lawyer who hit me on a motorcycle and produced a fake witness, etc, only to find out later that the judge was presiding at the lawyer’s wedding two weeks after the trial! My husband and I have chosen to put money away for college for our girls, and I’m proud and glad to do it! It’s a value that’s more important to me than the showier aspects of life. In spite of all the world’s stress and confusion and profusion of questionable priorities, in the end I’m still able to give my daughters what they need, and I don’t mind what some would call ‘sacrifices’ because I don’t believe I’m missing out on anything. I try to set the example of being the kind of person I want them to be and that’s all that matters. It’s not a hardship to clean my own house, weed my garden, pay my bills, and be the evil, dictator mom when I make my youngest participate in her class trip. I could do without that last bit, but payback is hell. I was a horror at her age.
I love what I do and I choose it, but that doesn’t mean I wander around in a cloud of creative bliss without having to deal with insane legal fees or the not so far-fetched fear that one of my children will be shot while they are at school. It doesn’t mean that projects flow effortlessly from me. I’m in all that too, but I found out long ago that I could do with a lot less. I’ve come to realize that what I really let go of was needing people to envy me, needing to compete with anyone else. Hell, I rejoice for other people now and guess how much more often I get to win? My friend’s book hits the NY Times best seller list, and I feel genuine pride in her accomplishment! A kid in my daughter’s volleyball game tells the ref that the ball was out, even though it costs her team a point, and I rejoice that she has that character. I see someone vastly overweight taking a walk and I’m prouder of them than an olympic athlete. It just makes me happy to root for others.
Recently I had what I consider to be one of my greatest personal successes. My younger daughter is a good student, very bright, exceptionally talented in many ways, but she doesn’t push herself to stand out or excel more than others. She’s one of those whose simple effort gets her good grades and she’ll land in a great college of her choice, but I was raised to excel dammit! Challenge yourself, try harder, be disappointed if you don’t improve!! If you don’t stand out, you disappear, and many other dysfunctional etcs. But at a meeting with a very wise teacher of my daughter’s, I voiced my concern that she wasn’t putting herself forward and his answer was awesome.
When I said I didn’t understand why she didn’t push herself more, he looked me in the eye and said, “Because her ego does not require it.”
Wow. I was miserable and competitive into my thirties, and my sixteen year old already has it down.
I’m gonna’ take credit for that, because…why not? I love winning when everybody does. I’m no longer fond of winning if someone has to lose. That sucks. I want to enable and encourage people, not put them down to feel better about myself.
So, I’ll be patient, I’ll slog along in the ankle deep, ice water of a new story, finding humor and pain in the human condition and a fun way to tell it. And I’ll do it with a smile on my face. I really am happy now, whether the novel comes in this form or another, whether my life takes one turn or several, whether my daughter is exhausting me or exalting me, I’m on the path I want to be on.
And look how pretty the water is when it arcs and splashes, listen to the swoosh and music of the waves and droplets.
Usually I try to include some helpful information in my blog, be it for acting, mothering, partnering or writing. Today I’m just going to tell a story, take from it what you will. It is, in a convoluted way, an explanation of how we function as storytellers.
I’m terrible with years, but it must have been around 1978. I was 17, my sisters were 14 and 8 when we took a family trip to Hawaii. My brother doesn’t figure into this because he always had his own room, sort of. With three younger sisters, very little is sacred, which explains the padlock on his bedroom door at home, but that’s another story.
So we’re in Maui, we’ve rented a condo facing the beach and coconut groves and my sisters and I are in one of the bedrooms, it’s one of those two queen bed affairs with the floor unit air conditioner under the window next to sliding glass doors. There’s a small patio outside the doors, and a table and chair next to the air conditioner.
Being teenagers, my sister and I quickly grow bored with the family hang out, so we find out that about a mile down the beach there is a twin-plex movie theatre. We check the movies and discover that “Junglebook 2” is playing. We decide that, as well as a little independence, this will be an evening well spent.
After the hour long application of makeup and hair fluffing, (because that’s important when you are going to a movie theatre to sit in the dark when there’s no one there you know) we head out, following the instructions from a local. It’s a lovely, late tropical afternoon and we are in silly, giggly high spirits, everywhere around us is beauty and we are grown up enough to go out un-chaperoned. Fourteen and seventeen, who needs pesky parents?
Just outside our condo, we walk through the coconut groves. The wind is playfully tossing the big wide leaves of the palm trees making a lovely, friendly whispering noise, like happy secrets being shared. Big silly crows caw at us from the fronds, comic and brazen, making us laugh. We reach the beach and turn left. The gentle roll of perfect waves with sunlight streaming through them comforts and serenades us as we walk down the beach. Confident, fearless and giddy with freedom, we reach the theatre and go to the ticket desk. Sadly, Jungle Book 2 is sold out and there is only one other choice.
Damian, Omen 2. Da da da dum.
Oh, what the heck, we came all this way and the option is to go back home and sit around reading or playing cards. So we buy the tickets and go into what will always remain to me, the scariest movie I have ever seen. If you know the Omen movies, then you know that there is always an animal portent of death. In the first movie it’s Dobermans, in the second it’s big black ravens. I spend most of the movie with my hands over my eyes as people die violent, creative deaths and there is no way to save them from the spawn of Satan. My sister doesn’t cover her eyes because her hands are too busy digging her fingernails into my arm. The movie thoroughly and officially freaks us out. When the lights come up, we’re shaky, but like, hey, it’s just a movie, right?
So we leave the theatre. Moving from the brightness and colors and crowds of the lobby into a dark, deserted and overcast night on the beach. No sunlight sparkles on aqua blue water, it is silver black and menacing. The clouds hang low and ominous as though supported by the thick, humid air. Clutching each other and alert for otherworldly evil, we start along the sand, each roll of waves grasping toward us like dark fingers that break and crash with malevolent intent. Breathing shallowly, hunched together, on full alert, we make it to the coconut grove.
We move through the terrifying swooshing sounds of the threatening fronds shaking and hissing threateningly above us. Suddenly, a crow cries out and we scream, breaking into a run, covering our heads before our eyes are plucked out by the heinous messengers of darkness.
Finally, the glow of light from the condo windows, our parents, safety. We rush in and tell them how afraid we were. Being the concerned, loving parents they are, they laugh at us.
Once we settle down, everyone goes to bed. We all change into nightgowns. I remember my sister had a long nightgown, white cotton and full, I had a short one. My two little sisters are in the bed closest to the sliding doors and I am in the one near the bathroom. We have left the sliding glass door open, our parents are nearby, so we don’t need to board up the windows and put out crosses, a gentle breeze filters through into the room. The screen door is locked and the white sheer curtains are drawn.
Much later I am wakened by the need to use the restroom. I check the semi-darkness carefully for demons, I’m far from sure it’s safe, but I decide to risk it.
I get up and scuttle the few feet to the bathroom, turning on the light as I close the door.
Now, what I don’t know is that when I turn on the bathroom light, it wakes my sister and the wind has stilled so the room is stuffy and over-warm. While I’m in the bathroom, she gets up out of the bed, half-sleepwalks to the chair next to the air conditioner and turns it on. She’s enjoying the cold air on her face, so she leans her head against the wall and falls asleep in the chair.
Very cautiously, I open the bathroom door and peer out. The room looks clear of hell’s minions, I do not notice my sister in the dimness, where she sleeps motionless in her white nightgown by the sheer curtains of the same color. I start back for my bed, tiptoeing to keep from waking the three headed dogs, and I’m halfway there when my movement wakes my sister.
Three things happened at once: a sudden, strong wind blows, sending the white sheer curtains streaming inward toward me which wakes my sister, who stands up and walks toward me.
From being sure the room is still and unoccupied by anything other than my sisters in the next bed, what I now see is a ghostly figure in white gliding toward me out of the billowing curtains, hands at its sides, zombie-like, bearing down, directly toward me. An electric shock of horror freezes my bones, and I leap for the bed, exclaiming “Oh my God,” except that my petrifying fear renders me incapable of pronunciation, so it comes out more like a throaty, quavering, “Oh ma ga!” I dive under the covers, heart beating and blood pounding, unable to speak, scream, or hear. I yank the thin cotton sheet over my head, because, as we all know, thin cotton will protect you from the devil.
Within seconds, the room is flooded with light and my mother is standing in the doorway, my father’s 6’4” frame behind her. “What is going on?” she cries, concerned. In the light, I sit up to see my sister standing looking groggy in the middle of the room and I know I’ve been snatched from the gates of Biblical mythology come to suck the life blood from my soul.
It takes a minute to explain and figure it out, then being the loving, protective family they are, they have a good long laugh at my expense.
They still laugh at me today, and this story of my cowardice is now one of my daughter’s favorites. Especially the “Oh mah Ga,” part, which makes them howl with laughter at my ridiculousness. I guess it’s genetic.
But let me tell you something. I learned a little something about what the power of suggestion will do to you that day.
And I still don’t like scary movies. I can make them, but I don’t like to watch them.
Whatever you feel and experience, it goes through your imagination and experience filters. Be careful what you let in, lest it fester until you make a complete fool of yourself.
It’s hard enough to write sometimes when everything is going smoothly in life, hard enough to keep a cheerful face with the everyday responsibilities and pressures of paying bills, being a mom, and running a household. So what about in times of great stress or sadness?
Discipline to sit down and write is one thing, trying not to run screaming through the house is another. We have a infinite amount of strength, I believe that, but that doesn’t mean it’s all available at once, we must dole our strength out, share it, conserve it, and use it to the best of our ability. Once drained, we have to recharge, and sometimes the world asks too much of us when we just don’t have anything else to give.
Lately I’ve had more than my share of both stress and sorrow. The stress level has to do with something I’ll talk about later, but the sadness is something each of us must sometimes face, the death of a beloved family member.
Paul was my husband’s uncle, a man of great commitment, love and joy. The night before Thanksgiving, at a restaurant in Arizona, he suffered a pulmonary aneurism, aspirated food into his lungs, and despite the best efforts of a EMT who happened to on the scene and the emergency medics, a hour later he was in a coma, packed in ice, with the doctors telling us the chance of severe brain damage was 80%.
My husband left immediately for Arizona, where he kept a vigil over his uncle, as they waited, hoped, despaired, hoped again, until finally, the news—no brain activity. Then began the cruel wait for his otherwise healthy body to die.
Meanwhile, I owe a book. Producing something from the ether is not like working in a bank, or building furniture. Those things can both be very creative and challenging, but they can also, in times of stress, really be helpful when there is only the excruciating tension of waiting. We can fill our hours with productive busy work, tasks that demand just enough focus to take our mind off of what troubles us, at least for a little while. Creating from scratch requires a clear mind, that’s not something you get when you are waiting for the phone to ring to find out if a heart has stopped beating.
The truth is that if I can find my way in, living in the book and characters I’m creating is a gigantic relief, but the entrance gets clouded and the door slams open and shut in the prevailing evil wind. Sometimes I just don’t have enough emotional strength left to take even one more step towards that house I’m building.
So I sit down in the drive and cry. I let the feelings flow through me, have their way with me, lift me, crush me, drown me. It is the only way through to the other side.
And then, I drag my sorry self up and shake myself off. I do something positive. For me, this means making someone else happy. So I may make some cookies for the kids at school, or buy some toys for the children at the hospital. I don’t yet have the strength to deal with others’ hysteria, it’s all I can do to maintain on my own. And then, finally, I can sit down and look at my work, maybe it will let me in, maybe the door is slammed again, it comes and goes. This frustrating process takes patience, and I know only this—if I force my writing, it will not be good.
For me, it comes down to strength. I had an amazing voice teacher years ago, who, I am pretty sure, was very ill with AIDS. This was pre-cocktail treatment, so his outlook was grim. When I showed up late one day, stressed and overwrought, he said, “Sometimes when you’re too exhausted and beaten to do anything, you just have to do something!” And then he proceeded to turn that into a vocal exercise, “And so we begin!” we sang, over and over, sliding up and then down the scales, we shouted it until we were laughing. What a great man. So positive in the face of immanent darkness.
So while we can survive those nerve fraying hours by filling them with something, it is, I think, impossible to put aside your real life emotions and take up those of the characters you are writing unless you can understand what moves you. Like a harassed parent snapping at a child, it won’t be about the child, but about the parent. So sometimes, we have to step back, sit down, and just feel helpless for a little while. Wrap ourselves in a blanket and read comics, watch the sunset, cry, and be human!! It’s okay. I forgive you, I forgive myself for not being ‘up to par’ when every cell in my body is weighed down with sorrow.
As a great artist I once knew said, “Every experience will make you a better actress!” And the same is true for writing, if you feel it, take it in, give it rein, it will inform you and enrich you. If you can embrace the pain, if you can step back and watch yourself go through it, your life—and your work—will be the better for it.
This week, I will write again. I will pause to cry, to laugh, to remember with honor and joy a man who brought so much to my life, and my family. And one day, Paul and his kindness and quirks will find their way into a story. Maybe this one. He will always be a part of mine.
With a heart heavy with love, Shari, December 8th, 2014
And so…I find myself beginning a new book, which leads me to the question, “Where does inspiration come from?”
The truth is I don’t know. I don’t know who the characters will be, what they will say or do. I don’t know the plot yet, I don’t know if the message I want to get across is worth a plug nickel. Hell, I don’t even know what a plug nickel is.
Which means that the simple answer is— The best place to find inspiration is to start with what I don’t know.
Powerful words. “I don’t know.” That simple phrase means that the world is open, that you are ready and eager to learn. It means that you have questions and curiosity, that you are still open to be filled with wonder, to be surprised, delighted, to not judge, to wait and see.
To take a leap.
If you already know everything, or pretend to, you can learn nothing.
In truth, those words, “I don’t know,” have been a game changer for me. Earlier in life it seemed so important to know everything, to be right, to be knowledgable, to appear wise. Which meant, I wasn’t. “I don’t know” set me free.
I know of one author who titles every new work, “Shitty first draft.” This gives her license to just get it all down, then she can go back and make it an ‘acceptable first draft’ and finally, ‘a really good first draft.’ After that, well, as we writers know, the editors will have at it.
I don’t label my drafts, I’m still too timid to put the word ‘shitty’ at the top from fear it might seep down into my work. Silly, I know, but there it is. Words mean something, they have power, so when I start listing ideas for a new novel, I put them in a file titled, “The Best Book Ever.” A girl can dream.
I learned so much from the acting process about improving, enriching and ‘fleshing out’ characters that I don’t fear my first tentative, feeble efforts will not improve. As I learn a part, let’s say, Viola in Twelfth Night, I begin to understand what the words that were written by the great bard really mean, to me anyway. As I go through the rehearsal process, I absorb the emotions and feelings of the other actors and as their characters come to life, they inform mine. My homework and history inform me, the stage informs me, the words themselves inform me, and mostly, the emotion takes hold.
It’s the same with writing. Though in this case, it is the emotions that are finding the words and story to express themselves. Either way, I must leap, dare, jump and throw myself into the ether, from which all things come. And I trust that, while I might hit the ground really hard and roll, I’ll probably land safely, in a new place, unknown to me before now, and if it’s a good place, a place worth visiting, I will share it with others.
This is like life, whenever I think I need to change or try to understand someone and their (to me) bad behavior, I have to remind myself that I haven’t lived their childhood, I haven’t woken up from their nightmares, I haven’t listened to whatever abuse was heaped upon them, ergo…I cannot, ever, understand them. All I can do is honor their journey, understand that their limitations are not the same as mine.
We all want to connect, to be understood. It’s why most of us write, or act, or play music. We want to connect, to be heard and understood. But in truth, we don’t. We relate, we appreciate, we sympathize, but we do not ever fully understand. Our adventure belongs to us, it is unique, and so is theirs.
And that’s okay. It’s better than okay, it’s brilliant. It’s what makes us unique and more than that, it’s what makes us need each other. Our journeys and our paths are different, but our need for other humans binds us all.
We are alike, but we are not the same.
Isn’t that wonderful? It feels like it to me, but then I don’t know how you feel about it.
Did you know you have pathways in your brain? Learned reactions to physical and mental stimuli? Isn’t that fascinating?
Here’s how it works. When your senses perceive something, (and perceive is the operative word, as we all perceive things differently) Certain chemical and electrical responses trigger in you brain and receptors open up, creating a kind of path that becomes the path most traveled. These receptors create different physical results, fear, tension in the neck, nausea, well-being, whatever it may be. We learn these responses, in fact, we memorize them, and if we don’t alter them, we loose the ability to take the path less traveled.
Now, I’ve reduced this to a ridiculously simplified version of the science, but being neither a physicist nor a neurosurgeon, I have to use the cliff notes, as it were. And here’s where it gets interesting for writers, actors, and well…humans.
For both writers and actors, these reactions to stimuli are what we would call ‘character traits.’ As an actor, you can use this to develop a much more rounded character to fill out your role. As a writer, you can actually explain, or intimate how past reactions control your character now.
For a human, to change those patterns we have to un-program and retrain ourselves. And this is difficult, we’re dealing with long term chemical and behavioral training. Pavlov’s emotions, let’s call them. In the case of the famous doctor, he would ring a bell, and the dog salivates. In someone who was abused as a child, the sound of people shouting may trigger an intense panic that has nothing to do with the actual situation at hand.
Our triggers are many, but every once in a while, we hit one that rests at our core. For me, the idea that I never can do enough, be good enough, that I should have to take care of everyone and everything that comes up, and if I don’t, I’m not good enough, that I’ve failed, is a biggie. Of course, it’s impossible, I’ve set the stakes too high to ever win at that one, so that particular ‘bell’ is no longer useful to me. This response is too ingrained to fix with conscious reasoning, knowing I have this issue doesn’t stop the reaction. I’m a puppet and the strings are tight.
So I went to someone who could help. I worked with a woman who does a procedure called ‘tapping.’ She is a therapist, and versions of this therapy are used to help soldiers with PTSD and people with childhood traumas. We talk about what the frustration or feeling is, identify where it is in my body, name it, and then she proceeds to talk about it, by having me repeat and reaffirm a different thought process while ‘tapping’ at different random spots on my face, hands and arms. The tapping interrupts the programmed response, allowing new pathways to open.
It was amazing. And I think it helped me quite a bit. But the point of this blog is to talk about those pathways and how they define characters, just as they define us as people. Isn’t that what we want from our performance or our fictional characters? I know I want them to ring as true as possible, and to be distinct from each other.
Let’s take some examples. Let’s say I’m playing a character who has a certain phobia, say, fear of dogs. Now, something, at some time, triggered and trained this character to behave that way. So, when I create my history of the character, (and this is acting homework, it has nothing to do with what is written in the script) I would include one or more experiences where I was bitten or other wise frightened by canines, and my body learned the response of breaking into a sweat and tensing for battle every time I hear a dog bark.
Or…let’s say….I’m writing a character in a book who is loving and motherly. I create a history for her where she grew up around lots of siblings and extended family and there was constant laughter and noise. This woman would sit at a restaurant and hear children bickering at the next table and it would create a real warmth in her chest because her conditioned response to the sound is happiness and safety.
Those are simple examples, but do you see how this kind of thing is influencing your life? How can you use mental triggers to round out your characters? Try an exercise where you have two people meet, and they both have very different reactions to something that happens to them. If you stick with the ‘why’ they behave this way, you will find that they are distinct from each other, and it will open new avenues of how they understand, misinterpret, or relate with each other.
This process will also help you deal with difficult people in your life. On of the hardest things to do is to not take it personally when other people treat you badly. But it isn’t about you, it’s about them.
When people can sense the restrictions that their emotional past puts on them, they can sometimes, through exploring it deeply and feeling it fully, change it. This is called an epiphany, and it is one of the peaks of a character driven story. And that is a very useful tool. But stay aware, it’s not going to happen just because someone else tells them they are wrong. Oh no. People will die rather than be wrong, so they will fight to justify and prove they are right, even if it means continuing to be deeply unhappy. People have to come to life-changing revelations on their own, from inside.
So for today, be quiet for a moment and feel what’s going on inside, then ask yourself what that is, the first answer will not be the one, keep asking, and you’ll find it. Then notice how that reaction, physical sensation responds to different situations as you go about your day.
Fascinating stuff. I love acting and writing, but mostly I love being human and connecting with others. Wouldn’t it be lovely if we all understood the strings that bind and control us, because only then can we cut them and braid a stronger connection with ourselves and others.
If you stick with this, not only will your characters fill out, but you will begin the process of understanding that greatest paradigm in your life. You—and all that has gone into making you unique.
I haven’t been on my website for a week or so or posted anything new, and so I was surprised to see that I had 3000 hits in a single day hits a few days ago. This was, to quote Zoolander when his message machine tells him he has 12 hundred messages, “A little above average.” and I wondered why.
Sure, I have a new book out and “Invisible Ellen” is doing pretty nicely, but that couldn’t be it. And then I remembered that my girls told me my ex had done this show called “Celebrity Wife Swap,” and I thought, “Oh, it must have aired.” I knew about the show, but only because he and his wife had wanted the girls to be on it, which caused some friction, but my daughters had the sense and the backbone to refuse. Neither of my daughters are fans of ‘reality’ TV, and—though admittedly I’ve never watched CWS—that show seems…uh, let’s just say…not exactly creme of the crop, and they didn’t want to be associated with it. Bless their classy little hearts.
Now, I didn’t see the show, don’t ever intend to, so maybe it’s a steaming pile of art and I would be sorry to have missed it, but my instinct tells me no. I have never once looked at either my ex’s or his wife’s websites and I definitely steer away from anything involving them in social media, (I know, I know, I’m writing this, but I’m trying to make a point!) I know I won’t like what I see, so why go looking for it? To be honest, I don’t really know them, and have only the barest of contact since he announced with a smug smile that he wouldn’t be contributing to college, then drove away in his Porsche. He tells a different story, no doubt in his public version of himself and has an image of himself to maintain, as many people do, but I deal with the reality, usually damage control, and that’s plenty. I do my best to disassociate from that whole, publicist-generated, artificial world version 2.0.
So it interests me that people would see that wife swap show and look me up. It’s a weird interconnected web out there. It feels remote to me and my everyday life. I think of how I’ve tried to focus my life away from that kind of negativity and on doing work that is worthwhile to me. That’s not to say I wouldn’t work on a show for the money if i really needed it, the key to avoiding that is to keep your cost of living down so that having to prostitute yourself is kept at a minimum. From someone who once starred in “Death Spa” that may seem a bit bogus, but hey, things have changed.
You see, at first you want the things that everyone else envies, I don’t know why, but that’s often what our society teaches is desirable. You want to be sexy, and famous, and beautiful and rich, and then you grow up and want to be valued for something real. Well, some of us do anyway, others get caught in the cycle. For me, after living by my looks modeling in New York and ending up a cocaine addict, which I beat myself at 22, I had to come to terms with the fact that being valued for what is on the outside is very, very lonely and untrue. Then I wanted to be famous, because that impresses people, right? But when I got a dose of that, It just felt just strange. When many people meet someone they’ve seen on TV or film immediately there is a veil, an artificial wall, that separates you because they think you are something you are not and, falsely, feel different from you. I hated that. You give up privacy and often even the ability to spend time in public with your family comfortably. I’ve had people put their kid in my lap while I was eating at a restaurant and start video taping. I love meeting new people, but that was just invasive, (especially since I was eating spinach). Now I have many wonderful friends, who I first met as ‘fans’, don’t get me wrong, but there is a difference between meeting people on an equal footing, and people wanting to document meeting you as a trophy for being on a show or in a movie that you don’t even think is very good.
That didn’t feel right to me. It’s lovely to have people like and respect your work, and name recognition as a novelist is important as well as for an actor, but when you have to constantly pretend to be what you’ve created, meaning some kind of public persona, it is, for all but a few, confusing to the point of soul-crushing. Egos get all out of whack. But I did love acting, the art of it, making an audience breath together or laugh as one, and since the film and TV roles of quality weren’t coming to me, I turned to theatre where I’ve done my best work, respected the writing and myself, and felt the joy of working with an artistic community that betters the many, instead of the few.
And writing has always been my first love. Though I’m proud of all of my books, I don’t think there’s any question that “Invisible Ellen” is the kind of book I’ve always wanted to write. Hopefully, it’s original, funny, heartwarming, and uplifting. Those are qualities I feel good about.
So, one day soon, maybe I’ll get thirty thousand hits on my website because my new book, “Emerging Ellen” is hitting the stores. I certainly hope so, but for me, that’s a different kind of attention, one I can spread around and share. Oh, and it would go a long way toward helping me pay for private school and college, which would be lovely, and for my charity as well. Meanwhile, I’ll drive my used Ford Escape Hybrid, give what I can, and laugh and love with my girls and my family, support my friends’ many endeavors and try to create something new and worth reading or watching.