Playing Famous Author

Despite a few minor downturns, for the most part, my life lately has been truly a gift. I am having an incredible time housesitting — I have the opportunity to try on other people’s lives for a few days, which is an awesome adventure. And last night I got to play “famous author.” Well, maybe not “famous.” Maybe just “author,” but it was a fantastic experience for all that.

A local book club chose my novel Daughter Am I for this past month’s read, and they invited me to the discussion. I was afraid the discussion would be stilted because if they didn’t like the book, who would have the courage to admit it with the author sitting right there? But they all liked it for their own reasons.

One fellow seemed a bit tepid at first. He thought it a fun read that didn’t put him to sleep, which in itself is balm to a writer’s ears, but he got enthusiastic about the book when it dawned on him the story was a take-off on The Wizard of Oz. When he said as much, I couldn’t help emitting a triumphant, “Yes!” Although the book wasn’t specifically a take-off on The Wizard of Oz, it was a retelling of “The Hero’s Journey” as described by Joseph Campbell. (Actually, it was more a retelling of the retelling since I read Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey rather than Joseph Campbell’s tome.) And the mythic structure of “The Hero’s Journey” underlies many familiar tales. Not just The Wizard of Oz, but also such stories as Star Wars and King Arthur.

The other fellow in the group didn’t seem all that impressed with the structure or the fun of the story — he was caught up in the conspiracy aspect and his own search for my “truth.” He wanted to know what truth I was trying to illuminate. He thought it was both “Truth” with a capital “T,” and the specific truth that nothing is as it seems — although good is good and bad is bad, good can also be bad and bad can also be good. Again, I was impressed. Because yes, that is basically the truth of this particular book. Or one of them. If characters are true to themselves, then ideally readers can find whatever truth they need from the story, and all those truths are equally relevant.

The women in the group invariably were reminded of relatives or places they grew up, making the book personal to them.

It was a thrill and a true honor to sit around the table, eating delicious snacks and discussing my book. I never imagined such a gathering, never imagined what a privilege it would be to hear what the book meant to readers, never knew how gratifying it would be when people saw what my intentions were in writing the story. I wanted to write books that were simple to read, but had a subtle complexity that those of a more thoughtful bent could find. And apparently I did.

I’m so used to not seeing myself as an author, or as anything special when I do see myself as such because my online community consists primarily of authors. And when everyone is an author, well . . . no one is special. But last night I did feel special. As if I had done something incredible by writing the book.

I had an interesting insight when the topic strayed to other books they had read with despicable characters — I will never be a world famous author or a household name because none of my POV characters are ever despicable. They are kind folk who are nice to each other. The stories are never about their interpersonal conflicts, but their joint conflict with an outside antagonist.

And that is okay. Those are the types of characters (and people!) I want to spent time with.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

The Hero’s Journey, Daughter Am I, and other Literary Matters

DAIsmallI had a wonderful discussion with a friend today about my books. Actually, there were two discussions with two different friends. One was about the dance studio murder story I’d planned to write using the students from the dance academy as characters, but that is so not a good idea. I don’t want to inadvertently hurt people, and I’ve come to see that what I like about certain people are not things they like about themselves, the interplay I find fascinating might have negative connotations, and the compelling characteristics — characteristics that define the person — are not always admirable. All those are good elements of a story, but in a real-life relationship? Not so good. Still, the idea is percolating somewhere in the back of my head, and maybe someday it will take on such import that I have to write it down to get it completely out of my head.

The other discussion was about books in general. I’ve been staying at this particular friend’s house, and I am still in residence. I will be the guest of honor at her book discussion this Saturday (Daughter Am I is the book being discussed!), and so she’s keeping me captive until the weekend. It’s not a bad idea, keeping me captive, considering my newly gallivanting ways. In fact, I’ve found another housesitting privilege (it is more of a privilege than a job, this staying at other people’s houses) that begins this weekend, so she’s right to remind me of my impending guesthood.

We spent the afternoon discussing books we’ve read and movies we liked, and it made me see the possibilities in writing again. It could be fun to create a world as did Anne McCaffrey. Or maybe it would be fun to jump into a ready-made world, such as regency England with its comedy of manners and rigid rules like Georgette Heyer did. (Maybe creating a character of an old woman because all the usual characters seem impossibly young, even those considered as being on the shelf.). Perhaps it would be fun to write a series, maybe a continuation of my as yet unwritten dance murder book, or a sequel to one of my already written books. (There are all those babies in Light Bringer, after all, and the possibility of more aged gangsters for Daughter Am I.

I don’t have to settle on any one possibility, of course — I could try out all the various ideas to see what sticks, but for now, it’s more important for me to fill my brain pan, stir it all up, then add the heat of imagination and see what (if anything) boils to the surface.

Still, it was nice talking about various literary matters, such as the hero’s journey and how it applies to Star Wars, The Wizard, of Oz, the legend of King Arthur and Daughter Am I. And if that wasn’t joy enough, there still is the bookclub meeting to look forward to.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

No Hero’s Journey

I cannot even begin to make sense of the events of the last week, let alone the last year. It will take me a long time, if ever, to process the horror, heartbreak, grief of dealing with my dysfunctional brother’s presence, the trip to take him back to Colorado, and now his absence.

I do not miss him, of course, he was too abusive (when I heard a noise outside my window last night, I got scared thinking he’d returned), but he was such a major part of my life for the past fifteen months that his absence looms large. I don’t understand how I reconnected with him, don’t understand why he treated me so badly, don’t understand why I thought it important for him and his father to forgive each other. (Except that for my entire life, the two of them have used me as the rope in their tug of war, and I needed to be done with both of them.)

I don’t even understand how I became the one to take him back to Colorado. I don’t remember the sequence of events leading up to the trip, though I do know I refused to let my siblings just toss him on the streets of this dusty, windy, and hellishly hot town. (Partly because I knew he wouldn’t stay away.) I also refused to let them get him thrown in jail where he certainly wouldn’t get help for his many mental disorders.

And so, somewhere along the line, I agreed to take him and the stuff he’d collected back to Colorado. It’s odd that I did so. The very thought of the trip terrified me. I didn’t know if I could put up with his relentlessness and nonstop abuse for all those miles and hours. Knowing how violent my reaction to his verbal abuse was, I feared me as much as I feared him, and I didn’t think we’d survive it. The trip was almost as bad as I thought it would be, and though we came close to an accident several times, we both did survive, probably because of all the prayers and well wishes people sent our way.

He kept opening the door to the car while I was driving (I think he thought he was opening the window, though I don’t really know). One time he climbed into the back seat to sleep on top of all of his stuff, and when he climbed back into the front, he climbed over me, making it impossible for me to see. I pulled over, and helped him get untangled. Because I had to push his foot, it seemed as if I pushed him out the door, and so he refused to get back in the car. He stared at me for a few minutes, then went into a field and fell asleep. I finally got him back in the car, but when he left the moving car a little later, I took off without waiting for him, thinking maybe it would scare him enough to behave.

When I went back, I found him with rescue workers from the fire department, screaming for water. Apparently, he’d fallen asleep by the side of the road while he waited for me. They wanted to arrest him, said a police car was on its way, but I begged and pleaded for them to let me take him to Fort Collins. (A repeat of the night before when I had to beg the cops to let me take him away rather than arrest him. I’d said the car was all packed; just let us go. And finally they did.) The fire folk expressed concern for me, and I told them I’d be fine, that I’d been dealing with him for the past fifteen months. And they too let me go.

My brother demanded that we stop so he could get cold water, and when I did so and gave him the bottle, he clubbed me with it. (I don’t know why, and later, when I told him what he had done, he didn’t know either. He didn’t believe he’d done it, not even when I showed him the huge bruises on my upper arm.) I wanted so much to leave him there, and even planned to call the police to come get him, but I reminded myself to keep focused on my goal. And so, we continued the terrible trip.

The only way I can make sense of any of this trauma is to think in terms of “The Hero’s Journey” with him playing all the roles except hero. His moods change so rapidly, it would have to be a fantasy story, where sometimes the hero is driving a dragon, sometimes a little boy, sometimes a lost soul.

But I am no hero. Heroes don’t cry all the way home.

People think it strange that I cried. Well, so do I — I figured I’d be relieved to be done with him, but he was once my brother. I know some of the tears were simply a way of washing away all the emotions I’d felt, both his and mine. Some of the tears were pure grief since my brother is lost to me — I don’t know who that stranger is. And some of the tears were just plain sorrow for our unsolvable problems, both his and mine.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

The Mythic Stages of Grief

Joseph Campbell was the first person to write about the motifs and archetypes underlying myths, stories, and spiritual traditions. Christopher Vogler, in The Writer’s Journey, further developed this idea of the “hero’s journey,” making it applicable to writers, both in their stories and in their lives.

The hero’s journey is an endlessly fascinating structure because it is endlessly malleable, able to fit any character, any story, any life. We are all on our own mythic journey through life, but our lives are so much more complicated that the life of a character in a novel because we are dealing with quests within quests within quests rather than a single straightforward journey.

Growing up, falling in love, marrying, parenting, writing, making art, growing old are all quests of their own, though each quest is a but a step on our journey though life.

My most recent mythic journey has been the journey through grief. Grief has been, perhaps, the most mythic of all my quests, each of the stages clearly delineated. (In fact, these mythic stages of the hero’s journey are much more applicable to grief than Kübler-Ross’s stages.)

All of us who embark so reluctantly on this journey through grief are true heroes. It takes a hero’s courage and commitment to deal with everything grief bombards us with and come out on the other side stronger, wiser, and accepting of whatever comes our way.

The mythic stages of our heroic journey through grief:

1. Ordinary World. A hero’s journey begins with the normal world, and in the grief quest story, the normal world is the life we shared with our life mate/soul mate.

2. Call to Adventure. His (or her) dying calls us to grief’s adventure, though death is too traumatic an event to be dismissed as a simple call to adventure. There’s no warble of a bugle call; it’s more like the shriek of a smoke alarm that cannot be silenced.

3. Refusal of the Call. We are frozen with grief, reluctant to continue life alone, refusing to see that perhaps continuing alone could be an adventure.

4. Meeting with the Mentors. We go to grief groups for support, and we talk to others who have also lost their mates. Some of us go to bereavement counselors or read about grief to learn how to deal with this horrifying new world.

5. Crossing the threshold. We commit to grief, to whatever changes will come because of it. We allow ourselves to feel without blocking out the pain because we know that is the only way to find our way through the angst to a more peaceful time.

6. Tests, Allies, Enemies. Grief encompasses all these aspects. Grief tests us, our strength, our commitment to life, our beliefs. Grief is an ally, changing us so we can become the person we need to be in order to survive in this new world. And grief is an enemy, bringing more pain than we could have ever imagined.

7. Approach to the Innermost Cave. Grief takes us further away from our ordinary world of a shared life. This is a stage where we regroup. We find a respite from grief for a few days or weeks, leading us to believe that perhaps we can do this after all.

8. Ordeal. Although all of grief is an ordeal, at this particular stage of grief’s journey, the greatest ordeal is accepting that we are alone, that although he is dead, we have to continue living. We thought getting through the initial raw pain of grief was our greatest agony, but now grief throws us even more anguish with the realization that he is never coming back. This new life without him is forever.

9. Rewards. There are many rewards for going through grief. We seize the sword of courage, we find the elixir of patience, we discover the crucible of greater insights. There are consequences, of course, and generally we pay for any rewards with a huge upsurge of grief.

10. The Road Back. The road back is not easy, especially when it comes to grief. Although we can never return to the ordinary world from which we came since that world was shattered forever by his death, we do return to an ordinary world, a world where grief is a companion that merely shadows us, rather than being the trickster that taunts us, the enemy that torments us, the shapeshifter that bewilders us.

11. Resurrection. The hero faces death and is resurrected, and in the case of grief, we face the death of who we once were. We realize we are separate from our life mate/soul mate, that he has his journey and we have ours, and hence we are reborn into a new life. A life that is ours alone.

12. Return with the Elixir. We all bring back from grief certain gifts, whether wisdom or patience or simply the knowledge that we survived the worst ordeal of our lives, and often we share this gift with others. Many of us end up taking care of aged parents, exhibiting a patience we never knew we had. Some of us write or paint to show the world our truth. Some of us go into grief therapy to help others. My magic elixir — my gift, my blessing — has been the unexpected ability to decode grief and write lyrically about the process, such as recognizing the mythic stages of grief and writing this post describing grief as a heroic journey and quest. A strange gift, indeed.

And so life’s journey continues . . .

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+

Great Blog Resources for Writers

There are some phenomenal blogs and resources for writers that can help you take your writing to a more polished, compelling, or profound level. These are just a few of the links I have collected over the years:

Ageless Wisdom & The Hero’s Journey lists the mythic and archetypal principles embedded in the structure of stories, along with the twelve stages of the hero’s journey. You don’t have to write fantasy to use such mythic elements. My contemporary novel, Daughter Am I, was written with these principles in mind.

The Editor’s Blog is the best resource for new writers who wish to learn the basics of writing and the best resource for experienced writers who wish to polish their work into a perfect gem. Whatever you want to know — hooking a reader, dialogue, action, conflict, editing — you will find great advice from freelance fiction editor Beth Hill.

The Bookshelf Muse has various fascinating thesauruses, such as the Emotional Thesaurus to help you show your characters emotions, Physical Attribute Thesaurus, Character Traits Thesaurus, Weather & Earthly Phenomena Thesaurus, Color, Textures and Shapes Thesaurus, Setting Thesaurus, and the Symbolism Thesaurus. (These are listed on the right sidebar.)

Guide to Grammar and Writing takes the mystery out of grammatical issues and English usage

Cliched, Overdone, or Boring Plotlines helps you find out if your brilliant idea really is as really as fantastic as you think it is, or if it is merely a rehash of a story that has been done a hundred times before.

100 Best First Lines from Novels might help you figure out how to write a first line that is every bit as compelling as those listed.

The Food Timeline helps you keep track of what foods your characters might be eating, especially if you write historical fiction.

Book Marketing Floozy is an indexed blog of sixty-five different articles by various writers about book promotion.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+

The Next Big Step

Yesterday when I was out walking, I finally got a sense of where my WIP needed to go. I wasn’t thinking about the story, but apparently it was thinking about me, and after all this time, there it was, the next big step. Grief. (Wonder where that idea came from!)

I always knew my hero was grieving the loss of the civilized world and everything in it, but I was concerned with his following the stages of grief — denial, guilt, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. It dawned on me yesterday that he had never actually felt the sorrow and devastation that accompanies grief. So my vision was of his crying. It goes to show that I cannot write what I do not know. Even though J. had been sick for so long, and I had gone through most of the stages of grief, like my hero, I had never actually gone through the emotion of grief. Could never even have imagined the feeling of amputation that accompanies such a life-changing loss. 

I’m not sure where the discussion is in this.  Perhaps: do you have to have experienced the emotions your characters go through to find the truth of the story? Perhaps: what’s the next big step you need to take in your writing, your life? Mine is a move — perhaps temporary — but a  total upheaval. The big challenge will be to find the energy. One of the problems with grief is the accompanying lack of energy. (Which I need to remember when I write my hero’s grief.)

On a more specific topic, the main impetus for my hero leaving the safety of the compound is his participation in a birth. (This story is a reversal of the hero’s journey — in the traditional journey, the hero dies, at least symbolically, and is reborn. In my story he is reborn first, then the person he used to be dies symbolically.) A nurse, his eventual love interest, actually delivers the child, but my hero must participate in some way. What could he do that would be significant enough to be a catalyst? Keep in mind, this is a totally primitive world. Is cutting the cord (with a flint that he found and has been sharpening) enough? Could there be a problem with the birth that he helps with? He owned a pet shop in the old world, selling used pets, but he probably has been around for the birth of puppies and kittens and perhaps even livestock, so he might have some knowledge. Whatever he does, it has to precipitate his next big step.