Sunday, March 13, 2011

On the Merits of Mishaps

Clearly I'm not afraid to write about my own mistakes and misadventures. Here are a few more for your reading pleasure, plus my reasoning for why experiencing and sharing them is a healthy habit for any writer.

Yesterday Kyle and I started our morning at a local coffee shop, and things did not go well. It was cold, the internet wasn’t working, my orange-cranberry muffin was sickeningly sweet, and I’m pretty sure my vanilla latte had no expresso in it whatsoever. Just as I started to really get work done, Kyle asked if we could leave because he didn’t have anything left to do that didn’t require the internet. By the end of it all, I was as grumpy and grumbly as Strongbad and his grumblecakes.

Then we spent the afternoon on a bike ride that was even more of a comedy of errors. 

-- Early in the ride, my back tire started going flat, so we had to head back into town and grab a new tube from the bike shop and then navigate the busy downtown roads all over again. 

-- The wind and my tendency to be a mouth breather made my chapped lips start bleeding. I didn’t mind looking like a (badass) mess with blood all over my front teeth, but tasting iron every time I went for a drink of water was rather unpleasant.

-- The light that I recently installed on the front of my bike flew off when I went over some uneven pavement, so I had to stop and wander around the construction zone looking for it.  

-- As often happens, my gears were obstinate the entire ride, shifting at unexpected and inconvenient moments.

--And best or worst of all was when we suddenly turned to find ourselves facing an uphill road that was (1) ridiculously steep, (2) poorly paved, (3) relatively narrow, and (4) lined with brambles.

In other words, it was a recipe for disaster.

I like to think I had the leg strength for even that steep of an incline, because I’m usually a strong hill climber. But I definitely did not have enough leg strength to make up for the fact that I drifted to the left and then overcorrected to the right. I was standing up and my shoes were clipped into the pedals, so when I started to tip over there was no saving myself… Into the brambles I went. No blood this time, but I was still picking little thorns out of my hands a few miles down the road.

But here’s the important thing:

Somehow I enjoyed the ride overall, and I saw the comedy of errors as just that: a comedy. So why did I get irritated by a poorly made latte but have no trouble taking blood and thorns and bike malfunctions in stride? The fresh air certainly helped, but I think it was mostly because I automatically fell into the mentality that got us through the cross-country bike trip two summers ago. 

Unsupported bicycle touring is the best illustration I’ve ever seen of Murphy’s Law. For example, we once got seven flat tires in one day, leaving us stranded miles from the nearest building, much less a town, and it was so hot that the tar on the road was melting.  And that was nothing compared to having to outrun lightning storms in the middle of the high desert or convince a cougar that we weren’t prey worth stalking. The only way to psychologically survive was to see every mishap as entertaining (or most of them, anyway – I highly advise taking cougars seriously). Things got so crazy that we just had to laugh about them. 

It also helped that I knew I was going to blog about each day of our adventure when we finally made it to the safety of a motel. I certainly didn’t welcome all of those flat tires, but I could at least tell myself that each one made the story a little bit better. A common piece of writing advice is that you have to be willing to put your characters through hell, and in this case we were the characters. Anything for a good story, right?

So how does all of this apply to writers who aren’t into extreme bicycling experiences?

1.) It’s all about attitude.
I’m at the very beginning of this whole writing and publishing process, but I’ve read enough blogs to realize that it often SUCKS. There’s a lot of work, a lot of waiting, and a lot of heartbreak. It’s a whole lot easier to make it through the potential setbacks and injustices if you go into the fray with a shield of humor. Try to look on the bright side, and if that fails, at least look on the comedic side.

2.) Bring someone with you.
My shield of self-deprecating humor would still not have gotten me very far on the trip if my husband hadn’t been there as well. Finding someone else who is going through the same experiences as you can make all the difference. This is where writing buddies and critique groups come in. (Something I really need to find as soon as I have work ready to be critiqued.)

3.) It’s easier to write it if you’ve lived it.
Write what you know, right? If you’re a YA author trying to capture the difficulties of adolescence, you should definitely try to recall the angst and anguish of your past. But try to tap into fresher emotions too. We don’t lose our capability to feel embarrassed, depressed, or vulnerable when we become adults. (Heck, most of the time I don’t even feel like a real adult.) Live life, take risks, and pay attention to your negative experiences publishing-related or otherwise and find ways to translate pieces of them into your writing.

4.) Imagine writing it.
The added bonus of using life experiences in your writing is that merely thinking about doing so – saying to yourself, “this would make an entertaining blog entry,” or “I bet this is how my character feels when she gets covered in pistachio pudding” – can really take the edge off of the experience itself, just like planning my blog entries while we pedaled made each cycling misadventure more bearable. 

It’s certainly possible to go overboard with this kind of thinking. One reason I haven’t joined Twitter yet is that I remember a brief period in college when I was so hooked on Facebook that I started to think “How could I turn this moment into a Facebook update?” instead of actually enjoying the moment. But if we’re talking about negative experiences, why not deal with them by distancing yourself – analyzing the emotion or mentally composing a blog entry about it? I promise it will improve your writing and your sanity.

May you all have a great day... or at least a bad one worth writing about.

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