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Archive for April, 2014

Extreme Empathy, or An Author’s Affliction

There once was a talented actress/singer/dancer, let’s call her Michelle, who had suffered a series of hard knocks in life. She ended up in a small town, teaching others–but she never really gave up on her own dream. Then one day she heard about a national tour of a musical that was casting in San Francisco. She decided to get herself there and go for it, one last time, before she was too old. And she blew everyone else away. She could sing, she could dance, she ended up one of the last 20 standing, then one of the last five. Finally, it was clear it was her. She’d done it. And she’d deserved it. They said they’d be calling.

Then, on the way out, the rehearsal pianist, who looked a lot like Seth Rudetsky, told her how impressed he was, and to look him up if she was ever in New York. She replied that if she got this show, she soon would be. To which he told her, “Honey, they’re not casting anyone from here. They had to hold open auditions to satisfy a union requirement.” He looked for his card so she could be in touch, but he didn’t have one. He left. She went home.

I was wounded for days.

Never mind that it was the last episode of Bunheads, or that Michelle was played by Sutton Foster, who, I have reason to believe, is doing just fine. Even scolding Mr. Rudetsky on his FB page and threatening to get her his card myself (which he thought was pretty funny) didn’t help.

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Before you think this is only an (slightly) amusing anecdote, let me give you a bit of background.

A lot has been written lately about the discovered brain similarities between writers and people with mental illnesses. Not that that comes as much of a surprise. There’s been fairly convincing anecdotal evidence since they invented the quill pen.

But my brand of weird thinking has always been a peculiar one, and I’m wondering if anyone else shares this peccadillo. 

I remember being very young–seven or eight–when I realized I could sometimes lose my footing and tumble into someone else’s emotional space. It wasn’t a “head thing,” it was like a fall off a pier into a cold lake. And I couldn’t control when it would happen. The times I remember most vividly were when I was watching television. A television showing of the film “I Want to Live,” with Susan Hayworth as a wrongly-condemned woman put to death nearly undid me. But it  usually didn’t take anywhere near that much. I remember “taking a tumble” watching The Man from U.N.C.L.E. when Napoleon was going to be forced to marry someone. More than any threatened torture that spy stories could come up with, my eight-year-old self was horrified. Horrified! “HOW CAN YOU WATCH THIS???” I yelled at my parents. Now, the Man from UNCLE was completely tongue-in-cheek, and I’m sure neither Robert Vaughn, nor Napoleon Solo himself, had a moment of anguish about the situation. But I was overwhelmed with grief. 

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I was usually “lost” in the lake of someone else’s emotions for a good half an hour and then it would linger for days. It was a keen physical sensation in which my stomach kind of glowed my muscles tensed and my heart pounded. I knew it was odd back then, and asked if I should see a doctor to keep it from happening, but no one knew just what to make of me. 

It’s probably worth mentioning that at the same time, I lived in a variety of different fictional worlds of my own creation. I knew what the real world was, but I had the choice of several fully formed worlds in my own head that I could choose to enter at any time. There were secret places I could go to–usually in the woods behind our house in Park Forest–to meet the imaginary friends and enemies who populated these worlds. Not surprisingly, the kids who became my best friends were ones who enjoyed entering these worlds with me. I think that’s how I began to be able to handle the crises of other fictional people, by being able to mold and motivate the characters in my own worlds. 

It all morphed when I got old enough to write. Then I was living in the heads of multiple characters. By middle school in Springfield, Missouri,  I was writing novels. (And my best friend and I were members of the French Underground.) One day I was acting out what would have to happen to have a physical attack come off the way I needed it to. Of course, I couldn’t do that without entering the head of the character who was being attacked. When the rest of my family got home, I was emotionally spent. Yet I couldn’t really tell anyone why.It didn’t seem actual. But it felt actual.

It carried over into reading other people’s novels, of course. I could barely scrape through Wuthering Heights over a yea’s time. What a horrid story of abuse! Run, Catherine, just freaking run! Although well-written and atmospheric. of course.

But then,  you need to factor in real life. When I went to college, I signed up for Spanish I as an easy A  Then one day, our seemingly mild-mannered middle-aged professor walked in, said his therapist told him that, as part of his healing, he had to tell his never-before-spoken-out-loud story. To people who would understand and forgive him. And so, for the next weeks, he came into class, sat down at his desk, and began by reading an excerpt from the handwritten story of his sexual abuse as a child, how it gave rise to horrible impulses to abuse children himself, how he couldn’t stop the feelings and he went to commit suicide by throwing himself in front of a subway before he acted on these impulses; how a large man whom he believed to be an angel flung him from the tracks. Holy cow. I was right there with him. Ask me about college and I’ll tell you how I came to understand that there’s no one (and, by extension, no character) who cannot be redeemed. I might have had other classes. I don’t remember. 

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I think this is partly why it wrings me out so much to write a novel. I know other writers who happily type out 10,000 words a day and are on their merry way. I don’t know that they have fewer characters to inhabit than do I. But I suspect they don’t have quite the same affliction. (It reminds me of when Dustin Hoffman and Lawrence Olivier were making MARATHON MAN, and apparently  Hoffman had been partying at Studio 54 all night before a scene when his character had gone without sleep. “Ever try acting?” asked Olivier, dryly.)

And I don’t think this happens to all writers. Once when I was a young writer in New York, I was tasked with walking a famous poet between engagements. We walked down 12th Street between Fifth and Sixth just as it was turning dark and lights were coming on inside the townhouses. “Doesn’t this just get to you?” I asked. “Don’t you wonder what is going on in each of these homes, and families, and lives?” Without breaking stride, he said, “No, I think that’s just novelists.”

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Not surprisingly, I spent a decade as a celebrity ghostwriter while becoming a biographer and novelist. Looking back, it just makes sense.

It has been quite an education seeing the world through so many other pairs of eyes. One I remember most clearly is when the young man who would become my husband and I went on a Murder Mystery Weekend at an old house upstate, and through winning the opening gambit, we secretly became the murderers. We would win if we solved a certain puzzle and kept our identity secret; others would win if they unmasked the murderers. It was a real moment for me when we got what we needed from someone, and she begged for her life. Made all kinds of deals. But did we want to WIN? Then there was a final switch I had to flip. It was clear you’d only win if you had the mindset of a remorseless psychotic. What an “aha” moment. From then on, we killed who we needed to kill. And, in to that murderer, it made perfect sense. That time, I wasn’t overwhelmed with emotion. I was perfectly clear, calm, and calculating. We won. Hmm. Interesting who’s inside me.

So. is this extreme empathy thing a mental quirk? A blessing and a curse, as Monk would say? As Shelly one said, “A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own.” 

Currently, I’m reading Under the Wide and Starry Sky, a novelized version of the romantic lives of Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife Fanny. I grok what Louis went through with his poor health and struggle to make a living with his words. Almost got out of the story interested but unscathed. But then a new acquaintance comes back from visiting cousins and friends back in England, whom Louis feels are his true family and heart-friends. When he’s told how they’ve turned on him and betrayed him–well, there I went. Long walk off short pier. That was two days ago. I’m coming out of it now. 

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Which, I guess, brings us to anther point. I not only understand how much writers can have in common with people with mental illnesses, I understand how they can turn to drink. 

xo Sharon 

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The Thrill of the Story

I love storytelling! In fact, The idea of someone spinning a great yarn, gathering everyone’s attention and holding onto it, taking the listener through highs and lows, surprising them, wringing them out, and getting them to the end of the story, exhausted and exhilarated–there’s something truly wonderful about that. And the fact that it’s been happening since language was invented makes it a grand tradition. (In fact, I’m pretty certain storytelling is the World’s Second Oldest Profession, as folks enhanced their experiences with the Oldest Profession.)firetelling

When I was a kid, everyone wanted to ride to school in our car, because a little man named Bertram lived under the seat. In fact, my father, who is one of the great oral storytellers of all time, had all the children so captivated (and often in stitches) with Bertram’s stories, that it was nearly impossible to empty the car when we arrived at Wildwood Elementary.

Radio dramas played into this tradition. I would have loved to live in the early part of the 20th century and have the opportunity to  huddle in the living room with friends and family to listen to “The Shadow” or “War of the Worlds,” where all you have is a voice and the listener’s imagination.

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So, for me, audio books have become the modern day equivalent. When they were first gaining popularity, on CDs and cassettes, our friend Mary Ann put one on in the Jeep as she drove into town to run errands. She was so surprised by the erotic turn of events that she ran through a stop sign. I guess that’s the sign of a good narrator.

For years, I worked as a book abridger for Harper Audio, and it was a fantastic education. It was like learning how to perform surgery on books; recognizing all the layers, and knowing how to peel them back, excise what needed excising, and put them together again. (It also, hopefully, made me a leaner writer.)  Not every book merits abridging–in fact, I bought an abridged version of one of my favorite 600-page tomes to discover that they’d taken out all the good parts. But some books are actually strengthened by a good abridgment (and probably should have been better edited from the get-go).  And yes, I have had this argument with Stephen King.

One thing I learned at Harper was how grueling it is to record a book. Seriously, when my kids were little, I was running out of steam my third time through Good Night, Moon. But voice artists would come into the Harper studio and read for two or three days solid. With inflection and voices, and never losing energy. God bless them!
When we found out that CHASING EDEN, the first of the Eden Thrillers was going to be made into an (unabridged) audio book, we were excited. It was like joining the millennium of storytelling through the ages. I will post again, telling about the process of turning a print book into an audio book. (And no, we didn’t use David Tennant. Didn’t even think to ask.) It was indeed a journey: finding the right narrator, working with her to find the right character voices and narration tone, and remembering again a book we wrote 7 years ago. When words are spoken, you hear them in a different way than when they’re seen on the printed page. (And I realized that, for Jaime, the fact that “none of this made any sense,” was a theme through the book.)

dagger of urBut it was great fun. Our main characters, Jaime and Yani, were so much younger then.WE were so much younger then! In CHASING, the first book, Barb had to write all the military dialogue, because I was not fluent in Acronym-speak at all. It was fun, going back to the Indiana-Jones-with-a-theology-degree feel of racing through Iraq, through Ur and Babylon and Baghdad and the Southern Swamplands. Describing the halls of the Iraq Museum and the walls of the various eras of Babylon and the bricks of the Ziggurat at Ur. Seeing the horrific effect of Saddam’s draining of the Southern Swamplands, and how they were slowly re-irrigated. Being able to discuss (and pronounce) the Transflandrian Transgression.  Of remembering when Jaime first met Yani, and the immediate effect they each had on the other. Seeing that gorgeous Dagger of Ur. (In fact, had tears running down my face when I saw the replica in the British Museum. (Much the way I did when I saw Princess Kaiulani’s peacock hat in the museum in Hulihe’e Palace. But that’s a different story.)

There’s been a lot of talk about creationism-versus-evolution lately, with the Cosmos show on television. I rest happy in knowing that we provided an alternate ending. So, thanks for bringing the story to life in a new way, Kristina. I’d sit around your fire any night!

Chasing Eden: Eden Thrillers | [B.K. Sherer, Sharon Linnea]

So, if you’re curious, feel free to click on the Chasing Eden cover above and listen to a free excerpt from the audio.

Sometimes, Being a Writer Sucks

This is a post I never really planned to write. But the lovely Brie, Arundel’s marketing person,  wants me to start blogging more, and I figure the only way to do it, really, is to tell the truth.

I have a lot of writer friends on social media, and they all seem to be having a swell time. Writing, and kvetching about writing, their books being “blurbed” by major players and being nominated for awards, and they themselves posting selfies while being flown to book conferences all over the globe with their equally exuberant friends of letters. Usually, they are also raising half a dozen children, coaching Little League, and visiting their offspring at Ivy League schools when they’re on break. They also write posts about how they used to only be able to write 30,000 words a day, but now, thanks to wonderful secret algorithms, they’re up to 50,000.

If they’re traditionally published, they lunch with all their well-known peers in NYC; or, if they are now self-published after a successful run in traditional publishing, they’re pulling in hundreds of times their former take because now they get to keep the dough for themselves.

They often also appear on Good Morning, America or jet off to Italy on vacation.

In case people look at the glossy finish of social media and think my writing life is anything like that, I’d like to set the record straight.

Sometimes, being a writer sucks.

The first problem is, I’m never as good as I want to be. There’s a paradigm in my head of the story I’m telling, the book I’m writing, and as hard as I try, I seldom achieve it. I am also writing this post at the particular moment in time because we’re inching towards the finish line on the next Eden thriller, and it’s 85 percent there. Which is a depressing number. The lifeblood and brilliance and paths of engagement with the reader are in that last 15 percent, and, as of now, I don’t know how to get there.

The good news is, it isn’t just this book. It happens in every single novel I write. So I know it is possible to make that last climb, if not to the 100% mark, at least into the 90s. It often has to do with knowledgeable editors showing you which strings to pull to tighten everything into line.

But right now, I’m thinking, even if the plot is pulled into line, I’m not happy with the writing, the characters, the vocabulary, the process. I should know better by now. I should be better by now.

[Famous graph on the creative process:

1. This is awesome

2. This is tricky

3.  This is sh**

4.  I am sh**

5. This might be Okay

6. This is awesome. ]

 

So maybe I’m just transitioning between numbers three and four of the above chart (which was posted on FB by the inimitable composer Skip Kennon) at the moment.

Maybe I’m still sloughing off a surprising and very unprofessional bout with a formerly trusted editor who sort of had a meltdown that had nothing to do with us or our book but was still weird and hurtful and required getting past. Honestly, this happens to everyone in the arts. What many people don’t know is that, no matter how many times you’re published or produced, you are acutely vulnerable when it comes to your art. This is true for artists who give it their all in the quiet of their rooms, and no one ever sees their work, as it is for those who publish constantly.

Then, there is the fact that you’re never truly “off.”  I wake up at 4 a.m. and know I should spend the awake time figuring out what’s going on in my latest project. And I drive my husband to the bus at 5:30 a.m. and know I need to come home to write. I’m trying hard to learn how to complete deadlines and not feel guilty for missing time with my family and friends. I am learning to enjoy the precious time with them, even if I hear the tick tick tick of deadlines, like Captain Hook’s crocodile, behind me.

You’d think I’d have this all figured out by now.

You’d think I’d figure out how to have time left over to clean my house.

But, even writing this, I know how truly lucky I am.

I have the world’s best co-authors and editors and publishing pros and marketing folks around me. Some of the coolest people in the world (and I’m counting YOU) have read some of my books and enjoyed them.

Cause, when it comes right down to it, what I love is the work of writing. It’s hard and irritating, but I get to spend months and years with characters I love going to places all around the world (at least in my mind) and learning all kinds of cool stuff I’d never ever know otherwise. I know how many stories there are at the Eiffel Tower and truly bizarre stuff about wine making. I can describe, in detail, vineyards in China, discuss inheritance laws in France, and parks and cafes in Argentina. I know how to get up to the top of the bell tower of Cadet Chapel at West Point (okay, I’d probably know that anyway).

In any case, I can’t leave Jaime and Yani and Mark Shepard at 85%. Can’t do it. Will fight through this one more time and make it out the other side. You’ll have to decide for yourself if we made it into the 90s or not.

But just so you know, when you read chipper posts about new Audio books (way cool) and and blog tours and book signings–well, it isn’t all a heady rush of achievement. In fact, it hardly ever is. But we often pretend for the lovely folks in marketing. So, Brie, this one’s for you.

xo Sharon

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