Butter Fingers

Butterfingers

Never played cricket, but a quick search reveals those guys make the absolute BEST faces as they’re dropping the ball

Lately I drop a lot of stuff.

This is super frustrating, because it used to be I could catch anything. Okay…actually, I still catch pretty well, but holding on to smaller crap has become much more difficult.

Example: Do not hand me a bunch of pistachios and ask me to hold them in one hand while I crack them open and save the discarded shells in the other hand without at least one – er, okay, maybe more like twenty-one – hitting the floor at one point or another.

You may conclude from this that I eat too many pistachios. You may be correct.

That’s beside the point.

stark handed thingsThe point is more like: expensive medicine or not, that kind of simple stuff is nearly impossible with Parkinson’s.

Which means I’m now more like Tony Stark in yet another way – I don’t like being handed things.

Hey, I’m getting used to it. Just don’t hand me anything and we’re cool.

But hold on, this post isn’t about Parkinson’s or pistachios or Iron Man, it’s about writing. Of course.

A writing career, I think for most writers, is always going to feel like something slippery in your hands, at least a little bit. Something that could easily be dropped at any moment, whether you’re just getting those words on the page, trying to find an agent, already published, whatever.

Because at every one of those stages, there’s rejection. It starts with being brave enough to finally show up at that first critique group and wincing as people talk about the words you’ve put on the page. Then it continues into querying agents, having those agents pitch to publishers, getting reviewed by critics and readers, and on and on and on. Rejection, rejection, rejection.

Every writer I know is facing rejection in some form or another, all the time.

kid-kicking-ball

Future Writer

It can be exhausting, just like having those butter fingers – grabbing something only to drop it, over and over again. Or trying to learn to kick a ball for the first time, because at each stage you feel like you’ve got no idea what you’re doing, that you”ll screw something up, drop the ball, trip over yourself, fall backwards.

Or – maybe worst of all – that someone’s going to notice you standing there and figure out you don’t belong. Good old imposter syndrome.

But I guess if we all DO feel like that, maybe none of us SHOULD feel like that. Because in between those rejections, your successes are hiding, waiting for you in the shadows. And you’ll only find them if you go through the rejections first.

In fact, maybe we start out looking at rejection a little bit wrong. Maybe rejection isn’t something to fear or dread. Maybe rejection is something we all ought to be seeking out.

I recently ran across this post on LitHub, Why You Should Aim for 100 Rejections a Year. The title seems subversive. It can’t possibly be right, can it? Do you want 100 rejections in one year? Really?

Well, yeah, actually, I think you do. The point is, you can only get to where you’re going by working a lot and submitting that work for appraisal. If you submit too early, you’ll know it. But you shouldn’t feel like you’ve made a huge mistake or you’re dropping the ball. You learned something, right?

The anecdote in that LitHub article that stands out to me the most is the comment about the pottery class from the book Art & Fear. Here’s a little outtake from the article, but you should really click over and read the whole thing.

In the book Art & Fear, authors David Bales and Ted Orland describe a ceramics class in which half of the students were asked to focus only on producing a high quantity of work while the other half was tasked with producing work of high quality. For a grade at the end of the term, the “quantity” group’s pottery would be weighed, and fifty pounds of pots would automatically get an A, whereas the “quality” group only needed to turn in one—albeit perfect—piece. Surprisingly, the works of highest quality came from the group being graded on quantity, because they had continually practiced, churned out tons of work, and learned from their mistakes. The other half of the class spent most of the semester paralyzed by theorizing about perfection, which sounded disconcertingly familiar to me—like all my cases of writer’s block.

The other night I was at a dinner with a bunch of artists and this same subject came up. I told a guy the above pottery story, and he said, “That’s just like the Grateful Dead.” He then proceeded to relate how the bass player for the Dead didn’t actually know how to play the instrument when he started joining the band on stage for little gigs. But Jerry Garcia apparently (disclaimer: I’m repeating the story the way it was told to me; I’m not actually a Grateful Dead historian) told him, “Just come and play every night. You’ll learn.”

And, from what I understand, learn he did. I do know the Grateful Dead were around for a minute or two.

So I guess what I want to say is this:

Writers! Don’t let your butter fingers paralyze you. Don’t dread rejection so much that it keeps you from working a lot, from seeking critique and opinion. Whatever stage you find yourself at, don’t be afraid to drop what’s in your hand. Listen, even if you do lose twenty-one pistachio shells, you can always pick them up, throw them out, grab another batch, start over. And I promise there will be success soon enough. Just keep learning from your mistakes.

But really, still don’t hand me anything. That’s just plain wrong.

And I’ll probably drop it anyway.

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Why Parkinson’s Will Make Me A Better Writer

 

Our characters are supposed to change.

In our stories, characters have arcs. They begin as one sort of person and gradually transform into another, usually in response to the events of the plot.

It shouldn’t happen all at once, though. Those are the bad stories, where the character just snaps his fingers one day and – boom! – now he’s different.

No, the better stories contain scenes that show little changes over the course of time – a few weeks maybe. Months or years. An entire life. Little changes that add up to him being a different person by the end, and it all happens in a way that makes the transformation as a whole feel entirely plausible.

Sometimes these changes are so small, so subtle, the character – or the reader – doesn’t even notice them. Or maybe they have an awareness of…something, but it isn’t quite clear exactly what’s happening.

This creates a wonderful intrigue in the story that keeps us turning the page. Something is different, sure. But we’re trying to puzzle out just exactly what, to put our finger on the transformation happening just beneath the surface. The what. The why. We want to see the next little change, to find that new clue that might point us in the direction of the answers we’re yearning for.

And these little changes, these barely noticeable things, well, eventually they do become something big. Ultimately our character is a different person at the end of the story than they were in chapter one.

Change, change, change. It’s one of the inevitable things in life, like death, taxes.

It hasn’t even been a month since I received my diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. Not so much time at all, really, but enough to grant me an opportunity to collect up all those scenes in my head. The subtle little changes that were merely puzzling at the time but now, with the benefit of hindsight, reveal the path to a much larger transformation, like someone sweeping the dirt off a track that had always been there.

Maybe one scene is at a kyudo practice, where lately our hero’s left arm is explicably shaking when he gets into kai – full draw – the arrow wavering at the center of his chest, his aim difficult to maintain. He practices again and again, listens hard to his teachers, but he can’t seem to correct it. He decides to take a break from Japanese archery, just for a little while. A few weeks that become months. A year.

On another day our hero notices his arm’s in a strange position while he walks. Sort of fixed at his side. Weird.

Our hero’s a writer, did I mention that? He loves critique groups, and one day when he’s heading into the local library for one, the librarian asks if he’s all right. “Of course,” he says, wondering what she means. “You’re walking like you’re hungover,” she laughs. Odd.

Stupid, but lately he can’t find the hole in his shirtsleeve for his left arm. His hand hunts and hunts, continually failing to locate the sleeve hole. For the first time, he makes a change to compensate – trying to put his shirts on left arm first, the opposite of what he’s been doing his entire life. A little better. Still…strange.

And why is it hard to dig his keys out of his left pocket all of a sudden? And how come his left hand feels sluggish when he’s typing? And where’s this shaking when he takes a heavy casserole dish down from the top shelf of the fridge coming from?

He always had those video game fingers. There was a time when he was pretty darn athletic. Is it carpal tunnel? Arthritis? Nope, red herrings. He tries keeping his keys in his right pocket. Every once and a while he finds it more comfortable to hunt and peck on the keyboard with one hand. Oh, and make sure to remember to use the right hand to grab things from the fridge. Change.

Change, change, change.

His wife starts complaining about his right turns while he’s driving. He has to admit, they have been a little wide. What’s up with that? He’s always been an excellent driver (cue Dustin Hoffman’s voice from Rain Man). Why, now, does he have to think so hard about it all of a sudden?

One day the pinkie and ring fingers on his left hand start to hurt, then go abruptly numb. They come back, eventually, but now those little changes on our hero’s left hand are bigger. It’s clear – his fingers aren’t moving like they’re supposed to.

“I think something’s wrong,” he says to his wife.

There are CT scans and MRIs. “Normal.” He keeps telling doctors he has diabetes, could it be related to that? The neurologists squint at him skeptically. Those same doctors make him walk up and down their hallways, test the strength in his hands by gripping them, assess how big and fast certain movements with his fingers are. It surprises him how much trouble he has with some of these tests.

Still, maybe it’s just a pinched nerve. It could be that, right? More squinting from more doctors.

And eventually one of them says, “Parkinson’s.”

Our hero will always remember the day of his diagnosis, because it’s the day before his wedding anniversary. The next night, he and his wife dress up and head out to the fancy restaurant they planned to and everything is fine, because he’s pretty strong about these things after all.

But when he goes to pay, he has trouble getting his credit card out of his wallet. Then, try as he might, he can’t get the card into that little slot in the card holder. Such a basic thing, but It. Just. Won’t. Go. Finally his wife reaches over and does it for him.

In a series of small changes, it’s hard to pick the one that will be the Dark Night of the Soul for our characters, the moment in the story that becomes our hero’s low point.

This point in time, this little struggle with the card, it shouldn’t be any bigger than all those other scenes, but somehow it is. Somehow, it’s this moment that almost brings our hero to tears right there in that fancy restaurant. Because he thinks, is this what his life is going to be about now? All the things he can’t do?

He can’t pay for his own anniversary. He can’t drive right, put his shirt on right, take something out of his damn pocket. Walk without limping, open a fucking door. He can’t.

Can’t. Can’t. Can’t.

Eventually, though, in the really good stories, our hero reaches a point on the arc where he  gains a new sense of who he is becoming, when he emerges from that Dark Night of the Soul with a renewed purpose and vision.

There are things he can do.

He can take the medicine the doctors have prescribed. It’s already making him feel better, loosening his hand up again.

He can join support groups, participate in studies, read about balance and stretching and other physical activity that might slow things down. He can make sure to get to the gym more often.

Our hero can make sure to use that Wii his wife decides to buy him for Christmas, for more work on balance.

images-4He can find that boxing therapy a couple of towns away, designed specifically for Parkinson’s patients, where he might get to learn boxing from a former pro nicknamed “The Truth.” And, really, what guy doesn’t want to learn boxing from a dude nicknamed The Truth? Do they play Eye of the Tiger? They should play Eye of the Tiger, like the whole time, every time. (Oh, and maybe he’ll even get a matching nickname, like The Falsehood or something).

He can become a better writer by remembering all those little changes that got him here, how those scenes worked, how small and insignificant they seemed at the time, but how they added up. He can take the same approach in his own work, create better arcs for the scores of people in his head.

He can.

I can.

Can. Can. Can.

And the great thing is, even though I am different now (aren’t we all?), even though the big transformation hinted at by all those little changes has happened, this isn’t a book. It’s real life.

And the end is still a long way off.