Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Creating characters for a story

"The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the objects it loves." Carl Jung

  There is something enigmatic about the art of crafting a character. Once the characters become vivid to us, they acquire a life of their own. We no longer control their experiences.
  Last year I wrote a blog entry that said that characters don't need to be likable, but they do need to feel real. However, I also have to admit that it is easier to seduce your readers when they root for one of your characters. In other words, when readers identify with one of your characters in some way, they feel more motivated to read the story because they imagine themselves in the character’s situation. They are eager to know what would happen to them if they did what the character is doing.
  As a writer you dare to explore emotional situations that make others feel embarrassed, scared or threatened. Being a fiction writer involves the challenging task of being in somebody else’s shoes because you need to see the world from your character’s perspective.
     This is an invitation to open your mind to possibilities you've never imagined before. You experience a new life, forging your way through a labyrinth you are not entirely familiar with. It means stepping out of your comfort zone. You need to be bold.
    When you embark on this challenge, you are behaving like an actor or actress. You bring your characters to life by exposing your own shame, frustration, love, passion, insecurities, fears, anger or whatever emotions are needed. 
   This experience can be very profound and it needs an open mind and heart. It requires compassion and patience. Otherwise, the story will not sound real. It will sound judgmental and shallow. Even if you don't agree with your character, you make every attempt to understand him/her.
   A part of you needs to love the character, and while you write your story you become the character, but you are not the character.
     So, as a reader, do you like to identify with at least one of the characters in a story? 
   As a writer, what is your relationship with your characters like? 

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Pablo Picasso's Guernica

“Inspiration exists, but it has to find us working.” Pablo Picasso

  A couple of weeks ago I attended an exhibition of Picasso’s work. It motivated me to read about his life and it helped me to understand how his art is connected to the social issues of his time and to the turmoil of his personal experiences.
 The reasons I found this exhibition fascinating are the following:
-Picasso was daring. He was not afraid of innovating and he pioneered an art movement called cubism (more on this on a future post).
-The variety of his work amazed me. His art evolved through different phases that correlated with his life and his social setting.
-His long life-- he died at age 91 -- enabled him to create a massive amount of artwork. Interestingly, he lived in two different centuries.

Today I will focus on his most famous masterpiece: Guernica.

  When I was a child my mother gave me a book of famous paintings by different artists. It included riveting explanations about each of the masterpieces. One of them was Guernica. The emotional impact it had on me must have been strong, for I never forgot this painting.
   Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) was born in Spain, but he migrated to France. While he was living in Paris he was shocked by the news of the bombing of Guernica, a small Basque town in Northern Spain.
   On April 26, 1937, Nazi airplanes, backed by the extremist right wing forces of General Francisco Franco, bombed Guernica and 1,600 civilians were killed. The small town burned for three days. The attack took place on a Monday because many people who lived on the farms went to the market on that day of the week. Those who tried to escape were shot from airplane machine guns or were blown up with explosives.
  Pablo Picasso’s rage at this atrocity inspired him to paint "Guernica", which is described as "the most important work of art of the twentieth century". When he painted it, Picasso intended to expose the suffering and desperation that are inevitably attached to any war.
  Guernica is a mural-sized oil painting. It is 11 feet tall (3.5 m) and 25.6 feet long (7.8m). Most of the people in the painting express despair and terror. 
  If we go from left to right, the first figure  we see is that of a woman. You can almost hear her shrieking. She is holding her dead baby. Her eyes express profound anguish. Her naked bosom suggests that she might have been nursing her baby when the bombings struck the town.
  The next thing you see is a bull. The image of it is controversial. He is merely a witness of the woman’s grief. There are different interpretations about the bull. Some people believe that the bull could be somebody who, like Picasso, watches these calamities as an outsider: he is not physically wounded, but he is emotionally touched. Picasso refused to attribute a meaning to it, but bulls are a recurrent element in his artwork (the “minotauro" has the head of a bull and the body of a man) and he associated it with lust and behaviors or emotions that are out of control.
  There is a horse lying in agony. It symbolizes the suffering of the people of Spain, a country ravaged by war. There is chaos all around.
 A dead soldier is lying on the ground; his eyes express pain. His fight had no influence on the outcome of the bombings of Guernica. His arm is grasping a sword and a bunch of flowers. The flowers may represent his ideals, or they may be a symbol of  hope. On the right side of the painting there is a woman on fire.
  The painting is done in black, white and different shades of gray, most likely to depict a gloomy atmosphere. It may also be a symbol of the fact that the news of the war spread through newspapers.
    Guernica was first exhibited at the 1937 World’s Fair held in Paris as part of a display of Spanish art. After this exhibition it traveled to England, Spain and Scandinavian countries. Then it toured the United States of America. It is now exhibited in the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid, Spain.
 Had it not been for Picasso, the bombing of Guernica might have been forgotten by the world. Yet the theme of this painting is timeless and powerful. 

Sunday, April 21, 2013

To the Arctic

  "As mothers, the greatest gift we can pass on to our children is a healthy planet."

   Would you like to swim underwater close to polar bears?  Would you enjoy flying over the ocean? How about floating near huge masses of ice?  If you've been to an IMAX theater you know what I am talking about.
  "To the Arctic" is a captivating documentary about the Arctic. During the mid winter months the sun never rises in the Arctic and average temperatures are around -40 F; in the summer the sun never sets.
   Polar bears are mysterious, intriguing creatures. The Arctic is their home and there is no other place on earth where they can live and thrive.
   This white universe, the Arctic, is warming twice as fast as any other region of the planet. If the sea ice continues to melt at the current speed there will be no sea ice by the year 2,050.

  Due to these changes, polar bears are struggling to survive and new challenges arise. It is getting hard for them to catch seals, and some male polar bears resort to cubs (baby polar bears) as a source of food.
  Mother polar bears take two years to raise their cubs. During this time they nurture them and train them to become independent. These mothers are determined to protect their cubs from the hungry male polar bears, and they do so at the expense of their own lives. They are ready to sacrifice themselves to protect their offspring.
 There is a scene in which a mother deters a male bear from catching her offspring. Her courage and tenacity win the battle.
  Let's hope this motherly love will inspire mankind to save the Arctic...

Have a peaceful week.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The art of writing fiction

"The true enemy of creativity is 'good sense'." Pablo Picasso

 There is a tendency to lure writers into thinking there is only one way of doing things when writing fiction. There is some advice out there  that has been repeated many times. This advice should be regarded as an idea on how to edit your story. Yet it is perceived as a set of rules or rigid principles. 
  I think there is an overuse of some of these imaginary "rules".
  Award-winning writer Julia Glass said that she never followed the popular writing advice. I recently finished reading her first novel, so I believe her. The only rule in fiction is to captivate your reader. Bear in mind that your reader may be part of an audience, and remember that not every reader of a certain genre will enjoy the same story.
   I will challenge some of these so-called “rules” that I find on the blogosphere.
 "Show, don’t tell":  I know this has been written hundreds of times. The reason why books on writing fiction mention this suggestion  is that there are higher chances of boring your readers when you tell too much. Yet there are stories that tell and don't show and they are still  riveting.  On the other hand, I've had the chance to read boring stories in which the writers make every attempt to show everything. These stories are devoid of original insights, thoughts and reflections. We have to keep guessing what is going on from the characters' body movements and facial expressions. Some writers are obsessed with the “show, don’t tell” idea. (Excuse me, I’d be better off watching a movie...). Mind you, personal tastes differ. The secret is to entertain the readers and opinions on how to do it  differ. If you don't believe me, read  both the good and bad reviews of a best-seller. You will be shocked.
Adverbs:  I know that writers are not supposed to overuse adverbs, but some new writers take this suggestion to the extreme. They delete every single adverb they write. Adverbs exist for a reason. Some of them are necessary and they need to stay. Use your judgment. The same applies to adjectives.
Dialogue tags: I know everybody is told to use “said” to be on the safe side. Occasionally, however, you may be better off using another word. For example, you may need to mention that the character snarled. There is a difference between saying something and snarling it, right? 
 "Characters need to undergo some kind of transformation": really? I disagree. Most characters may experience some kind of transformation, but this does not happen in every story. Each character is a unique complex human being. Why do they all have to be transformed? Perhaps the reader's views on a certain matter shift after reading a thought-provoking story in which the character is too stubborn. 
"Your story needs action": there is a specific audience that is fond of action, but most readers prefer character development, tension and conflict. In fact, no single story will interest every reader. As a reader, I am entitled to express my own opinions and I know some people will share my views while others will disagree with me. This is good. Diversity makes life more interesting.
 Let me end this post with a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson:
"Do not follow where the path may lead. Go, instead, where there is no path and leave a trail."
Share your opinion.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Taking care of a loved one with dementia

 "Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one." Albert Einstein

  I've had the privilege of taking care of my grandmother for the last two weeks. It has been an enlightening experience. I would like to share some insights for those who are going through a similar situation.
  My grandmother is 97 is years old. She has moderate dementia and is not able to ambulate. Due to her dementia, her mind is often struck by unpredictable concerns. She conjures up elements of the past and threads them into  imaginary situations (delusions).
  Delusions cause fear, anxiety, frustration and anger, but I found ways of reassuring her amid these imaginary "situations" that her mind creates. In doing so, I prevented her from dwelling on thoughts that were scary and disturbing to her.
 One day she told me there was a river close by. She was deeply worried because she did not know how she would cross that river. I told her that somebody had built a beautiful bridge. Now it would be safe and easy to cross the river together.
  The river was something she imagined. The bridge was a solution I created in response to her concern over the river. She agreed with me that now there was no need to worry and soon forgot about it.
 On a few occasions she asked me about her sister. The truth is her sister died a few years ago, but I did not remind her that she'd passed away. It would have caused more distress and anguish. During the last few years of her life, her sister had been mean to her because she was afflicted with dementia herself. Hence, I decided to focus on the times when they were inseparable friends. My grandmother smiled --her sister's love came back to her like a wave.
  My grandmother has a recurrent obsession now: she says she bought a pair of shoes and somebody has stolen them. I told her I put her new shoes away in a safe box to make sure nobody takes them away from her. She calmed down at once.
   I constantly reassured her by reframing her imaginary reality. I held her hand and we laughed together a lot as I found the funny side of every situation. Laughter is good for the soul.  Bear in mind that your loved one may end up mirroring your own emotions, so make sure you find reasons to laugh together.
   My mother is startled to see how my grandmother's spirits have soared during my stay with her.
   My strategies may not work for every single person with dementia -- my deep bond with my grandmother may have helped in making them successful-- and they may not be effective under all circumstances. Once medical causes have been ruled out (e.g: constipation, urinary retention, pain, infections, etc) medications are necessary if reassurance has failed. But the purpose of this blog post is to simply share my personal experience in dealing with her delusions.
  Another aspect I find interesting and intriguing about my grandmother and any person who has dementia is how they travel across time and space. Their whimsical minds can get anywhere.
  Caring for a loved one with dementia engages your imagination, but there are times when you feel emotionally drained and stressed.
  Don't forget to take care of yourself. Find time to unwind and do things that you love.
  I hope this post will be helpful to those who are facing similar challenges.
Share your experience here.