#SaysTheEditor: Shut Down, Defenses Up



You can probably guess where Week 24 found me… among other places. Life has taken a new, fuller swing, although the healing’s not nearly done yet. I’ve got another month to go before the next surgeon’s visit and I’m both on pins and needles to see what his verdict will be — another back-of-the-eye surgery to deal with scar tissue or not — and I’m beyond ready for all of this to be over. I keep reminding myself to be patient, to give myself time to heal, to be gentle with myself.

Being gentle with ourselves is a big one, a reminder most of us need. As writers, we’ve got a double burden: compelling fiction demands we torture our darlings while at the same time, giving them the space to be gentle with themselves.

That’s something I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say when talking about torturing our darlings. We talk about putting them in conflict. Not letting them take the easy way out. Action, action, reaction, reaction, more action.

But without that gentle period, that time to shut down, defenses up, our characters — and ourselves — can’t do the other essential part of fiction (and life): grow.

And without growth, no one’s satisfied. The real-life people become stuck in a rut (often a dangerous one). The fictional ones become frustrating to read about because as readers, one of the elements we seek — albeit unconsciously — is the character growth part of the journey. That’s the part we need in order to make the emotional connection to the characters on the page. That’s what brings them to life.

What made me think of this all night wasn’t my own frustration with my slow healing. It was watching one of the guys at the field last night. One in particular. He’s someone I’ve met, chatted with, someone whose smile makes me swoon. We have mutual friends, of course; the community isn’t nearly that big.

Over the course of this season, I’ve noticed that he’s been stiffer than he had been last summer. Last week, someone pointed out that his physical appearance has gone from being very colorful (and often joyously mismatched, at that) to being scarily monochrome. And when I speak to mutual friends, there’s an undercurrent when they talk about an action this guy took last autumn. Like they don’t approve. Or understand.

I’d like to say it’s the writer in me that’s intrigued by this guy, and until he smiles, it probably is. Where’d this new stiffness come from? Where’d the ease of his movements go, the quick smile, the dancing eyes?

At the game last night, my friends and I were standing in a spot that let me have a good look as he walked past, to and from the locker room. And that’s when I noticed it: he’s not just stiff. He’s shut down, defenses up. Suspicion in his eyes, maybe a bit of anger. Body held tight, shoulders taut, hips stiff. The arms don’t swing the way they had. He’s shut down, defenses up all right. And then some.

He looked like one gentle touch was all it would take to make him completely unravel.

Damn, I’m tempted. To grab him, to find out where his colors went, what it’ll take to bring them back. To remind him that being gentle with yourself is important, it’s vital, it’s how we figure out who we are and where we are headed, although one thing I’ve learned over the past six months is that trying to figure out the why of it all is an exercise in futility. That’s one of those things only hindsight can give us.

Of course, as crazy fun and outrageous as I can be these days — one of the blessings of that damn fall off my bike — reaching out to someone so very shut down isn’t something I’m going to do. Too much of a risk to my own need to be gentle with myself.

So I’ll put it into fiction: mine and that of my clients. Are we letting our characters have the time to shut down, defenses up, until they are ready to emerge from the cocoon, new and (hopefully) improved? Are we giving them the space to make sense, or do we merely let them react, react, react, act, act, act? Sure, sometimes in life and fiction, that’s where growth comes from. Changing the strategy and/or actions taken in order to have success in the penultimate fight.

But a little self-reflection, no matter how plot-driven a story, isn’t always a bad thing.

As for that guy whose smiles make me swoon? Yeah. Now that. That is a bad thing. The unattainable always is.


1 Comment

  1. Dana Griffin

    June 13, 2016 12:05 pm

    “Are we letting our characters have the time to shut down, defenses up, until they are ready to emerge from the cocoon, new and (hopefully) improved? Are we giving them the space to make sense, or do we merely let them react, react, react, act, act, act?”

    Wow! This is a theme in my next novel. I hope I pull it off and will be interested in your take on it.

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