We humans are social creatures. We make connections with one another, and maintaining those connections requires communication. We’ve done it through letters (and honestly, I should write more letters), telegrams, telephones, and now the Internet. But throughout all of the iterations of our communication means, one fact has remained the same: it’s a two-way street.
We live in a world where, every day, it becomes more and more apparent that some of us are dealing with head weasels of various shapes and sizes. Some of them say that we’re not worth talking to. Others pull us back from seeking connection, or re-connection, out of fear or guilt or anxiety, be it rooted in reality or a creation of the weasel in question. People get wrapped up in work, studies, real-world concerns, or the static of emotions and thoughts that are no fault of their own, the echoes of trauma and anticipation of fresh wounds. Through this, one of the lines of communication goes silent.
Do we, on the other end, leave our line back to that person open?
For the most part, I say yes, especially if the person is someone we care about. In most cases, I prefer to make myself available. Sure, a person may seize upon that opening to try and cause drama, or express a toxic opinion, or otherwise attempt to undermine whatever progress I have made or am making. In which case, fine, eat my static. I’m not responsible for the pettiness of other people, save for my desire as a human being to bring out the best in other human beings. And, let’s face it, being petty and projecting upon others to avoid our own issues is far less than our best. I’ve learned to do better. I still have a lot to learn, for certain, but at least that’s crystal clear.
Enough about trifles. There are far more important people in my life than those who would trifle. I can’t help but see the potential in others, a strength or fortitude they may not see themselves. Worse, some of the people I see have within them the desire to overcome what impedes them, but don’t necessarily believe that they can. I want to foster that belief. I want to stoke that fire. I’ve had it done for me, by therapists and friends and loved ones, and I want nothing more than to turn around and do the same for those I admire, care about, and love.
I don’t want to put people on the spot, or name names, but… dammit, if you’re reading this, and it resonates, feel free to reach out to me. It’s okay. It’ll be okay. I will hold space for you and try to hear you out, because that’s what I’d want you to do for me.
Maybe I’m wasting my time in writing this, or this will go unread, or…
That’s my own head weasels talking.
And you, and I, can always talk louder than they ever could.
This week I talk about one of my pet peeve turns of phrase. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” I won’t reiterate my take on it here, because I already discussed it in the vlog (which you should totally go watch, plug plug). Instead, let me turn my attention to a very different one that is still related. “The fix is in.”
This is a sports term. It has to do with the outcome of a contest being ‘fixed’ or rigged. And in the context of those contests, and any betting associated with it, it’s a bad thing. But let’s think about it in terms of storytelling. A fictional tale always has a fixed ending. While characters grow and change, their arcs are also fixed, at least in terms of their anchors throughout the tale. Authors set their characters up for either success or failure, pretty much from the beginning.
I think, as individuals, we owe it to ourselves to set ourselves up, too.
Setting yourself up for success takes a conscious effort. It’s an idea I’ve heard more and more about as I’ve worked as a barista. Beans, pitchers of milk, sleeves for cups – these are all things that can be stocked or prepared to make future work easy for co-workers. As individuals, we can, and probably should, sort our thoughts, emotions, and internal processes into helpful patterns. This takes time, and often external help, but it’s setting ourselves up for success. It’s putting in the fix. It’s giving you a sure thing on which to bet – yourself.
The alternative is setting yourself up for failure.
I don’t necessarily mean failure in an immediate, dramatic sense. Failing yourself doesn’t always take a catastrophic form. In some cases, failure is a state of being. It’s not a failure in acting, it’s a failure to act. If we do not challenge ourselves to change, to look at ourselves as complex beings and seek improvement as well as the correction of mistakes, we fail ourselves. It requires honesty. It requires being proactive. It requires deep breaths, introspection, and more than a couple hard conversations. Where did I go wrong? What mistakes did I make? How did my failures come across to others? Can I make amends? Will I be able to learn from my downfalls, rather than repeating them?
Are you up for it? Are you willing to take an active role in your own progress towards a better version of yourself?
Can you make yourself a sure thing for yourself and others to bet on?
For the purposes of this piece, the ‘shadow’ I refer to is not the Jungian concept of the ‘Shadow’ unconscious self, but rather the way others perceive us when we are not directly interacting with them. Just to be clear.
As inherently social beings, we meet other people on a regular basis. And like it or not, the more time we spend around those people, the more we influence them. It could be helping them see our point of view, pushing their boundaries, or introducing new things to their lives. Whatever it is, it leaves a part of us behind, like our shadow falling across the land we traverse with the light behind us.
Those shadows can be longer than we imagine.
It makes it all the more important to be careful of what we say and how we present ourselves. While there is no doubt in my mind that we accomplish far more with honesty than we do with deception, we must also do our utmost to be kind. Being polite and choosing one’s words is not the same as engaging in a lie. And while some situations do warrant direct, blunt, or even harsh language, it cannot be denied that such moments can change the shade and shape of one’s shadow. It can grow longer, falling over those we’ve encountered, lingering over those we leave behind, coloring their view of us and perhaps the world forever.
And, of course, shadows themselves make no sound. Shadows are silent.
The more we communicate, with individuals and with the world around us, the more our shadows take shape. That shape is what remains behind when that communication stops. And even if our intentions were good, or came from a place within us that craves peace and safety and affection, the shadow’s shape can be or become something entirely different the longer the silence lasts. This is why the dearly departed are often seen through rose-colored glasses, or even placed on pedestals: they no longer can show us who they really are, or who they were trying to be. All we have left is how we saw them, how we heard them, how we loved (or hated) them.
The idea that people don’t change come from those shadows, and from that silence.
It is easy to imagine that someone who has hurt us or crossed a line cannot or will not change, because when we part ways with them, we only take their shadows. They, as individuals, live on and (hopefully) grow and change. Some, yes, will wallow in whatever mire caused us to break with them in the first place, but others struggle, strive, and attempt to make themselves and the world around them better. The only way we can know for sure, either way, is to have some form of communication with them. To allow their words and actions to change the shape of the shadow they have cast upon us.
If the person in question was unashamedly toxic or deliberately abusive or worse, then yes, the silence is best. I am not saying to engage in communication that is unhealthy for you.
What I am trying to say is this: we cannot remain silent out of fear and pretend the shadows upon us do not exist.
This is the power of communication, community, and therapy. It can change those shadows. We can see the other in different light, attempt to understand them, and overcome a number of negative emotions or obstacles to our own growth. This can be a frightening prospect. Making the effort to change oneself, and imagining the other complexly, challenges our view of the world and forces us to admit to our imperfections, as well as seeing others, potentially those who have hurt us or done us wrong, not as monsters of shadow, but human beings. Flawed human beings, to be certain, but no less beautiful or worthwhile for their imperfections than we are.
That fear of change can be powerful. It can actually encourage our silence. I discussed this in this week’s vlog. And here, as there, I heartily encourage you to break that silence. Talk. Discuss with someone you trust or a group that supports you the shape and shade of a shadow that falls across your life. You might see the light shifting to change that shadow. That change, that discovery, is a vector for growth, and while we yet live, we owe it to ourselves to seek that growth.
Stagnation is slow death. The dead do not change. Within our silence, there is a void, an emptiness that indicates a lack of growth. It is quiet in its comfort but insidious in its true nature.
It really is like a cancer.
And either it will grow, or you will.
The choice is yours.
Hello darkness, my old friend
I’ve come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left it’s seeds while I was sleeping And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains within the sound of silence
In restless dreams I walked alone
Narrow streets of cobblestone
‘Neath the halo of a street lamp
I turned my collar to the cold and damp
When my eyes were stabbed
By the flash of a neon light
That split the night
And touched the sound of silence
And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs
That voices never share
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence
“Fools” said I, “you do not know
Silence like a cancer grows
Hear my words that I might teach you
Take my arms that I might reach you”
But my words like silent raindrops fell
And echoed in the wells of silence
And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon God they made
And the sign flashed out it’s warning
And the words that it was forming
And the sign said “The words of the prophets
Are written on the subway walls
And tenement halls”
And whispered in the sound of silence
With the exception of nature documentaries, or very oddly esoteric works, narrative entertainment is driven by characters. Characters, more often than not, communicate with one another through dialog. Time and time again, especially in films, we see this dialog become murky, bogged down, or unnecessarily obtuse. Unless it is completely essential to your plot, or the character themselves, your characters should communicate clearly with one another.
Sometimes characters will have difficulty communicating as part of their nature. Their world-view may be skewed or a mental condition may color how they see and relate to others. These characters can make for important, powerful stories about human nature. But the bulk of the problematic characters that come to mind when I talk about expository dialog and the like are not saddled with psychological or personality disorders that affect their speech or outlook. Most of them are just badly written. Dialog drives so much – why waste it on exposition or clarification unless it is absolutely necessary?
One particularly egregious violation of good taste in dialog is “the pronoun game”. One character makes a comment about what’s happening but, instead of naming names, they use an ambiguous pronouns. The other character has to ask for clarification, which is then easily or dramatically given. It’s a waste of the audience’s time, especially if we have already met the party to whom the first character is referring.
There is one sort-of exception to this rule that I can think of – a heist tale. If you’re spinning a yarn where you want your protagonists to be particularly clever, it can be useful to provide the setup for the caper, cut to the action, and have them recount elements of it afterward, so that what seems to be very fortuitous timing is seen instead as excellent forethought and careful planning. From highly stylized films like Ocean’s Eleven to works of written fiction such as Jim Butcher’s Skin Game, this method is proven to work in this case. But I really can’t think of any others.
It is just as true for this storytelling challenge as most others: the best way to tell your story is through action, not exposition. Let characters show, rather than tell, what is happening in their minds and all around them. History and motivation should become evident in when and how they act, rather than providing a dry, plodding dossier through expositional dialog. Your characters drive your story – don’t let their dialog drive it into the ground.
In the words of the inimitable Ferris Bueller, “Life moves pretty fast.”
I spent equal parts of this past weekend wrapped up in my Internets and staying away from them. I started watching Supernatural with the missus, got some chores done, played some Magic. I played some games, watched more Doctor Who, celebrated the release of The Avengers on Netflix. That last thing gave me more thoughts on superheroes, which I will share later this week. I fit in a little bit of writing, but didn’t get to Chuck’s latest Flash Fiction challenge. I will roll the dice tonight.
And I resolved to write more letters.
I think that writing actual letters is an art we are in danger of losing. It’s far, far too easy to just dash off an email instead. Or launch out a vindictive or pithy tweet. All you need is 140 characters! Fit in some swear words! Hashtag something relevant! Retweet! Reblog! Go, go, go!
Writing a letter forces you to slow the hell down.
You have to think about what you’re writing more when you’re writing it by hand. Not only do you want it to be legible, you want it to be coherent and lasting. This is especially true in letters. It can take days or weeks for your words to reach your recipient. The words that you write need to remain relevant for that entire time, if not longer. This takes time and consideration. There is actual art involved with this; don’t let anybody tell you otherwise.
Life moves pretty fast. Sometimes, you just have to flow with it. Others, you need to take a deep breath, get some ink your pen, and start writing one word at a time. It’s the same for letters as it is for anything else we write.
Do other writers out there write letters? Do you still get them? Are “pen pals” still a thing?