Tag Archives: Characterization

Imagine Alice So Small She Can Fall Down These Holes

The other day I was out by my pool (yes, it’s Arizona and we have a pool). My pool is small, but it has an attached jacuzzi and a little fountain. I glanced down at the fountain. It was shut off, so I mainly saw the empty fountain pool. When I noticed the side of this empty pool, my stomach lurched. [Pause to go look it up: an abrupt, uncontrolled movement–yes, definitely, it lurched]. ICK. Those little dots completely creeped me out. If you click on this photo, you’ll see what I mean. I’m sorry if it bothers you, too. Truly, I am. But I feel a need to share!

I began to think that maybe I am getting that phobia that my daughter has. It’s called Trypophobia, and it means a phobia of little holes clustered together. There are fabric patterns that resemble holes, and if you are Trypophobic, you can have a reaction to those. Or it can be a lotus seed pod, that you can see in this Pop Science article on Trypophobia. You could feel sick when you cut into a block of swiss cheese. Or, in my daughter’s case, even a massing flock of birds can bring out this phobia. Or is that her bird phobia (Ornithophobia)? Or a combination phobia?!

You will note that in this photo there aren’t really any holes. These are little “pimples” on the surface. Maybe these were created by the pool builder for traction. I suspect my pool looks like this, too, but I promise not to look at anything except the water surface! Any kind of pattern where a multitude of holes could lurk can cause a reaction in sufferers.

How about this one? A little coral–

Oh my. Some people say that this phobia is when a natural fear of something dangerous has become a fear transferred to things that are not dangerous. But I always say you can’t be too careful. Imagine all the bugs that could slither out of your basic pancake batter.

Do these kinds of holes or pseudo-holes or patterns that vaguely resemble holes make you squeamish?

A writing question: if you create a character with Trypophobia, how important is this to your characterization? Does it just become an interesting “tic” and a way to identify that character or is there a more intrinsic purpose to that character trait? Would it affect more important aspects of what motivates the characters and how the character lives her life?

On another note, remember how my mom is here through February? Now my aunt and uncle (my dad’s twin) are coming here for a couple of weeks in February, too. We are going to be busy!

P.S. If you’re wondering about my weird post title, I was thinking about my poem “Waking Up” in Doll God that features an Alice in Wonderland  character. I read it aloud the other day and was thinking about Alice when she’s so small and at risk in her environment.

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Filed under #AmWriting, Arizona, Characterization, Lifestyle, Nonfiction, Writing, Writing Talk

Red in the Words

I decided to leap back into prose by taking a look at the drafts I wrote for the flash nonfiction course I took in July. While I was searching for those in my closet, I ran across a few of my Red Riding Hood books.

As a fictional character, she’s been quite an influence on me and my writing.

But who is she?

There are hundreds of versions of the story and they come from many different countries. Some are old versions from traditional literature and some are contemporary retellings of the tale. Some are children’s stories; some, such as those that spring from the oral tradition, are for the general public; and some, usually feminist or sexualized versions, are for adults.

I’m guessing that most of us are steeped in the European tradition of red hooded cloak, little girl, wolf, grandmother, and woods. We might or might not think of a huntsman. Our Little Red might get a warning from her mother–or she might not. She might get eaten up just before the reader is left with a strong “moral.” She might kill the wolf in a gruesome manner. Or the wolf might run into the woods, never to return. Pinterest is full of images that resonate, so I started collecting them onto a “Red in the Woods” board. I’ve only got 35 pins so far, but there are some beauties. Many of the classic book illustrators have created Little Red art.

Arthur Rackham’s Little Red Riding Hood

Every culture incorporates some of these elements in their little red stories, but the most important part is that a little girl is threatened by a dangerous animal (usually a wolf, but in Asian countries, sometimes a tiger) and either she becomes a victim, is rescued by someone else, or she is victorious over the “bad guy.” The undercurrents involve a girl going out into a threatening world on her own for the first time and the possibility of sexual violation. But those are adult readings, of course.

Sometimes Little Red is a bad ass. Those are the best versions! One of my favorite picture books for children is Ed Young’s Lon PoPo where the Little Red protagonist is a smart, strong oldest sister who outwits the wolf and protects her siblings.

Have you ever seen Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s musical Into the Woods? In this version, Little Red is definitely a sexual target for the wolf, but the question becomes: is she complicit? Does she  in some way lead on the wolf? Is the red hood to draw attention? (And where does the red garment come from? Not from the girl herself). Or is that an adult male (pervert) reading–a Humbert version of Lolita? Another adult reading is that the red hood is a metaphor for Red’s vagina/clitoris/youpick.

In this clip of the 1991 Broadway show, the lyrics say a lot about our culture’s interpretation. It becomes clear that this version is about the loss of innocence.

In the Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs’ song, the wolf leers at Red.

There are other strange bits and pieces that show up in some Little Red stories. The wolf tricks Red into eating her Granny’s flesh. Red tries to get out of bed with the wolf by telling him she has to go pee. At that point he tells her to pee in the bed, but she says she can’t and he lets her go outside tied to a long rope. Some of these elements that seem vulgar  or creepy have been edited out of the most popular versions published in the last few hundred years. The confusion between wolf and grandmother is still with us, though. And that alone is pretty strange. Dangerous wolf looks like beloved grandmother? Beyond strange.

Is the wolf a perv or is Red a Lolita? Or is that a red herring (sorry)? Is the story really about something else?

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Filed under Books, Characterization, Children's Literature, Fairy Tales, Fiction, History, Inspiration, Writing

Studs and Ruth and Hubby and Me

The other day Vickie Lester of Beguiling Hollywood posted a piece on Ruth Gordon, and it reminded me of one of my weirder non-family memories.  I’ll sketch it out for you.

Setting:

A weekday evening in Chicago in the late 70s or perhaps 1980. The interior of an upscale Indian restaurant. The dining room glows with gold and rose tones, and the tables are small and intimate, for couples, covered in rose tablecloths and candlelight. Rather than elaborate Hindu decor, the design is elegant and classic European with small touches of Indian art for flavor.  Outside it rains, but inside all is dry and quiet and warm. The faint fragrance of well-blended turmeric and cardamon, as well as melting wax, beckons new guests.

Characters:

Ruth Gordon (1896-1985)–Famous movie star of Rosemary’s Baby, Harold and Maude, and Every Which Way But Loose. In addition to being an actor, Gordon is a writer–of screenplays, plays, and books.  In this scene she is elderly, but still has her trademark brown hair (pulled back) and wry expression.

Studs Terkel (1912-2008)–Writer Terkel is seated across from Gordon at one of the small covered tables.  Terkel is also a historian and actor, as well as a radio personality. He and Gordon are good friends. They have much in common, both being actors and writers. Terkel’s hair is white and thinning, but brushed back from his forehead in a casual, confident manner.  He’s got a sturdy overweight build that is more accepted in 1980s culture in a man than it would be in a woman.

Young husband–In his 20s, this man has curly off-black hair and hazel eyes. He holds dreams of succeeding in business. He has an observant eye and a lot of knowledge for someone so young. Loves history and travel. He’s a rock.

Young wife–In her 20s, this  woman still thinks of herself as a girl. She married young and created and runs a retail business with husband. She enjoys it, but likes to read and write and has other dreams for herself. But right now she’s very naive and doesn’t know too much about anything. She’s not very observant. With her long brown hair and slim build, she’s considered pretty by many people, but she’s not a bombshell by any means.

Plot and story sketch:

The young couple is seated at a small table. The lovely glow in the room relaxes them as they study the elaborate menus. They spent the day at the Merchandise Mart and Apparel Center, buying handbags and jewelry for their store.

As the wife begins to sip her first drink, the husband leans toward her and whispers, “That’s Studs Terkel and Ruth Gordon.” He nods toward the table behind him. His back is to the back of the woman at the next table. A white-haired man with a compelling face faces the young wife across both tables.

The wife says it can’t be. She barely knows that Studs Terkel is a writer and confuses him with Ring Lardner. She knows who Ruth Gordon is, but she can’t see the woman’s face the way the older woman is seated. The wife wonders aloud how her husband knows who the others are when his back is to them.

This is one of the first times she learns a lesson she must repeat over and over again for over 30 years: that her husband has an uncanny way of knowing things.

She peeks around her husband’s shoulder to sneak a glance at the famous man. She can see from the man’s expression and way of hunching at the table that he’s very sure of himself and comfortable with who is–and that he is “somebody.”  Gordon is tiny and talks quietly to Terkel. In fact, she talks more than he does. A lot more.

Perhaps Terkel is bored with the conversation or with his life, but he must notice the young wife peeking at him, so he glances back. Boldly. In fact, it’s not a glance. It’s too long for that. Before too long it becomes a stare.

She feels shiny tonight in her teal silk blouse and gold chain. Terkel’s stare confirms that she looks shiny. He doesn’t look away for quite a while, but she withdraws her glance immediately. Still, she can feel his eyes on her.

At first she refuses to look at Terkel. The more he looks, the more she tries to keep from glancing. Eventually, his gaze overpowers her and she glances at him. It’s just a glance as the moment he catches her eyes with his, she retreats.

Terkel continues to stare at the young wife, with only an occasional flickering look at Gordon. The wife and husband finish their first drink, order another, and place their dinner order.

Rather than feeling like prey, the young woman is nervous, but flattered. She occasionally slips a glance at the man who is the same age as her grandmother (though she doesn’t know it at the time) and at Gordon’s back. She wonders how Gordon can stand having her friend stare mercilessly at a strange girl. She wonders what kind of friendship they have that would tolerate this behavior. She wonders what kind of man Terkel is. He’s got a sloppy, rather mobile, face with a large nose which melts across his cheeks. He looks intelligent, almost dangerously so. His eyes tip a bit, but are symmetrical. He exudes virility.

from Wikipedia

from Wikipedia

Occasionally, the young husband says, “He’s staring at you.”  She says, “No, not really.” The husband laughs.  “He’s definitely staring at you.” The young couple has finished their second round of drinks, and a bottle of white wine now sits in a chiller on a stand at tableside. They will be paying off their credit card for months. Only once does Gordon turn back and openly look at the young wife.

Terkel and Gordon began their meal before the young couple. After forty-five minutes of staring so intense it feels intimate, Terkel walks out of the restaurant with Gordon without a backward glance.

The wife, on the other hand, remembers this evening for decades. She thinks that Terkel doesn’t know that she’s a smart student or that she wants to be a writer or that she will become a feminist and go to grad school. He sees her as just another pretty girl.

Oddly, she thinks she likes this strange experience. This objectification.

But just this once.

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Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Essay, Memoir, Nonfiction, Vintage American culture, Writing

How Disney Made Me Worry about Pigeons

Reading some of the comments in the discussion after last week’s post How and Why I Don’t Know Science, my mind started wandering a familiar pathway: how cultures decide which are the “good” animals and which are the “bad.”  If they are bad, we don’t have to care whether they live or die or what their lives are like.  Which ones, if any, “deserve” to be dissected or even vivisected in the name of science or education.

Although I have my beliefs about animal rights and animal welfare, I’m not a raving radical, but am more the type to wonder about things, to feel sadness about things, and to recognize (and get bogged down by) the complexity and paradoxes of life.

I want to tell you a story about a lady who lives in my city. It does touch on these issues, I think.

A couple of years ago, as I was sitting at my computer, I noticed a young pigeon hopping in little circles on my porch.  He couldn’t seem to fly. On closer examination, it seemed that his wings were bunched up on his back. As I peered through my glass door, a larger pigeon fluttered down to this smaller one, coaxing it into hiding behind the urn.  Then the older bird (mother? father? auntie?) flew off to its rain gutter perch and watched over the injured bird.

I thought I understood. Every evening a brown falcon surveys the world from the gable above my bedroom.  The owl strikes in secret, so private that only three feathers are left. But I am not there when the birds-of-prey kill. I’m not a witness.

This particular pigeon circled dejectedly just a few feet from my house, behind my clay pot, not far from where I was writing at the computer. As I stepped outside, I spied one gray-furred feather on the doorstep.

Looking at the bird, which was helpless to fly away, I sighed. We’d had such a pigeon problem at the house. My roof was covered with mottled gray feathers and mottled gray shit. In large quantities, pigeons can be so annoying. I’d read up on pigeons and discovered that they like to nest on rocky hillsides, and my tile roof probably seemed like the next best spot.

As I looked at the bird, I felt the heavy cloak of responsibility settling on me. I thought of the best work of Anonymous: Some days you’re the pigeon. Some days you’re the statue. I was pretty sure that at that point we both felt like the statue, heavy and cold.  And frightened.

After all, I had no idea of how to help him.  He shivered. He bebopped. He looked as if his arms might be caught in the jacket up above his head.

Without an idea of how to help him, but a strong sense that I couldn’t turn my back and go inside, I decided to try to get help.  After calling several animal welfare and wildlife rescue organizations, I was told about a woman I came to think of as Our Lady of the Pigeons.  Call her, the woman on the phone urged me. “She’s the only one who will help a pigeon.”

I put on rubber gloves to pick up the bird. I didn’t want to pick up some kind of wild bird disease. As a kid, when I brought feathers into the house, my mother would insist I throw them away and scrub my hands free of contamination. My husband lives by those rules, too, and I’ve picked up their worries.

I placed him in a box and covered it with a towel, all the while talking pigeon to him.  Pigeon is sort of like cat or dog.  It’s a soothing sound which tells the pigeon or cat or dog that whatever you’re going to do to them will be lovely.

My son held the box on his lap while I drove to the lady’s house. She had sounded terse and difficult on the phone. She worried that a cat had pulled the wing off like they do a foot, leaving it bloodless, cauterized, and corked–a volatile champagne of eventual death.

I parked my car under the orange tree and walked in through her open garage. A dog barked from out back, and I waited at the tattered screen door for what felt like an hour, but was probably only two or three minutes. The pigeon’s feet scratched the box floor every so often, but it was otherwise silent.

The Pigeon Lady appeared at her door, staring at the box.  I don’t believe she looked at me at all. She didn’t wear a halo, but graying hair puffed out over a face which reminded me of an aging Sigourney Weaver. A hint of longjohns peeked from the top of her layered muumuus.

Without speaking, she scooped up the bird and placed him atop the hood of a blocked-up Bonneville, amidst  the curious nose of the blue-eyed half-feral cat, which jumped up in curiosity.

The woman’s man-sized hands unwrapped the pigeon’s wings. They were coiled together like two ends of a twisty. “I’ve been doing this for thirty years. I’ve never seen wings corkscrewed together. Every pigeon has his own story.” My son’s mouth hung open ever so slightly.

She scraped dried food from a clogged nostril, and said, “He can’t feed himself yet. Forehead hasn’t turned white.”

She simmered with thrill that his wings were only bruised.  “I’ll keep him until spring, when he can feed himself.  Maybe he’ll fly home.”  I pictured him flying home to my yard, being greeted by the older bird who had hid him behind my flower pot.

I asked if I could call and check on him. After all, it seemed the polite thing to do.  She said, “I have your number.”  Clearly I was dismissed.  I slipped her a $20 bill as I left and thanked her for helping.  The bird or me, I wasn’t sure. Without her, what would I have done with the bird?

She said she would use the money to feed all the pigeons.  Many of them would never be well enough to fly.

As I left I stumbled over some of the loose oranges on the ground, thinking how citrus trees attract scorpions. I realized that they wouldn’t dare bother this lady.

On the way home, my son, somewhere off with his own thoughts, didn’t speak any more than the Pigeon Lady or the pigeon. I remembered how as a kid I had loved the “Feed the Birds” scene in Mary Poppins so much. Although I was only nine when the movie came out, that was my favorite song.  The problem with the song is that it’s one that is hard to get out of your head.

This lady reminded me of that song, that scene, that woman. But with a gritty real-life edge of imperfection to her.

That was that.  The pigeon was taken care of and I could go back to my computer.  My son could go back to the TV. I tried to write a poem about her, but it wasn’t successful.  It’s hard to write about something you find a little holy and a little human.

But nothing is ever really over. A year later I came home from vacation to find a sick pigeon huddled up against the wall of my house. This time I knew the drill and took the pigeon to the lady.

A few days later she used that phone number of mine that she had kept from the first pigeon. Without any chitchat, she said, “I’m so sorry, but your pigeon died.”  I didn’t know whether to sympathize with her or to accept her sympathy and leave it at that.

She had tried very hard to save the pigeon, but without knowing what was wrong, she wasn’t able to help it. She said, “I have a difficult question to ask you.  Would it be ok with you if I do an autopsy on the bird? When they die I like to do that so I can learn more about what is wrong with them, so I can help the rest of them.”

My pause might have been a moment too long, but then I assured her that it was fine to do so. Anything in the cause of helping the birds.

When I hung up the phone I could hear that damn Disney song playing in my head again.

###

That’s the story of Our Lady of the Pigeons, the story I remembered from reading the comments of fellow bloggers about the reason I don’t know much science.

Have you ever met anybody like her?  Tell me his or her story!

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Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Writing, Writing prompt

What About the Little Things in Life? Part 2

On Monday I wrote about an essay in Telling True Stories by Walt Harrington called “Details Matter.”  It reminded me how important are the small things in life.  But, as Harrington shows,  it’s our interpretations of them (in our writing) which are even more important.

Most writers realize that details are important.  In Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg writes, “This is what it is to be a writer: to be the carrier of details that make up history.”  Writers obsessively scribble notes to themselves about the shade of a flower petal, the height of a tree, and the sound of a motor.  I know I do this.  I want to remember it all. It becomes part of my history.

But it’s not enough that we add these details to our books.  It’s not enough to give our characters little details which differentiate them.  We need to know the emotional story of their belongings, their accoutrements, their props.

My friend Wilma, aka Jeannieunbottled, asked how we give the emotional story to these objects.  This is what I wrote to her:

I think it’s the context in which you present the details that show emotional meaning. If a man carries a bouquet of flowers next to him on the car seat, we don’t know anything until we know what he does with them or how he relates to them. He might be giving them to someone or he might be dumping them in the dumpster behind the restaurant.

Did I really just do the tacky thing of quoting myself?  Hah.  Well, it’s because I’m too lazy to re-write the thought.

I kind of like thinking of it in a magnified way to see it more clearly.  For the following photo, if I describe the luminosity of the white pearls and how they are speckled by light and shadow, but forget to mention where the pearls are hanging, you might automatically think of an entirely different emotional context.

Art by Janet Orr

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Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Memoir writing theory

What About the Little Things in Life?

In Telling True Stories, I read a short piece by Walt Harrington called “Details Matter.”  While it’s geared toward journalists, it spoke to me as a creative nonfiction writer.

To research a story, he visited a home, which he described as “full of tacky teddy bears and knickknacks.”  His first assumption was that they represented bad taste; I felt he was implying a moral deficiency in that judgment. What he discovered was that those offensive items were all gifts from people the family had helped.

Knowing that they had been of service to so many people completely revised his opinion of the family.

He said that details are important, but the information behind the stories is most important.  Without that, they are just objects.

What I got out of his essay is that in memoir the details are important, but it’s important to show what those details mean to the narrator and to the characters. Each object must carry an emotional meaning. It’s not enough to merely describe.

Now that’s a powerful reminder about the small things in life.

Tiny baby bunny behind the flower pot 5-5-13

Tiny baby bunny behind the flower pot 5-5-13

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Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Memoir writing theory

Memoir Gaps: Filling in the Blanks

I have always carried a lot of clear and strong memories with me, especially from my childhood.

But when you go to write a book-length memoir you need more than those memories–you have to remember what happens between those vivid images, to recreate the glue between them, in a way.  Sometimes searching backwards for the hazier recollections and the forgotten events seems as if I’m trying to get into a boarded-up old building.

E. St. JamesSan Jose, CA

E. St. James
San Jose, CA

William Zinsser, in Writing About Your Life, says that the way to write a memoir is to start with those vivid memories, writing up one each day.  Then he makes a giant leap to the assumption that by writing those recollections the writer will discover her own writing style, as well as what is important and what is less important–in fact, that the writer will discover what her story truly is!

Hmm, that’s great, but then he dumps us off at the curb, without any directions on where to go from there.

That’s the place where I began to flounder and, although I’ve worked very hard at finding my structure, my story-and my direction–still have difficulties.

After many efforts and revisions, I have the beginning chapters of my book and a rough idea of the rest of the structure.  But as the story moves on, I need to work on the glue between the vivid memories.  This is true more of characterization than anything else.  Particularly since in my childhood memories I was . . . a kid.  I didn’t see the adult characters in my life as the round and dynamic* characters people they are.  And I didn’t see myself as a round and dynamic character either–not clearly.

That’s why I am using other methods to try to fill in some of the blanks.  One of these methods has been studying psychological aspects of the characters, such as the HSP and Myers-Briggs analysis I wrote about.

Writing Prompt

Another method is to write an imaginary scene which shows a reason why someone did something.  For example, when I was in 7th grade I was sat on and beaten by a fellow classmate.  I was imprisoned underneath her because she outweighed me by more than 100 pounds.  I have no idea why she would do something like this, and I remember feeling the unfairness (actually, I felt squished, too).

To get insight into her personality and motivations, I wrote a scene which results in the beating.  The scene is fiction, and I can’t use it for the book (and don’t want to share it ;)), but in writing it I learned more about the girl and myself as characters.  It’s when I do research in this way that I frequently have little epiphanies, where I learn or remember things that I didn’t know I knew.

###

* round characters are seen as fully-dimensional human beings, whereas flat characters tend to be one-sided

* dynamic characters change as real humans change in life, whereas static characters remain the same

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Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Memoir writing theory, Writing prompt

Meaningful–Or Otherwise–Spring Moments

I’ve broken out with Spring Fever and don’t want to work on characterization now.  In fact, I’m being downright cantankerous about it.

It’s not the sort of spring I used to wish for when I lived in Michigan. I couldn’t wait until the dirty snow and slush had dried up and disappeared and the green spikes of the bulb flowers were pushing up out of the ground.

You can tell when spring arrives in the southwest when you notice the snakes have woken up from their long winter naps and by the blossoming of the Sweet Acacia trees.  These events are accompanied by dirty desert air which coats my throat and sinuses.

We go all winter without having to worry about whether a snake in the yard means danger (the rattle alarm) or not.  Then one day in March there is a snake lying there on the ground, and I flinch until I know for sure.  King snakes are our friends; they eat baby rattlesnakes.

The Sweet Acacias don’t look much different from Palo Verdes or Mesquite trees, but their yellow blossoms smell so sweetly they make you feel sick.  So sweet they almost smell like garbage.  But I could tolerate that if they didn’t make my sinuses flow like Niagara Falls.

The allergist says that the reason the standard skin tests don’t include the Sweet Acacia is because it isn’t a specific allergen; instead, everybody is sensitive to it.  It’s partly to account for the high incidence of hay fever in the valley.

Here are the Sweet Acacia blossoms, which my husband calls puff balls, up close and looking innocent.

Still, it’s our spring, rattlesnakes and allergies aside.  And there are always the baby bunnies :).

4" long baby bunnyhiding in plant

4″ long baby bunny
hiding in plant

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Filed under Creative Nonfiction

A New Look at Boredom . . . Sort Of

Or Investigations into Developing My Own Characterization, Part III

I’m still on this HSP kick that I talked about on Monday.

Elaine N. Aron, in her book The Highly Sensitive Person, suggests:

This greater awareness of the subtle [on the part of the Highly Sensitive Person] tends to make you more intuitive, which simply means picking up and working through information in a semiconscious or unconscious way.  . . . This is that “sixth sense” people talk about.

That’s right, I have ESP.  Sometimes.

This intuitive introvert stuff is probably why I am an INTJ in Myers-Briggs terminology.  Introverted.  Intuitive.  Thinking.  Judging.  That is someone who is an introvert (duh) and intuitive (see above).  It is also someone who values logic (thinking), which I might add is because I view it as “fair.”

Then everyone either uses judgment or perception.  People who rely more heavily on a structured lifestyle use judgment, whereas people who rely on a flexible lifestyle rely more on perception.

I do like a structured lifestyle because otherwise I would be overwhelmed with new stimuli coming at me every day, and I couldn’t handle it.  My body and my mind begin to shut down when they are inundated or, as Dr. Aron would describe, overly aroused.

Now that I think about it, maybe this is why I am rarely bored.  The littlest thing can amuse me.  Well, let me adjust that a bit.

Stick me in a room with nothing to do but listen (I am not an auditory learner) for hours on end, and I will start to go nuts.  As a kid, this situation used to result in me “talking in class.”  You know how that turns out.  In first grade, I had to sit in the corner, and freshman year of college I got the lecture about how the professor didn’t care if I talked, but that the kid I was talking to was failing so I needed to take pity on him ;).

Recently, I was in a situation where I was stuck in a chair for hours, listening.  So I counted bricks on the wall and calculated distances between objects using typical brick and mortar measurements.  I memorized all the distances.  This kept me busy for at least an hour.  My mind worked like a computer, and that’s because I was the opposite of overly aroused, but actually leaning toward boredom, so my mind wasn’t overwhelmed, but working sharply.

Anyone need room dimensions and don’t have a tape measure handy?

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Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Research and prep for writing

The Highly What Person?

Or Investigations into Developing My Own Characterization, Part II

When I was growing up my mother called me names–well, at least one nameThe princess and the pea. It was quite a mouthful.  I hope it gave her a lot of pleasure because it certainly made me feel lousy.

She was referring to a story in my fairy tale book by Hans Christian Andersen where the prince’s mother tests the new girl by hiding a pea under twenty mattresses and twenty feather beds.  The girls wakes up black and blue.  That little pea underneath all that bedding was too much for her.  So the name “the princess and the pea” is meant to be a metaphor for ridiculous sensitivity.

It wasn’t just that I cried when people made fun of me, though I was talented at those tears.

“Look at the baby! She can’t do cartwheels.”

“Those are the ugliest shoes I’ve ever seen.  Don’t your parents love you?”

Boo hoo hoo.  I didn’t usually cry in front of people, but at home, in the privacy of my bedroom.  Until I could make my getaway, I would get very quiet, melt, and spread out thinly over the nearest wall.

Mom would call me “princess and the pea” for other reasons.  If I felt sorry for a shivering kid and gave her my sweater, if Mom found out, she would be mystified when she heard my reasoning. If my father snapped at someone else, and I thought it was unfair and told my mother I found it upsetting, she would look at me in wonderment–as if she were wondering where I had come from and who I was.

“You’re so sensitive.”

“Nobody else would be bothered by that.”

“You need to grow a thicker skin.”

After a time, I learned to tame the tears, and how to harden my heart when it was absolutely necessary.  And I began to think I was no longer a hypersensitive person, as long as I guarded myself.

But there were other mysteries about me.

Then two months ago I found a book and my entire vision of myself changed.  This book is the first to theorize this specific personality type.  Once I read one page of the book, I knew I was reading about myself.  I didn’t need the initial quiz, although when I took it I wasn’t surprised to tally a dramatically high score.

The book is called–drum roll, please–The Highly Sensitive Person, written by Elaine N. Aron. Please don’t laugh.  I can hear you laughing.

No?  Well, if you’re not laughing, maybe it’s because you, too, are an HSP, a highly sensitive person.  Dr. Aron suggests that this inherited traits occurs in 15-20% of the population, to varying degrees.

Instead of viewing our sensitivity as a flaw, something to be overcome, or as a reason for failure, she argues that once we understand the personality type we were born with (and in some cases which has been enhanced by our environment, such as our families), we can reframe our past in light of this characteristic.  We can heal and we can learn how to live a life that is right for us, rather than one that is right for non-HSPs.

Another mystery about myself is why I get so over-stimulated when I am around other people and in new situations.  Why do I find it so difficult to drive a car and talk to a friend sitting next to me at the same time?  Why can I read a map so well and yet get lost every new place I go?  Why do I love people and want to be part of their lives and yet avoid social situations?  I thought I had social anxiety, but that didn’t seem to fit.

It all has to do with being an HSP.  Dr. Aron presents us with two facts:

1. Everyone, HSP or not, feels best when neither too bored nor too aroused.

2. People differ considerably in how much their nervous system is aroused in the same situation, under the same stimulation.

HSPs cannot handle as much stimulation as non-HSPs.  So when I drive the car to the grocery store, I am handling a lot of stimuli: the turns and dips in the road, the trees and other vegetation, cars, people in the cars, the dog walking on the side of the road.  All these things crowd and confuse my mind and body.  Now if you add in my good friend sitting next to me–someone I trust and love and enjoy talking with–she is also a huge stimulus.  The conversation we are having is exciting, but also I have to weave together listening and speaking with when to stop at the light, turn at the sign, watch for that dog by the side of the road.  It all puts me on overload, and I need three days locked in the house, working quietly, to recover.

You might be thinking that this sounds like a completely crummy personality type to be stuck with.  But hold on.  There is a positive side to it.  There is a pearl in the slimy oyster, so to speak.

Aron says:

What this difference in arousability means is that you notice levels of stimulation that go unobserved by others.  This is true whether we are talking about subtle sounds, sights, or physical sensations like pain . . . .  The difference seems to lie somewhere on the way to the brain or in the brain, in a more careful processing of information.  We reflect more on everything.  And we sort things into finer distinctions.  Like those machines that grade fruit by size–we sort into ten sizes while others sort into two or three.

Are you thinking what I’m thinking?  This is an ideal trait for a writer.

Also, Aron goes on to explain in her book, this is a good trait for some people in society to have.  HSPs use their traits to benefit society in all walks of life, but they also tend to be heavily found among “scholars, theologians, psychotherapists, consultants, or judges.”  We are not the “warrior class,” but the “priest class.”

I believe that HSPs use their sensitivity to see the world more finely, more precisely, and can benefit society by reflecting back that detailed image to others.

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