Making Lemonade: Turning Bad Juju into Good Writing

lisa birk lemon imageBad juju comes to most of us, and sometimes it comes all at once and sometimes it is a staccato of bad news, one thing, another thing, another thing, another.

My response to trouble used to be assume professional stance at work. At home, I scarfed M&Ms and indulged in not just bad television but the dregs. Makeovers (Flip or Flop?), vigilante justice (“Where is little Caylee?”), bootstrap commerce (QVC—a short step from…infomercials). At 3 a.m. in a very low moment, I purchased a 172 CD set of truly insipid rock and roll.

Anyone who dared to interpose themselves between me and my misery with chirrupy little phrases like, When life gives you lemons, make lemonade, or, another fave, When a door closes, a window opens, were in danger of having his or her head dinged with one of my shiny new CDs.

That was before I became a parent. This pose does not work with having a child. For one thing, he wants the clicker. It’s also hell on writing goals.

I turned to my brother. He is a research psychologist specializing in emotion regulation. He knows what works. I adapted some of his recommended strategies specifically for writers. These are a few techniques I have found most effective.

Get into your head #1

That limbo period when seemingly every door is closing and not a single window opens no matter how you yank at the frame? That’s the worst. This is an excellent time to write. A virtual world is a great place to be when the actual world stinks.

Feel guilty about escaping the real world? Channel your inner Joan Rivers. To paraphrase her: Get a grieving widow laughing, and for that 90-seconds you gave her a vacation. Still feel guilty? Diversion restores stamina for the long haul. And for life and for novels, you gotta have stamina.

Get into your head #2: Harness emotion

Meditation is all about installing an objective observer who recognizes the difference between I feel sad and I am sadness and I have always been and will always be sadness. This is why docs recommend meditation. It teaches you to let the emotions wash over you. You observe the emotion; you let it go.

This is a terrific exercise for fiction. In observing one’s own emotion—what thoughts bubble up, how your body reacts—you can get pretty particular about degrees of anxiety. And then you can use those observations to reveal character. What level of anxiety is your character experiencing? A twisty stomach? A thickness-in-the-throat?

Me, I sometimes have a hard time with letting go. I do better identifying the emotion and then harnessing it like a good husky dog to the sled of my novel. So say I’m super-worried, after I do what I can to fix the real-world problem, then I apply my surfeit worry (there’s always a surfeit) to a character. How does it feel to worry? Really worry? How would my character worry? Over what? Write.

Angry at inert bureaucrats? Excellent. Anger is energy. Do what you can to catalyze admins into effective action. Still furious? Harness that husky to the sled and power through pages and pages of writing. Mush!

Get out of your head (and into someone else’s)

Once, while my friend and I waited for a bus in freezing Madison, Wisconsin, perfect snowflakes fell from a black sky. We caught them on our mittens and looked at them under the streetlights. They were big enough that they proved the science: each really was different from the rest. It was fluffy and white and silenced sound. That night I had finished my finals. I would graduate in a few days. “Isn’t the snow beautiful?” I said. My friend, who had just broken up with her boyfriend, sighed and said, “And soon it will be dirty.”

Psychologists call this perspective taking. Writers call it point of view. Either way, it’s a useful exercise. Look at one setting through several characters’ emotional lenses. How does each color the surroundings? Write.

It’s work.

Transforming bad juju into good writing is as much a discipline as exercise and, well, writing. The Eeyore in me resists. It is so very easy to turn on the TeeVee. I understand if you’d prefer to take those CDs and wing a few at me. I’m tempted myself. But then neither of us will get any closer to finishing that novel.

4 comments

  1. Emily Ross

    Great advice, Lisa. Dance Moms or America’s Top Model are usually my go to TV shows for bad juju, but I am going to tape this post to my wall to remind me how to turn all my worries into good writing!

  2. Carol D

    Oh, where was this post when I was sitting through all those awful episodes of Cake Boss? Wonderful advice that I’ll tape to my TeeVee. Thanks Lisa!

  3. Lisa Birk

    I could get down with Dance Moms and Cake Boss! I still miss “While You Were Out” an insane interior makeover show where a husband/wife/best friend and a designer would makeover a room in like 24 hours with $60. Wheat stalks stapled to the wall as “art” was a highlight. And painting a couch with actual paint. Good times.

  4. Lately I’ve been trying to find new writing exercises; new forms of free-writing, all geared to getting deeper into my characters’ hearts and heads. Thanks, Lisa, for some productive suggestions and perspectives.

    p. s see you at Stephanie’s reading.

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