Good Grief: Setting the Stage for the Five Stages

I love psychology and sociology. They are useful and interesting in life and in fiction. While there is an expansive pool of issues to choose from, I have been thinking a lot about one topic in particular: grief. Grief is the reaction to any great loss — be it a person, place, object, position, etc. It is a trademark of life. Most people, if not all, will experience loss in their lifetime. And everyone deals with it differently.

So how does one write grief? Obviously each person will make grief their own, but some scientists believe that there is a basic grief formula (that will bend and twist as needed for the individual). The Kubler-Ross Model is a cycle made up of five stages that victims of loss tend to go through as they cope with their grief. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance (in that order) are the emotions that make up the Kubler-Ross Five Stages of Grief. Some doctors believe that these stages happen one after another in ascending order, like steps. Other doctors disagree and maintain that the average person is complicated and will go through the five stages (or states) in their own way. Either way, I think I’ve found a consensus. Everyone seems to agree that the five basic emotions are the make up of the common reaction to loss.

Personally, I agree with the more contemporary view that says that the grief cycle is not so much steps or phases as they are states. “Rather than distinct, sequential stages of grief, it may be more accurate to conceptualize proposed stages as multidimensional grief states that evolve and diminish in intensity over time” (Prigerson, Maciejewski). But since “stages” is the more common terminology for this kind of thing, I’ll stick to that.

The Kubler-Ross Five Stages (or States) of Grief in Detail

1. Denial — The refusal to acknowledge the situation. Characters avoid feeling anything relating to their loss — sometimes characters will avoid feeling anything at all. If we refer back to the Johari Window, denial would be everything that you hide from yourself, what you keep inside your blind spot.

2. Anger — This is the point where things start getting complicated. Instead of a void of emotion, there is an explosion of emotion. And often, those emotions will contradict with each other. At losing a loved one, for example, a character might get angry at them but still love them.

Beware that each character will have a different voice. While some will shout their anger out loud, others will bubble up and boil within. Also think about how healthily your character is able to express their anger. Will they channel it through art or therapy or will they act out? Note: Acting out is usually a good fit for a weaker character, who easily gives into pressure. Does your character attack and push his discomfort onto others? Consider your options.

3. Bargaining — Here, your character gets desperate. In seeing that anger does nothing to help the situation, the character will break down and try to think of anything that will get them/it back. The character will believe that maybe if he stops drinking or starts going to church, his wife will come back. After the loss has occurred, it is usually a private process, worked out between the character and his Higher Being – a series of what if’s? will ensue. What if I had been kinder? What if I had worked harder? But other times, particularly before the loss has actually happened, it’s a process that happens directly between the character and his dying love (a job, a relationship, a dying parent, etc). You can see that there is a tinge of denial in this stage when you look at how the character is either convinced that he can stop the loss before it happens or undo what’s already been done.

4. Depression — Given up yet? Denial didn’t make it go away and neither did anger or bargaining.  On feeling abandoned and helpless, a character will retrieve into himself. This is when the character finally breaks down and mourns. Characters finally face the reality of the situation. This stage is the stage most commonly associated with grief. Whenever I hear about someone losing a loved one, I think about how upset they must be.

5. Acceptance — This can take a lifetime to reach. But it is a highly rewarding feeling to finally accept a loss. Sometimes people even walk away from grief feeling like they have bettered themselves through the process. Your character might feel themselves wiser, kinder, or more understanding.

As each day passes, you close your eyes and let your grief slide through your fingers, one rough, cold link after another, until your loss settles deep inside you. It is a give and take between you and your grief, a tension that rolls your emotions back and forth. And at first you are certain that your life is going to capsize and you will drown. Eventually, the grief will ground you and give you stability in troubled times.

Michael Newland on This I Believe

Grief is an obstacle I find very interesting in fiction (and in life). It tests our abilities to cope and establishes who we are under pressure.

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We Can Work It Out: Using Research in Your Fiction

Research is very often a necessary, or at the very least it’s an advisable, step in your writing process. The old adage still holds true that a writer should ‘write what he knows’. But sometimes writers want to explore unfamiliar worlds and so they turn to research.

Recently, I wrote about following your gut. But sometimes research must be done. I don’t mean research about craft (although that too is important). I’m talking about research relating to your plot.

My current WIP is about a girl who struggles with reconnecting with her neglectful father one last time before his death. Although I knew, before I began writing or researching, the basics of what my characters were going to experience, I felt a greater confidence once I had the support of some research behind my writing. There’s always something to be researched, to be double checked. In my case, I wanted to know about how a young girl might deal with grief.

I don’t know that many people who’ve died and I also don’t know that many people who have lost loved ones. So this isn’t really a subject I’m comfortable with (thank you, God). Whenever you feel uneasy about anything you’re writing — look it up. Go to your local library, use the internet, investigate a new setting personally, and/or talk to people who might know more about that subject than you.

For that audience you couldn’t have expected, now you can be sure that you have your facts straight. Sometimes your audience will know more about your character’s type than you and they’ll recognize when you’re depicting your character incorrectly. And if you’re thinking to yourself How could I depict my own creation incorrectly? It’s easier than you think.

Here’s a few tips and suggestions as to how to go about your research.

1. In terms of the internet, don’t be afraid to go beyond Google. Explore! Curiosity will be your greatest guide. Researching through other, specific search engines can be more beneficial to your needs. Here’s an expansive Directory of Open Access Journals. This way, you can feel confident that what you’re writing makes sense. No matter who reads your writing — nobody will find any factual flaws. Are you writing about an American criminal? Here’s a page on outlaws.

2. Research before you write. This way, you won’t feel bogged down by interruptions and your writing will probably come out more fluid.

3. Your research will take the shape of an hourglass. Start with broad questions, focus in on specifics, and then expand again. According to Research Methods Knowledge Base, it’s important to start with general questions and finish with general conclusions, but somewhere in the middle you are discussing and thinking about the mechanics of your topic. This method is geared more towards non-fiction writers, but it’s a technique that can be molded to the needs of fiction writers as well. In my story, for example, I start by asking: How would my MC grieve? Then, as I find out more and more about the subject, I can ask more specific questions like: What does angry grief look like? How are her friends and family affected? As I observe and take notes on everything, I’m able to compile a certain set of knowledge. In my story, I might not use everything, but I now I have a general perspective on the subject.

Do you have any research tips?

The Great Writer’s Instincts

Recently, while mulling over a WIP, I started feeling very apprehensive about the story itself, in all its entirety. Were my worries of simplicity and conventionality paranoia or was my story really trash? Nobody will care about this story… the hero is not interesting enough… her obstacles aren’t challenging… I had to talk to somebody. I began on a rant about all the literary rules I was breaking and all the writer’s advice I was forgetting to apply to my story.

The advice I got was simple. Stop thinking and just write from your gut.

Of course, I should take into consideration that this came from a person who just wanted to go back to sleep and get rid of me. Nevertheless, I think the advice was sound. Except, after all the time I spent thinking logically and pragmatically about my writing, how I do I make the shift into passionate, effortless writing?

Writing viscerally means transcending what you’ve been told about literature, while remaining connected to that knowledge, and listening to the past, present, and future of yourself and your world. It requires a great deal of character (no, I don’t mean the fictional kind), confidence and the courage to put all of yourself into your writing. Great writers open themselves and their minds and let the world flow through them. Great writers (and artists in general) are sieves which leave us with filtered versions of their world. It isn’t that these writers are better people or that they are more interesting; it is their sensitivity to their surroundings and their ability to regurgitate their experiences.

What I need, and what I think many writers could benefit from, is a dose of moderation.  To detach myself completely would be a mistake. But to continue on this narrow path of writing tips and literary instruction is also wrong. I will try to center myself between my instincts and my how-to books, between my self and the advice of others. For me, the most important aspect of writing is to ensure that it is a creation all my own. To feel the airs of inspiration is necessary, sure. We should still try to, as T.S. Elliot says, “steal” from great writers. But what we steal should be open and flexible enough so that we are still able to work with it and make it our own. Now when I write, I will try to remember to ask myself: is my voice coming through? Does it reflect my own originality? Am I contributing as much of myself as possible?

Character: Come to My Johari Window

Listening to: Come to My Window by Melissa Etheridge

BACKGROUND

I recently discovered a very interesting method for developing character. The Johari Window is a “cognitive psychological tool”, originally invented to improve understanding between self and self, and self and others. I got to researching and found out that the Johari Window is mostly used by businesses who want to encourage better communication between their employees. They set up these workshops where employees have the opportunity to finally build a rapport with long-time office strangers.

The Johari Window has four slots, the open self or arena, the blind self, the hidden or facade self, and the unknown self.

The arena is what is openly known about the person. Depending on the relationship, this area can include anything from hair color (the obvious basics) to feelings, emotions, desires, and fears (what you might share with a friend). If the relationship has just begun, or if the relationship has yet to exist, then this area will remain very small. Even something as artificial as small talk can expand this space.

The blind spot is what you know about me that I have yet to find out. This might be something you don’t tell me on purpose, because you’re trying to protect me or because you’re trying to hurt me; this might be something that I’m in denial about or maybe it’s a delusion that no one can talk me out of. Either way, the blind spot are is not an effective or productive space.

The hidden self, or Facade area, is the space where all my secrets stay. Particularly discreet people will have a larger hidden space than others, just as people who lack boundaries will have an especially small hidden area. The hidden area should not be too big or too small. Some secrets are healthy, while others, when kept hidden buried, can be damaging to the self or to the relationship.

The unknown self contains that which is completely hidden, from everyone. These can be both psychological and physical. Physically, it could be a skill, like fast running, or an illness, like cancer, which I am unaware of. However, more often than not, it is psychological. These can range from capabilities or talents I don’t know that I have, traumas I refuse to surface, fears I don’t want to face, subconscious feelings, or ingrained traits and attitudes from childhood.

IN TERMS OF WRITING

So! How does all this information connect back to fiction? The following is an analysis of a Fitzgerald short as it relates to the Johari Window.

Most, if not all, fiction is built around a main character or a group of main characters with an objective. Whether they are aware of their goals, whether they succeed or fail — these are choices that each writer will make for himself. Over the course of the story, the character will try, probably more than once, to get what he/she wants/needs. An author can use the Johari Window to develop the characters and their relationships to themselves and to each other. With time and through action, the Johari Window will change and each pane will increase or decrease in size.

As an example, let’s look at Bernice Bobs Her Hair by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The story begins with Bernice, the story’s protagonist, feeling awkward and forlorn while visiting her shallow cousin Marjorie. Fitzgerald begins with an opening where the characters are unfamiliar with each other. If we were to apply Johari’s Window to the first pages of this story, the “open area” would be minuscule because Marjorie knows little about Bernice, except that she is a scrupulous young girl, and Bernice knows little about Marjorie, except that she has a lot of friends.

Bernice’s objective is to feel like she’s part of the crowd, part of the “vast circle of youth“. At first she attempts to become one of the crew by being polite (in other words, by being herself). But this plan quickly falls apart. That night, she overhears Marjorie explaining to a family member how “a little cheap popularity” is of such paramount importance, especially to an eighteen year old girl. Bernice confronts her cousin later on about their opposing views. Fitzgerald pushes the two rival girls together, making for a collision which results in a furiously tense altercation. While  in the heat of the argument, Bernice and Marjorie both begin to take what belonged to their hidden areas and use it to fill their open areas. That is to say, they let guards down while amidst great emotion and expand their open areas by disclosing relevant hidden feelings.

After some fighting, Bernice begins to feel defeated and starts taking Marjorie’s advice. It is important to note that Bernice probably would not have changed her ways if it weren’t for this external force pushing her. I have read stories where the main character makes an internal shift suddenly and without any apparent cause. These stories feel awkward and forced and the reader, confused, is left to wonder why the character did what he/she did and felt the way he/she felt. Everything happens for a reason, particularly in fiction.

But back to Bernice. Slowly, the morals which Bernice’s mother imbued on her are swept away. Marjorie blows in with her tempting superficiality and re-creates Bernice. Marjorie teaches her naive cousin the ways of a shallow and effortless flirt. During these lessons, Bernice is becoming increasingly aware of that which was previously in her blind spot. To push the open area into the blind spot space, the character must actively listen to others and be open to feedback. Now, prepared with new and different weaponry, Bernice walks back into Marjorie’s social scene. An interesting twist: Bernice learns all too quickly how to hog attention and, soon becomes Marjorie’s replacement, Marjorie’s competition. By the end of the story, Bernice is the talk of the town. But in her greed to be the ultimate center of attention, she goes mad — ruining her own image and that of her cousin. The story’s conclusion reveals to the reader, Bernice, Marjorie, and possibly even to Fitzgerald how monstrous Bernice could be. Her potential is surfaced and her unknown area is made smaller.

Sometimes our stories grow automatically and our writer’s sixth sense guides us through its development. But sometimes we need directions which is why the Johari Window is so damn useful.

Character: On this Assembly, Making an Entrance Comes First

A story is made up of an assembly line of decisions. With time and multiple revisions, you’ll work with, add, and subtract many pieces to your story. The process changes with the writer. For me, getting comfortable with my plot and my characters is of paramount importance. Usually that happens before I even begin writing. Those are the first decisions I make — what color hair my character will have, what goals they set for themselves, what their backgrounds look like, and so forth. Only after that can I begin to write.

I’m currently working on this project that I assigned myself. The hunt: Find a story I don’t like, but with a great deal of potential. The task: Rewrite said story. It’s a lengthy and time-sucking exercise to distract me from my main work-in-progress which, at its half point, hit a road bump and hasn’t been able to recover since.

Since the plot is written out for me and my character studies are almost done, I’m wondering how I could go about introducing my two characters? Right now, I have only two demands. 1) My main character is revealed in the beginning and 2) my supporting character is introduced later on.

I decided I would study, compare, and contrast some character introductions. Get myself inspired. I’m thinking I’ll do three studies. Consider this Story One, Day One:

1. Subtle, On-going, and Nameless:Appetite” by Saïd Sayrafiezade is a short story recently published in the New Yorker that has a greater focus on character than on plot, so I figure it’d be fitting for this study. When plot is less than character, I find it harder to write out a synopsis, so I’ll refrain from doing so here. I recommend reading the story for yourself (word count: 5,995), although I’d stop reading right before the last line.

As much as I enjoyed this story, the last line (the character’s last words) infuriated me. It seemed so out of character. Considering that the story revolves around this character, that’s no small issue. His introduction and his development was coherent, cohesive, co-everything– but the damned last line is such an ugly stain on that story that it makes me wonder if anything can truly be all around wonderful.

But! In spite of the ugliness, it’s still quality writing. The reader never stops learning about the character, which is true of any good story. The beginning is testimony to the character’s misery. He can’t seem to verbalize what he wants and, thus, his demands (if they can even be called demands) aren’t met. As this short story is told in first person, the main character, whose name is never revealed, is the one to explain the cause to this effect. “Somewhere in my past, something had gone wrong for me.” Now, the reader not only knows the character but he knows why the character is who he is. Histories aren’t always necessary, but, now that I think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever run into a history that was pointless either.

The history seems to be the first sign of an old school, straight forward, introductory method. Before that, the character’s voice is weaved into the dialogue and narration, but not actually put forth in an explicit description. There are no adjectives to direct you to how the character feels. Still, the reader knows exactly what’s going on in his head.

The character is introduced through action. His short-lived, unsuccessful conversation with his boss is how we get know him and his reactions. The pressure of the situation exacerbates the character’s nature. We know that under pressure, the main character is unassertive, unsure, and unfocused. Nothing went according to plan — from the position of his feet, “one foot crossed uncomfortably in front of the other”, to the conversation itself, which took an ugly turn when his boss put him on the spot with an unexpected question. The fact that everything went wrong, and would continue to go wrong, refers back to the first sentence, “Things were not going as I had hoped”.

Action and history tell us a great deal about the character. We learn that the main character, twice, turned down opportunities to integrate himself into the world he wanted to belong to. Although he doesn’t seem to be aware of it, it’s that kind of self-destruction that caused his misery.

The supporting character, an anorexic waitress that works at the same restaurant as our main character, is introduced by her relation to the main character. “A few days after I was turned down for I raise, an anorexic waitress started working at the restaurant.” Immediately after that, the author jumps into how the main character feels about her, “She was pretty but had no breasts or ass” is the next sentence. Once again, we learn a little more about the character through his relationship with the world. It’s not about what the main character sees, but how he sees it. What is his perspective?

This story has reminded of one very important rule on character: Everything is relationship. And, so, I’ll end this post with a quote:

“We should approach fictional characters with the same concerns with which we approach people. We need to be alert for how we are to take them, for what we are to make of them, and we need to see how they may reflect our own experience. We need to observe their actions, to listen to what they say and how they say it, to notice how they relate to other characters and how other characters respond to them, especially to what they say about each other. To make inferences about characters, we look for connections, for links and clues to their function and significance in the story. In analyzing a character or character’s relationships, we relate one act, one speech, one physical detail to another until we understand the character.” Robert DiYanni

The Only Post of 2009

April 2nd, 2010: Trying to re-write a terrible philosophy paper.

I realized today that my “Only Post of 2009” was a disastrous attempt at writing out all my philosophical beliefs. I deleted the blog post and edited down most of the original document. This post is an April 2nd post and May 17 can bite me. Trying to re-write this paper is no easy feat. It turns out Philosophy can be quite trying. I’ve barely started but it’s looking like this project is going to take more than just 24 hours.