15 March 2015

The Ides of Bunny

It's that time of the year again: Spring Break!

So I, like many, am taking off to enjoy the various fertility rituals of the season. In my stead, I leave you these lapin cuties. These are the bunnies garnering the most 'likes' from my Facebook page during the past year--and a few newbies. Enjoy!

Mr. Gompers wants his Spring Break and he wants it NOW!

Higher IS better!
Is it really, truly Spring yet?
Mary had a little bunny...after her lamb grew up!

Mr. March, Ms. April, Ms. May!
Waiting for June.
Now go out there and get some quality hopping done! 

(C) Copyright 2010-2015 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

09 March 2015

What do Women [Protagonists] Want?

Yesterday was International Women's Day, an event I learned of only by going onto social media in the evening. Lots of great quotes here. However, in celebrating the achievements of women, I am compelled to pause and reflect on the women I know and what they have achieved.

I really dislike how social media is too often a repository of hatred and polarizing debate on, among many topics, the roles of men and women. I like to think I'm above the fray, adopting a neutral stance, and welcoming all individuals of whatever sex and gender and roles a person may have. As a writer of fiction, I try to keep the stories as real or plausible as possible, especially in the relationships which seem to be at the core of each of my novels.

As a male, I'm stuck with a few limitations, first among them is portraying a female character in an authentic manner. That is, letting her be her own person rather than, say, merely a companion to the male protagonist. It has not been easy but I believe I've done well enough. Most of my readers have been women, it seems, and most have liked (even praised) the female characters. However, I do recognize that these female roles tend to fall into two broad categories, which typically fall further into categories made by others as either 1) madonna or 2) whore. This "traditional" dichotomy is quite disagreeable in this day and age.

Although there may be a wide range of traits within each of those categories, enough that they can overlap and even allow a character to possess both, it is not enough for creating authentic female characters. As a young writer I started unsteadily and, thankfully, have grown in my craft and in my sensibilities. I have written the older woman ensnaring the younger man for her own amusement (AFTER ILIUM). I have written the younger woman tricking the older man for various benefits (A BEAUTIFUL CHILL). I have written the career woman trying to adapt herself for a sudden romance with a man transforming into a vampire (A DRY PATCH OF SKIN). In my earlier writing, I created a female protagonist who serves in one instance only as the romantic interest of the male protagonist (AIKO) and, in another instance, almost a "sidekick" to the self-absorbed male protagonist (YEAR OF THE TIGER). I've even dared create an alien society based on a matriarchal model but I follow the husband/father character's adventures trying to return to his family and his world (THE MASTERS' RIDDLE). I didn't want to write about a female of that world suffering, so I let the male suffer--turnabout, eh?

I know, I know, I know: bad boy. Bad male writer. Honestly, I like women, and I like having them in stories. They also say "write what you know"; that stops me in my tracks, obviously: I don't know how to be a woman. All I can do is observe and ask questions of women I know. One woman who eventually read the novel in which the female protagonist was based upon her did agree that I had depicted her perfectly, even though what transpired in the story was not flattering.

My goal as a writer has always been to portray realistic characters. That is, characters who think and act from plausible motivations comparable to those of actual people I have known. Isn't that art imitating life? Like many writers, I borrow from the world around me, incorporating (i.e., "making into a body") living people and their various quirks, mannerisms, speech patterns, body language, and psychological agendas (as much as I can discern) into believable fiction appropriate to the character.

That is the hardest part of writing a novel, I do believe. Getting the character down--harder still if the story is told in the voice of that character. 

So for this day of celebrating women, I think about how I have depicted women in my fiction writing. Flattering? Complimentary? In derogatory fashion? Or as real, multi-faceted individuals? Or, as George R.R. Martin, author of the Game of Thrones series has said, I also try to write female characters as people, not as "just" women. Society has set up women in various roles, like it or not, and in that attempt to create fictional worlds which approximate reality, we must unfortunately depict women in less than ideal circumstances. But the woman who suffers and does not fight back or grow is not a character we want to read about; hence, the applause and cheering for greater women characters who arise from their oppression and achieve great things despite society and the men who try to hold them back. What do women characters want? Probably what real women want: to be real and to realize their innate potential as persons, not as "women."

Along this vein, it is THE DREAM LAND, my science fiction trilogy, where the most interesting female character lives: Gina Parton. In the first volume she is the lead personality in the adventures of two young people exploring an interdimensional doorway. As her male companion, the protagonist Sebastian Talbot tells the story, veering off into his own adventures, Gina reappears only at irregular intervals. I tended to miss Gina in the first book, but I was happy when she became a queen albeit by marriage. In the second book I let her reappear, having her own life, her own adventures, but did not fully realize them. I had plans for a volume that was all of her lives separate from Sebastian.

In Book III, I gave her full stage. After wrapping up several storylines by the middle of the book, Gina returns in her own adventure. By this point in my writing history I was ready to write a very strong, determined, take-no-shit female character who fights for herself and her family and who achieves great things. She enters a city in the future of the world she is trapped on and works hard, rising into the executive class. Her background in science provides her a foot in the door of the space council whose mission is to plan what to do as a fatal comet approaches the planet. Gina soon leads the council, all the while exerting her influence on politics in her adopted city and conducting an affair with a fellow scientist to feed her emotional needs.

The end of the story forces Gina to make difficult choices. To save her daughter, to allow her daughter to get a seat on one of the spacecraft destined to evacuate the planet's select few, Gina bites her lip and submits to the Governor's kinky fetishes. It is the most difficult scene I have ever tried to write, balancing her anger and determination with her mental acknowledgement to give in in order to secure her grown daughter's freedom. She sacrifices herself for the good of others--a role too often assigned to the woman in the story. Here it is simple math: there is a finite number of seats on a few spacecraft but she never loses her fire for justice.

I'm biased, of course, but Gina Parton a.k.a. Jinetta d'Elous is my favorite female protagonist. I love her, but she would not love me. She is too strong to put up with someone like me. She would lose patience with me, and likely write her own damn story. But in the end of such a beautiful, fulfilled life, even the strongest character, female or male, will be ready to let go and watch the comet come down.

In the real world, however, there are plenty of women achieving great things. But there should be so many more left to their talents and ideas, allowed to fully engage in their efforts, left to achieve things for the betterment of all humanity! After all, we are not in competition; we must work together, encouraging each other, lifting each other up rather than putting anyone down.

As the father of a daughter now entering the frantic world of career, family, service--whatever she wants to do--I want her to be free to achieve everything she possibly can and be a leader among leaders who will work to make our world a better place than it, sadly, is today.

(C) Copyright 2010-2015 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

01 March 2015

Letter to a Young Poet

One of the things I do (when I choose to do anything at all) is tutor or mentor or guide or coach young writers and poets, both in the classroom (my day job) and outside the classroom (my avocation). 

Recently one of my charges became so frustrated with events transpiring in her life that she asked the fundamental questions of existence that drive many writers to their craft--or from it. I could not answer in that moment with any suitable response but I did return later and typed out something approaching an answer. As I sat back, my fingers still sizzling with the electricity of creation, I was suddenly reminded of another such Q&A between Rainier Maria Rilke and a young poet who asked for his advice.

Not to put myself into that class, I nevertheless thought perhaps this Q&A might be of interest to others who write or mentor writers or those having an interest in existence and identity. (I must confess, I explored notions of identity in quite some seriousness while researching and writing a dissertation which remains hidden in a trunk in the basement.)

After polite small talk and responding to earlier issues related to an opportunity to go to what I cautioned her was a dangerous place now, she asks the following: 

You know what I'm thinking about? It seems that I cannot find myself. What I live for? Where is my place in this world? I cannot find peace...

You ask big questions that philosophers have struggled with for centuries. And me, too. What do we do now that we are here on Earth? Religious ideology has answers and many people follow those suggestions. Non-religious philosophies offer other suggestions. Most seem to come down to helping other people, creating things that will outlast you, or dreaming of a better world and working to make it change to that dream.
I think young people especially wonder about this question. We have school as our focal point for so many years that when we are free of school we have nothing to do. Most get jobs, meet someone and form a family. After that, life demands that they do many things at regular intervals in their lives. They watch their children grow up, they serve their boss at the job, they take vacations, and so on.
Others reject that traditional path and seek something more serious, more meaningful, more profound. That doubles back to the religious questions: Why am I here? What is my purpose? What should I do with my life? Nobody will have the same answers as you or me.
For me, I started as a music student because I loved music so much. However, I found it to be more difficult once I studied it in college. I got my degree and planned to be a music teacher but I never got that job. So I returned to college and studied Communications (TV, radio, film), which led to a job at a TV station in my city. That job was soon eliminated by staff reduction, so I got the first job I could find--which had nothing to do with my education or interests. Eventually I got the opportunity to travel, and live and work in foreign lands. Besides paying well, I learned a lot about myself, what I wanted to do--what interests me and what makes me happy when I'm doing it--and what I am good at doing.
So once again I returned to college and prepared to be an English teacher instead of a Music teacher. I've been on this path for many years now, of course. It is not perfect but it seems the best life I can find. It gives me something to do which makes me feel useful and helpful. It gives me time to do other things that interest me, such as writing novels. Most importantly, perhaps, it gives me an identity: I like being the person I am when I'm doing my job. I am a professor. I like being "a professor" in the eyes of society--even though I usually call myself a "teacher" when asked.
I think identity is very important in selecting a path or purpose in life. Who you want to be is as important as What you want to be or What you want to do. How do you want to see yourself in five years? How do you want people to think of you in five years? Then consider what your best skills are. How can you use those skills in a reasonable, realistic, helpful way? It is not an easy or quick process answering such questions. But careful consideration will result in a choice which enriches you and provides direction in your life, as well as give you a platform for helping others and changing the world in ways you think best.
Along the way, however, you must still stop and take time to be silly, frivolous, immature, unhelpful, and self-centered--at least briefly but at regular intervals. We all need to take a break from a path of purpose, I think. While hiking up to the mountaintop, it's good to pause and take a look around, see the valley below, see the trail you've made, and set your eyes again on that mountain peak.
Good luck! I'll always be here to advise you, for what it may be worth, and you are free to dismiss my advise. You are your own person and only you can walk the path you set yourself on.

Perhaps it is easy to ask questions. Thankfully asking the right question helps us get to the right answer, if it exists. I'm not usually a spiritual person but I have my moments. On that day, I did. Tomorrow I might have fumbled around and said nothing. The muses are forever fickle.
Enjoy your day. Enjoy your life. Help somebody if you have the time and inclination. Nobody is keeping count but it makes the world go round a little happier.

(C) Copyright 2010-2015 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.