Saturday, February 21, 2009

Compassion Fatigue

ROBERTA: I recently submitted a section of my current opus to a couple of my reading buddies and was struck when one said: “I can’t believe your character would do that.” (I think the character in question was leaving his wife abruptly rather than confess to financial misdeeds.)

Lately, the paper is full of that kind of stranger than fiction stuff. Doesn’t it seem like another public figure goes down in flames every week? I don’t have any trouble buying that people do stupid things. (Although Blagojevich has taken this to a new level.) I can believe that Alex Rodriguez was feeling a ton of pressure about the high-paying contract he signed, and that he was immature and maybe (maybe!) naive. I can believe that Bill Clinton was dizzy with power and tired of being watched at every moment.

People are steeped in denial about their own weaknesses and motivations. We writers know that from our own lives and we exploit it fully in our characters. Where I get lost is when public figures get caught and then deny wrong doing. I'm thinking maybe we should all make a pact on Jungle Red: If one of us does something dumb, let's all remind her or him to fess up? Any takers? Or takes on the subject?

HALLIE: Confession: if there WERE a performance-enhancing drug for writing, I'd have long ago taken it. And inhaled. Then, despite my dozens of NY Times best sellers, I'd fess up, here and now. If only.

RO: No fair....Hank is quite perfect and the rest of us would look like losers.

HANK: Oh, now who's on drugs?

ROBERTA: So we need a new pact, then? If one of you guys comes up with a performance-enhancing drug for writing, we're all in?

JAN: Definitely in. The coffee isn't working anymore. But I did have a sports/energy drink the other day for tennis that I was going to try to apply to writing. I'll let you know.....

HANK: There was an amazing article in the NY Times a few months ago, and it haunts me every day. The bottom line was that people who are less than intelligent have NO idea they're dolts.

Here's what the experiment did, if I have it right. They gave a group of people a test. Then, afterwards, they asked each person how they felt they did. By a huge and indisputable margin, the people who said things like "Oh, I aced it" or "I knocked it out of the ball park" did poorly on the test.

The people who said--"oh, I don't know, I could have done better" or "I wish I could go back and answer some of those questions again" were the ones who, absolutely, did well.

To me, that explains so much. I mean, it's brilliant. If people have NO IDEA that they have no idea, doesn't that explain so much?

SO. We have Elliot Spitzer, who, I guess, figured he could do anything he wanted. The guy in Boston who said his name was Clark Rockefeller but it was really Christian Gerhartsreiter. The guy who crashed his plane so he could pretend he was dead.

The WOMAN WITH THE CHIMP. I mean, let's just stop right there.

RHYS: Right now I'd wrestle Hank for the performance enhancing writing drug! Two books a year is getting to be overwhelming. Also thinking of doing a James Patterson and hiring a mini-me.
But the people who astound me are all those millionaires who coughed up serious money to Madoff without any guarantees. Surely if you have millions you have financial advisors and you run any transaction through them. I suppose the simple answer is greed. Also the simple answer to the housing crisis. Mortgage bankers were just too greedy and people took loans too good to be true.

We are all wise, sensible and all around fabulous people. The problem will be when they write our tell-all biographies, will they have anything juicy to tell.
Okay, so my misspent youth but....

RO: You know...I met that chimp. A few years back, one of the owner's dogs followed Bruce home when he was out for a run and the dog wouldn't leave. We had to call the owner and drive the dog home..which was uh, untraditional with, as I recall, a horse trailer, a maybe an was like a travellers know..the Irish travellers..weird...and then the chimp came out...

HANK: Rhys, I definitely want to hear about your misspent youth. But it's RO they're gonna want in People Magazine for her close encounter of the primate kind. Now--what were we talking about,again?

ROBERTA: Did I meet you during my misspent youth, Rhys? Okay, JR Readers, pick a thread and do the best you can! If you don't like any of these topics, come back Tuesday for the amazing Nancy Pickard or Wednesday for the fabulous Kate Collins or Friday to hear psychologist Carolyn Kaufman talk about writing great fictional characters.


  1. I don't even know where to start wading into these topics. Give me a sec to pull on my hip boots.

    I want an antidote for "Stupid People Syndrome". Unfortunately, stupidity cannot be legislated against, or prosecuted. As much as I'd like it to be so. I want to be Picard and say, "Make it so, Number One." And it is. The person who can cure or inoculate against stupidity will win a Nobel in Medicine, at the very least. (If not the Peace Prize). Until then, we have the Darwin Awards to amuse us.

    Misspent youth? I plead the fifth. (And drank a few...)

  2. Great topic, Roberta. I don't even want to get into the Confessions of Stupid Things Done in My Past area. But on believability in fiction, something happened to me in real life several years ago that, if you had read about it, you'd say, "This would never happen in real life." And ever since I've been trying to get it into a story and haven't succeeded in making it sound plausible (OK, OK, it was finding a phone ringing in leaves at the side of the road while I was doing my 4-mile walk, and I answered it, and so on. Really!). So the stupid things that public figures are doing these days - how do we work those into a story that doesn't make people say, "Oh, nobody would ever be THAT stupid..."?

  3. I love it. How do you know if you're stupid? You think you aren't. Brilliant.

  4. I apologize for this long response - however the topic struck a chord in me and here's how it sounds:

    As you may all know, I'm a fan of going within. In fact, a good motto for me would be "go within or go without!!!" True no matter how you look at.

    Sheila - the mere fact that someone's attention goes to - stupid - should be a red flag. Why would that "concept" even come up if there was not some kind of issue associated with "being stupid"? And, what's really laughable is the fact that your mind would either try to cover it or defend it.

    I'm sure at some time or other we all feel stupid - but that's fine to admit that to yourself - that's where the healing is - in that recognition and acceptance of who you are in that moment. The truth of the matter is irrelevant. It's how you feel about yourself that really directs your life.

    From my perspective, the reason people make choices that are - I'll be generous - less than supportive - is that they are not in touch with how their life is truly unfolding. That is, what emotional parameters are truly controlling them and their life.

    I have seen much healing work occur where people go into their pain and can see what has had a grip on them. For the most part, we spend much time either suppressing our inner most feelings or neglecting them. It takes courage to turn and face them squarely.

    When I was 13, my 19 year old brother was killed on the streets of the east Bronx. That was a far more important issue between God and me than whether I was stupid or not!

    It took 30 years to accept it, but I'm finally okay with it because I was forced to go deeply within and unveil the secrets of life. Even, better it was the fuel that spawned my script - "The American Siblings".

    So... what I know... the inoculation for Stupidity is - Self accpetance! Acknowledge it - and move on! Denial generates more stupidity!!!


  5. "If people have NO IDEA that they have no idea, doesn't that explain so much?"

    So Much!!

    Great Post.

  6. Sorry this came out so early--blogger was supposed to put it up Monday morning. Talk about stupid:)

    I was taught that people hold secrets about themselves and have no awareness of them--in other words, yes, they have no idea they have no idea. Until an event occurs that shakes up their equilibrium and forces them to look at themselves. And that's the point when they'd turn up in therapy. To me, this would make a fascinating book: After the Blunder--Public Figures Tell All.

    Except I wouldn't talk to me for the book, so why would they?

    By the way, Edith, dying to hear that phone in the leaves story!

  7. Roberta -

    Very helpful explanation - illuminates the unexplained characteristics of being human.

    Even though the book would be fascinating, my guess is many public figures don't even get what happened - then go into guilt and possibly even remorse - remorse at least for being caught. Which makes it even more clear why the event happened in the first place.

    In that sense, you are looking at the psychological version of the Heisenberg theory of uncertainty - the more you know about the position of something - the less you know about its speed or other physical aspects. So, yes they know that whatever they did was not acceptable, yet they don't fathom how it relates to them or what in them is the issue.

    And yeah - that phone in the leaves, awesome!

    Reminds me of the time I was sitting in a barber shop with Jim Burnstein when I was writing "The American Siblings" and he says to me - "So, how did you meet Regina (my half-sister)?" "I told God, if it be his will I'd like to meet her!" Then noted to God - "It's your nickle, I have no idea how to contact her or what her name is!"

    6 weeks later she called a cousin of mine.

    Jim then replied - "I know that's what happened, but how could we do it to make it believable!!!"

    True story. BTW - Jim wrote Rennaissance Man, Mighty Ducks 3 etc.

    I have to tell the things that have happened in my life few would believe.


  8. One of my favorite "stupid people" moment (which I did use in a book) was when I witnessed a guy walking down the street reading a newspaper. He ran into a metal pole (it held a street sign, I think), reared back, and punched the pole. OUCH.

  9. Great discussion. This whole thing makes me think of how tentative our hold on reality is, whatever reality is, by the way.

    Ever talk to your siblings, friends, or parents about some event from your childhood? I'm amazed at how differently we perceive things. Something I saw as tragic, they might remember as funny or as not happening at all. Denial?

    It's something to remember when drawing up characters. What turns 2D characters 3D are flaws, complexity, alternate viewpoints, and, yes, denial.

    I guess I'm not stupid. I never think I do well on a test! (I usually do just the opposite of how I perceived it. So, maybe I am stupid.)

    I think the phone ringing in leaves is completely plausible--and would make a fantastic kickoff to a story. Unless it's one of those old rotary phones. Actually, that might be better!

  10. Oh, Kira, once I thanked my mother for telling me how to deal with kids. She said, years and years ago--just follow your instincts, it'll be fine.

    And I told her, thanks, that really worked.

    And she looked like I was--I don't know. She told me: I NEVER said that. I wouldn't have said it, it's ridiculous, and I never said that.

    But I really remember she did. But she would have none of it.

  11. And Edith, come ON. What happened with the phone? Or is that a short story??

  12. Well that's the true beginning, except the short story for which it is a catalyst remains half-written. This comment thread might just have inspired me to finish it! Stand by...


  13. Hurray, Edith! When you finish, let us show off the first two pages on Jungle Red...

  14. I do well on tests, always have. Means nothing, just that I do well on tests. The trouble with most test is that they leave out all the little things that could make A the right answer, or if you looked at it a bit differently, C could be right . . . .
    One of my sisters has such a sliding memory. I ask her the same three or four questions ever year or so, just to see what the answer is NOW. Why did you do X? Changes all the time so that the decisions she made in the 1960s were politically correct by TODAY's standards. Very entertaining.

    Would love to know about the phone in the leaves.

    I give up trying to sign in. Guess I'm anonymous tonight.

    And I actually feel sorry for Blago; he was just doing business the way it had always been done there. Not his fault that the senator got elected president and suddenly every spotlight was on the Guv.