I Know What You Did Last Summer and Other Ways to Provoke Guilt

This week I finished reading I Know What You Did Last Summer by Lois Duncan. I also watched the pilot episode of Ozark on Netflix. Both stories had scenes which illustrate the psychological impact of guilt.

In Duncan’s novel, Julie receives a piece of mail. In the envelope is a letter which contains the title sentence: “I know what you did last summer.” In Ozark, Marty confronts his murderous drug boss’ accusations. Marty accuses him of “fishing” for information, which he later admits. Marty’s partner, Bruce, and his co-conspirators, however, start babbling, admitting to information only a guilty party would know.  Big mistake. But that’s guilt.

That one sentence – “I know what you did last summer – causes Julie and her friends to engage in behavior that confirms their guilt. In Ozark, the guilty parties confess their sins before their accuser even knows for certain there is anything to confess. In both situations, it was the “spotlight” that caused the discomfort and led to the mistakes in behavior.

What I am calling “the spotlight” is a metaphor for guilt. In normal, non-narcissistic, non-sociopathic people, something changes inside of us when we do something wrong. Because we have violated our own ethical standards, or done something that we know will hurt someone else, or engaged in activity that is illegal or immoral, an inner spotlight flips on and shines down on the activity. It continues to shine, even while we’re doing and thinking about other things. That continuous spotlight reminds us that our behavior is incompatible with what we know is right. That’s why, when someone questions us about the bad behavior, our bodies and minds betray us. Lie detectors are designed to pick up on this. The mismatch between our beliefs and our actions causes a physical reaction that can be detected electronically.

But the lie detector is not necessary.  The spotlight tricks us into believing that everyone can see what we’ve done. When someone comes too close to discovering the truth, we think the spotlight is growing bigger and brighter. That’s why people confess. The hot brightness of the spotlight is too uncomfortable, too relentless. The weight of the guilty conscience becomes so heavy that confessing the misdeed, and accepting the consequences, seems less painful.

And getting rid of the guilt is a good thing. We should never wallow in guilt. Guilt, by itself, is not helpful. Nevertheless, the ability to feel guilt separates normal human beings from narcissists and sociopaths. The fact that narcissists and sociopaths exist is one of the reasons why lie detectors cannot be totally trusted. Some people don’t have spotlights. Either they are born without one, or they’ve ignored them for so long that the light eventually goes out. In either case, if you can’t feel remorse, you also can’t bond with other humans.

Guilt is part of the survival package that allows us to live together peacefully in community. Guilt is not an end to itself. It’s just a normal human emotion. It is a signal that something is wrong. It is the pathway to remorse. It is an invitation to apologize, make restitution to the abused party, and eventually be forgiven and restored to the community. People who lack the ability to feel remorse can never be restored to the people they’ve harmed. They go from person to person wreaking havoc and leaving hurt, victimized people in their wake. Society needs to be protected from such people.

But if you have done something you know is wrong, remember that the spotlight is there to help you. It’s a signal that something is broken. It should inspire further action to rectify the situation.

However…if someone says “I already know what you did, you might as well confess,” they might be bluffing! Confess at your own risk!

 

Peace and love,

Raven

 

 

 

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The Importance of Journaling

Thursdays are normally my clean-up days. I wake up, straighten up for an hour or so, then go into meditation. This week, however, I stumbled across an old journal of mine. I’m generally not interested in the past at all, but I thought it would be fun to scan through what I had written.

I found an entry about an old boyfriend from years ago who wasn’t very nice to me. One of those things where you break up and the next thing you know he’s posting about introducing some woman to his parents. “Hi, I’m getting engaged!” “But, wait, didn’t we break up a couple of seconds ago?”

I care nothing about this now, but it was a bummer then. However, when I read what I had written about him, I realized that it wasn’t even a bummer then. In my mind, I had glossed over the negative because so much time had passed. When I actually went back and read my journal entries, it was obvious that we were in no way right for each other. If his new boo is the right one, I’m happy for him. Truly. Time heals all wounds (if you let it).

But time is also a liar. Had I not stumbled across that journal entry, I might have told myself a story about that situation which was patently untrue. The truth was written in black and white: Our break up had been inevitable. Only the clarity of hindsight made that crystal clear.

As a writer, the truth of any situation is what is most important to me. Memories are unreliable. How we remember something often has nothing to do with what actually occurred. Only by recording things as they happen, can we capture how we really feel in the moment – before time has a chance to come in with its airbrush and make it all pretty.

Our characters are the same way. What they remember in our stories will not be accurate. Show how that happens. And if you’re ever struggling with writer’s block, it can help to have your characters write a few journal entries. It helps us get inside their minds when we allow them to write about their problems freely, from their own perspective. Just open up a new Word doc and call it “So and so’s diary.” You may be amazed at what you come up with.

And if your characters are unhappy, that’s a great thing for drama! Have them write about it and get some juicy details flowing.

Happy writing!

Peace and love,

Raven

Twin Peaks and the Nature of Evil

The new screenplay I’m working on has characters that defy labels of “good” and “evil.” It has been interesting exploring their motivations and their desires. I have come to like all of my characters, the good ones and the bad ones.

I’m also re-watching the first iteration of Twin Peaks (1990-1991) and I’m on Season Two. As strange and unrealistic as the story is, the show really makes me think. As I watched LeLand, one of the hosts of evil spirit Bob, attack Maddy, I paid specific attention to Leland’s relationship with Bob.

As Leland is attacking Maddy, we go back and forth between seeing Bob or Leland as the attacker. Leland cries out “Laura,” and “my baby.” Bob, of course, just grunts and growls. But, if we are to believe that Leland is his true self for brief moments, and Bob at other moments, then Leland is not only bad when he is inhabited by Bob. He has seeds of Darkness within him even without Bob. Leland, the man, has an unhealthy (and unholy) attachment to his own daughter, whom Maddy reminds him of. So, is it really Bob who motivated Leland’s violence? Or, was it Leland all along – and Bob, the spirit, was just along for the ride because he had a willing host?

This made me think about real life. Are people evil because they’re just evil, or are they overcome by spiritual forces that compel them to do evil? If they are overcome by spiritual forces, then they will be horrified and remorseful once they come back to themselves. Leland is remorseful once the full weight of his deeds hits him. And I’ve seen criminals express genuine sorrow and remorse for their crimes (usually once they’re caught). They often are hazy on the details of their crimes. They remember just before it happened and right afterward. The doing of it is a blank.

Are they suppressing an unthinkable memory? Or, were they “possessed” by a murderous spirit that, in a sense, took them over?

I’m no David Lynch expert, so I have no idea what his intentions were with the show. But, my own take-away is that Leland is not some blameless vessel that was simply taken over by evil. He was a co-creator of evil who fell in and out of lucidity by choosing to ignore his conscience.

And that’s the point for me: evil is a co-creation. I do believe that evil exists as a spiritual force of sorts. It thrives where goodness is rejected. But, as humans, we have a choice. We can choose to embrace evil and negativity, or we can choose to embrace goodness and integrity. Evil is introduced when we choose to follow our selfish drives, and ignore what we know is right. That introduction becomes a way of life when we persistently ignore the nagging of conscience.

Evil, I believe, then gains a foothold in us through trauma, pain, and fear. These powerful negative emotions make us more vulnerable to outside malevolent influences as well as internal moral conflicts. What approaches us from the outside is eventually invited to the inside, as we submit to its influence. So, while we may hate that which is evil, we also must understand and have compassion for it, since the seeds of it exist within us all. We avoid Darkness by resisting it. But, the weak among us are unable to do so. Thus, criminals and “bad guys” are humans, above all.

This ability to view both the “good” and the “bad” guys with balance, compassion, and thoughtfulness is important for writers. One-dimensional characters are forgettable and false. There is some good in the worst and some bad in the best. Twin Peaks rises to the level of art because it recognizes the complexity of the human experience, and explores it in a novel and compelling way.

We, too, can infuse our writing with complexity if we approach both our beloved and our hated characters with the knowledge that Good and Bad are stereotypes. Real life humans are a mixed up combination of both.

Happy writing!

Peace and love,

Raven

The Best Writing Advice

The best writing advice I ever heard was just to write. Very non-sexy, right?  But that’s it in a nutshell. Write.

There are lots of tips out there about how to write compelling characters, how to structure the plot, and how to market your finished work. But the advice that has helped me the most is this: sit butt in chair, and…go!

And read. That’s the second best writing advice I’ve ever gotten. As I read, I get a growing feel for what works and what doesn’t. Reading also informs me on what has already been written. That still leaves the problem of time.

Time is, and always will be, a problem for everyone. For artists, who are often trying to balance day jobs with their real passions, time is a big deal. There are no fancy tricks to finding time to write, either. Figure out when you’re at your best, then find a way to write at that time. I’m best in the morning. So I peel myself out of the bed and write in the mornings. Nothing fancy, nothing sexy.

But it gets that first draft written.

Emphasis on first draft. The only way to get anything written is to just write. The first things that come to mind will usually suck. I write them anyway. I hold my nose, and write them anyway. I wouldn’t dare show anyone, not unless I were being held at gunpoint. Then, yes, I would reveal my first draft. Other than that, first drafts are private, secret territory. The next few drafts will probably be better. Nevertheless, putting words on the page is the goal.

I wish I had juicier advice. But I don’t. If you want to write (or paint, or start a business, or do stand-up comedy), just do it. Don’t ask for permission. Don’t worry about money, fame, or critical acclaim. Just do a whole bunch of it. And repeat.

Have a beautiful, creative weekend.

Peace and love,

Raven

Whatcha Reading?

As writers, we have to be just as concerned with our input as our output. Good writers are usually voracious readers. Not only is reading pleasurable, it exercises the mind in a more passive way than writing, while also providing subconscious material for future writing.

Mind you, I’m not talking about plagiarism. I’m saying that having lots and lots of stories in your head gives you more to pull from when you do your own writing. It’s good to read in your preferred genre. But it’s even more excellent to branch out and read in other genres. Push yourself. It might just liven up your writing!

Here’s what I’m reading now:

  • The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein. This is a sci-fi book about a penal colony on the Moon planning a revolution against their Earthly tyrants – all with the help of Mike, a sentient machine.
  • Daniel Deronda by George Eliot. This is a Victorian novel about a beautiful but spoiled and headstrong young woman who knows marriage is inevitable, but she really wants no parts of it. Isn’t it better to be fawned over and admired by many men?
  • Sleeping Beauties by Stephen King and Owen King. I have no idea what this book is about but it’s hella long (699 pages)! I’m really looking forward to diving in!

What are you all reading? What are your favorite genres?

Have a beautiful weekend – and happy reading!

Peace and joy,

Raven

Midnight in Paris: The Whiny Writer

Full disclosure: I don’t belong to the film elite, the people whose opinions move and shake the film industry. I am also not someone who is compelled, either through scholastic training or peer pressure, to mold my opinions in accordance with those of the film elite. In short, I like what I like; I hate what I hate. I don’t care how many Oscars and “Oscar nods” a movie receives.

In light of the fact that Midnight in Paris won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, and received nominations for Best Motion Picture of the Year (wow), Best Achievement in Directing (hmm), and Best Achievement in Art Direction (Sure, this. It was a gorgeous movie), I still wasn’t impressed. The film was not memorable for me. It did not stimulate me past the outermost layer of my skin’s skin. In other words, it was very pleasant, just not impressive.

I’ll start with what I did like. I liked the movie as a love letter to Paris. There were beautiful shots of Paris in the opening scene, and throughout the film. I liked the funny dialog, which, of course, is synonymous with Woody Allen movies. I could run naked through his dialog. I also always enjoy how people are gently ridiculed in Woody Allen movies; but it never feels mean-spirited. There is a lot of whining in Allen’s films, usually by the main character – Owen Wilson in this case, instead of Woody Allen himself – but I tend to forgive the whining because it’s funny.

I liked the cardboard stereotypes of the fiancée, Inez, and her parents, not because they felt original, but because, by using exaggeration, the characters illustrated a typical problem in relationships. The couple, Gil and Inez, love each other (or, at least, they are attracted to each other), but they really have nothing in common, do not respect each other, and envision completely different futures for themselves. Inez’s parents are living manifestations of a future Gil is desperately trying to avoid. Gil’s attempts to interest Inez in his dreams are just as futile as her attempts to squash them.  Despite the humor in this, it’s pretty realistic. Sometimes two people just really don’t want the same things. In that case, the kindest thing to do is to let your loved one go his own way. For a while, this means allowing Gil to explore his fantasy of the Roaring’ Twenties.

I very much loved the characters of the 1920’s. Although they also seemed like stereotypes of themselves, they were delightful – especially Hemingway. Hemingway was masculine and resolute, unlike Gil. Kathy Bates’ character, Gertrude Stein, was the only woman in the film that interested me. Adriana, the alluring French muse, pretty as she was, did not hold my attention. However, she seemed like the perfect person to project one’s unfulfilled fantasies on. So, in that sense, she was perfect.

Now that I’ve hailed the film as basically pleasant, I’d like to try to articulate why the film left me flat and uninspired. It wasn’t anything major – it was several small things that added up. Just like with a brief and uninspiring relationship – it’s not terrible, there are just several things that combine to turn you off.

First, Gil felt one-dimensional and un-nuanced to me. He was about as deep as a used tissue stuck to a wet back on a hot summer day. His grand epiphany was something the “pedantic” Paul said some ten minutes into the movie: “Nostalgia is denial. Golden Age thinking…is a flaw in the romantic imagination of those people who find it difficult to cope with the present.” So, although this is hardly a revolutionary statement, we have to wait a couple more hours for Gil to reach the same conclusion (without crediting Paul, of course).

Secondly, although inspiration comes in many forms – not the least of which is where we live – it seems simple to attribute a lack of literary success to living in the wrong city. It seems just as simple as attributing magic to a certain time period, which the movie critiques. Some of the best writers live in towns I wouldn’t give two eyelashes for. If Gil has any future success in Paris, it will be because he finally stood up for his dream. It won’t be because he relocated to Paris.

Thirdly, there is a hodge-podge of annoying odds and ends that, as I said earlier, worked to leave me cold. Gil jabs his father-in-law with little political digs, but somehow the father-in-law never has any real comeback. I’m sure this feels good to write, but it’s not at all realistic or fair. All the conservatives I know are just as opinionated and bull-headed as the liberals. Also, it’s unfair and disingenuous to depict screenwriting as easy, something to look down one’s nose at (easy to say when you have money and a string of successes behind you – I’m talking to you, Woody!). This is yet another case of the grass being greener on the other side. But the character seems oblivious to it. We also never really see him writing. Gil gets his review from Gertrude Stein, goes back, and bangs out Hemingway-worthy prose the next day. This, even though all he’s done thus far are screenplays. Gil himself admits they are not the same. I know it’s a movie, but let’s not insult the craft!

Writing is not easy, though the ones who do it well make it look easy. Acting is also not easy. Most of the acting in this film was fine. I’m not sure I ever really bought Owen Wilson as a self-effacing writer-type, though. He does has a way of aping Woody Allen’s speech patterns. Nevertheless, I’m sorry to say, I still didn’t buy it; nor was I all that invested in what happened to him at the end.

But, the good news is – no one cares what I think!

Cheers and happy writing,

Raven