Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Upside of Stress

© Marta Stephens 2008 all rights reserved

Those who know me, probably know me best as a crime fiction author. For the past year since the release of my debut novel, I’ve sat behind my computer screen in the comfort of anonymity. I’ve shared some insights about my book, characters, and my writing experiences but little else about me. What is of interest in the latter would probably fit into a mini thimble and so I’ve conveniently avoided the subject of “me” all together.

On the other hand, my writing stems from the whole of my experiences. So who I am? A woman, wife, mother, sister, daughter, mentor, student, neighbor, writer, and friend to most. Each of these individual “experiences” can conjure up several stories of their own.

There’s yet another side to me – my day job. Like so many writers I have one. Mine’s in higher education and I’ve been there for 29 years. Still few, including my close circle of cyber friends, know what I do for a living or what stresses I encounter on a regular basis. I’ve worked in human resources for 16 of those 29 years where I’ve developed the WorkLife Programs. My days are all about juggling between tasks like helping employees find suitable daycare options for their children and then turn around to work on a campus campaign. I’m an event planner, a web designer, and do a sundry of other special projects. I enjoy the diversity of my job, but at times, managing projects, deadlines and dealing with a wide assortment of personalities can be stressful.

One of the great things about being a writer though is that when I have a particularly difficult day or a draining experience I take it home and ponder over it. Oh I can hear the gasps now! I know, I know, I’ve heard it said repeatedly too; leave your work at work. What I’m referring to are my thoughts, observations, discussions -- the images triggered in me during our positive or negative encounter. Think of the information bank we can build from our daily exchanges with others; those nuances of everything from total respect to disbelief, from joy to steaming anger, the look of surprise in a woman’s eyes or the sound of a man’s sigh of relief. Don’t let those precious thoughts go to waste, journal them, record your reactions/emotions. Go on. Express yourself completely including the *@!!#*!! if you must. Don’t hold back. After all, those notes are for your eyes only to one day use to develop a character.

Here’s a for instance. I was in the middle of a huge project with a deadline looming just days away when my database, 4,400 records, disappeared. After my stomach turned and I sucked in a couple of gulps of air, I grab our IT man and dragged him into my office. While he checked my computer system, I paced. My heart thumped when he picked up the phone and dialed his friend at our IT center for assistance. At this point I didn’t know if the weeks of work I had put into the project had been lost or not, but something in this man’s voice caught my attention. You see, this happened at a time when I was trying to learn how to write a male voice.

When I heard him speak into the phone I seized the moment. I not only eavesdropped on his phone conversation, I took notes. Oh yes, I shamelessly listened with peaked interest to the exchange between those two members of the opposite sex and jotted down every word my friend spoke. His side of the conversation went like this: “Yup, gotcha. Uh huh, yup, Yup. (chuckle, chuckle). Okay. Gotcha. Yup, yup, (chuckle, chuckle … again). Oh, yeah! Yup, gotcha ... all right. Uh huh, later.”

Obviously my friend was a man of few words and although my Sam Harper character is a bit more “articulate,” listening in on this conversation helped me to understand how to write the male voice -- don’t write complete sentences and chop the hell out of them. I never did find out what the two men discussed and that’s okay. My only concern was that he found a way to fix the problem and saved the day. Yay!

So yup, yup, this potentially stressful situation turned out to be a useful lesson. So next time you get upset don’t stress, instead take notes. Use those negative experiences to your benefit and find a way to apply the routine and seemingly mundane to your writing. It’s a proven fact that journaling thoughts, watching our diets and regular exercise can in most cases reduce stress. So as I sit in front of my computer and stuff that third piece of chocolate into my mouth, I look to those frustrating encounters as the catapult to write the next dynamite bit of dialogue or a character’s profile. Who knows how or when those neatly-tucked-out-of-site-experiences will find their way into the pages of my manuscripts?
* * *
Marta Stephens writes crime mystery/suspense novels. Her debut book, SILENCED CRY, was released by BeWrite Books (UK) in April 2007. Look for the next in the Sam Harper Crime Mystery series, THE BLACK PEARL in 2008. Stephens resides with her family in the Midwest. www.martastephens-author.com

Stress can lead to a number of serious health problems. Click here for information on how to cope with stress.


s.w. vaughn said...

Soooo . . . chocolate is considered part of a healthy diet, right? LOL

Thanks for posting this, Marta. It's really cool to get a glimpse into your day life!

(Man, I only manage ten or so people at a time, and that's hard. Don't see how you can coordinate a whole campus!)

Marta Stephens said...

LOL not quite the whole campus, but some of the projects I'm involved with do involve campus wide participation. No room for errors when all eyes are on you.

And yes, chocolate is an excellent source of comfort! ;)

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

My favorite chocolate in the world comes from Switzerland, MILKE. It's sometimes sold in the States and has a lavender wrapper with a cow on it. If I can't get that, I go to ALDI to get their German Milk chocolate that is really creamy and reasonably priced.

What? This post isn't about chocolate. Oh, right. Well, anyway, I agree so wholeheartedly with your take, Marta, particularly on eavesdropping. One of the things I advise young writers to do is to LISTEN. Listen hard, listen often, to every conversation around you. That's the only way to get realistic dialogue. Now I'm also paying more attention to "beat" material, thanks to your encouragement. When I'm suspicious, I pay attention to what my face does, so I can describe a drawn brow or raised eyebrow rather than using the horrible "I cast him a suspicious look," or something equally awful.