Reinforcement is Good

In rehearsals for *The Tavern*

“Properly used, positive reinforcement is extremely powerful.” ~ B. F. Skinner

As I wrote in the post last week, I attended a writer’s celebration sponsored in part by the local community college where I teach. It was a fun event. The guest authors were amazing. I enjoyed Ann Garvin’s workshop so much that I attended two sessions even though they contained the same information.

Ann was engaging and funny. I’m assuming her books are too given the title of her most recent book, I Like You Just Fine When You’re Not Around. She’s written several books and the thing I loved right off the bat was her willingness to tell us that she didn’t really know how to write a good book until after she finished her fourth. It was then she realized the things she was going to teach us.

Much of what Ann and the other writers taught was information I already knew. For example, even if you’re writing nonfiction, you have to tell a story, otherwise, as Ann puts it, you’re reading the manual to your newest household appliance. Even though I already understood that, it was great to be reminded to engage my readers with stories. I’m working on doing that here more and more.

Another reminder was, when writing fiction, you have to figure out what your character wants and let them fail, and fail, and fail, until eventually they get what they want, or what they want changes and they get that instead. But the most important thing is your characters need to be flawed. That’s one of the hardest things for me to do. I want to think of myself, and by extension by characters as perfect, enlightened beings. Of course, none of us is perfect. So, that reminder was something I needed to hear to help me as I write my current novel.

Ann’s method of writing a novel is almost the same method actors use to create their characters. Actors and directors have to figure out what the characters want, and the tactics they use to try to accomplish their goal. That was a big relief to me, because I don’t have an MFA in creative writing. I was happy to learn that neither does Ann.

Even though I don’t have degrees in English, I am a big story nerd. I love listening to people tell about their personal triumphs and tragedies. I love analyzing books, documentaries, and movies. I learn something when I pay attention to how the people or characters are affected by the things that happen to them and what they learn along the way.

Sometimes I wonder what the purpose of my passion for story telling might be. I mean, I’m not saving someone’s life. And yet, maybe storytellers do save lives in a way. We can help change the world by examining how characters react to what happens to them.

Alan Alda expressed exactly how I feel about story telling during his acceptance speech for the SAG Lifetime Achievement Award earlier this year. “I see more than ever now how proud I am to be a member of our brotherhood and sisterhood of actors. When we get a chance to act, it’s our job, at least in part, to get inside a characters head and to search for a way to see life from that person’s point of view, another person’s vision of the world. And then to let an audience experience that. It may never have been more urgent to see the world through another person’s eyes than when the culture is divided so sharply. Actors can help at least a little, just by doing what we do. And the nice thing is, it’s fun to do it.”

I think storytellers of all kinds do that same thing. We try to get into other people’s heads and hearts and share their stories. Consuming those stories gives us a chance to expand our world view just a little bit. And I don’t know about you, but I need to see the world from different perspectives so I can contribute to positive change.

I want to suggest one example of a series that has changed my perspective about relations between blacks and whites in this country. Barry and I have been watching the PBS series, Reconstruction by Henry Louis Gates Jr. The Reconstruction period in U.S. history is one not covered very extensively in school. I certainly didn’t know much about it. The Civil War ended, there was Reconstruction to help rebuild the South and then we had the Civil Right’s Movement. That’s all I remember from my school history lessons. The history books didn’t cover all the years in between Reconstruction and the Civil Right’s Movement. Something must have happened, but I didn’t even question the fact that there had to be more to the story than that.

The stories of how many former slaves became politicians, business and land owners, and journalists is inspiring. And then to have their gains slowly chipped away by whites who didn’t believe blacks were real human beings, is heartbreaking. The story of Reconstruction shows me that our problems over race in this country are much more complicated than I ever imagined. I’m grateful for the opportunity to learn about this crucial time in history, and how the attempts to equalize the black and white races succeeded at first and then, for the most part, failed. This documentary series showed me that we have a lot of work to do yet before we can truly call our country a melting pot. And the sad thing is that what happened with the former slaves is repeated over and over when people from other countries immigrate here. It’s difficult to acknowledge that many white people fear losing their dominant position and that is one of the biggest things that drives discrimination.

It might not seem like the story of the Reconstruction era relates to the book I’m writing now about the Suffrage and current women’s movements, but discrimination plays out the same way no matter which group is being oppressed. The dominant group do everything they can to hold on to their power.

Ann Garvin says, “Write ‘in scene’ so your readers can feel the emotions of your characters.” That’s one of the most important things writers can do, help the audience empathize with their characters. My readers and I can’t change unless we open ourselves up to new experiences, even if it’s only by reading a book or watching a movie.

Thanks for reading, liking and commenting. And welcome to my new followers. If you celebrate Passover or Easter, I hope you discover new and inspiring things in those historical stories.

Lucinda Sage-Midgorden © 2019

Lucinda is the author of The Space Between Time, an award finalist in the “Fiction: Fantasy” category of the 2017 Best Book Awards. It’s a little bit like Outlander in that it’s a historical, time-travel, magical realism, novel. Only Jenna joins consciousness with her three-times great-grandmother, Morgan, instead of traveling physically. She is able to come back at intervals and apply what she’s learned to her own life situations.

The Space Between Time is available in all ebook formats at Smashwords, or you can find the ebook at iBooks or Barnes and Noble. If you prefer a physical copy, you can find a print-on-demand version at Amazon. Stay tuned for news on the audiobook version Lucinda is working on. To join her email list, click here. She will never sell the names on her list.

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