Zena Dell Lowe 0:00
INTRO: Hello and welcome to The Storyteller's Mission with Zena Dell Lowe, a podcast for artists and storytellers about changing the world for the better through story.
Zena Dell Lowe 0:09
TOPIC INTRODUCTION: I was recently interviewed by a student at Covenant College who's in my playwriting class. And she wanted to ask me some questions about the craft of writing and the life of a writer. And I thought that a lot of these answers might actually benefit our very own community. So I'm sharing it with you here. So without further ado, let's get to the show.
Hi. Okay, so my first question is, so how did you discover writing? And what made you aware that it was a calling that you wanted to pursue in your life?
Zena Dell Lowe 0:46
Excellent question. First of all, I'm one of those people that believes that God gives you certain gifts. And your job is to kind of figure out what that gift is. For writing—I believe that if you have the gift of writing, it's something you've always done. It's something I always did. I started writing little stories as soon as I could read and write. I loved to read. I loved to read story. I was into story early on. It was just something that I was drawn to. And I loved writing early on. I would write poems. I would write little stories. I mean, I can't say they were any good, but I did it. I wrote my first novel in the fourth grade. It was 60 pages, which, you know, I'm sure it was terrible, but I wrote it. And you know, how many fourth graders are writing 60 pages of anything?
Zena Dell Lowe 1:39
So there's something about God's calling shows up early. When you're called to do something, you show a talent for it early on. And I think that's important for people to remember. But that doesn't mean you can't build on it. I think that when you have something you're drawn to, you can add to it. In fact, we're supposed to. We're supposed to improve our talents and improve on whatever natural gifting we have.
Zena Dell Lowe 2:08
But for me, it was something I always did. And I didn't know to pursue it professionally, actually, until years later. And it started out —like even in college, I would have teachers say, "Hey, I think you should submit this essay for this competition." Or you know, I'd have a creative, a creative writing teacher say, "Hey, by the way, you know, there's this, this and you should maybe try to get that published and in this magazine" or something. And so I started getting feedback.
Zena Dell Lowe 2:41
And by the way, that's—sometimes, this is important because sometimes we start doing it early, and we love it. But it doesn't mean we're good at it. And so we need the feedback of others. And I'm not talking about just mothers who are supposed to be telling us we're wonderful at everything. But I mean, the people that are—if you start having teachers say, "Hey, you know, you should really think about submitting that to that competition." Or you start getting validation from the outside world because you do submit to a competition and by God you place or you win. Now, you know, it actually is something you're good at. It's not enough to love it. You also have to be good at it. And so that's what ended up making me realize, eventually, that maybe I could actually do this, is I just kept getting enough feedback, where people kept telling me I was good.
Zena Dell Lowe 3:38
And I love to do it anyway. And to me, the real kicker was, I really feel like writers are the most powerful people in the universe. Storytellers. Because whoever controls the narrative controls the world. And the battle begins with story. That's what we're in right now.
Zena Dell Lowe 3:59
In culture, it's a narrative battle. Whoever controls it is going to win. And that's also why it's so dangerous. The twisting of truth, the rewriting of history, the bastardization of the narrative. Because that is just dangerous, dangerous stuff. And when you can do that, you can control the hearts and the minds of the people.
Zena Dell Lowe 4:23
So I really early on came to believe that the storytellers have power. It's why they had a position of authority in the early cultures. You know, when you sit around telling stories, or stories orally, so that you pass on those lessons that the generations before learned? That's some powerful stuff. And so I liked the idea that I had the power to impact culture. I wanted to do that. I wanted to make a positive impact on culture, but it meant that I had to know what was true so that I wasn't actually saying something that was a lie. And that's where theology comes in. But that should answer your question for number one.
Thank you. You're just so naturally quotable. I don't know if you think of these things and say, "Ooh, I'm gonna say that one day. That's gonna be brilliant." Or if brilliance just naturally flows, but truly, you are—ugh. It's photogenic, but for the words.
Zena Dell Lowe 5:30
Thank you. I'm quotable. I love it.
Yeah. So did you—I didn't write this question down, but did you study writing in college? Or what— because you're also an actor, no?
Zena Dell Lowe 5:42
Yes, I started out acting. But see, actors have to wait until other people give you words. And writers can come up with the words. So I still love acting. It's very fun. But that's more what I do hobby wise. Because the storytellers, the ones that write the words, have more power. And I guess I'm arrogant enough to want the power. You know, basically, it was just words and language and reading and story always came easy to me. So I got my college degree in English, which is actually pretty worthless, I suppose. But I loved it. It was easy. And that just came natural to me. And I liked studying it, though. I love studying it, and it isn't worthless. Because when you analyze the truth in story, when you're looking at things on a psychological basis, and you're trying to understand characters, it's really how you understand the world. So it isn't worthless. I'm making a joke about that. But yes, I got my degree in English Literature. And I did it because it was the easiest thing.
English majors for the win. So another thing I recall, on the first day that we met, we bonded over having ADHD. How has that impacted your writing? Has it impacted it in any specific good ways? I'm sure it has added some struggles and how have you—how have you dealt with it?
Zena Dell Lowe 7:18
I'm going to say something radical. I love having attention deficit disorder. I love it. And why I love it is I think it makes us creative. And by the way, it's a lie that people with ADD cannot concentrate. It's that we can't concentrate on the things that we don't want to concentrate on or that are difficult for us to concentrate on. But the truth of the matter is, I can hyper focus also. I can—I can block off the rest of the world for hours and hours. I can not do any of the tasks that I'm supposed to do because I'm so obsessed with what I'm working on. In some ways, it's made me more productive because I've been able to really hyper focus on the things that I love, which are stories.
Zena Dell Lowe 8:18
The problem is, is that I can do that to to the detriment of all my other tasks. So how has it impacted me? I suppose how it's impacted me is it gave me an outlet for my trauma. Growing up, where that's where I lived. I mean, I would read books for hours and hours—the ones that I wanted to read. And then the ones that I was supposed to read for school, I couldn't get through a page. So that's part of the problem. But if I liked what I was reading, man, nobody had to help me read it. I could read it. I could read it until four in the morning because I couldn't put it down, which is part of the problem. So I would say it's helped me in the sense that it's given me life in the areas of narrative that really speak to me. It's been detrimental to me or harmful to me because I will look to those things that give me life to the exclusion of the things that need to get done. And then that ultimately causes me problems in practical life. So I might not get that assignment done for school, but by God, I read an entire novel in a night.
Yeah, I mean, you're stealing my, my history.
Zena Dell Lowe 9:35
So the key then is to figure out how to manage that. Because we also what we can't do is, for one, we can't deny it. You know, that's the thing I really—I had a therapist who helped me with this. He actually helped me because I would get so angry at myself because I would have these 10 things to do. And by God, I would spend the day cleaning out my closet. Now, the thing is, my closet needed to be cleaned out. But why I chose that day to do it when I had all these other things—I would be like, I don't know what's wrong with me, why would I do that. And he called it—he helped me to change my—to rephrase. And he was like, "Well, that was the muse, and the muse needed that, needed to get that clutter out of your brain so that you could be cleared up to be able to deal with this other stuff that was hanging over your head." So instead of feeling ashamed, which would then take me into this cycle of despair for days on end, I could now celebrate the muse and be like, "Yay for the muse for getting that clutter out of my brain. And now I can focus on these other things." So he helped me to not deny the muse. But he also then would help me to rein the muse in, so that it wouldn't just run and control my life. Because when I let the muse run and control my life, everything becomes a crisis. I can't get anything done unless it's crises.
Zena Dell Lowe 11:19
Now, by the way, that's a legitimate thing. Because with ADD, what that means is we don't have enough dopamine in our brain to basically—imagine dopamine being the boats that get the messages across the channels, or the synapses, to the rest of your body to help you accomplish your goals. Well, if you don't have enough dopamine boats to get across the river, or the channel, then you're gonna fizzle out. So what do you do? You create a crises. And so what you lack in dopamine boats becomes adrenaline which forces you to get the tasks done. That's why ADD people, that's why they, they they put things off. And it's also why when it becomes a crisis, by God, they get it done because they needed the extra adrenaline to carry them because of the dopamine shortage. So helping yourself come up with a system that helps you not avoid things for as long is helpful. Because it's a stressful state to be in when you're always living in that state of crises. So you have to make some adjustments. You have to learn how to manage it in a better way.
Zena Dell Lowe 12:36
But I would say overall, though, I love having ADD because I believe it makes me more creative than I would be if I wasn't. And I like faster.
Zena Dell Lowe 12:37
Well, I'm able to make connections that other people don't. I'm able to be spontaneous. I'm able to go off on tangents that other people wouldn't because my brain is picking up something that theirs isn't and it's, it's fascinating. I love it. It's fun.
Zena Dell Lowe 13:08
There's a lot of great stuff about ADD. You have to remember there are always mirror characteristics, right? So where some person might say, "Well, with ADD you can't focus on the tasks that you need to get done." The mirror characteristic might be you're spontaneous and imaginative. And you come up with creative things to look at. I mean, there's all sorts of ways—there's always the mirror to everything. And I think the mirror qualities are worth it. If you can develop a system to help you manage the negative qualities. But I don't look at it as a curse at all. I think it's a blessing.
Zena Dell Lowe 13:56
And you know, traditionally they do say that people with ADD are bright. That's part of the problem is that we're bright enough to have a lot of ideas. Frankly, I want to be bright. I want to have too many things to think about. It's fun. It's more interesting. I don't want to be boring. I don't want to be normal.
I don't think you have to worry about that.
Zena Dell Lowe 14:22
But I think too many people look at it as they've got this hindrance. They've got this learning disability. I've never called it a learning disability ever. I will never call it a learning disability. That to me puts a negative spin on it right away. I look at it as I am a hyper-creative person who has to learn how to better manage my muse so that I can negotiate normal life. But on top of that I want my unnormal life to be dynamic and exciting. I don't want to stifle it. Does that help?
Oh, yes, it does. Is this a day by day basis, or have you found a pretty general good way of reining in your muse so that it's not controlling you all the time?
Zena Dell Lowe 15:14
I've gotten much better over the years. It's more natural. It's more—more just ingrained. I adopted certain things. I write everything down. I used to take—I used to constantly have things to do or like a calendar, and I still have to keep a calendar. And I have to set reminders. I mean, if I, if I didn't have a reminder at the time of this call, I would have missed it. Even though I had a timer that reminded me that in 10 minutes I have this call, I had already forgotten within that 10 minutes that we were having this call. And it's because I got into something else. And had I not had the other reminder, I probably I would have missed our call.
Zena Dell Lowe 15:17
So the truth is those types of things, you compensate for it, you figure out what things you can put into play to just help you. But once you figure that out, it becomes second nature. And you find that you function just fine as long as you keep those things in place. So I keep lots of notes. I write everything down. I keep lots of lists. I make sure I set lots of reminders, so that I—you know that popup on my my phone. And sometimes Alexa will even—you know, I'll say Alexa, remind me in 30 minutes to take the cookies out of the oven or whatever the case may be. And if she hadn't, even though I've got the timer set, I might not know specifically what the thing is because I'm already off to the other thing. So I've gotten a lot better. But it is always going to be a lifelong thing. And I might have to make different adjustments as I go.
Zena Dell Lowe 17:01
I will say I'm a big believer and better living through medication. Praise God that I have the medication and I utilize it well. I don't abuse it, as I know some people do. I don't. I'm very, very careful that I honor the medication the way it's intended. Yeah, I just—I think I'm always improving. I'm always finding new ways to improve or to—I don't know that improve is right, but to better manage the potential flaws that can come with having ADD.
Thank you. Okay, so clearly from that answer, writing—your writing itself doesn't seem to be negatively impacted by ADHD. So what would you say is your greatest struggle in regards to your writing?
Zena Dell Lowe 18:04
Um, it's great question. I think—I think I fall into categories that normal—I mean, normal, I hate to use the word normal—that a vast majority of writers struggle with. First one is "butt in chair". There is something about writing in general, this has nothing to do with ADD, this is just as a creativ. As a creative there is something in us that avoids the creative, that dreads it, that—man we just avoid it. It is so hard for us to get to it. Now once we get to it, we're in it. So we're really, we're really not—in fact, we love it when we're in it. So I have a trick. Just open the document. Just open the document. Start reading. Inevitably, I'm going to want to fix something and the next thing you know I'm in it. But what we do as creatives, we just for some reason, it is so hard for us to sit down and do the creative thing that we're called to do. So that's something that all of us struggle with.
Zena Dell Lowe 19:19
And I would say that's a trick that we have to figure out. How are we going to deal with that? You know, a lot of people have developed a discipline. There is discipline involved with being creative. A lot of people have developed tactics where they, you know, sit down and write for an hour a day or whatever the case may be. I typically have difficulty with that. It's something I still struggle with. Because when I'm in it, I will write for eight hours and then I—to the neglect of everything else. But then I'll not get to it for a week because I've got these other things that have become more important. So I'm still struggling sometimes with figuring that out. It typically is an all or nothing thing. And I don't think that's good. And I probably need to experiment more.
Zena Dell Lowe 20:13
I have one client—I'm really good with helping others with this, but not as good with helping myself. But I have a client where we figured out the best thing for him to do is to try to write one page a day. That's it. And that's for screenplays. So it's not even the same amount of words as you would in a novel. But he writes one page a day. And it doesn't matter how long it takes him or when he starts or when he finishes, even if he's interrupted. As long as he finishes the day with that page written. Well, I think that's fantastic. Because that means he's always making progress. And we can usually do that, you know, in a screenplay. We could probably do it, even if it's like, "Oh, gosh, I need 15 more minutes, I can't go to bed until I've done this." We'll force ourselves to do it, even if it's no good. Because we know that that has to be done. And we've set that goal. The problem, of course, becomes there, maybe those pages aren't as connected as they should be. But that's a rewrite problem. We worry about that later.
Zena Dell Lowe 21:15
Which brings me to the second struggle that I have. I am constantly rewriting. I have a terrible difficulty continuing. When I'm hired to write projects, I have the same difficulty. I will rewrite the first half of the screenplay over and over and over. And then the next thing you know, my deadline's approaching, and I have hardly any time to finish the second half because I have spent so much time trying to perfect the first half. It's a real problem. And I think it's the kiss of death.
Zena Dell Lowe 21:56
So I tell my clients they're not even allowed to edit. It's so funny. If I have, you know, if I'm coaching somebody, I tell them, "You're not going to edit this and I'm gonna give you notes, but this is what you're doing for next time." And it's amazing how when somebody tells you what you can and cannot do, and you've given them the authority, and you're paying them to help you to coach you through that, you listen.
Zena Dell Lowe 22:20
But when you're self motivated, I can tell myself the same thing. And yet, I will get so mad because I'll set aside a couple of hours to write, and all I've done is rewrites. I never actually got to the new material that I sat down to write. And I think it's a self sabotaging tool. But I will also say on some—in some ways, my first drafts, when they are done, are not first drafts. They're more like 10th drafts. They're very, very strong because of that, but it takes me a lot longer to finish them. And I think it's—I think then that causes me to lose momentum a lot of times too because it's just taking too long to finish. And I throw up my hands and I'm done.
Zena Dell Lowe 23:14
Like I've been working on my novel, for what, eight years now? Eight years and I've never finished it. I'm about halfway through and I keep rewriting the beginning. And it's wonderful. I love my story so much. I love my character so much. But I've got to write the next part. Now, I will also add that I don't work on my novel very often because I'm usually dealing in the screenplay world, and novels aren't really my thing. So it's just a story that I have to tell. And so I very seldom get to it.
Zena Dell Lowe 23:50
But those are probably my two biggest struggles as a writer, the discipline to write on a regular basis and the discipline to keep writing and not rewriting until it's time to rewrite. Right Lulu? You snorin' little booty. Okay. Does that help? Does that answer your question?
Yes. When you write rough drafts that take, like—I can never turn in rough drafts. And I say to my professors, "Okay, I'm really sorry. This is not going to get turned in. My final draft will be great." But like, I can't just write a rough draft and then rewrite. Like, I have to rewrite as I go and I just can't stop. So don't expect to get a rough draft from me.
Zena Dell Lowe 24:44
And that's part of our problem. By the way, this may be, I'm not sure, but I think that might be related a little bit to trauma because there's a tendency for perfectionism. I think that's why I have such difficulty finishing just a rough draft in rough form is that I want it to be perfect. And I, I perceive my value as if it's dependent on how perfect it is. But the problem with that thinking is that it's never going to be perfect. It doesn't matter how much—and in fact, it's going to have to be rewritten anyway because a lot of what I'm learning as I'm writing is going to have to go back in. I'm gonna have to rewrite it anyway. So letting go of perfectionism, I honestly think that is related to some trauma stuff, or maybe it's a creative thing. Maybe other people—I don't know, I don't know. I haven't talked to enough people to know if it's just a creative tendency, or if it's a trauma tendency, but I know there's plenty of people out there that are creatives that they can turn in stuff that is good enough. I can't. Good enough, is not good enough for me.
I think it is a trauma thing because most of the people with whom I've spoken say, "Well, I mean, yeah, it's not gonna be perfect. But you have to turn it in. And what are you going to do?" And I just—my brain doesn't let myself do that. It says, "No, we are going to get a bad grade for not turning anything in before we let anybody read something that's not good."
Zena Dell Lowe 26:25
Right. And I think that's because of a fundamental fear of being seen as less than and being seen in our humanity seat being seen as not enough. And the irony is, is that if you get a bad grade because you don't turn it in, we feel that was our choice that we throw over it. Whereas if we turn in something and let's—and now we're exposed. We're naked. Now they see how bad we are. Right? Because it's not perfect. And so we've, we've basically shown ourselves to them in our nakedness. And now if they judge it, it means that we are really bad, our worst fears are realized. So I think you're right. I think it's trauma, trauma related.
Zena Dell Lowe 27:20
And it's—and it's a problem. It's something that needs to be overcome. It needs because it's not healthy. Know that I've struggled with it too, Louisa. So you know, it's something we just have to keep telling ourselves. We have to. That's where we keep exposing ourselves to the truth and not letting our souls believe the lie, which is that if people see our unfinished work, they're going to realize that we are stupid or dumb or not enough. We need time to be able to make it perfect, so that they'll see that we really are smart.
Yeah. So my next question has a lot of facets to it. So I imagine, well, no, you're definitely going to have a lot to say about this one. So in your short film, Ragdoll, I believe it's called, in which you recount your story. But I mean, not in full detail, because it is a short film. Did you write that character as a different person than yourself? Or were you writing yourself? And did you have to detach from your experience to be able to do justice to that all of the elements in that story? Or did you fully plunge into what it felt like to be yourself? Just how did you approach telling a story that you were so intimately connected to? And also, are there any differences in telling the story of a character who was you that are differences from from characters that aren't you that—I don't know. Yeah, that's lots of questions.
Zena Dell Lowe 29:12
Okay. Yes, that's a great question. And in a nutshell, I can tell you this. I never thought of her as me. The woman in Ragdoll was the woman in Ragdoll. Even though I played that character as an actor, it was still her. It was her character. You know? That's who she was. It wasn't me. Even though it was inspired by my own story. And the—and the male in there was not my husband either. It was— I set out to tell a story about what happens to a woman who's married to a gay man. Because in our culture today everybody wants to celebrate. "Yay! He came out of the closet. How wonderful. Oh, he's no longer living a lie." And nobody gives any regard to what happens to the woman who's in that situation. And what I found, after I was in that marriage for eight and a half years, and finally was free—I mean, it really did play on every insecurity, every bit of trauma I already had. I mean, it was such a—it's almost humorous how much that inner—you know. I couldn't have picked the worst type of scenario for me to, to run into for the wounds that I came into the marriage with. But that is an important thing. I came into the marriage with wounds. And that's the point.
Zena Dell Lowe 30:48
But having said that, what I found is that I would have women call me. Every six months or so I'd have a new one call that had heard about me from a friend of a friend or something. Because as it turned out, their husband was just coming out of the closet and or had left her for a man or—and nobody had anybody to talk to.
Zena Dell Lowe 31:19
So what really led to Ragdoll was my belief that none of these women have a single person to talk to. And there was a commonality in our stories. There were false things that we all believed. There was damage that we all brought to the table which allowed us to be complicit in our own destruction because of the false things we believed. And so it was really exploring that idea. That's how it was written. Even though it was very much inspired by my own story. It wasn't just mine, it was all of us. It was all of us. And here's what has to happen to a woman in this situation. It's destructive, it destroys you.
Zena Dell Lowe 32:03
So I'm not sure if that fully answers your question. But that's, that's how that worked for me. And in terms of the fact that I played her as an actress. I don't believe in—I mean, I don't want to say I don't believe in it because I know some people do it—but I believe that there is a certain amount of technique that you can rely on. Today, so many actors think that you have to feel it. You have to feel everything. You've got to really, really feel it. And I don't believe that. I think that the stage actually provides training that allows you to rely on technique and craft to still convey those things to the same amount of depth or sometimes even more so without having to experience it in the depths of your soul, which I think can make you go crazy. So I believe in the craft of acting just like I believe in the craft of writing.
So would you say that that's applicable to writing as well? Like, if we're not, you know, doing a Stanislavski on the stage, when someone's writing, and they're trying to enter into profound pain is that also something that should be focused entirely on the craft? Or can the writer at least try to delve into that themselves emotionally?
Zena Dell Lowe 33:45
Well, I mean, of course, we're going to. I mean, how many times do I write a scene and I'm acting it out, and I'm feeling it, and I'm, you know, all those things, but I'm not feeling it in the same way as somebody who's going through something. I think the other day in class there was the scene of somebody's child dying. And even as I was talking about the emotion of the character, I could, I could tap into that emotion and what she must be feeling and how that would feel and what she—you know? I can tap into that. And then I can turn it off. Because I'm not actually going through a situation where I have a dead child that I have to contend with. Thank God because that would be a horrible thing.
Zena Dell Lowe 34:38
So if we had to feel everything that our characters feel, man, we would be crazy. I mean, my goodness, if we're writing serial killers, but we have to feel everything that our serial killers feel. I don't think we'd be sane. But we can imagine it. God gave us an imagination and we can temporarily tap into the truth or the depth of that without fully experiencing it ourselves. And that's part of using the technique, the craft, knowing how to do that without being—you know, spiraling into the depths of depression yourself for weeks on end. You know, I think there's a lot of writers that actually are like actors who have almost destroyed themselves because they haven't been able to separate themselves from their work. I don't think that's smart. I mean, it's not that it's an—it's, it's not that it's not a viable way to go. I just don't think it's healthy. I shouldn't say it's not smart. It's not as healthy. I think there's a healthier way that doesn't diminish the depth or reality of the emotions. Does that make sense?
That makes sense. Maybe this is a question that you don't feel that there's a straight answer to, but how do you tap in and out? For myself, I have a very hard time getting out of emotions once I get into them. And so that's often why I have to suppress them. Because once they're here, they're here. Then I— wooo! It's like a punch in the face. How? How do you—just because it's very noticeable. You know, in class and just talking to you, it is very noticeable how much you were able to imagine yourself in the shoes of those characters. But then, but then you stop.
Zena Dell Lowe 36:39
Right. And so to me—I think—okay, so how do you do it? This is an excellent question. I've never thought through this, but we're going to try. I'm going to try to put it into words right now. So the first key to me is that it's a character. It isn't me, it's a character. And maybe because I'm an actor, I can put myself in that character's shoes, but still see it as the character and not me. And I love the character. I think you have to love the character so that you can allow yourself to embody that character's reality for a moment. But knowing that it isn't you means that you don't have to stay there. Because it's a character. It's a character you've put on and you've taken off. You're not in it. You're not stuck. You've just put it on and now you've taken it off. So I think separating yourself from the character is a start.
Zena Dell Lowe 37:46
Also, you do have to—you have to use your imagination. I really believe that that is the greatest gift God gave us as writers. And as actors. We're imaginative. We can imagine. And that's why, you know, when people say things like, "write what you know", I agree with that, in the sense that we better know it because we've done enough research or because we've done—you know,we can we can write with real authority in this particular thing. But part of the way we come to know it is by imagining it and putting ourselves into that and asking, "What would this be like? What would I really be feeling? What would it be? What would it be? What would be happening to me and my body?" And you know, "What would my thoughts be like?" Like putting myself in their in imagination, I can now write what I know because I have so fully immersed myself.
Zena Dell Lowe 38:45
But I've immersed myself like I've changed a shirt. And now I'm standing there in this shirt and looking at it like, "Yeah, this is nice. Oh, I like it." And even if I go to the party in that shirt, and I walk it around like that, that shirt isn't me. It's something I'm wearing. So I can take the shirt off at night and not feel like I'm still in that shirt. So the same comes true with character. We fully immerse ourselves. We're fully in it. We're fully clothed. But it doesn't mean it's us. So I guess I don't even know if that's helpful. But again, the two parts that I'm trying to tap into is really fully immersing yourselves in the thoughts and feelings of the character without blurring the lines of who you are and who that character is. Does that help at all?
Yes, it's a lot to think about. Would you say that's applicable to humans to like—being able to stitch in the shirt of your neighbor's pain, but also take the shirt off.
Zena Dell Lowe 40:01
Yeah, absolutely. So I mean, in fact, that's what we do automatically, right? Okay. There's a really common thing these days called empaths. It's really hyper used. Everybody's talking about it and so many people are like, "I'm an empath. I'm an empath. So I really feel other people's pain." No, you don't. No, you don't.
Zena Dell Lowe 40:26
Empathy is using imagination, to imagine what that other person is experiencing and to have compassion on them in their circumstances. That is what empathy is. It means that I can extend grace, compassion, mercy, because I'm imagining the pain that they must be going through or the suffering they must have endured. And so I am, I am able to see them with kind, loving eyes.
Zena Dell Lowe 41:02
Empathy does not mean that I feel all their pain. That's actually dysfunctional. That's actually a lack of boundaries. In fact, in many ways, this Empath thing really is self-indulgent. And in some ways, people that call themselves empaths are doing that because they're being triggered somehow, in their own unresolved trauma. And so now they're experiencing emotions. And they're saying that it's because they're feeling that person's pain. No, they're not. They're feeling their own unresolved pain that that situation probably triggered, or kicked up for them.
Zena Dell Lowe 41:47
But we don't actually feel other people's pain. We just feel compassion for the pain that they're feeling. That's why—and by the way, I can, you know—I had a girlfriend over the other night who was telling me something horrible that happened in her relationship with her husband. Something that he said to her that was so devastatingly painful. And in that moment, I was just—oh, I felt it. I'm like, "Oh, I am so sorry." I can totally imagine just how it ripped her heart out. And now I'm able to pray for her. And I'm able to—when I think about her, I think about the pain that she was in.
Zena Dell Lowe 42:35
But I'm actually not feeling that pain myself as if he said it to me. I'm only borrowing it to imagine it for her. If I had to walk around with her pain on top of my own, I would be debilitated. I have enough pain in myself to have to deal with. So I'm only borrowing it. If that makes any sense. I'm borrowing it to have a better understanding of her so that I can better be there for her. And I am feeling her pain in that sense. But I'm not actually feeling the pain. And it's why we can pray for people. And then we can go on.
Zena Dell Lowe 43:15
I mean, I've had terrible things—you know, people will share things on Facebook. I'll read that story on Facebook and go, "Oh my gosh, this is horrible." I'll write a nice reply. And then I'll keep scrolling. And I, in the past, I felt terrible. Like, "Oh God. I'm a terrible person. Like how could I just read that terrible thing and then keep scrolling and then respond to somebody else, 'Ha ha ha'?" Well, it's because I'm not actually taking their pain on. And it doesn't mean that the pain I felt while I was reading their story was insincere. I absolutely was borrowing. It was empathetic in that moment. I felt it in that moment, but I don't have to carry it with me. Because it isn't mine to carry. That is empathy. Does that make sense?
I'm gonna have to think about this a lot. There's a lot to unpack here.
Zena Dell Lowe 44:08
I'm making this up as I go along. I've never had to answer that question. But I'm processing it out loud. I'm a verbal processor. So we'll both think about it and see if that rings true. But I think there's something there.
Thank you. Um, okay. So, where do characters come from? Do you think that as a writer it's easier to come up with a plot first and say, "Okay, what type of characters fit into this plot?" Or do characters just plop into your head?
Zena Dell Lowe 44:46
You know, it depends on the story. A lot of times, I've come up with story ideas, and then had to come up with the characters, but at other times, it's based on a character specifically. And then the story unfolds as a result.
Zena Dell Lowe 45:08
Now, even if I have a general idea of a story, it still has to come down to the character. Once I—otherwise, it might just be an arena. For example, I might say, I want to write a story about the only POW camp for women in World War II. All right, well, that's a great arena. But that's not a story yet because it has to be who are my characters.
Zena Dell Lowe 45:36
I think a lot of people have a great arena or a great story world that they want to develop. But then they, they forget that that actual story won't unfold unless you absolutely know who the character is. Otherwise, it feels generic and cliche and superficial. So even if I have a story idea, in general, I do have to go back to "Well, who's this character that it's going to affect? Who is that person?" And that's really where the story starts to come alive. It's who the people are, it always is. The heart of every story is a personal paradox. It always comes down to the character. But I might come up with a story idea outside of the character, and then have to figure out who the character is.
Zena Dell Lowe 46:28
So I can't say that one happens more than the other. I know—I've never really thought about it. And there's been other stories where I have had multiple characters. And I haven't known who the main character is. And I've had to figure that out as I go.
So in Ragdoll, with the character that was inspired by you, but wasn't you, how did you go about discovering these specific things? When it is hard. Like blurring the lines of she's not me, but she's a character. How do I make her a specific character that's not me?
Zena Dell Lowe 47:03
You know, Ragdoll is an exception to almost everything I've ever written. I woke up one day and I wrote it. I just I wrote it. It's just what came out of me. It was done. I mean, I wrote it in one sitting. Now, it did go through—I think I might have revised it in minor ways, very minor revisions, maybe twice. But really, it was done. It just blah. I just, I don't know. It was like I'd had a dream or something. It was—it's just what needed to be said. It's just what—just what came out. So I can't really say on Ragdoll. I just wrote it.
Zena Dell Lowe 47:51
And that's where the muse comes in too. Sometimes we don't know. Right? We don't. Very few artists know really what they're doing until they've done it. So sometimes I think we have to stay out of the way and just let it happen. And then we go back with technique, you know? And then we can improve on what—whatever we've done. But sometimes we're just tapping into something. We don't even know what it is or where it's going. But we just let it go. We just don't stifle it. If you're tapping into that, don't stifle it. It might be genius. Might not be, but you'll never know if you don't do it.
Zena Dell Lowe 48:32
There is a mystical element to creating art. So I don't know that we can come up with a paint by numbers way. There's no one right way. And the acid test at the end of the day is did it work? Did we get there? If it didn't, then it doesn't mean we're not going to. It means we might have to go back and do some work to fix it. But that's always the acid test. So there's no one right way. Does that help?
It does. Thank you. So if Ragdoll is your exception, is there a general plot or character or story that you tend to gravitate toward—to gravitate towards as a reader or as a writer?
Zena Dell Lowe 49:17
In other words, are you asking me in the projects, the personal projects I'm working on right now? Or is there a consistency of a type of character that I'm writing that I tend to write?
Zena Dell Lowe 49:25
Yeah. I mean—okay. So my novel that I'm writing is a children's fantasy novel where the main character's name is Percy, and he's a puppet. And his buddy is Wilbur who's a book. And they've been transformed by the master with this magic, and now they end up going in the bottomless box, and traveling to the land of Duma. So I mean, this is—this is the story. It's Percy and Wilbur, and they're there. I don't even know how I'm ever going to pitch it because it's, it's—it's kind of weird, these characters. But that's just who they were and so—but then I'm also developing, on the flip side of that, I'm developing a series of films for my production company where those are based on a totally different thing.
Zena Dell Lowe 50:33
Totally for adults. You know the main character of the first one is Celeste, and she has powers she has. She thinks that she sees visions, and that she is supposed to stop these visions from coming true, that God has given them to her so she can stop the bad things from happening. What she doesn't realize is that she's actually a part spiritual being who is—in their memories, or they're happening now. But she doesn't realize she's entering in spiritual realm. So anyway, that's Celeste. And then she meets up with this other character who, you know, he's actually in the occult.
Zena Dell Lowe 51:13
And so, you know, there's—this one's a rated R, you know, story about spiritual—the spiritual realm. Basically, nothing to do with Percy and Wilbur whatsoever. So I would just say, I don't think, I don't think that I have a type of character that I tend to gravitate towards. I don't write all women. You know, I don't write all men. I don't. It just depends on the story. What are the needs of that particular story world that I'm fascinated with? I don't know if that helps. But—
No, it does. Um, as a reader of much which, you know, people ask you to give feedback on, what would you say is a skill in writers that is largely underrated, or a story that needs to be told and explored more often than it is?
Zena Dell Lowe 52:10
Okay, I'll give you two things. First of all, this isn't quite your question, but I'm answering it as, as if it was your question. What is the type of story that needs to be told? Okay, well, we need heroic characters. And what happens is people today don't even understand what heroism is. So I'm shocked by the number of students who have characters that are the main characters, but those characters are fundamentally flawed in a, in a type of way that precludes them from being heroic.
Zena Dell Lowe 52:57
And yes, our characters need to grow and change over the course of the story, but there are certain traits that are really problematic to give them like selfishness. It's just not a good trait to give a character because it is really hard to redeem an intrinsically selfish character. And heroes are, by their nature, self sacrificial. They can't help it. In fact, they're so self sacrificial that they'll—it'll be a detriment to self. What would be a better trait to give these types of characters instead of selfishness might be that they're weak, that they lack the courage to act out on their convictions.
Zena Dell Lowe 53:41
Maybe at the very beginning of the story there's somebody being picked on at school, and this character initially gets involved. And he's like, "Hey, stop picking on this person." And then the bully threatens them, and so they back off because they're scared.
Zena Dell Lowe 53:57
Okay, but notice their instinct was sacrificial. Their instinct was to jump in. It was not to be just fundamentally selfish, but they're weak. And so where they have to grow over the story is in their courage to stand up for their convictions, no matter what were to happen to them. That is a more legitimate arc.
Zena Dell Lowe 54:18
But most of the time, what I see students writing today are these characters that are just fundamentally selfish. And I think that this happens because that's what we're seeing in culture. That's just what we're seeing. Most of the big stars in culture are really arrogant, self-indulgent, self-absorbed people. And so we think that that's okay. And it isn't. And most of us are so self-absorbed, and we see ourselves as victims, and we see ourselves as all these things. So we haven't learned how to craft truly heroic character who have a fatal flaw that needs to be overcome. But many times that fatal flaw is not a heroic tendency. It's something else, you know, that they have to overcome. So I think we need more stories about heroes, but we need to understand what that is.
Zena Dell Lowe 55:19
Okay, so there's that one. And then the answer to your other question, what is a common mistake that I see that could be alleviated in story? Well, I think people forget that why we really are interested in characters is because we want to know how they feel about each other. It's really about relationships. Whenever we're reading stories, we want to know how they feel about their mom, how they feel about their brother, how they feel about their teacher, and how their teacher feels about them. And are they wrong, and how their boss feels, and how those things change over the course. Will they earn the respect of that person that they didn't have before who thought they were, you know, whatever. It is always and forever about character relationships. But I don't think most people approach story that way. And so consequently, they'll rush a scene, and they won't take the time to establish that. They won't show us a central character relationship. They won't know how to allow those character relationships to evolve and change over the course of the story. But the truth is character relationship is really the foundation of everything that we're really interested in. So that would be something that is consistently, I think, overlooked.
Okay, so that was technically my last official question. But this has led me to ask one unofficial question that I'm very interested to see what you think. So I think that we line up very much, and what we want from stories and what we focus on because even as a practically fetus writer who doesn't know what I'm doing half of the time, still, my ultimate goal is to create good characters. But in writing classes and in literature classes, when we look at poetry, I often have a disconnect because poetry is not narrative, and poetry does not really, at least, most of it, does not focus on relationship at all, as much as throwing a bunch of metaphors and emotions. Do you—how do you feel about poetry?
Zena Dell Lowe 57:56
Hmm, how do I feel about poetry? I used to write a lot of it. So early on, I think that becomes an expressive tool to try to put in some sort of created form—I think it's about the chaos. Life is chaotic. And poetry becomes a way to, to take the chaos and put it in a structure that makes it manageable.
Zena Dell Lowe 58:28
For me, when I would write poems when I was younger, it was because the emotions were too big for me. And it was too linear to just express the emotion. It wasn't—it almost wasn't deep enough. Like the creative hurdle that is necessary in composing poetry was necessary for me to be able to even begin to look at that chaos called emotion.
Zena Dell Lowe 59:04
Because poetry is bigger than linear narrative in that sense, it gives it depth and weight. It doesn't stifle it. Having said that, poetry, probably because of the complexity, is often difficult to engage with. But when you can, and when that poetry is accessible to you, and you're tapping into it, holy cow! It is just so profound. You can—you're gonna have so much happen in a few lines that really resonates with your soul. It's profoundly powerful. But it also can be painful, I think.
Zena Dell Lowe 59:58
But I look at the Bible. A lot of the Bible is poetic, right? So the Psalms and Proverbs. I mean, there are sayings or things that are written there that are very much meant to be poetic. And because of that they can capture truths in a way that is—there's something about it that resonates with our soul as human beings. It's not—what it does is it doesn't take the mystery out of it. It allows complex things to be complex. It keeps it profound because of the creative form that it's been captured in. Which then makes it deeper in our spirit, I think.
Zena Dell Lowe 1:00:41
So I think poetry is a wonderful thing. I also agree that it can be hard to access. But it doesn't mean that we shouldn't keep trying, and we should keep writing it. I think it's been years since I've tried to write a poem. But nevertheless, think about music. What is music, but poetry? Just poetry put to music. That's all. And obviously, we love it. As a society, we love it. That's why there's always music on the radio. So I think it is profound. It is profound. And it's a different sort of expression of deep truths than narrative.
Do you think one is more powerful? Or do you just think that they're meant to convey different truths?
Zena Dell Lowe 1:01:39
I think they're meant to convey, sometimes, even the same truth, but in a different forum or a different medium. So for example, have you ever had a favorite song that you've listened to over and over and it just speaks to your soul? And oh, my gosh, you have to keep listening to the song because it's exactly where you're at and what you're feeling. It totally captures everything. You ever had that happen?
Yes, but truly, it's more—I love music. But for me, music is music that happens to have words. And for me, for example, I listen to a lot of music in different languages. I speak three and a half languages. And so some of the languages that aren't English, I understand, but even the ones that aren't—like I really, I love Russian folk music, and I don't know what they're saying, but I can just feel through their voices. It's more of an acting thing, and a musical thing than the words. Words just happen to be there for me.
Zena Dell Lowe 1:02:44
Okay. Well, and I think it would depend on the quality of the words. There are some songs—and I agree, the music that you couple a song with should deepen the experience. But I'm using that to show the idea that there are times when music is profoundly communicative and resonating to your soul. Nevertheless, I would wager that there are times when you've read a book, where you read a story that impacts you deeply.
Not thinking about it, right? So I've had experiences in both realms. There have been times where I've read verses in the Bible where I cannot get them out of my head. Where I'm like, "Oh, my gosh, that is exactly where I'm at." I remember one time reading a verse that said, "The wicked flee when no one pursues, but the righteous are bold as a lion." Now, I'm sure I'd read it before, but in that moment I was hiding a sin. And because I was hiding a sin, every time somebody would enter the room that I was in or something, even if I wasn't engaged in the sin at that moment, it was like, oh! It's like I was always, I was, I was just on the verge of being like—I felt like I was being caught. The wicked flee when no one's even trying to catch you. No one's even in pursuit, but your guilty conscience makes you—Oh! Jumpy. But the righteous are bold as a lion. You don't have anything to flee. You're not jumpy. Nobody can catch you in anything. So at that particular time, I read that verse and it just resonated with my soul because God was using it to convict me. I knew I was in sin, and I needed to repent, and I need to get out.
Zena Dell Lowe 1:04:46
So my point is that I think it just depends. Now also, I will tell you when I read Les Miserables in college for the first time, I bawled and bawled and bawled and prayed to the Lord. I wanted to be like Jean Valjean. I wanted to be a good person. I wanted to serve Him. I wanted my life to somehow be a testimony to His goodness. I wanted to be like Jean Valjean. It so spoke to me. I bawled. And I reread it, and I reread it, and I reread it. You know? Like, I had to keep reading it. I wanted it in me. I wanted to be so much like that. So again, same thing, right? Same thing.
Zena Dell Lowe 1:05:35
So I just think they're different mediums. I would never ever—I think—and by the way, some people music is going to speak to them more than a book, and for some of us a book is going to speak more to us than the music. I think God gave all of it to us to penetrate the deep places of our heart in a way that mere message cannot. See these are poetry forms, no matter what you're looking at. A movie, book, and a poem itself, music. These are creative forms that have the potential to resonate with our hearts more than just straight message.
Zena Dell Lowe 1:06:19
And that's why I think He gave us so many different avenues because that's what speaks to our hearts as human beings. He knows us. He knows what we need.
Zena Dell Lowe 1:06:27
Let me say one thing that you can take or leave, but it's one more thing about something that people do wrong as writers. So I'm totally rewinding for a second and just saying the number one thing that you have to know in your story is what your character wants, meaning what are they actually pursuing? Because all that other stuff, character relationship, all that stuff that has to come out in the context of them pursuing a clear objective relentlessly for their story. If you can't have a clear objective for your character, your story will never be compelling to a reader. It's just the number one thing.
Zena Dell Lowe 1:07:14
If you've ever had somebody tell you a story that seems to have no point, and they meander, and they go off on tangents, and you're like, "Okay, okay, but you were in the supermarket. And what happened?" "Oh, I don't know. I was just in that aisle." Oh, and you're so frustrated because it never went anywhere. You're waiting for the point where the point is the objective that the character is pursuing. And I am constantly shocked to find that so many writers don't know what their character wants. They don't know what the objective is. And that's why their story doesn't work.
Thank you. I—man, this—you've just given me so much food for thought. I have been tremendously blessed. And my classmates are really lucky that I chose to interview you and they get to be blessed by association.
Zena Dell Lowe 1:08:13
Well, thank you, my dear. I'm, I'm honored that you chose to honor or to interview me. And I recorded this, so I will send it to you.
Thank you so much, Zena, for your time and for just being an all around enjoyable and edifying person to be around. I just—from from the moment that I started listening to you I was like, "Wow, this is a kindred spirit." But I've only discovered that to be more and more true as you speak more. And I just, I just really appreciate all the things that you've taught me directly and indirectly. And I definitely wouldn't be taking this writing class if it were not for you. So
Zena Dell Lowe 1:09:03
yay. All right. Well, let me know how it goes. I really want to know how it goes. And when you give your presentation or whatever, let me know.
Oh, certainly. Thank you so much.
Zena Dell Lowe 1:09:13
You're welcome. All right. I love you dearly and I will talk to you soon.
I love you too. Have a good weekend.