Friday, September 2, 2011

My Enemy, My Friend: Hunger

The Pens are thrilled to welcome guest blogger and long time pal, Mysti Berry. Mysti Berry has a B.A. in linguistics from UC Santa Cruz and an M.F.A. in writing from University of San Francisco. Her scripts, novel excerpts, and short stories have won awards from Mendocino to Salinas. Her short story, "Inside Job," will be published next year in a Sisters in Crime anthology. Her first crime novel about a fraud investigator in San Francisco and Las Vegas is due to be finished any day now.

For most of my life, I’ve dodged hunger. The mere threat of a rumbly tummy sent me straight to the Ding Dongs, HoHos, PopTarts, or on gourmet evenings, to a box of mac-n-cheese and a fruit pie for dessert.

Predictably, this led to some serious poundage by my fourth decade. Within a few hours of vowing to behave, I would be hungry, and then would dodge the feeling by eating. Finally, the lovely folks at UCSF Weight Management program suggested a “medically supervised, VLC (very low calorie) meal replacement program.” Instead of my impulse-based 3000 calories a day, I eat carefully prepared 200 calorie doses, five times a day. Surely I’ll fail at this as much as I failed at everything else diet related, won’t I?

Turns out, I am 100% compliant with the program, twenty pounds down and a few more sets of twenty to go. And I’m hungry all damn day. Hungry, hungry, hungry. But with the help of a whole team of medical professionals, I’m able to now just feel the hunger and let it go.

There’s a trick to it, of course.

At 1000 calories of “food” like the early astronauts ate, your body and most of your mind loses interest in food of any kind as it settles into a safe, medically-supervised ketosis. However, I’ll eventually have to go back to the real world of making choices about food, and feeling all my feelings instead of stuffing them down with giant pasta feeds or extra large pizzas. So I’m hard at work on all these things while the relative quiet of the program gives me a little extra time and space to sort things out.

What has any of this to do with writing? A whole heck of a lot. Now that I understand hunger instead of run from it, I can use the concept of hunger for both character and plot development. It goes a little something like this:

1. Figure out what the protagonist needs more than anything else in the universe. For example, Sam Spade needs to believe he isn’t as morally corrupt as everyone around him is—he needs to know he has his limits on the downward slope. So he has to find out who really killed his partner—if it was his partner’s wife, he’s partly to blame. In a newer example, Lily Ivory in Juliet Blackwell’s Witchcraft Mystery series needs a community—she was robbed of one because of her powers. Throughout the series, she takes incredible risks that we believe, because we know how much her new friends and position in the local community mean to her.

2. Figure out what the flip side of that need is, what endangers it or threatens it. Back to our examples: Sam Spade’s desires threaten to overrun his morality—after all, he’s sleeping with his partner’s wife when the story starts, and Ms. Wonderly is in a whole new league of femme fatale. And Lily, if the “establishment” finds out about her gifts, or if the new men in her life freak out, she’s at risk of losing her newfound community. We know this would be like death for Sam or Lily, and yet it’s so likely they will be overwhelmed that we just have to keep reading.

3. Find every situation you can that both promises more of what the protagonist needs and threatens to take it away, preferably in the same scene! Sophie Littlefield has mastered this with her Stella Hardesty series—after a lifetime largely shorn of adult love, Stella needs the affection and approval of a romantic partner. The object of her desire, however, threatens her safety, her freedom, and her new day job. We can’t imagine how she’ll resolve this contradiction between absolute need and nearly certain failure, so we have to keep reading.
So for fictional characters as well as real ones, hunger is both a friend and an enemy. Please tell me, what do you hunger for, and what threatens to take it away?


Nicole Peeler said...

I have a vexed relationship with my own ambition. It's only recently I've realized I AM ambitious, and it's become insatiable. I want to DO so much, and I do do so much, but even then I want MOOOORE. I want "success" in all areas of my life, and that's not reasonable. But it's there--not an obsession, but a niggling desire.

But then I think of an absent of that want, and I realize how much passion and vigor that want gives my life, and although I'd love an augenblick of peace, I can't imagine being settled.

Which is its own anxiety. LOL Therapy, anyone?

L.G.C. Smith said...

Great post, Mysti. I'm going to apply the hunger paradox assiduously.

In real life, I hunger to travel. Mostly to Britain and France, so I'm not exactly adventurous, but if I had the freedom and the resources, I'd be off to distant lands every few months. Or not so distant lands. I long for the journeys as much as the destinations.

Juliet Blackwell said...

This is fabulous Mysti (and I'm not just saying that because you chose Lily Ivory as one of your examples --blushing to see her in the company of Sam Spade!)
I do hunger, constantly. And not just physically, though that's there too. But I hunger for knowledge, and love, and success in my field. I hunger for new experiences, and travel, and time with friends. And good wine and aged scotch and great food...and and and! More time to work at what I love, and to enjoy, most of all!
I've never understood those abstemious folks who deny themselves easily --and who deny the world knowing them more deeply. Their Spartan-like minds make me suspicious ;-)

Gigi Pandian said...

I'm so impressed with your dedication to your new meal plan.

I hunger for experiences more than anything. I've never thought I was ambitious, and now that my life is in a bit sharper focus, I've found that I was correct. I definitely want lots of things in my life, but they're all about things I want to experience rather than things I want to obtain or to be recognized for. Interesting, that.

Sophie Littlefield said...

mysti, you write so beautifully and true-ly about what you are going through. i love the idea of this time being a "quiet space" and you sound like you're aware of everything around you, an accomplishment few can claim.

lately i've been hungering MIGHTILY to be a better writer. I know that sounds kind of dumb but i feel like i have hit a plateau on a few key issues and that I would like to make some progress. it's frustrating because i know progress is slow and often invisible and that it's only later, looking back, that you see how far you've climbed, but i'm trying to cherish and channel the desire.

Mysti said...

You guys are brilliant! What a fabulous blogful of fabulous women who also happen to be fabulous writers! Thanks for letting me share today!!!!

Sophie, hoping this applies to writing--now that I know for a fact EXACTLY how many calories I consume each day, it has astonished me how my body will stubbornly refuse to let go of weight, then after four days, two pounds will vanish. I think you're right and writing is similar--change won't come when we command it, but is a result of the process of banging our heads against the wall. In early days, the improvements come fast and thick, heady stuff, but going to the next stage sometimes requires a lot of faith that the change will ever come. I keep writing the same shitty sentences, lousy for the same damn reasons as last week, and want to give up and spend the rest of my life watching Community reruns.'s there, waiting for us, I really think it is!!!!

At least we aren't fencers. They say that learning a single move like thrust or parry takes a year.

Unknown said...

Mysti--I have been mulling over your brilliant post since last night so I can apply the idea to my current WIP. I love the idea of character hunger, which for me anyway, carries a far more emotional connotation than a goal.

I hunger to travel. I love going new places and experiencing new things and meeting new people. Love it.

Thanks so much for posting today. And congratulations on the huge undertaking. xo

Martha Flynn said...

I love the idea that establishing a character's hunger then allows us to let that character do incredibly high-stakes and high-risk things for the sake of assuaging that hunger! Nice...(runs off to open WIP...)

Rachael Herron said...

I love thinking about this paradox -- must find a way to fit it into my novel -- I think it would work well for what I need to do. Thank you for this! (Also, can you email me? Want to invite you to a PARTEEEE. xo) yarnagogo at gmail

Camille Minichino said...

Thanks for the insight and inspiration, Mysti. I have lost about 2000 pounds over the course of my life, and obviously have gained about 2001.
I believe our addictions (mine to food, e.g.) get in the way of our goals, whatever they are. Deliberately choosing unhealthy eating gives me less energy for everything else, whether it's writing or time with friends and family.
I know this and thanks to you, I'm going to go back to work on those 2000 pounds.

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