Friday, February 3, 2012

The Eternal Internal Nag

by Alicia Rasley

Lynn asked me to guest blog this week, and told me the topic was nagging. Boy, do I know nagging! (Insert a mother-nag joke here.) I started thinking not of those sainted mothers now nagging the angels, but our own internal nags, the ones who berate us with ancient wisdom and modern sarcasm.

You know, the little voice inside that, when you are eager to investigate something, hisses, "Curiosity killed the cat."

Or when you accept an invitation to stay a week with a friend, "Fish and guests begin to rot after three days."

Sometimes the little voice is less clichéed and more personalized, like, "No one will ever love you."

Where does this voice come from? Where do the cautionary mottoes start? I think, like most dire warnings, these come from childhood, from the culture that surrounded us as we grew up. For example, my husband grew up in a small Midwestern town, and he swears the town motto was, "You can never be too careful." It was, above all, a cautious town. Other pioneers might have kept going to California, but the founders of this town found a flat spot near a river and stopped. You can never be too careful. This is as good as it's going to get.

Here are some sample proverbs that have served as mottoes for many families and towns. These dire mottoes are influential, but not necessarily determinative. In fact, they often have a rebound effect, encouraging the listener to act in opposition (my husband left his cautious small town to climb mountains, and, LOL, marry me!).

This got me thinking about how such mottoes can be derived for fictional characters, especially those who end up "rebounding" against the childhood directive. For example, there's the lovely song The King of Rome (sniffle alert), where the working man Charlie is told by his friends, "Charlie, we told you so; surely by now you know:
When you're living in the West End, there ain't many dreams come true." And Charlie responds, "I know, but I had to try." (Happy ending—listen to the song.)

So I started thinking about the characters in my own stories, and the mottoes they've lived with and reacted against. For example, John in Poetic Justice grew up with the motto, "Don't get above yourself." For his apothecary father, that motto served well to secure his place in the tiny Dorset village. But rebellious John defies that motto to acquire education, wealth, and a very "uppity" career as an art dealer. But when he falls for Lady Jessica Seton, that eternal internal nagging voice comes whispering, "You're getting above yourself!"

Jessica has grown up with a similarly chastening motto: "You can't always get what you want." As John says, she's a poor little rich girl, denied always for the loftiest reasons whatever she most wants (her parents' rare-books library, the childhood sweetheart killed at Waterloo). It's only when she determines the one thing she really wants (John) and decides to get that no matter what the cost, that she overcomes the dread that keeps her from wanting what she wants.

In fact, in romances, it can be quite fulfilling to make the desire to be loved by the lover the incentive for the character to silence that nagging voice and live free of dread and full of hope.

Me? Oh, I think my motto was always, "What you don't know won't hurt you." I realize that's the motto of all sorts of con men and felons! But as a novelist, I've learned that what characters don't want to know is the clue to their inner life—and should be used to hurt them indeed, and thus to cause them to change.

So what about you all? What mottoes did you grow up with, and how did you respond? How do these mottoes still affect you, even if you try to ignore that nagging voice?

Thanks for having me, Pens!

Alicia Rasley is a Rita award-winning author of nine Regency romances and many articles about writing topics. Her novel, The Year She Fell, has been an Amazon Kindle bestseller in two different years. She blogs at Edittorrent.

You can find some of the novels and writing books of Alicia Rasley at
Royal Renegade, a Regency novel.
Poetic Justice, a Regency novel.
The Story Within Plotting Guide for Fiction Writers.
Rasley's Kindle Page


Rachael Herron said...

I have two mottoes that were drilled into me:
"You should be proud of yourself!" Ah, California. I'm glad I got that one. The other is "That's not a very good idea." Whenever my brain says it about something theoretical or creative, I try to shut it up. However, when it's physical (like balancing seven dishes on the way into the kitchen), I listen, because it's always right.

Sophie Littlefield said...

hi, darling and brilliant alicia!!

a few years back when I had my big mid-life crisis, my motto - muttered under my breath as I hiked or biked - was "you can't stop me." the "you" was vague - and i wasn't sure what it was I didn't want to be stopped from doing but that stayed with me for over a year. Not bad, as mottos go. And I totally get your husband's town's thing - my small missouri town had that vibe too, along with "no reason to call attention to yourself" :)

Unknown said...

you are, as always, brilliant :)

my parents' motto/mantra: you can do and be anything you want to be

I'm not sure I've taken it to heart as much as I should :)

L.G.C. Smith said...

Alicia, welcome back! Great post. The motto I most internalized as a kid was, alas, "Who do you think YOU are to be expecting so much?" I always thought that was a relic of my grandmother's mental illness since most of my cousins have the same motto. Then I read Lori Armstrong's books and realized it's kind of a regional western South Dakota thing. Fortunately, I've exerted a steady effort to counter that crap motto. Change is a wonderful thing.

Alicia Rasley said...

Rachael, sounds like mixed messages! That must be hard to sort out. I can see "pride" as something that can be either a blessing or a conflict.

LGC, I do think that's very much a Midwestern motto (I live in Indiana, where it's more "Don't expect much and you won't be disappointed.") I think in the Midwest, everyone is fatalistic.

Sophie, yes, how many women grew up thinking that we should be careful not to call attention to ourselves. "Oh, no, don't mind me! I'll just sit in the corner and knit!"

Lisa, my parents were supportive that way, only it came off more as an obligation: "You MUST be whatever you can be." I think they must have been disappointed by us! But it's like almost any motto can be turned negative or positive.

Jenny said...

I was raised hearing, "If you want to attract a man, you have to hide your intelligence" and "It's as easy to fall in love with a rich man as a poor man."

So of course, I was doomed to fall in love with poor men who had a thing for highly intelligent women.

Jeff Rasley said...

Never write about your husband behind his back. He might find out what you said.

Alicia Rasley said...

That sort of sounds like a nag, husband.

Jenny, my grandmother used to say that rich man thing, but she didn't even know any rich men. Wishful thinking, I guess!

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