Umwelt and the Bad Thing

I quit my day job today. Not due to any wild artistic delusions but simply because I was being used every single day I got out of bed and drove off to an appointment. A company that takes brazen advantage of one set of people (new college grads) to help another set (underprivileged public school kids), isn’t really adding much good to the world. Maybe if I was an upper-middle-class kid from the ‘burbs with parents bankrolling the wait for the perfect job I could have kept on with that company, but I’m not and I couldn’t. I was basically paying to work for them.

So now I am floating untethered in a sea of artistic possibility. Here’s hoping I don’t drown. My intentions are to take a week or so for some balls-to-the-wall creative work, before finding a part-time cashier’s job where the work stays at work so I can keep chasing those elusive hopes while keeping my family fed. I have two illustrations jobs (one paid, one a family affair unlikely to pay so much as a single drop of gratitude), two printmaking projects, a few jewelry projects, a novel that needs critiquing, and a novel that needs editing lined up. I also have ideas for the sequel to Grove knocking insistently at the back of my brain. The idea of doing freelance cover illustration/design for self-publishing authors is also something I am toying with.

Umwelt is a concept I learned about in a GE course in college: Social Behavior and Biology. The idea is that every animal, and every individual person, experiences the world differently due to their particular set of characteristics. For example: because I am a myopic, astigmatic middle child with excellent hearing I experience a different world than my eagle-eyed baby brother and his average ears. I think about this a lot, especially when processing critique of my work (visual or written). What I see one way could read as the exact opposite to someone with more women in their family than men, or who learns kinesthetically rather than auditorily. I was stunned to realize that I was the only child in my family who ever wore hand-me-downs. Something that was a fact of life for me was non-existent for my older sister and younger brother.

A few years ago I read an article about Tina Fey in Vanity Fair, where her husband shared the story of how she acquired her large facial scar. She spoke of a friend who had experienced something similarly traumatic in childhood, how they understood each other because they had each experienced the Bad Thing. Her husband went on to describe how having a Bad Thing in your past changes the way that you look at the world, how you don’t expect goodness or fairness or feel youthful invincibility like your peers. How it affects your decision-making, the awareness that sometimes Bad Things happen to not Very Bad people for no reason at all. This has been part of my umwelt since I can remember, my Bad Thing predates my consistent memory, and it colors everything I do. I can’t see the world any other way, I can’t even remember a time when I did. It is hard to relate to readers who want every single character to be good, or at least have a redeeming quality. Some real live people don’t. I feel so lonely when I read a book full of lovely people in lovely places who have everything go their way, because that is just not my experience.

This is on my mind because I am editing, and it comes down to making changes based on my understanding of my work and my intentions for it, versus how others will receive it. A sticky wicket.

One of my favorite parts in the creation process is the moment when I set my work free to be observed and absorbed by others. I rarely preface its presentation with any commentary of my own, because I love to hear people’s pure reaction. Things I could never have imagined.

Sometimes those things are touching, or eye-opening, or hurtful…but they are always interesting.

And now, by way of Write a Book With Me, ten things I love that start with the letter H: Husband, Helium, Hopping, Hydrangea, Humor, Honeysuckle, Holidays, Holliday (Doc), Harp, Humming. If you’d like to play, leave a comment and I will give you a letter.

4 responses to “Umwelt and the Bad Thing

  1. So interesting. I guess I am one of those who likes characters to have redeeming qualities. I have had bad things color my outlook. I guess, when reading, I don’t want to read about those things I have experienced but something completely different. I have never thought about it that way before. Thanks for making my wheels turn.

  2. I am of the general feeling that most people have at least one good quality if you are willing to look hard enough, but I also think in some cases the best thing you can say about a person is that they have really nice hair.

  3. Excellent post–very thought provoking. I’ve had similar reactions to my writing, where my readers found one of my characters to be off-the-charts repulsive, and yet my main character saw the good in him, when no one else did. That part of the story is about one’s capacity to change. My worldview is reflected in this theme.
    I do, however, have characters who are incorrigible, and sometimes it scares me how easily they come alive on the pages!
    The concept of Umwelt, and the effect the world has on us as well as the characters in our stories, is profound. Thank you for sharing it.
    Good luck with the job hunt! Any company would be lucky to have someone with your ethics, wit and talent on their payroll.

  4. Thanks, you’re making me blush! Umwelt kind of blows my mind when I really take the time to think about it because it means there is no possible way for me to predict how people will experience my work. Which is both awesome and scary.

    It is the greatest thing to have someone tell me that I made them think, regardless of what they thought about or what they thought. I am an equal-opportunity thought-provoker (or I wish to be).

What say you?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s