Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Beware the "unsub"

If you have watched any American crime dramas or movies involving a police or "federal agency" investigation you will be familiar with the term "unsub" - the unknown subject.

In my line of work - almost as gripping and usually as suspenseful as criminal investigations and manhunts -writing, blogging, spreading the good news about ways to enhance your sense of wellbeing and meet your potential - there are a range of Unsubs to deal with.

The first is the Unknown Subject in the coaching session. A client comes to me. We engage about the topic of concern to the client and we agree to explore it in more depth and work towards the client's stated goals and outcomes. Some way into the session there appears another issue or concern. Sometimes, the client see this issue as it arrives and plonks itself down in our midst, craving attention and preventing any further discussion until it is addressed, head on. It may be the Real Issue, it may be just a Big Distraction. But usually we give it lots of attention and treat it like a grown up, take it seriously. Address it head on.

But sometimes the issue is not so open and amenable to our focus. Sometimes the issue creeps into the room and lurks around in the shadows and dust balls in the corners and under the side tables. Sometimes it is a murky form hovering in the corridor beyond, a presence more felt than seen.

This is the Unknown Subject. I can usually tell when it is around. The client can too, if they are honest. But knowing it is there is not really the challenge. The Unsub in this case is elusive and evades our attention. We need to be wily and patient and generous with this timid interloper. Ironically, its timidity is inversely proportional to its importance. Addressing this Unsub can be key to unlocking blockages, shifting perspectives and galvanising energy.  This Unsub is powerful and potentially vindictive. We have to outsmart it in many ways, while all the time appearing non-threatening and responsive.

There are other types of Unsub. In my new novel (still in draft) which charts a year in the life of the main protagonist as she confronts a loss of all that she had held dear while embarking on a journey towards that which will sustain and nourish her long into her future, (don't worry - it is hilarious) there are myriad Unsubs. Some of these do not need to become known or identified. They are but niggles, distractions from the real drama and journey; the friend at yoga who collapses, the unsightly blemish on the chin, the flirtatious builder. But some are more central to the characters' progress and development. They cannot be avoided; nor can they be openly exposed. Their impact can be immense though. They can derail the story, becoming unhelpful subplots, annoying red herrings. As in real life some of them will become obstacles if left to their own devices. 

Since I am in control of the whole thing - I have ultimate power over these Unsubs. It is a wonderful feeling - to play puppeteer and ring master and supreme being. Sometimes. But mostly, I wait it out; ever watchful to see what the characters are up to, how they want to resolve their conflicts and how they wish to deal with the Unsubs. The challenge and opportunity for me is to give the Unsubs meaning for the reader.

There are, in real life, all manner of Unsubs as well. My personal favourites are so familiar, indeed so common, as to be truly passe. They barely deserve the moniker of "unknown". It would perhaps be better to call them "unspoken subjects" or "subtext". Sometimes they are our friends, keeping us company in a room full of strangers or warm on a cold night alone in those endless moments before dawn. But too often their main purpose is not one of support or comfort. Too often they smirk and cajole. Or they lie by our sides on their saggy old sunloungers, lazy little sunbathing good-for-nothings, interpreting our lives, souring our interactions. And when they hang around like teenagers at the mall, idle, looking for trouble, in small groups where their combinations and permutations are clearly a recipe for disaster, well, what did we think was going to happen...

You must know them too. Good old "childhood baggage", "fear of the unknown" and "expectations". And that is before we get to the real humdingers like "years of neglect", "spiritual poverty" and "narcissistic personality disorder". They get in the way of true meetings of minds and honest and authentic relationships. Instead of embracing opportunities to connect and engage, these saboteurs hold us back and malign our best endeavours to live a full and rich life.

Perhaps I overstate things. Perhaps they help us too. Those inner voices that warn us to run away, avoid getting sucked in to a labyrinth of negativity and self loathing. But then those voices are our friends. They have out best interests at heart, surely.

Anyway, this may all have gone off track - again.

The final category of Unsub to consider is the "Unsubscribe". You may be familiar with this one. It is the epitome of passive aggressive. And the suspense and mystery is there aplenty!

One wakes, makes some tea, attends to one's ablutions and children and then, stealing a moment before the school run, one checks one's emails and website activity. One has a sneaky look at who has opened that new message about the new venture/book/offer/what have you, and there right before your eyes is proof positive that you really do not strike a chord. 

Because there on the screen is the big fat bold black number telling you that so-and-so has unsubscribed to your oh-so-annoying email announcing your new book/what have you. Mmm, you think, gazing into the middle distance. Some people are very important. Their in-boxes are stuffed full of incredibly vital matters. Somehow, the Unsub, like in all the best whodunnits, is never the person you think it will be, though. Not the executives or partners or high-powered entrepreneurs. Not the weird loner who no-one really knows. No, it is a different character altogether. Which makes sense. In the whodunnits the Unsub is the pretty, vacuous cheerleader that no one took seriously, or the studious old guy who was too eager to help the cops solve the crime. (I can say this here because, let's face it - would you read my rantings if you did not want to? All those who don't get me, follow me or like me should not be here to start with!)

So the Unsub can be irksome. And so too can the diminution of the already paltry fan base on those networking sites that encourage us to "fan" each other. All of a sudden, instead of three fans one has one (oneself). I know how Jason Donovan feels. 

What does one do with that knowledge? How does one improve one's message, presence or style? And the risks? Another set of imponderables...

The fact is that one is better off not knowing who likes one or follows one, no? One is best to get a kick out of the intrinsic pleasure and value of having an idea and writing something vaguely amusing or distracting about it. And if one person enjoyed it or paused to consider it, then one's efforts were worthwhile.

After all, there may be some Unsub in the Unsub. 

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

A friend for the summer...

Some time ago I posted here about a story I had written for children and my ambition to "get it out there" - as a result of which I illustrated it myself - despite my wanton lack of talent as an artist. Since then I have spent far too much time learning the subtleties of Microsoft Paint, Powerpoint, PDF creation and how to use HTML(?). Indeed. 

The end result is "Tess and the Seaside Girl" - an e-book for 4-8 year olds, replete with nostalgic prose and pictures that will appeal to anyone who has longed for a friend for the holidays.

Tess' story is, I think, one with universal appeal. Timeless and ageless and culture crossing. While I risk sounding even more self-promoting than usual, I have realised that if I want to generate a following for my writing, ideas or work, then I have to tell you what is in it for you.

So I will tell you a story to make my point.


Do you ever consider what sort of story yours would be if you were telling it for the big screen? Or the little screen, for that matter?

Some time ago I worked in a very eccentric office. We were the lawyers who drafted the legislation that wound up becoming the laws of the Commonwealth of Australia, so you can imagine just how eclectic a group we might have been. Being young and fun and full of ideas, I (together with another lawyer/good friend) scripted some episodes of "OPC (Office of Parliamentary Counsel)" - you know the sort of thing - "Ally McBeal" meets "The Office" meets "Yes Minister". The scripts and the plots lines were nowhere near as amusing as the casting though. Naturally, someone bright, attractive and classy - out of the reach of all Hollywood slander and gossip - was to play me. I cannot remember who it was, to be frank...

Anyway, we had a huge (notional) budget for name actors and created a cast replete with Jeff Goldblum, Carrie Fisher, Danny De Vito and William Hurt. We had Meg Ryan, George from Seinfeld and Helen Hunt. We told some of our colleagues who had been cast to play them - it was a very effective way of keeping one's friends close and one's enemies closer. Obviously we did not tell the guy in question that Danny DV was to play him... But by and large our casting was either very apt or very flattering because it really captured the imagination of the office for a few weeks back in the summer of '96. Indeed, some of the staff emailed me asking who was cast as them - I was put on the spot more than once. It all seemed real and magical, at the same time. As if somehow, by saying it, we could create a fantasy land where the silver screen could come alive all around us. Where tedious concerns like proof checking and remembering to bring cakes to Friday morning tea were put aside for more urgent and glamorous calls on our time.

A year or two ago I posed the question at my then workplace - open plan professional services - quite a different kettle of fish, really, from my first real job at OPC. My neighbour - a 28 year old, bright and upcoming structured tax financier - told me without a moment's hesitation that Matthew McConnaughey might manage to play him. A range of dashing, well toned and tanned, albeit somewhat empty headed, leading men were proposed by the rest of the "bay" (area of desks) to play them. It was inspiring just how well the Gen Y chaps thought of themselves.

Now, in another world again - self-employed author, blogger, chair of the PTA, coach and often-home-alone-with-husband-abroad-mother-of-three - the story is more gripping than the cast. It is a story that we all know and relate to, after all.

This is not to say that the cast is superlative. No, the mother would be played by someone like Cate Blanchett (capable of looking like death warmed up but also gorgeous when need be). The father would be someone we all like - he would not be in much of the film so it is not that important - maybe Hugh Jackman, maybe Denzel Washington...

But the really important thing is the story itself. It will be told in the mocumentary style. It will seem real but it will in fact be actors playing the parts of these ordinary and simple folk in west London in summer.

The plot is not extraordinary. The tale of a mundane and humdrum urban life as seen through the eyes of the mother. Voice over, naturally.

The backdrop of London is always a seat filler - think Four Weddings, Notting Hill, Love Actually, myriad crime dramas, Spooks. Against this backdrop we then have the interplay of social comedy and high emotion. As a summer tale - London is half empty as all of the school children and their families have cleared out for warm and sunny climes - it is a sure-fire box office hit.

The story will revolve around the joy and pathos of family life in the city. The antics of the little family as they embark on "summer at home". The action packed scenarios of holidaying in the city. Boarding the buses with overflowing gym, grocery, craft and lunch bags. The missed calls on the mobile, promising an elusive play-date, client meeting or call-back from the builder. The romps in the park. The bickering over the last brioche, last bath and later bedtime. 

There is plenty of humour and drama.

And tension. Imagine the camera panning down the aisles at Waitrose - will she buy Frosties or Rice Crispies? Full-fat or semi-skimmed milk? White bread or wholemeal? Which washing detergent? Come on Mum, it's holiday time. Give the kids a treat, we urge. Yes, Frosties win! 

Will Mum get the sleep-in she begs for? Will Grandad muddle the time difference and call before dawn on a Sunday - again? Will the reduced price Pinot Grigio taste like reduced price Pinot Grigio? Which priest will say mass? Will it rain all day? Will the children enjoy making faux stained glass windows at the museum and if they do, will Mum meet anyone interesting there? Will there be any leather school shoes in the sale? Will the littlest one be able to sit through a 90 minute session at the cinema? Will the strange lady who lives on the communal garden become more friendly? Would the living room seem bigger if the sofa was by the other wall? Will the children be persuaded that pasta with pesto is still their favourite meal? Is take away dinner really worth it? Can people really live without a tv?

Then there is the bit where the family is due to meet for a longed-for play-date with old friends soon to embark on their summer vacation. Suddenly, at the last moment as the family steps out the door to journey to the park for the picnic, the phone rings. The other mother is calling to check on the weather across town. Lo and behold, she hears the sounds of a sniffle, a blocked nose, in the voice and inflection of  Mum/Cate. Without warning, the date is cancelled.Why? "We do not play with germs". Fearing the worst sort of infectious disease to ruin their trip away, the friends beg off. "We shall catch up another time." The family is left alone and bereft in the street. Nothing to do, no one to see. Friendless and feckless.

And so the audience is exposed, fleetingly, to the vagaries of women, socialising and germs, topics so immense and serious as to be beyond the scope of this trite little play. Themes not lightly touched upon in an unambitious comedy of errors such as this. And yet, the story takes a turn. The great themes of love and friendship, loyalty and self-preservation seep in. The background music becomes melancholy. Cate is faced with bigger issues now. Who can she turn to in her loneliness? Facebook? Twitter? Marie Claire? Netmums? Is it wrong that she feels so let down?

Dammit, they kept the whole day free!

And here come the twist!

Confronted with 6 spare hours they had not expected to have, Cate and the children make hay! Their creative juices fired up with the indignation of being cast aside so coldly - they begin writing and painting and drawing, baking and cleaning and sorting.

What a blessing it is to have a long lazy summer at home with no one to see, nothing to do, nowhere to be and no one to have to spend any of it with!

The freedom, the scope for uninhibited self-expression, the unstructured joy of a day left empty and unplanned...


So anyhoo. Where was I? Oh yes, the casting couch.

No - before that.

Yes, Tess, and the timeless quest for a kindred spirit with whom to share the lazy, relaxing, joyful and sunsoaked (or cloudy, as the case may be) freedom, of summer time.

Her story really does resonate. 

I hope that Tess' other adventures will also find their way into an e-book shop near you before too long.

And perhaps a range for grown up readers:

Tess and the longest night.
Tess and the running away from home.
Tess and the ripped wallpaper.
Tess and the horrible sink blockage.
Tess and the strange man.
Tess and the big fat person's shirt.
Tess and how she ceased to be invisible at the gym (when other ladies kept taking the equipment she was using).

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Living the Lie

I have recently become hooked on "Mad Men". If you have not watched this, make time to do so. It is fabulous drama; sexy, complex, intriguing and honest. The story revolves around a 1960's Madison Avenue advertising agency and the work and lives of its key personnel. I will not be giving too much away for those who have yet to become hooked if I write about the irony rich plot that surrounds the key character Don Draper - ad executive, husband, father and philanderer.

As the story unfolds, Don, we discover has changed his name, disavowed his past and reinvented himself. I am only part way through the first season so I cannot reveal whether he is found out or exposed and the ramifications if so. However, in one of the early episodes he is challenged by some Greenwich Village pot-smoking arty types about his career as an ad man - propagating lies to the public. Don is defensive. People want to be told what to do, he rails, and what choices to make. He barely responds to the accusation that he is selling lies. He has previously described advertising as the promotion of happiness and the good life.  Don is a cynic. He is lost and he is unhappy. Yet, outwardly he is handsome, exciting, mysterious and brilliant. Gorgeous wife and kids, awards for his work, an entourage of young execs who hang on his every word, even a boss who seems on the one hand desperate to impress him and slightly in awe of him while on the other, eager to compete with him and defeat him.

Don is a great character. I am not sure I like him. He is fundamentally flawed and scarred. I am not sure he is capable of loving anyone - apart from his children (he vows never to lie to his son!) - but he goes through the motions.

The complexity of Don is symbolic of the complexity of the time. McCarthyism just behind them, Vietnam just ahead. Kennedy yet to be elected. Contraception and pyschotherapy, divorce and career women becoming less taboo. There is plenty of misogyny, anti-Semitism and amorality confronting the viewer. It gets under the skin. I find myself thinking about it a lot.

Despite its subject matter and its context and setting it is easy to relate to some of the themes and emotions in Mad Men. Perhaps this is the secret of its popularity and appeal.

The housewives, told to be happy with all their material needs met - frozen food for goodness sake! - lost in their bedroom suburbs of New York State.

The executives and account managers vying for success, a seat at the table, promotions, glamour, pay rises. Eaten up with jealousy at the success of one of their number in publishing a short story. Conducting affairs with - well - anyone, really.

It is modern and shocking and at the same time - of another, far away time - and shocking. And ironically, given the lies its characters live and believe, it is brutally honest and devastatingly subtle and intelligent too.

I won't give you chapter and verse on all the scenarios - it will spoil it for all of you. Suffice to say, there are lies and duplicity everywhere. 

At its heart it is a timeless tale of the quest for material wellbeing. Yet the foundations of the characters and their lives are built not on bedrock, not on the backbone of America, or even the "American dream", so propagandised in those post Second World War years, but on the shifting sands of lies and pretence.

If you had the chance to take on a new identity and transform your life, what would you do? Become anyone you want? Laugh? Be paralysed by fear or choice? Would you do anything? How bad would things need to be in order to leave it all behind and start afresh? How good would the "new" life have to be to warrant it?

It's not something one often considers. An occasional night out with the girls or a good (tv) story usually suffices, no?

Clearly, we all find and utilise the lies and delusions we need in order to get through the hard times, or perhaps to achieve the "good" times. We tell ourselves that we didn't really want x, y or z, anyway. We convince ourselves and others that we actually do like a, b or c; a, b or c being something we seem to have in abundance (e.g. bad skin, grey hair, enemies at the school gate). These falsehoods often serve us well. They are good for us. They let us go on. They make us human and keep us grounded in reality.

But sometimes our lies are like tumours, eating us up from the inside out. Or they amount to layers of straw behind which we cower, ever fearful of discovery. 

When I trained to become an executive coach I underwent several hours of coaching. I should not say "underwent" - as one might refer to root canal or a colonoscopy. Rather, I benefited from several hours of coaching at the hands of my trainers and peers. The idea being that we all practised on one another. The learning was amazing - practical and experiential - the best kind. First, I discovered that I am a fantastic client (delightfully open, highly communicative and exceedingly willing to talk about myself). But second, and even more importantly, I discovered that when I was honest and clear about my hopes and aspirations it was virtually impossible to shut down the creative energy and flow that followed. 

And I had thought I was honest and clear before that!

Perhaps it was the fact I was articulating my ideas to a dispassionate and unconnected person, or the fact that I had committed to taking a journey of sorts or the fact that the course was costing so much that I would have been crazy not to have made some sort of transformation. But whether you call it "finding your voice" or "taking off the blinkers" or accepting oneself, the personal truths were given time and space to become my reality. 

Similarly, people tell me how the day they realise they are living their own life and not that of their father or mother - and often it is not something that happens "one day" but over many, many difficult and sometimes painful days and years, they start to live authentically and honestly. 

And so Don Draper and people of his ilk, with their lies and obfuscation, constructs and stories fascinate me. These are not little white lies, but massive breaches of trust and confidence. How does one deal in duplicity, day in and day out, on a large scale? What makes it necessary in the first place? I doubt that the authenticity I refer to would be much use to Don - at least not in the first season of the show. 

Yet, the hardest thing is not being authentic - that is easy. The hardest part is deciding to be. The challenge is letting go of the past, the expectations we and others place on us and ceasing to play the same old part in the same old drama. The hardest part is working out which lies are intrinsically useful or valuable and which are self-destructive or self-limiting.

I used to joke with friends about my ill-gotten time as a tax lawyer - how my heart was not in it - how I was "livin' a lie". Thankfully it did not permeate the rest of my life. Thankfully I could see it and laugh at it and eventually deal with it.

Woe is she that lives the lie and believes it.