May 9 2011

Oh, Baby!

Melissa Crytzer Fry

I was told that I was an ugly baby. In fact, my nickname was Jiminy Cricket. Thank God I don’t still have a shriveled insect-shaped face.

But I digress… the whole notion of pretty and ugly babies popped up – quite literally – a few weeks ago as I passed by the large, lone saguaro that stands only about 15 feet away from a busy state route highway.

Poised in front of Arizona’s majestic Santa Catalina Mountains, the saguaro is memorable not only because of its stately arms and towering height, but also because of the giant saucer-shaped nest of twigs and branches jutting from among the prickly arms of the saguaro.

On this particular day as I was headed to the airport, I was sure I’d seen two fluffy white heads bobbing about. Or, I thought, maybe it was just wishful thinking since my husband, who drives past this saguaro daily, could not confirm my sighting later that morning. Nor could my subsequent drive bys.

Ever since I noticed the nest last year – and its homeowner, a beautiful great horned owl – I’ve kept vigilant watch. And on Friday, I confirmed that those furry heads were, indeed, babies.

Great horned owls ‘borrow’ existing nests (in this case, it appears to be a raven’s nest). Owlet on right, mama on left. Click to enlarge.

So what can this adorable owlet possibly have to do with ugly babies, you wonder? Fortunately for great horned owls, they are among the more entitled in the birdosphere, as their babies hatch with beautiful downy tuft. They enter the world looking like soft, squeezable, ball-shaped feather dusters (which, of course, will later become fearsome predators).

My suspicion is that at least two owlets call this nest their home (until they fledge). Click to enlarge to see second ‘head’ behind baby in foreground.

Other bird brethren, when born, come out looking a bit more like death: completely featherless, bulging eyes sealed shut by thin-membrane eyelids, painfully large beaks, bony legs as delicate as glass toothpicks, veins crisscrossing over translucent tender sheets of skin. Soon, though, like The Ugly Duckling story of our youth, they transform, no longer those ugly babies they once were … more like the great horned owlets that capture our hearts from the start (when we’re privileged enough to see them).

For Writers: Can you recognize when your baby (and by baby, I mean, your WIP) is ugly? Or are the mama blinders on? After all … you did give birth to this thing. You spent lots of time with it. Breathed life into it. Disciplined it. Molded it. Nurtured it.

I obviously was incapable of making this “ugly-beautiful” distinction during my earlier days of fiction writing. One of the readers of my first novel actually said these exact words about my ending chapters: “I’m sorry that you were disappointed by my remarks. No one likes to hear that her baby is not adorable …” Ouch.

When I finished my grousing over her tough-love comments – and once I walked away from the ending chapters for two months – I realized, with horror, that my defensive posturing about my baby was totally unfounded. When I re-read my ending with fresh eyes, it became painfully clear that she was right. My baby was UGLY … uglier than a mud fence, as my mom would say (are mud fences ugly?).

What about you and your baby? Do you want to hear that honest truth, or would you rather have people fuss, ooohhhing and awwing over your baby’s cute face, chubby toes, and adorable smile (while they cross their fingers behind their backs)? How do you find the right amount of objectivity when it comes to your baby?

May 2 2011

Life’s Elixir

Melissa Crytzer Fry

You might look at these photos and think there is nothing remarkable about water on flowers, on trees. Seen it before, you might say.

But when you consider that these droplets fell upon the parched lips of flowering hedgehog cacti, the bone-dry petals of desert marigolds, and the smooth pistachio-colored branches of Sonoran Desert palo verde trees, the meaning changes a bit.

Doesn’t it?

(Below photos are worth clicking on to enlarge details! I’m only slightly biased.)

A full day of rain – and an early-morning, foggy photo shoot in the desert – yielded this early-blooming hedgehog blanketed in water droplets. Click to enlarge. Click arrow button to see all photos in post.

In the desert, fallen water seems to cling just a little longer. A little more frantically. And with a little more appreciation – even though the lifesaving liquid is essential in every environment, arid or lush. We need it. Animals need it. Plants need it. Our bodies are made of it (70 percent). The Earth’s surface is covered by it (another 70 percent). Water makes the world go round. It is life’s elixir.

This season’s wildflowers, somewhat stunted from a dry winter and spring, came to life with even the quarter-inch of rain that fell on their petals. Desert Marigold pictured. Click to enlarge.

There’s just something about the rain’s arrival in such a thirsty, baked environment, the soft plop, plop of drops hitting dry dirt. The way plants and animals transform during drought conditions, scraggly and sad, begging for a hint of the sustaining stuff. When the skies do open, if even for a short while, life seems renewed almost instantly.

Raindrops cling to this palo verde tree after a much-needed winter rain in the desert. Click to enlarge.

For Writers: Author of The Writer’s Journey, Christopher Vogler, proposes that nearly every story ever written follows a hero’s journey inspired by mythology. One leg of the hero’s journey is the “Approach to the Inmost Cave,” during which the main character approaches the central ordeal or adventure of the novel. It’s the time, Vogler says, when authors remind the audience of the “ticking clock” (i.e. If my MC doesn’t reach water within the hour, his organs will fail. If she doesn’t change her lifestyle, she will lose her children). Readers are reminded of the “life-and-death quality of the issue at hand” for the main character.

What is that one thing that YOUR character has to have to survive – beyond life-sustaining water? Or what is that one thing she thinks she has to have, or she’ll die – literally or metaphorically? And how does wanting this thing, or needing it, raise the stakes for your character? Does the desire result in bad decisions? Do those decisions result in danger, growth, healing?