Under Advisement

One of the tools a novelist uses to tell a story is the reflection character. This person can be a sidekick, mentor, antagonist, companion animal… all of the above. The possibilities are endless. The reflection character’s job (and there’s often more than one reflection character in the cast) is to illuminate the protagonists’ progress as they inch and stumble their way along the arc from a safe, wounded mode of living to a courageous, risky–loving–approach to life.

On a practical level the reflection character is a way to put into dialogue a lot of the musings and fretting that would otherwise take place only inside a protagonist’s head. Dialogue is generally more engaging then straight narrative or description, so that’s a crucial role. The reflection character is also fertile ground for the next book’s protagonist. The character’s asides, anecdotes, and advice all give the reader little hints of coming attractions.

And in the past year, I’ve had less access to my own personal reflection characters. I haven’t hung out with family, and they–being the people who knew me when–often have insights about my upbringing that nobody else can offer. I’m not around other writers at conferences or retreats. I’m not talking to strangers as I travel overseas and gain insights into myself and my home culture. I don’t even get to hang out with my horse or my ridin’ buddies as I used to.

I am at risk for living a less examined life of late, because I have to do all the reflecting on my own, and yet, I’m not completely at sea. In addition to online resources–such as they are–and my own capacity for insight, I’ve also collected a store of wisdom over the years. Some of this advice came from long-ago therapy sessions: If you need it to be happy, you need it.

Another old chestnut from therapy: Anger usually sits on top of another more vulnerable emotion, such as fear, betrayal, or grief.

Some goodies I collected while studying conflict or lawyering: Defining the problem accurately is half the battle of solving it. A non-anxious presence can also be half the battle of solving a sticky problem.

And some gems came to me from friends and family. My dad passed along this insight, which I think goes near the top of the Most Useful Stuff Dad Said: If you face a tough decision, you might not know which choice appeals most strongly, but you can usually tell which option has the least appeal. When in doubt, pay attention to what you know you don’t want.

As a young female adult, I found that guidance particularly useful. I had not been socialized to pay attention to my own needs, wants, or druthers. But I could tune in pretty easily to the things I dreaded or despised. I could gauge future regrets more easily than future joys, and so I backed into some good decisions.

I could go on–learn to spot forced choices and what motivates them. Always pace yourself for the long haul. Don’t waste your fire on people who don’t appreciate you.

I still have reflection characters in my life after all. What about you? What would you say is the best advice you’ve ever been given? The worst advice? To three commenters, I’ll send e-ARCs of the $.99 novella anthology, Shelter and Storm.


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18 comments on “Under Advisement

  1. Both of my parents, at one time or another, gave me the same advice to “keep my chin up.” I’ve interpreted it to mean various things at various times of my life. I think my interpretation varied by what I needed at the time.

    The times I felt not part of a group and alone, I took it to mean that I should be true to myself, not give up and stay on my own path.

    The times I felt beaten down by life or belittled by others, I took it mean not to be ashamed and have confidence and go on, no matter what anyone else said or did to discourage me.

    I always believed they were trying to tell me to carry on, with my head held high and remember whose daughter I was. Dad, especially, believes in showing confidence, even if you you don’t feel it, by keeping your body straight and upright.

    I give my kids the same advice–keep your chin up and carry on, no matter what! 🙂

    • My dad’s version was, “Illegitimus non carborundum,” loosely translated, don’t let the buzzards get you down. Same idea–soldier on!

  2. My dad was my fountain of wisdom boiled into pithy shorts. Some of his best:
    Whoever told you life was fair? They’re a damned liar.

    To thine own self be true. Shakespeare was into something. Plus he seems to have found steady work.

    No one ever got rich working for someone else. Don’t be afraid to go out on your own.
    Ancillary from the man who never took a vacation for 29 years while owning his own business with 5 branches around the state: Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.

    To me in high school when a pack of popular girls were getting married in droves: I never want my daughter working as hard as women who have to marry for money and security. You’re going to college. Then if you want to marry a ditch digger, you’ll have that option. But he’d better be the best damn ditch digger in the county.

    When I was undecided in college and could have triple majored, but it would have required more than the 4 years my parents had saved for: Pick one & graduate. After your first job, no one ever cares what your major is or your GPA.

    I still miss him, but his life lessons are in the back of my mind every time I have a big decision to make. Absolute A+ as a parent. I still remember: You don’t have to like me. My job is to raise you to self sufficient adulthood. Once you get there, you’ll be shocked how smart your daddy is and how much smarter he gets the older you are.
    He was right!

  3. “Begin as you mean to go on.” For the life of me I cannot remember who or where this was imparted, but it has served me well.

    • That aphorism does result in a clarity of boundaries and purposes, doesn’t it? Much easier to hold the line on scruples and objectives than it is to retrench and re-establish the rules.

  4. My mum and dad were complete opposite people when it came to giving their kids advise,this made it very confusing when growing up.Mum worried more about speaking correctly and being polite and behaving in a good Christian way to your neighbours at all times.Dad however had a very calm laid back attitude to life.Mum’s advise(lecture)when I started dating was “don’t bring trouble home to this house because you will be shown the door”)Dad would say no you won’t we will find a way.Then a row would start up.What a pickle over something that was not going to happen because I did listen to them both and grew up knowing right from wrong and kind mess towards the less fortunate and vulnerable.Dad’s advise was always listen to your gut first,also let sleeping dogs lie.In other words don’t invite trouble.My parents did the best they could and I am so grateful they were mine and my sisters.One life time,one go at it so listen and decide—stick or bust.

    • My parents came from different perspectives too, with Dad more laid back, and Mom more, “I will hunt you down and kill you for being stupid…” At the same time she insisted home was the first place to go for help. You’re right–it was confusing, and entirely typical of her. But then, she was raised with the same mixed messages.

  5. The best: “It not about youl. It’s about them.” And other words to that effect

    The worst: “The trail/road goes this way.”

    • Oh, dear… I do hope everybody made it back to the trail head before the storm came in.
      And yeah… it’s about them.

  6. My fathers famous words…Gormans are not quitters.

    I can hear his voice sometimes when I am faced with a tough decision or feel hurt by others.
    Lately, I have seen a lot of cardinals in the yard— a sign that a loved one who has passed is thinking of you.

    I laughed at myself the other day when I told my daughter that Gormans were not quitters. And to keep positive during her job hunt. Giving the same advice made me smile.

    • I dunno, Sue. There’s the counter-adage: Weak people give up and stay, strong people give up and move on. But then, I have a tendency to hang on and hang in, with jobs, relationships, projects… when I’d be much better off cutting them loose. But Grace Burrowes is not a quitter…

      As for the job hunt… Finding a job is a job, and hard job. I wish her best of luck, and for what it’s worth, I didn’t hit my legal stride until I was in solo practice.

  7. The best advice I’ve ever been given is that “everything” is never wrong. When you ask someone what’s wrong, if the answer is “everything”, you can be dealing with a serious situation. Of course, there are those who are just never satisfied but are in no danger of harming themselves or others, but you can also be dealing with someone who is experiencing something they have lost control of to the point it has sucked them down to a dark, dangerous place.

    In my case, I was in my early 20s and had lost a lifelong friend to non-Hodgkins lymphoma followed by the loss of my grandmother to breast cancer, then followed by a break up with a long term boyfriend. I couldn’t see any light in my life. I went into intense counseling when my nurse mother started to identify signs that I was giving up. In my words, everything was wrong. Nothing was right. People kept telling me I was strong enough, but all I knew was that I didn’t want to be strong enough. The pain wasn’t something I wanted to work through. I just wanted it to go away.

    My counselor was able to help me begin to identify those things I valued, things that were not wrong, reasons to want to work through the pain. Learning that “everything” was not wrong was the single most important lesson I’ve ever learned.

    • That is a very interesting observation.
      I recall being at a low point in the whole single-parenting, self-employed, my-body-hates-me slog, and one of my sisters telling me that meditating on gratitude had helped her.
      “But I don’t feel grateful. The sun is not shining, the birdies are not singing…” And to be fair to me, at the time, they weren’t.
      Her reply was to sift my life for some tiny, micro-crumb of gratitude that I could genuinely feel–for the ability to take a deep breath. For a functional digestive system, the scent of honeysuckle… something that I could genuinely be grateful for, and just stay with that until it expanded.
      That was good advice, along the lines of your observation that everything isn’t wrong all at once.
      Though it can certainly feel all wrong.

  8. Golly. I don’t know if I have any words of wisdom myself but I learned a couple of things from this post. The idea that anger sits on top of another more vulnerable emotions such as fear, betrayal or grief was new to me. Thank you Grace. I have a lot of anger simmering under the surface and I spent most of yesterday afternoon thinking about this. Absolutely right. Also I did not know that cardinals in the yard were a sign that someone who has passed on is thinking about me. That’s just lovely. My Dad always signed off with “keep the faith”, sometimes meant religiously but mostly meaning to stay strong, stay true, stay honest. My sister and I still say it to each other.

    • My six siblings and I are ALWAYS quoting our departed parents. “Now look, chum…” was how my Dad prefaced many a scold. My mom made up or re-cycled words (isk-ka-bibbles, nasty-gaa-gaa-no-yikey,booja-booja-booja), and what it all means now is, “Love you.”

  9. You are usually only the focal point in a room to yourself, and actually people (outside of high school I suppose) aren’t really paying much attention to you, nor will they remember the gaffe that mortifies you. They are focused on their own slice of the world. Everything looks better in the morning as well. Basically, anxiety feeds you a steady stream of lies.

    • My mom used to say, “Never make decisions when you’re tired…” Her version of, “Things will look better in the morning,” but without as much optimism.
      She also said, “When I’m worried, I get stupid,” riffs off your more precise observation that anxiety feeds you a steady stream of (mean) lies. I like your version better, and it gives me something to think about too!