Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Giant Crane: The Power of Perception

by Beth Terrell

When I was about six years old, there was a story on the news about a little boy who had been killed by a crane. The kind of crane I was most familiar with was a long-legged, long-necked bird with white feathers. Although I knew they had sharp, powerful beaks, I couldn't imagine a normal crane having killed a child, so I knew it must have been an abnormally gigantic one. I imagined something along the lines of a feathered, long-legged teradactyl. And since it had killed a little boy, it must have been abnormally viscious as well. Cranes, I knew, were fish-eaters, but somehow, this one must have acquired a taste for human flesh. It didn't occur to me that the boy might have provoked the crane. I figured the newscaster would have mentioned a thing like that, so I was convinced that the bird was some sort of monstrous mutation, like you might see in an old Godzilla movie. Maybe it had been exposed to radiation; everybody knew how radiation could make lizards and ants--and, presumably cranes--grow to enormous sizes and turn them into savage killers.

For weeks, when I played outside, I kept an eye on the sky. I stayed under awnings and in the shadows of trees, and when I had to cross open ground, I ran as fast as I could to the next bit of shelter, expecting the long shadow of the teradactyl/crane to fall across me at any minute. When we drove out to visit my cousins in the country, I sat in the back seat and watched out the window for a glimpse of it. As soon as the car stopped, I scurried for the safety of the trees. I don't remember ever telling my mother about my fears. I just spent my days watching for the crane and planning my escape from it.

The crane never appeared, and eventually, I began to forget to look for it. It had moved on, I supposed. Found another hunting ground. There were no more reports of dead children. The world began to feel safe again.

Many years later, something jogged my memory and I remembered my fear of the giant crane and the news story that had prompted it. For the first time, it occurred to me that the child had probably not been killed by a bird at all. The child had probably wandered onto a construction site and been crushed by a piece of heavy machinery; a mechanical crane that had either run over the child or accidentally dropped something on him. That story took on a whole new meaning. It was tragic, but no longer terrifying. The event had not changed--a child had been killed by a crane--but my perception of it had.

Perception matters a lot for a writer. It determines the themes of our novels and the actions of our protagonists. It also affects our professional lives. Imagine two writers, Writer A and Writer B. Both have completed manuscripts. Both are equally talented. Both have read about the submission process and have sent out their first queries, along with a synopsis and sample pages.

Writer A receives a rejection and perceives it as a personal affront. "That agent is just jealous," Writer A says. "If he could write half as well as I can, he would be a bestselling author instead of an agent. It's a conspiracy by the stupid people in the publishing business to publish drivel and keep works of astonishing genius from seeing the light of day." Writer A writes a blog post blasting the agent who rejected him before sending out his submission package the same day. As he drops it into the mail slot, he mutters to himself, "Let's see if this one has sense enough to recognize the next blockbuster when she reads it. I doubt it, though. If you don't know somebody in this business, you don't stand a chance."

Writer B receives a rejection and perceives it as an indication that his work did not meet that agent's current needs. "I wonder if there was a problem with the query or the synopsis," Writer B says. "Is my writing as strong as it needs to be, or is this just not a good match for this agent at this time?" Writer B rereads his submission package with a critical eye, makes edits as needed, and sends it out to another agent (whom he has carefully researched and found to be a likely match). "I hope she likes it," Writer B says, "but if she doesn't, it's not the right match." Writer B perceives each rejection as an opportunity to improve his writing and as a step closer to the agent of his dreams.

Which writer is more likely to see his work in print?

The greatest difference between these two writers is perception. But what a difference perception makes! It can be the difference between fearing a teradactyl-crane and understanding a tragedy. It can be the difference between a bitter existance and achieving a dream.

How do your perceptions affect you and your writing?


Jean Henry Mead said...

Probably nearly every writer goes through the denial stage you mentioned, Beth. I was lucky that I started as a journalist and built up my writing confidence before attempting fiction. Some of us have to be slapped in the face with more than a few rejections before perception comes into play. I enjoyed your post, especially about the crane. They're protected in California and I hit one in the fog one night and didn't realize it until someone at work the next morning discovered it plastered to the grill on my car. I was horrified and thought I'd be arrested. :)

Jaden Terrell said...

What a dreadful discover that must have been. They're gorgeous birds. I accidentally ran over a starling a few days ago, and it just about broke my heart.

Of course, you're right, Jean. We've probably all been in Writer A's shoes. I know I have (though, I hope, not to such an extreme degree), but I think the people who last in this business-at least with any degree of contentment--have the ability to eventually adjust their perceptions to something closer to Writer B's.

Terry Stonecrop said...

Love the crane story!

And so true about perception. Yes, if you're rejected you have to consider the many different reasons, one of them being, your writing may need work:)

Sheila Deeth said...

I love the juxtaposition - child and crane, wannabe writer and rejection slip. I shall smile in memory when I get my next rejection.

Mark W. Danielson said...

Beth, your story reminded me of the first time I saw a Harvetst Moon. I was young, climbed over the hill, and there is was -- a killer moon, larger than anything I've ever seen. I raced home and hid under my bed, which had saved me numerous times already. I remember that moment, just as you do your killer crane. But your example goes beyond childhood memories,proving how difficult English can be. As such, there is always room for improvement in our speech and writing.

Jaden Terrell said...

Mark, I love your "big scary moon" story. One of these days I'll share the story of how I became convinced that I was turning into a werewolf.

I was a very gullible child, LOL.

Thanks for the comments, everyone.