by Jennifer Paros
Be still when you have nothing to say; when genuine passion moves you, say what you've got to say, and say it hot.
~D. H. Lawrence
A friend of my father’s visits once a year. He is part of my childhood memories — one of my Dad’s colleagues who periodically helped animate our home with conversation and laughter when I was a young. Several times while visiting with him again, he mentioned how I was “feisty” as a child. I immediately noticed my young (inner) self rear up like a horse, reminding me of that fiery, rumbling feeling — whatever defiance and stubbornness are made of — and also the stuff, I now believe, of heroines and heroes.
As a young girl I challenged my older sister, and sometimes other kids, to arm wrestling. I didn’t believe my thin frame possessed superior physical strength, but I did think I had access to a fierceness that would or could dominate. It wasn’t the muscle in my arm I wanted to challenge and prove; it was a mental muscle, the power of my own focus and determination. I wanted to be fearless, lively, and bold — though at various times in my childhood I found myself under my bed (literally and figuratively).
Though I craved ownership of my feisty, focused strength, I didn’t want to be prickly. I wanted my sense of power to come from inspiration, not irritation. Dictionary definitions explain feisty in two ways. One is about being touchy and aggressive, the other is a kind of exuberant, spunky determination. It is possible the second definition reflects the essence of the word and the first is how other people sometimes negatively perceive those qualities in each other — especially when challenged by them.
But feistiness is a quality belonging to all of us; it has to, because all of us are wired for independence. And the assertion of independence requires both awareness of our separate, unique perspective and a pointed drive to express it. Our individuality and the boldness (or feistiness) needed to assert it come to us as a pairing, I believe, like batteries included with a new toy.
There is a term that describes the stage when most of us first express our feistiness: the Terrible Twos. The terrible part is born of the idea that, for parents, their kid’s new autonomous impulses are a nightmare to manage — that once a child kicks off her babyhood and grabs hold of the word “no”, she becomes armed for trouble. This is when “spirited” might get flipped to “stubborn” in the minds of others. But spirited is the point of and the power that fuels any dynamic character in story and in life.
Reach out. Take a chance. Get hurt, even. But play as well as you can. Go team, go! Give me an L. Give me an I. Give me a V. Give me an E. L-I-V-E. LIVE! Otherwise, you got nothing to talk about in the locker room.
~ Maude (Harold and Maude)
The Terrible Two’s isn’t only about the age of two. We are born repeatedly into moments in which we must establish ourselves as separate from others, separate from former versions of ourselves, asserting “no” first in order to find the new “yes”. Those moments require some kind of spunk. In story, these are turning point moments — the times the audience cheers. We cheer for gumption and pluck, aware that our experience of freedom depends upon them.
One of my favorite characters is Maude, played by Ruth Gordon, in the 1971 film, Harold and Maude. A 79-year-old free spirit, Maude breaks with societal mores and sometimes the law, but is grounded in her love of life; and her feistiness is always and only in service to that greater good. She is a force for creative freedom and ignores thoughts or approaches that might hamper her pursuit. But all characters, at some point in their stories, and we in our lives, have to embrace Maude’s playbook to some degree, for without it, our narratives and our lives fall flat and feel more like jail than acts of creative choice.
Without a spirited drive for self-determination, we are noodle-like. That may be a place to begin, but it is not where the best stories end. We are all born unique, with the spirit needed to assert our singularity. If I had been called feisty as a child, I would have taken it as a negative and felt discouraged. But feistiness can be like a life jacket, a self-preserver, a passion with the potential to uplift and save, helping others to remember they can do the same for themselves. This is the stuff of heroines and heroes, and this is the stuff of us.
Jennifer Paros is a writer, illustrator, and author of Violet Bing and the Grand House (Viking, 2007). She lives in Seattle. Please visit her website at www.jenniferparos.com.