Monday, November 9, 2015

Movies and Writers

I haven’t written much lately, and that is because my new book has really taken off.  I only hope it’s as good as I feel when writing it.  As I started working today, however, I happened to think about writers in movies and how they are portrayed when they write, how they appear to others, etc.  Some are not so great—frightening, even (The Shining, Misery, anyone?), but then there are others that I feel are true to a writer’s (or this writer’s at least) idiosyncrasies, habits, thoughts, personalities, and work.  And so, I started making a list in my mind of some of my favorites and why they are my favorites.  The result is the following list, a combination of two of my favorite things, writers and movies:   

As Good As It Gets
This movie always springs to mind when I think about writers.  Jack Nicholson’s characters suffers from OCD and does not relate well to people, though he appears to be a popular writer, as his publisher tells him that he does make a lot of money for them.  He lives alone, and doesn’t like to be around people a lot (save a waitress with whom he is secretly—even to him—in love).  This is something I need a lot of as a writer, but something I don’t get a lot of.  As a working mom of two small adorable kids, I don’t get a lot of alone time, and so I have to take my writing time when I can.  I work in a library, so I can do some there, but I get interrupted often and before I know it, the day is over.  Having said that, I think the scene I can most relate to in this film is when Jack Nicholson’s character is sitting in front of his computer, waiting for inspiration and viewers can tell it is just beginning to happen because the music lightens and he starts to smile, puts his fingers on the keyboard and then—KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK on the door!  This happens a couple of times more and Nicholson’s reaction of cursing and yanking off his glasses and throwing open the door describes my inner reaction of getting interrupted multiple times perfectly!

Something’s Gotta Give
One of the things I love about this film—I’ll just go ahead and say it—is Diane Keaton’s house.  What a gorgeous place to live and write!  But I also love the way she portrays her writer character.  She says she is ten percent talent and ninety percent hard word—yup, can totally relate.  But I also love the way the process of writing is portrayed, from her printing it out and walking around the house or beach analyzing what she’s written, walking around as she thinks before leaping back in front of her laptop to get her latest idea down, staying up all hours of the night and not realizing how late it is.  She is inspired by little things at first—things people say and do and then gradually other happenings and people in her life work to inspire her.  The result is a cathartic experience after suffering a traumatizing breakup, leading to what one character classifies as her best work yet.

The Golden Girls Episode, “Sick and Tired.”
This is one of my all-time favorite episodes from one my favorite television shows.  It is largely about Dorothy suffering through the effects of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, but Blanche steals the show from the moment she announces she is going to be “a great romance novelist!”  She stays awake for three days straight writing her “great” work, only to stumble into the kitchen, ask what day it is and declare that she has “discovered a new form of writing.”  Hilarity ensues as Blanche makes Rose read her work, then discovers a bag of egg yolks on the counter, claiming she first sees “little balls of sunshine in a bag” and then “little yellow eyeballs” staring at her.  So, what is the result of all her hard work? Rose tells her it doesn’t make sense, and she gets several rejections from publishers, but it all makes for one of the funniest scenes the show ever produced!  And I appreciate that it shows how difficult writing and getting published can be.

Finding Forrester
Like As Good As It Gets, this film centers on a reclusive writer.  A young basketball player, who, it just so happens is an avid reader and writer, happens upon him one day.  Forrester lives in an apartment with little technology—not even a phone, and does most of his work on a gloriously loud typewriter.  He has his protégé do the same, demanding that he “punch the keys!”  They have a lively debate about conjunctions and learn that sometimes you only need one good line to get going on a good story.  They learn a lot more from each other about writing and life and the basketball player goes on the write the best work of his life—and will only get better, the viewer knows, because of his time with Forrester.

The Muse
Okay, writer friends, do you ever wish you could summon a muse to give you a great idea you could just go with?  You knew it would work and turn into story, novel, screenplay, etc., that you know was good?  This is the film for you if you said yes.  Albert Brooks plays a screenwriter who has been suffering from writer’s block.  He visits a successful friend who introduces him to the secret of his success—a beautiful woman by the name of Sara who agrees to inspire him but in return, bombards Brooks with demands of gifts from Tiffany’s, trips to aquariums, late-night runs food runs, and more.  She even moves into his house and kicks him and his wife out of their own bedroom so she can sleep there because she just wouldn’t feel like a real part of the family otherwise and therefore couldn’t inspire him.  Surprisingly, all of this works, and he ends up writing a great screenplay.  Funny movie—I just couldn’t see myself giving in to that much, though!

One True Thing
I have loved this movie since the first time I saw it because it is about a college instructor (of which I am) who is also a writer (of which I like to think of myself as) who has a daughter who has followed in his footsteps (which I admit, I hope my children will do).  But, I grew to love the film even more when I became a wife and mom and I’ll tell you why.  The career-driven daughter in the film must move home to take care of her ailing mother, a homemaker the daughter didn’t respect, love, or look up to the way she did her father.  But as time passes, and she does the daily work of cooking, cleaning, laundry, etc., she realizes how hard her mother has worked all those years and begins to appreciate her, as evidenced when she asks, “How do you do this, every day in this house, and no one notices?,” and then when she tells her father, “Do you have any idea what it takes to keep your life running smoothly?”  If ever a film blended being a mother, wife, and writer so well, but in different ways, I think this one would be it.

Wonder Boys
The film takes a look inside the life of Grady Tripp, a professor and writer (of one book anyway—he is over 1000 words into his next one and is nowhere near the end) over the course of a cold, February weekend in which he loses his wife and job, is an accessory to one of his students killing his boss’s dog and stealing the man’s most prized possession.  Through it all, Trip maintains a shaggy, witty, relaxation about him.  He’s older; he’s lived.  He’s a writer who sees life and is not intimidated by anything about it because of his age and his experience.  That’s not to say he’s arrogant, though.  He’s just accepting, goes with the flow when something happens, and likeable because of it.  He says many insightful and witty things in the film but my favorite quote of his is this:  “Nobody teaches a writer anything.  You tell them what you know.  You tell them to find their voice and stay with it.  You tell the ones that have it to keep at it.  You tell the ones that don’t have it to keep at it, too, because that’s the only they’re going to get to where they’re going.  Of course, it does help if you know where you want to go.”

Stand By Me

I enjoy the film’s and Richard Dreyfuss’s portrayal of the writer here because it shows the process.  It begins by showing the writer looking somberly at a tragic news article that we do not know affects him directly until we are given his childhood story in flashbacks.  Move to the end of the film and we see the man at his computer, finishing up writing the story we have just watched, but as a parent, I think what I can relate to most is when his son timidly opens the door to his dad’s office to ask if he’s ready to take him and a friend of his swimming.  Still distracted at his computer, the dad asks, “You ready?”  The son replies, “Yeah, we’ve been ready for an hour.”  The dad looks at them, laughs more at himself, and says, “Okay I’ll be right there.”  The boy’s friend says, “He said that a half hour ago!”  The son, obviously accustomed to his father’s line of work says, “Yeah, my dad’s weird.  He gets like that when he’s writing.”  I can almost envision myself and kids in that same scenario ten or so years from now.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

In Dreams

“Now here I go again, I see the crystal visions
I keep my visions to myself
It's only me
Who wants to wrap around your dreams and
Have you any dreams you'd like to sell?
Dreams of loneliness...”
~Stevie Nicks (Fleetwood Mac), “Dreams”

“Come on out of your dreams
And wake up from your reverie
Time is here, don’t go to sleep . . .
About a light year from reality”

~Beck, “Dreams”

Dreams can be an excellent source of inspiration when writing.  That’s how Stephenie Meyer received her idea for the Twilight series.  I remember waking from a dream at roughly two a.m. when I was around eighteen or nineteen and immediately going to my computer to begin typing away.  I guess I didn’t save it because I can’t remember what it was about, only that I had to get it down and see if I could go with it.  And even though I lost sleep and never used the idea, it was still time well spent.  I always say, time spent writing is never wasted time.  It keeps you practicing and sometimes we writers need to write a huge amount before we write something we actually want to use or show the world.  And, I always find the more I write, the better the work becomes.

But back to my original thought.  I’ve been thinking a lot about dreams, particularly two I had lately.  The first was rather frightening, one I have had before.  I found myself inexplicably moving through outer space.  Not in a rocket ship or anything of the sort, just moving through the darkness, nothingness—floating amongst massive planets close by and stars in the distance.  But it was frightening because there was nothing stable, nothing to hold onto, no gravity, no life force, and no one else around, just empty vastness all around—and it was immense.

Strange, I know.  Like with a lot of dreams, they seem to make sense until you try to explain them out loud or on paper.

The other dream I had, the same evening, is the first one I had about two people I loved greatly, who passed away within six months of each other: my grandmother and my cousin, Barbara (I will be talking more about Barbara in an upcoming post on characterization).  I was close to both of them and I still haven’t quite gotten over the shock of losing them both within such close proximity.  The experience of losing each was different, too: my grandmother’s was slightly expected, yet Barbara’s was completely unexpected, but they both played a role in my growth as a writer.  It was at my grandmother’s house that I learned my love of writing, and it is in that house that I set part of my new book.  Barbara was my reader.  She read my to-be published book before anyone else had, and told me that I needed to get it published right away.  At least she got to know that it was on its way before she passed on.  I just wish my grandmother had seen it, too.  It still feels a little strange knowing they won’t be able to see my future works.  I guess it hurts the most when I’ve written something I like and I think to myself, Oh, I need to email that to Barbara and then the fresh realization of oh, that’s right, I can’t, sets in yet again.  Not a good feeling.

But what was a good feeling was seeing them both for just a few moments in my dream the other night.  I know it may seem silly, but when I see loved ones who have passed on in my dreams, I like to think it is them visiting me, letting me know they’re okay.  I thought that when I dreamed of my great-grandmother and my grandfather, too.  I’m a believer in God and Heaven, so I know they’re there, and no longer in pain, and that’s about the only thing that gets me through not being able to see them, hug them, talk with them.  I think about things we used to do together, things as simple as going to the dollar store with my grandmother (an old tradition of ours) or even to her doctor’s appointments with her, or seeing that smile of Barbara’s that could light up any room, hearing her infectious laugh, talking with her about books, films, characters and storylines.

I know it may seem like I’ve gotten a little off my topic of writing and dreams.  But also, I think having the ones I had the other night illustrates the bad and the good about them: you live in them for a while, and then you wake up.  Just which is good and which is bad depends, of course, on your dream, and whether or not you let them disappear with the new day, or hold onto them depends on that as well.

As for me, even though I am filled with fresh sadness and longing to see my grandmother and cousin—my friends—again, my dream is still one I’m grateful for and glad I had.  I just hope they visit me again soon.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Into Oblivion

Last Friday, I did something I have not done in a long time: sit back, relax, and watch a movie I’ve never seen with my husband.  Usually, by the time evening rolls around, the kiddos are sleeping, and I’ve finished my evening job as professional domestic engineer (i.e. mommy, laundry maid, kitchen maid, house cleaner, chef), my eyes can do anything but stay open. 

I didn’t have a lot of faith in myself to stay awake, but I agreed, anyway, and found myself pulled right into Oblivion, a visually stunning and engrossing film that had potential, but was ultimately lacking.  After it was over, I found myself confused, not by the storyline, but by my feelings.  The film was good in a lot of respects, so why didn’t I fully enjoy it?  After taking the time to think about it over the weekend, I think I know why. 

For the sake of space, I won’t go into too much detail on the plot, but rather the elements I enjoyed and the ones that I feel detracted me from loving the film.  First of all, the imagery is lovely, glorious, refreshing. The home that Jack Harper inhabits with his co-worker/lover, Vika, is a sleek, minimalist house in the sky, covered in windows, and every time they step outside, they are greeted with the exuberant, high-up winds known on top of the world.  Jack also keeps a cabin on the surface as well.  It is so deep within the mountains it is almost built into them, amid lush greenery and overlooking a vast, reflective lake.  He keeps mementos of Earth there—books, records, a clock, sunglasses.  It’s captivating and inviting—almost anyone would want to live there. 

Then there’s the cinematography.  One example is when Jack is on the vast rugged landscape of a desert, watching the landing of a ship and coming face to face with its passenger.  The camera slowly and carefully swings around Jack to reveal that he is looking directly at a clone of himself.  This reveal, and the way the director handles it . . . well, it’s nicely done.     

And finally, there are the small moments between characters a couple of times.  From across a dark table, Jack tells Vika of so-called aliens who very nearly captured him that day.  She has little reaction except to study him as he tells her the story, but makes clear her love for him when she says, in a low voice, “Well, they can’t have you.”  They seem to have a lovely relationship.  The way they look at one another, the way he gently brings her a flower he found on Earth—I believed their relationship.    

Okay, so what kept me from loving the film? I pondered that over the weekend, wondered why I felt just slightly annoyed and let down.  A few elements come to mind.   

The first is that we are given the character of Jack Harper, played by Tom Cruise.  He is still a great actor, but whenever I watch one of his films lately, I always see the person rather than the character—the person he has been over the last ten years, the extremely passionate Scientologist who repeatedly jumped on the couch over his love for Katie Holmes, who got into an argument with Matt Lauer on live television over anti-depressants.  This is probably more my problem than the film’s, but, there it is. 

The second is the introduction of a second female character in the film.  Jack is constantly flashing in his mind to an unknown, unnamed woman.  It’s the same couple of memories over and over until they become almost annoying.  When a ship crash lands on Earth, Jack goes to investigate and low and behold, she is there, in stasis.  He, of course, takes the woman back to his and Vika’s home.  She helps him realize she is his wife.  This awareness brings very real tears to Vika’s eyes, and causes her to go willingly to her death.  What’s more, Jack finds out he is not who he thinks he is at all.  One might think that this is all a lot for Jack to handle.  He has spent a great deal of time with Vika, taken her as his lover, worked with her.  Wouldn’t he be more than a little heartbroken?  But talking to this mystery woman a while longer and spending a night having sex with her seems to cure him of all negative feelings.    

I am just not sure I bought the relationship between Jack and this new woman (Julia).  I suppose if we’d been given more memories between her and Jack—gentle, loving ones—then that would have made her presence more welcome.  As it was, she seemed more of an intrusion in Jack and Vika’s lives.  She spends a lot of time scowling at Vika and strangely laughs when Vika takes Jack’s hand at one point.  Furthermore, when she is brought out of stasis, she obviously recognizes Jack because she says his name but does nothing more—no act of affection, nothing to let viewers know what a large part she played in his life.  I suppose the fact that Vika is a victim just like Jack is, makes me sympathize with her as well.  Like Jack, she is not who she thinks she is, but she loves him, so much that she is willing to die when his feelings almost instantaneously change for her.  This whole idea of a mystery woman visiting the mind of a man who isn’t who he thinks he is was done in Total Recall, but was done better, I think, probably because the “new” woman versus the “mystery” one was more villainous.  But that notwithstanding, I think the idea that Oblivion presents here is a good one, just wasn’t executed well.  If this mystery woman is the one Jack is meant to be with, have viewers want him to be with her. 

Lastly, the film is filled with other great actors such as Morgan Freeman and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, but they are underdeveloped and under-used, thus their talent seems to largely go to waste.  Each of them gets only a few scenes and are effective enough in their acting and delivery to make me want to see more of both, and their lives.  I wanted to know them but by the end, just felt that I didn’t.  

With all of that said, I do know that films have a limited amount of story-telling space, and the director, Joseph Kosinski, does just fine with the time he is given (the film did stay with me, after all), but I think most of his strength lies in cinematography and imagery rather than story and character development. 

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Rough Road of Writer's Block

"Everyone wants to tell their story," Ed Masry told Erin Brockovich in the film version of her life.  Sometimes people will open up to tell that story and some stay tightly clamped.  Some will tell parts of the story and some will fabricate other parts.  Everyone's different, as if I even need to say that.  That's the way it is with fictional characters, sometimes.  Sometimes they will start to tell me their stories with ease and then stop.  And then I'm stuck, feeling glued to a space and I can't move forward.  I don't know if I would characterize it as writer's block, entirely, because I still think about the characters and their stories all the time, even after I'm finished writing their story.  I've heard some writers say they don't believe in writer's block.  I can't say whether I do or not, but there is something I heard once that made me reconsider my thoughts on it.  Bono, the lead singer for U2, was in grade school and studying a particular author who, his teacher told them, went for years without writing anything because he was suffering writer's block.  It was like his mind would not put forth any idea to write about.  Bono spoke up and said he didn't mean to be disrespectful, but why didn't that writer just write about that until he did find an idea?  

Hmm, good idea.   

Anyway, I think I mentioned that this latest story I've been working on had me stuck recently. I love my characters and can't bear the thought of shelving their story because I feel stuck.  The thing is, I know how I want their story to end, but for a while, I didn't know exactly how to get there.  It was beginning to get frustrating, a feeling akin, I guess, to standing over a pot of water, waiting for it to boil, or waiting for a flower or fruit on a tree to bloom.  It seems like it's never going to happen.  I felt that way about my story.  The path of how to get to that ending wasn't clear and felt like it was like it was never going to be.  I understand Stephen King felt the same way when writing The Stand.  Then one day when he was out for a walk, a single idea arrived in his mind.  He compares it to a gift, and said when he incorporated that simple, single idea, he finished up the work in just a few weeks.  I can't say when my idea came to me, exactly, though I wish I could.  All I know is, I'd been trying to make an idea work and it just wasn't happening.  And although I do applaud myself for pushing myself to keep going and trying, my writing wasn't good and the characters almost seemed forced in their actions--which they were, since I was trying to force the plot in one direction.  But then, I got the idea to modify it just slightly.  And that's when the pot started boiling, the flower decided to bloom and like the imagery those two things conjure, it was bursting and lovely.  My characters are talking again and I'm grateful because I have missed them.  And a part of me does feel like maybe if I hadn't made myself keep going and stay with them even when they weren't talking, I wouldn't be working again.    

I'm reminded of something our pastor said in church this past Sunday, and didn't even realize it until now how that applies to this story.  He mentioned that the roads we encounter and take are sometimes easy and sometimes they're quite rough.  He told a story of a young man on a bus in Jamaica, and how it seemed like the driver was downright trying to hit every pothole on the road and at one time, the bus jolted so violently that everyone bounced out of their seat and the woman sitting next to this man ended up in his lap.  She laughed it off and told him that it was a rough road, but not to worry, they'd all be home soon.

So whether it's the writing road or the road of life, it is, indeed, rough sometimes.  But stay with it, because it'll be lovely once you get to where you're going.  I looked up rough roads as I was finishing up this post to find a picture to illustrate and this one below stood out the most.  The road looks rough and intimidating.  But . . . doesn't the scenery you'll pass look awfully beautiful, too? 

Friday, September 4, 2015

Sometimes It's the Little Things

“Monday morning, you sure look fine.” ~ Fleetwood Mac, from the song "Monday Morning."

It didn’t seem that way when I first got up.  It felt like I had slept all of sixty minutes when my alarm went off and even after I pulled myself out of bed after twenty minutes of hitting snooze my eyelids still felt glued shut.  I stumbled into the kitchen where I started my coffee and began fixing Connor his customary grits and milk.  He, as always, was in a great mood, even at six in the morning.  And so, as I stood there fixing up our morning routines, I heard him say, “Wow!  Look at the stars!”

I squinted even more that I already had been in the too-bright kitchen light and came around the counter to where he was standing, just on the edge of the dining room and saw what he was in awe of.  Sure enough, a single star still sparkled in the dim royal blue of the dawn sky.  I knelt beside him, my hand on his little shoulder and just before I could say how beautiful it was, he said, “It’s pretty!  I like the stars!” 

I agreed and told him I did, too, to which he automatically started singing, “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” 

What a beautiful start it was to an otherwise mundane Monday.  These little moments have continued each morning since.  It has become a little tradition for Connor and me.  We both immediately go to the dining room, look out the far window and find what we have started referring to as our star.  I think it might be the Evening Star.  I’m not sure, but it doesn’t really matter.  It’s like it’s our moment, his and mine, there, waiting for us to share each morning to start our day in a quiet, lovely way.  Sometimes it’s the little moments that can turn a whole day around, even before it begins.  And even if the rest of the day doesn’t go so well, we still have that one moment to look back, to remember, and to smile to when we do.

That’s true with stories sometimes.  I remember once Jennifer Lopez talking about the film Gigli.  She conceded it wasn’t a good film, was honest about it, but also said that even through that, there were still some good moments.  I agree there were a couple, though they couldn’t save the film entirely.  I happened to consider that, though, as I re-watched a little-known Patrick Swayze film he did with his wife about fifteen years ago.  It was called One Last Dance.  Overall, the film was pretty good, just not great.  But there were moments that stand out still in my mind, like when Patrick Swayze and his wife’s characters (Travis and Chrissa, respectively) are standing on a city street watching a violinist play and they quietly smile at one another, or the look another character gets as he listens to Chrissa tell the story of how she discovered her love of dance, or when Travis talks to a little girl about the wonderful imaginary things you can do and be as a dancer.  I smile when I think about these moments and how, even though they didn’t quite add up to make a great film, they’re still something special, something worth revisiting, just like the little star in my and Connor’s mornings.  

Quiet Curse

I’m a naturally quiet person.  I observe and listen more than I speak.  I’m shy.  I enjoy time alone, and when I know I am going to a party or something with a lot of people, even if I know them, I get tense.  My heart starts racing, my stomach starts somersaulting, and I’m exhausted before I even get there.  I’ll spend much of the evening listening, trying to think of something interesting to add amidst the chatter, and when I finally work up the nerve to do so, I’ll get the inevitable blank stares, overly polite laughter or looks of, “Oh, Tanya, I’d completely forgotten you were there.”

I’ve had family members, friends, people I barely know tell me things like, “Wow, do you ever talk?”  “You’re so quiet.  I don’t think you’ve spoken at all.”  I’ve had professors threaten to fail me if I didn’t start speaking up and contributing to class discussions.  On the playground in school, I hung around the big group of girls my age, but was always just on the outside, never really speaking up and honestly, never really interested.  In case you can’t tell, I’ve never been the most popular person.  People don’t naturally gravitate toward me.  I don’t make friends that easily.  I’m not bubbly or overly excited and it’s because of my quietness and my shyness.  It’s sometimes to the point that I give off an impression of snootiness.  A girl I became friends with in college told me that her first impression of me was that I was aloof, and then she got to know me.  And as I look at the synonyms for that—remote, reserved, standoffish—I can’t help but agree.  My timidity, my inability to find what I want to say the exact instant I want to say it, make me that way.

I remember something I once heard my aunt say about me to someone who said I was the quietest person they’d ever met: that I will contribute if I am interested in what you are saying.  I get that from my dad, I think.  He can talk on and on about subjects that interest him, but he does tend be quieter on ones that don’t.  The thing is, he doesn’t seem to mind if others talk about things he’s not interested in.  He goes about his own work and that’s that.

I, on the other hand, tend to feel left out, excluded, sad, when I’m not included in a conversation. And let me tell you, it doesn’t take much to make me feel that way.  One look, one lack of acknowledgment, one odd tone toward me and all of a sudden, all of these aforementioned emotions are running rampant in my mind.  I’m overanalyzing, thinking, questioning, “Okay, what did I do or not do? What did I say or not say?”

When it could be nothing at all.  But the thing is, why?  If I am not really all that interested in the first place, why does it bother me when they don’t include me or acknowledge me?

I suppose it partly comes from my grandpa.  I remember him asking my mom once if a co-worker of hers was in a bad mood or if he (my grandpa) had done anything to insult her co-worker because he’d snapped or something.  This is just one example.  I have quite a few of my own that remind me of my grandpa, like when I attended bridal and baby showers I was invited to, and sent emails and Facebook posts and then when I invited these people to my own baby showers, they didn’t show.  And there was barely a response to my posts and emails.  Hmm, okay feelings a little hurt.

I remember once a Creative Writing professor, one of my all-time favorites, telling us students that writers are usually very sensitive people and to remember that when critiquing one another’s works.  Sensitivity can be a good thing to have as a writer.  It means I’m more keen and aware, but it also means I feel like a turtle without a shell sometimes, like when I got my feelings hurt.

I’ve taken the long way around and written a lot, but I guess one thing I am trying to say is this is another reason I call myself a writer, why I gravitated toward it and why my love for doing it has not waned in twenty-six years.  Writers listen to and observe society, and they reflect it in their work.  I love writing about the things I’ve seen and done and experienced.  It’s therapeutic.  What’s more, I love taking my time and thinking about what I have to say before I say it (or write it).  I know some people who don’t enjoy or prefer writing for this very reason because it does require a lot of work and time and thought.  But that’s a beauty in writing to me.  Sometimes it does take me a while to realize exactly what it is I want or need to say.  If I put something down, I can always take my time.  And if I read over something I’ve written and decide, “Oh, that’s not what I meant or wanted to say,” I can change it until it is.  This is not always an option when speaking.  When it’s done, it’s done.  There is no delete button, no revision there, and oftentimes if you try to go back and revise or clarify or change what you’ve said to the person you’ve said it to, it only makes it worse (ever see the episode of Frasier in which he and Lilith are trying to get their son into a prestigious prep school and keep saying the wrong things to the headmaster? Illustrates the point well). 

So this quietness, this sensitivity and shyness, I can critique these aspects in myself all I want and accept them all I want, but the thing is, I hope I learn to embrace and cherish them one day, because they’re part of the reason I discovered the writer in myself, and why I’ve kept writing all these years. 

In the meantime, I think I’ll just keep in mind something Ernest Hemingway, one of the best and most well-known American writers once said: “A writer must write what he has to say, not speak it.”

I hope I remember that the next time someone comments on how quiet I am.  Even if I don’t say it.  J

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Home and Away

I saw online recently where my great-grandmother’s home is up for sale.  It was built in 1900, and so the place holds a lot of memories for not only me, but my mom, my grandfather, and countless cousins, aunts, uncles, etc.  I haven’t been there in a few years, but somehow, just knowing that soon, I will not be able to feel the creak of the wood beneath my feet as I walk around the wraparound porch, go into warmly-lit rooms with twelve-foot ceilings, sit in the bay window seat, and feel my great-grandmother’s presence all around as I move from places still called parlors and salons, saddens me.  She passed away there, just as she was born there, in the very same room.

We used to spend every Christmas Eve there, having dinner in the cavernous, red-carpeted dining room before going to the front den to open gifts.  It was a splendid tradition, one we would always dress up for.

I can carry these memories, of course.  I know I can, always.  But it doesn’t change the sadness of not being able to feel it, go to it, be there, ever again.  I’m no stranger to losing a place.  The house my mom and I lived in the first fourteen years of my life in burned down about ten years ago.  And my grandmother had to sell her house several years ago.  I felt this same loss, then, because I’d spent practically as much time at my grandmother’s as I did at home.  Those were the places I’d started out in life, the places where I began to discover who I was, where I learned of my love of writing and horses, where I made my first friends, where a lot of my family still lives.  But, for some reason, at the time, the loss of these places didn’t hit me quite as hard as the selling of my great-grandmother’s now, probably because I was younger and didn’t realize the enormity of place and home just yet, or maybe it was because I still had somewhere to go when I visited my hometown. 

Now, when someone else moves their family and furniture and memories into the home that has only ever belonged to our family, I won’t have it.  That will be it.  I've known people who think it silly for me to feel this way, who've rolled their eyes when I've tried to tell them the story.  But that's okay.  Not everyone can understand leaving your home or hometown and missing it.  Not everyone knows the feeling of sometimes wanting to move back there so badly it’s becomes hard to focus or even breathe.  I feel this sometimes.  I want to drive down the same, familiar streets and see the old houses, visit the little shops that line the charming town square, see some of the same faces I grew up with on a regular basis, return to the place I know. 

But then I wonder what I might miss here: my kids’ school, our church, my few but close friends here, our little house where we brought our kids home from the hospital, certain aspects of my job, being close to a larger city when I want to go, even driving along the same routes and seeing the same landmarks I’ve become familiar with in the past twenty years.

So, what do I do now with all of these feelings?  Something I’ve done is to preserve the description and therefore, the memory of my great-grandmother’s home in my book that will soon be released, and then my grandmother’s in the one I’m currently writing.  As a matter of fact, I have based my last three books in my hometown.  I have re-named it, to give myself a little creative freedom, but it’s like it’s my way of going back there even when I can’t, physically.  It has become part of my stories, integral, even, to feeling and understanding them.  And it feels good setting my stories there.  I feel like I’m back there in my mind and maybe giving my readers a feel for all the good things about that place. 

I feel like certain writers out there have a lot of power in that way.  Placing a reader in the setting can be so important to the rest of the story, even when readers don’t realize.  I love seeing the little houses and shops in Debbie Macomber’s Cedar Cove.  I saw and felt the sand and sea spray and the shops and title home in Andre Dubus III’s House of Sand and Fog.  I can’t imagine the story without imagining these things.  And then there’s Janet Fitch’s White Oleander.  Take a look at this passage in which Astrid, the fourteen-year-old protagonist observes her new foster home:

“The air in Van Nuys was thicker than in Sunland-Tujunga.  It was a kingdom of strip malls and boulevards a quarter-mile across, neighborhoods of ground-hugging tracts dwarfed by full-growth peppers and sweet gums fifty feet high.  It looked hopeful, until I saw a house down the street, and prayed, please Jesus, don’t let it be the turquoise one with the yard paved in blacktop behind the chained-link fence.
The social worker parked in front of it.  I stared.  It was the color of a tropical lagoon on a postcard thirty years out of date, a Gauguin syphilitic nightmare.  It was the gap in the chain of deciduous trees that cradled every other house on the block, defiantly ugly in its nakedness.
The bubble-glass door was also turquoise, and the foster mother was a wide, hard-faced blond woman who held a dumb-founded toddler on her hip.  A little boy stuck his tongue out at me from behind his mother.”

It doesn’t seem like the happiest or nicest of places and that’s the point.  The things she carefully chooses to describe with equally careful word choice all work together to project this image of a hopeless, depressing environment in which Astrid is about to enter and try to make home.  In essence, we get the full sense of place here. 

I guess that’s what I hope to give my readers and myself as I use my homes and hometown to tell my stories.  Because if we get that sense of place and it lives on in our minds, it’s never really lost, even if someone else buys it and makes their home there.    

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Famous Last Words

“And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning ——
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”--The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

“A taxi came up the street, the waiter hanging out at the side. I tipped him and told the driver where to drive, and got in beside Brett. The driver started up the street. I settled back. Brett moved close to me. We sat close against each other. I put my arm around her and she rested against me comfortably. It was very hot and bright, and the houses looked sharply white. We turned out onto the Gran Via.
‘Oh, Jake,’ Brett said, ‘We could have had such a damned good time together.’
Ahead was a mounted policeman in khaki directing traffic. He raised his baton. The car slowed suddenly pressing Brett against me.
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Isn’t it pretty to think so?’” --The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
“With the spirit of her people who would not know defeat, even when it stared them in the fact, she raised her chin. She could get Rhett back. She knew she could. There had never been a man she couldn't get, once she set her mind upon him.
‘I'll think of it tomorrow, at Tara. I can stand it then. Tomorrow, I'll think of some way to get him back.  After all, tomorrow is another day.’” --Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell

“The old woman stood on the side of the road and waved back until the car was out of sight.” –Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, Fannie Flagg

Where does a story stop, and when?  Is it when the characters stop telling their story to the writer? If that's the case, I'm in a lot of trouble because I'm fifty pages into my new book and my characters have been ignoring me for a little while, now.

But that notwithstanding, I finished up a great book recently and a television series I'd followed just had its finale, and as these things happened, something occurred to me: whenever a novel, a movie, a television series ends, we have only just read or seen a snippet, a small piece, of that person's life.  Now it could be a defining moment, what made them who they are, or whatever, but what happened before and what happens after are left up to readers and viewers to determine.

Now, whenever I start writing a story, I sometimes know where that story is in that character's life, the one that needs or wants to be told.  Ending it can be tough, though.  Not only is it my last chance with my readers (if they've decided to make it that far), but even after I stop writing the story, I still think about my characters and see the rest of their lives unfolding (occupational hazard, I guess--the characters always live in the mind of the one who creates them).
The ones I listed above are some of my favorite endings to books, for various reasons.
Fitzgerald, for instance, uses the lyrical and romantic writing style he is known for to encompass Nick's thoughts on the sadness of the events that took place throughout the novel and in doing so, closes the story in the only way he can.  The result is, I think, one of the most beautifully-written pieces of prose in literature.

Hemingway, though of the same generation as Fitzgerald and one of his friends, presents his ending a little differently, a little more succinctly.  He ends his story by focusing on Jake and Brett, two people who were once together.   They are not now, but still love one another.  Readers of even this small passage can see that in Hemingway's descriptions of their body language and words.  There is nothing keeping them apart other than themselves.  Hemingway was known for his stoic male characters and Jake is no exception.  His simple yet thoughtful response to Brett on what they could have had and been illustrates that and what's more, enables the reader to ponder even more on that statement.  This is one of the great things, I think, about Hemingway's writing style.  Even though the entire story is not just about Jake and Brett's relationship, I do like the fact that it ends with them, and their love.

Like Hemingway, Margaret Mitchell chose to end Gone with the Wind with a quote from its main character.  I quoted the first lines of this novel on my post on opening lines and just as important to understanding and knowing Scarlett O’Hara are these last lines.  It seems ambiguous at first glance and leaves readers with a common question: “What happens after that?”  I actually like endings like that.  Sometimes it’s best to leave it up to the reader to use his or her imagination, to think and analyze.  But, my thoughts on Scarlett and whether or not she ends up with Rhett are this: she puts off bad news and knowledge for the next day, instead determined to focus ahead on how to get what she wants.  There is little, if anything, this woman can’t get when she puts her mind to it.  So, though the ending may seem ambiguous at first glance, Scarlett’s history suggests that yes, she could very well get Rhett back.

The ending to Flagg's novel may seem simplistic as Hemingway's.  However, when I first thought of writing about last lines, this is one of the first that came to mind.  I know it doesn’t seem like much, but it always makes me think of many of the sweet, kind people in the south, and particularly my grandpa, who would wave in the distance at no one in particular as he walked down the back steps of his house.  I once asked him why he did that and since he was one of the first to read and encourage my writing, I suppose it's only right to end today's post with his response, his words: “Well, in case there’s anybody there that I just don't see.”

Friday, August 14, 2015

Beginnings and Endings

I had planned to write something else for today, something on last lines in literature.  I still plan to, but right now, there are just too many other things moving around my head, demanding my attention and thoughts.  Write what you want, what you feel, not what you think is the best or most acceptable, or something to please someone else.  I heard a writer say this once and I wish I could remember his name so that I could give credit, but there it is, anyway.  I suppose it is appropriate that I am book-ending this post with my thoughts on opening and closing lines in literature because that is what I am thinking today: beginnings and ends. 

Today I will pick up my daughter for the very last time at her baby-sitter’s, a wonderful woman who has taken great care of both of my kids their whole lives.  Today I will be going out in search of a gift that I hope will show her our gratitude for giving our children a safe, loving happy environment.  Maybe it’s the sadness I feel about them not seeing her again, but none of the gifts coming to mind seem quite good enough. 

On Monday, things will change a step further and my kids will start school.  It will be my son’s third year and my daughter’s first ever.  I had the privilege of meeting their teachers, both of whom seem wonderful, and I took home a barrage of information on things we need to know, do, buy for the school year, etc.  It was exciting and overwhelming at the same time, and these feelings have not let up in the many hours that have followed. 

And then, after we’ve spent the weekend fighting traffic and crowds to buy all that we need, after we celebrate my daughter’s birthday, I will walk my children to the classrooms where they will spend the next nine months learning and (I hope) making friends.  I will drive to my job for the first time in three weeks where, I already know, about ten thousand things await the attention I will try to give even as I think and worry about my kids (the way I always do, especially on their first day) and wrap my head around the changes we will be adjusting to. 

It won’t stop there.  In a few weeks, my second job as an adjunct instructor will begin which means the prep work for that must begin immediately and then, I hope I will get more work with my third job as a test rater, when the season for that begins again.  Near the end of the month, my sweet son will start soccer just like he did t-ball in the spring.  I’m nervous and hopeful about that, also, hoping he will do well and make good friends.  I suppose it’s because I’m so shy and have always had trouble making friends that is triggering these emotions.  I’m so introverted that whenever I go to group gatherings or parties or meet someone new or what not, I always get the same nervous, heart-pounding, stomach-churning feeling, struggle to make conversation, end up being quiet to the point that most people think I am aloof and leave physically exhausted.

It’s a feeling I’ve prayed and continue to pray that my children don’t have to feel.  But, I digress.  These changes, these inevitable things we all face all the time in life have me all at the same time scared, excited, sad, happy, hopeful, worried, and many other things.  I guess it’s most appropriate to end with a line I’ve always loved and remembered from the film, Hope Floats.  It promotes the film’s message of hope, one of the loveliest of emotions, something we all need to feel.  In the film Sandra Bullock’s character is facing some changes (albeit very different from mine) but I think the message can apply to just about anyone going through some kind of change.  It goes something like this: “Beginnings are scary, endings are usually sad, but it's the middle that counts the most. Try to remember that when you find yourself at a new beginning. Just give hope a chance to float up. And it will, too...”

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

First Lines

Yesterday I wrote a little about titles and that got me thinking some about first lines in stories.  If it’s the title’s job to spark interest, then it’s the first line’s job to fully ignite it.  Sometimes an author gets one chance to do that before a would-be reader places the book back on the shelf and moves on.  Keith Lee Morris, the writing professor and published author I was fortunate enough to study under at Clemson University told us once that something should happen on the first page of a story.  It doesn’t matter if this happening is integral to the remainder of the story, but if something interesting happens, writers have a greater chance of grabbing their readers and keeping them reading.  Stephen King said, “An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story.  It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.”  He wrote one of my favorite all-time opening lines in his book, Needful Things: “You’ve been here before.” 

Even as I look at it now I think, Oh, that’s good!  I like how it’s a modification on a line a lot of people have heard before (“I’ve been here before”), but is changed to second person point of view.  The reader is put immediately into the story by the narrator.  It’s like a conversation, that invitation that King speaks of, but there’s also something eerie about it.  And we expect nothing less from King.

And so, without further ado, some of the lines that have drawn me in over the years:

“When Pemberton returned to the North Carolina mountains after three months in Boston settling his father’s estate, among those waiting on the train platform was a young woman pregnant with Pemberton’s child.  She was accompanied by her father, who carried beneath his shabby frock coat a bowie knife sharpened with great attentiveness earlier that morning so it would plunge as deep as possible into Pemberton’s heart.”  Ron Rash, Serena.   Whoa!  Okay, I’m interested.  But, the action notwithstanding, I also love Rash’s calm way of telling this intense scene.

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. —George Orwell, 1984 (1949)  Huh?  Yeah, I said that, too.  This is a different type of time and place, altogether, and we get that right away.

“It was a dark and stormy night . . .” Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford (1830.  I include this one because it is a line most people know, even if they don’t know where it originated.  I’m fascinated at how something so simplistic has lasted for so long.  But at the same time, Bulwer-Lytton gives a lot here.  He gives the time of day and what type of day it is and in doing so, creates a mood that is needed in this first scene.

“A story has no beginning or end; arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.” Graham Greene, The End of the Affair.  As a writer, I enjoy this line because it feels like Greene is giving a lesson on beginning a story.  Even long after I get an idea for a story, I sometimes struggle with how to begin because I’m constantly searching for the moment it starts.

“It’s hard being left behind. I wait for Henry, not knowing where he is, wondering if he’s okay. It’s hard to be the one who stays.” Audrey Niffenegger, The Time Traveler’s Wife.  The story of the time traveler is one that has been around for a while.  However, what Niffenegger does here is begin her story by telling what happens to those who dare to love a time traveler, and how it affects them.  And she does that well.

“Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm . . .” Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind.  This first sentence says just about everything one grows to know about Scarlett.  She may not have everything, but she uses what she does have to get what she wants.

"The candleflame and the image of the candleflame caught in the pierglass twisted and righted when he entered the hall and again when he shut the door.”  All the Pretty Horses, Cormac McCarthy.  McCarthy focuses on a small detail in this opening scene, but describes it so clearly that I can see it and maybe it’s because I think candleflames are beautiful but the image is lovely.  But sometimes, also, it’s the small details that stand out in life, even in an intense scene, and sometimes they’re the ones you remember most when a memory springs forth.

Okay, I say, when reading lines like the ones above.  You’ve got my attention. 


Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Titles and Such

Titles are great.  I enjoy coming up with them.  But the ones I come up with, I’m not always entirely happy with.  That’s why it takes me forever and a day to settle on one.    It took me two years to come with a title for my novel that’s going to be published here in the next few months.  I’m still thinking and tinkering with a title for a novel I finished almost eight years ago.  And that’s why I admire what I feel are such good titles.  In a few carefully chosen words, a good title can encapsulate a theme or message or point of a story and catch a person’s interest in the process.  Whether the title came from agonizing hours, days, months, or years of thought, or just dropped into the writer’s lap like a gift from Heaven, a good title is, well, just that—good.

I had a professor once that told us students that the Bible and Shakespeare’s works are great places to find titles.  And she wasn’t kidding.  The poetic writing in each work lends itself to many meaningful phrases ideal for titles.  My husband tells me to look for phrases in my own works to find that long search-for title.  But alas, as good as these ideas are, I’ve had no luck.  And when I do try to come up with a meaningful phrase for a title on my own it usually ends up sounding like a bad Lifetime movie.

I used to be a fan of one-word titles.  One of my stories in my graduate thesis, “Eclipse” (yes, this was long before the wretched Twilight) focused on a young girl married to a pompous older man who refused to come to her church choir solo in favor of watching an eclipse.  I meant it to capture not only the event mentioned in the story but also the symbolism of how the girl’s husband stands in her way, yet is still unable to completely shut out the rays of her beauty, much how the moon is unable to completely shut out the sun’s rays during an eclipse.  I must tell you, it was easy coming up with that title, probably because I came up with it as I was writing the story.  And it seemed good at the time but the more I thought about it, the more . . . clichéd it became.  It was too short, too trivial or something.  Yes, it captured the message to an extent but in a very obvious way.  I needed something deeper, something more.  In short, I needed a better title, one that captured what the story was about in a few carefully chosen words. 

And that’s something that takes effort.  Worthwhile effort. 

I’m always seeing titles here and there that I admire, titles I wonder about how long it took the author to come up with.  And as I write and think about this next story, there are more than a few I turn over in my mind.

Into the Darkest Corner by Elizabeth Haynes—a fascinating story of how a woman has to move into the darkest corner of her mind to learn how to get out of a brutally violent relationship from which there seems no escape.  Not only is the title intriguing but the story is as well.  It’s one I’m going to revisit on my blog again soon.

Just after Sunset by Stephen King—I love titles that describe a time of day, and this one is a lovely time of day that conjures lovely images even if the story doesn’t.  It’s also a time of day that is dark, just like many of King’s stories.

House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III—This one is a prime example of how the Bible lends wonderful titles.  The story centers on a woman whose house was wrongfully taken by the county and the man who innocently bought it and their ultimately tragic battle to each keep the home.

The General’s Daughter—Okay, so this wasn’t the greatest film, but I love titles that are a person’s description (not name, mind you).  This title character’s death provokes the plot, and it shows her importance.

East of Eden by John Steinbeck—Like titles describing people or times of day, I love place titles, too.  Here, Steinbeck uses a beautiful place, but right away lets readers know that this is not the exact setting of his story.  It is east of it.  Or is it? How far east?  Is this even the setting? All of this makes it interesting to me.

A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin—This title invokes wonder of royalty and power and the gaining of both being a game that one plays.  What kind of game, and at what cost?  And what exactly does one win if he/she wins the game? What does one lose?

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers—Loneliness is a powerful emotion, and describing the heart, an organ long synonymous with love, as a lonely hunter, well, that just grabs me right away!

So, are there any titles that have grabbed you and didn’t let go? I’d love to hear them.  I’m open to films and songs as well as books!


Monday, August 10, 2015

“Muse”ical Inspirations

Okay, so it’s no secret to some that I get a lot of inspiration from songs.  I never know what type of song will spark an interest or inspiration, or put me in the mood to write.  Sometimes it’s a line from the song that gets me thinking and sends me on the path to write my next scene, or the singer’s voice, or the melody that gives me a certain feeling that I know my characters are feeling and that I know how to get down on paper.  It’s easy, and it’s fun when that happens, though if I’m driving, it becomes a little difficult to immediately get those thoughts down.  That notwithstanding, I’m always happy when the spark ignites, and I know where the next part of the story goes even if I can’t get it down right away.  And if I’m lucky, a lot will come together to send me on the path to finish my book or story of the moment.

About a year ago, I was watching an episode of Revenge and a song, “Never Tear Us Apart” by INXS, began in the background.  It wasn’t the first time I’d heard it.  I actually had the CD of it, but hearing it again, losing the scene between the characters on the screen, it was like I was hearing it for the first time.  I listened to the words, the way the Michael Hutchence delivered them, the music—and those are the things that entranced me in that moment, not the show I’d been following religiously for so long.  I re-watched the scene so I could follow, but the song stayed with me for days after until I saw two people in my mind, brought together almost instantaneously but torn apart almost as quickly.  It wasn’t love at first sight, but it was a connection that didn’t go away.  And so, that is the song that initiated the story I’ve been working on for a while, now.  My inspiration didn’t stop with that one, though—

“Beautiful Girl” and “Disappear,” also by INXS.  When I first heard “Never Tear Us Apart,” again, of course I had to revisit my entire INXS collection.  The former stayed with me because it made me think of the male protagonist thinking of the female, and “Disappear,” well, just gave me an exhilarating feeling.  I’ve replayed that one a lot.

“Carefree Highway” by Gordon Lightfoot.  I heard this song on the radio and immediately had to down load it.  Lightfoot’s calm, soothing, poignant voice perfectly tells the story of a man remembering a woman from long ago, one who was not his but who he cannot forget nonetheless.  It has that lasting effect I want to capture.

“You’ll Accomp’ny Me” by Bob Seger.  I heard this song after dropping Lydia at the babysitter’s on my way to work one morning and immediately turned it up.  I listened to what Seger was saying to this woman who had to take off and leave and I loved his knowledge (not hope) that even though he accepts and lets her go, he knows they will be together again because they were meant to be, even if it’s not now.

“Ordinary World” by Duran Duran.  This song created a feeling of longing, one that I felt my characters did for one another, particularly during the time they are kept apart by unforeseen forces.  I credit the lovely music but also the lead singer’s powerful yet retrained emotional way of delivering his words.
“After All” by Peter Cetera and Cher. Okay, can I just say the power of Peter Cetera’s voice harmonized so well with Cher’s?  I love how the title phrase is repeated several times in different ways, but is also a theme, one I feel my story is traveling towards, if I can find the way. 

“Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around”  by Stevie Nicks and Tom Petty.  This is a duet I have long loved, one that I feel is actually one of the best out there.  There’s a lot of history between the speakers, some anger, but passion as well, and when I heard it again recently, it was like my characters singing to one another.  Strange, I know, but my characters are performers as well and when I heard this again, I heard them in my mind.

It's songs like these that make me turn up my radio when I start my car, wondering and anticipating what treasure or piece of the path of my story I will discover next.  And if I don't happen to make a discovery one day, it's okay. The magic doesn't happen every day, but that's what keeps it magic.  And if I really want to write but can't find the inspiration, well, all I have to do is turn to my playlist above, re-read what I've written, and off I go.  And if I'm lucky enough to happen upon one of these songs after I've finished this story, I'll smile, remembering what it gave to me.

Friday, August 7, 2015

On Trying, Rejection, and Acceptance

“I love my rejection slips. They let me know I try.” –Sylvia Plath

And I love reading this quote, because it lets me know that even writers who are read and respected, whose works are taught, faced rejection at some point in their careers.

I am blessed, no doubt about it. My children remind me of that every day with their beautiful smiles, sweet voices, loving hugs and their delight in even the simplest of things. I have a husband I love and who loves me, too. We live in a home that keeps us warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Our children are able to go to a good school with good teachers and friends. And we’re attending a church where we learn and get meaning every week.

But, as a writer, I have definitely faced my share of rejection and disappointment. I suppose I’ve always known I was going to write, but I didn’t know how hard it was going to be to get my works out there in the world until the age of 22, when I graduated college with a degree in English and hundreds of words of praise from professors, students, friends, and family. I was going to be a writer. I knew it. There was no doubt in mind. I’d been writing for years at that point and loved it. It was my calling. So, I went out and bought a copy of Writer’s Market, read it cover to cover, began highlighting publishers and literary agents I thought would be a good fit for the book I’d just finished writing, spent weeks on a cover letter until I thought it was in decent shape, and then worked up the nerve to actually send it to agents. I’ll never forget the feeling I got when I actually heard back from one. “Wow! It reached them! They actually read it!” My stomach did somersaults and my hands shook while I opened the letter. At first I couldn’t focus on the words but when I did, I caught phrases like, “You obviously spent a lot of time on your letter and your story . . . we appreciate your interest in working with us . . . we feel this story just isn’t right for us . . .”

After the initial heart-sinking feeling passed over, I thought, Okay, that’s okay. Lots of writers face this. On to the next agent/publisher.

I told myself this at the time, though I didn’t believe it. I thought I did, but as the rejection slips, forms, and emails accumulated over the span of several years, I began to doubt myself. But I kept on doing it, through graduate school, through the start of my career as an adjunct instructor, through getting married and having my son.  I continued because something inside me had to. I’d kept up with my writing, still loved doing it and knew, just like Stevie Nicks did when she was considering going back to school instead of pursuing music that even if she did decide to do something else professionally she’d always have her writing and would always do it. And so, finally, in December of 2012, I received the following email from an online journal I’d submitted a story to:

“Thank you for your recent submission, "The Only One." I'm pleased to announce that we'd like to publish it . . .”

I had to read it several times before I believed it. They liked it? They wanted it? I was actually going to see my work published for the whole world? After years of hearing phrases like, “This story just isn’t right for us, yada yada yada,” I was in a state of shock for a while and remained there until I saw the publication with my own eyes:

I’d done it! After years of submitting and waiting and nail-biting and disappointment, I’d done it! I was on my way, surely! It rejuvenated my energy to keep submitting my books (I’d written three at this point, two of which I thought were good enough to put out there) to agents and publishers. I re-worked my cover letters and synopses of each, did countless hours of research on publishers and agents, and dutifully began clicking the “send” button on my email account, sending my hopes and dreams of seeing my work out there in the world onto the virtual desks of people who could make it happen. Surely, this publication was a sign that it was going to happen very soon, right?

Well, more waiting. More nail-biting. Tumbleweeds and dust began dancing across the path ahead. Then, a ding from my i-phone signifying a new email: “Unfortunately, after careful consideration of your manuscript, we have determined that it does not fit our needs.”

Yeah, back to square one. Only this time, after reading those same words I’d read so many times before, they didn’t sting quite so much. I wasn’t sure what was happening, but I shrugged it off, revisited my list of publishers, sent off another letter and synopsis. I kept doing that throughout the next couple of years, this time throughout two devastating miscarriages, throughout so many desperately hoped-for/applied-for/interviewed-for job promotions I watched others get, throughout the birth of my lovely baby girl. And I felt the same about my rejections. I didn’t delete them, can’t say I loved them the way Plath did hers, but they didn’t give me the heart-sinking feeling they once did. Something was happening all right, something that I thought I knew before. All writers go through this. I was accepting that. I was okay with it. And, cliché as it may sound, at least I was trying. I was still doing what I loved to do. And that mattered to me.

Then, in November of 2014, after thirteen years of trying and waiting, an email arrived like an early Christmas present:

“Dear Tanya,

Thank you for submitting your manuscript, The Good Thief, to Black Opal Books. I’m delighted with it. I think it would make an excellent addition to our titles and would like to offer you a contract to publish it . . .”

I showed it to my husband, my mom, my dad. I emailed it to two of my writing professors whose opinions I value and respect. Even after their confirmations and words of congratulations and pride, I still didn’t believe it. My book, that little creation I had spent so long writing and editing, tearing apart and nurturing back again had been accepted. And now, moving through the stages of editing at this great little publisher giving me my chance, it will soon see the light of day and the masses will soon see it, offer their opinions. It’s a reality that I’ve laughed about, cried happily about, and still, sometimes can’t wrap my head about. But, it’s happening. An acceptance, a validation of everything I’ve been working on for all these years. And no matter what happens from here on out, it’s something I will always have, just like writing is something I will always love.

The frustrations I mentioned in my professional life have worked to help me lose sight of this beautiful promise in my life.  And so that’s the point of this super-long post today, to help me remember that just because I haven’t achieved one goal I’ve worked so long for doesn’t take away another that I have succeeded in accomplishing, a goal that, dare I say it, is more important and fulfilling because it is one not that is only part of my professional life.  It is part of my whole life.  It is who I am.  It affects what I do and how I live, just like what I do and what I’ve lived through affects it.  So, as my frustrations give way to happiness even as I write this, let me just say thanks.  Thanks for reading what I have written.  What I am.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Watching a Story come to Life, Or Not

I mentioned a few times already how much I love reading stories and watching them on film and oftentimes, watching the film version of a great book is a treat.  Or sometimes not.  I recently finished reading Serena, a novel written by Ron Rash and set in 1920’s Smoky Mountains, around the time the timber empire was threatened by the government’s desire to preserve the beauty of those mountains by establishing the park we know today.  Rash is a writer who resides just up the road from me in North Carolina and, like me, is a Clemson University alum.  I was initially drawn to reading the book because of these things we share and the strong recommendation from a co-worker.  I’d started out by listening to the book on Audible, but was so intrigued and so had to know what happened next that I ended up purchasing it and spending the better part of the night reading it after Connor and Lydia had gone to sleep.
And so, when I first saw the film advertised on Netflix, I was beyond excited.  The trailer promised beautiful scenery, ideal casting choices, and most importantly, it looked as though the film was going to capture the true spirit of Serena as a character.

The film started with the initial sound of a slow, steady rhythm of a guitar, a shot of mist and sun and, finally, the title character’s name rising above the blue and green mountains all around is nothing short of breathtaking.  The actors all looked and felt the part of their characters.  Everything was lovely, just as I’d pictured it. 
Perhaps what pleased me most was, like the book, the film shows Serena as knowledgeable of the timber business as anyone around her, capable and unafraid of running the camp, even venturing out alongside the workers, singlehandedly training an eagle to catch rattlesnakes that have been wreaking havoc on the workers and calmly saving the life of a man, Galloway, who’d lost a limb.  She also suffers a devastating miscarriage that nearly kills her and causes her husband, George, to give her his blood despite not knowing whether they are the same blood type.

Another thing the movie keeps is George and Serena seeking to take down the trees of his expansive property to make money off the timber all the while going up against government, who is to preserve the beauty of the Smoky Mountains by establishing the park .  They are willing to (and do) take down those who stand in their way just like they take down the trees at an alarming rate.  I must admit I enjoyed the symbolism and the fact that the film kept that. 
But it is beyond this that readers of the book can see the changes from book to film, some for the better, some for the worse.  One change I was disappointed to see take place begins early in the book as well as the film.  On the very first page, readers learn that George Pemberton’s life is actually on the line as we get a description of an impregnated teenage girl’s father waiting outside a train station, waiting to challenge Pemberton (the baby’s father, now married to Serena) to a knife fight and kill him.  Serena is there too, and encourages and watches as Pemberton not only wins the fight but kills the man in the process.  She then coldly tells the young girl, named Rachel, that she has gotten all she ever will from George and will gain nothing more from him now that she (Serena) is here.   The book follows Rachel’s story in part, through her struggle in learning to raise her son, Jacob, selling most of her material items, and relying on neighbors, particularly a kindly old woman called the Widow Jenkins before being forced to ask for her job back as a cook in the Pembertons’ lumber camp.  We get a sense of her struggle and have compassion for her.  The film portrays none of this.  The initial exchange between George and Rachel’s father is silent, almost non-existent, and furthermore we don’t follow Rachel’s journey as closely as in the book, only hear about her time with Widow Jenkins in passing, and see a few scenes of warm exchanges between her and George and few scowls she gives Serena.  Though I felt a bit of sorrow for Rachel given her predicament, in the film I got more of a sense of her simply being pitted against Serena rather than learning to survive the way she did in the book.

A change that I feel was somewhat for the better involves Serena’s own pregnancy.  Just as in the book, Serena loses her baby due to a doctor’s misdiagnosis in the film.  In the book, she expresses mostly disappointment over this and gets back to work, and Galloway (the man whose life she saved, who owes her a life debt) takes her revenge on that doctor by killing him.  In the film, Jennifer Lawrence displays a quiet agony that never leaves her.  She openly sobs when she learns of her baby’s death, frantically orders George to do away with a crib he’d purchased and doesn’t work for a long time.  Having suffered two miscarriages, I can relate, and I think her reactions in the film were well-portrayed.  I remember once someone telling me that a certain amount of beauty lies in tragedy, and this was a moment when the film and Lawrence embodied that idea.  Perhaps my personal experience factors into my feelings on this, but overall, I prefer this change.
I suppose it is after this that I began to have the most trouble with some of the changes.  The book portrays Serena’s rage and jealousy at not being able to produce an heir for George causing her to send Galloway to hunt Rachel and Jacob down.  She even kills the sweet Widow Jenkins in the process.  Rachel and Jacob begin a run for their lives with Galloway, following the instructions of his psychic mother (yes, I'm not kidding--this woman can see the future) on where they are, trails them by only a step.  They are able to make it to the state of Washington, and Galloway’s mother loses her “sight” of them.  Pemberton finds out through the sheriff that Serena and Galloway are suspected of the murder of Widow Jenkins and their attempts to find Rachel and Jacob.  He does provide money for Rachel and his son, but a fire at their home (caused by the sheriff in a fit of rage, believing the Pembertons evil) causes him to realize that Serena is his life, and his love.   Meanwhile, Serena, filled with a calm rage that George dare send his son and his son’s mother money to help them (that he put them above Serena), allows a photographer to take their portrait and then orchestrates George’s death by preparing a poisoned sandwich for him as he sets out to hunt a famed mountain lion in the area.  George succumbs to the poison as well as rattlesnake bites, but this part of the novel ends with him tending to his wounds, making his way back to camp before stopping to rest and resting assured that his beloved Serena will come for him and save him.  He does not die in this moment but we are meant to know that he is near it, that his past actions of trying to help his son ultimately lead to his end.  At this point, the novel skips ahead some forty years.  Serena has made a name for herself as a timber baroness, having traveled to Brazil, and is famous enough for Life magazine to publish an article on her, an article a woman in a hospital in Washington sees and shows to her son . . . a man roughly in his mid-forties.  The novel then briefly describes Serena and Galloway as having died in the night from knife wounds.  When authorities ask a witness to describe the killer, all he can do is point at a picture hanging in Serena’s home, the picture of her and George Pemberton taken the day he died.

The film most alters this storyline, the one that had me turning the pages at a lightning-pace.  In the film, when Serena discovers her husband has set aside money for his son and the mother of his child and is keeping a picture of them, a rage she cannot contain ends with her on the floor sobbing and scratching away the image of the photo with a letter opener.  It causes her to become increasingly unstable.  In her grief and jealousy, she does hunt for Rachel and Jacob and kills the Widow Jenkins, who is never seen.  Instead of George deducing this, Serena freely admits this to George in the film.  And he anything but accepts it.  He responds by nearly choking her to death and it is he, in the film, who tracks down Galloway as he is about to murder Rachel and Jacob.  Pemberton kills Galloway, thus saving the life of his son and his son’s mother.  He makes peace with them before they leave and returns home to hunt a much-coveted panther, who ends up killing him.  When Serena, waiting at home for George, learns of this, she simply gives up and checks out, calmly laying down in their bed and dropping an open lighter on the floor, setting the house on fire.  One of the last images we see is the house all ablaze with Serena still inside.
And so . . . in altering this ending, I feel the movie changed the story into more of a tragic romance rather than a story of people’s lives coming full circle because of past actions.  I feel it also lost the delicious feeling of suspense and finality that the book delivered.  I don’t like that Serena gave up and committed suicide because George died.  I feel a defining layer of her was lost in that action.  In the book, yes, there is the intense relationship between Serena and Pemberton at the heart, but she it's not everything.  Don’t get me wrong.  I love romances and many of my own works center on romantic relationships.  However, with this story, I believe the way Rash laid it out worked better and had more impact.  Though the film is beautiful to look at and the actors all deliver with what they’re given, and even some scenes (like the miscarriage) work very well in the film, some of Rash’s most important and thought-provoking meanings are lost, which is why, in this case, I’d clearly have to recommend the book before I did the film.