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