On big fat good things.

So I lost four pounds so far on Noom. I gained one of those pounds back when I weighed myself Monday morning, but when I weighed myself on Tuesday, most of that mystery pound had vanished. Using the app has definitely helped me be successful, but I need to get moving again. I haven’t been walking like I usually do, and I’ve been blaming it on the lack of sleep, which is probably accurate. But I should also mention I’ve abandoned my evening bedtime routine. I’ve fallen back into the rut I was trying to escape in a desperate scramble because it’s easier than making real change.

But I will not give up. I will persevere. And I owe this determination to the movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” It came on just as I was starting to make dinner and as I’d already seen it, I left it on in the background for white noise. At one point, Toula says something like dreams don’t do any good because nothing ever changes.

Naturally, she says this just before the love of her life, perfectly played by John Corbett, strolls into her life.

Currently, there are no Greek coffee shops open for me to be employed at to charm a vegetarian school teacher. My mouth would be covered with a mask even if there were, so conversation would be difficult. Logistics aside, it’s still a nice dream to dream that there’s someone for everyone, even frumpy thirty-somethings with big, loud, obnoxious families.

The other aspect of the film that makes it so damn good, other than being adorable and wholesome and all the good stuff that films should be made of, is the story behind it. Nia Vardalos, who plays the lead Toula, wrote it and starred in it as a one-woman play. It gained traction – Rita Wilson saw it and made her husband Tom Hanks see it – and earned attention from big studios. But those studios wanted to abandon Vardalos’s vision and change the ethnicity of the family to Hispanic, cast a known actress like Maria Tomei in the lead instead of Vardalos, and changing the plot. Vardalos refused the changes. Rather than give in for a substantial payday, she maintained the integrity of her art, her creation – the story is based on her real life, after all – and went with a smaller studio.

And the film “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” became the highest-grossing romantic comedy of all time. So what can be learned here? That love exists for everyone and that a woman writer can tell her story the way she wants to and still be wildly successful. And those are all good things.

Those are all big fat good things.

Keep dreaming ❤

On balancing books and movies.

Stephen King once said, “Books and movies are like apples and oranges. They both are fruit, but taste completely different.” Stephen King also insists in On Writing that no one – absolutely no one – can be a writer without reading A LOT. Writers should read and write every day; there’s no way around it.

I agree with King’s sentiments. After all, I just wrote an entire post about reading more books. Reading is essential, invaluable, and irreplaceable. However, life is all about balance, right? As we move into the final dog days of summer, I want nothing more than to load up on snacks, stretch out, and enjoy a movie in the cool darkness of my living room. How can I make this leisurely activity support my writing goals?

According to Shaunta Grimes, writing for Medium.com, the best way is to watch a movie like a writer. She explains the process in depth and provides helpful links here, but what it boils down to is structure. Screenplays generally follow a 3-act structure: Act One is the Setup, Act Two is the Confrontation, and Act Three is the Resolution. This is covered extensively in a number of different ways in any number of places, but for our purposes, I’m going to explain it the same way I do when I’m teaching the concept in my creative writing class.

  • Act One must introduce major characters, the setting and the conflict. It must have an inciting incident and end with a major plot point that changes the course of the story.
  • Act Two is the longest third of a screenplay. It often includes subplots and showcases character arcs. It includes a major plot point as well, but now the stakes are higher. It usually ends with a moment of crisis.
  • Act Three is typically the shortest third of a screenplay because it’s the showdown between the opposing forces of the conflict, and the resulting consequences of that confrontation. All loose ends are tried up, or least addressed.
  • Put even more simply: Act One, put a guy up a tree. Act Two, throw rocks at him. Act Three, get him down.

So as a writer, watching movies specifically for their structures and character arcs can help generate plot point, character development, and themes, and thereby help cure writer’s block! What kind of movies are best? That depends on what you’re writing, but the internet has come to a consensus that there are about 20 movies every writer should see.

I scrutinized nearly 20 of these lists myself. They came from a literary magazine at a respected university, writers’ blogs, marketing specialists, well-known magazines and databases (IndieWire, Writer’s Digest, IMDB, Medium), lesser-known magazines (Paste, High on Films) and Ranker and Google. There was also a random list I found with no real author or attribution, but I liked the titles, so I kept it. From the master list, I narrowed it down by the number of mentions on every list I searched. Without further ado, according to the internet, here are 20 movies every writer should watch:

  1. Adaptation (9 mentions and usually near the top of every list)
  2. Misery (9 mentions and usually near the top of every list)
  3. Midnight in Paris (8 mentions)
  4. Barton Fink (8 mentions)
  5. Ruby Sparks (6 mentions)
  6. Almost Famous (6 mentions)
  7. Stranger Than Fiction (6 mentions)
  8. Wonder Boys (6 mentions)
  9. The End of the Tour (5 mentions)
  10. Naked Lunch (5 mentions)
  11. Spotlight (4 mentions)
  12. The Words (4 mentions)
  13. The Shining (4 mentions)
  14. Sunset Boulevard (4 mentions)
  15. Finding Forrester (4 mentions)
  16. Dead Poets Society (4 mentions)
  17. Bright Star (3 mentions)
  18. Capote (3 mentions)
  19. An Angel at My Table (3 mentions)
  20. Factotum (3 mentions)
  21. Shakespeare in Love (3 mentions)
  22. Can You Ever Forgive Me? (3 mentions)

I bolded the ones I have seen and as you can see, I need to get working on this list! There is no particular order, other than the number of times the title was mentioned on the lists I studied, and there were quite a few honorable mentions, which I’m limiting to ones I have seen and loved:

  • You’ve Got Mail
    • This movie is more about reading than writing, but it’s all connected anyway. And who doesn’t love an enjoyable romantic comedy with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan? Dave Chapelle’s in it too, so there is literally something for everyone. Nora Ehpron at her most enchanting.
  • Genius
    • This movie stars Jude Law and Colin Firth. Need I say more? It chronicles the fascinating relationship between editor extraordinaire Max Perkins (think Fitzgerald and Hemingway!) and Thomas Wolfe.
  • The Rewrite
    • Hugh Grant plays opposite Marisa Tomei in an adorable and heartwarming romantic comedy about a screenwriter who used to be really good a long, long time ago and how he reclaims his former glory. Maybe fame and fortune aren’t everything.
  • Secret Window
    • Johnny Depp is FANTASTIC as writer dealing with his wife’s infidelity and a mysterious stranger who accuses him of plagiarism. A Stephen King special, the intensity climbs right up to the surprise ending!
  • So I Married an Axe Murderer
    • Mike Meyers at his funniest. He’s a writer who – you guessed it! – may have married an axe murderer.
  • Confessions of a Dangerous Mind
    • Confession: I haven’t seen this movie, but I’m a H U G E fan of Sam Rockwell, so I’m going to see it ASAP.
  • In Bruges
    • Not entirely sure what this film has to do with writing, but as far as films go, it’s damn near perfect. Colin Farrell gives a performance of a lifetime, and it’s from the unbelievably talented Martin McDonagh (Seven Psychopaths and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri).
  • Funny Farm
    • Chevy Chase has aspirations of becoming a serious novelist, so he relocates to the country, thinking he’ll find inspiration in a seemingly quaint country town. Hilarity ensues.
  • Music and Lyrics
    • Another Hugh Grant film (leave me alone), but this time he’s paired with Drew Barrymore and this is actually all about the writing process, particularly as it pertains to songwriting. It’s also adorable.
  • Adult World
    • One of my favorite movies of all time. Emma Roberts stars as a young woman who wants to be the protege to a famous, reclusive, brilliant poet (played perfectly by John Cusack). Evan Peters is in it, too. The heart in this film is surprising and wonderful.
  • Stand By Me
    • More Stephen King (are you really all that surprised?), but this is more about friendship and growing up and the choices we make inside of ourselves. Perfect, nostalgic, bittersweet coming-of-age tale.
  • Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
    • Johnny Depp as Hunter S. Thompson. Wonderfully weird. Need I say more? This cult-classic is definitely worth the watch.
  • Sideways
    • Road trip movie about two men in wine country, one of whom is a depressed teacher and unsuccessful writer. This movie speaks to me on so many levels.

Has this list inspired you? Do you feel strongly about any of the titles? Am I missing some great movies about writing? Let me know in the comments!

On living in a BRAVE NEW WORLD.

On Monday, an article appeared in the New York Times called, “‘Brave New World’ Arrives in the Future It Predicted” by Alexis Soloski. The title completely intrigued me as I whole-heartedly believe that Brave New World by Aldous Huxley is one of the most important books of the 20th century. In my opinion, it should be required reading upon entering society and as the dumpster fire that has been 2020 rages on, the philosophical questions raised on the novel’s pages seem more pertinent and worthy of discussion than they ever have before. So the second part of the article title, that an adaptation has landed “in the Future It Predicted,” enticed me to read on.

But as I read on, I grew more and more disappointed by the article’s overall glib tone. Soloski has a Ph.D. in English and Comp Lit, so her knowledge and credibility are not in question. All reviews are matters of opinion anyway, and completely subjective, so what outraged me may not make the slightest bit of difference to someone else. That being said, I was infuriated by the tone of the article because it essentially ignored Huxley’s dire warnings about replacing complex introspection and meaningful, layered human connection with superficial, temporary pleasures, like drugs and meaningless sex and constant entertainment and stimulation. Soloski writes, “But ‘Brave New World,’ which most viewers will remember – vaguely if at all – from some high school or college syllabus, presents a more ambivalent prospect and particular challenges.” First of all, Soloski seems to insinuate the novel, which she laters calls “…a literary crystal ball so dead-on that many of its predictions have already come true,” is forgotten. Or maybe she’s implying that audience members are too dumb to remember or too numbe to care? Either way, to handle this classic and intelligent novel with anything but the utmost respect leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Now I understand that Soloski is writing about the latest adaptation, but she seems perfectly okay with – again – the glib and hyper stylized and superficial approach taken in adapting Huxley’s novel for today’s audience. She doesn’t comment much on how “A collaboration between Universal Content PRoductions, which acquired the rights to the novel, and Amblin Entertainment, brought on for their world-building chops, ‘Brave New World’ began at Syfy, then moved to USA, before landing at Peacock, shedding story and concept and the occasional writer along the way.” SHEDDING STORY AND CONCEPT? I understand that adaptations of novels usually are scaled back and disappointing, so my outrage comes from coldy exhibiting that the creation of this particular adaptation has had too many cooks in the kitchen (and likely still does) and shakes off elements as integral to the narrative as story and concept. Is Aldous Huxley, creator and author, completely forgotten in all of this?

Simply answered: yes, he is. This adaptation seems to be dumbing down all the turmoil and hard-hitting questions that made the initial novel so wonderful. “The showrunner David Wiener (“Homecoming,” “Fear the Walking Dead”) apparently had the solution, situating the social theory within a love triangle.” It seems that the adaptation will not focus on the darker elements of social control but instead on a tawdry love triangle, which really isn’t a triangle at all if you’ve read the novel. And restricting it all to something so formulaic and overdone as a love triangle reduces the characters. For example, Soloski writes that the character Bernard Marx is just “an administrator with a thing for turtlenecks.” There is no mention of the accident that occurred during genetic engineering that keeps Bernard from meeting his “full potential” within the society. The importance of his surname is entirely glossed over. There’s not even a subtle hint at the extreme inner conflict that leads Bernard down a dark and twisted path.

The plot itself is changed to be more action-packed, it seems. “When the holiday goes wrong – the Savage Lands had a sedition issue – Bernard and Lenina escape with the help of a sweaty, stubbly John (Alden Ehrenreich) and his raspy, bottle-blond mom (Demi Moore). John returns with them to New London and he, Lenina and Bernard, each of them grasping for greater human connection, form the basic geometry.” In the novel, John does not help anyone escape. He’s brought back as an oddity, a point of interest. The fact that his mother travels with him is so much more important than Soloski lets on. John is considered a Savage because he believes in natural procreation and has a family and doesn’t take mood stabilizers; he is a Romantic. He doesn’t really fit in with the Savages either for reasons I won’t reveal because of spoilers, but all that is gone or minimized so that he becomes an action hero, some sweaty and muscular archetype to play against an intellectual in a love triangle which is so uninspired that it is unworthy of Huxley’s excellent novel.

As a matter of fact, the focus of the article and the adaptation itself seems to be on style and appearance more than substance. The article discusses at length the set design and filming locations and the use (or lack thereof) of CGI. This seems to be done intentionally. “The novel’s utopian vision, with its ugly flares of racism and misogyny, also required renovation. ‘The book’s hugely problematic,’ Wiener said. So the show pivoted toward equality, race-bending and gender-flipping several of the supporting characters.” BUT THAT’S THE POINT! The utopia presented in Huxley’s novel isn’t a utopia at all. It is, in fact, a dystopia where freedom of choice has been so eradicated that there is absolutely no individuality and people are genetically engineered to fit a specific social class. People are designed to be inferior in different ways so others can remain superior. No, that doesn’t preach equality, but it does reveal a darker truth about humanity that no one seems to want to grapple with because it’s messy and uncomfortable, but to paraphrase John the Savage’s great speech towards the end of the novel, it’s my right to be uncomfortable and messy and unhappy if I want to be, so give it all to me! Let me be exposed to elements of misogyny and racism in the story, and then decide for myself how to react. Removing the more difficult aspects of the prose limits the reader’s reaction and involvement and erodes the author’s purpose.

But no; this adaptation is limited to fluffy entertainment and does so to the point where the characters are reduced and less complex and less riveting. “The main characters have undergone some changes, too. Lenina, a cheerful sex bunny in the book, has been granted interiority. Pompous Bernard has softened. In the novel, John is prissy and deeply neurotic, anti-sex and anti-fun.” Lenina was not just “a cheerful sex bunny;” she was grappling with being monogamous when promiscuity was the norm and struggling with her feelings for John. She had interiority; it didn’t need to be added! And how could Bernard possibly be softened when he is the villain? But the worst crime of all is how Soloski calls John “prissy and deeply neurotic, anti-sex and anti-fun.” SERIOUSLY? John wanted nobility and dignity and was searching for a real sense of self. He wanted to feel it all and experience it all. The actor who plays John, Alden Ehrenreich, understands this (which makes me like him even more than I already do). Soloski writes, “So Ehrenreich’s John has loosened up and muscled up, though he remains extremely emo. Ehrenreich, best known as the titular swashbuckler in ‘Solo,’ prefers to describe John as romantic.” Soloski’s tone is disturbingly dismissive when discussing the hero of the novel. To label him as “emo” discredits him and his beliefs.

Huxley, through John the Savage and his interaction with the “new society,” critiques the superficial society that is so often praised and preferred. People choose to numb themselves and self-medicate to avoid the more difficult and disconcerting aspects of being a member of the human race.  People choose fleeting sexual pleasure because it “feels good” instead of working to build lasting relationships, which disintegrates family units, and the social control in the novel is fine with this because “united we stand, divided we fall.” Keeping citizens dumb and numb and disconnected keeps them easier to control and manipulate. John becomes a hero because he rejects that notion. He tells the powers that be in the “futuristic” society of the novel just that when he says, “But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”

It seems that the new adaptation and, in part, Soloski’s article about it both miss the point of Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World. They’re dumbing down one of the most important stories of the 20th century so people will have something to binge, to mindlessly consume, “while the world burns” around them. The Universal Content president told Soloski multiple times that “the show shouldn’t feel like homework.” They don’t want people to think and come to their own conclusions and judgments. The creators of the adaptation are creating an entertainment trap to keep people caged in superficiality and consumer culture, which is supremely ironic because those are some of the very kinds of traps exposed by Huxley. We are living in “Brave New World,” but this adaptation doesn’t really want viewers to realize that, so they’ve made changes to soften and remove “problematic” elements. In doing so, they’ve removed the author and his purpose, compromised artistic integrity, and likely ruined an important, classic novel for a new generation. It’s a shame.

To be fair, I haven’t streamed an episode yet. But I will when they become available today (and you can check out the trailer here), and I will swallow my pride and admit it if I’m wrong. But the tone of Soloski’s write-up in the New York Times has me worried. I feel like John the Savage, throwing away the Soma so people will finally wake up and realize what is actually going on.

On breaking through while staying in.

The pandemic continues. And so does the quarantine, the social distancing, and this overwhelming desire to return to normal. NJ public schools are closed for the remainder of the academic year, but state parks are open, though I think they’re limited to operating at ha;f their capacity and can be immediately shut down if people are not maintaining a social distance. I had a panic attack yesterday because I think it f i n a l l y hit me that I don’t recognize this world I’m now living in, and that is a terrifying realization.

So I escape; I escape into reading and into writing. Right now, I’m reading The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. I realize this is long overdue; the novel was originally published in 1940 and became a sensation. It was McCullers first novel, and she was only twenty-three years old, so I thought it was high time I finally read it. I remember reading an excerpt or two in middle school and writing down the title so I could read the whole thing later. It’s much later now, and I’m wondering why this title isn’t as referenced as often as others from the time period, especially when Amazon.com reports the novel is “Wonderfully attuned to the spiritual isolation that underlies the human condition.” And according to Wikipedia (a dubious source at best), “The Modern Library ranked the novel seventeenth on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. Time included it in ‘TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005’. In 2004 the novel was selected for Oprah’s Book Club.” So I guess it’s time for me to see what all the fuss is about.

As for my writing, I am S T I L L revising my manuscript for my second novel, Moody Blue. But I am THRILLED to report I’ve had something of a breakthrough! Without going into too much detail, I’ve been grappling with components of my plot that were too extreme. I couldn’t close those plot holes or justify character decisions in regards to them. But I think I’ve thought my way through and the writing’s been coming easier now. I remember when I was writing Her Beautiful Monster, I saw every single scene like a movie in my head. I always knew exactly where the plot and characters were headed. Moody Blue is a different animal altogether; I could only ever see parts. There were scenes I definitely wanted to include, but I never saw just how each piece fit. Happily, I really believe I’m on to something now.

So please, share with me: what are you reading during this quarantine? Is there a book you’ve always wanted to read but never got around to? Are there any projects you’ve started or accomplished? Let’s talk creativity 🙂

On weathering uncertain times.

We’ve been quarantined for about two weeks. Just under 14 days. I think I handled the first week with aplomb, with grace, and with a resilient kind of optimism. I cut my hair, I ordered a wireless printer and other tools for my “home office;” To quote a very good friend, I was t h r i v i n g.

This week? Not so much.

I went to confession and it was bizarre. They had a portion in the far corner of the parking lot sectioned off by little orange cones. Father sat in one of those uncomfortable plastic chairs that always seem to be painted a shade that hasn’t been popular since the 1970s. I pulled up, rolled down my window, and shouted my sins across the distance, loud enough so he could hear me over the wind. Even Father said he was unsure about how this could possibly continue. And he told me mass was cancelled indefinitely, but he would live stream mass.

Driving home, I passed the bank and the line of cars for the drive-thru wrapped around the building.

The park by me has yellow police tape around the entrances so no one can get in.

All of that was disconcerting, but I think this overwhelming sense of being disconnected and kind of lost started when I watched “Blinded by the Light,” which is NO WAY a comment on the film. I loved it! I cried from my heart being so full that all the excess love and hope and faith and goodness had to spill out through my eyes. I know I’m late to the party, but if you haven’t seen it yet, it’s all about this Pakistani boy growing up in Lutton, England (which is about 200 miles from Manchester, just for perspective). He becomes OBSESSED with the Boss, which in turns helps him follow his dream of becoming a writer.

The kind could have been me. Hell, the kid was me. It made me wonder, where did that passion, that desire go? Is it too lost to be recovered, rediscovered? The kid sat up in his room and wrote poem after poem. He wanted to become an English major. He wanted to work as a writer and even got the job at the local paper.

That was ALL me! What happened?! I mean, I’d write e v e r y s i n g l e d a y. I’d constantly be scribbling something. My notebooks were filled with scenes I just had to get onto paper and covered in inspiring lyrics. I used to be focused, driven. WHAT HAPPENED???!!!?!

Then again, the REAL question is: can I get it back?

I tried to stay on this inspired kick, tried to desperately to start an irrepressible fire burning in my belly. I watched “Western Stars,” the Bruce Springsteen concert film. I loved it. He’s just so fucking smart and passionate. My favorite quote:

Are we moving forward? Mostly, we’re just moving.

Damn, Bruce. Just @ me.

I did work on Moody Blue; I recently discovered there’s a whole chapter that needs to be re-written, so at least that’s something to focus on. I have really been busy trying to stay on top of remote learning as the longer we’re out of the building means the more instruction my students need. I will say that being more creative about explaining key concepts and skills is definitely helping me become more passionate about reading and writing.

But I haven’t seen anyone in real life in over a week (my parents being the exception). On sunny days, I walk the boardwalk and offer strangers a friendly nod, but that’s it. I feel so isolated, and I know that’s the point and it’s important to stop the spread of the coronavirus, but that doesn’t make it any easier.

Not to be a total downer – I ordered some blue light glasses from Amazon, and I L O V E them. I’ve been spending SO MUCH time staring at screens, as we all have I’m sure, that my eyes were really starting to bug me. These glasses, while stylish, have also been a godsend.

I’m sharing an article about relieving eyestrain, just so we can take care of ourselves.

On Chuck Palahniuk, with love.

This blog post is going to serve as nothing more than a thinly veiled love letter to Chuck Palahniuk.

This week, I devoured his book on writing titled Consider This: Moments in My Writing Life After Which Everything Was Different. Simply put, this book was amazing. You know I’m always looking for signs from the universe, and I firmly believe that the cosmos put this book into my hands at the right time for the right reasons. One of my favorite passages reads:

Was it Kierkegaard? Was it Heidegger? Some egghead pointed out how people decide the nature of their world at a very young age. And they craft a way of behaving that will lead to success. You’re praised for being a strong little kid so you invest in your strength. Or you become the smart girl. Or the funny boy. Or the pretty girl. And this works until you’re about thirty years old.

(64).

Damn, Chuck. Just @ me next time. I think a lot of the uncertainty in my writing life comes from uncertainty in life in general. Last year was tumultuous; I lost friends I thought I’d have forever and essentially had to find my new identity. It was never a good idea to allow myself to be defined by other people, but I did it and here I am, reconstructing myself one piece at a time. I’ve finally come to accept that people will enter and exit my life at various times for all different reasons, and every entrance and exit does not necessarily have anything to do with me. “Through our lives, our relationships are based on proximity. We attend the same school. We work at the same company or live in the same neighborhood. And when those circumstances change, our friendships dissolve” (146).  Those changes and dissolutions do not have to be earth-shattering. They do not have to be moments after which everything is different. But when they are, I think it’s more than important to stop and take note. Losing my friends and thereby upending the woman I thought I was led me to the dream of Ireland.

I want Ireland to be a part of my rebuilding, maybe even the foundation upon which I can build my writing life, and though that journey has been delayed, the desire is there and it is as strong as it ever was. Palahniuk writes, “Perhaps this is why people dream of traveling a lot at retirement. Seeing the world and recognizing one’s own insignificance makes it okay to come home and to die” (117). That’s depressing as hell, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true. To be comfortable with myself, and that includes being comfortable with my mortality, I think I have to be uncomfortable first. I’m happy to admit I’ve been uncomfortable as hell for nearly four years. So something’s gotta give soon, and I think this book by Chuck Palahniuk has prepared me for the moment I’ve been waiting for: the moment after which everything is different.

So much more than some bestselling author pontificating about craft, Palahniuk’s book is entertaining as hell. He includes entertaining anecdotes from his writing life that validate a writer’s many insecurities and intuitions, balancing humiliations with small victories. For example, Palahniuk recalls when he was a participant in Tom Spanbauer’s writing workshop and Tom gave him a book to read after his “…work had been rejected by some magazine or ten magazines or yet another agent had written to say he only represented ‘likeable’ fiction” (57). Tom chose the book and told Palahniuk it would help his work “enormously” (57). Palahniuk writes:

The following week I read and reread it. An easy job because it hardly topped a hundred pages, but a tough read because the characters were hard-pressed and put-upon cornpone hound-dog types just scraping by in the burnt-over backwoods hills of wherever. They lived on a farm, eating the same grits for breakfast every morning. They did nothing exceptional, and nothing happened to them. Each time I finished it I felt angry about wasting more time for so little return. I hated the author for wasting my time. But mostly I hated myself for being too backward to appreciate this work of art documenting the lives of folks interchangeable with the folks I’d been raised next door to

(58).

So when Palahniuk brings the book back, he’s hesitant to admit he hated it because he’s afraid that makes him dumb, too stupid to appreciate a book praised by anyone and everyone who knows anything about literature. Palahniuk lies “to fit in with the smart people” (59), which is a pressure I completely understand and have barely survived. I usually do the same thing Palahniuk did. “If all else fails among the literati, always claim the language is beautiful” (59). Throughout the course of the evening, however, Palahniuk finally cracks and admits he hated the book and that he’s probably stupid. But Tom smiles and reveals his true intentions. “This book is awful…. I wanted you to see how terrible a book could be and still get published” (59-60). I give Palahniuk credit for not naming the book and shaming anyone (“If you don’t have anything nice to say…” and all that) and for being honest. He’s acknowledging that being published and successful can have very little to do with talent. And I think it’s important to note that Palahniuk found his writing tribe, a suggestion stressed by all different kinds of authors time and time again. Writing is a lonely job, so it is crucial to find people who share your writing philosophy and tastes and work ethic. It’s crucial to have a community, and I think Palahniuk is starting one with the publication of this book. In a cosmic coincidence, I am in desperate need of a tribe, so let this book be my calling card/open invitation.

I wrote a somewhat scathing review of John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction because it wasn’t accessible. It was condescending. It didn’t inspire me. Palahniuk echoes these sentiments and goes on to explain, “I’ve found that most writers fall into one of two camps. The first rise from academia and write gorgeous stuff with very little plot momentum or drive. The second camp of writers emerge from journalism and use simple, clear language to tell stories rich in action and tension” (192). I think, organically, I come from the first camp. I was an English major, am now an English teacher, and will earn either my Master’s or MFA in the near future. But I’m drawn to the second camp. A perfect paragraph or scintillating sentence is great, but I’m afraid that’s not what sells. Readers want stories rich in action and tension that are also accessible because they use simple, clear language. That’s why Her Beautiful Monster was a joy to write and earned positive reviews, I think – because I enjoyed writing it. I think I need to get back to basics and not overthink my creative process.

Palahniuk does not spend valuable space romanticizing the writing life or going on and on about some abstract, academic approach. He gives real, practical advice. For example, he writes, “Once you’re published and trying to scratch out a living you’ll find these regional bookseller associations are a great ally” (1). First paragraph of the first page, and I’m learning something new. I was so disappointed when my first novel didn’t go flying off the shelves, but in hindsight, I realize I was doing nothing to help. To be fair, I didn’t know where to start. Thanks to Palahniuk, now I do.

He does discuss the act of writing itself and gives great tips and tricks without singing his own praises. For example, he suggests that “Instead of writing about a character, write from within the character” (47). He recommends avoiding common units of measurement and instead, using units of measurement unique to a character, like “a man too tall to kiss” or “a man her dad’s size when he’s kneeling in church” (47). This idea may not seem revolutionary, but it hit me like a ton of bricks. This is a wonderful and unique way to give a story texture and to really develop my writer’s voice.

Palahniuk attributes some of his most followed advice to other writers, and it lends him a great deal of authenticity. That was my favorite aspect of the book, how real Palahniuk is. It reminds me of a sentiment expressed by Stephen King, that all writers come to drink from the same pool, so it’s only natural that all writers beg and borrow and steal from one another. Hence why I salivated over this book from one of my most favorite writers.

Palahniuk writes, “If you’re dedicated to becoming an author, nothing I can say here will stop you. But if you’re not, nothing I can say will make you one” (xv). Palahniuk shares advice he received from Bob Maull, founder of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association. Maull told him, “If you want to make a career out of this you’ll need to bring out a new book every year. Never go longer than sixteen months without something new because after sixteen months people quit coming in that door and asking me if you have another book yet.” Fuck. Shit. Balls. My book came out nine years ago. Is it too late for me? Do I not have enough time to write because I’m a full-time teacher? Palahniuk doesn’t think so. He describes, in detail, how one writing approach solves the struggle for time. For all the dark human truths he exposes or touches upon, he is not a fatalist. He writes, “But if you hold a full-time job, have a family, and have to juggle every other duty in life, this scene-by-scene experimentation will keep you sane” (135).

So where do I go from here? I become a fucking writer. I carve out time for writing. I truly and fully believe I am one. I get to work.

On truly terrifying and terrible villains.

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Halsey’s new song that she performed on Saturday Night Live, “You should be sad” (you can watch it here) has had me D E E P in my feelings all week, ever since I heard the song. It reminds me of the only man I think I ever really loved, and how that relationship was doomed because he “…can’t love nothin’ unless there was somethin’ in it…” for him. In the story of my life (and all writers believe their lives have plot and theme and depths of meaning), he is most definitely a villain. No matter how handsome, how charming, how complicated, or how conflicted he might be, he is most definitely a villain, a dangerous narcissist, a sociopath who takes and takes until there’s nothing left and simply leaves.

Thinking along that admittedly bitter and self-serving vein conjured up images of villains crafted from ink and paper rather than flesh and blood. Do imagined, constructed villains have anything in common with those of the living and breathing variety? The answer: absolutely they do, so for your reading pleasure, here is my list of truly terrible and terrifying villains in literature (in no particular order and there’s only nine because I couldn’t think of one more villain; I’m the worst, I know, and I’m sorry). AND SPOILER WARNING!!! SPOILERS ABOUND!!! (Actually, I think I did okay in keeping secrets, but better to be safe than sorry).

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  1. Dolores Umbridge from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling

    When they entered the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom they found Professor Umbridge already seated at the teacher’s desk, wearing the fluffy pink cardigan of the night before and the black velvet bow on top of her head. Harry was again reminded forcibly of a large fly perched unwisely on top of an even larger toad” (Rowling 238).

    One of the best qualities of a villain, outside of the comic book variety, is his or her ability to surprise by flying under the radar. What I mean is that Dolores Umbridge is perfectly put together, what with her matching cardigan sets and bows and seemingly perfect manners. The depths of Umbridge’s dastardly depravity are revealed slowly, layer by layer, as the character herself unravels as she spirals into madness. At certain points throughout the fifth installment of the Harry Potter series, it seems as if she is simply unbeatable. She matches Harry step for step and is a worthy adversary. I would even argue she’s a more terrifying villain than Lord Voldemort because Voldemort is essentially a monster while Umbridge is a monster hiding in plain sight. And while she does not have special skills or super strength or advanced technology, she does have the scariest weapons of all: political backing and the ability to completely manipulate the bureaucracy.

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  2. Amy Dunne from Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

    “I’m so much happier now that I’m dead. Technically, missing. Soon to be presumed dead. But as shorthand, we’ll say dead. It’s been only a matter of hours, but I feel better already; loose joints, wavy muscles. At one point this morning, I realized my face felt strange, different. I looked in the rearview mirror–dread Carthage forty-three miles behind me, my smug husband lounging around his sticky bar as mayhem dangled on a thin piano wire just above his shitty, oblivious head–and I realized I was smiling. Ha! That’s new” (Flynn 219).

    Amy Dunne is without a doubt a psychopath, maybe even a sociopath. However, Amy’s ability to remain hyper focused on her goal to meet success at all costs is admirable … except for the fact that she’s either killing or manipulating every single person around her. Amy is the voice inside a woman’s head that tells her to forget everything and everyone else and “do you.” Amy seeks revenge against her cheating husband in a brilliant plot that involves her faking her own death and becoming a more authentic version of herself. What terrifies me about Amy is that the authentic version is amalgamous and essentially nonexistent. Amy is a chameleon and can change her personality in order to achieve whatever her aim is. That kind of intense and fearless and devotion to one’s self is something I envy on my really bad days. Still, Amy is a horrible narcissist and violent psychopath with no redeeming qualities, really.

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  3. Randall Flagg from The Stand by Stephen King

    “He looks like anybody you see on the street. But when he grins, birds fall dead off telephone lines. When he looks at you a certain way, your prostate goes bad and your urine burns. The grass yellows up and dies where he spits. He’s always outside. He came out of time. He doesn’t know himself” (King).

    It’s no secret that King can have trouble constructing plots; sometimes they’re convoluted and sometimes they’re lacking in a satisfying conclusion. What King is always a master of is creating dynamic characters and his legendary antagonist Randall Flagg is no exception. He is as charming as he is terrifying and King’s careful construction of his character shows glimpses of humanity. King doesn’t completely alienate his reader from Flagg, which is brilliant, because it keeps readers invested in his story. If there was nothing to latch onto, this ageless and universal adversary would become tiresome and excessive. But to see him become frustrated when thwarted and to see him become threatened when meeting his match rounds out and fleshes out his character. I would totally buy Flagg a beer at a local dive bar. The kick is that I’d be in some serious, fatal trouble before I even knew what was happening.

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  4. Chris Hargensen and Billy Nolan from Carrie by Stephen King

    “‘Period!’ The catcall came first from Chris Hargensen. It struck the tiled walls of the steamy locker room, it rebounded in vibrations, and struck again. Sue Snell gasped in laughter from her nose and felt an odd, vexing mixture of hate, revulsion, exasperation, and pity. She just looked so dumb, standing there, not knowing what was going on. ‘God!’ said Sue, ‘You’d think she never…’ ‘Period!’ Chris shouted again, even louder than the first time” (King).

    King’s my favorite author, so it’s no surprise he makes my list twice. Also, I’m a complete and total sucker for toxic couples. Chris Hargensen is the popular bitch who’s had everything handed to her and has to feel like she accomplishes something by shitting on others. Chris is a girl we all knew in high school, but King does what he does best and pushes Chris to the extreme. Her need for revenge becomes obsessive, overly cruel, and deadly. Naturally, such a bitch on wheels needs a hapless but equally psychotic lover boy to assist. Chris and Billy are disgusting and miserable in their relentless pursuit of Carrie. But before they go balls to the wall, they’re kids you avoided in the halls, kids you gave a side-eyed glance to during class. They’re rooted in the real world high school hierarchies, and that realness makes them all the more terrifying.

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  5. Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

    “I’m mopping near the ward door when a key hits it from the other side and I know it’s the Big Nurse by the way the lockworks cleave to the key, soft and swift and familiar she been around locks so long. She slides through the door with a gust of cold and locks the door behind her and I see her fingers trail across the polished steel–tip of each finger the same color as her lips. Funny orange. Like the tip of a soldering iron. Color so hot or so cold if she touches you with it you can’t tell which” (Kesey 4).

    OMG NURSE RATCHED. I truly believe she’s the most hated character in all of American literature and even American cinema. Her cold, calculating, unfeeling demeanor as the head of the psychiatric ward perfectly sets up the conflict between her and McMurphy. She is unflinching, immovable, and undefeatable. She’s exhausting and terrible and miserable. Generations of readers have had such strong and visceral reactions to Nurse Ratched, and that is a testament to her power as a literary figure. She’s simply awful and as a reader, you don’t just root for her downfall, you deeply and desperately desire it.

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  6. Tom and Daisy Buchanan from The Great Gatsby  by F. Scott Fitzgerald

    “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy- they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made” (Fitzgerald).

    Another toxic couple I love to hate. Much like Chris from Carrie, Tom and Daisy have had everything – absolutely everything – handed to them on a silver platter (probably literally). How do they feel alive and know that they exist? They ruin everything around them. They’re apathetic to the plights of others, careless in cruel and even calculating ways. I know Luhrman wanted to create a more sympathetic Daisy in his film adaptation, but I call bullshit. When you read the novel, she never calls Gatsby, never thanks him, and was never ever going to leave him. She just wanted to continue to have her cake and eat it too. She’s a mother who doesn’t raise her own daughter – hired help takes care of that. Tom may cheat, but Daisy does the same with Gatsby, and there’s no actual evidence of Tom being abusive other than a bruised pinky. Daisy’s full of shit, manipulating Gatsby into believing exactly what she wants him to, to keep him hanging around for her own amusement. And Tom’s just a douche bag.

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  7. Tyler Durden from Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

    “Tyler spliced a penis into everything after that. Usually, close-ups, or a Grand Canyon vagina with an echo, four stories tall and twitching with blood pressure as Cinderella danced with her Prince Charming and people watched. Nobody complained. People ate and drank, but the evening wasn’t the same. People feel sick or start to cry and don’t know why. Only a hummingbird could have caught Tyler at work” (Palahniuk 31).

    It’s been said that we are our own worst enemy and damn, does Palahniuk drive that point home in his amazing novel. Tyler is everything a man would want to be; sexy, charming, carefree, hyper masculine, stylish, unapologetic … but all of those attributes come with a price, and the cost is compassion. Tyler’s a great villain because for 90% of the novel, he’s a role model. Readers gulp his Kool-Aid in greedy swallows, nodding enthusiastically to his anarchist, libertarian ranting and raving. But when his ideology is actually put into practice, it is violent and dangerous. Tyler’s terrifying because on paper, he’s perfect. In practice, he’s a deadly disaster.

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  8. Macbeth from Macbeth by William Shakespeare

    “ I am in blood / Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o’er” (3.4.142-4).

    I am a total sucker for a tragic hero. I love me some Macbeth. Equal parts tragic and terrifying is Macbeth’s total descent into madness. He’s loyal and brave and valiant and loved; he has it all. When he’s promised more, and when the woman closest to him urges him onward, he’ll stop at nothing to obtain and maintain his glorious destiny. Macbeth is every single one of us, wanting to make those who loves us proud and wanting the best for ourselves. When Macbeth is unable to stop and finds himself drenched in blood, it’s scary because it happens all the time in real life. Greed and ambition are common motivations when committing serious crimes and Shakespeare knew it over half a century ago.

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  9. Eliot Andrews from Her Beautiful Monster by me 😉

    “‘Do you know what our last session together consists of?’ Eliot was smiling, but tears were pouring down his cheeks. It was pathetic. Sammy shook her head, terrified and trying to think of what to do next. This was no time for a conversation. ‘I’m going to give you a Glasgow smile. Do you know what that is?’ Again, Sammy shook her head and squirmed fearfully in Eliot’s arms. ‘I slit your mouth from ear to ear, and the scars that remain resemble a big smile, like the Joker from Batman. You saw that movie.’ Sammy needed to run, needed to get free; but how? Eliot was still rambling. ‘That in and of itself isn’t deadly, but if I were to then punch you in the stomach or make you scream in pain, you’d bleed out because the wounds would be constantly kept open. It’s a beautiful piece of irony, isn’t it?’ Grinning, Eliot took his shining scalpel and tried to slip it between Sammy’s lips. The metal in her mouth helped her to concentrate and she brought her knee up as hard as she could against Eliot’s groin” (Bean).

    Shameless self-promotion here. Eliot is a GREAT villain. He uses the greatest gift there is, love, to manipulate and injure Sammy. What could be worse? Buy it here.

So how did I do? Did I miss your favorite literary villain? Comment and critique my list!

On “Castle Rock.”

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I have never ever been shy about my love for Stephen King. Today, on Hulu, the finale of the second season of the Stephen King-inspired show “Castle Rock” aired. I had two thoughts as the credits rolled:

  1. Damn, that was better than season one.
  2. I want to re-read Misery.

I really enjoyed the performances by Lizzy Caplan and Tim Robbins as two well-known Stephen King characters: Annie Wilkes and Pop Merrill, respectively. I listed Caplan first because she honestly steals the show. She’s riveting as Annie Wilkes and masterfully pays tribute to Kathy Bates’ Oscar-winning portrayal in the nearly perfect film while somehow making the character her own. It is truly a masterful performance. As a viewer, I hated Annie, pitied Annie, feared Annie, laughed at Annie, and just went along for the ride. From her awkward gait to her unsettling gaze, Caplan created an Annie Wilkes that is as heartbreaking as she is horrifying. One of the standout episodes in the season, although Caplan and Robbins do not feature, is the fifth episode, titled “The Laughing Place.” The episode is beautifully shot and delves fearlessly into the troubled past of Annie Wilkes. While some aspects of Annie’s character were expected, like her sociopathic and psychotic tendencies, others were new and interesting. I was particularly fascinated by Annie’s struggle with dyslexia and was enthralled with the depth it added not only to character but to the complexity and intensity of the events as they unfold in “Misery” (I’m specifically referring to the film as it has been quite some time since I read the novel, which was a knockout by the way. I might not remember specific plot points, but I remember loving the book). Annie’s “Castle Rock” arc ends where we first met her, worshipping Paul Sheldon and I have a strong desire to revisit the book.

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Tim Robbins played Pop Merrill who was a complicated character to say the least. Robbins played it beautifully, expertly navigating the fine lines that kept Pop from being an all-out villain or an all-out redeemable, tragic hero. Robbins absolutely radiates in the second-to-last episode titled “Caveat Emptor” as Pop tries desperately to right the many wrongs he’s guilty of at staggering prices. Robbins is the perfect cranky, old bastard that deserves whatever he gets but that you hope gets better. I won’t spoil anything for anyone interested in watching, but will say that Pop Merrill’s storyline is one familiar to King’s Constant Readers and it does not disappoint.

Tim Robbins in season 2 of 'Castle Rock'

The first season of “Castle Rock” was close to being great, but for me, the finale kept it short of the mark. It was all so ambiguous which would be fine if there was at least a little something for the viewer to stand on or hold onto. I understood the nod to “Thinnys” and immediately thought of The Dark Tower series, but something was missing. I was dissatisfied and ambivalent about even watching the second season.

But man, am I glad I did.

 

On the difference between critics and beta readers.

I know I announced last week that my blog would be updated every Wednesday, but in light of what yesterday was – the eighteenth anniversary of September 11th, 2001 – it seemed in really poor taste to try and peddle my poetry and blog post when minds and hearts should really be focused on the anniversary of the day that changed everything. I’m humbled and completely knocked off my axis when I think about the enormity of that day, from the tragedy to the heroics to its function as a clear and distinct demarcation between a world that was and a world that is.

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So this week, I update on Thursday.

And this week, I’ve been thinking a lot about critics. I was fortunate to see “IT Chapter 2” the night it premiered with Dad and I LOVED the film (and this marks the second time a trip to the movies to see a film based on a work by Stephen King has brought Dad and I closer). It was brutal in its violence and in its tragedy, but it was also beautiful and refreshing in the way it honored the essence of King’s original story. That novel has always held a special place in my heart. Forgive me if I’ve shared this experience before, but I can vividly remember where I was when I read the last page of the novel: I was in my parents’ old van on my way to my twin sister’s softball game at our high school. It was uncomfortably crisp outside, so Mom and my little brother and me were all waiting in the van until my twin sister got up to bat. I was stretched out along the backseat and I was sobbing. I was crying hard enough to cause my mom to turn around and try and comfort me in her unique, no-nonsense way. She said to me, “Mandi, you know those aren’t real people.”

And I laughed, but what I really wanted to do was launch into an impassioned, breathless declaration about the heartbreaking genius of it. I wanted to tell her that it was all real and true in the sense that to be brave, loving, and selfless adults, people need to stay the faithful, simple, and vulnerable children they started out as. And that life is all about connecting deeply with others and staying true to those connections no matter the peril. And I wanted to tell her I was so moved because I belonged to no such club, not even one for Losers. I felt no cosmic kinship with anyone and were I to face a demonic, child-eating clown in a damp and filthy sewer, I’d have no one to call. I realize now that last bit is not entirely true – and never was – but it felt true at fifteen.

So when I read reviews by people who had seen the film and criticized it for not being scary or for being too long, it annoyed me because I wanted to assume they just “didn’t get it,” like I could degrade them into people less intelligent and less empathetic and less open-minded than me. I felt the same way after I saw “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.” I was almost offended that people in the theater weren’t as enthralled as I was, that they weren’t blown away by the gorgeous cinematography and the originality in creating a modern fairy tale.

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I had to stop myself. I had to remind myself that art is for everyone, first and foremost, and that everyone is entitled to their opinion. And my enjoyment of a film (or album or novel or whatever) should not be diminished or lessened by someone else’s displeasure. I was turning into the very thing I hated: a critic. Sometimes it seems to me that critics purposely dislike what is popular just to preserve an elitist status and perpetuate the notion that critics knows something the rest of us don’t. And maybe that elitism works both ways, in the sense that those that rally against critics (myself included) do so in defense of the “general” viewer (or listener or reader or whatever). Separating the “casual” imbiber of art from the learned intellectual critic serves both sides because with sides, someone can always be right and someone can always be wrong.

But that’s not the purpose of art or entertainment, is it?

Do what you like with critics, but that doesn’t mean a writer shouldn’t get opinions about her work. Writers should have a couple of trusted, honest beta readers (like critics in a milder, more individualized form) that can help them hone their craft. I have two, but am looking for a third. I am looking for a passionate reader to read my works-in-progress and share their opinion on the work.

Anyone interested? Comment here.

Until next time, friends ❤

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On weather and productivity.

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I went walking in the rain today. It wasn’t my intention; I thought the fine mist that had been falling since earlier in the morning was tapering off and that it would stop altogether as I walked from one end of the boardwalk to the other, which is about two miles. I was happy about the weather. Less people would be traversing the slippery wooden boards, so I could walk at my own pace and not worry about slowing down or speeding up to overtake another walker or to maintain a comfortable distance. But I swear, as soon as I left my house, as soon as I bounded down the steps of my front porch, it started raining harder. I tucked my iPod in my pants to keep it dry, and that sort of worked. By the time I was done, rainwater was dripping from my face and my elbows. I was soaked through.

But I wasn’t upset about it. On the contrary, I felt beautiful and invincible. It was just a little bit of rain, but it felt like I had conquered something. There were kids riding bikes with helmets over the hoods of their jackets, and I passed three other people walking but I think they were hippies in the truest sense of the word because the one guy didn’t even have shoes. But I was outside in the weather and I was up and moving. I didn’t cry alone in my bedroom; I didn’t let the depression win. I thought about crying, letting my tears be camouflaged by the rain, but if I had cried, it would have been because I felt free. I was being productive and I didn’t have to be trapped by a n y t h i n g; not by the way I felt or looked or anything at all.

So what does this mean for my writing? Well, I was productive; I wrote a little tawdry scene that likely won’t become anything but it was good practice in writing dialogue, I think. And I finished my entry for Owl Canyon Press’s Hackathon Contest (interested in entering yourself? You can find everything you need here). My beta reader is going to read it over and give me a brutally honest opinion. Fingers crossed, folks. Oh, and the beta reader is also reading through what I hope is my final revision of Moody Blue. If no agent or publisher bites, then no big deal. It’ll be on to bigger and better projects. I have plenty of ideas.

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As for Ireland … I’ve requested my official transcripts from my alma mater. Then I need two letters of recommendation and I’ll have to send in 3,000 words of original writing. That’ll be due in November.

I sketched something for the first time ever yesterday. My friend’s going to walk me through painting it and I’m just super proud of my level of creativity lately.

And I clicked on an Instagram ad about this band called “Wallows,” and it didn’t disappoint. They have a video for an incredibly catchy single called “Scrawny,” which you can watch here. I think it popped up on my feed because I’ve been posting a lot about “13 Reasons Why” (new season is awful) and the actor who plays Clay Jensen (real name: Dylan Minette) is the lead singer. You can watch the video here, but I’m warning you … it’s real catchy.

Sorry for the sporadic nature of this post, but things are good, and I feel like rambling about everything I’m excited and passionate about.