Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Artist

In honor of the Academy Awards or the Oscars or the National Book Award or whatever show is on tonight, Dan and I went to see The Artist last night, a big deal for us because we don't often go to the cinema, as it were. Even though we arrived before the movie started, all of the seats in the normal part of the theatre were taken, leaving us only the nosebleed, head-cricking row right up against the front. We weren't alone, and bonded with the strangers around us in that way you do when you're all in a slightly irritating but unfixable position. We tilted our heads back and dealt with it.

For those of you who don't know anything about the movie, it's an old style black and white silent film with subtitles. Very purposefully melodramatic and it had pretty much every silent movie cliche embedded in the body of the film, including the part where the little dog saves his owner's life by running out and barking at a policeman who then pulls the guy out of the fire. Lots of imagery was really beautiful. Pace was somewhat slow and it ended in a tap dance duo between the two main characters, but it was overall, a satisfying movie.

Here's the movie poster for your viewing  pleasure.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Writing Every Day

A woman from this class that I teach told us about this site she uses called 750words. com. It's sort of like a blog that you sign up for and then you get an email prompting you to write each day. You can sign up for challenges--like to write every day for a month, and then, the email you get tells you how many people on that particular day are still in the running. It's satisfying to see that many, many, many people drop out. I'm competitive and want always to be the superstar, so I'm motivated to keep writing in this way.

You also give yourself rewards for if you finish the challenge, and then something you'll do if you don't finish the challenge. For this month, I said I would donate to the site if I didn't finish. If I take next month's long, long challenge, I'm going to have to set the stakes a little higher--like saying I'll give money to the NRA or some Christian right wing group, because I don't know how else I'll manage it.

I had a dream last night that someone asked me about my writing process and I told them that I wrote every day for twenty minutes. It's true at least for this month, but is that how writer's with full time jobs get their work done? I guess it's how I get it done at least in part. It' really feels like it's the daily attention to it that matters.

And now, two cats.

Friday, February 24, 2012

He Mooed

We went over a story in class this week (the one I take; not the one I teach), where almost every dialogue tag was an active verb. I love active verbs, but not in dialogue.  For example, the first two lines of the story we read last night were something like:

"Get out of my way!" DuBois growled.

"You can't tell me what to do!" The Captain barked.

Before you know it, we're going to start thinking the two central characters are a terrier and a bulldog or that we're in the middle of a barn yard. Character will be clucking, neighing, mewoing, or, my personal favorite (Dan came up with this one) mooing. Keep it simple; "he said/she said" unless you're purposefully trying to create a madcap, satirical piece. And watch out for the adverbs. They are not your friends, she warned suspiciously.

I did read a funny piece from The New Yorker this morning that made me LOL on the trolley this morning It's Calvin Trilling's piece in Shouts and Murmurs, called "Three Scenes Inspired by the Gingrich Campaign."

This is from the opening:

The CEO, in his usual crsip manner, began the meeting withou any small talk. "Let's get to the business at hand," he said (authorial side note: notice he didn't grumble or chortle). "We have to find ourselves a historian, and we have to do it ASAP."

"Maybe a historian could figure out how we got this silly name," the vice-president for marketing said. "Freddie Mac! I mean, it's really embarrassin wehn someone asks you wehre you work. It sounds like a day-care center or a sitcom."

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Awkward Family Photos

I just found this photo, and it was taken by me right after I was crying about something--I think I was crying about Henri being put to sleep. And then, for some reason, we decided to take a picture; maybe for a holiday card? Anyway, I think it's funny and sad.  And I think Dan looks extra cute and sexy. As does Ernesto.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Day I Suddenly Remembered Something Traumatic...

In the writing class I’m taking, we’ve work-shopped a couple of stories that revolve around a character suddenly remember something of significance that happened to her in the past.

Here's generally how it unfolds: the story is told from the present day/now, with the character doing something languid--like sitting in bed wrapped up in quilt, remembering. As the story continues, we move back and forth between the present day action and the traumatic event being recalled. In the present tense of the story, the writer describes the character doing mundane things, like spreading butter on a piece of toast or pouring over her reflection in an antique mirror. These activities trigger additional memories that reveal for the reader more of the traumatic event.  By the finish, the event is explained---the baby burned in a fire left by the mother's drunkenly dropped cigarette; the car skidded off the road and into an oncoming semi, the aliens sucked up all of the townspeople, except for those with ginger-colored hair (ah-ha, we think! That's why the writer spent two pages having the character stare at the split ends of her red hair, braiding and re-braiding the strands as she did so). The end scene is usually a return to the opening, with the character having moved glacially over the course of the day from the bed to the toaster to the bathtub, and back into bed again.  

What is wrong with this approach? Isn't the rule of fiction that something of significance happens? Something happened, yes. But that big something occurred in the past.

One might argue that a memory can create change. Yes, that’s true, though it is the most passive way to alter your character, in large part because it occurs internally rather than out in the world. However, the change that it creates needs to be significant (i.e. not a change from white bread to eating whole grain). 

Let’s just say that you’ve decided that your character is paralyzed with grief or guilt. That’s fine, but it's not enough to write a story that shows us the cause, you must then show us the possibility that the paralysis will either get better, or get worse, as a result of remembering what happened.

Here, we face another problem with this type of story approach--it's very, very hard to have a character experience a change simply through the act of remembering. We have got to get them out of their own heads--we need to see them out in the world, interacting with other people, yelling at old ladies, running for the bus that's pulling away from the curb--unless we see them moving through space and encountering others, we have very little evidence of who they are. Sticking the character in a room thinking is death to the writer, because it traps you. Why limit yourself to one room to tell the story when you have the whole of the world to work with?

Now, don't get me wrong. You can have a remembered moment create change. It's fine if during the course of the day the man whose father murdered his mother begins to see things that remind him of an act he's trying to forget. Perhaps the bus driver's face looks much like that of the policeman who came to the house. Perhaps the smell of gasoline from the exhaust triggers a memory of lighter fluid. As long as the character is in the act of discovery in the present moment, we're headed in the right direction, because that discovery will lead to some kind of greater realization--and that realization can tip one of two ways---it will make the situation better, or it will make the situation worse. In short fiction, you don't have a lot of time to do much else.

But let me make one more plea against the dramatic flashback. The more dire the memory is, the more it will undermine the present tense of the story. How could it not? You really want your most dramatic action to happen in the present day of the story. Otherwise, you run up against a bunch of other questions from the reader. Why is he just remembering this now? Why has she not thought of this before? So, my final word of advice is: if you want to write a story about the house burning down, consider just dealing with that moment--not with the moment ten years in the future where the character suddenly remembers, Oh, my, God, the house burned down. How could I have forgotten? More than anything, use flashbacks sparingly, to reveal only what is necessary for us to understand what the character is going through now, right at this very moment. That's what we're most interested in.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The overmatch

Late to work today because the PGW guy had to install something. Now, I fear I have rushed out of the house in an outfit that is too matchy. Like an outfit you'd see on a doll. All red and blue, so a Penn doll.

Here's a sample. Train has arrived.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Downton Abbey Awaits

I don't have much time here, people, because DA--the show for people who like antique pocket watches and leather valises, and fat white labs running across green lawns, and lovely dresses with delicate collars and beadwork, and candlesticks, and dastardely footmen vying against holier than thou butlers--shall be on in 16 minutes. However, I don't like an entire week to go by without at least geting something written in the blog, lest you stop checking it.

Have been reading lots of drafts of short stories in both the class I teach and the class I take, and the levels of skill are astonishing--ranging from people who seem to have a good command of the story, to those who have had very little practice writing short stories. Just this afternoon, I read a piece for the class I'm taking that was heavy with images that were unintentionally funny; comparisons being made between chest hair and ants, just as an example (something like: "his hair was stiff and short like ants marching up a hill." It's usually a mistake to compare essentially inanimate objects with really animate ones. Otherwise, the reader might start to wonder if maybe the chest hair is falling off and then perhaps carrying other pieces of chest hair with it back to some hill somewhere to see the Queen). I think in the case of the story I read today, the writer is more of a poet than a short story writer. I am so scared that I'm going to be a terrible poet, going to make amateur mistakes. I always, always, always want to be the best in the class, regardless of what the genre is.

Now, let's see about the Lady Mary, that little strumpet.