The most special things are the things that don't really belong anywhere but here.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Writing Stories: Part One

I often feel that because I’m not yet published, I’m not allowed to talk about the creative writing process or really give advice outside of work, even though I'm a writing teacher by profession, and I write pretty much constantly-- I don't even sleep, eat, or waste time! (Not true.) This blog entry COULD be about the underlying pathology of all the things I feel I'm not "allowed" to do or be, but I'll save that someday for therapy. Instead, I'll share a few little things I've learned along the way, 'cus I've really been jonesing to!

A lot of people may say that media rots your brain, but it totally depends on what you're watching. I've noticed that sometimes the lessons that have helped my writing the most haven't actually come from books, but from movies and television and documentaries and even the news. Don't worry, I'm not going to tell you that writers don't really have to read-- that's RIDICULOUS-- but influences don't have to be exclusively literary. Story telling is story telling, and characters are characters after all.

I finished a novel last year after working on it for about three years, and one of the most frustrating things was character development. This surprised me, since I appreciate character-driven stories over any other kind. It was humbling to realize that just because I was passionate about something didn't mean I was good at it. DUH. (Someone needs to share that brilliant epihphany with many American Idol hopefuls.) The thing with characters is that if they are too much like you, they either come off as blank slates on the page, or you feel like you're writing a diary. It's also hard to make multiple characters have their own distinct personalities that aren't stereotypes or exaggerations of people who you really know.

A television show that I think is brilliant at characterization is The Office. The first three seasons are basically perfect, and that was largely because the writers were masters at doing so much in a small amount of space. The episodes are only about 23 minutes long, and there's a lot of characters, so every moment has to count. The talking heads are almost like their own version of flash fiction. (Is that going too far?) Literally every time--and I mean EVERY TIME I am struggling with my characters--I think of this specific moment from The Office

This short talking head of Kelly Kapor’s tells you everything about that character, everything, everything, and not a scrap less. I often ask myself, how many things can a character moment do at once? Can we see what the person cares about and how much depth they have and how they see the world? Is my character moment the “dead sister” Kelly Kapor talking head? If not, I best find a way to make it so.
It's sobering to finish an entire novel draft and write "who is she" by a line with your main character.

Also sobering to discover you've made your teenage main character repeatedly sound like a preschooler.
Another thing: if you push aside characterization and instead rely too much on some pre-concieved plot idea, your work will suffer. This seems obvious enough, but I really didn't fully realize how much until I watched the last season of Dexter. Oh boy. Where to even begin.

For years, Dexter, a drama about a nice serial killer trying to juggle his “hobby” and a normal life, was one of my favorites. It explored identity, family, and the construction of reality in ways that I had never seen before. Dexter took the command “make something new” and ran with it, so as a storyteller, I held the show in VERY high esteem... and then the final season happened. I’m not going to get into all the problems with season eight because we’ll be here all night, but basically, none of the major character arcs really made sense, and one of the biggest problems was with Dexter’s love interest, Hannah.

Hannah loved Dexter, and (spoiler alert!) her love made him want to stop killing. I bought none of this, and neither did the majority of the audience. Partially, this was because Hannah the character was just very ill-defined. First, she was a girl with a dark history, looking out for herself, then she was an abused wife, and then she was a potentially great mommy to Dexter’s son (which was “proven” when she took him to the hospital after he was attacked by a treadmill). Hannah was also very attractive and never criticized Dexter, ever. But isn’t that every sociopath’s dream? Wouldn’t a woman like that just make Dexter stay the same, or actually get WORSE? I mean, maybe if she had a peg leg or challenged him in some way or beat him at his own game, but no. She was more like a male fantasy than an actual person, and seriously, did the writers really think their female viewers would enjoy watching that? Okay, I’m getting off track… but basically, the characterization was a huge problem, and that problem flooded the scenes.

(Harrison=0, Treadmill= 1) 

While watching the final two seasons of Dexter, I was struck by the difference in how engaged I was during the Dexter/Hannah scenes and the scenes with Dexter and his sister-by-adoption, Deb. Deb & Dexter’s relationship is probably one of the most complicated, fascinating relationships I’ve ever seen on television. Their identities were completely symbiotic and dependent on the other’s perception of them. They never saw eye to eye or completely connected, not even in the end (which sucked), but at the same time, they were the center of each other’s world. There was a lot of anger, desperation, protectiveness, affection, and even semi-incestuous feels, so their scenes were eyes-glued-to-the-television worthy. Not a second was wasted, and the scenes always cut about two minutes before you wanted them to.

The Dexter/Hannah scenes, by contrast, were scenes that I found myself dreading, and near the end of the final season, I had diagnosed why. Almost all of these scenes involved:  A) repeating or narrating stuff that already happened B) excessive length C) prettiness D) no conflict, unless they were discussing Deb. E) dramatic pauses. I remember feeling particularly exasperated during one never-ending scene where Hannah and Dexter were driving in the car at sunset. I sighed loudly and yelled at the television, “I don’t care how pretty or how long you’re making this! I feel NOTHING!”


I literally ran* to my computer and took a look at the long-ass novel that I was trying to find an agent for. I knew what my problem was (well, at least the biggest one).

The novel I've been working on is speculative fiction, so it involves a series of “what if” scenarios: what if the universe really does repeat itself? What if we have doubles on another Earth? What if that Earth has proof of life after death? There’s a lot going on here, so the novel topped off at about 170K words. A few agents were like, “this is too long,” and I was like, “I know, but what's a girl to do? It is what it is.”

Well, that response was faulty. In truth, there was a big problem with my editing strategy. Whenever I felt like a scene wasn’t working, I almost always attributed it to pacing. I needed to make this scene longer, I thought. I needed to make the reader see it more. I needed to add more beats, more heavy sighs. If I could just be IN it longer, it would have the desired impact. In other words, the novel was FULL of Dexter/Hannah sunset driving scenes, scenes that I was pretending worked, even though deep down, I knew that I felt mostly nothing.

So my new goal became this: the next time something felt off, I could write more at first to figure out where the interesting stuff was between the characters, but then I had to subtract. I had to shave at least a page from each chapter. If I changed a scene of dialogue, it had to be shorter or at least as long as the original scene. My mantra was “richer, not longer.” When I was tempted to ignore a bad scene, I just thought about how angry I was at the Dexter writers for inflicting those Dexter/Hannah scenes upon me, and terrified of making their same mistakes, I worked harder. Every scene needed to be Deb/Dexter (metaphorically speaking), and no scene could ever be Dexter/Hannah.

Did the novel not only get shorter, but better after this epiphany? YES. So much. Oh my god. So, Dexter, thanks for sucking in the end, I guess.

I do have a cautionary tale about learning from television and movies though, and it has to do with how writers SEE scenes in their heads. We’ve all read those books where we feel like we are physically there because the descriptions are so intense (HARRY POTTER), but usually, the images we make up ourselves are more in the back-brain as opposed to the front-brain where an image might sit from television or film. I just made up phrases, and as I type this, I’m not sure if what I’m saying is
completely true, but let me just give you an example of where I'm going.

I love you, little Kevin.
Nick and Nite started airing The Wonder Years reruns when I was in junior high, and I became pretty obsessed. Recently, I watched some episodes on Netflix, and I was kind of taken with the realization that this show was the genesis of so much that I find myself doing in my stories today, like my focus on coming-of-age, the domestic, and friendships. It also made me obsessed with the idea of growing up next door to someone and then falling in love with them. Anyway, a while back, I was working on this scene in my novel that involved a school play. Oz, one of the main characters, is watching his neighbor and best friend on stage, Faylin (who he—you guessed it—falls in love with). Oz is the light guy up in the rafters, shining the light on Faylin. I wrote a line, something about how he felt like he was “holding her up with the light.” The scene came kinda naturally, you know? I could just see it.

Well, a great deal of time went by, and I wrote more chapters, and then suddenly, one night, completely out of nowhere, I was like, “Oh my god, I literally plagiarized that entire scene from The Wonder Years.” Until that moment, consciously, I had completely forgotten about the episode where Winnie was in the school’s production of Our Town and Kevin did the lights—which was nuts, but not the problem—the problem was that I was nearly positive that the line about holding her up with the light was from the show. I could hear Daniel Stern’s voice-over and everything.
Thespian Winnie Cooper, on stage

I don’t know why I suddenly remembered this episode (I probably watched it last when I was fifteen), but thank god, because who wants to accidently plagiarize? I was horrified and took out the line, which was a good move anyway, because it actually didn’t make any sense. Ever since, I’ve worried that the reason a scene just pops in my brain is because I  HAVE already seen it.  So… how do we avoid this? I don't even know. I'd say let’s ask ourselves if something feels a little too familiar while we’re editing, yeah? Especially if parts of it are sorta like the shows and films that have been in our brains for most of our lives.

Just because we learn something doesn’t mean we immediately master it, but the first step to fixing a problem is giving it a name. I’m still working on making scenes precise and rich and making my characters complicated, three-dimensional people, and I guess it’s okay if I work on that forever until I die, because it’s my favorite thing to do. But being published before I die, I mean, that would be nice.
And these are only the drafts I've PRINTED! This is enough work to be at Barns & Noble, right? I can stop here? NO?!
So now I turn it over to you: if you write, what non-literary sources have influenced you or helped you become better? Even if you don't write, have you ever learned a lot from something precisely BECAUSE it sucked? Do you want me to keep talking about everything that was wrong with the 8th season of Dexter? Because I can. Isn't it depressing how Kevin and Winnie didn't end up together in the end and married other people? Sound off!

* “Ran” means I was like, “hmm, this is familiar. I feel uncomfortable. I’ll think about why tomorrow.” Then I went to bed. I woke up the next day and went to work and it was all kind of swimming in my head still. I casually sat down at my computer later that night after my shower and took a look at my writing.

Monday, January 20, 2014


My diary, ages 12-14
A few weeks ago, my big sister told me that she threw away all her old diaries. I asked her why on earth would she do that, and she replied, “Well, I mean, why keep them? Someone will just find them and read them, and do I really want that?” I decided not to tell her that I was planning on writing a blog containing excerpts from my actual middle school diaries. 

Do you still have your old diaries? Do you keep one now? Why do we keep them? First, the obvious: it's fun to remember the things that we thought were important, what made us upset or happy, with the older perspectives we have now. Take this existential musing from April 11th, 1997: 

"Isn’t it just like life where everything goes opposite of what you want? It makes you wonder just who God is. Lately, I’ve been thinking he’s probably an asshole. I don’t understand him. I don’t understand why he does what he does. I just wish I did. Like, it’s my spring break and it’s in the 30’s!"

I also find the illustrations of my hormone-induced rages to be amusing/disturbing: 

I did not understand that you could turn off the "over" button.

I'm impressed that I dealt with insomnia by designing roller coasters:

And I love finding evidence that I already wanted to write about everything. Interesting that they were all tragedies, though...(The "Irish thing"= the Irish Potato Famine). Big goals!

And then there's this….

Buggin'. Guess what my favorite movie was?
Diaries can also help us remember things that we've forgotten. One thing I may not have remembered without my diary is that for a time in junior high, I went on the Oprah chatroom and pretended to be a housewife. This is the only time I've ever pretended to be someone I'm not on the internet, and in my defense, I think it started out as a joke with a friend. However, the joke soon turned into this desperate, pathetic thing, fueled by my desire to skip being a teenager and instead be a confident wife and mother with a picket fence who was never afraid and who never felt bad about anything, because that's what being an adult is like, right? 

I would get very irritated when the other Oprah ladies would talk about problems with their friends or family, or when they would swear. Where was their decency?! Didn't they know that they were OPRAH LADIES and they were to always wear button-up sweaters like the audience on TV, and the worst thing in their lives was supposed to be that they couldn't "remember their spirit"? Obviously, I understood nothing of adulthood, Oprah's audience, or even reality. But anyway, thanks to my old diary (or unfortunately),  I remember this moment from my history and development as a person.

Why do we go back and read diaries from our formative years? I think it’s the same reason why we are interested in any kind of history at all; because if you’re closer to the origin story, you’re closer to figuring out why everything exists. But are you? The genesis is the genesis, but how can something new interpret, or even report, what is happening to it with clarity? 

I wrote that I felt guilty about lying to the Oprah ladies, when I'm nearly positive that I never did. I wrote about how difficult my parents were, when I know that my parents never had rules and were always nice to us. I remember being kind of weird in middle school, but my diary makes me seem like a social, sassy teenager who was actually very normal (rage and OCD issues aside).  I remember being very sad in junior high, but most of my diary entries are very optimistic. Have you ever known a nerdy kid who suffered in high school but now wears their former nerd-badge with pride, as if it were a quirky, cute, endearing part of their lives that makes them more interesting? The more things happen to us, the more our perspectives on ourselves change, and the more we rewrite our own histories.

And then there's the idea of ignorance. Relying on your sixth grade diary to figure yourself out now may be like relying on cavemen to figure out the origins of the universe. There's this romantic idea that when we were younger as a species, we knew something that we have since forgotten, and with some situations, that may be true. But these were also the people who made human sacrifices and had prisoners fight lions in arenas and do other cruel, barbaric stuff. Were these guys really enlightened? Maybe the sun gods drawn on cave walls really ARE documentation of alien secrets and communications, or maybe they were just stories to explain the unexplainable. I think for the most part, the younger you are, the dumber you are. That being said, I would be totally stoked if aliens were real. 

(Okay… this is actually pretty sweet….)

I'm not saying that people shouldn't remember or reflect on their pasts; I actually think that everyone should, and I'm not saying that we shouldn't bother reading our old diaries either! What I am saying is that it may be helpful to remember that even when we document our own lives (maybe especially when?) we are unreliable narrators. Diaries are a mixture of reporting, wish ful-fillment, and an often skewed sense of the self. How do you separate what actually happened from “I want to interpret it this way so I’m the hero of the story,”or even from, “I'm writing like this instead of like that to sustain some part of my current identity." You know what I mean? What am I talking about again? 

So, these are the problems with diaries. I guess. Maybe they should be called TRAISIT entires instead: The Truth as I See it Today. Who cares though, besides historians, right? Or maybe therapists? Or maybe lawyers?

Or maybe like, all of them?

Assuming that many of us are not sociopaths or war criminals, I think that the main goal of writing and saving a diary isn't just about the "truth" or correctly documenting our histories. I don't think it's just about having a chuckle and remembering either. I think that most of the time, the goal of the diary is to correct whatever disconnect we felt that made us want to write the entry in the first place. Yes, it’s cathartic to get stuff out, but we really keep the page or hit “save” on the document instead of throwing it away for two reasons: 

1) Saving something means that it matters. Your feelings and experiences matter. This random thing that happened matters. You matter. And...

2) It's nice to reread something and think, YES, that’s EXACTLY how it feels, isn’t it? That’s EXACTLY what it’s like, isn’t it? You validate your own experiences when you reread them, even if the person whose experiences you are reading is just the person you were two winters ago. There's the illusion that there is someone else besides you in the room and in the situation and in the conversation, even though there’s not, and being understood feels good. That could seem delusional and depressing, OR you could think of it as a step towards connecting with yourself and being fully integrated. I choose the later…obviously…It is so weird though, what makes us feel better, isn't it? 

All this being said, I like to think that diaries can also help us appreciate the ordinary little things about our every day lives, causing us to reflect on all the things that have changed and all the things that have stayed the same. There are several entries I wrote as a kid that I swear I could have written yesterday. (Ex: May 3rd, 1998: "I hate change. I have gas.") And there seems to be this theme, in mine at least, of really wanting to keep the fleeting nowness of now eternal, even if I didn't love everything that was happening. Like in this entry:

July 31st 1997: “When I was 8 or 9… I thought my life was boring and nothing great. But now, I miss it. I miss it so much just because it wasn’t now. It’s weird how when you thought nothing was so great about your life you can find so many wonderful and perfect things about it now. And that that’s why I’m enjoying my life and the summer, cause in four years I’ll wish it were now. And there are great things about now. I’m still a child, I still have it easy, I have a lot, if not everything!”

Thanks for enjoying it for me, Little B!

So now is your turn. Do you ever go back and read your old entries? Do you still keep a diary today? Have you ever reread something that totally surprised you, made you wonder if you were a reliable narrator, or if maybe you've altered history in your head? Do you think aliens exist, and are you afraid that your diaries will ever be used against you in future war criminal trials? Discuss!