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

Thursday, January 15, 2015

7 "Inspirational" Mantras That Are Actually Ruining Our Lives

Every now and then, I see inspirational quotes or sayings that really speak to me, but most of the time, I just find them irritating. I always thought it was because many tend to over-simplify things, but then one day, I realized it was bigger than that; these mantras that we hold dear in our American lives, these sayings that we wear proudly on our shirts and slap on our cars as bumper stickers are actually ruining our lives. We think they give us inspiration, but they're acutally just incredibly unhelpful, the opposite of what we should really be telling ourselves. With this in mind, I took some time to correct many of these cliche inspirational mantras and make some crappy brilliant posters of my own that you can put on your walls to replace the life-ruining ones.

#1: "Dream Until Your Dreams Come True"

Such a beautiful thought, right? It reminds us of twinkling starlight and Disney movies. But here's the dirty little truth on this one: dreaming has to lead to action, or else it's useless. You know how much time I've spent dreaming, both while awake and while asleep? If  dreams could convert into some type of currency, I'd be living in a palace eating gold.  I've only accomplished like, three things in my whole life. This mantra ruins lives because it ends too quickly, leaving out the most important factor that makes dreams come true. Yes, dreaming time is a very important step in creation and change, but you can't just say there.

Mantra corrected:

"Work Until Your Dreams Come True"


#2: "You Can Do Anything You Set Your Mind To"

Can you? I'm pretty sure no matter how much time I spend reading about astrology, I will never work for NASA. I don't think everyone has the physical body to be a gymnast. Just because you love music doesn't mean you're creative enough to compose a symphony. I think this mantra can ruin lives when people start to feel bad about what they haven't accomplished, like they can't do this or that because they haven't worked hard enough. Maybe you just weren't meant to do it? Maybe you were meant to do something else. We all have different skill sets, different brains and potentials, and that's a good thing.


Mantra corrected:

"Test Your Limits, Then Know Them & Focus On What You CAN Do & Get Really Good At That"


#3: "Everything Happens For A Reason"

This one gets tricky because it bleeds into religious territory, and I don't want to shut down anyone's beliefs, but I struggle with this one myself. Some things DO seem meant to be. Others are too horrible to be worthy of justifying some grand plan. I get nervous when people act like EVERYTHING is pre-destined because I'm like, "Do you ever watch the news???" How will these people deal with truly terrible shit that happens in their lives, as it most likely will at some point? I'm not talking about losing a job or a break-up; I'm talking about death and illness and natural disaster and political unrest. I worry for these people. I think it's dangerous to think that fate or God or the universe makes everything happen. At what point are you absolved of responsibility? At what point will you be mad at God for what he supposedly did to you? I gots to much to say on this one, so I'm just gonna leave it at this before I start spewing off my own spiritual beliefs.

Mantra Corrected:


"The Universe is Not Shitting On You; Good Can Come From ANY Situation"


#4: "Dream Big" and/or "Expect Great Things"

Trust me, dreaming big will only lead to feeling like a failure. Dream small, achievable dreams that can increase as you meet goals. Instead of expecting great things, expect nothing. This was my only resolution for 2015, and I've got thirty years of reasons why. Our culture has a problem with expecting great things, and honestly, I think it's our downfall. We are all encouraged to expect above-average lives, which can turn into feeling like we are entitled to great big things. Not good things, comforting things, or pleasant things, but GREAT things. When we don't get these things or they're not GREAT enough, we feel bad about ourselves, resent each other, and again, hate God. That's sad. On the contrary, when you don't expect great things, or really anything, I think it's easier to see more of the good. You're not distracted by what this "should have" been and you can just appreciate what it is. Hopefully.

Corrected Mantra:


"Do Your Best, Expect Nothing, & You May Be Pleasantly Surprised"

#5: "Don't Worry. Be Happy!"

This is similar to "be fearless" or "be confident" or "choose to be happy." I think these ideas ruin lives because no matter what anyone says, you cannot control how you FEEL. YOU CAN'T. Why do we keep insisting that you can?! We can choose what we focus on, with effort. I would like to emphasize again WITH EFFORT. We can choose how we act and how we treat each other, but we cannot control what we think or how we feel. I can't just not worry. I can't just be happy. And you know, sometimes you have to worry. I can't pay my bills! That makes me worried! I should do something about that. Nah man, just be happy. Okay! Now I'm homeless. So stupid. I'm not saying we should be slaves to bad feelings, but they require management, not rejection.

Mantra Corrected:


"Notice When You Are Focusing Too Much on What Makes You Worry & Make Time To Focus on What Makes You Happy"

#6: "Live Life With No Regrets"

Okay, out of all the life-ruining mantras, this one is by far the worst. Living life with no regrets is the stupidest idea we have adopted into our cultural consciousness. Regret is the result of learning. Learning is an important part of being a person. Regrets are often accompanied with pain, and if our culture is anything, it's one dead-set on numbing and rejecting pain, to the point of fetishism. But Oprah herself would tell you that the only way out of the pain is through. "Live life with no regrets" not only glorifies the rejection of reflection, growth, and responsibility, but it also diminishes how hard it can be to make choices. Respect the decision-making process that we all go through in life and have empathy with yourself when you struggle with it; everyone does, and that's called The Deal You Got When You Agreed to be a Human Being.

Mantra Corrected:


 "Reflect Heavily On Your Regrets, Then Move Forward & Make Different Choices"

#7: "Live Life to the Fullest"

What does this even mean?! Whose idea of "the fullest" am I supposed to be following? Usually, this mantra is accompanied with pictures of mountain climbers in foreign lands or something that involves Eat, Pray, Love-esque soul searching. Your life is full if you've gone to a lot of places and met strange people and made impulsive decisions, never mind if they were "mistakes" or not. (Oh yeah, they weren't mistakes. Live life with no regrets.) Am I supposed to feel bad about myself because this all sounds awful? Being physically active and making small talk with strangers are two of the things that I hate the most. It also just looks like a lot of emptiness to me. Our culture tells us that a person who backpacks across Europe making surfacey, sexy relationships is living a fuller life than someone who stays home taking care of her family who she loves & counseling her friends over the phone, and I think that's gross. I guess if you value adventure and new things, then fine. But I value relationships and naps and art and pie.

Corrected Mantra:


"Define Your Values & Try To Live Them Out Fully Every Day"

So what do you think? Have you ever followed or tried to follow one of these cliches and felt like you were a failure at life when you couldn't make them work? Did you used to like one of these ideas and now find it annoying? Are you mad at me for how I defined these mantras and want to defend them? What annoying mantras have I missed? I know there's a million of them. Sound off!

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

We Wish You a Creepy Christmas

Well, tomorrow is Christmas Eve, and we all know what that means: lots of baking, last minute shopping, wrapping gifts, practicing how softly you can cry in anticipation of the family gathering
where Aunty Muriel will ask you why you've never brought a man to one of these things, etc., etc. It's also when we revisit our favorite holiday stories and listen to our favorite holiday songs. Have you ever taken pause though and really heard the lyrics, really thought about the details? If you did, you may realize that some of your Christmas favorites are actually kind of creepy, or at least have the potential to be.



#1: "Baby, It's Cold Outside"

No one hates this song more than my big sister, Liz. To her, it may as well be called "I Spiked Your Drink and Won't Let You Leave." The girl sings, "Say what's in this drink?" The guy repeatedly sings, "Baby, don't hold out." Her drink is probably just alcohol right? Maybe a kind she hadn't tried before, a cocktail if you will, and it's stronger than she expected. But maybe not. Maybe my sister is right, and it's filled with roofies. Should this song be updated? Maybe the dad and brother show up the next day with a shot gun? Maybe a jolly prosecutor enters the scene with a twinkle in his eye? Should we not joke about this?

If you have to listen to this song, just make sure it's the Haley & Casey version.

Does anyone remember that movie All I Want for Christmas staring Thora Birch? I loved that movie when I was little, and Thora's duet with Lauren Becall was the first time I remembered hearing "Baby, It's Cold Outside." I thought it was cute. But the whole thing is about convincing a girl she should stay at your house so you can hook up, and a grandmother is singing that to her granddaughter? Why? Just why?

No way is that Thora Birch's voice.

#2: "Santa Baby"

Sometimes I wonder if stores knew how much of my business they lost by playing "Santa Baby"  if they would still insist on playing it at all. I really can't express how much I hate this song. First of all, I am not a fan of grown women singing in a pouty, baby-way to be sexy. Why is it sexy to sound like a baby? Can anyone please explain this to me??? (Actually, do I want you to?) I also just hate it when women entice men by acting like they have some sort of mental deficiency and all they want is presents, so like, there's that.

The only type of santa baby I approve of.
Most disturbingly, this grown woman-baby is basically singing about how she wants to do Santa. Santa. He's old, by thousands of years. He's not the healthiest. He's already married to Mrs. Claus. He lives in a cold, remote location. He's magical, but decides to go down chimneys instead of just putting elf dust on the door handle and walking inside, and his soul purpose for living is to give children toys like a kindly grandfather. This young woman wants to get it on with that guy. Does she need MEDICATION?! "Santa Baby" is actually a song about a mentally unstable woman with a fetish, which is fine, I guess, but not while I'm buying my mom a sweater at Macy's.

Wait, this movie was a thing?
#3: "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus"

I had no problem with this song, but again, Liz ruined it for me. I always thought the song was about how the Dad dressed up as Santa and the kid didn't know it was his dad, and he saw his mom and dad kissing when he was supposed to be asleep. This is what the song is about, right?

Liz decided the song was about a kid who caught his mother having an affair and to deal with the trauma, he told himself that this other man was actually Santa Claus. This is quite a stretch, but Liz feels so passionately about her interpretation that it makes me wonder if there's something to it.



#4: The Nutcracker 

Uncle Drosselmeyer, right? It goes without saying that he's creepy. We know he's magical and weird, but I never really understood why he had to be so sinister at the same time. If Clara didn't really dream all of that, and Uncle Drosselmeyer really made her shrink to the size of a mouse and endure a battle with toy soldiers, then that's just messed up. But that's not really what bothers me about him.


I've seen a lot of different versions of The Nutcracker over the years, and I swear I've seen performances that involved some version of the Nutcracker turning into Uncle Drosselmeyer, or Uncle Drosselmeyer cutting into Clara's romantic dance with the Nutcracker and having a solo where he danced with her. I haven't seen these versions in a while, maybe because producers caught on to the inscesty vibes (after what, like a hundred years?) but I never forgot them. Uncle Drosselmeyer makes me very uncomfortable, and he should not be trusted around children.

Does anyone remember this claymation Nutcracker that was on TV in the 80's? We had it on tape, and I loved how cool the claymation looked, but it also terrified me. About a year ago, I saw the opening on YouTube and was horrified that my parents ever let me watch it in the first place. It was like I suddenly had a crystal clear understanding of where 90% of my anxieties and fears originated from. Ladies and gentlemen, this is why I'm crazy:

BEWARE THE RAT MAN!

#5: "He sees you when you're sleeping/ He knows when you're awake"

No further explanation needed.

We're gonna go with these.
#6: Okay, I don't remember what this story is called, and it's been told so many times that I'm not even sure of its origin, but when I read it, I  sunk into a deep depression that I thought I would never climb out of:

This woman is shopping for presents and it's almost Christmas. She sees two little kids trying to buy a pair of heels for their mom, but they don't have enough money, so the lady buys the heels for them. The kids are so excited. "Oh, thank you!" They say, "Our Mommy is sick and dying, and she'll look so pretty meeting Jesus in these shoes!"

If you're the type of person who thinks that story is sweet, inspiring, or heartwarming, then don't ever talk to me, ever. I'm not kidding. Even writing that out just now upset me.

#7: There are some non-cannon Christmas songs That are depressing as well. I swear this was a Kenny Rogers song, but I can't find evidence of it: "The Last Silent Night." It's about a family who sang "Silent Night" every year, and then the mother got old and was dying and they sang "Silent Night" for the last time. Cheerful, no? Honorable mention goes to Barbara Mandrell's song, "Born to Die,"which includes the lyrics, "Sweet baby Jesus/ you knew you were born to die." I thought he was primarily born to spread light to the world and that's the point of Christmas, but whatever.


#8: Love Actually

To half of my friends who love this Christmas movie, I know I rant about how much I hate it all the time and it annoys you and I'm sorry for that and I'm sorry for repeating it now, and actually, I can't do a better job of ripping it apart than the people who did the "Honest Trailer" video below,  so I'll just say a few things: It's depressing. It's boring. It's not Christmasy. Snape cheats on his wife. No matter how many times people make me watch it, I don't remember half of it. You should take that seriously, because I remember being bottle fed and having my diapers changed and I'm NOT kidding.


This SNL Love Actually spoof that was cut for time is very much worth watching as well…



I feel like there's so many more that I can't remember, so you need to help me out. What other Christmas songs and stories are secretly creepy, depressing, or just send a strange message? Would you like to defend any of the above items that I criticized, or add to the criticism? Tell me your thoughts, and please, have a very merry Christmas!

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Playing Therapist

Sometimes, I think I should just change the name of this blog to "weird stuff from my childhood,"
because basically, that's the majority of these posts. I'm coming to terms with this.

I may have mentioned before that me, my cousin Natalie, and my big sister Liz, played a little longer than maybe other kids did. We created alter egos who were single mothers (to our dolls). We were also detectives, authors, and school teachers. The summer before seventh grade, after finding blank clinical assessment notes of my dad's, we decided we were also going to be therapists.

We each typed up our own clinical assessment notes, complete with our alter egos' names at the top. I was Alena Parker (formally Alena Bishop), Ph.D. We asked Dad to print off several copies--I don't remember how many, but Dad was in his office for a really long time while we were in the car, and he was pretty crabby when he came back.

At our next visit, we decided that we needed to see our clients, so we insisted that my mom draw them for us. She spent the entire visit taking orders on how our clients should look and producing them. This made her very crabby, because she really just wanted to talk to my aunts.

We each had our own section of Natalie's room-- our "office"-- where we would put our client's picture in a chair and talk to them, being both the voice of the client and the therapist. We rolled pieces of gum and called them "gum smokes," which we pretended were cigarettes while we counseled. (May I just say I've always found the whole concept of "gum" to be disgusting, and I only participated due to peer pressure.)

Recently, I found some of the pictures and notes from playing Therapist. Here's a few of my favorites, word-for-word as they originally appeared in 1996:

Meet Joyce Richardson.

Current Problem: Dissociative Fuge
History: Joice was born in 1966 to Clair and Robert Richardson. Joice grew up with no toys and no friends. Her parents sent her to a Christian school until she was 13, then said the school was teaching her nothing. Joice's older sister Susan ran away at 15. Robert beat Clair, finally to death, and Joice and her little sister were sent to live with her aunt, Opal Richardson, who sent Joice to a boarding school and killed Joice's little sister, Amy, and five with a bullet. Joice came back to her aunt's house at 16 and found her little sister's dead body in a locked closet. (After a YEAR?) Her aunt was found hung a day later, from suicide. Joice went to live on her own and got a job at a restaurant. Currently works as a secretary.




                                                               Meet Jacklin Rein.
Diagnosis: Manic Depressive
History: Jacklin was born to Ruth and Simon Rein on January 20, 1973. She was the middle child. Her older sister was very self indulgent and put Jacklin down for most of her life by criticizing and making fun of her. Ruth seemed to favor her oldest daughter over Jacklin and her younger sister. She went to UCLA in 1991. She got a degree in art, and sold her art at a local art store. In 1993, Jacklin's older sister committed suicide. Ruth and Simon decided it was Jacklin's fault, and haven't spoken to them since. Jacklin entered a religious group in '94 where they thought there was no god or devil, and when you died you were just gone. (You mean ATHEISM?) Jacklin quit the group in November '95, but still believes in the group's ideas tremendously. Jacklin currently sells her art in the same local store.




Meet Roberta Bremen
Diagnosis: Dependant Personality Disorder
Clinical Symptoms: Dependant on a Cult
History: Roberta Bremen was borin in 1950 to Katherine and Jack Linne. After their death in 1961, Roberta and her three brothers moved in with their grandfather. Roberta became withdrawn. Her grandfather wanted her to be a boy, so he called her Bob. She believes this caused her to become more dependent on her grandfather because of her low self-esteem in not being what her grandfather wanted. When she was 14, she met Allen Bremen and married him at 20. She moved into Allen's trailer. He brought money home from working at a gas station. In 1982, Roberta and Allen had a daughter Meri and in 1989, a daughter Angela. In 1990, Roberta and Allen went to join a religious cult. Now, they'd like to leave but don't know how.
Therapy Modality: Bring up the bad things about the cult to help them realize it's bad for them.
Therapy Goals: To get Allen and Roberta out of the cult.








Let's not forget, I also counseled Roberta's nerdy husband.






I had a few children clients, including Samantha O'Herra who really had no problems, except she was jealous of her baby brother. I even drew a picture that she drew of him.

I made my mom draw Samantha twice, but why? WHO is the real Samantha? This is an enduring mystery.
             

I found some of  Liz's clients and notes as well. Her clients all had similar problems-- their parents didn't give them enough attention, they had bad relationships with their siblings-- not exciting at all… except for Lexy Hill, who is suffering from nightmares and doesn't know why. The notes don't offer clues, but her picture does….



ALIEN ABDUCTION.

I also found this urgent memo that Liz (Gillian's) secretary left her, written by Liz, and this amazing note about Jeff's dog.






He had a dog named Boner that died of old age. Boner.


It sort of makes sense that the girls and I invented this game since we were constantly writing novels-- or at least starting them, writing twenty pages, and then starting another. We were teaching ourselves how to do character backstory without even knowing it. GOD, WHAT CHILD PRODIGIES WE WERE!

Exercise: If you are a writer, create mock Clinical Assessment notes for your characters. Diagnose them with something, write up their history, make a few progress notes, and maybe even draw their picture, or find a picture from a magazine and tack it on to the notes. Keep everything in an actual manila folder for each character. Do this for everyone, even the minor characters. You never know what might come of it! (This is where my helpfulness ends for this entry.)

Surprisingly though, Therapist was NOT my favorite game of ours. At the time, I thought it was the gum smokes. Something about the mintiness gave me headaches (actually, it was the strain from holding them up to my face, which was enough to tighten the muscles in my back, and the pain shot up to my forehead like a headache, but I wouldn't figure this out until I was about fifteen. Scoliosis!) But now, I know it was more.

For one thing, unlike playing with dolls or playing teacher and writing on the blackboard, there was literally nothing to interact with. I was just sitting in a chair talking at a picture. It helped that Natalie and Liz were sitting in their own chairs talking at their own pictures, but still.

Exercise: Create a name, voice, and persona for a different person. Create a name, voice, and persona for how you imagine you would be as a therapist. Speak out loud a conversation between these two people, not forgetting to change your voice. See how long it takes you to lose your mind.

Also, I think something about it was just depressing. It's one thing to write about a character who lived through a terrible childhood or who can't escape a cult, but embodying that person in real-time is another thing entirely.

Fast forward to around 2008-2009ish. Liz, now a grown-up, is getting her Master's in social work for real, and as a part of her homework, she has to do mock-therapy exercises with volunteers. When she asked me to pretend to be a drug addict, I was like, "that sounds like fun!" However, as twenty minutes became forty-five and so on, I was surprised at how down it was getting me. I started almost feeling like it was real, just the way the question and response was going. I was like, "oh my god, I lost custody of my children and I'm working at Family Dollar because I can't stop my meth habit. Life is hopeless!" The whole thing was just weird and kind of awful. I'm guessing this is what I had been doing to myself as a twelve-year-old playing Therapist.

Exercise: Imagine your life going a totally different way. What if instead of doing this to combat your anxiety, you did that? What if you made one too many bad decisions and now you're in drug counseling and have lost almost everything? Speak all of this out loud with no irony. Don't even change your voice. See how long it takes before you find yourself outside on the ground, rolling around in the cold mud, just to feel something again.

I have no idea how to end this entry, because I'm not completely sure what the point of it is, but let me try: *Cue Full House Music.* It's interesting the intrigue and excitement we place on things that we don't understand, especially as children. Dissociative Fugues might be really compelling for an hour on Dateline, but if you were working with this person one-on-one, or worse yet, if you were this person, there would be nothing exciting about it at all, just a lot of pain, struggle, and hopefully after a while, some kind of healing. But there's nothing wrong with curiosity, especially in the hard stuff, the weird stuff, and the complicated stuff, because that's where the stories are. Just stay away from the gum smokes, because they will make your scoliosis way worse than it already is.


Now I turn it over to you: When you were a kid, did you ever play Therapist? Did you ever think something was intriguing and then grow up and realize that it was actually really depressing? Did you ever make your parents do ridiculous things so you could play, like I did to mine? Have you thanked your parents lately for this? Do you like to draw?

I leave you with the one client that I tried to sketch myself, Susan Luci. Peace out.













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!”

LIGHTBULB MOMENT.

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.