Writespiration: Birthing a story

Maybe I heard this somewhere else before and am just stealing it now. If that’s the case, please tell me. If not, read me out:

Writing a story is like giving birth.

I say this having never given birth myself, but knowing several people who have. No birth is the same. Some are somewhat easy — Mom says she practically sneezed my sister out — and others require scalpels and spinal injections. But in the end, writing anything leaves you feeling tired, accomplished and relieved, with a beautiful future of shepherding the work throughout the rest of its (and possibly your) life.

The same goes for writing. Some stories and poems exit fairly smoothly: Not too smoothly. That means they’re not done being told yet: And these premie stories require a lot of nurturing before they can stand on their own. That’s not to say they’re bad or nonviable. Most National Novel Writing Month stories are this way, sliding out tactlessly only to mature on the outside when an editor’s pen goes to them. They’re just deceptively slippery and too anxious to land on a page.

Then there are the 12-hour labors, the stories that leave you sweaty and exhausted but proud when they’re done. They can be reluctant to leave the warmth of the womb-like imagination, grappling at the walls with their little fingernails to stay inside just a little longer, using plot holes and unclear transitions like handholds. But eventually they, too, squeeze themselves onto a page.

And then there are the Cesarean sections of stories — the ones that a writer has to cut themselves open to extract because of a deadline or misguided promise or pressure from readers. I’ve read too many books by authors that took a knife to their brain, ripped it open and plopped the story onto a page without much more care, Sadly, the stitches used to close their brains back up often heal wrong, making it impossible for them to ever write another thing that doesn’t read forced.

If I’m being honest, Omaha was a C-Section of a book because I had a literary agent waiting to read it. But my newest project goes from easy to laborious and back again — completely enjoyable the entire time as I leisurely let it make its way from brain to page.

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Writespiration: “An Object of Beauty” and voice

I’m finally getting into the annals of unread books on my shelf. Last week was An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin. It’s a fun read full of details on contemporary art and modern masters, but more interestingly a glimpse into the world of collecting, dealing and appraisal.

There’s one sentence that keeps sticking out to me. It’s on page 120:

“Lacey’s solo entrance into Boston was less important than Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, but not to Lacey.”

I can’t get the sentence structure out of my head. Why write it like that — stating the obvious, then capping it with the payoff — instead of how I would have put it: “To Lacey, her solo entrance into Boston was more important than Christ’s entry into Jerusalem.” Maybe that’s because my stories usually focus on the characters’ perspectives first, then the social norms they’re breaking. Or maybe it’s because I’m not as creative as Steve freakin’ Martin (which I’m totally OK with, by the way).

In the end, I realized it comes down to voice. Martin is famous as a comedian, and as a writer he’s able to translate that sense of humor into stories that aren’t necessarily side-splitting but still carry a sly smirk with every sentence. Although I’ll never list An Object of Beauty as one of my favorite books, I enjoyed getting a wider look at his talent, as well as being forced to examine my own voice as a writer.

We should all be so lucky to write seemingly mundane sentences that make such an impact on others.

Writespiration: Tell the whole truth, or nothing but a little of the truth?

Today is a hot one in Chicago — the kind of wet electric blanket heat that flash-steams your lungs and makes a hot yoga studio more comfortable than out on the street. Plus, at least you know every vinyasa is toning your triceps and there’s no self-consciousness because everyone around you is sweating, too.

Well, almost everyone.

While most of us were risking our lives doing crow pose and Warrior II in puddles of our own making, the woman next to me didn’t let a single drop of sweat fall from her skin. She was perspiring, but instead of leaving it all literally on the mat, she was coated in a glossy sheen that made her look like she had the same perfectly golden skin as a roasted chicken.*

*I hadn’t eaten anything in 16 hours when I went to class, in case you were wondering.

And then I remembered something my friend Aya said — or maybe it was something I said to her, or maybe it’s something I thought I should say to her:

“Never trust anyone who doesn’t sweat in a yoga class.”

Right now I’m working on a book that’s going to have a couple twists and oh-shit moments, and even though I know where they are in the plot, I have no idea how I’m going to get there. When I thought of that line of dialogue this morning — whether spoken in my real life or not — I figured out an important piece of that journey. Never trust anyone who doesn’t sweat in a yoga class: And it just so happens this one character never comes out of the studio looking damper than she did when she went in. It’s the clue the main character needs to crack the mystery wide open.

 

Funny, how adapting small quotes or details from life seems to be a lot easier for me than actually writing a full story of something going on in my life.

A week ago I started mentally writing the intro for a non-fiction book that I want to write one day. It describes meeting someone who’s now a large part of my life, and if all parties involved give me permission, maybe I’ll publish it on this blog. It’s the first time as an adult that I’ve written about a relationship in my life without disguising the names or weaving it into a story about characters that only exist in my head.

The writing part was easy because I’ve told the full story to enough people verbally that I’ve had time to perfect the language, pace the plot, time the jokes and edit out the parts my “audience” finds boring. It’s like I’ve been working on an invisible draft of the story for months before even putting pen to paper.

But the actual act of committing the story to a page with the intention of someone else reading it? That takes moxie — and a bit of monstrosity, according to Anthony Bourdain:

“If you’re a writer or a storyteller of any kind, there is something already kind of monstrously wrong with you. Let’s face it — it is an unreasonable attitude to look in the mirror the morning and think, ‘You know, there are people out there who would really like to hear my story.'”

And I think that’s what it is. I don’t like putting stories from my life down on paper because it feels like my ego is getting in the way of my judgment of what makes a good story. I’m comfortable thinking “That line about not trusting people who don’t sweat at yoga is great for a book,” but not comfortable thinking “That journey about how I hated all forms of physical activity until I found yoga at 19 would make a great nonfiction piece.” Everyone has a story like that, and I guarantee more than one person has written it down — and well, too.

But I think I’ve found a story worth telling now. And so we’ll see how going from “fiction with a smattering of truth” to “truth that reads like conventional rom-com fiction” goes. I think I might be ready to sweat it.

Writespiration: “Worst Poetry” by Sarah Kay

Sarah Kay is my favorite living modern poet, full stop. I could listen to her all day. “Mrs. Ribeiro” contains stunning imagery and emotion. I gave my mom a hardback copy of “Point B” for Christmas and watched tears well in her eyes as she read it right there under the tree.

But there has always been “Worst Poetry,” one of the first poems I heard her read. At the time it was cute but not my favorite. But as I’ve grown up a bit and experienced new people and relationships, I understand it better.

Her poem deals a lot with love and relationships, but it also points out that there’s a distinct difference between a muse and a supporter: The person she describes in the poem doesn’t make her work better, but they do make her life better. Now is there a strict mutual exclusivity between who inspires you and who encourages you? I’m still figuring that out. Maybe another blog post is coming on that.

But for now, let me say this: Muses can be dangerous. Support is forever beneficial.

Find someone who makes you want to work on your art. Who wants to be there while you work on it but knows art takes solitude sometimes. Who is is open to examining your art but doesn’t ask to see it. Who’s patient when you say you think it’s crap but knows better than to say “It isn’t!” even when they haven’t read it.

And get rid of the mofos who take pride in causing your writer’s block. I’ve known those people before. They suck, and we no longer talk.

Writespiration: Love thy characters (via @angiecthomas)

I should be editing the full manuscript of my book, Omaha, before sending it out to my beta reader book club, but I’m not. At first I thought my procrastination was out of exhaustion — I dedicated the entire month of November and first week of December 2017 to it, and since then have burned out on it. It happens.

But then I read this tweet from The Hate U Give author Angie Thomas:

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This was the second time I had seen her refer to the love she has for Bri — even going so far as to say she likes her more than The Hate U Give‘s main character, Starr. I remember feeling that way about some of the characters I wrote back when I was penning books while pretending to be taking notes in freshman year of high school. But with Omaha, I can’t say the same.

The fact is, none of my characters evoke my love. Or any feeling, for that matter. Omaha, Plunder, Varsity and Flax are like the people I hung out with in middle school: Now that the obligation to stick with them is over, they bore me and I have little to say to them (or make them say to each other, as the case of writing has it). It’s not a tangible feeling like hate or dislike, but one of indifference, which is possibly even worse because it means I have to build emotion from scratch instead of just tweak it from one thing to another. Unlike when I used to write in high school, no amount of dream casting has helped — though I’ll admit it’s a nice diversion envisioning Samira Wiley, Benedict Cumberbatch, Stephanie Beatriz and Lin-Manuel Miranda armed to the teeth with skill-enhancing microchips in their brains and running around post-exodus Chicago streets.

So thanks to Thomas, I’m going back to my draft to see where I became numb to these characters and figure out ways to fall back in terrible, conflicted love with them. How can I expect readers to feel something for them if their own creator is indifferent?

Writespiration: Best TV and Movie Viewing of 2017

In Part Two of my year-end wrap-up, I’m looking at the scenes from this year’s television and film debuts that had a particular influence on my writing. Note that like my music list, these aren’t all my favorites of the year — Get Out, Baby Driver, Atomic Blonde and Stranger Things Season 2 are noticeably missing — but these are some of the scenes that really got to the writer in me. It also only includes releases from this year, not discoveries: Otherwise Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Arrival would have probably dominated.

Television

“Feeling Good” from Legion (FX)

Nina Simone’s opening vocals during this part because could only mean one thing: smouldering mischief. Bassnectar’s remix of her classic song has always been a favorite, but watching Noah Hawley’s use of it in his X-Men adaptation — and Aubrey Plaza’s decadent interpretation of it as mind parasite Lenny — showed that a smart writer/showrunner can inject a borderline burlesque number into anything.

Note that the entire season of Legion could be added to this list because of its smart, adventurous take on the superhero origin story. Not only did it carry with it complex female characters, but it also blended the absurd with the expected into a series that left the viewer feeling both confused and intelligent.

“Unfair,” A Handmaid’s Tale Episode 1.6 (Hulu)

Hulu’s series stretches Atwood’s novel to fill a series — and a second, coming in April 2018 — and in doing so indicts even more of today’s culture that reflects its dystopia. When Aunt Lydia asks certain handmaids to return to the van because their injuries and disabilities (most of which are the result of her punishments) aren’t attractive enough to present to the visiting Mexican delegation, it’s a reminder of how even in our fiction we tend to “clean up” our casts unless a particular disability plays a role in the story.

Of course, not every author does this. John Green’s Turtles All the Way Down looks at a teenage girl with an anxiety disorder but focuses on her story, not her mental health; Mad Max: Fury Road features a protagonist with a prosthetic that’s rarely a topic of discussion. But in less than two minutes of television, writers are asked whether they’re as guilty of ableism as Aunt Lydia.

“Paterfamilias,” The Crown Episode 2.9 (Netflix) **SPOILER**

I just saw this last night, but it’s going to stick with me for a while. In Season 2’s ninth episode, we learn a terribly sad backstory about Philip that explains some of his awful parenting skills: The death of his sister. Instead of letting it be a static, quiet moment, however, the show thrusts audiences into young Philip’s thought process as he imagines what it was like for his favorite sister, who was afraid to fly, to give birth mid-flight and then die in a plane crash. Rupert Gregson-Williams’ score and a cadre of imagery as 16-year-old Philip explores the chaotic wreckage and hears his sister’s cries in his mind shows how showing, not telling, is critical to the storytelling process.

Film

Wonder Woman (DC/Warner Brothers)

Yep, the whole damn thing. From the “No Man’s Land” sequence listed on multiple best-ofs this year and alleyway fight that shows Diana (Gal Gadot) saving Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) from a bullet a la Superman, to the improvised conversation they have about female reproduction and sexual needs and 50-something Robin Wright’s appearance as an Amazon general, every moment of this movie made me excited for a future full of female protagonists who have depth, strength, humor, motivation and compassion — and aren’t described only as “bad-ass.”

Every imagination sequence in The Incredible Jessica James (Netflix)

This year we finally got a full-length feature starring former Daily Show contributor and personal hero Jessica Williams. When it ended, I stood up in my empty apartment and gave a round of applause because it’s feminist, honest, inspiring and makes me want to be a better writer and person in general. But the most standout parts of it are the titular playwright’s imagination sequences of her ex confessing his love for her and then dying in increasingly dramatic ways. As a writer, these fake conversations with real people are all too familiar.

The Disaster Artist (A21)

Despite its ridiculous real-life protagonist, Tommy Wiseau, The Disaster Artist never stoops to make fun of him, but rather portray him as the eccentric dreamer who went from joke to legend by making one of the worst films ever made. When Tommy Wiseau (James Franco) leaves the theater where the audience is cackling at his comically bad romantic drama, Franco’s performance and direction turns a ridiculous character into someone who is more than a multiple-belt-wearing, ambiguously accented, mysteriously wealthy eccentric. Suddenly The Disaster Artist audience is shamed for laughing at Tommy throughout the rest of the picture. It’s emotional manipulation at its best since Gone Girl, but instead of viewers feeling betrayed, they feel as if they’ve done the betraying.

Honorable mention: First trailer for A Wrinkle in Time

I watch this trailer once a week and the chills don’t stop. Madeline D’Engel was past 40 when she finally got this book published. Ava DuVernay translated it with a rich, diverse cast that shows the impenetrable flexibility of strong fiction. Is it March 2018 yet?

Writespiration: Best Writing Music of 2017

With all the year-end lists of best musical contributions made in 2017, here’s one specially geared toward writers looking for that symphonic oomph that makes fights, chases, discoveries, deceptions, romance and deaths materialize on the page. Note that this list doesn’t include all my favorites of the year — Kendrick Lamar’s Damn. is a work of art, but not necessarily writing music for this creative (yet) — but covers the best inspiration found pumping through my speakers.

Best Vocal Album:

cropped album cover from "Trip" by Jhene Aiko

“Trip” by Jhene Aiko

Trip by Jhene Aiko: This 22-track album easily tops the list as the best album for getting writing done. As the hip-hop and R&B artist takes her listener on a journey of self-discovery, drug-induced experiences (including euphoria, erotica and terror), maturity and love, the beats are deep enough to drown in and subtle enough to disappear when the writing starts to flow. Notable tracks include: “Jukai,” “Overstimulated,” “Oblivion (Creation),” “Psilocybin (Love in Full Effect).”

Honorable mention:

Synthesis by Evanescence: Not a new album per se but a reimagining of the band’s past work using orchestral and electronic arrangements, mostly for better and sometimes for worse. Forgettable B-sides from The Open Door and their 2012 self-titled album become dramatic character themes that are tinged with beautiful agony thanks to Amy Lee’s undying vocals. Notable tracks include “Never Go Back,” “Hi-Lo” and “The End of the Dream.”

Best Vocal Track:

photo illustration based on the "Wonderful Wonderful" cover art from The Killers

“Wonderful Wonderful” by The Killers

“Wonderful Wonderful” by The Killers: Blend the right amount of echo, deep drumbeats and Jefferson Airplane mysticism, and you’ve got the titular track of The Killers’ 2017 track that fits the titular character of the project I spent the most time on this year.

Honorable mentions:

“Drew Barrymore” by SZA: Everything from the opening line “Why is it so hard to accept the party is over?” to the refrain “Am I woman enough for you?” sums up the kind of relationship I wrote about most this year.

“Young and Menace” by Fall Out Boy: Forget everything you know about the “Dance, Dance” alternative band of the aught-2000s. Beat drops, high energy, strobe lights you can practically hear: Everything about this track screams superhero/mutant fight with a teen-emo bend steeped in acid.

Best Movie Score:

"Wonder Woman (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)" by Rupert Gregson-Williams

“Wonder Woman (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)” by Rupert Gregson-Williams

Wonder Woman by Rupert Gregson-Williams: Since Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL debuted the Amazonian warrior’s theme in “Is She with You?” from 2016’s Batman vs. Superman score, I’ve been impatiently waiting for it to extend to an entire album. Gregson-Williams doesn’t disappoint and tinsels his own take on the score with just enough of Zimmer and Junkie’s guitar shreds. Notable tracks: “No Man’s Land,” “Hell Hath No Fury” and “Action Reaction.”

Honorable mention:

Blade Runner 2049 by Hans Zimmer: Zimmer stays true to the tone of the original film as well as director Denis Villeneuve’s sequel with a soundtrack full of sustained tones, eerie key shifts and futuristic synthesizers. Notable tracks: “2049,” “Sea Wall” and “Tears in the Rain.”

Best Movie/TV Score Track:

"Supermarine" from Hans Zimmer's "Dunkirk" score

“Supermarine” from Hans Zimmer’s “Dunkirk” score

“Supermarine” by Hans Zimmer: If there’s one thing the German composer does well (and there are millions of things he does well — trust me, I saw him perform live in August), it’s instilling a sense of urgency into his music. Dunkirk’s key track does just this by syncing listeners’ pulses to the quickening beat that acts as a perfect backdrop to a time’s-running-out situation.

Honorable mentions:

“Fauxlero” by Jeff Russo: Technically this is an older piece, “Bolero” by Maurice Ravel, that was reimagined for FX’s series Legion, but the electronic arrangement makes it feel new and much scarier than the fairytale-esque piece from 1928. Maybe it has something to do with Aubrey Plaza appearing in her best Tim Burton attire and squeezing a man to death with her mind.

Favorite Discoveries:

Sometimes it’s worth looking backward. These albums and tracks were released before 2017 but added to my collection this year:

“The Beast” by Johann Johannson: The doom-filled droning of Sicario’s key soundtrack theme picks the heart up and slams it to the floor with every beat.

Penny Dreadful: The Complete Series Soundtrack by Abel Korzeniowski: There’s a reason Korzeniowski, whose work also includes the soundtrack for Nocturnal Animals, W.E. and A Single Man, is one of my favorite artist discoveries of this year. Not only was the Showtime series practically made for writers who love universe crossovers, but the soundtrack shifts from simplistic (“Street. Horse. Smell. Candle.”) to the dramatic (“Joan Clayton”) — something for every scene imaginable.

“Think” by Kaleida: Shallow and soulful all at the same time, Kaleida’s track plays ironic backup to one of the bloodiest scenes in John Wick and provides the same quiet but sinister word-per-beat promise of “Think on me; I’ll never break your heart” to any investigation montage or illicit affair scene.

Treats by Sleigh Bells: Here’s some loud chainsaw music that wrecks headphones and amps alike and is the base soundtrack for writing Mad Max: Fury Road meets Mean Girls.