calling all creative writers

Well, folks, it was a good weekend for football.  The weather was unseasonably crisp (more like October), which made it perfect for the college game I attended Saturday night.  Yesterday was a good football day too.  I’m wearing black and gold today, and it’s not because of Hufflepuff Quidditch, if you know what I mean.

That has nothing to do with my topic today, but a good Monday football conversation never goes amiss.

Here’s my quick post: I need your help.  If you 1) have done any kind of creative writing (even if you have no intention of publishing) and 2) have conducted any research for the benefit of your writing, I want to hear your research stories.  Have you ransacked the personal archives of the obscure historical figure you’re basing a novel on?  Have you slept on the ground with no sleeping bag to know how the characters in your quest fantasy must feel?  Have you asked your mom for some unusual names of townships north of Pittsburgh?  (I did that last week.)  Have you Googled a lot of stuff?  All of that counts as research.  I’m developing a course on creative writing research, and I want to find out how other people do it.  So pause and expand your definition of research, and then comment below to share your stories.  Thank you in advance!

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middle brother syndrome in British fantasy literature

Every once in a while on this blog, I like to write about Edmund Pevensie (here is an example) because he is one of my favorite fictional characters, even though he spends most of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as a selfish brat.  (Selfish brats are easy to identify with, at least for me.)  In one post, I paired him with Percy Weasley because they both suffer from the same condition: both are middle children who feel they’ll never live up to their older siblings’ perfection and who need to assert their superiority to their younger siblings, so they end up betraying their family (in Edmund’s case) or at least betraying their values (in Percy’s case).  And both are, prodigal son-like, restored to their families, but not before suffering humiliation and loss.

Just the other day, I realized there’s another character in British fantasy literature who fits in with these two.  I’m teaching Peter Pan in children’s lit this week, so I’ve been immersing myself in the story and its context for the past few days: watching the Disney cartoon and Finding Neverland, reading a biography of J. M. Barrie and the Llewellyn Davies boys called The Real Peter Pan, and even bringing my flying Peter Funko Pop to my office, where he’s currently about to take off from a stack of books (including a volume of Barrie’s representative plays) on my desk.  And now I have just one question for you: Can we give a little love to poor overlooked John Darling?

John is, unlike Edmund and Percy, an exact middle child, the second of three.  And though he seems, unlike them, to have a good relationship with his siblings, I always sense a subtle bitterness toward Wendy for her obsession with Peter Pan (John’s natural rival in age and leadership ability—notice how annoyed John gets when Wendy won’t let him sit in Peter’s chair) and a bit of jealousy of Michael for being everybody’s cute little favorite.  And there is that moment where John comes perilously close to signing up for a life of crime with Captain Hook; it’s only when he finds out he’d have to forswear loyalty to the King that he refuses.  Note that he doesn’t seem, in that moment, to care about abandoning his family—just about being a bad British citizen.  Doesn’t that sound like Percy?  John has that same self-importance—and, related to that, desperation to be seen as grown up—that we see in our other two examples.  The detail Barrie includes of John “seizing his Sunday hat” before flying out the nursery window is brilliant—it confirms our impression of him as a stolid, middle-aged, middle-class banker in a ten-year-old’s body.  (The Disney movie really plays this up, giving John a fussy little umbrella and a prodigious vocabulary.)  And that’s why my heart melts when I’m reminded that he is still a boy, a tired and homesick boy who is ultimately very glad to go home.

One reason I love all these characters is that everyone else seems to either forget about them or hate them.  I’ve never been a middle child or anyone’s brother, but I know what it’s like to wish to be taken seriously, so I feel for these boys, selfish and self-important as they may be.  Can you think of anyone else who might fit into this category?

what I’m reading

This is the second in the trilogy of posts on what I’m watching, reading, and listening to.  I may make this a regular, periodic feature.  

I teach a college-level children’s literature course, so I read a lot of children’s books, and I have no reason to be ashamed of that.  Most of the below list of books I’ve finished or started within the past week are children’s or YA (young adult, technically a subcategory of children’s lit).

  1. Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys.  I mentioned this YA novel in my recent post about World War 2 stories.  It’s about the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustlav (an overcrowded ship that was evacuating civilians, many of whom were not ethnic Germans, from nearly-defeated Germany in 1945), the largest maritime disaster of the 20th century.  I think being informed about this little-known event is important, but I was disappointed with the book.  Sepetys was too ambitious in trying to write in the voices of four very different adolescents, some of which voices succeed more than others.  In particular, I became increasingly annoyed over the course of the book with the voice of Emilia, a character with whom readers are clearly meant to sympathize.  I think part of the problem was the too-precious voice of the audiobook narrator, but beyond that, the character was overly dreamy and seemed strangely unmoved by the horrors that had occurred in her young life.  Several of her overwrought similes made me cringe.  In contrast, the most successful voice belonged to Alfred, the probably sociopathic young Nazi sailor.  I occasionally felt sorry for him in his delusions, but I mostly felt disgusted–as the author wanted me to feel–by his racism and cowardice.  But the most effective scenes in the book were the minimalist, objective descriptions of the human and inanimate flotsam that floated by the protagonists during the long, freezing night after the sinking.  These scenes were actually more powerful than similar scenes in Titanic (to the extent that you can compare a book with a movie), but the rest of the book was a disappointment–to me, anyway.  Apparently not to people on Goodreads.
  2. And now for a book with a wonderful narrative voice: Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis.  I reread this book over the weekend because I’ll be teaching it this fall, and I chose it because the protagonist, who tells the story in first person, is an absolute delight.  He reminds me of Huckleberry Finn in that he’s an at-risk youth in pretty dire circumstances, yet he shows his resilience by finding the humor in everything.  I laughed out loud at several of his flights of imagination, like when he tries to drive a car (he can’t) to escape a man he suspects of being a vampire, or when he pretends his mop is the submarine in “20,000 Leaks under the Sea”–“10,000 leaks stopped, only 10,000 more to go!”  The hilarious, genuine voice of Bud–along with the fact that readers are learning unobtrusive lessons about the Great Depression, labor unions, and the Jim Crow era–is probably why this book won the Newbery Medal.
  3. A Ring of Endless Light by Madeline L’Engle.  I’ll probably finish this one tonight.  I read An Austin Family Christmas every Christmas as a child, so I’m enjoying reading about Vicky and her family (and Mr. Rochester the Great Dane) now that they are all a little older.  It took me a little while to get used to the dialogue–it seemed stilted at first, but I eventually realized that these are just really thoughtful and articulate people.  This isn’t a fantasy in the sense of A Wrinkle in Time, but Vicky’s dolphin communication project hovers at the line between science and magic (to quote a Thor movie).  The rest of the novel, though, is firmly realistic.  It’s about death, family, growing up, dating–it’s pretty weighty.  But Vicky’s subtle faith and strong support system make it a hopeful story.
  4. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer.  This is a book that breaks textual convention (it includes blank pages, photos, cross-hatching, etc.) in an attempt to articulate the inarticulable–death and, more specifically, the deaths of thousands of people (represented by one man) on September 11, 2001.  In keeping with this theme, I won’t say a lot about this book, but I will say that it’s a great example of the principle that having a child narrator (even a successfully authentic one like Oskar in this book) does not make a book a children’s book.

Let me know if you have opinions about any of these books.  Next week, I’ll be back with music I’m listening to.

the war that launched a million stories

The thesis of my blog post today is going to make you say, “Duh.”  Here it is: There are a lot of books and movies about World War 2.  (Really?  I didn’t know that.)  It’s just something I’ve been thinking about over the past couple of days, ever since I watched the new Christopher Nolan film Dunkirk on Sunday night, listened to the YA verse novel American Ace by Marilyn Nelson in the car yesterday, and then started listening to another YA novel, Salt to the Sea, by Ruta Sepetys.  Also on Sunday, my grandmother told me she’d been watching some documentaries on the war (which took place when she was a young girl) and observing that there was a lot more to it than the heavily-narrated European front, and I recommended that she read and/or watch Unbroken, the story of American POW Louis Zamperini.  Even in the murder mystery that I’m reading for book club, Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz, the detective-protagonist of the book-within-the-book (this story is very meta) had been in a concentration camp, and the fictional novelist modeled him after Ben Kingsley’s character in Schindler’s List.  So now we’re telling stories about stories about World War 2.

This is not meant to be a philosophical post on causes and consequences, but I want to offer two (again, really obvious) reasons why we can’t seem to stop telling stories about World War 2.  One is that the war changed everything: It brought whatever Victorian optimism was still lingering after the first world war and the Great Depression to a screeching halt.  It reminded the world that the human race is capable of committing–and of surviving–horrors so outlandish they seemingly can’t be narrated (but they can be, of course, as writers and filmmakers have proven over and over).  It changed the way we think about ourselves–and “we” includes those of us born many years after the war.

The other reason there are so many World War 2 stories is that it was a world wara sprawling, complicated event that encompassed hundreds of battles and thousands of stories–millions, if we consider the story of every person who was affected.  So there are always new narrative angles to be taken and under-researched events to be reported.  To use the examples above, Dunkirk and Salt to the Sea are both about massive water evacuations (one in France, one in Germany) that I knew almost nothing about before the release of the movie and book.  American Ace is about a present-day white teenage boy who finds out that his real grandfather was probably one of the Tuskegee Airmen, the squadron of African-American fighter pilots whose story has only recently begun to receive wide exposure.  Unbroken focuses on the war in the Pacific, which I know very little about compared to the war in Europe.  A children’s book I listened to earlier this year, The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, is about the children who were sent to the English countryside before the bombing of London–who were, functionally, orphans during that time.  Other than the frame narrative of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, I had never read a book or seen a movie about the experiences of these children.

These stories not only teach us the facts of history, which are important to remember if we want to avoid repeating history, but they also give us examples of hope, sacrifice, and courage.  Again, you’ve heard this a hundred times.  But there are millions of stories from World War 2 that we still haven’t heard.

my out-of-body writing experience

Ok, I confess to the charge of clickbait once again.  I didn’t have a true out-of-body experience.  But a weird thing did happen to me last Friday while I was writing.  Let me tell you about it.

In last week’s post, I mentioned the story, eventually to become a screenplay, that I am writing.  (Reviews of the eventual movie will probably call it “a funny and sensitive exploration of friendship, zombies, and clinical depression.”)  Last Friday at the end of my workday, I spent half an hour working on the death scene of Sam, a beloved (if only by me, at this point) character who I knew, from the time I conceived of this story, would have to die.  (Did you catch that echo of J.K. Rowling?  Not that I have any illusions of being able to tell a story like she can.)  I was writing from the perspective of the dying man’s best friend, Adrian, who is starting to lose it as he realizes there’s nothing he can do to save his friend.  About ten minutes into the writing, I started crying myself.  But after putting my hand over my mouth and taking a few deep breaths, I was able to go on writing.

The really weird thing happened a few minutes after that and continued through the end of my writing session: I forgot where I was.  I didn’t feel like I was a character in the story, surrounded by zombies, but I did feel like I was on a cracked, leaf-covered rectangle of pavement next to an abandoned Dollar General on a fall afternoon.  Then it got really, really weird: while I was still writing, I started going back into the dreams I’d been having the night before.  I couldn’t remember the details of them, but I definitely had the feel of them.  I hope you know what I mean by that because I can’t articulate it any more clearly.  It was as if I fell asleep but kept writing.  I know I didn’t lose consciousness because I was watching the clock the whole time.  It just seemed that my story, my dreams, and my present experience all merged.  When I got up to leave my office, I had a brief moment of confusion.  I do mean brief; it took no more than a second for me to remember where I was and what I was about to do.  But when I went outside, I felt as if it were a different day than the one before I had started writing.

There are some likely contributing factors that are very mundane.  I hadn’t gotten much sleep the previous night, so I was tired.  And maybe I had woken up in the middle of a dream.  Also, when I went outside, it was raining, whereas it had been clear before—so no wonder it felt like a different day.

But I also think that I partly took on the persona of Adrian, the character whose perspective I was writing from.  I had already given him a number of my characteristics: he’s fidgety, he overthinks things, he wants to be a good friend but is easily annoyed by people, and he gets angry when he doesn’t know what to do or feels like he’s lost control of a situation.  So when I started writing about Sam’s death, I started crying, just like Adrian.  And then, as it became increasingly clear that Sam was going to die and nothing could be done, I started taking on Adrian’s mental state: just clear enough to continue having a conversation and understand what was going on, but numb to external stimuli.  And when I finished—I stopped writing at the moment of Sam’s death—I felt like something big had happened.  I felt I had gone through catharsis, the emotional purging that Aristotle writes about.

After that, I went to a weight-lifting class at the gym and forgot all about what I’d been writing, at least for a while.  I didn’t spend the weekend grieving Sam.  Don’t worry; I am quite capable of separating fiction from reality.  But I feel like I’ve joined an inner circle (which is probably pretty big, actually) of writers who have gone beyond emotional investment in their stories and had almost an altered-consciousness experience.

If you write or create any type of art, have you ever had a similar experience?  How about while reading or watching a movie?  Basically, I just want you to tell me I’m not a weirdo.

the good father in The Godfather

A few weeks ago I wrote about my excitement at the prospect of going to see The Godfather in a movie theater during Fathom Events’ special 45th-anniversary presentation.  Last Wednesday evening I finally got to see it, and I was once again floored by this brilliant piece of film-making that is, at its heart, a deeply moving story about the joy and pain (mostly pain) of being part of a family.

A simple way to summarize The Godfather is that it’s about Michael Corleone resisting becoming like his father until he finally can’t resist anymore.  But Michael may have been a better godfather and a better man if he had been more like his father.  The truth is that Vito Corleone cares very much about his family.  When he says early in the film, “A man who doesn’t spend time with his family is no man at all” [all quotes in this post are from memory; please forgive any inaccuracies], we might initially hear this as a piece of hypocrisy that will serve to play up the ironic inconsistency between what Vito says and who he really is.  But that isn’t true.  I don’t think there’s a single scene in this film in which Vito isn’t with a member of his family.  He dies while playing in the garden with his grandson (in contrast with Michael, who at the end of Part Three dies alone).  And he isn’t forcing his company on his family for appearance’s sake or in order to use them: His family genuinely loves him.  Look at his sons’ reactions to the shooting that nearly takes his life.  Sonny responds with violence and vengeance because that’s who Sonny is, but his violence barely conceals his deep love for his father.  The whole reason Michael gets involved in the family business, which he said he’d never do, is to protect his father from further assassination attempts.  One of the most poignant scenes in the movie is when Michael leans over his father’s hospital bed (which he has just hidden in an empty room) and says, “I’m here with you now.”  Another moving scene a little earlier in the film is when, right after Vito has been shot, Fredo breaks down weeping in the street, unable even to call for help.  Clearly, these young men love their father.

But Vito’s definition of “family” isn’t limited to flesh and blood.  He remains loyal to his two oldest friends in America, Clemenza and Tessio.  He takes in a little orphan named Tom Hagen and raises him like one of his own sons.  He stands godfather (in the religious sense) to Johnny Fontaine and remains invested in Johnny’s life as the years go by.  (There’s a telling moment in the wedding sequence at the beginning of the film.  Vito seems pretty bored by all the requests people are making as they file through his office, but when he looks out the window and sees his godson’s car pull up, suddenly he takes an interest.)  We could say that Vito’s family is his entire community.  After all, as we learn in Part Two, he got his start as the don by acting as a neighborhood hero, rescuing powerless people from bullies like Don Fanucci.  Another beautiful moment in the first film is his funeral, attended by a multitude of people carrying a veritable field of flowers.

Vito Corleone grew his family by including as many people as he safely could.  Michael, in contrast, after he becomes the godfather, keeps narrowing his definition of “family.”  Throughout the three films, he systematically alienates (and, in most cases, kills) nearly all of his father’s old friends.  He gets rid of peripheral family members like his brother-in-law Carlo (though, in fairness, that jerk had it coming) and his not-quite-brother Tom Hagen (removing Tom as consigliere is one of Michael’s first acts as godfather).  Eventually, late in Part Two, he gets to the illogical point of killing his own literal blood brother in the name of the abstract concept he calls “the family.”  When Vito talked about family, he meant the people he cared about and tried to protect.  When Michael talks about family, it’s unclear what he means.  There’s an ominous conversation in the first film in which Michael tells Fredo (the brother he eventually has killed) never to “align [himself] with anyone against the family again.”  That doesn’t make sense; Fredo is family just as much as Michael is–if being family means being a Corleone.  But that isn’t what the term means to Michael, apparently.  When we get to Part Three and realize that he has driven away even his wife and children, we get the impression that there’s only one member of Michael’s family–himself.  And he realizes, too late, that it’s incredibly lonely being a family of one.

Here I raise my Ebenezer

What most people think of when they hear the proper noun in my title–if they think of anything at all–is the protagonist of A Christmas Carol.  And since I can’t let a reference to Charles Dickens pass without pausing on it, let me digress before I even begin.  My guess is that Dickens chose the name “Ebenezer Scrooge” for its sound.  Dickens tended to choose names for that reason, and this particular name is odd and old-fashioned like its owner, but also harsh like its owner, with all those long vowels and hard consonants.  “Ebenezer” is the type of obscure Old Testament name that might be given to the child of people who subscribed to the type of bleak, joyless religion that Dickens so hated.  (Dickens fan fiction writers–I know there are a few of you out there–here’s a topic for you.)  Whether Dickens intended it or not, the name may also have a deeper significance in a story about a person reaching a milestone in his life.  And it gets even more interesting: his pivotal moment takes place at a literal stone–a memorial stone.

That’s significant because the name “Ebenezer” was originally given to a stone set up by Samuel the prophet.  The word literally means “stone of help,” and when Samuel dedicated it, he said, “Hitherto hath the Lord helped us” (1 Samuel 7:12).  This statement is quoted almost verbatim in my favorite hymn, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” which I in turn quoted in my title for today.  Here’s the full line, addressed to God: “Here I raise my Ebenezer; hither by Thy help I’m come / And I hope, by Thy good pleasure, safely to arrive at home.”  A similar idea occurs in another beloved hymn, “Amazing Grace”: “Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come / ‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”

For the past few days, I’ve been thinking about this concept of stopping and looking back on the road by which God has led me to this point and looking forward in hope–the theological kind of hope, which has a sure basis.  (By the way, it’s almost impossible to talk about this concept without using road metaphors; even the word “milestone” comes from road travel.)  One reason it’s been on my mind is that last week I had to write my salvation testimony and reflect on my spiritual growth over the years since then.  I closed my response by referring to Jesus as the Good Shepherd.  I don’t know where he will lead me next, I said, but I trust that he will lead me into green pastures and beside still waters (and sometimes through the valley of the shadow of death, but never to stay there).

I’m also thinking about the Ebenezer stone because it seems that change is in the air–for an unusual number of people around me, and maybe even for me.  I used to be afraid of change.  I was scared of not being able to control how things changed.  The so-called butterfly effect–the idea that if I go a different route to work this morning, I could change the whole trajectory of my day and even my life and maybe even THE WHOLE OF HUMAN HISTORY–didn’t make me feel powerful; it terrified me.  But I’m coming to understand and trust that God’s guiding hand–what old historians and theologians called Providence–is working to shape those events.  I’m not in control, and that is a very good thing.  I probably wouldn’t have chosen the job I’m in, the friends I have, or–dare I say–the family I belong to, and yet these are the greatest blessings of my life.  God has brought me to a good place, and he will continue to guide me.  Ebenezer!