getting psyched for NaNoWriMo

November is National Novel Writing Month, not an official holiday but the flagship event of the eponymous nonprofit organization. If you complete a 50,000-word novel during the month, you can claim to have “won” NaNoWriMo, though it’s not a competition. I did this once, almost 10 years ago. I wrote a novel, heavily inspired by The Dark Knight and Harry Potter, about a man who goes around taking the punishment for other people’s crimes. I had also been reading a lot of George Eliot at the time, so my prose in the novel is very dense, and my narrator often breaks out into philosophy. Unless you already know a lot about guns and police procedures, crime drama is not a good genre for NaNoWriMo because there’s little time for research. So my novel, which I self-published as A Man of No Reputation, has a lot of problems, but it inspired a number of themes that continue to appear in my writing, such as loneliness, self-sacrifice, and a protagonist with a perpetually sad-looking face (he can’t help it; it’s just what his face looks like!).

This year, I’ve decided to use NaNoWriMo as motivation to complete the zombie apocalypse narrative I have been working on, slowly, for over a year. I won’t be able to claim to have “won,” since I have no intention of writing 50,000 words; I am at roughly 26,000, and my story arc is nearing its end. (I’m not sure what the finished project will be properly called–a long short story? a novella? I’m mainly thinking of it as the source text for a movie.) Since November starts this Thursday, I want to take a few minutes to look back on the changes my story has gone through and forward to how it might end up. (I really do mean “might”; I have a general idea but no actual outline. I am what they call, in writers’ group lingo, a “pantser”–I plot by the seat of my pants.)

Originally, although I was and still am calling my story a (dark) comedy, my main character was going to die. It was going to be a beautiful, self-sacrificial death, kind of like in my 2009 NaNoWriMo project. I maintain that a comedy can end with the main character(s) dying, like in (spoiler alert) Thelma and Louise, a major inspiration for my story along with Zombieland and Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (yes, I’m writing a road trip story). But after getting a lot of feedback about how much people in my writing groups loved my main character, Sam Larson, I started to reconsider killing him off. Yes, I was partly trying to please my audience (not a bad thing), but it also occurred to me that perhaps I could better reinforce one of the themes of my story by allowing Sam to survive.

That theme is LIFE, and it’s a theme uniquely suited to a zombie narrative, which is permeated with a grotesque parody of life. Readers learn early in the story that Sam suffers from clinical depression and that about ten years ago, he attempted suicide. Although Sam has learned to live with depression and no longer wants to die, he constantly struggles to believe that his life has value, especially in this new world in which people tend to be judged by their physical prowess and survival skills. (I’ve written extensively on my blog about this issue in zombie apocalypse narratives.) I think I could still convey this theme with Sam dying a heroic death at the end, but I believe the theme will come through even more clearly if I show him living.

I’m also using a motif that is especially suited to the zombie subgenre: eating. People are constantly eating in my story, whether it’s oatmeal heated up over a fire on the side of the road or a full Italian meal in the safe house. Of course, zombies are always eating too, but they derive no joy or satisfaction from this meaningless activity. In contrast, I wanted to show my characters enjoying food as a gift of life and sharing it with each other. So the eating scenes are not throwaways but integral to the message of my story.

Are you doing NaNoWriMo? Are there any other themes and motifs you can think of that are particularly appropriate to zombie stories? Let me know in the comments!

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“I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you.”

If my Lord of the Rings books were not in a moving box somewhere, I would check on this, but I’m pretty sure the line I quoted in my title is not in the novels. I think it’s part of the body of dialogue (also including much of the “when the sun comes out, it’ll shine out the clearer” speech at the end of The Two Towers) that was written especially for Samwise Gamgee in the Peter Jackson film adaptations because nobody but Sean “Rudy” Astin was convincingly sincere enough to deliver such sweet yet potentially saccharine lines. Even if it isn’t in Tolkien’s text (which isn’t the Bible, nerds), the line Sam speaks before he literally carries the weakened Frodo up the final yards of Mount Doom has become part of the LOTR canon for me. And I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently. Here’s why.

My life has been pretty stable, almost to the point of being boring. I’ve had some adventures and some challenges, but no major catastrophes. I don’t presume to bank on this state of equilibrium lasting forever, but for now, I thank God for having protected me from the extremes of grief and difficulty. Yet I’ve sometimes felt less thankful than guilty. Why have I been spared the physical pain, financial hardship, and emotional trauma (among other things) that I see knocking down people–including some of my students, colleagues, friends, and relatives–like breakers in a hurricane? I don’t really know the answer to this question, but I have a theory: Perhaps my role is to be a stable, solid, even boring rock of support and normalcy that people can cling onto and take a breather in the middle of their storm.

Notice that I didn’t compare myself to the rescue worker who’s pulling people out of danger. That’s ultimately God’s role, though I suppose some people–like counselors, clergy, and actual rescue workers–can also fit the analogy. No, I’m the friend–the sidekick, if you will–who is predictably available to give the sufferer a ride, a place to stay, a meal, or an opportunity to pretend that things are normal for a couple of hours. I admit that I don’t always have a gracious attitude toward providing these things, and sometimes I’m terribly obtuse about noticing that people need them. But I can look back over my adult life–actually, maybe even my childhood too–and identify a number of times when God used me as a strong and stable friend for people in need. And there are probably even more times that I don’t remember because I didn’t realize I was doing anything important–because I was clueless about the extent of the trouble or pain the person was in.

Sam carrying Frodo up the side of Mount Doom is pretty dramatic, I’ll give you that. But Sam trudging hundreds of miles at Frodo’s side, carrying all their stuff because Frodo was too weak for anything but the burden of the ring, making meals and pleading for Frodo to eat them, and making decisions when Frodo was in too much of a mental fog–those things are mundane, yet they’re what enabled Frodo to make it to the moment when dramatic heroism finally was necessary. Maybe I’ll get to have a Mount Doom moment someday, but for now, I’m content to be the sidekick.

how Harry Potter defeated Voldemort

Over the weekend, I responded to a Facebook post asking how the main character of the story I’m writing would respond if he were in the place of the main character of the last movie I watched. The last movie I watched happened to be Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 (the odds were pretty good), and the main character in my zombie apocalypse story is Sam Larson, whom you can read about here and here. I said that Sam wouldn’t be in Harry’s position at all; he’d be in Hufflepuff minding his own business. But, I wrote, if he did happen to find himself in such a critical situation, he’d probably do what Harry did: sacrifice himself for his friends and accomplish a quiet, understated defeat over evil.

That last part surprised me as I wrote it. My character, Sam, is certainly quiet and understated. But what’s quiet and understated about the most epic battle between good and evil of our time? With wands and spells and people flying through the air and Hogwarts castle burning to the ground? The answer is that Voldemort isn’t defeated in a battle. He’s defeated after a battle. In the final movie, which follows roughly the last one-third of the book Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the first half is loud and fast, with lots of cuts and lots of people on the screen at any given time. Then, when Harry, Ron, and Hermione slip away from the aftermath of the battle and witness the intensely private death of Severus Snape, things slow down. Harry watches Snape’s memories and learns his fate alone (and this is quite a long scene in the movie), and he walks into the woods to face Voldemort alone, except for the unseen presence of the spirits of his loved ones. When Voldemort finally faces Harry, there’s no music and no sound from the other characters, just Voldemort’s curse ripping through the silence.

A quiet, thoughtful conversation between Dumbledore and Harry ensues in Harry’s personal version of limbo, a whited-out King’s Cross Station (even the muted color creates a sense of hush in this scene). And when Harry returns to life, he stays silent, pretending to still be dead, until the right moment. Keeping quiet about his defeat of death is surely difficult for the ultimate Gryffindor, but Harry has learned wisdom to balance out his eagerness.

Once Harry reveals that he isn’t dead, chaos breaks out, and the battle resumes, but it isn’t the focus of the story. In the book, everyone eventually stops fighting and watches and listens while Harry and Voldemort face off and Harry gives a long, detailed explanation of the Horcruxes and why the Elder Wand doesn’t work for Voldemort–why, in fact, Tom Riddle is already defeated. In the movie, the conversation is much shorter, and the face-off has no audience; Harry and Voldemort fight alone on the ramparts of their mutually beloved school. Both portrayals, in different ways, value privacy over display and wisdom over physical force. Voldemort goes out, to quote T.S. Eliot, “not with a bang but a whimper.” And, in an anticlimactic but perfect move, Harry destroys the wand that brings about Voldemort’s defeat, knowing that it would come to defeat others.

Much has been written on how the valued qualities of all four Hogwarts houses are necessary in the defeat of Voldemort, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anyone explain how Harry comes to embody all four in the end. (I’m sure someone has written about this; I just haven’t seen it.) Obviously, Harry is most of all brave like the Gryffindor he is. He faces death, “the last enemy” as the Apostle Paul puts it. But he is also incredibly logical and thoughtful, like a Ravenclaw, figuring out the wand conundrum that still confuses me a little bit every time I read the book. He is wise in a different way, too–“wise as a serpent” (to use Jesus’ words), shrewd like a Slytherin, knowing when to hold back information and when to reveal it. And like a Hufflepuff, he gives credit to the others who participated in Voldemort’s defeat. Harry knows that although he is the Chosen One, his bravery, wisdom, and cunning would fall short if not for the friends he remains loyal to, even when (as he often is) he is tempted to strike out on his own. And not just friends, but surprising allies like Snape.

Well, shoot, I just made myself cry while blogging–AGAIN. Harry Potter fans, I’m interested to know what you think about all this. Let me know in the comments.

the dig list

It’s time for one of my periodic lists of stuff I dig right now.

  1. Music with close vocal harmonies. Throughout the past week, I have been listening to two bands whose music showcases the capabilities of the male voice in harmony with others. One is Queen. Have you ever noticed–well, I’m sure you have; I’m stating the obvious here–that if you stripped away the wailing guitars, many of their songs would make wonderful barbershop quartet numbers? The other band is Lord Huron, whose moody music conjures the lowering darkness of an overcast autumn day–specifically, of clouds gathering over a lake, probably Lake Huron. (Some of their songs reference lakes too.) Their harmonies are tiiiiiight (in two senses of the word).
  2. The Pickwick Papers. I decided that while I’m reading Michael Slater’s biography of Charles Dickens, I’m going to watch, in order of novel publication, my collection of BBC Dickens adaptations. Saturday and Sunday, I watched the 1985 Pickwick Papers miniseries. I can’t put my finger on what’s so delightful about watching rotund middle-aged men act like adult children and get into the same tight spots (figuratively and sometimes literally) over and over again, but maybe it’s that in this novel and only this novel within Dickens’ repertoire, everyone is so genuinely good-hearted. Even the blood-sucking lawyers Dodson and Fogg are ultimately harmless. Pickwick and his friends triumph because they choose to believe the best about everyone. Maybe that’s not the way the world really works, but it’s something to strive for. Watching this mini-series is kind of like watching Parks and Recreation, which manages to be hilarious even while being refreshingly un-cynical. All the duels, lawsuits, and other confrontations in Pickwick are funny in the same way that it’s funny when the other characters make fun of Jerry on Parks and Rec. They’re like little kids trying to be mean but succeeding only in being cute.
  3. Fazoli’s. Okay, look. It may not be “authentic Italian food,” though I’m not sure that phrase really means much in America, where we’ve adopted Italian cuisine as one of our own and enacted tons of bizarrely creative, often successful variations on it. (I mean, just look at pizza.) But I ordered a Caesar side salad, baked ziti, breadsticks, and a blood orange Italian ice online, picked it up, and was back home within half an hour. It was faster than flying to Sicily. And it was good.
  4. Peer review day. One of my favorite things to do as a teacher is to walk around the classroom and briefly engage with pairs of students as they read and constructively critique each other’s papers. My short attention span appreciates the short interactions, and instead of standing in front of a classroom babbling until my throat hurts, I get to swoop in, answer questions and sound very knowledgeable, and move on to the next group. All kidding aside (not kidding about that stuff, though), peer review can be a great instructional strategy, teaching students the important life skills of reflection and of giving feedback without being vague or unkind. Fortunately, I’m teaching two writing classes and have lots of peer review days to look forward to this semester.

What are you digging right now? Let me know if the comments.

Where do zombies come from?; or, I suck at worldbuilding.

In a Facebook creative writing group that I belong to, some of us are participating in a worldbuilding challenge. While the other participants are posting these wonderful comments about their historically and culturally rich worlds, I’m struggling to come up with something more profound than, “My characters like to eat Italian food.”

As you may know, I am writing a zombie apocalypse story that I envision as a source text for a movie. (You can read part of it here.) Though I would not go so far as to say that the zombie aspect of the story is little more than a set piece–it is thematically important for several reasons–I imagine that people who complain about The Walking Dead not having enough zombies and being a glorified soap opera would really have a lot to complain about in my storyMy story is about mental health, friendship, American small towns, Italian food…and zombies, roughly in that order of importance. So when people ask me questions like “How did the zombie apocalypse start?” and “Where are your characters getting water?,” my response is usually, “Hmm, I haven’t really thought about it.” (My characters have had coffee, tea, hot chocolate, and lots of Coke, but water completely slipped my mind. You can see where my priorities lie.)

In my defense, part of the reason I haven’t thought much about the origin of the zombie apocalypse is that my characters don’t know how it started, they won’t find out during the course of this story, and they don’t really care. This is partly because they’re too focused on their own problems (survival, relationships, where they’re going to get Coke) to ponder such existential questions, but it’s also partly because they (at least my two main characters) are big fans of zombie movies and TV. Let me back up for a minute: In most zombie stories, the assumption is that zombie lore doesn’t exist, so the characters are kind of scratching their heads, like “Huh, I wonder what’s happening?” So I decided to do something different. My characters may be useless when it comes to wielding weapons, but they’ve seen all of George Romero’s movies and every episode of The Walking Dead (I haven’t referred to the comics, but I assume they’ve read those too), so they at least have a vocabulary for what’s happening, and they know important things like the fact that you have to shoot or stab a zombie in the head in order to kill it. (I mean, kill it again.)

So, to return to my main point: The characters in those iconic stories usually don’t know why the zombie apocalypse is happening (or how to stop it), so my characters have become resigned to the same uncertainty. In Romero’s films, people speculate about why the dead are walking the earth, but they never figure it out. (The tagline of Dawn of the Dead provides the closest approach to an explanation: “There’s no more room in hell.”) In The Walking Dead, some of the characters visit the Centers for Disease Control and learn a theory from the one remaining employee (who could be crazy for all we know), but the only really useful knowledge they take from that encounter is that “we’re all infected”–i.e. everyone who dies turns, so try not to die.

This is my justification for why I haven’t given much thought to the logic of zombies in my story, but part of me suspects that the real reason is that I’m just not very good at worldbuilding. The commonplace is that writers are usually good at either creating elaborate worlds or creating relatable characters. Yet most of the people in my Facebook group seem to be experts at both. This gives me hope: Maybe I can learn, through challenges like this, to create elaborate worlds for my relatable characters to inhabit.

I quit my job.

Today is my official last day at my current job, a position that has given me incredible experience, educational advancement, challenges for personal growth, and colleagues who have become my friends. And really good pay to boot! I went to college to be an English teacher, but after graduating I quickly realized I wasn’t ready for a high school classroom. (I would have been eaten alive, and I don’t mean by zombies.) So I went to college, part 2, to be a person who studies literature and puts off getting a real job a little longer. During my first year in grad school, I was a graduate student assistant, which those of you who have done anything similar know essentially means a hard-working, poorly-compensated instructor. (But we wouldn’t trade that experience for the world!) During that year, I realized that I enjoyed teaching college students–they were a little bit more mature and motivated than high school students, and I only had to see them 1-3 times per week, for about an hour at a time!

During my second year in grad school, though, I accepted a full-time staff position in the Graduate Writing Center. I took it because I was flattered to be offered it (by my thesis chair, to whom I owe both my career path for the past 10 years and my interest in Victorian literature) and because the pay and working conditions sounded better. I started as the instructor for a graduate-level basic writing course (I was teaching grad students before I had finished my master’s—talk about imposter syndrome!); two years later, I became the director of the Graduate Writing Center, and eventually I became the director of nearly all of our university’s tutoring services. I had never intended to go into writing center work (which is a field of its own, a vibrant and growing one), but I professionalized myself into the field: reading the major journals, attending conferences, getting involved in organizations, and learning to speak the writing center language. All along, though, I was still thinking of myself as a teacher, picking up courses even though my eventual faculty contract didn’t require me to teach (even though this made me crazy busy) and trying to stay current in the fields I would be teaching. When it came time to get my Ph.D., I didn’t go for a degree in writing center studies, nor even composition, but literature and criticism. The degree wasn’t practical for my job, but it was practical for the career in teaching that I still believed I would have.

As time went by, I received advancement opportunities, leadership experience, and pay increases for which I was (and still am) grateful. But trying to have both my administrative career and a teaching career on the side was making me crazy, and often it was my “real” job as the tutoring center director that suffered. I knew I should give something up, but while the classes were where my passion truly lay, the administrative work was where most of my pay and all of my benefits came from. And, let me be clear, I didn’t hate that work. It just wasn’t what I wanted to be doing for the rest of my life.

So a couple of years ago, I started applying for jobs elsewhere–not just in other schools, but in other states, where I could hit “reboot” on my life, reassessing things that were cluttering up my schedule and my mental space–not just professionally, but personally. And just last month, I received a job offer that would allow me to do so, and I took it. For the first time in my academic career, I won’t be a director of anything; I’ll just be a plain professor (well, associate professor). And I’m very happy about that.

I’m not sure what this will mean for my plans to rebrand this as a Hufflepuff leadership blog, since I won’t be in a leadership position anymore except insofar that all teachers are leaders in a sense. I’m thinking about making it more of a (sometimes Hufflepuff) emotional intelligence blog, which is basically what it has been recently. I’d still like to use my fictional characters Patrick Weasley and Becky Weasley, and maybe even Sam Larson, who appeared last week. As always, I am open to your suggestions.

As Bilbo Baggins once said (in the movie The Hobbit; please don’t hate me for quoting it), “I’m going on an adventure!” I’m glad you, my readers, will be adventuring with me.

What do you do with the mad that you feel?

The title of this post is the title of a song by Mr. Fred Rogers. Last Friday, I wrote about two important lessons I learned from Mr. Rogers. Today, I would like to write about another lesson he taught: It’s okay to express your feelings, even if they’re not the “good feeling” immortalized in the closing song of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. But because I’ve never, personally, had trouble expressing my feelings, I’m going to talk about this issue in the voice of one of my fictional characters, Sam Larson, who appears in my zombie apocalypse work in progress. Here’s what Sam has to say:

I had a weird childhood. I was an only child; I didn’t have any relatives who were close (in proximity or in relationship), and I didn’t have a really good friend until high school. My mom was deeply depressed; it wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration to say that she spent most of my childhood in a catatonic state. My dad did a remarkable job raising me, considering the circumstances, but he wasn’t much of a talker to begin with, and he especially avoided talking about feelings. (His own father had been a silent northern Minnesota farmer. I didn’t know my grandfather well, but “silent” is definitely the right word for him.) My dad’s typical response to sadness, anger, or any other negative emotion in himself was to eat something, watch TV, or go to sleep, and I learned the same behavior from him.

So I watched a lot of TV, and a wide variety of it, as a child. One day in the summer when I was 11, when my mom was feeling okay enough to come out in the living room but not enough to make recommendations or strictures about what I should be watching, she and I ended up sitting through the first two Godfather movies, which took pretty much all day with the commercials. I still consider those brilliant films, but I shudder to think of the messages about being a man that I was probably absorbing unconsciously while watching them at such a tender age!

On the other end of the spectrum, I watched a lot of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, even after I was probably way too old for it. I was fascinated by this man and his friends (mostly puppets), whose response to feeling mad or confused or out of place was not to eat a plate of chips and dip but to tell someone else about the feeling, perhaps in the form of a song. I think one reason that my dad tried to avoid feelings is that he equated emotion with drama (maybe he, too, had watched the Godfather movies as a boy!). But in Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood, you could talk about your feelings in a calm, rational way, knowing that it was normal to have them and that the person you told wasn’t going to start screaming at you.

When I was a younger kid, I used to have trouble identifying my emotions. I might say that I was hungry when really I was lonely and wanted to spend time with my dad. That’s not unusual; it takes a while for children to develop emotional intelligence (though I think that whenever I would have an overwhelming, generic “bad feeling,” it was probably my depression, which I now believe I had even then). Mr. Rogers also helped me learn how to label my emotions so that I could then deal with them appropriately.

By the time I reached high school, I was still an odd, quiet kid, and, yes, I was clinically depressed, which is a different story. But I had learned that if I felt worried about my mom, or embarrassed because I liked to draw or because I was the biggest kid in my class, or mad at my dad for not talking about his feelings, I wasn’t experiencing something wrong or weird; I was just feeling like a human.

If I am a kind and gentle man today, which I hope I am, I certainly owe some of that to my dad, but I owe a lot of it to Mr. Rogers. And if I’m a man who’s cool with talking about his feelings, which I know I am–well, counseling has helped, but I owe that to Mr. Rogers too.