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.

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weekend miscellany

I couldn’t think of a unified topic for my blog post this week, so I’m going to tell you a few things I learned or re-learned this past weekend.

  1. Grilling okra is a good idea. It takes away the infamous sliminess of the oddly-shaped vegetable and brings out the true flavor.  You may want to consider wrapping your okra in foil, though.  The slippery little guys kept falling through the grates on my grill.
  2. Bambi is a great movie. I’ve mentioned before that it’s in my top five Disney animated films, but sometimes I forget how excellent it is.  It’s visually gorgeous, from the watercolor backgrounds to the use of color to convey emotion—note the liberal use of red during the scene when Bambi fights with another young buck.  It uses orchestra and voices to create mood and replicate sounds in nature—“Little April Showers” is not the only musical composition in the world that approximates a thunderstorm, but it’s a good one.  And one of my favorite things about Bambi is the use of real children to voice Bambi, Thumper, Flower, and Faline.  Their line delivery is a little more studied than that of the absolutely hilarious children in A Charlie Brown Christmas, but their delight—sometimes conveyed through hysterical laughter—is pure and genuine.  Even the dialogue captures the way a child would really talk, like when Thumper says the water in the frozen pond is “stiff.”  Maybe this relatability in the main characters was why I enjoyed Bambi as a child, even though the film as a whole could be justly be described as scary, sad, and slow.  Even though it’s only 70 minutes, I’m not sure if most children today would sit through it.  And maybe that’s okay—perhaps the real audience for this audience is art- and nature-loving adults.
  3. A guitar string may not be the best weapon for killing zombies. This falls under the category of things I learned for the first time this weekend.  I’m writing a story, which I eventually hope to adapt into a screenplay (so I can win my Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar) for a buddy road-trip movie that is set during the zombie apocalypse and sensitively explores the topic of clinical depression.  (Here I need to say that anyone who has ever written or ever will write a zombie movie screenplay is profoundly indebted to George Romero, who passed away yesterday.)  I read one of the final scenes at a creative writing group on Friday evening, and while I got really positive feedback about the emotional impact of the scene (technically, it was negative feedback—as in, “No, you can’t kill that really nice guy!!!”—but I knew that meant my character development had worked), I also got some practical comments about the impracticality of slicing off any head—even a dead one—with guitar string.  I also got some alternative suggestions, like using the neck of the guitar, which apparently contains a metal rod—who knew?—as a stabbing weapon.  The people at this creative writing group (I highly recommend joining one, by the way) are serious sci-fi/fantasy nerds who can sustain serious, unironic conversations about stuff like this, and I benefited from their suggestions.  Perhaps I’ll share some of this story on my blog!  It’s still in the early stages (I skipped ahead to write the last scene), but I’ve “known” the two main characters for a long time.  I posted a non-zombie story about them a few years ago.
  4. Sixteen miles is a long way. I know this because I ran ten miles Saturday morning and walked six more Saturday evening.  I don’t regret it, but I would like to make this public service announcement: If you run first thing in the morning, make sure to drink water first, since we all wake up slightly dehydrated.  Also, do not wear yoga pants for a long run, especially in the dead of July.  The more you know…

State of the Blog

Today I thought I would take the time to tell you how I think this blog is doing and to ask for feedback from you, my readers, without whom this blog would be nothing but the digital equivalent of a secret diary hidden under my mattress.  A couple things prompted me to do this.  For one thing, it’s been about a year since I implemented my weekly (usually Monday, sometimes Tuesday) post–before that, I was writing whenever I felt like it, and sometimes months would go by before you heard anything from me.  Another reason I wanted to stop and assess the blog this week is that I heard from some people yesterday who either mentioned a specific post they had enjoyed or indicated they knew something about the style of my blog–people I had no idea were reading it.  So that made me curious as to how many “silent” readers I have out there and what they’re thinking.

Let’s start with the weekly post thing.  I began this practice as part of a larger discipline of writing something (anything–could be a PowerPoint presentation for a class or a sketch of one of my screenplay ideas) for 30 minutes each weekday afternoon, which was inspired by the class on spiritual disciplines in the workplace that I audited last summer at Regent College.  (See below for a link to the series of posts I wrote following the course.)  Besides the fact that I’m now posting every week, another thing this practice changed about my blog is that my posts are now limited to what I can write within half an hour, which–I think–is keeping them to a manageable length, in contrast to the marathon posts that I used to write.  But, with the emphasis on actually writing for 30 minutes, I’m including fewer pictures, videos, and external links in my posts.  What do you think about all this?  Am I posting too often/not often enough?  Have my posts been too short lately, or are they still too long?  Would you like me to shut up occasionally and direct you to other people’s work (through the aforementioned pictures, videos, and links)?

I would also like your feedback about the topics I write about.  My blog has always been, unapologetically, about a wide variety of topics.  I know that I’d probably get a bigger readership and more mentions on the web if I focused in on a niche, like travel or home decor (or even something that I actually know a lot about, like Harry Potter), but I’m not trying to get famous or make money through my blog.  Although, as I hope this post attests, I do care very much about my readers, my blog is just as much a vehicle for me to process what I’m thinking and learning.  So I’m not sorry for writing a string of posts recently about The Godfather, even though most of you–at least those who are talking to me–don’t care about the Corleones (and, I still maintain, don’t know what you’re missing).  But I do want to know which topics you’d like to see more of–and what topics I haven’t addressed that you’d be interested in reading about.  Anecdotally, it seems that some of my most popular posts have been the confessional, gut-spilling ones where I let you snoop into the embarrassing parts of my interior life, usually through the screen of humor.  But I know that many of you also share my love of music, movies, and TV, and so you prefer posts on those topics.  Let me know what you think.  I will take your suggestions seriously, and I’ll write about pretty much anything that I know something about (and maybe even some things I know nothing about!).

In closing, let me share what I think have been some of the highlights of this past year on penelopeclearwater:

  • Here is the first of the series I wrote following the class on spiritual disciplines.  The series continued through July and August 2016–check out the archives.
  • There was a lot of excitement on my blog leading up to and following the release of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
  • This post from a few weeks ago–which was both a confessional post and a music post–got a lot of good feedback.

I believe in America.

Because it’s the Fourth of July, and because I indicated last week that I’d be writing about the Godfather trilogy again, I titled my post with the first line of the first film.  In the opening scene, a minor character whose daughter was assaulted by two young men, who were given what he sees as a lenient penalty, is asking Don Vito to help him avenge her.  Fascinatingly, he begins with this qualification, following it up with “I have raised my daughter in the American way.”  It’s like he feels compelled to defend his chosen country before he goes on to express his frustration with its (in his perception) slow, unfair, and heartless (that is, emotionless) justice system–especially for immigrants like himself.

I’ve written elsewhere about how the Godfather trilogy, in addition to being an amazing family saga, is a story about the Italian-American immigrant experience in the 20th century.  But right now I want to focus on those interesting opening words: “I believe in America.”  If you insert the name of another, older nation in that sentence, it doesn’t sound right.  You can love (for example) England, but you probably wouldn’t say that you believe in it.  That’s because America is an experiment, and on the timeline of world history, it’s still a relatively new one.  Another family/political drama I enjoy watching, the AMC show Turn: Washington’s Spies (as in George Washington), makes clear just how close this experiment came to never even getting off the ground.  So if I say that I believe in America, I’m implying that I’m rooting for the American experiment to turn out okay–and that I’m still waiting to see the outcome.

That’s why it’s possible to be a loyal American and still acknowledge times when the experiment has gone off track (and, at risk of getting slightly political here, I would say that immigration, in general, has been one of those areas where America’s efforts have often been clumsy).  In fact, I’d say that it’s imperative to acknowledge those times if you’re a person who truly loves and believes in America and wants what’s best for it.  This reminds me of a conversation I had a couple of days ago in which I was trying to explain Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” to a friend.  I started by saying that it’s not a patriotic song, and I would still say that it’s not, if by “patriotic” you mean uncritically proud of America.  But I concluded by saying that it’s also not an anti-American song.  For all of its references to the ugly, confusing war in Vietnam and the hardships of growing up in working-class East Coast towns where the factories are closing down, that song really isn’t saying “America is great” or “America is bad.”  It’s just saying, “Living in America is hard,” which is the same as saying, “Life is hard.”

Of course, I need to qualify what I just said by adding that there are a lot of countries where life is a lot harder than it is in America.  Nobody can deny that our standard of living here (and I’m not just talking about money, though that’s certainly part of it) is much higher than in most of the world, and we’re foolish if we’re not grateful for that.  But we should also acknowledge that America is a really big country, so my American experience is not going to be the same as yours.  And for some, life here isn’t easy.

So, America–I believe in you, and I’m cheering for you.  And I’m thankful that I’m allowed to speak up when I think you’ve made a mistake.  But I think you’re doing pretty well, all things considered.

the Babel podcast

Dear readers, this has been a stereotypical Monday, which means that I don’t have the energy to write a full post.  But here is, as I promised last week, a link to the episode of my colleague Clifford Stumme’s podcast The Pop Song Professor in which he and I discuss Mumford and Sons’ 2009 album, Babel.  Let me know what you think, especially if there’s something on the album we didn’t discuss that you have an opinion about.

Also, I watched one of my favorite movies, The Godfather Part 2, on Saturday, and was thoroughly depressed, as always.  Expect to read more about this next week.

 

I’ll walk slow.

In the fitness program that I’m in right now, we were asked to choose a “power word” or phrase (that’s the acceptable Christian substitution for “mantra”) and keep a record of how often we used it.  I chose something off the top of my head and ended up using it only a few times during the week in question.  But last Tuesday, two events converged to suggest a power phrase that I’m actually going to use–and that I consider worth blogging about.

Event #1: Tuesday evening, my team completed a tough AMRAP (as many rounds as possible) workout involving sandbags.  It wasn’t a race, but for the first few rounds, it would be very obvious how fast each person was working.  Cocky and obnoxious as I am, I assumed that because I’m already a regular exerciser, I would be one of the faster participants.  So imagine my pride-goeth-before-a-fall devastation when I realized I was the only person still at the starting line doing overhead lifts while every single other member of my team–all nine of them–had moved to the next spot to do squats.  I was in dead last place.

If you’re even a casual reader of my blog, you probably know that I like winning, and I tend to turn things that aren’t competitions into competitions.  So even though I got a really great workout Tuesday night, and my team ended up getting more reps in this workout than any of the other three teams (that part of it actually was a competition), I went home feeling embarrassed at how slow I had been.  The fact that I started out using one of the heaviest sandbags didn’t make me feel better, especially because I had to give it up fifteen minutes into the workout and use a lighter weight.

Event #2: When I got home, I decided to mow my lawn while I was sweaty anyway.  While mowing, I listened to Mumford and Sons’ Babel.  (I was listening to this album over and over last week in preparation for a podcast I recorded on Thursday with my colleague The Pop Song Professor–more on this next week, probably.)  One of my favorite songs on that album is “Lover’s Eyes,” which contains these lyrics, repeated multiple times: “I’ll walk slow/I’ll walk slow/Take my hand, help me on my way.”  I had already noticed that the whole album seems to have a theme of humility and willingness to be taught and led–think of lines like “Keep my eyes to serve, my hands to learn” (from “Below My Feet,” another of my favorites).  But on Tuesday night while I was mowing, the line “I’ll walk slow” struck me for obvious reasons.  And later, yet another of my favorite songs, “Not with Haste,” struck me as well–again, for obvious reasons, I hope.

Since Tuesday night, that line “I’ll walk slow” has come to my mind many times, such as when I worried about once again coming in last place in Thursday evening’s workout.  It may be a counterintuitive “power phrase,” but–like many people, I suspect–I usually don’t have to make myself try harder or go faster.  I have to make myself slow down and enjoy what I’m doing.  I have to learn how to accept not being the best, and specifically, the fastest.  I sometimes have to, as the lyric says, reach out my hand and allow myself to be led by people who are better at things than I am.  I have to be okay with slow progress in areas of my life where I want to see immediate change.  Because–and now I’m going to preach for a second–walking slow is better than standing still.

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.