Keeping the faith

jamaicasky

There is a melancholy to the world right now.  I’ve been sensing it for some time, but it crystallized this morning when I was driving my son to camp and we had the radio on.  BBC News was informing us in mellifluous London tones about the sum total of horror and death experienced on planet Earth in the last 24 hours.  The boy was nervous about his first day and a story about three people burned alive in their house wasn’t helping matters.  I switched to the classical station and made some comment about how, “you know, about 95-96% of all people everywhere are basically good, decent people going about their lives; dropping off their kids, going to work, coming home at the end of the day and eating dinner with their family.  It’s not ‘newsworthy,’ but it’s important to remember that when you hear the bad stories.”  He nodded and continued staring out the window in silence at the rain streaking past the glass.  When we arrived at the camp, he perked up in the presence of other kids and jubilant counselors eager to get started on what promised to be an exciting week.  The downpour outside would not dampen those moods.   I was envious, but I had to leave; work awaited.

Humanity, ever the walking contradiction, is remarkable for the limitless reach of its imagination and its capability to accomplish jaw-dropping feats given enough drive and cooperation, tempered by an equal and sometimes overpowering capacity to shoot itself in the foot.  Every time we think we’re finally on the right road, someone veers us back into the weeds and we take another couple of decades to dig ourselves out.  Lately it seems that the foot-shooting faction has the loudest microphones (and the biggest guns, for that matter) and one is given to muse whether all those popular dystopian novels are merely prophetic.  What do you do to get through the day and hope you’re never faced with the choice of whether you want to be Abnegation, Erudite or Dauntless, or with your kid representing your district in a fight to the death against other kids and holographic monsters?

Some trust in the unseen hand of a deity.  But that is a path I strayed off a long time ago.

A child is not born believing anything (one could argue it is our most spiritually pure state, but one would prefer to save that lengthy discussion for another time); its exposure to religion comes entirely through the actions of its parents and family, whether enforced strictly – regular memorization and expected flawless recitation of critical verses under threat of withdrawal of dessert – or the more lackadaisical approach my clan used:  remember to say grace at dinner and be sure your plaid clip-on tie is pressed for this Sunday’s service.  (I did grow up in the late 70’s/early 80’s, after all.)  I was, in point of fact, the rare sort who hated decamping to Sunday school mid-sermon to make paper cut-outs of Noah’s Ark when I preferred to stay to listen to what the pastor had to say, and looked forward to the day I could be exempt from the childish frivolities.  I think it was more that I enjoyed the idea of not being confined to the kids’ table anymore.  But I didn’t take any of what was being said to heart.  At the risk of sounding like one of these literary rejection letters, the material simply wasn’t a good fit for me.  Being smacked with a series of tough losses as I encroached upon and waded through my teenage years, increasingly inured me against what was being offered from the altar.

To make a potentially lengthy digression rather short, I have always had to find a different source of faith, a different path to spiritual realization.  I’ve always felt a bit like a human Play-Doh set, you know the one where you shove a misshapen clump in the hole in the top, press on it with a plunger to push it through a mold, and out comes a star-shape or a crescent moon or what-have-you.  I take in whatever’s available, run it through the dusty old processor upstairs and spit out some semblance of conclusion, and ninety-nine times out of a hundred it’s some variation of crap.  It’s an answer, but not THE answer.  It never adds up to 42.

Sometimes I wonder if there’s simply too much raw material being crammed into the Play-Doh hole (that sounds a lot filthier than it’s meant to).  My wife and I were talking about this on the weekend – actually she did most of the talking since I’m a decent writer but a piss-poor conversationalist – about the value of simplifying and unplugging.  FOMO makes you clench up at the first sounds of that, but then again, what is it that we’re fearing missing out on?  Clickbait articles about celebrity breakups?  Trending hashtags, affirmation-seeking selfies and endless navel-gazing ramblings about the nature of the universe?  Um…

Anyway, the point, one supposes, is that letting yourself get overwhelmed by the noise means not appreciating the value of what is right there in front of you.  One of the hardest things about success is accepting that it’s not what you think it is.  Jealous hackles raised at somebody else’s million-dollar book deal obstruct the pride you should feel upon being presented with the crude pencil drawing your son just did for you.  Slumped shoulders at the unaffordable month-long island getaway enjoyed by your more affluent acquaintances rob you of the serenity found in the chirping of the birds in your backyard.  Ironically, moaning that everyone other than you is getting everything they’ve ever wanted in life is ignoring that some of those people are thinking the very same thing about you.  More doesn’t mean better.  Mo’ money mo’ problems, as a noted poet famously once said.  What difference do all those externalities make once you’re done strutting and fretting your hour upon the stage?

The secret behind successful marketing is making you, the potential customer, feel terrible at what you don’t have.  And we are all doing it to ourselves.  Inadequacy is an emotion entirely self-imposed, and like interest, it compounds.  Like a particularly insidious virus it begins to infect your worldview.  You gravitate toward the morose; confirmation bias leads you to seek out only those stories that reaffirm this concept that the world is an irredeemably terrible place.  Consequentially, your personality starts to change.  Laughter certainly, but even smiles begin to grow rare, and what once moved you now leaves you stone and still.  Something is missing, you feel, and you rush to fill the void with more stuff instead of stepping back, taking a breath and saying whoa, things being as they are, I actually have it pretty darn good.  Till the day your friends and family question what ever happened to the vibrant sort you used to be – and you don’t have an answer for them.  You kind of stand there, struck dumb, fumbling for a rationale that remains elusive.  You can’t trace events from point A to point Z, you know only that it happened, and a lot of irreplaceable time was spent on a pointless journey into the ditch.  You loaded the bullet, cocked the pistol, and fired into your foot over and over again, and now you can’t explain why it’s bleeding.

Where the idea of keeping faith enters the frame is learning, upon crawling up from that ditch, to find the value of holding faith in the faces and hearts of those who are closest to you.  Because getting out of bed every day is itself an act of faith; a choice to take what comes at you instead of hiding under the covers.  You wouldn’t do it at all if you didn’t know, innately, beneath the layers of insecurity and/or bravado, that you have got this.  So do those 95-96% of people in the world who spend their days beneath the radar of the news, doing good, pushing humanity forward against the tide that seeks to roll us back into the sea of ignorance and stupidity.  We will never hear about most of them – but we can keep faith that they are there, just as we can keep faith in the friends and family whose paths cross ours.  And thank whatever god or goddess you believe in – or thank nothing at all, if that’s your preference – that they are.  And learn to smile about it.

Maybe it’s not THE answer, maybe it’s not even the answer you wanted.  For the moment, it answers enough.  When I pick my son up later today, when he bounces into the car whooping and hollering about the amazing time he had, today’s act of faith will have been rewarded.  I knew that he’d have a good time.  Beneath his nerves, so did he.  The storm shall indeed pass, the clouds will open, and the light will shine through.  We will go on.

Have faith.

The Versatile Blogger Award!

versatile

Try to picture me now, six foot three inches of hangdog pout, twisting the toes of one foot back and forth on the floor in shame at having let something sit for far too long.  A month or so back I was nominated for the Versatile Blogger Award, and like a lazy farmer wondering why the crops aren’t doing anything when the seeds haven’t been planted yet, I let this sit, and sit, and recede into the shallows of memory, assuring myself that I would indeed get around to it.  Terrible.  Well, after a few other projects have been swept from the deck, here I am finally, getting around to said thing.  Despite my drag-assedness, I’m deeply grateful to the four stellar talents who were kind enough to nominate this tiny corner of the Internets:  Michelle Gordon, Jessica West, Nillu Stelter and Debbie Vega.  Thank you so very much ladies!  Keep being awesome, and more to the point, keep writing awesomely.  And sorry I’ve taken so long to accept your generous nomination!

The rules for this particular honor are:  thank the person(s) who nominated you (check!), disclose seven interesting factoids about yourself, and nominate fifteen more deserving winners.  As regards the seven interesting facts about myself, well… I’m not really that interesting a person.  I can string words together pretty well on paper and I’m okay at parties until my material runs out, but you’d probably brush past me on the street and not even realize I was there.  I suppose I write fiction to make up for the tame trappings of an average, middle-class upbringing and ongoing life.  But if you’re looking to be regaled by recollections of jaunts through the African savanna or the backstreet jazz clubs of New Orleans or rubbing elbows with the famous and the powerful, you’ve clicked on the wrong link.  It’s why I have to try to captivate you with my words; the rest of me won’t do it.  Regardless, here goes with a few things you might not otherwise know about me.

1.  As noted above, I am six-foot-three, shuffling along in a world designed for the five-foot-six.  This means a chronic case of slouching and a neck somewhat out of alignment from leaning forward to look down.  It also means, for whatever reason, strangers predisposed to think you are athletic.  I am incredibly not.  I marvel at shorter folks who can run marathons – I’m wrecked after a half-walked 5K.  At the risk of sounding a bit Dangerfield-esque about it, I was such a lousy athlete as a child that even the teachers picked me last.  Can’t throw, can’t hit, can’t kick, can’t field.  And to think that a childhood dream (swiftly extinguished by reality) was pitching in major league baseball.  Nope – closest I’ll get is field level seats, and you know what?  I’m totally okay with that.

2.  When I was a teenager, I drew comic books.  This is similar to #1 in that I cannot really draw, either.  My character was an anthropomorphised simian version of James Bond (for the simple reason that monkeys were easier to draw than humans) and I did seven books with him, only four of which were finished.  The last one, that part of me regrets not completing, was a James Bond-Star Trek: The Next Generation crossover, in which Bond fell for Dr. Crusher.  And because I couldn’t draw, the story was a lot of dialogue and character development as opposed to splash pages of pencil-crayoned ass kicking.  Doing these books did teach me a great deal about how to create character beats and arcs, how to plot, and how to sharpen the storytelling edge to finish within the number of pages left in the purloined school exercise book.

3.  I usually wear at least one piece of Disney-related clothing on any given day.  It started a few years ago with one solitary T-shirt; now the wardrobe has expanded considerably through ties, boxers and other apparel, and I’m writing this with a grinning Mickey Mouse displayed proudly on the left breast of my black golf shirt.  We’ve added Olaf to our growing empire of stuffed animals; he’s on a shelf in our living room, enjoying the summer and peering down at the mischievous kittens who are plotting to knock him from his lofty perch.

4.  Speaking of kittens, after we said goodbye to our beloved Muffins, we acquired two new furry friends to carry on her legacy:  siblings Dudley and Daila.  Dudley is an orange tabby while Daila is a tortoiseshell, and while they are both very sweet, Dudley is a master thief!  He has stolen articles of clothing, stress balls, batteries and keys, but his favorite target is pieces of fruit, specifically, bananas.  We have to hide any bananas we buy in the microwave, otherwise we’ll wake up in the morning with a banana in our bed.  Last weekend Dudley figured out how to open the desk drawer in our kitchen, and pilfered a ball of string.  Even though we were proud (and a tad terrified) of his ingenuity, we were somewhat disappointed at his descent into cliche.  It’s all right, he’s young, he’ll grow up and be quoting Proust before you know it.  (A la recherche du souris perdu, anyone?)

5.  My wife and I are part of the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program, and we mentor a young boy we’ve known since he was nine.  It was a year and a half after we met him that we were introduced to the then-11-year-old who would become our adopted son.  So you don’t have to be a major in anything to connect those dots and realize that the experience of mentoring made us realize that we could parent an older child.  A project still lingering on the backburner is a detailed article about being a mentor which I’m hoping to get finished in the next couple of weeks, so watch this space for updates on that.

6.  The infamous novel to which I have alluded from time to time is still working its way through the query trenches, now numbering 11 rejections all told.  I refuse to accept that this is a trend, and I soldier on.  One rather disappointing (yet interesting) tale from this process is having a Twitter pitch for it favorited by one particular agent after she had already rejected the query and sample chapters, which were sent to her because she favorited the same pitch in a prior Twitter contest.  (She was great about it though.)  With that sort of thing, you just have to laugh and keep going.  There was another form rejection I received that was so apologetic I almost felt I should have responded, assuring the agent that I didn’t take it personally and that I wasn’t going to go fledermaus-scheise on her.  Probably a result of too many wannabes doing just that.  As an aside to any literary agent out there who might be reading this, I promise promise PROMISE that I won’t be a jerkwad if you say no to me.  I’m taking a stand against that crap.  I may even develop a variation of the Serenity Prayer for rejected writers, or something more basic, like “I will not break, I will not bend, I will not turn into a raging douche-a-holic.”

7.  And lastly, I have struggled with my hair since as long as I can remember.  The avatar I use for all my social media profiles is one of the rare few pictures in which I find it looks somewhat respectable, instead of like a wildebeest flayed by a helicopter rotor.

Ok then!  Onwards to the third part of this here deal.  Versatility to me suggests, at least by its dictionary definition, individuals with a wide range of skills.  Applied to blogging it would therefore seem to mean people who write well about a lot of different subjects.  This runs contrary to most blogging advice, which posits that in order to build an audience you should focus on one topic you know really well and then just write the bejeezus out of that, rather than trying to be good for all time zones.  I suppose that when you become established as a “voice” that others seek out, you are then freer to weigh in on whatever you want, as opposed to trying to build a niche audience from nothing.  Some blogs I follow are informative writing resources, others are pop culture treasure troves, others still are founts of creativity expressed through wildly imaginative fiction.  What they share, however, are voices I look forward to hearing, and find myself missing when absent.

You’ve been bearing with me for this long, and I want to shake it up and end on something of a twist, so here it is:  rather than list fifteen names and links you won’t click on, I’m going to do Q&A’s with each person I nominate.  I enjoyed hosting Emmie Mears in June and it’s given me the itch to do some more of that there stuff.  I just think you’ll get more of a sense of why I admire these writers, and it’ll give them a chance to talk about what drives them, what scares them, what they’re after and what they want their legacy to be.  None of this fill-in-the-blank, true-or-false quick answer claptrap, we’re going to dive deep down, tug at the heart and probe the soul.  I’m gonna be the Brian Linehan of the blogging world if it kills me.  (I am aware that Brian Linehan is dead, so that could be taken the wrong way.  I meant in the sense of his detailed interviewing style.)  And each will of course be asked for their favorite swear word.

This might take a while so don’t expect all fifteen to show up in the next week, or even the next couple of months – it’ll be an ongoing feature here and I’ll categorize them so they’re easy for you to find.  To my unwitting subjects:  watch your Twitter DM’s and your email inboxes, like so many arrows loosed by an intrepid archer, or darts flung at a perforated cork board by a drunken punter round the pub, my questions will be coming for you.  Mwa ha ha.

Catch: A story of fathers and sons

SAMSUNG

This is my unsuccessful entry for the 2014 CBC Nonfiction Short Story Contest.  Their loss is your gain.  Please to enjoy.

Late afternoon, and amber light from a cloudless sky is mirrored in thousands of dandelions littering the field of cool park grass.  Wind tugs at my hair and bites at the flesh of my cheeks.  The scent of leather triggering a hundred fragments of memory, I reach into my old glove and curl my fingers around the seams of the ball.  Tightly woven threads rub against each ridge of my fingerprints.  What’s it to be – a curve, a slider, a non-athlete’s approximation of a ninety-mile-an-hour fastball?

“You ready?” I call out.

A short distance away, my son waits.  His glove is brand new.  A week ago a plastic tag hung it from the chrome arm of a store display.  It’s stiff, immaculate, ready to be infused with history.  And he’s not holding it right.  “Up and open,” I tell him.

Awkward fingers reorient themselves to the pose he thinks I’m asking for.  He doesn’t really want to be here, I can tell.  But he’s trying because he knows this is important to me.

I nod, wind up and release.  Perfect pitch.  Nolan Ryan would be envious.  The ball sails towards him.

My boy reaches up and closes the pocket too fast.  The ball bounces off the edge of the mitt and tumbles into the weeds.

“It’s okay,” I say.  “Try again.”

I’ve never purchased a glove for myself.  The one I’m using, the one I’ve always used, is my late father’s.  I used to have a smaller one, until I grew into his.  Just like his suits, the first ones I ever wore.  As ridiculously out of style as I must have looked, they had a reassurance to them.  Slipping my arms into the sleeves was like feeling his around my shoulder again.

My son doesn’t feel that way about my things.  Because until only a few short months ago, he wasn’t my son.

There is something of a skewed, Hollywood perception of what happens after you adopt an older child, particularly one who’s spent most of his life in and out of foster care.  I’m thinking of the end of Face/Off, where John Travolta’s character brings home a kid adopted from the terrorist he’s just killed.  The rest of the family embraces the boy, the music swells and the credits roll, the happily ever after securely in place.

Integrating our new son into our family has not been quite so instantaneous, and it has certainly been devoid of any triumphant orchestral music.  In preparing yourself for taking on an older child, you can rationalize until your brain oozes out your ears:  Of course it’ll be different than giving birth to our own baby, but that’s fine.  It’s okay that we don’t get to name him, or see his first steps, or hear his first word.  We’re giving a home to a child who needs one.  And at least we’ll never have to change diapers.

The trouble is, your brain can accept these facts, but your heart, not so much.  You can’t steel yourself with intellectual arguments against what you’re going to feel.  When your new son sits at the dinner table with you and all his stories, all his memories, are of another life that you weren’t in.  When he says “my dad” and he’s not referring to you.  You feel like you’re babysitting someone else’s child, this well-mannered little stranger whose stay with you seems to be going on a while.  And the very worst part is that this is normal, it’s no one’s fault, and there’s nothing you can do about it.  It just is what it is.

And it’s positively gutting.

He tosses the ball back, and I scoop it out of the air.  I catch a scent of my glove again as I wind up, and I think about the man who should be here with us and who isn’t.  I lost my dad when I was 11, and I adopted my son when he was 12.  I’m going to be presiding over this boy’s teenage years with no road map, no example to draw from, not a solitary conception of what it is I’m supposed to do.

He’s taken off his glove to adjust his sunglasses.  I’m so lost in insecure reflection I don’t notice.  I throw.  Roger Clemens.  Down and away.

In the general direction of my son’s face.

WHACK!

An explosion of tears, and my wife runs to his side.  With each choked sob a crescendo of guilt rises within me, the creeping and admittedly hyperbolic sensation of being the worst father in the world.  It sure ain’t like the movies, I think to myself.

Too many people in the world have made this boy cry.  Too many have disappointed him, failed to meet his basic needs, even abused him in moments unthinkable.  He wants so much to be happy and the world keeps kicking him while he’s down.  Now his new father has hit him in the head with a baseball.  One more chorus of pain for the cacophonic dirge that has been his life to this point.

My father made me cry when he went away.  When my mother told me that he’d died, I shattered.  Like the neighbor’s window met by a carelessly tossed ball.  My soul was broken shards on cracked earth.  It has been nearly thirty years gluing it back together.

Tears dry, but my son doesn’t want to play anymore.  We gather the gear and proceed home in a heavy silence, broken only by the roar of cars passing on the street.  Once inside, he tosses his glove aside and hurries upstairs to the sanctum of his video games.  There are aliens to destroy and princesses to save.

My wife tells me not to worry about it.  She’s right, of course; it was obviously an accident.  I’m not there anymore; I’m trying to recall the very last time I played catch with my dad.  Memory is uncooperative.  No bars, no signal.  Only a gray blur.  It was likely a moment to which I assigned no special significance at the time, because it was one of a thousand, and I wouldn’t have suspected there wouldn’t be a thousand more.  So it is lost in the mists, forever.

It occurs to me then that it won’t be long before my son doesn’t remember this day either.  That maybe he’ll have the vaguest of recollections when he looks back from fifty years’ distance.  If I’m still around, and I remind him, he’ll laugh at the old man for dredging up such a silly reminiscence.

And then I realize.

It’s not the golden, soft-focus Field of Dreams moment we’re promised by the movies.  It isn’t even a collection of moments so perfect they might have been choreographed for maximum impact on the heart.  The smiling pictures we post online for our friends to envy.

It’s the work we put in one day to the next, through seemingly endless bouts of frustration and failure and feeling like the last people on the planet who ever should have been approved for parenthood.

It’s not in how we throw the ball, or even that we make the time to throw the ball back and forth whenever the sun shines on that field of dandelions.

It’s in the catch.

Our boy was falling, but we caught him.  He’ll stumble often throughout his life, but we’ll catch him.

Even if he never truly loves us the way a son is expected to love his parents, we’ll catch him.

One day he’ll be ready and he’ll want to throw the ball to me.

With my father’s glove I will catch it.

With a father’s love, I will catch him.

Please Welcome… Emmie Mears and The Masked Songbird!

The Masked Songbird_FC (2)

Gentle readers, I’m pleased as punch to present – making a generous stopover at this backwater blog during the tour for the release of her debut novel The Masked Songbird – someone whose acquaintance it’s been my great privilege to make:  author Emmie Mears.  If you’re not already following her on social media (shame on you!) you may remember her from the post she inspired:  Shut Up and Write.  In less than a week, The Masked Songbird drops, and Emmie’s been gracious enough to spend a few moments answering some questions about her life, her work, fandom and the need to speak up.  Come then, let us away.

But first, folks, presenting The Masked Songbird:

Mildly hapless Edinburgh accountant Gwenllian Maule is surviving.  She’s got a boyfriend, a rescued pet bird and a flatmate to share rent.  Gwen’s biggest challenges:  stretching her last twenty quid until payday and not antagonizing her terrifying boss.

Then Gwen mistakenly drinks a mysterious beverage that gives her heightened senses, accelerated healing powers and astonishing strength.  All of which come in handy the night she rescues her activist neighbour from a beat-down by political thugs.

Now Gwen must figure out what else the serum has done to her body, who else is interested and how her boss is involved.  Finally — and most mysteriously — she must uncover how this whole debacle is connected to the looming referendum on Scottish independence.

Gwen’s hunt for answers will test her superpowers and endanger her family, her friends — even her country.

A few words from Emmie about herself:
Emmie Mears was born in Austin, Texas, where the Lone Star state promptly spat her out at the tender age of three months. After a childhood spent mostly in Alaska, Oregon, and Montana, she became a proper vagabond and spent most of her time at university devising ways to leave the country.

Except for an ill-fated space opera she attempted at age nine, most of Emmie’s childhood was spent reading books instead of writing them. Growing up she yearned to see girls in books doing awesome things, and struggled to find stories in her beloved fantasy genre that showed female heroes saving people and hunting things. Mid-way through high school, she decided the best way to see those stories was to write them herself. She now scribbles her way through the fantasy genre, most loving to pen stories about flawed characters and gritty situations lightened with the occasional quirky humor.

Emmie now lives in her eighth US state, still yearning for a return to Scotland. She inhabits a cozy domicile outside DC with two felines who think they’re lions and tigers.

You can preorder THE MASKED SONGBIRD here (http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00JD7TWZK)! Released in a box set, you get four great paranormal and urban fantasy books for less than $4!
Follow Emmie on Twitter @EmmieMears and join her on Facebook!
And we’re back!  Glad to have you with us.  Take it away (in my best Dick Cavett or Brian Linehan voice):
Let’s start from the very beginning (a very good place to start). Who are you? How long have you been writing, and how did you get from unknown aspirer to agented author with a 2-book deal and an imminent release from a major publisher?
I am…*checks passport*….Emmie? I’m a mostly-human defective cyborg who can swim with some facility and has an embarrassing penchant for watermelon. I’ve been writing since I was old enough to steal my mother’s day planners, and writing with the intent of publishing since I was about sixteen.  I think I got here via the scenic route. I have always been a very deliberate planner, and I scouted out the business for about four years before I tried to hunt for an agent at all. I bought about five years of Writer’s Digest’s Guide to Literary Agents, researched query format, generally scoured the internet for protocol, and finally started querying a few years ago with a book that wasn’t up for the task. A few months later, I wrote The Masked Songbird, and I put all that knowledge to use. Doing my painstaking homework saved me a lot of foot-in-mouth moments, I think.  My path to agentdom was relatively quick, as was my first sale.  The offer came about four months into submission time, which is really not much.  You hear about the miraculous four day turnarounds, but really, those are unicorns.  Best advice I’ve heard: write a great book, be professional, and follow directions. It cuts through a lot of hassle and hand-wringing.
What is your favorite book, what author’s work can you not miss out on, and who are your biggest influences?  Whose writing makes you wish “damn, I wish I wrote like that?”
Ooh, favorite book is like asking me which fantasy world I’d like to live in forever.  I really don’t know.  My copies of David Eddings’s Belgariad and Malloreon are dog-eared and hunched over from their cracked spines — I read those at least once a year.  Harry Potter made a home in my heart.  LJ Smith’s 90’s paranormal romances are still among my favorites. Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time is one of my favorite massive stories. Pride and Prejudice is a perennial. The Giver. Hatchet.  A Wrinkle in Time.  See what I mean?  Eddings and L’Engle are probably some of my biggest influencers. I always loved Eddings for being able to make me both laugh and cry in the same book.
How would you define your writer’s voice?  What is “Emmie Mears style”?
I tend to write gritty stories that have some quirk to their telling, whether that’s from the minds of the characters and how they observe their situations, or something else.
Tell me a bit about The Masked Songbird.  Who is Gwen Maule and what is her journey?  What makes her different from the superheroes we’re familiar with?
Gwen is very much an everyperson at the outset of the book. She is, in many ways, a product of the global recession as well as a child of poverty. She has what I think is the under-represented mainstream millennial generation mindset of just sort of…plodding forward. While people like to call this generation entitled, I think for the vast majority of millennials, reaching adulthood at the zenith of global recession has put many on autopilot. Work, sleep, lather, rinse, repeat. That’s Gwen at first.  Her journey is recognizing the power she has always had to alter her circumstances and effect change in her own life and others. I think what sets her apart from other superheroes is that she’s very much engaged in the regular world. She doesn’t have Bruce Wayne’s money or the resources of Charles Xavier’s school. She is just a person with special abilities, learning how to use them in tandem with her pre-existing latent (very human) strengths.
What, for you, is the appeal of the superhero genre, or more generally, the fantasy genre?  There is an element of escapism that appeals to all of us, including the primal desire to see good triumph over evil, but what’s the difference between someone who can take or leave it and another who wants to lose themselves in these worlds to the point where it becomes their career path?
I think the appeal of the superhero genre is the ability to project yourself onto someone extraordinary.  Even the gritty superheroes call back to human nature, to the desire to fit in or the need to prove oneself.  I think that’s one of the things that makes them so alluring.  For fantasy as a whole, I think escapism is a good part of it, but that’s true for any fiction. Fantasy provides us the ability to imagine ourselves away from this world in a different way, though — to imagine better worlds, or scarier worlds, but worlds where extraordinary things happen.  At the heart of all great fiction is humanity, though. That’s where superheroes and fantasy in general shine brightest: telling human stories through a different lens.
Speaking of humanity – one thing that stood out in the excerpt I was fortunate enough to read was how well you convey Gwen’s feelings of being small next to her boss without coming out and stating it.  When you’re sitting down to write a scene like that, how much is intent and how much is happy accident?  Are you starting off by saying “I wish to convey X in this scene” or are you just writing and seeing where the story takes you?
That scene was a little bit of both.  The first sentences of the book haven’t changed since draft one, and they’re really the thesis statement of the whole chapter.  Gwen feels small and impotent, so she escapes into her imagination. It ended up working out well, I think.
What made this particular book the one to kick off your career as a novelist?
A lot of craft-related things sort of converged on me when I wrote The Masked Songbird.  I’d written two and a half books of a trilogy before sitting down to write Gwen’s story, and they were unpublishable. Structure clicked for me, as did Gwen’s voice, and it freed me up to run amok in Edinburgh for six weeks. I wish I knew what it was that made it different than the others aside from basic craft improvement, but honestly, I think sometimes what works is sort of a crapshoot. You hit something at the right time or you don’t.
Tying the story to the Scottish referendum is an interesting choice.  Obviously a controversial issue, and we’ve just seen none other than J.K. Rowling come out against independence.  You, on the other hand, are very much in favour of it.  How come, and how much of your thoughts and feelings on the matter inform the story you’re telling?  And ultimately is your priority to inform and convince, or to entertain?
I am a big supporter of the idea of self-determination. I think that Scotland’s values are distinct from the rest of the UK’s in many ways, and that it makes sense for them to be able to govern themselves and allocate their tax dollars where they see fit.  In The Masked Songbird, though, I wasn’t so much trying to inform as to make the story accessible. It’s less Mel Gibson brandishing a claymore and bellowing “FREEEEEEDOOOOOOM” and more Gwen grappling with her feelings on the subject.  She recognizes that there are valid reasons to vote both yes and no, and ultimately for her (as with Scotland at large), the question is one she has to decide for herself.  Some characters will disagree with her, including some that readers will I think not expect.  I left many of the other characters’ perspectives out of the first book for that reason.  Book 2 will reveal how some of them voted, and some of Gwen’s friends DO vote no.  My priority was to entertain, and while I am passionately pro-independence, I am fully cognizant of the fact that there will be tremendous obstacles and adjustment regardless of who votes what on 18 September.
You’ve said that you were inspired by seeing the reboot of Spider-Man and wondering where all the big-screen female superheroes were.  Obviously we’ve seen with the huge success of movies like Frozen and Maleficent there is an appetite for heroines in fantasy settings, so what do you think the reluctance is to give Wonder Woman or Storm their own solo ventures?  Are studios that stuck on how bad Catwoman was?
I think studios think with their bottom lines and honestly, with entrenched ideas of what the public wants. They’re ready to blame Catwoman and Elektra‘s failures on female leads.  I think they really are that stuck on it, for the same reasons the gaming industry lifts their shoulders and sturgeon-faces and holds up their hands like there’s just noooothing they can do about the lack of female leads in video games.  Like it’s somehow out of their control or something.  I mean, really, it’s kind of like watching people busy playing checkers who just shrug and say “Well, that’s the game” when there are chess pieces right next to them if they really wanted to play something different.  They know they’re in control.  But for some reason they act like the continuation of imbalanced representation is something happening passively rather than something in which they participate.
I see that you’ve also made a sale of a nonfiction work on women and fandom that should be a terrific read as well.  Searching for SuperWomen is getting tens of thousands of hits a month, so clearly you’ve tapped into something.  Yet the prevailing attitude is that this sort of thing remains a boy’s kingdom, which perhaps explains the lack of female-focused genre films.  When do you think this particular glass ceiling will crack?
If I could predict that, I would pile all my meager funds into the stock market.  Heh.  I really don’t know.  I think that in some ways, the younger generation is more progressive, but in other ways, I see some troubling attitudes that seem to think that feminism is irrelevant, along with a lot of people hesitant to identify as feminists (even when they’re espousing verbatim feminist views, like that women should be able to walk down the street without getting groped).  There are some inroads being made, and I think films like Gravity, Frozen, The Heat, and this year’s Lucy ought not be discounted for their importance — but it’s really going to take people in power taking a stand before this stuff filters down.  Voting with dollars works to an extent, but it’s slow.  There’s such a huge gender disparity in Hollywood in general — the men with the power to greenlight films and television shows hugely outnumber the women with the same power. It’d be foolish to assume that doesn’t play a part in what gets made.
You and I sort of “met” through exchanging blog posts about the very different and saddening ways society responds to women who express strong opinions versus men, and how it intimidates women into silence.  Since then the specter of Elliot Rodger has cast itself over the conversation.  What is something that men who don’t want to be lumped in with the Elliot Rodgers and MRA’s of the world need to understand, and what can they do to ensure that women can continue to speak up without fear of reprisal?
Hoo, doggies.  There’s a question.  I think the biggest, hardest thing to recognize is that the fact that “not all men” are like Elliot Rodger is irrelevant.  Absolutely irrelevant.  Because it doesn’t take all men being like a sociopathic murderer — it only takes a tiny percentage of the population to contribute to a culture where women are devalued, unsafe, and likely to experience abuse.  And when the larger percentage tries to treat that tiny percentage as unworthy of discussion, well…that becomes part of the problem.
What can men do? Recognize that. Recognize that even though they might be a kind, empathetic, compassionate person, women have to operate from a point of view that every strange man is a potential threat. Have to. I cannot emphasize that enough. It’s ingrained in us from childhood, and it’s beyond stranger danger. Women are taught laundry lists of ways to stay safe that don’t always succeed. Because if we let our guard down and treat strange men like they are safe by default and something DOES happen, we’re ALWAYS going to get blamed for it by someone. Always. It’s a given. There is no if.

I got harassed via text message this week, by a guy who had my number because I’d showed him my old apartment when I was separating from my husband. He gave my number to someone else. They were both texting me. The first thing two of my coworkers said when I told them? “Why the hell did you give them your number?”

Because that’s how the fucking classifieds WORK. I didn’t identify my gender in the post. The guy got my number because he was going to come see the place. He already had it when he found out I was female. And a month later used it to harass me. And I got blamed for not being careful enough.

So I really think that if men want to help, recognize that once you’ve gotten sick after eating an apple, you tend to have to look at apples with a different perspective until you’re sure they’re safe (Note: there’s a difference between courtesy and assuming someone is safe. I treat people courteously, but I will still be cautious and alert). Practically? Respect boundaries. Don’t invade a strange woman’s personal space (ie: give her wide berth if you’re walking on the sidewalk next to her). Don’t try to touch her. Respect if she says no. Listen. Believe her when she says she’s not interested. Believe her when she tells you her story.

And probably most importantly, when you exist in a space where women are not present and you see or hear men saying things that you know are wrong or disrespectful or toxic or shaming to women, SPEAK UP. For the love of all things warm and fuzz, SPEAK UP. I think the internet is good proof that many men listen more to other men than they do to women. If I call a guy out on a rape joke, I get told to lighten up. If a man calls his friend out for making a rape joke and makes it abundantly clear that it’s not cool, maybe that guy will think twice next time. We all know someone who has been assaulted or raped — we just might not know it because people don’t exactly wear it on their foreheads. And beyond that, women are people who should merit basic courtesy and respect by default, just like men. Ultimately, we have to create a space where the Elliot Rodgers of the world are challenged by the very people they think will accept their bullshit without question.

What’s next for you after Gwen hangs up her mask?
After the verbosity of the last answer, I’ll say simply that I have a magical realism and an epic fantasy in development.  :)
Any advice for writers still slogging through the trenches looking for their break?
Persist.  Do your homework.  Be professional in ALL interactions with agents, fellow writers, and publishing folks.  Work on something new while you wait.
Finally, with apologies to James Lipton, a bit of fun:
Favorite word?
Marmot!
Least favorite word?
*blushes*  Superheroine.  It sounds like a drug, and to me “superhero” is gender neutral.  Plus, the red squiggly line doesn’t like it.
Favorite curse word?
Fuck.
If heaven exists, what do you want whoever’s in charge up there to say to you when you arrive?
“Freddie Mercury is waiting to hang out with you.”
Can’t think of a better note to end on than that.  Thanks so much to Emmie for her time, her candor and just being a generally awesome person.  Be sure to follow Emmie for links to the other entries in The Masked Songbird‘s blog tour, and pick up a copy when it releases July 1st.  Onwards!

Of a Book, and its (Spoiler!) Cover

e

A couple of weeks back I finished reading A Void, which is Gilbert Adair’s translation of Georges Perec’s original French La Disparition.  The defining feature of this book, the reason I picked it out of a pile of price-reduced literature in the bare aisles of a soon-to-be-departed local independent bookstore, was its gimmick – but for the name of its author, the novel does not contain a single E.  It is the story of a chronic insomniac named Anton Vowl who goes missing, and of his assorted friends and confederates who come together to piece together his disappearance until a killer starts bumping them off one at a time.  Where the constraint comes into play is that each character, shortly before his or her demise, realizes that there are no E’s in the story in which they are taking part; likewise this revelation is meant to dawn upon the reader slowly as well, the thought, I suppose, being that you would have been so swept up in the narrative that you would have failed to notice the absence of E in the prose.  Where the puzzle collapses before it begins to take shape, however, is that the book’s cover illustration is a huge lower-case E inside the familiar red prohibition sign (as imitated above) and the blurb beneath it proudly proclaims that “There is not a single E in this novel!”  As murderous to the book’s outcome as that advertisement choice may have been, it was what convinced me to select it over its competitors, fascinated as I was with the notion of seeing how Perec (and Adair) pulled it off.  But essentially, the very reason I bought the book wound up spoiling the experience of reading it.

The ubiquity of the sale in our lives means that we live in a perpetual meta-state regarding the entertainment we consume, where the experience of the advertising and promotion becomes an inextricable component of the product itself, be it book, song or movie.  See the trailer, read the review (and leave angry comments on the review’s website), listen to the soundtrack, buy the tie-in toys, T-shirts and sodas, then, don’t forget to get a copy of the Blu-ray with the free digital download.  The story becomes more than just words on a page or light on a screen, it is jacked up with marketing steroids in order to escalate it to the level of cultural happening.  Yet when the tease is so overbearing, the actual story can’t possibly live up to the level of anticipation that has been set.  For advertisers, that doesn’t matter; once they’ve closed the sale, their job is finished, even if they’ve spoiled the ending.  In fact, we’re hard-wired to be disappointed by our purchase anyway – there was a scientific study released a while back that proved the emotional experience of wanting something is more intense, and more pleasurable, than actually having it.  Being fully briefed before we open the first page just guarantees this.  Yet this situation seems increasingly impossible to avoid (pun intended).

In school, you’d be handed a book you most likely had not read before (or possibly even heard of) and instructed to go through it and identify themes, write an essay about it, what have you.  When you’re choosing a book for yourself, what is it that makes you want to pick it up?  The genre, the blurb, the online reviews, a recommendation from a peer, a personal friendship with the author,  or the hottie in the cover illustration beckoning you with a sly wink?  Whatever pushes you over the line from “browse” to “buy,” you already have some tangential awareness of what the story’s going to be about.  The very section of the bookstore in which you find this unread treasure is a key to how events will play out, with familiar tropes rearranged like so many malleable chess pieces to provide you with a modicum of distraction.  I sometimes find myself wondering if the school approach isn’t a purer way to experience stories – without prejudice, as it were.  If having no expectations is the best way to be wowed.  The trouble is, few of us are in the position where books are likely to be assigned to our reading list, and we’d probably be loath to embrace such instruction anyway.  We don’t want our passions to feel like homework.

One of the problems with modern life is that we seem dedicated to paving over the rough terrain ahead to eliminate all unknowns and any semblance of risk; in effect, to remove all sense of adventure, and to ensure a future that may be prosperous but will by no means be surprising, or even terribly memorable.  Doesn’t matter what you set out to do, there’s probably at least a hundred people with an advice blog on how to do it so you get the results you want with little room left to fumble about the edges and discover the best method for yourself.  You can’t escape them.  Everything you want to do with your life has already been dissected, analyzed and summarized by somebody else.  By the very virtue of expressing interest in it, you will have it spoiled.  To bring this back after a fair bit of digression to A Void, while I would not presume to suggest it’s a transformative work of literature, it might at least have been an enjoyable entertainment had the secret not been given away on the damn cover.  I still struggle though with the notion that I most likely would not have purchased it otherwise.  (And I am aware of the irony that if you have not read A Void, you have just now also had its secret spoiled by your perusal of this entry, and for that I’m sorry.)

I’m not sure what the answer is to this conundrum, whether it’s better advertising methods or a more cautious consumer, unplugged from the torrents of background noise.  I just know that you shouldn’t have to work so hard not to have surprises ruined for you.  They’re what make the puzzle of life so compelling to solve.  And nobody likes happening upon a crossword with all the boxes already filled in.

People, Not Property

Untitled

Something horrible happened a little while ago in a place with the deceptively idyllic-sounding name of Isla Vista.  In the aftermath and the weeks since we’ve tried to process it, to assign a specific and preventable cause to the motivations of the perpetrator in the hopes to avert a similar future occurrence, and solutions vary, predictably, according to the broad swath of the ideological spectrum.  If we are each to weigh in, as the current state of our discourse seems to demand, what can I say that’s different?  What can I contribute to actually make things better, instead of just bouncing around the echo chamber – scoring accolades from admirers and suffering barbs (or worse) from the other side – before the storm dies down and we return to talking about box office grosses?  It seems that at times we’ve become a civilization whose talents are geared largely towards commenting rather than fostering true progress, and I struggle with this in the composition of this entry.  Truly, my words won’t bring the victims back.  They are but shouting into the wind and the rain for the briefest of moments.  But I’m going to shout anyway.

Reading the tweets shared under the #YesAllWomen hashtag was heartbreaking, and sobering.  The shiny, bauble-bedecked veneer of First World existence blinds one to the deeply ugly undercurrents of our nature, the river of misogyny that touches each aspect of interaction between the genders.  This idea that men have been sold – yes, sold, because so much of what is wrong with how we behave can be traced back to the concept of one person convincing another to buy something they don’t need – that women are a commodity men have a divine right to possess, instead of independent human spirits meriting respect and the freedom to determine their own futures, is stomach-churning when laid bare, but laced so insidiously into our culture that we are happily swallowing the lie several times a day without even realizing it.  The woman is always positioned as a prize at the end of the quest, something to win.  Any time a man is tasked with self-improvement, be it in the form of career, health, spiritual fulfillment or putting on a superhero costume and going out to fight crime, the implicit reward is getting laid, and any other end is mere frivolity.  It’s all meaningless, the zeitgeist conspires to tell him, unless you’ve got that “perfect ten” hanging off your arm at the gala premiere.  Elliot Rodger certainly thought so, and his self-perceived inability to live up to this ridiculous standard led him to lash out and take six innocent lives with him.

It’s deplorable that as a result, women should be forced to be ever vigilant, but as the #YesAllWomen tweets prove, it’s an attitude born of a shared experience, and one to which men cannot really relate.  In this metaphor, men are the customers, not the goods, and we can’t understand what it’s like to be thought of as property to be acquired until we are ourselves put up for sale.  When I’m out for my morning run, and I see a woman further up the sidewalk on her morning run heading towards me, my first thought is not going to be, this is a potential assailant, maybe I should cross the street.  It’s never been suggested that I should tone down how I dress or do my hair differently lest I not be taken seriously by my work colleagues, or receive unwanted advances from strangers.  I’ve never had someone try to grope at my crotch on a crowded streetcar, I’ve never been screamed at because I refused to give a woman my phone number, and I’ve never had to worry about leaving my drink alone at the bar lest someone slip roofies into it and I wake up bleeding on a filthy bathroom floor.  And these are just a very small sampling of some of the stories that were shared online.  There are thousands more, and to our shame, an equal number of sarcastic, sneering responses fired back.  As was pointed out elsewhere, these types were seemingly angrier that the stream of stories was gumming up their precious home feeds than at the fact that these things were actually happening to women everywhere.  When you can’t refute the argument with logic or reason, just tell the woman to shut up, and go back to watching the game.

Words may sometimes be lost on the wind in the storm, but often they’re the only thing we have.  In and of itself, a hashtag isn’t going to change the world, but the camaraderie those shared stories can engender – pun intended – is a step toward creating the empathy we need to help make the storm stop.  To help fathers teach their sons that women are not property to be coveted and acquired like the mindless deluge of merchandise that flashes across our Internet browsers, assuring us that the void in our souls can be filled with the simplicity of a single click and a valid credit card number.  Respecting women unconditionally; judging them by their principles, their accomplishments and the many facets of their personalities, instead of how they look in a bikini and how willing they are to jump into bed with you; casting forever aside the juvenile notion that a woman owes you a single thing by mere virtue of your passing interest in her; recognizing that fundamentally, misogyny comes from a place of deep dissatisfaction with the shortcomings of oneself as a man, and that those shortcomings can only ever be remedied by one person – the man in question – that is how things begin to improve.

None of us are property.  None of us are each other’s property.  And the human soul is not something to be traded on the free market; its value is far greater than that.

Star Wars VII and cultural karaoke

xwing

For someone prone to dropping Star Wars references in almost everything he writes, I haven’t had much to say since the official announcement, just a few cycles prior to Star Wars Day, of the cast of J.J. Abrams’ continuation of George Lucas’ fabled saga, in which months of speculation and rumor about who said what and who else was photographed coming out of where were put to rest snugly inside the belly of a Tauntaun.  The lead three from the first beloved trilogy are back:  Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and perennial “Han Solo bores me” grump Harrison Ford (undoubtedly for a handsome chunk of change), along with the unseen but ever-present Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca, Kenny Baker as R2-D2 and Anthony Daniels as C-3PO.  They are joined by a mix of screen veterans like Andy Serkis, Oscar Isaac and the legendary Max von Sydow, and relative unknowns like John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, Domnhall Gleeson and Adam Driver.

Nothing was forthcoming, however, about what contributions to the saga the new players are making.  In the leadup, Driver was said to be the preferred candidate for the “Darth Vader-like villain,” whatever you take that to mean.  As an aside, granted I don’t know what goes into the science of casting, but having endured a few minutes of one episode of Girls I can’t imagine looking at him and having my first thought be, “ruthless galactic bad guy!”  I stand by my opinion that young actors make lousy villains – they often come off as spoiled brats having hissy fits because Mommy confiscated the XBox – but yeah, yeah, lesson of Heath Ledger and all that, we’ll wait for the movie.  And although J.J. Abrams says he regrets being coy about who Benedict Cumberbatch was going to play in Star Trek Into Darkness, suggesting that it hurt the movie in the long run, he seems to be sticking with his policy of keeping everything locked in the mystery box for now.  The only other tantalizing tidbit we’ve heard is that Han Solo is supposed to play a major role in the story while Luke and Leia will be relegated to supporting parts.  (I don’t think this works – the character of Han was never meant to be a lead, only a strong foil, but again, we’ll wait for the movie.)

The best decision Abrams made in taking on this daunting yet coveted assignment was to hire Lawrence Kasdan to help him shape the screenplay to his satisfaction.  Kasdan’s work on The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi was invaluable, particularly his gift with sharp, concise dialogue, and his pen was sorely missed in the prequels.  I recall reading somewhere that Lucas did ask him to help with Episodes I-III and Kasdan declined, suggesting that Lucas needed to write his own story this time.  Shame – we might have been spared I don’t like sand. It’s coarse and rough and irritating and it gets everywhere. Not like here.  Here everything is soft and smooth.  Kasdan comes from the antecedent generation of screenwriters, prior to the reigning group that grew up watching movies in video stores, and as such he’s less likely to fall into the Admiral Ackbar-forewarned trap of making this new movie nothing but a callback to the highlights of the first three – if he can keep Abrams, the leading member of the aforementioned reigning group, and the man with the last word on this movie’s story, in line.

Star Wars Episode VII has a Sisyphean task ahead.  It has to measure up to the standard of the first three movies, expunge the bad taste left in many mouths by the soulless, over-digitized prequels, and convey the feel of the Star Wars universe without simply repeating what is not only familiar, but entrenched in the souls of an entire generation.  Even the original trilogy couldn’t manage to do this; that’s why we had two Death Stars to blow up.  But it’s the challenge awaiting anyone who tackles a sequel, no matter what the series.  People always want more of the same thing.  James Bond has to order the same drink, wear the same tux, introduce himself the same way and end up with a girl in the end.  When he doesn’t, fans (and critics) pout.  Formula is a straitjacket:  stray too far and you lose your target market, nestle too comfortably inside it and you’re lost in the cesspool of endless fan service.

When Super 8 came out, critics were quick to dub it the second coming of Steven Spielberg, at least his late 70’s/early 80’s aesthetic, missing the point that when Spielberg was making Close Encounters and E.T. he wasn’t trying to pay homage to anything, he was just telling stories of the time.  With Super 8, however, J.J. Abrams seemed to be trying so hard just to recreate the look and feel of that era of moviemaking that he forgot to tell a story that had any heart, or was even remotely interesting.  My concern for Episode VII is that Abrams will focus on all the wrong elements again, packing a most visually impressive movie with winky-noddy retreads of beats and lines of dialogue from IV-VI that are so familiar they have lost their original meaning and have become geek and nerd shibboleths instead.  Abrams blew the landing of Star Trek Into Darkness by turning the last twenty minutes into a variation on the finale of The Wrath of Khan, yanking us out of the story with “oh yeah, that’s a reference to X, that’s a reference to Y” right when we needed to be locked deep inside it.  I don’t particularly want to be sitting in the audience at Episode VII and eyeing my watch to pinpoint the inevitable moment someone announces “I have a bad feeling about this.”  We’ve been sated with franchise movies constructed from checklists instead of scripts that have emotional resonance.  That way lies the banality of the Friedberg/Seltzer “oeuvre” (i.e. Epic Movie, Disaster Movie, Meet the Spartans and any one of a dozen comedies built on evoking Pavlovian audience reactions to limp parodies of stale pop culture.)

Note that in the coverage of the cast announcement the new actors are getting much less attention than old.  The new guys (and one girl so far) in Episode VII will be blown off the screen if they are merely retreads on the naive farm boy, the steadfast princess, the wisecracking cynical smuggler, the former hero fallen to the dark side.  They will be dismissed as pale revisions of a superior first draft.  They need to have their own wants and goals and quirks in order to etch themselves into our hearts the way the originals did and to become new shibboleths that we can exchange and quote for another forty years.  They won’t be able to do that if they are plugged into a paint-by-numbers Star Wars plot designed primarily to bring back a sense of 1977.  And if at some point in the movie Daisy Ridley breathes “I love you” to John Boyega and he replies “I know,” we’re just going to roll our eyes.

It’s perhaps ironic to criticize Star Wars for relying too much on repetition of the familiar when it is in itself a pastiche of hero tropes that have existed since cave wall storytelling.  Those tropes are not the problem; the problem is choosing to use them as targets rather than starting points.  That I think is the major issue I have with the kind of storytelling espoused by J.J. Abrams and his contemporaries.  They’re not trying to do anything terribly new, they just want to do their own version of the stuff they liked when they were young, focusing not on creation but on re-creation with a modern spin.  It’s cultural karaoke on a billion-dollar scale, and if we’re going to invest that amount of money, talent, effort and time, it would be nice to walk out of the theater having experienced something worthwhile.  Having been taken somewhere we’ve never been before.  George Lucas himself proved the disconnect that occurs when you construct a story predicated on hitting specific beats (a systematic problem with pretty much every prequel ever made) rather than growing organically from rich characterizations.  We know where you’re going with this, you’ve practically handed us the coordinates and programmed the navicomputer.  And we stop caring.  Just like we stop listening to the guy at the karaoke bar doing “American Pie” for the fifteenth time, no matter how good a voice he actually has.

In any event, the gauntlet has been thrown down, Messrs. Abrams, Kasdan et al, to step away from what’s expected and venture instead into galaxies unknown – dare you pick it up or recoil lest your arm be severed by a lightsaber?

With a Song in My Heart: Z is for…

“Zooropa” – U2, 1993.

Here we are on Day 26 with our final installment, and as expected it’s a tad bittersweet.  While I’ve relished the challenge of delving into my past as scored with specific pieces of music and testing my capacity for both memoir and music journalism, and could likely go on with several more, Z is as good a place as any to stop, before the formula grows stale and the stories tedious.  The question arises, naturally, of what to do next, after these ~25,000 words in 30 days have been relegated to the archive of projects past.  I might borrow a line from the subject of today’s entry and go away and dream it all up again.  We’ll see.  That’s a decision for May 1st.  Before I go on, though, I want to send a special shout out to Joanne Blaikie of Writeaway, who’s been a challenge partner and has provided a great deal of support and encouragement along the way.  The subject of Joanne’s A to Z challenge has been an encyclopedic journey through her fantasy trilogy Prophecy of Innocence and it’s been a delight to see the fruits of her wonderful imagination revealed one post at a time.

It is of writing, in fact, that the final post in my series speaks.  I’ve always written to a lot of U2, generally from The Unforgettable Fire onwards (their first three albums are a little too raw and distracting when you’re trying to sink into a moment).  The Edge’s trippy, dreamy guitar work in the Eno period has ever been a proper Pied Piper leading me into that headspace wellspring from whence the words come.  “Zooropa,” the title track from their 1993 album, is a headspace all its own.  About ten years ago, when I was hardcore first drafting what would become – after being extracted from the bloated behemoth of another work, reimagined, rethought, revised, abandoned for eight years while I sorted out my life, rescued from oblivion, chopped in three and re-revised again – my first novel (which, described that way, sounds like the procedure Vogons have to follow to rescue their grandmothers from the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal), I used “Zooropa” to wake myself up in the mornings I had set aside to work on it.  It is a great alarm song – rather than waking you with a start, the introduction crescendoes slowly from almost nothing, adding in a gentle piano arpeggio before the guitar asserts itself and Bono starts singing.  There’s a line in it too that is a terrific mantra for writers:  “I have no compass, and I have no map.  And I have no reasons, no reasons to get back.”  Even those of us who work from intricate outlines have to admit that the excitement in the writing process is losing ourselves in the story and finding out where it goes, the unexpected corners that are the reward for the blood-and-sweat agony of advancing the narrative ever further.  And once you start, you don’t want to stop, even if you’re not entirely sure where you’re going.  Uncertainty, as Bono suggests in “Zooropa,” can be a guiding light.

Zooropa the album was recorded during a break between legs of U2’s Zoo TV tour in 1992-93, a record-breaking, MTV-inspired extravaganza whose excesses came to characterize the band that U2 would become after leaving behind the occasionally insufferable earnestness of their 80’s work.  While traveling the world promoting Achtung Baby, U2 learned how to take the piss out of themselves and embrace the contradictions of rock stardom.  Energized by this new vibe, the band chose to funnel the outpouring of creativity into a new album rather than lounging about their mansions for four months waiting to go out on the road again.  The result was somewhat uneven, with achingly beautiful numbers like “Stay (Faraway, So Close!)” sitting uneasily next to throwaways like “Babyface” and the miscasting of Johnny Cash on lead vocals for “The Wanderer,” without the unifying theme so obvious on the previous LP.  We’ve probably each had an occasion where something sparks our idea generator and we rush to empty our braingasms through the nearest writing implement, only to look back on the result the next day and question the apparent temporary loss of sanity.  The blog challenge doesn’t give you that opportunity for reflection, you have to publish and move on to the next one, keep feeding the beast.  When I saw U2 perform live on their last tour, I don’t think they did a single song from Zooropa.  What was good enough to win the Best Alternative Album Grammy for 1993 apparently doesn’t rate a mention almost twenty years later.  I may look back on this series from the perch of a few years’ distance and wish I could rewrite every single one from scratch.  It isn’t ego, it’s the nature of the business, and we are always our own harshest critics.  One wonders sometimes why we choose such a masochistic vocation.  But it’s because we were born this way.  We have to do this.  “Choice” never enters into it.

The last line in “Zooropa” is “dream out loud.”  Back then it was the perfect message with which to kick off a daily explosion of new words.  What is writing, anyway, but dreaming out loud?  Transforming wild thoughts and secret longings through the greatest medium available to facilitate the connection of one person to a community of our common humanity.  Ever since the first English teacher handed me a pencil and a sheet of lined paper and asked me to tell her in a proper paragraph about what I did over the weekend, I’ve been afflicted with the compulsion to assemble words into opinions, parables, images, plots and plain old goofery, and share them with others.  It’s been almost thirty-five years of this now and I can’t kick the habit.  Success, or lack thereof, isn’t part of the equation.  Even if no one was reading this I’d probably still be doing it.  I suspect many of my readers who are themselves writers feel the same.  Recognition is icing.  The true reward is a story well told.  And for those times when we find ourselves mired in the muck, the right music can help us find the way out, better than a compass and a map.

So here’s to dreaming out loud, with songs in our hearts, yesterday, today and all the tomorrows to come.  Thanks for reading.

With a Song in My Heart: Y is for…

“Your Song” – Elton John, 1970.

Kids these days (ugh) probably don’t know what a B-side is.  Well, young’uns, back in the dark ages of analogue music, songs were released on these archaic, dinner plate-shaped things called records, which, unlike their later brethren the CD, could be played on a mind-blowing TWO sides, helpfully labeled A and B for quick reference.  “B-side” was generally bandspeak for “throwaway”:  when a band put out a single they’d usually stick some filler or weird experimental crap on the B-side, fated to be swiftly forgotten by all but hipsters and pretentious music critics.  Elton John’s “Your Song” is that rare example of when the B-side outshone the ostensible hit.  Released in 1970 as the backing track for the single “Take Me to the Pilot,” the DJs of the day decided they liked “Your Song” better and put it in heavy rotation instead.  It’s arguably the most beautiful piece of music ever created by the songwriting duo of Elton John and Bernie Taupin, and was praised by none other than John Lennon as the best thing done in rock following the breakup of the Beatles (never one for modesty was he).  Interestingly enough, Elton John has suggested in interviews that he took only about half an hour to write it.  Not bad for something banged out over a tea break, n’est-ce-pas?

What I’ve always liked about “Your Song,” and what I suppose appeals most to my nature, is the modest, insecure manner in which the lyrics shuffle themselves forward.  This isn’t the kind of bravado and boasting about wealth and sheer awesomeness we’d see in say, gangsta rap.  Instead, the singer is apologetic at his lack of money, offering the usual empty promises about what he would buy for his love if only he could afford it.  Then, he can’t even decide what hypothetical successful person he wants to be – “If I was a sculptor, but then again, no, or a man who makes potions in a traveling show.  I know it’s not much, but it’s the best I can do.”  In life, love demands confidence, but the shy still feel it and burn with it and need it as much as anyone else.  As he struggles on, the singer complains about getting the verses wrong and not even being able to remember the color of his love’s eyes, asserting only that they are the sweetest he has ever seen.  The chorus, too, pleads for reassurance that the object of the affections doesn’t mind this grossly inadequate tribute, which in the end can but say simply “how wonderful life is while you’re in the world.”

When you style yourself a writer, or indeed, any kind of artist, there is something of an unconscious expectation among others that you should be able to express yourself flawlessly in each moment.  That you should be a boundless reservoir of wisdom concerning the human heart, that you should be able to navigate relationships with the ease and skill of an emotional Magellan, and moreover, always know exactly what to write on a birthday card.  In fact, I have lost track of the number of serious conversations I’ve been in where I have sat dumbfounded and dumbstruck and totally without words, and come away thinking there was something wrong with me, unable to reconcile the contradiction of being adept in one medium of language and inept in another.  So too do I find that when I’m trying to reassure my loved ones or my dearest friends in a difficult moment my platitudes sound to me like bad soap opera lines that have been translated from Mandarin Chinese via Czech, Swahili and Esperanto.  There was a point in my twenties when it felt like everyone was coming to me for advice on some matter or another, though I wasn’t sure where I got the guru reputation.  The best I could do would be to recycle something I heard or read and hope that it fit the occasion.  Wisdom is a quality I’ve never perceived in myself; rather, I’m like the narrator in “Your Song,” stumbling about in the dark, only ever by happenstance finding words that fit.  My idle fantasy of giving a TED talk one day seems destined to remain just that.  Dammit.

My wife and I met at a karaoke bar, and we used to go to that same one every couple of weeks when we were first dating.  “Your Song” was heavy on my performance rotation, along with “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” (the first song she ever heard me sing) and a few of the others who’ve found their way into this series of posts.  (Also “Love Shack,” but that’s another story.)  “Your Song” was my favorite to sing to her, however, and it remains in the opinion of your humble narrator the greatest love song for the tongue-tied.  It also happens, in my case, to be true – my wife’s pale, enchanting blues are indeed the sweetest eyes I have ever seen.  Love songs like this one resonate most because they are surrogates that let us speak the emotions we can’t articulate ourselves, directly and without distraction, cutting right to the unburdened clarity of one person’s passion for another.  We often can’t say – or sing – it better.  Though I’ve never fancied being a sculptor or a snake oil huckster, this song fills that slot for me.  It’s a good reminder at those instances of awkward flailing that I remain one of the better B-sides, a person of deep feeling, though my inability to speak such things aloud can make me seem in person to be cold, verging on Vulcan, as if the heart beats only at the basic task of pumping blood.  That blood, however, runs hot.  And I hope you don’t mind if I put it down in words.

With a Song in My Heart: X is for…

“X&Y” – Coldplay, 2005.

Well, you didn’t exactly think it was going to be Olivia Newton-John’s “Xanadu,” did you?  Though there aren’t a lot of “X” songs to choose from, this one fits the bill nicely.  It lends its title to Coldplay’s 2005 album, which features better known singles like “Speed of Sound” and “Talk.”  It was also the album they were promoting in the first rock concert my then-girlfriend and I ever attended together.  (Double extra bonus:  Richard Ashcroft was opening for them.)  Tickets to said show were her first Valentine’s Day gift to me, after we’d only been dating for a couple of months.  It was a measure, perhaps, of how quickly and deeply we fell in love, not just that she would buy me the tickets but be willing to stand in an ear-splitting din for three hours watching a band – two bands, really – she was relatively indifferent about but knew that I loved.  (The following Valentine’s Day, the only way I saw to outdo this generous gift was to propose.  A card and chocolates wasn’t going to do it.)

There is not much to the song itself; it’s a bit of filler sandwiched between the two more popular tracks on the middle of the album.  The second verse, however, is a fairly accurate description of the first stage of our relationship.  “I dive in at the deep end, you become my best friend.  I want to love you but I don’t know if I can.  I know something is broken and I’m trying to fix it, trying to repair it any way I can.”  Our connection was immediate, offering no room for half-measures, no games, no I’d-better-wait-three-days-before-I-call-back-so-she-doesn’t-think-I’m-desperate stratagems.  Up front, we agreed that we knew we liked each other and that we preferred not to mess around with the so-called rules of courtship (as exemplified by Swingers and every single episode of Friends.)  It was a tremendous weight off one’s shoulders, I must confess, after a year spent in and out of temporary dalliances with other women that were dominated by such frivolities.  Obviously we still harbored those same fears of being hurt, of committing and losing our way.  My professional life, too, was in tatters and I questioned where I had the temerity to enter into a serious relationship when I didn’t know whether I’d have the rent next month.  Something was indeed broken.

It came to the point after several months that the choice for me was to either sever another, damaging relationship or lose the one that was teaching me to smile again and that there was a sublime world beyond the borders of my small, inwardly focused life.  In retrospect, it was the easiest decision I ever made.  Seldom does a day pass when I don’t feel grateful that when I was drowning, she was there to throw me a lifeline.  I used to be quite cynical about humanity and human beings, entrenched in the opinion that we are doomed to destroy ourselves through greed, selfishness and spite, the stuff of any one of a hundred dystopian YA novels.  Maybe a great majority of us are, but my wife reminds me through her actions and her attitude that there remain a lot of good people in the world, and our side has a better than average fighting chance.  We have the plans to the Death Star of banality, we’re aiming a proton torpedo of kindness at the exhaust port, and we don’t need no stinkin’ targeting computer.

There is a line of spiritual thought, I’m not sure which, postulating that human beings were originally androgynous beings that were split into separate genders by the gods and have spent eternity attempting to reconnect.  As a single person you can’t even articulate what’s missing, you just know that something is.  The equation is incomplete and every fiber of your being is dedicated to solving it, to seeing how the story ends.  This particular Y needed an X.  I’d like to believe that in sharing themselves with each other, X&Y became a whole greater than the sum of their parts.  (Though I’m sure I could list a hundred ways in which my wife has made me a better person before I could name one where I’ve helped her.)  I was asked on the morning of our wedding what her best qualities were, and my answer hasn’t changed in seven years:  the giving nature that inhabits her every thought and deed; of herself, of her time, of her love.  Even now, as she waits for me to finish this post so we can watch Game of Thrones together (a show she does not really care for), I’m reminded of that.  I’m reminded of the Coldplay concert, swaying together to “X&Y,” feeling like she fixed me, and continues to fix what’s broken each day we are together.  It is something to feel like you won’t ever be able to fully repay a debt of the soul, but I figure I can at least start by letting her get through her episode of Orange is the New Black first.

Parables on publishing, politics, pop culture, philosophical pondering and pushing people's limits.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,212 other followers

%d bloggers like this: