Presenting this with (minimal) comment this morning. So many writers look for validation in the wrong places; comparing ourselves to others who are far more popular, or financially successful, or better-looking, or seem to be able to compose aching beauty without effort. This is Amanda Palmer at Grub Street’s Muse and Marketplace Conference, and she just nails the truth. It’s a little over half an hour but if you can even just put it on in the background while you write your TPS report, it is absolutely worth it. (I guarantee you will promptly lose interest in said report and give her your undivided attention.)
That’s my mea culpa for the day. If I had to rank my perceived strengths as a writer in descending order, description would linger odiously in the basement with the lawn furniture and the dresser my wife keeps reminding me we need to sell. I’m good at dialogue, at proposing ideas and batting them around, at the exploration of questions of human nature and our place in the universe, but, ask me to put any of these items in a setting that leaps off the page and I will curl up in the corner of that setting sobbing like an infant afraid of having his wooby taken away. Every time I go back through my novel for revisions and start to think, “hey, this isn’t so bad,” I encounter someone else’s work that blows me back through the wall and turns my confidence to lime Jell-O. I just can’t seem to crack that important element and it drives me bonkers.
I’ve devoted a lot of self-examination to trying to figure out why this aspect is so difficult for me. Some writers seem to be able to do it flawlessly. Within a few short, concise phrases you know exactly where you are – your imagination is triggered and the setting shimmers into existence around you as though you had stepped into the holodeck and announced “Run Program.” Writing, as someone famous whose name escapes me for the moment has observed (I think it was Joyce Carol Oates), is about creating atmosphere. My focus, however, has always been on character, though, and how the characters interrelate, and that usually means dialogue, and lots of it. (And of course, you run into plenty of writing advice that suggests too much dialogue is a bad thing. Can’t win, can’t even quit the game.) In a perfect world, this is how I would describe almost every scene, so I could get on with crafting conversations (from Waiting for Godot, by Samuel Beckett):
A country road. A tree. Evening.
A few more words about Estragon trying to pull off his boot and we’re off to the races. Okay then, you’re asking, why don’t you just write plays then? I’ve written exactly one play, it was called Brushstrokes, a three-act examination of hidden love and the inability of men to admit their feelings tied together with a tenuous nail polish metaphor, and well, the less said about it the better. That’s not to say I’ll never try another one, but in writing it I missed the ability to digress into stretches of narrative, to get into the heads of the characters and figure out what they were thinking. It is not to suggest that novels don’t have to have structure, or limits for that matter, but they tend to be a freer place to play. You can linger on a particular thought, explore its depths and its reaches, without worrying too much about a foot-tapping, finger-drumming audience waiting in exasperation for the next line. It can be rather like the van that took forever to fall off the bridge in Inception without seeming to drag down the pace – again, depending on how you write it. So it helps if you’re really good at that.
Many great writers are poets and can bring that sensibility to details as slight as a flake of ash falling from a burning cigarette, or the single flap of a hummingbird’s wing. My description, by contrast, tends to be simple and straightforward. What you need to know and no more. Here’s an example from my novel:
Splinters of wood and crumbling brick from ramshackle buildings line the pockmarked street. Lampposts bent by storms and vandals stand eerie sentry. The rattle of broken window shutters is this rotting borough’s only tenant.
Dotted by whitecaps, the river is an icy gray. Brine and rotting algae poisons the air. The north side of the city lurks, cloaked, beneath frigid fog. At the end of the jetty, a flat barge with a water wheel at its stern strains against the grip of the ropes anchoring it in place. Creaking twin planks on its starboard side wobble under the boots of passengers laden with sacks and baskets who are shuffling aboard to claim a precious portion of the hard benches in the center of the craft.
A paved drive marked by a trail of brass lanterns on iron posts conducts us through spacious, garden-rich grounds, past a stone-rimmed lily pond watched by a gazebo, once-trim shrubs and dwarf trees grown wild with neglect. The secluded manse that presides is half-hidden by branches yet still exudes wealth and pretense, as if trying to compete with its neighbors. Long thin windows with black shutters adorn the exterior, while a portico supported by white columns protrudes over the front entrance. A terraced second floor is set back on the high roof of the first. A pointless relief of vine-entwined roses on the portico adds to the sense of superfluous money that permeates this place.
There is nothing technically wrong with any of these passages, but poetry they sure as hell ain’t. Even looking at them sitting here out of context I want to rewrite them from word one. One’s spirit crumples into crushed tinfoil at the possibility of being considered a candidate for a Bulwer-Lytton award, or as the latest Eye of Argon. But you do what you can with what you have and keep trying to do better. And though sometimes you gnash your teeth at the raw talent on display in some other people’s mere first drafts, you can’t let that stop you from moving forward.
The mistake that I tend to make and that many others probably do as well is in not having the description of the scene push the story forward in any way. Think of it in terms of the last time you related a funny anecdote to your best friend. You didn’t say, “So, I was at the grocery store. It was a massive, soulless building painted in black and brown and the floor tiles bore the smudges of the soles of a thousand tired mothers dragging screaming children who were unable to comprehend the simple nutritional logic of why it wasn’t a good idea to eat chocolate at every meal.” Your friend is sitting there saying “I don’t care! What happened at the store?!” You want to stage the scene and sprinkle in some color, but putting in that kind of description is like hitting the pause button. It breaks the momentum and adds nothing.
Those who know what they’re doing, even writers who are incredibly journalistic and fetishistic about detail, like the late Ian Fleming, use that information to push the narrative – to tell you about the character they’re trying to sketch in your mind. The sometimes excruciating manner in which Fleming waxes on about James Bond’s breakfast preferences still manages to tell you something important, that this is a man who defines himself very much by his tastes, and he is as much a social competitor with the villains he squares off against as he is a knight trying to slay the fearsome dragon. It works, though, because everyone knows how Bond likes his martini, and “shaken, not stirred” has become entrenched in the zeitgeist (even if Aaron Sorkin insists it’s wrong).
Also, as human beings, we tend to notice individual details rather than the big picture. This is crucial when you are writing first-person perspective as well because you can’t use that detached, “I SEE AND HEAR ALL” narrative voice. When you spot an attractive person coming towards you, there’s probably one specific trait that strikes you first; their eyes, their smile, what have you. And that characteristic will define them in your mind from then on. That girl with the long dark hair, the guy with the shark tattoo on his right forearm. (It does not have to be a visual characteristic either: the girl who sings like a parrot with laryngitis, or the guy who smells like apple cinnamon soap.) The same goes with scenery. The tall building with the broken window on the top floor. The car with the coughing exhaust pipe. If your character has a particular perspective on the world, what they notice will flow organically out of that perspective as well. Mine is accustomed to the peace of a silent forest, so the things she takes note of are what stands out to her as unusual – noise and artifice. If I’ve done my job correctly, that should tell you something about her and how she views the world. If not, then it’s back to the rewrite shed for another round of head-splitting angst and wondering why, despite people telling me contrary and often, I continue, in my own mind, to suck.
Anyone else struggling with this stuff? Let me know. Let’s help each other out.
So I had this idea today, that you take someone’s random tweet and use it as the first line of a short story. I haven’t written fiction in a while and have not written short fiction in particular in even longer (I’m thinking maybe since early in the last decade, horror of horrors) so this might turn out to be a complete hot mess. But practice makes perfect, and here goes. The tweet I chose was from Brian Ray, who’s a member of Paul McCartney’s band as well as an accomplished musician in his own right. And a very nice guy whom I’ve had the fortune to meet in real life. I don’t know why, then, the story turned out to be so dark. I’m actually having a really nice day. Anyway, first the tweet, and then the story.
I dreamt we were in a hallway and everything turned red. Not blood red, my dreams aren’t that morbid. But I looked at Ruby standing next to me and watched shades of persimmon, crimson and coral slither across the walls like oily tentacles, infecting the drab greens and browns of the drywall and the peeling old paintjob. Spilling out onto the floor, the rush of red seeped into the pile and coiled itself around the ashtray at the far end, in front of the window. I couldn’t be sure why this was happening now, or why this peculiar maroon plague had chosen to intrude upon my mind at that particular moment. Was there some unknown, buried, Freudian reason for it, or was it just my unconscious mind’s way of redecorating an otherwise boring scene? I mean, red is hardly my favorite color. Give me a deep royal blue or a fresh, citrus yellow.
Ruby didn’t seem to mind, or even notice. Long, toned legs strolled down the hallway on thin leather heels, oblivious to the changing colors swirling around her. “Room 444,” she whispered, her eyes flitting across the brass digits nailed to the doors that were mutating into burgundy as we passed them. She stopped at the last door on the left, swiped a keycard through the lock, and stepped through. I followed, my steps languid and halting as if someone had turned up the gravity a touch too high. Red continued churning in front of me. I wanted to be out of this hallway, somewhere safer, less vivid. I longed for the placid tones of builder’s beige.
Room 444 had no red in it. It was an executive suite with a raised queen bed done in blacks and browns. A wooden desk, or at least a plastic-that-looks-like-wooden desk, was shoved into one corner. There were no windows. Ruby was sitting on the bed, legs crossed, hands folded on her knee, facing me with the sense of calm that usually only comes at the behest of a large injection of horse tranquilizer. It could easily be mistaken for boredom, but that couldn’t be the case. We’d been looking forward to this for a long time. She’d planned every last detail. She’d told me through instant messages for weeks and weeks how excited she was. I had to disable all the sound and vibration alerts on my phone to keep my wife from finding out.
I wanted to say something suave and masculine, but I felt confidence drain out of my body like an accidental stream of urine down a pantleg. “Uh…” dribbled out from between my lips with the vitality of the world’s most timid prairie dog, any pretense at me taking charge of the situation vanishing as quickly as the sound of that single syllable in stale hotel room air.
“Well then,” Ruby said, and she leaned back on her palms, uncrossing her legs and tilting her head back, allowing her tantalizing ginger mane to tumble backwards. She was bored, I could tell now, and I wondered where the playful, seductive minx who’d lured me away from a loving wife of fifteen years had gone. In a way, it seemed just as well. I wasn’t in any condition to do anything. I couldn’t understand why I was so tired, why lifting a foot for a single step was like trying to wrench a fifteen hundred pound anvil from the floor. I lurched towards her and crumpled to my knees.
That’s when the red invaded again. Encroaching onto the safe blacks, browns and beiges of the executive suite in a gentle tide, lapping and retreating, moving further inwards with each wave. I felt a warmth slide up my insides as the red moved closer, parts of me turning fuzzy, feeling like one of those TV channels in the upper 800’s with no signal. My breathing sounded louder, harder. Air in my lungs was soup I had to push out with the muscles in my chest. Ruby did not react. Her eyes watched the popcorn ceiling above us as its hue too darkened from driven snow to Mouton Rothschild, the kind we’d shared together the night we met at that conference in Frisco.
My hand went to my side as the TV static spread over me, fuzzing the loudest at a spot just below my ribs. Gravity pulled on me now with the force of a thousand suns, and as I struggled to force a plea of help up through my throat, Ruby stood and let me see the white flash of the stainless steel blade hitherto concealed in her left hand. “Take that, you cheating son of a bitch,” she spat, and she placed a heel on my shoulder and shoved.
I was too numb to sense the tile floor meeting the edge of my spine. Too numb to notice the click of Ruby’s shoes as she made her exit and let the door close quietly behind her. And too numb to be truly aware of the warm pool that now spread out from beneath my body to meet the narrowing sea of vermilion that mixed with it, using swirls and splashes of what was left of my life to scrawl an eerie abstract design around what the police would undoubtedly find a few hours later, once the guy in the next room noticed the smell. They say red is the color of passion. Yet even passion has many different tones, and can drive different people to different ends.
I laid my head back down in the sticky warmth and watched all the reds come together. Shades I’d never seen and would never see again. Cerise, blush, dahlia, russet, titian, garnet.
But not blood red. My dreams aren’t that morbid.
On Twitter, we are what we say. We have the opportunity to craft a complete online identity through what we talk about, who we talk with and what we share. I have met some amazing people through Twitter and had some engaging, thought-provoking and downright hilarious conversations, with folks I might otherwise be terrified to approach were I to see them out on the street (Russell Crowe, looking in your direction, mate).
Disappointing on occasion though are the Twitter bios people write for themselves. A mere 160 characters to sit on your Twitter account permanently and try to encapsulate who you are and why people should be interested in you. Folks who are using Twitter strictly as a marketing tool are the worst, describing themselves as flatly and as soullessly as the plastic widgets they’re attempting to push on you. And some traits are dropped in so commonly and so lazily as to lose all meaning – “coffee drinker,” for example, which is about as distinguishing as saying you’re an “oxygen breather.”
I’m also puzzled as to why some Tweeps waste characters with “Tweets are my own,” “Retweets are not endorsements” and “I follow back!” I understand that if you want to mouth off about how badly last night’s Stanley Cup playoff game went, you don’t want anyone to possibly infer that your profane criticism of the refereeing reflects the official views and positions of the ABC Company. I think most people are smart enough to understand that although we all work, we all have private lives as well. My Twitter life is entirely disengaged from my work life, even though there are people I work with who follow me (and I follow them). But I don’t talk about work. EVER. I don’t say where I work and I don’t bitch about work. Look, I’m at work all day, every day, and I have enough of it on my mind without it spilling into my social media life too. Saying “Tweets are my own” is just dumb though. Of course they’re you’re own. They’re not Phil’s, and they’re not Uncle Frank’s, and people get that.
“Retweets are not endorsements” is another one that to me, is a waste of space. I mean, I suppose there’s the fear that you might retweet somebody’s joke about airline travel only to find out a few weeks later that he once got arrested for masturbating in a park, and suddenly you’re a supporter of public self-pleasure by association or some such nonsense. Look, I can think Braveheart is a great movie and no one would ever accuse me of sympathizing with some of the reprehensible views that Mel Gibson has espoused publicly. When you retweet something, it’s because you thought that particular statement was worth sharing again. You’re not suddenly a staunch enthusiast of everything that person has ever said. I think this is one we just need to agree on collectively and then, just as collectively, remove it from every single Twitter bio on earth.
Finally, announcing “I follow back” or using the hashtag #TeamFollowBack is, as Ricky Gervais has said, a little bit sad. It pretty much guarantees that people will only follow you to bump up their own numbers, and not because they are truly interested in hearing what you have to say. I know I’m going against the advice of every single Internet marketing specialist here, but I think of Twitter as what the cable companies will never offer: an opportunity to pick your own channels, a la carte, without having to pay for or suffer through programs you don’t want. You can very easily build up a massive following by just following everyone you can and unfollowing those who don’t follow back, but what does that get you in the end? An awful lot of noise. I follow people who will add value to my day, and that’s my sole criterion.
So, what should you put in your Twitter bio? Well, I’m not saying mine is the epitome of awesome, but I think it’s pretty good, and here’s why. When you click on my profile, this is what you’ll see:
Writer, novelist-in-waiting, HuffPoster, Anglo, James Bond and Aaron Sorkin-phile, happy liberal, lover of martinis, women and song, preferably all at once.
1. Writer, novelist-in-waiting, HuffPoster: Chuck Wendig has a great line about how you’re either a writer or you aren’t, the word “aspiring” sucks, and that you shouldn’t differentiate just because you may not necessarily get paid for your words. Right now, I don’t make money for anything I write. I hope that will change soon, but it doesn’t stop me from writing. Ergo, I am a writer. I say “novelist-in-waiting” because I do have one finished novel, but to me, “novelist” suggests that you have more than one. I don’t yet. When I do, the “in-waiting” will fall off. And again, just because I haven’t published it and no one’s paid to read it doesn’t mean a thing. It’s a novel, I wrote it, it exists. Finally, I should think it’s fairly obvious why “HuffPoster” is there. 23 articles and counting, so yeah, that one I can back up with solid evidence and the hateful comments that go with it.
2. Anglo, James Bond and Aaron Sorkin-phile: A small sampling of my popular culture interests. I have been enamored with all things English since probably the first time I heard someone speak in an English accent, which, given the second item in the list, was probably in watching a James Bond movie. It also covers Monty Python, the Beatles and the majority of my taste in music, movies, books, the lot. And I’m an Aaron Sorkin fan because his writing helped me find my own writing voice. (Which reminds me, I must get to that in another post sometime as I believe I did promise it a while back.)
3. Happy liberal: I don’t talk about politics on Twitter (or here) as much as I used to because the anger and hate that it stirs up on occasion (read: constantly) is becoming a bit stomach-churning in my old age. But in a way, this is a shorthand message to politically inclined folks who might like to follow me that this is where I start from. If you’re a worshipper of all things Ronald Reagan, free market libertarianism and neo-conservative warmongering, I don’t think you’ll find me very interesting; in fact, I may make your blood boil. I certainly won’t be seeking you out so I can crap all over your home feed with bleeding heart, namby-pamby communism. Let’s just agree to disagree and leave each other alone then. On the other hand, if you think we should base decisions on science, ensure that the rich pay their fair share, stop paving planet Earth indiscriminately and live in a society where we look after each other and help boost each other up, if you believe that government can be a force for good when the best people are involved in it, if you believe that a small group of committed citizens can change the world because it’s the only thing that ever has, then sign on up, glad to have you, I might even follow back.
4. Lover of martinis, women and song: Yes, I do love me a martini. All kinds – dry, fruity, decorated with chocolate shavings or plastic parasols, doesn’t matter. It’s a drink of sophistication that makes a man feel comfortable in a jacket and tie – a throwback to the era when class and erudition was the real swag. I’m old-fashioned that way, I suppose, but in a time when being a man seems to be a race to the bottom of a beer and nacho-cheese soaked barrel, I’m proud to be an anachronism. A lover of women? Yes, dear goddess yes, in all facets. Not a day goes by where I don’t ponder a particular woman or women in general with awe and admiration. I love them for their indomitable strength, their ability to take every setback life throws at them because of their gender and say, “is that all you’ve got, little man?” I love their minds, I love their senses of humor, I love their ability to see right through us, to strip away our phoniness and our pretend selves and force us to figure out who we really are. I love the music in their laughter, the poetry in their tears. I love their connection with who they are and the world they live in. I love the scent of their hair, the softness of their skin, the tone of their legs, the elegance of their hands. I love that I’m married to the most incredible woman on the planet, that I’m the brother of the second most incredible woman on the planet and that I’m privileged to know so many of their sisters. And I love to celebrate women in the words I write – which, I suppose, is the meaning of the “song” here.
5. Preferably all at once: Because a perfect evening is listening to my wife croon Ella Fitzgerald while I sip a Vesper.
There you have it – not saying that it’s perfect or that it won’t ever change. But if you want to get to know me, it’s a good place to start. Then you have to let my words do the rest.
Putting it out there then: How do you describe yourself on Twitter?
You know what they say; put it out there, you’ll get it back. So wasn’t I just tickled to see some of these exciting responses to my recent open letter to spammers!
First of all I want to say wonderful blog! I had a quick question that I’d like to ask if you do not mind. I was curious to find out how you center yourself and clear your thoughts prior to writing. I have had a tough time clearing my mind in getting my ideas out there. I do take pleasure in writing however it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes are generally wasted just trying to figure out how to begin. Any suggestions or tips? Many thanks!
says “Anti Aging Face Cream.” Well, Anti Aging (may I just call you Aging? I mean, we all are, no sense dwelling on the fleeting nature of life here, and I have no way of knowing if you’re really someone’s aunt, no matter how many picnics you spoil), this is actually a pretty legitimate question even coming from a bot trying to put a link on my site to bump up its Google ranking (and boy, have you got the wrong site). I don’t center, I don’t clear my thoughts. Stormy thoughts are where some of the best ideas come from. It’s better to let things spill all over the page in a messy first draft and worry about the logic and the order later. Let the right brain go unfettered first and then use the left brain to clean it up. Does that help? Good luck with your complexion!
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How is sunny Elba these days? I guess living in exile two hundred years in the past there’s little to do but surf blogs to gum up with nonsense. Think I’ll pass on visiting your website, I know the inferiority complex you have and I can’t imagine how you’d feel, being dead and all, to be confronted by a living person who can write in proper sentences. I appreciate the attempt at levity with the smiley face though, that was awesome, dude.
Trust But Verify opines:
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Well, I feel for your personal tragedy in this case, but you commented on the post about why I thought it wasn’t a good idea for authors to reveal who they think should play their characters in movie adaptations. I mean, I’m really sorry you were so horrified that you wanted Christian Bale and your fans preferred Pee-Wee Herman. I can’t speak to the years of therapy you’d require to purge that horrendous image from your mind, and you have my sympathies. If there’s one thing I’m sorry about it’s that I can’t get to know all of you, as you say. The fact that you don’t exist is the main reason, so don’t go putting it all back on me, you douchey little phantom, you.
Golden Retriver labrador woofs:
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I am stunned, STUNNED that you were able to type this out with your paws when your owner was clearly not looking. Are you from that Dog with a Blog show? It totally kicks Game of Thrones’ ass all over the dial.
And… delete, delete, delete, delete. Try again, bots. Thanks for playing!
Dear Sirs and or Mesdames:
I’m not going to take the usual approach. I’m not going to be hateful. I’m not going to hurl a string of foul-mouthed yet literate abuse at you or imply that you should die painfully in a fire while you are simultaneously mauled by giant hogs wearing flame-retardant suits. I’m going to assume that somewhere behind the paragraphs of misspelled offers of search engine optimization or male enhancement meds or Prince Mbale Ntubu’s missing Nigerian fortune there is a lonely soul crying out for connection, however fleeting. And I just want to say, you know, it’s okay.
I know you’re just doing your job. I know that you never dreamed when you were a child looking up at the stars that one day you’d be forced to try and put food on your table by advising humanity anonymously on the benefits of legal online horse betting. No one grows up wanting to do that. We want to announce our names in a clarion voice to the entire world and say that I matter, and what I believe about making $6382 a month working part-time from my laptop matters.
I just want you to know that I get it. I understand the agony of thinking that you’re not being heard. Of feeling like you’ve poured your deepest emotions into your words and bared your heart only to see it scattered, forgotten, upon the wind. To see your most cherished thoughts flouted by a civilization that professes to care but can’t be bothered to spare a half second of its valuable time to click on the suspicious URL to see more, or to enter its precious credit card number for a once-in-a-lifetime offer.
How dare they diminish you. How dare they ignore you.
So the next time I sweep my spam filter clean of your sometimes awkward observations, please know that I do so with a heavy heart and an understanding mind. That I know you weren’t born wanting to do this. That I know that behind every spammer is a failed writer who couldn’t get anyone to listen, and that spam comments are the poetry of the wannabes and the never-weres.
Unless you are using a computer to generate this crap randomly and you’re off sunning yourself in the Riviera next to a couple of bikini models, you degenerate moocher. In that case, go f*** yourself.
It’s a dream shared by a great number of aspiring novelists; that someday they’ll be sitting in a theater watching their characters buckle their swash on the big screen. Browse through the interwebs and you’ll locate many an author’s website with a special section devoted to who they’d like to play their heroes and heroines. I’m not gonna lie, I’ve had this dream myself. It’s perhaps unorthodox to admit, but I’m more of a movie person than I am a reader. It probably has to do with the happier memories of childhood; more of them involve sitting on the couch with my dad watching James Bond or The Natural or rewinding that one part in Star Wars where R2-D2 gets zapped by the Jawa and falls on his face to giggle at it for the nineteenth time, than involve hiding under the covers with a flashlight in the wee hours of the morning flipping pages of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer or the Black Stallion books. But we all chart our course toward our dreams in different ways (Tele, you must be influencing me lately with these nautical metaphors I’ve become prone to). Lately it’s been reading Percy Jackson as a family and noting how much was changed for the adaptation and thinking (blasphemy!) that the screenplay was an improvement. Novels and movies are both in the business of telling stories, but they are drastically different media and what works in one fails utterly in another (see: Tolkien purists’ criticism of the changes in the Lord of the Rings movies).
Nicholas Meyer, the director of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, in his excellent DVD commentary for that film, talks about the limitations of certain forms of art: a painting does not move, a poem has no pictures and so on. The person experiencing the art has to fill in the rest with his own imagination, his own personality. Only movies, says Meyer, have the insidious ability to do everything for you. What does that say about the creative process of someone who writes a novel having been apprenticed largely in cinematic technique? When I’m writing fiction, I’m going at it from two different angles. On the one hand I love wordplay and the sound of wit and a phrase well turned. On the other, when I’m staging a scene I’m picturing it in my mind as though I were directing it. My first draft involved a lot of mentions of character movement – turning away, turning back towards something else, entries and exits from the stage as though they were actors shuffled about by a beret-wearing and megaphone-wielding auteur in his canvas chair. I’m basically writing the movie I see in my head, with the dialogue timed the way Aaron Sorkin does it, by speaking it out loud and judging its flow. (I do write a lot of – and probably too much – dialogue, but, without trying to sound immodest, it’s what I’m good at, and to me, there is no better way for characters to get to know each other and to reveal themselves to the reader. I almost wrote “audience” there; see how the two media are so irrevocably intermixed in the recesses of my brain?)
I’m much lighter on physical character description, however, and I give just enough to establish those traits that are, in my mind, crucial (you may disagree). I’d rather that you cast the part yourself. You probably won’t see my protagonist the same way I see her, and that’s totally fine. In fact, it’s against my interest as someone who is trying to captivate you with my story to tell you how it should look in your mind, and that your interpretation is dead wrong because I made her up and she’s mine and so are all her subsidiary rights. You need to be able to claim her too. With that in mind, I’m happy to let you indulge in your own speculation once I let the story out into the world but I’ll never tell you who I think should play her. Let’s be mindful of the tale of Anne Rice, who famously blew a gasket when it was announced that Tom Cruise would be playing Lestat in Interview with the Vampire, only to publicly recant and offer Cruise heaps of praise after she saw the actual movie. Besides, if we ever get that far, authors (unless they’re J.K. Rowling) have zero say in who plays whom. Often the real world gets in the way anyway – the preferred choice either isn’t interested or isn’t available. There’s also the possibility that you don’t get your dream cast but you end up with somebody better. I seem to recall that on Stephenie Meyer’s website years ago she talked about wanting Henry Cavill (the new Superman) to play Edward Cullen; without getting into my opinion of the quality of those movies it’s probably fair to say that no one among the many Twihards of the world was disappointed with landing Robert Pattinson instead. (Truthfully, had it actually been Cavill they would have lusted over his smoldery-eyed poster just as much.)
What, then, is the point of the preceding rant? As the chairman of the British “Well Basically” society would say: well, basically, I think authors and aspiring authors do their readers a disservice when they talk about who they’d like to see play their characters in a hypothetical big screen version. Even though it’s usually done all in fun, that interpretation gets taken as definitive since it’s coming from the creator, and any ideas the readers and fans might have had, imaginative as they might have been, are immediately supplanted because, you know, the guy who actually made it up has spoken. It was like when Harry Potter merchandise first hit the shelves and all the kids who had until that point been making their own creations out of spare cloth and construction paper now settled for making their parents buy the officially licensed, made in China plastic crap.
So, in the unlikely event that someone someday wants to make a movie about something I’ve written? Don’t ask me who I’d cast; my own counsel will I keep on that matter, young padawan. I’ll be perfectly happy so long as they find a role somewhere for this lady:
You know, if she’s available and she’s interested.
When I wrote this last summer it was just talk. Rumour, speculation, wishful thinking perhaps on the part of defeated Liberals nostalgic for the glories of bygone days. I wrote it with a sense of hope and optimism and something of a knowing smile after watching both seasoned, professional political pundits and anonymous Internet hacks (or is it seasoned anonymous pundits and professional political hacks) fall all over themselves concern trolling Liberals over their potential leader-in-waiting, who hadn’t even declared his intentions at that point. It seems so long ago. But last night it became reality. Justin Trudeau is the new leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.
Not that the concern trolling is going to stop. In fact, it’s been going on through the entire Liberal leadership race. Charges that Trudeau is nothing more than a silver spoon-fed famous last name with good hair and no policy experience. We’ll just see it ratcheted up a thousand degrees now that things are official. The jumped-up frat boys of the Conservative war room have been squirming giddily for months now with dozens of attack ads ready to saturate the airwaves with the same message: He’s too young, he’s not ready, and Canada desperately needs the seasoned economic stewardship of Messrs. Harper and Flaherty – those same guys who boast to any available microphone that Canada’s economy is doing better than anywhere else in the world but is also, paradoxically, apparently so fragile that it will collapse in a heartbeat if they’re not allowed to keep running Economic Action Plan commercials (which, as you file your taxes this month, you should remember that you’re paying for) every two minutes.
Liberals worry about the coming onslaught. (The first ad has already been released, but I’m not dignifying it by providing a link.) But they won’t be as effective against Trudeau as they were about his predecessors. Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff were unknown quantities – the former a lesser known junior cabinet minister, the latter almost completely unknown outside academia – and vulnerable to being defined before they could define themselves. Most Canadians’ opinions about Justin Trudeau have been more or less cemented at this point. If you already like him, you’re not going to be swayed by what the nasty Conservatives say, and if you’re still holding on to an NEP grudge, you were never going to vote for him anyway (and fortunately for Liberals, that’s a diminishing constituency). A few veteran Liberals were surprised when Trudeau announced a few weeks ago that he would not go negative, and they rued a repeat of Dion-Ignatieff where taking the high road meant progressively less seats in the House. But as usual, they were oversimplifying what Trudeau meant – anyone who saw the Brazeau fight knows that he’ll never refrain from punching back. Saying that he won’t go negative is about the vision he intends to offer the country.
Ever since their election in 2006, the Conservative Party of Canada has governed as though they were still on the opposition benches. Forgetting that being in power means more than just fancy titles and bigger offices, and that you actually have to, you know, do some stuff, they have never shaken the mode of perpetual critic – devoting the majority of their efforts to scaring Canadians about the members on the opposition benches and blaming them for not being able to get anything done. The truth is that Conservatives don’t actually want to do anything. They are a party utterly bereft of a vision, unless that vision is enriching an already wealthy few. The Prime Minister, a passionless zombie, has never seemed as though he even likes his native land very much, quick as he is in attacking the patriotism of his critics. His record proves it. Even George W. Bush played at being a “uniter, not a divider;” Harper said famously that whether Canada devolves into a loose association of provinces and territories is secondary in his opinion. It’s all about tearing down what has been built because… I don’t really know. It’s there, I guess? He’s never said otherwise. When Harper does talk about where he sees Canada in the future, his answers centre entirely on economic progress, i.e., money. Get rich or die tryin’. For him, empathy doesn’t compute. That’s why Harper can’t fathom that there could be something more, something greater, running through the experience of what it means to be Canadian other than hockey and Tim Horton’s and a 200-year-old war no one cares about. Stephen Harper is the model of a man who has lived his entire life feeling like he has never belonged to anything, and thus spends his time finding ever more inventive ways to promulgate the same loneliness and misery in everyone else. He is the perpetual kid looking up at the treehouse where the meeting of the “No Stephens” club is being convened. I suspect I’m not alone in believing that his national therapy session at the taxpayer’s expense has gone on long enough, and that it’s time for him to retire to a bunch of corporate boards and hundred-thousand-dollar lecture circuits while the work of rebuilding Canada begins.
In the wake of nearly a decade of Canadians being pitted against one another in the name of electoral math, Justin Trudeau has an opportunity. He recognizes that it is not enough for him, nor the Liberal Party, to expect to coast to victory because people don’t like Stephen Harper. It was why I could never get behind Joyce Murray’s push for an anti-Harper electoral pact with the NDP – voters would be more likely to lean Conservative or not vote because they would feel their right of choice was being taken away. Additionally, Mitt Romney proved somewhat definitively that you can’t win an election by simply not being the incumbent; he also showed that a campaign bereft of positive ideas for people to latch onto, a campaign devoted entirely to the failings of the other guy, is doomed. And we need to tune out the pundits and amateur critics howling that Trudeau has no policies, no plans. Let’s state firmly and understand that plans do not win elections. The idea that they do is a fallacy perpetuated by political writers trying to prove they’re smarter than everyone else. I hate to keep repeating this same quote of Simon Sinek’s, but it applies as equally to politics as it does to creativity, or entrepreneurship. “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” The why – the vision – is what will carry Justin Trudeau forward, through attack ads, through op-ed hit jobs, through every gaffe and misstatement gleefully dissected in five-part exposés on right-wing media and in their echo chamber of angry bloggers. Being able to say that Canada is a great country and a light in the world, and here’s why. Join with me to make it even greater.
Barack Obama’s first campaign for the presidency was about Hope and Change – notice that hope came first. Hope resonates through fear and anger, no matter how loud or well-funded the voices of the latter. Even at their worst, human beings have an incredible capacity for optimism and are amazingly receptive to positivity. Justin Trudeau senses that this primal need is going unfulfilled by the cynical jackalopes on the government benches who never miss a chance to spread fear and xenophobia instead. His chosen course is to give Canadians a vision of a government and indeed a country that is far more than tax cuts and deregulation and policies drawn from the Book of Leviticus. There will be the hard and tedious work of rebuilding riding associations, boosting fundraising, recruiting candidates and getting the Liberal Party into fighting shape for 2015 (or whenever Harper decides to break his fixed-election date law again). But none of that matters if the message is not there. Merely having a famous surname, as his critics allege, doesn’t generate the kind of enthusiasm that Trudeau has been seeing at his rallies. What he is saying – his why – is connecting with people and inspiring them. When you reach that point of critical mass and explode into a movement, as Obama did, suddenly everyone wants to rush to jump onboard. It’s important to stress also that this sort of phenomenon is not about a particular candidate’s individual level of celebrity or indeed even who he is as a person – he instead becomes the lightning rod by which a collective excitement is channeled into sweeping, grassroots change.
Justin Trudeau stands on the cusp of achieving that.
Stephen Harper has dreamt of, but never touched that kind of appeal. At his best, he has always been a “least of the worst” option. Against a genuine movement, he has no chance. Against the younger generation finally motivated to come out and vote en masse to shape their future, he has no chance. Against the offer of a Canada that demands the best of our nature and rewards us accordingly, he has no chance. He can go finish his hockey book and look back longingly at Parliament Hill and the “No Stephens” sign in the window of 24 Sussex.
As Justin Trudeau begins his first day as Leader of the Liberal Party, let’s not get lost in the background noise, in the minutiae of policies and platforms, and the dissection of the inflection of each word by his opponents looking for find chinks in the armor. Let’s instead answer the call to participate in building a Canada that stays true both at home and abroad to the principles we value most. Let us reward those who advance a positive vision of our true North, strong and free, and let us send the cynics home to whine about it on the Internet. That’s the Canada I’d like to see, and the one that I believe Justin Trudeau has a chance to make happen. With our help. A black man did not win election to the Presidency twice just because he was a great speaker. And Justin Trudeau will not be elected Prime Minister on the reputation of his father. In the end, the why will secure the win, just as it would if his name was Justin Terkowicz.
And so, as a famous fictional president would often opine, what’s next?
I feel as though I have been writing a lot of tribute pieces lately, both for people I’ve known and those whose stories have come to me through the perpetual tide of information that is our 21st Century, digitally connected world. Today, on what would have been his birthday, I’d like to spend a few words on someone who wouldn’t have known a Tweet if it pecked him in the eye – my grandfather, Jack.
It seems to be a recurring theme of my life that some of my closest family bonds have been forged with people I’m not physically related to; the same goes with the only grandfather I ever knew. My mom’s father passed away when I was three, and my paternal grandpa died before I was born. Jack himself had another family before encountering my widowed Nana. Born in 1927 as the second oldest of four, he served in the Canadian Air Force and worked most of his life at a packaging company in Toronto – back in the era when you worked at one company for life and retired at 65 with a healthy, well-earned pension. His first marriage, while ending sadly in divorce, did see him have one son, with whom he’d have a complicated relationship until the very end. He met my grandmother in the late 70’s, and they were inseparable from then on, dividing their time between his cottage home in Muskoka and her winter retreat in Florida before finally tying the knot just a few short years before her passing in 1993. But to us, he was always “Uncle Jack.”
I wish I had more to relate about his history, but that was Jack – unlike the yarn-spinning stereotype of the happy grandpa, he rarely talked about his past. He did like to chat, but the stories were always recent, within the last few months. Jack never once talked about the war, or his first marriage. He was very much a man who bore his history quietly, preferring to live in the moment and look to the future. One of the stories I do remember fondly was his tale of his exploits at the aforementioned packaging company. I don’t recall the name of the firm (or whether they even exist anymore), but they handled printing the boxes for several large corporations, one of which was Labatt’s (one of Canada’s biggest beer companies, for the uninitiated). After a long night printing boxes of Labatt’s Blue, it was time to swap out the plates for the next run, which happened to be for feminine hygiene products. However, apparently the ink had become saturated in the rollers and when the machine started up again, boxes of “Labatt’s Maxi Pads” began tumbling off the line. (I’m all in favour of brand diversification, but that might have been a stretch of a sell.)
After my father died, Jack was the man I looked up to, and even though I only saw him five or six times a year, he did his best to fill that mentoring void. And frankly, there were times I resented it. I didn’t understand why whenever we visited his cottage, I’d be stuck helping him rebuild his bathroom on a sunny hot day while my mom and sister got to play in the lake. I hated being reminded constantly to stand up straight or hold the door open for the ladies first. For a while I thought he just didn’t like me, or that he was trying to make up for his awkward relationship with his son. Yet the lessons were seeping through – the love of the peace of nature, the appreciation for the music of the past. Practical skills like the few handyman tasks I actually know how to do, how to tie a tie, how to drive a car. But above all else, the abiding respect for women. If my father planted the seeds in me of what it means to be a man, Jack taught me how to be a gentleman. He was a sterling example of how to carry oneself with dignity, poise and confidence, in the old-fashioned manner that most will agree has been lost nowadays, to our detriment.
When he sold that cottage on Muskoka’s Birch Island, I was furious. It was a formative piece of the world for me – we’d spent a part of every summer there and even a few winters, back when it got so cold that the lake froze over solidly enough to drive across. I learned to fish, windsurf and drive a boat there. I developed my first real crush on a girl there – the beautiful and wild Christine Moody, whose family owned the cottage next door. (You can imagine how damaging to a young ego it was to learn later that she actually dated the elder son of the couple who bought the place from Jack). I can close my eyes and picture with laser-like clarity the smell of the air, the sound of boats driving by in the night and recollect the emotions I felt in almost every step I took up the winding, woodchip-strewn path, lighted by lamps that resembled giant mushrooms. I could not believe it wouldn’t always be there, and I know I was angry with Jack for a while because of it. In August of 1989, on our final visit to Birch before its new owners took possession, I decided I wanted to do something special as a final goodbye to this magical place. Across the water from Jack’s dock was a much larger island, probably about half a kilometer away. Years earlier my father had swum that distance, and I wanted to pay tribute to him by doing the same. Despite my chilly, immature sentiments toward him for selling “my” cottage, Jack drove me across in his boat, I hopped out and began swimming back. He stayed alongside me the whole way, until I climbed wearily out onto his dock again to the smiles of the rest of my family. A quiet guardian, never too far from view; that was Jack.
He was with me at every atrocious school band concert I ever played in. He was with me when I went off to university for the first time. Even as I grew older and we fell out of touch for a while, he was with me. Jack was fortunate that in his last few years he had the company of a truly remarkable woman named Fran, whom we still talk to and visit from time to time. At my wedding six years ago, Jack and Fran were caught in traffic and were late. They caught only the tail end of the ceremony. Jack’s health had started to waver and he wasn’t the sturdy, imposing man with the rock solid handshake grip I’d always remembered. At one point during the reception, after my new wife and I had surprised the guests with our choreographed first dance (a cha-cha to Keith Urban’s “Somebody Like You”) he came up to me, shook his head and whispered two words that remain with me to this day. A rare display of emotion from a fairly private yet thoroughly good-hearted old man who’d taken this dumb kid under his wing and made it his responsibility to be the best role model he could be.
How do you respond to something like that? You don’t. You give your dear old grandpa the biggest hug you’ve ever given him in his life. And you carry those words with you to the last of your days. Reflecting on Jack today I wish I’d been a little more patient with his lessons, wish that I hadn’t been so preoccupied with my own juvenile troubles that I’d taken more interest in his life and learned more of his history, that I might be able to share it with his great-grandson. We kind of assumed that Jack would always be there. I guess in many ways he will be. You just have to lift your head from the water and look to your left. He’ll be steering that red and white boat with the 70 horsepower Evinrude outboard motor alongside, keeping your course straight and true.
Smooth sailing, Uncle Jack.
Amanda Todd. Steubenville. Now Rehtaeh Parsons. When declaring one’s opposition to bullying seems to be the most in vogue catchphrase nowadays, why is the act itself still happening? Why do young people continue to think that assaulting girls, sharing photographic evidence of same to Facebook and then tormenting the victim relentlessly until she takes her own life is within a galaxy’s reach of acceptable? Why are wealthy libertarian op-ed writers continuing to excuse this utterly reprehensible behavior in the guise of “freedom of speech,” “boys will be boys” and “she was asking for it”? Joseph Welch famously brought an end to Senator Joe McCarthy’s career by saying “At long last, have you left no sense of decency?” In a similar vein, I am left to ask, “seriously, what the hell is wrong with you people?” Truly, what in the name of God has gone cockeyed in the wiring deep in the cobweb-strewn recesses of your addled little misogynist brains? How many more young women are going to have to suffer before you grow your ass up and act like a goddamned man?
I don’t understand it.
I went to my share of house parties when I was young. I was intoxicated at a few of them. I was surrounded by intoxicated women. Some of them were very beautiful, and being near them in that kind of environment would stir the expected physical reaction. Yet never once did I or any of my friends take advantage of a girl in her most vulnerable moment or try to document the act to laugh at later on. No matter what might have been aching down below or how much beer was flowing through my veins I never forgot about the humanity of my fellow partygoers, and never failed to treat them with the respect they deserved. Perhaps it was how I was raised. What I don’t get is why respect for women by men seems to be considered in many circles effeminate; that the way to get on with “the boys” is to describe in nauseating detail the perverse sexual acts one would like to perform on the stunning blonde who just sauntered by (that is, if, in reality, the one doing the boasting could manage to get his pants off before an, um… early finale.) No one is telling any man that you don’t have to enjoy the sight of a beautiful woman or relish the desire that she makes you feel. But you’re not a hulking, lumbering cro-Magnon who has to stick it in every available hole and then publish the evidence to the Internet while your buddies giggle like glue-sniffing hyenas. You are better than that. Despite what you may believe, the brain in your head can actually overrule the one in your boxers. You can tell your pals that “that’s not cool, bro,” and see that the girl who’s had too much to drink makes it home safely and unharmed. You can tell classmates who mock her to shut their filthy mouths. That’s being a man. And I wish so desperately that someone could have been a man for Rehtaeh Parsons.
A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece about International Women’s Day in which I stated that I was ashamed of my gender for some of the things men have done. An anonymous commenter whom I imagine was short of a few IQ points (not to mention the cojones to use his real name) suggested I should seek therapy, and whatever happened to personal responsibility? That is the essence of the problem, right there. We don’t take responsibility for each other. We watch acts of misogyny and femicide on the news and shrug. We let our governments slash funding for social programs that help the less fortunate so we can buy a new iPod with the few bucks we save on our tax bill. We have “professional,” highly-paid mouth-breathers with massive bullhorns like Tom Flanagan polluting our discourse by asserting that looking at child pornography is a victimless crime (because for him it’s a question of individual liberty, or some other “don’t tread on me” bullshit) or Barbara Amiel claiming that had only the girl in the Steubenville case been wearing something like a burqa, the jumped-up little cretins who attacked her might have been able to resist their primal urges. We reduce everything to right versus left and shun compromise and common sense in favor of ideological purity. I am sick to death of society washing its hands of crimes like this one with the cop out that “it’s not my fault.” We are all at fault because we don’t challenge each other to better ourselves. “I’ve got mine, to hell with all of you” is going to be the epitaph of humanity. Homo sapiens may endure for some time yet, but humanity will be lost in a flood of apathy and indecency if we don’t start working to correct this right now. Let’s not lie to our kids that it gets better and then do jack to actually make it better.
As the father of a son on the cusp of his teenage years, when hormones he can’t control start flooding his body with feelings he can’t manage, it is my responsibility to teach him the importance of respect and what it really means to be a man when it comes to how he treats women and indeed anyone who is vulnerable. As long as I’m breathing he will never be one of those fratboy douchebags who would stand idly by while a girl is being violated, or worse, record it and share it with the world. He’s going to be the guy who escorts her out of danger and threatens to kick the ass of anyone who gets in his way. So help me, he’s going to be a crusader for girls and women, the way real men are. And he’s going to pass the same lessons on to his friends and his children and everyone else he meets.
I mourn Rehtaeh Parsons deeply. A light in the world that should have shone for decades has gone out. And I fear that unless we change our ways she won’t be the last. One looks at the U.S. and how even after schoolchildren were massacred by a gunman, outraging the world, they still can’t pass any kind of sensible gun control legislation because of too many powerful people whining about “personal liberty.” In a world where children’s bodies can be shredded by a legally purchased firearm, and where a young woman is driven to kill herself by a pack of hormonal cowards shaming her on social media for something that wasn’t her fault, no one is free.
We should all be ashamed. What the hell is wrong with us?