Monthly Archives: September 2015

Veils and Themes

I am back home, and tired. The trip to see my brother was good. One of the goals was to see the play he produced, Veils by Tom Coash, and it was excellent. I had been working on a post about suspense, but that actually fits quite well into October’s theme about scary stories, and the play is making me itch to write something about it.

Between how mentally tired I am and how quickly this has to be done, in order to fit my four posts a month quota, this will be a short piece. That feels a bit unfair, as I think the play deserves reams of pages of praise, but a few hundred words will have to do.

Veils is about two young women in Cairo, one American and one Egyptian, one conservative and one boisterous and modern. Contrary to most American’s expectations, Samar, the Egyptian, is the one who is more liberal and defiant of tradition, while Intisar, the American, is more conservative in her personality and wears the hijab. Neither of them, however, is a weak-willed woman. They are both activists who fight for themselves and their values, they are both capable of thinking outside the confines of their personal ideologies, and they both have blind spots. On the drive back, my boyfriend and I enjoyed picking apart their personalities, the way their lives lead to their perspectives and what caused their disagreements. The complexity of their characterization is essential to the play, because they are the only characters. Every scene is purely between the pair of them.

I think a story can build a theme in three different ways. One; they can directly talk about a specific issue. Two; they can form an indirect allegory for that issue. Or third, to borrow Tolkien’s word, they can be applicable. You can glean ideas from them that apply to many issues. It’s this last one that I think is most valuable, and that creates the most enduring stories. From its description, Veils at first seemed like the first kind of story, but it was really more of the third. It was about Egypt, but it was About people who disagree while caring deeply about each other. It was about the struggle to have a dialog that allows multiple points of view to be heard. It was about learning to rethinking your own ideas, and see human beings on the other side, instead of just talking points that enrage you because of how Obviously Wrong they are.

So yes, I feel very strongly that this is not only a good play but an important one. I happened to catch the closing night performance of my brother’s production, but it is being picked up in cities across the country. If any of you happen to get a chance to see a showing, take that chance! It is too excellent to miss.

And while you’re it, if you’re in the Atlanta area, keep an eye out for New Origins Theater Company. They are putting together great stuff.

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Is Repetition Always Bad?

One of the most acclaimed books of modern YA fiction is John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. Despite this, I somehow happened across a negative review. It was actually a fairly good negative review too. By that I mean the reviewer explained her perspective clearly, without resorting to personal attacks on John Green or his fans, and made points to support her case. At the end I still disagreed, but I also felt like I was disagreeing with an intelligent person, which is so much more pleasant than the alternative.

One of the points she made is that John Green keeps revisiting the same ideas. His protagonists bear a strong resemblance to each other, as do his love stories and their character arcs. At the time I watched the review, I had actually only read TFIOS, so every other one of his books I have looked at through the lens of her point. I don’t know what I would think if I had read them unbiased. But, for the record, I think she’s right. There are similarities across his protagonists and similarities in the kinds of people they fall in love with. That said, consciously noting these similarities hasn’t stopped me from enjoying any of his stories, which has made me wonder, is it really so important for writers to avoid repeating themselves?

I remember, when I was in my early teens, being very offended when a peer said they were getting over the Redwall books because “every one was the same.” I got up and shouted in her face (not one of my prouder memories) that she was wrong, and looking back the reason for my offense was that I agreed and I did not want to. Brian Jacques’ early novels had some real variety, but the longer the series dragged on, the more clear his formula became. A few books after my ugly outburst, I quit the series myself. Ever since, I’ve assumed repetition was a bad thing.

And yet, don’t I often return to the same authors because they repeat themselves? I read Neil Gaiman to experience old fairy tales in a new light that still feels more mystical than ever, and to feel half happy half sad regardless of whether the ending is technically “upbeat” or “a downer.” I read Umberto Eco to experience a conspiracy thriller that is at least three layers deeper than your average conspiracy novel. I read Jane Austen to watch a Regency heroine get a man who should be way out of her league only it turns out he isn’t.

My interest in this question, I should confess, is not completely neutral. I have my own favorite themes, favorite topics, even favorite characters who I would like to dress up in different outfits and fit into as many stories as I can. Even on this blog, there are issues that, once I have discussed them, I don’t want to let them alone forever. I want to come back, and tackle them from different angles.

And there, I think, is the secret. I think that recycling elements is completely acceptable, but there is still a need to use them in new ways. If you are writing a book that is exactly like your last one, with a few scenes switched around and certain characters renamed, that leaves the question, why did you bother? Why am I supposed to spend money on this book when I could get exactly the same experience from rereading the one I already have?

Sometimes the answer is something like (spoilers), “well, this one time the eccentric isolated protagonist wasn’t going to get together with the hot adventurous one because he was seeing her through a lens of his own idealizations and it wasn’t a real relationship to begin with. Before that, the eccentric isolated protagonist did have a real relationship with a hot adventurous love interest, but it was an obsessive one that was deeply rooted in his own insecurities. Instead of learning to see his love interest through a different set of metaphors, he needed to see himself and his life in a different place. Then, after that, I wanted to show the readers what it would be like if the eccentric isolated protagonist and the hot adventurous love interest were perfect together except for the whole thing where they’re dying, because like all writers I am Evil.” Well then, fair enough.

Of course, the answer for what is too self-derivative and what is simply an author’s style is likely to vary from person to person. What do you think?

Three Posts, Four Days, and Infinite Doubt

When I reopened this blog, so to speak, I made a decision that I would post four times a month, no matter what. If I could, I would post more, but this would be my minimal goal. I’ve stuck to that pretty well… up until this month. September has been rough. After a two week break I’m back working at my school, and the county’s hours have shifted so I have even less time home in the evenings. I also have had trips and visits I couldn’t put off so many weekends, and my writing time has mostly been focused on my current project. Somehow it’s almost October and I’ve only written one post.

Fear ambushed me, and I tried to outrun it.

No worries, I thought. I always have four or five ongoing drafts. Usually I have more post ideas than I have time to write, so I’ll just polish three of them up and loose them out into the world.

No good. I have already posted all but my most difficult ones; the ones where I have something I really want to say, but am struggling to make it come out right. The gap between what they were and what I wanted them to be was too great for a single week.

I thought I’d watch another episode of Veggie Tales and do a quick review. Next on the list is Esther. Perfect, I thought. A few days later, I’m almost a thousand words in and nowhere close to done. This may be a two-parter. Not in a good sense, as in “yay I have two pieces to write!” In a bad “this will take many drafts and days to get right” sense. Two parters often take two or three times as long as writing two separate posts.

Also, as I’m thinking through these strategies, I realize that I now have less than a week, because this weekend includes a trip to visit my brother who, well, I think the word “estranged” was invented for cases like these. Hopefully it will end in happy connection and reconciliation… I’m not getting my hopes up. My brother is far too good at being the superficial gentleman and then disappearing. In any case, I don’t anticipate having any stress-free time for focused, quality writing over the weekend, which leaves me with four days to meet my goal.

Why does it matter? Can I say “Oh well, this was a weird month,” and let myself go?

My answer is no, because I’m serious about this. Some people work well with flexibility, I work best with concrete goals and plans. We often think that our emotions guide our actions, but just as often it is the other way around. I believe that this blog will help my writing career take off, if I am persistent with it. If I stick to my goals, I will be able to maintain my persistence and focus, but if I abandon my goals, that focus will fade away. If excuses are all right now they will be all right next month, and the next. This month feels like the beginning of losing everything I want for myself.

The other reason is that I have something to prove to myself. I’ve hinted a few times at a big project I have been working on. I’ve written ten short stories, which I am currently polishing, and collectively they will make one long story. I’m going to publish them serially, for free, once a week like a television show. Then I’ll take a break but come back soon with the next “season.” My big fear with this is the worry that, once I start, I won’t be able to keep it up. As with this blog, I know the key to success in this project will be persistence.

Everyone struggles with doubts in who they are and what they can do. We can give ourselves all the pep talks we want, but doubt is liquid. It finds the smallest cracks to slip through, and once inside, it takes the shape of its container. Whatever you care about, doubt will find a way to fill it up, because it’s not the amount of confidence or preparation or skill you have. It’s that doubt is a part of our nature, perhaps a part of our common sense; our awareness of how little is actually in our control and how limited our perceptions really are. The only defenses against doubt, I’ve found, are temporary talismans. This is one of mine; hitting the big blue publish button, ignoring the little voices that ask me if a post is really good enough. As long as I do this, the doubts will not come true. I will be a paid, self-supporting author someday, so long as I do this.

Well, one of the perks of being a writer is that any unpleasant moment can be turned into fodder for a new piece of writing.

There. Now it’s just two more posts. Let’s see if I can do this.

Reviewing Veggie Tales as an Atheist; Larry-boy and the Rumor Weed

You know, the whole reason my parents had me watch all this stuff was so me and my siblings could grow up virtuous and pleasing unto God. When I rewatched this for my review, I was drinking a bourbon and coke while my gay boyfriend lounged totally naked on the couch. Not for any pervy reasons, it was just laundry day. Still, take that fundy upbringing!

This one, like the previous Larry-boy, scared me as a kid, but I did watch it, very bravely. Hooray for young me. It opens with Larry-boy saving two peas from an evil scallion who took their milk money. This establishes that Larry-boy is a real superhero, despite the fact that Jr. will once again be the actual day-saver.

Oh, and that Larry accidentally creates the villain by knocking a plant onto the telephone wires of a gossiping housewife.

I love how she's vaguely sinister, and yet kinda weirdly likeable. Like you should know she's trouble, but you're so gonna talk to her anyway.
I love how she’s vaguely sinister, and yet kinda weirdly likeable. Like you should know she’s trouble, but you’re so gonna talk to her anyway.

The next day, Alfred gives a talk at Jr’s school, and when he makes a joke about recharging his batteries, Jr concludes that he’s a robot. This is understandable. Alfred’s personality is basically the same as C-3PO. On Jr’s walk home, he encounters this little plant, who talks him into sharing his speculations.

Soon, Mayor Blueberry is making a call to Larry. It seems that, despite the plant’s promise that her roots prevent the story from going anywhere, she has been sending out shoots in everyone’s yard. Wherever she goes, she spreads the rumor of Alfred the robot, and in the typical telephone game of gossip, he soon acquires laser eyes and a plan to rule the world. Mayor Blueberry warns Larry about the dangerous rumors, and also the plummeting property values. No, the last part was not me being snarky. It’s actually something she says. God, I love Veggie Tales.

Here we have Veggie Tales making a nod to feminism. I think this episode wins most female speaking parts in VT history. Sadly.
Here we have Veggie Tales making a nod to feminism. I think this episode wins most female speaking parts in VT history. Sadly.

So while the rumor weed sings her villain song, Larry-boy engages in some ineffectual gardening. Naturally, being a supervillain, she’s immune to any standard weapons.

Alfred uses science to find the mother weed at heart of the root system. Unfortunately, once Larry-boy is underground, he can’t receive Alfred’s radio directions. Larry-boy’s superpowers are basically 1. super-suction ears and 2. Alfred micromanaging everything via radio, and frankly the super-suction ears don’t work that well. He’s slightly screwed. Alfred realizes this, at sets off to save him. On a teeny tiny scooter.

When Alfred gets to the center of town, nobody will help him because they think he’s a robot.

Actual line; "I'm not a robot. I'm British!"
Actual line; “I’m not a robot. I’m British!”

As the weed threatens Larry-boy, and the townsfolk threaten Alfred, Jr’s dad finally shows up and sets Jr straight.

The Jr and Laura Carrot realize that if they go say nice things about him, the weed stops being evil and starts sprouting flowers. And thus, the day is saved! Except that there’s still an enormous weed covering all of town, and now everyone in town must carefully watch what they say because anything could be passed along, distorted and create widespread panic. But you know, the day is otherwise pretty saved-ish.

I loved this episode on rewatch. It’s definitely a candidate for Best of Veggie Tales. I also think the message is great. There is a place for talking about what other people do wrong, when they are abusing a position of authority (Hi Kim Davis!) or putting themselves up for a position of authority and they do things that suggest they would abuse it (Hi Donald Trump!) or when they are claiming moral superiority and trying to bring the rest of the world around to their ways of thinking, yet their hypocrisy shows flaws in the system they are trying to promote (Hi Josh Duggar!). But that’s a matter for adults to worry about, not little kids. Furthermore it’s not a tangled, thorny issue where you need to introduce kids to at least the concept of nuance early on. There are plenty of relevant social, legal and moral criticisms we can level against Kim Davis, and no need to pick on her weight or her hair. I think that’s pretty straightforward.

In this world of information overload and clickbait, it becomes too easy to let the real issues be drowned out by gossip that might not be accurate, let alone relevant. I try to stay out of the world of media gossip, so I might not have the most relevant example, but a few months ago there was this video by Amandla Stenberg about cultural appropriation of black culture. Media honed in on one three second clip of Taylor Swift, and turned it all into “Amandla slams Taylor Swift, ohmigod look at the catfight,” when the video wasn’t about Taylor Swift at all. The segment wasn’t even directly critical of anybody. It was just pointing out how ubiquitous the borrowing of black culture is, and there were other parts that were much more explicitly critical. An honest report of what happened was less interesting than the mean-spirited rumor, so the actually constructive topic was eclipsed.

All of which is to say, be aware of this human tendency to hone in on easy, ugly gossip. Before you engage in it, think about whether it is really helpful. Check the facts to make sure it is accurate. Don’t fuel the growth of mutant city-consuming monster weeds.

Watch me menace your favorite characters. Mwhahahaha!
Watch me menace your favorite characters. Mwhahahaha!