how I learned to stop worrying and love the written word

Written two years before I was born, Lorrie Moore’s “How to Become a Writer Or, Have You Earned This Cliche?” strikes awful close to home, and is probably more useful than any earnest how-to guide.

In high school, I once had a creative non-fiction assignment given back to me riddled with “C”s, for cliches – it was horrifying.  The grade was “Writing = A.  Creative Non-Fiction = F.”  Luckily the whole class by-in-large failed the assignment, so I got the chance for a manically-written do-over describing, in entirety, what I saw on television as I channel-surfed, so there was something about Tiger Woods and something about Applebee’s, I think.  I got an A that time.  Dr. Cognard was the best teacher I’ve ever had.  She also memorably told me, “why should we give a fuck about [one of my two main characters]?”  Tough question!

  • First, try to be something, anything, else. A movie star/astronaut. A movie star/ missionary. A movie star/kindergarten teacher. President of the World. Fail miserably. It is best if you fail at an early age – say, 14. Early, critical disillusionment is necessary so that at 15 you can write long haiku sequences about thwarted desire.
  • Make up anagrams of his old girlfriend’s name and name all of your socially handicapped characters with them.
  • The only happiness you have is writing something new, in the middle of the night, armpits damp, heart pounding, something no one has yet seen. You have only those brief, fragile, untested moments of exhilaration when you know: you are a genius. Understand what you must do. Switch majors.
  • Say: ”Mom, I like to write.”  She’ll say: ”Sure you like to write. Of course. Sure you like to write.”
  • Be glad you know these things. Be glad you are not just a writer. Apply to law school.
  • From here on in, many things can happen. But the main one will be this: You decide not to go to law school after all, and, instead, you spend a good, big chunk of your adult life telling people how you decided not to go to law school after all. Somehow you end up writing again. Perhaps you go to graduate school. Perhaps you work odd jobs and take writing courses at night. Perhaps you are working and writing down all the clever remarks and intimate personal confessions you hear during the day. Perhaps you are losing your pals, your acquaintances, your balance.
  • Scowl fiercely. Tell them you’re a walking blade.
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do what you love what you do

From an interview with Austin Kleon, on how to be a working writer – this is something I realize that I’ve been chasing as well, but it’s harder than you might think when your “life” revolves around policy/political work.  I’ve still got to put in all the life-absorbing, time-consuming effort that my friends put in to their jobs/careers – not to mention their personal quests for self-improvement (yoga! meet new people! cook something that isn’t ramen!) – before I can think about writing with the few hours that I have between getting off the metro and passing out.  It’s not easy.

“If I’ve taken risks in my life, they have been extremely calculated; I try to save the real risk for the work. My favorite quote is by Gustave Flaubert, who said, ‘Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.’ That’s my favorite quote about creativity, and that is always how I’ve tried to live.”

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“bad houses hate our warmth and our human-ness”

Title quote from one of my favorite monologues on haunted houses, in Rose Red (which itself is heavily inspired by The Haunting of Hill House).  The speaker is, of course, a ghost who embodies the “bad house” in question.

The Paris Review has a great essay on the modern economic context of haunted houses.  It touches not only on economic crisis but Jentsch’s (“where one is unclear as to whether an object or figure or a person is inanimate or somehow alive”) and Freud’s (“Uncanny is what one calls everything that was meant to remain secret and hidden, and has come into the open”) definition of the uncanny, as well as a place the author calls the Happy Murder Castle.  It’s a winning combo that digs into the psychology of horror:

The Happy Murder Castle was disquieting, uncanny, possessed of an uneasy sense I’ve rarely felt in any structure; I’ll admit there are times I’m tempted to call it “haunted.” We tell ourselves ghost stories perhaps because we truly believe in the paranormal—or perhaps because we just need a word, a term, a story for that vague feeling that would be too silly to admit otherwise.

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“Do you still think such-and-such? Do you still believe so-and-so?”

Philip Roth provides a shrewd class in Literary Analysis 101 – a class that a lot of people (readers and writers) apparently didn’t take.  Particularly relevant for people who write about fictional politics and politicians, I might add.

Whoever looks for the writer’s thinking in the words and thoughts of his characters is looking in the wrong direction…

The thought of the novelist lies not in the remarks of his characters or even in their introspection but in the plight he has invented for his characters, in the juxtaposition of those characters and in the lifelike ramifications of the ensemble they make — their density, their substantiality, their lived existence actualized in all its nuanced particulars, is in fact his thought metabolized…

The thought of the writer is embedded everywhere in the course of the novel’s action. The thought of the writer is figured invisibly in the elaborate pattern — in the newly emerging constellation of imagined things — that is the architecture of the book: what Aristotle called simply “the arrangement of the parts,” the “matter of size and order.” The thought of the novel is embodied in the moral focus of the novel…

The novel, then, is in itself his mental world. A novelist is not a tiny cog in the great wheel of human thought. He is a tiny cog in the great wheel of imaginative literature. Finis.

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“There is nothing in ‘The God of Small Things’ that is at odds with what I went on to write politically over 15 years. It’s instinctive territory.”

Arundhati Roy, on being a political writer of fiction and non-fiction

“There is nothi…

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love hurts

A very sweet post from Alex Berenson on a main character who’s been with him for years:

All of which is another way of saying that John Wells has markedly enriched my life — an impressive feat for a man who doesn’t exist. Sometimes I fear our relationship is as one-sided as “The Giving Tree.” I take from him ruthlessly. Over the years, I’ve destroyed his relationships with his son, his fiancée and now his new girlfriend. I’ve forced him to beat up innocent civilians, people he’s never even met before, because they’re in his way. I’ve made him accept that his superiors are using him for their political ends, and that he can’t stop them. I’ve shot him, tortured him, broken his bones. I’ve converted him to Islam, then stretched his faith in Allah to the vanishing point. Through it all, he perseveres, though sometimes I know he’s looking at me, Job-like: Why must you hurt me so? To which I can say only: It’s this or nothing. Besides, I get you through the worst of it.

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Our Horror Heroines, Our Selves

It’s Women in Horror month, and when I think of “women in horror,” I think of one of my go-to answers for why I write horror: because I think there’s a lot more room in horror for the kind of female characters I love to watch – three-dimensional ones, complicated ones, damaged ones, Good and Bad and Ugly ones.  Therefore, I present a chronological list of some of my favorite women in horror movies – from my junior high idols and beyond.  A note: There aren’t a whole lot of traditional final girls on this list.  Another note: It is pretty shameful how few non-white women are on this list as well.  Dear horror industry, work on this.

Daphne in Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island

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She’s the pretty airhead in the cartoons, but Daphne really comes into her own in Zombie Island, where she’s the grown-up host of Coast to Coast with Daphne Blake, in an insecure “It’s Complicated” relationship with Fred, and incredibly brazen and frankly, kick-ass.

Trish in Jeepers Creepers

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Trish was the first final girl I felt like I could relate to – she was prickly, mopey, tomboyish, jokey, outspoken, and has her heart broken by a political science student. A great mix of toughness and weakness, with also-great hoop earrings.

Clarice in Silence of the Lambs

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The FBI and its criminals are a man’s man’s world – little orphan girls from West Virginia better have a lot of grit to get ahead. I hugely prefer Jodie Foster’s Clarice, but it’s in Hannibal that you learn the great truth about Clarice: that she’s a deep-roller, baby.

Caroline in The Skeleton Key

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This is when I started to actually see myself in the day-to-day of grown-up female characters. I loved that Caroline goes clubbing, has tattoos, wears a lot of black – and is trying her best to do the right thing, despite her failings and uncertainties.

Selena in 28 Days Later

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The punk-tastic Selena undergoes some of the most important realizations in 28 Days Later: that there’s more to life than just survival, that there will be no more films, that some things are worth waiting longer than a heartbeat for.  But she was way smarter and stronger than I thought I could ever hope to be.

Marlena in Cloverfield

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Me and Marlena, we are basically the same. Surly, aware of Superman and Garfield. Go to a goodbye party for someone we don’t really know, try to avoid dumb-ass with the camera, end up with a bunch of suicidal douchebags, save said dumb-ass from a giant monster-bug, get attacked by monster-bug, explode in a bloody mess. Just another Saturday night.

Lisa in Silent Hill

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I actually never played Silent Hill, but I watched this fan-video focused on Lisa Garland as a good, helpful nurse who doesn’t realize she’s actually a monster – and, upon this realization, transforms into her “true form.” Lisa blurred Good Girl/Bad Girl.

Sarah and Juno in The Descent

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Speaking of Good Girl/Bad Girl, Sarah and Juno destroy that dichotomy. Sarah starts out depressed and deadened, grieving her husband and daughter; Juno is a risk-taking force of nature whose motto is “Love Each Day” – the same as Sarah’s dead husband. But Juno’s not a villain, and Sarah’s not sweetness and light. They’re fighters and survivors… with intense emotional lives too.

Tomie in Tomie

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Tomie’s a Bad Girl who steals other girls’ boyfriends and refuses to die, a subtler precursor to Megan Fox in Jennifer’s Body… but I dare you to try to empathize. She’s a simultaneous victim and manifestation of misogynistic lust, and as such spends her existence being repeatedly killed.

Laurie in Trick ‘r’ Treat

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The runt of the litter, the ugly duckling, the late bloomer – Laurie’s clinging to a romantic ideal that even she knows can’t last, since being herself hasn’t gotten her very far, while her beautiful sister’s set her up with a literal man-child.

Helen Lyle in Candyman

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I watched Candyman after the trauma of college, and my heart immediately went out to Helen. She’s a sharp student who I suspect married her anthropology professor and is now trying to prove herself by writing a dissertation to “bury” the Ol’ Boys’ assumptions. A little over-eager and a little blind, Helen is the original queen of kicking hornets’ nests.

Katie in Paranormal Activity

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I’m still disturbed by my love for Katie, who spends most of the Paranormal Activity series being a possessed demon-vessel, but what I love about her character is her transformation from Normal but Traumatized Girl into an omnipotent villainess. It’s a transformation she suffers because her brother-in-law sees her as expendable – but payback’s a bitch.

Ji-oh in Whispering Corridors 1

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Parents, if you want your daughters to emulate any character on this list, let it be Ji-oh. She endures an abusive school system with strength and self-awareness without compromising her kindness for others. She also makes paintings of horrible deaths to get them out of her head, and I know how that goes.

Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks

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My actual idol in Twin Peaks was Audrey Horne, but Audrey Horne was in a romantic drama; Laura Palmer was in a horror movie. She was another Good Girl/Bad Girl blur, a fire-walker, a girl you want to pin down as a teen queen, a slut, a victim – but Laura made a choice most of her neighbors wouldn’t have had the strength to commit to. Laura was a bad-ass.

Helen in “New Year’s Day,” ep. of Fear Itself

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I’ve written about Briana Evigan’s Helen before: she wakes up hung-over on New Year’s Day with dim memories of the night before – only that she went to the party of the man she loves who she believes loves her back – into a broken, burning city. Suffice it to say that this bundle of raw nerves hit real close to home.

Shelby in “The Spirit Box,” ep. of Fear Itself

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If Helen’s my picture of relatable dysfunction, then Anna Kendrick’s Shelby is my picture of relatable competence. Shelby’s dad thinks she’s “like a satanist or something,” but she’s got a heart of gold – she’s just a little bit weird and a little bit witchy, trying to stave off the wreckage caused by her mother’s death.

Sidney and Gale in the Scream series

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I didn’t actually watch any of the Scream movies until I watched the final one in theaters, and I was way more impressed than I expected to be – especially with bitchy, stone-cold reporter Gale and sad, reclusive survivalist Sidney. I love that the Scream series makes room for not one but two very different heroines, and that they’ve been enemies as well as friends. Oh, and Dewey’s pretty cool too.

India in Stoker

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Yet another young woman dealing with the death of a parent (there’s a theme), India’s wise beyond her years, one of Twin Peaks’ ultra-sensitive “Gifted and the Damned.” She’s also wobbling between sanity and insanity, an impassive glacier punctuated with moments of extreme aggression. Don’t approach this Five Alarm Horror Heroine until you think you can take her.

Mia in Evil Dead [2013]

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I love what the Evil Dead remake did with the “little sister” character. Now a recovering heroin addict, Mia spends the movie first controlled and condescended to by her supposed friends, then possessed by a demonic spirit, and finally – finally – able to take back her body and defeat her evil self with a chainsaw. She’s like Katie, but redeemed.

All of Sarah Paulson’s characters in American Horror Story

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First, she was a tennis-playing socialite-turned-medium. Next, she was a muckraking journalist put through hell and turned to stone. Finally, she was a meek and can’t-we-all-just-get-along headmistress of a witch academy afraid of her own potential. My love for Evan Peters notwithstanding, Sarah Paulson’s unsteady and conflicted heroines are my favorite part of American Horror Story. Good-hearted and blind Cordelia is my sentimental favorite, but this gif of Lana wins everything.

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