Writing like an animator

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Today I did something I’ve always wanted to do: I saw this year’s reel of Oscar-nominated shorts.

I love animation. It brings out the kid in me, the one who used to get up way before my parents to watch Saturday morning cartoons like Scooby Doo, in pre-cable days. Animation is the medium of whimsy, wonder and the joy of the impossible. The narrative is limited only by your ability to draw/digitize it.

When I teach creative writing to kids, I use Pixar shorts. These tiny stories have a beginning, middle and end. And they’re especially good at something that every writer honing their craft needs to learn: showing and not telling.

This year’s nominated shorts included Pixar’s “Bao,” the story of a traditional Chinese mother whose “dumpling” grows up and finds his own way in the world, to her dismay. She takes the disturbing step of devouring him before he can run off with his blonde girlfriend. It’s a startling image.

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Teen rebellion: Little dumpling would rather eat Cheetos and talk to his friends.

You see the despair of this mother, desperate to keep her child “safe” from his own (non-traditional) choices at all costs. No words here, only the fears of a empty nest mother and her son’s fierce desire for independence.

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“Late Afternoon”

“Late Afternoon,” from Irish animator Louise Bagnall, starts off with an old woman named Emily drinking her tea, helped by someone who looks like her caregiver. When her biscuit falls into the tea, she follows it, transformed into the little girl at the beach with her dad. She falls into other wells of memory when the caregiver (who we learn is her daughter) brings her some old books and pictures. Scenes from her life are shown amid bursts of bright colors that fade as she grows older.

At one point, Emily returns from an old memory and stares at her wrinkled hands, shocked that she could be so old now. I remember my mother, who has dementia, doing the same thing. It’s a beautiful, seamless way to tie the sea of memories back to Emily’s present self.

Watching these reminded me that words are flexible and wonderful tools to tell stories. You can use them to simply tell what happens or you can invite the reader in deeper. I’ll show you something – What do you think is going on?

You’re crediting the reader with intelligence. The reader’s takeaway is greater. They will be more invested in the story, since they were part of the revelation.

I’m inspired now to revisit what I’ve written on this current book, to see how I can envision and write my scenes as an animator or filmmaker would.

2019 Oscar Nominated Shorts is playing for at least the next two weeks (up to Oscar Sunday).

The storyteller’s storyteller

What happened when I decided to read a book by my mother’s literary love

My mother was the source of all stories for me. She told me stories. She read me books. When she got bored of reading me my favorites, she’d add silly details, mix the story up, and get me to laugh hysterically.

I love stories because of her. Reading them and writing them.

At 83, my mother still hangs on, three years after she was first put on hospice and given ten days to live. In the last stages of vascular dementia, she is confined to a hospital bed in the family room. She sometimes smiles, but usually I barely see her eyes behind her eyelids. She speaks only a few words, which have all the right sounds and inflections, but make no sense.

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My mom back in her English teacher days.

I reach for her hand, because then she turns her head to me. I tell her about my students and what we’re reading. I am a high school English teacher now, like she used to be years ago. I want to share these things with her. I don’t know if she hears or understands anything I say.

This month I made it my mission to read a book by her favorite author, William Faulkner. Maybe it’s because I can’t know what’s in her head now. I want to understand what she thought about, what used to be important to her.

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William Faulkner

Years ago, with a look in her eyes of distant remembrance, she told me: Nobody writes like Faulkner.

This month I got my hands on a copy of Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom.  A book that has been compared to James Joyce’s Ulysses, for its complexity and the way it breaks the rules. Not an easy read. Some sentences are just strings of adjectives. The narrative often switches abruptly to a part of the story mentioned earlier.

To understand everything, I had to read chapter summaries in Spark Notes. And look up the meanings of words I’d never heard before. Suppuration, anybody? (It means the fluid produced by an inflammation.)

I’m a quick reader, but it took me a week to forge my way through the muddy wilds of Absalom Absalom.

My mom is not a southerner like Faulkner, but she loved the way he told a story. Absalom is told in an unconventional way:  by multiple narrators, most of whom can’t be trusted. Like an impressionist painter, Faulkner paints layer upon layer, filling in the outlines of events again and again, making the picture deeper and sadder each time.

373755The book reads like a mystery, even though the first chapter tells the novel’s entire plot. Thomas Sutpen—a man who grew up poor in Virginia—comes back to the south from Haiti in the 1840s to build a mansion on a hundred acres of mud in Mississippi. He gets rid of his Haitian wife, along with his first son, when he finds out she is part African. He marries the daughter of a local merchant, to get some instant middle class respectability. It’s all part of The Design, the plan he set in motion when he left rural Virginia.

The man’s sins and his broken children come back to destroy his family. In the same way slavery and racism came back to destroy the pre-Civil War way of life and made the south an apartheid for the next century and a half. Absalom turns into a pretty depressing story for all involved (And I read it the week before Christmas!)

The mystery that drives the story is, we find out years later that there’s something hidden in Thomas Sutpen’s house. It’s evil, it’s scary. But what is it?

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Something’s hidden in the house Thomas Sutpen built. It’s scary as hell, but what is it?

Several years ago I was in a class with a writer who grew up in the south. I remember teasing him that he had an advantage over the rest of us. “You have all the eccentric relatives and complicated history.”

I’ll need to read more of him to judge, but I don’t think Faulkner’s work was good just because he had rich material on his home turf. He dug into why all human beings make the choices they do, how people living through the same events interpret them so differently.

And how a person’s actions inevitably ripple down the generations. Like a father passing racism down to his son. Or my mom giving me her love for stories and good writing.

Almost a week later, the poetic cadences of Faulkner’s writing are still echoing in my head. As a writer, I want to capture some of his style (though maybe not the long sentences).

Many images from the book stick with me, especially one in particular. Faulkner describes the women of the south as “ghosts” after the civil war. I picture southern belles and tough old matriarchs, wandering the dusty streets of Jefferson, Mississippi, in their faded ball gowns, powerless and poor ghosts, far from what they used to be.

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As I sit with my mom, whose eyes flicker almost imperceptibly between open and closed, it’s hard not to think of her as one of those. ♥

Christmas Eve day, 10 am. Status: Still shopping.

flickr-target-store-shopping-carts-cropChristmas Eve day, 10 a.m.

I have ventured into the mall to get “just one more thing.”

Everyone seems to be here, cycling up and down the aisles in an endless search, Roomba vacuums narrowly avoiding hitting shelves or each other.

I am grouchy. Lines are long. Cars move slowly through the Moebius-strip like parking lot circuit.  I want to tap on the horn to speed them up, but I know it wouldn’t do any good. I wonder about the legal trouble I’d get into if I drove directly over the grass berm to the street.

Why did I come here? I had most of my gifts purchased early and conveniently delivered via Amazon. But last night I had a haunting vision of that one, poor family member, sitting amid the colorful litter of everyone’s unwrapped gifts, lower lip trembling. Does my family even love me?

Target is a sad and desolate place today, its employees tired and its shelves and racks depleted. Except for an odd selection of things:  weirdly abbreviated women’s sweaters, manly flasks, and…..bath bombs. There are lots of bath bombs. If they actually exploded, that would make for an interesting gift. Alas, they do not.

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They don’t actually explode.

I continue searching for something, anything, for a present. My thoughts go toward condemning our country’s consumerism, embedded in us so deeply that we don’t feel good unless we’re buying things. I think of how Jesus himself would see this. Would he, who was born in the poorest of circumstances, approve of this scene? Would he replay the biblical scene in the temple in Jerusalem, by kicking over the Santa and Rudolph plushies, mad that they were an affront to the seriousness of his birth? Would he overthrow the displays of green and red bath bombs?

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I believe God is able to be sad about the need-to-buy desperation, while deeply loving the people caught up in it.

Jesus would be looking at the people pushing the carts. The ones who are here because it’s the first day they could drop their kids off with a relative so they could go buy them gifts. Jesus would be looking at the employees, working one of the three jobs they need to work in order to afford to rent a room in Silicon Valley. Jesus would look at my grouchy heart, sad that I am making unnecessary stress for myself this morning (Finally nailed that gift for Aunt Flo—and it was on sale!) when sitting down and listening to Aunt Flo would be less tangible but a more memorable gift.

When my freshman English class read Fahrenheit 451 this year, we learned that a dystopia starts with a good intention. One that is thoughtful and fair. Then it gets twisted out of proportion. In the Christmas shopping scenario, our desire is to show our family and friends that we value them. We want to see their faces light up when they open a gift. We have family friends who excel at giving joy-inducing gifts to one another, and it’s a beautiful thing. But I don’t feel great when I buy something just to give somebody something to unwrap with my name on it. I want to think differently next year.

As I hang out with my family today, the grouch in me is receding. Rain has started here, just enough to give us some seasonal ambiance here in California. From the kitchen, there’s the smell of freshly baked bread. In the other room, I hear sounds of bumping, crinkling and giggling that accompanies gift wrapping. I am happy. I don’t need much else.

To all of you, your family and friends–best wishes for a Merry Christmas and/or happy holiday!

I want to write a badly written book

Disclaimer:  Oh, dear. The blogger was clearly not in her right mind while writing this post. She was last seen logged into Amazon, buying up every book she could on plot structure, suspense and character development. Please accept our apologies. 

Lately I’ve been reading whatever I can get my hands on that will make my novel better. Blog posts on how to create characters flawed in just the right way—enough to draw in the reader but not enough to get the book thrown against the wall. Books on how to create micro tension, so that your taut sentences are filled with that soupçon of contradiction that beckons the curious reader to read on. Articles on how to write your first five pages so that an agent will not be able to put them down.

I’m exhausted.

At a meeting of one of my writer groups (see previous blog post), I told my patient and supportive friends: I want to write a really bad book.

I have the urge to write something that completely veers off the road of good taste into the murky pond of self-indulgence. I want to pour out my wildest dreams into a story of forbidden love that I publish myself and put the six-packed torso of a man on the cover, drawn badly by my best friend.

Last school year, I taught a creative writing class to middle schoolers. Middle schoolers get bored easily and have short attention spans (hormones). So they write about people murdering each other on camping trips, about unicorns appearing in their backyards and mermaids having a babysitting service.

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They aren’t usually well written, but they’ve got passion and chutzpah. The stories are filled with relentless action. The kids write with confidence, because they don’t know any better.

I can use words to tell this crazy story that’s in my head. So I’m going to do it.

That’s what I want.

I want that sense of fun, that reminder that I’m the only one who can tell this crazy story that I made up, so you’d better listen. I want to write with a confidence that I don’t deserve to have. Because ultimately, while rules are important, every one of us can name a rule-breaking book that became a bestseller—or just near and dear to our hearts.

Writing is not a game you “win” because you follow all the rules. Creativity doesn’t work that way. But despite my frustration, I realize knowing the rules helps. My dad is a painter and when I saw my first cubist painting, I asked him if Picasso always painted that way. How did the guy get away with painting like that? My dad answered that Picasso studied painting for years–and had been painting for years. He knew all the rules before he decided to break them.

Maybe I’ll take a break from reading the rules now. And try some writing.

Growing a confident writer

Today I had my lesson plan preempted by an eleven year old with a story to tell. I let her tell it.

I teach Creative Writing to middle schoolers through a charter school. Last year, I had a group of high-achieving kids, studious and driven. I wouldn’t be surprised if one of those students in particular ends up publishing a book before she turns eighteen. Her writing style and voice are finely tuned, and she knows the craft of telling a story. I had her sign up for the NaNoWriMo Young Writers Program. Her mom can’t stop her from writing. She’s twelve.

This semester, I have very different kids. These kids are in it for fun, and for the cookies I sometimes bring to class. They’re funny and snarky. Minor things like spelling aren’t a priority for them. And sometimes—well, they lose focus.

A few minutes before class, Jade asked me if she could draw on the white board. I let her do it, as we waited for the rest of the class to arrive. She began drawing a character, whom she named, and told me his back story and character attributes (clearly she had been listening to our previous lesson). As she drew, she described her setting in detail (she’d listened to that lesson, too), and added another character as a love interest, with a complication:  her parents disapproved of the match (Lesson on conflict–check).

When the rest of the class came in, I let her keep going. She was on a roll, telling the story with flair, as she moved all over the board, illustrating like crazy. Her two characters find a portal in a tree and travel to another dimension. After a series of adventures involving ogres and dungeons, the two characters manage to get back home, where they are welcomed by their parents and live happily ever after. Or as Jade scrawled on the board ominously when she finished: Or do they?

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The rest of the class chimed in with questions and suggestions, totally into it. The story ended up taking up half the class. When I finally got to my planned lesson on description and setting, I used Jade’s story for the examples. What seemed like a long diversion became a great teaching moment, something I never could have planned. And, in line with my class’s taste, it was a lot of fun.

One of the most important things you can have as a writer is ballsy confidence. A belief that yes, you do have a right to tell your story. And if you put your story out there, people will listen. How do you grow this in someone? On my own path as a writer, I’ve struggled with this.

Today a kid got time and space to tell a story. I didn’t just give her that, the whole class did.

I hope this gives her confidence to make more stories.

My 30-year literary crush

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Today I taught my senior English class a lesson on my literary crush.

I’ve been carrying a literary torch for this guy for about 30 years.

Years ago, in my sophomore year in college I signed up for a required English literature class. I wasn’t at all excited about 18th century literature, so I gritted my teeth and settled in for what I thought would be a very dull ten weeks.

I found out right away what a difference it makes when your professor is bursting with passion for his subject. Dr. Max Byrd loved the writers we studied so much, it seemed like he had just come back from chatting with them at the literary salon. He bubbled over with their ideas and talked about their work as extensions of the lives they’d led.

One writer he couldn’t stop talking about was Dr. Samuel Johnson.

Over the course of the class I fell in love with Samuel Johnson. I didn’t see this coming. Most of my exposure to English literature to that point had been Shakespeare, Jane Austen and the Brontes. Samuel Johnson hadn’t written any novels or any plays I’d seen, so he wasn’t on my radar.

Samuel Johnson became a real person to me. Dr. Byrd talked about Johnson’s laziness and his inability to live up to his own standards, which I related to very much. Johnson, with his foibles, physical impairments and grand ideas, became very human. I had never learned to read literature this way—through the lives of those who wrote it. It brought deep philosophical readings like Johnson’s Rasselas to life.

Dr. Byrd wanted us to be excited about what we were reading. He said something like this once in class: “I want you to feel so strongly about the ideas we’re discussing that you’re willing to get into fisticuffs over them.”  My boyfriend at the time, who was also in the class, thought that was hilarious and intriguing. I remember him going to office hours to ask Dr. Byrd what that meant.

A decade after Dr. Byrd’s class, my husband (not the aforementioned boyfriend) and I traveled to London for my work. I told my husband I needed to see Johnson’s house on Gough Street. It felt amazing to be able to see the home of my literary crush, the place where he’d spent ten years writing his dictionary of the English language.

But the biggest reward from Dr. Byrd’s class was today, when I was able to teach my students about Samuel Johnson myself.

I could not have foreseen thirty-odd years ago that I would be a teacher, but two years ago I began teaching high school English on a contract basis for a charter school. All that I learned as an English major and never thought I’d use is coming back to me. I’m finding that I am teaching literature through the lives of the writers as well. I tried my best, as Dr. Byrd did, to resurrect Samuel Johnson for my class, to let them see him as the unusual, gifted and flawed person he was. The wit, the thoughts and ideas that made Johnson great came pouring out of me in that weirdly effortless way that happens when you’re talking about something you love.

I love that teaching is like a chain: we teach what we’ve been taught, carry on the best that we’ve been given, and inspire others to do the same.

Thank you, Dr. Byrd. It felt amazing to pass on the gift today.