(Not) Talking during trailers at Scene Missing

I can count the number of video games I’ve actually played—or tried to play—on one hand.  It’s not from a lack of interest, but more a lack of experience.  I can never remember which button is where, or what it does, so the only times I played Little Big World with my fiancé, I spent the majority of the time making my character jump up and down and clinging feebly to his character’s hand as he pulled me along.

When I went to Scene Missing’s video game-themed event, I was worried I’d miss out on a lot of references.  Scene Missing enlists seven writers and comedians to respond to seven different movie trailers, or in this case, video game trailers.  However, since the writers are just responding to the trailer, the audience doesn’t necessarily have to be much more familiar with the movie or game.

There are always good illustrations to advertise Scene Missing.

 

It is described as “the literary equivalent of talking through movie trailers”, but as I found and was told by another attendee, readers at Scene Missing aim more for humor than literary content.  This means the readings are accessible to a wider range of people, but those hoping for a truly literary event may be left wanting.

The event itself developed out of the interview and pop culture review website by the same name that has been active since 2004.  Founder Jason Mallory started off interviewing comedians like Louis CK and Paul F. Tompkins, before turning his focus more towards reviews, the local scene, and Atlanta writers themselves.  Back-and-forth reviews, in which two or more writers collaborate to review a movie or music video, eventually expanded into personal essays using the trailers as prompts.  After participating in the “Titans of Talking” event in 2012, Mallory decided to take what was happening on the website to performance, and was approached by none other than Write Club Atlanta’s Myke Johns and Nick Tecosky (Write Club keeps popping up in these events, doesn’t it?), who were interested in producing and helping advertise.  Since then, a branch of Scene Missing has started in conjunction with Write Club San Francisco, and there is another in the works in Chicago.

We were in the same room where Write Club Atlanta holds its shows, the Highland Inn Ballroom, in the Poncey-Highlands.  The set up was basically the same, minus the omnipotent timer.  At the beginning, we were made to take an oath that didn’t seem to have an end, but basically warned us not to talk during the trailers unless we were going to dress in a blue body suit and run around the room collecting gold coins.

No thanks.

 

Eli Banks started us off with a response to Portal 2, set up as a journal by a test subject at Aperture Laboratories.  There were a few laughs based on the relatable habit of not writing in a journal as much as you intend, but others clung to the fairly well known nature of the fictional Aperture Laboratories, such as reference to “the bloodstained bullseye” the narrator aimed for when testing the long fall boots.

Amy McDaniel, founder of small press 421 Atlanta and visiting professor at Agnes Scott College, followed up with a list response to Mirror’s Edge.  Jumping from topic to topic, her piece seemed to be attempting verbal parkour, a pretty direct reflection of what little you could get from the trailer.

Rita Leslie was the first of the group to diverge more from her trailer, which was Bioshock Infinite.  Her piece drew a good many laughs, describing a date with a gamer who seemed more interested in the game than his date.  She opened with the description of her date’s home by asking, “Why would you bring someone with ovaries here?”  Gaming ladies aside, it set the tone for the rest of her encounter with the guy.

Jerad W. Alexander followed with a creepy fictional investigation into late Cold War/Reagan era chemical testing on children, which served as a prelude to Dead Island.  It had a noir-esque feel to it, not only for the mystery or the gruff man I imagined searching through dusty, disavowed files, but also for the dark feel of the entire piece.  The serum, meant to increase aggressiveness, led to the children appearing like a “neon Lord of the Flies” within their containment area.  One line that stuck with me, “the only thing to destroy America is Americans themselves,” felt true in both the context of the story and a cynicism-for-the-future kind of way.

Dayne Swerdling strayed farthest from the rest of the acts by responding to Red Dead Redemption’s trailer with a stand up act.  (Coincidentally he’s from my hometown, though he went to a different high school and graduated a few years after me.)  His jokes landed well with certain people in the audience, spoken around a bit of straw hanging from his mouth.  My favorite part had to be the interpretative dance he ended with to a Dixie Chicks song.

Julian Modugno drew the Legend of Zelda into the context of social advocacy and activism by pointing out that, as in other games, it allows the player to experience saving the world and being “the one” who can make a change.  Modugno took this call to action when Occupy was active in Atlanta (“the greatest city in the South by default, not including New Orleans,” I quote).  However, his attempt to contribute led to likely widespread cases of food poisoning among the 99% activists when he brought them improperly prepared curry.  Although he mourned having given the only significant social movement in years curry diarrhea, and while he gained many laughs in the telling, the message was clear.  “We can’t expect to be saved,” and regardless of a lack of any special powers or weapons in a video game, we can all do something to improve the world—or at least try.

Jack Walsh ended the night with a story, in response to Mortal Kombat, about an older kid taking a beginner’s karate class.  A teenage bully, held back long enough to be in the protagonist’s class at school, begins to help out at the karate class and pick on him.  The tale culminated in a show down between the two while the instructor was out of the room.  After taking the older kid down by jabbing him in the eyes, the protagonist was surrounded by young, wide-eyed children whispering eerily, “Finish him.”  Of course, as soon as the tables are turned they are whispering the same thing to the bully, simply desiring to see someone’s head get pulled off, spine dangling, dripping, just like in the game.

 

Having been to three Atlanta literary events now of a particular persuasion, I can see where different groups of people overlap and bring the vibrancy and diversity I’ve come to expect at shows like Naked City, Write Club, and Scene Missing.  You can narrow them down to categories as simple as young and mature, or writers and listeners, but more specifically there are writers, actors, performers, comedians, and even puppeteers.  While Scene Missing may draw more comedians and the like to the stage, its audience is as large and varied as that at Write Club; Naked City may have a smaller general attendance, but many there are members of this far-reaching collective of people who appreciate good writing—and a show.

I’ve recognized audience members attending different events, heard about Write Club combatants befriending one another, and begun to feel fairly at home even when I haven’t been to a particular event before.  These three events create fantastic places to debut a piece of writing or just enjoy the work others have created, all within a supportive atmosphere of fellow artists and creators.  The cross over is acknowledged in the ways the show-runners have supported each other along the way, from the conception to continuation and promotion of these events, but somehow most people don’t seem to often verbalize what an incredible thing this is.  There is the feeling of “this is just how it is,” people come and go, connections are made from group to group, and the gigantic venn diagram that is attendance and types of artists grows more and more.

Perhaps I’m just a little too interested in human connectedness or the sense of community between groups of writers or other like-minded people, but this is something to celebrate.  Until now, I’ve only really experienced something similar in writing groups that gather for workshopping each other’s work.

The majority of writing events I knew of before followed either the workshop model or the reading-at-a-coffee-shop-or-for-a-launch-event, so it was a pleasure to go to three events that took the latter of these styles and added their own twists.  These were not gimmicks, but formats established to spark creativity and present prompts, to drive away monotony.

Soon I’ll be traveling back to England, where I will try to find new writing events to explore, but when I’m back, I’ll be glad to return to any of these.

 

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This post is part of an on-going series devoted to exploring the writing communities of Atlanta, Georgia, Newcastle upon Tyne, England, and the surrounding areas.  Please contact me if you have recommended events to attend!

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I became a resident of Naked City

Naked City?  Do I have to get naked?  Or is it just some kind of metaphor for the process of stripping yourself bare by reading your writing in front of strangers?

I am a stranger in my own city.  I knew this when I entered The Warhorse Cafe for the first time and could only find one person I recognized (at least at first).  I was born and raised in the suburbs of Atlanta, and yet I’ve been to more writing events 4000 miles away in Newcastle, England.  

How much can really be different though?

You have weirdly outgoing writers, reclusive writers, and those awkwardly situated somewhere in between, like me.  We’re all creative types.  What I want to find out is how these events differ atmospherically.  Is there a gimmick?  Who can read?  What kinds of pieces do people read, and how long are they allowed to stand in the spotlight?  Is there a spotlight?

Grey Street, Newcastle

The last literary event I went to was Material’s Issue #7 launch last December in Newcastle, and I didn’t even get to stay for the whole thing.  Before the second half, I had to hop a train to Darlington in order to get home that night.  (Somehow I still managed to make it into a few photos though, which I only just realized today)

I’ve helped out with Material since November 2012, despite it being harder for me to be involved in launch events whenever I’m in the US.  As a smaller literary magazine, we value the active literary community in Newcastle.  For those of you who have never been to the northeast of England, I can’t emphasize enough how significant the writing community is there—as if just having New Writing North and Mslexia as amazing local organizations and resources isn’t enough, check out New Writing North’s writer’s guide to the North East.

Through one of the front windows of Blake’s

There are various venues that have been used for writing events in Newcastle, but Blake’s has always felt like home for Material.  Maybe I’m a little biased, since it’s where I met the co-founders for the first time, but that little coffee house has some character.  Located on what has been voted one of the best or most beautiful streets in England by various polls, Blake’s is just across Grey Street from the Theatre Royal, nestled in the elegant curve of Georgian buildings.

With a mug of tea or coffee, or a pint of something stronger, the quiet of Blake’s cosy atmosphere was only disrupted by the steady sounds of a kettle or the occasional yell of passersby out for a night on the town.

So when I walked into The Warhorse Cafe to loud music reminiscent of what you’d hear in a bar, and there was something at the front of the room called “the wheel of consequences”, I knew that this would be a little different.

Exterior of the Warhorse Cafe

The Warhorse Cafe is part of the Goat Farm Arts Center, which is housed in a repurposed 19th century industrial complex on the west side of Atlanta, just north of Georgia Tech.  Although the GFAC contains performance and exhibition halls, its industrial appearance has been used in filming for both The Walking Dead and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.  The Cafe draws on this style, with a giant iron wheel on one wall, old typewriters and Singer sewing machines on various shelves and tables, and sprigs of cotton in a vase in the bathroom, a nod to the GFAC’s origins as a factory that manufactured cotton gins.

Inside the Warhorse Cafe

If Material’s launch was a standard open mic/coffee house reading, Naked City is a literary circus.  Gina and Berny, the hosts, fill the space between readers like comedic ringmasters.  The beginning of each reading is heralded by them asking if the writer is ready, then shouting, “Audience of Naked City, ARE YOU READY?”  Each reader is allowed five minutes; if they go over, they have to spin the wheel, winning them the chance to get a free drink or gift bag of oddities, or the consequence of having to buy Gina or Berny a drink.

Although some writers shared pretty standard short stories, there was also an acted out piece that drew attention to the silence she controlled at the podium, a creative essay about commuting on a bicycle from Cabbagetown to Chamblee, the question of whether breasts could be disguised by a Groucho mustachioed shirt, and a breathless rant about someone named Allie.  I think only one or two of the eleven readers ever directly named the theme of the night: obsession.

No matter what country I am in, I know good performance writing when I hear it.  I thrive on writing for the page, and only a few times have I actually written something specifically for performance.  Performance writing and storytelling are entirely different to writing what others will read themselves.  It isn’t just about knowing the pacing or where you will put emphasis when you perform it; it is having a presence, whether on stage at a coffeehouse or under a loose bit of ceiling insulation in an industrial space.  

I see the similarities between events like Material’s launch and Naked City because both events were dominated by writers who commanded a presence, who read with a tangible passion for the written word.  Americans get a reputation for being loud, but I have heard Brits who could make a room reverberate with their words, even without a microphone.  These are events peopled by those who know the value of words, because they have felt how words can change and affect you.

But it is refreshing to find a new community to explore.  While standing outside during the intermission, I spoke with a French man visiting Atlanta and the man who wrote the piece about bicycle commuting.  The former was celebrating his surprise at the city, finding it so diverse and artsy.  The latter described how much Atlanta has changed since he grew up in the area; it is so dynamic now, he explained.  Groups like Naked City are developing all around.  Recently he went to an event called Carapace in the Virginia Highlands, where people get up to tell stories, without notes.  It reminded him of the railroad workers he used to encounter at his job, and how talented they were at storytelling.  They had told a story so many times, they knew just where to pause, how to tell each part of it just right.  It reminded me of how similar oral traditions are to performance writing.  When preparing a piece for performance, the writer will practice many times, alone or with a friend to provide feedback, just as storytelling is honed through the act of telling.

Whether performance writing around Atlanta is reaching back to the storytelling which winds deep through the history of the South, or whether it is just finding new ways to tell a story, Naked City is a part of a wider network of events and people.  When I left that evening, winding between empty warehouses with walls of broken windows and well lit lofts, I knew I had just scratched the surface of Atlanta’s literary community.

Though I can’t think of any other place where the consequence for going over time is to scrub a dog bone with a tooth brush and cleaning solution for the rest of the night.

 

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This post is part of an on-going series devoted to exploring the writing communities of Atlanta, Georgia, Newcastle upon Tyne, England, and the surrounding areas.  Many thanks to Rachel K. Pendergrass for inviting me to come along.  Some writers mentioned include Kevin O’Gara, Diana Lancaster, and Nathan Spicer. 

Some Books I’ve Read in 2013

It’s that time of year when people like to look back on the months past and evaluate how it’s been.  What better time to briefly consider some of the books I’ve read this year?

 

1.  Finishing Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

Bird by Bird is definitely my favorite book about writing I’ve ever read.  It’s easy to take in in small bits at a time, giving both good advice and interesting anecdotes.  When I was finding it difficult to begin the first bit of my novel, when I was feeling paralyzed by anxiety, I used her “one inch picture frame” technique.  She advises to keep a small picture frame on your desk.  When you’re having trouble getting started with writing, imagine what you can see in a small frame like it—and fill it.  It gives you a smaller space to focus on, and even if you don’t write much more than that, it’s a starting point to build on later.  Sometimes, once you fill your mental one inch frame, you can keep going.  I would recommend reading the whole book itself, but you can also find a list of quotes from it places online like here.

I plan to reread Bird by Bird in the future, maybe even this year as I need encouragement while finishing my book.

 

2.  Rereading The Probable Future by Alice Hoffman

My decision to reread The Probable Future by Alice Hoffman was pure indulgence during an autumn trip to Amelia Island with my family, but it reminded me of how much I like Hoffman’s writing style.  Some of her books can tend towards the contemporary fiction I really don’t like—the kind of novels that lean too heavily on a flashy plot but seem to have been quickly written, which are primarily coughed up by writers that push out new books every few months at times.  However that is the exception and not the rule for Hoffman, and The Probable Future is one of my favorites by her.  It has a subtle and natural beauty to it, like much of her writing.  For example, many creative writing classes and tips advise not to start a story with a description of weather, but when Hoffman does this in The Probable Future, I almost didn’t notice.  The description was woven into backstory, and resurfaces throughout the novel, necessary in giving context and atmosphere to the family on which the story focuses.

 

3.  Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl was a nice surprise.  I usually like to wait a little while for the hoopla to die down about popular contemporary fiction, just to see if the excitement is well founded.  I decided pretty quickly to get a copy of Flynn’s book primarily because it’s a thriller, and some who had read parts of my novel-in-progress compared it to that genre.  The novel employs a narrative told by two protagonists, man and wife Amy and Nick Dunne, and though they weave a twisting story, the real intrigue for me was in their relationship.  One of the book’s strengths was how Flynn’s writing persuaded me, as the reader, to feel a certain way about the protagonists, then in a brief space of page completed flipped that.  The story itself fizzled out a little towards the end, but it seems like a more natural way to round out the novel, and it fit pretty well with Nick Dunne’s need to be liked.

It is the power play between the male and female protagonist that makes Flynn’s novel really compelling, and she has attracted a lot of attention for her representation of the wife.  So between the female character stereotypes of the motherly/virginal/good, whore/femme fatale/bad, and strong/independent, where does Flynn’s Amy Dunne fit?  And why is Flynn being accused of misogyny in her writing of Amy?  I think Amy’s character is more complex than these archetypes, but I’d have to write a whole other blog post to really get into that.

I’ll probably read another of Flynn’s books at some point in the future.

 

4.  The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Of the books I’ve read this year, The Shadow of the Wind would probably have to be my favorite.  Considering how I ended 2012 with a new overall favorite, The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey, I’m not really sure how Zafón’s novel matches up.  When I visited Barter Books in Alnwick (a favorite secondhand book store in a converted railway station) with my parents last summer, I recognized the title as a past bestseller, and when I found out it concerned a secret library known as The Cemetery of Forgotten Books, I was hooked.  

Absolutely lovely.

 

At first it was really slow reading, to the point that I considered abandoning it, but I always ended up picking it up again.  I think part of this was due to the style in which it was written, and I have to wonder if it’s because the book was translated from Spanish.  Most contemporary fiction originally written in English seems to have a certain distance or dryness to its description in comparison.  I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, I know I write within this style, but the more ornate descriptiveness of writers like Zafón is something a reader must get accustomed to if they aren’t already.  The only time I can remember reading something with a similar style was when I started Shahriar Mandanipour’s Censoring an Iranian Love Story.

The further I got through The Shadow of the Wind, the more I was drawn in to the story, to the point that by the end I was literally having trouble putting the book down.  I got the prequel for my birthday, The Angel’s Game, and I’m getting through this one pretty slowly.  With a protagonist who is an author, The Angel’s Game strikes close to home with its ruthless comments on the ego and struggle of writers, but they are so accurate it’s hard to argue.  I have no doubt my next year of reading holds the following two books Zafón wrote in the series, especially the most recent one, which is supposed to be about the beginning of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books.

 

 

Honorable mentions:  The Boy Who Could See Demons by Carolyn Jess-Cooke, Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro, and rereading Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris

 

Have you read any of these, and what did you think?  What were your favorite books that you read this year?

The writing life

I don’t have a good, concrete reason why I haven’t updated since October.  I know last semester I got caught up in things that were going on, personal struggles, and simply getting any creative writing done in the midst of that was an accomplishment.  Like other things, this blog fell by the wayside a bit.

Writing requires a level of devotion similar to other professions:  You must juggle individual work with networking, making your presence known in the world of that career if you want to move forward.  However, I feel that for me creative work can be so much more difficult than other forms of work.

I don’t mean to seem like one of those people who constantly implies that what I do is so much harder than what you do. I’m simply talking about difficulty levels for me as a person.  I can’t claim to know what it is like to work in a scientific field or write lesson plans, but I remember how easy it often was for me to construct an argument within essays for my literature classes during my undergraduate work.  It reminded me of the ease I felt, once reaching understanding, when working with a mathematic equation in high school.

Creative writing makes me miss that sometimes.  In crafting a story, I have often felt like I am attempting to climb a sheer cliff, all while taking note of the flora and fauna hanging on along the way.  Now that I have begun working on my novel, some days are like that.  On others, it feels like all the characters and ideas for events are clanging around my head in no particular order, failing to catch onto something and remain still long enough for me to form it all into a cohesive and plausible story.

But the truth is, if I wasn’t doing this, my mind would be in turmoil from the urge to create.  If I was doing anything else, I would be bored.

This New Year’s, I resolved to finish the first draft of my novel by the end of the year.  During this time I will still be working on my master’s, and luckily I began my novel as part of a long project for one of my classes.  I’ll be doing over twice the amount of writing and editing I would be doing for my assignments alone though.

Alongside this, I plan to make more of an effort to get my writing “out there.”  This includes submitting work to literary journals, and therefore crafting/editing short stories in addition to my final assignments.  I’m also beginning to explore (for about the hundredth time) the idea of writing freelance.

I began this blog as more of a personal venture, but over time I’m hoping it will develop more to help my professional pursuits as a writing, both as an official online presence and as a means of networking.  I’ve reached out to other writers’ blogs before, with some minor success.  Hopefully this year I can expand that.  If you are a writer, feel free to contact/comment, and I will do my best to respond in kind.

 

 

Recommended recent articles/posts for writers:

3 Ways to Get Published, by Brian Klems

4 Ways to Make Money Freelancing, by Robert Lee Brewer

A Second Glance at “Rejection”, by Carolyn Jess-Cooke

 

Recent reading:  The Snow Child, debut novel by Eowyn Ivey

“Alaska, 1920: a brutal place to homestead, and especially tough for recent arrivals Jack and Mabel. Childless, they are drifting apart–he breaking under the weight of the work of the farm; she crumbling from loneliness and despair. In a moment of levity during the season’s first snowfall, they build a child out of snow. The next morning the snow child is gone–but they glimpse a young, blonde-haired girl running through the trees.

This little girl, who calls herself Faina, seems to be a child of the woods. She hunts with a red fox at her side, skims lightly across the snow, and somehow survives alone in the Alaskan wilderness. As Jack and Mabel struggle to understand this child who could have stepped from the pages of a fairy tale, they come to love her as their own daughter. But in this beautiful, violent place things are rarely as they appear, and what they eventually learn about Faina will transform all of them.”

Hope: On The Gathering, Blue/Orange, and The Guardian Angel’s Journal

Despite my last post, I’ve been doing more reading than writing recently.  It began with The Gathering by Anne Enright.

(Jonathan Cape, 2007)

I’ve never been very good at getting reading done for class in a timely manner, so I decided to read it before my graduate program started.  While it did have a lot of small bits that seemed to ring with truth in a deep part of me, it was with a sigh of relief that I finished reading and set the book aside.  It is a book about loss, but it is not the kind of book that made me feel the sadness you would expect to be provoked by a story focusing on the death of the protagonist’s brother.  The loss in The Gathering seems so much more than that, and the experience of reading it was a kind of slow, grating frustration mixed with a loss of hope.

Maybe I read too much into that, but the second book I picked up for class was only a little better.

(Methuen, 2000)

Blue/Orange, by Joe Penhall, focuses on mental healthcare and racism in a London psychiatric hospital.  I appreciated the way Penhall flipped ethnocentrism, a concept considered in various anthropological studies in order to rectify early assumptions about the “evolution” of cultures.  In the play, instead of using this concept to prevent delusions of cultural superiority, one character suggests that the existing mental healthcare system is ethnocentric, and therefore proposes a change of view that is essentially racist.  Parts of this play did make me laugh, but again the overall feeling prompted by reading was not entirely positive.

Not all stories have happy endings, and often happiness is hard to “sell” to the reader.  But can’t we, as writers, inspire a little hope?

This has been drilled into me:  One of the most essential characteristics of a story is that it contains a dynamic element—something, often in the main character, changes or progresses.

At the end of Blue/Orange, the young, earnest psychiatrist has been made nearly powerless by the actions of his superior, and the patient he has been trying to help will likely not get the aid he needs.  He has discovered the racist and skewed ideas of his superior, and while he is prepared to react, bureaucratic elements weigh against his ability to effect real change.  While change has occurred, in his occupational situation and judgement of his superior, it seems like Blue/Orange merely brings the reader to the instigation of the real action of the story.

In the conclusion of The Gathering, the protagonist does not seem to have reached any sort of resolution following the death of her brother or in response to the events that occurred during their childhood.  Woven throughout the entire novel, between her odd imaginings of the past and real memories, are (1) her conviction that her husband hates her, and (2) the sense that she is entirely unhappy with her life.  Imagination and reality can be almost impossible to divide at times in this book, but the protagonist’s perception of her life as frustrating and smothering is tangible.  In the closing chapters, by deciding to simply return home after “running away” to the airport, the protagonist seems to have given up and condemned herself to an unhappy existence.  She has returned to where she started, one brother short, (spoiler) one nephew more, and no less confused or unhappy.

Now I have moved on to The Guardian Angel’s Journal, by Carolyn Jess-Cooke.  Remember my summer reading list?  Well, I’m finally getting to this one.  (And yes, I realize I talk a lot about CJC, but I enjoy her blog and she was a good creative writing professor.)

(Piatkus, 2011)

What is pulling me quickly through this novel is hope.  Although dealing with the supernatural, the characters in CJC’s book feel much more real than the distant ones of Blue/Orange or the grieving, sometimes-insane protagonist of The Gathering.  I am encouraged to become invested in the characters, and to hope with the guardian angel protagonist that she can effect a change in the life of her “Protected Being.”  Despite all the sadness and obstacles life throws in, there is an ever-coursing stream of hope beneath it all; and even if change cannot be instigated, there is a hope that a deeper understanding of it all will be uncovered.

Perhaps it is just something I need to feel right now with all the depressing reminders I’ve been encountering recently of how difficult writing as a career can be, but I think everyone needs these encounters with hope.  Reading is such an immersive experience; anyone who loves to read knows how close you feel to a character after joining them for the journey through a novel.

So even if hope is hard to write, like comedy or happiness, I’d like to try.

 

“I heard a preacher say recently that hope is a revolutionary patience; let me add that so is being a writer.  Hope begins in the dark, stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come.  You wait and watch and work: you don’t give up.”

– Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

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If any readers live in the northeast of England, take note that the Durham Book Festival is coming up!  I know I’m going to try to make it to a few events.

See a schedule of this year’s events here:

Ideas and Presentation: On The Hunger Games and The Book of Lost Things

I’ve been thinking about the difference between ideas and presentation recently.

In my summer reading plans I have, of course, gotten sidetracked, but in a good way.  I will admit though that my job has distracted me as well, however; I began this entry on the back of a map while working at an information desk, taking in turns scrawling half-ideas and in others answering questions.

But the fatigue that I feel is also somehow a blessing.  After I picked up The Hunger Games, I felt overcome by a desire to consume words, to fill myself with them, to appease a renewed hunger to read more and more.  So I picked up the next book in the series, and then the final one.

(Scholastic, 2008)

Despite the agitations I felt toward some of Suzanne Collins’ style of writing—primarily her habit, especially in The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, to frequently use fragments rather than full sentences for “effect”—I was pulled forward by the story.  The Hunger Games series is exceptionally readable because it is written at a fairly low reading level.  (On the Scholastic website, the books in The Hunger Games series are listed at a 5.3-5.4 grade level equivalent.)  I finished reading the series in a little over a week, but I’ve know people who have said they did in a weekend.

For much of the first and second books in the trilogy, the storyline remains active and unbroken in its flow.  With short chapters in all of the books, it is easy to move quickly through the novels.  Collins planned almost every chapter to end on a suspenseful note, dragging the reader into the next one.  For this reason I generally found stopping points mid-chapter.

The fragments and reading level may be explained as Collins attempting to write in the voice of the narrator, the novels’ main character, Katniss Everdeen.  In this regard Collins is successful.  By the end of the series, Collins was using fewer fragments, but I was also very accustomed to Katniss’ narrative voice.  I think it is a mark of a good story that, once I had finished the last book, I knew I would miss the closeness the reader maintains with Katniss throughout the series.

While at the beginning I felt I had some things in common with Katniss, as well as envy for some of her abilities, over the course of the story the reader remains privy to her intimate thoughts, worries, and gut feelings.  Collins’ minimalistic style keeps pace with Katniss’ down-to-earth appeal and her straightforwardness, but the frankness of Katniss’ voice never wavers into absurdity.  These are not the only reasons why Katniss is a well-crafted character, however; in addition to “growing on” the reader, Katniss is also a dynamic character.

In the final book of the series, Mockingjay, Katniss is on edge, questioning her perception, feeling less sure of herself, and seeming to frequently lose consciousness.  I won’t give away any plot details, but Katniss has serious psychological/emotional trials in the final installment of the series.  In general, she seems to glow less brightly, but that is no surprise; Mockingjay illuminates the worst crimes of the Capitol, and Panem in general.  While the plot still has a lot of action, these less physical struggles become more of the focus.

I will admit I was disappointed with the ending to the series.  Where the epilogue of the Harry Potter series disappointed me most, in this case the epilogue smooths over and ties up the end of the series rather well in my opinion.  However, the last few chapters of Mockingjay introduce tragedy that almost seemed unnecessary, and further political corruption barely hinted at before; the latter of these may have developed into a further book, had Collins chosen to drag it out that way.  In comparison to the rest of the novel, both felt like hasty additions.

(Washington Square Press, 2006)

Immediately after finishing Mockingjay, I picked up John Connolly’s The Book of Lost Things.  Let me just say—wow.  This is, without a doubt, my favorite book I’ve read in a while.  Connolly’s novel takes World War II-era England, multiple fairy tales, the loss of a parent, and growing up, throws these topics into a mix, and then paints it with the sparkling gloss of a love for stories that any avid reader will adore.

Before beginning The Hunger Games series, one of my friends had cautioned that I would take issue with some of Collins’ writing.  Perhaps this is why presentation was so much in the forefront of my mind while reading both authors’ works.  Although I understand to some extent Collins’ style (re: audience, Katniss’ narrative voice), I still wondered how much better the series could have been if written differently.  People say that’s the curse of seriously studying anything you love—it makes you more critical, considering different ways one could have done things.  While The Hunger Games as a series presents an amazing story, and I have to credit Collins with a wonderful imagination, a story is just an idea until you tell it.

Although Connolly’s novel also does not come without its flaws, reading it immediately after Collins’ novels stirred this ponderation of ideas and presentation further.  Collins’ idea may be more unique than Connolly’s, but I have always thought that a major part of writing is not dreaming up the newest storyline—post-Modernists would say that there are no new ideas.  If we are to give this credence, then it is the presentation, the literary craft, that makes a story what it is.  Perhaps there is a similar percentage to the old saying that talent, or ideas in this case, are 1% of the equation, where effort, or writing, are 99%.

Connolly’s novel presents one of those remarkable experiences I’m sure other readers have encountered where the author expresses a deeply felt sentiment one has carried for a long time.  Near the beginning, he writes:

Stories were different though: they came alive in the telling.  Without a human voice to read them aloud, or a pair of wide eyes following them by flashlight beneath a blanket, they had no real existence in our world.  They were like seeds in the beak of a bird, waiting to fall to earth, or the notes of a song laid out on a sheet, yearning for an instrument to bring their music into being.  They lay dormant, hoping for the chance to emerge.  Once someone started to read them, they could begin to change.  They could take root in the imagination, and transform the reader.  Stories wanted to be read…  They needed it.  It was the reason they forced themselves from their world into ours.  They wanted us to give them life.”

While Connolly is writing about the reading aloud of stories, I also feel that he is referring to the initial crafting of tales, of bringing an idea into existence in the form of a story, novel, etc.

You can argue that Collins’ writing style in The Hunger Games either remains flat, or that it represents the narrator’s voice in an honest and character-appropriate manner; I can see both sides of this debate.  As a reader, I appreciate good ideas, but as a writer I delight in the telling.  It is the marrow within the bones, the frosting between the layers of the cake.

Have you read either of these novels?  What did you think?

What are your ideas about ideas and presentation?

Summer reading

I’m currently reading Azadeh Moaveni’s Honeymoon in Tehran.  I would have read it a lot sooner, but I was just too cheap to buy the hardback copy when it was first released.  Sometime around then, or perhaps a year earlier, I had read Lipstick Jihad, Moaveni’s first memoir, and loved it.

(PublicAffairs, 2005; Random House, 2009)

I’m nearing the end of Moaveni’s second memoir, and to me it feels noticeably different from her first.  Where Lipstick Jihad focused on misconceptions of Iran (the country, people, and culture), the changes that had occurred in recent years, and her own personal experience as an Iranian-American moving to Iran, Honeymoon in Tehran progressively grows more focused on the politics of the country and the development of the public opinion of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad after his first election as president.

Since I followed closely online the protests of the Iranian presidential elections in 2009, it has been really interesting to perceive the beginning of Iranian concern about Ahmadinejad through Moaveni’s writing.  With the recent reduction of his power in Parliament, and the upcoming end to his presidency in August 2013, it feels appropriate to now read an insider’s view of the beginning of his time in office.

My only complaint would be that this increased focus on politics can make the book a little dry at certain points.  Moaveni is again successful in that she offers just enough historical background to clarify events and views, but I am increasingly craving more description and culture and less political analysis.

As I near the end of Moaveni’s book, I am looking forward to the massive amounts of reading I will (probably) be able to do in the commute I will have between my parents’ house and my job downtown this summer.
Here are some ideas for my reading list this summer:

  1. The Hunger Games– Suzanne Collins
    If you haven’t heard about this book, I’d be very surprised.  Originally I said I wouldn’t, but I ended up seeing the movie before reading the book.  With its futuristic/post-apocalyptic setting and readability, I’m expecting it to feel a little like the types of books I adored in one of my pre-teen phases of reading. (See:  Rodman Philbrick’s The Last Book in the Universe, Neal Shusterman’s Downsiders, Jeanne DuPrau’s The City of Ember, among others)That being said, I hope to be surprised in some ways.  I’ve heard good and bad things about the book, and am looking forward to reading it for myself.

    (Scholastic, 2008)

  2. Ceremony– Leslie Marmon Silko
    During my final English class for undergrad, we read Leslie Marmon Silko’s “Lullaby.”  I was struck by Silko’s presentation of current issues faced by Native Americans in the United States.  Where other classes I had taken, English and otherwise, focused on the mistreatment of Native Americans during the colonization and the later removal of them to reservations, I was drawn by the fact that Silko focused on current issues faced by many Native Americans—in this particular story, that of poverty related to age and work-related injury.Ceremony was published in 1977, and according to Wikipediait “remains the Native American novel which most often appears on college and university syllabi, and one of the few individual works by any Native author to have received book-length critical assessments.”Wikipedia further describes the novel as such:
    “The story documents the troubles of Tayo, a half-white, half-Laguna Indian, as he struggles to cope with returning to traditional Native American society after surviving the Bataan Death March of World War II.  As mental instability engulfs him, he turns to traditional spirituality and ceremony as a source of healing.”

    Being partially Cherokee myself, I am interested in the (nearly) contemporary presentation in fiction of Native Americans, especially from the imagination of a writer of the Laguna Pueblo tribe.  I am additionally interested in the elements of mental health Silko will confront, as I have done research on PTSD at different points in time.

    “In an America full of damaged Vietnam veterans, the book’s message of healing and reconciliation between races and people made it both an immediate and a long-term success.”

    (Penguin Books, 1977)

  3. Everything is Illuminated– Jonathan Safran Foer
    I first saw the film version of this in high school.  As with The Hunger Games, I had hoped to read the book first, but various factors that I can no longer remember led to me seeing the movie and, even now, at least six years later, having not read the book.  I recently saw the movie “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” again before reading the book. (I’m sensing a pattern here…)Foer, to my understanding through the filter of the filmic rendering of his novels and the response some of my friends have had to these novels, has a specific gift.  He can take an enormous tragedy which affected millions and make it personal.  It is his precise ability to balance the broad and the specific of such tragedies that makes these works so realistic and profound.I know the film version of Everything is Illuminated is supposed to be quite different from the novel, including less of the humor that defines the beginning of the film.  Nevertheless I know it is a recommended and well-loved novel.  If I want to read Foer’s work, I want to start from the beginning—of both his novels and my interest in them.

    (Houghton Mifflin, 2002)

  4. The Guardian Angel’s Journal– Carolyn Jess-Cooke
    I have a confession to make.  Carolyn Jess-Cooke was the professor of the first creative writing class I took, a year-long course in which I enrolled during my study abroad.  Although I truly admire her and her work, I have thus far only read her poetry.In a few days, Jess-Cooke’s second novel, The Boy Who Could See Demons, is being published in the U.K.  (Follow the link for an extract!)  The descriptions of the book have me itching to read it, as it combines the voice of a child, the Troubles, mental health, and belief.  As yet I don’t know when it will be released in the U.S.  Luckily Jess-Cooke’s first novel also bears an intriguing description:“When Margot Delacroix dies at forty-two years old, she is sent back to earth as a guardian angel—to herself. Renamed Ruth, she is forced by divine mandate to re-experience and record her biggest mistakes and fiercest regrets from the beginning of her life to her untimely death.

    Forced from the moment of her birth to witness the cogs of fate and the stuttering engine of free will, Ruth sets out to change the course of her life, and, ultimately, to prevent her premature death. When she realises that the reasons behind her teenage son’s descent into drugs and murder lay within her own actions as Margot, she makes a pact with a demon—she will give up her place in Heaven in exchange for the opportunity to save her son from his fate. But the changes she makes result in consequences no one could expect…”

    Check out Jess-Cooke’s blog for the recent posts she made about writing the setting and two of the characters from The Boy Who Could See Demons.

    (Little, Brown/Piatkus, 2012)

  5. Norwegian Wood– Haruki Murakami
    When I saw the brick of a book my friend was carrying around most days during the fall semester, I knew it had to be a worthy read.  However, even she admitted that 1Q84may be a little hefty to start off with for someone who’s never read anything by Haruki Murakami.I’ll admit, I’m a little drawn to this novel because of the relation of the title to the Beatles’ song.  However, Slate’s November 2011 articlelists the novel among two others recommended for readers just starting on the Murakami reading list.  Just as added recommendation, another of my friends said he was starting off with this one.Slate says:
    “This 1987 novel is the book that made Murakami famous—and he’s been running from it ever since. Unlike his previous four novels, which incorporated the surreal elements that have since become his hallmark, Norwegian Wood marked his efforts to write in a “realistic” mode. The book is pop not just in style and allusions but in mood: In it, a thirty-something narrator, Toru Watanabe, recalls his heady college days in Tokyo in the late ’60s through a wistful gauze. After Watanabe’s best friend kills himself, he falls in love with that friend’s former girlfriend, a laconic, troubled echt-Murakami inamorata who accompanies him on long walks through the city. …the novel’s late-adolescent sentimentalism holds up: This is Murakami doing one of the things he does best.”

    (Kodansha, 1987)

Have you read any of these books or others by these authors?  What did you think?  What would you recommend that I read?