Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Seclusion

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This past weekend, a friend and I escaped to the Green Mountains for a writing weekend. We're both feeling stressed about our theses (I'm so freaked out now, eight months in advance, I can only imagine the basketcase I'll be in January), and one day when we were at a writing conference in South Carolina, she said, "You know what I'd love to do? Rent a secluded cabin somewhere and just write." Well isn't that funny? I had been trolling vacation rental sites with the same idea.

The picture above was the view from our deck. There was no TV, we watched a movie each night via laptop and had to trek up to the main house to access the Internet, a trip we made only once a day, when we were done working. I don't know the last time I was so disciplined, or when I got so much done! It's the cruelty that comes with the ease of writing on a laptop: constant access to the world's greatest procrastination tool. I revised three stories over the weekend. Three! Who knew I even had that in me?

I vowed that when I came home I wouldn't lose my momentum but I admit, it's been a challenge. I keep thinking of that little cabin with its sweet porch, the horses across the way, the quiet and comfort. Sigh.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Hollywood Today

With the advent of the horrible looking What to Expect When You're Expecting... the movie!, a film no one asked for that is based on a reference book about parenting, Hollywood has officially hit rock bottom. I know, I know. It seemed like they'd gotten there with the also recently released Battleship, a movie based on a board game (item #437 on the list of things I thought I'd never write), or maybe when someone had the audacity to remake Total Recall. Maybe we could blame George Lucas who, instead of making anything new has just been endlessly revising the Star Wars franchise. But no, I place the blame squarely upon the shoulders of Expecting, and here's why.

This movie uses the tired trope of the gigantic ensemble cast. There was a time when this idea was innovative and fresh, now it's just an excuse to cram as many stars as possible into a film while not having to actually do any work whatsoever with the script. Movies in this format never allow the audience to connect with the characters. Instead of watching a character grow and develop to a satisfying resolution, the payoff is finding out how all of the characters are related which, as a side effect of the prevalence of these types of movies, is exceedingly simple to sort out after everyone has been introduced.

The fact that this movie was made spells doom for the future of film. Excuse me, not of film, but of movies. Let's go through this. First, someone had to think to themselves, "You know what would make a really cool movie...?" I imagine they did this while blowing lines off a pregnant woman's stomach, as I imagine most Hollywood movie ideas germinate. Then this person found someone else who thought this was a good idea. Shockingly, this happened. Someone had to take the time to write the script. (This person I like to imagine saying, "You want to do what now? Seriously? And you'll pay me how much? Sucker.") And then all of these stars read this script and agreed to do it. Yes, money is tempting, but for god's sake have some integrity.

The last piece of this tapestry of shame belongs to the audience who will no doubt fill the theaters, thereby perpetuating the cycle of awful movies as Hollywood realizes no matter what kind of shit-smeared diaper they splash across the screen, if J. Lo is in it, the people will come. (And come on, J. Lo! You've done good movies! You know better.) People refuse to admit they're watching the same movies over and over. Sometimes literally as in the endless parade of remakes released every year, and other times more surreptitiously, with the exact same plot trotted out over and again. Fast food restaurants have long understood the value of serving the same product at all of their franchises, it's what rocketed McDonald's to fame, but movies aren't supposed to simply nourish you (and I realize using McDonald's and "nourish" in the same sentence is questionable). Film, books, art, dance, drama... they're meant to feed your soul, lift you up and inspire you. Movies should evoke emotion, and not in a pat way (child with cancer = sad), but in a way that makes you think a little differently and really feel something.

Yes, there's a place for lighthearted entertainment. But there are examples of that which still have value beyond a tired old plot. Bridget Jones' Diary looks like a standard chick flick, but with snappy dialogue and a great cast, it inspires. Blade Runner is a terrific example of sci-fi that goes beyond slick FX and questions what is human. The original (from the 70's, NOT the 80's) Texas Chainsaw Massacre terrifies without resorting to gore. Notice a trend? These are all older movies. When it seemed that Hollywood took the time to come up with new ideas and trusted the audience to want to think a little. Because honestly, what is Hollywood telling us when they make drivel like Expecting? That we're not smart enough to know better. For the love of god, moviegoers. Prove that you know better.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Review: The Beggar Maid

In honor of Emerging Writers Network's Short Story Month, I'm going to focus my review energy on my favorite short story collections.

Alice Munro needs a glowing review as much as she needs writing advice, but The Beggar Maid, being one of her earlier books, doesn't receive as much attention as her later collections. While her later works are huge, sprawling, lush stories spanning decades, many with her trademark double ending bending time, the stories in Maid are much more focused. Perhaps this is because the stories are linked, so as a whole they follow Rose from her days as a young girl into middle age.

Still evident in this collection is Munro's unique way of viewing the world, the details she includes, the way she phrases things. The bits of paper left behind after Rose's father's death (not a spoiler, this happens on the second page of the collection) detailing "things he had been moved to write down," followed by a list that perfect encapsulates this man in six entries. Or in "Wild Swans," when Rose tries to determine whether the affable old man next to her is surreptitiously molesting her beneath her coat.

The stories all closely follow Rose, though Flo is a predominate character, acting as Rose's foil. For as quiet and shy Rose is, Flo is just as boisterous and unguarded. Seen through Rose's perspective, Flo is almost too much to handle, a constant embarrassment. Munro is better than that though. She's rounded out both characters so much that, even though the stories never come from Flo's point of view, the reader feels as though they know Flo as well as they know Rose.

The Beggar Maid was the first Alice Munro collection I read, assigned in 1996 by an ernest grad student in an intro course. Before reading it, I hadn't realized the potential of the short story, I didn't know the possibilities. This collection changed my writing life. Munro writes about working class people living ordinary lives. These are people I identify with, who I think a lot of people identify with, but who aren't often written about. I read these stories and felt like someone out there got me.

Fans of Alice Munro will appreciate that the entire collection is roughly the same length as four of her short stories now, it can be devoured in one sitting or parceled out one nibble at a time. Newcomers will appreciate the ease with which Munro leads the reader into a story. Writing in a deceptively simple manner.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Pro Tips: Online Dating

I've been online dating for... awhile now, and over that time, I've seen probably hundreds of profiles. Some are great, most range from alarming to horrifying, with a solid core of the simply misguided. I have officially thrown in the towel in the online dating arena. Too many disappointments after hopeful daydreams. Don't take that to be pitying, what I mean is, well, let's let tip #1 speak for itself.

1. Post a picture that actually, you know, resembles you. This means, no matter how cool you think that picture of you standing in front of [insert famous international landmark here] is, if it's older than two years old (less if there've been significant changes to your appearance) save it. No, looks aren't everything, but when you're standing around in front of a bar at 9pm, it's nice to know who you're looking for. Also, smile! Four pictures of you scowling and one of your abs impresses no one. Related: Make sure your face is visible. It's cool that you ski/surf/like to look out pensively at the ocean, but include a standard, full-face picture too.
2. Be mindful of what's happening in your picture. Specifically, check your background. We've all seen the pictures with dogs humping in the background or someone photobombing. If there are other people in your picture, identify them. When I see a picture of a guy with a girl on a dating site, my first thought is that she is an ex-girlfriend or former date. Seeing another girl on your arm doesn't make me feel competitive or make you more desirable, it makes me click by. If that's your goto photo, you're probably not over her. Related: Posing with strippers doesn't make you seem classy or worldly. It screams, "LOOK AT MY WILD WEEKEND JUST LIKE THE GUYS FROM THE HANGOVER." Or, it screams that you wish your life was like that, which makes me think in reality your typical nights are spent shoveling fist fulls of Funyuns down your gullet while you watch ESPN in your underwear.
3. Look at who you're sending a message to. I don't mean the picture, though that's clearly what most guys do. Look at the girl's profile before you send a message. Do you share any of the same interests? Is she looking for the same things you are? Theoretically, dating websites are awesome because you can see general information right upfront, avoiding the classically awkward Star Wars/Star Trek debate first date. People who are seriously looking to date someone tend to have well thought-out, detailed profiles. Use these to your advantage.
4. Think about your first message. I can't even tell you how many (I'm just gonna say it) idiotic messages I've received on these sites. They all start to blend together in their awful banality. Words to avoid: cutie, hot, sex, and wife. I've gotten several messages from guys insisting their wives are cool with them dating, insinuating that there's something wrong with me if I'm not down for it. First of all, grow up. I am a self-respecting grown woman, I don't need your approval so your threat of disapproval doesn't faze me in the least. Secondly, any douchebag at the bar at last call can call a girl a hottie. Unless the girl has spectacularly low self-esteem, this won't impress her. I mentioned the profiles before, seriously use them. What do you find interesting about her? What do you have in common? The only messages I ever respond to are ones that ask me something about my profile. Also, keep track of who you write to. I once got a long message from a guy I had nothing in common with, so I didn't respond. Two weeks later, I got the exact same message, word for word. He'd copied and pasted it to me twice. Me and who knows how many other women. Related: Unless the girl's got something in her profile that specifically says she's down for it, don't message for hookups.
5. Don't bring up sex. Really, just don't. The most humorous message I got was from a guy whose profile was all about how he was so tired of women using him for sex, and just because he was so amazing at it didn't mean women should just use him like that. I know I was being judgy, but this guy was wearing a security guard uniform, posing with a horse, wearing a Tom Sellack moustache (Tom himself can barely get away with that and he's a sexy bitch). So I immediately doubted how many ladies he had been able to pick up. On top of that, ew. We're all grownups here. We know that if we meet up and click, eventually it'll happen. Trust me. You don't have to talk about sex to get it on a lady's mind. We're already thinking about it too.
6. Finally, think about your username. Dating sites tell you to choose this carefully. It should say something about you. Some iteration of your name, a pop culture reference that means something to you, a personality trait. Even just a random combination of words can be a jumping off point to a conversation. But please, for the love of god, don't use words like "unhappy" in your username. It tells the world that you're looking for someone to save you. It says you're desperate, that you'll settle for anyone. Women, even the ones on dating sites, want to feel important and special. I don't want to think that a guy is hanging out with me because I'm the first girl who responded.

I could probably write an entire blog on all of the bad dates I've been on, just through online dating, but as I said I'm done with it. And all of my disillusion is due to the tips listed above. I haven't actually deleted my profiles (on Plenty of Fish and OKCupid) because the emails I get are too amusing, but I'm so jaded that even when I get a good message now I question it. I've heard stories about people finding true love on the Internet, but I think they're a lot like the fabled tales of finding a Chanel suit at Goodwill. You have to be willing to riffle through a whole lot of shit first.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Another thing you should know about me is that I am a huge, gigantic, ridiculous Buffy fan. I have the seven season boxed set and if I had to guess, I'd say I've watched it twenty times in the last six years. It's my goto show, along with the Simpsons, that I can put in at any time and be entertained.

After a recent Buffy-centric conversation lately where someone told me their favorite season was season 2, I started thinking about what my top ten favorite episodes would be. Scanning through a list of every episode, I came up with fourteen I really love, I narrowed it down to ten. Looking at the list, it appears as though seasons three and, surprisingly, six are my favorite seasons. If asked, I always say season four is my favorite.

Top Ten Buffy the Vampire Slayer Episodes
in descending order
10. Witch (season 1, episode 3): Here, we're introduced to Amy, who is so important later, and also to the dangers of magic.
9. Normal Again (season 6, episode 17): Holy shit. What if the entire show thus far is just a figment of a crazy girl's imagination? What if someone extremely strong suddenly discovers existentialism?
8. Passion (season 2, episode 17): When Giles discovers Jenny. Kills me every time. Goddam you, Joss Whedon.
7. Halloween (season 2, episode 6): Not going to go all high-falutin' here. I love what the characters choose to be and I love what they become.
6. Band Candy (season 3, episode 6): This is another episode that I love for the fun. I mean, the adults become kids? Giles as a teenager?! It's almost too awesome.
5. Once More, with Feeling (season 6, episode 7): I'm pretty sure it's sacrilege to have a Buffy favorites list and not include this episode, but with good reason! How many other musical television show episodes can you recall? And despite the novelty, the episode contributed to what followed in that season, and the entire show.
4. Selfless (season 7, episode 5): I love Anya. That's all. End of story.
3. The Wish (season 3, episode 9): Again with my love for Anya, but also, what would Sunnydale be like without Buffy?
2. Hush (season 4, episode 10): This is another episode that's obligated to be on every list, but with reason! A good chunk of the episode is done without any spoken dialogue. Characters use pantomime, draw pictures, and write out what they want to say on dry erase boards. Beautiful melding of fairy tale and supernatural. And did I mention? NO DIALOGUE!
1. The Body (season 5, episode 16): If you can watch this episode without crying, you have no soul. That is all.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Review: Burning Bright

In honor of Emerging Writers Network's Short Story Month, I'm going to focus my review energy on my favorite short story collections.

The fashion in literature lately seems to be focused on the art of performing acrobatics with language at the expense of the plot. Not that there is anything wrong with that, any time language isn't outright brutalized by pointless abbreviations and boring neologisms is great. Sometimes, though, it's nice to just read a story that evokes emotions and tells a story, plainly, compellingly. Ron Rash's collection Burning Bright is full of just those kinds of stories. Each one succinct and deceptively simple. Rash is one of those writers everyone thinks they can write like, until they try.

Rash's stories span decades, from the Civil War to the present day. Each story is vivid and believable, a difficult feat when writing about a time one has never experienced. Rash himself said at a book signing recently that although he sometimes writes historical fiction, he hopes his stories resonate with people today. He succeeds at this by imbuing his characters with traits easily recognized i people today. A man living during the Depression feels sadness at his estranged children and hopelessness with the state of the world. A woman waiting for her husband to return from fighting during the Civil War uses her wiles to protect her family. A pawn shop owner knows that majority of items he buys are stolen and sold to him for drug money but still makes the sales, even to his own nephew. These people struggle with themselves, with their families, with the world.

Two standout stories are the opening story, "Hard Times," and "The Ascent." Both deal with children, but avoid sentimentality. The reader is allowed to feel for the children, but the prose doesn't dwell on all of the reason to pity them. In "Hard Times," a Depression-era farmer wonders how much worse life could really be outside of his small farming community. He personally knows a family up the road from him starving, the father's pride preventing them from taking any help. The descriptions in the story are visceral, neck hairs stand at attention, despite Rash's spare language. The little boy in "The Ascent" lives in his imagination, envisioning himself as a hero. His parents are meth addicts (the drug features in a couple of Rash's stories), and although they do try in their way to care for him, they fail miserably. The story is made for treacle, but Rash avoids it. The little boy doesn't pity himself and neither does the narrator.

Every collection has a weak story or two, but here, the weakest story only seems so because it's included with so much strength. The collection is short and over much too soon, but the stories resonate long afterwards.