Book narrative and screen narrative

Have you read the short story The Veldt by Ray Bradbury?

A mother and father want their children to be happy. So they give them a nursery.

The nursery is made up of screens. In these screens, the children can explore and create the world around them, without ever leaving the house. The screens manifest the will of the children.

When the children become disobedient, the parents decide to unplug. The kids don’t approve.

It doesn’t end well for Mom and Dad.

The Veldt was a shudder-worthy read in 1950. In 2014, it’s downright blood-chilling.

I can’t think about the page and the screen without dragging Bradbury out and propping him in the corner. He’s the Grand Poombah of this discussion.

Like many great Sci-Fi writers, Bradbury had a love/hate relationship with technology. He adored movies. He wrote for movies and television. But in his work, screens are universally regarded with a Luddite’s foreboding.

Because, while Bradbury revered movies, the written word was sacred.

This isn’t a concept unique to Bradbury. It’s the cultural vestige of the era when books, by their rarity, really were sacred objects.

For a hundred years, the screen borrowed gravitas from books by paying homage to the page narrative. How many early Disney films start with a storybook flipping open?

Seeing the movie was a lesser form of experiencing narrative. Reading the book represented the true narrative experience. The real story.

That model has changed.

The book as a sacred fetish reached its extinction-burst in the late-80s/early-90s, which swarmed with movies (particularly for children) where the book was revered: The Never-Ending Story. The Princess Bride. The Labyrinth. Beauty and the Beast.

But to children now, screen narrative is just as valid as page narrative.

For those of us raised on page narrative, the new primacy of screen narrative can be uncomfortable. I still read the books to my daughters before we watch the movie. I’m a bibliophile who wants to raise bibliophiles.

But I feel like Tevya.

TRADITION!

There is still plenty of reading going on, both on page and screen. Though an alarming portion of it is cross-marketed, franchise adver-tainment.

I’ve had moments when my chosen creative activity feels as quaint and useless as calligraphy or collecting muzzle-loading muskets.

But I’m not worried about our cultural unbooking. I don’t believe that all people should be readers. I don’t believe people should be shamed for not being readers.

Yes, everyone should learn to read and have access to books, etc.

But when I hear a statistic that, for example, the average high school student graduates and never gives another thought to F. Scott Fitzgerald, that’s a-okay by me. I don’t give a shit about racquetball. I can’t imagine living in a world where everyone thought I should, no matter how edifying racquetball might be.

The reason I don’t care if Americans read for fun is twofold:

First, all humans, whether they read or not, and regardless of any other factor in their lives have a deep, profound, and unswerving need for stories.

Stories are meaning. They are morality. They are the religion of common human experience. Where and how my fellow Americans get their narrative gratification is no more my business than where or how they get their sexual gratification. To each his own.

Second, American culture is rife with excellent narrative, some of it occurring in the most unliterary of places. Graphic novels, fanfic, movies, or even – gasp! – television. Serious narrative is alive and well in the oral tradition from whence it sprung.

More power to it. The oral tradition has a history backing it that the novel, at its peak, could never have hoped to rival in the long run.

Step back a few miles. Examine the book from a distance.

For most of human history, most people didn’t or couldn’t read. But narrative flourished. Plays. Poetry. Stories. Songs.

Language is fluid. Narrative is fluid.

The idea that a story has one right iteration that should be made static and preserved for all time is only a few hundred years old.

In the scope of human history, our concept of page-narrative is the aberration. Not the norm.

Yet books have always thrived. They have always been birthed by book-lovers into the hands of book-lovers.

The book has slipped from its temporary throne to retake its place among the many and varied forms of narrative.

We can mourn or we can teach our children to seek out stories that are moral and meaningful, no matter what the medium.

We stand as parents in the Veldt. Uncertain what monsters our children might create with the technology we’ve given them.

We are fearful their stories will dismember our gods. Rest assured they will. Good narrative always does.

Book narrative and screen narrative

What Is It Like to Write Everyday for 3 Years?

I’m currently engaged in a month-long daily writing agreement with another writer. Recently she asked me if I noticed a difference in process from  writing every day (which I did for 3 years) and writing in spates. This is the response I sent her.

“First off, let me say that it feels weird and presumptuous for me to share my experiences with you, since you are an anointed writer and I’m still in the fake-it-til-you-make-it phase.

“That being said, since you asked…

“I decided to start writing daily at a time in my life when I had very little else I cared about. My family and my writing were all that mattered.

“I was stuck in a job I hated in a company where I was isolated, under-utilized, and miserable. My job required no problem-solving or intelligence, and nobody cared whether I did it or not.

“One of the hardest parts of writing every day was training the people around me to accept it. If someone says that they do yoga or run every day, people accept it. They admire you for it. But if you do something creative every day, people look at you like you’ve caught a horrible disease and say, “Why?” or “ You can skip it, this once.” I’m certain the words my children pick for my headstone will be, “Don’t bother mom. She’s writing.”

“I also had to get past the mom-guilt of feeling like I was abandoning my children by taking so much time for myself. (My minimum was 1 hour per day, though on weekends I often did 3 or more). But I truly believe that when I’m actively writing I am a more present and engaged mother. I also feel like it’s important to model to my girls that a woman’s time to herself and a woman’s creative pursuits are valid and valuable.

“But I’ve veered off topic. Let’s see. Writing every day made me slip into story and character faster. I often would stop right in the middle of a scene that was zipping along nicely, so I’d be able to dive right back in again.

“My characters were realer, clearer. I had one character who woke me in the middle of the night because he was so in love he couldn’t stand it. The benefit of have a daily writing time was that I was able to tell him, “We have an appointment at noon tomorrow. We’ll talk then.” It compartmentalized my writing more. While it was constantly stewing, it wasn’t constantly demanding my attention this very second.

“The routines were tricky. But I treated it, and trained my family to treat it, as something that simply happens every day. Like eating breakfast or brushing your teeth. It wasn’t optional. (Though there were days when I had to decide between writing and showering).

“Doing it for that long, what I found is that the act of writing, and the world I was creating, became my place of consistency even when everything else was in flux.

“It’s not completely honest to say I wrote every single day. I can think of at least twice when I skipped days. Once was a long camping trip. The other was after my brother’s suicide when I didn’t write for 5 days. After 5 days, I needed to write. I needed it more than anything. It was my island of calm in the chaos. At that time I was writing in the library. So on the fifth day, I went.

“I remember getting to the door of the stairwell and being overwhelmed. Certain I couldn’t write. Certain my grief would silence me. So I said aloud to my dead brother, “You can’t come with me. You have to wait here.” And he did. I was able to escape from my grief. To create a space it couldn’t enter. I don’t know if that could have happened had I not been as disciplined about my daily writing up to that point.

“When my writing time is spotty, it seems like my writing is clearer and better organized. When I write every day, my writing is more fun, more passionate, and sometimes so messy as to be counterproductive.

“One more interesting observation. I LOVE to cook. When I write daily, I rarely tackle the challenging recipes I would normally be super-impatient to try out. I think maybe there’s just only so much creativity to go around.”

What Is It Like to Write Everyday for 3 Years?

True confessions of a chalupa addict

Every now and then I realize that I am a grown up. I have a car and a decent amount of change lying around the house.

I can buy and eat a chalupa.

I gave up fast food years ago. Although, as a mother of two small children in a tiny city that is dark and below freezing 9 months out of the year, I will occasionally cave on the no fast-food policy and take the kids to the play area of a fast food establishment that shall here go unnamed.

These trips are: 1. rare, 2. part of a comprehensive strategic effort to preserve the sanity of all parties involved, and 3. loathsome on every level. I’ve given up on trying to find anything edible there. Everything tastes like deep-fried, heavily-salted ear wax.

But the chalupa is another matter.

What is it about Taco Bell that holds such irrational sway over the hearts and minds of America?

About 6 to 8 times per year, chalupas become my obsession and everything else I eat becomes not-a-chalupa. It cannot be willed or reasoned away.

When I was pregnant with my eldest, I was practically a vegetarian. Still, the chalupa demanded it’s due. My husband eventually took to just stopping at Taco Bell before he came home. Every. Single. Day. I’m certain half my amniotic fluid was Baja sauce.

Remember Baja sauce?

Around the time they discontinued it, I was at a Taco Bell getting lunch.

My office was actually three blocks north of this particular Taco Bell. But it lie across a six-lane road with a hard to get-in-and-out-of parking lot that required an illegal U-turn and a shortcut across the lawn of an apartment complex. So I rarely visited it, let alone mapping the daily traffic pattern and police frequency for the route.

But on this particular day I NEEDED A CHALUPA.

A beef, Baja chalupa. Or two.

I’m not entirely sure how the junk-food innovation known as the chalupa came to be. Perhaps they use only stoners in their test demographics. But I do know, it is the one fast food I cannot eradicate from my life. Nor do I wish to.

The drive-thru line was 64-cars-deep, so I went in.

Although I avoid fast food in general, I love the employees who work in fast food. Many are teenagers. They’re still in the throes of pubescent social awkwardness. I can relate to that. They haven’t yet had their quirks and idiosyncrasies corporate desk-jobbed out of them. They’re odd. They’re okay with odd people. They deal with odd people all day.

I once told a friend about visiting a proctologist, “He looks at assholes all day. Yours is not going to be the worst he’s ever seen.”

The same can be said for fast food workers. They accept you for who you are.

Furthermore the employees of Taco Bell get me. The really, really understand the need Taco Bell junkies have.

I walked up to the counter. The cashier was a young man of not more than 19-years.

“Two beef Baja supreme chalupas,” I said.

The young man frowned.

“They’re not doing Baja anymore,” he said. He had the serious and studied air of a man who’s been giving terrible news to strangers all day. Like the head vet of a canine oncology center.

“What?” I said. This was the only possible response. Not just because I was shocked, but because he had triggered a mexi-nugget flashback.

Remember mexi-nuggets?

They were basically tiny tator-tots slathered in taco seasoning.

In other words, manna.

I don’t remember when exactly they discontinued mexi-nuggets. I must have blocked that particular memory as part of my PMNSD (post mexi-nugget stress disorder) healing process. But I do remember I cried.

For years.

In fact, I still wake up weeping sometimes.

But this kid, like I said, he GOT me.

He leaned across the counter with a look that could only mean, I’m free-basing the hot-sauce and said, “But I think I can hook you up.”

He had me against the wall and he knew it.

I won’t admit I ever paid $30 dollars for a tiny tub of Baja sauce. But I’m not saying I didn’t either.

I know what you’re thinking. Don’t try to tell me how terrible this food is for me. It doesn’t matter.

You could say to me, “You know, that’s made out of babies.”

And I’d say, “Oh my god, that’s awful! Nom nom nom nom nom…”

They’ve made a lot of menu changes lately. I hear breakfast is on offer now.

All I can do is thank my lucky stars that didn’t happen while I was in college.

I’d be roughly 7,000 lbs by now.

True confessions of a chalupa addict

Things I Learned In Art Class

Occasionally, I take my 8-year-old to a sketch workshop offered at our local library.

I’d never been to a sketch class before I started going to this one with my kiddo.

A live, fully-clothed, volunteer model does a series of poses for 5 or 10 minutes and a group of artists draws them as quickly as possible using charcoal, or pastels, or pencils. The teacher provides feedback as requested by the artists.

Part of the reason we like this workshop is the atmosphere. It’s very laid back.

People come and go as they please, sometimes there’s music, or there’s snacks set out. There’s extra paper and charcoal for people who want to jump in and try.

The first time we went, I took my laptop and tried to write while they were drawing. But I’m easily distracted, and soon found this was not a good idea. So I started bringing a book.

It’s been awesome to watch my daughter interact with the other artists. They’re always surprised and happy to see a kid there. They talk to her and about her art as if she were a grown up. I try to hang back and let her do her thing without interfering. I’ve enjoyed watching the group as they learn and practice.

Writing, it is often said, is the loneliest of the arts. Mixing and mingling with other writers is something I have to force myself to do.

But there is something very right and natural about artists getting together to make and learn art.

The atmosphere of people coming together to do something just for the love of what they’re doing is always a revelation.

So I was disappointed this weekend, when we arrived and found that their model for the day was leaving early.

The artists stayed, chatting, doodling, some of them drawing each other. I sat in a corner while my daughter and another artist talked about dragons. I thought I might do a blogpost about the workshop, so I got out my Moleskine and wrote:

“Things I’ve learned from sitting in on a art workshop:

  • what you’re struggling with / frustrated with is the skill you’re about to level up on

  • nothing makes artists happier than being with other artists

  • mentorship and collaboration are vital to creative development

  • sketching is about making yourself as an artist disappear – conduit between model and paper

  • it’s okay to ignore the big picture and focus on detail

  • it’s okay to draw only shadows

  • it’s okay to draw only shapes”

I put my Moleskine away and watched them for awhile. But with the model gone, it was obvious things were dwindling to a close. There was still an hour-and-half-left in the class, and no one looked eager to leave.

So I offered to model.

I am not, by nature, attention-seeking. I am an overweight, middle-aged, graying mother of two, wearing mom-jeans, a jersey, no bra, no make-up, and a claw-clip in my hair. I do not consider myself pretty or shapely, and I’m certainly not graceful. In social settings I tend to be introverted and reserved.

But I’ve done theatre, so I’m comfortable in front of people, and I’m not generally self-conscious about my body.

A body was needed. So I offered.

I’m so glad that I did.

It’s a lot harder than it looks to hold completely still for 5 or 10 minutes.

You want to give the artists a variety of interesting lines, shapes, and shadows to draw. So the first pose I selected was sitting and leaning forward with my hands clasped before me. By the end of 5 minutes, my elbows were shaking with the strain of holding the weight of my upper-body.

For another pose, I tilted my head back. To keep my gaze still, I focused on the fire alarm on the ceiling. If you stare at something long enough, it starts to grow and shrink or to dance around in circles. By the end of the first set of four 5 minute poses, my eyes were bugging.

But the physical difficulties aside, it was a wonderful experience.

It was amazing to have a roomful of strangers focused on trying to capture what you’ve given them to draw. To be a part of the collaboration between the artist and her sketch. To commit to helping make the drawings happen.

Even fully clothed there are so many situations in which we permit ourselves to become self-conscious because we feel scrutinized.

I’ve experienced this recently in my writing. I’ve been too aware of what others will think of the stories I write and how I write them. It’s the creative equivalent of being afraid everyone will think you look fat or ugly or stupid.

To let go of that and just be what I was and let others try to capture it in whatever way they saw it, was a high I rode for the rest of the day.

It was not a breakthrough or a liberation. It was another drop of water slowly eroding the glacier of my creative defensive block. It was one more experience reinforcing for me that it’s okay to write the stories I fear writing.

More importantly, it was an hour-and-a-half of my daughter seeing the woman she loves most in the world take and own a space without fear or self-consciousness. And that’s something every girl needs to see as often as possible.

Things I Learned In Art Class