Monday, July 20, 2009


They say you can't go home again. It's not true, of course, as evidenced by the massive numbers of travelers during the holiday season, many of whom are going home. On the other hand, "they" probably don't mean that literally. It's probably meant in some figurative sense, about how even though you can return to the place you once called home, once you've moved out and moved on, it's never quite the same. After all, living with your parents again as an adult with children of your own is far, far different from when you were growing up in their house.

There are other things in your past that you can't recapture either, and sometimes this has as much to do with our own personal journeys as it does with circumstances beyond our control. You can revisit your old elementary school, for example, but if they've torn down the playground where you used to dangle and swing, no amount of nostalgia is going to let you revisit that experience. Nor would it be the same, even if you could (I, for example, get dizzy a lot faster than I did when I was eight. Which takes a great deal of the fun out of the playground merry-go-round.)

You can wander around the old school, you can let your hands wander idly down the railing for the stairs that used to seem so much bigger to you, you can drive aimlessly around because what used to be a parking lot has been turned into a green space and you can't get there from here anymore... Okay, that last one was literal, not metaphorical in my case, but it works as a metaphor, too, I think.

I think some of the stories I've written are like that, too. I've come across some old short stories, and even an old MS that as I began to look through them I realized that whatever concept had motivated them in the first place, I couldn't go back and finish the story I had started writing all those years ago. It wasn't so much that the ideas were no good, though one or two of them I recognize now as being more than a little trite, a little too derivative, as it was that I'm just not the person who wrote them anymore.

If I sat down and finished the one or two of them that are there, mostly done, and ready to go, it would read as if two different authors had worked on it. I'm not even sure that, assuming I could recapture the voice that started those works, that I'd even want to. I can go back, start from the initial idea, and start the story over again, and there are one or two that I think are worth the effort... but that's like playing on the new playground equipment in your old park. It's the same spot, but a different experience.

And in some spots they make me wistful for the writer I was. He was more than bit naive, and certainly under-experienced, but like my school-age self there was this whole set of possibilities I saw out there at that age, and life and my writing career have taken a much different turn than I expected.

At least for now, because even though you can't go home again, with a little effort you can make a home of where you are.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Master Storytellers: Artists

When I was a freshman, before you took Freshman English you had to take a test, to see which level class they'd place you in. I won't bore you with the test results, but the upshot of this was that the class I was in had a somewhat unusual teacher, which resulted in a somewhat unusual class. We didn't read the usual books, we didn't have the usual assignments - for the most part. This was, after all, the class where I wrote a discussion on the merits of nudity in NYPD Blue, discussed the incarnations of Batman in popular media, and where my final paper was a conversation between Nietzche and Borges (in Lewis Carroll style rhyme, no less).

But our first assignment was more mundane: the trip to the museum. I imagine this is an assignment straight out of some writing handbook. You go to the museum, find a piece you like, and write about it. Now, if we'd been sent to the natural history museum, it might have been more interesting... and my essay probably would have been on some dinosaur coming to life and eating the night staff, leaving a skeletonized person inside the T-rex skeleton the next day. However, we were sent to the art museum. I do not remember the artist I chose, though I remember the picture. A landscape, nothing spectacular.

There was, however, a story in it. I found one, I'm sure someone could have found something else, and it occurred to me that the best works of art - whether they be from the masters or from more local, less well known artists (like that girl in the next cubicle who constantly doodles on the quarterly reports) - tell a story, or at least hint at one. For example, either in that class or another, I ended up writing a poem on Picasso's "The Old Guitarist." It's from his blue period, which is that clustering of his works that I'd actually hang on my wall. Looking at that picture, there clearly is a story or two or even three behind the somewhat forlorn strummings of the old guy in the clothes that don't quite fit. And I don't always see the same story every time.

I'm not going to presume that anything that occurs to me when I look at it was in Picasso's head when he painted it. If he's spoken or written about his inspiration for the piece, I am unfamiliar with it and (followers of this blog will be unsurprised to learn) not going to bother looking it up at the moment. Maybe later.

Likewise, a friend of mine showed me a picture of a tree. I'd known she was working on the tree, and so I had certain expectations in my head as to what it would look like. I was, as it turned out, completely wrong, but that's fine because what was on paper was much more complex and beautiful than what had been in my head. It was, like the Picasso, something that I could see putting on my wall, and every time I looked at it coming up with a different story behind it. Never quite seeing it the same way twice.

There are a number of my favorite books that are like that, too, where no matter how many times I read them, each time I find something I hadn't noticed before, a story that hadn't occurred to me the last time I read it. I find things familiar, too, of course, but I think the paintings that tell a story are like the books that do so: each time you see it there's that mix of the familiar and the as yet to be discovered, and it's somewhere in that middle space where ideas are born.

Saturday, July 4, 2009


I'm normally one of the first to decry a Disney adaptation of something. Pocohontas still makes me shudder, and that second one that was supposed to be an answer to the critics of the first was twice as bad. However, I have to admit that their version of Tarzan is one of the more satisfying incarnations of the character. That is, aside from the Saturday morning cartoon that was on in the early 80's. I remember little about it other than it was "must see" tv for me and that there were robots. Cheesy floating robots, which I have no idea whether they're in Burroughs' original or not. This is the guy that gave us all those Mars stories after all. So it is quite possible as adaptations go that one wasn't very good, but I have this lingering impression that it was. (The Wiki gods back me up on this, after a cursory look-up.)

Anyway, while the first half of the Disney version is a ways off from the source (though certain elements, such as Tarzan smearing himself with mud to hide his skin, are in the original if memory serves), and while there are notable omissions such as who really kills Tarzan's parents, in spirit I have to think the movie is one of the better adaptations of the myth. Thanks in large part to the ability of animation, it's one of the few where Tarzan moves the way you expect him to having read the books. This is not to say it's perfect, just that as an adaptation it's far more satisfying than some of the others the House of Mouse has put out.

Another adaptation I watched earlier was much more faithful to the spirit and the content of the original. Of course, that was an adaptation of a graphic novel that was, to begin with, somewhat sparse. 30 Days of Night was originally intended as a screenplay anyway, so the transition from comic media to film was perhaps not a difficult one, especially when you factor in the visual nature of both medias. However, plenty of other comic/graphic novel adaptations have not done well, and the record with non-superhero (or even less well-known, or rather less well-marketed superhero) tales is hit or miss. This was one that satisfied in much the same way the original source had. It wasn't particularly visionary, or innovative, but it was fun.

Which, I suppose, is what I look for in an adaptation. (The Bourne series doesn't count, cause aside from the title and initial premise it's essentially a different character and storyline.) All I ask is that it hits the same notes the original did, and if it can do that, even if it isn't 100% faithful, I can live with that.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Quitting the Day Job

There was a post recently on one of the more professional writing blogs (or maybe it was an article at one of the writing mags... either way) about questions you should ask yourself before you quit your day job and take up writing full-time. While I didn't read the article, I'm sure it provided good advice and hope it was a sobering reminder that it takes a lot to make it full time, especially as a writer.

However, it occurred to me that sometimes quitting the day job isn't a choice. I didn't choose to give up my last job, for example, the economy made that decision for me. I'm in a position where if I could generate a little more work, I might be able to go full time as a freelancer, but frankly I like having benefits and my taxes taken out of my paychecks for me rather than having to do it all myself. (Mind you, if I made enough where I could hire an accountant or something, I'm sure that would be less of a complaint.)

In my case, though, no longer having a day job wasn't voluntary, and so there was little else left but the writing. I'm fortunate in that I have at least some contacts who throw work my way so I'm not totally without recourse (or a paycheck), but it's not as though I was given the opportunity to weigh my options and consider what I wanted to do. Nor do I suspect I'm the only one.

I wish I had some sage advice to offer when such a situation happens, and then perhaps I could turn around and sell that article under "Questions to Ask When You Lose Your Day Job" - but like I said, if I had the answers I'd be in a better position than I am.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Language Manglers

I realize that there's little use in decrying the demise of the "proper" English language. Few people remember or care that the signs in the grocery store should read "12 items or fewer" not "or less." Frankly, it had never occurred to me until it was brought up the other day in conversation - I'm just so used to seeing it that it never dawned on me I knew it was wrong. Which is how things that were once mistakes come to slowly but surely be accepted into the mainstream, "proper" language. Though "ain't" is still wrong, people.

But every once in a while, I hear something or see something that just... well, it's just wrong. Sometimes it's not even an error per se, it's just such a poor use of the English language by someone who ought to at least make an effort to know better that it gets kind of discouraging.

I was watching lacrosse the other day on one of the sports networks. NCAA women's lacrosse, where, for those of you who don't know, Northwestern's team dominates in ways that the Yankees and the Lakers can only dream about. Now, in general sportscasters are easy game anyway. They're live, and often caught up in the moment, and inclined to make what are really, really stupid and/or obvious observations. For which they are promptly and deservedly ridiculed. I think SI or ESPN has a regular feature on the dumb things sportscasters say.

That said, and acknowledging that maintaining live chatter is more difficult than it might seem, the comment made during the lacrosse game struck as being particularly egregious. North Carolina was down 21 to 5 at that point, and the commentator pointed out that the score wasn't what NC had hoped it would be. Which was a bit of an understatement.

Now, it's possible it was intended as such, and meant to be wry and witty - but it didn't sound that way. No, it sounded as though the sportscaster was very severe. As if NC had discovered the ice cream store was out of sprinkles or something, rather than getting drubbed on the national stage. I thought to myself that were surely better ways to express the situation than weakly commenting on how the game wasn't going the way NC had wanted it to. That much seemed blatantly obvious.

It's this lack of effort to better articulate that bothers me more so than anything else. Grammar rules change, usage changes, and the language adapts and evolve. But sheer laziness and an inability to better express ourselves leads not only to poorer communications but a dumbing-down of the same. And we've already got too much of that going on as it is.