A Day of Endings

As the calendar closed out on November, I knew it would be possible to finish my novel by the end of the year now that my personal Novel-less Non-Writing Month (NoNoWriMo – I think it has a certain ring to it) had passed.  I knew the finish line was in sight, and had been making slow but steady progress toward it since my breakthrough in September.

What I needed, I determined, was to force myself to write in sprints, and that was exactly what I did.  Madly.  Barring necessary days off for the various Christmas concerts I had to perform, I wrote pretty much continuously from the 3rd to the 15th with very little time allotted for non-essential things like food and sleep (and definitely none for housework.)  It got even harder to take breaks for human necessities after I’d written the climactic scene and its immediate aftermath and knew that all I had left was to manage a bit of denouement.  When I woke up from a jittery three hours night’s sleep on December 16th, it was with the knowledge that I had only one scene more to write, and I would have a completed manuscript.

I’ve talked before about the fact that it was The Hobbit in particular of all books that first got me interested in the idea of being a writer and inspired my love of the fantasy genre.  So it was beyond appropriate that I got to celebrate finishing my novel by attending the opening night screening of the final instalment of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit films.

My state going into the film was, I would have to say, euphoric.  Maybe a little swimmy, a little disconnected.  I hadn’t really eaten or slept the way a person sort of needs to for at least the previous week, and I was stumbling suddenly under the weightlessness of a six-year burden removed.  I lead with all of this because perhaps it contextualizes my response to the film in some meaningful way.  My state coming out of the film was something else entirely.

I’m going to try to get at why that was.  My thoughts are helped along by the fact that I have now been able to see the movie a second time, on the proper amount of sleep and sustenance and having had some time to come down from the I-just-finished-my-freaking-novel-after-six-years high.

My very spoilery thoughts about The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies, such as they are, beneath the cut.

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Just a sentimental sap after all: watching An Unexpected Journey Extended Edition

It all started back when I was in college, a freshman most likely.

I was using my in-laws’ computer and internet connection to work on an assignment for one of my English classes, and the browser home news page contained a headline that drew my eye as surely as if it had been written in flashing neon letters: Cate Blanchett talks about being Galadriel. Because you see The Hobbit is the first book I remember having read to me by my mother, when I was two years old; and that reading is the event that formed my earliest fascination with words and story, and which drove me to learn to read and to become a writer of fantasy stories of my own. The Silmarillion was my favorite book from fifth grade until I came across another perspective-changing book when I was sixteen. I used to be able to draw, from memory, J.R.R. Tolkien’s map of Middle Earth, because I had done it so often. I could name you all of the Valar and their functions, recite the names and fates of every one of the Sons of Fëanor. Among my friends I have always been known as the Tolkien geek, the expert, the one who can tell you anything you want to know about Middle Earth. I write about elves in my work because of my fascination with the concepts that Tolkien liked to explore about immortality and how that would inform one’s ideas of beauty, creation, learning, love, power, isolation, family, death, and loss. I spent my childhood dreaming of the possibility that one day, movie-making technology might finally be up to the tall order of bringing The Lord of the Rings to the big screen. That would basically be the pinnacle of everything I had ever wanted from cinema.

So I saw that headline. It was all down the fandom rabbit hole from there. Anyone who knew me back then will be able to tell you that I only just managed to keep my real life under control in the midst of my obsession with the process of those movies coming to life.

Anyone who followed the drama surrounding the Hobbit film project coming to life can also tell you that it was never certain there would beHobbit movie until it was actually physically happening. I made a tactical decision, early on, that I couldn’t afford the level of perseveration with the fandom that I had eventually come to during the years that LotR was getting made and released — especially not for something so unlikely to happen (or to happen the way I wanted it to, back when Peter Jackson was not going to be involved,) so I didn’t follow the news or the process at all. For all intents and purposes, I have been disconnected from the Tolkien film fandom for the last ten years.

This weekend I was finally able to obtain and watch a copy of the extended edition of An Unexpected Journey and all of the special features. And I have to say, I was looking forward to it with keen anticipation, yes, but I did not expect to get so emotional while watching the behind-the-scenes material and reliving the experience of being a fan back in the days of the LotR trilogy. The nostalgia of seeing all of those familiar sets, and art, and the remembered faces of the crew, and that particular camaraderie that occurs with Peter Jackson’s people. It was a bit like having one foot back in 2001 and all of the emotions of that time, but looking at it through the lens of everything I’ve lived through since then and all the subtle tones of how those years have changed me.

I was genuinely teary during the sections of the featurette about Hobbiton and Rivendell. I remember those places. I remember the innovation, the blood, sweat, and tears that went into them the first time, how hard the crew worked to bring these places to life for us.

I remember being a fan hungrily waiting online with other fans for each and every still, teaser, and news item that trickled through to us through the ether (and staunchly enduring the insane download times for what we would now consider laughably small files!), discussing every little bit of it to death because that was all we could do to try to keep our excitement under control while we waited for the finished product. I remember how my heart raced in the theatre the first time the camera opened on that reveal shot of the Shire from Gandalf’s cart, and I was just screaming inside my head, “This is it this is the Shire this is Middle Earth that’s Gandalf it’s actually happening it’s on the screen in front of me it’s real no way no way no way!” I remember the tears that sprang to my eyes when the sorrowful but proud dwarf music swelled in Moria, and the camera panned up and up to show us the grandeur of this world that had been lost. I remember how I couldn’t breathe when the Balrog stepped onto that bridge and Gandalf stood in his path. I remember bawling like my heart had broken as I watched the Fellowship mourn Gandalf’s fall, even though I knew perfectly well he would later make a triumphant return to save the world. I remember the struggle to keep my emotions under control through the rest of the film, knowing what was coming, and really only sort of managing it, because Peter Jackson kept the mood so brilliantly unsettled until that final battle on the banks of the Anduin. I remember the actual physical pain in my chest as I watched Boromir make his last heroic stand. I remember being grateful that the credits were so long and that my husband likes to stay until they’re done, because it took me that long to stop crying and we were there with friends and I don’t like people to know that I feel things as deeply as I do (or at all.)

I remember the agony of waiting an entire year, and then another year after that, to finally see the story through to the end. And of course, the heartbreak when it did end. In a very real sense, the breaking of another Fellowship as all of us fans drifted away from each other and lost touch once there were no more films to wait for and talk about. A defining era in my life, over forever.

I remembered of that, felt all of that, struggled with it, as I watched the special features on the AUJ: EE disc with one foot back in 2001 and the other in the now facing forward. And felt a bit silly for doing so, for crying, but I was by myself, so it was all right. But despite feeling silly, it was a real experience, and a strong and truthful one, and I can feel it bursting out of me, needing to be revealed. This is me, revealing it: I do feel things that deeply, this silly Tolkien stuff is that important to me, I am that crazy-obsessive even if I can just manage to keep it under control these days. I do miss those days, those people, that feeling of youth and irresponsibility.

Yeah, a documentary about the making of a fantasy film made me cry. And you know what? I love that those feelings are still there to be tapped and that I can be blindsided by them.

And here I thought I’d just be watching the bonus features to catch glimpses of the elusive Mr. Armitage at work.

Roll on December 13th. I’m ready for the Desolation.

Responsible consumption

Ordinarily, when I make charitable contributions, I do so in secret, having been raised on the attitude that the meaning of the impulse to give is cheapened if one seeks applause for it. Let us be clear that I am not seeking applause. What I am doing, here, is making a statement that I think is necessary under the circumstances.

Those circumstances would be my decision to attend a showing of Ender’s Game, based on the book of the same title by Orson Scott Card, despite his hate-fueled homophobic activism. I will not apologize for the way in which the novel entered my soul when I first read it as a child, or for the fact that I’ve been waiting to see it made into a movie ever since then. But I do feel it necessary to explain that I made the choice to view the film in spite of him, with his involvement being a major moral factor to be weighed in the decision. As in, I am not okay with him, I am not okay with the agenda he supports with his time, words, and money, and I am not okay with the idea that my decision to view his film might be seen by him or by Hollywood as tacit acceptance of the hate he promotes. If I’m seeing the film and I don’t voice these considerations, my silence equals acceptance.

Since there is no way, in the reality we inhabit, to entirely avoid exposure to problematic media or to support only artists with whom we agree on all points, I’m trying to be a conscientious consumer. It is my hope that OSC is getting no profits off the back end of this film and that he will never see a dime of my ticket sale. It is my hope that enough of a furor has been and will be raised over his involvement in the project that he will be offered no further Hollywood deals. It is my hope that we’re moving away from a world in which it is an accepted practice to actively lobby against the basic human rights of our fellow man, one  honest discourse at a time. But on the off chance that OSC does stand to see a bonus based on ticket sales, I’ve chosen to offset that with a donation to an organization that works toward better LGBTQ representation in media. (It seemed like a thematically appropriate choice. There are many worthy causes to choose from.)  I know I’m not the only one who struggled with this issue with this man and this film, and I know others have made their peace in other ways. This is my way: by being honest about the struggle, out in the open.

And for the record, post-viewing: if you love the book as I do, if it spoke to you or touched you at all, you might want to do yourself the favor of skipping the movie. It misses almost the entire point of the soul of the story, in a way that actually hurts.

Impressions

It turns out you can know what you want to say, and it can even be a relatively simple idea, but you can still have trouble finding the words to actually say it.  It turns out you can start and re-start a blog post at least seven different ways and still not find the right one.  It turns out that when trying to express a simple idea, wordiness is not an asset.

À propos of nothing, while I was composing those three sentences in my head, they looked like three drooping branch clusters of a weeping willow.

Something my new friend said to me on our choir tour is that she imagines one of the reasons people have a hard time getting to know me is because they have a hard time with the way I speak.  It’s the truth.  This, the way I write, is the way I speak.  It’s not helping me simplify this.

I’ve been trying to write about The Impressionists since I first watched it, back in late May (or was it early June?)  All I’ve wanted since then has been to express how clearly it spoke to me, how much of myself I saw on the screen.  All I’ve been able to do since then has been to fumble for the right approach to the topic, because every time I try to touch it with my words, I feel pretentious.

Me, an artist.  Me, comparing myself to the great trailblazers of art history.  Me, daring to speak of sharing the quest for their kind of artistic honesty as though I am some sort of iconoclast.

I’ve tried to come at the topic sideways, ashamed to admit to the degree to which I see myself represented in the characters portrayed.  Trying to brush it off and so maybe that way not appear so egotistical.  I’ve tried head-on, a straight-up review, but that doesn’t say any of the things that make talking about the film worthwhile for me.  I’ve tried being perfectly candid about my reasons for finding this so difficult.  Nothing has gotten me any closer to just saying what I need to say.

______________________

Three years ago, I was given a copy of The Artists’s Way by Julia Cameron.  I was in a particularly lost time and I needed something to show me a path, any path.  I’m not going to go into all the reasons why it didn’t work out for me (mostly because I already have, elsewhere.)  What I’m getting to here is an experience I had one day, when I was heading out on my “artist’s date.”  I wasn’t actually sure where I was going.  The major victory was that I had managed to get out the door on what was to me such a self-indulgent errand.  So as I drove along, toward no destination in particular, I asked myself what it was my “inner artist” most wanted to do for fun just then.  This meant trying to look this supposed inner artist in the eye and figure out who she is.

That was when I had this realization, in the midst of a pretty black and stormy mood.  I recorded it in my Morning Pages the next day:

1 June, 2010: Apparently I’m not as dark and cynical and hard as I like to think I am.  In fact, my photography portfolio reveals an entirely different story.  If you look at my view of the world as seen through the lens of a camera, I’m actually quite innocent and idealistic, even romantic, at heart…  I’m a child alive with the wonder of creation under all this jaded depression crap.  I cling to the hardness and the darkness because the romantic child underneath is soft and vulnerable.  And afraid.

______________________

My memory ate the context of the conversation a long time ago, but I distinctly remember that I was talking to someone once about my music and I said to them – with the kind of guileless self-absorption that only a teenager can manage unironically – that I played the same kind of music all the time because I had a certain feeling inside me and I was trying to find a piece of music that expressed it.  I remember feeling, as I said it, that by finding that one piece of music and playing it, I would achieve a wholeness of self that was not to be had any other way; I also remember not having any particular sense that I would ever actually find it.

I’m a musician, but not a composer.  I have nearly no understanding of how to construct a particular mood with chords or note progressions.  Key signatures?  I can play them, but I don’t really get why they work the way they do.  I only know how to interpret the sounds that someone else has written.  Looking to someone else’s work for an expression of my innermost self will always be a doomed quest, and I’ve always known that.  It’s the search, the ongoing experience of tasting musical flavors, that’s the important thing.

I have to admit that even today, I still feel a twinge of weirdness at calling myself a musician.  I was conditioned stringently in childhood not to “pretend” to talents or identities I had no right to (which, in hindsight, was anything I was ever good at because my siblings didn’t want to let me in on the fact that I deserved to be proud of myself, but it’s difficult to overcome those feelings.)  I can own up to being a singer, because I’ve been doing it for so long and so irrepressibly, and have received objective competitive confirmation that I’m better than average at it.  But calling myself a musician, I don’t know, implies a level of professionalism I never reached despite the fact that I was about two breaths away from majoring in vocal performance at college.  Also it implies, to me, that I’m better with instruments than I am.  I tanked horribly on the viola, and my skills on the piano are no better than casual despite years of practice because of the hard limitations imposed by my poor hand-eye coordination and fine motor control.

But I am a musician.  I make music.  End of story.

I’ve had even more of a struggle to call myself an artist.  I am the one sad outcast with no drawing skill in a family of talented sketchers, so I always felt that there must have been a certain artistic gene in the family that ran out by the time I was born.  It has taken me my entire adult life to come to grips with the reality that there are as many kinds of art as there are artists, and that lacking an ability to accurately render with a pencil has nothing to do with a person’s creativity.  I like to make things that are beautiful.  I’m still experimenting with all of the ways I can do that.  One of them is through photography.  The awkward part of me doesn’t want to call that art, but the logical part knows it can be.  So I tentatively, shyly, wear the title of Artist.

The one thing I’ve never had any qualms about is owning myself as Writer.  It’s been who I am since I was in grade school.  I didn’t know how to answer the “What do you want to be when you grow up?” question, because while the other children wanted to be princesses and astronauts and firemen, I already was a writer and I didn’t want to be anything else.  I’ve gone through periods over the years of thinking I’m a mediocre writer, but I’ve always known that I am one.

These are all tools with which I try to make sense of reality, and they each serve a different purpose.  I use music to explore myself, photography to explore the world, and writing to explore the people in it.

______________________

There were certain lines in The Impressionists that leaped out at me powerfully the first time I saw it.  These are a few.

Monet:

“For me, Nature is an end in itself.”

“…we will all draw him differently, and his feet will be different, just as we are all different, and the world is different in every moment of every day.”

“Nothing that makes me feel, nothing that art is for me even exists for [him]!”

“If we can’t paint what we were born to paint, then we might as well be doctors and tailors.  At least then we’d be doing something real.”

“No one can tell me there is no color in shadow, when I have stood here and seen it and painted it for myself.”

“I wanted to capture the impression of a moment.”

“For me, it was all about the moment… chasing the moment that will never come again.”

“Cézanne was a pioneer searching for his own truth.”

“How can anyone say that a landscape even exists when it changes so constantly?”

Cézanne:

“You are an inspiration to me, and you… you are Renoir.”

“I am trying to clarify the relationship between color and form.” (I thought I was starting to understand what he means by this, one night as I was drifting off to sleep, but when I woke up it remained as elusive as ever.  I suspect this may simply be a concept that is comprehensible only within the liminal spaces of my consciousness.  But it hits me somewhere.)

“Be good.  And if you’re not, you’re forgiven already.”

“It’s escaping…”

______________________

Even though they are never given a mention in the film, I came away from the story with an understanding of the Impressionist composers that has always eluded me.  I suddenly saw what it was they were trying to do.  Some music is story (a lot of music is story), some is a mathematical expression.  Some is a statement of theme.  I’ve always found Impressionist music beautiful but nonsensical.  I get it now.  They were trying to catch the abstract of the emotion of a single moment in time, never the same way twice.  And I realize that’s how I make music.

______________________

Whatever it is about the movie that speaks to me, it’s beautiful – an actual work of art on its own merits.  Real credit is due the cinematographer and artistic director, because every frame is like a painting.  It’s worth watching for the aesthetic value alone.  The performances are genuinely offered.  Richard Armitage as Claude Monet is charming, life and enthusiasm bursting from the brightness of his eyes, from every barely-controlled line of his body.

I’m not going to pretend that my work is in any way visionary, or that the landscape of literature will be changed by my contributions to it.  I write fantasy novels; they do what you expect them to.  I am not the Monet or the Cézanne of fantasy fiction.  I’m not at the forefront of anything.  Where I see myself in these characters is in the dogged drive to continue honestly making the kind of art they feel compelled to make, despite a lack of support from the outside world.  Sometimes the will to create sinks beneath the despair of being unknown and unappreciated, but in the end the art will out.  With Monet I share that wide-eyed wonder at nature.  With Cézanne I share the frustration of feeling unequal to the work (and also the poor manners, eccentric habits, and lack of social awareness.)

There is something larger here than I’ve been able to say.  Or maybe I’ve been able to say it in the empty spaces.  Maybe I speak best with silence.

The Avengers or The Dark Knight Rises

I posted this elsewhere, but I’m importing it here because this might be the most coherent thing I’m able to say about The Dark Knight Rises for a while. It left me pretty shaky.

Which movie is better: The Avengers, or The Dark Knight Rises?

I know this is a question that’s going to be asked a lot, for obvious reasons. I’ve already been asked it four times. But despite the obviousness of drawing comparisons between the two films, I feel like any attempt to rank them against one another is an artificial reach.

Let’s just say this:

On the spectrum of how to make a successful superhero movie, they each represent exact opposite ends of the scale. TDKR is probably strictly a better film than The Avengers in most measurable ways that you can quantify filmmaking, but that’s not the whole picture.

I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anything more amazing on a movie screen. Period. It’s astounding, Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece to date, and to be perfectly honest I spent most of it in tears. Right from the first frame, the mood is one of overwhelming, masterful tragedy that holds your heart in its fist. Doesn’t crush it, just holds it there breathless and fluttering like a small bird, waiting for the worst to happen. The weight of this looming tragedy hangs there, an ache that never abates for three hours. And in the end, I thanked the movie for hurting me so badly. Silently, because I had been rendered literally speechless. I’ve never been made to feel quite this way by a movie, and I know unquestionably that I’ve never loved a movie this much.

But. When I own both The Avengers and TDKR on bluray, Batman is not the one I’ll be watching every day. I can’t. I don’t know if I can ever watch it again. I’ll have to feel that out on a day-to-day basis, hoping that one day I’ll have the strength to face it again. It was deeply emotionally draining.

The Avengers, on the other hand, was the most fun I’ve ever had at the movies. I love every character and every actor in it, and Joss Whedon is my man. That movie is two hours of bouncing in my seat because of sheer childlike joy pumping through my veins along with the adrenaline. It’s a happy-maker. We’ve got explosions and dudes in capes beating each other up and aliens ruining the shit out of Manhattan accompanied by a consistently awesome stream of snappy dialogue. It is win on a tightly-scripted gold plate.

But really, trying to say which one of them is better? No. You don’t compare ice cream and puppies. You enjoy them both and shut the hell up about having to declare some kind of winner.

An extremely delayed reaction

Let me be honest, here: I write fanfiction.

Not a lot, or even primarily.  Most of the work I do is on my own original material.  But there is one fandom in particular that left me, when the story was done, simultaneously fascinated by the characters and asking myself a number of idea-spawning questions about where these people came from to make them this way, and what they could possibly do now.  I’m quite often left with questions after consuming media, and I usually spin these questions into fuel for my own stories.  Something about these characters, though…

But to the point.  Some weeks ago, I received a rare review on one of my pieces of fanfiction.  Rare, because my stories aren’t written to satisfy anyone’s prurient appetites, so they generally get passed over in the community.  It’s a matter of some excitement to me when I see that email alert informing me that another human being bothered not just to read my flights of fancy, but liked (or hated) it enough to communicate with me about it.

This review, however, turned out to be maybe the weirdest piece of feedback I have ever garnered.  And even though I’ve sat with it for the last few weeks, glad of the attention, it has finally become impossible to ignore the fact that a certain accusation/observation in this review has been wriggling at the back of my mind this whole time.

As the individual began by nervously wishing I had the anonymous review function turned on, I will not make with the naming of names.  And as I so rarely hear back from the void I’m constantly pouring my words into, I told myself repeatedly that I was simply glad that someone had taken the time to comment.  It’s even true.  I really am glad, even if what this person said made me scratch my head and reread the review several times to be certain I was getting the right idea from it.  Because on a first read-through, it wasn’t at all clear whether this person was congratulating me on a story very well-written, or informing me that I had done the single worst job of capturing these characters’ essences of all time.  That’s a pretty big dichotomy, I think.

A sample to illustrate my confusion:

“I was into it more than I thought I would. A little jarring. For… you injected everyone with a kind of normalcy that was almost TOO normal. Or was it realism? Maybe a mix. It’s just weird for me. I’m only familiar with awkward.”

Now, let me be clear.  I don’t mind if this person hated my story.  Hate is a strong reaction and I’d be happy to have inspired it, because it would mean I made that person feel something.  The purpose of this rant, the thing that upsets me, is the claim that I wrote the characters as too normal.  I mean, is that a thing?  Too normal?  Like I should be upset when a movie makes an effect seem too real, or when a pastry chef bakes a cake that is too delicious?  Isn’t that the idea?  Because let’s be clear here: it’s not that I wrote these people as boring or flat or lacking dynamism.  The review later confirms this while complaining that I made them too extreme in some cases.  So what I have to think is that the substance of the complaint lies in my having made the characters too much like actual people.

What?  Is that a thing?  Am I losing my mind?  Isn’t the goal of character creation to make people that feel real enough to connect to?  Isn’t the point of fanfiction to explore the inner workings of someone else’s creation and see if you can discover anything new about them that you didn’t get from the original material?  What kind of person goes into a story expecting – wanting! – to read about characters with alien motives and un-relatable emotions, doing things that make no sense and have no value outside of their badassery or sex-quotient?

This rant has been building because over these past few weeks, as I’ve been working on my novel in earnest, I’ve been devoting quite a lot of my attention to making my characters into something a reader can really bond with.  In fact, on the days when I’m willing to admit that I have any talent at all, I have to say that my greatest strength as a writer lies in my ability to make realistic empathetic characters.

And this is now a flaw?

My apologies, non-anonymous reviewer whose identity I am nevertheless protecting, but what?  I really do appreciate that you screwed up your courage to express your opinion of my work.  I just wish, while you were taking that leap, you could have said something that made any sense.

Emo to the max

My relationship with my own writing is pretty tempestuous.

Sometimes we’re in love.  Sometimes it’s easy to make the words flow and I know I’m doing good work and I get almost drunk on my ability to create whole worlds out of language.  I start to dream up grand plans for the day when I’m famous and I can walk into a bookstore and see my own name on a shelf.  My work will be so well-received that Hollywood will buy the rights.  Oh, it will be glorious.  I’ll be witty and sarcastic on writing panels at cons, building a fan base of nerds like me with an equally dark sense of humor.  My opinion will matter.  People will love me for being so eccentric.  I’ll stop wondering whether my parents secretly feel like I was a superfluous addition to the family.

Then there’s the rest of the time.  Today, right now.  When I feel like the writing is so difficult that it can’t be anything but a chore to read.  That no one could possibly have any interest in the stories I have to tell, the things I have to say.  Because I’m just that tedious.

Usually, when this mood strikes, I stop writing for a few months and seriously ask myself whether I’ll ever bother again.  All emowangst style.  Today, however, the universe stood up and said no.  The universe instead showered my writing with praise from multiple sources on a previously unrealized scale.  The universe said, “Hey.  Alyssa.  Get over yourself and get back to telling stories.  You’re good at it.”

Thanks, universe.  I needed that.