Friday, October 21, 2011

You Say Tomayto, I Say Tomahto; You Say Shine, I Say Chime

On Monday morning, October 10th, Lauren Myracle was a National Book Award finalist.  By Monday afternoon, she wasn't.

Here's what went down, in case you haven't kept on top on this debacle.  Apparently all the nomination business was done over the phone, and someone misheard Shine (by Ms. Myracle) instead of Chime (by Franny Billingsley).  After the finalists were announced, the National Book Foundation mea culpa'd their mistake but said that they would allow both authors as finalists.  Then a few hours later they changed their story and asked Ms. Myracle to withdraw her name as a finalist.  She very graciously did so.  She also asked that the NBF consider donating to The Matthew Shephard Foundation, given that her book is about the aftermath of a gay hate crime in a small Southern town.  The NBF donated $5,000 (good on them).

I'm not here to rant about how screwed-up this situation is; Libba Bray did that really well on her blog (LOVE HER)!  I'm here to say: Lauren, I feel your pain.

Years ago, when I was in college and still dancing semi-seriously, the artistic director of a ballet company that I took class with called me.  He told me he wanted me to be in their annual production of The Nutcracker, and proceeded to list all the roles he wanted me to dance.  I was over the moon.  I had just been through a bad break-up and needed something like this to focus on.

A few days later, I showed up to take class.  The artistic director pulled me aside.  "Sorry," he said, "I got you mixed up with another Nicole."  I stammered, "So, you don't want me to be in The Nutcracker?"  "No," he said disdainfully, and left me standing there, my heart in my shoes. 

It was awful.  It was humiliating.  I needed something good in my life and for three days I was so excited, only to have it ripped away from me in one, horrible moment.  Oh, and did I mention that my ex-boyfriend was screwing one of the ballerinas in the company?

So when I heard about the NBA screw-up, it took me right back to that crushing moment.  But at least mine was in private.  Lauren Myracle's moment was as public as it gets.  And yet, she has handled it with gracefulness that any ballerina would envy.  She's written a fabulous article for The Huffington Post that tells her very personal side of the story. 

One of the things she writes in the article is this:  What I've realized:  it's just one more reminder not to be so invested in validation from external sources.

So freaking true.  I didn't even want to be a ballet dancer; I was an acting major in college.  I didn't need to be in some stupid production of The Nutcracker to validate me as an artist.  Just like Lauren Myracle doesn't some award to tell her what a great writer she is.

And the positive outcome here?  I now have two books on my nightstand that I probably wouldn't have read if this whole debacle hadn't happened.  I'm going to read both and privately decide which one I'd give the award too.  Although I can already tell you the answer is both.  Because, let's face it, any author who finishes a book and then travels the long hard road to publication deserves an award.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Parental Fear

On Saturday my husband and I took our thirteen-month-old daughter, Emilia, Halloween shopping.  We wound up buying a Hog's Head sign for our front door.  Hog's Head, for those not in the know, is the shady pub frequented by unsavory characters in Hogsmeade, the village in the shadow of Hogwarts.

We hung it on the door.  It looks awesome.  We brought Emilia outside to show her.  She took one look at the dark, curly-tusked boar's head and started crying.

And I started to fear...what if she doesn't like Harry Potter?

I mean, seriously!  The day I start reading Harry Potter & The Sorcerer's Stone with her is going to be a monumental day in my house.  I've been looking forward to it since the little screen read Pregnant! on the pregnancy test.  What if we get halfway through the book and she says to me, "I'm bored?" 

What if we go to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Universal Studios and she doesn't want to leave covered head to toe in Hogwarts paraphernalia?

What if she doesn't want to dress up as Hermione for three Halloweens in a row?  Or hang a Gryffindor banner on her wall?

In other words, what if she's different than me?

My husband and I have a joke.  He says, "She can be anything she wants when she grows up, except an actor."  I say, "She can be anything she wants when she grows up, except a Republican."  He talks about getting her into horror movies and zombie books, while I dream about bringing her to Sephora and getting makeovers.

In other words, we want her to be both a tomboy and a girly-girl.  We want her to be an artist and a scientist.  We want her to cure cancer, win a Pulitzer and be President.  We want her to love all the same things we do, and wish for all the same things that we wish for her.

I'm a little ashamed that I want her to like the same things I did when I was a girl - like ballet and horses, reading and The Last Unicorn.  I've always had a loathing for mothers who impress their own agenda onto their children; having spent so much time in the theatre, I've seen what stage (s)mothering can do, and it ain't pretty.  But when I find myself having a little fantasy about her being accepted into The School of American Ballet, I think, am I really any better?

Is this a deep-seated fear that all parents have?  What if we expose our children to all the things we love, only to discover it's not what brings them joy?  What if we instill in them the values and ideals that we cherish, only to see them choose a different path?  I'll never forget the 1996 Presidential election, when I went to the polling place with my dad.  It was the second election I'd voted in, but the previous one I had done by absentee ballot.  So I'd never actually used a voting machine.  It was a small town, and we knew everyone working the polls, so they allowed my dad to come into the booth with me to show me how to do it.  For every single ballot, I flicked the Democratic ticket.  I put my hand on the lever.  My father, a lifelong Republican, looked at me and said, "Are you sure you want to do that?"  I met his eye, said "Yes," in a definitive voice, and pulled the lever down.

I've always been proud of that moment, for claiming my own voice and standing up for what I believe in.  But now I see it from my dad's point of view.  What must it have been like, to see his daughter vote for the complete opposite of everything he believed in?

And the thing is, I want to raise a strong, independent woman, who knows her truth and speaks up for it.  Even if that truth is different from my own.  And really, in the end, as long as she's happy, of course I'll be happy.  Even if she chooses to go see Scream 10 with Daddy instead of shopping at Anthropologie with Mommy.  Even if she doesn't weep at the end of Gone With the Wind, or paint a mural of a horse on her wall (as I did when I was twelve).  I mean, if she does become a Republican, am I really going to love her any less?  Of course not.  Because she'll be her own person, and I think that's the best possible thing she could be.

But if she doesn't like Harry Potter, she will be disowned.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

We Interrupt This Program

I love autumn.  I love the chill in the morning air, Pumpkin Spice Lattes, the changing leaves (which I miss ever since I moved to Southern California), and wearing my Uggs instead of my flip-flops.

The other thing I love about the fall is all the new television shows that fill up my DVR.

I will unabashedly admit I love television.  Probably a little too much.  It borders on addiction.  But at least my addiction is scripted shows, and not reality television (which is scripted anyway).  Soapbox Moment: reality television is non-union.  It takes jobs away from union writers (and you're fooling yourself if you think reality television doesn't employ writers).  So if you're reading this, and you're a writer, please consider boycotting reality television in support of your fellow writers.  End of Soapbox Moment.

This year there has been a crop of exciting new shows, and I've watched a good handful of them.  So here, in no particular order, in my completely unqualified and purely unprofessional opinion, are my thoughts.

New Shows

A lot of critics are calling this network television's sad attempt to cash in on the Mad Men craze.  Let me say that I think Mad Men is highly overrated.  I've found the last couple of seasons really uneven.  But the one thing about Mad Men that is always consistent is the high production value.  Unfortunately, that's not the case with Pan Am.  Bad green screen, cheap-looking costumes, and one boring main setting = not as pretty to look at as Mad Men.  Add to that the pedestrian writing and wooden acting, and you've got one big disappointment.  NBC has already cancelled their Mad Men ripoff The Playboy Club, and while I think Pan Am may last a little longer, I don't think it's destined for a long life span.  

I've never been shy about my adoration for Buffy the Vampire Slayer so I was excited for the return of Sarah Michelle Gellar to television.  That's why I'm giving this show a longer grace period than I normally do.  Sometimes it takes a show a little while to hit its stride, and I'm hoping this is the case here.  But with such a high concept - woman on the run from a dangerous crime boss masquerades as her high society twin sister - this show should have hit the ground running, and it didn't. 

I watched the pilot episode, and haven't watched it since.  The acting was so one-note I was actually laughing.  But I'm thinking I should give this show another shot, if only because it's paranormal YA.  That's my genre, on the page and on the screen.

Great cast, snappy writing, hilarious situations...and it's about a couple adjusting to being new parents.  As the mother of a 13-month-old, I can completely relate to this show.  I don't quite love it as much as I love Modern Family (which is the best comedy on television, hands-down), but last night I was laughing my ass off when Christina Applegate and Will Arnett packed up the car and almost drove off without the baby.  Yeah.  I can relate. 

Cable television can always go farther than network, and that's to the advantage of a show like this.  This is a tense show with a slightly unlikeable heroine (Claire Danes) and a hero who is quite possibly a terrorist (Damian Lewis).  But the writing is taut and the storyline is unbelievably compelling: a presumed-dead Marine is found alive after eight years in captivity with Al-Qaeda.  Everyone welcomes him home as a hero (including his wife, who has been secretly sleeping with his close friend)...except one CIA agent who suspects he's been turned.  I'm only one episode in, but so far it's living up to the hype.  It's on Showtime, so you may have to wait for DVD to check this one out. 

Okay.  Let's be honest.  This show isn't about great writing or Emmy-worthy acting.  This show is pure guilty pleasure, and that's why I'm addicted.  This high-concept show succeeded where Ringer didn't; it hit the ground running and sucked us in right away.  It gave us enough answers in the first episode to get us hooked, but left enough questions open to keep us watching.  My biggest issue with this show is that I'm not sure how long they can keep up this storyline.  But for now, it's like chocolate, and I can't get enough.

One new show that I'm dying to watch is Once Upon A Time.  It doesn't debut until October 23rd, so I'm waiting with baited breath.  I love the cast (I'm a big Ginnifer Goodwin fan) and it's from the writers of Lost.  Need I say more?

Old Shows

I miss Steve Carell.  I think the show has lost its voice without him, and I'm not sure how much longer I'll be watching.

Yes, I still watch it.  Yes, it's old and tired, like the over-the-hill hooker on the bad corner of Hollywood Boulevard.  But, this is the last season.  I figure I may as well stick it out until the end.  And honestly, it still entertains me.  Particularly Eva Longoria, who I think is one of the most underrated comediennes on television.  She's the funniest one of the bunch, and the writers know it.  They are constantly gifting her with priceless zingers that she delivers with dead-on deliciousness.  When the writers and the actors come together like that, it's magic.

J.J. Abrams.  John Noble.  Compelling weekly episodes under an amazing over-arching storyline.  The coolest show on television.  Why aren't you watching?

And that's my take on some of the television shows that I'm watching this season.  So set your DVR, grab some popcorn, settle in, and get addicted.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Writing the Hard Stuff

Over the course of a novel, your main character is going to face some tough situations (unless you're writing the world's most boring book).  And that means that you yourself are going to have to live that situation through your character.  This, for me, is one of the hardest things about writing.

All this chatter lately about how dark YA is, and how so many stories now involve bullying/rape/cutting/abuse/violence/suicide/sadness/etc, leaves out one very important factor.  The toll it takes on a writer to actually write those things.

Years ago, when I was writing my first novel, I had to write a graphic rape scene that happened to one of the main characters.  It took several weeks to craft the scene.  During that time there was a constant sadness pressing on me, a weight I couldn't shake off.  And when I was actually sitting at the computer writing, I was often in tears.

A lot of people might wonder why I chose to write that.  After all, I'm the author; I'm in control.  That character didn't have to get raped, did she?

Well, yes.  She did.

I think a lot of non-writers believe that we choose what we want to write.  And why would we ever want to write a story about cutting or rape or suicide?  But the truth is, we don't choose.  Very often, characters come to us and demand to have their story told, and we are just the vessel.

It can actually get a little annoying.  I can't tell you how many times I tried to send that above-mentioned character down Path A, only to have her stomp down Path B with me trailing helplessly behind.

Characters come from our own imagination, but once we set them to paper and whisper breath into them, they take on a life of their own.  Maybe we did set out to write a story about a girl who cuts herself, but once she starts talking to us, we realize she has a deep, dark story of abuse that needs to be told, too.  

We all love our characters; we want them to be happy.  But they're not living their lives frolicking in a bed of daisies, and it would be a disservice to them to try to put them there.  As painful as it was to write about my beloved character getting raped, I knew I had to honor her story. 

I'm talking about this now because I just had to write a death scene.  It's not a major character, but it's someone important to my heroine, and she's the only one present at the death.  To put her through that, to make her witness that, is heartbreaking.

But I know that this is an important part of her journey, and taking the easy road isn't an option.  The easy road paves the way for bad storytelling...and for characters with less depth.  And that is more of a disservice to our characters than any tragedy.