Friday, November 11, 2011

The Day of Elevens

I've been wondering what to do about today. Ever since I came up with my psuedonym, I've considered what significant things I could plan for The Day of Elevens.

At first, I dreamed of a book debut today. My two-year-ago self had big dreams and imagined no trip-ups along the way. Ah, Two-Year-Ago Self. So cute and naive. I kinda miss you.

High School Self would totally have bought a ticket to see Steven King at my local bookstore tonight. The fact that he'll be less than ten miles from my house and available for public viewing seems like something rare and valuable. But High School Self was freshly laden with the regret of passing up a similar meeting with Ray Bradbury for a Calculus test she didn't pass anyway. Ah, High School self. So reactive and emotionally uniformed. I don't miss you so much, but you still whisper suggestions that remind me you're locked up in my head somewhere. Adult Self just keeps overriding you, especially this time. I'm only a moderate admirer of Steven King, not a die hard fan. Going to see him will not make up for missing Bradbury. It will just be a regret in the opposite direction.

Last Summer Self imagined great things for you, oh day of elevens, despite the nine-months-and-running writers block. Last Summer Self thought about building up a store of Writer Wednesdays and Philosophical Phridays, and then celebrating a reopening of the blog today, followed by months of timely and pithy posts on specific subjects. Kristen Lamb would have been proud. But Last Summer self got out voted by Fall Procrastinating self, who read books and surfed the net instead of building up the necessary posts. If Next Month self gets on the ball, I might unveil a routine at the New Year. Or something. 

Last Week Self decided to skip you altogether, November Eleventh. That's right. Can you believe it? After representing the number eleven for almost two years, she had decided it was too hard to come back and blog when she couldn't even finish two pages of a story. But I know where Last Week self was, and I can't blame her. For those with chemical sensitivities, you might well know what I'm talking about when I say Last Week Self was immersed in Progesterone Hell. Progesterone Hell is not a pretty place, so I'd rather not go into it.

And Today Self? I am feeling good today. Apparently, emerging from Progesterone Hell inspires endorphines and energy and hope. I'm trying to forgive Fall Procrasting Self, console Two-Year-Old Self, and enforce firm boundaries on High School Self. But mostly, I just want to enjoy today, a day with so many Elevens.

Hooray for a beautiful number! Don't you just love the way it rolls off your tongue? Go ahead and say it out loud: Eleven. Try it with a British Accent. Try it with an Indian one. Numerologists swear when 11:11 shows up on a clock, amazing coincidences occur. Mystics believe it has special powers. It's the number that never gets old. Even people of that age are a joy. They are the oldest and most responsible of the kids who haven't hit all the complicated angst of adolescence.

But I think I'm done hiding behind the number. If and when I restart my blog, I'll be using my real name.

Hi, my name is Heather Whitley. It feels decidedly unexotic, especially since I was born with all those other Heathers in the 1970's. But it is me, and if you shout it out in a room, I'll respond. Maintaining a dual identity is a lot of work, and it feels like time to simplify.

I'd like to thank Nancy Curteman and myliteraryquest for all your wonderful comments on this blog, as well as all the rest of you that read and posted. Thank you to my twelve adoring followers for putting your thumbnail in my collection. Thank you to the brilliant and talented Liz Czukas for spurring me to blog in the first place. It is a worthwhile thing, and I will come back to it when my Hypergraphia returns. It's the one mental condition I dearly miss. I'm still hoping, with patience and effort, I can inspire its return.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Sheen and Other Famous Train Wrecks

Every time a famous person does something stupid, I cringe. Not because famous people should be good role models and avoid screwing up their lives (although that would be nice). I cringe because the media appeals to the worst in humanity by exploiting famous people's flaws.

As I drove to the gym this morning, the radio DJ talked about Charlie Sheen. He said he wanted to start his own show with Charlie Sheen and catch a piece of this big publicity wave for himself. His co-host said it was fascinating while it lasted, but the whole Charlie Sheen Thing was getting old. On the treadmill at the gym, I listened to my own music, but the wall of TVs in front of me displayed image after image of Charlie Sheen; one where he was holding a frog (I don't even want to know...okay, I am a little curious), and two others where he was all angry, his face contorted as he most likely said some ugly things.

I've faced this same situation with other famous people in the past. Tiger Woods, Hugh Grant, Bill Clinton, Lindsay Lohan, Harrison Ford, and countless other famous people have appeared on TV and the tabloids with dirty secrets revealed. Something as small as John Travolta might be bald to as big as Kobe Bryant might be a rapist.

I am drawn to knowing about it. It must feed some need, because I crave it. I don't crave it as much as the next guy, but a small piece of me still wants it. My eyes are drawn to the tabloids and television. My ears are drawn to the radio. My fingers itch to open up People Magazine in the doctor's waiting room.

So, feeling the need, I ask myself, what hunger does this feed? And is it the best way to feed that hunger?

First, knowing their dark secrets lets me feel superior to someone I previously placed in an ivory tower of wonderfulness. Famous people are heroes in a lot of ways to average people like me. I wish I was them, or at least dating them (or maybe just had their money, house and really cool acting job). When they screw up financially, morally, etc., it relieves me of those illusions that they are better than me.

If only it could end there, but no. I've spent too long at the bottom of this self-conceived hierarchy. I want to enjoy my turn on top. At least I'm not as bad as Charlie Sheen, I say to myself. I don't do drugs. I don't screw my coworkers. I don't broadcast really stupid and career-killing things to the whole world.

This is a problem for me. When I feel better about my flaws in comparison to Charlie Sheen, I don't feel the need to fix my flaws at all. Comparisons skew the truth. And the truth is I can do better and should keep trying to do better. Being less screwed up than Charlie Sheen is not a laurel I want to rest on.

Once I root out this need to feel better than screwed up famous people, I still want to keep listening. So I have to keep digging and figure out why. So I don't feel superior anymore, but I feel...sympathy. I feel bad for Charlie Sheen. I feel bad for all famous people out there who get their mistakes plastered all over the media, who get exploited by every Today Show and Tabloid. Even if they are helping and pushing for this exhibition of their own misery, shouldn't somebody stop them instead of taking advantage of their low point, their temporary insanity?

Does watching with this kind of mindset make me a better person? I do have a sense of their humanity, right? But then, I think, so does the father who cries into his beer at the bar because he loves his children so much, the same children he is not spending time with because he is at the bar drinking.

This is a problem for me. I am cultivating feelings for people I don't know, so I can't act on those feelings without becoming a crazy-stalking-fan-type. And feelings exist to fuel action. Feel free to contest this statement, but I really, really believe it myself. If I care about Charlie Sheen but have no plans to act on that caring, then what's the point? It's a waste of perfectly good emotional fuel I could be using on REAL PEOPLE. Whether Charlie Sheen is actually real or just a holographic cyborg, I couldn't tell you. But my neighbor is a real person. My family is full of real people. Even the guy in front of me at the grocery store is real. Caring about those people will motivate me to act decently toward them, because I actually interact with them (and I don't have to be a crazy-stalker-fan-type to do so).

So what can I do about Charlie Sheen? I can stop listening. I can stop supporting the media entities that broadcast his misery to feed my misguided need for superiority or passive emotional connections. I don't need to feel superior to Charlie Sheen. He's just another guy, not an ex-ivory-tower fallen angel. I don't need to throw bushels-full of heartfelt feelings at him, either. I'm saving my feelings for people and situations that allow me to act. Also, I'm really starting to wonder if Charlie Sheen is in fact a holographic cyborg. The kind that started malfunctioning after coming into contact with an ordinary frog.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Save the Cat!

In Hooked, Les Edgerton says, 'As a culture, we've been trained to receive stories visually by movies and television since at least the fifties.' And it's true. Americans experience more screen time than page-turning moments. I imagine the average person uses the standard movie template as a benchmark for what makes a good book.

Movies are necessarily made of tight writing. They only have two hours to convey a whole story. Books do get more wiggle room, and avid readers will enjoy more depth to the characters, themes, and plots that movies only skim, but I do think there is something to be said for taking a good hard look at the core of what makes a good movie and putting that toward what makes a good book.

Save the Cat! claims it is the last book on screenwriting I'll ever need. I take that to mean it's the only book on screenwriting I'll ever need, since I'm not really interested in writing screenplays. Mostly, I just want to see what makes them tick.

Save the Cat! does that and more. It shows me how to find or make a High Concept (since Hollywood is the king of High Concept). It shows me the ten most universal plots, and what elements count in each one (so I can find which one I've written and sharpen the focus). It shows me how to see and then strengthen the character arc of any hero. It gives me the fifteen pieces of the universal movie template, plus how long each piece should be, where it falls in the story, and how to build it on a storyboard (with conflict!). And, of course, it reveals a few pitfalls and techniques.

If you want to know why it helps your hero to 'save the cat' or how putting the 'pope in the pool' can assist you in backstory, read this book. Also read it if your middle gets murky, your ending falls flat, or your hero lacks luster.

How much do you think the tenets of movies or television apply to literature? Have these medias influenced your reader expectations?

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Don't give away the key

I just discovered Relient K's song Be My Escape. I love this song, except for one thing. The main point.

Here's the chorus:
And I’ve been housing all this doubt and insecurity and
I’ve been locked inside that house all the while You hold the key
And I’ve been dying to get out and that might be the death of me
And even though, there’s no way in knowing where to go, promise I’m going because
I gotta get outta here
I’m stuck inside this rut that I fell into by mistake
I gotta get outta here
And I’m begging You, I’m begging You, I’m begging You to be my escape.

Does this bother anybody else? Everybody falls into ruts of insecurity, traps themselves in houses of doubt. But why, WHY do they hand away the key?

Maybe they don't realize they've handed away the key. This is Gen Y (or is it Z by now?) speaking, after all. Lack of accountability and tendency to blame others backfires in moments like this, because if they can't own the problem, they can't own the solution, either. The idea of holding their own key might be inconceivable.

Maybe the locked door on that house of doubt and insecurity can only be unlocked from the outside. But I'm skeptical. I think we hand away keys to our happiness without even looking to see if the door can be opened from the inside. Why would you not check, first? Why would you choose to be a beggar if there was a chance you didn't have to be?

Maybe not everybody hands their keys away willy-nilly and then begs others to save them from themselves. But I've done it enough in the past (yeah, yeah, yeah, beggar is pathetic, but it is the easy way out) for this song to get under my skin.

No more. Today is a new day. It's MY house, MY doubt, MY insecurity, and no one else holds the key. I do. I'm going to hold the triumph, too. Just as soon as I find that keyhole.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Super Bowl Thoughts

1. If I squint really hard, I can see those little black pellets in the Astro turf.
2. The uniform pants of the Steelers and the Packers are almost the same color, but the Steelers's pants are shinier. Is that a marketing ploy to attract more attention to certain body parts?
3. If you are a pro football player, the best place to get a tattoo is on your bicep. It gets way more airtime than any other part of your skin.
4. Volkswagon commercials are the best. Go Daddy commercials are the worst.
5. It must be claustrophobic enough in those football helmets without adding a really big beard.
6. Professional tap dancers would make great running backs. And vice versa.
7. Doritos do not taste or smell as good as the commercials would have you think. For instance, I would not want to sniff the cheese powder off any surface, much less someone else's pants.
8. Slow motion makes me think even I could have caught that ball. No! It's not by your helmet anymore, why are you grabbing there?
9. I wonder what percentage of the NFL audience actually knows how to read Roman Numerals.
10. The baby thing is done, Etrade. Let it die.

What did you think during Super Bowl XLV?

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Stinky Cheese Man

This is my all-time favorite picture book. It has a little to do with the amazing Illustrations by Lane Smith that won a Caldecott Honor in 1993. But mostly it is because of Jon Scieszka's wonderfully weird storytelling. I am a huge fan of this particular brand of weird.

If you haven't read The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales before, you are really missing out. The title page has TITLE PAGE in eight hundred point font (or whatever it takes to fill three-quarters of the page with two lines of a bold serif typeface). The dedication page is upside down with the apologetic Jack the Narrator trying to right it. The introduction tells you to stop reading and skip to the good stuff, and includes a Surgeon's General Warning that the stories may be hazardous to your health. Some characters are killed by the Table of Contents. Others complain that the author and illustrator are lazy and don't give them enough stage time.

This book is great for character voices. When I worked in radio, I took a character voice course by Pat Fraley (If you watched cartoons in the 80's you'll appreciate his filmography). I remember almost none of the training now, but what's left shows up when I read The Stinky Cheese Man. My favorite character voice is the Little Red Hen, a slightly gravely nasal voice with huge pitch jumps into shrill territory for emphasis. My second favorite is the Giant. For him, I use a low, choppy and monotone chest voice, something akin to a 1960's robot. Combined with the natural greatness of the story, these voices win giggles from my audience every time.

I also love, love, love the plot. It is so unconventional. It is both an anthology of short stories and a cohesive single story following Jack the Narrator. The turning points in the story still get me, even fifteen years later. And the back cover? Brilliant. There, The Little Red Hen says:

What is this doing here? Who is this ISBN guy? Who will buy this book anyway? Over fifty pages of nonsense, and I'm only in three of them. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah."

Yes. Nineteen blahs. How could you NOT read a book that contains nineteen blahs in the jacket copy?

Friday, January 28, 2011

Monomyth and me

I think of Luke Skywalker when I think of Joseph Campbell's monomyth, or the Hero's Journey. And that scene in The Empire Strikes Back where Luke goes into the swamp to fight the mentally projected Darth Vader, only to find his own face behind the mask.

I always end up seeing the same thing after destroying the dragons in my life. I go into the abyss, the dark unknown, usually after days or weeks of procrastinating out of fear. I challenge the dragon while shaking in my boots. And, if I slay it, my face appears on the corpse.

You'd think that would be really creepy, but mostly, it's cathartic. The only thing standing in my way is myself. Changing and improving requires not only facing the unknown, but killing my old self. And while fear and anxiety might have their place (like if I were to come face to face with a mountain lion), they don't need to apply if I'm only up against me. It's Old Me, the me that wants to stay the same, versus New Me, the me that wants to improve and grow.

You'd think Old and New Me would just recognize each other, realize they're on the same team, and work it out. Too bad they most often don't. We're Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker, bashing lightsabers to the death. The hero and his sword challenging the dragon and its fire breath. And I'm telling you, New Me doesn't always win.

Old Me thinks change means death, but Old Me doesn't know about the whole rebirth part of the Hero's journey. Old Me, at the moment of death, is reborn in New Me, like the Phoenix.

If New Me could see behind the Darth Vader mask before the fight, then maybe it wouldn't use so much anger and frustration in killing Old Me. I bet there would be a lot more respect, compassion and comforting. Old Me still has to die, but might go quietly into the night if New Me was a companion rather than an enemy.

So I shouldn't fear Darth Vader. Darth Vader is really me. I waste a lot of angst hating him, which also means I hate a part of myself. My face is under that mask, and I should do right by myself. Of course, it's hard to see this kind of wisdom while inside the Abyss and facing a Sith Lord.

Coming out of the Abyss, undergoing transformation and redemption, well, hindsight is 20-20. Or, at the worst, 20-30. That's still legal for driving, right?

Whatever it is, it feels great. I am the hero. I've seen my face on the dead corpse of the dragon, and felt that same beast reborn within me as something stronger and brighter.

I promise next time to give it a more honorable death.