More than nostalgia

I doubt my ability to successfully unpack what is on my mind, but I am going to try. Call it an exercise in honest writing, raw and grubby, probably bad, and all the more exposed because I don't fully trust the ideas I want to express. Maybe I will feel more comfortable if I call it writing practice. That way I can pretend you will ignore it, or at least not take me seriously. Following the advice of Natalie Goldberg (Writing Down the Bones) I wrote the first draft of this by hand, on paper, with my favorite pencil (Mirado Black Warrior 2 HB if you are curious). As I wrote this first pencil draft I was solo babysitting my own three children plus two neighbor kids, all under the age of ten, it was Saturday night, and the noise level in the house was incredible. I sat at the kitchen table. Occasionally I took a break to settle arguments or check in on the tears and screams to make sure no one was bleeding. At the time of this second draft, typed on a computer, I am again at the kitchen table. Again I am solo parenting my own three, and again I am taking care of a neighbor kid, though only one this time.

On the night that prompted this post, my wife was out for the evening. In the middle of cleaning up after dinner, I paused to watch a few snatches of a movie the kids had put on: The Secret of N.I.M.H., an animated children's film, made the year I was born. It was the second or third time I caught pieces of it as an adult (I have no idea how many times I watched it as a kid, but it was a lot). It is sentimental, overblown, and melodramatic, but I was immediately arrested. In a moment I was emotional, fragile, dramatic, needy. I feel a little stupid admitting this. But I'm pretty sure it wasn't merely memory and nostalgia smacking me around, though I admit those factors were present. Watching it as a kid, even for the first time, I remember the same seep of melancholy, the same sense of loss so hard to precisely put a finger on. The movie is frightening, beautiful, and deeply unsettling. It changed me the first time I saw it. I knew that even then, at 9 or 10 years old. The first season of Stranger Things struck many of the same notes more than 25 years later. (The second season is great too, but it was the first that hit hard.) Lev Grossman's book The Magicians also brought some of these same feelings to the surface. I began to see a pattern. At least I think so. They are all great stories, but I am only interested in talking about one aspect of them here. I am afraid of looking too closely. To pick apart and intellectualize something too rigorously risks breaking or losing it. Will the magic all run out? Or will getting more intimate increase the power?

It's is hard to define, hard to give shape to. That's the trouble. I have to talk about it and around it to get at it. Mainly, I think, it boils down to two things—a specific type of character and a particular situation. Concerning character: in The Secret of N.I.M.H., that character is Mrs. Brisby. In Stranger Things, it's Eleven. In The Magicians, Alice. I will explain what I mean in a moment. Situation is also key: each of the above characters is a (mostly) ordinary girl/woman (or mouse, whatever) who is strong, determined, and intelligent—but also vulnerable. This is what I mean by situation: they are at risk and it's not their fault. Each is a victim of an unusual or particularly challenging set of circumstances. Mrs. B.'s husband has just died and her son is in mortal danger. Her only course of action involves seeking the advice of creatures who will likely kill or eat her instead of helping. I don't have to explain Eleven's plight (if I do, then stop reading this and go binge the first season of Stranger Things before finishing this post), but it's filled with grave danger and the constant discomfort of the unknown. A fish out of water. Alice's circumstances are more subtle and complicated, but her family history is a burden she can't seem to put down, and it eventually tears her to pieces.

Now, back to character. We have these appealing people who are also in great danger. Because of their circumstances they must act, and courageously. Much will be demanded of them. Each embodies a distinct paradox of character, based on a complex set of attributes. They are ordinary and extraordinary at the same time. Mrs. B. and Eleven (and to a lesser degree, Alice), are never pitiful, even in the midst of great suffering. They consistently show compassion and concern for others, and for the most part make pretty good choices, but their virtue is not unrealistic. They remain relatable, flawed, scared and human. As such, we love them, see ourselves in them, want to be like them. They are all the best parts of 'ordinary' combined. This ordinariness is underlined by the absurd power or magic they each wield at some point in their own story. Which they only use for good. This magic doesn't take away from our connection with them, doesn't corrupt them (as it probably would us) or gut their quiet selflessness and courage of its meaning, but instead makes them even more relatable because it draws attention to their choices. They seem largely unfettered by selfish desire and temptation, weaknesses that are naturally tested by the potential great power brings. Instead, they focus most of their energy on others. The contrast of power with vulnerability allows their heroic choices to take on heroic proportions.

The gifts (or curses, depending on how you look at it) these characters possess are more than just a nitro boost when they need extra strength. The magic isn't fully in their control. It injures them, both physically and emotionally. Mrs. B. is badly burned, Eleven is emotionally terrorized and physically battered, and Alice is totally destroyed. All in the service of people they love.  All three still human, but also something else, something entirely mysterious. They are aided and wounded by forces that draw them closer to others while pushing them apart. They are outsiders. Rescuers. Otherworldly.

This idea, or set of ideas, has been turning in my head for a long time. I have fretted and worried at it. I think I can sum it up. It's basically this: A kind and honest girl finds herself in difficult circumstances. As she works to help her friends overcome the problems they face, she acts with selflessness and love. She uses magic or some kind of mysterious power to triumph, saving her friends, herself suffering or dying as a result. Put like this, it becomes more familiar. We all have problems that need to be solved. And the desire to be heroic, at least in little ways, is natural and universal. We also all have people we love who we will sacrifice everything for if we can just find the courage. Stories with models of kindness and virtue and heroism fuel our desire to be better. Especially if the role models are strong, beautiful women with no ego. Why women? Throughout history women have been the first to stand up for compassion, peace, and the concerns of others besides themselves. Who better to showcase these virtues than a woman overcoming great odds in the face of danger? What about magic? Magic, that misty 'what-if', that childhood daydream, has been woven into the imaginations and stories of people since the beginning of time. A bit of magic in a story is a highlighter, marking the good parts so that they stand out more brilliantly.

I am not saying that any of the stories or characters I have been talking about are perfect models of these ideas. None of the three I mention fit the concept consistently. Their creators may not have intended any of what I took from their work. But they all contain essential contributions to an idea I find moving and compelling. An idea I have wanted to understand better. I am grateful. 

Exercise 1, Part 2

Like many creative (or crazy—same thing?) people, I tend to get obsessive occasionally. When my brain attaches to an idea, I dig deep. Which is why I am currently reading four books about writing at the same time (outside of the 7 or so other books I am currently working on). If you write, or want to write, take time to read The Triggering Town by Richard Hugo. I am still processing much of what he has to say, but one sentence in particular bears repeating here: 'An act of imagination is an act of self-acceptance.' I find this brief statement full of hope and mystery.

In my previous post I mentioned Steering the Craft by Ursula K. Le Guin. I am moving through it slowly, but it is no less intriguing or helpful than Hugo's essays or the others I am reading. I have completed the second part of exercise 1, and I welcome comment and critique. It is very brief; here it is:


New green grass pushed up between grey-brown oak and orange leaves. The leaves stuck together in clumps, still damp from the third and final rainfall of the year. Next to the wire fence a backpack sprayer pump filled with water and weed-killer waited. On the outside it looked cheerful in its red and white livery. On the inside it was poison.

Sage wasn't ready. It felt like there was a sock in his throat. The morning light, glittering with that almost unbearable brilliance of new sun on a soggy, rain-fresh world, mocked him. Everything was too colorful. Oversaturated. A fake orchard filled with fake trees. And fake brown hills behind, set off by a fake blue sky. He wasn't ready for this day, for this work, or for the happy Mexican men gearing up for a day among the orange trees. He picked up the backpack sprayer. The morning was already hot.

Yesterday afternoon, standing at the curb at LAX saying goodbye, something had broken in Sage. Two weeks of punk rock alarm clocks, long days working in the trees, skateboarding after dark. Coffee at midnight and hot dogs in the mini-fridge and cigarettes out the window. It should have been a fresh start. Hope. But his brother was already far away. The upcoming surgery, and after that, a new life, a new job—back to his old girlfriend. He wasn't coming back here. Sage knew that, and he didn't want to know it. The rented room they shared was stripped of everything that meant anything. All of it stuffed into the bags around their feet. Everything was going north. His brother held out his car keys. "You can have it." He smiled. "It's a pile anyway."

Glossy leaves brushed against his cheek as he pushed deeper into the orchard. Working the lever of the sprayer as it settled more steadily onto his shoulders, he fought the urge to cry. The hardness in his throat and the ache in his chest were making him nauseous. He avoided the other men. Tears stabbed at the corners of his eyes and his vision swam. He pumped the lever steadily. He soaked every weed with poison.

Exercise 1, Part 1

Steering the Craft by Ursula K. Le Guin, like other work of hers I have read, is direct, blunt, and oddly tender. Her lessons make me feel ashamed and hopeful by turns. I see my mistakes exposed and many issues in my approach and intention. I also see new techniques and fresh understanding peering from the obscuring trees of my failed attempts. Under her firm clear hand I despair and take heart in the same moment. Writing takes work—I do not need to be convinced of this, but I need to be reminded because I am lazy—and the resulting sentences are inconsistent, often disappointing, always personal. Not lazy. Scared. Fear pushes me out of my chair to the stove for tea, or outside for a view of the street from my porch, or to the reading nook with a graphic novel. I sit down at the table again and write about writing. Anything except actually writing. Reading about writing, something new for me, has been galvanizing. That, and the healing effect of down time over the holidays. Hope has returned, and maybe the most important thing I have embraced (once again) is the intention to practice. The following is my response to the first exercise from Steering the Craft:


We stood together in the white room. Brushfuls of caked white paint, indicating many rebirths, glossed over every seam and crack, a smooth, rounding skin covering the decades. Filling, spilling, dripping, schlicking, schploching, thick over the room's sins. This room, at least as old as my great-grandfather if he was still alive. But he died with a bottle in his hand. We stood in the white room filled with a setting September sun and the air of cold summer coming in through the open window. Shh and hhhrrush and brusshhh, went white curtains against white walls. A small wind, cool and dry as chaff. They turned and moved down the hall, talking. I stayed. My breath rising and falling, inaudible, swaying with the breeze that was sneaking over the sill, I stayed. Was I waiting? I was still for another tick. Though the tock and click of a clock was surely imagined in this unpeopled house. This house as empty as the hilly fields of after-harvest stubble outside. This room without a bed. This space without a living shadow but for today, ours. Was I waiting for something? For the paint to peel back and reveal the cracks and stains, the whisper of lives that once watched the same September sun sink over stubble-fields? Maybe an enameled steel bed under those windows, a dresser by the door. A desk with a pencil or a hairbrush on it's scarred surface.

Someone was in the curtain. Feet and thin legs with the white wall behind, the rest of her under white folds of cloth that bellied and billowed like the soul of the stubble-and-dust wind. She was there until I looked. Silent. She was cracks and seams, a stain on the white, a gap in the glop that sealed everything in. She was under the paint, bump and texture beneath filler. She was a shape that brushed-over years could not gloss away. She was shaped air or imagination. Clear glass. She was there until I looked. Silent. Light moved over the wall, shifting yellow and orange, bent by the breeze and the form of her, there and now lost, and me standing and waiting and breathing until they called me from down the hall.