Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Stranger than Fiction

Yesterday I watched the movie "Stranger Than Fiction" starring Emma Thompson as a previously successful writer who is struggling to overcome writer's block, and Will Ferrell as her hapless main character. He starts to hear her voice narrating his life and realizes that she is going to kill him off by the end of the book. In a strange twist (he works for the IRS) he is able to locate the reclusive writer and actually visit her, begging her to save his life. I won't tell you the end.

The movie was not the crazy comedy that the previews made it out to be. It was actually a very moving commentary on the meaning of life and art. The fine supporting cast included Dustin Hoffman and Queen Latifah, whose acting skills blew me away in "Chicago". Like Will Smith, hers is a major talent that is destined to go far beyond rap music. Emma Thompson gives a marvelous, sarcasm-riddled performance as the anguished writer and Will Ferrell absolutely nails the dramatic role of Harold Crick, the sleeping soul that is about to wake up. Like Jim Carrey, there is more to this comedian than meets the eye. It is definitely a movie worth seeing, especially if you are a writer.

The whole thing was funny and tragic and more than a little surreal. It ties into this wierd sort of double life that authors live. I find myself wondering sometimes what the definition of reality is. Is it simply those things which have tangible evidence? Or is the creative power which our Creator has shared with us powerful enough to create valid people and places in our imaginations? Certainly dreams have a reality of their own, jumbled though they may be, and God speaks to us at times with great clarity through them. The power of the "waking dream" of fiction is just as undeniable; we all have felt that haunting loss or those tears of joy at the end of a great book or movie. This is an experience we seek again and again; it allows us to both escape from and enrich our "tangible" lives.

One of my favorite scenes in the movie is when Harold walks into Karen (the writer's) office and she sort of crumples in amazed awe in front of him, murmuring "Your hair... your eyes... your shoes!" She stares at him the way a mother stares at the fingers of her newborn child, amazed that the thing that has been growing inside of her actually has the very shape she recognizes and expects. He says "I'm Harold Crick" and she replies reverently "I know."

I've tried to "cast" certain actors in my book, looking for the right person to play the parts in my mind. But the truth is, they are themselves and no one else. I can't say exactly how this happens, but it does. It amazes me. Elinor, the heroine of "The Golden Gryphon" and Ginger, the young widow in "Tea by the Sea" are so real to me that I half expect to meet them on the street one day. During the time I was working really hard on "Tea by the Sea," I made a trip to Ocean City, NJ as I often do. I found myself experiencing a sense of loss that the tea shop and its proprietors don't really exist and that I couldn't visit them. It was very surreal and poignant. Am I crazy?

How does this happen, this ability to create in one's mind? I have no idea. It feels very much like a little bit of the God-breath breathed into me. Part of the plot in "Stranger Than Fiction" involves Harold trying to figure out whether the novel he is living is a tragedy or a comedy and whether it is plot-driven or character-driven. What amazes me is how much the characters in even a plot-driven book can influence the action by their choices.

I wrote the following on Tricia Goyer's blog recently, when I was struggling with how to stay motivated to write when I'm not sure anyone will ever publish the book - meaning it will never be read by anyone else. One of the authors there responded that if I could answer that question, I could write a best-selling book for Writer's Digest and be set for life. My response was this:

I think the "Writer's Digest" answer to this question is this: I don't care any more if it's publishable or not. I am writing this manuscript because if I don't it will eat me alive! I have to know what happens to my characters... and so do they. They deserve to know if they will live or die, succeed or fail, be loved or be betrayed. It has taken on a life and existence of its own that cannot be denied now.

Friday, May 25, 2007

The End of All Things

Okay, it doesn't really feel like the end of all things, as in "Its's good to have you with me Sam, here at the end of all things," but it does feel like the end of several things.

Today is my last MOPS (Mothers of Preschoolers) meeting. Ever. For those of you who have never heard of this indispensible organization, it is a fellowship ministry for mothers of young children, to help us get through those difficult early years without jumping off a cliff. I have made the best friendships of my life at MOPS and hope that we will be able to keep in touch as our children scatter off to Kindergarten.

Some of my friends have been able to reproduce again, which has the added goal of not only bringing a new person into the world but also to maintain membership in MOPS. I have not been able to do that and since I have reached the decrepit age of 36 (my eggs are ageing every second, I can just feel them wrinkling in there), I have started giving away all those little clothes I so painstakingly saved for the next child. As well as that stash of brightly colored summer maternity garments I ordered from JC Penny. So this is the end of my childbearing years as well.

My husband and I are on a diet. This is truly the end! The end of feeling young and calorically invincible. The end of cinnamon rolls on Sunday mornings and lovely golden fries at McDonald's and Friday-night pizza. Perhaps I've been reading too many "Agatha Raisin" books but I feel distinctly middle-aged. I suppose I'll feel better when I drop a couple of sizes but right now I just feel frustrated and hungry.

What is the definition of middle-age anyway? I mean, if you assume a person will live about eighty years then the first third of that would be 0-27, then 28-54 would be the middle and 55+ would be in the last tier. Ew. I don't like that definition at all, but it does explain the concept of "55 and older" communities. As in, "If you move here you are on the downward slope of the hill so we're going to keep young people away so as not to remind you." Forgive me, friends, who feel that I am making you old before your time... I'm being mathematical here.

At least we're leaving for the Berkshires tomorrow. Like I had any idea what "the Berkshires" were before this vacation was handed to us. It sounds cool though, like "The Hamptons" or "The Outer Banks". It's someplace in the mountains in Massachussetts, on the border of New York. We won a weekend at a time-share in a drawing. I hope they're not too upset when they realize we have no intention of purchasing one.

So, now it's time to get ready for MOPS. I need to have some more coffee. Try not to think about the preschool graduation yesterday *sniff*, pack up the dog and all his things to stay with a friend, don't wear mascara because it's just going to run when I say good bye to all my friends at MOPS. Think about the summer and the beach and long hours of writing about "The Golden Gryphon." And stop reading Agatha Raisin, as much as I love the dear grouchy detective.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Not enough ideas

I often hear other writers say "I have so many ideas, I don't know which one to choose! My head is just full of them."

Lucky them. If I have an idea, I hold onto it for dear life. I've had exactly three in the past five years. All of them turned into projects, but I can't say that there was any competition.

I am not one of those writers whose mind is full of characters and plots jostling around crying "Pick me! Pick me!" I don't watch a movie and think "What if I made the main character a man instead of a woman, put him in Arizona instead of Alaska and made him a doctor instead of a fisherman? What would happen then?" Instead I think "Gee, Alaska has really nice scenery."

This is because for me, writing (and life) has always been about the scenery. I can't help it if I grew up in one of the most beautiful places on Earth... Northeast Ohio. No, I'm not kidding! Deep, snowy winters; rainy, dreamlike Springs; lush and seductive summers; riotous and abundant autumns. We roamed the fields and woods. We caught frogs in the pond, bass and bluegill in the lake and crayfish in the stream. There were blackberries, blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, elderberries, wild grapes, apples, plums and walnuts, not to mention the tomatoes, beans, cucumbers, zucchini, peppers and tomatoes in the garden. And the flowers! Snapdragons, pansies, jonquils, roses, tulips, lilies-of-the-valley, spring beauties, jack-in-the-pulpits, the elusive mayflower, lilacs, buttercups, indian paintbrushes and Queen Anne's Lace. We made mint and strawberry tea for our dolls, played Little House in the Prairie in the woods and, when we were older, sang Olivia Newton John songs on the picnic table with an invisible microphone. Winters were spent huddled around the fireplace or the furnace vent and, more often than not, we were snowed in for Christmas.

For me, writing starts with a sense of place. Of setting. The characters have to be extruded from this into personalities distinct from their place and time. This takes a little effort, but when it happens they become like real people living inside my head: talking, dreaming, falling in love, making decisions, taking up quests and even dying regardless of what my plans may have been for them.

I am currently reading a book by a successful author on how to write a novel. He postulates that the way to write a novel is to plan out the entire book not just down to the chapter level, but in terms of what will happen in every paragraph. Now, he is definitely a successful writer because his books are everywhere, so this method must work for him. To me, it sounds about as exciting as writing a term paper.

Perhaps he is one of those "idea" guys. Perhaps he has so many possibilities in his head that he just has to pick some and put them in his outline. Perhaps ideas flow faster when you are working under contract. I wouldn't know.

But personally, I have no idea what my characters are going to do until they do it. I just give them a starting point and go along for the ride. I know I will have to go back to the beginning, which is probably somewhere in the middle, and restructure everything eventually. But for now I'm just along for the ride and enjoying every minute of it.