I used to see movies at the cinema all the time. Since becoming a mother, I see a movie at a cinema once a year, on a good year. Maybe. The last movie I saw was “Black Swan” so it was actually a year and a half ago. I’m not kidding. The year before that, it was “Fantastic Mr. Fox.”
Tonight I saw “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” My neighbor, who owns the Little Art Theatre, had said it was a film like nothing else. Another friend, the writer Laraine Herring, told me I should see it because it features a child narrator (played by then five-year old Quvenzhané Wallis) in a magical, mythic world.
I’m not going to say much about the film. Watching this film during yet another deluge on Louisiana was wrenching. But considering how often I see a movie at the cinema, I’m glad it was this one.
It’s playing again tomorrow night at the Little Art Theatre.
(And when did we stop clapping after a movie? Was it when we began to retreat into our VHS/DVD/internet bubbles for home viewing? Every year or so, you will hear me clapping in a public cinema. Feel free to join me.)
I’ve always loved that scene in the Buffy musical where Anya rocks out against bunnies. If you haven’t seen it, do. (Joss et al seem to have locked down movies I used to find on youtube, but you’ll get the idea.)
Because everyone in the land called Facebook seems to be posting something about rabbits today (why? I ask you) I’d like to share a snip from a story I’m writing called “Rabbit, Cat, Girl.” Here goes:
You want to know about the girl. I want to tell you. But I must begin with rabbits.
Here’s what I know: there have been rabbits since the start of the world, gnawing the sharp drygrass when there are no tender green spring shoots. They burrow into the bases of catalpa trees, and under bushes, hiding like vermin. Some people find rabbits endearing, benevolent like the smiling Easter Bunny, a chocolate charade, lurking beneath false rebirth of spring. Soft and so helpless, they hop like little innocents, and grow like armies, eating everything. Have you ever studied a rabbit’s teeth?
Here’s a video introducing “My First Princess” baby dolls by Disney. I saw some of these dolls at Target today. Oy vey! I don’t even know where to start! What’s next? A Disney partnership with pharmaceuticial to develop and manufacture shots for each girl fetus in utero, ensuring her first word will be “Belle”?
Though my daughter loves her “babies,” Cinderella will not eat my daughter. I just hope Merida doesn’t see these creatures at the store.
And if you want a really cute baby for little kids, find a Corolle Mini Calin. I think Corolle doesn’t make them anymore, but you can find them in various skin colors on eBay or other online shops. They are machine washable and very sweet, perfect for small hands and imaginations. Uneeda makes cute little babies, too.
“Give me something to sing about,” sang Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in the excellent Joss Whedon musical, “Once More, With Feeling.” (From which the title of this post was mis-appropriated.) Buffy had died and gone, probably, to heaven, but her friends wanted her back home. So they re-animated her. Buffy was kinda bummed.
I just read that Whitney Houston died. My first thought was, “Wait, Whitney Houston DIED?” Shit. My second thought was a song, an earworm from my 1990s, before the term earworm, before the song became an earworm for me.
FADE TO: Somewhere in Los Angeles, a city where I did not live. Sometime in the early 90s. Just before Valentine’s Day. Visiting a man. (I am choosing vagueness. Some people I know will be glad.) I was fairly smitten with this guy, despite the miles that separated us, and many other differences. He was sweet, and fun. His life seemed big, glamorous. I lived in Seattle. (Same time zone, one thing in our favor.) We’d gone to see a movie. Memory is funny: I went down to LA several times while we were involved, and he came to Seattle several times–and our visits start to blur, but I’ll say that we saw a movie the night before Valentine’s Day; I’ll say the movie was “The Crying Game.” Late that night, he said something that made me feel our time together was almost over, that he didn’t want to continue a long distance relationship. Despite my own misgivings about how long it could last, I was young and romantic and sad when I heard him say whatever it was he said. Though these years later I know it was best to let go, back then, I wasn’t ready. There were things I thought ours might have been.
Early the next morning, and I mean really early, something like 7am on a Sunday morning LA time, Valentine’s Day, someone in his apartment complex decided to turn up the radio really loud. The radio was blaring a song.
You know the song.
First, in the origami that was folding in my heart (expect and hope for something, then have it change too many times until it can never be the shape you thought you wanted) the song’s refrain was an irony at my expense. Later, every time I heard that song, it was a reminder of that salty moment, that sadness which felt like emptiness. (I didn’t learn until years later that Dolly Parton wrote the song, a fact which now makes the song more okay, especially when it’s Dolly and not Whitney singing. More personal origami, this just in: As research for two novels, I’m reading a book about the April 1974 tornados that scoured the middle U.S., and according to King Wikipedia, that’s the exact month when Dolly Parton released that song.)
“AND I-I-I-” (HOW LONG CAN SHE HOLD THAT “I”???) “WILL ALWAYS LOVE YOUUUUUUUU-U-U-U” Whitney Houston sang on that early Valentine’s morning, from a stereo I would never see, volume cranked past 10 to 11 by someone I would never meet, some random person living near a man I had hoped to spend a lot more time with. (Maybe that person played the song that morning extra loud for a valentine. Maybe that person still loves that valentine. Maybe there is an “always” somewhere. For: I am happily married and have a wonderful child. The man who lived in LA is married and has children, too, and I hope he’s happy.) At that moment, though, even Whitney sounded sad, her sadness spilled out, sad for the sad little me, lost in that anonymous LA apartment complex, so early on Valentine’s morning.
So now you, too, know what I heard, actually, when I “heard” the news tonight about Whitney Houston.
It’s awful that another talented and tortured soul died early. I wish people going through her kind of pain could get better, could live to be happy and really old and then die of natural causes. I have other things I could write about Whitney Houston, but this memory, this earworm, floated to the top.
(“Don’t give me songs…don’t give me songs…give me something to sing about,” Buffy said.)
It was great even through the lens of Orenstein’s preaching to the cliched choir (me). It was great despite how depressing it was to read what inspired the Disney Princess phenomenon–in 2000, a new executive at Disney went to see Disney on Ice, and noticed, to his horror, that the girls wore HOMEMADE princess dresses. In the small gowns, rather than creativity at the hearth, he saw a missed merchandising opportunity. Thus the Disney Princess brand was born. (And now we have girls clad in shiny, generic, made-in-China garb, rather than homespun results of someone’s invention.)
I live in Yellow Springs, Ohio, a bubble like Orenstein’s city of Berkeley, both places relatively more immune to over-the-top materialistic madness than much of the U.S. This book was great because it was reassuring to read someone thinking about how to revolt against the default definition of femininity as only and always about what girls look like rather than what they do. And not only is Orenstein thinking about how to revolt, she’s done her research. She backs up her arguments. As a journalist, she seems responsible in her work. Her credibility as a person in the narrative is crucial to how therapeutic this book was to read. Throughout, she’s grappling in plain view with the same questions other parents are.
It’s overwhelming to consider how to fight the subtle and unsubtle corporate power of entities like Disney. My four-year-old daughter saw the Disney Princess undies at Target, and it’s all she wanted. She could not be easily dissuaded. (I bought them.) The other day at Goodwill, I steered her away from the shelf of half-clad Barbies in the toy section. I lured her to the books, figuring that was safe and we could get out without her wanting to buy yet another “baby.” (She has always loved her “babies” and it’s often a struggle to convince her she has plenty of plastic mouths to feed.) In the book section, she found a shiny pink Barbie book called Little Sisters Keep Out. She does not know what Barbie is, though she’d seen them on the shelf. She saw the book’s cover and said, “It’s a princess book!” Ironically, I had just finished reading Orenstein’s book the night before. I stood there, holding my own literary find–a gorgeous illustrated Aesop’s Fables–and reminded myself I had grown up with Barbies, and I turned out okay. (Yet, like Orenstein, my self esteem was not helped by Barbie, nor by Seventeen Magazine, nor that iconic, tarted-up teen, Brooke Shields.) Like the “I grew up watching too much TV and I turned out okay” argument, my Barbie excuse thins when I think too hard about it. I bought both books, though I refused to read the Barbie book to her. I told her that I didn’t like the kind of story inside it. She said, “I love it.” I told her those kinds of stories say girls can only do certain things, like brush their hair, not run and jump and climb and do fun things like that. “But they go to the playground,” she said. (One picture shows the dolls sitting on swings. She decided she would read the book to her babies. She makes up stories about the plastic dolls in the photos, and we have a compromise.)
Now that we grownups realize what TV does to a young person, or what all-pink-all-the-time (not to mention the focus on how a girl-to-woman looks rather than how she feels) does to the feminine psyche, we have the power (the responsibility!) to make better choices.
For me, all roads lead back to Buffy. A slayer, a killer of demons. Always fashionable, sometimes wearing implausible slaying footwear (but hey, she’s the slayer!) she takes care of herself and by “takes care of herself” I do not mean a pedicure. In a dark alley, Buffy is the one kicking ass. The final paradigm shift of the end of the TV series still makes me cry, every time I think of it:
“From now on, every girl in the world who might be a Slayer, will be a Slayer. Every girl who could have the power, will have the power. Who can stand up, will stand up. Every one of you, and girls we’ve never known, and generations to come…they will have strength they never dreamed of, and more than that, they will have each other. Slayers. Every one of us. Make your choice. Are you ready to be strong?”
Buffy wasn’t taken seriously at first. She grew from a blonde teen cheerleader to a strong woman who changed the (fictional) world. She spawned a small academic field called Buffy studies. (And yet I found a Buffy dress-up game, where you can change Buffy’s clothing as if she were a paperdoll on the screen. Sigh.) The size of the problem of raising a strong, confident female person amidst well-funded and deeply entrenched corporate sinisterness makes me tired. I have no answers. But Orenstein’s book gave me hope. Maybe parents will read it and meet together, talk about alternatives to the madness. Maybe this kid’s parents read the book. Maybe this kid can help start the revolution.
Maybe we will start making our own costumes again.
So here’s the part where you make a choice. What if you could have that power, now? In every generation, one Slayer is born, because a bunch of men who died thousands of years ago made up that rule. They were powerful men. This woman is more powerful than all of them combined. So I say we change the rule. I say my power, should be *our* power. Tomorrow, Willow will use the essence of this scythe to change our destiny. From now on, every girl in the world who might be a Slayer, will be a Slayer. Every girl who could have the power, will have the power. Can stand up, will stand up. Slayers, every one of us. Make your choice. Are you ready to be strong?
Yesterday, I listened to Dead Can Dance “Toward the Within” because, happily, it’s Dead Can Dance season again, and their music always helps me into the right moody mood for autumn. This song, “Cantara,” struck me as the proper anthem for my new year. The sort of warrior voice that echoes through this song, in Lisa Gerrard’s language, seem just what I need. I don’t usually choose battle metaphors, but this notion, the idea of preparing for battle, seems right for some reason. (Contradictory for a Libra, maybe.)
At the end of the video, Lisa Gerrard mentions her child’s pre-verbal state, and how the child sings, unfettered by the bounds of language. Maybe my war is with language, and I need to sing without words.
And I’ve been fascinated with death lately, fascinated with the full process that it is, and all that it implies. After listening to Gerrard and Brendan Perry, it seems like this song is my right anthem for now.
I usually love living in the “sticks,” but the other day, Waste Management left a message telling me they no longer provide curbside recycling at my home. They said they would be picking up the red bin within five business days and could I please leave it by the curb.
There’s no place for them to take and dump the recycling anymore, apparently. Yeah, in 2010. It’s got my blood pressure up! Especially after spending many minutes today on hold because I wanted to find out WHY, and being subjected to their creepy propaganda recordings (in a smooth, perhaps even comforting female voice) about all the great things Waste Management does for the environment. I wish I had had a tape recorder. The recording said that if I was looking for something to do while I was on hold, I should go to a website called “Think Green From Home.” (I can THINK about recycling, apparently, but can’t actually DO it.) One line was something like, “Recycling has always been a noble idea, but do you know how many trees blah blah blah Waste Management saved last year? Blah blah blah, So take a deep breath and RECYCLE!” It actually said that. You can’t make this stuff up. Reminded me of that ridiculous dismissal so many years ago, you know, back when we could have actually halted the hell we’re headed into with our current environmental situation, Dick Cheney talking about how sure, it could be considered “virtuous” to conserve fuel, but Americans need to drive their cars. (Caveat: I have a sedan, and yes, I drive it.)
When I was waiting on hold to find out why the bleep they don’t provide curbside recycling in my area anymore. The phone rep. said, “This is the first I’m hearing about it…”
To quote Miss Clavel, “Something is not right!” I want to call Uncle Joon. I’m sure he or Tony or one of the boys could do something, no? Does anyone have Junior’s phone number?
Although some people defend the use of well-worn metaphors (such as “beating a dead horse”) as common language we can all visualize and understand, clichés that turn up unintentionally in writing really bother me.
One of my goals in life is to scrub every cliché I encounter from my own writing, and from the writing of others. I do use them in speech (when I talk) but even then, I try not to. (It helps me not use them in writing if I avoid using them in speech; it’s a type of practice.) There are exceptions, but in general: clichés are the lazy way. It is HARD not to use clichés. Clichés are like germs, or maybe viruses. We read them everywhere, we hear them everywhere, and so they infect us and seep into our writing. Work against this! Join the fight to improve the written word! Try to find better, more interesting ways to say things. Or try simply omitting the clichés you find. (There are usually too many words in most stories.) Your reader will thank you. I am always refreshed to read work that has few or no clichés. It makes me know that the writer is taking the words (and the work) seriously. If you use clichés, make sure you are CHOOSING them, that you are aware of them; make sure you are not just using them by default. It’s possible to twist clichés around, which serves to illuminate the fact of using a cliché in a sort of ironic way. For instance, Joss Whedon (creator of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”) performs this procedure regularly, and gets away with it well–but he is a sophisticated writer, and he is using the visual media of film and television, so he has an easier time indicating that he intends it to be ironic. But in prose, why not choose something more interesting?
Here’s another thing to consider: Should your work some day be translated into another language, you show mercy to the translator by making your writing free of clichés.
How to recognize a cliché: Usually, if there is a phrase or metaphor you have heard many times, it is a cliché. When in doubt, go to:
“Good writers avoid clichés wherever they might lurk. Novelist and essayist Martin Amis said, “All writing is a campaign against cliché. Not just clichés of the pen but clichés of the mind and clichés of the heart.”
I don’t have a policy on vampires. I have read beautiful, strong, amazing prose in a variety of genres, including “literary realism.” I haven’t read Twilight or Harry Potter, but I have read Lord of the Rings. And though I don’t want to compare a television show to a novel, I do love “Buffy,” because the writing is excellent, the characters rich and complicated, and the issues they deal with (ethical, moral, metaphysical) are important and paradoxically what I would consider “real.” These are some of the same characteristics I would look for in a good novel or story.
Different genres have different sets of expectations from the readers, and publishers. It can be hard to run a workshop or a class with a mix of genres–if only because other writers, leaders or teachers aren’t necessarily familiar with all genres. That can make things tricky, especially when students are just learning how to operate within a workshop setting.
One problem is that writing students (and readers in general) may be reacting to having been fed more visual media or media tie-in books than original books within the fantasy and science fiction genres. But as small children, most of us read plenty of fantastical things. Dr. Seuss, Harold and the Purple Crayon are a couple things that come to mind. It makes me sad that so many adult readers lose access to what is magical in literature by way of shedding childhood and heading into the “real world.”
Ursula LeGuin has some interesting things to say about the genre silos, and the “literary” biases against fantasy. If this problem interests you, check out her essay collection, Cheek By Jowl. I find a lot of bias in academe against work that is other than literary realism. Magical realism is acceptable, usually, and a few other lucky or pushy writers who have slipped with their novels into the list of acceptable, despite the fact that they write science fiction. I am thinking of Margaret Atwood. She has protested long and loudly enough to have convinced many readers (who might disdain other works of “science fiction”) that she’s not writing it. If something can be translated or packaged as allegorical, it “transcends” the genre. (Even the word “transcend” bothers me here.)
Overall, I don’t care where my students aim to publish their work. If it’s good, it’s good. I strive to help students learn about what I think makes fiction work, what makes it strong, what might make it transcend whichever box it ends up being placed in by a publisher.
Or, to quote Shakespeare’s Juliet:
“What’s in a name? that which we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet…”