It’s a Wonderful Christmas Carol of Wrath

Ignorance and Want, woodcut — from A Christmas...

Feel-Good Movies, A-B

“Tis the season for Christmas movies. I’ve already vegged out on two of my favorite B movies being played incessantly on Lifetime starting on Thanksgiving and running who knows how long, 12 MEN OF CHRISTMAS starring Kristin Chenoweth and COMFORT AND JOY starring Nancy McKeon. They’re fun. Maybe you like zombies. I like schmaltz.

But this post is about the power and glory emanating from IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE and A CHRISTMAS CAROL. I can’t wait to see them again. I’m throwing in THE GRAPES OF WRATH as another powerhouse emotional message movie along the lines of the other two. It lacks a Christmas setting but voices a similar message.

Countless people across the decades love these movies. At one level, they’re simply great storytelling. They have good structure; a great villain; a compelling main character at the end of his rope who goes on a journey, endures dangers and complications, makes great personal sacrifice trying to get what he wants and realizes along the way he wants something else; the main character undergoes deep personal transformation that effects the lives of others in a positive way.

After watching them we feel better. They reflect us at all our levels: body, mind, and spirit. They delineate our meanness, yet indicate we have the capacity for boundless compassion. They tell us which path we should take. They ask us to rise to our potential, which is spiritual in nature. I believe all three movies ask us to choose to be our better angels. Writers know any attempt to render such a story may get preachy fast. But they’re the the best stories when they’re done as artfully and beautifully as these.

They want us to wake up already and actually serve family, humanity, and God and not just say it. They connect our everyday dealings with our spiritual selves.

The writers of these three movies (and the writers of the stories they’re based on) wanted to affect deep change in humanity. Not just George Bailey or Tom Joad or Scrooge. All of us. We, too, are the hero who is down, who must sacrifice or make a choice. Either buckle under the pressure and escape, or take a stand for what’s right, which usually has something to do with realizing our connection to others, not just personal or family, but everyone.

Ripped From the Headlines

On the other hand we’re also Potter in LIFE, the camp bosses in GRAPES, and Scrooge in CAROL before his dark night of the soul.

Who is Potter but today’s “1 percent” who own everything but care only for the bottom line? Corprations are people, but people, somehow are just stinky, lazy, whiny protesters. How dare they speak up!

Instead of Potterville, we have Wall Street. And we have a bunch of Cratchits and Joads, George Bailey’s and Dust Bowl emigrants, who work or look for work, care for their families, AND go down to protest against economic injustice, peacefully, as is their right. I’ve been amazed at the Potter-y, Scrooge-y attitudes my fellow Americans spew on facebook on a daily basis, deriding the protesters as lazy people unwilling to work. And then use stories of their own struggles to somehow “proove” the validity of their prejudice. I don’t get it. Why make such a leap? Why assume a group protesting injustice is lazy? On the contrary, they work hard AND they stand up for what’s right. They do more. Risk more. And they get smeared for their trouble. And pepper-sprayed and beaten.

No one sees himself or herself as Scrooge or Potter or the camp bosses that oppress the Joads. But we side with those forces when we deride our struggling fellow Americans. I invite everyone who regards the protesters thus, to watch any one of these three movies this season and ask yourself which forces you’re empowering? Why love the beleaguered main characters of movies and not your fellow citizens performing the same role?

Throw Open the Window and See the Light!

Though it’s difficult to see in life the suffering caused by such derision and prejudice, in the movies we know the downtrodden main character is the hero, journeying from miserable and misunderstood to fully realized human being, individual expression of God, the light, the whole. We feel that cold crisp beautiful bright morning when, after a long night of deep self-reflection, Scrooge throws open the window on Christmas Day. We jump for joy with the renewed, ebullient George Bailey who sees the light of his own being and its effect on others, and rededicates himself to serving the whole community and not just his personal ambitions. We float along the back roads and river bottoms with an uplifted Tom Joad as he assures his worried mother he’ll be there in spirit whenever anyone is beaten or denied or cast out or oppressed by economic injustice, prejudice, and fear. [Click here and go to minute 2:25]

IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE calls us to value ourselves, take a stand against inhumane circumstances, and put our money in small community banks that actually serve us as human beings.

THE GRAPES OF WRATH asks us to change the kinds of systems that made all the members of the Joad family loose their livelyhood and their home. Join together. Don’t look away from the truth. Don’t look away in prejudice and fear and say, “Oakie, go home.” Or, “Protester, get a job!”

A CHRISTMAS CAROL asks us to examine our hearts, cast out the part that devalues real work, human emotion, and life itself. Today is the day to feel and express compassion for everyone, the sick, the injured, and those who work hard but are not valued or rewarded.  

Corporations Are NOT People! Come On People Now…

I think all three movies ask us to look at the way we devalue and objectify human beings, with dollars, currency. There’s confusion between what is human and what is not. When people are separated from their own humanity, their feelings of compassion, friendship, and love, then hatred flows toward the very ones who suffer and dare to stand up, speak out, and make change.

May we watch this season and not only be entertained by the images but moved and transformed by their messages. John Steinbeck and director, John Ford and screenwriter, Nunnally Johnson for THE GRAPES OF WRATH; director and screenwriter, Frank Capra and the long list of contributing screenwriters for IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE; Charles Dickens and the many directors and writers of various versions of A CHRISTMAS CAROL, probably wanted us to enjoy the stories, but also be moved by them. Be better. Let them inspire love for our fellows. We are mean and selfish, or we are compassionate and aware of our connections to others. We hide behind holiday expressions, or we live their true meaning.

I included this music video in the preceding post. Here it is again, Bruce’s take on the Tom Joad “I’ll be there” speech for modern times. Like Tom Joad, Bruce is there for the souls who suffer. Let’s all be there.

[The Ghost of Tom Joad by Bruce Springsteen]

“Thank You” by Dana Cooper

Dana Cooper after show in Copperas Cove, TX.

It’s Thanksgiving week, and I’m posting video of artists who inspire me. I’m deeply grateful for life, art, and beauty. And for “Thank You” by Dana Cooper.

And here’s another one for you if you need a little boost to shine a little spark.

Language Lovers, Check Out George Carlin

Signature of George Carlin.
Image via Wikipedia

I just watched George Carlin:  The Mark Twain Prize (2008 winner) on PBS. Check out three minutes forty-eight seconds of his genius rhythmic language. Here’s to George, an inspiration to many who care about freedom, expression, and language.

And my personal favorite: “Stuff.”

Click here for Carlin’s site.

RIP George.

When They Say There Are No Parts For Women…

Cover of "A Walk on the Moon"
Cover of A Walk on the Moon

“When they say there are no parts for women…They’re in my garage, and probably in yours.” – Pamela Gray at the Austin Film Festival Conference panel entitled “The Heroine’s Journey:  Writing and Selling the Female-Driven Screenplay.”

Screenwriter Pamela Gray is best known for MUSIC OF THE HEART and one of my personal favorites, A WALK ON THE MOON, starring Diane Lane and Viggo Mortenson.

She was referring to all the scripts she’s written that haven’t been made into movies yet. One studio executive told her, “We had a woman movie, and it didn’t make it financially.” A single movie. Eek! Gray pointed out no one stops making movies about men when one fails.

Gray, along with Elizabeth Hunter (Director of Development at Universal Pictures for APOLLO 13, CLOCKERS, CROOKLYN, TWELVE MONKEYS, and others and screenwriter of JUMPING THE BROOM, THE FIGHTING TEMPTATIONS, and BEAUTY SHOP) gave a fun, lively, informative panel on writing movies whose lead characters are women. The room was filled with woman and men screenwriters and wannabes.

Let’s Talk About Sex

Was the panel led by women about women writers writing female leads different from other panels? Yes and no. While both male and female driven panels were open, interesting, helpful, compassionate, and a little bawdy, I noticed the men made fewer references to sex than the women, not for lack of trying. In one panel, one male screenwriter made a porn joke that fell flat. He made tons of other quips and jokes that landed, just not that one. In the Heroine’s Journey panel, Pamela Gray did not joke about porn. In a light-hearted manner she openly discussed writing about orgasms. Her lead character in A WALK ON THE MOON, wanted to have one, for the first time, after marriage and childbirth. After those comments the entire room felt comfortable talking about sex. No doubt about it, this movie and this panel were from a woman’s point of view.

I think that serves everyone. After all, everyone’s interested in sex. I think it’s more interesting to put sex in the movie rather than leave it out. But I’d rather see it connected in meaningful ways to the character’s journey at all levels, not just the physical, and not just the emotional, and not just the spiritual, but all of these. Any writer, male or female, who does this for any character, gets my interest and movie dollars. And it’s what I write.

The Times They Are A Changin’

The panelists writing about and then openly discussing sex as integral to the character’s journey allowed the rest of us in the room to discuss character more deeply. One audience member asked questions about how to portray sex on-screen, really show it, without cheapening it. He expressed his worry that accurately portraying a woman character’s sexuality gave him some trepidation. He portrayed the male characters’ sexuality without worry, because, he said, he knew people simply would accept it. He feared people would judge his women characters just for being sexual. I thought, wow, what a great expression of how it feels sometimes, just being a woman. And here’s this young male writer worried about his female character being judged for being sexual. Here’s a writer with real empathy for his character’s problems even if he doesn’t realize it. I wanted to say, “Maybe that’s how the character feels, too. Maybe the character, being a woman, really would have to deal with judgment from others and from herself.” I don’t know of course; it’s his character. Elizabeth Hunter said the fact that he even asked that question made her happy. We were all noticing the positive changes in the way writers and the culture at large think about women and how to portray their complex lives. Both she and Gray encouraged the questioner to stay close to the character and ask himself questions about her, and to stay close to the story, and do whatever he needed to do in his story even if others judge. Hunter said, “You’re an emerging voice.” Write it the way you write it.

Granted, no other panel specifically tackled the subject of sex or gender, and shouldn’t have been expected to do so. It’s typical that a panel like this one comes from the need to shine a light on the invisibility of real women and therefore women characters, their stories, the writers who portray them, and the people who do or do not produce them. But, seeing the mix of sexes, ages, and ethnicities in the room, it appears the subject interests everyone.

The Zig-Zag Path

Gray said right up front she wanted to make sure she and the room didn’t veer off into negativity and only discuss sexism. True to her intention, we mostly discussed character and story the way other writing panels do. The panelists said any question, even questions regarding sexism, usually boil down to making sure you know who your character is and what your story is about, and staying true to that. You may have to deal with sexism if your character does. Hunter said, “Tell the story from the point of view of whose story it is.” I know from experience how hard that is. I often start the story from a male character’s point of view, then switch to another male, then switch to a younger female character. Finally I realize the story belongs to the adult woman on the edges of my psyche leading me on a zig-zag path, the creative process that reflects my own journey.

The Heroine’s Journey

While Gray uses the heroic journey to structure her stories, she does give the female lead character, not one, but two chances to decide to take the journey. She thinks this reflects the reality of many women’s lives. There’s no support at first for them going on a journey of transformation. There is more heat, more resistance, inside the closest relationships women have, and therefore they take a little longer to get the journey going. Other than that, same. I thought that was interesting, and noticed it’s true in my own work. My female leads decide they want to take the journey, but that does not necessarily lead to taking the journey, or even seeing it as an option. In fact, I create three or four moments of indecision before the moment of decision. Gray says, it seems more authentic. It does to me, too.

There are differences and similarities when writing a woman lead. Hunter said you still have to make the story complex, the journey universal. You still have to create authentic moments and structure your story well. At first you have to be cerebral and structure your story. Then you have to be emotional to tell a good story. And she reminded us, “Actors want emotion.”

Both Gray and Hunter advised us to write characters that actors want to play. One of the few differences mentioned for female-driven stories:  while every story needs a “likeable” main character, the definition of “likeable” can be different for male and female leads. As several writers on other panels advised regarding notes from executives, Hunter and Gray said try to understand the spirit of the note even if it’s delivered in sexist language. Gray said sometimes there is information underneath such notes that helps her make a change she, too, feels is important. Both Hunter and Gray said to listen to the note, but fix it your own way.

Writing Influences

When asked about their writing influences, Hunter nodded to Toni Morrison, Callie Khouri, and Susannah Grant. Gray nodded to poetry, George Eliot, especially Middlemarch, Jane Austen, Wendy Wasserstein, Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Nora Ephron, THELMA AND LOUISE,  and CAGNEY AND LACEY for the deep level of character work.

I look forward to including more gems from Hunter and Gray in future posts about The Austin Film Festival screenwriting conference.

What’s your favorite woman character from movies, TV, or other stories?

As a kid, I loved both Cagney and Lacey, Constance from Constance, Laura Ingalls Wilder from the Little House BooksI love Rebecca Davitch in Anne Tyler’s Back When We Were Grownups, and Emily in Tyler’s Morgan’s Passing. I love Chief Brenda Lee Johnson on THE CLOSER, Joan Allen’s character in THE CONTENDER and THE UPSIDE OF ANGER, Drew Barrymore’s in RIDING IN CARS WITH BOYS. Emma, Anne, Lizzie, and Elinor in Jane Austen’s books and the movies based on them, EMMA, PERSUASION, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, SENSE AND SENSIBILITY. And so many more!

You’re About to Get “Kasdaned!”

Lawrence Kasdan signing autographs at Austin Film Festival Conference 2011

Tonight is the second to the last night of The Austin Film Festival. The conference portion ran from Thursday through Sunday in the meeting rooms of the stunning Driskell Hotel, and the films are still playing.

I attended these seven panels:

  1. How to Work the Film Festival for Filmmakers
  2. Sustaining a Writing Career Outside of L.A.
  3. The Creative Career: What You Need to Know
  4. Agents and Managers
  5. The Heroine’s Journey: Writing and Selling the Female-Driven Screenplay
  6. On the Level (TV Writer Staffing)
  7. Producing Outside the Norm: A Conversation with Elizabeth Avellan
What a great experience. I took copious notes, and I plan to write them up here as much for myself as for others who want to imbibe some of the conference information and inspiration. Now that I blog, I can’t not take notes. I know when I get home and write about my experiences I’m going to wish I had direct quotes, and there were some GREAT ones. I’m going to want that list of comments that inspired me to take my next steps as a writer.
I was most excited to see and listen to Lawrence Kasdan. Take a gander at only his writing credits from
2003Dreamcatcher (screenplay)
1999Mumford (written by)
1996Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire (Video Game) (story)
1994Wyatt Earp (written by)
1992The Bodyguard (written by)
1991Grand Canyon (written by)
1988The Accidental Tourist (screenplay)
1985Silverado (written by)
1983The Big Chill (written by)
1981Continental Divide (written by)
1981Body Heat (written by)
1981Raiders of the Lost Ark (screenplay)
Kasdan was on the panel, “The Creative Career: What You Need to Know,” along with Craig Mazin (SCARY MOVIE 3 & 4, THE HANGOEVR 2), Daniel Petrie, Jr. (THE BIG EASY, BEVERLY HILLS COP, SHOOT TO KILL, TURNER & HOOCH, TOY SOLDIERS, & others), Rhett Reese (EARTH VS. MOON, ZOMBIELAND 2, MONSTERS, INC.), and the moderator, Howard A. Rodman (screenwriter, novelist, educator, former WGAW VP), all delightful in distinctive ways.
They inspired me by giving examples from their own lives with energy, compassion, enthusiasm. They broke my heart with how much they love screenwriting and how much they want to help us folks hanging on their every word, leaning forward in the rows and rows of yellow chairs in the Driskell Hotel meeting rooms. It makes a difference to be there, to see them, hear their voices, see how damn smart they are, how funny, kind, loving.
Kasdan hijacked a question by the excellent and funny moderator, Howard A. Rodman, who spoke in so many metaphors, I’m still communicating with him telephathically. Rodman was doing a fine job asking our panelists about pitfalls in the business, as the program announced he would. Yet, Kasdan began an introduction to the reason why he was not going to answer the question. Craig Mazin piped up in sheer glee warning Rodman, “You’re getting Kasdaned right now!” Graciously, authentically, Kasdan explained he did not want to answer a question about how to deal with negative notes from studio executives, deeming it not relevant to the folks in the audience. He said we had different pitfalls than those of the panel, being at vastly different stages. Not missing a beat, Rodman said, “Good note,” then rephrased the question exactly as Kasdan suggested, using most of the same words. Kasdan said, “I’m glad you asked.” And on and on like that, witty, gracious, helpful, inspiring. All of them.
Someone asked a question about script consultants. “Who’s reputable? How much should one spend on it?” Mazin jumped at the chance to say, “Not one cent! And here’s why. It’s baloney. Screenwriting is free. Every single movie ever made has been disagreed about.” The same questioner obviously wanted someone to direct her to reputable script consultants and tried again. “Does anyone else on the panel have a different opinion?” Mazin replied, “They do not.” Everyone laughed. Perfect comic timing. And the truth is, no one else on the panel voiced a different opinion. We just moved on.
Someone wanted to know how long it takes the panel members to write a single script. They gave literal answers about their own process and others they’ve heard about. I always love those kind of answers for comparing. But I really loved what Lawrence Kasdan said:  “It takes as long as it takes to get to the end, and you can let someone read it without you being embarrassed. Could be a month or two years.”
Another audience member asked the question, “How do the panelists divide their time between the creative and the business sides of writing?” Hey, I thought it was interesting, and I definitely wanted to know how many hours a day Kasdan writes and how many hours he tweets and calls his agent (as if his world after so many years of success would resemble mine in any way). He sidestepped it, ever the one to keep the panel talking about things that can actually help us. I love what he said. “There’s very little work. There are very few meetings. There is very little cashing of checks. Concentrate on the creative, and all the business will present itself in a pleasing way.”
I think I just got Kasdaned!
In the next day or two in another post, I’m going to list a bunch of quotes from the panel that were particularly helpful to me. These will include quotes by Reese and Petrie, as well. What advice have you gotten that helped you take your next step?

Austin Film Festival Panelists Say “Keep Writing!”

St. Augustine writing, revising, and re-writin...
Image via Wikipedia

The Austin Film Festival is still running, though the conference, which began last Thursday is now over. It’s going to take some time to process everything I experienced. For now I’m floating on the admonitions of many successful screenwriters who said in different ways, in various voices, illustrated by individual details, stories from the trenches, in bright funny tones and in serious dramatic ones to keep writing. I’m up on Monday morning blogging, working on my current script, my next script, my short story collection, and a treatment for my current script, even as I will work my regular job this afternoon. Each of these things and more, I’ve always done. But now I’ve heard many successful writers I admire, tell me in person, time and again at this conference, this is how it works. For a writer like me who works on everything at once, the conference made me know it’s okay to work that way. I often question the way I work, and wonder if I’ll ever get anywhere that way. The panelists said every writer works differently. Let your creativity lead you. Just keep writing.

Now I have a clearer picture of what to do today, what to do next. I feel I can do it, and I feel great about it. I’m reminded every writer, including Lawrence Kasdan who’s had his scripts made into some of the most successful movies in history, and Pamela Gray, who’s written one of my personal favorites, A WALK ON THE MOON, continue to struggle to write, to find the time, to keep writing. I learned from screenwriter, Monte Williams, former press secretary for Governor Ann Richards, to respect and keep your day job as long as you need it, maybe forever. I learned from every writer you can and should stay in your town and work your regular job and keep writing, and you have to go to L.A. sometimes, too. Yes, meet successful writers, managers, and agents attending this conference and talk to them directly. After all, this festival does not segregate the panelists from the attendees; you can meet your idols in the Driskell Hotel Lobby or have drinks with them at the bar, and have a life-changing chat. But several panelists advised us to connect with other writers at our own level who are here in the audiences, stay in touch, sleep on each other’s couches, and rise together.

I’m working on several more posts about the conference. The next one you see here will be, “You’re About To Get Kasdaned!” It’s my second favorite quote from the panel, “The Creative Career: What You Need to Know” with Lawrence Kasdan (THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST, BODY HEAT, THE BIG CHILL, WYATT EARP, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARC, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, RETURN OF THE JEDI, THE BODYGUARD), Craig Mazin (SCARY MOVIE 3 & 4, THE HANGOVER 2), Daniel Petrie, Jr. (THE BIG EASY, BEVERLY HILLS COP, SHOOT TO KILL, TURNER & HOOCH, TOY SOLDIERS) and Rhett Reese (DEAD POOL, EARTH VS. MOON, ZOMBIELAND 2).

Please feel free to ask questions about the conference, and I will do my best to answer them in the next blogpost or the comments section. KEEP WRITING!

Being in the Same Room with Highly Creative People

Rodrigo García Barcha
Image via Wikipedia

I’m heading to the Austin Film Festival (AFF) tomorrow as a badge-holder, which means I get to go to some of the panels and listen to great, successful screenwriters discuss their experiences writing for film and TV. By many accounts, The Austin Film Festival is the best festival for writers, having been created for the purpose of nurturing and honoring them.

Last January I attended a warm, helpful, inspiring panel sponsored by AFF in which Noah Hawley, creator of THE UNUSUALS and MY GENERATION, and Kyle Killen, creator of TV series, AWAKE and LONE STAR, and screenwriter of the feature film, THE BEAVER, discussed writing and being showrunners for TV. Hawley and Killen were gracious, interesting, funny, smart. I loved being in the same room with them. Enjoying music, books, painting, sculpture, movies, TV shows, beautiful buildings, dance, plays are all great ways of communing with the artist. We all do it when we enjoy the arts. We can have direct experience of the creative mind when we view art. But listening to them discuss their creative process in the same room, days in a row, and going to films at night (or at least next week as the festival continues), I imagine will be even more rarefied.

During the conference and festival, which run tonight through next Thursday, I plan to write shorter blogposts more often about my experiences there. I hope to hit most of these panels:

  1. Opening Remarks
  2. How to Work the Conference: For Writers
  3. Sustaining a Writing Career Outside of L.A.
  4. Roundtable: The Business Side
  5. Based on a True Story
  6. The Creative Career: What You Need to Know
  7. Agents and Managers
  8. A Conversation with 2011 Outstanding Television Writer Awardee Hart Hanson
  9. The Heroine’s Journey: Writing and Selling the Female Driven Screenplay
  10. A Conversation With Jay and Mark Duplass
  11. In the TV Writers’ Room
  12. A Conversation with 2011 Distinguished Screenwriter Awardee Caroline Thompson
  13. Showrunners
  14. On the Level Staffing TV
  15. The Art of Storytelling with the 2011 Awardees
  16. Producing Outside the Norm: A Conversation with Elizabeth Avellan
I’ll have to choose between a couple of these as they occur at the same time. There are many more panels, too, some aimed at filmmakers rather than writers. I’d like to go to some of those just to see what they’re like. There are also films, luncheons, awards. I haven’t even looked at the film schedule; yet, I know the new film by the Duplass Brothers called JEFF, WHO LIVES AT HOME will be screened, and I plan to see it. I first heard about them when they were living here in Austin, and I just love their movies. Rodrigo Garcia who wrote NINE LIVES and many other movies I love will be part of the Showrunners panel. I always enjoy what he has to say about the creative process. I’ve heard him speak in a moving way of his love and respect for the creativity of the artists he works with.

I’ll keep you posted. Are you going to the Austin Film Festival? Want to meet up at any of the panels? Do you want me to ask anything in particular of the panelists?

Divining The Real Deal From Henry James

Portrait of Henry James, the novelist
Image via Wikipedia

“…the figures in any picture, the agents in any drama, are interesting only in proportion as they feel their respective situations…” – Henry James

Before writing in the morning, sometimes I read a short story for inspiration. Today I chose Henry James’The Real Thing.” I’m rewriting a script today, not a short story, but short stories inspire me no matter what I’m writing. It works for me like divination, as someone who picks passages from the Bible or any inspiring written work, and reads them as if they’re messages from God or the muses.

In “The Real Thing,” an illustrator finds a married couple at his door looking for work as models. They have fallen from a higher class and operate not only as a team to find work, but to hide their state from their friends and even from themselves. We watch them through the eyes of the illustrator. They’re “the real thing” in that they really are the upper class people the illustrator is commissioned to render. Furthermore, “the real thing” refers ironically to the shifting nature of identity when human beings are forced to confront their nature and essence. The married couple cling to their past identity in the new situation. It seems to work, much as any big fish in a small pond. Maintaining their posture, literally and figuratively, gets them work. However, they have no sense they may need to adapt to the actual world they now inhabit, the world of art, in order to thrive or even survive. In this world, an immigrant servant who doesn’t speak the language emerges as the best model. Modeling is artistic in itself and requires an openness and malleability of expression. That talent can arise in anyone, thus dismantling the influence of the class system in the couple’s new world.

In a companion piece, “The Mirror of Consciousness,” included by Gioia & Gwynn in their book, The Art of the Short Story,  James writes about the need to tell the stories through a consciousness that feels what is happening. He says the story is weak if it merely recounts facts and is strong when those facts and events filter through the mind of someone who feels them fully. In “The Real Thing” the illustrator is deeply affected by the actions of the married couple over time. At first it helps his work and later hurts it. Through the lens of the illustrator’s struggles and his own feelings for all his models, I was moved by the plight of the fallen couple, rather than merely irritated by their obstinance and classism.

The takeaway for me today:  my main character serves well as the consciousness through which I show the plight of her struggling friends and neighbors, the web of characters around her. And, I meant to underscore her own troubles by doing this. But since the story is about her, I see that I need to make her more alive, more malleable, more feeling. I need to show her struggle more clearly in the beginning, so the changes near the end have more impact. She must feel the full extent of the situation I’ve put her in, or else my audience won’t. It won’t matter how many rewrites I do if I don’t do that.

How do you get inspiration? Who’s your favorite character in books or on screen?

Eudora Welty on Plot

Eudora Welty
Image by cliff1066™ via Flickr

“When plot, whatever it does or however it goes, becomes the outward manifestation of the very germ of the story, then it is purest – then the narrative thread is least objectionable, then it is not in the way.” – Eudora Welty from “The Plot of the Short Story” (1949)

I’ve been working on a screenplay a long time, rewriting, rewriting and rewriting some more for months. Submitting to contests, bringing it to group for critique. Reading aloud with my sister. I’ve also been working on some memoir stories and short stories. Even these shorter stories were taking a long time. I’ve put in tons of hours with not much in the way of finished work to show for it. I decided I needed to write a story in one day just to feel better.

How do you go about writing a story in one day? I knew immediately I’d make it easy and write a one-page story (it’s actually four pages long, but trying for one page was a great way to start). How do you get an idea for a one page story? You watch the first image that goes across your mind. I won’t say here what it was, because it’s the end of my story, “Stigmata,” and I want you to read it. I took that image and realized it was about a character mentioned in one of the other stories I was working on. He was the father of the ex-girlfriend of the main character of my story called “Heat Wave.” Okay. I accepted that. Furthermore it was an image of this character as a child. Hmmm. This interested me. I went with it.

My image was the ending, so I began to wonder what would happen to this character for this ending to occur. And that is when I experienced the Eudora Welty quote above. I saw more images in my mind’s eye of the outworking of events that would lead to the ending I first envisioned. The image was the germ, the events leading to it, the plot.

I discovered the story contains elements of many things I care for deeply about relationships, culture, society, and the individual. I didn’t try to write about those things; I followed an impulse. It was satisfying and joyful. I’m going to work this way with the rest of the stories in my collection whenever I can. This method shows me through experience the meaning of another quote by Welty in the same piece:

“…form is connected with recognition; it is what makes us know, in a story, what we are looking at, what unique thing we are for a length of time intensely contemplating.”

What are you intensely contemplating? How do you get your ideas? What are you writing?