Friday, July 26, 2019

Dahl Study: Genesis and Catastrophe

My author study of Roald Dahl started with a reading of his Collected Stories while watching the accompanying episode of Tales of the Unexpected. Each Friday I'll recap a story and show (with spoilers, just so you know), but I encourage you to read and watch them on your own if you're interested!

- - -

"Genesis and Catastrophe" from Collected Stories (read 7/5/19)

This story is pretty excellent. There's a great twist... but it's not really a twist because it's a fictional interpretation of real life events, so if you know history and obscure facts about political leaders, you might already know the story based on context clues.

A woman is worried about her new baby, because she has lost her three other young children in the past 18 months. The doctor assures her that the baby is fine, healthy, a bit small, but will make it. The mother can't look, she keeps talking about her other children and how they died. (It's here that history buffs might make the connection - the mother is named, and names the other children that have died.) The doctor then calls the mother by her full name, which I won't say here because it's a pretty good twist. She then gives the baby his famous names, and prays for him to live, and it's so deliciously ironic!

"Genesis and Catastrophe" from Tales of the Unexpected (viewed 7/12/19)

This episode had a lot more to it than the story, but it didn't necessarily add to it. It made it more interesting for TV, I suppose, but that's about it. It starts with a young boy running to tell the father that his baby is being born, but the man won't go to his wife. He doesn't want another dead baby. Much of the episode is the same as the story, but with a lot more from the man's point of view. He wasn't much of a sympathetic character in the story, but he is in the show. I don't think the twist packed as much of a punch as in the written story, either, so definitely read the story first.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Ten Years After

Ten years ago I was winding down my life as a graphic designer, packing up my belongings, and moving just outside Washington, DC to study fiction writing as an MFA candidate. I can think back to that time and feel everything so clearly, honestly from January 2009 until August, to include the anticipation of the MFA acceptances or rejections. I applied to ten or eleven schools, and was accepted to two - one with no financial package, one with a full ride and TA position. I picked the school that offered me the most, of course, and was grateful for it.

I had wanted to be a writer since I was a kid, scribbling in marble notebooks and keeping them in a "real" leather briefcase. (Yes, I was that kid.) I never stopped writing stories, even though I never really finished one until my first creative writing workshop in undergrad. I ended up there after thinking I should major in journalism, because it was writing. I didn't know creative writing was a thing you could study, take classes in, get graded on. Once I discovered that, I was gone. I was so sure I was going to grow up and become an author. It seemed real to me, just by having a concentration in the college catalog.

I stuck with my MFA program for one year out of three. I didn't like how certain workshop professors pushed us to write in a specific style first, and once we mastered that, we would be allowed to experiment. I couldn't handle having to read three short story collections a week for one class. I loved my classmates. I loved the other tutors I worked with in the Writing Center, and I loved the Writing Center itself. I loved working with other students. I loved editing papers and helping them find their focus while writing.

I don't regret my year in the MFA program. I don't regret quitting after a year.

I have friends with MFAs who are writing and publishing and working as professors and love it. I have friends without MFAs who are writing as publishing and working as [fill in the blank] and love it. And I always felt like I was somewhere in between. That by being enrolled in a program and quitting meant I had failed. But I didn't fail - I made a choice. And I need to be kind and honest with myself and realize that I am one of those without an MFA who is writing and publishing and working... period. I am doing so many things I never thought I would be doing ten years ago.

When I started that chapter of my life, ten years ago, I couldn't really picture the future. I could see myself writing at all hours of the night, because I could hardly sleep if the sun wasn't out. I couldn't picture myself as a professor. I couldn't picture myself as a partner or a mother or anything beyond that hazy image of a person huddled over the table writing... something.

And here I am. I am a mother with a wonderful child. I read in all my spare time, and I share books with him every day. I completed a Masters degree in Library Science. I'm an elementary librarian sharing books with students and their parents. I wrote and published a book. I have been writing nearly daily for over six months. I have been completing stories even without a deadline in my face. I am gearing up to teach an elementary creative writing club in the fall. It might not be what I dreamily thought would come, but, ten years after, I think I'm in a good place - maybe just a logical evolution from what I thought I wanted back then.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Dahl Study: The Umbrella Man

My author study of Roald Dahl started with a reading of his Collected Stories while watching the accompanying episode of Tales of the Unexpected. Each Friday I'll recap a story and show (with spoilers, just so you know), but I encourage you to read and watch them on your own if you're interested!

- - -

"The Umbrella Man" from Collected Stories (read 7/5/19)

A young girl and her mother are in town when they get caught in a rainstorm. They were trying to flag down a taxi when an old man came up to them. He was well-dressed with a nice umbrella. He told them that he didn't have his wallet, but needed money for a taxi fare. He had walked to town, but was now too tired to walk back home. He wasn't begging for money, but rather wanted to sell them his umbrella. He told them it was silk and cost him twenty pounds, but he'd sell it for one pound, just to get taxi fare. The mother bought the umbrella and she and her daughter huddled beneath it to stay dry. The daughter noticed the old man practically running down the street, and commented that he didn't seem as tired as he claimed he was. The mother is suspicious, and they follow the man down the road. He disappears into a pub, so they stand in the window and watch him. He orders a drink at the bar, pays with the mother's pound, and downs the drink. As he leaves, he snags an umbrella from the stand near the door. The girl and her mother watch him walk down the street to sell that umbrella to another unsuspecting stranger, then head towards another pub to do the same thing again.

"The Umbrella Man" from Tales of the Unexpected (viewed 7/12/19)

I like the show version of this story better than the written one. It starts from the Umbrella Man's point of view, though of course we don't know him as such at this point. He is just checking into an inn, asking where he might find a list of the nearby pubs. He goes up to his room and marks a map of pubs, then listens to the radio, getting frustrated to hear it's supposed to be a beautiful day. The next day, we are shown a man and his wife waiting for a train. Another man walks in and purposefully puts his umbrella on the table and settles next to the couple. They all know each other, but when the husband leaves to check on the train, it is revealed that the wife is having an affair with the other man. The man wonders if the husband suspects anything, but the wife assures him her husband is oblivious. They all get ready to get on the train and the man makes a point of coming back to grab his nice umbrella.
     The woman gets her hair done and it starts pouring as soon as she leaves the salon. The Umbrella Man finds her huddled under and overhang and offers to sell his umbrella to her. She takes him up on it. Later the husband and the man having an affair with his wife meet while waiting for the train home. The man is soaking wet and the husband asks what happened to his umbrella, since he was so smart to bring one that morning. The man said it got stolen at a pub. He then mentions something about the wife getting her hair done, and the husband laughs that she will look like a drowned rat since she thought it was going to be a beautiful day. The wife comes up at that moment, looking wonderful and holding the umbrella. She tells her husband to not get mad because she didn't buy a new one at full cost, and starts to tell him the story. He cuts her off and gets angry because he has suspected an affair, and now this is proof to him. He thinks she and the man met at lunchtime and he let her use his umbrella that afternoon. He starts a fight and the wife insists a man sold it to her and tells her husband what the Umbrella Man's game was. She drags him to the police station to prove it.
     While at the police station, the man insists his umbrella was stolen and he would never have an affair with the man's wife because he loved his own, etc. It hurt the woman's feelings, so when the Umbrella Man is brought into the station, she says it wasn't him. She lets her husband leave talking about a divorce, and the man she was having an affair with is mad she denied it and got him in trouble, too. She realized neither man cares about her.

Monday, July 15, 2019

My Writing Life

It's been seven and a half months since I challenged myself to write every day.

In January, the goal was to write two pages a day. I wrote one short story, started two others, and wrote really bad, long poetry. I wrote 28 out of 31 days.

In February, I wanted to wake up a little earlier every morning to write, in hopes of not missing those three days. I did wake up earlier, but I still missed three days, writing 25 out of 28 days.

March got off to a strange start, because I somehow missed the first day. Then I wrote every day of my Spring Break vacation (literally out-of-town vacation, and I still wrote), but then stopped once I returned home. Go figure! I only wrote 16 out of 31 days.

April was the A to Z Blogging Challenge, so I had 26 posts to write for Allison and Her Camera, plus my weekly Sunday posts - so I blogged every day that month...  But I only wrote 24 out of 31 days.

May was my game-changer. I started reading The Artist's Way, which recommended using morning pages as a brain dump. You wake up and write three pages of anything that's on your mind. I recapped the day before, wrote down strange dreams, plotted out the hours the stretched before me - anything and everything. I wrote 29 out of 31 days!

Which ramps up nicely to June - I wrote every day! I wrote morning pages of brain dump and then spent evenings starting short stories and scheduling blog posts. I thought writing every day would monopolize my time, but it actually made me feel even more ready to write other productive things. 30 out of 30 days!

That means for the first six months of writing daily, I wrote 152 out of 182 days. Not too shabby!

For July, I decided to participate in Camp Nanowrimo for the first time. I try to compete in National Novel Writing Month every year (to varying degrees of success), but with my writing finally getting on track to a daily habit, I wanted a new challenge. My Camp goal was to write a 20,000 word short story - one that's been kicking around in my brain for awhile. I started it, and I've been doing a lot of work on it, but some days I just could not handle working on that. My brain melted just thinking about it. So I'd start something new. Then something else. Then something else. Until I had five short stories making up my Camp word count.

That's fine with me. I know pushing myself to work on something I'm not feeling just means I'll make the choice to not write instead. So my "secret" goal was to write 1,000 words a day (which, if you can math, adds up to more than 20,000 words). I wanted to complete the story I've been thinking about for so long, but also start another. I want to start the submission process again soon, so I need to have some work for that. So far, only one of the five stories is finished, and it's not the one I really wanted to finish, but there's still time! And now that I've stuck with this habit for two months, I'm hoping it will only get more ingrained.

What have you been writing lately?

Friday, July 12, 2019

Dahl Study: Nunc Dimittis/Depart in Peace

My author study of Roald Dahl started with a reading of his Collected Stories while watching the accompanying episode of Tales of the Unexpected. Each Friday I'll recap a story and show (with spoilers, just so you know), but I encourage you to read and watch them on your own if you're interested!

- - -

"Nunc Dimittis" from Collected Stories (read 1/13/19)

A man who has been seeing a woman for a long time finds out that she has been telling people in their circle that he is boring. It embarrasses him and makes him so mad, he decides he wants revenge. He secretly commissions a painter to paint his girlfriend's portrait. The painter is known for painting in layers - as in, he paints a woman nude, then adds her undergarments, then adds her dress. Once the painting of the girlfriend is complete, the man, an art collector, carefully uses turpentine to remove the top layer of paint. He hangs the portrait of the woman in her undergarments in his dining room and invites all of their rich friends over for a dinner party. He slips away from the party right after the painting is unveiled. He later finds out that his revenge backfires - everyone hates him. The girlfriend forgives him, though, and sends some of his favorite caviar, which he eats - then feels ill.

"Depart in Peace" from Tales of the Unexpected (viewed 7/4/19)

The episode is called "Depart in Peace" even though the short story was titled Nunc Dimittis, which means "Now you dismiss." I like that the new title is a variation of the same sentiment, and I like how both versions of the title add meaning to the end of the story. The short story was originally published as "The Devious Bachelor", which also applies to the story, but isn't as clever as the two later titles.
          The show is the same as the story, but with a bit more clarity. The man doesn't leave when the paint is unveiled, but rather makes eye contact with the girlfriend and watches as she faints. Later, she comes to him in person to forgive him and say she loves him and always will, and he must not listen to gossip from people in their circle. She gives him the caviar and he makes a cracker for her and then eats his own. He starts to feel strange, looks at her, and she puts her uneaten cracker back on the tray with a smile. She leaves and he walks away, towards the painting of her (for reasons I didn't understand, if there are any). He's basically hiding behind a curtain without really hiding when the butler comes in to clean up the tray. The butler looks around, sees no one, and sneaks a bite of the caviar. He is walking to the door when the man falls from behind the curtain. The butler drops his tray and falls into a chair, as if he is also feeling ill. The woman comes back into the room, looks at both men, and smiles at what she's done.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Matilda the Musical

Last weekend I saw Matilda the Musical at Playhouse on the Square. I originally saw it at the Orpheum in January 2016, and fell in love!

About that performance, I said:
I was only halfway through [re-reading] the book when we went to see the play, but I liked it that way - I couldn't remember the original ending, so the play was still somewhat suspenseful. 
          [The play is] hard to review because... it's amazing. I would have gone to see it again the next night if I could have! The stage looks fantastic with all the letters and colors and blocks, and it pulls you right into Matilda's world. The actors are perfect in their roles. We saw a native Memphian play Matilda on opening night, so that was a nice perk!
          The musical differs quite a bit in that Matilda's mother has a different hobby, which doesn't add much to the story, in my opinion. Matilda also tells an ongoing story she's made up, which is overly sentimental and also doesn't add much to the story, especially since Miss Honey's backstory is explained so concisely in the book. But I am a huge Tim Minchin fan, so I appreciate how these divergent storylines help develop the musical side of the story. Tim Minchin's songs are very clever and add jokes and wit to the story.

Besides being excited to go with a group and show off my photography exhibit in the cafe lobby, I was excited to see how it was interpreted for the smaller stage at Playhouse. The set was pared down, of course, and the letters were projected with lighting instead of being hung all over the stage. One thing I love about smaller theater performances is how much they do with limited sets and space. Using the doors and blocks for multiple purposes was really creative. The actors themselves were all fantastic, and there's nothing that makes me tear up faster than young locals blowing an audience away, and having that audience cheer like crazy. (I think there were lots of family and friends in the crowd that night, but still.)

Everyone I was with really loved the musical, and as someone who saw it years ago and has listened to the soundtrack countless times since, hearing the songs performed onstage was almost like seeing a band in concert. I loved hearing the music live again!

As far as I could tell, the show was sold out, and so many local businesses and families had wanted to sponsor the show that I hope it's performed here again before too long. I think it's great that it's based on a book, of course, but it seems like several plays each season are book-based at Playhouse. I think I mostly love how there were people of all ages there, and everyone seemed totally into the story and songs. I think Dahl is a timeless author, obviously (see: Author Study), and I've enjoyed some of the movies I've seen based on his work, but I do love that he's being updated and exposed to more people by having his stories transformed into plays and musicals.

Friday, July 5, 2019

Dahl Study: Georgy Porgy

My author study of Roald Dahl started with a reading of his Collected Stories while watching the accompanying episode of Tales of the Unexpected. Each Friday I'll recap a story and show (with spoilers, just so you know), but I encourage you to read and watch them on your own if you're interested!

- - -

"Georgy Porgy" from Collected Stories (read 1/11/19)

A vicar has never settled down, and all of the "spinsters" in his parish are after him. He resists, but one finally puts something in his drink and gets him alone. The vicar had a traumatic experience as a boy - watching a mother bunny eat her newborn, and then thinking his mother was going to do the same to him. He ran away from his mother at the time, and she ran after him but got hit by a passing car. In present day, when the spinster leans forward to kiss the vicar, he freaks out about her mouth. She apparently actually eats him and he lives inside her?

"Georgy Porgy" from Tales of the Unexpected (viewed 7/4/19)

This was... pretty different from the story in terms of specifics and story building. I didn't remember the story that clearly, but it didn't stand out to me as weird or unsettling, besides the odd ending that didn't seem typical for Dahl. But the show version was very strange, and I felt uncomfortable the whole time I was watching it. The vicar is weird from the start, kind of twitchy, and it kept showing him clench his fists behind his back while preaching and singing. There were flashbacks showing how off her rocker his mother was - she really messed him up. To the extent that the father was shown nearby in all the scenes, and I wanted to scream at him "Why aren't you stopping her?!" She was so inappropriate with her son. 
          The woman of interest in the show wasn't a spinster from town, but rather one of their younger, female, married, relatives. This woman spikes the vicar's drink, and when she leans in to kiss him, he freaks out as he did in the story. But in the show, he strangles her. She falls to the floor, bleeding from the mouth, and two spinsters come to see what happened. He yells about his mother and runs past them. The strangled woman is still alive on the floor, and then we are shown the vicar in a straitjacket, talking to a therapist about where in the woman's body he is living now.
          I wonder if this was how the story ended. I remember the writing explaining that the vicar is living inside the woman because she ate him, but maybe I read it wrong, or didn't read into it enough, and it was actually him in therapy talking about it.

Monday, July 1, 2019

Reading Life: 2nd Quarter 2019

I've read 48 books this year, which sounds pretty good until you consider my Goodreads goal is 120 books - that means I'm about 11 books behind where I should be. But I'm reading more often - on my lunch breaks and before bed, if nothing else. And I'm reading books that are hitting me in different ways. 

I've recently discovered Kent Haruf, and reading his work makes me feel like I'm in college again. I mean that in a good way - it reminds me of getting new-to-me short stories to read and dissect for workshops, analyzing fiction in literature seminars, and trying to apply what I've learned to my own writing. Haruf is direct, no flowery language, but the stories he tells are so compelling - maybe even moreso by the sparse writing. 

Take this line from Plainsong (which I'm thisclose to finishing) for example: "It was evening when they got home. The early dark of late December." Isn't that so good? It's so descriptive - you can picture exactly how the evening light looks. And I love the quiet poetic opposites of early and late. Anyway, I read that sentence during my break and was frantically searching for a scrap of paper - I had to write it down!

I'm dying to apply his style to my own writing, but it will definitely have to wait until the editing process. I'm so wordy with first drafts, but I can edit like nobody's business. 

Anyway, that's what my reading life has been like this past quarter. Trying to find the books with the writing that will move me and the stories that will blow me away.

- - -

Tell Me Lies by Carola Lovering. This book blew me away. It was so real, so well developed, and so intriguing. Many of the characters made me think of real people, which was both good and bad considering the main male character was a psychopath. I could hardly put this down.

Black and Blue by Anna Quindlen. Originally read April 2011: This story followed a woman as she left her abusive husband, bringing her son along as they started a secret new life. There were vivid flashbacks, but also a lot of current action. It had a good narrative structure, but overall felt very stream-of-consciousness, which worked perfectly. As the woman adjusted to her new life, you were living day-to-day right along with her. When she was struck by fear of her husband finding her, you were jolted into that emotion as well. It was very powerful, very realistic, and very suspenseful. The prose was beautiful in many parts, but never too flowery. The characters were realistic and likable, and I find myself thinking about them even after finishing the book. 
     Re-read June 2019: I had read this years ago, and watching Big Little Lies made me want to read it again. The suspense and waiting were palpable and so well done. I had totally forgotten the ending so I have to say it gutted me and I was definitely weeping for the last bit of the book. So amazing. I can’t wait to forget the ending and read it again.

The Alcatraz Escape by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman. I absolutely loved this book. Sometimes sequels and trilogies can get tired, or you can tell the author is running out of ideas. Not the case with Bertman. This book was AMAZING, and might even be my favorite of the Book Scavenger trilogy yet! I love the Alcatraz history and that twist, my goodness! PERFECTION.

The Seven Husbands of Eleanor Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid. After reading more of Jenkins Reid’s work, I think my favorites are her novels that are presented as false memoirs. This book was amazing - so many good twists that were not written in just for the sake of being twists; they actually helped the plot and character development greatly. The ending twist took a bit to sink in for me - I hadn’t been keeping much track of the timeline of Hugo’s life and how it related to the current story, so it took a minute to have some impact. Reflecting back on it now, it’s SO good.

The Tie That Binds by Kent Haruf. I “discovered” this author thanks to #bookstagram, and then found out my dad is a huge fan after he saw me with one of the books! If it weren’t for these ringing endorsements, I don’t know what I ever would have picked this book, but I’m so glad I did! I checked all of Haruf’s books out from the library, but wanted to go in order just because. The Tie That Binds was a compelling story told in a conversational way, and at times I kept wondering why it was being told that way, why it was framed as a conversation, but… it didn’t matter. It was just good, and the sentences were so impactful and powerful without being over the top and trying too hard. Very eager to move on to Haruf’s next book.