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My son and I sat down and watched Empire of the Sun — the second instalment of my “Laying a Foundation for a Life in 24 Films” series — about a week ago. While his reaction was not nearly as overtly cynical as it was for Heartbreak Ridge, — he is a teenager, and Empire was directed by Stephen Spielberg after all — it certainly wasn’t effusive. “It was pretty good,” was about the highest praise I managed to eke out of him.
Remembering my own first viewing of the movie, I thought he would at least have experienced some innate identification with the adolescent Jim, the young protagonist who, ironically, seems to flourish as an internee in the Japanese POW camp that serves as a backdrop for much of the movie. But though my son seemed to “like” and “sympathize” with this “prison camp Jim”, the only comment he ever actually made about the character (twice) during the film was: “I hate that kid.” But in those two particular instances he was referring to the naive, spoiled, pre-prison camp, young Tai Pan Jim that lived in Shanghai with his rich parents prior to the war (and who seemed patently unable to surrender to the Japanese as they proceeded to occupy the city).
But with such a condemnation I felt my son was missing the point. Not because this early version of Jim wasn’t stupendously naive and obviously needed some significant emotional comeuppance to grow as a character (which, ultimately, was the major theme of the movie), but because he (i.e. my son) wasn’t willing to see beyond young Jim’s shortcomings to the subtle tapestry of confused, juxtapositional adolescent wonder which makes Jim such a richly complex character to begin with.
Nor, in the week and a half since we watched the movie, has he admitted to any manner of after-the-fact “a-ha” moments. In fact, I asked him the other night if he had had any further thoughts on the movie, but though he says he laid awake for a couple of hours the night we watched it, — trying to determine what he felt it had all been about — he concluded that nothing particularly “stuck” with him after that.
For me, on the other hand, the movie was just as good as I had remembered it, and will continue to remain one of my all-time favourites. The scenes I had recalled as particularly meaningful I seemed to have remembered with a reasonable level of fidelity, and they more or less unfolded as I described in my previous post. I was awash in goosebumps, and my heart was in my throat, for example, as Jim raced to the top of that ruined building to watch the P-51s attack the Japanese airfield adjacent to the camp (and then proceeded to have what was essentially a nervous breakdown). And then, in the final seconds of the final scene, as he closed his dry, young / old world-weary eyes — dry eyes being the perfect metaphor for the moment as it re-iterated the fact the he was now a proverbial empty vessel — and finally embraced his mother after more than three years of separation, my own eyes ran with tears.
But I guess, given my son’s reaction (or lack thereof), that I’m starting to figure out that things don’t always resonate the same way across all audiences. Duhh? “Meaning,” after all, is seldom an objective concept, but rather something we discover anew via the unique filter of our own personal experience and preferences. Empire struck me as so poignant, I now realize, because it was a perfect storm of things that I found meaningful at the particular point in my life when I first experienced it, including planes, military history, the ebbing of English imperialism, and the idea of a “plucky” young man coming of age. These things do not, I’m beginning to appreciate, necessarily represent the current mind-set of my own son; hence he’s obviously going to view the films I choose through rather a different set of lenses than I do. Significantly different, I’m starting to understand. He is patently not who I was at that age, so setting up these films as guideposts to try to assist him in becoming a grown-up version of what I optimistically consider to be my own best self may not necessarily be the way to approach this endeavour.
So where does that leave me given the initial premise of this entire exercise?
If nothing else, I suppose, I’ll simply continue to focus on the “overt” lessons that each film seeks to bring to light. As you might have noticed from my previous post, however, I was experiencing some difficulty trying to boil Empire down to a such a singular, pithy world view. But it turns out that I had forgotten one of the key exchanges of the movie. One that demonstrates the extent to which Jim appreciates that though he may have learned innumerable strategies for surviving in the world — any type of world — as a result of his “friendship” with Bassie, he and Bassie don’t, ultimately, share a common philosophy.
Irritated with Jim because he feels that he’s not doing nearly enough to cash in on the good fortune of their liberation from the prison camp — as the movie is coming to an end and food and supplies are now literarily falling from the sky — Bassie asks him disgustedly, “Haven’t I thought you anything, Jim?”
“Yeah, Bassie,” Jim responds ruefully, finally, it seems, truly beginning to understand what “Bassie learning” has actually cost him. “You thought me that people will do anything for a potato.” Game. Set. Match.
So, as the smoke from the P-51 attack on the airfield next to Jim’s prison camp clears, it looks like an early success with Heartbreak Ridge, but not so much with Empire. Call it 1-1-0 for the moment.
And hope for a cinematic miracle to get this exercise back on track!
This month’s “Laying the Foundation for a Life in 24 Films” selection is Empire of the Sun (1987).
My son and I haven’t actually watched it yet, however. And I don’t think I’ve seen it in its entirety— save for snippets here and there whenever it occasionally shows up on TV — in probably 20 years.
So, why Empire of the Sun? Why do I think — or think that I remember through the mists of time — of it as being essential to my foundational list?
Well, like Heartbreak Ridge, there are innumerable images and scenes from the movie that have always stuck with me, if not as life lessons per se, then at least as hints or glimpses into what it is to live and to be human through a time of great crisis.
What, in particular, continues to resonate and come back to me from this movie across the years?
- The fact that, if nothing else, it is a hugely compelling coming-of-age story.
- The theme of airplanes, and the thread of the protagonist’s love of them throughout the story. (I too was an airplane nerd as a kid, so I’ve always felt an especial connection to young Jim given his enduring aeronautical fascination).
- Empires fall, and new ones rise, and residents of the former have a tendency to fiddle while their particular version of Rome burns to ashes around them. It’s easy to recall a number of instances illustrating such creeping dissolution in the film, including Jim’s family’s chauffeured excursion, in full Halloween-costumed regalia, through the thronged maelstrom of downtown Shanghai in the immediate lead-up to WW2. Or the hard, contemptuous slap across the face Jim receives when he attempts to impose his immature will on a former servant after the war has broken out and all the “foreign imperialists”, including his parents, have now either escaped or have been taken into custody and no longer hold sway.
- As John Malkovich’s character points out shortly after he meets Jim, and as the war is beginning to unfold in earnest, living through stuff — war included — is relatively easy. The tricky part, the part where you can get into serious trouble, is at the beginning and end of things (war included). I ponder this dilemma every time I undertake a new project at work!
- Identity is malleable. Except when it’s not. There’s who you want to be (i.e. Jim styling himself as one of the gaggle of brash young Americans with whom he’s interred in the Japanese prison camp) and there’s who you are (i.e. Jim coming to terms with the fact that self image does not trump reality when he has to explain to Malkovich that he wasn’t able to protect Malkovich’s hoarded booty after he had been taken away for punishment by the Japanese. “They were bigger than me,” I remember Jim admitting simply, simultaneously gutted at the loss of his own fragile persona in the process).
- Joy and mania are two sides of the same coin. Perhaps my favourite scene of the whole movie is when Jim’s prison comes under attack from the American Air Force at the end of the war. Jim runs heedlessly through the explosions and debris to climb a tower and thus get a closer look at the planes which are loosing their destruction upon the compound. By the time he gets to the top of the tower, however, we’re starting to suspect that he may have snapped, that all the stress and crises in his young life up to this point have coalesced into this overt, manic exuberance. He jumps up and down, pumping his hands above his head like a madman, watching the planes flash by like lightening bolts. “P-51!” he screams, “Cadillac of the sky!” One of the Mustangs passes by in super slo-mo, parallel with the tower, and Jim is able to make out every detail of the gleaming fuselage and the pilot who cheerfully returns his wave. But in the next instant, the spell is broken. Jim is being pulled down to safety — and I’ve only just remembered this — not by his “supposed” friend, Malkovich (who we would expect to have been looking out for Jim were he the friend he should have been), but by the long-suffering doctor who understands that, regardless of appearances, Jim, in many ways, is very much still a child in need of adult intervention. And it is here that we truly understand that Jim has come to the end of himself. The doctor has to slap him back into sense (if I remember rightly), but Jim is broken, and stares off blankly, crying and whispering plaintively, as if it’s just occurred to him for the first time, “I can’t remember what my parents look like.”
- After the Japanese guards desert the prison, the internees undertake an apocalyptic exodus from the camp. This journey concludes at a giant sports stadium — in the middle of nowhere — which enfolds a surreal cornucopia of looted war riches. Jim barely registers it, however, as he is by now essentially an empty vessel. Instead, he looks across the horizon to see a mushroom cloud rising skyward in the distance. “I leaned a new word today,” he tells us in voice over: “Atom Bomb.” (In September 2001, this scene came back to me in shocked horror as I stood in from of my TV and watched the debris clouds from the collapse of the twin towers of the World Trade Centre billow upward across the New York skyline. All I could think of in that instant, like Jim, was that I was looking over the brink into the abyss of a new world. And I knew with certainty, at that very moment, that my one-and-a-half-year old son — for better or worse — would not grow up in the same world I had).
Yikes! That’s a huge amount of flotsam and jetsam left bobbing in the wake of a movie I haven’t really spent any quality time with in two decades, innit?
Empire of the Sun is obviously a richer, more subtle and complexly layered movie than Heartbreak Ridge, — Duh? — but, admittedly, it was far easier to drill down and extract a single “teachable moment” — “Improvise. Adapt. Overcome.” — from the latter.
I suppose, at this juncture, I’m still trying to figure out exactly what point I’m trying to make with Empire. And, no doubt, I’m not truly going to be able to do that until we sit down and actually watch it. Still, I expect the resultant “take-away” will probably have something to do with how an individual’s “character” evolves and develops during the formative periods of one’s life. Typically such development is associated with the passage of time (i.e. the transition from adolescence into adulthood), but sometimes that development is artificially accelerated through crisis instead. In either case, at the heart of such a process there appears to exist an inexplicable, natural feedback loop, a weird, fundamental symbiosis between how life forms you, while you, concurrently, are seeking to form it. How, ultimately, we’re all shaped by a world which we, in turn, help to shape by our very existence.
Stay tuned; I’ve got the movie downloading from iTunes even as I type. We should know shortly how it all pans out.
WTF, I hear you gasp. Heartbreak Ridge? Really? Hardly a cinematic gem, granted, but this whole exercise, I would argue, is actually about uncovering gems of other sorts. Or pearls, I suppose, might be the more appropriate metaphor since, at the epicentre of this treatise, must reside an on-going commitment to achieving sufficient personal “grit” (see Part 1) to tackle one’s life in a truly meaningful fashion. Likewise, at the very heart of Heartbreak Ridge beats a thematic imperative breathed into existence via the mystical incantation of three simple words, a sort of intellectual talisman against any potential for physical or existential laxity: “Improvise. Adapt. Overcome.”
We’ve all seen Heartbreak Ridge before — even if we’ve never seen Heartbreak Ridge before — as my son, who really wasn’t having the time of his life watching it, was quick to point out: “A grizzled, end-of-career NCO [in this case a Marine Gunnery Sergeant] takes a rag-tag collection of young soldiers [in this case a dysfunctional reconnaissance platoon], promptly puts them through their paces to mould them into “real men” and thus, through his gruff, no-nonsense, hard-as-nails approach, demonstrates just how much he actually loves them because now they — or at least most of them — have developed the skills they will need to survive their first battle [in this case the “Invasion” of Grenada].” The going gets tough, the tough get going, and faint-hearted chickenshits are exposed at every turn. Thanks Gunny!
OK, so I have to admit, having not seen the movie in a number of years, it may have lost a bit of its lustre. Whole scenes, for example, seem to unfold as little more than a recitation of some generic military “drop-you-cocks-and-grab-you-socks” litany of verbal pyrotechnics, which, no doubt, I found irreverent and bad ass back in the day. Rings a little overplayed to a more nuanced, more mature ear, however. Plus I never could warm up to Marsha Mason. But you gotta love Eastwood. He marches from one end of that film to the other, rigid and coiled as a high tension wire, raspy voiced and imperturbable to such a degree that his portrayal of the gnarled Gunnery Sergeant Tom Highway is almost comforting, almost transcendent in its sheer caricature.
Still, Eastwood notwithstanding, for me the movie — or at least my memory of the movie — was always about those three deceptively simple words: “Improvise. Adapt. Overcome.” This was a clarion call for me in 1986, and — I remember thinking at the time — it was a theme that was played out with an especial metaphorical subtlety in the “T-Shirt Kerfuffle” sub-plot.
T-shirt scene #1: Eastwood shows up to start training his new, motley squad of misfits. He assembles them outside their quonset hut in their PT shorts and mismatched t-shirts, and prepares to take them on their first — first with him, that is — run. But before they sprint away he tells them all to discard their aforementioned tees, because no squad of his is going for a run unless they’re all wearing the same shirt.
T-shirt scene #2: Another day and another run. The squad members form up and appear to be feeling rather pleased with themselves given that they’re all standing there in the same t-shit. “Off with the shirts, ladies,” instructs Eastwood. “Why?” they ask, incredulous. “We’re all wearing the same shirts.” “Not the same as me,” he growls.
T-shirt scene #3: The squad shows up for their next run with each man carrying all the t-shirts he owns — just in case. But none match Eastwood’s. They hurl them to the ground in frustration and run off at Eastwood’s command, shirtless and beaten.
Then one night, after helping another senior NCO take Eastwood / Highway home from jail after he had been arrested (again) for “drunk and disorderly,” one of the marines from the squad encounters Eastwood’s landlady who happens to be walking by with a basket of the Gunnery Sergeant’s clean laundry. Turns out this woman not only does Highway’s laundry for him, but sets out his clean clothes every morning as well. Which means the squad now has “intel” on the on-going shirt situation…
T-shirt scene #4 (aka the t-shirt finale): The next time Eastwood calls them to assemble for their run everybody’s wearing the same t-shirt — i.e. the same as him — and, low and behold, their metamorphosis into disciplined brothers in arms, ready to face the enemy, is nearing completion. Now all they need is a war…
“Improvise. Adapt. Overcome.”
Life is a challenge at the best of times. Often you have no idea what the answers are and, metaphorically at least, you’re left shirtless. At other times, you’re pretty confident you’ve figured out the answers, but, before you know it, they’ve gone and changed the question on you and, you guessed it, shirtless again.
“Improvise. Adapt. Overcome,” I told my son. “That’s all I really needed you to get from this movie. That’s the hidden treasure [or the “rare pearl” if you’re worried about continuity]. Whether it’s breaking a t-shirt stalemate, or figuring out how to capture an enemy emplacement, or any other seemingly insurmountable challenge you’re going to face in this life, your best chance for success will always be the same: Improvise. Adapt. Overcome. That’s what you need to learn. That’s what you need live.”
Still, I could tell that he wasn’t convinced that it had been necessary for him to sit through the entire movie if that was all I had intended to share with him. But I guess what I’m trying to do with this gestating pedagogical film fest, when all is said and done, is to create opportunities for him to make certain “connections” for himself. To “get” things, rather than just listening to me bleat banal homilies at him over and over again. (Of course, I’m still just making all this up as I go if you haven’t already figured that out for yourself yet!)
Ironically, however, it turned out he “got” the Heartbreak Ridge message far more clearly than I ever could have anticipated. A few days after we had watched the movie I was leaving for work quite early in the morning and reached into the closet, in the still-dark back hallway, to pack up my sneakers for my usual lunch-time walk. At noon I reached into my bag to retrieve the sneakers only to discover that I had actually taken only one of my sneakers, along with one of my son’s sneakers by mistake. Which meant that he would have had no footwear to wear to school — on this, the second day of grade 11 — other than two mismatched sneakers or the dirty, paint-splattered pair of black, low-cut work books he uses to help me around the yard. I swallowed hard: he was going to kill me when I got home!
I walked in the door after work that evening, and as he came upstairs from the family room to greet me, I immediately started apologizing. “Oh, crap,” I said. “I’m so sorry. I accidentally took one of your sneakers this morning when I was packing mine up in the dark. What did you end up wearing to school for shoes?”
He started laughing. “So that’s what happened,” he said. “I looked all through the entire closet and could only find one of my sneakers, and I started having kind of a panic attack because I thought I was going to miss my bus. But then I remembered I had an almost new pair of sneakers in my bedroom closet from gym class last year, so I dug them out and put them on and ran to the bus stop with time to spare.”
Then he grinned at me. “I just thought you hid one of them on me deliberately to see if I was paying attention to the movie the other night,” he chided. “But, you see, I handled it!”
By Jove, I think he’s got it! Score for dad, and hurrah for movie night! The hook is set!
*Thunder crashes, lightning forks through the sky, and a father’s maniacal laughter rings out across the darkened countryside.*
One down, 23 to go…
As many of you who read this blog know, I am the proud owner of one of those new-fangled (and yet strangely ancient) gizmos called a 16-year old. And, as those of you who are familiar with this exotic species are no doubt already aware, any number of previously latent conditions seem to become suddenly chronic at this stage of development — on the part of the aforementioned young adult, that is — including excessive eye rolling, exasperated sighs at receiving parental input in almost any format, and the continual reminder that you, as a parent, are no longer “cool” or “hip” or “jive” or whatever the current nomenclature happens to be for something you are so clearly not.
But I present the above (mostly) in jest, because my 16-year old is (mostly) awesome. Better than I could have hoped for. Arguably better than I deserve. Far better, I’m convinced, than I was at that age (sorry about that, mom!) And as my wife and I watched him head off for his first day of grade 11 earlier this month, it occurred to me that whatever I had left to teach him about life, whatever experiential wisdom there remained to impart, whatever psychological armour I longed to hand down to him to fend off “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” that he would surely face over the course of his life, I now only had two years, a mere 24 short months, in which to do it.
But 16 brings with it a strange resistance to absorbing the wisdom of one’s elders via a medium so mundane as simple verbal exposition. “You need to try harder at things and not give up so easily — this will be imperative when you’re trying to start a career or deal with a difficult problem at work. Trust me.” “Sure, dad. I get it. Oh, and would you be able to take me into the game store later today ‘cuz the new [insert newest cool game name here which I’m not cool enough to know and be able to insert myself] was released on Monday.”
Mindful that a strong offence is often the best defence, I have consistently sought to share many of the subtleties of childrearing with my son from an early age. The “tight rope” is our shared euphemism for the balancing act I frequently advise him I’m forced to undertake daily in order to mould him from the clay of childhood and adolescence into a successful, fully-fledged, fully-rounded, adult participant in the 21st century. A veritable “Sophie’s Choice” Lite of neither pushing him so hard that he rebels altogether and / or becomes an anxiety-ridden, over-achieving basket case, nor not pushing him hard enough, and thus providing tacit approval for him to devolve into a chronically lazy, under-prepared slacker. Somewhere between those two solitudes — at least to my thinking — lies the existential sweet spot. Where an individual can boast enough personal grit to effectively move forward in life without imploding, but also where he (or she) has been able to develop a sufficient depth of ease and confidence to actually enjoy the life he (or she) is pursuing.
And “grit” is a word that probably goes to the heart of the matter in my case. Because, when all is said and done, I suppose I do see life as something to be overcome. It’s not an easy thing, and I think we lull ourselves into a false sense of security — at our peril — if we approach it as if it were. So, full disclosure, this is obviously the bias under which I am approaching the current project of prepping my fledging teenager to leave the nest.
But what does all of this vapid parental introspection have to do with 24 films, you ask? Well, if you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m getting ready to launch a flanking attack on my blissfully unaware teenaged son. He and I are about to engage in a little media experiment. A “themed” movie a month, — hand picked by dear old dad, of course — for the next 24 months, until he’s off to university. Watched together and, if all goes according to plan, discussed in some detail after the fact — and perhaps even for the months to follow. Each film selected to engage, challenge, inform and, hopefully, maybe even to delight. My thesis is that, “digital native” that he is, the immersive nature of film may ring truer for him than any one-dimensional verbal “life lesson” diatribe I could ever hope to offer.
Have I thought this through completely? Of course not. Will I even be able to find 24 films that will help to establish the type of on-going, expositional interaction that I’m looking to achieve? I dunno. Is it ridiculously facile to seek to develop a solid foundation upon which to establish one’s adult life based on Hollywood fluff? Probably.
In any case, I started this month — without actually even having an inkling that I was about to turn this into an on-going two-year exercise, which has only recently occurred to me — with Heartbreak Ridge (1986).
Part II to follow shortly…
I am sloth incarnate.
I sit alone in a wing chair in the corner of my living room. The seat is an old friend and knows my shape by memory. It has already gone noon, but I remain rooted here, as I have done since early this morning, still clad only in a housecoat and slippers.
Like an animated, picture-perfect Christmas card, the snow is falling gently outside the living room window opposite me. Shrouding the landscape, the bare branches and the evergreen sentinels that comprise my view, in the tenderest of soft, white embraces. Except for the sound of the furnace engaging every now and again, and the metronomic constancy of the dining room clock calling out the passage of the seconds to me from around the corner, all is peace. The placid, untrammelled presence of early winter in the countryside.
It is the final day of my two-week Christmas break. I had plans aplenty to fill this day (as well as those that preceded it). Useful and vigorous schemes to “get things done around the house,” given that that I was going to have some extended “down time.” Now, however, there is only the complacency of my arse on a soft cushion. A tall stack of partially-read books rests companionable beside me, amongst which I flit like a busy, inconstant bee, drawn from one pretty, intoxicating bloom to the next. There appear to be some promising new releases on Netflix, as well. And, within reach, there’s a fresh, steaming cup of coffee…
And a lingering unease that it’s all slipping away too quickly. That I’ve used up these days of light and freedom far too indiscriminately. But I also know I must let such unease pass me by with nary a hint of recognition. For only if I am truly committed to wasting this final day will it, in turn, capitulate and reward me by offering up access to the depths of the recumbent, tranquil treasures it has in store.
The snow continues to fall. My books await. Tomorrow, sitting on a very different chair, in front of a screen straining under the burden of an inescapable digital avalanche, this peace will be a dim, unlikely memory.
I am sloth…
OK, so my long-anticipated, self-initiated, inaugural writing retreat is now little more than a blur in the proverbial rearview mirror of my life. And, like most things one spends too much time thinking about in advance, it was, and was not, exactly what I thought it would be. So what’s the take-away?
“Everybody has a plan — until they get punched in the face!” (It’s not often that Mike Tyson “out-quotes” a former US president, but I find the aforementioned snippet far pithier that Dwight Eisenhower’s rather more prosaic WWII-era version: “Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”) The main worry I was grappling with in my pre-retreat blog was that by seeking to maximize what I hoped to get out of the weekend — either creatively or socially — I might actually “plan the life out of it.” Well, I’m glad to say that I didn’t. True, I knew how I wanted the days to unfold — how I had calculated I could eek the most productivity out of the limited time I had before me — but once I felt that first fist against my jaw (in Tyson parlance), I’m proud to say I just let things unfold as they presented themselves. I knew there existed an overarching structural “plan” lingering in the shadows that I could revert to if required, but, instead, I simply sought to channel my inner Zen-novice and “relax into things.” Relaxing, of course, is anathema to word count. But it was an incredible autumn weekend and we had a lot of fun out and about at the farmer’s market and local wine festival. And ate waaaay to much!
I’m pretty much toast — intellectually — by the end of the work week. Those of you who are regular visitors here at the Gooseyard know that I’m something of a “fanboy” when it comes to the writer Ian McEwan. The one exception is an interview I once saw with him where he pontificated — rather flippantly in my opinion — that you simply can’t write serious fiction if you haven’t managed to divest yourself of a full-time “day job.” I think part of the reason I was so incensed at this “literary pronouncement from on high” was that, deep down, I rather suspect he’s right. It’s damn near impossible to find the gumption to knock out a few thousand decent words a night when you’ve spent the bulk of the day toiling in the salt-mines of [insert your job here]. (OK, yes, yes, shut up, I know, if I were truly committed I’d get up an hour earlier every day and get my writing done then, or get divorced and move into a studio apartment or something, but that’s a different blog altogether). And as hard as it is to discipline oneself to sit down and write something worthwhile after a single day at the office, I find it damn near impossible to write — or do anything else requiring any conscious level of dexterity for that matter — on a Friday night, after having logged five over-busy work days in a row. Maybe it’s a symptom of middle-age, but lately my ideal Friday evening seems comprised mainly of seeking to achieve a kind of languid, Netflix-induced somnolent trance, my eyelids drooping somewhere south of wakefulness, my belly full, a liquid intoxicant of some description at hand, and the hum of the laundry tossing itself clean in the washer in the near distance. [Aside to Millennials: See what you have to look forward to when you grow up?] So even though my retreat-mates and I made sure to take Friday off to give ourselves a full, three-day session at the cottage, the limited amount of writing I was able to convince myself to do that Friday afternoon — after my nap — was still a bit of a slog. And the evening, as usual, found us simply relaxing with a movie (though, in our defence, it was, at least, a book-related movie).
Things suffer when you make them serve too many purposes at once. Remember those K-Tel ads for that ultimate, multi-purpose kitchen gadget: “It slices, it dices, it juliennes!” Well, sometimes — usually quite often, in fact — we end up over-burdening the things in our lives by trying to make them serve too many disparate purposes at one time. And thus overburdened they don’t end up serving their primary purpose(s) anywhere near as well as they should. The Porche Cayenne you bought, because you wanted a sports car, but still needed enough room to schlep the kids to school and pick up the groceries, is not going to perform like the 911 you always dreamed of. The writers’ retreat was no different. Because it was also a couple’s retreat. And a fall getaway. And a food fest. Which are all valid reasons to get in the car and go somewhere. But the more you load up something with the requirements for it to be something else at the same time, the less well it is going to perform in any of its expected roles.
[Greta and] “I want to be left alone.” The more I write, the more I realize that I need real solitude to do so. What Virginia Woolf referred to — though admittedly her focus at the time was on women writers — as a “room of one’s own.” This metaphoric room, as any writer will tell you, represents far more than a simple, physical space, however. It is, rather, the all-encompassing “realm” in which the writer most effectively undertakes his or her work. Every “realm” is different. In my case, I need three things to hit the “zone” running: a sufficient expanse of free time in front of me to get started and maintain some reasonable momentum; complete physical separation from other people (except, occasionally when I make the conscious decision to attempt some writing in a cafe or library); and a reasonably-sized window to look out of (preferably across a natural vista of some sort). Or to put it another way, and with a nod to Corinthians 13:13, “And now abideth time, landscape and solitude; but the greatest of these is solitude.” In a way — and this isn’t an original analogy, though it is one I’ve argued before in one form or another — writing is a lot like masturbation: it’s not something that’s particularly easy to undertake when there are other folks in the room (even if it is just your wife and a couple of really good friends). The retreat certainly gave me time to write, and we definitely had an incredible view across the Northumberland shore line from the cottage’s dining room window, but it seems I really need to be alone to truly hit my writerly stride. With all due respect to Meatloaf, two outta three may not be bad, but it’s not going to generate a proliferation of prose on my part.
So, what’s the final verdict? Would I do it again? Definitely — in fact I hope to do it agin next year. Did I achieve the purported goals outlined in the last paragraph of my pre-retreat blog? Let’s review.
Enjoy some fall foliage? Check.
Have a couple of drinks and share a few laughs with friends? Check, and double check!
Produce a half a dozen pages of decent prose? Umm, not so much. Maybe three. Though they weren’t bad. (And we had a really invigorating discussion Sunday morning about using dialogue to advance one’s story — as opposed to a rambling interior monologue approach which, I’m sure, will eventually be my literary downfall.)
Next year, however, I’m going to take a page out of Bridget Jone’s diary and simply refer to whatever autumn excursion we decide to undertake as a “mini-break.” If I happen to get some writing done, great. If not, that’s OK too. And part of the reason that it will be OK is that I’ve decided to plan a true Writers’ Retreat before then. I imagine it will involve a locked door, a small room and a big window. I’ll keep you posted.
P.S. What are your “must-haves” when it comes to the creative endeavours you undertake? I’d love to hear from you.
Hi. My name’s Philip and, apparently, I’m an addict.
Turns out, try as I might to neutralize it, I’m addicted to words. And sentences. And paragraphs. To grammar. And stories. And books. Glorious books! And thus I’m back with you today — as Tom and Pam and Charles may have already known I would be. Eventually.
George Orwell reminisces that he knew from the age of five or six that he was going to be a writer, though he qualifies this certainty with the recognition that “[b]etween the ages of about seventeen and twenty-four I tried to abandon this idea, but I did so with the consciousness that I was outraging my true nature and that sooner or later I should have to settle down and write books.”
I, likewise, seem to find myself “outraging my true nature” on an almost daily basis as I — consciously or otherwise — scheme to try to keep the siren call of the keyboard at bay. ‘Cuz I’m already busy enough with work. And with family. With trying to keep the house clean, and pay the bills, and plan for this summer’s vacation. Yet the more I try to quash these impulses to compose, the more they coalesce — fester, really — below the surface, gaining ground on me even as I struggle to keep them in check.
It hurts to write — at least to try to write well. It’s a difficult, solitary, alienating process, and not for the faint of heart. But it hurts me more, though in a very different way, not to write. As with the protagonist of the very first short story I wrote for Writers’ Group who simply can’t keep the supple iconography of a once-glimpsed adolescent bathing beauty out of his mid-life noggin, eventually such suppressed agony will always find its way to the light:
“It is this crescendo of images [of the young, scantily-clad teenager] that he fears most. They would come upon him without warning, overpower him and leave him nearly spent, exhausted from trying to keep them at bay, but, as on the very day itself, unable to look away, unable to disentangle himself from the misery that the images would eventually leave draped around him. In the midst of the memory, which he now suffers with alarming regularity, he feels fragile, barely capable of controlling himself. He feels encumbered by some sort of toxic, sexual Tourette’s, anticipating the twitching and sputtering and pornographic language of his obsession that he imagines at any minute must surely come pouring from him like rancid, projectile vomit, leaving him shaking and used up and alone, with nothing left to him but his own strangely muddled desires and humiliation.”
How’s that for a creative call to arms?
It is with a similar, nearly debilitating anxiety, that I continually find myself stringing words together. Not because I want to, you understand, but because — as much as it hurts and as much effort as it requires — it ultimately does me less psychic damage to write than not to write. And yet as true as this may be, even this is only true up to a point. Because that’s what writing is as well — a shifting quicksand of ideas and perspectives where we cling to certainty at our peril.
“Art is a lie that let’s us realize truth,” posits Picasso. And this is certainly as valid for writing as it is for painting. Perhaps even more so where “stories” are concerned. Still, the fact that fiction isn’t “real” has always been something of a sticking point with me as well. What kind of a person freely chooses to spend huge swaths of his limited lifetime in the netherworld of make believe at the expense of his actual human existence? With his literal head — or, more explicitly, perhaps, the imaginative capacity of his mind — stuck up his proverbial arse?
I guess there’s “truth” and then there’s “Truth.” The former is rather more straight-forward than the latter. It’s the brick wall that you walk into when you’re not paying attention to where you’re going. Or the 9-to-5 work you do on a daily basis without really thinking about it. It’s the place where you simply “act” and “re-act” to whatever your life throws at you. A place where “being” is only as valid as the natural laws — physical, chemical, biological — that constrain such a reality.
Creatively, however, as writers we’re after something far more elusive than the simple interplay of physics and chemistry and biology. What we’re after, I would argue, is no less than “Truth” itself. That’s the value the writer brings to the table. What is it to live? To love? To dream? To suffer? To exist as a human being? A real-word response to these questions only gets us so far. On the other hand, what the artist seeks to expose, I believe, is the Platonic ideal that animates the very essence of an issue, the existence-ness of existence that unites us in ways that our mere bodies simply cannot. The once and always, perpetually elusive, physically transcendent, “heart of the matter.”
Why do I write? To lance some some sort of intellectual, creative boil that continues to arise within me unbidden. Ultimately, I suppose, it’s all a mind trick. Everything’s a mind trick. These are not the droids you’re looking for.
Or are they?
(Written on the occasion of my return to my local Writers’ Group earlier this year after an eight month absence.)
Damn you, Michael Apted, for your Seven Up series, the documentary equivalent of the proverbial book that simply can’t be put down until it’s finished. And curse you, Netflix, for being his enabler in this little exercise. I missed a lot of sleep last week.
I was rapt! Seven Up starts in1964 by interviewing 14 or so seven year olds about their lives, their opinions, and their thoughts regarding how they see themselves moving into the future. Then they follow up by re-filming / re-interviewing these same individuals — often asking them exactly the same questions — every seven years until, one presumes, they’re no longer available to be interviewed. The children, quite deliberately for the purposes of the documentary, were drawn from all walks of life: from working-class east-end London, to exclusive public (i.e. private) preparatory schools, to state foster homes, to the Yorkshire dales and the middle-class suburbs of Liverpool.
1964 Britain in black and white, to my untrained eye, doesn’t feel all that different from 1944 (i.e. wartime) Britain, which makes this first instalment (the only one not shot in colour) — and me, who was born only a couple of years later — feel really old. Like it-all-began-in-the-mists-of-history old. Still, the “cast” are like typical seven year olds everywhere. With missing or overlarge front teeth which haven’t quite settled down in their mouths yet, full of nervous energy — though a few are quieter and seem to have a innate sadness about them we can’t help but think will continue to evolve in the many films to come — vying to be heard over each other when interviewed in groups and generally saying whatever comes into their minds with little or no internal filter.
They’re fascinating to listen to and the producers even bring them all together for a day to “rub shoulders” in London where they get to visit the zoo, dance and share refreshments at an indoor party, and burn off some energy at an “adventure playground” (which bears a striking resemblance to a bombed out city lot which has simply yet to have been re-built). As this inaugural film closes, with the children swinging and climbing and playing in the rubble, we are told that we are glimpsing the future of Britain at the turn if the millennium. “Give me a child until he is seven,” the voice over intones, “and I will give you the man.” And in many ways, as the series bears out, this may not be far from the truth.
Indeed, throughout Seven Up we quickly get a clear sense of the foundation the director is trying build with this first offering. We watch, for example, as the three prep school boys inform us what newspapers they enjoy reading and then rhyme off all the remaining private schools it’s anticipated they will be attending prior to moving on to “Oxbridge” for their degrees. The scene then cuts from there to one of the in-care boys looking confusedly into the camera. “What’s university,” he asks, and though such an overt transition feels a little heavy handed, the crux of this experiment is now made manifest: How likely are any of us to ever escape the gravitational reality of the lives into which, quite by chance, we are born?
I first heard about this series last autumn when I caught a short snippet of an interview with Michael Apted about his most recent chapter, 56 Up, on NPR. I was fascinated by the existence of such a “longitudinal study,” as they call it, but I couldn’t help thinking about how the study itself might (must?) actually influence the trajectory of the very lives it was purporting to examine. How must it feel to know that every seven years there was going to be someone in your living room taking stock of how far you’ve come — or not — since the last episode? My mind boggled. The psychological ramifications of being in such a position, in terms of how you ended up living your life, were staggering. An ever-recurring Truman Show, but one where you actually knew people were watching you. Would you be constantly justifying yourself if things didn’t turned out as you had anticipated seven or 14 or 21 years ago? Would you end up working extra hard in your life — harder than you might have otherwise — simply because you felt you had to be successful because “others” were watching? The resultant behaviourally-generated combinations and permutations were endless.
And certainly, as the seven year olds grew further into adulthood, we saw intimations of this reflexive awareness coming through in the interviews. The fact that they knew their lives were being subtly — or maybe not so subtly — influenced by this seven-year cycle. Most couldn’t help but feel it as an intrusion, a time when they had to re-live old pains and issues in a way that the rest of us are lucky enough to be able to sweep it under the rug and forget about if we so desire. One of the participants refers to the whole exercise as a “poison pill” at one point, while another says he feels he actually might have tried harder in his life had he not been on the show because he was always afraid to take risks in case he failed at the things he wanted to try and was thus left with this failure exposed to the viewing public every time he had to go back on camera. Still, nearly all of the original participants have stuck with it for more than 50 years — and we should be hugely grateful for their sacrifice because this is a show that can help to teach us about understanding the trajectories of our own lives in amazing ways.
Like most “writer types” I’m probably far too introspective for my own good. I’m all about the narrative. And the most important narrative for anybody is, of course, their own life. That’s the story that really matters to us, The Most Amazing Show on Earth! But most of our sense of personal narrative seems based on post-rationalizations of one sort or another. Ultimately, our lives only make sense in retrospect (i.e. looking back over our shoulders), and we often draw causal-type associations — that may or may not actually be valid — to demonstrate that things have obviously unfolded in the only way they possibly ever could have given our circumstances. What a rich voyeuristic opportunity it is, then, to sit in safety and watch others struggle to uncover these same relationships for themselves every seven years. It certainly appears that we’re all — rich or poor, young or old, black, brown or white — just trying to make sense of this whole “life thing”, from moment to moment, year to year, as we move through it. And to finally, as E.M. Forester has suggested, “Only connect.”
This is true “Realty TV”. Give it a watch. And let me know what you think.
For anyone out there who either doesn’t have a military background, or isn’t over 40, the above-noted string of dots and dashes is Morse Code for “SOS”. For the purposes of this blog, however, this is not a reference to the traditional “Save Our Souls” distress call — at least not directly. Today, at The Gooseyard, it refers, instead, to “Shiny Object Syndrome,” a recent variation of the acronym I stumbled upon the other day that finally assigns a pithy mnemonic to my super hero-like ability to start about 87 new projects in the run of day, but seldom to finish a single one of them.
Last night’s foray into SOS territory was in pursuit of the new on-line writing game, Storium. The game’s in beta testing so I figured I’d drop by their site for few minutes, check out what was being written and how it worked, and maybe quickly submit a character of my own to one of the emerging stories. Four hours later I pulled my sorry, end-of-the-week carcass away from the computer and off to bed, having spent the entire evening not only creating and submitting a richly-developed, emotionally-conflicted Ranger-like character, christened Alswulff Glenn, for a “fantasy-type” story that was just getting underway, but also having set myself up as the narrator for my own “Occult Pulp Horror” themed tale which I’ve entitled Arcanus Rising. (Hey, don’t give me that look — the genres are pretty much pre-set and at least I had enough self control to not start developing my own unique story-line(s) from scratch! Give me some credit.)
Yep, just what I need (NOT!) — two more writing projects to work on! And, since those of us with chronic (terminal?) SOS like to spread our contagion like wildfire throughout the community, I figured I’d better invite one of my pals along to Storium to give me a hand. I mean, sure, he’s trying to get that YA book of his tweaked and edited for release this fall, but he’s still probably in need of a little shiny, writerly distraction as well, right? (Sorry Tom.)
And thus expired my Friday night, which should have been spent working on the weekly laundry, prepping for my writing group meeting today (sorry Jim), and fleshing out a couple of outlines for this week’s blogs. Yeah, blogs — plural. ‘Cause, hell, two blogs are shinier than one, right? And I really wanted to try out that new “Coco” theme from WordPress…. And why not hitch that second blog to yet another new project — Project One for the Win, where I slowly turn my modest country bungalow from a cluttered family home into a clean-lined, minimalist Nirvana. ‘Cause, hey, a guy needs projects, right? Right? Are we beginning to see a pattern emerge here?
My life— AKA my addiction to the “new”, to anything other than what I happen to be stuck doing at the moment — often reminds me of one of those old Family Circus cartoons. You know, where Billy or PJ, or whoever the hell the young son was, is sent to the kitchen to fetch the scissors for his mother and then we watch that thick dashed line trace his progress on this quest over the course of the cartoon. Starting from the hallway, just before making it to the kitchen, where he gets distracted by a butterfly and climbs out an open window to follow it into the yard. Then, while he’s chasing the butterfly around outside, he sees a low-slung sports car drive by that he decides is exactly the car he wants to own when he grows up, so back inside he goes, down to the family computer station in the basement, to research his coveted future vehicle.
While on-line reviewing car payment schedules he finds himself suddenly re-directed to a mortgage amortization web site and decides he can probably now negotiate a better rate on his own mortgage given the recent dip in rates. And, considering just how low the rates actually are, maybe he’d be better off doing those kitchen renovations he’s been promising his wife this year, rather than delaying it any longer. But if he’s going to do the renovations, he should probably download some nice shiny new 3D kitchen design software to get him started. Which means he should probably back-up his computer first, but his old external hard drive is full so he probably needs a new one, and Future Shop is having a sale, and I should pick up Thief for Xbox while I’m there, and where did I put my car keys?
“Where’re the goddamned scissors I asked for,” screams
your wife PJ’s mother from the top of the basement stairs….
Ahoy! The SS Gooseyard is going down! dot-dot-dot dash-dash-dash dot-dot-dot….