Saturday, October 27, 2012

Book vs Film: A Christmas Carol

I've seen at least one film version of A Christmas Carol every year since birth, but it's taken me 32 years to read the story for myself. In so doing, discovered things. That's what happens when you read most any book after watching a movie based on the story, because words on the page can hold much more than images on the screen, for better or worse. Some of the following scenes and lines are probably in adaptations I've not seen, while others simply don't translate from the page.

(Note: Most anyone who's read the story has probably already thought of everything I'm about to say. These aren't meant to come across as new discoveries. They're regular old discoveries anyone might find by opening the book.)

1.) I've heard the words A Christmas Carol strung together so often, I never questioned their significance as a title. A quick googling tells me everyone knows a carol is a joyful song, particularly a Christmasy one, so on a basic level, the title is about Scrooge's life becoming something to sing about. The following scene, as it happens and when it happens, is critical to the title being what it is, because first epiphanies are hugely important (a tiny crack and the integrity of the entire structure is threatened). Scrooge has just started his journey to the past and has been crying at the sight of his pitiful, lonely boyhood self, when he says this:

"I wish," Scrooge muttered, putting his hand in his pocket, and looking about him, after drying his eyes with his cuff: "but it's too late now."
"What is the matter?" asked the Spirit.
"Nothing," said Scrooge. "Nothing. There was a boy singing a Christmas Carol at my door last night. I should like to have given him something; that's all."

The reason this matters is because it's the first time Scrooge regrets one of the actions of his current self, and it's very early in the process of the hauntings. This tells me he wasn't terribly far from hope after all, which continues to be evident throughout (in fact, a bit more resistance would have been more consistent with the character setup). It also tells me he's not yet regretting being an ass to the rest of the people he saw before the haunting (regrets for them will come as the story goes on, encouraging the theory of the whole thing being an Oz-like, drunken dream).
 Scrooge's first big let down in life was childhood loneliness and neglect. Both experiences make one learn to cope without the help of others. So it's no surprise when a personal connection to another lone creature is the first crack in the ice of his personality. In fact, the only time the words 'Christmas' and 'carol' are used together in the story are in reference to this boy. So as far as title significance goes, this scene is revealing. It's the first major chord in a long string of minors.

2.) Another thing is the narrator's voice, which makes me love my favorite adaptation, The Muppet Christmas Carol, even more for having Gonzo narrate as Dickens. The introduction (by Katharine Wiley) in the front of my copy says this tale is one in a long line of Christmasy ghost stories, a tradition in Dickens' day. Like any good ghost story, it's perfect for telling aloud. I'm guessing that's why Dickens made the narrator's voice like a live storyteller. Third person point of view implies a storyteller tone, but the live storyteller feel comes in when the narrator gets personally involved, in a first person kind of way. Most striking is this instance, where the narrator not only acts as storyteller, but plays with the ghostly theme as well:

"The curtains of his bed were drawn aside; and Scrooge, starting up into a half-recumbent attitude, found himself face to face with the unearthly visitor who drew them: as close to it as I am now to you, and I am standing in the spirit at your elbow."

3.) I'd forgotten Scrooge saw his ex with the family she ended up with. The fantastic thing about this scene is the layering; Scrooge not only sees the past, but what his future might have been. He sees how the past affected the present, and therefore how the present affects the future. In a scene requiring the spirit to physically hold Scrooge to make him watch, Scrooge sees his lost love with her kids and husband. He doesn't really cry about the loss of her, or isn't said to be crying for her. What hits him hardest is the loss of a chance at fatherhood.

"And now Scrooge looked on more attentively than ever, when the master of the house, having his daughter leaning fondly on him, sat down with her and her mother at his own fireside; and when he thought that such another creature, quite as graceful and as full of promise, might have called him father, and been a spring-time in the haggard winter of his life, his sight grew very dim indeed."

Another curious detail is the ex's response to something her husband says, then Scrooge's response to both of them:

"I saw an old friend of yours this afternoon."
"Who was it?"
"How can I? Tut, don't I know," she added, in the same breath, laughing as he laughed. "Mr. Scrooge."
"Mr. Scrooge it was. I passed his office-window; and as it was not shut up, and he had a candle inside, I could scarcely help seeing him. His partner lies upon the point of death, I hear; and there he sat alone. Quite alone in the world, I do believe."

It's bad enough to have lost the girl, lost the family, lost the comfort that companionship might have brought him in old age. But to see the two of them aware and discussing the little bit he did have (self, pride, livelihood and position) was too much. Now Scrooge was seeing his past, what his future could have been, and what his present was, which wasn't much. Scrooge becomes so upset, he attempts to put the candle-like ghost out with the candle-snuffer hat it's carrying.

It's a beautifully subtle and suggestive scene between man and wife. Why, after all those years, is her husband looking in on Scrooge (and making sure to note he couldn't help seeing him for the candle)? Why is he even a part of their conversation, their lives? Sure, she laughs along, but laughter comes in many forms. If you've ever been in love, even with a shortsighted idiot, you know there's always something remaining, or at least a little piece forever gone. Think about it: when she dumped Scrooge, she was "in a mourning-dress." A mourning-dress! She was grieving as if the man had died. This wasn't a quick facebook relationship status change. It was a broken heart, a severed contract, and in her mind, a death to be mourned.

4.) When Scrooge is haunting his nephew's Christmas party, his nephew's wife starts playing a song on the harp. Scrooge connects the song to the sister he was so fond of. Then there's this:

"When this strain of music sounded, all the things [the Ghost of Christmas Past] had shown him came upon his mind; he softened more and more; and thought that if he could have listened to it often, years ago, he might have cultivated the kindnesses of life for his own happiness with his own hands, without resorting to the sexton's spade that buried Jacob Marley."

There's a lot in the passage about what could have happened to change the course of things and stuff about his profession and probably something about why the title is the title. What never occurred to me while watching the movies was that at this point in his transformation, Scrooge was making a connection as deep as this, and by way of music. Still applying a strong logic (alongside his emotions), he begins to reshape his ideas of worth in response to "a mere nothing: you might learn to whistle it in two minutes," a nothing mixed with perspectives on life and love and what matters. It's a beautiful moment. It shows him evolving from self-pity and the beginnings of empathy to an appreciation of existential worth and beauty which will, in the end, take the vital step further into action and atonement, both made urgent in light of time (or the lack thereof).

5.) "The kind hand trembled."

Scrooge has just walked through the future like an idiot, not realizing the whole time he's hearing/seeing the world's response to him dying. (A bit contrived, but who am I to question Dickens.) The line above comes from the graveyard scene at the end when Scrooge has finally realized he's the dead one. The whole time the narrator has been describing the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come as the embodiment of cold reality. Yet here, as the haunting is about to come to an end, instead of seeming to actually be the Ghost of Cold Dark and Unavoidable Death and Torment, the shrouded spirit is revealed to be Just One Dark Possibility. The thing to note is that what you can't see in a film is whether or not the hand is kind. You can see it shake, give, begin to disappear. But you can't know it's kind. It's one word in the text, a single detail, and it carries all sorts of wonderful implications. Maybe it's just part of a drunken dream crumbling away into a bed post. Maybe it's part of what happens when a possibly dark future (or dark man) transforms into a possibly bright one. Or maybe there is some little kindness even in a dark Death that carries a dark soul to a dark, lonely grave.

6.) There's got to be more irony and wordplay in the story than I'm picking up on, but the last line of the last paragraph didn't get past me. In fact, it almost convinces me that Scrooge did more than just eat at the tavern before going home to such a strange night of nights, on the anniversary of his partner's death, to sleep in his dead partner's chambers...

"He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards..."


Sunday, October 14, 2012

Writing Retreat: Day - The Last

This is the most I've written in a long time. A story that had a little over one chapter when I arrived has six as I pack to leave. I can't describe how glad I am to be working on something new and something I'm interested in again. For that reason, I'm declaring this writing retreat a massive success.

But not only were there all those brand new lines and paragraphs and chapters today. There were wooly worms too.

They came out with the sun. And so did Cat and Mouse. Mouse lives in a really posh house (rock wall with lots of holes for entryways and tons of hallways for putting tiny mouse furniture and hanging miniature paintings), which he apparently likes to run in and out of to torture Cat.

Then there was more delicious food, and I know you're probably wondering why I always mention it, but until you come to a Highlights thing, you won't understand what a major part of the day food is. First off, it's yummy. Second, the table's where the socializing happens. And third, the chefs are fantastic and funny and nice. And they like their food healthy and pretty and catered to any diet. I appreciate the attention and the aesthetics.

But the very best part of the day was after dinner when we all sat around the table discussing the stuff we've been hard at work on holed up in our little cabins, on our computers, away from the world. It was great to get feedback, to hear their struggles, to give encouragement. It's so easy to feel isolated during the writing process, but the tiniest bit of encouragement, for me at least, can go a long way.

Tomorrow afternoon, I'm on a plane and back to the real world. I think I've got a start on something good. And we've certainly begun what I hope will be lasting friendships. Here's to meeting somewhere down the road and to all of our projects. May they be seen by the right people, bought by the right houses, and read by -- Everyone!

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Writing Retreat: Day 2

What a nice day. I got into my writing zone! Woke early, had breakfast, and immediately started on a fantasy piece I've put little time into before now. I almost never write fantasy, which means when I do write it, it's fresh and interesting for me. Plus, I got that rare, amazing feeling that comes with knowing I'm creating something I like a lot. Instead of being realistic and heavy like the piece I've worked on for the last several years, this was new worlds, new realities, and new rules. Fun. So fun in fact, I got 3,784 words written! Very proud of myself.

Besides writing, I ate lots more good food (I'm talking pumpkin spinach soup, mashed sweet potatoes, baked tilapia with some magical homemade creamy lemony dipping sauce), met a garter snake warming itself in the sun, played with the rocks in the word garden, took a nap, and had the nicest talk with a new friend (the kind of conversation that makes you surprised so much time has gone by once it's over).

A good day. A great day. Most definitely.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Writing Retreat: Day 1

Here I sit on a bed in a cabin in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, bundled under two blankets with the heat on. The weather was changeable today. First dark and chilly, then windy and sunny, then stormy and dangerous, then windy and sunny again, and now just plain cold.

Four old stories of mine had my writing attention for the afternoon. If I keep switching between them, I'll have plenty to occupy me for the next few days. Maybe by Monday one will have won out and will get the attention it needs once I'm home.

My cabin is (now here's a word I never use) darling (it really is though). It's small and rustic, with just the necessities, in a soft, simple country decor. There are two beds, but I haven't got a roommate. There's a small bathroom. And there's a writing desk and some odd furniture. Very comfortable but much too quiet for writing. When I first arrived, I sat on my bed with pen and paper (I suppose the rusticity inspired me to be old-fashioned) and tried to write. Soon, I fell asleep. I'd gotten up early and I simply couldn't think what to say (curse of the blank page).

When I woke up and went to The Barn (the main location for conference activities) for lunch, I realized the problem. I needed noise. Not lots of noise, just a little. I needed to know there were humans around doing things. I needed to feel I was in the world, not hidden away. So, lesson learned and well worth taking home. Tomorrow, I'll do my writing in The Barn, as I did today, at this desk with a view of the woods and the sounds of people coming and going.

By late afternoon, the sun beckoned in spite of the cold. I quit writing, bundled up, and went for a walk around the grounds and down the trail behind the cabins. Lots of trees have already lost their leaves while many remain green. It's not the brilliant autumn scene I was hoping for. It's beautiful though. And I walked far enough to get that pleasant sensation of needing to take one's hood off to cool down.

I also found a nice surprise while exploring. A word garden! Fantastic. Must create something tomorrow when my fingers aren't so numb.

Soon after that was dinner and chatting with a group of lovely women who are seriously committed to their writing, some published some not, all intimately aware of the struggles and rewards of making a story. So it's good. It's a nice place to be for the next few days. And though it'd be wonderful to finish a draft, I'm not setting goals. It just feels good to be here, good to be writing, good to be cold. There are nice people around. There's delicious food. And the falling leaves make it all the nicer. Can't ask for more than that.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Writing adages I've misinterpreted

Writing has been my thing for the last five years. I like it so much I got a degree, started going to conferences, started writing lots of stories and blogs, and started teaching other people to write. But I recently hit such a formidable block, I almost gave up on writing. That's what having a narrow point of view gets you. It makes a block look like a wall, when all a block actually is, is a step.

The obstacle forced a re-evaluation of most everything I've come to believe about my skills and goals. It forced me to deconstruct my personal writing doctrine, to rethink the popular writing adages I've made a part of my writerly belief system, to step back and take a long look at what I'd built. I do that--I gather neat rules together to give myself a nice firm place to stand, only to find out later that rules are sort of silly when it comes to creation.

1. Write at least a little every day. This is a common writing rule that misses the point. Let's say I bake a cake every day, but it always goes flat, tastes like poop, and gets hard before it's cool. Now let's say you bake a cake every day too, but it's a beautiful cheesecake with strawberries layered in the middle and blueberries prettily placed on top and fancy chocolate drizzle designs around the platter. I'm an awful cook and you're a one-trick pony. But we're similar. In both cases, we're stagnant. We've learned nothing from our mistakes or strengths and added nothing to our knowledge bases. Writing every day isn't getting us anywhere. But practicing every day will. Recognizing something doesn't work, figuring out why, and fixing it will. Reading exceptional literature will. Living life, meeting people, loving people, leaving people, seeing sandstorms, hearing rainfall, smelling turned earth, feeling a warm hand in yours for a brief moment you'll never get back--doing those things will.

2. Write what you know. I heard this early on and assumed it meant that to write well, I'd need to write about my own experiences and the places and people I knew. Firstly, it annoys people when you write about them, especially people who are still living. Secondly, there's tons of stuff I don't know, but that doesn't mean I can't learn it. There are infinite places that don't exist. Doesn't mean I can't imagine them into existence. There are countless feelings I've never felt. That doesn't mean I can't daydream my way into a situation, learn how others have felt in the same situation, and go on to write in such depths you'd think the story was my own. Did Lewis really ride a lion? Did Barrie actually fly to Neverland? Did Rowling ever catch the snitch? No. But did Lewis ever seek a savior? Did Barrie ever wish for escape? Did Rowling ever want to be the hero? Oh, yes. Haven't we all? Don't write what you know. Live, learn, imagine, and feel; make what you know; then write about that.

3. Write what you like to read. This has been the most harmful for me and the hardest to overcome. It leads to doubt, discouragement, and giving up. The fact is, I can't just write anything, at least not for long. I can try anything, sure. But I can't sustain what doesn't fit my talents or passions. Most writers have a niche or two. They're good at writing certain kinds of things, sometimes over a broad area. Rarely is someone good at everything. I've tried, for instance, to write critical articles on children's literature. Unfortunately, though I teach people to write critical essays, I simply suck at doing them myself. I'm not being modest. I'm not being lazy. I really and truly suck. I can correct and advise essays all day long. But writing critical articles for journals on the academic scale I'm talking about--it's just not happening. Any idea how long I've beaten myself up about this? Too long.

(It's possible you expected point 3 to be about trying to write just like someone, in their voice I mean. That's fan fiction and can be lots of fun (I assume). It can also be like when you're in the car with a friend or family member, and your favorite song comes on the radio, and that friend starts singing along, genuinely trying to sound exactly like the artist even though she doesn't have an Irish accent at all, and she ruins your song, and you find yourself thinking, I could easily drive off the road and end this.)

4. Good writers are naturally good storytellers. Not true. Simply not true. The ability to write well and the ability to tell a story well are not the same skills and aren't cultivated in the same way. I'd love to tell you what good storytelling is and how it's learned. Unfortunately I have no idea. Good writing, on the other hand, I can say a few things about. Good writing has no extraneous words, no extraneous points. Every word, every thought is on purpose. Good drama and poetry and prose accomplish what they set out to accomplish, whether it's describing the fall of a leaf or recounting the fall of man. One piece of good writing looks different from another. And good writing may be different to you than it is to me. (Note: Being a snob about popular fiction just makes you look like a jerk, even if that popular fiction is essentially poop cake. Some people love that kind of crap.) The point is, just because I can write a good sentence doesn't mean I can write a good story. But just because I can't write a good story doesn't mean I can't write a good something.


"If you expect to succeed as a writer, rudeness should be the second-to-least of your concerns. The least of all should be polite society and what it expects. If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway." Stephen King

Monday, October 8, 2012

Autumnal writerly getaway

Adjunct teaching takes up about 20-25 hours of my week. That includes lecturing, grading, preparing for class, and tutoring. It's great. Teaching is challenging enough, rewarding, and always changing--three things that keep me motivated. And now that I'm not brand new, I feel reasonably confident doing my job. So it's good.

But that leaves lots of empty hours in the week, and this little bird needs a bit more space to fly. So I'm setting off on an adventure, or perhaps many mini adventures. First stop: the Highlights Foundation Unworkshop, Unguided, Nonevent. Highlights is known by most for its children's magazines, but they also run highly regarded children's literature writing and illustrating workshops. This year, between the regularly planned workshops, they're letting writers and illustrators use the campus as a creative getaway. With no formal plans, we're left to focus on creating, without having to cook or run errands or clean house or feed the dog or do anything. My Unworkshop retreat begins Friday and ends Monday. The goals: experience the fall time Pennsylvania mountains, give my creative writing some much needed attention, and meet others who are doing the same. I'll be blogging each day, if wifi permits, so pictures and hopefully an insight or two to come.


"Why this craving for change? Why not stay on quietly here, like us, and be jolly? You don't know this hotel out of the season, and what fun we have among ourselves, we fellows who remain and see the whole interesting year out. All very true, no doubt, the others always reply; we quite envy you—and some other year perhaps—but just now we have engagements—and there's the bus at the door—our time is up!" ~ Kenneth Grahame in The Wind in the Willows