Author Archives: blair

drawing it in

I am learning to draw, and I suck.

Three weeks ago I marched myself into the art store around the corner from my office and purchased my stuff: big sketchbook. Three pencils. One eraser. One sharpener. Then I marched myself home and spent an hour squinting at myself in the mirror and drew a self-portrait.

tumblr_n23edsJCIB1stotsto1_1280

I woke up like this.

Well. All the trusty muscles in your fingers and hands can be so amazingly goddamn slow when you haven’t used them to do the thing that you’re doing. I perch on my couch after work with whiskey and my sketchbook on my knees and drag the pencil back and forth in an attempt to render whatever’s handy: usually a literal hand, sometimes a foot, once, a grapefruit. They come out okay.

tumblr_n26vcu32r51stotsto1_1280

Drawing is loaded. I’m the daughter of and sister to two very talented illustrators. But I want to learn, including the part where I suck a lot, for a very simple and self-indulgent reason: I want to draw my characters.

Continue reading

nomenclature

Few things in this world are perfect, but my name is one of them.

It’s not an easy name. I’m constantly repeating it and spelling it out (Bee-Ell-Ay-Eye-Are, no E). Nine out of ten introductions, the script goes “‘I’m Blair.’ ‘Nice to meet you, Claire.’ ‘Actually, it’s Blair. With a B.” But I could never have been anything but a Blair (though my boyfriend’s father affectionately affords me the dignity of a definite article—I am THE Blair, for there shall be no others!) Being known by any other name may have had no effect on my relative olfactory sweetness, but I, me, could not have been called anything but this: five letters, two vowels, one syllable. When I was a kid and learning to type, I put a p at the end, I presume for decoration—Blairp, why not?—but beyond that, I have never wanted another label, appellation, nickname, or tag.

tumblr_lb78vt6dpl1qduchi

If you know me or follow me on Twitter (aren’t those just the same these days?! Har har har! #millenials), you will see that I keep an OHSA-style countdown of how many days since some well-meaning writer has proposed a book to “Mr. Blair Thornburgh.” I take more amusement than offense at the mistake—it’s my canary-in-the-coal-mine, no-brown-M&Ms litmus test for writers doing their due diligence (because a glaring inaccuracy in a query letter speaks poorly of their abilities to, I don’t know, write). I’m not trying to make fun of anyone, and I’m not trying to be unfair, either. My name—insofar as it’s mine—is weird. I get that. Facts of Life and Gossip Girl notwithstanding, male Blairs do outnumber we ladyBlairs 3-to-1. I know because I was named for one.

It’s not entirely accurate to say that Blair McKillip, Jr. was my grandfather, because he and I never were at the same time. What he was was my mother’s father, a brilliant lawyer, a cutting wit, a deer hunter, and a deeply, tragically troubled person. He left behind a wife and three children—including 11-year-old Becky, who would one day become my mother—and a raw hole in their lives I’d never thought I could imagine.

#

I know the exact moment that I graduated from being merely Blair. I was just out of college, working at a newspaper, wobbling home on the J train in heels every night to sleep on a sublet mattress. New York was an expensive place to be lonely and I was doing okay.

A story came in: a man had drowned. The more details that filtered in, the worse it got. A pediatric surgeon, Chinese-American but a Jewish convert for his wife, three kids, swimming out into Lake Michigan to save another who wasn’t his, by all accounts an impossibly kind human being. The worst kind of person to die, in other words. He worked—had worked—at the hospital attached to my alma mater, and so I was tasked with dredging up details. I hated it. Regular, benign interviews about banal things like foie gras and 501(c)(3) documents already sent me to the bathroom to shake and breathe deeply, and this was infinitely worse. Phone calls went unanswered—obviously. I squirmed with every redial, bothering people at the absolute last time people want to be bothered.

And then, one morning, my inbox pinged: his daughter. Her GMail icon was something bright yellow and happy—a bee, a sun, I don’t remember—and her message was an essay, a beautiful and intelligent remembrance of her father, her hero. She was thirteen years old.

The paper picked it up immediately. We published it in the next print edition with photos from her Bat Mitzvah—big paternal hands on resting newly adult shoulders, a smile more joyful than any I have ever seen. I mailed her family five copies of the paper and sent her an email to say thank you for sharing.

“Ms. Thornburgh,” her reply began, “Thank you so much for this opportunity. It has always been my dream to be a published writer.”

That evening, I made it across the bridge into Brooklyn before I started crying. Because somewhere I was still Blair, age thirteen, wanting desperately to be a writer; somewhere else another girl had gotten that same wish in the most fucked-up way possible. Here I was now, Ms. Thornburgh, a few bylines under my belt, big city girl. Ms. Thornburgh kicking off stupid high heels that never fit, denting the wall beneath someone else’s posters, and crying ugly sobs. Ms. Thornburgh, pressing her phone to her face—Rebecca Thornburgh on the glassy surface, the minutes ticking up and up with nothing but gasps—begging “Please tell me this girl is going to be okay. Please tell me she’ll be okay” and not even needing to hear anything back because the very fact that she is, and that she is Blair’s daughter, and that she is my mom, and that I am Blair mean yes. Yes, because we name things that they might not die. Yes, some things remain.

#

I did not know Blair McKillip. But when I say I have nothing of him but his name, I do not say it lightly. That name is everything to me and everything that is me. Humans are creatures of words, and names are the most proper and holy of those. This name is conscripted to me for common and sacred use, transfiguring from a barcode I bubbled in to the SATs to a sticky square on the front of my sweater to whatever—if any—essential quality there is to the flesh-and-blood being who types this stuff. B-L-A-I-R, past and present. And one day, it will be everything there is of me.

Last weekend I went to a beautiful wedding—this is not redundant; not all weddings are beautiful—and I cried six times. The last time wasn’t even at the ceremony; I was just looking at the wedding-day pictures of parents and grandparents set up at the reception and quietly weeping into my placecard. I realized that getting married is basically telling someone “If the only thing that survives about me for time immemorial is my name stuck to yours with a little equals sign in the front of the family Bible, that is okay with me. That is what I actively choose.” Everything else of you will fall away until you are a nothing but nodule in a string of who-begat-whom, a line of letters, a name.

If there is any magic in the world, it is in words, because they are what conjures for us things that are not there. And if for humankind there is life eternal, it is in and of and through our names.

So. It’s Blair, girl Blair, with a B. Nice to meet you.

passionista

Not to brag, but I am really good at having my feelings hurt. In this particular case, I don’t remember what sparked it, but here’s how it has gone down in the past: I mention something I like—anything from puréed soups to the city of Montreal to a particularly lovely section of Bach’s “Wachet auf” cantata—and my conversation partner responds with a resounding “meh.”

Sticks and stones may break my bones, and words will never hurt me. Personal attacks? I can shrug off. Criticisms of my work? I can evaluate intelligently (and sometimes, I agree). But a that’s-so-boring dismissal of something I like? Then I’m all shimmering eyes and clenched jaw and sinking heart. And GChats to my friends, peppered with teenage emphatic consonant reduplication (“whyyyyyy,” “ughhhhh”) and demanding reassurance. Asking “when will I stop taking it personally when people dislike things I care about?”

Answers ranged from “awww” to “hahahah never.” Not the most positive prognosis.

If you love something, let it go, even if that thing is the organ that pumps blood through your body

If you love something, let it go, even if that thing is the organ that pumps blood through your body

I love a lot of things. Strange things, singular things, things with no competitive opposite to spur me into a zealous defense (Star Trek. No, Star Wars! Quit liking things I don’t like!). The things I love I love with such depth and yet such fragility that a chilly reaction on the part of my peers makes my chest ache. When eyes glaze in the face of the elegance and force of “O terque quaterque beati,” I deflate. When my boyfriend rolled his eyes at my favorite cover version of “Where is my Mind,”  I smacked the stupid car radio in my Volvo and cried for the rest of the long miles of Ohio.

See? Dumb things. Small things. Not things that normally engender steely differences of opinion and resultant emotional responses. Just trifles that come as treasures from my mind, My chouchous are personal and strange, and instead of building them up in the sights of those opposed, I just let myself crumble: this person is unmoved and bored; I am not. I am boring. I am wrong.

But, Phil-Collins-style, I can’t stop loving stuff. Stuff is so neat! Epic poems, graying tapestries, sweet potato fries, peculiar turns of phrase, really good cups of coffee, Thomas Tallis’s Spem in Alium, slang and junk and brussel sprouts with bacon. Knicknacks, kickshaws. Moments of magic in the late night and early morning. I want to pluck every charming chunk of creation and put it in my self, like a reverse horcrux, a jingling curio cabinet I carry in my heart (I carry it in my heart). So when these things bore others—or worse, merit no attention at all—it hurts.

After I asked the first question, I moved on to a second. What is it about passion that makes it so painful? And after I asked the second question, I was all, hahaha, doy. I’m the Worst Medievalist Ever! Answer: everything.

Passion—it comes from patior, pati, passus sum; I suffer. Yes, Latin! Roll your eyes all you want, but as far as unlocking long-hidden arcane power goes, etymology is the closest thing we have to runic inscription. Roots are radical*! And beyond that, this particular truth is strengthened by one of Western thought’s most insidiously fundamental ideas—no, not Jesus, but good guess. Fin’amor! Courtly love! You know, love is pain? You don’t even have to go all the way back to the twelfth century for that one; just listen to practically any pop song.

So passion is suffering, but to suffer is really just to experience (verb, trans. “Experience or be subjected to.”) Think of it this way: in Latin, the word altus can mean both “deep” and “high.” Passion’s the same: it cuts both ways. Profound all around. And if pain is part and parcel to being passionate, then suffer it unto me. I’d rather get bent out of shape when people roll their eyes at this beautiful expression of nostalgic futility (do they not GET how hard those Newfoundlanders had to struggle for their cod?!) than just smile dopily along to some Dave Matthews song. Passion, but not passivity. Ughhhh with the yayyyyyy.

*obnoxious tautology alert

the importance of being earnest

Once, I got subtweeted. Or I think I did; the thing about subtweeting is that You Never Know (also, it doesn’t stand for “subtle tweet,” as I initially believed. Nor does #nofilter mean that a post is real-talk honest). I had just fired off some cheery ~140 character missive about how trying to get people to like my novel is like begging strangers to love my imaginary friends—which, okay, not the smartest thing I’ve ever said, but it’s the internet—and then, a few tweets later, an online acquaintance (“Follows You”) quipped something about—and I’m paraphrasing—how painfully earnest some people can be.

Twitter is weird. My own digital nativity notwithstanding, I don’t quite get what it’s for (whence my tweets of John Dowland lyrics, jokes about paleography, and the inexplicable #seachantyoftheday). If it’s supposed to be my platform, I don’t do enough self-promo (as in “UM HELLO MY BOOK IS ON AMAZON“), and if it’s supposed to be for friends only, well, I can’t shut that gate once the Twitter cows have gone. I follow a hodgepodge of actual IRL friends, nifty news sources and blogs (hello, @Medievalists!), and writereditoragents who seem like they’re up to cool things.

Which: earnestness. Am I earnest? Sure. I really love writing. I like my job a whole hell of a lot, too. And I love what I write, which is where it gets weird. Some stuff I write ends up on blogs that are so super-cool that they would probably never use a compound adjective as dorky as “super-cool.” Sometimes I’m canny and ironic and au courant with zeitgeisty satire. But the larger portion of what I write—by an order of magnitude, wordcount-wise—is earnest. Imaginary friends, playing in a Scrivener jungle gym and getting up to adolescent hijinx. I love it! I love doing it! I want to share it and make it happen so much that I will do even dorkier things like go to bed early, not live in Brooklyn, and just generally enthuse. It may be hip to be agnostic, but I’m a believer. I always have been.

Okay, so, quo vadis with all this, Thornburgh? Just some hope, since hope goes hand-in-glove with earnestness: I hope other people are equally afflicted. I hope Huey Lewis was right. Because when people believe in stuff, I lend them so much credence I don’t care if I ever get it back. I’m subtweeting the whole world! Please keep on caring, because I care about people who do care. #nofilter #earnest

à la recherche

We need to talk about the Renaissance.

Or, okay, I need to talk about the Renaissance. I’m having some confusing feelings. If you’re anything like my dear roommate, whom I will very kindly tell you dated Chaucer to “at least a hundred years ago,” you might not get why a Medieval Studies lady wouldn’t like Shakespeare, but the fact is that that the 400 years that separate my period of expertise from the Renaissance is roughly the same amount of time from the construction of the Globe to 2013. They are Different Eras.

But! I think I’ve finally shrugged off the Medievalist chip on my shoulder about anything post-Columbian and, well, it’s not so terrible. I still won’t go so far to say my thinking has been reborn (because, seriously, Renaissance? That’s just propagandistic. The term implies that all the important scholarly work fueled by Charlemagne and his contemporaries was just a looooong, dark, gestational period of the soul. To call the post-Medieval era a “rebirth” implies that Alfred the Great was NOT SO GREAT AFTER ALL, and I just cannot cotton to that).

However—as any Canterbury-bound Nun will tell you—Amor vincit omnia, and I have gone all weak-kneed and swoony for Elizabethan England. Love is strong as death, especially when a centerpiece of said love is death (Plague outbreaks! They are fascinating) There is beautiful, heavy-looking clothing, and religious unrest, and deep inquiries into what it means to be possessed of a human psyche. There are plays and poems and songs and dances. And it’s all so sexy. Seriously, I don’t think there could be another word for it (well, sensual would do in a pinch, but real talk: sexy just sounds sexier). All those John Donne poems and close-clutching gaillards and codpieces and farthingales are just bursting at the seams—mostly metaphorically—with a peculiar human ache. It’s enough to make you want to go all “PLAY A VOLTA!”

I can see you now, and you’re all like, okay, way to go, girl-who-finally-got-around-to-appreciating-a-significant-portion-of-English-history, but what does burgeoning humanism have to do with YA novels? OMG—or as Ye Old Teenz would say, God’s wounds. Everything.

The Renaissance was an adolescent age. Everything was new, possible, exciting, and strange*. For the first time, like Copernicus’s Earth-and-Sun switcheroo, people entertained the idea that man might make God, and not vice versa. And speaking of entertaining…there is the theater.

It was an art form without precedent. Greek tragedy and medieval mystery plays aside, the synthesis of the Latin-learned philosophy of the University Wits and the rustic comedy of tumbling and jigs brought forth something new, peculiar, and…still strange. O My America! Behold a wonder heere! The sentiment echoed across artistic media, but I have to suspect—and I do have to, because now I’m writing a novel about it—that when these young men got onstage and “not described, declaimed, or didactically evaluted, but rather dramatically recreated” the human thought process, the lines that they spoke were the best form of this new self-awareness. The thrilling adrenaline of being onstage for the first time echoes in every line of iambic pentameter, “the most natural verse rhythm there is, corresponding both to natural speech and to our heartbeat…” I mean, that’s it, isn’t it? That’s what art should do: magnify.

Swooning aside, and down to hard facts. I’m writing a book about young actors on the cusp. It’s the best. There are vulgar jokes (the wordplay! Ughhhh all the wonderful chances for wordplay!) and allusions to Ovid and hotblooded men in shirtsleeves. There are Lost Plays and Early English Playbooks and inns, playhouses, and guildhalls. There are morris jigs and Squeaking Cleopatras and bits with dogs. It’s really exciting and I’m really excited about it, partially for the long-lost joys of scouring articles, getting to know scholars by name, and making endless interlibrary loan requests, and partially for writing all the kissing scenes.

A thing that I learned: at the end of all Elizabethan plays, the company would come out again (or rise up from the floor, if they were dead), and dance a jig together. Since that is obviously THE BEST, I’ll leave you with this:

*Especially, ahem, these guys, AKA my bro-tagonists.

the road re-taken

Last Friday, for the first time in five years, I took the 23 bus. Ten minutes, a handful of stops, a shortcut from gym to home. Or new home, I guess.

5b32b170148e11e3b4b422000a1f903d_7

I’d always hoped I would get to live in Philadelphia as an adult. I’m not an Eagles fan and I can’t remember the last time I ate a cheesesteak, but my roots run pretty deep. Growing up, I had a dad whose job it was to inspire the whole Philadelphia region and remind it of its own greatness and a grandfather who’d saved Pennsylvania from nuclear holocaust (among other impressive feats of office). It rubbed off on me—not because of tribalism or sentimentality, but because I come from smart stock. They—we, I guess—know good things when we see them and don’t give them up. And this place is one hell of a good thing.

Philadelphia is a city of contrasts—colonial elegance and urban sprawl, world-class universities and a shamefully low literacy rate, endless, verdant parks and scraggly empty lots. There’s the perfect, classical order of the grid streets—numbers one way, tree names the other—and the do-what-you-want, shortest-distance diagonals of the well-worn Lenape footpaths that eventually hardened over into real roadways. And the names! Unpronounceable festivals of consonants and double sibilants. I was born by Tulpehocken, grew up following the Wissahickon to the Schuylkill, cut my teeth on Wawa hoagies, and now I’ve got a new home on East Passyunk avenue.

536676401eff11e3ab8622000ab5c723_6

PASH-yunk, not PASS-ee-unk. I’ve actually had to practice this. My landlords did a good-natured double-take when I said I was born here. My right-side-of-the-tracks prep-school upbringing scrubbed out any hints of regional accent: I put a t in “water” and “orange” (color, flavor, or fruit) has two syllables, not one. But I’m intractably proud of Philadelphia, even if I don’t sound like it.

The 23 bus starts at the former site of Borders Books and Music in Chestnut Hill, where I would go after school in 7th grade to drink (and spill) Italian sodas on magazines that my friends and I never actually paid for. It cruises through the hippie-topia of sustainable, diverse small businesses in Mt. Airy straight on to Germantown’s Revolutionary War mansions cheek-to-jowl with check cashing joints and gas stations. It stops at Coulter Street for my pre-driver’s-license self to alight and go to homeroom in the Classics office at 31 West—“And to the church in Philadelphia, write Behold, I have set before thee an open door.” But it keeps on going, through North Philadelphia, to dim parts of the city I still haven’t seen, and then, when I’m ready, it grabs me at 12th and Locust, because I’m back, somehow, in Center City. It deposits me almost two miles further south, and from there, it’s only a few blocks walking to Passyunk. PASH-yunk. My home—all my homes—have a backbone, a current, a physical conduit to match my travels through time and space. It’s cool.

I haven’t been everywhere, man, but I’ve been a few places, and what I’ve come to realize is that it’s not the journey, and it’s not the destination either. It’s the revisit, the revision. It’s There and Back Again on Tolkien’s bent road. And this city—by design and by happenstance—is just that: the prescribed, dance-step precision of William Penn’s neat corridors and the heart-following, instinct-honing, and literal trailblazing of the Native Americans’ secret A-to-B routes. Either way, you get there and look back at everything. Life isn’t a trip, it’s a whirlwind—revolving around the same things but always lifting you up.

3a522bea1eff11e383e622000a1fb86d_7

Welcome back, welcome home. My door’s always open.

ars longa

My mom cleaned out some bookshelves the other day—the horror. She sent me a list of potential jettisons, just in case, and THANK GOD, because in addition to Anastasia Krupnik (taking this to my grave) and and The Aeneid, Book VI (ditto, since it’s only thematically appropriate), she was going to give away The D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths.

I got this book from my fifth-grade teacher. I didn’t know it, but it contained my life’s mission.

photo (1)

Upper-right-hand proof that this is ex my own personal libris

Of course, I had no idea at the time. I was just a weird girl with a bad haircut who who still liked dressing up in her queen costume instead of getting ZAPPED. (Getting ZAPPED was a short-lived trend among my more preternatural classmates that involved writing a time of day on the back of the hand and the name of a member of the opposite sex on the palm. Flip it over before your time is up and you’d have to ask them out. Out where? Nobody knew.) We were assigned to read one story one morning per week and look up and define certain words therein in a notebook. For the first time, I had a planner: different subjects blocked out, assignments (plural) to juggle. I cried a lot (in class and out. I was a stressed-out kid.) But I loved to read.

Myths are funny things. They’re kind of like words—it’s hard to think back to a time before you knew them, like they’ve always existed in your Campbell-meets-Jung mental miasma. But there was a time, specific Monday mornings of my 10th and 11th year, when I was turning the pages fresh. I didn’t know that Athena was going to pop out of Zeus’s head or that Atalanta was fast or that Aphrodite was going to wash up on shore like a plastic, dolphin-killing six-pack holder. I also, for obvious reasons, did not learn the extent of (or even the meaning of) philandering in Greek myths, though I did get to unlock other new and arcane-sounding words: aphrodisiac, athenaeum, cairn, even cereal. Fourth and fifth grade were like a secular age of reason; I was ready to learn and everything I learned stuck. The Middle Ages, the Greeks, and how to write a check (Mrs. Hineline was comprehensive). And every Monday, more stories.

The year waned, middle school loomed, and I ran out of book. No more colored-pencil D’Aulaire illustrations and no more myths. There can only be so many, after all. The book’s ending made me sad—not how the stories terminated, but that they had to stop, period.

The Trojan War happened. The last story was about Aeneas escaping. Right-side pages were getting thin. But when I turned the last one over, there they were again, all the Gods on little name-tagged clouds: Zeus/Jupiter, Hera/Juno, Athena/Minerva.

Salvete, amici novi!

Salvete, amici novi!

I remember the feeling so clearly: it didn’t have to end. There could be more. I don’t think I’ve felt so powerful an emotion reading, before or since. It was wonderful. From then on, my destiny was written—not in the sense that it was predetermined, but that it consisted of things written down. Scripta manent.

But that was it, for then. I didn’t know. Later, there would be French, and Latin, to layer one understanding of stories on another, and then history, and then college, and then writing, and then back to my old house and my old book where I’d refind the stories I’d traced in endless iterations.

Look; they’re all still there.

Having a life mission sounds quaint, self-important, and dramatically dire by turns. But if I have one—and I think I need one—this is it. That turning-the-page feeling. It’s a kind of quod est demonstrandum—what IS to be done—which is just a present refreshment of what was, once, to be done (QED, as it were). In other words, the same thing as other people have done. The same stories they’ve told, but in other words. The form of QED is an impersonal imperative, a form that English lacks. The idea that something can be universally necessary—it’s very Latinate, I think, and very wonderful. Or I wonder about it, anyway—what it means for everyone and what it means for me. What is to be done, in the face of so much time, so many stories? Participate. I want to take things from one place to another, because that’s what stories do. Translato studii: the translation of knowledge. Tell and re-tell. One day it will be pleasing to remember even this.

Keep your books. Keep your word. Keep going.

lessons learned

In the Roman d’Enéas, a 12th century adaptation of the Aeneid you’ve never heard of, the queen of Latium gives her daughter Lavine a really long talking-to when handsome bachelor Aeneas heaves up on shore to carry her off as his fated bride. To make a long-winded series of admonitions short: love hurts. Lavine learns that there is to be sighing, sleeplessness, heart palpitations, obsessiveness, and gobs of self-doubt—but not to worry! These are just signs that the love she feels is truly noble and worthy.

Lavine! Girl, I feel you.

cover_eneasroman_0

This is technically from the later German Eneasroman but it’s close enough for armchair scholarship

I’m not trying to say that revising a novel is endless pain and suffering, because that’s terribly, ickily precious. Woe-is-me wordsmiths are about as artificial and outdated as, well, courtly love. But at the same time…revision is hard! (Let’s go shopping!) What started as a story guided by the gut must now be broken down and rewritten by the brain, and when those too don’t agree you end up kind of seasick.

Had I had my own personal queen of Latium, here is what I wish she had imparted.

You can’t coast, smartass. A lot of the first draft was pretty good. There were clever, snappy snips of dialogue and…well, that’s about it. For whatever reason, though, I thought this was enough. Sure, there were weak scenes, and maybe I hadn’t really thought about character arcs, but those I dismissed with some mental handwavery.

No! Do not past go! Do not glide so blithely by on the heelies of your back-patting self-satisfaction! A few (and I mean few) good parts do not a novel make. Hold up everything—everything—to the bare-bulb light of scrutiny, and if it doesn’t work—and you have to let yourself admit that lots of it doesn’t—tear it out.

It will unravel. Corollary to the above: I had a fear that if I dared to pluck at my weak plot threads, the whole story would come undone, Weezer-style. And then what would I do?! Rewrite the whole thing?!?

Well, yeah. If it isn’t working, it doesn’t work. You, in turn, must put in more work to get it going.

You are a citizen of the rules, just like everyone else. I have an uncanny ability to read writing advice and think it doesn’t apply to me. This won’t work. You can’t shrug off ideas about characters needing motivation and telling-not-showing just because you think you know them—you have to practice them, every sentence, every day. Don’t get sticklery about it—leges sine moribus vanae—just don’t flout.

You need a critique partner. Or several. You are too deep into the forest to see the trees. Someone else must read this. Toughen up.

You need Scrivener. You just do.

You need to let yourself obsess. All those awful, obnoxious affectations about “process” that you hate to hear from other writers will suddenly and viciously become true. You will sleep less. You will drink too much coffee. You will make playlists for your characters. You will spend an entire weekend writing, not going outside until a 6 PM Sunday grocery run where you will stare at tomatoes for five minutes trying to calibrate your eyes. You will make plot notes in dark movie theaters and write scenes on your phone. You will walk down Market Street to the train listening to LCD Soundsystem, kind of crying, and wondering if you’re up to fixing this.

It takes as long as it takes. It’s hard to come from the insta-satisfaction of throwing up a zinger-laden blog post and getting a few quick digital thumbs-up to the long, long, year-and-a-half-plus enterprise that crafting a good novel should be. Don’t rush, and don’t be impatient to get the thing “out there” before it’s ready. The play’s the thing.

It will happen. Once you’ve torn the thing apart, pinned up every new scene in Scrivener, and finally stare down the blinking I-beam, it will feel like you have forgotten how to form sentences. Move your fingers—it works! I don’t know how (alchemy, maybe?) but it does.

You must work hard, but you can work hard. Use a cocktail of perfectionism, masochism, and the low-grade hypomania of late, light summer nights to write from 8 PM to 12 AM five days a week. Wake up every morning and think about how badly you want this book to be good. Know that only you can prevent its nonexistence. Type, type, type, type, type.

Bros are the best. The bros! Oh, the bros. It’s amazing how much you can like your second-tier characters when you give them actual personalities.

Good writers get words; good novelists get people. Your witticisms will not redeem you. Your introspection will. Tell the truth—the specific, detail-focused truth that springs from what characters see and feel. Don’t hide behind the abstract. Don’t write long diatribes. Don’t panic and worry that you’re doomed to either poetry or copywriting. Don’t fret, little squirrel.

The thing is, though, that even if someone had lectured me with these talking points, Lavine-and-queen-style, I don’t think I would have gotten it. There’s a reason that didactic swaths of dialogue are unreadably archaic-sounding (even if you have to read them for your undergraduate thesis): they’re telling, and we all know that’s bad. Practice doesn’t make perfect, but it does make process, and that’s, ultimately, all writing is.

So: I’ve got a better book. I hope you get to read it soon.

BONUS EXCITING LEDE-BURYING NEWS: come March 2014, I will be a published author! I wrote a book about college. It will teach you how to do your own laundry and make a sandwich with an iron. The introduction quotes Cicero and Animal House. I think it would make an excellent gift.

six writing lessons from “pacific rim”

I have a nonfiction manuscript due in a week, a novel to revise, and a job (#humblebrag!!!11), so, needless to say, I have lots of time for things like the movies. On Saturday, my little lemming-legs carried me all the way off the cliff and into the abyss that is PACIFIC RIM, and boy, do I have Some Thoughts. A cautionary tale for our times! Not so much about how to avoid giant snotbeasts rearing from the frothy dip, but about how not to write a movie, or a story, or anything, really.

You are not alone.

You are not alone.

1. Your prologue is bad and you should feel bad.
The first…5? 10? minutes of this film is just Some Guy Talking. You do not know who this guy is, and he doesn’t make you care. It’s like a boring filmstrip from the future. And this is a MONSTER movie! How can you take crazy-ass space rhinos surging from a space-time chasm and make it seem as dull as a non-scandal day of CNN?

Do not have a prologue. Or try not to. If you can’t get off your ass and write some damn dialogue, at least give us some monsters kicking over the cities of the west coast like so many sandcastles.

2. Jargon, n. Word you have to define
Second only to starting with a prologue is starting with on-screen definitions of things, which, oh, wait. It’s fine if there are weird terms for things; it’s all part of the fictive dream or whatever. PACIFIC RIM starts by having the viewer choke down a two-word, sort-of-arbitrarily-chosen glossary: kaiju, meaning the baddie beasts we are trying to kill, works okay, because it’s swiped from the Japanese genre of the same name, and Japan spends a lot of time getting stomped by them. But The Not-Gundam suits that our heroes use to git ‘ers done are jaegers, from the German word for hunter. You don’t need to be any smarter than the average American moviegoer to know that Germany is not anywhere near the actual Pacific Rim. Ergo, it takes a Golden-Gate sized suspension of disbelief to bear up the fact that jaeger doesn’t get calqued. Brings you Out Of The Story, and that’s no good.

3. Slay clichés.

In the FIRST scene, we are treated to “Don’t get cocky, kid” AND “a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do” with NO self-consciousness on the parts of the characters. Thinner than the cardboard stand-ups in the lobby. From then on, I mentally referred to the protagonist as “Fake Channing Tatum,” because he hadn’t EARNED the right to a REAL NAME. CAPITAL LETTERS.

And don’t get me started on “Today, we cancel the Apocalypse.” It’s practically a New Yorker cartoon.

4. Do not save the fucking cat.
Maybe it’s because I just read this Slate piece, but I felt like I could set my watch by the Act-1 bit when the flyboy, jaeger-bombing brothers decide to disobey their commanding officer and rescue a dinky fishing boat during a mission. Who cares? I didn’t. It was just so neat; a perfect storm of pathos (which, speaking of: it’s not like George Clooney was on board!) Use beat sheets if you have to, but please, cover your tracks.

5. Trend-bots
Some savvy reviewer (and likely one who majored in something erudite like International Studies) made the case that PACIFIC RIM shoehorns in foreign locations (and jargon) to cater (or pander) to the now-crucial non-US markets. Look: if it works, and if it makes a good story, chase that trend over the rainbow. But if you end up with a hot mess of a movie (or book), take its trend-temperature. Stake the vampires and have the dystopia close up shop.

Dayman, ah AH ahhh.

Dayman, ah AH ahhh.

6. The show must be stolen
You know who was great in the oft-maligned modern classic FAILURE TO LAUNCH? Zooey Deschanel’s character. Before her schtick wore thin, her moony-eyed weirdo determined to literally kill a mockingbird was the only bright spot in an otherwise gag-worthy exercise in formulaic writing. In PACIFIC RIM, “zany” “colorful” character Charlie Day (AKA Newton…Something?) was actually the only one I cared about. Everyone else could get snarfed up by seabeasts; I just wanted the brilliant but clumsy scientist with the sick tats to keep pratfalling. If you write a B-list character who piques your interest, who takes every scene he or she appears in and pilfers it away in their pocket, well…you might have mislabeled your protagonist, is all I’m saying. Obviously, budget-obese CGI studio shlock is about as easy to change mid-course as an ocean liner (or a jaeger, for that matter), but if all you’ve got is a novel, it can (and should) be more nimble.

just add water

On Sunday I bought a bag of something called “freeze-dried coconut water.” Let that logic sink in for a minute.

I haven’t actually tried it yet, but I have read the package, and it seems to be the result of taking actual, watery coconut water and sucking away the water part until all that’s left is the essence of coconuttiness. A stupid, Whole Foodsy product—the kind of thing that my dad will be really mad that I used his credit card to pay for—but surely not the first time the siren song of convenience has melted the earwax of a spendthrift. People make complicated decisions, I contain multitudes, etc., etc.

cc652fe4d42e11e2a8c722000a9e01c6_7

But enough about me and my luxury food purchases. Let’s talk about characters.

I am, as of approximately Monday, a reformed reticent about character-creation exercises. I hatehatehate those character charts that demand you spit out everything from name to height and weight to favorite food and dream vacation spot. Filling those out elicits a creative joy somewhere between medical paperwork and a coloring book. It’s busywork! Unless she’s playing MASH on the school bus, no character is ever going to be called upon to recite a litany of her quirks and preferences. And if she does, you, the author, should really re-examine your strategy for crafting dialogue.

What I DID used to believe in is a mystical, unknowable mental alchemy of holistic character formation, a theory that now sounds even more ridiculous with a name like “holistic character creation.” Fortunately, my fledgling publishing career has not only taught me volumes of practical skills, but has also done some good descaling of my bright little eyes. That is to say: books—and all the multitudes they contain—are made, not begotten. Characters are devised, or built, or hewn with rough and angry chops, not granted fully-formed from on high. (I don’t think authors who talk about “discovering” their characters are wrong, per se, but I suspect it’s just their subconscious blushing and waving off admirers with an “oh my, you’re too kind.”)

This should be a relief! It was to me. Lately I feel like I’ve done enough bashing my head on a desk in frustration to make my skull crack open like an eggshell, and yet: no Athena. So now I’ve got a patchwork, slapdash, stopgap, bric-a-brac way of building my characters into real, imaginary people…with some prefab ingredients. It’s the literary equivalent of “cheater” recipes that rely heavily on canned biscuit dough and premixed taco spices, only a little more nutritious. Look:

Myers-Briggs types. Look them up—the theory is complicated and based on Jung but apparently sufficiently rigorous to get the stamp of approval from my old therapist, and I think she went to school for Understanding People. You answer some questions and get assigned a type (I am, personally, an INFP: Introverted iNtuitive Feeling Perceiving).

The method: figure out your character’s type, either by taking the test for/as them, or by looking at the profiles and guessing which one fits. Boom: instant list of virtues and flaws that work together as a sensical, cohesive whole.Work them into your external conflict and your story is just humming along, isn’t it? As it happens, the character I’ve been struggling to understand is my polar opposite: Extroverted Sensing Thinking Judging. It all makes sense! The more you know™!

The Sims. I’m sorry, shut up, whatever. We all play it, and we all know that after you go through the makeover-montage blitz of dressing up your Sims, the only interesting part of this game is what goes on in your head. You invent personalities! You get emotionally invested! You tell stories, admit it! Ain’t nothing in the rules that says a writer can’t make digital versions of their characters and watch them scurry around a virtual ant farm for a while.

Other people’s friends. Oh God, this method made me laugh so hard I’m not sure it even counts as a writing exercise. And it could happen to you!

Pick a friend of yours that didn’t go to the same high school as you and ask them to describe as many of their classmates as possible—not their friends, or anyone they knew that well, but what amounts to the secondary characters in their personal narrative. They’ll give you fun-sized mini-stories, one or two sentences that amounted to these strangers’ epithets during their formative young adulthood. What about the kid with the unfortunate nickname? What about the kid who interrogated everyone IN SONG about his missing pudding cup in 7th grade? What about the girl who let guys service her in the parking lot of Panera? What about the kid who was not only caught masturbating in class but was also—and I am not making this up—named JAMES EARL JONES?!

You’re bound to get a grab bag of high drama and utter mundanity, but that’s exactly what real high school is. And once you’ve stopped hiccuping with giggles, steal. Line up your cast of characters and dole out these ripped-from-the-yearbook quirks as you see fit.

Questionnaire. If you’re going to do an actual Q&A for your character, I think it should be the one from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

What is your name?
What is your quest?
What is your favorite color?
What’s the land-speed velocity of an unladen African swallow?

 

These four questions actually cover most of what a person is about.

What they’re called (duh)
What they’re all about
Something about their taste or personal aesthetic
How they react when thrown into situations they don’t immediately understand—someone asking them an absurd question, say.

So…these are my character-mettle-testing supplies. They might not be the most efficient or sensical or “normal” ways of understanding the fake people you’re trying to make real people care about, but It Worked For Me! Delicious, piecemeal, semi-homemade characters, or my name isn’t Sandra Lee.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some coconut water to rehydrate.