Monday, November 28, 2016

A Puddle and Two Words of Advice

November was an interesting month. I got to see a lot of movies, read a few books, and learn a lot of math and science because engineering. I didn’t write a lot, mostly blog posts. I didn’t have a chance to do NaNoWriMo this year because let’s be honest, there wasn’t time in my schedule for fifty thousand words, even if I didn’t watch those movies or read those books.

Actually, it was a fantastic month for my writing, even though I didn’t do much of it. I got to take a bit of a break, and focus on the impactful stories that others made, rather than just my own. As writers, it’s important for us to stop and think about the stories of others, and even things that aren’t novels at all.

I’d like to share a few short things about what I did, as well as two simple piece of advice on living this artistic life we’re called to live.

The Books: A Summary

I got to read two books in November (discounting my school textbooks). One was titled “A Path of Daggers” and the other named “Winter’s Heart” both by Robert Jordan. They’re two books in the middle of his Wheel of Time series, which I’ve now read twice through and working on the third reading.

You’ll find a lot of conflicting views on these books, and I’d like to explain why that’s so: Robert Jordan created many of the fantasy “clichés” you find nowadays, and those he didn’t create he drew upon. If you’re not expecting that, you might find yourself saying “hey, isn’t this cliché?” Well, yes, but only because it started it or else made it popular. Robert Jordan was a master of plot weaving, as shown in the way his dozens of arcs fit together seamlessly in time and space, drawing together across fourteen books and thousands of pages to conclude in a satisfying manner.

There are also two places where people tend to trip up on his works: first, he’s very prose-oriented. He can get lost in descriptions of peoples and places and random items like teapots. Because his world is so massive, it plays a large role in his books and can almost feel overwhelming. This leads straight to the second which is this: if you’re very dependent on characters to drive the story, you may not like his books. While he has some very real and human characters, they’re not the driving force behind his books. Instead, the plot and the world stand at the forefront, born quietly on the shoulders of the characters.

If you enjoy high fantasy and plot-driven novels, you’ll like them. I enjoy reading them because whenever I read them, I feel like I’m there. He draws powerfully on the senses and engages you with the surroundings to the point where you don’t even realize you’ve read eighty pages.

The Movies: Also a Summary

I got to see four movies in theatres this month, all of which were excellent. One, Doctor Strange, I’ve already reviewed and so won’t spend time on here. Instead, just scan the archives for that review earlier in November, or else check the “Reviews” tag to the right.

The second movie I saw was Hacksaw Ridge, which is a powerful, gritty, and compelling story about a conscientious objector working as an army medic during the invasion of Okinawa in World War Two. This movie struck home to me because my great-grandfather served there during that war. It was a difficult movie to watch, because the violence is portrayed as movies rarely do: it was shown in its raw and gruesome form. It wasn’t glorified for either side of the conflict, it was shown starkly as it is: bloody and gritty and intense and horrible. I can’t say I liked the movie because it was much like Saving Private Ryan: it showed reality for what it is, and caused me to think. To think a lot. It was an amazing movie, well-directed and well-shot with intense detail and wonderful actors and powerful themes. But it was a hard movie. Not for the weak of stomach, but definitely for those who want to understand the reality of violence and pain.

Finally, the third movie I saw this month was Fantastic Beats and Where to Find Them. Of these three, I have to say this was my favorite. Partially because it was fueled by nostalgia as well as great writing and directing and producing and acting, but also because it found a way to balance good story and good theme in a way that makes sense. J. K. Rowling has this way with characters, that even when they’re slightly cliché, they still have a way of endearing you and making you care deeply for them. The story’s setting was fantastic and beautiful, the creatures lovable and alarming in equal measures, the plot itself was simple, but with enough twists that it was compelling enough for the story we wanted to hear about. This movie is driven almost completely by characters, and even the main plot points are due to the characters, rather than some overarching plot that rules over them all.

I highly recommend all three of these films, the first for entertainment, the second for the power of theme and truth, and the third for the charming, witty way that Rowling shows us the wondrous strength of story.

Wait... what's the fourth one? I said four, but that paragraph kind of sounded like a conclusion paragraph before moving onto the next section.
Well, I wanted to separate this last movie because of what it is and how I feel about it. This movie is Arrival, which I truly believe is one of the best movies of the year.
Arrival is one of those movies that you may have heard of but didn't plan on seeing. Please think again. From the outside, it may seem like just another science fiction movie about first contact with aliens. But on the inside? It's a dazzling ride of emotion and language weaved together in a way that makes you ponder your own relationship with language. As a writer, it makes me ponder what my words can do, and as a human it makes me wonder what emotions are even doing inside my brain because they are too powerful. The way it twists and turns and makes you think...
I can't even summarize what it makes me feel. Many things. Too many things.

Just... go see it, then come back and commiserate with me about the wondrous nature of this movie.

The Math and the Science – A VERY Brief Summary

I love math, and I know many of my readers do not. I wrote a blog post on the subject.
Meanwhile, the day I wrote this I also spent two and a half hours using equilibrium equations to find the forces in the joints and members of a truss bridge. In other words, I did a lot of adding, subtracting, dividing, and plugging cosine and sine into my calculator. Yesterday, I did differential equations homework, finding Laplace transforms (which, in case you actually cared, are an abstract but simple way to solve complex equations). The day before, I performed mesh analysis on electrical circuits, and the day before that I did my own research on other forms of science.

That sounds rather boring, doesn’t it? I mean, the truss-bridge math was actually boring because it was tedious, but the rest was rather interesting. There is, however, something I didn’t tell you about those same days that I should have, things that made my life balanced:
The day I wrote this, I read a book, I wrote a blog post, and read a friend one of my stories over the phone to help them in a time of need.
The day before, I practiced lines for a short film and watched Fantastic Beasts.
The day before that, I helped hang lights and focus them for a theatre production of And Then There Were None.
And the day before that, I helped paint the set/refurbish a cabinet for that same set, as well as appreciated an art exhibit.

Two Parts of Art

What does that glimpse into my life do for you?
It’s a chance to realize something: life is about more than one thing. It’s about more than just writing, or just acting, or just watching and reviewing movies, or doing math and physics and chemistry. Life is more than one thing all the time. Life is all of those things: writing and acting and painting and reading and math and science and every form of art all blended into a fanciful and wondrous cacophony. It’s about the people around you, the people you share those forms of art with.

Don’t forget that. Don’t let one art consume you. Step outside (or in) and consider the wonder of an art you’ve never tried before. Whether you just observe or try it out for yourself, don’t allow one particular art suck you in and never let you out.

I promised two bits of advice, so here’s the second: be a part of someone else’s art tomorrow. I know it might be too late to make a plan to do that today, so plan for it tomorrow. Give yourself time to be aware of someone else’s art tomorrow. Don’t go looking for a specific person or a specific art, just be ready. When you find someone experiencing art, experience it with them. You don’t even have to get directly involved. If you’re super shy or they are, you don’t even have to be near them. But take a moment: listen to someone playing an instrument, watch a movie with someone, have a long and deep conversation about the meaning of justice. Try to translate the notes written on the whiteboard of a study room.
When you attempt to understand and be a part of someone else’s art, you open your eyes to a world that you can’t fully see by yourself: the world of an artistic life lived with others.

Friday, November 25, 2016

The Brainstorm

We all have moments where we don’t know what to do with our writing. What comes next? Why does that come next in particular? Why not something else? What do I do? Is life even real? Are tacos the answer?

When authors have these sorts of questions and no answers, they turn to this strange thing that sounds rather like atmospheric activity in the cerebral hemispheres, but it turns out that it’s just a spastic explosion of creativity without judgment.

The brainstorm.

I do this quite often, which can be intimidating to think about and exhilarating at the same time. Usually, my doing a brainstorm is more the way I create story, rather than the way I get out of a bind. The process, however, is the same and so I’d like to ramble a bit about brainstorming, and the things I’ve learned over the years through my own brainstorming, the help I’ve given others in their own brainstorming, and in observing the brainstorming notes of others.

The Definition

Let’s look back for a moment at the casual way I defined a brainstorm and see if we can draw things from it, or if we have to redefine it. I said (and I quote): “a spastic explosion of creativity without judgement”.
I like to think this is a fairly realistic way to define brainstorming, so let’s pick it apart and see what it really means.

First: “a spastic explosion”. Basically, brainstorming should be a flurry of activity. Sometimes you may feel like your brainstorming is lacking or dull or poor. The thing is…. Brainstorming isn’t neat and it isn’t pretty. It’s raw and often full of useless bits of information and ideas that you can never use. We’ll get to that in a moment, but just consider: when you brainstorm, consider all of it, and consider it in abundance. Never say no to an idea that pops in your head, just write it down. If it happens during brainstorming, it gets written down. I say written because that’s one of the best ways to brainstorm: with paper and a pencil. There’s something to the feeling of scritching notes down that helps fuel the creativity. If you usually do it on a computer or just in your head, I highly suggest the paper route to you at some point.

Second: “of creativity”. What is creativity? It’s the making of something new and meaningful, basically. I won’t argue that point now, because it’s good enough despite its lack of refined taste in words. When you brainstorm, you’re coming up with new ideas. When you brainstorm, don’t just make notes like “well this part reminds me of [this story] and I kind of want to follow an arc like [this character] from [this story]”. That’s not creativity, and it’s not real brainstorming. It can help your story if you draw links like that, but it can also seriously harm your story by drawing in templates and potential clichés from other stories as well. That’s not good, don’t do that. Instead, make your mind get out of bed and get to work in creating “new” ideas… or at least twists on old ones. Brainstorming should be free association, plugging in random ideas and thoughts without concentrating on any particular outside source.

Third: “without judgement”. When you brainstorm, don’t stop to sift the good ideas from the bad. Don’t say “nah that’s not right” whenever you come up with an idea. Write. It. Down. Even that silly idea that came from 2 AM this morning when you thought “what if unicorns and bacon”. Write. It. Down. Who knows, maybe bacon and/or unicorns will turn into something new and potentially powerful for your story? If we’re not allowed to judge others by first impressions and exterior attributes, we’re not allowed to judge ideas by their first impressions and initial attributes. Write. It. Down.

The Wheat and the Chaff

Now. You’ve brainstormed a hundred ideas, each one different from the last. Some of them are brilliant and you probably wrote them in all caps and underlined them because they make you excited. Great. But just because you found two good ideas right away doesn’t mean the other ninety-eight are rubbish. You’ve got to sort through them, now.

This is where you take that third part of the initial brainstorm and toss it out the window. Now you need to consider the ideas, consider what you wrote down, and really decide if any part of them is worth keeping. Cross out the ones you can’t ever use, separate those that might be useful some other time, and save the ones you can use.
Consider each idea. Don’t just toss it aside because it’s not super exciting and useful, toss it aside because it truly has no meaning other than you desired bacon at 2 AM and you were drawing a unicorn by the light of your desk lamp. 

Brainstorming is a powerful tool, it lets you create a hundred ideas in twenty minutes. It gets your mind going, even if you’ve had a dry spell in your writing. Allow yourself to thinking freely about ideas, because you never know when you’ll find a treasure trove.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Eyes, Part 6

Well, it seems we’ve reached it. The end of my serial short story. This is part six, and the final part as well (hence the end). If you’ve come with me since part one, congratulations, you’ve reached the last leg. If not, you can certainly read the previous parts, which can be found under the “My Words” label to the right. Feel free to read at your leisure, and let me know what you think!

Meanwhile, part six of Eyes:
Eyes, Part 6

The door to my bedroom creaks open.
I’m awake, staring up at the ceiling. Long ago I learned to sleep with my eyes forced open, it’s second nature. But it keeps me alert.
And my door shouldn’t be opening.
Light streams in, falls on the foot of my bed. Footsteps, creaking floorboards, the sound of the cabinets opening. I smell strong cologne, a heady scent like a dead skunk crossed with lilacs. The average cologne, then. All those footsteps, creaking, creaking. Lots of people.
My breaths come in short gasps, stifled by my blankets. Who is here?
Not burglars, not here. Everyone knows everyone and everything around here. Even I know who everyone is. No one breaks into places and steals things in this town.
Maybe they saw me at the game last week, saw me and wanted to convince me to never show my face in public again. Locals teaching that freak girl a lesson for coming to their football game. Tears trickle down my cheeks. I won’t do it again, if it is them. I’ll learn. Maybe they’ll leave me alone, just trash the kitchen and living room, leave warning messages.
Footsteps approach my bed.
Maybe not.
The light on my screen goes on, a terrible white light on my nightstand. Inside, I scream. It wakes up when it thinks I want to speak.
No, no, no! Go back to sleep!
“I know you’re awake.”
A rough voice, old. I freeze, unable to even breathe, now. My heart thuds slower than it should. Time seems to creep along, yet not creep at all. Race.
“We’re not here to hurt you or your things. Just to check up on you.”
The government. I relax, inhale deeply.
In the middle of the night? I think the thought onto the screen.
“Yes. We’ll be gone in a minute.”
I shift under the blankets and hug my sides.
Do you need anything from me? I hope not. I’m wearing a long T-shirt and nothing else, besides the muzzle.
“No, you stay in bed. I’ve just got check one thing…” a shadowy figure steps close, leans down, presses the side of my muzzle. It beeps once, twice, thrice. “There. Go back to sleep, we’ll be gone in forty-five seconds, all right?”
All right. What did he do with my mask? And what about the bumping and shifting in the other room? Were they searching my things? Anger burns in the pit of my stomach, hardens to a rocky lump that shifts when I swallow. They can’t read emotions off of me, can they?
Sure enough, the noise in the other rooms fades in less than a minute. The door clicks shut. I count to ten, waiting, then throw the blankets off and creep into the other room. Everything is dark again, shadows against darker shadows. Lights move across the walls, reflections of headlights through the windows. Then darkness. I play with the hem of my shirt and reach over to flick the light.
My eyes complain at the sudden brightness, but I can’t even squint. That’s all right, I’m pretty used to pain in my eyes. Everything in my apartment looks the same, tidy and neat as before. I shrug. Weirder things have happened. I shut the light off and stumble back to bed.
Sleep. Dreams of before the nightmares, back when I could blink. Ages and ages ago, back when my parents still pretended to love each other.

Waking brings groggy thoughts, bleary eyes, stuffed nose. I wander into the bathroom, rub my paralyzed eyes, shower, and brush my teeth. Then I meander back to my bedroom, pull a pair of pants on, a clean shirt.
A red light blinks in the corner of the living room. Just a tiny red flicker, then gone. I tilt my head, walk over to it. There, up in the very corner, sits a tiny, tiny camera. The side of my thumb and the same color as the walls. That red light blinks again as I stare at it, so quick and small I almost miss it. That anger from last night returns, harder, hotter. They’re spying on me, now. That camera wasn’t there before.
I glower up at it, clench my fists. Before I can think about it further, I jump up and grab it. The camera snaps off the wall mount and I land back on the floor with a thud. It beeps at me, like a car alarm. I open the window and throw it out, listen to it crash against the dumpster below.
My screen lights up.
I’m an idiot.
Yeah, the screen is right. I am an idiot. Now they’ll come back and tell me not to break the camera anymore. Claim it’s for my protection, that’s all. If I’m good, they’ll take it down someday. The anger smolders, though, and I can’t say I’m sorry.
I sit on the couch and read until noon – a new book I found in the library about a girl who meets the perfect guy and they fall in love or something. It’s the most boring and unrealistic thing I’ve ever read, but at least it’s something to do.
The girl hurts the guy’s feelings, they make up. For some reason he apologizes more than she does… what’d he do wrong again? I can’t remember. Probably something trivial, since the rest of the book paints him as perfect for her.
I glance at the other corners of the room. No blinking light there. Frowning, I put the book down and walk into the kitchen. There, just out of sight above one of the cupboards, a light blinks. Might as well do the job right: I pull a chair over and yank that camera down, too. Toss it on top of the dumpster.
Then I glance down at my screen. They can read everything I think onto it.
I don’t like being spied on.  I think onto it. Not that they care, but maybe they’ll take me into consideration when they come to install new ones.
The clock rings two. I blink, enjoy the blissful dimness, and wait for the doorbell. Five minutes after two, as always, the doorbell rings. I smile behind the mask and answer it, it’s Arnold.
“Did you blink?”
I nod.
“Good.” He shifts on his feet. “You want to go to the football game again tonight? We’re facing a real good team, but I think we can beat ‘em.”
I’d love to!
And that… that was the happiest thing I’d ever thought onto my screen. Even if it was an exaggeration. Love is a strong word. A stupid word, in some ways.
“Great! Hm. We’ll leave a little earlier so we can get better seats. Sound good to you?”
Sure, whenever. Whoops, there the screen goes again, being all distant and passive. I’m good at that. We walk into the living room and sit down.
“So. Now that I know where your mask comes from, I don’t even know what to talk about.” Arnold laughs a little. I try to act amused; it’s hard with the muzzle covering my grin.
He folds his hands. “Er… can I ask why you have it on?”
My heart stops and skips a pair of beats. Then I can breathe again, deeply. He… he wants to know. Not that he can guess. If I tell him… the scientists told me not to tell anyone in this town why I have the muzzle. They’ll take me away, keep everyone I tell silent. By force.
“It’s okay if you don’t want to tell me,” he says, fingering the inside hem of his jeans. “I just… was curious. You… Nevermind.” Arnold looks away from me, his cheeks reddening.
When I close my eyes, time stops.
I take a deep, shuddering breath, and hold the screen toward him. His eyes widen when he reads the sentence.
Yes. And… and when I speak, things stop existing. All I have to do is close my eyes, say something doesn’t exist, and it doesn’t.
He stares at me. His hands tremble in his lap. “And… they… don’t want you to speak?”
“Why? Did you…” he grips the armrest of the couch.
Yes, I did bad things. Killed people. It’s… it’s a long story. They chased me, when I was a little girl. I couldn’t get away. So I made them not exist. In the end, the caught me, experimented on me. Then put this mask on me, set me free. I… I shouldn’t have told you. They’ll come, now. Take me away. Make sure you tell no one my secret. They…
Arnold reaches out, touches the mask. “How does it come off?” he asks.
It… why?
His big, calloused hands take hold of the sides of the mask. He flexes his muscles, pulls. Metal snaps, creaks, then breaks. The muzzle cracks and falls off my face. I suck in a deep breath, my first breath of free air in… forever.
Arnold holds the mangled pieces of the mask in his hands, stares down at it.
“I…” he glances at me, then back down at the muzzle. “I…”
My heart thuds, so loud it overwhelms everything else. Blood pulses through my ears, pounds through my skull. Slowly, slowly, I reach up and touch my cheeks, lips, nose.  I stand and turn, toward the mirror hanging above the table by the door.
Pale, tender skin surrounds my mouth, covers my cheeks and the tip of my nose. My lips are pale and narrow, pressed together tightly.
“I…” Arnold stands, the pieces of the mask falling to the floor. I turn to him, smile tremulously.
My lips part. “Th… thank you,” I say. Then I blink. It happens so fast, and then is gone.
I stare at Arnold, he stares at me. I blinked!
“You talked!” Arnold said, mouth hanging open.
I laugh. “Yes, I can talk… that’s…” I glance at the pieces of the muzzle. “That’s why I wore that thing. Why they made me wear it.”
Arnold nods solemnly. “What now? Will they arrest me?”
“They’ll probably kill you.” The words sound harsh and I wince. He does, too, but then he frowns.
“Not if they can’t find us.”
He shrugs. “We could leave, I’ve got my car. We can be far away from here, where they’ll never find us.”
My laugh is bitter, this time. “I ran from them for years. They always find you. Always.”
“What’s your name?”
I blink. “What?” Oh, it feels so good to speak.
Arnold’s deep, serious eyes stare at me, don’t blink. Mine do. Oh, mine blink.
“I don’t know your name.”
“It’s…” it feels like a secret, like a special part of me no one gets to know. “Vivian.”
He smiles. “Vivian. It’s nice to meet you.”
Then the door opens. It shatters, the hinges squeal and disintegrate. Men step through, men in red bulletproof vests, holding long rifles and aiming them everywhere.
“Step away from the girl.” The harsh voice from last night.
I look at Arnold. He trembles, stares wide-eyed at all the soldiers. “I’m sorry,” I whisper to him. Then I close my eyes.
Noises vanish. Taste, smell, touch, they all vanish. I float in nothingness. The words roll around in my mind, taunting me. So simple to say, to end all of it.
No more pain, no more hiding. No more secrets or darkness or me. Nothingness.
No more football games, either. And that’s what makes me pause. I’ll sacrifice the football games, the time where no one thinks I’m different or evil, to be free.
I take a deep breath, though there’s no air or breathing here. There is nothing but me.
“Nothing…” I search the darkness for the words. “Nothing is real.”
Screams. Terrible, terrible screams. Over and over and over, resounding in my head. Everything screams as it vanishes from existence. The soldiers, the people of the town, the buildings, the earth itself. Arnold.
Then silence. Vast, vast silence surrounds me as I float in true nothingness. I can’t open my eyes, for I haven’t got any now.
I am free.
The last scream echoes in my mind, though all is silent. Though I don’t have a mind anymore. I am nothing. But that last scream…
It forms words.
Words I know, words that don’t exist anymore because of me.
I love you.
The darkness trembles.
The last scream repeats those words over and over and over into the nothingness I created.
I love you.
I love you.
My non-existent heart flutters. My mind races, trembles, quakes.
No, I can’t do this.
“It’s real,” I say with a mouth I do not have. “It’s all real.”
The darkness refuses.
“It is all real!”
Flashing light, shouts, screams, pain. I scream, curl into a ball, squeeze my eyes shut.
A hand touches my back. Soft, large, gentle. It caresses my neck, pets my hair. My eyes are shut, but I can hear distant sounds: the ticking of a clock, shuffling feet, humming. Voices whisper. I smell metal and blood and worn carpet. The sharp metallic taste of blood fills my mouth, I stop biting my tongue. That hand strokes my hair over and over.
It’s not real. I made it not real.
Then I open my eyes. My hands cover my face, press against the carpeted floor. I sit up, blink. The soldiers stare at me, at themselves, all around. None of them point their weapons. Arnold sits on the floor next to me, watching me. He really is ugly, the ugliest person I’ve ever seen.
Too big a nose, too wide of lips. Not enough hair, or the right color. Dull eyes, clumsy hands. A little slow when it comes to thinking.
He smiles at me.
Well, he’s got one thing going for him; he has a pretty nice smile.
I look down at myself, my disheveled clothes. I blink.
I can do that now; blink. Nothing stops, time keeps going.
Did Arnold do that, or did I?
Who cares. It’s fixed. All if it is fixed.
Even me. Well, sort of. I’m still broken, very broken. I feel sad, sitting there on my floor and thinking. Lonely, dark, afraid. Sad.
But I don’t kill things anymore. I don’t stop time, I don’t control the existence of others.
At last, I am free.
The End