Romance, Here I Come

So I know I talked about Jane the Virgin a couple of weeks ago, but there was an important fact about the show that I forgot to mention.

Besides the million other things that I love about the show, one fact that I’ve always found comforting is that Jane aspires to be a writer. Though she has a degree in teaching, English specifically, her dream is to be a writer. And she actively pursues that dream, oftentimes over her romantic interests – right now, she’s in a creative writing cohort in graduate school.

But this wasn’t all that impressed me about her. To be honest, stories about writers are dime a dozen. For some reason, writers love to write about writers. Call it vanity, but it’s true. No, it wasn’t the fact that Jane was an inspiring writer. It was the fact that she’s an aspiring romance writer.

And guess what? No one says anything about it. Nothing. Her advisor doesn’t call her writing silly. Her mom doesn’t wonder why she doesn’t write a different genre. None of her romantic interests has ever questioned that maybe romance writing is not actually writing, that it’s not serious writing.

Nope. Nada. Nein. Jane is, and always will be, an unapologetic romance writer. And that shouldn’t actually be surprising. But it totally is.

Although I won’t name names, I will say that one time, I got an interesting critique back on a short story. It was, in a way, a romance, but a fabricated one. It wasn’t about love, it was about obsession, and it was meant as a thoughtful questioning of what is the difference between those two. But, in short, yes, it was about a relationship, this one between a man and a woman. But the critique? I remember words like “not feeling it” and “the vibe is wrong,” though this is probably also partially from my poor memory. But one that I do remember? “I don’t think I’m your intended audience.”  

Intended audience or not, does it really matter? Does it matter that my writing was borderline romance? Does it matter if I talked about love? Does it matter if the center of the story was a relationship?

I remember, even though that story was definitely a tough critique, one of my harder ones, that’s what hurt me the most. This person, whatever gender, didn’t take my story seriously enough because automatically it was categorized as romance. And because of it, I couldn’t get a serious critique about it, and it was harder to see what I could change to make the story better without thinking about the “intended audience” and whether I was pleasing that audience.

I was thinking about this in part because it’s Valentine’s Day this weekend, partially because Jane the Virgin was about her romance this week, and partially because I’ve been bingeing a very explicitly romance series.

But you know what? Despite the fact that it’s Valentine’s Day and I’m technically alone, instead of being lame, I’m going to the poetry reading at Literati on Saturday by Amber Tamblyn and then I’m going to do yoga with my best friends. You know what else I’m gonna do? I’m going to watch my romance movies, my romance TV shows, my romance everything. And I’m going to love it and not be ashamed.

Oh, and you know what else? I’m going to write romance. Unapologetic, unabashed, fantastic, life-changing romance. And you’re going to like it.

How Not To Write An Ending

So last night, sitting on the couch with my roommate roaming Netflix, we decided to watch a movie called Stuck in Love, a movie directed by Josh Boone of The Fault in Our Stars fame. Now bear with me for a second, because this isn’t a review, but it’s going to sound like one for a minute. I’d been dying to watch it, and it was an hour and a half, the time my roommate had until she had to Skype with her best friend to watch The Bachelor (don’t even get me started on The Bachelor), so we decided to watch it – or, rather, I did, since she had already seen it.

No surprise, I absolutely loved it. Fantastic writing (for the most part – I’ll get to that), fantastic acting, and really inventive and evocative directing. I even noticed the directing. That means this movie is pretty dang good. But what really struck me was it’s simplistic setting and characters.

For those who aren’t aware, as it wasn’t a huge film, the story follows a family of three, comprised of a divorced father and his two children, one a daughter in college, another an angsty high schooler, in addition to the bits and pieces from the ex-wife, happily married for three years to some other man. Typical indie fair, but interestingly, all three of the main characters are writers. The father, Bill, is a famous author, with multiple books published and a solid career; the daughter, Sam, is studying creative writing at school while also landing a publishing deal for her first novel, however not under her own name; the son, Rusty is still an aspiring writer, but clearly has talent needing to be developed. He worships Stephen King and writes mystery/thrillers, and she writes what seems to be realistic fiction, possibly for young adults.

This seems to be the bond they all share – that they all write, that they all have a writer’s mind, cultivated by their father. At one point, Rusty’s stepfather mutters that it’s stupid that the kids keep journals and that the father pays them for it in place of them getting a job. Deeply offended, Rusty fights back and then leaves the room, and to be honest, I was with him. Who hasn’t kept a journal at some point?

But, really, the story follows the three in their quest to find love…or, actually, their troubles in love. And for someone who tends to write fiction centered around, or at least concerning love, in all its different forms, I found this a striking and compelling take on love. I deeply identified with this movie, even though “Advanced Creative Fiction” would never be a lecture and you’d most definitely know everyone in your class, an inaccuracy I found to be really strange given the rest of the material in the movie. I also marveled at the fantastic writing in itself. It was kind of meta, realizing that a movie about writing was so well written, clearly someone who knew what he was doing.

I thought this until I saw the ending in the movie. Each character had their own conflict relating to love, and for Bill, it was coming to terms with his ex-wife cheating and ultimately leaving him. In an intimate and unexpected moment, he tells Sam that when she was little, he left her mom for some other woman, but for only six months. He came back to her, and he accepted her, and all she asked in return was for him to wait for her if she made a similar, stupid mistake. After three years, he still waits for her, though throughout the movie different people, including his ex-wife, try and convince him otherwise.

As all the other storylines wrapped up, one year from the start of the movie, on Thanksgiving, Bill’s storyline was unfinished. It didn’t feel that way, though, because coming to terms with a loss of love cannot be tied up like the rest of the movie. The true payoff for his honesty with his daughter was her coming to terms with the fact that her mom didn’t just hurt her father, but that they had hurt each other. She had idolized her father and hated her mother for hurting him, and through Bill’s honesty realized her idolization – but not love – had been misplaced, and her anger had been wrong. Sam’s forgiveness of her mother was Bill’s ending storyline too, since he will still struggle with missing his wife.

Or, that is what I thought, until the last scene, at Thanksgiving. Slapped at the end of the movie, there’s a knock at the door right before they start to eat. Who could it be? Please don’t let it be the mother. I wish I had been wrong.

Bill’s ex-wife comes, crying, but not heavily, and embraces him. He hurriedly sets a place for her, and she takes it. Everyone seems truly happy…except me.

For one, it’s incredibly cheesy, which makes it unrealistic. The entire movie I was struck by how realistic the movie made the unrealistic. The lines were a bit pretentious, but why wouldn’t they be, coming from a family of writers? Bill was a bit eccentric, but not anything too drastic, and why would he? He’s a writer. And then there’s the whole college thing, but that’s so minor I would hardly call it unrealistic. But this ending? It seemed like Bill picked up his pen and said “I want this ending, so I’m going to write it this way.”

I was honestly surprised and disappointed that the story had to end this way. It could have ended right before the last scene, and I would have found the ending to be satisfied. A motif throughout the film was Bill waiting for his wife by setting a place for her, but at this Thanksgiving, he set the place for her, then took it away, as he started to see how foolish he was. But then he added it again, because Sam brought her boyfriend – she learned how to love, a direct antithesis to Bill, who learns how to let love go.

I could also envision her coming to Thanksgiving, but with her husband. The movie explored different kinds of love – romantic, companionate, parental, sexual, unconditional – and the addition of the mother, happy and with both her families, would have rounded out the story’s themes nicely. Because not all love is romantic, her addition at the table would have symbolized her commitment to love her ex-husband and her children as a family, even while she does not romantically love her ex-husband anymore.

Obviously, I enjoyed the film, but I’ve been thinking a lot about endings lately, with Star Wars: The Force Awakens ending the way it did (post forthcoming, obviously), as well as reading Hannah’s post from last night about the alternate ending for Pride and Prejudice (which I had NO IDEA about and now my mind is blown). So I’m not sure if I hate the movie because I hate the cheesy ending, or I love the movie but will pretend the ending doesn’t exist? I really don’t know what to do with it, and I definitely don’t understand how a well-written, innovative movie could have such an oversight, even it comes from studio executives or producers who wanted their way.

Either way, I’m puzzled, but it’s a good way to learn, as a writer…how not to end your movie.

The Comprehensive Guide to Avoiding Awkward Conversations With People From High School

The semester is coming to an end, which means many of us are about to make the trek back to our pre-Ann Arbor home, wherever that may be. While a fair number of us are probably looking forward to hanging out with our pets (Smokey Joe, I’m coming for you), we are probably not looking forward to the possible awkward encounters with any number of kids we went to high school with. Whether they went to a school in-state, Michigan State, or are one of the kids who never left your hometown, chances are they are one of the last people you want to awkwardly ask about life and plans for the future.

So while this might be too little too late for some of you (I know Thanksgiving break may have put you in a few tight spots already), here is my guide to avoiding those awkward convos with people you don’t really want to see:

1. Always have an exit strategy. Whether you’re at the bar or walking the aisles at Target (my worst enemy this time of year), always be aware of your surroundings and have a path of least resistance in case you need to make a quick out. Be careful not to back yourself into a corner, though, because you never know who might be around the next bend.

2. Avoid eye-contact. If you can plausibly deny that you even saw Kurt from your sophomore Advanced Comp. class, you do not have to say hi to him.  The glory of smartphones these days is that you can pretend that you got a really interesting text, or better yet, pretend you’re on the phone with your over-bearing mother. Hell, actually call her if you need to, just get out of there!

3. Avoid the old high-school haunts. Yes, the 24-hour diner in your town was cool when you were 18, and yes it will be nostalgic to sit there at 1am on a Tuesday night, but guess what? Everyone else thought it was cool then and everyone else will have the exact same idea as you – if they ever even left, that is.  You will not be the only one to get home, text your old friend group, and throw on an old football sweatshirt. You will also not be the only one to suffer through conversations about MICHIGAN STATE FOOTBALL (if you are from out-of-state, count your blessings that you can avoid this), and some wounds just need time to heal. You’d be better off meeting at the Public Library.

4. Shave your head. This will throw people off. They’ve never seen your bone-structure so clearly or the shape of your skull before, and they will be confused enough for you to accomplish both #1 and #2. If you’ve been rocking the shaved head since freshman year of high school….well, it looks like you just might want to invest in a nice wig.

5. Plastic surgery. Yes, this is quite the investment, but the return might be HUGE depending on how long into the future you plan on making visits home. You will never have to worry about being recognized for the rest of forever, so long as you keep your new face off of your facebook news feed.

6. Start speaking to them in a different language. This will throw them off-kilter so much that they might just turn around and walk away from you, no questions asked. Even Spanish – chances are they don’t remember much from the last Spanish class they took freshman year of college.  If you happen upon a Spanish major? Simply butcher your speech so much that they won’t know how to respond and will hopefully just awkwardly float away. You’ll lose less dignity this way. Trust me.

7. Get into a car, drive to a body of water in the middle of nowhere, take a boat to a jagged little island, and wait in the single little cabin for Hagrid to come and rescue you and take you to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. This is a Hail Mary, but sometimes all you gotta do is believe.

8. LAST RESORT: Imbibe in the spirits of the choice (as long as you’re legal, of course!!!) and hopefully you just won’t remember anything the next day.

The Psychology of Fictional Characters: Why You Should Give Your Protagonist a Personality Test

As I sit here today, grading the fabulous work of my first year students from the one-credit Honors Seminar I’ve been teaching this semester, I can’t help but think of the origins of the unique activity that I have assigned them and that they have indeed excelled in the highest degree.

It all started two summers ago as I traveled through highways lined with enough soybeans to fill a hundred Silk cartons, and rows and rows of corn. No, I was not on a quest to find the best farmland in America. I was making a pilgrimage to University of Iowa’s Summer Writing Festival. Hundreds of writers, old and young, filed into classrooms, notebooks and pens in hand, to unleash the thoughts that were somewhere in their brains, buried underneath deadlines, to-do lists, phone calls, and meetings.

Pick Me

Photo Credit: “Pick Me” by Phil Roeder, https://flic.kr/p/axkFzk 

The class I had signed up for was called “Six Characters In Search of A Plot,” a play-on-words of Luigi Pirandello’s 1921 play, Six Characters in Search of An Author. On the first day, we were presented with six pages of black and white eBay pictures, circa 1920. Based on intuition and how a picture ‘spoke to us’ (as pictures are wont to do to us writers), our homework involved choosing a protagonist, antagonist, supporting characters, a love interest, a busy body, and a wise owl. Focusing on the main character for the first night, we were set free to be in ‘daydream mode,’ cogitating on the desires of the character, his/her background and childhood. It’s true that a picture is worth a thousand words, because suddenly, an entire plot-line full of scandal, revenge, love and loneliness, disaster and reunion came together.

                We arrived the next day in class to share our unique results of our individual journeys to the Dreamlands. Many of us had chosen the same pictures to represent a different character in each story. The studious man with the curly hair and the fitted vest was the proud, vain protagonist of one classmate’s story, while he happened to be the neighbor’s stuttering cousin who comes to visit one summer and falls in love with my main character. No two stories were alike, even when we used the same pictures!

Next, it was time to add depth to our characters. As my instructor, Carolyn Lieberg, put it, think of an iceberg. Floating on top of the water is the amount of information about your character that will be present in the specific story you are telling. But under the surface exists the rest of the character. Millions of scenarios and behaviors lurk in the depths of the character’s ocean, a place that only the author herself has dared to travel. But how do you go about learning about your character?

Enter: the personality test.

via giphy.com

Long used by psychologists to understand their patients’ mental composition, the personality test can also be an invaluable tool for a writer to delve into the minds of their made-up characters and develop them into well-rounded people.

There are hundreds of tests online that I am sure are all varieties of the same ideas. WARNING: These tests are addictive!  Take this quiz or this one or this one and you will see why. In my class, we were asked to take these once as if the main character was taking it him/herself. This was particularly interesting, because even if you (the author) know that your character is a very untrustworthy sort, the character might see himself as honest, or lie to cover up his smarminess. The second time we took the test, we took it as a supporting character, commenting on the personality of the main character. Again, the results were quite different, because other characters may see the main character differently than the main character sees himself.

If you are a writer struggling to create believable and realistic characters, try the personality test! There are no wrong answers. You will be surprised how the character will come through and pick the correct answer for you!

*For an extra challenge, try to journal entry in your main character’s voice about taking the personality test. Devise a reason for his or her having to take it, and write about their reactions to the questions. Happy writing!

The Footsteps That Came Before Me

So this summer I had the amazing pleasure of leaving the country for the first time and going to England, where I got to study for five weeks at Oxford University, one of the oldest universities in the world. I haven’t gotten to talk much about my experiences there, since I made a blog but never kept up with it (oops), but I’d like to share something that I started thinking about when I came back to the University of Michigan.

It’s weird, because when I got to Oxford, I knew the history behind it, that there were thousands upon thousands of people that had walked the exact same pathways I did, that lived and breathed Oxford. It seemed like every day I learned something new; President Clinton once smoked weed at the Turf, Lewis Carroll taught here. There’s obviously something magical about walking in the footsteps of those who came before you (although, no, I didn’t smoke weed at the Turf – I just got a pint of cider, as per usual).

I’ve thought about this more, too, as the semester has gone on and I’ve been studying the works of James Joyce, who will forever be imprinted in Irish literary history. I had the chance to go to Dublin – there were some other people that wanted to go too – but I instead chose Paris. And even there, I found the quintessential tourist stop for an English major: Shakespeare and Company, the amazing bookstore that you just have to see to believe.

I found out in my Joyce class that Ulysses, his famous epic, was actually first published through Shakespeare and Company, and I had walked those halls, and I had taken a picture of the mural they have on the wall with James Joyce, proud on the wall. Joyce had gone to Paris and written in Paris a number of times – you could say I made that same pilgrimage.

But as I think about these things, about how these great writers have come before me, how I merely spent not even half my summer at this famed university whereas they devoted themselves to it – I don’t necessarily feel special. Sure, I loved it beyond all measure; this year marks the 100 year anniversary of the publishing of Alice in Wonderland. And it’s astounding that I even got accepted, much less had the money to go over there and spend five weeks essentially frolicking across Europe.

But I didn’t feel particularly magical. I know there are people who spend their time trekking across Dublin to find the spots Joyce mentions in Ulysses, or they go overseas to write because that’s what T.S. Eliot did. But nothing’s going to change if I write my novel here or if I write my novel in Paris, emulating some famous author. He’s not going to come back to life and help me revise those 300 pages, or give me inspiration for my next book.

I don’t mean to be too didactic, but I realized that following art isn’t what makes you any better – it’s doing your own art. By having my own experiences in Europe, I define who I am as me, not as someone else. Of course, that doesn’t mean I won’t go back to Paris and perhaps write there (because I loved Paris. I loved it). But I’ll do it because it’s what I want to do – not because Joyce did it a century earlier.

And if there’s any true moral of the story it’s this: travel, get outside your box, go somewhere. It’s totally worth it.

To NaNoWriMo or Not To NaNoWriMo

The season of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is almost upon us. What is NaNoWriMo? It’s a non-profit organization that sets up an annual challenge where starting November 1, participants begin working towards the goal of writing a 50,000-word novel by 11:59 PM on November 30. And sadly, I will not be throwing my gauntlet into the ring.

I took part last year and looked forward to it every night – to get back to the story that was coming to life, film-like, on the computer screen in front of me. I explored the life of three children, growing up in post-Hiroshima Japan, one of the most realist stories I’ve written in quite a while. I found myself caring about these characters more and more, found myself wanting to hear their voices, their fears, to take part in their adventures rather then venture out into the greater world of Ann Arbor and classes and homework.

As senior year in the English and Creative Writing departments draws its cloak over me, I find myself writing so much already that I couldn’t possibly work on a 50,000-word novel right now. I admire all college-age Nano-ers who can find the balance between classes and this writing challenge. But, if Nano-ing is not in your near future, do not fret. It can often be a very brave thing to know your limits and know when to say ‘no.’ The good thing about Nano is that it’s like an annual holiday. It comes every year. If you’re not participating this year, then next year perhaps! No one even has to know if you participate or not. It’s like a secret with yourself. (Though, there is an incredible online community of Nano-ers who are available for support, for ideas, for writing gatherings, etc, for those who enjoy that kind of groupie-ness.)

There has been recent backlash from ignoramuses who think that NaNoWriMo is meant for people to write 50,000 word first-drafts and send it to agents on Dec. 1. This is by no means the purpose of NaNoWriMo. It’s a challenge, a chance to push yourself to write the story that has been cooped in your head, no matter how bad or hyperbolic or boring or flouncy or cheesy or cliche or wonderful the writing. It’s a chance for you to get in touch with your creativity stores, to think through your own beliefs and opinions about society, and project them onto characters who are forced to make decisions and heck, maybe even fight a few ninjas or two. I can’t imagine criticizing anything that encourages storytelling. No matter if you have written a Pulitzer or if you write car manuals, everyone deserves the chance to participate in this challenge.

If you’re lucky, you’ll walk away from NaNo with a “The End” as your words numbered 49,999 and 50,000. But, don’t think of this as “your end.” This is just a draft. The real writing, the revision, hasn’t even begun. And if you want, it doesn’t have to begin. You can write it and on December 1, come out from your writing cave and return to normal life. But, if you believe in your novel, you can make it stronger and keep working on it. To quote Da Vinci, “art is never finished, only abandoned.” But, something abandoned, doesn’t have to stay abandoned. Nor does it only have to be worked on during the month of November. That means that my story, about the three Japanese children, need not fear! I plan to pick it up again and continue the adventuring…just maybe after college settles down.

From one Nano-er to the next, I give this bit of advice to all of you brave writers who I will be living vicariously through this November:

Don’t delete anything. Even if you can’t stand to look at it, just highlight it in black and keep writing. (It creates this cool “blackout poetry” feel to your piece.)

If possible, log in the words while you have the time.  Try and get ahead in the first few days, which will give you flexibility as life and reality catches up to you later on in November.

-Make sure to give yourself breaks. Get up, take a walk, go to a museum, do yoga, paint your toenails, learn how to do headstands. Shake up your brainwaves so the ideas have room to breathe.

-Back up your work. Press Save a lot, become best friends with flash drives. Also, you can save to that whimsical of all things, the all-hailed Cloud.

Take risks. No one else has to see this writing if you don’t want them to. Be daring. Be silly. Add a dragon or two. Write scandalously. Mix the two and include the most scandalous of dragons.

Let yourself be surprised. 

To all my friends who are Nano-ing this year, I wave flags of encouragement and wish you happy writing and delicious snacks that don’t sticky up your fingers so much that prevent you from typing and I hope that you find yourself on the other side of the month, pleasantly surprised with the strength and courage and productivity that you achieved in just 30 autumnal days.

Write on, folks, write on!