Tuesday, February 28, 2012

This is Why I'm a Writer

I subscribe to an e-mail newsletter called The Toilet Paper, which publishes every five or six days, unless there's a holiday such as Valentine's Day, in which case a special exception is made and a newsletter appears.

It's worth the wait because those behind the newsletter know write well, with subtle humor.

Today's issue was called "Stupid Skool Roolz", about edicts put in place by two states that could very well turn off future teachers from either those states or the profession entirely. The quote in the issue was from English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton:

The best teacher is the one who suggests rather than dogmatizes, and inspires his listener with the wish to teach himself.

I've written about Andy Rooney influencing me in my writing by me trying to write exactly like him, finding that I couldn't, and learning what writing style is. I've briefly mentioned Natalie Goldberg, whose books, including Wild Mind: Living the Writer's Life, made me excited to write because I could write about anything! I have to write often in order to be effective, like any writer does, but Goldberg showed me the fun in it, the freedom that comes when you go through any topic, any memory, in words. Her living in Taos, New Mexico also likely planted the state in my mind when I was 10 and 11, and that was a process that exploded with The Secret of Everything by Barbara O'Neal, which makes me want to visit New Mexico. But Goldberg started it.

However, teachers on paper only go so far. In 11th grade at Hollywood Hills High School in Hollywood, Florida, I had exactly the kind of teacher Lytton describes in that quote.

Her name was Roberta Little, an English teacher, but one different from what English teachers are generally known for with grading essays to the point of nitpicking and a host of analyses of books and plays that make you wonder if the teacher in front of you actually enjoyed the book or play. Shouldn't they be analyzing dramatic effectiveness or exploring the motives of characters in order to illuminate those not-so-clear parts?

Mrs. Little did all that and much more. I had her for the latter half of 11th grade, and in that one semester, she presented Julius Caesar, A Raisin in the Sun, The Great Gatsby, The Scarlet Letter, The Glass Menagerie, The Crucible, A Rose for Emily by William Faulkner, and Hal Holbrook in Mark Twain Tonight!. She showed the 1970 movie version of Julius Caesar (with Jason Robards as a zombielike, utterly passionless Marcus Brutus), the 1974 version of The Great Gatsby, A Raisin in the Sun, the Paul Newman-directed version of The Glass Menagerie, starring John Malkovich, Joanne Woodward, Karen Allen, and James Naughton; the 1995 version of The Scarlet Letter, the 1996 version of The Crucible, and, of course, Hal Holbrook in Mark Twain Tonight!.

It seems impossible to do all that in one semester, but Mrs. Little knew exactly how to do it: Bring the students along. Seek their opinion about what they believe to be the meaning of a work. Foster conversation that brings even more depth to what's being studied. Find out what they liked and didn't like about it, and never make them feel low about either. Give your own opinion, but don't let it be the word of law in the classroom.

I remember spending a few days in her class going over Faulkner's A Rose for Emily. I don't remember the exact discussion, but I looked at those words, absorbing the dark atmosphere of the short story. I do remember her going over it section by section, exploring motivation, descriptions of settings, character traits, and I learned that every word can be crucial to the telling of a story, and that what one writer sees, another writer may see it differently. In fact, writers beyond what we were reading weren't needed to show that. Just me and my classmates alone were enough to show that each viewpoint differs, and offers something most important to learning about this: There is no one way to interpret a story. It's going to be seen differently by being filtered through varied experiences in one's life. Certainly my classmates sitting behind, in front of, and all around me had not lived the way I lived and could always be counted on to talk about something I hadn't even considered in the story. Mrs. Little always made sure there was time for that kind of discussion. She wanted a symphony of different voices with one story or play in common, and she got it every time.

A teacher like that is also made by their love for the material, and Mrs. Little had that more than any other teacher I had had in any subject. When she was preparing to show Mark Twain Tonight!, I think there was an excerpt of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and the way she described Twain's time made me feel like I was there in my imagination, like I could know that river as well as Huck did. When we watched Hal Holbrook in that 1967 TV special, I admittedly laughed when my classmates laughed, not sure where I should laugh, but watching the special over and over again in the years after, even having it now on DVD in my collection, I get the jokes now and I understand Twain quite well, because of Mrs. Little. She made me want to learn more about who Twain was, what he wrote, and why he was justifiably famous.

We spent a week or two reading The Glass Menagerie. She gave out parts to my classmates and I, and then switched them around after a few pages because it was a lot to read. I remember wanting to read Tom, though I don't remember if I did. No matter who read what, this is the reason I want to write my own plays. Mrs. Little didn't suggest that we read with any kind of vocal inflection, though some of my classmates tried it, the more enthusiastic ones. That's not to say that I wasn't enthusiastic about it. I'm an introvert who can be extroverted unassisted, when I feel it, but I like my introverted self best.

I credit some of Mrs. Little's teaching for The Glass Menagerie being my favorite play. We dwelled in that St. Louis apartment for quite some time, and I loved that deep sadness and regret that emanated throughout those rooms, which is a weird thing to say, I know, but being that I find the imperfect nature of things far more fascinating than any pursuit of perfection (safe to say that I don't like Martha Stewart), I loved being in that apartment in my mind, examining what the characters were after, and why Amanda Wingfield kept dwelling on the past, trying to reach for some former glory that she could never have again.

John Malkovich is the other reason The Glass Menagerie is my favorite play. In 10th grade at Flanagan High School in Pembroke Pines, my English showed the 1992 version of Of Mice and Men, which starred Malkovich and Gary Sinise, who also directed. There's that scene where his Lennie towers over Curley, the ranch hand, his hand curled over Curley's hand, nearly breaking it. That angry look that Lennie had in that scene is what made Malkovich one of my favorite actors. I guess it was destined, because when Mom and I went to that summer morning movie program at GCC Coral Square Cinema 8 in 1993, we once came out of the theater that was showing whatever animated or kids movie it was, and the paper marquee in between the two doors outside that theater was for In the Line of Fire, which co-starred John Malkovich as the assassin. I wanted to know what it was about, but since it was rated "R," and I was nine years old, I had no chance of knowing then. I've since found out and Malkovich is just as impressive in that one.

I would like to see The Glass Menagerie on stage, and have seen clips of stage performances on YouTube, but Malkovich's Tom Wingfield is the best to me because here is this man who so clearly wants to see the world, to do something more than just working in a warehouse job, but he feels stymied by his overbearing mother and his need to take care of his emotionally crippled sister Laura, brought on not only by her physical disability, but also Amanda, expecting more and more and more and never letting Laura figure out who she is. Of course, Laura could use a push into figuring it out, but not the way Amanda does it.

Malkovich gets to who Tom is right away with the opening monologue, drinking from a flask and smoking, weighed down so heavily by silent guilt, and his Tom simmers and boils until he can't possibly take it anymore. Would Tom have been better off if he had done like his father, seeming to live a detached existence and then leaving his family behind? Maybe, but being that Tom is also a writer, there are certain things in the soul that tie us down to wherever we are, a need to remain there for whatever may happen, or because that's our specialty in our work. I don't really know. I'm just letting my thoughts flutter. But because of Malkovich, I borrowed often for weekends that videotape of The Glass Menagerie that Mrs. Little used, since she had checked it out of the school library, and I had special permission since my mom worked as an assistant there.

There's no way I can aspire to be Tennessee Williams inasmuch as I can aspire to be Neil Simon. I can't. I'm not either of them. But learning about emotion in a play, about character development, about the devices used in plays, made me want to try writing my own. I want a setting like that St. Louis apartment, but of course a setting filtered through my own experiences. And it's because of Mrs. Little that I think this way, that I embrace creativity and have never let go. It's why I spent $22.98 at Amazon Marketplace for a rare VHS copy of The Glass Menagerie, since it may never come out on DVD. I've been waiting for years.

That tape sits in front of me right now, a symbol of Mrs. Little's continuing influence. I spend time in a lot of places in my head, right now the Fashion Outlets of Las Vegas in Primm, at the Nevada border, but I always remember that classroom, and the discussions, and that sense of being welcome to say whatever was on one's mind about those plays and those stories. One comment could lead to an entirely different discussion about them, and that's what made it worth it. It's why I'm a writer and I never give up, no matter how hard it gets.

Know Who I Am Through My Seven Favorite Movies

My seven all-time favorite movies, as ranked, are:

1) Mary Poppins
2) The Remains of the Day
3) The Jungle Book (1967)
4) The Swimmer (1968)
5) The Fabulous Baker Boys
6) 84 Charing Cross Road
7) My Blueberry Nights

What's not on the list is as much indicative of who I am. The James Bond series is my Star Wars, but holds no place here, nor does Demolition Man, which I believe is a rather intelligent action movie (and also imparts the great pleasure of watching Wesley Snipes have a lot of fun in his psycho role), nor Tron: Legacy, which I love, love, love for its imaginative dystopian setting, the same reason I'm also a fan of Blade Runner.

Given a choice of movie, I don't lean toward action or violence. If violence serves the plot of a movie well, as it does with Tron: Legacy and the Bond series, as well as the Bourne movies, then I'm ok with it, but I'm not going to choose it all the time.

These seven movies have a lot in common with who I am. They take in their settings slowly and appreciatively, sometimes to haunting effect. Mary Poppins has the Banks house, Admiral Boom's roof with the time cannon, the park and the chalk pavement pictures which leads Mary, Bert and Jane and Michael into that world, Mr. Banks' bank, various streets of London, a view of the London skyline, the streets of London, and of course at the beginning of the movie, all of London when Mary Poppins is sitting on a cloud. The Remains of the Day has Darlington Hall and also where Stevens the butler (Anthony Hopkins) travels to in the Daimler, The Jungle Book has the jungle, The Swimmer has the neighborhood swimming pools that Ned Merrill (Burt Lancaster) decides to use to swim home, The Fabulous Baker Boys has some of Seattle, and parts of Los Angeles made to look like parts of Seattle (The locations don't matter as much in this one, but the settings are so evocative, and I love the scene in which Jack, Frank and Susie take a road trip to their New Year's Eve gig), 84 Charing Cross Road has the bookshop and some of New York City in the late '40s on, and My Blueberry Nights sees Norah Jones in a relatively quieter part of New York City, then on to Tennessee, and then to Las Vegas.

I love exploring wherever I am. It's why my favorite memory of attending classes at College of the Canyons was every Friday afternoon at 3:50, after my cinema class was over, when the entire campus was empty because it was Friday. After walking around the second floor and some of the farther parts of the campus, including the Student Center to see if anyone was in the cafeteria, I walked out of the main campus and along the sidewalk, next to two of the parking lots, and at the one nearest to the large double digital signboards, there were people setting up for that weekend's car and RV show. Every Friday, I'd always see many cars parked there for show.

My list also boasts of many unique characters, Mary Poppins chief among them. Stevens the butler in The Remains of the Day sets aside his own hopes and desires to be the most upstanding butler he can be for Darlington Hall, and when he vaguely taps into those hopes and desires, it's far too late, because life has moved on without him, and he missed his chance years before, though didn't realize it until the trip he takes. Baloo the bear in The Jungle Book is one of my fictional heroes, because of how easygoing he is in his life. Ned Merrill in The Swimmer is unique in his pursuit, though it leads to dark, dark corners of his life. Jack Baker, one half of the Baker Boys piano duo, just goes through the motions of performance with his brother, while his real passion is playing jazz piano in a club. Helene Hanff in 84 Charing Cross Road is an out-and-out bibliophile, and naturally a writer, and her correspondence with Frank Doel of the Marks & Co. bookshop at 84 Charing Cross Road is what makes her one of my heroes. She exudes pure love of books, and it shows in every single letter. And I still don't know what made Norah Jones take the role of Elizabeth in My Blueberry Nights, but it shows why she should find other movies in the same thoughtful vein. Elizabeth endures a painful one-sided breakup, and decides to travel, finding work as a waitress at a diner and a bar in Tennessee, and then as a cocktail waitress at a dumpy casino in Las Vegas. She's not the only most interesting character, though; Natalie Portman plays another, a poker player who believes in not trusting anyone, emotionally closed off from the rest of the world, but who finds a kind of kinship with Elizabeth.

Most important to me: These movies take time to tell their stories. Now, I usually prefer books over movies because I want to be completely enfolded in the stories told. I want to see what characters see, know what they know, and sometimes know what they know, only to learn that what they know is not actually true. I get the same feeling with these seven movies. Mary Poppins is 2 hours and 19 minutes, because any longer would be overdone and any shorter would be criminal because Walt Disney's London (filmed entirely on soundstages) is one that I love to explore. It's the same with The Fabulous Baker Boys. I never get tired of the gradually strained dynamic between Jack and Frank Baker because there's so much to explore within it, from appearances, to their piano-playing styles, to Jack's piano skills versus Frank's, to where they perform and where they live.

I don't take time in my writing, because if I did, this entry would be so many pages that you'd click off in frustration. That's what editing is for. But in my life, I love to take time to look around me, to look closely at small flowers in shopping center parking lots, to admire the community of birds and crows that swoop down after brunch and lunch at La Mesa Junior High to pick at whatever the kids have littered the grounds with. And that's while I'm looking at the school building directly across from the office, imagining myself in New Mexico, because that building feels like architecture that would be in New Mexico.

This list hasn't changed in three years and I doubt it will in the years to come. These movies fully represent who I am and how I live my life, and any movie to be added to that list would have to be what these movies are to me. Since I watch less movies than I used to, none of these are in danger of being upended.