Flash Fiction as Emotional Photography

I might never see a sky this exact color again. Which, actually, would be kinda awesome.

I might never see a sky this exact color again. Which, actually, would be kinda awesome.

I was eating seafood gumbo in Apalachicola, FL, alone in a restaurant that sat on a busy (for Apalach, anyway) corner, where 98W streams through town and turns left.

This restaurant has big picture windows, and if you’re sitting facing the corner, you can see the traffic clearly. I watched as a truck hauling cypress lumber passed by, turning the restaurant’s corner. It was distinct because when you drive from Atlanta to Apalach, you usually follow route 65S, which cuts through Apalachicola National Forest, and all that cypress is unmistakable.

A few minutes later, another identical truck passed by. Then another. And another.

The scene reminded me of a corner I pass almost every day at home here in North Georgia. If you get stopped at the light at this particular intersection, you’re almost guaranteed to see a chicken truck pass by on route 20. It always strikes me, because it’s kind of sad, watching those pent up chickens transported into town. We know their fates.

That juxtaposition – the chicken trucks in Georgia, the cypress trucks in Florida – sparked an emotion in me that I knew would lead to a story. I’ve been writing flash fiction a while now, and it’s starting to become easier to recognize that ignition, the feeling I’m on the verge of a new story.

Things usually happen quickly after that. The characters come into view – there was a woman who had worked as a waitress in Georgia, watching those chicken trucks out her window, and something – a guy, probably – made her move to Apalach, where her life hadn’t changed as much as she’d hoped. She was still a waitress, and she was still watching trucks pass by her window. The only thing that had changed was what the trucks were carrying, and where they were going, while her life, to her eyes, remained rooted in place.

It would’ve been a great story (if I do say so myself), but here’s the thing.

I didn’t write it.

Here’s the other thing.

I’ll never write it.

See, I didn’t write it because I had made a commitment to myself to use my writing time on this particular work-cation to finish a revision of my work-in-progress, a middle grade adventure novel I’m really in love with. I didn’t have time to write flash fiction at that particular moment, not if I wanted to keep my promise to myself.

So write it now! I hear some of you crying out. Or sometime later, anyway.

Nope.

The thing is, even though I remember the basic plot and, even to some extent, the fundamental emotional core of the story – why I thought it would make a good piece in the first place – the particular emotions I felt at that moment, emotions that had a certain color, a certain light and texture in my head, my heart and my soul, those are gone. They left me when I stood up from that restaurant and paid the bill, as those cypress trucks sped on to wherever they were heading.

I discovered this week that’s one of the secrets to flash fiction – one of mine, anyway – the emotional connection to the work has to be there. People sometimes ask me if I’ve ever figured out why my flash fiction seems to work so well, and until now, I haven’t really been able to answer.

But now I think I understand better. A little better, anyway.

It’s that emotional connection, and a lot of times – most of the time – it’s sort of fleeting. It’s like a photograph. Do you ever have a moment where the light is just right, a subject is in the perfect spot, and you know it’s going to make a great picture? But maybe you fumble with your camera, or you forgot it in the hotel room, or whatever, and you promise you’ll come back, but by the time you do, the sun has set or the sky is a different color or the horse is no longer standing there, the boat is out to sea now, and heck you can take the photo anyway, but it’ll never be quite the same thing as it was in that moment you missed?

That’s flash fiction, for me at least. It’s emotional photography, and I either write the story when I’m still experiencing that exuberant feeling, or I don’t. I say exuberant, even if the emotion is one of melancholy, because it’s having the feeling that’s thrilling. For me, out of strong feelings and emotions come truth.

And I think, too, that’s the answer to what makes very short stories work or not. A good flash fiction piece, a great piece of music, a fantastic painting – most of them are doing the same thing. They’re capturing the universal in the particular. Particular details – lyrics, words, imagery – can evoke a universal connection between creator and consumer.

We’ve all experienced the sadness of cleaning up after a loved one’s death (The Union Bank Times), or struggled with disrespect in our work life (Sometimes It Goes Down the Wrong Way), or thought about moving somewhere else before realizing how much we’d miss our friends (Winter Ball).

Good stories remind of us of these universal experiences by establishing a firm emotional connection with you, the reader, listener or viewer. I believe they can only do this (or maybe, best do this) if the creator, the artist, felt that emotional connection him or herself at the time of the production of the work.

apalach bayThis shouldn’t be seen as a loss, that I didn’t write that particular story. That’s the great thing about emotions. We’re having them all the time, because we’re human, and that’s what we do. I may never feel the exact spark that might’ve ignited that particular story, in the same way the color of the sunset may never be exactly like it was that evening ten years ago, or twenty, but I will have other emotions, and there will be other sunsets.

The key is being able and willing to let the one you missed go, and to be open and receptive to the next one you see. Because, then, all you have to do is write it down.

 

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Clean

The envious CLEAN sticker

The envious CLEAN sticker

For a couple of years, I’ve been getting phlebotomies, which is a procedure in which a giant (hey, to me it’s giant) needle is stuck in my arm and a big bag of blood is drained from me.

I’ve whined about it before, I’m sure, somewhere, so I won’t go into great detail here. I know for sure I wrote a short story about it, which is called – creatively – PHLEBOTOMY. The fact it morphed into a vampire story should tell you all you need to know about how I usually feel leading up to and during this procedure.

My phlebotomies are done at a cancer facility. I don’t have cancer (thankfully), but that’s where they’re done. After I meet with the doctor, I’m led into a sunny area with walls of windows and recliners that might even look pleasant at first, but it’s not really because pretty much everyone else there is getting chemotherapy, which I’ve no doubt is a lot less fun than a phlebotomy.

I can pick any chair I want, and most of them are usually empty. The only rule is the chair I pick has to be “clean” – in other words, one someone wasn’t just in – and this is notated by a strip of white paper with a block of yellow in the middle that has the black letters “CLEAN” stamped on it.

Yesterday I had a phlebotomy. It doesn’t take that too long, but I do always, of course, bring something to read or work on (though I’m deathly afraid to move my arm while it’s going on – did I mention the needle is GIANT?)

On this particular day I brought with me a printout of a manuscript I recently completed. I’m letting it “sit” – mostly – but on occasion I take a tour through it and check it out, and that’s what I was up to on phlebotomy-day.

I picked out my “clean” recliner, set my manuscript on the side table, and moved the white strip of paper off the seat so I could sit down. It wasn’t until I was settled into the recliner that I noticed I had dropped the strip onto the top of my manuscript. It rested there aslant, as if someone had given it the once over and decided it was ready to go (note that it is FAR from ready to go), that it was “CLEAN.”

And it got me to thinking.

Whether or not the recliners are clean is a pretty objective thing – there’s some procedure that’s followed, a set of defined steps, a particular cleanser that’s used, whatever. The point is, at the end of these steps, the nurse can slap the “clean” tag down and, boom…clean. Nobody’s going to argue.

I recently submitted a new manuscript to lots of people (NOT the one I was reading during my phlebotomy, a different MS). When we writers send our work out this way, it’s a real act of faith. We cringe. We worry. We fret. And we hope, above all, that it comes back with that CLEAN tag aslant across the top, some rough form of it, anyway.

In my particular case, it did – from several folks. (Well, not “clean,” exactly. No piece of writing can ever quite get that particular stamp, but “good” as in “continue revising.”) But a person or two had the opposite reaction. The MS needed a lot of work, according to them, possibly enough to give serious consideration to moving on to a different project entirely.

Because reacting to a piece of writing, unlike cleaning a recliner, isn’t objective at all.

Nope. It’s sooooo subjective.

These reactions have been spinning around in my head for a couple of weeks, causing endless confusion as to What I Should Do Next. Should I move to the next project, leaving this book I cared about and loved so much behind? Should I stick to my guns? Something in between?

I think this is the normal, constant state of the writer – staring off into space contemplating What I Should Do Next. I hope that’s normal, anyway, because, man, seems like That’s All I Ever Do.

So it was that I stared down with some envy at the white strip of paper erroneously declaring my even newer MS to be “CLEAN.” Jealous of those objective, definable steps to that status for the recliner. Wishing writers, too, could rely on a single person to declare a book or a story is “CLEAN”…as in “DONE”, that this assessment was a Yes or No question at all.

Then my envy disappeared, because I realized something else – that subjectivity (or rather, lack of objectivity) is part of the magic of writing. After all, the beauty of how different we are, while still being the same underneath, is one of the very reasons I write.

And the thing is, no writing is ever clean, is it?

  • If your critique partners love it, your agent might not.
  • If your agent loves it, editors might not.
  • If an editor loves it, not all readers will.
  • If readers mostly love it, the critics might not.
  • If readers and critics both adore it, it might get made into a movie, and maybe movie-goers won’t like it
  • Even if you’re Shakespeare, some dude will log on to Amazon and give you one star centuries after your death. Jeez.

So we must learn to appreciate this part of the process, the wonder of trying to get a story right when no one can agree on what right even is.

To appreciate that all of us have our own version of “CLEAN” and it’s different. Awesomely, gorgeously Different.

I still have no idea what I’m going to do. I probably need to decide soon. But phlebotomies, though I kinda hate them, always make me feel a little better. This one especially so.

You Can’t Kill Art

Rose

“Rose”
Artist: Mary Negron

So I was reading an op ed the other day prompted by a rumor that Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin planned to defund the Kentucky Arts Council in his first budget. As it turns out, the Arts Council budget survived, although funding was cut by nine percent.

The author of the original op ed piece, Kentucky poet Maurice Manning, wrote about visionary printer Victor Hammer. He fled Nazi Germany in the ’40s when Hitler tried to eliminate art as part of his reign’s efforts at suppressing culture. Hammer landed in Kentucky and became a big part of the creation of a culture in Lexington that attracted other artists, an “influx” of sorts.

This got me thinking.

We see this a lot, don’t we? Some of the recent insanity in the Middle East has led to the destruction of art and culture. Fascists and zealots and fanatics try to kill art all the time. It’s a tactic employed throughout history, a first step toward subjugating a people, because the artists are usually among the first to challenge and question authority.

Sumi-e Koi

“Sumi-e Koi”
Artist: Mary Negron

Here’s the thing I decided, though. No matter how hard you try, you can’t kill art.

Let me say that again.

You can’t kill art.

Not in a culture or a person or a race or a country. You can’t.

When you bring your heel down on it, like Hitler did, you don’t smash it. You break open a seed pod, and the seeds spread out and away. Like Victor Hammer coming to Kentucky and helping to launch a whole new arts culture there. I don’t have a list, but that got me wondering how many places how many other people forced to flee Nazi Germany landed. How many other arts cultures, conclaves, influxes – whatever – were started in these places by these people Hitler attempted to suppress.

Warrior 3

“Warrior 3”
Artist: Suzy Schultz

And how ironic it is that Hitler didn’t kill art. He couldn’t. He could only spread it.

I’ve no doubt if some artists depending on the funding in Kentucky were forced to leave the state, had it been cut entirely, they wouldn’t have stopped making art. Being artists.

No, they would’ve spread out. To Tennessee and Ohio. To Indiana and Missouri and Georgia.

Because you can’t kill art.

My wife is a painter, and she recently returned from a trip to Marco Island for a painting workshop. One of her favorite quotes from the instructor was that we artists are “tenderized.” We get beat up a lot, told our work has no merit, receive subtle – and not so subtle – suggestions we should quit.

Solitude

“Solitude”
Artist: Mary Negron

I’ve had this experience myself. More than a few people have gone out of their way to make negative comments about my work to me, some without even reading it. All artists experience this. These people exist; it hurts when they speak up. A few times, I’ve even taken a little break after hearing from one of them.

But I always come back to my art, to my writing. Because you can’t kill it in me.

My work hasn’t always touched as many people as I would like it to, but I keep pushing forward, undaunted. Trying new things, being an artist. Pursuing my artistic goals.

And now I have a new goal. I want to spread art.

Last year, I helped my wife and several others write a grant proposal for a children’s art festival. We’ve got lofty goals. A full day of painting and music and writing and theater activities, for kids of all ages.

We were awarded the grant.

Hotel Bloom Lobby in Brussels, Belgium

Hotel Bloom Lobby in Brussels, Belgium

So now our event is this real thing. It will be held in April. If you follow this blog or me on Twitter or Facebook, I’ll announce more details when they’re available. I know at minimum I’ll be leading the writing portion and I’m really excited about that. I’ve even started to plan out the sessions and some other folks have had some great ideas for writing-related booths we’ll have on hand as well.

The thing is, I keep getting a little thrill imagining the next JK Rowling or JJ Abrams might come, and be inspired to create, to let their own unique art light shine, by this little event they went to as a kid. Or maybe a kid who becomes an engineer or a doctor, but harbors a lifelong appreciation of art because of the exposure we give them to it.

In the Garden

“In the Garden”
Artist: Mary Negron

Maybe, either way, we’ll never know. I sort of love that, the idea of sending bottles with little art messages in them out into the ocean, never sure who might be on the other end or how they’ll receive their discoveries.

Here’s what I think I know for sure, though.

I think, once that seed of art appreciation grows in you, it’s hard to kill.

Impossible, even.

Take the stairs

Nice, France

Most people would just stay at this beach, I bet

Last fall I spent some time in Nice, France, a beautiful place. My wife’s a painter, so she desperately wanted to see the Musee Matisse while we were there. And I was certainly game – Henri Matisse was a brave and unique artist, a bold guy unafraid to try new things. My kind of dude.

We’re the type of people who walk in cities. I like the connection walking gives me to a place. So, sure, it would’ve been easier to grab a cab or figure out public transportation, but instead we decided the way to get to Matisse’s museum was to walk there.

The map told us our destination was northwest from our hotel in the Old Town. Basically up and to the left, in a big green area that signified a park. That’s really all we knew for sure, which was fine. I’m a discovery walker. Gets me in trouble sometimes.

NW from THIS hotel room, which probably deserves it's own blog post

NW from THIS hotel room, which probably deserves it’s own blog post

The river Paillon, which interestingly is underground for part of the journey, led us north. We knew eventually we’d have to turn west. Nice is extremely hilly, and I figured at some point we’d also have to go UP.

Really, though, I had no idea.

Following the map (and looking every bit the lost American tourist), I decided a road to our left would take us up and into the park. There was a blind curve and the road itself was really narrow. Worse, there was a suspicious guy that we THOUGHT might be following us.

We decided there must be another way.

Returning to follow the river, I noticed the map had a little squiggly line a little farther up that suggested some pedestrian stairs might take us in the direction of the park and the museum.

“Let’s take the stairs,” I suggested. Like I said, gets me in trouble.

Stairs in Nice

First look at the stairs

We were walking in a neighborhood that had gotten a little sketchy when the stairs suddenly appeared on our left. No sign naming them or indicating where they might lead. Nothing.

Just stairs.

I had utterly no idea how many stairs there might be before we reached the park. Or even if the stairs actually led to the park or museum AT ALL. (Well, sort of an idea. The map seemed to show the squiggly line stopped in the big green space. I think that’s something along the lines of what Columbus said to his crew, right?)

Even so, we went up, because sometimes you have to take a deep breath and march forward, even if you don’t know what’s waiting for you on the other side.

Sometimes you just have to take the stairs.

And we did. Up. And up and up and up.

I kid you not, a thousand stairs. More, even.

Little hidden views like this

Little hidden views like this

The stairs wound their way up the hill, bending to the left and back to the right. Amazingly, people lived along this strange, narrow staircase.

We passed homes – houses or condos or apartments, it was hard to tell. The inhabitants had chairs out on patios in front of little gardens. They didn’t look like expensive places – I mean, how could you even get furniture there – but we were high enough now the views were glorious.

We kept walking.

Eventually we came out onto a road. We were NOT in the park. This road, it went off and up to the right, down to the left.

We took a break. We were sweaty and hot and a little frustrated. We hadn’t seen a soul all that way up the stairs, which was starting to make me think the people of Nice weren’t dumb enough to actually use them. I took off my sweatshirt and packed it away in my backpack.

A woman came by, and we asked her about the museum. She didn’t speak English, but eventually understood what we wanted, and pointed across the street.

stairs more

That’s right, more stairs. I swear we were down where you see those little buildings when we started

To another set of stone stairs.

After the woman disappeared, there might’ve been some swearing on our part. I will neither confirm or deny.

How many more stairs could there be? We had no idea. The new stairs wound up the hill again, disappearing into its side.

We took a moment to get ready again before re-embarking. I noticed an old man leaning against his car a few meters away, staring at us with his arms folded across his chest and a bemused expression on his face.

Something about him made me realize how ridiculous our predicament was. I smiled, shrugging my shoulders and extending my hands out. I don’t speak much French, so all week I’d been using gestures to convey my state of mind. This one said, “What can you do, you know?”

The old man unclamped his arms and raised one hand to give us a thumbs up gesture. What it meant exactly, I’m not sure. Maybe, “Good luck, you stupid Americans.” Maybe, “Keep going. It’s worth it.” Probably both.

Sometimes all you need to keep going is for someone to give a thumbs up at the right moment.

Eventually, we reached the top of that second set of stairs. There was a sign for a monastery on a door. A locked door. I started to imagine having to go all the way down again.

monastery garden

Jardin du Monastère de Cimiez

But then several more steps appeared to the right, around a corner. We took them, popped through an opening and stepped into an immaculate garden.

We were on the grounds of the monastery, which was in the park we were heading for. It was amazing. I have dozens of photos of this place. Of olive groves and orange trees and flowers and I wish I could share them all. There were even swarms of gnats.

In this place, you could even fall in love with a swarm of gnats.

Still, we weren’t at the Musee Matisse yet. We followed the path through the monastery’s grounds into the rest of the park. Signs directed us toward the museum.

Yep. More stairs.There were more stairs. Of course. But these were wide and inviting, like a reward for that narrow, sweaty journey we had made already.

We meandered through a park that was essentially a big olive grove.

I remember being fascinated by the birds.

I remember passing a park bench where two elderly women were deep in conversation, their dogs at their sides. I remember imagining them as very old friends, women who had known each other since childhood.

My mind was doing that thing it does when it gets just the right level of exhausted and exhilarated and fascinated. Making stories.

Musee Matisse

Musee Matisse

Eventually we found the museum. It could’ve been closed. It might’ve taken us too long to get there. It wasn’t and it didn’t.

But if the museum had been closed, it actually would’ve been fine. We had seen so much getting there, indelible images, from olive trees to dogs to old friends to breathtaking views to that smiling old man with his thumb in the air.

The museum was the destination, but it had become the icing on the cake to the journey.

Because we had taken the stairs.

I’m a sports fan AND an arts fan. (Crazy, I know). The NFL playoffs started last weekend and, in one of the games, the Pittsburgh Steelers knocked out the Cincinnati Bengals in a particularly hard fought game.

In the locker room afterwards, Bengals receiver A.J. Green was interviewed. I can’t find the clip now, but in addition to saying the loss hurt, he explained to the reporter it had taken him and the team six months to get to that point, and that now they were going to have to go through all that again, just to get to the same spot. He was willing to do it, because he loves football, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t going to be difficult.

I identified with this. When a book fails (and…writers, sorry but odds are your book WILL fail – whether you don’t connect with an agent or a publisher or whether no one buys it or reads it…I mean, for your sake, I hope not, but it’s REALLY hard what we’re doing here).

Anyway, when a book fails, some well-meaning person will always say, “That’s okay, just write another one.”

And, true enough, that’s the thing to do. Get back on the horse, as they say. But, man, it’s like an NFL season, right? It’s six months (a year? multiple years?) of hard work to get back to that point where you already were. Six months of trying to be perfect with your story and make it the best it can be and critique and work and more work and revision and…you get the idea.

It’s taking the damn stairs.

And after all that work and time and sweat, you might get to the park and find the museum closed. Again.

The thing is, you have no idea as you’re taking that first step of so many. You do it blindly.

Not yet ripe orange in the monastery garden

Not yet ripe orange in the monastery garden

That’s why you have to pay attention on each step, because if you don’t focus on the hours at the museum, which are out of your control, and instead zero in on that not-quite-yet-ripe orange on that tree inches from you (that sentence you write at midnight one night that actually makes you tear up), on that smiling old man with his thumb up (your critique partner who tells you she loves your book), on those old friends and their dogs on the park bench (your characters – those fantastic people you created from nothing, IN YOUR HEAD), you’ll realize that you’ve already succeeded.

So when your hear those voices telling you you’re hot, you’re tired, you should turn around and go back down, because going down is easier, tell them to shut up.

Tell them you’re taking the stairs. And keep your eyes wide open the entire climb up.

 

 

 

Revision, like Sandpaper

sandingEver do any woodworking? Yeah, me neither.

Actually, I’ve done a little. One of the things I liked most was sanding. I remember my father having lots of different sandpaper, each with progressively finer grit. 180, 220, etc. The higher the number, the finer the grit.

I can remember entering a contest where I had to make a little wooden car that would race other cars down a track. The track was simple: basically just a hill that leveled out into a long straightaway. Your car had to be aerodynamic enough to speed down the hill and beat the other cars to the finish line.

My dad helped with me with the project. He liked to build those sorts of things. Before we painted it, we had to sand it, to make sure it was as smooth and rounded as possible. Sleek and fast.

NOT my car

NOT my car

I remember using that sandpaper, starting with a lower number until it was as smooth as I could make it with that grit, then graduating to a finer paper, sanding more and more, each time increasing the grit and making that car smoother and smoother still.

It’s a lot like revision.

Revision is complicated. It has lots of stages. Sometimes, very early, you’re not sanding at all. You’re still building. You’re taking the back of the car and putting it in front, changing the wheels out, re-thinking your whole approach.

But, hopefully eventually, you’re sanding.

The other day I was reading the Revising chapter in The One-Hour MFA by Michael Kimball, which is a great little craft book that zeroes on the essence of certain aspects of writing. He includes a bunch of quotes from various writers on how they approach revision. I really liked a couple of them:

“If I reach a point where I am glazing over, or replacing, one day, a comma I omitted the day before, then I let the story go, for better or worse, and move on.” – Noy Holland

“A work is finished when we can no longer improve it, though we know it to be inadequate and incomplete. We are so overtaxed by it that we no longer have the power to add a single comma, however indispensable. Whatever determines the degree to which a work is done is not a requirement of art or of truth, it is exhaustion and, even more, disgust.” – Emil Cioran

I think both of these quotes are saying a similar thing – you revise and revise until you’ve used the finest grit sandpaper you possess, until the work is as smooth as you are capable of making it, until you’re almost disgusted by it.

Then you let it go.

Finish LineAnd it doesn’t mean it can’t get any smoother. It can always be smoother. You might still run your hand over it and get a sliver. Such is the nature of art. It can always be better.

But learning “smooth enough” is as big part of understanding revision and being able to do the thing some writers never achieve. FINISHING – you have to finish.

Lost Star Wars swag

Vader LeiaFor some reason, I remember the cards the best. There were three sets – bordered in blue, red and yellow.

I HAD them. The complete sets. All the colors.

I would leaf through them and remember the scenes from the movies. I’ve seen the movies dozens of times, but I’d venture to say those cards are the things that allow me to recount the entire plot from memory at a moment’s notice.

But I have no idea where they went or when they disappeared.

I had SO MUCH swag – so many collectibles – from those original movies (Episodes IV – VI) and somehow I lost it all.

And now THE FORCE AWAKENS has come out and I bet all that stuff is WORTH THOUSANDS.

I wonder if I would sell it if I still had it. Probably not.

Stormtroopers FalconI remember the drawer in my room where I kept the cards. It was the same drawer I started saving the letters from my Japanese pen pal, the ones she would write in looping cursive on the delicate Japanese paper.

Girls. They might’ve been the problem.

I had a Millenium Falcon. You could open the cargo bay doors and play out fight scenes with your action figures. It even had a little piece of the floor you could lift up and hide your Han Solo action figure in.

And oh – the action figures! – I had all those, too. I was constantly losing the guns that they held in their curved little hands. Never have such calamities arisen from the misplacement of such a small piece of plastic.

The light sabers in Luke’s, Obi-wan’s and Vader’s hands. The blasters in Han’s and Leia’s hands. The little straight brown stick in the Sandperson’s hand. I guess his staff?

When you lost the blasters, you had to have people holding the wrong gun. Han held the one the Stormtrooper was supposed to have. It just wasn’t right.

One day, somewhere in the backyard, I lost my Chewbacca. Not just his blaster. The entire figure (“guy” I think our eight year old, non-PC brains called them. I lost my “guy”).

That was a tough day.

I think I had a case where I stored all the action figures so I WOULDN’T lost them. A spot for each “guy” and then it closed up and you carried it around by the handle. I might be confusing this with the case I know I had for my matchbox cars, but I don’t think so. I think there was a Star Wars case, too. And still, I lost Chewbacca.

I had an X-wing and a Tie fighter. I’m remembering you pressed a button on the Tie Fighter and the “wings” popped off. I don’t remember why. Maybe when you were acting out scenes from the movie you were supposed to do that when the bad guy got shot down?

Liberated PrincessA lot of fun, acting out the movie with all those toys and figures. But somehow the cards. Those were my favorite.

This stuff was always out, all over the place. Probably drove my mom crazy.

That’s what happened isn’t it? Moms. They throw out your toys, toys that could be VALUABLE later. Are you guys crazy?!?

Star Wars 7 1977Ah, but there’s one thing I still have – the comics. I SAVED the comics. I’m talking the original series from 1977. They’re buried in all those boxes in my basement right now – too many for me to fish through – but I KNOW I still have them. Not every issue, but a lot of those early ones.

One of my nephews is a Darth Vader NUT already. He’s three, and we’re pretty sure he thinks he’s a good guy (which, by the end of Jedi…). For Christmas, all I got him was Darth Vader swag. Toys and books and other little stuff.

No cards, though. Now I’m thinking I need to get the kids cards for the new movies. Yeah.

And my sisters better not throw them out. EVER.

 

 

 

A different kind of mirror character: Robert Redford’s The Natural

The NaturalI love The Natural. It’s a fantastic movie, a baseball classic. For me, it’s on that list of movies that, if I find it playing on television, I’ll drop everything and watch yet again. And recently, thanks to The Sundance Channel, I have re-watched the movie a few times, enough to notice some writing-related things that interest me.

Much of The Natural was filmed in various locales in Buffalo, NY, where I grew up, during the ’80s when I still lived there. In fact, some of my friends were at the stadiums as extras, part of the cheering crowds, when some of the game footage was filmed at War Memorial Stadium (a.k.a. “The Rockpile” – standing in for New York Knights Field) and All High Stadium (standing in for Wrigley Field).

You can see a full list of the locales and buildings around Buffalo that appear in the movie at this Forgotten Buffalo site. Check it out, it may give you an appreciation of the underrated architecture in my hometown.

In particular, watch for the gorgeous Buffalo Central Terminal, as it was in the early ’80s at least, in one of the more sepia-toned scenes from the film:

 

Another thing I love is mirror characters in fiction. These characters, sometimes known as foils, usually possess opposite values to your protagonist. Because of this opposite nature, they often manifest as antagonists (Harry Potter and Voldemort, for example). The manifestation that interests me more, however, is the sidekick (think Kirk and Spock).

The great thing about these mirror characters is they really help the reader understand the main character better. Through their contrasting nature, the characters CHARACTERIZE EACH OTHER. Think of color theory in painting or interior design. Two contrasting colors – say orange and blue – are often placed side-by-side, making them both appear brighter.

I introduced a mirror character of the sidekick (former best friend) variety in my most recent MS. She was meant to only exist in the beginning of the story, to demonstrate some of my main character’s qualities, to magnify them. I was therefore fascinated when she elbowed her way into the rest of the narrative, standing up straight and shouting emphatically, “Nope, I’m sticking around. I like this story.”

In my head, it went something like this:

 

My favorite moment in The Natural is one you might not expect. It doesn’t involve a mirror character in quite the classic definition, but employs another kind of mirror that is every bit as inspiring.

The moment is near the end, yes, in that final at-bat where Roy Hobbs gets the chance to win the game. But it’s not the home run itself. (Although, of course I do love that moment when the sparks fly off the lights and the crowd goes wild.)

Some may remember that Roy starts the at-bat against the starting pitcher for the Pirates, who, after nearly pitching a complete game shutout has clearly begun to lose his edge. When he falls behind in the count to Roy, we see the fearful reaction of the Pirates’ manager – telling us that he realizes, if he wants to win this pennant, he needs to call a relief pitcher in.

Roy HobbsWhile Roy waits, the manager reaches into his bullpen and calls on a young Iowa farm boy with a blazing fastball. As he steps to the mound, a low camera angle is used to magnify the big kid’s presence. He looms over us as the viewer, the muffled announcer in the background describing how un-hittable he is. Stopping just short of calling him a natural.

And that’s the moment. If you’re not caught up in the drama of that last at-bat, the anticipation that Roy will save the day, you see the mirror being held right in front of Roy – or, 60 feet and 6 inches away on the mound, that is.

Because this kid from Iowa, this fireballing pitcher, it’s Roy. That’s who he was early in the film, before he made a terrible mistake and his life fell apart. A life he’s trying to get back, to re-discover, in this single at-bat. Roy was a great pitcher first, before he got shot and could no longer do it, had to become a great hitter instead. It was Roy who, as a kid, faced the great Babe Ruth and struck him out on three pitches.

Now, Roy must succeed against the younger version of himself.

And if you recognize that, you also see that, while the movie has its share of literal antagonists – from the greedy owner to the superficial newspaperman to the owner’s lackeys – the figurative person Roy’s been battling against the whole film, his entire life, really, is HIMSELF.

Those types of moments, for me, are story magic. In books, movies, whatever – they’re the sort of thing that make want to keep writing.