Friday, May 31, 2013

Writing is a Solitary Business

Last week my family went on vacation to Alaska. We were on a cruise with no Internet access or computer-- at least, I was. My older brother and sister had their smartphones and my older brother packed his laptop. I had a digital camera several notebooks, an unfinished novel that has been in progress for four years. All of the photos posted with this entry were taken by me, courtesy of the camera

Make no mistake, I did do writing. A train that traveled through Yukon territory inspired a short story for a friend's birthday, and most days I chronicled our adventures and misadventures. A few pages of my notebook are filled with potential tweets and Facebook posts, which I've taken time to update on the Internet. 

Writing as an activity is an oxymoron; we have to write when we're alone but the best fiction and nonfiction come from real life activities and oddities. The first three days of the cruise, I did my best to participate in family activities, write down the interesting bits in my journal, which are now in front of me. Some bits I'll remember without fail, like taking photos with a costumed lumberjack who resembled a smiling ax-murderer; others may take a few moments of recollection, especially if I don't remember taking photos. 

Towards the end, however, ironically when I started writing less than a thousand words a day thanks to rereading favorite stories on the Kindle, I started to take more time to simply write and ducked out of several together activities. That's because I realized why family vacations are not conductive to writing; they deprive a writer of two things:

1) Time- A writer needs time to think about how to put the words down, to allow herself to cross out the wrong phrases and to give herself a break when said words won't come. Some writers like Isaac Asimov worked on multiple projects without fail, able to churn out five to ten thousand words a day. Having not reached that point, I feel guilty when the thoughts refuse to come together and listening to music does not help. 

Living and doing family-related activities also requires time, however, and good works tend to last longer than people, who spend their time on Earth for only a short while. When I went on ship-related vacations with my family as a child, I was too terrified of drowning on the open sea to enjoy the entertainment and togetherness, no thanks to seeing Titanic at eight years old and Aladdin as a toddler. Especially since my two older sisters have moved out and my dad has died, our family has not celebrated that togetherness for a while, too long a while. 

Also, this wasn't a typical vacation, where we'd load up in the car and drive off to a beach or theme park for the weekend. We were in Alaska, a frigid and fertile environment that will soon lose all its snow glory to global warming! Even a day at sea in Glacier Bay was a treat because we saw floating icebergs that trembled in our wake and got to lie down in the cold sun while lucky cruise members glimpsed brown bears and mountain goats. Titanic's sinking would totally have not happened on the West Coast. 

I don't regret spending time photographing statues of fiddlers or window-shopping for gold flecked earrings in the window because I can come home and write about them. Which brings me to the next aspect that I missed:

2) Solitude-  When I started writing as a child, the first thing that I learned the hard way was not to carry a notebook around everywhere. As any writer will tell you, such a lesson seems counter intuitive when an idea can pop out of nowhere, and I DID pack several notebooks for the trip, but brothers and sisters do not like you see you scribbling during a dinner or ice cream shop visit. Most notably, they do  not approve when one takes notes on them. And I agree, it can be rude. If a great idea comes knocking like an unwanted house guest with loads of dollars, the idea can simmer in the head until a writer gets home to pen and paper.  

Yes, there was actually a statue of a fiddler in Ketchikan, known for its salmon hatchery and loose women history. I'm posting this photo because I have none with the costumed axe murderer.

Writing in the presence of people also requires shutting them out for a good amount of time and becoming involved in your fictional world. That's why headphones and movie soundtracks help when crafting one thousand words a day. Reading requires the same mental isolation to dive into a character's problems and conflict. My mother and I often disagree at breakfast because I read without a sign saying BRAIN SHUT OFF; WAIT TILL NEWSPAPER IS OFF THE TABLE and answer her questions with nods or head shakes. During the cruise I could only do that in good conscience during plane rides and when we took time to shower and get ready for bed. 

Once again, however, I DO NOT regret taking the time off, albeit limited time. For starters, I have all these memorable pictures. Secondly, I now know the two things that writers need the most when writing: time and solitude. Both of which I have in abundance at the moment. 

Third, I went to Alaska and had fun with my family. Nothing like an adventure with people who deserve appreciation and attention, as well as challenging me to be funny at the dinner table. 

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Good Mothers in Fiction: What Emotional responses Reveal about Ourselves

I wasn't going to write anything for Mother's Day, because I couldn't even come up with a decent comic idea. My mother has also said that the only thing she wants today is for us to be happy. 

Then I read How to Seize a Dragon's Jewel on Friday, the tenth How to Train Your Dragon book. It involves a mother who isn't all hugs and kisses but fighting and making speeches, not keeping her son in on the loop. Mind, I'm not going to spoil the book for those who have been following the series, and I'm not going to apologize for my HTTYD theme carrying on in recent blog posts, but let's just say you will be shocked. And for contrast, we get a glimpse at another mother who tried to protect her child from a watery death. 

Here was my initial reaction to the first mother's intellectual approach: "How can you prioritize politics over your child's safety?!" 

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Then I thought about all the cases in literature and animated film where mothers aren't there. Most good mothers from the Disney Animated canon are either dead, separated from their children for the film's duration (Sleeping Beauty, The Lion KingThe Princess and the Frog, and Tangled). The few that aren't tend to be stepmothers or adopted parents, like in Cinderella, Snow White or Tangled

I've been raised to believe that parents protect their children, even when these children pass the dear sweet age of eighteen. My older sister stayed at home while attending college, as did my other two older siblings and myself. My mother has made it a point to take care of us, and we try to return the favor-- that is, my older brother and I since we still live at home-- but sometimes the protection can prevent us from taking great risks or exiting our comfort zone. The same can apply to fiction: if a parent won't let their child protagonist enter danger, usually for a good reason, then how can the story happen?

The tenth How to Train Your Dragon book answered the question as such: the story happens when the mother starts treating her child like an adult. They can't apologize for not being there, but they can pledge their support in the present moment. Good parenting? No. Potential for redemption? Yes.

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That said, I wouldn't easily write a story with such a mother given my background and the books that I've read. We have the Mama Bear trope to prove that point: "Bears usually won't attack humans — but get between a mother bear and her cub, and she'll tear straight through you. Apparently, the same rule applies to human parents. Threaten their husband/wife, child, boyfriend/girlfriend, friends, cat, etc., and you are in for a world of hurt. " Even in Harry Potter, the antagonistic Narcissa Malfoy and Petunia Dursley care about their sons and Lily Potter protected Harry to the tragic end. 

I won't deny that How to Seize a Dragon's Jewel struck a nerve. It did. As I emailed the author Friday evening, "Why put him in so much danger after nearly killing him in the woods . . . Did she have faith that he'd come out of the situation intact?" I was thinking of my own mother, how she would never do that, and of the fictional women I've written who protect their children. 

A good mother is always there for you, even when you don't deserve that care. Thus, given Dragon's Jewel, this mother in question wasn't a good mother until the last few chapters, when she does the right thing and supports her son. Yet it's not bad storytelling, just an unconventional approach. Sometimes doing the right thing for the sake of narrative involves not getting touchy-feely or saying an apology. And that's all right.