Bit Off More Than I Can Chew

Talk about exercises in futility…

I decided to get all ambitious with a blog post the other night.  “Wouldn’t it be cool,” I thought, “to put together something about song lyrics?  To do a piece where I list the ‘best’ lyrics to build a story around?”

Of course, that meant I just had to go back and start listening to songs and artists to check my memory.  I just had to re-immerse myself in the feelings and moods that made the music memorable in the first place.

I have, I should add, well over 60 gigabytes of music on my iPhone…

I could listen for a week, and not get through it all!  I am also “that guy” when it comes to music.  You know who I’m talking about, the guy who starts with one song/artist and wanders down countless rabbit trails of music and memory.

Even when I nailed down a few songs to use, well…you can’t just type the lyrics.  No, to get the point across, you have to have the feelings and memories of the music, too (*Note – I’ve put an example of this at the end of the post*).

So much for my ambitious blog post.

*sigh*

Look, there’s a line from a song called “Solsbury Hill” by Peter Gabriel — a single vision, that became a few words in a larger scene I wrote — that inspired the entire freaking fantasy trilogy I’m planning and working up right now (when I want to take a break from my sci-fi stuff).  The line?  Oh, hell, why not:

My heart going boom-boom-boom

Son, he said, grab your things

I’ve come to take you home

And about that sci-fi stuff…

Well, Connor & Oz’s stories owe their existence to — of course — a song.  A song that inspired the final scene of the first book, which in turn inspired the characters, then the world and society, then the plot…and on and on.

What, you want that line, too?  Crikey…this one really is the whole song rather than just a line or two, but here goes:

You saw my pain

Washed out in the rain

And broken glass

Saw the blood run from my veins

You see why my original post idea was way too ambitious?  I could do this a hundred times, with a hundred different songs and stories and characters.  I could talk about Genesis’ “A Trick of the Tail”, The Alarm’s “One Step Closer to Home”, The Avett Brothers’ “The Carpenter”, Clapton’s “Motherless Children”, Steve Winwood, Erasure, The Gaslight Anthem, Chuck Ragan, Dave Hause, Sting, X Ambassadors, Derek And The Dominoes, Trampled By Turtles…

Crap, maybe I should just list my entire music library!

Ahem.

*Okay, so the example I want to use is a song I’ve mentioned before as one that is incredibly evocative.  It is a song of memory and emotion.  A song of — dare I say it — nostalgia and the past.  A few lines I will type here.  Read them and see if you can find those qualities.  Only then, only after trying the hard way, should you listen to the linked video and listen for those same qualities:

While the city bums

Are taken hard

For one more drop of blood

We work our fingers down to dust

And we wait for kingdom come

With the radio on

See what I mean?

Random Writing Thoughts for a Random Friday

It’s a hard thing to keep in mind the concerns and worries of the world right now.  Yellowstone has been open for a couple of weeks, and it has been calling to me.

AF63D968-D103-408D-BF26-43F7EA4F3D3AThere’s nothing to wash away the effects of news and stress and worry like a hike beneath the lodgepole pines.  There’s nothing better to make COVID and Trump and the rest of the world’s idiocy disappear than returning to my old stomping grounds in Hayden Valley to search for signs of “my” wolf pack.

Oh, the wolves themselves might argue with that “ownership,” but I’ve been following and watching and studying this pack for years now.  Named Mollie’s Pack after a longtime wolf researcher, they are a small, tight knit group that is impressive as hell.

The pack might be small, but the wolves themselves are anything but; they are physically the biggest wolves in the entire Yellowstone ecosystem (which is several times larger than the park itself).  Most of the animals in Mollie’s Pack average around 130-150 pounds, and are tough as hell.  They’re big and tough because they have to be — they are the only pack that actively hunts and subsists on bison.

Two thousand pound bison.

C3439B3C-9669-4D67-88DF-769913F7548CLet’s put that in perspective: this is an animal the size of a medium-sized woman, taking down nature’s equivalent of a freaking tank.  What?  Not impressed, you say?

Go on out then, folks.  Go out and try it.  Go outside to the street, find the nearest hatchback, and try to “take it down” using only your teeth…while that hatchback is moving at top speed, trying to hit you.

Welcome to the wilds.

Which, happily, brings me to my writing thought for the day as I settle in to get some words on the page…

Perspective.

We tend to forget it in our regular lives.  We forget just how big a bison — or even an elk — truly is, until we’re standing next to one who is irritated and giving us the stink-eye.

We tend to forget just how hard life is without modern conveniences, until we have to walk twenty-five miles in rough terrain, and still make a fire and secure camp at the end of the day.

We tend to forget because those things — along with uncountable others — have no role in our day-to-day lives.  Hell, we tend to forget even those things that once used to be day-to-day concerns and activities because they have slipped into the mists of fading memory.

We tend to forget because our perspective changes even as we change.

Yes, that applies to writers, too.

We forget where we were in favor of where we are.  We forget the past in favor of the urgency of the now.

Don’t get me wrong, sometimes that forgetting is a good thing.  I’ve mentioned it before, but it bears repeating: when I’m in the deep woods, off-trail and using just a map and what’s left of my wits to make my way, the rest of the universe slips away.  I focus solely on the moment because I have to if I want to make it back out.  The past and future are distractions that mean nothing at that point.

But when I come back…

…when I come back, I have to regain perspective.  I have to remember that life, the universe and everything* is more than just the next hill I need to climb, the rotting tree trunk under my feet, the curious grizzly snuffling among the trees…

*Thank you, Douglas Adams!

The question for us writers is how we effectively can we use that dynamic in our stories?

Far, far too often characters and settings in stories are too simple.  They’re pencil sketches, rather than full portraits, of folks who either never forget a thing, or all-too conveniently forget everything.  They, like the stories of which they are a part, are static and unchanging.

Jack Ryan never forgot anything.  He never forgot a single skill or fact.  The Ryan of Clancy’s last books could muster every single skill and fact at his command, whether mastered in the first book or the last.

Bullshit.

Look, I like Clancy — well, I like his early stuff, the rest went downhill fast — but I used to be able to rebuild a carburetor without having to think about it when I was a kid.  Would I even know where to start on the thing today?  Nope, not a chance.  Put a broken carb in front of me and I’ll tell you to go find a freaking mechanic.

A poor character — a Mary Sue — would just fix the thing, even if the last time he or she touched one was thirty years ago.

Mary Sue characters — and their stories —lack the perspective that makes the real world…well…the real world.

I know a bison is a big freaking tank who can turn on you in an instant because I live that.  On the other hand, I have no idea what a real tank is like.  I’ve stood next to a handful of them, but not when they were in actual use.  I’ve certainly never driven one, and god knows, I’ve never been shot at by one.*  I know people who have been shot at by one, however, and I rely on their perspective if and when I need to write about that.

*Yes, I have been charged by an angry bison.  A handy tree and some creative cowardice solved that problem.

Some of the most interesting and educational things I have ever done are oral histories.  I had the chance, a few years ago, to interview a sailor who fought in a famous battle in the Pacific in WW2.  His words and story were powerful…but even more powerful was the journal he allowed me to read.  The words and memories of a man in his eighties were a whole lot different from the words and experiences of the twenty-something man writing that journal.

61757408-3125-4679-B796-8A24FAB74ACFThe details changed.  The memories, even, changed.  But the emotions…

My God, I still get the chills thinking about that…about not just his experiences, but his words and emotions.  His reality, both then and now.

What does an eighty-year-old remember as important, versus what a twenty-year-old notes as important?  That is perspective.  That is reality.  That is what we as writers have to note and use.

One of the pieces of writing advice I once offered on this blog was to write a funeral/memorial.  Not just any funeral, but one for your main character(s).  Write the funerals, and the eulogies delivered.  What did those characters accomplish that folks actually remember?  With a new perspective, years later, what did they mean?

Yeah, yeah, I know…I’m weird because I write shit like that; I write the end first.  But writing the end is…enlightening.  Writing the impact your characters have makes those early scenes — those days of “innocence” and ignorance — that much more fun.

{Edits — correcting crappy spelling and grammar because editing sucks…}

Nerding Out FTW

Well, crap.  I did it to myself.  Again.

Those French shows I mentioned a while back?  You know, the ones I was watching just to practice the language?

Yeah, I started to get into them.

*sigh*

So now I’m binge-watching the crap out of them…binge-watching them to the point where I’m ignoring American shows and movies.  Hell, I’ve become engaged in them enough that the other day, when I was going out with a couple of friends, I tried to get everyone moving by walking towards the door and calling out, “On y va!”

The others, of course, just stared blankly at me.  I actually had to think for a second to come up with the appropriate English phrase!

And…well…yeah…I’m into the cartoons just as much, if not more.  Yeah the movies are great, and the cop dramas are…well…they’re very French, but the cartoons…

Some of those Gallic otaku can write.

maxresdefaultA big thank you, by the way, to Thomas Astruc for being a hell of a creator.  I know how hard it is to work within the well-defined lines of the “superhero cartoon”, but Astruc’s Miraculous does a very good job — maybe even a fantastic one.  To watch that show grow in development, complexity and emotion from the silly pointlessness of Season One to the depth and meaning of the “Chat Blanc” episode near the end of Season Three is…well…it’s that awkward mix of inspiring and endearing.

I started to care for the characters, I found.  I didn’t realize I had come to care — or, at least, I didn’t realize just how much — until the end of that third season.  But, by then, those characters had become just like beloved characters in other shows, movies and books: they were old friends who I wanted to see succeed.*

*Side note — if you can’t see others’ characters that way, you probably should be writing.  If characters cannot become real to you — whether they are yours, or those of other writers — then I’m not sure fiction writing is what you’re meant to do…

VSSuper_Nerd_PEOkay, look…I’m a nerd.  I get it.  I freely admit it.  Hell, I’m not just a quasi-nerd, or a little mini-nerd…I’m a full-strength, wear-a-Jabba-the-Hut-costume, learn-Elvish, go-to-Ren-Faires, full-time nerd!

I’m also sentimental as hell.

I owned those parts of who I am a long time ago, so I very obviously don’t see anything wrong with them.  If they make you uncomfortable or embarrassed…well…that’s your problem, ain’t it?

But back to the characters…

o_62hkWpLook, Marinette is great, and I think she makes one hell of a role model for young girls wanting a hero of their own, but…

But…

C’mon, y’all know me by now!  Of-freaking-course there was a but!

But, Adrien…

0ddbf326947a38e9ab303ef4a0260b1f7e2aef0b_hqIt’s not the Chat Noir persona that gets me, it’s the fragile, broken thing behind the hero.  It’s the fragile, broken thing behind the alter-ego, too, by the way.  It’s the hero who could sit there and sing (in a Christmas special) about the fact that he has no one…

Of course, I also think one of the most powerful moments in the entire show was when the supervillain — Adrien’s father, for the uninitiated — saw his (supposedly helpless) son falling to his death and screamed in pain and terror for all to hear.

Yeah, they nailed that one.

Look, the show — and it’s writing — has flaws.  It is, after all, a cartoon written for middle- and high-schoolers.  A cartoon meant to be translated into dozens of different xI4QAqNlanguages, countries and cultures, mind you…

In spite of that, I have to raise a glass to Astruc for what he and his crew have been able to pull off.  Characters and plots with real meaning?  friendships with complexity and tension and problems?  Shit, gay relationships in a cartoon shown in Saudi Arabama?**

**No, that wasn’t a typo — I can’t think of two places on this planet with more in common than Saudi Arabia and Alabama.  Both believe in repressing and vilifying anyone who doesn’t toe their insane theocratic line in all its details…

Look, most of you will read this post and offer up a shrug.  “What the hell is he talking about?” you’ll wonder.  Then you’ll go on about your day without another thought.  Some of you will think, even, “Well, he’s just as nuts as I thought.”  Others will mutter curses about silliness and pointlessness and wasting time.

But some of you…

Some of you will understand that maybe you can learn from cartoons…even a French one!

9c4d81892cbd08843b7f2e1303ae9e64.jpg

 

Gravesides

I’ve talked before — a bit — about the friends and family I have lost.  About the friends, siblings, mentors and assorted others…

When I was young, my “list” of the lost dwarfed those of anyone of similar age.  As I age, however, my peers catch up with me in that sad statistic.

Put simply, I have not lost more than my peers…I just lost folks sooner.

Now, I’ve mentioned before the fact that I write stuff in this blog — and in my stories — that I would never say face-to-face to even my closest friends or family.  No one knew I fought depression until I started writing about it here.  Just as no one knew that my entire world changed with the loss of my child.

So I’ll write about something else that no on knows…err, knew.

41137445655_05e5ed14c8_bI’ve never visited a graveside.

Oh, I’ve been to services and memorials and celebrations — crap, I was (unintentionally) part of an Unknown Soldier service in freaking Budapest, of all places — but I’ve never intentionally visited the graveside of a friend or family member.

Why not?

Remember that whole “photographic memory” thing we talked about?

Yeah, that comes into it.  As does grief and weakness, guilt and shame.  Look, let’s be honest — I’m alive.  With everything I’ve done, I’m still alive.  With everything I’ve fucked up…

With all of the danger and drugs and quests-for-escape…

With all of the depression and flirtations with suicide…

I’m still alive.  I’m alive, and my friends and family — who had none of my failures and flaws — are not.

How do you stand next to the grave of a better person and, well, face them?

Now, that passage above was not what I set out to write.  What I set out to write was a post that would grow, over 500 or 600 words, to illustrate the power of a song.  A post that would provide a hint and a lead-in to a musical interlude that would explain far, far more to those who were willing to listen…and smart enough to hear.

That post has already failed.  With what I’ve written above, I’ve got no way to ease into an anecdote that can lead into a song…  With what I’ve written above, I’ve left myself no real room for subtlety.

Were this blog a novel, I would delete the scene and start over.

But this isn’t a novel, this is a blog.  This is my blog, my seat at the bar.

This is stream-of-consciousness writing with little to no room for editing and revision.

So no subtlety here, no hinting.  Below is the song that — no kidding — was playing on the radio as I drove from the funeral service to the graveside internment for my high school friend.  Even after all these years, I can’t listen to this song without remembering…

Actually, I can’t listen to this song, period.

And I still haven’t visited Mike’s grave.