Monthly Archives: February 2011

Spectrum Surfing

My 8th grade English class was legendary. I was in honors English, and it was a smaller class of relatively intelligent, eager minds for a bunch of kids still stuck in junior high school. But it wasn’t us that made the class memorable for all-time, it was our teacher, Mrs. Temples.

Mrs. Temples never accepted our phone-in efforts, and she somehow figured out a way to push us beyond what we thought we could do to develop our minds and tastes. She introduced some of us to our first Stephen King and Shirley Jackson stories (“Survival Type” and “The Lottery”), quizzed us on the Abbott and Costello skit “Who’s on First?”, let the girls and boys compete with who could perform a better rendition of Bing Crosby’s “Melekalikimaka,” and assigned us the most influential stories and books I would read as a young adult. We never knew what to expect from her every class, and that’s one reason she was such an exciting teacher. To our credit, I once went back to visit her after I graduated from high school, and she told me my class was the best she ever had, because we actually went along with and understood her challenges and her mantra of trying to push beyond our limits.

But one of the most indellible lessons for me may have only been an aside; truthfully, I can’t remember what author she was talking about at the time (It could very well have been Shirley Jackson), but I do remember the idea being posed to me as a sort of challenge in disguise. Mrs. Temples said the author we were about to read did something very rare, in that he or she wrote from either side of the spectrum. Most authors, she said, (And I’m doing a horrible job of paraphrasing, so I do apologize, Mrs. Temples…) have a sort of specialized niche they focus on, and it’s the rare writer that travels far outside of that comfort zone. I don’t think she was merely talking about genres; that was only part of it. It also had to do with themes, concepts, and values. Ever since I heard that statement, I’ve been looking for authors who do write at both ends of the spectrum, and now I am trying it in my own fiction.

After I finished my first novel, an epic fantasy, I wanted to cleanse myself of the world I’d fabricated. I was burned out, to tell the truth, after about the third complete rewrite, and I didn’t want to even think about constructing another fantasy, or writing a sequel to what I’d just finished. But I was quickly falling into post-novel depression, and had to start working on a new project before I felt like I could never write again. It was my new story that pulled me out of my blackest hole of misery, dusted me off, and gave me something fresh to look forward to.

What I begun was something completely different, something I’d never tried before: a non-genre Young Adult novel. My comfort zones are fantasy and horror, and this featured neither elements in it. I thought it would be a nice new plain to venture out on, a fresh start to a clouded mind. As it turns out, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. 

The research. Oh, the research! This is the single thing that has caused more road blocks than anything wtih my new story, as my WIP is set in the early 90s, before I really locked on to the current culture and arts. For someone who was used to just making up shit whenever something needed explanation or backstory, actually having to put the writing aside to fact-check and authenticate little details was torture. Is torture. I’m still in the middle of it, though most of my research is probably stretched to where I can pull off the story without needing to look more facts up at this point. Thank God.

The "Citizen Kane" of teen movies was directed by John Hughes.

I still feel remnants of that post-novel depression, and it is coupled with writer’s block when I can’t simply make something up to get my characters out of a jam. Now I know why most writers don’t write at both ends of the spectrum: it’s torture! It’s not natural; it goes against the instincts and knee-jerk reactions. My own imagination isn’t hardwired to think about how stuff would happen in the real world; I’m much more apt to throw in a magical or horrific element than simply try to figure out a realistic way for my characters to escape dire situations. (This is where I kick myself for being a hermit and rarely getting in trouble as a kid. I could’ve been researching life for future stories!) Since I didn’t experience a lot of hard times or major trouble in my teenhood, my novel is probably more on the light-hearted side; that’s why I’ve decided to keep it in the vein of all of those John Hughes movies that are so beloved by the world. I was a wacky kid, so I understand how to write that, at least.

I hope this exercise in writing outside of my comfort zone pays off through developing areas of my imagination I may not have otherwise tapped. I’m realistic enough to know I’ll never be a legendary writer like Shirley Jackson or Stephen King, those highest tips on the pyramid we all aspire to be, but at least I’m trying to broaden my writing so that I’m not pigeon-holed as an author who sticks to one area of the story spectrum. I don’t want to recycle the same stories and ideas over and over again, and if I should ever find myself doing that, I’ll hang it up. Because if I’m not challenging myself, and therefore not pushing the limits to be better than I believe I am, what point is there in writing at all?

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Searching for Jimmy

Because I watch more movies than I read books, I felt it would only be right to honor one of my favorite actors today, on this, the 80th anniversary of his birth.

Note: You’ll probably think I’m stone crazy after finishing this. But you should expect no less after reading the name of this blog, right?

I fell in love with the image of James Dean first. I remember buying a calendar of James Dean pictures to splice all over my walls at college based on the fact he just oozed cool, and I loved the timeless photography of Roy Schatt and Dennis Stock. With his chiseled good looks and easy manner of carrying himself, Jimmy could’ve been a model; but he was a born creative person, from making art to his method acting, and he was an avid reader. It’s a well-known fact that James Dean was head over heels for the writing of Ernest Hemingway, and especially the book, Death in the Afternoon; Jimmy became fascinated with matadors and bullfighting. He was a deep-thinker and a thrill-seeker. His middle name came from his mother’s love for the English poet Lord Byron, and the poem, “Childe Harold’s Pilgramage,” in which Byron wrote: “I woke one morning and found myself famous.” He was destined for glory, and his journey was cut short just at the apex of his success. This is the story of how I came to know Jimmy 47 years after his death.

My first year of college, I rediscovered my love for movies, because that’s what artistic kids do with Higher Education. I started dabbling into classic films I’d never seen before. The first time I picked up Rebel Without a Cause, it was as a part of a 5-movie rental deal at my local video store; I’m fairly certain it was around Christmastime, but I can’t be 100% positive on that. I don’t remember any of the other movies I watched from that batch except for Rebel. I do remember watching it in my parents’ basement, alone, and after the film ended, feeling cheated I had gone so long without ever having seen it before. Though I was out of high school, I was still able to connect with the theme of the film, the damnable misunderstanding of teens in our culture, and the pressures and unfair expectations of young people in society. But as it should be, none of the characters resonated with me like Jim Stark. The charisma of James Dean was still magnetic nearly 50 years after his death, and something spoke to me in his performance to do some research on this guy.  Continue reading

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