Category Archives: MFA in Creative Writing
“Here’s looking at you, kid.”Leave a comment
The Setting of Casablanca
The film begins with a voice over and geographical maps establishing Casablanca, an area in French-ruled Moracco located in Northwest Africa, as a destination during WWII for refugees exiled from war-ravaged countries in Europe. According to the VO, the rich and the lucky used Casablanca as a sort of stopover en route to Lisbon where they could then fly to freedom in America, while the poor and unlucky people simply got stranded there.
Casablanca is painted as a busy, overpopulated and unsafe place where the streets are full of schemers, criminals, crooks and pickpockets, as well as people buying, selling and bartering all sorts of things (including diamonds). Most of the story takes place at Rick’s Café Américain, an upscale nightclub, bar and casino, which is also referred to in the movie as “Rick’s Place.”
Ex-freedom fighter Rick Blain, the story’s protagonist, runs the illicit establishment where in addition to booze and blackjack, Rick also, for a profit, helps refugees obtain letters of transit out of Casablanca toward freedom. Rick has a good gig going despite his cynical, selfish and somewhat jaded sensibilities until the day his former lover Ilsa, the one true love of his life, a woman who left him in Paris, suddenly shows up on her way to America. The love between Rick and Ilsa is rekindled and he asks her to marry him. But there’s one problem: she’s already married to Victor Laszlo.
Laszlo, who was actually in fact married to Ilsa during her love affair with Rick in Paris, had been imprisoned and escaped a Nazi concentration camp and was thought dead by Ilsa when she had the affair that led to her falling in love with Rick. It wasn’t until Ilsa and Rick were about to leave Paris together that she found out Laszlo had survived. Ilsa fled with Laszlo to save his life. This love triangle between Rick, Ilsa and Laszlo keeps us in suspense until the end of the movie when Rick urges Ilsa to get on the plane with Laszlo and continue their journey toward freedom. Rick stays behind to help others get their freedom, too.
In so many ways, Rick’s Café is the perfect setting for Casablanca. For one, the fact that it’s a stopover explains away anyone who shows up there. Also, the illicitness of what goes on there naturally presents endless material for conflict, tension and drama. Rick’s Café is an oasis of sin and sinister fun like gambling, drinking and sex that in many ways is an escape from reality for people who find themselves in Casablanca. But it’s also a sort of purgatory because these people, the individuals who find themselves there, are either temporarily or permanently stuck there for one reason or another and desperate to escape to America.
Since Rick runs the show there, it serves as the perfect setting for his character arc and his story. At the start of the film, protagonist Rick “I stick my neck out for nobody” Blain clearly has a lot of growth ahead of him if he’s destined to become the true hero of the story. In the end, he sticks his neck out for Ilsa and Laszlo. Rick gives up the one thing he really desires, his true love Ilsa, for the greater good. In a funny way, the setting acts like a character, too, with an arc of its own because like its owner Rick, Rick’s Café starts out as a symbol of desperation and illegal activity but through the story it transforms into a beacon of hope and freedom, too.
The First 10 Minutes of Shaun of the Dead3 Comments
Shaun of the Dead
For my screenwriting class, I needed to analyze the first 10 minutes of a movie. I was going to go with something traditional, like say When Harry Met Sally, which has a well-known solid beginning, but after a friend suggested it, perhaps jokingly, my brain kept returning to Shaun of the Dead—a perhaps lesser known movie but one that I love. As a zombie flick, it technically falls in the genres of Horror (though, while violent, it’s honestly not a bit scary) and Comedy. At its core, it’s a love story and quite a hilarious one at that. Not your traditional RomCom, it’s more of a Zom-Rom-Com.
Shaun of the Dead is a great movie from start to finish and all of the promises which the movie sets out to fulfill are set up perfectly in its first 10 minutes. What makes the beginning of Shaun of the Dead work so well is that in just 10 or so minutes we meet and thoroughly get to know all of our main characters, in particular our protagonist Shaun (played by Simon Pegg) while the conflicts are introduced, layered and begin to really build on and play off of one another.
The movie opens at the Winchester, a bar that Shaun frequents and which later becomes an important spot in the film. Shaun and his girlfriend Liz are seated across from each other. Liz is basically in the process of breaking up with Shaun because she feels neglected and because they never get time alone. Shaun’s friend Ed is there, as usual, playing a video game and swearing up a storm in the background and Liz’s two friends are there, too, backing her up and reinforcing everything Liz claims is wrong with Shaun—in particular that he seems to have no ambition, he’s lazy, forgetful, hasn’t yet introduced Liz to his mom and, of course, there’s Ed who is crude and always there and who no one, but Shaun, seems to like. Shaun convinces Liz that he will try harder. He promises to take her out for a special anniversary dinner (but later forgets to make the reservation). Liz agrees to give Shaun and their relationship one more chance.
Despite the fact that Shaun is painted as a loser, he’s also a likeable, loveable, nice guy (he buys flowers for his mom and even gives his spare change to a homeless guy). But life isn’t going so well for him. In addition to his romantic issues and his codependent best friend issues, his roommate is a jerk, he works a dead-end job and he hates his step-dad Philip.
Meanwhile, there is a zombie apocalypse brewing but no one, including Shaun, notices because they are all simply sleepwalking through their own mundane lives. The movie is basically telling us to wake up and appreciate our lives instead of walking around like zombies.
We can’t help but like Shaun and root for him. It’s easy to predict his character arc, too. We want him to man up, win back Liz, kill the zombies and save his family, his friends and the world. While this isn’t all covered in the first 10 minutes, Liz eventually dumps Shaun and he vows to get his life back on track—but he will have to battle the zombies to make that happen. With Ed by his side, Shaun sets out to rescue Liz and his mom (and everyone else, too).
If I could change one thing about the first 10 minutes of the film it would be to get the first big zombie moment in there somehow. While I think the movie does an exceptional job of building toward it and dripping in hints along the way (like the guy eating the pigeon and people starting to get sick and more and more zombified), I don’t see why there couldn’t be a bit more. That said; just the fact that we know it’s a zombie movie makes it so we know they’re coming so the fact that they don’t necessarily show up sooner still works. If anything it allows for more fake-out, made-you-jump, edge-of-our-seats type moments, too, which I love. And all of that build-up increases our adrenaline and adds to the moment when the zombies ultimately appear. On that note, I love the details and all the foreshadowing the writer uses to set the tone along the way. There’s never a doubt in our minds that something is going to happen, it’s just a matter of when.
Also, I might increase the emotion between Shaun and Liz—maybe even add in a memory or a brief flashback to a time when things were better between them. Though I’m not sure it’s necessary to the story or to either or their individual character arcs, I would have liked to get a tad more romance and emotion in there. While it becomes clear later in the movie just how much Liz means to him, I wanted a bit more.
But even without addressing my minor nitpicks, I still love this movie. And with its exceptional characters and conflicts (of the undead, real life and relationship varieties), Shaun of the Dead sets up everything we need to know about the story right from the start. By all accounts the movie has a great beginning. In just 10-12 minutes, we are entertained, engaged and pulled deep into the story as well as inspired to really care about what happens next.
If you want to watch the first 13 minutes of the movie, it’s free here:
1980s Flash…Back to the Future2 Comments
Back to the Future: Comparing the 1981 Script to the 1985 Movie
Let me start by saying that, like any other typical 80s kid, I have always loved this movie. I was 10 when it came out in theatres and I remember thinking it was awesome (or maybe I thought it was “rad” back then with my crimped hair and legwarmers). It was so much fun to watch back then and again now at 37 with my daughter. That said; I’d never read the screenplay—any version of it—until now. So this time, as my 4-year-old watched on and fell in love with the movie, too, I sat beside her with the 1981 version of the script and a red pen so I could catch the “important differences.” This was no easy task either because there were a lot of differences!
There were a ton of little differences and seemingly minor inconsistencies like character names (in particular these: Doc Brown/Professor Brown, Lorraine/Eileen, Jennifer/Susie), setting descriptions (like the town and even the high school) and details like the years of departure/arrival but there were also some pretty major differences, too, like the time machine itself which in 1981’s script wasn’t even a car. It was a refrigerator. That would have been far less exciting and much harder to work with than the movie version’s DeLorean!
Another major difference between the two versions is how the protagonist was painted. In both versions, Marty McFly was a teen and aspiring musician but in the 1981 version he also illegally pirated movies and liked to gamble. While Michael J Fox’s character of Marty came across at times as cocky, bold and even smart-allicky, he was always likable and he had a strong character arc (so did his dad) while the 1981 script version of Marty was written as far more of a self-involved jerk. The 1985 movie painted Marty as a smart, sometimes sarcastic but still likeable honest teen with good intentions while 1981’s version painted him as greedy, sly and with negative intentions. In the 1981 version, Marty was not a very likable character but in the 1985 movie, Marty was a believable hero, a teen heartthrob worthy of the cover of any teen magazine.
Marty was also an only child in the 1981 script while he had a brother and sister in the 1985 version. Without them, Marty would have been left, as originally written, as an egocentric teen who only cared about himself and therefore who would have even cared what became of him? By adding the siblings, there was an instant increased motivation for Marty who didn’t want to lose his brother and sister who he clearly cared about very much. The fact that he cared about his family added a new layer to his character and made him instantly more endearing to the viewers, too, because we see him as someone who cares. Also, as the photo with Marty and his siblings began to fade in the movie, it added an element of fighting against the clock that wasn’t previously there. It also gave Marty more to lose and that naturally increased the drama.
Regarding Marty’s parents, one of the biggest differences between the two versions is how they fall in love. In the 1981 version Marty’s mom fell in love with George after he spilled his corn while trying to ask her out in the school cafeteria. Really? How boring! And not a bit believable. We’re supposed to believe that moment made her fall so hard for him that she married him? I don’t buy it. Who would? But in the movie version, they fell in love after Lorraine’s dad hit George with his car, causing Eileen to instantly fall in love with him (this was even explained later by Doc as an actual medical syndrome making it even more believable). This is also a huge part of the plot because when Michael J Fox’s Marty goes back in time his arrival stops that from happening and he essentially takes his father’s place as the person his mom falls for. This is a big deal for poor Marty because his mom is falling in love with him (how awful!) and in doing so he’s unintentionally pushing his own father further and further out of the picture, which in turn is totally changing his situation, his life and his family. What a great conflict!
Aside from the fact that both finales took place after the big dance scene and with the hopes of saving Marty’s mentor Doc/Professor Brown, otherwise the finales in the two versions are totally different. Of course, the 1985 version wins again with its exciting race against time as Doc and Marty need to set up the clock/lightning scene in the town square, while in the 1981 version Marty raced against time too but on a multi-state cross country trip. In the future, the final image in the 1985 version is far more satisfying and less confusing than the 1981 version. I still don’t get why or how George ended up a professional boxer in the 1981 version. How odd.
In terms of structure, the 1985 movie version flowed better than the 1981 script. The 1981 script, at times, seemed to drag on and on and there were many elements stuffed into it that didn’t seem to serve any purpose, either to the characters or to push the story forward. There was a lot about it that felt stale to me, especially in comparison to the fresh, fun and funny 1985 movie version. Many of these changes made between 1981 and 1985 were strategically made for the benefit of the film, its characters and its viewers. What often felt convenient or forced in the 1981 version came together better in the 1985 version and led to a smoother, more believable experience.
Hip-hip-hooray for the revision process because all of these subtle and not-so-subtle changes made Back to the Future a far better script and a pretty awesome (sorry, I mean rad) movie.
Blake Snyder, you’re my only hope: My attempt at a Star Wars IV Beat SheetLeave a comment
Star Wars Episode IV
Protagonist: Luke Skywalker
Act I / Beginning / Thesis:
Opening Image: Act I opens with the image of the words scrolling on the screen and that sets us, the viewers, up with some background information which will help us follow the story. After the words stop scrolling, the action starts and we see spaceships shooting each other.
Set-Up: The rebel ship is captured and searched by the bad guys. We meet C3PO and we see Princess Leia bend over and put the message into R2D2 just before she is captured and imprisoned by Darth Vader and his goons. We meet our antagonist Darth Vader and get a feeling for how scary and powerful he is. We meet Luke, a farmer who merely dreams of being a Jedi fighter. C3PO and R2D2 escape (unknowingly with the plans and the princess’s message) and they end up on the same planet as Luke and his family who then purchase the two robots/droids.
Theme Stated: “Help me Obi Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope.”
Catalyst: Luke sees the hologram of Princess Leia in distress. This is the catalyst because it is the thing that will eventually put Luke in direct conflict with Darth Vader, the main villain and antagonist of the movie. Luke hasn’t met Darth yet but we have so we have enough of a sense of foreshadowing to know Luke will be in for the fight of his life.
Debate: Ben (AKA Obi Wan Kanobi) wants Luke to learn the ways of the Jedi but initially Luke resists.
Main Conflict: Will Luke Skywalker defeat Darth Vadar and save the princess?
Break into II: Act I ends when Luke sees that his family’s farm has been destroyed and his aunt and uncle have been killed. (I wondered if maybe this moment was actually the catalyst but my gut keeps telling me the catalyst is when Luke sees Leia and hears her message). Luke then decides to leave his world behind and go with Ben on the mission to reunite R2D2 with Princess Leia and fight for the Rebellion (AKA: the good guys).
Act II / Middle / Antithesis:
Act II begins with Luke embarking on his journey but he and Ben need help and they also need a ship. At the space cantina, a bar type place where all the aliens hangout, Luke is completely out of his element. Random criminals want to fight him. Luke and Ben end up having to negotiate a deal with a smuggler. Then a ton of stuff happens.
B Story: We meet Han Solo. There is a funny competitive vibe between him and Luke, who is much younger and less experienced. They are opposites in almost every way imaginable but they’re both obviously attracted to the princess. We learn that Hans Solo needs money to repay the debt he owes the loan shark Jabba the Hut. We can’t help but wonder if Han Solo is doing it all just for the money or because he wants to get Leia. They clearly have chemistry. But who will win the princess’s heart?
Fun and Games: We learn Ben is Obi Wan and that he has history with Darth Vader. We also learn Ben can make people do stuff through mind control. Luke, Han Solo and Chewbacca dress up like storm troopers and sneak into the Death Star. It’s risky but also comical. Luke also learns more about being a Jedi.
Midpoint: Luke rescues Princess Leia and reunites her with R2D2. Luke appears to have saved the day but there’s still so much more to do. Besides, as Leia says: “That was too easy.”
Bad Guys Close In: They almost get crushed to death in the garbage disposal. They manage to escape but then Luke, Leia and the good guys are being tracked by the bad guys.
All is Lost: During a one-on-one fight with the light sabers, it appears Ben/ObiWan gets killed by Darth Vader.
Dark Night of the Soul: Luke mourns Ben/Obi Wan’s death. Luke is really depressed because he loved Obi Wan and his death is a big deal in that it signifies the potential fall of the rebellion.
Reversal: The rebels discover the flaw in the Death Star by analyzing the plans. It gives them one last hope to beat Darth Vadar. Luke is heartbroken but he must press on to fulfill his destiny.
Break into III: Luke and the gang escape the Death Star but they realize they must destroy it before it can destroy the rebel base. They also learn Darth Vadar is tracking them.
Act III / End / Synthesis:
Act III begins with everyone getting prepared for the big fight. Luke and R2D2 board their plane and get ready to depart. Han Solo decides to stay behind.
Time Lock: Time is ticking as Luke needs to destroy the Death Star and stop Darth Vader before Darth and his evil Empire finds and ultimately destroys the Rebel base.
Finale: There is a dog fight and Luke is nearly killed twice. Han Solo shoots the fighter tailing Luke and then Luke “uses the Force” and succeeds in destroying the Death Star and defeating Darth Vadar. Then we see the awards ceremony and we celebrate good winning over evil with our main characters. The beautiful Princess Leia is safe and back where she belongs handing out awards to the heroes.
Final Image: We realize Luke has come a long way since the beginning. He is no longer just a farm boy with big dreams. Now he has achieved his dream of being a Jedi and he’s also a hero. This image of hero Luke (as well as the image of the princess not simply safe and sound but also back in power where she belongs) is the opposite of the initial image of dreamer/farmer Luke.
AB(Norma)L the Antagonist of Sunset BlvdLeave a comment
Norma Desmond, the washed-up, disillusioned, conceited, mentally unstable, borderline agoraphobic, aging actress and ex-starlet, is the antagonist of Sunset Boulevard.
She tries and typically manages to get what she wants throughout the film in many ways, mostly through manipulation and childish behavior. One way she exhibits her controlling, dominating, antagonistic tendencies is early in the film by basically kidnapping Gillis, the younger though not exactly young by Hollywood standards writer/protagonist. She convinces him to spend the night and then practically forces him to move in by having her butler (who we later learn is also her first director and her first husband) go to Gillis’s place and retrieve, or really steal, his clothes and typewriter. Gillis is later seduced (though more by Desmond’s money than by her prowess), manipulated mentally and emotionally, and (when he finally decides to leave) eventually murdered by Desmond (a moment that brings us full circle back to the start of the film).
Another example of Desmond’s antagonistic antics is when she calls Betty Shafer, the young female writer who Gillis clearly appears to be interested in (even though she’s engaged to Gillis’s friend) and who he’s been sneaking out to work/write with every night. A third, and probably the most glaring attempt to get her way and control Gillis is when Desmond slits her wrists on New Year’s Eve in what seems like more of an intense cry for help than an actual attempt at suicide. She seals the deal by threatening to do it again if Gillis leaves.
There were definitely moments throughout the film when I felt sympathy and even pity for Norma Desmond. The fact that Gillis was obviously using her initially inspired my sympathy but it grew throughout the film as we learn more and more about Desmond and we start to see her as a broken lost soul—a woman who devoted her life to her art and her dream to be a star but was simply tossed aside once the wrinkles started to set in. Even though she’s had success and plenty of riches, her life story is a sad one and it demands sympathy and empathy from us as we watch the downward spiral of her fall from grace as she practically begs the universe and everyone in it for another chance at fame and in doing so she loses what’s left of her mind.
Though I’d heard about it, this was the first time I’d actually seen Sunset Blvd. I watched it with my husband and we both enjoyed it. He especially loved the crispness of the picture, the fact that it was in black and white and how it managed to be so intense. We both loved the crazy faces of Norma Desmond. I think she was the highlight of the film. Not only was she an excellent antagonist and one from whom we never truly knew what to expect next but she also perfectly overacted the part of the ever-dramatic and always ready-for-her-close-up actress. It was so easy to see her as the villain (largely in part to the fact that we know right out of the gate that Gillis was murdered) and a complete and utter nut ball, too. But it was also easy to sympathize with her. This was largely due to her character flaws and insecurities as well as her fragile mental and emotional state. But Gillis, the protagonist who was made out to be a crook and a user, and even a jerk at times, also made me feel sympathetic toward Desmond. The way he lied to her and fed into her ego to get money, a free ride (literally) and whatever else he wanted and needed from her made me wonder how many other people had done nothing but use her along the way only to throw her away in the end.
Do you remember… “September”Leave a comment
Since I had mixed emotions on September by Tracy Kidder (Literary Nonfiction, 131-148), I decided to dig deeper into it and attempt to figure out why. As I stated in my previous response, there were things I hated about it and other things I downright loved.
I immediately hated the way Mrs. Zajac refers to herself, especially early in the piece and in the classroom, in third person. That struck me as weird, set a sort of poor first impression and it also made me feel distanced from her. I wondered how I would feel sitting before her in that classroom while she did that. Would I recognize it as strange or, worse, at such a young impressionable age would I start referring to myself in third person, too? Maybe, like Clarence, I would shout my frustrations out in the hall (notice he also used third person when it would have made more sense to shout “I hate you!” Was he mocking her, too, in addition to his anger?).
In addition to the way Mrs. Zajac specifically refers to herself, the author, Tracy Kidder, also uses third person to tell the story. While that should work fine since he’s telling the story of another person, for me, there was something that just didn’t work about it. It felt overly disconnected and, at times, even cold. The story seemed to be told with a spirit of unreasonable detachment and I wondered if maybe this was due to the fact that Kidder was not a teacher himself. While I liked the way Kidder presented Mrs. Zajac’s point of view, I think, maybe, the story would have benefited from a bit more personal insight on Kidder’s part. After all, even if he wasn’t actually a teacher himself, he had to at one time have at least been a student.
Similarly, the back and forth between referring to her as Mrs. Zajac and Chris felt odd to me, too. While I get that Kidder used Mrs. Zajac’s first name to show a more human and personal side of her outside of the classroom and at home, it always seemed to come across as a bit weird. Maybe since I’m not actually a teacher myself, and therefore I possibly related more to the role of student, but I just couldn’t escape the feeling of wanting her to be “Mrs. Zajac.” Even as an adult who has reconnected and even became friends with a few of my childhood favorites, I still struggle to refer to my own high school and elementary school teachers by their first names.
I liked the way Kidder described Mrs. Zajac and the other characters in the story physically so we could easily picture them. These stand out as gems: “Their faces ranged from dark brown to gold, to pink, to pasty white, the color Chris associated with sunless tenements and too much TV.” Also: “Taking her stand in front of the green chalkboard, discussing the rules with her new class, she repeated sentences, and her lips held the shapes of certain words, such as homework… Her hands kept very busy. They sliced the air and made karate chops to mark off boundaries. They extended straight out like a traffic cop’s, halting illegal maneuvers yet to be perpetrated.” I also loved this insight here: “She never cried in front of her students.”
The more I read about Mrs. Zajac and her story, the more I felt like I could understand her, sympathize and empathize with her. Being a teacher has to be one of the hardest and most self-sacrificing jobs around. Her career choice alone made me feel inclined to like her and root for her as the protagonist of the story. It became clear rather quickly through her interaction with Clarence and by the way she took her work and her worries home with her each night and on the weekends, too, that she really cares deeply about her students and truly wants the best for them. The characterization of Mrs. Zajac was done well. Through Kidder’s careful descriptions, we can see Mrs. Zajac and through her words, thoughts and actions we are able to really get to know her.
I found Clarence easy to picture, too, and I found myself worrying about him and specifically his home situation. But, like Mrs. Zajac, I had no idea really what his home life was or wasn’t like and how he was treated or possibly mistreated there. I had to rely on these “cumes” just like Mrs. Zajac. Mrs. Zajac’s interactions and conflict with Clarence is what drives the story forward and makes us, or at least made me, feel invested in these people and made me care about what was going to happen to them. Still, the ending left me feeling a bit “meh” about the piece. I wanted closure but didn’t get any, and because I didn’t get it I felt disappointed.
Although I was disappointed with the ending because it left me without closure, I also in a way liked it to a degree because I found myself imagining Mrs. Zajac’s arc in the story continuing beyond these pages. I found myself guessing what might’ve happened next to her and to her students, both immediately and in the next few weeks, throughout the school year and beyond. I could imagine anything I wanted to imagine and because of that I didn’t have to succumb to an unhappy ending that might have happened here. I would like to read the rest of Kidder’s book to see what really happened (and to see if the rest of the school year was in fact in line with how I’d imagined it). I’ve always been a bit of a happy ending girl myself so while I guess it would have been easy enough to imagine Clarence dropping out of school or simply continuing his antics, personally I pictured him eventually seeing the light, overcoming the odds, going on to college and someday taking over the world. I wonder if all that’s in the book.
That said; something about the overall tone of the piece, and how that tone shifted along the way, makes me wonder if Kidder intended to instill those initial feelings of disappointment so that he could counter with those teasing feelings of longing, wonder and hope at the end. As I read the piece again, I caught more serious laden tones throughout. Kidder captured the feelings of wonder and unknowing and trepidation and even despair, as well as anxiety and excitement, of that first week back to school for both students and teachers, too. In a way, the story felt like advice or words of wisdom from one teacher to future teachers—much like the “cume” folders discussed and how they’re meant to help the next teacher learn about students’ cumulative pasts.
I felt Mrs. Zajac’s pain and frustration and how tired she already was by the Friday of the first week of school. It’s a long school year and she was already exhausted emotionally and physically. As the saying goes, this wasn’t her first rodeo, and as such she already knew what to expect. But the tone changed somewhere in the middle as a feeling of hope set in. I could feel Mrs. Zajac’s sense of hope that these kids would overcome adversity, have bright futures and that they wouldn’t somehow fall to the waste side of a hard knock life. Toward the end of the piece, the tone shifted a third time, this time more optimistically—but still conservatively optimistic, as Clarence arrived back at school that next day with a seemingly apparent change of attitude and possibly of heart, though no one including Mrs. Zajac could be certain of either.
Throughout the piece, Kidder instilled and then continued to build on that sense of hope. That hope contrasted nicely with the other more serious and somewhat sad elements in the story and it grew stronger and stronger in between the lines. Mrs. Zajac’s hope gave me hope for her, too, that she would find her drive again and rediscover her passion during this new school year. It also gave me hope for Clarence and other kids like him who need that extra push, guidance, inspiration and support—that they would get the things they needed to thrive and excel. I felt Mrs. Zajac had a lot to offer these kids and I would have loved to see how it all panned out at the end of the year but the fact that I didn’t get that sense of closure left me feeling dissatisfied. Of course, this essay, while able to stand alone, was also an excerpt from a larger work by Kidder so structurally speaking leaving us with this teasing cliffhanger ending was highly successful, too.
All in all, I think Kidder accomplished what I think he set out to accomplish here. He made me think about the status of schools today and he got me to care about this specific teacher and her class. The tone of the piece and all those feelings I felt along the way reflected the way I imagine many teachers, like Mrs. Zajac, must feel at the start of each new year and then again at the end of each school year as they say goodbye to their students knowing they may never know what will eventually become of them. A job like that requires a great deal of hope.
As I read this story, that feeling of hope was there to carry me through.
Sims, Patsy. Literary Nonfiction. New York: Oxford, 2002.
Watch Your Tone (in Creative Nonfiction)Leave a comment
I’m in the final weeks of this creative nonfiction course and with only four readings left in the course to discuss, I guess my focus for this reading response will be on the following four essays: Tracy Kidder’s “September” (Literary Nonfiction, 131-148), Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That” (Slouching Towards Bethlehem, 225-238), and David Sedaris’s “Today’s Special” (Me Talk Pretty One Day, 120-124) and “I’ll Eat What He’s Wearing” (Me Talk Pretty One Day 265-272).
While these four essays had very little in common in the ways of topic, theme, structure and style, there was one thing that struck me as special about each piece—one thing that, while wildly different from one to the next, each one did quite well. So let’s talk about tone! Shall we?
I have mixed emotions on September. There are things I loved about it and other things I downright hated about it. Typically, in a read such as this, the sum of the parts speaks to me in some profound way where I am able to see beyond those individual likes and dislikes but that wasn’t really the case here. At the end of this, I simply felt “meh” about the piece, I think, mostly because of the way it ended. I wanted closure but didn’t get any, and that left me with an overall feeling of disappointment, which I think was actually Kidder’s intention. That said; I loved the tone of the piece and how Kidder captured the feeling of that first week back to school for both students and teachers. In a way, the story felt like advice or words of wisdom from one teacher to future teachers—much like the “cume” folders discussed and how they’re meant to help the next teacher learn about students’ cumulative pasts. I felt Mrs. Zajac’s pain and frustration and how tired she already was by the Friday of the first week of school. It’s a long school year and she was already exhausted emotionally and physically. I also felt her sense of hope that these kids would overcome adversity, have bright futures and that they wouldn’t somehow fall to the waste side of a hard knock life. Mrs. Zajac’s hope gave me hope for her, too, that she would find her drive again and rediscover her passion during this new school year. It also gave me hope for Clarence and other kids like him who need that extra push, guidance and support. I felt she had a lot to offer these kids and I would have loved to see how it all panned out at the end of the year. The fact that I didn’t get that sense of closure from the piece left me dissatisfied but the tone reflected the way I imagine many teachers must feel at the end of the school year when they say goodbye to their students knowing they may never know what will eventually become of them.
I related in so many ways to Goodbye to All That. Although Didion experienced her 20s in NYC long before I did, her experience felt so familiar to what I experienced living and working there in my 20s. Like Didion, I moved to NYC at the age of 20, right out of college. For me, Didion captured the feeling of being young and carefree in NYC and she also captured how those feelings change as we grow up and experience life. Little details about the piece screamed out to me like the Chock Full O’ Nuts reference (my husband and I now buy that brand of coffee online because it’s nearly impossible to find in the Midwest). At 27, I moved from New York to Dallas with my then-boyfriend (now husband) because he and I both craved the adventure one can only achieve from moving away to another new place. Later, though still young by most people’s definitions, we got married and moved back, and enjoyed more of what NYC has to offer in the way of fun and spontaneity and excitement for a few more years. After having a child NYC lost much of its luster for us, and we eventually moved away again, and this is precisely why: “It is often said that New York is a city for only the very rich and the very poor. It is less often said that New York is also, at least for those of us who came there from somewhere else, a city for only the very young.” I hadn’t realized how much Didion, at least in this essay, and I have in common. Her tone throughout this piece mirrors the tone of my own life experience and my memories of my time spent in NYC and it is her tone and perhaps those shared experiences which I feel have touched my soul in the way kindred spirits connect and relate to one another.
Today’s Special did nothing for me except for make me irritated at Sedaris. In this piece, his tone struck me as moody and bitchy and spoiled and, honestly, even ungrateful. I hate reading stuff like that. I felt like I was forced to sit across from him at that restaurant while he sat there in a foul mood sulking while bound and determined to dislike everything and everyone. It was like he wanted me to coddle him and ask him again and again: “Are you okay?” In a personal relationship, romantic or platonic, I might feel obligated to cheer him up but, as a reader, I’m just not willing to do that. I felt more connected to and sympathetic toward the waiter who sarcastically whispered: “Love your jacket.” I felt a sense of relief when Sedaris finally left the restaurant and grabbed something to eat from the food cart, but even the image of him eating a hotdog on the street didn’t erase the image I had of him pompously rolling his eyes and turning his nose up at every item previously presented to him. I think Sedaris wanted this action of grabbing a hotdog from the vendor to somehow show how down to earth he is, since at the heart of it all he’d prefer a hotdog to the frufie high-end restaurant cuisine and atmosphere, but instead it made me think he really isn’t down to earth at all. If he was, perhaps he wouldn’t have gone to that particular restaurant in the first place and instead gone directly to the cart. Still, the tone of this piece and how it affected me is what I will remember most of all. As much as it irritated me and even caused me to dislike Sedaris in the moment, the tone certainly fit the piece.
I’ll Eat What He’s Wearing contrasted nicely to Today’s Special. The tone was livelier, more satisfied, grateful and far less spoiled-bratty. While Sedaris is making fun of his father and in particular his father’s thrifty/cheap ways throughout the piece, his tone suggests that he’s doing do playfully. I love the line: “It was people who were spoiled, not food.” That line took me immediately back to the tone of Today’s Special. By contrast, the tone of I’ll Eat What He’s Wearing felt far more down to earth and to me. I love the way Sedaris presents his father as cheap and even embarrassing but somehow manages to balance those negative traits through humor, memories and love. He seemed to be poking fun at his dad throughout the piece but I never once felt like Sedaris crossed any line that changed his carefree, good-natured, playful, teasing tone. Because of the stark difference in tone, I preferred this piece over the other one.
I often say that a writer’s tone is the primary cause of me loving or hating a piece of their work, and this week was no exception. This week was like a tonal rollercoaster—an interesting week of ups and downs, both emotionally and mentally, for me. In fact, each of these four works and their writers had me feeling passionately in both positive and negative ways. While I will walk away feeling differently about each one, liking and disliking different things about each of them, I believe their unique individual tones is what makes them each successful and memorable.
Didion, Joan. Slouching Towards Bethlehem. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008.
Sedaris, David. Me Talk Pretty One Day. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2001.
Sims, Patsy. Literary Nonfiction. New York: Oxford, 2002.
“Rock of Ages” and Pondering Relatability2 Comments
After reading Rock of Ages (an essay about Alcatraz) by Joan Didion, it was brought to my attention by a classmate that the story was written in 1967. Even though I’d read the same thing and I was fully aware that Didion wrote the story in the 60s, knowing that seemed to play little to no role at all in my reading and absorption of the story’s details.
I’m glad she pointed it out though because it means the story was written during a time when Alcatraz was closed and hadn’t yet become the tourist attraction it is today. Like I said, I knew that but it didn’t really click or sink into my head that Alcatraz in the 60s had to be different than Alcatraz today.
See, I visited Alcatraz in 1998 and I recall feeling similar to Didion in regards to the beauty of the island but not so much in regards to the feeling of being isolated mostly because there were a ton of tourists there with me at the time of my visit. Hell, there was even a gift shop. It’s hard to make a place with a gift shop feel like an actual prison (though my husband would argue otherwise). Also, the place had been renovated for tourists so it wasn’t as abandoned looking as Didion had described.
The point I’m trying to make really has nothing to do with Alcatraz itself or even with Didion’s story about Alcatraz. It has more to do with the fact that in reading her essay, though I was reading her words I was picturing the place as it was when I visited in the late 90s and in the condition it was in when I visited it, rather than the condition she saw and described it. I think my own familiarity and memories of the setting interfered with my reading and absorbing some of Didion’s details, if that makes sense. It’s like I was reading the story but my imagination was moving away from the story and into itself and my own perceptions and thoughts.
Since a similar thing happened to me with some of the other essays we’ve covered in this Creative Nonfiction course, including Absences by James Conaway and Mrs. Kelly’s Monster by Jon Franklin (both of which were similar to experiences and relationships I’ve had in my life), I can’t help but wonder if this is a natural thing that happens when we read. Looking back, I wonder how often my own imagination or my own memories and experiences, both positive and negative, have interfered with the intentions of the writer.
Is it possible to read 100% objectively when we already feel connected? I guess in a way it goes back to the idea that we tend to enjoy stories which we can relate to more than those we don’t. Do you think, as readers, our relating to a story, a particular writer, the setting, situation or characters can perhaps play a significant role or even interfere with the story itself? Or more importantly, how we read and digest the story and its author’s messages? I know I’m rambling here but I can’t help but wonder how often our imaginations wander off and we see a story, or parts of a story, which aren’t necessarily there.
I think about my closest friendships and smile as I think how often we finish a friend’s thoughts and/or sentences. Usually we are right, too, because we know these people so well that it’s easy to guess what they’d say or do in a particular situation or moment. But how often are we wrong? How often do we put incorrect words in someone else’s mouth or draw the wrong conclusions?
And, more on topic, how often when we’re reading do we see people, places and things which aren’t necessarily there? Have you ever read a story and pictured the main character as, say, a blond with blue eyes then came to discover s/he was actually a brunette? There are times this happens to me and my mind simply refuses to see the brunette no matter how clearly the author’s descriptions may be!
Maybe I’m just that stubborn but even after going back and reading Rock of Ages a second time, with all of this in mind, I tried my best to focus but still ended up picturing the tourist attraction I visited in 1998.
“Me Talk Pretty One Day”Leave a comment
In Me Talk Pretty One Day (Me Talk Pretty One Day, 166-173), David Sedaris tells the story of his time in Paris while taking a French class taught by an abrasive teacher. He describes his struggles learning the language and the acquaintances he makes along the way, effectively engaging the reader’s sense of humor. In the essay, Sedaris uses the English language in a very calculated manner and he uses the words themselves, both real words and gibberish, not simply to tell the story but also as structural and stylistic tools, too, and devices of theme, conflict, tension, detail, description and characterization, as well as to show us his own character arc.
In this essay, Sedaris exhibits varied levels of vocabulary, sentence structure, diction and grammar to show us his struggle to learn French. By comparison, in the essay, Sedaris speaks eloquently in English. When speaking English, he speaks naturally and in complete sentences but when he attempts French he speaks in simple sentences and often with broken structure and with obvious grammar mistakes. Not only is this quite comical to picture him trying to wrap his mind and mouth around the words but it also makes it easy for us to see his struggle and make sense of his classroom experience. He doesn’t make the essay all about French words and phrases either as that might exclude us if we’re unfamiliar with the language. Instead, he makes it about the feeling of confusion itself and that relatable feeling of exile that comes with it.
Sedaris’s style of writing is more inclined towards humorous, witty, self-deprecating, silly, sarcastic and concise language and that translates (no pun intended) nicely into this piece. Having had struggled myself through six years of Spanish (from which I am now able to freely toss around questions like “Donde esta el bano?” and, of course, such suitable answers as: “El bano esta en el pescaderia!”), I could totally relate to Sedaris’s struggles to learn a second language and his inclination to poke fun of himself and the process.
When Sedaris describes his attempts to speak to his fellow classmates he uses only basic vocabulary words and he uses them in a disorganized structure like they do. I loved when he and his classmates were bonding over their language difficulties and similar negative classroom experiences. He says “it was a conversation commonly overheard at a refugee camp” and that detail was both awful and awesome as it fit the moment perfectly. I couldn’t help but picture Sedaris and his classmates huddled in a corner struggling along in their broken French trying to communicate with each other about this shared experience. There are so many awesome moments in this piece when Sedaris’s unique eye for detail and description allowed me to visualize his story, feel his struggle and picture his experience in my head.
Perhaps the best part of this essay is how Sedaris presents his French teacher to us. Although it’s unclear if she’s really as awful as he makes her out to be or if he’s exaggerating since the majority of his issues with her are due to a language barrier combined with his own frustration, but either way he makes her out to be a rude and cruel monster—albeit a monster who is highly intelligent and fluent in multiple languages. The teacher plays the role of the antagonist and heightens the conflict and tension throughout the story. His interaction with her becomes a lesson on tone, too. Sedaris does an excellent job of capturing the teacher’s snarky sadistic tone and relaying it to us so that, even though we really don’t always know what she said or her intentions, we believe she’s purposely being mean to him and his classmates.
I loved the way Sedaris used gibberish to replace words. All of the parts when he missed something in French altogether and chose to translate it to us as an obviously inaudible or incoherent “meinslsxp” or “lgpdmurct” instead of simply saying he didn’t catch the word or phrase was genius! It put me in the moment and I felt like I also didn’t catch the word or phrase.
When the teacher speaks, we don’t even need to know the word she really said because what we don’t know is made up for through context and tone. For example, when she says “’Were you always this palicmkrexis? Even a fiuscrzsa ticiwelmun knows that a typewriter is feminine.’” In this line, like Sedaris, we are forced to fill in the blanks of what we think she was saying. Because of her tone, it’s clear that she’s insulting him. We do not need an actual English translation to see this, and neither does Sedaris. Additionally, the teacher speaks eloquently with a very high vocabulary and strong diction which shows the reader her high level of understanding of French. This technique is also used when the teacher insults Sedaris directly in flawless English and, in doing so, she adds insult to injury. This increases her power over the classroom, too, since she is the only one who can communicate there completely.
The teacher and her insults play an important role in Sedaris’s character development throughout the story and throughout his learning experience because as the gibberish ends, coinciding with the story’s conclusion, Sedaris realizes he can actually understand what is being said. Even though what he’s hearing is insulting, he’s happy because he finally understands it. This moment is both satisfying and somewhat psychologically dysfunctional he’s still being insulted and, yet, he’s happy that we also feel happy for him
While I absolutely loved this essay, I didn’t like the way Sedaris constantly shifted back and forth between tenses. On one hand, this added to the conversational, informal feel of the story itself and it also sort of played nicely into the whole language lesson themes and conflicts as this was one of the lessons Sedaris struggled to learn. That thought made me wonder if this was a conscious decision and if Sedaris was in fact shifting tenses on purpose to make some sort of point or to carry though the language lesson themes but still, at times, I found it distracting.
The overall point of this essay was to amuse and entertain while showcasing his own experiences and I think he did a fantastic job. Even though I struggled at times with his tense shifts, I truly loved this essay. Not only was it, quite frankly, one of the most hilarious things I’ve ever read but, in terms of language, it opened up a whole new world for me as a writer.
There have been plenty of times, in my own experience as a writer, when I’ve felt bogged down by structural or stylistic rules and other times when I’ve given in and changed something I loved to please someone else. But Sedaris doesn’t seem fazed by what others might think and he doesn’t seem to be playing by any particular rules. There is a sense of freedom to his writing that I really like. For example, I love the way he just threw in a bunch of gibberish nonsense and actually made it work! There have been plenty of times when I’ve second guessed myself as a writer or when I wanted to break a rule or even make up a new word, for example, but didn’t.
Maybe next time I will.
This essay has broadened my thoughts on what can be done. Sedaris has made me realize that there is no limit to my writing. The possibilities are infinite. I feel empowered.
Sedaris, David. Me Talk Pretty One Day. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2001.