I had the pleasure (and terror) of seeing the new movie Gravity this weekend. I also saw it in 3D, on an IMAX screen, and the experience might be enough to cause heart failure in those with frail constitutions. You can already read all about Gravity in other reviews, but let me say that it was the most purely enthralling cinematic experience I’ve had in a long time. At some point fairly early on in the movie you realize that all the scientific rules you learned in school about angular momentum and life in zero G, you never REALLY absorbed. You never REALLY understood the total lack of control one has in a frictionless, gravity-less void.
Gravity is so thrilling as a movie experience because it taps into the very thin line many of us have between what is absolutely terrifying and what is absolutely beautiful. One of the major sources of terror for me was the inability to stop yourself in zero G — without air, without gravity, once you are headed in one direction there is absolutely no way to stop yourself or to slow down. Even if you grab hold of something, unless it hits you dead center, you’ll just start spinning helplessly. It’s like being a bullet that never stops ricocheting. At the same time, that cold and brutal fact is also what gives the movie its bizarre, balletic beauty. And this odd mix of the awful (and I mean awful by the word’s original meaning, or something that fills one with awe) and the beautiful is something we can all access in our own writing, even without a hundred million dollar budget and a four story screen.
There’s a new post up at Two Cities Review! Read an excerpt below, and be sure to click on to read the rest.
Image from Google Maps
So many cities around the world are defined by the rivers whose banks they hug, or the bridges that straddle them, and Boston is no different. In fact, I’ve been throwing the term “Boston” around pretty loosely, but of course Boston is often used as shorthand for the two brotherly cities on either side of the Charles River — Boston and its companion, Cambridge. They have their own mayors, their own city councils, their own competing farmer’s markets and museums; but residents of either tend to jump back and forth very freely, and will say they’re from Boston to outsiders when they really live in Cambridge. I’m one of those folks.
Locals know that there’s a slightly different tone and personality to be found on either side of the river. While Boston is the sleek cultural hub, home of Copley Square, the massive historic Boston Public Library, and most of the Revolutionary War monuments, Cambridge is Boston’s liberal hippie cousin. Here, the city of Cambridge compensated same-sex married couples who weren’t receiving federal benefits, pledging to make up the difference until the law was changed (and thankfully, it has). Here, helpful guides will tell you what part of your garbage is compostable and each new building is competing to be even more sustainable. But Cambridge is also home to rough parts, rundown neighborhoods; it’s holding hands with its roughneck cousin Somerville, which is only just starting to hipsterize…
Many story writers who are in the pursuit of Realism with a capital R express suspicious attitudes toward fantasy of any kind. They turn up their noses and scoff at swords and sorcery or science fiction. It’s not real, they’ll remind us. Why is important if it doesn’t have something to say about the way the world really works?
That’s the most common complaint I’ll hear in my creative writing classes from students when I assign a bit of Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Kafka. It’s too strange, too fanciful; surely it’s for kids, because only children could enjoy fantastic events and themes. Many of us are tempted to lump magic realism in with the purely escapist (and often distressingly stereotypical) fantasy and science fiction paperbacks of our youth. My goal on magic realism day is to change those students’ minds.
It’s not like I’m any less of a realism fan. My own writing strives for realism in every way. But I’m also truly delighted when I encounter a story that uses fantastical or magical elements in a new way. There’s just something so refreshing and strange, so utterly beguiling about the details of real life invaded by fairy tale or fable. The themes of fairy tales, for example, remain powerfully connected to the problems of being human. Fairy tales teach us how to behave and what to fear; they fill us with the hope that loved ones can come back from the dead or that the wicked will eventually suffer. They show us that children can be brave and resourceful, and that girls and women can be their own heroes. I’m always impressed with how many fairy tales actually star women, from Rapunzel to Rumplestiltskin; though there are many stereotypes,there are also surprising moments of agency. Consider the Russian fairy tale character of Baba Yaga; she is an occasionally benevolent but always dangerous witch who lives in the woods and sometimes saves the day.
Tuesday tips is a category of posts here at Writerly Life that promises to offer concrete tips for improving or kickstarting your writing. The tips that fall into this category are the sorts that you can do today or even right now.
This week’s tip:
Go Somewhere and Don’t Do Anything
The wonderful aspect of all this mobile technology these days is that it has made waiting for stuff so much more bearable. Whether it’s standing in line at the post office or sitting on a bench at the DMV, phones and tablets and other gadgets have made it possible to be entertained at all times, in all places. Nowhere is this more clear than on the commute or on a trip. As long as you’re not the driver (and there are still books on tape), you now have the freedom to be constantly soothed and entertained and stimulated for your entire journey. You can listen to podcasts or music, watch tv or movies. That bus trip up and down the East Coast that I do so frequently has become as full of media and activity as if I were sitting at home.
The problem with this is that traveling time used to be my most fruitful thinking time. I would plan out whole stories on that bus ride from Boston to New York, or get new ideas for other stories. I’d watch the road whip by or the trees changing with the seasons, and it would get me in that special mood, that mood that allows for creative thinking.
On my last trip, I consciously unplugged the device, turned off the music, and looked out the window the way I used to do. I recommend you do it too the next time you have to take a trip. Whether it’s your morning commute or your family road trip to Florida, try just being with yourself, being in the car or on the train. Let your thoughts walk where they want to, instead of being stifled by constant noise. You don’t need that latest comedy podcast; you’ll live if you don’t listen to that song you like the four hundredth time. Instead, think about your work. Your writing. The voice in your head that wants to get out.
Like many many happy readers this week, I was flabbergasted and delighted to discover that Canadian short story master Alice Munro had won the Nobel Prize. So many more qualified writers have already offered their thoughts on why Munro is so unique, and what her decades of quiet, devastating stories have contributed to literature. But as a reader, I feel entitled to offer my own quiet thoughts to the pile. After all, one of Munro’s many prevailing ideas seems to be that everyone, every forgotten subdued girl and woman, has a voice, a rich inner life.
I think Alice Munro is often misunderstood. She is often labelled as a “quiet” or a “domestic” writer; hey, I just did in the previous paragraph! And on the surface, many of her stories could seem muted in tone, in violence, in scope. But that’s also the fate that is dealt to many women writers who write about the home, or about marriage and divorce, love and heartbreak. Somehow, if a man writes about these topics it is “grand” and “ambitious” and “sweeping”, but I’ll save that whole discussion for another day.
Munro is misunderstood, I think, because so many of her stories carry such devastation within them. They are harsh, brutal, and unafraid. Often a single, devastating choice changes the entire course of a character’s life; a moment of coldness, or of emotional dissolution, can radically change the world you thought you understood. There are too many truly wonderful stories to choose from, but many still ring in my mind in a way many short stories don’t. I’m thinking about a young woman at a tuberculosis sanatorium for children who sleeps with the head doctor and is told that they’ll be married. He drives her to town, presumably to go to City Hall; it’s not until he presses money into her hand that we realize, with a jolt to the heart, a sudden loss of breath, that he is giving her money to put her on the train, to send her away forever.
Or there’s another story in which a woman travels to a new town and falls in love with a mysterious stranger she meets there. They promise to meet again in a year; I can’t remember why they must be apart. A year later, she faithfully returns to his house, but when he comes to the door, he shakes his head in a firm, rejecting silence, and slams the door in her face. Only decades later does she read in a newspaper of this man and his identical twin, who is mentally handicapped and lived with him. What quiet, subdued writer would make such a bold narrative choice as that?
Don’t worry, readers of Writerly Life — I haven’t forgotten you! You can keep expecting regular posts on the writing life to continue. Coming soon will be more thoughts on writing in bits and pieces, as well as thoughts on what to write when your novel is finished. . I’ll also be writing about when you can be sure your novel or story is ready to send out.
For now, though, check out a brand new article up at Two Cities Review that explains our mission. It offers a little background about where the idea for the review came from, and what kind of writing we’re looking for. If you think you could write something about the city for our blog, or if you have fiction, creative nonfiction, or poetry to submit to the actual review, head on over to twocitiesreview.com to find out how to submit. We want your writing!
Now here’s an excerpt from the new post:
We are Olivia and Blair, and we are writers living in two different cities.
We both grew up near Boston, and moved to New York for grad school. Then we split paths — Olivia stayed in Brooklyn, and I returned to Boston. But we knew we would keep a bridge between these two cities, and some part of both of them would always be our home. There are so many writers and artists out here who are shuttling back and forth along the coast, climbing and descending the hills, riding the Mass Pike, coasting down the George Washington bridge. We thought that nowadays, so many of us are multi – city people. We have grown up in one city, and matured in another; we have played in the parks of one town and frequented the bars of a different one. So many of us are living two lives, or are stretching our creative lives across bridges to different worlds.