Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Storytelling

This spring, I’ve been managing to keep up with some reading, thanks to my kindle.  Also during this time, a few movies came out which were based on interesting books.   Naturally I said to myself, ‘Since I want to see these movies, why don’t I read the books first and compare the two?”

I have to say that approaching entertainment in such a way is a very interesting exercise. 

See, it’s easy when watching a movie to zone out and watch it uncritically and unintelligently.  Often I choose to watch something when I’m tired, after all, and I’m sure I’m not alone in such a choice.  However, as a writer (or even just a lively-minded human being), it can be detrimental to fall out of the habit of absorbing entertainment with an attentive spirit.  Every story can offer ideas – or even just examples of what one should not do – so each book, movie, tv show, play, etc., should be observed attentively, in order to find the value. 

Well, it turns out that if you want to jumpstart your mind before watching something, so as to avoid the couch-potato temptation (something I yield to more easily than I should!), you should read the book it’s based on.  Obviously not everything is based on a book, but I do find that the best movies and shows are.  Just because one is an excellent director, after all, doesn’t mean one is also an excellent writer; that would be an unfair abundance of talent!  Often, therefore, the artists in the entertainment industry need to start with the seed of someone else’s idea, in order to produce their best work. 

Luckily, some very good movies have come out lately, based on novels. 

The first such which I watched was Life of Pi, actually, but since I read the book after the movie, it was a different experience than what I’m referring to.  My idea is to stimulate the mind before the film is seen.  I had two chances to do so in the past few months. 

The stormiest clouds have the brightest linings!
First of all, since The Silver Linings Playbook was such a success at the Oscars, I decided that I wanted to watch it, but at the time it hadn’t been released to home-video yet.  So I sprang for the novel to tide me over.  Frankly, I was very impressed.  The elements of the story were surprising – mental illness, exercise, dance, football, family dysfunction – but combined into a thought-provoking and harmonious whole.  I was especially impressed by the child-like simplicity of the main character and the relationship built on silent companionship which develops between him and a potential romance.  Since both were recovering from truly life-altering experiences, it only made sense that their relationship should be unconventional. 

Then the movie come out on video and I eagerly rented it.  When I finished watching it, my first thought was, ‘If I hadn’t read the book first, I’d have liked this movie a lot better.’  The unusual elements I listed above were present, but the balance between them was shifted into something more clich├ęd.  Two parts especially disappointed me: the novel emphasized what a strong, loving person the protagonist’s mother is, but since the movie cast Robert De Niro as his father, the emphasis was suddenly on him and the mother was overlooked.  The other disappointment was that the lead couple bantered loudly like any couple in a romantic comedy these days (apparently one cannot fall in love without a lot affectionate arguing).  Their relationship went from intriguing to expected.  On the other hand, the acting was very impressive overall, leading to a movie that was charming, but more typical than I hoped for. 

My second foray into reading and movies came with The Great Gatsby.

As improbable as it may seem, I did not read the novel in high school (I may be the only person in the USA who did not).  When I learned that  Baz Lurhman – a director I appreciate – was filming the book, I sprang on the chance to read it.  It is a beautiful and terribly sad novel, embodying so many American dreams and yet showing the danger they have of falling short of redemption.  

Fast cars are so American!
I read a work of literary criticism once, which pointed out that many American heroes are defined by their cars (or other means of swift transportation), by which they run away from loss and evil.  I thought it was fascinating that Gatsby’s car proved a trap for him, though.  He thought he could escape from everything, taking Daisy with him, but in fact human beings are bound to each other and cannot live in perfect freedom without consequences. 

I’m happy to say that Mr. Lurhman’s interpretation of the novel was much more impressive than David Russel’s interpretation of The Silver Linings Playbook.  Granted, there were some flaws – but they were more forgivable because the spirit of The Great Gatsby was preserved intact.  There’s a difference between disagreeing with how a director presents an element of a novel and feeling that he has simply told a completely different story!  I feel a little sorry for Matthew Quick; apparently, since his novel was not old enough and not enough read in high school curricula, no one felt that they had to stay very close to what he had written. 

Anyway, on the subject of The Great Gatsby, the casting was perfect and the music (much criticized though it was) conveyed so vividly the sense of wild novelty which infused the 20’s.  If there had been nothing but jazz, the story would have seemed distant – a period piece.  As it was, by using hip-hop, R&B and pop for the soundtrack, the story was brought alive and the watcher plunged into it as if part of the action.  I felt as though I was Nick Carraway, the narrator, whirled away into a vibrant, decadent world which I didn’t know whether to love or to condemn. 

So in short, by reading the novels and watching the movies in quick succession, I felt like my appreciation of the two stories was greatly enhanced, and that I appreciated the artistry of the films much more.  If you want a stimulating, literary experience, I can definitely recommend my method.  I think you’ll find yourself much more attuned to the story and much more inclined to consider the construction and presentation of plot and characters.  If you’re a storyteller of any kind, such an exercise would be not only enjoyable, but also useful.  

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

A Door Closes

Take time to walk the path!
I’ve taken another week off from the blog, because I’ve reached a turning point.  I felt the need to stop and actually notice the turn happening, instead of letting it rush by in a flurry of activity. 

You see, for the last five years, I’ve been a teacher.  During the final year of my bachelor’s degree, I taught at the small high school attached to my college.  Then I came home and was almost immediately offered a job at the girls’ school where I was educated.  Out of a sense of paying back what I’d been given, I decided to take the job.  

I really love teaching.  There is something incredibly rewarding about opening young minds to the endless possibilities of knowledge.  However, two things had been slowly wearing down my enthusiasm over the past four years.  

First of all, due to the way the school is set up, the teachers are allowed to choose what subject they wish to teach, more or less, but the administration chooses what level.  Thus, if they need help in 5th grade English, and you’re an English teacher, you work in 5th grade.  If they also need help in 12th grade English, you work there too.  In many ways this system is very positive, since the teachers  end up well-rounded and experienced. 

On the other hand, it cannot be denied that most teachers are cut out for handling certain age levels and not others.  My strength is with high school students.  I sympathize with their growing pains and I find their budding personalities extremely interesting.  Middle schoolers are not quite so charming.  Individually a 12 or 13 year old girl may be delightful, but get her and 20 of her peers together and suddenly the delight transforms to a headache - at least for me. 

I’ve slowly been assigned more and more classes in middle school , until half my work load came from that level.  I can tell you the headache was definitely present.  I liked the girls, but found it so frustrating to deal with their continual distraction.  I don’t blame them for it (I remember being 13, too, and thinking Latin grammar was a waste of time), but the attitude still made me want to scream. 

I was so tense because of it all that by my spring vacation this year, I was continually testy and emotional.  I didn’t really realize the cause, though.  I’ve gotten so used to teaching, that it seemed inevitable to go on.  A friend of mine brought me to my senses though.  I was ranting to him – yet again – when suddenly, speaking with the voice of reason, he said, “Have you thought about not going back next year?” 

Illumination!
It was as though a light suddenly turned on in my head.

Sometimes another person needs to step into a situation in order to provide the catalyst that can resolve it.  That is exactly what this friend of mine did.  I knew as soon as he asked the question that I had my solution.  I would take a break from teaching, recover my equilibrium, do something new and, by losing hours of grading and preparation, gain time to advance further on my writing.  I’ve found a new job since then, and I’m excited to start it in July, after a few weeks of recuperation from the school year. 

That’s not to say that the end of my present career as a teacher isn’t sad.  I have mixed feelings, as always happens when a good thing comes to a close.  It was sad to say goodbye to all my students – even the middle school girls, who like me at the same time as they drive me crazy.  I think in some way I’ll always be a teacher (my new job is at a homeschooling corporation!), but now I need to pursue teaching through other paths. 

That brings me to the other part of working at a school which I find frustrating.  Besides the problem with age levels, I also prefer a holistic style of teaching.  Of course I think that children should learn grammar, mathematics, languages and other technical subjects.  At the same time, however, I think that the best kind of education is gained when conversation between teachers and students wanders wherever it wants to go and leads to discoveries and connections which could not otherwise have been made. 

An appealing door to walk through!
As school wraps up each year, I end up having such discussions in English class.  We’ve finished the curriculum and so for a few days we talk about everything important, from writing style to autism to quantum mechanics.  The girls have fun; I have fun:  it’s the best of all possible classes. 

Since this is my preference as a teacher, for now at least I’m going to pursue that style of education.  I’m going to work as a tutor this summer, on top of my new job, and I know I’ll enjoy the freedom for discussion which comes from one-on-one interactions with students. 


Even though one important part of my life is coming to end, therefore, I feel pretty positive about the next that’s starting.  I'm closing a door behind me and walking down the hall to find another door.  I’ll be in the same house when I open it, but hopefully in a room which suits me better.

Monday, June 3, 2013

To Market, to Market

This winter I passed a fair amount of time watching a whole list of documentaries on the food industry in America.  Then, because I prefer to learn from reading rather than from watching, I bought another list of books on the same topic and read them all.  I must say that I enjoyed the experience thoroughly.  While I now feel immensely skeptical of industrialized food, I also feel illuminated about the more natural, healthy and sustainable options. 

The latest of these enlightening books was one called Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.  The author and her family took on the project of eating (almost) exclusively locally for a year.  The tales she had to tell of the experience were delightful.  I can highly recommend the memoir for anyone interested in becoming a locavore

It's easy to see the possibilities here!
Another thing the book did for me was open my eyes to the possibilities of farmers’ markets.

The summer after my family moved to North Idaho we decided to visit one of the local markets.  I was just 10, so I poked around the booths until I found a random painted seagull which I bought for $5 (I’ve always had a weakness for knickknacks).  After that I was ready to go.  Instead I had to stand around for a half hour while my Mom and Dad listened with engrossment (and to a child's mind, inexplicable engrossment!) while a women explained how she spun wool into yarn. 

Now, of course, I myself would find such a lesson fascinating, but for years after that first and only experience, I thought of farmers’ markets as boring places where one could buy little crafty things of various kinds, but not much else.  As you might imagine, this didn’t make me want to leap up on Saturday mornings and dash down to see what farmers were marketing.  However, my passion for food and my recent reading inspired me. 

I thought it was time to try something new, in the hopes of expanding my horizons.

On May 11, this year, the nearest market opened; it’s just five miles away.  I arrived about 10, an hour or so after it had opened.  What was my surprise when I discovered that…it's perfectly marvelous!  I bought a cinnamon roll and cup of coffee on that first visit and wandered around, scoping out the opportunities.  I talked to a goat-cheese maker, a chicken farmer, a baker, a coffee roaster.  I took notes on prices and selections.  I studied many tempting offerings.  I listened to the amateur country-singers on the center stage.  I concluded the grand experience by buying a loaf of asiago-garlic bread to celebrate. 

The beauty of vegetables always surprises me!
Of course, that early in such a Northern state, there was very little produce, but all the farms were selling beautiful tomato and pepper and squash and eggplant starts.  I knew that my parents were looking for some, so I decided to make a date with them to return and explore together.  We’ve been back twice, in fact, and now it shows signs of becoming a family tradition.  Each time I return there is a more plentiful and gorgeous selection of food: spinach followed by lettuces, kale, chard, arugula, radishes, and now baby carrots and hot house tomatoes.  (I say nothing of the tempting breads and cheeses and meats.)

It’s marvelous to trace the development of the season through the market offerings.

One of the defining elements of being a locavore, as I learned from reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and have now confirmed with my own experience, is learning to cook what’s available.  I’ve not given up shopping at grocery stores because I’m just experimenting currently, but I’m going to attempt to buy the bulk of my vegetables at the market this summer.  As I don’t necessarily have any recipes for kale or chard, I’ve had to scour my cookbooks and think of new ways to serve vegetables in side dishes.

What's more inspiring than a gorgeous market tomato?
It’s actually great fun, since I love trying new recipes.  Moreover, it reminds me of the resourcefulness which a writer ought to have.  And not just writers, really – resourcefulness, or the ability to adapt to what circumstances offer you, is a valuable quality for anyone.  Authors, in particular, though, have to be able to take what comes their way, inspiration-wise, and make something marvelous with it, much like the seasonal cook. 

Actually, I suspect the simple act of shopping at the farmers’ market will produce food for writing, as well as food for the table.  It’s a lovely experience: walking in the filtered sunlight under the tall pines, making the circuit of red-painted wooden booths, slipping between other shoppers, chatting with the universally friendly merchants, sipping coffee and breathing the deep cleanliness of the morning air.  How could I not be inspired?

I have a semi-disastrous novel draft which I have to rewrite in the next few years.  The main character is a musician.  I have a sneaking suspicions she may show up, playing at the farmers’ market, once her story gets sorted out into something more manageable. 


Can you blame me for my enthusiasm, when I know that I can get up once a week and head out for an exhilarating experience?  It’s a lovely feeling to return with a mind alive and a recipe to prepare.  I hope many others will take advantage of the summer to discover with me what lovely things the fresh markets of the season can be.