Things I Remember

I have a ridiculously spotty memory for childhood. The childhood itself was a great one; I’m just terrible at recalling much of any of it. As my mother will be the first to tell you, I managed to sort of pleasantly drift through most things, all the way up to middle and high school, and trying to recapture specific moments from the time before is like grabbing at water. But I do have a handful of specific, vivid memories, and it occurred to me last night that a really surprising number of them have to do with Robin Williams.

  • I remember sitting upstairs at my grandparents’ house, watching Nick at Nite, and always being most excited for Mork & Mindy. I remember the egg, the nanus, and the smell of the off-white carpet in the room.
  • I remember going to see Hook in the theatre with my parents, and I remember sitting at Wendy’s with them afterwards as I tried to explain to them why it was great. (They’d been disappointed, mostly in Julia Roberts’ performance.)
  • I remember sitting in a friend of the family’s den and watching Fern Gully; it’s my only firm memory of that room and I can’t even really recall whose house it was, but the paneling and the TV and the carpet are there.
  • I remember walking out of seeing Aladdin with my parents, and my father explaining voice acting and improvisation to me. I remember feeling…proud, I guess? Of how good Williams was; I already felt like I knew him.
  • I remember watching the trailer for Toys with my parents (yes, that trailer). I remember being so excited. I remember watching it, on video, with my parents and grandparents. Man, I loved that movie.
  • I remember watching Mrs. Doubtfire with my mom and sister, and all three of us laughing and laughing in the little run-down local movie theatre.
  • I remember watching Jack with my grandfather in the theater, and absolutely bawling my eyes out. That scene with the red gummy bears, and even the ending speech, that encapsulates so much of the over-sentimentality and obviousness that people dinged Williams about as an actor. They all made me cry, because his performance felt like what it is to be a kid and not quite get what other people understand and are cynical about. (You guys, Francis Ford Coppola directed that movie. Nothing about that movie makes sense.)
  • I remember watching Mel Gibson’s Hamlet*, at my grandmother’s house again. But this was one that she only lived in temporarily, after my grandfather’s death. This is one of only about three memories I have in that place. Mostly I remember Robin Williams and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (?!). (EDIT: it was actually Branagh’s version that we watched. No wonder I didn’t remember much of Mel’s performance.)
  • I remember watching What Dreams May Come with my father and having a conversation about suicide, depression and the afterlife afterwards. Also, the scene where his wife destroys the painting he’s inside of.
  • I remember seeing Patch Adams with a friend in the theatre and goddammit I cried at that one, too.
  • I remember seeing Death to Smoochy and Insomnia with my friends in high school, and shortly afterwards beginning to list Robin Williams as one of my three favorite actors (another one was Philip Seymour Hoffman). I would say Williams’ name last, to play for maximum surprise factor, so that I could explain how versatile he was and seem smarter. Nobody was ever as surprised as I wanted them to be when I brought him up, and nobody really thought I was any cooler.
  • I remember lying to people and saying I’d seen Good Will HuntingThe Fisher King, and One Hour Photo, because I felt like I should have because my favorite actor was in them. I still haven’t seen any of them.

According to IMDB, Insomnia was the last new movie of Williams’ that I ever watched. I saw him on TV a few times, and I watched some old films of his on TV, but he and I diverged pretty suddenly and without my really being aware of it until reading the news that he’d died last night. I can recall most things in my life after high school without too much trouble, and Robin Williams isn’t a part of them. But through the entire, foggy haze of my childhood memories, he is a sign-post and a marker of specific memories involving specific people and specific places and specific conversations that stand out in their vividness. He is, probably, one of the largest constants among the things I can recall about being a kid. Which means that in a small, abstract way, Robin Williams helped me experience, move on from, and hang on to my childhood. I don’t imagine that I’m the first or only person to feel that. But I’m grateful.

Primary-Stage Ideas


Last night I wrote a scene for a play that I’d been thinking about in one form or another for around a year now. It was a moment that occurred to me right after having the idea for the play that it’s in, and in the initial research (i.e. walking around listening to music/staring off into space) phases of the process, it was the one that I could see most clearly, and that I returned to the most. When I sat down to start writing I figured that it wouldn’t be the first scene, but it’d be close to the beginning; maybe the start of Scene Two, Scene Three at the latest. But as I kept writing, the moment kept moving; always just a little bit later, just a little bit further ahead. “Oh, that can’t happen yet,” I’d say to myself. “This other thing needs to get established first.” Or, “It doesn’t fit here, but the next big beat that arrives will be good for it.” I constantly had this moment dangling in front of me, and like a carrot on a stick it kept hanging there, juuuust close enough to picture but not yet right for the scene.

And then, finally, last night, I cornered it. I’d written my way to a place that I knew needed this moment, deeply, desperately. There was no better moment for this moment than now. It was time. It was happening. The scene I’d been loving in my head for a year had arrived…

And I froze.

I got up from the computer. I got a drink. I went to Twitter. I finally got yelled at by Annie, because she’s on to my tricks, and only then, only then, did I sit down and write it. And it worked! It was wonderful. It was exactly where it needed to be, and it was fun. I got to forge onward, happy, knowing that I had delayed my gratification until just the right time, even though I’d been wanting to write the scene from even before I was writing the play.

Or had I?

This kind of moment occurs a lot when I’m writing, and I think it tends to be for two main reasons. The first is the obvious one, and was captured perfectly by another awesome writer, as she yelled at me over Twitter. (I got yelled at a lot last night.) It was, as she put it, performance anxiety. All that build-up, all that excitement, I’d put this moment up on a pedestal and now that I’d gotten to it I was terrified that I’d mess it up. It’s always better in our heads, after all, and so of course it was scary to finally try to translate what’s in our heads on the page.

But I think there’s another reason, too, and I think it relates to why I almost always wind up cutting my favorite lines when I revise. These are lines I love, deeply: funny jokes, touching sentiments, asides that hit just the right tone…and yet nine times out of ten, they’re the lines that I end up cutting when I’m going through and tightening the play as a whole. I think that as writers, we build up these Favorite Things as sorts of totems: little inspirational encapsulations of everything that we love about the plays that we’re writing. We cram all that information in there, and then we keep it in our minds as an impetus, or a primer, so that we can think about them and remind us why we love the scene we’re working on, or the character who’s voice we’re looking for at the moment. The scene I wrote last night had a little of everything that’s in my play in it, and by constantly keeping it in my mind I made it easier to picture what I liked about all the other scenes and moments I was writing, even when they were staunchly refusing to go anywhere.

That moment from last night was like the primary-stage of the space shuttle launch; it gave me the energy I needed for lift-off, and now that the play is off the ground there’s a very good chance that it’ll be jettisoned for weight, so that the mission can be completed. I won’t know whether that’s the case or not until I get into the second draft process, but I won’t be sad if it does, because even if it gets cut, the moment fulfilled its purpose. And it feels great to have written not just that moment, but the entire play that surrounds it, as well.

With Good Intentions

Gawker passes along the really painfully delightful story of what happens when a well-meaning non-professional (octagenarian, in this case), decides to help out a struggling work of art:

The restored version is apparently the work of an octogenarian neighbor of the church, who, noticing the damage to the painting, took it upon herself to restore the painting “with good intentions” but “without asking permission,” as culture councillor Juan Maria de Ojeda put it. It became clear to the amateur restorer — quickly, one imagines — that “she had gotten out of hand,” and she confessed to local authorities.

There are so many theatre-audience-talkback-workshop connections to draw here I don’t even know where to start. The easiest takeaway, obviously, is that audiences don’t always know how to fix your piece, and their ability to do so will be largely determined by 1) how much experience they have with a particular form and 2) how many of them are adding their insights. If the aspiring artist in the story had been a professional restorer, then her taking the job on in her spare time might’ve had much better results, and just been a kind act of charity. Likewise, if she had had even one accomplice, to stand over her shoulder and say “Hey you should probably use a different brush because that one is making Jesus look like a doll-eyed wookie,” well, maybe it wouldn’t have looked like that.

It’s the same with audiences and “constructive” feedback: you want to get a lot of it, and you want to get it from people you trust. There’s always the off-chance that some guy off the street will solve your play for you with one sentence of insight, but it’s also just as likely that he’ll say “Needs more clowns,” and then you write your whole restoration drama to make it somehow feature a modern-day clown transported in from the future, and before you know it you’re stuck with…hold on. I just had an awesome idea for a play.

Building vs. Excavation, cont.

As a lot of people who know me could tell you, I’m kind of obsessed with the perils and pitfalls of world-building in fantasy and sci-fi. It’s an endless topic of fascination to me, and so I was pleased as punch when the AV Club did a discussion between editors Keith Phipps and Tasha Robinson about just that subject, and the way it pertains to dystopian society books. (Which are also a thing that I have occasional opinions about.)

At the heart of the article is a question: when we read about dystopian societies, do we need to know where they came from? And the answer, after much very interesting back-and-forth that you should go read, turns out to be a resounding…maybe. Yes, sometimes. Some of the time definitely, others not so much.

Keith: [Tasha,] you listed a lot of instances of books and movies that succeeded in part because they filled in the details of the dystopian and post-apocalyptic worlds in which they were set. I’ll co-sign that if you agree that Metropolis wouldn’t be any more powerful if Fritz Lang provided a detailed history of how the class divisions of his film’s world widened. Or that Blade Runner wouldn’t work better if we were given more information about the off-world colonies, or we knew what those C-beams glittering in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate were, or who revived Pan Am and put up all those neon signs. Or that Sleeper would be funnier if we had a better sense of what happened in the 200 years Woody Allen spent in hibernation. Deal?

I think I’m pretty much with Keith on this one. Tasha is of the mind that most dystopian society stories would be improved if we could see the clear logic of their existence, but I tend to be in the camp that says that’s only necessary if it’s the story you’re telling. The Hunger Games is not the story of a nation’s rise, just as The Lord of the Rings is not about the dawn of Middle Earth. They are each, in their own ways, about the end of the worlds they’ve constructed, and expecting authors to interweave the equivalent of The Silmarillion into their books and still make it interesting just isn’t going to result in a compelling story.

People are weird, and we are never weirder than when we’re trying to talk about what we want. Because we’re wrong, most of the time. We say we want naturalism in theatre, but we also want the living room on stage to only have three walls so we can see what’s going on. We say we want to see our lives reflected back to us, but we often connect more to stories about talking toys or fish. And we say that we want to know the details and history of the worlds that we read about, but then we all skip the Star Wars prequels when they’re on television and watch A New Hope every damn time.

People want as much information as they can get, but as writers it is our job to give it to them in a way that feels like active discovery. We need to make our audiences participate in the uncovering of our worlds. And, at the end of the day, we need to leave them wanting more. Otherwise, how will we ever make any money off of the sequels?

No More Victims

So, word has it that The Hunger Games is a little bit popular these days. Which is great! They’re great books and well-written and, thanks to certain knowledgeable parties, I got them forcefully pushed on to my reading list back before most other folks had even heard of them, and am thus officially cool and hip and cutting-edge. But they’re in the zeitgeist now, and that means two things: an increase in post-apocalyptic YA novels, and the proportional increase in editorials and literary articles wondering what it all MEANS that there are so many post-apocalyptic female teenagers running around.

Over at the American Prospect, Abby McGanney Nolan has an article that cuts through a bit of the psychodrama fat and highlights what I personally think has the most to do with the books’ popularity among readers: agency.

Why are young heroines thrust into ruined worlds and then routinely hunted, harassed, or beaten into unconsciousness? A New York Times forum on the grim dystopia boom featured one novelist in the genre asserting that teens in our mismanaged times are demanding to read “something that isn’t a lie.” Writing on the phenomenon in The New Yorker, critic Laura Miller wondered if the authoritarian societies that dominate the trend are analogues to the oppressive world of high-school students, who are constantly monitored and hassled and forced to compete.

Neither theory quite pins down the appeal of the new damsels in distress: They’re not waiting for someone else to save them or the world. 

Nobody likes being a victim. Nobody likes being powerless. Nobody likes feeling like things are just happening to them, and that they exist only to be happened upon.  And, lo and behold, people have a hard time connecting to characters who don’t exist with any agenda outside of the characters around them.

Easiest way to avoid that? Don’t victimize your characters. Oh, sure, be mean to them. Put them through the wringer. Let awful things come their way that they have to deal with. But then make sure that they actually do deal with it,  and attempt to overcome it, all the way up to the end. Even if they don’t end up winning, they should at least go down fighting.

When a character of any gender or ethnicity curls up in a ball, the drama stops. The scene’s over. Nothing is in question any more, because they’ve lost, and if you keep the scene going for much time after that point, you’re just subjecting your audience to a lot of boring spectacle devoid of meaning. With this in mind, of course books like The Hunger Games are compelling; they’re about characters not giving up in the most dire of circumstances. And that’s exciting!

It’s a shame that the gender of those characters is still so worth note these days, but there you have it. The trick to writing compelling female characters, or male characters, or minority characters, or characters of whatever descriptor doesn’t apply to you? De-victimize them. Give them an agenda, and respect that agenda, and make them struggle to achieve it no matter what. Because otherwise you might as well just replace them with a big scarecrow with the words “PLOT POINT” written on its chest.