I write fiction, but decided instead of doing what I’ve been doing for the past few decades and sort of know how to do, I’d write a screenplay for my MFA thesis. I wanted to do something new, I said, pretending I don’t realize that every piece of writing requires something new. I wanted to watch more movies. Something school has put a damper on. I wanted to study with Jon Lewis. Also, screenwriting directly addresses my weaknesses as a writer. I am an interior writer. I write thoughts, feelings, obsessions. I write interior space. You can’t do this in a movie. You have to create setting and move characters around in it. Appallingly, characters in movies don’t think at all. They do stuff. And the pacing is completely different. I learned writing by writing. I learned by reading. It’s much harder to get at a screenplay through watching a movie. Plus, I always forget I’m watching. I tell myself to notice, but I get caught in the dream and forget.
I read a Facebook post by a guy from Europe about the way Americans ride our bikes. Fast and joyless, like we are in race. We do this for no reason, without thinking, because hurrying is automatic, it’s what we do. We turn things into a race, into a chore, a goal, into what’s good for us, into self-improvement. So after that FB post, I changed. Now I leave earlier. I go slow. I don’t think about burning calories or improving my muscle tone. I let everybody pass me. For a little while each day I look at my neighbors’ gardens, the trees turning colors, kids at the park, the sky. I am not racing. I am not improving myself. I am riding my bike.
It’s the image I want but it is also the face of a real child. I was looking for images for the Pinterest board I’ve created around my latest manuscript. I collect images for story ideas. I collect images around my books. In this latest as yet unpublished book my character Mavis “was a secret animist” as a child. I searched images for “animist” and found a stunning picture of a little girl, the perfect picture, the child’s face, the background, tone: all perfect. So I added it to my board. It’s the image I want but it is also the face of a real child. Her name—I go back to read—is Abi Gul. She is 7 years old and Kalash, from Rumbur Valley, Pakistan. For eleven years her father fought in Pakistani courts to keep their valley from being logged. Three years ago her father was murdered. For the Kalash the trees are sacred. Animists: those who believe “the natural world is inhabited by spirits who nurture or destroy in accordance to the respect they are shown.” Which brings us back to the child, Abi Gul, and the question of ownership and privacy, of using the sacred things of the world, including the face of a child, for own purposes. I don’t have an answer, but at least I can include here this website: Blue Earth, http://www.blueearth.org/blog/?p=1509 And look at her face. All the things in it.
I didn’t spend my Julia Child week sipping mint juleps, but I did have fun.
Last month writer Karen Karbo made a request. Karen’s book Julia Child Rules: Lessons on Savoring Life has just come out. She was looking for bloggers to choose one of Julia Child’s axioms, to apply it for a week and to blog about it. I chose being amused. Here’s my report.
This is my final year of school. This summer I finished a new novel. I’m writing a screenplay. I’ve started a novella. I’m in the habit of busyness. Even when deadlines aren’t pressing down on me, I’m in the habit of feeling pressure. The habit of to- do lists. The habit of ignoring pleasure. I take feeling overwhelmed for granted. Somehow we have arranged things in this way. Americans. We brag about how much we have on our plate. As if busyness itself is a virtue.
Thoughts on School, Writing and Relationships
Sometimes we begin something for the pleasure of it, but end up using it to torment ourselves. Or is that just me?
There are several parts to being amused. First is the way we look at what we’re already doing. Most of it isn’t brain surgery. No one will die if we don’t get it exactly right. Face it—the things we do are just not that serious.
If you laugh at people’s jokes, they tell you more jokes.
Last night the baby came over. I call him the baby, but Harrison is 21 months now, a little boy. Babies and small children are amused by everything. We take a walk. We see many wonderful things. Four fat hens. Piles of white rocks. A purple flower. Leaves on the ground. A calico cat. A small green ball. We stop so Harry can say hello to a man in a wheelchair and tell him we are hiking. Hiking! He notices the moon and reaches up his arms. “Grab it,” he says to me.
The small green ball
Harry found a small green ball in the road. It was squishy, he said. He was squeezing it, he told me. He threw it to me and I threw it back. He rolled it to me and I rolled it back. He bounced it. And then he kicked it down the sidewalk in front of us as we walked. A small green ball can do so many things.
Some things about me
I’d rather drive a funky car and live in a too small house than drink bad wine and cheap coffee.
I’d rather live in my warm car than live in a cold house. Although it hasn’t come down to that.
The bad habit
When you’re Catholic, you can make up for doing something bad if you suffer. People, non-Catholics, think this is letting ourselves off the hook—but it’s not. Also, you can make a sacrifice and then you get something. Not money, but something like grace. Or maybe you get a soul out of Purgatory. There are many useful things you can get from denying yourself pleasure. It’s like money in the bank. I say I’m not Catholic anymore but I still have this Catholic way of doing things. Of needless suffering. Of pushing aside what is desire. Of everything being contingent.
Looking at a Menu
When I look at a menu, I don’t ask myself what I want. I ask what is cheapest or what has the fewest carbohydrates. When I run into my old friend Leon, my first thought is that I need to get home and finish writing my lesson plans.
My husband is wrong about one thing.
My husband thinks people can’t change, but he’s wrong. You can begin to change just by changing your actions. You can change just by choosing what to notice.
The Lesson of Breaking Bad
We become what we do. Changing what we do is doable. We can’t help how we feel. We can’t do anything at all about our own history. But we can order what we want instead of the cheapest thing. We can buy a cup of coffee and sit down with Leon.
The amusement list (abbreviated)
One my Julia exercises this week has been to notice people (or, sometimes, animals) amusing themselves. A few things from that list:
- a girl in the park shows three children how to do the yoga pose called The Wheel
- the neighbor’s black and white cat sits by a tree, watching, as the sun goes down
- a woman on roller skates pushes a baby carriage
- Maya in her yard picks the last of the summer peaches
- the pitbull at my feet rolls onto his back and kicks his legs in the air
- the neighbors set up a movie in their yard for anyone to come and watch
- Farmer’s Market a man plays guitar with a Chihuahua lying on it
- a girl at the park, reads
- the fountain, full of children
- a little girl sits on the sidewalk petting two cats
- friends sit at a table outside on a summer night
- a man on a unicycle, juggles (wait—is that actually fun?)
I want to enjoy my own house the way I enjoy the funky hotel where we stay in Mexico sometimes. Not looking around to see the jobs that need to be done. I want to sit in my back yard and not think about what a failure I am at gardening. To sit in my studio and not wonder what the exact right configuration of furniture should be. This morning the sun comes up in front of me and from the studio window I see trees. Don’t think about the fact that one of them is the supposed dwarf that’s taken over and must be cut down. Stop the thought at the sunrise.
To the black man in the blue van on the road when I was walking. This is an apology. I was walking and looking at the big houses. I was listening to a tape of a novel about a serial killer by the Norwegian writer Jo Nesbø. I was thinking about being a white woman in the United States. I was thinking if I was a young black male, I probably wouldn’t walk around in this neighborhood simply for the pleasure of doing it. And I definitely wouldn’t stop to examine the houses, set back in their enormous yards. It’s a quiet walk. I hardly ever see people. I see the mother deer and her twins. I see trees, flowers, woods. I saw a van parked up ahead and I moved to the other side of the road. I’m sorry. Fear is a liar. I know this, and yet. Several years ago a woman was pushed into a van here and murdered. This is the kind of information females file away. I pulled out one of my ear buds, so I could hear. There was no one around but the blue van and me. I looked as I passed by, hoping for a female. I looked carefully, turning my head, squinting. A young black man was trying to look like he didn’t see me staring at him or notice the way I hurried past. He was looking at a map, but I didn’t stop to help. He was a gender to me. I was probably a race to him. A man looking at a map, a woman on a walk. Stuck with all that history and context.
I’ve been lying on the floor with the dog, Riley, index cards spread out all around us. I’m organizing the scenes of my screenplay. I have to be alone to do this. I talk out loud to myself. I try out different lines of dialogue. The windows are open and the sky is a brilliant blue. I can hear my neighbors. A woman rides by on a motorbike. But I’m thinking: would Bill really forget that Cindy works with his wife? Can I create a scene designed only to develop character? Is Jon Lewis right when he says my film will be upended if I include even the rumor of incest? Are readers more willing to experience trauma than movie-goers? Am I obsessive/compulsive? Is my writing a way to rationalize my neuroses? Am I agoraphobic?