Monthly Archives: June 2010

The Challenges of Writing Memoir and Life: Are Forced Stories Good Stories?

I recently read A Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Donald Miller, a sort of meta-memoir about storytelling in our lives. The author goes through a period of self-reflection after writing the New York Times bestselling memoir Blue Like Jazz and then meeting two Hollywood types who want to turn his story into a movie. Except that his life is too boring to be a movie, so they have to doctor up the plot.

Miller spends some time reflecting on what it means to have a boring life, and concludes that our lives are better lived when we engage in active stories, complete with conflict and pain and growth. To give Miller credit, he embraces his thesis wholeheartedly and goes from being a couch potato to hiking the Inca trail, dating a girl he likes, biking across the country, and starting a nonprofit mentoring program. I bet his Facebook friends are super jealous.

His experiences got me thinking about stories though. I agree with the overall idea that good stories are a better sign of life-well-lived than a TV screen. But, I don’t think all life experiences, even the seemingly adventurous ones, naturally organize themselves into stories of self-development. Sometimes, things are just plain fun. Or just plain unfair. Or just plain boring.

I went on an educational trip once that was just begging to be a story. We were even given journals to record our daily thoughts and answered reflection questions. Because of all the build-up, I felt like the trip was some great life lesson waiting to unfold, and I tried to wring out meaning every day in my journal entries. In the end, some interesting things happened, but assigning an overarching lesson to the whole thing was forced. It was a trip without a plot. It was fun at times and bad at other times, but it was mostly a vacation.

Writing memoirs must be difficult. I imagine that, once an author writes a fantastic memoir and sells oodles of books, they’re compelled to bring out the sequel. But, as I mentioned at the end of my post on Elizabeth Gilbert, how many truly life-changing and memoir-worthy experiences can one person really have?

Based on my experience reading memoirs, I think some of the better “sequels” are comprised of stuff that already happened before the original, bestselling memoir was written. That way, the author didn’t feel pressure the pressure to ohmygod do something interesting/adventurous/profound and crank out a new book by deadline.

I wonder if authors of memoir actually do feel pressured to seek more stories in their lives, and I wonder how that affects the quality of the stories. Sometimes, I think intentionally plunging into a story like Elizabeth Gilbert did in Eat, Pray, Love, can work. At other times, a vacation is just a vacation. Everyone needs one.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Review, Non-Fiction, Thoughts

Book Review: Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson

If I were choosing a book to read just by browsing cover-jacket summaries, I probably wouldn’t have picked up Wintergirls, Laurie Halse Anderson’s latest YA book about Lia, a (barely) living anorexic girl and her former best friend Cassie, a bulimic girl who is now deceased and haunting Lia. Typically, I don’t gravitate toward gritty realism for the sake of gritty realism, so upon picking up the book, my warning sensors were screaming “Egads! Anorexia AND bulimia! Holy after-school special!”

But, Anderson is no cookie-cutter author, which I knew from reading Speak, her most famous book, so I decided I would trust in her writerly abilities and give Wintergirls a shot. I’m glad I did.

Anderson’s writing reminds me of poetry. As a writer, I know it’s tough to use metaphor and simile skillfully, but Anderson’s sentences work, creating connections that stick, vividly, in your head: (pg 223) “Fat drops of blood splash on the counter, ripe red seeds.” or (pg 84) “Dark chords from the organ slip into the night, turning our shoes into concrete blocks and pulling down our faces until we look like trees drooping with black leaves.”

Anderson also plays with language, often jamming two words together to form new words, or adding crossed out lines, or hyphens, or smaller text. For the most part, I felt the word-coining and language improvisation added depth to the story, although I found the crossed out lines distracting by the end.

When Lia eats something, there are parenthesis after the food indicating the calories, and that small addition worked best for me, a shorthand allowing the reader to jump in Lia’s head and understand how she thinks–pg 7 “I pour too much cereal (150) in the bowl, splash on the two-percent milk (125).”

Overall, Wintergirls is a strong book with a compelling story that sucks you in. The writing is superior, the characters well-developed, and the story and pacing engaging. Sure, anorexia and bulimia aren’t things that I’d list among my normal reading interests, but after reading Wintergirls I felt like I understood Lia’s thought process. Kudos to Anderson for writing a real story and not a lesson plan.

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Review, Young Adult Fiction

Good Brother, Bad Brother Stories

A few years ago I watched the anime Trigun, a story that centers around a man named Vash and his twin brother Knives. Unsurprisingly, one of the brothers was evil. I’ll leave you to guess which one…

I was laughing about this less-than-obvious name choice with a friend, when it occurred to me that the dearly departed TV show Lost involves a similar interpretation of brothers. One baby, Jacob, is born and wrapped in a nice white blanket. Then Jacob’s brother is born and wrapped in a foreshadowing black cloth. White-blanket baby becomes the illustrious protector of the island and black-blanket baby gets shafted with the role of Nemesis. Poor evil baby doesn’t even get a name.

Why do so many stories out there have a plot involving a good brother and an evil brother? Often these brothers are twins, but not always. In the book Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, good little Ender becomes the Battle School hero and saves the world, blah blah blah. Meanwhile, his older brother Peter’s hobbies include torturing animals and Ender.

I haven’t conducted a thorough survey here by any means, but by just recalling my own media consumption experiences it seems like the good brother/evil brother trope is quite common. Other examples include The Traveler by John Twelve Hawks (good twin/evil twin), the Bible (Cain/Abel and Jacob/Esau), The Man in the Iron Mask (good twin/evil twin), The Dragonlance series (good twin/evil twin), and The Demon’s Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan (good brother/bad brother, although there’s a cool twist to that). Oh, and let’s not forget Dexter (Season 1 SPOILER), where, um, I suppose both brothers are serial killers but Dexter is most certainly the good serial killer. I’m sure there are plenty of others out there that I’m forgetting.

So, again, what’s the deal with all these good/evil brother pairings? I’m wondering why I can’t think of any good sister/evil sister stories, twins or otherwise. Can you think of any? Luke and Leia in Star Wars are boy/girl twins, and both good, so maybe girls just cancel out the evilness of boys? Seriously though, the good brother/evil brother tale seems entrenched in our storytelling, ancient as the Bible.

I wonder if it’s a vestige of the pre-feminist revolution days when mostly everything was by men and about men. But that explanation seems too shallow, too easy. We’ve had decent stories in recent memories with strong female protagonists, and some in the past too, so why not a slew of good sister/bad sister stories to keep pace with the boys? Or even more boy/girl twin stories?

Perhaps our modern brother stories are echoes of legend, of an archetype. But still, why are brothers handy personifications of good and evil and not sisters? I understand why women in legend are often earth goddess mother types. I get why ancient cultures were kind of freaked out by twins in general. Is the brother cliche a result of men’s higher rates of murder in society? Is it because men are typically more physical than women, and physicality equals violence equals death equals evil?

From the stories I’ve named, the brother trope seems to appear more frequently in speculative fiction than in the literary variety. Of course, I enjoy reading/watching speculative type things and have probably read more of such stories as a result, so my experience is biased.

I’m curious if anyone else has thoughts on this. Why are we drawn to brothers, and not sisters, who personify good and evil?

9 Comments

Filed under Thoughts, TV, Writing

Book Review: Buyology by Martin Lindstrom

I picked up Buyology thinking it would offer more mind-bending, anecdotal nonfiction in the vein of Malcolm Gladwell. But, although Lindstrom serves up plenty of anecdotes, but he’s no Gladwell in terms of a satisfying read.

The basic premise of Buylogy is intriguing, and highly relevant to the future of marketing. Lindstrom, the self-branded “futurist,” hypothesizes that fMRI technology can reveal our true consumer preferences. Focus groups and qualitative research just don’t cut it, because, as he says in the book, we don’t fully realize what truly drives us. No one will say “I bought that Luis Vuitton bag because it appealed to my sense of vanity, and I want my friends to know I can afford a $500 purse.”

So, after scanning the brains of volunteers, Lindstrom outlined some startling conclusions. Apparently graphic warnings about cigarettes backfire and actually increase smokers’ cravings. Smokers claim they’re deterred from lighting up, but their brains reveal otherwise. Lindstrom also discovers that strong brands activate the same centers in the brain as religious devotion. And, mirror neurons allow us to experience the same reaction as whomever we’re watching. So, if we watch someone hit a home run, our brains mirror the activity in the home run hitter’s brain.

But, if you read the above paragraph, you don’t need to read the whole book. Those few nuggets of interesting are couched beneath Lindstrom’s almost too-chatty style and lack of true insight beyond reporting how cool he is, how cool his idea is, and how cool things like iPods are. The book feels shallow.

A subject like neuromarketing and brain scanning comes riddled with inherent ethical questions, or so I expected. But in the beginning of Buyology, Lindstrom glibly announces that he doesn’t have ethical concerns about the studies, and, at the end of the book, he offers little analysis of the value of this research to society or its potential misuses. On the last page, he spends all of three paragraphs explaining that living with an onslaught of advertising is inevitable, because unplugging would be dreadfully boring. He claims that reading Buyology will allow you to avoid being duped by commercials and marketing, etc. Eh. I don’t believe him. His grand conclusion seems kind of tacked on. I would have preferred a thoughtful analysis of the societal implications of brain scanning and marketing.

Last but not least, I hesitate to pick on an author’s actual personality, but I think Lindstrom’s ego can take it. As a reader, I think of nonfiction narrators as characters, similar to fictional ones. Malcolm Gladwell is a likeable nonfiction narrator/character. I would gladly have him over for dinner.

Lindstrom, though, blasts his ego at the reader and becomes unlikeable and irritating in the process. A quick example: “Why did I bother to write a book about neuromarketing? After all, I run several businesses, I constantly fly all over the globe advising top executives–heck, I’m only home sixty days out of the year.” Maybe it’s because I just watched Up in the Air, but I immediately thought of George Clooney’s globetrotting character bragging about frequent flier miles and days on the road.

Unfortunately, the nonfictional Lindstrom doesn’t have a character arc of heart-touching change like Clooney. He’s the same irritating author in the beginning as the end. As the Prologue (not written by him) says, “Like a Pre-Raphaelite painting there is a glow that emanates from Martin as if he was destined to be on stage.”

Check out his website if you have any doubt about that. Be warned, it contains music that you can’t turn off, a talking Lindstrom video that starts automatically, flashy little price tag things, and a bar of scrolling text.

Leave a comment

Filed under Non-Fiction