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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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Lost Ending: Emotion Over Mythology and a Pool of Glowy Light

The ideal Lost ending would have wrapped up the important religious mysteries, explained the sci-fi mysteries, thrown some philosophy in the mix, and delivered an emotionally compelling ending for the characters.

After watching Lost last night and re-hashing it today, it’s clear that we didn’t get the ideal ending. All of those things in my dreambag didn’t happen–Lost’s potential as a story ended up being too tall an order to fill for the writers. You can’t change TV once when it’s written and aired, unlike a book. So, rather than try to haphazardly do all the things I mentioned above, the writers focused on bringing all the characters together in an emotional tour de force. Forget about it making sense or anything.

And yet, I’m not angry at the ending. All season, Lost has killed off characters left and right, some in the most preposterous ways (was there any reason for Sayid to dive through the sub door in a suicide run with the bomb rather than just throw the thing through the door and shut it?). The writers were clearly going for emotional earlier in the season too, but previous deaths didn’t coax one tear from my eyes. I felt nothing for many of the “emotional” scenes early in Season Six. Even Sun and Jin dying failed to move me. Why? I’m not a cold-hearted troll. Many scenes were poorly written, for various reasons. Sun and Jin’s death suffered from terrible writing and didn’t even have the lovers speak their final words in Korean. Sun and Jin’s reunion inserted Frank Lapidus in the most ridiculous way. Illana picked up dyamite and just went kaboom, but she wasn’t a comic relief character like Artz, so it didn’t work. Etc. Etc. Lots of stuff didn’t work.

So, I essentially set my expectations for the finale to Low, and I was thrilled to experience an emotionally resonant ending. Few hokey lines, no random one liners, no plot-device-convenient deaths, and few expedient deaths either. The last few minutes, starting with Jack and Kate’s farewell kiss (Kate: Tell me I’m going to see you again. Jack:……) hit me hard, followed by the montage of flashbacks as key characters in the sideways universe remembered their island pasts. Juliet and Sawyer with the Apollo candy bar=excellent acting and writing. Jack realizing he’s dead in the sidewaysverse with Christian. The last scene brought the show full circle, with Jack stumbling to the bamboo patch, lying down with Vincent, watching the Ajira plane fly over, and then closing his eye.

So, putting myself into the shoes of the writer’s, I understand their strategy to focus on the characters’ emotional ending rather than construct a mythology-rich ending with a rushed pace and flat tone.

But, the series will ultimately disappoint many people because it used its complex mythology as a six-season red herring, forsaking it at the end in a hokey pool of light. Remember when Jacob said that the island was a cork that kept the evil from the world?

On a show that prided itself on quasi-philosophical leanings and intelligent fans, it seemed mighty cheap for Jack and Desmond to plug up a pool of glowy light with a LITERAL cork.

At least the island world didn’t turn out to all be a dream, right? For the writers out there, the message of Lost seems to be–if you screwed up the story, then go for the emotion instead. But emotion doesn’t trump story for everyone, not even for me. So, at best, the ending of Lost half-worked. The fans who were in it for the mystery and mythology were left in limbo, even as the characters processed into that shiny white light. Literally.

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Common Werewolf Names, From Shiver to Twilight to True Blood

In the past year, I’ve read/watched more vampire/werewolf stories than ever before. And I’ve noticed that the werewolf stories share something common beyond the whole sloughing off your human skin thing. When I read Shiver it hit me for certain: werewolves are often named Sam.

From my own limited experience (I can’t pretend to have read THAT many werewolf books), I know there’s a Sam in the Twilight pack of wolves. That suspiciously shaggy looking guy who owns the bar in True Blood was named Sam, and, sure enough, he shapeshifted into a dog. (For my scientific purposes here, shapeshifting into a dog still counts.) Shiver’s main character is the endearingly poetic werewolf Sam. So that makes three werewolf Sams. Coincidence?

I hit up the Google for some explanation, and I found an interview with Shiver author Maggie Stiefvater where she acknowledges the problem. Apparently her publishers noticed the werewolf Sam in Twilight too, and asked her to change the Shiver main character’s name. But she liked the name Sam, and other names just didn’t fit. Then she had a bright idea. Instead of arguing that the Twilight name overlap was a fluke, she made a list of ALL the werewolves named Sam in literature, making a case that the werewolf Sam thing is so common that one more Sam in Shiver doesn’t matter. So apparently there are more Sams out there that I haven’t discovered. Sam is like the John or Michael of werewolves–no one can accuse you of copying.

No promises if you name your werewolf Colton or Skyler.

Anyway, Stiefvater’s editors bought her argument, and werewolf Sam remained in Shiver. I agree with Stiefvater’s decision to defend the name. Maybe I’ve been subconsciously brainwashed to view all Sams as shaggy, vulnerable, and prone to shapeshifting, but the name works, especially for the main character in Shiver.

Oddly enough, a few days after reading Shiver, I spotted this story in Fantasy magazine. No werewolf Sam, but… wait for it… there’s a Grace in the story! Grace being the human girl love interest in Shiver. The trend continues.

EDIT: I am all surprised and thrilled that Maggie Stiefvater, the author of Shiver, saw this post and tweeted it! Thanks to everyone who stopped by via her page, and thank you Maggie for the shout-out.

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Book Review: Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater

Shiver takes a new twist on werewolf mythology, and it works. Really well. Much better than sparkly vampires.

In Stiefvater’s world, humans become wolves in the Wisconsin winter, in response to the cooler temperatures. The transformed wolves aren’t slathering monsters with ripped-shirt biceps–they’re simply, literally wolves. The one distinguishing characteristic of these wolves is their eyes, which remain exactly the same as their human eyes once were.

Sam, the wolf guy in the story, has pure yellow eyes. Grace, a pragmatic girl who mysteriously survived a wolf bite unscathed, notices these eyes on “her” wolf, the one who saved her from becoming wolf-chow in a childhood attack. She spends years mooning over “her” wolf from the window of her house.

When Sam is unexpectedly shot, he morphs into human form right before the start of the winter, meets Grace, and promptly falls in love. Unfortunately, Sam realizes this will be his last year to take human form at all. As wolves age, they turn human later and later in the summer, eventually living out their (shortened) lives as wolves, with wolf intellect and no real knowledge of their humanity.

The plot revolves around keeping Sam warm and human, while also determining the whereabouts of dangerous new wolf. Each chapter begins with the temperature noted, which helps to build tension. Grace and Sam narrate alternate, first-person chapters, and Stiefvater pulls off this unconventional narrative device perfectly. As a reader, I often find that books with split narrators have a “good” narrator and a boring one. I’m usually tempted to skim right over the boring narrator sections in such books, but Shiver captivated me the whole way through.

The characters of Shiver held my interest too. Sam and Grace are well-developed and likeable. The chemistry between them absolutely sizzles, and the book succeeds at wringing an emotional response from the reader. Grace kicks butt and proves that strong female narrators can still carry swoon-worthy stories. The secondary characters are fleshed-out too, with no real cardboard sidekick types in this book.

Another plus to Shiver :the writing, the prose that Stiefvater composes, is a lyrical treat. I found myself reading passages again just because they’re enjoyable and vivid.

I think Stiefvater’s twist on werewolves is even more chilling, perhaps, than the original conception of half-human monsters tied to the moon’s cycles. At least a conventional werewolf only remains a wolf for a brief, predictable period, spending most of his time as human. I suppose the horror comes from the savagery the wolf unleashes, the loss of humanity in an angry rage.

Stiefvater’s wolves cut out most of the savagery part, other than the normal danger of normal wolves. But I think Shiver better captures the unnerving, and scary sense, of gradually losing one’s humanity. These wolves spend half the year as wolves, and they can’t pinpoint the moment they’ll change as precisely as the moon’s patterns. And, to up the tension, they lose time as humans every year until they eventually their humanity slips away forever.

Regular werewolves evoke the visceral fear of losing control in anger, but Stiefvater’s wolves touch a much deeper horror. I liken the process to someone getting Alzheimers, losing a little of oneself at a time, until only the eyes are recognizable and humanity is lost forever. It’s not as bloody an end, but I think the chill is universal.

At any rate, I highly recommend Shiver to anyone who likes a good love story with an original werewolf twist, fully realized characters, and kick-ass writing.

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Malcolm Gladwell, Challenger, and the Oil Rig Blow up

I need to half-take-back part of my assessment of Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, What the Dog Saw. I said I liked the book overall, which is still true, but that the chapter explaining the Challenger disaster bored me.

Okay, so, lately that chapter seems way relevant. I picked up the book again after the news of the oil rig catastrophe along the Gulf Coast headlined last week.

In the article, called “Blow Up,” Malcolm Gladwell basically explains why extensive investigations into such disasters usually prove futile (I managed to unearth a link to the original New Yorker article if you want to check it out). Challenger and the Three-Mile-Island nuclear disaster were both caused by a series of smaller, normal accidents. Three Mile Island had a normal blockage problem in the plant’s filter. Then the backup cooling system failed. Then a gauge that should have alerted operators about the backup failure failed. And at this point there was almost a meltdown.

Back to May 2010–apparently the oil rig had several backup systems that failed too, resulting in another unexpected and unprecedented disaster. I’m not sure where I stand on nuclear power, offshore drilling, and space exploration, but Gladwell’s observations articulated something I’ve always noticed: the ritual of disaster investigation. The need to find something or someone to blame in order to prevent it from happening again.

I only wish Gladwell had suggested a way to solve the problem. Instead, he points out that more inexplicable disasters await us in the future, since safety investigations don’t do squat, really. We investigate and discover the equivalent of how to prevent lightening from striking in the same place again–but how often does lightening strike in the same place twice?

So, should humanity get rid of oil rigs and space shuttles and nuclear power? Is the answer to arrive at some sort of balance? If so, how do we know when we’ve crossed the line?

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Book Review: What the Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell

I think Malcolm Gladwell is one of the best nonfiction writers out there. I tend to get pretty picky about the quality of writing in nonfiction books (if I wanted to read a boring textbook full of stilted sentences I’d go back to school), but Gladwell’s words go down smooth. Seamless transitions, compelling anecdotes, unconventional yet logical thinking. I like the guy. I’d like to invite him over to dinner and just hear him talk for two hours.

What the Dog Saw is a compilation book, the best of Gladwell’s essays cherrypicked from the pages of the New Yorker. There’s no common theme, but his work is arranged under three broad categories.

Although all the sections are worth reading, the Personality, Character, and Intelligence section held my attention more than the others. The story on late-blooming versus early-blooming geniuses opened my mind to subsets of talent, and I learned plenty about the artist Cezanne along the way.

Among my favorite individual pieces, Gladwell writes about why mustard commands so much shelf space for its gourmet iterations, while innovation in the field of ketchup seems doomed. I also enjoyed his pieces about hair dye ads in the postwar era, the birth control pill, and the talent-centered culture that contributed to Enron’s demise.

Actually, I eagerly consumed too many pieces to name them all. It’s simpler to name the few I didn’t like. Oddly enough, I could have done without the title story, What the Dog Saw, about the dog whisperer Cesar Millan. The story about the Challenger disaster didn’t hold my attention either. Still, the majority of the book is fascinating and well-worth buying/checking out from your local library/filching from a friend.

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Four Reasons Why Frank Lapidus’ One Liners Ruin Everything

Poor Frank Lapidus! One of Lost’s more likable (and sadly under-developed) characters has been subjected to some bad writing lately. I often look to TV shows for lessons on my regular writing. Lost has floored me with its creativity and skillful use of rule-breaking narrative devices like flashforwards and flash-sideways.

I’ve also been floored lately by some truly grimace-worthy one liners.

On the April 20th episode (slight spoilers if you read ahead), Frank is tagging along with the group as usual, looking all ragged and, to quote Sawyer, like “some guy who stepped off the set of a Burt Reynold’s movie.” At some point, the writers must have figured that, hey, Frank needs to talk or it’ll seem like we kept him alive and tagging along just to fill out the cast poster.

So, when the Losties are on the sailboat cruising to Hydra Island, the writers think ohmygod, we need to clear everyone off deck so Jack and Sawyer can have a private fight.

Cue Frank. Frank says (approximately) “Hey, I think there are some cans of food down below. I’m going to go get some.” And then everyone promptly follows him, orderly as a line of elementary school kids filing out the door for recess.

But the best one liner, the moment where the actor playing Frank must have cringed, came at the end of the episode, during Sun and Jin’s long-awaited reunion.  Some background:  Sun had previously lost her ability to speak English following an accident.  Obviously, she gets this ability back while the emotional music soars and she embraces Jin.  She says she loves Jin or something like that.

Cue Frank.  The camera pans to him and he says, with a twinkle in his blue eyes, “Looks like Sun finally got her voice back.”

Groan.  Yeah Frank.  Yeah.  I like hearing your husky voice and all, but that just made me crack up on the spot.

So, Lost has taught me that:

1.  The misplaced one-liner is even worse in many cases than the dreaded infodump.

2. Show, not tell.

3.  Don’t assume readers/viewers are stupid, especially in a show that caters to the obsessive wiki-creating crowd.

4. Make use of a potentially awesome character like Frank.  Leaving him to languish is a shame, but inserting him in scenes as an unnecessary element is even worse. It’s like Chekov’s writing advice–if there’s a gun on the wall in Act 1, it should be fired during Act 3. The gun shouldn’t be used to scratch someone’s back though, it should be fired.

Check out this forum on Game Faqs though for some re-imagination of Lost.  What if Frank Lapidus had been inserted into every key, heart-wrenching scene?  It’d be pretty hilarious.

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