Category Archives: Essay

Mad Me?

* * SPOILER ALERT * * – Ye be warned if you haven’t yet seen Hitchcock’s Psycho.

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I was watching Mad Men last night and marveling over how much I continue to sympathize with the character of Don Draper.  Am I mad?  The guy has cheated on his wife for the first three seasons, even after she bears his third child, and still those dramatic shots of Don sitting in isolation as the camera gradually zooms out still pluck out a melancholy little banjo tune on a heartstring or two.

This brings to mind a post I recently read on Milo James Fowler’s In Media Res blog that discusses how the villains in books, TV, or film tend to fascinate us, to the point where we might find ourselves cheering for them.  When I read this, I immediately thought of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, and how the director’s genius for creating suspense through cinematography and Anthony Perkins’s stutteringly shy Norman Bates always leaves me biting my fingernails each time Norman is close to getting caught.  The part directly following the infamous shower scene, for example, shows Norman pushing a car (with Marion’s  dead body inside) into a swamp.  As slowly as if the water was molasses, the car glub-glubs down until, suddenly, it just stops.  Norman swallows in anxiety, and after several looong seconds, the car continues to gurgle down into the swamp’s depths, now fully concealed.  There is something about the shot-reaction-shot sequence here that makes the viewer (I know it can’t just be me) tense on Norman’s behalf and want the car to keep sinking just as much as he does.  Why is that?!

Not that Don Draper exudes the villainy of a murderer with a curling black mustache and a damsel in distress bound in rope underfoot…but that’s precisely my point.  For me, if a villain is in the least bit complicated with a sense of vulnerability, I will sympathize.  The Don Draper character mesmerizes me because I can’t quite slide him into a specific slot; he is complicated by a darker past and an inner struggle between being a good person that does right by others and a psychopath that acts in complete disregard of them.  Norman Bates is a mentally unstable young man whose psychosis is likewise triggered by a difficult childhood; in his conversations with Marion before her death, we see the friendly, likable side of him that is tormented by the wicked personality of his mother that he’s invented in his mind.

It’s the classic struggle of the good versus evil within each of us, after all, and a great many fascinating stories have been written around this internal conflict, the most engaging of which (for me) tending to be when the protagonists and antagonists of the plot at times blur into each other.  (As you can see in the photos above, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now is one of many films utilizing the imagery of duality—here, both Martin Sheen and Marlon Brando’s faces are half in light and half in shadow—as who is the “hero” and who is the “villain” is called into question.) As it stands, Don is a flawed protagonist just as much as Norman is a well-intentioned antagonist.

So, in the end, what I think makes me want to pat someone like Don on the back and console him with a glass of Scotch along with a Lucky Strike cigarette is the fact that, while I cannot directly empathize with his choices/actions, I can sympathize (to small degree) with where he’s coming from.  Just something to ponder as we craft our own “Good Guys” and “Bad Guys” in our stories, those complex characters that we willingly invite  to ride the carousel of our minds…


The Story of Moi

In my last post, I referred to a pop-up book I had created at the beginning of a graduate school course.  At the time I was pulling a 180 in my career path—after a few years in Finance, various signs pointed me in the direction of teaching, so I quit my consulting job outright to become a full-time student again and earn my masters in Secondary Education to teach English.  The actual book I made for the project is an ocean away in storage, so I can’t include photos here of my lame attempt at the craft, but I did scrounge up the brief reflection I’d written for it and thought I’d share it here since my mind is on it, and I’m still grateful for the perspective it reinforced within me:

As a child, I adored Munro Leaf’s The Story of Ferdinand for Robert Lawson’s lovely ink sketchings of Ferdinand, the bull who did not like to romp and fight, but, rather, sit under his favorite cork tree and smell the flowers.  As an adult discontent in my former Finance career, I randomly recalled this book a couple years ago and consequently became aware of how much the corporate bull-fight in which I was participating ran contrary to my nature.  My resultant epiphany prompted by this simple picture book centered on the realization that books have always been my way of smelling the flowers whenever the world seems artificial and harried.

The literature I read has the capacity to provide emotional, spiritual, and intellectual stimulation (denoted in my project as a heart, cross, and brain, respectively), as well as contributes countless other aesthetics that enrich my daily life such that I am better able to find the extraordinary in the ordinary.  Among the flowers blooming within [my project’s] pages are:  keys to understanding new knowledge or ideas, keys that open doors to other ways of thinking or to various corridors within my soul; airplanes that transport me to imaginative, enchanting lands and experiences when the everyday becomes mundane or challenging; the music of poetic, figurative expression as issues of life are harmonized (or made dissonant) in the sounds and rhythms of words; telescopes that foster awareness as I am enabled to see distant worlds and plights beyond my own backyard; and mirrors that force me to confront who I am and muse in self-reflection.

The multi-faceted impact that reading continues to have upon me is perhaps as infinite as the varieties of flora, rendering a library a virtual garden.  Just as Ferdinand left the bustle of Madrid to reside once again beneath his tree, so I left my job to pursue a teaching career that would let me read as much as I always wished I could (and then some!) and try to inspire the same passion in others.  Thus, The Story of Ferdinand has become that of my own.

And since then, I’d devote the last day of each school year with a read-aloud of this book (yes, to an audience of teenagers), leaving my students with the message to not go against their grain in life—“Find your way of smelling the flowers, and be very happy.


On Imagination

[I see that YouTube has removed this video for whatever reason, so please refer to this post’s comment sections for a transcript of Will Smith’s monologue in the film Six Degrees of Separation.]

It only took me about 15 years to finally view the film Six Degrees of Separation for the first time last night.  What an evening of captivation that made for…you could say it quite captured my imagination.  As far as what “imagination” itself is, the film (an adaptation of John Guare’s stage play of same name) is frank in its perspectives on the concept in the above scene, which gives me pause to reflect on how this can apply to one’s writing.

“The imagination has been so debased that the imagination…being imaginative, rather than being the linchpin of our existence, now stands as a synonym for something outside ourselves.”

To many, “fiction” and “creative writing” may connote creating new, original worlds comprised of new, original creatures that lift us out of our reality.  Admittedly, I often characterize my choice of reading fiction over nonfiction as my “escape” from my everyday.  Yet, to be fair, my disbelief can only be suspended so far—at some point, I need to be able to see something recognizable within the text if I am to relate to it and learn from it and thereby stay engaged with it.

I remember making a pop-up book for a grad school assignment (yes, grad as in graduate school, not grade school!) that asked us to create a visual representation of our “reading life.”  I fashioned my book such that, with every turn of the page, a different symbol would pop up (that’s no easy feat to engineer, by the way…it took ages) that depicted one particular function reading serves in my life.  Among other things, I had an airplane to represent that idea of escape, a telescope for seeing beyond my immediate frame of reference, and a staff of music notes for the musicality or harmony books can provide through their themes or lyrical style.  And yet…

“Why has imagination become a synonym for style?  I believe the imagination is the passport that we create to help take us into the real world.  I believe the imagination is merely another phrase for what is most uniquely us.”

One symbol I also distinctly recall inserting into the pages of my pop-up book was a mirror.  As I explained to my peers during my presentation, reading is a way of holding a mirror in front of myself because it may either convey or conflict with my perspectives, and in that confrontation, there is reflection, be it validating my beliefs or modifying them through the acquisition of new knowledge or ways of thinking.  It tells me something about myself, and I in turn form my interpretations of plot, character, etc. in terms of what I know from my own life experience and attitudes.  And while I’m certainly infusing certain personal meaning into what I write, I do hope that it strikes a chord with other readers’ lives such that they derive their own meaning.

I’ve felt the sting of insecurity before over incorporating aspects that are true to my life in my stories, as though that meant I was being unoriginal—after all, if I am truly creative, shouldn’t it all stem purely out of my imagination?  Consolingly, I have since reached understanding that it’s actually the moment we stop seeing ourselves in our writing that we’ve stopped being imaginative.

This brings to mind something I just read today by Josh Hanagarne (a newly published author) on his World’s Strongest Librarian blog.  With regard to his new novel, The Knot, Josh says:

“I am this book.  This book means everything to me.  It is pure me, […] easily the most personal thing I am able to share with you.”

I think when it’s all said and done, whether we get published or not, we should all be able to feel this way about what we’ve written.  So, in closing, I offer you this line from the film:

“To face ourselves – that’s the hard thing.  The imagination…that’s God’s gift to make the act of self-examination bearable.”

As writers, to what extent are our stories a means of self-examination?  Where do you see yourself in your characters, your truths in their “fictitious” circumstances and dialogue?  Do you find that the writing process is therapeutic in making your analysis of self “bearable”?  Might it do the same for your readers?


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