Archive for February, 2007

A Writer’s Dark Night of the Soul

(AKA What to do when your Muse abandons you)

The writer’s life is an up and down struggle, especially for the aspiring writer who is on the verge of breaking through to having their career choice validated (read: publishing success). Unfortunately, writers have their own brand of a “dark night of the soul”. See if any of this sounds familiar:

I almost had a good day today.

I’d just like to get through a week without a rejection notice. I know, I know: a consequence of putting yourself out there, much less having a lot of stories out there, is the possibility of being rejected. However, it’s been a long streak of rejections and I’m looking at any writing that I have yet to complete and I wonder if it’s even worth it.

Some rejections sting more than others
. Let’s be honest, not that I necessarily have favorite children, but there are some stories that I’m more heavily invested in, some markets I really wanted to crack, some editors I really wanted to impress. And there are some personal rejections TOO on point, dissecting why my story didn’t work.

It’s tough learning and staying focused on the fact that rejections are opportunities to learn, to figure out why a story isn’t working, how to improve. That maybe I am sending my children out into a hostile world apparently prematurely.

This isn’t one of those fishing for compliment sort of posts (though, Lord knows, I’m not above writing one of those). I wonder if I have what it takes to be truly great. To be great requires a certain amount of monomania. The kind of focus where their vocation becomes their mistress. It takes up the choice time and the choice energy. You end up doing things for your job you’d never do for your spouse: get up early, work 14 hours, stay up late. Too bad that usually doesn’t make for very good human beings. Great artists, maybe. Great athletes, certainly. Great scientists, probably.

So this all might just boil down to me not being dedicated enough. I don’t put in the time attending to the process: revision, reading, studying. Maybe I’m destined to be only good, but boring. The craft requires time.

There it is.

I realize that I talk a lot about craft and the art of writing, when the truth of the matter maybe that I’m a hack. In the same way religious folks talk about “the Pharisees” little realizing that they are actually one of them, maybe I’m simply being revealed as the fraud that I am, a dilettante of prose. I’m trying to think of the last story that I wrote that moved me, had any feeling behind it. Came from within my emotional core. Touched some truth from within me.

*sigh*

Maybe I just need a little validation. Every so often, a win to encourage me to keep going on. I’m sure this is the lure of vanity presses. Maybe I need a good vice to help vent my artistic frustration, like a romance with alcohol or a dalliance with a harder drug. Something to take the edge off, to make the self-doubt to ease a little.

Because I just want to quit.

That’s the crux of it, isn’t it? Crippling self-doubt makes me put down the pen, too self-conscious to write, too exposed to put myself back out there, too exposed as the fraud I secretly think I am. It makes me want to put writing down. To lay in bed under the covers and cry myself to sleep, tortured by my frustrated hopes and dreams and untold stories. Maybe I ought to find a new hobby, something safer, like collecting salt and pepper shakers. Or China patterns.

But I can’t.

Writing is what I do and who I am. How else would explain wanting to do something that makes you both miserable and so fulfilled at the same time? It has to be love. That’s who I am: the often neurotic and insecure. A writer. I can only imagine how tough it must be on the significant others of writers. Having to contend with this mistress of ours, our Muse; cuckolded by this thing they can’t hope to compete against. Yet having to deal with the frustrations, the anger, the discouragement, the occasional self-loathing that comes in its wake.

I wish I had some deep lesson to impart to help get through this. This is part of the business, the cycle of creation, the ugly part that few people talk about. I’m guessing what many go through and struggle with. Writers finish things, professional writers send their work out into the world, face rejection and criticism. So writers have to develop thick skins. Yes, we’re going to have doubts, but like with any crisis of faith, you have to put that aside and keep going because writing is less about talent and more about perseverance.

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In the end, like any crisis of faith, perseverance is the key. To keep writing, even when all you feel like you are writing is crap. It’s like a car stuck in mud spinning it’s wheels: sometimes you have to spin for a minute until you get some traction. That’s all we’re waiting on. a little bit of traction, something to catch and get us going again. Me? This is me purging this from my system so that I can find that “fearlessness” to commit something to paper AND send it out. You? Your moment of doubt had been indulged. Now get over yourselves and get back to writing.

And don’t let the troll critics get you down.

New Message Board Guidelines

I’m not a big rules guy. Most situations tend to handle themselves and people can become overly stringent about keeping to the letter of the law, and I prefer a more organic way of going about things. However, to help facilitate some of the discussions on my message board (since I’ve obviously decided to maintain my own board), I have had to come up with some helpful guidelines so that people know where I’m coming from and what I want the board to be about. I thank my friend and Hollywood Jesus colleague, Mike Furches (who runs the Hollywood Jesus Group on MySpace), for letting me adapt his guidelines.

Hollywood Jesus
for many years was among the leading web sites in the world for movie reviews. An important characteristic of the web site was the opening paragraph welcoming visitors to the web site, it stated, as is stated here with this group: Everyone welcome! Hindus, Jews, Christians, Wiccans, Muslims, New Agers, Atheists, Agnostics, Gay, Straight. Come in. Enjoy. Post your views!

It’s been the kind of vision statement that I’ve tried to follow on my message board. A place where people can come, hang out, discuss matters of race, spirituality, and, frankly, my work (it is an author’s messageboard). The board isn’t primarily for Christians in fact, preaching, proselytizing and things of that sort are discouraged from this group. I believe we can all learn from each other. All faiths are welcome and are to be respected, no matter how much they might be disagreed with. The key word is respect.

When a Christian or non Christian continues to operate out of disrespect (and I don’t mean snark), including, not welcoming all people, they will be banned from the group. Now for those that know me, you know I personally have issues with persons being banned from groups, unless that person continues to refuse to respect the concept of the group. My hope is, that I never have to ban someone again, but I expect that won’t happen. So far, since the start of this group, I have banned only a few people.

I welcome the debate and the constant thread derailments, but keep it respected. Feel free to ask questions. My hope is that this is a group that can continue to grow, where all people can feel welcome. I don’t want anyone to leave the group, but in the end, it is my board, and I don’t want to compromise the purpose of my message board: to have good conversations where we can learn from one another.

And now a word from a MOD:

The board will be a lot more heavily monitored because things have gotten out of control and folks are afraid to post for fear of being sniped to death. The Spiritual Journeys section will be the most heavily moderated. People need to be able to post there safely about where they are spiritually without fear of undue harassment or undue criticism. If you don’t like the way this forum is run, you are welcome to find another.

(MOD gets a little testy)

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If you want to make sure that I see your comment or just want to stop by and say hi, feel free to do so on my message board. I apologize in advance for some of my regulars.

Not As Entertaining

Meet Adam “Pacman” Jones: On the field, a terrific force in the NFL. Fast, great instincts, a nose for the football. Off, a public nuisance — perhaps worse. Slow to see reality, gutless, a nose for trouble. The Titans love the first Pacman. They tolerate the second one. Too bad. Where there’s smoke, there is usually a raging inferno named Pacman Jones … the club owner said [he] came and left with the man who did the shooting.

Whether we want them to be or not, athletes do tend to represent us. They are ambassadors of what we value and how we compete. This speaks to the importance of having character guys on our teams. Yes, we want to win, but we don’t want to win at all costs. Haywood Hale Broun is noted for saying, “Sports do not build character. They reveal it.” While sports should be teaching lessons about stronger teamwork or greater self-discipline, instead we get a “me, me, me” attitude, a culture of accommodation, and win at all costs mentality – all driven by money. Rarely is there anything to be appreciated as a “role model” among the athletes.

The Cincinnati Bengals set a record for number of players arrested for off-the-field antics. Closer to home, two Pacers were just indicted for their participation in a bar fight. The Indianapolis Colts running back, Dominic Rhodes, was just arrested on the suspicion of driving under the influence. Coach Tony Dungy said that “It’s disappointing. How that’s going to impact what we do, we’ll have to see down the road. But Dom knows that it’s something I’m very disappointed in. But we’ll sit down and go through everything and try to sort it out and try to be as supportive as we can.”

In America, we live under the presumption of innocence, and a grand jury indictment does not translate into guilt. However, as mentioned with Pacman, though, where there’s smoke, there’s usually fire. The Colts have enjoyed a certain amount of a halo effect, in spite of Rhodes’ past domestic battery charge; in spite of Nick Harper’s domestic batter charge; and in spite of Mike Doss’ gun-firing incident. Like Bobby Knight when he was at Indiana University, we forgive a lot when you’re winning. You start to slide and all of a sudden you are cut a lot less slack.

Frankly, these athletes’ shenanigans embarrasses themselves, the cities they represent, and the game, distracting from what people should be focused on: the sport. The NBA, suffering through sagging ratings and attendance, attempts to rehab its image. Starting with dress codes to stiffer penalties for stepping onto the court to fight, the league wants to shed its “thug league” image. (Though, interestingly enough, the NHL was never characterized as a “thug league” despite the regularity of its on court tussles. That’s probably a blog for another day) . NFL players, protective of the league’s image, are sick of all the press for their stumblings off the field. The players themselves are taking the initiative to push for a “three strikes and you’re out of the league” policy.

Then again, maybe I’m making too big a deal out of all of this. Athletes, like actors or musicians, are entertainers. And as much as we, as a society, love to build people up, we love to tear them down, or at least make popcorn and enjoy their tumble from grace. We are just as entertained by the off-screen antics of our pop culture icons. Celebrities reduced to tabloid fodder, to the point where people can become famous strictly due to their tabloid exploits. Why should athletes be any different. The E in ESPN does stand for entertainment. And we are just as entertained by train wrecks as we are super star performances.

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If you want to make sure that I see your comment or just want to stop by and say hi, feel free to do so on my message board. I apologize in advance for some of my regulars.

Friday Night Date Place – Boyz II Men (Girlz II Women)

Alright, I’ll say this plainly rather than dance around this: I get that a lot of folks haven’t had to grow up, but, come on, grow the hell up. How sad is it that a lot of the guys I encounter are still drifting through life, even well into their thirties? Whether it’s living in their mom’s basement, never finishing school, not holding down a job (or working in a dead end job), spinning their wheels with no plan of how to move from where they are to, well, the land of being a grown up.

They may complain about the state of their affairs, but you can’t just keep doing the same things over and over and expect change to magically happen. I’m not talking about the folks who have had circumstances pop up that have caused them to go back home. Or single parents who are struggling. I’m talking about the able-bodied folks who are drifting through life, dreaming of one day being a responsible husband and father, but not taking any actual steps to get there.

This leaves their significant others in an untenable situation. On the one hand, they may love these guys and accept them the way they are, but they will have to draw the line of how much frustration they will put up with while these guys are spinning their wheels. Women shouldn’t have to be their significant other’s mother and on the flip side, he shouldn’t want to date his mother.

The problem some women seem to have is in identifying which guys are men and which ones are boys. They can both be fun, but you can usually only truly count on the men. I recently wrote about what it means to be a man, but a friend of mine came up with 20 signs of the differences between boys and men:

1. Boys will drop a pick up line on you and grin at their own cleverness. A man can flirt without showing off.

2. Boys like fart jokes and everything about them. Men like the jokes too, but they don’t feel the need to act them out for you.

3. Boys hold onto fantasy women ideas and hold torches without ever being able to ask the person out. A man knows that everyone is flawed and will ask her out anyway.

4. Boys take rejection as a personal attack. A man realizes that he isn’t going to be attractive to everyone and that she may just not be in a place to be dating.

5. Boys try to take what isn’t their’s to have. A man works to have what he values.

6. Boys yell, argue, and fight. A man is calm and walks away from trouble when he can.

7. Boys hit. Men hold.

8. Boys say hurtful things to denegrate and diminish others. A man builds others up and is quick to compliment.

9. Boys bitch and moan about problems. A man prays and asks for help when he needs it.

10. Boys hold their pride or rep in the highest regard. A man knows that having a good name is worth more than gold.

11. Boys take the easy road out of any trouble. A man faces the consequences of his actions and does the right thing.

12. Boys cheat. A man knows that a good woman is the greatest of blessings from God in this life and puts her before himself.

13. Boys run from trouble. A man handles his responsibilities.

14. Boys look for you to take care of them. A man looks for you to take care of each other.

15. Boys can’t maintain eye contact. A man can look into your eyes and let you know how attractive you are without a word.

16. Boys look for hot chicks. A man knows that every woman is beautiful in her own way.

17. Boys have to top your story with a better one of their own. A man asks you questions and lets you be the center of attention.

18. Boys are all about “me”. Men are all about “you”.

19. Boys go to the game, or play X-Box when their kids come over for the weekend. A man helps with homework and plays Candyland.

20. Boys boast. Men deliver.

As much as women have become so “independent”, too many men have become … actually, they haven’t become anything. Hey, some men are doing the best they can, not for someone else, but for themselves. That’s one thing, and folks have to weigh whether or not they can accept that. Some men aren’t doing close to their best and are just trying to get by. And they should go bye-bye.

Stand up and be the kind of man a person would want to spend the rest of their life with. Pull your life together.

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Ladies you aren’t off the hook: My message board mod came up with her own list of girls vs. women:

1. Girls ask how they look every five minutes. Women are confident enough to know they look good and smart enough to know if it truly matters.

2. Girls are needy and clingy. Women are independent and have interests outside of you.

3. Girls freak out if you don’t return a phone call. Women are rational and realize that things happen and life is unpredictable. And if you’re truly just not returning her calls, she knows you’re not worth her time.

4. Girls dress provocatively to gain attention. Women can be sexy no matter what they’re wearing.

5. Girls need to have every guy like them, even if they don’t like him. Women know that they aren’t everyone’s type.

6. Girls get their friends to find out if you like them. Women just ask.

7. If you piss them off, girls blog about it and tell all their friends. Women decide whether it’s really worth being pissed over and if it is, they talk to you about it.

8. Girls look to blame everyone but themselves for their shortcomings. Women own up to their mistakes and work to fix them.

9. Girls gossip and speak badly of other girls behind their backs in order to make themselves look good. Women don’t feel threatened by other women and can even sincerely agree when you compliment another woman.

10. Girls are catty and throw each other under a bus to get a guy. Women stand back a minute and know that if you choose the dumb bimbo over her, you aren’t as smart as you look.

11. Girls expect you to read their minds. Women are upfront and honest.

12. Girls take
rejection as an insult and plot to make you jealous. Again, women realize that they aren’t everyone’s type and that it’s not a personal attack.

13. Girls bring up your past mistakes in arguments, even the ones you’ve apologized for. Women deal with the problem at hand and know to let things go.

14. Girls create drama and demand that they are the center of attention. Women realize that life has enough drama of it’s own and they cherish the “boring” moments.

15. Girls are in constant need of rescuing. Women can discern when it’s time for them to be the hero.

16. Girls get drunk and use it as an excuse to act like a ho. Women know that a true man will love her for herself, not because she’s easy.

17. Girls avoid confrontation and have no backbone or opinions of their own. Women have their own views and convictions and hold strongly to them, even in the midst of adversity.

18. Girls justify it when a boy treats them like sh*t. Women let them know exactly what “no” means.

19. Girls won’t accept help from others, refuse to listen to their friends and family, and stubbornly take the path they know is doomed. A woman surrounds herself with wise people whom she can trust and she heeds their advice.

20. Girls compare you to other men. A woman appreciates each man for his unique qualities and characteristics.



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If you want to make sure that I see your comment or just want to stop by and say hi, feel free to do so on my message board. I apologize in advance for some of my regulars.

Ghost Rider – A Review


Ten minutes.

That’s how long I got into Ghost Rider before checking my watch. Written and directed by Mark Steven Johnson (Elektra, which should have been my first warning), I feel pretty comfortable laying the blame for this debacle squarely at his feet. A comi-serious production with all the trappings of a horror flick, everything about the movie was over-the-top, apparently going for that coveted comic book nerd/WWE crosssover market. What could have been goofy fun decided to take itself far too seriously, despite the ridiculousness of the script and cast.

Based on the eponymous comic book, Ghost Rider reminded me of a phenomena that occurs quite often with Stephen King stories adapted to the silver screen. Some things you can believe or look good on a page, but play out as ridiculous on a big screen. The key to a successful comic book translation is the movies ability to make the audience suspend its disbelief. A movie like Batman Begins works because it is layered with intelligence and grounded in “reality”. Ghost Rider feels glib, as if gloating that it is smarter than its audience, when actually it is a “just cuz” movie: why did that happen? Just cuz. Why does anyone do anything in this movie? Just cuz.

“Tall tales to help us make sense of things too big or too terrifying to believe.” Caretaker (Sam Elliott)

This movie isn’t quite tall enough for us. Johnny Blaze (Nicolas Cage) inadvertently sells his soul and is cursed to become the Ghost Rider. The Ghost Rider, the devil’s bounty hunter, collects on the devil’s deals, sent to hunt down anyone who escapes from hell. There is a germ of a good idea here, mucked over due to poor execution.

Ghost Rider marks another mis-step in the up-and-down career of Nicolas Cage (Amos & Andrew, and almost every movie where someone has convinced him that he’s an action star). A comic book geek who went so far at to name his son Kal-El (after Superman’s birth name), he has angled to play just about every super hero role that has come down the pike. He has no clue, and little direction, how to play Johnny Blaze so he came up with an Evel Knievel meets Elvis persona. An affectation for Carpenter’s music, monkeys on television, and jelly beans do not make a character. Once he becomes the Ghost Rider, any tension quickly dissipates as none of his threats come close to matching his power. It’s the equivalent of Superman vs. muggers.

“Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand. If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then can his kingdom stand?” –Matthew 12:25-26

The bulk of the plot revolves around Mephistopheles (Peter Fonda) sending Ghost Rider on an errand to dispatch the devil’s son, Blackheart (Wes Bentley), and his minions, the rest of the four horsemen of mediocrity. A fight fire with fire scenario that lacks Constantine’s Machiavellian twists and layered characterizations when it comes to dealing with (fallen) angels.

“If somebody makes a mistake, a big mistake, do you think they have to pay for it every day for the rest of their lives?” –Johnny Blaze

Armed with his penance star, however, this is what the movie is mostly about. In the face of the bad choices we have made, our journey becomes one of the search for redemption. There are many kinds of “spirits” in the world that profess to offer freedom; the life of you always getting and doing what do you want, of living under your own will and direction. [“For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world passes away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides for ever.” I John 2:15-17].

Johnny Blaze seeks control over his possessing spirit, an internal battle, as he seeks what we all seek: a second chance

“You ain’t making the choice, the choice is making you.” –Barton Blaze (Brett Cullen)

That’s it. I’m done wrestling with this movie for any sort of insight. This was strictly horror by numbers, cornball dialogue, cliched imagery buried in “end of days” claptrap, making up the mythology as they went along. A cheesefest of overacting, that is, when they bothered to act at all. Throw in the headache inducing score and you have an overblown Tales From the Crypt episode, without the fun.

None of which will matter a bit, since Ghost Rider debuted with the highest opening numbers for a President’s Day weekend or Nicolas Cage career. In other words, come sequel time, make the best of your second chance.

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If you want to make sure that I see your comment or just want to stop by and say hi, feel free to do so on my message board. I apologize in advance for some of my regulars.

On Venting

From the mailbag: “Is it hypocritical to vent about someone but act nice to their face?”

We all need to vent from time to time, to blow off steam about a person or situation. When venting becomes gossip or slander, now we’re veering off into real issues.

There are several potential dangers. Pick your venting friends wisely. My “vent circle” is pretty small, usually my wife and another friend or two. Of course, I like venting to the people I have issues with. I’d like to say that is because venting does not good if the people I’m venting about don’t know what’s wrong. In truth, it’s because I simply delight in not wasting good lines behind people’s back. That’s my own issue.*

The reason I mentioned gossip and slander is because what seems like harmless venting can sometimes shape people’s perceptions. I know that if I vent to someone who doesn’t know the person I’m venting about, my venting caricaturization of them is what will form the basis of their impression of them. I can’t then turn around and wonder why once I introduce my friends to each other, they don’t quite get along.

We’re called to love, even when we don’t always like someone. The true test of what we claim to believe lies in whether we can love our enemies and those not easy to like. Granted, sometimes the most loving thing we can do is put some distance between us and certain folks, but I would imagine the best road to take would be to be loving to their face and loving behind their back.

Which is exactly why Jesus gets on my nerves sometimes.

*Being self-aware doesn’t make it better. It usually makes me twice the jerk since I’m aware of what I’m doing and thus increases the likelihood that I’m doing it deliberately.

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If you want to make sure that I see your comment or just want to stop by and say hi, feel free to do so on my message board. I apologize in advance for some of my regulars.

Run, Obama, Run

In keeping with my recent track record, my vote is up for grabs. Either party. I’m just waiting for someone to convince me to vote for them. Honestly, is the most interesting part of the electoral process how we treat the election like a horse race? Since politics as entertainment is a blog for another day, several horses have announced their entry into the fray, but I’m particularly intrigued by the excitement Barack Obama has generated.

As a writer, I’m all about storylines and right now, the most interesting storyline so far in the race is Obama. Sure, one of the reasons why he has gotten so much attention is because he’s black. Not just black, but a popular candidate with a real shot at getting the nomination. There are many things that have been covered with respect to Obama, from the trivial (he’s handsome, he SMOKES!) to more relevant discussions (his experience, a conversation that ought to subside considering Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s bid). However, it is the question of his ontological blackness that intrigues me.

He didn’t come up through the civil rights political machine, which means there are those who question his “commitment to the cause” (the usual suspects being those who want to hold him at a distance while still reserving a dinner spot at the power table in case he wins).

“Black,” in our political and social reality, means those descended from West African slaves. Voluntary immigrants of African descent (even those descended from West Indian slaves) are just that, voluntary immigrants of African descent with markedly different outlooks on the role of race in their lives and in politics. At a minimum, it can’t be assumed that a Nigerian cabdriver and a third-generation Harlemite have more in common than the fact a cop won’t bother to make the distinction. They’re both “black” as a matter of skin color and DNA, but only the Harlemite, for better or worse, is politically and culturally black, as we use the term.

I get what the writer is saying, though I whole-heartedly disagree with her final assessment. Building on her semi-point, a race of people could be defined as a people with a shared story, that is, experience, heritage, culture (insofar as it goes deeper than appreciating the aesthetics), and most importantly, history. History is the story of individuals coming together. Authentic blackness is about personal responsibility, pride and a sense of history and community. It means staying true to yourself, your faith, your life and constantly seeking the truth. This whole “blacker than thou”/”I’m I black enough for you” game is utter foolishness. It buys into the racist construct of race in the first place, and smacks of the days of classifying black people by the amount of black blood that they had (octaroon, quadroon, etc.). Plus, it ignores the fact that Obama self-identifies as black.

On the flip side, while he’s not black enough for some, you can tell he’s “black enough” for others. I’m a strong believer in the fact that words mean things and how words can shape us. All of the talk I’m hearing (while trying to ignore the air of surprise when he’s described) about how “clean” and “articulate” Obama is reminds me of Chris Rock’s routine describing General Colin Powell as “so well-spoken.” Translated, white people, this is your cue that he’s alright to vote for. You want to find out how black someone is, if the “clean” and “well-spoken” talk doesn’t clue you in, then apply the Klan test: you can be as articulate as you want from the end of their rope.

Though, I’m already on record believing that a black male will be president of this country before a woman of any color.

My hopes for Obama are high, and it’s not because of the “black thing.” It’s because he communicates hope. We live in a cynical age, a time of particular distrust of our president and government. One of the most important, and under-appreciated, roles of the presidency is to be our national cheerleader. The best two, of recent memory, at speaking to the people were Presidents Reagan and Clinton. Obama is under the microscope, the anal examination that comes with increased media scrutiny, his every word parsed, speech dissected, and gesture analyzed. He may be young to public life, but the process will mature him quickly. Maybe Obama is too “racially transcendent” for some, but maybe that’s exactly what this country needs right now.

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If you want to make sure that I see your comment or just want to stop by and say hi, feel free to do so on my message board. I apologize in advance for some of my regulars.

Snow Daze

We are slowly digging out from the recent snowfall.

Because I’m no sexist, my wife did all the shoveling.

My favorite round of American Idol just wrapped up: Hollywood week. Since I’ve already looked at it from the perspective of writers and editors, Hollywood week is like having whittled down the slush pile down to the stack of maybes.

Melinda Doolittle and Lakisha Jones are my early picks, which means look for one of them to be knocked out with four weeks to go. I still haven’t forgiven America for bouncing Tamyra Gray in season one (the showdown should have been Kelly vs. Tamyra).

But what is with the guy nerdfest? (Though I’m rooting for Sundance Head)

Oh, and my new Intake column is up. A few thoughts on “Black History Month.

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If you want to make sure that I see your comment or just want to stop by and say hi, feel free to do so on my message board. I apologize in advance for some of my regulars.

Pan’s Labyrinth – A Review

“The Passion of Ofelia”

Pan’s Labyrinth suffers from the spoiled expectations of being marketed as something it isn’t. Genre film lovers are kind of programmed so that when we see the word “Labyrinth,” we can’t help but conjure up images of the fantasy classic. However, the latest opus from director Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy) feels like a follow up to his Devil’s Backbone. This lush, imaginative production had the feel of a very personal movie, like a much darker The Lady in the Water (which also knows a thing or two about being marketed as something it isn’t).

Drawing on the primal urgency of the original fairy tales before they were cleaned up for mass consumption, Pan’s Labyrinth is magical realism – fantasy firmly rooted in reality. A little girl, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) under the fascist regime of 1944 Spain, accompanies her pregnant mother, Carmen Vidal (Ariadna Gil) to meet the man who she is to now call father, Captain Vidal (Sergi López). Except that “father” is “more than just a word” to her. We are plunged into her imagination, and the harshness of her situation, as she embarks on a journey to a magical world within her own. A world of fantasy and wonder, to escape from as well as deal with, her reality.

“How do you know what you say is true?” –Ofelia

Her kingdom awaits the return of a dead princess whose true father waits for her. Pan’s Labyrinth layers stories within fairy tales within stories, as it interprets an ancient story within the context of a fairy tale. Fantastic creatures, from Pan to the Pale Man, wander through the film like imaginings from Clive Barker’s Abarat world.

Here, the message is the magic. A visual feast of stunning images alongside graphic ones (such as the Captain suddenly turning and beating a young man to death), Pan’s Labyrinth is both gruesome and spell-binding. In a lot of ways, faith and spiritual concerns are essentially magic. We believe a lot of things when we are children. We have the ability to wonder, to look at the world around us with awe, full of its own brand of magic. It’s a shame that we lose the ability to dream as we get older.

The power of story is being able to portray magic in the ordinary.

“She forgot who she was and where she came from.” –Narrator

A common fantasy trope is that of the changeling: the idea that a child was born of parents different from the ones that raised him. That they are, in fact, someone special, children like Harry Potter. The land where Ofelia was from anxiously awaits the return of their princess.

Modeling Christ’s journey of self-discover of his messianic consciousness, she dwelled fully human among her adopted parents as she discovered who she was. Ofelia had to find her way herself, though she possessed The Book of Crossroads, basically, her scriptures, that informed her mission and journey.

In being taught how to follow instructions, realizing that there were consequences to be paid if she didn’t, she learned what it meant to obey as she grew in surrender to the will of her father, all for the sake of knowing her true father. Her journey parallels Christ journey as he had to discover what it meant for him to “be about my Father’s business.”

“The essence of [God’s] forgiveness lies in His word and in His mystery. Because although God sends us the message, it is our task to decipher it. Because when we open our arms, the earth takes in only a hollow and senseless shell. Far away now is the soul in its eternal glory. Because it is in pain that we find the meaning of life and the state of grace that we lose when we are born. Because God in His infinite wisdom puts the solution in our hands. And because it is only in His physical presence that the place He occupies in our souls is reaffirmed.” –Priest

This is a cruel world– the cruelty of man embodied by her earthly father–full of both tragedy and magic. We’ve “talked about pain. But never about the promise of eternal life.” We cling to the hope of eternal life, a life beyond the pain of this existence; a greater glory and kingdom. Yet it shouldn’t be a “pie in the sky, when we die” brand of belief, but rather one realizing that this kingdom life begins now. We leave behind small traces of our lives–in the little things, in the moments–if you know where to look. The trek may be dangerous, full of poison thorns, but it is worth it, to get that rose of eternal life.

The theme of sacrifice winds it’s way throughout the movie. Ofelia sacrifices her throne for the sake of another. She sheds her blood for the sake of another. But these weren’t the final steps in her journey of faith.

“To obey – just like that – for obedience’s sake … without questioning… That’s something only people like you do.” –Doctor Ferreiro (Álex Angulo)

The ultimate test of her faith was to learn when to question. Ofelia questions the rules presented to her in order to find true faith and her true father. We often confuse doubt with a lack of faith, questioning as the first step of falling way, when in reality, doubting proves thought. How we arrive at truth depends on our ability to think and reflect, to contemplate our own existence. I’m reminded of something Ann Lamott said in her book, Plan B Further Thoughts on Faith: “The opposite of faith is not doubt but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and the discomfort and letting it be there until some light returns.”

Pan’s Labyrinth conjures up so many images from stories I grew up reading. The Minotaur. Persephone. Orpheus and Eurydice. Labyrinths were a feature of many medieval cathedrals and are used by many today as a spiritual discipline. Unlike a maze, it is a single path of concentric circles that leads to a center point, and then returns the same way. People walk the labyrinth slowly, as an aid to contemplative prayer and reflection, to calm their minds as a spiritual exercise. The path has three stages – the ‘inward’ journey (letting go of things which hinder our wholeness), the center (a space of meditative prayer) and the ‘outward’ journey (reaching out to others in light of our relationship to God). In other words, walking and praying it is a tangible picture of our spiritual journey.

Pan’s Labyrinth has a magical quality, like Spirited Away with CGI effects. It is myth for adults, with all of its attendant elements – woven with death and loss, courage and love and sacrifice. Its graceful and elegant cinematography paints a vivid canvass for such an unvarnished fairy tale. Indeed, it is a rare treat of a movie.


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Sexism and Genre Conventions?

Well, in a little over a month, the World Horror Convention convenes. This year, the Stokers Banquet is a part of the festivities, so it’s like two conventions in one. Yet some folks are dreading it, if not outright skipping it, namely a lot of female peers of mine. Actually, it reminds me of an on-going discussion Chesya Burke and I have about whether or not it’s easier to be female or black in the genre. When she asks whether I’d rather be a white female or a black male in the genre, I paraphrase Chris Rock: I’m going to ride this male thing out. So this might be an occasion of male privilege leading to male guilt.

Part of this goes back to what it means to be a professional. It’s a shame that we would even have to say “keep your hands to yourselves” as a part of professional conduct. I get that there’s a bit of the old con mentality that plays into some of this: that “what happens at a con stays at a con,” like the rest of their lives don’t matter, or at least exist outside of what is supposed to be a convention of professionals.

It’s bad enough that they still have to contend with schools of thought that believe women can’t write horror, or that vampire erotica is all they can write. Tired of the constant condescension, as if they aren’t expected to be able to speak in whole sentences. Of course strides have been made, but in a lot of ways, there is the lingering perception of the genre still being a boys club. Of that being how deals are often brokered and anthologies put together.

Their sex becomes a two-edged sword. On the one side, if they find publishing success, they become dogged by rumors of how they got their deal. On the other side, some may use their looks to sell their fiction. If you think you have to use your body, your sexiness to sell your work, maybe you can’t claim hurt when you aren’t thought of for your writing first; but all of us use what we have to our marketing advantage.

Convention fatigue sets in when women become tired of being constantly propositioned. I’ve heard disgusting tales of women being pinned in corners, elevator rides that have gone horribly wrong, and convention stalking. Is it so much a leap that women want to be seen as writers, not potential lays. The saddest part is how some of the worst behavior comes from the ones they had never guessed it would come from: their friends, their confidantes, their supposed peers.

Women, especially women horror writers, don’t need me defending them. Maybe I’m making a big deal out of a marginal problem. Though I’ve been told that were a woman to have written something like this, it would have fallen on deaf ears. We’ll see what kind of discussion this generates.

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