Monday, July 20, 2015

Writer's Block Exists, But Not in the Way You Think

It's pretty common knowledge that writers (or any other type of artist) need a kick in the pants every so often, and usually that kick needs to come from themselves. Artists are great at getting themselves into creative ruts and flailing helplessly when they realize there's no easy way out. And it can be so tempting to stay in that rut, because while there, you have no artistic responsibilities and can just hang out.

I'll just be down here.

But if you stay in the rut for too long, you realize it's boring as hell. Not being expected to do anything can make you feel useless. If you're an artist who invests a lot of their identity in said art, it can also lead to a slight existential crisis √† la, "Why am I even on this planet if I'm not doing [x]?"

This year, I've spent a lot more time in creative ruts than I usually do. I'm no stranger to these ruts, of course, and I don't think any artist is. But the ruts of 2015 proved a lot harder to get out of, and, thanks to a number of circumstances, my willpower was no match for how steep they were.

Why am I even calling these ruts? Why am I not calling it writer's block? Because I don't think writer's block exists, or at least, it doesn't exist in the way most people seem to understand it. When I hear people complain about writer's block, it often comes in the form of, "I can't think of anything to write about. I'm sitting there and nothing is coming out."

Oh, something could come out, all right. All you have to do is think of words and type them onto the page, or scribble them into your notebook or napkin or stone tablet or whatever you use. Your problem is that nothing good is coming out.

Well, duh. That's, like, 75% of writing a first draft. Like I've said before, writing involves wading through a lot of shit before you can get to the good stuff. It's about not judging yourself and trusting that you will be able to look at it with fresh eyes later, to clean up the language and cut out entire sections that aren't working. It's about not being afraid of your own failure because nobody gets it right the first time.

To me, writer's block is less about your creative abilities no longer working and more about some paralyzing fear holding you back from writing at all. It is incredibly hard to push through this, and sometimes, you have a lot working against you. A major event could disrupt your life, whether it's a positive or negative one; you could be battling mental illness; your living conditions might make it more difficult or outright impossible for you to work on your art. But there's a fine line between giving yourself a break because of an obstacle and not pushing yourself to work when you know enough pushing would get you where you need to be.

Clearly, I am still struggling to find this line.

As many of you know, I'm writing a YA fantasy series meant to be four books long. I've written books one, two, and three, but shortly after finishing the third, I took a step back. I didn't want to start book four until I was fairly satisfied with the first three. Book one was polished thanks to a significant rewrite I undertook with it after becoming more familiar with the publishing industry. I was happy with book three, since it was my most recent work and written by a much more mature author than the other two.

But book two was a total mess. So, last year,  I promised myself I would revise the thing before drafting the final book in the series.

I'd been avoiding revising book two for a while, and only recently did I start thinking about why that was. Drafting it had been a messy process. I'd stumbled through the first ten chapters with no idea how to organize it, the last section was plagued with overblown tangents, the main plot got lost in a tangle of subplots. But I also wrote that book during the most difficult emotional period of my life. As a result, the book includes some of my best writing, but also made me not want to look at it.

Re-reading the first several chapters, I had no patience for the miserable kid who'd written the original draft (the me of several years ago). I called her stupid and annoying, cursed her for the monstrosity she'd left me with, and laughed at all her amateur mistakes. Revising her prose proved exhausting, which made it easy to slip into a rut. At some point, I tumbled into the rut and stayed there.

To be fair to myself, I've been up against a lot this year. My last semester of college took a toll on me. I was dealing with a school newspaper fiasco that left me disillusioned with my university and with universities in general. My significant other was studying abroad, and the separation was, to put it mildly, hard. I was teaching a class and my mental health was suffering worse than it ever had during college. Throughout that last semester, I revised book two in small bursts, but not in any sustainable way.

Then I graduated and went to Europe for two months, as my Instagram account can attest to. It was understandable that I didn't revise during this period, since 1) I had no time and 2) I had nowhere to go. Most of my time in Europe was either spent at my significant other's flat in London, which housed like seven other people and not very many rooms, or in an AirBnB, someone else's house. I wasn't about to demand a room I could revise in for two hours every night. Through all of this, I promised myself I would start revising as soon as I got home.

Guess what didn't happen.

We arrived home super jet lagged and not wanting to do anything but laze around the house. I could barely find the energy to move. It's fine, I told myself. The family trip to Alaska is soon. You'll start revising there. Then we got there for our two-week vacation and I found myself repeating the same process every day. I'd announce that I was "planning to edit" later, occupy myself with other, less demanding tasks, and become more and more anxious as the day's hours dwindled. The closer I got to midnight, the more excuses built up. I'll do it in an hour. Okay, half hour. Actually, I can't tonight. I need to spend more time with my siblings. Or I'll just finish this quest in this video game. Tonight isn't a good night because--

These weren't valid excuses anymore. I was stuck in the rut. I'd been there for so much longer than I was used to and couldn't figure out how to get myself out of it. Worse than that, I started to tear myself apart for continually succumbing to whatever was stopping me. I criticized myself every day for it. It didn't exactly do wonders for my self-esteem.

Then one day during our trip, we visited a rocky beach. I was climbing out to one of the larger rocks that was more difficult to reach, since it was further out in the water than the others. I made it there without a scratch, despite the slippery stones I had to step on and the incoming tide. Boy was I proud of myself for being a badass and succeeding in an outdoorsy activity that made me nervous. I was still celebrating on my way back to the beach when I slipped on the barnacle-encrusted rock. I landed right on my butt and earned a cut on my palm, which would later bruise.

Asshole barnacles.

It was a shallow cut that barely broke the skin. It wasn't even that big, and there wasn't much blood. But what did I do? I, a 22-year-old woman who has always had a low pain tolerance, started crying.

I didn't cry in front of anyone who wasn't understanding (just my significant other, who is very pro-feel-what-you-feel), but still, I felt humiliated. I'm not very patient with myself when it comes to having an emotional reaction I don't consider reasonable. If I'd had it my way, I would have jumped back up all Mercutio-like and said, "Ay, ay, a scratch, a scratch!" But I cried, which definitely did not match the badass-outdoorsy-warrior mood I'd been indulging in a moment before. I felt ashamed.

This, of all things, made me remember why I was writing my YA fantasy in the first place.

My YA fantasy's main character has been thrust into a combat situation that doesn't match her personality at all. She, like me, is prone to crying for every reason under the sun, whether it be physical pain, interpersonal, frustration, anger, etc. Her best friend is a much more conventional warrior, and tears from her are pretty rare.

But there's a reason my main character has the spotlight instead of her friend. I want to show her fighting for her life through tears. I want her emotional outbursts to fuel her rather than indicate weakness. Through these books, I want to show people that emotion can lend us enormous strength though it may seem to hinder us. I am working against our culture's criticisms of "excessive" emotion and how it encourages people to suppress it. I especially want teenagers of all genders to read these books and feel validated when they cry. I want them to see crying as a source of power the way I couldn't as a teenager.

There is no way I'm gonna be able to do that unless I sit down and revise book two, damn it.

And you know what? When I got back to it, I thanked my younger self. Even though she didn't really know what she was doing, she'd fought through the muck to get words down during the hardest time of her life. Sure, it's a lot to revise. But without her, I wouldn't have anything to revise at all. She stayed out of her rut long enough to write this craptastic first draft. I am so proud of her.

So it took an assful of barnacles to get me out of my rut this time. Well, it didn't get me out on its own. It just threw down a rope. It still took me a few days to haul myself out of there and get down to business. Now, finally, I am revising again, and I feel much more comfortable with myself. I feel I'm doing good, important work that I hope will someday benefit other people.

Writer's block may be tough to deal with, but thinking about it in terms of fear instead of a short supply of creativity gives me a lot more control over how I handle it. I'm always better when I'm working on my craft, and I'm happy to be back on board.

If you have any methods for getting yourselves out of artistic ruts, let me know in the comments. I could sure use more ideas.


Saturday, May 23, 2015

I Don't Regret Giving up Acting: Some Darker Sides of Being a Child Actress

Today my sister directed me to a video in which Dylan Sprouse, one of the twins who starred in Disney Channel's The Suite Life of Zack and Cody as well as its spin-off The Suite Life on Deck, explains why he and his brother quit working for Disney in favor of pursuing degrees at NYU. I'm not sure if the Sprouse twins have quit acting for good like I did, but I'm always glad to see stories of other actors deciding to stop working on a project that no longer makes them happy.

Nice dorm room.

It was especially nice to see this from someone my age who worked on a Disney show similar to the one I was in (though, of course, my role was very different from theirs--I was only in 11 episodes of Hannah Montana while they starred in both their shows as the main characters). I recommend watching the video because it provides excellent insight into how the show business industry can mistreat its workers, even high-profile actors like Cole and Dylan Sprouse.

However, I'm mostly here to talk about the title of the article: "Former Disney Superstar Reveals Why He Walked Away from Being Rich."

Before I even clicked the link, I thought, "Oh boy, here we go."

When you stop acting, one thing a lot of people like to talk about is money. "Why would you give all that up?" "Do you know how many people would kill for that kind of money?" When I was 17, my freaking therapist brought it up. I told him about my recent decision, based on the negative emotional toll it was taking on me, to quit acting. He said I'd "basically given up the lottery" and should reconsider my decision.

Needless to say, I never went back to that therapist, and it gets on my last nerve when people make similar comments nowadays. Isn't "do it for love, not for money" a commonly taught after-school-special-type value? Like, why are people baffled by this?

I'm pretty sure it's because when most people imagine a Hollywood actor's life, they think of the glamorous bits. They think of people all over the world knowing your face and being interested in your life. They think of the money, of your hair and make-up always looking perfect, of getting to portray interesting characters that millions of viewers will enjoy and possibly connect to.

I can understand wanting these things, sort of. I have never been interested in the world knowing my face, but that might be because the world has known my face in some capacity since I was 10, so I didn't have much of an opportunity to hope it would happen. I don't like wearing make-up--I don't feel like myself when I wear it and it's physically uncomfortable. I guess having perfect hair all the time would be nice, but it would probably mean having to get up earlier and sit in a chair for hours, so I'm fine without it.

The last part about portraying characters is something I definitely understand, especially as a writer. Providing the world with characters it can relate to is something I still want to do, and the reason I got into acting in the first place. I think the most successful actors hold this value close to their hearts, and it's what keeps a lot of them going in this difficult business. If it had been important enough to me, I would have continued, but I discovered writing offered a medium for characters that I preferred (I talked more about this a few years ago).

The money has definitely been helpful. I never want to understate how thankful I am for the money I made. Without it, I would be knee-deep in student loan debt right now instead of never having to worry about tuition money again. I wouldn't currently be on vacation in Europe. I wouldn't have gotten to attend the Midwest Writers Workshop in Indiana for the past two years, where I have made incredible writer friends. The exposure has also been amazing. If I hadn't acted, barely anyone would be reading this right now, and I certainly wouldn't have thousands of amazing Twitter followers.

But show business is very, very difficult. The hard parts factor heavily into every actor's decision about whether or not to stay in the industry. It's important that people be aware of how tough it can get, especially when those people want to criticize someone for leaving acting behind.

I'm going to limit these points to acting as a child, since that's the only experience I can speak to on this topic.

For one thing, you have to spend a lot of time away from home, family, and friends. I was lucky that, when I wanted to start acting, I already lived in Los Angeles. That's where most auditions happen and where a lot of the production studios are. I was also lucky that my first acting project (Cheaper by the Dozen) was filmed in Los Angeles. After a day of work, I got to come home, sleep in my own bed, and see my friends on the weekends.

However, with The Pacifier and Cheaper by the Dozen 2, it was a different story. Both required going to Toronto, Canada for three months because filming in Canada is cheaper, and fairly common. For Pacifier, which filmed March-July of 2004, this meant leaving my elementary school three months early and never coming back, because I was in fifth grade and would switch to middle school in the fall (I finished my schooling on set). It meant seeing the disappointed look on my best friend's face when I told her I would be spending the rest of the school year thousands of miles away from her.

The worst part, though, was being separated from my mom. Up until Pacifier, I hadn't been apart from my mother for longer than the two-week periods my siblings and I spent visiting family with my dad (my parents divorced when I was 9). It's not as if she could up and leave her job to join me in Canada for three months.

She visited once, for a week or so, but that didn't feel like enough to an 11-year-old craving her mother's comfort. Every time I watch the scene where Lulu opens the door and screams in Vin Diesel's face, I cringe a little, because my mom left to catch her flight minutes before I filmed that scene and I'd just spent time crying.

I also remember crying over my mom in the hair-and-make-up trailer a few times. One of the make-up artists, Katie, was so sweet about it. I had trouble keeping my eyes open whenever she put make-up under them, so she offered to tape pictures of my mom above the make-up mirror for me to look at while I tried not to blink.

I can't imagine doing this now, as an adult. It would have been impossible to graduate from college in a timely manner, since I would have had to keep taking semesters off. I admire those who can do both at once, like Emma Watson, who graduated from Brown University last year. But I'm nowhere near as high profile as she is. She had a lot more agency when it came to things like negotiating with her university and picking-and-choosing which roles she wanted to play, and when.

I'm sure production companies would have been more willing to work around Emma Watson's schedule than they would be with someone like me. This is of course not meant to underestimate the incredible amount of work she put into acting and getting a degree at the same time. It just wouldn't have been possible for me.

Then there's being separated from loved ones. The only several-months-long block of time I spent away from all my loved ones since I stopped acting was when I studied abroad in Ireland (which JUST LEGALIZED GAY MARRIAGE, BY THE WAY!) in August-December of 2013. I was mostly fine and made wonderful friends while I was there.

But by December, I wanted to go home so much I started feeling guilty about it. Didn't people always say that when you studied abroad, you'd "never want to leave?" I loved Dublin and couldn't have chosen a better place to study, but I missed my family enough that I looked forward to it being over--even though two weeks into being home, I wished I was back in Dublin again. Being separated from your network of loved ones is hard, even when you're crazy about what you're doing during your time away from them. I'm not interested enough in acting to regularly put up with this kind of isolation.

Another problem is people like to criticize actors for how they look, especially when those actors are women. And when you're a 12-year-old girl who's only just starting to become physically aware of herself, this is devastating to your self-esteem.

I, unfortunately, used to frequent the message boards on my IMDb page. Sure, my parents warned me that people on there would probably say some not-so-nice things, but again, I was 12. Any kid that age who knew people were talking about them on the Internet would read it. After Cheaper by the Dozen 2 came out, I remember how I felt when I saw a thread titled something like, "Can you say FAT?" It was full of people commenting on how much weight I'd gained between Pacifier and Cheaper 2.

Here's what I looked like.

I was already feeling self-conscious about my weight. My mom told me it was related to starting puberty and that my body was in the middle of figuring itself out. That didn't make reading the thread any less upsetting. I read the whole thing through frustrated tears. Then, because I felt the need to defend myself (and because I was a 12-year-old who didn't understand how the Internet worked), I responded to some of the posts under an alias. Which of course led to more attacks on my weight.

Now that I'm more educated about how the industry and Western society works, it makes me angry that "fat" was intended as an insult and that I was encouraged to see it that way. What if I had been larger than this? What if I had continued to gain weight? What if I was currently 300 pounds? It wouldn't be anybody's business and it wouldn't be something to criticize.

This wasn't an isolated incident. Some more I remember: "Has anybody noticed her butt getting bigger?" "Well she looks...different here" "Someone told me she gained a lot of weight in Hannah Montana, does anyone have pictures?"

There are probably a lot more, but finding them would require combing through the IMDb message boards for them, and I'm afraid it would be too upsetting. Yes, I'm 22, it's been 10 years, and it would still be too upsetting.

This is another aspect of acting that would be hard on me today. I've never worn make-up regularly. Very rarely, I wear it to special occasions, but even that has been dropping out of my life, mostly because I realized I was putting on make-up due to social pressure to appear more feminine. I enjoy the way I dress, but it usually isn't up to "fashionable" standards, and I prefer comfort over style most of the time. So when I see tabloids bashing celebrity women for "daring" to leave the house in sweatpants and without make-up, I'm horrified. I'm angry. And I feel better about leaving the industry behind.

One more anecdote before I move on to my next point. When I was 15, I attended some event that involved getting interviewed at the end of a short red carpet after publicity photos. I had my mom do my make-up because I figured they'd expect me to wear it. I was wearing a cardigan and jeans, which, for me, was dressing up. In high school, I hated jeans, instead preferring to wear baggy clothes that hid as much of my body as possible.

Me in high school, wearing a typical high-school-me outfit

At the end of the red carpet, I heard the people being interviewed before me answer a question about their favorite Christmas traditions. Socially anxious, 15-year-old me prepared to answer that question next. Instead, the question I got was, "Do you have any beauty tips?"

I stood there in stunned silence for a second, partially because my plan had gone awry, and also because I had no idea what the hell kind of beauty tip I was gonna give. Use shampoo? Brush your teeth? Bathe occasionally? I said, "Uhh, be yourself" and dashed out of there.

There are thousands of other reasons working in show business takes a toll on child actors, but I don't want to make this post too much longer, so I'll leave you with one final point: being a young person with this amount of exposure can be legitimately scary and not age-appropriate.

By scary, I don't just mean "it's creepy that so many people know my name and what my face looks like." I mean scary like the time my sister got a text message from some guy asking if he could speak to me when I was 18. He'd somehow tracked down her phone number and used it to try to get in touch with me. Worse, I recognized his name. He'd been leaving weird, obsessive comments on anything I posted online starting from when I was 13 and onwards. And he still was fixated on me.

I spent the day terrified. I didn't know what this guy was capable of. He'd found Wendy's phone number, so for all I knew, the next step was figuring out where I lived. Luckily, that didn't happen.

When I was a kid, I got fanmail from guys asking me to be their girlfriend. I remember someone telling me they'd printed out every picture they could find of me and put them up in their room (I must have been 13 or 14). Around the same age, I saw someone on the Internet ask if any nude pictures of me existed. I came across comments like "I can't wait until she turns 16" and "counting down the days until she's legal."

This was disturbing enough as a child and a teenager, and relatively speaking, I was never a very well-known actress. I can't begin to imagine the nightmares big-name celebrities have to deal with on a regular basis. No wonder they need bodyguards. If I continued acting and became more successful, I would have to readjust my life to make room for this nonsense. I am very happy keeping that stuff as far away from me as possible.

I hope this post provides some perspective on how the positive parts of show business can be overshadowed by the more detrimental ones. Really, I admire people who stay in this industry and put up with all this. It means they really love what they're doing and they're committed to their art. If writing involved all these things, would I still pursue it? Absolutely. But that's because writing feels like my calling, and acting doesn't.

I hope this helps people understand better.


Wednesday, April 29, 2015

I've Been M.I.A., But I'm Back With a College Degree!

This blog is something I treasure. It allows me a platform to write my thoughts on topics that are important to me in long form, and then to distribute those thoughts to a large audience. It provides me with a place to practice my writing, which, to a young writer trying to sell her fiction, is valuable no matter what the medium. It also produces instant feedback from readers and gives me the opportunity to interact with them.

So why haven't I written anything here since June of 2014? Why have I been neglecting something so important to me for almost a year?

Well, a number of life-changing things have happened to me in the past ten months. For your convenience, here's a chronological list:

  • This person wandered into my life and made me fall in love. Rude. I would recommend following said person on Twitter and Instagram though, since both include quality content (Danny is both an amateur photographer and sassmaster).
  • I went to the Caribbean on a family vacation and met some donkeys. The donkeys in Bonaire are morally offended by any form of journalism and so refused to allow me to write a blog post in their country.
  • I started my senior year of college, which is the primary reason I wasn't updating this blog. Because of how draining senior year was, both academically and emotionally, I actually fell behind on everything, including writing/editing/revising my novels, reading for pleasure, keeping up with the publishing world, etc. Even playing video games started to feel like exerting too much effort.
  • During my senior year, I taught a class on Leo Tolstoy, one of my favorite classic authors. If you're interested, we read Anna Karenina, selections from War and Peace, part of his essay "What is Art?", and The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories (a compilation of his shorter works), using the award-winning translations by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. The class was small, but a big academic and personal success. It also took a lot of work, as you would expect. If you're into beautiful prose, expertly crafted characters, and emotions in general, I recommend you read all of these things.
  • I ended up smack in the middle of a censorship controversy at my university (which, now that I no longer attend the school, I am comfortable stating is the University of Redlands). I was co-editor-in-chief of the student newspaper The Bulldog Weekly when, midway through the year, our student government decided to cut our funding. Suspiciously, this came after we published an article that didn't make the university look very good. My co-editor and I wrote about it here, but I plan to write a blog post talking more extensively about this as well.
  • I graduated from college, earning my bachelor's degree in Writing Fiction: Listening, Absorbing, and Creating, which is a combination of the literature, creative writing, and psychology fields. If you're wondering why my major sounds made up, that's because it is. During my undergrad, I was part of an incredible program called the Johnston Center for Integrative Studies that allows students to design their own majors, which requires a lot of extra thought and self-motivation. I have a lot of negative feelings toward my university right now because of the whole newspaper drama mentioned above, but I can't speak more highly of Johnston and it will always have my heart. So, if you're considering the U of R, DO JOHNSTON.

And now I'm doing some traveling in Europe as a sort of graduation gift to myself. But what comes next?

Originally, I had planned to pursue a master's degree immediately after finishing my undergrad. Senior year helped me realize that I'm pretty burned out on school, at least for now, so I'll be spending the next year focusing on my novels, catching up with the publishing world, pleasure reading, and keeping up with this blog. I'm so excited to finally have time to participate in these things again, without having to schedule them around homework.

After that? We'll see. What masters degree would I want to pursue? Many might think I'd go for a creative writing MFA. I considered that at first, but now I know that's not the path I want to take. I have many reasons for this, which I hope to discuss on this blog at some point in the future.

What about literature? Tempting, but I think I'd rather indulge in all the pleasure reading I can in the years to come. Pursuing a masters in literature means committing myself to whatever my professors list in the syllabus. While I'm sure they'd assign some excellent reading, it means another several years of not having time to read purely for pleasure. Also, the niche I'm most interested in learning more about is Russian literature, and I'm pretty sure that requires learning Russian. Which would be great, and I would love to do that eventually! But I'd prefer to focus on getting my writing out there first.

If I'm going to pursue a masters in anything, my ideal choice (for the moment) is a masters in publishing. I'm really interested in becoming involved with publishing from the editorial side as well as the author side, and I've looked into some publishing programs that seem like excellent networking opportunities.

So, expect more posts from me now. I don't have homework taking up my time anymore and I'm looking forward to posting my thoughts somewhere less restrictive than Twitter. For those of you who have stuck with this blog, thank you so much for reading. For those of you who started following me within the past year, welcome, and I'm glad to have you!

I hope this is the beginning of a fulfilling and educational new era for this blog. Keep an eye out on Instagram for photos of England, Ireland, Scotland, and more!


Friday, June 6, 2014

No, I'm Not Embarrassed: Good Lit is Good Lit

When I woke up this morning, there was rage all over my Twitter feed. I couldn't find the source, but it seemed to have something to do with YA readers being shamed for, well, reading YA. What's new, right?

I went about my day normally. Later, a friend posted the link to the offending article, and I read it. It's called Against YA, with the tagline, "yes, adults should be embarrassed to read young adult books." It argues that by reading young adult literature, adults are missing out on more "important" literature, namely literary fiction. Such readers are apparently selling themselves short by choosing "escapism" over more complex, ambiguous works only found in the adult section of the bookstore.

This article reeeaaally got under my skin, for a number of reasons.

(Side note: I'm not entirely comfortable with posting the link to the article, since I know controversial articles love to generate more traffic, and I'm contributing to that by posting it. But it's not fair for me to present my argument without offering up the other side, so there it is).

If you follow this blog, you know I write YA fantasy. You might also know that I write YA contemporary, and adult contemporary, or what the writer of the article calls realistic fiction. I am interested in a variety of different perspectives and audiences, so I don't feel comfortable limiting myself to just one category or genre. Naturally, then, I don't limit myself as a reader, either.

I used to. You'll know from some of my past entries that I used to limit my reading to realistic, literary fiction, particularly classics (yet I was writing YA fantasy?? Yeah, I was still figuring out the whole read-the-genre-you-write thing...don't worry, I learned). I agreed with this woman, mostly because I considered most YA books to be carbon copies of Twilight, which I disliked. I looked down on these books because I thought people used them for escapism. I, too, thought YA limited itself to "instant gratification" and shirked the harsher realities my classics offered me.

There are so many problems here.

First off, there is nothing inherently wrong with escapism. The reason it used to give me pause is because I thought people who sought out escapism wanted to ignore the problems in their lives, and thus never deal with those problems. I thought if you wanted to escape, you were weak, and your real life would fall apart around you.

My prejudice against YA was probably wrapped up in this mindset. But how unfair is it to assume that someone who wants a little escape is going to let their world go to pieces? There's a difference between wanting to get away for a little and being seriously dysfunctional. Also, I'm a hypocrite--what the hell do I play video games for if not for the escapism? The graphics? It's definitely not the graphics.

Secondly, the generalizations about YA listed in this article make it clear that this woman has not read widely in the YA category, or at least not widely enough to appreciate its many nuances and opportunities for complexity. According to her, YA is full of hunky dory protagonists who never self reflect and always get a perfectly tied-up ending. YA is meant to be pleasurable, she says. It's fluff. It doesn't let you empathize with people who aren't like you. It's easy on the heart and satisfying.

Right. That's why The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which she mentions in the article, leaves us with a good feeling. Wait, never mind. It ends with the main character suffering a serious emotional breakdown thanks to a traumatic event from his past. The readers are left wondering how he will cope with this latest relapse, and we don't get to know. If Katsa had never self-reflected in Graceling, never confronted an upsetting emotional reality about herself, she would never have won my respect. Boy do I wish the end of The Amber Spyglass was "easy on the heart and satisfying," because then I could've avoided the overwhelming panic and indignation I felt when I realized what was going to happen (I kept flipping the pages back and forth as if that would change it). If we're counting Harry Potter, I managed to empathize with Severus Snape. Last I checked, I wasn't a bitter, thirty-something-year-old man with greasy hair and an unrequited crush he really should have let go of a long time ago (yes, I'm being critical of him here, but feeling empathy for someone does not eliminate your ability to criticize that person. I felt sad for Snape, but I could still see issues with his behavior).

Or, let's take the book I'm reading right now: Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein, which follows a girl in her late teens who is placed in a women's concentration camp during World War II. The narrator has a captivating voice. The characters are interesting and respond to trauma in their own unique ways. The author does not shy away from the gruesome realities of a concentration camp, nor does she give us closure about what happens to everyone (oh, look! Ambiguity!). It is frustrating and, at times, sickening to watch these characters endure what they have to endure. It is not "pleasurable"--the only "pleasure" I could think of getting out of this book is being glad I'm not the one in a concentration camp, but I wouldn't call that "pleasure." I am not reading it to feel better about life; I'm reading it because I want to see what happens to these girls.

But, Morgan, wouldn't you ultimately get more out of a piece of literary fiction? Doesn't this book pale in comparison to those classics you love? Aren't you an adult?

Ah, there you are, Ulysses by James Joyce, which I spent last month reading with a class. I knew you'd come in handy.

When it comes to literary fiction, Ulysses is about as literary as you can get. It contains made-up words, nonsensical sentences, literally hundreds of obscure references (many of which are crucial to the experience, so have fun looking them up!), confusing narrators (who the hell is talking in this paragraph?), and stream-of-consciousness prose that is sometimes impossible to follow. Also, every chapter is written in a different style. Every time you think you're used to how Ulysses operates, boom! It transforms into a different monster.

Many people who haven't studied it closely or approached it blind think the book is a load of nonsense and isn't worth it. But I loved the hell out of this book. If you have it, or next time you visit a bookstore, flip Ulysses open to chapter eleven, the music-themed chapter. The chapter has a freaking overture made out of language. What does that mean? It means it operates like a musical overture, which plays a collection of sounds that will later appear throughout different parts of the performance that is to follow. Except Ulysses does it with words. The overture is made up of of a page and a half of short phrases that, in some form or another, appear in the chapter. As you read, you find yourself playing "Where's Waldo"--"Ah, there's the reference to the first line of the overture! Look, that must refer to line twelve!" It's mind-blowing and exciting. It makes you re-think how we use language and how stories are formed.

I also love the hell out of Rose Under Fire so far. I feel a rush of anticipation every time I sit down to read it, just as I did with Ulysses. How is it possible for me to sincerely enjoy such different books, especially one on top of the other? Because I understand that these novels are aiming for different effects, and those effects are equally legitimate. Rose Under Fire places compelling characters in a terrifying situation. It wants me to feel their reality and stress over the characters' fates. Ulysses challenges my expectations as a reader and demands that I pay just as much attention to the language as I do to plot and character--probably even more attention. These are both great goals. They are both stimulating. They both make me feel something.

Of course, if the article angered me as a reader, it angered me as a writer, too. I took most issue with the writer's claim that "[YA readers] are asked to abandon the mature insights into [an emotional] perspective that they (supposedly) have acquired as adults."

If this is what YA is about, then evidently, I haven't been reading YA. I've seen plenty of observations and epiphanies in YA literature that some adults never even think about or achieve. I have stated that there is nothing wrong with escapism already, but as someone who does not personally read for escapism, I tend to write against it. The novels I write (about and for teenagers) depend on mature insights. They feed on them. They could not exist without them. The more you follow my main character, the higher and higher she reaches for these insights, though sometimes she'll flinch away from them, too, because they're painful and she's human.

To argue that YA forces you to do away with adult emotionality negates everything I've been writing for, and negates a sizable percentage of the feelings a teenager experiences. Because many of the things teenagers feel are very real, very adult feelings. That's part of why adolescence is so terrifying--emotions aren't simple anymore. The feelings are new, but that does not make them lesser. As for adults who think reading about these "first" experiences is a form of regression, well, most of the adults I know would benefit from revisiting the roots of these emotions. That "first" feeling laid a foundation, after all.

Are you a literary novel? Give me feelings. Are you a YA novel? Give me feelings. Grip me by the heart, book, and I will love you, because feelings are the whole damn reason I'm here.


Saturday, May 17, 2014

Update: Why You've Been Hearing Nothing but Crickets from Me

Hey readers!

I just wanted to give you lovely people a quick update about why I seem to have completely vanished from my blog (I'm sad whenever I remember I haven't written a blog post since February). I spent a month after writing my Frozen post editing my third novel until it was in fine enough condition to have people actually read it, so my priorities during that period were that and schoolwork. During April, the finals crunch really set in. Now I'm taking a month-long class dedicated to reading Ulysses (by James Joyce) and practically nothing else.

For those of you who haven't heard of the book, Ulysses is an extremely experimental, dense, and complicated novel and takes a lot of energy to simply read, let alone respond to and discuss. For instance, last week my friends and I spent nine or ten hours reading a chapter that was eleven pages. Eleven pages. But I love the thing. I'm only halfway through, but I get the feeling it'll be up there with War and Peace for me (which is a huge honor).

I've still managed to be fairly active on Twitter, so during the next month, you can find me there (usually rambling about Ulysses). Once the summer starts, I should be back to updating this blog, which I'm excited about. Just because I haven't been updating doesn't mean I haven't been getting ideas!

See you in June!


Friday, February 28, 2014

My Love/Meh Relationship with Frozen

Pretty personal post ahead. But I thought it was important to share on this blog, since it is closely linked with the role fiction can play in one's life and in one's identity.

If you've been on the Internet at any point over the past three months, you definitely haven't encountered this totally obscure Disney movie, Frozen. On the off chance you do know which movie I'm talking about, be warned that this post contains spoilers.

The moment the movie came out, every other person I talked to told me I needed to see it as soon as possible. People said it was the best Disney princess movie since Beauty and the Beast. I practically knew all the songs before I actually saw the thing. Two of my college-aged friends have seen the movie in theaters five times. I thought, whoa, this movie must be Pixar-level amazing. So I walked into the theater with extremely high expectations...

...and walked out confused. Disappointed. My sister agreed with me. The movie was trying too hard to be Tangled--the Sven character was completely interchangeable with the horse from Rapunzel's film. Out of all the jokes in the movie, one made me laugh. One. Even then, it was just a little "heh." I couldn't stand Olaf (I feel so bad saying that, because he's cute and sweet, just not funny to me). Elsa rubbed me the wrong way. Much of the plot "twists" were incredibly predictable. I was glad Disney finally subscribed to a type of "true love" that wasn't romantic, but I just wish I hadn't seen it coming from a mile away. Don't even get me started on Disney's choice to make Hans evil. Why were people so crazy about this movie?

Well, big deal, right? I don't have to love a movie everyone else is, for some reason, obsessed with. I participated in the cultural phenomenon and now I can move on. I tend to be a harsh critic of movies in general, anyway, so this shouldn't bother me so much.

But then there's this:

That is a picture of me and my sister, Wendy, above the movie's sister characters, Anna and Elsa. It's great that Anna is the younger sister and Elsa older, because as far as my sister and I go, the personalities match us almost perfectly. If someone had told me, "Hey, they're gonna make a movie about an older sister who has emotional issues that she doesn't know how to control and a sweet, optimistic sister who has complete faith in her," I would have thought the scriptwriters were spying on my family.

Remember, I wasn't a big fan of the movie. But the fact that I wasn't a huge fan kept bothering me, long after I'd seen it. Part of it may have related to the fact that I felt left out, since everyone else latched onto it. But I've come up with a couple more reasons that the bitterness stuck with me:

1) I'm mad that this movie didn't come out in the 90s.

Ariel!...and Eric. Belle!....and the Beast. Kiara!...and Kovu. These are the main characters of some of the Disney movies my sister and I watched (and acted out in front of the screen) as kids. Notice something about these movies? They're running low on female characters. This meant that, unless one of us wanted to be one of Gaston's fangirls or Lion King 2's evil Zera, only one of us could be "the girl," and the other was stuck being the boy. Because I was the bossy older sister, I usually got to be the female character, to Wendy's dismay.

Sure, we could have come up with our own characters, which we did. But it was fun to pretend we were characters we could see onscreen. These movies had merchandise, soundtracks we could sing to and toys we could play with. This stuff stretched the worlds further, made the fictional playground bigger. Wendy and I had a few sister movies to choose from, of course--she was the Hallie to my Annie (The Parent Trap remake), the Mei to my Satsuki (Totoro), the Mary-Kate to my Ashley (I'm not gonna list them all). But did these movies offer toys you could play with, or outfits, or dolls? Totoro has some, but not of the sisters.

If this movie had come out when we were kids, my poor mother probably would have purchased half the Frozen merchandise in the Disney store. We would have had Elsa and Anna dolls. We would have danced around singing "Do You Wanna Build a Snowman?" and "For the First Time in Forever (Reprise)" together. We would have dressed our little brother in white and called him Olaf. Heck, we would probably have started asking people to call us Elsa and Anna (we would sometimes ask people to call us by our middle names, which are close enough--I'm Morgan Elizabeth, she's Wendy Anne).

Is it immature of me to whine about how my childhood lacked Frozen? Absolutely. My childhood had plenty of wonderful things, and I'm thrilled for the little sisters of the world who get to grow up with these characters. I'm just a little jealous of them, too.

Here comes the bigger one:

2) I saw too much of Elsa in myself.

Recall how I said Elsa rubbed me the wrong way. I also mentioned that I was the bossy older sister, kind of flippantly. But I say that with some pain.

Emotions have been a big...thing for me for much of my life. If my novels are ever published, you will see what I mean. I was always the temperamental kid in the house. I had a hitting problem that I took out on my siblings. In high school, I had meltdowns. And over the past three or four years, I realized my out-of-control emotions could hurt people. I didn't know what to do about it. I tried telling myself not to explode when I felt a freak-out coming on, but that didn't help. It usually made it worse. This all leads up to the present day, when recently, a counselor told me I punish myself for feeling things too intensely.

 This scene looked familiar.

I told my friend, who is the number one Frozen fan, about this counseling session. Later on, she said to me, "If you punish yourself for your emotions, why didn't you like Elsa?"

Hm. Well, Elsa had a resolution. I'm better than I was a few years ago, but I still haven't really resolved this yet.

One thing I knew people were wild about was Elsa's song, "Let it Go" (which I now enjoy, though I don't think it's musically or lyrically strong enough to be Oscar-worthy--the best thing about it is Idina Menzel's voice). That's when she uses her icky feelings to construct her castle, which I could easily tie to my own novel-writing. I knew Elsa was bothering me, but I couldn't articulate why at the time. Some part of me must have been thinking, or rather feeling, "Let it go, huh? It'd be nice if it were that easy."

 Pictured: not me.

I kept thinking, no, she can't win. She's still hurting people. How can this song be so triumphant when "letting it go" isn't actually the answer? The whole country or whatever Arendelle is has been plunged into eternal winter because she's cursed with emotions that overpower her--I mean, ice powers. Later, when Anna tells her this, she acknowledges this herself: "I'm such a fool! I can't be free! No escape from the storm inside of me!"

I identified so strongly with Elsa that she repelled me. That happened to me the first time I read Dosteovsky, too. I pride myself as someone who is willing to look at her flaws, but sometimes, I guess it gets too close and I start pushing things away.

And I have an Anna. I have a sister who loves me even though I bossed her around and hurt her. I pushed her away plenty, especially during my last two years of high school. Sure, our relationship is great now, but I can never undo any of that stuff.

 (And she would still probably do this for me).

Is it possible to love a character and not like the movie so much? I think so. That's how I feel about Holly Golightly--Breakfast at Tiffany's is otherwise not so great (please read the book; it is so much better). After three months of not understanding my reaction to this movie, I've settled on this stance. Frozen? Meh. Anna and Elsa? Love.

And if you see yourself in a character, don't hate him or her. This goes double if you see yourself in another person you meet--I know of so many people who see their own traits in another and so decide they dislike that person. Treat that character or individual with empathy and kindness. You may learn something about yourself.

Maybe one day I will let it go. If not, I've still got that bitchin' ice castle.


Friday, January 3, 2014

Classics and Contemporary Novels: How Both Can Improve Your Writing

A while ago, I wrote what I now consider to be a fairly naive post about how I am at a disadvantage in the literary industry because I love to read classics, and my novels are consequently influenced by them. I couldn't understand what the literary world had against archaic language, flowery descriptions, and novels that went on forever when I went wild over them. Why must I conform? I cried to the skies. Why must I cooperate with the rules The Man set down?!

Well, I was right about one thing: limiting myself to classics did put me at a disadvantage. But I acted like this was outside my control. I acted as if enjoying classics meant I couldn't enjoy anything else.

Before I get to the point of this post, let me ask you something. Have you, as a writer (or as some other kind of artist, or even just as a human being going through the world), ever heard the same rule beaten into your head over and over, and you understood it was a rule, but you never really understood why? For instance, as a kid, you probably knew your parents wanted you to eat your vegetables and cut down on the candy. This was an accepted fact because your parents said it, yet some tiny voice in your head went, but, why? You couldn't fathom why someone would make such a rule. Candy is awesome. Vegetables aren't awesome (or maybe you were like me and you thought vegetables were awesome, but not quite as awesome as candy).

For me, there was a rule like that in the writing world: use simple language. I saw this and thought, but...I like my pretty, adjective-filled descriptions of bathroom tiles. I like sophisticated vocabulary you don't often see in the twenty-first century. want me to be a minimalist, like Hemingway? But I'm not him! You people are all against me! I literally scratched my head over this rule for six freaking years.

Then, while studying abroad in Ireland last semester, I had the wonderful opportunity to read contemporary and classic novels side by side. I took a class called Contemporary Irish Fiction as well as 19th Century Irish Writing. Now, keep in mind, I'd started picking up contemporary novels again recently, so I was already starting to learn my lesson. I read a slew of YA novels over the summer, The Hunger Games series the winter break before that, etc. But this gave me the opportunity to read them at the same time. To compare. To see that--



There are reasons many of the qualities often found in classics are now extinct in contemporary literature. Good reasons. Suddenly, I'd lost my patience with seven-page-long monologues about the same thing, because I'd re-entered the world of contemporary works, and those authors, uh, cut those parts out. Because they didn't want their readers begging for mercy.

However. You may have noticed the title of this post. I am not here to bash classic novels. Now that I've been enlightened and have familiarized myself fairly well with both "genres," I feel like I better understand what writing lessons can be gleaned from each. Let me tell you, my prose has improved immensely ever since this epiphany. I am simplifying the hell out of my latest draft, and I am reevaluating those anachronistic words, but I'm also remembering what classics taught me.

Here's a list of why you, writer, should read a healthy balance of both classic and contemporary novels and, more importantly, why.


1) Simplify your language. I'm starting with this one for obvious reasons. I was editing one night, reading over one of my overwrought sentences, and then I thought to myself, "Morgan--you're trying to get a complicated concept across to your reader. So why the hell would you use complicated language to confuse them even further?" Even worse is when your characters are performing a simple task and you write it out in the most convoluted way possible. I'll provide a sample of my own writing so you see what I mean. Here's the sentence from the unedited first draft, about a teacher's reaction to my main character asking to go to the bathroom because she's upset: "At first, [the teacher's] wrinkled lips thinned, accentuating the pinkness of her lipstick, but her features softened as she scrutinized Ama’s face, which Ama had been forced to scrunch in order to tether it to what was socially acceptable, and to prevent it from bursting like a pressured dam." Whoa whoa whoa, hold the phone, what the hell? Slow down. That is way too many words for such a simple thing. Here it is after I simplified it: "At first, the teacher’s wrinkled lips thinned. But her features softened when she studied Ama’s face, which Ama forced herself to scrunch so it wouldn’t burst like a pressured dam." There, that's better. The action remains and we still understand Ama's emotional struggle without getting beaten over the head by it. We lost the bit about the lipstick, but who cares? No one will miss a useless detail like that.

 2) Concision. Yeah, I'm still struggling with this one, but I'm getting better. Ever notice how contemporary novels tend to be slimmer, while older novels could be doorstops? There are exceptions, of course--1984 is tiny, while the Harry Potter books are famously huge. Contemporary novelists have realized that the more quickly you get your point across, the less likely you are to lose your reader's attention. The Perks of Being a Wallflower wasn't 500 pages long because it didn't need to be. It said everything it needed to say in about 200 pages and said it beautifully. Conversely, I love Dracula, but it definitely didn't need to be that long. In fact, I started to get really sick of how long it took to reach the climax. Older novels were sometimes longer because authors got paid by the word, or because the novel was serialized--the books would be released a few chapters at a time in magazines and readers would beg for more. Those days are behind us, so try not to write a doorstopper, unless it really works for your story (and, again, this is advice from someone who...writes doorstoppers).

3) Pacing. This kind of ties into concision, but it gets its own category because it's the most stark difference I've noticed between classics and contemporary novels. The first contemporary novel I picked up in a long time since my classics phase was The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman (I read The Golden Compass in ninth grade but didn't finish the series until I was nineteen). For the first time in years, I found it extremely difficult to put the book down. I'm crazy about War and Peace and will recommend it to anyone who breathes, but it also drains your mental energy, so putting it away for a while takes less willpower. With Subtle Knife, I could keep turning pages and not even notice how quickly I was moving. The story drew me in, and I felt a desperate need to know what happened next. Sure, parts of classic novels can create this effect, but they're more likely to drag. Contemporary novelists know to eliminate the parts that drag, or at least minimize them as much as possible. For a slow reader like me, this is helpful.

 4) Understanding the market. This is more for writers who are looking to get published than anyone else, and part of what made me complain about my "disadvantages" in that post from 2012, because I was a snot-nosed brat. If you read nothing but classics all the time, how the hell do you expect to get published? You're not competing with Austen and Dostoevsky and Joyce. I mean, you are to some degree, since your books would hopefully be sold in the same stores as theirs are (eep!). But it's not the same. What if your idea has been done before, and you don't know it because you haven't read much past 1960? What if you thought your protagonist named Katniss had the most unique name ever, and you're not Suzanne Collins? What if you make the amateur mistake of comparing your novel to Great Expectations in a query letter? (Don't do it. Please don't.) If you know what people are reading right now, you have a better chance at making a difference. You can spot the stories that aren't being told. You're more likely to sound original because you've done your research.


1) Learning new vocabulary. "Morgan, what the hell?" you must be thinking. "Didn't you just say to simplify your language? In bold, multiple times?" Yeah, but sometimes, a situation calls for a sophisticated word. If you've never paid much attention to a classic novel or English class, your vocabulary will be limited. And, as a writer who will be tempted to repeat the same words no matter how expansive your vocabulary is, that isn't good. When you're stuck, say, describing how someone is feeling, and "sad" just isn't cutting it, what do you do if your arsenal lacks words? Maybe your character's sadness is really deep, quiet, and thoughtful, so "melancholy" would fit better. There is no other single word to describe that feeling, so use it. You need it. Classic novels are obsessed with the word melancholy. I can't remember any contemporary novels I've seen it in, except Because of Winn Dixie, though I'm sure there are some. If it fits, then please pull a word like this from a classic. Just don't overuse it.

 2) Creating unforgettable characters. This is not to say that all characters in contemporary novels suck, or aren't memorable. Far from it. My ears will probably perk when they hear a Harry Potter character's name until I die. But dude, think about Peter Pan. Alice in Wonderland. The Greek/Roman gods. Society has held onto these characters for decades, centuries, millennia, and still hasn't let go. Who doesn't want to create a character who millions of people take into their hearts as if that character is a living, breathing person? Readers have met characters who touched them in some personal way, inspired them to do something with their lives, even saved them. I will encourage all my children to read Jane Eyre at some point not just to see how a woman can behave against a society that dislikes her, but how admirable and courageous a person, male or female or somewhere in between, can be. I want everyone to read to the end of The Brothers Karamzov so they can sniffle at the last five pages and want to hug the hell out of Alyosha Karamazov. Like I said, this can happen in contemporary novels, but such novels can sometimes be harder to find. This is partly because there's an emphasis on plots and ideas in the literary world today--which is necessary, since a cool concept is often what will get someone to read a book in the first place. Good contemporary novelists, like Emma Donoghue and Rachel Hartman to name two very different ones, will balance well-written characters with interesting plots. But many spend more time on plot than character, and finding the gems can become a challenge.

3) Complexity. When I read the introduction to War and Peace, the translators claimed that Leo Tolstoy had taken life and put it on paper. Sensory observations, understanding of humanity, realism in general--all spot on. I thought, pfft, yeah right. Then I read it, and oh my god, were they right. It's one of the reasons Tolstoy has gone down in history. He gave us three dimensional people and a world that breathed, and breathed so truly that we could recognize that world as our own, despite the fact that we don't live in 19th-century Russia. He also layered the book with ideas, meaning, philosophies, and questions regarding life that we might never have thought about. I'm not talking about complex vocabulary here. I'm talking about complex characters, complex worlds, complex ideas, complex morality. This is, once again, something more easily found in classics, because it's usually why they're classics. To Kill a Mockingbird pointed a finger at racism, but through the eyes of a young girl named Scout, so Harper Lee couldn't quite point at it directly. The social commentary becomes clear without any character having to explicitly say, "This is wrong" or "This is racist." In the same novel, a character previously thought to be evil, Boo Radley, turns out to be sweet and sensitive, which surprises Scout. There is still clearly something wrong with him, but not in the way Scout thought--it's more complex than that. Yes, this is present in plenty of contemporary novels, and boy do I love those novels. Yet so many of them employ cookie-cutter characters, stereotypes, and black-and-white morality, so you've got to work harder to find the good stuff.

4)  Understanding what has stopped working. A big mistake I made during my classics phase was thinking that if a book won the honor of becoming "classic," that meant everything about it worked. I didn't understand why I couldn't write endless sentences when James Joyce could (other than the fact that he was actually good at writing them). Why was Melmoth the Wanderer allowed to be 600 pages long when mine wasn't? Why did F. Scott Fitzgerald get to use all those adverbs in The Great Gatsby? The answer is this: no book is perfect. No, fifteen-year-old Morgan, not even a classic. A really good book is a book with so many strong points that the weaknesses fade into the background, or at least seem to matter less. Melmoth the Wanderer's length was mostly excused because Melmoth was a fascinating character with an intriguing perspective on humanity. James Joyce was long-winded, sure, but look how unique, and often beautiful, his language is. The Great Gatsby took a jab at the corruption of luxury, and did it eloquently enough that people tolerate the excessive adverbs. By reading classics, you can isolate what made it so memorable (not necessarily to the world, but to you) as well as what made it a struggle to read. Eliminate the bad, but keep the good in your brain. Then you can strive to improve your own writing without outright imitating everything about the classics, either.

Hope this helped someone. It sure helped me.


Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Why Video Games Are Like Novels

Because I'm dumb, I didn't bring any of my video games to Dublin with me. I figured I wouldn't have time to play them (I don't) and that I probably wouldn't miss them much, anyway (I do). But I'm surrounded by them--my brother has been Snapchatting me pictures of him playing the recently released Kingdom Hearts 1.5 Final Mix, and fellow gamers comment on my Triforce earrings when I wear them. The GameStop around the corner from my apartment taunts me, and the release date of the new Pokemon games looms ever closer.

(Note: I decided in 2011, when I turned eighteen, that I was now a Grown Up and would no longer play Pokemon games. Apparently, I forgot I was the sister of a boy whose first word was literally "Ash," as in Ash Ketchum from the Pokemon anime series, and who has more than lived up to that first word in his fourteen years of life. Let's just say that was the year Pokemon Black and White came out, my brother bought them, and I became a green-eyed monster whenever I saw him playing. So I bought Pokemon Black. Now I no longer care about being a Grown Up and will play my goddamn Pokemon games. But I'm digressing).

The point of all this is that video games have been weighing on my mind lately. It lead me to thinking about myself as a consumer of fiction. I have never been one who spends a lot of time watching TV or movies, not even when I was in them. The only shows I currently watch are Doctor Who, Legend of Korra and So You Think You Can Dance, and the latter one mostly serves as a way to bond with my family (I also started Game of Thrones a few weeks ago, but I'm not caught up and haven't watched in several weeks). People gawk at me when I list what timeless movies I've never seen (never watched a full Star Wars or Lord of the Rings movie, nor have I seen The Godfather, Bambi, Rocky Horror Picture Show, etc.).

No, my favorite forms of fiction are books and video games. This puzzles people sometimes, as if they're two categories of nerd that don't often intersect. It's as if someone who will spend hours agonizing her way through the Water Temple in Ocarina of Time and someone who will spend hours poring over a Tolstoy doorstopper cannot be the same person.

Actually, my preferred fiction mediums make sense to me, because they are very much alike.

First of all, when I think of books and video games, I think of characters, stories, and settings you must spend a lot of time with. Some books can be finished in a day, but most of them can't, and shouldn't. Even the ones you devour in a single day take several hours, at least. Their length requires you to put the book down, move about your daily life, and come back to it later. You repeat this process until the book is finished, and by the end, you've spent days, weeks, perhaps months visiting that world. It's like a portable wardrobe to Narnia that you may enter and exit at will.

As a result, books take on a kind of existence that it is more difficult for, say, a two-hour movie to achieve. If the book is good enough, it's easy to imagine the characters are out there somewhere during those in-between periods when you've left the book in limbo. You stopped reading for the moment, but that doesn't mean the characters stopped, and you know that because of all the pages left to read. The characters are alive, and so is their world. And, since you've spent so much time there, you attach to it like you would a home. It becomes familiar.

Video games are the same way. They take hours to complete, you often can't finish them in one sitting, and the characters become part of your daily life, if only for a week or so. They also take the whole "living world" thing literally. Most games have a narrative, and to beat the game you have to follow that narrative and complete tasks pertaining to it. But many games, including those in my three favorite franchises mentioned above, have sidequests, extra places to visit, secret treasures. The world seems real because it's explorable. Again, if you spend enough time in it, the world of the video game becomes a home. I probably know how to get around Kingdom Hearts' Traverse Town better than I know how to navigate my own neighborhood.

"But wait," you argue, "people literally spend years following television shows! They (hopefully) take longer than any book or video game to finish! You can't tell me the TARDIS isn't as much a home as your dang Traverse Town!"

Well, hypothetical person, you're right. I would sooner equate a television series with a book "series" or video game "series," and count individual episodes alongside individual novels and games, but I see what you're saying. What makes video games and books really stand apart, though, comes through in my next point:

Books and video games are the only forms of fiction I can think of that require your participation.

Part of the reason I struggle with watching very many shows or movies is because, while I'm sitting there letting the show or movie happen to me, I get this itching feeling that I'm wasting time. It's not an altogether rational feeling, since there are some fantastic pieces of cinema out there, big screen and small. Nevertheless, I'm physically doing nothing while I receive visual and auditory stimuli. That is it.

Books and video games literally cannot be enjoyed, understood, or completed without your engagement. If you don't feed a book's words into your imagination or make an effort to interpret what's being said, you won't be able to visualize what's going on, nor will you be able to follow the plot, form attachments to characters, etc. Yes, similar brain work is required for following TV and movie plots, but you don't have to expend as much effort because the sights and sounds are displayed for you. If you're playing a video game, and you don't strategize well or load up with enough items, BOOM! The boss kills you, and your narrative will not continue until you overcome that obstacle.

How wonderful is it that such interactive modes of fiction exist? There's a real give-and-take relationship between the creator and consumer going on here, and it's beautiful. A writer who describes a room as "large and white" leaves the rest of the experience in the reader's hands, because every reader's imagination is different. Some readers will dream up an off-white room the size of a school auditorium. Others will think of a place so white it blinds you, and it's as big as freaking Buckingham Palace.

On the video game side, the creator decides much of the larger things that make up the game, but allows the player plenty of agency. What keyblade will you choose in Kingdom Hearts? What Pokemon will you start with in Ruby Version? Even in games with more limited options, there's freedom: will you run straight for the character that has the Thing You Need To Proceed With The Game? Or will you run around and around one of the computer characters, jump on his head, and light him on fire while he just stands there, because it's hilarious? It's up to you.

I love books and video games because you have to work for them. What's more rewarding than feeling like you've earned your fiction?


Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Frequently Asked Questions

Last updated on August 2, 2015.

So, I've decided to take a leaf out of Mara Wilson's book and respond to some questions I'm asked on Twitter all the time. It's understandable, of course--I get new followers, they haven't seen my responses to previous questions, and so they ask me. I thought it would be a lot more convenient to put them all together here, just so I'm not answering the same common questions over and over again. Here we go!

1) Why did you stop acting? Will you ever act again?

I stopped acting for many reasons, but they are best summarized in this post and this post. As for the second question, I doubt it. I've got a lot going on right now--I'm writing novels, editing novels, researching the publishing industry, keeping up this blog, and more. Acting isn't really in the cards. As for the distant future, I'm not planning on it...but hey, if I ever published my novels and one got adapted into a movie, I wouldn't mind appearing in it! So long as the role was appropriate.

2) Are you in touch with any of your former castmates?

Not very many of them, but I am in touch with a few online. We don't talk often, but I'm always happy to interact with them when the occasion arises. Most of the people in my life are family members/loved ones, people I attended school with, and other friends made outside acting.

3) What was it like to work with [insert former castmate here]?

This answer varies from actor to actor, but honestly, I can't think of anyone I worked with who would elicit a "Yeah, they sucked" reaction from me. Everyone I worked with had (and probably still has) lovely qualities.

5) What writing projects are you working on?

Thank you so much for your interest! For a long time, I have been working on a four-part YA fantasy series. The first book in the series, and the one that's the most polished, is The Hollow Between, which you can find more information about here. I am currently revising the three manuscripts I've written so far and will soon start drafting book four.

6) Can we chat privately over e-mail?

I'm afraid I wouldn't feel comfortable chatting with strangers over e-mail. First of all, there's an imbalance--you know a lot more about me than I do about you, because you've seen me in a movie/TV, but I've never seen you before. That doesn't mean I'm not open to chatting with new, friendly people (who I bet are every bit as interesting as anyone on TV!), but I feel more comfortable doing it in a public setting. If you want to contact me, please do so in a mention over Twitter. Unless I feel like you're asking me something too personal, I will be happy to respond.

Note: I don't DM fans over Twitter for the same reasons I won't give out my e-mail.

7) What social media sites are you on?

My public social media presences include this blog, my Twitter account, and my Instagram account. Please note that these are my ONLY public accounts; any others you see are impersonators. I'm open to interacting with fans on all of these platforms. I also have a GoodReads account, but I don't spend much time chatting with anyone on there. I also only tend to add real-life friends as friends and GoodReads. I have other online accounts, but those are private, and usually reserved for people I know personally.

8) Will you look at my writing?

Depends on how long it is and if it's available online. If the only way you can get it to me is via e-mail, see #6 above. I'm happy to look at short pieces that don't take very much time, and if I read, I will give feedback.

9) Will you collaborate on a writing project with me?

I've never collaborated on a writing project before. I may do so in the future, but for now, I lead a busy life and probably wouldn't be able to commit to a joint project like that.

10) I have a question for you that isn't covered here. How may I ask it?

You can send me a tweet on Twitter (just put @morganyorkwrite at the beginning of your tweet). Some people ask questions in the comment section of one of my Instagram pictures, which is also fine.

11) Will you ever shut up about Leo Tolstoy/James Joyce/Audrey Hepburn/Paramore?