Thursday, February 18, 2016

My Spirit Muppet, Don Music

Does anyone remember this guy? 

His name was Don Music, and when he wasn't banging his head on his keyboard, he looked like this. 

According to his portrayal on Sesame Street,  Don was a tortured singer-songwriter Muppet with an undoubtedly tragic backstory the show never fully explored. He's attributed as the composer and lyricist of alternatives to such children's classics as "Mary Had a Bicycle" ("Mary Had a Little Lamb") and ("Whistle, Whistle Little Bird" ("Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star"), and in the Kermit the Frog Newsflash segments that tell his story, viewers are shown the VH1 Behind the Music type expose of his anguished creative process. 

It's in these segments where we observe the genius of Don Music. His strength was his knack for pairing simple words to catchy tunes. However, it's painfully obvious that rhyming is his Achilles' heel, and as many creatively-minded people unfortunately do, he resorts to unhealthy coping mechanisms when confronted by his weakness. Each time we see Don get frustrated trying to think of an ending to his songs, he repeatedly slams his head onto his piano, loudly lamenting "I'LL NEVER GET IT RIGHT! NEVERRRRRRRR!" until Kermit the journalist intervenes to talk him out of quitting his craft. 

I doubt that Sesame Street was meaning to confront the topics of self-injury and crippling low self-esteem when they created this character; they were more likely going for something along the lines of slapstick comedy, I would guess. However, after the show received several communications that children were banging their heads onto things to emulate him, the Don Music Muppet was retired from Sesame Street, and he lived out the rest of his existence in quiet obscurity, like so many talented artists before him.

I never forgot about Don Music. I wasn't one of the kids who gave herself a concussion over him, but I'm pretty sure that if such a thing exists, he is my Spirit Muppet.  Like Don Music, I am admittedly a self-defeatist, my own worst enemy. I'm a woeful rager and a doomsdayer in regard to my own talent, and I often rely on someone else to pull me off the "I'm giving up writing forever!" ledge. This is not a quality I'm proud of. In fact, I find it utterly unattractive. However, I recognize it as the hill that I keep dying on, and I'm trying to figure out my way around it.

That's ultimately what Don did, after all. Once he got the freaking-out out of his system, he always came back to finish his song. I think that was the intended message behind his character as a whole: sticktoitiveness. Never give up on your dream, kids. Maybe you think you're writing a song about stars that twinkle but really what what's inside of you is a song about a whistling bird, and you're going to have to struggle for a while until you realize that, but the only real failure is in giving up. 

Don Music, the poster Muppet for perseverance in the face of internal conflict. 

Though I wish that it didn't, this lesson totally applies to the status of my current novel in progress. I have spent fifteen months thinking that the story was meant to be one thing and then realizing it's probably best if I rewrite it as something else entirely, and I'm in the banging-my-head-on-the-keyboard part of accepting this. I don't know how this happens, or why it seemingly happens to me with everything I write. Inspiration is fickle, I guess, which is putting how I really feel in G-rated language when I'm way passed an R-rating of pissedoffness about it.

I know that I am not alone in this kind of frustration. This happens to a lot of creative projects. Ideas dead end all of the time. Or they evolve. Or, they get shelved to incubate. Then when it feels like it, inspiration returns and everything comes to fruition in a way it never would have if the idea had been forced to completion when it wasn't meant to be. 

Early Frozen/Wreck-It Ralph
Life illustrated this to me recently again in the Valentine's Gift my husband gave me. He bought me The Art of Disney postcard set because it was on a Pinterest board entitled "Stuff you should buy for me" that I directed him to because we don't do traditional Valentine's Day exchanges because the whole holiday is a farce in our opinion he is thoughtful. The set consisted of 100 postcards, each featuring a picture of a drawing, sketch, or film cell from a Disney film. As I was looking through them, I noticed that there were few concept art pictures that took me an extra moment to place. The artwork on these cards featured characters from the films Frozen and Wreck-It Ralph in very early stages of their development, long before they had evolved into the characters as they appear in their films. The Frozen sisters looked like impish flower children while Ralph was channeling an orange broccoli Donkey Kong. (I much prefer him the way he debuted in his movie, looking like the child of Fred Flintstone and the Brawny paper towel man.)
It's hard to believe that these images ever served as inspiration for what Anna, Elsa, and Ralph eventually became because they just seem so wrong-looking. I'd only ever seen the finished products before, and because they seemed so right-looking (Disney market research at its finest) it felt silly that there could have been a time when they were anything less than their end results. But, of course there was a time like that. Because before these characters were established, they began like every thing else does: as vague concepts. Ones that get bent into and out of shapes by all sorts of variables before they are considered finished by their creators. The pictures on these postcards represented  mere points on a timeline of the creative process. Building blocks. Rough drafts that evolve into the masterpieces.

There were likely dozens, maybe hundreds more sketches of Anna, Elsa, and Ralph in between the ones on the postcards and the ones in the films. After all, it's hard to know what makes something right until you know why all the other ways of doing it aren't, and it can take a very, very long time to explore all the ways that something can be wrong. As a spectator of great art, that makes complete sense to me. I affirm that that trial-and-error is a valid process. However, as a writer producing my own work, it's a source of great frustration that the only way I seem to be able to produce anything is by writing a page one hundred ways and then deleting the ninety-nine of them that were wrong. I have a hard time accepting that my rough drafts are a necessary benchmarks on the timeline of my own creative works and not just time (so, so much time) wasted driving at full speed in the wrong direction.

Rationally though, I know that they are. And I know that there aren't any shortcuts to writing quality work. It takes as long as it takes, and it's going to take even longer if I keep banging my head on the piano.

I just wish knowing that would keep me from doing it.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

I Do Not Farm

One of my favorite comedians of all time is the late, great Mitch Hedberg. If you aren’t familiar with his work, then carve out a least an hour of your day to spend on YouTube watching some of his bits. I promise he will make you laugh. He’s not a dirty comic, though he does occasionally swear, depending on his audience. But, seeing how most of his stand-up centers around food, he’s not likely to offend people, unless they take issue with the buoyancy of limes.

There are many jokes of Hedberg’s that I have committed to memory, but as an indie writer struggling to make a name for myself, there is one that is so pertinent to my career that it pops into my head often, usually when I researching marketing strategies or attempting to understand book sale algorithms. Here it is:

I love this line, but I also hate the truth behind it. So often when someone works in a creative field, there's an expectation that their skills are interchangeable with others considered in the same sphere. Creative people aren't always seen as specialists the way maybe doctors are lawyers are. I mean, it's obvious you wouldn't go to a cardiologist and expect him to perform brain surgery, or hire a patent attorney to defend you in a murder trial. But when it comes to specialists in the arts, we assume their talents should be all-encompassing: a painter should paint and sculpt. A musician should be able to play guitar and sing. An animator should know graphic design. And a writer should be able to write anything.  

Granted, there are some logical overlaps here. Many times people who are talented in one area of creative art are often naturally skilled in another. But, that's not always the case. Some people have a niche that they totally own and have little interest or ability outside of it. Does that make them less of an artist? I don't think so. I mean, was Shakespeare a one trick pony because he was only a playwright and not an acrobat, too? I guess I just don't see anything wrong with being really good at one thing. I don't think it makes someone a failure if they aren't a triple or quadruple threat. To not be good at everything is human. To be good at everything is to be Justin Timberlake, and almost no one on the planet is him.

I became a writer because I really love telling stories, and the written word is my favorite medium for doing that. However, if I want to be a writer who is read by other people, then I can't just be a writer. I have to be a writer+. I have to be good at things that don't even fit within the same realm of writing if I want an audience for my work. Indie authors have to wear a ridiculous number of hats to get their stories to the public, and not all of us (especially this girl) look good wearing even one hat, let alone multiple. 

The average indie author must first write their piece (author hat). Then, they either self-edit (editor hat) or hire an editor (researcher hat, financier hat). Then, they have to create or hire out the cover art  for their book (graphic designer/photographer/researcher/artist hats). Then they have to format their story into book form (formatter hat). Then they have to market the book (there are too many hats for me to list here...people get actual college degrees in marketing, that's how complex it is). Then, they have to do press (public relations hat). If a writer wants to keep a following, they must also become savvy with social media, keep up a blog, make public appearances, network with other indie authors, etc., etc., etc. (Um... fedora? Sombrero? I don't know. Just more hats). They must do all of this in addition to their day jobs (Less than 5% of writers make a living writing fiction at any given time). All of this, and then the average independently published novel only sells 150-300 copies during its lifespan.

I think that it's good to know stuff like this, but if you don't want your passion for writing to shrivel up and die, you just simply can't think about it too much. Statistics are a great way to gut check your motives for writing, but honestly if you're in this field because you want to get rich quick (or ever, really), then you should probably save your time and just buy a lottery ticket. You may even have better odds with the lotto.

Instead of worrying about whatever you're writing is going to become, spend your energy on making it the best work possible. The indie writer world is full of a lot or garbage. A LOT. (I know that art is subjective, but there is a sub-culture of people in the indie world who simply publish things just to say they have published things and have no regard for the craft of writing: DO NOT DO THIS, please. All of the writers out there who actually care about the term "indie writer" beg this of you). But there are gems, too. And if writing is your dream, it's likely a dream for a reason. Dreams are usually worth chasing, though perhaps not with reckless abandonment (like, maybe don't quit your job and take out a second mortgage to finance your first book).

As for me, I'm probably never going to be good at farming. Maybe someday I'll be lucky enough to find someone who already has a plow to do that part of the indie author thing for me. Until then though, I'm just going to keep telling stories to whatever size audience all these hats can get me. Because it's fun.

Monday, February 8, 2016

All I Ever Needed to Know About Writing, I Learned From Darth Vader

Quite possibly the scariest thing on the Internet

When I was about four years old, I had a doll named Princess Vader. I don’t remember where I got her or even what she looked like, but I do remember where she was kept and that was underneath a lot of junk at the bottom of my toy box.

Princess Vader rarely made an appearance outside of that box, but sometimes I would peer inside of it to make sure she was where I had left her. If ever she was MIA, I would get very upset until she was found and returned to that place beneath the blocks and Fisher-Price Little People houses where she belonged. I may not have wanted to play with her, but that didn’t mean I didn’t want to know where she was at all times. Tabs were kept on Princess Vader. I had strong feelings toward this doll, despite my lack of memory of her physicality, and that is because she scared the hell out of me.

I don’t remember how Princess Vader acquired her name. I’ve googled the phrase just to make sure there wasn’t some awful, 1980s Hasbro attempt at creating a female version of Darth Vader to appeal to the little girls of the Star Wars era. There wasn’t, but there is this which is arguably worse.

It’s possible that I had named her myself, though I don’t know what would have possessed me to do such a thing.  It’s also within reason that she was given to me by my dad or an uncle who named her Princess Vader as a joke to tease me, since torturing me in that way was something almost anyone in my family would have done for a laugh.

But regardless where she came from or whoever it was that bestowed her name upon her, to this day whenever I happen upon that old toy box, emptied and repurposed for the storage of old books and candles decades ago, my first thought is that I hope she is in there, and I hope she doesn’t come out.

No, thank you.
As far as I can remember the doll itself wasn't particularly creepy-looking. She wasn’t even one of those possessed, My Buddy/Kid Sister that inspired Chuckie from Child's Play. But it was her guilt by association—her name, her Vader-ness—that caused me to reject her entirely. With a name like hers, I feared the connections to the darkside she may have. I feared that those connections might someday come back, looking for their lost Princess.

As for me and likely everyone else from my generation, Darth Vader was the embodiment of all fears. In fact, I can still remember my blood running cold in my veins the first time I laid eyes on him. My uncle had just purchased a VCR and then bought Star Wars to watch on it (because the fact that you could actually own that movie was the number one reason people bought VCRs in the early 1980s). I remember the opening story scrolling (just that it was there, not what it said because I couldn’t read). Then, all of a sudden there were spaceships and lasers and shiny robots and battle guys in white armor, and it all totally captivated me in a way that shows like Sesame Street never had. I had no idea what was going on, but I was amazed—hooked from the beginning.

I then remember after the initial fight scene, there was a small pause in the action. Out of the dust of battle there emerged a caped figure in black, loudly breathing in a reverse snore. He seemed to tower around the fallen storm troopers as he surveyed the carnage of war through his mask—his black, eyeless mask—and said nothing. He just breathed.

It. Was. Terrifying.

For the average, older-than-preschool aged person, I imagine Darth Vader seemed like a menacing character too (black costuming is traditionally a dead giveaway that someone is a bad guy, after all). Once his bad-guyness has been established though, an older viewer would move beyond it to wonder more about him: Is he a robot? Is he a man? Does he have asthma? What’s his beef with the Princess? But being that I was four when I encountered Darth Vader for the first time, I didn’t really care to know more about him. All I could focus on was that I just didn’t want him to get me.

Even now, in a galaxy far, far in the future from the first time I laid eyes on Darth Vader, I'm not ashamed to admit that I find him intimidating. There’s surely some psychology out there to back this up, but I’m betting that because I was so profoundly scared by him when I was young, I’ve never fully grown out of that fear. There’s something about spending a few years trying to squeeze yourself in between your mattress and the wall of your top bunk at night in hopes that when Darth Vader comes to get you in your sleep, he’ll take your sister from the bottom bunk instead that doesn’t quite leave your psyche, even well into adulthood. Even recently on a trip to Disney World when I had the opportunity to meet a fully costumed regular man dressed as Darth Vader, I almost wet my pants in fear for my life. I swear that I'm mostly a reasonable, realistic person, but when the doors opened and my family and I stepped into the character greeting room where he stood breathing loudly and staring at us, I audibly gasped and probably swore.

From a safer physical distance though, as an adult I have come to have an appreciation for Darth Vader. When I reflect on his complete story (as told through Episodes I-VI), I find him less scary than complex and compelling. I almost wish I was an undergrad English major again so I had an excuse to write a ten page essay comparing him to Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights or The Creature from Frankenstein. I want to verbally dissect him, to break him into literary molecules and understand what exactly it is about Darth Vader makes him so iconic. 
This is a real thing you can buy.

A lot of people would probably love to understand that, actually. What does make an icon? What's the formula for a character whose popularity endures almost forty years with no sign of stopping? Judging by merchandise alone, the cultural relevance of Darth Vader is still full-steam ahead. There are millions of writers out there who'd like to milk a cashcow like that. Who doesn't want to be attributed with starting a cultural phenomenon? 

As a writer myself I am always fascinated when other writers seem to discover the equation for massive success with a story. Even if I'm not at all interested in what they're writing, I still want to know every last detail of why so many other people are. After following the trends and trendsetters, what I've come to believe about the success stories of writers is that no matter which dystopic society or supernatural creature is the flavor of the week, what makes something popular will always be a bit elusive. Sometimes the iron is hot by luck, and sometimes it is struck by luck. There are perfect storms from which whirlwind successes emerge, but like storms in nature, there's only so much anyone can do to predict their paths. 

Inasmuch as success is able to be controlled, however, I've learned that there is no substitute for authenticity and creative imagination. George Lucas didn't generate Darth Vader from a computer program that guaranteed him the perfect super villain. He merely tapped into his own hopes and fears and illustrated them in a way an audience could relate to them, too.  This is how I want to tell stories. Sometimes I get lucky, and what I write finds its way to readers who can relate to it. We'll connect through the fear or pain or joy that is transmitted through the the language of story. Other times, I pour my heart into something and it gets dismissed by everyone who lays eyes on it. Both results usually take the same amount of work. 

But, when the iron is cold and the critics are loud, it's Darth Vader that keeps me going. Maybe not him specifically (though, if someone were dressed like him standing over my shoulder and giving me deadlines, I'd be interested to see what I could pump out), but the knowledge that all he is began as an idea in the mind of a writer. So do and so will all the other complex and compelling characters that we will ever love or fear or name the dolls we keep at the bottom of the toy box after.

I'd be interested to hear from any one else who has this sort of strong emotion connected to a character from their youth. Who scared you? Which fictionalized bully did you hate? Who were you in love with? Who did you root for? If you're a writer, do you see any of these characters translated into your own works? 

While you're thinking on that, enjoy this version of Darth Vader, which is way less intimidating that the original.