All Parents are Terrible

Parents are terrible. You know this incontrovertible fact if you’ve ever read any published memoir about growing up. There’s one universal theme to all of them: the parents should be arrested and the key thrown away for the cruelty they inflicted on their progeny, the writer. If you were a space alien and the only thing you knew about the parenting practices of earthlings was what you read in books like The Glass Castle and Running With Scissors, you’d be justifiably horrified and immediately set about liberating the youth of the world through abduction (wait a minute, you don’t think…?). In fact, for a lot of coming-of-age memoirs, that literally is what the book is about: all-time, world class, terrible parenting. It’s the very best revenge anyone ever devised against all the therapy they had to shell out for later: immortalizing the parental misdeeds in print.

I suppose there’s a universality to that experience, and it certainly makes for good copy, but it’s pretty far from my own experience and, at the very least, the experiences of most people who belong to the same Church I do* (aka the culture I’m most familiar with). I tend to think there are more decent parents out there than bad, and I’ll hold up my own as a good, if imperfect, example.

*I say this having conducted no studies and done no polls, so I’m speaking mostly from experience and observation. The Gospel of Jesus Christ and the Church teachings provide a solid foundation for highly functional families. Any parents who draw from that deep, deep well are bound to get it more right than wrong.

Which brings up a good question: If I’ve written an entire book (tentative title: The Other Side of Fear) about my own growing up and my parents are a big part of it, how is the story I’m telling in any way interesting or exciting?

I guess it’s not. Save for a handful of chapters, my parents and I largely get along.

So, boring book.

I’m being a little facetious. Once you throw in the shootings, the murder, the bullies, the helicopters circling our house at 1am, the flooded city, the thief my dad runs down, the missionary tales, and everything else, you don’t really need to ladle bad parenting on top to have an interesting and exciting story. But bad parenting? No, that’s not really one of the ingredients I’m cooking with. My story is about growing up through through difficult things with good parents.

People clamor for good, clean, positive stories, but they flock to conflict and the controversial. These types of stories are not mutually exclusive, but they can be difficult to bring together, depending on the market and the audience, and, most importantly, the writer. Those who traffic in positivity can be afraid to let the real world in for fear they’re not being positive or uplifting enough. Their stories, consequently, can be, yeah, super boring. Meanwhile, those who focus mostly on conflict and controversy can easily choke out anything positive, or simply dismiss such notions altogether for fear of “watering down” or because their worldview doesn’t allow for it in the first place. I’m talking extremes here. The pendulum doesn’t only swing one way or the other, but I would argue that the mainstream creative world encourages a more cynical form of storytelling than not, and for good reason: it sells. At least, that’s the current thinking.

And I think it’s that kind of thinking that leads mainstream publishing towards bad parenting and cynical, isn’t-life-horrible? narratives, and away from any kind of positive, uplifting, religious narrative, even when done in a way that’s inclusive (another topic for another time).

I am not a fan of extreme positivity or extreme cynicism. Speaking of religion, I think good stories are like a religious life well-lived: accepting of the reality of the actual world we occupy while acknowledging the hope and reality that is above this world. It’s only when you combine the two things together that you get a story that is truly true and resonates and moves and uplifts and entertains and enlightens and encourages. You get your conflict and your controversy, and you slam it up against hope and positivity, and you end up with something that is dynamic. That isn’t so one-note and serves a defensible purpose.

My parents are both very human in the telling. They have flaws and foibles and quirks and maybe do not-so-great things because they are not perfect, godly beings. But, if I’ve done my job correctly, it all makes them more endearing than anything. There to prove them real and relatable, not to take them down. I can’t present them as real people if I only speak of them positively. And being real is the only way to get at the truth.

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In other news…I’ve done a lot of the homework publisher Cedar Fort assigned me to get the book ready for publication. Writing my bio, submitting my author photo, etc. One of the big tasks that will take months to complete is reaching out to people for “endorsements.” These are the blurbs you read on the backs of books from people with some reputation whose praise you can trust. It’s a huge favor to ask someone of influence to read your book and appraise it, so I was a bit nervous to go out and ask. I hate asking for favors.

But, I’ve already gotten three “Yes” responses back! I can’t wait to share with you who they are (they’re very, very cool), but that feels premature right now and there’s always the chance they could read the manuscript, not like it, decline to offer their endorsement, and ask for monetary compensation for time wasted (wait…that’s not a thing, right?). But still, they’re willing to take a shot. Which is awesome.

Photo by Sebastian Voortman from Pexels

 

How I Learned to Write By Watching Mad Men

Mad Men is the best show on television. You can try arguing with this, but I have verifiable proof.

For those of you that don’t know, Mad Men is a(n excellent) show that takes place in the New York world of advertising during the 1960’s. It’s the 1960’s from the perspective of the suits–the people who resisted the great changes and cultural and moral upheavals the 60’s brought us. It’s a show about drinking, illicit sex, smoking, deception, abuse and smoking (yes, I wrote that twice).

And I’m Mormon. And I love it. What further proof do you need?

I was reading Matt Stoller Zeitz’s fantastic essay What Makes Mad Men Great? yesterday, and I was reflecting on how much the show has given me. Since Twitter is such a great place for thought vomit, I just put it out there: I learn A LOT about writing and plotting just by watching Mad Men.

Confession: I think I’ve learned more about writing from DVD commentaries and watching layered, unconventional shows and movies like Mad Men than I ever have from reading books. (I can’t imagine many writers will share this sentiment, but there it is. It’s probably why I write about movies and TV shows so much in this blog.)

Here’s the thing, you don’t get to just say something like that and leave it there. @smash_is_nerdy challenged me on Twitter and asked how I could have taken any writing and plotting lessons from a show like Mad Men. She didn’t see it.

The following is an edited and expanded version of my reply to her:

Mad Men is about character behavior. It excels in presenting its characters as inscrutable but still understandable. The show goes out of its way to provide legitimate possible explanations for behavior without defining motivations one way or the other. It allows us to imagine and let our perspective inform our judgments and conclusions about the lives of the characters without telling us we’re wrong.  

Scenes are often juxtaposed with other scenes to create meaning and leaps are made in time from episode to episode to imply journey and resolution without actually showing either thing. Like any effective use of juxtaposition, what is learned goes beyond the text and, in this way, Mad Men always knows what you’re thinking. Audience participation is not only encouraged, it’s an essential component of the storytelling. To watch Mad Men passively is to see a completely different show than the one intended.

Any given episode will defy one or more of the show’s conventions and then reinforce that convention stridently, lending great weight to the shock of unfamiliar images or tones. The show is shifting sand, never quite the same from the week-to-week, no matter how familiar it may appear at first glance.

I could keep going. I’ll spare you instead and just give a brief example of how I’ve used one of the lessons in my own writing:

For me (and for many of my early readers), the highlight of my memoir is a chapter in the middle of the book that is, essentially, a very long, metaphysical, spiritual, and uncomfortable conversation between my Dad and me. It ends on what can only be described as a down note. The tension builds and builds for the entire chapter as the character revelations pile on top of each other, and then there’s no release. No catharsis. Mad Men has done whole episodes like this. Two people, in a room. Talking.

For the next chapter, I chose to go with a humorous story that seemingly has nothing to do with the earth-shaking conversation of the previous chapter. It’s a wild tonal shift that makes little sense until the very last line when its place in the narrative is finally revealed. Mad Men does this all time. The one-two punch of those chapters juxtaposed against each other is something early readers have told me they’re quite keen on.

I like trying new things and seeing what I can grab from one medium to adapt into another. Have you ever received inspiration or stolen ideas from an unconventional source? I’d love to hear about it.

Mad Men Season 5 starts on March 25th on AMC. If you have Netflix, you can stream the first four seasons right now. Just don’t start smoking or I’ll feel bad.

How Elmo and Michael Caine Cleaned Up My Yard

This past weekend I saw two movies that couldn’t be more unlike each other and yet are equally as good: 1966’s Gambit (starring Michael Caine and Shirly Maclaine) and 2011’s Being Elmo (starring Elmo and all the cooler-than-you humans who make the Muppets come alive). Both movies got me thinking in substantial ways about creativity and storytelling and how important it is to always ask more of our entertainment.

I think of my mind space as precious real estate. I don’t want your Saw movies and gorefests and pornos coming in and junking up the place with trash and rotted out couches. I want to put things on my mind’s front yard that are pleasing, things of worth and value. Call me old-fashioned, but art is not intrinsically valuable to me. I think art’s greatest value is both in how well it is done and how much it improves life.

Let’s take Being Elmo first. Elmo is after my time. I always found him annoying and kick-in-the-faceable. But the little dude works. Kids love him and, with time, I’ve come to appreciate the character as well. Being Elmo is the story of Elmo’s puppeteer, Kevin Clash–a 53-year old black man who grew up in Baltimore. Yeah, I was surprised too.

Kevin inspires me. From an early age he knew what he wanted to do with his life and he’s done it. That’s amazing. How many get to say that? With Elmo, he’s found the purest expression of his art, and through that art he has found the purest expression of the purest, finest emotion: love. Elmo is love. That’s Kevin’s guiding principle: Elmo is love.

And Kevin is brilliant. It’s a magic trick, what he does. Even when Elmo is hugging sick children who want to meet Elmo as a last wish, there’s Kevin. The kids can see him, but their attention is on Elmo. They don’t care about Kevin. That’s magic. So his art is the whole package: it is very good and it is very valuable.

Gambit is an underseen gem of a film with enough twists and turns to rank it among the very best of heist films, but its biggest surprise is that its biggest twist occurs in the first half hour. And it’s genius. Flat out. It’s genius.

The original poster for the film even featured the tagline, “Go ahead and tell the end, but please don’t tell the beginning!” And they meant that. The beginning blew me away. Jaw dropping moment that I won’t ruin here but whose implications reverberate all the way through to the end of the movie when the sweet message at the core of the film becomes obvious.

That’s the kind of creativity I want–so good that it astonishes. Elmo, who I once derided, now astonishes me. Michael Caine and Shirley Maclaine and the writers of Gambit astonish me. And I thank them for that. This past weekend, I was shown new horizons of what it is possible to achieve creatively and there’s nothing more inspiring than that.

Both Gambit and Being Elmo are currently available on Netflix Streaming, though Gambit expires on 2/29/12. Hurry.