My #NaNoWriMo

Woman sweeping, with cat. 2020 (photocredit: Steve)

It’s well past the kids’ bedtime at this point, and I’m parked at the kitchen counter waiting for P to do her math homework. Soccer days are usually like this when we arrive home late, thanks to our regular ritual of stopping for vanilla cones at McDonald’s. Still, I have been happy with our soccer league. Very happy. This evening the league did a special team recognition and Pink presentation in honor of breast cancer awareness month. At the start of the presentation, the marketing director, a fit-looking mom wearing a pony-tail, shared with the league the story of her dear sister’s breast cancer diagnosis, fight, and succumbing to cancer a few years later. Since then, the marketing director has made it her life’s mission to honor her sister by raising awareness about breast cancer. The soccer league’s founder has supported her mission with corporate sponsors, pink training jerseys for every kid, and this evening’s presentation. I admit it was moving—breast cancer awareness, complete.

I am somehow just learning about National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, which is according to Wikipedia an annual Internet-based creative writing project when writers attempt to complete a 50,000-word manuscript between November 1 and November 30. It’s fortunate for me that I happened upon this information a week or so ago, when I participated in the annual Gotham Writers Conferenece. See, they had a writing competition, and although my manuscript did not win, I was offered free participation in their Zoom conference, which was a good primer for me to get back into writing now that my kids are back in brick and mortar school.

One resource that I have found incredibly helpful has been Abbie Emmons’ YouTube channel. Though there are a gazillion writer channels and blogs on the web, Abbie has managed to compile well produced, well organized, and handy video logs that are easy to digest and cut to the core of my writerly problems. So, with a manuscript that needs a total overhaul, at 50,000 words and 21 workdays in November, that’s 2,380 words a day. I think I can do it. If I can prove that I can re-write this sucker in a month, I would dig that.

My Thoughts on Netflix Movie, “Hostiles”

I haven’t watched many movies lately. I’m still happily slogging away through the Breaking Bad Universe (I’m on Season 2 of Better Call Saul) and pretty content about it. There’s a theory floating around that people are more interested in long-form narratives than stand-alone movies these days, hence the popularity of Game of Thrones, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the like. Recently I watched The Greatest Showman and came away disappointed because I thought it felt rushed. Perhaps it’s also my expectation that stories are better when writers build characters and narratives throughout several movies or seasons. Maybe movies just won’t cut it for me anymore? Google tells me the Marvel Cinematic Universe run time is 23 hours and 48 minutes. With that kind of mileage, how can I possibly care about P.T. Barnum like I did Tony Stark?

But Hostiles blew me away. The creators made the most of their two hours and 13 minutes to make me care about the story and the characters in a well-trodden genre (Western), and in a way that I hadn’t seen before. In short, Hostiles is a story about traumatized people and how some people overcome their trauma, and others don’t. It’s a tough theme, but the writers do it with subtlety, even tenderness, despite its superbly tragic scenes (like the one in the opening).

Here is the Netflix synopsis: After a long career battling the Cheyenne, a U.S. Army captain is ordered to safely escort the tribe’s most influential chief to his Montana homeland. The movie starts with a tormented Christian Bale playing captain Joseph Blocker who, after years of violent fighting, hates the Cheyenne. Yet throughout his duty escorting the tribe’s leader and his family he finds humanity with his former enemy, and is ultimately willing to give his life for the tribe leader and his family. I want to point out a two scenes where I think the writers were especially novel in telling this story.

Early in the movie, there’s the obligatory scene in which Captain Blocker is brought before his commanding officer to receive his orders. It smacks as familiar, almost cliche, when Captain Blocker begins his diatribe against the Cheyenne leader and why he refuses to take the order, that is until his commanding officer interrupts Captain Blocker. “I don’t give a damn how you feel personally,” he says to Blocker. The commanding officer (and the writers) short circuit our expectations about how this interaction is going to happen, and rather than convey Captain Blocker’s disdain for the “savage” Cheyenne leader, we learn that Captain Blocker is “no angel” himself when it comes to violence against Native Americans. Captain Blocker has no audience for his reasons and grievances against the Cheyenne leader. He leaves in turmoil, speechlessly contemplates suicide, and returns the following morning to execute his orders.

The next scene that comes to mind is the one between Captain Blocker and one of his men, who is in a hospital bed recovering from a gunshot wound. It’s a quiet scene, just Captain Blocker and his sergeant, and its reminiscent of other familiar scenes featuring an emotional goodbye between soldiers, with the minor character offering his dying words of gratitude or contemplation before passing on. Think Forest Gump and Bubba (a great scene, by the way). But this is not what we get. Henry (the sergeant) is not dying, and has survived the fighting when others on the detail did not. Still, he expresses disappointment in himself for being unable to “finish what we’ve started.” To this, Captain Blocker responds, “you never let me down…you’re always centered. Focused. Without you on my flank, I likely would have met my end a long time ago.” The two exchange words of affection and sob quietly. Captain Blocker leaves saying, “with any luck we’ll meet down the road.” It’s not a scene about dying or saying goodbye forever. Instead it’s a scene about loyalty, and parting ways. It’s a scene about recognizing that being part of a unit is special, and they each mourn the loss of their dissolved partnership.

Other narrative decisions make Hostiles refreshing and moving, which you’ll have to see for yourself. While the outcome is mostly tragic for many of the characters, Captain Blocker’s end feels so satisfying, so redemptive, that it seems to make up for all the pain and bloodshed along the way. At the VERY end, the writers make Captain Blocker whole when he chooses joy over pain. We don’t know what happens next, but it doesn’t matter. Two hours and 13 minutes are all the writers needed to show us that Captain Blocker is going to make it, and going to be okay.

Projects on The Back Burner

Lately, I have been struggling to write, either on here or work on my manuscript. I even had a military paper I was working on with Team Chief that somehow turned into two professional articles that ended up falling off the rails at the end because I didn’t have the bandwidth to work my part of the argument. We managed to publish the original, shorter, and more narrowly scoped paper yesterday on a professional association blog. I think some people read it. I’ll take that as a win. Yay.

A guarantee of 20 minutes of uninterrupted writing time a day does not mean I can work on my manuscript, for example, because 20 minutes is not an absolute number in terms of writing time. Some projects I can jump into, others need a short warm-up before I can jump in, and one needs a major warm-up before I can jump in. I will now use a running analogy.

In a runner’s world, life cycles around races and race seasons. Training consists of speed days, tempo days, distance days, and easy days. Speed and tempo days require at least a two-mile warm-up. Distance days don’t need warming up so long as the pace is comfortable, and easy days are short and slow by definition. Depending on your mileage goal, speed, tempo, and distance days can take two-three hours. Easy days take less time and less mental energy. All components count and are necessary to a well balanced training regime that will get you where you want to go, without injury.

Writing is like this. Blogging is the “easy day” activity. Other projects like professional papers and novels are the big race performances, broken down into bits that require a warm-up, and 20 minutes isn’t going to cut it. It takes me 15 minutes just to remember where I left off on my big projects! I hate having stuff on the back burner. It frustrates me to start over on things every day with very little forward progress. Until remote school is over, projects requiring a warm-up will have to wait. And I hope they don’t die in the process.

Captain Marvel and Fun with Extended Metaphors

I have now arrived at what has become my favorite activity during the week. For about an hour, I get to sit outside in my lawn chair underneath a colorful open sky in what has lately become a cool Florida breeze all. At the same time, B and P partake in the joys of dribbling, passing, and kicking soccer balls in a field of about fifty kids wearing bright orange shirts. It might be time for me to quit wearing shorts—I don’t know? For all the deliberating we did about whether we allow the kids to participate in soccer because of COVID, at this point, I’m very, very glad we didn’t miss another season of fun team sports.

I have been thinking a lot about feminism lately. More on that later. I have also been wanting to want to write. Does that make sense? It means I haven’t wanted to write, but I’ve wanted to want to write. See, writing is something I must do every day. The tricky thing is we all write every day, I technically write every day, so I will go beyond the canned “write everyday advice,” and say that I must do the kind of writing counts, for me. It’s like running. Every week I plan to run 15 miles. It used to be 30, and when I need to prepare for a Physical Fitness Test, that’s what I’ll do. But for now, it’s just maintenance. Just 15. But it can’t be a brisk walk. And it can’t be zero for me. Zero miles is not maintenance. Zero miles is just me getting out of shape.

I watched Captain Marvel this weekend for the second time since seeing it in theaters, and I was pumped and amazed at the extended metaphor woven into the storyline of Carol Danvers. I suppose when I first watched Captain Marvel, it was obvious to me that this was a story packed with pro-woman, girl-power vibes. Still, this second time around in the final scene, where Captain Marvel faces off against the Supreme Intelligence, the details of the extended metaphor became more apparent in this bad-ass way. Here’s the scene in Captain Marvel. Below is some context:

1. Carol Danvers is an airforce pilot who absorbs the power of the tesseract but is abducted by an alien people (the Kree) in search of this technology.

2. The Kree people manipulate Carol, giving her a new name and identity, and convince her that she needs to control her power because it’s dangerous.

3. Her Kree mentor (played by Jude Law) installs a device on her neck so that whenever Danvers’ power threatens to overpower, he can subdue her. She allows this because he is her mentor, and it’s for her good.

Many other features are baked into the story, but I thought all of it was just incredible. And fun. Many movies try to speak to feminism, and many miss the mark being too on the nose (see Incredibles 2). And while there’s no mistaking what Captain Marvel creators are aiming for, the experience is still fun and validating. It’s just a lot of fun to watch her crush all those Kree and discover her true potential.

One Small Win After Another

P is drawing a picture of a thunderstorm in her composition notebook right now. The clouds in her picture are orange, and for the lightning, she is using a black dry erase marker. This is annoying since she has her Crayola markers to use, and dry erase markers are specialized and more expensive, etc. etc. She does not fight me on this, fortunately, and for today the dry erase markers will live another day for the whiteboard, and we can delay the slow, wholesale consumption of office supplies in this house.

I’m two weeks into remote learning with my kids, and I admit that the task has absorbed most of my bandwidth. I am lucky. My parents are a huge help in prepping breakfast and lunch every day. This frees me up to have the patience to corral and prod my kids to do their morning chores, have breakfast, use table manners, and log in to their computers, all without the aid of YouTube. When their lessons begin, I start my day of cycling back and forth to each one, paying attention to what the teacher wants and what they’re supposed to be doing, and if I see one of them lying on the floor or spinning around, I help them correct. I spend my day making corrections. Maybe this is too heavy-handed of me, but I don’t see any other way. It’s like driving a vehicle with bad alignment, where the only way to stay on course is to keep pulling on the wheel. When you let off, things drift off course.

This morning I spent ten minutes working on my manuscript. Dependapotamous sent me a fantastic short story by a guy named Dustin M. Hoffman (not to be confused with the actor), and I love the way he uses imagery (cigarettes!) to tell this story about construction workers just before the 2008 financial crisis. This morning, with this short story in mind and whatever I learned about figurative language the other day, I fleshed out some more of my chapter. I think writing is like this: every time you sit down to write, you push yourself to learn at least one new thing; it’s this constant act of untangling ideas and making sense of them and trying out new ways to say what you want to say. A lot of things are like this.

I’ll take my small win today, and the one from last week, and the one I’ll get tomorrow and next week and next year, until it adds up to something real, something that looks like I know what I’m doing!

With my pre, pre-teen