Towers, Ghosts and Handmaids

Here’s what I’ve been reading and watching lately:

dark tower books all

I’ve been slowly but steadily making my way through Stephen King’s Dark Tower series over the last year or so, and finally finished the seventh book and the last in the main series (the eighth, The Wind in the Keyhole, is more of an addendum, a further adventure and untold story that I haven’t read yet–but plan to!).

I find Stephen King an interesting author, if only because he’s written books I have absolutely no interest in reading, while there are others I find, if not brilliant, then impressive and endlessly entertaining. This series is obviously in the latter, or I wouldn’t have continued to read thousands of pages of it. It’s hard to summarize such an epic tale, but it combines fantasy, western, science fiction (and a little bit of horror) to tell the story of Roland of Gilead, a gunslinger of Mid-World, who seeks to save the Dark Tower, which holds all the worlds of creation together. His main antagonists are the Man in Black, and the Crimson King, among many others. His allies are his ka-tet, who he’s “drawn” from other worlds and times: Eddie Dean, Odetta Walker (aka Susannah Dean), the boy Jake Chambers, and Oy, a kind of cross between a dog and a raccoon called a billy bumbler.

Each book, of course, presents its own conflict and goal on Roland’s long journey, weaving a complex, compelling tale that only King could manage. In it, he incorporates several characters from his other books (which in most cases I had not read, but it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the story), and creates a kind of uber-story, gathering them all under the same cosmology. King even inserts himself into the story, which I found a little outrageous at first, but then, this is a story about stories, and he’s the ultimate storyteller. It all fits.

I hurtled through the last 100 pages of the last book, dying learn the mystery of the Dark Tower. And was I disappointed? Not exactly. I didn’t know what was at the top of that Tower, but when Roland opened the last door, after unimaginable trial and tragedy, what lay behind it was unexpected and shocking. That’s all I’ll say, except that, based on my new knowledge, I’m rethinking my opinion on the Dark Tower movie I reviewed a few months ago. I hated it. But I’d watched it before I finished the series, and I was missing some vital information. Now it makes some potential sense. But that’s another blog post.

woman in black daniel

My book club recently read The Woman in Black, by Susan Hill, in honor of the season–we love a good ghost story this time of year! We enjoyed the book and decided to watch the 2012 movie with Daniel Radcliffe.

The premise of both the book and the movie concerns Arthur Kipps, a clerk in a London law firm, who travels to the northern town of Crythin Gifford to settle the estate of an old widow, Mrs. Drablow, who’d recently died. Her estate, Eel Marsh House, is appropriately isolated and creepy at the mouth of a marshy estuary, a house which gets blocked off from the mainland by the tides several times a day. The townspeople are sullen and distrustful, and while at the house, Arthur encounters ghostly visitations by a terrifying woman in black. While sorting through Mrs. Drablow’s papers, he discovers a family tragedy that explains the haunting, but is unprepared to be so personally affected by the woman’s vengeful malevolence.

The  movie changes a few things and ratchets up the scare factor, giving the story a more traditional beginning, middle, and end format, with Arthur taking action to solve a problem rather than just letting things happen to him, like in the book. The ending is quite different, too, and I’m not sure I’m happy with it, but in the end, it’s a great Halloween movie to hide behind a pillow and watch.

man in the picture

We enjoyed Susan Hill so much, we also read The Man in the Picture, another ghost story, of sorts. This one deals with an old painting of Venice, with masked revelers and gondolas, in which several living people have been trapped as painted figures. It’s another story of a wronged woman gone berserk with hatred and vengeance, and who punishes not only those responsible for her misery, but innocent others who happen to come into contact with her story just for evil’s sake. It’s kind of a disturbing pattern, but definitely touches on female rage and its consequences. Hell hath no fury, and all that.

handmaid 3

I read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale many years ago, and though over time the details of the book faded, the disturbing essence of it remained with me. In the middle of watching the Hulu series, I re-read the book (brilliant; read it). The series, with Elizabeth Moss as Offred/June, is just as brilliant and intense, with only a few minor changes that make sense in light of a continuing series. The book was hard to read, but the show is even more difficult, as these characters and terrifying events come to life on the screen.

I watched the first season, which chronicles the events of the book (and with Atwood’s involvement and blessing), but Season Two and Three continues Offred’s story beyond the book, out of Atwood’s territory. I’m on the fence about whether or not I want to continue watching; both the book and Season One ended with Offred possibly escaping her enslavement, leaving one with a feeling of hope. With the continuation of the series, it’s obvious Offred has to be caught and dragged back to Gilead, with more punishment and misery ahead of her. I’m not sure I can endure more of that, quite honestly.

So that’s what’s been keeping me busy lately. Have you read or watched any of these stories? What did you think? Drop me a line and we’ll talk about it!

 

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In the Room

who I am

 

I’ve experienced this phenomena that King talks about more than once. When the story I’m writing seems to write itself, when the words come fast and the characters seem to jump out of the paper, when they speak with each other and make decisions, when an important detail emerges from the pen when I never would have thought of it beforehand: with these stories, I look up from the page and think, where did all that come from? Who wrote that? These usually turn out to be my best stories.

Natalie Goldberg calls it “wild mind”. Julia Cameron calls it “the Creator” or a higher power, manifesting itself through us. Elizabeth Gilbert calls it “Big Magic”. Whatever it is, it’s this mysterious voice that, when I’m really in the zone, speaks through me and helps me to tell stories.

Lately, that voice has been silent. I can’t get her to talk to me at all. It’s like she took a trip to Tahiti or something, leaving me alone in an empty room. Okay, fine. Because I’ve been taught not to rely on “Inspiration” or the “Muse”, I sit my butt down in the chair and scribble words anyway. And I start a few things, but without her, things just aren’t coming together. I miss her.

Okay, fine, I tell her. I think I know what this is about. I’m too much in the room with you. I’ve been a little bossy, trying to tell you what to do. Okay, a lot bossy. No, no, I say. That’s stupid. Cross that out. Erase, delete, change, you can’t say that, you don’t know what you’re talking about, no one will like that, no one will listen, you don’t have the right to speak, let alone write.

Okay, I guess I understand why you’d rather be drinking margaritas on the beach.

Somewhere along the way I lost faith in you. Or did I just get scared of what you were saying? Either way, I pushed you out of the room and closed the door, because I wanted to be in control. There are reasons for this: other aspects of my life feel a little out of control right now, and I was feeling panicky. But I’m working on that, okay? Just come back, and I promise I’ll listen.

Heck, I’ll just get out of the way altogether. I’m going to open the door, and just humbly sit in the corner of the room, waiting for you to return. I’ll do the busy work until then, lining up the pens, jotting down ideas in the notebook, blogging books and movies, just showing up. I’ll keep the wheels greased; I just need you to turn them. I’ll go where you lead. Take your time, but, you know, hurry up. Sorry–bossy again.

In the meantime, have a drink for me, and don’t forget the sunscreen.

Compliment

It’s gratifying to hear compliments: “You look nice today,” or “I love your shoes.” A kind word can lift the spirits on days when you really need it. But if I had to pick the best compliment I’ve ever received, I’d have to refer to a conversation I had with one of my coworkers last year.

I work as a cashier at a grocery store, and this particular young man–he’s 17–had just started his job and was asking me some questions about me out of curiosity. I explained how I’d been married for 20 years, started working at that very store at 18 on the register, moved over to the deli, left and waitressed for a while, went back to the store, went to community college and worked for an accountant, met my husband and got married, worked in the beer & wine department, had our daughter and stayed home with her for two years, went back to work at a toy store, then eventually came back to the grocery store–to work on the register.

I’d come full circle, and, I thought, not gotten very far. It’s perhaps one of the nagging regrets of my approaching middle years: I look around me at my young coworkers with bright futures, and think–I didn’t do enough. I didn’t improve myself. I didn’t get far in life at all. I still live in the same town I was born in, never having left it, if that tells you anything.

But this young man, who plans on being a doctor (or a lawyer)–and I have no doubt that he will do just that–this young man, in all sincerity, said to me, “Wow, you’ve had an interesting life.”

I was struck dumb for a minute. No one had ever said that about my life before. I certainly hadn’t believed I’d lived anything but a normal (and slightly dull) existence. In fact, I’d been ashamed at what I hadn’t accomplished in my life. But this young man, with the fresh, undiscriminating eyes of the young, had proclaimed that my experiences had amounted to “an interesting life.” Huh.

That has to rank as one of the best compliments I’d ever received, mostly because it was so surprising, and made me look at my life in a new light. Perhaps it takes someone else’s perspective to achieve this.

Now that I think about it, maybe I do have a pretty interesting life, at least to me. There aren’t a lot of external bells and whistles, but there’s a stack of notebooks and journals suggesting that how I process this life is what makes it interesting.

Thank you, Peter.

be in love with your life
Still trying.

 

I’ll Never Do This

Don't walk

I’m a lover of lists. Whether it’s making a to-do list or grocery list for home, or listing my favorite (fill in the blank) for the blog, there’s something about numbering lines on a piece of paper and filling it that makes me weirdly happy. I feel organized and/or insightful, somehow in control of my world.

While poking around in a book of writing prompts (still not feeling it and needed some help), I came across this one: List 25 Things You Will Never Do. This one appealed to me; it turned the usual list-making idea onto its head. Not what you will do or want to do, but what you’ll never do. It examines the underbelly, the negative space in your life.

Well, here’s a least 10 Things I’ll Never Do:

  1. Jump out of an airplane.
  2. Eat Kale.
  3. Read Ulysses.
  4. Be able to keep a plant alive.
  5. Be fashionable.
  6. Give up chocolate.
  7. Learn to drive stick shift.
  8. Get an iPhone.
  9. Stop biting my fingernails.
  10. Stop writing.

It feels good to at least know what I won’t do.

What will you never do?

 

 

Let the Whole Thundering World Come Home

Page and Screen

thundering world

Readers of my other blog, My Writing Journey, know that I’ve been a longtime fan of Natalie Goldberg, ever since I discovered her first writing book Writing Down the Bones way back in my twenties, and I tentatively thought that maybe, possibly, you know, I could be a writer. She gave me the courage to put words down on paper, to own my mind and my truth, and to keep writing, no matter what.

I’ve followed Natalie over the years through many writing books and memoirs, and though I don’t always follow her prescription of writing in the notebook everyday, I often go back to it when I’m feeling stuck or lost. It’s a baseline, a foundation that holds me up when I’m feeling like I made the biggest mistake of my life by pursuing this course.

In her books, I not only learned about writing and the writing…

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Keep Going

bee on flower

Lately, I feel as if my writing has been a series of snippets here and there, projects started and abandoned, notes taken, a few lines added, dropped again. Scattered leaves blowing in the wind. Like an essay I’ve been mulling about my grandmother. Or a short story about a young man who occasionally goes invisible without warning, beyond his control. Or musings on a possible memoir, focusing on how books shaped my life. And there’s still that unfinished draft of the time-travel novel, waiting in the wings. I desperately want to write and finish all of these things, and yet when I pick any one of them up, I quickly lose interest, or become mentally constipated. What’s going on?

Maybe it’s the restlessness of spring after a long winter, preferring to be out in the warm sunshine rather than holed up with the work of organizing my muddled thoughts. Maybe it’s the deep crisis of confidence I’ve been experiencing lately, the source of which I can’t pinpoint–every word I write screams wrongness, or worse, futility. Maybe it’s the turmoil of pre-menopause: I’m transforming into some mid-life beast that terrifies me, the physical and emotional throes of which keep me from finishing anything. Maybe I’m just really enjoying writing book and movie reviews on my new blog. Maybe that’s simply what I’m supposed to be doing right now, until I can settle down and focus on other writing. But I know I’ll eventually want to do something else, to write my own stories again.

I’ve always tried to wrestle my writing routines into some sort of discipline, because that’s what writers need to do, right? And I do, for the most part–I make sure I sit down with the notebook or in front of the computer screen on a regular basis to write. But I tend to flit from project to project, like a bee gathering pollen, a little here, a little there, with the result of feeling like I never finish anything. It’s a bit depressing.

It’s not true, of course; I have many short stories and countless blog posts that prove otherwise. I also have a lot of unfinished stuff, and ideas floating around like spores. But I think that’s true of most writers. I’m sure there are many out there whose routines are such that they finish the project they’re working on–write, rewrite, edit, polish, seek beta readers, rewrite again, query, send out for publication– before they move onto another. All very orderly. I envy them. But for some, I’m sure, it’s a messier process. We’re creatives, after all; creativity can be messy.

I suppose the point of this post is to remind myself–and maybe some others–to keep going. Just keep writing, no matter where you are in the process (or in your life), no matter what your routine. Keep dipping your toe into that big well of creativity, and something will come to fruition. Or, to stay with my rather clumsy spring metaphor, keep pollinating and something will eventually bloom.