Monday, November 30, 2015

Scathing Reviews

Like every other published writer I know, my work has garnered rave reviews and anti-rave reviews. (Or perhaps that is rave anti-reviews?) Both ranged from insightful and well thought out to haring off after irrelevancies (like the reader who posted a negative review “not very good” on GoodReads of an unreleased anthology I’d edited and that no one, not even the publisher, had yet seen).  I try to be philosophical about such reviews, keeping in mind that most of them are from amateur reviewers, many of whom have their own axes to grind, as it were. This is not to say that non-professional reviewers cannot produce thoughtful, worthwhile reviews, only that there is no filtering mechanism or gatekeeper to sift out those reviews from the noise. I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing to have a wider discussion of books and other media, one that includes more people. In fact, conversations about books are a good thing! Sounding off for its own sake, seeing how mean-spirited and provocative you can be, is another. We call folks who do that trolls, and trolls write book reviews, too.

That said, I recently noticed my own reaction to a scathing review of a movie by a professional reviewer. “Scathing” was the term of the friend who pointed out the review. My friend thought the way the reviewer savaged the film was highly entertaining. I suppose this is what movie reviewers are paid to do – to entertain. But why is it entertaining to show off how clever one is, as if there is a contest to see who can produce the most sarcastic commentary? We don’t tolerate hate speech or bullying, so why do we applaud viciousness in this form?

I don’t believe for a moment that the directors, producers, actors, and all the other folks are deflated by such reviews. For one thing, they make big bucks, even for a film that gets panned. Then there’s the point that any publicity, good or bad, drives sales. Yet I can’t help thinking that somewhere along the line, some of those people loved this project and did their very best. And that some of the folks who saw the film just loved it, too. Or…would have loved it if they had seen it? Or would have loved it if they had not seen it through the lens of a scathing review?

Friday, November 27, 2015

My Love Affair with the Music of The Lord of the Rings

In an earlier post, I talked about my enthusiasm for Peter Jackson’s films of The Lord of the Rings. One of the things I adored was Howard Shore's music. I ran out and bought the CDs, of course. At first I listened to the music as a way of re-experiencing the movies. I’d done this with other movie music, like The Last of the Mohicans, Shakespeare in Love, Titanic, and all the work of Ennio Morricone. Romantic, evocative music fits the same slot in my brain as Mendelsohn’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” or his violin concerto, or Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet,” Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade” suite, or Borodin’s “In the Steppe of Central Asia” (one of the pieces I listened to while writing Shannivar). It’s narrative music, emotive rather than abstract, and I find it marvelous to write to.

When at long last it was my time to embark upon piano lessons, as a first-time older adult student, I grabbed a copy of the easy piano versions of The Lord of the Rings music. My goal was to play “Into the West.” I was one of those folks in the theater with tears down my cheeks as the song ended. But I was just starting out, I had zero self-confidence, and I wanted to make sure I had the skill to play it well. My teacher and I selected “In Dreams” (which is also the leitmotif for the hobbits) as one of my early pieces. Even in the easy version, it was a challenge. And it had words, words in a key within my limited vocal range.

Like others of my generation, I got caught in the folk scene of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and even taught myself a few chords on the guitar. Although I enjoyed singing in a group, I had become convinced I had a terrible voice. I remember being told as a child that I couldn’t sing. So of course, my voice was strained, thin, unreliable in pitch. With the piano to support my voice, however, along with lots of practice when no one else was in the house, not to mention having an encouraging teacher, I learned how to breathe more deeply and relax my throat. The higher notes became easier and more clear. I added other songs and vocal exercises, which helped my confidence. “Wow,” my teacher said after one class, “who knew you had such a voice?”

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Deborah's EBooks at Your Public Library

If your public library subscribes to Overdrive, you can check out my ebooks. Here's the link to what's available, both traditionally published and through Book View Cafe. (Overdrive carries BVC's entire catalog.)

Perfectionism in Motherhood, Cooking, and Writing

"As a child, my family's menu consisted of two choices: take it or leave it." -- Buddy Hackett

Just about everyone who reads this smiles, but actually I think they should be screaming. Either/or choices and black-and-white thinking serve none of us well. Either you get an A+ or you are a total failure. Your book is either #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list and wins both the Nebula and Hugo Awards, or it is an abysmal flop. Your marriage is either the stunning example to all humankind or it's crap. Exaggerated like that, it's easy to see the ridiculousness of perfection-or-nothing. But how many times do we see ourselves and our lives through a perfection-tinted lens?

Years ago, when my children were small, I agonized over my many, many lapses in maternal perfection. At times, I was sure that a single moment of inattention or crabbiness had ruined my beautiful babies forever. A friend (who, interestingly enough, was childless herself) gave me a book in which I read that it isn't necessary to be a perfect mother, only a good-enough mother. Was I good enough? Even in my darkest moments, I knew that I was. For all the black marks, I could look at a thousand more times of games played, books read aloud, lullabies sung, trips to the zoo, mommy and me classes in everything from gymnastics to piano, walks along the beach... (And my daughters have grown up to be amazing, strong women, for which I take an eensy amount of credit, the rest being all their doing.)

I've also learned to relax about my cooking. I'm a good cook, although not given to following recipes too closely or attempting anything too fancy. My general approach is to grab a bunch of fresh produce, mostly from our garden, and not overcook it. But from time to time, the results might be edible but are unlikely to be requested again. Then there are the spectacular disasters. I am notorious for burning things in pots, which is what happens when plot ideas strike in the middle of preparing dinner. My best weapon against perfectionism here is a sense of humor. If I can laugh at the inedibility of an experiment (and follow it up with a 30-minute-or-less-from-pantry-staples dish) then it becomes a shared source of merriment. Silly, rather than tragic.

Why then is it so much harder to cut myself some slack when it comes to writing? In my saner moments, I know that no piece of prose is ever perfect. It works or doesn't work or sort-of works or works for some folks but not others. We say "perfect" when it carries us away so completely, we are oblivious to any flaws. But the flaws are there, and another reader (or viewer, or listener) might well find them looming large.

What would it take for me to say, "This is the best I can do right now"? To remember that, as Paul Valery wrote, "a poem is never finished, only abandoned."

Can I trust my creative instincts to know when to let a project rest and come back to it later, when to keep working away, or when to release it to the world, warts and all?

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Paris, Grief, and Healing

Lots of folks have posted on the recent terrorist attack in Paris. I don't have much to add, but I do feel moved to re-post some thoughts from years ago, about 9/11 and the anniversary of my mother's murder, also in September. A few of the references are dated, but the process of coming to terms with trauma remains valid for me.

What has changed for me this year is that I have begun to work for the abolition of the death penalty. Speaking only for myself, I see strong parallels between a murder victim family seeking this form of revenge and the vilification of the Muslim community concurrent with the invasion of Iraq. Of course, justice is desirable. Criminal acts call for appropriate consequences. I would never say that it’s okay for my mother’s killer to walk the streets or that those responsible for the 9/11 attacks should not be prosecuted according to law. Setting aside the politics of that invasion and the problems with the application of capital punishment, however, my concern is with whether retaliative actions help or hinder the recovery of the survivors.

My own experience is that revenge does not. I want to emphasize that I do not speak for anyone else. We all have different experiences. For me, focusing on wishing harm to the one who had harmed my mother might well have kept me locked — incarcerated — in a state of bitterness and hatred. While I was in no way to blame for what happened, I still bear the responsibility for what I do with it. It’s like the adult child of an alcoholic getting herself into therapy instead of whining helplessly, attributing all her problems to her upbringing.

I have to ask myself, What do I need? What do I want? One of my inspirations was a woman of astonishing kindness and grace, whose daughter and son-in-law were murdered and whose bodies she discovered. She told me that she faced a choice of whether or not to let herself be driven crazy by what she experienced. I think we all have that choice — to succumb to the darkness of our anguish and righteous fury, or to walk through it, to move beyond it.

I remember the scene in The Princess Bride where Inigo Montoya finally tracks down Count Rugen, who begs for his life and offers anything. Inigo says, “I want my father back!” (and then kills him). I want my mother back, too. All those who lost loved ones and colleagues want them back. We know that’s impossible, but what is possible is to get our own lives back. Our own selves. Our best selves.

My experience of healing is that I get myself back when I focus on re-engaging with life, on fully experiencing my feelings, on understanding what I have lost and what can never be replaced, but what can be restored. The more I stop looking to an external event (the execution of the murderer) to somehow make me feel better or “achieve closure,” and instead focus on taking care of my insides — my heart, my spirit, my body — the better I fare.

So I’ve been talking about my own healing process and what I’ve learned. I’ve been meeting with other family members and with people who’ve been sentenced to death and then exonerated. I’ve been looking for ways to build bridges, to nourish tolerance and reconciliation, to create understanding. I make an ongoing conscious decision to not harbor hatred in my heart, but to fill it instead with what I want in my life.

Love. Compassion. Gratitude. Joy. Wonder. Peace.

I can think of no more fitting memorial for my mother . . . or for those who died on 9/11.