I don’t know about you, but it seemed like a very long week. Two nor’easters in a row, particularly the extended drumbeat before the second one, really took its toll. When I was younger, it seemed that winter loaded up in January and February, and whatever happened in March was just an interruption of spring trying to break through. This week, there seemed to be more snow than anything this season has seen before. It, along with the magnolia, will get cleaned up eventually…or, then again, maybe not.
Buds go crazy. Spring is sprung. Snow tomorrow.
Being trapped inside, this was more a week of scattered impressions than of complete thoughts. Here is one of those impressions, along with a couple of updates on recent news items.
1. The Story Business
I’m pretty religious about writing into the mid-afternoon everyday. This week, to break the muffled silence of the snow, I’ve been putting on the TV for the soundtrack of a drama or action movie in the background. For some reason, it helps to know that people are busy in the other room, and if I’ve already seen the movie, a small part of my brain can evesdrop or even follow along. Somehow, this undercurrent of story-noise encourages my momentum.
While channeling through the possibilities on Tuesday, I noticed that a documentary on author Neil Gaiman had just begun. It seemed to be loosely assembled around his farewell book tour, right after he’d written The Ocean at the End of the Lane and while he was in full bloom as a rock-star author. Instead of writing, I began the day with Neil Gaiman: Dream Dangerously. It turned out to be an unsettling decision.
I’ve been working on the emotional arc of my book, and while some of it is (to the trade) “prescriptive non-fiction”—namely, how your work should engage you—the short stories throughout are about characters who embody or defy that advice, and these two elements need to work first alone, and then together, for the benefit of readers. Particularly in The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Gaiman took me farther than I thought possible on the emotional journey of a child like him, and I thought I’d learn something useful by following the road show that he’d built around this beautiful book.
A writer is the visceral connection between the reader and his story, and here was Gaiman signing tens of thousands of his books for tens of thousands of fans who had lined up in ridiculous numbers for the chance to meet him. “You can’t have ‘a thank-you tour’ so you have a book signing tour,” he explained. Gaiman was thanking them and they were laughing, crying, confessing or gushing back at him about how he’s changed their lives. He signed so often, that he couldn’t feel his hand, lost a nail, and needed to keep plunging his arm into buckets of ice water to keep going, but he managed—across America and then from England up to Scotland until it was over, a painfully gracious ordeal.
There’s a similar kind of violence beneath Gaiman’s writing too, but like the best fairy tales, it’s often surprised by tenderness, white magic or a comfort food like porridge. Is there any more welcome hand to hold or kitchen to recover in than Lettie Hempstead’s? So the pain and pleasure of Gaiman’s book tour was what he’s always writing about in a way, but it being a documentary—there he actually is, chatting away while he’s treating his injuries. This time, he's the story that he’s telling, and everyone in line seems to get it.
As a writer, I’d never thought about myself like this before.
The author as himself and via Sandman
Gaiman is that kind of kaliedoscope: “Take what you know and turn it 45 degrees,” he says about his storytelling, and maybe about himself too. “He really knew how to get out there and pitch himself,” confesses his agent, not as admiringly as I expected given her upside. To stay memorable, he turned his black uniform, shades and shock of hair into a cartoon character in his promotions, becoming as vivid as any of the heroes or villains in Sandman (his epic series that helped change mere comic books into graphic novels). There’s advice to authors in the documentary too (“I write best when I’m not intending for it to be any good”) and a 13 year-old girl who asks him to sign page 21 of Coraline (“my absolutely favorite page”). But above all, the thank-you tour embodies his ferocious need to reach out and touch his readers and for them to touch him back. Amidst all of this stranger-based intimacy Gaiman marries Amanda Plummer, a force of nature who’s almost preternaturally like him--suspended in her own brand of symbiotic fandom.
As the documentary credits ran, I went back into the adjoining room to resume my own writing. Was what’d I’d just been shown Neil Gaiman or 45 degrees from Neil Gaiman? What did it mean for anyone who writes? He’d certainly given me my own quarter-turn, but I resisted going any farther.
There is something strange, scary and almost worthy of the Brothers Grimm when you put yourself as deeply as Gaiman does into your stories and then get to meet all these other people who've been living in them too. Naked. Familiar. Unsettling. How much is this every writer's story? Or is it merely the one that's being told by a frightened seven-year old who's finally found a way to get the porridge for himself?
2. And Speaking of Getting What You Need From Your Work
The piranhas are really out for Eric Greitens in Missouri, because there may be nothing better for some prosecutors, journalists and other bystanders than tearing the self-righteous down.
I’ve continued to follow Greiten’s story since writing about it a couple of weeks back, and it's fair to say that he's fighting for his political life. It’s hard to step back from a battle when you’re a warrior, but part of me wishes that he had. Everyone isn’t for or against him, and anyway, there’s room for both (along with the undecided) in a human story if he wanted to tell them one. In other words, talking about the impact of his actions on his reputation, his ability to move forward, his family, and the woman he had the affair with while asking for forgiveness from his family, from the other woman, and from Missouri's voters. It would be more effective than merely fighting for his political life or attempting to divert the public’s attention from the taint that keeps following him around.
From his social media post this week: Greitens with a brown bear cub
When everything you’ve said and done before taking public office speaks of taking the high ground, you can’t merely avoid your time in more questionable places. It’s better to face your falls from grace squarely—as Greitens has long urged those who have been following his example to do. In a way, it's probably how he can get what he needs most from his work.
Greitens hasn’t written that story yet. Instead, there’s been more in the news than I (at least) want to know about Missouri state house politics, politically connected lawyers, and innuendo from snide reporters. It’s also been difficult to distinguish his real moral lapses here from more questionable ones, but I've learned a few additional facts since the story broke. I found them interesting, and maybe you will too.
Greitens entered politics running against the cesspool of Missouri politics, so while hardly providing grounds for his forgiveness, I was surprised to learn how he came to be charged with blackmail in the first place.
The woman in the affair with Greitens had some of her statements about it recorded by her ex-husband without her knowledge or consent. While most Missouri television stations passed on it when the recording first surfaced, one station put the story on the nightly news. Without a formal investigation, a local prosecutor based her charges against Greitens on the news story alone. Harm to “a victim” was never alleged, and the woman’s only complaints were about violations of her privacy and the public humiliation that followed. The prosecutor herself admitted that the local police, the FBI and the district attorney had all declined to pursue the matter. Moreover, Greitens has denied that he ever photographed the woman while she was blindfolded, so her recorded fears about a photograph remain unsubstantiated. We’ll have to see if the state prosecutor can build a legal case out of this kind of hearsay in coming months. Unfortunately for Greiten’s, even if the criminal case goes nowhere, he’s already lost much of the shine on his reputation.
The other fact that was new to me speaks to how much experience, skill and ambition Missouri (and maybe the rest of us) stand to lose whenever a flawed man who still has tremendous promise takes elected office. Excellence in politics is in particularly short supply these days, and it seems a shame to banish the best of them as soon as someone who seemed too-good-to-be-true is unmasked. Isn't every citizen a loser when someone who’s still better-than-most is forced to abandon public life under a moral cloud?
And that's where the other fact I learned this week comes in:
Even before he launched his bid to become Missouri's governor, Eric Greitens reserved ericgreitensforpresident.com
3. The Joys of Repeat Viewing
I know plenty of people who would never watch a film or an episode in a series more than once because they “already know what happens,” and that’s usually true, especially since much of what’s presented barely justifies a single viewing. But on occasion, something is “extra-ordinary” for one reason or another, and repeated viewing can yield rich rewards.
For example, some of the dialogue in Game of Thrones is so hilariously over-the-top and obscured by the actor’s accent that it takes “close istening” to get the joke, insult or outrage, and that means watching the episode again. I’m currently enjoying an excellent series called Counterpart that (according to its creator) has so many clues about its parallel worlds and counterpart characters that close and repeated attention on the biggest screen that you have is almost required. I’ve also been extolling the virtues of Jordan Peele’s Get Out here, and the write-ups around its Academy Award nominations mentioned some of the rewards it bestows when viewed more than once. For those of you who've already watched it or plan to give Get Out a look—these gemsare for you. (I’ve added some color-coding in brackets for the sake of clarity.)
“Peele has claimed that he designed his film with theaters in mind, and anyone who saw it that way knows the deafening audience response Get Out provokes. (If there wasn’t at least one lady screaming the title line at [black] Daniel Kaluuya’s Chris at some point during your screening, did you even see the movie?) At home however, and especially during a re-watch, is where you pick up on the nuances and subtleties that reveal just how thoroughly Peele has thought this thing through. There’s the fact that [white] Rose argues with the [white] cop asking for Chris’s ID at the beginning of the film–not simply because white privilege allows her to do so, as it first seems, but because she doesn’t want the cop to remember Chris’s name when he goes missing. There’s the subtle bickering between Catherine Keener’s matriarch Missy [Rose’s white mother] and the [black] housemaid Georgina (Betty Gabriel), which you only realize later reflects the strained relationship of a wife and her mother-in-law [!!]. And how about the fact that [black] Chris gains his freedom near the end of the movie by PICKING COTTON from the easy chair he’s strapped into? Get Out only gets richer the more it’s seen.”
The second of these hidden gems also makes the story that Rose’s white dad (Bradley Whitford) tells Chris about his own father losing to Jesse Owens at the Berlin Olympics even more hilarious, along with what these tangled bloodlines have to say about the unnatural selection that's afoot.
Betty Gabriel’s mother-in-law/grandmother may be my favorite character in Get Out. Lucky for me, it’s just been announced that Gabriel is joining the cast of Counterpart in Season 2.
Flavors (like those found in Get Out) are so distinctive that they’re worth savoring more than once.
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Here’s to your good work this week! I’ll see you next Sunday.