The Dark Night of the Soul, or…

Why I didn’t much care for The Martian. (Even knowing I should care.)

the martian

I’m not a movie reviewer. I’m a movie watcher. Sometimes I like stupid obvious movies like Paul Blart- Mall Cop, and The Shooter, and Quigley Down Under, and Dodge Ball, and Galaxy Quest, and Guardians of the Galaxy. Yeah. I do. So sue me.

But my favorite movie of all time is, wait… I have two favorite movies- The Terminator, which is the most perfect science fiction movie EVER MADE, and Die Hard, (I’ll pause here to pay tribute to Alan Rickman, may he rest in peace), which is even better than the book upon which it is based – which is a damn good book – Nothing Lasts Forever. (Loved that book and I’m saying ‘which‘ an awful lot.) Die Hard is by far and away my favorite Christmas movie. Right up there with White Christmas. I’m a sucker for White Christmas. It’s the Danny Kaye/Vera Ellen dance scenes. Damn she’s a great dancer.

But anywhooo, back to The Martian. B.O.R.I.N.G. It wasn’t a movie, it was a survival manual. A superficial treatment of a step by step How To book. How to survive on Mars when you’ve been left for dead, you have no way to contact anyone, and you have no hope.

There’s the rub, the no hope part. If there is one thing… Remember Curly from the Billy Crystal movie, City Slickers? It’s one thing that keeps us watching movies. And it was that one thing The Martian lacked– a dark night of the soul. The protagonist, Mark Watney, never gave in to despair. He was never tempted to call it quits or lie down in the Martian sand or punch a hole in his suit or just plain old kill himself by any means at his disposal.

The movie-maker chose to provide a superficial treatment of the most existential of dilemmas- I am stranded a minimum of 225 million kilometers from earth. Everyone thinks I’m dead. No one is coming for me. I am alone in this universe.

There was no suicidal despair like there was in Castaway. There was no Jenny in high heels perched on the ledge of a hotel balcony high above traffic, no Lieutenant Dan filled with bitterness and rage, battling God, like in Forrest Gump. There was no starving Elsa like in Born Free. No desperate and hopeless John Morgan like there was in A Man Called Horse.

Death’s shadow did not fall over Mark Watney as it did the astronauts in Apollo 13, a movie I felt The Martian tried and failed to emulate. (There were so many parallels, too many to mention here.) Because Mark Watney was a genius’ genius. There were no obstacles that could not be surmounted, no failure that could not be overcome. Mark could always find a way to beat the odds. The movie gave us only a single moment when Mark was moved to tears. One, near the end when he was close to rescue. And that was the one moment that resonated with me. (No, it wasn’t the moment when the airlock blew because even then I knew Mark would find a way to fix it.)

Sometimes you lose. I guess that’s what I wanted to see. Sometimes you lose and you must fight and claw your way back from the brink. And that is the dark night of the soul, and that is what makes for a gripping story.

I know my husband loved the book because of the sciency stuff. My daughter, who is a scientist, had a tough time relating to the character, although she said she did finally begin to care about him near the end of the book. I suppose I’ll read the book and see for myself.

Oh, by the way, if there is one thing we learned from The Long Winter, Laura Ingalls Wilder, (the book, not the television series), one thing I learned growing up in rural Iowa, it is this– When you must go out into a hellacious blizzard, or into a Martian version of a blizzard, i.e., sandstorm, for crying out loud, tether yourself to something. You do not hike back to your space ship in high winds, through blowing debris, when there is near zero visibility, without a tether. Sorry. Someone has to say it. The minute the crew stepped out of the habitat into that storm I said to my husband, “That’s pretty stupid. Why aren’t they tethered to something? That’s the first rule of blizzard safety in Iowa when walking from the house to the barn.” Right there the movie lost me. Hmmm. Now I’m wondering whether I’ll like the book…

P.S. If you really want to read about the dark night of the soul, read Beck Weathers’ story in My Journey Home: Left for Dead on Everest, or Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer.

Announcements.

Will be offline for a few weeks in early September.

For the time being all my books are available on Amazon exclusively. Nothing personal. This is a financial decision, but it is not set in stone. I will be evaluating the situation daily.

One of these days I shall get around to telling the my story. In the meantime, keep writing. It’s food for the soul.

Julia

To describe or not to describe? That is the question.

My personal opinion?

Say what you have to say in as few words as possible.

I’m not a big fan of flowery language in modern literature.

Flowers are fine for Shakespeare and Emily Bronte. Homer can be a bit wordy, but then his stuff is really old. As is Flavius Josephus. He’s kinda hard to get through. He’s relating factual history as he knows it, but his language is pretty stuffy by our standards. I’m sure his contemporaries understood it just fine.

What makes me DNF a book? Too much description. Too many unnecessary details. Unless it is essential to the story I don’t need a detailed description of, say, a desk. If a particular desk is integral to the story, well then yes, by all means provide a detailed description. If it’s just a desk, then it’s just a desk.

I don’t need to hear an endless recitation of the beauty, depth, color, or whatever of the heroines eyes.

Think of Brendan Fraser. Think of Brendan Fraser as The Most Sensitive Man in the World. (Bedazzled.) You get my drift. He’s too much.

What is essential to the story. That’s all I need. Use your words sparingly and if you use them right, you can make beautiful metaphors out of scarcity.

Haiku is the simplest most beautiful form of poetry, IMO. There is value in spare.

In the cicada’s cry
No sign can foretell
How soon it must die.

– Matsuo Bashō

Tell a story in your head.

When I was a kid, I put myself to sleep every night by imagining myself as a character in a superhero comic. Sometimes I was the superhero (a girl regardless of the sex of the superhero), sometimes I was the villain (again, a girl), and sometimes I was the Polly Purebred heroine who needed saving. It was fun and, more important, it exercised the storytelling synapses of my brain. Keeps brain muscles from atrophy.

To this day (or night) I put myself to sleep by creating a story in which I am one of the main characters.

Do you do this? If not, do you want to do this?

It’s easy.

Pick a story, any story. Could be a Nancy Drew mystery, could be The Hunger Games, could be Outlander. Pick a body, or rather, a character, for yourself– either a preexisting character or make up an entirely new character and insert her/him into the story. Now, rewrite the story in your own words. Tell the story you would tell had you written that particular story.

I’m not suggesting you write fanfic. Except in your head.

I’m suggesting you grow your writing chops by learning from other genre writers. I prefer genre work because genre writers generally create more compelling, more romantic, and more relate-able characters. I’m not about to insert myself into War and Peace, although I’ve stuck myself into The War of the Roses plenty of times. (That Edward the IV was a hottie in his youth!)

Heroic books that make for great imaginary fanfic – Jane Eyre. Shogun. Outlander. Your favorite romance novel- insert title here ______________________________________________. Historical fiction. Norse mythology. Comic books– great for beginners. I mean, c’mon, who doesn’t want to fly or become invisible or shrink or make crazy weather? And Thor? He’s the best! Always been one of my faves.

Go for it. Like choose your own adventure. Rewrite your favorite stories in your head. Work those abs! Uh, I mean brain cells!

The Mental Activity of Writing. Step Three.

Imagination is the key.

As long as I can remember I’ve essentially sung myself to sleep with a story. It’s like this:

I write a story in my mind and I feature myself as the heroine. So easy to do!

The easiest way to begin is to pick a story, any story you like provided it is a heroic story, as in I want you to take a hero’s journey. I’ll make it even easier. If you like romance, pick Outlander. If you like science fiction pick, um… Stranger In A Strange Land, or The Illustrated Man, or, oh… super easy– Battlestar Galactica.

Remove the protagonist, male or female. Substitute yourself in his or her place and imaginarily write away! Rewrite the narrative in your head featuring you! I’m not encouraging you to actually write fanfic. I’m not a fan of fanfic. What I am suggesting is that you learn from the greats.

Become John Blackthorn of Shogun. Starbuck (the female version) of BSG. (One of the Sharons would be even better!) Jon Snow of GOT. Become Jane Eyre of Jane Eyre. But write your own narrative. Change things up. Stir the pot!

The stories we put on paper grow out of the stories we hear in our heads. Don’t be derivative! But at the same time keep in mind there is nothing new under the sun. Certain universal themes are recycled over and over again by countless authors and there is a reason for this. Universal themes resonate with readers. The trick is to spin your own unique version of these universal themes.

Oh, and read The Hero With A Thousand Faces, The Collected Works of Joseph Campbell. Yeah, slog through it. (It really ain’t no slog!) At the heart of every story lies the hero’s journey. Your characters must move forward, face challenges, and evolve, either for good or for evil. If they do nothing more than spin their wheels, take up page space, they are doomed to forever be labeled as boring. Nothing kills a book like boring.

Oh, an no whining. Whiny characters do nothing more than annoy readers.

So, as a mental exercise, pick your favorite book. Remove protagonist. Insert you. Go for it.

The Physical Activity of Writing. Step Two.

Last week I suggested would-be writers begin a journal.

Today I suggest poetry.

Read poetry. Write poetry.

Poetry is imagery, pure and simple. Sometimes it’s nothing more than words. Really. Doesn’t have to mean all that much.

A poem can be as simple as a few words or a couple of sentences. It does not have to rhyme!

Read simple poetry – Robert Frost. Carl Sandburg. Walt Whitman. Move on to Pablo Neruda (love poems). Langston Hughes. Sample ancient Chinese and Japanese forms of poetry– translated, of course. Japanese poems are especially big on simple imagery and symbolism. Move on to Beowulf and Gilgamesh!

Writing poetry is like automatic drawing. It’s an exercise designed to open the mind.

Automatic drawing can be done one of several ways. My preferred method is to look at something, anything, except the hand, my hand that holds the pencil. I place the tip of the pencil onto a large flat sheet of paper and without looking down I draw the forms I see before me. Some artists prefer to watch their hand, yet they do not consciously control the movement. I find that to be difficult. My brain wants to wrest control from my hand. Therefore I do not watch my hand. I prefer to let the images flow.

This is the same way poetry taps into the subconscious. Allow words to flow without interruption. As I said, a poem can be a single word. It can be 10,000. Although that would be kinda boring to read.

Step one: Start a journal.

Step two: Write a poem.

Feeling the heartbeat of pure imagery will help you create vivid scenes later. Trust me. It will work.