Month: May 2012

In defense of the Plain Janes and Mary Sues

A lot of people complain about Bella from Twilight. They say she is boring and plain — an insert-yourself-here paper doll of a character. I say, What’s so bad about that?

What’s wrong with telling girls — most of whom, let’s be honest, will be a bit boring and plain — that that’s okay? That you don’t need superpowers to make you special? That you don’t need to save the world to make you worthy? That you can be loved and admired even though you’re average?

Actually, isn’t that exactly the message we should be sending to people?

Look, I’m not saying Plain Janes or Mary Sues are the only kinds of heroines I want to see. (Far from it! I adore Katniss, Katsa, She-Ra, etc.) I’m just saying that I identify with the non-kick-ass characters sometimes. And I bet a lot of other girls and women do too.

(Note: I’m using feminine examples here, but you could switch to Plain Waynes and Gary Hughs. My point remains the same.)

My generation was raised to believe that we could do anything. That we were special, simply by virtue of existing. Aim for the stars, they said. Dream big. Nothing is too great to achieve. And while there may be some truth to the idea that we have more opportunities than ever before, thanks to Baby Boomer parents and a globalized economy, the reality is that, by definition, most people will be average.

So again I say that it’s probably not the worst thing in the world for us to have heroes and heroines who are “normal.” Who have nothing more to recommend them than good morals and a big heart. Whose biggest challenge is not saving the planet, but leading a quiet, honorable life.

Because you know what? That’s not the easiest thing to do.

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A friend’s request

You know, time really is passing us by, and while I’m sure you’re making great progress I wonder if you could be harder on yourself for your own good. I say this because I want us to be successful, the both of us. I’d really like for you to evaluate everything you do, everything you spend your time on, and see if it’s getting you closer to your goal or not. If not, cut it out, and re-examine every so often.

My longtime friend Aisha sent that to me in an email last month. I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

She’s not the first to say something like that to me, and I’d had similar thoughts myself. But some revelations are like jars with the lids screwed on too tight: you’ve got to pass the jar around and have everyone give a twist, until finally it’s loose enough and someone manages to open it.

This jar is now open.

Like a scented candle, the revelation has been subtle but sweet, slowly spreading through the air, filling me more with each new breath. I haven’t cut much out yet — in fact, I added in piano practice and Chinese lessons — but I’ve been considerably more careful with my time. Guarding it like the precious resource that it is. Giving less of it to the internet and more of it to my manuscript. Spending less of it half-engaged and more of it fully committed.

It’s funny how time can seem bigger that way.

What I didn’t want to do was make a bunch of drastic changes and then find myself unable to stay committed to them. Instead I’ve been letting Aisha’s suggestion seep into me, like a plant soaking water up through the roots so that it can grow strong in the right direction. (Lots of metaphors today…) Only time will reveal what blossoms, but I’m optimistic.

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Keep getting better

IMG_1490

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Confession: I really like Girls

Yes, Girls. As in, the HBO show! What did you think I meant?

Now, I know everyone and their mom is talking about Girls, and I really, really didn’t want to add to that noise… But I have to. I have to, because after watching Lena Dunham’s movie Tiny Furniture, I thought I was going to hate Girls. (To be fair, I didn’t hate the movie. I just didn’t enjoy it either.)

But I was wrong. I didn’t hate Girls. In fact, I kind of love it.

What’s it about?

Girls is an insightful look at the lives of a certain type of twenty-something. It’s smart more than funny, sexual more than sexy. The best part is, Lena Dunham (creator, writer, and star of Girls) isn’t afraid to “go there.” She isn’t afraid to go anywhere the characters take her. Even if it’s awkward or uncomfortable. Even if it’s “unlikable.”

As a writer, I really admire that. Like, I’m not as square as my mother thinks — although I am square relative to a lot of people — but I’m not always brave enough to write about my “rounder” experiences.

Naturally, people keep comparing Girls to Sex and the City. An HBO show about 4 women in New York vs. an HBO show about 4 women in New York — yeah, it’s inevitable. And I think it’s a fair comparison. I can even map the character types to their counterparts. Hannah = Carrie, Marnie = Miranda, Jess = Samantha, Shoshana = Charlotte. But those equal signs are deceiving.

Girls is like Sex and the City, but without Photoshop. It’s the model without makeup on. It’s life as seen without the rose-colored glasses. It is not cute, hopeful, or romantic. It just is.

(Note: I’m a big SATC fan. I’m not saying Girls is better or worse, just different.)

Oh, and for everyone who keeps saying Girls is about “hipsters,” you really need to learn what a hipster is.

Girls sounds like a bunch of privileged white girls worrying about boys…

A) Well, in a way, yes.

B) So what?

C) Don’t most of us, regardless of age, race, or income, spend a decent amount of time on relationships?

D) Anyone can write a dismissive one-line summary like that. As Patricia Wrede pointed out (in a completely unrelated but excellent post): “The Lord of The Rings” is about a short guy with hairy toes who throws a ring in a volcano.

Okay, but who cares about these “girls”?

I do. And I’m not alone.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: New Adult stories are in demand. Why? Because people in their 20s, like me, want to see art and entertainment explore this awkward transitional time in our lives. Just like people in their 30s want to see family life, or people in their 40s want to see midlife crises, or people in their teens want to see high school and first love.

Everyone wants to see themselves reflected in art and entertainment. That’s the whole point.

(So please stop telling us that we’re so much more self-involved than other generations. We’re not. We just have the tools to rub it in your face now.)

On a related note, a band of intrepid New Adult writers recently launched the site NA Alley. I’m not affiliated, but they did quote me in a few places, and I definitely want to support their endeavor.

I’m still not interested in Girls

That’s fine. Really. No one says you have to be.

Closing thoughts

• It’s still early. Only 3 episodes have aired. Yes, I like Girls now, but I’m also curious and hopeful about how it will grow. I mean, does anyone remember the first season of SATC? With all the interviews and the talking directly to the camera? Yeah, shows can evolve. Sometimes they need time to grow into themselves. (Which is a particularly ironic statement when you apply it to a series about New Adults.)

• Part of me thinks it would be a dream to write for the show. Part of me wants to email Lena Dunham and tell her about TWENTY-SOMEWHERE and beg/hope for an opportunity. The rest of me realizes how ridiculous that would be and figures I’m better off just enjoying Girls as a viewer. (I will not tell you which part of me is winning right now.)

• Favorite lines:

Marnie: “He’s so busy, like, respecting me, you know? That he looks right past me, and everything that I need from him.”

Hannah: “Okay, you are a 23-year old girl who’s had the same boyfriend for 4 years. You’re also allowed to be bored. That’s an okay excuse too.”

Jonathan: “I want you to know, the first time I f*ck you, I might scare you a little. Because I’m a man, and I know how to do things.”

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Writerly Tuesday

1. “Race in YA Lit: Wake Up & Smell the Coffee-Colored Skin!” by Sarah Ockler

Ockler’s post is a bit long, but brilliant. I think she covers a lot of ground in this important discussion.

Can a black kid slay dragons without turning his quest into an anti-racism manifesto? Dragons can be dangerous. Maybe they need to be slayed, and maybe this kid is quick on his feet and handy with the magic sword… and he happens to be black. Can we see his unique and special worldview as a young black dragon slayer, or does he have to take a stand against bigotry too?

There’s so much I could add, so many fine points and nuances to examine. But my thoughts refuse to be wrangled into a succinct or coherent post. As the Magic 8 Ball would say, “Reply hazy. Try again later.”

We’re writers. Our only responsibility as far as I’m concerned is being honest and authentic in our work. But to be honest and authentic, we have to address this. We live in a diverse world.

2. “10 Things Your Commencement Speaker Won’t Tell You” by Charles Wheelan

File this next to JK Rowling’s brilliant remarks to Harvard grads (about the benefits of failure and importance of imagination) and the inspiring advice Steve Jobs gave at Stanford (stay foolish, stay hungry).

3. Don’t make the world worse. I know that I’m supposed to tell you to aspire to great things. But I’m going to lower the bar here: Just don’t use your prodigious talents to mess things up. Too many smart people are doing that already. And if you really want to cause social mayhem, it helps to have an Ivy League degree. You are smart and motivated and creative. Everyone will tell you that you can change the world. They are right, but remember that “changing the world” also can include things like skirting financial regulations and selling unhealthy foods to increasingly obese children. I am not asking you to cure cancer. I am just asking you not to spread it.

3. “Humor/Truth” by Jon Peters

The more I write, the less I like supposed divisions between genres. I think good dramas are funny, just like good comedies are somewhat serious.

I agree. More, I think genres are labels, convenient little boxes that people put stories in to feel safe and tidy. And after all, we’ve got to organize our shelves somehow.

But the best stories defy categorization.

Here’s my advice: Don’t ham it up, but don’t dry it out either. Write honestly and see. I am a serious believer that if you find the life in the story, all of the necessary humor will follow.

Two words — “write honestly” — really struck me. Struck me so hard, in fact, that I had to make another desktop wallpaper.

write-honest-write-now-signed

 

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