Writing

Origin story

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As I write this it’s May the Fourth, an adopted Star Wars celebration day (as in, “may the ‘fourth’ be with you…”), just a few days after the death of Peter Mayhew, who played the beloved Chewbacca. My favorite TV station, Comet, was playing a clear Star Wars knockoff, the 1978 Japanese film Message from Space.

And just a couple of days ago, I interviewed a young woman, who, through a flight scholarship program, got to fly a private plane with the original Han Solo himself, Harrison Ford. I was trying to play it cool, but it was hard to hear her answers over the sound of my twelve-year-old self screaming at me from across time. I’m only one of millions of people who were hit with a bit of The Force growing up, and as a writer, its influence and impact on the shape of my imagination are undeniable.

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The original Star Wars film came out when I had just turned 7 years old. The truth is I wasn’t interested, or I was too busy with my Barbies to notice. I didn’t see it until a few years later, as I recall, when the library put on a showing of Star Wars in anticipation of The Empire Strikes Back. Then I was totally in orbit, so to speak.

The Empire Strikes Back expanded my understanding of storytelling. It was the first film I remember where I felt truly shocked by the twists and the pain inflicted upon a main character: Luke got his hand cut off! By his father! Who he didn’t know about until just now! It was also the first film I recall that didn’t have a completely happy resolution—what? They can leave us hanging like this? Where is Han??

While my young pre-teen/early-teen years I was mainly interested in Han Solo and Luke Skywalker, the presence and influence of Princess Leia was undoubtedly the most impactful. My mother likes to tell a story about when I was four years old and had said something about becoming a nurse. ‘You could be a doctor,’ my encouraging mother said. I apparently snorted derisively and said, to her horror, ‘Girls can’t be doctors!’

Clearly, such a notion didn’t come from my mother, and demonstrated how a misogynistic society had already wheedled itself into the unsuspecting brain of a toddler. To that point had witnessed no females or female characters in roles of authority. Princess Leia began to turn that around. Soon afterward Sigourney Weaver sent a scary Alien flying out of an airlock, all by herself, though I didn’t watch that one until much later.

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Also much later, I learned the screenplay for Empire Strikes Back was co-written by Leigh Brackett, a longtime novelist and screenwriter who died shortly after turning in a first draft of the screenplay. Early on in her career she was called in to work with William Faulkner on the film The Big Sleep by director Howard Hawks, who assumed she was a man. Brackett also wrote, among many things, the acclaimed post-apocalyptic sci-fi novel The Long Tomorrow. I found other ‘hidden’ writers, Andre Norton among them, and began to question why science fiction—a genre launched by Mary Shelley—was a ‘male’ domain.

The Star Wars franchise, like for so many others, also offered me heroes when I needed them. Around the time of Empire Strikes Back we moved to a rural town that seemed to have a different mindset and a different vibe. The kids were different. We moved in the middle of the school year, and I was something different to them, an easy target for bullies. I retreated into my imagination, creating my own internal fan fiction, putting myself in the Star Wars universe as Luke’s Jedi sister (yes, before I knew he actually had one!). Later I began writing my own stories, an oddball fantasy series casting my enemies as the antagonists.

I dove into other books—my mother’s Trixie Belden mystery series, the off-the-wall Hitchhiker’s Guide books—and I set the foundation for an inner world that has become a strange, delightful and gothic bit of architecture with lots of weird staircases. That’s part of my creative origin story. What’s yours?

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Writing When You Can't Write

It’s a bit like cleaning up a mess.  That one there.  A big pile of clothes on the chair in my room.  Some of them need to be hung back up.  Some need folding and to be put in a drawer.  Undies and gym clothes to the wash.  Wednesday’s mail needs to get out of the mound and go to the desk pile for further action.

 

Over there, in that corner of my room, behind the chair is a window into the back yard and it’s cloudy and early out there.  I am not compelled, I don’t want to go out there.  But I don’t want to be in here with all the mess.

 

That’s what it feels like to write when I can’t write.

 

I have been reading about our brains and neuroplasticity and while it’s all fascinating (and fortunate for some of us) the way the brain can heal itself, it is also a little disconcerting to know how malleable we actually are.   That not only “we are what we eat” but “we are what we think” too.

 

And I mention this here because that is how that pile of clothes and crap got bigger and bigger over there on the chair.  I didn’t feel good one evening when I changed out of my day clothes and put on play clothes so the day clothes got thrown on the chair.  And I didn’t feel much better when it was bedtime so the play clothes got added to the pile.  From there, the pile started to attract shirts and socks and mail, whatever I didn’t feel like dealing with at the time got classified as belonging in the pile.

 

And so it goes inside me.

 

The piles of dirty clothes and mail, thoughts and feelings and noticings, they clump together, sending off a stay away vibe.  The longer I stay away, the bigger the pile gets and the harder it is to want to go near it.

 

But here’s the other thing – I always end up going near it.  Eventually, I don’t want my room to be such a mess or I want to wear a shirt that’s in the pile or I know I got a letter from the insurance company marked Open Immediately.

And once I am near it, it is not so much of an effort to pick up the gray pants and slide them over a hanger.  As I pull them out of the pile, a blue fuzzy Smartwool sock falls out onto the carpet, nearly begging to be sent to the wash.  I know there’s another one in there, I reach my hand in and root around for it and the sorting is begun.

 

And so it goes today.  I need writing as a way to sort through myself, to see what’s new, what’s the same, what’s up for grabs.  And if I don’t know how to begin or I don’t know where to begin, I can always go to the chair and write about writing.