August 28th, 2012

Rose-coloured reviews *Ruby Sparks*

I wanted to see Ruby Sparks because it looked like a sweet comedy and I have low standards for films: if I can laugh along with strangers in a darkened auditorium, I’m basically always in. Even better, this sweet comedy was about fiction writing–it practically counted as professional development. Super-in.

Surprise, surprise–Ruby Sparks is way *better* than I expected. While I’ll watch almost anything, this film actually has genuine emotions, and is a genuine reflection of not only writers but the whole messed-up romantic comedy genre. RS isn’t a work of genius or anything, but it’s a pretty great movie for a Friday afternoon.

Less of a surprise is that this film has tonnes in common with Stranger than Fiction from 2006. Both movies are about characters who are helpless pawns of an author who writes them any which way s/he pleases, despite the characters having fully developed personalities and desires of their own. In both films, the author/character conflict stands in the way of romance. In StF, the story was told from the character’s point of view–a buttoned down, grimacing Will Ferrel in my favourite of his performances. In RS, the story belongs to the writer in both senses–Paul Dano stars as Calvin, the hotshot young novelist who can’t his personal life together. Sound familiar? He’s no Emma Thompson, who played the neurotic writer in StF, but he does the job pretty well. His sensible sidekick is his brother, played by Chris Messina, and I really enjoyed the realistically funny depcition of their relationship. However, Messina, one hardly needs to add, is no Queen Latifah, who played Thompson’s sidekick/assistant in StF.

That’s about where the comparisons end, though. The character Calvin creates is not just the protagnoist in a book but the girl of his dreams–Ruby Sparks, as played by Zoe Kazan. Kazan also wrote the screenplay, which caused me to meditate a little on the personality type that would write a film about a dreamgirl, then cast herself. It works, but I still wondered.

So Calvin writes about a girl he would love to have, and then she materializes in his kitchen. After a brief and funny freakout, he gets on with his now-perfect life of love and meatloaf with lovely Ruby Sparks. Except…

Before this all went down, his brother read the novel draft and pronounced Ruby Sparks a fantasy, not a girl–created to fill a need of the mind, not to be real and weird and difficult the way actual women actually are. And this is the problem with most romantic comedies–people don’t have real flaws, they have “quirks” that make them adorable, and which they aren’t really responsible for anyway. Because they are so darn quirky!

I get it–I love this sort of fakey-fake romantic comedy too. Who wants to see Reese Witherspoon actually behaving badly, and actually having to deal with it. I mean, maybe you would, but that’d be a whole other category of movie.

Or maybe not. *Ruby Sparks* somehow allows the viewer to slowly and gently probe the depths of Calvin’s fucked-up-ness. A visit to his parents, played by Annette Benning and Antonio Banderas (*very* funny) starts out as your typical “wacky parents” schtick, but gradually we see that they’re basically nice people with a little surface wackiness, and Calvin treats them rather badly. There’s also a nice scene late in the film where the dynamic with Calvin’s “awful” ex-girlfriend is revealed to be rather more complex than first expected.

This is not to say that Calvin is cast as the villian, or even an unlikeable guy. It’s just that he has some real-person flaws, unlike the usual rom-com fake-flaws-that-are-actually-other-people’s-faults, like fear of committment and trouble discussing feelings. Calvin is a control freak and unwilling to explore other people’s lives or personalities outside of the narrow confines in which he has placed them. These are flaws that many writers have to struggle against–written characters stay so beautifully still and passive in a way that humans just *won’t*. It’s frustrating.

That’s why Calvin’s betrayal of Ruby towards the end of the film is so gut-wrenching. While every rom-com has some kind of betrayal to drive the lovers briefly apart and create a crisis in the narrative, most of them involve crazy misunderstandings, things done while drunk or upset that don’t really mean anything, or any of a number of other constructs designed to keep viewers from liking the characters any less.

Calvin’s betrayal of Ruby is genuine, and genuinely horrible–even though the scene is based on silly magic, the emotion in it made me cringe like when I overhear couples arguing in restaurants. Calvin’s actions aren’t a mistake and he can’t take them back–they arise out deep and genuine flaws in his personality. I hated him in the moment, but I also totally got his motivations.

It’s not all as dark as this–there’s a hopeful ending that actually doesn’t make too much sense even by the magical laws that governed the rest of the film but, eh, I liked the spirit of it and the movie was over then anyway. This movie was far funner and sweeter than I thought it would be, and more of both than anything else in the category I’ve seen in ages. And it gives you some insight into the ways writers are screwed up, if that interests you. Highly recommended!!

January 15th, 2011

Opportunity for Toronto Writers

If you are in Toronto, you can take advantage of the wonderful Toronto Public Library writer-in-residence program, this year with Elizabeth Ruth. I just found out about it now, so maybe you don’t know about it either–here’s the deets:

Elizabeth Ruth, Writer in Residence February – May 2011
Manuscript submissions: Writers of literary fiction are welcome to submit novel or short story manuscripts for feedback. Elizabeth Ruth with read your writing and meet with you to discuss what is working and what might need further development. Submitting a manuscript does not guarantee a meeting with the Writer in Residence. Meetings are by appointment only.

Manuscripts should meet the following criteria:
• Fiction excerpts of up to 10 double-spaced pages in length.
• Typed or word-processed on 1 side of each page (handwritten manuscripts will not be accepted).
• Use 12 point or larger Times New Roman typeface only.
• 1 inch margins all around.
• No email copies accepted.
• Please don’t send in originals.
Manuscripts will be accepted from December 15, 2010 to January 22, 2011. However, the Library reserves the right to limit the number of manuscripts accepted. Please include: your name, address, email address and telephone number on your cover page. There is a limit of one submission per person. Mail or bring to:
Writer in Residence Program
North York Central Library
Languages, Literature and Fine Arts Department,
Second Floor
5120 Yonge Street
Toronto, ON M2N 5N9
Questions: gkelner@torontopubliclibrary.ca
The Toronto Public Library is not responsible for returning manuscripts. Please submit a COPY of your work
Manuscripts will be accepted: December 15, 2010 – January 22, 2011.www.elizabethruth.com

PS from RR–The North York Public Library is *really* nice.

December 7th, 2010

Reverb Day 7

From Reverb: Where have you discovered community, online or otherwise, in 2010? What community would you like to join, create or more deeply connect with in 2011? (Author: Cali Harris)

You know what? It’s not a new discovery, only one I am reminded to appreciate, but it’s the community of my colleagues at work. I am so lucky to have people who are smart and funny, generous and interesting, and good at their jobs to boot, to eat lunch with and hang out with and buy birthday cards for, and occasionally commiserate about the stuff that’s not going so well.

As Ani Difranco once said, “Nobody likes their job / nobody got enough sleep,” and for me, those things could really grind away at me if it weren’t for friends who say, when you try to work through lunch, “If you don’t eat, you die.”

As for what community I would like to connect with more deeply, it’s probably writers beyond Toronto. I am rather Toronto-centric in my literary interests. Certainly not exclusively, but I feel so connected and at home here, and so interested in what is going on with writers here. But the larger Canada is my home too, and I could take a stronger interest in what’s going on outside of the GTA.

November 30th, 2010

Writerly Snark

A few things that, while essentially un-rose-coloured in tone, are too amusing not to pass on:

1) Alex Boyd and Jacob Arthur Mooney wrote a Facebook Constitution for Writers, which is pretty funny, and full of good suggestions, though by far the best one (and the summation of the whole constitution is) “Facebook offers you innumerable opportunities to be a passive-aggressive wimp. Don’t overdo it.”

2) Scott sent me this video about crazy people who want to write novels just because they “can write and speak your native language.” Grim, but funny!

Or maybe you’d just like to watch Arcade Fire’s Sprawl II (Mountains beyond Mountains) video? Ok, then.

November 5th, 2010

A Matter of Influence

Earlier this week, I did a short talk and Q&A with a short story class that’s studying some pieces from Once. The theme I was asked to discuss was influence–what short stories and short-story writers had I learned from, and what, and how much. Well, I extrapolated those questions from the theme given; I think I got it more or less right.

There are so many writers I tried to learn from…ok, imitate…when I was younger. Ok, and I still do. I have never ever been called out on any of this rampant imitation, and here’s why: my mimicry is not good enough to remind any of the writing that I’m supposed to be mimicking. I’m not that good–it takes talent to make your voice sound like someone else’s, a weird and specific talent that few possess.

This is why the old teenage justification–“I don’t want to read other people, because it’ll influence me and my work will be derivative”–is so hilarious. Yeah, you read too much Sylvia Plath or JD Salinger, and you are in *real* danger of sounding exactly like that genius person. That’s the problem.

I don’t think I’ve ever succeeded in sounding like much of anyone except myself. But the writers that I choose to mimic–and thus to read closely and repeatedly and with care–teach me things in small and subtle ways, and point me in directions I never good have found all on my untutored own. I am a firm believer that imitation is a perfectly excellent way to begin; the places where we first hear are own voices in our work are the places where we’ve utterly failed to sound like someone else.

The influencer I chose to talk about with the students is Leon Rooke, and the stories we took up were Leon’s A Bolt of White Cloth, probably one of my favourite stories ever (it’s a long list of faves), and a story of my own that Leon pushed me (both figurively, by inspiring me with his own work, and literally, by tapping my arm and saying, “Hey, this is what you should write!”), “Linh Lai” (sorry, it’s not online).

What’s funny is that I started the talk with the same basic material on “influence” as above, talked about and read from “Bolt,” then talked about and read from “Linh,” then asked if they could see a connection. Partly, I think the students were nervous to have a stranger teaching them (they loosened up later and the Q&A was really fun) but also, the connection is not obvious.

My writing is not very Rookian, more’s the pity. I don’t have that swing to my prose, usually, and Leon’s background and experiences take him to places I can’t go. But *I* feel the connection, and know how much I learned about quotidan magic and wet-laundry romance from Leon, not to mention how to set a scene with just a glimpse of the sky. Just because my imitation is a 99% failure, doesn’t mean that that 1% isn’t in there, beating for all it’s worth.

This is *not* to say that I take my story as a failed story (I love that one, and all my published stories, actually; modesty ought to have forbid me saying that but oh well!)–just that the imitation didn’t work. But nor should it. We already have one human who can write like Leon Rooke, and he carries the mantel admirably. I am happy to just write like me, which is of course the sum everything I’ve known and seen, and everyone I’ve learned from.

October 7th, 2010

Why date a writer

I’m really going to try to cut down on the number of email forwards I use as posts here, but I can’t help it; this one is funny! Some of this stuff is just untrue slanders, but not #6 and #13!

Of course, one solution to all this is just for writers to date other writers, so that both partners’ quirks will cancel each other out and you’ll be totally charmed by each others’ pretensions. I’m just sayin’…

EDIT #2: I originally posted this with a request for proper attribution, and Nicole kindly provided it–the author is Kathryn Vercillo and she originally posted the list here. However, I didn’t realize that her original commentary was something else–the list has been edited by Nitsuh Abebe and reposted here–thanks to Mo for pointing that out. I really hope I’ve got this all correct now!

1.          Writers will romance you with words. We probably won’t. We write for ourselves or for money and by the time we’re done we’re sick of it. If we have to write you something there’s a good chance it’ll take us two days and we’ll be really snippy and grumpy about the process.

2.          Writers will write about you. You don’t want this. Trust me.

3.          Writers will take you to interesting events. No. We will not. We are busy writing. Leave us alone about these “interesting events.” I know one person who dates a terrific writer. He goes out alone. She is busy writing.

4.          Writers will remind you that money doesn’t matter so much. Yes. We will do this by borrowing money from you. Constantly.

5.          Writers will acknowledge you and dedicate things to you. A better way to ensure this would be to become an agent. That way you’d actually make money off of talking people through their neuroses.

6.          Writers will offer you an interesting perspective on things. Yes. Constantly. While you’re trying to watch TV or take a shower. You will have to listen to observations all day long, in addition to being asked to read the observations we wrote about when you were at work and unavailable for bothering. It will be almost as annoying as dating a stand-up comedian, except if you don’t find these observations scintillating we will think you’re dumb, instead of uptight.

7.          Writers are smart. The moment you realize this is not true, your relationship with a writer will develop a significant problem.

8.          Writers are really passionate. About writing. Not necessarily about you. Are you writing?

9.          Writers can think through their feelings. So don’t start an argument unless you’re ready for a very, very lengthy explication of our position, our feelings about your position, and what scenes from our recent fiction the whole thing is reminding us of.

10.      Writers enjoy their solitude. So get lost, will you?

11.      Writers are creative. This is why we have such good reasons why you should lend us $300 and/or leave us alone, we’re writing.

12.      Writers wear their hearts on their sleeves. Serious advice: if you meet a writer who’s actually demonstrative, be careful.

13.      Writers will teach you cool new words. This is possibly true! We may also expect you to remember them, correct your grammar, and look pained after reading mundane notes you’ve left for us.

14.      Writers may be able to adjust their schedules for you. Writers may be able to adjust their schedules for writing. Are you writing? Get in line, then.

15.      Writers can find 1000 ways to tell you why they like you. By the 108th you’ll be pretty sure we’re just making them up for fun.

16.      Writers communicate in a bunch of different ways. But mostly writing. Hope you don’t like talking on the phone — that shit is rough.

17.      Writers can work from anywhere. So you might want to pass on that tandem bike rental when you’re on vacation.

18.      Writers are surrounded by interesting people. Every last one of whom is imaginary.

19.      Writers are easy to buy gifts for. This is true. Keep it in mind when your birthday rolls around, okay?

20.      Writers are sexy. No argument. Some people think this about heroin addicts, too.

September 3rd, 2010

Useful information

Here’s a bunch of random stuff I’ve read on the web lately that might be helpful to you:

10 Mistakes Freelancers Make: I worked freelance for a while and made many of these mistakes, which probably contributed to how miserable I was (but not entirely; some people just have a set number of hours beyond which they NEED to have a conversation with someone). Now I work with/administrate for freelancers, and I see the best ones avoid this stuff. The piece is a bit general, but if you’re just starting out, probably exactly what you need.

Definitions of Different Kinds of Cousins: I’m from a small family and can generally define everybody by pointing and saying their names, but I can see the lure of wanting to know the exact title of your cousin’s daughter or your grandmother’s cousin. The folks from the Emily Post Institute finally set the record straight.

Q&A with Daniel Alarcon: Apparently the New Yorker does these little Q&As with their fiction writers as a web-only feature now. The questions are quite generic, but the writers that the New Yorker pulls are so good that their answers are still worth reading.

The Finding Time to Write piece is part of a writing advice column the Vagabond Trust has been running every Thursday. The best piece of advice in it is this–so true for some of us, but no one ever says it: “Maybe you can have your web browser open and keep an eye on your Facebook news feed while you’re writing. Maybe you can sit on the couch with your laptop and watch TV while the kids are screaming and playing in the room and you can still get your writing done. I don’t know, I’m not you. If you feel that you just can’t stop doing something to write, to to write while you’re doing it. If it doesn’t work, you actually are going to have to stop doing whatever that is for a little while.”

Hope that helps with…something or other. Happy Labour Day, peeps!

August 12th, 2010

Me on the web

Every time an issue of TNQ comes out, they ask all the writers what they are reading and then post the answers online–fascinating stuff for the literary voyeur, or those just looking for suggestions, and fun for a literary exhibitionist like me to participate in.

And my blog post about the villains (again) is up on the Maisonneuve blog, if you missed it the first time around.

June 21st, 2010

Two nice things

Let’s start with the good stuff:

1) The New Quarterly’s poll to choose a cover image for their “On the Road” issue is now up. The pics are all splendid, so there is no need for me to stump for my favourite, though I very much have one.

2) Ian le Tourneau, whose work I have to admit I’m not familiar with, has started a neat new thing called The Second Book Project. The first one, linked here, is with the always fascinating Zachariah Wells and there is the promise of more to come. As an author knee-deep in the sophmore slog, I am very interested in following these interviews and trying to learn a little something for myself. FYI, the series is poets only, but I find that when it comes to process-and-publication topics like this, I there is still plenty to learn across the forms.

June 8th, 2010

More advices

I suggest

–reading Sarah Selecky’s interview on Joyland. Really really practical useful advice, and an interesting interview. I especially like the stuff she said about getting the most out of a workshop–I heartily agree.

–grilling the packaged, pre-marinated tempeh just a little EVEN THOUGH it is technically fully cooked and won’t kill you if you put it directly from the box onto your plate. It also won’t make you very happy.

–not quitting caffeine on a Monday, not doing it cold turkey, and maybe not doing it at all. My brain feels like it is trying to tunnel its way out with an icepick.

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