Wednesday, June 27, 2012

I Have Stolen Your Words; Sorry

I have recently decided that I'm going to call myself a writer.

For a long time, I sort of cringed when someone asked me if I was a writer and stumbled over a way to deny the title without disrespecting the profession. I think there are two reasons I have resisted owning the word "writer" for so long:
  1. I love words so much, and I have the utmost respect and admiration for people who have made a career out of putting them on paper. I think it was Gary Shteyngart who said that a lot of people want to be writers but no one wants to be a reader. I have been very content with being a reader, a happy consumer of writers' work for a long time, and I didn't want to assume the role of peer with the people who've written the great art.
  2. On the other side, a lot of people who call themselves writers really aren't. Their work is sporadic, poorly written and has no substance. I didn't want to be associated with the "writers" who basically claim the title because it makes them sound artsy and free but didn't produce quality work to back it up.
But now as I'm, like, an adult (omg!) and have realized that I have to figure out what sort of career path I need to start steering towards, I've come to accept that I am a writer: I write, I am good at it, I want to get better and better, and I want to produce quality work that I am proud to put my name on. I began writing almost immediately after I could read, and I'm not entirely sure why it has taken me 20 years to circle back around to doing something that brings me such joy and satisfaction.

No writer is an island (it'll become a saying, just you wait), however, and my writing style has certainly changed over many years. In the same way that musicians are influenced by other bands and singers and incorporate others' style into their own music, writers develop their own style by copying the work of other authors. My writing is absolutely a product of everything I've read, whether through style, tone, or subject matter. 

I thought it would be fun for me, and maybe even for you, to see a list of the top six authors - and their works - who I feel have had the biggest influence on my style.

1. Kit Pearson (The Sky is Falling / Awake and Dreaming): Kit is the first author who made a lasting impression on me. I read The Sky is Falling in grade six and I was absolutely captivated with the story (you can read all about my love of the books and meeting Kit in this blog post). The first "novel" I began writing at the tender age of 11 was pretty much an exact copy of Pearson's Awake and Dreaming. I remember feeling that her characters were very realistic: ordinary children who must deal with extraordinary circumstances.

Pearson's method of characterization has stuck with me for years, and I think it's something that's lacking in a lot of YA lit today. So many protagonists are these superhumans youngsters who are smarter, wiser, and braver than anyone else in the story, and I think it's too showy, too unrealistic, and completely unrelatable (is that a word?). I like that with Kit's stories, I feel like I could be inserted in alongside the characters and I wouldn't be out of place.

2. J.K. Rowling (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban): I've talked about Harry Potter a bunch on this blog before (see this post for an explanation of my love of the series). The world of Harry Potter was (and still is, let's be honest) an escape into this mystical and wonderful new universe that was both familiar and completely unattainable. I love Rowling's attention to detail and the way she writes descriptive scenes: just enough information to aid you in constructing a mental image but not so much that you skim it all in the hopes of getting to more interesting parts. She is a wonderfully balanced writer.

What sets Prisoner of Azkaban apart from the others for me, though, was reading it at the age of 12, it was the first time I realized that words can be manipulated to say the most mundane things in the most beautiful ways. The line that struck me, so much that I remember talking about it constantly for days to anyone who would listen, occurs in the chapter where Harry has snuck into Hogsmead and is crouching on the floor under a table listening to the professors talk about Sirius Black. As the conversation ends, Rowling doesn't write "they stood up;" No, she says "One by one, the pairs of feet in front of Harry took the weight of their owners once more." I read that and thought: that is so clever and beautiful. Such a mundane task, such a throw-away moment, but it is so perfectly written. Of course Harry wouldn't have seen them stand up: he's lying on the floor with a minimal view. All he would have seen was the movement of the hems of their robes. What an absolutely perfect way of describing Harry's line of vision. It is this sort of careful, clever writing that has challenged me to think of better ways of saying the every-day.

3. Donald Miller (Blue Like Jazz): I read this book after my first summer of working at Camp Starrigan. I was 16 and, perhaps unnecessarily, was filled with teen angst. I remember feeling like Don had taken everything I had ever felt and wrote it down on the page for anyone and everyone to read. I have never felt so simultaneously exposed and understood.

What I have taken from Don's style is an approach of raw honesty, wrapped up in a sort of cozy poetry. His writing gets to the root of a lot of painful and difficult issues, but he says it with such beautiful, simple language that it becomes soothing and healing as opposed to jarring and revealing. I aspire to write as beautifully about real life as he does.

4. Bill Bryson (Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe): I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that the person who's writing I most often mimic, both sub- and consciously, is Bill Bryson. I have written about him a lot on this blog (see here, here, and here), so I won't spend another 1000 words singing his praises. But I think Bryson has got writing down to a science. He is funny, informative, clever, and has a very distinctive style that balances between the tone of an Englishman and an American. The more I read Bryson, the more I feel like his turns of phrase become embedded in my mind and I start writing and speaking like I am a 60 year old expat.

5. David Mitchell ("Your dog's died? Have an A-level then!"): I first came across David Mitchell during the fall of 2009 when I was supposed to be writing my honours paper and instead watched every single British panel show on YouTube. He was so sarcastic and angry and funny and spot on that I did some Googling and found that he writes for The Guardian newspaper. One of my favourite of his articles is "Your dog's died? Have an A-level then!" (linked above), in which he talks about the increasing ease to earn an A grade in the UK, and why this reflects poorly on the education system.

My attraction to David's writing is two-fold: 1) he talks a lot about politics and culture in the UK, which teaches me about British culture while keeping me up-to-date with current affairs, and 2) he is a stickler for good writing and attention to detail, and he often complains about how people do not respect communication  anymore. I agree with a great many of his opinions, and he also writes concisely and with a humorous flare that I find a pleasure to read.

6. Anne T. Donahue ("Old Lady Movie Night"): Anne is a recent discovery for me, and I have quickly come to love, laugh (at and with), and steal her writing style. I discovered Anne on a recommendation from a friend through the website HelloGiggles (which is an amazing woman's pop-culture website without being too feminist-y, if you know what I mean). Anne writes a weekly column called "Old Lady Movie Night," in which she watches movies from her youth and writes 25 points about them. I love her articles because we grew up in Canada in the same generation, so I understand all of her pop-culture references.

In particular, what I've taken from Anne is that her writing is fun, not weighed down by the rules of journalism and proper grammar. She writes in CAPS A LOT, and she often #hashtags #random #words, bringing social media into her work. Plus she is funny, and she writes like she is just making comments to you as you watch the movies alongside her. She writes for other websites, too, where her subject matter varies, and even her more "serious" pieces still have a sense of whimsy to them. I love that. I love that writing doesn't always have to be precise and proper to provoke a reaction.

Ok, if you've made it through CONGRATS and I owe you a hug and maybe also some baked goods. I've realized that it takes me so long to write blog entries because I say way too much. I might work on that. I might not. Maybe we can have both quality and quantity! We can have it all!


Number of Books Read in 2012: 12
Current TV Series: Sherlock (season 2)
Current Nail Colour: Essie's "Turquoise and Caicos"

Monday, June 18, 2012

Happy 100! (Come So Far; Got So Far To Go)

This is my 100th blog post!

I thought about this day coming when I was still at a mere 75 posts and wondered how I would commemorate this occasion. You see, this is the longest period of time I have ever written continuously in any sort of journal or blog. I knew that if I made it to 100 posts, it would be a (sort of) big deal.

And now here we are! Almost two years after I started, I have posted 99 blogs about books, movies, lists of things I want to accomplish, and stories about every day life.

I was reading through some of my old posts, changing the tags and doing some editing of spelling mistakes and grammatical disagreements, and there's definitely a progression in my writing. I've moved from "blogging" to writing "expository essays." There are some entries I'm really proud of (namely my review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, thoughts on friendship, the importance of what comes out of your mouth, and an explanation of why I'm a Christian who believes in gay rights). There are some that I think aren't great, and others that make me sad when I read them back because they remind me of times when I was struggling.

I am glad I have kept a record of the past two years. It's been a time of transition and discovery. It hasn't been easy or comfortable, but it has been a period of growth. I have learned a lot, and I regret some things. But think I've come out no worse for wear - maybe better because of it.

100 posts in and I have no intention of stopping. Thank you all for reading and engaging with this blog. It's been a source of encouragement, and I feel more motivated than ever to produce quality writing - for you, and for myself.

So have a piece of cake in honour of this occasion, and see you at post 101.

Let's party! YOLO!! (image taken from here)

Number of books read in 2012: 11
Current TV series: Fortysomething
Current nail colour: L'Oreal's "Penthouse Pink" with Icing's "Glamorous" accent nail

Friday, June 8, 2012

Uptown Girl: An Unlikely Love Story

When I was in elementary and junior high school, we didn't have good cable. We had the cable that skipped from channel 24 to 52, and no matter how much I sobbed and begged Dad to upgrade so we could get Much Music, I would be well into my mid-teens before my cries were answered.

Without channel 33, I was unable to watch shows like S Club Seven and 2Ge+her, let alone the Much Music Countdown. Even after hours of sitting and slowly, agonizingly twisting the TV in the hopes of getting even a glimpse of pre-While You Were Out Evan Farmer through the snowy screen, I was left settling for the second-rate Much More Music. MMM played mostly videos from the late '70s and '80s, obscure Canadian indie music (before indie was a thing), Rock and Roll Jeopardy, and, if you watched for at least 12 hours in a row, one or two songs that were currently on the radio.

"Son, can you play me a memory?"
Much More Music was pretty awful for a pre-teen like myself who, even at the tender age of eleven, desperately wanted to be in the know of all things pop culture. However, there was one saving grace to this abysmal channel: Pop Up Video. While there were some occasional pop hits on the show ("As Long As You Love Me" by The Backstreet Boys being the most notable), mostly it was songs from the 80s and early 90s that I would never have otherwise known or cared about. But Pop Up Video appealed to the part of me that loves history and useless trivia, and so I watched faithfully, loving every "blip" noise that coincided with a new thought bubble of information.

It was while watching this show that I stumbled across the man who was to become my one true music love: the great American singer and songwriter, Billy Joel. Because MMM had pretty limited programming, Pop Up Video episodes repeated themselves fairly frequently. I remember seeing the quintessential "Piano Man" several times and being struck (as much as one can be at the age of 12) by the black and white video, sombre repetition of the melody, and the sad story being told by this down-and-out music man. Something about it was simultaneously both catchy and sad to its very core.

"And now she's looking for a downtown man. That's what I am."
Although I was affected by "Piano Man," my true love affair with Billy didn't begin until one fateful afternoon when Pop Up Video played the only other Billy Joel song they've ever done: "Uptown Girl." For those who haven't seen the video: it's awful. Poor quality, poor acting, poor dancing. Even the lyrics aren't great, and - let's face it - neither is the melody. But something about "Uptown Girl" got to me. Maybe it was the "woah woah woahs" at the beginning, maybe it was the jumpsuits, maybe it was the way that none of the lyrics really repeat themselves in the same rhyme schemes. Whatever it was, a romance was born that day.

I remember telling my dad that night that I loved Billy Joel and wanted more of his music. Ever happy to encourage a music passion that wasn't The Spice Girls or Hanson, my parents got me Billy's Piano Man and The Stranger albums. I remember buying the 2-disc set of "The Essential Billy Joel" and listening to it exclusively for close to a year. It was in the car, my CD player in my bedroom, and my discman at school. I turned the CD on as soon as I woke up and fell asleep listening to "Lullaby", absolutely unable to get enough of my newfound (elderly) love.

As I have explored Billy's repertoire in more recent years, I've realized that his hits and best-known songs don't really showcase the kind of songwriter he is. Sure, who doesn't love singing along to "Only the Good Die Young" and feel temporarily like a bad-ass? There's nothing more satisfactory than nailing every word in "We Didn't Start the Fire." And I don't care who you are, it is impossible to not sway and/or snap along with "The Longest Time."

But Billy is so much more than just jazzy tunes. He is the master of juxtaposing jingle-like melodies with meaningful storytelling. He addresses real moments in history that are heartbreaking or challenging. The songs "Allentown" and "The Downeaster Alexa" are about the changing environmental and economic landscape in post-WWII America, and how everyday Americans are struggling to make money and find meaning once their livelihoods are taken away.

He also introduces a completely new musical style with every record. I suppose his music is all centred around a man with a piano, singing a little ditty, but if you look at the overarching feel from each record to the next, there's always a different sound. From Doo Wop to soul to jazz, he doesn't conform to a particular genre very well.

I read an essay once by the great music critic Chuck Klosterman (I can't remember if it was in his book Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto or Chuck Klosterman IV: A Decade of Curious People and Dangerous Ideas) where he he wrote that Billy Joel was not a cool musician, and never will be, because he is sad. And it's true. Even Billy's love songs have a melancholy feel to them. "Just The Way You Are," one of the most popular wedding songs (a fact I just made up, but I'm sure I saw it on a movie once), has this super sad jazz saxophone melody that almost sounds sorrowful, like Billy knew that his promise of loving this woman forever wouldn't last.

I've often said that Billy Joel is the only man I've ever loved. Sometimes it bothers me that he's not better known among my peer group, because I feel that people are missing out on a great artist in their music collections. But part of me is also a little bit glad that he belongs to me. He's sort of my little secret. I can hum along when I hear one of his songs playing softly over the speakers at a cafe, or I can blast him from the speakers with a car full of people and drown them with sound.

It's a lovely way to write mine and Billy's love story.



Number of books read in 2012: 9
Current TV series: The Last Enemy
Today's nail colour: Essie's "Bikini So Teeny"