Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Butterfly Effect in The Slap

The inciting incident is to literature what the Butterfly Effect is to meteoreology.
Stephen King has offered insight into his inspiration. He asks “what if?”

What if an ancient, vicious vampire set up shop in an isolated Maine village?

What if an abusive alcoholic with delusions about his own talent became caretaker at a haunted hotel through the winter?

What if a tortured bullied high school girl also has the power to destroy?

The question King poses for his own inspiration and fiction is the equivalent of The Butterfly Effect in meteorology. The Butterfly Effect considers whether the almost imperceptible wind created by the flutter of a butterfly’s wings could set in motion weather forces that would result in a catastrophic storm somewhere on the earth. The Butterfly Effect may also describe the human experience, especially as revealed in literature.

Would a family dynamic be forever altered if one stern man decided to take discipline into his own hands by striking an out-of-control child? According to the The Slap, an NBC series recently concluded, the answer is yes. That one disturbance in the illusory equilibrium enjoyed by the extended family tears away the veils. That slap exposes wounds and flaws in need of care.

Would a cowardly act of fratricide leave no heirs to the throne in Denmark as brother follows brother, mother follows husband, and son follows father into death? A failure to uphold moral and familial duty results in chaos. One man’s hideous choice costs so many their life in Hamlet.

In a different play, Othello, Shakespeare asks if the color of a man’s skin and an elopement that defies convention could lead to betrayal, murder, and suicide. When jealousy is a factor, the answer is “definitely.”

Classic and contemporary writers deploy The Butterfly Effect in developing stories. It is more commonly known as an inciting incident that triggers actions, reactions, complications, and a climactic conclusion.

Reading Challenge:

“Read” The Slap in light of its inciting incident. What disasters occur as a consequence?

Writing Challenge:

Pose a “what if” question for your own story.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Slap’s Women

NBC’s limited series, TheSlap, was best when addressing the many facets of being a woman. Aisha, Anouk, and Rosie represent different iconic women as well as modern dilemmas that women face. Two of them, Aisha and Anouk, are successful career women. Aisha balances being a physician with parenting, thanks in large measure to an understanding and responsible partner in their father. We learn later that Aisha has a reckless past that tempts her, especially when her reckless partner registers for the same medical conference.

Anouk is without spouse or children. In the first episode, she demonstrates antipathy toward parenting and a love that binds, but a young lover impregnates her, and like so many fictional women, she chooses to let love bind her. By the end of the short-lived series, she is blissfully parenting an infant without that young lover. TV producers and screenwriters shape single parenting as idyllic, easier than it is in reality. They create women of means able to afford help and rely upon a supportive extended family.

The Slap tries to convince viewers that
Hope awaits after the Storm passes.
Photo by Al Griffin
Rosie is the stay-at-home mother and the least affluent, married to an artist--not starving but striving. Rosie also differs from Aisha and Anouk because she is the least self-assured, except in her opinions about her own parenting. In that life role, she is the fierce Mother Bear, prepared to fight to the death any and all threats to her son, Hugo, unable to admit that some of her parenting choices may negatively affect that boy.

All three women support and forgive one another more readily and more freely than they do anyone else in their lives, especially men. Their disagreements are civil; their empathy given freely. Their loyalties to each other trump all wild cards even after a terrible conflict divides the extended family and sets woman against woman and women against men.

In The Slap, women are the archetypal and somewhat clich├ęd peace-makers. New mother Anouk puts her infant in the arms of Hugo, the boy who has been a chronic danger to other children. He’s gentle with the babe, suggesting that court-mandated counseling has helped Rosie correct her own course and thereby Hugo’s. With this tableau, the writers suggest that the next generation will lead the way to live peaceably with one another.

The men in this TV tale do not enjoy support or empathy. They are cast in the role of Silence, confined to keeping their mouths shut while the women work their way through the maze of parenting choices and justice in this world. The men also suffer as the women find their way.

Aisha, for example, almost commits adultery just to feel like the bad girl she once was before marriage and motherhood. What prevents her from breaking her own marriage vows is discovering that her former lover is also married. She walks out on him, apparently offended by his inability to confess his married state while she was fully prepared to betray her own marriage vows. Go figure.

Aisha soon learns that her husband almost betrayed her. After being disappointed at work when a woman claims the promotion he thought was his, he lets a young girl’s flattery tempt him. Unable to live with the knowledge of his own frailty, he  unloads his guilt upon Aisha, forcing her to bear it and endangering their marriage. Aisha moves out, leaving her husband hurt and confused, especially because she throws her own carnal desires in his face before she goes.

Rosie’s marriage is as complicated and fraught with emotional harm. She and her husband drink too much. A semi-permanent buzz does nothing to improve their  expectations for each other, but they agree upon Hugo. They love him beyond measure. Rosie’s husband also loves his wife, often in spite of her blind allegiance to an Earth-mother philosophy of child rearing and her Mother Bear ferocity.

Anouk’s man, the lover who impregnated her, moves on, and the viewer is simply left to imagine how their days or weeks or months passed. Anouk seems to have let him go or lost him without regret. She has Aisha and Rosie, after all; they are with her for the ultrasound appointment. They are the nurturers, and they nurture Anouk as well as their own children.

The Slap is, in the end, part Hollywood fancy trying to be timely and relevant. It is also short-hand for very complex roles and relationships. It attempts to portray family dynamics with special emphasis upon the power of women who, while immersed in a patriarchal, parochial culture, steer the Ship of State. When the story ends, justice has been meted out by a wise, if somewhat terse, female trial judge. She assigns blame and punishment in ways that viewers surely deem appropriate. Hugo’s father nods, apparently recognizing his own culpability; his mother seems chastened but still resolved to bear the slight against her child forever as if she is the victim. The man who slapped the child has fought for his reputation, but lost it anyway. As the adult with all power bestowed upon him by virtue of his gender, his position in the extended family, and his wealth, he should have exercised restraint against women and certainly against a child. The women corrected him, then turned to their real work: initiating Anouk into their clan as women who are also individuals with pasts and hopes, women who are also mothers, coping and striving.

Connye Griffin writes My Writing and Editing Coach

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Raylan Givens, I’ll Miss You

Southerners invent names, preferring two names. Sometimes those names seem to clash, and when they do, surely they confuse the identity in development. Sometimes though those names seem to predict a future.

Mary Grace, for example, clarifies. Her parents have signified their hope in her maternal courage and the blessings she will bring to their lives. Donnie Ray, on the other hand, confuses. Donnie's parents have saddled him with boyhood all his days by choosing Donnie--not Donald or Don--as his given name, then the short, pointed Ray follows. Ray is for a grown-up, maybe even one as razor-sharp as Raylan Givens, the protagonist of Justified.

Raylan Givens is a name consisting of two distinct parts. It’s a portmanteau, the pointed Ray made less so with the somewhat diminutive lan. Part lawman and lawbreaker, Raylan upholds his duty and defies it as often. His words are rays that break open the truth; his nature as ruthless as Nature herself. He gives, and he definitely taketh away.

Raylan Givens rides a Lincoln rather
than a steed as his gunslinger ancestors
did. Boyd Crowder drives a pick-up, the
vehicle preferred by country folk navigating
back roads and potholes in the soul.
(Image by Al Griffin Photography)
Raylan’s nemesis is Boyd Crowder, saddled with a country name that belies his keen intelligence. In the first season, he's his father's boy, burdened with religious sentiment turned mean in White Supremacy, then sloughed off by disappointment and treachery. He takes up the cloak of criminal as if no other work was advertised in Harlan County. Over time, like Walter White, he becomes what other men fear, a man capable of speaking calmly to his cousin while taking aim to put a bullet through his brain just because Boyd could no longer trust kin or country-stupid. He had no time for detours like Dewey Crowe on Boyd's way out of Harlan County.

As the series has shown, there are few honorable men in Boyd’s world. He’s fought the 1% for his chance at a fine home and future with the woman he loves. He’s thrown in with drug dealers from Florida, Mexico, Canada, and Kentucky. He’s accepted large sums of cash to steal larger sums of cash. He’s killed and calculated in a universe parallel to the one in which Raylan spins, and in Raylan's U. S. Marshall-universe, justice is the deity worshipped, sometimes by any means available.

Raylan has struck bargains with very bad men to eliminate worse men. He has planted seeds of doubt, proving once more how little honor exists among thieves. He has identified the Bull’s Eye and loaded his quiver with enough ammunition to reveal the stuffing just under the surface.

But I have to wonder why he doesn’t walk away. He knows that greed will always twist the hearts of men. He’s said as much. He knows that desperate people do despicable things. He’s said that too. He has a lovely ex-wife and infant daughter ready to soothe his heavy heart. Why doesn’t he go to them before it’s too late? Before something horrible rips them from him or he from them, before the predator forgets that he can never exact enough justice to set right the poverty and clannish world from which he rose?

Still, Raylan Givens, for all your faults and scorched-earth nature, I’ve loved you from your first swagger, quick draw, and pithy remark to the last bloody deed.

Reading Challenge:

Read the series Justified

Writing Challenge:

A piece of Raylan Givens’ advice:

If you run into an asshole in the morning, you ran into an asshole. If you run into assholes all day, you’re the asshole.

What does a character you’ve created run into, and what does he learn from it?

My Writing and Editing Coach is Connye Griffin's forum
for writing tips, literary analysis, and opinion.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Whither, Rick Grimes, as You Journey Among The Walking Dead?

Connye Griffin writes My Writing and Editing Coach

Joseph Conrad sent Marlow into a nineteenth-century Heart of Darkness to re-open the Company’s pipeline to ivory profits. Agent Kurtz, once a rising star in the company, had stopped shipping ivory downriver where it could be loaded onto ocean vessels for transport to Europe. Marlow was directed to salvage the employee or the shipments.

Marlow expected to find treachery and savagery among Africa’s native population. Instead he found it among company employees who fooled themselves into believing that Africans are as inexhaustible a resource as ivory, a mere commodity fit for work without sustenance, chained round the neck in a line requiring surrender to the yoke and each other’s strengths. They are the walking dead, broken and weakened until their will to survive departs. When released from their chains, they crawl into a shadowy place and refuse a gift of a biscuit, the ridiculous, useless token food that Marlow offers to one dying man.

After his sojourn in Africa, Marlow refuses to serve the Company. He’s witnessed the ignobility in a noble experiment to conquer the unknown, to forge onward in a foreign frontier.

Sheriff Rick Grimes, the hero of The Walking Dead, is at a similar turning point. He must choose to fraternize with ignobility or risk death in noble gestures. Before Alexandria, Rick has suffered and inflicted suffering. He has hoarded and given. He has somehow learned to live with the stench of his own filth in a world afflicted with a human weakness that transforms men, women, and children into flesh-eating carcasses. They are rotting aboveground, unable to choose what to hunt, unable to choose death without aid. Someone has to strike like lightning through their brains in order to end them.

An apocalyptic night sky
Photo Courtesy of Al Griffin Photography

Rick has been Marlow. He has turned from inflicting suffering, taking life only when his own or the lives of those he shepherds are in danger. He has borne the burden of his wife’s adultery, his best friend’s treachery, his wife’s death. He watched a dystopian world shape his son into a cold killer.  Still he sought shelter with land enough to tend a garden. He fought for his humanity, but now seems on the brink of throwing it aside in favor of quick, certain justice.

Calculating Deanna, so unworthy of trust, so seemingly blind to her sons’ cowardice and cruelty, appears to be on the side of angels when she says she may exile Rick but would not order his death. She hasn't lost as has Rick and his clan, but when she does, she yields to her own heart of darkness

Glen Rhee and Michonne, each as capable of ruthlessness as Rick, hope to reclaim the humanity within. They long to be clean, to sleep without fear, to work the metaphorical Alexandria garden, to be productive and build a tomorrow. They admire and love Rick, but if Rick becomes as savage as those at Terminus or the Wolves, if he forsakes all hope for good anywhere in the heart of man or the world they must endure, will Glenn and Michonne let Rick go in order to preserve their own fragile humanity? They are now more like Marlow than Rick has ever been. They are called to the company of Grimes and called to run from it as well.

Rick and Sasha and Carol cannot trust that they have left dystopia outside the walls. They believe that treachery and savagery exist within and without, both on this earth and in men. They are in danger of becoming Kurtz, of yielding to their own hearts of darkness in some noble pursuit of their own imagining. Deanna proves their point without understanding what she's done.

And all of these links to the classic canon, to philosophical questions, and to dynamic character is why people are loyal fans of The Walking Dead. It’s as complex as Marlow and Kurtz’s dilemma; it’s as graphic in its depictions of human depravity as Conrad or Apocalypse Now.

The Walking Dead is a twenty-first century journey into man’s dark heart. We only hope that Rick’s has not lost all light.

Reading Challenge:

Read The Walking Dead.

Writing Challenge:

Marlow describes the Romans bringing civilization to a savage frontier:

Imagine him here—the very end of the world, a sea the color of lead, a sky the color of smoke, . . . . Sandbanks, marshes, forests, savages,—precious little to eat fit for a civilized man, nothing but Thames water to drink. . . . Here and there a military camp lost in a wilderness, like a needle in a bundle of hay—cold, fog, tempests, disease, exile, and death,—death skulking in the air, in the water, in the bush. They must have been dying like flies here. Oh yes—he [the conqueror, the explorer, the survivors in dystopia] did it. Did it very well, too, no doubt, and without thinking much about it either, . . . . They were men enough to face the darkness. . . . feel the savagery, the utter savagery, . . . ,—all that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men. There's no initiation either into such mysteries. He has to live in the midst of the incomprehensible, which is also detestable. And it has a fascination, too, that goes to work upon him. The fascination of the abomination—you know. Imagine the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate. (Conrad, Joseph. The Heart of Darkness. N.p.: n.p., n.d. The Gutenberg Project. 9 Jan. 2006. Web. 26 Mar. 2015.)

Apply Marlow’s explanation of human progress toward civilization to The Walking Dead as a poem, analytical essay, or eulogy. 

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Experience and Memory and Meaning

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach

As we age, we often examine our lives, bringing to the front memories and moments to assign them meaning in the overall purpose our lives seem to have served. Anyone engaged in such an examination knows its challenges. Making sense of isolated moments loosely strung together in a pattern that has logic only in the stream of consciousness often ends in sighs, especially when words fail. Yet authors triumph in this endeavor. They take life’s detritus and glory, order it, and share it with us.

Riding into the Light
Photo by Al Griffin Photography
Daniel James Brown’s Prologue to The Boys in the Boat reveals the ground to be covered, ground that moves from the ordinary to the extraordinary, from detritus to glory, from experience through memory and into meaning. Here is an excerpt wherein Brown shares what he learned:

“… [Joe Rantz] talked about learning the art of rowing, about shells and oars, about tactics and technique. He reminisced about long, cold hours on the water under steel-gray skies, about smashing victories and defeats narrowly averted, about traveling to Germany and marching under Hitler’s eyes into the Olympic Stadium in Berlin, and about his crewmates. None of these recollections brought him to tears, though. It was when he tried to talk about ‘the boat’ that his words began to falter and tears welled up in his bright eyes.

At first I thought he meant the Husky Clipper, the racing shell in which he had rowed his way to glory. Or did he mean his teammates, the improbable assemblage of young men who had pulled off one of rowing’s greatest achievements? Finally, . . . I realized that ‘the boat’ was something more than just the shell or its crew. To Joe, it encompassed but transcended both--it was something mysterious and almost beyond definition. It was a shared experience--a singular thing that had unfolded in a golden sliver of time long gone, when nine good-hearted young men strove together, pulled together as one, gave everything they had for one another, bound together forever by pride and respect and love. Joe was crying, at least in part, for the loss of that vanished moment but much more, I think, for the sheer beauty of it” (Brown, Daniel J. "Prologue." Boys in the Boat. New York: Penguin, 2013. Kindle File.)

Memories of the Husky Clipper, a boat that carried nine men to glory somewhere far away in both time and space, provoke tears, but that tangible object represents far more. It is the experience of mastering it, of overcoming the limits of the human species, and sublimating individual self-interest for the team’s. It is pride in accomplishment, respect for the work, and love of wind, water, and waves. It is his past, his character captured in a singular “golden sliver of time long gone.”

Brown understood and informs us that Rantz measures his life in such moments, not the mundane coffee spoons of J. Alfred Prufrock, but in the beauty of Nature, men, and work.

Reading Challenge:

Read The Boys in the Boat for a great story told beautifully.

Writing Challenge:

Communicate the intangible magic found in a very tangible act or object.