Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Wild by Cheryl Strayed and Reese Witherspoon

I have often enjoyed the film versions of novels and stories as much as I enjoyed the written work, but more often I miss what the film medium must omit for the sake of time, story, and clarity. One recent film is an exception. Wild, starring Reese Witherspoon, is better than the book, Wild, by Cheryl Strayed.

The memoir plods along, each step a labor in verbs and nouns to describe the physical demands of hiking the Pacific Coast Trail (PCT) while mourning her state as a motherless child. The film, on the other hand, soars because of the camera’s ability to reveal the trail from Southern California’s dry desert regions through grasslands and foothills to mountain peaks and Oregon’s deep, dark forests. Strayed, the author, seemed to lack the capacity to paint these sites with rich language, or she was unimpressed because of the sorrow heavier than the pack she purportedly bore.

"Places We Seek When Our Hearts Are Heavy"
Photo Courtesy of Al Griffin
The memoir is also raw; the author appears naked before us. She recounts her terrible choices in men and preparation for the trail, her descent into drug use and promiscuity, and the torturous end to her marriage as well as her mother’s beloved horse. With each tale, Strayed excuses herself by telling her readers that “she just didn’t know” or “she doesn’t know why” she did those things. She only glimpses real causes, including a father who abused her mother emotionally and physically and a stepfather who was present and kind in her life until he moved on almost immediately after her mother died.

Strayed transitions through the five stages of grief before and along the PCT. She denies that her mother could die so quickly after diagnosis and runs from the truth of her mother’s death in drugs and sex. On the trail, Strayed vents her rage that she had too few years with her mother and later, wishes for more time. Most steps from Southern California to Oregon are the steps of someone depressed, someone ashamed of who and what she was. The long-sought acceptance, however, is perfunctory. Readers are simply informed that it took place; we don’t witness the transformation.

The film, however, does not wallow in denial or anger or even bargaining. The film can’t tell us how often Strayed contemplates a sexual encounter, and the film’s screen writer, producers, and director choose not to prolong the poor horse’s execution at the hands of amateurs with the excuse that no money could be found for humane euthanasia.

Sunsets Call to Mind the Glory and Beauty in This Life
Photo Provided by Al Griffin 
The film draws the protagonist with paints less stark and thus softens the hard edges so off-putting to this reader. The film seems to recognize how flawed Strayed was, how repugnant her actions, how much of a pariah she might be in many circumstances. The film coaxes us to believe that Strayed triumphed over bad judgment and self-destruction, and I, for one, certainly hope that’s true.

Reading Challenge:

Read Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild, then watch the film, Wild. Which version rises to the level of readability?

Writing Challenge:

Write your own critique of Wild the book and Wild the film.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Writers Write!

We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.
--Ernest Hemingway

My Writing and Editing Coach began with advice about how to become a better writer, and it’s worth repeating, especially in light of Mr. Hemingway’s observation that none of us masters the interplay of experience and language.

In February 2010, I wrote:

If I wish to write or need to write, then I must begin.

The question most often asked by those facing a writing task is how do I begin? My students often hope that I will answer that question with a foolproof strategy. Alas, the answer is neither foolproof nor magical. The answer is: 

Even if you are not yet sure of your point, even if you hate the first sentence and would like to start over, commit by beginning. You can always add, subtract, and re-write. You can also use what you write to discover good phrases worth saving and uncover main ideas because writing helps you clarify your thoughts.

The advice is still sound more than five years later. The only way to make a beginning is to begin. The only way to become better is to begin and practice. 

Writing begets writing. So begin.

Reading Challenge:

Writers also read. Any one of the six fine writers who’ve written a book about writing are worth your time and energy, but don’t read exclusively while planning to write later--after you know more. Write, too, and write now.

Writing Challenge:

Stunning photographs are serendipitous--a happy accident of eye, light, and lens.
This one is courtesy of Al Griffin Photography whose work is available on
Fine Art America, SmugMug, See.Me, and his own site.
More from February 2010:

Serendipity: A happy accident. Be open to serendipitous events. Write about the surprises and good fortune that exist everywhere.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Damaged Women

Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned (William Congreve)

Amy, the damaged woman at the core of Gillian Flynn’s successful novel, Gone Girl, is a modern-day Medea, a woman scorned, embittered, and powerful. She has the raw, shocking bravado to take from her husband everything, even his ability to choose. From her lover, the poor sap who dared to adore her, she takes life itself.

Medea took the lives of her own children. She also created a potion that devoured her husband’s new wife from skin to vital organs. That bride melted, horrifying all who bore witness to her terror and pain.

Both Amy and Medea bring another axiom to mind:

Revenge is a dish best served cold. (Dorothy Parker by way of Shakespeare)

Amy smiles and kisses the man she methodically destroys. He has no idea that she plots his public shame and imminent arrest while lying next to him each night. For months, she writes a journal about events and hurts that never occurred. She opens lines of credit to make purchases that will condemn him. She plants evidence, playing a shrewd, strategic, and very cold game.

Photo Courtesy of Al Griffin
Medea is without emotion when she deploys her weapons against her social climbing, privileged husband. Her pleas for sympathy and her long lament against condescension may explain her motives but never her abilities to sacrifice her children to avenge a wrong. Doing so shocks. A mother, as we understand her, as we idealize her, could never contemplate an act so cold and callous.

Damaged women, scorned and vengeful, seem to be in vogue. Anna, the second wife in Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train, would sacrifice Rachel, the first wife, by an means available. She pulls herself from the brink of making Rachel a sacrificial lamb when Anna finally recognizes that their husband scorns her, too.

Medea’s story proves that damaged, vengeful women are iconic. Greek myth is replete with them; so is contemporary fiction. Whether the protagonist is male or female, literature often informs us that treachery breeds savagery--just as it does for the four women of this post: Amy, Anna, Rachel and Medea.

Reading Challenge:

Read or re-read Medea by Euripedes in light of modern, popular stories about damaged women.

Writing Challenge:

How do Hamlet or Othello prove that treachery breeds savagery?

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Fiction Weighs Nature Versus Nurture

Psychology, criminal justice, and science continue to investigate which holds the greater power over us: nature or nurture. Fiction also weighs those factors.

A delicate balance between Nature and Nurture
Showtime’s series, Shameless, just closed its fifth season with episodes that suggest nature cannot triumph over nurture. Each Gallagher child seems bound for sorrow, mayhem, and shame in spite of their best intentions to do otherwise, in spite of brief forays into the better natures of human beings.

Frank Gallagher, patriarch, lifelong drunk, and confidence man, has taken advantage of every person he’s ever met. From asking for a loan he has no intention of ever repaying to outright thievery, Frank uses and abuses. He’s stolen from his own children, from women he’s bedded just to take their money, and from charities. When he finally finds a woman to cherish, she breaks his heart and most likely, his resolve.

Monica Gallagher, matriarch, is bipolar and off her meds more than she is on them. She seeks someone who will care for her without requiring her to heed advice about medicines, therapies, or behavior. She has deserted her children as often as she’s visited them, and she has been away from them more often than she’s been near to care for them. She is nature burdened and nurture deprived.

In the season just concluded, Monica commits one of the worst crimes a mother can commit. She rescues her son, Ian, also diagnosed as bipolar, from military justice, only to abandon him to his own care when a younger man claims her time and attention. Ian hoped to have found someone who would not judge him, someone he would not overburden because she too is bipolar. Instead he finds that he is neither a priority nor a burden. He is an afterthought, ranking behind recreational drugs and young lovers--even possessive, dangerous meth-making ones.

Ian’s instincts were to serve his country but his illness got in the way. He wanted to care for his gay lover’s infant son, but his illness got in the way. In fact, every good impulse in Ian sparks chaos because of his Gallagher nature, the genes that shaped his bipolar, and the Gallagher nurture. Lacking any good parent and unstable, preoccupied siblings, Ian has few choices. Nurturing failed him, too.

Fiona Gallagher, oldest child until Sammi appears, was once able to mother all her younger siblings. Once she would have thrown herself upon the cross and asked to be sacrificed for any one of them, but nurture overwhelmed her. She detoured into addiction, nearly costing little Liam his future when he found her cocaine while she partied. She has also shown a propensity for casual and confused sex. She finds seduction and chemistry so much more compelling than relationships. At the end of season 5, she is more than ready to trade a man who treats her well for a fractured man with a history of addiction.

Debbie and Carl, the youngest children, are proving the power of nurture. They are willing to fight and break laws to get what they want. Both are sexually active at very young ages. Both have lied. Carl is now in prison, determined to establish his street credentials as a minion who can be counted on in the drug trade. Debbie is now trying to become pregnant so she can have someone to love. No one can turn the toxic tides carrying these two.

Only Lip seems to understand the destructive power of his home and the people he calls family. Brilliant and brave, he dares to become more in order to build a future that will provide for the family in need, but he also crosses moral and ethical lines easily after quick cost-benefit analyses. To raise money for tuition, he sells drugs. When a professor in an open marriage seduces him, he never questions how an affair could affect his grades, reputation, or purpose. He surrenders to a Faustian bargain. By pleasing his professor, he can live the life he could not have as a Gallagher. He attends parties in gentrified neighborhoods, the very one in which he grew, the one now being valued at prices out of the Gallaghers' reach.

Whenever Frank or Fiona or Lip show empathy or courage, they just as quickly show self-absorption and cowardice. Their better natures suffocate in the air of deprivation that nurture stirred.

Reading Challenge:

Read Shameless in light of the nature versus nurture debate. Which one seems to have the stronger hold on characters?

Writing Challenge:

Write a different ending for any choice faced by the Gallaghers in Season 5.

Connye Griffin writes My Writing and Editing Coach.