Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Room, A Powerful Fairy Tale Involving Modern Monsters

Classic fairy tales often feature damsels in distress, imprisoned in inaccessible towers or trapped by sorcery. Some stroke of divine intervention or sacrifice frees them. Room, starring Brie Larson, is a classic fairy tale.

Ma is the name by which we meet the protagonist. She's a young girl with an old woman's name. She carries the heavy weight of sorrow upon her. Taken by a sociopath while just a girl--a teenager with her life unmapped, full of promise and tomorrows, Ma lives in an inaccessible place, trapped by a predator's sorcery.

Ma calls her kidnapper and rapist Old Nick, a name that signifies lord, and Old Nick is her lord. He giveth her food and taketh it away when she displeases. He leaves Ma and her child in darkness when he wishes to punish them. He provides shelter barely adequate for anyone's needs. She lives locked inside a garden shed in his backyard with a single skylight admitting the sun by day and stars at night. 

Old Nick is the father of Ma’s son, Jack, and for him, Ma invents fairy tales of her own. She makes an entire universe of a single room. She creates a toy snake from egg shells and gives inanimate objects identities of their own. She tries to create as much childhood and normalcy as humanly possible--all through the extraordinary love she feels for her child. Ma's love is truly unconditional.

Still, like Rapunzel, Ma longs for rescue, a knight who can save her from her isolation and give her son the life he deserves. Alas, there are no knights or even a prince in her future. She will have to rescue herself, but doing so not only requires daring, it also requires sacrifice. She must risk her son's life to set him free, and she must live with the consequences if she fails.

Stained Glass Art by Mary Cox
Photo provided by Al Griffin
Hoping her little boy can follow directions and believing in the kindness of strangers, Ma puts her plan into action. It nearly fails because Jack is so young and inexperienced. He's required to summon courage that's never been tested, duplicity that's never been necessary, and quick wit that's never been rehearsed.

When the plan succeeds, thanks to that random, kind stranger, a Fairy Godmother enters Jack's life. She wears the costume of a policewoman, eminently qualified, maternal, and patient. She pieces together the puzzle of Jack’s escape and the path back to Ma’s prison. That alone is a fairy tale ending, but this is a modern tale. It cannot end with Ma's release.

This tale springs forth in a time of raised consciousnesses and talk shows, from a time when we understand that trauma and stress twist and torture the psyche. We know that such terrible assaults upon the spirit may break some. Others may run and never look back, and a few, with help and love, may rise to reach for their promise once more.

Ma must be the architect of a universe much larger than a garden shed, an unjust burden because she's thrust into it; she cannot evolve toward it. She almost fails, too, but time and therapy bring her home to Jack who is healing, too, thanks to Ma's own mother and an amazing neighborhood friend.

When Ma returns home, she embraces Jack because she's missed him and he is precious. More important, she embraces the life thrust upon her: womanhood and motherhood. Together, Ma and Jack really do live happily ever after.

Reading Challenge:

Read Room as a fairy tale.

Writing Challenge:

Transform a classic fairy tale with modern-day. 

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Trumbo, A Writer’s Writer

One of the more unattractive threads in the human fabric is fear. It drives us to retreat, fight, and yield to forces greater than ourselves. When demagogues use human fear to garner devotion, fear becomes a monster threatening our own security. So it was when fear gripped 17th century Salem.

Taught to dread an invisible, malevolent force, Puritans often attributed unusual, aberrant behaviors to the devil’s work. They had no insight into mental illness, addiction, or developmental disabilities; these were deemed evil and those affected put away or punished.

Arthur Miller told us about the times in his play, The Crucible. Miller relied upon historical documents to recreate the fear that gripped Salem and caused the death by hanging or pressing (with stones) of many citizens. The first to die were those on the margins of society--the poor, the different, the defiant.

Miller also used Salem to tell the tale of America in the grip of another fear--a fear of communism in the highest offices of U. S. government. Anyone casually associated with the Communist party, those committed to the party as a political choice, and those not at all connected to the party were equally likely to suffer economic downturns after being blacklisted or the cost of a legal defense when summoned to appear before the U. S. House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).

Just as young girls cried witch in the 1700s to escape punishment for misdeeds, grown men and women in the 1950s cried communist to be treated favorably by those sitting in judgment. Everyone in both eras was encouraged to narc on friends and strangers in order to save himself.

One man refused. His name was Dalton Trumbo, and he was a writer who had earned acclaim and continued to do so even while blacklisted--except he didn’t earn that acclaim under his own name. He wrote under other names because writing is all he knew to do; writing was the only way he knew to support his wife and three children.

Driven to write and apparently preferring to do so while soaking in a bath, smoking one cigarette after another, Trumbo proved to have a spine of steel. He knew what was right, and he knew what he could live with and what he could not. He didn’t break, retreat, or yield to forces that wanted him to name others. Instead, he organized several to stand together, and he strove to do the work he loved even while under a cloud. His is a story for writers.

If you are compelled to write, then you might be a writer. If you are compelled to read, then you might be a writer. If you are compelled to tell stories and speak in the words of other times and regions, then you might be a writer.

Reading Challenge:

Read Trumbo, a 2015 film about Dalton Trumbo with Bryan Cranston starring. You might also appreciate meeting the man through his screenplays. These include Five Came Back (1939), Kitty Foyle (1940), A Guy Named Joe (1943), Thirty Seconds over Tokyo (1944), The Brave One (1956), and Spartacus (1960).

Writing Challenge:

After watching several films penned by Dalton Trumbo, try to match his wit and dialogue in a scene of your own.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Power of Detail

What is a life? What about its loss tortures survivors?

For some, it’s reminders. A pillow still carrying the scent of his aftershave. A box of lime popsicles, covered in ice crystals, a long forgotten favorite treat discovered behind the quinoa and green beans. A glimpse of a color thread just above the silhouetted horizon, last seen on the day of his passing.

There are places I remember all my life...
Some have gone and some remain

Photo courtesy of Al Griffin
These are the ties that bind us to sorrow and to memory and to loss and to the living. These are the details that, when told, touch us, unnerve us, and steel us against the losses we’ve yet to face.

Kate Atkinson uses concrete detail to convey a father’s unimaginable grief after losing his favorite daughter, the one in whom he had invested the most care and hope. In Case Histories, Atkinson writes:

And it was just a bedroom, an untidy bedroom that a girl was never going to enter again, never fling down her bag on the floor and kick off her shoes, never lie on the bed and read a book or listen to her stereo, never sleep the restless, innocent sleep of the living.

That father remembers his daughter’s actions in the place that belonged to her. He remembers her presence, acutely aware of her absence.

Reading Challenge:

Read Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories. It’s another fine tour of heartache and enigma, of parents and children, of casual slaughters, as Horatio might say, and triumphs, of people broken and healed.

Writing Challenge:

Share the love of your life without mentioning yourself at all. Reveal that love by describing what your beloved did and through that lens, let us know how deep your love.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016


“The purpose of Art is to convey the truth of a thing, not to be the truth itself.” Sylvie Beresford Todd, a character in A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

Art and literature are subjective to the extent that my perception of the truth may vary from your perception. My experiences and knowledge, my sensibilities and nature are not yours. We will bring all these and more to art, and they will shape our understanding.

A Castle in Ruins, Ha Ha Tonka State Park
Photo Courtesy of Al Griffin Photography

That does not mean any wild notion about a work of art is valid unless we grant the legitimacy of audience evaluations and admit nothing else. Consider a former classmate’s attempt to synthesize James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. When asked to weigh and measure the character and his choices by novel’s end, she said, “Well, I think Stephen would have been happier if he would’ve just found a girl, fallen in love, and married.”

Her evaluation has no merit and shouldn’t be given serious attention because it doesn’t take into account the actual context or boundaries the novel establishes. Stephen was conflicted by his own desires. He contemplated the celibate, cerebral life while trying to resist a sensual and contemplative life wherein he records as accurately as possible the human experience divorced from parochial, provincial restrictions that could include traditional marriage. His choice, in the end, is to reject celibacy in favor of sensuality. He will live, live fully, and produce art based upon the life he lives and the lives he observes.

Joyce effectively and successfully “conveys the truth” of an artist’s conflict, but it may not be Joyce’s truth or even the truth of all art. It is the “truth of a thing” told as truthfully as paint or dance or words can tell it.

Those who object to the “truth of a thing” and seek to censor it, as many sought to censor Joyce, must be ill-equipped to discriminate between the truth and the truth of a thing. They seem to believe their personal truth will be shattered somehow by brushing against the truth of a thing--also known as someone else’s perspective--as revealed in paint, dance, and words.

Another’s truth of a thing enriches my understanding. Another’s truth of a thing leads me nearer the truth, and that seems to be important in the short time we’re given to uncover it.

Reading Challenge:

Read A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson.

Writing Challenge:

Write your truth, but be warned, it’s not easy to do.