Perfection is the enemy of the good

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…or so my graduate thesis adviser kept telling me. That, and “It’s better to be done than perfect.”

I think I’m doing pretty well with holding the procrastination dogs at bay. Sorta. I didn’t write yesterday (other than on several blogs and a few emails), but I did get some good research done. Am reading City in the Sun, an old book I found in our local library about the Japanese-American internment camps during WW2. Heartbreaking story, and one that hasn’t been explored enough in the mainstream media. Given recent debates about immigration, not to mention the anti-Arab and anti-Muslim hysteria in the years after 9/11, one would think that this painful part of American history would serve as a relevant lesson for all of us.

My main character, despite his ethnicity, doesn’t really experience the horrors of the camp, as he remains overseas throughout the war. However, his family does, hence the research. In addition, the whole relocation issue reveals much about American attitudes towards Asians in general and the Japanese in particular even before the war, so despite his physical distance from the crisis, Thomas will still be heavily influenced by it.

One story in particular that I read yesterday concerned Cat Island, a training camp in Mississippi that served as the location of a horrific Army experiment that pitted unwitting Japanese-American soldiers against rabid dogs. Apparently, the theory was that the Japanese must have a different smell from lily-white Americans, so why not train dogs to sniff out the bloody Nips and flush them out of the jungle?

Well, as you can imagine, the experiment proved the fallacy of that theory, and it ended with many of the soldiers being hospitalized for dog bites and given rabies shots. As we all know, of course, these soldiers went on to become part of the most decorated unit in the history of the United States military, despite being literally treated like dogshit by their own government.

As William Shakespeare once said: Unbe-fucking-lievable.

Anyway

I wrote another three pages of the play today. Or, should I say, I’ve rewritten the first 12 pages of the original 1st draft, including three pages today. I’ve gotten feedback from some more people on the forum, with some conflicting advice. A few suggested that I add more action to the scene, while another was adamant that I leave that to the director and focus on the dialogue. As I’ve rewritten it, I’ve probably swung too far in the opposite direction and provided more action than is necessary, but I’m optimistic that these are all just part of the learning process. I do think that this is new, improved version actually does sound stronger than the original. I’ve streamlined much of the dialogue and introduced more tension between Linda and Noelle than was evident in the first draft. Plus, I think I’ve resolved the whole issue of Noelle’s voice (English or Tagalog? American or Filipino?) and will stick with having her dialogue sound American while still conveying a Filipino sensibility.

I realize that that’s a tricky tightrope to maneuver, and I don’t think I’ve wholly succeeded, but it’ll have to do, given the limitations of thinking in one language and speaking in another without sounding like an impostor of both. The true test for me would be to see if both Filipino and American readers/audiences can empathize with the characters’ story and not question their authenticity.

One thing I have learned from this process is the realization that, while the Philippine culture has been heavily influenced by America, it’s clear that there are just some things that will always be lost in translation.

No writing or research tonight, ’cause there’s a new episode of The Office! Last week’s episode was quite possibly the best ever, with a howler of a cliffhanger. I loved the way the different teams carried out their respective sales calls, all of which turned out differently from the way I or B. expected. I especially loved the fact that, contrary to one would assume, Dwight and Jim really do work well together — that is, when they’re not plotting each other’s mental breakdown.

MRA

Japan's War

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It’s coming back to me now. Specifically, why I never finished my graduate thesis. I just finished watching a documentary I had casually picked up while at Hastings a few weeks ago, a British production called Japan’s War In Colour. It recounts the history of the Pacific War primarily from the Japanese perspective, using restored color footage never before shown.

The quality of the restoration is astounding; the clarity is relatively sharp, the color crisp, as if these were taken twenty years ago rather than sixty. There’s plenty of footage on the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the invasion of China/Manchuria, the horrific firefight on the Marianas, and the heartbreaking sacrifice of Okinawa. The worst is the infamous shot of the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima, a massive pillar of smoke and fire that reached beyond the sky.

I can’t even imagine what it must have felt to someone coming upon the ruins of Hiroshima and Nagasaki immediately after the bombing. Both cities were decimated beyond recognition. I spent a few days in Nagasaki over the Christmas holidays in 1995 and find it difficult to believe that such a beautiful, tranquil city could have experienced such devastation in its recent history. Even on film as old as this, you could sense the despair and utter helplessness.

I guess this is as good a way as any to get into the mood of writing one’s story. There was a brief segment on the invasion and fall of British Malaya, specifically Singapore, so I was able to catch a glimpse of the city in its prewar glory. With so little material available in English on the conditions and situation in Singapore just prior to the war — especially if one is looking for civilian stories rather than military or colonial accounts — I’m having to scrape up what I can and imagine the rest. (I guess that’s why it’s called fiction, eh?)

A beautifully written post by a fellow writer discusses the “undiscovered country” (with a nod to Star Trek fans) of the novel, and how every story is an attempt by the writer to reveal a deep-rooted part of herself. I suppose that’s true, which may be why writing can be so bloody difficult for so many writers — we’re naturally private people, and we loathe holding up any part of ourselves up to the light. Maybe it’s fear of ridicule, because so much of the fiction writing process is personal, regardless of the subject.

I’m not really sure why I chose this particular story to write, at this moment of my life. The comfort women story was so heartbreaking, so horrifying to research in graduate school, I wasn’t sure I would return to it. And now I’m trying to revive the story, not through a compilation of facts and theories leading up to a conclusion — as in a thesis — but in a work of fiction that nevertheless requires me to mine all the painful details, the agony of the women’s experience without exploiting them or stripping them of their dignity.

What this ultimately reveals about my own self remains to be seen, and maybe I’ll never really understand. Right now, it’s difficult to see beyond my immediate need of learning as much as I can about the period, my character’s background, the atmosphere in Singapore immediately prior and during the war. The mood in the Twilight Samurai was just the right touch for the beginning of book, which made it the perfect film to watch as I started thinking about the rewrite of the first few chapters. This doc, though, looks to provide just the right feel of the war as it exploded in Malaya and throughout the Pacific.

As for the play…well, I wrote eight new pages to open the scene, with a bit more action and what I hope is a more, uhm, realistic dialogue between Linda and Noelle. One of the problems I have is that these are two Filipina characters living in Manila who in real life would be conversing in Tagalog. Since my intended audience is primarily American, however (although this may change as I develop this), I’m having to write the dialogue out in English and in a style that would be familiar to that audience. Not easy, and I hadn’t realized just how different the influence of culture is on both language and movement. It should be interesting to see where this ends up!

Oh… on a different note… the same blogger above linked to a long, very thoughtful essay in The Guardian about what it means to write the mythical perfect novel, written by the brilliant Zadie Smith. If you have twenty or so minutes to digest this — she has some excellent thoughts on the subject — check it out.

MRA

Japan’s War

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It’s coming back to me now. Specifically, why I never finished my graduate thesis. I just finished watching a documentary I had casually picked up while at Hastings a few weeks ago, a British production called Japan’s War In Colour. It recounts the history of the Pacific War primarily from the Japanese perspective, using restored color footage never before shown.

The quality of the restoration is astounding; the clarity is relatively sharp, the color crisp, as if these were taken twenty years ago rather than sixty. There’s plenty of footage on the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the invasion of China/Manchuria, the horrific firefight on the Marianas, and the heartbreaking sacrifice of Okinawa. The worst is the infamous shot of the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima, a massive pillar of smoke and fire that reached beyond the sky.

I can’t even imagine what it must have felt to someone coming upon the ruins of Hiroshima and Nagasaki immediately after the bombing. Both cities were decimated beyond recognition. I spent a few days in Nagasaki over the Christmas holidays in 1995 and find it difficult to believe that such a beautiful, tranquil city could have experienced such devastation in its recent history. Even on film as old as this, you could sense the despair and utter helplessness.

I guess this is as good a way as any to get into the mood of writing one’s story. There was a brief segment on the invasion and fall of British Malaya, specifically Singapore, so I was able to catch a glimpse of the city in its prewar glory. With so little material available in English on the conditions and situation in Singapore just prior to the war — especially if one is looking for civilian stories rather than military or colonial accounts — I’m having to scrape up what I can and imagine the rest. (I guess that’s why it’s called fiction, eh?)

A beautifully written post by a fellow writer discusses the “undiscovered country” (with a nod to Star Trek fans) of the novel, and how every story is an attempt by the writer to reveal a deep-rooted part of herself. I suppose that’s true, which may be why writing can be so bloody difficult for so many writers — we’re naturally private people, and we loathe holding up any part of ourselves up to the light. Maybe it’s fear of ridicule, because so much of the fiction writing process is personal, regardless of the subject.

I’m not really sure why I chose this particular story to write, at this moment of my life. The comfort women story was so heartbreaking, so horrifying to research in graduate school, I wasn’t sure I would return to it. And now I’m trying to revive the story, not through a compilation of facts and theories leading up to a conclusion — as in a thesis — but in a work of fiction that nevertheless requires me to mine all the painful details, the agony of the women’s experience without exploiting them or stripping them of their dignity.

What this ultimately reveals about my own self remains to be seen, and maybe I’ll never really understand. Right now, it’s difficult to see beyond my immediate need of learning as much as I can about the period, my character’s background, the atmosphere in Singapore immediately prior and during the war. The mood in the Twilight Samurai was just the right touch for the beginning of book, which made it the perfect film to watch as I started thinking about the rewrite of the first few chapters. This doc, though, looks to provide just the right feel of the war as it exploded in Malaya and throughout the Pacific.

As for the play…well, I wrote eight new pages to open the scene, with a bit more action and what I hope is a more, uhm, realistic dialogue between Linda and Noelle. One of the problems I have is that these are two Filipina characters living in Manila who in real life would be conversing in Tagalog. Since my intended audience is primarily American, however (although this may change as I develop this), I’m having to write the dialogue out in English and in a style that would be familiar to that audience. Not easy, and I hadn’t realized just how different the influence of culture is on both language and movement. It should be interesting to see where this ends up!

Oh… on a different note… the same blogger above linked to a long, very thoughtful essay in The Guardian about what it means to write the mythical perfect novel, written by the brilliant Zadie Smith. If you have twenty or so minutes to digest this — she has some excellent thoughts on the subject — check it out.

MRA

Movie magic

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B. and I saw one of the best films I’ve seen in a long time, Twilight Samurai. Not what I expected at all, and it starred Sanada Hiroyuki, an amazing actor I hadn’t even thought of since I left Japan over a decade ago. I loved the spare dialogue and the unembellished cinematography, the way the director, Yamada Yoji, relied mostly on gestures, glances, little details to convey emotion rather than drowning the audience with sentimental dialogue and a flowery orchestral soundtrack. It was unlike what I expected at all, given the title. I suppose any film with the word samurai in the title will inspire images of highly choreographed fight scenes, a love story thrown in for good measure, and a flawless hero. But Twilight Samurai delivered something completely different, a moving story about a big-hearted, visionary man of humble means.

I’m glad I saw it when I did because I was still unsettled by the fact that I’m having to rewrite the novel. But the mood of the film, its streamlined narrative, helped me to focus on exactly how I want to frame my own story, and give my character the center I’ve been looking for. I guess I’ve relied so much on oversharing in the story that I’d lost sight of what holds the thing together. So the first draft is a terribly long, repetitive narrative that does have some good insight and decent imagery and dialogue but which is also likely overblown and needs a firm hand to control its wayward tendencies.

I’m still going to focus on research for now, but I found myself awake half the night reconstructing — or rather, rewriting — the first chapter. By the time I fell asleep, I had my first two pages, which I just dutifully typed into my Writer doc. I think I like the framework of this 2nd ‘draft’ more than I did the first one, and the main character (Thomas) has a stronger voice.

What a great way to get into the heart of one’s story: watching a well-crafted film that evokes the kind of mood and atmosphere that you’re trying to capture in your own book. If you like both movies and writing, this isn’t a bad way to inspire yourself.

Now I work on the play. I think I know how to open it know, a stronger At Rise than it had been previously. Linda still seems a little wishy-washy in my mind, and Noelle needs to be fleshed out some more, but I think I can get a good 2nd draft of at least this scene by the end of this week.

So far, I’m on track to keep most of my resolutions. Well, I am having to extend the deadline for the 1st draft of the novel, and I’ve yet to make any kind of dent on those two other Web sites/blogs, but otherwise, so far so good. I’ve noticed that more than a few of the bloggers I’ve been following the last few months have recently announced that they will cease publishing for a while for various personal reasons. I’m hoping that some of those reasons involve devoting more of one’s time to writing, because let’s face it: blogging is a huge time-sucker.

MRA

Saturday, sweet Saturday

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Why I schedule writing time on Saturday, I’ve no idea. Reading the paper at the coffee house after a leisurely 11:30 breakfast is about the best I can do.

However, I did get inspired to organize my office today! Next week, B. will get his own desk, so mine will return to my corner of the study, and I won’t have to clutter up the dining table with my laptop and papers anymore. Wheee!! Mmmm… my cozy little writing corner, surrounded by neat stacks of magazines and books on the floor, Sting on the radio, and a warm halo of light around it all. I will have absolutely no excuse not to write anymore.

Got more feedback from a fellow playwright on my play (currently posted on a writing forum). B. read it this afternoon while we were at the coffee house as well. Definitely needs more work (not just tweaking…I’m talkin’ real work), but I think I have a better grasp of it. The dialogue does sound stilted, and there’s so little action. B. says that there’s so much more to the story, which I’m fully aware of, but I really want to stick to the One Act/Two Scene format for now. It can most definitely be expanded to become a full-length play, with several characters, but the way it is now is challenging enough.

I need to inject more tension in this first scene. The story itself has built-in tension, but I’m not sure the dialogue conveys that. I guess that’s my work for next week.

As for the novel, I now have a contact in Singapore — an academic, natch — who’s done considerable research on the Japanese community there. He was sooo kind — he sent me PDF’s of the two relevant chapters in his last book that dealt specifically with the issue I’m grappling with! Did I mention how much I love academics???

Bedside reading this week is Marilyn French’s In the Name of Friendship. Good feminist read, albeit sometimes confusing. Characters with similar names, multi-generational female friendships, that sort of thing. (Funny. I just realized that the characters with very similar names — e.g., Steven and son Stevie — are all men. Is French trying to make the point that men are so simple and similar to each other that to give them unique names would be pointless?) Anyway, at one point, one of the characters — an artist — is pondering the question of whether or not a woman can be an artist and a wife/mother. I haven’t finished the book, but my suspicion is that the answer may actually be no, despite some rare examples to the contrary. (Ayun Halliday is the first to come to mind.)

MRA

God bless academics!

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Having once wanted to be one myself (and still not sure I’d turn down the opportunity if it were offered me ;-), I have utmost respect and admiration for academics. And now that I’ve made the acquaintance of yet another who willingly and happily provided me (someone they’ve never met and from whom they received a request for information) with resources and contacts to assist me in my novel research, I’m even more convinced that their status in our commerce-obsessed culture is highly, highly underrated.

So my novel may be saved after all. Okay, it will need to undergo some drastic changes. And it will require rewriting whole sections of what I have so far (did I mention I’m at page 137?). But, armed with this new information and insight from a certain emeritus scholar from a prestigious Midwestern research university, I have a much better idea of where I’m going and therefore am more confident about my subject, not to mention my character. If anything, I think this new and improved storyline may be even more interesting than my previous one! Will wonders never cease…

I’m not looking forward to the rewrite, but at least I have a clearer sense of direction. I think I’ll engage in more research before I go back and tackle the narrative. Dr. X gave me the name of a colleague of his in Singapore who has done research on just this topic, so I emailed him yesterday. I also picked up a bunch of books at the library and submitted a sheaf of Interlibrary Loan Requests, all of which should help me get a better grasp of the backstory.

In the meantime, I haven’t gone back to the play, but I will this weekend. I just finished writing my column for next week and the effort was taxing. I may just do research the rest of the afternoon. I wrote a commentary about the presence of sexually violent predators in our community, an emotionally trying topic to begin with. I’m not 100% happy with the end product — it’s such a mess of an issue — but I think I at least made my point.

On a brighter note, I got a paying freelance assignment yesterday, my first in months! Doesn’t pay a lot, but hey, it’s an electric bill. Small pleasures, small treasures.

MRA

The Play's the Thing

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Traumatic weekend. Not that aliens abducted me and conducted unspeakable experiments on my body or anything. However, after doing a little more research, I realized that, as it now stands, putting my main character in Singapore at the beginning of WW2 may actually be a little far-fetched. I mean, it would actually be stretching the reader’s imagination a bit to have him be where he is, doing what he’s doing, given his background.

It coulda happened. It may have happened. But…it’s not bloody likely. And while this is fiction, after all, and it’s a novelist’s job and prerogative to make things up out of her imagination, when it comes to writing about someone in a particular place and time in history, it does behoove the writer to create someone who would actually fit into that place and time. Otherwise, it’s a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.

Arrrrgggghhhh.

Thanks to B., I was able to figure out how to change his backstory so that he could feasibly be in Singapore at the beginning of WW2 and stay there, but it also means changing much of what I’ve already written. Very frustrating. I stopped writing and went back to research, of course. I should’ve known better than to dive in headfirst without doing at least a little bit of background study, but I was anxious and didn’t want to lose momentum. So much for that.

I still wrote, however, just not the novel. The play is coming along even better than I hoped. Ten pages of the first scene. Wrote a 2nd draft of it after I realized that, in the first draft, the mother came across as too passive — just the opposite of my intention. Posted it on a writers’ feedback forum and received a well-written and comprehensive critique the very next day.

I love writers!

Oh well. Today I go back to researching the book. Tomorrow I work on both it and the play. It’s supposed to snow Friday, which will be so lovely and so conducive to staying home and writing. All in all, not a bad week.

MRA

The Play’s the Thing

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Traumatic weekend. Not that aliens abducted me and conducted unspeakable experiments on my body or anything. However, after doing a little more research, I realized that, as it now stands, putting my main character in Singapore at the beginning of WW2 may actually be a little far-fetched. I mean, it would actually be stretching the reader’s imagination a bit to have him be where he is, doing what he’s doing, given his background.

It coulda happened. It may have happened. But…it’s not bloody likely. And while this is fiction, after all, and it’s a novelist’s job and prerogative to make things up out of her imagination, when it comes to writing about someone in a particular place and time in history, it does behoove the writer to create someone who would actually fit into that place and time. Otherwise, it’s a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.

Arrrrgggghhhh.

Thanks to B., I was able to figure out how to change his backstory so that he could feasibly be in Singapore at the beginning of WW2 and stay there, but it also means changing much of what I’ve already written. Very frustrating. I stopped writing and went back to research, of course. I should’ve known better than to dive in headfirst without doing at least a little bit of background study, but I was anxious and didn’t want to lose momentum. So much for that.

I still wrote, however, just not the novel. The play is coming along even better than I hoped. Ten pages of the first scene. Wrote a 2nd draft of it after I realized that, in the first draft, the mother came across as too passive — just the opposite of my intention. Posted it on a writers’ feedback forum and received a well-written and comprehensive critique the very next day.

I love writers!

Oh well. Today I go back to researching the book. Tomorrow I work on both it and the play. It’s supposed to snow Friday, which will be so lovely and so conducive to staying home and writing. All in all, not a bad week.

MRA

Imperfect Strangers

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Why do people insist on talking so loudly in public? Do they really not know how far their voices carry?

Four women playing cards on the table next to me here in local coffee house. Discussion turns to health matters:

WOMAN #1: And then my doctor says, if your bowels don’t make a sound in the next hour, you’re gonna be in trouble.

WOMAN #2: Wow.

WOMAN #1: (leaning forward earnestly) Well, you know what I did, right? I walked around in my bathrobe for forty-five minutes!

Laughter ensues. I vow never to sit next to them again.

Trust me. I wasn’t even eavesdropping. I think they heard her in the hospital across the street. Iiiiiiicckkkkk.

I wrote my required five pages today, but damn. Today was like yesterday, all pain and no glory. No flying fingers, no clever turns of phrase, just two hours of slogging through excruciating prose. Oh well, at least I got my page count.

Should it bother me that I’m conducting research simultaneously with the writing? I’m having to stop and start constantly, looking things up on the Internet (dates, names, biographies, etc.), confirming facts and events. Not fun. But I just discovered something today that may change my entire novel, which is terrifying.

I understand that Arthur Golden took ten years and many, many drafts to write Memoirs of a Geisha, and that he had actually started out writing it in 3rd person. He then ended up rewriting the entire bloody novel in 1st person.

And T.E. Lawrence allegedly lost the entire manuscript to Seven Pillars of Wisdom on a train to (or from) Reading, so he had to start from scratch.

So I wouldn’t be in such awful company if I had to start over. But……..oy.

Well, anyway, on the bright side, the play is going reeeeally well. I banged out 10 pages yesterday and hope to pull out another 5-6 (just for the first scene) either this afternoon or tomorrow (likely tomorrow). It’s not too bad for a beginner’s effort, I don’t think (I’m not counting the last 2-3 scripts — both overambitious — that I began last year), but we’ll see. I’m going to try to be more optimistic about the whole endeavor and not sabotage my efforts — especially not this early in the game — by overanalyzing everything. I may get B. to read it tonight or tomorrow and see if it sounds like something he wants to know more of.

Good news, though. It’s Thursday, January 4, and you know what that means: a new episode of The Office!

MRA

Where did all this blood come from?

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Writers of any experience and background will likely recognize the inspiration of this post’s title: “Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.” It’s been attributed to various writers, the most common one being Gene Fowler. Whoever wrote it did a remarkable job describing the daily life and death of the writer.

But hey, six pages today!! Woo hoo! And unlike yesterday, these six pages were pure drivel. I mean, I wouldn’t feed them to my dog. But what the hell — that’s six pages more than yesterday! My hope is that, when I re-read them tomorrow, they’ll sound a lot better than they do today.

I follow a number of blogs — far too many for me to ever catch up, RSS or no — and am constantly amazed at the output of a lot of writers and artists out there. I’ve seen plenty on the Absolute Write forums who juggle a family, a pet or two, a novel series, paid freelance writing assignments, a nonfiction book, speaking engagements, and probably the national debt of a few foreign countries on the side. And they still manage to find time to post on the bloody forum! How do they do it? What’s their secret? Caffeine? A retinue of household servants? Medication? I’m longing to find out.

One blog I follow sporadically is that of the mixed media artist Traci Bautista. Her blog and Web site are beautiful but exhausting. Does the girl sleep? Eat? Indulge in chocolate now and then? Inquiring minds want to know. In the meantime I try to glean inspiration from her and others. She’s an amazing creative force.

In the meantime, I remain focused on my writing goals for 2007. I was able to make a nice little dent in the play yesterday afternoon. Haven’t written the actual script yet, but I’m almost done with the backstory, which itself is probably going to end up being longer than the play. I think I’m definitely going to stick to two characters for now, as that’s all I can handle at the moment. Unlike the novel, I aim to make this one as tight as possible, with me retaining full control over the characters. In my novel, the characters all seem to be developing minds of their own, which is both surprising and rather nice, but in a short play, there’s really no room for meandering. No Delirious for me.

Also, my next column came out in the local paper today, earlier than I expected (lately the editor’s been publishing them on Thursdays or Fridays). It’s my most critical one yet, and given the conservative leanings of this town, I expect to hear from a few people. The last email I received was long and quite vociferous in her criticism. I would have responded except for one thing: she never read beyond the first line.

Ooooooo… check out this gorgeous Web site: Bossa Ever Nova. Follow the little red dots and feast your eyes on some classy graphics while your ears get a musical treat.

MRA