Very Vernal

I’m currently nursing a sunburned shoulder as the gods of Vermont blessed us with a summer day this week, and I was not prepared for how pale I had become over the winter months. But it is definitely spring here, which makes me happy!

Therefore, this post will be a bit of a news and miscellany update from a very vernal Cammieland:

In Writing News: My unpublished story, “Frozen Locks,” received an Honorable Mention in the Glimmer Train Short Story contest for New Writers! While it didn’t make it far enough to get published, the acknowledgment still excites me enough to want to dance on a few tables.

In Music News: My days have been sounding like “Laura” by Bat for Lashes, “Time for Space” by Emancipator, “Summertime” by Angelique Kidjo, “Le Temps de L’Amour” by Francoise Hardy, and “Mystery of Love” by Sufjan Stevens. I know, I know, a bit of an odd cocktail of sunshine and rain, apricot juice and red wine, but it’s all about balance, right?

In School News: We have just over two weeks left of the semester, which is just crazy. The second years will graduate and go on to do great things, and my cohort will take their place as the suddenly seniors. After classes end, I’ve been asked to act in my friend’s staged reading of his thesis, which is such an honor. We’ve rehearsed his play for weeks now, and I’m so excited to bring my role as the character, Ashley, and the story alive in front of an audience.

In Summer News: Here’s a list of things I am looking forward to in the summer/artsy projects I want to tackle:

  • Writing as much of my thesis as humanly possible before the end of the summer
  • Attending the Kenyon Review Fiction Writer’s Workshop in June.
  • Spending Memorial Day exploring New York City with my love.
  • Speaking with the brilliant teens at Fuente Collective about my beloved Hunger Mountain and submitting to literary journals.
  • Choreograph a new tap dancing routine and perform it impromptu in a downtown city street (any music suggestions?)
  • Construct a massive collage: of what images I do not know yet.
  • I’d love to teach a writing workshop to adults or teens, based around returning to the five senses and igniting the wonder within us in order to generate seeds for future writing projects; maybe at Story Studio in Chicago? Yoko Ono will be our spirit guide.
  • Research multimedia/multi-genre anthologies. This seems like a thing that should exist, and if it doesn’t already, I want to breathe life into one.

That’s all for now. The list will undoubtedly become longer and longer. For now, I am off to bask in the sun (with shoulders covered) and write to the “Mystery of Love.”

April is a Good Month to Buy a Beer for Frank O’Hara

I haven’t been posting here as much as I mean to because my days seem very routine lately, but in a very good way. It’s Poetry Month, perhaps my favorite month of all, and perhaps the most challenging of months because I slap this extra task each day on my head like an old-school Big Red gum wrapper that says I must write one new poem each day. It’s exhausting and yet it is the one thing I’m most proud of accomplishing at the end of the day.

I haven’t been writing any fiction lately, but I’ve been wholeheartedly delighted to explore storytelling, my thoughts and obsessions, and language in my play with poetry. To me, April is my sandbox and I can kick down and smooth out and build up sand structure after sand structure with all of the architectural creativity I can imagine. Note: Writing everyday is a great way to find out what your subconscious obsessions are.  Perhaps the most exciting thing is that I have created a poetry exchange this entire month with several writerly friends in my cohort this month. Sharing work can be extremely difficult, especially if the work is personal in any way (and it always is, one way or another). And yet, I feel an immense sense of trust and admiration for my poetic confidantes, due to these daily correspondences over our work.

This poetry month (the fourth one I’ve actively participated in) is especially exhilarating because of where I am geographically. Each April, the city of Montpelier waxes poetic, and in fact changes its name (unofficially) to Poem City. Over 400 poems cover the windows of downtown establishments as part of a “walkable anthology.” Buying groceries? Walking to work? Catching a movie at the Savoy? Picking up meds at the pharmacy? Wherever you need to go, a poem is there, waiting for you. In addition to the poems, events are held every night in various reading spaces, featuring local Vermont and New England poets. I’m still thinking about the event I went to: a poetry/music mash-up performance by the group Los Lorcas (comprised of poets Partridge Boswell and Peter Money and guitarist Nat Williams). In the spirit of Federico Garcia Lorca, the performers fused spoken word with song in an eclectic variety of pieces, ranging from blues, rock, folk, jazz. Thanks to Peter Money, I also learned what a drone poem is. (Hint: where the narrator’s point of view is that of a drone hovering over a city, seeing life lived in little pockets of individuality below).

Serendipitously, Poetry Month also collides with our craft module class taught by Matthew Dickman. He’s assigned us brilliant collections of poetry and other writings, based on the topics of Grief/Mourning, Violence, and Love. Each of these topics are perhaps the most human of qualities, and yet it’s astounding how stilted our conversations in class can feel, due to our inability, or rather discomfort and lack of practice, engaging deeply in these topics. Which is partly why this class is so essential! Through our readings, we explore the work of writers who also have a difficult time writing about the challenging topics that can so easily become banal and cliched, but who do so with such fiery innovation and eloquence.

Our reading list includes:

  • Mourning Diary by Roland Barthes
  • Book of Hours by Kevin Young
  • The Red Parts by Maggie Nelson
  • Vice by Ai
  • Eros the Bittersweet by Anne Carson
  • Fort Red Border by Kiki Petrosino

 

I’ve also recently discovered Frank O’Hara this month. Not sure why it took me so long, but I am hooked. I even started copying down a few of his Lunch Poems on paper to tape up in my room. I also could watch this acrobatic video of O’Hara at work on repeat for days. I mean, who else could type up a poem while talking on the phone and talking to a camera for an interview? Oh, Frank, let’s go to the pub so I can buy your ghost a beer.

More poems await me now. Tomorrow, my class is off to Boston for the weekend. We have plans to meet with a few godly literary journals and presses (Agni at BU, The Harvard Review at Harvard, and Black Ocean Press). Maybe when I return to Vermont, spring will remember itself. The poems, though, will continue to bud.

What I’m Reading and Where to Find Them

The mysterious thesis (which I will not divulge too much about yet as it is still in its infancy) is taking over my mind! I can tell you that it is a historical/psychological novel which takes place in post-war Japan. More to come!

To keep on schedule between now until next May when the thesis is due, I’ve drafted up a timeline for myself because visuals help me keep myself accountable for my work. For the last few months of this semester, my goal is to just read everything. Everything I can get my hands on! Novels on similar topics, historical and nonfiction first-hand narratives from survivors of the atom bomb, non-subject related books whose structure I want to study, etc. For our thesis, we technically only need to turn in the first 100 pages of a “novel in progress.” But if you know me well, I always have to finish what I start. I have to see the project through and I always LOVE to make things more difficult for myself! Ha! So I’m planning on having a first draft of a full-length novel by the time I leave VCFA. It’s all very exciting and … well mostly exciting.

Speaking of process, I’m very music-oriented when I write. So I’ve crafted a sort of “novel soundtrack” for this book. Every time I sit down to write a part of it or think through the book, I get into the mind of the book by playing the same songs from the playlist on a continuous loop. Songs include: “For Rose” by Parov Stelar, “Exurgency” by Zoe Keating, “Rubric” by Philip Glass, “Meditation on Mount Fuji” from the Deep Sleep Relaxation cd, “Vivaldi’s Four Seasons: Recomposed: Winter 1” by Max Richter, and of course, The Beatles.

I’m interested to hear what other writers’ processes are when they are at the beginning of a project.

Even though I am in full reading mode, I’m lucky in that reading often puts me in a writing mode. So there is much writing occurring, too!

This is my current reading pile. All are in various stages of partial progress or haven’t even started yet. Mostly Japanese authors and tales because of my thesis, with Melissa Febos tucked in there for fun and because she is visiting our class next week! This is just the tip of the iceberg of the books that I am reading for my thesis research. Stay tuned for more!

  • Number9Dream by David Mitchell. I am such a fan of Mitchell’s stories, having previously read Cloud Atlas, Black Swan Green, and Slade House. This particular novel, based in Japan, is action-filled with a cat-and-mouse chase, all the while balancing the surreal dreamworld with the historical pang of the war; a mixture I hope to successfully create in my own book. I haven’t started Mitchell’s novel yet, but am very much looking forward to it.
  • Children of Hiroshima compiled by Dr. Arata Osada. Is that Cammie weeping in her room again? If so, it’s because she is reading this book, which consists of 105 first-hand accounts about the events of August 6, 1945, written by children who experienced and survived the bombing of Hiroshima. It is horrific, brain-staining, and should be a mandatory read for people of all ages.
  • Abandon Me: Memoirs by Melissa Febos. I’m about halfway through Febos’ collection of personal essays and can go, oh maybe one page, before I’m scribbling down another quote in my notebook. Her writing is bold and passionate, her words ripping straight through the paper, right through my skin. The themes she explores in this book are surprisingly helpful to understanding one of my thesis’ characters particularly. She put into words—beautiful and frightening truths—that “the nature of want…is to crush.” She goes on to describe her desire for her beloved’s body as “wanting to unzip my body and pull her into it, or crawl into hers.” Along similar lines, Febos describes how she “could hurt the person [she] least wanted to.” If you haven’t picked this book up yet, do so immediately. It is something to savor, like dark chocolate dipped into hot coffee.
  • Norwegian Wood by Haruki MurakamiEveryone is recommending me read this, and honestly, I can’t believe I haven’t read it yet at this point in my life! One thing I know is that I will probably blast The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” on high while reading.
  • A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro. I’ve read this one before and am already a quarter into my second read. I’m definitely picking up on things I hadn’t noticed before. The dialogue is the most interesting element in that the characters seem to be saying nothing of significance at all to each other, and in that, they are really saying so much. Other times, two people are in a conversation but are not responding to each other. Instead, they carry on with their own monologues, which is still a type of communication—usually one displaying dysfunction or anger. I’m also excited to read An Artist of the Floating World, too.

The ampersand is technically a bookend, but I like to place its infinite curves on top of my book pile every once in a while to remind myself that there is always more. More to read, more to write. The book pile is endless. There will always be an AND, never an END.

I am spending my days drinking tea and writing a few vignettes because the novel seems to want to follow that very short chapter format. I’m editing two short stories from workshop, and am gearing up for April Poetry Month. For the past 3 years, I have written 30 poems in 30 days each time April rolls around. Each collection of 30 poems becomes a time capsule of that month of my life. I can remember exactly what occurred on each day to influence my daily poems. This year will be no different.

(If you are interested in participating in April’s National Poetry Month, but don’t want to write poems, consider signing up for Poem-a-Day, which is a daily digital poetry series which distributes a poem each day into your inbox!)

Spring Equinox

It’s currently 3 degrees in Montpelier, but I am trying to keep springy by collecting pictures of flowers and colors of beach.

I have a bag of glorious Cadbury Mini-Eggs because according to the grocery store, it’s spring. I haven’t opened them yet (such restraint), but I’m not sure what I’m waiting for.

And I am in full throttle of madly plotting out my thesis for next year with reading lists and storyboards and timelines and arrows pointing to other arrows. (More on the thesis later).

I often keep myself so busy, thinking about how I can serve other people or working on assignments that others are holding me accountable for. I wonder if that’s me trying to avoid stopping and having a breath to myself. In those paused moments, I have to be raw with everything within me: the good, the bad, the fear, the proud, the confident, the doubt. And that can be a scary place to steep, but those peaceful moments of solitude are so essential to a fulfilling and productive life. Perhaps that is what this blog’s purpose is for me. A sort of vitality.

Vitality, that’s a good word, isn’t it?

So here’s to spring, to renewal, to sun, to flowers, to slowing down sometimes, to balancing poses, to chocolate, to silence, to energy, to life. Here’s to you!

 

Why I Write (Today’s Version)

Why I write has been a difficult question for me to parse out properly. Maybe it never changes. Maybe it always is and will be “because I must.” But I don’t think that’s true, and that description doesn’t satisfy me anyway. If I’ve learned anything over the past months at VCFA, it’s that self-reflection is an important part of realizing one’s goals, and for me, writing those reflections down makes me accountable for my goals and intentions. Writing these thoughts down means that I can’t hide from my emotional truths. The page is safe, like the air. Non-judgmental. A clean slate. A silently listening ear.  And yet, these writings also serve as documents of past versions of myself, this ever-changing self, so I can look back tomorrow, in a month, a year, a decade, and understand the time and space I was operating in. Who I wanted to be, what I was concerned about, why I did what I did, why I continue to do what I am impassioned to do, all of it is there on the page. We are changing always, shifting and rearranging the furniture of our bodies to accommodate to the personal and global situations around us. And so, I don’t think it is silly to ask why I write. On any given day, the intricacies and the molecules that make up that question will inevitably be unique.

So, on this day of March 15, 2018, this is why I write.

At this point in my life, I write because if I didn’t, my head would explode. It is how I empty out my thoughts, like the garbage disposal in a sink. It is how I connect wholly with someone outside of myself, as well as with other parts within me. In the real world, we never truly can understand another human. Never fully know what they are feeling or hiding or thinking on the inside. But when a character is inside me, sleeping in my little brain cave each night, I am always practicing empathy. I think writing makes me a better person in the world. It keeps my brain healthy, even when I’m producing and processing dark topics, because it is healthy to acknowledge the dark and light, and writing is the only way I know how to filter through all that grayness. I also write to play with language. I write to form words on paper and in the air, the ear, the tongue. I want to stretch words like taffy, turn them technicolor, blast sunlight through their thinnest middles, hear them crackle, and stick to tacky teeth.

Someone asked me recently how I write characters who seemingly are so different than myself. The writer whom I am today has to first find the emotional core of the story I want to write. I have to locate that emotion within myself, within my heart, and only then can I pluck out my heart and hold it in the palm of my hand, and begin the search. The search for a vessel to stick my heart inside. It doesn’t matter if the heartless character is male or female; a mother or child; a shade darker or lighter than me; a botanist or a locksmith or a sonic statue sculptor; blind or deaf. All I need to know is that when I stick my heart inside their chest, I will be able to navigate their lives through my own intuition, through my own personal experience with that emotion.

A few months ago, I might have thought that the lucky people were the ones whose answer to “why they write” never changed, whose answers always stayed the same. They knew themselves. They knew their path. They knew why they got up in the morning and what they were going to accomplish. But now, I’m not sure that is true. Perhaps the truly lucky ones are the ones who continue to be curious, to reflect but not dwell. The ones who are willing to adapt their passions to fit new lifestyles. The ones who aren’t satisfied with one answer. The ones who thrive to know more, to understand more, to ask…what else could be true?

Perhaps my answer won’t change tomorrow, or the next day, or the next. But this is definitely a question I will return to again and again. One thing I do know…I will always write my answers down.

On Tampa and AWP

Last Wednesday, I boarded a plane headed for Tampa, Florida. It was snowy Burlington—the smack-dab middle of a Nor’easter—and the plane just barely got out. All others were cancelled for the next two days! Somehow, I got lucky. Two plane rides, a long layover in D.C. and a total of 8 hours later, I was welcomed by a downright tropical Floridian night.

I’ve been eagerly anticipating the AWP conference for awhile now, since I registered in November. Not only was this going to be my first appearance at THE literary event of the year, it was also going to be the first time I viewed my managing editorial baby: the newest issue of Hunger Mountain (it’s beautiful, by the way!!!) We opened the boxes which had been sent directly to the hotel and prayed that the book hadn’t been printed upside down or backwards.

And can I just say…

I loved AWP. Really. Really really loved it. It’s hard to fully imagine the conference without experiencing it. But let me try my best. It’s 15,000 writers and teachers and students and editors and publishers and logophiles and bibliophiles, all geeking out over writing and reading. It’s getting the nerve to go up to the Paris Review or Guernica or [insert prestigious journal here], shake hands with the editor, and have confidence in your own work. It’s about dancing like no one is going to write about it later. It’s about attending readings and inviting lyrical rhythms and delicious words to whirl around in your ears for hours. It’s about breathing in the same room with the poets and writers you read online or follow on Twitter or whose likeness you’ve taped to the walls of your bedroom. It’s about making a new writerly friend or contact, or discovering that your work fits in perfectly with the aesthetic of a journal you had never known to exist before. It’s about being inspired and soaking up everything you can and reflecting on why you are here (which you do belong here!) and why you love to write and why it is so important to share your voice.  It’s about finding a community of people who understand why you do what you do. It’s about supporting yourself and others and literature itself.

Yes, the conference was chaotic and a total sensory overload and exhausting and the food wasn’t great and was very overpriced,  but it was worth it to work at the book fair all day long…

…so I could introduce myself to other writers, so I could talk about how much I love Hunger Mountain, so I could meet some of the contributors and editors of our new issue in person (gosh, I am such a fan of them! They are all incredible people)…

Melissa Febos and Donika Kelly (our guest editors) IN REAL LIFE!

…so I could attend panels and craft lectures on the things that are important to me: “The Next Step: Teaching & Writing at a Literary Center“, “Work Work Balance: When a Day Job Pays More Than the Bills,” “Writing Bad Ass and Nasty Women,”  and “The Real Mother of All Bombs: Reconsidering John Hersey’s Hiroshima.

…so I could see dear writing mentors of mine again (Robert James Russell, Allegra Hyde, Alex McElroy, Amelia Martens, Britton Shurley, to name a few)

…so I could leave my footprints on the dry Tampa sidewalks.

The only unfortunate event of the four day trip was when my friend’s phone slipped out of her pocket and disappeared forever below a sidewalk and into a storm drain. After phone call after phone call with the police and the sewage department, the phone was deemed a lost cause because apparently, sidewalk manholes are cemented in the ground and unable to be lifted. The ice cream we had treated ourselves to that night quickly began to unsettle inside our bellies.

Despite that quite disheartening hiccup, have I mentioned that I loved AWP? I did. I managed to even be pretty restrained in the bookfair—given that by the last day most of the booths pass their goodies out for free—and did not bring back too many books! Here’s my loot pile plus a whole lot of contact cards (not pictured):

Goodies courtesy C&R Press, Wolverine Press, Lee L. Krecklow, and Traveling Stanzas

I’ve decided that I will attend AWP every year from this day forward until I can no longer travel or walk.

After I arrived back in Montpelier this past Sunday, I slept a good 12 hours. It definitely is good to be home again. Back to class, back to snow, with books to read (Vermilion Sands by J.G. Ballard, Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson, Sourdough by Robin Sloan, Indictus by Natalie Eilbert, and The Expanse Between by Lee L. Krecklow), work to do, contest entries to read, a thesis to plan, and coffee. Always coffee.

AWP Anticipation … & Waiting for the Snow to Melt

Snow 2.0. Yes, there is still snow, and my feet are slightly bored of the constant snugness of boots. The trees are laced in snow doilies, which is beautiful, but I would very much like some greenery and sun. At least some dogwoods and tulips and fluttering fauna would be nurturing for the soul.

The good news is that we are off on spring break for a whole week, which is a much-earned and much-welcomed break. On Wednesday, I leave for AWP (Association of Writers and Publishers) – the biggest writerly conference in America – where I will be representing Hunger Mountain and working the booth at the book fair. This event has been a bucket list item of mine for many years, and now it’s actually happening! This year, the conference is in sunny Tampa, and I’m not sure I even remember how to dress for warm weather. There are about 200 panels which will be coinciding with the book fair, and I am a little daunted by the schedule! So far, I’ve only looked at Thursday’s schedule and already have added 20 panels to my “Favorites” list! Eek!

Until Wednesday, I am editing a draft of a new short story, applying for a few summer residencies and conferences, and want to start a new art project with my little doodle buddy, but I’m not sure what form the project will take. Tarot cards? A series of graphic quotes? A flip book? Suggestions are welcome.

If you are not familiar with my little buddy, allow me to introduce him!

A few years ago, I found myself doodling in a notebook one day and the result of the doodling was this guy: a dapper sort, always dressed in a cardigan and neatly knotted scarf, with a spinning top for a head.  He’s followed me throughout the years, trotting through notebook page margins, decorating my walls, organizing his scarf drawer within his bedroom of my brain. My buddy exists in variations: sometimes the wind is especially strong and whips his head around and around, tugging on his scarf. Sometimes, he taps into his natural roots and sprouts antler-like branches from his head. Sometimes, he hangs upside down, preferring to see the world from a new perspective. He is a comfort to me, I guess you could say. That he doesn’t have a face doesn’t bother me at all. In fact, it is soothing that he doesn’t have to worry about expressions and vanity and judgments and outward-appearing emotions.

He is strange and wonderful and slightly evasive, and a creature I really want to bring more fully into this world. So again, suggestions for a new art project are welcomed!

Also in new developments, I will be posting frequently on Twitter a new photo series, which will document the books I am reading outside of class. Here is the first of the Reading Bench Series:

Because everyone should have a familiar reading bench (when they are not hula hooping and reading, of course!) Stay tuned for more in the series soon!

So, lots of art and editing in a bomb cyclone wonderland, and impatiently anticipating AWP and spring!

Remnants of Past Identification

We carry our past lives with us, through memories, through music, through scars and food and photographs and the objects we can’t quite part with for some inexplicable reason. Some of us even carry our past lives in our wallets.

Our clunky black wallets with too much change and too many balled-up receipts.

Go ahead and open mine up. Never mind the three library cards, the credit cards, the expired gift card to Subway. If you look in the tight plastic-sheathed picture pocket—right there behind my driver’s license—you’ll find a personal identification card, standing tall and proud and vertically aligned.

Expiration Date:  2012 : the year I graduated from high school : recovered from my second ACL knee surgery : kissed my love for the first time : packed up my books and clothes to start down the college road : the year the world was supposed to end but didn’t.

Address: The pale yellow house born in 1925 which I lived in for 19 years of my life. We sold it a year after the card expired and I haven’t driven past it since. It’s no longer mine. This home.

Weight: The weight of a teenager, which I am no more.

Background: Michigan in large, blue, block letters. The Mackinac Bridge (Mighty Mac) streaking across the top. A state engrained in my bones and will be wherever in the world I go.

Signature: Do I still carve my r’s like that? I’ve become lazier these days, no longer taking the care to write Finch. Instead a scrawled, scrunched something or rather like Fil is sufficient enough.

Photograph: First there is the hair, which I have cut and shaved and grown and regrown and shaped and trimmed and now have 1/4 of what appears on this ID. Then, there are the cheeks with apples beneath the surface, the tanned skin of summer, the cheesy “when is this picture going to be taken” smile that only is worn at the Secretary of State. There are the clothes: the red sweater, the leopard scarf. I wore them together again yesterday and I felt as if revisiting an old friend.

The other day as I reached into my wallet for my license, this other self peered through the plastic at me. My boyfriend caught a glimpse of it and asked, “Why do you still carry that thing around?”

Because it’s me. Or it was me. Or it’s all somehow still inside me, swimming around in the fleshy, messy pool of living and forgetting. And I guess I’d rather not partake in the forgetting.

*

(This post was inspired by an assignment where we were told to bring in one object about which we have more than one feeling preferably (complicated, or conflicted); something that we have not been able to part with. Guess what I brought in?)

Songs to Inspire Creative Flow

Two years ago, I wrote a blog post about the motivational benefits of music. Christopher Bergland says in Psychology Today, “music and mood are inherently bound.” He says that “you can dial up a mood, mindset or perception on demand by choosing music that elicits a specific emotional response in you,”  whether it’s for athletic benefits, studying purposes, for road trip boredom busting, or to create a certain vibe to match your day. So, given this information, I created a “You Can Do Anything” playlist to help get me through the tests and trials of undergraduate second-semester senioritis.

I still do listen to many of those songs now as a first-year in graduate school, but as of late, here are the songs I return to again and again when I need to be hosed down head to toe with creative energy.

Watch, listen, repeat, and fall in deep, dark love:

The Main Title Theme to Westworld by Ramin Djawadi has become my soul song. I’ve listened to it about 200 times over the course of a week, yet I’ve only seen the first two episodes of the show! No spoiler alerts please!

Zoe Keating uses a looping system to whisper haunting sounds over her own sound, and to invent herself as a stunning one-woman symphony. I saw her perform at The Ark in Ann Arbor in 2014. Her power could stop a whole room’s breath at once.

Emancipator’s “Rattlesnakes” really deserves to be listened to with headphones to fully appreciate its complexities. Imagine dropping ping pong balls off steep cliffs one by one. One by one, they hit water and then rock. Now imagine you are one of the ping pong balls. This song will take you on that ping pong ball’s journey.

Just because these songs resonate with me doesn’t mean they will for you. I only give these as an example and a free treat for your ears. I listen to them often because they are phenomenal works of art, and I highly recommend them for music while writing, painting, or whatever artistic activity tickles your fancy. They’re also quite satisfying to simply sit, listen, and soak. Create your own at-home sonic spa. Listen around and craft your own playlist to suit your personal tastes and styles and motivational needs.

Support artists! Open your ears to beauty! Fuel your creativity!

 

Admit One

Let’s talk about movies.

Having just finished our 3-week screenwriting module with Julianna Baggott, my brain has properly become molded (or should I say ruined) to never watch a movie again without noting its structure, praising its “break into Act 2” scene, calculating its midpoint, and brooding over the slow and torturous ALL IS LOST/DARK SOUL OF THE NIGHT scenes in Act 3.

There are many celebrated and acclaimed ways to structure a film. A particular method, called the Three Act Structure, was the one we used in class to plot out familiar films, such as Hot Fuzz and On Golden Pond, as well as TV shows (Cheers, Friends From College, Ozark). Basically, there are formulas for successful storytelling and this is one of them. We as story consumers have been primed to expect certain kinds of actions to take place at certain points in the story’s arc. You can learn more about the beat-to-beat moments here: http://blog.janicehardy.com/2013/10/plotting-with-save-cat-beat-sheet.html.

While we learned this structure in a “screenwriting” class, a story is a story, no matter the medium. Structure isn’t a topic usually hit on in fiction/novel writing courses, and yet, it is so important to ensuring that 1) your readers are following the plot and 2) you are engaging their emotions and moving them to the edge of their seat – or in book talk, your readers are still turning the pages.

In another one of my classes, we’ve been talking about our “touchstone” books to reach for whenever we’re in need of creative nourishment. In honor of the screenwriting class, I’ve thought about my “touchstone” films.

Here is a list of movies I go back to again and again whenever I need inspiration or when I need to deeply appreciate the art of storytelling:

Cloud Atlas: I first read the book and fell in love with the sheer brilliance of Mitchell’s mind. The movie is definitely a different creature than the book. But I’m rather fond of instances where the book and the film are two distinct pieces of art. After all, a book is not a film and a film is not a book. I worship the cinematographer of the film, or whoever was in charge of chopping up the scenes. The scenes were cut and woven together with such deftness that I believe the film can express the theme of the story (interconnectedness, past lives, history repeating itself, textual posterity) better than the limited technologies the book’s chaptered structure could offer. While David Mitchell is the masterful architect behind the story (see my post about David Mitchell’s visit to Ann Arbor here), I am 100% Team Movie. The china shop dream sequence especially makes my heart stop. Even though I have seen the film close to 10 times, I know there will be many more viewings in my future. I’m especially interested in hearing the director and co. talk about the film via commentary.

Amelie: Amelie is the queen of quirk. The film is an incredibly rare blend of both joy and melancholy. There’s fun and whimsy to be had, but there’s also real, honest emotion which is explored throughout the film. Amelie is a girl who celebrates life’s small pleasures (which my love for the movie makes total sense if you know my undying obsession with the British magazine The Simple Things). She loves the sound of a spoon breaking a creme brûlée crust; she plunges her hand in a sack of grain at the vegetable stand; she loves skipping stones on the canal. These moments make her seem real. These moments make me say, “I wish I could meet her and take her to a park so we can watch the clouds and turn them into animated objects.” The other reason I love the movie is that the landscape is familiar, yet fictive. It is a place of saturated colors, of eccentric characters, of talking paintings, of nostalgic accordion music. The film does not try to represent the “real Paris”—it grabs you by the hand and takes you into a dreamworld of its own kind.

Tarsem’s The Fall: See my love for this movie in my December 2017 post for the Michigan Quarterly Review. Otherwise, I could gush on and on.

Moonrise Kingdom: I absolutely adore the whimsy, the awkwardness, the simultaneous rigidity to order and the freedom of narrative structure, and the OCD mindset that is so prevalent in Wes Anderson’s films. This film happens to be the one I return to again and again. Anderson’s camera work also reminds me to use my zoom button when I write. How do I zoom way out? How do I zoom way in on this situation? What is the detail I want to draw my readers eye to in this scene?

Tell me: which movies inspire you?