So I got to see Neil Gaiman.

Late Sunday afternoon, fellow writer and excellent good friend Steven Thorn called me up and asked me one of the best questions I’ve ever been asked:

“Hey, do you wanna go see Neil Gaiman tomorrow? I’ve got an extra ticket.”

Because Steven is the type of person who inspires the best in people, I fought to keep expletives out of my affirmative reply (and miraculously succeeded).

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The ticket to the night’s event.

Monday arrived with its usual haste and brought a steady, day-long drizzle. A gray afternoon shifted to a gray evening and soon, we found ourselves scarfing down McDonald’s burgers and barreling down a rainy highway to a university I didn’t know existed before this day (University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma, bless you for making admission to this event free of charge). The venue was small (intimate was the adjective I offered), but we didn’t mind, as every seat would give us a good view of The Author.

When @neilhimself took the stage, we applauded (part of my applause was for myself, as I correctly guessed that he’d be wearing all black). He kicked off the evening with a few thoughts on writing, with the aim of de-mythologizing the writing process. Writer’s block, he asserted, is a convenient thing writers use to shift their ability to solve their own problems elsewhere. “Gardeners don’t get gardener’s block,” he pointed out.

He then read a few of his short stories—wonderful tales of frustrated genies and igloos made of books. This night helped me remember that there’s something special about hearing an author read his or her own work aloud (the accent was certainly a plus as well).

Then, he graciously turned to the stack of questions that had been collected from the audience before he’d begun his talk. The one that elicited the best advice of the night was something along the lines of “What pitfalls/missteps have you experienced in your career that aspiring writers ought to avoid?” He responded with a story about a book he wrote on commission at the age of 23. The book wasn’t about anything he was particularly interested in, but the pay was good, so he wrote it anyway. When it got published, it was a success, and a good amount of royalties was coming his way. But then, the publishing abruptly company folded, leaving him with nothing at all.

His advice (paraphrased): “Don’t write for the money, because the money isn’t always guaranteed. Write something interesting and important to you. Then, even if you don’t get the money, you still have the interesting thing.”

Well said, sir. And thanks for a wonderful Monday evening.

-Alyssa

Tidbits:

  • Someone asked Neil what his favorite color is, and he responded with “probably green.”
  • Mr. Gaiman does delightful impersonations of Steven Moffat and Terry Pratchett.
  • “Writing is a craft that consists of sitting down, staring at a typewriter, a blank screen, a piece of paper, and looking grumpy.”
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Whiplash: Raw, powerful, thought-provoking

I got into my car after an afternoon showing of Whiplash and looked down at my hands. During the movie’s runtime, I had bitten down a few of my fingernails. My right thumb was bleeding. I also realized that my hands were trembling a little. I took a deep, shuddering breath and laughed at myself. I felt like I was having a band nerd’s equivalent of a Vietnam flashback. Maybe Whiplash ought to come with a trigger warning for former band students.

The film follows the progress of Andrew (Miles Teller), a 19-year-old drummer starting his first semester at one of the finest music schools in the country. He squeaks into the top band and comes under the tutelage of Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), whose teaching philosophy can be boiled down to this line: “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘Good job.’”

As a member of the top band, Andrew experiences firsthand the kind of abuse and pressure his fellow musicians endure in order to please their acerbic director. Fletcher throws chairs, curses out his students, and drives them to play until blood and sweat coats their instruments. Andrew pushes himself and pushes himself, filling every moment of his spare time with more practice. Eventually, he reaches a breaking point and must decide whether or not to follow the path Fletcher has laid out for him.

The movie’s emotion is incredibly vivid and captivating. What made it all the more enthralling for me was that I was seeing very familiar situations up on the big screen. Whiplash is brimming with little moments that I’m sure many band members have experienced themselves. I remember the anxiety that gripped me when the director would go down the line, player by player, to find out who was out of tune. I remember the frustration when the director brought rehearsal to a halt because a group of players was having difficulties with a particular passage. I remember the resentment I felt for those players as the director profusely apologized for wasting the rest of the band’s time. I remember fighting back tears of humiliation after being individually called out in front of my peers. Whiplash pushes these situations beyond what most students actually experience, but the visceral emotion in these scenes is true to life.

Whipash’s director Damien Chazelle has said that a band director he had at Harvard inspired Fletcher’s character. This explains Fletcher’s depth and the veracity of the complex relationship between band students and their instructor. The director subjects his students to grueling hours of practice but leads them to achieve incredible musical feats. The students at times fear and resent the source of their misery, but at the same time, they are driven to prove themselves to the director and eagerly seek out his praise. Fletcher is verbally and even physically abusive to his students but he also gets results—his band is among the best in the nation. Therein lies the question that the film raises: how far is too far? Do the ends justify the means? Are tortuous struggles simply the price we must pay to achieve true greatness?

On top of all that emotional and philosophical complexity, Whiplash is an extremely well-made movie. It’s shot to maximize the impact of the music—perfectly timed pans and cuts underscore the tension behind every musical entrance. And the performances are flawless. Teller carries the film’s passion with every drumbeat and Simmons embodies a fascinating character that, in less capable hands, would come off as an irredeemable monster.

It may be hard to believe that a character-driven flick about a studio band keeps audience members on the edge of their seats, but go see Whiplash and you’ll understand.

-Alyssa

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Spooky Stories: Two Sentences, One Minute

Happy Halloween, everybody!

In the spirit of the holiday, I wanted to share some spooky stories— more specifically, a collection of two-sentence scary stories compiled from reddit. As a writer, I’m fascinated by what these stories are able to evoke in a mere two sentences. They set up a scene or scenario and inspire chills and, in some cases, genuine fright.

The most unsettling of these mini-stories was picked up by a film director named Ignacio F. Rodo. Rodo adapted it into a minute-long film and submitted it to Filminute, an international festival that challenges directors to make—you guessed it—minute-long films. This film of Rodo’s ended up winning the 2014 jury award for best minute-long film. It’s called “Tuck Me In,” and while it probably won’t scar you for life or anything, it’s, as the AV Club put it, “unnerving as all hell.”

Sweet dreams, friends!

-Alyssa

 

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Second-Hand Horror: Memories of The Twilight Zone

It’s that time of year again. The one time of year I willingly seek out things that creep me out. I’ve always been kind of a wimp when it comes to scary movies, so I actually haven’t seen a ton of ‘em. I feel like I’ve seen a good handful of them, though.

When I was a kid, my dad would tell me stories—most of them weren’t original stories, but rather, re-tellings of well-known sci-fi, fantasy, and horror short stories, books, and movies. He’d paint pictures of Middle Earth like he’d been there himself, or re-live an episode of The Twilight Zone or The Ray Bradbury Theater with stunning clarity. And between his animated accounts and my vivid imagination, I got what felt like first-hand experience with fantasy and horror through these secondhand stories.

One of these stories still sticks with me to this day. It’s an episode of The Twilight Zone called “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.” For those unfamiliar with this episode, it concerns the passenger of an airplane (played by William Shatner in the 1963 version and John Lithgow in the 1983 version) who looks out the window and sees a creature on the wing. He repeatedly tries to alert others to its presence, but it always seems to vanish before anyone else can spot it.

Creepiness ensues.

Creepiness ensues.

The two versions play out slightly differently, but the version my dad would relay to me was the one from 1983. My dad would imitate Lithgow’s wild eyes, his panicked gasping, and finally, the grinning leer that the creature gives Lithgow before it flees, twisting away on the wind.

I’ve never actually seen the episode (until today; I decided it was time), but the image that I conjured in my head years ago was powerful enough that, to this day, I dislike sitting on the wing seat of a plane. And the funny thing is, while I fly pretty infrequently, it seems that more often than not, I’m seated right by the wing. And in the window seat, no less.

Check out the two versions below. And stay tuned for another Halloween post tomorrow!

-Alyssa

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Word Power

So I attended an open mic for the first time in a long time. I’d forgotten how invigorating it is to be surrounded by folks who share a passion for words. A lot of awesome, important things were said tonight. The topics ranged far and wide, from silly to serious, from football to Ferguson. Just being in the presence of such raw feeling… it’s impossible to not feel alive and electrified.

The open mic started with what we call the Five Word Challenge. The host solicits five random words from the audience, and then we’re given fifteen-ish minutes to come up with a piece that incorporates those five words. The winner is determined by the very scientific Applause-O-Meter, and the recipient of the most applause wins an on-the-house drink from the coffee house that generously hosts the event (shout out to Second Wind Coffee House) and the knowledge that they won poetry forever.

Tonight, the words were as follows: veneer, celestial, cheesecake, wallaby, and moon bounce (never mind that that last one is two words). At past open mics, I’ve ground my brain-cogs over each word in turn, focusing on the words in the order they were spoken aloud.

Tonight, though, I decided to free-associate, and, miraculously, actually came up with something coherent. Here it is:

Too often, I have to remind myself
That I am a celestial being
Composed of light and stardust
That everything in the universe and me
Is me
All the same stuff

If you peel back the thin veneer
Of social anxieties and cheap makeup
You’ll find a person unperturbed by
The thought of her changing form

Her mind and body that will be
Sanded down by time
Her mind slowing from wallaby hops
To slow beetle crawls
Her edges softening
And sharpening again

I remind myself the thing about the stars again
And my moon bounce belly quivers
Because my guts
Are star guts
So, in the grand scheme of it all
In this vast, unfolding universe
What’s one more slice of cheesecake?

I ended up winning this here Five Word Challenge and got myself my favorite drink at Second Wind. The hot version is called a Dante’s Inferno (it has seven ingredients, one of which is cayenne pepper), but it was a warm night, so I got it chilled and blended (a Hell Frozen Over).

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The victory drink.

Also, at every open mic, we have a featured poet recite some of their material. Tonight, the guest of honor was Candace Liger, whom I can only describe as a badass. She opened with the disclaimer that she isn’t much for love poems, and then proceeded to deliver one of the most heartfelt, luscious, moving love poems I’ve heard. She then moved to a rousing number about Ferguson and closed with a tearful piece about her father, who instilled in her a love of poetry.

After it was done, I hugged her and told her I wished I could spit words like she could. I’m comfortable with crafting sentences and presenting them to a reader I can’t see, but when I step behind a mic, my voice wavers and my hands visibly shake. She shook her head and said that years ago, she opened her cabinet and drank the last expired cans of Give-A-Fuck she found there and that’s how she got to where she is today.

Words to live by.

-Alyssa

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Peep jousting: A Holiday Bloodbath

Some coworkers and I jousted Peeps. I got a bit melodramatic about it.

We colored one side of the plate blue and the other red, then armed our marshmallowy warriors with toothpick spears. My heart went with the red soldier– his standard bore the red of blood, of passion, of victory! Once the plate was set inside the microwave arena, there was no turning back from the glory that awaited.

I nodded at my companion, who pressed the button to send an electronic beep blaring across the field of battle.

It had begun.

 

Embattled foes-- who will emerge victorious?

Embattled foes– who will emerge victorious?


Soon, the fighters were awash in radiation, their bodies swelling like fish rotting in the sun. A burnt, sugary stench filled the air. My heart stopped as I saw my red soldier topple over to one side. My companion, who’d bet on blue, was quick to declare her own knight the victor. She moved to open the microwave door, but I stayed her hand.

A closer look and we saw it– immediately after my champion had fallen, hers had done the same, perhaps thinking that it was safe to lay down his arms while his foe rested. Such was not the case, as the red warrior’s apparent fall from grace was merely a feint to lure his foe into complacency. As soon as the blue knight lowered his spear, my red champion went in for the killing stroke. He puffed to an enormous size and thrust his spear forward.

We gasped in awe as we watched the red Peep’s spear rend his foe in twain. The once-proud blue warrior collapsed in a heap of bubbly ruin. The battle was done, the victor clear. 

We drew the plate from the microwave and bore witness to the carnage we’d wrought: blackened sugar and wizened marshmallow bodies littered the field of conquest. Bloodlust slaked, we knew in our hearts that such a spectacle would not grace our eyes for another turning of the seasons. Easter, that blessed day which fans man’s barbarous thirst for feats of sugary daring to an unquenchable flame, was over.

 

-Alyssa

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Thoughts on The Lego Movie

The LEGO MovieOkay, this movie’s been out long enough for me to have seen it three times in theaters. I figure it’s high time I say a few words about it, as it turns out I have a lot of feelings about this flick. Warning: the following is very spoilery, highly personal, and only thematically related to the movie itself.

Rightly or wrongly, many have named my generation the “self-esteem” generation. Millennials are sensitive, self-absorbed, and in constant need of coddling and praise in order to function. Like any reasonable person, I’m aware of the negative impact of showering someone with excessive praise. The baddie of The Lego Movie—Lord Business—speaks to this idea during his sneering confrontation of the protagonist, Emmet (who has been designated as the Special—the one destined to save the world). “No one ever told me I was special!” Lord Business scoffs. “I never got a trophy just for showing up!” Lord Business rightfully addresses the absurdity of excessive praise, but he also cuts to the heart of why external affirmation is so important.

In a pivotal scene near the film’s end, Vitruvius (a wizard and mentor figure voiced by Morgan Freeman) tells Emmet that he wasn’t chosen by some ancient prophecy (in fact, Vitruvius made all that up). All Emmet needed to be the Special was to believe that he was the Special (it’s worth noting that the film is too self-aware to let such a hackneyed piece of advice go unaddressed; Vitruvius admits that this advice “sounds like a cat poster”).

LEGO

Rather than feeling immediately empowered by Vitruvius’ revelation, Emmet finds himself at a loss. “How can I just believe that I’m special,” he asks helplessly, “when I’m not?”

Emmet’s response struck a chord with me. At some point or another, we’ve all had this feeling. We’ve seen others outperform us, we’ve failed at something that we’ve given our all, or we’ve just felt unsatisfied with ourselves. There are times when, no matter how hard we try, we cannot see our own potential. Oftentimes, we need an outside observer to see the good qualities in ourselves that we’d otherwise discount or overlook.

In his final showdown with Lord Business, Emmet finally understands Vitruvius’ revelation and what it means to be the Special. He repeats the words of the prophecy back to Lord Business.

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“You are the most talented, most interesting, and most extraordinary person in the universe,” Emmet tells him. “And you are capable of amazing things. Because you are the Special. And so am I. And so is everyone. The prophecy is made up, but it’s also true. It’s about all of us. Right now, it’s about you.”

I could go into how this moment in the film spoke to me really personally, but I’ll probably start crying and no one needs to see that. What I would like to touch on is how the film speaks to the importance of vocalizing good qualities in others, and the dramatically positive impact this simple act can have.

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We’ve all experienced how words can hurt or heal us. Not long ago, I found myself deeply sad without knowing why I was sad, and that experience left me doubting the validity of my feelings. How could I justify feeling this way when I had nothing solid to base them on? Having feelings that were baseless made me feel worse about having those feelings. I felt that I didn’t deserve them.

I brought this up to some friends and they immediately shut down that way of thinking. “Your feelings are valid because they are YOURS,” they told me. I was amazed to find that, just like that, I was healed. Those words were exactly what I needed to hear, and they helped me move forward from a period of emotional uncertainty and self-doubt.

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The final confrontation between Emmet and Lord Business is a perfect example of how words can heal and instigate personal growth. Emmet tells Lord Business exactly what he needs to hear—something he’s needed to hear for a long time—and bridges the ideological gap between them. It’s Emmet’s words that help Lord Business realize that he is just as capable of greatness as anyone else.

I believe that’s what’s at the heart of the “self-esteem” generation: the idea that great people and great ideas can come from anywhere—and that sometimes, we need others to recognize that greatness in us before we can recognize it in ourselves. So thanks, movie, for being clever, heartfelt, and thought-provoking—in other words, better than any movie bearing the title “The Lego Movie” has any right to be.

-Alyssa

(Everything is awesome.)

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