In which I critique American Beauty fifteen years too late…

I remember when I used to love to go to the movies. I went almost every weekend, because I could find a movie I wanted to see every weekend. I was often surprised by something entirely new: Pulp Fiction, The Big Lebowski, American Beauty.

It seems those days are passed. I can no longer get to the movie theater as often as I used to–one of the downsides of being a parent–but even when I have the opportunity, I rarely find something I’d like to watch. Even watching movies at home, with all the choices available to me now, is a chore. With rare exceptions, movies are no longer surprising. They are safe, and I feel like I’ve seen all those explosions, heard all those jokes, before.

I thought I might turn to movies I watched long ago to see if they still hold up. First up: American Beauty (primarily because it is streaming on Netflix). Remember this?


Deep, right?

Fifteen years later, I have a very different take on this film. Move on if you haven’t seen the movie because I’m about to spoil it big time.

Kevin Spacey’s character in American Beauty is the prototypical man-boy in Lester Burnham, isn’t he? He quits his job to work in a fast food restaurant, masturbate, smoke dope, lift weights, buy a muscle car, and mack on a teenage girl.


But on a rewatch, it occurred to me that maybe this movie is much more subversive than I originally thought. The events of the film are presented through Burnham’s distorted, thoroughly unreliable point of view (he is the narrator). It is only in the last few minutes of his life that Burnham sees how wrong he has been about pretty much everything. His wife is not a nagging shrew but is only unhappy because her partner has turned into unsupportive dead weight, another child for her to raise. His daughter is not a bitch but a damaged child searching in vain for a father. His daughter’s friend is not the nymphet Lolita of his fantasies but just a naive young girl and his fantasies are basically about child rape. And the kid next door who he so romanticizes, his “hero,” is actually just a skeevy drug dealer and quite possibly a sociopath who no sane dad would want dating his daughter.


In fact, Lester is killed by another version of a man-boy, the character played by Chris Cooper, who has refused his whole life to grow up and admit to the truth about himself or about the world. When that truth finally hits him in the face, he reacts in the most immature way possible, with gun violence.

All those people who watch this movie and admire Lester Burnham and want to be like him are actually part of the joke. Because Lester Burnham is thoroughly unadmirable, in every possible way, and his scant redemption comes far too late. I think what the movie’s real message is that yes, there is a lot that is soulless and twisted about modern society, but regressing to man-boyhood is not the way to deal with it.

Well, maybe I’m projecting, but that’s what we do with art. I just still want to like this movie.

100-day writing challenge + zombie invasion…

Qwiklit has a 100-day writing challenge going on, 100 prompts for short pieces hidden until you click to help clear out the cobwebs and get you started writing. I’m giving it a go. Here’s my short piece for day 2, “Zombie Invasion.”

Prompt: At this moment, the area you’re in is suddenly ravaged by zombies. With the internet and phone lines cut off, all you have at your disposal are things in your room.

I’m sitting in my office, surfing Tumblr, when I hear them outside. I look out the window and groan. Not zombies again! They’re everywhere you look these days. On TV, at the movies, even in YA romance novels. Aren’t they a little played out by now? Sure, zombies have overwhelming numbers and they keep on coming and they’re disgustingly gross, but other than that, they aren’t all that scary or even interesting. There’s only so much you can do with the premise. Uh oh, it’s the end of the world, everybody grab a gun, try to rape a random woman, and turn on your fellow human beings. Oh, and make sure a couple of you guys turn to cannibalism so we can do this bit about how we’re not much better than the zombies. I like The Walking Dead as much as anybody, but as far as I’m concerned, that’s the last I want to see of zombies for a lifetime. I want something new, something dynamic, something twenty-first century. And no, I’m not talking about something old all dressed up as new, like sparkly vampires. What is that even? Vampires are not sexy. They suck blood out of people’s bodies. They are very pale. They seem to brood a lot. Not sexy at all. Who would even want to hang around with someone like that for an evening, much less forever? Werewolves are so dead end, they’ve been reduced to supporting parts. Ghosts are always a fan favorite, but now we have to treat them like people, with sad back stories and mopey dialogue. That kind of takes the scare out of them. We need new monsters!

Guess I wouldn’t be much good in a zombie invasion.

Notes on Writing Down the Bones

Like the advice in pretty much all writing books, Natalie Goldberg’s advice in Writing Down the Bones boils down to the same core principles: write every day; don’t edit while you write; use detail; don’t worry about being perfect. Goldberg offers some useful tips for keeping a daily writing practice, but she also admits that you have to keep changing up your routine just to keep yourself interested. In other words, no one piece of advice is the magic bullet for all would-be writers, or will even work for one writer for the entirety of a writing life.

There are some useful nuggets to be mined here, and repetition helps the basic advice get heard. What I like about Goldberg’s approach to writing as a “practice” is that it takes the focus off the end product and puts it on the process of writing (or creating) just for its own sake. I think in American culture especially, we become too obsessed with productivity and sales and getting famous. We forget to do things for no other reason than our own enjoyment, and the spark gets lost that way.

Here are some key ideas from Writing Down the Bones that are worth remembering:

  • Composting: It takes time for our experiences to sift through our consciousness so we can write coherently about it. In other words, you’re not going to write well about something you’re going through right now. That’s why so many writers start with their childhood, I guess.
  • When you practice writing, it’s a good idea to separate the editor/internal censor  from the creator, but that’s very difficult to do for many of us!
  • It is the process of writing that teaches us how to write.
  • Writers write about their obsessions. List your obsessions and you have a list of things to write about.
  • Use original detail in your writing, but don’t be rigid about it. Fiction doesn’t have to absolutely mirror reality.
  • To be a good writer, you must read a lot of good books and write a lot. (This is what everyone says, but I find it so dismaying to run into writers who don’t read.)
  • “Show, don’t tell” actually means: Don’t tell readers what to feel; show them the situation and the feeling will awaken in them.
  • Be specific. Use the names of things.
  • Even if you aren’t sure of something, express it as if you know yourself.
  • If you have a big topic you want to write about, break it down into its aspects. Write small to get big.

Some interesting exercises I gleaned from the book:

  1. List 10 nouns on one side of a piece of paper. Cover them and list 15 verbs on the other side that are associated with a profession. Try to match nouns with verbs in unusual combinations to make sentences. Think about actions–they have power.
  2. If you can’t think of anything else to write about, write about food. We all love to eat.
  3. Keep a box or envelope or file of topic ideas. Pull one out and just start writing when you get stuck.
  4. If you are unsure of a piece, put it away for a while. Reread it as a reader, not as the writer. Underline the good parts and throw away the rest.

Notes on The Creative Habit

The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp is the first of several books I’m planning to read on the creative process. Tharp’s book is a great place to start, as it contains many nuggets of useful information on fashioning a creative life that can be put into practice immediately. Although Tharp’s art is dance, her advice is general enough to apply to any creative pursuit, even cooking, yoga, or gardening, and of course, writing. I found it very inspirational and wanted to share my reading notes, which may be of interest. I hope if you are intrigued that you go ahead and read the whole book–it’s worth it.

Rituals of preparation: Begin each day the same way. Commit to a creative practice by starting with a ritual. Create a working environment that’s habit forming. Distractions and fears are the enemy!

Twyla says: “…there is no one ideal condition for creativity. What works for one person is useless for another. The only criterion is this: Make it easy on yourself.”

That’s why following someone else’s prescription for creativity may not work!

Creative DNA: How do you see? What is your focal length: close up, medium, or long view?

Harness memory: Experiences and memories are the source of art. Find new ways to connect the memories that you’ve stored.

Twyla says: “Metaphor is the lifeblood of all art.”

Start with a box: When starting a new project, put everything about that project together into a box,* including research, notes, inspiration. (*A blog can be a “box.”)

Scratching: the process of getting started and finding ideas. Look everywhere. Read! You can’t stop with one idea–a workable idea is the combination of two separate ideas.

Accidents: Have a plan/don’t over plan. Be open to luck and happy accidents. Run with them when they occur. Limits on resources can help creativity.

Creativity as an act of defiance: Why do I have to obey the rules? Why can’t I be different? Why can’t I do it my way?

Spine*: the first strong idea/your intentions/motive for existence. Stick to your spine and your piece will work. The audience does not have to know what it is. It guides you and keeps you going. It’s a gift you give yourself to make the work easier.

*This is the key chapter in the book, the one most important piece of wisdom to take away.

Thought: Could you have a spine not only for creative projects, but for phases of your life?

Skill: You need to develop your skills to be truly great. Combine skill with passion. Learn to do for yourself to broaden your skills. Practice (diligence+habit) to keep your skills. Never take fundamentals for granted.

Inexperience erases fear–you don’t know what is not possible. Switch genres or to another skill set.

Ruts and grooves: There will come a time when creativity fails you. A rut: you’re spinning your wheels; the world is moving on while you’re standing still. Ruts are caused by bad ideas, bad timing, or bad luck. A rut is sticking to old methods without taking into account how you’ve changed (“always done it this way”). Question everything except your ability to get out of the rut.

First see the rut; second, admit you’re in a rut; third, get out of the rut. You may need to change your environment. You may need a new idea; set an aggressive quota. You may need to challenge or reverse your assumptions; practice this.

A groove: moving forward without hitches; learning, growing, stretching, being at your best. The call to a creative life is not supposed to be torture. Does it give you pain (a rut) or pleasure (a groove)?

Build a bridge to the next day. Write your intention down and read it first thing on the following day.

An A in failure: The creative act is editing out the ideas that don’t work. You do your best work after your biggest disasters. Failure is necessary, but you must be willing to learn from your failures. Build failure into the process; invite criticism and learn from it.

  • failure of skill: develop skills
  • failure of concept: move on to something else
  • failure of judgment: be a tyrant
  • failure of nerve: looking foolish is good for you
  • failure through repetition: try something new
  • failure from denial: admit when something is not working

The long run: Be in the bubble. Be willing to subtract everything that disconnects you from your work. (The most difficult advice to put into practice!)

The slippery genre of slipstream…

Of all the sub-genres crowded under the broad umbrella of “speculative fiction,” slipstream is probably the trickiest to nail down. Bruce Sterling, who coined the term, called slipstream “…a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the twentieth century makes you feel, if you are a person of a certain sensibility.” (Presumably, his comments extend to the early twenty-first century as well.)

Also referred to as interstitial fiction, slipstream blurs the conventional boundaries of genre (science fiction, fantasy, and horror) and literary fiction, and thus, by its very nature, is difficult to categorize. The end result is often surreal or weird, so slipstream can be called “the fiction of strangeness.”

Franz Kafka might be considered the grandfather of slipstream writing, and its forefathers were unquestionably the classic science fiction authors Philip K. Dick and Kurt Vonnegut. Magical realism was another important influence, including the authors Gabriel Garcia Marques, Isabel Allende, Jose Saramago, Milan Kundera, and Salman Rushdie.

Recently, slipstream has become more “mainstream” as contemporary literary authors regularly experiment with blurring the genre lines. Notable examples include:

Even though slipstream is tricky to define, I enjoy reading it whenever I happen upon it (and most often, I just know it when I see it). Examples that I have read this year and would recommend include A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki; The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber; and the Southern Reach trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer. For more reading suggestions, see this expanded list at LibraryThing (based on a list originally created at Readercon).

Become a friend of your library

Following on my last post, I agree with Neil Gaiman that libraries are of vital importance to our society. Like many readers, I grew up in a library, basically, quickly graduating from the kids’ section to the adult books. I remember systematically reading my way through every Agatha Christie (she wrote something like 85 of them). For a kid like me, the library was my refuge.

Libraries are frequent targets for budget cuts by government officials who don’t understand the vital link between reading and developing minds that can think, imagine, and innovate. Many children don’t have access to books and computers in their homes, and libraries are the only place where they can foster a love of reading. That’s why it’s vitally important for those of us who love books and reading, and who understand just how important they are, to support our local libraries as much as we possibly can. A good way to start is by joining the library’s Friends group. Take part in library activities. Support events featuring writers or aimed at improving children’s reading experiences. I recently joined the Board of our Friends of the Library group, and it has been a wonderfully enriching experience for me as I take part in supporting library programs and our local literary scene.

Books and reading are my primary passion in life. Even though almost everything I read now is on the Kindle, I believe the need for strong libraries is greater than ever. Libraries are the repositories for our culture, the archives of our rich wealth of information, and increasingly, librarians are the experts who help us navigate it all. Libraries create future readers, and they in turn become the thinkers and innovators that make our civilization strong. What could be more important?