Monday, May 31, 2010

"Have Fun"

About fifteen years ago, I first saw a movie called Mr. Holland's Opus not knowing exactly what to expect. I knew Richard Dreyfuss was in it, and I always liked him since JAWS and Close Encounter of the Third Kind. But I hadn't really seen him in movies since then and I heard he was kind of a jerk and alcoholic in real-life... but I digress. I watched the movie because it was supposed to be about a composer who ended up dedicating his life to teaching.

I was stunned by the film. Sure, it was a bit melodramatic and it's definitely heartstring-tugging -- people might have resented the movie for manipulating their emotions, blah blah. But I found it very uplifting, sad, bittersweet, and inspirational. What can I say? I was a sap.

That was early 1996. I can't believe it has been almost 15 years since I saw the movie. A lot has changed! That very same year, I decided to take another job that I hoped would offer me better opportunities and experiences, and it did. Two years later, I decided to try my hands on writing, but I need to learn the craft and improve on my English first. In 2001, I started writing my first novel. Now I think back on it, I realize Mr. Holland had a profound effect on me even if I didn't realize it.

I just watched it again (on Netflix Instant Watch) and found myself still affected by it, after so many years.

Drefuss was almost 50, then, and he played Holland from age 30 to 60, and did a marvelous job that got him his second Oscar nomination (unfortunately, he didn't win; Nicholas Cage did for Leaving Las Vegas -- I think Dreyfuss was robbed). Mr. Holland is a musician and composer who has BIG dreams. But life throws him a curveball and he becomes a music teacher instead. It's supposed to be a short gig, to make some money, so he can go off and write his music in the summer. But his wife's unexpected pregnancy sidetracks his plans. On top of it, he doesn't realize how demanding teaching will be, how much he'd grow to love the profession, and how much it will change his life.

I can certainly see how this man's life, however fictional, touches me because I can relate to it. I have big dreams, too, and sometimes it seems like life is so distracting that these dreams may never come true. And then there are temptations that come along. Complacency follows. Self-pity, perhaps? This journey and these dreams are never going to be a straight line. And at the end, maybe our biggest achievements aren't all that success and fame and fortune we acquire, but the people we connect with, touch and inspire.

There's one scene in the movie:  a redheaded teenage girl, Gertrude, wants to play the clarinet well because she so wants to be good at something, anything, to make her overachieving family proud. She's practiced for three years and she can't play worth a damn, and she's about to give up when Mr. Holland played Louie Louie for her and said, "These guys can't sing, and it's the same three chords over and over and over again, but somehow we love this song. Why?"

Gertrude says, "Because it's fun?"

And that, Mr. Holland says, is the key. We can learn to play all the notes, we can study until our brains are fried, but we won't be great musicians if we don't learn how to have fun. Music is supposed to be fun. With that inspiration, Gertrude learns to relax and have fun and she realizes she can, indeed, play the clarinet.

Little does Mr. Holland know that by inspiring Gertrude, he's become a better teacher, and he's inspired as well.

The scene strikes me as genuine, touching and also right on pitch.

Have fun.

Much of why I've been struggling with my WIP lately is that I've forgotten to have fun. I stress over questions such as "is it any good?" or "am I a good writer?" or "what if this sucks?"  I've become Gertrude, stressing over every note she played and whether she was hitting the right note or following the beat. She so wanted to be perfect and good at it that she forgot the most important thing about music (or anything else in life): follow your heart and have fun with it. I, too, have forgotten to have fun with my writing.  I remember I used to have lots of fun. I was writing up a storm in 2002 because it was so much fun -- I could see the end of the tunnel and the story and the characters and the emotions simply poured out of me. I was elated when it was over and I couldn't wait to get back to it, because while it was a LOT OF WORK, it was also fun. I loved it. Toward the end, I wasn't even thinking if I was any good, if that thing was going to be published, or if people were going to read and like it. I was simply having a ball writing it.

In the past couple of years, I've become paralyzed by my own ambition (this book is 10 times more ambitious than my last), and I forgot to have fun. There were times when inspiration did strike and I, for a brief moment, just let go and regained my ability to have fun, and things were pouring out like oil in the Gulf. It was everywhere. It was sticking. And I was having fun. But then, the fear set in again, the weight of my ambition weighed down again, and I lost that fun again. Like Gertrude, I began to dread doing it. I avoided it sometimes. Or when I was doing it, I stressed over every word and every sentence, trying to make them perfect and I frustrated myself for failing to do it right. Unlike Gertrude, I wasn't going to give up, but I wasn't having fun either. I couldn't let go.

Watching Mr. Holland's Opus again sets me on the right track. Like 15 years ago, it inspires me all over again, reminding me that my dreams are real, and they are attainable if I put my mind to it (because I have already achieved what I set out to do before, time and again. I know I could do it). Most important, I remember to have fun.  If I didn't, not a world of success and fame and fortune are worth it. Because I'm going to be miserable doing it.

Love what you do and do what you love. Yes.  But, also remember:


Monday, May 24, 2010


Sometimes inspiration comes from the strangest place or hours.

Last night I had a strangest dream, one that is not necessarily fun and lovely. In fact, it was rather stressful and embarrassing, and I ended up waking up trying to figure out how I could solve the problem! In a frigging dream!

But the interesting thing was, I started to think more about the dream and realized it would fit perfectly in my WIP as a plot element. Change some characters, and situations, and the mood is just right and the situations would be a nice addition of what I try to accomplish with this part of the story, to get my characters from point D to where they need to be.

I love it when things happen this way, as if my subconsciousness (or muse, if you will) finally wakes up and tells me what I should do, instead of having me wander about in the dark.

It's not to say I should only write when inspiration strikes, and it's definitely not to say writing should be easy -- just let the subconscious mind take me. What I'm saying is, sometimes writing is purely magical -- it's less about the "work" and more about what's being accomplished -- and it's just as gratifying, if not more so, than hard work. Personally, I believe great writing involves this "magic" and I for one am not going to turn away magic just because it seems to come easy. Especially when this magic only comes once in a blue moon.

I've added about 1000 words today so far from this burst of dream-induced inspiration, and it's been a good day. I'm certainly not going to be an ungrateful son of a bitch by denying this kind of divine intervention. Call me lazy or whatever.

I welcome it.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Being Emotional = Cliche ?

Q. How do you write an emotionally charged scene, in first person, without sounding cliched and contrived?

That's one of the issues I'm facing, as I approach these scenes I've been stalling. As I mentioned in my last post, I'm frightened not only by the emotions, but also by my own approach and writing. I'd hate for the scenes and prose to come off as cliched, contrived and trite.

In another word, my mind is struggling with my heart.

I think the only way for me to handle this is to just write it, cliches and all. Then I will fix everything during rewrite. Otherwise, I'd be overanalyzing this process to death and not a word would be written. That can't be a good thing.

Afraid of Love

Or rather, confrontation and complication of Love.

One of the problems I have in recent months, while struggling with my "masterpiece" (or as someone said: master baiting piece; he had a point -- writing is, at times, pure mental masturbation, but I digress), is that I've been stalling at exactly the points where the two main characters were supposed to meet again.

It's not like I don't want them to meet, that they'd have nothing interesting to say to each other. Quite the contrary. There's going to be fireworks and conflict and emotions and, most of all, pent-up passion and love and hate and all that stuff. Honestly, I was stalling because I was frightened. I was worried not only can't the character handle all that emotions and conflict, but neither can I.

That rather reflects on my real-life personality. It's easier for me to use humor to hide what I'm really thinking of or feeling. It's easier for me to focus on the "action" or "events." It's easier for me to skimp the surface so I don't have to deal with the slew of emotions such as envy, jealousy, self-doubt, sadness... and passion. There are times when it's just simpler and easier to go on with the daily life ignoring all that.

In person, I am also frightened by conflicts and confrontation, especially of the emotional kind. I can argue just like anyone else. I even pick fights when I feel it's necessary. I like a great intellectual debate, the more heated the better. But when it comes to the heart and soul, I shy away from any kind of conflicts. I'd rather sling away or keep my silence.

Lately I've been rewatching the final season of Six Feet Under, by far my most favorite show ever, and I was devastated by the raw emotions once again. That show was so raw and deep and gut-wrenching that I believe it must have been extremely cathartic and difficult to write, and probably why it took Alan Ball two years to recover from it.

What watching the show again taught me, though, is that I don't have to be afraid of these emotions. They're what makes us human. And in a way, that's not what I'm most afraid of -- I can deal and have dealt with these emotions all my life -- but how I am going to describe and convey such emotions without being melodramatic and over the top and contrived and trite. That's the issue I have with raw, deep, great emotions in fiction. And that scares me a lot.

And that reflects in my work. I have no problem writing fights, wars, and devastations. I have no problems writing villains and bad behaviors. But when it comes to matters of the heart and the conflicts that arise from such matters, I'm paralyzed. So here I was, stalling at the tipping points of two of the most gut-wrenching scenes and unable to move forward, because I was scared for my characters, and scared for myself.

But like real life, we can't keep balking and avoiding and hiding from our emotions. We need to deal with them, confront them, and let them go. In a way, that's why writing can be so cathartic and scary at the same time.

I'm going to forge forward with these scenes and I know I'd be an emotional mess (booked a cabin so I can hide there for a few days, then emerge unscathed and just as macho as before!) but I'm ready for it. My characters are ready for it.

Wish me luck, folks!

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Yesterday Was Music Day

Yesterday I didn't feel that "verbal" at all, so instead I focused on my musical side. I revised and updated a couple of pieces:

- Who Would You Fight For? (added some harmony in the second verse and chorus and cleaned it up a bit)

- Grace's Theme for The Terrapin's Trail (minor fixes and changes in arrangement)

- Finally, I recorded the song One Less Bell To Answer (with Kristen Chenoweth and Matthew Morrison).

It's very fun and I've learned more about my music software including Audacity.  For some reason, there's something wrong with my mic and it only recorded one channel (the left, and not the right), so I had to do some wrangling to make my vocal track stereo. I'm not really a sound mixer, so it's kind of fun and interesting to learn to mix my voice track with the recorded material. I think the result is pretty good (not completely "professional" but I think it's good for the untrained ears, at least. LOL).

But anyway, it's been a nice diversion from "the book." But I really should dive back into the novel.

I hope you guys like the music and songs, though. Let me know what you think.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

The Problem of Being Creative

...or having ADHD, maybe?  ... is that I have so many interests and they all seem to pull at me at different times, sometimes all at once. It makes it really difficult to focus on a specific subject unless it is so fascinating (and I have so much to learn) that I'm totally absorbed in it.

That's part of the reason why it usually takes me so long to finish something, especially writing. Novel writing takes time, even if that's ALL you do. The problem is, while I'm working on my book, I want to write music and songs, take photographs, make videos, paint, act, and so on and so forth. My attention span is short enough, and I get bored easily. When I get bored with writing, for example, my mind naturally starts to drift to something else... say, opening my music program and start composing, or taking my camera out.

That's both a blessing and a curse. Blessing because I wouldn't trade my creativity and interests for anything. That's what makes life so interesting to me; there is always something to see, to hear, to touch, to observe, to capture. At the same time, it's a curse as far as my productivity is concerned. What usually takes people three months to do (say, writing a novel) would take me three years.

I'm not really complaining, just trying to figure out how I can nurture this creativity but also focus enough to finish what I started. I'm pretty close to getting this book down, and I need that final push to get me there. By my keyboard and drawing pad and cameras are calling me.

Something's got to give....

Thursday, May 6, 2010

I'm Back!

After weeks of absence, I'm back. Back on the wagon, that is. I've never actually gone anywhere (despite a few trips here and there).

I still believe in my 500-words-a-day challenge, but I've fallen off the wagon for so long now, I don't think I'd continue with the tally. Besides, these daily tallies are boring. Who wants to read how many words I've written yesterday or today or may write tomorrow?

What I want to say is that writing is a process, and sometimes you just can't force it. I know some writers keep writing every day even if they don't "feel it" -- they believe they can always fix the writing later. For me, I'm such a perfectionist that I simply can't put crap (at least, that's how I feel at the moment -- nothing is really perfect anyway) on the page when I'm creatively dry. As much as I pride myself as a writer, my life doesn't only revolve around it. I have other interests; I have friends; I have my family; I have obligations; I have other things I need to do, and it would only make it worse if I force myself to write the novel every day.

Experience has taught me that I don't like to be forced or restricted to do one thing and one thing only. I'd get bored and burned out. I know that eventually I will pick it up again, and the creative juice will flow again.

So, during my "hiatus" I kept thinking on the story, and how it would advance, and I kept having conversations with my characters. The build-up was worth it.

Yesterday I finally sat down and wrote again. I did about 1100 words, and I was pleased with them. It was a new opening for The Terrapin's Trail, and I really liked it. I shared it with a beta reader, and he seemed to like the new opening, too, and he asked just the right questions that I know I am on track. I like it when my readers are asking the right questions.

Granted, watching the miniseries The Pacific has helped me conceptualize and visualize these scenes. The show puts me in a mood and atmosphere that the books couldn't. I could do all the research I want and still not get it right -- fiction is different than non-fiction. So why not let Tom Hanks and his people do the research for me?  The miniseries helped put me in that mindset, and put me in those situations, as if I were actually there. I was also pleased to get some affirmation, things that I got right in my own novel and research, and things I needed to change.

No matter what, though, the story is going to be told through the prism of the modern world. I am not going to be able to write like I was born in 1925, and I need to think about the sensibilities of today's readers, not someone living in 1945. So that's the challenge for me -- how do I make the novel authentic but also relevant? How do you compensate for my lack of experience and yet not make the novel come off as a research paper?

I like a good challenge.