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Writer's Block: You, the Movie

If your life was made into a movie, what type of movie would you want it to be? Who would you choose to play yourself? Who would play the important people in your life?

My first thought was Johnny Depp -- and then I remembered exactly how David Bowie is aging. David Bowie should have the part of playing me, he's a skilled enough actor to carry off some of the weirder and more dramatic events of my life. Looks better than I do because I'm short and crooked while he's tall and lean, but a good actor can actually make you ignore that and the likeness is somewhat there -- especially since his age started to show.

Much more after the cut, a long and thoughtful answer that boils down to: my life has been too colorful and weird with too many dramatic conflicts each of which would make a good movie, to do it as one movie. Skimming over all of them to compress the whole thing into a normal length movie would be like trying to do The Stand in an hour and a half. Can't be done. But thinking about it made me realize that the stories are good even without doing them as biography -- they'd be more fun to write without the trouble of having to stick to the facts, especially when some of those facts are distracting.

I don't know who I'd cast for the other people in my life. Honestly, some of them would have to be unknowns who had a particular style and intense personal presentation.

Then you run into the problem DUNE had.

Too much story for one movie.

It would work better to do a movie just on the shelter years, those three years from when I wound up finally homeless because I ran out of people to move in with and ironically, if Kitten had known where I was or I'd had just two or three more weeks before I got dumped at the shelter, I'd have just moved in with her again and life go on the way it was before then. That three year nightmare has enough plot and drama and themes to actually carry a movie -- as opposed to trying to compress the entire nightmare of the first half century of my life into a movie, when it'd go from plot to plot to plot randomly and heap conflict on conflict in ways that do not make sense in terms of pacing -- it would get to be too much. It would lose its impact from way too many repeated traumas.

It did for me even from living with it, bitter as it was, brutal as it was. It got to a point where the conflicts themselves were unendurable but also boring, where all I longed for was time off to get interested in something, anything, the contents of Novel Next. I suppose you could do one as "author biography" and focus mostly on the unrelenting discouragement that I faced from age four when I decided to become a writer, condense all the shelter stuff to the tail end, and that would make it work as a story.

I want that actress who played Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam as the nun-principal of the Catholic school I got incarcerated in. She handled the role of Gaius well and she'd do the same with the old nun, even though she'd naturally have to age up into it, I remember the nun as a lot more wrinkled.

What's interesting is that looking at it now I can see more of the ways in which those conflicts developed -- and what exactly went on at that school. Incarcerated is the right word. I ceased to be Catholic sometime during my first year, at seven years old I wound up seeking my faith and finding it in "my personal philosophy" which is what I termed my paganism at that age. It still involved rituals to Pan out in the woods near my house. It also involved a number of Protestant philosophical concepts that were utter heresy to that school and everything it stood for. I wasn't an empty slate of a little kid.

It wasn't till a couple of months ago that thinking about the past, I realized how much trouble I gave that school and that I never really gave in. I gave them a hard time on every single point that they were unethical in my view. I had the flaming right-and-wrong conscience of a little kid -- and I stood for reason, stood for logic, stood for a good deal of rationalism along the way. When I got mystic it wasn't in Catholic directions.

They encouraged my art like crazy. They discouraged my writing in thousands of ways, some subtle and some not. But a couple of months ago I realized that while I was in that grade school I was protesting it under white mutiny, obeying the rules but declaring myself not Catholic and exempting myself from Religion class and having to be treated as Not Catholic from the point of my refusing Confirmation.

Which meant that all the little Catholic kids who were supposed to not even hear of these ideas like freedom of conscience or direct relationship with deity or evolution, were being exposed to it every time I raised my hand in class or turned in a paper or socialized with anyone in the schoolyard. I remember the teachers explaining The Bullying System -- it was sanctioned and part of their pedagogy. There was a reason the gym teacher bullied me ruthlessly and that certain other teachers did too. It was because I was not going with the program and flagrantly disbelieving all the articles of faith and disagreeing on core principles more than details. Worse, I read up on things. I would come in with history books that proved teachers wrong. I would do things like refuse to say the Pledge of Allegiance because it had God in it singular and implied monotheism and belief, rather than freedom of religion.

It wasn't till I was much older that I found out the Pledge of Allegiance was a pretty new thing, basically my generation, maybe a decade before them, brought in as a variation on the Loyalty Oaths of the McCarthy years, but it got sentimentalized and stuck. I wasn't sentimental about it.

I had nothing to lose at that age. I had no ties. I had no friends -- the teachers were very quick to break up any friendships I had, and they were acting to defend Catholic kids from my Evil Influence. Which wasn't just loony off the wall stuff but things like freedom of conscience and questioning point after point of the dogma, looking up medieval history and revealing whole bloody chunks of it in recess conversations, bringing Gray's Anatomy to school and discussing anatomy including reproductive anatomy -- Sex Education was a huge taboo then and it was a conservative school. I got Gray's Anatomy confiscated and returned to my parents with a warning that I was not allowed to bring it or any medical texts to school.

I understood brainwashing. I knew they were trying to brainwash me. They admitted it when challenged and quoted that infamous saw "Give me a child till it's seven and I'll have the adult for life." They never had me, and so they had to put up with an enemy in their midst, a hostile prisoner disrupting the school.

It was only two days ago that looking at those realizations -- that as a kid I did not just lay down and put up with anything authority dished out but actively resisted to a ludicrous degree of intensity... that it finally made sense why they discouraged my writing.

It had nothing to do with the quality of my writing.

Or rather, it did. I was more precocious as a writer than as an artist. But when I wrote, even when it was fiction, my slant and my ideas, my core beliefs and principles, already sound and whole and self-consistent (and not that far off the Protestant spectrum if you set aside the question of monotheism vs. polytheism), eerily close to Unitarian Universalist when I'd never heard of them -- in everything relating to religion and politics I was a strong fervent believer in freedom of religion. That all came out in the essays. So did my belief in evolution and my reverence for nature. They liked classical references to mythology. They did not like the way I made those references because I sounded more like someone who believed in those gods the way they did in theirs and felt entitled to.

Art does not carry as much detail of context. The art I was doing at the time didn't really, oh it was interesting and I'm sure someone could have made something of it, but most of it was either depressed or alienated and it was most of all visual. If I did a cat, that didn't automatically say to the viewer "this kid does not actually believe there's only one god and doesn't believe that religious authority comes from anything other than churches making rules to declare it, et cetera." It was harder to see the blasphemy. My poems celebrated beauty and nature or love. The absence of Christian themes in art is a lot easier to ignore than the obvious presence of heretical ideas in writing.

I ranted even at that age, often at length. I'd get assigned some classic or some religious work like Augustine and when told to write what I thought it meant -- flamed it in depth on ideological grounds.

The school tried to present a monolithic narrow community in which other ways of thought simply did not exist. It was insular. It was sheltered. Those kids did not play with public school kids or have anything to do with Protestants. That was encouraged. So were a lot of things I didn't believe in. And I wrote well. I could speak well even then but I wrote far better than I could speak, and I was reading and writing at a college sophomore level when I was in that grade school. I went over the heads of the kids but sometimes managed not to just go over their heads, but to nail it down with funny anecdotes and simple statements that were just as powerful and just as firmly believed as the things I opposed. I shook everyone's worldview.

I read Dangerous Visions at that age and maybe that's why I'm a science fiction writer even when I do horror or fantasy.

I think about this "movie of your life" and it would only make sense as an author biography. I'd rather focus on the school conflict though than the familial conflict. That has too many roots. That actually involves other people at their worst and I don't at this age want to write my version of "Mommy Dearest." It's a tired old story that happened to too many people and I wasn't really a normal kid anyway -- I was way too intelligent and abnormal, even that wound up on a par with the school conflict. I hadn't thought of it at the time, but the religious conflict really was a huge wedge in that family.

In the sixties there was a huge generation gap. I landed firmly on the side of the future and my birth family were extremely conservative. Dad was Protestant and allowed to marry a Catholic woman only after Catholic education and promising to raise the kids Catholic, which did not stick because I was not a blank slate. I wasn't ignorant and empty and trusting. I was intelligent and curious and critical, and I did not trust authority as far as I could throw it because it proved itself wrong way early on, say around age three or four it proved to be walloping wrong on some big things. Including of course my writing.

That was my biggest conflict with them as I saw it. That was the thing I was depressed about that pushed me toward suicide. I wanted to follow my dream and become a science fiction writer and they wanted anything else, but usually Van Gogh -- insane-but-brilliant painter. Preferably doing emotive abstracts with no actual contextual meaning.

Not pagan paintings celebrating my gods and goddesses.

I need to claim that. I need to actually create some sacred art. I've thought about it for a long time and I've studied many modern styles of doing pagan art... but I have not actually done any since I did Odin World Traveler as a sculpture while I was at the shelter. That could be a good path to reclaiming more of my spirituality -- and freeing myself from the tyranny of the past. Because my art is not naive or innocent and the art they wanted me doing would not tell anyone that I'm not Catholic and not who they wanted.

I wasn't who they wanted.

If I wasn't related to them I'd have been their worst enemy. And that is what I was to the abuser, and I resisted. I resisted intelligently and it wasn't knee-jerk reversal either -- I understood what freedom was and it mattered more to me than anything back then. Some of it got under my skin. Some of it I reacted to like anyone else -- marrying into a relationship a lot like my dad's marriage, on the same pattern, but at least we broke up and didn't carry it on, at least I outgrew that when it was time. I wasn't the one that had the strength to call it off, but my ex was right to and I'm grateful to this day that he did. It was bad for him in all the same ways it was for me.

I don't know who they'd get to play him in a movie, that thirteen year chunk of the story would almost be its own movie, and end on the breakup after the breakup.

Too many themes. Codependence and breaking out of it. Resisting Catholic school. Sixties generation gap over all sorts of issues, every unspoken issue I didn't even realize I was standing up for when I argued the war and argued civil rights.

I am in my times.

I am living in a good place in a good way and I have wonderful grandkids. I have a beautiful daughter who's running around being handywoman working on fixing a leak in tandem with her Norse path husband -- they are great together. Just watching them solve the problem, it's like seeing a pair of raptors hunting together or a pair of eagles building a nest, they are that well attuned and work that well together. Both responsible, sensible cool people who do things for real. I'm free in ways I never was for most of my life.

And I've been getting a bit blocked over this current novel project, but it may come out to be a very good one. My protagonist is young and dumb, and his world shatters. The supernatural sweeps into his broken life when he decides to live -- and that's where it's all going to get interesting.

I'm falling in love with the book. I need to. I need to remember who I am and not let those bygone English teachers convince me that I stink. I did not stink even then. I was precocious, as much of a prodigy as I was in art -- and they didn't like the message.

When I got into public school my English teachers were all "the good ones" who encouraged my writing. Most of them were thrilled to have a kid that read, a kid that was awake in class and cared about the language. I had so many English-teacher friends all through public school when they had no ideological reason to hate my writing.

I think that I could probably write a book just on that segment - just on the little bright kid in Catholic school with Gray's Anatomy and Darwin on his side, leave out all the rest of it to stick to theme. But if I use any of this biographical material I'd rather do so in some way that isn't a biography. I have more freedom to edit in fiction.

My life had too many different adventures to be just one movie, but there are several good plots that if properly rewritten would make a good book or movie. Not necessarily connected -- each would stand alone if the focus was on its theme. I had too many tornadoes hit. Too much weirdness all at once, more than the audience could wrap their heads around all at the same time. It was confusing enough living it, making sense of it as story is something that would only work to separate each story into its particular meaning and pace.

But I could still see Johnny Depp playing me if David Bowie wouldn't. He'd just have to age himself a bit for the current day Robert, looking back on it all. I've been doing a lot of introspection lately and I think this is going to make the new one a dang good book. Horror means looking into the dark glass, looking deep into the dark glass and facing it. Writer's Block is actually helping me unblock!

I didn't answer the one about what I'd say to my home planet after visiting Earth -- way too long an entry, it'd take a novel to do that one. I might write it though.
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( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 17th, 2008 09:54 pm (UTC)
It's weird sometimes how much your stories about the past remind me of my own. I had similar experiences in school, and I really felt like it was brainwashing too, except I felt too outnumbered to speak out much after the first grade, being at odds with my family, teachers, and most of the students I tried to talk to. I was already the odd one out because of my accent, and because of my heritage (my mother is latino and though I don't look it, it made me an outsider anyway... took me YEARS to figure out that was why I didn't make friends). So I ended up keeping my thoughts to myself and just waiting it out for 12 years. I was in a gifted program which took place at the local public school for an hour once a week, during elementary school, and I think this helped save my sanity.

I've also had this nagging thought for a while that I want to do some kind of pagan-related art piece, but no definite ideas on what to make/draw.

I feel like my movie would end up one of those about the mysterious stranger rolling through town, getting caught up in all sorts of adventures by accident, maybe following through with a few episodic sequels, mostly because I can't put my wanderlust to sleep.

From what I know of you I can see the David Bowie connection though. Good choice.
Jul. 17th, 2008 10:08 pm (UTC)
That would rock. I'm not sure why I don't do pagan related art, some of it is not being sure I can do it justice. Some of it just that I spent too many years in places like the shelter where it could get survival-threatening.

The wanderlust is cool! I've always been that outsider too, was foreign in the place I was born. I think I came up with that phrase sometime in grade school, when it sank in to me how far away I was from the locals. Living in other places later on just confirmed it. I'm culturally so far from that place I might as well be from another country and maybe century.

I didn't shut up about it though. I do remember that. I had nothing to lose at the time, so I spoke up all the time. I think that was a lot of why the teachers were so constantly, intensely harassing me. They could not reconcile "poor little crippled kid" with "Sarcastic adult-intelligence eloquent enemy who believes everything I think of as right is evil and openly stands for evil every time I see that face."

I wasn't quiet about it.

I remember my abuser complaining to me about the number of times she had to Defend Me and talk them out of expelling me. In retrospect, both I and the school would've been better off if they had -- my grades went way up in public school and not just because the public school supposedly had lax standards. What it didn't have was anywhere near as much indoctrination or punishment for opinion. It was actually one of those conflicts where both sides were right. I was right to stand up for myself and at that time no one on the planet stood up for me, but I might as well fight -- that is the kind of kid I was. They were right to get me out of there as soon as possible because it really did disrupt every single thing they were trying to teach.

So instead they wound up encouraging the bullying and bullying themselves and raising side issues like my appearance or the size of my hands and feet or that I couldn't stand up straight and press my spine against a wall when a gym teacher demanded it, and went along with the denial that it was all my rebelliousness. They did HAVE rebelliousness to point at, I was not a meek little good kid being picked on. In grade school I got in a lot of physical fights too. I didn't start them but I never backed down if someone else hit me. It was that kind of situation and what surprises me is that the principal claimed she liked me, because I hated her so much.
Jul. 17th, 2008 11:01 pm (UTC)
I don't know why I didn't speak up more. I wish I had, and I really admire you for doing so.
I know I tried at first, I remember a lot of arguments with the teacher during class and the kids all saying to shut it so we could move on, and then conferences with the teachers and my parents present the first few years I was there, where basically they all would gang up on me. I tried to convince my parents to transfer me to a public school every year until I graduated, but they wouldn't listen. They refused to let me skip ahead a year as well, because they wanted me to "fit in better", something I never learned to be good at. I just wanted out of there so I could get on with my life, I felt like I was under attack from all sides. My parents fought a lot, and then my mom got pregnant, so at the age of 9 I was taking care of my brothers while she was at work, worrying about things like food more than school. If I had detention (which happened frequently enough as it was since I usually didn't pay attention or do homework, and then there were the kids who would say I started fights with them when I wasn't even aware we were in the same room) my mom had to miss work or I'd have to walk home about 3 miles alone.

I wish I'd been more outspoken, but I guess I felt like it didn't make a difference because no one listened to me, so I just did my thing and ignored them as well. They were already set in their ways. If it came to the point of a fight, I didn't back down either, that much I can say at least.

I was always looking to the future, I always knew the world was a much bigger place than my little corner of it and I couldn't wait to get out there in it... (well here I am, heh) and I feel like I do have that mysterious wanderer persona to me, where I turn up in the middle of everything and I'm basically trying to do good but nobody has me completely pegged. Growing up never feeling at home anywhere probably has something to do with this. I'd love to find some place I could call home, but nothing yet.

I definitely relate to the not being able to do it justice thing, art-wise. I know there are a couple landscape-type scenes I have in my head that mean a lot to me, but I'm not sure how to capture it in paint... I guess painting or drawing anything that has that deep personal meaning for you requires you to open up in ways I don't usually do when painting.
Jul. 18th, 2008 07:35 am (UTC)
Oh, that old song, that you have to fit in, that you should want to fit in. I blew that one apart, you actually reminded me of one of my favorite comebacks when I was being such a rotten Troublemaker.

"But I don't want to fit in with them because I don't like any of them. Why would I want to go along with people I can't stand when I'd rather be alone?" An argument that ultimately I won -- when I got to public school and found that ignoring the people I didn't like and reserving my arrogantly valuable attention for those I did like, was not only acceptable but generally admired and considered cool.

I had the confidence of nothing to lose.

All they offered was "rewards" that were punishments, so I didn't bother seeking their rewards. I didn't care about grades or do homework, I got plenty of detentions and I think a fair number of them were for in-class debating and poking holes in everything from Catholic dogma to American history. I got sick of American history fast because it was so whitewashed, it was so false, the moment I got to a library I could prove it wrong and censored, and it idealized things I found horrifying like the wars against the Native Americans.

It seemed like they didn't listen to me.

They listened to you all right, listened and poured on the pressure, stepped on you because you were dangerous. And beyond all that there are real risks involved when you're a minor. They can discredit you by calling you insane and locking you up for life without chance of parole. That was the risk I ran through all those years, and my not shutting up led to it as an inevitable consequence to one of my greatest early moments of maturity. The point when my abuser was screaming her usual insults, loser, failure, goldbricker, slacker, why did you do This To Me, all her BS, I looked her in the eye and stopped screaming back -- and just told her flat that I didn't care what she thought. About anything. That in four years I'd be adult and I'd live my own life anyway, and that I'd someday write about everything that happened in her house and nothing could stop me.

This threat got her calling the folks in the white coats. It got me three weeks pressure free vacation in a psych ward where of course I calmed down and relaxed and didn't pick fights because no one was picking them with me or expecting me to do or believe anything stupid... and then locked up for a bit over a year at a mental hospital's youth ward/reform school with the crazies and the criminals and two other political prisoners. I defined myself as a political prisoner to stay sane, but it also shaped my life thereafter in many, many ways.

The wanderer streak, that is so me. That sense of being foreign wherever I am, sometimes loving a place and sometimes hating it but never feeling like a native because I was foreign where I was born. I'm starting, just starting to feel at home here -- not so much in Kansas as such but in this family. I've reached a point where I have a family and the word doesn't mean nightmare any more. Where it means all the things it was supposed to mean -- but it's a gypsy family and if opportunities opened up and looked good, we'd be off to New Orleans or somewhere else and improve the family's fortunes. We're doing well.

Jul. 18th, 2008 07:36 am (UTC)
Second half of reply:

Actually, doing art that has deep personal meaning but I'm blocked on it is half opening up to the concept... and maybe more than half circling around it picking up all the specific skills to do it well, to do it better than the people who did it before me and got it better than I could but didn't get it right. Because they did not have my vision. I mull over things for years sometimes and it takes that long to premeditate some powerful works, in writing as well as art. But I've come to just accept that, because learning the skills is a joy and every step in the journey is another small triumph.

The skills DO come... and so do these little epiphanies of "Wow, it works to use a dark blue background and soft bright colors in the foreground, a triad of orangy pink, turquoise and deep blue WORKS!" I could not quite understand how the Hindu religious art got that incredible color harmony... until I did this mermaid, and realized how I unified it. Sometimes if I try for high key pure tone colors, the result can drift toward something overly sentimental, like those Unicorn and Rainbow greeting cards. Those colors can work but they have to be balanced right, and I'm studying art as if I were a serious commercial art student right now to catch up with myself so that I can teach it.

And so that I can illustrate my books.

I have to have author art up that is credible and beautiful like Tolkein's, that is part of the process. My great cats should crouch on the rocks and my characters be recognizable in good scenes. I'm teaching myself illustration because even when I was little, I knew I was the only one who really knew what my character looked like, what my dragons looked like. The true Smaug is the ink sketch by Tolkein, no matter how gorgeous the Hildebrandt brothers can paint him.

I think you will get the skills to do the landscape-type things that mean that much to you. I know if I hadn't been running for my life I'd have been doing what I'm doing now, much sooner. It's a process of experimenting with things that don't matter very much if you goof them up, with doing a little part of it here in one study and a little part of it there in another till you have all the parts worked out -- and then they come together all at once like my Sea Queen did.

I think of her as true illustration on her throne, and I know she will be in my next fantasy novel. Her turquoise lips will part and she'll greet the characters, or order their deaths, or seduce them, or laugh at them and deal, there will be drama and they will be in Her realm at Her disposal. She might even summon them to her, since I painted Her first, She may be the reason for the quest itself. The one thing I can see is that She loves her realm, She is surrounded by all these creatures and appreciates every one of them from the deepest cold darkness to the pelagic reef's riotous colors.

Your experience is so similar that I'm seeing the path not taken -- and I do not know really if my speaking out that much made any difference to anyone but me. I paid a high price for it, I learned how to Do Time before I was fifteen years old. I might have done more politically in the sixties if I'd shut up earlier and gone along and lied -- but for various private reasons, we know that to have been impossible. That you kept your silent freedom is the greater triumph than whether or not you mouthed off to the oppressors aloud.

I read about that in the Holocaust books that comforted me -- the people who kept inner freedom, who shut up and went along but refused to believe it was right, refused to slip into denial, remained aware they lied. That's a good strategy too, since they weren't listening to you in any sense of being willing to be convinced. They don't. We are property till we are legal age.

A cold truth that is as true now as it was then.
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )


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