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Punching Through a Crystal Wall

Remember that Doctor Who episode, where he was trapped in the nightmare loop? The way he escaped was, each time he got to the end/his death, he punched a thick glass (or rock crystal?) wall, just once, with his bare fist. Turns out that he ends up going through that time loop so many times, that he eventually punches through the thick crystal wall completely. Think of how many millions of times you’d have to punch with a bare fist, to get through a rock wall several feet thick. But he succeeds, and it sets him free.

My life lately has run up against that thick layer of crystal, or so it feels: beautiful, but holding me in a loop. I’m punching it with my bare fist, though, over and over, and will persist until it gives way. Problem is, I also have to rely on others to add their punches to mine, and so am also being forced to wait. I spent a long while musing about this last night: I’m stalled, and it’s frustrating, as I am powerless to move these other people into action. And so I wait.

But here’s the stuff I am indeed actively doing–these things may be interesting to you, lovely lurkers, so here goes:

Wisdom From Everything was a remarkable production, and my scenes of violence were carried out beautifully. This production closes on the 26th, so those of you lurkers who are local, don’t miss it.

My initial writings on the topic of Problematic Female Badasses in lit and pop culture are slowly, painfully, becoming a book. Page 23, the academic branch of Denver Comic Con, has accepted it as part of their panel presentations, and so I will be talking about this project and my 7 Tropes live in front of a roomful of geeks this June. Will I be the catalyst for Gamergate 2.0? Time will tell…

Also this summer, I’ll be trekking back to Longmont to teach the teenaged ballerinas how to fake punch each other in the face, drag each other around by their hairpinned buns, and etc. One of the highlights of that is when they learn the face slam. The initial teaching of it is slamming the face into the floor, but some tutued girl always gets the idea to slam her partner’s face into the ballet barre, which is just such a delightful thing to witness.

Sooner than that, though: Blue Dime Cabaret is having our first show at Full Cycle on April 7th. It’s a bike shop, coffee shop, and bar over on Pearl Street where Penny Lane used to be. This is going to be a really fun show: we’ve got comedians, burlesque, burlesque on roller skates, and an opera singer. I’ll be jiggling my sparkles in a 1920s Charleston inspired burlesque bit that I actually need to finish choreographing… anyway, we’ve also been picked to perform in this summer’s Boulder Fringe Fest, too, so this’ll be a fun way to see how these variety shows will turn out. If you’re local, do come see us, and tip generously. I need the money.

I’ll let you know how Goth Prom goes, too. I have a rather ’80s inspired outfit to honor my early days of gothiness. But anyway.

These are the punches I’m throwing these days. What punches are you throwing into your walls? Add them in the comments, if you’d like to share. Of course, there’s a reason I call you all “lovely lurkers…”

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Hero’s Journey / Villain’s Journey: I

Hero’s Journey/Villain’s Journey :

 

Part I

When I was very young and first learned about story formulae, it distressed me, as I was worried very much about originality at the time. But once I grew into my writership and my voice and became more and more well read, I realized that formulae like Campbell’s Hero’s Journey function as skeletons, a strong (and yes, necessarily same) structure that a storyteller can then hang original flesh and clothing on top of. See Kirby Ferguson’s Everything Is A Remix episode wherein he talks about the materials George Lucas used to build the bird’s nest that is Star Wars, and you’ll have a new appreciation for the recycled, and a new view of what it means to be “original.”

The Hero’s Journey

Joseph Campbell, in his book The Hero With a Thousand Faces, laid out the basic structure for all story, something he called the Monomyth. The original Journey consists of 17 different phases or stages the hero goes through, from the Call to the Apotheosis to the Magical Flight, and so on. Many writers have shortened this formula down to a more manageable three stages: The Call, Road Of Trials, and Return. Personally, I prefer an 8-stage version a teacher concocted from the original 17, in that with the 8 stages, we get the detail of the Journey more specifically than the very simplified 3-step version, but it is much easier to swallow (and more versatile) than the full 17. And I have taught my writing students this 8-stage version in my own Jenn way for many years (part Campbell’s words, part pop culture/my own. And ain’t that just so postmodern of me?).

(Only thing better is my 3 Rules for Protagonists, based on Stanislavsky’s acting “Method.” And it is better. But this piece of writing is specifically about the hero’s and villain’s Journey, so I digress…)

Anyway. This is my take:

8-step version Hero’s Journey

1. call to adventure

Our hero (oh, and, side note: I eschew use of the word “heroine,” as it is merely the diminutive form of the noun. I don’t use the word “actress” for the same reason. The feminine should not be diminutive. A person is a hero or an actor, no matter what gender they express) gets whisked away on the adventure. The snug norm of regular life is disrupted, and it’s time to embark upon the unknown. Very often, the hero resists the Call (or even outright refuses it), but no matter if they do, they end up running after those dwarves without a pocket-handkerchief, or taking the red pill, or falling down the rabbit hole regardless.

2. Threshold

This is the gateway to the Magical Realm. In old stories (and often In new fantasies), this is where the hero enters the Forest. Usually there’s some kind of terrifying guardian at this gate, and the hero must use their own bravery and wit (and often, help and/or gifts from a wise mentor or fairy godperson) in order to get through. The doorway to nirvana is guarded by two fearsome swordsmen, for example, and the way back to the Garden of Eden is flanked by terrible (also sword-wielding) seraphim. But crossing the threshold is only the first challenge for the hero…

3. Jedi trials

Once the hero is in the Other Realm, away from the normal world as we know it, they’re immediately in mortal, life-changing danger. They must undergo a series of challenges in order to move on, each one tougher and more dangerous than the one before. And each test makes the hero stronger, and teaches them more. This stage is the one where our hero may meet other characters like the Temptress/Goddess and the Trickster, and may or may not lose their magical guide here. The first Star Wars movie follows this precisely, as once Luke crosses through the threshold (Mos Eisely spaceport; you will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy), he meets Leia, Han, Chewie, and loses Obi-Wan. Sorry, did you need a spoiler alert?

4. Abyss

This is the worst, darkest, direst of the Jedi Trials. This is the most difficult test the hero goes through, the one where they almost give up, or nearly perish. If our hero is in a video game, this is where they must fight the Boss Monster, and it’s uncertain whether or not they’ll succeed.

lastcrusadegrail

“You chose…wisely.”

5. A-ha moment

This is the moment when the hero puts their hands on the Holy Grail. When they attain their objective, or realize it’s not attainable. Indiana Jones literally did this in the third movie of that trilogy (yes, the Indiana Jones franchise is only a trilogy lalalalala I can’t hear you what are you saying about a crystal skull)….

6. Transformation

Sometimes this happens right with the a-ha moment, or the a-ha moment happens because of this. This stage is where the hero changes irrevocably—no longer are they the hapless teenager, scared little girl, or impatient farmboy. That abyss was the straw that broke the hero’s back and transformed them into an actual hero.

7. Atonement w/father

Often if the hero is female, this stage is an atonement with the mother figure instead, but just as often it’s a father figure regardless of heroic gender. Even more usually, the father figure is the highest god, The Father, as it were. The Norse and Greek myths were all about this stage, though usually the atonement comes in the form of punishment in those tales.

8. Return w/boon

The hero must return with all the wisdom and superpowers and whatever else they’ve gained along their journey, to bring the boon of their new heroship to benefit the community. This return is often where you’ll find the stage called Magical Flight, where the hero continues to have help in order to cross back over the threshold into the regular world. Now the hero is what Campbell called Master of Two Worlds, able to exist both in the enchanted realm and the world of workaday reality.

 

Stay tuned for Part II, where I will introduce and discuss the concept of the Villain’s Journey.

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Sketch of the Day

I’m sure I must’ve posted this sketch before, but it’s been long enough that it warrants a re-post. (Riposte?) This is the fourth in a series of sketches based on the old ninja legend of the Four Demons. This is Ongyoki, the Concealed Demon. All four original sketches were displayed at the BEET collective’s monthly gallery, and they now live there. 

ongyoki

Latest Book Review

…which is also a game review. At long last, my review of Thief 4 plus the art book for it. Excerpt below, and as usual find the rest at Nerds in Babeland.

The Game

Now I am a huge fan of the Thief games. Huge. The first two, beyond being revolutionary as far as gameplay (the Thieffranchise is widely touted as the originator of the sub-genre of the FPS called Stealth. Many call Deus Ex the original FPStealth, but it’s really Thief. But I digress), but offers an incredibly rich world, with an interactive story so well written it actually kind of pisses me off. So I know very well how Garrett lost his eye (a visceral cutscene I’ll never forget), what it was replaced with and what that does to make his vision special. The warring factions of Hammerites (later scarier maniacal Mechanists) and their opposites the Pagans (who can forget the creepy giggle as one navigated through Constantine’s mansion), and of course the enigmatic and ultimately political Keepers. I know the world well, and love it, especially our POV protagonist, Garrett. I’ve even written fan fiction for this world. Wow, I just admitted that online…

Musings Upon a New Semester

It’s another semester (and quarter), another dollar in my world. Well, I’m hoping it’s a little more than that! Anyway, both DU and Metro began today and I’m looking forward to facilitating learning about performing and visual arts. The class at Metro is an undergraduate course called Intro to Theatre, in which they learn about what theatre is, what goes into making it, what it’s been like across the globe throughout history, and it culminates in them collaborating to make some themselves. This is the class blog, on which will appear the students’ reading responses. http://the2210.blogspot.com/

Showing Intro to Theatre students the ropes at Metro. Literally. 2014.

Showing Intro to Theatre students the ropes at Metro. Literally. 2014.

The DU course is called World Visual and Performance Art. I wish it were called Performing Arts, because Performance Art is a whole ‘nother monster but ah well. This class, when I was first given it to construct from scratch (way back in 2003 or 4), was called Creative Expressions and is meant to cover, well, World Visual and Performing Arts. What visual arts? Yes. What performing arts? uh-huh. What part of the world? The whole fricking world. So I pared it down a touch. I chose three eras that I happen to know the most about myself: the Renaissance in Europe (particularly England), the Belle Epoque in Europe and a little in Asia (particularly France and Russia), and what I call the Age of Aquarius in America (really Postmodernism across the globe). Creative tangents in this class are welcome, and like Intro to Theatre, I make the students do some of the art as well as read and view about it. This is a graduate level course for a Liberal Arts Masters degree. This is the blog I use for it and the undergrad version of it, which only covers visual arts. http://mals4050ca3200.blogspot.com/

I’m looking forward to starting on this semester (as well as continuing my work with characterization in fiction, the art of blogging, and creative capstones at Regis), because I know the material will overlap somewhat with these two as far as curriculum, and I’m hoping to engage the two courses in some dialogue. How 21st-century education is that?   ~Jenn

Recipe For Poetry

This, from my series of lectures from old and/or defunct classes. This is Lecture #7 from DU’s erstwhile Writers on Writing course, and is an introduction to poetry.

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Lecture 7: Recipe for Poetry

Many people of all ages have this crazy idea that poetry is stuffy, difficult, lofty, and way beyond them. They feel that they have to write an “Ode to a Grecian Urn” or understand just how important that little red wagon is in order to attain the vasty height of poem reader-hood. And writing poetry? Forget it, they’re not that “deep.”

In fact, poetry is the oldest and most profound way humans communicate. Song, image, sound, is as old as our upright crania, and as essential to our culture.Greek+vase

To talk about (and to write) poetry (as opposed to prose and story), one needs less a set structure (like a plot) than a recipe. There are three essential “poeia”s which, combined, make poetry what it is. (1) The recipe of three ingredients is as follows:

  1. Phanopoeia       (image)
  2. Melopoeia         (music)
  3. Logopoeia         (intellect)

1.) Phanopoeia

…is the language of image. Rich image is often more important, even supercedes, any narrative in poetry. All five senses are important in poetic image, and often in contemporary poetry you see either collaboration or other combinations of picture and word. There is the literal way to do this (concrete poetry, or additions to visual art, comics, or picture books), but in essence all poems have image at their center. Read this sample of phanopoeia in the first two stanzas of Linda Hogan’s “Bear Fat”:

When the old man rubbed my back

with bear fat

I dreamed the winter horses

had eaten the bark off trees

and the tails of one another.

I slept a hole into my own hunger

that once ate lard and bread

from a skillet seasoned with salt.   (2)

We’ve got the tactile (the feel of the fat and the massage), the visual (the horses and trees), taste and smell (the fried lard-and-bread image), and hearing (horses chewing bark, frying skillet), and this all in the first two stanzas. Notice the blank verse: no strict set meter other than what comes naturally to the English language. What a beginning reader of poetry should “get” out of this is not necessarily what Hogan “meant” by the lines, but the images themselves. Poetry is like mythology, in that every individual reader will take a poem’s images differently, and the images, free of spoon-fed “meaning,” can take on as many meanings as there are imaginative possibilities.

 

2.) Melopoeia

…is the sound of the poem. There may be no meaning or narrative at all to a poem, only sound. The sounds of poetry come directly from poetry’s root: song. Each different sound resonates in the reader’s ear with a different reaction; as different colors resound with different human moods, so do the different vowel sounds and consonant stops. Poets have the poetic license (!) to play with these sounds and their combinations, which is where certain set structures like sonnets and haiku and rhyme schemes come from. A master of melopoeia, Dylan Thomas centered his work all around sound. Here’s the first stanza of “All all and all the dry worlds lever”:

All all and all the dry worlds lever,

Stage of the ice, the solid ocean,

All from the oil, the pound of lava.

City of spring, the governed flower,

Turns in the earth that turns the ashen

Towns around on a wheel of fire.     (3)

Of course the first thing you’ll notice in the difference between poetry and prose is the line  breaks! What are they there for? They do what all punctuation does: they provide a breath break. All commas, periods, dashes, ellipses, and line breaks do this, in different degrees. The line is a breath unit (4)–so Thomas’ commas and periods at the end of his lines make for longer breath pauses. I would recommend reading this particular piece aloud. Loudly. Listen to the repeated gong-notes of the vowels, the “pound of lava” going through the whole piece. Poets make language into a meal (and prose writers can learn a lot from this practice).

 

3.) Logopoeia

…can be better translated into a “dance of ideas.” (5) Stressing intellectual ideas, putting forth ideology and philosophy, poetry has long been a changer of history, as well as a “recycl[er] of a culture’s ruins.” (6) Poetry has been the most powerful protester and cause for many a cultural change. That’s not to say that a beginning reader of poetry should be bogged down by trying to figure out a poem’s “deep profound meaning” each time they read. A good poem should convey its “dance of ideas” through its image and sound selection, and meanings, as discussed above, can be as multifold as a poem’s syllables. Check out the three fractured haiku that make up Jack Collom’s “Indefinite Articles”:

an opinion

is like a moon

in a song

why should a

poem act so tough, it

has no feelings

Everything boils down

to a chunk of Roquefort,

which gets lost.     (7)

The light-hearted jab at poetry “acting tough” is a great thing for beginning readers and writers of poetry to remember: that song is in all of us, and a poem itself isn’t the feelings, the feelings are within us. The image of a moon in a song is a vivid visual and aural one, but why is it Collom’s definition of opinion? The reading of such potent little gems will differ for each person reading it. This is the other big thing about poetry vs. prose: in a poem, the language is condensed, heightened.  Anything said, any image conveyed, any repeated sound, is magnified by virtue of the poem’s line break form and length. This is why magic spells of old were often written in verse: the potency of the word, its actual physical power, was thought of as more powerful in poetry.

But then sometimes all it boils down to is “a chunk of Roquefort, / which gets lost.”

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(1) Ezra Pound’s setup, channeled through Anne Waldman, Naropa University lectures

(2) From The Book of Medicines, Coffee House Press, 1993

(3) From Collected Poems, New Directions, 1957

(4) From Lorna Dee Cervantes, Naropa SWP lecture, 1999

(5) Ezra Pound again, again through Anne Waldman

(6) Steven Taylor, panel discussion, Naropa SWP 1999

(7) From The Task, Baksun Books, 1996

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Drunk, and in charge of a bicycle

Another in the series of lecturettes from old and/or defunct courses. This from a course called “Writers on Writing” I taught a few times at DU many years back. This is a Week 6 lecture from 2006, and their readings would have been Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing and Philip Pullman’s speech about writing here.

 

Drunk, and in Charge of a Bicycle (1)

My favorite (book) is always the one I’m working on, or the one that’s just come out. Not the one I just finished working on, because as soon as the manuscript leaves home, I become convinced that it’s the most appalling piece of earwax that ever slew trees. Not until the typeset galleys arrive for proofing do I begin to think that I’ve been a teensy bit hard on the poor thing. And when the author’s copies of the finished book land on the doorstep, voila! A miracle of transformation. It’s suddenly a dear little book, with such a cute little spine, and the most adorable running heads…(2)

The main idea I’d like to briefly ruminate about this week is that of the Muse (in Bradbury’s terms); and this concept that if you force your writing, it won’t come. How many writing instructors have you had that make you do Timed Writing or I Remember or Morning Pages until you’re plaid in the face? What these exercises do is they tease the Muse into following you–the more you write down “this is stupid, I remember nothing, I can’t see straight, how much longer, my knees are falling asleep, I have carpal tunnel syndrome…” sudddenly in the middle of the dross will emerge a sparkle. Something weird, unusual for you, something you would never plan on writing, something truly worth cutting and polishing and setting in white gold and selling on the black market. But the little gem wouldn’t have come without sifting through all that dirt first.

My own version of Bradbury’s cute little Muse concept is a bit grittier, and came first from a theatrical experience, not a writing

Fuck it, we're the Muses.

Fuck it, we’re the Muses.

one at all. Beware, it’s a Rated R phrase:  I call it the Fuck It Moment.

We’ve all had them–struggling with that long par 4 hole, trying so hard to swing a carefully chosen club just right, and what happens? Plunk! in the pond. (3) Only when you’re so frustrated you’re almost going to scream (except you can’t because it’s a golf course and you’re supposed to keep quiet), THEN you think to yourself, “Fuck it!” and just swing the damn thing, and…what? Whoa! 280 yards, straight down the fairway!

My own personal ground- and career-breaking Fuck It Moment came when I was in the final semester of one of the final studios in acting school, the hard-core training nearly done. I was doing a scene with a good friend, also a fabulous actor, and we specifically chose this scene because we knew we were superior actors and it was a notoriously difficult scene to pull off well. (4) I’m sure you can see what’s coming, right? We labored on that scene until we were both exhausted, every time we rehearsed it, and it remained nothing but mediocre at best. Over and over our instructor said, “I don’t understand why this isn’t working for you.” The scene was shallow, melodramatic and boring, and and we were at our wits’ end. No amount of homework-rehearsal made it better–in fact, it just made our scene worse as we began to hate it as we burned out on it.

Time came for the final showing of this scene in class, pretty much one of the last bits of graded acting we were to do for our BFA degree. Not only did we know perfectly well our scene still sucked, but the instructor knew, too. She’d given us private rehearsals (extra ones) to no avail. Here we were, the two talents, about to bite it in front of everyone that had, up till then, respected us. What to do?

That’s right: I said “Fuck it! Let’s just do this,” to my partner, and we did. Neither of us cared anymore–all the work we had done wasn’t helping, so fuck it. I went off, laughing thorugh most of my lines, moving around the studio in ways I’d never rehearsed, letting my voice go everywhere in my range, and succumbing to exhausted tears. Then laughing through them. My partner reacted wholly honestly to my weirdness, not sure what to do about any of it but just go on.

When we finished, breathing heavily, mussed and sweaty, there was a deep silence in the studio. Then, astonished applause.

Of course, if you know anything about the scene, you’ll notice that what I just described is exactly what is needed in this case: the madwoman and her shocked lover. My forced, depressing-dramatic ideas of how to “act mad” and my partner’s overly-morose ideas of what his “reactions” should be were too calculated and therefore not the correct choices, acting-wise. I had, as Bradbury says, scared the Muse away by whipping the scene to death with what I thought were “good acting techniques.” When I said Fuck It, I let go all those set ideas, all those expectations, all my inhibitions and went with literally whatever, NOT THINKING about whether it was any good or not because clearly it wasn’t going to be.The result of which is some of the best acting I’ve done to date, and certainly one of the best scenes in the class.

I’m sure you’ve understood by now that my point in relating this personal anecdote is that it relates completely and absolutely to the process of writing (and most arts, I would aver). The catch with this kind of thinking (as some of you observed last week in the DBs) is that the letting go cannot and does not work unless first you have a solid base of technique. This is something that Bradbury, in my opinion, doesn’t stress enough. If you have been writing pages and pages a day, if you read constantly, if you take classes, then you will have a good intake and output that will mean when you reach your own Fuck It Moment, you will know how to write to keep up with it. If I hadn’t had nearly four years acting training before the above anecdotal example, you better believe the scene would have fallen apart in a big mess. So remember that too: it’s the same thing Pullman says in our next week’s reading: he started with the yellow Post-it notes, then ended up throwing them away and just writing. But the Post-It note phase is still essential to the process. Without that solid base, your wild ride wth the Muse will leave you with nothing more than wounds and a big mess. But with the solid base of technique, experience, and/or training, you’ll get off the roller coaster bruised and shaking, but with a good first draft clutched in your fist.

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(1) This chapter, in Zen in the Art of Writing, is optional reading, as it is very similar to past-read chapters. I just love the title so much…

(2) Emma Bull, from an online interview at greenmanreview.com.

(3) From Yertle the Turtle, Dr. Seuss.

(4) The final scene from Chekhov’s The Seagull. Nina comes back and is out of her mind. You know, “I am an actress, I am a seagull,” that? Those of you from Creative Expressions class can understand my approach to Chekhov now in a new light.

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