Sunday, October 31, 2010

National Novel-Writing Month (a.k.a. NaNoWriMo)

Three years ago this November, spurred on by a friend of mine, I decided to attempt one of the craziest things I've ever done in my life: I entered a literary marathon known as National Novel-Writing Month (aka NaNoWriMo).

The goal of an aspiring novelist who enters NaNoWriMo is simple to say, but very difficult to do: write a 50,000-word novel in a single calendar month. The entrant is not allowed to edit, revise, or otherwise worry about the quality of his/her writing in any way; you can save the self-criticism for later. Obviously, it was an insane thing to even try, and there were nights when I gave up an hour or more of precious sleep after working a 10-hour shift, with classes the next morning, just so that I could meet my daily requirement of 1,667 words.

My grades slipped, my social life suffered, and even my sleep cycle was affected. But twenty-eight days later, when I crossed the 50,000 word mark in the Halle Library computer lab at EMU, sometime around two in the morning, I felt what may well have been the greatest sense of accomplishment I had experienced in my life up to that point.

I learned a lot about myself, about what I can do when I've got a goal, a deadline, and consequences for missing said deadline. I learned a heck of a lot more than I would have in "Health & Fitness," that's for sure.

The next year, I gave NaNoWriMo another go, but was defeated early on. I didn't really have a story I believed in. The year after that (i.e., last year) I attempted the task again, this time with a better story in mind. But once again, my resolve flagged, and I allowed the mundane world to swallow my literary ambitions. I chipped away at the massive task over the course of the next year, though I was forced to stop for nearly six months, due to personal crises (such as the basement-flood, and the subsequent Black Mold infestation).

Since beginning my book (which remains untitled), my current page-count sits at 177. That's a lot of writing, and I'm very proud of myself for getting that much done, but I've still got a long way to go. Probably less than a hundred pages, but that's still a daunting task.

But since it's coming up on the anniversary of my starting this novel, and NaNoWriMo is looming once again, I find that I'm seized by the urge to finish the damn thing. I want to formally dedicate myself to the task of completing my manuscript, and getting the whole darn thing off my chest. Of course, the quality will necessarily be low, but NaNoWriMo is about quantity, not quality. You can go back and edit later; the important thing is to get all your ideas out on paper, before your conscious mind can say Hey, this is the worst thing anyone's ever written, and I should destroy the manuscript before my friends and family find out what an idiot I am.

So, here is my formal declaration:

I, David Frederick Keeber Wurtsmith, by the end of November 2010, will finish the first draft of the novel I began last year, or else I will have a trusted confidante mail a $20 check in my name to the Westboro Baptist Church.

It is up to you, my friends and family, to keep me on track and honest with myself. Throughout the month of November,

I realize that now isn't the best time to try to write a novel. I have other responsibilities: work, friends, my girlfriend, shopping for groceries,etc. But there's never a good time. There's always a bill to pay, or a job to find, or a party you really can't cancel, or the floor needs to be cleaned, or the dog needs to go to the vet, or something.

Even if you wait until you're retired, you still won't have all the time you want, and you'll probably have forgotten half the plot by then. Worse still, you'll probably have convinced yourself that your idea wasn't that good to begin with, and you're better-off not exposing your friends and family to something that bad.

That's why I need to do this now, before I can come up with more and better reasons why I shouldn't attempt it. As Shakespeare had it:

Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.

-Julius Caesar, II.2.33-4

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Movies To Avoid: "Dracula" (1931), starring Bela Lugosi

The other day, inspired by the approach of All Hallows' Eve, I had a desire to watch a horror movie. Lacking both money and a library card (I know, I know!), I decided to search you Tube for Bela Lugosi's world-famous 1931 performance as the infamous Count.

I have to say, was deeply disappointed. It started pretty early on; the acting was stilted and awkward, but that was only to be expected. After all, audiences back then expected something very different from their actors than they do today.

The first thing that jerked me out of the experience was the scene in which we first see Castle Dracula, and its inhabitants, both living and undead, which includes spiders (duh),bats (naturally), an opossum (Umm, okay...) and a nest of armadillos (WTF?!). It's like they didn't even think to research what kind of animals live in Europe, or that they might be different from the ones that live in California.

Speaking of uncertain locations, only about half the cast had English accents, despite the fact that the film was set in London, England. One particularly memorable performance, by Charles K. Gerrard, has one of the most gratingly fake Cockney-esque accents I've ever heard in my life. Furthermore, his character, Martin (a guard at Dr. Seward's sanitarium) is entirely useless as both a person and a character. He lets Renfield escape from his cell on several occasions, and is entirely ineffectual at restraining him. Also, his endless interjections ("'E's croizy! Comploitely looney!") are, as a rule, glaringly obvious, and largely ignored by the other characters.

Furthermore, Dracula's facade of normality is so laughably flimsy that it's a wonder that his own wives don't take him out, for his numerous and flagrant violations of the Masquerade. I mean, he doesn't make even the slightest attempt to hide what he's doing, and practically announces his next victims in public. It's a shock that it took Dr. Van Helsing himself to even notice that something wasn't quite right with this Dracula fellow.

Overall, the film entirely lacked any power to frighten, horrify, disgust, or even intrigue any modern viewer. I have a hard time believing that anyone was ever frightened by it. And don't give me any of that "It was a different time" crap! H.P. Lovecraft was still making a name for himself while this was being filmed, and his stories still scare the bejeezus out of me! And eighty years previous, Edgar Allan Poe penned The Tell-Tale Heart, one of the creepiest stories ever written in English. Hell, even Shakespeare told a few good ghost stories in his time. It's not as if no one had ever frightened an audience before 1931.

If you want a scary, classic vampire movie, watch F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu. If you insist on knowing how this movie ends, watch Bram Stoker's Dracula instead. It's got basically the same plot, and it does what it sets out to do (i.e., it's actually scary) which is more than Tod Browning's film can say.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Such Stuff As Dreams Are Made On

Oftentimes, when someone wants to express extreme gratitude or well-wishing, they say "May all your dreams come true." I find this very strange and counter-intuitive, as I can hardly think of a more unpleasant thing to wish on someone.

Think about it. What kind of dreams do you have, if you can remember them? Do they tend to be idyllic romps through tropical paradises? Probably not. Most people have dreams about what they encounter in everyday life: friends, family, school, and work. Visions of your old house or school are far more common than a nighttime visit to the Big Rock Candy Mountains.

Researchers from the University of California, Santa Cruz, divide dream-emotions into five broad categories: Anger, Apprehension Sadness, Confusion, and Happiness. Notice that positive emotions take up only one-fifth of the spaces on the list. Seems to me that joy and contentment are less common in dreams than many people believe, despite extensive experience to the contrary in their own dream-lives.

However, just because "Happiness" is the only positive emotion on the list doesn't mean it's the least-commonly experienced. If it weren't a common emotion, it wouldn't be on the list at all. I'm just saying that other emotions are important, too, and we need dreams in order to explore them. If your brain just replayed positive memories and fantasies all night long, what good would that do? If you wanted placid, inoffensive nightly entertainment, you could just as well watch Lifetime. Dreams dealing with the other emotions are more important than the happy ones, because they allow us tho confront our dilemmas (even ones we're not consciously aware of) in new and creative ways.

If you go to an online dream database and read a few dream summaries, it quickly becomes clear that very few of them are about "happy" subjects. They often include bizarre and frightening imagery, the significance of which is sometimes only known the the dreamers themselves.

Admittedly, positive dreams may be reported less often because they are less memorable, seen as less important, or may express desires the dreamer does not feel comfortable sharing with the rest of the world.

But even so, whatever kind of dreams a person may experience, a wish that they all may come true is clearly a disastrous wish for one simple reason: nightmares.

As anyone who has had a nightmare can tell you, they're not fun. And almost everyone has had one at some point in their lives. So why would anyone wish for all of someone's dreams to come true, if they know that they've probably had at least one nightmare in the past? The only thing about nightmares that makes them bearable is the fact that they end! And when you wake up, they (hopefully) will have no bearing on the rest of your life.

So, with all this in mind, why on Earth would anyone ever wish for ALL of someone's dreams to come true?!