A Magician or a Workman?


I came across this article yesterday. It’s brilliant. Read it, then return to me.

Or if you’re lazy, I’ll summarize:

People are apparently annoyed that ‘Birdman’ beat out ‘Boyhood’ for the best picture award. I wouldn’t call myself annoyed–movies, like all stories, are very subjective–but I actually did see both films, and have formed opinions about both.

My reaction to Boyhood: simply put, beautiful. Like all of Linklater’s films (the Sunrise series are some of the best movies I’ve ever seen, ever) Boyhood was light on plot, heavy on these slice-of-life scenes and characters that felt so real. Making fiction resemble reality as close as possible, is, I think, the ultimate achievement.

My reaction to Birdman: well-acted, incredibly shot, well-written … and really pretentious and overwrought. It just wasn’t enjoyable to me. I think the point of fiction is to get your reader/viewer so immersed in your story that they forget what they’re reading/seeing is fiction. With Birdman, I was aware that every scene I was watching was a work of art. Painfully aware.

And there were other people who think Boyhood was boring and pointless and Birdman was brilliant. To each his own.

But what I loved about the article is how the author brings it back to “the classic debate”:

“Should art be dazzling and inventive or should it be stripped-down, simple, and honest? Should the artist be in-your-face with her talent, or should she recede into the background of the work? Should she be a magician or a workman?”

As a writer, I am firmly in the workman-receding-into-the-background camp. I like my fiction stripped-down, simple, and honest.

Or do I?

I just made a listing of my all-time favorite books to figure out if I prefer sad books to happy ones. (Spoiler alert: I do.) Looking at it again, I see that most of my faves do fall in the “simple, beautiful fiction” category (One Day, The Catcher in the Rye, anything Stephen King.) However, a few others do not.

The Book Thief is up there as one of the greatest books I’ve ever read. If you haven’t read it yet what’s wrong with you it’s the story of a German girl in Nazi Germany who likes books, among other things. And it’s narrated by Death, in a very distinct voice. Some might call this a gimmicky, showy way of presenting one’s story–in fact, most of the criticism I hear about this book is about Death’s voice–but I thought it was beautiful. The voice, the story, everything. In this case, showy worked for me.

We Were Liars is a recent read, and again the voice was very distinctive. It jumped around in time, with a somewhat unreliable narrator, beautiful prose but with odd line breaks that could be distracting. Again, I loved it. It worked for me.

Another more “showy” book on my favorites list: The Little Prince. It’s a children’s book, drawings and all, but it’s so much more than that, with its odd little metaphors. It’s been a favorite of mine since middle school.

On top of that, I’ve never liked Hemingway. Too boring.

What it ultimately comes down to is personal taste. Find things that make you feel things, then find more of those things. Then, if you’re so inclined, go on to make things like that.

“And really, as an artist, that’s what matters: finding the art that makes you want to make more art.”

Image found here

70th Anniversary of D-Day

Voie des Francais Libres

I know there’s a lot going on today–Friday! TFIOS!–but I still think the best thing about today is that it’s the 70th anniversary of D-Day. An important turning point of the last indisputably “good” war America fought in, a day so many sacrifices were made.

Ten years ago I was studying abroad in Dijon when two friends and I decided to hop the night train to Paris and then on to Caen so we could be there on the 60th Anniversary of D-Day. It was an interesting trip to say the least–trips you don’t plan at all always are–but we do have some good memories of that day. (And some super unsophisticated photos, like the above–I used to think it was cool to date-stamp every photo, though it does come in use here, in case you think I’m lying.)

There were a lot of old men in uniform that day, and I just stared at them, thinking of the stories they could tell. My Papa is 94 years old and has dementia, yet he can still recall that day with amazing clarity (He didn’t land on those beaches, he disembarked at Le Havre, which is probably why he’s still with us).

Little did I know at the time that in a few short years I would spend an entire year of my life living and working in Saint-Lô, a little-known yet extremely important Normandy town in terms of World War II history. Little did I also know that I’d be inspired to write a novel that revolves around the events of that fateful day and what happened to a town caught in the crossfire–a town later dubbed “The Capital of Ruins”.

Saint Lo monument

To the memory of the victims of the bombardment that destroyed the town of Saint-Lô, the 6th of June, 1944

Whatever I or anybody else writes, we can never do justice to what happened that day and the horrible ways in which so many people died. But we can try. I think that’s the beauty of stories, as opposed to historical texts; the attempt to take us into the lives and minds of the people who lived and died on that day, what they thought, what they felt.

Tonight, I’m going to rewatch Saving Private Ryan or The Longest Day, whatever my dad feels like watching (he’s a huge history buff). I’m going to drink some Calvados and be thankful for my Papa and every other soul who was there on that day, fighting for freedom.

Chateau de Gudanes

Chateau de Gudanes

Have you heard about this? An Australian couple is restoring a 94-room chateau in middle-of-nowhere, France, blogging about it, and even Instagramming. File under “to do once I make my millions.”

Seriously, ever since reading A Year in Provence and seeing Under the Tuscan Sun, I’ve wanted to find my own chateau to restore. I’ve had a fascination with old mansions for as long as I can remember. Is it the history? The fact that I currently live in a 375-square-foot apartment? The fairy-tale setting of it all? Did I live in one in a past life? All of the above?

Whatever the cause, this fascination has naturally led me to set a number of my stories in old chateaus. My recently-finished novel takes place in an ancient chateau in Normandy, though it has only twenty-one rooms (I had to make myself a diagram to keep track of where they all were, so I can’t imagine doing it in a 94-room house!)

Three years ago I was incredibly fortunate to be invited to spend a week at a (much smaller) chateau in the south of France, not far from Toulouse. My aunt had WON a free week there and I selflessly volunteered to come along as her translator. The entire house was the stuff of dreams, from the unicorn tapestries to the library to the tower bedroom covered in ivy my sister and I stayed in. I haven’t posted those photos because it was before I bought my “good” camera, but maybe I’ll work some photoshop magic and post them soon.

Until then, I will continue to dream…

Feeling wanderlusty

Feeling wanderlusty

Jesus Christ, I miss traveling. I once lived somewhere where I could hop a cheap flight and be pretty much anywhere in Europe in under a few hours. One Friday afternoon when I lived in Saint-Lô, I was browsing the internet looking for something to do that weekend and found a sale on Ryan Air—50 euro round trip Paris-Dublin. Done! What followed was a super random weekend in a dirty hostel with Irish accents and a weird mummy-dude in a churchyard and way too much beer.

There are a ton of things I don’t miss about being abroad, and I ton of things I love about living in Brooklyn. Now I spend my weekends writing, which is what I should be doing. But my stories wouldn’t be half as rich without all the experiences I’ve had and the people I met along the way.