Category Archives: Craft Reviews

Dude! I need to care to care.

While snuggled up on my couch, I hit play on the Misty Copeland documentary Netflix has been pushing for the past few weeks.

Misty Copeland, subject of “A Ballerina’s Tale,” is the first black principal desk at the ABT (American Ballet Theatre) Company. Her Under Amour commercial went viral a year or so ago. Here it is:

I’d seen the commercial when it first aired around 2013. I couldn’t quite remember the content, but I had vague memories of a triumphant underdog story, someone who had told the world, “I can!” when the world kept saying, “You can’t.”

It’s been about a month since I watched the documentary, and I can’t tell you what it covered, and I definitely don’t have the warm-fuzzies like I did after watching the commercial. Remembering the documentary leaves me pretty ambivalent about the Misty Copeland story. So what did the commercial do that the hour long documentary didn’t? Let’s break it down.

In the commercial, we’re introduced to the ballerina while tentative music plays. As a rejection letter is read, we see her slowly rise onto her toes. So while we’re being told she can’t do something, we’re seeing her do it. She’s metaphorically rising up. The rejection letter takes apart her body as we watch it. The viewer sees a graceful, powerful dancer while we hear a young girl’s voice read why this same body is wrong. The words contradict the reality we’re seeing, and then we hear this final, devastating line: “At thirteen, you are too old to be considered.” Our emotions take over. We’re righteously indignant on behalf of the child who was told she cannot. Instantly, we’re cheering for the dancer before us.

A slow pan brings us into her mind. It feels like we’re moving from the reality of the quiet, simple practice room into what she sees and dreams. We get the feeling of a stage and bright spotlights. We see her move through different ballet moves, some slowed down to accent the grace of her body. We get the feeling that this mental image is her drive, what pushes her to keep working even after she was told no. It’s inter cut with her dancing in a space reminiscent of the practice room to underscore this mental doubling–what’s really happening, and what she’s working towards. Meanwhile, the music has become more complex, less tentative. It reflects the drive of the dancer. And then, just as the music begins to still once more, we see a wide shot of the space the dancer’s been working in. It’s an actual stage. She is where she’s dreamt of being for so long. The text on the screen reveals that this is Misty Copeland, a (then) Ballerina Soloist at the American Ballet Theatre. The final text shows the product (Under Armour) and the tag, I will what I want.

This commercial gives us more than the hour plus documentary by showing us what Copeland was pushing against (the perception that her body was wrong) and fighting for (a career on the stage). By showing her in practice attire both on stage and in the studio, it accented her drive and determination. It gave the feeling that this woman was dancing everywhere she went. Every moment of her life was filled by dance.

“A Ballerina’s Tale” never gets imparts the same feeling that failure might happen, or that it would have devastating consequences for the dancer.It spends chunks of time talking about Copeland’s anxieties and that she was the wrong “type” for classical ballet. At one point, they mention that she ate a box of doughnuts a night out of stress and that she felt out of place in the ballet world. But then it moved on. We don’t see Copeland herself moving on or moving passed it. The struggle simple goes away. Where the commercial hovers around that feeling of desire and motivation, the drive to prove yourself, the documentary skims past it. It feels like the documentary is constantly searching for a story that’s just out of its reach. It discusses the history of black dancers and the importance of Copeland in the black community, but it never talks about Copeland’s own feelings about this. It does delved into them beyond a few pat sentences here or there. It never achieves that feeling of determination that the commercial achieves in seconds. As a viewer, it looks like Misty Copland has setbacks, but that, for the most part, she’s on a rocket ship pointed up. She’s going all the way. When she finally achieves her dream of being a principal, it’s with a feeling of, “Of course she did,” instead of joyous victory.

Part of this is because Misty Copeland is a cheerful person herself. I do not doubt for one second her dedication or the difficulties she’s faced in her career, but I don’t feel them. In general, her interviews seem to skirt the trials and tribulations of becoming a top dancer, and instead focus on the things that went right. The things that went right don’t make me care. The things that go wrong make me care.

The one time when it seems unclear if she’ll be able to continue, when she’s eating doughnuts and feeling out of place, external forces swoop in and provide her with a mentor to help her get back on track. In real life, this is awesome. I’m glad someone made sure this talented person didn’t burn out. But it doesn’t make for good storytelling, and it blurs Copeland’s own drive and dedication with someone else’s success. Copeland herself never addresses how she moved past this period in her life. I got the feeling she wasn’t really sure herself.

Without seeing the self-doubt and experiencing the world pushing against Copeland as she pushed back, there were no stakes. I got the feeling that, had Copeland failed, she would have gone home and opened a dance studio or, in some other way, made dance a part of her life. As a viewer, I didn’t feel like there would be devastating emotional or personal consequences. Without understanding how low she could fall, I could not appreciate how high she rose. I needed to know what was at stake. In the commercial, I knew: her entire perception of her self. Was she wrong about herself, or was she a dancer? And I wanted her to be a dancer.

That audience participation, getting me, the viewer, emotionally invested in the story being told is the difference between remembering something from two years ago, and forgetting what I saw last night.

The Bad Writing Series: “The 100”

Before we get started, caveat: I liked season 2 of “The 100.” I think it took a lot of risks and made some brave storytelling decisions. Overall, I think it’s written solidly. Go check it out. That being said, let’s move on to what I didn’t like.

There were a lot of questionable leadership moments in season two of “The 100.” Thematically, that season asked probing questions about the tough decisions leaders make in tight spots, and what the consequences are and should be. Despite all of this meaty and valid stuff, there was one scene that stuck out in my mind because it was bad, bad, bad, and it underscored a point I’ve only just begun to realize. Bad writing isn’t just bad, it’s dangerous. Here’s why.

“The 100” is set in a post-apocalyptic world where survival comes at a high price. Our Leader, Abby, was only just reunited with her daughter, Clarke, before Clarke ran off again to save someone else, leaving the relative safety of the camp. Abby is under duress, stressed from her position as Leader and worried about Clarke.

In this scene, Abby, walks up to her daughter’s friend, Raven, and asks if Raven helped Clarke leave the camp. Raven denies having anything to do with it. They repeat this exchange, Abby asking more forcefully, and Raven denying everything. Here’s where things get dicey.

Abby lashes out and smacks Raven across the face.

But here’s the bad writing: After Abby displays vulnerability and fear (dropping her face to her hands and hiding it), Raven immediately forgives her, symbolically pushing her cup across the table to share.

Abby’s momentary lapse, her split second of power abuse, happens because we need to sympathize with her. The best way to do that is to show her cracking under pressure. She needs to have a reaction to her daughter’s disappearance, so she lashes out at Raven because we care about Raven.

Except this isn’t okay. Abby is the Leader. She’s In Charge of Raven. Raven is not only her subordinate, but her daughter’s friend. What this scene actually shows is an abuse of power made forgivable by extenuating circumstances.

Abuse is never okay. There are no mitigating circumstances that could make it okay.

When shows/books/media/art portray abuse like this as acceptable and forgivable, then viewers/readers/consumers digest it as okay. Television shows affect the way we think and feel about the world. Seeing a character we respect and like get smacked in the face by their superior and then forgive their superior makes us think, Ah, forgiveness trumps abuse. It’s okay if someone I am subordinate to hurts me if they’re under stress. Circumstances make unacceptable actions acceptable. It takes work to step back from the show and realize that it isn’t okay; that the thing we’re being shown is a plot device meant to create sympathy for Abby.

That’s the real danger of this scene, but I want to break it down to show you why it works. There are three beats in this moment: Abby’s escalating frustration, her release (lashing out and smacking), Raven’s forgiveness.

This follows a pattern that we know and expect. A character is frustrated, they react to that frustration, something makes it okay. Because the responses all seem appropriate—Abby’s smack is a response to the frustration, Raven’s forgiveness is a response to the smack, the scene feels complete. It feels done. We aren’t asked whether it’s acceptable. Had the scene ended with the smack and a glare or stare from Raven, it would have asked questions. Was that okay? Can Raven react? Does she have the power to react? The sense of not-doneness created by ] Raven’s lack of response would have encouraged viewers to probe deeper.

Or, the writers could have gone a different direction. There could have been no slap: Abby wantsto smack Raven, but holds back and breaks down, instead. Or Raven doesn’t forgive the slap. She calls Abby out on the inappropriateness. It would be within character for Raven.

***

It’s possible to argue that the second season of “The 100” is all about the dangers of power, leadership, and the ease with which you can abuse that power, and so this moment is thematically appropriate, except for one thing: this moment is never scrutinized. Abby’s misstep is washed away and forgotten. Taken both out of context and in context, it’s wrong for her to have slapped someone under her charge, but it’s more wrong for the writing to forgive her for it. She never realizes that what she did was inappropriate. In a season filled with bad decisions, abuse of power is never put under the microscopic.

Tampons, Bad Writing, and a New Series

I read “Fifty Shades of Grey” in a grocery store. Wouldn’t you know the first scene I opened to was the infamous tampon scene? And hands down, yes, I was turned on, so it did its job (if awkwardly, given that I was standing by my mom and there was a rack of half priced bread nearby). But while “Fifty Shades” may be an effective piece of erotica, it isn’t a well-written piece of erotica. And that’s a plum shame for the really well-written erotica out there.

At least, I thought it was just a plum shame, but now I’m starting to get really angry and really embarrassed about it. It’s good that a piece of erotica got so popular. It’s good for a sex positive world, and it’s probably good for a lot of people, but it’s not good for writing. I’m really pissed that such a poorly written book is selling so well. It isn’t even the only one. So many of the mega hits right now could have been better written by pterodactyls, and they don’t even have thumbs (at least, I don’t think so). And that’s embarrassing for me and every other wielder of the English language–and if you’re reading this, you’re a wielder of the English language.

There’s a serious gap between being able to read and being able to recognize good writing. If you’re wondering why recognizing good writing is important, ask any musician why pop music is bad. Shitty writing lowers the general expectations for writing everywhere. Shitty writing leads to shitty books, shitty readers, and back again to shitty writers. Shitty writing depreciates the art as a whole, and that is a serious shame. So, for that, I’m starting a crusade to try and show you what shitty writing is, how to recognize it, and what to do when you find it (buy something better!). For however long it takes, I’m going to work on a series called “The Bad Writing Series.” (Okay, no points for the title, but it gets the message across.) I’ll take on bad books as whole, and moments of bad writing in otherwise really good books, and I’ll talk about why they’re bad. And you should learn from it because bad writing should matter to everyone who cares about books, stories, and English.

Leftover Feelings on “The Leftovers”

I tried very hard to celebrate the off-screen moments in Tom Perrotta’s novel The Leftovers, but I had to accept that I was trying to celebrate a mistake. No matter how lovely my sentences were regarding the thematic relevance of the off-screen moments, nor how thorough my charts about their content and placement, at the end of the day, this article did not come together, and it took me awhile to accept that it was because the off-screen moments weren’t thematically significant. They were a slip-up.

I cannot speak to Perrotta’s intentions in writing The Leftovers, and I’d like to congratulate him on writing a successful book right off the bat so we can get that out of the way. Unfortunately, I cannot congratulate him on writing a unique book, which is where the problems start.

The Leftovers is considered a unique book. In it, a huge percentage of the world’s population suddenly disappears, and that sounds interesting. But it’s not. The Leftovers isn’t about the Sudden Departure, the never explained rapture-like event that causes millions of people to disappear. Perrotta barely glances at the global or economic ramifications such an event would have—the lack of people to run the stores, for example, or to keep the schools open, or to maintain most of the actives of daily life. Instead, Perrotta focuses on the (really, really) mundane life of a newly divorced father, his teenage daughter, his just-joined-a-cult son, and his budding romance with brand new widow, Nora. (To be fair, by the time the book starts, Tom, Kevin’s son, has basically un-brainwashed himself, and the cult leader is behind bars, so even that interesting story is squashed by banality).

The conceit of The Leftovers is to get a lot of really sad, grieving, and confused people in one book and see what happens. Honestly, I think it could be a really great story and might offer an interesting lens through which to view the more difficult aspects of and actions after natural disasters (or terrorist attacks or mass murders, or any event where a lot of people die tragically). There’s a great amount of dramatic tension when people are coping with the unimaginable and disagreeing about the proper way to grieve and what the government should be doing. By using a literary event (re: totally fake) like the Sudden Departure, Perrotta isn’t under any obligation to be courteous or compassionate to the real people who have suffered from a similar event. Unfortunately, Perrotta doesn’t do this. Perrotta uses The Leftovers to get a lot of really sad people to be mostly sad together, and then help each other be sort of happy. He tells the same suburban-style story you could read elsewhere on the bookshelf, or more likely have already experienced if you live in suburbia.

My original plan was to examine Perrotta’s use of off-screen moments (any time relevant action happens off the page, so it’s implied or summarized) to leave the reader with the same uneasy, slipping-away feeling the characters have after the Sudden Departure. But as I delved deeper into the text, looking for examples of well-executed off-screen moments juxtaposed with on-screen moments, I found myself at a loss. There wasn’t any rhythm or rhyme to the off-screen moments vs. the on-screen ones. The use of off-screen moments was one of Perrotta’s main techniques in the story.

Let’s look at Meg’s death. For argument’s sake, let’s agree that Meg’s death happens startlingly on the page:

” ‘I love you, too,’ Meg said, but there was an odd flatness in her voice, as if her soul had already left her body, as if it hadn’t bothered to wait for the deafening explosion a moment later, and that imaginary flash of golden light.”

At first, I thought—How visceral to have such a shocking death right there on the page in a book where so many characters disappear without any descriptive paragraphs. What a great juxtaposition.

But there were problems with that. Similar disappearances or deaths were given the same emotional weight, or moments that I felt should have the same emotional weight were given the shaft.

Take the moment when Christine abandons Tom and her baby in the parking lot. We’re given the moments leading up to that moment and then we cut to Tom driving away, thinking about how he and the baby were abandoned. We don’t experience the abandonment itself. Christine is equal to Meg in the story—both of them are characters who the main characters would not have met and formed emotional bonds with were it not for the Sudden Departure. Yet Tom’s abandonment isn’t treated with the same visceral shock as Meg’s death.

This inconsistency carries throughout the novel. Nora abandons Kevin during a Valentine’s dinner date, yet we never see the inevitable confrontation or fallout from that moment. However, when Jill decides she’s done with her slacker summer friends, she’s afforded an entire good-bye paragraph. Even the beauty of the Sudden Departure’s solely off-screen presence is sabotaged when Nora recounts, in detail and in scene, the moment when her family disappears. (It should be noted that Perrotta uses flashback throughout, but, except for this moment, the moments told in flashback are never given the weight of the moments he tells as they’re happening. Notably: Tom leaves the baby on Kevin’s doorstep, but we don’t get that exact moment. We’re treated to the seconds leading up to it and Tom’s thoughts while driving away, but the moment he leaves the baby is flashback and emotionally diluted as a result.)

There is no rationale for Perrotta’s on and off-screen policy. Despite numerous charts and excel sheets (okay, maybe not excel sheets), I was unable to find a unifying theme steering them. Ultimately, I was forced to admit that there was no ‘use’ of off-screen moments at all. I don’t know how to say this, especially to one as successful and highly regarded as Perrotta (I saw him read at AWP in 2013 and really liked him, this was what prompted me to read The Leftovers at all), but this seems to be inept writing from someone who’s incredibly successful and well respected. Was Perrotta rushing to complete a novel, omitting many interesting and complex scenes, or was there a better reason for him to employ this technique?