Reading Like a Writer

Black and white photograph of a woman looking out from a clock tower for Reading Like a Writer post by Malin JamesI’ve been thinking about how I want to approach writing about books. I used to write fairly standard reviews and that was fine but, honestly, there are so many good review blogs at this point that adding my opinion doesn’t feel particularly necessary. I can talk about what I liked or didn’t like about a book, but it doesn’t bring anything new to the table. And who knows, maybe there is nothing new to bring, but I want to try.

The fact of the matter is that my opinions aren’t unique – they’re personal and informed by my experiences – but so are everyone else’s. Generally speaking, my opinion doesn’t carry much weight for a person who isn’t me. That’s why I’m going to avoid the temptation of giving a general opinion and focus on something specific instead, something informed by the way I read.

The way I read has changed a great deal over the years. I used to read purely for entertainment. Then catharsis. Then curiosity. Then entertainment again. At this point, I read all across the board for a lot of reasons and, while I’m attracted to a different kind of book than I used to be (more on that in a post of its own) the fact is that I read widely from all sorts of genres and styles for all kinds of reasons. The only through-line in my reading is that I have an agenda. In addition to reading because I love to read, I read to become a better writer.

Even when a story has completely gobbled me up, part of my brain is whirring away, deconstructing and noticing and trying to figure things out. I love the craft of writing. I love technical elegance and subtle, inventive structures. I love the little mechanisms that make, or fail to make, a piece work. Sort of like a person who disassembles clocks, I love to dissect stories to see how they tick.

I’ve always done this to some degree, but the habit got formalized in college and grad school when I started applying theory to what I read. Later, when I started teaching myself how to write fiction, I applied the same principle. I found writing books that emphasized reading for different aspects of craft, from characterization and structure to pacing and voice. Slowly, I habituated myself to noticing these thing regardless of what I’m reading. That was more than twelve years ago, and that anatomical approach is just how I read now.

That’s why I talked about the structure Sarah Waters used in Night Watch and noticed the different way Muriel Spark manipulates the reader in The Driver’s Seat. It’s why I love Helen Macdonald’s use of a loose narrative style in H is for Hawk (there’s a post coming up on that). It’s not about me being all Miss Fancy Pants – it’s just the way I enjoy books.

So, rather than blog my general opinion, as scintillating as it may be, I’m going to write about the book from a writer’s perspective, hopefully in a way that isn’t totally boring for non-writers too. If nothing else, it’ll give me a chance to talk about two of the things I love most – stories and how they’re made.

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The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark

Cover image of The Driver's Seat by Muriel Spark for Mean Fiction by Malin James

On Mean Fiction

It took me all of an hour to read Muriel Spark’s novella, The Driver’s Seat. It’s lean and  incredibly mean in the way children can be. There’s something viciously natural in the way adolescent social politics play out, with mutable hierarchies determining social life and death.

That same, subtle viciousness underlies The Driver’s Seat, not in any textually obvious way, but in how it engages the reader’s sympathies, as well as that adolescent sense of assumption and judgment. I’ll be honest – it’s not a comfortable read, but it’s also why I loved the book. That subtle, dark, destabilizing meanness is what makes the story so very wrong, and so very good.

I don’t like doing plot summaries, but in this case, I think a brief one is important. The Driver’s Seat is about a woman named Lise who goes on holiday, ostensibly looking for her “boyfriend”. Lise’s goal for the trip deceptively simple and she executes everything with mad sort of meticulousness. It isn’t until towards the end that the reader fully grasps what her goal actually is.

What makes this book brilliant, is that the entire book hinges not so much on what happens, but on why and how it happens. In fact, Spark reveals Lise’s fate within the first few pages, but it doesn’t actually matter. The narrator drip feeds the reader a string of seemingly random oddities in Lise’s behavior, and she does it so effectively that you almost feel safe in what you’ve been told is going to happen. In fact, there were times when it felt like the narrator wants the reader to pass notes behind Lise’s back. After all, it’s obvious that Lise is unhinged but…not in the way Spark wants you to expect.

So, how does Spark play with the reader? She does it through Lise and how we’re meant to engage her. Lise’s oddness compounds itself in unsettling and somewhat ridiculous ways, from her hysteria at being told that a dress is stain resistant, to her single-minded search for her “boyfriend”. Spark plays on the reader’s empathy (or lack of empathy) in a very personal way, tapping into those early adolescent social experiences and memories – the ones that might prompt the reader to either feel sorry for Lise or laugh at her (or possibly both).

Everything in the way Lise interacts with people is not quite right. She’s a very deliberate portrait of what happens when a normal woman becomes unhinged, and the reader becomes complicit in that portrait. Our reactions to her are, in many ways, the reactions Lise has most likely experienced for a great deal of her life. We become part of the world she navigates, if only for the sliver of her life that we witness.

As a character, Lise feels dangerous and unpredictable, but only because she subverts our expectations of what a lonely spinster should be. Spark gives her a dismissable, almost laughable veneer and then slices it away to reveal an almost terrifying degree of personal agency in Lise. It’s that determined, single-minded agency that is, in fact, the novel’s central threat.

That trick of drawing the reader in and then destroying their expectations it what gives The Driver’s Seat it’s deep, satirical bite. It’s also what makes it such a marmite book – people either love it for its meanness, or they hate it. Becuase it isn’t a comfortable read – I knew that going into it (thanks to this awesome discussion) but I was still shocked at thoroughly I was manipulated, even as I admired Spark’s subtlety in pulling it off.

The triumph of all of the darkness and bite is that the reader becomes complicit in Lise’s fate, and her fate is not nearly as simple or straightforward as Spark implies at the start. It’s what makes this novel an experience as much as it is a story. In the end, it’s a tremendous portrait of a woman’s desperate, single-minded pursuit of autonomy, but whether or not she’s successful is left unclear. I may need to read it again to sort that out.

51FB7KX99ML._SX303_BO1,204,203,200_Side Note: 4/12/16

I just finished Aiding & Abetting, also by Spark, and it’s another example of author manipulation and reader complicity, though in a totally different (completely hilarious) way. Ultimately, in both novels, as different as they are, it’s Spark’s brutal lack of sentimentality that makes the dark, serrated edges work. She has razors in her fingers and I love it.

She once wrote that she “aims to startle as well as please” and, for my money, so manages both like a boss.

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

Woman in a library art nouveau for On Confronting Literature by Malin James

Dig by Sadie Wendall (1909)

On Books that Quietly Confront

I’ve had On Chesil Beach since it released in 2007. It’s a lovely little hardback and I picked it up without even looking at what it’s about because I love Ian McEwan. I remember taking it home and doing the rare thing of sitting down to start it right away (I usually buy books and put them in the long, long, long line of my TBR). But I got two pages in and stopped. I felt vaguely ill and I stopped. I slowly closed the book, set it on the shelf with my other McEwans and moved on without trying to think too much.

In the years since then, On Chesil Beach has sat on my shelf, biding its time. I say “biding its time” because it felt like an active presence in its own quiet way. I’d pull other books off the shelf to read, or to cull or consider, and think – I know you’re there. I’m going to read you, but I’m not ready yet. 

I couldn’t pick the book up, but I still mentally addressed because, in an odd way, it didn’t feel like an object. It felt like an experience I was going to have to have, one that was waiting patiently for me. It’s the most gently confrontational book I’ve ever read because the confrontation was very specific. Two pages in, it was clear that the experience of reading On Chesil Beach was going to be deeply personal. So I set it aside until I could process why. Here’s why:

I recognized too much of myself in those first pages. The situation in that narrow book resonated in a way that drew a personal line for me between literature that confronts by design (think Tampa or American Psycho) and literature that resonates to the point of confrontation. For me, On Chesil Beach is the latter, and it’s a very different thing than the former.

Literature that confronts by design is meant to challenge – you know what you’re getting into before you even start. Whether the challenge is emotional, psychological, moral or social depends on the book, but regardless of how it challenges, its intention (at least in part) is to challenge. I love a great many books that do this – The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark; The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan; Tampa by Alyssa Nutting and loads of others – some that I’ve actively enjoyed and others that were difficult but which I appreciate nonetheless.

That appreciation comes from the distance the intended effect allows me to have. If I pick up A Little LifeI’m going to brace myself for the experience of reading it. Same with An Untamed State. That doesn’t mean I won’t be emotionally affected – far from it. What it does mean is that the effect will very likely be tempered, somewhat, by two things – the fact that I was expecting it and the fact that others have been similarly affected by the book.

Cover of On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan for On Confronting Literature by Malin JamesLiterature that resonates to the point of confrontation is different. For books like this, the confronting element is purely accidental and often deeply personal. On Chesil Beach is a perfect example. Nothing about it is directly confrontational – it’s about a young couple and their disastrous wedding night. No one gets killed, maimed, or traumatized. However, when you scratch the surface, it’s about a young woman’s complicated relationship with sex in the wake of sexual abuse, and the damage it does to her relationship. While it isn’t about trauma, it’s about the effect of trauma and that resonated with me in a deeply personal and challenging way.

Though the situation in the book is very different (and quite a lot simpler) than mine, it reverberated enough to feel dangerous when I first bought it. I’d suppressed a great deal and was, at the time, unprepared to examine large chunks of my childhood, my sexuality, my personality and my sexual / romantic relationships. This subtle, gentle book hit close enough to home that I knew within two pages that it was going to make me confront things I wasn’t prepared to acknowledge, so I set it aside and let it wait for me.

The fact that I was drawn to reading it now signals an important shift. I avoided it for years with the conscious understanding that I would “read it when I’m ready”. That I pulled it down from the shelf last week and read it in two days means that my relationship to those things I was trying to protect – memories of my childhood, my sexuality and my perceptions (of both myself and my relationships) – are strong enough now to bear the acknowledgement reading the book would mean.

Literature intended to confront is an important part of how you might understand experiences beyond your own. It’s a way to engage empathy and understanding and broaden your mind. Literature that resonates to the point of confrontation has the opposite effect. Rather than looking outward, it’s a passage inward to your personal experiences, one that can deepen your understanding of how you move through life.

Sometimes that’s a joyful thing. Sometimes that’s incredibly difficult. Either way, there’s great value in the challenge – so much so, in fact, that there’s nothing wrong with waiting until you’re able to process that value in a healthy productive way. It’s the difference between engaging your history and triggering yourself. When in doubt, opt for the approach that allows you to engage without hurting yourself.

The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

night_watch_318x500
On Structure and Chronology

There aren’t many writers I trust completely, but Sarah Waters is one of them. Regardless of where she takes me, I know she’ll get me there and back safely, whether it’s a Victorian insane asylum or an ambiguously creepy manor house post-WWI. In fact, her writing is pretty much guaranteed to do three things for me:

1. Emotionally affect me, often in very uncomfortable ways.

2. Challenge my expectations.

3. Teach me how to be a better writer.

Her fourth novel, The Night Watch, which has been sitting on my shelf since 2006, (I was saving it for a rainy day), does all three things so well that it may replace Affinity as my favorite of her books.

What surprised me most about The Night Watch was the structure. I know that doesn’t sound super exciting, but everything about it, from plot to characters, feels heightened because of it.

Rather than adhering to a standard, chronological structure, the narrative unfolds in reverse, starting in 1947 and moving backward through to 1941. The effect is amazing – events that would have struck me as suspenseful became massively poignant because of structural hindsight. The reader knows what’s coming, but the characters don’t, and yet, Waters balances that readerly omniscience with a lot of unknowns. She opens the novel with a clear picture of the characters’ fates, but you don’t understand the significance of those fates until the very end (or rather, beginning) in 1941. The tension that created anchored me to the book so hard I couldn’t put it down. (That’s where #3 – Teach me how to be a better writer – came in).

The Night Watch is comprised of the seemingly separate stories of three women and one man, but they are, in reality, tightly interwoven, a fact that Waters reveals slowly as their histories unfold. I don’t want to get too deep into how their stories interweave because spoilers would really ruin it, so instead I’ll talk about the characters who touched me most…which is to say, all of them – even the ones who were awfully flawed.

It’s the trick that Sarah Waters always manages to pull – that of putting difficult things in front of you while compelling you to read on. And I was compelled, just as I always am. The characters in The Night Watch ache with love, jealousy, desperation, fear, shame and the longing for things they can’t have. But while there is a lovely sense of hope for some of them, the future, for others, is left opaque, most affectingly, for me, the ambulance driver, Kay.

Kay may win or Kay may lose, but to see her win, Waters would have to allow us to see past the chronology of the book. The fact that we can’t might drive some people nuts, but it made me love the book even more. It underscores the fact that Waters is only giving us a sliver of their lives, which made their difficulties bear even more weight while casting the good in an even more poignant light.

I’m a glutton for that kind of thing, which is why I’m a fan of Sarah Waters. Though it took me ten years to read The Night Watch, I’m glad I waited for that rainy day. As a reader, I brought much more to the table at 38 than I would’ve at 28. That said, I’m going to try not to make it another ten years before I read The Paying Guests.

 

On Integrity

Woman looking into compact mirror. black and white image.

Vintage advertisement. Image courtesy favim.com

A few days ago, I was in the car listening to an interview with Tavis Smiley, an African-American social critic and all-around intellectual bad-ass. In recent years, he’s come under fire from the African-American community for holding Barack Obama publicly accountable for his failure to better address issues of poverty in America.

While knew that Smiley had become persona non grata in his own cultural community for voicing criticism of the first black President of the United States, it was only in the wake of the interview that I considered just how much intellectual integrity such a critique requires. This is a man less interested in cultural or political ideology than he is in truth. Now that is integrity. And integrity is rare.

They say that the quality you hate most in other people is the quality you hate in yourself. Conversely, I would say that the thing you admire most in others is that which you most long to have. For me, that most admired quality is integrity. Having integrity is hard. Integrity is, among other things, being willing to do the hard thing for no other reason than that it is right.

For most of my life, I had no integrity, (and no, I’m not being hard on myself). I never did the hard thing because hard things were hard – or stressful, or saddening, or difficult, or uncomfortable or, or, or…. I trafficked in excuses, both with others and myself. I was sick. I was swamped. I was stressed. I was something. Anything. Just give me an excuse, and if that excuse inspired sympathy, bonus points.

Excuses were easier than integrity. Much easier. Unfortunately, making excuses also meant that I was perpetuating a lie and creating my own mythology – a comfortable little narrative that kept me insulated from the reality of myself. And then my mythology fell apart.

Someone I know once said that if you and your self-image aren’t matching up, one of you has to change. In my case, I was nowhere near being the strong, confident, compassionate person I thought I was – a fact that became disturbingly clear after a series of painful realizations.

 

Image of Tavis Smiley

Image of Tavis Smiley, courtesy theatlantic.com. On a personal note, I love the look on Smiley’s face.

 

Once faced with an unavoidably clear picture of myself, I realized that I had three options.

1. I could accept my new, truthful self-image, disgusting warts and all.

2. I could try to delude myself back into my happy comfort zone, (no dice there, I’d already swallowed the red pill).

3. I had to change.

Now, let’s be clear. Living with the fact that I was a moody, self-absorbed stress puppy held zero appeal. I had to change, mostly because I was, (and am), too vain to settle for being less than someone I can respect.

Integrity is, for me, a hard-won import of a quality. Someone else I know is fond of saying that the danger with integrity is that you never know when you’ve lost it, and I believe this to be true. I fear the easy answer like almost nothing else. I fear my own ego and the trap of self-admiration. I fear ideologies because there is safety in belonging, even if you trade yourself in exchange. I fear spoon-fed logic because, for so long, I failed to think for myself.

Consequently, there is literally nothing more attractive to me than a person with integrity. They are what I strive to be – their own honest judge of themselves and their circumstances. That’s why I so respect Tavis Smiley, whose politics I both do and do not agree with. He is a person with towering integrity – both intellectual and personal – and that is that is the quality I most need to nurture in myself.

The Virgin & the Whore Walk Into a Bar

Modern daguerreotype. Image courtesy thedaglab.com for The VIrgin and the Whore Walked into a Bar post by Malin James

Modern daguerreotype courtesy The Dag Lab

As you can see, I haven’t posted here in awhile. This isn’t from laziness or lack or commitment. Rather, it’s the product of a happy fact–I’m super busy with work on the other side of my career, (that would be the smutty side, for those who don’t know). Posts on this blog will probably be fairly sporadic for the next little while, or at least until I finish the massive project that is my novel. That said, they will pop up as I can manage. In the meantime, you can take a peek at what my erotica writing alter ego, Malin James, is up to here. Or not.. It’s totally up to you.

Which brings me to the virgin and the whore. I’ve always loved that paradox, mostly because I’ve always felt like both–the virgin and the whore, I mean. I am equally comfortable eating ice cream with my daughter and writing articles about the death of the Dewey Decimal System, (this is a greatly contested death, FYI), as I am doing and writing any number of things that I’m not going to mention here because my mother reads this blog. Of course, you can always check out the following to get a sense of what I mean: link, link, link. Click at your own risk.

There’s a common notion that a person is one particular thing–a mother, a teacher, a daughter, a parent, a slut, a virgin, a whore…you get the picture. I would contest this notion though. I think that, much as Meredith Brooks sang in her song, “Bitch,” (what a rockin’ good title), most of us are both sinners and saints. It’s only when we get too attached to one static identity that things get complicated and often unfulfilling.

Yes, I’m a mother and, I hope, a good one, but that doesn’t mean I can’t write things that would make my own mother supremely uncomfortable, (sorry mom–definitely don’t click those links). It doesn’t mean that I can’t have an identity outside of motherhood that many might find unorthodox at best, and somewhat distasteful at worst.

After years of wrestling and apologizing, the fact is that there’s a lot of dark in me–there’s anger and sex and rage and violence. But there’s also a lot of light. I’m nurturing and empathic. I’ve got compassion on tap. These things should be in violent contrast. They shouldn’t be able to coexist, and yet they do, quite naturally, in me, just as they do in most people. All you have to do is choose the two, (or three, or four), contrasting archetypes that resonate with you.

Of course, nothing is never as simple or easy as that. But that’s sort of my point–personalities aren’t static things. They are constantly in motion, acting and reacting. Really, when it gets down to it, personalities are simply a series of reactions, habituated over time. So, the virgin and the whore are part of who I am, and it’s only in cultivating both of them equally that I can truly be whole.

I wanted to give a quick, but very sincere thank you to Eric Mertens at The Dag Lab for letting me use one of his beautiful images in this post. You can see more of his work by clicking here. Mr. Merten does old-fashioned daguerreotype portraits in his lab in Oakland, CA. The work is gorgeous. Please, go check it out. 

Little Demons

Medieval woodcut. Image courtesy www.cvltnation.com

I don’t have big demons. I don’t have monsters, or addictions, or obsessions, or compulsions. I like to drink, but not to excess. I love pleasure, but not to my own detriment. I have patience, (hard won), and a certain amount fallible perspective, (also hard won). I am stable and strong, (extremely hard won)…

What I have instead are little demons. Little demons aren’t the demons that make you hit rock bottom. They’ve never pushed me to the edge. I’ve never woken up in places without knowing how I got there, (though I have woken up in places that I didn’t expect), and though I have quite a lot of regrets, I wouldn’t take even one of them back. Little demons don’t care about big things like that. They’re different. They’re quieter. Silkier. They are, by definition, small. But there are often quite a lot of them, and they all sound like the voice of reason in your head.

Let me unpack that a bit. Most people have a little voice of reason – the one that says, isn’t two donuts enough, you moron? and seriously, babe, DON’T sleep with your best friend. Sometimes we listen and sometimes we don’t. Sometimes the voice is wrong, but more often than not, it’s dead right. Whether or not you listen to your gut, your conscience, you instinct, or whatever else you want to call it, is up to you, but you can trust that voice, almost implicitly, if you listen carefully enough.

Little demons mimic that voice. They tell you to be careful when you should take the risk. They tell you toss the dice when you should call it a night. Little demons tell you, with the conviction of god (if you believe in that sort of thing), that you should do the opposite of what is wise at any given time.

They convince you that you know it all when you know nothing, or that you know nothing when you’ve got it dialed in just right. They tell you that you’re brilliant and then undermine your worth. Little demons offer input and whisper “truths”, but the perspective they have is skewed. They shadow the lens of your perception and make it hard to see.

I’ve been thinking about my little demons a fair bit of late. My little demons like to keep me safe. In fact, that’s the only program they run, because that’s what little demons really are – inculturated values, programs that we literally absorb as we grow up. Did your mother have issues with body image? Odds are there’s a little demon pushing that button in you. Did your grandparents overcome hardship? Did your father succeed, but at a heavy cost?

The experiences of those we love inform who we become. They color the house we grew up in and the lessons we subconsciously learned. That’s what I mean by “programming” and “inculturated values”. That said, they, and the effect they have, aren’t inherently negative. They just are. It’s the amount of influence we allow them to have that matters.

The trick is to figure out which of those values are inherited and which are native to you, the finite individual. Once you know that, you can listen to your gut more closely. You can tell the difference between your own instincts, and the little demons that would keep you safe, or push you to the brink.

I’d like to say that I’ve developed an ear for my own little demons, and to a certain degree, I have, but it’s far from 100%. I still get tripped up. I suspect I always will, just as I know that my daughter will carry some of the results of my experiences with her, regardless of how hard I try to control their influence. I can’t immunize her any more than my parents could immunize me. The little demons, the programs, the inherited values, are as much a part of the human experience as breathing or death.

My goal then, ultimately, is to make choices on my own terms – to listen to my reason, rather than the programs I learned. My hope is that, in doing so, I’ll give my daughter the tools she’ll need to do the same for herself.

On Style in Prose

Letter & CoffeeI’ve been writing for about 11 years now, and I can honestly say that it’s only been in the past 2 that I’ve begun to find my style… Or rather, styles, because I have several – it just depends on what I’m writing.

For the first 8 years of that 11, I was terrifically preoccupied with finding “my style”. What I didn’t realize at the time was that you have to be able to write first. Hemingway didn’t start off sounding like Hemingway. You can see hints of  Papa’s style in his early novels, but his authorial voice was still in the developmental stages until it peaked with “The Killers” and “Hills Like White Elephants.” Unfortunately, Hemingway also demonstrates the danger of being too wedded to any one style – later in his career, he fell off the ledge into self-parody… Please don’t hate me fans of Hemingway.

What I failed to realize as a young writer is that, in much the same way that a teenager is a human work in progress, a new writer isn’t fully formed until she gets some experience, (i.e.: shitty stories and lots of rejection), under her belt. The idea that I would have to live through tons of rejection, and that every story I wrote for years would be nothing more than a learning experience terrified and daunted me 11 years ago. Luckily, I’m incredibly stubborn…and I really love to write. So I plowed ahead through all that shittiness until my writer-self began to grow up.

It was a long and painful process – not just for me, but for the people who valiantly read 10th, 20th and 25th revisions, (I’m not kidding), of a stories that were never going to work – not because I’d used the work “enamored” twice on one page, but because the damn things just didn’t have a plot. It took awhile to figure that out, (sorry valiant people), but as soon as I did, things started to fall into place.

And that’s when I realized that a writer’s style is really just a reflection of the writer’s personality. Very often it’s surprisingly subtle. Word choice is part of it, sure, but even more than that, it’s the quirks and humor and punch and flow that form your sentences. It’s the way you turn a phrase. It’s the “sound” of your writing, the rhythmic rise and fall in your tension and pacing – that’s not something you can force, nor is it something you can develop on purpose. It just has to come. In other words, don’t ask the caterpillar how it walks – it’ll trip all over itself. Just let the little guy do his thing.

When it comes down to it, style is just one more lens through which to read a writer’s work. And yes, it is important. That said, it’s also something that works itself out. You don’t need to worry about finding it – if you give it enough time, it will find you.

On Burning Your Boats

When I decided to move to writing full time, I did so with the caveat that if anything really promising in librarianship came up, I would do it and write part-time again, which means that my choice to write full time was always, in some way conditional – I had a sort of mental escape hatch that allowed me to do the frightening thing and write while still feeling like I had a safety net.

About two months ago, I was approached about a contract position in a library, which definitely qualified as “something exciting”. On the surface, the opportunity made a lot of sense. It was a part-time situation that would net a decent, very stable income and replace the worry and comparative instability of freelancing. Score. I would work in the library part time and write part time. The family schedule would be “interesting” (meaning INSANE), but it overall, that would be okay because everything else would be good… except for the fact that I would lose some traction on current WIP’s and projects… and that  the idea never quite settled right with me. At all.

Last week interviews and phone meetings were scheduled for the position. This week would basically be spent talking to people and deterring the terms of the contract. Should have been exciting, right? But it wasn’t. I just felt vaguely sick. I couldn’t focus on the writing I had to do – I was too preoccupied by the fact that soon I would have far less time to work.. meaning write.

So, after much debate, I just sent a series of very nice emails saying thanks but no thanks to the contract. You’d think that torching that safe little boat would be empowering or, at the very least, kind of fun. It wasn’t not. It was very gently terrifying, because it meant that now I’m doing this. No safety net. No back-up. This is it. I’m a writer – not a writer on condition – and that means I need to up my game and kick some serious ass. Seriously.

On the flip side, it feels good to have a challenge to rise to. I’ve never done the safe thing, though it’s never been from lack of trying – safe was always a siren song, even as I auditioned for play after play, all while trying to figure out how to be an actor *and* have a stable, routine life. Ha.

It was that trying to be safe that kept the risks I took from paying off. Now, for the first time in my life, I’m taking an unabashed, no-holding back risk. And I’m free – from myself and the little demon that whispered in my ear. Be safe. Be safe. Be safe. 

Sometimes, safe isn’t really that safe, not if it isn’t honestly safe, and my pursuit of safety, and my inability to see a risk through was never honest. It was always based in fear. So now, my boats are finally burning and that little safety demon can go straight to hell. In declining the contract position, I finally sent it there, and that does feel good.

The Devil’s in the Details (and The Deep Blue Sea)

Rachel Weisz as Hester Collyer for The Devil's in the Deep Blue Sea post by Malin James

Rachel Weisz as Hester Collyer

I watched a film awhile ago – Terrence Davies’ adaptation of Terrence Rattigan’s play, The Deep Blue Sea. It’s a beautiful, melancholy play, and a beautiful melancholy film about a woman named Hester Collyer, who escapes a stifling marriage to have an affair with a damaged RAF pilot named Freddie Page.

Set in the years following WWII, the film, (and the play), examines a particular slice of cultural history through Hester’s emotional decent. She’s a beautiful woman with two choices – remain wedded to stifling traditions or deviate from accepted social norms. Neither is particularly promising as they are born out in the choice between a dry, unsatisfying marriage to a  kind, older judge, or wildly sexual but emotionally fraught affair with a younger man.

There are a lot of things I like about this film. Visually, it’s a beautiful thing, full of saturated color and all the  soft edges of an old Hollywood film. The acting is also first rate – Rachel Weisz is heart-breaking as Hester and Tom Hiddleston turns in a edgy, nuanced performance as Freddie Page. But, as they say, the devil’s in the details, and that’s true for this film.

Take a look at this short trailer, and keep your ear open to one of Freddie’s lines. It starts about 19 seconds in.

That line – “I really think you’re the most attractive girl I’ve ever met” – is the detail that stands out most to me in this film. That one line, and Hester’s silent response to it, tells viewers everything they need to know about what’s going to happen. Here’s what I mean.

Arguably, Hester’s defining characteristic is that she needs. She is driven by unfulfilled need, and her needs – for love, and respect, and fulfillment, and romance, and desire, and safety, and belonging, and etc. etc. etc. – run incredibly deep. Freddie, on the other hand, skates the surface of need. He cannot tolerate entanglements for reasons of his own.

So, while he can offer Hester, “I really think you’re the most attractive girl I’ve ever met”, what Hesters needs is “You are the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. I love you. Stay with me.” That need of hers is naked on her face, and as soon as you see her cling to the bon-bon Freddie’s offered, you know it’s going to go badly for them.  There is too much distance between what Hester needs, and what Freddie can give.

And that’s why I love this film, even though it makes my stomach hurt. No one is at fault. They are just, fundamentally, not right for each other. Love and attraction are not enough. What breaks my heart is that nothing will ever be enough for Hester. Her needs went ignored for so long that there is a hole inside of her that cannot be filled. That’s why this film is a tragedy, and that’s why it’s so good.