April 27, 2015 § Leave a comment
SPOILER ALERT – If by some miracle you have not seen Grey’s Anatomy this week, or have not already heard what happened, STOP READING.
The internet was buzzin’ after Thursday night’s episode of Grey’s Anatomy. People were outraged that Shonda Rhimes not only decided to kill off yet another character from the show, but the beloved McDreamy himself!
Yes, I am a fan of the show and have watched it from the beginning, so certainly I am attached to these characters.
But let’s take a look at this just from a writing perspective. Was it smart to kill off one of the most popular characters of the show and one of the few remaining original characters at that?
While the episode was well written (although, not the best episode they ever had), and while it certainly created a buzz, in my humble opinion, I think it was a dumb move.
The show has been losing viewers over the last couple of years. We all know that it is drawing to an end – It has already been stated that they are planning on ending it after 2 more seasons. Wouldn’t you want to keep as many viewers as possible over your last 2 seasons?
Derek Shepherd earned the nickname “McDreamy” for a reason. He is written to appeal to women as the perfect guy. And women across the world love him for it. Many people have continued to watch the show mainly because of him. Now he’s gone.
Perhaps his storyline was done. Perhaps he just wanted out. It doesn’t matter the reason. Killing such a beloved character at this point in the series is not a smart move. There are plenty of other ways you could write him out that would leave it open for him to be back for the finale, or to still be part of the storyline without actually being on the show. Keeping it a little more open ended – whether if he ever appeared on the show again or not – would keep viewers watching. It would keep viewers happy.
Now, if Shonda didn’t already have the habit of killing off almost every character she wanted off the show, would my opinion on this be different?
I think it would. It would make Derek’s death much more shocking and traumatic. It would hit the viewer’s core even more. We wouldn’t be ready for it, and it would send us reeling. We would want to keep watching to see how Meredith would survive.
But since there have already been a ridiculous amount of deaths on this show, quite frankly, this wasn’t much of a surprise. Of course she would kill him off – she killed everyone else off (except Christina). Of course Meredith is going to survive and move on – she did with everyone else.
Was I upset Derek died? Sure, I love that character like everyone else. But did I have the ugly tears while watching it like I would have expected in other circumstances? Nope. I was fully expecting it, and I was quite annoyed. This show has proven that it has some fantastic writers. Some of the opening/ending narrations have been darn near genius in the past. So I KNOW they have good writers. So I KNOW they could have created a better storyline. So I was annoyed that they took the easy way and killed him just everyone else. Derek deserved better. The show deserved better.
Was the episode itself well written? Yes. Was it the best written episode I’ve seen from them? No.
It was a fitting way for McDreamy to die – a hero. I would expect nothing less. It was an interesting choice to have the great neurosurgeon’s brain being what ended up killing him. Nice move. It is within Meredith’s character to be strong and stoic like her mother. However, that said, I felt it was weird, especially considering the final song that was playing, that Meredith didn’t lay down next to him one last time. To hold him, as he always held her and supported her, while he passed away. That last part of the ending left me unsatisfied, and it seemed like there should have been a bit more than just hearing the great McDreamy’s last breath.
But that is just this one writer’s humble opinion. What did you think? Was it a fitting ending? Was it a smart or stupid move in the overall arch of the show’s story? Do you think viewers will still watch till the end of the show?
It certainly will be interesting to see how it ends up panning out….
April 3, 2014 § Leave a comment
Ok, so we all know that How I Met Your Mother ended this week. After 9 years of watching, the show’s loyal fans finally got all their answers. And while some were quite satisfied, most of the fans were left confused and angry. Was this show really supposed to be called How I Met Your Stepmother??
Personally, I’m a little torn on my opinion of this ending. On one hand, it’s a tidy roundabout finish – it ties up the story, and it’s nice to think that your first love can come back. On the other hand, I was disappointed. I felt that Ted’s character had grown throughout the series and actually evolved beyond Robin. I was excited to see him find true love with someone new and felt a little robbed by the mom being more like a long montage than anything else.
But personal feelings aside, let’s take a look at this strictly from a writing structure point of view. A good story obviously has a distinct beginning, middle, end. A good story has foreshadowing, repeating patterns or symbols, compelling characters that not only draw you into their world, but become so familiar they are a part of your world. A good story, like life, often has various twists and turns, bringing us down a different track and always keeping us on our toes.
Does HIMYM have these things? Yes, it most absolutely does. Everyone can point out the repeating themes of Ted’s quest for love, his big gestures, his dogged & determined romantic side, the blue horn, the slap bet, The Playbook, The Bro Code, and “Legendary” moments – the list could easily go on. Every character was on a journey and we knew their love and loyalty for each other was what always carried them through. They grew up together. They grew together.
The creators have stated they knew their ending from the very beginning and the story across the seasons show that. It always came back to Robin. That blue horn periodically made an appearance. We knew the mother herself was not a major part of the story. The story was really more about Ted’s journey. Not only his journey in finding the mother, but his journey in finding himself and growing up in the process.
So does the fact that he eventually ends up with Robin anyway, blue horn in hand, make sense in terms of story structure?
Well, yes, it does. Life, like stories, have repeating themes. Robin is one of Ted’s themes for sure. The story came full circle and everything was tied up. There were no other questions left to be answered. Except for perhaps the question of how the future of Ted & Robin would work this time. Yes, Ted already has the kids, so that solves that problem. But Robin is still a famous world reporter that has to travel all the time. Ted is much more of a responsible homebody than Barney ever was, plus he has kids. So if it didn’t work for Barney, why would Ted & Robin work any better considering the difference in their lifestyles?
But that wasn’t the point of the ending. The point was the story coming full circle. It may not have been the most satisfying ending that fans were looking for, but that’s life too – it’s not always a clean, satisfying end.
Could it still have worked the other way? Could Robin have stayed just Aunt Robin and Ted ended his dialogue with, “And that, kids, is how I met your mother.”? That could have been followed by a montage of some snapshots and/or “home videos” before a fade to black. The End.
Yup – that could have worked too. Maybe it wouldn’t have brought the story to a complete full circle like ending up under Robin’s window again, but it still would have worked well with the themes because Ted evolved. He learned from his on-again off-again relationship with Robin. He found out what really mattered to him and what the kind of love was that he needed in his life. What the mother of his children should be like. And even if she still ended up dying, it would be ok because he has learned over the last 9 years that it isn’t just about the end result – it’s about the journey, the story itself. It’s about the adventures, the people you meet along the way, and the knowledge you gain. The happiness and life in general that you experience is what makes up your story, not your ending. In the end, he knew that’s what it was really all about. Not just mom, but what made up the path leading to mom. That was his story all along (with or without Robin).
Yes, that ending could have worked too.
But then, if that had been the ending, everyone wouldn’t be talking about it so much, would they?
What did you think about the ending of How I Met Your Mother? Did you like what the creators decided to do? How did you feel it fit in terms of a writing technique?
March 5, 2014 § 1 Comment
I’m a writer, so obviously I love language. Wordplay is a part of my job and I actually get excited about learning different ways to use language to enhance my writing. I have always enjoyed hearing how a particular phrase came about and learning the origins of a word, but I have to admit, I do not actively seek out these tidbits of information. I take for granted all the words I do know and don’t think twice about the true meaning behind them. Until recently…
The last few years, I have been privileged to know a wonderful and inspiring woman who is originally from Russia. If you met her, you would never know that she just received her citizenship a couple of years ago, or has been living in this country for only a few years altogether. Her English – wait, let me clarify that – her American English is flawless. She not only knows proper English, but she knows all the slang and common phrases that we naturally use everyday. It is very rare that I see her trip up on something someone says to her.
I asked her how she did it. I mean, I took Spanish in high school, and although I earned good grades, I was FAR from a fluent speaker. Learning a new language is hard work! And English has so many double meanings, I can imagine that it would be doubly tough to become a fluent American speaker.
She said she just immersed herself in it. And she studied. If she hears a word she doesn’t know, she writes it down. She has a whole book of words and phrases that she can look back on and study whenever she needs to.
However, I’ve also observed that she doesn’t just teach herself the words, she asks the origins too. Sometimes she’ll ask me what something means and although I know the word, I have to really stop myself and think about how to explain it without using the actual word. I love when she asks me these things since it forces me to not only use my brain, but to also evaluate my own language and my personal communication skills. I get excited when she asks me about the origins of a phrase and I don’t really know the answer, because then we look it up together and the information is usually so interesting!
We have a rich history to our language that has contributions from so many different cultures. Until I met her, I never really thought about that. It has forced me to look at language, and thus my writing, in a whole new way. I really think about the words I’m using much more than I ever used to. In fact, she has inspired me. Not only do I want to one day learn a different language for myself, but I want to learn about my own language even more.
The realistic side of me knows that I just do not have the time to do this to the degree I really want to, but my goal is to set aside a little time here and there to look up new words and learn the origin and history for my own information. Not only will it be good for my own personal growth and enrichment, but it will also enhance my writing in new ways and add a new layer of quality to my work. There’s always room for improvement!
May 7, 2013 § Leave a comment
Last week the movement arts group New York Live Arts hosted a five-day festival dedicated to the work of one of my favorite writers, Oliver Sacks, a neurologist turned author whose fame stems from his ability to make medical writing digestible for a lay audience.
Sacks writes primarily about neurological cases he comes across in his practice. In his essays, he explains the scientific underpinnings of complicated and rare neurological disorders, but his pieces also read like engaging personal narratives. His patients and their experiences come alive on the page.
As a writer I’ve always wondered how Sacks managed to craft such emotionally and scientifically intricate pieces, and I think I recently came across the answer in a National Public Radio blog post dedicated to Sacks.
NPR Reporter Alva Noe writes: “A comment I heard more than once at a recent [New York Live Arts] event in New York to celebrate the life of Oliver Sacks, who turns 80 this year, is that it isn’t Sacks’ patients who are particularly interesting; it is the interest Sacks brings to them that makes them special. He has good eyes.”
He has good eyes. That comment really struck a chord with me. Not just because it shed light upon a question I’d had about Sacks, but because it speaks to something I think every writer has asked themselves at least once: am I paying enough attention?
Whether the focus is your emotions, the world around you or the world of others, writing requires attention to detail. In order to reconstruct our experiences into essays and stories that ring true to others, we have to be able to set scenes, emotional or physical, that are saturated with observations which help our readers feel as if they’re experiencing our worlds themselves.
For me, it sometimes feels like my world is no longer saturated with the kind of details my favorite authors capture in their works. But the problem is not that those details don’t exist—city streets are still as lively as Virginia Woolf described, and people are still as beautifully complicated and fickle as Hemingway depicted them—the problem is that I’ve stopped noticing, and I don’t think I’m alone.
How often have you participated in a conversation where it seems like you’re just one-upping a friend on the exhaustions scale?
“I haven’t slept in three days I’m so busy.”
“I’m so busy I can’t even remember the last time I ate!”
It seems like as a society we’ve come to a decision: busy is better. And busy means not having the time to stop and take in the little details that make life beautiful and exciting.
I don’t know when we decided that busy was the new desirable status quo but it seems like everyone has signed on, and if you’re not busy you’re somehow missing out.
After all, technology makes it so easy to stay busy. Ten minutes between doctors’ appointments? Respond to that e-mail you neglected this morning. An hour-long bus ride to visit family for the holidays? You can make a whole PowerPoint presentation from your iPad. There’s no longer any reason to not be busy.
But there’s also no longer any reason to look up from our smartphones and tablets, to look around at the world and realize there are things beyond our isolated, technology-centric worlds worth devoting our time and attention to.
Sacks was lucky in that he was able to use his work as inspiration for his art, but if he’d spent his diagnostic time looking down at e-mails from his patients instead of looking up and seeing them face-to-face, as unique parts of a bigger world with a greater purpose, I don’t think we’d have the same amazing accounts of his experiences.
To replicate experiences in a tangible way, we have to be present for those experiences. Fully present and mentally alert.
If we stop paying attention, if we stop looking up, if we no longer have “good eyes,” will we deprive ourselves of a whole new generation of literary wonders like Sacks?
We might. But we might lose even more. Philosopher John Campbell once wrote, “People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive.”
If we stop looking up we can lose those essential, random, unplanned experiences of being alive—the very experiences that allow great writers like Sacks to captivate us, that allow us to gain something more from our day-to-day than just checking things off a to-do list, that make us essentially human.
Let’s start looking up again. Let’s have good eyes.
April 23, 2013 § 2 Comments
Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about journaling. A few weeks ago I was at my parents’ apartment trying to help with the yearly spring cleaning, but instead of finally throwing away the clothes I never wear, I became distracted by a box full of books from my childhood. Tucked between a worn copy of The Outsiders and a Judy Blume novel I can’t remember reading, I found the first journal I ever kept.
I’ve made a lot of attempts at keeping journals, some more successful than others. But none of my more recent attempts compare to the tenacity with which I kept my first journal. Thumbing through the spiral bound pages of the colorful notebook, I was shocked to realize that I wrote nearly every day. I was just eight years old when I started this journal; how could I have filled so many pages?
It turns out, I wrote about everything. My days at school. My feelings toward friends. My frustration with my older brothers. My fear that the coolest kids in the class didn’t know my name. The thing that struck me the most was how unconcerned the younger version of myself seemed with what I was writing. I was just venting, fearlessly, confidently, without an ounce of hesitation.
I was so blown away by how much I had to write, and how willing I was to write it, that I had to stop and reassess for a moment: What changed between that journal and my more recent attempts?
I haven’t touched my most recent journal since January 2012, and I’m convinced that my negligence is partially due to being “on” all the time. I can’t remember the last time I had enough down time to do something just for myself without feeling guilty about it, without feeling like I’m neglecting work or forgetting to respond to e-mail. It sometimes seems like everyone is moving so fast and doing so much that if you do have time to just focus on yourself, you’re probably doing something wrong.
When I sit down to journal now, I often find myself thinking: Do I really have the time to just write about my feelings for a while? Is this more important than my to-do list?
I suspect I’m not alone in my hesitancy.
But if you consider mental and physical well-being important, journaling shouldn’t feel like an extravagant indulgence. Research has proven that taking the time to process your thoughts — to reflect on interpersonal conflicts, or even just to write down a quick account of your day—has tangible psychological benefits, as explained in a superb article from PsychCentral:
“The act of writing accesses your left brain, which is analytical and rational. While your left brain is occupied, your right brain is free to create, intuit and feel. In sum, writing removes mental blocks and allows you to use all of your brainpower to better understand yourself, others and the world around you.”
Additionally, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin have found that journaling can protect your physical health as well—regular journaling strengthens your immune cells and decreases the impact of stress on your physical health by helping you come to terms with and manage the stressors in your life.
So maybe we shouldn’t feel guilty about journaling. But for many, I’m sure the concept of writing in a journal is daunting for other reasons.
One of my oft-cited reasons for not writing in my journal is that I simply don’t know what to write. What’s important enough to put on paper? To save and go back to later? But the fact of the matter is that you can write about anything, as long as you’re writing without barriers.
Researchers say that writing for 20 minutes daily is the ideal if you’re writing with health benefits in mind, but offer few other directives other than to just let your guard down. Don’t worry about what’s important or how you might feel about your entry two years from now. Just write. If it helps you get started, pick a topic to write about (relationships, your work, the books you’re reading) each day, week or month. Whatever you can maintain.
I’ve decided to challenge myself to write in a journal at least five days per week for the next six weeks to see if I can get back into the habit. I’m going to force myself to make time to just be with my thoughts, to “turn off” for a while in order to turn inward and gain a better sense of myself.
And to keep myself on track, I’ve decided to try doing this in a new medium. A friend recently brought to my attention the existence of journaling apps—programs that you can install on your laptop and smart phone that will not only allow you to securely journal from anywhere, but that also allow you to set up reminders. The apps will actually e-mail or text you reminding you to write.
And while I recognize the irony in “turning off” through a journaling application on my smartphone, the primary source of my constant need to be on in the first place, I think it will be an interesting experiment: Is it possible to translate something as timeless as the paper journal into the digital world? I’m going to try to find out.
But no matter what your chosen medium is, I think we should all try to journal. Not just for ourselves, but for each other. Because I don’t know about you, but I’d much rather live in a world where we all take a few moments a day to step back and reassess.
Just a thought.
Photo Credit: Sueanna
March 20, 2013 § Leave a comment
Each September dozens of first-year college students flock to the small college writing center where I work, desperate to capitalize on our free tutoring services. Despite a staff of 40 and 12 business hours per day, we can’t keep up with the demand. And while we tutors relish the opportunity to speak with so many new students about writing, a craft that our staff is deeply engaged with and always excited about, the students rarely seem as happy to see us as we are to see them.
This past fall, a student made an appointment with me to brainstorm ideas for an assignment for her Introduction to Literary Studies course. In three pages, her assignment dictated, she was supposed to explicate a poem or short story, paying specific attention to metaphors and themes. She had her story picked out, and knew which themes she wanted to analyze. She understood metaphors and how they were at work in the story. In conversation with me, her analysis was sharp and well articulated. Fifteen minutes into our session, I asked her what I could help her with—she seemed so prepared to write. Quite candidly, she told me she was scared.
Scared of what?
Scared of writing. Despite her clear grasp on the material, the thought of condensing her ideas into a written analysis caused her great anxiety. “I’m just not a good writer,” she said, “I’ve never liked it. I just can’t do it.”
We hear stories like this all the time at our writing center: a brilliant young student with complex and enlightening ideas for an essay is absolutely terrified of putting pen to paper or finger to key, apprehensive about every step of the writing process.
When I first began tutoring, I was consistently taken aback by students’ reluctance to write. I was a fairly quiet child, and writing was always my outlet. Until I was 7 or so, my main hobby was interviewing neighbors and friends, asking them questions about crimes I made up and using their answers to write articles for my pretend newspaper. My parents encouraged my writing, and every few months would help me type and print my favorite stories and deliver them to my neighbors. And though as I got older I became embarrassed by their insistence that I write things for them to read, looking back now, I’m exceptionally grateful for their encouragement and persistence.
Today, I think of writing as just another way of expressing myself, like dancing or singing or making art. Sometimes I write for fun or therapy, sometimes I write for work, sometimes I write for a grade in a class. And sometimes, writing makes me nervous too—if I know someone else is going to read my work, or if I’m writing about something I feel strongly about—but I’m not afraid of the process itself. I’ve never felt like I just couldn’t do it.
I think any one who grows up thinking they just can’t write has been dealt a major injustice. Sure, a comfort with writing provides an academic advantage, and for many a workplace advantage as well. But more importantly, a comfort with writing provides another means of expression in a world in which disconnecting from your own emotions and experience has become easy, if not commonplace.
And this is why I’m so glad that programs like author Dave Egger’s 826 National are working to get children engaged with writing early, when their desire to express is high and their reluctance is low. Egger’s program, which launched in San Francisco in 2002 but has since spread to eight major cities nationwide, focuses on using creative techniques to kindle children’s interest in and command of writing.
Eggers sets up writing centers under the guise of eccentric storefronts. In New York City, for example, the 826 Center is located in the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Company, which sells capes, masks, grappling hooks, and secret identity kits. But the store is actually used to fund creative writing and tutoring programs for local kids. The stores’ quirky facades quickly spark children’s interest, and the writing programs expand on that interest. First, the kids might write stories about superheroes and spies, but the program builds on that initial excitement to keep them interested not just in the fun, silly themes, but in writing as a means of expressing yourself.
The center publishes its student’s work, encourages them to write in groups, to write poems or short stories, science fiction or personal essays. It encourages them to write about what interests them, so they can see that writing is not just something you have to do for school; writing is a way they can make the world come alive around them, exactly as they’d like that world to be.
Similar programs exist on a less national scale: on the west coast Take My Word for It runs thematic writing groups where children can work with their peers to write about their interests. The Flight group, for example, focuses on writing about planes, and flying, and even the disappearance of Amelia Earhart. Mighty Writers in Philadelphia and Incite to Write in New Mexico offer similarly engaging programs. And across the country smaller versions of these programs are working hard to make sure children see writing as an exciting hobby, something to be proud of, rather than another chore.
The mission of programs like these—to ignite a child’s love of writing—is even more important as public schools continue to redirect resources toward test prep and standardization. Children are naturally so creative, so willing to explore and express. We should encourage them to think of the written word as a primary means of sharing their ideas, of telling us what they see and how they see it. Writing shouldn’t terrify; it should excite and expire. And while not every child will catch the writers’ bug, every child should be given the chance.
February 28, 2013 § 2 Comments
“Write hard and clear about what hurts.”
On a recent trip to the grocery store, I overheard a conversation between a man and his wife while standing behind them in the checkout line. The man, probably in his mid-thirties, complained to his wife about a last minute report he had to write for his company. Someone else had dropped the ball, and despite his weeks of overtime and severe lack of sleep, he’d been tasked with the extra work. He said he was tired. He was stressed. The last thing he wanted to do was write.
Even though I knew he meant the last thing he wanted to write was a tedious report, and he wasn’t referring to the kind of therapeutic, personal writing I enjoy so much, the comment stuck with me for the rest of the evening. I know many people who would echo this man’s sentiment, but apply it to writing of any kind. Personal, academic or professional, some people dislike any prolonged form of writing.
Perhaps the fairly common distaste for this particular art form is rooted in formal schooling. For most of us, our first venture into the world of the written word comes in a structured, often punishing environment. We learn to write, but are constantly bombarded with corrections from teachers and parents attempting to teach us to write “better.” And though their concern for our grasp of grammar and syntax is warranted and necessary, it’s easy to understand how some people might shy away from the process for fear of criticism.
If you’re lucky enough to catch the writing bug it can be stressful and disheartening to encounter people, especially friends and loved ones, with a visceral aversion to putting pen to paper—especially now that we’ve accumulated so much research indicating how effective writing can be in helping us heal both psychological and physical wounds.
Research into the connection between writing and psychological health began to gain momentum in the late 1980s, and the results gathered over the last three decades provide support for what most self-proclaimed writers already knew: writing is an excellent form of independent therapy.
One study of note compiled the results from several different therapeutic writing trials, and sought to identify whether or not writing could help victims of traumatic events better cope with their post-trauma lives. In each of the trials, researchers asked half of the group to write about mundane topics like time-management or daily activities, and the other half to write about “an extremely important emotional issue that has affected you and your life.” The writing was completely confidential, and each group was asked to write for about a half hour each day for 3-5 consecutive days.
Participants reported that the actual process of writing was quite stressful, and they often wanted to discontinue their involvement. But the results were astonishing. Researchers found that following the therapeutic writing trials, groups asked to write about their emotional experiences:
- Visited physicians less often, had healthier immune systems, lower heart rates and reported fewer instances of illness.
- Reported generally better moods and less personal psychological stress.
- Showed improved grades (if enrolled in school).
- Found employment more quickly than unemployed members of the non-emotional writing groups.
- Were less likely to miss days of work or school.
- Reported fewer depressive episodes.
Though the results speak for themselves, they’re even more impressive when you consider that the same improvements were found across demographic groups. The various compiled studies featured students, professionals, the elderly, and even convicted felons. Writing about trauma appears to be universally beneficial, and further research indicates that expressive writing has emotional benefits even if you haven’t had any significant traumatic experiences.
And I suspect the confidentiality played a critical role in the effectiveness of these therapeutic writing studies. Like any other art form, writing is less stressful without an audience, without critics. How honestly can you express yourself if you’re concerned with who might read your work and pass judgment? But if you’re guaranteed to be the only consumer of your written words? What an exceptional opportunity to work out complicated, difficult, stressful feelings—feelings that we’re naturally inclined to ignore and repress. And if repression, as research indicates, has a negative effect on our psychological health, expression should logically have the opposite result.
I wish I’d used pen and paper to work out my feelings about writing as therapy prior to overhearing that man complain to his wife. If I had, maybe I would have had the confidence to tell him that perhaps his work-related stress could be combatted with a more expressive form of the tedious writing he seemed to dread so much.