Subject to Interpretation

Several years ago, I was working on a play. I had written the script, and was attending the rehearsals periodically at the director’s request to consult on the production. Seeing something that you’ve written go through the rehearsal process is always…odd. Hearing an actor give voice to the words that you’ve written, to the character that formed in your head, can be simultaneously exciting and disconcerting. You really have to try to separate yourself from how the character was saying those lines in your head, because there’s a completely different aspect to a performed piece than to a piece that’s only read by your audience.

I remember walking into the auditorium one night late in the rehearsal process, looking up on the stage, and seeing my character. I’ve always called that moment the “spark.” It’s the moment in which I stop believing that the person on stage is the actor and begin believing that it’s the character that I’m seeing. For the actor,  it’s the moment when the character takes over…also simultaneously exciting and disconcerting. When it’s your character that you’re seeing and in which you’re believing…well, there’s something holy about it at that point, as well.

I’ve never had cover art drawn for anything that I’ve written. My work has always been published in magazines, journals, or the like, or on the web. I recently arranged with a colleague to have some cover art drawn for two short stories that I’ll be self-publishing in the near future. I confess that I briefly considered attempting it myself, but, some shaky Photoshop skills aside, I’m no graphic designer. I decided to leave it to the professionals, and I’m excited to see the result.

I’m excited because I was laying in bed a couple of nights ago re-reading a book from my childhood, when I realized that the way I was viewing the protagonist…the way that she sounded in my head, even…was directly connected to how she appeared on the cover of the book. There’s an interesting connection there, the way in which one art form informs your interpretation of another. I wonder how I would have “seen” that character if the cover art had been different? I wonder how much differently I see characters in books that do not feature a character on the cover?

More to the point, I wonder how I will react when I see one of my characters on a cover? Will they look the way that I envisioned them? Likely not, and neither did the character in my play years ago when I watched her come to life…as I have many others through the years…in the skillful hands of that actor.

Writing fiction involves, by nature, more description than playwriting. I generally spend a couple of paragraphs describing a character’s appearance, what they’re wearing, their body language, etc., the first time that they appear, and re-visit at least general appearance at key scenes later in the work. When writing a script, I may make mention of a clothing item critical to the scene, but I intentionally leave a lot of things blank, because they’re up for the director and actor to fill in. It will be interesting to see how a designer fills in the fewer blanks left by fiction, but I think that it will be very similar to releasing that character to be interpreted by an actor and director. Because, as with all art, there’s a subjective element to it. The designer will see my characters differently than I do.

I can’t wait to see how it turns out.                                      

You Say Tomato…

Earlier in the week, I saw a literary agent proclaiming on Twitter the importance of knowing one’s genre. After all, she insisted, if all of the characters in your manuscript were of a certain age, could you really label your submission as Young Adult?

I understand her point in a way. After all, agents specialize in certain types of books. They have their niches, so to speak. If an agent represents literary authors and I send him or her a high fantasy novel claiming that it’s literary fiction, then I’ve wasted both of our time. Except, the line between those ideas…and, by that, I mean, what exactly do we call literary?…becomes blurred.

In my perspective, genre labels are used for two basic reasons. The first is to give the (potential) reader some idea of what to expect when they open the book. I’m immediately open to certain conventions when reading science fiction, for example, that might give me pause when reading a mystery. I know that an espionage thriller will contain certain plot formulae that would be resisted in other settings. In that way, I think that they’re useful.

The second is to allow booksellers to categorize them. When you’re in the mood for a certain type of book, you can find that shelf in your local bookstore, or browse to that category on your Nook or Kindle. In that way, brick-and-mortar bookstores aren’t all that different from digital storefronts…they have large amounts of products that require a hierarchical structure in order to organize them that they may better get them before potential readers.

And, I’m all for getting books in front of potential readers, because I want people to read my words, just as I want any writers’ hard work to be read and appreciated. And, earning money from that hard work, while it’s not really why we do it, is always an amazing feeling.

I foresee this near-future scenario, however,  in which our still somewhat basic genre categories become overbearing in their volume and weight. Those of us with a taste for these things can become a bit obsessive over the categories of what we read. To draw a musical parallel, you may be one of those people that disagrees with the genre labels for your iTunes purchases. When I buy music, I almost always go about editing the meta-data to reflect what I feel the true genre of the piece is, not what Apple’s marketing department felt that it is. We may enjoy listening to the same artist, but call the music different things. Alternative to me could very well differ from what you would consider alternative music, because there’s a perceptual lens that comes into play there. Think I’m wrong?  Let’s have a discussion about where the line between country and southern rock lies. You see my point.

Along those same lines, knowing that different readers will often gravitate to a writing style or a story moreso than a type of story, I think that genre descriptions are not foremost in many writers’ minds when we are crafting a story. Because of this, our stories can often cross the lines between those genres. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I think that, as new ideas for stories and characters are woven in an author’s mind, the equivalent to a new type of music can be created. How would iTunes have categorized hip-hop in a world where only jazz and R&B existed? How would we have classified science fiction in a world before Shelley gave us her Frankenstein monster? I don’t think that most readers are quite as fixated on genres as we might believe.

It’s in our nature to categorize things so that we may understand them. That’s what genres do. I don’t think that they’re a bad thing. I do think that making them laser-specific and rigid is a bad thing, because bending categories and creating things that prove elusive to labels is a beautiful experience in any art. It’s how an art form grows. And, when an art form grows, so do those who engage with it.



This is a multi-media piece call “Steampunkinetics 2013,” currently on display in Danvers, MA. The plaque on the side reads in part:

“‘Steampunkinetics’ is an arts and technology program for adolescents and young adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) run at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. The mission of Steampunkinetics is to provide those with ASD the resources, skills, and support needed to create a unique and innovative work of art using technology and

Swimming up the Creative Stream

Poor Amazon just doesn’t know what to make of me.

That was the discussion that I had with a colleague tonight. She was talking about a book that she is reading about working with a specific component of the Autism spectrum.  We work together doing applied theatre with an agency that uses theatre to work with students on the spectrum. It’s one of the several things that I do for a living. I like being diversified. The variety is, as they say, the spice of life.

I don’t actually buy much from Amazon these days, but it was my go-to supplier for grad school textbooks, and music for a while. I’ve talked before about how I continue to receive emails for suggested purchases, ranging from theology texts to counseling texts to fiction to web development guides. I wonder sometimes if people like me don’t threaten to make the algorithms explode. We’re spread about everywhere, exploring and practicing all manner of different disciplines and craft, loving the variety and eschewing routine wherever possible. We defy compartmentalization, which is quite abrasive to a culture that is becoming increasingly boxed in concerning roles, expertise, and skill sets.

I used to have issues dealing with this. Even when I came to embrace the wildly different aspects of myself, I still felt as though I was continuously swimming upstream. It’s been quite refreshing to live in an area where a lot of creatives live very similar lives, simultaneously exploring very different pursuits.

Except that I don’t see this as a “creative” thing, at least not as the word is typically defined in regards to people. Or, maybe more to the point, I see it as a creative thing in the sense that everyone is creative. I’m such a passionate advocate of an interdisciplinary mindset because I believe that “cross-pollination” of different disciplines enhances everyone’s lives. We all grow, and we all benefit.

Of course, it’s difficult when you’re encouraged to become overly specialized and to fit yourself into a box. Many things worth having, though, are not easy.

Spend the rest of the week defying your boxes.

Photo Attribution: lovlihood under Creative Commons

A Review of Shazam! Chapter Eleven

The word “family” can mean something a bit different to each of us depending on our childhoods. It’s always held a positive meaning for me, because I am blessed enough to have a strong and cohesive family unit, even larger now that Karen and I are married. That said, it still gets messy sometimes, because we’re all…remember this word…mortals. Still, family can be a great source of strength to conquer the obstacles, challenges, and even the evils that we face at moments in our lives.

Family has been a sort of through-line to DC Comics’ New 52 re-boot of Captain Marvel, now going under the name Shazam, which has been appearing as an additional story line in the back of Justice League. I’ve written before how DC is winning me over with their story, and how they’re capturing the struggle with the nature of a hero that any human would face, and certainly a child…a struggle that is perfectly portrayed in the character of Shazam.

Chapter eleven of the story (and I’m a bit late in reviewing this, as it’s almost two weeks old now), picks up with young Billy Batson running underground in his attempt to find the wizard, where he intends to plead for the removal of his powers. Billy is convinced that he is no hero and that his powers were granted to him by mistake, and is terrified of transforming himself back into Shazam, because then the evil Black Adam will turn his terror of the city above on his intended target…young Billy.

There is wonderful moment when some of his young brothers and sisters from his adopted family…friends who are standing by him even though he was quite mean to them initially…doubt Billy’s mental well being when he commands an abandoned subway to take them to the wizard. That is, all save one of the youngest members of the family, who believes in magic. Then, when Billy encounters the enchanted Francesca, the mystical face in the mirror, on an iPad screen, a voice that none of his young companions can hear, another member of the group insists that everyone believe that “Billy can see and hear things we don’t.”

“Magic things!” replies the youngest, and wonders aloud why they can’t see and hear these things, as well. Francesca asks Billy to communicate to his young sister that this is because she has not established a connection to magic, a cryptic statement at first. This, though becomes quite important…and emphasizes the theme of family…when Mary, the oldest sister, hears Francesca speak a single word: “Family.” Has a connection to magic through the bond of family began for Mary (long-time comic book readers know where this is going, I think)?

Francesca’s encouragement to Billy is inspiring, though it falls initially on ears finding it suspect. It is in overcoming the fears and challenges that we face, she insists, that we become “more than mortals.” There’s an odd bit of philosophical dualism injected into the story here, as Francesca explains to Billy that, his bond to the magic lightning that has made him Shazam being irreversible, he and Black Adam, the only other champion now bound with the lightning, are “forever connected.”  Writer Geoff Johns fleshes this out a bit later though, as Francesca begins to explain…

(Permit me to pause and give you fair warning that everything that follows will contain massive spoilers, in case you want to read this issue and haven’t already)

…Black Adam’s origin, one of tragic isolation and loss of childhood innocence paralleling, and indeed exceeding, Billy’s own. Artist Gary Frank does a masterful job of revealing Billy’s shock and horror at this connection, as he realizes how alike he and his evil rival terrorizing the streets above them are.

This realization changes Billy in a moment, as he embraces the fact that he suddenly views Black Adam as someone who can be saved, and himself as the person who can reason with Black Adam. In this pivotal moment for his character, Billy rushes out of the subway to confront Black Adam, not with the power of Shazam, but with the appeal of one orphan to another…the appeal for Black Adam to choose good as Billy has.

The ending…well, I won’t spoil everything here, but this issue is a great portrayal of the nature of a hero as Billy chooses to overcome his fear and place himself at risk in order to not even necessarily defeat, but to save his adversary. Billy chooses the ultimate good, the good that will make Shazam a centerpiece of the DC universe, and a good to which all of us reading can aspire. In Francesca’s words, this is the good that makes us “more than mortal.” Again, this is why superhero mythology carries such huge philosophical and theological …even spiritual…importance.

I can’t wait for next month’s issue…more to come!