That September and Our Stories

9/11.

Where do you even begin? Is there even anything that can be said, ten years down the road, that hasn’t already been repeated ad infinitum?  We know the stories already.  But maybe that’s the point.

For the first few years, 9/11 influenced movies and television from a close distance.  We never really said it out loud.  There were very few direct mentions of 9/11 in entertainment. But suddenly, we started to see scary moments on film through the lens of what was on our tv every single night.  Words like “terrorism” became a normal part of the lexicon.  Spiderman could no longer spin his web between the two towers.  Fox’s decision to put Jack Bauer on the airwaves seemed oddly prescient.  But it was still to painful to explain exactly why.

We’re far enough away now that 9/11 is a backdrop for stories.  Starting with Adam Sandler’s Reign Over Me (actually a great film – see it!), moving through films like Flight 93, tv shows like Fringe and more, we’ve started to use 9/11 as the framework to hang our stories on.  It’s still incredibly respectful, to be sure.  And maybe it’s a good thing.  Maybe when something becomes a framework for other stories, we’ve stepped into a new era of working through it.  We’ve survived. And we are not alone.

Enter Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

It’s not a perfect story.  It’s not a perfect film.  I still cried most of the way through it. Tom Hanks – there really aren’t words.  I love him so much.  Sandra Bullock and the very young Thomas Horn are excellent.  And the community that springs up around this family was really beautiful.  It made me grateful for the world I live in, that even in the midst of horrific circumstances, people come together to survive and make it to tomorrow.  But I wasn’t just watching a movie, passively absorbing what was happening to the characters.  As little Oskar Schell got through 9/11, I was reliving my own 9/11 experience.  And that was an emotional shock I didn’t see coming.  I was a teenager, driving to school.  I was a terrified kid, leaving my car haphazardly in the parking lot, racing across to my best friend, who met me just inside the main doors.  I still remember every second.  What’s going on???  There was a wordless shock behind everything that day – !!!   I hadn’t thought about that shock in a long time.  It had been even longer since I’d felt it.

I didn’t even realize I was crying until my husband leaned over and asked if I was okay.

Film and television don’t exist in a vacuum.  Every viewer brings their own experiences to the table, and it’s through those experiences that they watch the story being presented.  It can be a frustrating thing for a writer.  That’s not what I meant for that moment to be!  That’s not what I was saying! But that’s what your audience heard.

Being a writer is a lot about letting go.  You work desperately hard, spending more time with your computer than with your own husband, finally coming up for air with a fresh story in hand.  And then – you give it away.  You allow your words out into the world, to be interpreted by every person differently.  You take them with you, but understand that they’re going to see the world from different angles and perspectives. The best writers lean into this, using those differences to create something wholly original.  But it’s not easy.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close took me somewhere I hadn’t visited in a while.  But I’m glad I was along for the journey.

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Improv Class (Why I’m Not an Actress)

“Want to come to my first class with me?” 

It was an easy question from my best friend.  Of course I wanted to come to her first class of the semester.  I’d sit quietly in the back and observe, listening in as her acting professor taught brilliantly.  I’d take notes in my little journal and enjoy being a part of this moment of her life. 

The last thing I expected was that her professor would make me participate in class. And of course, I couldn’t just sprint out the door. That would be rude. I think. 

“I don’t do this acting thing,” I begged off.  ”This is not my area of expertise. There’s a reason I write words instead of performing them.”  I do not like the attention, not like that.  And what if I say something stupid on stage in front of these other actors, these people who are actually really good at what they do?  What if I freeze up?  I was not going to play this improv game.  

But then the professor literally stopped the room.  ”Get up there, writer girl.” 

There was no escaping it.  

So I leaned into it, faced my fears, and just went for it. I tried this new area of creativity that was not my own. And I have never had so much fun being scared to death. My fellow actors (if I can be so bold as to include myself among their acting ranks!) were fabulous. My one-liners got laughs.  A lot of them.  (Particularly when I yelled, “You can breathe with one eyeball!”  Trust me, in the moment, it made perfect sense.  The imaginary dead guy was breathing. Clearly, the zombie apocalypse was mere moments away.) 

I wonder what else I’ve been afraid of, what else I’ve missed out on because I had preemptively decided I wasn’t going to do that thing, whatever it may have been.  I wasn’t willing to take the risk. I don’t know what could happen.  I’m not very good at that.  I might make a mistake.   Those are killer words, snuffing out a spark of creativity and inspiration at just the right moment. 

In that one moment, I finally answered all my fears with – Why not? Just go for it!  

It turned out to be one of the best moments of the trip. 

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The Best Surprise

3 coffees

I just drove across the country with my best friend Laurie. Along the way, we surprised one of our other best friends, Cheryl, who knew that Laurie was coming, but not me.  The look on her face when I walked through her door was priceless.  I so wish my phone had not been dead at that moment, otherwise I absolutely would have had video.

It’s such a credit to my friends that I can really just show up on their doorstep at any point and be welcomed in without missing a beat.  These are the people I’ve somehow been lucky enough to know.  It was so much fun to see friends spread out across the country – Jeff & Danielle, Jeremy & Cheryl, and Chris & Laurie – to walk into their living rooms as if this was an everyday occurrence rather than a once a year thing.  It felt normal.  It felt like home, all across the country.  It was the best surprise, mostly because it didn’t feel out of the ordinary.  It’s that ordinary love that somehow goes the deepest.  It becomes, for lack of a better word, extraordinary.

I hope that my home is always like that – a place where everyone feels safe.  A place where the coffee is endless, where I always have time to sit down and just be present for the ones I love, for my friends I’m making along the way…

It’s a process.  And I’m getting there more and more every day.

Even though life has taken us all in different directions – and if we all were to live in a single city, maybe we would never be the people we were created to be – they’re still such an integral part of my life. At least for this moment, our adventures scatter us to the four corners… but maybe, just maybe not for always.

A girl can dream, right?

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Music, Empathy and a Child of the 90’s

                       Music

When I was younger, I didn’t really give a second thought to how much music can influence a person.  I didn’t understand why I wasn’t allowed to change my radio over to whatever music I could find.  I was stuck with our local inspirational station, or if I was lucky, our oldies station, where the Beach Boys were about as risque as it got.  

Complicating matters further was the fact that I was, and still am, a musician.  I spent hours sitting at my piano, sometimes loving it, sometimes in tears, running through Mozart and Beethoven over and over and over.  I usually turned on my stereo in my room before my lights were on.  As a child of the 90’s, I can still tell you what song is #8 on *NSync’s debut album (“I Want You Back,” for those of you wondering), or which song I listened to obsessively for weeks on end (“My Heart Will Go On” – I was a 13 year old girl. That’s what we did. Far be it from me to say I’m immune to the charms of pop culture.) It takes any one of a collection of songs to immediately reduce me right back to my teen self, full of dreams and scared of my own shadow. (Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn” or Madonna’s “Ray of Light” or No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak,” just to name a few. Sigh. I would never wish being 14 again on anybody. I barely survived.)

Ironically, it wasn’t until I began focusing on (non-musical) writing that I really began to understand the power of music. It’s like insta-emotions, bottled in a nifty little package and ready for my immediate consumption. Now I have specific albums I turn to depending on what I’m writing.  I can’t write anything worth anything at all unless I can feel what my characters are feeling.  If I’m writing something really beautiful and joyful, chances are good you’ll find me laughing out loud in the middle of my empty apartment.  Luckily the FedEx guy hasn’t overheard that yet.  If I’m writing something sad, I’m probably crying or very close to it.  If my characters are angry, so am I. It’s just the way my brain works.  Not every writer is like that, but it’s how I get my words on the page when I need them to be there.  

I was writing a club scene for a pilot a few weeks ago. For those of you who know me, I am so not the clubbing type.  But for two hours, I sat at my kitchen table in the dark, blasting the Skrillex remix of Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” in my headphones.  (Excellent remix, check it out.) And I was in the right, perfectly rebellious frame of mind to get my characters where I needed them.  When I’m writing big epic moments for my characters, full of love or fear or joy or sorrow, I’ve most likely got any one of Alexandre Desplat’s scores playing at full volume.  Just this morning, writing a great kick-ass, take-the-world-on-by-myself kind of moment, Muse’s “Supermassive Black Hole” took the first play of my day.  My character strolled across the page with one plan and one goal in mind, consequences be damned.  I finished the scene and kind of wanted to dare the world to take me on too.  It seems feistiness is catching. 

I listen to everything from Sia to Crowder to Eminem to James Horner to Sigur Ros to The Civil Wars to Blink182 to Jimmy Durante to Damian Jurado to Katy Perry to Ray LaMontagne to Florence and the Machine. And I love them all. 

But I do have to be intentional and thoughtful about what sort of emotional place they’ll take me to.  If I’m listening to angry music when I should be available to a friend who needs gentle, encouraging words, it’s the wrong music to be listening to.  If I’m listening to bouncy happy music in a moment I need to be more reserved, I’m entirely missing the point.  Music exists for us to enjoy, for us to connect to in the moments we need it most.  There’s just a lot of power there, and I hope I wield it well.  

I’m still learning. 

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