Tuesday, November 10, 2015
Everything I needed to know about being a writer I learned from “A Christmas Story”
Its message is timeless, which is probably why the movie still enjoys a marathon 24-hour broadcast beginning every Christmas Eve. Of course, the take-away message for most viewers of “A Christmas Story” is something sweet about the preciousness of youth, the innocence of the past, or the importance of family and tradition (no matter how screwed up one or the other is.) But for me, the secret message of this film has always been about the writer’s life, as I suspect author and screenwriter Jean Shepherd might have intended. It’s skillfully and subtly accomplished, and he did it with only a few simple bits of narrative voiceover.
1. “Oh! The theme I've been waiting for all my life. Listen to this sentence: ‘A Red Ryder BB gun with a compass in the stock, and this thing which tells time.’ Poetry. Sheer poetry, Ralph! An A+!”
We’re all brilliant, in our own minds. And we’ve all experienced that bright flash of ego and self-impression, when we recognize one of our scribbles as having elevated the written word in a way no Shakespeare or Hemingway ever dreamed. The hyperbole of our inner dialogue knows no bounds, and our hubris bloats exponentially as we read over our versions of Ralphie’s “theme.” We imagine Ellen Datlow or Toni Weisskopf or Joe Quesada in the role of Miss Shields, swooning with ecstatic delight over our stories, swiping clean their desks of those other, “lesser,” manuscripts so as to better appreciate the shining brilliance of our prose.
It’s a most warm and fuzzy fantasy, and it keeps us motivated through the actual process of doing the work. Imagining the delight with which our story will be received is often enough to give us the courage to submit, to query, to pitch. Closing the document after its last revision--the one where it all comes together--what amplifies our satisfaction is the poetry of it all. The sheer poetry. A plus!
What I learned from Jean Shepherd’s screenplay is that Raphie’s fantasy is universal. We’ve all, and I do mean all, had that moment--the moment you crack yourself up reading your dialogue. Or you send chills down your own spine as you think of the monster in your novel. Or you believe you could actually change the world if you could just somehow get sent on the same quest you gave to your protagonist.
In this fantasy, you’ve made ART, darn it, and you wonder how you’ll ever manage to deal with the cross-county speaking tour, and the book signings, and all the publicity and paparazzi. You’re sighing contentedly right now, aren’t you? You aren’t alone. It’s a universal and utterly delightful fantasy, a fantasy that allows you to tell yourself, “Of course I want to be a writer!” A fantasy so lovely you want to rest your head against its shoulder and snuggle up in its warm and encouraging arms. Sigh…
2. “C+? Oh no, it CAN'T be!”
And then there’s the corresponding reality.
You’re never as brilliant as that fantasy wants you to imagine you are.
You have to read the letter or email again and again, and part of you thinks they accidentally sent it to the wrong writer. But no, there’s your name at the top. Your story title. Your purple prose didn’t impress anyone, and not only that, the rejection is a form letter that wasn’t even signed or personalized. No “Please feel free to submit again.” No “it’s not quite what we’re looking for, but what else do you have.” Just “Thanks but no thanks.”
Or maybe you did make the sale but you open up the document with your publisher’s first edits, only to find you can’t even see the words you typed for all the comments and requests for revisions they need, because clearly you have no idea how to plot an entire novel.
Now the fantasy morphs into Ellen Datlow in a Wicked Witch of the West costume, laughing maniacally and pointing at you. And your own mother is there too, and she’s telling you you’ll shoot your eye out and by the way you need to get off their couch and get a real job because this writing thing isn’t going to pay off your student loans or give her a grandchild.
3. “Oh, life is like that. Sometimes, at the height of our revelries, when our joy is at its zenith, when all is most right with the world, the most unthinkable disasters descend upon us.”
Rejection—in whatever form it takes—it’s painful, period. Whether it’s Thanks but no thanks, or Here are 485 comments and changes, and we need you to rewrite pretty much everything between your last name and ‘the end’—it hurts (if only the ego) the same.
Of course, a request for revision isn’t a rejection, and even rejection doesn’t equate to “poor quality,” but in the fantasy world you’ve set up, Christmas is ruined. The turkey is in pieces on the floor, the china is broken, there’s dog fur on everything, all the glue is used up, and you’re really, really hungry.
And now you have a choice to make.
Do you sweep up the remains of the kitchen and collapse in tears? Or do you pack up the family and announce, “We’re going out!”
Chinese turkey isn’t that bad, actually. And it leads you to understand one last, especially important thing:
4. “I slowly began to realize that I was not going to be destroyed.”
Too many of us forget this simple fact.
I only used a small sampling of Facebook friends, but based on my research, I have discovered that having a story rejected does not actually cause you to wither and die. Getting revision requests from your publishers can cause skin irritation and sometimes hives, but these are both treatable and tend to clear up by themselves once the book is in actually on the store shelf.
Rejection might actually mean Mom is on your side, covering for your behavior and trying to make sure you don’t embarrass yourself in print.
Daddy isn’t going to “kill” Ralphie.
You will survive this. And you will learn from it. The rejected story will get workshopped. You’ll fix the gaping plot holes in the novel. You’ll realize you had too many characters or not enough characters to actually care about. You may revise it; you may reject it yourself and start another one. But most importantly, you’ll survive to do it all over again. Because it’s what you do. It’s what you are. Nobody’s playing “Taps” in the backyard. What you hear is a typewriter.
You won’t be destroyed.
You’ll do it again. Better, even.
You’re a writer.