As my wife and I settled into our dollar-movie-theatre seats, I was pleased to recall that yet another sci-fi film had received glowing audience and critical acclaim. Minutes after it started, I realized the reviews don’t give a clue about how good, how intelligent, and how soul-stirring this movie is.
Yes, it’s entertaining, and yes, it breaks conventions. Some of the breaks worked for me. Making it a (mostly) silent movie transformed it into much more that a “scary” movie. And scary it is, with plenty of white-knuckle scenes as a rural family cowers from a blind but ruthless predator that locates and attacks its victims when they make the faintest sound. The scant dialogue revved up the power of the visual tension to nearly unbearable levels. (At one point, a lady a few seats behind me whispered to her husband that she couldn’t take any more, and scampered out of the theatre.) Some of the conventions it broke left me feeling a bit cheated and shocked. Think a tale about a loving family struggling to survive will end without any casualties? The movie breaks that one in the first scene.
So it’s a hard film to watch at times. But “A Quiet Place” is a masterpiece of cinematic storytelling. Also, it tackles some themes head on in ways I found deeply moving and agreeable. It’s a pro-natalist, pro-sociobiology adventure; both the mother and father courageously do what they must to preserve the family. Despite the danger and the sacrifice, the husband and wife decide to have another baby. (And remember – babies cry!) At one point, the mother asks her husband, “Who are we if we can’t protect our children?”
That’s the key question of our age – just as it is in any age.
Ursula Le Guin once told a class of aspiring writers, “We are the raw nerve of the universe. Our job is to go out and feel things for people, then to come back and tell them how it feels to be alive. Because they are numb. Because we have forgotten. We have forgotten our rituals. Our tribal practices. There is no more tribe. We don’t know how to tell our elders our dreams around the morning fire. There is no morning fire. We can’t receive insight from the mothers.”
That is the writer’s goal, to reawaken others to what it means to be human in an age that’s severed us from nature, memory, and connections. If we’re to tell others how it feels to be alive, we must first feel it ourselves. No doubt writers, like other artists, pursue their craft because they naturally notice details and patterns their friends often miss, and want to express their insights to others. But just as we constantly improve our craft, we must also hone our senses.
I’ve found that physical exercise, especially martial arts, is an effective way to sharpen the senses and unify mind and body. But if you’re unable to make it to the gym or dojo, there are alternatives. In 10 Tests, Exercises, and Games to Heighten Your Senses and Situational Awareness, Brett and Kate McKay offer some excellent resources to boost your powers of perception.
I was especially impressed by the McKays’ comments about the different roles of the senses in experiencing the world around us. Writers should be aware of how our senses inform us about our surroundings and arouse certain emotions. For example, while sight is vital, our sense of hearing is wired more directly to the primal areas of the brain, and therefore trigger emotional responses more directly and profoundly. Smell and taste stir both emotions and long-term memories — Marcel Proust’s madeleine episode from Swann’s Way is one famous literary example.
So when we translate our impressions of the world in our writing, we should take advantage of as many senses as possible to make our stories more realistic, believable, and enjoyable.
Writing in the New York Times, Margaret Renkl grapples with the nature and resilience of the Southern literary tradition. Not only does Southern literature claim such past greats as William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Eudora Welty, but modern-day Southern writers, such as Wendell Berry, Ron Rash, and Ann Patchett, who continue to build on that tradition. How can this be, Renkl asks, in a region that is undergoing such profound changes? Her conclusion is worth considering:
It has all made me wonder: What if being a Southern writer has nothing to do with rural tropes or lyrical prose or a lush landscape or humid heat so thick it’s hard to breathe? What if being a Southern writer is foremost a matter of growing up in a deeply troubled place and yet finding it somehow impossible to leave? Of seeing clearly the failings of home and nevertheless refusing to flee? … Maybe being a Southern writer is only a matter of loving a damaged and damaging place, of loving its flawed and beautiful people, so much that you have to stay there, observing and recording and believing, against all odds, that one day it will finally live up to the promise of its own good heart.
Much has been said about how art often arises from pain, something the South has known all too well. Sometimes, suffering can lead to insights not obvious to those who have evaded bad times. In addition to such recurring themes as the joys and anguish of family, history, and nature, Southern literature often questions the triumphalism and confidence in progress seen in the works of Northern writers. And yet, Southerners love their heroes, characters who press on despite the odds, as well as tales of glory and derring-do. Robert E. Howard’s stories are well-known for both their pessimism about progress and their celebration of courage in desperate situations.
I’d argue that the chief attraction of Southern writing is the genre’s celebration of the human ability to stagger to one’s feet after disaster and relish the beauty and mystery of life despite it all. As William Faulkner wrote in The Sound and The Fury, “Wonder. Go on and wonder.” Good advice.
“In order to be clear it is necessary to at least consider the possibility that we actually may not be. It requires stepping outside of one’s self, reading a sentence as if we were another person (not us) who didn’t understand, and even sort of admire the newly minted gold on the screen or the page. It requires a kind of humility, an ability not to take everything personally and to separate ourselves from our work. Clarity is not only a literary quality but a spiritual one, involving, as it does, compassion for the reader.” Francine Prose
My wife and I saw “Bright Star” yesterday. We loved it. You will too, and I’ll tell you why.
On the surface, it’s a typical musical, bustling with subplots about young love, the pains and joys of family relations, and Southern gothic melodrama, all peppered with timely comic relief. But it’s really about writing, editing, and language itself. Steve Martin (yes, that Steve Martin) wrote the book, and in addition to his accomplishments as an actor, director, and musician, is a gifted writer. He knows what it’s like to be rejected, to hang in there, and finally get that first manuscript published.
Billy Cane, just returned to Zebulon, North Carolina after serving in WWII, has a bad case of the writing bug. It’s so bad, he’s willing to leave his beloved home town and move to Asheville to endure the rigors of pleasing a demanding editor and her good cop/bad cop assistants. All writers will appreciate young Billy’s exchanges with his editor, who’s brutally honest with what she sees as a promising talent. At one point, she shoves a manuscript back at him as if it’s toxic, then lets another dangle in her fingers and says, “This may be acceptable if you delete 300 words.” Poor Billy scans a few pages, scratches his head, and replies, “Could you tell me WHICH 300?”
There are many references to the Southern writing tradition. Steve Martin, who was born in Texas, knows a thing or two about language’s ability to uplift, to wound, and to connect with others, familiar and rich themes often explored in Southern literature. This musical is a celebration of faith in one’s family, in one’s ability to persevere, and to hope. If you get the chance, don’t miss this one. It’s a winner.