Plumbers in Space

Since the Atlantic posted an interview with Stephen King regarding his thoughts on teaching writing, there have been a number of echoes on the web. I came across this one on LinkedIn in which the author notes that several of King’s musings from the book On Writing proved valuable even to the process of writing non-fiction pieces, although King is better known as a fiction writer. The author notes that King’s confidential style spoke to him as a person and helped boost his confidence as a writer. The last section of the blog post devoted to lessons gleaned from King deals with “what to write” and is worth reviewing if you are scratching your head over that very question. More than once, it assures you that whatever you want is fine, even if it’s “plumbers in space.” Seeing that advice reminded me of the Scottish Book Trust  creative writing master class series with Keith Gray on YouTube which includes a suggestion to try mixing up genres to create fresh material.

While you are waiting for the various disparate pieces of your ideas to fall into place, you can surely do worse than King’s classic advice to “read a lot.”

Mr. Darcy is All Wet

Admit it. I made you look.

The web has been fluttering with dewy-eyed nostalgia over Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy since this photo of the British actor Benedict Cumberbatch appeared, provoking comparisons with an infamous scene from Firth’s version of Pride and Prejudice. More than once, I have encountered swooning references to this scene (Mr. Darcy stripping off his outer clothing and swimming across a small pond) as one of the most momentous in all of British film. If you’ve never seen it, treat yourself on YouTube.

Personally, I do not have enough expertise in the subject of British cinema to comment on the relative importance of this one scene but I do have the experience of having read the book and, as many also point out, this scene does not occur in the book at all. The purpose of the scene in the film is likely to provide a way to convey to modern viewers a situation that is more subtle and time-appropriate in the book. Mr. Darcy, flustered at finding Elizabeth Bennett visiting his estate unexpectedly, loses enough of his artful self-composure to show her an unexpected vulnerability. I tend to side with the purists who think that the swim was unnecessary (try not to hate me) but I have no suggestion for how to have done it with more authenticity.

I do happen to think the same end was achieved much more neatly and deftly in another film that ironically (but not totally coincidentally) stared Colin Firth as a modern Mr. Darcy, i.e. Bridget Jones’ Diary. Towards the beginning of the film, there is a scene where the stuffy and rigid Mark Darcy is obliged by filial responsibility to show up at a party wearing the most unflattering and hideous sweater anyone ever owned. The moment Bridget sees him and passes judgement on him passes quickly but summarizes the first half of Pride and Prejudice all by itself and sets a firm stage for the rest of the action.

Finally, Mr. Firth getting wet is a motif that repeats itself in one of the better vignettes in the uneven collage-like film Love, Actually. His character in that segment, a writer trying to break his writer’s block on holiday in rural continental Europe, is interrupted and upended by a klutzy maid who can’t speak English. She manages to lose his manuscript in a pond and, to his further horror, goes in after it. He ends up being touched by her attempt to set the matter right and eventually his gratitude blossoms into love. Though predictable, this quiet little story is a joy to watch and a fine example of how it’s often the little gestures that build on each other to disarm and throw the characters off and set the action in higher gear.

Returning to Mr. Cumberbatch’s photo from the top of the post, it’s not a bad starting point for a story but, in the spirit of this post, it would be a meatier challenge to put it into the middle of a story by asking what vital piece of information is being communicated by this moment and what will result from it. My guess is a long sojourn with the dryer and a lecture from someone’s mother. One could start this game by coming up with a caption. For example: “Suddenly the police knew beyond a doubt who had been cutting across Mrs. Beebonnet’s property through her ornamental fish ponds to add details to the subversive graffiti on the old train trestle.” Or simply, “And with that, Jake realized that texting and driving really don’t mix.”

Armor is a Girl’s Best Friend

I don’t seriously follow comic books any more as I did in my teens but I did pick up (a little belatedly) on the news that the new Thor is a woman. I’ll stay out of the debate over whether this is a good idea in itself and won’t go anywhere with the recent media blitz implying (apparently in error) that new historical data shows up to half of Viking warriors were women. I’m more interested in registering my relief that the new Thor is properly attired for battle. Elsewhere, I have commented on the way some heroines have been left a bit under-prepared for doing serious business.

Here were my thoughts on the original Star Trek series: “I had forgotten about the jarring discord between the way women were dressed on the pilot (sensible pants and shirts) and how they were dressed on the regular show (tight mini-dresses with matching panties and what must be space-age super hose with black go-go boots).  The guests fared even worse, showing up in strips of cloth (and even fluff) that just barely strategically covered their nether regions, as this is apparently the way alien women would dress in the far-off future as imagined by male writers who have a lot of adolescent baggage left over. Every time I get a glimpse of Lt. Uhura’s bottom (pretty much every episode at least once) , I am struck by how undignified this looks.”

In the same post, I took the writers of Red Sonja to task: “(As a teen) I was a fan of the comic Red Sonja because there seemed so few strong women around but, there again, skin was an issue. For Red Sonja (and her peers), it was common to go into battle in a chain or scale mail bikini. This boggles the mind from a practical standpoint. Why leave all your important vital organs completely exposed but gird your naughty bits with metal? This would be like sending Conan, a contemporary and friend of Red Sonja, into battle wearing only a solid iron cod-piece attached to metal briefs (enjoy, gentlemen). Granted, he was often observed going into battle in an iron collar and cuffs and a cotton loincloth but at least there is not even a feeble attempt in that costume to affect protection (as supposedly he doesn’t need it). The coldish climate of northern Europe, where they supposedly lived or which inspired their world, would, I would think, make the ‘nothing but metal clothing’ approach prohibitive, leaving aside the issues of chafe and pinch (ouch and double ouch).” NOTE: Red Sonja underwent a sensible makeover at some point as I recall but can’t seem to pick up the trail of this change on the web and my comic books are all long gone.

I spared some praise for R.R. Martin’s writing in the same post: “When they (his characters) do dress in revealing clothing (Danerys springs to mind) it is done with a wider purpose (bamboozle your opponents like Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct). When his characters go into battle, they are not unprotected (think Brienne of Tarth in full armor) and don’t get strategically stripped of clothing (as does Amidala in the Star Wars franchise, losing the midsection of her uniform) or kidnapped and forced to wear a metal bra and brief loin cloth (Star Wars again, Amidala’s daughter in Return of the Jedi). There is also plenty of humiliation to go around clothing-wise for the male characters (the once white-cloaked Jamie gets grungy as a prisoner and his brother is made to wear silly circus-like garments). In sum, you can trust his characters to be properly dressed for the weather and the occasion.”

The point of the original rant (and this one) is that female characters, especially in science fiction and fantasy, are often dressed in ways that make less sense to their character and seem more about constantly assuring their gender is on display as much as possible. After the first shock of realizing what we have here, Thor as a woman is immediately (or should be) old news and we should get past that to ask the really important question: What can Thor do for me? If it’s shielding me from a bunch of well-armed bad guys, I hope for my sake she comes with loins properly girded.