The Experiences That Have Shaped Me As a Writer

a college essay from 2007…

When I reflect on the experiences that have shaped me as a writer, my earliest memory is in the fifth grade. My fifth grade English and literature teacher introduced me to the broad and unrestricted world of creative writing. It was a world that had many similarities to another world with which I was familiar—the world of art. Although I was unaware of the similarities between art and writing at the time, I can say now that I was drawn to both of these because they provided an opportunity to be creative. Before I even picked up a pencil and began to write, I always enjoyed drawing, sewing, painting, pottery, and origami. Yet, my perfectionist personality never fared well in the art room. I was convinced that true artists— painters and sculptors—never made mistakes. After all, paint brushes did not have erasers. But writing was different; with writing, I could revise.

Discovering the world of writing finally gave me, a self-proclaimed loner and introvert, the creative outlet that I needed. All my alone time—all the time spent thinking—added up and resulted in more words and ideas than my mind could handle. Even the times when I was with friends, I found myself drifting off into another world. “Are you even listening to me?” my best friend Allison would ask. “No, sorry.” I wasn’t listening. The words in my head were much louder than hers. So instead of keeping them all locked up inside my head or losing them altogether, I wrote them down. Sometimes I wrote letters to my friends, letters that I would never have them read. Sometimes I would write a poem simply because a rhyming couplet popped into my head. Other times I would play out a series of random scenarios between two or more characters. And the more I wrote, the more the scenarios would come to life in my imagination. I came to realize that I actually wanted to see them play out in front of me, and I wanted other people to see it too.

We’ve all heard the question, probably more than once. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” In the fifth grade I thought I wanted to be an architect. It involved drawing. I thought it was right up my alley. But when my mother told me that it involved using rulers as well I quickly changed my mind. In the seventh grade, I thought I wanted to be a broadcast journalist; however, I soon discovered that I had a fear of speaking, both in public and in front of the camera. It was not until my sophomore year of high school when I realized that I wanted to write screenplays. For years I had had numerous worlds and universes existing inside my head. People with names—people I had never met— were living their lives in my imagination. I think, in many ways, I was trying to live vicariously through them. My life was boring. I spent my Friday and Saturday nights watching movies from the local video store. And I guess that’s when it came to me. I wanted to write movies.

It wasn’t until I learned I had to have back surgery halfway through my sophomore year that I finally took the time to start drafting my first feature length film. Prior to that, I spent most of my time outside of school playing tennis. But as a result of my impending surgery, my doctor ordered that I stop all physical activity. My boring life became even more boring. Any hope I had had of winning a state doubles title was now crushed, and I suddenly had all the time in the world to think and to write.

I vividly recall beginning to write my very first screenplay while I was up north with several girls from the varsity tennis team. As they skied, I sat in the lodge with my bad back and began to write my first of many failed attempts at a screenplay. I was writing with pencil in a thick blue journal with unlined pages. I started with an outline of characters that I had written on a piece of loose leaf during math class. This was the only portion of a screenplay I ever wrote out by hand. Upon returning home from the up north excursion I transferred all the dialogue onto the home computer. Then after writing some sixty pages, my mind began to wander. I was not happy with my work. If it had been a drawing, I would have ripped it up and thrown it in the trash. Instead I right clicked the mouse and selected delete. “Are you sure you want to send ‘Script – The Staff’ to the recycle bin?” “Yes.” It appeared as though my perfectionism was still wreaking havoc on my creative endeavors. I made several more unsatisfying attempts to write a screenplay after my initial effort. For some reason, I was never proud of a single thing I wrote. Sometimes I couldn’t think of a worthwhile ending. Other times I just felt like I was stealing ideas from other movies I had seen. I was plagued with a lack of originality.

I can now say that what started as very amateur and immature work evolved into fictitious worlds that reflected my complex emotions and personal ideologies. Rather than recreate something I had already seen or heard, I decided to recreate myself through the characters in my screenplays. Although I have yet to finish a single screenplay, I am proud to say that there are five very promising “works in progress” saved on my laptop. In addition to that, I have about a hundred new ideas running through my head daily. I’m not sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing. At times, I think too many ideas can create too many distractions. But there is no way to stop ideas; they just appear.

I thought that having the ability to revise would benefit my perfectionist personality. Instead of ripping up the paper and starting all over again, I could just change the parts I didn’t like, and no one would be the wiser. But in many ways, revision leaves me drowning in an endless array of possibilities. How will I ever finish something when it can have an infinite number of endings? How can I finish something if revision gives me the ability to constantly improve it? I am unable to answer these questions largely because every unfinished screenplay I’ve written is a question in itself. What’s going to happen? How’s it going to end? Well, I’m not quite sure.

Ultimately, the decisions I have to make as a writer are going to determine what becomes of my screenplays. Just as a painter has to decide when his painting is finished and just as a sculptor has to decide what clay to leave and what clay to take away, I have to decide what’s good, what’s bad, and what’s complete. I’m still a perfectionist. Even outside the art room, I cannot escape it. But I refuse to be done with my writing until I am completely happy with it. I refuse to show my work to other people and let them criticize it when I still have this nagging feeling inside my brain that says “I can do better.” I used to think that I wrote for other people’s approval, but the only approval I really seek is my own.

I have come to understand that a writer is no different than an artist. The ultimate goal—creating something completely original—resides over both professions. After all, Hamlet is no less of a masterpiece than the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or the statue of David. Although I hardly compare to Michelangelo, my craft bears similarities to his. Instead of a canvas on an easel, I have a word document on a computer screen. Instead of my hand guiding the paint brush, my fingers type the letters. I do not sculpt with clay or marble; I sculpt with words.

The best essay about film I’ve ever written…

From 2005…

Violence, Greed, and American Hypocrisy

An Analysis of David O. Russell’s Three Kings

When a film combines aspects of several different genres, the outcome can be disastrous and disjointed, or it can be original and thought-provoking. In Three Kings, director David O. Russell successfully combines elements of comedy, action, drama, and war genres to create a film that is both meaningful and imaginative. Three Kings reveals how political and cultural differences affect humanity and people’s ability to understand one another. The film attempts to alter people’s perceptions and assumptions by allowing them to see violence and war from another perspective. Utilizing various formalistic techniques, David O. Russell changes the way a typical war film would both look and feel to create a film that is thematically complex and visually stimulating.

Throughout the course of the film, Russell introduces highly stylized filming techniques which draw attention to themselves and the scenes in which they appear. Before the film even begins, the audience is presented with a disclaimer which states “[t]he makers of Three Kings used visual distortion and unusual colors in some scenes of this film. They intentionally used these unconventional techniques to enhance the emotional intensity of the story line” (Three Kings). Russell wants to make his audience perfectly aware that they are about to see a film that utilizes experimental techniques.

As Three Kings opens, the mise en scène is plain with a dried up lakebed stretching for miles against an opposing blue sky. The de-saturated color of the film creates a world that is washed out and dilapidated. From scene to scene, the editing shows significant contrast depending on the setting and nature of the scene. Russell is constantly testing his audience’s emotions. After an initial display of violence towards a lone Iraqi soldier, the film turns in a completely different direction and cuts to celebratory American soldiers singing “I’m proud to be an American.” The audience is then introduced to Major Archie Gates who cynically says, “I don’t even know what we did here.” As he stands in the foreground, a helicopter lifts off the ground in slow motion literally leaving Gates in the dust. At this point in the film, Russell utilizes slow motion to capture Major Gates’s feelings of detachment and frustration.

Unlike typical war and actions films, Three Kings takes an unconventional approach to violence and has considerably less violence in the beginning of the film. Instead, Russell chooses to “re-sensitize” his audience drawing attention to every explosion and every bullet fired (Three Kings, Commentary 2000). Each display of violence is purposely exaggerated to make an impact. Russell’s usage of sound, special effects, and camera movement are directly related to the violence being presented.

The sound of the guns firing is noticeably more natural and hushed leaving the audience with an unfamiliar and unsettling feeling. When Russell uses special effects to show the internal effects of a bullet wound, the audience is left with the lasting image of a bullet ripping through the stomach and gallbladder of Troy Barlow. Another memorable scene takes place at the bunker when the woman is shot in the head and is shown falling to the ground in slow motion. This is a major turning point in the film in which the four American soldiers must decide if they should help the Iraqi people or run off with the Kuwaiti gold. The gun fire that follows involves distinct and strategic editing as Russell utilizes slow motion tracking and a zoom lens (Three Kings, Commentary). The camera follows each bullet as it leaves its gun and shows who each shot intends to hit. Russell does not simply use random chaotic gun fire, but rather he chooses to show every aspect of this violent chain of events.

As chaos ensues, time suspends for a moment as Gates and Chief are each shown from a low angel “power shot” perspective with superimposed clouds passing overhead. At this moment in the film, everything has changed, and Gates and Chief have taken on a more powerful position. The ceasefire has been broken, and stealing the gold is not quite as simple as they thought it would be. From this point on, the violence in the film is more overt and much more typical of an action or war film. The violence and action that follows, however, add to the story as opposed to taking attention away from it.

Russell’s narrative style is distinct and creative. Because he is able to convincingly combine elements of action and comedy, Russell easily makes fun of the violence at times. Aside from the Iraqi soldier’s head flying three feet into the air and the exploding cow, Russell even has Conrad complaining of a splinter in the middle of the film’s most violent and intense action sequence. Russell’s ability to intertwine dramatic and lighthearted subject matter allows him to present subversive opinions without appearing too forceful. He merely asks his audience to consider whether the violence or the war itself is actually accomplishing anything.

Although violence is widespread throughout the film, it is not a fundamental theme on which the film relies. Violence is, however, very closely associated with the themes of American hypocrisy and greed. When the Iraqi soldier is interrogating Troy, he asks him about Michael Jackson and says that the United States “makes the black man hate himself.” When the soldier asks Troy if the United States intends to help the people in Iraq, Troy responds with the truth. But when asked about the reasons behind the war, Troy’s response is hypocritical. The Iraqi soldier then forces a CD case into Troy’s mouth attempting to pour oil down his throat. This key shot in the film speaks volumes about the reasons behind the war. This shot criticizes the United States for its greed and need for “stability.” It emphasizes the United States’ obsession with consumerism and capitalism, and it ridicules the Unites States for being so self-interested. The irony of this scene is that greed is what put Troy into this position in the first place. Greed is what originally motivates the American soldiers to go on their quest for the Kuwaiti gold. The shot of Troy being drowned with oil not only represents the reasons and the politics behind the war, but it also shows the hostility that exists between the soldiers and the cultural differences that divide them.

From the beginning of the film, cultural differences are extremely obvious. There is not only a language barrier but a complete disregard for the Arab people. Although war itself tends to completely disregard humanity, the American soldiers treat the Arabs with no respect. Racial slurs like “towel head” and “camel jockey” pour out of the American soldiers’ mouths along with other degrading comments. To the American soldiers, the Iraqi soldiers and civilians are not people. The American soldiers cannot relate to them or understand what they must live through every day. Many of the Iraqi rebels originally look to American soldiers for help, but the four American soldiers are still only concerned about the gold. Major Gates explains that necessity is the most important thing in life, “as in people do what is most necessary to them at any given moment” (Three Kings). This key line is Gates’s justification for taking the gold saying that no one will stop them because what is most necessary to Saddam’s army is to put down the uprising. But this same line eventually explains the four soldiers’ rationale when they must choose between either their own self-interest or the moral repercussions of leaving the Iraqi civilians to be slaughtered by Saddam’s army.

In an effort to forge an understanding between the American soldiers and the Iraqi civilians, Russell decides not to stereotype his Arab characters. Rather, he gives them dimension and a voice. In the cave after the tear gas has been shot off, the Arab people become human and real to the soldiers. They come to find out that Amir attended Bowling Green, and Conrad is fascinated with their holy shrines, so much so that he later asks to be taken to one when he is dying. At this point in the film, the American soldiers are experiencing vulnerability for the first time. Initially, the four American soldiers risk their lives for the Iraqi civilians, but the Iraqis save them in return.   And the racial tension that existed in the beginning of the film slowly starts to fade away.

Russell’s ability to resolve these complex issues without being blatantly preachy is the reason his film is so moving. With such strong themes, Three Kings is plot driven and does not rely on its characters as much as another film might; however, each of the main characters changes dramatically through the course of the film. In the beginning, the character of Major Gates is both disconnected and apathetic. He feels as though the war accomplished nothing. But in helping the Iraqi civilians cross over into Iran, he can leave his military career knowing that he made a difference in those people’s lives. When Troy is first introduced, he is ignorant, cocky, and hypocritical. He is perhaps the greediest in that even after Gates decides they should help the Iraqi civilians, Troy still thinks only of the gold. After being held captive in the bunker, however, he sees the war from another perspective. He recognizes the similarities between himself and the Iraqi soldier who is torturing him, and when he is given the chance to kill that same soldier, he chooses not seek to revenge. Rather, he identifies with the Iraqi soldier and begins to understand the perverse effects of war. In developing this understanding between two soldiers fighting for different sides, Russell creates sympathy for both characters leaving his audience with feelings that are far from patriotic.

The character of Conrad starts out uneducated, offensive, and perhaps the most racist. His devotion to Troy is genuine, but his relationship with Chief is unstable throughout the film. Chief is somewhat condescending and has little respect for Conrad due to his lack of education. But eventually Chief is able to accept Conrad and forgive him for his ignorance.

Before Conrad dies, he asks to be taken to a shrine where his sins will be forgiven. Fearing that he is going to go to hell, Troy assures them that they did the right thing. When Conrad dies, he is still uneducated, but in a day, he has come to appreciate different aspects of the cultures that he spoke so negatively about.

In Three Kings, David O. Russell creates a world of confusion, comedy, and calamity using stunning visual elements and complex themes. He explores the ramifications of the Gulf War and creates a film that is still relevant today. His ability to alter his audience’s perceptions and show war from another perspective results in a compelling film. Instead of blatantly presenting an anti-war testament, Russell chooses instead to question certain aspects of war. In bringing attention to the corruption and hypocrisy that plague foreign policy, Russell emphasizes that the struggle for freedom and power is never-ending and will continue to hamper the world’s civilizations and societies until peace and equality truly exist.

Why I hate to read but love to write…

I have a Bachelor’s Degree in English. I taught ninth and eleventh grade English for six years. I always told my students, the ones that hated to read, that I completely understood how they felt. For me, I never liked reading growing up. I could never really figure out why. When I was really young I read the Madeline books and The Berenstain Bears, but those had pictures. As soon as the visual element of reading was taken away, I lost interest. I didn’t stop reading entirely, of course.  Magazines were okay. The Guinness Book of World Records piqued my interest. But when it came to fiction, you would never find me reading it. The weirdest, most backwards part about this is that I LOVE FICTION. I love stories. I love make believe. I love fantasy. But only when I see it… on a screen or in my head.

Going through school, I was always complimented or rewarded with A’s for my writing ability. In middle school and high school, I knew how to write a mean essay. The funny things is, I had to write a lot of essays on books I never actually read. Huck Finn? Couldn’t stand it. The Scarlet Letter? Too many big words. Jane Eyre? Even more big words. The Grapes of Wrath? Seriously, have you seen how thick that book is?! But the worst grade I ever earned in an English class was a B+, which is pretty ridiculous if you think about it. I didn’t read ANY of those books. Even The Great Gatsby, which is arguably my favorite book now, didn’t interest me in high school. Of Mice and Men and Catcher in the Rye are the only books I can admit to reading, but even Catcher in the Rye was completely over my head. The only reason I kept reading was because I just knew Jane Gallagher would show up eventually, wouldn’t she?! I just didn’t get it.

I recognize I’m the worst English teacher ever when I say this, but when I was in high school, I didn’t want to waste my time reading. I found no reward, no satisfaction getting from page 1 to page 300. I hated math homework, but it required a finished product, pencil to paper. No one likes writing essays, but I did it. And I was good at it too. I didn’t read because there was nothing tangible to produce. Sure, I failed a sufficient amount of reading quizzes, but those never affected my grade enough to motivate me to read. I sure as hell wasn’t motivated to read for the sake of reading. I was motivated by grades though. So if I knew not reading would severely affect my grade, guess what I did? … Bup da da dahhh… SparkNotes to the rescue!

Okay. So I lied a little bit. I don’t HATE to read, but I still don’t read as much as I should, especially fiction. For every novel I read, I probably read a thousand wikipedia pages. When it comes down to it, I think it’s about commitment. Committing to finish a novel takes hours, days, sometimes weeks. A wikipedia page usually take between two and ten minutes. The wikipedia page I can do, the novel… not so much. It’s not that I CAN’T. It’s that I don’t want to. And why don’t I want to???

Because I love to write. Writing is tangible. With writing, I can produce a finished product. Unlike reading a book where I am simply flipping the pages of someone else’s story, when I write, I’m creating the pages of my story (and I’m not talking about an autobiography.) It makes sense that I actually liked Madeline and The Berenstein Bears growing up… because they were picture books. I could SEE the story. And when I write screenplays, I SEE the story, the film unfolding before my eyes. I hear my characters talking, and more often than not, the characters in my head are louder than the characters in the stories I read. Call it attention deficit, but I usually can’t commit to reading novels or fiction because my stories, the fiction playing out in my head, get in the way.

P.S. If this post was an essay, I’d get a really bad grade. My use of “you” and “a lot” would be unacceptable. And there really is no clear thesis here. I’m still getting used to all the freedom blogging provides. Forgive me.

If you wanna get to know me, look at my top 30…

“What’s your favorite movie?”

For me, that is an impossible question to answer. I don’t have ONE favorite movie. I don’t even have a TOP 10. I managed to put together a list of thirty films that are near and dear to my heart, but I know I’m still neglecting a few staples. So…judge away. If you really want to know who I am and what I like, just look at my top 30. I would say “in no particular order” …but… I alphabetized them.

My Personal Top 30 Favorite Movies

  1. 500 Days of Summer
  2. Almost Famous
  3. American Beauty
  4. Blindness
  5. Closer
  6. Finding Nemo
  7. Forrest Gump
  8. Gladiator
  9. Go
  10. Inception
  11. Into the Wild
  12. Jerry Maguire
  13. Liar Liar
  14. Lord of the Rings Trilogy
  15. Love Actually
  16. Match Point
  17. Run Lola Run
  18. Seven
  19. Terminator 1,2,3,4
  20. The Departed
  21. The Goonies
  22. The Green Mile
  23. The Sandlot
  24. The Shawshank Redemption
  25. The Social Network
  26. The Truman Show
  27. Trainspotting
  28. V for Vendetta
  29. Y Tu Mama También
  30. X-Men 1,2, & Days of Future Past

P.S. I realize that including franchises and trilogies technically makes this list longer than thirty. Let’s not get technical.