Technology and the Right to Create

Some of you might not know that I actually have two jobs. Well, three, if you count writing, but I have so much fun with it that I usually lump that in with the hobbies. Monday through Friday, I serve as the administrative assistant for the Department of Communication at a public liberal arts university. On Saturdays, I throw back to my own college days and work a shift at a fast food restaurant.

During my short time at the university, I’ve been privileged to witness students majoring in mass communication as they learn how to operate cameras and other equipment that will one day land them a job in television, filmmaking, or something else equally as exciting. It’s been truly eye-opening to see how much preparation, time, and effort is required for our on-campus newscast. Watching the students grow has prompted me to learn more about the industry when I have the opportunity.

So, when I returned home from a grueling shift at the fast food place on Saturday night and my husband urged me to watch the rest of a documentary the Keanu Reeves made about the transition from film to digital recording in Hollywood, I agreed.

There was a portion of the documentary where Keanu started asking these great, established cinematographers how they felt about the rise and prevalence of digital recording, while film by and large has diminished. Several of them were nostalgic about the experience of watching movies during their childhood, claiming that movies recorded on film were largely responsible for that special, magical quality. Some were pragmatic, saying that while they preferred film, they knew their preference was sentimental and that digital was a superior product. I could sympathize with these guys.

But there was another person whose response made my blood boil with rage for hours after the documentary credits rolled.

Somehow or another, the fact that digital media lends itself to amateur use–basically, that everyone who wants to  can make a movie now, with the right equipment–came up in Keanu’s discussion with one of the cinematographers. When asked how he felt about that, the guy said he hated digital media because now there were bad movies circulating about. Now, just anybody could do it. And, in his own words, without a “tastemaker” to decide which movies are good and which aren’t, society will lose its way and the art of cinema in its entirety will vanish into dust.

Bull. Just . . . bull.

This reminds me a lot of the publishing industry’s stance on the internet, and how it has enabled more people to participate in self-publishing. The medium are different, but the message is the same: there has to be a gatekeeper, a “tastemaker.” There has to be someone there to tell the public what is good and what is not. Every time I see some big industry professional write an open letter condemning all self-pubbers to deepest pit of the underworld bemoaning the fact that self-publishing is so prominent now, and oh for the good old days when everything was published the “right” way, it really and truly makes me want to hurl.

I know what you’re thinking–oh, Olivia, this only angers you because you yourself are a self-published author. Perhaps that’s true. I never really thought about this issue before I entered the world of authorship. But I think my argument here will transcend any conflicts of interest. I’ll let you be the judge.

Firstly, the assertion that bad books and movies are in circulation simply because of self-publishing and digital media is pure poppycock. I’ve read bad mainstream books, and I’ve watched bad mainstream movies. Not everything that comes prancing out the other end of a major company is worthy of artistic elevation. I won’t malign specific titles here, but I know that right now, in your own mind, you’ve come up with a list of your own examples.

Now, are there bad self-published books? Are there bad indie films?

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Lots of them. Probably more bad than good, to be honest. The internet is rife with short .99 eBooks that will make you wish you’d never learned to read, and I’m sure the same can be said for independent films. A keen sense of judgment is needed when navigating these choppy waters. But I find that discerning the quality of a book is the same, no matter how it came to be, is always accomplished by the same simple test.

I open it, and I read a few pages.

That’s it. I don’t look to see who published it. I don’t look up the author’s biography to see what degrees they have or how many titles they’ve written. I don’t check to see if it’s in Oprah’s Book Club or the New York Times Bestsellers List. I just open it, and I read a few pages. If it’s good, I’ll stick with it. If it’s not, I’ll put it back. It’s really quite that simple. There is no need for a publisher, or for that matter a production company, to step in and be a “tastemaker” on my behalf. I, along with everyone else in the human race, are able to figure out what we like just find without unsolicited assistance. We have the right to choose.

But even more important than that is this:

Human beings are creative creatures, by nature. It is our God-given birthright to shape the world around us with our thoughts and ideas. Whether we do that through manipulation of light or sound or natural resources or the written word is left to the individual, but at the end of the day, we are all of us artists.

Technology like digital recording, like the Internet, is a gift. It enables people who don’t have the money or the connections or the ability to pay an agent to participate in this basic human right. Everyone deserves the chance to share their art. Even if their art is churning out a new, slapped together eBook every other week. Even if their art isn’t that great. Even if their art is bad.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating that we all settle for being entertained by subpar writing and cinematography. If you don’t like something, by all means, don’t read it. Don’t watch it. Don’t buy it. But I love the fact that everyone has a choice now. Everyone has a chance to share something they’ve made with whomever they’d like. Everyone has a chance to accept or reject a new work based on their own preference and taste alone, and not that of a stranger working in a faraway office.

So to that man in the documentary whose name escapes me, please know this. You don’t get to decide whether other people create art or not. You don’t get to decide whether other people will enjoy it or not. You can only control your own creative outputs, what you are directly responsible for. Instead of feeling threatened by the possibility of someone young and innovative and penniless creating a film the masses will love, focus on making your work the best it can be. Better yet, seek out these emerging talents and take them under your wing. And if you come across an indie movie that is truly, truly terrible, you should do what the rest of us do already–stop watching it and move on to bigger and better things. 

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas

No, you didn’t read that wrong. Yes, it’s only the second week of January. Yes, my Christmas tree will shortly be on its way up to my attic. (I’m running a little behind schedule this year.) Yes, I’ve started ridding myself on the extra inches the holiday calories were gracious enough to give to me. But in the old head computer, as Tom Haverford might say, the holiday season is already upon us again.

If you’ve been following me on social media, you know that since late October, I have been working diligently on the third and final installment in the Bennett series, This Dread Road. What you might not know is that it’s not the only project I’m working on right now. I’m also preparing to write a Christmas-themed novella entitled ‘Tis the Season.

That’s right, for the first time ever, I am actively working on two projects at once. And I’m . . . wait for it . . . shooting to publish BOTH of them by the end of the year.

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Finishing and publishing two separate works in one year will definitely be a challenge, but I think it’s doable. After all, I’m a good 62,000 words into This Dread Road, and since ‘Tis the Season will not be a full-length novel, it will not take as much time and energy. I hope.

Stay tuned in the coming months for more information about these projects. I can’t wait to share more details!

In the meantime, if you have a blog and would like to help me with the release of either (or both) of these books, there’s a very easy way for you to do that! Check out information for the cover reveal blast and full release-week blog tours for both books here:

This Dread Road

‘Tis the Season

Just Do It: Living Without Fear

My husband and I usually sit down to an easy sitcom at the end of the day while we eat dinner, to unwind from the day and get in a little laugh before we have to do the not-so-fun things, like washing the dishes or cleaning the bathrooms. Lately, though, we’ve been on a Food Network kick.

We watched a season of The Next Food Network Star, which was fun. We laughed about Russell’s culinary sin revolution and Rodney’s incoherent babblings about pies, and salivated over Bobby Flay’s Ancho and Honey Glazed Salmon with Black Bean Sauce and Jalapeño Crema. Once it was finished, Netflix asked us if we wanted to watch Season 3 of Worst Cooks in America.

Why, yes. Yes, we did.

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If you’re not familiar with the show, here’s how it works: two chefs (this season, Anne Burrell and Bobby Flay) recruit some of the absolute worst cooks they could find and, after assessing their baseline skills, divide them into teams. The teams compete in various challenges during several intense weeks of culinary boot camp, and at the end of each week one person from each team is sent home. The last person remaining on each team cooks a three-course, restaurant quality meal for a panel of culinary rockstars, and whomever wins that challenge gets $25,000 and a full set of Food Network kitchen equipment.

The first few episodes are filled with jaw-dropping shenanigans. I found myself shouting at the television in frustration:

“What do you mean, you’ve never touched raw meat before? What a baby, I can’t believe she’s crying.”

“You can’t tell the difference between onion and fennel? Do you not have a nose?”

“How are these people alive? Seriously, how have they been feeding themselves?”

“ARE YOU REALLY GARNISHING WITH SAFFRON DO YOU KNOW HOW EXPENSIVE THAT IS OH MY GOSH.”

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As the series progresses, though, the cooks who were sent to audition for the show for things like vanilla fried chicken and cajun curry catfish start producing more elevated products. In less than three months, they are able to create food that would be at home in a fine dining restaurant. They are. . .well, they’re much better cooks than I am, at that point.

Last night, we started on a new season of the show, so we were back to the episodes filled with people who had no clue what they were doing. And I noticed something. Almost every single contestant was sabotaging themselves before they even knew what the challenge was. Before the clock had even begun to count down.

“This is too hard.”

“I can’t do this.”

“I’m stupid in the kitchen, there’s no way I’ll be able to. . .”

You know what I noticed? The people who keep perpetuating this attitude for more than one episode, the people who chose to react to the challenge by flipping out and just standing there hyperventilating instead of at least TRYING to get things done–they are the ones who get sent home. And it’s not because the challenge really was too hard. It’s not because they really couldn’t do it. It’s not because they really were stupid.

It’s called living in fear. I know a little bit about this, because it’s how I lived until about five years ago.

I have always been a good student. Most subjects came to me naturally, especially the humanities. Languages, history, theater, music–these are the things I excelled in without even having to try. Science and mathematics, on the other hand, were harder for me to grasp. If I ever received a B, it was in one of those classes.

Instead of just admitting that I needed to work a little bit more, though, I took the easy way out. I found that I liked chemistry all right and I understood it, so I ended up taking it two and a half years in high school.

When I came to college, I took chemistry again, along with introductory biology. I sat in the back of the classroom and usually didn’t pay attention. Like, really didn’t pay attention. A shameful amount of not-giving-a-crap. I made an A in both classes.

I had to take one math class, so I signed up for precalculus with trig–the same class I’d just taken in high school–because I knew I could make an A. I showed up to class regularly only so I wouldn’t miss a test or a quiz and propped myself up in the back corner, usually reading or doing homework for another class. Again, I made an A.

Not once did I stop to consider that maybe I wasn’t bad at math and science, they just were a little harder for me to connect with and I preferred other subjects. I just fell into to culturally acceptable narrative–“Math sucks!”–and never looked back.

I really regret that now. I wish I had pushed myself when I had the chance, when that full ride scholarship afforded me the opportunity. I wish I had taken physics and geology, both of which sound interesting and exciting now. I wish I had pushed myself into taking Calculus. I wish I had considered minoring in a hard science.

But I was too afraid. I was the girl who enjoyed writing and learning about history, the girl who actually liked conjugating verbs in Spanish. I didn’t think I could be anything more than that. I sold myself short, out of fear.

There were actually a lot of things back then I was afraid of learning. Budgeting. Paying bills. Driving a stick shift. Finishing a book and publishing it. Ironically, cooking. None of it was fun, all of it was terrifying, so I chose to stick my head in the sand. At one point, I was convinced I’d never get any of it down.

Then I met the man who is now my husband. There was a lot of kicking and screaming along the way–literally and figuratively–and to be honest, I really wonder why in the world he stuck with me as long as he did. But slowly and surely, he coaxed me into learning all the things I feared, and then some.

Then, I had no idea how much money I had, or how to use it. I overdrew my checking account more than once, and usually over a stupid, low dollar transaction. I never wanted to talk about money, because the topic made me defensive. Now, I habitually save my receipts and help log them in our spending spreadsheet. I check our online banking statement at least once a day to make sure I haven’t forgotten anything. Together, we have crafted a savings plan that we stick to. We have regular, level-headed family financial meetings that end with high-fives.

Then, I barely understood what a stick shift was. Each teaching session ended in tears, and most likely with him wondering what in the world he was going to do with this sloppy, emotional mess of a human being he’d decided to make his wife. Now, I drive a stick shift almost exclusively, and have since August 2014.

Then, I would look at all the books on my shelf and tell myself I was not capable of finishing anything of length or worth. Now, I’m well on my way to finishing my third novel for publication.

Then, the idea of touching raw meat made me want to die and I could only handle one dish at a time. Now, I cook all the time. Fancy things, even. Like this!

Right: Crust and cream cheese filling per Julia Child’s recipe, toppings my own. Fruit is nice, but chocolate and toffee are better. 🙂
Center: Steaks with Smoked Paprika Butter and Gnocchi with Primavera Vegetables. Christmas dinner, and also the first time I managed to cook a steak without completely murdering it.
Left: Salmon with bacon fig salsa and pan roasted herbed potatoes. The first time I’ve manned three saucepans at once without something burning. (If Chef Anne or Chef Bobby is reading this, I know I need to work on my knife cuts.)

Learning how to shed my fear, roll my sleeves up, and learn to do things, even–no, especially–if they were hard, has absolutely changed my life. I have never felt so confident, so capable, so in charge of my own life, as the moment when I realized I can learn how to do anything as long as I’m willing to work hard and listen to others with more experience.

Anne Burrell and Bobby Flay–and all the other chefs who have participated in Worst Cooks, past, present, and future–are doing much, much more than teaching their recruits how to cook. They are teaching them independence. They are helping them shed the shackles of willful ignorance. They are pushing them ever closer toward the borders of a fearless life. And for this, they deserve all the awards.

Do you have an unrealized dream, taunting you with its perceived impossibility? What is it? What do you want to do? What do you want to make? Stop thinking about it. Just do it. Just do it. Life is too short to stay safe and quiet on the sidelines.

I’ll let Joss Whedon take us on out.

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Jennifer Lawrence Two Ways, or: Surprised by Joy

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My husband and I rarely make it to the movie theater. Between both of us working six days a week (at least), my writing, and the ever-climbing ticket prices, it usually doesn’t seem worth the hassle.

This year, though, thanks to a surprisingly good number of options at the box office and the generosity of family members, we made it for quite a few films this year. Jurassic World. Ant Man. The Intern. The Martion. Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens. And, as luck would have it, we viewed two Jennifer Lawrence films–The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 and Joy–in less than twenty-four hours.

These movies couldn’t be more different, and neither could the respective heroines. That’s obvious, right? I mean, the one is set in a postapocalyptic dystopian wasteland hundreds of years in the future, while the other can be found smack dab in the middle of the decade of my childhood. The one is charged with the unrequested burden of saving the known world, while the other just wants to support herself. You can’t compare the two at all.

Except that you kind of can.


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I read The Hunger Games once, right before the first movie came out. Both of my roommates were big fans of the series, and over the course of a few snotty, hazy sick days, I managed to plow through all three books. I loved The Hunger Games and Catching Fire.

My venture into Mockingjay, however, culminated with me hurling my (borrowed) copy across my bedroom.

Nearly four years later, I stand by that decision.

*spoilers ahead–read at your own risk*

The conclusion to this bestselling YA series, which years after its last publication is still selling like hotcakes, is about as satisfying to me as the epilogue of Harry Potter and the Deathy Hallows, and for the same reason.*

*Don’t crucify me quite yet. I’ll delve into my qualms about Harry Potter–which overall, I absolutely adore–at a later date.

From the moment Effie plucks her sister’s name out of the bowl at the Reaping Ceremony at the very beginning, Katniss’s life becomes a series of trips to the gates of Hell and back.

She is forced to kill other children, lest she be killed herself. She helplessly watches on as Rue dies, and she spends days worrying that Peeta will slip away from her, too. She develops PTSD and receives no counseling.

Once she returns to Twelve, she lives in constant fear that President Snow will kill her, or worse, her family. She is forced into a fake relationship while her heart is elsewhere. She is forced into yet another round of the Games, where she watches even more friends meet their untimely ends.

She is ripped from her known reality and whisked away to Thirteen, where she is quickly made into Alma Coin’s puppet and put in the frustrating situation of being the face of the rebellion but having no power to do anything of substance. Her mental trauma goes untreated and seemingly unnoticed by everyone around her. She loses more friends, more family. She begins to suspect that the good guys are no better than the bad, only to have those suspicions confirmed.

And after it’s all said and done, after she helps topple a tyrannical dictatorship and prevent a new one from rising in its place, what does she do? She retreats alone to the same miserable, bombed out ghost town the government forced her to live in all those years. She ends up marrying Peeta because he makes his way back there, too. They have a couple of children. She still has nightmares about the Games, and probably always will, but at least they’re safe for now. Fade to black.

Um. . .excuse me?

The conclusion to Mockingjay differs so much from the two preceding books that it is almost physically jolting. The Hunger Games and Catching Fire both end on a note of triumph, of hope for the future. Mockingjay has nothing to offer but existential drudgery and despair.

The movie handled the story much better than the book did, but my hope that the tone would change was not fulfilled. I left the theater feeling beat down and depressed. Feeling like my investment in the series wasn’t worth it at all.

For what it’s worth, Jennifer Lawrence’s swan song performance as Katniss Everdeen was flawless. The raw emotion she lends to every character she plays brought a flat character to life and evoked empathy from me where the book could not. I cared about Movie Katniss, which makes the end of Mockingjay Part 2 even worse.


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Contrary to Mockingjay, I had no earthly idea what I was getting into with Joy. The trailer was deliciously ambiguous about the plot, which was refreshing and intruiging–these days, most trailers seem to contain spoilers galore. Even when I read a short synopsis of the movie, it didn’t sound all that great. But because I trust Jennifer Lawrence, Robert DeNiro, Bradley Cooper, and David O. Russell, I gave it a shot.

Man. Oh, man. Joy isn’t a movie. It’s a work of art.

Cinematographically speaking, it’s a beautiful, beautiful mess. In some ways, it reminded me of two other favorites, (500) Days of Summer and Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina.

Awkward camera angles. Theatrical staging. Stageshow-like dialogue. A very strange show-within-a-movie kind of thing. With an ordinary movie, I would have shrugged these techniques off and labelled the movie as haughty and unnecessarily artsy. But in Joy’s case, they only served to make the film stronger.

Joy is a modern feminist retelling of Cinderella. My husband pointed this out to me on the car ride back home on New Year’s Day. I responded to this by blinking slowly and stupidly before realizing of course it is. I’m still not quite sure how I missed it. (Perhaps he should be the one writing this blog.)

*Mild spoilers ahead–read at own risk*

Joy is the only grown-up in a world full of adolescent-minded people content to wallow in failure. Her parents aren’t dead, but they might as well be–her mother spends all day and all night tucked in bed, immersing herself in soap operas and ignoring reality, and her father slips effortlessly from one woman to the next. Her half-sister is snarky and judgmental. Her ex-husband loafs about in her basement two years after the divorce. Joy’s only supporter is her grandmother, who remembers her gift for creating and inventing and encourages her to pursue that aspect of herself. After a red wine fiasco with her father’s newest amor, Joy has a flash of inspiration: she won’t accept the expectation that she has to scrub on her hands and knees. Oh, no. She’s going to create a self-wringing mop.

What’s so beautiful about this movie is Joy’s refusal to succumb to her apparent destiny. All her life, her family drains her energy and hard work like a parasite. They practically beg her to join them in their pit of failure and despondancy. But she refuses, and through her own innovation, she pulls herself through. No prince required.

Joy is all about self-determination. It’s about taking control of your life, maybe even your destiny. It’s about confidence, hard work, and persistence trumping listlessness, laziness, and defeat. It’s about hope, and love, and. . .well. . .joy.


 

I’m convinced Jennifer Lawrence is the great actress of our times. When future generations look back at our era of cinema, she will be our Greta Garbo, our Audrey Hepburn, our Ingrid Bergman. In both her current movies, she proved once more that she is worthy of all the awards. She reached through the screen, twisted my heart, and made me wish I’d smuggled some tissues inside the theater.

The only difference is simple. Joy was worthy of her. Mockingjay was not.