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Friday, August 1, 2008

Jessica Biel! Naked!

That's what a very, very successful blog-ebrity who is my mentor told me to do. Use celebrity names and the word "nude" or "naked" in my posts. Of course, here at the Rouge Wave, that's hard for me to do since we don't really talk about particularly gossipy or provocative topics here. Just boring stuff like how to write great stories. So I thought I'd just get that out of the way. No naked Jessica Biel here today guys, sorry. Really, today's post is a first person essay by none other than moi, the Wave-inatrix. It's long for the Rouge Wave- just over 1,200 words. But that is the usual length of a first person essay in the publishing world and that's what I'm used to. I don't talk too much, in specifics, about me or my past but today's entry does just that and of course, because I'm me, daughter of two teachers, I wrap up with some reflections for writers. This is me - on writing:


When I was but a mini, mini-W in swaddling clothing, my grandmother moved to Mexico and bought a beach front hotel on the west coast, a few miles down from Puerto Vallarta. Because my parents were school teachers and my grandmother was wealthy, we spent three months of each year during the summer, in Mexico at her hotel. Rather, at the fancy "big house" across the dusty street. She had remarried before I was born and my Abuelo was a Zapotec Indian, dark skinned and smiling. He never spoke English, only Spanish and Zapotec. Somehow, I understood him just fine. What's not to understand when you're playing Old Maid and building sand castles on the beach? I can still smell his fragrant pipe and taste the dark, waxy Mexican chocolate he snuck to us kids after dinner. Needless to say, I understand Spanish very well and can sing all the little Mexican folk songs sung to children. He used to walk us to the mercado after dinner when the evening was cool and buy us sugar cane. Gently, he peeled back the skin with is pocket knife and gave us our after dinner treats. The only English I recall him ever saying was this, after having handed us that sugar cane: Don't. Tell. Lita!

Being a child, it never seemed odd to me that my grandfather did not speak English and was about 50 shades darker than his freckly, redheaded grandchildren. I was about 7 when some kid cruelly pointed out that my Abuelo could not be my REAL grandfather. In disbelief, I took great umbrage and do to this day. Mom informed that yes, my granddad, that tall rancher originally from Illinois, now living in the Sacramento Valley, was my biological grandfather but that Abuelo was my grandfather too. Eventually, Abuelo died of cancer and he's buried with his family in Oaxaca. My grandmother lives on - she's 98 - and will be buried next to him someday.

During the long, hot, muggy summers in Mexico, we kids got our lunches packed each day by Antonio, the cook, and went about our business catching iguanas, ogling the hammer head sharks pulled up onto the sandy beach by the fishermen, terrorizing our nanny, Michi, and telling my younger sister terrifying stories of the Creature of the Black Lagoon, who would surely, one of these nights, arise from the nearby lagoon and strangle her in her sleep. Being a reader, I often spent time in the hotel library. It was one of those libraries where tourists would borrow and leave behind their summer paperbacks. My grandmother's hotel was a long term hotel; guests came from all over the world and stayed for weeks and months. So the library became very well stocked. I remember the books had a faint, musty, salty smell from having sat in the library only yards from the beach for years. There was the requisite bad stuff of course (which is why I have read all that crappy, airport fiction from the 70s) and a few leather-bound classics.

When we weren't in Mexico, we lived in a very rural town in Northern California where my dad, a Berkeley grad and book freak also had quite a library. He was into the classics. Treasure Island, The Three Musketeers, The Man in the Iron Mask, everything Steinbeck, everything Melville, everything Eugene O'Neill and so on. With one TV channel, an 8 acre ranch, no texting and no video games (unless you count Pong, and really, even then, not so fascinating) what was a kid to do? I read almost every book in my dad's library.

While in Mexico for yet another humid, mosquito-y summer, I pulled out a thick, leather bound volume of Grimm's Fairy Tales. My childish mind was blown away by the dark imagery and themes in that musty volume. And I LOVED IT. For me, having come of age when Disney was fully up and running and cranking out stuff like Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The Brothers Grimm were subversive and forbidden. Eager to keep reading, I found a volume of Hans Christian Andersen as well - Lita must have had a fairytale lovin' guest at some point. The stories that really stand out in my memory are The Little Match Girl and The Red Shoes - man! That's some dark stuff! Of course, my grubby little hands eventually got ahold of geniuses like Harold Robbins - man he was a hack, a delicious, awful hack. Mom found those books out and promptly removed them from my purview. Didn't stop me from reading Forever Amber under the bedsheets.

What's this all got to do with screenwriting? Nothing. And everything. Having consumed the number of books and later, movies that I have in my life, I am well armed to do my job - analyze stories. It has also been a huge boon for my own writing. Not that any of my own scripts have vestiges of Hans Christian Andersen, but the movable feast (yeah, read that too) of literature that I was exposed to as a kid inform my understanding and knowledge of archetypes and story to this day. I suppose my childhood was a bit unique, what with the Mexican childhood and all.

What I do find fascinating is that many writers I come across have not been exposed to the breadth of literature that I have and yet - the same archetypes can be found in their writing. They just don't realize it. Color me crazy but Jung's archetypal unconscious does seem to be alive and well.

You're either thinking, right now - Oh shit! Or - Me too! Is a screenwriter who was immersed in and exposed to the great parade of literature, good and bad, a better equipt screenwriter? Yes and no. There are plenty of screenwriters who have come from much less literary childhoods and yet tell incredible stories and do so brilliantly. In my line of business, however, it is a huge boon for me. Sometimes I point out to writers that they've got some kind of Moby Dick thing going on and they hadn't realized it. But once it's pointed out, they find a great source of inspiration and in some ways, confirmation - aha! My main character is Captain Ahab! Obsessed! Or sometimes I might point out that we have a Lord of the Flies situation brewing - aha! Anarchy! Chaos! Maybe the writer has unwittingly tapped into a little Steinbeck - social injustice! The common man! Ambiguous morality and gritty humanity set in the great hurly burly of early California!

Today's Rouge Wave is not about tut-tutting those of you who may not have been as Literarily Indoctrinated by this former rural dweller and life long book worm. It is actually more reflective in nature; it's an insight into who I am and how I got this way. But perhaps in reading today's post you will be inspired to go to the library and spend some time with classic books you may have overlooked. Literature, like humanity, is on a continuum. It doesn't mean that you can't jump in and enjoy Jeffrey Eugenides or Alice Sebold or anyone else. In some ways it's reassuring to see that we writers have always talked about the same stuff and we always will. If you write, you are part of this continuum. That's pretty cool.

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Anonymous said...

Hi Julie,

Nice read.

I'm moving into a new place and will convert one of the biggest room into a library.

The only collection I will buy will start with Hamlet and so on....

Ten four.

PJ McIlvaine said...

But I still wanna see Ted Levine butt naked!!

Anonymous said...

I'm not surprise at all that you have teacher blood in you. You remind me very much of my fifth grade teacher, who was inspiring, generous and funny. Who, before my mom or myself, discovered that I was nearsighted. Profoundly nearsighted. And that day she stayed right next to me, read off the blackboard so I could take notes without straining my eyes or getting up to walk up to the blackboard. She was amazing, as you are to my screenwriting.

Your Spanish background is really cool. Gabriel Garcia Marque is my favorite author of all time. I wish someday I could adapt One Hundred Years of Solitude and make it into a movie. Why hasn't anyone? And Jeffrey Eugenides. Would you love to see Middle Sex on the big screen?

Anonymous said...

You've managed to read the first 5 or 10 pages of 100 scripts?!!? How do you find the time!!???

Julie Gray said...

I love Marquez too! I especially love his short stories. I'm not sure if Middlesex would translate to the screen but it's only a matter of time before somebody tries! My grandmother graduated from Stanford and became a high school teacher before her adventures in Mexico, so the teaching gene runs deep in my bones, that's for sure!

And Anonymous number two:
I stay up really, really late and I work 7 days a week, that's how :)

Screenwriter aka No Mess said...

Michael Ealy's on my "must see naked" list.

Funny you should write a memoir just as I'm knee deep into Persepolis 2 (Marjane Satrapi). I can't put it down. Love memoirs. Cheers:)

dior74 said...

I second your advice to revisit (or visit for the first time) older works of literature. I just read The Great Gatsby and the writing blew me away. Such an inspiration (not to mention damn fine entertainment).