If we must always aim for grandness, can we find it in simplicity?

I rewatched The Curious Case of Benjamin Button recently. I’ve seen the movie several times (probably more than necessary). It’s a beautiful film that tends to be relaxing rather than riveting. It’s touching and easy to watch and leaves me feeling good, usually. 

I like rewatching movies because I’ve come to appreciate the certainty of knowing what’s about to happen. I don’t have to get mired down in plot. I can enjoy the ride, kind of the way children do when they rewatch things. A lot can be said about our comfort in anticipating the familiar. But I also appreciate analyzing things, and it’s difficult to get at the layers the first time around. (I just rewatched Heat, having recently moved to DTLA, and WOW). 

So with CCBB, I appreciated the aging — or anti-aging — and that he was wise when he was young enough to put that wisdom into action. Isn’t that everyone’s dream? Both wisdom and youth? “Youth is the most beautiful thing in this world—and what a pity that it has to be wasted on children,” as attributed to George Bernard Shaw. 

This time around, it hit me that BB does very little with the gift he’s given. He joins a tugboat crew, sure. And he goes to war, sure. He even falls in love and is loved in return. But is all that enough? He reconciles with his birth father before the man’s death, but then he squanders his inheritance on frivolity. His father built his button factory from the ground up, but BB does nothing notable with it. He sells his father’s family home and buys a duplex, furnishes it with a sole mattress at first, and an ice box eventually. It’s charming, sure. But it’s also menial, I suppose. He doesn’t even give money to Queenie, from what we know. He does odd jobs around the estate to help out, but he doesn’t give her pause or ease with all his riches. He buys a boat and sails off into the sunset with Daisy. 

Yes, BB has a child, but even that doesn’t seem like something he desires or actively pursues. He doesn’t raise Caroline. And yes he leaves Daisy with plenty of money to do so, and she’s able to be independent and open a dance studio, but he doesn’t stick around long enough to pass on any wisdom — other than leaving his journal behind. When he goes off into the world, he does so with nothing but a cool motorbike and a few sundries in a rucksack. Maybe he takes some cash, but otherwise his globetrotting is framed in poverty and done with a bit of good ole getting-by.

So what’s my point?  

I felt cheated when I rewatched the movie. Or at least it gave me pause, and I thought about him not really doing anything with his life, especially when he was wise and young. His wisdom seemed wasted, I suppose, and I was disappointed in this subtle emptiness. It was only later, after giving it more thought and turning to the source material, I realized the profundity of it all. 

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story is different, and BB actually does quite a bit, from running the button factory to joining the Spanish-American War and becoming a decorated lieutenant colonel to enrolling in Harvard and playing football. It’s eventful, but also only about him. The character serves himself, leaving for the war when he gets bored at home with his aging wife, Hildegarde. 

By giving the film’s BB a relatively unremarkable life, David Fincher makes his character an everyman, an observer, someone who lives through and for others. So maybe he doesn’t become a button magnate and end poverty and save the world with his wealth. Maybe he just lives the life he’s been dealt instead, which isn’t something to diminish.

I wonder if that’s where BB’s grandness lies. In his ability to enjoy life’s simplicities, and to take it as it comes. He sends his daughter postcards from every place he visits, and birthday cards, and he shows up, to Daisy’s chagrin, to see her when she’s twelve. His gestures speak to his love, and they are grand in small ways. He leaves his mark. Not on everyone, but on some.

Maybe we should aim for that. Maybe our grandness is only tabulated at the end of our lives, when we count up all the little events, the small encounters, the daily experiences that evince we’ve done our best with what we’ve been given. You know, the mosaic we make of our life with all the mismatched buttons we collect and pocket along the way. 

Confidence comes with practice

LA Street Art (755 La Brea Ave.)

I’ve been thinking about debuts lately. I suppose mostly in relation to the book world. It’s hard to get away from thinking about career steps when I’m so involved in walking my own. Until recently, I always thought of a debut as something positive. It’s intended as such, I think. It’s about being at the start of something, or leading off with something. It’s derivative of the French verb débuter, which is to start. 

So we talk a lot about debuts in fiction when we refer to new authors. A *first* book is a debut. (I’m using ** here to make a point). I see plenty of reviews for debuts that remark on how stunning they are, praising a writer for her use of language, or craft, or imagination, etc. I understand why a reader is inclined to note these aspects, as well as gush at a writer’s ability to present them so readily in a debut. It’s got to be innate talent, right?

Fluff to that. Innate talent is one thing but with discipline and practice, the artist builds confidence. And making art requires a TON of confidence. It requires vulnerability, too, which can leave you raw and exposed. Without confidence in your ability, you run the risk of losing the magic everyone thinks you possess. (Psst, it isn’t magic. It’s skill). 

I’ve taught writing to college students for a few years now, all of them at varying levels of ability, but the one commonality is confidence. Most of them lack confidence in their ability to express their thoughts clearly, and that’s because they aren’t experienced enough with written expression. Over time, and with practice, they start to get there. I try to foster confidence in new writers more than I focus on teaching them where to put commas. I’d like to think I’ve had some results. At least, so I’ve heard from some of them.   

Take the actor who goes out on stage night after night, relying on some whimsical sensory experience to do the heavy lifting. Without technique, he’s doomed to fail. Try weeping every single evening, week after week, month after month, for an audience that may snicker, or cough, or check their phones. If you don’t know how to use breath to bring yourself into a sloppy fit of tears (assuming you’ve been directed to do so), you’re doomed the night you can’t stop thinking about the funny incident on the way to the theatre. So innate talent is one thing, technique is another. 

Same as anything else, a writer gets to her debut through a myriad of attempts because the only way to build the confidence required to write anything is to write again and again. It takes a long time, a boatload of trial, an ocean of failure. I don’t just mean multiple drafts for each manuscript. That’s something else altogether. I mean challenging yourself to begin again from scratch. To build a new world, create a fresh villain, plot an original story. Each time, you reset your mind and stretch the boundaries you’ve placed on language. You create to recreate to create. 

Fall in love with your current masterpiece. You kind of have to. Then let it go, and fall in love with the next one. Keep at it, day after day. Over time, you’ll reap the benefits of all your endings and finally reach your debut.     

Start again and again. Make your life poetry.

Street Art on the corner of Santa Monica Blvd. and N. Orange Dr. (artist unknown)

I believe, wholeheartedly, we are designed with an innate ability to endure change because we too are malleable. We change our direction, our minds, our feelings about the world all the time. We are fluid. We flow, filled with as much water as we are. Our capricious nature, our changeableness, our pliability are enviable, and the more flexible we can be, the better. The reed bends in the wind but doesn’t break like the oak. Plenty have heeded such wisdom. It’s admirable to be the oak at times, too. The trick is to know when to be which. 

The other morning, I went for a run. I like to let my mind go when I run. It’s the best form of relaxation for me, and it helps me think. I don’t decide what to think about. I don’t try to solve problems. I just breathe and the thoughts come. But the other morning I caught myself having a Proustian moment. A smell didn’t get me, though. Rather sound sent me back to the past. The birds were chirping in the trees with that lovely singsong that is the epitome of the here and now — being in the NOW. I’d imagine you can only ignore the sound with a solid effort. But when you don’t, it’s kind of undeniable. You can’t hear birds chirp — I mean, really hear them — without realizing you are an entity that lives and breathes and affects the world around you. It’s primal. You are alive. 

So it was that sound that took me back. I was twelve again, walking down a residential street about six miles from my home. It was early morning, and I had just gotten off the last of three public buses I would ride to get to my new school. I had recently transferred to finish out the school year there, so the route was short-term and the situation temporary. (Back in those days, parents didn’t drive kids to school.) And the distinct sound of the birds was comforting to me. They sounded happy. 

It was springtime then, so the morning air was Canadian crisp and the birds were garrulous in their shout-out to the world. It was fall the other morning when I took my run, so the air was So Cal stuffy, but the birds were still garrulous and happy and alive. The commonalities here are not really situational, and the settings are different, but that’s probably why the remembrance impacted me. It was revelatory because the associations are my own, stimulated by nothing but a primal sound. The birds are the catalyst for my lesson, the reason I could connect past to present and present to past, to see the change in me. 

I had transferred to that new school midway through the year because I had been bullied. Relentlessly. I was at the end, on the edge, ready to step off. Society wasn’t as hip to the damage constant fear of bullying can have on a young person. Options always seem limited. But then change comes and you survive and you overcome and get out on the other side because you cling to that innate ability, which is a form of resiliency.

I’m not sure if I ever acknowledged that toughness in me. It didn’t matter until I thought about it again, when the birds sent me back. I’m going through a rough patch now, too, for different reasons. But the past returned to remind me of that strength, that admirable quality we have to be the reed when we need to be and the oak at other times. We are malleable, we are agents of change, we are receptacles of hope. We can be twelve and alone and think we will live that way our whole life. But one day, we’ll be forty-six, and still going, and dreaming and fighting for the life we never thought possible. Time is the only marker in between, but it’s our construct so let it be just as pliable.

Why my pocket stones …

I suppose it’s a bit of an inside joke, calling my creative words pocket stones. Writing keeps me from loading my pockets and jumping into the void. It’s my armor against the outside world, the one I can’t control. And I enjoy the creative process. It suits me. I’m a gardener* and live to see my flowers grow.

But I also think fondly of engraved rocks, the kind you carry in your pocket to ward off worry. I see them as tokens of the doer-dreamer. A friend gave me two stones when I moved to New York City. Everything was magical then and laden with meaning, like those rocks. I lived on West 70th street and Columbus Avenue, and walked to Broadway every morning to get to class. I would stop on the corner and look down the busy street to see Times Square in the distance. I was sure I had been reborn. I survived the chrysalis and was transformed. My destiny was unfolding. Anything was possible. With sheer will, I could make everything I desired come to fruition. My potential was infinite.

Engraved with destiny and perseverance, the stones represent the two poles of my dream pursuit, as my friend explained. I couldn’t have one without the other. My destiny would only come about if I persevered, and I could only persevere if I was chasing my destiny. I would grow tired otherwise and give up. I liked the thought of this very much. I still think about it, twenty-two years later, as I pursue my current dreams. They have changed, of course. I no longer want the same things, but the life I’ve built suits me better. And so do my dreams.

I can’t say whether they’ll change again. But I know it’s possible. If I decide to give up on writing, I’ll know it’s not my destiny. I haven’t been writing stories since I could hold a pencil, and I wasn’t the kind of child with her nose in a book. I was often out on adventures, in my backyard, or at the park pool, or in the basement in front of the TV. I grew up in the eighties, with what seemed like unlimited freedom. But I also lived in my head. All. The. Time. When I think about that now, I realize I’ve been creating worlds out of nothing forever. That I enjoy writing fiction makes sense. And whether it’s my destiny to continue doesn’t matter. I’ll know if I never give it up.

* “The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don’t know how many branches it’s going to have, they find out as it grows.” – George R. R. Martin