Thursday, February 18, 2021

Gilmore Girls Reboot: Life Lessons

 Warning: As with all my reviews, there are spoilers ahead.


A few months ago, there was a trending hashtag on Instagram and Facebook #3charactersthatdescribeme. I chose Kira Nirys (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), Barb (Stranger Things), and last but not least, Rory Gilmore from Gilmore Girls. I based this comparison of myself and Rory on two factors: Who Rory was in the original series (2000-2007) and who I was when I watched her. Years later, things... as they must... have changed.

The strengths of the mini-series are the same as they were in the original series: the charm of Stars Hollow, the relationship between and among Lorelai and Rory and Emily, and the cast of supporting characters. The death of Richard looms large (literally, thanks to a too-big painting in the parlor) and the absence of Edward Herrman is almost its own character. At least in my life span, Herrman always played wise paternal characters, even when it was all a charade to hide his bloodsucking ways. So his death was a genuine sadness in me, which made the funeral scene and Lorelai's inappropriate storytelling about him all the more real. We also see all our old favorites, including most if not all of Lorelai and Rory's respective exes (I will always hate Digger aka Jason. I don't care what anyone says). Paris and Michel provide the acerbic wit to counterbalance what would otherwise be a too-sweet show. And Kirk and Taylor show up because apparently someone, somewhere enjoys them.

Pop culture references abound, including some prolonged schtick about the book/movie Wild and how it inspired flocks of troubled women to go hiking to fix their problems. Because that's how it works, right? The seasonal segmentation of the series works well, because Rory is an adult now; in adulthood, life seems to come more in chunks than in episodes.

There were some low points to the show of course. Why did we need that 10-minute musical performance in the middle? Answer, we didn't. But more than anything the low point was the all-too-real existence of Rory. She with her filthy rich grandparents and her Ivy League education. Despite every benefit, she is drifting lost in her quest to be a writer, and not just any writer. A famous, New York, glitterati type of writer. It's not going well for her, despite a well-received piece in The New Yorker. Despite being, by definition, homeless, she doesn't make any new plans. She even goes so far to sneer at a job offer at her old prestigious prep school.

Rory is that college friend we all have. The really promising one you meet up for lunch with in your thirties and come away muttering under your breath, "Dude, get your shit together."

But beyond the general highs and lows of the storytelling, I found three overarching themes in the mini-series that, regardless of all else, made the endeavor well worth it.

A love note to commitment: Emily is hardly tactful when it comes to her opinions on how life should be, not just for herself, but for Lorelai and pretty much everyone else in the world. But she did have one thing right. She pointed out the foolish cowardice of Lorelai's "partnership" with Luke, the one in which she lived with him and loved him, but made no effort to truly bind their lives together, and certainly no commitment to him. Perhaps some may have bristled when Emily called Luke and Lorelai roommates, but she was right on the money. Emily focused on their not being married, but the lack of a ring was not the problem—Lorelai dictating the terms was. If you want me, she seems to have said, then you will stay at the distance I put you and never push for more. In keeping that control, Lorelai thought she was getting what she wanted and what she needed. Because she didn't want to be like her parents. Or perhaps she thought she could never have the bond her parents had. You can see why it would be intimidating—comparing your series of boyfriends to a fifty-year marriage. But in examining her choices, and (I think) really seeing Luke for the first time, she saw that committing to him, for real this time, was what she wanted and needed to do. It was her path to happiness and security. Our society preaches the gospel of freedom and no attachments from every pulpit. It was nice to see the strength of coupledom taking center stage in Stars Hollow.

An affirmation that our circumstances alone do not dictate our lives: When you look at how Rory's life is, well into her thirties, you would think she came from struggling circumstances. But no. Her fabulously wealthy grandparents paid for her to go to the aforementioned prestigious prep school. Then she went to Yale and graduated without loans, again thanks to Richard and Emily. As editor of the Yale Daily News, she also emerged with an impressive portfolio of work combined with influential contacts like her grandfather, his friends, as well as the Huntzbergers and their friends. But she is thoroughly lost and seems to have no tools at her disposal to right the ship.  Contrast that with where Lorelai was at 32. After walking away from her rich parents at 16 years old with a baby and no clear idea of where to go, Lorelai became a businesswoman. Though hardly destitute (Rory's father always contributed financially), Lorelai forged her own path—managing an inn before opening her own. Or Lane. Married young and having twins very shortly after her marriage, Lane works hard as a mom and her husband Zack supports them in a manager job. Then in the evenings, they still play at local hotspots with the band they founded. It's not glamorous, but it's a good life. Rory's exes Dean and Jess both came from less than stable families and not much money. Both are thriving. Where you start does not dictate where you finish.

and finally...

Money will blind you: Name one good thing about Logan Huntzberger. Specifically, one good quality he would still possess even if he were middle or lower class. Or even just generally wealthy. You can't do it, can you? Nope. Take away all those elaborate gifts and the stunts he and his stupid-rich friends pulled, take away his smug assurance that the world exists solely for him, and what do you have? An asshole working at Daddy's company who cheats on his fiance with his ex-girlfriend and manipulates people under the guise of being magnanimous. Seriously, Team Logan, what do you like about him that doesn't involve money? What does Rory like about him? That he calls her Ace and swoops in when she's in trouble? That he treats his side-piece nicely? Lorelai knew perfectly well how money can trap you in a golden cage and she tunneled her way out. One can only hope Rory will make that same discovery and be the one who will make her a priority in his life. That's right, I'm Team Jess all the way.

Any fan of the original Gilmore Girls will enjoy watching the new miniseries, there is just no way to not enjoy it. I have every confidence that everyone will take away their own lessons from the show, but these were mine.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Writing Real Life, Not the TV Version

 "We were the first human beings who would never see anything for the first time. We stare at the wonders of the world, dull-eyed, underwhelmed. Mona Lisa, the Pyramids, the Empire State Building. Jungle animals on attack, ancient icebergs collapsing, volcanoes erupting. I can't recall a single amazing thing I have seen firsthand that I didn't immediately reference to a movie or TV show... I don't know that we are actually human at this point, those of us who grew up with TV and movies and now the Internet. If we are betrayed, we know the words to say; when a loved one dies, we know the words to say. If we want to play the stud or the smart-ass or the fool, we know the words to say. We are all working from the same dog-eared script." 

-Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl 


Performing good research is the backbone of any writing project, no matter the genre. But for those of us who write fiction, particularly those of us in the Spec Fic realm, our research is usually indirect. We read articles, we watch documentaries or other works of fiction about our chosen subject. We do our legwork, we write our scene, then we present our draft to our writing group, hoping to be lauded not only for our prose but also for how real it seems. But what exactly is real? 

I remember two different times I received very strong (almost aggressive) pushback on the realness of my writing. The first involved Isabella, the protagonist of my current writing project. In one of her early scenes, she is punched in the face—the eye specifically—by a man. 

After reading the scene, one of my reviewers asked, “Why do you say she has blood coming out of her nose? He didn’t hit her in the nose.” 

“Oh, that happens sometimes,” I assured her. “If you’re hit in the face, sometimes the fragile blood vessels in your nose can burst, even if you weren’t hit in the nose.” She looked at me with an expression between disdain and disbelief, so I proceeded with what I thought would be the deal-closer. “I know because it happened to me. The EMT who treated me called it sympathy bleeding.” 

Despite my assurance of the medical reality of a bloodied yet unstruck nose, she was unpersuaded.“Yeah, but it still seems like bullshit. I recommend changing it.” 

The other incident got far uglier. In a piece of flash fiction, my first-person narrator mechanically recounts the activities of her day. Reading between the lines, we understand that the previous night she had been raped by her coworker. To be honest, it wasn’t my best work. As loquacious as I am, Flash fiction isn’t my strong suit. But the way my narrator behaved was lifted straight from a friend of mine from my military days. She was attacked on a Sunday evening. And Monday morning she was at work, her uniform starched and pressed, quietly and casually ignoring the coworker who had raped her. It was real. I just wrote it down. 

But a classmate in my fiction class bristled at my piece. “This isn’t real. Victims don’t act like this. I know what PTSD looks like, and this isn’t it.” 

I explained that this girl doesn’t see herself as a victim. I even pointed out the parts of the text that signal her state of mind to the reader. My instructor seemed to agree that my intent was clear. But the classmate persisted. 

“Women do not just get over it when they are violated. I think that’s just something rape apologists like to tell themselves.” 

It’s possible that her conviction and vitriol came from her own personal experience, but more likely it came from the commonly accepted tropes of what a victim is and how a victim behaves. Deviations from those tropes tend to invite suspicion. We know how innocent people behave and how guilty people behave. Not because we’re cops or lawyers or even keen observers of the human condition. 

We know because we’ve seen it on Law and Order… over and over and over again. In Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn used this predilection perfectly with her character Nick. To avoid giving spoilers, I’ll just say that one of the reasons he had such a hard time with the cops was that he just didn’t “act innocent.” He acted the way the television audience associates with guilt. As he stated above, we’re all working from the same dog-eared script. 

So the question becomes: do you write what is "real?" Or do you write what is real? And how do you do that kind of research without sinking into the aforementioned depression that so plagues the writer population? How do you tell the truth in your writing? And whose truth are you telling? 

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Memoirs: A Potential Minefield


 Sally Field recently said in an interview that she was relieved her former partner Burt Reynolds had passed away prior to her memoir coming out because "It would have hurt him." It was one of those stories where I read the headline and dropped down immediately to the comments. Predictably, there were two camps: the Anne Lamott camp, who said, "Girl, that story is yours. Tell your truth." And then there were those I agreed with, who I will dub the reasonable and responsible camp.  We were the ones scratching our heads saying, "If you didn't want him to read it, why did you write it?"

Memoirs are a tricky thing, which is why I will never write one. Never. Not when I'm old. Not even when all of my relatives are dead. Despite my staunch fixation on fiction, I sure do have some strong opinions on memoirs, which largely comes from my work as an editor. I've been working as a professional editor since 2008 and in that time, I've edited A LOT of memoirs. I can count on one hand how many of them were good. But I can count on two hands the number of times lawyers have sent discovery requests to my contracting company for divorce and/or custody proceedings. It turns out that speaking "your truth" has consequences.

In her wonderful book, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott gives advice to aspiring memoirists. She counsels bravery in telling their stories and fudging some identifying details to avoid libel suits. Her favorite piece of advice is to describe the offending person as having a small penis, as no one would want to cop to that in legal documents. Most of all, Lamott says that these are "their stories" and they shouldn't care if people are mad about them. If the people in question don't like the laundry being aired, they should have behaved better.

But it's not always that easy, is it? Because here's the thing about telling "your truth" and "your story." It's incomplete. It has to be. Even in cases of abuse, there can be unintended consequences for telling everyone about it, and I don't mean for the abuser. Traci Lords wrote her memoirs and the abuse she suffered as a teen is pretty cut and dried. I don't think anyone feels sorry for her perv stepdad who paved the way for her notoriety as an underage porn star.

But it can get murky in other parental relationships. Commentator Larry Elder often tells a story about his father from whom he was estranged for many years. Hearing it from his point of view would cause anyone to nod in agreement. Damn right, Larry. You cut that toxic person out of your life. Who needs a father who screams at you, who shows no interest in who you are? Not me. And not Larry Elder either.

But then Larry spoke to his father as a grown man, after years of not speaking to him or seeing him. Hearing that his father worked twelve-hour days with people who screamed racial slurs at him and all the sacrifices he made for his children changed Larry's opinion. He was able to look back on his memories from an adult perspective, rather than a child's. It changed his life. It changed how he saw his father and himself.

Now, what if Larry had written a tell-all book about his "abusive" father without bothering to hear his father's side of it? You think that rift would've healed after publicly humiliating his father? Maybe. But probably not. Because contrary to the common refrain, "speaking your truth" in and of itself doesn't actually fix anything. It doesn't raise awareness. It doesn't bring healing to others.

That comes from doing the hard work of a writer. It comes from speaking to other people who were there at the time, preferably people who were adults when it happened. What was going on in the world? How did it affect your little corner of it? These people you're writing about, will they be hurt by what you've written? Do they deserve to be?

A good way to tell if you're making the right choice in your writing is how you plan to publish your work. If you find yourself debating whether to change all the names and places and call this true story fiction to avoid owning your story... that means you have more work to do. Before publishing it anyway. Writing the memoir may be very therapeutic, letting you get your demons out. But publishing it is a horse of a different color. If you haven't done your research or taken the time to be at peace with yourself and your message, you may make a mess. But then again, even if you have all your ducks in a row, you might make a mess anyway.

The important thing is to know that if you're going to make a mess, stand by your mess. Will public accolades and best-seller status be worth torching relationships, ones you didn't anticipate would suffer? If the answer is yes, then by all means, publish that tell-all. But be very careful. Words have power. Underestimate them at your peril.