Friday, February 26, 2010

Another Level of Hell, Dante?

It’s a question for the teachers of the ages: how do we captivate, enthrall, and intrigue our students with books written centuries ago? Do we sneak in Shakespeare through graphic novels ( Do we tell the Iliad – or a version of it – via Brad Pitt and Orlando Bloom? Or how about this new idea, do we introduce Dante’s nine circles of Hell as video game levels to beat?

Electronic Arts (EA), the video game maker of Madden NFL among others, has recently released Dante’s Inferno, based on Dante Alighieri’s first book of The Divine Comedy. To quote the game’s website, players can “battle through the 9 circles of Hell facing fierce and hideous monsters, [their] own sins, and a dark past of unforgivable war crimes.” What writer of the early 1300s could have seen this coming?

While I support the idea of bringing great literature to new fan-bases, I cannot help but fear poor Dante rolling in his grave. When his allegory of Christian afterlife shaped by the viewpoint of the medieval world, largely considered one of the greatest works of world literature, is reduced to the adventure plot for some fourteen year old maniacally pressing buttons and splattering digital blood, I’m saddened. If that fourteen year old is intrigued enough to pick up the book, I’d argue otherwise, but I’m not convinced this is the goal of EA.

Exciting stories should be shared. I don’t blame EA for that. I would have no issue with video game versions of Joyce’s Ulysses (don’t get lost in this sentence!) or Kafka’s Metamorphosis (survive as a bug!) as long as they don’t become synonymous with simply thrillers of another age. There’s so much substance that would be lost if they were thought of in this way; but I suppose being thought of at all is a start.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Ferdinand Magellan, Percy Harrison Fawcett, and Me

In centuries past, when the urge struck, great explorers would set off into the darkness. Taking on the depths of the jungles and the choppy waters of the oceans, these adventurers had an addiction to discovery that no fear of death could hinder. I’m starting a new novel, and the feeing that has come over me echoes the anticipation of a sailor staring out to sea.

I know the title, the premise, and one character of my new story. The rest is yet to be discovered, but it’s out there. I can feel it’s presence like Fawcett felt the ghost of the lost city of Z.

But how will the expedition go? Do we believe Winston Churchill, who said, “Writing a book is an adventure: it begins as an amusement, then it becomes a mistress, then a master, and finally a tyrant.”

Perhaps the labor of writing holds the root of Shakespeare’s phrase “love’s labors lost,” but perhaps also Dylan Thomas’s “Do not go gentle into that good night.” You may argue that these lines have nothing to do with writing, but I’d say they do.

This time, my adventure begins by examining my travel-mates. As I said, I have a solo character, ready to embark on this journey, but the trip will be a lonely one with just Juliska.

This week, she will find her companions. Huzzah and Tally Ho! The adventure begins once again.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Revolutionaries and Castles: Seeking my History

One of the most amazing aspects of human culture is the preservation of our history, not just in remembering our wars and our heroes, but also in the remembrance of our ancestors. The stories of my family were perhaps the first inspiration my young mind found to practice my ability to write and preserve an amazing tale.

In my home growing up, we set extra places at the table every Christmas for those family members no longer with us. I knew a bit of the stories – the war, the death, the terror, the immigration across an ocean, across a language, into a different way of life, this American life that is all I’ve ever known – but they were just that to me, stories. I couldn’t and still cannot grasp the magnitude of what my mother’s parents went through.

On the other side of my family, I know so much less. I know the arrival dates of two Czechoslovakian Spisak families at Ellis Island, and I’m fairly confident my ancestors were among them, though sadly any more specifics than that are lost to me.

I talk a lot on these blogs of the ever-changing world we live in, of social media, of Kindles and Sony e-readers, and of publishing trends; however there is something so substantial lost when all we focus on is the present. Ironically in these modern times, the Internet provides us with peeks at our past, even for those of us who are naively guessing.

This morning online, I read histories of the Anti-Bolshevik Bloc of Nations and the fight for Ukrainian Independence that my maternal family spent their lives pursuing. I read the names I’d heard in family stories and saw their young pictures, all posted online for the world and their long lost family members to see.

This afternoon, I stumbled across sites in Czechoslovakian seeking out English translations, hunting out any lost family history that may be out there waiting for me. I discovered the Spiš region of Slovakia, with its towns of Spišská Kapitula and Spišská Nová Ves. There is a 12th century Spiš castle. Is this where the fiction writer in me takes over and creates my own Spisak family history?

As writers, we can change the world; we can also preserve it for generations to come.

Consider this a writing exercise. Write down your history, your parents’, your grandparents’, and as far back as you can trace it. Maybe you’ll get a great story out of it. Worst case scenario, your children’s children will thank you.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Postings from the Pope

We as writers are learning to embrace new technologies, realizing to find and hold our audiences, we need to keep them updated, to intrigue, to captivate, to amaze. Yet we as writers are not the only ones seeking a larger audience. Here is where Pope Benedict XV enters the scene – or shall we say blogosphere?

Pope Benedict XV proclaimed in late January, “I renew the invitation to make astute use of the unique possibilities offered by modern communications. May the Lord make all of you enthusiastic heralds of the Gospel in the new ‘agorà’ which the current media are opening up."

One of Benedict’s advisors, Cardinale Crescenzio Sepe, now has his own Facebook page. The archbishop of Los Angeles, Cardinal Roger Mahony, now podcasts. Young priests are being encouraged to embrace social media before they leave divinity school.

Words only have power when they are heard or read. The Pope realizes that if no one is listening, the Church will ultimately fall. This same idea that holds true for religious texts and quandaries holds true for your own inspiration. I’m not comparing creative writing to religious epiphany or understanding here; however, the pages hiding in our notebooks and computer files need to take form. Be it in a book or in a blog, your readers cannot ponder the significance or your words until you put them out there.

So I send out a call to follow Pope Benedict XV’s revelation – not in its messages of Catholicism (unless this is your belief), but in its brilliance of twenty-first century insight.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Inspiration on Ice

I'm not talking about triple axels or salchows here, (or any other figure skating terminology that I learned how to spell for the sake of this sentence). I'm talking about travel and how travel can inspire. St. Augustine once said “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” I whole-heartedly agree and argue further that new locations allow you to transform the pages of your own writing. This past weekend, I had a new muse: The Hotel de Glace in Quebec, Canada.

The snow can be so fine in Canada that the flakes look like glitter, sprinkled by some second grade angel with an art project in the sky. When you stand outside in negative nine degree weather, the chill hits not like a slap in the face but rather like a fog. The sensation of cold wraps around you, stripping your sense of feeling. Inside a structure made entirely of ice, though, there is surprising comfort. Staying the night in such a place brings fears of frostbite and (admittedly for over-reacting me) death, but waking up in the morning, triumph and my negative twenty degree sleeping bag reinforced this new inspired vitality. I know that in my head, there is a character yet to be written that will feel this pain and glory.

The Hotel de Glace was such an amazing piece of artistry. Ice sculptors carved every wall, every piece of furniture, and every chandelier. The magnificent detail motivated me to create a work of art of my own.

A new short story is coming from our weekend adventure, a story tinged blue from the cold and draped in Nordic furs.

Have you ever had your travels inspire your writing?