Ma—Space to Breathe

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Space Series

Today’s post is the first in a series on space. I’ve asked other writers to contribute guest posts, giving their thoughts on space—however they choose to interpret the word. I’m starting things off, so please fasten your seatbelt.

If you read Laini Taylor’s recent blog (which you can read here) as I did, you read about a subject I’ve also grappled with but could not articulate why until now. The post helped me understand why I felt exhausted at the end of some of the movies I’ve seen but always felt exhilarated whenever I watched a Miyazaki film. I know that probably makes no sense right now, especially if you haven’t read the post. I hope it will in a minute.

Laini quoted from a Tumblr post by Sara Ryan that discussed an interview the late film critic Roger Ebert had with Hayao Miyazaki. I won’t repeat the entirety of the conversation. You can read it in Laini’s post (and I totally recommend that great post) or the Ryan Tumblr post here. I’ll just repeat Miyazaki’s demonstration of the concept of ma, which sparked this post. I don’t want to come up with a poor explanation of what I think the term means, so here’s Miyazaki’s explanation:

He clapped his hands three or four times. “The time in between my clapping is ma. If you just have non-stop action with no breathing space at all, it’s just busyness. But if you take a moment, then the tension building in the film can grow into a wider dimension. If you just have constant tension at 80 degrees all the time you just get numb.”

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I still wanted to know more, so I dug deeper and discovered posts mentioning a 1979 exhibit (MA: Space-Time in Japan) by an architect, Arata Isozaki, at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum in New York. In the search for information on that exhibit, I found another quote on ma, this time at a site called Big in Japan:

The Japanese spatio-temporal concept of ma suggests a gap, opening, delay or silence. It can be understood as a demarcated in-betweenness in space or time. A room, being the space formed inside walls, is ma. A pause in music, as the gap delineated between audible notes, is also ma.

In Miyazaki’s films, moments of rest are built into the action. Those moments never felt gratuitous to me. Instead, they have a meaning beyond just scenes of people staring at the pretty scenery. I can’t help thinking of the interlude in Miyazki’s Howl’s Moving Castle (adapted from Diana Wynne Jones’s novel) where Sophie and a young wizard in training, Markl, gaze at Star Lake or the scene in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind where Nausicaä hears the prophecy of the warrior in blue—an interesting bit of foreshadowing in each movie. Some might roll their eyes at both scenes. But I love them, because though “rests,” they still advance the plot and help me understand the characters in a deeper way.

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Nausicaä and Sophie and Markl

In contrast, I can’t help recalling some of the drawings of M. C. Escher, the well-known Dutch graphic artist, particularly his symmetry drawings like the one below (click here for others) where all of the space is filled with images. These drawings are the visual equivalent of some of the movies I’ve seen and also some of the books I’ve read over the years (and no I will not name them, so please don’t ask)—a space filled with action from Fade in or page 1 until the end (or fade out); no rest for the weary.

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Reminds me of our fast-paced culture, where waiting is cut down to seconds. We fast-forward through commercials or skip them altogether to get to the program we want to see. Thanks to the constant influx of information, our brains rewire to the point where a slower paced scene in a book seems like a commercial—an unwanted interruption. We want to skip over it and get to the action.

Writers are told over and over: “You have to engage the reader at the first paragraph and hold on to that reader’s attention.” This accounts for the frenetic pace of many novels that aren’t even classified as thrillers. Stories about newborn kittens become The Bourne Identity: Feline Edition (the perilous account of the struggle for life among tabbies).

I find that I need space between the action, that moment of rest where I can breathe and interpret the action in the grand scheme of things. So I include those moments in my manuscripts even if there’s a danger that an impatient reader might simply skip over them.

How about you? Are you all about the action? Or do you, like me, need space to breathe? If so, how do you build those moments of rest into your narrative?

Escher bird painting from WikiPaintings.org. Nausicaä cover from rpgland.com. Scene from Howl’s Moving Castle from hilery.wordpress.com. Kanji character from wawaza.com. Space image from wallsave.com. White space from dessign.net.

A Writer’s Process (7)

With me today on the blog is the incomparable Ingrid Sundberg, who is—say it with me—another friend from VCFA. You might know her through her blog, Ingrid’s Notes, her website, or Twitter.

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El Space: Please share four quick facts about yourself.
Ingrid: I’ve dyed my hair every color of the rainbow and shaved my head once. I love to draw silly monsters, particularly ones with horns and polka-dots. My favorite TV show is Battlestar Galactica. I grew up on an island in Maine.

El Space: Cool! Now, let’s get to your work in progress. A brief synopsis, please.
Ingrid: The Nevers is a YA steampunk reimagining of Peter Pan. There’s no magic, and Peter and Hook are the heads of rival gangs that sell a hallucinogenic drug known as Fairy Dust. Wini Darling, the daughter of a bank mogul, is lured into the whimsical and artistic world of the Nevers, a secret underground artist community, in order to help her drug-addicted brother who’s been captured by pirates. Only it’s not so easy to find her brother and leave the Nevers as she thinks.

Wini finds herself intoxicated by the no-rules artist culture of the Nevers and simultaneously mixed up in a street war between the pirates and the Lost Boys. And then there’s that thrill-seeking, drunk-on-life Peter fellow who’s got one hell of a sweet spot for Wini Darling. Sometimes, not growing up can be a dangerous adventure.

El Space: Wow! Sounds awesome! What’s challenging or exhilarating about working on this story?
Ingrid: It’s really exciting to work with pre-existing material. I get to reinterpret Peter Pan with the themes that excite me. I’ve also been having lots of fun thinking up creative ways to reference the original story while still inventing my own world. There’s a great creative energy in this process. Of course, staying too true to the original material can also be a trap. I’ve had to keep giving myself permission to deviate from the original story when I need to.

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The biggest challenge for me is world building, and the sheer size of this project. In the past I’ve written small, intimate contemporary stories. Suddenly, I have a whole world to invent, rules and politics to create, and an ensemble of over a dozen characters to develop. Dang!

El Space: A great challenge. You’re an author-illustrator-screenwriter. How does your novel reflect your cinematic experience?
Ingrid: I enter all of my stories visually. I see images before I see whole scenes. Those can be anything from a wisp of hair to a dramatic landscape. I always have to start with that image and then look around and see where I am and who’s in the scene.

Imagery has also really helped with world building. I have a huge photo file for this book and have been creating character and setting collages. These help me to imagine costumes, character traits, and details in a setting.

It’s interesting to see how characters will have a color palette, or how specific details will tell me about their moods. I’ve even begun to create image systems and metaphor motifs based on these collages. I have a whole secret Pinterest page dedicated to this with 35 different boards.

Here’s an example of some of my collages:

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The Jolly Roger

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Mermaids

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Lagoon

El Space: They’re gorgeous! What other tools were helpful as you determined the scope of your world?
Ingrid: In The Anatomy of Story, John Truby talks about having a single arena for your story. He says that the smaller your arena, the stronger the story will be, because it will have a single “unity of place.” It turns out my book has two arenas, but they’re linked together because one hides within the other. So it’s helped me to think about developing those two arenas to their full potential and not venturing outside of them.

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The other idea that I’ve thought about lately is the metaphorical meaning and thematic significance of each arena. For example, Neverland is supposed to be an imaginary utopia of playfulness and wonder. It’s an island that separates itself from the real world and is outside of time. So I’ve been asking myself how I will design a landscape that enhances the wonder and keeps that magical sense of exclusivity. Meanwhile, I have to contrast that with the tick-tock of the “real world” that is inevitably heading towards old age and death.

El Space: What books have you read recently with impressive world building?
Ingrid: Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor blew me away with its world building. Everything was very specific and it had a history.

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It didn’t feel like it stood on the shoulders of what others had previously invented. It had a unique and compelling world of its own. It had depth and weight to it. Every detail seemed intricately woven into the whole. I saw Laini Taylor speak about this book at a signing and she mentioned that she read a lot of folklore while writing the book. She said that every culture invents its own folklore, and you can tell a lot about a culture’s values by the stories they tell themselves. Plus, Laini Taylor has pink hair, so she must be brilliant!

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El Space: I think so too! So, what excites you about the steampunk genre?
Ingrid: Honestly, I don’t know a lot about steampunk. I’m learning as I go. But I think I’m visually excited about a steampunk world. I’m obsessed with the textures of it. I love the precision of intricately woven clockwork, or the allure of emerald-colored goggles. Oh, and the fashion! Can you really get enough of velvet top hats and triple-buckled boots? This world is a smorgasbord of delicious imagery that allows me to really play with language!

El Space: Love the fashions! Now, what’s the best writing advice you’ve received recently?
Ingrid: I often get overwhelmed by the scope of this project. The best advice I got recently was to imagine a picture frame, and to only look at what’s inside that frame. Forget about the rest of the world. Focus on what I can see inside that small box of space. Write about that. Then look in a new picture frame and write about that. It’s really helped me to focus on small pieces, which amazingly seem to find their own way of linking together.

Thanks, Ingrid, for sharing your process and your collages. If you have questions for Ingrid, you know what to do: please comment below!

Laini Taylor author photo, book cover, and Peter Pan cover from Goodreads. Truby cover from macmillan.com. All other photos are courtesy of Ingrid Sundberg.

Check This Out: The Arf Thing

Today, I’m talking about short stories with another friend from VCFA, the awe-inspiring Val Howlett, whose story, “The Arf Thing,” has been published here at Lunch Ticket. Val’s story also won a coveted scholarship at VCFA in 2011! So go on. Read it, then return here!

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El Space: Congratulations, Val! Please tell the readers about yourself.
Val: I have lived in five different states in my adult life; I studied fairy tales in college; I’m very close to my three younger siblings; and my girlfriend is also a writer.

El Space: How about a brief synopsis for those who haven’t yet read “The Arf Thing”?
Val: “The Arf Thing” is about the “bullying” of a boy named Adam Mavis, told through the perspectives of seven people at Adam’s school.

El Space: What inspired you to write it?
Val: I wrote the story in late 2010/early 2011, when a string of “gay” teen suicides started a conversation about bullying in the media. I put “gay” in quotes because in some cases, we don’t know if the victims were gay; it was more that much of the harassment they experienced were attacks on their sexual orientations.

I remember being frustrated by the simplicity of the media rhetoric following those tragedies. There was a lot talk of our nation’s “bullying problem” and our schools’ tolerance policies for bullying. Not that teachers shouldn’t be held accountable for prohibiting harassment in their classrooms—they absolutely should.

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But I think harassment is more complicated than that. Particularly in this case, when the very media that discusses our country’s “bullying problem” is at the same time perpetuating the cultural assumption that homosexuality is shameful and attack-worthy by portraying gay and trans people as caricatures or not portraying them at all.

I should probably stop and get to your other questions. Clearly, I could go on about this for a while. But all that stuff was bubbling up in my brain as I wrote “The Arf Thing.”

El Space: Understandable. What’s challenging or exhilarating about short story writing?
Val: The room for experimentation is exhilarating. A lot of narrative techniques that could grow tedious over the course of a novel are exciting and interesting in a short story.

What’s challenging is there’s no room for excess—you want every element of your story to serve the effect you’re trying to create at the end. I’m long-winded, so my short story process is to write a lot, and then cut, cut, cut.

El Space: Which authors get you pumped up?
Val: Francesca Lia Block and Kelly Link. Also Laini Taylor’s story “Goblin Fruit” in Lips Touch: Three Times. All three are young adult writers whose stories are full of juicy prose and strange otherworldly tones. And they all deliver those punch-in-the-gut, tears-in-your-eyes endings that great short stories are famous for.

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El Space: In an article in Publishers Weekly entitled “The State of the Short Story,” Lorin Stein, editor of The Paris Review, stated:

[W]hy do so many readers and critics today seem to divide their time between novels and essays—those first cousins of the short story—and leave short fiction alone?

What can be done to draw more attention to the short story?
Val: It’s no secret that a very small percentage of our population reads short fiction. I am fully aware every time I am working on a short story that I am shrinking my potential audience. It makes me a little sad!

I’m going to gear your question to YA short fiction in particular, because that’s the kind of story I have experience writing and trying to submit.

One problem with YA short story visibility is there are barely any journals that publish specifically YA content. I can only think of six journals off the top of my head. And you have to wonder how many actual teenagers read those publications.

So there need to be more publications that feature YA short fiction. Also, more attention should be given to those publications by educators and librarians—possibly in the form of yearly short story awards, like the awards offered in the scifi/fantasy community.

El Space: Great ideas! Stein also stated: “You can’t relax and lose yourself in a short story. Short stories bring you up short. They demand a wakeful attention.” Would you agree or disagree?
Val: I think Stein does a pretty good job of discussing that elusive, nebulous concept that short story writers and critics have been trying to explain since Edgar Allan Poe: that the experience of reading a short story feels different than reading a novel.

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While I definitely have “lost myself” in short stories—forgotten everything around me, became immersed in the story’s world, all that good stuff—I like the idea of “bringing you up short” as a way to describe that jolt you feel at the end of a good short story, the way it leaves you thinking about the whole piece for an hour or for days.

El Space: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received recently?
Val: I keep returning to the advice my VCFA advisor, A. M. Jenkins, gave me last year, which was to not compare yourself to other writers because it’s a waste of your finite writing time.

As a slow writer, it can be tempting to watch my grad school colleagues submit their novels and see it as a sign of weakness that I’m not doing that yet.

But then I admonish myself in a Jenkins-esque way, saying—probably out loud because let’s be honest—“You could use the time you’re spending thinking you’re not good enough to actually write something! And you should be writing, because you’re slow!” Seriously though, everyone’s process is different. It’s good to remember to accept your process and give it hugs every once in awhile.

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El Space: Any advice for those who want to tackle the short story?
Val: Don’t assume that just because it’s a short story, it’ll take a shorter amount of time to write. It took me four full months to write a draft of my most recent story. And that draft was a radical revision of a story I wrote four years ago.

El Space: What do you plan to tackle next?
Val: My goal for the summer is to finally pump out a full draft of the novel I’ve been working on forever, called Underdog.

Thanks, Val, for being an awesome guest!

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If you haven’t yet read “The Arf Thing,” don’t miss out! Click here. Questions for Val? Please comment below.

Book cover from Goodreads.com. Poster from zazzle.com. Poe photo from Wikipedia. Book hug from cathryno.global2.vic.edu.