Thursday, December 5, 2019

Mental Illness as a Literary Device, Notes on Allen Eskens' The Life We Bury

                                                 
                                               Mental Illness as a Literary Device

                                         Notes on Allen Eskens' The Life We Bury


by Bill Johnson

The use of mental illness in Allen Esken's The Life We Bury demonstrates it as a powerful technique to create drama.

Joe, the novel's main character, has left a chaotic home to attend college. He works odd jobs as a bouncer to pay his tuition. His mother is untreated bi-polar and she self-medicates with alcohol. Joe also has a young, autistic brother that he has left behind to go to college. Except when his mother is arrested and he must either return home or take his brother to stay in his cramped college town apartment. When his mother is arrested, Joe simply tells his brother his mother is attending a meeting. Some of the meetings last for days, which the brother mostly accepts.

And soon, the mother will put at risk Joe attending college, which Joe considers his best shot at creating a new, better life for himself

Eskens starts the novel with this sentence...

'I remember being pestered by a sense of dread as I walked to my car that day, pressed down by a wave of foreboding that swirled around my head and broke against the evening in small ripples.'

This naturally creates drama around the question, what is the cause of this dread? The prime directive of a first sentence is to give the reader a reason to read a next sentence. Esken has accomplished that.

The first paragraph ends with...

'Or would I still travel the path that led me to Carl Iverson?'

The outcome of this premonition is named, Carl Iverson, while raising a new question, who is Carl?

The novel continues with this note about Joe's mother and her effect on his life...

'Or-and this is where I'd place my bet-maybe she {a high school counselor who doesn't think Joe is college material} knew who my mother was and figured no one can change the sound of an echo.'

This is a cryptic way of saying that being raised by his mother will affect Joe's choices in life, not in a good way.

In this opening chapter, Joe has traveled to Hillside Manor, a retirement home and a place...

'...with its gray walls streaked green with moss, its raggedy shrubs run amok, and its mold, the color of oxidized copper, encasing the soft wood of every window sash.'

Even the details of the environment convey illness.

Joe is at the manor because he needs to interview an elderly person for a class project that he is late to start (increasing the tension). Because so many of the inhabitants are senile, Joe needs permission to interview a prisoner who has been sent to the manner to die of cancer. Carl was sent to prison for life for raping and murdering a young girl.

In the manor, Joe has a memory of his grandfather that foreshadows learning why Joe blames himself for his grandfather's death.

'There were weeks, however, when the sound of rain splashing against a windowpane would seep into my subconscious and he would visit me in my dreams-dreams that would end with me sitting bolt upright in my bed, my body covered in a cold sweat, and my hands trembling from the memory of watching him die.'

The details of how the grandfather died and why it had such a major impact on Joe's mental landscape is revealed deep in the novel. Here the question is framed for readers to expect an answer.

Joe decides he will interview Carl, the convicted, dying murderer, but he then gets a hysterical call from his mother. In between screaming at her arresting officer, Joe learns she was arrested for a DUI and will be detox and jail for several days.

Joe must now make decisions about how to take care of his brother and continue in school. The first chapter ends with...

'A block away from Hillview, I pulled into a parking lot, gripped the steering wheel with all my strength, and shook it violently. "God dammit!" I yelled. "Dammit! Dammit! Dammit! Why can't you just leave me alone." My knuckles turned white, and I trembled as the wave of anger passed through me. I took a deep breath and waited for the throbbing in my throat to subside.'

In spite of his rage, Joe must now return home to take care of his brother and later deal with his mother and her latest boyfriend when she is released from jail.

In the next chapter, the town where Joe grew up and his mother lives is detailed. Note the structure. First we are drawn in to Joe's life and drama, then we get more details about his environment. Struggling writers often start with the details of environment.

Because his mother lives hours from the college, Joe must make a decision about how to care for his autistic brother who can't be left alone.

Returning home, Joe has a memory of an accident that hurt his brother. After the accident, he has to visit local bars to find his mother and bring her home. When she sees Joe's brother bleeding from the head, she explodes...

"You had to use my good towel," she yelled. "You couldn't just grab a rag. Look at this blood in the carpet. We could lose our damage deposit. Did you ever stop to think about that? No. You never think. You just make the goddamn mess and I have to clean it up."

This scene conveys the emotional minefield Joe must navigate each time he needs to deal with his mother.

Joe also has to be artful to convey a new living situation to his autistic brother.

'It was easy to lie to Jeremy, his trusting temperament being incapable of understanding deceit. I didn't lie to him to be mean. It was just my way of explaining things to him without the complexity of nuance that came with the truth.'

Eskens does an excellent job of setting out the dramatic situations Joe must deal with to try and gain a better life by going to college.

The second chapter ends with...

'As I pulled out of the driveway, I contemplated my work and class schedules, trying to find gaps that would allow me to keep an eye on Jeremy. On top of that, distracting questions ripped through my brain. How would Jeremy get along in the unfamiliar world of my apartment? Where would I find the time or money to bail my mother out of jail? And how the hell did I become the parent in this wreck of a family?'

Excellent questions that increase Joe's inner tension and that pull readers forward to turn the page and begin chapter three.

Chapter Three begins...

'On the drive back to the Twin Cities, I watched the anxiety pace back and forth behind my brother's eyes, his brow and forehead as he processed what was happening.'

Bringing his brother to his college town apartment has an unintended but welcome introduction and connection to the girl next door, Lila, who volunteers to help with Jeremy.

It only comes out much later how damaged Lisa is.

Returning to Joe's mother...

'Add to that cauldron {untreated bi-polar} an ever increasing measure of cheap vodka-a form of cheap medication that quelled the inner scream but amplified the crazy-and you get a picture of the life I left behind.'

And the life that won't stay behind.

At the end of chapter three, Joe considers...

'When I finally fell asleep that night, I did so wrapped comfortably in the belief that my meeting with Carl Iverson would have no down side, that our encounter would somehow make my life-easier. In hindsight, I was at best naive.'

Joe ultimately discovers that Carl was suicidal while serving in Vietnam over his inability to save a young girl from rape. Which is how, in part, Joe comes to believe that Carl was not guilty of raping and killing a young girl who lived next door to his house.

Carl is yet another character with a deep mental wound.

The Life We Bury does a great job of using mental illness to greatly complicate and add drama to Joe's life. The drama is organic to the story. It creates a situation where there's no easy path forward for Joe, the hallmark of creating narrative tension in a novel.

This is a novel with excellent story dynamics.


Copyright 2018 Bill Johnson 

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Notes on the Movie Joker


This film is brilliantly acted by Joaquin Phoenix. The movie sets out the descent into utter madness of a barely working clown when his meds are stopped because of budget cuts. The film offers a gritty portrait of his life and delusions. But the ending of the film strains for a big moment that doesn't register.

In Fellini's 8 1/2, the director Quito is creatively stuck while trying to find an ending for his latest film. He sets out on a path of 'retiring' the memories and moments of his life that have defined him and his creative spirit. At the climax of the film, he realizes he can integrate all those memories to support his creative self and this is acted out by a celebratory ending that includes a marching band. This scene has been recreated in other movies, including Big Fish and Shortbus.
          
The moment of celebration in Joker is set off by Author Fleck killing a talk show host on live TV setting off a riot for which he is a symbol. But the intense focus on Arthur's life never quite explains why he has become that symbol and, if he is that symbol, why anyone would  care about Arthur Fleck.
          
Somehow the moment is meant to convey that Arthur is fully integrating with his persona the Joker. I was left wondering if it was just another delusion.

Monday, September 2, 2019

What IS Plot? An Online Workshop Offered by Pennwriters

What IS Plot?

Pennwriters Online Class:
October 3-31, 2019
Class Title: What IS Plot?
$49.00
with PayPal

Register online at  https://pennwriters.org/what-is-plot/

Or send a check to Treasurer, Pennwriters, Inc. PO Box 685 Dalton, PA 18414

Many writers are consumed with the idea of creating the effect of what a plot does without first understanding what a plot is. What a plot does is raise dramatic questions a reader or viewer will follow to get answers. What a plot is is the process of generating questions around the outcome of a story’s promise that gives a story a dramatic shape and outcome fulfilling to an audience. This workshop is designed to guide writers to an understanding of what creates a dramatic plot, and to offer practical advice on how they can create dramatically satisfying plots for their stories.
Writers in this workshop will be guided to understand a simple plot outline for some popular stories with simple plot mechanics. This outline will convey a fundamental truth of storytelling, how the elements of a story transports its audience.

Writers will then be asked to use that knowledge to outline the plot of a popular story they enjoy.
Finally, writers will be guided to apply this understanding of plot mechanics on a project they are working on. This could be outlining a story they have only begun to create an understanding of the underlying mechanics of that story, to creating a plot outline that guides a revision of a complete manuscript.

The completed outline will include creating plot questions for each step of the novel.
The goal of the workshop is for students to be able to create a detailed plot outline for a novel or script and to understand the mechanics of how other popular stories are constructed.

Instructor Bio:

Bill Johnson is a produced playwright, optioned screenwriter, and has read manuscript submissions for a literary agent. He is the author of A Story is a Promise and The Spirit of Storytelling, a workbook that explores how to create dramatic, engaging stories; and web master of Essays on the Craft of Dramatic Writing, a site that explores principles of storytelling through reviews of popular movies, books and plays (www.storyispromise.com); Bill has lead workshops on writing around the United States, including the Southern California Writing Conference, Write on the Sound Conference, and the Expo Screenwriting Conference in Los Angeles.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

A Perspective on Shifts in Tone in Stories


by Bill Johnson

I was recently a judge in a screenwriting contest. I noted a particular issue in scripts by inexperienced writers. They often used a shift in tone to create a dramatic effect. For example, a script with a realistic tone shifting to a comic tone. Or a script with a realistic tone shifting to a melodramatic tone.

These shifts can have the effect of disrupting the flow of a story.

To understand why this happens, consider that the foundation stone for what I teach about writing in A Story is a Promise is that a story creates movement, and the movement transports the audience.

That movement can be simple: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. Or complex: Mulholland Drive. Memento.

To understand this jarring effect, consider that you have grown up in Portland, Oregon, you are downtown, and request an Uber ride to the Portland airport, which is East. The driver shows up and gets on Highway 26, driving West.

You're going to have a visceral reaction to this. The direction of the movement of the vehicle is wrong. At a minimum, you're probably wishing you called a cab. If you are a young woman, alone, and it's night, you are probably having more desperate thoughts.

The reaction to a shift in tone in a movie, novel, or play is more subtle, but the reaction is the same. You go from sitting back to enjoy the ride to wondering why something just happened. You have been bumped from the story.

I'm not suggesting a movie can't have a twist. In the recent film Arrival, the main character appears to be having flash back about the birth and death of a daughter. These are actually flash forwards. I was tremendously impressed by the skill with which this was pulled off. But the issue of how we and the aliens in the movie interpret time was part of the story. The twist arose from the nature of the movement of the film.

Years ago Peter O'Toole was in a movie where he's an English aristocrat who believes he's Jesus Christ. He hangs himself on a cross. His extended family is desperate that he have a heir to continue the family lineage.

At the end of the film, Peter appears to be normal and goes off to attend a session of the House of Lords. But when seen from his point of view, he's switched from thinking he's Jesus to believing he's Jack the Ripper.

While the movie has a comic tone, Peter's family has always been in deadly earnest about the need to reshape his personality. The movie always had a realistic tone under the comedy.

A more recent example comes from the Men in Black series. In the first film, there's an overall comic tone but the character played by Tommy Lee Jones gives the story a moral center. He looks at humanity and individuals with a clear gaze. It's a wonderful film.

The most recent film, Men in Black: International, has one of the main characters played as a buffoon. Buffoons carry no dramatic weight. So the plot ambles along until the movie is over.

That shift in tone from comedic with a serious undertone to borderline slapstick deflates the action. It might have worked in a stand alone film, but as part of a series it just feels like the movie is going West when the airport is East.

Whether a dramatic effect is within the scope of a story's overall movement or not is situation where a writer might need to lean on skilled readers to convey whether an effect was amazing or disconcerting.

The recent online commotion over the ending of Game of Thrones is an example of what happens when the expectations of an audience are violated.

                                 *********************

Bill Johnson is the author of A Story is a Promise & The Spirit of Storytelling, available on Amazon and Smashwords.








Friday, February 22, 2019

Willamette Writers Happy Hour at Portland Center Stage


Join Willamette Writers on Tuesday, March 5th at 6:30pm for a special Happy Hour before Tiny Beautiful Things. This event will feature a conversation with the Director of Tiny Beautiful Things, Rose Riordan, and the Assistant Director, Jennifer Rowe. They will have a conversation about transitioning Tiny Beautiful Things from story/novel onto the stage and host a short Q&A with guests.

This event is FREE and open to the public.

If you would like to join us for the show at 7:30PM, you can purchase a discounted ticket with the code WILLAMETTE at https://www.pcs.org/events/happy-hour-with-willamette-writers-rose.

NOTE: DIFFERENT MEETING LOCATION

Location: Portland Center Stage at the Armory
128 NW 11th Ave, Portland, OR 97209

For more information about Willamette Writers, visit http://www.willamettewriters.org

The Willamette Writers annual conference is August is August 2-4th at the Portland Sheraton Hotel. For more information visit https://www.eventbrite.com/e/willamette-writers-conference-tickets-52826413224

Willamette Writers has chapters in Portland, Vancouver,
Eugene, Corvallis, Salem, Newport, and Southern Oregon (Central Point).

Young Willamette Writers for students 13-18 holds meetings in Portland and Southern Oregon.

Southern Oregon, https://willamettewriters.org/southern/
Mid-Valley, https://willamettewriters.org/mid-valley/
Salem, https://willamettewriters.org/salem/
Newport, https://willamettewriters.org/newport/
Corvallis, https://willamettewriters.org/corvallis
Vancouver, https://willamettewriters.org/vancouver/
Young Willamette Writers, https://willamettewriters.org/young-willamette-writers/

Monday, January 28, 2019

Poet Laureate to speak at Peace Corps Writers

Our special guest will be Kim Stafford, Oregon's 9th Poet Laureate

He is a poet and essayist having published many articles and several books including; Having Everything Right: Essays of place and 100 tricks Every Boy Can Do. He is the founding Director of the NW Writing Institute at Lewis & Clark University. As Poet Laureate he travels throughout the state of Oregon. “Poetry is our native language,” says Stafford. “We begin with imaginative experiences as children and lyric language can be a can be a realm of delight throughout life." 

This event is open to Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, friends, and the public. 

Guests may bring refreshments to share. 

Expect a writing exercise or two.
 
Tuesday 2/19, 7:00 pm to 9:00 pm - Writers Workshop – 318 SW Palatine Hill Rd (big yellow church) in Portland. Hosted by Mimi Sanders. Contact Mimi for details, mimisandersart@hotmail.com


Thursday, January 24, 2019

Visual Storytelling, Clark Kohanek, February 5th, PDX



Writers employ story structures, plot designs and character arcs to explore, examine and reveal their creations. Directors, Art Directors and Cinematographers use similar tools that parallel these structures, designs and arcs, to express their vision. We’ll examine aspects of their craft as it pertains to writing and explore the psychological dimensions of symbol, analogy and metaphor in relation to visual subtext, in context, to content.

Clark Kohanek is a freelance illustrator, storyboard artist, writer and director. Clark has worked for a variety of advertising agencies, production companies and studios over the last 22 years. (i.e. Weiden&Kennedy, Universal Studios, Anonymous Content, Dark Horse, Disney, Jerry Bruckheimer, Tim Robbins, Bryan Singer to name a few.) Clark’s 2012 micro-budget sci-fi film called CONTAINED opened a door to 20th Century Fox – Bad Hat Harry, which paved the way for action sci-fi THE 37TH PARALLEL, an elevator pitch that turned into a 2015 studio pitch tour to SONY, DREAMWORKS, UNIVERSAL, LEGENDARY, LIONSGATE, MGM, to name a few. Clark recently completed - JUNKIES - an animated horror-comedy being pitched to Sony later this month. Clark currently works and lives in Portland, Oregon though travels teaching visual storytelling and screenwriting workshops at various writing conferences throughout the year.

                                     ********************************************


This meeting is Tuesday, February 5th at the new Willamette Writers PDX chapter location: The First Congregational United Church of Christ in downtown Portland (1126 SW Park Ave, Portland, OR 97205).

This meeting is free to members of Willamette Writers and full time students under 25, and $5 for guests, including MeetUp guests.

For more information about Willamette Writers, visit
willamettewriters.org

For more information about Clark, visit
https://clarkkohanek.wordpress.com/https://clarkkohanek.wordpress.com/