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An African Memory

I’m feeling nostalgic. Maybe it’s the fact that I haven’t written on this blog forever. Maybe it’s because I’m craving a new adventure in my life. Maybe it’s because it’s 5 am. But this is a story I want to share about my time in Swaziland. I have, and still have, always had trouble articulating this experience to myself or to others. It was great, it was bad, it was interesting and weird and confusing. But one day I sat down and wrote about my favorite moment of the trip. And I feel that it was something I was able to articulate. So here it is:

Alysse and I sit in the bed of the pickup truck as Pastor Innocent climbs in next to us. “Okay, Mbali,” he says, calling me by my Swazi name, “you ready to go up?” He points up to the mountain ahead of us. Alysse and I look at each other. “Up?” I ask. “Up there?” Innocent smiles.

Before I have even a moment to think about this, the pickup groans to a start and slowly begins creeping towards the mountain ahead of us. I give myself a moment of fear and think about everything that could go wrong as the truck starts up the dirt path barely inches wider than the truck itself. I glance over at Alysse. Her face tells me she is thinking of the same five things I am. And since both Alysse and I are pretty awful at hiding our emotions, Innocent seems to respond. “Don’t worry, he good driver,” he says, pointing towards the man who now holds our lives in his hands. Yes, maybe he is, I want to say, but what if it’s his time to have a heart attack and we have to go along for the ride? But instead I smile back and nod, because even though I feel like I’m in danger my politeness takes over. Alysse does the same.

A few minutes in and as much as I want to be scared, or feel I should be scared, I can’t help the sense of elation that washes over me. As the truck creeps further up now, the views of town dissipate and transform into something spectacular.

The truck creeks up like a roller coaster ready to tumble over the first hill, the one that makes you pee your pants and wonder why the hell you got on in the first place, but all I can see is green. Green fields everywhere.

“Alysse,” I say, patting her knee excitedly. “Doesn’t this look like the Sound of Music?”

And it does, exactly. In all my travels, through America and Europe, I have never seen anything quite like it. Green grass hugs rolling hills that lap gently against the crystal sky. Cows graze peacefully, peak their heads up for only a moment as we pass, then continue. Everything looks perfect, is perfect, and I think, Damn, these guys are lucky.

                We reach the top and the truck slows to a halt. I thank this old Toyota for keeping me alive and try not to let myself think about the trip down as we hop out of the back, into green grass.

                “Innocent,” I say. “This is Heaven.”

“It is,” he says and points. “That is our Heaven.”

My eyes follow his finger to a small pool of water, no larger than an in ground pool. Alysse and I walk over and dip our hands in, letting the cool water trickle between our fingers. I take a picture of a tiny waterfall. It is the most beautiful thing I have seen in Swaziland.

“Drink it,” Innocent says. “Water from Heaven is the freshest you’ll get.”

Alysse and I think about it for a moment. Rule #1 in travel: Don’t drink the water. But I’m in Heaven, I’m happy, and I’m thirsty. I lean down, cup my hands under the waterfall, and take a sip. It even tastes like Heaven.

“This, my friends, is the town’s only water,” Innocent says.

I stand up. “You mean the town all the way down there?” I ask, pointing. I cannot even see a town anymore, all I see is green.

Innocent nods. “Zeblon and his friends want to build pipes, leading from here down to the town.” Innocent turns to the man, Zeblon, and speaks to him in SiSwati. After a moment, the man responds, and Innocent translates for us.

“We have no water,” Zeblon says. “We used to collect water from our roofs into those big bins you see next to the house, but it hasn’t rained in weeks here. People have no water. They must travel up here now. It is a hard, dangerous trip. If you don’t have a car, it’s nearly impossible.”

                I feel the cool water in my belly and feel guilty. I wasn’t that thirsty. And yet I was able to drink.

“We must build pipes,” Zeblon says. “It’s the only way.”

Innocent, Alysse, Zeblon and I survey the surroundings and talk logistics, but the logistics don’t seem to matter too much to the Swazis. They’ll make it happen. Whatever problems they will face, they will fix. Because to them, this piping isn’t an option, it’s the option. And that’s something that Alysse and I can barely comprehend.

At the end of the day we all fill our water bottles up and hop in the back of the pickup once more. The trip back is quiet as we all sit back and think our separate thoughts. As I say my goodbyes to Heaven, I hope that someday I will have money to come back to this place, to help lay pipes down, to make this a reality.

“Did you like what you saw, Mbale?” Innocent asks. I smile and nod. He smiles back, soft this time. He can see in my face that I am upset. “It will be built,” he says, “don’t you worry.”

“I want to help,” I say.

“I know you do.”

                But Alysse and I have a plane, back to work, back to reality, back to a country full of bottled water and fear of the tap.

I take a sip of my Heaven water and let myself feel the coolness all the way down. And I promise myself that I will be back, one day, and if there are no pipes, I will be there to help lay them down.

The Shawshank Redemption

There are few things that will keep me up this late at night these days. Having graduated college and left the nocturnal lifestyle behind, bedtime is bedtime–serious business. But tonight, good writing–no, fantastic writing, kept me awake.

As I mentioned in my last blog article, to be a screenwriter you must read scripts. I read them online, but I have to say that I’m old school: an anti-Kindle girl who loves to smell books like candles and listen to the satisfactory, slicing ruffle of a page turn (and no, not electronically, thank you). That being said, I went out, spent the eighteen dollars and ninety-five cents (yes, that hurt), and brought home The Shawshank Redemption shooting script in its glorious book form. It wouldn’t have been my first choice, but it’s all Barnes and Noble had in their measly film section. I couldn’t remember if I had seen the film (after reading, I realized I hadn’t), which was a benefit in my mind because I wanted the virgin experience of reading a script in its original form and then seeing the film. This way I would be able to see the changes made, and hopefully be able to figure out why and learn a bit.

I came home tonight, tired, ready for bed, but feeling unaccomplished by my lack of work this weekend. So, feeling like I needed to do something more productive than watch Arrested Development season three for the thirteenth time, I cracked open the book and started reading. I figured if I could knock out ten, twenty pages or so, I could sleep in peace. And hey, the movie has a good reputation, shouldn’t be that bad, right?

Now, a lot of people claim to experience the “I just couldn’t put it down” phenomena, but I’ve always been a person that, well, could. It’s not like I don’t enjoy reading, or that some things don’t keep me wanting more, but sleep is sleep. But this script–you know where I’m going with this.

I haven’t watched the film yet, but the last two + hours of my life have been spent ravishing through the screenplay for The Shawshank Redemption. And, oh my god, it wasn’t a waste. I was swallowed from page one into this story. For anyone looking to write, I highly suggest taking a look at this script, if just for the superb action writing alone. It kept moving, it was clean, cut, and riveting, and I found myself visualizing scenes and characters incredibly well. I can’t wait to actually watch the film to see how close my vision for the film is to the final product. Just, wow.

Interesting sidenote: The Shawshank Redemption was written by Frank Darabont, who adapted Stephen King’s short novel entitled, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption.  King, being the amazing man he seems to be, has this thing where he will let film students adapt his short stories, as long as they promise two things: to pay him a $1 (that’s right, one dollar) for the rights, and to send him the finished product. So, The Shawshank Redemption, nominated for 7 Academy Awards, was adapted for $1. Go Stephen King. There’s nothing I appreciate more than artists who appreciate art for art’s sake.

I’ll leave you with one piece of advice from the screenwriter, shared in his forward to the screenplay. He writes:

“‘…my best recommendation is to write. Endlessly to write. This is the oldest but most valuable bit of advice in the world. It amazes me when somebody talks about wanting to sell a screenplay without actually having written before, which is akin to deciding you’re a carpenter without ever having hammered a nail into wood, or thinking you’re ready to join an orchestra without ever having practiced a musical instrument. I guess movies are so accessible that people figure writing one doesn’t require any special skill, that anybody can do it, but it’s not true. As with any skill, it requires work. The more you work, the more you sharpen and develop your talent. That, coupled with a staggering amount of determination and persistence, might get you somewhere…'”

King and Darabont

Screenwriting Tips

I will always remember with vivid disdain something my creative writing professor taught. He said, in so many words, “If you wanna write shit, become a screenwriter.” He went on to discuss how a kiss must happen on page 20, a death on page 30, sex on page 50. And I nodded my head, took notes, told myself I wanted to be a novelist, not a writer of shit.

And then I actually took a screenwriting class. Is it cliche to say the doors opened? Maybe, but that’s what happened. I was enthralled by the whole thing–especially the idea of a collaborative art project that I, the screenwriter, got to map out. And, come on, I doubt he can honestly tell me that Little Miss Sunshine the screenplay is shit, and Twilight, the novels, aren’t. There is good writing, and there is bad writing, no matter the medium. Pa-lease.

Anyway, I found my passion in screenwriting and it is something I am going to pursue. And honestly, I could care less what professors claim. In fact, I hope they keep teaching this–less competition!

But for all you struggling through this like me, here are some helpful aids I’ve stumbled upon that I’d like to share with you.

First things first, read this blog. It’s written by John August, a screenwriter/producer/director/amazingly nice human who is willing to answer our questions! His blog covers so many topics, and it is such a good resource.

Second thing: Get Netflix. I don’t care if you don’t want to spend the $10 a month, collect your parents cans and pay for it that way. It’s obvious to be a screenwriter you need to watch movies, and tons of them. But with Netflix instant viewing, you have access to some random films that you’ve probably never even heard of.

Third, buy this book. You’re Screenplay Sucks! : 100 Ways to Make it Great by William Akers has really helped me personally. If you are in the process of writing, it’s still helpful, but it is most helpful once you have a shitty draft that needs a revamp. Because, as Hemingway said,

The first draft of everything is shit.”

And, come on, if anyone would know, he would. This book is blunt (can’t ya tell?) but really gets to the point and helps you write a unique screenplay, with tons of examples from great films.

And lastly, read scripts. Duh, right? Well, I just wanted to stress it. I always have Little Miss Sunshine open on my desktop as I write, not just because it’s my favorite movie and I’m bias, but also because it is amazingly written. It really helps to have something you trust, a script you know made it all the way, to reference. Especially because screenwriting has soo many format rules. Don’t screw that up, right?

Alright, hope that helped! I’m no expert, but I’ve been doing this for a few years now and have found what has worked best for me, so you should do the same.

Why I’m not a Doctor

Lately, I find myself wishing I had wanted to be a doctor when I was younger. A surgeon, even. Anything would be easier than this.

I know, I know, but hear me out. If you want to be a doctor, you can get there by working your ass off. If you study, have a basic level of intelligence, and are passionate, you can get there–in time, of course.

But this writing thing, Jesus, whoever thought up this hellish profession? You can work and work and work, have the passion, the drive, even the skill, and still get nowhere. You can wake up at 5 am and write until your menial minimum wage job, come home and write again, eat, sleep, repeat, and still get NOWHERE.

So, why do I and so many others still want to do it? Why don’t we say fuck it, I’ve always been interested in banking, or I hear nurses make money? What’s with the self-inflicted misery, eh?

The answer is simple: Because when it works, even though it may be rare, it’s beautiful. The most beautiful.

Since graduation, I’ve been struggling with my previously conceived views of post-grad life and the reality of the situation. So let’s play a little 500 Days of Summer, shall we?

The expectation: Right now, according to my freshman year-self, I would have published my first novel and be traveling around the country on my first book tour.

The reality: Not close. Not even a little.

The expectation: Okay, sophomore year. So, that book isn’t published just yet, but the papers have been signed and Penguins just so excited for the literary scene to change!

The reality: Ouch.

The expectation: Junior year, things changed. I learned about the beauty of screenwriting. I knew I’d finish a screenplay, be discovered by Stephen Spielberg in a random bar, and live happily ever after…like the Coen Brothers!

The reality: Okay, even I’m not that delusional. But it’s nice to think, right?

The expectation: Senior year, I worked for 6 months on an application to NBC’s Writers on the Verge program. I wrote what I thought to be a fabulous Office script that would surely earn me a select spot in the program, if not some dough when NBC decided to buy my script. Hey, it was pretty funny.

The reality: Not even an interview.

I know, I seem bitter. But that’s not the point of this blog post, actually. My lack of posts over the last few months? That’s the bitterness. A lot has changed for me this summer, and I had to learn to deal with it quick. While my friends were getting salary jobs, I was waitressing at a restaurant that barely saw tables. But I stuck it out, knowing I needed to save money for the possibility of LA. And then the interview dates rolled around and I heard nothing. Just like that, more than 7 months of plans fell down the toilet, and I was a waitress in Connecticut, with nowhere to go.

And I’m still a waitress in CT with nowhere to go, but now, I have calmed down a bit. Because I still have my friends. I have my family, and I didn’t have to leave my dog. With that little extra money, the money that was supposed to take me across country and get an apartment, I took a trip to Niagara Falls and saw one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. I’ve never seen more rainbows than I did when The Maid of the Mist creeped slowly towards the falls…I’ve never heard such a thunderous, amazing blur of sound as I did when I was right under them…and I’ve never been able to see all those astounded, wet faces of ecstatic strangers. I don’t think I’ll ever forget this moment I shared with completely random people who I may never meet again. Because we all saw something beautiful, miraculous, indescribable.

And guess what? I wouldn’t have seen that in LA.

I wish I was there, being a “writer on the verge”, experiencing a city, and rent, and new people. But, seriously, what’s the rush? When I find myself about to have a panic attack over not having a “real job”, I just try to remind myself that I’ll get there. You’ll get there.

Writing is hard. Even worse, it’s fucking heartbreaking. It’s painstaking, depressing, sometimes meaningless work that makes you question your existence, purpose, and IQ for wanting to do something so impossible.

But when it works, when it goes good, it’s really, really good.

When there comes that time, finallyyyyy, when you write something beautiful, something important and meaningful, something that you feel will change someone, somewhere, then that’s when it’s worth it.

And that’s why I’ll keep writing. Even when I’m beating my head against my bedroom wall; even when I try to write and just end up napping, or watching Arrested Development (which, shameless plug, is the best television show in the universe, ever, I swear); even when I beat myself up for being so lazzyyyyy, I know, eventually, there will be that night where I write and something beautiful will come out of nowhere.

And that pure creation is something naturally amazing.

So to all of you out there struggling with post-grad writing blues, or just writing blues in general, hang in there. Remember why you do it in the first place. Remember you are a writer on the verge if you want to be, no matter who else doesn’t think so. And remember that when it works, when it goes good, it’s really, really good.

The Cove

Ahhh, sorry for my immense absence from the blog world! Midterms have rolled around and punched me in the face with all of their glory.

After watching the Oscars last night, I just wanted to comment on the winner of the best documentary category, The Cove. I haven’t seen this documentary yet, (mostly because I know I will either throw up or cry my eyes out), but I had the honor of talking with the documentary’s director, Louie Psihoyos, when I interned at National Geographic ADVENTURE Magazine last semester. Adventure dedicated its December magazine, called “Best of Adventure”, to those who, for lack of a better phrase, kicked ass in their respective fields, either by pulling some crazy stunt off or by helping the world.

Psihoyos did both. He, along with a cast of insane characters, (including pirates -yes, pirates-, air force pilots, roadies, and an ex-Flipper trainer), literally infiltrated a cove in Japan that slaughters thousands upon thousands of bottlenose dolphins every year, without the general public’s knowledge. This eclectic group risked their lives for the cause, almost got arrested numerous times, were threatened, and still kept going! And they successfully stopped the slaughter of bottlenose dolphins in this area (though, there are still many other species still getting murdered). But it’s way more than a start, and these people are some of my heroes.

Anyways, last night Psihoyos did it–he won the Oscar. When I saw this, I was ecstatic for them (and for me, because now I can say I had a nice phone conversation of about an hour, chock full of witty banter and such, with an Oscar winner! I mean really, how many people can pull that out at parties?) For those of you who don’t know me, I am obsessed with dolphins. I toyed with the idea of becoming a marine biologist but chose writing instead, and I really hope to one day combine my two passions and help whatever animal I can.

This man is such a hero to any animal activist out there. He literally risked his life for animals–something that not many people would ever do. I love and admire people who help people, don’t get me wrong, but there’s something about giving a voice to the quiet creatures of the world that I have always felt a calling for. Psihoyos inspired me in so many ways. Even though our conversation was brief, he really showed me how worth while his cause was. I haven’t seen The Cove yet because I know how upsetting it will be, but I urge anyone who doesn’t know too much about this topic to check it out–I’m sure it will be a (horrible) eye-opener.

During our conversation, Psihoyos told me about his friend Ric O’Barry, an ex-Flipper trainer. Barry thought that what he was doing was alright until one day a dolphin committed suicide in his arms. Dolphins have to tell their bodies to breath; unlike humans, they must tell their brains to surface and tell their brains to take in air. As O’Barry held a Flipper dolphin in his arms, it took its last breath, and refused another. He said that that was the moment when O’Barry couldn’t pretend that this was right anymore.

And how pertinent is this right now, with the SeaWorld whale? Get these animals out of captivity!! I have swam with dolphins twice and I would never do this again, knowing what I do now. Knowing that trainers withhold food from the animals to make them perform; knowing that they can get depressed enough to commit suicide like a human; knowing all that I know now about these amazing creatures. I really hope to one day help the way Psihoyos did.

Here’s the trailer, check it out. These people really did something amazing.

This photo was taken on the grounds of Trinity College In Dublin.

It’s days like these–exactly this–that I live for. It’s the days when the snow starts dripping down the windows and the sun peaks out, even if just for an hour. It’s a windows down day; it’s a walk the slow way day. Maybe it’s because I’m a northeastern girl who must say this in order to survive this long winter, but doesn’t the cold, snowy weather somehow make the warm days that much more brilliant? Snow has its own  majestic quality at certain times, I’ll admit, but when it melts, when it all turns to water and drips down from the roofs and the sidewalks, it feels like a cleansing that can only be for one thing: spring. It’s a treat of joy–something unexpected and coveted with a greedy eagerness.

I feel pixie sticks today; I feel salt water.

I’m getting ahead of myself, I know, but this day is needed. So roll your windows down, buy some flowers, listen to “Don’t Worry Baby” or the sounds of the snow running for the sewers. Whatever you do, feel today–because it’s delicious!

A Stream of Joy

My dog paid me a visit today at Marist.

I hadn’t seen him in far too long so out of pure, unadulterated heartbreak, I begged my mom to bring him for the hour and a half drive despite his teeny tiny nasty habit of vomiting during transport (he almost made it the whole way!).

The moment came when I saw him outside of my window, sniffing and moseying in the crisp snow as puppies tend to do, so I ran out the door calling for him. The second he saw me he wagged his tail and started to run towards me but instead  stopped, squatted, and peed on my front door step.

I have never experienced someone instantly relieving themselves due to the intense joy and thrill of seeing me.

If that isn’t true love, what is?