Everybody Has One

I thought about posting snow pictures, but with an arctic storm covering 2/3 of the country, I figure we pretty much know what snow looks like by now. It’s a very chilly -6 in Santa Fe this morning. Very cold for us!

The other day on Twitter, an aspiring writer mentioned that she finally saw Avatar. She noted that the plot was weak, but the special effects were good.

This irritated me.

Avatar may be many things that one wouldn’t like in a movie. The 3-D thing gives a lot of people headaches. You could say the plot is a recapitulation of many other stories. You could be a biologist like me, and pick apart whether the whole “plug-into-each-other” neurophysiology is at all feasible.

Yeah – biologists can geek out, too.

But don’t go around saying the plot is weak. The plot of Avatar is classic. It runs like clockwork in the movie. It hits every emotional note perfectly and plays into a number of classic themes. Sure it feels cliché in places. You know the saying that things become cliché because they’re true? Exactly.

It’s really the perfect plot.

Now, I understand if a writer’s aspirations are not to write a story with a classic plot line. Stars above know I’m terrible at sticking to a classic plot line. But it would be foolish of me not to recognize a strong plot when I see one. That’s part of knowing my craft. If I were to pick apart the craft in writing the Avatar screenplay, I’d likely go for characterization. The characters are arguably not complex or well-rounded. They have simple, strong motivations. They are there to drive the plot, not to reveal the subtle nuances of human nature.

This reminds me of my brief stint teaching writing at a local community college. I should say straight out that I don’t think I’m a very good teacher. Patience has never been my forte. I like teaching writing workshops just fine, because everyone is there to learn. I’m really quite terrible at convincing someone to learn when they don’t want to.

Thus only one semester.

At any rate, I was given a syllabus and pre-determined reading list, which consisted mainly of Best American Short Stories from several years before. Now, we all recognize that the “best” is a matter of opinion. They’re stories culled by mainly academic literary magazines from thousands of submissions, then nominated from a year’s worth of issues by the editorial staff, whittled down by a group of newly graduated interns, usually from MFA programs, and finally chosen by a “celebrity” judge, Famous Writer Person. A lot of opinions in play there, with a very particular set of filters.

One of my students was terribly upset by one of the stories. No, I don’t remember which one offhand and I don’t think it matters. She pronounced the story garbage and said she could write something better. I pointed out that her strong emotional reaction indicated that the story had accomplished something powerful, even if she didn’t enjoy reading it. She insisted that, no, it made her angry because it was so badly written. I tried to explain how many people had assessed this story. It might be many things, but badly written was not one of them. She finished with “that’s my opinion and you have to respect that.”

Well, okay.

Sure, everyone gets to have an opinion. We live in the age of easily shared opinions. For better or worse. What I did not say to her was, while I recognized her take on this story, that I didn’t have to respect it. I didn’t particularly enjoy the story either, but it wasn’t valid to say it was garbage. An opinion based on nothing more than emotion is, well, just spewing.

I walked out of Avatar wishing I’d written that movie.

Not just because of the money, which would be lovely, but because of the reaction of the people around me. The movie had been out for months by the time I saw it and the theater was packed. We streamed out in a mob with people in tears, shouting, exclaiming, waving their hand. Rarely have I seen an audience so moved.

It’s easy to disdain the successes. To cry pandering, to make snarky comments about the sparkly vampires or silly blue people. More difficult is to see what they did and how. To recognize why they touch people instead of complaining that people shouldn’t have liked it.

That’s my opinion, anyway.

6 Replies to “Everybody Has One”

  1. This makes me think of an author I started reading about 2 years ago. I read most of her books because they sounded interesting and I was in dire need of something to read. At the time, I didn't enjoy the books very much. I've recently re-read those books and I find that I love them. I'm not sure if I was looking for a cookie cutout plot when I first read them, but now I adore the fact that her stories don't follow the same storyline as other authors. It's funny really, but I wonder if that woman in your class would think the same thing if she re-read that short story.

  2. "Everybody has one", including me. Jeffe and I have gone around on this a bit in the past, and irritated each other, I think, while managing to remain friends. In my opinion, respected or not, some very successful books are indeed poorly written. Some very famous movies are also poorly written or poorly acted or directed, or filmed. It doesn't seem to matter. There is something in the content – some theme, or thread, or undefined substance that reaches people at a level that doesn't care about artistic execution. I'd hazard a guess that this 'factor x' is what we'd call 'story.' It's the thing that bards passed on from one to the other in the oral tradition, before we had such static things as 'short stories', or 'novels', or movies. It strikes at the heart of things, at a place that humanity recognizes and responds to.

  3. Valid points, Jeffe. And Kerry, too. Intelligently expressed. I can see where both of you are coming from.

    So I'll just say…really gorgeous picture, Jeffe. Thank you for not posting one of snow or ice. 😉

  4. I wonder that, too, Danica. She was certainly young and hadn't read widely yet. I've noticed books, stories and movies hit me in different ways at different times. Perhaps the "aspect" Kerry refers to.

    Linda, you are Switzerland!

  5. Well said! Something for all of us to remember because, at one time or another one of us (as in writers) has made that comment or overheard someone else, at least once in our lives.

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