Inspiration 101

So, as you can see, I’ve been . . . how do you say it . . . M.I.A. for a few weeks. Yeah, sue me. No, really though, I’ve been meaning to write, but these past few weeks have been trying my nerves. Deciding to study in Rome was a huge decision and I wasn’t quite sure of it even at the moment I arrived (lack of sleep and sweltering heat might have helped with that). So, let’s just say that most of the energy I would have used for writing was being guzzled up by anxiety, terror, excitement, and various other emotions all bundled up into a little exploding ball of crazy.

Phew. So, that’s why the writing has been lacking. It’s hard to feel inspired when you’re on the verge of a nervous breakdown. But, now that I’m in Rome, happy about it, and feeling much calmer, I thought I’d share a few of my favorite ways to get inspired and beat the evil beastie known as Writer’s Block.

  1. Listen to Music: By know, you’re probably thinking, “Oh, duh, I could have told you that.” But we’re not just talking any music here. The chicken dance is probably not going to inspire the next great novel. When you’re blocked, you need music that awakens strong emotions, because you can draw on these to write. So pick songs that make you feel electrically sad or happy or even scared. Pick songs that tell stories and think how they would translate into prose. Pick songs from your favorite movie soundtracks that have you thinking of plot. Then, listen to them and brainstorm. Just write down everything you think or feel. Something will catch.
  2. Take a Walk: Proven fact: exercise is good for your brain. All those endorphins will have you feeling happy and cut through any frustration clouding your brain. Plus, the scenery and sights you stumble upon along the way can spark great stories. Even something small may inspire you. So, pick a route that is scenic and interesting and just go wander for a while. Look carefully at what you pass. Look at people and what they’re doing and ask yourself, who are there? Where are they going? What are their life stories? Bring a pen with you in case you get a great idea!
  3. Look at a Plot: Pick one of your favorite books. Now, grab Wikipedia and your brain and go through the plot, looking at key events and turning points. Pick a major turning point and think to yourself, what would happen if this turning point happened in another way? What if Frodo and Sam never met Gollum? What if the poison Romeo bought was fake? Or look at characters. What if Harry Potter was more like Draco Malfoy, but with the same prophecy? What if Macbeth was a stupid brute? Looking at someo of these “What ifs” can inspire new story ideas.
  4. Write ahead: Already working on a story or novel? Let me guess. You hit a scene that’s just sort of filler or that you haven’t planned out and you have no interest in writing it, or you have no inspiration how. You want to work on the scene where the guy finally kisses the girl, or where the team of random adventurers encounters the nefarious villain, not your sultry heroine having a tough and plot-relevant day at the office or the adventurers getting stuck, yet again, in a bit of trouble. So, do it! Write the fun scenes! Sometimes, what you need to do to spike your interest in the rest of your plot is to get back into the story. Work on a scene that does inspire you, and then your creative powers will be activate and you can channel them into that tricky scene.
  5. Just write!: Nothing works? Still blocked? Then stop trying to pen perfect prose and just write. Something. Anything. Find a random writing prompt and write it out. Go to the last bit of your story and continue it. It doesn’t matter if it’s perfect. It will probably be clunky, repetitive, and rough. That’s okay. You can edit later. But if you just muscle through it now, it will get your brain thinking about writing and, eventually, you’ll hit your stride and the words will come easily.

Well, writers, there’s your plan. Now go and write! (Says the hypocrite, I know, I know. But don’t you follow my bad habits. (: )

Later, Saint Louis

So, back from our brief vacation to the south of Missouri. (And only vacation this summer, sadly. Our usual week by the beach just couldn’t find time.) Though only four and half hours away from Chicago, St. Louis feels, in many ways, like a very different place. The highest structure in the city is the Arch at 630 feet, with the next smallest being its highest building at around 590 feet–a very different skyline for a girl used to a city housing the tallest building in North America. The traffic–well, let’s just say that, when we pulled into the city in our car, they had the streetlights all set to stoplight mode and I saw at least five cars drive half a city block in reverse to snag a parking space. They don’t build so tall. They don’t need to. Everyone is spread out here, like a wide country village with an urban face.

With a downtown probably comparable to Chicago’s and only a few hundred thousand people instead of a million, I felt like I was walking in a ghost town. I would cross maybe one or two people on the street every other block, except in the occasional restaurant outdoor seating. The economy downturn hit hard here. Fancy new storefronts are interspersed liberally with boarded up windows and “For Rent” signs. It is a mix of contemporary street art, modern architecture, country class, and urban grunge. A quiet, friendly kind of city, with the riverfront barges and factories still giving it that turn-of-the-century charm.

But St. Louis is not really your typical scape of concrete and gunmetal and grime. Go a little further, to the Forest Park, and the typical city scape is suddenly a vast stretch of green dotted with stone museums, fountain-fed lakes, and brick pavillions leftover from the World’s Fair. Larger than Central Park by 500 acres, and without a doubt more beautiful, the Park houses several museums and a zoo, and skirts an upperclass neighborhood and the Cathedral Basicilia, a gorgeous structure with the largest collection of mosaics in the world (worth a visit–every surface, ceilings, columns, cupolas, is encrusted with tiny pieces of glass and gilt that swirl into massive religious designs). In the Park, the city feels somehow more alive, and you can feel its borders slipping into the country.

And the Cardinals–well, the people of St. Louis definitely show their spirit here. With the Arch looming over Busch stadium’s off-center scoreboard, thousands of red-shirted fans file into thousands of red seats and cheer with a vibrant energy not seen on the daytime ghost streets. Here are their heroes, Albert Pujols (who, I had the good fortune to see, hit a home run) and Yadier Molina. A simple American pasttime in a simple city at America’s crossroads. A fitting vacation, I think, from the quick-walking citydwellers who won’t meet your eye, but with the same Chicago sort of ruggedness and midwestern values. St. Louis, I’ll see you again soon.

Harry Potter: The Exhibition!

As an avid fan of the Harry Potter series (the idea of Harry was conceived in 1990, the same year I was born, so I like to think we’ve both been around the same amount of time), I could not have been more excited to hear that props, costumes, and set pieces from the movies would be on display in a traveling exhibit. I nearly screamed (actually, I might have) when I learned that my beloved Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago would be the first recipient of the magical memorabilia. With school nearing and my summer time ticking away, I jumped at the opportunity to see it today when, just last night, at nearly midnight, a couple of friends asked me to go.

Now, I’m as much of a textual purist as any rabid fan, so I understand all the complaints against the movies. I’ve been guilty of wrinkling my nose in the theater and whispering agitated criticisms to my friends on premier day about this plot deviation or that inconsistency. But nitpicking aside, the movies always held for themselves a certain degree of magic. They captured the spirit of the books and gave us faces and rooms and gizmos to fit the text in the windows of our minds. And no true Potter fan can snipe against the truly remarkable detail, authenticity, and craftsmanship that turned text to pictures to reality.

The Exhibition is a phenomenal tribute to the people behind the actors. In the Museum lobby, the cheery blue Ford Anglia greets visitors on their way up the escalators to the waiting area, where a few charming Brits keep the crowd entertained with Harry Potter trivia (I admit, I whispered all the answers and my friend laughed and rolled her eyes). Then you’re ushered in to see the Sorting Hat, which announces houses for a few brave volunteers (I was already clearly a Ravenclaw in my nifty t-shirt, thank you). Then, a brief montage of memorable Potter scenes ushers you past the Scarlett steam engine into the portrait hall, where the Fat Lady welcomes you to Hogwarts.

From there, you can walk at your leisure through a maze of scenes furnished with genuine costumes, props, set pieces, and replicas, labelled and described for the amateur and connoisseur alike. The path takes you through Harry’s dorm, a collection of classrooms, a Quidditch gallery with an interactive Quaffle challenge, Hagrid’s hut, the Forbidden forest, the Great Hall, and a variety of others–so realistically fit together that you can mentally place yourself right into each scene. I sadly surveyed Snape’s signature black robes and shuddered next to Umbridge’s hot-pink torture chamber, gushed over racing broomsticks, gaped at Robbie Coltrane’s vast Hagrid costume, and reached the gift shop with a fervent desire to reread every book and rewatch every movie.

For the well-versed fan, it is a walk through the annals of a personal and shared history, preserved and presented like ancient relics for devotion. For the casual fan, it is an amusing and worthwhile behind-the-scenes peek at the pieces that build the on-screen world. Even a Potter amateur can appreciate the intricacy and care of the design and the craftsmanship.

If you find yourself in Chicago between now and September 27th, visit this remarkable exhibit at MSI. A satisfying walk-through takes just over an hour, and for the truly Potter-starved, [i]Half Blood Prince[/i] is playing on the MSI Omnimax screen. After that, the Potter legacy will make its next stop at Boston’s impressive Museum of Science. For more information, check out the official site.


Underrated Movies: Part 1

Some movies hit the top of the blockbuster list instantly because they’re just that great. Others catch a few nods from the critics but amass huge cult followings. Then there are those underappreciated gems that, while being entertaining and well-written, are side-lined while such shameful offerings as Mall Cop rake in mindless viewers. (Yes, believe it. Mall Cop was the longest running movie at my local theater. It makes me cry inside too.) So, here are a few movies I’ve come across that deserve more than just a passing glance in the five dollar video rack.

In no particular order:

1. Hostage – Police negotiator Jeff Talley (Bruce Willis) thinks he’s talking three juvenile delinquents out of holding two suburban kids for ransom. The delinquents think they have an easy payday from the kids’ wealthy father. But when the source of daddy’s illegal funds gets involved, Talley finds himself dealing with two hostage situations: the wealthy swindler’s family, and his own. Fast-paced, with a strong script and sympathetic characters, it will keep you guessing.

2. The Butterfly Effect – Ashton Kutcher never struck me as the dramatic type, but his role in this sci-fi thriller is poignant, believable, and compelling. It opens on Evan, a troubled mental patient who has spent his life repressing his most painful memories. When he finds a way to access and relive these lost scenes, he thinks he has the key to saving himself and the girl he can’t forget–but with every change he makes, the future alters in ways he could never forsee. Dark, eerie, and cleverly put together, with an ending even Hollywood can’t sugarcoat.

3. Garden State – Romantic comedy meets indie meets drama. After ten years of absence, Andrew Largeman (Zack Braff) returns home to New Jersey for his mother’s funeral. Desperate for meaning, he takes a break from the numbing pills forced on him by his father and finds real life experiences in his oddball old friends and a quirky, equally troubled girl named Sam (Natalie Portman). The plot builds slowly, but the characters are unique and lifelike players in a story balanced by touching drama and understated humor.

4. Labyrinth – What do glam rock, Jim Hensen, and leather pants have in common? This bizarre fantasy musical featuring Jennifer Connelly, David Bowie, and a supporting cast of cute and creepy muppets. When Sarah accidentally sends her crying baby brother to the clutches of the Goblin King, she has 13 hours to find him in the center of an impossible maze before the King turns him into a goblin. But don’t be fooled; this is no children’s movie. Sarah’s search is fraught with sinister enemies and suspicious allies in a place where even the walls are determined to trap her forever.

5. Anastasia – In an age of helpless Disney princesses with superficial love affairs, Don Bluth offered a compelling and fantastical answer to the mysterious disappearance of a real-life royal. Dimitri (John Cusack) is a con-artist with a get-rich-quick scheme–return the lost Grand Duchess to her surviving family for a pretty reward. Anastasia (Meg Ryan) is a spunky, self-reliant tomboy with a striking resemblance to the missing girl. When Dimitri meets her and convinces her that she must be the real Anastasia, neither of them know that she really is the lost Duchess, or that the dastardly fiend who killed her family is back to eliminate her. An updated fairytale with a competent heroine, a realistic romance, and songs that will be stuck in your head for months.

Happy viewing! And soon, Part 2.

Visions of Phantom Springtime: Poem

So, between having a busy weekend and being rather dreadfully sick, I’ve been fairly silent for the last few days.  I haven’t got the energy or inspiration to write up something new, but here’s a poem I was playing around with a while back.  Enjoy. 


Visions of Phantom Springtime


Bruised fingers—

Grass stains—

Toes squishing blood and mud and


Smack leather pimple-skin against itself

running ten and twenty and down—

Breathing clouds and wind

and air like wasted years coughed up from yesterday’s gut—

Dancing whirlwinds on tarmac,

rough prints inking sunstolen memories

of heat and breath,

bodies writhing, one two three, and melting heaving into muck—

Pumping grungy rubber, rolling,

weaving through gridmarked jungles and electric stars

and dreams floating zigzag through brushing fingers

and dizzy eyes—

Crashing curbs

and pealing starry songs

with broken wheels squeaking broken time,

cheeks sick-hot and stoned and artery-red—

Screaming heartbeats and useless lines

all flower-pretty and painful and pushing hammers into bone

and words into fingertips,

heart-words and head-words,

vain words circling leather and clouds and dances and midnight rides,

and straining to stars and touching treetops—

and crashing.