Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Storyteller's Workshop: Apollo 13

Last night I decided to watch the Ron Howard directed film Apollo 13. I think it was the first time I’d seen it since it opened in theaters back in 1995. I’ve wanted to see it again, partly to preview for our twelve year old. She has a great love of all things connected to outer space and a fascination with the Apollo missions especially, but I wanted to check out the film’s intensity level.

I’m not sure why I chose to watch it late last night. I think I just needed to tumble into a good story, and I remembered this was a good one. And indeed it was.

The Story

If you’re not familiar with the film, Apollo 13 is based on the real life story of the Apollo 13 mission to the moon in 1970. Two missions had already landed men on the moon, and by 1970, strangely enough, the space program’s success was becoming “old hat” for the American people. So much so that when Commander Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks in the film) and his crewmates Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon) and Fred Haise (Bill Paxton) transmitted their first broadcast back to earth, on day three in space, none of the networks even bothered to show it.

However, newscasters were soon showing everything about the mission they possibly could. That’s because when they were 173,000 miles from earth (let that number sink in) one of their oxygen tanks exploded, crippling the command module and forcing the men to move to the lunar landing module. They used it as a “lifeboat” until they could find a way, in conjunction with a lot of help from mission control back on earth, to get home. This proved highly problematic in all sorts of ways, as the film dramatically presents.

Story-telling takeaways:

A true story of near catastrophe and ultimate triumph would seem to present you with a dramatic story-shape that you don’t need to tinker with very much. Still, I think the writers and director did a great job of bringing out the dramatic tension in some very creative ways.

We all know the tried and true shape of a dramatic narrative, where someone starts in one direction toward a goal and then gets thwarted. There’s an obstacle in their way, and they have to find out a way around it (or under it or over it!) to accomplish their goal. One thing I love about Apollo 13 is that the highly worthy goal that our heroes start toward is never accomplished, and yet the goal they do end up accomplishing, which seems so much more ordinary, turns out to pull on their strength and heroism in even deeper ways.

The change of their trajectory – from moonward to homeward – marks a major shift in the goal of the story and in the inner orientation of the main characters. Up until now, we’ve been with them as they’ve excitedly trained to fly this spacecraft and land on the moon. When it becomes clear that “we’ve lost the moon,” as Lovell says rather bleakly, when they realize that they can no longer pursue the lunar landing because they will need every ounce of their power to turn around and get home, we are momentarily deflated. The film pays tribute to that by giving Lovell a moment as he looks down at the lunar surface and imagines what it would be like to step out and fulfill his dream. Then we can practically see the dawning realization on all of their faces as it occurs to them that surviving and returning to earth is the new goal, and it’s going to be much harder than anything they ever anticipated about the flight.

Sometimes your character’s original goal does not turn out to be what really needs accomplishing. The heart of your story, and your character’s deepest desires, may not be revealed until deep into the plot.

As storytellers, we don’t have to jump up and down and point when this happens. We can find small but profound ways to indicate the “turn” that is taking place in the outward and inner narratives. Again, I love how Apollo 13 does this. Early in the film, it showed us Lovell looking up at the night sky. He sees the moon, a place he has already orbited (on an earlier flight) so a place he’s begun to know, but one that still fascinates him. He longs to go there again and this time to step out on it surface. He holds his thumb up and moves it back and forth so that it blots out the moon. So tiny really, so far away, yet real, and a place he longs to be.

The visual sticks with us because we see him do the same thing again, but this time in reverse. When they are in the spacecraft near the moon, he looks out the window and sees the earth. He holds up his thumb and blots it out and then moves his thumb and reveals it again. So tiny really, so far away, yet real, and a place he longs to be. In fact, the longing to get back to earth suddenly feels far deeper and more urgent than the push for the moon (it helps that we’ve seen him in the context of his loving family). And the fact that he can so easily block out the earth with his thumb heightens the tension, because we realize just how faraway it is.

A tiny picture, a small repeated gesture – that’s all it takes. We know without words (though the script writers give him some words about it later) that we’re now focusing on the homeward goal. Plan A is gone. Plan B is what matters. And it turns out that Plan B is the heart of our story.

Besides the change in story trajectory, Apollo 13 also does a great job of providing us with glimpses of secondary characters and their motivations and longings. One of my favorite ways it does this is through the character of Ken Mattingly (Gary Sinise), the command module pilot who trained for the mission and then was scratched from the first string just a few days prior to lift-off because he’d been exposed to the measles and they couldn’t risk him getting sick while in space. The irony of and perhaps the providence behind that decision unfolds as the film progresses. This is, interestingly, one of the places where the filmmakers used creative license by creating an even larger role for Mattingly than he had in real-life. While he was an important member of the ground crew that figured out how to get the astronauts home, the film played up his contribution (conflating several real life people’s contributions into one) to emphasize how deeply a part of this mission he still felt, and how invested in the outcome. The choice to strengthen and use his character in that way was a terrific choice.

Creative prompts and exercises:

  • Think of a story idea where the initial goal or quest seems very straightforward. Create an obstacle that blocks your character from that goal. Then instead of the character getting around the obstacle and proceeding toward the original goal, thwart them entirely and provide them with a new goal.

Note: your mission, as a writer, is to change the story trajectory entirely, not in a way that feels like it’s cheating (as though you’re not delivering on what the story initially appeared to be about) but in a way that deepens our understanding of the main character and what he really wants. It may be that the character himself does not realize what he really wants until that moment, or realizes that his first goal, no matter how worthy, is still of secondary importance to this new goal. Lovell really wanted to get to the moon. I’m sure it broke his heart, in some ways, that he never achieved that dream. But in a moment of crisis, he realized he wanted other things more: to continue to live, to get back to the life and family he loved and to the earth that was his home.

You can try this exercise with a dramatic or heroic quest or you can try it on a smaller, more domestic canvas. Lots of characters in literature, even the ones who aren’t heading out on big outward adventures, come to a deeper realization of what they really desire. Lizzy Bennett thinks she wants to make a “good” marriage, but her understanding of what a good marriage constitutes changes and deepens as Pride and Prejudice unfolds. So much so that we see her turn down two marriage proposals, seemingly thwarted in her desire to wed, before she finally gets to a place where she is ready to accept one!

Your story may cover vast outer distances or small inner ones, but in either case, changing the character’s direction and goal can add layers of richness to the story.  

Monday, September 22, 2014

Offering (An Original Poem)

This morning
I awoke
wanting to give you roses --
wanting to lay beauty
at your feet
in thanksgiving
and awe
for all you've given me.

it strikes me as strange
that I long to give
to the One
who made the fields
but then I realize --
you also made me
and made my heart
long to give
and made my eyes
for drinking beauty.

May my life
be filled
with giving moments
and with roses --
may each small act
of patience, kindness,
be a stem,
each loving,
forgiving moment
a smooth petal,
each bend in the road
I meet with joy
and hope and peace
a chance to bend
and fling
another tiny,
lovely offering
to the King of everything.

~EMP (2012/2014) 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Sometimes Specificity Matters

“Name the Tudors we’ve been discussing,” I asked S., my hand hovering over the white board to record the names she gave me.

Quickly she responded with, “Henry VIII, Mary, Elizabeth, Edward.”

“Great!” I said. “Now put them in order.”

“I did.”

I started to correct her, then realized that she had named Henry’s three children in order…by age.

“Ah,” I said. “Put them in order of their reigns.”

She chuckled and said “Edward, Mary, and Elizabeth.” Right again, and a great reminder to me that specificity can be important when asking questions.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

The Roar on the Other Side

The seventh day of school found me wanting to shake things up a bit by adding some poetry into the mix. I’m pretty much always wanting to add in poetry (reading it, writing it) but these days S’ schedule is so packed, it can be hard to do. I hit upon the idea of tying a writing exercise into eating, and we did it over lunch.

I’ve long been excited about Suzanne U. Clark’s book The Roar on the Other Side: A Guide for Student Poets. I didn’t buy it, originally, as a homeschool book. I bought it because I consider myself a student poet. I’ve read it and enjoyed its prompts, meditations on the poetic arts, and great collection of poems for several years. When it dawned on me that it might be a good year to incorporate some of it into our home learning, I got quite excited.

One of the first “stepping stone” exercises that Clark includes in her first chapter, which has to do with the importance of noticing/seeing, is to write a journal entry describing an ordinary piece of fruit. I love these kinds of exercises that compel you to look at something “common” that you’ve seen a thousand times, but to look at it thoughtfully, slowly, and carefully, using all your senses. That’s what S. and I did at the lunch table with a peach today. We called it “mindful eating,” and by the time we were done, we not only each had a journal entry and a poem draft (S. really wanted to go on and play with writing a poem based on her descriptive notes) but we’d thoroughly and completely enjoyed all the juicy slices of that peach.

I’d almost forgotten that we had a small peach tree in my backyard for a number of years when I was growing up. Smelling and holding the peach, I let my mind wander to associations, and suddenly I recalled the golden color of the knobby bark and the smell of ripened peaches in the grass (we never seemed to harvest many, since the squirrels beat us to them).

I love how such a thoughtful exercise can be so many things at once: a break for hearts and minds in the middle of a busy day, a lesson in observing and writing, nourishing time spent together, food for the soul.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Patchwork Post (Homesick for Charis, Loving LOTR)

I'm tired. D. is traveling yet again regarding care issues for his mom, something that continues to weigh on our hearts and minds. S. is struggling some in ways she hasn't in a long time. School is taking up more time than I remembered it did, and while that's not a bad thing, I'm having a hard time remembering how to fit everything else I do into the cracks and crevices of our schooling life. I also seem to be coming down with something that is making me feel miserable and draggy.

In the midst of all this, I am missing Charis, the central country of my fictional work-in-progress. D. and I spent a lot of time this summer, sometimes even during our most tired times, working on history and geography. He's marvelous at helping me world-build, and if I wasn't feeling so tired, I think I would be writing a lot right now. Charis and its neighboring kingdoms and their complex history certainly are a big part of my thoughts at the moment. It's finding time and creativity and just plain energy to try to convert those thoughts to paper that's feeling difficult.

Most of my writing time at the moment is taken up with web content, and while I am thankful that writing educational/job profiles and product descriptions (as I can get them) are helping to bring in some necessary income, I am beginning to feel like if I write one more detailed description of a pair of hiking boots or explain one more time how one moves from an RN to BSN degree, I am going to either burst into laughter or tears. My push to accomplish more web content work came in a week when I discovered I wasn't going to be doing teaching assistant work for the seminary this fall (due to low enrollment) and when I had an essay I worked on in the summer turned down by a journal that I had real hopes might want to publish it. So I know some of the frustration level I'm feeling about the "floor mopping" kinds of writing I'm doing (and trying to do with love, since it's part of the way God provides) is part of a larger piece of frustration over a lack of opportunity to do more of the kinds of work that I feel more passionate about.

Mostly I am feeling grumpy and inept. There. That's honest! 

Lots of good things to be thankful for right now, including a good Sunday School kickoff yesterday, plus the ordinary blessings which are never all that ordinary really. Not to mention the fact that we're less than a hundred pages from the end of The Lord of the Rings, our first read-through as a family, and a powerful re-read for me this time through. Thank you, J.R.R. Tolkien, for the fortifying nourishment of your narrative.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Arrow Prayers

This has been my day for finding things I wrote quite awhile ago. Besides the poem snippet from seven years ago (see below) this afternoon I also found a collection of arrow prayers I put together sometime last year.

I wrote these thinking they might encourage S., who often struggles with thinking she's not "really" praying because she's so easily distracted during prayer (no matter how often I tell her that distraction is sometimes just part of prayer, and the Lord graciously understands that!).I don't remember if I ever introduced these to her or not, though it may be time to try that again, as she is struggling a lot again with the notion of what prayer really is and if God is really there and really hears us.

At any rate, in the midst of some of my own tired discouragement (the last couple of weeks have been very up and down for me, and the last couple of days particularly hard) I was very glad to find these and read through them again.

Tonight my heart was especially drawn to these two arrow prayers:

"Help me to want you more than I want anything else, God."


"Thank you, Jesus, that in you, everything holds together." 


Old Poem, Old Photo

S. was cleaning her room this afternoon and needed a magazine holder for her many copies of Nature Friends and Pockets. I didn’t have a new one, but obligingly moved some homeschooling magazines and old Vegetarian Times to give her one of my old holders. In the process, I discovered a tiny notebook where I’d jotted some rough drafts of poems in 2007.

It’s fun to come across snippets of verse you jotted seven plus years ago. I remembered none of these poems and pieces of poems clearly, though the genesis of the ideas or a turn of phrase occasionally came back to me as I glanced through the pages. Most of them are in nowhere near sharing stage, but one of them made me smile (for a reason I think you’ll see in a moment) and I thought I’d share it here. It’s untitled.

I found my grandfather
at twenty-three.
Twenty-three, both him and me.
I that young in bone and skin,
he that young inside, within
a small glass frame, a photo gray.
He still is twenty-three today,
smiling, so serene and fine,
while I’ve moved on to thirty-nine.

                                    EMP (1/9/07)

What makes me smile about this little poem are all the layers. I really did find a small photograph of my grandfather, aged 23, when I was 23 myself. I was at my aunt’s house, looking through boxes of old pictures, and I remember how wonderful that felt, to have that kind of “connection” with a man who was so important in our family, but whom I never had the chance to meet. He died six years before I was born.

I keep that photo of my 23 year old grandfather on my bureau. And I do recall the day I picked it up and realized that the smiling face in the photo was still as young as the day I’d put it in the frame, while I’d aged sixteen years in the meantime. Now another seven years have gone by, and the layers continue. I’ve passed on to the age of 46, and my young and smiling grandfather is still peering out at me from the frame. He was born in 1901, so it’s been 90 years since that photograph was taken.

Monday, September 01, 2014

First Day of Seventh Grade!

Year Eight in the homeschool journey begins! Yes, I know it's Labor Day, but we're starting late this year due to travel, and D. planned to be working today anyway. The sweet girl and I agreed we'd rather get a jump on things and get in a whole week, so here we are on a Monday morning.

I love the first day of school traditions we've put in place over the years: first day muffins, pictures, hand print (such a laugh now to see those little hand prints from earlier years!), new Scripture verse CD. For the first time ever this year, we listened to a Scripture CD that wasn't from the Harrow family, as we finished all the volumes in Sing the Word. Our first listen to the first verse in "Songs of Courage" earned a thumbs up from us: we liked the music a lot. And of course Jeremiah 33:3 is a wonderful verse: "Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know." Seems like a very appropriate verse for the beginning of a new season of our lives!

Let's not forget the new Ticonderoga pencils, one of which is being used even as I write. The sweet girl is tackling language arts this morning with great gusto.

The years seem to pass more swiftly the older I grow, and one way I know that's true is how quickly this day seems to roll around each year. Thank you, Lord, for another new beginning.