On Creating Beauty

One of my favorite things about Vincent Van Gogh is that even though he was fighting his inner demons every day, he turned the pain from that battle into paintings of incredible beauty.  People might find the way he cut off part of his own ear or the way he died to be memorable, but those things matter because of all the positive things he added to the world when they could have been all negative.  That would have been the easier route.

I try to do that too, but pretending that I’m always, or even usually, okay, would be lying.

My semester at university ended last week, and now I’m home.  Changes like moving, even moving home, always strengthen my own inner demons, but I’ve managed to be pretty productive this past week despite that.  Started a new sketchbook for my reapplication to the illustration program.  Found a couple books on figure drawing and worked on proportions and structure.  Developed a project I’ll probably tell you all about when it’s a bit more outside my head.  Watched the first season of Agents of Shield.  Met up with some friends.  Drove my little brother to and from rehearsal practice for a school musical.  I might even finish unpacking before I have to pack up and leave again.

My mind is still a pretty unawesome place to be in right now, though, so I’ve been thinking of ways to increase the beautiful, good things I make.  I have a list.

1: Bake cookies.  Obviously.

Chocolate chips cookies make everything better, and the simplest recipes only take five ingredients.  Making them is a good way to expel nervous energy without having to think too hard–perfect for a bad anxiety day.

2:  Listen to music.

I have two playlists of the best songs I’ve heard:  One on Youtube and one on iTunes.  There’s something about listening to the right music that helps me get centered so I can get up and do things like eat breakfast.

3:  Read scriptures.

It’s cliche, but that doesn’t really matter.  Scriptures remind me that there’s a lot more to the world than myself, and that there’s someone watching over everything.  That’s usually enough to kick me out of circular thoughts.

When I do one of those things, I can generally get started on drawing or writing something good, though perhaps a little dark.  When I can’t, reading or watching someone else’s fiction is always an option.

What are some things you all do to get motivation to do awesome things?  Let me know in the comments.

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Dreams are a Risk

I’m not saying they’re a risk to avoid taking, but pursuing dreams is a risk.  You have to understand that before you decide to go all in on whatever your particular dream is.

Mine is to tell incredible stories with words and pictures.  Hopefully make a living from it.

Going after that dream is a risk.  I’ve put years into honing my art and writing skills, and plan to continue doing so for as long as I’m using up oxygen.  Longer, if I can find a sketchpad in heaven.  If I don’t succeed in my chosen field, all I’ll get out of that effort is the experience.  Experiences are great, but they don’t pay the bills.  And it’s a competitive field.

I didn’t get into my university’s illustration program this time around.  I’ll apply again in August, after a summer of (practically) nonstop drawing.  If I don’t get in then, I’ll find a different school or program to suit my needs.

Like I said, it’s a risk.

Despite that risk, I believe that going after my dream is worth it.

Stories don’t end wars.  They don’t get clean drinking water to the people who need it, or find new ways of manipulating human biology to help the sick.

As a kid I thought I needed to do something like that to make a difference.  But I’m not physically or mentally healthy enough to be a cop or a soldier, and being good at math doesn’t mean having the passion necessary to make a real difference as a scientist or engineer.  I didn’t know what I’d do.

Then stories saved my life.

Stories change minds.  They give budding young thinkers ideas on ways they could improve the world.  They help people see from the eyes of others, and make them more compassionate.  They point out all the ways we’re going about being human wrong, and show us ways to do better.

They remind an exhausted, depressed teenager that she isn’t alone.

Yes, trying to tell stories is a risk.  It takes time, and money, and a lot of emotional investment.  It’s similar for any other dream.  I’m still doing it–carefully, but unrelentingly.

I want to help people smile.  I want to help them see ways they can change the world in their own lives.  I want to be part of the shenanigans next time Marvel decides to destroy the multiverse.  I want my fiction to help people the way fiction has helped me when I didn’t think I was worth anything.

Whatever your dream is, I hope you know the risks, and I hope you find ways to fulfill that dream despite them.

On Accepting the Darkness Within

When I was in sixth grade, I doodled a vampire in the margins of my math homework.  My teacher made me erase it.  She seemed horrified that I would want to draw something with fangs and horns (I had an interesting idea of what ought to be a vampire) when there were so many other things to draw–or better yet, math problems to solve.

I hadn’t realized I was drawing something frightening.

With that, and being a Christian and a natural optimist, I figured that the “creepy” stuff in my head needed to stay out of sight.  I’d never watched horror films or anything, and didn’t generally think of myself as someone interested in scary things.  The adults in my life said I wasn’t.  I enjoyed doodling flowers and butterflies as much as doodling vampires, and I got into less trouble for the flowers.

Even now, I can talk about some of my favorite stories and fictional moments, only to find that everyone else thinks they’re creepy.  The Bartimaeus Trilogy.  The Dark is Rising.  Dementors.  Things like that.  I might understand that there are frightening aspects to those stories, but they don’t usually seem super important to me.

Apparently I like dark things.  Not for any particular reason.  Darkness just interests me.  I especially like it when it contrasts with light–when despair and hope collide, when the monsters force people to become their best selves.  I keep that interest on a leash, but it’s always there.  Just another, sometimes unpretty aspect of me that I have to work with.

My favorite moments in fiction tend to be the ones where our heroes are, or think they are, powerless.  Vulnerable.  I like those moments because they reveal what those characters are made of without all the pretenses and superpowers.  And because they’re dark.

Besides, the darker things get, the brighter the happy moments are.

But how do we create that darkness in our own stories?

Maybe you read about current events to get into the proper mindset.  Maybe you remember some nightmare.  Maybe events in your own life are enough.

Me, I let my own natural darkness out of its closet.

However you do it, finding the darkness is important.  Stories about little girls in an ideal Fairyland are all well and good, but the interesting ones have frightening things to go with the magical.

We all have light and dark inside us.  Life is a mixture of light and dark.  We might as well reflect that accurately in our stories, even the happy stories about magic schools or guardian angels.  Those angels are guarding the hero from something, after all.

The Day We’ve All Been Waiting For

The Force Awakens came out on DVD this week, which means that most of the people who care about Star Wars ought to have had the chance to see it by now.  I know one person who hasn’t yet, but I’ll make sure he sees it before he sees this.

In the meantime, I can finally talk about this fantastic film!

Spoilers ahead, naturally.

I’m probably going to be discussing this for a while, but for today let’s talk about some of the new characters.

Ben Solo/Kylo Ren:  A frustrating character.  Half creep, half angsty adolescent.  Someone with no qualms about barging his way into someone’s mind if it might be convenient, whatever it might do to the mind in question.  Considering that, I have no qualms about calling him Ben instead of what he insists on calling himself.

I have a lot of questions about him.

Why did he believe that patricide was the way to end his journey to the Dark Side?  He’d killed an unarmed man, ordered a village slaughtered, attacked a peaceful settlement, and tortured people.  What’s so special about killing Han Solo?

Besides, you know, the fact that Han has been one of geekdom’s favorite fictional people for the last thirty years.

Why does Ben keep hitting the place where Chewie shot him after he killed Han?  Is he struggling to remain conscious and alert?  Is he using the pain to strengthen his connection to the Dark Side?  Is it some form of subconscious self-punishment?

Why is Ben so angry all the time, anyway?

 I might have a theory about that last one.  Apparently Ben’s had the Dark Side and the Light Side warring inside of him his entire life.  Considering the amount of raw power he demonstrates, that’s not surprising.  Both sides have a strong connection to him.  It’s the same sort of inner conflict that made Anakin pretty irrational before he took the name Darth Vader.

Can a strong enough connection to the Force drive someone insane if they aren’t solidly on one side or the other?  Are Skywalkers cursed because of that connection?

I don’t know.

I’m hoping that Ben doesn’t get some sort of last-second redemption the way Vader did.  It seems cheap, even if Han would want his son to go good again.  Han’s dead, his opinion won’t have much impact.

They worked pretty hard to make it clear that Han is dead.  He gets stabbed through the chest like Qui-Gon Jinn, and falls down a seemingly bottomless pit towards the core of Starkiller Base…which then explodes.  And Leia feels his death, just in case we weren’t certain about it.  Dead, dead, died, dead.  It’s like they thought we would all find excuses for him to stay alive or something.

Moving on.

FN-2187, otherwise known as Finn:  The first of our protagonists who we actually see, though we have no idea who he is at that point.  The one stormtrooper who somehow broke out of the First Order’s brainwashing.

I like him.  He knows everything anyone needs to know about firing a blaster and about the First Order’s equipment and procedures, and is completely clueless about virtually everything else.  Any language but Basic has to be translated for him, and he’s pretty inexperienced socially too.  He does pick up being gunner on a TIE fighter pretty quickly, with help, so he can learn.

But he isn’t great at improvising.  Maz has to remind him he’s holding a lightsaber when he panics about not having a blaster.

Finn spends most of the film being terrified, as most of us would in his circumstances.  The fact that in the end he doesn’t give in to the fear, he starts to actively fight for his newfound principles and friends, says a lot about his capacity for courage.  He’ll be an interesting one to watch in the future.

Rey, last name and pseudonyms unknown:  She gets accused of being a Mary Sue, but I really enjoyed her.

Unlike Finn, Rey does nothing but improvise.  She lives in the shell of an AT-AT.  She’s cobbled together her knowledge of how ships and other tech work by taking apart long-dead machines from a war that happened before she was born, and her knowledge of the Force from rather garbled explanations from multiple sources.  And she is capable of making a mistake–rathtars, anyone?

Her knowledge of combat, besides the self-defense she learned on Jakku, is sorely lacking, and she doesn’t yet know how to recognize who might be an enemy before they attack her.  Well, it’s Star Wars, she’ll learn that quickly enough or she’ll die.

There’s something else about Rey that will probably be dangerous in the future:  Years of isolation have lead her to bond almost immediately with people who show her a kindness.  Getting through mortal peril together does tend to make people rather fond of each other, but not on the scale of Rey.  She’ll be vulnerable to betrayal if that keeps up.

Finally, Poe Dameron:  My favorite of the new characters, despite his having the least amount of screentime.

Poe is one of those people who tries to replace his emotions with sass during times of stress.  I find that endearing.

He’s older than Rey or Finn, since he was born before the fall of the Empire, and he’s fought with both the Republic and the Resistance for years–but he acts like he’s still Rey’s age at heart.  Sassy.  Impulsive.  A tad arrogant.  Paints his spaceship black.  As enthusiastic about flying and blowing things up as a high schooler about a rollercoaster.

(That said:  if I could pilot an X-wing, none of you would ever see me again.  I’d be too busy exploring the universe and fighting evil.)

What I like about Poe is that none of his quirks make him childish.  He’s still dedicated to a cause he believes in.  People still trust him to lead on the battlefield.  Or battlespace?  Whatever.

Poe Dameron is a fictitiously breathing argument for people being allowed to grow up and still retain the enthusiasm of their childhood.

Apparently they’ve started a comic book for him!  That’s fantastic!

Okay, those are the VIPs of the film, in my opinion at any rate, and what I thought of them.  What did you all think of them?  Have any other theories?  Let me know!

If you want to discuss possible ships, though, be warned:  It’s Star Wars, we don’t know who’s related to who, and every other romance in this universe has ended tragically.

Okay?  Okay.

Stories for children?

Yesterday I finally finished and submitted my application to the university’s illustration program, complete with a digitally colored portfolio piece, drawings of people in their underwear (they’re big on figure drawing, go figure), a filled sketchbook, and something called a “letter of intent.”

I found it absurdly difficult to write the letter of intent without using my ironic version of the formal voice.  I think my sass got loose and ate my non-ironic formal voice sometime in high school.

Anyways.

I didn’t do much yesterday, or most of the past week for that matter, besides work on that application and the occasional homework assignment.  So, no blog post on Friday.  But now I have a bit of time to think, even around the knot of tension at the base of my skull.

So let’s talk about fairy tales.

In one of my classes, I’m working on the dreaded Group Project, working on showing movement through a sequence of twelve images.  Above, you can see the first one I completed.  Mostly completed, anyway.  The sunlight could use some work.

Being art students, none of us could do that simply, so we decided to retell the story of the little mermaid.  The Hans Christian Anderson version, not the Disney one, so it actually resembles a traditional fairy tale–gore and all.

Though no one gets to draw her losing her tongue.

With that going on, the utter ridiculousness of traditional fairy tales has come to my attention.

Cutting people out of a wolf’s stomach.  Lifting someone up a tower using hair.  Trying to get an immortal soul.  A shard of glass that freezes the heart.  Ghost women who will dance a man to death.  Who looked at these and decided they were bedtime stories?  They’re bizarre and impossible and insanely creepy.

As a child, of course, those were all of my favorite things about fairy tales.  I was a weird kid.  Or maybe children in general are just weird.

The great thing about fairy tales, though, is the same thing that’s great about Star Wars, or any other expression of speculative fiction:  It is impossible, and a bit ridiculous, and often creepy, but it reflects life.  Through a distorted mirror, mind you, but mirror it it does.  And since it’s so distorted, it shows us things that we wouldn’t normally notice.

Back to the mermaid.  She wants the prince and an eternal soul.  She doesn’t get the prince, but she does get another chance at getting an eternal soul.  I personally would have asked for a name and an eternal soul, but that’s just me.

The mermaid’s mixed success is important–it reminds us that we don’t always get the things we want or need, even when we sacrifice for them, but that it’s possible to be happy anyway.

And perhaps it is the ridiculous qualities, the nightmarish aspects, of the story that makes it so memorable, so that it sticks in people’s minds and the message gets passed on.  The messages aren’t always about happy things.  All my favorite Irish fairy tales end with everyone dead.  Then again, this planet isn’t always a happy place.  Might as well reflect that bit accurately.

I think that’s why so many good modern stories use the old fairy tales.  They might alter the messages to suit the needs of the storyteller or the times, they might change the setting, but the core of the story is still a fairy tale.  Not because the writers couldn’t think of an original plot, not because fairy tales are popular these days, but because fairy tales are good.  They’re memorable.  They remind us of aspects of the world that we don’t always pay attention to.

At the very least, the fact that so many of the most retold fairy tales are dark helps me feel a bit less awkward about loving dark stories so much.