Whisper of the Heart

I know I said this was gonna be about books, but we're going to discuss a movie this time: Whisper of the Heart. It's a good movie for lots of reasons. The gorgeous animation, obviously. Snickering at 1995's cutting edge technology, like huge laptops and actual physical library cards. Wonderful music (as long as you have a tolerance for "Country Roads" by John Denver). And the conflict is entirely person versus self, so there's no sad parts. It's just honest joy the whole way through.

But the reason I want to talk about it is because this movie is the only I've ever seen that captures what it feels like to be a young creative.

Let me back up a little bit. The main character is a middle schooler named Shizuku. She's well liked by her friends and family, but she also feels listless and unsure of herself. Her only interest is rewriting the lyrics to "Country Roads" to fit her middle school graduation ceremony, as well as checking out every fairy tale book ever written from her local library. Otherwise, she has no idea what she wants to do with her life, and so she compares herself unfavorably to people she considers more driven and talented, like her mother, who's putting herself through college while working a full time job.

This all changes when she meets her love interest, Seiji. At first they don't get along, but as she gets to know him, Shizuku realizes Seiji is another driven and talented person. In his case, he wants to make violins and go to Italy to study under a master for a few months. As Shizuku falls for him, she decides she needs to improve herself, so that they can both inspire each other. 

So Shizuku starts writing. Again, this is 1995, so she writes everything down longhand in a series of blue composition notebooks, and when she needs to research, she has to go to the library and look things up in actual books. (I mean, Google is the best thing that ever happened to writers, but longhand research is still pretty amazing.) A good chunk of the third act of the movie—when other films might be featuring epic battles or romance—is just Shizuku sitting in her room, writing. We get little flashes of Shizuku’s novel, but for the most part, it's just the actual work of creation. Shizuku loses sleep and skips meals to finish her story before Seiji returns. She gets cramps in her hands. It’s amazing.

And for the first time in her life, Shizuku feels alive. The words on the page are more real to her than her family or friends, and she can't wait to share it with other people, even if she's nervous about how they'll receive it. She no longer worries about her place in the world or compares herself to others because she's found her purpose.

I cried when I watched this movie, because Shizuku was me at that age. I noodled around with a lot of things creatively in middle school, but my best friend at the time was a naturally talented artist, so I never felt like I measured up. I didn't have anything driving me. Everybody kept telling me I had a bright future ahead, but I couldn't figure out what I wanted that future to look like. So mostly I just read books.

Then I started writing stories. I'm not sure when this happened, although it's probably around the time I discovered fan fiction. (For context, this was around 2001, so we're talking dial up, forums, and Fanfiction.net.) And it was like my whole life changed. I finally knew what I was supposed to be doing. Stories poured out of me like water—I never went anywhere without a notebook, and most of my free time was spent online, reading other people's works and getting comments on my own. (Again, this was old internet, so people were nice. I know, hard to believe.) Throughout high school and at the beginning of college, I had nothing to do but write since I didn’t have a life, so I produced a lot. 

A lot's changed since then. Real life, I guess. Writing isn't as easy anymore. Part of it is time—in school, I never had to pay much attention in lectures, so I spent that time writing instead. Part of it is just that my view of the world is more complex, so my stories have gotten more complex to reflect that. And part of it is now it's not just a passion project, something to squeeze in around my job and school; it is my job, so I have to figure out what I'm writing and how I'll make money with it. On one level I'm glad this has happened. My writing's improved, for one thing, and I finish projects more quickly. On another, I mourn the freedom I felt, like everything was just waiting for me to discover it.

That's why watching this film was such a joy for me. As I watched Shizuku, I remembered that initial rush, when the only thing that mattered was getting things out of my head and onto the page. When I spent almost all my free time writing or sharing my work with others. I wouldn't go back. But I don't want to forget it either. 

Brick by Brick

If you are looking for a book that will teach you to draw/write/juggle chainsaws while singing Ave Maria in a perfect soprano, Brick by Brick is not that book. It’s the only creative advice book I’ve ever read that has no comments on technique or an introduction to the basics of the craft. This is important, because Brick by Brick is a comic book written by an artist, so the language is skewed toward painters and graphic artists and all those other lovely eccentric people who sold the pot brownies in the college courtyard that you swear you never tried. (You’re a liar, and we all know it. The only reason I never got one is because I wasn't cool enough to be allowed in the art building. I had to settle for sniffing old books in the library.)

Most creative advice books assume you know how to sit down and motivate yourself to actually create, which is a really big assumption if you consider it for more than a second. After all, if everyone who said they wanted to write a novel actually wrote one, libraries would have long ago transformed into black holes, and we’d all be stuck in a Chris Nolan movie. Chuck Wendig wouldn’t have to waste valuable interwebspace to yell at you to write every day. NaNoWriMo would not be a thing, because aspiring novelists would not need the hand up to get started on their projects. Et cetera. 

Most creative advice books also assume you know how to see a project through to its end. Except that for every three people who say they want to write a novel, there’s one who started but then gave up because they realized—OMG—writing is actually work and not skipping through flowers holding hands with a unicorn. (Don’t ask me how you’re holding hands with a hooved animal. You don’t want to know.)

Brick by Brick is a welcome relief. It admits that we creative types are master procrastinators. We all know exactly how long we can dick around on our phone before we have to get started on our term paper/painting/reading of the ancient grimmerie to prevent the rise of the Elder Gods.  (You really need to get on that. I for one don’t want to witness the tentacled apocalypse.) 

Other creative advice works admit this problem too, but they only offer surface solutions—goal-setting, finding rewards or punishments, etc. Not that those are bad things, but they ultimately don’t solve the problem. We don't procrastinate because we don't enjoy the work or because what we're doing doesn't matter enough that we require some trinket as a reward when we're done. We procrastinate because, in general, creators are smart people, and at some point we learned we could get by with ignoring a deadline until the last minute. Maybe in school or at a shitty job, we found out how to get the least amount of work done for the least amount of effort and the greatest amount of reward. Then we turn this practice toward our creative lives… and suddenly it doesn’t work. We don’t finish novels. Sketchbooks never fill up. Cthulhu rises from the deep and we are sucked into the howling void, screaming voiceless for eternity. (Seriously.  Set a reminder on your phone or something.)

Simply putting our nose to the grindstone doesn’t help. It makes creating into a chore, just another thing to check off the task list instead of a practice to make life worth living. A mindset change is required, and Brick by Brick shows you how.

The best line from the book, in my opinion, is when the author talks about procrastination. As he puts it, “In college, I had perfected the skill of putting things off—ignoring tedious homework until the very last minute. But now in the real world I was cashing in that skill at the expense of my own dreams. I’d never learned how to work, only how to avoid work, and now I couldn’t even do what I wanted to do.” How many of us are stuck in that same trap?

The author also points out that the traditional idea of setting rewards and punishments to motivate ourselves isn’t the best approach, either. He used buying himself an MP3 player as a reward for finishing his graphic novel—but shouldn’t the work of finishing his graphic novel have been its own reward? Nothing someone else made can ever measure up to the fulfillment you can get from your own work. 

The book is full of wonderful insights like this. There’s also more practical advice, like how to break your plans down into the smallest goal possible. Writing a novel doesn’t start with writing 1000 words. It starts with sitting down in your chair and taking out your tools—whether that’s starting up your computer or opening your notebook. That seems like nothing, but it’s still an achievement. It’s still more than a lot of other people will ever do.

Eats, Shoots and Leaves

 Look, if you’re a writer, you probably know something about punctuation. I would assume you’re at least literate enough to type out a sentence, if only to leave a scathing comment on my blog. You probably know what a question mark is good for, and you may have a deep and abiding love for the exclamation point or the semicolon. All very good.

But let’s be real here. Do you think a comma splice is an unfortunate back injury? Would you be lost in a game of “pin the hyphen on the appropriate phrase?” Do you hesitate when using anything more complicated than a period or a question mark?

If so, you should invest in a copy of Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss. The book takes a mark-by-mark tour of the world of English punctuation. The book not only contains the rules you need to know in order to send your story out into the world with its hair combed and its shoes polished, but also provides some delightful backstory on each mark to explain why it behaves the way it does. 

For example, if you read Alice in Wonderland or Pride and Prejudice, you might notice an abundance of hyphens, like in to-morrow, that look weird today. Lynn Truss discusses this at length, as well as the origins of the comma and the period. Not things you need to know as a writer, but let’s be real here. If you like to write, you’re interested in this stuff. If you don’t have strong feelings on the semicolon, then frankly, there’s something wrong with you. (It’s awesome, by the way.)

I don’t know if they make the delightful edition I have, which came with a set of punctuation stickers. But if they do, you should buy it, if only to baffle your friends. There’s also a children’s version for those of you who wish to make your friends concerned about you.

And yes, we do pay people for this. (Not as much as you think. Proofreading is a freelancer’s gig these days.) But publishers don’t pick up books based solely on the strength of the work within. Big surprise, I know. In a world glutted with written content, publishers want books they know will sell and that require the least amount of effort on their part. It doesn’t matter if your book is the next Harry Potter if it’s also a nightmare tome littered with extra apostrophes and run-on sentences. Ain’t nobody got time for that. So brush up on your rules. Your book will thank you.

(Note: I’m not addressing anyone who already feels comfortable with the vagaries of punctuation. I know my kind. You’ve already got a copy of this book. If you don’t, you’ve read it, and if you haven’t read it, you’re looking it up. You’ll enjoy it. Trust me. And you’re probably already typing a screed to tell me how I’ve mangled something you love, to which I say: Bring it.)