Monday, November 3, 2014

Any Last Words? A Farewell Post

At last, the farewell post I've been promising (and procrastinating on) for months. Maybe I have a problem with saying goodbye. Maybe I don't like burning bridges. Or maybe I'm just lazy.

At any rate, what's said is said, and it's time to finish saying it and get on with things. Yes, Stranger Dreaming is going to stop updating for the rest of the foreseeable future; they say never say never, but for the moment, at least, this dream has run its course. However, I'll leave the old content up for anyone still interested in perusing it; meanwhile I will still be rambling on (hopefully for a long time) at my new Workplay Blog and at my game charity blog, Arcade Activist.

I thought about making this a list post, or something of that nature, but in the end goodbyes simply aren't meant to be dragged out, so let me simply say thank you to everyone who read this; your time and attention, even if they were anonymously given, have not gone unappreciated. As for the final word? I'll leave that up to a couple of long lost, but never forgotten, master wordsmiths, who know far better how to wrap things up than I.

"I lingered round them, under that benign sky; watched the moths fluttering among the heath, and hare-bells; listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass; and wondered how any one could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth." -- Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights
"Come, children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out." -- William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair

Sunday, August 17, 2014

A Bittersweet Paradox: Grief, Hope, and Robin Williams

Nearly a week has passed since it happened, and I still can’t – or don’t want – to believe it. Robin Williams, gone? It’s like being told the sun won’t be rising anymore. You take it for granted for the majority of your life, stopping only now and then to bask in its glow, finding comfort and joy in its warmth, and never really bother to question what life might be like without it. Then one dark morning it’s not there, and you panic, because you realize too late what you’ve lost. I’ve lost public icons I cared about before, but not quite like this. Though I’m not among the lucky few to have known him personally (I’m not even sure we were ever even in the same city together, let alone the same room), the loss I feel is personal.

Like many others of my generation, he and his characters have been there for me every step of the way. As a child, Genie and Batty were my imaginary friends and consciences, reminding me to “bee” myself and teaching me about how important it is to take care of this wild and wonderful ecosystem we call home. During my early teens, I and my classmates passed many a free (read: substitute teacher) day watching hand-me-down VHS tapes of Flubber, Jack, and, whenever the curriculum cycled back around to Holocaust Remembrance Day, Jakob the Liar. In high school, Good Will Hunting’s Sean Maguire taught me something about the meaning of life and the beautiful chaos that comes of sharing our “weird little worlds” with one another, and in college Chris Nielsen’s courage in What Dreams May Come helped me come to terms with death, loss, and my own vague sense of spirituality. The Birdcage and Mrs. Doubtfire, of course, were always good for an easy laugh.

I first heard the news of his passing early Monday evening, before more specific reports had begun to surface. All we knew was that he was gone. It ached in the way I imagine an organ suddenly disappearing would – it left an empty space in my gut that I didn’t know how to fill. But I didn’t cry. Recalling that he’d had serious heart surgery in the not-too-distant past, I figured it was probably some sort of physical malfunction. I told myself a bedtime story about it, that he’d been so excited about something, so unbearably happy, that his heart hadn’t been able to take it. I liked to think he died as he had lived on film: with joy and a twinkle in his eye.

I turned to What Dreams May Come that night, and it helped a little. Until, while searching for news about the lovely tributes that had already begun to spring up, I ran headlong into a couple of hard, unforgiving words. Hanging. Suicide. Everything stopped, or at least it should have. My bedtime story fell apart. I broke down.

A several-hours-long phone conversation with a close friend later, I found myself sitting in my backyard, staring bleary-eyed up at the fading night sky and watching the shooting stars of the Perseid meteor shower pass me by. I wondered if Williams could see them, too. I wouldn’t remember until several days later the quote from The Little Prince which his daughter Zelda posted on her twitter feed the next day.

“You – you alone will have the stars as no one else has them. ... In one of the stars I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing, when you look at the sky at night … You – only you – will have stars that can laugh.”

Never in my life did I imagine losing someone I cared about to suicide. This loss, even at such a distance as there is between a fan and a celebrity, surprised me with how devastating it felt – how much more devastating, in particular, than merely the news that he had died. It is not that I’m religious and believe that what he did sent him to hell or something like that, but the thought that someone so brilliant and beloved found himself in a place so dark, so lonely, that death seemed brighter than any other path is unbearable to me.

I can’t begrudge someone for wanting to choose their own end, especially when faced with something as serious and difficult as Parkinson's. I don’t think less of him, or that he was weak, or that he committed some sort of mortal sin. But I, like most of us, do wish our heroic clown was still here, that something, anything, could have stopped him or changed his mind and kept him with us a little longer. More than that, I wish he could have found a better way out of his situation, something that would have helped him find peace and hope without taking his life from him, and him from his family and fans. But since that point is moot now, I wish instead that he finds, in the great unknown beyond, the solace and joy he deserved so much in life.

Since his death, I’ve watched a different film of his every night. It’s my version of a week-long wake, I guess. I was afraid at first – afraid that I would look back and suddenly see his suffering somehow reflected in his eyes, afraid that every laugh I used to love to listen to would sound hollow, fake. But the truth is, as Williams himself stated in the past when discussing his depression and substance abuse, acting and making people laugh were among the few things that kept him going when nothing else could. So that spark we all saw in his eyes on the silver screen was likely true, if only fleeting. The movies were fiction, but the laughter was real.

It’s a strange thing to find comfort coming from the same source as your grief, but that’s how it is for me right now. Rather than making bereavement more acute, watching his past alter egos laugh and dance and sing for all the world to see reminds me of how many times his lovable mug pulled me through my own dark places in the past, and how many people besides me feel the same. I hope, above all else, that some small voice in his head, even if in the end it wasn’t loud enough to win his final inner battle, never quite let him forget all the people he saved in big and little ways over the years. He’s part of the reason I’m still here, and I know I’m not the only one. 

That’s where the bittersweet paradox comes in. Even after death, he’s still inspiring so much good. Droves of devoted admirers leaving flowers, quotes, and thank-you notes in makeshift memorials, pouring generous donations into charities and non-profits like the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital he cared so deeply about – it’s enough to make you believe there might be hope for our mad little species after all. Perhaps most importantly, it’s sparked a long-overdue public discussion about depression and suicide prevention, raising some much-needed awareness, not to mention funding.

In my heart, I would rather he still be here. I would rather these changes for the better come from some other, less painful origin. But it is what it is, and all we can do now is try our best to make the most of what good can be wrangled from this tragedy – for his sake, for ours, and for the future. May we make our fallen Captain proud, and honor his memory by making this world a place worth living in.

Rest in peace, chief. You will be missed.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Any Last Words?: Thoughts on Endings

(The second post slated for December was cancelled due to a rash of visiting relatives and friends, followed by a rather harrowing bout of the flu, which I am still getting over. However, from now on we should be back on schedule with regular monthly posts, starting with today's.)

Recently I read through all of Meredith Ann Pierce's Darkangel trilogy, and it got me thinking about how stories end -- or, more precisely, where authors decide stories should end. (Because, of course, no real story ever truly ends.) And also, where a storyteller's responsibilities lie with regards to that ending.

Despite the infinite possibilities of storytelling, in truth there are only two ways a story can end: satisfactorily, or unsatisfactorily. Satisfying endings are the deep breath after the storm has passed; all major questions are answered (or are rendered irrelevant), central conflicts are resolved, and the tension, like a fever, is finally broken. That is all that really needs to be said about them; satisfying endings tend to speak for themselves.

Unsatisfying endings, on the other hand, come in two flavors: intentional, and unintentional. Cliffhangers, for example, are obviously intentional; in such cases, the ending is meant to leave the audience in a state of suspense intense enough to compel them to read, watch, listen to or play the next part of the narrative. TV series use this type of ending especially often (though usually the final episode switches back to the satisfying ending), as do books in a series (again, the final book is an exception). More rarely, a story may end on an extremely ambiguous, open, or even frustrating note, averting the usual catharsis of a satisfying ending, because it is more suited to the story's plot or themes. (In such cases, the ending is unsatisfying in that it leaves us wanting more, but still fitting and therefore not objectionable.) Waiting for Godot is probably the most famous example of this.

Then, of course, there are the unintentionally unsatisfying endings, the finales that mean well but fall far short of expectation. Unless, of course, you were expecting a terrible ending (Twilight: Breaking Dawn, here's lookin' at you, kid). Movies like Swing Vote and The Forgotten go under this category for me, and let's not even talk about what the writers did to Dexter. Many people would argue the finale of Lost goes here as well, but I am not those people. It's abysmally disappointing when a good story goes sour in its final moments, either because the "twist" is terrible or because the ending doesn't really end anything.

Which brings me back to the Darkangel trilogy. (Beware of spoilers if you haven't read it yet.) While Pearl of the Soul of the World hardly ended the way I thought I wanted it to because I am a sucker for happy endings, it's not a bad conclusion, and I definitely respect Pierce for taking the path less walked, considering how young adult fantasy novels usually end. However, it is not by any means a satisfying conclusion, especially after three books' worth of suspense.

Whether this was intentional or not, however, is a bit complicated. Pierce herself is quoted as having said this about the finale (though I have yet to find the original interview this is from -- if you find it please share):

"Anybody who considers that a satisfying ending is nuts. Take heart! I intend to shift focus to Irrylath and show him as a very human character coming to grips with a life of duty, devoid of personal satisfaction or love. No longer overshadowed by Aerial, Irrylath must forgive himself for his crimes as a darkangel, regain his wings and discover the secret that will set both him and Aerial free. Aerial will learn the high personal cost of surrendering herself, however nobly, to Ravenna's planetary rescue plan." 

Pearl was also (supposedly) meant to end with the lines, "Here end for a time the adventures of Aerial. The adventures of Irrylath have only begun." 

Now, had those adventures followed as promised, the conclusion of the third Darkangel book would be perfectly fine as an intentionally unsatisfying break between Aerial's journey and Irrylath's. In fact, if those books had been published, this entire post would probably never have been written.

But here's the thing. The last book in the trilogy was published way back in 1990, over twenty years ago. If Pierce really is planning on writing sequels, she sure is taking her time. And if she never writes them -- or, indeed, if that quote is false and she never meant to in the first place -- then I revert to my initial reaction to the ending, which was, simply, "This can't be how it ends."

The problem isn't that it ended on a tragic note, or that the union which the entire trilogy seemed to be leading up to only lasted a single night (hence the tragic note). The problem is that while Aerial's narrative does feel complete, if heartbreaking, Irrylath's really has only just begun, and ending the story with such a central character in an emotional shambles, having been literally brought down to his knees in a fit of sobs, just feels -- wrong.

Of course, this is as much a matter of taste as anything else. Many online reviews express a deep satisfaction with the ending, praising Pierce for not giving in to cliche and taking what always seemed to be a star-crossed love to its inevitable conclusion. But I repeat: Irrylath's journey feels incomplete to me, and leaving him in such a state at the end of the tale left me with an incredibly uncomfortable squirmy sensation in the pit of my stomach.

As I considered the ending (trying, and so far failing, to come to terms with it), I got to thinking about the responsibilities of storytelling. When crafting a tale, who is all that work really for? One of the first things almost any given writing resource will tell new authors is to consider the audience, to keep in mind who will be experiencing the story and what they will be expecting from it. Is the story, then, an author's gift to the audience, something mined from the teller's heart that then must be refined into a gem worthy of the recipients? Yet time and again, the masters of the craft tell beginners to write for themselves. "I will not reason and compare; my business is to create," one of my favorite quotes, comes straight from a William Blake poem. On her official website, Anne Rice dispenses similar advice, "Write the book you would like to read." Does this mean the work should be primarily tailored to the author's tastes, and external approval comes only secondary?

I have a slightly odder view on the subject. When I'm in the process of making up stories, I'll readily admit that I don't give a flying Frisbee what anyone else might think of my ideas. Exactly as Rice put it, I'm coming up with all the things I wish someone else had already come up with, so that I didn't have to do all the work myself. That's often how I get story ideas, actually; I'll be reading or watching something and think, "Hmmm, but what if they'd done this? Wouldn't this have been cool?" And it evolves from there. I don't start second-guessing myself and worrying about how others will perceive it until later, when I'm actually writing it.

However, I think my ultimate responsibility, as far as telling the story well and finishing it properly, isn't really to myself, nor is it to my (potential) audience, though of course a lot depends on them and a lot of gratitude is owed to them for any success, however small. In the end, I believe a storyteller's ultimate responsibility should be to the story itself. Whether it pleases the masses is secondary; whether it pleases the teller is slightly more important, but still secondary. Whether the story works within its own confinements, and whether it is crafted to the best of the teller's abilities and with the best possible result, transcends both wish fulfillment and popularity. Stories are sacred; treat them as such.

Now, I understand all too well that sometimes the story just won't come out right, and of course no sequel is generally better than a terrible one. Not to mention two decades is a long time to spend outside of a story; I can only imagine how difficult it might be to return to a narrative so long set aside. But here's another odd thought. If you absolutely can't bring yourself to give a story its proper due, whatever the reason, maybe it's time to let someone else do it for you. I realize many an author probably cringed at that; in a world of copyright infringement and the banning of fanfiction, most writers probably feel very uncomfortable with (if not downright insulted by) the thought of some bumbling stranger getting their grimy hands on a precious work of art, particularly with the aim of professional publication. But that story isn't going to write itself, and if you won't, why not let someone else have a go?

It's not really that radical an idea. Even ignoring the reams of unsanctioned classic sequels one can find on any given bookstore's shelves, there are always the shared universes to point to as prime examples of the benefits of passing a story along. Think about comic books; if Stan Lee never let anyone else play in his sandbox, there wouldn't a million and three issues of the Avengers (not to mention each character's separate series). And, quite frankly, I prefer Kieron Gillen's take on Thor and Loki to their original 1960's incarnations. Dragonlance is another example; instead of Laura and Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weis keeping that wonderful world to themselves, over 190 novels set in Krynn have been published with the help of a myriad of guest authors. A story doesn't necessarily have to end with the author's interest in it or their ability to continue it.

So while, as a member of Pierce's audience, I am frustrated with the ending of Pearl of the Soul of the World on my own account, far more egregious is the failing I perceive in her duty to the story. The Darkangel trilogy is a beautifully crafted narrative, and Irrylath is a complex and intriguing character -- and they both deserve a better conclusion. So, Ms. Pierce, if you happen to be reading this, please, please, please write those sequels. Or, if you can't bring yourself to bridge that twenty-three year gap, pass the torch on to some lucky, willing artist you deem worthy of handling your story. It'll be okay, I promise.