Friday, May 12, 2017

How Failure Made My Writing Stronger

Graduation season is upon us. To all of you who wear the cap and gown this year, congratulations! Your happy Facebook pictures with your diplomas and leis make me smile, and though I may not be there with you, I celebrate you in my heart.

It takes me back to my own college graduation just two years ago.

I crossed the finish line of that last semester like an exhausted racehorse, limping, panting, in last place but glad to make it to the end. I commuted more than sixty miles every day for class. I had a one-year-old at home and my wife was pregnant with our second child. Our only income came from a single summer and some Fridays I spent cutting grass at another university.

I was ready to be done with school and find a new job. My family was ready, too.

So I marched in the procession with my head held high. A pipe band led my fellow graduates and me across the college campus, past cheering lines of berobed professors, and into the packed arena where our friends and families waited and the university orchestra pounded out Pomp and Circumstance. My heart raced with the dizzying perfection of the moment. This was it. I had finished college, and everything looked up from here.

Different graduation, but I look better in this one anyway.

Except I didn't graduate.

Final grades went up a few days after the celebration. And instead of a diploma, I received a D in playwriting.

That dealt a devastating blow. After countless hours researching and drafting and revising everything from poetry to annotated bibliographies; sleepless nights forcing out coherent sentences with five tabs open on my browser and three books open on my kitchen table; early mornings on cold train platforms and long days away from my family; I came out empty handed.

I let myself down. I let my family down. What were we going to do now?

So I did what I assume all sensible people do when they fail at life. I wallowed in self-pity for a few days. Applied for what few writing jobs might take me. Hooked myself up to an ice cream IV drip.

Mmm, chocolate.
Image credit: Ketamine Advocacy Network

But I didn't come this far to fail. My wife and I looked at summer classes. The college offered the one course I had wanted to take but never had room for in my schedule. It would satisfy my final graduation requirement, and we had just enough money left for me to enroll in it.

The first day of the summer semester after I should have graduated, I walked into my advanced creative nonfiction writing class and hoped no one would notice me. I shouldn't have been there, not with failure stamped in bold letters on my forehead. I sat in the back and busied myself with my notebook.

It didn't take long, though, before I realized not graduating in the spring was the best thing that could have happened to me. I believe I grew more as a writer in that one semester than I did in all the years before it. The writers I surrounded myself with that summer helped me open up and give more to my readers, unpack scenes and savor every moment on the page, and embrace even the dark parts of my story and myself.

At the end of the class, I received my diploma. But I gained more than that. Like a phoenix from its ashes, I came out of failure a stronger writer than I'd ever been before.

Image credit: Salvador Davila

Writers deal with failure all the time. We might get halfway through a draft before we realize the story's going nowhere. We might get piles of rejection letters before we see our work anywhere in print. Readers might leave negative reviews online.

And that's all good. Because nothing forces you to grow like failure.

Rejection is a gift. Negative reviews are gold. Think of them as opportunities to learn: to make your writing sharper, your stories bolder, your voice more yours.

But failure isn't just for writers. Sane people fail sometimes, too. And good for them!

Maybe you didn't get that promotion. Maybe your mother came over before you could clean. Maybe you miscalculated the trajectory of that shuttle launch and sent a whole crew of astronauts hurtling through the eternal void of space.

This is a great chance for you to learn something. You're gonna grow so much--just you wait and see! Someday you'll be glad this happened.

I know now if I could change the past and earn a higher grade in playwriting, I wouldn't do it. Not with everything that failure gave me.

Friday, May 5, 2017

What's With the Whole "Sly Pig" Thing?

I'm halfway through my sophomore year of high school. And it's dead silent in my debate class.

Our teacher, Mr. Hawkes, sits up front and center, facing the class in a borrowed desk and marking the roll while we research our speeches for a coming tournament. He exemplifies what I at fifteen think an intellectual might look and act like. Daily he engages us in political and philosophical discussion. He uses poetry to teach us verbal presentation. He's studying for law school and gives the class a practice LSAT. He wears long hair, plays chess at lunch, and is known affectionately to students as the Vegan Ninja.

Several minutes pass and Mr. Hawkes looks up from his roll. Out of nowhere, he shatters the silence.

"Oh, I get it!" he announces. "Sly Pig!"

And then he laughs. Hard. And we laugh with him--for a solid minute.

Image credit: Know Your Meme

I've grown to enjoy people's random light bulb moments as they've figured out my nickname. By this point in the school year, I've stopped explaining it. It's much more fun to see my friends and teachers get it on their own.

But it hasn't always been that way. Do you know how annoying a name like Cunningham can be when you're growing up?

My earliest memories of elementary school include classmates, each in turn, having a stroke of genius and saying, every single nose-picking time, "Your name is Cutting Ham! Get it? Cutting? Ham?"

Then they'd giggle in triumph, as if they'd just sailed from Spain and discovered the New World without knowing the whole rest of the class, like the Vikings, beat them to it before recess.

"Cutting Ham! Get it? Cutting? Ham?"
Image Credit: Architect of the Capitol

I'm not just talking kindergarten, either. In sixth grade I still ran into truly clever souls on the playground who shouted, "Hey, it's Nathan Cutting Ham! Get it? Cutting? Ham?"

And I'd laugh, because I'd never heard it before, so it was hilarious.

Kids these days get points for originality, though. After we got married, my wife went back to her job as a kindergarten aide and one student called her "Mrs. Candy Cane." I had to appreciate that one just for being new. It was January; the kid probably still had some Christmas candy left.

The kids at school would have never guessed the proud history of the Cunningham name: how we fought for Scottish independence in the fourteenth century; how we received earldom in the late fifteenth century; how the great Scottish poet, Robert Burns, composed a passionate tribute to his patron, James Cunningham. Man, we even had some castles. Freaking castles.

Finlaystone Castle, historic seat of the Cunningham Earls of Glencairn
Image credit: Geograph

But sure, whatever. I like the taste of ham. And Heaven knows I've cut my fair share of it over the years. That Cutting Ham thing just got old, though--before I even reached first grade.

Maybe that's why I adopted a new nickname with such enthusiasm after I turned twelve. For whatever reason, the boys in my Scout troop at the time liked to call each other by their last names. So we had a Schultz. A Brenk. A Porter and some Danielses. I don't know what it was about my name--maybe it was just too long--but right away the other boys went to work improving on it. As all good Scouts will do.

So Sly Pig was born. And if you haven't figured out the play on words by now, just think cunning ham. Feeling stupid? Don't; it took a committee of clever Boy Scouts to come up with it. And man, was it a refreshing change from Cutting Ham!

I ran with the new nickname. By ninth grade, I had not just friends, but teachers calling me Sly Pig. In high school it became my email address and every online username. During senior year, a friend gave me a stuffed Sly Pig, complete with scheming eyebrows. And after graduation, I slapped the name onto personalized license plates and hit the town.

I suspect if I had let it go on longer, I might have tried to make a little cash on t-shirts, mugs, and bumper stickers. But contrary to popular belief, I don't snort or play in the mud. Eventually I had to cool the Sly Pig thing down a little.

And yet, after all the nicknames I've been given since then--and I've had some good ones, like Clever Bacon and Stunningham--nothing's ever beaten Sly Pig.

So I hold on to it. Use it online. Give it to my website and explain myself to visitors.

'Cause hey--it sure beats Cutting Ham.

Friday, April 14, 2017

I Promise I Don't Have a Lego Problem

The day my wife and I got married, her family followed us home to carry all our gifts up the three flights of stairs to our apartment.

We'd moved in just a week before. Washed and put away our dishes. Set up a card table in our dining room. Selected tributes in a lottery to deliver our massive antique piano. But we still weren't totally unpacked.

My wife's younger siblings noticed the boxes stacked halfway to the ceiling in our bedroom. "Know what's in all those?" my wife said. "That's just Nathan's Lego."

Their eyes got as big as Lego baseplates.

We had regular visitors after that.

Image credit: CinemaBlend

I've gotten a wide range of reactions when I've opened up about my Lego addiction. I've gotten even more diverse reactions when people have seen the size of my collection for the first time: awe from some, eye rolls from others.

But the one question people ask whether they think I should be high-fived or institutionalized is: Do you have a freaking problem?

And, naturally, I get all defensive and threaten them with Kragle.

I've blogged before about how liking something should be enough reason to enjoy it. But the reasons for my choice of hobby go beyond just liking it. Lego isn't a mere toy to me; it's an outlet for expression, and it always has been.

For third grade writing assignments I drew inspiration from stories I read about characters like Johnny Thunder in Lego Mania Magazine. I played out the things I wrote with Lego sets I had at home.

Image credit:

In sixth and seventh grade I built scenes and wrote a script that would become a novel and push me toward higher goals for many years to come. To this day I still use Lego to help me describe characters and scenes, or create brand new ones.

In high school I expressed my faith through Lego models of selected scripture stories. I got to share this project with the world thanks to the Internet, and on top of all the pleasant conversations it inspired, it found recognition in my Church's popular media.

Lego also helped me in my English classes. It got easier to focus on assigned reading like Huckleberry Finn and The Great Gatsby when I imagined how I could build each scene in Lego.

Spoiler alert.

But why not express myself through charcoal, paint, or clay?

Other than the obvious explanation that I suck at every other form of visual art, I can reuse Lego. I can build whatever I want, snap some pictures, take it all apart, and start on something else--all without regular trips to the craft store, goopy messes, or running out of room to display my work.

You might say Lego actually saves me space and money. I don't really have a problem.

Lies! All lies!

Okay, so I may have sold a kidney to afford an Ultimate Collector Series Millennium Falcon and leased a second apartment just to keep my Lego in.

But it's all about the art. I promise I don't have a problem.

Friday, March 24, 2017

That Time I Made a Promise to an Imaginary Friend in My Living Room Because That's What I Do

You have to be at least a little crazy if you want to be a writer. That's the only way you'll listen when your characters show up to talk to you.

And they will show up to talk to you. If you spend enough time in their world, I guarantee you it will happen. Thanks to a novel I've been working on for more than half my life, I have friends in my head who I've known longer than most of my friends in real life. They're real to me; we visit often.

Enough, at least, that I can make Lego versions of them.

Even though I usually extend the invitation first, every now and then my characters drop in unannounced. It usually happens when I'm showering or trying to go to sleep, but a recent encounter happened in my living room with the Enchanted soundtrack playing.

"Hey, I like this song," the character said.

"Oh, hi Philo," I said. "I didn't see you come in. Yeah, isn't the piano part great?"

"It's something I would play. Just, uh, so you know." (In my novel, Philo works with other entertainers as a piano accompanist, but he really wants to be recognized as a great pianist on his own.)

"Consider it done. I know just when to have you play it, too."

Philo doesn't like to show how much he appreciates when people do nice things for him, but the light in his eyes betrays him. "Thanks," he says. But then he looks down and shifts from one foot to the other.

"Philo, what's up?"

Philo hesitates. "I've been thinking," he says.

"A dangerous pastime," I answer. Philo doesn't crack a smile. He and I don't share a sense of humor. "Sorry. Go on."

"Well . . . I don't think it's fair what happens to me."

"Drama, Philo. We're going for an emotional reaction."

"I get that. But why does everyone in the book end up happy except me?"

I blink. "Did I . . . tell you about the others? I'm not sure 'happy' is the word I'd use."

"No, Philo has a point," Em says. I have no idea when she got here. "You pretty much destroy him."

"But he lives."

"Only because he's your favorite. Yeah, we all know. You put more of yourself into him than you put into Roy." (For those of you keeping score at home, Roy's kind of a big deal. He and Em are the novel's POV characters.)

I restart the music at the part Philo likes. "So what do you want me to do?" I ask.

"Give me a happy ending," Philo says. "Please."

I think about the things I make him go through in the story. His life does take a rather tragic turn . . . but what can I do about it? "Do you have anything in mind?" I ask.

Philo closes his eyes and soaks in the music. "What if [spoiler spoiler spoiler spoiler spoiler]?"

This is Philo in his element.

I fold my arms. "Hmm. . . ."

"I think it's a good idea," Em says. "And the others are on board."

"All of them?"

"Well, you-know-who had to roll her stupid dice. But everyone who could think for themselves agreed."

I turn to Philo and lean in, as if I can make him think harder about what he's asked me to do. "Your life will still be difficult," I say.

"I know."

"I'm not going to change what happens to you."

"I . . . I know."

"And you'll have to keep your guard up. You know how I like things bittersweet at the end."

". . . Yes."

"But let's try this out. I like it."

Philo raises his head. I can trace the path tears have made on his cheeks. "You mean it?" he asks.

"I mean it."

In a rare display of unbridled joy, Philo hugs Em and shakes my hand. "Oh, thank you!" he says. "Thank you."

And so, here I am, working extra frantically to finish my novel. Because I have promises to my characters to keep.

Promises to friends who don't exist.

Am I insane? Perhaps a little.

But it comes with the job.

Friday, March 10, 2017

How Video Game Music Makes a Strong Case for the Arts

Want to shock your parents? Tell them respected symphonies play video game music now.

Most people who haven't spent a lot of time playing video games may be surprised to find that game soundtracks have come a long way from the undeveloped bleeps and bloops they might expect. Even 32 years ago, the iconic Super Mario Bros. theme music featured a carefully balanced calypso rhythm that's harder to perform than it sounds (take it from someone who printed off the piano sheet music).

Cultural institutions have taken notice. Over the past few years, I've attended performances in Salt Lake City's prestigious Abravanel Hall where I've heard the music of franchises like Mega Man, The Legend of Zelda, World of Warcraft, Sonic the Hedgehog, Halo, Castlevania, and--of all things--Tetris. I can't wait to go back in June for a Final Fantasy concert.

Here they play everything from Pachelbel to Pokémon, Mahler to Mario.
Image credit: Broadway World

I've written quite a bit on classical music. The works of great composers spanning the ages between Bach and Gershwin inspire me in a way few other things do. But if you asked me for my favorite music genre, I'd answer in a heartbeat: video game soundtracks.

I don't even call myself a gamer. I've never beaten a Legend of Zelda game. I have a high score of negative seventeen in Halo multiplayer. I've spent years chiseling away at Chrono Trigger--not because I don't adore the beautiful storytelling and mechanics, but because I only actually sit down to play it once or twice a year.

You'd think I had the time, though.
Image credit: Donna Vitan

But I have to appreciate video games as the unprecedented art form they are. And if I could only choose one aspect of video games to prove their artistic quality, I would choose the music.

As with film scores, video game soundtracks turn visual media into a more sensory, immersive experience. Composers in both genres employ leitmotifs--place and character themes--to help viewers and players form emotional connections to a story. But video games add another factor to the equation: interactivity. Gamers don't just watch characters on a screen; they become those characters.

That's why, for example, my heart still breaks whenever I hear "Aerith's Theme" from Final Fantasy VII. Playing as the game's protagonist, Cloud, I talked with Aerith, fought with Aerith, and traveled with Aerith. But in the end, I couldn't save her. If Aerith had died the same way in a movie as she had in the game, I wouldn't have been as devastated. But in the game, I was there. And so was the music. You only need to hear it once to be convinced that Final Fantasy is art.

If you played the game, you can't picture this scene without the sad music.
Image credit: Final Fantasy Wiki

Game music makes an argument that goes beyond video games, though. In a society where arts programs increasingly face defunding and neglect, video game music makes a strong case for the relevance--and necessity--of the arts in general.

I can illustrate my point with the Utah Symphony's Pokémon: Symphonic Evolutions concert, which I attended with my wife last Saturday.

As one might expect from a Pokémon concert, we encountered a variety of colorful characters throughout the night. On our approach to Abravanel Hall, I pointed out a giant, yellow, bobble-headed figure outside the doors.

"Check it out," I said. "They've got a Pikachu statue!"

Then it moved. It high-fived passers by. It posed for photographs.

We found more costumed fans inside. As we waited to enter the auditorium, two kids passed by as Charmander and Squirtle. A man in line ahead of us sported a Magikarp hat. A woman in the foyer had stuffed her vest pockets with all the evolutions of Eevee. And when a couple came in dressed like the nefarious Team Rocket, I'm sure everyone prepared for trouble.

Image credit: Rubie's Costume Company
(Costume designed by my sister-in-law; it was fun to see her product at the concert!)

The crowd inside the auditorium buzzed with energy. As the Utah Symphony tuned their instruments, I envied and adored them for having a string section more than three times larger than my own community orchestra's. Flanked by lights and backed by a screen that displayed appropriate scenes from all the different Pokémon games, the orchestra made an impressive sight.

The crowd's excitement surged when the concert hall darkened and the orchestra commenced its Pokémon journey where so many of us started on our Gameboys twenty years ago--in quiet Pallet Town, with a homey flute melody. The audience cheered as the visuals took us into Professor Oak's lab and Charmander, Squirtle, and Bulbasaur in turn appeared onscreen. Then the crowd laughed as the weird high strings and menacing low strings, brass, and percussion sneaked through Team Rocket's secret headquarters. From scene to scene, the audience responded with nostalgic enthusiasm as the Utah Symphony replayed the favorite memories of all our childhoods.

Soon--too soon--the orchestra had traveled over all the regions of the Pokémon world. They enchanted us with the soothing clarinet and piano themes of Ecruteak City, the dancing oboe lines of Mount Chimney, the intense drumbeat of the Kalos gyms.

And for a grand finale, over two thousand voices in the audience sang along as the Utah Symphony played the beloved theme song from the Pokémon anime:

I wanna be the very best,
Like no one ever was. . . .

In an auditorium full of people who had never met--people whose beliefs and lives and backgrounds varied like the different types of Pokémon--magic happened. Together we sang a song we'd all grown up with--a song that meant something to each of us. My heart swelled with the music. My skin tingled with the energy. A lump formed in my throat.

I didn't know the people sitting in my row. But I felt a sense of brotherhood with them. I didn't know the folks behind me, or on the terraces, or on the stage. But we bonded. Every one of us.

Image credit: TV Tropes

We came from different homes, different circles, different income brackets. But no matter where or when we played the games, many of us had chosen our own starter Pokémon. We had fought Team Rocket. We had trained to battle in the Pokémon League.

We came together over video games. Over favorite characters, a beloved story, music tied to common memories.

We came together over art.

And for that one evening, for those two thousand people all together, raw humanity emerged. What we shared was stronger than our phones, stronger than our fears, stronger than our differences. You could feel it in that concert hall.

That's why we need the arts. Our understanding of the universe could multiply tenfold. We could eradicate disease, build more efficient roads and homes, clean up the oceans and the air. And I hope that all happens. But if we don't have each other, what do we really have?

The arts connect us to each other. The arts remind us who we are.

And if a night of music from a video game can do what I described, imagine what can happen on a trip to the museum. Or at a community theater production. Or at an open mic night at the local coffee shop.

Imagine what can happen if we give the arts the value they deserve.
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