Charlie Chaplin, Tramp, Modern Times

Charlie Chaplin in “Modern Times”

My oldest son is leaving for college tomorrow. He is so ready for this and so psyched. I am not ready at all. I’m happy for him, of course, excited, proud—all of that. But ready? Not so much.

This may seem to have nothing to do with favorite movies, but bear with me.

In three years, when our youngest leaves home, my husband and I will experience the more monumental transition to empty-nestdom. But the shift from a foursome to a trio feels pretty dramatic in its own right, and I wanted to honor it in some way.

Some people are surprised to learn that such a bookish family watches so much television. Until recently, however, most of this watching was of movies, not TV shows. Lots and lots and lots of movies. That we watched together, often over dinner.

Earlier this week I solicited a list of movies that all of us have seen and liked, printed out a copy for each person in the family, and asked everyone to rank or comment on the films they thought deserved inclusion in a favorites list.

We can be a fractious family sometimes, but it was remarkable how everyone “got” my project. Each of the guys understood that they were being asked to determine, not their personal favorites, but the family favorites—movies that had entertained all of us nearly equally, or had some staying power in the life of the family afterward (by being often quoted, for instance), or had warranted multiple viewings. The congruence between the four lists was also remarkable. It took me almost no time to arrive at the list I’m offering below.

This isn’t a best-of list—lots of great movies, even great movies we’ve all seen, aren’t included. I also feel compelled to acknowledge that many (most?) of these films contain a lot of violence. I live with three men, okay? To my mind, the violence in these films is not gratuitous; there’s some core of morality behind the stories. Also, my husband and I saw all of these movies with our kids. I like to think that makes a difference. What can I say? They’ve grown up to be peaceable guys.

We’ve been a foursome for almost sixteen years. Starting tomorrow, we won’t be—at least not regularly. In alphabetical order, these are the movies our little family loved the most:

  1. The Big Lebowski (1998, dir. Joel & Ethan Coen). Surely one of the funniest, most quotable movies ever: “That rug really tied the room together.” “Hey, this is a private residence, man.” And “Dude, chinaman is not the preferred nomenclature. Asian-American, please.” We’ve also enjoyed other Coen brothers movies, especially Fargo and True Grit.
  1. A Bug’s Life (1998, dir. John Lasseter & Andrew Stanton). We love Pixar and have seen nearly everything they’ve produced, but this one, basically a primer on the power of collective action, got top marks in our balloting. Kevin Spacey is pure genius as the villain Hopper. As a preschooler, our older son loved Hopper. One day a little Hopper figurine arrived in the Cheerios box, part of a promotional tie-in. Our son carried that thing around everywhere. He kept losing it (and finding it again), so my husband purchased a back-up from General Mills. Today, our surviving Hopper graces the Christmas tree. Pixar also-rans: The Incredibles, Toy Story (all of them), Up, Wall-E.
  1. The Godfather (1972, dir. Francis Ford Coppola). Few scenes in film match the tragic grandeur of the famous baptism scene near the end—surely some of the most brilliant film editing and use of movie music ever. Yes, we also saw the sequel. No, we did not think it was even better than Part I.
  1. Hot Fuzz (2007, dir. Edgar Wright). A send-up of the buddy cop flick that is itself one of the best buddy cop flicks ever made. By far the best work Simon Pegg and Nick Frost have done together. We just saw it again last week as part of our send-off for our college-bound son. “Have you ever fired two guns whilst jumping through the air?” Still awesome.
  1. In Bruges (2008, dir. Martin McDonagh). For all of the Colin Farrell character’s belly-aching about how Bruges is a “fuckin’ shithole,” this one really made us want to go to Bruges one day. A movie that surprised us for its poignancy and heart. Another highly quotable movie: “Somehow I believe, Ken, that the balance shall tip in the favor of culture….”
  1. Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003, dir. Peter Jackson). I’ll admit it: our family obsession with this series was really my obsession. My family were very indulgent and came along for the ride. I let our older son miss a day of second grade so we could go see The Two Towers on opening day. In 2003, we all dressed up as LOTR characters for Halloween. We own the theatrical release DVDs and the extended editions. We’ve watched all the commentaries for each film. We’ve looked at all the special features. We own all the soundtracks. And some figurines. And three different print editions of the trilogy plus associated books like The Atlas of Middle Earth. Yeah, it was a bit much. But man, was it fun. The new Hobbit franchise just isn’t doing it for us in the same way.
  1. Modern Times (1936, dir. Charles Chaplin). We watched a lot of silent films when the boys were younger—Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton. We own Chaplin’s complete oeuvre on DVD, and he made very few duds. Our younger son dressed up as the Tramp for Halloween one year–none of the kids knew who he was, but the adults loved it. This was a tough choice, but most of us voted for Modern Times and its hilarious, virtuoso critique of the dehumanizing effects of modern industrialization. Honorable mentions in this category: City Lights, The Great Dictator, The Kid. Also Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last! (1923).
  1. OSS 117 (2006 & 2009, dir. Michel Hazanavicius). These James Bond parodies deserve to be better known in the US. Created by the same director and star of the Oscar-winning The Artist. We loved both the original OSS 117: Nest of Spies and the sequel, OSS 117: Lost in Rio. The “Bambino” scene in the Cairo installment is one of the funniest musical numbers we’ve ever seen. Very French yet very hilarious.
  1. The Princess Bride (1987, dir. Rob Reiner). Do I even need to explain?
  1. Toshiro Mifune, Seven Samurai

    Toshiro Mifune in “Seven Samurai”

    The Seven Samurai (1954, dir. Akira Kurosawa). Our kids were too young to read the subtitles when we first watched this as a family, so my husband and I took turns reading the subtitles aloud. The film is three-and-a-half hours long. Our voices flagged, but the kids’ attention didn’t. They loved Toshiro Mifune’s heroic antics in this film. We also love these Kurosawa films (all of which also star Mifune): Throne of Blood, Hidden Fortress, Sanjuro, Yojimbo. (Just for fun, a compilation of great Mifune moments.)

  1. Spirited Away (2001, dir. Hayao Miyazaki). Our love affair with Miyazaki started with Totoro and continued with his other films—Kiki’s Delivery Service, Castle in the Sky, Princess Mononoke, Howl’s Moving Castle. But we all agree that Spirited Away has a special magic.
  1. The Usual Suspects (1995, dir. Bryan Singer). This is the one we saw most recently. Another brilliant turn by Kevin Spacey (alas, no figurine!). Our youngest son says of Usual Suspects that it’s the one film he most wishes he could see again for the first time.
  1. And finally: The Wire (2002-2008, created by David Simon). I know—not a movie. Yet all four of us independently included this on our lists. We watched all five riveting, heart-breaking seasons of this epic show together. Our younger son was only twelve at the time. Yeah—too young. This sometimes happens with kids of different ages, right? When the parents deem the older child old enough for something, the younger one ends up doing it too. (Similarly, we thought our older one wasn’t ready for Star Wars until he was five—which meant his brother saw it when he was two.) But this long viewing experience elicited more discussion than anything else we’ve ever seen—discussion about story-telling, writing, and acting, but also about urban poverty, violence, race relations, public education, political corruption, moral complexity. We still talk about our favorite scenes (mine: the scene in Season 1 when D’Angelo teaches Bodie and Wallace how to play chess). The show was so good it kind of ruined television drama for us. We still watch, but the verdict is nearly always the same: this is good, but not as good as The Wire.


filling out form

Follow directions!

Over the last four years, I’ve had the privilege of serving as a first-round reader of applications for a couple of organizations that award writing residencies or grants. I’m always amazed by the quality of the applications I read and overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of strong applications.

Sometimes I’m so bowled over by an application that later, if I learn the applicant was awarded the coveted residency or grant, I feel almost as excited as I would were I getting the prize.

Sadly, of course, the process of reading and evaluating applications means saying “no” far more often than “yes”. A few years ago I started jotting down notes about things I kept seeing that edged applications into the “no” pile. Some of these are dumb mistakes that most of you reading will already know better than to make. But others might be less obvious, and I thought it might be helpful to share my observations. Reading applications definitely changed the way I prepared my own applications.

A few caveats first:

These “tips” may reveal more about me as a reader than anything else. Other thoughtful application readers might disagree. It’s not like I’ve got this all figured out: I apply for fellowships and residencies myself and don’t always get them.

It can’t be emphasized enough: the writing sample matters most. Many of the gripes I note below relate to the mechanics of the application or to the artist’s statement/statement of purpose, but none of that matters if your writing sample fails to engage.

Finally, while none of the quotes and examples below are real, they’re all inspired by things I actually saw in applications.

  1. Follow directions. Duh, right? And yet. Applicants who aren’t even remotely eligible for the residency or grant in question. Applications that upload Word files when the instructions ask for PDFs. Writing samples that include an entire novel when the instructions ask for 25 pages. You get the picture.
  2. Don’t make the reviewer’s work harder. What might that entail, you ask? Prose samples that aren’t double-spaced. Twelve poems, each uploaded as a separate Word file (contrary to the instructions, of course). Non-standard fonts. Very small type. (Yes, I can enlarge it on my screen—but why are you making me do that? I have a lot of applications to read!)
  3. Sonnet cycle, anyone?
    Sonnet cycle, anyone?

    Don’t keep repeating yourself. I’m surprised by how often I see this. A little repetition may be unavoidable, but don’t squander your limited space repeating the exact same information over and over. I’ve read applications in which the writer says, for instance, that they’re working on a sonnet cycle about the Moon inspired by Debussy’s “Clair de Lune.” This exact line appears everywhere: in the bio, the statement of purpose, the CV, the introductory comments to the writing sample, the file name. (Now, if that sonnet cycle kicks ass, I may forward the application to the next level. But the impatience I felt making my way through all the repetitiveness may linger as it competes with other high-quality applications.)

  4. Don’t be arrogant. Avoid name-dropping. I’m much more interested in your process and your project than in the (albeit impressive) list of everyone with whom you’ve workshopped over the last fifteen years. Also, your “Why I hate grant-giving agencies” poem or your essay about how badly you behaved at a writer’s colony might be transgressive in some awesome way, but best to leave out of your writing sample.
  5. Don’t list efforts and “almosts” as achievements. It’s fine if you haven’t published at all or only in small regional publications. It’s also fine to list making it to “finalist” in a prestigious writing contest—that’s an achievement. But your ten unpublished short stories don’t belong in your CV. Neither does being waitlisted for another residency or an MFA program. Don’t list residencies or MFA programs to which you were accepted—then didn’t attend. And we’ve all been there—the “nice” rejection letter from an editor or agent that made our day. But that doesn’t belong in your application either. Don’t have much to report in the way of literary achievements? That’s okay. Remember: it’s the writing sample that matters most.
  6. Do not, do not, do not tell me how to react to your writing. This is my #1 pet peeve in a statement of purpose. It signals a writer so unsure about their writing that they have to tell me how to respond. Predictably, my responses never match the applicant’s predictions: “My poetry will jump off the page & burrow deep into your mind.” Really? I don’t think we’re reading the same poems. “My fiction will inspire you to question your assumptions about the nature of reality.” Actually, no. “What I love about my writing is….” No—please let the writing speak for itself. And please let me decide what I love about it.
  7. Don’t sound like an aggrieved petitioner in a legal matter. By all means mention personal circumstances that pertain to the application in question, but don’t go on and on about how much your ex sucks or how a former business partner bilked you out of your life savings. Focus on the writing.
  8. Avoid mismatches between your statement of purpose and your writing sample. The writing sample is paramount, right? Everyone knows this. Yet I’ve read applications for fiction and poetry where the writing sample was a blog post or even a business report. More commonly, applicants describe a cool current project in their statement of purpose (that sonnet cycle about the Moon, say) then submit a totally unrelated sample (villanelles about babies). Maybe the sonnet cycle is a brand-new project and you don’t have anything ready to show? Okay, fair enough. But you’re going to have a better chance of succeeding if you take the time to develop some pages of the new project. (And again, if those baby villanelles are great, I might advance the application anyway, but it won’t get as high a “score” as the more coherent application with the equally awesome writing sample.) Also: I’m more positively inclined toward the fairly polished draft of the memoir you’re writing now than the Pushcart-winning essay you published seven years ago.
  9. Sexism/racism alert: Misogynistic writing is ugly writing that’s not going to get funded if I can help it. I see a lot of gruff male protagonists surrounded by shallow, faithless women who don’t “get” them. I’m equally tired of writing that’s weighed down by faux-feminist sensibilities—powerful women with long hair who understand herbs and childbirth but have to endure  incompetent men. Ditto writing that is tone-deaf about race. I’ve rarely seen anything overtly racist, but I’ve seen work that was careless or defensive—stories in which every white Southern character is evil or the oppressed people of color are “noble” but have no agency or where characters of various ethnicities and backgrounds are just visual “props” in a story that’s otherwise about upper-middle-class elites.
  10. blue-tiled roofs in Japan

    Roofs, not pools

    Current events/disasters alert: A lot of sentimental disaster/war writing ends up betraying ignorance and/or privilege. A couple of years ago it was the tsunami; I read several pieces in which it was clear that the North American writer had mistaken the blue tiled roofs common in Japan for backyard swimming pools (“…the ruined swimming pools/still blue/so improbably blue …”). Lately I’ve seen a lot of well-meaning but ultimately rather flat and sometimes self-indulgent isn’t-it-awful-what’s-happening-in-Syria pieces. The next round will no doubt offer up similar fare about Israel and Gaza. People should be writing about these things—but in a thoughtful and sensitive and informed way.

  11. Compelling personal story alert: This pertains primarily to non-fiction manuscripts, but poets and fiction-writers draw from their lives too. Here’s the thing: it’s not enough to have led a really interesting life filled with high jinx or drama or tragedy or miracles. To win that residency or grant, you have to craft your experiences into beautiful, compelling language. I may get teary-eyed reading your personal statement about how your hamster died on the same day that you lost your job and your wife walked out on you and a sinkhole took your childhood home in Florida. But if your writing sample about that experience doesn’t dazzle me, I’m going to put you in the “no” pile. (And make sure your personal writing isn’t guilty of #7—“score-settling” work is not grant-winning work.)
  12. Finally, a word on prose writing samples that are book excerpts: Generally, I think it’s better to submit the opening of a book rather than some other part of the manuscript. And a sustained excerpt usually works better than a collection of “snippets.” These aren’t hard-and-fast rules, and I’ve occasionally done otherwise in my own applications. But by and large, samples that include, say, the first 15 pages of a book are more enjoyable to read than samples that start somewhere else. If you don’t feel good about sending the opening, you might want to ask yourself why. The “snippets” approach is particularly problematic. I’ve gotten lost in more than one complicated novel “sampler” comprised of pages 15-20, 46-51, and 198-214. Even if these are interspersed with explanatory synopses, the reading experience is just “jolty.” I don’t recommend this unless you have a really compelling reason. (And here’s a confession: I find synopses just deadly to read. If you have to use them, keep them very short. If your sample requires a long synopsis, reconsider the sample.)

I know how this goes: you spend hours and hours putting together the best possible application. By the time you submit it and the application fee, you’ve persuaded yourself you absolutely deserve the prize. And then it’s disappointing when you don’t get it. (“What? But I was perfect for that grant/residency/program…”) I’ve been there. Many times. And probably will be again.

The gentle, apologetic rejection e-mails always implore you not to get discouraged, assuring you that many good candidates had to be turned away. And you know what? It’s true. That’s one thing I’ve learned from being on this side of the process. Many, many talented and deserving people are passed over. Every time. If this happens to you—and it probably will—just pick yourself up and try again.

But don’t spend more time applying for stuff than you do writing. It’s about the writing. Always about the writing.

AWP 2014So for the first time, I’m attending AWP, the annual conference of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs. I wasn’t planning to blog about the experience at all. But something extraordinary went down this morning at a panel called “Magic and the Intellect.” What follows isn’t an objective “report” of what happened. A lot of other people were there, and each would have a different telling. This one’s mine. Continue Reading »

book lists notebook

Our “Book of Books”

Whenever we reach year’s end, my husband Dan bemoans how short his book list is. Actually, he reads a ton for someone who works as hard as he does at a regular day job (which often requires his evenings as well) and is as involved as he is in the running of our household.

He also does this thing I really admire but don’t tend to do with my own reading, which is find a writer he likes, then read several books by the same person. Continue Reading »

One page of my manuscript

One page of my manuscript

This summer, I finally finally finally finished a draft of my novel.

It took eight-and-a-half years to complete. Longer—more than a decade—if you count from when I first got the idea for the book, which was before I left San Francisco, which was in 2002. But let’s not go that far back. I was still in my thirties then, for God’s sake. Continue Reading »

My mother’s visiting from San Francisco this week, and we celebrated Mother’s Day and the abundance of spring by bottling up six quarts of Japanese plum wine. When I posted a photo of the finished product online, several people asked for the recipe. So here it is, for all to enjoy. Continue Reading »

Reference books for my La Pérouse project

My friend, writer and fellow (sister?) Hedgebrook alum Christine Lee Zilka, tagged me this week to talk about my current writing project as part of a “Next Big Thing” blog hop.

I don’t ordinarily go for these “I’ll-link-to-your-blog-if-you-link-to-mine” arrangements, but this one, which involves answering ten specific questions about a current or next project, actually looked fun. And Christine’s quite engaging post, with its great photo of her door-o’-color-coded-post-its, inspired me to give it a try. Continue Reading »


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