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Jamie Jo Hoang - Author & World Traveler

Tag: TED talks

South Park, James Cameron, and Writing

Unless you’ve lived under a rock for the last 5 years you’ve probably seen this video South Park made of James Cameron. They’re clearly making fun of the fact that he has to actually “do” the things he makes movies about and that he, in fact, does everything. Cameron has a thirst for adventure like no one else and the end result of that curiosity are his incredible movies.

My dad rarely ever goes to see a movie. Mostly because his grasp of the English language isn’t good enough for him to understand or catch all of the subtext or innuendo’s. But when I took him to see Avatar, he totally got it. Moreover, he really enjoyed the visuals. I think for someone who has known poverty, and lived through a war, he was blown away by the magic on screen. Afterwards, he kept asking me, “How do people get ideas to come up with things like that?” My snarky response was, “I don’t know Dad, if I did do you think I’d still be living here? Nope I’d be a millionaire exploring the seven seas on my yacht.” “What’s a yat?” he asked. I sighed, “A boat. I’d be on my own boat.” “Oh,” he says, “Well hurry up and figure it out.” Thanks Dad.

His question did pique my curiosity though and when I googled James Cameron I found that it wasn’t just that he had a more vivid imagination that I did, it was that he had explored so much more of the world than I had. In my quick google search of “James Cameron” I found the TED Talk he gave below. In his 17-minute talk I learned that he convinced the studios to make Titanic because he wanted to go deep sea diving. The love story and box office millions were an aside. As a diver myself, his exploration of the deep sea hit a nerve with me.

As writers, we create worlds that other’s get to live in, but our creative minds need fuel. A car doesn’t run without gasoline and we can’t write without inspiration. This is the fun part of our jobs! Yet, we’re made to feel like we’re undeserving of the “fun research” because what we do for research is what other people call “entertainment” or “vacation.” But here’s the thing. James Cameron could never have made Titanic the way he did without that deep sea dive. Nor do I think Avatar would have existed without his incessant need to explore the world.

Exploring the things that draw on our senses is what opens our imagination to creating worlds beyond what anyone thought possible. I think there’s a reason writers are usually slightly ahead of our technological time. We not only see things, we want to experience them for ourselves. I personally am fascinated with the passage of time. The lifespan of a seed becoming a flower is immensely interesting to me, and the details people seem to love so much in my writing comes from caring–albeit, a ridiculous amount–about the process.

So, I hereby give all writers–ok, you don’t have to be a writer–permission to: eat at that expensive restaurant, travel to an exotic location, zip-line through the Amazon, climb to the highest peak, dive to the deepest part of the ocean, and just do whatever. Say yes to everything and see where it takes you!

Giving Characters Freedom To Be Wrong

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Aubrey Johnson, the protagonist in my manuscript Blue Sun, Yellow Sky, is a painter who discovers that in six to eight weeks she’ll be completely blind. I myself couldn’t paint a flower to save my life, but I was fascinated with the idea of someone in her late twenties losing the identity she spent her life cultivating. Ideas are fickle that way; sometimes they emerge but require a great deal of research.

To get into the mind of a painter, I spent a lot of time in art galleries and museums. Not being a painter myself, I had to read a lot about painting technique, color mixing, shadow and light composition and historical context. But I also needed my character to be relatable and feel real, so she couldn’t just spit facts out here and there about art. She needed to have a unique perspective.

As the writer, I needed to readers to first believe that she was a painter and then accept the quirky facets I attached to her personality. I was very self-conscious that readers wouldn’t connect with my character or think of her as a real painter if I didn’t adhere to certain artistic standards. So, at first, I pulled facts and ideas from books I read about certain art pieces and I tossed the phrases into her vernacular every chance I could. But when she started to feel like an art history major I knew something had to change.

In my research, I came across a TED talk by Tracy Chevalier about finding the story inside the painting. At the beginning of her talk, she boldly admits that when she walks into an art gallery or museum, many of the paintings simply do not strike a chord with her. This might be pretty universal but not many people talk about it, and that kind of raw honestly about art’s subjectivity was what released me from the chains of “authenticity” and moved me towards creating a unique character with a distinct voice. Characters, like people, are most interesting when they’re flawed, so unbinding her from the idea she had to know everything about every painter and style of painting was freeing.

Unless I’m writing a historical piece my character can be whoever she wants to be. Restricting her tastes to what is commonly considered to be the highbrow tastes of artists limits my ability to create my own character. By allowing Aubrey to sometimes like things that might be considered lowbrow among art enthusiasts, I avoided the pitfall of creating a clichéd character. After all, who wants to read about a character that never surprises them?

I’m not saying not to do the research. Without a basic understanding of the medium it is impossible to build on or strip away an identity. What I’m suggesting is do the research and then give your characters the freedom to choose whether or not they accept or reject those ideas. Then watch as your characters’ personalities open up and they start to come alive.

 

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