Four-Wheeled Stereos

The engine revved as I pressed slowly down on the pedal, trees flying by as I whipped back and forth in the low hills of East Texas. A goat clipping away at grass near the roadside leapt into the air and charged away from my passing SUV. The summer sun beat down while the canopy stood strong above me, shading the better part of the road. Here to there. A to B. Driving.

Pop the hood and I will scratch my infantile beard and thoughtfully appear to consider the twisting coils of metal, plastic, and rubber snakes. Ask me a question, and I will point at the large blocky thing in the center and say, “That’s the engine.”

Likewise, I can’t tell you about makes and models and manufacturers, or even what shiny color of what sexy motorbeast I might prefer. But stick me behind the wheel, and my eyes light up. I can’t give you a zero-to-sixty on any of the cars I’ve driven, and I don’t have the vocabulary to tell you how it handles. But I know fun. Give me the keys, and I can feel the fun.

I have not owned a car for two and a half years. I do not drive, and the little college town in which I reside has no need for cars. Everything is in walking distance.

During that time I have listened to far less country than ever before. Without wheels, without road, I need no radio. I spotify my music from a safe corner in the house, on my tame little laptop. And when you’re sitting there, plowing through the oldest books from the hardest classes, and your ADD is acting up, and the birds are singing, and you can’t help but want to fly out that window like a maniac and run screaming into the hills—in those times, the lyric-centered, steady-rhythmed deep peace and shallow grin of a country song just won’t cut it.

Now, as I stagnate in my chair or on my couch or bed, I don’t stop listening to country. I still plow through albums and formulate playlists and occasionally pull up our local station’s online app to keep up with the times. But my play queue is slowly filling with blues rock, selective rap and hip-hop artists, and the occasional Disney song. Older funk and rock-and-roll leak out of my speakers, and Irish reels by Aussies and Boston Yankees begin to make my foot tap. But George Strait and Montgomery Gentry, Eric Church and Little Big Town, they all drift quietly to the back.

But the moment I stepped off the plane and back into the sweet, wet air of East Texas, something changed. Southern lilts and country tilts in the rhythm of residents of this fine state started working on me like a drug. Big pines leaned over my head and whispered rumors of sacred songs I had forgotten. And finally the moment came when momma put they keys in my hand told me to run an errand.

Twangs and trains and country livin’, broken hearts and rednecks, wild parties and foolish youth and old wisdom blended and shook up and spilt from my speakers like the call of the wild and I was off. Windows down, radio up, across Starr and University, around the Loop, through back roads and brick streets and into driveways from the wrong direction—all to the sound of a guitar. Fiddles came from time to time to remind me of my roots, and banjos burst on the scene like a long-lost cousin. Somewhere in the air a steel guitar let me know where I came from, and I croaked and yelled to an old song with a Darius Rucker twist.

Fifty-five, forty, fifty, forty-five, thirty, and twenty in a school zone. Don’t they know what I am doing here? This is country music on the radio. None of this slow stuff, I drive with a steady lead foot. There’s something about turning tires and the quiet rumble of any old engine that calls for country. Or maybe it’s the wind flying past, and the cars on the road, and all these trucks driven by Aggies, Longhorns, and Lumberjacks. Whatever it is, I can’t get behind the wheel and stay on any pop, rock, or hip-hop station. The radio’s on, and it’s Texas and Nashville, Southern voices and the backwoods brogue of a down-home drawl. The car and the radio, it’s all one instrument, and I know how to play it.

But eventually the errand ends. I go home, park the car, and turn off the beginning of some old song about “time to kill.” Time is killing me. I’m called elsewhere, and my four-wheeled stereo of speed and sonic bliss will have to wait a while. Inside, the house is quiet and my little laptop is sitting patiently. I have words to write, a challenge to meet, and I can’t do that on a highway. So I set the keys on the counter and head upstairs to peck away at the keyboard. But hey, I don’t head back to the land of the pedestrian for two weeks. And there will be errands to run for days to come. I’ll drive.

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Stories About Womenfolk

So, I’m back in an ill-timed get-serious-about-storytelling phase, which resulted in me spending the entire afternoon reading Film Crit Hulk. Who is Film Crit Hulk, you ask? Why, only the awesomest green-skinned, musclebound blogger in the universe! He’s an anonymous individual in the movie business (dealing mostly with screenwriting, it would seem) who uses a hulk-sized, all-caps writing style to churn out essays on film, storytelling, and culture. Essays that are often longer than the senior theses at my college. And, he is so freaking good at it.*

At any rate, Film Crit Hulk is a feminist, and this impacts his views on the way we tell stories. Now, seeing as female individuals comprise about half of humanity, I really ought to have better-formed thoughts on this. However, I don’t (yet), so I’ll be largely holding my tongue. Except on this one thing.

See, Film Crit Hulk in his smashing article on The Hero’s Journey pointed out that storytellers these days don’t know how to deal with women. They tend to do one of two things: make them a fairy princess, an idol, a Madonna… or else they turn her into a temptress and a femme fatale. And if they want to pay lip service to the notion of gender equality, they just give her a gun– and let her maintain a side-character/love-interest status with very little actual characterization. Hulk then names off a few goddess myths which people interested in writing awesome women might want to check out, and encourages the reader in that general direction.

On one level, my first thought is “cool.” But on another, it makes me nervous. In the effort to go out and prove that women can be just as interesting characters as men, I’m worried about folks turning those women into men. If we want to make good, interesting, excellent female protagonists, we can’t just make them men in skirts. Because, honestly, Braveheart kind of has that market cornered.

I’m all for recognizing the fact that women are people (duh), and even awesome people (seriously, duh), right there in our storytelling. I don’t want a world where guys are the only protagonists and girls are all just the trophies the heroes get at the end.** Or femme fatales, because if the only powerful/independent women are also evil… well, let’s just say that people who tell stories like that make me want to go all smashy on things.

But if you’re a guy trying to avoid these problems and create a good female lead, you have to be careful. Guys don’t always understand other guys, and women are another thing entirely. Female people, you know. That’s a different language to think in. Yes, all people are just people, this is true; but people are complex, so seeing the world through someone else’s eyes is tricky business.

This is not to say it shouldn’t be done. No, I’m just saying it’s good to be cautious. I would rather see an overdone archetype done well, than someone try to think outside the box and end up making a dude in a girl’s body. Or worse–a flat, grey, characterless monstrosity. Because the way I see it, that does women even less justice. Actually, I find it kind of insulting. But what do I know? I’m not the one being insulted.

Anyhow, that’s my two cents. Thoughts welcome.

 

Footnotes

*I read a lot of his articles today. But if you want a good start towards storytelling 101, try his article on Three-Act Structure. It’s a nice taste for his style and some of the stuff he likes to talk about. Also just plain good. Warning to folks of a sensitive eye: Sometime Hulk swear.

** I really wish I had a link to that one scene in A Knight’s Tale where Adhemar and William are talking about “Trophies, horses, women.” Then again, no I don’t. Because this means you’ll just have to go and watch that whole movie just to find that one line. And that would make me happy.