May 28, 2010

Story Recall [jana]

It’s only when I start singing a song word-for-word from a movie I watched when I was young, or recall a commercial I saw as a child that I realize now and then just how much pop culture has impacted my thinking. I don’t regret these influences, for the most part; I think the redeeming beauty of artistic endeavor has in many ways been a huge part of my own salvation walk. Now it seems that “taste” in stories can polarize us faster than most other conversational material, but I want to go back and re-discover what I loved about the stories I remember most, what caught my attention and why.

Reading the Lord of the Rings for the first time began changing my thinking about story. I was sixteen, and was sick of the sappy romantic fare that the library mostly had in stock in the teen section. I would seek through the section for something new and interesting, but then invariably end up back in the Children’s section with my old friends L. Frank Baum, L.M. Montgomery, Marguerite Henry, Lewis Carroll and C.S. Lewis. I started making forays into the Adult fiction section, some of which were met with success, some not. It was like a treasure hunt, sorting through the stacks for stories that caught my interest, reading book jackets, flipping through to read excerpts…Finally I found what I was looking for in the “Fantasy” section. Fairy tales, my native language, but with complexity and beauty. Having loved Roverandom, Tolkein’s children’s story about a little dog who travels to the moon, I spotted the familiar name on the spine of a book I had never heard of; The Fellowship of the Ring.

Nowadays, it’s impossible for a 16-year-old to not have heard of the story. But a triple-threat combination of homeschooling, small-town living, and a conservative background in which anything smacking of “magic ” except for the mildest of children’s stories was kept far away allowed me to discover the books on my own (incidentally, I wouldn’t have it any other way). After reading the back (catching C.S. Lewis’ name on the cover convinced me) of the hardcover with a rune symbol pressed on the front and filled with gold leaf, I took it to the front to check it out.

“Have you ever read this one?” The Librarian gushed. I shook my head, and her eyes popped. She came around the counter and marched me back to the fantasy section to check out the Two Towers and the Return of the King. “You’ll thank me later,” she said, then told me, “Read it with Celtic music in the background.” She twittered back to the desk with me and my stack of books in her wake, somewhat bewildered. What kind of Celtic-music-loving situation was I getting myself into? I had disappeared into stories other times in my life, but this was absolutely and totally absorbing. I think I read until 3:00am that morning. Years later, in a Fantasy Literature class in college, as I read George MacDonald’s Phantastes for the first time, I also read C.S. Lewis’s description of first reading it as a “baptism of the imagination” that set Lewis on his long and winding road to his eventual Spiritual baptism. This idea of baptism of the imagination fully resonated with me because of how I felt about reading Tolkien’s masterpiece.

During my first year in college, I did a lot of discovering pop culture I had never had occasion to explore before. I watched ‘Friends’ and ‘Survivor’ now and then, with a gathering of faithful fans in the downstairs lounge on Thursday nights…I saw ‘The Sixth Sense,’ ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,’ and ‘Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion.’ My roommate was a rugby player, but she was also a choral singer and loved music. She played “Tears in Heaven” on her classical guitar when she felt especially meditative. While I was still listing the Newsboys and Amy Grant among my favorite bands, Anna introduced me to new music. Dave Matthews Band, a music sountrack from the TV show ‘Mad About You’, Sarah MacLachlan, the Newfie band Great Big Sea, Eric Clapton, the Barenaked Ladies, plenty of choral music, and the last and most influential, the Canadian Broadway Cast soundtrack of The Phantom of the Opera. One night when Anna was gone, I dug through her CD collection to find something inspiring to listen to while working on a final project for my drawing class. Anna came back to the room around midnight to find that my project—four head studies at different angles—had become a study on masks, and me working feverishly with charcoal and tears smudging my face.

While I love stories of any kind, movies combine stories with a visual experience that reaches me at a different level altogether. Significant experiences with movies include the first movie I ever cried at with girlfriends (The Land Before Time, on my 9th birthday!) The first movie I ever cried at in theaters (the Robin Williams/Bill Cosby/Diane Lane/Jennifer Lopez tearjerker Jack). We all sat in the food court and sobbed 15-year-old tears over our French fries while talking about it. While my friends and I adopted mostly our favorite rom-coms for movie nights (While You Were Sleeping, That Thing You Do, You’ve Got Mail, The Princess Bride), varying to some touching drama (Life is Beautiful, all things Austen), I remember clearly watching a movie that was something different. It starred Hugh Grant, so it wasn’t a real indie, but it really was a small-market movie which addressed some real, human issues. The characters were all flawed, and circumstances and emotions were addressed in a very real, very human way. We picked About a Boy off the shelf at the grocery store because Hugh Grant was on the cover, but it surprised us with its depths of humanity; sorrow, fear, and loneliness were real, but so were humor, love, and that element of ridiculousness that rings true for all of us, aided by music from the UK band Badly Drawn Boy. We were all under 20 years old at the time, but this was one of the first films I can remember clearly which made me realize the connection between the drama and the comedy of life.

These are some of the stories which have defined me and taught me, set me on the road to write and learn my own story.


  1. I feel like I know you so much more after this. It's fun getting to hear about the art influencing the artist.

    And About a Boy is one of my favorite movies :)

  2. Wonderful, Jana. I wish we could have been buddies back then! I love the "triple threat" description, think you may have had the world's greatest librarian, and feel inspired to go back to every book and movie you've mentioned.

  3. I dream of being an Elf :)

    "...this was one of the first films I can remember clearly which made me realize the connection between the drama and the comedy of life."

    You simply can't have one without the other.