Genre Busting

December 12, 2011 at 4:08 pm (Uncategorized)

I was stuck—emotionally and physically—a few days ago. I ached from the sarcoidosis swelling my joints. I hurt too much to get out of bed. I was also the emotional equivalent of car sick. A blast of prednisone to treat the disease riled up my anxiety. I swirled and spun, feeling helpless, amid repetitive thoughts.

If only I had felt well enough to channel that agitation into something constructive. I could have figured out a system for storing the eight billion Legos strewn about Andrew’s bedroom floor. Or I could have unpacked our garage full of boxes that have been festering since we moved over a year ago.

But I didn’t. And I couldn’t. So I lay in bed and worried. If the sarcoidosis is flaring up in my joints will it also get worse in my brain again? What if I can’t get out of bed tomorrow? Is Andrew having a difficult time with my setback? Is Jay able to cope with me being sicker?

Thanks to the brain-revving, stomach roiling miracle that is prednisone, I was able to worry about all these—and many more—intangible what-ifs all at the same time. It was a quantum leap of worrying.

It really sucked. Being the Einstein of anxiety has its drawbacks.

If this had happened a year or two (or three or four or five) ago, I would have tried to interrogate the worries. I would have followed each errant thread of worry back to its tangled source. I would have pulled harder and faster at each skein, not noticing that in my frenzy of “self-discovery” I wasn’t actually creating order. I was just driving myself crazy in a pseudo-rigorous fashion. This was how I “dealt” with bad medical news and bad days.

Luckily, my husband took the day off from work and helped me not to repeat this pattern. After lying next to me in bed and feeling the tension steaming off my skin for a few minutes, Jay suggested we watch television. It felt so decadent to consider an afternoon of mindlessness. Shouldn’t I try to write? Or read? Or think myself into a puddle?

“Well, if you think it’s a good idea…,” I said hesitantly.

“It’s a great idea,” Jay said, already powering up the various audio-visual components that make up television-watching in the 21st century.

Jay loves television. This made for some interesting relationship dynamics when we first got together. When I met Jay, I was at the zenith of my intellectual snobbery. I never watched television. I read serious books. I watched serious movies, preferably ones in black and white, with subtitles, and as few conventional plot devices as I could tolerate. Enjoyment had nothing to do with entertainment. Obscurity and intellectual rigor were what I sought.

Fifteen years later, to make a long story short and rely on one of those conventional plot devices, I have come to embrace good television, especially when I can enjoy it with Jay. We’ve watched more hours of TV than I’d ever admit to among my old, intellectual friends. This past year we’ve made it through the entire series of Battlestar Gallactica, Prime Suspect, The Wire, and Justified, along with a good number of episodes of The Closer and Southland.

Even after all this television-watching, I still struggle with feeling lazy or lame about zoning out. I usually have to be convinced to try a new show, like Battlestar Galactica a few months ago. “It’s science fiction,” I said, not enthusiastically, when Jay proposed it. “You’ll like it,” he said. “It’s about the post-September 11th world and role of technology and questions of global power.” I sighed and acted like I was still pondering it. But Jay’s learned a few things in so many years together. Tell me it’s not really about sexy robots but an exploration of global politics—pander to my ingrained intellectual snobbery, in other words—and I’ll watch long enough to get hooked by the sexy robots.

I was a little surprised, then, when Jay proposed we watched Parks and Recreation on my achy, anxious day. “That’s a…comedy,” I said, as if Jay had just suggested we clean toilets, not snuggle on an overcast winter day. I’ve tried science fiction, and vampire slaying, and police procedurals. But comedy? That had to be the “vast wasteland” television is reputed to be.

“It’s not that kind of comedy,” Jay said, having heard once or twice during our years together about my loathing of all laugh-tracks and cheap vulgarity. I nearly dumped him when he confessed in our first weeks together that he’d been known to watch Cheers late at night to wind down after a long shift waiting tables.

“I’m not in a comedy kind of mood,” I said. I was hurting and worried and feeling deeply out of control. I was in more of a Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie sort of mood. If pressed, I’d settle for Battleship Potemkim. At least that’s what my busy brain was telling me.

“You’ll like this,” Jay said.

“Maybe later…”

“You didn’t want to watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I said you’d like that, and you did.”

“But that was dark. And well written. I like dark and well written. It wasn’t a…comedy.”

Jay spent the next five minutes reminding me of every show he’d recommended that I’d at first eschewed and later loved. He wore me down.

“Fine. I’ll try one. But it better not have a laugh track.”

Fourteen episodes of Parks and Recreation later, we tore ourselves away from Netflix on demand. I had laughed until I couldn’t breathe, gotten close to crying, had fallen in love with the show’s crazy cast of characters, and—unbelievably—hadn’t been aware of pain or anxiety the whole time.

“I knew you’d like it,” Jay said, as I complained about having to leave the world of a small-town Indiana parks department employee.

“It’s crazy. I like a…comedy,” I said. “What does this mean?”

Jay was nice not to gloat too much.

We’ve watched a lot more Parks and Recreation since then. It’s enjoyable, mind-diverting entertainment that never crosses into mind-numbing territory. It’s funny, yet it never jeers at its characters. It has an inner sweetness, but isn’t saccharine. It somehow embraces both cynicism and idealism, and makes it possible to believe that two people on opposite ends of this spectrum—and at two sides of the greater sociopolitical divide in America—can still work together, be friends, and help each other. (And it doesn’t have a laugh track.)

What makes the show compulsively watchable—and so emotionally real—is that it’s not just a comedy. It unfolds in the framework of a comedy—22 minute episodes (without commercials), punch lines, and more humor than not. Yet it busts open the genre. It doesn’t use those sickening laugh lines to cue what’s funny for you. It lets you decide. It tackles complex themes and relationships. It trusts that you’ve paid attention to past episodes, that you won’t throw a rock at the screen if an episode doesn’t provide perfect closure. The characters have to deal with real life. They’re trying to get things done in spite of bureaucracy and red tape. They’re trying to be true to themselves and each other even though their political and personal lives are different.

Parks and Recreation
is a great comedy in the same way that The Wire or Prime Suspect or Southland is a great cop show. They take the framework and the conventions of the genre and then blast them all to hell. I love that.

This concept of genre-bending (or busting) was a topic at the amazing writers’ conference I was able to attend in October. It used to be that “commercial” and “literary” fiction were separate realms. If a book sold well, the critics would hate it. If a movie boggles my brain and is arty, then it must be “art.” If a television show makes me laugh, it must be “bad.” (This is my intellectual heritage.)

I learned at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference, however, that the publishing and television industries have come to recognize this type of dialectical pigeon-holing for the nonsense it is. A new breed of books—readable, best-selling literary works—are capturing millions of readers—The Help, The Reliable Wife, Cutting for Stone, Water for Elephants. And “genre” writers (those once confined to the conventions of romance, science fiction, fantasy, mystery and thriller books) aren’t content to be caged in the narrative formulas that editors and readers sometimes try to lock them in. Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander books, for instance, transcend the “romance” label and are just compulsively readable and well-told stories.

All this pondering about busting through literary and television conventions got me thinking about my own life and the limitations I’m accustomed to imposing on myself. Living in Chronic Town is in some ways a genre existence. Persevering with a chronic illness isn’t too unlike trying to tell a meaningful story within the rules of, say, a cop show or a comedy. There are certain aspects of the genre I can’t do away with. I’ve got to deal with lots of medicine, more doctors’ appointments than I’d like, chronic pain, and anxiety about my future. Similarly, Parks and Recreation has to figure out narrative flexibility in a 22-minute slot that requires plenty of humor. Can I make like Amy Poehler and bust out of my genre? Can I redefine chronic illness—this day? Can I laugh through anxiety and pain?

What’s next, Chronic Town…the comedy?

Have you busted through your own internal genres lately? Or moved around some heavy mental furniture? How do you reframe your story and learn new ways to enjoy your life?

14 Comments

  1. Leanne Shirtliffe said,

    Wow, Rebecca, wow. I love this piece, and how you take it to another level by layering it with your Chronic Town experience.

    I am – for better of for worse – an Aaron Sorkin fan. I loved The West Wing, and I adored Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. What I love is the witty (unrealistic though it may be) dialogue and banter, and how he takes on big issues.

    I think I’d like Parks and Rec.

    I learned this weekend that it’s okay to send out something that’s far from perfect. The first 23k of my MS went out to three beta readers. It’s scary. And liberating. I kind of felt I was gripping sand too tightly and forgot there was an ocean out nearby. (Metaphor fail alert!)

    Sending you wellness vibes.

    Leanne

    • Rebecca Stanfel said,

      Hi Leanne,

      I’m so glad you liked this piece. I’m a huge Sorkin fan too. (Or I was. I was a West Wing junkie–on Jay’s advice–for many years. Haven’t checked out Studio 60).

      Yay, yay, YAY! on sending out the draft. I can only imagine how difficult that process is. Sometimes the stuff I work over and over (and nitpick to death) ends up not being my best and the writing I just let pour out of me ends up being better. It’s all mysterious. But maybe you’ll get feedback that you weren’t that far from perfect after all. It’s fun to see you on this journey. I, for one, can’t wait to read your book (at whatever stage I get my hands on it).

      Thanks for the vibes and the comment.

      xo
      rebecca

      PS That metaphor worked just fine for me.

  2. Martha Kohl said,

    I don’t have anything smart to say about genre busting–but I am glad that you did not give into the temptation of following the prednisone-created threads of anxiety. We all have real reasons to be anxious–but so much of anxiety is physiological–brought on by a fever, a drug reaction, hunger, sleep deprivation. Sometimes it is good just to recognize the physical causes instead of trying to plumb the depths of their psychological manifestations.

    • Rebecca Stanfel said,

      You’re absolutely right, Martha. It’s hard sometimes for me to be mindful of the underlying physical cause that is feeding the anxiety. When I’m in the maws of the experience, I tend to go ever inward. But, I keep trying and I keep thinking about it. Writing this is part of that process of figuring out new (and less damaging ways) to get through bad patches. I’m going to remember your feedback too. It’s not all just in my head.

      Thanks,
      rebecca

  3. Barbara Barnes said,

    Hmmm, genre busting. Okay here’s one… I still enjoy Dick Van Dyke, have been known to cry over Little House on the Praire, was ashamed of watching Six Feet Under, and am addicted to The Closer. But, I am also loving the Cooking Channel, Dirty Jobs and the Antique Road Show. There, I said it. I watch TV.

    There is so much in this piece about “the moment” and noticing. Thank you a million times over. And, this is just me, but I am glad Jay persisted and I think he gets at least ten minutes of gloating. Great team work!!!

    My latest genre bust was to get out of frumpy don’t have time mode and started, ugh, wearing mascara and eye liner. Look out, could cause a sonic boom!

    • Rebecca Stanfel said,

      I’m glad you said it Barb. I like TV too. There is a time and a place for it.

      The idea for this blog came from a Slate review of “The Closer.” The reviewer thought that it’s such a great show because it is at the same time a quintessential cop show and yet so much more.

      You’re right on about this also being about living in the moment.

      I always appreciate your thoughtful and thought-provoking comments.

      xo
      rebecca

  4. Marianne Hansen Rencher said,

    Try Community. It reminds me a lot of Parks. It is really sly humor. It makes me happy. Next time you need to detox, call me and I can help you with some truly mind numbing films. It’ll be a good time!
    This is really good. It shows how much everything has changed in your life and how you are handling it. But way to stay strong – stay away from laugh tracks.

    • Rebecca Stanfel said,

      I will take you up on brainless TV detox Marianne. And maybe soon. As I keep getting more bad medical news, I need more and more time away from it.

      I will check out Community. I’ll have Jay add it to the forty billion other things he records.

      I love getting your comments. Thanks for reading and staying in touch.

      rebecca

  5. Allyson said,

    I love the idea of genre-busting. I’m going to give this one to Boogie, he sometimes gets swallowed up by his own chronic pain issues. And I have to say, you also described the Quark-Odo relationship in DS9…not that I watch it…every day….

    • Rebecca Stanfel said,

      Hey Allyson,

      I hope this idea is useful for Boogie. I’m sorry to hear that he’s dealing with chronic pain.

      DS9…should I check that out?

      Thanks for all your wonderful comments,
      rebecca

  6. Danna said,

    Hey Rebecca: Try out The Big Bang Theory . . .I think it’s up your alley. Amusing post. Thanks!

  7. Rebecca Stanfel said,

    Big Bang Theory? That sounds interesting. I wonder how I could make that scientific theory all about me too. Glad you found the humor in this post.

    I really appreciate your taking the time to comment. Thanks for reading.

    rebecca

  8. Paul said,

    ‘Battleship Potemkim’ …… very heavy going indeed – from what I remember of film studies 101 it was nearly enough to put you into Chronic Town.

    I suspect you’d also watch the full 10+hour, directors cut of ‘Birth of a Nation’

    Anyway…..’Live long and Prosper’

    • Rebecca Stanfel said,

      Wait a minute…maybe that’s why I’m so messed up–all those extremely thoughtful and turgid movies.

      Even I didn’t inflict 10 hours of Birth of a Nation on myself. Just the standard version. I did, though, make it through a seemingly interminable showing of Kurosawa’s, The Seven Samurai.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment.

      rebecca

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