On Romance

I don’t know when I first saw the movie Romancing the Stone, but as it came out in `84 and I was born in `80, I was probably pretty young, as it ended up in our VHS collection at some point, after being rented at least a couple of times.

To sum up, Kathleen Turner plays frumpy-but-successful romance author Joan Wilder. Her sister is kidnapped in Columbia, and frumpy-writer goes off to deliver a treasure map to her sister’s captors, and gets caught up in a proper romance adventure in Columbia, complete with smugglers, buried treasure, guerilla fighters, and shotgun-wielding male love interest.

It’s the sort of movie that makes you want to be a writer.

I’ve seen it a bazillion times. I got it on DVD when I first went off to college and had a computer with DVD player. I wanted to be that kind of writer. I wanted to have those kinds of adventures.

When I tried to explain to everyone how I got out to Ft. Hare in Alice, South Africa for one of my research trips out of Durban, I said, “I flew into East London, which has, like, an airport with one gate. Then I took a taxi to the informal taxi ranks, and I got into this bus like… Well, you know that scene in Romancing the Stone when Kathleen Turner gets into the wrong bus to Cartagena? It was sort of like that. Only they’re jerry-rigged, dilapidated vans that seat about 16 people all squashed together with their luggage and children, and all the drivers are really crazy. Then I switched at the ranks in King William’s Town, which is like a dusty hole in the ground, and then I went out to Alice in another packed mini-bus. But it was more arid than Columbia. And there were more cows.”

Last night, I printed out the 795 manuscript pages of book one (AGAIN). This morning, I boxed them up to tote in to work to do more line edits. I was running late.

I pulled on my black pea coat and scarf, turned off the lights around by desk with its sticky-notes and quotes and pictures and piles of manuscripts and pages scattered all over, pulled on my backpack, frowned at my hair in the mirror, and tucked my boxed manuscipt under my arm. I trudged out into a drizzly Chicago day, and as I locked the outside door, I got this huge grin on my face.

Because I remembered that opening in Romancing the Stone, when the frantic author is running late, and she pulls on her coat, tucks her huge boxed manuscript under her arm, frowns at her frumpiness in the mirror, and heads out into New York to meet her editor.

Now, if only I was going to meet an editor…

And I realized how far I’d come from that backwater, dead-end life I was fixing for myself just after highschool.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking recently about fantasy fiction, and the benefits of movies and stories that inspire us to be better people. I was watching The Princess Bride for the thousandth time last night, and realized that though fantasy certainly can be escapist (which is generally considered “bad,” and the female heroines still need work) what it really does is give us hope.

It tells us that the good guys can win, that being honorable is always the right thing, that true lover conquers all, and people are basically good.

I love classic fantasy stories, though I’ve gotten tired of all of the gender assumptions, which is why I write what I write – I’m writing high fantasy with more fluid gender dynamics – because fantasy fiction does give me hope. I want to believe that people can be better, that I can be better, that there are people who will take a bullet for each other, who’ll fight for something they believe in, who will take their lives and make something of it.

In the end, Joan Wilder’s adventures in Columbia give her greater confidence in herself and her sexuality (she goes from frumpy to sexy merely by letting down her hair and putting on make-up, which always makes me laugh, but I’ll let it go – this is fantasy, after all). We get this in the last scene she’s got, walking down the street shrugging off the harrassment of street vendors, smiling and looking fabulous after just having sold yet another book.

I think fantasy can certainly be a bad thing: Vandermeer addresses this when discussing America’s increasing fantastic delusions (or, warped imagination) – but stories and fantasy give us something else, too, which is why books and media are so heavily censored:

Stories can show us other ways to live. It won’t be just like the movies: you’ll be scared, and hysterical, weak or strong, and you’ll still be in the same skin no matter where you are. I want to write those kinds of stories. I want to tell everybody, especially women: there’s another way to live, if you wish it.

Are there limits? Sure.

But not as many as you’d think.

Somedays, it all seems impossible.

And then there’s days like today, when I wake up and go: “Holy shit, look what I did.”

Those are the best days.

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