The Kolar household has joined the rest of the Broadway geek world in getting really, really obsessive about Hamilton. (OK, I'm more of a recovering Broadway geek than a current one, but it doesn't matter what level of geekery you have; this musical is inescapable.) I'm not going to gush about how good it is--much--because if you're in the Cult of Hamilton, you already know, and if you aren't, you probably feel as though smiling theater aficionados in matching suits and ties are going to start knocking on your door with pamphlets at any moment. The one thing I'll say on that subject is that if you're not interested because you don't like hip-hop, give it a listen. I rarely listen to hip-hop and expected Hamilton to be one of those things that I appreciated rather than enjoyed, but six weeks after my first listen I'm still sneaking it into the CD player every time I want background music and the kids are out of the room.

This week, our obsession reached the point where we actually started seeking out cut songs on YouTube. Like most deleted scenes, you can see exactly why the majority of these songs were cut. The John Adams diss track is clever, but Adams is too minor a presence to warrant a whole song; the reprise of "Dear Theodosia" is heartbreaking and gives us some nice parallels between the death of Hamilton's son and that of Burr's wife, but it doesn't add anything to Burr's motivation and stalls the momentum near the end of the story. 

There's one song, though, that I wish could have worked: "Congratulations," which Angelica Schuyler would have sung right after "The Reynolds Pamphlet." For those who aren't familiar with the musical, it has a refreshingly mature love triangle with Hamilton, his wife Eliza, and his sister-in-law Angelica; Angelica has loved Hamilton from the moment she met him and is pretty clearly a better match for him than Eliza personality-wise, but reluctantly steps aside because she wants her sister to be happy. The two write to each other frequently, and the song that features their correspondence is packed with yearning ("And there you are an ocean away/ Do you have to live an ocean away?/ Thoughts of you subside/ Then I get another letter/ I cannot put the notion away . . ."). 

In the musical as written, the Hamilton/Angelica romantic tension gets an OK ending, but it could have been stronger given all the build-up. Hamilton writes a pamphlet detailing his lurid affair with another woman (the Smithsonian has a nice historical summary). Angelica arrives, and Hamilton thinks she's there to comfort him, but she tells him in a single withering verse that she's there to comfort Eliza, not him. We then transition into Eliza's absolutely devastating reaction to the affair, "Burn," where a character who's been passive until this point finally lets out her torrent of grief and rage. It's a tour de force for Eliza, no question, but it left me wishing that Angelica got a bit more closure.

"Congratulations" would have given us that closure in spades. It stretches out Angelica's one venomous verse to an entire song that does everything we could want an Angelica song to do at that moment. It gives us catharsis by having a character Hamilton respects rip him a new one. It has plenty of those clever Lin-Manuel Miranda rhymes we love ("You know why Jefferson can do what he wants?/ He doesn't dignify schoolyard taunts with a response!"). It lets Angelica remind Hamilton that while she's been stuck in a loveless marriage, he had a happy one that he willingly flushed down the toilet. It offers a blistering summary of the entire second act: "So scared of what your enemies will do to you/ You're the only enemy you ever seem to lose to!"

It would have given us everything we could have wanted from an Angelica song . . . and it would have done it by gutting the emotional punch of "Burn," a far more important moment than "Congratulations" would have been. One Schuyler sister venting her heartbreak is haunting. Two Schuyler sisters in a row? As good as "Burn" is, it would have been hard for the audience to avoid checking their watches. You can't have two scenes that cover identical emotional beats back-to-back. I can't imagine how hard it must have been for Lin-Manuel Miranda to cut "Congratulations," but he made the right call

This is one of the best examples of "murder your darlings" I've seen recently. Let's jump back to all those deleted scenes in movies. As mentioned, in most cases, you can watch those scenes and pretty quickly see why they were cut. Not all of them are full-bore terrible (although some are *cough* JabbatheHuttinNewHope *cough*), but most of them drag down the pacing, repeat information we already know, bloat the budget for no apparent reason, etc., etc., etc. If they make all three of those missteps *cough JabbatheHuttinNewHopeagain *cough*, they're a slog. Usually, though, they only make one or two. Those tend to be perfectly fine scenes, but nothing to write home about.

In a small handful of other cases, you watch those deleted scenes and can immediately see that taking them out was the wrong call. Whoever cut those Faramir flashback scenes from The Two Towers needs to be slapped in the face with a fish; they're the only things that lend any motivation at all to his actions. ("Do not trouble me with Faramir. I know his uses, and they are few"? Just call Denethor "Eliza Hamilton,"because that's a burn.) That scene does something. It doesn't just give us the warm fuzzies of seeing Boromir again; it makes the actions of a major character snap into perfect focus. Yes, it bogs down the pacing a bit, but the trade is well worth it.

Scenes like "Congratulations," though, have to be the hardest to cut. At first glance, it looks a lot more like a Boromir flashback than an ugly CGI Jabba the Hutt. It does something--a lot of somethings, in fact--and it's a lot better than "perfectly fine." It's almost essential. Almost. But it comes at the expense of something that is essential, so away it goes. 

As I embark on my last round of revisions, I hope I can burn my darlings that ruthlessly.
 
 
Writers have spilled a lot of ink over how to slog through your rough draft when you're ready to throw your computer or notebook out the window in despair. Anne Lamott famously exhorted writers to embrace their "shitty first drafts;" another writer whose name  unfortunately escapes me suggested that writers think of their first draft  as a simulation of a novel, not a real novel, to take pressure off themselves.  My favorite writing podcast, Writing Excuses, recently had an episode reminding listeners to stop comparing their rough drafts to the polished final drafts that they see in bookstores--or, heck, to their own polished  final drafts, if their current project isn't their first.

I can certainly appreciate the truth behind Lamott and the Writing Excuses crew--I'm sure that even writers I adore wrote some absolutely godawful rough drafts--and I can see how the "simulation of a novel" advice might be helpful to some people, but none of that was terribly helpful to me when I hit a wall. (Well, to be fair to the Writing Excuses crew, my rough draft was done by the time they aired that episode.) For me, the single most helpful line for enduring a rough draft was from Stephen King. It didn't come from On Writing (although that book is a gold mine). It didn't come from one of his writer protagonists gushing about the joys of writing, either. It came from Adrian Mellon, a character in It who got eaten offscreen by Pennywise before the novel even started. Because it's a Stephen King novel, though, we get a good 10 pages about Adrian's back story, including the fact that he's been idly plugging away at a novel for the past twelve years. Shortly before his death, he pulls the novel out of his trunk and starts working on it again, telling his boyfriend that "it might be a terrible novel, but it was no longer  going to be a terrible unfinished novel."

I cannot possibly tell you how many times I repeated that line to myself when in the depths of "oh my goodness I am never going to finish this thing and even if I do it will be total crap" despair. (We've all had that, right? It's not just me?) "Shitty first drafts" and  "don't compare your rough drafts to other people's final drafts" ultimately paint your rough draft as something horrible to be endured before you get on to the fun  part . . . which is certainly true in certain sections of the draft, but not exactly inspiring. When you've been hammering  away at something for a year, it doesn't do much to cheerfully remind yourself that it's shitty.

But "it might be a terrible novel, but [it's] no longer going to be a terrible unfinished  novel"? That made me feel like I was actually accomplishing something. A shitty first draft is better than . . . no shitty first draft, I guess? Again, not terribly inspiring. But being the author of a finished novel, even a terrible one, rather than being that guy who's been idly puttering at the same project for twelve years? That's an objective improvement. Whenever I would hit a wall in my rough draft, I'd close my eyes and repeat,  "This might be a terrible novel, but it isn't going to be a terrible unfinished  novel." And then "Eye of the Tiger" would play in my head, and I could keep going.

Technically, my novel is still unfinished--I finished the first two drafts, but there's still more revision to go. When it's completely done, I don't know whether or not any publishers will nibble or if it has enough first novel problems to truly be a terrible novel. But dangit, the first draft is the hardest, and it's done. I am going to finish this thing. It's not going to be a terrible unfinished novel.

Do you have the first fifty pages of a terrible novel languishing in your desk or on your hard drive? Go finish it. It might be a terrible novel, but it is no longer going to be a terrible unfinished novel. Then revise it and make it terrific.
 
 
The movie Lights Out opened two weekends ago, and my opinions on it have been something of a roller coaster. The trailers and the positive advanced buzz had me champing at the bit for a good horror movie; then the AV Club review came along and completely killed my interest in the movie. If you're OK being spoiled, you can go here for the AV Club's somewhat spoilery review and here for the Spoiler Space, which completely dissects the ableist implications of the ending. If you want to avoid spoilers, suffice it to say that the monster is a metaphor for depression, and the movie inadvertently affirms all the worst things that depressed people think about themselves. 

Or, for those who are OK with spoilers but don't want to read the whole AV Club article (skip to the next paragraph to remain spoiler-free!): . . . the depressed woman whose friends and family are being attacked by the depression monster realizes that the monster will leave them alone if she's gone, so she kills herself. And according to some reviewers, this is played, not as a horrifying The Monster Wins ending, but as a victory.  That's  right, fellow  depressed folks: our loved  ones would be better off if we just killed ourselves. 

In fairness to the people involved with Lights Out, director David Sandberg has made it clear in interviews that this wasn't the message he intended to send. Sandberg himself struggles with depression, and his original ending was far more nuanced. Test audiences hated it, though, so he changed it to the current ending and hoped that no one would read in the horrifically ableist implications.  He's deliberately going to try to amend  those problems in the sequel, and I hope that he succeeds--there have been some terrific horror movies, novels, and short stories dealing with the fact that depression can be as terrifying a monster as any  ghost or vampire. Rather than spend this entire post griping about an unintentionally offensive movie I've never seen, I  want to celebrate the media that have done it right. 

The movie to which I've seen Lights Out compared multiple times, and the hands-down best treatment of depression I've ever seen in horror, is The Babadook. If you like horror even a little bit and haven't seen this movie, go see it; it's on Netflix. If you don't like horror, keep miles away from this one, because it's a nightmare factory. A widowed mother, Amelia, discovers that her emotionally disturbed son, Samuel, is "imagining" himself being stalked by a horrible monster called the Babadook. (Yeah, it's a horror movie, so I'm not even going to pretend that "imagining" doesn't get scare quotes.) He acts out so much because of his fear of the Babadook that he doesn't sleep, and neither does Amelia; what's more, none of the other moms in the neighborhood want weird little Samuel anywhere near their kids, so Amelia is getting increasingly isolated.

And then, the Babadook starts visiting her, too. And things get very interesting.

One huge advantage of The Babadook is that the symbol is fluid. I read the Babadook as a symbol of clinical depression, because that's my personal Babadook. A far more common reading is that it symbolizes Amelia's grief for the loss of her husband and Samuel's grief for that of his father. I've seen it described as a symbol for the stresses of single motherhood, too, which is also a valid read. It means that the scenes of the Babadook terrorizing the family, while still setting up a direct pipeline into a depressed person's fears, are hard to spin out into negative generalizations about people who suffer from mental illness.

And then there's the ending. Skip the next paragraph if you don't want it spoiled. (If you want to go in completely unspoiled, be aware that I'm going to discuss the general tone of the ending, as well as whether or not the monster wins, throughout this post. The next paragraph is the only place where I'll go into specifics, however.)

Near the end of the movie, the Babadook actually possesses Amelia and tries to use her to kill Samuel, then herself. However, Samuel's love for her allows her to shake free of its possession. She drives it away--with an incredibly cathartic "If you ever come near my son again, I'll fucking kill you"--and it locks itself in the basement . . . where it stays. Forever.  When we next see Amelia and Samuel, it's Samuel's birthday, and all seems idyllic, but Amelia has to go to the basement to feed the Babadook. It threatens her, but she calms it down and leaves it a bowl of earthworms to eat. When she goes back to Samuel, she says simply, "It was quiet today." The Babadook will never  leave her, not completely, and it may escape someday again. But she knows it's  there and is taking pains to keep it locked away . . . and if it does escape, she beat it before and may be able to beat it again. 

For such a terrifying movie, the ending is downright empowering. It doesn't put an unrealistically happy face on depression, but depression doesn't win this round, either.

It's possible to do a good story where depression wins, but it has to be handled delicately, and Lisey's Story by Stephen King knocks it out of the park. I wish Lisey's Story were better known; I suspect it's not one of his more popular novels because it's more dark fantasy than horror, but it's one of his best, with dreamy lyrical language, a stunningly well-crafted Russian nesting doll of flashbacks, and an ending that doesn't involve explosions. When the novel opens, Lisey's husband, writer Scott Landon, has been dead for two years. As we travel through the aforementioned nesting doll of flashbacks, we learn that mental  illness ran in Scott's family . . . and in proper Stephen King style, it tended to express itself in supernatural ways. The most relevant of those ways for the "depression monster" theme is the "long boy," a snakelike creature that stalked Scott for his entire life, appearing in reflections out of the corner of his eye, chewing obscenely at its food at the edges of his hearing, and trying to terrorize him to the point where he would finally give in and allow it to devour him.

The long boy, like the Babadook, works in part because it's a flexible metaphor. Lisey is depressed over her husband's death, but isn't stalked by the long boy. When we get flashbacks  to other members of Scott's family, they have some pretty serious issues with mental health, but those issues don't include depression. When it comes to Scott himself, however, depression and the long boy are close to one and the same. He's a cutter. He has bouts of deep and almost unbreakable melancholy, though he tries to put on a smile that only Lisey can see is false.  At one point, he even suggests that Lisey call the long boy to finish him off so she can be rid of him--not as a form of self-pity or emotional manipulation, but because he genuinely thinks it would be best for her. (The parallels to Lights Out all but write themselves.) In a particularly haunting passage, Lisey is brooding over Scott's death and thinks that "if darkness had loved Scott, why then that was true love, wasn't it, for he had loved it as well; had danced with it across the ballroom of years until it had finally danced him away."  The only things that keep the long boy at bay are Scott's writing and his wife. When their marriage is going smoothly and he's writing well, the reflections in the mirror and the horrible chewing sounds are at a minimum.

We do learn that the long boy was directly responsible for Scott's death--in the end, depression won. This is, however, an unambiguous tragedy, and the entire novel is about Lisey working through the emotional wreckage it left behind. The story still manages to end on a bittersweet note by having the long boy's triumph take place in the past,  leaving room for a happier ending in the present, but that triumph makes it a sadder story than The Babadook.

So much  for stories that end on a hopeful note. How about full-bore downer endings? Ray Bradbury's short story "The Small Assassin" shows us a woman killed by the object of her depression and plays it for horror. A new mother, Alice,  survives an incredibly difficult and dangerous labor that ends with a C-section. Her son is healthy . . . but she looks at  him and doesn't feel love.  Her health is fragile after childbirth, but every time she's on the brink of getting the restful, healing sleep she needs, the baby cries loudly and wakes her up, transforming her into more and more of a physical and mental wreck. Her child must be a monster, she decides, who's doing this deliberately because he wants her dead. She begs her husband never, ever to leave her alone with that horrible baby, because who knows what will happen?

If you've ever had issues with postpartum depression, this probably sounds familiar. "The Small Assassin" is far more a pulp story about an evil baby than a psychological exploration of PPD (complete with unintentionally goofy scenes of a newborn crawling around setting up instruments of murder), but it still takes the fears and insecurities of depressed mothers and makes them viciously true. The evil baby does kill Alice, and it's a horrifying The Monster Wins ending done right.

There are other terrific depression monsters--the Dementors are a good example of monsters that are unambiguously defeated, without any of the uncertainty or loss  that we see with the Babadook and the long boy--who are handled deftly enough for depressed readers and viewers to cringe in recognition rather than in disgust. These three are my personal favorites, although in the case of The Babadook, I know that part of it is that I'm a sucker for happy-for-now endings when the issues involved are this messy. Happy-for-now is generally the best ending those of us with depression can hope for, but when the alternative is "The Small Assassin" or Lights Out, that ending is pretty damn good.