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Orange You Glad: How I Almost Overlooked the Perfection of Orange is the New Black

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Here’s some advice: watch Orange is the New Black. Wait a few weeks. Then read this article. Or, if you prefer a short cut, just read this:

Even on the frustrating days, when a script was due and I was convinced I was a talentless hack, I consoled myself by trusting that it felt important to be telling stories about women who are largely ignored in the mainstream media. In my more assured moments, I knew that we were attempting to give a voice to the miles that fall in between black and white, gay and straight, good and bad. That is: giving a voice to most humans.

-Lauren Morelli, Orange is the New Black staff writer

I never really took the time to deeply consider Orange is the New Black, in the same way no one really takes the time to consider the entire can of Funfetti frosting before swallowing it whole along with the spoon. I was so inexplicably absorbed with the show that, for 13 episodes and 2 days, I forgot I was a feminist, I forgot I was an ally, I forgot I was a screenwriter. I was just a fan.

I think that’s something of note: that a fierce feminist and ersatz media scholar such as myself forgot to notice that the show bucked all the good stuff:  gender scripts, racial lines, heteronormativity, body shame, beauty standards, etc. That the show passed the Bechdel Test with flying colors (of orange).

All I could think was, “!!RIGSJNHJGNH11!!!! WHY IS THIS SHOW SOOOO GOOD?!! ACCENT ADROIT, BITCH!!!!!” If I hadn’t stumbled across the above-mentioned article, I’d still be adding !!! to that train of thought.

The fact that I forgot to overthink this show is entirely a testament to the storytelling. The writers did not create this show as a soapbox, nor these characters as poster children. Shows suck when they try too hard to make statements…see The New Normal, see The Newsroom, see the second season of Girls. Orange is the New Black does decidedly not suck. Instead of trying to make a point about race, or sexuality, or the state of the American penal system, it sets out to do nothing else but tell a human story.

That isn’t to say that Orange is the New Black doesn’t speak to larger themes. Because human stories, by their very nature, speak to race, gender, sexuality, socioeconomics, and all those words that make people want to roll their eyes when dropped in a blog post. But the show doesn’t spoon-feed its audience any particular morals or messages. It just sits them down to tell a story.

That being said, now that I’ve read this article, I would like to attach a few more !!! to my review for some other reasons:

  • !!! for strong, complex female characters
  • !!! for a female-dominated writing staff
  • !!! for the relationship between Poussey and Taystee, between Ms. Claudette and Piper, between EVERYONE AND EVERYONE
  • !!! for Nikki’s hair
  • !!! for Dascha Polanco who is hot as all hell
  • !!! for Sophia Burset, and Laverne Cox as Sophia Bursey
  • !!! for the fact I can’t decide whether I want Piper with Larry or Alex
  • !!! for !!! for !!! for !!!

But really…!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

(hey, those sort of looks like jail bars)

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A Literary Love Letter

I realize I’ve been a bit remiss regarding this blog and, although I was itching to update this site with something, I had no real desire to actually create anything new. (But more on that later).

I began to dumpster dive my old documents, searching for something that could pass as a post without actually putting in any effort. Someone’s trash is another person’s new blog post.

Today’s treasure–although entirely self-involved and limited to my own writing experience–hopefully has a larger impact as a important writing exercise. As an assignment in my BFA class, we were asked to write a letter of intent regarding our project. We were told to write about our inspiration, our influences, our hopes and dreams…all that sort of hippy dippy nonsense that I–always more a craftsman than an artist–generally poo poo. But, reading back on my letter, I realize how much these first words on Alumnus bled into not only the script, but my entire writing philosophy:

Dear Self,

Well this has been a long time coming—for almost eight years, I’ve been working on Alumnus. Only, back then I titled the stories Cliché and it wasn’t so much a feature length screenplay as a life long epic, an alternative world where I knew everything about the characters—from birth to death. With a dedication to detail only acceptable in sci-fi writers like Tolkein or Rowling, I explored everything about Mason Black and his friends…and enemies…and acquaintances…and their acquaintances…

I truly tried on every scenario with these characters, living up to the name Cliché. Alcoholic parent? Check. Nasty teenage rebellion stage? Check. Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll? Check, check, and then some. When I started, I was only thirteen or so, unironically finding Mace’s alcoholism artistic and interesting. However as I grew older and more confident in my writing, I realized how to warp the expectations of conventions and I eventually learned to play with storytelling to create what I hoped was something modern and mosaic.

Developing this story helped me develop as a writer. I’ve truly grown up with these characters, but I also feared I grew past Camden. Maybe Mason was nothing more than a glorified imaginary friend, aiding my self-discovery as an adult and as a writer.

But if that’s true then I wasted a whole bunch of time, dreaming about nothing. And I refuse to accept that. It is now time to leave the dreams behind, and get behind the desk. Now it’s time to commit everything to page, and do myself a favor and just write.

So, when I push aside all of the very intricate details such as graphology (Mace has a heavily looped g) and class roster ranked by physical appearance, what is the story of Alumnus about?

Alumnus is about human growth. I suppose the appropriate—albeit douche-y—word for it is bildungsroman. With an etymology dependent on education and self-discovery, Alumnus is a very belated bildungsroman. Despite his IQ of 151, despite his diploma from Camden and the school of hard knocks—he never did learn the most important lesson of all: who he was. And because of this he, like Peter Pan, could never truly grow up.

Mace’s inner conflict is very similar to my own as a writer. Mason is stuck in the past—not out of nostalgia, but out of fear. When at Camden, he was told he was enriched with something genius. He was pampered with preparation and pep talks about his potential. Yet, the closer he got to graduation and the “Real World,” the further he was from figuring himself out. All he knew is what he could be—not who is was in the present.

Twenty-four years and a mental break down later, Mace is forced to revisit his past. And while reluctant, it will become to be the best thing ever to happen to him. It forces him to reexamine his past, and reconcile all the contradictions and hypocrisies within himself.

In the same way, I know I have to return to Cliché—or now as it’s known, Alumnus—and finish what I’ve started.  Revisiting a place of your past is extremely telling, because as Holden Caulfield noticed in his trip to the Museum of Natural History “Nothing’d be different. The only thing that would be different would be you.

So, let’s get started shall we? I’m interested to see what’s changed, what’s changing and what remains the same…

Best Writing,

Kerri

This letter is my acknowledgement that, for me,  writing is a convenient construct to allow me to play pretend in adulthood. As such, all my work will be washed with nostalgia, the struggle against maturation, and mild escapism and fantasy fullfillment. Should it be any other way?

Interestingly enough, I still find myself struggling to grow past the Alumnus world. I’m still mildly in love with Mason Black, and constantly use these characters as template in my other works. I wonder sometimes if I have any other story to tell, or if I’m stuck forever with these imaginary friends.

In finding this letter, however, I think I’ve found an important exercise to help me start a new project. The articulation of intent acts as a contract of content, a promise to yourself that you are moving on to a new oeuvre adventure. For an extra dose of fun, seal the letter, and only open it at the project’s completion. Did you stay true to your original idea or did the process take you somewhere entirely new?

God. This is starting to sound like an awful how-to-write blog. Gag me. Remember in the beginning of this post when I chided artistic processes and hippy rhetoric?

TALK ABOUT BETRAYING YOUR ORIGINAL INTENT. UGH.

Anyway. For wishy-washy writers  who can’t quite commit to a new cast of characters: write yourself a letter. Write your project a love letter. Not only will it help you kick-off the process, but it’ll give you an easy-bake blog post a few years later.