Tag Archives: Jack Kerouac

Walking after midnight

Marion Cotillard and Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris.

Were the good old days really so wonderful?  That’s the question at the heart of Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, his 2011 movie I was finally lucky enough to see this past weekend.  After a somewhat overlong travelogue opening, a taut, beautifully shot 90 minutes tells the story of successful yet frustrated screenwriter Gil (Owen Wilson), trapped in a relationship with high-maintenance Inez (Rachel McAdams), her conservative parents and tiresomely elitist friends.  Setting out drunkenly on his own one warm Parisian night, Gil is picked up by an old car precisely as the clock strikes twelve and finds himself in the Roaring Twenties alongside such luminaries as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, T.S. Eliot and Pablo Picasso.  He has his debut novel critiqued by Gertrude Stein, suggests movie plots to Luis Bunuel, inspires Salvador Dali and ultimately falls in love with a beautiful French muse named Adriana (the always spectacularly alluring Marion Cotillard) who is herself pining for a more golden era – the 1890’s France of Toulouse-Lautrec and the Moulin Rouge.  Woody Allen isn’t interested in the mechanics of the typical time travel plot – how Gil is able to journey to the 1920’s and back every night remains an enigma that even Gil isn’t that keen on solving.  The magic just happens, and he rolls with it, soaking in the wonder of being surrounded by his heroes, people to whom he can relate with greater ease than anyone in the present day.

It’s a dilemma to which I suspect many of us writers can relate, and indeed, the writers who make up the voting membership of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences were taken with the message enough to award it Best Original Screenplay despite Woody Allen’s persistence in ignoring all the Oscars he’s ever won.  We are mired somewhat in our admiration for the traditions forged by those who have tread the path before, people like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Jack Kerouac to name but a very limited few.  We eye with disdain the half-efforts by celebutantes, reality show castoffs and vampire devotees finding wide readership today and question how we can possibly be a product of the same era.  We must belong to an earlier, more golden, more innocent time, where our deepest literary ponderings would find sympathetic ears at every turn.  In the movie, Gil is taken aback when he and Adriana find themselves even further in the past, in the time where she wants most to be, and discover that the literati of that era are dismissive of their present and longing for the Renaissance.  The conclusion eventually drawn by Gil is that the sense of nostalgia is a continuous thread winding its way through each subsequent generation, that it is not by any means unique to the children of today.

Chances are great that if any of us was to experience the timeslip of Midnight in Paris and be transported to that bygone slice of history – to the Capraesque American heartland of the 1940’s, to pick but a single example – we too would not find our nostalgia sated for long; we would see the people around us saddened by harshness of their present and longing for the easier days gone by.  The past is, ultimately, prologue.  As hard as it is to imagine, the people of the 2050’s may look back on 2012 with fond memories, recalling wistfully when gasoline cost only as much as it does now, when we still had polar icecaps and polar bears for that matter, when the kids danced to Lady Gaga and Rihanna, the iPad was the hottest thing going, and the world held its breath waiting for the next Hunger Games movie.  I have lived long enough to see one particular decade of which I have strong memories – the 1980’s – transform from what was normal to what is camp and kitsch; how long before the subtle shirts and ties I wear to work every day become the subject of mockery like leg warmers and acid wash jeans?

The lesson I take from Midnight in Paris is that the past is a nice place to rhapsodize about, but you shouldn’t want to live there, because you likely wouldn’t like it as much as you think you will.  Instead, the past should only help us make better choices going forward, as Gil realizes when Gertrude Stein’s critique of his novel prompts him to make a radical change in his present-day life – for what turns out to be the better.  So as much as I might like to sit in the room while Jack Kerouac pounds out On the Road on his rolls of typewriter paper, share a fireside chat with FDR or float in the Eagle with Armstrong and Aldrin, I do their legacies and the world no favors by waiting around for it to actually happen.  My task is to blend my romanticism of the olden days with the experiences of my own life into something worthy and lasting, both in how I live my life and what I put down in words.  And perhaps, someday in the far future, someone yet to take their first breath on this wonderful earth will wonder about what it would have been like to spend an afternoon in my company.  They may very well – for reasons passing our understanding at this point – see these days above all others as the golden age.  Don’t we owe it to them to try and make this time worth getting nostalgic about?

It ain’t easy

Aaron Sorkin, making it look easy.

In Adventures in the Screen Trade, his seminal book on screenwriting, William Goldman talks excitedly about meeting one of his literary heroes, Irwin Shaw (The Young Lions and Rich Man, Poor Man among many others).  They spend an afternoon together, the young Goldman soaking up as much of Shaw’s wisdom as he can.  As they are about to part, Goldman flippantly comments to Shaw that writing must have been easy for him.  Shaw is struck dumb and becomes incredibly morose, remarking quietly, “It wasn’t easy.”  Goldman spends the rest of the chapter berating himself for having said that, for trivializing in one ill-informed quip a lifetime of Shaw’s tribulation and heartbreak poured out on paper.  Perhaps the most intimidating part of attempting to write anything is the mere existence of the reams and reams of brilliant work that have gone before, and the resulting feeling that you will never measure up because it’s so difficult for you and those other guys could just knock out genius effortlessly.  Staring at the blank screen and the blinking cursor with the spectre of Jack Kerouac feeding rolls of paper through his typewriter because he just couldn’t stop can diminish your verve quite abruptly.

Indeed, writing is one of those paradoxical vocations that people can claim to love in one breath when they are bashing their heads against the wall trying to figure out the right order of words in the next.  While I am presently finalizing my first novel, it is intended to be the beginning of a trilogy – an accidental trilogy, given that when I began writing it, it was only going to be a single work until I found out about word count limits – and while I know how it is supposed to end, I am not entirely certain how to get there.  The other day I had a flash of inspiration and found myself laying out the plot of book two in my head.  Resolving to get at least a workable outline down as soon as possible, I found myself sitting at my computer, utterly stymied.  The words were just not there.  I got up, walked around, got a drink, looked out the window, pet the cat, changed the music and still nothing came.  In that moment I felt about as in love with writing as I am with right-wing conservatism.  An inability to find the words is the wedge that lets all the demons through the door.  Who are you kidding?  You suck at this.  You’ll never amount to anything.  No one will ever want to read this, let alone spend money for it.  When a writer sinks into that well of self-criticism, no amount of positive feedback will help a whit.  One can imagine Irwin Shaw at his typewriter caught in the same spiral, and thus have no difficulty picturing his deep offense at William Goldman’s casual remark.

One of my writing heroes, Aaron Sorkin, wrote 88 episodes of The West Wing over four years – working on his other series Sports Night concurrently during the first two of those years and still maintaining an unsurpassed level of quality that entrenched a collective ideal of a liberal and intellectual Presidency of the United States during the frustrating Bush years.  A recent Vanity Fair article discusses how The West Wing continues to inspire young staffers who work in the White House to this very day.  Yet while he was writing, Sorkin’s marriage broke apart and he suffered well-documented problems with substance abuse, even an embarrassing airport arrest.  I would love to meet Aaron Sorkin one day, shake his hand and thank him for inspiring my own writing.  But not in a million years would I ever dare to suggest it was easy for him.  That would diminish not only his work, but my own – I think I’d be embarrassed to say I was inspired by something that the guy knocked off in five minutes on a cocktail napkin.

Writing is the articulation of the soul, the translation of wordless thoughts and feelings into a permanent form that can be shared with and experienced by others.  It is announcing with a megaphone the baring of your vulnerable heart to the world, and hoping for connection, and though it can be as difficult as physically tearing open your ribcage with only your fingertips, we are compelled to do it anyway.  The drive of a writer to craft his message can leave ruin in its wake – the ruin of relationships, of health, of entire lives – the fate of men like Ernest Hemingway.  At the same time, one has to concede nobility in the idea of this sacrifice of personal well-being to a higher purpose – the creation of a lasting story.  This is not by any means to suggest that all great work should require ear-slicing insanity, only that no one should ever expect to reach this mythical idea of effortless writing, and it’s something to remember the next time the flashing cursor unveils the horrifying sight of the blank page.  It’s hard for everyone, no matter how easy they make it look.