Tag Archives: literature

Novelists and central casting

It’s a dream shared by a great number of aspiring novelists; that someday they’ll be sitting in a theater watching their characters buckle their swash on the big screen.  Browse through the interwebs and you’ll locate many an author’s website with a special section devoted to who they’d like to play their heroes and heroines.  I’m not gonna lie, I’ve had this dream myself.  It’s perhaps unorthodox to admit, but I’m more of a movie person than I am a reader.  It probably has to do with the happier memories of childhood; more of them involve sitting on the couch with my dad watching James Bond or The Natural or rewinding that one part in Star Wars where R2-D2 gets zapped by the Jawa and falls on his face to giggle at it for the nineteenth time, than involve hiding under the covers with a flashlight in the wee hours of the morning flipping pages of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer or the Black Stallion books.  But we all chart our course toward our dreams in different ways (Tele, you must be influencing me lately with these nautical metaphors I’ve become prone to).  Lately it’s been reading Percy Jackson as a family and noting how much was changed for the adaptation and thinking (blasphemy!) that the screenplay was an improvement.  Novels and movies are both in the business of telling stories, but they are drastically different media and what works in one fails utterly in another (see:  Tolkien purists’ criticism of the changes in the Lord of the Rings movies).

Nicholas Meyer, the director of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, in his excellent DVD commentary for that film, talks about the limitations of certain forms of art:  a painting does not move, a poem has no pictures and so on.  The person experiencing the art has to fill in the rest with his own imagination, his own personality.  Only movies, says Meyer, have the insidious ability to do everything for you.  What does that say about the creative process of someone who writes a novel having been apprenticed largely in cinematic technique?  When I’m writing fiction, I’m going at it from two different angles.  On the one hand I love wordplay and the sound of wit and a phrase well turned.  On the other, when I’m staging a scene I’m picturing it in my mind as though I were directing it.  My first draft involved a lot of mentions of character movement – turning away, turning back towards something else, entries and exits from the stage as though they were actors shuffled about by a beret-wearing and megaphone-wielding auteur in his canvas chair.  I’m basically writing the movie I see in my head, with the dialogue timed the way Aaron Sorkin does it, by speaking it out loud and judging its flow.  (I do write a lot of – and probably too much – dialogue, but, without trying to sound immodest, it’s what I’m good at, and to me, there is no better way for characters to get to know each other and to reveal themselves to the reader.  I almost wrote “audience” there; see how the two media are so irrevocably intermixed in the recesses of my brain?)

I’m much lighter on physical character description, however, and I give just enough to establish those traits that are, in my mind, crucial (you may disagree).  I’d rather that you cast the part yourself.  You probably won’t see my protagonist the same way I see her, and that’s totally fine.  In fact, it’s against my interest as someone who is trying to captivate you with my story to tell you how it should look in your mind, and that your interpretation is dead wrong because I made her up and she’s mine and so are all her subsidiary rights.  You need to be able to claim her too.  With that in mind, I’m happy to let you indulge in your own speculation once I let the story out into the world but I’ll never tell you who I think should play her.  Let’s be mindful of the tale of Anne Rice, who famously blew a gasket when it was announced that Tom Cruise would be playing Lestat in Interview with the Vampire, only to publicly recant and offer Cruise heaps of praise after she saw the actual movie.  Besides, if we ever get that far, authors (unless they’re J.K. Rowling) have zero say in who plays whom.  Often the real world gets in the way anyway – the preferred choice either isn’t interested or isn’t available.  There’s also the possibility that you don’t get your dream cast but you end up with somebody better.  I seem to recall that on Stephenie Meyer’s website years ago she talked about wanting Henry Cavill (the new Superman) to play Edward Cullen; without getting into my opinion of the quality of those movies it’s probably fair to say that no one among the many Twihards of the world was disappointed with landing Robert Pattinson instead.  (Truthfully, had it actually been Cavill they would have lusted over his smoldery-eyed poster just as much.)

What, then, is the point of the preceding rant?  As the chairman of the British “Well Basically” society would say:  well, basically, I think authors and aspiring authors do their readers a disservice when they talk about who they’d like to see play their characters in a hypothetical big screen version.  Even though it’s usually done all in fun, that interpretation gets taken as definitive since it’s coming from the creator, and any ideas the readers and fans might have had, imaginative as they might have been, are immediately supplanted because, you know, the guy who actually made it up has spoken.  It was like when Harry Potter merchandise first hit the shelves and all the kids who had until that point been making their own creations out of spare cloth and construction paper now settled for making their parents buy the officially licensed, made in China plastic crap.

So, in the unlikely event that someone someday wants to make a movie about something I’ve written?  Don’t ask me who I’d cast; my own counsel will I keep on that matter, young padawan.  I’ll be perfectly happy so long as they find a role somewhere for this lady:

berenicesmile

You know, if she’s available and she’s interested.

Advertisements

Do authors dream of electric typewriters?

A dime a dozen.
A dime a dozen.

Where do you get your ideas?  That’s a question that everyone who fancies him or herself a writer is asked by someone at some point, with either a look of wonder or disgust on the questioner’s face (hopefully, it’ll always be the former).  The Muse can be an elusive mistress; Lynda, my writing teacher, once advised that waiting around for her was an exercise in futility as she was more likely to dance just out of reach, laughing at you, and that you had to force her to the table by sitting down and starting without her.  In that respect, schedules and deadlines certainly help a great deal, as we all know that the easiest thing to do in the world is not write.

Finding a subject for a blog post is not terribly difficult, even if the writing of said post is.  There’s always lots going on in the world that we can comment on.  I’m of the “more flies with honey” and “current or future employers might read this” mentality, so I’ll usually stop myself from venting about whatever is pissing me off lately and try to either write something positive or find an optimistic take on a particularly frustrating news item.  (On a side note, my wife and I are watching the political drama House of Cards these past few nights and I’m finding it difficult to glom onto completely, for the singular reason that it is an utterly cynical program wallowing happily in the most selfish aspects of government service, and I’m much more drawn to the hopeful take offered by The West Wing.  But Kevin Spacey is still awesome.)  The blog, essentially, is a snapshot of how you’re feeling on any given day.  A novel, by contrast, is a long term exercise in exploring an idea to its every possible limit.  But which ideas are more deserving of the in depth treatment as opposed to the casual chat?  How do you know which is which?

The summer after my mother died, I chained myself to my computer and started writing screenplays.  That was what I was into at the time; for more on what led to this check out this previous post.  Like many, my first ventures into serious writing were fan fiction, and in my case, Star Trek fan fiction.  Although, I never managed to finish any of it – there’s an old hard drive rusting in a landfill somewhere full of the first chapters of stories about the crew of the Enterprise doing… well, not very much, actually.  I couldn’t plot worth a damn at the time; I always figured I’d get to that part later on.  What was more of a passion in the teenage years was drawing comic books, even though my artistic skill was minimal.  And those were always James Bond stories, because they were easier to plot out.  Bad guy doing bad thing, Bond must stop him, there’s a girl, a car chase, a gadget or two.  For a high school creative project I wrote and drew a 007-Star Trek:  The Next Generation crossover, where Bond is beamed aboard the Enterprise-D to help solve a Romulan conspiracy that involves his old adversaries SPECTRE, and along the way he manages to fall in love with Dr. Beverly Crusher (although in a downbeat ending, they have to go their separate ways).  My English teacher loved it, her only criticism that it was a shame that I wasn’t using my own original characters.  My rationale (read: excuse) was that using established characters freed you from having to introduce and develop your own, and enabled you to get right into the story instead.  I didn’t understand at the time that the key to solving my inability to plot was to instead let the story flow out of the characters themselves.

But back to that summer.  By that point I was using original characters, even if the dialogue they were speaking was almost entirely borrowed.  That was about the time Pulp Fiction had come out and, as a film student at UWO, you could not take two steps into your classroom without hearing someone invoke the mighty Tarantino.  I’d like to think that I wasn’t as obviously pretentious as some of the goatee-stroking, beret-wearing pomposities I sat in lectures with, but my work was just as derivative.  My first full screenplay was about a group of kids in film school, with exhaustive, profanity-laden monologues about the hidden sexual themes in Star Wars (which, if you’ve seen Clerks, sort of puts the lie to the idea that these were in any way original characters.)  I was still convinced that someday, someone would make this movie and I’d be accepting my Best Original (heh) Screenplay Oscar for it (then again, I was 20, recently orphaned and extremely naïve).  Once that one was done, I started another, and then another.  But they weren’t anything of note or even interest.  I began to realize that they had no lasting value – because they weren’t about anything; there was no there there.  And they certainly weren’t in my own voice.

The final screenplay was about a group of four 20-somethings who lived in the same apartment building (cough… Friends… cough).  I know, it sounds dreadful, but I really enjoyed spending time with these particular people.  As bad as some of those other screenplays were, they were an opportunity to hone my skill; to develop dialogue and subtext, to cut the profanity, to shed the influence of His Holiness Pope Quentin.  When I typed FADE TO CREDITS, I realized I hadn’t been able to develop the characters in the way I’d wanted – the screenplay was about 170 pages (most genuine ones top out at 120, maximum) and I hadn’t said everything I needed to with these people.  I decided to abandon it at first draft and instead turn it into a novel.  And for the next two years I labored on this thing on and off.  A great deal of my days were spent thinking about the lives of these people:  Bryson Reid, aspiring writer and perpetual smartass, Krista Piper, alcoholic figure skater, Scott Shipley, advertising executive on the rise, and Lauren Devaney, Irish barista homesick for her native land.  Part of Bryson’s story involved him meeting an entrancing and successful fantasy author named Serena Lane.  And interspersed between the chapters about Bryson, Krista, Scott and Lauren were meant to be “excerpts” of Serena’s bestselling novel.  The whole enterprise was designed to lead to a “shocking” metaphysical twist (not in the earlier screenplay version) whereby Serena was the same person depicted in the fantasy portions, who had somehow managed to cross into the real world (and it was the Irish barista, Lauren, who had authored the book in the first place, only to have it stolen by a manipulative publisher who was herself the villainess from the fantasy story and had also escaped from page into reality.  “Serena Lane” would turn out to be the name of the street on which Lauren grew up in Dublin.)  Anyway, it got up to 350,000 words with no end in sight.  As I was writing it, I found I was enjoying the fantasy portions significantly more than the real world stuff.  Bryson, in particular, although ostensibly the hero, was fundamentally unlikable and there were times I just wanted to smack him upside the virtual head.  But I still felt the need to finish it.

Then one summer, I signed up for a local adult education course called “Crafting a Novel.”  Naturally I knew how to write a novel, this was just a chance to meet some people (i.e. attractive, single women) with a similar passion.  The first night of that class was a smack to the head much larger than the one I had wanted to give my fictional hero – I knew nothing.  And I was crestfallen when Lynda told us that even if we had a book we had been working on for years, we were to set it aside and start a new one.  To borrow a phrase from William Goldman, this was the ensuing sound inside my head:

AAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHH

Surely she wasn’t serious?  My epic of Proustian magnificence deserved nothing less than endless streams of voluminous praise followed by a seven-figure publishing deal and movie rights!  How could anyone dare me to set it aside?

In retrospect, thank frickin’ Buddha, but we’ll get to that.

After picking my jaw up from the floor that night, I decided to think about things a little more rationally.  I’d slowly developed this fantasy world and enjoyed playing around in it.  Couldn’t I set another story in the same place?  And since prequels were all the rage, why not one that took place fifty years prior – something that might serve as a setup to the brilliance that was to follow?  That took care of the setting, but I still needed characters and a worthwhile story to tell.

A few days later, I’m in a video game store perusing the PlayStation titles, and I wander over to the PC rack.  There’s a game there, probably a precursor to World of Warcraft or something similar, and on it is a bunch of sketches of the characters.  One of them strikes me.  It’s a beautiful woman holding a mystical staff.  It’s nothing terribly original; do a Google Images search for “sorceress” and you’ll see thousands of variations on the theme – some gorgeous, half-dressed knockout hurling lightning from manicured fingers.  But something about it strikes me.  And I ask myself, what must it be like to be her?  Truthfully, the magical babe is a pretty boring staple of fantasy stories, either as a love interest, a physically unattainable spirit guide, or a cackling villainess bent on total domination of both the world and the hero’s crotch.  In anything I’d ever read or seen up until that point, she was always treated merely as an other to be conquered or otherwise overcome.  (Remember the witch in the first Conan the Barbarian movie?  Beautiful and exotic, as befits magical babes, but doesn’t get a name and is in the story for all of four minutes, three of which are spent rolling around on the floor with our favorite muscled Cimmerian.)  But if what would go through your head if you actually were a creature like that – would you go around thinking to yourself, “I am so willowy and ethereal and mysterious”?  Or would your head be occupied by the same mundane thoughts the rest of us have – what to wear tomorrow, whether you left the iron on, did you feed the cat?  After appearing and disappearing at will and turning men into pigs for a few hundred years, would you eventually grow bored with your powers?  What could the immortal sorceress who has everything possibly want?  Anything at all?  Or would she be subject to the same emotional needs and longings as the rest of us mere human beings?

And there was the seed of my new story.

Coming up in future posts – more on creating characters, developing the plot, struggling with description, crafting dialogue, the necessary pain of killing your darlings and how Aaron Sorkin helped me find my voice without even knowing I exist.

What’s the story, Graham?

Who is that guy?
And while we’re at it, who is that guy?

I’ve never been good at self-promotion.  Perhaps you can chalk it up to formative years surrounded by people telling me keep quiet, don’t boast and give someone else a turn.  Like most people, I enjoy attention, but excessive notice tends to turn my stomach inside out.  It’s why I had to stop reading the comments on the stuff I submit to Huffington (that and the occasional threat from a pissed off Tea Partier).  The problem is that these aren’t qualities that serve one well if one is attempting to establish a writing career.  Publishing firms are tightening their belts and seem to expect their authors to do most of the legwork in marketing themselves.  You see the results often on Twitter – writers following other writers in hopes of a follow-back, and relentlessly pushing their tomes through tweet after tweet.  Seems to work for some; I follow a few who haven’t published a thing yet have managed to build up their own expectant and admiring fanbases.  My attitude has always been that quality will find its own audience, but, after blogging for almost two years to a relatively stable but small (yet tremendously awesome) group of supportive readers, it’s clear that my modest approach isn’t working.  I need to give you more.

If you’ve been reading my stuff for a while you’ll know I’ve made some periodic and cryptic references to a finished novel that has been sitting on my hard drive for far too long.  A few years back I sent out some queries for it, received polite rejections all around, and then set it aside for a while.  (I had a nice one from a literary agent who represents a very famous series of books, who said that her decision to pass was not a statement on the quality of the writing, which, though it may have been a form letter, was still encouraging to a fragile ego.)  About two years ago I went back and rewrote large portions of it while painfully hacking out almost 60,000 words to get it to a publishable length.  Perhaps a dozen family & friends have read it from cover to cover; dozens more have seen excerpts and offered suggestions, some of which have been incorporated, while others have been welcomed but disregarded (you have to use your judgement after all).  Long and the short of it is that at this point it’s in the best shape I can possibly get it into, at least from my perspective.  And I have started sending queries out again.  So why have I not shared more about it here?

Well, in a strange way, I have.  There is a lot here about the book.  And no, you haven’t missed it.  Let me explain a little.

We live in a spoiler-addicted culture.  Everybody wants their appetite sated immediately; we all want to flip to the last page to see who did it.  I went through that phase myself – because I am fascinated by the process of film production (an interest that probably stems from wishing in idle moments that it’s what I did for a living) I devour news about scriptwriting, casting, principal photography, and yes, spoilers.  I had to give myself an intervention of sorts this past summer when I ruined The Dark Knight Rises for myself by reading the Wikipedia plot summary before seeing the movie.  I realized I’d become what I despised – I’d often railed about being able to figure out the ending of rom-coms simply by looking at the two stars featured on the poster.  For Skyfall, I purposely kept myself spoiler-free, and as a result I enjoyed that movie a lot more than I would have had I known how it was going to end.  Trekkers have been driven up the wall over the last several by J.J. Abrams’ refusal to offer specifics on the identity of the villain “John Harrison” played by Benedict Cumberbatch in the upcoming Star Trek Into Darkness.  Is it Khan?  Gary Mitchell?  Robert April?  Harry Mudd?  Ernst Stavro Blofeld?  In promoting his projects, Abrams has always embraced the idea of the “mystery box,” never showing his hand until the night of the premiere.  And controlling the conversation by keeping it where he wants it, in the realm of speculation, is, if managed properly, a great way to keep interest high.  It’s a dance though – give away too much and you spoil it, but say nothing, or remain stubbornly evasive, and people grow bored and move on to the next thing.  My more introspective nature simply lends itself better to Abrams’ way of thinking.

I’ll crack open the mystery box a little:  My novel is a fantasy.  It’s the first part of what will hopefully be a trilogy.  The main character is a woman with magical abilities.  She encounters a mortal man.  An adventure ensues.

Whoa, you’re saying.  Back up a sec.  This is basically Beautiful Creatures, right?

Argh.  As writers we need to support each other and rejoice in each other’s successes, so I’m very happy for Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl.  We all dream of seeing our epics translated to the big screen and I’m sure they’re bursting with joy at their enviable accomplishment, as would I.  But privately I’m suffering a few gutfuls of agita.  You can’t help feeling like the guy who was late to the patent office when Alexander Graham Bell released the first telephone, even though our stories are completely different.  Theirs takes place in the modern day; mine is set in the past in a fictional world.  Their lead characters are teenagers discovering themselves; mine are world-weary adults.  And of course the supporting characters and indeed the plot bear no resemblance to one another.  But to the casual observer, they’re treading similar boards, and even though I could have written a story about a lawyer or a doctor or cop without garnering so much as a whisper of comparison, I have no doubt that someone will now accuse me of trying to cash in on a trend, particularly if Beautiful Creatures does become “the next Twilight” and thousands of lesser imitators flood literary agents’ inboxes (I’m fortunate I didn’t choose to write about vampires.  Luckily, I find them tiresome.)  Indeed, witches are all the rage in pop culture at the moment – we had Hawkeye and Strawberry Fields hacking their heads off a few weeks ago and we’ve got Mrs. James Bond, Meg Griffin and Marilyn Monroe bandying their magical wiles with James Franco coming up in March.

Well, it is what it is and no sense sulking about it now.

I’m going to sidestep into politics for a moment.  My beloved federal Liberals are conducting a leadership race right now, and candidate and former astronaut Marc Garneau has recently fired a shot across presumptive favorite Justin Trudeau’s bow by accusing him of failing to offer up concrete plans.  But Garneau (and those who are praising this as a brilliant strategic move) should understand that people don’t respond to plans, they respond to ideas – the why, not the what.  Our current PM came to power not because he had a thoroughly researched and scored eighteen-point economic agenda, but because his campaign message was that the previous government was corrupt and he wasn’t.  It worked.  His two subsequent election wins have been based on similar themes – I’m reliable, the other guys are scary unknowns.  I go back to Simon Sinek’s brilliant observation that people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.  It was the “I have a dream” speech, not the “I have a plan” speech.  The trick, when it comes to trying to pitch a book through a query letter, is that you’re required to try and hook the agent through what is more or less a 250-word encapsulation of the basic plot.  But the plot isn’t why I wrote the book and it’s not why I want people to read it.

For argument’s sake, and I’m certainly not trying to make a comparison here, but let’s quickly summarize the life of Jesus Christ:  A baby is born to a virgin mother and grows up to become a carpenter, lead a vast group of followers and spread a message of love to his fellow men.  This offends the ruling powers who condemn him to torture and death, after which he is miraculously resurrected.  If you had no knowledge of Christianity or the substance of Jesus’ message, you would never believe based on what you just read that these events would inspire a worldwide religious movement that would endure over two thousand years and counting.  The plot doesn’t make you want to read the book.  You get no sense of the why.

After an enormous detour, we now come back to my novel and its why.  The why is here, all around you, in the archives of this site.  It’s in my values, the things that matter to me and that I ponder as I type, post and share.  My opinions on politics, conservatism, the Tea Party, faith, spirituality, organized religion, charity, economics, ecology, literature, women, love, the loss of our parents, the shifting nature of good and evil, even James Bond, the Beatles and the writing of Aaron Sorkin as a part of the entire human experience – they are all represented in some form or another in my novel.  Gene Roddenberry taught me that a great story can’t just be a journey from A to B to C, it has to be about something more.  So mine is an adventure story that is as much an exploration of my personal philosophy and observations on the human condition as it is sorcery, chases, narrow escapes, explosions and witty repartee.

It is written in first person, from the point of view of the sorceress.  Why did I choose to write as a woman?  Part of it was for the challenge, I suppose, to see if I could do it without falling into chick-lit clichés about designer shoes, the appeal of sculpted abs and struggles with mothers-in-law and PMS.  But more to the point, if the story is to connect with an audience, its themes must be universal, as must its emotions.  Men and women both know what it is like to feel alone, to be consumed by a longing for something or someone you cannot have, and to make any kind of connection, no matter how meagre.  We can both crave intimacy so deeply that we don’t care who we receive it from – even if we know we are asking for it from a person who is absolutely wrong for us.  My fictional leading lady has tremendous powers, yet she remains vulnerable to the stirrings of a long-closed-off heart and the desire to be accepted, even by a man who despises everything she represents – a married man, to complicate matters further.  The evolution of their relationship is the absolute center of the plot, their interactions the driver of all the events that follow.  I avoid a lot of the external mechanisms common to fantasy like endless prophecies, quests, magical objects, creatures, specific rules about the casting of spells and complicated mythologies.  Sorry, no Diagon Alley or Avada Kedavra or Quidditch or even white walkers, folks.  The progression of my story hinges on emotions, personal choices and consequences, not getting the Whatsit of Whatever to the Mountain of Something Else before the next full moon.  The people are what matter and everything else to me is background noise.

Does it sound like something you’d like to read?  I hope so.  I hope if you’ve come with me this far you’ll want to come a little further, and maybe invite a few friends along.  Over the next few months I’ll post periodic updates on how we’re doing submission-wise, and maybe a few more details like character names, excerpts of scenes, even (gasp!) the title.  We’ll see if we can get a couple more folks interested to the point where we reach critical mass and something truly amazing happens.  It’s a story I’ve put a lot of heart into and really want to share in its completed form.  But as I said, if you’ve been following this site and listening to what I have to say, you already know much of what you’re in for.  Think of it as a buffet table of themed appetizers leading to a sumptuous main course – one that I promise won’t leave you with indigestion.

As they used to say on the late night talk shows, More to Come…

Paying it forward – part deux

Confession time:  I’ve been negligent again.  In the middle of my somewhat obsessive trip through Bondage of late, the ever-awesome Samir from Cecile’s Writers was kind enough to nominate me for the One Lovely Blog Award.  It’s always terrific to be acknowledged in this way by our fellow scribes; as I’ve observed in the past, what else is blogging or indeed writing but the cry into the lonely wilderness hoping for an answer?  Samir and his colleagues over at Cecile’s are really quite amazing; you should check them out, and often – there is always something different to peruse, a new, insightfully crafted exploration of this mad journey of stringing together words to form images and ideas we have chosen to undertake, whether for the love of language, the desire to reach or simply because we were intoxicated at the time.

I’ve also observed that the words matter more than the man behind them, and so in that respect it’s difficult to come up with seven random things about me that would garner any interest beyond that of my immediate family.  Most of what I would consider important to understanding who the guy behind the glasses is has already been divulged in the course of the 175 essays that precede this one.  But I shall give it the old college try:

1.  I have a crippling addiction to red velvet cake.  If there is ever an “RV-Anon,” I could easily be its spokesperson.  Assuming my arteries haven’t been completely clogged by cream cheese icing first.

2.  The only accent I cannot mimic well is Afrikaner.  I can usually spout off a few brief phrases before it starts to devolve into pidgin-Australian meets effeminate German.

3.  I was once chased away from near the exterior set of Days of Our Lives at the NBC lot in Los Angeles because I was wearing a Universal Studios jacket.

4.  Over 90% of my music collection is movie soundtracks – and not those half-assed packages of unrelated pop songs that are released purely for marketing purposes, but genuine orchestral scores.

5.  On a related note, when I am really in a serious spot of writers’ block, the album that has never failed to save me from it is U2’s The Joshua Tree.

6.  Queries for my novel have (finally) gone out to literary agents.  More to come and good news (if any, hopefully) to be shared here first.

7.  I currently (for November, at least) sport a moustache.  Squint your eyes at my gravatar pic and imagine the horrors.

Writing is about breaking rules sometimes too, and to that end, I’m going to deviate from the last requirement of this award just a little bit.  You’re supposed to nominate an additional 15 blogs that you think merit consideration as well.  But I find myself unable to do so.  For one thing, ashamed as I am to admit it, I don’t read that many blogs that regularly – I have the “fabulous five” that are linked on my front page which I of course recommend heartily to anyone in search of wordly (not a misspelling) fulfilment.  I have a few more that I follow and enjoy from time to time.  However, stretching the list to fifteen – arbitrarily slapping a few extra names on there just to reach an artificial threshold would be unfair to the authors of those blogs, and would serve, I think, to diminish the worthiness of their efforts.  WordPress is a vast and welcoming sea, and the task should be not for me to point you hither and yon based on what could very well be a fleeting fancy of mine, but for you to plunge in without a lifejacket and discover the many sumptuous treasures for yourself.  So instead of hyperlinking fifteen blogs, I’m going to nominate every WordPress blogger who dedicates his or her words to improving our human condition, to expressing positivity and hope.  To everyone who wants their work to create a smile somewhere out there in the world – to everyone who wants the words they etch in the unforgiving cement of the Internet to be an enduring message of joy and celebration of all we are and all we can achieve.

This award is for every last one of you, and that’s the best part – you already know who you are.  You don’t need me or anyone else to tell you.

With a great audience comes great responsibility

Herrick Memorial Library at Alfred University.

The one-year anniversary of Graham’s Crackers is fast approaching and it’s been quite the ride.  As you’ll have noticed I also thought that in honor of this momentous occasion a new look might be in order.  Sorry if things aren’t quite where you left them; I’m still working out the kinks in this new theme.  Patience, Daniel-san, it’ll right itself in due time.  Anyway, I find myself in reflective mode, ruminating over the last year; posts that I’m really proud of, others that probably could have stood a good solid re-edit before they went up, some I wish I’d never written at all (and you’d be surprised at some of my choices, not that I’m going to reveal them to you.  U2 always pisses me off when they introduce a new album by saying their last one wasn’t any good – well what does that mean to the people who really connected with that stuff?  Are they then meant to feel stupid for liking it – and spending money on it – in the first place?)

As much as I enjoy being able to write this blog, in many ways it is just as restrictive as it is liberating, for the singular reason that it’s public and people read it.  When you’re writing a new post, you can’t put anything on here you wouldn’t be okay with your worst enemy knowing about, because posting to a public Internet forum is the equivalent of draping a banner on your house announcing your thoughts to the world.  You’d best be able to stand behind what you say, even if hundreds of people are throwing tomatoes at you.  More simply, you must be able to accept the consequences of your free speech – even if those consequences aren’t necessarily negative; often they’re not.  But in an age where privacy is fast becoming an outdated concept, how much of ourselves are we truly comfortable with sharing?  Many things we go through might benefit from literary self-analysis through a similar forum – how we feel about work, our families, our partners.  Experiences our readers will relate to and empathize with.  But should we lay them out boldly for all to see?  It’s often safer to try and explore those issues allegorically, in the context of reviewing some celebrity’s latest mediocre album.

The futile recall attempt in Wisconsin on Tuesday made me want to put my fist through the wall – I know, it’s not my country, but I hate seeing liberals fail and douchebag conservatives triumph no matter where they live, especially since what happens south of the border invariably trickles north.  (Also worthy of punching drywall was an idiot MP here screaming that we should drop out of the UN, and his government abolishing the section of our Human Rights Act that bans Internet hate speech.)  When stuff like that happens I want to vent with a vindictive fury in a blistering torrent of profanity that would embarrass David Mamet.  But then I take a moment, and a breath, and remember that you wonderful people don’t deserve to hear me in my worst moments.  The question is, however, is not letting you see me at my worst somehow dishonest?  Should Graham go utterly crackers and spew what he really thinks across these digital pages?

The obvious answer is of course not.  People I love read me.  People I work with read me.  Friends old and new read me.  Even people I can’t stand and wouldn’t piss on if they were on fire probably read me.  And I am responsible, as Aaron Sorkin says, to captivate you, whoever you are, for as long as I have asked for your attention.  Consideration of the demands of our audience is what makes us better writers – even if it arguably makes us less truthful.  There is a tremendous difference in how I write versus how I speak – I am much better at organizing my thoughts on paper, but that also means I’ve censored myself at times and rearranged arguments for a more logical flow, so I come off like an erudite scholar with all his literary ducks lined up.  When I speak without prepared material, I can occasionally sound like I could benefit from Lionel Logue’s help.  But is that more who I really am?  And am I lying to you by not letting that guy post here?

Maybe, but I’m also saving you some irritation.  A writing class I took once included an exercise where you were forced to write continuously for a pre-determined period of time without thinking about the words or stopping to edit them.  You basically let go and let the words take you wherever they were headed – it was raw, unshaped, unfiltered creativity.  What resulted was honest, pure and truthful.  The trouble was it wasn’t terribly readable, or even particularly interesting.  And I think we can agree that the Internet is saturated with that sort of material already.

Self-expression is freest when no one is listening.  As soon as a monologue becomes a dialogue, the dynamic changes into something else entirely – a conversational game of Pong, with words and feelings evolving and morphing into new ideas and concepts with each volley and return.  I’ve always been a bit uncomfortable with the idea of publishing the diaries of noted individuals after they’ve passed on – while the insights we garner into their eras are valuable from a strictly historical perspective, for the most part these were never intended to be seen by anyone else.  They were intimate confessions with the sole purpose of giving the writer the opportunity to heal their wounded soul in private, away from the judgment of others.  To that end I wonder if perhaps it’s better to accept blogging for what it is, and continue to explore the truth within its limitations, the yin and yang, give and take with the audience.  Ironically, I find something liberating in that.

Matters of no importance

Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor.

“Some people can read War and Peace and come away thinking it’s a simple adventure story. Others can read the ingredients on a chewing gum wrapper and unlock the secrets of the universe.” – Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman), Superman

During the month of March I made a consistent effort to blog every single day, and for the most part, managed to stick to that schedule.  (Sundays were a little scattershot depending on the preceding Saturday night’s extracurricular activities.)  Both the news and the mundane quirks of my life offered ample fodder for linguistic rumination – and there could always be additional pontificating about The West Wing if either of the former were found wanting on any given day.  Lately I’ve gotten a bit lazy, and it isn’t for a lack of inspiration, but rather that I find myself less satisfied with writing things that have no deeper meaning.

Perhaps it’s a natural evolution as time and experience add up.  Maybe it’s the pressure of starting to build an audience – there is certainly a form of liberation to one’s self-expression when few are listening that diminishes as expectations begin to rise (don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for each and every one of you out there reading me!)  When one occasionally scratches at the edges of greatness, or, more to the point, writes a post that really touches someone else, the demands of living up to that standard increase exponentially.  It isn’t a matter of seeking constant validation – it’s more that when you see what you can do with that space, you find yourself less comfortable wasting it on posts about space vampire zombies.

Lest this be dismissed as the lament of another struggling writer feeling sorry for himself, let me first say that I too find literary navel-gazing to be tiresome.  I still recall watching a panel discussion of scribes about fifteen years ago and finding myself repulsed by a pretentious cigarillo-smoking douche who droned on about how he’d hadn’t been able to write a play in ten years.  It isn’t by any means that I think I can’t write, or that I’m finding the muse elusive.  I just don’t want to write crap.  I don’t want to write it, and I don’t want to ask anyone out there in Internets-land to read it.  I want what I write to be meaningful and thought-provoking.  To be consequential.  I’d rather let a day or several go by without a solitary word than publish hackery for the sake of having something to post.  So yes, when you’ve written in tribute to President Obama’s support of same-sex marriage and its greater historical and emotional context, what do you do for an encore that even comes close to a subject of such importance?  Reviewing The Avengers or talking about the sixth season of a TV show that’s been off the air for nearly seven years doesn’t quite cut it.  That, I suppose, is the danger in “very special episode” syndrome – you run the risk of making the rest of your work look like substance-less piffle.

Yet you can’t shy away from tackling the big questions if you feel you have something to say about them.  To do otherwise is to not be truthful to who you are and what you believe.  And that brings up an interesting point.

Writing is therapeutic for many people; a chance to process our confused feelings about a world that fails to make sense most of the time and strip away the layers of contradiction to find the truth at the core, and at the same time, peel the layers of self to unveil the essence of our soul.  It’s rather like sculpting – the masterpiece is there underneath, you just have to chisel away the unneeded bits of the stone.  Devoting a post or two to cotton candy instead of meat and potatoes can still be a worthwhile exercise, inasmuch as there can be a sculpture waiting inside every size and shape of rock.  Some stones may shatter into pebbles when you begin to carve them, and some may turn out to be nothing more than misshapen lumps, but the potential of art always remains, the supply of stones is endless, and each stone contains a grain of truth.  So maybe those posts about breakfast and reality television interspersed with the grand philosophical musings are all necessary stops along this journey, and we shouldn’t fret so much about whether or not a less-imposing topic is worthy of our discussion here.  You’re arguably more likely to stumble across something unexpected and wonderful when you start from an otherwise innocuous premise.  For me, the potential of that discovery is worth saddling up more often than not, because regardless of what you think the destination is, you don’t really know where you’ll end up until you actually start moving.

Sorry, but blogging is actually pretty cool (and literary too)

William Blake.

There’s an old saying that the cream rises to the top, but so does the scum.  (Just look at Congress.)  The same applies to writing.  For every successful masterpiece, there is an equally profitable pile of crap.  I read with bemusement this screed from one of my fellow Huffington Post contributors this morning in which, with a nod to Sideshow Bob, he engages in the ironic device of blogging to decry blogs.  Now, he is in high school and has a lot of living to do, so one can understand and forgive the sweeping judgement pronounced therein.  I don’t know him at all; we ranks of HuffPosters are vast and we don’t regularly (or ever) get together to knock back single malts.  He may be a rather smashing bloke in spite of the mildly condescending tone with which his post is composed.  But I can’t agree with his thesis that “uncontrolled publishing,” i.e. blogging, is destroying literature.  I’d say it’s forcing those of us who take writing seriously – which I’d suggest given my experience is a majority of bloggers, not the reverse – to up our game .  If one hopes to be noticed amidst the cacophony of background noise and Bieber fandom, one must aspire to be magnificent.  We might not achieve greatness every time, but the fact that we’re trying means something in itself.  And the blog gives us that opportunity to try.

My unmet cyber-colleague uses an allegory of William Blake physically carving poetry into the roof of a favourite drinking haunt to criticize the supposed ease with which words can be assembled and flung out into the world in the 21st Century; the argument being, seemingly, that without limitations to overcome with sheer force, writing can’t possibly be any good.  Blake, he says, had to craft his verse methodically and with care, paying attention to the shape of each syllable, every minute detail of meter and imagery.  I fail to understand how that level of dedication cannot still be achieved with the use of a keyboard instead of a chisel.  If anything, I’d argue that the delete key and the ability to revise easily has lowered our collective tolerance for sloppy mistakes, for ill-advised turns of phrase and general unprofessionalism (leading to the birth of that most pesky of trolls, the Grammar Nazi.)  If fixing a mistake is simple, then there’s less excuse for letting them slip through.  And ultimately, the most wonderful aspect of Internet browsing is that beautiful little red X in the upper-right-hand corner of the screen.  If you don’t like what you’re reading, close the window and move on to something else.  Uncontrolled publishing may allow a flood of mediocre writing into the ether, but it has no effect on freedom of choice.  To read, or not to read, remains our question.

Publishing is now, if it has ever been the reverse, less about quality and more about what will sell.  This is not a criticism; publishing is a business, staffed by people like you and I, working to feed their families.  If a barely coherent rant about shopping and shoes by a D-list reality television star moves X number of copies more than a brilliantly crafted treatise on deconstructionism of modernist attitudes in 1920’s France by an unknown doctoral candidate, well, Snooki gets the rack space.  It sucks, but forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown.  That’s a problem originating with the audience, not the existence of blogs.  Until the world at large turns away from its fascination with the banal, publishers are obliged, in order to keep their business going, to cater to demand.  Basic economics unfortunately, and literature gets a solar plexus to the gut in the process.

Where blogs can turn the tide, though, is in their openness and accessibility.  You do not need to be famous or have an “in” with an agent or a major publishing house to invent a domain name and start writing and publishing.  I am reminded so often of The King’s Speech and the fundamental reason why that movie struck such a chord with people – not because of the performances or the direction or any one particular element of its filmic construction, but because of its theme, the universal desire to have a voice.  To be able to speak, even if no one, for the time being, is listening.  There are over 150 million blogs in the world, covering probably far more than 150 million different subjects.  Some are brilliant, and some are execrable wastes of time.  But they all began for the same reason – because someone wanted to use their voice.  If many of these voices produce sounds that are unpleasant to our ears, whether in what they are saying or how they are saying it, we have two choices:  we can either call them on it, or we can tune them out.  We don’t have to stew in our angst and complain that their mere existence is diminishing the written word.

That Snooki is a (shudder) published author doesn’t depreciate Shakespeare or William Blake or even Aaron Sorkin for that matter.  These and other Muses remain figures to whom we can look up, and whose quality we can aspire to achieve, even if we will usually fall short.  Blogs give us the wonderful privilege of chance, instead of restricting even the opportunity to a select few.  Many will just suck and most bloggers will toil forever in utter obscurity, but there will be the gems.  You might come across someone’s memoir of a departed friend that moves you to tears in a way that Blake himself never has or never will.  You might read a mommy blogger’s tale of her daughter’s adventures in daycare and unlock the secret of the world.  The late Christopher Hitchens said famously, “Everybody does have a book in them, but in most cases that’s where it should stay.”  Note he didn’t say “all cases.”  Even for the notoriously prickly Hitchens, the possibility of greatness remained.  Literature, or writing in general, must belong to the masses, for what is a masterpiece if it remains unread, or simply unwritten?  I don’t know much about William Blake, but I have a feeling that if he were alive today, he’d be a blogger.  I’m certainly proud to be one, and I’m not going to stop anytime soon.

Grand Allusions or, Where Many Men Have Gone Before

"I have been... and ever shall be... a metaphor."

I watched Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan for probably the fiftieth time last Friday.  The significance of experiencing a movie about sacrifice and the promise of hope and resurrection on Good Friday did not escape me, either.  In a previous post I discussed the writing lessons learned from Gene Roddenberry, about the need for a story to always be about something; to that I’d add The Wrath of Khan as a further lesson, for not another science fiction film comes to mind with more of a pedigree so indebted to classical literature.  Where Star Wars is the most famous embodiment of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, The Wrath of Khan is steeped like the finest blended tea in the traditions of Shakespearean drama, and its famous finale borrows greatly from the story of Jesus Christ.  As writers we need to be aware of the traditions of storytelling, the recurrence of specific themes and motifs throughout history and the capacity of allusion to elicit powerful emotional reactions from our audience, for these notes will tend to seep into our own work whether we are conscious of it or not.

It is interesting to observe, as we delve into the Christian parallels at work in this particular tale, that The Wrath of Khan in many ways represents the “New Testament” of Star Trek, as it was the first Trek to be produced without Gene Roddenberry as its guiding hand.  He was removed from day-to-day supervision of the film by Paramount studio executives who blamed the massive cost overruns of Star Trek: The Motion Picture on Roddenberry’s working style.  The Wrath of Khan was instead produced by Harve Bennett, who came out of the penny-pinching tradition of 70’s television, and written and directed by Nicholas Meyer, a beginning filmmaker whose biggest success to that point had been a series of Sherlock Holmes continuation novels.  Meyer is a studied intellect with a well-stocked library, and he packed the screenplay with references to A Tale of Two Cities, Moby Dick, the Horatio Hornblower novels, King Lear and Paradise Lost, eschewing complicated special effects unavailable to this movie’s reduced budget in favour of character development and deep thematic exploration.  As a result, even though the movie cost a third of what it took to mount the first one, it feels substantially more epic.  Meyer dared to tackle what tends to be taboo among movie stars forever worried about their image – growing older.  He elicited from the infamously hammy William Shatner tremendous depth, nuance and vulnerability, arguably the best performance Shatner has ever given.  Actors love Shakespeare, and Meyer gave his cast the next best thing – a brilliant pastiche, set, despite its futuristic trappings, firmly in the Bard’s thematic wheelhouse.  (On the DVD director’s commentary, Meyer relates how he tried to convince Ricardo Montalban that he would have been a magnificent Lear, and regrets that such a performance never came to be; I know I would have loved to see it.)  Although they never worked well together (or by any reports even liked each other that much), Meyer knew the same basic truth as Roddenberry, and by extension Shakespeare – that the weirdest, strangest, most alien people can be relatable on the basis of their emotions.  A laugh and a tear are literally universal.  This is where the use of allegory comes so strongly into play.

The best allegories operate invisibly.  We don’t exactly know why something we are reading or watching is resonating with us so much, other than it seems to appeal to something deeper in the unconscious mind, or in the heart.  The power of the story of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice for mankind’s sins and his eventual resurrection touches the instinctual fear of death held by all living things, and to the human need to find nobility and purpose in what can seem like the meaningless end of life.  The three-act structure of drama parallels this instinct as well:  in the first act, you introduce your character(s), in the second, you drag them down to the lowest possible point of total collapse, and in the third, you show their climb from that abyss and ultimate triumph.  In this too we find the Greek concept of catharsis – the emotional release found in an audience’s experience of a character’s pain and suffering.  Interestingly, in the original cut of The Wrath of Khan, there was no hint that Spock’s death might somehow be overcome.  It was observed by the powers that be following an ambivalent test screening that the movie featured Good Friday, but not Easter morning.  The end of the film was then reshot (against the wishes of Meyer, it should be noted) to provide more uplift and hope, including a concluding shot of Spock’s coffin at rest in a Garden of Eden-like setting on the Biblically named Genesis Planet.  Whether or not one is Christian, the cycle of sacrifice and rebirth (whether that rebirth is literal, or metaphorical in terms of the reborn spirit of those left behind) has a primal appeal, and when one of the pieces is missing, as in Wrath of Khan’s original ending, things feel out of sorts – the emotional experience is incomplete.

The issue I have struggled with in my own writing is when does allusion and allegory venture over the line into imitation and duplication?  When so much of our creative world at present feels like karaoke, the value of true originality escalates into priceless.  Yet audiences both literary and cinematic have this need for the reassurance of the familiar, the sense of being able to connect with the story on a visceral level, that commonality of hope and fear shared by all of humanity.  Campbell observes that we have always been telling each other the same story over and over again; his titular hero of the thousand faces.  Writers need to accept this basic truth or they will never even get started:  they will be crippled, as South Park so wittily showed, with “Simpsons Already Did It” syndrome.  And not just accept it, but come to embrace the idea that by infusing these ageless themes into their own work, they are taking part in a tradition that dates back to cave paintings and the fireside tale, and deepening the emotional experience of their story for the reader who will bring to it those same instinctive feelings about life and death.  They will recognize the thread linking your words, their life, and the lives of all those who have come before and will come afterwards.  And your work will truly live long and prosper.

Baby, what’s your line?

I’m obsessed with opening lines.  I can spend hours in a bookstore scanning first pages and evaluating the effectiveness of their greetings.  What is true in the dating world applies equally to literature – the first line sets the tone for the entire story to come.  It can either grab you by the metaphorical balls or wheeze pathetically as if to say, “well, I’m not much to look at, but please if you could be spared a minute or two, if it’s not too much trouble, if you don’t have anything better to do.”  Crafting your own is a daunting challenge mainly because of what you are trying to avoid; you never want your hello to your reader to be the narrative equivalent of “Baby, what’s your sign.”  The Bulwer-Lytton Awards, which commemorate the worst published writing, are named after the man who began his 1830 novel Paul Clifford with the immortal phrase, “It was a dark and stormy night,” and the ranks of mediocrity are plentiful enough without daring to offer one’s own work up for consideration.  The trouble is there are already so many amazing examples out there, that began intimidating all writers to follow decades before you were even born.  Behold just a smattering of the most familiar and most celebrated:

  • “Call me Ishmael.”  (Moby Dick)
  • “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.”  (Ulysses)
  • “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”  (1984)
  • “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”  (One Hundred Years of Solitude)
  • “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”  (Pride and Prejudice)

There is my personal favorite, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” (do I really have to cite it?) and a new addition to my ranks of greats:  “Imagine you have to break somebody’s arm” (Hugh Laurie, The Gun Seller).  So what makes a truly great opening line?  I’ve read thousands and I’m still trying to figure it out.

There appears to be no singular rationale, other than that the perfect example is able to convey copious amounts of thought-provoking story information while making you hunger for more.  Who is Ishmael?  What is Buck Mulligan up to?  Why are the clocks striking thirteen?  Why is Colonel Buendia being executed, and what would compel him to recall seeing ice for the first time in the moment of his death?  What has always struck me about openers is how off-handed they seem to be, as if they were composed quickly, in a matter of course of getting on with the meat of the story, even though for all I know hundreds of hours of thought and revision have accompanied each individual letter and punctuation mark, their shapes calculated precisely for maximum impact.  There are limitations:  the line cannot be so “out there” that it stops a reader’s momentum dead so they sit and ponder its meaning endlessly.  It has to be a kick in the pants to force you onward.

The Great Gatsby‘s intro does just this:  “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.”  What does this tell us?  That we are about to be led through this tale by a man who is looking back on reckless youth and continuing to this very moment to wrestle with the meaning of those years.  What is the advice his father gave him and why has it haunted him since?  We need to know more, hence, we need to read more.  Contrast this, say, with the first line of Elmer Gantry:  “Elmer Gantry was drunk.”  Without factoring in the character’s name, this is really only two words.  Yet they still crack open the door to a mystery that demands exploring.  The book is called Elmer Gantry; why are we being introduced to the protagonist in such a disagreeable fashion?  Why is he drunk – is this a regular occurrence?  What could be so wrong with his life to compel him to become inebriated?  Is he a tragic or comic character?  Only one way to know.  Turn the page.

You can drive yourself a bit batty with that first line.  In writing my novel I have gone through dozens of iterations of my opener, scaling up, scaling down, going broad and universal and then small and personal, and struggling to find that ideal balance of brevity versus length, captivation versus compulsion.  It’s an invitation that has to ask without sounding desperate, and has to reassure the reader that a trip inside this little world of words is going to be worth however much time we have asked for their attention.  No wonder it’s as difficult as working up the courage to approach that sexy woman in the bar.  I remember hearing some pick-up advice once and I wonder if it can be applied here as well.  The gist was that if you are at that bar and you see a woman you are attracted to, you are obligated to approach her within 30 seconds of seeing her, otherwise not at all; the idea being that the longer you wait, the more you invest in the outcome, making a possible rejection more damaging to your ego.  The lesson to be drawn, then, is to just start writing in medias res, as if you are already on to the next woman, and that first will either come along or she won’t.  Being casual about it might ultimately lead to failure, but overthinking it makes failure certain.  The thing to remember is that it is only a start, and where you go afterwards is what really matters.

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.