Tag Archives: Vanity Fair

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.

Eye of the beholder

Now that I have your attention...

My good friend George alerted me yesterday to a recent news item from The Hamilton Spectator.  Recently a young student, Paul Gomille, was suspended for two days from a Catholic high school in Ajax for distributing a speech he’d written, which was ironically not about creationism versus evolution, gay rights, racism, terrorism, the existence of God or any of the other subjects that usually raise red flags.  Instead, the piece was a thought-provoking essay on the nature of beauty.  The gist of the suspension was that he had asked his principal for permission beforehand but was refused because of some language in the piece that was considered “judgmental,” and he went ahead and did it anyway.  He was suspended, the school argues, because he had disobeyed staff.  What is remarkable to me is that this is obviously a message Paul felt very strongly about sending out.  His essay, which you can read for yourself at the link above, speaks directly to those who feel marginalized because they do not fit the ideal of the glossy magazine cover, because even though their hearts need love as much as anyone else, they are passed over for failing to live up to an unrealistic expectation set by corporations.  That someone so young should choose to tackle the subject of the beauty of all women, in this climate, when women’s rights are under attack in the United States by impotent old men, when the level of debate among his classmates is pronouncing one girl or another “f—in’ hot” based on the shortness of her skirt, is a cause, in my opinion, for celebration, not suspension.  I get that he disobeyed an order.  Couldn’t he have been asked to write lines a la Bart Simpson instead?

Beauty is a difficult concept, and its paradoxical nature is one of the many examples of the human contradiction.  We are hard-wired to respond positively to physical characteristics we find appealing – it’s the primate in us, the genetic drive to find the most suitable mate capable of creating the strongest offspring.  Instinctively, I am more attracted to dark-haired women, always have been, can’t help it – it’s my nature.  (No offense to blondes and redheads.)  When a woman catches a man leering at her and accuses him of being an animal, well, unfortunate as it is to society’s mores and the concept of proper behaviour, that is sort of how it’s supposed to work.  There is certainly nothing wrong with physical attraction, indeed, that’s how 99% of relationships start out anyway.  However, it used to be, in the days before mass media saturation, that our ideals of physical beauty were limited to the people we interacted with.  Some historical Don Draper then figured out how to use beauty to sell you his wares – by making you feel ugly and inadequate in a way that only a specific product could cure.  Nowadays, go to Google Images, search for “beauty” and all the pictures that come up will be variations of the same perfected female face, Photoshopped within an inch of her life, staring blankly back at you in an expression meant to be smoldering, inviting, and at the same time, berating.  You don’t look nearly as good as me, but if you buy this lipstick you just might come within a thousand miles.  These non-people are everywhere now, like gods casting wary eyes down from skyscraper billboards at the homely mortals ambling through meaningless lives.  And despite ourselves, we look up to them as impossible ideals.  My better half and I kid each other about our celebrity crushes – I have Kate Beckinsale, she has Alexander Skarsgard.  But there’s every chance that if we were ever to meet either of them we would find them off-putting.  (Particularly Beckinsale – she smokes like a chimney.)  In fact, one can obsess over, but cannot love, a fantasy.  And one should not be intimidated by fantasy either.  What makes us fortunate is that as human beings, we don’t have to be.

Where we differ from our animal cousins is that our intellect makes us capable of responding to the radiance that lies beyond the physical.  Our desire for love can only be satisfied when our soul connects with another, beyond biochemistry, beyond pheromones.  When we reach beneath the hardened shell to touch dreams, fears, insecurities and longings, and embrace them with our own.  The capability to love and truly devote oneself to another comes when we attain the maturity to see the complete person inside.  Paul Gomille seems to have reached this understanding far sooner than other boys his age, and for that, at least, he should be admired.  The other guys will make the cracks about Mary’s legs and Cindy’s chest, and recycle the cruel joke about the girl who fell from the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down, but someday, they’ll get it.  At least you hope they will, otherwise they are fated to live very lonely lives.  The beauty of the soul is where it’s at; where lasting and fulfilling relationships are forged.  And where “what’s hot” may be framed by Vogue and Vanity Fair, what’s beautiful is everywhere around us.  Like the movie American Beauty says, look closer.  Look past the physical.  Look into the heart.  Paul sums it up very nicely.  All women are capable of being beautiful.  All women are beautiful.