Thursday, June 28, 2012


I had no idea what was going to yank me out of my writing frenzy, my family michegas, and my summer-heated lethargy.

But, Nora, you did it. Dear, beloved Nora...gone so suddenly, gone too soon, gone before I could  begin to contemplate a life without your love, compassion and wit.

You are my Muse, dear lady. You are to me what Julia Child was to Julie Powell. You are my butter. My inner thoughts. My soul. And I don't mind sharing this sentiment with a million other women who think you wrote only for them. That's your gift and wisdom.

There are heaps of commentaries and tributes out there remembering your collective body of work; no need for me to list them here. But, I do find it remarkable that you could move from the gravitas of Silkwood to the wistfulness of You've Got Mail. You tackled every aspect of relationships, and you didn't flinch when describing pain because you wrapped it in humour -- sardonic or deliciously intelligent.

I'm sure you've heard this many times, but I have to tell you again -- whenever I am feeling down about life or work, I pop one of your films into the DVD, sink into it, and lose myself.
In fact, here's a snip from my WIP; I wrote it months ago:

           "On the way home she stopped at the corner market and bought smoky pancetta, porcini mushrooms, fettuccine, and a pint of cream, indulging her urge to cook con gusto, unimpeded by the reproving stares of Jeffrey’s wilted organic carrots and Good Day Colon Cleanse, both of which she’d tossed into the trash.
          She was going to eat, drink and be merry, and enjoy the movie, ‘Julie and Julia,’ which dripped the virtues of gastronomy and butter. Butter! On her way to the cash, she grabbed a stick of demi-salt and a crusty Italian baguette, still warm in its paper sleeve."

See? Proof positive of your tremendous influence on the world.

Frankly, I don't know what I'm going to do without you but I mustn't be greedy. What you left behind is way more than caviar garnish. Honey, you gave me a huge tin of Ossetra -- (I like it more than Beluga.)

So, thank you, dear Nora. Thank you for seeing into my life, counting my heart beats. Thank you for making me laugh and cry at the same time. Thank you for knowing what needed to be said. Thank you for encouraging me to continue.

Nora, "you are a lone reed, standing tall, waving boldly in the corrupt sands of commerce." 
You, dear Nora,  are my I Ching. God Bless.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Titanic -- As If It Were Yesterday

As I write this, it's 2:54 am EST, April 13th.

I have been thinking a lot about the story of the Titanic and reading up on new information as the 100th anniversary of its sinking approaches. In fact, since it set sail on the 10th from Southampton, I have been wondering what its various passengers were doing, what they were anticipating, thinking about, what they were eating, and how much fun they were having.
Right now, unbeknownst to all, they will be hitting the iceberg in about 22 hours' time, and 1500 of them will be going down with the ship about two hours after that.

The fascination with this story is huge -- an event with all the earmarks of a brilliant tale of triumph, failure, dashed hopes, cowardice, classism, grievous loss -- the kind of grand scale situation that other stories like Katherine Anne Porter's Ship of Fools and Vicki Baum's Grand Hotel touched on.
Titanic, alas, was real, and the wealthy, famous and ordinary alike were individuals with unique futures ahead of them.

I shiver when I contemplate the disaster; in hindsight one always shivers with crawling gooseflesh over catastrophes like this. To know what they couldn't, to wish one could turn back the clock and save them...if only!

One new tiny fact I picked up this week was the ship had a cat named Jenny, and Jenny had a new litter. Jenny and her brood died, too.

I've seen all of the Titanic movies -- A Night To Remember is playing on TCM this week, and most experts say this film rings truest to the way it was. It's a very well done film, worth watching if you haven't ever seen it.

Why is it that some events -- even closer in time to present day -- don't resonate, don't feel so familiar? Perhaps we have spent so much of our lives studying the RMS Titanic; perhaps it's the universality of the events that make us forget how long ago the ship sank.

I dunno. What I do think, however, is that I would have liked to time travel to the Edwardian Period for a little while. There is some quality about this rather ephemeral window -- slightly Victorian, slightly modern, and very short-lived that speaks to me, altho' I can't quite say why.

100 years ago a ship, the largest ever built, set sail for New York and very nearly got there. Now it lies on the floor of the North Atlantic and all eyes are on it.

Oceanographers and marine specialists say the skeletal remains of the Titanic are fast disintegrating. Too amazing and dreadful to contemplate.

When I wonder if the story of the Titanic will fade from history, I come to the conclusion that it will not. There is too much of a romantic fascination shrouding it. Perhaps that's as it should be.

Monday, April 2, 2012

REVIEW : THE CORRECTIONS -- Jonathan Franzen

I just finished The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen in order to put my money where my mouth was because I was recently defending what some feel are his elitist, misguided, snobby, dismissive views of readership and technology.
I did not know if I'd like his material at all.

Having now finished the book -- already dwarfed by his more recent Freedom, I am left breathless. Dizzy. Awestruck. Sickened. Weak in the knees. Torn apart. Forever changed as a writer. It was like taking a cure at a mineral springs with noxious, invigorating odours. I'll revisit, yes, but not soon.
Before I attempt any description or explanation, I've selected a few diverse reviews of the work:

"When critics refer to 'The Great American novel' this is it, people." -- Oprah Winfrey

"All who care about the direction of this world must read this book, so monumental, melancholy and precise." The National Post

"A genuine masterpiece, the first great American novel of the twenty-first century...A wisecracking, eloquent, heartbreaking beauty." Elle

"If some authors are masters of suspense, others post-modern verbal acrobats, and still others complex-characater pointillists, few excel in all three arenas. In his long-awaited third novel, Franzen does...This is, simply, a masterpiece." Publishers Weekly

"Books like this are what civilization is for." Slate

From the opening lines you know you are about to be swept into a vortex of reality immersed in hallucination and nightmares, sardonic wit, searing imagery that never misses a beat, never stumbles, not even once, and never resorts to any comparisons or similes or analogies that have been employed before...and you know that you will be chained to a roller coaster ride of deadly, palpable hysteria, verbal howls, in much the same way one is trapped into looking at a train wreck, at the various scalding debris, smelling substances one hates to associate together in the same visceral frame, the soldering, sulfurous, acrid burn of flesh and rubber and steel -- and yet, one cannot, simply cannot escape, or turn away.

Franzen tells a story about a husband and wife in late middle age who are coming apart, whose children never really melded into whole beings, whose simmering hate, resentments, confusion, precipitate outcomes that are both terrifying, quasi-predictable, and yet, completely surprising.
Deftly, Franzen lays out a single frame -- mother, Enid, wants her family around her in St. Jude (in the Midwest) one last time for Christmas, before Dad gets even more decrepit, demented, and before the house is sold.

From this deceptive thin spool, we learn about each of the three children, one at a time, and move adroitly in concentric circles through past to present and back again, inching with dizzying tension toward a conclusion whose cataclysmic event remains as unsteady and tenuous as father Alfred, as unfulfilled and resentful as mother, Enid, and as confused, proud, stubborn as the children.

All are graced with touches of humanity; all are shameful, ashamed, angry, bewildered, resentful, humbled by events that poke and prod and stab at their consciences, their crumbling values, their misguided senses of self and self-righteousness.

The family's secrets, dizzying dynamics are laid against a backdrop of American culture today. Franzen recalls another America, when the railway was king as much as Bethlehem steel, when workers owed employers eternal loyalty and were then consumed by them, when the Joneses never had funny last names, and everyone kept up with everyone else in the hunt for the American dream.

Franzen indicts this dream. It's is a failed experiment, predicated ever more on the 24-hour whizz of white noise consumerism, lack of soulful touchstones and sordid new age values that preclude humanity for humanity's sake. Perhaps, en masse, humanity never really existed in the way Americans supposed it would -- perhaps, it is family, itself, that must find a way to forgive, accept, and rejoice in the simple graceful acts of love and acceptance.

The agony with which Franzen displays the innermost humanity in all of us is perhaps what sears us with the sense of having journeyed reluctantly (because of the anticipated pain) into what we sensed was unspeakable and hoped to avoid -- that presumably ugly-because-it's-too-close-for-comfort-all-unknowable honesty of self -- only to realize we have safely emerged at the other end of the voyage, scathed, bruised, bloodied -- but determined to make peace with personal failings, find hope and redemption in the things and people we once so easily rejected.

The art of language, the use of extraordinarily simple, stunning imagery mark Franzen's style. He reminded me what great literature is all about. It is a lost art whose mysteries are worth taking up once again -- for me, as a reader and a writer.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Killing Me Softly

I spent the weekend crying. All because of Phantom of the Opera -- Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom. On PBS. The 25th anniversary production at London's Royal Albert Hall.

A dam burst open and I was powerless, like Christine, to stop it. The Music of the Night tore me apart.

Much later, after I had blubbered and sobbed my way through umpteen boxes of Kleenex, I began to consider how monster stories were all the rage in the 19th century. Monsters who penetrated our souls with their eternal damnation and agony. Monsters, who, through no design of their own, became heroic even as they were reviled. We pitied them even when they killed. We will always identify with them because we know what it is to be monstrous.

I made a quick list of monsters:

Quasimodo, the ugly Hunchback of Notre Dame
The Phantom of the Opera whose mother caged him at birth
The nameless freak created by Dr. Frankenstein
I never read the original Nosferatu legend, really, so I don't know the exact story. But, yes, his longing for a lost love is pitiable.

Moving toward modern times, I thought about King Kong.

These so-called beasts loved beauty, needed love, needed something and someone to humanize them. Tragically, "twas beauty killed the beast(s)" in one way or another.

How utterly divine they were and how heartbreaking in their purest form.

Interestingly, the original fairytale, Beauty and the Beast, comes to us from the 18th century. And in that story, like the Frog Prince, true love must, as in days of chivalry, conquer all, including evil spells cast on handsome princes by evil, jealous harpies. Beasts are saved by a kiss or a tear.

So, the progression seems to be that as society moved forward toward the Industrial Age, we became more dehumanized, our stories grew bleaker, and no redemption was at hand. It was, as they say, " a dark and stormy night."

We nursed a fascination for the grotesque. Poor Joseph Merrick, the real Elephant Man. He was brutalized by society, and society women were sexually aroused even as they were repulsed. Like the royal court of the Romanovs. Women wanted the smelly rutting hypnotic Rasputin.

Kind of disgusting. The capture and parade of grotesques and side-show performers was the Victorian rage. Freaks are an interesting subject examined by director Tod Browning in a 1932 movie, which was at one time banned.

But freaks were what made Barnum and Bailey successful. Everyone wanted to see freak shows. I guess the freak as a metaphor for the rising interest in eugenics and the ultra nationalism quietly spawning in Germany, was what transfixed Gunter Grasse in The Tin Drum.

Beasts and freaks make us feel superior externally, but remind us internally that everyone is exactly the same. We don't like that, so we throw stones, hurl rotten eggs; defile, scorn and ridicule that which disturbs our misguided sense of balance.

Officially, we stopped going to freak shows, outlawed freak shows, and bear baiting and cock fights. Officially.

But, we still need to kill freaks, round up the villagers and hunt down the Red Bogeymen, the monsters. The Jim Crow laws in the US are supposedly dead.
But, racial profiling isn't. Ethnic wars, us versus them is alive and well. Faggots are freaks, women are monsters.

But, I digress.

I miss the old monster stories -- the ones that were so naive in their clear-eyed view of right and wrong. I miss the purity of love in "All I Ask of You."

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Winter and The Oscars

Montreal has been lucky this winter - again. Very little snow, and very mild temperatures, relatively speaking. Wilderton Willie, who is the Canadian groundhog counterpart to the US' Punxsutawney Phil, said we'd all have an early spring. (Phil pooh-poohed the idea.) And, so, many Montrealers put their boots away, and began to dream about sipping Starbucks on a terrasse with plenty of UV protection.

Mother Nature had other ideas. As I write this, we are in the midst of a major snow storm, expecting well over a foot of the fluffy stuff and some gusty winds just to kick things up a notch. And when this little show of bravura is done, and we're still shovelling out, another storm looms on the Wednesday and Thursday horizon.

People, thus far, aren't complaining.

As for me, I turn into my mother at times like this. I go into bunker mode, lay in enough supplies for a nuclear winter, and plan to cozy up around the fireplace. You'd think I live in a remote part of town, but I'm downtown, steps away from whatever I need. Heh. What's bred in the bone, right?

So, this weekend is looking very good. Lots of warmth, plenty of good comfort food -- beef stew and dumplings, and, if my craving continues, a warm batch of chocolate chip cookies. All homemade, of course.

And what could be better than writing for a few hours in this quiet world? Nothing.

Except the Oscars on Sunday. 

I watched my very first Oscars the year Elizabeth Taylor won for Butterfield 8. Her tracheotomy scar was evident that night; she was breathless in her thank you, fragile looking, stunning, and still very much Mrs. Eddie Fisher, who escorted her to the stage. Shirley MacLaine, who lost, and who really should have won for her role as Fran Kubelik in The Apartment, went on to scoff decades later that she lost it to that damn tracheotomy. Which is probably true -- if you've ever seen Butterfield 8, you'd know that.
(See, Liz was very, very ill in London, with acute pneumonia, and doctors had to perform emergency surgery and cut into her windpipe to help her breathe. Liz was always battling one respiratory illness after another.)

I fell in love with the Oscars and never missed a show from that year on. Only once did I have to skip -- I was working the late shift at a television station in Toronto. It was a Monday night. The Oscars were always on Monday night, and in late March, early April. I can't tell you how upset missing the show made me feel. It was not right, not right at all.

Bob Hope was the emcee I grew up with, and then, Johnny Carson. In those days, when the studio system was still in place, stars really were stars with the kind of mystique they don't have today. One rarely saw them outside the movies; one had to buy movie magazines and read Hedda Hopper or Sheila Graham's newspaper columns, or Dorothy Kilgallen's.

I remember how serious they all were, way before streakers and hippies and politics invaded the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion.

I remember how dashing Yul Brynner looked wearing tails. And, I remember an incident with Tony Curtis and his then-wife, Janet Leigh. She came out with an upswept hairdo that decided at the crucial moment it didn't want to behave. A few locks fell forward over her eyes, and her degree of mortification was matched only by the degree of perfection she thought she had to present in addition to saying, "And the winner is..."
Yes, at one time, before political correctness bit Oscar's backside, people said "and the winner is..." and now they have to say, and the "Oscar goes to..." or words to that effect. can win an Oscar, but no one can say you've won the Oscar while you're winning it. Jack Nicholson just might punch you out. If he isn't too high. Double heh.

This year, I am not particularly overwhelmed. I think The Artist is going to win for Best Picture. I still haven't seen it, but can't wait. It looks Oscar worthy.
So, I'll be enjoying the show if only to see Colin Firth again. And Billy Crystal.
I really hope Billy has a great time. 

It's glitz and glam night. It's all good.

A few years ago my niece went to the Oscars and then on to Spago's for the Governor's Ball hosted by Wolfgang Puck. By now, those edible, gold-dusted mini chocolate statuettes are world famous. Lovely niece that I have, she brought me back my very own. No, I didn't save it. I ate it.

End of story -- enjoy your Oscar weekend, rain, snow, sleet, hail, or sunny day!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Writing the Super Mario Way

Imagine a flat landscape of dull words -- words you wrote, words you hate, words that won't go away. You despise them. But, you need the message they convey so you don't delete them, you simply move on. Maybe the next batch will be better. You tell yourself you'll fix things... later, during edits....

I can't do that. 

I figure if I leave flat landscapes they'll eventually spread like dull beige paint covering the world, blotting it out, Sherwin-Williams style. I'll drown in dull. I'll panic at the sheer volume of flatness and stick a knitting needle through my eye. No, I can't leave 'em and move on.
Or, to quote Jack Nicholson, I'll despair: "what if this is as good as it gets?"
Forget one needle -- make it two, and I'll go whole hog right into an Oedipal bloodbath. People will find me and my gouged eyes on the floor, a perfect stand-in, or lie-in, for Suzanne Pleshette's pecked-to-death body draped on her front porch in the movie The Birds. What to do, what to do....

A couple of weeks ago, I tried something new and discovered the Super Mario method of writing. This method goes farther than simply toying with dull words and changing them. Or re-arranging them.
The Super Mario method requires quite a bit of strenuous exercise. The reward, however, could mean the difference between acceptance and rejection, fair writing and excellence. A better story arc, plot, characterization. Super Mario means if you throw caution to the wind, you'll discover gold coins. They're there, but you have to know how to find them, because they're hidden, just like in the old classic Nintendo game.

How to Play Super Mario Writing

1) First, you have to determine if your writing is actually flat and dull, or if it's just you having a bad hair day. You have to decide if the writing is bad, or if your inner critic is being overly harsh.

To determine this, you need to apply the Samuel Goldwyn principle. Goldwyn, one of Hollywood's most beloved moguls, is credited with saying (first) that he could judge a film's worth in the preview screening by the behaviour of his ass. If he never heard boo from his ass, if he sat mesmerized throughout the film, he knew, all taste aside, that he had a winner on his hands. But, if he found himself squirming in his seat, he knew at once that there was a problem with the film, and audiences wouldn't sit still -- literally --  for any of it, no matter the content's inherent worth.

So, read your work out loud. Read your work from the point of view of a total stranger, and see how squirmy, or bored you are. If you find yourself face down on your keyboard, you'll know the landscape is flat.

2) Now, push away all the work before and after this stretch of dull landscape so that all you see is white space on your screen and the errant writing.
Take each sentence, one by one and examine the creative spark in the verbs, the structure, the punctuation, the vocabulary. Now string the sentences back together and see how the meter is way off, or non-existent. Finally, ask yourself why you need these facts, this paragraph.
Now, ask yourself where the better stuff is hiding and start pounding -- seriously-- pounding on the words. Pound, pound, pound, pound!!!!!

As in:
Flounce, flounce, flounce...should it be bounce? Should it be trounce? Trounce is stupid. Should it be flirty, should it be dirty, should it be there at all? Why flounce, why is Molly wearing a flouncing skirt? Why is she wearing any skirt at all? Who made her decide to wear that skirt? Oh...she has a sister? Who knew? So, just who is this sister? Mabel? Well, hell's bells, Mabel is a person in this paragraph? Why Mabel? A sister named Mabel? How about a sister named Betty Grable? Hmm. Maybe, Mabel wishes she looked like Betty Grable, and so she keeps foisting flouncy skirts on Molly because Molly is really a whole lot more attractive than Mabel. Ahh...something new going on here. So, Molly is wearing a skirt with flounces because her sister Mabel, who's dead now (I can't actually use Mabel in my story...or should I...??) is still influencing her. Hmm, is this what I needed to know about why this landscape is so dull? Molly has to choose what to wear to an important cocktail party; it really matters. Now, instead of having her decide on the red dress with the flounces, I can enrich her actions, deepen her motivation and her characterization by way of mentioning Mabel.  Oh, the possibilities here are really endless, and interesting. Maybe I should play with this some more....

A new world opens up in the dull writing. Suddenly, it's raining gold coins. That's because you took the time and trouble to jump, jump, jump, up to the clouds above, and just like Mario, your head bumped a hidden spot and gold coins rained down, and heightened your accumulated points. Yay.

You may have stumbled on a new character, a new name, a novel way for your existing main character to think of herself -- endless nuggets, endless inspiration, and all because you didn't just punch up a passive construction to an active one, dust your mind off and congratulate yourself on the "quick fix," you literally pounded on the flat work and forced new realms to open up for you.

I have always enjoyed playing Super Mario. But never more than right now.
Give it a try.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Valentine Martyr

When you left, showers arrived in a hot mist
Which bound my grief in threads of silk.
The wind buffeted me, I was too dizzy to stand.
My cocoon, sticky and new, clung blindly to a branch
Until a harsher rain washed me clean away.

All that remains are my shoes running after you.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Roach Art - Take Two

 I realized that after agonizing about my novel's roach art and how to present it properly, I never came back here to post the first draft result.

So, here it is. (And before I friend, Jack, sent me someone's blog or web page that contains a photo or two of beetle "art" -- someone in Europe, I think, attempted a small dress-up party for beetles. I liked the imaginative thinking; however, the end result, artistically speaking, was more "done on a whim" than the kind of polished art my fictional character, Graham, produces.)

Pebblestone's Dilemma
           Isobel smiled to herself, slipped into her office and shut the door. It was a large white square room with two windows facing an alley, jam-packed with open boxes on shelves and radiator covers containing items to be repaired, appraised or tagged. Rare costume jewelry with real coral and ivory mingled freely with estate pieces; a broken Pre-Columbian figure crouched on a tray, his arm in a Ziploc bag at his feet.
          Lydia thought the place resembled a black-market warehouse rife with serious loot, a World War II army PX loaded with Hershey bars and nylon stockings.
          Isobel saw it differently. It was a depot of dream remnants, romantic and sad;  a repository of fleeting time capsules, lost fortunes, or found treasures needing love and attention, like London’s Paddington Station, temporary home to a small brown bear from “darkest Peru,” who had a note pinned to the wooden toggle on his coat: ‘Please look after this bear. Thank you.’
          In short, Isobel, who spent hours reviewing her acquisitions, regarded this enclave as a museum quality lost-and-found department, and she believed, as her mother had, that objects, like people, needed homes, love, and an appreciation of their history. They represented the continuity of civilization, glorious or ignominious as the case might be.

          But this high-minded flight of fancy sailed right through the wrought-iron bars on the windows when the box of roach art caught her attention.
          Anxiety flickered. Just how well did she know Graham? What if this box was like the gory one in the movie Se7en? Or, what if it contained a thousand mammoth roaches, stinking to high heaven, broken and squashed from excessive banging by FedEx…? Oh, for Pete’s sake!
          She reached for an X-acto knife and neatly broke the seal. Her fingers scrabbled through Styrofoam peanuts and hit thick layers of bubble wrap protecting what looked like mahogany display cases which were about sixteen inches wide with brass-hinged glass tops. Odd, but there was one sealed bell jar, as well. She worried the cases might prove to be more valuable than their contents.
          Carefully, she removed them one by one and placed them on the floor. Then she sat down, braced herself,  and tore away the wrappings.
          “Good God!” was all she managed to get out before laughter erupted.
          Graham was brilliant.
          He had constructed dioramas to showcase his various scenes using the giant Australian burrowing roach – macropanesthia rhinoceros – as the torso for each of his well-known characters. The roaches stood three inches high, wingless, smoothly lacquered and striped thinly in gold so that they resembled tigers eye cabochons or humbug candies. Using an infinite variety of materials in tiny flecks and bits of string, paper, wool and other fabrics, he had painstakingly fashioned each mounted head and costume detail right down to the trademark red lacquered heels of the Christian Louboutin shoes on Bernadette Peters’ feet in a scene called “Roach Clips.”
          Peters was seated on a bench in Central Park alongside fight promoter Don King, Andy Warhol, singer Tiny Tim, and Donald Trump. A blue troll doll sat on a nearby path. Everyone’s hair streamed on an angle, caught in an imaginary wind.
          So much to absorb and admire, she took her time.

          Later, Lydia knocked. “Izz?”
          “Don’t bug me, I’m in roach heaven.”
          “Arr-arr-arr. I brought lunch. Sandwiches. May I come in?”
          “At your own risk.”
          “Well, what are you looking at?”
          “ Right now? ‘Hal Roach Presents Our Gang.’ ”
          “This I gotta see.”
          Lydia entered gingerly, stepped over the wrappings scattered willy-nilly, and came to squat next to a few of the cases. She was tall and skinny, and her legs folded like a grasshopper’s into sharp right angles. “Oh-my-god!” She chirped. “Sooo cute! Did you see Porky’s hat, and the striped sweater on – is it Farina?—Holy crap, the roaches are big. Ha! He really nailed Alfalfa – your friend is amazing…what’s in the bell jar?”
          “A three dimensional view of ‘The Roachy Stones.’ He also sent ‘The Bug Sleep’ with Buggy and Bugall, and ‘Dracula starring Bella Bugosi’ –I’m putting that one in the permanent exhibit. If these do well, there’s a lot more to order, and they’re originals which is really cool.”
          Lydia was studying the purple moirĂ© brushwork of the Dracula backdrop. “You know, this guy is one seriously weird, super-talented dude. Tell him I’m in love and want to have his zombie child.”
          “You tell him. Graham Gould – it’s in the Rolodex. Call him in a few hours and let him know everything arrived safe and sound. Tell him I’ll be in touch over the weekend.”

Copyright 2012 Carol Krenz All rights reserved

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Failure To Succeed Leads To Success

Lately, I've noticed a lot of blogs and media web sites examining writers and their paths to success or failure.
In the past few weeks I've read musings from Anne Lamott (whose Bird By Bird has to be one of the best books about writing I've ever read), Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help, and Jennifer Egan, a Pulitzer-prize winner who discusses the success of failure on CNN's website.

Stockett talks about how she wouldn't take "no" for an answer and admits that her chronic inflammatory re-writing assumed a personhood of its own. Consumed by her stubborn nature and obsessive drive, she kept scribbling notes, even as she was being wheeled into the OR to deliver a child. She lied to friends and family about her refusal to abandon her book -- absolutely nobody wanted to publish it -- and hid her revising and editing from her husband. Bottom line: the book was finally published, garnered less-than-stellar reviews, but grew into a major success when the book went to the screen, which, of course, led to more book sales etc. and made her publisher very happy, I'm sure.

Now, Egan, talks about how she sold a brilliant story to the New Yorker when she was fairly young and raw, and how, after that success, she felt her best work was behind her, and that she could never, ever hope to attain the same level of excellence again. The article is a fascinating read, offering many useful observations about the psyche's torment in writing novels and short stories. Egan finally did get over herself, and enjoys her work now, even if that entails as many -- if not more than-- fifty rewrites.

The obvious assumptions about creativity spring to mind. You read about these writers, you wonder -- for the zillionth time --  how much of what we do is fueled by compulsion, insanity, severe egotism and insecurity.

Sometimes, I feel freed; saved by writers who expose themselves, who offer a sick reassuring kinship that prompts me to forgive my own writing sins, my fears. I draw encouragement; I learn to view what I do -- and how I do it  -- in a different light. All roads, no matter how weird and wired, eventually lead somewhere. The other human beast springs to mind. In reading about the compulsion and neuroses of others, I take comfort in knowing that compared to them, I'm almost healthy.

And, then, ha-ha...does this mean I need to get a whole lot sicker in order to write better?

I think we are living in a world of lauded excess. We're too busy, too fat, too stressed, too perfect, too self-absorbed, too, too, too!!
I remember a famous quote attributed to Gore Vidal. Roughly paraphrasing, he said something like, "I revise my work five times, which proves I have very little to say, but a great deal to add.”
People used to think five revisions was a heck of a lot for someone so accomplished. I have to agree.
Put another way, the emphasis seems to be on the overly obsessed, as if you only get to be successful if you need medication.

That may be so for many writers, but isn’t it also worth considering that Stephen King, arguably the most “successful” writer of his time, does not go psycho over every single book. He follows a regime, he writes, he writes some more. He gives his beta readers the work, and does some revision – not years’ worth.

True, King is no Orson Welles. But, there is a method to his madness. As is true of Monet, the Impressionist painter who lived longest within his circle, and who was the most prolific and financially successful. He painted with a passion, but he also followed a method of work habits that did not allow for more excesses than he could tolerate.
Maybe that’s what interests me. Maybe you don’t have to be wacko obsessive and insane to succeed.
Maybe all you need is a healthy dose of it.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Everything I know I learned from the Movies

Writing is a tough, challenging job, that's for sure. And one of the many instructive resources I still use is a good screenplay, or more precisely, a good movie. I can't tell you how much I've learned from great directors, like Vincente Minnelli, and the ineffable, unparallelled Billy Wilder whose acerbic, incisive wit sends chills up my spine. I think Wilder spoke greater truths than almost anyone I have ever read.

As for Minnelli, I can't get enough of his set decorations, his impeccable knowledge of whatever time period he works in. He has no equal.

Plays, books and films form a handy compendium -- you want good pacing, watch the work of great directors like Wilder, Hitchcock, Wyler, Paddy Cheyefsky, Mike Nichols.
You want great dialogue, go for Wilder, Woody Allen, Ernst Lubitsch, Nora Ephron.
Epics that daunt you, haunt you -- David Lean, for one.

And then there's the subject of identification. I can watch cold films and talk about them objectively like pictures in a gallery of post modern art; I can also talk about movies that grabbed me and never let me go. There are different kinds of "grabbers."  The violent ones (pick your fave), the inventive ones (like The Hudsucker Proxy), the indelible horrors -- for me, Rosemary's Baby is supremely well done; and then there are those films that cut the heart, sear themselves into your being for eternity.
Doctor Zhivago is one such film. So are Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather Parts One and Two -- but quiet films also achieve the same effect.
Brilliant in writing, brilliant in every way is Brief Encounter. It's about the things said, and those unspoken -- the kind of miraculous blend of heart and soul every writer aspires to.

Anyhow, because I love films, I try to see good ones, try to check out the zeitgeist that is our current culture.

Since 9/11, films have become very dark. Good films are solemn. George Clooney makes them even more so. Films have been very depressing, people floundering, the world teetering on a nervous breakdown. The comedies have either simplistic, ridiculous nothingness to them, or cynical edges and gross points of view. You have to keep digging and rooting like a pig sniffing truffles to find the gems.

I just saw Contagion and I didn't like it at all, even though it was well reviewed.

It was totally bloodless, literally. There was no one you could really hook into for long, nothing that brought you into the reality of a pandemic. It was so cut and dried, so utterly devoid of sentiment, so very faithful to scientific possibility.

In the end, I thought "big deal" and deliberately touched my face with one zillion deadly microbes. Anything -- even SARS at that point --  would have provided comic relief.

And so, another reinforcing lesson about writing. If you don't make your characters real, if you alienate your audience with what you think is artful understatement when really it's just dull, robotic and painfully'll fail miserably.

Oh--and if you are looking for a good movie that deals with possible pandemics and conspiracies, try Outbreak, starring Dustin Hoffman, Rene Russo, Kevin Spacey and Cuba Gooding Jr. They make you care--and worry.