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.