Writer’s Desk: When Inspiration Talks, Listen

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MoviegoerWalker Percy, in The Paris Review, on the first piece of writing he ever had published:

…I was sitting around Saranac Lake getting over a light case of tuberculosis. There was nothing to do but read. I got hold of Susanne Langer’s Philosophy in a New Key in which she focuses on man’s unique symbol-mongering behavior. This was an eye-opener to me, a good physician-scientist brought up in the respectable behaviorist tradition of UNC. and Columbia. I was so excited, I wrote a review and sent it to Thought quarterly. It was accepted! I was paid by twenty-five reprints. That was enough. What was important was seeing my scribble in print!

As an origin story, it’s not the sort of thing that everybody could follow. After all, Percy had studied science and was a doctor before transitioning to being a writer. But it goes to show that inspiration can strike you practically anytime, anywhere. Even if you have tuberculosis. You just have to keep your ears open.

Screening Room: ‘Hail, Caesar!’

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Channing Tatum in 'Hail, Caesar!' (Universal Pictures)

Channing Tatum in ‘Hail, Caesar!’ (Universal Pictures)

For their latest fullbore farce, the Coens return to the Los Angeles of yesteryear, only it’s a brighter concoction than the murderous landscape of Barton Fink, and stares a veritable Woody Allen posse of stars goofing around like stars of old.

Hail, Caesar! opens today. My review is at PopMatters:

[The] livelier moments include Tilda Swinton’s quivery and predatory presence as twin sisters who are also rival gossip columnists, Channing Tatum deftly cutting a rug during a big On the Town-like dance number with a not-so-subtle gay subtext, and Ralph Fiennes, as a sleek European exile director trying to coax a taciturn and nearly pre-verbal cowboy star through a scene of Lubitschian complexity. But as each one of these scenes nears a crescendo, the Coens either cut away or otherwise leave it stranded in a film that seems as lost as its protagonist…

Here’s the trailer:

Weekend Reading: February 5, 2016

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Writer’s Desk: Merton on Ignoring Criticism

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Thomas Merton, who was born this day in 1915, was one of the 20th century’s only mystics whose voluminous writings on spirituality and philosophy were read with as much eagerness by the general public as by his fellow Catholics. As a prominent Catholic who directly engaged with Eastern religions and philosophies later in his life, and an eager debater, Merton was used to criticism as well as acclaim.

merton1A note of warning about being too cautious comes from Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation, collected in Echoing Silence: Thomas Merton on the Vocation of Writing:

If a writer is so cautious that he never writes anything that cannot be criticized, he will never write anything that can be read. If you want to help other people you have got to make up your mind to write things that some men will condemn.

Note Merton’s focus on service. He is saying that if you’re going to write anything worthwhile, you have to ignore your inner censor, but in addition to that he sees worthy writing as being something that helps others. Whether he meant that in the strict sense, of advocating for people’s rights, or in the broader definition of expanding minds and perceptions (even just a little) with your art, the message seems to be the same: If nobody hates your writing, you might be doing something wrong.

Weekend Reading: January 29, 2016

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Shameless Self-Promotion: ‘Eyes Wide Open: 2015’

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Since there just isn’t enough opinionating about film out there, yours truly reviews them on occasion for the odd website and magazine. Come each January for the past several years, with awards buzz percolating and everybody catching up on seeing the films they missed last fall, I have been publishing the Eyes Wide Open guide.

 

It’s most one of those thumbs-up (the 25 best) and thumbs-down (the 5 most mediocre) collections, with the odd DVD review and other miscellany tossed in for good measure, as well a look at why every other film out there seems to be a sequel.

Anecdotal evidence suggests the book is a handy thing to keep around when you’re looking at what’s playing in the local theater or browsing the new selections on Netflix, iTunes, or VOD.

Eyes Wide Open 2015-cover 1st

What made the cut? Films you’ve all heard of, like The RevenantSpotlight, and The Big Short, plus a few not everyone has, like Experimenter and Mustang.

What didn’t make the cut? Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Bridge of Spies, to name a couple.

You can get Eyes Wide Open in ebook (Kindle, Nook, or other) or paperback.

Also, if you’re feeling Powerball lucky, you can enter here for the chance to win a free copy of the book.

Writer’s Desk: Edith Wharton and Breaking Hearts

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Edith Wharton's place at Pavilion Colombe, St. Brice-sous-Forêt, France -- not a bad little writing spot.

Edith Wharton’s place at Pavilion Colombe, St. Brice-sous-Forêt, France; not a bad little writing spot.

writingoffictionIt’s common knowledge that the stinging jolt of painful experience can be spun into gold by the great writers. (And let’s be honest here—a mediocre writer is possible of creating greatness with the right material.) But there’s a catch to that truism.

Edith Wharton, who was born on this day in 1862, pointed it out in her book The Writing of Fiction:

As to experience, intellectual and moral, the creative imagination can make a little go a  long way, provided it remains long enough in the mind and is sufficiently brooded upon. One good heart-break will furnish the poet with many songs and the novelist with a considerable number of novels. But they must have hearts that can break.

(h/t: Roxane Gay)

Reader’s Corner: Great Books of 2015

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Looking for something to read? There’s plenty out there to choose from.

Check out “From Training Hawks to World War III: A Short List of Great 2015 Books” at Re:Print.

Here’s some other books from last year that really stood out:

After all, winter is (finally) here. Time to catch up on your reading.

Weekend Reading: January 22, 2016

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