Writer’s Desk: Merton on Ignoring Criticism

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


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

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

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

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


Screening Room: The Nearly-Great Movies of 2015

Emorey Cohen and Saoirse Ronan in 'Brooklyn' (Sony Pictures Classics)
Emorey Cohen and Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn (Sony Pictures Classics)

For my annual film guide series Eyes Wide Open — and yes, the 2015 edition is now on sale, thanks for asking — I try to narrow down the list of best films of the year to 25. Some years are easier than others. But pretty much every time there are movies that don’t quite make the cut but still seem worth calling out as worthy of people’s attention.

You can read “Brooklyn to Chi-Raq: The Nearly-Great Movies of 2015” at Medium.

Writer’s Desk: The First Draft


Jane Smiley on getting out of your own way:

… you cannot be judging yourself as you write the first draft—you want to harness that unexpected energy, and you don’t want to limit the possibilities of exploration. You don’t know what you’re writing until it’s done. So if a draft is 500 pages long, you have to suspend judgment for months. It takes effort to be good at suspending at judgment, to give the images and story priority over your ideas…

I think there are two kinds of sentences in a rough draft: seeds and pebbles. If it’s a pebble, it’s just the next sentence and it sits there. But if it’s a seed it grows into something that becomes an important part of the life of the novel. The problem is, you can’t know ahead of time whether a sentence will be a seed or a pebble, or how important a seed it’s going to be…

This, of course, is easier said than done. We’ve all been stuck at the desk, agonizing over the drivel we’ve been turning out and questioning the entire vocation. But just stick with it and (for a little while at least) ignore the inner critic. If you don’t have any raw material to work with, then there’s nothing to chisel and hone into something beautiful later on.

Reader’s Corner: Bowie’s Books

Viles_BodiesWhen you look at this list of David Bowie’s 100 favorite books, a few seem obvious, given his predilection (particularly in the Berlin phase) for bleak, chilly dystopias and tales of alienation and schizophrenic dislocation. So, of course he liked:

  • 1984 by George Orwell
  • A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
  • City Of Night by John Rechy
  • The Origin Of Consciousness In The Breakdown Of The Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes

But then there are some books, urbane novels of wit and glee, that don’t exactly fit with any of Bowie’s shape-shifting music moods:

  • Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh
  • Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon
  • Metropolitan Life by Fran Lebowitz

Maybe they were just fun reads…

Weekend Reading: January 15, 2016

Screening Room: ’13 Hours’

Pablo Schreiber, John Krasinski, and David Denman in '13 Hours' (Paramount Pictures)
Pablo Schreiber, John Krasinski, and David Denman in 13 Hours (Paramount Pictures)

When the US consulate in Benghazi was attacked by an Islamist militia in September 2012, they were quickly overwhelmed. Their only fighting chance was a small team of contractors stationed at a nearby CIA station. Michael Bay’s 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi is based on those contractors’ tell-all book about the massive firefight and bureaucratic snafus that followed the assault.

13 Hours opens this weekend, in case you’ve already seen all the December awards movies. My review is at Film Journal International:

That sound you hear while exiting the theater as 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi rumbles to a finish is something like relief. Because the last thing that our panic room of an election season needed was a Michael Bay gasoline bomb getting dumped onto the simmering garbage fire that is the Benghazi investigation. That hasn’t happened. The closest that this bruising but respectful film comes to sounding like a cable-news shouting head is when one character, bemused that the news back home is attributing the attacks to protesters, says matter-of-factly, “We didn’t hear any protests.” Then it’s back to the shooting; we are in Bay country, after all…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Making a Name

William_S._Burroughs_at_the_Gotham_Book_MartThis is Patti Smith at a Louisiana literature festival in 2012:

When I was really young William Burroughs told me – I was really struggling we never had any money – and the advice that William gave me was built a good name and keep your name clean. Don’t make compromises. Don’t worry about making a bunch of money or being successful. Be concerned with doing good work and make the right choices and protect your work. And if you build a good name eventually you know that name will be its own currency…

We don’t all get to be like Smith and receive personal advice from El Hombe Invisible at an age when we’re young and struggling and wondering if any of the combat we’re suffering just to create something will ever be worth it. But her distillation of it is useful nonetheless.

Protect your work at all costs. Don’t sign up for anything you don’t believe in. Refuse to sell yourself cheap. And if you have to … use a pseudonym.

Weekend Reading: January 8, 2016


Screening Room: Human and Machine in ‘Ex Machina’

exmachina-mv-5Theaters were full of science fiction this year. However, it was mostly of the post-apocalyptic YA (Hunger Games) or space opera (Star Wars) variety. Alex Garland’s Ex Machina was something different. It’s available on DVD now.

“The Year’s Best Science Fiction Movie Wasn’t Star Wars: The Force Awakens” was published at Short Ends & Leader:

In the final reckoning, people are never that creative. That’s true even when they think they’re changing history. The explorer who goes to the ends of the earth is usually after fame, money, or both. The investor will ignore every warning sign about a too-good-to-be-true opportunity until it’s too late and he’s lost everything. The genius inventor announcing that he’s creating an epochal advancement in technology will turn out to have some fairly mundane reasons for doing so.

That last scenario is what Alex Garland digs into for his directorial debut Ex Machina. It’s a chilly investigation of the ethical consequences of artificial intelligence wrapped up in the skin of a sleek and increasingly horrific thriller…

Here’s the trailer: