Writer’s Desk: Just Put it Down

Earlier this week, Robert M. Pirsig, the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, died at the age of 88. Although the book, a philosophical rumination cast in the guise of a father-son road-trip novel, mostly holds true to its subtitle (“An Inquiry Into Values”), there’s also some solid writing advice to be found.

In the book, Pirsig is trying to help his son write a letter to his mother:

I tell him getting stuck is the commonest trouble of all. Usually, I say, your mind gets stuck when you’re trying to do too many things at once. What you have to do is try not to force words to come. That just gets you more stuck. What you have to do now is separate out the things and do them one at a time. You’re trying to think of what to say and what to say first at the same time and that’s too hard. So separate them out. Just make a list of all the things you want to say in any old order. Then later we’ll figure out the right order.

(h/t: Peter Faur)

Screening Room: ‘Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2’

The summer movie season is already started, thanks to The Fate of the Furious. But now it gets going in style, with the sequel to James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy hitting theaters next Friday.

My review is at Film Journal International:

The anticipation couldn’t be higher for Gunn’s sequel, a movie that depends on being nimble on its feet. Those expectations are met, and then some, in a bigger, bolder outing that locks the audience in from a credits sequence in which Baby Groot (a computer-modulated Vin Diesel) boogies ever so cutely to ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky” while barely avoiding being squished by the multi-tentacled monster fighting the Guardians in the background. The choice of starting a summer blockbuster by focusing on the teeny dancing sentient tree instead of the monster battle with jet packs and lasers taking place mostly off-screen might seem odd to some. But, as is said later on in, Baby Groot is just “too adorable to kill”…

Here’s a trailer:

Screening Room: Tribeca Film Festival

The 2017 edition of the Tribeca Film Festival wraps up this weekend. As ever, the programmers have culled a potent batch of nonfiction movies, some of which should eventually make their way to a theater near you. In some cases they’ll be showing on TV.

Here’s a few highlighted documentaries that I reviewed for The Playlist:

Weekend Reading: April 28, 2017

Writer’s Desk: Don’t Worry About Your Desk

Writers get a lot of advice. Not just about how to write, but when and even where to write.

Fortunately, there’s Margaret Atwood. Rebecca Mead notes this about Atwood’s writing space in a recent profile:

Unlike many writers, Atwood does not require a particular desk, arranged in a particular way, before she can work. “There’s a good and a bad side to that,” she told me. “If I did have those things, then I would be able to put myself in that fetishistic situation, and the writing would flow into me, because of the magical objects. But I don’t have those, so that doesn’t happen.” The good side is that she can write anywhere, and does so, prolifically.

So set up a writing space to all your favorite specifications. By all means, be comfortable when writing. But don’t let that stop you from writing whenever and wherever and however you need to.

Weekend Reading: April 21, 2017

Screening Room: ‘Citizen Jane’

In the 1950s, when bulldozing historic downtowns under the flag of “urban renewal” was all the rage, architecture journalist Jane Jacobs was one of the loudest and most eloquent voices of the resistance. A new documentary on her, Citizen Jane: Battle for New York, chronicles her fight against the city planners who dreamed of replacing organic urban chaos with high-rise and parking lot dead zones.

Citizen Jane opens in limited release this week. My review is at Film Journal International:

At the risk of oversimplifying the debate, Citizen Jane: Battle for the City divides the participants into two camps: the “top-down” city planners and the “bottom-up” activists. To illustrate that divide, Tyrnauer handily reaches back to the most famous urbanist debate of the 20th century: the fight between New York planning czar Robert Moses and journalist-turned-activist Jane Jacobs. The struggle wasn’t always easily understood, but the stakes were for the future of the city itself…

Here’s the trailer.

Writer’s Desk: Go Listen to Classical Music

It’s always something. Even after writers find the right time and place to get their work done, more often than not, their attention wanders. The easy accessibility of smartphones and other digital distractions further frays our already tenuously held attention spans.

Anne Quito noted her problems with this in a recent article for Quartz:

Like the rest of the so-called multitasking generation (a.k.a. GenM), my default mode is to start two or more things at the same time, and that approach had compromised my ability to finish novels, TV shows, and projects efficiently. It also made me impatient, divided my affections and diluted my resolutions.

Her suggestion to break this cycle? Attend a classical music concert:

…the concert hall, where there things can’t be paused and one can’t get up to leave easily, is the ultimate training ground.

At the symphony, the only task is to tune in to one beautiful spectacle at a time.

Weekend Reading: April 14, 2017

Reader’s Corner: ‘The Road to Jonestown’

The legacy of Jonestown is as horrifying as it is opaque. In The Road to Jonestown, out this week, Jeff Guinn (Manson) digs into the full history of Jim Jones, Peoples Temple, and how it led from an idealistic religious and political movement in 1950s Indiana to cult depravity and a mass murder/suicide in the jungle of Guyana.

My review is at PopMatters:

What do you do with something like Jonestown? How did over 900 Americans end up committing what appeared to be mass suicide at a remote jungle compound in Guyana in 1978? In this instance, the usual answer, “because a crazy cult leader named Jim Jones made them do it”, just doesn’t suffice…

Here’s a video with Guinn talking about what really happened at Jonestown:

Screening Room: ‘The Lost City of Z’

For his first cinematic venture outside of New York City, James Gray (The ImmigrantWe Own the Night) takes on an ambitious adaptation of David Grann’s nonfiction rain forest adventure epic, The Lost City of Z.

The movie opens this week. My review is at Film Journal International:

Gray’s movie tracks the obsessive search of British officer and accidental adventurer Percy Fawcett (Charles Hunnam) for proof of a vanished Amazonian city. Fawcett’s modest background keeps him back. Surprisingly, the Royal Geographic Society recruits him for a multi-year expedition with officer Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson, looking and acting slightly consumptive as usual) to map the uncharted border between Brazil and Bolivia. Eager to take the offer of “a grand adventure” to rescue his “ruined name,” Fawcett leaps into the unknown…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Go for a Walk

Taking a restorative walk is always good for the mind, the heart, and the soul. Even when the weather is awful (heat, snow, what have you), a walk almost always clears the mind and puts you in better shape to do whatever lays ahead.

In Kathleen Rooney’s Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, a great new novel about a New York flaneuse and wordsmith, Boxfish is a great proponent of going for lunchtime walks through crowded midtown Manhattan in order to juice her writing:

For me, a peaceful atmosphere devoid of noise and distractions is absolutely the worst place for poetry, likely to wind me up in a doomed attempt to stare down a blank page…. Talking to the pavement always helps me find new routes around whatever problems I’m trying to solve.

So when in doubt or when stuck, get away from the desk and jump into the world, feet first.

Weekend Reading: April 7, 2017

Screening Room: ‘1984’ Tonight

George Orwell started off Nineteen Eighty-Four this way:

It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

That day was April 4.

So in a backhanded compliment to Orwell’s ability to portend, shall we say, certain aspects of the modern political climate, theaters around the country are screening Michael Radford’s movie adaptation tonight. Check out the participating theaters here.

Writer’s Desk: Frost

Robert Frost, whose birthday was a week ago today, is probably today still the best-known American poet after Maya Angelou.

But he also wrote a fair amount of criticism, which was collected back in 1973. A few of the lines culled from that book by the Times are worth sharing, whether one is working in prose, poetry, or what have you:

A poem is best read in the light of all the other poems ever written … Progress is not the aim, but circulation.

[Style] indicates how a writer takes himself and what he is saying … It is the mind skating circles around itself as it moves forward.

I never knew what was meant by choice of words. It was one word or none.