Writer’s Desk: Take Every Assignment

When Vivian Gornick wanted a job at the Village Voice in the late 1960s, she wrote an article and sent it to them. Editor Dan Wolf then called her up and asked, “Who the hell are you?” She replied, “I don’t know, you tell me.” She got anxious, sent him another article every year or so, and only then asked for a job.

Gornick told Artforum what happened next:

‘[Wolf said] You write one piece a year, how can I give you a job?’ I said, ‘No more, I’ll do anything you ask.’ He said, ‘Spend a day at the Catholic Worker and write a piece about Dorothy Day.’ I did. Then Jack Kerouac died and Wolf said, ‘Go to Lowell, Mass., and report on the funeral.’ I did. One more assignment—and he gave me the job. And that is how I became a writer.

Fight your anxiety.

Keep on pushing.

When the editor tells you to go cover something or somebody, you go and do it.

And that is how you will become a writer.

Screening Room: ‘The Virgin Spring’

My review of the Criterion Blu-ray edition of The Virgin Spring is at PopMatters:

You can easily imagine the characters in Ingmar Bergman’s devastating The Virgin Spring (Jungfrukällan, 1961) calling where they live “God’s country”. Their farm is situated in a kind of pristine wonderland of thick pine forests and gurgling streams. Religion plays a central role in most of their lives as well, with the mother, Mareta (Birgitta Valberg), seeming to spend her every waking moment in contemplation of God, and her husband, Tore (Max von Sydow), only slightly less fervent in his faith. They are certain of their place in the world, and God’s gifts to them…

Here’s a clip:

Screening Room: ‘A Matter of Life and Death’

There’s a new Criterion Blu-ray edition out with a gorgeous presentation of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1946 wartime afterlife romance A Matter of Life and Death. And yes, it’s pretty much required viewing.

My review is at PopMatters:

After making a run of cheery but subversive movies during World War II, always under the watchful eye of Winston Churchill — who refused to shut down the film industry as it was during the Great War — the Ministry of War came to [Powell and Pressburger] with a request: Could they make a movie that would make the British and Americans love each other? A seemingly odd request, given that the nations were at the time fighting tooth and nail to dislodge the Nazis from Western Europe…

Here’s a trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Roald Dahl Suggests Eschewing Beastly Adjectives

Roald Dahl (Carl Van Vechten, 1954)

In 1980, Roald Dahl was one of the world’s most famous authors. But when a young Jay Williams wrote a letter to Dahl asking for some writing advice, the author of James and the Giant Peach and The Witches, among other classics, took the time to write back.

Here’s part of what Dahl said:

I have read your story. I don’t think it’s bad, but you must stop using too many adjectives. Study Hemingway, particularly his early work and learn how to write short sentences and how to eschew all those beastly adjectives. Surely it is better to say “She was a tall girl with a bosom” than “She was a tall girl with a shapely, prominent bosom”, or some such rubbish. The first one says it all…

You can see the original letter here.

The young Williams grew up to become a newspaper writer, a job that obviously requires trimming the fat. Williams later said that Dahl’s response was the best advice he’d ever been given.

Writer’s Desk: Listen to Hilary

Novelist and all-around brilliant prose crafter Hilary Mantel has great advice for writers, here’s a few tastes:

  • Are you serious about this? Then get an accountant.
  • Write a book you’d like to read. If you wouldn’t read it, why would anybody else? Don’t write for a perceived audience or market. It may well have vanished by the time your book’s ready.
  • Be aware that anything that appears before “Chapter One” may be skipped. Don’t put your vital clue there.

Anybody who wrote both Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies should be listened to.

Screening Room: ‘Museo’

In the latest movie from Mexican director Alonso Ruizpalacios, Gael Garcia Bernal plays Juan, a slacker in 1980s Mexico who comes up with a spectacularly bad idea: to rip off antiques from the National Museum of Anthropology.

A heist comedy with melancholy and bite, Museo is playing now. My review is at Film Journal International:

Juan is a layabout sluggard wasting his days in the staid 1980s confines of Satellite City while occasionally attending veterinary school w. Ruizpalacios loops his movie around a few times before getting to the crux of the matter, rhythmically tracking life with a grinning world-weariness evoking the artfully composed New Wave ironies of his last feature, Güeros. When it becomes clear that Juan wants to rob the museum when it’s closed for renovations over the holidays, the movie doesn’t spend too much time on the machinations because the end result is obvious…

Here’s the trailer:

TV Room: Season 2 of ‘Ozark’

Jason Bateman and Laura Linney in ‘Ozark’ (Netflix)

In the second season of Netflix’s Missouri noir Ozark, the Byrd family finds themselves being mired ever deeper in a cycle of moral compromise.

My review is at The Playlist:

Like almost every other show on Netflix, “Ozark” follows the “If Only BBC” rule. (Meaning things would have been a lot snappier if they’d lopped off two, three, even four episodes. Unless we’re talking about the new seasons of “Arrested Development,” in which case full cancellation is the only answer.) The first season started off with a hell of a setup. Early episodes were packed with grit and speed like some godsend of modern noir. Season 1 soon lost its way, not sure just how Southern Midwest gothic it wanted to go. That same schizoid attitude, a little from here and a little from there, prevails in Season 2…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Don’t Move to New York…Yet

27thcitycvr.jpg

When he was starting out as a writer, Jonathan Franzen of St. Louis, Missouri (well, Webster Groves if we’re trying to be exact) figured New York was the kind of place that would demoralize and just eat him up. So he went to Somerville, Massachusetts, got an apartment for $300, and worked part-time. That’s when he wrote his first novel, The Twenty-Seventh City.

So now here’s what Franzen tells new writers:

Go to, like, northeastern Ohio, and write your first book. Go someplace cheap, and move to New York later.

Rent matters.

Screening Room: ‘Joy’ at the Venice Film Festival

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Sudabeh Mortezai’s Joy, which screened at this year’s Venice Film Festival, is a harrowing story about a Nigerian woman trapped in a cycle of dependency as a sex worker in Austria.

My review is at The Playlist:

At the start of Sudadeh Mortezai’s downbeat trafficking tragedy “Joy” there’s some reason to think that one is about to see a story of power and independence. A young Nigerian woman sits in the hut of a juju man while he wrings the blood from a chicken’s slashed neck over an altar and leads her in the recitation of charms. “Protect her from the living and the dead,” he says about her upcoming trip to Europe. “No man will harm me!” He has her shout like a young warrior heading off to battle…

You can check out the trailer here.

Writer’s Desk: Don’t Be Self-Conscious

In Dorothea Brande’s classic 1934 guide, Becoming a Writer, she identified four of the key roadblocks afflicting most scriveners. Among the most serious was learning how to get out of your own way:

Sometimes it is self-consciousness that stems the flow. Often it is the result of misapprehensions about writing, or it arises from an embarrassment of scruples; the beginner may be waiting for the divine fire which he has heard to glow unmistakably, and may believe that it can only be lighted by a fortuitous spark from above. The particular point to be noted just here is that this difficulty is anterior to any problems about story structure or plot building, and that unless the writer can be helped past it there is very likely to be no need for technical instruction at all…

You have to keep your audience in mind at all times, of course. But if you don’t listen to your own voice first, there won’t be any audience for you to worry about.