Writer’s Desk: Always Have a Project

Wilder in 1948
Thornton Wilder (c. 1948)

In his latest dispatch for the New Yorker, John McPhee ruminated on all the many many projects he had taken up and never gotten to over the course of his (what looks like to the rest of us mortals) wildly productive writing life.

Trying to put a more positive gloss on a situation that had long bothered him (as it does most writers, who always have at least five unfinished projects for each one they complete), he recollects a lunch he had with his editor and Thornton Wilder many years back. Asked what he was working on, Wilder said:

… he was not actually writing a new play or novel but was fully engaged in a related project. He was cataloguing the plays of Lope de Vega … Four hundred and thirty-one survive. How long would it take to read four hundred and thirty-one plays? How long would it take to summarize each in descriptive detail and fulfill the additional requirements of cataloguing? … Wilder was sixty-six, but to me he appeared and sounded geriatric. He was an old man with a cataloguing project that would take him at least a dozen years. Callowly, I asked him, “Why would anyone want to do that?”

The response is vivid:

Wilder’s eyes seemed to condense. Burn. His face turned furious. He said, “Young man, do not ever question the purpose of scholarship.”

We all need something to do, and keep us going. Especially writers.

Screening Room: ‘Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets’

My review of the Ross brothers’ awesome new quasi-documentary (docufiction?) Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, which just screened at the Sundance Film Festival, ran at The Playlist:

An improvised Eugene O’Neill ensemble barfly riff wrapped in the construct of a seemingly fly-on-the-wall documentary about the last day at an off-Strip Las Vegas bar, “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets” pushes the envelope of nonfiction filmmaking in an exciting, immersive, and transporting way…

Quote of the Day: Reading as Resistance

At the American Booksellers Association’s 15th annual Winter Institute gathering, held this year in Baltimore, author Rebecca Solnit spoke about how reading and publishing can be acts of quiet resistance in an age of distractedness and “glib false certainties.” Per Shelf Awareness:

“At its best it’s a liberation project,” said Solnit of writing and bookselling.

Reader’s Corner: ‘Uncanny Valley’

uncannyvalley1

My review of Anna Wiener’s lucid and somewhat frightening memoir of her time among the confidence boys of Silicon Valley was published at PopMatters:

Anna Wiener writes about being one of those dreaming New Yorkers who had thought she could make it in publishing as a member of the $30k a-year “assistant class”. But the rising tide of capital was pricing people like her out to the margins. And people who did not have her family advantages (no college debt, health insurance) couldn’t even make it to the margins. “It was nice to get new hardcover books for free,” she writes, “but it would be nicer if we could afford to buy them”…

You can read an excerpt here.

In Memorium: Terry Jones

To honor the passing of the great Terry Jones, a comedic troubadour of some renown, let us take a moment to consider the glory that he brought to the character of one Sir Belvedere:

For something completely different, look for Jones’ highly underrated documentary Boom Bust Boom, a fantastic study of the history of economic catastrophe and irrational exuberance. Paul Krugman plus puppets. My review is here, and you should be able to find it streaming.

 

Screening Room: Oscar-Nominated Documentary Shorts

stlouissuperman1
‘St. Louis Superman’

The 2020 edition of the Oscar-Nominated shorts program is hitting theaters next week.

My review of the five-part documentary program, nearly all of which are fantastic if sometimes hard to watch, was published at PopMatters:

When assessing a short-film anthology, sometimes a theme presents itself and other times you have to go looking for one. The movies in The 2020 Oscar-Nominated Short Films: Documentary come from places far and wide, presenting an array of tones and personalities. But the thread that seems to link all of them together is worry that the future will not be an improvement on the problematic present…

Writer’s Desk: Who Knows?

W. Somerset Maugham, the happy-looking chap pictured above, was among the most popular writers in the English language at the height of his career in the 1930s. He had some advice for novelists:

There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.

Sometimes the best advice to follow can be your own. Or none at all.