Writer’s Desk: Get the Details Right

In her novel The Mars Room, Rachel Kushner mined the details of her life in San Francisco, specifically growing up on the Pacific side in downmarket Sunset, long before Silicon Valley. Here is how she described it:

The Sunset was San Francisco, proudly, and yet an alternate one to what you might know: it was not about rainbow flags or Beat poetry or steep crooked streets but fog and Irish bars and liquor stores all the way to the Great Highway, where a sea of broken glass glittered along the endless parking strip of Ocean Beach. It was us girls in the back of someone’s primered Charger or Challenger riding those short, but long, forty-eight blocks to the beach, one boy shotgun with a stolen fire extinguisher, flocking people on street corners, randoms blasted white…

Given the litter of specifics there, you can not only imagine the scene but feel Kushner’s tart pride in recalling everything. That same instinct could turn to insult when reading an author who lets their attention slip, doesn’t remember that it was “forty-eight blocks to the beach”.

In Kushner’s essay, “The Hard Crowd,” she writes about her time in Haight-Ashbury, in the detritus of the 1960s, with Oliver Stone shooting The Doors on her doorstep. Sidelining from that, she takes aim at another California-reared scribe, Joan Didion:

In her eponymous “White Album” essay, Joan Didion insists that Jim Morrison’s pants are “black vinyl,” not black leather. Did you notice? She does this at least three times, refers to Jim Morrison’s pants as vinyl.

Kushner then pens an imaginary letter of complaint:

Dear Joan:

Record albums are made out of vinyl. Jim Morrison’s pants were leather, and even a Sacramento débutante, a Berkeley Tri-Delt, should know the difference.

Sincerely,

Rachel

Get those little details right. Get them wrong, and a reader who knows will be instantly pulled out of your writing. Possibly never to return.

Do your research, and keep them coming back for more.

Writer’s Desk: Only If You Have To

Around the time of the release of his documentary Harmontown, the ridiculously prolific and idea-rich writer Dan Harmon (Ricky & Morty, Community) took part in an AMA on Reddit, where he delivered some tips on the trade.

This one hit home:

Nobody can tell you that it’s going to work out. Outcome can’t be controlled. We’re not luck writers; we’re screenwriters. So all one screenwriter can say to another is, ‘Hey, it’s a tough racket for a really long time with random pockets of insanely good fortune to be found.’ Would you write screenplays if you were on a desert island? If the answer is yes, you should stick with it, because what the hell else are you going to do that’s going to make you happy?

While he’s specifically talking about screenwriting, which is its own kind of death-by-committee trade, the same lens should be used to view any kind of writing.

In other words, if you can do something else with your time, go and do that thing. It will certainly make you happier than writing.

(h/t: No Film School)

TV Room: ‘Night Stalker’

My review of the new Netflix true-crime series Night Stalker ran at Slant:

Netflix’s Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer, a four-part series about Richard Ramirez, the sadistic serial rapist and murderer who terrorized the citizens of Los Angeles and San Francisco in the mid-1980s, is dramatically satisfying but structurally rote. Director Tiller Russell glosses the story over with more cinematic panache than you might see on 48 Hours, all straight from the Southland-noir template, including eerie tracking shots of a full moon behind dark palm trees and Michael Mann-ish overhead views of nighttime highways. But despite a story filled with big-hearted good guys, a depraved villain, and an edge-of-your-seat finale, the series feels overly pat and formulaic…

Here’s the trailer:

Literary Birthday: Susan Sontag

When Susan Sontag (born today in 1933) published Notes on Camp in 1964, she was already something of an enfant terrible in the literary world. This inventively formatted and passionately argued book-length essay further fueled her reputation at a time when the lines between high and low culture were blurring fast.

In elliptical fashion, the normally fiery critic danced around defining camp (“a certain mode of aestheticism”) and tried to give some idea of the overwrought and self-conscious (except when it isn’t) artifacts that are part of the camp canon: Tiffany lamps, Swan Lake, King Kong, Flash Gordon, and “stag movies seen without lust.”

The next year, Sontag entered herself into the evolving canon of camp—its droll downtown Manhattan subdivision, at least—by sitting for one of Andy Warhol’s “screen tests.”

Writer’s Desk: Once Again, With Feeling

A few days after 9/11, Ian McEwan wrote in The Guardian about the aftermath of the tragedy, the shock it had caused in the people he knew. Despite the world-spanning nature of the events, he noted that “the reckoning, of course, was with the personal.”

In describing how people channeled their traumatized watching into fantasies and daydreams that limn the cracks in the “terrible actuality”, McEwan hits on something essential in these imaginings about “what if it was me?”:

This is the nature of empathy, to think oneself into the minds of others. These are the mechanics of compassion … Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion, and it is the beginning of morality.

Your writing does not have to overtly engage with ethical quandaries in order to be moral. All it needs to do is whisk the reader into another person’s consciousness. By doing so, fiction can breed understanding.

Literary Birthday: Zora Neale Hurston

Anthropologist and so-called “Queen” of the Harlem Renaissance Zora Neale Hurston was born today in 1891. She liked giving people varying dates for her birth, invariably ones that marked her as younger. This fooled many writers like Alice Walker, who later helped rescue Hurston’s reputation from obscurity. Hurston most likely crafted this misconception not due to simple vanity but to obscure the fact that she did not even start high school in Florida until 1917, when she was already in her mid-twenties.

Despite such a late start to her education, after Hurston hit New York in 1925, she quickly became a literary star, publishing popular works of autobiography (Dust Tracks on a Road) and autobiographical fiction (Their Eyes Were Watching God) and writing for the Saturday Evening Post.

Screening Room: ‘The White Tiger’

In the new movie from Ramin Bahrani (99 Homes, Fahrenheit 451), a kid from a dirt-poor Indian village discovers the price that must be paid to move up the social ladder. Based on the fantastic novel by Aravind Adiga, The White Tiger is coming to Netflix later this month.

My review is at Slant:

Narrating the film’s fast-paced plot with sly showmanship, Balram (Adarsh Gourav) lays out the humiliations that he endured and sins he committed in his rise from a poor Indian villager to a Bangalore entrepreneur. The speed of his change in circumstances, and his canny maneuvering of class differences, brings to mind everything from Charles Dickens to Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire. But as Balram pointedly says in one of his many asides to the audience, after witnessing yet again the powerlessness of the poor, “don’t think for a second there’s a billion-rupee gameshow you can win to get out of it.” Instead, his escape route is through the rich family that he sacrifices everything to work for…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Dear Comrades!’

My review of the historical drama Dear Comrades! is at Eyes Wide Open:

If history matters — an assumption we might have once taken for granted — one reason is to ensure crucial events are not forgotten due to the march of time. In today’s climate of manufactured truths and glib whataboutism, it is hard to believe that any historical memory has the power to change minds or poke holes in some demagogue’s balloon of hot air. But in the Soviet Union portrayed in Andrei Konchalovsky’s icy yet searing historical drama Dear Comrades!, the commissars busy erasing the record of a massacre make the argument that history does matter…

You can see it at Film Forum’s Virtual Cinema.

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Mosul’

My review of Matthew Michael Carnahan’s movie Mosul is at Eyes Wide Open:

One of the most important movies of 2020 is on Netflix right now, but you probably don’t know it. Most people did not notice when the service dropped Mosul onto the service in late November. That was not unusual. A lot of movies were getting lost in the deluge of digital sound and vision being pumped into our devices. But even during more ordinary times, this is a movie that would have had a difficult time getting traction. After all, it’s an Iraq War without Americans…

Here’s the trailer:

Literary Birthday: J.R.R. Tolkien

Even though his name would become synonymous with modern fantasy fiction, J. R. R. Tolkien (born today in 1892) only wrote the epic Middle-Earth cycle collected into The Lord of the Rings, when he was not working at his day job, which was professor of literature and language at Oxford.

Beyond his love of old folklore like Beowulf, which he drew on heavily for his own fantasy tales, he was also a dedicated philologist (a kind of historical linguist) who enjoyed not just learning languages (everything from Greek and Old Norse to Greek, Middle English, and Welsh) but making up his own languages. For the characters of Middle-Earth, he created over a dozen entirely new tongues, ranging from various Elvish dialects like Sindarin and Quenya to Khuzdul (the secret lingo of the dwarves).

Not content with that, Tolkien also invented a “Goblin Alphabet” for The Father Christmas Letters. That book, like some of his other fantasy tales, was written originally to amuse his children, who likely appreciated the effort, though some of the syntax may have been over their heads.

Writer’s Desk: Invite the Reader In

In her essay “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown“, Virginia Woolf described the phantom form that books can take for writers, a little figure (who identifies in this instance as “Brown”) and says “Catch me if you can.” That infuriating chase makes up the bulk of a writer’s life:

And so, led on by this will-o’-the-wisp, they flounder through volume after volume, spending the best years of their lives in the pursuit, and receiving for the most part very little cash in exchange. Few catch the phantom; most have to be content with a scrap of her dress or a wisp of her hair…

And what to do when you have finally caught the phantom? How to bring the reader in to witness the glory of your catch? Treat them as a guest:

The writer must get into touch with his reader by putting before him something which he recognises, which therefore stimulates his imagination, and makes him willing to co-operate in the far more difficult business of intimacy. And it is of the highest importance that this common meeting-place should be reached easily, almost instinctively, in the dark, with one’s eyes shut…

If you give the reader something familiar to hang on to, they will be more likely to follow you anywhere.

(H/T: LitHub)

Literary Birthday: Isaac Asimov

The first works published by Isaac Asimov (born today in 1920, a date now marked as National Science Fiction Day) both appeared when he was just 19 and could not have been more different.

One was his Columbia University thesis, “The Kinetics of the Reaction Inactivation of Tyrosinase During Its Catalysis of the Aerobic Oxidation of Catechol.”

The other was “Marooned Off Vesta,” published in the pulp science-fiction magazine, Amazing Stories (which a young Asimov had read at the newsstand at his family’s candy store, despite his father’s disapproval).

Asimov received a doctorate in chemistry but writing proved more enticing. He ultimately published 400 to 500 books (accounts vary). Some were nonfiction works on science, math, history, and literature. But many of the rest were science fiction tales like his now iconic “I, Robot” and “Foundation” series, exactly the kind of thing his father had once tutted over his reading.

Screening Room: The Movies of 2020

My essay on the cinematic year that was, “2020 Didn’t Kill Cinema But it Didn’t Help”, was published at Eyes Wide Open:

This year will be remembered for many things. Sweat pants. Zoom humor. The post-Election Day realization that a solid minority of Americans were in a cult. Warner Bros. selling out its filmmakers (sorry, “content creators”) for some short-term streaming buzz. What people may not remember — and for good reason — is that the top box office performer of 2020 was released just seventeen days into the new year. And it was Bad Boys for Life

Screening Room: ‘Herself’

In the new movie from Phyllida Lloyd (The Iron Lady), a mother of two escapes an abusive relationship and tries to make a new life for her and her daughters by building a new home from scratch.

Herself opens soon on Amazon. My review is at Slant:

Herself’s home-building subplot is likely what you expect: the cheery story of disparate people pulling together in hard times as part of an ad-hoc family while uptempo pop music plays on the soundtrack. The film doesn’t lack for well-calibrated acting, but the performances and the story’s more gripping elements about the ways abuse is abetted by institutions aren’t done any favors by the somewhat hammy and more than a little unwieldy symbolism of the simple little backyard home being slowly put together…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Find the Time

John Cheever had a fairly simple formula for writing. He explained it once when meeting a wonderstruck Michael Chabon:

Writing was a practice. The more you wrote, the better a writer you became and the more books you produced. Excellence plus productivity, that was the formula for sustained success, and time was the coefficient of both. 

For Cheever, though, this meant there was little room for anything else. Children? Cheever called them “notorious thieves of time.”

Of course, Chabon went on to father four children and publish 14 books, including masterpieces like The Yiddish Policeman’s Union and Wonder Boys. So he must have figured out some way to budget his time.