Writer’s Desk: Make It Shorter

Writers like the great Andre Dubus (whose wrenching New England stories of love and agony put Raymond Carver to shame) choose a lonely and difficult road when they decide to master the short story rather than the novel. But the form does lend itself to those who prefer concision.

It is one thing to go through one’s draft to do some nipping and tucking. But Dubus was brutal:

Dubus’s prowess in narrative compression is legendary. Andre Dubus III has written that his father’s story “Waiting,” about the hollow ache experienced by a woman widowed by the Korean war, took fourteen months to write and was more than one hundred pages in early manuscript form. But when the story was published in the Paris Review, it spanned a mere seven pages…

Be prepared to dump 93 percent of what you write. At least.

Screening Room: ‘Dean Martin: King of Cool’

If there is a celebrity who defines just how different postwar American culture was from today, it might be Dean Martin. Frequently misremembered as a mere lounge singer who acted in a few movies, Martin defined a certain kind of nightclub cool back when that didn’t mean bottle service.

Tom Donohue’s Dean Martin: King of Cool premiered last week at DOC NYC and is showing now on Turner Classic Movies. My review is at The Playlist:

Donohue’s film is an amiable piece of work about a largely unknowable cipher that traces the biographical outlines of Martin’s life, career, and style in broadly vibrant strokes. It gets closer to the target the deeper it digs underneath that smooth and unflappable entertainer’s carapace. Reaching for the characteristic that defined Martin’s coolness, some interviewees reference the Italian word infischiarsene, which can roughly translate to “not giving a damn”…

Writer’s Desk: Be Intentional

There is a lot of writing in the new Wes Anderson movie The French Dispatch. After all, it is about a magazine. The editor, Arthur Howitzer Jr., played by Bill Murray, is a grumpy but accommodating sort, the sort who complains constantly while still carrying inside him a deep and abiding love not just for the written word but also for those who know what to do with it.

In the film, Howitzer (based on legendary New Yorker editor Harold Ross) does not dole out much in the way of writing advice, but what he does say about the craft on multiple occasions is nevertheless solid:

Just try to make it sound like you wrote it that way on purpose.

This is harder to accomplish than one might imagine.

Screening Room: ‘The First Wave’

A new documentary from the director of the great Cartel Land depicts the first four months of the pandemic and what it did to one hospital in Queen.

The First Wave is playing as the closing night film for this year’s DOC NYC film festival. My review is at Slant:

Matthew Heineman’s The First Wave is a turbulent and grueling documentary about a time of panic and pathos, and it comes to us about a year and a half after the events that it depicts. To cover the first onslaught of Covid-19 in New York City from March to June 2020, Heineman embedded his crew at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Queens. The footage they captured reveals not just the haggling over personal protective equipment or availability of beds that dominated national news coverage, but the close-up immediacy of nurses and doctors fighting to save patients from a disease that they didn’t fully understand…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time’

Back in the early 1980s, documentary filmmaker Robert B. Weide decided to make a documentary about his literary hero, Kurt Vonnegut. He shot some footage, the two men hit it off, and soon they were good friends. But the closer Weide (who went on to create Curb Your Enthusiasm) got to Vonnegut, the harder it became to finish his movie.

Decades later, Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time is finally finished, and opens this Friday. My review is at Slant:

More a student of comedy than practitioner, Weide has a nerdy on-camera persona that balances well with what he shows of Vonnegut. A cherubic, tipsy-on-his-own-jokes presence, the author is represented here in interviews that Weide shot with him starting in the early 1980s, as well as in clips from talk shows and public speaking engagements. Weide and [his co-director Don] Argott could have easily settled for a film about Vonnegut’s comedic instincts, his ease with irreverent one-liners being one of the reasons that his books are so beloved by a certain kind of puckish adolescent. But they make a worthy effort to pull back the veil on the man and show how a gloomy dissatisfaction brooded underneath his quippy surface personality…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Stuck? Write Something Different

Writers are not born prolific. They work at it. More than most of us. That’s how you end up like Isaac “I lost track of how many books I wrote” Asimov.

He got blocked, like the rest of us. But in that moment, he didn’t just sit there grinding his teeth. The asymmetric approach seemed to work for him:

I don’t stare at blank sheets of paper. I don’t spend days and nights cudgeling a head that is empty of ideas. Instead, I simply leave the novel and go on to any of the dozen other projects that are on tap. I write an editorial, or an essay, or a short story, or work on one of my nonfiction books. By the time I’ve grown tired of these things, my mind has been able to do its proper work and fill up again. I return to my novel and find myself able to write easily once more…

Just make sure you always have a spare project or five on tap.

Screening Room: ‘Ratcatcher’

The debut movie from Scottish director Lynne Ramsay (We Need to Talk About Kevin) is a bracing combination of unflinching poverty and expressionist imagery.

My review of the new Criterion Blu-ray edition of 1999’s Ratcatcher is at PopMatters:

Living in tumbledown council housing blocks, many of the families pine for the day their number comes up on the list of people being moved across town to brand-new houses with yards. But even though this is a dream that seems destined to fall apart, Ramsay is more engaged by the nit and grit of these people’s lives – the actual sensation of cramped apartments with flickering TVs (a surreal mix of Tom Jones and news reports on rat infestation) and lurking rent collectors – than any desire to rub viewers’ noses in the pornographic poverty of it all…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Short, Shorter, Shortest

A poet of many talents, including an icy wit and a cross-disciplinary verve, who tends to generate a high degree of excitement in a certain kind of literary enthusiast, Anne Carson is often asked about writing. Rarely does she pretend to be have any great wisdom to impart.

In this interview, though, when prompted about how her terse answers indicated she preferred brevity, Carson proves just that, illustrating her point with one of the greatest sentences in the English language:

Short Talk on Brevity… try to leave the skin quickly, like an alcohol rub. An example, from Emily Tennyson’s grandmother, her complete diary entry for the day of her wedding, 20 May 1765: “Finished Antigone, married Bishop.”

Screening Room: ‘Finch’

In Finch, a somewhat inexplicable science fiction movie about Tom Hanks, a robot, and a dog, the end of the world is just not that big a deal, really.

Finch premieres on Apple TV+ this Friday. The kids might like it. My review is at Slant:

Finch (Tom Hanks) is a man possessed of a tinkerer’s buzzing curiosity, an engineer’s problem-solving dedication, and a jaunty way of handling the fact that he might be the only human left on Earth. It makes a kind of sense, in that he’s holding despair at bay while pursuing a task with single-minded devotion. Once that task is made clear, though, you may start to wonder whether the whole film would have been more enjoyable if Finch had simply gone raving mad rather than hang on to his distinctly Hanksian smiling-through-the-grit determination…

Here’s the trailer:

Reader’s Corner: ‘Lost Cities, Ancient Tombs’

Very happy to have received my copy of the just-published Lost Cities, Ancient Tombs: 100 Discoveries That Changed the World. I was truly fortunate to have been asked to help with the editing and writing of this truly beautiful book from National Geographic about some of history’s greatest archaeological finds.

Seriously: Long-vanished civilizations, sunken cities, invading armies, you can’t ask for more.

Screening Room: ‘The Velvet Underground’

Somewhere in the great cultural ferment of 1960s New York, a band came together that changed the face of rock and roll. Nobody really noticed but other musicians. But to paraphrase the old saying, every one of those musicians who loved the Velvet Underground went off and formed their own band.

My review of Todd Haynes’ The Velvet Underground, playing now on Apple TV+, ran at PopMatters:

To recreate the crashing symphony of experimentation that birthed the Velvet Underground, Haynes turns his documentary into something that looks like it could have been projected on a bedsheet tacked to the wall of a rat-trap art gallery below New York City’s 14th Street. It’s an immersive bricolage of frame-within-frame visuals and overlapping dialogue and audio clips occasionally studded with reminders that you are watching a documentary about a rock ‘n’ roll band when something like “Venus in Furs” comes blasting out of the speakers with a banshee howl…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Bring the Emotion

Hubert Selby Jr. (Last Exit to Brooklyn) wrote from a deep, dark place that could traumatize unwary readers. That could be because he deprioritizes anything that does not deal with a character’s emotional state:

Very seldom is there any physical description in my work. Occasionally it might be necessary, perhaps for ironic reasons. But physical description is unimportant to me because we don’t live and die on the outside. It’s not so much what I do but what I feel about myself. That’s where I live and die on a daily basis, inside of me…

If you write about what you live and die for, that seems like a good place to start.

Writer’s Desk: Let the Words Come to You

The late Jim Harrison cast the kind of shadow across the literary landscape you don’t much see anymore. A writer more arguably associated with a kind of lyrical American wilderness and wildness than any since Theodore Roosevelt (perhaps Cormac McCarthy), he flung his talents widely across fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. He was also a gourmand of exquisite tastes and occasional overkill (“Hangovers have all the charm of a rattlesnake cracking its jaws as it swallows a toad”).

Though prolific, Harrison took his time when working on a piece. He was more likely to let the characters mill about in his head for a time, take a walk, be patient, and then strike when the moment was right:

You can’t go to it. It has to come to you.  You have to find the voice of the character. Your own voice should be irrelevant in a novel. Bad novels are full of opinions, and the writer intruding, when you should leave it to your character…

Good advice but of course easier for some than others. Following this method, Harrison wrote Legends of the Fall in nine days and submitted it after only changing one word. Hard act to follow.

Screening Room: ‘Dune’

Denis Villeneuve’s gorgeous adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1965 science fiction epic Dune has been pushed back from theatrical release almost as frequently as the last Bond. Chances are, it will have a little more staying power, even if Timothée Chalamet’s take on Paul Atreides is not the most memorable acting you will see this year.

Dune opens this week. My review is at Eyes Wide Open:

Herbert’s Paul is one of science fiction’s original Chosen One characters. Like later iterations from Luke to Neo who the character inspired, Paul is a quasi-Christ figure who combines unmatched warrior skill with a certain mystifying Zen insight that sets him apart from and ultimately above the humans who surround him…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Harness Your Creativity

What does a writer do about their spark, their inspiration, their creativity? Sometimes it comes (often when you are not at your desk, can’t find a pen and paper, and unable to thumb text into your phone’s notetaking app fast enough) and sometimes it doesn’t (generally when you are on deadline and running on fumes).

Freud just plain gave up trying to figure out that wily spirit. In “Dostoevsky and Parricide,” he wrote that “Before the problem of the creative artist,” (interesting to see the artist as a “problem”) “analysis must, alas, lay down its arms.”

That elusiveness is a key aspect to how many see creativity: A tricky and flighty thing who will take off at the slightest rustling in the bushes. Immaturity plays a role as well, with some seeing creativity as a thing treated without too much seriousness. In his writing guide Wonderbook, Jeff VanderMeer says “the most important thing is allowing the subconscious mind to engage in the kind of play that leads to making the connections necessary to create narrative.”

Julia “The Artist’s Way” Cameron just lets rip every morning, writing a few pages of whatever comes to mind and not letting her internal censor say anything. She calls him Nigel, by the way:

That’s the name she’s given to her internal censor, whom she imagines as a dapper gay Englishman. “Oh, Nigel,” she’ll say to herself when she hears his tut-tutting voice. “You leave me alone!”

It feels like the right move. Whether you ignore it or nurture it or let it play, keeping your creativity away from Nigel makes a good deal of sense.