Writer’s Desk: Less, Please

Minimalist writing is generally understood as a style that pares away unnecessary words to get at a truer understanding of the story. Think of a writer using minimalism like a sculptor cleaving off marble to expose the piece of art lying underneath.

In this essay about the novelist Amy Hempel, Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club) described the value of her approach this way:

No silly adverbs like sleepilyirritablysadly, please. And no measurements, no feet, yards, degrees or years-old…

Get to the point. Write with a minimum of editorial commentary. The reader will get it, assuming you have done your job. Adverbs only when absolutely necessary.

Writer’s Desk: First By Hand

Yes, in the 21st century, there are still writers who use pen and ink, for their first drafts, at least.

Sam Anderson, a staff writer for the New York Times Magazine, told another writer at the paper that he actually composed the first draft of most of his long pieces by pen. He liked how it slowed him down:

There’s a kind of folk craftiness to it. The first step is a very personal thing — drawing yourself out of your mind and body. Then, later, you translate that into impersonal print…

Anderson also found that the process, even though it was time-consuming and required to be typed up later, was ultimately a time saver because it stopped him from fooling around on the Internet.

Screening Room: Sundance Film Festival

Every January it’s the same. You’re still trying to catch up on the November and December releases, and then there are the Golden Globes and the Oscars to dissect, and then comes the Sundance Film Festival with a whole load of new work that’s clamoring for attention.

I covered a few of this year’s offerings for Slant:

  • Cat Person: A college student goes against her instincts to date an older, odd man who claims to have cats. An adaptation of the viral 2017 New Yorker story.
  • Shortcomings: Randall Park’s directorial debut is a witty adaptation of Adrian Tomine’s 2007 graphic novel about love and loathing.
  • You Hurt My Feelings: Nicole Holofcener’s latest urbane comedy stars Julia Louis-Dreyfus as an author whose feelings are, yes, hurt when finding out her husband doesn’t like her new book.

Writer’s Desk: Writing Through the Hard Times

Among the writers Charlie Jane Anders spoke with for Never Say You Can’t Survive was Rebecca Solnit, who has written many books (Hope in the Dark) about that very topic. This is Solnit’s advice for how to keep putting words on the page even when everything seems to be falling apart:

Your writing doesn’t ignore what you think, your writing doesn’t think your body is weird, your writing is not going to nag you about that thing you did when you were eleven, your writing thinks you are the boss, and so it’s the best thing to do in the worst of times, as well as in the best, or so I have found. Writing a sentence is drawing a line and some of those lines are roads out of hell…

Screening Room: ‘Aum: The Cult at the End of the World’

One of the new documentaries premiering at this year’s Sundance Film Festival is AUM: The Cult at the End of the World.

My review is at The Playlist:

The last few years have been great times for documentaries about cults. That does not mean it is a time of introspection about the questing impulses driving people into cults.  The appeal of content—generally of the limited streaming series variety—about cults has more to do with the queasy fright provided by seeing roomfuls of people prostrate themselves before a bored-looking bearded guy on a dais. The current vogue for such work may also be a condition of late-period “look at the freaks” reality TV programming. Ben Braun and Chiaki Yanagimoto’s ‘Aum: The Cult at the End of the World’ largely avoids such tactics…

Screening Room: ‘The Adventures of Baron Munchausen’

Have you ever seen The Adventures of Baron Munchausen? Whatever the answer, the new Criterion edition provides ample reason to watch it now, whether for the first or fifth time.

My article about the film, and its place in Terry Gilliam’s career, is at PopMatters:

It is not surprising that Terry Gilliam’s film career went up in flames—not just once but on multiple occasions, and not just in flames but in great roaring bonfires that consumed reams of industry trade gossip, millions of dollars, and years of people’s lives. As Monty Python’s animator of lewdly monstrous grotesqueries and generally non-verbal performer, Gilliam was hardly the troupe’s chief troublemaker (that would be Graham Chapman, busier hellraising ala Keith Moon than trying to make films). But Gillian did have an easily detectable rebel streak that signaled poor receptiveness to fussy things like schedules and budgets…

Here is the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Keep Making Things Up

Though some people seem to forget this, much of the art of writing is the art of invention. Even journalism and history involve coming up with a story that pulls everything together, the only thing being that you then need to ensure you have the research to back up your story.

Nobel winner Isaac Bashevis Singer once quipped:

When I was a little boy, they called me a liar, but now that I’m grown up, they call me a writer.

Writing is one of the only vocations where such behavior is encouraged. Run with it.

Writer’s Desk: Show Your Work

Writing is something we all have to do on our own. But eventually somebody else has to see it. Better that the first person you show it to is not your editor.

Zakiya Dalila Harris (The Other Black Girl) suggested showing your work:

Share your writing early with other people. Having other eyes on your work is crucial, especially when you’ve been cocooned in your work for so long. It’s important to open up your bubble…

She also suggested getting out in a different sense:

Also, be around people as much as you can. People-watch at the park. Work a job that requires you to talk to strangers…

The writer who is out in the world is the one who can be trusted to say something about it on the page that rings true.

Screening Room: ‘Rio Bravo’

Is Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo pretty much a perfect Western? I wrote about it at Eyes Wide Open:

In 1958, after decades of directing hits like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and To Have and Have Not, Howard Hawks was in bad shape. Nursing the wounds incurred by his ill-judged directing of the epic flop Land of the Pharaohs (1955), he had exiled himself from Hollywood to Europe. Casting about for a project to bring him back into the game, he seized on a smart new Western script by Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman, who had also penned The Big Sleep for Hawks. Loaded with the witty dialogue he was known for and enough material for two or three lesser movies, it seemed like an easy bet…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Write For Yourself First

New Year’s Day is usually the time we start making promises to ourselves about what the coming year will bring. Writers are the same. We measure so much of ourselves by what we have produced. This makes us very susceptible to ideas of self-improvement, measurement, holding ourselves accountable, and feelings of letting ourselves down.

But as important as those things are when it comes to getting things done, none of it is worthwhile if you never enjoy yourself.

That is not to say every minute laboring over your piece is going to be a picnic. A lot of it will be be frustrating, a slog that challenges your desire to ever write another word.

But if that is all you feel, then this is the year to find the joy in this. Write for yourself for a while. Make yourself laugh, cry, or even just reminisce. Maybe you will never show it to anyone. That is okay. Writing is never a waste of time if you enjoy it.

Wendy Knerr said this in Writer’s Digest:

I’ve talked to published writers who are nostalgic about the days when all of their writing was just for them, before editors, agents and readers were influencing their craft. A friend who has published several short story collections told me he spent three years writing just for himself before considering publication and that he wishes he had spent 10. He said the time before the pressures of the market bear down on your creative spirit are often the best times of your writing career. You might think it is easy for published writers to lament their exit from the bliss of “pre-publication.” But this hindsight is an indication that, published or not, you already have access to the most rewarding gifts that writing has to offer…

Remember: This is supposed to be fun.

Screening Room: Best Movies of 2022

Now that 2023 is almost upon us, it is time to start catching up on all the great movies of 2022. It’s always a good way to spend a cold January.

My year-end roundup is at Eyes Wide Open:

Assuming the future still contains books, when one is written about what moviegoing was like in 2022, it will have a hard time finding a theme. Think pieces on the state of Hollywood (including several penned by this critic) over the past few years often bemoaned the industry’s caution and overreliance on industrially producing sequels to safe IP. The concern grew that, post-pandemic, theaters and audiences would stick to the familiar. To a degree that did happen, with even supposed arthouse theaters showing Wakanda Forever. But as the year closes with the usual late-December crush of award contenders muscling into crowded release schedules, fears of a movie landscape dominated only by superhero flicks with quarter-billion-dollar budgets have not quite panned out…

I break down the ten best movies of the year (some of which are pictured above), and also list some honorable mentions and disappointments.

Writer’s Desk: Use the Holiday

Nobody wants to write over the holidays. Much better to watch the snow, open a book, make some kind of warming cocktail involving rum.

Still, we all have our schedules to stick to. So make the holiday work for you.

Think about this line from Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory:

One by one the household emerges, looking as though they’d like to kill us both; but it’s Christmas, so they can’t…

Give it a shot. Just no using mistletoe as a plot device

Screening Room: ‘Living’

What would you do if you discovered you had six months to live? That’s the premise of Oliver Hermanus’ Living, respectfully adapted by Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains of the Day) from Akira Kurosawa’s great Ikiru (1953).

Living opens today in limited release and expands around the country in January. My review is at PopMatters:

Living keeps the early 1950s time period, transposing Kurosawa’s story quite neatly from Tokyo to London, another capital city smothered under war trauma, social stricture, and emotional repression. Bill Nighy plays Williams, the head of a small unit of Public Works bureaucrats. His emotional register leaves as narrow a footprint as the work his people never seem to accomplish. Having buried himself in routine since the death of his wife, Williams keeps the world itself at bay by very simply never engaging…

Here’s the trailer:

Reader’s Corner: Best Graphic Novels of 2022

Every year, Publishers Weekly solicits the dogged scriveners like myself who cover graphic novels for them with a simple question, “What was good? What was best?”

Fortunately, a large enough number of us agreed about the best graphic novel of the year: Kate Beaton’s masterful Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands.

The full poll results are here.

You can read an excerpt from Ducks here.