Writer’s Desk: Stress, Anger, and Curiosity

As anybody who has followed Henry Rollins over the years knows, he is just as much a writer as he is punk rock frontman. Having penned everything from poetry and music criticism to travel essays over the years, he has put out a pretty solid body of work, not to mention his own publishing company.

He also has advice for the striving creatives out there:

Stress is good — too much is not good, but [just enough] stress keeps the snare drum’s skin tight. I would go the harder route because you get better scars and your nose looks better when it’s bent and your stories are better…


I’m driven primarily by two things: anger and curiosity … [it] makes me want to do stuff and live vigorously…

Screening Room: ‘Lynch/Oz’

My review of the new documentary Lynch/Oz is at Slant:

Is  that an Oz narrative?” asks director Rodney Ascher in the second chapter of Alexandre O. Philippe’s trippy, tricky, and obsessive cine-essay Lynch/Oz. Ascher is clearly being a touch dishonest with the question because he’s at that moment referring to Beverly Hills Cop. He follows up that query by wondering in tongue-in-cheek fashion, “Is everything?” …

Here is the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: How Does It End?

Jonathan Lethem does not write simple plots. Try diagramming what happens in, say, Chronic City or his Philip K. Dick homage Gun, with Occasional Music. Good luck!

So it’s not surprising that he says he figures out the ending first:

I usually live with the idea of a book for years, before I actually know what I have. To use a chess word, I spend a lot of time visualizing endgames. It’s in my head, this elaborated sense of what I want to have happen. But I’m sort of allergic to notes, diagrams. I don’t really put anything on the page. So if I were to die in the middle of any of these operations, it’d be like The Mystery of Edwin Drood—you’d have no idea what was meant to come next…

If your endgame is solid, everything else will follow.

TV Room: ‘Extrapolations’

My review of the Apple TV+ series Extrapolations ran on PopMatters:

One difference between The Day After Tomorrow and the release of Scott Z. Burns’ eight-episode Apple TV+ climate change anthology series Extrapolations in 2023 is that now the human causes of environmental disaster can be openly discussed in a big-budget science-fiction production. The issue has become less contentious as the potential for catastrophe looms. A broader swath of the public now understands that human activity is heating the planet. Even some diehard denialists have started to acknowledge the fact of sinking coastlines and scorching summers. While such half-hearted converts are often still resolutely opposed to conservation, preferring techno-solutions (cloud seeding, fusion reactors) or reality-detached boosterism (warming temperatures mean farming in Greenland!), this mind-shift is still progress…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Master Gardener’

After making the festival rounds, Paul Schrader’s Master Gardener opens next week in limited release.

I reviewed for PopMatters:

Everything in Paul Schrader’s Master Gardener exists at roughly a forty-five-degree angle to reality. The film has one foot planted in a mostly recognizable world but the other in a dreamland of the writer/director’s invention. It makes for a schizoid presentation that delivers moments of gutsy idiosyncrasy but few characters whose problems and reactions feel connected to familiar human emotions…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Try, Try, and Try Again

Rejection letters are the worst. Even the ones that do not seem particularly cruel or critical. A rejection letter that does not even bother to specify what was so terrible about your writing is somehow even more cutting than a line-by-line critique.

This is all part of writing, though. Even Judy Blume has her rejection letter stories:

For two years I received nothing but rejections. One magazine, Highlights for Children, sent a form letter with a list of possible reasons for rejection. “Does not win in competition with others,” was always checked off on mine. I still can’t look at a copy of Highlights without wincing…

But does the author of Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret? and Then Again, Maybe I Won’t have any unique advice about how to move past rejection? Well, yes and no:

Don’t let anyone discourage you! Yes, rejection and criticism hurt. Get used to it. Even when you’re published you’ll have to contend with less than glowing reviews. There is no writer who hasn’t suffered…

Finish your work. Send it off with confidence and good cheer.

But get a helmet.

Writer’s Desk: Write the Book You Need to Exist

Eleanor Catton thought there was a need for a book that was “structurally ornate” and lengthy but still had a driving plot. She looked around and didn’t find one that satisfied what she wanted. So she went ahead and wrote The Luminaries, which, as everyone likes to remind you, came in at over 800 pages.

Catton tried to encourage some students to take the same approach:

Don’t write the book you think you should write, but what you want to read – the book that doesn’t exist yet, and because that fact drives you mad…

Writer’s Desk: Be a Vampire of Raging Love

How do you live a good life in a fallen world? What can writers, or really any breed of creative, do to find something worth writing, imagining, making when surrounded by so much chaos and things seemingly designed to make you give up hope?

A 13-year-old who wants to find a life in some kind of artistic field asked that question of Nick Cave. The onetime gothic troubadour, and more recently advice writer, was asked “How do I live life to its absolute fullest, and not waste my potential?”

Cave had thoughts:

Read as much as possible. Read the big stuff, the challenging stuff, the confronting stuff, and read the fun stuff too. Visit galleries and look at paintings, watch movies, listen to music, go to concerts –  be a little vampire running around the place sucking up all the art and ideas you can. Fill yourself with the beautiful stuff of the world. Have fun. Get amazed. Get astonished. Get awed on a regular basis, so that getting awed is habitual and becomes a state of being…

Cave goes on:

A little smart vampire full of raging love, amazed by the world – that will be you, my young friend, the earth shaking at your feet…

We should be little smart vampires raging with love every single day. Take in everything the world has to offer. Use that to create but also to live.

(h/t: The Marginalian)

Writer’s Desk: Tell the Truth Shamelessly

Often literary fiction is viewed as needing to be disconnected to some degree from what is happening in the world. Timelessness can be preferred to immediacy.

For her part, Lydia Millet (A Children’s Bible) strives to write fiction that wrestles with everything happening around us. In The Atlantic, she described the challenge of doing that without being obnoxious (“nothing breaks the spell like an explicit preaching session”).

Using The Lorax as a sublime example of making a genuine story that means something, she explains how the challenge calls for extreme candor:

My feeling is that the struggle to write well is also the struggle to write honestly, even when they seem to be at loggerheads. And that candor—elusive and sometimes rudely naked—shouldn’t be just the easy honesty of me but a more ambitious honesty of us. Not the sole purview of children’s books, but the purview of any book at all.

In the end, I think a bit of shamelessness is called for…

So if you have something to say in your fiction, say it.

Screening Room: ‘Somewhere in Queens’

Directed, co-written by, and starring Ray Romano, Somewhere in Queens is opening this Friday.

My review is at Slant:

Intermittently funny and touching, but ultimately forgettable, Ray Romano’s overcooked family comedy Somewhere in Queens is about a protective couple who can’t quite let their son go. Leo (Romano) and Angie Russo (Laurie Metcalf) fret over nearly everything to do with “Sticks” (Jacob Ward), a gawky and quiet high school basketball star on the verge of graduation, but never quite get around to asking what he wants to do with his life. If there wasn’t an ABC Afterschool Special about this kind of parenting, there should have been…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Live to Write

Whether the result was nuanced studies of fraught relationships, eye-opening stories of people straining to connect their political beliefs with their lives, or boundary-expanding science fiction, Doris Lessing produced books that were heavy with ideas but also clearly the result of a life fully lived.

Lessing, a British-Zimbabwean who led full lives as an anti-apartheid activist and Communist Party member before and during the years she spent building up the resume that led to her Nobel Prize once said:

You should write, first of all, to please yourself. You shouldn’t care a damn about anybody else at all. But writing can’t be a way of life, the important part of writing is living. You have to live in such a way that your writing emerges from it…

Those words have to come from somewhere.

TV Room: ‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’

The last season of Amazon’s highly addictive The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, a screwball comedy as filtered through Mad Men and mid-1960s Broadway farce, starts this Friday.

My review is at Slant:

Through its first four seasons, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel kept an increasing number of plates spinning at a speed that could leave you at once in disbelief and laughter, and always felt on the brink of losing sight of its main story and character. The fifth and final season of the Amazon dramedy is a course correction of sorts, paring back the clamorous side plots that had started taking up too much of the show’s oxygen while retaining its electric spirit…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Just Finish It

Despite the legacy that came from from the novel that Alfred Hitchcock used as the basis for Psycho, Robert Bloch never quite achieved notice outside the world of the pulps. Nevertheless, he was a talented writer who rode just about every trend there was, from Weird Tales horror to 1960s genre television.

Bloch was also a good friend of a young writer named Ray Bradbury. Trying to convince Bradbury, who really preferred short stories, to not be intimidated by the length of a novel, Bloch advised him:

Get to work, write a book, write two–three-four books, just as a matter of course. Don’t worry about ‘wasting’ an idea or ‘spoiling’ a plot by going too fast. If you are capable of turning out a masterpiece, you’ll get other and even better ideas in the future. Right now your job is to write, and to write books so that by doing so you’ll gain the experience to write still better books later on… The danger–and I feel it is a real one–lies in waiting too long and developing an attitude about the importance or gravity of a novel-length work…

In other words, if you want to write a novel, or anything of length, don’t let the scope intimidate you. Get started. Think of it like a short story, just longer.

(h/t: Unearthly Fiction)

Screening Room: ‘Air’

Against all the odds, Ben Affleck’s new movie about how Nike signed Michael Jordan to an endorsement deal when he had just started his career is actually not too bad, in a Jerry Maguire kind of way.

My review is at PopMatters:

A true underdog redemption story with an unexpected kick, Air is about how shambling sports marketing executive Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) turned around his career, transformed Nike into a globe-spanning behemoth, and revolutionized the athletic endorsement industry. Regardless of what Alex Convery’s script would like viewers to believe, none of that is actually that interesting. As written, there are many moments when Air could come across as little more than a Harvard Business Review case study put on film. As a director, Affleck knows what he has going for him here. Damon, who—much as it would be nice to see him take some Tom Ripley-like swings again—makes clear again in his role in Air his gift for bringing gravitas and depth to everyday guys…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Do Your Research

During COVID, Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 pandemic thriller Contagion was a surprise streaming hit. That was likely due in large part to its writer Scott Z. Burns’ dedication to research. The movie felt like a kind of documentary all those years later for the simple fact that Burns surveyed all the infectious disease experts he could find and they told him what would happen when the next big pandemic inevitably hit.

Years earlier, Burns was working on Wonderland, Peter Berg’s short-lived series about a psychiatric hospital, when he found out how much loved doing research on the subject at Bellevue. This led to a revelation:

Research really is the solution to writer’s block. That if you just continue to dig into your subject matter, it’s eventually going to reveal some cool story to you…

Not sure what to write about? Start reading.