Writer’s Desk: Dylan Says Study

Learning anything means practice. It means trying and trying and messing up and circling back and trying again and again. It generally also requires studying those who came before you. Some would criticize this as imitation.

Bob Dylan disagrees. In a 2004 interview, he said:

It is only natural to pattern yourself after someone. If I wanted to be a painter, I might think about trying to be like Van Gogh, or if I was an actor, act like Laurence Olivier. If I was an architect, there’s Frank Gehry.

But you can’t just copy someone. If you like someone’s work, the important thing is to be exposed to everything that person has been exposed to…

And that is from a Nobel Prize winner.

Screening Room: ‘Love in the Time of Fentanyl’

I reviewed the documentary Love in the Time of Fentanyl from DOC NYC for The Playlist:

Almost everything viewers need to know about the mortal consequences of the fentanyl epidemic portrayed in Colin Askey’s new Vancouver-set documentary “Love in the Time of Fentanyl” is contained in one exchange between two users. One man talks about how coming off heroin was hard but manageable, essentially Netflix and chilling in his apartment for a week—but detoxing from fentanyl? That led to the emergency room. Given that and the spread of fentanyl throughout the city’s illicit drug supply, it is easier to understand the argument for the safe-injection site which the film documents. At the same time, seeing that site as anything but a Band-Aid on a grievous wound is hard…

It should be playing later this year on PBS’s Independent Lens.

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Gather Life

In The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, the only novel that poet Rainer Maria Rilke ever wrote, the author’s stand-in is a wandering nobleman and poet who walks the streets of Paris and tries to avoid going mad. In between those struggles, he worries that at the ripe old age of twenty eight, he has not accomplished anything. By which he means he has not written anything of note.

But then he catches himself and decides that, no, poetry should come later:

You should wait, and gather meaning and sweetness throughout a life—a long one if possible—and then, at the very end, you might perhaps be able to write ten good lines. For poems are not, as people imagine, feelings (you have those early enough),—they are experiences. For the sake of a few lines you must see many cities, see many things and people, you must understand animals, you must feel how birds bird, and know the gestures with which small flowers open in the morning…

Is this self-justification for a life of wandering and travel and mooning over flowers in order to justify a few lines of verse? Absolutely.

Is he wrong? Absolutely not.

Screening Room: ‘There There’

There There, the latest comedy from Andrew Bujalski (Computer Chess) opens later this week. I reviewed for Slant:

Writer-director Andrew Bujalski’s There There, a funny and cleverly linked series of dramedic vignettes, doesn’t try to hide the stitchwork imposed by pandemic-period production restrictions. Instead, the film leans into them, creating a schizoid atmosphere that underlies and darkens some of the more seemingly straightforward relationship skirmishes and soul-searching soliloquies that fill much of its running time…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Keep Going

Jesmyn Ward, author of the terrific novels Salvage the Bones and Sing, Unburied, Sing, did not have an easy time of getting published. But she stuck with it. She also had a clutch of fellow writers in her corner who told her the right things:

Persist. Read, write, and improve: tell your stories. Accept rejection until you find acceptance, but don’t become disheartened, stop writing, and remove yourself from the conversation…

Sometimes the best advice is the simplest.

Writer’s Desk: Don’t Write Until You Are 25

A lot of writers think they have something to say. It’s part of the reason they wanted to become writers. Some of them are correct. But not all. Unfortunately, the ones who do not have something to say tend not to find out until it is too late.

However, there is a simple rubric for determining whether what you are so eagerly scribbling down deserves anyone else’s time. Per the great Joe Queenan:

Don’t write until you’re 25. Don’t write for the high school yearbook. Don’t write for the college literary magazine. Don’t write that stuff — you never had any experiences, you don’t know anything, just shut up.

Any writer worth their salt will, of course, not listen to a word of that, correct though Queenan is. Especially those of us who wrote for the school magazine. It’s a proud kind of shame to carry.

(h/t Writer’s Almanac)

Screening Room: ‘The Banshees of Inisherin’

The new movie from Martin McDonagh, The Banshees of Inisherin, reunites Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson from his first feature, In Bruges.

Banshees opens this week. I reviewed for Eyes Wide Open:

Given what Martin McDonagh puts his characters through in his latest bloody confabulation, The Banshees of Inisherin, and how poorly they explain and understand it, putting too much stock in what they say might be unwise. At one point, Pádraic (Colin Farrell) asks his until-recently best friend Colm (Brendan Gleeson) the name of the song Colm has been composing on his fiddle. Told it’s “The Banshees of Inisherin,” Pádraic asks why. “I just like the sound of the double ‘sh’s,” Colm replies. He might even be telling the truth. Of course, this is a man who has threatened to slice off his fingers one at a time if Pádraic does not stop talking to him. So Colm’s judgment and clarity might be questionable…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Story Before Facts

Michael Crichton mastered the art of writing thrilling novels that both seemed like they could happen while stretching reality in ways that gave scientists headaches. The Andromeda Strain, Jurassic Park, Congo, these all existed in worlds that were adjacent to science in ways that pushed the thriller plots along but never let the real scientific truth get in the way.

That is one of the key lessons novelist Karen Dionne took from Crichton’s work for Writer’s Digest. Namely, do not be afraid to “play fast and loose with the facts”:

Story trumps all. Crichton’s gift was making the impossible believable. Everyone knows that dinosaurs can’t be cloned from fossilized DNA, but if they could …

That leap of imagination is where the magic lies.

Writer’s Desk: Create What You Cannot See

Novelist and new Nobel Prize winner for literature Annie Ernaux wrote a few years back about the influence of surrealists (Andre Breton, George Perec) on her work in her “formative years.” Part of her fascination seemed to be due to their power to make the ineffable real and graspable.

In her piece, “The Art of Writing,” Ernaux also delves into Virginia Woolf (another influence in her youth) and her views of writing, which also seemed focused on bringing something into view that was previously unseen. Here Ernaux quotes Woolf writing to Vita Sackville-West:

I believe that the main thing in beginning a novel is to feel, not that you can write it, but that it exists on the far side of a gulf, which words can’t cross; that one can draw it to oneself: it’s to be pulled through only in a breathless sigh…

What Woolf proposes is in some ways a paradox. “Words can’t cross”? But perhaps she is saying that writing can be less about the words themselves than the imagination that powers them. Visualize your book, feel it, breathe it, live it. Pull it to yourself and climb inside.

Then start writing.

Reader’s Corner: ‘What We Owe the Future’

Philosopher William MacAskill’s new book, What We Owe the Future, tries to do what few books do well: Take a big, hairy subject and make it understandable for a broad audience. He succeeds somewhat, but the issue is ultimately with the subject itself.

My review is at PopMatters:

Many ideas with great potential to cause damage have at their core at least one fundamentally sound principle. In philosopher William MacAskill’s new book What We Owe the Future—a white paper for the general public about the philosophy known as longtermism—he defines the school of thought under the heading “The Silent Billions”: “Future people count. There could be a lot of them. We can make their lives go better.” It’s a mind-opening concept and difficult to push back on…

You can read the introduction here.

Writer’s Desk: Making Pizza Money

Writing is not just one thing. It is many steps. Repeated. Improved. Repeated again.

Fantasy author Anne Bishop said as much when asked how she became a writer:

It depends on how you define the word. I became a writer the first time I cobbled together a character or two with the wobbly bits of a plot and wrote them down in a notebook—and then did it again. And again. And again. I wrote lots of short stories, some good, some awful. I read books about the nuts and bolts of putting a story together. I read articles about plots and characters and how to make them believable. I wrote until my stories began to be accepted in small magazines where payment was a copy of that issue of the publication, and then semi-professional magazines that paid enough that I could buy a pizza to celebrate the sale…

No, the money from those first sales will not be much. But yes, the pizza you buy with that money does taste better.

Writer’s Desk: Don’t Be Afraid

In this interview from The Rumpus, Darryl Pinckney (Come Back in September, Black Deutschland) explains his pushback against the idea that black authors have a responsibility to write uplifting, noble characters, or that authors in general need to feel constrained by narrative choices:

If you’re bored, your readers will be bored. If you’re faking it, you won’t get the kind of readers you want. There are so many obstacles to writing, don’t add to them, to the inhibition. You write to honor the literature you care about. If your family or your people are looking over your shoulder, change your seat or push them away. Ask them to trust you with the truth. Stay real; stay true to yourself; keep faith with your project. Let Melville be the one looking over your shoulder…

We all have enough internal doubts that stand in our. The last thing we need to do is imagine what other people might think.

Writer’s Desk: Making It Up as You Go

Back in 1973, Cormac McCarthy was about to publish his third novel, Child of God, and was already one of America’s greatest writers. Few people where he lived in Kingsport, Tennessee had any idea.

When a writer from the Kingsport Times-News tracked McCarthy down and tried to pry some wisdom out of the “the mustachioed, suede-suited novelist,” here is some of what the later very press-avoidant writer told them:

When you write something down you pretty well kill it. Leave it loose and knocking around up there and you never know—it might turn into something.

Which is a hard thing to do. Some writers worry that if they leave it knocking around up there too long, it might disappear. But maybe that’s the test? If it hangs around long enough, it’s something to hang on to and work on.

McCarthy went on:

Creativity is an elusive thing to pin down; but McCarthy finally made his point with a parable. While living in Spain some years ago, he had a novelist friend, “a kindred soul, a madman.” This friend was in a bar, where companions were quizzing him. “Where do you get your ideas?” While the conversation was taking place, only the novelist was paying any attention to a dwarf who was crawling along the top of the bar, methodically draining the abandoned mugs of their last dregs of beer. . . . “I can’t explain how one creates a novel,” McCarthy mused. “It’s like jazz. They create as they play, and maybe only those who can do it can understand it.”

Screening Room: ‘Retrograde’

The year’s second, and likely more memorable, documentary about the slow-then-fast collapse of the Kabul government in 2021 is Matthew Heineman’s Retrograde. It has played some festivals and should hit theaters and National Geographic before the end of the year.

I reviewed for PopMatters:

Retrograde opens with an eerie pan across distant mountains while American presidents make disembodied pronouncements over 20 years: from George W. Bush’s declaration of the invasion to Donald Trump’s threat that “our commitment is not unlimited” and Joe Biden’s insistence that he would “not repeat the mistakes” of the past. From there, Heineman tracks the end stages of Operation Enduring Freedom (a name ever destined for blackly comedic usage), zeroing in on a dusty outpost in Helmand province…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Find Your Rhythm

If you have ever read Truman Capote (and if you have not, dear reader, why?), you know that he has produced some of the most perfectly calibrated sentences in the English language. Whether he sounded them out in his head, simply knew the music of words better than the rest of us, or learned everything he knew from Harper Lee, who is to say. The story might clunk here and there, but the words on the page always sang.

Capote knew that rhythm mattered, almost more than anything else. In 1957, he talked about style and control to The Paris Review:

Call it precious and go to hell, but I believe a story can be wrecked by a faulty rhythm in a sentence—especially if it occurs toward the end—or a mistake in paragraphing, even punctuation. Henry James is the maestro of the semicolon. Hemingway is a first-rate paragrapher. From the point of view of ear, Virginia Woolf never wrote a bad sentence. I don’t mean to imply that I successfully practice what I preach. I try, that’s all…