Writer’s Desk: Don’t Be a Menace

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According to novelist Maria Semple, when her first novel, This One is Mine, came out, the notices were good but the sales were not. So she retreated into herself, stopped writing, and blamed everything and everybody but herself.

Then one day, a friend told her something:

Maria, you’re a writer. Writers must write. If you don’t write, you’ll be a menace to society.

That line later showed up in her novel, Where’d You Go, Bernadette?

It’s good advice. In fact, one could use the reverse of it as something of a test. If you don’t write for an extended period of time, and feel just fine about that, then maybe writing is just something you do, and not a vocation.

Not to mention a generally healthier way to live.

Screening Room: ‘Where’d You Go, Bernadette?’

Cate Blanchett stars in Richard Linklater’s adaptation of Maria Semple’s beloved novel Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, which opens this week.

My review is at The Playlist:

Once upon a time, Bernadette was a rising ingenue in the architecture world, with a knack for quirky science-fiction designs and looking dazzling in old photographs (the bangs and artfully dangled cigarettes help). Her career was then sidetracked by a catastrophe that the movie withholds until far too late in the process. By the time we catch up with her, she has become a fierce recluse. Living in a damp and vine-riddled hilltop Seattle manse that she keeps up like some horticulturally-minded relative of the Addams Family…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Stop Complaining


In honor of the great Toni Morrison, who passed this week at 88, here’s some well-needed advice from a woman who was not just a great novelist and inspiration to millions, but a sharp-eyed editor and teacher who did not care for complaints.

Per a Salon interview from 1998, in which Morrison talked about whether she could teach confidence in addition to writing:

Well, that I can’t do much about. I’m very brutal about that. I just tell them: You have to do this, I don’t want to hear whining about how it’s so difficult. Oh, I don’t tolerate any of that because most of the people who’ve ever written are under enormous duress, myself being one them. So whining about how they can’t get it is ridiculous…

Writing can be miserable, when the words just refuse to flow and you hate everything you do write. But writers also by temperament veer toward the solipsistic. So we always need to remember that no matter how tough it feels, writing is still just putting words on paper. Get it done, stop complaining, open your ears, and if you’re lucky a great writer like Morrison will give you some good edits and advice.

(h/t: Emily Temple)

Screening Room: ‘Is Gone with the Wind a Classic?’

My article ‘Is Gone with the Wind a Classic? Or How Things Change’ went up yesterday over at Eyes Wide Open:

A couple years back, a Memphis theater decided that, because of complaints, they were not going to show Gone with the Wind again. One would imagine conservatives would appreciate a small business not wanting to anger its customers. But by definition, conservatives tend not to like change. It’s in the name…

Screening Room: ‘One Child Nation’

onechildnation (Amazon Studios)

In the new documentary from Nanfu Wang (Hooligan Sparrow), she returns to her native China to find out what 35 years of the one-child policy meant to people. What she finds is horror, guilt, resignation, and corruption, with a deeply personal angle.

One Child Nation opens in limited release and on Amazon this week. My review is at PopMatters:

In the 1970s, China faced a population crisis with potentially devastating consequences. Still years away from economic transformation, the government feared exponential population growth would result in Malthusian collapse and chaos. In possibly the most far-reaching social engineering project in human history, the Chinese government decreed each family would be allowed just one baby…

Writer’s Desk: Try a New Format

Sometimes the same-old, same-old just does not work for what you are trying to accomplish. If you feel that you (or your work, or both) are in a rut, try changing things up.

Consider Jennifer Egan. She has written a number of novels the usual way. On some kind of computer, using a word-processing program, the results of which are ultimately designed and laid out on printed pages, bound together, and shipped around the world.

But in 2010, she tried something different. Her novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, featured an entire chapter written in PowerPoint slides. It’s a brilliant way of showing how the 12-year-old autistic character can best express herself. (The Guardian has the whole chapter here.)

Then, in 2012, Egan serialized an entire story on Twitter. She didn’t compose “Black Box” on her phone, though, rather writing everything in longhand and spending about a year polishing it down to the chiseled nub required to produce fiction 140 characters at a time. Check out the full result at the New Yorker.

Think about the different avenues you want to take with your writing, what the obstacles are that keep you from getting there, and what tools might help you out.

Screening Room: ‘Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood’

That’s Leonard DiCaprio playing a has-been 1950s Western actor in Quentin Tarantino’s latest, broadest, and potentially strangest genre mash-up.

Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is playing pretty much everywhere now. My review is at PopMatters:

You might have thought Quentin Tarantino would be the last filmmaker to indulge in the lamentable trend of digitally inserting actors into scenes they were not there for…. Nevertheless, here Tarantino is in his ninth movie, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, slipping Leonardo DiCaprio into a scene from John Sturges’s 1963 film, The Great Escape. Once that line has been crossed for Tarantino, who had previously restricted himself to homage, what’s next? Uma Thurman slotted into Enter the Dragon? Maybe Bradley Cooper into Where Eagles Dare?…

Here’s the trailer (sure you’ve already seen it 10 times, check it out again, that Mamas and the Papas song is fantastic):