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.

Screening Room: A Remake of ‘Vertigo’?

I wrote a self-explanatory article titled “Please, Please Don’t Remake Vertigo” in response to news about a new version being planned by Robert Downey Jr.

You can read it at Eyes Wide Open:

The real question, though, is not whether a new Vertigo would have value but why make it? Hitchcock was not precious about remakes: He directed two versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much and for good reason: the 1956 version with James Stewart is far superior to the 1934 original. But whereas those films were entertaining variations on a sturdy potboiler plot, Vertigo was something different…

Writer’s Desk: Go for a Walk

The answer to dealing with many different downturns or challenges is invariably quite simple: Take a walk. As Andrew McCarthy notes in the Times, this simple practice has broad benefits that have been noticed by many learned types:

Hippocrates proclaimed that walking is man’s best medicine.’ The good doctor also knew that walking provided more than mere physical benefits when he suggested: ‘If you are in a bad mood, go for a walk. If you are still in a bad mood, go for another walk’ … Soren Kierkegaard agreed when he confessed, ‘I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it.’ And Charles Dickens was even more direct. ‘If I could not walk far and fast,’ he wrote, ‘I think I should just explode and perish.’

The habit of taking a brisk and short, or long and rambling, walk applies more specifically to writing:

William Wordsworth swore by walking, as did Virginia Woolf. So did William Blake. Thomas Mann assured us, ‘Thoughts come clearly while one walks.’ J.K. Rowling observed that there is ‘nothing like a nighttime stroll to give you ideas,’ while the turn-of-the-20th-century novelist Elizabeth von Arnim concluded that walking ‘is the perfect way of moving if you want to see into the life of things.’

So go for a stroll. Your desk will still be there when you get back.

Writer’s Desk: Have Fun and Carry On

You might think that a writer like Douglas Adams, who not only wrote for Doctor Who early in his career but also collaborated with Graham Chapman and even appeared in a Monty Python sketch, would have no problem with confidence. But as Writer’s Desk has previously noted, Adams was an infamous procrastinator, the kind who send publishers into fits and makes readers impatient.

But Adams was also aware of how to avoid blockages and not stay too in your head, wrapped up with anxieties.

At one point, Adams wrote a note to self that he would apparently look at when needing a reminder about how to get on with things. It deserves repeating here:

Writing isn’t so bad really when you get through the worry. Forget about the worry, just press on. Don’t be embarrassed about the bad bits. Don’t strain at them. Give yourself time, you can come back and do it again in the light of what you discover about the story later on. It’s better to have pages and pages of material to work with and off and maybe find an unexpected shape in that you can then craft and put to good use, rather than one manically reworked paragraph or sentence. But writing can be good. You attack it, don’t let it attack you. You can get pleasure out of it. You can certainly do very well for yourself with it . . . !

Pleasure. Fun. Relaxation. Not qualities one normally associates with writing.

Try writing your own note to self. And carry on.

(h/t LitHub)

Screening Room: ‘John Wick: Chapter 4’

Back when he was just Ted Theodore Logan, who would have guessed that Keanu Reeves would eventually become the last true action star?

If that still seems strange to you, check out the epic epicness that is John Wick: Chapter 4, which opens March 24. My review is at PopMatters:

The air was charged at a recent screening of John Wick: Chapter 4. The thronged darkness buzzed with chatter and the occasional whoop. A man said to his friend that he was looking forward to a lot of “headshots”. When John Wick (Keanu Reeves) first shows himself in profile, delivering his patented “Yeah”—pained and elongated, the resigned sigh of the warrior monk hauled once more by box office demand into the bloody breach—cheers came in response. They had seen Wick before and now wanted to see him do his thing again, but more so. We all did…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Take Readers on a Journey

Nigerian writer Ben Okri frequently blurs lines between reality and the beyond. His breakout novel, The Famished Road, is about the spirit of a child (named for Lazarus) who has never quite left the physical world but is being enticed to do so by other spirits.

Often categorized as an African magic realist, Okri has talked about how his writing is not necessarily about just telling a story:

My writing isn’t about what is on the page, it’s intended to take you somewhere, it’s your journey to that somewhere. The journey is the point…

Many readers want plot and a satisfying ending, of course. But if you can’t take them out of their lives and into the world of what you are writing, they may be less likely to stick with it until the end.

Writer’s Desk: Read, Read, and Read Some More

At some point, the writer has to get up out of their reading chair, move to the desk, and get to work. But before they do that, maybe they could read another book?

To the untrained eye (as well as the trained, if we are being honest), this looks like procrastination. But really it is preparation.

Per Annie Proulx:

You should write because you love the shape of stories and sentences and the creation of different words on a page. Writing comes from reading, and reading is the finest teacher of how to write…

Writer’s Desk: Making Up the Truth

John Rechy, who scandalized and thrilled with his vividly scabrous novel City of Night, drew heavily from his own life. That does not mean that he felt bound to the record of what actually happened or how:

When you use ‘real people’ as characters, there may come a time when the real person and the character become one; I sometimes can’t remember what I put into a book and what ‘really happened’ … I think that’s good. Narrative assumes its own life, and all ‘nonfiction’ is finally ‘a lie…

Screening Room: Berlinale Film Festival

Back from this year’s Berlinale Film Festival, which was packed with celebrities, retrospectives (Spielberg), buzzy premieres (Sean Penn’s Ukraine documentary for Vice), and a very strong lineup.

I wrote up a few movies for Slant, each of which should (hopefully) be hitting a theater near you in the coming year.

  • BlackBerry: A semi-comic docudrama about the rise and fall of everyone’s onetime favorite smartphone.
  • Inside: Willem Dafoe’s master art thief is trapped inside a rich man’s penthouse.
  • Manodrome: Jesse Eisenberg and Adrien Brody star in this unnerving dispatch from the frontlines of masculinity.
  • Teacher’s Lounge: An idealistic teacher’s best intentions go horribly awry.

Writer’s Desk: Get Outside Yourself

Though William S. Burroughs’ writing frequently left reality behind (Naked Lunch‘s Mugwumps and whatnot), a surprising amount of it was based on his life. The details of his Midwestern upbringing and years as a wastrel flâneur were frequently reworked in his fiction.

Still, Burroughs found it crucial for his writing to get past the limitations of self. As he once told fellow Beat and occasional collaborator Allen Ginsberg, that came with risks:

The only way I can write narrative is to get right outside my body and experience it. This can be exhausting and at times dangerous. One cannot be sure of redemption…

Screening Room: ‘Pacifiction’

Albert Serra’s latest film, Pacifiction, played some festivals last year (including Cannes, where it was raved about). It is opening this week in limited release.

My review is at PopMatters:

The first images in Albert Serra’s slippery and satirical film Pacifiction are not what comes to mind for many when thinking of Tahiti. Yes, the film’s background is a limpid array of mountains drenched in a gorgeous salmon-tinted sunset. The long pan, however, reveals a more prosaic foreground: A busy port lined with stacks of shipping containers that function as a mercantile mountain range. From Serra’s perspective, Tahiti might be a paradise and should be photographed as such, but it is also a place of business…

Here’s the trailer:

Reader’s Corner: Quentin Tarantino, Author

I wrote about Quentin Tarantino’s new sideline writing books for The Millions:

His first book was 2021’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, based on his 2019 film. Released as a mass market paperback and printed on appropriately dubious paper stock, it was made to look like the kind of quick-and-dirty film novelizations that once composed a profitable though semi-disreputable pillar of publishing, complete with back-of-the-book ads. The book is less a novelization than a remix, a self-produced work of fan fiction, or an expansion pack for the Tarantino Cinematic Universe…

Writer’s Desk: Be Spontaneous

The somewhat unsung Harlem Renaissance writer Claude McKay was a poet, novelist, and active socialist of the anti-Stalinist inclination. He channeled his passionate beliefs into an impressive series of books that showed his desire to write with spirit and truth rather than formalism.

McKay explained why in Harlem Shadows:

I have not used patterns, images and words that would stamp me a classicist or modernist … I have never studied poetics; but the forms I have used I am convinced are the ones I can work with in the highest degree of spontaneity and freedom. I have chosen my melodies and rhythms by instinct, and I have favored words and figured which flow smoothly and harmoniously into my compositions.

Choose the words that feel right for the piece. And for you. Not what you think should be chosen.

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.