Writer’s Desk: Pay Attention, Be Free

The best writers make it look easy. Not just that, they make it seem as though the words just flowed out of them. We know that that is not, can not, be true. Even the fastest writers are masters of control. Their speed is in part the result of careful planning and diligent editing as they go.

In her classic The Writing Life, the great Annie Dillard put it thus:

Putting a book together is interesting and exhilarating. It is sufficiently difficult and complex that it engages all your intelligence. It is life at its most free. Your freedom as a writer is not freedom of expression in the sense of wild blurting; you may not let rip. It is life at its most free, if you are fortunate enough to be able to try it, because you select your materials, invent your task, and pace yourself…

Most people focus on her command, “You may not let rip.” For good reason. Letting rip often just means a loss of control. It may feel good in the moment, but your readers will notice.

Follow Dillard. When writing, freedom means giving vent to your inner voice. It also paying close attention to everything you put down on a page. That way, your voice will have a voice.

Screening Room: ‘Vice’

(Annapurna Pictures)

Yes, that’s Christian Bale as Dick Cheney in the latest dark comic take on modern American history from Adam McKay, who previously dissected the 2008 crash in The Big Short.

Vice opens on Christmas Day. My review is at PopMatters:

The Cheney presented in Vice is pretty close to the one we saw in those terrifying years after 9/11. The one going on Meet the Press to talk with barely repressed glee about going to “the dark side” to fight this wrong war against the wrong people for all the wrong reasons. (Bale takes the sideways silent snarl seen in that chilling appearance and runs with it.) The one who popped up with creepy regularity in the behind-the-scenes books, pulling strings behind a clueless George W. Bush and not-so-secretly operating the machinery of a government, having long yearned to break free of the chains of democracy…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Mary Poppins Returns’

(Walt Disney Studios)

Going back to the well many decades later, Disney delivers a brand-new musical adaptation of P.L. Travers’ Mary Poppins books that’s not close to the original but better than it has any right to be.

Mary Poppins Returns opens wide today. My review is at PopMatters:

As the law of diminishing returns for any sequel is one of the immutable laws of the cinematic universe—and all the more so for movie musicals (no matter what those fiendishly wrong fans of Grease 2 might claim)—there was even less chance that Mary Poppins Returns could pull the same rabbit out of one of Poppins’ very fetching hats. Nevertheless, this sequel manages a somewhat impressive feat for the often groan-inducing Disney remake factory: it captures the essence of the original while adding just enough spark to set it apart…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Don’t Bother Competing

By any definition of the term, Rachel Kushner is a successful writer. Each of her three books—Telex from Cuba, The Flamethrowers, and The Mars Room—have been praised to the skies. At least one of them (The Flamethrowers) is arguably one of the great American novels of the last twenty years.

Nevertheless, she doesn’t believe that she’s in competition with anybody else in the current literary landscape. At least that’s what she told the Times Literary Supplement, when they asked what was the best writing advice she ever received:

To consider myself a destiny. Nietzsche told me it. And from the guy I live with: “Compete with dead authors, not living ones”. (i.e., let history do the sifting work.)

Assume that you’ll succeed in the present. Hope that at some point others agree. Write accordingly.

Screening Room: ‘Bird Box’

Bird Box

The latest movie from Susanne Bier (The Night Manager) is a postapocalyptic horror story starring Sandra Bullock and John Malkovich.

Bird Box is playing now on Netflix.

My review is at Slant Magazine:

Needing to avoid psychotic zombies isn’t the only danger faced by the harried survivors of an unspecified pandemic at the start of director Susanne Bier’s adaptation of Josh Malerman’s novel Bird Box. The hard-as-nails Malorie (Sandra Bullock) and her two five-year-old wards must also manage navigating a postapocalyptic wilderness while wearing blindfolds. Oh, and they’re in a boat on a fast-running mountain river with rapids approaching. Also, they’re threatened by invisible monsters who can only be spotted when nearby birds start chirping and who cause instant suicidal tendencies in those who look their way. Things aren’t looking good for the trio…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Roma’

Alfonso Cuaron’s latest movie, Roma, is playing now in limited release and on Netflix. If at all possible, see it on the big screen.

My review is at PopMatters:

You could argue that Alfonso Cuarón’s gorgeously imagined and intimate epic Roma invokes politics when convenient for dramatic impact but ignores their context in order to move forward with the family melodrama at its core. Why, for instance, does nobody talk about why the students are protesting in the massive street demonstration that some of the characters are shocked to be caught up in?…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Love Your Characters and Other Rules

Etgar Keret, brilliant creator of collections like The Nimrod Flipout, is one of the greatest living practitioners of the dry, droll, and surreal black comic story.

Interestingly, when he gave Rookie his 10 rules for writing, though, they were quite joyful and optimistic:

  1. Make sure you enjoy writing.
  2. Love your characters.
  3. When you’re writing, you don’t owe anything to anyone.
  4. Always start from the middle.
  5. Try not to know how it ends.
  6. Don’t use anything just because “that’s how it always is.”
  7. Write like yourself.
  8. Make sure you’re all alone in the room when you write.
  9. Let people who like what you write encourage you.
  10. Hear what everyone has to say but don’t listen to anyone (except me).