Writer’s Desk: Let Your Characters Tell the Story

In 1987, psychedelic pied piper and one of America’s great novelists Ken Kesey taught a graduate writing class at the University of Oregon in which he and the students were to collaboratively write and publish a novel. His methods were unsurprisingly eclectic but his purpose was direct: “If we finish it and it gets published, everybody gets an A. If we don’t, you get an F.”

Much of what ultimately happened in that class, led as it was by a high-octane preacher-writer with a flair for the magical, would be difficult to reproduce in the field. However, as related in this Rolling Stone article, Kesey also had some decent wisdom to transmit:

Plot comes out of character, he explained, not the other way around. ”The trick is for us to build character in our characters,” Kesey said, ”to breathe life into them, to get them to stand up, stretch and start doing stuff. We’re not interested in pulling strings, in being puppeteers. We want these people to rise up off the page. Then we sit back and follow them through the novel.”

If you can create characters who seem interesting enough to follow around for a couple hundred pages, then what they actually do in that time may be more incidental than anything else. Person first, then plot seems like a good way to get started.

Screening Room: ‘Becoming Cousteau’

The new Liz Garbus documentary about Jacques Cousteau just played at the Telluride Film Festival and will likely get at least a brief theatrical run later in the year before showing on National Geographic.

My review is at The Playlist:

A pleasantly beautiful, if sometimes flatly rendered film, “Becoming Cousteau” serves as a solid introduction to now somewhat-forgotten man who not so long ago was one of the world’s most beloved figures. Garbus starts in the 1930s, when Cousteau was a dashing French naval officer who discovered his love of deep-water diving while recovering from the car accident that sidelined his hopes of becoming a pilot. A man of sudden passions, Cousteau was so smitten by the sea that he confided to his journal (the text voiced by Vincent Cassel) that his life would be dedicated to “underwater exploration.” His young wife, Simone Melchior, was herself smitten not just with the open water (her family lineage was lousy with admirals) but also with this passionate, bright-eyed, hawk-nosed lean slip of a man who “smelled like the sea”…

Here is the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Accept Imperfection

Despite what many might think, even the most talented writers harbor doubts about their talent. In fact, it is highly possible that self-doubt is crucial for many to succeed at their craft. A writer who just loves to death every line they slap down? That cannot be a good sign.

Still, it is surprising the extent to which some writers can only see the mistakes in their work. Ethan Canin (Emperor of the Air), who is about as precise a stylist as one can find in the modern American canon, seemed to say just that in this 2016 interview following the publication of A Doubter’s Almanac, which took him several years to complete:

Even when you succeed, you fail. Even when others think you succeed, you fail. I mean, how can anyone write a novel? Every novel is a failure.

While Canin is overstating the case (one can think of a number of at least nearly-perfect novels out there), what he says is potentially helpful for any number of writers who right now are frozen in their process because they just cannot let go of a flawed work.

No book or story or poem will be perfect. Let them go.

Literary Birthday: Martin Amis

In the time before the Internet, Martin Amis (born today in 1949) was a favored author of a certain type of cold-hearted literati. Novels like London Fields (1989) were scabrous, pitch-black satires of soulless urbanites that took no prisoners.

But Amis was almost more scathing as a critic. He once pronounced that “all writing is a campaign against cliche. Not just cliches of the pen but cliches of the mind and cliches of the heart,” which can be argued sets a high standard in a world where the publishing business was briefly kept afloat by sales of Fifty Shades of Grey. Amis’s opinions were so hotly felt that he and his friend Salman Rushdie once disagreed violently enough about the merits of Samuel Beckett that Rushdie asked Amis to step outside to resolve the matter.

Literary Birthday: Jorge Luis Borges

The Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges (born today in 1899) has a reputation in the literary world that is almost in inverse proportion to his slim output. A painstaking stylist, he published in a wide variety of areas—short stories of various genres, poems, essays, literary criticism—but kept his pieces short: His longest story was the 14-pager “The Congress” (1971).

Nevertheless, Borges was widely revered, largely due to his influential English-language story-and-essay collection Labyrinths (1962). Highly attentive to the awards he received and did not, Borges was reportedly saddened by his failure to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature (rubbing salt in his wounded pride, reporters would gather outside his door each year on the day of the prize’s announcement).

Unlike many South American writers who gain an international following, Borges’ politics were somewhat reactionary. He praised the brutal military dictatorship that took over Argentina from the Peronists and accepted a medal from the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, neither of which likely endeared him to the Nobel committee.

Writer’s Desk: Use That First Draft

Back in 2015, when he was promoting his novel Nora Webster, Colm Tóibín talked about the advantages of growing older, from a personal standpoint:

That’s one of the things you learn as you grow older. That if you don’t like someone, you never like them, and they never like you. It’s not something you grow out of, no.

While this might suggest a somewhat relaxed worldview, Tóibín in fact approaches his work like he’s on a clock:

I mean, well, there are writers who do drafts, knowing there will be later drafts, and that works for them, but I don’t do that. It doesn’t mean that there won’t be later drafts, but I write as though I will never get another chance.

This might not work for some who prefer to write long then cut. But it’s hard to argue with the practicality of putting it all down as you intended in one blaze and then moving on. Life is short. Books take a long time.

Literary Birthday: Etgar Keret

Etgar Keret (born today in 1967) made his name publishing stories of modern Israeli life that were riddled with black humor and painful absurdities.

In the title story of Keret’s collection Fly Already, a father is on his way to play ball with his son in the park when he spots a man who looks like he’s about to jump off a building. The father shouts at the man not to jump. Meanwhile his son asks whether the man can fly and begs for ice cream. Communication is mangled as the man turns out to be half-deaf. The father turns out to have suicidal thoughts of his own—guilt over the car accident that killed his wife years before. “I want to tell him … it’ll pass,” the father thinks. “I know what I’m talking about, because no one on this blue planet was as miserable as I was.”

Reader’s Corner: ‘The Passenger’

Ulrich Boschwitz first published his autobiographical novel The Passenger in 1939, basing its tale of a hapless German Jewish businessman running for his life on his own family’s refugee existence.

My review of the new translation ran in Rain Taxi Review of Books:

Silbermann is on the run in a country crawling with Gestapo, brownshirts, and Gentile citizens all too eager to volunteer their services to the National Socialist dragnet, and he is reaching the end of a rapidly fraying rope. In desperation, he riskily reveals his identity to the attractive woman sharing his compartment, setting into motion a quasi-absurdist chase narrative in which the man on the run is knocked from one dead end to another by forces not only out of his control but beyond his ken…

Writer’s Desk: Frame Your Story

Many episodes of Mike Birbiglia’s Working It Out podcast explore the craft of comedy in very specific ways that may or may not have relevance to writers working in other fields. However, creativity is creativity and a comic who cannot write is a comic who with a very short career arc.

On episode 50, where Birbiglia talks with his Don’t Think Twice costar Kate Micucci (also a comic, musician, and screenwriter) about different ways to approach their work, they delve into how to bring different disciplines into the mix. Micucci talks about how her training in music helps her view her writing in a particular way. Birbiglia uses the example of his Georgetown writing professor John Glavin, who advised him to take a drawing class:

It doesn’t matter if you’re good at drawing. It’s about understanding the concept of framing…

Taking yourself away from the words can sometimes help you see more clearly what the words are meant to convey.

Glavin, by the way, is a particularly beloved screenwriting teacher who taught his students that every script requires what he calls a “tear,” a moment after which (as former student Brit Marling describes) “the protagonist cannot return to the status quo.”

Step back from your piece. Plot the parameters. Identify the tear. Then, onward.

Screening Room: ‘Ema’

My review of Ema, opening this week in limited release, is at PopMatters:

A burning, jolting firecracker of a film, Pablo Larraín’s Ema is filled with a surplus of passion that could surprise fans of the filmmaker’s more bottled-up work like Jackie (2016) and Neruda (2016). It does, however, share those films’ hypnotic and sinuous flow of sight and sound, delivered here with a more modernistic punchy antagonism. There is also frequent deployment of a flamethrower, generally a worthy addition to just about any film…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Wait for the Words to Reveal Themselves

Leonard Cohen published his first poetry in 1954, later moving on to novels and then the songs that made him famous, never quite putting down that pen until his death in 2016.

Discussing an album he released in 2014, Cohen talked about the importance of not giving up on the work. He mentioned working on one song for four decades. One song.

Not seeing himself as qualified to give advice to other artists (“because my methods are obscure and not to be replicated”), he still underlined the necessity of sheer stubbornness:

A song will yield if you stick with it long enough. But long enough is way beyond any reasonable duration. Sometimes a song has to hang around for a decade or two before it finds its expression…

This is the way of the craftsperson as much as it is the artist. Inspiration is crucial. But so is the refusal to give up, no matter how little that piece of writing wants to reveal its secrets to you.

Screening Room: ‘All the Streets are Silent’

Jeremy Elkin’s new documentary, All the Streets are Silent: The Convergence of Hip Hop and Skateboarding (1987-1997) is playing now in limited release.

My review is at PopMatters:

At the risk of stoking the embers of East and West Coast rivalry, it seems self-evident that when it came to incubating subcultures in the late 20th century, New York has it over Los Angeles every single time. When artists wanted to chill out under the palm trees, maybe take a few meetings, they winged out to the Southland. But no matter how grungy Venice Beach might have been in the 1980s or spookily desolate LA’s downtown looked, the half-abandoned pre-war grid of downtown Manhattan was where culture was born…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Pull a Gatsby

Megan Abbott, whose newest novel The Turnout is out this month, had some good advice for how to find the right narrative perspective for your book:

I’ve always been interested in the “Gatsby structure,” which is when you don’t tell the story from the point of view of the most interesting character, though they can become the most interesting character, of course. You let Nick Carraway tell it…

You want a watcher to tell your story. Somebody with an exciting life may not have the time or focus to notice what’s happening around them.

Screening Room: ‘Stillwater’

The new movie from Tom McCarthy (Spotlight) takes some inspiration from the Amanda Knox case but goes in different directions, some interesting, others less so.

Stillwater is playing in wide theaters-only release now. My review is at PopMatters:

Oil field roughneck Bill (Matt Damon) relocates from the hardscrabble flatlands of Oklahoma to the graffiti-splattered urban puzzle of Marseilles to help free his daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin) from prison. It’s not an easy quest, given that Bill does not know anybody and barely communicates in English, much less French…

Here’s the trailer:

Literary Birthday: Chester Himes

Raised in Missouri, Chester Himes (born today in 1909) began his writing career in an unlikely place. While attending Ohio State University, he started walking on the wild side. He was sent to prison for robbery at the age of 19. Buying a typewriter in part with his gambling winnings, he began writing stories from his jail cell that were published in the black press and Esquire, under the pen name 59623 (his prisoner number).

After moving to France, Himes began publishing the raucous Harlem-set noir novels that made him famous, particularly Cotton Comes to Harlem (1965). One day in Paris in 1953, Himes was at a café with Richard Wright and James Baldwin. The two rivals were sparring over petty literary slights, real and imagined. “I confess,” the street-wise Himes wrote in his autobiography, The Quality of Hurt (1972), “at this point they lost me.”