Thursday, August 31, 2006

Dandelion Wine

Jackson Heights, Queens (circa 1984)

I have a nice office in one of those hermetically sealed buildings. The floor I work on looks like a place where they re-evaluate your insurance needs. The people who run the place pay me to sit in my office and write. Part of me finds this as inevitable as gravity, part of me is amazed at the situation.

Twenty years ago I didn’t have an office or a computer or a regular job. I wrote then as I do now, in longhand on yellow pads, then transcribed what I wrote on a used IBM Selectric that rumbled and shuddered like a Frigidaire with a shot compressor. I know I wrote year round, but I seem to only remember the summers. Our apartment wasn’t air-conditioned and, while my first wife was at work earning the money that fed us and paid the rent, I’d sit in a t-shirt and shorts, sweating and typing. Trying to get it right or at least close, filling the shelves with scripts nobody wanted. I tried to sell out, honest I did, but I never managed. My scripts have always betrayed me; whatever it was I was saying, nobody wanted to hear.

There were winters. There must have been winters. But the only thing that comes back to me is summer and heat. Thick, subterranean heat on the F-train, riding out to sign for my unemployment check. Oily, mechanical heat rising from the chugging Selectric that, thank God, never completely seized up on me. You can get very sour after a decade or so of one flat summer after another. It can do a lot of damage to your heart, and the hearts of those around you. Writing is easy. Being a writer is murder.

Frustration and fear in a writer are often camouflaged as arrogance and bitterness. This makes the writer such a joy to be around. You can’t watch television with us because we’re always talking about how grotesquely stupid the shows are. Go to a first run movie in our company and listen to us grumble about how we can’t believe they made a particular box office bonanza and that innocent people are paying to see it. And you won’t feel safe with us on a bus because you know we want to rip that glitzy paperback out of a fellow passenger’s hand and lecture them about what fiction is supposed to do. Oh, yes, an unsuccessful writer is a regular bag of sunbeams.

Summer after summer, I kept on writing. Unemployment ran out and I went to work as an office temp. After about a year, one of the offices the agency sent me to asked me to stay and I did. It was a good job. Very grown-up, okay pay, I could look my in-laws in the eye. More important, something shifted inside my head. Having an adult job must have taken pressure off a nerve because my writing got better. Maybe it was just a normal progression, but I think it had something to do with having a regular paycheck.

I’d come home from work and write in my “spare time.” I finished a play and put it on the shelf with everything else. A year later I took it down and showed it to people, this time they listened. I got an agent, the play was produced and became a modest success. We bought an air conditioner. I left my day job one hot August afternoon and have been making my living as a writer ever since. It’s still hard. The air conditioner helped, but the sad heat of all those summers sinks deep and you have to deal with that for a long time.

Several years ago a movie was made from a script I originally wrote on the Selectric. It had a typically arduous trek to the screen. The original producer sold the option to people who wanted big, ill-advised changes. It went through two studios, the second of which fired me. The option eventually ran out and the script came back to me, wounded and limping. I nursed it back to health and found people who wanted to make the thing my way. It came out pretty good. Last year it was revived at a film festival and I got to see it with an audience for the first time in more than a decade. This year the festival brought the film back for additional screenings.

The scripts you wrote back then crowd the shelves like bottles of Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine, your life distilled, “burning in the cellar twilight, one for every living summer day.” I watch that movie and see scenes conceived on lunch breaks and subway rides. I listen to the characters and hear words I gave them in a humid apartment so long ago. Time acquires a Mobius twist when a trunk piece finally gets made.

You sense that messages are being sent both ways through the years: Forward, from that place where money and recognition are so far out of reach the only thing powering your pen is the passion of writing; the Galileo certainty that this is what you were meant to do. And backwards from today, with news the sacrifices weren’t in vain, and gratitude for never giving up.

They’re time capsules, those trunk pieces, and a time capsule is an optimistic thing. It is created in the belief that, somewhere in the future, there is survival and perhaps even triumph.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

The Secrets of Failure (Part One)

I’m a screenwriter. It says so, right on my tax return. Occasionally and with increasing seriousness, I wonder what the hell else I could do for a living if I didn’t write. This self-evaluation usually comes on the heels of a bad experience in what is called “The Business,” a phrase I’ve always liked because it indicates on the part of the speaker a belief that there’s only one industry worth discussing.

So, when I’ve had a bad meeting or a bad experience with a script or, worse, a bad experience with a production, I wonder what I’d do if I decided to hang it all and seek something else to pay the rent.

This intense self-evaluation usually lasts about five minutes, cut off by the realization that through my own pigheadedness and refusal to learn a recognizable trade, the only think I’m even marginally qualified to do is to teach others about writing…and I’m not so sure helping someone move closer to the “business” is such a noble idea. While the Earthly rewards are substantial, writing for television and movies is more likely to be discouraging, disappointing and frustrating. This is an industry where quality is not a factor, and where sincerity, talent and originality are often impediments to a career. It is a business about which someone said, “If they find out you care, they’ll use it against you.”

The books on television and movie writing I’ve looked at seem reluctant to discuss this aspect of the business. Most of them avoid the difficulties and responsibilities and proceed to render writing down to a series of logical steps, a checklist for creativity. Building story and character, they tell you, is simply a matter of following instructions and filling in the blanks. “You can write a screenplay! It’s easy and fun! Fool your friends! Confound your enemies!” It’s simply a matter of slavish devotion to formula and the following of rigid form.

I have to confess I haven’t looked at any of these books or courses seriously. Every once in awhile I used to take a quick peek in the latest one at the bookstore just to see what I’ve been missing. I usually found such nuggets of wisdom as: “Make Sure Your Characters Are Interesting.” Now I avoid these bromide-laden epics the way I avoid the “grammar check” on my word processing software. The one time I turned the thing on it flagged so many errors with such barely concealed contempt that I believe the machine thought English was not my first language.

People are falling all over themselves, offering to sell you the secrets of success. Which has led me to wonder: What about The Secrets of Failure? What about that closely held inside information that can set the tread of a struggling writer firmly on the road to the twin temples of obscurity and impecunity?

In the great tradition of niche marketing, I realized this was the gap I could fill. Let others explain plot and incident point and how to end all your action paragraphs with an ellipse to draw the eye of the weary executive ever onward into your cutting edge but comfortably familiar buddy movie about the dad who magically turns into a snowman and who, in order to regain the love of his cancer stricken son, travels across country with a wisecracking computer generated parrot who makes rapidly dating cultural references, in order to participate in an ultra-violent armored car robbery which will be shot like a music video, and the planning of which must, for some inexplicable reason, take place in a strip club.

No, I will let others take care of that part of your education. Me, I want you to develop a really annoying sense of right and wrong. A luminous knowledge of worth and purpose that will gnaw like a rat at the corner of your brain every time you’re tempted to compromise. If that doesn’t put the kibosh on your career, I don’t know what will.

While I believe good writing should challenge convention and authority and stoke the fires of righteous indignation, I’m convinced it also has a more human mission: To relieve pain, confirm love, spark joy, and sit in hospital rooms holding the hands of the dying.

I believe drama is a place we go to try out emotions and learn how to be human. Maybe it can’t change the world, but it can change a world. A play can do that, a novel, a poem, a movie, a television show, or any part thereof. I’m not suggesting everything has to be a sermon or that you can’t jazz around and have fun. You don’t have to teach when you write, but you have to be aware that someone will learn something from what you’ve written.

Most of my adult life, I’ve had a quote from John Gardner’s Art of Fiction within sight of wherever I’ve written. It’s a very simple, easy to follow instruction from the exercise section of the book. It goes like this:

“To write with taste, in the highest sense, is to write with the assumption that one out of a hundred people who read one’s work may be dying, or have some loved one dying; to write so that no one commits suicide, no one despairs; to write, as Shakespeare wrote, so that people understand, sympathize, see the universality of pain, and feel strengthened, if not encouraged to live on.”

The amazing thing isn’t that I’ve always used this quote as something to reach for with my own writing. The amazing thing is that in spite of that, I’ve actually made a living as a writer.

There’s another quote. Sort of the “anti-Gardner” quote, something at the dark end of the spectrum. About a year before I was born, Raymond Chandler wrote a letter to his English publisher. He took the occasion to look back at his career in Hollywood. In part he wrote:

“Like every writer or almost every writer, who goes to Hollywood, I was convinced in the beginning that there must be some discoverable method of working in pictures which would not be completely stultifying to whatever creative talent one might happen to possess. But like others before me I discovered that this was a dream. Too many people have too much to say about a writer’s work. It ceases to be his own. And after a while he ceases to care about it. He has brief enthusiasms, but they are destroyed before they can flower. People who can’t write tell him how to write. He meets clever and interesting people, and may even form lasting friendships, but all this is incidental to his proper business of writing. The wise screenwriter is he who wears his second-best suit, artistically speaking, and doesn’t take things too much to heart. He should have a touch of cynicism, but only a touch. The complete cynic is as useless to Hollywood as he is to himself. He should do the best he can without straining at it. He should be scrupulously honest about his work but he should not expect scrupulous honesty in return. He won’t get it. And when he has had enough, he should say goodbye with a smile, because for all he knows he may want to go back.”

I copied that out of a book on Chandler’s letters long before I had a real appreciation of what he was saying so I’m hard pressed to know why I singled out this one section. I guess part of me has always wanted to prove him wrong. But I haven’t managed to do that. Instead I’ve collected experiences that prove rather than refute what he said. He got it right and he got it right in such telepathic detail that his sentences feel less like observations and more like memories; like finding something unfamiliar written unmistakably in your own hand.

In a way I’ve spent the whole of my professional life riding the continuum between these two quotes; trying to reconcile a simple, clear-headed mandate to follow your bliss and do the right thing, with an equally simple, equally clear-minded assessment of a very inhospitable terrain. Back and forth, between the muse and the monsters. It’s a lopsided trip. There is the gentle pendular swing to the hopeful apex and the shuttlecock whack at the other extreme. Imagine yourself a five-year-old in a swing under a big maple tree on a June day. You go higher and higher until you can almost see all of the valley and the river hidden by the trees. You have a moment of euphoria and weightlessness at the top of the arc; the air is sweet, the sun warm, you can see forever and everything makes sense. That’s when they move the wood-chipper in behind you. Zoooooom. Such is the life of a screenwriter. My world and welcome to it.