Archive for the 'Writing' Category


It’s been over two weeks since I’ve written anything. I’m writing this as I wind down from a run – something else I haven’t been doing with as much frequency as I’d like. Turns out having a 40-hr/week job cuts into the free time.

Between writing (as in screenwriting) and rehearsals for a short film that may have just fallen through or may have just gotten much better – in one of two ways – and working and driving to work and trying to finish Infinite Jest (I promise no David Foster Wallace tangents tonight) and catching up with all the big Oscar nominees in theaters (“Crazy Heart” and “A Single Man” are both good but not great) and on DVD/Netflix (“The Girlfriend Experience,” “Humpday” and especially “In the Loop” are all really good. The latter-most being so good it makes me angry and exhilarated how much I want to emulate it) and movie nights on Saturdays w/ friends Tyler and Josh (this week: anti-V-Day with “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe?” and “American Beauty”) and then little annoying things like taxes and bills and sleeping – between all these things, I have so little time to blog it’s not even funny. I had to finish an article for “It’s Just Movies” at work today (read it here).

The Man I Want to Be…?

All that’s to say, it’s been a long start to the year. Which is fine. It’s also been good. My temporary position at the Insurance company is going to extend into March, which means more money in the bank for after it ends. I have to keep telling myself that my bank account balance only looks big, and that it won’t last once the job ends. There’s still the chance of moving into a full-time position, but it would be back out in the field doing the inspections instead of in the office. Listening to the field adjusters when they come into the office reminds me of all the things I don’t miss about that position. They’re all so incredibly stressed out and angry and bitter. The worst moment of recognition is this low-voiced swearing every time the phone rings. What was once an innocuous ring-tone becomes a unending nightmare of stupid people asking annoying questions that waste your time and eat your soul.

The thing is this: when you’re a field adjuster, your job doesn’t just follow you home, it takes over your home. When you eat the same place you work at a job you don’t like, boundaries get blurred and things can get internally destructive. Right now, I’m super-busy at work. But when I leave, I’m gone. It’s humanly impossible for me to work without being at the office, and for me that may be a necessity. If they offer me a field position I may try it out again. But I’m better outside of work when my workplace is the office. Today my boss let me know that some Temp people have stayed on for over nine months, even though their position was supposed to be up after two or three or six. That’s my preference. I’m not tied to the company, I can explore other options, but I also have some temporary stability.

And now I have to go hang out with my roommate.

Recent Readings 1 – David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace killed himself in September of 2008. I turned 25 that month. He’d already published a book by that age. When he died, he left an uncompleted manuscript for a novel he’d been working on for years, since his second novel, Infinite Jest came out in 1996. Before he hanged himself, he wrote his wife a note and left the manuscript on his desk, incomplete, but findable. It will be published this fall.

I’ve been reading a lot lately, and somehow between buckling down so I can finish Infinite Jest and thinking about the legacy we leave behind, I’ve been drawn more and more to Wallace. I read a wonderful selection from his unfinished novel, The Pale King, which appeared in The New Yorker as “Wiggle Room” in 2009, in addition to an extensive farewell article, a short biography of his life and work and hopes and fears. It’s called “The Unfinished.”

Page of transcript from “The Pale King” w/ notes and alterations by its author David Foster Wallace

My goal was to give an analysis of both the selection and the article, but jeez, I just think you should read them both right now and then call me and then we can talk about it for hours and hours.

The article about Wallace’s life dealt with his (Wallace’s) belief that in a world of hyperactivity, boredom can lead to amazing breakthroughs in one’s life. Transpose that to food, and it’s the same as fasting. What is strange is that reading, for me, in my current place, is just such a breakthrough. It has served as a reminder of everything I want my life to be, even if that’s not what it is right now. His novel is about an IRS Rote Examiner, saddled with the task of an endless string of reports to calculate, tabulate and validate. That he tries—and fails—to do this mindlessly is the biggest problem in his life. He can’t get over how much his mind won’t just go blank, let time slip away, and let his body do his job. If he could, he knows his days would go by faster. But he can’t and so he is left checking the clock moment to moment to moment.

This is the very same issue I’m dealing with at work: boredom. With nothing to do, the break-through for me has been returning to reading. I’ve noticed if left to my own devices and with everything available to me, I read less than I would like to. I write less than i would like to. At work, all I can think about is how much I want to do these things, because all of the other distractions and activities are removed and I am faced with boredom, with nothing. And when I see that nothing, I can also see what I want it to be filled in with. With writing and reading. With films, absolutely, but I don’t have to push myself to watch movies or TV shows. So at work, I find my appetite for reading is immense. I inhale articles and stories. But how weird to be sitting at work, as all around people are on the phones and talking insurance, and there I am being taken away and deeply moved by writers. There have been moments when I wanted to cry for being moved or laugh out loud for being tickled. I find myself glancing around, sure someone has noticed. My facial expressions aren’t those of an adjuster. They’re of a reader. I love it.

Some of the best things about the article are Wallace’s thoughts on writing:

Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being” and should make one “become less alone inside.”

“It seems like the big distinction between good art and so-so art lies . . . in be[ing] willing to sort of die in order to move the reader, somehow. Even now I’m scared about how sappy this’ll look in print, saying this. And the effort to actually to do it, not just talk about it, requires a kind of courage I don’t seem to have yet… All the attention and engagement and work you need to get from the reader can’t be for your benefit; it’s got to be for hers.”

“Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it.”

“The idea that something so simple and, really, so aesthetically uninteresting—which for me meant you pass over it for the interesting, complex stuff—can actually be nourishing in a way that arch, meta, ironic, [post-modern] stuff can’t, that seems to me to be important.”

I see these ideas being sorted out in Infinite Jest, particularly the third sentiment. I also love how much he plays with words. “Wallace explained that Broom [of the System] wasn’t “realistic, and it is not metafiction; if it’s anything, it’s meta-the-difference-between-the-two.” “

And if Wallace felt that way about his first book while writing his second, he seems to have had apprehensions about the second while writing the third. He still felt like he was using too many tricks. He’d been working on the book since 2000, and he couldn’t find his way through it. He wrote to numerous friends and other writers, looking for inspiration, begging, pleading for them to help his breakthrough. He fell into a sortof Charlie Kaufman-esque state. Aside from all the sections about the IRS workers, he writes himself into the book through faux-introductions and he makes up things about himself and just sticks it all in there. Because he couldn’t help how interested he was in absurdist writing and how in love with language he was. Because one of the things that is so great about his writing is the way it battles itself with its disparate tempos- here calm and straight-frward and beautiful in its simplicity; there frenetic and confusing and dumbfounding in its linguistic complexity.

Another Page of transcript from "The Pale King" w/ notes and alterations by its author David Foster Wallace

And yet, he didn’t want his work to become only about that. In the article he notes how irony can do a lot of things, but one thing it can’t do is redeem. It’s outside of the realm of irony’s abilities. It seems like he battled that throughout the composition of this new book. In one of those letters (I think to Franzen), he said for it to be any good, he would have to write a 50,000 page transcript and then cut it down from there to a readable “thing.”

The article is the place to go for info about Wallace. This is much more about how I think of myself in relation to what he said. But before he died, his goal was to create a work that is all the things he believes about writing and the world. So of course it includes him. He wanted to write something that helped someone. But, because of his mental state, which was in disarray (the article details the litany of medications he took and his various attempts and failures to half-successes to deal with depression), he couldn’t bring himself to write anymore. He had an untold number of pages and notes and ideas, but he couldn’t make it work the way he wanted to on the page. (The above pages were also posted on The New Yorker’s website. You can click on them to enlarge and read his notations. To me, it’s inspiring to read a writer at work.)

I know very well what that’s like. To get the tone of the thing right, to make it all of the things you want it to be – all of which are different so as to immediately avoid any criticism that a) it’s too nice or too cynical or too whatever and b) more importantly, to avoid any assumptions or categorization by readers (or viewers) about which parts of the writing directly mirror your own personality, c) it covers all the bases you know of to cover.

Wallace’s suicide seems almost like the given ending to his final novel. How else could an author’s final novel end, how else could his career end, but in death? It’s a surprise, given he wrote so much about himself in his new novel, that he did not write a post-script in which he killed himself. Perhaps because he could not focus enough to write or could not settle his fears enough to focus on anything other than the fact that he thought the fears were taking over him, he decided to make his reality the ending to his fiction. Perhaps this was the way he thought he could prove to his readers that he was willing to die for them.

He spoke so often of wanting to move of wanting to make his work something useful that would point people toward something better. He wanted his work to help people. And so it seems that he made his life the warning  and the blatant plea he could not figure out how to give on the page. A warning and plea to get help. A warning and plea to keep going. A warning and plea to do what, in the end he could not: to keep writing and to write something that helps make people less alone inside. He did it so well and so beautifully for a while. But he couldn’t sustain it, and he hated that fact.

Maybe he thought his life had become the emotional, mental equivalent of what my Grandfather’s body’s physical state was just before he died: unable to breathe on its own; damaged and deteriorated beyond repair, such that to go on living would not be living anymore. I’m not commending or even excusing his suicide. I’m just trying to gain some hint of his possible motivation.

And so the book will be published this fall. Talking with my good friend BJ, recently, he observed that for someone so wrapped up in style and the way Wallace’s own feelings about it expanded and arced the older he grew, combined with an increasing drive to be simultaneously helpful and innovative, the idea of an unfinished novel – particularly an unfinished novel he had grand reservations about – becoming the published work just might be more interesting than a “fully-realized” work of fiction. More interesting, more fitting, and more final. And besides, when in the history of any artistic endeavor worth pursuing has the phrase “fully-realized” entered the artist’s mind as a thing achievable?

So Now Then

Ten years ago tonight, with the clock ticking toward midnight, there was an immense anxiety in me about what would happen. The world might forever be changed. It so filled my mind that I don’t really remember anything else I talked about that night, aside from this one thing – will I get to kiss my girlfriend? Y2K be damned, I didn’t care if the world ended or not; only about what it would be like to kiss her.

I didn’t. I chickened out. But it’s okay, we made up for it and then some for the next year or so.

Boy things were different back then. Looking back on the last ten years of my life, I am in the unique position of having come of age during this time, which is a strange thing and who knows, maybe ten years from now I’ll be saying the same thing about the next decade. But for now, I want to remember when.

This was the decade I graduated high school. And college. It’s the decade I got my first car. My first job. While things were in motion, this is the decade I fell in love with the movies and with acting and with writing. I directed my first movie. Isn’t it strange to think that 10 short years ago, I hadn’t seen my favorite movie of all time? Most of my favorite movies, in fact. I started reading books. Started reading The Bible. I hadn’t heard most of my favorite music yet. Think of it. All of these things that occupy my time and my mind and my heart and direct my life on a daily basis, and I didn’t have any idea they were out there. Things I can’t imagine being without; not the physical thing-ness of them, but the experience of them. The knowledge of them, the understanding of them. If you take enough of those things away, you take me away. I’m not me without them. I couldn’t be, I wouldn’t want to be, and I don’t know who I’d be. I’ve seen well over 1,000 movies in the last 10 years. Many of them good, some of them bad, and quite a few of them life-changing. Life-changing. A movie. A song. A television show. A fiction. A podcast. People doing things who I don’t know personally but somehow know deeply. Now how in the world does that happen?

And what about the people who do populate my life? Friendships that were only a few months or a couple years old are now lifelong bonds that have carried me through so much these years. People I didn’t know, or only knew peripherally. And now, what would life be without them? Where would I be? I had the immense fortune of having incredible friends around me at every turn these last 10 years. Where I would be without them is lost, completely stupidly lost. What kings and queens of goodness they are, what multitudes they hold.

There are small big things too. I voted for the first time, had my first beer, got my first tattoo, my first apartment, got my first corporate job, quit that job and moved to another state. I took my first trip out of the country, I went on vacation by myself and found I am a good traveling companion. I wrote and wrote and wrote thousands of pages of stories and journals and movies and essays and papers. Endless experiences and events and things done and things wished for and not received and regrets and elations and disappointments and poorly-timed, well-worded remarks that got me in mountains of trouble. 10 years ago I thought I was right all the time. Now I know the percentage is slightly lower, and things are often my own fault.

10 years is enough time, it turns out, to meet someone, love them, know them for 7 years, be hurt by them long enough and badly enough that you don’t know her anymore. 10 years of my life is still a pretty high percentage of it at this point (a little over 38% of it). And there is no bleed-over. It is a thing contained within one decade, a little parenthesis of a thing that, 20 years from now will matter, won’t matter, who knows? But there is before and there is after and it doesn’t reach either of them. It is cut off. That’s a little scary when you think about it.

10 years ago, I thought of my life in terms of my parents’ rhythms. Married by a certain age, children by a certain age, career by a certain age. It took time to realize that a different pattern was waiting for me. 10 years ago, I don’t think I could ever know I’d be sitting where I am today. If I talked to myself, I wouldn’t believe me. How much I had to learn. How much I have to learn. 10 years ago, I thought I would be a film actor. I don’t think I thought very highly of the theatre. 20+ plays later, I see I was a fool. The thrill of walking onto a stage in front of an audience and inhabiting another life is one of the most beautiful things in the world. The experience of being watched is similar to playing a sport, but it’s a different kind of thrill. I love them both. Still another is to write something you’re proud of and see it performed by someone else in front of a couple thousand people. And another to write and direct something, find the time and people and equipment to capture it on film, edit it, toil over it, and then see it projected onto a screen in a dark room with people you don’t know. To hear them react to it, find it is all out of your hands now. These things are magical. I wouldn’t trade these things for anything, and I wouldn’t ruin them by explaining them away to my younger self. If I never see them again, I’m glad for what I’ve got.

So now then. What have we learned? What conclusions can we draw? What do we do now? How can I do better? The best answer I know is to say that these aren’t questions reserved for the ends of decades, but for every day. Contentment in limbo. It sounds like an impossible thing, but I think that’s where the truth lives. If I find out, I’ll tell you in 10 years.


Got up at 4:15. Went to bed at 1:00 (Combo of  couldn’t sleep and Carcassonne. You do the math). Leaving in a few to go to set to play Amish man all day. There is no more comforting feeling in the early winter morning than putting on a good sock to stave off the chill. When you know you can’t go back to bed. Been a busy week. 5 days of background work. Finished Bird By Bird, by Anne Lamott. Many good quotations to share, some of which are just details of life she captures perfectly like this one:

Now there is only a little time left in the class, and it feels like that last half hour at camp when you’ve all gathered in the parking lot, waiting for your duffel bag to be loaded on the bus.

Nothing more right now. I have to drive 45 minutes to pretend to not believe in driving at all for hours on end. Ah, but I am bringing a book.


Asking for one of these for Christmas

I’ve been very busy recently. I am in the process of re-writing “Trailer: The Movie” – the full length film. This time last year, Adam and I were writing it for the first time. I’m doing the re-writing alone, with his permission, and boy-oh-boy. It’s interesting to read over the storyline for the feature now. It doesn’t really make sense and has a pretty limited scope. So my task from now until probably about January is expanding it to include more media entities. The internet, tabloid journalism, on-set visits, and DVD special features (I am toying with the idea of including a section in the film that is the DVD commentary for one of the films-within-the-film, which itself would make for an interesting moment on the DVD commentary for the film itself (should it ever be made)).

I went just yesterday to Booked Talent, a call-in service for extras. It was interesting. When I went to Central Casting to sign up for extras work (you have to do both), it was like a prison camp. Barking orders, 100 people crowded in elbow-to-elbow, very specific instructions and all sorts of lines to stand in. Today, there were 6 of us. It was laid back, very informal and helpful. I guess with only a few people per day, you can afford to be casual, but it was a welcome change. I had to bring 4 different outfits – business, business casual, athletic (basketball), and normal 20-something clothes. I am available for work as early as Friday, so who knows, you could glimpse me in the background of your favorite TV shows. I won’t be speaking, but that won’t stop me from chewing the scenery all I can.

I’ve been doing a lot of work for It’s Just Movies and also wrote a blog about writing for Tyler’s podcast blog, More Than One Lesson. He was nominated for a Podcast Award for that show, after only a handful of episodes. It’s a huge boost for him. Some day I’ll be on there, talking about who knows what? Until then, you can hear me on another great podcast – Barely Literate. I was on there in January talking about “Shampoo Planet” which wasn’t any good. This time, we discussed David Foster Wallace’s first novel, The Broom of the System which I liked more and more as I looked it over in preparation. I also came across a great piece of prose from one of Wallace’s essays. Here, describing the food at a state fair:

The corn dog tastes strongly of soybean oil, which itself tastes like corn oil that’s been strained through an old gyn towel.

His descriptions are some of my favorites ever. Infinite Jest is currently in the running for one of my favorite books of all time.

Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner

Aside from that, it’s Thanksgiving week! Tomorrow, I’ve got two to go to (one for my Gram on my Mom’s side, one for 25 of us from the two churches that comprise our small groups). Then, Saturday I drive down to Port Huneme and the house my Dad grew up in to have Thanksgiving with everyone on that side of the family. My fridge will be filled with leftovers to last til Christmas. I’m startled how excited I am for all of this. I’m used to spending the holidays with just my parents and siblings. This year, I won’t see them for either, but I’m spending time with everyone in both sides of extended family. It will be very interesting, and I’m looking forward to writing about it all.

Until next week, take care, hope everyone has a Happy Thanksgiving!

Productivity as Procrastination

I’ve been looking today at various adapters and lenses for my Panasonic film camera, and I am overwhelmed. More and more and more, I regret not taking some film courses in college. I was focused on writing, but boy it would’ve helped.

TroubleOh, there are a thousand things I need to do. I want to upgrade the look of the films I make. My camera is okay and with lighting, it looks really nice. There is an adapter I can get, though, that would allow me to use film lenses on my camera. It essentially upgrades the look to film, even though  my camera isn’t even HD. Of course, I would need to buy the adapter and then however many lenses I wanted and all sorts of other little add-ons. The cost adds up fast and faster. What I need is someone to help me figure out what exactly I need and why exactly I need it. Someone who knows the language.

On the other hand, I need to do some writing. But what writing? I’m not going to film a feature on the camera I have; not even, I don’t think, if I had the adapter/lenses/whatever. So now then what’s the point of buying it? Is it still worth it? It is if I make a great looking short film that gets people to notice my work and allows me to pitch a feature which gets financed.

But again what writing? I’ve written one short since I moved here, and we’re going to look at filming it in the next couple months. I doubt before the end of the year, just because of people’s schedules and such. No, not before the end of the year. I have a few other short ideas to write, and they’re good because I can make them. It’s smart to write what you can do.  On the other hand, I need to clean-up some things in the feature-length version of “Trailer: The Movie,” which will probably only take a week or two. But who wants to polish a script when they could be writing their exciting new brand new more interesting NEW NEW NEW script? And even so, I need to write another feature, because I’m not pleased with either of the other two I’ve written. And I have ideas, but am I ready to jump into them? Have they marinated in my head and in the snippets they take up from my notebook yet? Dangerous to pluck an idea too early and waste it.

And on this Sunday night, I have two scripts open in front of me but only an hour before I’m off to a concert tonight, and I like to have an open space before me while I write, not constraint. Also I’m looking forward to the concert (The Mountain Goats, check out their great video above), and who can write when they’re anxious about something else? And so now here but also ahem you see of course it’s perfectly understandable don’t push me I’ll get to it when I get to it perhaps then my excuse is to write a little blog here instead of doing some screenplay work. It worked today. But tomorrow, really, I must get some writing done. And maybe keep looking at adapters and lenses. Much to do.


Be Overwhelmed

Sometimes things just get you, you know? They move past the effectiveness of their particular medium and take hold of you personally. They feel like they came from and were made for a certain part of you. That’s been this week for me. With movies and literature and TV and tonight music. Maybe I’m just in that place right now, that’s possible. But whatever the case, they’re finding their way to me and I am happy for it.

Let's Play

Let's Play

Many people read “Where the Wild Things Are” as a kid. I didn’t but sure wish I had. The movie evoked so much in me (I wrote a full review of it here). Scenes of its main character playing alone. Playing in the snow. His rage. His recklessness. His love. All of them smashing into each other. The powerful line KW says to him: “Don’t go. I’ll eat you up, I love you so.” The way the movie embraced danger in the same way I daydreamt about it as a kid; how much fun it would be to be in such a situation. I wanted it desperately. I fantasized about being a superhero who fought crime at night and did amazing things. I created storylines in my mind and replayed them alone on the bus. I was totally pre-occupied with them. This movie made me miss being a kid.

I love the late writer David Foster Wallace’s way he seems to smile sometimes through his pages as he plays with words. Sometimes it advances something, sometimes it’s just a treat. Other times, he nails turmoil so staggeringly that you hurt for him, even though he might be describing you. Here, in Infinite Jest talking about time and withdrawal:

Poor Tony once had the hubris to fancy he’d had occasion really to shiver, ever, before. But he had never truly shivered until time’s cadences— jagged and cold and smelling oddly of deodorant— entered his body via several openings—cold the way only damp cold is cold—the phrase he’d had the gall to imagine he understood was the phrase chilled to the bone—shard-studded columns of chill entering to fill his bones with ground glass, and he could hear his joints’ glassy crunch with every slightest shift of hunched position, time ambient and in the air and entering and exiting at will, coldly; and the pain of his breath against his teeth.

Also, HBO’s “In Treatment” for the way it confounds your expectations and reminded me that you can have effective drama with just two people, sitting in a room, talking. We watch them fail and learn and cry and get angry. More than any other show I can remember, it looks at the way people look while they listen. How communicative the eyes can be. 43 episodes of it and I was riveted.

decemberists___hazards_of_love_by_monavxFinally, The Decemberists. I’ve seen them many times before, I’ll see them again. But tonight was the only time I ever saw them alone. I didn’t like that part of it. It’s harder to share it. But oh how it felt like seeing old friends. I have a relationship with the music now. The animated Visualization of “The Hazards of Love” was stunning, but the music and the band’s own performance made me breathless. I felt lucky. I got to see it twice and now it is done. Never again to be performed live after this tour. How could it be? It’s over. But I saw it. Perhaps it was the animation or I don’t know what, but I kept noticing how emotional this album is. Can a thing be ornate and raw at the same time?

The feeling starts in my chest and rises— slowly at first, but increasingly fast—to my face. I instinctively smile when it gets there, which is partly my way of acknowledging it and partly my way of stalling it for a moment while I accept it. And in each case, the form of the thing, the way it is packaged in its particular artistic medium is part of the joy. Wallace’s words or Spike Jonze’s playful style; the daring simplicity of “In Treatment” and the immensity of The Decemberists’ sound. They’re like little presents, these things, that the artist cannot help but give. They come from a desire to share, to show for us. Even when they are dark, they seem prepared lovingly; with humanity. And they connect us to something outside and above and something paradoxically larger than ourselves but that is also within us, aching for us to see it.

intreatment.533For some reason, the last week I’ve been seeing it. I’ve been feeling it. Art reveals itself to us in the hope of helping reveal parts of ourselves we may not be aware of; that we forgot we had; that maybe we hoped were gone but aren’t; that we can’t believe; that have been waiting for us; that we desperately need even if we don’t think we do or can’t see why. It can help us get out of our own way. It can challenge us, even anger us. Anne Lamott puts it this (much better) way:

This is our goal as writers, I think; to help others have this sense of—please forgive me—wonder, of seeing things anew, things that can catch us off guard, that break into our small bordered worlds. When this happens, everything feels more spacious.

I read those words just before the concert started. Afterwards, I stood outside on the lovely UCLA campus, watching people filing away, down large staircases. I wrote a little about what I saw, how at home I felt on a college campus in the fall. And these things came trickling back to me. It feels good to be overwhelmed like this. Life does feel more spacious. Certainly not everything will make you feel this way, and most things that do aren’t trying to do that in the first place. It just happens sometimes. But it’s good and right and important to me to know that it can and be willing when it does.

O’ Autumn

There are simple joys in life and autumn seems to unleash them for me. There is something about the feeling of it that gets into your bones and chills you in that way that makes you feel alive not cold. It’s getting dark earlier. This puts a damper on running sometimes, because I really like a good 6pm run; but it also means jackets and sweaters. Fall is great, because its cooler, but you can add a simple layer of clothing and become instantly comfortable. The winter destroys this pleasure, trading in the discomfort of being cold for that of being bundled up to the point of physical discomfort (I’m speaking from the experience of the mid-west winter. It’s a bit different in Southern California). Summer is the opposite. There’s no way to de-clothe in order to be cooler. Even if you’re naked, you’re still boiling lava hot.


Tonight, I sat in my courtyard reading Anne Lamott’s book on writing, Bird by Bird. I can’t imagine a better fall book, the same way On the Road takes on particular charms when read while traveling. You can’t help but feel little tinges of melancholy in autumn, or at least I can’t. But with a good book or two (Infinite Jest is quickly becoming an all-time favorite) little lonely moments don’t have to be all about loneliness. They kindof make me smile in a weird, fall way. It feels like me. It’s the same with writing. Sometimes you need to just stop and bask in aloneness. This is why I prefer living alone. The sounds of the place become exclusive to you.

bird-by-birdI miss school. I miss classes. I miss writing papers. But because Bird by Bird is written in sortof a classroom lesson-ish style, taken directly from things she says when teaching writing, it feels sortof right. Sitting outside, feeling it getting dark, my feet in the hot-tub, not boiling, but perfectly counteracting the slight, oncoming chill of evening. It’s not the same if I’d read it in the summer, in blazing heat. I would’ve felt somehow out of place.

The advice is great, too. I’d call her writing effortless if she didn’t spend so much time in the book explaining how painstaking it is for her to write. The writing is comfortable and clear and really damn good. She doesn’t try to impress the reader with swirling passages of confusing writing that deconstructs the process of it. It’s practical, good advice. She talks about the dangers of trying to write perfectly.

Perfectionism means that you try desperately not to leave so much mess to clean up. But clutter and mess show us that life is being lived… Tidiness suggests that something is as good as it’s going to get. Tidiness makes me think of held breath, of suspended animation, while writing needs to breathe and move.

She is funny and honest and has a chapter called “Shitty First Drafts,” in which she basically explains that you have to get through them to get on to the good stuff. You have to just do, just write, and then, later, after you’ve stopped pre-judging it, you can go back and find those few things that are good about what you’ve written. And those become what you write about. You probably toss the rest of it, but it’s worth it for those sparks you’ve created.

The year after I graduated from college, I dedicated myself to writing a screenplay. I’d written a few before that, but I wanted a new one. I sat down to write a horror movie, but what came out was a 250 page behemoth of a psychological thriller that was about guilt and death and violence and love and, for some reason, also about high-schoolers and teachers and philosophy. It’s not very good. Not at all. I didn’t really pre-write much, didn’t map it out in my mind or my notebook. I had the beginning and I had a character, and I thought those would bring me through. Well, that’s just silly. No one has read this screenplay. My friend BJ convinced me to give him a copy, but luckily that PhD program has kept him too busy to read it. I haven’t touched the screenplay in 2 1/2 years, I’ve moved on. If I go back, it will be a Page 1 rewrite, and I don’t know that I have enough interest in the story for that. But I have no doubt if Anne Lamott or anyone else read it, they would instantly declare it a shitty first draft.

Infinite Jest (I)

Because of the sheer size and literary scope of David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest, any singular attempt to write about it will be futile. So instead of giving a broad outline and a few highlights after I finish it, I’m going to write about it as I go along.

pinocchio-paradoxAs of page 100, there are only whispers of the plot, but more than enough themes and characters and literary devices to keep me busy. I’m forming a thesis in the margins, so we’ll see how accurate I am in another 1000 pages. Right now, the biggest compliment I can give to Wallace is his command of narrative, which is also to say narrative styles, of which, so far there are at least 5. Never are they unclear, though Wallace is by nature a very complicated writer. He defaults to wordplay and enjoys clause-filled technical explanations of chemicals, ingredients, and drugs. It might be daunting if you didn’t get such a clear sense that the book was, in fact, written to be enjoyed (and is immensely enjoyable).

As for his driving thematic, Wallace’s own complex/paradoxical paranoia takes center stage in almost every major character. We wait with a man for drugs to arrive for 11 pages, in which he explains that he has quit 70 or 80 items before, each time asking a different person to procure him one last stash, each time making that person swear never to get him drugs again, so that now he has to meet new people just so he has someone who will act as a third party to get him the drugs. There is Hal, who we see in a segment from his childhood, talking to a professional conversationalist whom he accuses of being his father in disguise, the production being the father’s only way to be sure that the son actually speaks and is intelligent. If you’ve read any of David Foster Wallace’s work before, these things will not surprise you, and if you enjoy the reflexive, confusing style of Charlie Kaufman’s films, you might feel strangely at home with this book.

I do.

Stop Following, Me.
Stop Following, Me.

One last thing. Infinite Jest contains 96 pages of endnotes, and instead of being one too many revolutions on the quirk cycle, the device contains my very favorite thing so far. Hal’s father, the late James O. Incandenza, left his scientific/athletic (I’m not quite sure what else) job late in life to make films. The novel spends a couple pages giving only a cursory history of him, in which we are directed to the endnotes for a 9-page filmography. Each entry contains standard information (documentary or narrative; black and white or color; running time; silent or sound) about his films, which include titles like: “Annular Fusion is Our Friend,” “Kinds of Pain,” “Every Inch of Disney Leith,” “Let There Be Lite,” “(The) Desire to Desire,” and “Sorry All Over the Place.” Also listed: “Infinite Jest” attempts I-V. Using only objective information, Wallace uses the filmography to (a) give us a piece of crucial information about the title of the book, (b) construct an entire character in a radically unique way, and (c) make us laugh. The summaries of the films are hysterical in a way equal to and greater than the very funny (though ultimately contextless) curiosities of something like John Hodgman’s The Areas of My Expertise. Hodgman’s is sortof an anti-book, and while it’s funny, its strands go off into nowhere and connect to nothing. Wallace’s absurdities keep us searching for where those strands have landed and keep us asking why. He takes the joke deeper into itself and also places it within the context of the novel, but without making it part of the novel itself. If he had explained the information contained in the filmography, the effect would be diminished, and it would become only another piece of plot. But a filmography is its own thing, so it is both itself and a narrative device. And if I am just spinning my wheels by this point, it is because I am having too much fun thinking about it all and don’t want to stop.

German Silence Experiment

Pray you... Remember the Porter!

Pray you... Remember the Porter!

Even as an avid movie-watcher, there are blind spots in my viewing history. Among them, German Expressionism. Most of the big ones are silent films, and this spring I was an extra in a friend’s attempt at recreating the style via Greenscreen. So, it got me thinking, and good friend Tyler had a group of us over the other night for a trilogy of German director F.W. Murnau. The three films on the docket – “Nosferatu,” “The Last Laugh,” and “Sunrise.” We only got through the first two, which was fine because I’d recently seen “Sunrise.”

The films were all made between 1922 and 1927 and what fascinated me was how different they are. There is the horror movie, the character study, and the melodrama, respectively. I was expecting a much more cohesive thematic pathway through the films. Film was in its infancy, and there were simply things you couldn’t do. But what I found as we discussed the films was that Murnau was able to use his distinct visual style in three very different ways.

It’s nice to be surprised by movies. Sometimes movies like these feel like a chore; something you have to watch in order to get a sense of a film as an evolving art form, but that doesn’t really do anything for you emotionally or intellectually. After being left a little cold by “Nosferatu” I thought maybe that’s what this night would be. But then “The Last Laugh” began and it completely blew me away. It has some of the most dynamic camera movement I’ve ever seen in a silent film. I can’t say for sure, but this is one of cinema’s earliest character studies. The movie has such a sense not only of its main character, a Porter at an upscale hotel, but also for the many communities he inhabits. I didn’t know they made movies purely about behavior in 1925. In contrast to “Nosferatu,” which was all static, unmoving shots, this one is often on the move. It tracks along with The Porter as he walks through the courtyard behind his apartment building, interacting with everyone he meets. Murnau often shoots through windows or doors or some sort of obstruction, as if trying to remain unseen and impartial. We see The Porter at work, and the upper-class moving about. We see him with people in the working class, with children, at his daughter’s wedding reception. And along with observing the community, the film is also about how those people view The Porter.

Murnau_LastLaugh_2Emil Jannings plays The Porter as a man whose value comes through his job, and the film traces his disintegration (and then his redemption) as he goes from being a confident, well-respected man to a demeaned employee, to a joke to everyone he meets. Jannings is remarkably subtle for the time and even includes a different master gestus for each stage of his character’s journey.

Keaton_Seven_Chances_1925bI shouldn’t really be surprised. The movie was made in 1925, which is the same year the great silent comedy “Seven Chances” came out. What is remarkable to me as both a writer and a filmmaker is the way both “Seven Chances” and “The Last Laugh” remain brilliant examples of character-driven storytelling. Both use numerous tracking shots to follow their main character through a sea of people. Both also pull back to a grand scale and show a world of behavior. Most films today don’t even do that. They have no sense of the movement of the world their characters inhabit. Finally, both choose to rely purely on the visual strength of the storytelling, in the way that “Seven Chances” uses dialogue cards (to show what the actors have been saying) very sparingly and “The Last Laugh” doesn’t use them at all. They aren’t needed. Every important piece of information is communicated. The rest is behavior.

The more I watch silent films, the more I desperately want to make one. There is a simultaneous challenge and freedom to the notion. To have to tell a story visually and sustain it. For most young writers, an interest in film begins with an interest in dialogue. That’s how it was for me. I’ve been able to write dialogue for a long time, and it can become a crutch. It is the easiest way to overwrite something. Some writers never progress past that point (like this guy). Other writers decide to challenge themselves (like this cat). It’s a lesson I’m constantly learning. The last thing I wrote recently was 22 pages of non-stop dialogue. It’s only okay. I’m very happy with the dialogue, but the thing is a little one-sided. It’s not writing that is going to make me a better filmmaker, if that makes any sense.

Compare that to something like “Delicious Breakfast Cereal,” which, while not great by any standards, contains less dialogue and was a very useful experiment for how to tell a story specifically with a camera. The trick is, of course, to combine the two. To know when it’s time for dialogue and when to let character action take over, and how to make them swim along side each other for a while and not fight.

It Has Come to This

July 2014
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