Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Archive for December 21st, 2006

Writing long

Posted by metaphorical on 21 December 2006

Surprise is an editor’s drug of choice. — Susan Bell

In the first class on adaptive screenwriting, Marilyn Goldin said, “You always write long at first. You have have to let yourself be free, to write long.” It was probably the fiftieth time I’d heard this piece of advice, but I wrote it down, gratefully.

If there’s one writing lesson universally taught, eventually understood, it’s that you have to write, you have to let your self write, you have to write and keep writing, even if it makes no sense, if it’s awful, if it’s wrong.

I first heard this said flat-out at a reading last spring. It might have been said a thirty times before that, in classes and readings, but it first made its way past the hair growing out of my ears when said by Kate Braverman, who came to read from her then-new book, Frantic Transmissions to and from Los Angeles. It’s a remarkable book, and not just because the first chapter is written, beginning to end, in the first person plural.

Now we meet at random occasions, forty years later, always at the Pier. The water in winter is blue as delphiniums and larkspur. In spring, it’s the cerulean ink you might employ for a love letter, sanctified, electric, graceful. The waters form their own morphologies and hierarchies. The fall bay is like a visa stamp or fading tattoo. Then the pause before sunset when everything is veiled in azure. You hear what could be bells from a ship or a cathedral, but you can’t be certain. Waves suggest rain, dream and hallucination. And you realize there is no actual line between drowning and communion.

You have to write long. Everyone has said this. It warms my hands now to hear it. I write it down each time. Novelists and memoirists have said it, essayists and poets. Don’t stop. The director of the program and the associate director each say it, over and over, and they agree on almost nothing, including the value of the workshop classes that beggar us of our time and money. When Marilyn Goldin says it it’s not remarkable at all, except that a screenwriter is saying it. Throw another genre onto the fire and draw near.

Where did “ship or cathedral” come from? Maybe from “visa stamp and fading tattoo.” What is the fall bay like, anyway? A visa stamp, sure, and a tattoo as well, sure. Which are pretty similar to each other, so when you get to the bell, you get the ship, immediately, traveling stamps and navy sailors, no questions asked. But what it really sounds like is a church bell. So “ship or cathedral.” Of course. And are they really so very different? No, until you get the waves. Then they cleave into drowning and communion. Wow. And if she had stopped at visa stamp, it would have been a nice image. “The fall bay is like a visa stamp.” That’s a nice image. That’s nicely done. But you would have never gotten, “there is no actual line between drowning and communion.” Just keep going, Kate told us. You never know what’s going to come out. You can always erase it. But you can’t have something to keep if you don’t write it.

You have to write long. Marilyn Goldin meant you have to write the screenplay long, and Kate Braverman meant you have to write sentences long but you have to write everything long—sentences, paragraphs, sections, books, screenplays.

I’ll have more lessons from writing school to tease out, but I don’t want this one to seem like one among many. This is the one. If I had paid $36K for this one lesson, it would have been worth it. How much is the engine worth to the car? Everything.

Added: some of the ideas in this post are developed further here.

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Feelings, nothing more than feelings

Posted by metaphorical on 21 December 2006

While reading Free Range Librarian’s deservedly popular post, “The User Is Not Broken,” I bumped into a G. K. Chesterton quote ( “A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it”) that sent me to the quote server Thinkexist, which pushed a lovely Carl W. Buechner quote at me (yes, this is how I sometimes spend my day):

They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel. — Carl W. Buechner

That in turn made me think of something that the critic and screenwriter Marilyn Goldin said in a class on adaptive screenwriting. She went around the room asking each of us to name our favorite movie (or at least the first to come to mind when asked for a favorite movie) and say one thing about it that was memorable. Her theory, which was only a tiny bit disproven in class, was that the memorable thing wouldn’t be dialogue, that if it had dialogue, we wouldn’t remember the words, and that the memorable thing was more likely to be an image or—even more likely —a feeling.

I say “a tiny bit disproven” because about half of us named a piece of dialogue (mine was the scene from Body Heat where Kathleen Turner says, “You’re not very bright. I like that in a man.”). But we were a room of creative writing MFA students with an interest in screenwriting, so we were more likely to focus on words than the average moviegoer, and her point was that our words don’t really matter, in filmmaking, as much as we might like. I’ll have more to say about the class, which had some other memorable insights.

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