Posts Tagged ‘originality’

Little Men

Monday, February 27th, 2017

vito, tood, marcia

Vito and Todd and Marcia photo by Clare Bokulich

“For every complex problem, there is a simple solution. And it’s always wrong.” H. L. Mencken

Marcia and I recently watched Little Men, the 2016 movie written by Ira Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias, and directed by Ira Sachs, and for my taste it was the best American movie I’ve seen in a very long time. By Hollywood standards, Little Men would be called a European film made in America. Character-driven, subtle, no villains, no heroes, ultra-real, and entirely free of violence, the film is about essentially good people caught up in the cruel realities of economics in a capitalist society, and how those realities shape the courses of people’s lives and the lives of their children.

Because the story of Little Men focuses on the friendship of two thirteen-year-old boys, adolescence and emerging sexuality are also subjects of the movie, each handled with marvelous subtlety and sensitivity. I was so touched by the friendship depicted in this movie that for days after I was swamped with memories of my friendships in junior high school and high school, and the events that led to the demise of those friendships.

The movie is beautifully wrought, and Sachs uses exquisite imagery to tell parts of the tale, imagery without dialogue, so the viewer’s imagination and personal experience are invited to co-write the back-stories of the characters in the film. The acting is nuanced, the dialogue never predictable and always believable, and the sensibility of the film deeply compassionate.

In thinking about Little Men, I realize that most of the American films made available for viewing these last forty years do not honor the viewers’ imaginations or intelligence. I think this trend in movies began with the rise of television as a dominating fixture of our culture, and by the early 1980s Aim Low became the ironclad rule of commercial cinema. Now, of course, most movies are aimed at children or teenagers or young adults, a population that has no experience of great literature, and no experience of subtlety or nuance or complexity in writing or music or cinema.

When I was sixteen, in 1966, I saw Zorba the Greek, and I vividly recall how challenging and exciting it was to contemplate and try to accept such a complicated and changeable character as Zorba. Was he a hero or a villain? Both! Neither! Oh how I loved the widow portrayed by Irene Pappas, yet she was not saved by Zorba, but senselessly killed. Or was her killing senseless?

In that same year came the dangerous British movie If, and some of my classmates hated the film, and some loved If more than any movie they’d ever seen; and everyone who saw that movie believed the drama made the leap from reality to fantasy at a different point in the movie; and a few people thought the story was real from beginning to end.

Then for another decade, it seemed that every week another movie would come out that challenged us to think about life in a new way, to question the status quo, to feel the richness and positivity of originality and artistry, to give us the opportunity to revel in the unsolvable mysteries and beauties of life.

Eventually, with very few exceptions, only foreign films and a rare American anomaly provided those kinds of thrills of discovery and challenged us to think outside the narrow box of American culture. American movies devolved into the teen and kiddy junk, much of it ultra-violent, we have today. Now, every October and November, a few so-called serious films come out in time for the awards season, but these tend to be shallow and stereotypical and unwatchable for the likes of me.

I believe there is a direct connection between the devolution of our cinema and literature, and the ascendancy of those who now control the reins of power—for a culture that celebrates complexity and subtlety and a multitude of possible meanings and endings will not easily succumb to infantile simplicity.

How refreshing it was to see Little Men, a movie that made no attempt to wrap things up in a neat little happy ending, but said, as did Zorba the Greek, “Here is an artist examining a slice of life full of real people caught in real dilemmas. How exciting! See what you think and feel as you open to this artistry, this vision, this vivid real-seeming dream.”

Reboot

Wednesday, February 4th, 2015

twins

(This article was written for the Anderson Valley Advertiser February 2015)

“It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.” Herman Melville

Female-led Ghostbusters reboot gets summer 2016 release date.

Report: Disney is considering Chris Pratt for an Indiana Jones reboot.

Fantastic Four reboot: What do we think?

We think remakes and reboots and sequels and prequels indistinguishable from the previous reboots of remakes have taken over the movie industry along with movies so similar to hundreds of other movies they might as well be reboots or remakes. What’s going on here? We live in an era of cinematic redundancy on an epic scale, and the messages being repeated ad nauseam are so primitive and shallow and false, one wonders, “When was it the Not Very Bright Children took control of everything?”

Who cares? I do. I think our movies and books, those that the corporate overlords allow to reach large audiences, intentionally purvey what our overlords want us to believe and think and feel. There is method to this mad redundancy, and a purpose, which is to keep us captive in what Iain McGilchrist calls “a hall of mirrors wherein we just get reflected back into more of what we know about what we know about what we know.”

 “No man was ever great by imitation” Samuel Johnson

Original art is subversive to the dominant paradigm, and the controlling stockholders in the current dominant paradigm are especially keen on squelching anything that might upset their iron grip on the collective consciousness. Thus they employ their news media to heap praise on the unending flow of wholly unoriginal literature, cinema, and music spewed into our bookstores, movie theatres, radio stations, and our always-on computer pad phone things.

Why? What do they, those in charge of the faucets of media, think will happen if original art is allowed to flourish? What they think will happen is what will happen: they will lose control of our beautiful minds, and human society will change in ways antithetical to the dominant paradigm.

It is not generally known or remembered, but in response to that brief artistic and social revolution known as the Sixties, the most powerful multi-national corporations in the world bought up every independent publisher in America, fired every last open-minded editor, and instituted a system of selectivity that would make the most fascist of dictators envious. Control what people read and watch and you control the foundations of modern culture.

“Men often applaud an imitation and hiss the real thing.” Aesop

As I was pondering this whole reboot phenomenon, I found on Dave Smith’s valuable Ukiah Blog Live, a link to a delightfully animated lecture called The Divided Brain by the above-quoted Iain McGilchrist, a psychiatrist and brain expert. To my mind, his lecture clearly and concisely explains the reboot mania. To grossly oversimplify his lecture: our culture and society have been taken over by those who are entirely controlled by the dominant functions of the left sides of their brains, and, as a consequence, we have become a society and culture dominated by left-brain dynamics.

McGilchrist debunks many of the popular ideas about differences between the left and right hemispheres of the brain, and he is adamant that the two sides need each other to function optimally. He also has a nifty explanation for the importance of the frontal lobe in mediating the collaborations of the left and right halves of the brain.

I highly recommend this animated lecture (you can find it on YouTube) and suggest you may want to pause the flow occasionally because McGilchrist presents a great deal of information in a short amount of time. I will not try to recapitulate his many startling facts and observations, but I will list some of his characterizations of the two halves of our brains.

Left brain: narrow sharp focus on what is already known, prefers simplified models of reality, chooses virtual over real, static, isolated, fixed, decontextualized, ultimately lifeless.

Right brain: sustained broad focus, openness to what is not yet known, interested in the living rather than the mechanical, changing, evolving, comfortable with what is never perfectly known.

McGilchrist concludes his lecture by quoting Einstein—“The intuitive mind (right brain) is a sacred gift, and the rational mind (left brain) is a faithful servant.” McGilchrist then responds to Einstein’s insight by saying, “Our society now honors the servant, but has forgotten the gift.”

I would argue that we have not so much forgotten the gift as it has been wrested away from us by our punitive system of education (left brain), our highly controlled media (left brain) and an economic system that pretends to support innovation but is primarily interested in refining what we already have in place (left brain) while intentionally inciting our deep-seated fears (left brain) to keep us from taking creative risks (right brain).

When I walk around downtown Mendocino on my errands or in search of a sunny perch, I will often encounter people—young, middle-aged, old—who seem to be looking for something they cannot find. They peer down alleyways, frown at buildings they fear to enter, exchange troubled glances, and stumble on until they grow tired and return to their vehicles or find a place where they can sit down and eat something.

I imagine they are doing battle with the left sides of their brains. They have come here, knowingly or unknowingly, to escape their left-brained realities in hope of finding a right-brained reality. Intuitively, they know their spirits are being strangled by mechanized redundancy, and their inner voices have directed them to this place whose name was once synonymous with counter culture.

Self-Loving

Wednesday, February 19th, 2014

When Your Heart Is Strong crayon on monotype:paper Nolan WInkler

When Your Heart Is Strong drawing by Nolan Winkler

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser February 2014)

“Marketing is too important to be left to the marketing department.” David Packard

A friend of mine went to graduate school at Yale in theater management and marketing where his favorite professor was forever reminding his students: “For every hundred queries you send out, you can count on one response. This won’t necessarily be a positive response, but at least it will be a response.”

As a writer and musician who for many years fished, so to speak, in the smallest tributaries of the mainstream before experiencing a few years of success on the cultural Mississippi, as it were, of New York and Hollywood, only to return to the hinterlands where I have continued to cast my line for the past thirty years, I have sent out thousands of queries, stories, songs, novels, plays, screenplays, and music CDs to agents, publishers, producers, directors, DJs, magazine editors, and people randomly selected from the phone book, and in my experience the professor’s estimate of one response per hundred submissions is right on the money.

I was one of those young writers who, for fun and incentive, once papered the four walls of my rented room (from floor to ceiling) with form rejection letters from The New Yorker and Esquire and The Atlantic and Playboy and dozens of other magazines large and small—the collage of hundreds of colored rectangles strikingly beautiful, though the cumulative negativity of the verbiage writ on those disingenuous notes (we carefully considered, we’re very sorry) eventually caused me to burn them all in a bonfire of rage against the machine and in hope of exorcising the demons of self-doubt.

“Well-ordered self-love is right and natural.” Thomas Aquinas

Nowadays, as a sometimes self-publishing author and musician, I frequently encounter disdain and contempt from all sorts of people for manufacturing my own work. Yes, Mark Twain self-published most of his novels, and countless other revered writers and artists self-published, self-promoted, and self-sold, but the dominant cultural myth remains that self-manufacturing books or musical recordings is pathetic and disgraceful, especially for someone no longer in kindergarten.

This anti-self-publishing sentiment is especially true among people over fifty who were not raised on YouTube, though many people under fifty also make a clear distinction between an artist who brings out his or her own creations and the artist who manages to sell himself, literally, to a subsidiary of a multinational corporation. Is this not a form of cultural idiocy? And from whence does this antipathy to marketing our own creations come from?

“This self-love is the instrument of our preservation; it resembles the provision for the perpetuity of mankind: it is necessary, it is dear to us, it gives us pleasure, and we must conceal it.” Voltaire

So there’s Voltaire, the keen observer of social mores, three hundred and fifty years ago warning against public displays of self-appreciation, regardless of the emotional importance of such self-positivity, thus confirming that self-negation as cultural norm is nothing new. And who in our steep-sided pyramidal society and pyramidal economic system benefits most from this bizarre idea that it is shameful and wrong for a free lance artist to manufacture her own art and then alert the world that her art is for sale?

“Marketing is a contest for people’s attention.” Seth Godin

A Seattle publisher recently reissued my novel Inside Moves in a handsome paperback edition after the good book had been out-of-print for over thirty years, and dozens of people who had previously snickered and snorted in derision at my self-published works wrote and called to congratulate me, a few of these brainwashed peeps actually saying things like, “Must be great to have a real book in the stores again.” How bizarre! I was going to say how fucking bizarre, but that would be crude.

 “Self-love is a big part of golf.” Lewis Black

Nine times. Think of the Beatles song Revolution 9 with that annoying voice in the background intoning interminably “Number Nine, Number Nine.” Recent marketing research indicates that busy publishers, editors, DJs, and other persons bombarded with press releases and poems and screenplays and songs and cries of “Look at me jumping!” by millions of Baby Roos (see Winnie-the-Pooh) need to be loudly informed about something nine times, on average, for the thing to penetrate their overloaded cerebrums and get them to take notice. Oy vey. Such postage and envelopes and mailers for the struggling artist!

Speaking of postage, over the last seven years I have sent out rafts of copies of my four piano CDs and the two music CDs Marcia and I made together, these rafts going to radio stations around the country, with one response for every hundred submissions a close approximation of my success rate, whether that means actual airplay for Incongroovity or Mystery Inventions or a terse: Go Away! We Only Play Music Recorded By Famous People.

I hasten to add that these are not large radio stations I apply to, but small ones kin to our own KZYX whereon you will be lucky, indeed, to hear our music, though not for lack of my sending them our CDs. Jamie Roberts, bless him, occasionally plays my recorded fiction, and Joel Cohen has played a few cuts of my piano music—local exposure a special thrill for us. The good people at KMUD are so stoutly unified in their indifference to my offerings, I have ceased to bother them.

But I have managed to win over a handful of daring and prescient DJs who now regularly spin my tunes in Warren Vermont, Bloomington Indiana, Arcata California, Fort Collins Colorado and Astoria Oregon. Mazel tov!

“Well, I think everyone struggles with self-love.” Philip Seymour Hoffman

When I was a preschool teacher’s aide, one of my favorite things about the three and four-year-olds I had the pleasure of overseeing was their unabashed love of their own artistic endeavors and creations: crayon drawings and finger paintings and block towers and sand castles and somersaults and dances and impromptu songs—everything! Countless times an excited little kid would show me his or her creation, and in response to my saying, “That’s wonderful!” the little Picasso or O’Keeffe would confidently reply, “I know!”

But something happens to most American children in the years following kindergarten and continuing for the rest of their lives, some multi-level, multi-layered reprogramming goes on at home, at school, on television, at work, in life, so that by the time children are six and seven-years-old they are much less likely to share their creations with an adult, and by ten-years-old most kids cease to create anything.

From happy self-loving declarations of “I know!” to complete emotional and creative shutdown in just a few short years—the result of our horrifying and incredibly effective system of mass repression.

What are you talking about, Todd? Look at the millions of people making YouTube videos of themselves and their kids and cats and stuff, and the millions of people taking pictures of themselves with their smart phones to go along with their tweeting and sexting.

“It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.” Herman Melville

In my perusal of sports highlights on my computer, I am required to sit through commercials in order to see brief snippets of games I’ve missed for lack of a television. Thus I have seen many ads for razors, cars, big-budget movies, computers, running shoes, and Disney vacation resorts. In the latest series of Disney ads, people are shown publicly acting out in spontaneous and imaginative ways, and then being judged idiotic or crazy by their families and friends.

In one such Disney ad, a father and his two children are in a hardware store when the father gets the wacky idea of donning a welding helmet and picking up a fluorescent light tube and pretending to be Darth Vader wielding a light saber. In his excitement, the father gets carried away and knocks over a display, a heinous act that embarrasses his well-behaved children and dismays the other people in the store. But in a twinkling, the father and children and their mother are transported to a Disney resort where the father is allowed to duel with real (fake) light sabers and a Disney employee dressed up as the real (fake) Darth Vader—the children no longer embarrassed by their impulsive father.

The Voice accompanying this vomitous series of ads declares, and I paraphrase, “So if you want to be even just a little bit creative and spontaneous and playful without punishment and censure, you must give large quantities of your hard-earned money to the Disney Corporation and we will allow you to be slightly more carefree than you are allowed to be in real life, though we know that even when you come to this totally artificial place, you will be too inhibited to act in ways that will necessitate our having to punish you.”

Creative Paradox

Saturday, December 31st, 2011
garth hagerman

Photo by Garth Hagerman

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2011)

“To study music, we must learn the rules. To create music, we must break them.” Nadia Boulanger

During the four years in the early 1990’s when I ran the Creative Writing program for the California State Summer School for the Arts, I oversaw the work of two hundred teenaged writers and worked intimately with fifty of those talented scribblers. Three of the two hundred were, in my estimation, brilliant and original and highly accomplished writers; yet these three were so deeply introverted I predicted they would never succeed as professional writers. Sadly, so far, my prediction has proved true. In the publishing world of today, ambition entirely trumps talent, and believe it or not, ambitious imitators rule the narrow roost of your favorite bookstore, independent or otherwise.

We recently watched the first two-thirds of Robert Altman’s excruciatingly painful film Vincent and Theo about Vincent Van Gogh and his brother Theo—two-thirds of the movie being all we could bear, and even at that I was an emotional wreck. Whether or not the film is an accurate portrayal of the real Van Gogh, the movie conveys the very real suffering that many visionary artists feel in the absence of lasting emotional connections to other people and society, emotional connections these artists desperately want to make through their art. Yet because society is largely a manifestation of well-established perceptions and carefully regulated protocols for the presentation of those perceptions, most creative introverts are doomed to commercial failure unless they are rescued through the intervention of a sympathetic agent (catalyst) in the body of a functional extrovert.

The few moderate successes of my own writing career occurred because of the divine efforts of an extraordinary literary agent named Dorothy Pittman, the likes of which no longer exist, for she was wholly concerned with quality and originality, while caring not a whit about commerciality or the emotional idiosyncrasies of her clients. When Dorothy died, I was left to my own devices, which, for the most part, proved unacceptable to corporate operatives who care not a whit for quality and originality, and care only about their bottom lines showing large profits.

We want to think those elegant hardbacks awaiting us on the New Arrivals table at our favorite bookstore are the cream of a diverse cultural crop, the work of artists and original thinkers, but this is rarely true, for the source of nearly all of these books is corporate fascism, the antithesis of everything we wish our culture to be. Thus the most original of our writers and musicians and artists survive on the fringes of our cultural mix and remain largely unknown to you or to me or to anyone, save for a few friends, if they are fortunate to have friends.

This systemic isolation of original artists has probably existed since the dawn of urban life, when for the first time in human evolution large numbers of people came to live together in relatively small geographical areas. Certainly without the untiring efforts of Theo, Vincent Van Gogh’s brother and agent and only friend, we never would have received the enduring gift of Van Gogh’s genius. And because in the course of my life I have been fortunate to read the unpublished work of a handful of contemporary geniuses that few others will ever read, I assume there are thousands of such writers and artists toiling away in anonymity; which assumption brings to mind the cultivation of carrots and how of the several hundred seedlings that sprout in the carrot patch only a lucky few will survive the seemingly random act of thinning so they may attain full carrotness, with only the rarest of carrots attaining carrot magnificence.

“Simplicity is the final achievement. After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art.” Frederic Chopin

Having published ten books with nine different gargantuan publishing houses, eight works of fiction and two works of non-fiction, and having had essentially the same dreadful experience with each of these corporate behemoths, I, the former Executive Oddball of the International Order of Barely Functional Introverts, finally decided to embark on the path of a self-publisher. Succeed or not, I would at least have some small control over my creations (if only to be in charge of hiding them); and best of all I would never again have to watch as my years and years of toil were relegated to the trash heap with the wave of some moron’s hand, before or shortly after what should have been publication days of joy and celebration.

Though it may seem incredible, even unbelievable, to those unfamiliar with mainstream American publishing, the entire system has, for over forty years, been based on the buying and publishing of thousands of books every fiscal quarter with the foreknowledge that most of these books will be intentionally killed before or shortly after their official dates of publication. How could such a bizarre system have taken hold in a field that most people still think of as a creative part of our cultural framework? A thorough explanation of how this self-annihilating practice came to be would fill a fat volume, but I will use the brief tale of one of my own books as an example of how the system operates.

In 1995, having gone nearly a decade since publishing my fourth novel, I sold my fifth, Ruby & Spear, to Bantam for a 25,000 dollar advance. A rousing contemporary myth, Ruby & Spear is about an impetuous white sports writer, Vic, and his adventures with a fabulous black basketball player named Spear, a sexy feminist named Greta, and Spear’s tough old mystical grandmother Ruby. When they purchased Ruby & Spear, Bantam was owned by Random House, which in turn had been swallowed by a massive multinational corporation that now owns most of the previously freestanding publishing houses in America. In truth, there are only three gigantic publishers left in America, each masquerading as several publishing houses, each in reality a tiny division of a multinational behemoth.

Why did Bantam buy Ruby & Spear? I would like to say it was because their editors and sales people were eager to bring forth an entertaining literary gem; but that would be untrue. Bantam bought Ruby & Spear because they were guessing (gambling) that the movie rights to the book would be optioned for the movies before the book was published, which optioning would result in thousands of dollars of free publicity for the book; and if, indeed, a movie of Ruby & Spear was made there would be millions of dollars of free publicity. Bantam hoped the book might be sold to the movies because another of my novels, Forgotten Impulses, was on the verge of being made into a major motion movie, and because my first novel Inside Moves had been made into a film during the Pleistocene, which film caused many copies of that book to be sold.

But when Forgotten Impulses was ignominiously dropped by the movie people, and that dropping coincided with a few stupid studio execs complaining that Ruby & Spear was strangely void of violence and chock full of strong complex women and atypical men (and it wasn’t set in either New York or Los Angeles, but in Oakland, for godsake!) Bantam decided not to bring out a hardback version (ending hope of widespread reviews); and then they decided to kill the paperback edition on publication day.

To kill a book, a publisher declares the tome out-of-print and ceases distribution before that book has a chance to live. This is the fate of the vast majority of books published by large publishers, and is especially the fate of literary fiction, a rare kind of writing that does not fit into any obvious target genre such as murder mystery, sci-fi, teen vampire, adult vampire, teen wizard, or bodice-ripping historical romance. 25,000 dollars, to a corporation making most of its billions from strip mining and manufacturing cell phones and buying and selling governments, is not much of a gamble, so….

So here I am, an introverted self-publisher, my first two self-published books winners of multiple independent publishing awards, yet almost no bookstores in America carry my books, and that includes those revered independent bookstores. Why? Simple. Many people who buy books have seen and heard myriad advertisements for the latest bodice-ripping historical vampire fantasy, and many of these same people enjoyed the previous seven volumes in that marvelous series, so they very much want to read the latest regurgitation; and they have not heard of Buddha In A Teacup or Under the Table Books, nor have the bookstore people heard of my unclassifiable tomes, neither of which contains a single vampire, though both volumes are mysteriously sensual. Thus we live with the painful irony that independent bookstores generally carry only the most popular mainstream gunk because they don’t have the shelf space for (or the knowledge of) less popular books.

“It is important to practice at the speed of no mistakes.” Lucinda Mackworth-Young

Long ago I had supper with one of the most powerful publishers in America who happened to be married at the time (ever so briefly) to the editor of one of those novels I published in the Pleistocene. And when this famous publisher was nicely lit after downing a few goblets of breathtakingly expensive wine, she raised her glass and proclaimed, “Every book that really deserves to be published eventually does get published.”

And though from a career-building point of view I should have raised my glass and cried, “Hear, hear!” instead I retorted, “Methinks you are rationalizing the actions of unscrupulous corporations,” which only made her hostile. Oops. Silly me.

“Art is the only way to run away without leaving home.” Twyla Tharp

Gazing back thirty-five years through the telescope of hindsight, I realize that my editor’s wife, a great and powerful publisher (who was just a person, after all) was giving voice to what we all fervently want to believe, which is that great new creations will eventually find their ways into the lives of more than a few lucky people. And I think we harbor this belief in the inevitable ascendancy of excellent original art (which hasn’t been the case for thousands of years) because for most of human evolution, when our kind were much fewer and farther between, when we lived in bands and tribes and everyone knew everyone else, that when a good new creation came along, that song or story or painting or dance or myth or spear or drum or flute stood out like the only black horse in a herd of white horses, or vice-versa, so there was no way the glorious thing could be overlooked.

Another Year

Thursday, July 14th, 2011

(photo of Mike Leigh)

“The backers accept that they don’t know what they are going to get.” Mike Leigh

According to the on-screen credits that introduce Mike Leigh’s latest movie Another Year (available on DVD), the backers included agencies of the British government, including the national lottery. So…not only do the Brits have excellent and free healthcare, but their government provides money for cutting edge artists (be still my heart) to make major motion pictures about people so real that Marcia and I have been talking about Another Year for days on end, as if the characters in the movie actually came here and spent several days with us, getting drunk and driving us batty with all their imperfections and beauties and sorrows and strengths and frailties attendant to being human, as opposed to being cartoon characters.

The Sunday following our viewing of Another Year, I leafed through the Pink section (movies, music, theater, dance) and Insight section (books) of the San Francisco Chronicle and felt painfully embarrassed, as I often do, by our so-called culture. Books so badly written (my teeth ache thinking about them) fill the bestseller lists and garner slobbering reviews of such transparent falsity there can be no question this nonsense was planted by the publishers, those New York-based mouths of multinational corporations that would never knowingly publish a controversial sentence, let alone a truly original work of fiction. And this is the mediocre gunk that fills our bookstores; these are the made-for-dumbed-down-adolescents inanities that fill our movie theaters; these are the live sit-coms passing for plays that clutter our stages.

Which only makes Mike Leigh’s Another Year even more astonishing, not only because his movie is a great original work of art, but because it was made at all (without interference from the backers), and, miracle of miracles, made available in America to anyone emotionally capable of sitting through a movie that isn’t predictable, has an extremely subtle plot, features brilliant actors who are not particularly handsome or beautiful, has no overt violence, and causes us to examine our own lives in light of how this movie makes us feel. Escapist fun, no. Great art, yes.

Here is a Mike Leigh quote that gives a bit of insight into his way of making movies, an insight that applies to any art employing improvisation as a means of creating the first draft, as it were.

“The whole thing about making films in an organic film on location is that it’s not all about characters, relationships and themes, it’s also about place and the poetry of place. It’s about the spirit of what you find, the accidents of what you stumble across.”

In my experience as a writer and artist, and as a teacher of writers and artists, “the accidents of what you stumble across” turn out to be the primary catalysts of the creative process. And what I learned was that a terrible fear of stumbling and accidents and saying/writing “the wrong thing” was endemic among Americans longing to exercise their creative muscles; and if I wanted to make any headway with my students, I had to devise processes for overcoming this enormous blockade to free flowing creativity.

Ultimately, I invented hundreds of non-analytical writing exercises that circumvent our inner judges, critics, goblins, parents, and teachers who continue to shout so loudly in our brains that we can’t hear the muses trying to speak and sing and create through us. Many of these exercises are collected in a volume entitled The Writer’s Path (published in 2000 by 10-Speed Press and now out-of-print) which you can find copies of for pennies on the interweb, and from which I do not make a dime. I recommend the book to you and anyone wishing to establish a writing practice that takes full advantage of “the accidents of what you stumble across.”

Working first with teenagers and then with adults, I found that nearly everyone, even professional writers, suffers from what I diagnosed as plotitis, the primary symptom of which is the bizarre and ridiculous notion that a writer must have all the story elements (plot, characters, locations, etc.) figured out before he or she begins to write. In my quest for an antidote to the obvious cause of plotitis, an operating system error lodged in the left (analytical) brain, I stumbled on a process that not only cures the disease, it empowers everyone to write wonderful stories, a process I dubbed Arbitrary Story Structures. Here is a brief excerpt from The Writer’s Path introducing the process and two of the story structures.

*Arbitrary Story Structures

To help writers overcome one of the fundamental obstacles to successful story writing, we devised a simple and effective story-generating technique that frees the writer from having to invent the structure of a story before she begins to write it. When a writer is relieved of the need to invent a plot, her intuitive talents are free to emerge.

Arbitrary Story Structures are not detailed plots, but rather bare skeletons on which to hang an original tale. Following the brief instructions, we present eight structures of varying complexity. Each of them is written in a particular person and tense, but feel free to use any tense or person you prefer. Some of the structures provide slightly more specific suggestions than others. Use the ones you find most appealing.

Basic Exercise.

1. Read Part 1 of the Arbitrary Story Structure and write the first paragraph of your story.

2. Read Part 2 and write the second paragraph of your story.

3. Continue this process until you’ve written a paragraph for each part of the structure.

4. Read your story aloud.

5. If you like your story, refine or expand it.

Arbitrary Story Structure 1: The Journey

Part 1. You are on your way somewhere.

Part 2. You see something that strikes you as extraordinary.

Part 3. You think about what you’ve seen.

Part 4. You encounter another person.

Part 5. You have a brief conversation with this person.

Part 6. You fall asleep and dream. Tell the dream.

Arbitrary Story Structure 2: The Turning Point

Part 1. Someone is somewhere.

Part 2. He thinks about something and decides to go somewhere.

Part 3. He reaches the destination.

Part 4. He experiences a strong emotion.

Part 5. He has a vivid memory.

Part 6. He does something uncharacteristic.*

Now you might think that if eight people were to write stories based on the same story structure that eight similar stories would result. Yet that never happens. Indeed, the abstract nature of the suggestions ignites something unique in everyone, and no two stories will be alike.

“‘When you wake up in the morning, Pooh,’ said Piglet at last,

‘what’s the first thing you say to yourself?’

‘What’s for breakfast?’ said Pooh. ‘What do you say, Piglet?’

‘I say, I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today?’ said Piglet.

Pooh nodded thoughtfully. ‘It’s the same thing,’ he said.” A.A. Milne

Mike Leigh’s Another Year is divided into four sections of roughly the same length, the sections corresponding to the progression of the four seasons. In The Writer’s Path we call this a Natural Story Structure. To quote from the book again:

*The human life cycle—birth, life, death—is a grand story structure to which many of the world’s most famous novels adhere. Within this most familiar structure, countless story lines wait to support your unique visions. And beyond the human life cycle, in the patterns of all things, myriad story structures await you.

What, for instance, is the abstract story structure of a day? Here is a seven-part abstract structure based on one of many possible interpretations.

Part 1. Darkness

Part 2. Dawn

Part 3. Morning

Part 4. Noon

Part 5. Afternoon

Part 6. Evening

Part 7. Night*

“Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.” C.S. Lewis

I think it is truthfulness suffused with empathy expressed through Mike Leigh’s mastery of the cinematic art that makes Another Year so memorable and challenging and original.

Writing the Sequel to Under the Table Books

Monday, August 3rd, 2009

I’ve been madly writing the sequel to my just-published novel Under the Table Books. Given that only a handful of people have read Under the Table Books, and confronted by barely discernible sales of the mighty tome, my rational mind warns me that my current literary labor is folly, that years spent on a sequel to an unknown novel will amount to yet another wasted effort, and we’ve already got piles of those gathering dust.

What my rational mind fails to comprehend (no matter how many times I explain this to her and because logic only takes us so far) is that I do not think these things up, these stories and plays and novels, and then decide to write them down. I do not plan what I create. Nor do I consider anything I’ve ever done wasted effort. What happens for me, and has been happening since I was a little boy, is that I hear a story being told to me and I see a movie unfurling as I hear the words, and my mission, if I choose to accept it, is to transcribe what I’m experiencing as vividly and musically as I can. I say musically because my taste runs to prose that swings to consistent and compelling rhythms.

I have written other sequels to other books I’ve published, though I have yet to publish a sequel, so I certainly understand the concern of the pragmatic sector of my brain as it worries about the aging corpus laboring over a saga that may never be published and may never bring us money or something we can trade for food and shelter. And if that’s the case, why bother? In all honesty, I bother because despite the latest data from my personal commerce department, I find the thickening plot and the seductive characters irresistible and I can’t wait to read what I write down next. I’m hooked.

When I lived in Berkeley some years ago I was in range of three or four radio stations that presented bestselling and/or academically anointed fiction writers talking about their latest books and their lives and how they went about writing. Some of these writers spoke at length about what their books meant, which always made me uneasy. Even more disturbing to me was that the vast majority of these writers claimed to know what they were going to write before they started writing. They actually thought things out ahead of time and got their ducks in a row in a barrel before they started shooting. They said things like, “I thought I’d like to write a book about…” Or “I knew I could sell this if I set it in Venice and opened with a scene in which…” Or “Gardening and cooking and infidelity are all the rage right now, so I decided…” All of which were ways of thinking I considered antithetical to originality and intuitive creativity.

But as depressing as all that intellectual hoo ha was to me, the thing almost all of them did that made me want to smack them with a bamboo pole, was to claim they were speaking for other writers. They would employ phrases such as “every serious writer eventually discovers…” or “of course any good writer will tell you…” or “the best writers always…” or “one should never…” and many other repulsive and stupid things; thus I surmised their books would be poo poo.

So what does that have to do with me writing a sequel to my virtually unknown novel? Everything! And should I ever be asked to speak about my writing process, I will say essentially what I’ve just written here, though I will do my best to let my characters speak for themselves.

A Brief Excerpt From the Sequel to Under the Table Books

Natasha—tall, brown, graceful, and vastly pregnant—stands behind the bookstore counter reciting the lyrics of the Under the Table Books anthem to Hansel and Gretel Hosenhoffer of Stuttgart, a middle-aged couple in heavy gray tweeds blowing through California on a whirlwind tour of esoteric bookstores of the western hemisphere—Hansel sporting an ebony monocle, Gretel wearing a necklace of tortoise shell reading glasses.

“All books are free,” intones Natasha, her voice deep and sonorous. “If you want to leave something you value as much as the book you’re taking, cool. Have a book you don’t want? Drop it on by. And don’t get us wrong. We enjoy receiving stacks of quarters and piles of dollar bills. We delight in all forms of currency, including tasty comestibles. Yes, and keep those potted plants coming. May all beings be well read.”

Hansel Hosenhoffer frowns quizzically. “From zis you make a living?”

“Amazing but true,” says Natasha, resting her hands on the drum of her belly, her soon-to-be-born baby kicking gently in 4/4 time. “The kindness of book lovers knows no bounds.”

Gretel Hosenhoffer smiles in mild horror at the foundational implications of the anarchist bookstore. “But how does anyone determine the worth of anything?”

“Your guess is as good as mine,” says Natasha, moving out from behind the counter to join Bobo in the Reading Circle where he has been waiting patiently for her to read to him from his current favorite book The Adventures of a Naughty Boy Named Knocker and His Trusty Sidekick Poo Poo Head.

The bell above the door jangles and Iris Spinelli dashes in out of the rain. A spry ninety-four, her curly white hair sprinkled with gold glitter, her leotard blue, her slender frame draped with seven purple scarves, Iris is wending her way home from the weekly gathering of the Society of Impersonators of Famous People (formerly the East Side Philatelists Association.) Iris is currently impersonating the interpretive dancer Isadora Duncan (1878-1927). Last week she was the movie star Claudette Colbert (1905-1996).

“Z around?” asks Iris, going up on her toes to kiss Natasha’s cheek. “How’s baby today?”

“She’s a busy girl,” says Natasha, smiling down at her swollen belly. “Z gets home tomorrow from the Frankfurt book fair. Having way too much fun, if you ask me.”

“All morning,” says Iris, gazing into Natasha’s eyes, “I’ve been hearing a fabulous three-part harmony for The Look of Love. You and me and Z.”

“Let’s do our parts now,” says Natasha, lowering herself into a big armchair. “So when Z gets home, we’ll have it down.”

Iris smiles sublimely and hums a warbling note to set the key. Natasha breathes deeply of the trembling tone and eases into harmony with Iris—every molecule of the old building vibrating in sympathy with Iris’s quavering alto and Natasha’s superlative soprano, the blend of their voices unspeakably sweet.

Hansel and Gretel look up from their respective books—he leafing through Goethe, she inhaling Rilke—each moved to tears by the unfettered magnificence of the choir of two.