One of the Keys to Writing – Location, Location, Location

Most recent incarnation of my work space

Most recent incarnation of my work space

I should never, ever bitch about my writing space; it’s off the hook. I have a private office in our house overlooking a beautiful lake that affords a decent (but not perfect) barrier between my terrorist children and my pain in the ass dogs. It’s warm, comfortable and should be very inspiring given the scenery and the fact quite a few literary greats have passed through this hamlet over the last century and a half. Sometimes when I look out my window I can see their spirits passing through and shaking their fingers at me “write, you lazy ass, write!” castigating my sorry butt as they fade off over the mountains.

Waking up to this every morning would be inspiring to most people.

Waking up to this every morning would be inspiring to most people. San Diego.

But, that ain’t the case and it hasn’t been in the last few houses we’ve been in where I have had the luxury of carving out a nice lair for myself in which to create prose for the ages. There was the rooftop apartment in San Diego that commanded an incredible view over Balboa Park, downtown San Diego and the big bay. After that it was the first place in Vermont tucked into the woods on a hill nestled in between a grove of mature oak trees so far from the road the silence was deafening. Then it was the home of a published and well-known author Joseph Olshan. Besides the remnants of a successful author’s aura wafting about in the air, that place had two awesome spots in which to wax and record my twisted thoughts. And, then it came around to this place, by far the best in the lot.

While these seemingly perfect spots provide a great place for the business of my writing: planning, editing, social media marketing, the writing of this blog, etc. The meat of my work gets done where it has always gotten done – the saloon. I’ve written in these here electronic pages before about the lubrication that gets my mind chugging along, but I haven’t mentioned where it all happens. Possibly, I haven’t brought it up because I don’t want to give off the wrong impression that I hang out in bars for days at a time on a literary bender. That’s not the case at all, in fact, I only need a couple of hours to produce about four thousand words – maybe not good ones every single time, but usually something that with a little work can prove to be the better fruits of my labor.

Where the magic actually happens.

Where the magic actually happens.

I find the din of a bar to be comforting. It’s just the right amount of noise, especially right around Happy Hour. And, as aforementioned, the comfort and effect of a martini or two helps relax the mind into that place where the cerebral jackhammers find the terrain more pliable and loose. The atmosphere strips away the thoughts that muddy up the creative process as well as the empirical distractions of home. There are no children interrupting the creation of the best sentence you’ve ever written with a shrill screech, or the begging for yet another treat. No dogs are barking at phantom burglars or to go out and sully the neighbor’s lawn. You just have strangers who couldn’t give a rat’s ass about the geeky guy furiously tapping away at the keys of the Mac Air and occasionally tipping back the perennially present up glass at its loyal perch far enough away from the laptop so as to avert disaster. Of course, if you’re like me and have a regular watering hole, the staff learns your pattern and knows well enough when to interrupt and when to leave you the fuck alone. Not like home where as hard as one may strive to set up rules – they’re always broken. “Dad, I want milk.” “Dad, Mom yelled at me!” “Dad, when are you coming down!” “Jason, these fucking kids are driving me crazy!” Ruff! Ruff! Ruff! Let me out or I’ll pee on your loafers!

The point of this sprawling diatribe is that where you write is important and if you can choose the location you are way ahead of the game and on your way to creating your best work. I knew a guy once who wrote on a seesaw with loose-leaf paper and a Bic pen. Nora Roberts wrote at an abysmally small desk in her kitchen as she watched her small children (couldn’t imagine that). Wherever it is, your space is important. If I had started this career earlier in life when I could be out and away from home with wild abandon, I know I would have legions of books out there already. Doesn’t mean they would be good – but, they would be out there.

Poetry Sucks – No, Wait, Does it?

Annabelle Lee

Annabelle Lee

The audio version of this post appears below. Just click on “play”.

 

I gave up reading poetry a quarter of a century ago, which is kind of ironic as the genesis of my writing passion grew from Edgar Allan Poe’s Annabelle Lee. When I was seven or eight, I made my mom read that damn thing to me over and over again. My mom was a real trooper as I spent hours asking her questions about what every single word meant and why Poe had chosen to arrange them the way he did. I realize that my love for a famous iconic poem doesn’t make me deep or intellectual, nor do I care. It would be far sexier if the writer’s spark had come from some obscure poet who killed him or herself by eating the only copy of their best opus and then aspirating on the vomit of their own words.

But, again, I don’t care. I just knew I wanted to learn how to string prose together like this guy did. Of course, that will never happen Poe was the master and I’m but a fan with a little imagination. As I went through school I suffered the same shit everyone does; Frost, Whitman, Yates…blah, blah, blah – searching for all the hidden meanings and trying to find some answers to life in general. I hated it. I’m not saying those guys don’t rock – I’m just saying it seemed a colossal waste of time trying to get into all these various heads.

At university I met tons of self-proclaimed poets none of which I became friends with. At that time, to me if writers were the gold standard of self-absorbed personalities then poets were the ones who set the standard. After awhile I coined the phrase “intellectual vapidity” and applied it to all the poets on campus. Then one night driving home from school, I heard some famous now dead poet on NPR saying how we all need poets to explain the universe to us. That everyone on the planet who was not a poet was somehow inferior and would struggle with our own existence until we take the big dirt nap. This guy probably thought we would struggle afterward as well.

Remember, I’m young at this point – twenty, or twenty-one at the most. So, I’m still impressionable and trying to feel my way up the slimy slope of life. I’ve never been one to judge too quickly or harshly and prefer investigating questions myself before rendering a decision on any given subject. Thus, I decided to write some poetry. I knew all the basic structures and understood everything from allegory to villanelle and since the white noise of ideas never shuts off in my head, I had plenty of material to forge into something hopefully readable.

After three weeks and exactly eighteen poems (I can still see the blinking MS/DOS prompt on my old Tandy computer), I re-read all of them and then called begging the NPR station to send me a tape of the interview with that nutty poet. I got it a week later, popped it into the player in my car on the home one night and listened to this guy’s pabulum once more. As soon as I got home, I looked at the printed out copies of my foray into poetry, neatly sorted them into a pile and placed the cassette from NPR next to them. I looked at the poems and said “you suck”, looked at the cassette and said “you suck even worse”, and then I ripped the pages into pieces and smashed the tape with a hammer, swearing to never attempt to write a piece of poetry, spend any time talking or arguing with a poet, and damning them all to hell. At twenty or twenty-one you feel like you have hell damning powers.

I’ve spent the last twenty-five or so years poetry free, being polite every once in a while when someone gifted me with a book of poems (usually Frost – easiest to find in the bargain bins, I guess) because the gift giver knows I love literature and trying hard not to grimace when someone told me they were a poet.

I’ve softened with age as one is wont to do and now have a still suspicious view on poetry albeit it a more embracing one. My good friend Ray Grant published a book of poetry a couple of years ago. You can find it here. Ray is someone I hold in the highest of regards, both as a thinker and all around Renaissance man. So, of course, I felt obligated to read his book (kidding Ray). I enjoyed reading Ray’s poems because I could relate the content to Ray as a person and my friend, and have gone back to his book on quite a few occasions. It’s also led me to be more receiving of other people’s works – although I do have to say, mainly of people who are not well known. I’m not sure what that phenomenon is, but I still find the classics boring and vapid. Maybe it’s just because I didn’t know those poets personally and thus couldn’t relate to what they were saying.

The point, if there were to be one is this: I’ve realized how personal poetry is and being the kind of person who loves nothing more than to entertain people with stories, I’m not ready to let the reading public into my most innermost thoughts and struggles. I’m giving poetry a stay of execution in my reading lexicon, but I still won’t be writing any poetry in the near future – or ever. Well, maybe as I’m about to take the dirt nap.

They Killed Brian!

RIP Brian Griffin

RIP Brian Griffin

Ok, so I go from Dick Gordon’s The Story going off air to a cartoon dog’s death on Family Guy. Hey, at least I have range.

Like most Family Guy fans, I’m completely distraught that Brian Griffin was axed off of my favorite adult cartoon. Family Guy has been a guilty pleasure of mine since it went on air back in 1999 and Brian the Dog was by far my favorite character. Who wouldn’t love a talking dog that drinks martinis and writes horrific novels? He also got the best lines in the show. Which brings me to why I like the show so much – the writing.

I can’t stand potty humor of which Family Guy is replete with, but when you put the slop through a figurative colander some really good juice comes out. The creator Seth MacFarlane is a brilliant writer and comedian and since he’s of my generation and comes from my home state, his pop culture references are totally relatable to me and bring back some great memories from my childhood. They once opened the show with the opening scene from The Great Space Coaster – I nearly bust a gut.

From what I understand, of all his characters Brian has the most characteristics of MacFarlane himself. I definitely see that and have watched both Brian and MacFarlane progress over the years. When Brian drank martinis, Seth drank martinis, when Brian switched to Scotch, Seth switched to Scotch. Brian is a tree hugging, pot smoking, Prius driving, womanizing Liberal and MacFarlane has never minced words on where he falls on the political and social spectrum and he’s rarely ever seen with the same woman. It was a very cool progression to watch – creator and character growing and becoming famous together.

The New Guy - Nothing Against Vinnie, But I want Brian Back

The New Guy – Nothing Against Vinnie, But I want Brian Back

I think from the brouhaha I’m reading in the news, blogs and on Facebook, Brian was certainly one if not, the most beloved character. So, why the hell would MacFarlane kill him off? I mean, this is a comedy after all, there’s no need to kill off a favorite character especially if he’s a cartoon dog. All I can think of is that it’s a “kill your darlings” situation. The producers said they wanted to “shake things up”. Well, they sure as shit have done that. A new dog “Vinnie” who also talks and has the voice and look of a New Jersey gangster voiced by former Sopranos star Tony Sirico, immediately replaced Brian. Kind of hacky, I think. I use the “kill your darlings” metaphor because I can’t help but wonder if MacFarlane is looking for a bigger challenge – like Brian was too easy to write, something like that.

I honestly don’t think this is going to work and cautiously predict a death knell for the show. Seth MacFarlane has made it no secret that he feels Family Guy should have jumped the shark five seasons ago, but insists on giving the fans what they want for as long as they want it. But, I have to wonder – is this what they want? I don’t. I want Brian back.

Farewell Dick Gordon – The Story Will be Missed

Dick Gordon - The Story

Dick Gordon – The Story

For the past month or so, I’ve been whining about Dick Gordon ending his APM production Dick Gordon’s: The Story. And, the fact is I’m already mourning it and the show has only been off air for a few days. Dick Gordon did something I find masterful and can totally relate to; he kept silent, letting his guests tell the story. Only prompting in between his questions when it was absolutely necessary, often creating huge amounts of dead air – something that goes against everything radio is about. Dead air is a death knell in radio, but Dick made it an art form. Not only did it force his guests to keep talking to fill the silence, it also created a cadence steeped in suspense for the listener.

In this modern world full of images, noise and cool technological devices aimed at grabbing our attention, Dick was able to create a sphere in which we happily used the mind in rapt unison with our ears to engage and be entertained by the stories of people from all walks of life. No images, no background score to intensify the mood, just great personal experiences told through the art of the spoken word. Oftentimes, I would listen to Dick in the car and would pull over because I found myself so captured by the story. A lot of times, I ended up going ten or twenty miles out of my way by accident!

There are far too few quality story-telling outlets on radio these days. At least, not the way Dick did it. Ira Glass does a great job with This American Life, but it’s not presented in the same casual free flowing manner like The Story. Certainly, a lot of people would say radio is dead anyway and that’s an understandable attitude given how interactive and personalized our entertainment choices have become. But, I think it’s sad. Maybe it’s because I’m a writer, maybe it’s because I’m becoming a curmudgeon, but I like being able to create scenes in my head to the words of someone else’s experiences. Even though I’m a visual guy by and large, having the option of being able to see someone else’s interpretation of a scene and creating my own has always been important to me. However, if the quality of radio programs isn’t there, then the landscape is barren and radio will die. That’s a horrible thought. Sure, you can buy a la carte on Sirus/XM or whatever other satellite feed becomes available. But what fun is that? Chasing content all over the radio dial is what makes the ultimate end so much more satisfying. (That’s definitely the aging curmudgeon talking right there.)

Last summer, Dick produced a series of authors reading their short stories on air. I was really entranced by a Ron Rash story Something Rich and Strange. This story, told by its author on air; to me, is far more gripping than it is on the written page. It’s 12 minutes long, but you have to listen to it. It will grab you. Here it is:

http://www.thestory.org/stories/2013-07/something-rich-and-strange

Dick has over two thousand stories on his website that the program produced during its time on air. I would highly recommend spending some time perusing through and enjoying his talent in bringing real, solid, interesting entertainment to your ears.

I Wish Robert Evans Was an Author

Robert Evans as Kid Notorious

Robert Evans as Kid Notorious

Ok, so technically Robert Evans is an author and I bet if he saw that tagline he’d defend his position as a published author by going into a huge self-aggrandizing yet bitingly self deprecatory explanation about all the success his book The Kid Stays in the Picture: A Notorious Life has had over the years. In fact, in his words: there has never been a more outrageous and unforgettable Hollywood memoir ever written. And, that’s why I wish he were an author.

Robert Evans is one of the best storytellers of the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Of course, all his stories are about himself, but they are fantastically woven into spellbinding accounts of Hollywood through his ever-present sunglasses. There has to be a lot of fiction laced in with his actual experiences – there just has to be. In lots of ways I compare him to Hunter S. Thompson – so over the top there’s no way it can all be true. But, we, the public don’t seem to care. We remain fascinated by people like Bobby and Hunter. Their outrageousness is so compelling they just cannot be ignored.

Just imagine if all that energy Evans used to create his public persona were directed towards fiction. I’ll bet Bob Evans could really pump out a great fiction piece if he had wanted to. Imagine all the material he would have to work with just based on his own career. All that actual Hollywood drama that could be exaggerated into gripping tales of everything we love to read about; sex, power, glamour, money, betrayal, Hollywood – shit, a treasure trove of ideas right there to be hammered down and forged into timeless stories that surely would pass seamlessly through the ages.

Here’s where I think the problem would lie; Evans wouldn’t be able to break out of himself. The man has been so caught up in himself all these years there’s no way in hell – to him anyway, there could possibly be a more interesting character than himself. Most authors will grudgingly admit under interrogation that a little bit of themselves resides in each of their characters. But, when you have a personality as robust as Bob Evans’s, I could see where it would be hard to create anybody even close to as interesting as himself. Maybe that’s ok, perhaps I’ve missed something here; Robert Evans’s world and his recounting of it could be all we need.

Insight from Anne Rice

Anne Rice

Anne Rice

I got lucky yesterday. I follow Anne Rice on Facebook not just because she’s one of my favorite authors, but also because she engages her fans and speaks directly to them. I think that’s really admirable and I enjoy getting insight into her personality and process.

So, yesterday Anne posted a link to an obituary for Syd Field. Field wrote what became known as the Screen Writers Bible back in early ‘70’s. I’ve heard of it but never read it. Anyway, here is what Anne posted on Facebook:

“In this obituary for Syd Field, there is much talk of his bible for screenwriters. Sounds like a book that might be an aid to novelists as well as those writing scripts. Comments welcome. I didn’t know Syd Field or know of him, but it sounds as if he made a very valuable contribution with his books; and surely many people will be ordering them today for the first time.”

I replied something to the effect that I couldn’t see how this book could aid me as it would probably change the tonality of my stories were I to follow it, but that I always try and make screen plays out of my short stories in case Hollywood ever calls. Lo and behold, she answered me! I was shocked and engaged her for another couple of posts. Here is how she replied:

“I don’t know about that. Sometimes these books can inspire. Years ago I read Aristotle’s formula for great drama — written for tragedy in Ancient Greece — and it inspired me mightily with my novel writing…something on the order of plot, character, spectacle — creating pity and catharsis. And voila. Interview with the Vampire.

I do think screen writing techniques can help a novel. One of the most popular novels I ever wrote — The Mummy or Ramses the Damned — started life as a long screenplay. I converted it into the novel in the space of a few weeks. The structure of my screen play — which was quite sloppy with notes and such — helped the novel to become a lightning read.”

First of all, I was in awe and amazement that I was actually conversing albeit electronically with the great author. If I were ballsier I would have tried to pitch 5 Tales, but I’m not like that anyway. I was just happy to glean any wisdom she was willing to impart.

I spent a lot of time yesterday thinking about what Anne said. My problem is I tend to be too technical when thinking about screenwriting as opposed to novel writing. The reason being as I’m writing, the scene is in my head but I’m less worried about characters’ stage direction, speech intonation, the scenery in general and am more involved in the meat of the story. Therefore, panic ensues when I think about writing backwards from a screenwriting standpoint. I would look at the physical format of the writing and be too worried about forming the character to the motion and flow in terms of the stage or set.

However, if you look at what Anne said, it makes total sense. It’s like looking at the story from the top down. Taking the drama and emotion of the stage/screen and injecting it into your writing makes perfect sense to me now that I think about it. Those screenwriting techniques Anne talks about and surely Syd Field teaches in his books could be just the salve needed to repair an injured piece of work. I have to give it a try. Lord knows I have plenty of unfinished novels to try it out on!

The Not So Great Gatsby

Just Awful

Just Awful

The audio version of this post appears below. Just click on “play”.

I just watched the most recent version of The Great Gatsby with Leonardo DiCaprio. I know, I know, I’m a little late to the party, but I wasn’t sure I even wanted to see it based on mixed reviews from friends as well as how fast the Hollywood sizzle petered out. I finally gave in having found myself with a couple of hours to kill and the need for a blog post topic. I wasn’t even through the first scene and I felt completely assaulted.

As far as I’m concerned, Hollywood can take wide berth when it comes to interpreting an author’s work. In fact, I look forward to seeing different interpretations of my favorite stories. I know some people take offense when their beloved storylines get messed with, but not me, not at all. If I ever get big enough for someone to actually want to make a movie about one of my works – I seriously would look forward to seeing what they would do with it. Art is art, it should be fluid and pliable and fans of it must be willing to keep an open mind. I’ve only recently been able to do that and it’s made the experience of watching movie adaptations much more enjoyable.

But, this was an abomination of the largest order.

Much Better

Much Better

I feel completely assaulted and have no doubt Fitzgerald is spinning in his little Maryland grave. A whole generation of people will now go around with this ridiculous version of one of the best pieces of American literature ever created. Instead of getting the realistic view that the 1974 version of the film laid out – millions of people are walking around thinking that the twenties rolled out like a decades long P. Diddy white party and Gatsby was some kind of glorified MC. Which leads me to the most insulting aspect of the whole film – the music.

Holy hell what were these people thinking? When you tell a story, especially a period piece, the scene you are setting up needs to be true to the times and nothing is more important than the score in doing that. You want to fuse rap with jazz? Do it in a studio and play it in a club – don’t fuck up a masterpiece of a story.

The film process wasn’t much better. Gatsby wasn’t a graphic novel – I felt like I was watching Sin City; at any moment expecting Marv to come out and kill someone by tying them to the fountain and having a pack of wiener dogs gnaw at their ankles while we got a couple more cheesy shots of NYC in the background up over the top of the Gatsby manse. Which if you watched closely and know how a compass works – would have been Havana, not New York.

If I really wanted to go off on the casting, I could write for hours but let’s just take the most egregious mistake. Who in their right mind EVER thought a young Sam Waterston could be replaced by that hack Maguire? That was the most important role in the whole film. Talk about a miss. I should add, I felt the same way about Mia Farrow in the first film – she sucked.

Anyway, I have to stop myself before this becomes way too long-winded and even angrier than it already is. This was a train wreck and never should have happened. Erasing it from my brain is going to be rough. I thought maybe I would read the book and then watch the original movie with Redford because that might be good therapy, but this movie makes me not even want to re-visit the story. Maybe in a couple of years, I’ll be ready, but right now I need to forget about it.