Don’t say the old lady screamed. Bring her on and let her scream.
Don’t say the old lady screamed. Bring her on and let her scream.
Mario Puzo thought he was slumming when he wrote The Godfather. He was broke, an aspiring literary novelist with some respectful reviews but not many sales, and he hoped that a thriller about the mob might make a quick buck. … In fact, the writing of The Godfather released something fresh in Puzo’s imagination—a streak that was both potboilerish and also a little baroque—and if the result wasn’t “literary,” exactly, it was great pop fiction. … The director of those movies, Francis Ford Coppola, originally felt about them the way Puzo felt about his book; he considered them commercial hackwork compared with his more “artistic” films like “Rumble Fish” and “One From the Heart.” And as in Puzo’s case, that attitude actually proved liberating, enabling Mr. Coppola to adopt a style that was grander and more operatic—more “epic,” to use the Hollywood term—but also less arty and self-conscious than the one he used for his more personal projects. Mr. Coppola’s “Godfather” enterprise went off the rails in “Part III,” which came out in 1990, when self-importance again seemed to overtake him (along with his star, Al Pacino) and he was no longer in touch with the story’s roots in pop culture and gangster-movie mythology.
I suppose there is a more compelling case to be made for artistic ambition, but it is worth remembering that great, lasting work often comes when artists aim low.
The Atlantic has posted a series of remarkable photos of the Wright brothers’ early experiments in flight. Above:
First flight: 120 feet in 12 seconds, on December 17, 1903. This photograph shows man’s first powered, controlled, sustained flight. Orville Wright at the controls of the machine, lying prone on the lower wing with hips in the cradle which operated the wing-warping mechanism. Wilbur Wright running alongside to balance the machine, has just released his hold on the forward upright of the right wing. The starting rail, the wing-rest, a coil box, and other items needed for flight preparation are visible behind the machine. Orville Wright preset the camera and had John T. Daniels squeeze the rubber bulb, tripping the shutter.
Beginners sometimes ask me how a novel is written, the answer to which is: Any way at all. One knows only when it is finished, and then if one is at all serious, he will never do it the same way again.
Thomas Berger, author of Little Big Man
I don’t believe that poems are written to be heard, or as Mill said, to be overheard; nor are poems addressed to their reader. I believe that poems are a score for performance by the reader, and that you become the speaking voice. You don’t read or overhear the voice in the poem, you are the voice in the poem. You stand behind the words and speak them as your own — so that it is a very different form of reading from what you might do in a novel where a character is telling the story, where the speaking voice is usurped by a fictional person to whom you listen as the novel unfolds.
Melville’s original handwritten manuscript of Billy Budd (via). (Click image to view full size.)
The Back Bay in progress. Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, looking west toward the intersection of Dartmouth Street, ca. 1872. The photo seems to have been taken from the tower of the First Baptist Church, on the corner of Clarendon Street. From the wonderful Flickr stream of the Boston Public Library.
Brené Brown on dealing with critics real and imagined. Helpful advice for creatives of all kinds, writers included. Of course, the Teddy Roosevelt quote that was so meaningful to Brown, about “the man in the arena,” is one that every writer should keep close by, for those low moments.
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
Jad Abumrad, co-creator of Radiolab, puts a name to a familiar feeling, gut churn: “that radical uncertainty that you feel when you’re trying to work without a template, which is not something I think we as a creative community talk enough about: how crummy it feels to make something that’s new” (4:54). The suggestion that gut churn might actually be a good thing, a sign that what you are creating is truly new and original, is helpful if counterintuitive advice.
The writer’s job is to get the main character up a tree, and then once they are up there, throw rocks at them.
Everything good proceeds from enthusiasm. The sense of “I really want to know how this turns out” will drive you on through many, many long nights of no results, whereas the feeling of “I think I ought to do this” dries up very quickly.
The big mistake is to wait for inspiration. It won’t come looking for you. It’s not so much creating something, I think, it’s noticing when something is starting to happen — noticing it and then building on it and saying, “Okay, that’s new, that hasn’t happened before. What does it mean? Where can I go with it?”
I love this: George R.R. Martin writes his novels on a DOS-based computer using a vintage 1980′s word-processing program called WordStar. In this clip, he tells Conan that he actually has two computers, a modern one with an internet connection for ordinary tasks and an old DOS-based, web-free computer for writing. I do something similar, though my work computer is not quite as ancient as Martin’s. I have an old ThinkPad T23, one of the last ThinkPads made without built-in WiFi. It dates from 2001 or so. It has no internet access, and better yet it is heavy and battery life is awful, so it’s effectively immobile — it chains me to my writing desk. I write my novels on WordPerfect, a zombie word processor that I’ve been using since 1984, when my college roommate introduced me to it on his state-of-the-art Kaypro II computer. I have been a WordPerfect devotee ever since. Writers go to all kinds of extremes to seal themselves off from the insidious distractions of the web. I am surprised more don’t just use an old computer from the pre-WiFi era. In this case, less is more.