Life Lessons

There’s always something to learn, always wisdom you have not yet acquired.  Wisdom that, over my life, includes things like: you’re never the toughest guy in the room, there’s always a catch, and — my personal favorite — tequila does not make you more attractive.

It’s always good when you can add to that accumulated wisdom.  That’s what growing and learning is all about, isn’t it?

Uhh…

Not so much, sometimes.  Not when you’re five miles into your hike … not when you’re four miles off the nearest trail … not when you’re in the most active grizzly habitat within 500 miles … not when you finally figure out that maybe having the extra-spicy curry last night wasn’t the best idea in the world…

Have you ever tried to keep your eyes and ears peeled for a wandering grizzly when your, err, “guard” is down?

Write what you know, they say.  That unfortunately is the kind of thing I know.

Ahem.

On a more cheerful — and totally unrelated! — note, a German court decided the other day that a hangover officially qualifies as an illness.  You gotta love the Germans!  Now if only that ruling had been around when I was young, I wouldn’t have had to lie to my bosses quite so often…

img_0011Not that I would ever do that.  Of course not.  I would never spend the night with friends drinking beer and scotch in the back of a brewery.  Just like I would never call in to work the next morning with “food poisoning.”  Just what kind of slacker do you think I am, anyway?!

There are, of course, plenty of writing-centered life lessons to learn, as well.  I’m not going to put together a big list of those for this post, mostly because I want to focus on one in particular: you can never make everyone happy.

If you try, by the way, you will ruin not just your story but yourself, too.

Now, I have to give that little writing lesson some context, I suppose.  You absolutely do have to keep your intended audience in mind when you write.  Back when I used to train and teach salespeople, one of the things I stressed was always remaining focused on who and what was your victim…err, client.  If you thought only about what you needed as a salesperson, you were guaranteed to fail.

You wouldn’t write about drugs and despair and nihilism if your intended audience was my father…  (Less Than Zero)

You wouldn’t write about violence and an unhealthy urge to belong if your intended audience was pre-schoolers…  (Fight Club)

You wouldn’t write about suffering and death and mass murder if your intended audience was middle and high schoolers…  (The Boy In The Striped Pajamas)

Uhh…

Here’s the thing, that little nugget of writing “wisdom” I mentioned above?  It applies to us writers…but only to an extent.  There was a great quote from S.E. Hinton a while back.  A high school girl at a Q&A event stood up and told her, “I got suspended for reading The Outsiders in class.”

Hinton looked back and gave her a smile, “I got the same thing for writing it in class.”

The Outsiders gets attacked — still! — on a regular basis for being “inappropriate” and “immoral” and for breaking all the then-current rules of convention and society.  It should never have worked, according to the experts of the day.  No one at the time thought kids were capable of reading something like that without turning into criminals and thugs.

It is also one of the greatest examples of a writer who truly did know her audience — far, far better than did the “experts” of the day.

Hinton didn’t worry about making everyone happy, she worried about making herself — and her audience, her real audience — happy.  And it kinda worked out okay…

On the other hand, when a writer crosses the fine — not to mention hard-to-detect — line between knowing their audience and pandering to them, they have abandoned all hope of creating a story that matters.  Worse still is when a writer panders not to their audience, but to the conventions and mores of, well, any of the closed, insular little worlds into which our society has split.

There are all kinds of “tests” out there for creative works; progressive tests, conservative tests, religious tests, secular tests, pacifist tests, violent tests…  Shit, there are even freaking vegan and omnivore tests!  When you are more worried about “passing” those tests than about writing your story, you have fallen into pandering.

Similarly, when you are more worried about keeping your audience “happy” than writing your story, you are equally pandering.

The Boy In The Striped Pajamas didn’t seek to keep the audience happy, it sought to make them uncomfortable as hell.  It sought to bring education and enlightenment through tears.  Just as, with The Outsiders, Hinton didn’t worry about making anyone happy, she sought only to tell the story that was so clear in her mind.

F77E4C05-C9E1-4393-A7E1-E4B670582209One of my all-time favorite movies is Au Revoir, Les Enfants.  Malle didn’t worry about his audience, or his producers, or the studios…he told his story, his coming-of-age autobiography.  And its last scene, the one people thought was “too sad” and “too depressing”, is what will truly stick with you.  It is that final image — that final, screw-you-I’m-doing-it-my-way image — that moves the film from “very good” to “truly great”.

*By the way, I once mentioned the concept of “story creep”…of the impulse to bring in thoughts and ideas that have nothing to do with the actual story at hand.  The same 72FFF94E-A47B-4DF8-8201-6C1D0B25C56Bproblem applies to this blog.  Thinking about the end of “Au Revoir” starts my squirrel-driven mind going down just all kinds of rabbit trails, especially about how to end a story or film with a truly impactful moment.  Without going too far off-point, or too deeply into the weeds, all I will say is if you want to know how to end a story, watch the brilliant “Ivan’s Childhood.”  Tarkovsky was a freaking genius.

I wish that lesson were easier for us writers to learn, not to mention to hold to.  Hell, I wish the industry itself were at all friendly to the concept.  But we struggle with it, and the industry is not.  All of the dynamics, in fact, push us to write our stories for others…to try to make everyone happy, except for ourselves.

We are not actors, to tell someone else’s story.

We are not pop singers, to perform someone else’s music.

We are writers, dammit.  If you can’t tell your own story — the story you want to create — what’s the freaking point?

I Don’t Do Nostalgia

Something scary happened to me the other day.  Now, I get disturbing and unsettling things fairly often, and I get irritating things every single day, but scary?  Not so much.

I was talking with an acquaintance.  Arguing, really.  It was a discussion about the best sci-fi TV series of all time.  Nothing unusual for me in a debate like; while I have strong opinions on shows I love and hate, I am always looking for ways to get another perspective, always willing to talk about shows and movies.

images-3.jpegIn addition to writing and music, I am also — if you haven’t guessed — a movie and TV nerd.  We all have regrets from when we we were young.  We all have those annoyingly nostalgic memories and thoughts of paths not taken.  Well, my biggest regret, my worst missed path, was in not following my love of cinematography and directing.  I worked in film/TV in high school, even did some in college, but I never trusted myself enough to pursue it.  Of course, I didn’t trust myself to pursue anything in that first stint in college…which is probably why I drank my way through it rather than study…

Ahem.  Never mind.  That particular little bit of random regret is most definitely not what I sat down to write about…

I’ll spare you all the gory details of the debate itself.  I mean, you already KNEW Deep Space 9 was the best of the Star Trek series, that the (relatively) recent re-make of V was muddled garbage, and that HBO’s Game of Thrones is better than the actual books right?  Right?!?  Of course you knew all that.

None of that was the scary part, anyway.  Want to know what the scary part was?  Firefly.

images-2.jpegFire-fucking-fly.

Not just one of my favorite sci-fi shows, it’s one of my favorite shows of any genre and any time period.  I mean, crap, it’s on my list with Twilight Zone, I Love Lucy, M*A*S*H and Cheers, for God’s sake…

And it’s better than fifteen years old.

FIFTEEN!

Holy shit…it feels like that thing just came out!  I mean…crap…I can still remember watching it when it when it was new!  Hell, I still binge-watch it at least once a year…

Fifteen years old.

The damned show can almost drive.  Pretty soon it’ll get married and have little baby shows!*  Crap, a barrel of scotch made when it premiered is just about ready to drink!

*Don’t I wish — Firefly’s tiny fourteen episode run is still far-too heartbreakingly short.

By the way, if you want a good lesson in the use of flashbacks and seemingly-random jumps in sequence and timing to tell a story, and to build pathos, watch the episode Out of Gas.  I’ve written before about learning from everything when it comes to writing, and I meant it.  Some of the most important lessons on writing and storytelling I’ve ever learned came from movies: Spielberg on foreshadowing, Hitchcock on tension and suspense, Scorsese on symbolism, Scott on mood and atmosphere, Singer on manipulating perception and expectations…I could go on for a long time, but I think I’ll save that digression for another time.

The original Star Trek is over fifty…Star Wars over forty…Blade Runner thirty-five…and none of that is quite so depressing as Firefly being fifteen.

Crap, I don’t do memory (when I can help it), and I avoid nostalgia like the plague…this is no freaking way to start a day…

***

Random musical interlude — nothing really to do with Firefly or the post I just wrote, nothing other than the fact that this particular song is one of the most evocative pieces I have ever heard.  I know it’s the key and the progression and the rhythm that all combine to evoke memory and nostalgia…I know that, but still it works:

The Mad King

I did something the other night that I generally avoid like the plague: program-surf on TV.  Now, I gave up cable/satellite years ago because I used to succumb all too easily to the urge to channel-surf for hours on end.  There is in fact no activity more pointless, nor pathetic, than channel surfing…

Nowadays, I generally go into Amazon Prime or NetFlix or whatever with at least some idea as to what I want to watch.  Whether it be some form of obscure movie, or binge-watching TV series, or getting into a documentary, I pretty much only turn the TV on when I have something resembling a purpose.

Usually…but not always.

So, there I was, blankly surfing the Amazon interface, looking for something — anything — to watch.  I tried a few shows, but nothing really worked for me.  Then…well…

A new production of King Lear with Anthony Hopkins?  Oh, hell, why not?

Now, I’m not the biggest Shakespeare fan in the world — I was forced to read too much of his stuff in high school and college to not harbor some (petty) resentment — but some of his works just have too meaning and import to ignore.  King Lear is one of “those” works with something to say…it has a very great deal to say, in fact.

I’m partial to good visuals and interesting retellings in my Shakespeare, rather than reproductions that are 100% true to what would’ve happened back in The Globe.  The best of Shakespeare’s works address modern, current issues just as much as they addressed the issues of his day.  Okay, so that was enough to hook me at the time.  Of course, as much as I love Anthony Hopkins, he was going to have some real work to do to keep up with my favorite versions/derivations of King Lear (King of Texas and Ran)…

Oh shit, did he keep up.

Actually, Hopkins did more than keep up, he freaking nailed it.

I love the juxtaposition of modern imagery and settings with the formal, rhythmic language of a Shakespeare play.  It worked with Romeo & Juliet a couple of decades ago (set in New York), and it worked even better with King Lear last night.  Oh, it ain’t always to watch — or understand — but it is powerful…

I could get into all the meaning and weight we attach to a play like Lear, into the arguments about rationalism versus emotion, or the needs of the individual versus the good of society, or the ravages of time and the limitations of love and family…  Crap, I could get into all of that, and more, and barely scratch the surface.  So I won’t…get into all that, I mean.

Also, I honestly do think that every work of true significance and power should be able to stand and communicate on its own.

king-lear-anthony-hopkinsWe all take different things from works like Lear, depending on our situations and experiences in life, and that’s the attraction of a good story/play/poem.  All I can really do is internalize my own personal reactions and interpretations, and encourage other folks to do the same.

So, if you’re bored and looking for one hell of a production of a weighty topic, dive in!

The Cutting Room Floor

Ugh…streaming video can be a dangerous thing.

In general, since I killed off cable, I watch much less TV…and I (usually) waste less time watching random crap that is of no real interest to me. On the other hand, I also have this nasty tendency to head down rabbit trails of binge-watching…

33B58394-E08D-4DEB-A984-5CECAADC751AI watched Stripes last night. Well, let me amplify that — I watched Stripes for about the 10,000th time. I can — quite literally — quote that entire movie, line by line, from beginning to end. So imagine my surprise when the version I was watching last night started throwing scenes at me that I had never seen before.

Wait…what the fuck?

This is Stripes, for God’s sake…nothing should surprise me about that movie!

I had to back out of the movie at that point and check out just what the hell was happening. I know I should be surprised that someone decided to put out an “extended cut” of a 30-year-old lowbrow comedy, but I’m not. Sadly, nothing about Hollywood’s money-grubbing desperation surprise me anymore…

NO! I am not giving in to that particular squirrel-moment! I have a post I want to write, dammit! This is NOT a Hollywood post, it’s a writing post!

Now, I should probably point out that I am in fact a fan of watching extended cuts and deleted scenes and the like. But I’m a fan of those things for different reasons than the studios and directors actually intend; I watch them not for “more,” but rather to study and learn and understand just why those scenes were not included in the movie in the first place.

Few movies benefit from the re-introduction of deleted scenes. Most, in fact, are made worse. It is that “made worse” that offers valuable insight and instruction for writers: Not every scene works…not every scene should be included.

Look, when we conceive and plan and write a story,* we are usually too damned close to the material to evaluate dispassionately just what scenes — and portions of scenes — work, and which drag the story down.

*I’m talking long-form stories here…100,000+ word novels.

C9143392-2DB6-4518-B184-63924E93FDE4In spite of all the revision and editing passes we do with our stories, that closeness to the story is why we still need good beta-readers. We need outsiders to point out just when a scene belongs on the cutting room floor.

The Stripes Extended Cut reinforced that reality for me. Without exception, the extra scenes I watched added absolutely nothing to the movie. Worse, they took away from it. At the end of that now-two-hour movie, I was less than impressed.

Of course, being a writer, I also took the opportunity to reflect not on the one-and-only shitty experience I’ve had with Stripes, but to focus on trying to evaluate my current scene-list for The Silence That Never Comes.

Somewhere Peaceful to Die, for a separate example, was by no means “long”, but it still held half-a-dozen scene-fragments that were — as was pointed out to me — better removed. But it took someone else to really point out that to me…I was too close to the material to say that to myself.

You can imagine my reaction to that advice to cut them…probably better than I can illustrate it. “But…but…but, this scene is important! It reinforces X about Character Y!”

You know what? That beta-reader/editor was 100% right. After I made the changes, the story did flow better. The cut scenes did drag things down, they did take away from the story itself.

Just like most deleted scenes.

So, for you other writers out there, I’ll offer this homework assignment: pick a handful of your favorite movies, and watch a video (YouTube is your friend on this) showing a roll of scenes deleted from it. Then think about how those scenes would change things, think about why the writers & director originally wanted them, then then why they chose to cut them.

Was the scene with Bill Murray and Harold Ramis dropping acid with Colombian guerillas funny? Kinda. Did it belong in the final version of Stripes? Not a chance in hell.

Look at my “homework assignment” and remember my oft-expressed lesson: writers need to learn from everything.