Tuesday, July 31, 2007

covering the past

For the past few months I’ve been increasingly aware of the ipod in my brain. At any given time an obscure song from the past whispers, clangs or rocks the sidewalls of my skull. For years, whenever I was anxious I found myself humming Christmas tunes. A sort of audio version of grinding my teeth. Instead of being self-soothing, the audible “Silent Night” or “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” was prelude to catapulting into a state of ill temper.

Not so when my playlist includes some obscure ballad from days of yore, such as “Billy, Don’t be a Hero,” or “The Night they Drove Old Dixie Down.” I find myself eager to whistle along or worse, belt out the occasional refrain with abandon. Maybe it’s the secularity of the tunes that eases me into this fuzzy state of goofiness. Maybe it’s a sort of memory lane wonderland divorced from the actual hell I must have been experiencing (given that the target date of most of these bubble-ups is smack in the middle of adolescence) at the time.

I like the notion that this braintrust exists, whatever the source. It gives me hope that somewhere in the archives I can pull up the German I knew fluently at age five, or maybe I can retrain myself to skateboard with proficiency once again. Right now? My storage system is serenading me with “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

Monday, July 16, 2007


Still in NY, just back from East 64th, where Kirk, Maggie, Carson and I did a short and dirty 20 hours in Gotham.

I brought along the beginning of my friend Tom Spanbauer’s latest work-in-progress, which is a craft book on Dangerous Writing. I’ve had the pages in my e-mail file for over two weeks. I had been saving the read for my NYC dip on purpose. To know why, you’d have to know Tom, and my history with Tom.

Like many of his students, I became utterly smitten with Tom within minutes of meeting him. His heart is that enormous. He wasn’t my first, nor my last writing mentor, but the profundity of his effect lingers like a scent from childhood: Ditto ink, say, or a beloved relative's kitchen. Tom’s epiphany about writing came to him while he lived in NY in the 80’s, and I knew that’s where he’d be going in his intro, so I waited until I was on sacred ground before losing myself in his philosophical scaffolding on what it is to write dangerously.

A few months ago I was invited to opine on a movie being made by Portland filmmaker Neal Corl. The movie is called Dangerous Writing. My initial thought was: Fuck, I have to stay away from this. Far, far away. I fancied myself some sort of Mata Hari, envisioned Tom getting wind of this, thinking that I might be appropriating his gig for some sort of narcissistic gain. Neal reassured me that the screenplay he’d written and the movie he was about to film were more about exploring his own teacher shadow-figure than deconstructing a popular writing teacher’s methods. What he wanted from me was reality check. A bit of advice from someone who’d studied minimalism and other writing workshop paradigms.

With quite a bit of trepidation I agreed to attend the initial on-set meeting. Amid the group of actors and crew he’d assembled on the set, Neal offered his interpretation of what it is to write dangerously. And he got it completely. The story he coughed up as example courted shame, remorse, sexuality and bad behavior. It did not apologize, was not sentimental and had that quality of spotlighting the place where you’d rather be anywhere else. I thought, Well, okay.

The spirit, the energy and intent of Neal’s approach was honest, and aligned with my experience of why artists , real artists, are compelled to look at the underbelly of humanity, starting with their own failures. The storyline of Neal Corl’s Dangerous Writing had nothing to do with Tom Spanbauer’s story. In fact, the main character, Ezra Rosen, is profoundly different in personality from Tom. But the intersection of humanity is glaring. The broken heart. The wounded grace.

What I came to during my limited involvement in Neal’s movie (I was on set twice, and offered only what I could rightfully claim as my own writing philosophies, leaving any of Tom’s lexicon out of the mix) was similar to the hit I just got reading Tom’s writing book draft, and that is this: storytellers are heroic. It is only through recognizing the heroism in telling an honest, dangerous and self-reflective story that we can assemble the context for purpose.

Go forth fellow storytellers, whatever your medium. We’re waiting.

Friday, July 13, 2007

watch hill

Just returned from the most vigorously inspiring journey! My friend Rachel is part owner of a mansion on the coast of RI. Kirk, Carson, Maggie and I were invited to partake in a Gatsby-esque summer home experience complete with salt sea air, the essence of unmitigated wealth and the company of charming heirs. Verklempt doesn't even touch it.

My new project is a fictionalized account of the family who has owned this place for more than half its life. Here's a tiny snippet:

Mr. and Mrs. Dick are dead. Your old-fashioned murder-suicide: bullet to the brain, bullet to the chest. The children were about, but the carnage was timed, as is often the case with well-thought-out homicides, to coincide with the imminent arrival of the housekeeper. The police followed shortly thereafter, having been tipped off by Mr. Sheldon Dick himself, who’d placed the call, speaking in the present tense of an act that had yet to occur.

I'm bombing along with a zeal I haven't had in months. I'm going to write this novel. It's too good, this backstory, to pass up!