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.