Thursday, June 29, 2017

Memories of the Summer of Love in San Francisco, 1967

I started hearing about the hippies in San Francisco in the mid-1960s when I was a teenager living in New York City. I mostly knew about the hippies from reading Ramparts, a political and arts magazine based in San Francisco. I devoured each issue of Ramparts that arrived in the mail, with its articles and photos on the radical experiments in lifestyles taking place in the Bay Area. I read about the collective called the Diggers distributing free food. I dug the solarized, DayGlo posters for the Fillmore Auditorium’s rock concerts with the letters rippling like flames. I saw the long hair for women and men and the loose-fitting garments made from paisley Indian bedspreads. The more I saw in Ramparts and heard about on the news, the more I was hooked. I had to experience all of it firsthand.

Rock poster, San Francisco, 1960s
I was only 15, but I had a mom who was an unusual free spirit. It didn’t take too much convincing to get her to agree to leave New York and spend June, July, and August in San Francisco in 1967. I might be the only person who went to the Summer of Love with his mother.


The Rogow family in 1967
My mother, my sister, and I arrived in San Francisco in early June with no clear idea of where we would stay. We found a hotel room near Union Square when we first arrived, but that proved extremely expensive. Our search in the San Francisco Chronicle for short-term rentals didn’t yield any results. Wandering around North Beach one day, we happened by chance to pass the office of Ramparts magazine. On an impulse we went inside and my mother asked the receptionist if she knew of any places for rent for the summer. It turned out the receptionist had an apartment nearby on Leavenworth Street at the top of Russian Hill, and offered to rent it to us for the summer, while she moved in with her boyfriend. Kismet!

You don’t hear much about this in the nostalgic recollections of the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love, but it turned out that the hippie movement had pretty much peaked in San Francisco by  June of 1967. Many of the original hippies had left the increasingly violent drug scene in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood to move to communes in the country. Haight Street itself was bumper-to-bumper with rubbernecking tourists gawking at the latter-day hippies who were still in town, hawking copies of the San Francisco Oracle and the Berkeley Barb alternative newspaper to sightseers. There were head shops selling posters of Che Guevara and the guy on the Zig Zag rolling papers package, who looked strangely alike.

We went to the opening of a show by the artists who created the rock posters for the Fillmore Auditorium: Stanley Mouse, Victor Moscoso, and others. I idolized those artists and their rippled lettering that was like a secret code you had to learn by training your eyes to see the negative spaces. By the Summer of Love, though, those artists were selling their work in a fancy Union Square gallery, sitting in the back yakking about how much they were charging for their surrealist collages.

You could smell the pot in the air in Golden Gate Park, but beyond that, you could smell the freedom in the air. You could dress any way you liked (although the hippie rejection of style involved a style of its own). You could also love anyone you liked, and you could give things away for free (definitely verboten in the consumer culture of the U.S.A. post-World War II). At the Fillmore Auditorium, you could dance in a strange, unchoreographed way, wheeling your arms in the air and jumping up and down, while blobs of colored oils throbbed on the walls in a projected light show.

I remember my mother taking me to a gay bar on Grant Street (how many moms took their teenage sons to gay bars, especially in 1967?). We watched as two men partner danced to the tune of Santana’s “Black Magic Woman.” I’d never seen a gay couple dance together before—that was also eye-opening. We heard the Grateful Dead and Country Joe and the Fish playing free concerts in the parks.

My sister briefly dated the son of Harry Bridges, the leader of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, so a whiff of the militant labor history of San Francisco also reached us. We socialized with the family of Earl Conrad, a radical novelist and nonfiction writer who lived with his wife in a very urban apartment in the Tenderloin neighborhood. We had met Earl in New York when he was researching a book that mentioned my dad, also a writer.

The author Earl Conrad
Evenings we often took the N Judah trolley all the way to the end of the line near the beach, to watch foreign films at the now-defunct Surf Theatre, a great old neighborhood movie house from the 1920s that showed the innovative flicks of Bergman, Fellini, and the Italian avant-garde directors. The impenetrable fog at night in that part of the city resembled an apocalyptic landscape out of an Antonioni film.


That first glimpse of the West of the United States was an eye-opener for me. It wasn’t that New York was devoid of culture and liberty—just the opposite. But something different was happening on the West Coast, a new kind of freedom that made for a bubbling arts and literary scene, more open to new ideas and lifestyles and to the cultures of the Pacific Rim.

For me as a writer, that summer was formative because it gave me the sense that the old culture and politics were crumbling, particularly in the face of the Vietnam War and the rebellions in the ghettos of the United States. Despite the commercialization of hippie art and fashions, there was a shared sense that a new and more liberating culture was being created. The literature that we read in school was fine, but it wasn’t the fiction and poetry that the current era demanded. That was still to be invented. The sense of openness was enormously empowering.

One thing I came to recognize only much later about the Summer of Love and the hippie movement was that they were the continuation of centuries of social and artistic experimentation. From the French Enlightenment, to the commune in the Lake District that Wordsworth and Coleridge founded, to the utopian socialist philosophies and phalansteries of the mid-nineteenth century, to the free-form designs of art nouveau, to the international Arts and Crafts movement, to the bohemian lifestyles of the Left Bank and Greenwich Village, to the Bengali renaissance and the mysticism of Sri Aurobindo, the roots of the Summer of Love went very deep into culture and history.


If many of us had known that in 1967, or been willing to acknowledge that our New Age and New Left culture and politics were part of a long and rich legacy that had its ups and downs throughout history, I think it would have been easier to sustain the momentum of the 1960s for radical political, social, and artistic change. As it was, that momentum began to decline even as it peaked in 1968, the year that Richard Nixon was first elected president of the United States. Very soon, there was a mass exodus from the Counter Culture of the 1960s back toward the status quo and consumer culture. I hope that the revival of interest in the Summer of Love on its 50th anniversary will encourage new forms of social and artistic experimentation that will continue the legacy of social, personal, artistic transformation.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration

Monday, May 8, 2017

Nicholas Nickleby: or, There’s More to a Story Than the Plot

A relatively early novel by Charles Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby doesn’t have a well-oiled plot, unlike many of the author’s creations. In a work such as Great Expectations, published twenty-two years later, Dickens creates suspense right from the very first chapter, and then the reader is swept along in the fast-flowing river of the story all the way to the end. Nicholas Nickleby lacks that current of suspense. I think it’s fair to say that the reader’s emotional investment in the outcome of the plot doesn’t become much of a factor until a couple of hundred pages into the book.

Charles Dickens in 1839, around the time he wrote Nicholas Nickleby
Most of the numerous characters in Nicholas Nickleby also lack the complexity of Abel Magwitch in Great Expectations, for example, who starts out as the scariest and creepiest figure in the book, and evolves into perhaps the most sympathetic. The characters in Nicholas Nickleby are relatively flat, either all good or all bad, and they change little over time. The handsome and beautiful characters are universally good, and the ugly ones are all bad—very predictable

And yet…the book held my interest throughout. When I ask myself why, I think it’s partly because Nicholas Nickleby is Dickens’s funniest novel. The satire is so daggered, the narrator always means the exact opposite of what he says, using comically grandiose diction. It is laugh-out-loud funny in so many places, and there are chuckles throughout. Here is Dickens’s initial description of the evil miser, Ralph Nickleby, older brother of the protagonist’s father:

Ralph, the elder, deduced from the often-repeated tale the two great morals that riches are the only true source of happiness and power, and that it is lawful and just to compass their acquisition by all means short of felony.

Dickens’s portrayal of almost limitless greed of some businessmen in 19th century London feels all-too contemporary today.

Even the names of the characters are sometimes hilarious, including the self-important actress Miss Snevellicci. Every time Nicholas Nickleby’s mother opens her mouth, the reader has to laugh at the strange meanderings of her mind (apparently based on Dickens’s own mater familias). Mrs. Nickleby always seems to get distracted by irrelevant details and to miss the main point of her own remarks. Here is Mrs. Nickleby’s attempt to explain why she believes her daughter, Kate, is very intelligent:

I recollect when she was only two years and a half old, that a gentleman who used to visit very much at our house—Mr. Watkins, you know, Kate, my dear, that your poor papa went bail for, who afterwards ran away to the United States, and sent us a pair of snow shoes, with such an affectionate letter that it made your poor dear father cry for a week. You remember the letter? In which he said that he was very sorry he couldn’t repay the fifty pounds just then, because his capital was all out at interest, and he was very busy making his fortune, but that he didn’t forget you were his god-daughter, and he should take it very unkind if we didn’t buy you a silver coral and put it down to his old account?

None of this has anything to do with whether her daughter Kate is intelligent, and not only that, Mrs. Nickleby seems completely unaware that Kate’s so-called godfather is a con man. The book is peppered with wonderful comic bits like this, and those moments are part of what sustains the reader until the plot finally kicks in.

The other affecting part of Nicholas Nickleby is Dickens’s exposé of corrupt Yorkshire boarding schools where unwanted boys were dumped, forgotten, and abused. 


This part of the novel is linked to the most interesting character, Smike. The young man Smike has been so brutally treated in the boarding school where he works almost as a slave that he has lost much of his ability to think and feel for himself. And yet he is doggedly loyal to Nicholas and his sister, and has an instinct for the good despite his lack of mental acuity. The cleverest part of Dickens’s plot is the way he makes Smike seem as if he is a completely peripheral and minor character, but eventually Smike becomes the trigger of the book’s climax.


The takeaway for me as a writer, reading Nicholas Nickleby, is that there is more to a story than the plot. There is the voice of the author, the writer’s sense of humor and satiric wit, and the heart of the writer as s/he sympathizes with the characters and analyzes society’s flaws. All of those, while not enough to make a long novel work by themselves, are more than enough to keep the reader going at moments when the plot lags, especially if that writer is Charles Dickens.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Is There Still Such a Thing as a "Draft" of a Piece of Writing?

I would call a “draft” of a literary work any version that is finished in a preliminary way. Usually, writers create multiple drafts of a work before they consider it finished.

But do “drafts” still exist in the digital age, when new versions are rarely printed out? For longer works, certainly. For a work such as a novel or a book of nonfiction, a draft can take years to create or revise. A novelist or nonfiction writer may spend a year or two writing the first draft, ask for comments from writer friends, work on a second draft for a year more, send the text to an agent, and spend months working on a third draft that incorporates the agent’s comments. That is a fairly typical writing process for full-length prose works.

But for shorter works, such as poems, short stories, or blogs, drafts have almost ceased to exist in the digital age. The concept of a draft dates back to the pre-digital era, when you had to write or type everything by hand, and every draft existed on a separate sheet or sheets of paper. But even in those bad old days, each draft had notes that were scrawled in the margins or between lines, Inserts A and B added on extra pages, etc. So one “draft” was in reality many drafts.

For shorter works, such as a poem or a blog, every time you open a file, make a change, and hit Save, you’ve created a new draft. There is rarely such a thing as a draft anymore in the old sense of a newly printed or handwritten copy. Or rather, every version, even a digitally printed version, is actually a draft, since it so easy to change text even once it has been published, if it’s online.

What does this mean for writers of short works, that there are no longer drafts, or that works are perpetually in progress? On the one hand, it gives a writer a sense of freedom that s/he can make changes so easily. It’s as if a sculptor could work in magical clay that’s perpetually wet and never dries until you want it to. There’s much greater fluidity and flexibility now for writers, and that situation is highly conducive to creativity, which usually requires experimentation.

On the other hand, with text being so fluid, there is little incentive to polish writing to perfection. Rarely is a version considered final. There’s also not the same sense of progressive steps in the writing process. There is no longer physical evidence of the various stages that a work has undergone, the way there used to be a paper trail of all the drafts of a poem, for example.


Is it a good thing that writers now work in a much more fluid medium, where it’s easier to make changes, but more difficult to see a work as final, as finished? I’m not sure it’s better, but it certainly is a different process for writers of short works. In a way those changes mirror what has happened in the realm of relationships—there is much more fluidity now in relationships than there has been in recent centuries, but there is less of a sense of each stage of courtship, with the progression of steps leading to a final resolution.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration

Saturday, April 1, 2017

The Problem for a Writer of Having Too Many Talents and Interests

Many people in the arts have numerous talents and interests. In addition to writing, you might enjoy quilting, or playing an instrument, or you might be a good painter or dancer. In some ways it’s a blessing to enjoy numerous arts, in some ways it’s a problem.

In my early twenties I studied many different arts and crafts. I took classes and learned some skills from friends. I enrolled in a pottery class where I tried to master the skill of knowing how a glaze would look after it was fired. I sketched models from life endlessly, trying to perfect my technique with a charcoal crayon. I even had a business with my friend Flip tying macramé purses and chokers.

I was also writing and at the same time translating French poets during this period, but my role models were artists who did not specialize in one art. I admired William Blake, who created engravings to go with his poems, and DanteGabriel Rossetti, the Pre-Raphaelite artist who wrote poems to accompany his paintings.

Rossetti's poem, "The Blessed Damozel," illustration by Kenneth Cox
Even though writing and literature excited me, like many people in the arts, I didn’t want to be strapped down to one discipline. In my case, this was partly because my father had been a widely published writer of short stories and reviews, and I didn’t want to be measured against the yardstick of his success.

At this time I was also taking classes in modern dance and ballet at the gym of my college, working at the barre in not weather with sweat gushing down my brow. (Some ballet teachers can be tougher than marine drill sergeants!). I was making pretty decent progress, and being the only male in most classes, I got a lot of attention.

Then one day, a new person entered the dance classes: Berat. He was an engineering student from Turkey, and he had never had much formal instruction in dance. Berat’s progress was amazing. He took every possible class he could fit into the schedule of his engineering studies, always arriving early or staying late to work in the mirror to check his form on the pliés. In a few months, Berat had surpassed all the other students. He was a natural. One day, Berat was gone. I asked the teacher what had happened to him. She said Berat had moved to New York, where he had auditioned for a dance company that was interested in hiring him, if he took a few more classes.

That made me pause. Yes, I was fairly good at modern dance, pottery, macramé,life drawing. But was I progressing at a pace that would allow me to make an original and professional contribution to the art, the kind of pace Berat had set? In every case, I had to answer no. Except possibly in writing.

Writing was the one art I was trying to avoid. But writing came naturally to me. I had to work at it, and work incredibly hard, but I was continually moving forward in my practice of the craft. I couldn’t say that about the other arts I was dabbling in. I was spreading myself thin, and as a result, nothing I was doing in any art or craft had much depth. 

I realized that I wanted to be an artist not just for fun—though it was great fun when it went well, more fun than anything else I’d done. I wanted to be an artist to make a contribution to the river of culture, and even if that contribution was only a few drops, I wanted it to be the best I could give. I saw that I would have to specialize to get good enough to make an original contribution that might have a chance of mattering to others, not just to myself and a few friends.

Even within the literary arts, a writer has to specialize. Yes, there are some authors who can write plays, poems, short stories, novels, libretti, and more. But not many. Most of us have to specialize in order to get good at a genre. Again, it’s partly what comes naturally, and partly what you want to work at. 

I don’t know if Berat ever became a professional dancer in New York. But I admire that he tried to make the grade, that he knew right away that dance was the discipline he needed to focus on. That type of single-minded focus doesn’t come easy to many creative people, who by nature like to experiment,. But that kind of focus often makes the difference between a dilettante and an artist. 
  
Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Writers and Collaboration, Part 4: Choosing Your Collaborators

A key factor in a writer working successfully with other artists is for the author to select good collaborators. To do that, you have to use a certain amount of objectivity, a kind of objectivity that does not always come easy to writers. Writers are emotional. We tend to lead with our feelings, not our rational minds. Feelings are a good guide in choosing collaborators, but they have to be steered by an objective appraisal of what would or would not produce a good work of art.

First of all, don’t choose a collaborator simply because that person is someone you love or like a lot. Yes, it’s great to work with people you care about, but your eight-year-old’s adorable drawings are probably not going to be the best illustrations for your writing. The last time a writer collaborated with his or her child to produce a great work of art was…well, I can’t think of any.

Likewise, spouses and best friends are not always the ideal collaborators. Most of us don’t choose our friends and loved ones for their artistic talent. Not only that, it’s difficult to judge objectively the work of those we love. There are many examples of writers collaborating well with their friends—the surrealist group in Paris, for instance, produced numerous amazing collaborations, such as the movie L’Étoile de mer by Man Ray based on a poem of Robert Desnos, or the wonderful lithographs that the artist Joan Miró created for poems by André Breton in the series called Constellations.


The photographer Alfred Stieglitz did a terrific series of portraits of his partner Georgia O’Keeffe, incorporating her paintings and sensibility in several of the photos. 

Alfred Stieglitz photo with Georgia O'Keeffe's hands and horse skull
But not all of us have friends as talented as Man Ray, Joan Miró, or Georgia O’Keeffe. If you do have a friend or spouse who is artistically accomplished, great! Collaborate with her or him. But don’t expect emotional closeness alone to produce a successful collaboration.

I think it’s often wise to choose as a collaborator an artist whose work you admire, but don’t necessarily socialize with. You might get to be friends in the course of your collaboration, but that’s not a crucial part of the process. The important factor is that you appreciate each other’s work, and that your artistic styles, themes, and visions harmonize and combine well together.

It’s also advisable to choose an artist who is at least as accomplished in his or her own domain as you are in yours. You want to grow as a writer in the collaboration, to learn from the artist(s) you’re working with. That’s not going to happen if the artist you’re collaborating with is much less seasoned than you are. In fact, choosing a collaborator who is not as accomplished as you are could produce a work of art that is not as effective as your own work, which doesn’t do much for your development as a writer.


The more I work with other artists, the more I feel that personality is also an important factor in choosing a collaborator. When I first began collaborating, I didn’t care about temperament. I just wanted to work with artists I admired. I realized through a series of negative experiences that the stress of working with someone who is difficult or egotistical or just plain selfish is not always worth the result, even if it ends up as a successful collaboration artistically. I know this seems to contradict what I just said about not choosing your friends as collaborators. I do think there is a happy medium, where you work with collaborators you admire and like, but who are not necessarily the people you are closest to.

Writers and Collaboration, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Steve Bannon on the Culture and Reason for Being of the United States—A Different View

In his talk to the Conservative Political Action Committeein National Harbor, Maryland, on February 23, 2017, White House chief strategist Steve Bannon said about the United States, “We are a nation with a culture and a reason for being.” Oddly enough, I agree with the ultra-conservative Bannon on this point—but I completely disagree with his definition of the culture and reason for being of the United States.

I think that Bannon and Trump believe in a culture of the U.S. that is dominated by one group—white Christians. In fact, their directives are all aimed at creating a world lorded over by nations where white Christians rule. Every one of their policies points toward this: the travel ban on six predominantly Muslim countries, the denial of the Black Lives Matter movement in favor of a blanket law-and-order policy, the expulsion of immigrants from Latin America who have put down deep roots in the United States, the building of a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border, the embrace of Vladimir Putin and his authoritarian state in Russia. Clearly the “reason for being” of the United States in the mind of Steve Bannon is to for white Christians to predominate in America and globally.

What is the alternative to this culture and nation of white Christian domination? There is another concept of the United States that generations of Americans have been working toward, from the white-dress demonstrations of the suffragettes, to the pro-union strikers who occupied the GM plant in Flint in 1936, to the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt, to the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, to the Native American encampment resisting the Dakota Access Pipeline. That idea of the United States is one based on the most enlightened and progressive strains of the American Revolution: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men [and women!] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…” as Thomas Jefferson so beautifully phrased it in the Declaration of Independence.

That fundamental belief in the equality of all people and the sanctity of life is the true reason for being of the United States. Martin Luther King Jr. expressed that vision of the U.S. when he said in his “I Have a Dream”speech: “we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

The culture of the United States is not a private club. It is an open culture rooted in the traditions of Native Americans and added to by every wave of arrivals to this country from every latitude and longitude of dry land on the globe.

The culture of the United States is inherently a hybrid culture. American culture blends melodies from Scotch-Irish fiddlers with Yoruba drumming patterns to create jazz and country music. American culture combines the humor of Yiddish theater and vaudeville with the theatrics of the English stage to give birth to Hollywood movies. In American culture, lesbian feminist poets write in the ghazal form devised by Arabic troubadours and elaborated by Persian bards. American culture wants to try out knishes with Spanish rice, it needs to taste Korean kimchee in Mexican burritos. It fuses ballet and African dance and creates Alvin Ailey and Paul Taylor.


Yes, the United States has a reason for being and a culture. That culture and that reason for being are fundamentally democratic, pluralistic, and multicultural. Nothing that “the Donald” or Steve Bannon can do will ever change that.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Linda Tillery on How to Clap and What It Means for Writers

A few years ago I took a workshop at California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco with singer and arranger Linda Tillery. Linda said many remarkable things in that workshop. She has a profound understanding of the roots of African American music and she interprets traditional music, from children’s rhyming games to spirituals, in a way that makes those sounds as contemporary as Kanye West.

Linda Tillery
At one point in the workshop, Linda asked everyone to clap. After a few measures, she waved her hands in a Stop, Stop, Stop gesture. “That’s not how you clap!” she shouted at us. We were trying to make music in that I’m-so-embarrassed-to-be-clapping way where our hands had all the crispness of two overcooked butterfly pasta noodles. 

“If you clap, you have to commit to it!” Linda insisted. “You were clapping like this…” And she made us laugh by imitating our half-hearted, self-conscious motions. “No, you cup you hands, and you bring them together like this!” She pounded that left hand so hard against her right one (I think she’s left-handed), I couldn’t believe how loud the sound was that just her two hands made. “Now you do it!” And sure enough, when we cupped our hands and brought the strong one together with the still one, using concentrated force, the sound was ten times louder, and so much clearer, and so much more powerful. “That’s what I’m talkin’ about!” Linda praised.

If you want to see an example of what Linda means by clapping with commitment, watch the video below and pay attention to the woman on the left—that’s Linda. It’s amazing how something so simple, something we all think we know how to do, can be done much better if it’s done with conviction.



So, what does this have to do with writing? I think it’s true of all art, that if you take on a project, if you give yourself a homework assignment, you have to it with all your heart. You can’t do it half-heartedly, or self-consciously, as if you didn’t have the right to do what you’re doing.

That doesn’t mean that if you compose a sonnet it has to be exactly fourteen lines with just the right rhyme scheme and number of syllables and stresses. Writing with commitment is not about following rules. It’s about following through on your idea.

For example, if you write a story or a novel or a persona poem with a certain type of narrator or if you create a character in a play, that voice has to be true to the person who’s speaking, and true throughout. You can’t just phone it in if your narrator or character is of the opposite sex from you, or has a different way of talking. You’ve got to make every word ring with that voice.

Similarly, if you’re writing about some part of your life or about an issue that’s important to you that you’ve never revealed or confronted before, you can’t just give little hints that hide the story more than tell it. You’ve got to let it rip. If you’re making the rhythm of the words an element in the poetry or prose, those words, those sounds, have got to have the impact of Linda Tillery’s hands when she claps. 

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration

Friday, February 24, 2017

Movies with Great Screenplays You May Not Know

I’m devoting this blog to movies you may not have seen, movies with great screenplays. Some of the movies were suggested by friends or family members.

The Clouds of Sils Maria was chosen by the poet and naturalist Elizabeth Bradfield. This is an amazing movie about a middle-aged actress, beautifully played by the great Juliette Binoche, who is returning to the stage to appear in a play that she acted in when she was an ingénue, only now she’s playing the part of the older woman. A beautiful and brilliant screenplay by Olivier Assayas, who also directed. Great ensemble acting. Highly recommended. If you like Assayas, who also writes and directs French films, Summer Hours is also quite good and also stars Juliette Binoche.

Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart in The Clouds of Sils Maria
The Way Way Back is a surprising movie about a teenage boy caught in a world where grownups act like kids, and kids have to find their way without parental guidance. This film was recommended by the playwright Tamar Shai. Strong screenplay by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. The movie is lifted above the usual coming-of-age story by the character of Trent (played by Steve Carrell), the ne’er-do-well owner and denizen of a water park. Trent becomes the guru and unlikely father figure for the teenage boy. 

The poet Patricia Spears Jones suggested a couple of movies, including The Kids Are All Right, screenplay by Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg, a complex story about two lesbian mothers who have kids by the same sperm donor. When the man appears on the scene, the plot thickens. Great cast with Annette Beining, Julianne Moore, and Mark Ruffalo. Pat also recommends Do the Right Thing, written and directed by Spike Lee, who also appears in the film as a character named Mookie—I love it! Probably Spike Lee’s best film, a nuanced treatment of race, set in Brooklyn.

Poet and fiction writer Robert Thomas picked an oldie but a goodie, the film noir Out of the Past, screenplay by Daniel Mainwaring. This movie has everything you want in a suspense drama: a decent tough guy pursued by scary villains, a femme fatale, and settings all over the West Coast, including vintage footage of San Francisco. Kirk Douglas plays against type as the bad guy—it’s one of his stronger roles.

Fiction and nonfiction author Richard Chiappone, who also writes screenplays, mentioned the movie Slap Shot. Great setting—minor league hockey in a rust belt town. One of Paul Newman’s best roles, scripted by Nancy Dowd. Great one-liners, engaging love story, political resonances.

Poet Lisa Houlihan Stice chose Paris, Texas, screenplay by Sam Shepard and L.M. Kit Carson. This is a haunting film about amnesia and broken family ties set in the Southwest. Memorable.

My friend Ava Torre-Bueno reminded me of the film The Best Years of Our Lives, a classic about the difficulties soldiers face returning from war. Still a current topic, with resonant messages about disabilities. Robert E. Sherwood wrote the screenplay.

My daughter Lena Rogow mentioned a movie with a great screenplay that she loves, Mostly Martha. It’s an exquisite German movie about a gourmet chef who winds up raising her orphaned niece, a girl in deep mourning who refuses to eat.

I don’t think I could write a blog about screenplays without mentioning John Sayles, who is also a fine fiction writer (check out his books The Anarchists Convention and Union Dues). Sayles has the ability to dive into a region or topic and find the truth below the surface. My favorites are Baby It’s You (class differences in high school), Eight Men Out (one of the best baseball movies ever!), and Passion Fish (stellar performance by Alfre Woodard).

Alfre Woodard in Passion Fish
A few other films where I’ve enjoyed the screenplays, randomly selected:

A Voyage Round My Father, an autobiographical film written by John Mortimer of Rumpole of the Bailey fame. This could actually be Laurence Olivier’s best screen performance. He plays a cranky old lawyer who is a loving father to Alan Bates, almost in spite of every single thing the dad says and does.

I love the movie Va Savoir (Who Knows?), the masterpiece of director Jacques Rivette, who passed away in 2016. The screenplay was a collaboration of Rivette, Pascal Bonitzer, and Christine Laurent, based partly on a play by Luigi Pirandello. It’s a play-within-a-move device, with a moving story and great ensemble acting.


I can’t finish a blog about great screenplays without mentioning the films of the French director Patrice Leconte. His movies are all incredibly provocative, intelligent, and haunting. My faves are The Hairdresser’s Husband (written by Leconte and Claude Klotz), and The Girl on the Bridge (about a knife-thrower performer who finds his assistants by rescuing would-be suicides from jumping off bridges—screenplay by Serge Frydman).

And one last one, a favorite flick: Norma Rae, Sally Fields’ best role, and the script is also beautifully written by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr. Funny, emotional, politically powerful, about unionizing workers in a Southern factory town.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration

Saturday, February 11, 2017

The Importance of Persistence for a Writer

Sometimes a writer becomes so popular, so suddenly, that you wonder how it happened. In the late 1980s, the fiction writer Ann Beattie was on fire. All her stories were appearing in The New Yorker. A novel was in the works, there were rumors of a movie contract.

Ann Beattie
I was a fan of Ann Beattie’s—I still am. Her short story “La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans” in Secrets and Surprises is still among my favorites. But I have to admit that I was furiously jealous of Ann Beattie. She’s only five years older than I am, and she was the most popular young writer in the United States at the time.

In 1978 I went to hear Ann Beattie read at the Sheridan Square Bookstore in New York. The room was packed—I had to sit on the floor because there were no more chairs. Ann Beattie gave an terrific reading, but a part of me was holding back from really appreciating it, because I couldn’t stop envying her.

After the reading there was a Q&A, and someone blurted out the question we all had in mind: “How did you first get published in The New Yorker?” I probably wasn’t the only person in the audience who was thinking She probably slept with an editor or had a friend who edited stories there.

Ann Beattie took a deep breath. Maybe she had heard this question many times before and she was controlling her temper. If she was, she was doing a good job. “Well, the first nineteen stories I sent to The New Yorker, they rejected. I went back and worked on my writing. The twentieth story, they accepted.”

All right, I thought, if that’s how Ann Beattie got published in The New Yorker, more power to her. 

How many of us have that persistence? Not just to keep sending our work out when most of the responses are rejections, but to keep refining and correcting our work. Sometimes, it takes the kind of persistence involved in sending your work twenty times to the same magazine, improving it each time.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration