Before we start, can I tell you something strange that happened to me recently? No, you can’t! Please don’t.
Why? Because I guarantee that someone, somewhere, will rip it off and pass it off as their own.
But it’s a good story. Stop it! Didn’t you read Who Is the Bad Art Friend? yesterday?
Bad What Friend? It’s the title of a punishingly long article in the New York Times that has set the world alight. It’s hard to sum up succinctly, but the story of Who Is the Bad Art Friend? is basically this: a woman donated her kidney to a stranger, and then a second woman wrote a story about donating a kidney to a stranger.
Right. And it all kicked off. Nobody comes out of it particularly well, but it begs the question: are writers allowed to mine the lives of others?
Yes. But isn’t there something vampiric about leeching off someone else’s experience?
James Gandolfini routinely called the writing staff of The Sopranos “vampires” for exactly that reason, and that was the best television series ever made. But isn’t there a line where things become creepy?
No. I mean, what about Cat Person?
Oh here we go, Cat Person again. At the time it was published, Kristen Roupenian’s short story was heralded as lightning in a bottle; the perfect summation of the female experience. But then this year we learned that Roupenian had wholesale lifted the experience from a woman named Alexis Nowicki, who subsequently wrote a first-person essay about it.
Who would be a muse, eh? Loads of people, that’s the thing. Dante wrote about his childhood crush Beatrice di Folco Portinari in The Divine Comedy. Jane Austen used an old flame as inspiration for Mr Darcy. Charles Dickens based numerous characters on his lover Ellen Ternan. It was all fine and nobody minded.
So what changed? Two words: the internet. Online, everybody gets to create a bubble where they are the star of their own finely honed story. So when someone else mines their life for a different story, it feels more like a violation. Also, who’s to say that Ternan enjoyed being written about? She couldn’t complain on Facebook.
Does this story have a moral? Yes: it’s that writers are terrible people and you should cut them all from your life immediately.
Some people employ a theory of parallel universes to explain time travel. Maybe I am one of them.
If you ask me, a science simpleton, what I mean by “parallel universe,” my answer may vary depending on the day, but usually I mean something like, a hypothetical plane of reality, coexisting with, yet distinct from, our own. The main difficulty here is that I do not know what I mean when I call something “hypothetical.” Maybe I mean that that hypothetical plane of existence (a.k.a. parallel universe) is elsewhere and unseen, yet actual. Maybe I mean that that plane is something I want to think about right now and sort of cherish, not a combo of time and space where I plan to attempt to exist but rather a pattern I have not yet perceived. It’s not, actually, actual. It’s a thought I’m mentally cuddling.
I’m not sure that I believe in time travel, strictly speaking: certainly, not into the past. I don’t think “I” can go back to the Middle Ages and wander the reeking, pissed-upon hallways of a poorly illuminated castle. I wouldn’t want to do this, anyhow. People seem to forget how common murder used to be.
What I do believe in are coincidence and symmetry, even as I believe in movement (travel!) into the future. Events have a tendency to repeat, and often we can’t tell that they are repetitions, even when they are.
Take for example: me. It is morning and I have gone for a run. I haven’t gone back in time. I mean, I am running in a circle, so I will return to the original point in space from which I departed eventually, but meanwhile time will flow forward, onward, on, rippling along with the space I’ll cover, and soon I’ll be back at my hotel, and then I’ll be showered, staring confusedly at my naked self in a steamed-up mirror, and, then, eventually dressed and ready to depart. And there will be nothing unusual about my day. I won’t get “back” to anywhere.
I’ll only keep on going. I’ll move ahead, out of the present, even as the mirror displays to me an image of myself as I was a fraction of a second before the instant when I looked.
This is my general experience. I am this organism that is knit in space and time.
The one thing I have not told you yet, and that I have to suppose you therefore do not know, is that the place where I am in this instance is a small city in America where, many years ago, I used to live. Thus, I’m currently engaged in more than one type of spiral.
Let’s call this city “Iowatown” (not its real name).
Now imagine me running.
I am not a thin person, but I am strong and have biggish calves that carry me quickly. I’m bounding through all the new construction, listening to a song about female aggression. The singer is going to date your boyfriend. The singer can’t help it. Your boyfriend is extremely persistent and the singer is casual about her entanglements. You, addressee of this song, don’t stand a chance. I listen, running and panting, directing myself along my one-point-five-mile loop, and I identify with the singer, not with the person to whom the song is allegedly addressed. I believe myself to have the correct disposition toward these lyrics.
I’m far enough into town now, into the residential part of “Iowatown,” and I do regret my inability to drop the quotes, that I seem not merely to be moving in a standard fashion into space. This is the tricky part of my experience that I was attempting to intimate. I feel, in that cliché, like I am going back in time.
But I’m not, I think to myself, I’m not, I’m not, although here I am, planted in front of the old house, a warren of slapdash rentals, where we used to spend all our time together, and where your downstairs neighbor was a grinning monomaniac who claimed he’d been a professional boxer in his youth.
. . . .
The house is still white, bluish. It still has that porch in front with the pattern of circles punched in the wood below the railing. There is still the elaborate fire escape, the one that touched your bathroom window. Someone else must live up there now. Someone may, even at this moment, be standing on that same police-blue wall-to-wall carpeting, gazing out the window at a pausing jogger.
Meanwhile, the prehistoric sun beats down upon the little sidewalk where I stand in my running attire. The sun warms me, although I feel extremely far from my skin. I may have begun running inside a narrative, but now that I am here, here before the residence where you used to live and where we lived together, I see that this is not merely my destination. It is a net or a kind of a mirage, and it has caught me.
And when we met, if you will recall, we were both walking on the street not far from here. I felt, that day, that I was being watched, as if from some point in the sky, a pinprick. You, meanwhile, didn’t look, not at first. You were engrossed in a copy of Kurt Cobain’s diary, which you had borrowed from the university’s library, and which I thought was an ingenious thing for a graduate student to be reading, although I did not tell you so at the time and, then, never told you later. Something started in that moment that was different from all other things that had begun in my life thus far. That tiny piercing in the heavens stayed there, unblinking. You lifted your hand from the page you were reading; eyes previously cast down went up. You seemed to hear a voice: you were being notified. You recognized me from somewhere, from some hallway or classroom. You beckoned. There was no pause in this, no flinch. You were not shy. You seemed to have practiced for this encounter for months. And when, in the subsequent one point five decades, I thought of it and you, I sometimes wondered if everything had indeed been rehearsed, if not predetermined.
By Moreen Littrell from Women Writers, Women’s Books:
“It just wasn’t funny,” said Sheila, a fellow stand-up comic, when I asked her what she thought of the set I’d performed two days earlier in the Main Room at The World Famous Comedy Store.
It was Friday afternoon and we were sitting on the red velvet couch at Insomnia Café on Melrose, just two green comedians preparing to riff. I had just taken a drag of latte foam when she uttered those Christopher Hitchens-esque words. I hadn’t even secured an outlet yet or hoisted my lowriders. I thought she was kidding, just deadpanning too long.
But she said “no” she was serious, and that there was no time limit on deadpanning anyway. Wednesday’s set was only my third ever. It was the same set I debuted with two months earlier, and while I wouldn’t say I killed it, I didn’t not kill it. As the smoke from the former model’s sorry-not-sorry “truth” bomb wafted, the windows to her soul were still goring into mine.
I lowered my catatonic gaze to my wad of index cards. I had been so excited to try out my new material on her and riff like Wanda and Ellen. Scrawled with a black Sharpie to emulate Kidnapped (a free font), were my top contenders for my next set: Gyno Legal Fund, Pizza Puke, and Facebook Whore. But, if Sheila didn’t think Wednesday’s set was funny (Bedframe, Distress Calls, Prescriptive Facemask), she certainly wasn’t going to think Facebook Whore was. My croissant went down hard. For the next hour, Sheila found nothing of mine funny.
“Really? Not even Twitter Ho?”
“No – ”
And I found nothing of hers funny.
“Kale has been overused. Try iceberg.”
“No – ”
“Then butterhead –”
“No – ”
“Then hydroponic butterhead.”
“No – ”
She didn’t want lettuces. Apparently, kale is not a lettuce but a cabbage and she thought cabbage was funnier (even though everyone pretty much thinks it’s a lettuce). Whatever. Where was the ‘Yes, and…?’ We were at a stalemate.
I cried all weekend. I thought of giving up stand-up. It was supposed to have been my salvation, my ride-or-die, pot of gold, North Star, soft spot to land, my candle in the wind. But every time I considered watching the tape of my performance (that I’d collected on Saturday in what felt like a “drive of shame”), I saw Sheila’s dewy face. Was she born with it?
. . . .
On Monday, I had a meeting with one of the top comedy management/production companies in the industry – the ones responsible for Dane Cook. I only got the meeting because I had invited seven top comedy agents to my stand-up debut. I knew they wouldn’t come but I thought that I’d get the jump on getting on their radar. One of them — the drunk one eating pizza at a sports bar — responded. He welcomed me to send him a tape of my debut, which I did. He then forwarded it to their A&R who then asked to meet with me.
I anticipated it was just going to be a general meeting where they would just say, “Sheila says you’re not ready, but when Sheila says you are, here’s what we do.” So as I sat there in a conference room as ‘talent,’ thinking that the meeting for a nobody was going longer than expected, the A&R executive pushed over a contract offering to produce my debut comedy album. He told me, “I think you are funny and I think America will think you are funny.”
I have always been a visual writer. When formulating a scene, I have to envision each moment in exacting detail. As such, a good deal of my editing process involves scaling back, sharpening key images and finding short cuts to capture the feel of a moment with fewer words. Even so, I strive not to strip away all of my cinematic leanings. For me the set pieces of a scene are often as vital as crafting dialog, advancing plot points, or even developing character. For this reason, I am drawn to novelists who paint engaging worlds, those with a talent for evoking not only a sweeping backdrop for their stories but also details to bring their imagined settings to life. I revel in imagining the furnishings of an imposing home at the center of a family drama, or visualizing the mountain forest above a protagonist’s homestead, or learning of the businesses that line the main street of a fictional community. Unsurprisingly, given my interest in such matters, I am similarly drawn to stories on film which do the same.
My latest obsession in the latter realm is the surprise Netflix hit The Queen’s Gambit, which has taken the world by storm. In a production environment increasingly reliant on overly complex, multi-dimensional storylines, producer Allan Scott and writer / director Scott Frank have released a straight-forward narrative, trusting that a single compelling through-line of a tale is all that is needed to hold the attention of a modern audience.
They were right! Beth Harmon, the young chess prodigy protagonist, captivates from the start. Her meteoric rise to the top echelon of the chess world while struggling with the demons of a traumatic childhood provides more than enough dramatic tension to propel the seven-episode arc to a thoroughly satisfying conclusion. But while many ingredients contribute to the show’s success, including top-notch acting from a talented cast, what stands out for me is the clear devotion given to ensure that each scene was stage-crafted to perfection, with every component – from lighting to color tone to camera movement – designed to reinforce the mood of the moment and underscore the emotional forces at work.
. . . .
I would argue that writers should absolutely evaluate their stories from a cinematic perspective. For while motion pictures are clearly a different format, the best written works are undeniably visual in nature. Indeed, the magic of writing is the intricate dance by which an author provides just enough imagery to allow a reader to flesh out an entire world, and then to place themselves in the midst of the described action. It is this alchemy which triggers an emotional response, thereby expanding the consciousness of the reader.
Thus, the question in my opinion is not whether a writer should strive to inject more stagecraft into their scenes, but how to do so. How does one elevate visual imagery within scenes in a meaningful way? And what techniques can one employ to give a story a more cinematic feel?
I come from the country, from a home in the woods where nights are filled with cricket chirps and coyote howls. My most persistent childhood memory is my mom guarding the front porch, one hand on her bottle and the other holding her 12-gauge as she fired into the dark.
“Why do you do that?” I asked, a little girl as frightened of the sound as I was of my mother’s reddening eyes.
“To keep the coyotes from getting close,” she slurred.
If a coyote ventured near the porch, my mother would point the gun at its howling mouth. She never fired, but I could see her itch to kill as the twitch in her trigger finger.
“Why do we hate coyotes?” I asked on another dripping hot night. I was just old enough to ask questions with no grammatical inconsistencies and old enough to shoot the BB gun if I wanted. I often fired unloaded pops into the air during daylight hours. I’d seen a coyote slinking in the sun once: mangy red-orange fur and pointed ears, like a wolf and a fox in one body. “They’re beautiful,” I said.
“Beautiful things are wild,” my mother said. “In packs, coyotes don’t care for fear.”
“What’s fear?” I asked.
“Fear is what keeps us safe.” She ran her finger over the safety, waiting for the howling in the distance to come closer. “Fear is what separates us from chaos.”
I knew nothing more about chaos than that it was the word that sprung to mind when I snuck peeks into my mother’s liquor cabinet: half-drunk bottles of liquor in every color imaginable, a cityscape of differently-sized alcohol glasses, and a clutter of little umbrellas she utilized to placate me when I cried about her drinking.
. . . .
Around that time I developed my routine. On Tuesdays I pulled all the clothes out of my closet and forced myself to put each shirt, each dress back one-by-one, arranged by color. On Wednesdays I wiped down every drawer in the house with a wet rag folded in quarters. On Thursdays I tossed scraps of paper from my desk into the recycling bin then promptly emptied it. On Fridays I plucked stray hairs from my face. I kept these tasks arranged on a calendar I hung on my wall. But there was only so much order I could enforce in a house where I wasn’t the only occupant.
My mother scolded me for staying up too late, but she had a front porch to defend and a cabinet of vodka bottles to empty, and as such didn’t follow through on her threats to punish me if I stayed up again.
I moved out after high school graduation and rented an apartment with its own drawers. But there was only so much order I could enforce in a house where I hadn’t been the only occupant. The dust on the baseboards seemed a type of permanent that no amount of Wednesday scrubbing would erase. The cracks kept me awake. I imagined them opening, swallowing me into the dusty walls. On TV I watched the news of mass shootings, endings messy and terrible in their gore, and worried that one day the opening of a gun would swallow me into its gunpowder-dusted shaft.
I spent my work days in a real estate office yawning and dozing off on bathroom breaks, waking with my pants around my ankles. I struggled to remember where and who I was. On Saturdays I scrubbed at old mold stains in my bathroom until my fingers bled. On Sundays I brushed over inconsistencies in the apartment’s paint until sunlight crept through the windows.