I’ve finished a first draft of my coming-of-age high school script and, in trying to avoid cliches, have often reflected on the best of the genre. By my reckoning, there is a pantheon of five films, all of which have characters, story and dialogue that ring true.
5. Election (Alexander Payne, 1999)4. Dazed and Confused (Richard Linklater, 1993)3. American Graffiti (George Lucas, 1973)2. Rushmore (Wes Anderson, 1998)1. Superbad (Greg Mottola, 2007)Interestingly enough, except for Superbad, these films were directed early in each filmmaker’s careers, all of whom went on to be nominated for Oscars. We’ll see what Mottola does next.
Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing is an uneven story of a young man drifting from human contact into an abstracted, shadowy world. The writing can be riveting: East and to the south there was water on the flats and two sandhill cranes stood tethered to their reflections out there in the last of the day’s light like statues of such birds in some waste of a garden where calamity had swept all else away. (171)However the prose get bogged down by McCarthy’s repetitive tendencies: His pale hair looked white. He looked fourteen going on some age that never was. He looked as if he’d been sitting there and God had made the trees and rocks around him. He looked like his own reincarnation and then his own again. Above all else he looked to be filled with a terrible sadness. (177)
My mother and I were never the best of companions. She had certain expectations of me which I never fulfilled, and I was demanding, stupid and selfish. In short, she wasn’t the best at mothering and neither was I at being mothered. This said, I always had great respect for her sharp mind and nature, both of which she has now lost.
She has devolved into an acquiescent woman with little to say because she can’t remember much of anything beyond the weather and my name. And as difficult as the process is, it’s not like I can’t cope; it’s just that I dislike watching the installments.She didn’t want to die like this; she was most emphatic about that. But that’s what happens when you beat cancer twice. The worst things get you in the end.
Nakka is a full-on Greenlandic sled dog that can go for fifteen hours straight, no food or water, through ice and snow.I realized that it might have been a mistake to bring him to New York when, on my first day at a Manhattan dog run, he herded the other dogs – pit bulls and all – jumping the fence and chasing the tourists into the river.
He hated city living – most of all our apartment, only 800 square feet – but also how everyone had to pet him. “Look at you! Little Nakka! You’re so cute!” They didn’t understand that he only bit because he needed space. Anyway, I had to take him back to his home to Ilulissat…where apparently some of the other dogs think he’s putting on airs.
Alfred in Visitors summarizes Alice Munro’s narrative style best: “It’s not a story. It’s something that happened.”Munro’s strength is in her characterization: “She was disgusted with her mother’s callousness, her self-absorption, her feebleness, her survival, her wretched little legs and arms on which the skin hung like wrinkled sleeves.” (Accident)
Munro is also a virtuoso at description:”The trees came down to the shore on both sides of the building. The leaves weren’t quite out here, even though it was May. You could see all the branches with just an impression of green, as if that was the color of the air.” (Hard-Luck Stories) Moments drift in Munro’s prose, echoing a disillusionment with existence; there is a lack of a story arc, a climax, any kind of ending and comes across like the humming of a song, a tune, but nothing concrete.
Halldor Laxness’s Independent People, an epic tale of a 19th-Century Icelandic sheep farmer, offers ruminations across the spectrum:
On birth: It’s marvelous, you know, when you come to think of it: there you have a new body and a new soul suddenly making an appearance, and where do they come from and why are they always coming? (127) On childhood: Those were good days. They were serene days and undemonstrative, like the best day in one’s life; the boy never forgot them. Nothing happens; one simply lives and breathes and wishes for nothing more, and nothing more. (188)
On the toils of life: No wonder that the soul is cheerless, that hope is small in people’s hearts, that there is little comfort in lying awake at night. Even the most beautiful memories lose their luster like a shining silver coin that collects verdigris because it has been lost. And, finally, on sin: Sin is God’s most precious gift. (325)
My sister, at 13, was the first of my siblings to be published with her drawing of a heap smiley faces, entitled My Father is Bowl of Happiness in Teen Magazine. It took me another few years to see my name in print with a letter to the editor in Marvel Team-Up Comics, Featuring Spiderman. I critiqued an issue in which an orphan started a fire by impulsively yanking a lamp plug from the wall. There was no reason for the orphan to do this, and there was no justification for a fire to start just because he did. On top of the weak characterization and lousy plot development, the graphics of this issue were also particularly weak.
This was also my first experience with an editor who slashed my 300-word missive to one terse line: “Marvel Team-Up is the worst comic I have ever read.” (My outrage with this guy has yet to dim.)
Writing retreats, like writing conferences, are con jobs. If you want to write, then you should write. And here’s how you can retreat yourself:
a. Find an isolated place – hopefully a key setting in your book – and go there. b. Give yourself time, more than you think you might need, at least 10 days.
c. Arrive and unwind. Don’t worry about writing on the first day. d. Create a routine on your first full day – and allow yourself to break it.
e. Never get too down (or up) on your work. Just keep writing. A few words is enough.
f. Be active. You have to get out and circulate your fluids.g. Entertain yourself. Good books are the best, films too. (Just remember that connections – phones, internet, TV – are absolutely vorboten.)
h. Plan the next one.