Saturday, June 26, 2010

Adventures in Screenplays Part III: Film for Fiction Writers

Back in 2004, my friend Charlie Bailey decided he had had enough. I would love to tell you the nuances of what was enough and how Charlie had it up to his eye balls, but that may be another story for another time. Suffice it to say, he decided to leave the country, and mostly, he decided to leave himself. I do now, and always foresee, loving Charlie Bailey. Charlie is bright, a PhD of Physics, a cab driver, a poker player. When Charlie, the physicist, the cab driver, and the poker player returned to the United States from Switzerland in 2008, he had a few stories to tell. In his basement apartment in Boulder, Colorado, Charlie told me about Switzerland. He told me how he learned to be a screen printer. He had met someone in the field, and he had offered his hands in exchange for the knowledge. It's an old way of doing things. Right? I'll give you my labor if you show me how it's done. Beautiful, really. As Charlie told me this story, he had to mention how in the USA, one must procure a degree or training in order to accomplish a certain task. Be that as it may, and he is probably very accurate in that assessment, what difference is it where we learn something? Formal training, and I mean anything of higher education in modern times, I highly endorse. After all, I loved my Goddard experience. Yet, there is something to say about the old ways of learning something. There is something to beheld in the “learning by doing” scenario. And there is something noble about learning something from someone who is doing it. As many of you know, my training in writing is in the craft of fiction. When I say training, of course I mean in the formal sense. When I think of my three three teachers: Vance Aandahl, Kyle Bass and John McManus, I have the utmost reverence. Now, Vance and John are both fiction writers, and writers they are. Kyle is a little bit different of a story. He is a wonderful writer indeed, and I'm certain that he crafts beautiful fiction. However, he has a very different sensibility entirely. Kyle's writing background is a bit of a collage. Kyle believes that the playwrights are expressing life, the fiction writers are exploring life and the poets are at home tending the garden. Beautiful stuff. Kyle is not only a fantastic writer, his sensibility starts with the poets. His training is the theater and rightly so, he's a musician, a poet and a Thespian all in one. Not to mention he is a wonderful teacher of writing because he is a wonderful writer.
I met Kyle Bass during my first semester at Goddard College. As an instructor Kyle was very critical of me, which caused the associated emotions. However, I trusted him for a variety of reasons. Like me, he had gone through the Goddard Program. After his graduation, he landed another job at Syracuse in the theater department. As I've said, anyone lucky enough to study under Kyle will undoubtedly do something great.
As we all know, my training is in fiction writing. One of my teachers has his training in theater. So, what does this mean? I suppose, as I'm talking to you, there are a few things I want to confess. First, there is something wonderful about on the job training. Second, a writer is a writer is a writer. Third, being fearless in your work as a writer will only lead to more work, other jobs, and in some ways, new genres.
Being formally trained as a fiction writer, I felt very strange in the screenplay genre when it was presented to me during the spring of 2009. As I began to think about writing for the screen, I thought first about Kyle Bass. Many of his students were playwrights, Micheal Grady and YoungJames Kenny, namely. As a fiction writer, it may have seemed like a strange match for Kyle Bass and me to be place together. Under his tutelage, I learned to read plays and think about them with my lens of a fiction writer. David Mamet's American Buffalo comes to mind instantly. How do you suppose our conversation about the reading of this play went? When Gio Toninelo approached me about a screenplay idea he wanted to produce, I was instantly and fearless attracted to the task. As a writer, and I think the analogy is correct here: I don't need to know how to fly a plane, all I need to know is how to get the damned thing off the runway. Likewise, a playwright whose training is as vast a poetry and fiction can fearlessly guide a fiction writer deserves a student who willingly learns how to convey story on the screen.
My experience as a screenwriter has three parts. Part number one: I've watched a great deal of movies. Two: I read a few books. American Film Institute's Writing Great Screenplays for Film and TV by Dana Cooper was the principle book. Acting: The First Six Lessons by Richard Boleslavsky was the second largest influence. So, I'm telling you that 1)watching movies, and 2) reading a couple books lead me to this: on the job training.
That's right, I learned by doing. The largest difference I can tell between writing fiction and screenplays is that screenplay writing is very collaborative. Once the piece is written, it is subject to the director, the director of photography and in a lesser degree, the actor's interpretation of the words written. This is different than the way a fiction writer may look at a story.
The entire point here is yes, we have different ways of looking at something. In the entire point of these adventures in screenplays, it is from the POV of a fiction writer. As fiction writers, we look at the world in a combination known only to us. How can this combination be made pertinent to a viewer of film? Often times, as movie viewers we say: “so-and-so's acting sucked.” Or we say: “it wasn't believable.” How often do we say: “the writing really sucked!”? Truth is, when a film is bad, and I mean really bad, I think it comes directly from the writing itself. How can a fiction writer change things?
In the last entry, we discussed the short story, the novella, and the novel as the basis for film screenplays. I hope we came to the conclusion that the short story makes the better screenplay foundation than the novel. This is true because as screenplay writers, or directors, it is easier to add some elements than it is to subtract them. So, how do we go from fiction writers to screenplay writers?
First, let's write a story, or pick one. In this model I'll choose one. At this point, we should all be familiar with Etgar Keret and “Kneller's Happy Campers” and its film: Wristcutters. For this model, I would love to choose another Keret story from The Bus Driver Who Wanted to be God, “A Souvenir of Hell.” This story is less than four pages long. Can we make this a feature length film?
I'm pretty fearless, are you?
AFI suggests the ideal length of a feature screenplay is 114 pages.
Next: the Premise: this is a one sentence description of what the story is.
Next: the Treatment: how are we going to develop this story from the one sentence premise?
Let's go!
Before we get too carried away, “A Souvenir of Hell,” and for this exercise, we'll focus on the short film first.
In this translation of fiction to film, we have to read the story first.
Basic plot: Girl meets boy and losses boy (twice). There is a social stigma. The girl is human and of the world and the boy is from hell.
Characters: Anna (the girl), her father, her grandfather and the boy from hell.
The setting: A dead end town at the opening from hell.

My Premise: A tale of redemption and unrequited love within social and emotional confines.

The Treatment: As Anna experiences heartbreak, her grandfather finds forgiveness for earlier crimes committed against him. As the people of the town witness this events, they are determined (for the greater good) to prevent similar situations from ever happening again.

Next time: We write our own short story. Then we write the development of the feature: character development, the process of plot, structure and formatting.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Adventures in the Screenplay Part II: the Short Story, the Novella and the Novel

Every so often when we talk about film, I hear someone say: “the book was better than the movie.” Of course it was. Don't be silly. I would love to stand on my soap box and say that books are always better than movies. It's a stupid comparison. They are indeed two very different things. The only thing they have in common, of course, is story. Story. That's it. So why would a book be better than its movie counterpart? Well, the average movie is about 90 minutes, and the average screenplay is about 114 pages. Now, compare that to the average modern novel which is in excess of 50,000 words. In a novel, the reader gains so much more perspective on the story. The reader has more time to get to know the characters making their relationship is so much stronger. A 90 minute movie is hardly enough time to get all the information delivered that the novel has. I don't believe movies, especially the normal length of a feature, can capture all the events, plot, character development, setting, mood, or the essence a reader takes from a novel. The only real exception I can think about off hand is Roman Polanski's The Ninth Gate. This movie was based on Arturo Perez-Reverte's The Club Dumas. The Club Dumas was a fantastic story about the cult of Alexandre Dumas, satanic rituals, and rare books. The Ninth Gate was developed not from the novel as a whole, but from a subplot. And really, it was created from the smallest subplot available in the book. So, a movie based on a novel? Yes, but only one small part of it. Very effective. Great use of the story, and a great use of my time as a movie viewer.
When it comes to it, and I know I'm not alone here, the best movies are based on short stories. Francis Ford Coppola has demonstrated this. Zoetrope is his forum, and the factory for short stories (and one act plays) into feature length film. The beauty of this is simply that a short story has the beginning, middle and end that we need as readers. Once a short story gets translated into film, the screenwriter, and the director can add elements to enhance the story rather than choosing which elements to eliminate.
Here comes my short list, from the shortest to the longest. Farley Mowat's “Walk Well, My Brother,” became The Snow Walker in 2003. The short story is a relationship between two people, a white man-pilot and an Eskimo girl who endure a plane crash in the northern frontiers of Canada. The short story, hardly more than about 5,000 words is stunning in itself. It is two cultures, two people, two languages, these differences of culture are a common theme in much of Mowat's writing. Now, how well do you think a 2 hour movie can do with these two characters who can't even talk to one another? The movie is stunning. The landscape is stunning. The basic premise and treatment are stunning. The dialogue aside, the scenery alone is the payoff. The filmmakers have also added a second story line, a subplot if you will. They include Charlie's life back home, and the people he leaves behind. Case in point, the filmmaker fills up the negative space, and adds another more tangible plot: what was left behind.
Mary Gaitskill's 1988 short story collection, Bad Behavior, has a curious little story in it called “Secretary.” Gaitskill tells the entire story of Debby, and her first job as a secretary in less than fifteen pages. The use of narration is intimately in first person. The 2002 movie was a wild adaptation of the short story. Again, the writers of this screenplay were able to figure out what to add rather than what to subtract. Much like The Snow Walker, Secretary is a movie basically of two characters.
Some movies-short story combinations are loosers. For instance, F. Scott Fitzgerald's “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” and the recent movie have almost nothing in common. In fact, when the movie first hit the theaters, I doubt most movie goers realized how old the story was.
The longer short story, reaching up to the novella length story works pretty well too. Novellas, at least in my experience are like novels but without the subplots and back stories. I find them to be typically linear in nature. The three we'll discuss here are very linearly plotted stories. They each have a set of details and circumstances that almost have the feel of film.
Etgar Keret's “Kneller's Happy Campers,” comes to mind first and foremost. It's a simple hero quest story. Boy losses girl, boy searches for girl, boy finds girl. This delightful novella is the last piece in a collection of stories called: The Bus Driver Who Wanted to be God. It's a quick read, an honest read. Mordy, the protagonist has committed suicide prior to the beginning of the narrative. The “afterlife” for suicides is a lot like here just worse. When Mordy finds out that the girl, Desiree, who was the cause of his suicide has offed herself too, he goes out in search of her. Pretty basic plot, right? The 2006 movie, Wristcutters, blew my mind. The movie followed the story well enough. What the filmmakers chose to change was permissible. Etgar Keret is Israeli, as is his protagonist Mordy. Since the film was made here in the United States, the Mordy character is American. Either way, great stuff. A relatively competent reader can get through “Kneller's Happy Campers” in about the same time it takes to watch the movie.
Next up, T. A. Louis's “Things that Hang from Trees,” and the movie of the same name, strike this dynamic even better than the last example. The novella is less than 78 pages. It's set in Florida in the 1960s. Knowing this at the onset of the story it is potentially dreadful what might be hanging from trees. The basic premise of the story is a little boy who needs a set of parents. How he gets them, well, you'll have to read the book or see the movie. The soft language in the book, the easy nature of Louis's style is such a treat to read. The 2006 movie did capture some of the language in the beautiful vistas of old Florida. Again, the novella can be read in the same amount of time it takes to watch the movie.
Despite what some people might say about Charlton Heston, and the final years of his life, he remains one of my favorite actors. How can I say that? He got to be the protagonist of three of the best dystopian movies of all time: Soylent Green(1973), The Omega Man (1971) and Planet of the Apes (1968).
Pierre Boulle's Planet of the Apes is a bit longer in size. It is a more typical novel size. I bring it up here for another reason entirely. As I said, the short story, or novella, is easier to develop into a film because the filmmakers can decide on additions rather than subtractions. Planet of the Apes has been made into a feature length film twice: 1968 and 2001. The basic story stays the same through each incarnation: the novel, the 1968 and 2001 movies. The basic bent changes however. In 1963, in France, Pierre Boulle's focus is the ills of animal testing. He writes of a distant planet where apes reign and they test on Human Beings, presumably in much the same way as scientists on Earth did in the 1960s. In the movie, in Hollywood in 1968, the general feeling is one of segregation. This theme is just as pertinent in 1968 USA as animal testing is in 1963 France. In Tim Burton's 2001 version of the same story, urban development and wildlife habitat encroachment seems to be the main theme. Over dinner, the Helena Bonham Carter character says as much, she tries to explain that human's are not the problem, but rather the loss of their habitat is. How can one story have so many different themes and maintain the same story? It just does. After all, by 2001, animal testing and segregation were no longer pertinent social issues.
The last example is a novel which needed subtractions. Sofia Coppola's 1999 Virgin Suicides is a beautiful movie, and I will defined that statement. It got rave reviews and won 3 awards and eleven nominations, so I'm not alone in that. The novel by Jeffery Eugenides is such a quiet story, a potentially tearful read filled with so many wonderful details, I was glad that I read the book first. His story, set in Detroit in 1974, is so packed with images it warrants a workshop, or discussion all on its own. The narration is like a Greek chorus. We know within the first few pages than the Lisbon girls are the objects of desire, and that they all commit suicide. We know the end from the beginning. The movie held true to that, and Giovanni Ribisi's voice-over is a perfect tribute to the narration of the novel. However, the details Sofia Coppola chose to illuminate were limited. She used direct passages from the book. Two beautiful passages I read and loved were these:
The majority of dying happened during the Second World War when we did not exist and our fathers were impossibly skinny young men in black-and-white photographs-dads on jungle airstrips, dads with pimples and tattoos, dads with pinups, dads who wrote love letters to the girls who would become our mothers, dads inspired by K Rations, loneliness and glandular riot in malarial air into poetic reveries that ceased entirely once they got back home. (Eugenides 32)
Inside, we got to know girls who had never considered taking their own lives. We fed them drinks, danced with them until they became unsteady, and led them out to the screened-in veranda. They lost their high heels on the way, kissed us in the humid darkness, and then slipped away to throw up demurely in the outside bushes. Some of us held their heads as they vomited, then let them rinse their mouths with beer, after which we got back to kissing again. The girls were monstrous in their formal dresses, each built around a wire cage. Pounds of hair were secured atop their heads. Drunk, and kissing us, or passing out in chairs, they were bound for college, husbands, child-rearing, unhappiness only dimly perceived-bound, in other words, for life. (Eugenides 230)

As far as choices, Sofia Coppola did great work. The movie is visual and tightly packed. However well constructed, she had to make choices. As you read the book, you will undoubtedly have several pertinent and beautiful quotes of your own. Again, this 250 page novel was made into a 90 minute movie.

There is a school of thought here at the onset of 21 century that the pursuit of the next great screenplay has surpassed the pursuit of the great American novel. Who knows if that's true? Certainly there are plenty of movies that are lost as soon as they are released. Many books never make a second pressing. The audience is potentially wider with film. But as we began here, novels and movies are two very different things indeed.

Thanks again to Rockethouse Studios and Umbrella Factory Magazine and all the workshop participants for the my opportunity of teaching this.

Next time: Construction, from the premise and treatment through the ending credits.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Adventures in the Short Screenplay, Part I: The Joke, the Cliché and the Anecdote

Perhaps the best way to begin is with this honest statement: I am not a screenplay writer. I have no training in the theater. Sure, I've seen movies, and I've seen plays. I read a book last year on screenplay construction. But, I am not trained in any of it. When I think about it, the writing of screenplays, I think of it as on the job training, and I think of it like short stories brought to life. But of my qualifications I can say this, I've been writing screenplays. I knew I found my way home in the summer of 2009 when I was homeless, jobless and writing for the cartoons. Little did I know that writing for the screen would eventually pay. Oddly enough, I had a job earlier in the year writing a script for an informational video, and it paid pretty well too.
On the job training, for me, began at Rockethouse studios. It began in a bar and with a joke. The joke was something about two soldiers in a foxhole, one sandwich and one gas mask. It wasn't a very funny joke, and it wasn't a funny screenplay, and it did not become a funny film. But it had to begin somewhere. That somewhere was on an animation set. Sink or swim, right? And all I was given was Belgium, 1945, two soldiers and a not funny joke. Through that experience, short film construction, I developed so many ideas on how to write and how to convey story and the negative space in dialogue inside confines of short duration. As I began to watch short films, and act in a few, I realized the flaw many of them have. The largest flaw is that a lack of money becomes apparent in some films: lack of dialogue, dead end scenes, loss of vision. There is such a beautiful intended purpose in the short film which we will not overlook. Short films are a great way to pitch a feature film, and as far as the film festival circuit goes: short films are a great way to showcase a film crew's creative prowess. There is art for its own sake at stake here too. Anyone endeavoring in the short film genre must never lose sight of their intended purpose. Of course, I came to these ideas because I was forced to. Between the spring of 2008 and today, I had the opportunity to act in three short films, write four short film screenplays, and see one screenplay become a wonderfully popular short film. What I came to during these bits of the film making world is that the writing is important, a good script will lubricate the remainder of the process, and the construction must be solid, even if it's formulaic.
Now going back to the joke. Jokes are wonderful, aren't they. They are also very predictable. The construction typically is in threes (there's a brunette, a red head and a blonde) and each step builds toward a final climax that is often surprising or funny. Treating a short film, one that's less that ten minutes, in this way can be effective. I'll bring up Pastrami on Rye for that reason. The threes come like this: day, night, day again. Each scene includes a joke: barbers/doing women, testing the field manual/being a civilian and the gas mask/sandwich. The basic construction was very much like a joke. Although the punchline isn't intended to be funny.
If you can't write a joke as a screenplay, cliches work exceedingly well in short films too. Why? Cliches are cliches because they mean something to us. Case in point: every last love song we can think of, and how much we love them. When I say cliches are great, I am not suggesting that a maker of short films make something cliché, but rather, make use of the cliché. When I first saw Validation, I laughed, I cried and gained a new sense of humanity and love. There are at least two major cliches employed in this fantastic little film about love and self actualization. First: the parking attendant “validates.” Sure, he's validating parking tickets, and that's a funny enough idea in itself, yet as he does it, he validates all his customers. Beautiful. The second cliché: the boy meets girl. Okay, how many stories about love do we really need? All of them, I hope. This parking validation guy meets the photographer from the DMV and falls instantly in love. She's not having it. She's immune to smiling. She has no use for validation. Perhaps in her character we find another cliché? At any rate, watch it and try to count the number of cliches in this sixteen minute film. As you watch it, how does it make you feel?
Last, let's look at the anecdote. Many of these blog posts are anecdotal in their drive. Think about it, the stories we tell one another just keep going and going and going. Writers out there love this. New ideas for new stories? Everyday conversations and anecdotes. In the short film, the anecdote is probably the most powerful. A filmmaker, a writer of short films, and all the cast and crew involved can follow this formula. There is a beginning, a middle and an end. The entire screenplay is nothing more than a short anecdote set to life. In the film Death of the Tinman, the filmmakers use a character from L. Frank Baum, the Tinman, and lift him into a different scene. The overall plot of the film is simply: boy meets girl, boy looses girl, boy gets girl back. Each of these characters, even in the short time viewers get to know them are multifaceted, and visually appealing. We care about the characters. In eleven minutes we meet the three main characters, the main character's three groups: the fire department, the Men's choir and the church. There is back story, character development, conflict, resolution and all in such a short time. For the entire time this film goes on, I am always amazed by how much is really happening. The film accomplishes more in its short life than many feature length films do. And in a dark sort of way, it is funny. I always chuckle when Bill says: “How do you make somebody love you?” Paul: “You can steal from the rich and give to the poor.” Bill: “All right, I'll do it.” Paul: “I was joking.”
When it comes down to the construction of the short screenplay, the joke, the cliché and the anecdote are only suggestions. To begin, a writer must have the basic conflict and resolution in mind. The next step is to understand the medium. I work for an animation studio, after all, and my confines are very different from live action. There are some freedoms with GI Joe dolls and Barbies that a filmmaker can have. There are the obvious limits too. Next, the writer must have an accurate vision of what needs to happen. The old way of screenplay construction starts with two sentences: the premise, and the treatment. We'll discuss those more next time. Then, begin writing. Write it, rewrite it, rewrite it, rewrite it.
Next time: the short story and the novella into feature film. The basics of screenplay construction using examples. Animator's delight.
Special thanks to Rockethouse studios and Umbrella Factory Magazine and all the workshop participants for giving me the opportunity to teach this workshop.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Anecdote Part I

“Did I ever tell you about the time we made that homeless guy drink bong water?” Adam asked.
“Yes,” I said. “Yes, you have.”
“Fucked up. So, we took him home and we smoked up. I don't know where the gun came from.” He stood before me and held two fingers out in a gun pantomime. He lowered them to my forehead just above and between my eyes. “Drink it, Ted says to the guy. Drink it.”
“Let me guess, he drank it?”
“Yup,” he said with satisfaction. “Then the gun went off. Hit the ceiling and the bong water went all over my bed. It was like five o'clock too, and no one did anything.”
“Great story man,” I said. At least I think I said it the first time he told me the story.
When a writer leaves home and wanders into the world, or into daily life, it's prospecting time. When it comes to a writer noticing things, I think about Graham Greene's Maurice Bendrix in The End of the Affair, when he confronts the private investigator. I'm paraphrasing here, but Maurice says something to the affect: “I'm a writer,” this way he notices things.
But this ability to notice things whether it is the color of the sky, the sounds of rain, the looks on the faces of people waiting to cross the street is only one small facet of a writer's work.
Now, let's take Adam's anecdote of the gun, the bum and the bong water as an example. As writers, we can take his story for what it is, a story that is somewhat shocking, but that's about it. As Adam told me this story, more than once, I can't write it and leave it as it is and expect any great rewards as a writer.
In two of the writer's workshops I teach at Umbrella Factory, I ask my students to write a story using an anecdote that is not their own. I do this for a few reasons. The first reason is simply because we have all heard stories from others and some of those storytellers have impeccable memories for the events and details. Occasionally, these storytellers lack the memory of who (and how many times) they told the story to. Have you ever had a person in your life who tells you the same story so many times that you feel like you were practically there? As we sit down to record a story that someone told us, we can capture the voice of the teller, perhaps we can capture the vernacular, the body language and the general feeling. This anecdote exercise is great for voice and for character development.
Then comes the next choice. As writers of fiction, we must make the readers believe the story. With most anecdotes we tend toward a message or a moral or a system of events that make the audience feel a certain way.
Back to the bong water. Adam and I grew up together. He told me this story sometime in the fall of 1997, shortly after he returned to Denver from Seattle. Now, should I choose to craft a short story from the anecdote, I have unlimited possibilities. I could choose to focus on Adam and my relationship with him. The whole story could take place on a warm winter day on Denver's Auraria Campus which is where I worked at the time and he was attempting another go at college. This may be all right if I wanted a first person narrator and a simple reporting of events. Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights comes to mind here. As you may remember the book, Mr. Lockwood is our narrator. Of course, he's telling us the story of Heathcliff and the Lintons with the information he gets through Nellie the housekeeper. In short, by the time Mr. Lockwood arrives on the scene most of the people in the story are already dead. So, is Mr. Lockwood the best choice of narrator? I think he is, but let's consider where he gets his information.
I digress, we were busy on campus on a sunny day in late 1997.
I think this may be a lousy setting for the bong water story. As a writer, I think the story would be more interesting in the Capital Hill apartment in Seattle, Washington and at the time it unfolded. So, I've now put myself, my writer self into the situation. As I begin my retelling of the story, I know that for fiction I should have a beginning, a middle and an end. When Adam told the anecdote, the beginning was on the street somewhere when he and his friends decided to go home and smoke pot. Then they pick up a bum who wants to smoke pot too. The middle is the group of them passing around the bong. The end is the gun to the bum's head and another character telling him to drink. The gun goes off, end of story. This needs some help. Although there is a beginning, a middle, and an end, the characters don't seem very interesting.
As a writer, I choose to begin the story on a Monday morning:

Guns, Bums and Bong Water
Adam stared at the bullet hole in the bedroom ceiling. Thankful for the century old concrete and the faded paranoia, he rolled over in the stiff sheets of his bed. On the night stand, the old Bell Systems phone stood tall, proud, erect. If his service was still on, he would call Jill, the brunette in Denver who used very diplomatic language as she broke his heart. She made the breakup his idea when it was anything but.
Adam stood at the window. Outside the wavy ancient glass he dreaded going out into the rainy Seattle day. Only very reluctantly he made his way through people and raindrops to his job at the sandwich shop.
“Good morning,” he said. He stood at the time clock in the small nook in the back room.
“Good weekend?” Sarah asked.
“Yeah,” he said. “You?”
“Yeah,” she said. “Do anything?”
“I bought new bed sheets,” he said.
“Oh, I love new sheets.”
“Too starchy.”
“You have to wash them,” she said. Sarah looked at the clipboard and the daily prep sheet on it.
“No change,” Adam said.
“For the laundry,” he added.
“Oh. Why would you buy new bed sheets anyway?”
“I think I'm going home to Denver.”
“Denver? Why?”
“The zenith of the sky is so beautiful there, so blue.”
“It's sunny there?” she asked.
“Everyday,” he said.
“Are you feeling all right today, did something happen?”
“It's the most fucked up thing, Sarah. I don't want to do it anymore,” he said. He tied the apron around his middle just below the navel. His head dropped, the chin to his chest. He didn't see her stare, but he could feel it. He dreaded crying in front of her.
“What's happened?” she asked. The concern in her voice felt more like the true definition of irony. She looked at her watch. 8:30. There was less than half an hour to be ready for the day.
“Me and Ted, well. Never mind.”
“Ted? Our Ted?”
“Yeah, after work on Friday night.”
“Did you go out?”
“Well, no. Not exactly.”
“Did his wife know?” Sarah asked. “She doesn't like him out all night.”
“We weren't out all night, he went home early.”
“By the looks of the place, it looks like you left here early too.”
“Sorry,” Adam said.
“Ted's the boss, he should know better.”
“Did you know he's Mr. NRA?”
“What?” Sarah asked. “What did you two do?”
The back door of the sandwich shop opened. The slow creaking of rusted hinges echoed through the prep room of the sandwich shop. “Come on, let's go,” Ted said in a gentle urging voice. “Hello?” he called into the room.
Sarah stood straight, the clipboard fell to her side. Adam stared first at Ted then at Michelle, Ted's daughter.
“What?” Ted said. “Bring your kid to work day today.”

Michelle played under tables as Adam gently pulled chairs off them and put them in their places. By opening time Michelle stayed well clear of the sandwich counter. The apron Ted tied around her looked more like a soiled burlap wedding dress than anything. Ted, too busy with his daughter and his business did not notice the severity of Adam's avoidance, or Sarah's concern. The general mood was quiet, busy.
Ted's daughter had more staying power for work than Ted. Sarah and Ted began to wind down their day shortly after the lunch rush. Sarah put on her raincoat and waited as Ted did the same. “I'll just stay with Adam for a minute,” she said.
“That's a good idea,” Ted said. “Come on Michelle,” Ted urged. He pulled the child by the wrist as they neared the door.
Once they were outside the building, Sarah shook her head. “It's shameful,” she said. She turned to face Adam in the prep room. There were no longer traces of any sandwich eaters to remain in the afternoon shop. “Don't you think it is Adam?”
“Yeah, to use your children like that,” she said. “Anyhow, what happened?”
“Well, after work we were out in the alley, you know throwing away the trash, when Ted practically steps on this bum. So, we start talking to him, and we're all about the pot and then Ted invites him to smoke some with us. Which is all good, but we didn't have any, all the pot we had was at my house. So, I invite him back there. It was going along just fine, we were listening to his stories and passing around the bong, and it was fine. Then, all of a sudden it was like Ted just cracked. “Drink the bong water, drink it,” he said. So when this bum refuses, Ted takes out this gun, puts it the guy's head and tells him to drink it, he's not going to ask again, and all that. It was so fucked up. I'm going back to Denver.”
“Wait, a gun? Why did you need new bed sheets Adam?”
“I'm not going to do this anymore, you know?” he said. “I can't work in the sandwich shop forever, I can't work for a guy like Ted, you know? Oh, no offense.”
“None taken. Why did you need new bedsheets.”
“Besides, I could go to school maybe get a good job, or a different one anyway. And I'm never touching pot again, do you know how paranoid I got after the gun went off?”
“The gun went off?”
“Oh, it was fucked up,” Adam said.
“As you were saying?”
“I was paranoid and after I kicked them out I went to get new sheets.”
“Was anyone hurt?”
“No, Jesus, no. Ted started waving the thing around, it went off, into the ceiling, and it was like five o'clock too. We jumped up, the bong tipped over, and all that resin and shit, well, it ruined the sheets.”
“And now, you're going back to Denver.”
“Yes,” Adam said. “I don't want to be here anymore.”

The End

So, I don't know how well I stack up in the whole anecdote arena here, but it is a good exercise. It's a great way to get going, and it's a great writing workshop. I hope everyone out there gets to try it out.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Passage of Time, the Leaves of a Journal

When I think about the passage of time, I do so only very superficially. I realize today that I am older than I've ever been and I am, at the same time, the youngest I will ever be. I don't spent too much time on this. These late weeks and especially these late days, now the first of June, 2010 mark several anniversaries in my life. At the same time, this is a very exciting part of life for me, and I just can't wait to move forward. In a way I feel like Janus, cursed to look back and forward at the same time.
Today, as I think about the passage of time, I recollect a few pages in Richard Brautigan's So the Wind Won't Blow It All Away. It was the last book he published in his lifetime. The book, published in 1982, has one narrator split in time, 1979 and 1948. I suppose the book is essentially about reconciling the past, and clearly it took this narrator almost 30 years to do it. My favorite part of the book is when the old (1979) narrator returns to the reeds and weeds around the young (1948) narrator's catfish pond. Together they hear a couple's discussion of lost friends. This old couple returns to the catfish pond every night, they unload a sofa, lamps, a coffee table, the man fishes and the woman cooks hamburgers. When the man tires of fishing he reads The National Geographic magazines he brings along for that purpose. Now, it isn't this typical tableau of American life or the surreal depiction of it on the side of the catfish pond that I find so appealing. The truly profound part of the whole scene is when the old narrator (1979) says: “Those were in the beautiful days of America when Americans made their own adventures before the television came and took it all away.” What a wonderful aside. And in 1982, what do you think Brautigan was trying to tell us?
We read the passage of time in Alan Lightman's 1993 book Einstein's Dreams in a much different way than Brautigan's portrayal. Lightman's book reads almost like pieces of dreams. Each “chapter” title is a date in 1905 leading up to the release Albert Einstein's theory of relativity. Although Alan Lightman is a physicist his novel is easy to read for the non-scientist and the general bent is time and the way it passes. We can all relate to that. When Lightman investigates a world without memory he introduces the “book of life.” This concept within the confines of a world where people have no memory from one day to the next is a concept close to home for me. After all, in his or her book of life, Lightman has people who frantically fill pages about the day's events. Over time, the book becomes too large to read in it's entirety. Does this sound normal to you? When a person's book of life is so large that they must read only a portion of it to understand themselves, or know themselves, what a tremendous choice that must be. It is the choice of how to spent the time, I suppose.
I bring up these two books today, of all days, because they deal with the passage of time. I'm thinking about it today because today is the first of June, 2010. As I sat down to write in my journal this morning I just stared at the date heading. My life as a writer began many years ago. However, when I was younger I did not keep a journal. I figured in my young life there was no need for it. I guess I didn't have any real valuable experiences worth exploiting. I began writing a journal on June 1, 1990. For some strange reason I chose to write about Christmas time on that first day of journal keeping. As my friends and family can attest, I do not like Christmas (nor have I ever), which really baffles me even now. I neglected to mention how hot the day was, or if that had any influence on my choice of subject. I doubt I had any really longing for the Christmas to come. By the time Christmas rolled around in 1990, I was enjoying the stylings of Sgt. Kernan's “The Night Before Christmas” while completely terrified in my sleeping bag on the eve of Desert Storm.
I have not kept with it everyday of the last 20 years, but I do write in it almost daily. These journals are a different thing entirely to the composition notebook I regularly mention. Think of it like this: the composition notebook is where I write for others and the journal only belongs to me.
As I look over older journals, I am amazed at how well I recorded everything: travels, relationships, jobs, thoughts, vistas, residences, what I've read, what I've composed, my part in the war, disasters, triumphs, dreams, people I cannot remember, places that have been lost, airline flight numbers. In short, I have written everything down. Talk about the book of life getting too large.
I always recommend everyone I know to keep a journal. I'm sure there are plenty of psychological reasons, or therapeutic reasons, but I don't really know what they are. I believe the journal and the act of keeping one is healthy for everyone, not just writers. For writers, however, I think the journal is absolutely critical. I use mine as a preamble to the day's tasks. I say preamble because it is exactly that: it is my opportunity to unload my mind, write poorly or cryptically or whatever. As I said, the journal is not for sharing. As I spend ten to fifteen minutes on it before my writing hours begin, I hope to free myself from my own confines. Without divulging my journal entries, I can say this: when I sit down to write fiction, what I write does not resemble a journal entry in any way.
As an editor, and journal keeper, I can spot a journal entry mascaraing as a short story. This is frightening to me on so many levels. Granted some stories have to be told as a journal: Alice Walker's The Color Purple, and Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes come to mind. These novels rely on that voice. Incidentally, there is such a tremendous shift in the narrator's voice in both of these books that the writers would not be able to capture it in any other way. However, for most writers, keep the journal as a journal is the best rule. Many of the nonfiction submissions we read at Umbrella Factory Magazine are strange mixtures of memoir and journal. Often times, they are painful to read.
Back to June 1, 2010. In the twenty years I've kept a journal I don't think I've got any real wisdom for humanity. But a few words at the beginning or the day and the passage of time becomes easily traced. As the entries build, there is a record to reflect upon, or a relief of burden easily buried in the leaves of a journal.