Title of Work and its Form: “My Father with Cigarette Twelve Years Before the Nazis Could Break His Heart,” poem
Author: Philip Levine
Date of Work: 1994
Where the Work Can Be Found: The poem debuted in The Forward and has subsequently been anthologized and reprinted. The poem concludes Mr. Levine’s 1994 poem collection, The Simple Truth, a book that won the 1995 Pulitzer Prize. You can also find the poem in This Is My Best: Great Writers Share Their Favorite Work, a book edited by Retha Powers and Kathy Kiernan. Mr. Levine also contributed a brief essay in which he describes the creation of the poem.
Bonuses: Here is an interview Mr. Levine gave to The Paris Review. Here is an NPR interview in which Mr. Levine discusses his upbringing and poetry. Here is the Library of Congress page dedicated to Mr. Levine, a Poet Laureate Emeritus.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Inspiration
Mr. Levine and I have a lot in common. We were both born in the Detroit area and we both write poetry. Unfortunately, that’s about the extent of it. Mr. Levine chose to conclude his book with this poem and his entry in This Is My Best reinforces that the poem means a great deal to him. As well it should; the poem’s first person narrator begins the work by evoking an ancient memory, his father “commanding” a kitchen match to flame with his thumbnail and talking about important things. The narrator “fast-forwards” sixty years to the present, putting the old memories into context. Mr. Levine (and the narrator) were children when Hitler was coming to power; the poem presents a slice of what the world was like before it changed and before Mr. Levine developed his powerful critical faculties.
I love the way Mr. Levine opens the poem:
I remember the room in which he held
a kitchen match and with his thumbnail
commanded it to flame
The image explicitly communicates that the poem is a story and implies that the tone will be a a quiet, contemplative one instead of a more intense one. The match itself is a kind of campfire, right? How many life lessons have been shared by parents under such conditions? The beginning of the flame, the beginning of the Lucky Strike moment: these are subconscious cues to the reader that he or she is about to get the same kind of important lesson as the narrator receives.
Before I read Mr. Levine’s essay in This Is My Best, I thought that the title of the poem sounded like the title of a work of visual art. (I swear! I even wrote “TITLE LIKE A WORK OF ART” in the margin.) In that short essay, Mr. Levine describes his reluctant visit to a museum, whereupon he was struck by a painting: “My Father with Cigarette,” by Harry Lieberman. Mr. Levine was inspired for a number of reasons. The story of Mr. Lieberman’s father bore some resemblance to that of his own, for example. The poem, Mr. Levine points out, came out of him relatively quickly and easily and he simply augmented the title of the painting. Why not follow Mr. Levine’s example? If you look at some visual art, you’re going to be provoked into having some cool ideas. Art can be a very potent launching point for writers.
Even better, no two writers will get the same idea or feeling from the same work. Look up Eugene Delacroix’s “Orphan Girl at the Cemetery.”
What kind of stories or images occur to you when you look at her?
What Should We Steal?
- Begin a didactic work with an image of convocation. People are trained to understand when a LESSON is about to begin. Baseball games begin with the National Anthem, court proceedings begin with a standing ovation for the judge.
- Flip through a book or art or visit a gallery and steal away. If your mind is open, you’re probably going to get some ideas worth jotting down.
- TITLE FORMULA #5550199: Borrow the title of a great work of art or modify it to fit your needs.
1994, Inspiration, Philip Levine, Poet Laureate, The Simple Truth
Title of Work and its Form: Ed Wood, feature film
Author: Directed by Tim Burton, written by Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski
Date of Work: 1994
Where the Work Can Be Found: The film was FINALLY released on DVD and can be purchased through the usual outlets. (Go do that now. The movie is literally awesome.)
Bonuses: Here is Roger Ebert’s review of the film. The film was discussed on a very cool podcast: An Hour With Your Ex. Mr. Burton will reteam with Mr. Alexander and Mr. Karaszewski for his next film. I will be there! And here is a Halloween podcast that features both of the scribes!
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: EVERYTHING
I was an adolescent in 1994 and knew very little about the world or about myself. What I did know is that I loved writing and the creation of art made me happy. I cherish the memory of my father taking me to see Ed Wood in the theater; it’s one of the first times I fell in love with anything. The writers and director tell the story of Edward D. Wood Jr., another man who loved sharing his creativity. Are his films any good? That’s not the point. Ed Wood poured his heart and soul into his work and laid his soul bare for the audience. The film begins as Wood debuts his new play, The Casual Company. The reviews were as bad as the production values. A simple twist of fate: Ed Wood happens to meet and befriend Bela Lugosi, who has a terrible drug problem and needs money. Wood talks his way into directing his first film: a fictionalization of the Christine Jorgensen story. Why must her name be taken off the picture? As producer George Weiss says, “That bitch is asking for the sky.” Glen or Glenda is released…kinda. It loses money. The rest of the film details the creation of Bride of the Atom and Plan 9 From Outer Space, easily two of the worst films ever made. Wood went to extreme lengths to get the movies made: he was baptized by church people who had money, he sweet-talked a meat distributor into giving him money and even gave a plum part to a woman he believed had money. (He was wrong.) When Lugosi dies, Wood wonders how he will finish Plan 9. Why, with a body double, of course! Just as all seems lost and Wood reaches his breaking point, he meets Orson Welles, who speaks with him filmmaker-to-filmmaker. “Is it all worth it?” Wood asks. Welles replies:
“Visions are worth fighting for. Why spend your life making someone else’s dreams?”
Plan 9 is finished, guided by Wood’s creative instincts. Howard Shore’s superlative score swells and the hero has won the day.
Like I said, this is my favorite movie of all time and is objectively one of the best of its era, if not of all time. I understand up front that this essay will fall short of what I want to say about the film. You know what? That’s okay. Ed Wood may not have created any towering works of creative genius, but he created. He wrote novels, directed films, wrote scripts… he produced. Many writers allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good. How many of us are ever going to create a Hamlet or a Superman or a The Godfather or an “Annabel Lee”? Not too many of us, sadly. The important thing is that we feed, honor and collaborate with our muses as much as possible.
Although Wood takes them in stride, he is challenged by numerous obstacles, both internal and external.
|Societal distaste (and worse) for transvestites
|The need to be accepted
|Societal misunderstanding of transvestitism
|The need to be accepted for who he really is
|Inability to “fit in” with the normal Hollywood crowd
|The need to tell the stories dictated by his muse
|The inherent difficulty in getting films financed
|The desire to employ Bela against the need to exploit him
|The inherent difficulty in making a great film (or any great work of art)
|Dolores’s lack of understanding in their romantic relationship
|The difficult task of motivating other people to work in the interest of your work
|Bela’s poor health and advanced age
One of the reasons that the film is so great is that Wood is cast as the successful underdog, even though his movies didn’t turn out very good. You may not be a transvestite, but there are still times when your identity causes problems for you. The audience has someone to root for in Wood, no matter who they are. In constructing the character of Wood, Alexander and Karaszewski follow the advice Polonius gave to his France-bound son:
This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Johnny Depp’s interpretation of Ed Wood is so compelling because the massive obstacles don’t stop him from being a dynamic character. Just about every character in the film, in fact, is the same way. Bela keeps working (as though he had a choice) and Wood’s crew overcomes their fatigue to finish their films. The overall point seems to be this: a powerfully dynamic character needs a lot of conflicts to overcome. Hamlet. Harrison Bergeron. Carrie Bradshaw. These are oversized personalities who require oversized obstacles. Who wants to see LeBron James play one-on-one with a five-year-old? (Or Aaron Carter with Shaquille O’Neal?)
Another one of my favorite parts of the film is the whip-smart dialogue. Alexander and Karaszewski demonstrate their ability to write world-class comedy dialogue in the film. (As they did in their previous classic Problem Child. Seriously.) It’s certainly true that the actors are responsible for their stellar line readings. But they wouldn’t have anything to say if Alexander and Karaszewski hadn’t put fingers to keyboard.
Look at one of the first scenes in the film. The cast and crew of The Casual Company are reading the review of their show. Their faces go from excitement to disappointment. Then:
Oh, what does that old queen know? She didn’t even show. Sent her copy boy to do the dirty work. Screw you, Miss Crowley.
Do I really have a face like a horse?
What does “ostentatious” mean?
Hey, it’s not that bad. You can’t concentrate on the negative. Look, he’s got some nice things to say here. “The soldiers’ costumes are very realistic.” That’s positive!
The exchange is so great because it is hilarious, but the lines are also deeply rooted in character. Bunny’s gender is…well, he’s not quite sure. And that’s okay. Dolores is a beautiful young ingénue who later breaks up with Ed because of the perception of others. Paul is an insecure actor who isn’t exactly the best-educated guy around. And Ed is an optimist at heart.
Comedy works best when the punchlines are derived from the characters who deliver them. Why? I think because the audience has lots to go on. Not only are they laughing at the construction of the joke, but another part of their brain is factoring in their established understanding of the character. Even better, you’re using more than one tool from your writer’s toolbox. In this case, Alexander and Karaszewski are getting laughs while establishing character and dropping in exposition.
(I would be remiss if I didn’t give a shoutout to the great transition to the following scene. Wood reassures everyone they’re doing “great work.” A second later, he’s in bed with Dolores. A thunderclap reverberates as he says, “Honey, what if I’m wrong? What if I just don’t got it?” Although an optimist, Wood is a kind of realist.)
Ed Wood is an all-time classic that, to me, represents one of the artistic high-water marks in the careers of those involved. I have no idea if Alexander and Karaszewski were aware of what they were doing, but the character of Ed Wood is a shining example for writers of all kinds and his story (both the true version and the fictional) is an ideal to which we should all aspire.
What Should We Steal?
- Believe in your work and in yourself, no matter what. Should you get cocky about your talent and make risky life decisions? Maybe not. Or maybe you should…
- Match the character’s dynamism to their level of strength and motivation. A story may not be compelling if the dragon is slayed too easily.
- Derive your comedy from your unique characters. Give your reader the context that allows them to know why they should laugh.
- Surround yourself with great people. Remember the timeless wisdom of Ed Wood:
Eddie’s the only fella in town who doesn’t pass judgment on people.
That’s right. If I did, I wouldn’t have any friends.
1994, EVERYTHING, Larry Karaszewski, Pull the String, Scott Alexander, Tim Burton
Title of Work and its Form: Pulp Fiction, Feature Film
Author: Directed by Quentin Tarantino, Screenplay by Quentin Tarantino, Story by Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary
Date of Work: 1994
Where the Work Can Be Found: The film has been released on DVD and Blu-ray. Here’s the trailer for Pulp Fiction. If you haven’t seen the movie, you should run right out and do so now.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Structure
Pulp Fiction is the second film by Quentin Tarantino, a man who learned to write and direct movies by…watching a zillion movies. (The principle, of course, translates to the written word. If you want to write, you have to read. A lot.) The film tells three separate stories:
- “Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace’s Wife”- Vincent Vega, a drug-addicted mob enforcer played by John Travolta, has been asked to take the boss’s wife out for a night on the town. Vincent is reluctant; if anything happens to Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman), he will become a “grease spot.” Vincent and Mia have a nice dinner and conversation…until Mia snorts Vincent’s heroin, believing it is cocaine. She’s overdosing, and Vince must save Mia’s life-and his own.
- “The Gold Watch” - Butch, an aging boxer played by Bruce Willis, has been paid by Marsellus to throw his final fight in the fifth round. Instead, Butch double-crosses Marsellus, planning to move far, far away with the money he earned. All goes well until Butch learns that he needs to go back to his apartment to get his watch, a family heirloom. Butch knows that Marsellus has taken steps to turn him into a grease spot, so he has to be very careful.
- “The Bonnie Situation” - Jules Winfield (Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent have retrieved a package that is important to Marsellus. Oops! On the way back, they accidentally shoot the man who helped them. Now they need to figure out how to dispose of the car and how to make sure that their savior’s wife, Bonnie, doesn’t freak out. That’s why you call in The Wolf (Harvey Keitel).
The stories unite in the end, but the film is notable for its non-linear structure. The events don’t occur in chronological order; this confuses some first-time viewers. (“Wait!” They might say. “How can John Travolta clean out the car when Bruce Willis just shot him?”) The non-linear structure allows Mr. Tarantino to put a new spin on “old” stories. As Mr. Tarantino will happily acknowledge, there are a zillion gangster movies. There are a zillion crime films and a zillion heist films. In order to make something wholly his own, Mr. Tarantino sliced and diced his story, rearranging it in such a way that his film would feel like something new.
This flexing of Mr. Tarantino’s narrative muscles sets the film apart from its genre roots. Now, I’m not saying that “genre” is a dirty word. I love mystery stories and science fiction novels and they’re not INHERENTLY un-literary. When Mr. Tarantino rearranged the structure of his film, he was bringing the movie out of simple genre filmmaking. What’s the difference? In many genre stories, the author has his or her mind on the conventions of the genre. Tarantino wanted to make a great “movie,” not a great “mob movie.”
The non-linearity of the film also adds emotional resonance to some of the moments. Marsellus (Ving Rhames) is a somewhat distant character until the moment Butch hits him with his car. We’ve gotten a couple cool monologues that establish he’s not someone you want to mess with and the indirect exposition from other characters. (Just ask Tony Rocky Horror what Marsellus is like!) In a different film, the audience wouldn’t have spent so much time with Marsellus’s wife; aren’t we more likely to feel for Marsellus once we understand what a loving husband he is? Once Marsellus and Butch are in the basement, we’re prepared to truly feel empathy for him. (The scene is unpleasant, but fascinating.)
What Should We Steal?
- Play with structure to breathe new life into a classic form. Countless poets have written countless odes. How can you change the form a little to set yours apart for your reader? Lots of writers enjoy writing love stories…what structural twists can you employ to make yours different from all the rest of them?
- Add emotional resonance by spoiling the end of your story. Jules and Vincent have some very deep, philosophical chats, the last of which is in the diner at the end of the film. The audience knows that Vincent will someday be shot dead because he is choosing a path different from the one Jules has decided upon. Jules is spared because he is “walking the Earth,” Vincent is killed because the Bonnie Situation didn’t impact him as deeply as it should have. This emotional resonance would be missing if Tarantino told his story in a more conventional manner.
1994, Narrative Structure, Quentin Tarantino, Roger Avary
Title of Work and its Form: Clerks, feature film
Author: Written and directed by Kevin Smith
Date of Work: 1994
Where the Work Can Be Found: Clerks has been released on DVD. The tenth-anniversary edition includes a ton of bonus features that will be of interest to fans of the film. As of this writing, the film is streaming on Netflix.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Material
Kevin Smith was working at the Quick Stop when he decided to sell his comic book collection and max out his credit cards to make Clerks. The story is relatively simple; Dante Hicks is called in to work in the Quick Stop on his day off. He’s not even supposed to be there on the day the film takes place! Dante is in a bit of a rut; his sweet and beautiful girlfriend, Veronica, urges him to go back to school. Instead, Dante seems resigned to a lifetime of jockeying the register and dealing with the crazy customers. Randal Graves is his best friend and works at RST Video next door. The two play hockey on the roof and attend Julie Dwyer’s funeral and even deal with the news that Dante’s ex-girlfriend is engaged to an Asian design major. (Things don’t end well for poor Caitlin Bree…)
Clerks represents Kevin Smith playing to his strengths and getting the most out of everything at his disposal. Smith couldn’t afford a ton of lights and could only film at night, so the script calls for the store’s security doors to be jammed shut. In the days before digital video, cost was a huge roadblock for beginning filmmakers. Mr. Smith made his budget realistic by filming in black-and-white. At the time, Nicolas Cage wasn’t willing to take a role in exchange for a ten-dollar bill handshake. Therefore, Smith cast local actors, some of whom had no experience in front of the camera.
These limitations were actually fortuitous accidents for Mr. Smith. David Klein’s black-and-white cinematography lends a rough, rock-and-roll look to a film that was decidedly NOT a product of the Hollywood studio system. The film is about young people who don’t make that much money and don’t have much going on in their lives…the look of the film fits perfectly. Liev Schreiber, one of our finest actors, would not have fit in the film. Being forced to cast relative amateurs like Brian O’Halloran and Jeff Anderson meant that Mr. Smith got a fresh kind of passion on the screen that most films just don’t have. Having the shutters over the windows through the whole film reinforces the sense of claustrophobia in the protagonist’s life. Dante is scared he’ll never get out, but he doesn’t know how to get out.
Mr. Smith made the most out of everything he did have. When writing his script for the film, he clearly thought about everything that could be done in a convenience store and a video store. He might not have been able to afford a thousand crane shots and to film each dialogue scene with the perpetual spinning you find in a Michael Bay film, but he could give one of his friends the role of a customer who searches for the “perfect dozen” carton of eggs. The building has a roof, of course…Mr. Smith had his characters play their hockey game up there. What does a video clerk need to do from time to time? Order videos. So Randal reads a list of porno movie titles in front of a mother and her two-year-old.
At that point, Mr. Smith was not a highly experienced filmmaker, so he made up for it with loads of passion. He didn’t have a ton of money, so he wrote a script that he could afford to make. Most importantly, he just went out and DID IT. Shouldn’t we all follow his lead?
What Should We Steal?
- Exploit your setting and your characters. As you’re writing, make a list of everything that you would find in your settings. Let’s say you’re setting a horror movie or book in a hardware store. Wouldn’t you expect to see your characters use a wide range of tools during the story? What if a character happens to be a plumber? Plumbers are generally good with their hands and have a good sense of how to fix things. How could you exploit that in your story?
- Turn your limitations into advantages. Do you have trouble writing stories that are very, very long? Write an epistolary novel that consists of lots of very short sections. Maybe you’ve only lived in one place your whole life. That’s fine; write the short story that truly captures the feeling of your hometown.
1994, 37, Kevin Smith, Material
Title of Work and its Form: I. Asimov, memoir
Author: Isaac Asimov
Date of Work: 1994
Where the Work Can Be Found: The book can be found in countless independent bookstores across the country or even on those great big megawebsites that don’t need your money quite as much.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Structure
Ken’s note: This post is going live on January 2, 2013, which would have been Isaac’s 93rd birthday. Although the Good Doctor is gone, here’s hoping that his countless fans take this opportunity to celebrate his memory and his massive body of work.
Who knows why, but Isaac Asimov is one of the first few authors with whom I fell in love. I was in awe of the fact that he published such a wide range of books…and so many of them! Science fiction was one of my first loves; Asimov was one of the Big Three and even had a magazine named after him. I remember reading my first copy of I. Asimov to tatters even though, as Asimov admitted, his life was not the most exciting ever.
I. Asimov is the man’s third autobiography. In Memory Yet Green and In Joy Still Felt are thick monsters that recount the entertaining minutiae of Asimov’s life through the late 1970s. With a decade having passed (and illness clearly becoming more of a concern), Asimov acceded to those who insisted that he fill in the remaining blanks of his life story. In his introduction, Asimov describes the book’s form:
So what I intend to do is describe my whole life as a way of presenting my thoughts and make it an independent autobiography standing on its own feet. I won’t go into the kind of detail I went into the first two volumes. What I intend to do is to break the book into numerous sections, each dealing with some different phase of my life or some different person who affected me, and follow it as far as necessary-to the very present, if need be.
Instead of following a strict chronology and describing the life as it was lived, Asimov presents 166 vignettes of varying length. Sure, the first few stories are about his upbringing and his parents, but isn’t this a logical place to start for anyone seeking to tell their story? It’s also fitting that the last few vignettes describe his struggle to remain healthy and to work in the face of increasing infirmity. (The illness was far worse than the public understood, of course. Asimov had contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion during a 1983 heart bypass operation.)
What are we, Asimov suggests with his structure, but the sum of the people we have loved and the passions we have fostered? In the 90th section, Asimov describes how much he loves the busywork of creating indexes for his books. In the 104th section, he pays tribute to Judy-Lynn del Rey, a friend who died very young. A hundred pages later, he recounts the vacations he took at a favorite resort and how he came to have a science fiction magazine named for him.
I. Asimov benefits from the variety granted by the book’s form. If you don’t want to read about the fear of travel that kept Asimov largely bound to the Northeast, no worries. Just skip a few pages and read about his friendship with Hugh Downs. Not interested in Hugh Downs? Turn the page and read about how it felt to discover one of his books had become a best-seller.
The book takes on a stream-of-consciousness feel because of its structure. In a way, you feel as though you are sitting down with Isaac, having a beer. (Well, he would have a coffee or something because he was a teetotaler for most of his life.) If you could still chat up Asimov, he would only tell you the parts of his life that he felt were most interesting, an effect that is maintained in the book.
What Should We Steal?
- Consider the use of connected vignettes to eliminate dead weight. Have you ever been trapped at a party with the most boringest guy in the world? You ask him about his day, and he says, “Well, I woke up and I needed to get out of bed so I rotated my body ninety degrees and put my feet on the floor. But I did so slowly because I wasn’t sure how cold the floor was. But the floor wasn’t cold. I put my full weight on my feet and walked to the bathroom, alternating steps between my right foot and my left foot. I had to take a shower, so I started the water, making sure there I turned the left-hand spigot to make the water warm enough…” Vignettes let you get to the important part!
- Consider the use of connected vignettes to simulate the feel of a conversation. Let’s say you could have dinner with Thomas Jefferson. You would want TJ to do the same thing Asimov did: tell you interesting stories that span the whole of his lifetime. Not only would he focus on some of the more interesting stories, but you would also gain insight into the man’s mind based upon what he tells you and when.
1994, Isaac Asimov, Narrative Structure, Science Fiction