En Words

A place to talk about words - whether from books, stories, magazines, brochures, or matchbook covers.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Unhappy Endings

Newsweek has an interesting piece on movie endings, and how they're often predictable, yet at the same time unsatisfactory. When I think of great movie endings, what comes to mind are such films as Casablanca and Chinatown, with great last lines; the surprise ending of The Sting; or even that last frozen frame in Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid. But the author came up with a completely different list, many of which I could hardly oppose (the final apocalypse of Doctor Strangelove, or that last scare in Carrie), and a good number I had never seen.

That got me wondering how universal a good ending is, or whether much of its power depends on the person seeing it. When is something cliche and when a nod to a previous influence? And what if you may see the imitator and not original? Should that be discouraged?

I've found that endings are often tougher to write than beginnings, which is saying a lot, as I find an opening line to be genuinely painful to find at times.. To draw a conclusion, tie up the lose ends, and allow the reader to have something to think about is difficult. Like right now.

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Thursday, March 13, 2008

Laughs and Death

I started watching the DVD of Death at a Funeral, and, literally, had to stop it on the the fourth line to save the movie for other members of my family as well. A hearse pulls up to an estate in England. Four formally-dressed men come out and bring a casket from the back as someone, obviously a relative has been standing. They all go in. One of the men asks, "Would you..." He addresses the gentleman who had been waiting for them, and means would you like to view the body. The man nods. The first one opens the casket and the other looks down for a few seconds. I'm thinking, "If this were me, I'd have it be the wrong body." But it's taking a long time, and then he looks up and says, "That's not my father." The head of the group from the funeral hall mutters, "Shit, I took the wrong one." The four race back out to the hearse, return the casket to the back, and tear off. It's hard to come up with a comic line that is something you cannot anticipate, particularly when the viewer knows the movie is a comedy and what weirder thing to have in British humor than the wrong body. But to pull that off in such a disarming way that you figure the screenwriter and director are going to play things straight, at least that far, is impressive.

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Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Writing Teacher Rants About Writing Workshops

In an interesting piece in Poets & Writers, at least for those of us who have never approached a college writing class, let along a creative writing MFA program, Dan Barden has at creative writing workshops. What makes this more curious is that he teaches creative writing:

Creative writing workshops don’t, in my experience, churn out the same kind of writing. Nor do they encourage a personality cult centered on the instructor (on my weaker days, I wish). And they don’t destroy tender creative spirits. There’s no writer worth her salt who needs any help with self-destruction.

Rather, my primary objection to creative writing workshops is that they don’t work. Not, mind you, because they can’t work—it’s that they don’t work. There’s something rotten at the core of most of them, which makes them extremely unlikely to work.

The problems? They seem to include the following:

  • Workshop participants get the false sense that others have to read what they write.

  • People taking workshops often notice that the experiences seem structured as democracies, which should mean that no one has more of a say or knows more than anyone else, including the teacher.

  • Most teachers these days are too nice and don't deliver the bad news and pain that many writers need if they want to improve.

I think there is another reason people often have a low opinion of writing classes, and say that you can't teach writing. Of course you can - just ask writer reeling from the ocean of red ink a decent editor has let flow over the deathless prose. Or would that be prose of the living dead?

You have to get your stuff ripped apart so you can see where you're screwing up. Some has to be done by someone outside yourself, and, eventually, you must build this ruthlessly critical facility inside. But the problem that I see with creative writing MFA programs is that they have become an industry. People churn through, learn the things you do and don't do to get approval, enter editing positions, and use the same sense to propogate the MFA sensibility. Eventually, it becomes very difficult for people who have talent and have put work into their writing to break into literary publications because they don't have the lettered pedigree.

Perhaps the reaction to writing programs also has something to do with the often dull fiction, poetry, and drama that comes out of such programmed writers. Instead of meeting the world in all the ways they might, the writers go into programs, staying within the safe paths of academia. Until a few decades ago, writers travelled, worked a succession of menial but tough jobs, wrestled with what regular people were like, loved and lost, and a thousand other things. They walked into the maelstrom, and eventually came out with something to say, because they had filled themselves with experience. Maybe instead of saying that you can't teach writing the criticism is that you can't teach someone living. They have to do it themselves. And until someone has lived, there will be too little to say.

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Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Grisham Has Healthy Attitude

I just read this AP piece about John Grisham. He apparently - correctly - views what he does as straight entertainment, not literature in the slightest:
"I'm not sure where that line goes between literature and popular fiction," the mega-selling author says. "I can assure you I don't take myself serious enough to think I'm writing literary fiction and stuff that's going to be remembered in 50 years. I'm not going to be here in 50 years; I don't care if I'm remembered or not. It's pure entertainment."
Now out with his 21st book, he's likely right, and I don't think there's anything wrong with that. Not all writing has to be high literature or something that will last the ages. But I'd hope, at least, that any writer would try to make what he or she did as polished and pleasing from the view of the craft as possible. If not, I can't imagine something that would be duller and more painful to undertake.

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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Fifteen Seconds of Fame and Fleeting Audiences

I caught myself doing something that makes me nuts when it's done to me - the fifteen second reading indulgence. I had followed a link to a column that former litigator Glenn Greenwald writes for Salon.com. The topic, mentioned in an email news list, that caught my attention was a critique of a reporter's coverage of John McCain, but I accidentally stumbled onto an earlier post about the unintended consequential results of hate speech laws. The topic caught my attention - I think that there are probably enough laws to cover pretty much anything that one person might do to another, and that legislating intent and thought is both dangerous and more than a little useless.

I finished reading, nodded to myself, and then was ready to head off elsewhere and suddenly knew that even though I just read two pieces back-to-back from the same author that seemed solid, I had no intention of checking back in the future for further posts. There is something more than a little peculiar about how many of us approach the world as readers, these days. We see something of value, but it is as though these items appear out of nowhere, have no connection to any one person, and certainly could not be evidence that more of the same might be found there. It's as though much of humanity had become thoughtless intellectual cattle, roaming about, grazing here and there, but never drawing any conclusions as to the best places to munch based on experience.

I'm sure people do bookmark spots, I do at times, but perhaps there is just too much out there and trying to keep up with it all has become more burden than freedom. Or maybe there is just so much out there that some of us are sitting tightly in a pool of serendipity, figuring that the interesting things will show up eventually. But I'm wondering how much of value I miss because I don't follow up - even for the few sites where I have a paid subscription.

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Friday, December 21, 2007

Homage to the Bic Stick

Some people in the UK seem to have a bit of time on their hands - just witness the parade of amusing reviews at Amazon.co.uk of the classic cheap Bic pen. Black. Medium point. What, you were expecting blue and fine point? So was one of the reviewers.

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Monday, April 30, 2007

More on the "Violent" High School Student Near Chicago

You have heard about the high school student arrested basically for having written a violent essay. A Chicago Times column gets a bit more information out - such as the student's assignment was to write an essay, immediately setting to paper any thought and feeling without censorship.

Wonder if hearing all the stories about Virginia Tech could have had an influence? No, of course not - certainly the educational and law enforcement systems didn't get what they asked for. Oh, and the young man was supposed to enter the Marines in the fall as the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, but no longer. The Marines just dropped him.

Now for the great irony: at least one town in Connecticut has noticed a literacy gender gap, so Greenwich public school officials want to get boys to write more. After all the news, I'm sure they're lining up, anxious to get their mug shots taken.

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