Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Authors and Filmmakers

When I was getting ready to start in on my PhD studies, there were three things above all that I feared: that I wouldn’t have time to write, watch movies or read for pleasure. Nearly done with my first semester, I’ve found two of my three fears were unfounded. I’ve been able to maintain a pretty steady quota of adding a page a day to my novel (and have even found time here and there to write and revise the occasional short story) and am well on my way to getting a first draft finished within the next year. I’ve also been able to maintain a pretty impressive roster of films, usually managing to find time even in the busiest of weeks to squeeze in three or four movies. Pleasure reading, on the other hand, has been all but lost to me. How bad is the situation? In early August I made the foolish decision to start Denis Johnson’s seven-hundred page opus Tree of Smoke. At the start of the semester I was about two hundred pages in. Now it’s late November and I still have about a hundred and fifty pages to go. I have, in those months, stopped and made time for a couple of short novels that I’d been itching to get into, such as Imre Kertesz’s Detective Story which, even at a slim 112 pages, still took me a week and a half to get through, or James’ Daisy Miller which, due to an act of Herculean dedication on my part, I was able to tear through in a brisk five days. I even managed to squeeze in all one hundred odd pages of Naguib Mahfouz’s The Day the Leader was Killed. And that’s it folks, three and a half novels in the last three months, three of which barely even qualify as novels. There was a time (once upon a time) when I could reasonably expect to get through a thousand page novel in a couple of weeks and still have a social life, but the hundreds of pages of academic reading and hours of grading I have to put myself through every week just saps most of the drive to read anything else right out of me (except for damnations have I wasted some hours on that site).

I have good reason to be alarmed, since, as any writer can tell you, reading is the lifeblood of writing, and D.C. Greetham’s Textual Scholarship just doesn’t inspire my creativity the same way the latest effort from Cormac McCarthy does. Stephen King’s On Writing, though a grossly overrated load of claptrap (that completely ignores the kind of lives most writers have to live, a reality King is far too distanced from to be of any use to the majority of us), contains one nugget of wisdom that he absolutely knocks out of the ballpark. “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time or the tools to write.” I couldn’t agree more. Not only is it from the writing of others that we learn the process ourselves (I remember one of my workshop profs telling us that writing is the world’s biggest open secret), but it’s also the fount of our inspiration. Great writers inspire us to want to match their ability, bad writers make us want to prove that we’re better, mediocre writers no doubt have their value, but if it’s not drawn from that well of artistic inspiration, it is impossible for us to thrive on it. Academic writing, even at its most experimental, is too restrained by rigid conventions to be of any inspirational value. It doesn’t even compel me to want to pursue my own academic inquiries (I’m mostly self-motivated there). It would be grand if I could find some means to incorporate what I learn from my academic reading into my creative work (The Ramus Dimension: A Science Fiction Allegory on the Pervasiveness of Ramist Philosophy), but whatever the key to that is, I haven’t found it yet.

Yet, as I’ve said, I’ve maintained a steady output on my fiction. I’ve been productive, I’ve been inspired, and in the novel I’m currently working on, I’ve been doing things with dialogue that I didn’t think I had in me. This is significant for me because in the past I’ve been a writer who is attracted to silence. It’s not unusual for me to write a story of fifteen or twenty pages that doesn’t contain a single spoken word, and even when one of my characters does speak, their words tend to be simple and utilitarian. Now my characters can’t seem to shut up Hell, sometimes they go on for five or six pages straight in complicated exchanges of snappy, witty dialogue. I’ve never written anything like it before. Think it could have anything to do with all those films I’ve been watching?

Yes, with pleasure reading sapped from my life film has become practically my only source of creative input. Oh, I’ve relied on film in the past, sure. I usually name directors like Godard and Fellini among my primal literary inspirations, and one of my more recent stories was directly inspired by my discovery of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s lost masterpiece El Topo, but for as long as I’ve been writing film has been a distant second to literature for artistic inspiration—until the last three months. Now film is practically all I have the time and energy for and it has somewhat substantially altered the direction of my work. The connection may be obvious, film relies heavily on dialogue and this necessity has found its way into my work, but what’s not obvious is looking at it the other way—why did literature drive me towards silence? It may be that some of my favorite writers, Calvino, Borges, Barthelme, Beckett and other great experimentalists, aren’t particularly known for their dialogue (with the obvious exception of Beckett’s plays), but I read so widely (look again at my reading list for the past few months) that it seems unlikely to me. At this point, I’m not sure I have the answer, it only dawned on me when I decided to write this posting a couple of days ago that my writing had undergone such an evolution. I’m still trying to understand the full impact my change in creative input has had on my work.

What’s more important (and more exciting) to me at the moment is how our very source of input drives what we create. I’m compelled now to try spending some months listening only to music or only studying painting to see what these inputs do to drive my creative work. We are so hung up on the idea that writers must take inspiration from other writers (and, equivocally, that painters must take inspiration from other painters, sculptors from other sculptors, etc.) that we’ve perhaps been crippling ourselves by ignoring the insights other mediums can give us. Perhaps we should say that if you don’t have time to read you should find some other tools that will help you write, which means that King got that bit wrong too, though in all fairness it may be that all of us have.


  1. How about a month in a different location, or hiking, or swimming? I'm of the opinion that you have to look at this in an evolutionary sense as adaptation to environment.

  2. That's great to know that I can still have a life during a Ph.d program. Writers in the 21st century must be ambidextrous, a must needed survival skill!