Tuesday, January 15, 2008

novel ambitions.

Man, I really want to write a novel.

It's one of those things I know I'm meant to do. I've been telling stories as long as I can remember, and the form of the novel has always enchanted and enthralled me. So why haven't I written one? There are the standard excuses: too busy, too young, too little life experience, blah, blah, blah. But in the end, I don't really buy any of them, and I doubt anyone else would either.

Like many aspiring novelists, I spend a good amount of time in Barnes and Noble. Whenever I take a pause from reading someone else's published novel, I daydream of writing and publishing one of my own. But I have yet to figure out a way to channel that daydream energy into actual writing energy. I've always just assumed that one day I'll be old enough, wise enough, have time and money to spare, and will be able to carve out several months of free time to sit down and write The Great American Novel. But there has to be a way to do it now. There simply has to.

There's this guy I see in Barnes and Noble a lot, an older guy, probably late fifties or early sixties. I've been watching him for about a year now, as he's been writing a novel of his own. I can remember when it was just a newborn baby of a book, barely filling up a single, slim, spiral-bound notebook (he's writing out the entire thing in longhand). Now it's a stack of five or six swollen spiral-bound volumes, each one bigger and more crammed full of content than the last. I'd always seen the guy writing away, surrounded by yellow legal pad papers full of outlines, notes and diagrams, taking little pauses here and there to gaze thoughtfully into space before writing some more, and I'd always wondered what he was up to. It was clear he was writing a book, but what kind? A history? A memoir? A how-to manual? Perhaps his own take on the kama sutra for retired folk?

Today, I discovered that it is indeed a novel, and he's calling it A Fine Line. Not bad. A bit John Grishamy for my tastes, probably some sort of thriller, but there are worse titles.

This guy impresses the heck out of me. Yes, he's most likely retired and now he's able to make novel-writing his life. But still, he's doing it. He's actually writing! He could be putzing around, killing time with aimless, retired-guy things like fishing, taxidermy or collecting coins, or worse, wasting away on beer and bad television. But there he is, day after day, whittling away at a novel of his own. I really hope he doesn't go the cheap, self-published, local author route and publish the book as one of those cheesy paperpacks with the bad binding, the shoddy typeface and the pixellated image on the cover. I hope he holds out for the real deal.

I want to talk to the guy, get to know him and his novel a little bit, but I haven't worked up the nerve yet. Not that I'm afraid to talk to strangers, but I'm reluctant to invade the inner sanctum of this guy's creative life. He's so encapsulated in his cozy little world of words. I'd hate to disturb him. I know how I'd feel if someone, no matter how well-intentioned, began asking me questions, butting into my quiet, creative cocoon. Maybe one of these days I'll find a way in and find out something about him and his precious novel. What's it about? Is it his first book? Does he have plans to publish? I so want to pick his brain, even just a little bit, but at the same time, I strongly desire to respect his privacy and honor The Creative Code, which often includes recognizing and adhering to the boundaries creative people establish for themselves in order to do their thing.

As for my own endeavors, I've made many abortive attempts at writing, and there are many rough first and second chapters of unfinished novels to prove it. Now I feel like I'm truly on the cusp of getting started, but I've been waiting for the right idea. Don't get me wrong, I have tons of ideas, ones that I've been nursing for years, but I haven't wanted to make any of those the guinea pig in my first-novel-writing experiment. I've come to believe that, as with any enterprise, novel-writing must be learned, and once it is learned, it can only be perfected through practice. I used to operate under the delusion that you just sat down, put pen to paper and POOF! War and Peace. Oh, how sad. But now I get it. You don't just pick up a violin and rip through Mozart's Violin Concerto no. 4 without a single flaw on your first try (unless you're Itzhak Perlman). Instead, you have to start out by butchering "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" (also written by Mozart, as it turns out). And then you butcher it some more, and then some more, until it sounds something more like the notes on the page, and less like skinning a yorkshire terrier. Then you move on to butchering harder pieces until you're able to show them who's boss. And then, one day, you play through a great piece of music you've never seen before, and when you're done you put down your instrument and realize you've just played the entire thing flawlessly. You have arrived.

So, what will be my "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star"? Hmmmm . . .


Monday, January 14, 2008

persuasion and the golden globes.

Apparently, this has happened before.

I was six in 1980, and therefore more preoccupied with which Star Wars action figures would end up sucked into the vortex of my trash can (a.k.a. "The Black Hole") than with the goings-on in Hollywood, home to those fancy elitists who made my little Star Warsian life possible. But from what I understand, there was an actor's strike in 1980 that put a pretty vicious stranglehold on Hollywood, not unlike the current, and seemingly endless, writer's strike. So large was the impact of the actor's strike that the only remotely credible actor to show up to the Emmys that year was Powers Boothe (and if you don't know who Powers Boothe is, well, you're not alone).

Now, I've always been a sucker for awards shows, particularly the Oscars. But the Golden Globes have always been my redheaded stepchild when it comes to awards shows. I really could take them or leave them. Probably has to do with the cluttered feel of the Globes. There's just too much stuff being honored, too many categories, too many stuffed shirts sitting at too many tables (tables?). Nevertheless, I was a little verklempt about the Globes being forced into cancellation this year and replaced by a dull, half-hour press conference announcing the winners.

But, as it turns out, I'm glad. Had the Globes been broadcast in their usual form, chances are my wife and I would have been sucked into the Black Hole of awardness we're so prone to, and we would have missed an hour an a half of great television.

I'm referring to the first installment in PBS' Masterpiece (formerly titled Masterpiece Theater) series, The Complete Jane Austen, an ambitious, six-installment series spanning three months, in which adaptations of all six Jane Austen novels will be shown. The first, the one aired last night, was Persuasion. Perhaps my favorite of Austen's novels (or at least a very close second to Pride & Prejudice), Persuasion was the last complete novel of Austen's. Originally entitled The Elliots, the book was completed just a few months before Austen's death, and published posthumously in 1818. While relatively obscure to the casual Austen reader (those who only know the books that have been made into successful films), Persuasion is near and dear to the hearts of die-hard Austen fans. This novel is Austen at her most mature. It is a grown-up love story: quiet, reserved and intelligent, with storms of passion brewing just out of sight. There are emotions that ring truer, characters that resonate more deeply, truths that hit home with greater force than in much of Austen's earlier work.

The story focuses on Anne Elliot, the middle daughter of a recently bankrupted family of some nobility. The father, a widower, is too proud to sell his estate outright, so he lets it out to a wealthy and gregarious admiral and his wife. The admiral's brother-in-law, it turns out, is Captain Frederick Wentworth, a young naval officer whom Anne, persuaded by her family and one particularly influential friend, refused an offer of marriage from eight years prior, despite the fact that she was (and still is) desperately in love with him. Wentworth has made a small fortune during his travels at sea, and has returned. Upon their first, and very awkward, reunion, it seems clear that Wentworth has never forgiven Anne, and although he seeks to settle down and marry, no longer entertains the strong feelings he once did for Anne.

In an earlier Austen story, this plot would be a mere "will-they-or-won't-they?" story, populated by droll and funny caricatures of 19th century English folk, exchanging banter and gossip over tea while the women sit in drawing rooms, waiting around for the men in their lives to get around to proposing so they'll be saved living out the remainder of their days as poor old spinsters. And while there's gossip aplenty in Persuasion, it's a new kind of Austenian gossip: the sharp, brutal kind, the kind that alters lives swiftly, irrevocably, mercilessly. You can see Austen playing with the conventions of the day, poking holes in the fabric of noble English society, exposing certain types of upper class men and women (such as Anne's father and sisters) as the spoiled, insolent, pompous little prats they were. Also, in Anne Elliot, Austen gives us a heroine of real depth, not a cutesy, two-dimensional heroine like Emma Woodhouse, or an all-too-witty-to-be-true character like the eternally beloved Elizabeth Bennett. Anne, whose only vice is her tendency to be easily swayed by those who matter to her, is an instantly likable and relatable heroine. Even men can relate to Anne because, let's face it, we've all made regrettable, painful, life-altering decisions and had to live out the consequences.

This new BBC adaption (shown last night on PBS) gets Persuasion just right, despite boiling the story down to a brisk 80 minutes. Sally Hawkins, as Anne, is perfect: instantly we love her, sympathize with her, and root for her. She frequently makes thoughtful little glances at the camera - a touch that's a little jarring at first, but ultimately very effective, as it pulls us in closer, making us feel like a trusted, invisible confidant.

I hope to write a blog about the writer's strike later, so I won't get into that here. But I'll close my thoughts on Jane Austen with this one: if all our Hollywood scribes could write like her, there never would have been a strike. Hollywood would pay through the nose to keep them all around.