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“I’ve lived in New York before. Everybody says it helps with publicity and awards and stuff like that. I’d rather have my nice life, for example, in Iowa.”
Ethan Canin

“With this extraordinary novel [A Doubter’s Almanac], Ethan Canin now takes his place on the high wire with the best writers of his time.”
Pat Conroy

Have you ever wondered what professors at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop teach their students? Well, today you’ll find at least one bit of advice.

On Brian Koppelman’s The Moment podcast interview with author Ethan Canin,  Koppelman said that Canin was was “hyper-intelligent.” Canin, you see, dislikes being called an intellectual because he doesn’t like what intellectuals have done with literature.

But a quick glance over Canin’s resume and you can tell that—to paraphrase the great football coach Bobby Bowden—Canin may not be in a class by himself, but whatever class he’s in, it doesn’t take long to do the roll call.

Canin attended Stanford University where he studied mechanical engineering and graduated with an English degree, received an MFA from the University of Iowa, graduated from Harvard Medical School, became a published author (his short story The Palace Thief  become the movie The Emperor’s Club), and now he’s a professor at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

“I think life is a struggle for every human being…Life has its difficulties. Everybody’s got a story. One of the things I tell students is nobody’s boring. That’s such a misunderstanding to think somebody’s leading a boring life.”
Ethan Canin
Brian Koppelman’s The Moment podcast February 2016 

Some people live quiet lives, but not a boring one. And every once in a while—like I wrote in my post Good Wil Hunting—a writer comes along late in someone’s life and shows the extraordinary within the ordinary.

P.S. I’ve listen to that Brian Koppelman podcast with Ethan Canin four times all the way through. Stimulating stuff and made me go to the library after the first time I heard it and check out books by Saul Bellow, Tobias Wolff, and John Cheever. Next will be books/short stories by Mark Halprin, Raymond Carver, Nobel Prize-winner Alice Munro, and Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger.

Related posts:
John Irving, Iowa & Writing (My visit to the Iowa Workshop)
(Yawn) Another Pulitzer Prize (for a Workshop graduate)
Postcard #55 (Iowa Writers’ Workshop)
Lena Dunham, Sundance & Iowa
The Juno-Iowa Connection

Scott W. Smith

 

 

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“In my view, stories and novels consist of three parts: narration, which moves the story from point A to point B and finally to point Z; description, which creates a sensory reality for the reader; and dialogue, which brings the characters to life through their speech. 

“You may wonder where plot is in all this. The answer—my answer, anyway—is nowhere. I won’t try to convince you that I’ve never plotted any more than I’d try to convince you that I’ve never told a lie, but I do both as infrequently as possible. I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless, even when you add all our reasonable precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible. It’s best that I be as clear about this as I can—I want you to understand that my basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves. The job of the writer is to give them a place to grow (and transcribe them, of course).”
Stephen King
On Writing, page 163

Related posts:
Stephen King’s Doublewide Trailer “I wrote my first two novels, Carrie and Salem’s Lot in the laundry room of a doublewide trailer.”—Stephen King
Descriptive Writing (Stephen King) “Good description usually consists of a few well chosen details that will stand for everything else.”—Stephen King
Screenwriting Quote #33 (Stephen King)
Beatles, Cody, King & 10,000 Hours

Professor Stephen King

Scott W. Smith

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Author Pat Conroy’s funeral was today after announcing just a month ago that he had pancreatic cancer. Here’s a quote I pulled for a post back in 2012 that’s one of my favorite illustrations of what writers do.

“On my first night in Vienna, Jonathan [Carroll, author of Bones of the Moon] walked me down to the Danube, where we sat on a flight of steps leading down to the river. The dog walkers were out in force. Greetings were exchanged with small movements of the eyes, and the dogs sniffed one another fondly. Handsome and imperial, Jonathan looked every inch the American expatriate. He exuded a serenity and a seriousness that I lack. But he kept his eye on a woman at the next bridge. She was moving so slowly I though she might be leading a dogsled pulled by escargots. After an hour, the woman walked in front of us, and she bowed her head in acknowledgment of Jonathan. With great dignity, he returned the gesture. To my surprise, she was walking two enormous tortoises, displaced natives from an Ethiopian desert. The woman walked them every night, and Jonathan was always there to admire their passage. 

 “‘That’s what writers do, Conroy,’ he said. ‘We wait for the tortoises to come. We wait for that lady who walks them. That’s how art works. It’s never a jackrabbit, or a racehorse. It’s the tortoises that hold all the secrets. We’ve got to be patient enough to wait for them.'”
Pat Conroy
My Reading Life 

Related posts:
Pat Conroy & Rehearsing for Death
Screenwriting & Cancer
What’s Your Problem?
Ralph Clemente (1943-2015) A film professor of mine who died last year from pancreatic cancer.
Apple, Steve Jobs & Dying
Don’t Waste Your Life

Scott W. Smith

 

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“There should be no sorrow at this funeral because The Great Santini lived life at full throttle, moved always in the fast lanes, gunned every engine, teetered on every edge, seized every moment and shook it like a terrier shaking a rat.”
Pat Conroy
Colonel Don Conroy’s Eulogy
(The book & movie The Great Santini was based on Pat Conroy’s Marine jet fighter pilot dad)

Yesterday when I learned of the March 4th death of writer Pat Conroy my first thought was that he was at the center of one of my fondest moments with literature. For one month in the summer of ’99 I backpacked around Europe with Mr. Conroy at my side—in literary form of course.

I have a distinct memory of being on a train in the Swiss Alps reading Conroy’s Beach Music and thinking, “It doesn’t get any better than this.” It was one of those rare beautiful moments in life where you are fully aware that you are alive—and you at least have the illusion that all is right in the world.

Only later did I learn that it took Conroy a decade to write Beach Music. While some writers distance themselves from the autobiographical aspects of their writings, Conroy had no place to hide. He once said,“One of the greatest gifts you can get as a writer is to be born into an unhappy family” (I think Hemingway said basically the same thing), and Conroy’s own tortuous relationship with his father was the foundation for his life’s work. A tough price to pay.

His literary career started simply when he was a high school English teacher in Beaufort, South Carolina when he self-published his first book The Boo. He was paid $7,500 for his next book The Water is Wide, which was made into the movie Conrack.  His book The Prince of Tides sold 5 million copies, and he also worked on the screenplay version of that book and received an Oscar nomination. A movie was also made of his book The Lords of Discipline.

If you’ve never read Conroy’s work The Great Santini is the one I’d recommend you’d start. And the single best movie scene made from his writings (and was reflective of the relationship with his father) was the following scene from The Great Santini. 

Good drama, bad parenting.

A fitting end to this post is a quote by author and University of Iowa writing professor Ethan Canin (who Pat Conroy said of Canin’s new book A Doubter’s Almanac, “With this extraordinary novel, Ethan Canin now takes his place on the high wire with the best writers of his time.”):

“I was driving the other day and there’s this this traffic jam, it was this miserable traffic jam, and I thought what in the hell is this? I finally get to the curb and I look up and there’s wild flowers in bloom and all these cars had just slowed down a couple of miles an hour to see the wild flowers. And it was this incredible moment where everybody who was on the way to work—they’re pissed off— they were still slowing down for the wild flowers. Not to sound too California-ish about that, but that’s amazing to me that despite the inutility of all of this stuff we are wired to just love this. To love gossip—which is what literature is—to love hearing about someone else. To love to see how other people have done things wrong. And also to rehearse for your own death. I mean that’s what reading is about. Generally most novels are about life. Many novels are about life, [A Doubter’s Almanac] is about life—birth to death, and it gives you a chance to look at it. Do it once, do it twice, read another novel. Read Moby-Dick, read The Adventures of Augie March, read some novel about a life and you can live a life, and imagine how you will face the inevitable.”
Ethan Canin
The Moment podcast interview with producer/screenwriter Brian Koppelman (Billions)

Chances are good that you won’t be on a train going through the Swiss Alps this week, but you can slow down and take in some beauty. Be it in nature, a book, a movie, or just hanging out with friends and family.

P.S. If you’ve never been to the South Carolina lowcountry where Conroy often wrote about, lived a chunk of his life, and where he died, do yourself a favor and visit the area. There’s much beauty and rich culture there, and Beaufort is one of my favorite towns in the United States.

P.P.S. Conroy does have a connection to Iowa, and it’s not the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, but his father (Don Conroy) attended college in Iowa at Saint Ambrose College, and as a youth  Pat and his family spent an uncomfortable summer in Davenport once while their military family was in transition.

Related posts:

Writing Quote #32 (Waiting for Tortoises)  A great observation from Conroy’s book My Reading Life. (Loved his reading on the audio book.)
Tell Me a Story—Pat Conroy
Writing Quote #20 (Pat Conroy)
Writing Quote #39 (Writing in Paris)
September 6, 1995

Scott W. Smith

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‘Keep Sawing’

Starting tomorrow I’ll start a string of posts on Film vs. TV writing, but today I wanted to reflect on Super Bowl 50 and see if I could find any takeaway for dramatic writers.

Payton Manning won his second Super Bowl game as quarterback and it had to be pretty sweet knowing that earlier this year he had been booed by Denver fans, and after an injury one sports analyst said he didn’t except to see Manning in a Bronco uniform ever again, and when he did come back from an injury he wasn’t the starter.

But things change and there he was starting in Super Bowl 50 with over 100 million people watching. Now his two wins as a Super Bowl-winning QB equal his brother Eli Manning’s two wins as a Super Bowl QB.

It made me think about what Payton and Eli’s dad Archie (also at one time an NFL quarterback) told his boys when they hit rough spot in their careers.

“In my first year, I always looked for positive things and kept working, … The good news is the score is always zero-zero when you kick off the next week. I’ve told Eli to ‘keep sawing wood.'” 
Archie Manning 

That’s good advice for anyone—in writing and in life. It’s a good bookend to last week’s quote in Screenwriting & 10 Feet of Concrete. It’s also in the same family as Robert Redford’s quote about “returning to zero.”

P.S. Here’s a mini-doc by Philip Bloom about an artist who works with wood. (Only afterward did I realize that this post is also echoed in the recent post I’m a craftsman…—Lubezki.

P.P.S. And did you know that all the footballs made for Super Bowl 50 were made at the Wilson Football Factory in Ada, Ohio? (And the cows that the hides are made from come from Nebraska, Kansas, and Iowa.)

 

Scott W. Smith

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“Letting morality get in the way of making money. I might as well go and be a teacher.”
TV Executive Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) on 30 Rock

Donald Trump inspires me. Not politically, but creatively.

There I was less than two months ago deciding to write my first spec TV pilot with an idea rooted in an aborted screenplay I wrote a few years ago. The idea popped back on my radar at the end of last year because I realized it was a TV idea and not a film idea. (Next Monday I’ll start a string of posts looking at those differences.)

It only took a day to take my 36-page screenplay and morph the movie idea into a TV idea. Then a week to flesh it out, and by the end of the month to have a first draft done.

So where does Donald Trump fit into this creative process? When you’re writing everything goes into your creative blender. There I was developing my story idea and at the same time watching presidential debates and news reports.

Somewhere in that process I realized Trump was a trope.

“Merriam-Webster gives a definition of ‘trope’ as a ‘figure of speech.’ In storytelling, a trope is just that — a conceptual figure of speech, a storytelling shorthand for a concept that the audience will recognize and understand instantly. Above all, a trope is a convention. It can be a plot trick, a setup, a narrative structure, a character type, a linguistic idiom… you know it when you see it.”
tvtropes

Trump is Archie Bunker in All in the Family, Lou Grant in Mary Tyler Moore,  Alec Baldwin’s 30 Rock character, Danny DeVito in Taxi, Fred Sanford on Sanford and Son, and that reality show star on The Apprentice who loved saying, “You’re Fired!”

This trope speaks his mind. Doesn’t care about political correctness. And while we’re sometimes stunned by what they say—audiences tune in like they did on this exchange from the Norman Lear created All in the Family (the most watched Tv show from 1971-1976).

Gloria: You know, pizza’s actually not from Italy. I read that Marco Polo discovered it in China and then brought it back to Italy. 

Archie Bunker: Leave it to a dago to go halfway around the world to get a take-home meal.

*Sidenote: Did you know All in the Family was inspired by the hit British sitcom Till Death Us Do Part created by Johnny Speight ? It featured a working class racist and first aired in 1965.

Trump may not have won in Iowa, but he won the ratings game. And there’s a part of me that expects to see Trump show up one night on a late night interview basically saying he was pulling a Joaquin Phoenix-like (retired actor turned hip-hop artist) hoax. Time will tell.

But Trump inspired me to trump-up a character I’d written. One who speaks his mind and doesn’t care what anybody else thinks—and that’s a fun character to write. And as I’ve been working on re-writes the actor who I’d most love to hear say these lines is Patrick Warburton (Puddy on Seinfeld) whose persona has built-in smarmy/arrogance. He’s been featured during this election cycle on National Car Rental commercials, so I’m sure that’s an added reason he ended up in my creative blender.

But let’s not just keep the spotlight on Trump. Here’s a glimpse at four other candidates:

Bernie Sanders. He’s kind of the flip side of the coin character of Trump. He speaks his mind and has his share of radical ideas. With both Sanders and Trump I find myself both agreeing with some of the things they say—but with other things they say wondering if they have a screw loose. (But the best life changing ideas always sound a little crazy at the start. It’s too bad with radical ideas we can’t get a small working sample from a small town somewhere to see how those ideas play out.) A tie in Iowa was a win for Sanders.

Ted Cruz. With Cruz beating Trump in Iowa, I bet screenwriter Craig Mazin woke up this morning with a hangover. (Mazin has been outspoken against Cruz.) The last thing Mazin wants is to be known to the world not for his writing but as Ted Cruz’s college roommate. Mazin once told Brian Koppelman, “I’ve always felt that if you put me in front of 10 feet of concrete and said, ‘walk through itI’d get through it. I believe it, I really do…I’ve never felt like anything could stop me if I really tried.”  Cruz appears to have that same DNA. (Maybe they have a class on persistence at Princeton.) To walk away with a victory in Iowa took a lot of systematic and methodical work.

Hillary Clinton. Clinton is the Madonna of this political crowd.  Loved by some, hated by others, but resilient to the core. One way or another, she’ll still be around in four years, and in eight years. Not 100% sure you can say that about any other candidates.

Mario Rubio. I tuned into Rubio speaking last night and thought he’d won in Iowa instead of coming in third. He was upbeat about being only a percentage point behind Trump as well as picking up the same amount of delegates (7) as Trump. When the dust settles, Rubio and Sanders may have been the real winners last night.

The odds are looking good that the United States will elect its first woman, or first Hispanic, to become the next President.

P.S. One of my most interesting life experiences was being in Iowa during the 2007 Iowa Caucus. I saw 12 presidential candidates on both sides in many different venues including the classic Iowa State Fair. I was also hired as a cameraman to tape one event in Waterloo, Iowa in which six presidential candidates were speaking. While the press camera crews were places at the back of the convention center, because I was hired to tape the talks for the sponsoring group I was allowed to set-up in the front row.

I was the closest person in the room to the candidates which included the eventual President of the United States Barack Obama. Here’s photo I took between shooting footage. (POTUS looked a little younger back in ’07.)

obama 1997.jpg

P.P.S. Why not end on one more little nugget from Jack on 30 Rock:
“Diversity is the engine that drives this country. We are an immigrant nation! The first generation works their fingers to the bone making things, the next generation goes to college and innovates new ideas, the third generation snowboards and takes improv classes.” 

Related post:
President Obama and Iowa Seeds
Politics, Power & Screenwriting (tip #3)
The President & Cedar Falls, Iowa

Scott W. Smith

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“Most people fail in at least a few areas, so you’ve got to work at it. I certainly had to.”
Greg Norman

My blog seems stuck in Colorado. (A trend that started December 23, but will end on January 22.) Yesterday at the gym where I workout I noticed a magazine with golfer Greg Norman on it. Turns out the magazine was published two years but featured photos of Norman’s 14,000 square foot Rocky Mountain getaway ranch on 11,000 acres in northwest Colorado. Said to be his “favorite place.”

The article pointed out that Norman came from Mount Isa, Australia where he started out making $32 a week as a 20-year-old working in a pro golf shop, to being the N0. 1.  player in the world for 331 weeks during the ’80s and ’90s, to becoming a successful entrepreneur through various business endeavors including his  Great White Shark Enterprises.

Back in my L.A. days I was paid to photograph Norman at a fundraiser for Friends of College Golf at the Bel-Air County Club. If I recall correctly this was 1986 just after he’d won the British Open. The beautiful golf course is near UCLA and Alfred Hitchcock’s former home overlooks the golf course.

What I remember vividly about the shoot was leaving Bel-Air (a place where Elizabeth Taylor, Ronald Reagan and Jennifer Aniston all had homes) and driving east on Sunset Blvd. through Beverly Hills, and into Hollywood where street people were pushing carts. Not the first time I’d ever seen extreme wealth and homelessness, but it was a ten mile drive where the harsh contrast is something I’ve never forgotten.

And I remember having a brief chat with Norman because his main resident then was in Palm Beach, Florida and I was originally from Orlando so we had that in common. He was rather down to earth for being the first golfer ever to win $1 million in a season.

Over the years he’s added a few hundred million dollars to his net worth, but I found this quote of his to be an interesting perspective on helping others achieve success:

“If somebody asks me for help, I’m going to help them. Years ago back in Australia, [pro golfer] Adam Scott came to me with a lot of great questions like, ‘What’s it like when you get to 40?’ I don’t lock my door to anybody. And now Adam’s off and running, but we still stay in contact. When he won at Augusta National, if felt like I had won! Helping someone achieve their own success is just about the most rewarding thing you can do.”
Golfer/entrepreneur Greg Norman
2014 Golf Magazine interview by David DeNunzio

Related links:
‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ Golf Scene
Sneaky Long Screenwriting (2.0)
Postcard #75 (Arnold Palmer)
‘The Legend of Bagger Vance’ Golf Scene 
‘Lost in Translation’ Golf Scene
‘Tin Cup’ Golf Scene

The Perfect Ending —On University of Miami & Valencia College film professor Ralph Clemente who helped many achieve success.

Scott W. Smith

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