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I learned today that writer Jim Harrison died this past Saturday, so it seems fitting to repost this week something I wrote about him back in 2010:

“I think I wrote Legends of the Fall in about ten days.
Jim Harrison on his novella for which the movie* was based

Though Jim Harrison’s novella Legends of the Fall is less than 100 pages long and he said he wrote it in about ten days those numbers can be deceptive. In one interview he said it usually takes him about 10 years of thinking about things by the time he finishes writing his novellas.

Before Harrison became widely known as the writer of Legends of the Fall (which became a 1994 movie and helped cement Brad Pitt as a movie star) he had long been carving away at his craft in Michigan.

He was born in rural Grayling, Michigan in 1937. In Off to the Side: A Memoir, Harrison calls Reed City, Michigan where he lived between the ages of five and twelve his “golden years.”

“My background used to embarrass me. I’d think, I want to be like Lord Byron, or Vincent van Gogh. And then I’d realize, how can a boy from a little farm town do that? I think the years I spent at manual labor as a block layer, a carpenter, a digger of well pits, have given me more physical endurance for later in my life. And in an utterly corny Sherwood Anderson way, it makes you think those long thoughts. If you’re unloading fertilizer trucks for a dollar an hour all day long, and dreaming about New York City, it really means something. I remember a month before my first book of poems came out, I was working on a house foundation and the lumber truck couldn’t get close enough to the excavation, so I had to wheelbarrow 1,200 cement blocks for about seventy yards, load them and unload them. It was a cold, icy, early November day and it took me about nine hours to do it. That day I manually handled thirty-five tons worth of cement blocks, and that was for two and a half dollars an hour. When I got home I was hungry and tired, and what I had to show for it was right around twenty-five dollars. But you got a lot of thinking done. What it does do for you is, if you can hoe corn for fifty cents an hour, day after day, you can learn how to write a novel. You have absorbed the spirit of repetition.”
Jim Harrison
The Art of Fiction No. 104, Interview with Jim Fergus

It is interesting to note that Ernest Hemingway, Thomas McGuane (Ninety-Two in the Shade) and Harrison all spent time hunting and fishing in the same general northern area of the Lower Peninsula of Michigan. All also came from religious families who put an emphasis on reading as well as an outdoor life. And while they all wrestled with their faith it impacted their writing. All three also gravitated to living at least part of the time in the northern U.S. region of the Rocky Mountains.

McGaune and Harrison also attended Michigan State at the same time as did fellow writer Richard Ford. In 2008, Esquire magazine listed The 75 Books Every Man Should Read and placed Legends of the Fall at #23 and Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter #60.

Harrison went on to get his M.A. in comparative literature at Michigan State and then struggled to earn a living for well over a decade existing on fellowships, grants and publishing books of poetry while writing in Michigan. In interviews he has said that he never made over $10,000. a year for the first 17 years of his marriage. Then there were some tax problems, some drinking problems, cocaine, depression, followed by suicidal thoughts.

After a hunting injury he was encouraged by McGuane to try his hand at writing a novel. The result was Wolf; A False Memoir (1971). A few years later he published  A Good Day to Day and that would open the door to Hollywood where Harrison was paid well, but produced little as a screenwriter. He wrote his first screenplay in 1975 for filmmaker Frederick Weisman (though it was unproduced) and worked as a contract screenwriter though 1997.  A side benefit was hanging out with people like Orson Welles, John Huston, and Jack Nicholson. 

He continued writing novels and eventually some of them found their way to getting produced as movies. Sometimes he was credited with working on the script and sometimes other screenwriters were brought in to write the scripts. Harrison’s credits include  Dalva, Carried Away, Revenge, and Wolf, along with Legends of the Fall. In 2007, Harrison was elected into the American Academy of the Arts.

These days Harrison splits his time between Montana and Arizona. When asked by The Paris Review if he had any advice for younger writers he replied:

“Just start at page one and write like a son of a bitch. Be totally familiar with the entirety of the Western literary tradition, and if you have any extra time, throw in the Eastern. Because how can you write well unless you know what passes for the best in the last three or four hundred years?”

More on Harrison tomorrow and some of his thoughts on the movie Legends of the Fall.

*The screenplay for Legends of the Fall was written by Susan Shilliday and William D. Wittliff.

Related post: Writer Jim Harrison (Part 2)

Screenwriting from Michigan

Scott W. Smith

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“I get swept away by the sincerity. I do not get swept away by what people call pyrotechnics & prose. I do not get swept away by wit. I think wit is in a lot of ways damaging to fiction. I just feel like I’m listening to a writer and not the character. When I read the writers I really love like Philip Roth and Alice Munro—and their prose is beautiful—they’re more interested in truth than in fancy clothes for their prose.”
Author Ethan Canin (Emperor of the Air, A Doubter’s Almanac)
Interview on The Moment with Brian Koppelman

Related posts:
The Shocking Truth  (Tennessee Williams quote)
Blending Truth, Spectacle & Serving the Story
Mike Nichols on Comedy, Tragedy & Truth
Hunting for Truth
Telling the Truth=Humor

Scott W. Smith

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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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