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I absolutely treat myself like a factory. A word factory. That’s been really helpful for me because writing is very mysterious, and the creative process is very mysterious. It’s comforting to have a few mechanical tools at hand to help balance that sense of mystery.

First of all, if you don’t have a deadline, give yourself one and take it seriously. Secondly, I am thoroughly dependent on having a daily word count as a goal that I have to hit. If I get it done in an hour, I have the afternoon off. If it takes me until midnight, it takes me until midnight. The value of that is it makes concrete a process that otherwise seems ephemeral.”
Susan Orlean, Best selling author and writer for The New Yorker
The New Yorker’s Susan Orlean on the magic and mystery of writing by Lillian Cunningham, The Washington Post

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“It might have been one of the strangest nights in the history of Los Angeles, which is a city that has had its share of strange nights.”
Susan Orlean (on the 24-hour Save the Book telethon in 1987)
The Library Book, page 122

As I make my way through the audio book and paperback of Susan Orlean’s The Library Book, I am constantly shaking my head of having no recollection of the events surrounding the April 29, 1986 Los Angeles Public Library that she so well documents.

The event itself was easy to overlook for most Americans because it was overshadowed by the Chernobyl disaster and the entire world was on standby wondering what the global reprcussions would be from a nuclear fallout. But I was living in Los Angeles in April of 1986 so you’d think it would be kicking around somewhere in my memory bank. I remember well the Night Stalker terrorizing the city in ’84-85, Brice Springteen’s Born in the USA tour at the L.A. Colusumn in ’85, the ’87 Whitter Earthquake, and that the movie The God’s Must Be Crazy played for months. But I’m drawing a blank about the LA Public Library fire.

And Orlean does beauitiful job talking about the events following the fire and how the city rallied restore was was lost after a million books were destroyed or damaged. While the damage to the building was covered by insurance the books were not. So a Save the Books campaign was started culminating with a 24-Hour telethon in January 1987.

The telethon was hosted by the “unconventinal”, cigar smoking televangelist The Rev. Gene Scott at his Glendale studios and University TV Network. As Orlean recounts of the around the clock telethon;

“The fund-raising goal was $2 million. Celebrities were wrangled to appear on the show reading from their favorite books. There were dozens of celebrities readers, including Red Buttons, former governor Pat Brown, Angie Dickinson, Lakers coach Pat Riley, Ernest Borgnine, Edite Albert, and Henry Kissinger. Dinah Shore read from The Prince of Tide. Charlton Heston read the last chapter of Moby-Dick. Zsa Zsa Gabor showed up but forgot to bring a book.”

The entire telethon was rerun the next day and they exceeded there goal of $2 million. The Library Book is a great read/listen. Apparently, many people are discovering the book’s second wind with it’s recent paperback release.

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While I don’t remember the library fire—or the 24 hour telethon, I do remember Gene Scott. I used to stumble across his broadcast from time to time and he was always good for an unusual five minute. I hadn’t thought about him in over a decade until recently where I read an interview with Quentin Tarantino where he commented on watching him.

Scott died in 1985 and the Los Angeles Times reported that he “earned a doctorate in philosophies of education from Stanford University in 1957, also was influenced by the late Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.” He had his share of followers and critics.

After his death NPR stated that Gene Scott was a man that all channel surfers would recognize. They said, “Scott’s on air manner and apperance were hard to forget. He cursed, and ranted, wore sombreros one day, a crown the next, and asked for money—and got lots of it.”His television show was said to be carried in 180 countries.

I don’t know if a documentary was ever done on Gene Scott, but I imagine there will be sooner or later. Perhaps that’s something Tarantino can work on in his “retirement.”

But mark Janaury 11, 1987 as one unusual day in L.A. history.

Scott W. Smith

 

 

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Who doesn’t like a good origin story? Here’s one I found recently in Susan Orlean’s book The Library Book. 

[Ray] Bradbury and his wife had four young daughters. When he tried to work at home, he spent more time playing with his children than writing. He couldn’t afford and office, but he knew a rook in the basement of UCLA’s Powell Library, where typewriters could be rented for ten cents an hour. It occurred to him that there would be a fine symmetry if he wrote a book about book burning at a library. Over the course of nine days in the typewriter room at UCLA, Bradbury finished ‘The Fireman,’ expanding it into a short novel. He spent $9.80 on the typewriter rental. 

‘. . .  When he finished writing the book, Bradbury tried to come up with a better title than ‘The Fireman.’ He couldn’t think of a title he liked, so one day, on an impulse, he called the chief of the Los Angeles Fire Department and asked him the temperature at which paper burned. The chief’s answer became Bradbury’s title: Fahrenheit 451. When Central Library burned in 1986, everything in the Fiction section from A through L was destroyed, including all of the books by Ray Bradbury.”
Susan Orlean
The Library Book, pages 104-105

Scott W. Smith

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Since I was on the road more than usual this week I had the opportunity to listen to about half of Susan Olean’s bestselling book The Library Book. It’s so well written that I also bought the paperback at the Writer’s Block Bookstore in Winter Park, Florida.  Being an independent bookstore—as well as writing a book—is, to use Orlean’s words, “an act of shear defiance.” It’s important to supports both of those acts when we can.

Here’s a favorite passage of mine from the eighth chapter of The Library Book that centers around the 1986 fire at the the Los Angeles Public Library that “destroyed or damaged over a million books.”:

The idea of being forgotten is terrifying. I fear not just that I, personally, will be forgotten, but that we are all doomed to being forgotten—that the sum of life is ultimately nothing; that we experience joy and disappointment and aches and delights, and loss, make our little mark on the world, and then we vanish, and the mark is erased, and it is if we never existed. If you gaze into that bleakness even for a moment, the sum of life becomes null and void, because if nothing lasts, nothing matters. It means everything we experience unfolds without a pattern, and life is just a wild, random baffling occurrence, a scattering of notes with no melody. But if something you learn or observe or imagine can be set down and saved, and if you can see your life reflected in pervious lives, and can imagine it reflected in subsequent ones, you can begin to discover order and harmony. You know that you are part of a larger story that has shape and purpose—a tangible, familiar past, and a constantly refreshed future. We are all whispering in a tin can on a string, but we are heard, so we whisper the message into the next tin can and the next string. Writing a book, just like building a library, is an act of shear defiance. It is a declaration that you believe in the persistence of memory.

In Senegal, the polite expression to say someone died is to say that his or her library has burned. When I first heard the phrase, I didn’t understand it, but over time I came to realize it was perfect. Our minds and souls contain volumes inscribed by our experiences and emotions; each individual’s consciousness is a collection of memories we’ve cataloged and stored inside us, a private library of a life lived. It is something that no one else can entirely share, one that burns down and disappears when we die. But if you can take something from that internal collection and share it— with one person, or the larger world, on the page or in a story recited—it takes on a life of its own.”
Susan Orleans
The Library Book, page 93

Scott W. Smith

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“Very often something that I’m going to want to know before I begin [writing a story] is what it’s about. And I’m probably not really going to find that out until it’s over. Until I sit there and re-read it. And I go what was this about? But I need to have some kind of idea of what it’s about going in. And that isn’t plot, if anything I guess you could call it theme. For me, it’s just what is this about?”
Neil Gaiman
Masterclass

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Author Neil Gaiman was once on his blog was once asked what words or quote would he inscribe “on the wall of a public library children’s area” and this is the core of his answer from his essay Just Four Words (found in his book Stories: All-New Tales) mixed with his Masterclass on storytelling:

I’m not sure I’d put a quote up, if it was me, and I had a library wall to deface. I think I’d just remind people of the power of stories, of why they exist in the first place. I’d put up the four words that anyone telling a story wants to hear. The ones that show that it’s working, and that pages will be turned: 

‘. . .and then what happened?’

The four words that children ask when you pause telling them a story. The four words that you hear at the end of a chapter. The four words, spoken or unspoken, that show you, as a storyteller, that people care. And then what happened? And those words, I think,  are the most important words there are for a storyteller.”
Neil Gaiman (The Sandman, Good Omen)

Scott W. Smith

 

 

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“Very few plays are without faults of one kind or another, but few plays succeed with a bad last act. The best kind of fault for a play to have is first-act trouble, and the worst kind last-act trouble. An audience will forgive a slow or even weak first act, if the second act grows progressively better; and a third act that sends the audience up the aisles and out the theatre with the impression of a fully rounded evening, can sometimes make that hair’s-breath difference between failure and success. A bad third act or even a poor last fifteen minutes of a play can be ruinous. It can somehow wipe the slate clean of all that has gone before and completely negate the two acts preceding it, and if a playwright is not in control of his last act in the final week of the tryout, it is unlikely he ever will.”
Playwright/ screenwriter Moss Hart (You Can’t Take it With You)
Act One,
page 389 (of the original 1959 publication)

And to follow that bit of advice from a Pulitzer Prize winning writer, here’s Oscar winning writer Michael Arndt unpacking what he believes makes for a good ending. (Just click on the “Watch on Vimeo” button, or click here.)

Endings: The Good, the Bad, and the Insanely Great from Pandemonium on Vimeo.

P.S. Here’s a related quote that seems to belong here:

“I think all good stories have one thing in common. And that is they have an ending that— I don’t want to say satisfying, because some great stories have unsatisfying endings, which is why they’re great stories—but have an ending that transports you somewhere. You have to be at a different place at the ending than you were at the beginning. And if all the story has done is taken you right back to the very place you were when you read the first sentence, then it was a waste of your time. “
Malcom Gladwell
MasterClass/Selecting the Story

Related posts:
Insanely Great Endings
Insanely Great Endings (Part 2) 
Happy, Sad, Ironic & Ambiguous Endings 

Scott W. Smith 

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