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Posts Tagged ‘Flannery O’Connor’

“I write everyday for at least two hours and I spend the rest of my time largely in the society of ducks.”
Novelist Flannery O’Connor (and Iowa Writers’ Workshop MFA grad)
DSC_2242Sometimes it takes years—even decades— to build a name for yourself, and sometimes infamy can come from just an email that takes a second to send. I just Googled “University of Iowa” as a test, and sure enough the first result (out of 125 million) was this USA Today headline: “College teaching assistant e-mailed nude pics to class.”

First was not about the school founded in 1847, not the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop, not the winning Hawkeye wrestling program, not the Princeton Review naming the University of Iowa the number one party school for 2013-14.  Not even a mention of the Iowa college student who was arrested at a football game in September with a blood-alcohol content reading of 0.341. Nope all those took a back seat to a teaching assistant who university officials said sent, “inappropriate content to her students.”

Reports are the email from the math teaching assistant stated, “Hi Class, I attach the solutions for number 76 and 78 in this email.” (New math? Nude math?) I don’t think the nude photos of the TA (you know, teaching assistant) were the solutions, but I’m sure they will provide David Letterman, Jay Leno and others at least enough material for one night. And I don’t know if the TA will become a professor, but I imagine an LA agent and realty show are already in the works.

I happened to be in the Iowa City area the last couple of days. I was doing a video shoot close to the University of Iowa yesterday and the client graciously reserved a room for me at the Coralville Marriott.  The hotel has one of the best features I’ve ever seen at a hotel. (And I’ve seen the ducks at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, and dolphins at The Kahala Hotel on Oahu.) They have a library that features only books from writers associated with the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

IowaWritersWorkshop

Last night I spent a little time there reading the book The Iowa Writers’ Workshop by Stephen Wilbers. The book was first published in 1980 so it doesn’t include writers from the workshop over the last three decades, but it does a super job of telling the early history of the workshop.

While I have no connection to the University of Iowa, this blog and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop do share a connection in that regionalism played a part in starting both. (And there’s a Diablo Cody connection, of course.)

“As Wallace Stegner proclaimed in an article for the Saturday Review of Literature, the regionalist were convinced that Iowa had ‘definitely come of age.’ In sum, the twentieth century was imbued with the spirit of regionalism and charged with the special energy that emanates from sense of place and pride of locale. In addition to the stimulus of the University itself, two other factors—the Midland and the tradition of the writers’ clubs—reflected and contributed to this spirit.”
Stephen Wilbers
The Iowa Writers’ Workshop

The Iowa Writers’ Workshop began in 1936 and to date faculty and graduates affiliated with the Iowa Writers’ Workshop have won twenty-eight Pulitzer Prizes. The library at the Marriott has a special section of just those books.

What I also learned from Wilbers’ book was that fundraising and publicity for the Writers’ Workshop program took many years to establish.

P.S. Screenwriter Diablo Cody did not attend the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (she jokes that it’s easier to win an Oscar than to get accepted) but she attended the University of Iowa because it was known as producing writers and she wanted to be a writer. So she joins Tennessee Williams as being an accomplished writer who graduated from the University of Iowa without attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Related Posts: The Juno—Iowa Connection

Scott W. Smith

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“Writing fiction or plays or poetry seems to me to be a very messy business. To be a writer requires an enormous tolerance for frustration, for anxiety, for self-doubt.”
Harry Crews

When writer/director Jeff Nichols mentioned in a recent interview that one of the books that influenced the writing of his film Mud was the Harry Crews book of essays A Childhood: The Biography of a Place, I knew it would be the perfect time to introduce some people to Crews and his writing. Since I grew up in Central Florida I became aware of the writer and University of Florida creative writing professor when I was about 20.

Crews, who died last year, was known back in the ’80s when I was in college as sort of a living Hemingway type character—with a dash of Hunter S. Thompson.  He was a Marine, a boxer, and a heavy drinker. Add in he was raised in a dirt poor, dysfunctional Southern family and Crews had all the ingredients of a character in a Flannery O’Connor story. Dennis Miller called him a “different breed of cat.”

“Part of my job as a teacher is first to try to help my students determine what’s worth writing and what is not. If they want to write science fiction or detective stories, that’s fine with me; I just want to make sure they know what they’re doing, to make sure they realize they are not writing the kind of fiction that can crush the heart of the living memory. I want to show them that they are writing nothing but entertainment. It is not that the greatest fiction, the kind I want them to spend their energies on, is not entertaining. It is. But it is so much more than that. It is the ‘more than entertainment’ that I want the writers who work with me to know about, be concerned with, even consumed by.”
Harry Crews
Essay Teaching and Writing in the University
From the book Florida Frenzy

Crews was born in Alma, Georgia—not far from the Okefenokee Swamp— in 1935 and his novels include A Feast of Snakes, The Gospel Singer and The Mulching of America. You can learn more about Crews and his work at harrycrews.org.

Related Post:
Writing Quote #1 (Flannery O’Connor)
Jeff Nichols’ Other Roots

Scott W. Smith

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Tonight the film, The Masks We Wear, which I produced, shot, and co-directed (with Josh McCabe) for River Run Productions will be one of films shown tonight at  The Best of the City screening in Des Moines as part of The 48 Hour Film Project. But there is a little more real life drama happening in Iowa right now.

Tuesday night I was returning from a trip to Florida and my connecting flight from Minneapolis to Des Moines was delayed in taking off because of lightning. We were told that all flights were delayed from taking off until lightning had not been spotted for 15 minutes. Eventually we took off and were told the ride made take a little longer than 45 minutes as they were trying to fly around a big storm. Somewhere over Iowa around 9PM the sun was setting and casting a golden glow on the storm clouds below us.

For about 15 minutes the view from seat 16A was the one of the most glorious views I’ve ever had in all my years of flying. (I took the above picture with my iPhone with a slight enhancement using the Chase Jarvis iPhone app The Best Camera.) By the time I landed, got to my vehicle, and made a Starbucks stop to prepare for my two-hour drive to Cedar Falls it was 10 PM. I was about 15 miles north of Des Moines and about 15 minutes south of Ames on I-35 when I saw a storm in front of me that looked like the kind you see in the end of the world movies. A dark and foreboding wall with a lot of lightning.  As the rain started to fall I actually made the decision to re-route my trip and turned around, back-tracked where I just came from and headed  east on I-80.

The storm eventually caught up with me and I had to pull over twice because visibility was so limited. It made a two-hour trip take three and a half hours. It wasn’t until Wednesday afternoon and this morning when I saw how bad the damage was in Ames and Des Moines. Currently I-35 (the major trucking road between Minneapolis and Des Moines) is closed, Ames is experiencing one of their worse flooding ever —leaving residents without drinking water, and tragically a 16-year old girl was killed outside Des Moines when her car was sweep away by flood waters just a mile away from I-80.

Kinda of puts things in perspective. While I was in Florida I showed a video I produced for my high school reunion. Among the fun songs and pictures I had a segment where I used Don Henley’s song The End of the Innocence (co-written by Bruce Hornsby) to recap things that had happened since we had graduated. It’s a bittersweet song that has always been one of my favorites. And the perfect song to evoke emotions for a group of people who had collectively witnessed the Challenger exploding and events surrounding 911.

Remember when the days were long
And rolled beneth a deep blue sky
Didn’t have a care in the world
With mommy and daddy standin’ by
But “happily ever after” fails
And we’ve been poisoned by these fairy tales
The lawyers dwell in small details
Since daddy had to fly

So tonight when I’m walking the red carpet Hollywood-style in Des Moines I’ll enjoy the moment. But I’ll also be aware of the people suffering nearby from the recent storms and my prayers go out to the friends and family of the 16-year-old who was killed.

Keep in mind while you’re writing that death and suffering are never far from your door. May you create stories that that not only entertain, but those that engage and enlighten the world we live in. (Aren’t those the kinds that last through the years?) To borrow writer Flannery O’Connor’s phrase, we need a few “prophetic poets.” They help us through the storms of life.

P.S. And if you happen to be at the screening tonight or the Des Moines Social Club afterwards stop by and say hello. I’ll be the one in a tux jacket, jeans, and black Converse high-tops.

Scott W. Smith


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“A thorough knowledge of Eliot is compulsory for anyone interested in contemporary literature. Whether he is liked or disliked is of no importance, but he must be read.”
Northrop Frye

“I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”
T.S. Eliot
The Waste Land

St. Louis born writer T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) is best known for his poem The Waste Land, but he also won a Best Play Tony Award in 1950 for the Broadway production of The Cocktail Party. (He would have been 62 years old at the time.)  He won two more Tony’s for his poems that were used in the musical Cats. Less remembered these days is he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948. He also wrote the screenplay (based on his play) for the 1951 movie Murder in the Cathedral.

The legendary literary editor Robert Giroux (who worked with Flannery O’Connor, Bernard Malamud, Jack Kerouac and many others) said of Eliot’s death that, “the world became a lesser place.”

I’m always interested in the writing habit of writers and think it can be a helpful guide for others. Knowing that Stephen King’s goal when writing a novel is 2,000 words a day allows you a glimpse of how he can write a first draft in three months. It’s a nuts and bolts way of demystifying the writing process.

“A great deal of my new play, The Elder Statesman, was produced in pencil and paper, very roughly. Then I typed it myself first before my wife got to work on it. In typing myself I make alterations, very considerable ones. But whether I write or type, composition of any length, a play for example, means for me regular hours, say ten to one. I found that three hours a day is about all I can do of actual composing. I could do polishing perhaps later. I sometimes found at that I wanted do go on longer, but when I looked at the stuff the next day, what I’d done after the three hours were up was never satisfactory.”
T.S. Eliot

And just in case you’re thinking, “Well, Eliot didn’t have a day job.” Before he made a living as a writer he worked as a banker by day and wrote poems, essays, and reviews at night. (He did this for eight years while at the same time taking care of his wife who suffered from migraines and depression.) He was 34-years-old when The Waste Land brought him fame and some financial rewards, but it would still be a few years before he quit his banker position.

Scott W. Smith


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drivemissdaisy.jpg
Here’s everything I learned in film school (and in screenwriting workshops and books)…boiled down to one word. But before I get to that one word let me say that I went to film school so long ago that Orson Welles was in my class. Okay, not that long ago, but back when film schools only used film.

I mention that because I think the average film school student today (heck, high school student) is much more film savvy then when I was in school. Because of DVDs and the Internet students today generally can converse about film directors and writers on a pretty sophisticated level. (The Tarantino factor?)

At least in Florida in the early 80s film school was a little off the chart. After I told a high school friend I was going to film school he asked, “What do you do with that?” (I’m still trying to answer that question.)

Before everyone wanted to be a film director young people just wanted to be rock stars. I knew nobody who had any connection to the film industry when I decided to go to film school.

I mention all of this because the one word I’m going to tell you is so basic. But it is the single most important thing I learned in film school. It may not be a revelation to you, but it’s important nonetheless.

And as professor and writer CS Lewis said, “We need to be reminded more often than we need to be taught.”

The most important thing I learned in film school was the importance of (here it comes) conflict. Not just any conflict, but meaningful conflict.

A few years ago I went to a writing workshop with Alfred Uhry, the writer of Driving Miss Daisy. I believe he’s the only writer to win an Oscar, an Emmy, and a Tony award. I thought that it was sure to be a wealth of writing information.

This was when I lived in Orlando (Anyone remember Hollywood East?) when a theater group was performing Driving Miss Daisy that he was coming to see and agreed to do a master class on writing.

One of the first things he said was something to the effect of — I’m not sure why I’m here. I’m not sure why they asked me to speak on writing. I’m not sure there are any rules to follow.

This is what I paid money to hear?

I raised my hand and asked, “What about conflict?”

He agreed conflict was important and he began to talk and we were off to the races. He didn’t have a prepackaged seminar, but it was a wonderful day of hearing his antidotes and experiences in the film business.  He said something that has stuck with me all these years and that I think would be helpful for all writers to hear. It was about his expectations after writing Driving Miss Daisy. He had little expectations.

He was in early fifties and he just wrote the 62 page play as a tribute to his grandmother. That’s all. He wasn’t trying to change the world. He wasn’t trying to get rich and famous. He wasn’t trying to write the great American screenplay and win an Academy Award. His starting place was small–almost obscure.

When he found out it would have a six-week run at a theater in New York so far off-Broadway that you had to walk up three flights of stairs to see the play, he was thrilled. He was glad it would have a long enough run that all his relatives could see the play.

Kind of reminds me of Sam Shepard’s early plays that were performed in a church basement in Manhattan. (Speaking of Shepard, let me get in an Iowa plug. The movie Country, about the farm crisis in the 80’s, starring Shepard and Jessica Lange was filmed right here in Black Hawk County.)

Uhry didn’t know that his story of an elderly Jewish woman and her black driver would strike a chord like it did. (It certainly wasn’t a high concept story.) But the play became a Broadway hit and then it was off to Hollywood.

To borrow the words of Jimmy Buffett, Uhry “captured the magic.” May we all be fortunate enough in our life to have that experience one time. Driving Miss Daisy was Uhry’s equivalent of Don McClean’s song American Pie. It’s become a part of the fabric of our culture.

Uhry captured the magic with a story that was small in Hollywood terms, but one full of conflict as well as meaning.

From the opening scene when she had an accident while backing her car out…until Miss Daisy died it is a story full of meaningful conflict.

If real estate’s mantra is location, location, location, then for screenwriters it’s conflict, conflict, conflict. The lack of conflict in screenplays is why studio readers say that you can cut out the first 30 pages of many screenplays and nothing would be lost. Start your story as late as you can and start it with conflict. (Rocky loses his locker, in Sounder the boy’s dad is hauled away, Nemo’s mother, brothers and sisters are all killed, Juno is pregnant, all in the first few scenes of the story. And it’s hard to beat the first line in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, “Gregor Samsa woke one morning and found he had changed overnight into a gigantic insect.” When you wake up and you’re a bug, that’s meaningful conflict.)

What are your favorite movies scenes? Good chance they’re full of meaningful conflict. “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small (Sunset Boulevard). “She’s my sister and my daughter.” (Chinatown)—Conflict, Conflict, Conflict.

“Plays are about conflict. Plays are about people not getting along.”
Edward Albee

“Nobody goes to the theater, or switches on the tube, to view a movie entitled The Village of the Happy Nice People.”
Richard Walter

“Never put two people in a room who agree on anything.”
Lew Hunter

Look AFI’s list of heroes and villains. All full of conflict.

AFI’s100 Years…100 Movie Quotes is full of meaningful conflict. (“Houston we have a problem.” Apollo 13)

So there you have everything I learned in film school boiled down into one word — conflict.

I just saved you tens of thousands of dollars. (I hope you’ll buy my book when it’s published.)

Now all you have to do is sit down and write a story full of meaningful conflict. That’s the hard part.

In every scene you write there should be some level of conflict. It could be rising conflict (the calm before the storm) or resolution afterwards. But conflict is at the core of your story. Conflict with self, conflict with society, conflict friends and family, conflict with nature…but have conflict with something.

Meaningful conflict usually is conflict on at least two levels. The town has conflict with the shark eating people, and an economic conflict if tourist are kept away which leads to conflict in society with leads to conflict within the family. And to top it off the sheriff has his own conflict because he is afraid of the water. Jaws was not just a run-of-the-mill special effects movie. In fact, the special effects weren’t all that special.

The reason conflict is such a powerful piece of filmmaking is because we can relate to that in our own lives. Mike Tyson said that, “Everyone has a plan, until they are punched in the face.” Country music singer Deana Carter has a song titled, “Did I shave my legs for this?” We can relate to conflict. Every day we have to deal with conflict on many levels. It’s part of living east of Eden.   

Driving Miss Daisy wasn’t written in Iowa, but it takes place far from Hollywood in a small town in Georgia.  And that’s at the heart of Screenwriting from Iowa.

The state of Georgia is no stranger to conflict. (I’m not just talking about the Civil War or the Florida Gator’s football team.) Read the sermons from Ebenezer Baptist church by its former pastor Dr. Martin Luther King.  And think of these songs and stories rooted in Georgia history.

Gone with the Wind

Forrest Gump

Glory

Deliverance

The Color Purple

Midnight of the Garden of Good and Evil

The Devil went Down to Georgia

The Night the Lights went out in Georgia

Rainy Night in Georgia

Midnight Train to Georgia

Any short story by Flannery O’Connor.

Write stories about where you live. And like Alfred Uhry don’t set out to write the great American screenplay. Just write screenplays full of meaningful conflict. 

© Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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