What kind of writer do you want to be?

At 6pm yesterday I was on the fence about going to a screening of Red. At about 6:05pm I watched the trailer on IMDB. And, well, fuck. By 6:08pm I was throwing together some dinner so I could rush out to see it. A movie about an old man whose only family left is his treasured dog Red, and who embarks on a single-minded search for justice after a hot-headed group of teens shoot Red in the head when he doesn’t have the money they planned on mugging him for? I’m there. I’m so there.

But, unfortunately, it ended up being a brilliant trailer for a movie that left me wanting. I enjoyed a lot of it, but it wasn’t what I rushed down Sunset to see. It wasn’t what I was hoping for – it wasn’t the movie I would have written.

When I saw the trailer for Red, it smacked so completely of the kind of story that would easily grip my heart. A character who just won’t quit. Beaten down, seen as weak – but hell-bent on shining a goddamn spotlight on the truth after something at their very core is violated. I love it. I was certain that this movie would be a perfect little incarnation and avatar of one of the elemental story forms that rages inside me. I was all prepared to be surged and moved to jealousy.

Because I have in fact written such a story. I can’t remember if I was behind the times or timely, but about a year ago someone had me read Jill Soloway’s short story Courtney Cox’s Asshole. (In case you don’t know, and I think we can all assume that with a title like that you’d remember if you’d read it, Soloway wrote the story on a lark, it got passed around town like the hot new STD, and it got her staffed on Six Feet Under. Yeah. Staffed based off a short story.) It fed into the idea that a short story was an efficient way to show your voice, and it was something an agent or showrunner could read in their spare 2.43 minutes a day.

I was a creative writing major in undergrad. Thus I was no stranger to short stories. So I wrote a handful over a month or so. And – surprise surprise – they were a pretty pile of shit. I find that I rarely love anything that I set out to do because I should be doing it.

But one of them I liked. It was about a nine year old, a stern little curmudgeon of a girl, who has no one. Her parents ignore her. She doesn’t get along with the neighborhood children. She has no siblings. But she has this cat. This teeny little would-be lion of cat who puffs out his chest and lives for this girl. So when a mean spirited old neighbor kicks the cat for peeing on his lawn, snapping its neck, the girl is broken. She hides the cat in her closet, discovers who killed it, and then decides to burn his house down.

I really liked the story. It perfectly embodied what I wanted my writing to be at the time. So when I saw Red, I was surprised when I wasn’t relieved that this movie wasn’t really all that much like my own story. I was disappointed. I wanted the movie to be something that I would have written. I wanted to be jealous of it. If that makes any sense. I just wanted it to rip out a piece of me and show me that that it works, that it’s worth something.

So I was dull and hazy as I walked home from the theater. And I was listening to some odds & ends CS podcasts that have been lolling around my iPod for a while. One of which was the Q&A with Nancy Oliver for Lars and the Real Girl. It’s an odd, short little Q&A, but I liked it. Nancy Oliver was straight forward, pithy, and surprisingly a woman of few words.

At one point, she asks permission to go on a tangent, and Jeff Goldsmith says please do – and she goes off on how at some point (if not with each and every project), you have to decide what kind of writer you want to be. You have to realize that that is part of the process, that it's part of the story's presentation.

I’m the kind of writer who loves a good deadline. I love the sprint to the finish line with something like the Disney/ABC Writing Fellowship. But I also love its aftermath. The hazy, introspective search for where to go next. It's so free-form. There’s no fellowship guidelines, no rigid expectations. It could be an original pilot, an experimental spec, a feature, a stab at a novel – hell, you could write a children’s book. I love it, it’s completely open. And it’s often after these fellowships and writing contests that I find myself the most entertained and surprised.

And so Red, my own short story, and Nancy Oliver all got me thinking about what I would write next – and what kind of writer I want to be.

Which is a lot harder to put into words than I thought it would be. I’ve made six attempts thus far in writing this post, and I keep deleting them to prevent my stomach from making a 180 and turning in on itself. It’s really fucking hard. All I can come up with is that I want to be surprised. I want to entertain myself as much as I do others, and I want to rip part of myself out of my chest and see how it works, to show its worth.

I’ve tried to come up with a more specific answer, but I'm not doing so hot. I realize that in her own answer to the question Nancy Oliver was just referring to the choice of the presence of the writer, and how apparent that would be to a reader/viewer. But I find that a little dull. I think it’s more interesting to look at my next project and think about how I can make this completely representational of me as a writer? Not just with its style and voice, but from it's story type to its concept. What can I write that, if I hadn’t written it, would make me wish that I had to the extent of pure delirious joy?

I realize how ridiculous that sounds. But that’s what I wanted Red to be. I wanted to love it so much that jealousy would give way to joy.

So that's what I’m going to be thinking about as I sift through my ideas this week.

p.s. And I swear to fucking God that I’m going to try and answer the question:

What kind of writer do I want to be?

If anyone else can do it, I’d love to hear it.


Norlinda said...

I thought 'bout what you've written and this recent incident in my life popped into my head: I was watching 3:10 to Yuma (the remake with Crowe and Bale) with a friend. We get to the end where you-know-what-happens and my friend yells out "OH NO!"
That is exactly the kind of writer I want to be: the kind that makes you scream at the screen just because you have to.

Vanilla Chunk said...

Norlinda said it: I want to create a response, to make them laugh or wince or shiver.
I want to write something so good that the actors, the sets and the soundtrack are both completely enmeshed with my words AND ignored by my audience as the way into my story.
I wrote a script about the Mercury 13 (look it up). At one point, I had to leave my classroom. A big, BIG school security guy watched my class. A copy of the script was on my desk. he read most of it; he didn't quite get to the end. As he was leaving, he asked me if the main character got to fly. 'I hope she gets to fly', he said. That was pretty much worth everything.
I still want a beach house...

Great blog, man. I'm adding you.


Emily Blake said...

I want to make things explode. But with subtext.