The humorist and suspense novelist Kevin Guilfoile has noted that writing humor is similar to writing thrillers, in that both manipulate the audience into an intended emotional reaction: amusement in the former, fear and anxiety in the latter. They build up tension in the audience, then release it — through laughter or plot resolution, respectively. It’s the opposite of poetry, for which the reader’s own response to the text is as essential to its meaning as the author’s intentions, and which relies less on narrative tension and revelation than on the subtler pleasures of language.
Sorry for the long delay between posts. I am working on finishing my MA, and the work leaks into every moment.
Father sat down on the edge of the narrow bed. “Corrie,” he began gently, “When you and I go to Amsterdam— when do I give you your ticket?”
I sniffed a few times, considering this.
“Why, just before we get on the train.”
“Exactly. And our wise Father in heaven knows when we’re going to need things, too. Don’t run out ahead of Him, Corrie. When the time comes that some of us will have to die, you will look into your heart and find the strength you need— just in time.”
Corrie Ten Boom, The Hiding Place
(HT Robin H.)
I will never forget a visit I made to Ilana, an old friend who had become an Orthodox Jew in Jerusalem. When I saw her again, she had abandoned her jeans and T-shirts for long skirts and a head scarf. I could not get over it. Ilana has waist-length, wild and curly golden-blonde hair. “Can’t I even see your hair?” I asked, trying to find my old friend in there. “No,” she demurred quietly. “Only my husband,” she said with a calm sexual confidence, “ever gets to see my hair.”
When she showed me her little house in a settlement on a hill, and I saw the bedroom, draped in Middle Eastern embroideries, that she shares only with her husband—the kids are not allowed—the sexual intensity in the air was archaic, overwhelming. It was private. It was a feeling of erotic intensity deeper than any I have ever picked up between secular couples in the liberated West. And I thought: Our husbands see naked women all day—in Times Square if not on the Net. Her husband never even sees another woman’s hair.
She must feel, I thought, so hot.
Compare that steaminess with a conversation I had at Northwestern, after I had talked about the effect of porn on relationships. “Why have sex right away?” a boy with tousled hair and Bambi eyes was explaining. “Things are always a little tense and uncomfortable when you just start seeing someone,” he said. “I prefer to have sex right away just to get it over with. You know it’s going to happen anyway, and it gets rid of the tension.”
“Isn’t the tension kind of fun?” I asked. “Doesn’t that also get rid of the mystery?”
“Mystery?” He looked at me blankly. And then, without hesitating, he replied: “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Sex has no mystery.”
A habit is a shield. Time is always pushing at us, so slowly we don’t even notice. But that slow push has all the weight of a glacier behind it. Our feet slip and we don’t notice we’ve moved until we are already somewhere unfamiliar. Woe to him who loses track of the time. A good habit pushes back, giving us a brief respite in which to get things done. ‘Cause things must be got done.
I collect habits. I love trying out new ones. I hate the feeling of wasted time, that sinking feeling when you know the glacier has pushed you back a few feet. You let down your guard for one day, for one night, for one lazy Saturday morning, and you are faced with an eternity of trying to regain that lost ground. When the guard slips, it’s easier to blame the shield than the arm that held it. So I cast here and there for a replacement.
Coffee is the secret to the productivity of some. Cigarettes allow others to jumpstart their synapses. Some will say late nights, some, early mornings. The president of the United States wears the same suits, eats the same breakfasts, walks the same paths, his daily schedule carefully planed and sandpapered by the Secretary of Efficiency. I bulldoze myself out of bed at the same time every morning for the same reasons, or at least I try. There’s safety in a strong schedule.
Habits are more than productivity hacks. They are lifelines, the guardrails that tell you which path you’re on. I watched a Swedish movie and for the next two weeks, I drank coffee every day. I didn’t need the jolt, but I did need the security. The warm mug and woodsy smell told me that the present moment was enough. Coffee gripped the floor and held back the glacier. For a moment.
The trouble with the world is that it won’t be pitted against itself. A mug of hot coffee is a castle with paper walls. It won’t shield you from the world. It will pants you and point to your insecurities. When the world laughs, coffee will laugh, too.
I need a shield stronger than a calendar. I need boots that will grip the earth. I need a helmet that will focus my sight. I need a sword that will remain faithful, a breastplate to guard my heart, and a belt to keep my pants up. The only habit worth clinging to is the habit of holiness. Any other is a waste of time.
The Philosopher and the Potato
With knife in hand, I heft its earthy weight.
“Is it as real as I?” floats to my mind.
“Perhaps,” the spud rejoins, “you’ll find
“Your answer in the pot or on the plate.”
There’s this idea that to live out of conformity with how I feel is hypocrisy; but that’s a wrong definition of hypocrisy. To live out of conformity to what I believe is hypocrisy. To live in conformity with what I believe, in spite of what I feel, isn’t hypocrisy; it’s integrity.”
Rick Thoennes, quoted here by Brett McCracken
“Books are just screenplays with adjectives.” – Dan Mirvish
More and more, I am struck by the differences between writing a literary work (like a novel or a short story) and writing a screenplay. Writing a story is exploration. You are building a world from your imagination and you follow its contours for as long as you have the patience. Ray Bradbury said that when he wrote he was “at play in the fields of the Lord.” Of course, different writers have different habits, but in general, authors discover their stories through extensive exploration.
Screenwriting is completely different. Dan Mirvish is wrong. Screenwriting, by it’s very nature, is technical and precise. In some ways, a finished screenplay resembles a piece of music more than a work of fiction.
- Both a screenplay and sheet music are incredibly precise, yet leave room for “interpretation.” In fact, both die if life is not breathed into them.
- Both follow a conventional style, which moves from key or genre to variations on a theme, and then lands either on the tonic of the chord or hints at some future development.
Over the centuries, sheet music has developed a very specific format. This is partly due to the fact that many different people have to read the same piece of music and understand it the same way (with direction). If the first violinist is reading in a different format than the guy playing the bassoon, they’ll have trouble communicating.
Similarly, a screenplay follows a very rigorous format, which allow many different people to read the same thing and work together. In both situations, the director is the one who gives everyone a common vision and helps them interpret the document.
Once I noticed the mathematical similarities between the formats of screenplays and sheet music, I began to wonder if they were alike in other ways.
Donald Burrows writes how skillfully Handel keeps the music in his Messiah alive, “maintaining and extending musical interest by arousing, fulfilling, and diverting musical expectations.” This strikes me as a good summary of screenplay technique. In many engaging movies, narrative expectations are aroused, fulfilled, and diverted. If a screenwriter were called upon to always create something new and surprising, he would find the task all but impossible. But fortunately, he can use the audience’s knowledge of movie cliches and narrative arcs to make his story feel new. He can set the audience up to expect one thing, then deliver something else. We love it when movies do this, when they genuinely surprise us. It goes back to Aristotle’s maxim that each event of a satisfying story must inevitably lead to the next, and yet must still surprise us with their conclusion. Musical compositions often follow a similar pattern.
I’ve often wondered what other art form is mostly closely related to the three-ring circus that is making a movie. Because both are storytelling, it is often linked to writing fiction, but I wonder if making music may be a closer cousin.
I often use the metaphor of Perseus and the head of Medusa when I speak of science fiction. Instead of looking into the face of truth, you look over your shoulder into the bronze surface of a reflecting shield. Then you reach back with your sword and cut off the head of Medusa. Science fiction pretends to look into the future but it’s really looking at a reflection of what is already in front of us. So you have a ricochet vision, a ricochet that enables you to have fun with it, instead of being self-conscious and superintellectual.
Ray Bradbury, interviewed by The Paris Review
I wonder if Bradbury’s metaphor may be useful in thinking about all art — art is a reflecting shield that allows us to safely glimpse an image of the future.
For many young people with safe and easy lives, the most heartfelt prayers often concern relationships with the opposite sex. I used to be embarrassed by this, since I felt a little panty-waisted praying for “wisdom” about “that girl” while reading:
Be merciful to me, O God, for man would swallow me up;
Fighting all day he oppresses me.
My enemies would hound me all day,
For there are many who fight against me, O Most High. (Ps 56:1-2)
No matter how many times you remind someone who fancies himself in love that David was worse off then he is, it doesn’t lessen the strength of his feelings. Sure, it’s easy to laugh at in retrospect, but at the time, figuring out guys and girls and how we’re supposed to interact feels like the weight of the world on a pair of skinny, pimpled shoulders.
But where in the Bible could we go to find a role model, someone who had navigated the Charybdis of relationships with the opposite sex and come out victorious on the other side? There aren’t too many Biblical characters who spend their days sighing over their secret love–and those that do aren’t worthy of imitation (2 Sam 13). In fact, most Bible courtships are somewhat… cursory. It usually involves several camels, a handful of gold jewelry, a quick conversation with a near relative, that kind of thing. It’s almost embarrassingly banal, and certainly doesn’t do justice to the emotional jungle that most teens find themselves in.
Of course, the Bible story as a whole is the story of Christ laying down his life for his bride, and it ends with a glorious wedding. But what does that have to do with young people whose prayer lives are only consistent when they’re twitterpated and it isn’t going well? Do high school crushes have anything to do with spiritual warfare?
Absolutely. In the very beginning, the relationship between man and woman, which God made to be the most intimate in Creation, is one of the first things that’s torn apart by sin. First, sin creates a rift between man and God, then it creates a rift between man and woman. The entire story of the Bible (and history) is a quest to rebuild those lost relationships.
The point is that being confused and in love (or in love and confused), does not by itself make young people foolish children who don’t understand the world and who just “need to grow up.” The feelings and emotions that run amok during the teenage years (and afterward!) are not peripheral to the Christian life–they are at the heart of what Jesus came to fix.
It’s also worth mentioning that the bewilderment doesn’t go away when a man and a woman are brought closer together. Because of sin, the closer the relationship becomes, the more opportunities there are for conflict and confusion. The battle of the sexes rages fiercely because the sexes are meant to complement one another. The good news is that when Jesus fixes our relationship with God, the downstream effects of that heal our relationships with each other.
In other words, don’t be embarrassed if your prayer life seems heavily concerned with what she did, or what he said. Yes, there are ways to blow these things out of proportion. But ultimately, it’s a struggle against the effects of sin, and that’s a fight worth fighting.
The New Yorker had a great write-up on Andrew Stanton, which I only recently got to read. Stanton was the second person to be hired as an animator at Pixar, and has gone on to direct two Pixar films, Finding Nemo and Wall-E, as well as co-directing A Bug’s Life. The New Yorker did this write-up in 2011, just before Stanton’s first live action movie, John Carter, was released.
My favorite thing that the article reveals about Stanton is how willing he is to ask for help. As a company, Pixar has always been willing to try new things, to learn, and to outdo themselves. It looks like Stanton may have contributed to that company spirit. Some of the best bits of the article are included below.
On preparing to direct:
To ready himself to direct [John Carter], Stanton dropped twenty pounds, ran fifteen miles a week, and, once on set, vowed not to go to his trailer or even sit down unless absolutely necessary: “I didn’t want to look like the privileged animation geek who’d cheated his way to the top.”
On directing live action versus animation:
Juggling weather and stunts and light and green screens—it’s like trying to do synchronized swimming with aircraft carriers.”
Stanton’s precepts are often invoked at the studio, particularly “Be wrong fast” or “Fail early.” He explains, “It’s like every movie is a kid, and no kid avoids puberty. Just dive through it—get that outline that should take three months done in one, so you get the inevitable bad stuff out of the way and have more time to plus the good stuff.” Another Stantonism is “Do the opposite”: if a woman is going to spurn a marriage proposal, Stanton will open up possibilities by wondering, “What if she said yes?” He urges writers proposing a fix for a balky scene to “finish the sentence”—to follow their change’s consequences to the end of the movie, to insure that it works throughout.
On the Pixar world:
“We’re in this weird, hermetically sealed freakazoid place where everybody’s trying their best to do their best—and the films still suck for three out of the four years it takes to make them.”
“Pixar is the healthiest place to be because our movies got famous, not the moviemakers…”
I couldn’t get up in the morning or get to sleep at night if I thought perfection was possible. In between, though, you have to trick yourself into believing it is possible, which is dangerous.”
His father Ron, on his son’s gifts:
There are some people who have a knack for creating confidence where no confidence is justified, who can inspire a solution to the problem simply by believing a solution can be found.”
On distilling movies:
He read and reread Lajos Egri’s “The Art of Dramatic Writing,” which taught him to distill movies to one crisp sentence before making them. For “Finding Nemo,” it was “Fear denies a good father from being one,” and, for “Wall-E,” “Love conquers all programming.”
On asking for help:
Stanton told me, “I just felt, I suck, I suck, I suck, and they’re going to replace me.” One morning over the Fourth of July holiday in 2001, while he was visiting his parents in Rockport, Stanton woke before dawn and wrote a mission statement. He admitted to himself that he’d been at once stiff-necked and craven. “Try to get fired,” he wrote, as a corrective. “Don’t be concerned about box office, release dates, audience appeal, Pixar history, stock prices, approval from others.” He added, “You have a gift for looking at the world with a child-like wonder. . . . You lose that and you lose it all.” After this reckoning, he began to ask colleagues for help, and the main thread of the film, Marlin’s quest for Nemo, finally came together: kids thought it was hilarious, and adults found it almost unbearably poignant.