"A commonplace book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that “great wits have short memories:” and whereas, on the other hand, poets, being liars by profession, ought to have good memories; to reconcile these, a book of this sort, is in the nature of a supplemental memory, or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation." - Jonathan Swift, "A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet"

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Writers make bad heros...

One of the scariest things about wanting to be a writer - even scarier than the death of the print industry, the improbable and minuscule financial remuneration, and the grueling ordeal of receiving hundreds of rejection letters - is the fact that all one's favorite writers, the people one aspires to become some day, are all depressed alcoholic loners, dead white men, or both. When I imagine being a writer, I remember walking through an exhibition of Richard Avedon's portraits and noticing that the writers he photographed were more grizzled, more haggard, and more wrinkled than all the movie stars, politicians, and farm workers combined.

Of course, there's an alternative route for my imagination to take. Wouldn't it be nice to be like Colin Firth in Love Actually, a nice, handsome person, living by a lake, falling in love with a cute Portuguese girl, and writing a novel on the side? Or you could be J.M. Barrie, as portrayed in Finding Neverland, cavorting in the park and playing dress-up with adorable kids all while jotting down notes about your next best-seller in a classy little black notebook. Or J.K. Rowling in her Scottish castle - need I say more?

But even the movies don't provide very many examples of idyllic writerly life - I'm hard pressed to come up with another example. And real-life successful writers are a quieter sort than actors or other stars. They don't make newspaper headlines or appear on the cover of Vogue or get stalked by tabloids. So where's a young writer to turn?

I've found two sources of fodder for my aspirations. One of my new favorite activities is attending readings at local bookstores. Technically, this is not only an activity - it's also part of my job to scout out writers as possible invitees to read for a podcast my bosses run. But it's probably the most fun thing I've ever had to do for any job.

First of all, it's an excuse to go to a bookstore and browse. More importantly, there are real, living-and-breathing writers who have written actual books (which are sitting right there on the podium, as proof) and who are willing to answer all one's breathless questions about how they managed to do it. But the best part is, they seem normal, even...dare I say happy? These are not the withered, miserable old men behind the classics of western literature. Out of five authors I've seen at readings this summer, three are youngish, sprightly women who have traveled to India, started families, and published multiple books. They always seem to have lots friends in the audience (no loners, these), and their ability to articulate the ideas behind their writing is impressive. The bottom line is: I would be happy to become any of these women.

My second source of inspiration is a bit less tangible, but no less exciting, for me at least. Enter BBC Radio 4, where, every week or so, the lovely Mariella Frostrop talks to several authors about their writing. And how wonderful it is to hear two intelligent people conversing about the thing one loves most (with British accents, no less). Sometimes she even invites two writers on the show to discuss a common theme in both their work - how often do you get to hear two writers talking to each-other about writing?

The conclusion, I guess, is that if one wants to obsess about books, one must turn to bookish pursuits, like attending readings and listening to the radio. It might not be as cool as seeing a movie or going to a concert, but the next time you're looking for an exciting evening out, I recommend a bookstore.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Wake-up calls

Well, it's been a long time, but surprisingly little of note has happened since my last post. I spent hours editing an interview for a video podcast, only to be told that footage was getting scrapped in favor of a new interview. So I spent hours editing the new interview. But between marathon sessions in the editing room, I've also been commissioned by my boss to work on an independent project - a sort of crowning glory to my summer internship.

It should be noted that my internship is beyond half-way over. I've only got 2 1/2 weeks left. On the other hand, a big project is a nice change from the sundry duties with which every intern is all too familiar. I went home and came up with an idea for a series of features. My boss approved it. We decided the first step was an informational interview with one of the subjects. I made the appointment. All set.

It remains to be seen whether there'll actually be time to go further than that. But whether or not I get a chance to see this project through, the experience of submitting a proposal, developing an idea, and putting it into action will undoubtedly be an education one.

It's also made me realize just how easy it is to trudge along in a routine of small tasks without looking for anything bigger or more interesting to do. I step onto the subway train after work and forget about the computer screen I've been staring at, the cubicle I've been sitting in, and the lists of arts events or sequence of video clips I've been cramming into my brain. But I also forget to reflect on what I enjoyed during the day, what I might like to do tomorrow, and how I can make it happen. When my boss asked me to come up with a project, I found I'd sunk into a rather comfortable but unproductive rut of dutifully taking in all the learning opportunities presented to me but never actively seeking out more.

To my credit (or just to make myself feel better), I should point out that when I step off the subway train, I more often than not plunge directly into researching my thesis, applying to grad school, or cooking dinner. If only I had unlimited mental space and time to devote to making my summer the ultimate internship experience! Of course, nobody actually has that kind of time. Some people manage to cram an awful lot of creativity and productivity into whatever their working hours are, but it's just not easy to be those people, especially during summer vacation.

Luckily for me, my boss is there to remind me of what I've forgotten and push me to do bigger and better things with my time. By the time I finish these 9 weeks, I'll have written two or three articles, edited a couple of videos, gotten a look at the local arts scene, and kick-started this independent project, which hopefully will be taken up by someone else when I leave. And let's not forget all those routine little tasks, without which it just wouldn't be a proper internship.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Movies, movies, movies...

In between eating burgers, drinking Arnold Palmers, and doing other summery stuff, I'm spending my July 4th weekend writing about movies. And movies are perfect for summer, right? I should add that I'm writing two reviews, one about Yann le Masson (a French documentary filmmaker from the 60s and 70s) and one about Bernardo Bertolucci (an italien director of sprawling, colorful, artsy films like "The Last Emperor" and "Last Tango in Paris"). Ok, so I can't really make this sound appropriate to the 4th of July at all.

The Bertolucci piece is about an upcoming retrospective series that my boss wants to review. The other article is for a French website that reviews books and movies - I wrote another piece for them while I was in Paris last fall. It's a coincidence (or the result of poor time management) that the two due dates have fallen in the same week, but I'm looking at it as a good trial run for what it might be like to actually do this as a job.

First of all, I've been reminded that writing about film takes time. There's just no way to rush through movies. If, in the case of Bertolucci, your subject makes 2- and 3-hour films, you better plan in a lot of hours before even thinking about starting to write. Thanks to the training of taking a lot of film classes, I probably have enough stamina to get through two or three such movies in a day, but somehow that seems so much less wholesome than spending an entire day reading or visiting art exhibits. Especially when it's 80 degrees and stunningly beautiful outside.

Secondly, I've found there are unique challenges to reviewing a set of movies instead of just one. Partly, it's really fun, because it's more interesting to suss out the patterns and themes of a director's oeuvre than to decide whether any particular film is great or not. Seeing the span of a career also enhances my appreciation of each individual film, whether for the director's versatility or for his/her ability to plumb the depths of one subject from several angles. On the other hand, when it comes down to fitting an entire career into 500 words, the choices become very frustrating. I love getting down the nitty gritty of writing about one scene, a sequence of shots, or a even a single composition. Those parts are fun to write and fun to read - I tend to skip over other parts of reviews to get to the descriptions. But there is just no place for scene analysis in the reviews I'm writing right now, so it's a real challenge finding the right detail or image to give the reader a sense of the individual films.

Thirdly, there is the ever-present danger of distraction. I've often found myself during finals week, in the midst of writing a paper, falling prey to this most terrifying of foes. One minute I'm looking up a page reference in a book, and the next thing I know I'm 20 pages into re-reading my favorite passage. Thanks to the wonderful technology of YouTube, IMDB, and DVD drives, it's all too easy to fall into a similar trap with film clips. I just wanted to make sure about that one camera angle or that line of dialogue, but look! this scene goes straight into that other scene that was so good, and since I'm on YouTube anyway, that certainly looks like an interesting video.....

Luckily for me, I always manage to get a craving for a glass of fruit juice or a handful of fresh cherries or a few minutes out in the sun before the internet sucks me in too far, and I come back to my computer with renewed resolve. So really, if summer weren't so summery, how would I get anything done at all?