Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Taking on the Demons

When I was a small boy and would go to the movies with my older sister, I used to spend as much time looking at the beam of light coming from the projection booth as I would looking at the screen.  I liked to watch how the beam would split into multiple shafts of light as scenery changed or characters walked across the picture.  I didn't understand photography in those days.  I thought all the images I saw in movies were drawn, and marveled at how life-like they appeared.

As I grew up, I learned the truth about movies and film, and at first wanted nothing more than to be a projectionist.  I thought being in charge of running a movie would be the coolest thing ever - controlling the picture, and pushing the button that opened the curtains as the Colombia or Fox or Warner Bros. logo announced itself to impressive music.  Then as time went on, I started making 8 mm movies with my friends, dreadful things full of monsters and gore and terrible silent acting. (Spielberg and I have that in common, but of course that's where the similarity ends)  Eventually, I started writing scripts.  As a young man I wrote any number of teleplays on spec for all kinds of shows - detective, adventure, comedy.  I only had one sell, and came close with a few near misses.  By this time, however, I was married, having kids, and was obliged to make a living in a more stable, less exotic industry.

But in my spare time I kept writing - scripts, plays, short stories, and finally a first novel.  My writing style evolved.  I was an English Lit major so I was familiar with many of the classics of Eurpoean and American literature, as well as the tedium of figuring out complex, often convoluted literary themes.  I knew what "good writing" was supposed to be - Hawthorne, Melville, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Flaubert, Camus, Stendahl, Dickens, etc., etc.  But this wasn't what I was going for.  I wasn't out to dazzle with some didactic treatise on why society eats its young and yearns for war.  My intent was to entertain, to write page-turners that readers could visualize like a movie, with characters they could empathize with because they might be like people they knew.  I "saw" my scenes like a camera.  I read aloud my dialogue to make sure it rang true and seemed natural.  I had my wife (long suffering though she is) read my first drafts and comment on continuity, grammar, characterizations, and all the rest.  She became, and still is, not so much editor as sounding board, and believe me, she's good at picking up false notes.

Today, retired from the "less exotic" industry that reliably supported me and my family, I'm still writing, still going for entertainment over literary relevance.  I'm not vain enough to believe I've made a choice here.  Writing a literary novel is not something I ever thought I could do.  And maybe that's got something to do with how I've approached my craft.  Still, the movie lover in me, the great believer in seeing a reader hooked, spellbound, and imprisoned by a fast-paced plot and compelling characters, has always preferred to be entertaining.  I love to perform magic, and share the fun with people who like magic too.

 Like anything in life, writing isn't easy.  It's full of demons out to frustrate you in any number of ways.  It leads you down blind plot alleys and trips you up on inconvenient character details.  It perlexes, frustrates and mesmerizes.  And yet, it stays with you, and you with it.  Do you struggle with it by choice or by obsession?  I can't answer for anyone but myself.  Choice was never an option.  And for you writers reading this, I'm sure I'm not alone in that assessment.