Homecoming

Back to the old homestead

I bump into you

The last time we saw each other

We were ready to embrace the new

 

Your eyes on a spot behind me

Waiting for someone else

You detach yourself for a moment

And enquire as to my health

 

I’ve been about, I say

Gone from here to there

Tried some new things, now back to the old

Then meet your horrified stare

 

You raise eyebrows you’ve spent hours

On looking like you’ve left alone

And say, Oh, but how

Will you ever afford a home

 

You went your way I went mine

There is no right or wrong

There’s more than one way to live a life

We can climb or drift along

 

You’ve met all the celebrities

You’ve rubbed shoulders with the stars

But I’ve talked with children

About how we can live on Mars

 

You’ve never floated down the river

In a state of play

Waving to Japanese fishermen

Passing the time of day

 

Your experiences aren’t better than mine

And mine aren’t better than yours

We were both in the same building

We just left through different doors.


I have mixed views on poetry. Anyway, the urge struck me after reflecting on how people established in their fields react when I say I’ve been abroad for a long spell. Often, they express admiration, but other times it’s akin to pity. If we all went down the same paths, life would be awfully dull.

 

When the Muse Doesn’t Show

Most of us are busy people. We have all kinds of junk to do in between writing sessions – most of us have some kind of job or another, loved ones and not so loved ones to deal with, and all the usual menial tasks that make up our lives. We therefore have to fit our writing around our routines – we don’t have the luxury of brooding at oversized desks in unfathomably plush apartments, as any rom-com about literary professionals would have us believe. We have to make time for that crap, in between cooking dinner, buying groceries, and watching TV like normal goddamn human beings.

“If I had the time,” we might wail, baby puke all over our necks, “If I had the time, I’d be on my third bestseller by now!”

And so it goes. But then, a miracle happens! You get a week off work! Your kids finally sod off to university! Your dishwasher starts working again!

You seize the opportunity. You set that time for writing your masterpiece – you’ve finally got the chance to start that novel/write that screenplay/get a couple of short stories under your belt! This time next year, you’ll be a freakin’ millionaire!

So there you are, sitting at your desk or kitchen table, your coffee freshly brewed. You’ve got your notebook, Word doc, Celtx programme, or (hell’s bells) tablet in front of you. You raise your trembling fingers to the keyboard…

And nothing happens.

You can’t think of a single thing to write about. Perhaps you have a vague idea of the kind of thing you’d like to create – a short film about how things never go right for someone, maybe, or a story that makes the reader question what’s real and what isn’t. Maybe you have the perfect opening sequence – you can practically see every shot, you can even imagine the expressions on the characters’ faces, and you might have an idea of what will happen at the end. But the stuff in between? You realise that while you have great bits, you don’t have a story at all. Well, crap.

Writer’s block is probably the worst thing that could ever happen to a writer. You don’t get banker’s block, or software engineer’s block, after all.

The problem with vague ideas is everyone has them. I bet that if you’ve ever told anyone that you write, at least one person comes back at you with, “Well, I’ve got this idea for a film about a guy who…” Yeah, buddy, we all have ideas. Doesn’t make you a writer though, does it?

Writers have to sweat it out and go beyond the idea. They have to reword, redraft, and pick over every single little detail for the reader’s benefit. In my opinion, the ones who aren’t prepared to do this are arseholes. I went to a short film screening not too long ago, and the audience was left with more questions than answers about the storyline. When we dared to ask the writer what the hell was going on, he merely sniffed and said that it was all explained and clear. We just didn’t ‘get it.’ He also starred in it, incidentally.

Some cynics might say that if you don’t have ideas, then you aren’t a writer. I think that’s true to an extent – only if you aren’t writing anything. If you sit and wait for a story to fall into your lap before putting anything down, then you can’t really call yourself a writer. I found this floating around on the webz recently:

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This whole idea of refusing to wait for the muse isn’t new – Stephen King puts it fairly well in his On Writing memoir:

“There is a muse, but he’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer. He lives in the ground. He’s a basement kind of guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down there you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in. You have to do all the grunt labor, in other words, while the muse sits and smokes cigars and admires his bowling trophies and pretends to ignore you. Do you think it’s fair? I think it’s fair. He may not be much to look at, that muse-guy, and he may not be much of a conversationalist, but he’s got inspiration. It’s right that you should do all the work and burn all the mid-night oil, because the guy with the cigar and the little wings has got a bag of magic. There’s stuff in there that can change your life. Believe me, I know.”

Here’s another Stephen King gem:

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So what do you do? Do you just sit there staring at the screen? I don’t think so. You might try writing anything. You could write about something that happened to you long ago. You could even write out a stream of consciousness on bits of paper, which, as far as I know, is how Bob Dylan often writes.

You could even buy an ‘inspiration’ book. I used to have one called ‘Creative Block.’ It was full of nuggets of advice like, ‘make a really long paperclip chain.’ I couldn’t tell you if it worked or not – I never used it. I don’t think it would have worked for me. That’s not to say that the books wouldn’t work. I have one now by the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto – 642 THINGS TO WRITE ABOUT. It contains some pretty good prompts, actually:

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Incidentally, I once read a murder mystery novel about just that – two smalltown kids who overhear a series of conversations. I can’t remember the title, or even if I enjoyed it. I wonder if the writer had read such a prompt. The point is, he got something written.

Write anything, but don’t furrow your brow at a blank screen.

My own little hero, Buster Keaton, puts it like this:

The daily story conferences at the studio usually lasted from ten to six… …What I never could understand was why I got so few good ideas during those long story conferences. My best notions would invariably occur to me at home, more often than not in the least inspiring room of the house, the bathroom.

Perhaps his 1926 masterpiece, The General, was dreamed up while he was on the can.

I think it’s true that our best ideas come to us when we’re not trying to come up with something. I once got an idea for a short story when I was on holiday in Florence. The story wasn’t about Italy either. But my mind was relaxed enough to get out of staring at the screen. J.K. Rowling allegedly had the idea about a school for wizards while riding on the train. Was she racking her brains for a story at the time? Perhaps not.

Charles Bukowski takes a different tack with his ‘Don’t Try’ philosophy. In his 1990 letter to William Packard, he writes:

When everything works best it’s not because you chose writing but because writing chose you. It’s when you’re mad with it, it’s when it’s stuffed in your ears, your nostrils, under your fingernails. It’s when there’s no hope but that.

He goes on to say:

We work too hard. We try too hard.

Don’t try. Don’t work. It’s there. It’s been looking right at us, aching to kick out of the closed womb.

You might think that if you can’t think of anything, then writing hasn’t chosen you. When we think this way, we can feel like failures. We shouldn’t.

Switch that laptop on, write just about anything. Write a list. Write about a dinner party that went horribly wrong. You’re not writing to get published. You’re writing because writing makes you feel good. And if you want more of that feeling, you’ll keep on writing. The stories are in there somewhere. Even if you have to spend hours in the john, or keep on writing things that you don’t feel flow well. From time to time, it will flow. That’s when we know we’re on the right track.

Buster Keaton and the Craft of the Misquote

I’m in the middle of My Wonderful World of Slapstick at the moment, Buster Keaton’s own contribution to an already impressive body of work covering his extensive career as an auteur (although I’m sure he would have balked at the idea of being labelled in such terms). It’s a pretty thrilling read – we get the man’s own story behind his film-making, including his early start in vaudeville theatre at the tender age of four.

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The vaudeville years, I have to say, are absolutely enchanting. Keaton’s anecdotal writing style treats us to a glimpse behind the scenes of showbiz, before showbiz even existed in its own right. Back then, it seems, it was simply another way of making an honest living. Speaking of honest livings, here’s a favourite passage of mine:

It seems to me that if you are a good craftsman your principal concern should be to keep working. If you manage to do that your employers will have to pay you sooner or later exactly what you are worth. How can they avoid it?

Wise words, Buster. How indeed?

Between travelling between cities, Keaton regales us with rites of passage that are not unfamiliar – his childhood hijinks at the family vacation spot, the panic of losing siblings on a stroll about town, and his first taste of the “pure evil” whiskey aged seventeen that would eventually contribute to the end of his career. The documentation of these small moments of his life is what sets his own writing apart from the more scholarly analyses by Marion Meade, Kevin Sweeney, Robert Knopf, et al. What better way to learn the workings of such a great mind than to get the story straight from the horse’s mouth?

With this philosophy dancing around in my head, I set out to see what other worldly wisdom my favourite director had to offer. Not such a mystical quest – in this modern age, this merely consists of brewing another coffee and simply opening your browser.

That’s when I came across this gem:

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What a beauty! Could there be anything more relevant to the principles of Keaton’s work? It’s a paradigm of that classic cinematic philosophy – show, don’t tell. As Keaton tells us through voiceover in Tony Zhou’s recent The Art of the Gag, Keaton used no more than 56 title cards in his each of his features (at a time when the average was 240 per picture). There is no doubting his hardy little character’s determination in The General, or the case of mistaken criminal identity in The Goat. No caption can rival the subtle emotional shifts in the character’s face, or his explosions of physicality.

In his autobiography, Keaton recalls a minor dispute with his best friend and comedy mentor, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle:

“You must never forget,” he told me that day, “that the average mentality of our audience is twelve years.”
I thought that over for a long time, for three whole months in fact. Then I said to Roscoe, “I think you’d better forget the idea that the movie audience has a twelve-year-old mind. Anyone who believes that won’t be in pictures for very long, in my opinion.”

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Buster Keaton trusted viewers’ ability to use their brains, to interpret what they saw on the screen and read between the lines. They didn’t need to have storylines spoon-fed to them. In other words, he believed in his audience.

He may also have disagreed with Arbuckle for the following reason – if you don’t respect what you’re doing, then why do it at all? He leaves this point out of the book, but the implication is there.

Silence is dignity and reverence for your craft. Shouting from the treetops is better left to the apes.

Thrilled with this discovery, I posted the quote to The Buster Keaton Appreciation Society on Facebook (I know – once I get my claws into an interest, it’s hard to shake). Within moments, a flurry of Likes appeared. My work was done.

That is, until someone asked where the quote came from. And I had no idea.

I found no evidence that suggested Buster Keaton had ever uttered those words. However, I eventually discovered this 1921 article.

As it turns out, the quote does not come from Keaton himself, but from Wilis Goldbeck, his interviewer in Motion Picture magazine:

“Silence is of the gods; only monkeys chatter.” I sat once in a famous theater in the London Haymarket, and heard that proverb drip from the oily tongue of an aged Chinese philosopher. It glittered for the moment on the surface of my mind and then sank into the depths; depths termed by a recently famous philosopher and theorist, the Unconscious.

Disappointing, perhaps. The Buster-monkeys quote is repeated over and over on quotation sites, Goodreads, IMDB, Pinterest, and all manner of spiritual healing websites. And next to most of them, you’ll find a picture of Buster’s hauntingly melancholy face. It’s funny how time warps perspective. It brings to mind the “If you can’t handle me at my worst, then you sure as hell don’t deserve me at my best” feel-good meme attributed to Marilyn Monroe.

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This one.

Does a quote lose its depth when it is wrongly attributed? Does misdirection render it meaningless? I think not. The Keaton quote is just as much about superior film-making as it is about medieval Asian philosophy. Even though we can’t claim our role models uttered it, can’t we, the audience, make the connection independently? In the 1920s, Keaton argued that his viewers didn’t need title cards to form opinions. In the 21st century, nor should we.