Epiphanies and Inspiration

No column today: I’m not writing any this month as I’m just too swamped. Tonight’s the dress rehearsal for the Camerata’s production of Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals with me as narrator. Do join us tomorrow night for the performance if you can at 7:30 in the Picotte Recital Hall of the Massry Center. It will be lovely — we have some amazing performers.

From Rome

I had a little epiphany this morning: Modern publishing is like science, extracting genre from organic story like chemicals from herbs. The best stories straddle genre. I already knew the falseness of marketing to strict genres; what I hadn’t realised was its similarity to how medical science has sought to isolate the “effective” chemical and extract it from the plant. What they’ve been discovering of course is that all the seemingly extraneous elements play important roles in absorption and so forth.

Over at UAlbany they had John Patrick Shanley visiting. I went to the afternoon seminar, as always hoping to hear something that will kick my brain back into high gear. I loved his story about how Cyrano de Bergerac inspired him as young teen in the Bronx, being both tough, smart and a freak — and getting all his friends pastries with just the power of his words. “That’s what I do.” He has a very direct (and funny) way of talking, as befits an ex-Marine from a rough part of New York. You can see it when he mentions telling a critique partner in exasperation, “I don’t know why you’re alive,” because his script was full of “lies” and bad writing. But he also says how much he hungers to have the ultimate romantic connection. A lot easier for an ex-Marine to say that and be taken seriously, but you see within the snappy patter the guy who wrote Moonstruck. The image that gave birth to that film was his mother’s face and the sky that he saw as a child and then she was gone and what was in the sky? The moon.

He got a little impatient with one guy who seemed to want to pump him for the secrets to success and repeated exactly what I have always believed: writing has shamanic power. You’re not writing for yourself, you’re writing for your tribe (and sometimes, to find your tribe). All I need, he said, is a torch in the dark telling my stories before a circle of people. “The problem with a lot of bad writing is all the subtext, I’m sick of subtext.” People speak less when they tell the truth, Shanley said, because it always costs them something.

Things to keep in mind as I keep working on the talk. Trying not to think about Lucky Jim too much. Be truthful. Offer something real. Tell my tribe what I know.