This was one of my very first meetings on the first of my spec screenplays to be optioned – in this case by the late Steve Friedman who ran King’s Road Productions in ’79. The script was inspired by Janis Ian’s brilliant song “At 17” although I doubt anybody involved actually acquired the rights to the song (I know as a fledgling writer, I couldn’t afford it.)
Ultimately, the script got optioned three times by different companies and/or producers but – alas – never produced, at least not as of this writing. It did, however, launch my career. It was the sample script that got me hired to adapt S. E. Hinton’s novel The Outsiders.
Over the years, I rewrote it many times – incorporating notes from various producers and directors. Although almost every line of the script Steve optioned has been changed – hopefully, for the better – the original characters, theme and the crisis Steve and I added remain. Every time I completed another draft, I’d think I can’t possibly do more only to discover that if I set it aside for a year, the next time I looked I could easily spot room for improvement.
The lessons, for myself and anyone who aspires to a writing career?
You’re never done. No matter how wonderful you might think your current draft is, it can be better.
Take a break – as long as possible. My most recent break from this script lasted over twenty years. Talk about fresh eyes! It was like reading a script by somebody else.
Cutting improves almost anything. In particular, look for flab in the first act.
I recently read a blog by Dan Sapone that resonated with me – and I think it might have the same effect on some of my fellow Boomers. It’s about where we were and where we are, the need to balance security and risk, and whether parents have the courage to risk allowing their children to choose paths other than those chosen by the parents. Here’s a link if you want to check it out. https://convivio-online.net/unexpected-wisdom/
Proms have become a trope in teen-age movies, which would have one believe that attending (or not attending) the prom defines high school existence (Pretty in Pink springs immediately to mind although there are plenty of others). This wasn’t my experience.
I went to several proms – all in the same lace-encrusted blue dress – and while they were all memorable in their own way, they were not the apex of my teen-age years. I doubt I’m not alone in this. I’ve never met one single person who claims their prom was the defining moment of their high school life.
In real life, I don’t think who got crowned king and queen of the prom was of matter of life and death (Carrie). I was never in the running so I didn’t really care. My parents, however, were the King and Queen of their high school prom
Our Prom Party sent up the movie-fantasy stereotype of a high school prom, it didn’t have much to do with the real thing. One of my Columbia students, Holden Weitz, wrote a hilarious teen movie that parodies this trope. That’s the movie I want to see made!
This wasn’t my first – or last – fantasy about taking drastic measures to escape my life. I didn’t follow through on this brilliant plan or any of the others which didn’t stop me from devising new schemes to start over someplace else whenever I’m overwhelmed where I am.
Before my wedding, I thought about hopping a plane and disappearing in Sweden (because I took Swedish at UCLA, as if that would do me any good.) Thank God I lost my nerve – or regained my senses – and showed up at the church on time. Sticking around and seeing things through was always the right choice.
The fantasy of running away – starting a new life with a new name – is probably impossible in our high-tech surveillance-happy world. Even if I could, there’s no reason to believe my new life would improve on the one I’m living. As the saying goes, wherever you run to, you take yourself with you.
And of course, “myself” is the problem. The only way to change my circumstances is change myself. It’s an inside adjustment, not an outside one. I didn’t know that in ’69, as I sank into a bottomless clinical depression. I find solace in the fact that no matter how much I wanted to leave this life, I stayed – and you know what? It got better.
I’d spoken to Griffin and Amy on the phone, but this was our first face-to-face. I was slightly awed by both of them. Long before I fell in love with Griffin’s performance in the sensational film After Hours, I enjoyed his father Dominick’s books starting with The Users. As for Amy, I was a huge fan of Baby, It’s You, an indie film she produced. The fact it was based, in part, on her high school and college life made her that much more fascinating. Not only were they a hot young producing duo, they were classy and smart with superlative taste in literature. They fell in love with the same obscure novel I did. They intended to option the book and produce the movie. I would adapt it for the screen.
The Moonflower Vine, Jetta Carleton’s first and only novel, became an overnight sensation upon publication in 1962. I don’t recall how it wound up in my hands in high school. It didn’t look like the kind of book I gravitated toward. To be blunt, it looked boring – like a plotless description-heavy feel-good tale of a rural family. It looked like hundreds of similar books I failed to finish after a quick perusal of the first and last chapter. (Yes, I read the end of most books as soon as I finish the beginning. I have my reasons.)
The Moonflower Vine wasn’t one of those books. I was so engrossed I read to the last page without peeking. It blew me away. Critics raved about the grace and beauty of her writing. While exquisite language is far from the first thing I seek in a novel, it doesn’t hurt. Equally if not more important than the prose, Carleton’s characters were full-bodied and three-dimensional, bursting with life and the weight of their secrets.
Despite four months on the New York’s Times best-seller list and its selection by major book clubs, the book fell out of print. The lack of a follow-up didn’t help. Aside from two paperback reissues in the 70s and 80s, it was all but forgotten.
A couple factors led to its recent renaissance. It was featured on the “Neglected Books” website which included an endorsement by Jane Smiley. Smiley cited The Moonflower Vine in her book 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel. Perhaps most important of all, voracious fans like myself read and re-read it, and recommended it to others.
I, for instance, persuaded my sisters they had to read it. They did and they fell in love too. Since the book tells the stories of a Missouri family with three living daughters, it’s not so surprising an Iowa family with three daughters related rather strongly. Jetta’s fictional family bore enough similarities to her real family that her two older sisters felt tainted and infuriated. Was that part of the reason she didn’t write another book? They forgave her before she died in 1999.
Carleton left a draft of another novel – Claire de Lune – behind which was published posthumously. Meanwhile – in part because so many fans consider it unforgettable – The Moonflower Vine was republished to some fanfare in 2009 by HarperCollins.
I know, it looks a little dull, but it’s not. It ranks high on my personal list of “Books that Mattered” and I highly recommend it.
“I look at all the lonely people – where do they all come from?” Sometimes I feel like Eleanor Rigby should be the soundtrack of my life. Undoubtedly, I noticed lonely people more when I was lonely myself just like I noticed more PT cruisers on the freeway after I drove one. This particular old lady probably affected me more than most because she used reading to fill the emptiness in her life much like I’ve used it in mine.
San Diego was a lonely city for me. We didn’t move there until after I graduated from high school so I had no peer group of friends to welcome me home. My sisters and I had each other at first but since both of them went to high school there, they developed their own social circles and needed me less than I needed them. Apparently – at least based on this entry – I turned to my dog Inga for solace. “I look at all the lonely people” indeed.
The silver lining is in the last line – and once again I’m forced to acknowledge this might have been another lucky break disguised as pain. Who knows how much writing I would have accomplished if I’d had a social life to distract me? Lacking anything close to friends, I had no choice but to invent people to entertain myself – a coping mechanism that came to serve me well.
My favorite Ibsen plays aren’t the ones that deal with social issues (A Doll’s House, Enemy of the People) but the ones that deal with secrets of the heart, complicated desires most people refuse to admit – even to themselves.
The common elements to Rosmersholm, When We Dead Awaken and The Master Builder are:
An aging artist is artistically blocked and the thrill is long gone from his marriage.
A stranger from the past appears and demands payment for an unkept promise.
The young stranger tantalizes, provokes and ultimately inspires the aging artist to ascend to high, cold isolated peaks.
This perilous climb results in death. Unfortunately, in Ibsen’s world the hero must choose between living death by secure but sterile marriage or actual death by passion, romance and self-actualization.
One might assume Ibsen is the aging unhappily married artist but late in life, speaking of his wife Susannah, he said, “I could not do without her greatness. “ He never left Susannah for any of his young girls. So what was going on in Ibsen’s secret heart?
In an early work, Brand, which also ends high in the mountains with the hero’s death via avalanche, Ibsen refers to the “Ice Church”, a human soul in which love has died. All that’s left for the couple is to “try to fill that emptiness with something. Something resembling love.” (Little Eyolf)
In an interview about The Master Builder, Ibsen said “Solness and his wife are worthy people who aren’t happy in their life together. They don’t become what they could and should have become. They aren’t actually miserable. Although they share consideration and a kind of tenderness and love, they cramp each other. They brood perpetually because each goes his own way mentally and doesn’t share with the other. Contrast Hilde and Solness. They are not extraordinary persons but they feel spiritually akin, strongly attracted to each other. They feel they belong together and life together would be immeasurably richer. They would be better people and their relationship would give their lives greater meaning. Then the collision comes – when Solness still has a zest for life, a need for happiness, and feels unable to live in subdued resignation. And so they decide to build a castle in the air and live together in spirit.
This lifts him higher than before, able to do things he had not been able to do for a long time. He stakes his life on his passion and is killed.”
How many married people relate to this passage, even if they’re unwilling to admit it or act on it? Is this why these plays made people of Ibsen’s era so uncomfortable?
Ibsen also said, “It is wrong to think of unhappy love as two people who love each other but don’t wind up together. No, unhappy love is when two people who love each other get married and feel they…cannot live happily together.” I think Ibsen meant, they can’t keep their passion and romance alive – but who can? Passionate romantic love requires an element of risk, uncertainty, mystery and a leap of faith – the opposite of a long term marriage.
That’s not to say I don’t believe in marriage. I do; I’ve been married forty years (to the same man.) However, it’s not always easy. My novel, REPRISE, struggles with these themes in more depth and I’ll write more on this topic in future blogs.
Since my family and I are touring Scandinavia, it’s a perfect time to revisit my relationship with Henrik Ibsen.
Growing up in California the smart second language was Spanish, but in high school I opted for Latin. When I reached UCLA I registered for German but in less than an hour I realized what most people probably already knew – Germans don’t employ the same sentence structure as English.
Luckily, UCLA offered a plethora of languages, one of which was Swedish. As a second language its usefulness is debatable since most Swedes speak English, but it utilizes the exact same sentence structure as English. Sign me up!
Today, the only Swedish I remember is “Ja kan tala da svenska mycket bra.” Unfortunately, this translates to “I can speak Swedish very well” and since I kannot tala da svenska mycket bra, I dare not utter it to anybody who actually speaks Swedish.
Since a year of Swedish familiarized me with the Scandinavian languages building, I figured why not take Scandinavian Literature? The first book we read was “The Axe.” (That’s all I remember, but I’m willing to bet no one lived happily ever after.) Next we read Knut Hamsun’s Hunger (logline – Norwegian writer starves himself to death for art) and then Barabbas
(not the feel-good movie version. In the Lagerkvist book, Barabbas escapes death on the cross, thinks about things but reaches no conclusions, and dies on another cross.) If you’re hooked on nihilistic hopelessness and can’t get enough tragic suicides or avalanches, Scandinavian lit is for you.
This brings me to Henrik Ibsen. What better way to follow up my immersion in Scandinavian lit than a ten-week four-unit course all about Ibsen, all the time? I might not know much about Strindberg but by God, I can pontificate about Ibsen as long as you can stay conscious. How important is Ibsen? He’s behind Shakespeare but ahead of Chekhov when it comes to fathering modern theater.
Here are some things you might not know about Ibsen. He left Norway before he found fame as a playwright and lived most of his adult life in Italy and Germany. He had a yen for young girls (but not Polanski thirteen-year olds; Ibsen’s crushes were old enough to legally consent, although it wasn’t necessary as nothing physical was involved.) Oddly enough, although I find the old man/ young girl thing a little repugnant, my favorite Ibsen plays are his later ones dealing – not obliquely – with old geniuses and young girls. Ibsen might be famous for A Doll’s House, Ghosts, Hedda Gable, Peer Gynt and Enemy of the People but I’ll take Rosmersholm, Master Builder and When We Dead Awaken all day long.
Part two of Ibsen and I to follow tomorrow.
But, before I leave you, today, here is a collage of some of our experiences on our cruise from Stockholm to Copenhagen.
Two weeks later, although I have visited many wondrous places and have seen some incredible things, it is time to stop climbing the endless castle stairs.
I have yet to realize the above scenario. It turns out Tolstoy rarely surfaces in California small talk. Luckily, the blog format allows me to start my own conversation but it might be too late. I haven’t given Leo much thought for decades. To test my knowledge retention, I’m writing this post without using references.
My favorite Tolstoy novel was the lesser known Resurrection, written relatively late in his life. I don’t recall the hero’s name but basically the plot was as follows. An aristocrat serving as a juror recognizes the woman on trial as the same girl he and his friends gang-raped years earlier. Overcome with guilt, he accompanies her to prison in Siberia. She is not enthusiastic and, as I recall, it doesn’t turn into a love story. It’s more about the guy’s spiritual journey. It’s shorter than War and Peace and Anna Karenina.
My second favorite was Anna Karenina but I confess skimming the parts about Levin. Tolstoy used Levin to pontificate on rural Russian agriculture, not exactly a page-turner. Given this, it’s ironic the section of the book I remember and admired most involved the deadly dull Levin.
Here is how I remember it. Levin has been set up with an eligible woman (after suffering rejection from Kitty, the woman he wants and – spoiler alert – later gets.) They’re picnicking near a river. Tolstoy describes a moment in their conversation where they both realize – or decide – this relationship is dead in the water. The energy level drops but nothing is said. No doubt some of my admiration for this passage is due to having experienced similar moments myself although I couldn’t articulate them as well. In a future post, I’ll paste the passage in question into my blog and attempt to analyze why it works – or I’ll admit my memory failed and what I recall reading doesn’t exist. (It appears this may, in fact, be the case. I’m mortified.)
My favorite Tolstoy short story is the Kreutzer Sonata in which the aging Leo rails against the evils of lust, sex and women. In reality, Tolstoy’s wife Sonya got pregnant shortly after its publication and referred to the baby as “the postscript to the Kreutzer Sonata.” It’s a passionate story, raging against passion.
Ask me what I know about Dostoevsky or Chekhov and the answer is “not much.” But just wait until someone brings up Leo Tolstoy at a cocktail party!
Here are a couple of shots of our visits to Tallinn, Estonia and St. Petersburg, Russia.
Have you ever noticed how in virtually every fairy tale since the beginning of time, the oldest sister(s) are ugly harpies and the youngest is so clever, kind and beautiful – so gosh darn special – that she always wins Prince Charming’s heart? Sometimes older siblings have no plot function or personality at all – they exist only to make the hero a youngest child.
This blatant favoritism for the youngest sibling didn’t die with old-fashioned fairy-tales like Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast. It’s alive and well in contemporary fiction – Ron Weasley is the youngest Weasley brother and Ginny (the youngest) becomes Harry’s wife in Harry Potter. Ender is the youngest of three in Ender’s game. Alyosha, the youngest, is the most morally pure of the Brothers Karamazov.
The purpose of fairytales and myths is to teach children about life. What lesson is an oldest child supposed to take from this bias? No wonder I look so ticked off in childhood photos of the three of us. The subliminal message in myth and lit was I didn’t count in this story. I was a stage prop, meant to do something venal and stupid and exit to make way for the chosen one, the good one – my youngest sister Joyce.
If you’re interested, there’s a list and explanation of this trope at
And if you’re in the mood for some sisterly snark, follow these links to either or both of these photo galleries – My Two Years and Two Days of Bliss (link) and Kathy Vs. the Alien Baby. Pictures don’t lie!