writingtheory

January 24, 1980


january-24-1980

It was totally in character for the late Bill Bowers to treat fledging writers to lunch – he was legendary for his warmth and generosity. In his drinking days, he churned out three or four scripts a year. Sober, he slowed but not much. He wrote a whopping 39 movies including “The Gunfighter,” for which he received an Oscar nomination. On the Zoetrope lot in 1980, Bowers occupied one of two offices upstairs from where I wrote a Cindy Williams MOW project.

Bill Bowers, playing the part of a senator interrogating Michael Corleone in "Godfather 2"
Bill Bowers, playing the part of a senator interrogating Michael Corleone in “Godfather 2”

My UCLA screenwriting professor Bill Froug interviewed Bowers for his first book – the Screenwriter looks at the Screenwriter – so I understood what a privilege it was to spend time with Bowers. He regaled us with stories about old Hollywood, each one better than the last. I wish I’d had the presence of mind to write them all down.

Martha Coolidge at early Halloween party
Martha Coolidge at early Halloween party

The other upstairs office belonged to Martha Coolidge, a rising young director. We formed a friendship that outlasted Zoetrope.

Martha and me at a Halloween party
Martha and me at a Halloween party

One of my most satisfying moments as a writer occurred when Martha and I shared a room at the Oaks, a health spa in Ojai.

Martha and me at the Oaks
Martha and me at the Oaks

She’d read and liked my spec script “At 17” but re-read it at the Oaks. From across the room, I scrutinized her face for clues – did she like it as much on her second read? What was she laughing at? Was it meant to be funny? It was hopeless, I couldn’t gauge her reaction — until she turned the last page, tears streaming down her face. Genuine tears! Does it get any better than that? I’ve never felt so validated. (I cried my eyes out when I saw “Rambling Rose”. A true karmic partnership.)

Eating very very little at the Oaks
Eating very very little at the Oaks

Recently, Martha suffered a serious fall from a horse that left her hospitalized for weeks. In true Martha fashion, she amazed doctors by her incredibly rapid recovery. It was less surprising to friends like me because I’m well aware Martha was born to break down barriers, exceed expectations and amaze the experts.

Martha also at the Oaks in Ojai
Martha, also at the Oaks in Ojai

Imagine that. My first paid writing job, and I got Bill Bowers and Martha Coolidge as office-mates – how lucky can one girl get?

 

 

September 1, 1970

Gerry Farrington looks thoughtful, talking to Vania Brown in his Fresno backyard in 1970
Jerry Farrington looks thoughtful, talking to Vania Brown in his Fresno backyard in 1970

 

September 1, 1970

 

Trying to sleep in Vania's Rambler
Trying to sleep in Vania’s Rambler

Mr.Farrington
Mr.FarringtonStanding

Mr. Farrington – it would be years before I could call him Jerry – was an instant legend at Wilcox High. A young ex-Marine, 1966 was his first year teaching. To say the least, he was intense. I didn’t witness it, but I heard he hurled a chair at a hapless student.

Our paths crossed when I took his American Problems class, an unlikely bright spot in s bleak senior year. I was used to being teacher’s pet – not for nothing did an ex-boyfriend call me KKK (for Kathy Kiss-up Knutsen) but this was different.  We could talk to each other on a level I’d never experienced with an adult, let alone a teacher.

He challenged me. Early that fall he made me cry by asking questions about a novel I was writing in front of the class. Later he apologized, just like my father would have. (He didn’t realize I wept copiously at anything slightly personal.)

If he gave me an A, he’d remind me it was relative – in a smarter classroom I’d get a C. He said I could do fabulous things if I broke my habit of procrastinating.

Do NOW

And speaking of habits, “Take nail biting, Kathy.” Caught with my fingers near my mouth in front of the whole class, I discovered I bit my nails – and stopped.

Note in Yearbook

Back then, Jerry dreamed of taking time off to write a novel. In 1970 he moved to Fresno and became a college professor. Soon after, he became a lawyer and a father. Jerry, his wife and their extraordinary daughter have lived all over the world, usually in the cause of social justice. Although he’s not religious, his value system is much like my father’s. I admire him more than I can say here – still, it’s time to issue this challenge.

STOP

Stop procrastinating, Jerry. Write that novel!  I, for one, am dying to read it.

7/6/16 Let’s Talk Tolstoy

COUNT LEV NIKOLAYEVICH TOLSTOY, USUALLY REFERRED TO IN ENGLISH AS LEO TOLSTOY
COUNT LEV NIKOLAYEVICH TOLSTOY, USUALLY REFERRED TO IN ENGLISH AS LEO TOLSTOY

July6, 2016
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.

Reserection4

By My Authority2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Anna Karenina2

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.

K Sonata

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.

ME IN TALLINN, THE CAPITAL OF ESTONIA
ME IN TALLINN, THE CAPITAL OF ESTONIA
VISITING ST. ISAAC'S CATHEDRAL IN ST. PETERSBURG - ALEX & ME - SAM & ALEX TAKING PICTURES - OTHER MEMBERS OF OUR GROUP NOT LOOKING INTO THE CAMERA
VISITING ST. ISAAC’S CATHEDRAL IN ST. PETERSBURG – ALEX & ME – SAM & ALEX TAKING PICTURES – OTHER MEMBERS OF OUR GROUP NOT LOOKING INTO THE CAMERA

What am I doing with a 1963 Playboy?

It’s research. Really. A vintage magazine – particularly those aimed at men or women looking for love – is an invaluable resource if you’re writing about another time period. Wikipedia or your basic Time-Life retrospective is fine for a sound bite, but for a glimpse into how the sexes perceived each other and interacted, check out the magazines they read – and don’t skim over the ads! By studying what – and how – advertisers sold their wares, you’ll find clues to what people of that time period wanted.What am I doing with a ’63 Playboy?

VargasFramed

To illustrate, I’ll use the August ’63 Playboy which I referenced in my last blog.  On page 30, an ad blares, “Snap! It’s open! Beer cans will never be the same.”  The pull tab is referred to as a “new opening convenience” brought to you by Alcoa. It puts into perspective just how long ago and far away 1963 actually was. Another time warp ad on page 34 asks, “Do $5.95 slacks go with a $15 sport shirt?”  For the researcher, the question is a window into the fashion and economy of 1963.

BeerSlacks

My favorite ad, page 64, asks “What sort of man reads Playboy?” The answer in August is, “a young man about town and country who draws freely from the good things in life, the Playboy reader leads the pack when it comes to lighting up – a smoke or a girl’s eyes. Facts: Copy for copy, Playboy has more male smokers than any other magazine. What’s more, their taste for tobacco is as selective in form and shape as their choice of a playful playmate. 64.5% smoke cigarettes. 25.8% prefer the satisfaction of a fine cigar. 23.4% take pleasure in a pipe. This is the audience with buying power – enough to spark a new trend, or add a new glow to established brands.”  The bottom of the ad lists Playboy’s advertising offices.

Smoking

Just to be clear – this pitch is not targeted at cigarette manufactures. Smoking was merely something hip cool playboys did. The December 1963 “What Sort of Man Reads Playboy” reads: “A discerning young city dweller with an elegant eye for luxurious living, the Playboy reader is as selective with his appointments as he is with his dates. And he settles on only the best when it comes to making an impression in the right quarters. Facts: With a median household income of over $10,000 he has the money and manner to live life well-upholstered, can easily afford the fine furnishings compatible with his social and business status. To move your product with success, use the magazine he lives by – Playboy.”

And on page 141, “Fun at hand – the Playboy Puppet. Add a bright touch to any gathering with this captivating puppet modeled after the famous Playboy rabbit. As a gift, or for yourself. It’s the perfect thing for off-the-cuff amusement.”

Puppet

These are the ads in one issue. In my next blog, I’ll summarize the Playboy Philosophy column, in which Hef himself dispenses incredibly politically incorrect advice about dating and mating.

Balloon

My Values in Fiction

Baby K

MY VALUES IN FICTION

Since I’m going to offer reviews and recommendations, I thought I’d clarify my personal value in fiction. I don’t claim to be an authority on anything except my own personal taste. Your value system is equally valid, even if it’s diametrically opposed to mine.

• I read for entertainment. Story is more important than beautiful language. . That’s not to say I don’t admire the perfect word choice – but without an entertaining story, I won’t keep turning pages.
• I read to answer questions to learn something – what happens next? Questions create suspense and propel me forward. Answers (information) should be revealed slowly to keep me interested.
• The train must leave the station (story must start) fast (preferably immediately). As in screenwriting, start late and leave early.
• Never use two words when you can use one better word. No wasted words ever.
• The best stories involve hard decisions, true dilemmas.
• Use small, concrete physical details in description but make sure they tell the reader something new about the character or story.
• Ask yourself David Mamet’s three questions.
• Why now?
• Who wants what from whom?
• What happens if they don’t get it?
• Remember – everybody has their reasons. Even villains/antagonists.
• Protagonists want something passionately. They are active, as are your verbs.
• While not always necessary in literary fiction, I prefer stories in which protagonists change / arc in a satisfying way. Even a failed epiphany is an epiphany.
• Don’t let characters say “I love you”. Show it in interesting ways.
• In literary short stories, small turning points occur when very minor decisions change everything. For me, this doesn’t work in long fiction.
• Short stories shouldn’t snap shut “like a cheap lock” – allow for ambiguity. It’s good if the reader wonders about the story after reading it.


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