Opposites Attract

My life is one big contradiction. Perhaps it’s because I’m half Japanese, half Polish-American, and was born on a U.S. military base in Sapporo during the Korean war… Modern imperialism versus ancient feudalism. East meets West. Yin yang and all that jazz from my days growing up in Jersey and New York City before pulling a geographic and moving to Hawaii, because I knew I’d drink or drug myself to death if I stayed in Manhattan. I’ve always been a writer — yet I hate writing, and avoid it as much as I can. But I can’t escape this world I’ve created inside my head that is overflowing with ideas I feel compelled to fashion into stories of one sort or another.

And that’s the problem. I have the opposite of writer’s block. I’m sometimes paralyzed by the inability to focus on one project at a time. Although my office is neat and orderly, befitting the Virgo that I am, I am flanked by small stacks of folders, notebooks and printed-out pages for half a dozen screenplays, two stage plays, and three novels, all in various stages of incompleteness. But I haven’t worked on anything new for months, and the pain is getting too great for me to continue my strategy of avoidance. So I’ve been running, reading a lot and cleaning house — because that’s what I do when I’m ramping up to start a new script or play. I have to be physically ready for long bouts of sitting at the computer. Reading multiple books each day sharpens my thinking. The dusting and vacuuming allows my mind to go blank and wander. Zen and the art of non-writing.

Among the books I’m alternating between, are three non-fiction works and “The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore”… which I will have a lot to say about in a future post because it’s conceptually similar to my “Uncle Monkey” talking chimp books that I’ve been writing for my nieces the past few years (without the sex and profanity in “Bruno,” that is) and raises some of the same existential questions that I explored in a script called APE/MAN, which I wrote about five years ago: a computer genius gives the power of speech to a gorilla that knows sign language while lusting after the ape’s “teacher”… then trades bodies with the gorilla through an experimental brain implant to learn what the ape is actually thinking since the gorilla has a limited vocabulary that is subject to  human interpretation. Pretty bizarre, yet based on real science. “Bruno” goes in a much different direction, however.

Where was I? Oh, yes… opposites attract. Physics, relationships, philosophies. Doing the contrary thing has been my writing modus operandi from my very first screenplay 15 years ago. I wanted to create stuff that no one else would write because they would think it wasn’t commercial or didn’t fit the Hollywood formula. My debut script was a black comedy based on  the 28 days I spent in rehab with other recovering alcoholics and  drug addicts. But when I started showing it to TV and movie people, they said, “You can’t write a comedy about drunks and meth heads! Addiction is a downer — no one wants to see that.” Of course, other movies and cable TV series have come out since then that showed there’s a big market for black humor if it’s done well.

However, one TV producer actually liked it and thought I could sell it. That little bit of encouragement led me to believe that taking the contrarian approach might work. And it did when my second script, which went against the grain in every way, was optioned by the co-writer of the original ROBOCOP movie. I’ll tell you that story in Part Two.

First though, I wanted to briefly mention the three non-fiction books I’m plowing through. I was thinking about writer’s block (or more precisely, the opposite of that) while perusing “Page Fright” by Harry Bruce. It was recommended by a writer friend, Porter Grand — author of “Little Women and Werewolves” — who occasionally posts comments and words of wisdom on this blog under her Lycan Librarian blog moniker. She’s a very inventive writer and her description of the book made me want to read it. Basically, it’s a collection of anecdotes about the habits and superstitions of accomplished scribes. Many of the stories are interesting or humorous, but it’s more about the physical aspects of putting words on paper than what’s going on inside their heads while writing.

If you want insights into the creative process, I’d recommend the other two books I’m halfway through: “Life” by Keith Richards, and Stephen Sondheim’s “Finishing the Hat.” Talk about opposites! Yet in their own ways, they’re both consummate professionals. Keith was largely self-taught. He studied records by black R&B musicians, and would learn guitar riffs from more experienced players in England and America when the Rolling Stones toured the states. Sondheim had his Broadway musical mentors. But each of them synthesized what they absorbed from others, then went off in new directions by experimenting with different styles.

When Keith talks about writing “Satisfaction” and “Jumping Jack Flash,” you have to smile at the stories behind these classics. On one hand, he seems to be divinely inspired — he knows he has a gift — then he’ll humbly admit the origins were pretty mundane. Example: Mick Jagger was woken up by loud sounds outside his window where the band was staying, and asked Keith who was making the noise. Keith said, “Oh, that’s Jumpin’ Jack”… a farm hand who was stomping around in heavy boots. Jagger later added “Flash” and a hit song was born. The opening lines of “Gimme Shelter,” were written by Keith while there was a storm raging outside his place. The metaphors came later.

Keith’s book is conversational in tone, and he comes off surprisingly intelligent, while being maddeningly casual about his drug use (until he fesses up to being a junkie). I kind of skimmed the partying stuff, since that gets boring fast. But when he talks about music, even an amateur guitar player like me can be inspired by his admission that much of what he did was simple trial and error. He experimented with different tunings and methods of distorting his guitar sound through the use of amps and fuzz boxes — stuff that I did too in college when I played in a band. I thought I wasn’t that “good” because I couldn’t play scales and used open tunings. He took the same open tunings I used, removed one string, and came up with a unique sound.

Sondheim is the complete opposite of Keith in his story-telling style. He is erudite and extremely critical of other song writers, as well as himself. Yet he’s similar to Keith in that Sondheim picks apart lyrics and melodies with the same attention to detail that Keith picks up when listening to musicians he admired. What Sondheim did for musicals is very much like what good screenwriters do with their dialogue: he gives each song words and music that match the interior make-up of his characters on stage.

I guess what I’m trying to say is if you’re looking for inspiration to make your writing more original, look outside the world of conventional writing advice. Go to a museum. Listen to music. Read poetry. Then write something totally opposite of what others are doing just to experiment and push beyond your normal boundaries. That’s where you will find the unique twist that makes a formulaic plot sound fresh and new.

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2 Comments on “Opposites Attract”

  1. I have also noticed that a relaxed mind is a creative mind that allows those flashes of inspiration to strike.

    • richfigel Says:

      That’s true… on the other hand, I think I’ve done some of my best writing when I was angry/depressed/stressed out, because the tension needed an outlet — and writing was the only release available to me (other than screaming or wanting to hit someone!).

      Been thinking about more examples of “opposites” in TV and film: the Seinfeld series is all about characters doing the opposite of what you expect in conventional sitcoms or life — they were cynical, self-centered, George even had an episode where he decides to do the exact opposite of whatever the “old George” loser would have done (and succeeds because of it).

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