Thoughts on Writing

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WRITERS FORUM: PHILIP PULLMAN QUOTE (part 1)

Published April 19, 2020 by Philip Ivory

Recently, I thought it would be interesting to share a provocative quote about writing with my friends in the writing community and ask for their responses. This was the quote I sent out.

 “I don’t know how other storytellers function, but in my case I never start with the theme of a story. My stories are about something, to be sure, but I never know what that is till I’m in the process of writing them. I have to start with pictures, images, scenes, moods—like bits of dreams, or fragments of half-forgotten films. “

— Philip Pullman

This is from Pullman’s thought-provoking book of essays, Daemon Voices: On Stories and Storytelling.

I’ll start off by giving my own reaction.

This quote speaks to me powerfully, as I’m in the midst of drafting what I consider to be my first serious attempt at a novel, and while I’m aware of various sub-themes and ideas percolating, I can’t yet say I’ve fixed upon the major theme.

Oh, I had some notion when I started: This is what my novel will be about. That’s about as safe a prediction as a parent looking at a newborn baby and saying: “She’s going to grow up to be an engineer.”

I’ve allowed greater wisdom to prevail, and I’m happy enough now to say, that while I have a few good guesses, I still don’t know what my main theme will be.

And I think that’s okay. Pullman is right. Start with images, scenes, characters—in whatever way storytelling begins for you. If there is any depth at all to what you are writing, your theme will emerge. But only in its own damn good time.

That’s my take but clearly others feel differently. Here’s my first of two installments providing the answers that writers have generously shared with me. Feel free to add your own thoughts below.

 

Starting a story without a theme seems impossible. Why would you write any particular sentence and not some other? Wouldn’t it all be arbitrary?

Recently, I had insight into this perennial question. I found a sequence of chords and tones on my guitar that resonated through my chest and pleased me greatly. I resolved to write down the pattern. It took two months to scribe my little tune and I learned that notating music is a very different experience than feeling it in your body.

I revised, refined, and edited. It was a strenuous ordeal, but the result expressed about 90% of what I heard and felt when I played. I’d started with a feeling and ended up with a score. Looking back, I don’t see how else I could have done it. Now I better understand writers who start without a theme. Maybe it’s about how one’s brain is organized.

William X. Adams, author of psychological sci-fi. See www.psifibooks.com.

 

Thinking about this question, I realized for the first time that I mostly do start with a theme. At the same time it occurred to me that when I look at what I’ve written, I mean everything, poetry, diary, short stories, novels, novel fragments, it’s possible that what pleases me the most is material that did NOT begin with a theme.  This has been far from obvious to me until this moment.  All my writing life I’ve seen that some of what I produce seems organic and some seems forced, but I’ve never been able to put my finger on the basis for the difference, though I’ve instinctively preferred what seemed to me to be “organic.”  Now it seems to me that “organic” (for me) means that the story originates with some mood that inhabits a specific scene.  An old lady who is sad while waiting for a bus, seated on a bench beside a young man listening to bass-heavy music on earbuds. So maybe for me the best way to approach writing of any kind is to begin with a mood being experienced in a particular setting, developing a story from that – what does the sad old lady do?  The theme then shows itself: organic.  And my nastiest, though arguably least competent, critic (myself) begins to be almost satisfied.

But how to apply this to long fiction? I suppose it has to be scene by scene, or paragraph by paragraph, or anyway piece by piece, depending on the structure of the story. 

Short answer: I think for me Pullman’s approach is likely to be the most fruitful, but I never understood that until I read this quote and started thinking about how to respond to the question.  Thanks!! 

Rebecca M

 

I think my writing is better and I am definitely more inspired if I start with a vision or a scene that sets the mood.  Sometimes those scenes just hang around in my brain for a while (years even) until they find a home in the right story.  I’m still trying to incorporate my “bone baby” from one of my NYC Midnight stories into something more substantial.  I just have this vision of a baby made out of bones that the main protagonist is trying to rescue even knowing that it is fruitless and the baby behaves like a real baby except it can’t make noises etc (except for rattling its bones).  And the baby gradually gets quiet and goes still…

Sharon E. Hesterlee

 

In my experience, stories’ themes and the generative images at their heart are inseparable. I generally glimpse a story, in the form of a disturbing or perplexing image, or maybe the fragment of a dream, long before I sit down to write the story. If an image starts to haunt me, I start asking myself how and why it’s speaking to me, and if that image is rooted in some deeper narrative or question. As an example, my novel The Wonder That Was Ours (Dzanc Books, 2018) is about a viral outbreak on a cruise ship and the quarantine of a small Caribbean island, its last port of call, in response to fears that the island has been infected by the ship’s passengers. (To be clear, The Wonder That Was Ours is a work of literary fiction. When I was writing the novel, many people privy to the plot thought I was at work on a sci fi novel; now, in the middle of a pandemic, I wish that had been the case.) Neither the novel’s plot nor its themes appeared fully-formed. The kernel for the novel was a conversation with a friend who, as a crew member on a large cruise ship, was often responsible for escorting belligerent or otherwise disruptive passengers down the proverbial gangplank at the nearest port of call. One day, she had to escort a ‘failed’ suicide from the ship and deposit her in a foreign country, because the cruise ship line did not want to assume liability for passengers who might harm themselves on board. 

The conversation haunted me, and for months, I kept having visions of a woman in the most desperate and disassociated state standing alone on the sprawling dock of a Caribbean terminal, watching the ship she just left sail out to sea and trying to imagine her next steps. I wondered if that woman would gain a new lease on life or simply succumb to the horror of her situation, but only the image was really clear in my mind. The fact that the image started haunting me, that it would pop into my mind at odd moments over the following months, suggested that my friend’s story had tapped into something deep in my psyche, my social consciousness, and my moral conscience, and that the image might be just one element in a larger vision or more extended story. 

Seven years later, I completed a novel about the alienating effects of 21st century capitalism, and the lack of accountability in a cruise ship industry that has caused untold damage to the oceanic environment, the social fabric and economic stability of tourist monocultures in the Caribbean, and even the passengers and ship workers who lack adequate protections against disease and injury, or any legal recourse in incidents like the one my friend described. (Most cruise ships, as debates about Covid-19 bailouts have revealed, are registered abroad and aren’t subject to US laws.) It’s a long leap from an image of a traumatized woman standing on a dock to the themes I’ve just outlined, but I now see that the conversation with my friend and the resulting image of an abandoned woman provided seeds for a novel about the ways certain elements of modern capitalism has left so many of us—and so much wreckage—in its polluted wake. In that instance and many others, a project started with a haunting image, but an image that haunted me in the first place because it spoke to concerns and themes that have occupied me throughout my adult life.  

Alice Hatcher

alice-hatcher.com

 

Thanks to my excellent writer friends for sharing their creative processes so admirably. You’ll find more responses in Part Two, coming up soon.

 

 

 

DAY 30 OF 31: IT FOLLOWS (2014)

Published October 30, 2019 by Philip Ivory

Every once in a while, a film comes along that is firmly in the tradition of established horror themes while also being completely original. IT FOLLOWS (2014), directed by David Robert Mitchell, is such a film.

Jay (Maika Monroe), a college student, goes on a date with a guy she knows little about, who calls himself Hugh (Jake Weary). They go to a movie but Hugh becomes frightened when Jay tells him she can’t see a girl he’s pointing out to her in the back of the auditorium. They leave and have dinner together.

Later, the two have sex in his car.

Then, shockingly, Hugh chloroforms Jay, and ties her to a wheelchair, taking her to an abandoned building. He doesn’t hurt her, but makes her wait until she sees a woman walking out of the darkness, coming inexorably toward them. Hugh tells Jay to remember what she has seen and believe in it, then takes her away in his car before the woman can reach them.

Jay (Maika Monroe) is initiated into the horrors of IT FOLLOWS.

Hugh explains that by having sex with Jay, he has passed on the curse he received from an earlier sexual tryst. A mysterious figure will keep walking toward Jay until it can reach her and kill her.

No one else will be able to see it. It will take different forms, sometimes as a stranger, sometimes as someone known to Jay, whatever will allow it to get close to her.

It will always look like someone different.

Hugh tells Jay that if it kills her, it will return to seek him out again. That’s why, he insists, she has to pass the curse on to someone else as quickly as possible.

This is the premise of IT FOLLOWS, startlingly simple, haunting and instantly terrifying. The film would seem to draw upon such past “sex equals death” franchises as the HALLOWEEN and FRIDAY THE THIRTEENTH films.

And yet it is original and moody, and follows its own dream logic. It resists easy analysis. Some have described IT FOLLOWS (has any movie had a more witty and fitting title?) as a film about walking STDs, but that seems too simple to me.

Another “sex equals death” teen horror? Or something more?

For once thing, it’s a film about friendship, as Jay turns to her sister, Kelly (Lili Sepe), and friends Paul (Keir Gilchrist), Yara (Olivia Luccardi) and former boyfriend Greg (Daniel Zovatto). They prove to be a resourceful and loyal group, all of whom end up risking their lives for Jay.

Jay’s parents and other adults are mostly absent, unable to help because it would be too much to ask them to believe in the unbelievable.

IT FOLLOWS is in part about growing up in the suburbs, and expresses that sad, lonely aspect of modern life that comes from living so near to other people and yet feeling that, sealed away in their houses, they might as well be a million miles away.

The entity appears behind Jay’s friend, Yara (Olivia Luccardi).

There is a strange timelessness to the film, a deliberate effect on the part of director Mitchell as part of his effort to simulate dream logic. Sometimes IT FOLLOWS feels like it’s set in the 70s or 80s. Other clues point to a more contemporary setting.

Critics almost universally praised the film, although some were less impressed with a climactic sequence in which Jay and her friends try to destroy the evil entity by electrocuting it in a pool.

I think the sequence works well and gives the friends a chance to join together to try to turn the tables on their unstoppable foe. It provides some catharsis before an ending that is, I think of necessity, unresolved.

In the end, what is IT FOLLOWS about? Sex? The heavy mantle of becoming a grownup? The ever-present knowledge of our own mortality, always gnawing at us, coming a little closer every day?

In the film’s opening sequence, we get a glimpse of the aftermath of a visit from the pursuing entity in IT FOLLOWS.

There’s been talk of a sequel. Let’s hope it never happens.

IT FOLLOWS is a modern horror masterpiece, and — let’s just say it — a pretty impossible act to follow.

 

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DAY 29 OF 31: THE CONJURING (2013)

Published October 29, 2019 by Philip Ivory

THE CONJURING (2013) is notable not only for being a first-class supernatural drama, but also as the first entry in a series of branching films that would come to be known as “The Conjuring Universe,” currently at seven films and counting.

On its release, THE CONJURING stood alone, based on its own merits which were considerable. Expertly directed by James Wan, it presented a familiar story — basically, a family in a house beset by demonic forces — that recalled key plot elements of such films as THE EXORCIST or THE AMITYVILLE HORROR.

Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga play loosely fictionalized versions of real-life occult investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren.

Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson as the Warrens.

They are called in to help the Perron family, consisting of Carolyn (Lili Taylor), Roger (Ron Livingston) and their five daughters. Roger is a truck driver who’s frequently on the road.

Squabbling siblings and financial pressures are tough enough to deal with, but the family’s real troubles don’t start until they move into a charming lakeside fixer upper.

The Perron family, with Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston as parents Carolyn and Roger.

It starts quickly. The family dog refuses to enter the new home and is soon found dead. The daughters are assailed in the night by foul smells and violent forces.

An antique music box give glimpses of a ghostly child. A once sealed-off basement traps Carolyn, isolating her from her daughters.

Lili Taylor as Carolyn.

The Warrens arrive and, sympathetic to the family’s plight, begin their investigation. Lorraine’s psychic powers put her at risk of harm from the residing malevolent presence. They also allow her to determine that the home once belonged to a witch named Bathsheba who murdered her own child.

Soon Bathsheba possesses Carolyn, intent on using one of the Perron daughters to repeat the evil cycle.

Unable to wait for the church to authorize an exorcism, Ed, who is not a priest, performs his own off-the-cuff version of the ritual in a desperate attempt to save Carolyn’s soul and the children’s lives.

Carolyn is possessed.

The particular strength of THE CONJURING is the warmth of the characters. Both the Warrens and the Perrons are presented as likable, decent people. In a homely touch, between his investigative and exorcism work, Ed helps fix the Perrons’ rundown vehicle.

While there’s plenty of dread and terror, the film also helps us feel the strength of the Perron family’s love for each other. In fact, Bathsheba is driven out when Lorraine is able to help Carolyn summon the memory of a rare “perfect” day the family once spent together.

We are left with the feeling that, however destructive and dangerous these evil forces may be, good can still prevail with the help of a little faith and friendship. At least for the time being.

The twisted spirit of Bathsheba preys upon the Perron family.

In a side plot, THE CONJURING introduces the doll Annabelle, an object that will be revealed to be a conduit for demonic forces.

Kept secured in a glass case within the Warren home in a locked-off treasure trove of cursed objects and paranormal artifacts, Annabelle is about the creepiest-looking doll ever seen, making a powerful initial impression. (Her story will receive primary focus in ANNABELLE (2014) and other films that tell their own story but are part of the larger Conjuring mythos.)

Say hello to Annabelle. You’ll be seeing more of her.

Rather than build a straight series of sequels, the filmmakers successfully created their own interconnected filmic universe, based upon the semi-fictionalized files of the Warrens’ exploits in demonology.

We hadn’t seen such a thing since Universal teamed up its leading horror characters (Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula and the Wolfman) in films like 1944’s HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN.

Clearly eying the extraordinarily profitable Marvel Cinematic Universe, Universal has in recent years made attempts to launch a new series of interconnected “Dark Universe” monster vehicles, through such films as DRACULA UNTOLD (2014), but so far without significant success.

Legendary Entertainment has done better with a successful series of interconnected “Monsterverse” giant creature films, starting with GODZILLA in 2014 and scheduled to continue with next year’s GODZILLA VS. KONG.

Further entries in the Conjuring saga, including THE CONJURING 3 set for release next year, are in the works.

 

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DAY 28 OF 31: THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999)

Published October 28, 2019 by Philip Ivory

It’s hard to believe 20 years have gone by since the release of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999). A pioneer in the “found footage” school of horror, this meagerly budgeted independent film directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez was a huge hit.

Mike is one of three filmmakers who go deep into the Maryland woods to pursue the Blair Witch legend.

Its success was helped by an innovative online marketing campaign, which generated interest in part by suggesting that the film was an actual documentary, and that the three young filmmakers who worked on it had actually gone missing and were the subjects of police investigation.

Of course, none of that was true. THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT was a total work of fiction, and the filmmakers were played by actors. But the real/unreal confusion created an aura of dread and uncertainty that stirred interest and greatly benefited the film.

In shaky, hand-held footage that was actually shot by the three actors who play the young filmmakers (Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams, and Joshua Leonard, whose characters bear the same names), we see the trio set out to investigate a local occult legend — the Blair Witch — which is tied to mysterious deaths at different times in the region’s history.

They interview a few locals about the legends, before venturing out into the woods with their video equipment. And that’s when the story really starts.

 

The woods can be scary, especially when someone leaves weird cult-like stick figures for you to find.

The film plays effectively on the primal fear of being lost in the wilderness.

For that is what quickly happens to the trio. They camp at night only to hear strange sounds in the dark. They march in circles during the day, unable to find their way back to the road and their car.

They bicker. The map disappears, causing a breakdown in morale, which gets even worse when Mike admits that, in a moment of irrationality, he kicked it into the stream.

Josh, showing sings of weariness, will mysteriously disappear.

They discover strange, cult-like stick figures and symbols left in the trees. A warning? Evidently, the three are not alone.

When Josh disappears and the remaining two seem to hear his distant screams at night, it’s clear things have gone from bad to worse.

Soon they are finding bits of human teeth and other grisly tidbits that may or may not belong to Josh.

Heather records an emotional farewell message, apologizing to Mike and Josh for for apparently leading them to their doom.

Mike and Heather are reduced to a child-like state of pure terror, huddling together in the dark.

THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT is not strong on plot, or on character. If fact, the characters can become grating as they harp at each other, casting blame for their increasingly desperate situation.

Mike and Heather end up in a deserted house for the chaotic and frightening final sequence.

Still, the film benefits from the “this is really happening” vibe and the sincere performances of the actors, who apparently were genuinely frightened at points during the shooting.

Other films like PARANORMAL ACTIVITY and COVERFIELD found new ways to capitalize on the found footage technique.

But THE BLAIR WITH PROJECT got there before them, and almost made going back into the woods as scary as JAWS had made going back into the water.

 

 

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