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I Had to Leave America to Write, part 1

This entry is part of 3 in the series I Had to Leave America to Write

NY Public Library - photo by Wally Gobetz When I visited New York City several years ago, I went to the New York Public Library for the first time. I walked up between the giant stone lions, past which the Ghostbusters in the 1980’s ran screaming. (photo: Wally Gobetz, used with permission) I hopped up an old staircase and found myself in a room filled with glass cases. In one of them was a small hardbound book, with yellowish-white pages, opened to the title page printed in that distinctive, spread-out all-caps old-timey typeface (you know what I mean)—it was Walden by Henry David Thoreau.

Just under the title and author was a small note, written in pencil. I don’t remember the exact wording, but basically it said, “To my dear friend Ralph Waldo Emerson” and was signed “Henry David Thoreau.”

What I remember most was the fact that it was written in pencil. I don’t think Henry was giving much thought to how it would endure in museum displays; he was just writing a note to his buddy Ralph, who was more famous than he was.

Walden Pond at the turn of the century, by Clifton JohnsonBut that’s not an interesting story, so feel free to go back in time and not read it. The point is that I was thinking about Walden the last couple of weeks. Henry David Thoreau stepped into the New England woods and came out with one of the great beloved books in American history. Every writer is different, of course—some can write brilliantly in the middle of subway trains, NASCAR races, and leafblower conventions. Most of the ones I’ve met, though, are a little more like Thoreau and need their space. We can go anywhere to read Walden, but Thoreau had to go to the woods to write it.

So when I was invited to go to Maine and Nova Scotia for two and half weeks, I emailed all my web design clients, called a few friends to cancel plans, and left within three days. A dear friend got frustrated with me and said, “You don’t have to leave to write! You can do it anywhere.” We are no longer on speaking terms.

Add “being a writer” to that general recipe, and you’ve got a guy who will never be happy without room to breathe.

If you read relationships books, women just generally don’t “get” why men need to be able to retreat to private spaces from time to time—let alone provide them. (If you find a woman who understands the concept and nurtures it to boot, then rub that woman’s feet, ’cause she’s a keeper.) Add “being a writer” to that general recipe, and you’ve got a guy who will never be happy without room to breathe.

“What no wife of a writer can ever understand is that a writer is working when he’s staring out of the window.”
—Burton Rascoe

So here I am, a man AND a writer, and so when someone says “let’s go live in the woods for a while,” I say “Yes.”

Start Your Trip with a Flip

Don't Flip OutI got in a car with my friend Fancy Pants. (This friend has elected to remain pseudonymous in this blog, and suggested I come up with any pseudonym which pleased me. She is now being punished for this decision; I hereby affectionately name her after one of her favorite phrases.) We drove to Maine with her dog, who had just gone swimming in a pond and was making the fact pungently well known despite the open windows.

Start Your Trip with a FlipMy hopes for a peaceful trip were quickly dashed. Halfway there, Fancy Pants shook me out of a lovely dream and I woke to see a car turned over on its side and people scrambling around the wreck. “Do you want to go save the people?” she asked me, pulling on to the median and up to the scene. Still not convinced I was awake, I sluggishly laced up my shoes and stumbled out of the car and located the driver, who had just been pulled out of the wreck by a handful of men who had stopped to help. There was still dust in the air and the hot-metal smell of broken automobile that I know so well from the rescue squad. Which I took a two-month leave (and now this two-and-a-half week vacation!) to get away from. I went to the nearest guy and said “I’m an EMT,” which led to a couple “He’s an EMT”s and in a blink I was in charge of the patient. So I did a quick trauma assessment on the woman who had been driving the flipped-over car, and she seemed dazed but completely unhurt, and passed all my little EMT tests without a hitch. So I asked her whether there was anyone else in the car, expecting to see blood pooling all around my feet from less-fortunate passengers. She was hardly hearing me, and was looking around furtively, and I heard her say, “My daughter.”

That’s what I was afraid of.

I headed for the car to try and figure out what to do about her poor daughter, probably trapped and injured in the back seat somewhere, all scared and sideways, and then one of the good samaritans who had helped the woman out of the car, who had overheard my conversation with her, said, “Not her daughter, her dog.”

I’ve got to tell you a secret: I like dogs better than most people. Still, if I drive up to a flipped-over SUV and get a choice between a hurt dog and a hurt child, I’d rather have a hurt dog.

They coaxed the scared little pooch out of the car through the back tailgate, and I did a quick little trauma assessment on the dog—a first for me—and she was fine too! Thank Science. What’s more, she looked almost exactly like Fancy Pants’ dog. I noticed this fact because Fancy Pants, while I was checking out the accident scene, had taken her dog out and was calmly taking her for a little peepee-walk ten feet away!

Some people just have no reverence for the miraculously unscathed.

Anyway, the fire and rescue folks finally showed up, I gave them a quick rundown on the patients, and had time to take a couple snapshots before getting back on the highway to Maine.

Thank goodness my friend woke me, because if she hadn’t, I would have missed this sign, which will mean nothing to most of you, and will please the shit out of the few who get it:

Don't Go Back to Frackville

In Maine, Do They Just Call Them “Lobsters?”

Maine Lobster FestivalWe arrived at Fancy Pants’ sister’s house. It had noisy floors, which is how you know you’re in Maine. Their building codes require it. Fancy Pants’ Sister, whom we shall call “FPS” from here on for convenience, had a cartoon on the wall of the bathroom. Oh, you want me to describe it to you? Because cartoons are so awesome when they’re described in words, you say? Okay. A dog has just walked in on his master sitting on the toilet reading a newspaper. The dog has bulging cartoon eyes and a horrified expression on his face; the caption reads, “What the hell are you doing?! I drink out of there!”

So we went to the Maine Lobster Festival, where lobsters were just as expensive as anywhere else, and where they were having a casual rehearsal of the Miss Lobster pageant or something like that. I met Fancy Pants’ mom, whom (Yes, when I write, I use “whom.” So fuck off.) I liked and joked around with (she has a cynical humor I can relate to). We visited a lighthouse, and I read a lot and started hacking away at the screenplay.

Oh Yeah, the Film Part

Here’s the problem. I’m writing a new screenplay and I have characters who aren’t very likeable. So how do I remedy that? I could just say, “Fine actors will make them sympathetic.” But if there is a problem with a character, it is usually the fault of the screenwriter. You can’t take credit for writing a great character if you’re not going to take the blame for a lousy one.

“Every writer I know has trouble writing.”
—Joseph Heller

My male and female protagonists are named Will and Camara, and they loved one another years ago in college, but fell apart quickly and traumatically when Will’s life of crime conflicted with her goal of becoming a renowned prosecutor.

I think it’s a solid foundation for a fictional relationship—in my opinion, drama comes from the collision of opposites. Intentions, personalities, wills; whatever. My chemistry training came in handy helping me figure out that the secret to drama is finding story elements which, when placed together, react.

But my good friend the Fantasy Scribbler has been reading some of my draft work and he keeps telling me that he just doesn’t like the characters. Here’s a snippet of one of their conflicted encounters:

Camara Will

I am trying to write a suspenseful techno-thriller. To succeed in this, I must do the same thing every good screenwriter must do: write great characters. When I writer I respect says I’m failing, I listen. So I’ve been going deeper into them, and shining a light where they are hiding more emotionally compelling moments in their lives.

Is the problem that I’ve written too-unsympathetic characters, or is the problem just that Fantasy Scribbler is too unforgiving? Only one way to find out: write!

This is one of the things I wrestled with on the trip. More in Part Two!

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