Why don't you just try writing, my boy?

>> Friday, October 01, 2010

There's an old, apocryphal story about the making of the movie Marathon Man that's been denied, I think, by everybody involved, but it goes something like this: there's a scene in the movie you'll recall (or if you haven't seen the movie, you'll just have to take my word for it) in which this Nazi dentist played by Sir Laurence Olivier tortures this poor schlub played by Dustin Hoffman; Olivier thinks Hoffman knows where some precious Nazi diamonds have been stashed, and he has Hoffman strapped down to this dentist's chair, see, and he's asking Hoffman about the diamonds and when he doesn't like the answer he gets, he fires up the ol' dentist's drill and starts practicing some of that Nazi dentistry. This is the reason Marathon Man did for dentists what Jaws did for moonlight swims and Psycho for leisurely showers, by the way.

Anyway, the story is that on the day they're going to film the Nazi dentistry scene, Hoffman shows up on the set looking like he's been run over by a car or something. His face is all puffy and his skin is slick with sweat, he has bags under his eyes that ought to have airport tags hanging from the handles, etc., etc. And Sir Laurence takes a look at Hoffman and asks what the hell happened to him?

Hoffman, you may know, trained with Lee Strasberg, the legendary acting teacher and perhaps the leading American proponent of method acting. And so Hoffman (according to the story, which, remember, probably isn't true) proceeds to explain to Olivier that he knew that his character in the torture scene would be exhausted, burned-out, terrified, operating on zero sleep and pain and pure adrenalin, and so he (Hoffman) has gotten himself into the right psychological and physical framework by staying up all night without any sleep and running up and down the street and more-or-less torturing himself so he'd be prepared to play the part of someone being tortured.

And Olivier, trained in the British Shakespearean stage tradition, supposedly replies, "Why don't you just try acting, my boy?"

I was thinking about this the other evening, because one of my big personal problems as a writer is making stuff up. That's a little facetious and not quite right. If you want to talk about taking an empty stage in my head and filling it full of wild and crazy crap, I'm actually pretty good at that, if I'm allowed to say so myself. What I mean is, if the stage in question is already occupied by a real setting, by an actual time and/or place, I start getting really nervous and anal about verisimilitude and historical accuracy and so on. I may be trying to write something about demon ghost dragon ninjas from space coming to this planet to steal all of our cats (not really), and suddenly I'm getting unnecessarily distressed over whether or not there's really a traffic light at the intersection of Halstead and Canalport? (Yes.) I exaggerate only slightly, but you get the idea.

The other night, the way this comes up is I'm sitting around trying to write a bit of (hopefully) horrific nastiness set in mid-1920s France, and I suddenly find myself obsessing over how much a reasonable tip would be and what could a French waitress working in a café in Le Havre in 1925 reasonably expect to make in tips and wages during a sort of slow week? This is not irrelevant to the story at hand--the main character at that point was a French waitress working in a café in Le Havre in 1925, and it might be a minor but useful plot point to know what she's pulling down. But it's also not terribly important; more to the point, I really could just make something up and even if the story ends up getting finished and published, etc., it's not like you're too likely to know the difference if I did.

I mean, supposing this story does end up finished and does end up published, and suppose I'm sitting at a table at some sort of reading like the one Jaym Gates is setting up in Durham for Rigor Amortis in mid-November; what are the odds that I'm going to be sitting at the table, and some guy in the back is going to stand up and shout--

SOME GUY IN THE BACK: You asshole! You dirty, lousy, stinking, rotten son-of-a-bitch! Everybody knows there was a bristle shortage in France in 1924, and as a result French toothbrushes were priced through the rest of the decade at seventy centimes for one and ₣1.30 for a two-pack!

ME: Whaaaaa?

SOMEONE IN THE FRONT: Hey! He's right, VanNewkirk! I remember that from third grade! You lousy hack! I totally missed that when I read your story the first time, but that scene where the waitress buys a toothbrush is all messed up! I liked your story but now I hate it!

OTHER PEOPLE: Hey! Yeah! He's right! You suck, VanNewkirk! Yeah! What an asshole! I want my money back!

WILD-EYED LADY WHO BROUGHT A ROPE TO A BOOK PROMO: I say we string him up out front of the bookstore as a warning to other writers who might try to make up stuff!

CRAZED MOB NOW BRANDISHING TORCHES AND KNOCKING OVER THE SELF-HELP AISLE: Yeah! Get him! Block him! He's making a break for it! Don't let him get away!

That probably won't happen, right? I mean, I'm new at this and only have the one story to my name so far, but... it's got to be rare, right? Who'd bring a rope to a book signing, right? What a wacky idea, huh? Isn't it? Totally out there, you know!

Hoo boy.

I need to let that sort of thing go more. A little research, a little accuracy, sure. But let it go when it's incidental, when nobody's going to notice a big diff. In other words, why don't I try writing, my boy?


Rachael Friday, October 1, 2010 at 1:50:00 AM EDT  

You've got it. Just do it. Worry about the details later. If you're really worried about nitpicky detail, just put a note in your text that you can search out later so you can fill in the blank. :)

I did NaNoWriMo for four years. One of the most important things the experience taught me was that when it comes to the rough draft, you've just got to sit down and write and not worry about anything but getting the words out of your head and on to paper (so to speak) as quickly as humanly possible. It did wonders for me.

I've heard the practice described as "writing without fear" before, and I actually think that's a pretty accurate way to describe it.

Phiala Friday, October 1, 2010 at 7:48:00 AM EDT  

Not that it's much consolation, but I'm pretty sure all writers are neurotic about things like that, not just us.

And Happy Zombie Day, author!

Dr. Phil (Physics) Friday, October 1, 2010 at 12:09:00 PM EDT  

Nobody brings a rope to an author signing... but in your case we could make an exception. Wouldn't want to disappoint your overly active psyche, now would we?

Dr. Phil

essernit -- the act of eating while nitpicking details in stories like the cost of toothbrush bristles in 1925 Paris. (From the original Germans, who invaded countries on less pretext than those who want to string up authors for bad research.)

Anonymous,  Friday, October 1, 2010 at 6:14:00 PM EDT  

Eric, we tolerate sloppy writing from the hack writers because we have to. However, those of us that read you regularly do so because we consider you a REAL writer, even if your published work is (so far) limited. So if we were to discover at some time, say at a book signing, that you had written something without first doing even rudimentary research, the shock to our belief system would of course cause us to react in a totally uncharacteristic manner. I fear that a lynching would be inevitable.
Don't say that we didn't warn you.


Eric Friday, October 1, 2010 at 6:47:00 PM EDT  

So... it's good that I might get strung up in front of a bookstore someday...?

I guess I don't know how to feel about that.


Steve Buchheit Monday, October 4, 2010 at 3:18:00 PM EDT  

I feel your pain. Working on a short story involving the Battle of Manilla Bay told through a Lovecraftian/Steampunk worldview. And I'm upset that I won't get the ship names right, or the order of Battle. And then I remember, hell, the Spanish didn't have hydras waiting in Manilla Bay, nor did the Americans have Zeppelins. WTF am I worrying about, it's fiction, it's alternative history, it's fantasy, it's horror.

But then, I have to know which ship scouted Subic Bay because someone will know and they'll call me a hack if I get it wrong.

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