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I tend to claim anyone who’s had a measurable effect on my creative life that way. It provides what might be a false intimacy, but it accurately reflects the way I feel about those writers, filmmakers, musicians and visual artists who have given me some inspiration and/or motivation along the way.
The man pictured above is one of them. His name is Ray Harryhausen, and he is generally regarded as the greatest stop-motion animators to ever have his work committed to film. If you’re not into the movie (particularly fantasy and science fiction) version of inside baseball, you probably don’t recognize him or his name, but you’ll surely recognize his work.
That’s from The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, which came out in 1973. It was one of the first movies I clearly remember seeing in a theater. And I even remember which theater, because it was one of only two in my hometown of Camden, S.C. Judging by my memory and the movie’s year of release, I was probably five years old and accompanied by, of all people, my mom (thanks, mom!)
Talk about shock and awe. I remember being stunned by the special effects, then even more stunned when, as an older kid, I learned how they were achieved – small models where moved a tiny fraction, then the movie camera shot a frame.
That process was repeated thousands of times until, when run at regular speed, the film gave the illusion of the model actually moving on its own.
Ray Harryhausen died last week at 92, and left an enduring legacy of inspiration that hundreds of other behind-the-scenes film folks should envy. Guys like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg – no slouches in the special effects movie department, cite Uncle Ray and his work as major inspirations.
And really, who couldn’t be inspired? I’m one of the gazillions of kids who even tried to reproduce Harryhausen’s work in our own small fashion. After getting a Super 8 movie camera as a Christmas gift when I was 10 or 11, I quickly went to work creating stop-motion movies of my own with Lego astronauts and cardboard backdrops painted black, hole-punched and back-lit to represent the inky void of space.
For a long time now, computer generated images (CGI) has taken the place of stop-motion animation in rendering fantastic monsters on the big screen, for better or worse. And I’m sure new generations of computer animation and effects efforts are being inspired with each new summer blockbuster or superhero spectacle.
But I can distinctly trace back to Harryhausen a couple of traits that worked for me later in life and, specifically, as a writer.
If you’ve ever actually tried to do stop-motion animation, the thing it perhaps requires most of all is patience. Creating 30 seconds of screen time can take days in the studio, so there’s really no way to rush. Rushing, in fact, would equal disaster. As a result, through my own little Lego efforts, I learned to take it slow and do it right.
There also is a certain amount of obsessive compulsive disorder that goes into being the kind of perfectionist that works in such a slow medium. I’m not sure if that was built into my psyche or developed later, but having a little OCD never hurt a newspaper copy editor, either.
For many of us who grew up in the hinterlands, where we were lucky if the local newspaper carried movie advertising, Roger Ebert and his TV partner Gene Siskel were frequently the first exposure we had to film criticism.
Thanks to PBS and their show “Sneak Previews,” it was possible to get the opinions of two erudite, educated men whose joyful duty was to go to the movies, then come back and tell us whether those movies were any good.
As a result, this young fellow got to find out about many movies he wouldn’t see until much later, and also grasp the ins and outs of what “film critics” actually did. For these were real people, and they obviously had real (and legitimate) jobs at newspapers. How cool was that? The were the kindly uncles giving us all movie advice, rather than the harsh, cosmopolitans like Pauline Kael, who wrote from on high at the New Yorker (which was not well stocked at small-town Southern newsstands in the late 1970s, as you might imagine).
But even if I’d known to look for Kael’s work, I probably would have liked Roger Ebert’s better. He seemed like a kindred soul – the nerdy kid who loved the magic of the darkened theater.
Ebert died today at the at of 70, just a day after announcing that he would scale back on his still prodigious level of productivity. Even ailing, he wrote books, blogged regularly and still reviewed movies. He hand-picked the critic team put in to cover for him at the Chicago Sun Times, his home newspaper. He was in the midst of preparing to host his own film festival. That is a hell of a way to go.
All of us who have ventured into film (or music or theater) criticism since watching “Sneak Previews” and its various later incarnations owe Mr. Ebert a great debt, as he influenced all of us in one way or another – sometimes just by proving that there were successful people who actually did it.
A few weeks ago I wrote about why going into journalism is a great career choice for people who want to write for a living but aren’t sure how to actually translate that into rent and grocery money.
What I might have glossed over is the fact that today, possibly more than ever, it is one of the lowest paying, most thankless jobs out there. You will be called upon to do twice the work of normal humans for about a third of what most college-educated professionals are paid. It is stressful, relentless and exhausting.
No one has summed up the negatives of the field lately better than Allyson Bird. Allyson is a fellow University of South Carolina journalism school alum who distinguished herself in her undergrad years and went on to work at the highly-regarded Post and Courier, the major newspaper in Charleston, S.C.
Full disclosure: I attempted on numerous occasions early in my newspaper career to get a job at the Charleston paper, to no avail. While you don’t hear much about it outside Charleston, it’s a fine paper in a spectacular old city and generally considered a plum gig.
So when I received the USC J-School alumni newsletter that referred to her blog Sticky Valentines (named after a line in the Elvis Costello song “Alison” – which only increased her cachet with me), where she wrote at length about why she, not yet out of her 20s, was leaving journalism, I was intrigued.
It turns out that a decade apart, Allyson and I shared many of the very same concerns about the newspaper world and our place in it – specifically, how we would continue to survive the business in the face of increasing work demands and ever diminishing returns. She did what I attempted to do on a number of occasions – left the business and found a non-news job that let her put her skills to work and afford something other than a four-person apartment share and Ramen noodles.
I’ve actually written before on this same topic in response to a column by Connie Shultz, a Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist formerly with the Cleveland Plain Dealer and now a columnist for the Parade magazine Sunday newspaper supplement. In it, she lamented the dearth of young people going into journalism, with many of them saying they would prefer to go into marketing, advertising or media relations. She expressed horror that j-school students would opt for “The Dark Side.” I, however, was not surprised at all.
I replied to her column via the Poynter Institute comment thread by noting that her outrage was silly, because for a college graduate – even one devoted to the cause of truth – to expect no more in her paycheck by her third job than a Burger King management trainee would is a travesty, and that until newspapers learned to pay people like the college-educated, highly skilled individuals they are, the trend would continue.
So as a counterpoint to my earlier blog entry, I invite you to read Allyson’s thoughts and consider them well before you jump into journalism as a long-term career. Per my earlier statements, I still heartily stand by the news biz as a great entry point for young writers. But as Allyson notes, it might not be the kind of career you want to stay with for the rest of your life.
Oh, and a little something for my fellow Gamecock, because I simply couldn’t resist.
Writers can come from any number of backgrounds – just go down the list of famous authors and you’ll see a broad spectrum of “first” careers.
The first is to write a brilliant bit of fiction or a staggeringly wonderful bit of non-fiction before you are 21, then get a multi-book deal with a big New York publisher and ride that gravy train for the rest of your life.
The second and more realistic suggestion is this: go into journalism.
Why? Well, first, the world needs more journalists. It needs people committed to rooting out truth and telling great stories and doing something other than gushing over celebrity gossip and ranting, twitchy-eyed, about their given partisan political perspective. It needs folks willing to toil in relative anonymity to hold the powerful accountable and tell the stories of the ignored and disaffected.
Second, you will gain the skills that every good writer of fiction or non-fiction books must develop, and you will acquire them early. You will learn to write with speed and clarity, get to the point quickly, interview strangers, go into uncomfortable and unfamiliar situations, observe the world around you and do sneaky things like read upside down and eavesdrop on the folks in the restaurant booth behind you while simultaneously holding a meaningful conversation with the person across from you.
You’ll also learn to take criticism without taking it personally. Of all the lessons you could learn early, this is probably the best, as it enables you to accept a comment like, “This need a lot of work,” without collapsing into a heap of self-doubt and whiny pleas about the writing coming from your soul.
Trust me. The value of each of these skills, for any writer, can not be overestimated.
Third, you will join a line of great writers who made the transition from journalism to writing fiction, depending on many of the skills they learned as reporters to make their writing special. Mark Twain started in newspapers and pulled the things he experienced and wrote about into his fiction. Ernest Hemingway started his working life at the Kansas City Star and used the lessons he learned there to inform his writing from then on.
J-school is the writerly equivalent of joining the U.S. Marines. You might arrive thinking you are one badass mofo of a writer. Your high school English teacher gushed over your work. Your parents fawned over your awards and teacher’s-pet status. In high school, you might have thought your writing was the absolute shit.
A good journalism school does exactly what Parris Island does for young recruits – it strips you down of all your self-delusions and preconceptions to the very kernel of what you know and who you are, then builds you back up the way you’re supposed to be to do the job at hand.
The Marines specialize in turning tuner-driving, subwoofer-blasting high school douchebags into honorable, unstoppable fighters by breaking them through mental, physical and moral trials, then putting them back together the way the Marines want them – fearless, razor sharp and hard as nails.
A great J-school takes your flowery and overwrought high school prose and says, “You might think you’re awesome. You are not, but we’ll make you that way.” It will strip you so bare of your writing preconceptions that you’ll wonder if you could ever really write at all. Your professors will then start adding basic skills – simple interviewing, the inverted pyramid style, headline writing and copy editing. Only when you have mastered those skills will you be allowed to go down the flowery path again to become the writer that you were truly meant to be.
Sure, I’m biased. I graduated from the excellent journalism school at the University of South Carolina at a time when the faculty was populated with delightful, curmudgeonly newspaper veterans – people who remembered copy boys and typewriters and the clackity-clack of the Associated Press wire machine chugging out reams of stories from around the nation and world. They themselves make great stories.
But here’s the best part of going to a real J-school. Unlike your fellow aimless undergrads, with their relatively useless English and history degrees, you will not only get an excellent liberal arts education, but you will be actually learning a trade. Depending on the market, you can graduate and immediately get a job in your field. And what do you know – that field is writing.
Granted, that first job will likely be at a small newspaper in a backwater town. That sounds like a drag – wouldn’t it be much better to work at the New York Times or ABC News, after all? Sure it would, but unless your parents own a paper or sit on the board at Disney, neither is likely to be your first job.
But the benefits of parachuting into East Outer Nowhere are myriad. Depending on the size of the paper, you’ll get to do almost everything. At my second newspaper job, as city reporter at the Camden (S.C.) Chronicle-Independent, it was possible to cover everything from snooze-inducing city council meetings to violent crime, business ribbon cuttings to interviews with visiting celebrities and political bigwigs, .
I got invited to pilot a glider plane, fly with the Army Golden Knights skydiving team, rappel from a fire department bucket truck and qualify on .38, .45 and Glock 9mm handguns with the police department. On a weekly basis I hung out with cops without being a suspect, visited the jail without being a prisoner and got to see the inner workings of local and state politics without the mess of running for election.
Will you get rich? Unlikely. But you will learn to live within your meager means – a must for any writer, no matter how successful you might become. And until you write that breakout novel that’s bubbling up inside you, you’ll get the daily satisfaction of knowing that you are being paid every day to hone the craft you aspired to.
Music, much like smell, is a powerful memory trigger. Just as a whiff of a lover’s old cologne or perfume can ignite an encyclopedia of emotions, music carries with it the ability to draw a person back to a particular time, place or emotional state.
Personally, I think everyone has a time during their life when they’re especially susceptible to an imprint tied to music. And because an important key in being an effective writer is being able to tap into real emotions, music can be a tool for that.
For me, one of the first moments I recall music directly tied to emotion was as a pre-teen in the late 1970s. Disco was at its height and somewhere out of my field of vision punk was percolating in New York City and London.
But because I was living in a small town near the coast of South Carolina, my exposure to anything other than what was on the local Top 40 AM station was pretty limited. Consider that the first time I heard the Beatles was around that time period when a friend hoped to cure me of my ABBA fandom with a copy of Revolver. Thankfully it worked.
Still, a few bits of excellence filtered through on the airwaves. And while I, at that age, could have already told you that Rod Stewart’s “Do You Think I’m Sexy?” was an abomination, I was able to pick out some gems that really stuck with me. Part of that is directly related to the fact that I was feeling the first pangs of late-grade school infatuation with members of the opposite sex.
So it should come as no surprise that a couple of standout songs from that period were “Is She Really Going Out With Him” by Joe Jackson and “Cruel to be Kind” by Nick Lowe. Both spoke volumes to what I felt was a cargo ship full of unrequited love I was going through at the time. Now, when I need to tap youthful heartbreak, it helps to cast my mind back to how those particular songs seemed to capture everything my much less cynical younger self felt.
Much like a Method actor, who uses real-life experience to tap into what emotions a character in a film or on stage might be feeling, as writers we are called to do the same things with our stories. Think about the songs during your life that have coincided with highly emotional events or have somehow captured the way you’ve felt about a person or situation and don’t be afraid to use them (and the feelings they recall) in creating genuine, rich and layered emotions for your characters.