Posts Tagged ‘Lost’

The Invisible Writer

February 18, 2013 @ 7:39 pm | Filed under: Books, Television, Writing

penandinkDownton Abbey (which I’m discussing elsewhere so as not to put spoilers in Jane’s path) got me thinking about the man behind the curtain (or the woman, as the case may be)—the writer. My frustrations with that show have to do mostly with the way the writing is sometimes so very visible. Much of the conversation I’ve seen around the web today, including in my own post, is questioning decisions made by Julian Fellowes. In a way, he’s as much a character in the series as anyone on camera. We’re always aware of his fingers on the keys—this well-turned quip, that infuriating plot twist, this theme stated baldly and repeatedly by numerous characters until we feel bludgeoned by it.

It’s unusual, and therefore interesting, to see a show of this calibre (clearly there is something above-the-pack about Downton that keeps us all panting for the next episode, and has so many of us talking talking talking week after week) fail on a suspension-of-disbelief level with such regularity. We’re constantly thinking about the writing, and therefore the writer. This is seldom the case with other really fine shows I’ve been hooked on. Mad Men, for example—I hardly ever think about the writing while I’m watching it. Afterward, yes, generally with admiration, always with fascination.

The Wire: I don’t believe I ever once considered the people behind the curtain during the entire run of that show. I was pulled so thoroughly into the world that it became absolutely real. Sometimes I’ll see one of the actors in another role and get a jolt: but I thought you were still walking a beat in Baltimore!

LOST is an example of an excellent show which nevertheless featured The Writing as a supporting character. Indeed, there were entire seasons when I was pretty sure the writers had no idea where certain strands were going, and sometimes The Writing seemed to wander off into the jungle and be eaten by a polar bear. (I mean, that whole thing with ghostly Walt popping up now and then, after he’d been returned to the mainland—did they ever explain that? I have the feeling the young actor grew up too much over a hiatus and they had to just let the plotline fizzle away—which would be an event outside the story affecting the storyline.)

And yet I loved LOST (and still miss it), just as I have loved Downton, despite the enormous footprints The Writing leaves all over the house. (The poor housemaids, always having to clean up after it—and then it repays them by giving them the sack, or throwing their husbands in jail.)

The Downton incident that so many of us are bemoaning today is a particularly egregious case of The Writing leaping in front of the camera and announcing that it’s ready for its close-up, Mr. DeMille. An off-camera, real-world decision by an actor seems to have annoyed The Writing, possibly outraged it, and it rummaged through the cupboard until it found a rusty old overused implement and flung it through the fourth wall.

As a writer myself, I like to ponder the people behind the curtain—after the fact. When the show’s over and I’ve emerged from its world, that’s when I like to imagine the discussions in the writers’ room or trace the artful seed-planting that bears delicious fruit somewhere down the line. Arrested Development is one of the best examples ever of a show whose writers are so perfectly invisible that I never think of them at all during an episode—and then afterwards, or four episodes later, or on the seventh viewing, I’ll find myself marveling at their skill, their cleverness, their patience (allowing a joke to bide its time and blossom half a season later). That’s a show in which the writers are never onstage, but upon recollection I’ll wish I could have been a fly on the wall when they came up with some of their bits. What I wouldn’t give for a YouTube clip of the day they came up with Bob Loblaw! Who thought up that name? (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, click the link; you have to hear it spoken aloud.) Did the rest of the team all fall out of their chairs laughing when one of them uttered it for the first time? Were they able to get any work done for the rest of the day or was it overthrown by helpless giggles?

The internet, of course, puts us all in closer contact with the creators of our books, television shows, films, and music. Many of you probably know me better than you know my books. And if you’ve read my blog for a while, it may be hard to approach my books without thinking of me, the writer, on the other side of the page. At least, that’s how it is for me when I open books written by people I know, either in person or online.

Sometimes this familiarity works in the writer’s favor, and sometimes it hinders full enjoyment of the work. Returning to LOST, for example: much as I loved that show, much as I hung on every next episode, I had an uneasiness in the back of my mind the whole time, because early on I’d seen a TED talk by J.J. Abrams, in which he told a story about buying a mystery box at a magic store as a kid—a box marked only with a question mark, so that you didn’t know what was inside until you took it home and opened it. He never opened his. He displayed it right there during his talk, still sealed up decades later. It held more meaning for him as a possibility, a mystery; he’d kept it as a talisman all those years, a symbol of the joy of the unknown. I listened to him describe this—it was early in Season 2, I think—and I thought, Ohhhh NO, he likes unanswered riddles. LOST had us up to our ears in unanswered riddles, and by golly I wanted answers; but knowing what I knew about one of the most powerful people behind that particular curtain, I no longer had confidence answers would be provided.

(And yet I dove eagerly into that quicksand pit of riddles week after week.)

With novels, it seems generally easier to tuck the writer back behind the curtain and forget about him or her. Not always, but usually, if the story is well told. This is probably because there are fewer variables; your novel’s characters can’t quit on you, or send unfortunate tweets, or be arrested for drunk driving. It’s only when a book has plot holes or something clunks that I’m back to thinking about the person behind the page. Sometimes it’ll even be the editor who draws my focus; I’m thinking: Why didn’t you catch that? This story didn’t start until chapter three, and it’s your job to break that news to the writer. 

(Perhaps I think this because I’ve had the good fortune of working with truly excellent editors who perceive all things visible and invisible.)

It’s a strange age we live in. What I want as a writer is to be invisible on the page; I don’t want the reader thinking about me at all. I believe that if I’m doing my job right, you’ll have forgotten about me within a few paragraphs—or perhaps a few pages, if you know me with some degree of familiarity. And yet, as an author (i.e. writer of published books), I’m aware that my publishers expect, and my books’ survival may in part depend on, various kinds of visibility. And then I’m also a blogger, eight years in love with the form—a medium which is all about person-to-person sharing, and which sometimes brings me more direct satisfaction than my books.

(Am I allowed to admit that? It’s true, though. Most writers I know go on being critical of their own work long after it’s been published. Not to mention the blunt reality of things sometimes going out of print.)

So our various selves are all intertwined, these days: the reader, the writer, the viewer, the performer. I’m reading your novel on one screen and chatting about your hellish commute on another. I’m watching your movie and thinking about that perplexing remark you made in a blog post. I’m head over heels in love with your television show—and desperately wishing you’d written yourself out of this particular script.

Which I suppose is where my point is. I don’t mind the intertwined identities; in fact, I rather enjoy them, as long as they don’t affect the work. The more I respect your talent and skill, the less I want to think about you while I’m enjoying your art. I’ll eagerly go and hear you speak about it later—that’s a joy, hearing creative people discuss their work. But I don’t want to be in a writing workshop with every single creator I encounter. I don’t want to think about your writerly choices, and what drives them, not in the moment, not while I’m immersed in your work. Give me invisible craft. Let me believe, just for this hour, that there are no puppet strings, no hands pulling them. Let me believe there’s no one there behind that curtain—let me forget the curtain exists at all.

SDCC 2010: The LOST Panel

July 29, 2010 @ 7:59 pm | Filed under: SDCC, Television

I didn’t take many notes on this one, but there are stories to tell. First of all, I went into it expecting a discussion about the show, the ending, our questions, our theories—I mean, I figured there would be five or six people up front debating and taking comments from the crowd. It wasn’t like that. What it actually was was an info session on DK’s soon-to-be-published LOST Encyclopedia, moderated by a DK rep, with the book’s two authors as panelists/interviewees.

This sounds very market-y, but it was FASCINATING. And before twenty minutes had passed, I had shifted from feeling very shruggy about the notion of an “encyclopedia” for a TV show, even one as intricate and awesome as LOST, to thinking I MUST HAVE THIS BOOK.

So: if it was a commercial, it was a darned effective one.

But it wasn’t really a commercial. It was two intelligent and enthusiastic writers talking about the process of researching, writing, and organizing a complex work of nonfiction. (more…)

LOST

May 24, 2010 @ 6:31 am | Filed under: Television

Here be spoilers, of course. Don’t read this if you haven’t watched the LOST finale.

(more…)

Poetry Friday: The Triangle Factory Fire

August 28, 2009 @ 8:38 pm | Filed under: Books, Poetry

It’s still (Poetry) Friday here on the West Coast.

The other day I mentioned a book I hadn’t been able to stop thinking about:

I wanted a few days to savor the novel I finished earlier this week: Lost by Jacqueline Davies, a spellbinding account of—well, the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, sort of, but really that’s a backdrop to an achingly moving tale of loss and grief, from the point of view of a sixteen-year-old Jewish girl (whose narrative voice may be my favorite of the year so far) who works in the factory.

And Beth of Bookworm Journal commented:

Melissa, the book by Davies sounds very good — thank you for posting about it. I’m acquainted with the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire only through Robert Pinsky’s poem “Shirt.” You may know it already, but if not, I encourage you to google it (it’s on various websites). Truly an amazing poem, and might be a good accompaniment to the novel…

Before Lost, I was acquainted with the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire primarily via a TV movie I watched as a girl—I remember so vividly the terrible image of a young Irish woman being urged by her desperate chum to jump out the window together before the flames devoured them, and the Irish girl sobbing that she couldn’t jump, she was Catholic and jumping was suicide and she wouldn’t do it, and the other girl stepping out the window as the Irish girl’s skirts caught fire. A horrible image. And would you believe that all this time, until I looked up the link for this post, I thought that movie was The Towering Inferno? Which entirely different film I must also have seen at some point—clearly I have conflated the two because I would have sworn Paul Newman was in the Triangle Factory movie, and now IMDB tells me he was part of Towering Inferno‘s all-star cast, along with Steve McQueen, Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire for goodness sake, and O.J. Simpson.

The film I’m remembering must have been this 1979 TV movie, The Triangle Factory Fire Scandal, featuring Tom Bosley, Stephanie Zimbalist, and Charlotte Rae. It won an Emmy for Outstanding Achievement in Hairstyling.

There is something terribly poignant about that thought. 146 people died in the Triangle Factory Fire, most of them young women trapped on the 9th floor of a building with flimsy fire escapes, no sprinklers, and no fire alarms. 68 years later, someone won an award for getting their hairstyles right on TV.

Robert Pinsky’s poem, “Shirt,” which I had not read until Beth directed me toward it (for which: thank you so much), captures that disconnect, that jarring history wrapped up in something so simple, so unnoticed, so miraculous when you stop and think about it, as a plain cotton shirt.

The back, the yoke, the yardage. Lapped seams,
The nearly invisible stitches along the collar
Turned in a sweatshop by Koreans or Malaysians

Gossiping over tea and noodles on their break
Or talking money or politics while one fitted
This armpiece with its overseam to the band

Of cuff I button at my wrist. The presser, the cutter,
The wringer, the mangle. The needle, the union,
The treadle, the bobbin. The code. The infamous blaze

At the Triangle Factory in nineteen-eleven.
One hundred and forty-six died in the flames
On the ninth floor, no hydrants, no fire escapes—

The witness in a building across the street
Who watched how a young man helped a girl to step
Up to the windowsill, then held her out

Away from the masonry wall and let her drop.
And then another. As if he were helping them up
To enter a streetcar, and not eternity.

(Read the rest at the Internet Poetry Archive.)

***

Today’s Poetry Friday is hosted by The Book Aunt.

Reading My Summer

August 26, 2009 @ 7:45 pm | Filed under: Books

I was looking at my reading log for the past three months and laughing at how aptly it characterizes our summer.

June: Regular activities wind down; we’re home for long, lazy days, hanging out in the backyard, enjoying the sunny evenings. I read nine books.

July: Whoosh! How’d we get so busy? Every day’s a new adventure. Comic-Con munches up a solid week. I read (to completion) one, count it—one, book. Bits and pieces of many others, but from beginning to end? A single book: an old favorite, savored slowly, a page and sometimes only a paragraph at a time, late at night, when the heavy hush has settled at last upon the house.

August: Our summer activities have settled into a routine, streamlined, efficient. Dentist appointments figure prominently in the calendar. This means waiting rooms. The baby is suddenly old enough to sit and play, allowing hands-free time for creative pursuits such as watercolor journaling and sewing. I read five books.

Of course, August isn’t over yet, and it goes out with a weekend. This means there’s a strong possibility I’ll find time for one more book. I’m about a third of the way into Of a Feather: A Brief History of American Birding by Scott Weidensaul and grateful to Mental Multivitamin for the recommendation. The library will be wanting it back soon, so I’ll have to pick up my pace. Delightful so far. In bed at night, after lights-out, I’m enjoying a Wodehouse novel via e-reader. (The iPod Touch has really become my preferred vehicle for bedtime reading, for all the reasons I mentioned in this post. It’s the easiest, least obtrusive way to read next to a sleeping baby without disturbing him. During daylight hours, however, I will always and ever [she declares with confidence] prefer a Real Book.)


The fiction to-be-read stack is as deliciously high as always. I continue to salivate over too many intriguing novels and squander precious could-be-reading moments failing to make a choice already. But also I wanted a few days to savor the novel I finished earlier this week: Lost by Jacqueline Davies, a spellbinding account of—well, the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, sort of, but really that’s a backdrop to an achingly moving tale of loss and grief, from the point of view of a sixteen-year-old Jewish girl (whose narrative voice may be my favorite of the year so far) who works in the factory. I’d like to write more about this book in a proper post, later, but right now I’m still too wrapped up in the raw emotions of the story to be able to review it matter-of-factly.

So what comes after Lost, what novel will ring out summer? I can’t say.