In the last couple of months, I started telling my two-year-old son the names of the authors and illustrators behind the books we read. I want him to understand the notion of authorship, that stories don’t just appear out of thin air. Well…
One of Noah’s favorite books this summer has been Kitten’s First Full Moon, by Kevin Henkes, and, as we’ve read it many times, Noah seems to have come to the conclusion that Kevin Henkes is the author responsible for all stories in existence.
NOAH: “Dr. Seuss book, by Kevin Henkes!”
ME: “No, Noah. Dr. Seuss writes Dr. Seuss’s books. Kevin Henkes writes Kevin Henkes’s books.”
NOAH: (more enthusiastically) “Dr. Seuss book by Kevin Henkes!”
Now the problem is that Noah realizes how funny we think he is when he ascribes universal authorship to Kevin Henkes, and he knows how to play to his audience. Recently, at the end of an impromptu rendition of “London Bridge Is Falling Down,” Noah closed as follows:
NOAH: “London Bridge is falling down, my fair lady… by Kevin Henkes.”
I’d like to think that our repeated corrections are starting to have their impact, and Noah is starting to figure out that there are other writers beyond Mr. Henkes. Just yesterday, I was reading him the story Knufflebunny, by Mo Willems, an author whose various books we have enjoyed numerous times.
ME: “Knufflebunny, by Mo Willems.”
ME: (excitedly) “That’s right, honey, Mo Willems. We read a lot of books by Mo Willems. We like him a lot.”
NOAH: “Mo Willems… by Kevin Henkes!”
It has been a period of transition for me. I’ve been laid up for much of this summer, recovering from foot surgery, and I decided to use this time to take a break from my screenwriting and pursue some smaller projects. This was something I think I needed to do for my mental health, but it has proven to be quite creatively stimulating as well. I’m working on a couple children’s books now, and I’ve also been writing some songs, something I had never done before (at least not in a non-collaborative way).
These two mediums actually seem to me like two sides of the same coin: both are rhythmic, highly structured, minimalist forms of storytelling–and I’ve been having fun playing in this world. I know the songwriting will not advance beyond the status of “hobby” for me, but I must say that I am finding the children’s book writing to be a natural fit. And while I certainly intend to return to a larger story in the not too distant future (novel or screenplay), I definitely want to continue pursuing these kid’s books. At least as long as the new ideas keep popping up.
But then, I’m getting ahead of myself. I shouldn’t write too much at this stage of the game. More of my story to come as it is written…
Before our wedding, my wife and I took a class through the American Jewish University called “Making Marriage Work.” While I can’t say this course provided us with any shocking revelations or insights into our relationship, it did provide a nice context to discuss the big picture stuff of married life before we tied the knot (usually in the car driving to and from the class). Invariably, each class would simply confirm for us that we were indeed on the same page about most issues. Good news.
If there was one thing that stuck with me from those sessions, it was something the instructor said on the first day: “The things you love most about your spouse are the very things that will drive you crazy.” Good one, huh? Ain’t it the truth? In my case, I love that my wife is a smart, tenacious, Type-A, go getter. But these same qualities also drive me crazy because they means she is sometimes stubborn and relentless at times when I wish she wouldn’t be. Now think about the people closest to you. Do the things you love about them also drive you crazy? I’ll bet they do.
I’ve been thinking about this idea today and how it relates to our notion of character. What set me off on this line of thinking was reading the news about Olympic star Oscar Pistorius who is currently being charged with murdering his girlfriend. Now, I don’t know too much about this guy beyond the NBC mini-documentaries of the Olympics, but if I had to speculate, I’d guess that the fire inside him that drove him to athletic success is not completely unrelated to the hot headedness that drove him to murder his girlfriend. It was all in the same soup.
A far clearer example (and in the same vein) is Lance Armstrong. What did we love about him? His amazing competitive drive. This drive is what empowered him to win seven consecutive Tour De France titles. It was his spirit, his grit, his unrelenting determination. But these are the same exact qualities that led to his downfall. That same competitive drive we once applauded was what drove him to cheat and lie. Two sides of the same coin.
My wife’s family has a saying that reflects this phenomenon: “When you have a tiger, you have tiger problems.” You can restate this adage with any noun as the object. When you have huge breasts, you have huge breast problems. When you have a beautiful white rug, you have beautiful white rug problems. In my wife’s case, when you are married to a writer, you have writer problems.
Well this writer thinks this notion of duality is a real useful way to think about writing good characters. Think about how many superb characters of stage and screen have a driving force that is both a strength and a weakness. In Tootsie, Michael Dorsey’s weakness is that he is a stubborn perfectionist who doesn’t suffer fools–even when his career depends on it. It is this same quality, however, that makes him brilliant as Dorothy Michaels. Now think about the mind of Hamlet. Think about the thoughtfulness and empathy that empowers him to be a phenomenal tactician; they also cripple him with indecision.
Our strengths can be our weaknesses…and our weaknesses, our strengths.
For 77 episodes now I’ve been a big fan of John August and Craig Mazin’s Scriptnotes podcast. While the intended audience is screenwriters, I think creative writers in any medium (and anyone in the film industry) can benefit from being regular listeners. I’m posting a link here to a show they did a few weeks ago where they deconstruct Raiders Of the Lost Ark. Their analysis (which Lawrence Kasdan, writer of said film, claimed was “the best analysis I’ve ever seen by a power of ten”) will change the way you think about the movie. Worth a listen (click here).