August 2006

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In Part I, I mentioned how rock stars often talk about the importance of staying true to their music. I came across a similar sentiment from the world of comedy in a Conan O’Brien interview in last week’s Onion. Conan was asked whether he thought he would need to revamp his show when he takes over for Jay Leno in 2009. Conan’s response:

There’s a temptation to overthink the whole thing. I’ve had a Field Of Dreams philosophy to this: If you build it, they will come. I still have no idea. I don’t look at research. I don’t look at who’s watching, or when they’re watching. I’ve never been interested in any of that. I’m interested in doing what I think is funny. For the last 13 years, that seems to have worked for me. If I go to 11:30 and do what I think is funny, and someone comes and tells me it isn’t getting enough people in the tent, I’d say, “Well, that’s all I can do.” If I’m looking at spreadsheets and time-lapse studies of viewing patterns, I think I’m wasting my time.

Conan is true to his comedic art. He doesn’t know how to do it any other way.

Returning to my evolution as a writer, I had just graduated from college and had written two mediocre novels. At that point, I was sure the novel was my medium but I could not shake my interest in writing dialogue. I knew plays were not really my style but I have always enjoyed movies — why not give screenplays a shot? So I did.

When I worked as a peon in Congress, one perk was that you could order books on loan from the Library of Congress and they would deliver them to your Congressional office. One book I ordered was Company Commander, a classic but not well-known book about a World War II Captain marching his company across Europe. War has always figured heavily in my writing so it is no surprise that my first screenplay was a squad-level WWII drama called “The Pebbles of Mars.” Like my first novel, it stank. Also like my first novel, finishing it was a victory.

I loved the screenplay as a medium. And I loved the novel as a medium. I fantasized about winning both an Oscar and a Pulitzer.

My evolution as a writer sounds like a nice orderly progression when I write about it but during those end-of-college and early post-college years I was doing a fair amount soul-searching. Should I go to graduate school or should I go to D.C.? Once in D.C., should I stay? Should I go to law school? How about the Foreign Service? At root, I was asking the same question most of my peers were facing: what should I do with my life? There were a couple twists in my case. First, my health seemed to be pointing me toward home to be close to my family. Second, I knew what I wanted to do — write — I just didn’t know how I was going to support myself.

I returned to Denver in 1993 and led an aimless but fun life. I had a series of temp and low-paying jobs with no career in sight. But I did write another screenplay. This time it was a monster movie set in Telluride. Plot intricacies made it overly ambitious but it was better than my first attempt. It was what they call in Hollywood a “high-concept” idea and my hope was that I could sell it and make enough money to stay writing. I entered it in some screenwriting contests but no dice.

I think that script is when I turned the corner on quality. I started to see and feel real improvement. As I was finding my art, I was also honing my art. I was becoming a better writer.

But I still needed a job so I started law school in the fall of 1994. My rationale for this decision requires another blog entry but suffice it to say I thought I could be a lawyer and a writer and I soon realized that I could not be both. In my second year, I applied to a couple film schools but did not get in so I figured I might as well finish law school. In my third (and last) year of law school, I wrote my best screenplay, my contribution to the Gen X genre — then twentysomethings trying to make sense of the world armed only with our senses of humor.

It was also toward the end of law school when I read a book by Charles Beckwith called Delta Force. Beckwith was the creator and commander of the elite special forces unit involved in the Iranian Hostage Rescue attempt that ended in disaster at Desert One in April 1980. I became convinced that my next novel had to be a fictionalization of the Iranian Hostage Crisis focused on the time period between the hostage taking and the rescue attempt. (Which works out to 174 days, by the way.)

Continued in Part III.

Staying true to your core self is a good goal for everyone but today I’m particularly interested in what it means to artists.

I’ve frequently heard rock stars saying, “Stay true to your music.” It’s a bit hard to take seriously when said by the latest teen pop star falling out of a cracker jacks box of a reality show, but it does make sense. When you are singing songs you love, songs that come from your soul, that passion naturally translates into a better performance.

It’s worth noting that some can make a living while not staying true to your art. I doubt any artist finds happiness this way but it may be possible to succeed creating false art, art that is manufactured to please others rather than art that, apologies for the rhyme, comes from the heart. But let’s assume for the sake of argument that all artists want to stay true to their art at least some of the time. How do they do that? I don’t think it’s always obvious to an artist what exactly their art is.

Case Study: my evolution as a writer. I remember writing my first story in Mr. May’s class in the 5th grade. I had written bits and pieces before but this was my first story with a beginning and an end (can’t vouch for a middle). It was called “Christmas at Unhilk Castle” and now that I think about it, it would make a decent screenplay. Anyway, for the next ten or so years, I was a busy creative bee, writing short stories, occasional poems and one-act plays, and a goofy comic strip featuring two characters I not-so-creatively dubbed Super Star Trek and Super Star Wars. I felt like I had found my purpose in life: writing. But I had not found my medium. My short stories were always too involved, novellas waiting to be written. My poems were lousy. I liked writing dialogue but on a stage, dialogue does all the heavy lifting and that turned me off. It felt false. The comic strip fell by the wayside. I was never into reading comics so there was no impetus from that direction.

While I was a senior in college, I wrote my first novel. I am always amazed when young authors publish their first novels to great acclaim because mine was awful. Still, the biggest victory for me was finishing it. I had proved to myself that I could write a novel. It was a mystery wrapped in a love story, about a detective who had to chase strange bad guys all over Colorado and the world to save himself–but in the end he chose death over immortality. One problem with this book was that I do not read mysteries. I am not a fan of mysteries. Why did I write a mystery? I don’t know but I think in part I was consciously trying to write a book that would sell. It could be that this was an attempt to make a living while not staying true to my art. I did enjoy writing the novel. I became convinced I had found my medium — the novel, but maybe not mystery novels.

During my first year out of college, I wrote a second novel. It was somewhere between a mystery and contemporary fiction. My Mom had a funny line, “In your first book, I wanted your main character to live and you killed him off. In this book, I wanted him to die and you had him live.” This second novel was inspired by Anita Shreve’s Eden Close. I’m not quite sure why — I think I just like the way Shreve’s book progressed into a living room denouement. After writing this, I began to feel like I was destined to become a writer of contemporary novels. Which is another way of saying, novels that don’t easily fit into a genre like science fiction, western or mystery. I dreamed of being a novelist who could cross genres, writing one great sci-fi book and then one great western and so on. Then I got distracted by another medium.

Continued in Part II.

Suppose an archivist at the Smithsonian uncovered a “lost episode” of your favorite TV series and this lost episode was created while the series was in its prime. Which lost episode would you want to watch first? Which one second? And so on. Here’s my lost episode list:

  1. Star Trek. The original. This show’s appeal to me is part entertainment, part American history and part personal history. Plus I have a man-crush on Kirk, Spock (halfman-crush), McCoy, Chekov, Sulu, Scotty and Uhura (woman-crush).
  2. Seinfeld.
  3. Frasier.
  4. SportsNight.
  5. Ed. Winesburg, Ohio is one of my favorite books and this is sort of the TV version. Small town, character-driven, good love story — all idealized but I’m okay with that.
  6. Northern Exposure. The same applies to this show.
  7. The West Wing.
  8. Entourage. I’m really into this show right now so I’m probably overvaluing it.
  9. Fawlty Towers.
  10. NewsRadio. Narrowly beats out Curb Your Enthusiasm, mainly because I like the characters more.

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