Dogs and Cats Living Together Since 1968

Month: June 2007 (page 1 of 2)

Stay True to Your Art, Part III

In Part I and Part II, I described my life as a budding writer up to 1997. By that time, I had written two mediocre novels and three screenplays, two of which I felt were viable. They needed work but they were workable. I also had a small assortment of short stories I had written over the years of which I was proud, including a short story I wrote for one of my favorite classes in law school, “Women in Law and Literature.” That story is about a woman University of Colorado Law School graduate who gets caught up in World War Two’s Battle of the Bulge.

After graduating law school in May of ’97, I began studying for the July bar exam. I knew I didn’t want to be a lawyer but after people graduate from law school they take the bar. That’s how it’s done. And I needed a job. At the same time, my Cystic Fibrosis was worsening. During my last semester of law school, I began talking with the University Hospital lung transplant team about getting listed for a transplant. They and my CF docs felt I was one lung episode away from needing one. They were right. Sometime in June, I decided I was not healthy enough to study for and take the bar exam. I was at about 39% lung capacity and on oxygen at night. At the time, I intended to take the bar at a later date. But fate was to intervene.

In July, I got a bad infection in my lungs and by August my lung capacity had dropped to 28%. My lung capacity did not improve with a hospital stay that included an antibiotic “tune-up.” August was my last month of freedom. By September, I was confined to my parents’ house, on oxygen 24/7, and actively trying to get on the lung transplant waiting list. I had some trouble getting my insurance to cover the transplant so I was not officially listed until late October. The next five months were the most difficult of my life. I have never been so literally fighting for my life on a daily basis. I would look at a new tube of toothpaste and seriously wonder which of us would last longer. But I did find time to write a long autobiographical essay that explained my life to that point as best as I could. I wanted to leave a piece of myself behind for my family — just in case.

Notwithstanding my realistic outlook toward my chances, I truly believed I would survive to receive a transplant and I truly believed I would set a new record for lung transplant longevity. There is no doubt in my mind that my confidence played a big role in my survival.

Back to writing. Lessons I have learned that I would share with other writers:

  1. Think of yourself as a writer even if you don’t make a living as a writer.
  2. Read numerous books about every subject and from every point of view imaginable. But do not read any books about writing; these three rules are all you need to know.
  3. The secret to becoming a writer is writing. As with any other art, practice makes you better. Just write dammit. A lot. My greatest weakness as a writer is that I don’t write enough.

I believe that great art rises to the top and gets recognized. I don’t believe there are masterpiece novels out there buried in drawers because nobody will publish them. Emily Dickinson is the exception, not the rule. That’s why I don’t worry about selling my screenplays or novels. I worry about writing them well.

The problem is, you can maximize your art — but that does not guarantee your art is any good. You may in the end be an average writer. That’s hard to accept. It’s scary. I often wonder if my failure to maintain a writing discipline — say three hours every day — is rooted in my fear of never amounting to more than an average writer. I feel like a star high school wide receiver. Will I be a star in college? Will I make it to the pros? Where will I peak? Have I peaked already?

Some writing is so bad I’m embarrassed by its glaring awfulness. Then I realize good writers look at my writing and see my glaring awfulness. The good thing is that when I look back on my old writing I see it too. Hell, I see it in my blog entries from a month ago. Writing is my art and I know I’m getting better but that doesn’t mean I write well. Finding one’s art does not guarantee greatness but it does guarantee a maximization of self. And that is the true prize in life, though a bittersweet one because discovering the truth about one’s self is inevitably as disappointing as it is enriching.

I awoke from my first transplant in 1998 with a new sense of mission. I did not go through all this to be a lawyer. Lawyering is an honorable and important profession, as exemplified by my father’s career — but it is not mine. For better or worse — poor, average or great — I am a writer. That was one half of my sense of mission. The other was that I must contribute to the fight against CF and for transplantation. I had always tried to live a life separate from CF. I was not involved in support groups outside of the occasional foray into the CF email list. I was not involved in charity work and I did not volunteer for experiments that advanced the cause of CF research. I would not say I was in denial. I took my pills, I was reasonably compliant with my therapies, at least the ones I thought were doing some good. But I felt like I didn’t need to give CF a bigger role in my life than it already had. I did not want to be defined by my CF so I relegated CF to as minimal a part of my life as possible. Now, after my first transplant, I knew this had to change.

So I put aside my dream of writing the Iran Hostage Crisis book to write a different book. The iconic book of the CF medical memoir genre is Frank Deford’s Alex: The Life of a Child. It’s a short, brilliant, heartbreaking book that has never been matched in the CF literary lexicon. Nobody has yet written a comparable book for lung transplants either. I set out to write a sequel of sorts to Deford’s book, a book that would show how far modern medicine has brought us CFers.

They say one should write what one knows. I have always resisted this notion. What I know bores me. I want to explore what I don’t know. That’s what I loved about my Iran book. It was very ambitious. I had to immerse myself in Islamic and Persian culture. And the 70s. And the Hostage Crisis itself. Thanks to the Denver Public Library, I did all that. But for my CF/transplant book, I had to immerse myself in myself. I couldn’t do it, at least not completely. I settled for a novel in which one character was loosely based on me and the other three main characters were entirely fictional. It took me a year or two to write the first draft and I was very proud of myself. It was my first viable novel. Like my two viable screenplays, it needed work but it was workable. Unfortunately, I was sick and tired of it. I yearned to write my Iran book and set off again on my research whirlwind. I wondered if maybe I liked researching more than I liked writing. This was also my first inkling that maybe I should be writing non-fiction books, not novels.

Looking back on my CF/transplant novel, I think it was a case of not staying true to my art. I wrote it because I thought I should, not because I was in love with the idea. I was in love with my Iran book but I was running out of steam on it. Had I researched it too long? Was its scope too big for me and my skills? Did I need another twenty years of life experience to write it properly? Was I falling out of love with it? Little did I know the impact my retransplant was to have on my outlook.

In the 2000s, I puttered along with my Iran book research and CF/transplant book editing. Truthfully, my passion for writing had fallen by the wayside. I was too busy enjoying being alive. For me, that first transplant was like a cure. For the first time in my life, I felt like a normal person and I relished it.

In 2005, I began my Retransplant Road blog, which was an outgrowth of a website I started a couple years earlier. While I was sick and waiting for my retransplant, I had very little energy. My blog gave me a creative outlet and it helped me refine my writing. I had already made the biggest leaps toward finding my art and staying true to it but there was still some tweaking to be done.

To be continued…

On the Lot: Six Comedies

This week, six of our determined filmmakers wrote and directed two minute comedies. You can watch this week’s On the Lot films here. My reviews:

Shalini’s Doctor In-Law. Shalini’s first film was unremarkable, a trite short about modern dating. But her style evidenced ability beyond her content. Her second movie was more interesting, a short documentary about a gay comic. She has the capacity for interesting visuals and this holds true in Doctor In-Law, a comedy about a guy who takes his ornery father-in-law to the doctor and takes advantage of his role as translator. It’s stylish and more importantly, it’s funny. She gives us a lot of movie in two minutes. She’s going to be in the top five finishers in this competition.

Zach’s Die Hardly Working. Zach is the competition’s special effects whiz. Again, we were promised that this time he would do it without special effects. Again, this wasn’t quite true. This short is about bored office workers having a duel with a series of imaginary weapons. Other than sound, there are no special effects. But it is still all about special effects! Very entertaining, but I’m still not convinced this guy can tell a good story. It didn’t hurt him to have Noel from Frasier as one of his comic actors. He’s the favorite to win right now, but I could see Shalini sweeping victory right out from under him with her story-telling skills.

Hilary’s Under the Gun. Funny idea: two child-desperate women rob a sperm bank. The woman who played the mother added a lot to the movie. I liked this more than Hilary’s previous work which was sophomoric and indistinct.

Will’s Nerve Endings. This short was about some wacky goings on during brain surgeries. I thought it was good but not great, much like his last film Glass Eye. His primary actor was funny and almost carried the movie on his shoulders. He needs to take it to the next level if he’s going to keep up with the likes of Shalini and Zach.

Adam’s Discovering the Wheels. Cavemen discover the Chevy Mustang. I thought this was awful. The judges liked it. This film was a hellish nosedive for Adam in terms of quality. His previous films were a clever piece about a man who communicated through dance and a musical set in a bakery. I expect him to rebound.

David’s How to Have a Girl. Because he’s from Colorado, I wanted David to do well. I just don’t think he can compete with these other directors though. This short, supposedly about a couple who want a child but can’t agree on the gender they want, was not funny. It turned into a bedtime wrestling match. It was never clear what was going on. David’s previous movie, about modern dating, was similarly unfunny.

In these last two weeks, the directors have started to separate themselves into three tiers: the stylishly skilled, the merely competent, and the not-quite-good-enough. Next week, six horror films.

Lung Tx Opium

It’s 5am and I haven’t slept a wink tonight. Usually I don’t have a problem with insomnia but this Solumedrol steroid blast I’m on is really kicking my ass. In addition to trouble sleeping, I’ve got high blood sugar levels which make me thirsty all day and my body retains all that water and my feet look like giant balloons by bedtime. Stick a pin in ’em and I’m sure they’d pop. The high blood sugar also makes me a junkie, forcing me to inject short and long term insulin into my stomach and legs up to six times a day. This is after pricking my fingers to check on my levels. That’s the downside of Solumedrol, along with a general “something ain’t right” feeling.

The upside is boundless creative energy. Damn, I almost wish I was on this stuff all the time. Whenever I’m on the ‘drol, I can easily see why so many artists and writers in history have been hooked on opium and the like. I’m feeling you Sammy C., “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan / A stately pleasure-dome decree.” God do I envy people who have this much energy all the time. Yet half the reason I’ve always stayed away from illegal drugs is that I’m afraid I’d like ’em.

Over the last three days I have accomplished more than I did in the last month. I’ve emailed everyone I know — twice. I’ve made a hundred to-do lists, started ten home improvement projects and composed five blog entries. Ideas are flowing like crazy, somebody burst a damn in my subconscious. Little Shoveler Guy, was it you?

For a long time I’ve been keeping notes on a fantasy book idea, my own Lord of the Riings, Chronicles of Thomas Covenant and Earth-Sea Trilogy. What I have been missing is the premise. How do I get my heroes started on their journey? Who are my heroes? What is the message of my book? I figured all this out this morning while watching Frasier on my DVR. I also have the autobiographical book I’m working on, my main project currently. Over the last couple days I’ve figured out several important plot points. The biggest was that I figured out how to reconcile the ideas about death I formulated in my last novel with the new ideas I have now.

My light-sensitive porchlight just went out. Sheiss on a popsicle stick, I need to get some sleep. At least a couple hours. But it ain’t gonna happen. This is my first all-nighter since my 36-hour Vegas excursion for my friend Brian’s bachelor party. A blessing and a curse you are, lung transplant opium.

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