My career as a writer began with the irregular publication of Famous Monsters of Woodville, a “newspaper” reporting the activities of the characters belonging to the hyper select organization known as The Monster Club. Published on a toy printing press, the paper was a labor of love, involving setting type by hand, an enterprise limiting the length of an article to about thirty words. The meetings of the Monster Club took place in our garage and almost exclusively involved the devising of ordeals rigorous enough to jazz up the initiation of new members, should new members appear. The executive committee was made of the club’s entire membership, my brother, my best friend, and your author. I was at the time steeped in the lore produced by Universal Studios in their golden age of monsters and celebrated in the magazine, Famous Monsters of Filmland, hence the shameless appropriation in my paper’s name. Mine was a true vanity press; I published short (30 words) accounts of myself as a vampire using the nomme de guerre “Drac”. My recollection is that my brother was The Mummy, and Ken, the friend that put up with us, The Wolfman.
All of the elements that would later characterize my career as a writer were present as those fast-breaking 30 word stories rolled off that toy press: Even then I found my own work breathtakingly compelling, even then I was and would remain the sole reader, and from the start, there wasn’t much in the way of narrative development in the work. Most successful novelists have the ability to tell a story; I’m not among them. In search of narrative boosting, I threw myself into storytelling for about a decade, hoping that by telling stories I would become a more fluent writer, capable of inventing a start, middle, and conclusion with enough substance to make a story worth reading. I got reasonably good at telling some sorts of stories, particularly chillingly atmospheric tales in which repeated phrases indicated the arrival of a yet another terrifying twist. The key to my success was in settling into the detail of the world in which the story was set, taking the bare bones of the story and fleshing it out with evocative description.
Oh, and they weren’t my stories.
Now Herman Mankiewicz could tell a story, lots of them. This confessional follows a long piece in which I argued against the revisionist assessment of Herman Mankiewicz’ contribution to the making of Citizen Kane. In arguing that the genius of the film is in the telling and not in the script, I failed to express the awe with which I consider Mankiewicz’ ability to turn out script after indelible script at a breathless pace. He is credited with 95 filmed scripts, probaby wrote as many that never saw the screen, and jumped in as uncredited script doctor and emergency wordsmith on at least 20 more films. The studios operated a virtual assembly line, churning out major films on a weekly basis, grabbing a writer from the bullpen and turning them loose for the six to ten days it took to produce a finished script. Yes, some of the work was formulaic, and some of the scripts were essentially vehicles for established stars, but Mankiewicz and his Round Table cohort managed to create a peculiarly American genre, the screwball comedy, in which snappy repartee delivered with machine gun velocity animated a cynically lighthearted battle of the sexes. Mankiewicz knocked them out with wry appreciation of the human condition, serving up a potpourri from Duck Soup for the Marx Brothers to Dinner at Eight for Jean Harlow and Wallace Beery.
My resume is notably thin. I wrote two books simultaneously about ten years ago, a novel in which a woman of middle age discovers purpose and friendship in becoming a fabric artist and a college guide dedicated to the proposition that there are many overlooked colleges of quality. I enjoyed writing both and had a head of steam from the start. The college book, America’s Best Kept College Secrets, was conversational in tone, essentially an appreciation of the best qualities in more than a hundred colleges, appreciation easily summoned. The Christmas Quilt teetered on the edge of sentimentality, but I found myself charmed to be in the company of the book’s central character. My experience in and fondness for the boarding school world allowed me to write two novels that moved with some deliberation from start to finish, but my digital dustbin is packed with scripts, plays, and novels that seemed entirely worthwhile when I began, lost traction somewhere around the midpoint and fizzled into wordy dreck. It wasn’t great to realize that I really didn’t have a story that needed telling.
As the days dwindle down to a precious few, however, I find that articles such as this one allow me to wander from one subject to the next, essentially adding one reflection at a time to what I like to think of as the Chautauqua-lite of the mind.
Mank tugged me in one direction and allowed me to think about Kane, a visual masterwork, and, as Kael noted, a “shallow masterpiece”. I liked Pauline Kael very much; she was very kind to me as I first started to write about films. In reading “Raising Kane” again, I remember the intensity with which she approached films, those she loved and those she despised. Smart, smart, smart and fearless.
I’ve just finished teaching a course on Slipstream Fiction, a genre that defies characterization, but which deserves critical attention, exactly the sort of subject I like batting around here at Chautauqua Northwest, and I’m prepping for a six week immersion in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
There might be a story somewhere in all of that.