Callooh Callay

Turned a corner on the revisions. Now it’s just some polishing up and then sending it off to the editor. I had some very important thoughts on writing, but now I can’t remember–oh yeah, okay, here they are.

I watched both Sorry To Bother You and Blindspotting recently, which are two recent indie films set in Oakland, with black protagonists, by black film-makers, and about race issues. I liked both, but of the two, I found Sorry To Bother You a lot more  sure-footed, because it let its images and situations do the talking for it.

Blindspotting was littered with conversations about political issues, about race, about gentrification, about police brutality, and it culminates in a powerful speech act. Personally, I think there’s a place in the world for smart narratives that are explicitly about ideas. I mean, look at Anna Karenina or War and Peace, these are two of the greatest novels ever written, and they both contain relatively earnest discussions of all kinds of issues, whether it’s rural farming methods, political reform, or whether the ballet is sinful and stupid.

But I think the number one requirement when you’re explicitly discussing these things is that your take has to be thoughtful, interesting, and transgressive. Tolstoy’s ideas are still, even now, so far outside the mainstream that it’s just a pleasure to hear his characters voice them. If you’re not doing this, if you’re voicing ideas that embody the (or at least one possible) conventional wisdom, then I think it’s better to do it the way Thomas Mann did it in The Magic Mountain, where he had Naptha and Settembrini (his stand-ins for the fascists and communists) spout a powerful mix of nonsense that gives the emotional and rhetorical effect of these philosophies without going into the ideas themselves.

In Blindspotting it was like, yeah, we get it, you have a black and a white character, and they experience the gentrification of their hometown very differently. You really don’t need to spell it all out for us by having them argue about it. That theme was at least sustained by the film, though, and in that case the explanation was simply unnecessary. It’s even worse in cases where the theme is not sustained throughout, but only comes up in dialogue, which was my feeling about, for instance, the climax of the film.

I think writers have a tendency in their work to overvalue speech, because the form itself encourages the idea that words are powerful. In this case, the medium really is the message. If words cannot, by themselves, change peoples’ lives, then there’s no reason to write books. But in work that purports to mirror life, I think we need to acknowledge the fact that peoples’ actions, or even their thoughts, are rarely changed by speech.

Watching movies has encouraged me to focus more closely, in my writing, on images. How can I convey my themes through the juxtaposition of elements? Settings, in particular, while always important to me, have become a larger part of my work, particularly on the scene level. I find myself paying more attention, in my mind, to the lighting, to the furniture, and to whatever natural surroundings there might be. This has also taken some of the weight off of the gesture, which I’ve traditionally over-used in my writing. There’s only so much that you can do with the movement of the hands, the eyes, and the face. Sigh, but I’m still not completely there yet. I’ve had a lifelong battle with the image: I’m primarily a textual thinker, and my mind’s eye is really not what it should be.

One thought on “Callooh Callay

  1. disperser

    Interesting . . . I tend to visualize but not in the literal sense. Meaning, the imagery is there both as a result of me visualizing what I’m writing (and having it influence the words I put down) and because I’m trying to “transfer” that image to the reader’s mind . . . that’s the mechanics explaining the process.

    But I’m not trying to convey pictures; I’m always conveying emotions/feelings. The imagery is just the prop in the scenes and thus I keep them sparse and much as the background on a stage play is only there to convey a general idea; the emotion/feeling resulting from the situation is the message I’m trying to send.

    If I can do that well, the actual description of the scene can be fairly sparse and the reader fills in the details as their own experiences relating to a particular emotion or feeling fills in the blanks.

    When reading, focus on the settings seldom works (on me) as it feels like the writer is trying to overly jam themselves into my brain.

    At least, that’s the theory. I guess what I’m trying to say is I agree with the situation approach but less so with the imagery if by imagery you mean as much detail as your eyes take in when absorbing a visual medium

    Disclaimer: not a real writer here; just someone playing at being one. So, since I’m describing something opposite to your process, it should be taken with a grain of salt. Or even a block.

    I do agree that characters regurgitating a given dogma (social/political/religious) seldom works, one because that removes the nuances of any position or philosophy, and two, because it presents a character seemingly lacking in independent thought. Fanatics are seldom people we identify with.

    Disclaimer 2: it could be I missed the substance of your essay. If I did, just ignore all this.

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