Thursday, October 17, 2013

When Asked What A Young Writer Should Major In

Vassar Library / My Happy Place 

Always happy to add my two cents to the stockpile of advice you're gathering! I read/majored in English when I went to uni and I have a Bachelor of Arts. When I was looking at schools I knew I wanted to be a writer so I researched schools which had respected English departments and offered classes in creative writing. Like most American universities, mine had a specific creative writing track, a sort of 4 year basic suggested course plan for those who wanted to graduate and be writers. This was at what we Americans call the under-graduate level, but I believe Brits call graduate level. 

For post-graduate work there is the MFA, the Master of Fine Arts, which I do not have and have never had an interest in pursuing -- though that is probably because I went to an undergraduate school which offered creative writing. 

 (I feel I should add that I know some working writers who did NOT study creative writing, and I know some people who did study creative writing and have not written seriously since school.) 

And while I'm thankful that my university acknowledged that creative writing should be available to more than just post-graduate students, I'm also grateful that I was required to take some courses outside of my major -- because those courses also taught me how to write. Not in terms of clarity of syntax or strength of metaphor or any hogwash like that, but by giving me whole troves of information I might not have dug up on my own, and by requiring me to read at a depth and breadth I would not have otherwise. 

All of which is to say, if you want to write like Philip Pullman, take an intro physics class; if you want to write like Edith Wharton, take a sociology class; if you want to write like Ernest Hemingway, take a history class -- you get my drift. A diversity of learning will teach you how to think, and learning how to think is the most important part of being a writer. 

(By the way, an American writer named David Foster Wallace said as much, but better than I ever could. You should read his speech to recently graduated students here.

If could add one other snippet of advice, could I also please add: read everything. Dumb stuff, great stuff, vampire stuff, Holy Roman Empire stuff, science stuff, poetry stuff, everything stuff. And when you read something you like, find out what that writer liked, and read all that stuff too. Never stop reading. 

I wish you the very best! 


Friday, September 27, 2013

"I Still Think, Maybe I'm Not Good At This": Graham Moore Outtakes

Cumberbatch As Alan Turing / Daily Mail 
Hello, Benedict Cumberbatch fans! Over on Buzzfeed I have an interview with Graham Moore, novelist and writer of "The Imitation Game," the Alan Turing biopic starring Benedict Cumberbatch. Here are some outtakes from my conversation with Graham in which we talk further about Benedict Cumberbatch, set etiquette and Benedict Cumberbatch. 

Benedict Cumberbatch! 

Thursday, August 01, 2013

The Quarrymen

I blame "Children of the Corn."

My insomnia started the same week I moved from Sacramento to Los Angeles in the middle of the 7th grade. I could fall asleep but inevitably I would wake up around 2:30 to and I'd stay up until around 6:30 every morning. Then would get up at 7 for school.

After a month or two I was wrecked.

I realized that if I had the tv on, I could fall asleep earlier, around 10 or 11, which would naturally mean that the it would still be on when I eventually woke up at 2:30. While HBO might be showing "Clue" at 10 at night, 2:30 meant either porn or a horror movie, neither of which I particularly enjoy.

It was when I woke up to a scene from "Children of the Corn" in which people ate some corn and then their heads burst, exploding bugs everywhere that I decided I needed a tape I could put on that would be long enough to still be playing when I woke, and had manageable levels of insects and cock.

The immediate answer was The Beatles Anthology. For nearly a year I watched the Beatles Anthology on loop. On really bad nights I'd watch half of it at a time -- about five hours. Over and over I watched it, till the minutiae of Beatles biography was engraved in my consciousness.

And it spread.

Soon they were all I listened to. Los Angeles at that time had an AM station that only played Beatles - singles, covers, instrumentals. If someone didn't recognize a song I could prattle on information without even thinking. "That's them singing back up on Tony Sheridan's single 'My Bonnie,' from 1961. He met them in Hamburg at the Top Ten Club, I think. Came out on Polydor."

I only watched Beatles movies. I started only reading books about the Beatles. It was my eighth grade book report on Mark Hertsgaard's A Day in the Life which prompted my English teacher to tell me and my parents that I was a writer. (So you can blame him.) (For the record, my favorite Beatles biography by far is actually Bob Spitz's The Beatles.) The first script I wrote was about some girls who ran away from their London homes to Hamburg where they drank and "pilled" at the Top Ten and the Kaiserkeller.

Night after night I listened to Paul tell the story about how Frank Sinatra said "Something" was his favorite Lennon/McCartney story, George talk about how they all felt bad for Elvis because he was alone, and Ringo tell the story of quitting and returning to find his drumkit surrounded with flowers.

It seemed to me ridiculous that I could remember hearing "When I'm 64" for the first time and not believing my friend on the bus when she told me it was the Beatles. Thanks to my parents' taste, my Beatles was "She Loves You" and "Hard Day's Night" -- nothing post "Revolver." On top of that, when she showed me a photo, I could not understand that the tall skinny man with the funny glasses and beard was my John Lennon.

Eventually I could sleep again, and eventually I started listening to other things again, but I'm still writing and I can still explain to you what skiffle is or explain how Ringo is both the oldest and the youngest Beatle. So. I've got that. And a fear of eating corn.

Thursday, July 25, 2013


Monty came to us a little broken. He'd been shuttled around from rescue to rescue so often that any time a car door opened, he'd mournfully shuffle towards it, tail dragging like a canine Eeyore.

He was missing one of his big lower teeth, never made a peep, and didn't really know how to play. You'd throw a ball for him and he'd just stare it and then look up at you with these big brown eyes. He didn't care about anyone who only gave him passing attention. You had to put in your time with Monty to get affection from him, and affection from him was simple: he wanted to hold hands.

He'd come sit by you, and just rest his paw on your foot, or your leg. He didn't want you to scratch him or shake it, or anything but just sit there and hold his hand and maybe talk to him. There's no other way to say it: that dog was noble. That dog was Atticus Finch.

Our other dog Cleo, younger and more sprightly is a fine dog, a sweet dog, but... She's just a dog. She's not a soul who just happens to be currently in a dog costume. You throw the ball, she fetches it. Then you have to yell at her for a couple of minutes until she finally fucking drops it.

It took nearly three years for Monty to understand what "playing" meant. The first time he took a loping stride towards a ball I chucked, I immediately reported it to my dad. Monty didn't do it again for months. Instead, I would bring another ball, which he would happily keep in his jaws, right where that big lower tooth should be, and sit by me, paw on my foot, while I chucked another ball for the puppy.

One day at the beach, I tossed a tennis ball down the way for Cleo, who immediately lost sight of the thing and started digging for it about 20 feet away from its position in plain view. Lo, Monty pulled himself up onto his aging hips and loped down the beach with clear purpose. He nabbed that ball without Cleo noticing, and started back.

It was "Chariots of Fire."

It was the Olympic torch relay.

He trotted back, tail up, chest out and looked right up at me.

Reader, I burst into tears and threw my arms around him.

He kept that ball in his mouth the rest of the day, and sat by me through lunch and dinner, one paw on my foot, the whole while long.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Past Perfect

It wasn't until he suggested a second pitcher that I realized something maybe was happening. Years of platonic dinners hadn't yet dimmed my crush, but I'd made peace and figured that discussions about Batman over burritos was nothing to complain about. He asked me if I was seeing anyone, and I said no, I asked the same in return and his face told me he was embarrassed before he'd even said anything.

He was sort of, occasionally seeing this girl, he said, but couldn't be serious about her, since she's in her early 20s and, he cringed, an intern at the same company. She's great, he said (and I believed him) but they were "definitely not B.F./G.F.." I remember that moment because I remember thinking that a man closer to 40 than 30 was describing his romantic status to me in such terms.

He suggested we go to a second bar, and we did and then he suggested we go outside and kiss and we did. I slept alone and bought flowers for the table the next day.

Nearly a week later when he wrote to say how horribly guilty he felt, especially because his girlfriend had a troubled past, I felt a peculiar, short pang. Then I remembered how a teacher told me once that sometimes, on winding roads, you can tell how you should steer the car forward by only looking in the rearview mirror. I should never try it though, she warned me, because it's too dangerous; I could really hurt myself.