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Original Essays | September 9, 2013 5 comments
Editor's note: Chris Bolton is not only a former Powell's employee, he was also once the primary writer for this blog. So we are particularly proud... Continue »
Redefining Lazinessby Richard Russo
Okay, sure, there are dangers. One of the screenplays I worked on after I'd started Bridge was Empire Falls, the fine HBO miniseries based on my novel. I'd originally argued that someone else should write it, explaining that while I loved the characters, the novel had exhausted me and I felt played out. Fresh eyes, a new take, would be just what the project needed. But Paul Newman talked me into doing it anyway, explaining that if I didn't, the movie probably wouldn't get made. So I put Bridge on the back burner for awhile, and later I worked on both projects simultaneously for more than a year. In the years that followed, still plugging away at the book, I wrote two more screenplays. It's true I worried more or less constantly that I might be harming Bridge by dividing my attentions, much as I used to worry back when I was a teacher that my students were sapping all my creative energy. But for them, I used to imagine, I could write my novels twice as fast, which meant twice as many of them. Past the midway point of each semester, after which I'd be swamped by my students' more immediate needs, I was never able to do much of my own work, and I always wondered if, when I finally got back to my novel-in-progress, it would welcome me. But here's the thing: it always did. I might have a few rough days getting back in the swing, but then there it would be, as alive as when I'd temporarily abandoned it. Sometimes, there'd even be an added bonus. While ignoring it, I'd have come to some important understanding about the book that hadn't been there when I was staring at it every day. It's been the same with my screenwriting. I worry, but I've come to understand that my books just seem to take as long as they take, a fact that drives not just me but my agent crazy. He seems to think that if I could just clear the decks, focus my attention on one important thing, I should be able to complete the task more quickly. I agree. It should work that way. Why doesn't it?
Is it possible I've been corrupted and don't know it? Sure. Greater talents than mine have suffered that fate. Faulkner. Fitzgerald. Still, blaming Hollywood for what happened to them has always seemed simplistic to me. But more to the point, a lot's happened since those two giants headed west. The very fact that they went to Hollywood is indicative. Thanks to technology, the situation for screenwriters has changed radically, even if Hollywood and screenwriting itself hasn't. I write my scripts on the coast of Maine and deliver them by e-mail attachment. In the last decade that I've been writing screenplays, I've been to Los Angeles no more than seven or eight times, and a couple of those visits were for book tours. Faulkner and Fitzgerald had to enter the life of the screenwriter. I don't.
Okay, fine, but the problem with screenplays so the corruption argument goes is that novelists who write them inevitably end up writing novels that resemble screenplays, spare little things that are all scene and dialogue. The problem with the logic here is that the novel in general has come to resemble the screenplay. This isn't true of all novels, admittedly, but movies, aided and abetted by television, the internet, and video games, have profoundly influenced all storytelling, by making stories more linear and more focused in time and space, by streamlining narratives, by quickening the pace and "cutting" between dramatic moments instead of providing more leisurely (and coherent) transitions. By their very natures, movies value exteriors (speech and action) over interiors (thought). My point is that these cinematic influences can be tracked even in the storytelling of writers who have never read, much less written, a screenplay.
I cheerfully admit that part of the reason I've enjoyed writing movie scripts is that they play to my particular storytelling strengths: characters developed by means of dialogue and action/behavior. Even as a novelist I like to slow time down, let my story develop from one scene to the next. Screenwriting puts a premium on precisely these skills. What comes less naturally to me are narration (which typically speeds up time by summarizing events), character development by means of entering their private thoughts, and descriptions of the physical world in which the action takes place. These are all essential skills for a novelist but are of little use to a screenwriter. The camera can see in a split second what would take the writer several pages to describe, and what characters are thinking has to be in their dialogue or the expressions on the actors' faces. The last time I dealt with the passage of movie time through a montage, the director gave me withering look and said, "I hate fucking montages!" Far better, he believed, to insert a card at the bottom of the screen reading, "Two Months Later."
For all of these reasons writing screenplays is a little like sitting down to a meal that contains just the foods you like best, the ones that are good for you having been, by some stroke of good fortune, actually forbidden. It's great for awhile, but after a few months you develop rickets. When I return to novel writing after doing a screenwriting stint, I'm overwhelmed by the great variety and abundance of the feast I've been ignoring. My God, are those brussel sprouts? Bring them on. Liver? You betcha. The result is fiction that's more lush, not more spare. The two books I've published since I started dividing my time between novels and movies Empire Falls and Bridge of Sighs are my least "movie-like," devoted as they are to the passage of time, to their characters' interiors, to the physical worlds they inhabit. If anything, I've become even more expansive, digressive and self-indulgent than before. I recall finishing one long narrative passage in Empire and thinking, "There. I pity the poor dumb screenwriter who has to find the film equivalent of that!" Who turned out, of course, to be me.
So why do these books take so long to write? Lots of reasons. For one thing, every novel you write teaches you something, but it's probably not what you need to know to write the next one. In my experience, novels don't get easier; they get harder. Also, the older you get (or at least the older I get), the more difficult you are to please. I've had lots of people tell me their favorite novel of mine is still The Risk Pool. That one took me a little over three years to write. Today, it would take me much longer, which is not to say I'd write a better book. Normally I don't read my work after it's published, but a few years ago I re-read Risk Pool when it looked like I'd be asked to write the screenplay. I was pleased that the novel held up as well as it did, but I stopped on every page, almost at every paragraph, to wonder if that's the way I'd tell the same story now. Because in the intervening years I've learned a lot of tricks, and every one represents a choice. Choices require deliberation. Deliberation takes time.
Finally, this. Because novels don't get yanked out of the front of the brain, they can't be bullied into existence by increased focus or a Calvinist work ethic. A lot of what you need is in that great junkshop of memory and experience and emotion that's located in the back of the mind, and it's a place that can't be systematized, made orderly. You can't go in there looking for one thing and hope to find it. All you can do is browse, see what looks interesting, hold it up to the dim light and ask yourself what its relevance might be to the task at hand. If the answer is none, you have to be suspicious and ask, "Then why is it there?" You may have to ask yourself the same question several days in a row, maybe even weeks or months, until you get an answer that seems right, feels true. You learn to dally, because bullying the front of the mind doesn't get you anywhere.
Either that or I'm just lazy.
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Richard Russo won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel Empire Falls and wrote the screenplay adaptation. His other books include the novels Straight Man, Nobody's Fool (which was made into a film starring Paul Newman), Mohawk, and The Risk Pool, as well as the short story collection The Whore's Child. He lives with his wife in coastal Maine.