“I’ll have what she’s having.”

About a month ago Emily and I were listening to the Leonard Lopate show; in the section of the show we heard, Lopate was interviewing Nora Ephron. About halfway through, they were talking about screenwriting, when Ephron, as an aside, said: “I once read this thing by a writer named Harry Crews who said that he had learned to write because he read Moby-Dick, and then he typed it five times.” Lopate was skeptical. I’ve transcribed the quote in its immediate context—this is from around 18:30 or so, if you listen to the MP3 (caveat emptor: I’ve separated out some overlaps, cleaned up some stutters, and made a best guess or two at a word):

Ephron: I was, at the time, going out with my second husband, Carl Bernstein of Woodward and Bernstein, and—my poor, misbegotten second marriage—but in any case, before it went just into, into hell in a handbasket, they were, they had sold All the President’s Men to the movies, and the script had come in, and they weren’t too happy with it, so we all worked on it a little bit, and—of course, I should never have done that; I didn’t know it was against the law—but it was a screenplay by William Goldman, who’s a brilliant, brilliant screenwriter. And you know, I once read this thing by a writer named Harry Crews who said that he had learned to write because he read Moby-Dick, and then he typed it five times.

Lopate: Wow. Couldn’t he have picked a shorter novel?

Ephron: I don’t know. And was he telling the truth? I don’t know. But the thing is that if you…

Lopate: He’s a fast typist, I hope.

Ephron: If you rewrite a William Goldman screenplay, you learn a huge amount just by typing his words.

Lopate: Although it’s interesting that one of the things that people remember best about the story—”follow the money”—is William Goldman’s. It’s not…

Ephron: That’s right.

Lopate: It’s not in the book.

Ephron: Yes.

Lopate: It never happened.

Ephron: I know. That’s true.

I have no idea what she means about illegal screenwriting, but that’s a whole other kettle of fish; I was curious to find where Crews had written this business about transcribing Melville five times! I asked the inimitable Maud Newton, since she’s written on her site a few times about Crews, whom she studied with at UF; she said that didn’t sound quite right, but noted that Crews has talked about his use of Graham Greene’s work as a model (which Maud mentioned on her blog here). Then I remembered a post of Maud’s from this past summer, where she transcribed part of an episode of Studio 360 devoted to Moby-Dick, in which Ray Bradbury, reminiscing about writing a screenplay based on Moby-Dick for John Huston, talked about reading the book “80 or 90 times, […] some sections 120 times.” So perhaps Harry Crews did type out Melville—or perhaps Nora Ephron is simply an avid Maud Newton reader, but one who takes bits and pieces of anecdotes and fuses them, unwittingly, into grand new hybrid creatures, as I do all the time in my mind (which a friend once referred to as my centrifuge)?

Cooking Eggs

I went to a reading this fall where one of three writers, having been asked to read for no more than fifteen minutes, went for over half an hour. I went to a reading about a year ago where one of four writers read (at a breakneck pace, well aware of what she was doing, seemingly trying to burn through an entire short story) for forty minutes—until the curator slipped, if I remember right, a hand-written note onto the podium that said something like “STOP NOW.” And at a reading a few years ago where I was one of four on the lineup, one of the other writers seemed to be hell-bent on passing the hour mark, but she read so quickly (breaking a vicious sweat as she went) that you couldn’t follow the story at all—although later she confessed she had no idea how long she’d been up there.

With all that in mind, I’ve been meaning to post a gentle suggestion here, for any series curators who might happen to stop by, to please, for everyone’s benefit, consider purchasing egg timers to put on their venues’ podiums or music stands (facing the readers, of course). In my experience, not only do all curators give their readers time limits, they also all contact their readers in advance with helpful hints on how to stay well within those limits, such as rehearsing their material at home beforehand with a stopwatch. But some writers (who tend to also be the second-rate ones), for who knows what reason, persistently either misunderstand or ignore or flout this advice completely—so perhaps a more blunt, or even cynical, time limit-enforcement technique is needed?

As with so many things, the Google reveals that there is nothing new in the tubes; a search for the phrases “egg timer” and “reading series” currently brings you, at the top of the list of hits, this page, which would seem to indicate that Jackie Sheeler over at the Pink Pony West series at the Cornelia Street Café has already thought of this idea. But then I’m wondering, if Sheeler does this, why don’t all curators? And why would any writer take this (at best) clueless or (at worst) self-indulgent approach to performing? (Isn’t it obvious that dreading a performance like a trip to the dentist on the one hand, or relishing it like an exercise in onanism on the other, will almost certainly make the experience into a kind of hell for the listener?) Fortunately, I noticed recently, there’s an article in the November/December issue of Poets & Writers that does more than just complain about this phenomenon, as I’m doing here; “Stand Up or Sit Down: Performance Tips for Reading Your Work” by Meredith Broussard is not available online, but is well worth reading. “If an audience has come for a ten-minute reading and you deliver forty-five minutes, there will be a lot of chair scraping and uncomfortable coughing. […] ‘There’s a diminishing return: The longer you read aloud, the less people will feel the need to buy your book,’ explains [writer and consultant Bella] Stander. ‘Leave them wanting more, not fidgeting or falling asleep.'” Why should this be a difficult concept to grasp?

Famous Last Words #1

“Yes, I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” Or so I thought.

Then he went over and sat down on the unoccupied twin bed, looked at the girl, aimed the pistol, and fired a bullet through his right temple. Or so he thought.

His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead. Or so he thought.

I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes. Or so she thought.

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past—or so we think.

So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, all the people dreaming in the immensity of it, and in Iowa I know by now the children must be crying in the land where they let the children cry, and tonight the stars’ll be out, and don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear? the evening star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore in, and nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty. Or so I think I think.

His hands lift of their own and he feels the wind on his ears even before, his heels hitting heavily on the pavement at first but with an effortless gathering out of a kind of sweet panic growing lighter and quicker and quieter, he runs. Ah: runs. Runs. Runs?

Announcement

My whip-smart and knockout beautiful wife and I (it’s true, it’s marvelous, we got married, did you see the thing in the Styles section?) will be reading together for a special honeymooners edition of the One Story reading series on Friday, January 12, at around seven or so; get there a little early for the chosen cocktail, the choice of which we haven’t had a chance yet to choose (we just got back yesterday from a week in Saratoga Springs; my arms are still hurting from the horse racing simulator), but which we guarantee will be choice. (Also: the New Yorker review mentioned about three quarters of the way through: still viewable online, here, if you’re curious.)