Friday, June 4, 2010

Research and Development

I did 3000 words today in 5 hours but I didn't write at all yesterday. I was dried up. Nothing.

I can't force it when it's like that. The problem was I wasn't emotionally involved with my characters. The danger of pushing for word count at a time like that is I get a lot of words that nobody cares about.

My remedy is movies. I watched 3 in a row. I called it research and development. I watched Ordinary People, the Best Picture for 1980. Tightly focused, nuanced human drama. I can't remember if Mary Tyler Moore won an Oscar for her performance. She should have.

After that, I popped in The Apartment, Billy Wilder's classic (Best Picture 1960) and finished off the day with Sylvia, starring Gwyneth Paltrow. Both magnificent films.

Overall theme? Human breaking points. In all three movies, suicide runs through them. In Ordinary People Timothy Hutton's character has attempted suicide and Judd Hirsch as his shrink tries to help him. Watching it now as a fully grown adult, it finally hit me how high the stakes were for Hirsch's character. His success with this boy was a matter of life and death.

In The Apartment Shirley McClain's character is heartbroken and swallows Jack Lemmon's sleeping pills. His timely intervention brings the two together and into a new life. And Sylvia is the story of Sylvia Plath who eventually gives in to the pull of suicide and ends her life.

Starting the new book, I found myself unemotional about my characters and one of them is suicidal. Life has been too good for me lately--I can't remember what it's like to be broken. But remembering, empathizing with, and translating the human experience into words is the stock in trade for a novelist. If I can't do that I might as well take up ditch digging.

Movies are like a pinch or a slap--they get the nerve endings zinging again. If you want to wreck your heart, watch Sylvia and then read Ted Hughes' Birthday Letters, the poems he wrote to Sylvia Plath after her suicide in 1963. I could barely walk.

Consequently, today, fully awake and every nerve ready to shatter, I remembered why I wanted to write in the first place. And wrote 3000 not bad words.

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