Talking With High School Students about Writing

For quite a few years now, I have visited with a group of local high school students to talk about writing. It’s a special seminar, usually about 12 or 15 kids are involved. This year, I’m happy to say the students were as engaged and interested as they have been during each of my other visits.

 

 

 

 

 

The discussion always starts with me trying to explain why writing well is important. I usually use the “Let’s eat Mom” versus “Let’s eat, Mom” example. One of the kids this year said a comma can save someone’s life. Exactly! She got it. I also talked about the US President using his twitter so often. He has said he does it to communicate directly to the population, without his message being filtered or analysed by media or spokespeople. I guess he has a point with that intent, but his writing in those twitter messages is so bad that whatever his message is often gets lost in what comes across as anger or just plain meanness. I take pains to avoid talking politics with these students, of course, but they agreed with my point here.

 

 

 

 

 

I then try to relieve them of the belief all writers make gobs of money, using my own career as an example of that fact. If I had to rely on my writing income to survive, I would be in real trouble!

 

 

 

 

 

Two cool words they learned in this session: verisimilitude and alliteration.

 

 

 

 

 

Finally, we get into the fun exercise. I start them off with a painfully boring sentence “The man walked across the room.” Divided into groups, they come up with really terrific ways to make that much more exciting. Examples from this year involved zombies dancing in a ballroom and silver-haired ladies sprinting across a dark cavern. I am always happy with the creativity they show.

 

 

 

 

 

I can’t wait to visit another class soon.

 

I did it Again! The Venice Film Festival (part 1)

As I do pretty much every year in late August – early September, I headed to Venice for the annual “Mostra Internazionale d’Arte Cinematographica” or Venice Film Festival. Over the last nearly 20 years I have attended, the festival has grown more glamorous (measured by the star power present), more important to the industry (measured by the number of big studio premiers), and more expensive (measured by violent wallet shrinkage). Nonetheless, as a film festival Venice continues to deliver.

I’ll be writing three separate posts about my experience this year. In them, I’ll add gratuitous pictures of Venice or of the food I ate while there. I do that not because it has anything to do with movies but because I get how lucky I am to live less than an hour away from that beautiful place.

In this, my first post, the focus is on the big release films I saw.

 

 

 

 

 

DOWNSIZING” written and directed by Alexander Payne (best known for “Sideways”), starring Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig, Christoph Waltz, and Hong Chou.

This film deals with an interesting solution to global problems of overpopulation, depletion of resources, and environmental deterioration.  First, shrink people to about six inches tall, then set them up in Utopian societies where resources are plentiful and problems are few.

I rate the movie as pretty good.

Needless to say, the things that make humans interesting, irritating, endearing and – well, human – exist if we are six inches tall or six feet tall. Fortunately the story in “Downsizing” does not get preachy about social consciousness themes and sticks instead to the character traits (or flaws?) that make us who we are.

 

 

 

 

 

Technically, Payne has put together a proficient movie. The special effects that juxtapose downsized people into a full sized world are seamless and clever. Look for the delivery of full sized wedding rings to a small Matt Damon.

Damon and Waltz both give adequate performances. A disappointment to me was that Kristen Wiig is only on screen for maybe 10 minutes. Hong Chau, on the other hand, is terrific. She has a great role and simply nails it. I predict she’ll earn a well-deserved Oscar nomination. She really carries the movie.

Again, pretty good.

 

 

 

 

 

LEAN ON PETE” directed by Andrew Haigh, starring Charlie Plummer, Steve Buscemi, Chloe Sevigney, Steve Zahn.

This is a film about a 15 year old boy (Plummer) who wants a home, some food, and to be on his High School football team. Stability is hard to find though, and he ends up taking a summer job with a washed-up horse trainer (Buscemi). He befriends a kind jockey (Sevigney) and a failing race horse named Lean on Pete. Based upon the novel by Willy Vlautin, the story is about refusing to give up hope.

I also rate this one as pretty good.

The story is moving, at times difficult and at times tender, but never too sentimental or sappy. Director Haigh cites a John Steinbeck quote, “It is true that we are weak and sick and ugly and quarrelsome. But if that is all we ever were, we would millenniums ago have disappeared from the face of the earth.” I don’t know what that has to do with this movie, but if John Steinbeck said it, it is worth repeating, right?

The directing is good, but (not being a film maker) I don’t think it was too challenging – most of the film is short scenes with the boy talking either to an adult or to the horse.

As for acting, don’t get excited about seeing Steve Buscemi or Chloe Sevigney, or Steve Zahn. This is a movie for Charlie Plummer. I had not seen him in anything before, but have looked up his body of work and say this: he has really strong potential. For me, the young actor is not ready to take on a role where he is in every single scene, but he does indeed have talent. Look for him in a few years to be a big Hollywood star.

 

 

 

 

 

OUR SOULS AT NIGHT” directed by Ritesh Batra, starring Robert Redford and Jane Fonda.

Two elderly folks living alone across the street from each other decide to hook up. Really.

I rate this as OK.

Let’s face it. The story does not matter, the directing does not matter. This is a vehicle for Redford and Fonda to once again light up the screen. They both have had extraordinary careers and have earned respect for their work.

The writing is too sentimental and sweet for my taste, almost saccharine. Nothing special about directing in this one, just point the camera at the two actors and stay out of their way. Of course these two have made a number of really terrific movies together, and I am happy to say they still have it. The chemistry between them works and you believe they care for each other. Their performances are very good indeed.

A friend of mine who saw it with me (widow, in her late 50’s) said she could relate to the need for companionship, so she liked the movie. Me (early 60’s, married), I think it isn’t much more than a sappy film with two great actors.

 

 

 

NEXT UP: what wasn’t very good…

Talking to Young Writers

I visited a high school class to talk about writing. I have done this for a few years now and usually have fun doing it. This group was special, though.

There were engaged, and seemed to have genuine interest in what my work is like. They asked really interesting questions, well beyond “How much money do you make?”

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One girl told me she has 30 notebooks of writings she has done. She let me look through one and I was very impressed by the fact she had written the same story from the point of view of different characters. Think of “Poisionwood Bible” by Barbara Kingsolver. I didn’t think many high school kids had the imagination to do something like that, but she was well on her way.

 

 

A young man asked what he should be reading now. I asked what his favorite genre was. He said he like police stories, so I suggested he read something outside of his usual comfort zone. He had not yet read “Lord of the Rings” which I consider mandatory reading for everyone, so I suggested that. He said he would. Another convert!

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Each time I visit, we do a writing exercise. We start with a painfully boring sentence: The man walked across the room. Their job is to make that sentence more interesting by use of stronger verbs, colorful adjectives and plenty of description. Once they finished each one read their work, and some of them volunteered to act out what they had written.

 

 

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Again, they were involved and enthusiastic. I am also happy to report not a single one of them mentioned anything about a zombie.

 

 

 

 

#PoweredByIndie

 

Italian Book Fair (Part 3)

Part three of my series about authors I met at the Pordenone, Italy Book Fair is Peter Hoeg.

A 59-year old novelist from Denmark, Hoeg is probably best known for “Smilla’s Sense of Snow. At the Pordenone Book Fair he was introducing his newest work, “The Effect of Susan.” This is a futuristic thriller that centers on the title character’s unique talent to get others to be completely honest and open with her regarding their deepest, darkest secrets.

Peter Hoeg at a Press Conference. Before long he had us all on our feet and participating!

Peter Hoeg at a Press Conference. Before long he had us all on our feet and participating!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Well, we did not talk too much about that book. In fact the most striking characteristic about him  (to me at least) was his deep spirituality. He talked about his morning meditations being one of the most important parts of his day. At one point, he had us standing and shaking hands with each other. He described the handshake as one of the most intimate and important connections between two humans. The act of physically opening the space between two people (in order to shake hands) exposes the heart. He also described how the collection of nerve bundles in the hand sends signals to our brain, which then elicits emotions of trust and generosity.  OK.

We did discuss his writing processes, but everything he said was driven by his spiritual journey. He talked about the beauty of a book is that one lives in it. The writer lives there for three or four years while making the story. The reader lives there for two weeks while reading it. I had never thought of it that way, but then Hoeg’s world view is more spiritual than mine.

He was asked why so many of his lead characters are women. “I think it is important for men to know women very well. By understanding my fictional women, I can be closer to the real ones in my life; my daughters, my mother.”

After the conference, I asked him what was the longest it had ever taken him to finish a book. “The Quiet Girl” was a ten year journey. That journey included destroying 2,000 pages of hand-written manuscript, and then starting over.

Hearing that give me some comfort as I am in year 5 of my second novel now. Will I throw everything out and start over? Not likely. But then I am not in the same place as the fascinating Peter Hoeg.

#PoweredByIndie

 

Italian Book Fair Keeps on Giving

The second installment of my “discussions with writers who are way more accomplished than I am” deals with meeting Colm Toibin.

Born in Ireland in 1955, Toibin is probably best known internationally for “Brooklyn.” This is a gentle tale of a young Irish woman, not overly curious and never scarred by heartbreak. She travels to the United States from post-war Ireland where she will soon experience curiosity, love, tragedy and a host of emotions that make us – and her – completely human.

The Book Fair in Pordenone, Italy is the biggest event of the year for this small city.

The Book Fair in Pordenone, Italy is the biggest event of the year for this small city.

 

Toibin was at the annual Book Fair in Pordenone, Italy to present his newest work, “Nora Webster.” This one allows us to enter the life of a middle aged widow trying to keep her life on track after the premature death of her husband. Set in southern Ireland in the late 60’s, Coibin sticks with what he knows best – his land, in fact his own home town.

The conversation with Toibin was almost exclusively about the craft of writing. To be more specific, Colm Toibin’s craft of writing. During the discussion, he left me with what he considers the three most important points.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Show don’t tell,” he said first.  This is something everyone who studies writing hears. But the reality is most of us are not very good at it. Toibin gives a pretty remarkable illustration of it in “Nora Webster,” though. Read it. You won’t find a single overt description of the lead character. No telling us about her “long red hair.” Instead we observe as she combs her hair with slow, deliberate motions, allowing us to see her with our own imagination.

 

Dramatize, dramatize, dramatize.  “Ambiguity in relationships between characters adds a rich tension and opens the door for drama to be introduced later in the story,” Toibin explained to us. I could not have said it better, nor could I write it better than he does in both “Brooklyn” and “Nora Webster.”

 

 

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Here, Toibin is signing my copy of "Brooklyn."

Here, Toibin is signing my copy of “Brooklyn.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finally, he stated his goal is for a reader to finish his book, put it down and think “I know her.” Having read the two novels mentioned here, I do feel if I met either character, I would know her immediately and be able to have an engaging conversation right away. So, thank you Colm Toibin, for introducing me to such interesting people.

#PoweredByIndie

Annual Italian Book Fair Delivers Again (Part 1)

Last week, the terrific annual Book Fair in Pordenone, Italy was in full swing. I’ve written about this event in the past, so won’t go into detail other than to mention what makes it really great.

Authors from all over the world are there. They meet the public, present their latest book, answer questions, walk around the charming city, and revel in the culture of reading that is so strong here.

The annual Book Fair in Pordenone, Italy involves the entire city.

The annual Book Fair in Pordenone, Italy involves the entire city.














 

I have been fortunate enough to get into Press Conferences where authors meet the media. These smaller venues lend themselves to a more animated discussion, which is exactly why I enjoy them.

The first author I met was Scottish-born Irvin Welsh who was presenting “The Blade Artist.” He is best known for his brutal but sometimes funny description of drug addiction, “Trainspotting.” When made into a grim and troubling film, movie-goers met Ewan McGregor and Robert Carlyle.

“The Blade Artist” reintroduces us to one of the characters from “Trainspotting.” Begby – played by Carlyle in the film – has (sort of) cleaned up his life, changed his identity and moved to the U.S. The death of the son he hardly knew has him return to Edinburgh where old wounds are reopened.

Welsh talked about taking a former character and changing him so completely from his past. “I just wanted to keep up with the character. His trajectory was prison or death, not very interesting for a writer. I felt the possibility for change in Begby was an interesting idea.”

But you can be sure that some of Begby’s old habits will resurface.

Welsh talked about the phenomenon of what he dubbed white male rage. “We see it all over the world and in politics too; white male rage over the democratization and liberalization that has eroded their influence. Begby is the white male rage poster boy.”

Irvine Welsh talks with (mostly) Italian media.

Irvine Welsh talks with (mostly) Italian media.

 

 

 

Other media folks in the Press Conference were Italian, therefore interested in Brexit. Welsh called it a start, not an end. “It is a debate about who we are in England right now. It is exciting politically but there will be great stress on the society. But in the end, we just can’t have super-national organizations like the International Monetary Fund dictating to democracies. When a group like that protects banks but not states, it is a problem.”

Happily, the discussion went back to writing, or to reading, actually. Welsh said unless we encourage reading in schools, we are shutting the doors on the next generations. He feels doing so will likely increase the stress of white male rage and international disagreements and intolerance across ethnicities.

All in all, Welsh presented himself with an interesting and slightly pessimistic outlook.

Coming up:  Peter Hoeg, Colm Toibin, and Pulitzer Prize winner Geraldine Brooks.

#PoweredByIndie

Annual Book Fair in Pordenone, Italy Delivers Again

It’s called “PordenoneLegge” in Italian. It translates to “Pordenone Reads.” Given there were more than 150,000 visitors over the five-day event, there must be many readers here.

From 16-20 September, this small city in Italy’s unexplored northeastern corner hosted the 16th annual Festival of Books With the Authors.  Most literary fairs feature booth after booth of publishers peddling books. There is some of that going on, but PordenoneLegge offers two realities to make this a special event.

Plenty of books are sold at this terrific festival, but the event is really about meeting the authors.

Plenty of books are sold at this terrific festival, but the event is really about meeting the authors.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

First, the authors are here. They sit in bars sipping coffee – or perhaps something more interesting. They wander through the narrow cobblestone streets of Pordenone stopping occasionally to admire the architecture or, as was the case this year, they simply marvel at the near-perfect weather.

Canadian author/actress Ann-Marie MacDonald thrilled the audience by reading the first chapter of her new book in Italian.

Canadian author/actress Ann-Marie MacDonald thrilled the audience by reading the first chapter of her new book in Italian.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The second special attraction is the city becomes a character in the story that is this book fair. Authors might present a new book in an elegant old palazzo, or seated outside in a picturesque square surrounded by magnificent buildings. After some introductory remarks, they generally stay to answer questions from the public on any topic that comes to mind. This is followed by autograph and photo opportunities.

Hundreds of readers sit in a nice piazza to listen to an author present his book.

Hundreds of readers sit in a nice piazza to listen to an author present his book.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I took advantage of the proximity of one writer in particular, the Hungarian philosopher Agnes Heller. I really enjoy talking to people who are smarter than me. Admittedly it is not much of a challenge to find someone who fits that criteria, but Ms. Heller sets a new standard for brain power. For 45 minutes her remarks ranged from the on-going refugee crisis in Europe to the promise of beauty to the need for all of us to learn to think again.

 

Agnes Heller, a Hungarian philosopher, listens to a question during her press conference.

Agnes Heller, a Hungarian philosopher, listens to a question during her press conference.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

She had particularly harsh remarks about the actions of her native country in handling the influx of desperate people trying to escape tragic circumstances. In her mind, the false reports that came from Hungary fostered fear and hesitation among western nations who ought to receive the refugees with open arms and open hearts.

Her discussion of beauty started with the premise that beauty is the promise of happiness, being experienced in the moment. This was not about physical beauty, rather beauty in life; great music, nature, art, friendship. You get the idea: the good things in our lives. She said beauty does not necessarily deliver happiness – it does not save us.  Being temporary, it offers an opportunity to get closer to happiness for those who are ready to embrace it.

She tied the topics together by urging us to not take what we read or hear for granted. To grow, to do what is right, to move in the direction of happiness, a person must ask questions and take the time to think. Only then will one achieve growth and direction in their life.  Pretty thoughtful stuff.

What would reading a book be without a glass of wine? At PordenoneLegge, you don't have to find out!

What would reading a book be without a glass of wine? At PordenoneLegge, you don’t have to find out!

 

 

A Terrific Wine Weekend

Last weekend, I was fortunate enough to visit Italy’s northeast corner, specifically the wine production area called Collio. I spent three days tasting five varieties of a local white wine. Read my thoughts about it here.

Cheers

WHen visititng Collio, one must be prepared at all times!

When visiting Collio, one must be prepared at all times!

 

Final Day of Pordenone Book Festival

I know I said I would talk about meeting Umberto Eco in this post, but I am not going to say much. He signed three books for me, which is great, and he is an impressive intellect. But my favorite moment was when he sat on the couch in the lobby of a hotel with Margaret Atwood.

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What I will talk about is meeting Hannah Kent. If you have not yet heard of her, you will. Her first novel, “Burial Rites,” has just been translated to German, Spanish, and Italian. Check out her web page to read what some pretty heavy hitters have said about that book.

Hannah Kent (with a traslator) at a Press Conference during PordenoneLegge 2014.

Hannah Kent (with a traslator) at a Press Conference during PordenoneLegge 2014.

I read and really liked it. She is a young writer, not yet 30 years old. But has a mastery of the craft that far exceeds mine and most other authors I have read. If she continues to write, she will be enormously successful.

So go get a copy of “Burial Rites” today. If you are in a book group, add it to your list.

 

I spoke with  her for about 30 minutes. She is quite smart and seems fully committed to becoming a truly great writer. She graciously accepted a copy of my “The Salome Effect.” I will let you know what she says about it (if what she says is good).

Me with soon-to-be-incredibly-famous Hannah Kent

Me with soon-to-be-incredibly-famous Hannah Kent

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Anyway, go get a copy of “Burial Rites,” and let me know what you think.

Talking to young people about writing is an invigorating experience.

During my one hour meet at the school, the kids asked plenty of great questions.

During my one hour meet at the school, the kids asked plenty of great questions.

Next, we did an active writing exercise, substituting words and phrases to a painfully boring sentence to make it come alive with vivid descriptions and compelling verbs.

They did seem concerned at how frequently a writer is told “no” by agents or publishers or editors (this writer is, anyway). I asked them if they get back up when they fall down, and they got it.

Get ready for a group writing exercise

Get ready for a group writing exercise

I left them with two pieces of advice on being a better writer:  read more and write more.