COQ AU VIN: A RECIPE, A CONFESSION, A PAEAN

Chicken with wine. That’s it.

Of course, with anything, it’s never really that simple. That’s not “it”, not by a long stretch. Just wine dumped on chicken would be lunatic. But, end of the day: those ingredients, indelibly, make it what it is.

Until this past weekend, I’d never cooked it before. Always wanted to; never got around to it. It sounded delicious, but also overcomplicated, time-consuming and maybe not quite worth the effort? But the past couple days happened and, well…seemed like it’d be more than worth the effort, no matter how it turned out.

Just a couple months ago, WINE SPECTATOR asked Anthony Bourdain how he’d like to be remembered, and he said this: “Maybe that I grew up a little. That I’m a dad, that I’m not a half-bad cook, that I can make a good coq au vin. That would be nice. And not such a bad bastard after all.”

Reading that (and having heard Bourdain discuss his affinity for the dish on more than several occasions), I thought it’d be cool if I could make a good coq au vin myself – as a meal, as a tribute, as a reminder. The other stuff he brought up? I’ll worry about that later. Or never.

The task felt a little daunting, but his introduction to his coq au vin recipe in his LES HALLES COOKBOOK made me feel a bit better:

“Another easy dish that looks like it’s hard. It’s not. In fact, this is the kind of dish you might enjoy spending a leisurely afternoon with. There are plenty of opportunities for breaks. It’s durable, delicious, and the perfect illustration of the principles of turning something big and tough and unlovely into something truly wonderful. I know it looks like a lot of ingredients, and that the recipe might be complicated. Just take your time. Knock out your prep one thing at a time, slowly building your mise en place. Listen to some music while you do it. There’s an open bottle of wine left from the recipe, so have a glass now and again. Just clean up after yourself as you go, so your kitchen doesn’t look like a disaster area when you start the actual cooking.

You should, with any luck, reach a Zen-like state of pleasurable calm. And like the very best dishes, coq au vin is one of those that goes on the stove looking, smelling, and tasting pretty nasty, and yet later, through the mysterious, alchemical processes of time and heat, turns into something magical.”

Alright then. What else is there but to get started? I decided to use Bourdain’s recipe directly, while adding and subtracting a few things here and there to fit what I like (And what I could find). Can’t really make it mine if I’m slavish to the “rules”, right? That’s what I’ll tell myself.

Ingredients needed:

1 bottle of red wine

1 carrot, cut into 1/4-inch pieces

1 onion, cut into 1-inch dice

1 celery rib, cut into 1/2-inch slices

4 whole cloves

2-3 tablespoons of white peppercorns

1 bouquet garni

6 cloves of garlic, smashed

1 whole ~5lb chicken

Chicken stock

Salt and pepper

Olive oil

6 tablespoons of butter (as always, I prefer Kerrygold, and you should too)

Flour

1/4 pound of slab bacon, cut into lardons

1/2 pound of white button mushrooms, the stems removed

3 shallots, sliced

8 green onion bulbs

GETTING STARTED: DAY ONE

Yep, this is a two-day affair, but don’t sweat it – Day One is pretty easy.

To start, do nothing. That’s right –  you can leave the chicken whole for this step, which is neat, because if you haven’t quartered a chicken in, oh, ten or fifteen years, that’s sort of a pain in the ass, and you get to put it off until tomorrow.

So to actually begin, put together your bouquet garni. There’s no real accepted definition of what that is, so to speak, so it basically comes down to combining herbs that you like and/or flavors you want to impart on the dish. This being chicken, I chose a bunch of thyme, a couple large sprigs of rosemary, a bunch of sage, two bay leaves and a hunk of parsley.

Throw that in a huge bowl along with your carrot, onion, celery, peppercorns and cloves. Then lay the whole chicken on top of it. Open your red wine, measure out a cup of it, and set it aside. Pour the rest into the bowl over the chicken and stuff; then, pour the cup you measured out back into the wine bottle and stuff the cork back in. What you’ve poured into the bowl is probably not going to be near enough to submerge the whole chicken; don’t worry about it. You can use more red wine if you want to finish this step, but I like to use chicken stock here to give a little more depth to the marinade. Pour enough stock in that the chicken is about half-submerged. Then cover the bowl with plastic cling wrap and stick it in the refrigerator overnight.

(A NOTE: At some point, roughly halfway through, you’re going want to flip the chicken over in the solution. Oh, that’s the middle of the night for you? Tough shit. You should have planned better. I didn’t force you to make this, you know.)

That’s it. You’re done with Day One. You made it. Celebrate yourself.

***

The first person I ever remember cooking was my grandmother. And oh, man, could Granny cook.

When I was younger, it was all done for family gatherings – birthdays, holidays and the like. And I marveled at how many things she had going at once. Main dishes, side dishes, sauces. Cookies, cakes, pies. The woman had four fucking burners and one oven. How in the hell she managed to get so much done in an area of about eight square feet will remain a perpetual curiosity to me. It was really something to behold. And never ONCE did it seem too much for her. She had it all under control. She wouldn’t even let anyone help.

But the WHOLE KITCHEN was her base, her zone. You should have seen the way her refrigerator was arranged. Calling it “meticulous” would be a laughable understatement, and also halfway incorrect. That word assumes a careful order. And there was nothing “careful” about the order of Granny’s refrigerator – it was, at best, a tightly controlled, gleefully overstuffed and endlessly chaotic secret government project, like wherever they hid the Ark after Indians Jones rescued it. If you stood just a few feet back, it looked like the world’s smallest and most indecipherably regulated favela.

Because even in the nonsense of it all, SHE knew where everything was and where everything went, and that was all that mattered. And it mattered. Oh, it mattered. In fact: the only time I ever remember my grandmother getting mad at me – seriously, in my whole life – is when I got out a container. of her homemade applesauce (I can’t even get into the wondrousness of that stuff at the moment, but oh my God) and managed to not put it back in the exact same place. Twenty minutes later, a calamity arose. “GEOFFREY? GEOFFREY? THAT’S NOT WHERE THE APPLESAUCE GOES, AND YOU KNOW THAT.”

You may be entertained to learn that her career was serving children. As a public school lunch lady.

One of the things I think about most now is how she kept every recipe on a single, 3×5 notecard. Stained, creased and yellowed from years of battle, she’d take a moment to reread each before jumping into a new (old) concoction. I’ve come to believe over the years that she did this not because she was relearning how to cook each one, but to remember cooking them previously, and how much we all talked and laughed together as it cooked and how feverishly we all enjoyed stuffing our faces with the result. I’ve come to believe this because I find myself doing the same thing with my own recipes.

In later years, I remember her making my brother Kyle and my cousin Justin and me Steak-Umms. If you’re unfamiliar with Steak-Umms, they’re mircothin frozen slabs of low-grade ribeye that you drop in a hot pan and fry up to what can be charitably be described as a vaguely beeflike product. Hobbled by diabetes and gout that quite literally destroyed her feet, she’d limp her way out to the kitchen every afternoon, fry up a couple dozen little sheets of trashmeat, slap them between a plain white roll and call it lunch. Not because we asked her to, but because she wanted to. She’d never once seen cooking as a chore or a duty. She saw it as the best of what she had to give to others. Because there are only so many ways to tell someone, in words, that you care about them. And those Steak-Umm sandwiches were fucking. Delicious.

When I went off to college and had my own place, I made Steak-Umms once. I was passing down the frozen aisle of the Food Lion and spotted them by accident. “Holy shit,” I thought. “I LOVE Steak-Umms.” I grabbed some rolls, went home, threw half a dozen meatsheets in a hot pan, and made myself a sandwich. It was absolutely repugnant. Greasy, flavorless, stupid. And that was when I realized something and learned the single most important thing about cooking food:

The Steak-Umms weren’t delicious because they were any good. They were delicious because Granny loved us.

***

NOW THE WORK STARTS: DAY TWO

Hey, that chicken isn’t going to braise itself! Retrieve it from the refrigerator, pull it out of the marinade – and hang onto that stuff, it’s the most valuable part of the whole process – and pat it as dry as you can without tearing the skin off. Don’t worry if it has purple spots on it. It’s supposed to. I know it looks weird.

Bourdain’s recipe calls for you to sear off the bird whole and braise it in the same form, but I decided against that. I wanted each piece to develop flavors on two sides. In my opinion, you should at LEAST split the bird in half. But really, you want to quarter it. That’s a bit of a misnomer – as you can see, you end up with at least six pieces of chicken (two breasts, two whole legs, two wings), and you’ll end up with eight if you separate the thighs on their own. But still: I’d do it. There are some great tutorials on YouTube, which I admittedly had to refer to, since it had been at least ten years since I’d done this.

Once your chicken is prepared, salt and pepper it all over. Then, strain the marinade; keep the wine/stock solution in one bowl and put all the solids in another. You’ll still need everything in both.

Now it’s time to decide what you’re going to use to cook this damn thing. At the VERY least you need a deep pan that you can fit everything into. A large, high-rimmed skillet will work, but a Dutch oven is best. As you can see, that’s what I used; yours doesn’t have to be cast iron, but I like that best for these types of jobs. Put it on your stove on high heat, pour in some olive oil and two tablespoons (a “big glob”, if you want to be technical) of butter, and let it sit there until it *just* begins smoking. Then lay your chicken parts in, skin side-down first. If you got a large bird and need two shifts to get all the pieces seared, that’s fine. Couple minutes on each side should do it. Set the chicken aside on its own plate.

Next, dump in the onion, carrot and celery from the marinade. Throw in the garlic. Turn the heat down to medium and let that sauté for about ten minutes and soften up. Use a metal spatula to scrape up all the chicken fond off the bottom. When the onions are golden brown, take a hefty spoonful of flour and coat the vegetables with it. Stir it in good to make sure everything gets an even distribution. You’ll watch as most, if not all, of the pan liquid is absorbed. Throw your chicken back in on top. Drop the bouquet garni in. Then, grab your marinating liquid and pour it over the contents until your chicken pieces are about half-submerged again; make sure the bouquet is fully-submerged. Bring that to a boil, and then reduce to low heat so it simmers. Give it about an hour and a half.

The trickiest part of this whole deal is next.

***

“Leave me in peace,

I’m all alone with my angel.
She died in a dream
So I could live my life,
But all the lies

That they have told me
They make me wanna shiver.
When I’m lost and I’m lonely
That’s not gonna ease

My troubled mind.” – Noel Gallagher, “Fallen Angel (AKA…Broken Arrow)”

I’ve been rolling these lyrics over in my head constantly over the past few days. This year has been unbelievably hard for me personally, but I’m not in pain. Which makes me one of the lucky ones. If you *are* in pain, I’m thinking about you. And I hope it gets better.

***

IT’S ABOUT TO GET SAUCY (GOD, I’M SO SORRY): DAY TWO

Bourdain splits the sauce part of this recipe into two pans – a small sauté pan and a small saucepan. But one of the things I learned from him was also the joy of “one pot, one dish” cooking, so I combined the process into the same medium-sized saucepan, and I’m really glad I did.

Heat your naked saucepan to medium-high and throw the lardons in; if you got them plain, hit them with some pepper. They don’t need oil or butter – they’ll cook in their own fat. After ten minutes or so, they’ll be crispy, and there will be plenty of nature’s grease left over. Lay down some paper towels on a plate, extract the lardons with a slotted spoon so the fat *stays* in the pan, and let them drain on the paper towel.

Now, throw in your mushroom caps. Depending on the amount of fat in the pan and the amount of water in the mushrooms, one of two things will happen: the mushrooms will turn nice and golden brown, or they’ll release enough water mixed with the fat that they braise in that mixture instead. Either way, you’ve won. When they’re done cooking, put them with the lardons (though keep them separated on the plate), drain any liquid left in the pan and toss in your shallots and green onion bulbs.

Incidentally, this recipe calls for pearl onions, and I went to three different stores to find them, even willing to settle for the canned ones. No dice. The guy at Trader Joes finally told me they’re seasonal. Who knew, but fuck me, right? Anyway, I decided the shallot/green onion bulb combination was a good compromise.

Let them sweat in the saucepan for a few minutes. Add a bit of salt and pepper. When they’re starting to either brown or become translucent, add either the mushroom/lardon fat liquid back in or just enough water to BARELY cover the onions, along with another two tablespoons of butter. Bring it to a boil, then reduce to low heat and let it cook for a while. You want about half the liquid to evaporate. Once it does, remove the onions (you can put them with the mushrooms) add that leftover cup of red wine from yesterday to it. This next part is optional: I like a thicker pan sauce, so I added a big tablespoon of flour and whisked it in aggressively. If you like your sauce thinner, don’t bother. Either way, let this reduce until the chicken is done cooking.

I forgot to take a picture of this one. Sorry. Use your obviously unlimited imagination to conjure what the photograph of a soupy, brownish-pink melange might look like in this very space.

Almost there, kind of.

***

The person who *taught* me the most about cooking was my dad. This was largely accidental.

That’s not to say Dad didn’t want me to learn, or was somehow not interested in teaching me. Neither could be further from the truth. It’s more happily accidental in that I don’t think he ever set out to teach me, and I never purposely set out to learn. It just ended up happening organically.

My dad was a traveling salesman when I was younger, so he didn’t cook at home often, and honestly I don’t remember meals he made growing up. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I started paying attention, and for no other reason than we weren’t getting along.

I’m not sure I was ever the “angry” kid, but I’ve never not been stubborn and reactionary and convinced I’m right about everything, and that’s not a great personality when you’re immature and your father is also…stubborn and reactionary and convinced he’s always right about everything. But the world seemed to quiet down for Dad when he cooked. He’d be the first to admit he is in no way, shape or form the most artistic guy alive, but he’s very creative and blessed of an adventurous spirit, and as such, he always seemed to enjoy the *act* of cooking more than whatever resulted from it. And I enjoyed watching him do it. But even more than that, I enjoyed that we got along while he did.

I spent a lot of time around a cooking range with my father, and while there were always recipes, they were hardly the most important facet of making a meal. In fact, they were almost annoying to Dad. Boring. Insulting. He was far less interested in what the recipe said than he was delighted in what the recipe could *become*. Peppers got stuffed with odd cheeses and bits of wayward leftovers. Hamburgers became “garbageburgers”; molded in to patties, yes, but strewn with…you know, kind of whatever the hell was laying around the kitchen that day.

On occasion, these dishes were a disaster, and you’d choke down something truly awful, and later you’d laugh about it. But that was very rare. Dad’s blessed with just sort of preternaturally knowing what works and what doesn’t, a talent honed in large part, you may be entertained to learn, by cooking with his grandmother when he was young. And that led to mostly odd dinners of questionable ingredients that ended up being completely amazing, somehow.

And there would be Dad, eating along with us, complaining about how the meat was overcooked or the vegetables undersalted, generally never really being satisfied. But how many dishes are ever perfect? We always got a kick out of him sulking. It wasn’t until I became a writer that I realized he wasn’t sulking as much as wondering what he did “wrong” and how he was going to make it better the next time. Closer to “right”.

This isn’t going to be an essay about “cooking is storytelling”, even though it so often is. I’m just saying: you realize a lot of things the older you get, and you’re always learning, even if you think you’re on autopilot, and one of the most fun things about cooking is experimenting and taking chances by ignoring old ideas or building on old ideas until they’re new ideas. And it hasn’t escaped my grasp that this is true in screenwriting as well.

One other thing Granny taught me that Dad reinforced over and over and over: you can bring happiness to people through cooking. Dad has spent countless weekends over the last 25 years cooking for others, and often on a large, charitable scale. He basically has his own parking spot at the local Ronald McDonald House, where he’s spent an untold number of breakfasts feeding tired, broken, reeling families of sick and dying children a stack of pancakes or a Scotch egg, and treating them to just a fraction of a morning where they feel as though they can afford to relax, and maybe even smile a little bit.

It can be surprisingly easy to forget that food is almost always best when it’s shared, one way or another.

***

I MEAN, THIS IS BASICALLY THE END: DAY TWO

Again, after ninety minutes or so, your chicken should be brilliantly braised. Go ahead and turn off the heat on your pan/Dutch oven, and use tongs to transfer the chicken to a serving dish.

OK: the lardons, the mushrooms, and the onions? Add them back into the pan with your wine sauce, which should have reduced and thickened now; if you added flour, it’ll be closer to the consistency of gravy. Stir them in. Now, grab a strainer and place it over the sauce. Pick up your Dutch oven and pour some of the braising liquid into the wine sauce. You definitely want to comfortably cover all the stuff in it. If you use a little too much, you can offset it with a touch more flour, but don’t worry about it. When the bacon/mushrooms/onions are just drowned, you’re good. Stir this all together and let it simmer down again for about five minutes.

Then, pour it over the chicken like a delicious dark waterfall. Throw some of the carrots on celery on there if you like. And maybe add some chopped green onion for color and flavor.

You can eat it just like that, or you can serve it over something. Mashed potatoes might be a great way to go? I went with buttered egg noodles, which I mixed the excess sauce in with. That was good. I liked that.

Did I mentioned you just made coq au vin? Congrats, because you did. I’d eat it now. It’s probably really good. It’s at least better than you thought it was going to be, I bet.

***

I never knew Anthony Bourdain, but I was enthralled by him. He was everything I’m not: hard-living, risk-taking, jetsetting, ruggedly handsome, deeply interested in understanding other people, grown up and effortlessly fucking cool. His death hit me like none other (that wasn’t family or a loved one) that I can remember.

The night David Bowie died, some genius on Twitter made a brilliant point about why we’re so sad when a celebrity dies, and I wish I could remember who it was so I could credit them here. But in a nutshell, the notion was this: maybe it’s not that you thought you knew them; maybe it’s that what they gave to the world helped you better know yourself. That struck me immediately and profoundly as true, and no probably no one represented that for me as completely as Anthony Bourdain.

It wasn’t that he was the best chef in the world; he wasn’t. It wasn’t that he was the best writer in the world; he wasn’t. It’s not that he was the only guy to ever kick heroin and still manage go to around the world boozing and eating and smiling. It was that he was always looking for the next *thrill* in life. And often, he found that in the bottom of a bowl or in the rim of a glass, or the end of a good book or a movie, and almost always around other people. And he had this amazing knack for not only finding the unfamiliar in the familiar, but much more importantly, for finding the familiar in the unfamiliar.

I am afraid of flying. I hate it. It’s the main reason I’ve never left this continent. But if I ever do, it’ll be because Anthony Bourdain convinced me it was not only reasonable to do so, but the duty of those who have the time, the money and the opportunity. That you should give a middle finger to the idea that Where You Live is Where It All Is. And I liked that he made me feel it was OK to love a four-dollar In N Out burger just as much as a $600 multi-course sit-down at Masa. And that food itself is almost never perfect, but depending on the ingredients and the company and the atmosphere, the experience of eating often can be.

Cooking – even at the basic, simple, contained level at which I do it – has become one of the great joys of my life. I love going shopping for ingredients, hemming and hawing about which chives look the greenest or which beer to use for basting. I love the transformational process of it all, lording over a bubbling stew or a quality piece of caramelizing meat. I love that I can take all these disparate elements, wild and unrelated, and turn them into something whole, something that makes sense, if only because it tastes good. And while I am happy cooking for myself, and do it often nowadays, it’s never as gratifying or meaningful as when I share the planning, the process and/or the end result of it with someone else.

I sort of developed a bug for cooking in college, which is something my roommates would probably be shocked to know, because they rarely, if ever, saw me do it. It got sparked when one of our friends in culinary school came to visit and cheffed up the weekend for us. It was cheap and easy and unreal. So I started reading, and I started learning. I rewatched old GREAT CHEFS OF THE WORLD Episodes I’d recorded onto VHS countless afternoons after coming home from high school. I read cookbooks and squirrelled them away. I bought the smallest possible quantities of food and experimented with “dishes” when I was alone. Some were very, very, very bad. Part of learning. But some were quite good, too.

And yet I hid it all away from others, and eventually just stopped any meaningful food-related pursuits entirely. Until a few days ago, I never really stopped to wonder why. But now I think it had a lot to do with insecurity, and having come from and learned under such wonderful cooks before me, and worrying that what I made wouldn’t stack up. That I’d somehow not make others as happy as I had been. And there’s no real reason to labor in a vacuum, is there?

Then, about ten years ago, I was living alone and watching a rerun of NO RESERVATIONS. In this particular Episode, Bourdain made a cassoulet – a duck, sausage and bean casserole that’s long been a staple of French peasant cooking. He shared it with a friend’s family. And for whatever reason, that spark came back. I thought to myself, “That looks complicated as hell. I bet I can make that.” It was. I did. And it was amazing, despite the fact that I really didn’t know what I was doing. I just followed along, constantly noting what I might to different the next time, looking for advice when something stumped me. I’ve probably made it on a half-dozen occasions since. Always for others. Better each time.

It’d be impossible to say what a gift it’s been, being given the opportunity to cook for people I love and make them happy, just as my father and grandmother and others did for me along the way. And I never met Anthony Bourdain. We weren’t friends, and there’s a zero percent chance he was ever aware I existed. But he blessed me with this uncommonly good reason to cook, and I know I’m far from the only one to have been so blessed by something he did or just who he was, and I am very, very sad that I live in a world where knowing he had that impact on others, as he certainly must have, wasn’t enough to keep him amongst us.

Part of this…whatever this is, yes, I’m using it to say goodbye to him. But in a way I hope he would have appreciated, it’s also how I’m hoping to tell so many of you that I love you, and I care about you, and I’m glad every day that I get to walk this often-darling little planet with you.

***

This coq au vin was shared with my brother, who agreed it was pretty darned good. My niece is eight and has the palate of a sleeping donkey, so she passed. Me? I honestly thought I could have used a little more salt earlier in the process. Probably should have started with a different variety of wine. REALLY could have quartered the chicken better.

So, basically: it was perfect.

A SEMIAUTOBIOGRAPHICAL ACCOUNT OF THE HOLIDAYS

There’s a four-inch thick blanket of hospital-white snow on the ground, and I wonder if its puffy construction is absorbing all the sound. It’s so, so quiet out here. There’s no smell, either. The air is inert. Can snow absorb scent? I file these queries away for later, when I’m in a place where accessing Google is possible.

I am standing in the middle of nowhere – Nebraska, to be general. To be specific: I’ve stopped my rental car on the outskirts of Bennington at the edge of what I assume is a farm; I assume this because I’m leaning up against a rustic, handmade fence that surrounds an impressive property, and I can see a barn in the distance of that property. That barn mostly obscures a cozy two-story home, which I’d have missed completely if not for the chimney belching out delightfully bucolic smoke. I imagine the quaint brick fireplace in the farmhouse’s living room, because…what farmhouse doesn’t have a brick fireplace in the living room? What would be the point of THAT omission?

I push back from the fence, which looks to have been constructed sometime during the Civil War. It stretches all fence-like for as far as my eyes can see. Half a mile, maybe? That’s a lazy guess. It’s dusk and my eyelids are freezing, so honestly, I can’t see much. And it occurs to me in this moment that there was no Civil War in Nebraska, because there was no Nebraska during the Civil War. Not in any meaningfully incorporated form. Nothing official.

The rest of the landscape is so flat that train tracks, distant in the other direction entirely, seem an oddly prominent geological feature.
I take a step sideways and feel the snow pack beneath the boots I specifically for this trip. You can tell a lot about snow by the way it transforms when underfoot. Is it that instant powdery descent into tundra, like stepping on a pillow that’s fallen to the floor? Or is it that resistant, satisfyingly damp crunch that renders tightly-packed flakes into an icy mold? This is that satisfying crunch, and all of a sudden this stop was worth it, even if my eyes frost over. At least my feet are toasty – the socks I bought with the boots are not messing around. You forget how vital socks are when you wear sandals for ten months of the year.

Thinking about sandals makes me realize, for some baffling reason, that I’ve not only left the car running but that I closed the door when I got out. I have literally no idea how this Brobdingnagian SUV that Enterprise gave me – under the guise of a “free upgrade” – works. Not in the details. And it dawns on me that this story could end with me dying out here in the cold, hilariously, all because I was eager to stop my gigantic, artificially-warmed monstercar to look at a farm in the fading daylight.

And what the hell am I doing in Nebraska, anyway?

Knowing the keys won’t be there, I reach into the pocket of the only winter jacket I own to find my hand proceeding through, appropriately, a fist-sized hole contained within its lining. I’m down a compartment. That’s OK. I’m wearing gloves, and gloves are like pockets, but for your hands only. That profound notion dialed into existence, I take one last look around – like the main character would at the end of any good movie – and head back for the SUV. I’m relieved to find the door unlocked and my life not, in fact, headed for a popsicle’s end.
It’s the 19th of December, 2009. I am thirty years old. And I have decided to spend the Holidays in the Midwest.
It was an impulsive decision. My Xmases weren’t always this…esoteric.

———————————————-

In fact – and I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately – the Xmases of my childhood were, for the most part, idyllic. Like if SATURDAY EVENING POST covers were set in the 80s and 90s.

A caveat: when I say “Xmases of my childhood”, I’m really only speaking about less than half of the Xmases I remember. Obviously, unless you’re some kind of complicatedly weird overachiever, no one remembers their first few Xmases at all. So those are out of the conversation immediately. But also: we moved around a lot when I was a kid, so my immediate family (which started with just Me, Mom and Dad and over the years sprouted to include my three brothers) spent a majority of our Xmases away from my extended family in Pennsylvania.

I remember very, very little of any of these remote Holidays.

They weren’t bad times; not by any stretch of the imagination. I can grasp onto snippets of all of them except Pittsburgh. Denver, Colorado Springs, Kansas – they’re all there, but only ephemerally. Snapshots at best – certain gifts, certain dinners (one year we went out and I got horribly, rapidly sick and I puked at the table in a fancy restaurant). Hazy POV footage, banked in the temporal lobe, of waking up at 5AM and stumbling out to the tree lights softly illuminating a pile of wrapped packages. That I can’t remember more fills me with an almost comical amount of guilt. It’s not that I don’t want to, and it’s not that Mom and Dad didn’t knock every Xmas out of the park – they did. I might not have total recall, but I know that for sure. And when I think of those times, I smile. That’s kind of all that matters, I suppose. But sometimes I wonder if I’ve filled in the gaps with things I’m only wishing had occurred.

Also, that’s a bit of a cheat. I do remember something very specifically from those Xmases: the stockings my grandmother would send us in the mail. She had this tradition – which my family has kept alive to this day – of buying a dozen pairs of L’Eggs, cutting them in half, and filling them with treasures until they damn near burst. So, yeah, she took the whole “Xmas stocking” thing and pushed it to a defiantly literal conclusion. To this day it’s the most wonderfully charming act of simple Xmas spirit I’ve experienced.

Here’s the thing, though, and this is perhaps the main reason I remember the stockings so vividly: my grandfather smoked, at his most virile, eight cigars a day. Every day. And not good cigars – El Productos. Cheap, machine-made atrocities that basically consisted of the most adamantly rejected tobacco scraps, strips of forty year-old newspaper and a triple-dog dare. The second-hand smoke from those misfires alone could coat your lungs with tar in half an hour. My grandparents’ home was CONSUMED by it. It permeated everything.

So by the time those stockings got to us halfway across the country, everything in them reeked like the infected asshole of a necrotic wildebeest wallowing in mosquito mud. At the foot of every stocking? An apple and an orange. Eating them was right out of the question unless you wanted a mouthful of desiccated Skoal pulp. The candy bars didn’t fare much better. But the real show was the Sour Patch Kids, which my grandmother – who clearly must have hated us – would liberate from their sealed product bags and dump into unsealed sandwich bags. Of course, the cigars infected them too, and the gummies REALLY soaked that brown cloud in, and my brothers and I used to dare each other to see who could eat the most without crying. It was Gitmo-level torture. We used to laugh so hard watching each other struggle in common misery.

It was awful. Wonderfully, life-affirmingly awful. Because it tasted like home.

———————————————-

You would walk into my grandparents’ house on Xmas Day and be immediately hit by the most wonderful cooking smells. This alone was a testament to what a culinary genius my grandmother was: she roasted and baked so hard that the smells of turkey and rosemary and chocolate outdueled the cigar smoke. Which should have been impossible.

That was the first impact. The second was the sound of laughter.

They lived in a simple little Cape Cod that sat on a hill, and even its earliest days, my family ran about twenty strong. Not a single one of them – aunts, uncles, cousins – is capable of not being funny, and, to a person, they can spin a yarn. A typical gathering is replete with a series of stories, chaotic cackling, a slapping of knees, and then someone immediately attempting to top the previous tale.

You know how you talk about joy, and it’s usually an abstract concept that you reach for, but never catch, never really experience? Not for me.

But there was also pure, unabashed terror. Because all the presents – hundreds, THOUSANDS of them, it seemed – were locked away in the basement. My bastard grandfather, who was SUCH a bastard, wouldn’t let a soul into that basement until after we ate dinner. Imagine what that does to the psyche of a child who’s 8, 9, 10 years old. Your grandmother makes the most incredible food known to man, and you’re too sick with anticipation to eat it. All that matters. Is the stuff in the basement. Trapped underneath the wrapping paper. Imprisoned behind a door.

So we’d push the food around our plates at the Kids’ Dinner Table, shooting looks of white-hot malice at the Adults’ Dinner Table, where everyone was simply content to stuff their faces and gab. For what amounted to probably less than half an hour, these “relatives” were more hated than diabetes, our family’s greatest scourge. I’m confident that it’s a miracle no one was killed by a ravenously materialistic preteen.
Speaking of homicide: finally, dinner would end, mercifully, and every child in the family sought to murder every other child in the family in pursuit of getting through that basement door and down the stairs to the Goodie Room first. But: one needed contend with the slipperiest, most overly-polished wooden staircase known to man. Tread uncarefully and you risked a parabolic upending and a dreadfully-cracked noggin. I’m confident it was yet another miracle that no one was killed in pursuit of their own materialistic preteen desires.
But once you safely hit that basement carpet…it was magic.

Another smell managed to overwhelm the senses: that acrid, metallic tang of an electric train set, which my grandfather always set up to circle the base of a tree overloaded with lights and ornaments. The compulsion to rush over and try to touch it (or, God forbid, pick it up as it moved) was so strong that my grandfather ended up building a small fence to encircle the track and forebade any of us from getting within five feet of it. He was a larger man, and he doled out the presents, so this was one rule we were keen to obey.

And oh, the presents – so many at once! You didn’t even care that they weren’t all for you. It’s just that they were there, and goddamnit, they were going to GET OPENED. What else mattered? Lord Almighty, just get to it.

The Giving of the Gifts went thusly: everyone gathered around, taking a seat. The Adults sat on the furniture. The kids sat on the floor; if you were quick, you grabbed a pillow. If you weren’t, you learned to love that shallow carpet. My grandfather selected a gift, you pissed your pants hoping it was for you, and it usually wasn’t, but it was announced for SOMEONE, and it was either from another family member or from Santa, and he handed it to the anointed like it was the last loaf of bread in wartime, and then everyone held their breath while that person opened that gift, and then they unwrapped it and showed it to the group, and everyone yelled, “HEYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY,” and clapped like monkeys as though your He-Man action figure was crafted in Heaven. It was, in two words, the greatest. In between gifts, the room filled with the warm noises of joke-cracking and idle, penetrating gossip.

Memory is a funny thing. I can see this scene so clearly that it almost hurts, but it’s now a singular diorama – all those Xmases have long since run together into a one velvety Rockwellian portrait. I see the faces of the people I love dearly. I smell burning metal of the train. I hear my uncles chortling and taste sugared walnuts, which I always ate a few of, even though I didn’t really like them. I can even feel my grandfather hugging me, the soft flannel of his shirt brushing against my cheek. But, while I always sat at the front of the room, as close to all those material items as I could get… when I see it now, I’m standing far in the back. Watching, but apart from it all. No longer “there”, no matter how hard I reach.

I’d love to tell you this is a memory that will perpetuate, but I can’t. For the time being, it’s still strong. Still vital. But I lose bits and pieces of it every year, almost as if my grandfather’s cheap cigar smoke is filtering in more and more, increasingly robbing me of a clear look at this beautiful projection that I worry will soon be slipping right through my fingers.

One thing I will never forget: right before my family left, every year, I’d make a quick dash to the old stone fireplace in the living room. At the base of the hearth, right smack in the middle, was a perfect keystone. My grandfather went to great lengths to obtain it and set it there, the story goes, to honor Pennsylvania, the only place he and my grandmother had ever called home. They were both born there. They’d both die there years later. I always made a point to lay my hand the keystone myself. Just so I could say that I was home too, even if only temporarily.
I left that house every year – whether I lived nearby or not – with a heavy heart, knowing there would be a whole year before we could do it all again. We’d step outside into the cold, and my mom tells me that I used to always comment that I wished there was snow. It just never seemed to show up on the 25th of December.

She also tells me that I always complained about how hungry I was. Ah, youth.

This genuinely surprised me, but: trying to recall even one gift I received there in all those years, I came up totally blank.

———————————————-

I’ve lived in Los Angeles now for almost fourteen years, and save for a few jaunts back East, I spend most of my Xmases here now. Sometimes with family, almost always with friends. There are no keystones lying about – no fireplaces either, really – but somehow it manages to feel like home now.

It was in the low-50s last night when I walked my dogs, so it was chilly enough already in my t-shirt, shorts. And then a cold breeze kicked through, and my toes bristled, and I smiled to myself. This is about as December as it gets in Southern California. Not much, but worth it.
I kept the dogs moving, and at one point, I looked down at my feet, clad in those aforementioned sandals. Suddenly it got much nippier, and everything went quiet. With each step I took, the crunch of snow underneath new boots got louder and louder inside my head, and I instinctively jammed my hand in my pocket. My keys were there.

I stopped, and my dogs looked up at me quizzically. I kept seeing flashes of things in my head,. I closed my eyes, trying to focus, struggling to wrap my mind around something elusive. I felt my memory – it’s a funny thing – scratching at the base of my skull. I held on, and suddenly, I was back, standing at the edge of that farm, in the cold, with the daylight creeping away and my rental gently humming nearby. I blinked, soaking in my surroundings, and remembered how I felt just then – very aware that I was very far away from everything. But especially far away from home.

A question floated right in front of me, but before I could ask it, the scene disappeared in an abrupt crash to black, and I opened my eyes. My dogs were sitting there on the sidewalk, annoyed. The breeze had died down and my skin was warm. Collecting myself, I started walking, and the dogs followed, and I looked down at my sandals, and all I heard was their flat flopping on the concrete. And then it dawned on me, and I started laughing to myself. It wasn’t particularly amusing revelation, nor was it much of a revelation at all, and I’m not sure that it matters anyway. But it was true.

I’ve read about it, I’ve seen it in pictures, I’ve flown over it, and I’ve even lived just a state away.

But I’ve never actually *been* to Nebraska.

THE LADY IN YELLOW, SHE WALKS

The Lady in Yellow walks away from her past.

She wouldn’t tell you it’s been a bad life – certainly not. She’d tell you the good memories outnumber the bad, that there were more laughs than tears. That, in aggregate, there was more that made her happy than made her sad. She experienced loss and tragedy and anxiety and the occasional horror and still came out ahead. She’d tell you that’s been a life worth living.

She would also probably tell you, however – if pressed – that her life very often felt like it was not her own. That she ceded command of it to others years ago, in another time, in some other place. That is her nature – to put others before herself. That became her purpose.

Now she walks to change that purpose. Now she walks to take her life back.

She walks to take it back from those who didn’t believe in her. From those who judged her because she wasn’t educated enough or wasn’t interested in committing to career paths that didn’t engage her. From those who laughed at her hopes, her dreams, her starts that eventually, inevitably turned into stops. From those who never thought she was enough.

Too often, she herself was one of them.

Now she walks to prove to herself that she is indeed enough – and always has been. Now she walks because she no longer hears those who dismissed her.

She stumbled through two marriages and raising four children. She would tell you that she did the best she could, and in the same breath she’d admit that sometimes her best wasn’t good enough. People get tired; single parents get hollowed out. They don’t have the luxury of choice. They have responsibility for lives that are not their own, and far too often, that’s all there is time for.

Now she walks because she chooses to. Now she walks because this time is her time. Time she earned that will never – can never – be repaid in full. But time that will be spent in her control.

Nearly fifteen years ago that time was nearly ripped away from her before she even got the chance to arrive at it. Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma took the wheel. There were tumors and operations. There was radiation and chemotherapy. There was hair loss and weakness.

There was never an ounce of surrender. She was not about to allow some disease deprive her of the chance to live the life she always deserved to. She took the wheel right back.

Now she walks for those who can’t. For those who are still fighting. For those who did not make it.

She never did quite learn how to put herself before others. Not altogether.

Last year, she began walking. Not as we all do, in the typical ambulatory act of getting from one place to another, but as an act of courage. As a way to push herself forward. As a way to show herself that she didn’t have to accept the life she’d merely been granted. As a way to propel herself into the life she always deserved to be living.

She walked. And she walked. And she walked. She never ran. This wasn’t a race. This was a meditation. This was a resolution.

This was a promise.

This Saturday, the Lady in Yellow crossed a finish line exactly 13.1 miles from the starting line she stood behind nearly four hours prior. There were friends there, and family too. They cheered her on. She acknowledged them. She waved. But she stepped through the red, white and blue gates for one person and one person only: herself. Finally.

Her favorite color is yellow. If you asked her why, she’d tell you it’s because yellow is the brightest. The one that seems to shine.

She may or may not know that it mirrors her spirit. A spirit that, even when dimmed to its lowest wattage, was always the one that still somehow shone the brightest.

Now she walks for that spirit. Now she walks towards a future that, above all else, is just for her.

I am so very proud of you, Mom.

HOW ONE OF THE VERY BEST MOVIES OF 2017 BROKE ME AND THEN PUT ME BACK TOGETHER

Let me get this out of the way up front: yes, this is a story about a movie. Not just one, even though it is just about one, really, but also all of them, theoretically. That said, I’m barely going to talk about the movie itself concretely. In fact, I’m going to – as per normal – talk mostly about me. Why? Because I’m good at it, and I’m a solipsist, and because I have to in order to get my point across. And it’s going to take a WHILE. So…bear with me. Or don’t! Giving you a chance to cut and run now. This is gonna go about 3700 words. I’m not fucking around.

Still here? OK, neat!

I was damn excited to see THE BIG SICK. Kumail Nanjiani? Yes. Holly Hunter? YES. Ray Romano???? At some point, I’m going to have to do a whole thing about how Ray Romano’s evolution into one of my favorite actors is a wicked twist of Shyamalanic proportions. Anyway: rave reviews from friends, this ridiculous cast (including, obviously, Zoe Kazan, who I was pathetically less familiar with before the movie), and the promise of a pretty dark comedy that I had a very, very personal connection to? It’s like they made a movie just for Geoff!

And boy, did they. Just not in the way that I was expecting. At all. Like…one day, I’m going to find THE BIG SICK probably the best comedy of 2017. But for the moment, I have no idea when I’ll even be able to watch it again. And that’s a GOOD thing. The BEST thing. Because if you take nothing else away from this overlong, rambling, self-serving odyssey, take at least this: movies don’t have to be *just* entertainment. Don’t ever pretend that they’re only distractions, only ephemeral, only “content” designed to generate money and nothing else. Don’t ever pretend that they can’t change the way you see the world, the way you see yourself, or the way you see others.

Don’t EVER pretend that movies don’t matter.


In the early Spring of my Junior year of college, I woke up one morning feeling odd. My legs were asleep. And I got up and moved about and did all the normal human things I needed to do to get to class, but I didn’t feel…humanly normal. The pins and needles didn’t subside. I could feel my feet and my knees disagreeing with each other as I walked. But I told myself it’d go away. Got through one class – it didn’t. Got through another class – it didn’t. In fact, as I drove home late that afternoon, it didn’t go away so much that I actually realized I shouldn’t be driving, as I couldn’t press either the gas or brake pedals as hard as I intended.

As I got into my apartment, I started getting sick to my stomach, knowing I was going to fail at my ritual. We had an eight-foot ceiling, and every day I got home from class, I jumped up and touched it. Why? I don’t know, because I could, and it was easy. It’s something short people do to make us feel better about not being able to fucking dunk, OK? Let me have my thing.

As suspected, I couldn’t jump and touch the ceiling. And to be even clearer: I couldn’t jump AT ALL.

The rest of that day is a blur. I had three roommates, and I know I must have seen them at some point. I must have said something about what was happening. But I can’t recall it. I also can’t recall phoning my father to tell him that something was seriously wrong, but I know I did, and I know he could tell I was terrified, because he talks about making the three-hour drive down to Virginia in two hours and fifteen minutes like he once piloted a space shuttle through the eye of a hurricane. I kind of remember getting into his car, and I kind of remember driving back to Pennsylvania. I don’t remember him putting me on the couch in his basement (it was the most comfortable couch), and I do remember him telling me we were going to the hospital some time later.

I remember everything that happened immediately after that pretty fucking clearly. Because that was the first time I was aware my legs no longer worked.

I know my dad was on his way down to help me, but I was determined to “beat” whatever was happening and get up to the first floor kitchen by myself. My dad found me several agonizing minutes later, ripping my elbows to shreds, trying to drag my useless lower half up the stairs. My feet were there, but they weren’t…there.

The next 24 hours or so? Another blur. Went to the ER, which immediately sent me to get an MRI. MRI showed severe swelling on my brain and spinal cord. Why? Good question! Treatment? Hey, maybe! They admitted me to the hospital, pumped me full of steroids to stop the inflammation and some other stuff that I can’t recall the names of as a “just in case”, and extracted enough blood to send a hungry vampire into a delightful nonischemic priapism. I also got a spinal tap. On one hand, it was as good a time as any for one of those, because I was officially paralyzed from the chest down at this point, so my lumbar region was out-to-lunch numb. All the same, when they actually stuck the needle in – and I have no idea if this was psychosomatic or an actual physical impulse – an electrical charge went through my skull that made my eyes feel like they were melting, and I screamed like a bratty toddler.

Which was appropriate, because the hospital was full to the brim and they’d stuck me in the Children’s Wing. I don’t feel bad about a lot in my life, but I’ve stayed up entire nights ever since terrified that some poor kid with a heart condition or lupus or whatever heard me lose my shit from down the hall and had nightmares on top of his or her regular nightmares.

It went on like that for some time – me laying there, 66% immobile, waiting for news, letting them suck the blood out of me, hearing about inconclusive or negative labs, laying there, waiting around some more. My doctors were great. I remember specifically my Infectious Diseases doctor – whose name I’m embarrassed to have forgotten – was this West African guy who was chill enough to have invented Reggae, and man, was he smooth. “I’m pretty smart,” he told me at the outset, “so one way or another, we’re going to figure this out.” And he said it in such a cool, matter-of-fact way in that dazzlingly charming accent that I COMPLETELY disregarded the fact that he never mentioned whether or not I was going to walk again, let alone survive. I was just like, “Dude has it. I’m in good shape.” Meanwhile he was probably thinking, “Man, if this kid borks it I am going to learn a TON from the autopsy.”

Mostly I remember my dad. Now, real quick, I’m going to offer a pathetic apology to my mother. I’m sorry about this next bit, Mom. You were there early and often, and you were supportive and wonderful, and I don’t want to make it seem for a second like you weren’t a part of holding me together. You was a HUGE part of it. But, for the life of me, from my time actually in the hospital…I only remember you being there in bits and pieces. Why that is I don’t think I’ll ever be sure, but I think it has *something* to do with a conversation my dad and I had on Day Two.

I was hemming and hawing about something related to, you know, being paralyzed. There weren’t a ton of answers early, and mostly I was just mouthing off because I’m an asshole with a vastly outsized ego and I think I kept trying to tell people, “If they’d just let me WORK with them, for Christ’s sake, we could probably figure this out quicker.” I mean, if anyone ever built a statue to impotent (literally, my penis didn’t work at this time either, though having never been impressive before or since, it’s not like the world had temporarily lost an object of note), misdirected dipshit anger, a bronze of Geoff In Hospital Bed would work beautifully. So my father, who somehow had infinite patience with me for the first time since I was in elementary school, shut me down.

“Why are you bothering to worry about all this?”

THAT was a little stunning. I just looked at him.

“Can you get up and walk down to the lab? Poke around and find some answers? Would you even know what to look for? Would you know what to do if you DID know what to look for? You think you’re smarter than these doctors? You think your zero years of medical school training and zero years of doctoring can help them? What is it, exactly, that you can do right now that you’re so worried about getting it done?”

I looked at him some more. It was the only action I’d performed adequately in days.

“It’s out of your control. Completely. You can’t do a goddamned thing right now about your legs not working. So why are you sitting there worrying about it? Why don’t you just relax and wait until something comes along that you SHOULD worry about?”

I spent more than a month in the hospital. I never worried about a single thing for a single second after that. Because Dad was right. I was no longer captain of my own ship. I just had to sit back, breathe a bit, and hope the boat eventually sailed back to me. Splashing around in the ocean was pointless.

Not long after that, we got answers. I had something called transverse myelitis. Long story short (which, in a piece this babblingly protracted, is a REALLY fucking smug claim to make): your nerves are lined with a fatty sheath called myelin that helps bounce the signals from your brain to your body parts. But a virus had recently invaded my spinal column and infected the fluid, and that infection destroyed all the myelin in my nerves from my chest down. So no signals were getting from my brain to anywhere past my nipples. And let me tell you something: you haven’t really lived until your nipples have become a corporeal line of demarcation.

Soon after, they pinpointed the culprit: CMV, a common virus that like 75% of the population has bumbling about inside them, but innocuously. I just happened to (probably) pick it up when I’d had my tonsils out the month beforehand and my immune system was functioning on its low end. So they’d give me this medicine, and this medicine, and this treatment, and then give me an implant in my arm, and I’d go home and do chemotherapy for three weeks through that, and then they’d take it out, and I’d do a little physical therapy, and I’d be back to normal in like six months or a year.

That was it. I was going to be OK.

Six months later? I was. Everything came back – some stuff only like 95%, but overall, I’m not going to complain about it. Yeah, sports were no longer a real option. My knees and my feet never renegotiated their contract, and I can’t move like I used to, and goddamnit, does it make me angry trying to navigate that. Tennis is the worst. I had to learn all new mechanics, and I was never that good to begin with, but I fucking suck now. That in mind, if my biggest problem after all the suspended motion is not being able to hit a ball with a stick…I think I’ll take it.

Fast-forward to my senior year of college, and I’m back to normal. Early in the Fall I head up to Pennsylvania for my final check-in with my neurologist. From him I get a clean bill of health and a total lack of concern, and, hey, rock on. It’s over, I’m told – the vast majority of transverse myelitis cases are monophasic, meaning they never reoccur.  Time to put it all behind me. And yet, as I’m about to leave, I stop and I ask him something I’d never thought to ask him before. I guess because I was busy being So Unworried About Things Out of My Control (TM) back in the hospital.

“Hey doc, just out of curiosity…how bad was my case? Like, on a scale of one to ten.” He sort of thought over it for a minute, almost like he was going over a complex chart in his head. The more he fussed silently over it, the more I felt I’d conquered a veritable world-destroyer of a malady. Like, I St. George’d the shit out of that shit.

“Probably…a three?”

I am, naturally, completely fucking insulted.

“A THREE?”

“Yeah, if you think about it. Most of my patients are permanently paralyzed to one degree or another. Some have to live out the rest of their lives on a ventilator because we don’t discover the source before it spreads to the point the myelin never regenerates. I’ve had two patients die.”

I’m conscious in this moment that I’ve dropped my backpack on the floor.

“How close was I…”

He nods at me, knowing what I was going to ask before I did. “Your dad never said anything, huh?”

“Never said anything about what,” I think but don’t ask. I just stand there. For all intents and purposes, I was paralyzed again.

“If you’d gotten to the hospital eight hours later, you never would have walked again. Another eight hours after that? A machine would be doing your breathing for you right now.”

That was sixteen years ago. And until this Spring, I didn’t remember a single second of the rest of that day.


There was some point during my screening of THE BIG SICK where I realized I wasn’t “enjoying” the movie like I was sure I was going to. And, you know, what the fuck? It was about me! I mean, I was never a girl and never in a coma, but I was super-duper sick in the hospital with my family milling about and no one was sure what was going on. I can relate! And hey, co-writer and former coma-haver Emily Gordon clearly survived, because the movie exists, so…happy ending! And I’m laughing! A lot! So why are my feet bouncing uncontrollably and why am I chewing my finger the hell off and why am I having a goddamned panic attack!?!?!?

Let’s get back to Ray Romano for a second. Ray Romano is not, in actuality, much like my dad – at least in character, in this movie. He’s guarded and insular and deliberate. My father is talkative and outgoing and gregarious and, at times, obnoxiously so. Except, when I was in the hospital…he wasn’t so much himself. He was…guarded. And insular. And deliberate. Now, he was always *there* – and I do mean always. The dude rarely went home and was around for every consultation, major or minor, and always made sure he knew at least as much about what was going on as every nurse or doctor or orderly that walked into my room, to the point – and I wish to Christ I was making this up – he once got in an argument with some poor bastard about whether or not I was saddled with the right catheter. But he was quieter. Not distant, but…sometimes detached, even if just a bit?

As I watched Romano’s Terry gruff and grumble his way through THE BIG SICK, trying to hold it together and make sense of a world that he felt was slowly abandoning the only person he was put on Earth to protect, I realized I was watching my own father sputter and flail right in front of my eyes.

And I thought I had come to watch a movie about ME.

At one point – and I’m honestly afraid to go back and discover exactly which scene – Terry is trying to gather as much information from one of Emily’s doctors as he can, and he’s asking every question he can think of. And most of the questions he can think of are: the worst questions. Because you have to know. You just have to. And it was during this scene that I felt the most insane punch in my stomach and honest to God felt like I was going to puke on my shoes in the middle of a packed-t0-the-gills movie theater. Because all of a sudden, I was standing back in my neurologist’s office.

“Your dad never said anything, huh?”

I was so focused that afternoon on thinking over and over and over about what could have happened to me – but didn’t – that I never once stepped out of my own stupid head for just a minute to consider what HAD happened to my dad. Because, just like Terry – and unlike me – he DID ask the worst questions. For hours, the doctors didn’t know what was wrong with me, how to treat it, or if they even could; so for hours, my father didn’t know if I was going to live or die. For days, they didn’t know if they could contain what was happening; so for days, my dad didn’t know if I was going to get better or worse. For a week, they didn’t know what my long term prognosis would be; so for a a week, my dad didn’t know if I’d be able to function on my own anymore. All he could do was sit there with me. And not know with them.

Later, in the car on the way home from Century City, I was a mess. I honestly had no clue how poorly I’d processed and how casually I’d bundled up and childishly buried that entire ordeal. And I couldn’t figure out why I kept circling back to the speech Dad gave me in the hospital when I was spinning out, frustrated and angry and helpless and immobile. And then I realized: he’d tricked me.

He needed to tell me something that he couldn’t tell me because I couldn’t listen. So he took the fabric of the words he needed to say, cut it up into pieces and sewed the bits together into a message now tailored for my ears to hear so that my brain could understand it. And he wasn’t teaching me about The Things I Could Control and the Things I Couldn’t (TM).

He was promising me, “I’m going to be scared for you now. So you don’t have to be.”

About forty microseconds after realizing that, I remembered what happened that day that I left my neurologist’s office. shaken, having been rated a Three out of Ten. I walked in the door to my dad’s house, found him snoring on the couch (he has legitimate low-grade narcolepsy and I have never seen another human post up for a nap like he does – it’s a minor Wonder of the World), and headed up to my room to sulk for an hour. Not about what HAD happened to me, but what COULD HAVE happened to me. I sulked about a bullet dodged. I sulked about missing seven weeks of Spring Semester. I sulked about how annoying it was that I now sucked at tennis.

What didn’t happen? Me thanking my father. For everything. For anything. It’s since become one of the biggest regrets of my life.

But here’s the silver lining: that’s where THE BIG SICK comes in. Because of it, I get to atone for that regret before it’s too late. Because Emily and Kumail put their lives on film and did it with feeling and gravity and, my God, heart. And they got career-best work from Michael Showalter and Ray Romano and Holly Hunter and Zoe Kazan, and the combination of all of it helped me realize something I’d been blind to for goddamned near half my life. It was a movie that was supposed to make laugh – and it did. But it ended up being a movie that made me better.

How do you thank a bunch of strangers for something like that in any meaningful manner? I don’t know if you can. So I have to hope that if any of them ever read this, the following suffices in lieu of any lame superlatives I could clumsily offer:

The doctors and nurses treated me and healed me, and there’s nothing I could do to repay them properly. They’re the reason I’m able to use my hands to type this, the reason I’m able to walk my dogs every morning, the reason I’m able to get myself off the floor after I fall down laughing at something. They’re the reason my post-sickness has been an infinitely lovelier and more worthwhile experience than my pre-sickness. And for that I’ll be forever grateful. They saved my body.

But my father saved my life.

I’m sorry it took me so long to say this, but: thank you, Pop. Thank you for being scared so that I didn’t have to be.

My father and I are very different people who live very different lives and see the world in very different ways. Sometimes, it’s incredibly hard to relate, try as we might. Sometimes it’s hard to see eye-to-eye. Sometimes talking fails. Sometimes…there’s just nothing to say.

But sometimes? Rapidly-moving pictures projected on a big screen in a dark room with dozens of strangers show you what you couldn’t see, and say what you couldn’t articulate. And you feel closer to someone in that moment, twenty-five hundred miles away, than you did when you were three feet from them in a hospital room. And you understand them better than you ever hoped to. And you appreciate them more than you ever realized. And you love them more than you ever thought possible.

Don’t ever pretend that movies don’t matter.

CHARLIE’S STORY

(EDITOR’S NOTE: I posted this a little earlier today as a series of Twitters, and it got such a nice response that I thought I’d collect it here in a more coherent form.)

Quick story: I can count on probably four hands the number of times friends or family have stumbled into my place a little tripped out. Always the same look on their face, and they always start their explanation as to why the same:

“Uh, I just ran into one of your neighbors, I think…”

And I’m always able to finish the story. “…and he was like a thousand years old and he showed you his tattoo.”

“Uh, yeah.”

“That’s Charlie.”

Charlie is 97 years old, about four and a half feet tall, and still in possession of a thick Germanic accent. His tattoo is a faded line of crude numbers, an identification given to him at Auschwitz.

At some point, he shows everyone. And if he gets the sense you’re a visitor to our building, he shows you immediately. Talks about it. Obviously, this is a little jarring for most. One second you’re in an elevator with this ancient, smiling little guy, the next it’s Nazis and death. But he’s so kind and so sprightly, and it’s impossible not to engage him about it. Especially because he just wants you to know he survived. And to make sure you know that, because he survived – the only member of his family to do so – he’s more or less determined to be immortal. And it’s not as if he’s just hanging around idly. Half the day, he walks the neighborhood. Every Monday, he volunteers at Cedars. The guy is ACTIVE.

Anyway, I ran into Charlie on my way to the corner store this morning. As always, I ask how he’s doing. As always, he answers the same:

“Can’t complain! God has seen fit to keep me around for another day, and hopefully tomorrow I’ll find he’s kept me around for one more!” Big smile. So we chatted for a second, and he talked about spending a few hours at the synagogue this week. “Because I’m Jewish, you know.” I do, and I giggle at the adorable but unnecessary reminder. But then he got somewhat melancholy. He told me he spent most of the time thinking about his family.

He talks about his family a lot. When he does, he usually talks about his kids and grandkids and, I’m guessing, great-grandkids, who come over in various shifts to hang out with him, shuffle him from place to place, take him to dinner. But today, for the first time, he talked about the family he lost in the Holocaust. His parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins.

“Over one hundred of us. One hundred! And I’m the only one who survived. I can’t explain it to people. Can you imagine?”

I can’t, Charlie.

He goes on to tell me that when he comes across people he doesn’t know, if they’ll stop to talk to him, he shows them his tattoo. And he’ll talk about his mother, an uncle, a cousin. All lost to time, he says, but not to him. Because he talks to people. And remembers.

And if the people he talks to remember their conversation…maybe they’re not lost to time after all.

On 1 November, Charlie turns 98. He’s going to go out to dinner with his kids. Volunteer an extra day at Cedars. Y’know, 98 year-old stuff. So maybe, on that day, take a second to think about Charlie and his family.

I have a feeling he’d like that.

BRB

I’ll be right back.
A sturdy promise
That covers all the bases.
Romantic expectation.
Murderous anticipation.
Damning self-medication
And other haughty phrases.

I’ll be right back.

A lie we tell to others.
A truth we sell ourselves.
It’s a fundamental feeling.
It’s a complicated fleeing.
It’s a confidential reeling.
We pluck from mental shelves.

I’ll be right back.

But will I be?
Oh look, I’ve overthought.
How about we don’t.
Please say you won’t.
It’s unbeknownst
What point it is I’ve sought.

I’ll be right back.

But not…return the same?
Congrats, so esoteric!
Why try so hard
To spin this yarn
That ends in yawns.
It borders on barbaric.

I’ll be right back.

Let’s tap the brakes.
I think perhaps I’ve erred.
My perceptions are erratic.
My conclusions melodramatic.
Maybe doubt is automatic.
I’m not sure I’m even scared.

I’ll be right back.

The results are in.
Just my imagination.
I’ve poorly analyzed.
I sincerely apologize.
For filling up your busy eyes
With this plodding imitation.

I’ll be right back.

And there it is.
The concept now alight.
I’d missed the point.
I’m back in joint.
I’ll now appoint
Myself to be back right.

SO…LET ME CLEAR UP SOMETHING I’VE ALWAYS BEEN REALLY SUPER CLEAR ABOUT

Earlier today on Twitter I began soliciting screenwriting questions for THE BROKEN PROJECTOR’s new and blithely awesome Vomit Draft podcast companion (enjoy the utter subliminality of that shameless plug). And in doing so it occurred to me that, while I’ve been as clear as possible that I believe that There Are No Rules When It Comes To Screenwriting, I haven’t been entirely clear about the scope and parameters of what “there are no Rules when it comes to screenwriting” means.

Let’s back up for a second, define it a little better, and then examine why there are, indeed, some “Rules” that matter.

When we (professional/experienced screenwriters like myself and others who taught and/or agree with me) talk about there being No Rules in screenwriting, this is more of a philosophical statement that applies to how you should think about storytelling in the screenwriting medium. It’s a testament to the freedom you should feel to tell the tales you want to tell in exactly the way you want to tell them. To not feel as though you should have to compromise your art because of what you might believe The Rules are. It’s easy to track script sales and see three movies a weekend and read the screenplays that wind up on The Black List and talk yourself into the notion that there is a set of standards you should follow and a certain way you should compose your own work. And while that might be comforting in some ways, it’s also very dangerous in other ways. And at the end of the day, it’s total bullshit.

Wait! No, I’m doing it again. It’s not total bullshit. I mean, it is! Almost always. But in one way. And not in another way. For the most part.

Fuck me, this is complicated.

OK. Here’s exactly what I mean when I say the idea of The Rules is bullshit:

I mean that you do NOT have to write in cookie-cutter Three Act Structure – and, in fact, I mean that it almost never makes sense to do so. I mean that you DON’T have to have a certain thing happen on page three, on page ten, on page fifteen, on page thirty. I mean that you DON’T have to save the cat. I mean that yes, if you’re passionate about your Antebellum-period alien invasion Dogme 95 musical, then you should write the absolute shit out of it and foist it upon the world. I mean that you should write a zombie movie even if you think the Whole Zombie Thing is played out if you think your zombie movie kicks the ass of every zombie movie written or to be written. I mean that you shouldn’t write a superhero movie if you don’t want to write a superhero movie but you’re convinced that’s what studios want to write.

I mean that if you write what you love and care about and put your entire heart into it and make sure that it’s interesting and compelling and that it forces the reader to turn the page and keeps them entertained in one way or another to the very end, then it almost literally doesn’t matter how the hell you manage to do it. Just do it. Because that will be the best you can possibly write.

Notice that “almost” though? Well…here’s where we get into the idea that there ARE some Rules. And yes, those Rules are often a matter of degrees rather than anything that’s fixed and nailed down eternally, but they exist nonetheless. To illustrate, I’m going to answer two questions I got on Twitter today. They’re both good questions, and both worth asking. And there are a billion questions like them that exist under the same umbrella, and that means they’re covered by the same answer I’m going to give you today. Actually, we answered one of these questions for the upcoming Episode of THE BROKEN PROJECTOR. And I felt that answer both complete and not quite enough, hence this entire blog entry.

I’m a man of multitudinous wonder.

Question #1:

Twitter1

And the quick answer is:

First of all, I’m not convinced there’s a “trend” towards this. I think it’s a stylistic choice that a few writers are using, most to their own unintended detriment. Second of all…I wouldn’t eschew sluglines. I can’t speak intelligently about GREAT FALLS, but in the case of NIGHTCRAWLER it’s pretty simple: Dan Gilroy is one of the best screenwriters to ever walk by a computer, and he’s established and respected and at the very top of his craft, so he can do whatever the fuck he wants. You (and I’m using the royal “You”, not singling out Clint here) are not, and therefore you probably shouldn’t. But if you do, your script had better be SO FUCKING GOOD that the reader is willing to ignore the odd choice that you’ve made. Tough bar to clear when you’re still trying to get sold and/or noticed.

Question #2:

Twitter2

And the quick answer is:

Not in any way I can think of. This might sound familiar, but Tarantino is an established, respected writer who’s at the very top of his craft, so he can do whatever the fuck he wants. You (still on the royal usage here) are not, and therefore you probably shouldn’t. But if you do, your script had better be SO FUCKING GOOD that the reader is willing to ignore the odd choice that you’ve made. Tough bar to clear when you’re still trying to get sold and/or noticed.

Now: notice that “quick”, though? Now we’re back into the idea that there ARE some Rules. But these are different Rules than the ones to (almost never) consider when it comes to the focus and deployment of your story. For lack of a better term, we’re at this very moment going to split Screenwriting Rules, now and forever, into two different categories: Storytelling and Mechanical/Technical.

Storytelling Rules – forcing your story into a strict structure, writing for trends, Saving the Cat, etc. – are almost totally nonexistent and disappear completely the more varied those stories are in terms of tone, scope, genre and other considerations.

Mechanical/Technical Rules aren’t what I would call “rigid”, but should more often than not be followed because they give you the best chance of presenting your story in a way that is going to appeal to the people who are in a position to pay you money to acquire it.

With that in mind, an analogy I’ve just now become confident in:

Think of your script like a gift you’re going to give to someone on Xmas. You want the box and the wrapping to reflect something about your personality – you might use brightly colored wrapping paper, or maybe newspaper, or a small bow and a bit of ribbon, of a gigantic ribbon and no bow – but you want your intent to be obvious: this is a gift. And a box, wrapping paper and some kind of flourish represents that. It’s clear, it’s understandable, and it’s universal iconography. It makes it easy for the recipient to recognize it as exactly what it is.

The box, the wrapping and the flourish are your Mechanical/Technical Rules.

The gift inside the box? That’s your Storytelling Rules.

IT CAN BE LITERALLY ANYTHING YOU WANT TO GIVE THEM. It can be TOTAL CHAOS. You want to give them a new sweater? Awesome! It could be a wool sweater. It could be a sweater branded with the logo of their favorite sports team. It could be a cardigan or a mock turtleneck. Fuck, it could be a shitload of yarn and some needles and a book that’ll teach them how to knit their own goddamned sweater! THERE ARE SO MANY OPTIONS. Now, whether or not they actually *like* their present in the form you chose is not something that you have much control over. But if you really put a lot of thought into it and worked to find something you believed in and have presented it in a way that shows you really, really care, you’ve given yourself the best shot possible that they’re going to love it.

Of course, there are some decisions you could make that could change the outcome here.

Like, let’s say you didn’t give a shit about the gift and just threw some old beat-up, secondhand sweater from your closet into the box. Or maybe you picked out the most expensive sweater in the store, but you know deep down it’s not what you wanted to give them, and you know they’re going to hate it, and you kind of hate it yourself. Well, I’ve got news for you – no matter how expertly and beautifully you wrap up that box, the gift itself sucks, so you’re just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

On the other hand, maybe you got them the most perfect ass-kicking sweater ever. If that’s the case, you probably don’t want to wrap it in tin foil, dip it in kerosene and hold a lighter to it before you present it to them alongside a fire extinguisher. Sure, you’ve…you know, “done something different” and “made a statement”, but who the fuck wants to have to put out a blaze just to get to a sweater, no matter how awesome it is? Even if they manage to, they’re probably going to be pissed you made them do it, and even if they end up extracting the sweater, it’s probably charred and useless now.

(Listen, I’m sure you can poke all kinds of holes in this analogy, but just fuck off. See it for what it is and don’t complain. I didn’t charge you anything to read this. It was your choice.)

When I’m giving script advice, I’m almost always offering it to those of you who love screenwriting and want to at least take a shot at selling your first script. And that usually means selling a script to a studio or an independent producer or, at the very least, having something you can stake your burgeoning reputation on as a representation of your ability as a writer. And in the pursuit of that, my advice often comes down to this: without compromising your artistic principles – and hell, even sometimes DEFINITELY compromising your artistic principles – you have GOT to be willing to give yourself every chance to succeed, and far more often than not that means you have to PUT YOURSELF in the very best POSITION to succeed.

If that’s not why you’re interested in screenwriting or that’s not the road you want to go down with your work? I say this with no snark, no sarcasm, and zero ill will: no problem. Do whatever you want to do, however you want to do it, and vaya con dios.

For the rest of you: there are hundreds and thousands and (probably, I don’t have the exact numbers right here in front of me) millions of you try to accomplish the exact same thing you’re trying to accomplish right now. They all want to sell a script. The way to do that is ALWAYS by telling a great story full of great characters in an entertaining way that holds the reader’s attention.

What almost never works? Changing a screenplay, on a technical level, into something that the reader isn’t used to. It’s not going to make you stand out. It’s going to make you unreadable. Which is the one thing you can never, ever, ever, ever, ever be.

Sure, write novelistic scene descriptions that go deep into character psychology and that tells us things that go layer and layers beyond what we can see on the screen, and do it for PAGES. Totally fucking ignore sluglines. Write right to left instead of left to right. Give all your characters the same name and don’t even bother to explain it. Because maybe, tucked into the corner of a studio mailroom, there’s an intern who just absolutely loves that kind of thing, and his uncle just happens to be Brian Grazer, and Uncle Brian has told him, “Listen, I’m looking for these four off the wall formatting quirks in a script. They have NOTHING to do with the story, but I need them now, and I have a million dollars waiting for the first person who gets them on paper.”

But if you think that might be too narrow a mark to aim for? Everything else being equal, do whatever you can to make the basic technical elements of your script the same as every other script out there. That doesn’t mean you can’t tweak something here or there to give it a unique touch, but less is more. Less is WAY more. Follow the rules, because doing so will give you the best chance of keeping a reader focused on your plot and your characters as opposed to that weird fucking formatting thing you did on page 34.

And then, as you’re crafting your story, remember that there are no rules, so there’s no need to follow any. And that’ll keep your focus on what matters – your plot and your characters. As opposed to that weird formatting thing you did on page 34, which you really should fix when you’re finished, but don’t worry, it’s not a big deal right now.

MY TOP TEN MOVIES OF 2015

Um…this was a dismal fucking year for me watching movies, so I’m going to tell you up front: don’t take this list very seriously. That’s not to say I’m making things up or I didn’t love any of the movies listed here – I did, to one degree or another – but it IS to say that the list should be considered…incomplete. Because I saw a dreadfully small number of films this year. How small? So small that I’m not going to tell you exactly how many. Probably the fewest I’ve seen in the nearly twelve years that I’ve been in Los Angeles, where you can see literally everything.

I. Am. Shame.

A potential byproduct of that is that I didn’t see a movie this year that I felt transcended filmmaking for me, that really knocked me on my ass in some way. Usually there’s a movie or two like that every year – HER, ABOUT TIME, DRIVE come to mind in recent years – but this year was devoid of anything like those for me. There was a LOT that I dug, but little felt important to me on a personal level. So the question becomes, then…what exists in the films I missed? HATEFUL EIGHT. ROOM. LOOK OF SILENCE. CAROL. ANOMALISA. A few others. My hope is that there’s something beyond special to discover from last year still waiting out there for me. That hope takes some of the sting out of my cinematic laziness.

Alright, enough of my whinging. For the sixteen of you about to read this, my usual disclaimer: this is really a list of favorites. There are terrific films from this year that won’t crack my Top Ten that were sensational in some ways (THE REVENANT), that didn’t land with me like they did with others (SPOTLIGHT), and even one that I loved to pieces but whose fans are so fucking annoying about that I’ve grown a slight distaste for it (MAD MAX: FURY ROAD). End of the day, this is all about what I enjoyed the most and what I think I’ll be rewatching more often than the rest of the field ten years from now.

Here we go:

BEST MOVIE MOMENT OF THE YEAR: BB-8’s lighter. Holy crap was that ever just a nanobit of pure comedic brilliance.

BEST DIALOGUE OF THE YEAR: We have a tie!

“Coach lands on the runway at the exact same time as first class.” – STEVE JOBS

(Let me honest: there are about a dozen lines from STEVE JOBS that could have made this list. I just happen to think this one is the wisest and most succinct.)

“It doesn’t matter that he comes from the other side of the world. It doesn’t matter that he’s a different species or that he has a worrying marmalade habit. We love Paddington. And that makes him family. And families stick together.” – PADDINGTON

(Not only hilariously delivered by Hugh Bonneville, but a straight, honest summation about the spiritual definition and meaning of “family”.)

HONORABLE MENTION (in order of release):

EVERLY, CALL ME LUCKY, CINDERELLA, GET HARD, MISERY LOVES COMEDY, AGE OF ULTRON, MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, TOMORROWLAND, ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL, THE WOLFPACK, THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT, VACATION, DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL, KURT COBAIN: MONTAGE OF HECK, STEVE JOBS: THE MAN IN THE MACHINE, SLEEPING WITH OTHER PEOPLE, THE MARTIAN, SPOTLIGHT, THE NIGHT BEFORE, MAN UP, SISTERS, THE FORCE AWAKENS, THE REVENANT.

THE TOP TEN:

10. BRIDGE OF SPIES (Dir: Steven Spielberg, Writers: Matt Charman, The Coen Brothers)

One of my favorite scripts of the year, hands down. Took a story that probably played out in real life with extreme human ugliness but dared to hope, without ever picking ideological sides, that there’s still room on conflict-riddled Earth for humanity. Perhaps that’s Utopian and perhaps it leaves the film feeling less consequential than it should, but this felt like Spielberg leaning on old fashioned populist filmmaking again, and that’s almost never a bad thing (though I’m looking directly at you with violent scorn, WAR HORSE). Would make a great double-feature with MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, I think.

9. PADDINGTON (Dir: Paul King, Writers: Hamish McColl, Paul King)

This is kind of a cheat, but as far as I’m aware, it didn’t screen in the US in 2014 and wasn’t officially released at all here until 2015, so I’m counting it as part of 2015. And I’m OK with bending the rules this year because it gives me an opportunity to implore you to see PADDINGTON now now now now now. It is slightly bonkers and plays through with a lovely gentleness and is somehow, also, still disturbingly funny. Nicole Kidman is so much fun as the villain and I’m convinced Hugh Bonneville is a comedic savant. Your kids will love this. But you might love it more.

8. SPY (Dir: Paul Feig, Writer: Paul Feig)

Man, did the trailers ever undersell this one. You owe it to yourself to ignore them and see it as soon as possible. Gleefully crass and not afraid to be absolutely stupid when the moment (and usually Jason Statham) calls for it. Just ahead of SISTERS and THE NIGHT BEFORE for the hardest/most consistent laughs of the year.

7. THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. (Dir: Guy Ritchie, Writers: Guy Ritchie, Lionel Wigram, Jeff Kleeman, David C. Wilson)

Everybody skipped this one. Again, the trailers…geh. Not a great selling point. And look, I’ll admit up front that I’m an easy mark for Guy Ritchie. Everything he does just works for me. End of story. This was no different. The action is terrific and it’s typically hilarious (some exceptional Britishy gags here) and I personally can’t get enough of the whole 60s Gentleman Spy thing. I also think Armie Hammer is fundamentally great and criminally underused. In this one he’s definitely the former and not remotely the latter and aggravatingly no one saw it. Well…rectify that as soon as you can.

6. INSIDE OUT (Dir: Pete Docter, Ronnie Del Carmen, Writers: Pete Docter, Ronnie Del Carmen, Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley)

Just thinking about Bing Bong in my brain movies makes my eyes rain. Parts of this movie CRIPPLED me with melancholy. There is so much good stuff in here, and it *might* have been my favorite movie of the year, but I fundamentally loathe the way one thematic element was treated – the Islands. I HATED HATED HATED HATED HATED the execution of the Islands, and I could not get past that facet of the film. But the rest of it is SO FUCKING GREAT that the aforementioned boned note is worth being frustrated about for the rest of my life. It should be law that kids in middle school watch this twice a year.

5. KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE (Dir: Matthew Vaughn, Writers: Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn)

This movie is a blast on all levels. Goes for it in a way few movies have the balls to, and it nails it at every turn. I know there are a lot of people that have expressed latent guilt for the Southern Baptist Church sequence. I feel no guilt. It was the greatest couple minutes of my worst case scenario onscreen wish fulfillment in years. I love this movie all the way through and with no conditions.

4. EX MACHINA (Dir: Alex Garland, Writer: Alex Garland)

The most inventive, focused and mood-driven film of the year. It’s a weird embracing of where we’re headed as a species – biomechanical metahumanity – and how that progress will absolutely swallow us whole if we’re not careful. This is an amazing depiction of how power that we think we understand can run wildly away from us because, as is so often the case, we can’t even begin to understand it. Alex Garland has always been a sensational writer, but as it turns out, he might be an even better director. And man, did he ever pick a hell of a way to announce it.

3. STEVE JOBS (Dir: Danny Boyle, Writer: Aaron Sorkin)

I honestly believe this is, by leaps and bounds, the most poorly understood movie of the year. Either that or some people who I really respect saw a completely different movie than I. At no point did I ever see Steve Jobs (in this movie – I’m divorcing it completely from “real life”) as a hero or someone to be worshiped. I saw a man who had an unparalleled genius that prevented him from treating people like real people. He instead treated them like lab rats and pack mules, and at no point is that theme clearer to me than in the final scene with his daughter. I think people unloaded personal baggage on this movie like no other movie in a while, and I think that’s kind of awesome, even if they hated it. Also: still an unabashed Sorkin fanboy. I make no apologies.

2. SICARIO (Dir: Denis Villeneuve, Writer: Taylor Sheridan)

If I was *forced* to choose a BEST Movie of 2015, this would probably be it. The script is tight and twisted and absolutely brutal, but at the end of the day it owes how good it is mostly to how very, very, very good Denis Villeneuve is. The guy creates texture and tension like almost no one else. This is a Roger Deakins movie that has none of his iconic fingerprints on it, and that is not only SAYING something, but it’s a massive compliment to both Deakins and Villenueve. Add the look and feel to the script’s story and the dreadful, ominous sense of torturous tension that permeates them from beginning to end, and you have a film that should be at the top of your watchlist if it’s not there already.

1. THE BIG SHORT (Dir: Adam McKay, Writers: Charles Randolph, Adam McKay)

Not only my favorite movie of the year but, I’m convinced, the best writing of the year – yes, even above and beyond what Sorkin did. This film had a near-impossible task: take last decade’s near-apocalyptic financial crisis and explain it to the average moviegoer without clunky exposition and in a way they could understand without becoming a veritable coloring book. And MAN, did this script ever pull it off. I thought quite highly of Adam McKay as a comedy director before this movie, but THE BIG SHORT brought me to a whole other level of appreciation for him: he is an out-and-out filmmaker now. This is an ensemble cast that needed some very big, complicated performances wrung out of it, and at no point did McKay lose focus of or control over the material. Everyone involved puts in career-defining work, and Ryan Gosling’s tan deserves its own wing at the Smithsonian. Plain and simple: this movie got everything right, and I can’t wait to watch it over and over again in the coming years.

——————————————————————————–

Hope you enjoyed! If you didn’t, well…I hope you weren’t bored. “Not bored” is good enough for me. That’s where I am right now.

As a last note, I want to give a special shout-out to BONE TOMAHAWK, which I was loving unabashedly until work pulled me away from my viewing. I wholly reserve the right to slide it into this Top Ten at a later date, as I was enjoying it enough to consider it for such until I was unfortunately whisked adrift.

NOW LET’S TALK A LITTLE BIT ABOUT WRITING “STRONG” FEMALE/POC CHARACTERS

Wow, has it really been over six months since I wrote something in this space? I hadn’t even realized. Apparently, neither had you, since not a damn person mentioned it to me. I’m aloof and you don’t give a shit, so I’ll now write thousands of words into a vacuum. The Internet!

We badly need to discuss what it means to write “strong” characters that are female or POC [or LGBTQ or disabled or basically the rest of humanity (and beyond!), but let’s hold our focus here for now] that aren’t straight white dudes. Because some of you are just getting it the all fuck wrong, and it’s leading to some REALLY shitty writing and some even worse ideas about what our entertainment should be.

“But Geoff,” you might be inclined to ask if you can’t or won’t just take a couple minutes to read what I’m about to spend my time writing,”aren’t YOU just a straight white dude? What could you possibly have to add to this discussion that would even matter?” Great question! And here’s the simple answer: I’m a writer, and though I have many weaknesses in that regard, I’m pretty fucking good with character. And while I’m not personally inclined to tell women or POC or anyone who’s not me how to feel, process or write about their personal/unique experiences, I can, in fact, be of help in understanding what DOESN’T work when constructing a character and a philosophy that MAY help you avoid some pitfalls of crap writing.

Good? Good.

First of all, let me link to a piece of comically bad writing. Bite the bullet here for a minute and read just this very first section about all that’s wrong with KINGSMAN: http://www.pajiba.com/seriously_random_lists/5-perfectly-enjoyable-movies-almost-ruined-by-wtf-elements.php#.VmHG9VcxquU.twitter

On the surface it might seem ridiculous to do a breakdown of what can be learned from a person who wrote a wrongheaded takedown piece about a movie she hadn’t seen. But what I’m getting at is this: it’s *exactly* this kind of empty-headedness that underscores the problem we have with writing nonwhite and non-male characters. And that problem is this: we don’t understand what “strong” means when it comes to these characters in screenplays.

Look, if you didn’t like KINGSMAN, that’s fine; it also doesn’t remotely matter for the purposes of this dissection. I loved it; that doesn’t matter either. This isn’t a discussion about reviewing the movie critically. Hell, it’s not even about the Pajiba article linked above. But we are going to use it to illustrate a point. Because in this piece, the author claimed the following:

“So the secretly old-moneyed white kid gets to become a good guy because of nepotism, and the self-made minority billionaire who wants to end global warming and employs a handicapped woman of color is the bad guy?”

In case you haven’t seen KINGSMAN, here are the four characters the author is talking about:

–Eggsy: A teenager who’s gotten into some legal trouble for some slightly-more-than-petty crimes and is recruited by a secret spy agency; played by a white British actor.

–Gazelle: The athletic and deadly right-hand henchwoman of the main villain; played by an Algerian-French actress.

–Valentine: A mulitbillionaire entrepreneur and the main villain; played by a Black American actor.

And if you still haven’t seen KINGSMAN, continue at your own peril because I’m going to discuss specific details and the end of the movie. If you do have to skip, here’s a non-spoiler summary: pretty much everything the writer said about the movie in that sentence is wrong.

First of all, Eggsy isn’t “secretly old-moneyed” or “old-moneyed” in any way in any sense of the word. When we meet him, he’s a toddler, and his secret spy father has just been killed on a mission. It looks like he’s growing up in a pleasant enough middle-class setting, but it’s just him and his mom in a small apartment. Fast forward to his teenage existence: he’s poor as shit and living under the dilapidated roof provided by his tortured mother at the hands of his physically abusive gangster stepfather. He’s committing petty crimes, and eventually he commits a felony by stealing a police car and crashing it. The first time he sees any money at all is when he’s recruited into The Kingsmen, the secret organization his father was a part of. But it’s not, at any point, HIS money…though he does have access to the gadgets it provides in the course of doing his job. And the only reason he’s getting a shot at said job is because his father’s former coworker/friend feels this might be Eggsy’s last shot at turning his life around, and it might be this guy’s last shot to pay Eggsy’s father back for saving his life. Which isn’t quite “nepotism”.

Second, Gazelle kicks all kinds of ass and is basically the reason that Valentine gets to implement his plan at all. She’s his bodyguard, enforcer, strategist and assassin. Oh, she’s also a double-amputee who has blades for legs. Like, actual blades that split people in actual half. So we’re talking about a brilliant woman who has not only overcome adversity and has elite talent in myriad skills but is also ultimately the key to a global takeover AND she gets all of the best action beats in the whole movie.

Third…yeah, Valentine is a minority billionaire who wants to end global warming. And he wants to end it by killing pretty much everyone in the world except himself and his rich white millionaire/billionaire, entertainment and politician friends. That’s why he’s the villain. He gives everyone in the world free phones with secret SIM cards in them that cause them to brutally murder each other. He’s not some fucking Al Gore-ish peacerider who’s trying to save humanity. He’s actually (almost, because his plan ultimately fails) history’s most prolific mass-murderer.

So what’s the point of me explaining all of this? Well, the smaller point is: don’t try to analytically write about a movie you haven’t fucking seen. And DEFINITELY don’t try to be the smarmy savior of all nonwhites and females in the course of being uninformed. Goddamn, I hate my fellow Liberals sometimes.

(I’d also like to take a moment here to tell you that everyone – LITERALLY everyone – who bought into Valentine’s scheme and came along for the ride is depicted as a complete bastard and ends up getting their head blown to smithereens in one hilariously satisfying sequence. The vast majority of these people are, as mentioned before, white.)

But the much, much, much bigger point here is this: THE BLACK GUY AND THE DISABLED WOMAN ARE THE MOST INTERESTING AND COMPLEX CHARACTERS IN THE MOVIE. And THAT’S what we should strive for when we write minority characters: complexity and interest. That’s what the “strong” in “strong characters” means.

Valentine – aside from being entertaining and often very funny – is a layered guy. I’m not sure that we learn anything about his life pre-billions, but it is made pretty clear that he built himself up and developed a real concern for the rest of the world. There’s a scene where he explains that he became VERY worried about the environment in general and climate change specifically. Despite all his money and influence and connections, however, no one seemed to give a damn, and no progress was ever made to reverse course. And it’s intimated that *this* is where he went from mogul to supervillain – he realized that humans are a virus, and climate change was the Earth’s way of expelling us. And he simply figured that he’s going to speed up the process.

So this isn’t just a faceless Bond antagonist who’s a challenge just because Roger Moore needed a challenge. This is a character with purpose and depth and a point of view that you can appreciate, if not wholly support. THOSE ARE QUALITIES OF A STRONG CHARACTER. And yes, there is a separate discussion to be had about Hollywood’s historical problem with villains who are also POC, but I challenge you to watch this movie and explain to me how Valentine is an example of such. In fact, I challenge you to convince me that he’s not the exact opposite of this problem.

But what I’m getting down to is this: we’re missing the message about writing stronger female and POC characters if we’re going to start knocking people for writing strong female and POC characters. And it’s not just in writing ABOUT film that this has become depressingly apparent – it’s happening in screenwriting too.

A lot of writers – especially well-intentioned white writers who simply want to do their small part to help the film industry creep towards inclusion and equality – get confused with the concept of “strong” characters. They hear the word but incorrectly believe it to mean “perfect” or “better than everyone else”. And that’s EXACTLY the place from whence we end up with the Manic Pixie Dream Girl and the Super Cool Girlfriendwife and the Magical Negro.

These writers think that when actresses lament the lack of strong roles for women, they’re asking for roles in which women are infallible heroes who do everything right and save the day and teach the menfolk a valuable lesson. When in actuality they’re asking for better than the Cardboard Cutout Lady relegated to Nagging Wife or Crazy Bitch or Golddigger. They’re asking for roles that exist in age brackets other than Precocious Child, Hot Young Love Interest and Quippy Grandmother.

These writers think that when actors and actresses lament the lack of strong roles for POC, they’re asking for roles in which they’re inordinately wise for no reason or seen as incapable of prejudice or malice. When in actuality they’re asking for better than to be The Diversity Hire relegated to First Horror Movie Death or The Token Sixth Friend or Gang Member or A Rich Person’s Clever Gardener. They’re asking for roles that allow them to portray interesting individuals that aren’t necessarily in service of their white counterparts.

Then these writers go and write scripts thinking that they have to be Racial and Gender Harmony’s White Knight, and we end up with scripts that are full of stock, one-dimensional characters with no personality and a shallow story that’s a boring testament to vanilla regression. And these scripts fucking suuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck. They’re trite and try-hard and everyone can see the put-on angst in every line: “I am so desperate to solve all the inequality in the world and here is how I’m going to prove that.”

Stop. Stop that. Fucking stop. Do not do that.

So how do we solve this problem? Well, part of this answer is simple, and it’s a whole ‘nother conversation, but it boils down to this: we need to include in the production process and produce more creative works from women and POC. They’re going to work from their point of view and they’re going to create the worlds they’ve experienced and populate them with the characters they know. And it’s fucking embarrassing not only that it still needs to be said, but that it’s almost 2016 and we’re still doing a shit job of it.

But what if you’re not a woman or a POC?

Look, I don’t have all the answers here, but I am damn sure of two things you can start doing right now that will help to combat the eventuality of having zero diversity or “diversity” that only exists in the academic sense and is insulting.

1) Avoid writing women and POC as though they’re fragile antiques that need to be protected at all costs. These characters – LIKE ALL CHARACTERS, FOR CHRIST’S SAKE – deserve to be written with respect and in the pursuit of the truth of the story you’re trying to tell. They don’t need to be (and almost always shouldn’t be) perfect or infallible. They absolutely need to be dynamic and intriguing and you need to write them in such a way that the audience understands who they are, where they’re coming from and why they’re doing what they do. They need to be relatable or, at the very least, worth grasping psychologically.

As a writer, you should already be constantly thinking about subverting convention and expectation in your scripts, or you’re going to write boring, cookie-cutter, unoriginal worthlessness anyway. But REALLY apply that to your characters, and constantly be auditing your own motivations for where you take them. This doesn’t have to be a complicated thing. It only really has to be a measure of awareness that you’re not giving a character the short shrift nor are you overcompensating for them.

And it all comes down to what we talked about before: depth and complexity – the emotional, psychological and practical facets and actions that make up the people (and sometimes non-people) who populate your stories. Treat ALL of your characters – protagonist or antagonist, major, minor and micro – like they’re living, breathing beings who have hopes and fears and histories and futures and whole lifetimes of experiences. You do that and no matter who you’re writing, your chances of committing horrible or even casual acts of racism or misogyny drop to near zero.

2) Go into the script you’re writing now or a script that you’ve written before and ask yourself: what if I made half of these characters either a woman or a POC? If I simply changed a couple of small details and didn’t just assume they were white or a guy, does it make my script appreciably different?

The answer, you’ll find FAR more often than not, is “no”. And if that’s the case with your script, the question then becomes…why the fuck not? What’s it going to hurt to change things up?

It might seem like a pointless thing, but trust me, it’s not. Your script is designed to paint a picture for the reader that they can play out in their head, right? Why not give them an excuse to see the universe you’re working in as a diverse and varied one? Obviously, this isn’t going to work with every single script; you can’t write BIG LOVE with a swath of minorities, and if you’re writing an Einstein biopic, you’re not going to portray him as a Latino woman. But for the everyday story that’s not leaning on that kind of specificity, you have the option to build your world however you like. So take the opportunity to paint us a picture that’s less…monochromatic. And has some vaginas on it.

Might seem meaningless in comparison, but it’s not. It’s purposeful and considered and could lead to purposeful consideration on down the line from producers and agents and casting directors if and when your movie actually gets made.

—————————————————————–

As per usual, what I’m asking you to do is just think. There’s a comfortable middle ground here between not giving a shit about anyone different from you and giving so many shits that you try to delete injustice from the entertainment industry. The latter is impossible and the former is just lazy.

But take this seriously. There’s a reason there’s a dearth of strong minority characters in popular media, and there’s a way to help from your end, in a small but real way, if you’re not a goddamned idiot about it.

 

LET’S TALK A LITTLE BIT ABOUT “WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW”

Ah yes, the old axiom. The tried-and-true methodology. The very basis of everything everyone has ever written. Or it should have been, anyway. Write. What. You. Know. It is sacrosanct. It is invincible. It is LEGION.

Except not really.

But, except…yes, really. At least in my opinion.

Thing is, I’ve seen professional writers aplenty, of all stripes and experience levels and genres, begin to dismiss this notion. In fact, screenwriter Zack Stentz – whose work (with writing partner Ashley Miller) I very much admire and whose opinions I have the utmost respect for – wonders if it isn’t perhaps the worst advice ever:

Yikes. Has Zack hit on something here? Is “Write What You Know” (heretoafterforth known as simply “WWYK”) really a dated, worthless mythology? Have we been deluding ourselves as writers this entire time? Are we committing a scribely sin?

THE ANSWER IS YES. AND ALSO, THE OTHER ANSWER IS NO, NOT AT ALL. What I’m saying is…we have coexisting answers here. And they’re both correct. But to understand that, we have to be willing to unpack it a bit. And by “a bit” I mean this is going to be another one of those posts where I ramble on aimlessly for what seams like years and you pray for sweet death from on high while learning nothing.

That inevitability in hand, let’s attempt to boil this down before blowing it all up: while I agree with Zack that WWYK has led to comically innumerable bad pieces of writing, I don’t think it’s the advice that’s at fault – it’s the writers. Because they’ve lost sight of WWYK actually means. Or never bothered to figure it out in the first place.

First of all, let’s talk about what WWYK isn’t. And, violating everything I stand for, I think I can distill it into one quick statement: Not Everything Is A Story. Most stories are bad to mediocre. Very few are good. Almost nothing is a story worth writing a script about. WWYK does not mean, “Every little detail of your life is fascinating.” Movies, in fact, are universally about seminal experiences – stories that define someone or something and change someone or something in an extraordinary or profound way; if they weren’t, what would be the point of telling them? So 99% of your life? Unremarkable. Flat. Meaningless to anyone else.

As soon as Zack Twittered the above, I thought immediately of a scene from one of my favorite movies. It perfectly encapsulates this idea and, angrily and unknowingly, hits dead-center in regards to WWYK. The movie is PLANES, TRAINS AND AUTOMOBILES, written and directed by John Hughes and starring Steve Martin as Neal Page and John Candy as Del Griffith. Neal is a buttoned-up, straight-as-an-arrow, generally stuck-up yuppie WASP. Del is a salt of the Earth, loudmouthed traveling salesman who lacks basic self awareness. Both are, ostensibly, just trying to get from New York City home to their families in Chicago for Thanksgiving. However, due to some bad weather and insane circumstances, these two polar opposite personalities are sidetracked and forced into that journey together. And while Del tries to make the best of it, keeping it light by talking constantly about literally anythign, Neal just really, desperately wants him to shut the fuck up, stop being a slob and cease mooching off of him. Neal’s annoyance with Del builds and builds, until the two are forced to share a hotel room and Del’s entire state of being causes Neal to blow a gasket. It results in this all-time monologue:

“You’re no saint. You got a free cab, you got a free room. And someone who’ll listen to your boring stories. I mean, didn’t…didn’t you notice on the plane, when you started talking…eventually I started reading the VOMIT BAG? Didn’t that give you some sort of clue, like, ‘Hey maybe this guy is not ENJOYING it?’ You know, not everything is an anecdote. You have to discriminate! You choose things that are funny or mildly amusing or interesting. You’re a miracle! Your stories have none of that! They’re not even amusing accidentally! ‘Honey, I’d like you to meet Del Griffith, he’s got some amusing anecdotes for you! Oh and here’s a gun so you can blow your brains out, you’ll thank me for it!’

I could tolerate any insurance seminar. For days, I could sit there and listen to them go on and on with a big smile on my face. And they’d say, ‘How can you stand it?’ And I’d say, ”Cause I’ve been with Del Griffith, I can take anything.’ And you know what they’d say? They’d say, ‘I know what you mean. Shower curtain ring guy. WHOA.’ It’s like going on a date with a Chatty Cathy doll. I expect you to have a little string on your chest, you know, that I pull out and have to snap back. Except I wouldn’t pull it out and snap it back, you would! ‘ACK ACK ACK ACK!’

By the way, you know, when you’re telling these little stories, here’s a good idea: HAVE A POINT! It makes it so much more interesting for the listener!”

NOT EVERYTHING IS A STORY

Some things just aren’t going to be interesting because…well, they’re not interesting. That time you rode the bus and it went kind of fast and you were worried? *Maybe* a you could eke a fun one-liner out of it to explain why you’re on edge. Not a screenplay. You know what story about a similar experience IS interesting? SPEED. THAT’S a script.

“But Geoff,” you point out with annoying accuracy that I wish you’d instead choked on, “Haven’t you always encouraged writers not to write for trends, not to write for formula, not to write for what they think OTHERS want to see, but rather to tell exactly the stories they want to tell?” Well yes, I have, you unfortunately attentive mnemonist.

But you can’t trip me up! When I say that, there’s a directive implied. It’s not mine, and it’s not Hollywood’s. It’s nature’s: you have to pick a story that’s worth telling. If you don’t, no one will listen. It’s not philosophy. It’s biology.

So what to do? You have a concept or a moment or an idea you don’t want to give up on, but it’s not a narrative yet. Well…

MAKE SOME SHIT THE FUCK UP, FOR CHRIST’S SAKE

This is kind of, you know, your whole job as a screenwriter. And yet most writers never figure out how to it in a compelling way.

Tolkien never tromped through Middle Earth or had a ring that made him invisible and drove him crazy; those things don’t exist. Gillian Flynn never faked her own kidnapping and killed a guy to get revenge on her husband (so far as I know; she’s pretty dark); that lunacy had to be fabricated. James Cameron never went to Pandora or sat in machine that made him into a blue cat; these hallucinations are fucking insane. But what did they do? They IMAGINED these things. They asked, “What if?”

You can’t fight on Orc outside of a video game and you’re not going to sex-stab Neil Patrick Harris and Blue Cat Technology is at least six years off. You can’t “know” these things. But you can take what you DO know and expand upon it in fantastical ways, often just by asking yourself playful questions. Those answers beget more questions which snowball into more answers and more questions, and VOILA!, you’ve built a world. All based on what you know – or can conceive of.

But conception is a tricky point, no? Because, while you can engineer, narratively, pretty much anything your mind can wrap itself around, that doesn’t mean it’s all going to make sense. If you’re building a world, it has to have limits. It has to have rules. If it doesn’t, your story doesn’t exist because there’s nothing to ground or establish it; it just something that IS, and that’s meaningless. It’s nothing. But if you establish boundaries that make sense at the scale you’re writing, and then come up with clever ways to push, go around or break through them…hey, that’s *something*. So…where does our sense of “boundary” come from? Our checks and balances, our lines that we must decide whether or not to cross?

Oh yeah, Life. Duh.

But, OK, you don’t want to write about all-seeing sky-eyes and lawyers that look like Tyler Perry and tail-fucking dragons? That’s fine. And the good news is: all the same rules apply.

When I was writing GOING THE DISTANCE, I’d never been in a long-distance relationship (I am now, however, because the Universe has decided that my life is a cosmic irony). I had no idea what it was like. However, I had two things going for me: the Executive Producer HAD been, and I knew from personal experience what it was like to miss someone you loved.

Between those two things, I found my way there. Just because I’d never been in the situation doesn’t mean I couldn’t put myself in the EP’s shoes and determine how I’d react and how that would influence my significant other – and vice-versa. Then, I added in general stories from my own dating wins and losses (way more in the latter column, if you can believe it!) plus some funny personal experiences and ended up with something that I thought was as authentic as possible. I built a world, I assigned it rules that I understood, and I made it work.

I’m currently writing a spec about a Summer of my life that was very significant to me and, I think, one that others will either understand or commiserate with. That said, what happened in those three months in and of themselves isn’t enough to make a story – it’s something that began and ended, and there was some crazy stuff in between, that craziness alone doesn’t make for a good enough yarn. So I’m embellishing. I’ve stretched the timeline out to a year.  I added some extra drama with some of the characters that never happened. I added a narrative engine that COULD have existed in a worst-case scenario, but never did. I’ve pulled in experiences from years before or years after, events that didn’t happen in the same timeline but fit this story thematically. And you know what? It’s not only OK to do that, IT’S WHAT YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO DO. YOU’RE A WRITER, NOT A STATISTICIAN OR ARCHIVIST.

Know what else you’re supposed to do?

STOP BEING SELF-RIGHTEOUS AND PUT YOURSELF IN SOMEONE ELSE’S SHOES

This sounds simple, but it’s not, because you have to practice at a certain level of emotional and intellectual honesty to do so, and most aren’t willing to take that leap – not with characters, and not with settings, not with daily unscripted life. They write for what they wish to be and too often forget to understand what IS.

To be a writer, you have to be an observer, a cataloguer and a student of the human condition. You have to be willing to dissect it, reverse-engineer it, appreciate it, and get totally Frankenstein with it. Sometimes sexually.

You know yourself. Write yourself into your characters. Maybe not ALL of yourself ALL the time, because you’ll just keep writing the same movie. But parts of yourself in spurts and fits that matter. It keeps your story honest and it makes your characters relatable and accessible. Maybe that pang of jealousy you felt when someone got the promotion you were promised or the shame you felt when you slipped on the ice or the joy you felt when your first kid was born aren’t by themselves the beginnigs of an Oscar-winning script, but they can provide beautiful moments of clarity and authenticity for your audience through your characters.

You also know other people. And while you might never literally experience the pain of childbirth or the thrill of hitting a home run to win the World Series, you can, you know, TALK to people who’ve had kids and watch Joe Carter skip like a child around the bases. You’re a person. You’re supposed to be able to intuit and approximate the feelings of another person. You listen, you engage, and you process their history. It’s called empathy. And if you don’t possess the capability, you’re a sociopath and your very survival is predicated upon learning enough about human emotion to fake and convincingly replicate it, so you might even be better off.

You have to give the audience an excuse to INVEST IN YOUR STORY. You have to compel them to spend their time and open their hearts. That can only happen if they believe they can experience something worthwhile out of what you’re giving them. And the only way to forge that connection is to prove to them that you know. That you get it. That you’re telling THEIR story too.

But what if the sum total of all your experiences just isn’t enough?

RESEARCH IS YOUR FRIEND

Maybe, at the end of the day, it should be, “Write What You Can Learn”.

I’ve never been to Korea, but I’m currently writing a movie that’s set in Korea. The studio wasn’t going to pay to send me there because it’s not Hollywood in the 1990s anymore, so what were my options? I could have gone myself, but I’m not into 15-hour flights and didn’t want to spend an extended period of time abroad. So what then? Well, I immersed myself in research. For the first time ever, I’d be writing something I wasn’t intimately familiar with (or wasn’t made familiar with) on most levels. So all I could do was learn.

I spent three weeks going academically deep into Korea before even opened Final Draft. I continued to swallow up more information as I started to write the script. I talked to Koreans, native and otherwise. But that’s only the first part of it. The story is set in the music industry, so I had to build on what little I knew about that as well. The story is also populated mostly by women, so there was even more research to do on issues that affect Korean women specifically and Korean women in the Korean music industry more specifically. This is a PG-13 studio comedy we’re talking about here. I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel. But I still needed to understand. Because even if it’s just a PG-13 studio comedy, I want it to be a GREAT PG-13 studio comedy. So the strive for authenticity continues unabated.

And while that’s all a constant and continual learning process, I “know” enough about each of those things now that I can capably tell the story I want to tell. And I can lean on others that know far more than I do for the instances where I fall short of getting it right.

That’s a winding and solipsistic way of saying, “Probably don’t just wing it and hope for the best.” That never works. You end up with a script that’s cloying and fake and a story that’s – say it with me now – not worth telling. Because readers don’t invest in something that feels inauthentic.

And so, no, we can’t call it “Write What You Can Learn”. Because you don’t start writing something you CAN learn; you wait until you’ve learned it, then you write it. The maxim holds, but the explanation is clear: you can learn just about anything, to one degree or another, that you make a concerted effort to learn. But you have to decide to do that first. And most writers simply don’t.

SO…WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT HERE?

Yeah, look, it kind of seems like we went off the rails there, but we didn’t. Trust me. Here’s what it comes down to:

Not all stories are worth telling. In fact, pretty nearly all stories are not worth telling, even if (and maybe especially if) they happened to you. And your very first job as a writer is to recognize this fact and to develop the ability to discern what’s going to be entertaining and what’s not.

WWYK is a perfect piece of advice – as long as you understand what it means and know not to simply take it at face value. And then, once you understand it (and correctly value its sub-face!), you’ve got to apply it intelligently and appropriately. The major trick? Don’t be lazy. Do the work. Develop your instincts. Educate yourself. Improve yourself. Learn about others. Make an effort to understand them and how their experiences have shaped them. Expand your horizons. Be introspective. Be extrospective. Know when a story is not enough, and know when to let it go if you can’t MAKE it enough.

You know?