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On the Value of Writing Honest Fiction

(a look at how adding real life experience to fiction affects you and me)

an essay by Matthew Hughston

 

Possibly the scariest thing about writing is the fear that someone may discover something about you that you did not want known. Do the fanatics and scholars not mince over works by Fitzgerald and Plath and Hemingway and Shakespeare in an attempt to better understand the author?

All thoughts, themes, and situations a writer creates must bloom from somewhere, and often times they are not disguised that well—especially if you know the writer. Sometimes the plot or themes are not connected to the author’s experiences at all, yet sometimes a scene or a certain type of language convey to the reader this thought:

“This author must have really felt this or been there. You can’t make this stuff up.”

If it truly is “made-up,” then so expertly creating depth and illusion should be a pat on the back for superb writing; on the other hand, if “true” it is a testament to the idea that some complex emotional and situational elements in writing simply must come from the “human experience.”

Think of two song writers for example—singing of a broken heart. One has never had his heart stomped on while the other truly has. Which writer do you believe would strike a chord in you? Can you even tell if they’re both really good? What is fiction and what is not? Does it really matter so long as it is done well? You can rack your brain trying to figure it out.

So what is safe to publish? Should it matter? Who will be reading it? And am I doing myself a disservice by attempting to mask a story; change a name or age, alter a situation, or flip-flop the sex of a character as if that will actually distance my life from the character’s lives? How much “me” do I put in? Can you tell?

I think I should not fear such works. I believe that the true fiction writer must be bold and unapologetic even in the face of examination and retribution from his or her peers. It could be seen as selfishness, but many of the greatest writers placed real people in their lives into their books, and they certainly weren’t always kind or “pretty” reflections. Sometimes they were true, sometimes exaggerated, but always dynamic and made the story better.

In the end, many people will never be given the opportunity to throw their hat into the ring with the great figures of the past. Many will not find or earn the possibility of having parts of their life’s work remembered; unless your name dons a University’s library, or has a city park dedicated in your name, or is immortalized on a plaque at the base of a beautiful piece of modern architecture.

Perhaps the common man will have verbal stories passed down the family line for a generation or two. Maybe if you are a tycoon, or a war hero, or some silly twice-removed relation to a president. But then and only then will your name survive the coming generations.

How many generations of people will care about some old relative from 90 years ago?

But writing or being an activist or musician; these are the things that just might survive the generations. They just might reach out beyond the bloodline and impact the populace in unimaginable ways. Many authors, artists, and public figures meet the end of their lives feeling they were a failure to a public that seemed not to care, but sometimes decades later the impact and legend truly take hold. Look at Plath, Fitzgerald, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Aldous Huxley—all of their works initial met with trepidation, sometimes years, sometimes decades, but the world came around eventually.

Of course it is a bit conceited and self-centered (even self-aggrandizing) to want immortality, and I am not advocating to attempt such feats, but the people on this planet who can leave something behind should make it worth leaving behind. Maybe then their words will have a chance. For some this means constant exploitation to those around them and over-dramatization in their art or music or novels. And for others it is shameless honesty and reflection in hopes that people will learn from their conquests and mistakes. Perhaps from molding a fiction from a reality, the impact will be more relatable and visceral. We are simple animals at our core.

In the end, it may not matter much. The people who will read this long after I am gone may not know the difference between the make believe and the truth. They may ask: “Did it come from his experience or was it made up?”

In that regard, you could argue that the people who made everything up in their art form and found long-lasting success made out the best. After all, they did not have to deal with the fallout and reactions from the people in their world when they were alive, asking “how could you write such a thing?” or “did you really mean it when you said…” or “if you really feel this you need help!” or even “is this character supposed to be you? Supposed to be me?” Perhaps the liars and the dramatizers have the right idea. They made it all up—and anything they have inside themselves is left alone, only to be shared with whom they want and at their discretion.

But the honest writer—the writer who puts small pieces of his or her heart into the story, the one who really shares a secret they should perhaps not share, or a tale that is spun from reality but only barely spun—are those writers braver and worth more reflection? That is arguable. Clearly, I like to think so. And therefore, my experiences with life continue to pour into my works.

I know no other way.

It may sound that I am aiming for immortality, or that I feel my work should one day be more important solely on the basis that it came from some truth, augmented or otherwise. But what if that truth is weaker than a better writer? What if the wholly fictional fiction is better than my “truthy” fiction? Which body of work should be held to higher renown? Should not the best piece, regardless of how it was written, be loved and acclaimed? If so, it matters not where the story or themes bloomed from.

And so in a selfish way, perhaps putting so much of one’s self out there, at their own expense and other’s expense, is a poor decision. Furthermore, what is it we are looking for? What’s the reason? What do we all get from it (the writers and the readers)? Why write? Why read? How sorry can a writer really be about offending the living people who took shape in one’s fiction if immortality awaits? In any event, one can always deny that an episode in a book occurred from first-hand experience, right? Who would know?

When it comes down to it, any artist should make art for the maximum impact by any means necessary, and I hope that I am doing it right. Though other artists may know another way to express themselves or grasp for immortality, I do not know another way to write. And is immortality truly the primary goal? I think not.

But what then?

Judge me if you must, but know at least I was brave enough to share, and for this act perhaps the people absorbing my work may grow in some way. Perhaps I, for sharing, will grow too. If I didn’t hope for this, why would I write at all?

Nothing sounds more rewarding than impacting at least one life. My own or yours.

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There Will Be Blood: Movie Analysis & Review

 

This analysis and review was a major work I wrote in October of 2009 in a film History and appriciation class. I have just made some minor additions and corrections. Enjoy.

 

There Will Be Blood: A Stubborn Battle of Shifting Times

There Will Be Blood (2007)

            There Will Be Blood is a film rich with substance for discussion; philosophically, thematically, and cinematically. The film is intense, unique, and stands out in contrast to the other releases in 2007, if not the decade. It has a timeless quality that makes it feel like it could have been made in any decade since 1930. The script is intelligent; the strong acting is brilliant and complex, and the cinematography from beginning to end is breathtaking. This is a film whose merit falls not in the special effects or action, but rather its strength as a story, its sound mixing, unique orchestration, seamless editing, and emotional content (arguably, more difficult and rewarding to capture on screen). The minimalistic approach makes the script and its ideals carry the narrative along.

 The opening shot is beautiful, just as every wide shot in this film is, but it also resembles a place without many people (if any people at all). This image is juxtaposed with the eerie clashing of string orchestration which continues to come and go for the duration of the film. The disharmonious musical score is effective in drawing an emotional response and putting the viewer in its environment; both geographically and psychologically. The dissonance is wonderful and not something often heard in American mainstream cinema post-2000.

The film is almost a silent movie for the first fourteen minutes; besides the sound effects, there is no dialogue. It is 1898, and Daniel Plainview is in a mine, presumably looking for oil. The editing rhythm of the film here makes one feel the time it takes to be hacking away in a mine. It’s edited to be seven minutes long; we see him working and sweating. We feel the solitude and see the lack of light deep in the ground. The sound effects are realistic, well-mixed, and conservative.

Now we can deconstruct the goals of this man, as early on as this one scene. Why is he alone? Mining is surely a project for more men than just he. He then injures himself after finding some promising looking rocks which could signify oil. With a broken leg, he crawls and slides his way into town through desolation, but not before putting some of the ore or shale into his pocket. Rather than going to the hospital first, he goes to the oil/real estate people first to claim rights to the property. He lies on the floor with his broken leg and then signs his name on a paper. Here we learn early on something of Daniel Plainview that is both a strength and weakness. He is very ambitious, forgoing medical attention for profit, and above all things will try to succeed by his self if necessary.

Still in silence, we jump to 1902, where he now has a crew drawing oil from the ground. Still, no words are spoken. We observe the primal and dangerous nature of the early pioneers of industry. When a man dies down in the well from an accident, Daniel takes in the dead man’s baby and names him H.W. It seems to be compassion, but that first instinct would be wrong. He uses the boy throughout the entire movie to inspire sympathy and work the angle of being a “family man”, even going as far as telling people his wife died in childbirth. It is cold and calculated, but effective. The fact that there is no dialogue in the first fourteen minutes of the film only accentuates the minimalistic, dissonant musical score and the realistically placed sound effects. Without dialogue, something modern audiences are very accustomed to, the filmmakers have still given us so much information about the character, something only the film medium can do.

Daniel is a man of — not few words — only necessary words. He can talk a lot, but often, not at all. Unless he’s trying to get something from someone, he sees no reason to talk. He feels that most people are terrible; that there’s nothing worth liking. Daniel will say anything, however immoral and manipulative, to get what he wants. He is direct, aggressive, sly and collected.

His doppelganger and enemy in the film, Eli Sunday, is fascinating, and perhaps the most complex character in the film. When we first meet Eli, he introduced himself as Paul Sunday and tells Daniel there might be oil by the Sunday Ranch. Daniel goes to where they live where something bizarre occurs. “Paul” said that he had a brother, Eli. We quickly discover that the name he has given, Paul, is actually a fake name, and there is only Eli. But why Eli has said this is quite ambiguous, and as the film continues, Eli’s very sanity is put into question. He even goes as far as to re-introduce himself as Eli to Daniel Plainview as if he they had not met just days ago. He says things in a haunting fashion and his mannerisms are sometimes very strange. The scene where Eli is giving a sermon at his church is certainly unsettling and cult-like (also, an amazing, long take of character acting). At this point, one could say that either Eli is truly crazy in general, or that he really believes in his sermons and that he has been touched by God. Maybe even worse, he is a lying false prophet and is actually the same type of person as Daniel.

But an important comparison must be drawn here: Daniel Plainview and Eli Sunday both use a form of pageantry and deliver grandiose speeches when in front of people to get what they want. Whether they believe in what they are saying is irrelevant – they have power; Eli with his church and followers, Daniel with his swindling of families as if there was something in common with their ways of life.

Eli and Daniel both have enormous ambitions. From the time these two characters first clash until the end of the film, there is a great competition and slow building hatred between the two of them. The difference is that where Daniel wants to succeed for the sake of money, Eli perhaps wants to build community recognition for himself and be a figure of spiritual enlightenment. They want two very different kinds of power, as can be proven from the first time Eli is on the screen, saying “God Bless” to everyone. Daniel only cares and talks about oil, whereas Eli only cares and talks about his church and tries to get funds from Daniel. In different ways, they are both ambitiously using people and the debate between who is more righteous or whose ends justify the means can be debated indefinitely. On a larger scale, one could look at their battle of pride and stubbornness as a metaphor for the changing times in which There Will Be Blood is placed – the turn of the century. During this time, business and religion were clashing.

The film could be making a statement about the massive ideological differences between capitalism and religion. The battle of the times is manifested in the characters Eli and Daniel. And in the end of the movie, when “capitalism” clubs “religion” in the back of the head and religion dies (symbolized in Eli’s death), the movie perhaps makes a statement about a new power and evolution of man which is beginning to leave religion behind. Capitalism roars on as religion stumbles during the changing times. Even today, science is doing similar things to debunk religion.

By the end of the film, 1927, we have watched Daniel slip into madness and loneliness. He still hates that he had to bend to the will of Eli and be baptized at his church years ago in order to gain land for his pipeline. Though he knows he will do anything it takes to succeed, his damaged pride infuriates him, and he will not only beat Eli at his own game, but literally kill him. He wants “no one else to succeed,” as he states in the film. A sickly looking Daniel sits beside a dead and still bleeding Eli as he utters the final line of the film. “I’m finished,” Plainview says. Yes he is – in all the ways one could mean it. He has beaten Eli, beaten the false prophet, and he is perhaps “finished” in his career and his life if he is found guilty of murder. Has all of these years been worth it? And for what? Money? Pride? It is one of the most memorable film endings in recent history which surely has audiences conversing and thinking as soon as the credits roll, as all good films do. The film’s significance is only amplified considering all the events leading up to this scene. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Both actors (Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Dano) really put on a show in the final scene; a phenomenal display of acting, which won Daniel Day-Lewis an Oscar for Best Actor in 2007.

Every corner of this film was realistic and controlled, and yet elicits fears and reactions from the viewing audience. Parts are visceral, unsettling, and physically affecting, which is a great testament to the medium when superb art can make people really “feel” something. Great writing by the screenwriter and director Paul Thomas Anderson. Bravo. That is an achievement in filmmaking.

The long takes, deep focuses, complex mise-en-scene, and slow zooms/camera dollies were not distracting and only added to the experience. Without unnecessary bells and whistles, this film keeps the drama and tension going. However, some may say that it is too simple or slow in some areas; its length, and general meter/tempo as a whole could be lost on some viewers and be seen as boorish where “nothing really happens.” But this response could be rebutted by pointing out all of the rich, cerebral themes from the film; there are conflicts and ideologies lush for discussion: Greed, Ambition, Deceit, Capitalism, and Religion – all centered on the turn of the twentieth century in the United States. Observing the effects of oil, money, and social power on different peoples within a community was a study all its own, and quite interesting.

Though not a movie for everyone, if one is inclined to enjoy character studies or films which feel like novels, well, buckle in and get ready to work your brain. There is a lot going on in There Will Be Blood.

(There Will Be Blood is a film based on the Upton Sinclair novel, Oil! from 1927, but is much different from its adaptation.)

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“On Becoming a Novelist” by John Gardner

The above title is a book that was recommended to me by my professor while in a Writing Fiction class last year. The list he gave to all of the students had several books on it, both from great authors of the past and present, as well as some “how-to-write” books, though he hesitated to call them that. Doesn’t like to in fact. And honestly, he doesn’t read or recommend “self-help” books, but prefers the books on solid concept and structure. Structure again and again I say. Without that, without solid scenes moving the plot along, character development, and three acts with a thematic metaphor somewhere in there, you have nothing.

I’ve learned to appreciate a good book that helps teach “methods,” not how to write a certain way, but rather how to think like a writer. How to live that life. How to massage your brain into filling the shoes of your character and how to make a piece flow and have all the peaks and valleys it needs. A good book on writing will do these things without dictating the genre in which to write. After you know these things, you have the rudiments, and then you can write anything on top of this structural skeleton.

“On Becoming a Novelist” does just that. It’s a book written by John Gardner in 1983, and Gardner is regarded as one of the great American writers of the 20th Century. Having written novels for decades in the middle of the century, including Grendel, The Sunlight Dialogues and October Light, his modern classics are still poignant and sweeping. Within his lifetime of writing, there was a time where we was a teacher at Chico State in California. There, in 1958, he had the serendipitous luck of teaching Raymond Carver in his class, a man at the time who would learn to love writing under the stubborn tutelage of Gardner. Raymond Carver wrote The Big Sleep among other detective novels, thought The Big Sleep received the Hollywood treatment staring Humphry Bogart.

Gardner was a chain-smoker, a rebel in his own way, and a believer in rewriting, rewriting and rewriting. Draft upon draft upon draft to get it just right. And he stuck by his students and helped each to become their best–either that or he simply feared someone more stupid than he coming and filling the students heads with crap on down the road, and wanted to make sure there was no vacancy, for their heads would already be filled with the good stuff.

I have found this book to be particularly helpful, and unfortunately, unless someone else reads every “help” book for you, you never can really tell which ones are good and which ones are bad. People need help in different areas, and frankly, some people are idiots, not knowing what they are looking for and think all help is good.

However, a warning: it is possible to fill your head with so much advice and be influenced by so many other writers or people who think they know all about writing that your head will simply pop. And if it doesn’t pop, it will become goop, suitable for nothing but regurgitating someone elses thoughts and ideas because you inhaled so much work from others you forgot to write and think for yourself.

Here is a particularly humourous and clever passage. Some of these–not all–I found to fit my bill:

I. The Writer’s Nature

“Like other kinds of intelligence, the storyteller is partly natural, partly trained. It is composed of several qualities, most of which, in normal people, are signs of either immaturity or incivility: wit (a tendency to make irreverent connections); obstinacy and a tendency toward churlishness (a refusal to believe what all sensible people know is true); childishness (an apparent lack of mental focus and serious purpose, a fondness for daydreaming and telling pointless lies, a lack of proper respect, mischievousness, an unseemly propensity for crying over nothing); a marked tendency toward oral or anal fixation or both (the oral manifested by excessive eating, drinking, smoking, or chattering; the anal by nervous cleanliness and neatness coupled with a weird fascination with dirty jokes); remarkable powers of eidetic recall, or a visual memory (a usual feature of early adolescence and mental retardation); a strange admixture of shameless playfulness and embarrassing earnestness, the latter often heightened by irrationally intense feelings for or against religion; patience like a cat’s; recklessness, impulsiveness, and improvidence; and finally, an inexplicable and incurable addiction to stories, written or oral, bad or good. Not all writers have exactly these same virtues, of course. Occasionally one finds one who is not abnormally improvident.”

A bit of humor in the end there. Long one, ain’t it? Well, the whole book is not like this, but I loved the rediculousness of it’s delivery, filling three-quarters of a page, and truly being not far off from most screenwriters, fiction writers, poets, and critics of the arts I have met or seen interviewed. If you have any of these things, maybe you should grab a pen.

Coming soon: movie reviews, excerpts from my upcoming release, and I will be answering your questions as they come. Simply click on the “Question” bar at the top of the page!

Matthew Hughston

Quote from:

On Becoming a Novelist, Gardner, John.

pp. 34 W.W. Norton & Company, INC., 500 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10110 www.wwnorton.com

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