A Different Angle

I was in Los Angeles recently teaching at writer’s conference and visiting my brother and an old friend, both of whom work in television and film. Going to Los Angles, to Hollywood, is always a tricky proposition for me. I love seeing my brother and my old pal, and I certainly love teaching, but I also feel a bit how a recovering alcoholic might if he spent the night hanging out in a bar with friends. It is not just the proximity to temptation, but the memory of having yielded to temptation in exactly that location.

Though I had lived in LA for only nine months twenty-seven years ago, that time remains etched vividly in my psyche. For someone transfixed by the societal ladder of success and failure for much of his early life, Hollywood provided constant opportunities to measure how close to the top or bottom I resided. There were so many beautiful people in beautiful clothes driving beautiful cars to beautiful homes, and there were so many movie studios with iron gates and security guards keeping out the riff raff, and there were so many conversations with other writers and actors trying, trying, trying to make it. All of this and also the merciless Southern California sun, and the dry Los Angeles River, and the sprawling heartless freeways, and the men selling oranges at traffic lights, and the strip clubs, the people you’d meet who looked every bit like you who’d say, “You have be lucky or willing to sell your body in this town.”

So I was glad to leave that place, but the ladder can follow you everywhere. Back walking those palm tree-lined streets, feeling that weird Los Angeles sun, and everyone sparkly and ambitious, I felt the temptation to measure myself again. I was relieved to retreat to the hotel, and to the cool conference rooms where I could teach a little fearless writing. When I’m doing what I love it is easy to forget what I was never meant to love. After the class, sitting with my brother on his balcony, he asked, “When you’re teaching, what do you do when you look out and see all their fear and self-doubt? Doesn’t it freak you out a little bit?”

“Not when I’m teaching,” I said. “It’s like I can look right through it to who they really are.”

“Good trick,” he said.

“Yeah. Now, if I could just do that always.”

I glanced out over North Hollywood. The sun had set and it was cool enough for sweaters. I knew the Hollywood itself sign wasn’t far, that from a different angle I might be able to spot it through the palm trees lit by the city’s neon glow. I was just as happy then not to find that angle, and as usual that made all the difference.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group coaching.

 

Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write With Confidence.
You can find William at: williamkenower.com

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Service

My brother works in Hollywood, which in certain ways isn’t all that different from publishing, but in one way is significantly different than publishing – money. I’m not saying you can’t get rich writing books – indeed I’ve met many writers who have – but success in television and film almost always translates to a level of financial wealth not known by every successful novelist.

Money is great, but its potential can sometimes distract you from the job at hand, which regardless of your medium is always telling the story you most want to tell. The other night my brother was playing poker with a new group of pals. It wasn’t going well. The stakes weren’t high, but he was in the hole and playing poorly. After another bad hand, he realized he wasn’t even enjoying himself. Why bother, if there’s no pleasure?

He got up from the table for a short break. As he stood outside he realized he was only playing for himself. He was only playing so he could walk away with twenty extra dollars, so that he could win not just cash but these men’s approval. It meant nothing. So he told himself a story. He decided he was no longer playing for himself but for his new girlfriend’s children’s college fund. He sat back at the table and was immediately dealt a near-perfect hand. Before long he was back in the black.

He did not know it at the time, but he had discovered a fundamental truth of all artistic endeavors: that every work of art, that every story ever told, should be in service to something greater than the Small You, the you who needs a roof over your head and the approval of others. And by service I do not mean the sort of altruism my brother concocted that night, though that is fine. Rather the understanding that you write to share whatever you believe is of value.

Once upon a time you were not a working writer. Once upon a time you merely loved to read. One day you read a book, and you were transported. What a gift! Why, it was as if the writer had told this story just for you. Remember how glad you were on that day that such a book existed? You are writing now, in part, to offer such a moment to another reader like yourself, another reader you will probably never meet. This is service. Do not doubt for a moment that the world is a slightly richer place when you offer it the gem of a story you discovered in yourself.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.inddWrite Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.
A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
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Service

My brother works in Hollywood, which in certain ways isn’t all that different from publishing, but in one way is significantly different than publishing – money. I’m not saying you can’t get rich writing books – indeed I’ve met many writers who have – but success in television and film almost always translates to a level of financial wealth not known by every successful novelist.

Money is great, but its potential can sometimes distract you from the job at hand, which regardless of your medium is always telling the story you most want to tell. The other night my brother was playing poker with a new group of pals. It wasn’t going well. The stakes weren’t high, but he was in the hole and playing poorly. After another bad hand, he realized he wasn’t even enjoying himself. Why bother if there’s no pleasure?

He got up from the table for a short break. As he stood outside he realized he was only playing for himself. He was only playing so he could walk away with twenty extra dollars, so that he could win not just cash but these men’s approval. It meant nothing. So he told himself a story. He decided he was no longer playing for himself but for his new girlfriend’s children’s college fund. He sat back at the table and was immediately dealt a near-perfect hand. Before long he was back in the black.

He did not know it at the time, but he had discovered a fundamental truth of all artistic endeavors: that every work of art, that every story ever told, should be in service to something greater than the Small You, the you who needs a roof over your head and the approval of others. And by service I do not mean the sort of altruism my brother concocted that night, though that is fine; rather the understanding that you write to share whatever you believe is of value.

Once upon a time you were not a working writer. Once upon a time you merely loved to read. One day you read a book, and you were transported. What a gift! Why, it was as if the writer had told this story just for you. Remember how glad you were on that day that such a book existed? You are writing now, in part, to offer such a moment to another reader like yourself, another reader you will probably never meet. This is service. Do not doubt for a moment that the world is a slightly richer place when you offer it the gem of a story you discovered in yourself.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!

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Hollywood Nights

When I was sixteen I learned that my friend Adam’s father was a fairly well known comedian and actor. He and his father became estranged when Adam’s parents divorced, but by the time I was a freshman in college at Hofstra University on Long Island he had reunited with his father, Paul, and was living with him in his Manhattan apartment.

I was invited into the city for a weekend. That first evening we sat in their little living room and watched a movie I had never seen, starring James Caan, in which Paul had a small role as a priest. Paul watched it with us. He said he felt James Caan was miscast as the lead. He spoke about James Caan as I might have spoken about a teammate on my high school football team. In the middle of the movie there was a scene in which Paul, as the bumbling priest, enters a room via a short set of stairs. Paul the Priest stumbled on the second stair.

“I just decided to throw that in,” he explained.

It was strange to look at the television and see Paul the Priest and then look to my right and see Paul the Father. Stranger still, he was talking about his work the way I, a smooth-skinned eighteen year-old, often thought about my own work. I fully expected all my worry and self-commenting to come to an end once I’d known any kind of actual, adult success.

The next night Paul gave Adam and me two tickets to a special screening of a new Robert Altman film. I think we were to be a part of a celebrity test audience. The movie was awful. It was supposed to be a buddy comedy, but no one was laughing and the two young leads felt like amateurs imitating Donald Southerland and Elliott Gould in MASH. Sometimes it was hard to tell where the jokes were.

It had not occurred to me that Altman would be in the theater with us. However, in the middle of the film, the sound fell out of sync. After some scrambling, the actors were realigned with their own dialogue. Until the sound fell out a second time. Again the problem was corrected. The third time it happened Altman stood up a few rows behind me and screamed: “No one cares about this movie but me!”

I left the theater not knowing quite what to make of the weekend. “Where are all the special people?” I wondered. I was quite certain movies had promised me they existed.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

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You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

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Stormy Weather

A few weeks ago I returned to the East Coast and gathered with a group of old friends in a rented home in the New Hampshire ski country. This is a bi-annual event where for a long weekend my high school buddies and I can get away from whatever might need getting away from.

One of those friends has spent the last twenty some years in Hollywood, first as an actor and now as a writer. Because of a particularly spectacular pilot he wrote a few years back, for some time now Chris has been this close to the kind of immediate and jarring success only possible in Hollywood. Though work is forbidden at these getaways, Chris explained that at an appointed time he would have to excuse himself to make a phone pitch to a powerful producer.

The hour arrived and Chris took the call outside on the wide lawn that stretched from the ground floor to the surrounding forest. I watched from the picture windows as he paced the lawn in the blazing summer sun, pacing and gesturing and talking, and I thought that this producer was not going to be particularly interested in this idea of his.  So it turned out to be.  She was still interested in his original pilot, however, and would be seeing what she could do with it – as others had before, though none quite as powerful as she. I knew my friend was disappointed. The original pilot felt a bit used up, good as it was, and it’s never fun to have someone say no.

The last night of our getaway a thunderstorm rolled in over the mountains. We stood on the deck and watched as it descended on us. There was barely time to get inside from the moment the first drops struck to when the deluge began. It was a magnificent display, and we grown men stood at the windows as if we’d never seen rain before.

Soon a figure appeared on the lawn. It was Chris, hopping about in the downpour. It was a thunderstorm, and I found myself worrying that he might get struck by lightning. I’m certainly glad he didn’t, though I wondered if perhaps that wasn’t what he’d been hoping for all along.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

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You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

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Gone But Not Forgotten

I went to Hollywood based on the following logic: I don’t care what I do as long as it’s creative and involves stories in some way. This being the case, why not do something that makes me lots of money and places me right at the epicenter of American culture? That it took me nine months to see the folly in this thinking is the only surprising part of this story. Still, it was not a lost nine months. In fact, sometimes nothing is ever clearer than when seen up against its opposite.

My memory of Hollywood is of a hot, barren, strip mall landscape. I drove, and I drove, and I drove past brown hills and glittering studios and walls of apartment buildings looking for my big break. Everyone, it seemed to me, was using everyone else. As a part of an interview for a job as an assistant to a small studio, I was asked to watch three audition tapes and select the girl the executive “would most want to fuck.” I didn’t get the job.

In Hollywood, I was always trying. I was always trying to get a meeting, trying to get my script into someone’s hand, trying to make money, trying to be in the right place at the right time. All this trying was supposed to land me someplace where I would be happy. That was the theory. In the meantime, more trying.

As it happens, I had carried a flame for a girl named Jen who lived in Seattle. Jen and I used to live in Providence, but she moved away when we were eighteen and she broke my heart. Los Angeles is closer to Seattle than Providence, so I decided to call her. And then I called her again. And then again. I remember quite specifically hanging up after a long phone conversation with Jen and feeling the marked difference in my body, as if I had forgotten to breathe all those long hot days in Hollywood. I thought, “Oh, that’s right. This is what it feels like to be Bill.” When I talked to Jen, I wasn’t trying to be a screenwriter, I wasn’t trying to be rich, I wasn’t trying to successful.  When I talked to Jen, I wasn’t trying to be anything but happy.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

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Believe It Or Not

My brother and I did not move to Los Angeles to become famous screenwriters without any contacts whatsoever.  A good friend’s uncle had a friend who was a screenwriter. A pretty old screenwriter, however. This was in 1990, and our contact had written the screenplay for a film that starred Humphrey Bogart. No matter, this was our big chance.

He agreed to read our script about a failed invasion of earth. That was the big twist. The aliens weren’t a threat to all of humanity, just a small town in Vermont whose residents, if they should discover the aliens before the mother ship returned to whisk these bumblers back to Planet Whatever, would have to be eradicated.

The big day came, the day he would tell us how funny and original our script was and how he would introduce us to the well-connected producers and agents he was somehow friends with despite being more or less out of the business for the last twenty years. Unfortunately, the screenwriter did not really care for our script. A) It was the whole planet under threat or nothing; B) it needed a great looking gal in a hot tub; C) The script simply wasn’t realistic. He’d seen space ships and they were nothing like the ones we described.

We knew we were in trouble before the last point, but that sealed it. Though honestly, we would have overlooked the space ship comment if he had known an agent or two. As it was, my brother returned home shortly after this, leaving me to fend for myself in Babylon. Out of curiosity, I recently did some Googling and discovered that William Faulkner is credited with having written the aforementioned Humphrey Bogart film. But should I believe everything I find on IMDb? And if space ships did hover one day over the Universal lot, as the old screenwriter claimed, perhaps they were mistaken for props run amok, and so didn’t get the press they deserved.

You can believe whatever you want to believe. I believe the old screenwriter loved to write screenplays. His office was full of them. And it seems to me that a movie about aliens invading Universal Studios might have been a big hit.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

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A Laughing Matter

When I was twenty-four I got it in mind that I wanted to be a screenwriter. So I sold everything I owned that wouldn’t fit into a Chevy Chevette and drove across country to Los Angeles with my brother. It took me nine months to conclude that I did not in fact want to be a screenwriter, but in that time I managed to get an internship at Concord Films, a company that produced about twenty movies a year, all of which went straight to video, and all of which made a profit.

My first job was to assist in the casting of Slumber Party Massacre III. We didn’t call it Slumber Party Massacre III, however; we called it Night Light. I believe the thinking was that the caliber of actor willing to audition for a movie called Night Light would be a touch higher than those willing to audition for Slumber Party Massacre III.

Casting decisions were made and shooting was scheduled to begin—but then a problem. One of the actresses was not willing to show her breasts on camera. Young shirtless actresses played a big role in Concord Film’s marketing strategy. So this actress was out, and we needed to find another soon.

Why I was in the room while this decision was being made I can’t remember. I only remember sitting against a wall watching my boss—a Stanford educated young woman a few years older than I who was also the movie’s writer/producer—laugh. She was on the phone to various talent agencies explaining that she needed an actress willing to take her shirt off prior to being killed with a power tool. Each time my boss hung up the phone, she laughed.

I can still hear her laugh. It sounded like a soprano machine gun. I actually liked this woman. I trusted her more or less, but she was on the run. I remember sitting with her on the set wondering what her actual laugh sounded like. It was all funny in a way in retrospect, and so perhaps some day she was able to laugh about it, but I didn’t know her long enough to find out. I moved to Seattle and married a woman with the nicest laugh I’ve ever heard.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

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Really The End

I watched a romantic comedy last night for which I had seen previews a year or so ago when it was released. The film had big stars and a cute premise, but when I saw the previews I thought to myself, “Well, I already know the entire story.” The movie then came and went as predictably as I imagined the story was.

But there I was last night with nothing to do and looking for a little light entertainment, and I liked the actress in particular, and it turned out to be set in the publishing industry of all places, so why not? As soon as I began to watch, I noticed something odd. It was funny. Laughing-despite-myself funny. What’s more, I believed that the male and female leads disliked each other at first and then, as the movie progressed, I believed that they were both softening to one another and falling in love. The dialogue was surprising, and the characters were real. Why hadn’t this movie made a bigger splash?

Then, as they say, we came to the end. It wasn’t one of those horrible, tedious, Hollywood endings where nothing is left to the imagination and you see the leads getting married, having children, then grandchildren, then being buried in matching plots. But it was flat, despite all its efforts to make the characters’ declaration of love dramatic. It got the job done, but nothing more, and that was when I understood why the movie had not done better.

Regular readers of this column may know how I feel about endings. In general, whether in novels or movies, I believe they are often the least-attended part of a story. I think writers often tighten up at the end, especially in genre stories (which a romantic comedy certainly is), where the ending is somewhat predetermined. Even if you are writing a story where you know the killer must be caught or the guy must get the girl, you should still allow yourself to be surprised.

There is no formula for an ending that is, as Aristotle put it, both surprising and inevitable. These endings are a consequence of the writer trusting her story, trusting that what she had to share is valuable and that a satisfying ending will naturally flow from it. Life is surprising and inevitable. We never know what is going to happen, but somewhere in us we always know why it did. You can never control the end of your own life, don’t control the end of the story. It will be as beautiful, touching, scary, or poignant as you like, but only if you let it.

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