Saturday, March 26, 2011

Write, Edit, Repeat

Vain Crocus (Central Park)
A long time ago I took a course on writing.  It was one of those two-day intensive workshops held over a weekend.  It was not my kind of writing at all.  The premise was that we should sit with pen to paper and write for 10, 20, sometimes 30 minutes.  No re-reading, no editing, just write and see what comes out and since this was a pen to paper exercise there was no place to hide an edit.  The underlying theme was that an “edit as I go” approach was wrong – according to our teacher, it made for bad writing.

Crocus on the Cusp (Central Park)
I remember feeling discouraged as we completed each round of speed writing.  What I was producing was trash – something that I would “ball up” and throw into the closest wastebasket if I had my druthers.  It was two days of sheer torture for me – someone who has never written a sentence that I couldn’t see how to say it better within 15 seconds of writing it.  Take that last sentence, I edited it two times while I was writing and I still think it needs editing.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how I learned to be a better writer these days.  It's not like the learning stopped when I finished school.  My first boss that would take a red pen to something I had labored over (using an IBM Selectric – remember those?) and tear it down.  He’d do a combination of rewriting sentences and telling me where I should do the rewriting.  It was a labor intensive process – after all I was writing on a typewriter!  So even if only one sentence was ripped to shreds – the whole thing needed to be reconstructed all over again – inviting even more self-editing than had been suggested.  And, all too often, what I wrote would need to be rewritten again.

Spring Bouquet (Central Park)
My next job was a bit better.  I had a computer -- what a great tool for a writer/editor.   I was better at writing too – all that ripping to shreds and rewriting had taught me a few tricks.  I know the direction to “fix it myself” helped the advice on writing to stick.  But, on this go around, I had a boss who was a bit of a control freak when it came to writing.  I could never seem to get it right.  He would sigh and send me off to fix things.  Let's just say it was not an easy relationship in those early days.  So I asked one of my colleagues – who seemed to be getting along swimmingly with him and whose writing was on par with mine – what her trick was.  She said, I check in with him after every paragraph – sometimes after a sentence or two.  I print it out, stop by, ask for his advice.  Of course, I tried that approach and it worked.  All of a sudden, I was a much better writer.  I had improved!  Really? 

I left that job as soon as the opportunity presented itself.

In my next job, my boss was a professor.  He liked to see whole document – progress there – but would edit each piece by putting pen to paper rather than on his computer.  I had gotten better but still there would be things that got ripped apart as he muttered, this is terrible, and wrote things like “fix”, “enhance”, “expand”, “move this here (with here being some ten pages later )”, and “nice start but needs a lot of work” across all sorts of documents.  His handwriting was terrible – a pinched up little scrawl.  It makes my eyes ache even thinking about it.  I knew I had arrived when he started to say things like, “you know you’re really good at this” rather than muttering “terrible”. 

I learned how to write better from those men who were my early bosses.  Along the way, I honed my ability to think strategically, to take apart information, and put it back together, to use the act of writing to drive the creative process.  I also learned that it is ok to “write, edit, repeatt”.

I learned that there is no crime in writing the way you were meant to write.  

Star Magnolia Frieze (Central Park)

Monday, March 7, 2011

Lions Eating Dinner

Crinkle Nose (Tanzania)
I learned a new trick today -- how to add sound to a video and now I've made my own little movie of the lions we saw eating at Klein's Camp in Tanzania. Along the way, I upgraded my iTunes to 10.2 and purchased some tunes (Arcade Fire, Kanye West -- the latest from both had been languishing on my list).

Sneaking Up to Steal a Piece of Tail (Tanzania)
I grew up with home movies shot on an eight millimeter camera that my parents got for their wedding.  Somewhere, there are faded images of their honeymoon in Bermuda -- which appears to be the only place where my Dad ever dove into the water head first. I am sure that there are other instances of that but when we were growing up, he would slowly walk into the water until it was up to his shoulders. This notion of him Dad diving was so novel to us kids that we'd ask him to rewind it just so we could see it again -- going backwards AND forwards. Yes, we had those home nights that people of a certain age will remember -- with our chattering and the motor of the projector accompanying the slow unfolding of whatever story that was being shown on screen. Aah, there we are tumbling down to the water at Old Lyme Shores and here we are waving at the camera as we head into the church for my Aunt Monica's wedding. These are the movies I remember best although I am sure there are others.  My mother had all of those movies transferred to videotapes back when that was the state-of-the-art for home movies. Somewhere in the flotsam and jetsam that I've carried with me over the years, there is likely a copy of that videotape.

Truth be told this isn't the first movie I've made. That honor goes to a collaboration with my friends Bill and Jackie, "The Days & Nights of Pam T. Doll," that we made as a homage to our friend Pam on her departure to Boston from New York City. The movie starred a Barbie doll with shorn hair that we had styled to look like Pam. Oh and me, i starred in it too.  Bill took great delight in making teeny weeny little shopping bags for that doll and one night he shot several minutes of video devoted to Pam T. Doll modeling new outfits in a tiny little dressing room he built. Perhaps the best bit never made it to the tape -- shot late one night after we had finished most of our editing of the film -- a commercial called "Cooking with Pam" starring Bill. The product -- Pam Cooking Spray.  The cook Bill.  The spoon -- Pam T. Doll of course. A lot of wine had been consumed by time we began filming -- we laughed so hard we cried.  We forgot to turn the camera on but I can still see that doll with an egg on its head like some mad chapeau in a Paris fashion show.

This my first movie that shows the wilder side of Africa.  "Lions Eating Dinner" doesn't really do justice to the sight of a pride of lions eating.   Some is the equipment (it's just the video function on my smaller camera), some the cinematographer (I really should have practiced beforehand) but most is that the scene is so much more than lions eating. There are lionesses of the pride that most likely bought the wildebeest down -- relegated to watching as the dominant males consume a very small wildebeest. And there are the lions that were chased off and that keep circling around in case there is a morsel left over. And finally, there are the canny old males -- former kings of the jungle -- who slip in and nab a leg out from under the noses of the dominant males to munch on peacefully behind a bush.  
There is us and one other jeep alone in the wilderness below Klein's camp -- surrounded by acacia, those circling lions, a vulture or two in the trees overhead and the silence that is Africa.  And then there is the end of the dinner party with the sweet sight of lions cleaning the blood off each other as we drive off -- having finally seen the ferocity of a pride of lions feeding on a lone wildebeest at the edge of the Serengeti.
Brotherly Love? Or Blood?  Hmm.
Ladies, Find Us Our Next Meal Please

Lions Eating Breakfast
This was not to be our last look at lions eating a kill.  It seems that lions like to eat wildebeest pretty much anytime of the day.  At Ngorogoro Crater, we watched a pair of young lions alternate between eating their kill and playing with it.  All as a large group of hyenas circled around in the hopes that they could steal it away and an even larger group of jeeps circled around with us tourists clicking and filming away.