Posts Tagged ‘The Untouchables’

Reels in the Dark

July 11, 2009

First, news from the writing front couldn’t be better! The Sacred Woods is entering the home stretch. I’ve been smashing personal records right and left for words written in a day. First there was the 3,315-word output on July 4th (fitting, huh?) — then came a few days of “real” work (the kind where you have to make a living); then 3,827 words on Thursday, 3,121 yesterday, and 2,795 today. The book is now at 57,242. [It’s easier to write faster near the end of a book or story, because you have the momentum and focus; you’re no longer trying to figure out what it’s all about.] So you can see what I’ve been up to, and that’s why this posting is coming at the bottom of the weekend instead of at the top, as I’d prefer. I’m still hoping to have the book’s first draft finished by about the end of the month. This is one of those cases in which the story is practically writing itself: it knows where it wants to go, and I’m just careening along with it, holding onto the bridle for dear life with one hand, opening doors for it and smashing down fences with the other. This has very little to do with my abilities or lack thereof; it’s one of those best instances that we writers always hope for in which an idea finds you and comes pouring through.

I was struck tonight by the words from Proverbs 3:5-6 — “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight.”

When writing is going well, it truly is an experience of the Divine — a sacred experience. And so little of it seems to come from “my own understanding.” It’s a “trust-with-all-your-heart” thing all the way, and you just rejoice and give thanks when the paths are straight. A good (writer) friend once quoted this line to me from Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire, and I’ve kept it right here on my desk ever since: “God made me fast, and when I run I feel His pleasure.” That’s what it’s like as a writer, when you’re writing. Worries about your life and the future pale away to almost nothing, because you’re doing what you’re meant to be doing. You try not to get hit by cars when crossing the street, because you feel you have to live until you get this story finished. I suspect it’s something like the feeling a pregnant mother has when she’s carrying around a baby inside her. She knows what she’s supposed to do. The world is remarkably clear.

You may think this is all purple and hyperbolic, but it’s not, really.

Since we’ve talked about Anne of Green Gables — another line from it that has stayed with me through the years — and I’m quoting from memory here, so this will be inaccurate — is something like, “And, as usually happens when duty is looked squarely in the face, she had looked duty in the face and found it to be a friend.”

There’s a line at the end of The Untouchables spoken by Kevin Costner as Eliot Ness, in which he tries to put his role into perspective when he’s asked by a reporter to give a comment as “the man who got Capone,” the one who put Al Capone behind bars. Ness says: “I was just there when the wheel went ’round.”

I think that’s true for anything good we accomplish in life, writing or otherwise. But Stephen King makes the point in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft that you have to put yourself in that place where the ideas can find you. You have to show up at your keyboard or your notebook (or whatever your particular life’s canvas is). You have to be ready. Writing is a guy who may show up at that place, if he knows you’re going to be there and have the lights on and be hospitable.

That being said, I’m definitely not suggesting that we should sit through our lives waiting for inspiration to strike. Inspiration needs people who are in shape enough to handle the work — to open those doors and smash those fences out of the way. By the same token, you can turn out good, salable stories that are solidly crafted but not necessarily inspired. Nor should we worry too much about what is inspired and what isn’t. Is it a good story? — That’s the more important question.

So, anyway, keep thinking about what Eliot Ness says about being there when the wheel comes ’round. . . . I’ve been thinking this week about how some aspects of life move in circles.

1. As a kid, I read Cricket Magazine. Mom got me a charter subscription when the magazine launched back in 1973. I had the LP record album they put out in those years and practically wore it thin listening to it so much. I remember sending them a story when I was in my early twenties, which came back with a form rejection. I really hadn’t learned my craft well enough yet — the wheel hadn’t come ’round. A little over ten years ago, I started sending them stories they accepted.

2. As a kid, I was fascinated by the covers on the H.P. Lovecraft paperbacks in our bookstore — grotesque monsters with scales and tentacles and eyes in strange places. I would sit in the yard on long summer days, in long summer twilights, delighting in the smell of mown grass around me and the reek of noisome swamps and unspeakable crypts and squamous horrors emanating from the Lovecraftian tales. I used to look at the name “Arkham House” on the copyright pages, never dreaming that one day my own book would be published by Arkham House.

3. As a kid, and increasingly with every decade of my life, I read FATE Magazine. It was my dad’s favorite periodical. (Mom was all Cricket and The Smithsonian.) My very first professional acceptance was a non-fiction article I wrote for FATE back in the April 1998 issue. I still remember literally jumping around the room for joy when I opened their acceptance letter. That’s a good story in and of itself: I was living in Japan and got this idea for a wonderful surprise for Dad. I knew he looked forward to his subscription copy of FATE each month. So without breathing a word to my parents about what I was doing, I researched a mysterious phenomenon in Japan, took the pictures, wrote the article, and sent it off to FATE. That was during their “good” years, when they were doing the large-sized magazine instead of the little digest-sized one that they’ve done before and since. They accepted it, I got to experience being paid for writing (!!!), and the first my parents knew about it was when Dad starting flipping through his copy when it came in the mail. As I heard the story later, he kept repeating “I don’t believe it! I don’t believe it!” Then he asked Mom if there could be more than one Frederic S. Durbin teaching at Niigata University. “No,” she assured him, “that’s him.” When I talked to him, he asked me how I got those amazing pictures, and I was able to tell him, “With your old Minolta camera.” That was a very happy circle that came ’round — and I even managed to do it again a couple years later. (“There’s sure a lot of weird stuff in Japan,” Dad said the second time around. Yes, there surely is. Mom said, “You sure can keep a secret!”)

I still read FATE, by the way, and aside from the fascination and escapism, it yields some really good ideas for stories. I won’t tell you which ones — because I sure can keep a secret.

So . . . by grace, in the fullness of time, I got published in Dad’s favorite magazine, and then in Mom’s. And by august old Arkham House, the pulp-era book publisher that has endured.

There’s one more “circle” story: back in high school, I went to my first writer’s conference, held at Illinois Wesleyan University, a conference later known as the Blooming Grove Writers’ Conference. The fiction workshop leader that first time I went was Paul Darcy Boles. (I still use a quote from his workshop in my writing classes. I’ll bet you can find it back in the archives of this blog!) At that time he was a hale, white-haired gentleman with twinkling blue eyes. We discovered a mutual love of the movie Dragonslayer, and he read two manuscripts I’d sent in: one was a little Tolkien-derivative story, and one was the beginning of what later became The Threshold of Twilight. He liked the Dwarf in my Tolkien-derivative story — he said it wasn’t a “Disneyfied” Dwarf; he said I didn’t poke fun at my characters. About the Threshold piece, he said the only thing wrong with it was that it wasn’t finished. Very much the right things to say to a high-school kid wanting to write! He signed his wonderful book Night Watch for me with the words: “For Fred — A fine writer who knows about enchantment.” I learned a few years later that he had passed away. I’ve never ceased to be grateful for the early encouragement he gave me. (And to Mom, for taking me there!)

What makes that a “circle” story? Two things: one is that just last week I found his book Glory Day on-line and ordered it. He talked about it all those years ago, and the idea fascinated me, but I’ve never thought to try to get a copy. (During the years before the Internet, I doubt it would have been possible.) The second is that I’ve used the title for both a poem and for a  short story that I’m trying to whip into shape for Cicada but don’t really know how. The editors there liked it, but it’s really not a story yet — they’d like to see it again if I can figure out what the story is.

So I’m going to close out this post with a rather lengthy extract from that story (my story, not Boles’s) — because it’s appropriate for summer, and because it brings the Boles circle around — and because the title of this entry is “Reels in the Dark,” and this excerpt is about home movies and what they represent.

I’ll just say that this story is intensely autobiographical. The “John” character is me, and there’s almost nothing in this passage that’s made up. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.

At full dark, the home movies began. John had long since become the projectionist, his dad having turned over all the equipment to him. But Dad still governed the proceedings, ensconced in his recliner. Dad’s movies were from the era of eight millimeter film, almost unheard of these days. Watching them was like traveling to the past in more ways than one. TVs, no matter how big they got, could never match the ambience of a darkened room, the whir of celluloid and sprockets, and the bright, flickering images on the tall tripod screen. Dad’s movies distilled the sunlight of long-past days, the green of vanished summers, the faces of relatives now old or gone.

The reel most in demand was a compilation of home movies shot over many years, spliced together in no particular order, one section even having gotten put in upside-down and backwards, with horses galloping in reverse in the sky, consuming their dust-clouds like living vacuum cleaners. Scenes of Mom and Dad’s courting blended with family baseball games (lots of swings-and-misses, and then a long, panoramic shot of a dozen guys searching for the ball in high weeds; but the dramatic hit that had sent the ball there was, of course, the one moment not captured). Picnics in the park gave way to more horses (these right side up); Dad looking like a movie star, young and straight; flowers in the park; and a Labor Day parade. Toward the film’s halfway point, there was a silver dot high in the sky, passing behind a transformer and power lines — an unidentified silver dot which never failed to generate obliging speculation from the audience about just what it WAS. Always Dad nodded gravely and knowingly in his chair, his gaze intent on the screen until the scene changed to the digging of the lake, which Dad had helped to survey.

“We saw more snakes than you’d believe,” Dad would say. “We tramped all through that bottomland, and I bet we saw a snake every twenty steps. They can hide anywhere there’s a blade of grass. Once some of the guys and I were sitting on the ground to eat our lunch. We were in a circle with our feet almost touching, and a snake crawled right out from between us. We never dreamed it was there.”

Dad told stories about the images in the same way every time, and the audience’s questions themselves followed a time-honored ritual. That, too, was a part of the enchantment of old silent eight as opposed to videos or DVDs. No music, no audio required the discipline of being quiet — not that any soundtrack could have competed with the cousins all together in a single room. The audio was supplied anew by the audience each time, viewers interacting with glimpses of the past.

It was almost, John thought, as if all the generations of the family were still here; as if those who had gone before somehow overflowed the screen and occupied the room’s shadowy corners, not ghosts but warm and chuckling presences, not morbidly returned from beyond but rather never gone in the first place — as comfortable and worn as the furniture, as solid as the bookcases, filling a space that must be filled for completeness, but unregistered in the sight.

There came shots of dogs, the wild fox cub Dad had found and cared for until it had been big enough to return to the wild, and then a full seven minutes of nothing but cigarette smoke in a sunbeam at the little house, where Mom and Dad had first lived when they were married — just cigarette smoke filling the frame, curling and swirling above an ash tray. “Now wait,” Dad would always say, holding up a finger. “Now watch. There’s a place where the smoke looks just like Aunt Opal’s face.” An obedient solemnity would settle over the group, and for a few minutes the summer night would take on a suggestion of chill. And this was the only point at which the movie litany varied. For sometimes Dad himself would miss the face, and would mutter, as the footage went on to other things, that somewhere in there Aunt Opal’s face was as clear as day; and at other viewings Dad would shout “There!” in triumph and point at the screen. And the kids in the audience would see only smoke, because they’d never met Aunt Opal; and a few of the cousins might give a start and cry “I saw her!” and rub at the gooseflesh on their arms. But whether Dad or anyone else saw or didn’t see Aunt Opal in the smoke, if anyone suggested rewinding and re-watching, Dad would say, “Oh, let’s go on. It’s getting late.” And even the most curious were secretly grateful, because the curling, drifting smoke was a little sinister.

Years ago, Dad had introduced the trick of running the film backwards in a certain part to the wild amusement of the audience. It was a scene of the cousins as kids, the oldest no more than ten, swimming in a plastic backyard pool. The ritual exclamations were always the same: “Look at Jack!”; “Look at my braces!”; “Can you believe I wore my hair like that?”; “J.T.’s trying to drown me — look, he keeps pushing my head under!” Interspersed with these lines came the frantic identifications of swimmers among all the splashing and submerging. “Is that you, Mom?” a little cousin would ask, standing up in front of the screen and reaching out a hand to touch the past — but blocking the very part of the image that held the most interest. The child would blend with the picture, its glowing colors projected on the hair and skin and T-shirt back, until everyone cried “Sit down!”

There would be the inevitable explanation for the young ones who hadn’t been there: “Dad threw in a bunch of nickels and pennies, and we were diving for them.” The “Dad” the cousins meant was Uncle Rick, and the film’s highlight was when he dashed across the yard in his swimsuit, the pool empty now of kids. Uncle Rick, all berry-brown and with jet-black hair, a scrawny Tarzan, dove into the pool, displacing a prodigious amount of water. At that point, John’s dad would switch the projector into reverse. The tidal wave would return from the lawn to the pool, and Uncle Rick would fly out backwards, land on his feet, and sprint away across the grass, receding into the distance. It was a delight that never grew old, when the whole group would shriek with laughter. This was what they came to see year after year, bringing new spouses, new girlfriends and boyfriends, new babies. In fact, the film had its identity in this scene: the request was always for “the movie where Dad jumps out of the pool,” as if it had been recorded that way.

Maybe the past, John thought, it what we make of it. Once it’s happened, it belongs to us, for our re-shaping. All these decades later, Uncle Rick’s jumping out of the pool was far more important than his jumping in. It was better-remembered, better loved. It became the reality.

John’s favorite part came just at the end, when the audience had had their fun, when the little ones were starting to fall asleep, and the moms were collecting baby bottles and socks, and the dads were jingling car keys. It was a slow pan across a front-yard Fourth of July party in a distant time. Distant, for the film, though it was in color, had a slightly washed-out look, and the cars in the driveway had fins like Batmobiles, and some of the old men wore straw hats or fedoras, and the women had Catwoman glasses with heavy black frames.

The scene always recaptured the crowd’s flagging interest and spawned arguments about who was under that tree, whether or not that car was Uncle Rick’s (Uncle Rick fiercely denying it if he were present), and whether that could really be Cousin Liz at the end of the table. (“When did Liz ever have hair like that?” someone would roar in genuine indignation.)

At the end of the pan, the camera would be pointing at the porch steps. Someone had set down a paper plate there, and the food on it was now being gobbled up by Tag, Dad’s matronly beagle. As the plate slipped to the ground and Tag hurried down the steps after it, the camera went back to the party.

What fascinated John even more than the long-ago people he’d never met was the yard, the trees, the buildings, and the background fields, all of which he knew intimately. Here, though, he was seeing them as they had looked thirty years ago, the landscape more open, the giant oaks younger, the barn roofs straighter-edged. He stared past the picnickers at the root cellar, its concrete dome free of the trees of heaven it now wore, whose roots were destroying it. He gazed in wonder at the ingrown gate — the last remnant of some dismantled corral fence. In John’s own time it was half-swallowed by the trunks of the maples against which it rested, but in the film, the gate was newly leaned in place, its boards smooth and solid.

Okay, wake up! Thanks for wading through a long post! As for comment direction this time — any comments are welcome — but some possible jumping-off points are:

1. Circles of life: tales of things in your own experience that have come full circle.

2. Questions about any of the above. I welcome questions.

3. Stories of things families do together: family rituals, celebrations, traditions, etc. Do you have your own version of the “home movie” experience?

4. Tales of your own “doing what you’re meant to be doing” experiences. Is it writing for you, or something else?

5. Theories on our interactions with the past. Is the past fluid, as John comes to suppose in this story? I think this could be a really interesting topic.

Neo, Ness, and Places in the Reader’s Heart

December 13, 2008

By grace, this was an excellent writing day — 2,849 new words — good ones! Writing muscles do improve over time, with training and use. Back when I tried NaNoWriMo in 2005, it was all I could do to turn out 1,600 words, working hard at it all day.  Now a good writing day is 2,000 words, and a great writing day is 3,000.

Union Station, Chicago

Union Station, Chicago

Anyway, here’s a shameless product endorsement: I recently bought an AlphaSmart Neo. It’s a light-weight, durable little machine that runs on three AA batteries for many hundreds of hours. It has a full-sized keyboard and a screen on which up to six lines of text are visible. I

The entrance through which the bookkeeper arrives

The entrance through which the bookkeeper arrives

bought this one new to replace an AlphaSmart Dana that I bought used, on its last legs, and still got a good year of use out of. The Dana finally gave up the ghost, which was actually for the best — it’s a more advanced model of the AlphaSmart which is built to do more things than I need done, and consequently consumes more battery life.

The balcony where Eliot Ness stands

The balcony where Eliot Ness stands

But the Neo essentially eats power much as a pocket calculator does — and how often do you have to change your calculator battery? The Neo allows me to write in places away from my desk: outdoors (in warmer seasons), in transit situations (trains, planes, and airports), in coffee shops (I confess I haven’t tried that yet), and at other people’s houses. I don’t know about you, but I generally do my best work when I’m in a situation of controlled chaos — the hubbub of some public place, or at a kitchen table at non-meal times, with family life revolving in the background. I think it has to do with low pressure. When I’m not in my Sacred Writing Space, I’m not under pressure to create the most brilliant literature in human history. At a kitchen table, I can just tell a story, because tables aren’t for writing anyway, are they?

Where the bookkeeper is held hostage

Where the bookkeeper is held hostage

At the end of the writing day, I connect the Neo to my computer with a USB cable and dump the day’s writing into a Word file. (There is also a wireless way to make the transfer, if you’re interested in that method.)

I love the fact that the Neo allows me to write anywhere I can write with a pencil and paper. And we’re talking inexpensive: including a $20 carrying case and shipping to Japan, my brand-new Neo came in at under $300. Product details can be found at

A Ness's-eye view

A Ness's-eye view

Changing the subject with a monkey wrench — grroooinnkk! — what you’re seeing here are some pictures taken at Union Station, Chicago, which I passed through last summer. Fans of   The Untouchables will recognize this as the location used in the famous “baby carriage scene,” in which Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) and his men intercept Al Capone’s bookkeeper on the station stairs as Capone’s men are attempting to whisk him out of town.

The setting at a distance, from the Great Hall

The setting at a distance, from the Great Hall

And grrroooiinnkk once more — it’s high time we played another alphabet game. Any takers? The theme this time is your favorite places in stories — places that you wanted to live in when you read about them or saw them on the big screen.

I’ll start us off again with A: Amity Island, the fictional setting of Jaws. Back in 1975-6, I dreamed of living in Amity, famed for its white sand beaches, and being haunted by a 20-foot great white shark. Fourth-graders don’t ask for much to make them truly happy.


May 12, 2008

When you live without a car as I do here in Japan, you pay a lot of attention to the weather. What the weather is doing makes about a forty-minute difference in what time I leave my apartment to get to work. It makes a difference in what I wear (all the way down to my shoes), how I pack my book-bag, and what I carry.

So, here’s a glimpse at the first twenty seconds of my day: my alarm clock rings. I struggle free of my futon, shut off my alarm, and then cross the tatami-mat floor to my window. Instead of curtains in my sleeping room, there’s a traditional wood-lattice window covered with opaque white shouji paper. I slide it open (standing a little to one side to peek out, since I get enough attention from the neighborhood without showing everyone what I wear to bed)–and I take a good look at the sky and the pavement. Is it mild and sunny, or are leaves, cats, and small children blowing down the street in a white squall?

This morning, at about 6:40 a.m., I glanced out at the precise instant an elderly man was walking his two bulldogs. You know how people say that pets and their owners begin to resemble each other over time? This was certainly the case–this man and his dogs clearly belonged together, all businesslike gait and bouncing jowls. Yes, yes–I know that with my kewpie-like futon hair I looked a lot funnier than anyone outside–but I had shouji to hide behind. Anyway, the scene got my early-morning mind to thinking.

If I’m doing the math right, there are 86,399 seconds in the day when I’m not looking out of my window. I don’t mean that it’s miraculous that I saw a man and his dogs. There’s a steady flow of traffic up and down my street throughout the day. If I’d looked out at another time, I’d have seen something else. But the point is, that particular man, those particular dogs and I all converged at 6:40 on this particular Monday morning.

Even when fully awake, one has to wonder to what degree such “chance” alignments are purposeful.

I remember being a little kid on car trips, looking out the back window at the Midwest farmlands flashing by; and I remember being staggered more than once by this thought: I’d pick out some house on a side street of some tiny town–or I’d find a lone tree growing far out at the edge of some field–and I’d marvel at the idea that the people in that house had lives of their own. They had whole histories, families, lifetimes of experience–but they had nothing to do with me. If you grew up with siblings, you likely weren’t as amazed by this revelation as I was, being an only child. It was eye-opening for me to figure out that entire vast populations of the world were getting along fine without ever knowing or interacting with me. I’d look at the tree in the field zooming past, and I’d think (with a bit of wistfulness) that I’d never stand beneath it; I’d never climb it or know its shade. I’d never see what the world looked like from just beside its trunk.

My point is, isn’t there something wondrous–something numinous–about the intersections that we do experience in life? I’ve always had a strange, inexplicable sense that I’m living at precisely the time and in the place that I was meant to live. Perhaps it’s just that old only-child egocentrism at work . . . or perhaps it’s not.

Tolkien’s work is built on the underlying belief that certain things are meant to happen. Bilbo was meant to find the ring; thus, Frodo was meant to have it. . . .

At the end of the film The Untouchables (the one with Kevin Costner), a reporter asks Ness for a comment on his triumph as the man who brought down Al Capone. Ness says, “I was just there when the wheel went ’round.”

We live every instant in that moment: the time when the wheel comes ’round. I certainly feel it with the students I meet in my classes. Each of our lives is like a looping, curving line going in all directions, but all those lines intersect, for one brief semester, in a particular classroom. That’s something not to be taken lightly. What we do with our time matters.

For us as writers, too: we each bring our own unique background to the writing table. We are the only people in history who have done exactly what we’ve done up to that point. We’ve grown up on our side streets; we’ve seen the world from under our trees. At any given time of life, there’s a story we can write then and only then.

Need I say more? I’ll grab my pen if you’ll grab yours!