Charlie Kaufman

A blind contour

I just received his first novel in the mail. It’s 700 pages. The David Foster Wallace of screenwriting has written a David Foster Wallace-ian novel. Then I read this great profile in the New York Times Magazine on what the quarantine has been like for him and it was eye-opening. The first couple of paragraphs were heart-wrenching:

Eight weeks, this went on. It was a bizarre way to get to know a stranger, at a time when there was scant opportunity to discover anything new in life at all. A bond formed: not friendship, not therapy, but a kind of reciprocal Stockholm syndrome with qualities of both. “I wonder if you and I are ever going to meet after this intimate thing we’ve had,” Kaufman asked during our final call on April 29.

“I’ve had that thought, too,” I said. “It’s strange the degree to which you’ve been the only real relationship in my life during this time, beyond my wife and kids.” I had tried setting up weekly calls with family or friends, I told him, but nothing else stuck.

“Mine too, really,” Kaufman said. Friends reached out, wanting to talk, but he usually felt too gloomy or anxious to engage. One guy, the previous week, had been uncommonly persistent, “and I finally had to text him back and say: ‘I can’t. I just can’t.’ But I couldn’t do that with you,” Kaufman told me. “That’s been good for me. I’ve had to do it.”

Man, what I would have given to be on this assignment. To talk to Charlie Kaufman, the writer of one of my top five favorite movies (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), and to see how he’s dealing with this stuff. And I love Adaptation too–it is so exactly my kind of bullshit.

“They want you to come back to talk to me because the piece doesn’t have anything to do with the time we live in. If it did ever have anything to do with the time we live in” — and Kaufman was skeptical — “I think it’s important to point out that that was two weeks ago!”

“I don’t think that’s exactly what they’re saying,” I said. “They’re not saying it’s irrelevant. …” But I’m not sure this was totally honest. Everything except a small number of things did feel pretty irrelevant to me just then.

“It may be irrelevant!” Kaufman gladly interrupted. “I accept that it’s irrelevant.” It’s why he had felt wary of doing the profile in the first place, he said. No part of him believed that he, as a person — not just his work — warranted this kind of attention. He’d written a book, and this profile was proposed, and it clearly seemed worth doing even if it made him uncomfortable. “At the time, it was fine, because I liked you, and it’s been nice talking to you,” he said. “But now, just because I wrote a book, are you going to have to keep coming back to me until July 5, or whenever this thing is published, for updates on the world? It’s embarrassing,” he said. “It’s embarrassing to me.”

Kaufman compares this stuff to the Seven Up documentary series and rather than seven years it’s two weeks. Then they talk about how Kaufman writes—how he writes himself into corners and how he writes himself out. He’s also super-meta when he writes about what he’s thinking about.

Then, of course, the most interesting thing for me is how Charlie Kaufman seems to escape description or profiling because he’s so uniquely himself.

I don’t mean to be flip about this; I empathized with the problem because I was experiencing it myself. I worried that the conversations Kaufman and I were having wouldn’t translate well in print either; that people would skim through the article I was writing impatiently, feeling exhausted by Kaufman and his tendency to process every minuscule facet of existence through a vast, clattering, Rube Goldberg machine of introspection. But in real life, it was actually pretty moving to listen to. His vulnerability didn’t make you want to turn away from him; it made you want to be vulnerable too.

To be honest with you, it sounds like therapy. Like you’re going to see a psychologist but the psychologist is Charlie Kaufman. Then they spitball ideas of how to construct the article from a material point of view and inserting the author and getting to the truth of someone’s anxiety.

It was quite an article, and I’m looking forward to talking the novel.

Five Things I Learned from Benjamin Percy’s Thrill Me

In my year-end newsletter, I talked about how much I loved Benjamin Percy’s Thrill Me– his collection of essays on writing fiction. Percy is the author of Red Moon and the recent Dark Net as well as the writer behind Green Arrow and Teen Titans and a recent run on James Bond. I finally managed to gather my fifty-eight pages of notes and create a checklist to go off of when I’m writing fiction. In all there are 30 things I took away from Thrill Me. I’m not going to list all thirty things but here are the five major takeaways: 

  1. Go the Distance: Percy’s tier-based system for submitting short fiction. One of my writing goals this year is to submit more. I’m going to adopt his system which is you set up five tiers. On the first tier you put the New Yorker, the Paris Review, the Atlantic, McSweeneys, Tin House, etc. Publications that there’s no way you’d get into without some form of reputation and you send a copy of one story to five publications in the first tier, and for every rejection you send five more copies of that one story to five publications on the second tier, and so on and so forth. 
  2. Percy has an old dark room in his office where he pins up loose ideas, articles, photos and paintings that could fuel a story. He talks about it in this video. For me, I setup up a “Story board” it’s a bulletin board with loose ideas, pitches, articles, and ripped out sheets of loose paper that might eventually form the genesis of a story. There are four sections: short stories, comics, novel and nonfiction.
  3. Never use back story except in the adverbial clause.
  4. Modulation is key to a good story: what Percy does is create a suspense-o-meter, where he creates—like a mountain valley—rising action and the valleys of that action over the top of his outline. “Action, reaction.” So to have a good story you not only need action but you must also have the emotions that come out of that action. He calls these moments of emotional reality “the Flaming Chainsaws,” these are things that fuel character growth: their financial, familial, ideological, professional, physical, and spiritual goals and how those things create a journey for the character to go on. 
  5. Finally, most importantly for me anyway is submitting. As Percy says: 

“After polishing a story until it shines, nobody is going to approach you on the street and seize your hand and say, ‘congratulations! You did it!’ There’s more work to be done. The same stubborn mind-set that informs your craft must inform the often frustrating, sometimes humiliating work of submission (such an apt word, no?). You need to know that breaking into magazines is about talent, yes, but also doggedness.”

I’m good at the practice of writing, of crafting a story and getting it done and constantly working on becoming a better writer, but I’m not good at going this “distance.” I don’t submit and that’s what I resolve to change this year in my writing life and get one story into a publication by the end of it.

That and get a full-time job. What’s in the distance for you?