Synapse: Writing Insight From Gotham

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When film critic Roger Ebert died April 4, he was lauded for many things – his versatility, longevity, savvy, wit. But one virtue in particular stood out. As Chicago photographer Art Shay put it, “Even with movies he panned, he invariably found something worth going to see in them.”

Take his review of a film that regularly made his “worst films” lists: Adam Sandler’s The Waterboy. Ebert called Sandler’s character “insufferable,” described the plot as an “exhausted wheeze of a sports movie formula,” and gave the film one star.

Nevertheless, he praised the performance of actress Kathy Bates, writing that she “makes her character work as a comic creation, and knows the line between parody and wretched excess.” And he resisted the urge to hurl insults at Sandler. Instead, he wrote, “I suggest he (Sandler) is making a tactical error when he creates a character whose manner and voice has the effect of fingernails on a blackboard, and then expects us to hang in there for a whole movie.”

What Ebert demonstrated in that review and countless others is what the critic Judith Crist called mutual regard, and she included it as one of her four essential elements of any good work of criticism. (The other three are passion, frankness, and specificity.)

Mutual regard, she said, is showing respect for the creator of any work you’re evaluating, as well as respect for your readers.

When Crist talked of mutual regard, you never suspected the notoriously acerbic critic was trying to tell other would-be reviewers, “You kids play nice.” Rather, she cautioned writers to balance their obligation to be honest, even blunt, about a work’s quality with their obligation to acknowledge the effort, and struggle, invested in it by fellow artists.

In her famous review panning the 1963 Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton film Cleopatra, Crist identified a litany of its failures: The script: “a mélange of clichés and pompous banalities.” The sets: “Cardboard and paint.” Liz Taylor: “Fishwife.”

But even though the movie was a four-hour epic that she called an “extravagant exercise in tedium,” she still found much to praise: the “lilting speech of Richard Burton;” the “fine performances” in minor roles by Roddy McDowell and Rex Harrison; the costumes that were “nothing short of sensational.”

And she conceded some moviegoers would enjoy the film. “Certainly,” she wrote, “if you want to devote the best part of four hours to looking at Elizabeth Taylor in all her draped and undraped physical splendor, surrounded by elaborate and exotic costumes and sets, all in the loveliest of colors, this is your movie.”

Though we don’t always identify it as such, mutual regard is something Gotham teachers train our students to use. When Gotham students are workshopping something, they must open their comments by identifying one thing that works in the piece they are reviewing. We don’t require this solely to put writers at ease in our classrooms, nor because writers often struggle to identify what works in their own writing, though both of those are true. We require it because mutual regard is essential to editing one’s own work, to reading the work of others, and to becoming a successful writer.

Mutual regard shows that you recognize the inherent merit in creating a work of art. It gives readers a sense of where your standards lie, as it allows them to compare your evaluations of what works against your evaluations of what does not. And it lends you authority, by demonstrating that you have put thought into your evaluations, and weighed things fairly.

We live in an age of ever-more criticism – a cursory search for reviews of Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby, for example, yielded 40,900 results, and that doesn’t count the opinions we’ll hear on Facebook or Twitter or out to dinner with friends. Writers who manage to rise above the noise, as Crist and Ebert did, understand that mutual regard is key, because ultimately it cultivates between writer and reader something crucial – trust.

Cheers,

Kelly Caldwell
Associate Dean of Faculty
Gotham Writers’ Workshop


UPCOMING CLASSES

Late Spring/Summer classes are available either in NYC or online.
You can also take a tour of our online classes.

WRITE-INS

The Write-In is now in Brooklyn! Starting June 1, we’ll be hosting Saturday afternoon Write-Ins at Two Moon Cafe in Park Slope. Now you can have your weekend coffee with a side of writing inspiration. Sign up in advance or drop in.

We’ll still be hosting our Friday night Write-Ins in Manhattan.

SUMMER WRITERS’ WEKEEND
Friday, June 21 through Sunday, June 23

Why stay in the city (or travel here) when you could be at the beach?

Three good reasons:
1. Manhattanhenge
2. Shakespeare in the Park at the Public Theatre.
3. Washington Square Outdoor Art Exhibit.

And now, the Summer Writers’ Weekend!
Register for one class for $125
Two classes for $225
Three classes for $300
(Plus a $25 registration fee covering all classes.)

That sounds as refreshing as an ocean breeze.

Register here.


The Care and Treatment of Sacred Things, Part I
by Kelly Caldwell

It’s usually the first question on the first day of my New York City Memoir workshops: “Can you talk… about drawing from your life experience to write, and discovering that which is sacred and off-limits material?”

Only this time, it came not from a novice student, but through my iPod headphones from a veteran writer and host of the radio show, Writers on Writing (KUCI-FM, Irvine, California). And as Marrie Stone put the question to Molly Gloss, her novelist guest, she fused “sacred” and “off-limits” into a single term, winding the ideas together like the twin strands of DNA.

I expect this concern in my level 1 workshops, from writers eager to tell their stories but unwilling to sacrifice something precious in the process. Hearing it posed by a professional like Stone, though, I knew: Not only fledgling writers believe that when something is sacred to you, writing about it could be sacrilege. (Continue reading.)


This past week we started asking our Facebook fans some writerly questions. Maybe you read them—maybe you even answered some.

THE QUESTION: What’s your favorite guilty pleasure movie?
Our favorite answer was from Sara Johnston: “Independence Day. Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman: what’s not to love?” (Yes! And don’t forget Harry Connick, Jr.—kick the tires and light the fires.)

We also loved Rosalie Capri’s response: “Sixteen Candles…auto-mo-bile.”
(We’re sure the actor who played Long Duk Dong would be proud.)

THE QUESTION: Name an author, dead or alive, who you’d like to sit next to on an airplane.
With more than 100 responds, this was a tough one to decide.
Here are our top three:

Jennifer Allen wrote, “William Golding in the window seat and Aldous Huxley in the aisle. I’d gladly suffer the middle seat for that flight.”

“Jane Austen—I really hate her work so I’d be interested for her to try to explain what I’m missing,” wrote Tom Peach.
(Let’s face it: Austen’s Mr. Darcy simply doesn’t exist off the page.)

Janel Blessing added, “Truman Capote. We’d get airplane drunk.”
(That would be an entertaining flight for sure.)

THE QUESTION: What is one book you’ve never been able to finish?
Anna Setti wrote, “Anna Karenina. She got on my nerves.”
(At least Anna’s no Scarlett O’Hara or Amanda Wingfield.)

Want to join the conversation? Like us on Facebook.


Annie Proulx writes literary fiction brilliant enough to win major accolades and accessible enough to win a wide audience. She specializes in short stories, including “Brokeback Mountain.” She didn’t begin writing until her 50s, and as you’ll see, she doesn’t believe in rushing things.

Here’s a peek at what the author of The Shipping News advises:

  1. Proceed slowly and take care.
  2. To ensure that you proceed slowly, write by hand.

Continue reading. 


Are you ready to get Lit?

Gotham is hosting an event at Lit Crawl NYC on Saturday, May 18 in Brooklyn. We’ll be stationed at Ceol, an awesome Irish pub in Cobble Hill (191 Smith Street, between Baltic & Warren Streets) from 6:15-7:00pm.

For those of you who have enjoyed our Write-Ins these past few months, we’ll be doing something similar – only built for a much larger audience.

So come out, drink up, and write.


 


Every two weeks, Gotham’s Brandi Reissenweber answers questions submitted by readers of The Writer magazine. Here are some of the questions that she’s recently answered:

Q: I usually find ideas from real life that would make great short stories. How can I make it fiction instead of just retelling the real event? Answer

Q: Do I really need to bother with a cover letter when submitting my short stories? Answer

Find more Ask The Writer Q&A here

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