Anorexia: Make It Work For You

drama, storytelling, women

I was a teenaged anorexic. I wasted away while others watched in alarm. I got noticed.

I lost my period for a year and a half. Teachers called me in after class because they wanted to “have a talk”. I was shy and geeky and awkward and had no idea how to engage men. But as I got thinner, I became more vulnerable, more fragile. My outside matched my inside, telegraphing to the world how much I wanted to be cared for.

I’ve read that a woman’s sexual body language includes physical gestures intended to make her appear smaller. At 16, I had no sexual voice, but I knew enough to make myself smaller. Anorexia plagues high-achieving smart girls (it was rampant at Princeton) — no doubt because there’s a logic to it. It’s a way of succeeding, competing in the sexual arena. Against other women, against ourselves, against estrogen-rich bodies that want to keep us fat.

I didn’t have a lot of friends as a teenager, but anorexia changed that. Inexplicably, the most popular girl in our class befriended me. Another anorexic. One night, I was spending the night at her house. We were changing out of our school uniforms, and as we stood there in just our tights, she said “You’re getting really thin. I’m really worried about you.”

“I’m really thin? You’re really thin. I’m worried about you.”

Our friendship might have been a case of keep your enemies closer: suddenly, I was in danger of becoming thinner than her, more fragile, more noticeable, more starving on the inside and thus able to starve on the outside. More deserving of love by virtue of my neediness, fragility and discipline. This was a rival she needed to keep tabs on.

It takes courage to carve your story down to the barest flesh and heart and bones. We cloak our work in extra material, extra words, extra flesh, fat, because we’re afraid of showing our true selves.  We’re afraid it’s not good enough, so we pad it out with more dialogue, more description, more scenes, more jokes. If you’re really afraid it’s not good enough, chances are you need to get leaner.

Find the emotional heart, track that and don’t be afraid to show what you’re made of. Your story is an anorexic carving out her body so that her tenderest, most vulnerable frame will show. She has an intuitive understanding, a radar, for detecting exactly what she has to do to inspire love, care, nurture, attention. She’s a smart girl. She shivers in the glare of scrutiny, exposed, eager to show you the curves of her bones, all the well-traveled paths to her heart. Her body screams: SEE ME. NOTICE ME. CARE FOR ME. LOVE ME. Your story starves its frame to focus maximum attention on its most tender parts. And you want your audience to feel like concerned teachers and parents and competing anorexics, so moved on seeing it they can’t help but help. You want your audience to feel so sucked in, they’re part of it now. You want your story’s starved drama to be emotionally compelling, and your audience’s response co-dependent.

Every Day Is Opposite Day

drama, screenwriting, T.V. writing

I often assume people mean the opposite of what they say.

Example 1:

A mother furious at her daughter as she packs boxes of her things before leaving for college: “I can’t have your stuff cluttering up my house any longer. You need to get it out of here so I can get on with my life.”

Translation: I’m angry because I feel like I need to have your stuff cluttering up my house. I’m afraid if you get it out of here, I’ll have to get on with my life.

Example 2:

One friend to another whom she hasn’t seen in a long time: “Wow. You look really good. I mean, since I saw you last … You’re like, a completely different person. I’m so happy for you.”

Translation: Wow. You look really different. Remember the last time I saw you? No matter how much you think you can change, I’ll keep reminding you of who you were. I’m not happy for you at all.

Example 3:

Roman Polanski to Martin Amis, in an interview in 1979: “If I had killed somebody, it wouldn’t have had so much appeal to the press, you see? But … fucking, you see, and the young girls. Judges want to fuck young girls. Juries want to fuck young girls. Everyone wants to fuck young girls!” (via Telegraph UK)

Translation: If I had killed somebody, it wouldn’t have had so much appeal to the press, you see? Judges don’t want to fuck young girls. Juries don’t want to fuck young girls. Not everyone wants to fuck young girls. But I do. That’s the kind of thing that makes me special, above judgement, and worthy of all the attention I receive.

We still get the point. Because human communication is subtle and complicated and interesting. And we’re crack detectives on the case.

Great dialogue happens in the spaces between the notes, when what the audience gets to fill in on our own is far richer than anything we hammer home on the page. Because the audience are always the smartest people in the room, and whenever we let them rise to the occasion to fill in the gaps, leap leaps, imagine what’s left unsaid and bridge the ineffable, our stories live.

Anyone want to chime in with more examples of opposite-talk?

Doctors Without Borders

comedy writing, drama, storytelling

“We look for the places where the conditions are the worst — the places where others are not going — and that’s where we want to be.”

This is a motto taken from a Doctors Without Borders map of the world hanging on my wall. I read it often–it resonates with me. And it occurred to me today this could be the storyteller’s motto as well.

When we find the places where the conditions are the worst — whether most uncomfortable or the largest gap between a character’s self-conception and the way others see him (comedy) or most emotional, most significant, widest gap between what a character wants and what they feel they can do (drama) — that’s where we want to be. That’s where we find the best stories. Especially where others are not going, because we want to be brave and bold and get there first. We want to be discoverers, leaders, not followers. We want to forge the path to new stories and new ways of looking at familiar stories. Because storytelling never suffers from settings, scenarios, relationships that are too dramatic: instead, storytelling’s enemies are the bland, the banal, the familiar. We go where the conditions are worst, whether on a suburban street or far afield, because we want to be where others are not going.

We could think of ourselves as doctors without borders: surgeons moving freely across boundaries and territories.

The Book-Club Hustlers


To be successful, most book writers now have to peddle their books door-to-door at book clubs:

“The focus on book clubs has spurred the evolution of a new breed: the author-hustler, the writer who succeeds in large part because of door-to-door salesmanship. After the writing comes a new challenge, one of industriousness, perseverance, and charm. Since 2000, Adriana Trigiani has averaged two to three book clubs a week by phone, and this past April, she led “The World’s Biggest Book Club,” a 300-person event run out of New York’s Convent of the Sacred Heart High School (the very set of Paris Hilton and Lady Gaga’s [mis]education). Chris Bohjalian, whose book Midwives was an Oprah selection in October 1998, began phoning into groups after he was forced to cancel his book tour in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Requests keep increasing, and this year he anticipates talking to 120 groups. As soon as The Divorce Party came out, Laura Dave was reaching out to book clubs at the suggestion of her editor and publicist, both of whom recognized her book’s potential appeal to the middle-aged woman. “Every time I speak to a book group,” Dave says, “almost without exception that book club refers me to another book club that emails.” Dave has done over 100 discussions in person, by phone, and on Skype. She says that Gwyn, the middle-aged narrator of her second novel, is a composite of some of the women she’s met in groups.

The average book club tends to want neither an airplane novel, nor Proust, but something in between: a novel relevant to the members’ lives but also with enough texture for a good discussion. And so reaching out to book clubs is becoming a marketing strategy for more literary works. “I think it’s a rare writer I know who hasn’t done any,” says Henkin. “A lot of people like me, literary writers, whose reputation was to sit back and be snobby, well, it’s really changing.” Khaled Hosseini, author of the The Kite Runner, allegedly took a year off and went to every book group he could. Despite being a bestselling author, Robert Alexander, whose historical fiction trilogy is based on the Russian Romanov family, continues to schedule chats. As does Dara Horn, who has a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Harvard and has taught courses in Jewish literature and Israeli history at Harvard and at Sarah Lawrence College. Even the notoriously shy Jhumpa Lahiri will awkwardly sit through a discussion of her own book—at least when that discussion is attended by Ellen Silva, one of NPR’s senior editors. (In that case, Lahiri’s publisher paid for her to get there.)”

via The Book-Club Hustlers – Page 1 – The Daily Beast .

The Screenplays of the Gardening World

features, screenwriting

I love Japanese Gardens. Have ever since I was a child. They tell stories, they lead you on little adventures, they’re mystical and calm and bright and peaceful all at once. I love them.

Japanese gardens are like the perfect screenplay: they tell stories visually, economically, using smaller symbols and moments to stand in for larger ones. Surprises are essential, and space gives a Japanese garden the feeling of freedom, just like in a good clean script with lots of white space. These gardens are designed to trigger emotions.

Making a Japanese garden is all about eliminating things from your garden and making the garden represent something else, such as a mountain or a forest or a grass land. But because the design is minimalist, a single rock can represent a mountain, and a single shrub an entire forest.

The point is to underwhelm the senses and allow the viewer to contemplate the story without being assaulted from all sides with color, texture and detail. It’s the opposite of Michael Bay gardening.