Ten books that influenced my life

There is a thing going around Facebook these days—electronic chain mail, really—where friends invite each other to list the 10 books that have stuck with them through life. Thanks (??) to my friend Nancy for inviting me to participate.

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The Complete Works of William Shakespeare

Since my first introduction to the works of the Bard in Grade 9 (Merchant of Venice) through my many pilgrimages to The Stratford Festival in Southern Ontario, I have been entranced. No matter what is going on in my life, I find solace and refuge in the pages of the Master’s folio. Favourite play: Henry V. My lone tattoo: Julius Caesar V.v.73.

His life was gentle, and the elements

So mix’d in him that Nature might stand up

And say to all the world ‘This was a man!’

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DuneFrank Herbert

For such a short book—and particularly within such a long series—this is a novel I return to on a regular basis. The story is woven so tightly and yet offers mythic proportions. The language is at once simple and profound…and incredibly quotable. Every time I read the story, I find a new interpretation.

I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past, I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone, there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

asimov

Asimov on ChemistryIsaac Asimov

To a budding geek, this book and the next on my list were manna from heaven. Although I was a fan of Asimov’s fiction, I found a home in his look at various subjects in science (and eventually theatre and religion). He explained the universe to me in a way that no one else could and gave me the tools to extend that learning to others (whether they wanted to hear it or not).

Broca

Broca’s BrainCarl Sagan

While Cosmos was the book (and television series) that everyone else was talking about, this was the book that first grabbed my attention. Like Asimov, Sagan had a way of contextualizing science that few others have mastered, offering not just a series of facts, but the stories of the people behind those facts, including the dearly departed Paul Broca. Asimov and Sagan likely influenced my decision to move into science writing.

Wolf

Never Cry WolfFarley Mowat

If not for my abhorrence of discomfort, I would be living on the Canadian tundra today, studying and communing with the wolves. That’s how powerful this book was to me. Many criticize Mowat for fabricating many elements of his non-fiction and particularly in this story, but I don’t really care because he grabbed a young mind (mine) and transported me into the minds of the wolves he studied for the Canadian government. To see these creatures as more than just vicious wild dogs was life-changing.

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Purple CowSeth Godin

Drive past enough farm fields filled with cows and eventually you cease to see them. Drive past a purple cow, however, and you stop. In short, the premise of a book of blog entries that challenges the reader to skew their view of the world with an eye to drawing the attention of your audience. Less an epiphany than a confirmation of what I already believed, Purple Cow told me there was merit in my mania.

Natural

Popular Natural HistoryRev. J.G. Wood

Published in 1885 (my edition), the content of this book is not only dated (it includes a discussion of the dodo), it is often outright wrong. But it holds a special place in my heart because I received it from my great-grandmother and it initiated my fascination with antiquarian books, something that continues to this day despite my inability to financially support it. These books—particularly the non-fiction—open a portal into another time and another way of thinking, much as the rest of my book collection will in 100 years.

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The Love You MakePeter Brown & Steven Gaines

The murder of John Lennon in 1980 took what was a passing awareness of The Beatles and turned it into an obsession for me. I had heard the music, I had seen the movies, but I was completely unaware of their context. Thus, the biography of the Fab Four, written by insider Peter Brown (…called to say, you can make it okay, you can get married in Gibraltar, near Spain), blew the lid off my ignorance, pouring kerosene on a flame that has not died in the intervening 34 years.

Elements_of_Style_cover

The Elements of Style – Strunk & White

As a writer and editorialist (I will not call myself a journalist…different craft), you might suspect that this book is close to my heart because it helped me become a better writer. And you would be DEAD WRONG. Just the opposite, in fact.

Instead, this book informed me that my new Editor had absolutely no respect for my writing nor that of my writer/editor colleagues. In our first staff meeting, she cheerfully told us she was looking to make some changes in our magazine and then gave us each a gift of this book. In my eyes, it was tantamount to handing Dostoyevsky a first-grade reading primer and suggesting he rewrite Crime & Punishment in the format of Mr. Whiskers (no self-aggrandizing hyperbole intended). I moved on.

Etymology

Chambers Dictionary of Etymology – Robert K Barnhart (Ed.)

As a word-jockey, history-buff and all-around geek, I can never be sure if my wife’s gift of an etymology book was a reward or a well-disguised pun-ishment (the hyphen should give you a clue as to why she would punish me). Regardless, the book has served me well as I endeavour to sculpt language to fit my needs, crossing words at their roots to develop new varietals that colour an otherwise mundane existence.

Flight (part one)

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His shoulder kept throbbing and it seemed there was nothing he could do about it. He wanted little more than to sleep, the flight to New York having left ridiculously early and his sales meeting having ended quite late, if you call a cab ride from bar to airport ending.

Terry’s body wasn’t as young as it used to be and he seriously started to wonder if 32 years in sales was 2 years too many. The awards that lined his shelves said no. Salesman of the Year. Millionaires Club. Best Daddy.

The last one had come from his daughter Ronny almost 25 years ago and it was the one he cherished most, perhaps because it helped him forget that it was a lie. Terry had been a terrible father and an even worse husband, but no one could say he’d been a bad provider. The family wanted for nothing, save perhaps for time with Terry.

He tried to convince himself that he’d spent so much time on the road for them, but he knew better. He wasn’t cut out to a husband or a father, the marriage had been a mistake of hormones and responsibility.

Terry looked up to see the flight attendant awaiting a response. Apparently, he had zoned out.

“Can I offer you a beverage?” she repeated, her smiling eyes betraying no sense of impatience. She would wait for him as though she had nowhere else to be.

“Coffee, please. Black, no sugar.”

“Certainly, sir.”

Terry watched her as she located the carafe on the cart, the way she slid the cup from its tray. Her hands were delicate but purposeful.

Her hair was short, brown, tucked behind her ear to expose the tiniest stud earring. Just a hint of down along her jawline and the back of her neck, which was paler than her face. She’d recently worn her hair longer.

Just a touch of makeup, to accentuate rather than disguise.

Rather than let her place the cup on his tray, Terry took it from her, his fingertips grazing the backs of her fingers as the weight shifted from her hands to his.

She smiled at him as she released the cup and quickly followed with a tray of biscotti. Terry took two, despite abhorring the stone-like biscuits.

His eyes lingered on her as she served the passenger on the other side of the aisle. She was shapely without being too curvy and her calves said she worked out. A regular spin class, perhaps, or a runner. Again, fit but not muscular.

At another time, he might have ended his flight with her number and managed a bit of exercise of his own during his business trip. Despite being confident he still could, Terry was presently content to sip his coffee and let the caffeine revive his sense of humanity. Besides, he needed to keep his focus if he was going to make this his last flight.

* * * * *

Dave could feel the eyes of the other passengers on him as he laughed raucously, but he didn’t care. Just like when he was a kid, Rocky & Bullwinkle made him laugh. He couldn’t help himself. The moose was just like his younger brother and the squirrel his mother, right down to the voice.

As Dave tapped the volume button on his arm rest, his seat mate smacked her book closed in annoyance and shoved it into her seat sleeve. She unbuckled her seat belt, and stared at Dave to let her by. Reluctantly, he yanked his ear buds and unclipped his seat belt, pulling himself to his feet using the seat in front of him. Navigating the narrow aisle, he let the woman pass to the back of the plane.

The row now empty, Dave shuffled to the window and gazed into the abyss. The sun was nowhere to be found as the plane sped toward morning. The sky was largely cloudless, so Dave could only guess how high they were, lines of waves barely visible on the ocean below.

This was Dave’s first time over such an expanse of water. He’d flown the Great Lakes and the length of the Mississippi, but an ocean was something else, indeed. A vast expanse of nothing. No boats. No land. Dave didn’t even see another plane. It was like that Kevin Costner movie.

“Water?” a voice asked over his shoulder.

“And plenty of it,” he responded, before turning and realizing it was the flight attendant with a stack of plastic cups and a two-liter bottle of water.

With a sheepish grin, Dave slid back to his seat and reached for a glass. If this was going to be Dave’s last flight, he wanted to grab all the amenities he could, even if it was only free water.

He wondered what the boys would say back home to see him living it up. Free drinks and free movies. Riley’s Pub may be cheap, but this was like an open bar.

He could still hear his boss’s voice: “Don’t embarrass us over there!”

His boss had always treated Dave as something of a retard, so Dave played along. If nothing else, it meant he had pretty light duties and medical insurance. His buddies wanted him to stand up for himself, but he didn’t see the point.

By the time the plane reached Europe, all of his problems would be over.

* * * * *

Jocelyn slept fitfully, her head and arms resting on her tray, memories of her last fight with her fiancé rousing her with a jolt. Turning, she found the bear in the next seat was still snoring for all he was worth. That the plane’s fuselage hadn’t disintegrated from the sonorous vibration was a surprise, but that wasn’t the way things worked for Jocelyn. No, her pains had always been slow and lingering.

She had hoped to be an Art Director for a magazine or ad agency, her art teachers had always said she had the talent, but an indiscrete moment in the back of Jake Bentley’s dad’s Camry had changed all that. Despite a quick visit to the next State, Jake’s parents insisted that they get married and weren’t the type to support a woman who had more than their boy.

Within a year, they had their first two grandchildren—a boy and a girl—but not from the same mother and neither of those women was Jocelyn. It would seem that Jake specialized in indiscretions.

Even with all that, it still took Jocelyn more than two years to get her freedom, but it was too late to reclaim her life. Her family was more invasive than ever, and her dad made sure she got a job in his factory.

That’s where she met Darryl, the dick.

Life had been bearable until Darryl started to get serious. Suddenly, every man who talked to Jocelyn was trying to get into her pants and every woman was trying to talk her into leaving him. The pressure was on to cloister her in the house so that he could feel more secure.

The slap was the final straw. But alternative plans take time, and Darryl’s growing aggressiveness didn’t give her much. Luckily, Jocelyn was pretty good at makeup and just looked like she hadn’t slept much, which was true.

The only thing Jocelyn knew about Sweden was Ace of Base, ABBA and those horse meatballs from Ikea. That, and it was thousands of miles from home.

Today, Jocelyn’s world was going to change.

* * * * *

Part Two to follow in next post

(Image is property of owner and is used here without permission because I grabbed it on my last flight)

Stealtown

On Toronto's Bay Street, the streets are paved with souls

On Toronto’s Bay Street, the streets are paved with souls

A thousand spires of concrete and glass

Etch their signatures into the clouds,

Holiest of shrines to commerce and wealth.

A soulless furnace of misspent energy

Or engines of tomorrow’s successes?

Streets bathed in shadow that hides

The scurrying shells of men and women,

Wan caricatures of the human spirit,

Decorated and dedicated to jobs

That pay their bills but rob their souls.

Where are the sounds of Life

In this chthonic chamber of horrors?

Who sings the songs of individuality?

Originality and free thought flit

From corner to corner, shadow to shadow,

Fearful of the crushing boots of conformity;

Chirruping into the noisy silence in hope

They are not alone.

Approaches not panaceas

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As I said in Birth of a Reader, I am addicted to books. But even with my addiction, I must admit that every now and again, I wish there were no books on writing and most specific to me, screenwriting.

I say this not because the books available are particularly badly written, but more because they are well written by the author but often poorly understood by the reader; readers who more often than not are looking for the One True Way to screenplay writing.

The same is true in business books. If you tell me your favourite business author, I can tell you how—and possibly what—you think.

Seth Godin. Philip Kotler. Clayton Christensen. John C. Maxwell. Each of these authors has their own approach to various aspects of business, and the more you engage with each, the more your mind thinks in those directions. (It is probably more that they help you rationalize where you were going anyways.)

Linda Cowgill. Chris Vogler. Robert McKee. Michael Hague. Paul Joseph Gulino. Dara Marks. Each of these authors also has a trigger onto which student after student latches, like a remora on a shark, looking for their next artistic meal. Each offers an approach to screenplay writing that he or she found particularly useful.

Unfortunately, too many students miss the point that these are approaches or ways of thinking about screenwriting and not road maps to success. Each book offers one or more lessons that a writer can incorporate into his or her work today to make it better, but none of them are the One True Way.

In fact, too close a focus on any one author and you will never find Your True Way.

Too much focus on Dara Marks’ Inside Story and you will find yourself in a tailspin about Theme, as you struggle to force-fit your characters’ actions and dialogue around a theme that may or may not be true to your story.

If you find yourself able to quote Chris Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey, you’re likely describing your characters in terms of mythic archetypes a la Joseph Campbell and drawing parallels with The Wizard of Oz and Star Wars.

I’m not saying that novice writers should avoid these authors. I am simply saying that each should be approached cautiously as the novice writer—or seasoned writer, for that matter—can’t hope to achieve everything these authors discuss. The authors have the luxury of looking at a screenplay as a completed item and so discuss aspects and approaches for which you and/or your screenplay may not yet be ready. There is a reason that you will still find many of these books on the shelves of seasoned screenwriters…because they continue to find new lessons in old books as they develop their craft.

The authors and their tomes are more like a screenwriting buffet, offering you a variety of flavours that hopefully provide nourishment, but can also cause artistic indigestion.

So, sorry folks. The books offer no clues as to the One True Way. It doesn’t exist. And like everyone that came before you and will likely come after, you will continue to struggle as you search for Your True Way.

PS I own and have read books by all of the authors discussed here (and in Book larnin’), and every time I reread them, I find something new to apply to my screenwriting—including, interestingly enough, from the business writers.