Monday, May 13, 2013

What Keeps A Writer Writing?

I've written a guest post titled "What Keeps A Writer Writing?" for the University of Pittsburgh film studies program blog Special Affects.

In the post I wonder: What drives a writer to keep writing about cinema in the long run even if she doesn't make a living by it?  My post has to do mostly with cinema students who may not find themselves employed full-time in the field after they finish their studies. But this is also a challenge for the many writers in Internet film culture who don't happen to write for a living.

If you're inclined to share your thoughts, I'd love to know: What conditions or circumstances motivate you to write? What marks those periods of your life when you've been able to write -- and what characterizes those periods when you've been less enthused to write? Thank you.

* * *

Links to recent reading:

-- Pasquale Iannone cites several interesting precursors in his piece on the "roots of neorealism" in Sight & Sound.

-- Kent Jones on John Ford, and Quentin Tarantino's recent comments about Ford; and some thoughts by Zach Campbell.

-- The fourth issue of Movie: A Journal of Film Criticism, edited by Andrew Klevan and Victor Perkins, is now up.

-- "The 50 Greatest Matte Paintings of All Time".

-- From Jonathan Rosenbaum: a program notes essay on Jacques Rivette written for Cinematheque Ontario a few years ago; a piece on the Belgian filmmaker André Delvaux; and a recommendation to check out a newly discovered video on Raymond Durgnat.

-- I've just picked up a copy of a collection of essays by Elio Petri called "Writings on Cinema and Life".

-- Catherine Grant has great posts on slow cinema; and on the films of Claire Denis.

-- Catherine's post includes a link to Matthew Flanagan's PhD thesis on slow cinema in contemporary art and experimental film; Matthew's coverage of experimental film at the last London Film Festival is here.

-- Steve Rybin at Cinephile Papers on "rhythm in movies".

-- Alain Bergala on the photography of Johan van der Keuken.

-- Cléo, a new journal of film and feminism edited by Kiva Reardon.

-- The debut of Screencity Journal, which features multidisciplinary analyses of contemporary urban space.

-- Ted Fendt translates a text by Louis Seguin on Straub/Huillet's Class Relations at MUBI.

-- "From Method Acting to Method Viewing" by Fergus Daly in the latest issue of Experimental Conversations.

-- Charles Petersen on Stanley Cavell in n+1.

pic: Claire Denis, who turned 65 recently and has a new film premiering at Cannes next week.


Blogger girish said...

Kent Jones on Delmer Daves at the Criterion site.

May 13, 2013 1:23 PM  
Anonymous Venkateshwaran said...

Also I came across this collection of images from Polaroids of Andrei Tarkovsky

May 14, 2013 8:35 AM  
Anonymous David T. Johnson said...

I feel like I must be on the same wavelength with you at the moment, though in my case, I’ve been thinking more about the writing process itself. I’m pre-empting some of what I plan to discuss in an editorial to a new issue of Literature/Film Quarterly that’s coming out later this summer, but essentially, I’m trying to--coax? provoke?--some of the best and brightest writers on cinema and media to hold forth more publically on the way they approach their writing. (I was inspired by the SCMS podcast Aca-Media, which had a little clip from Linda Williams’s address to the society this past spring, where she talked about her ideas about teaching and writing in a way that made me long for more discourse of this kind.) Your “What Keeps a Writer Writing” has a number of great references to writers _already_ doing this, so I appreciate your taking the time to offer these reflections, and I appreciate your own perspective in light of graduate students and the job market. Before I get to that, I do hope other writers, yourself included, will consider sharing even more about their own process, as you do briefly with your useful contrast between Dillard’s methodologies and your own. (By the way, I think cinema and media critics on the writing process would be a great symposium topic--Lola, perhaps?)

In terms of your article, you raise a number of great questions, many of which I don’t have great answers for, at least not at the moment. But let me at least speak to some of what you discuss. When you talk about being “overwhelmed by a sense of how much good, stimulating film writing surrounds us on the Internet,” I find myself similarly overwhelmed, and not just in terms of digital writing (though certainly there as much as in print). And so I don’t know that the problem is necessarily that we’re going to lose out on writing on cinema, since there seems to be an abundance of it, quite a lot of it very good. Where we might lose out is in seeing not just scholars being stuck in adjunct labor, though certainly that, but scholars simply departing the profession. Both are certainly depressing. Much like the great cinema we’ll never see because directors couldn’t get a project off the ground, my concern would be that we’ll miss out on some great writing because of scholars having much less time for research or having to leave the profession altogether. There’s a certain kind of writing, not all of it consisting of “snowglobes,” to use Germano’s word, that requires institutional support--it requires long periods of time, and access to institutional libraries, and funding for travel to archives, and other things not replicable in other labor contexts. That kind of writing is writing we may see shrink, if we’re not careful. And that’s also why as tenured faculty, we have to do all we can to protect and advocate for tenure lines--not because a tenure line should be linked to a tenure book (a requirement I wish, as others have been saying for at least a decade, would simply be abolished), but because tenure allows the space, time, and institutional support to produce long-form, deeply researched writing. This isn’t to promote longer writing as inherently better; some of the best writing that has made me question my own assumptions about cinema has been the length of an essay, sometimes even briefer (Patrice Petro acknowledged that in a marvelous piece for Cinema Journal a few years ago.) But it is to acknowledge the reality that certain kinds of writing require space, time, and institutional support, the conditions of which are very difficult to reproduce outside of an academic framework. (And I emphasize “very difficult,” since there will always be exceptions.) It’s not to encourage the “paranoid” genre, as Germano calls it, but to recognize the value in allowing someone years upon years to produce a piece of writing that may open us to aspects of cinema we had never before considered.

May 14, 2013 2:53 PM  
Blogger LEAVES said...

Reading your article and the question posed, I would skip the question and come back to it as such:

You mention that there is a large volume of great film writing available, which is also to say that there is a large volume of great film writing which goes largely unread. What we lose when we have so many people following their fascinations is that we catch only a few of these fascinations, and at varied stages, and perhaps lose sight of them as they grow increasingly fascinated and fascinating. There is no Cannes for fascinating film writing, that I know of. A great film writing curating body would be invaluable. This would make it easier for like-minded people to connect, to advance their similar fascinations and to spread these advanced fascinations.

And so in my case, without much time or much of a dedicated outlet, the reason I write is to explore my thoughts and to spark a little flame of interest and excitement in others; the place I put those thoughts tends to be someplace which can be reliably counted on for a fruitful response; all my other reasons for writing are just whims and ego because I'm well aware that I don't have the time or focus at the moment to overcome the constraints and the 'expanding universe' of film writing culture at the moment. And assuming I had the talent, foremost, and time and energy to create some sort of worthwhile body of work I would probably devote half of that time and talent to deliberately sabotaging any momentum for the sheer hilarity of it, which goes back to the second reason I write, which is to keep things interesting for those who are already paying attention. I'm more of a clown than a critic, anyway.

May 15, 2013 3:07 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thank you to both of you! So many thought-provoking points here...

Dave, I'm looking forward to reading your editorial later this summer!

May 15, 2013 3:56 PM  
Blogger girish said...

"... the value in allowing someone years upon years to produce a piece of writing that may open us to aspects of cinema we had never before considered."

Dave, one book in this category that immediately comes to mind is Gilberto Perez's THE MATERIAL GHOST. And you're absolutely right: such work needs tenure, time, institutional support -- all the things that the humanities is fighting to protect today.

May 15, 2013 4:08 PM  
Anonymous David T. Johnson said...

Girish, that's a great example of the Perez book. All I can say is--yes, exactly!

May 16, 2013 3:01 PM  
Blogger Brian Doan said...

Hi Girish,
In answer to the question you ask at the top of this post-- "What drives a writer to keep writing about cinema in the long run even if she doesn't make a living by it?"--my immediate response is to quote Vicky Page's response to Boris Lermontov in THE RED SHOES, when he says, "Why do you want to dance?" She shoots back, almost immediately, "Why do you want to breathe?" Taken aback, he says, "Well I don't know exactly why, er, but I must." And she says, "That's my answer, too."

And without wishing to be melodramatic, it's really that simple. I write about film (and other kinds of pop culture) because I simply can't imagine not doing so-- the passion is not just for the images (or the sounds, or the narratives), but for the desire to pursue my own words in response, to take my jumble of sensations and questions and responses to what I'm seeing and find the language to express it all, to share what I'm feeling.

And to that end, I agree with you and Dave that we not only need to defend, extend, and perhaps revise the definitions of academic film study, but also create stronger bonds between institutional and non-institutional spaces. I think this is getting better-- in just the five years since I sat in discomfort at an SCMS panel where internet culture was deeply suspected, I'm seeing a lot more overlap between academic and popular discourses--but it's something we should continue to emphasize. There are all kinds of brilliant, insightful, intellectual pieces being written in nonacademic space (just as one example, I'd urge you all to read this piece from Matt Zoller Seitz on the need for an auteurist theory of television, which is immensely exciting in the way that academic critique should be, too: And if the profession did a better job of emphasizing and training their graduate students for a multiplicity of career possibilities, rather than just the tunnel vision of an R1 gig, the paranoia, despair and careerism that often suffocates really valuable, counter-intuitive, non-flavor of the moment film writing might be further mitigated.

May 18, 2013 5:42 AM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

Why do I write? I guess it's some kind of addiction, in that I feel like something is missing when I don't write. I'm a bit fuzzy whether I am actually accomplishing anything. The upside is that when I am within earshot of, for example, co-workers, discussing anything film related, I don't feel the need to interject myself into their conversations.

Getting free DVDs helps, especially since they're from smaller labels, and are mostly films that I'd be interested in anyways.

May 19, 2013 9:30 AM  
Anonymous Adrian said...

I find your way of posing this question intriguing, Comrade G. And I think there is a broad social and historical 'moment' or context determining the types of professional 'disillusionment' that are being aired at present (and rightly, understandably so). We live in a time where certain kinds of work (such as Melissa Gregg and others have analysed it) are demanding more and more of our 'free time': they absorb our entire lives (such is, for example, the 'economy' of having to answer dozens or hundreds of emails at home when we are teachers, editors, etc). And, as a result of this, many end up feeling that such work must (in a perfect world) satisfy them completely, give them all the life satisfactions they crave. After all, if all our time is eaten up by work, we'd want that work to be mighty damn rewarding!! But the history of film criticism is comprised, overwhelmingly so, of people who did it on a hobby/labour of love basis: on nights, weekends, and holidays. Many critics have had daytime jobs in a realm far removed from their critical interest. Of course, I realise things have changed in all kinds of ways, over recent history: in the early 80s, when I had my first University teaching job, I carved out my critical writing path in dozens of magazines and art catalogues: but, at that time, I had no 'superior' or bureaucrat telling me (for good or ill) that I needed to get peer-review articles into SCREEN or CINEMA JOURNAL, or that I needed to hop a plane to SCMS, for the sake of my 'professional career'. I find it strange - but this is just my personal feeling, based on my own history and experience - that there is such an intense call in film studies and the artworld in general for things like 'official mentorship systems': something that has long been (and still was, in the 80s) something utterly informal, a matter of luck or personal connection. Ultimately, I guess I share a certain 'romantic' conception of writing (and of keeping on with writing) that previous posters have expressed: it's what you do, however you can, because you want to, because you must. It's hard to legislate, authorise or even institutionally support that kind if personal desire very far. Or maybe not ... I am interested to hear others' viewpoints on this.

May 19, 2013 1:33 PM  
Anonymous David T. Johnson said...

LEAVES, Brian, Peter, and Adrian, you all raise some really nice points here about the impulse to write. I don’t have much to add to what you’ve said about that subject but have enjoyed your reflections.

And Adrian, I appreciate your sense of “the 'economy' of having to answer dozens or hundreds of emails at home when we are teachers, editors, etc” and the idea that “many end up feeling that such work must (in a perfect world) satisfy them completely, give them all the life satisfactions they crave.” I think that’s a great perspective here. I haven’t read Gregg’s book but am definitely going to check it out. To your comment “I had no 'superior' or bureaucrat telling me (for good or ill) that I needed to get peer-review articles into SCREEN or CINEMA JOURNAL, or that I needed to hop a plane to SCMS, for the sake of my 'professional career',” I would say, regarding the parenthetical, that’s definitely more ill than good. These kinds of requirements seem to assuage some sort of institutional anxiety but don’t really serve the cultivation of good teaching and writing, both of which we should be capable of evaluating without simply counting articles, conferences, etc. I perhaps don’t share as much of your skepticism about its being “hard to legislate, authorise or even institutionally support that kind of personal desire very far,” though I recognize the inherent problems you raise. I think it’s possible to create institutional space to explore intellectual projects over multiple years, and surely, those projects can be, and ideally should be, driven by personal desire, even when they don’t lead to a publication, a perfectly acceptable outcome if we could minimize the impulse to quantify such intellectual exploration into institutionally reportable data (my “if we could” maybe suggesting that I share at least part of that skepticism).

Peter, I laughed at your comment, “The upside is that when I am within earshot of, for example, co-workers, discussing anything film related, I don't feel the need to interject myself into their conversations,” if only in self-recognition of an impulse I try to check in myself!

May 20, 2013 10:26 AM  
Blogger Brian Doan said...

Dave and Adrian,
I co-sign on what you both wrote, and worry that the continued emphasis those kinds of institutional measures, frameworks and repetitions is only going to get worse in the current economy (both practical and intellectual): fear, nostalgia, and moral posturing are a powerful triple-whammy. It is fascinating to glance at the current state of job lists and realize that they could have been published ten, fifteen or even twenty years ago with little change in the descriptions.

“[It's]hard to legislate, authorise or even institutionally support that kind of personal desire very far”-- absolutely. Of course, the irony is that not only the best writing, but often the best TEACHING (what all these departments have to most justify or think about to state legislatures, private donors, etc.) comes out of precisely the combination of passion, theoretical ambiguity and "uselessness" (not coming from a set or recognized position) that these projects embody and explore. It's hard to quantify, but that's one of things that makes it valuable.

And not to sound like a broken record to people who've heard me go off on this many times before, but I would note that Robert Ray nailed our current predicament-- that combination of professional, intellectual and personal uncertainty that calcified insitutions can engender-- almost twenty years ago, in the first chapter of his "Andy Hardy" book. And was marked as a Cassandra by many field poobahs because of it.

May 21, 2013 1:16 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thank you, Brian, Peter, Adrian and Dave!

May 22, 2013 5:31 AM  
Anonymous Tim said...

As a filmmaker, my primary reason for writing about film has always been in order to clarify my thoughts. The immediate aim is to turn the free floating ideas and feelings I have about what I see into something articulate and exact, and my hope is that in the long run, this process of clarification will help me make better decisions behind the camera.

I tend to write most when I'm working least. My recent decision to start a blog (after not writing about film publicly for several years) stems partly from not having made a film in so long. I'd like to be able to find more of a balance, but that's hard to do if I'm not making money off of either endeavor.

May 28, 2013 5:48 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thank you, Tim!

June 06, 2013 6:30 PM  

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