Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The New Yorker in Hollywood

This weekend was the second time I read a piece in The New Yorker that made me reflect about my own practices as a consultant. The first was when I read about Paul Haggis, the screen-writer, and his break with scientology. I noticed that there is a fine line between what I call "writing process reengineering" and what the Church of Scientology calls "life repair", "study tech", etc. Any program that explicitly tries to get your life together around some standardized routines and habits of mind risks turning into a kind of cult—especially if the "technology" works! I ultimately decided that I am not a cult leader because (a) people are allowed to leave any time and (b) I have a well-developed sense of irony about the project. But I will grant that that's a pretty thin argument.

The second piece that gave me pause for thought was also about screen-writers and the ways they try to get their lives to "work". Dana Goodyear provides an excellent portrait of Barry Michels, a Jungian therapist in Hollywood who has a, well, yes, "cult" following among writers who suffer from writer's block. There are, in fact, many senses in which I would like to be the Barry Michels of academic writing. Consider Goodyear's opening image of Michel's prescription for writer's block:

Michels ... told the writer to get an egg timer. Following Michels’s instructions, every day he set it for one minute, knelt in front of his computer in a posture of prayer, and begged the universe to help him write the worst sentence ever written. When the timer dinged, he would start typing. He told Michels that the exercise was stupid, pointless, and embarrassing, and it didn’t work. Michels told him to keep doing it.

And the script that soon started flowing from the mind of the writer, of course, went on to win an Oscar.

I rarely suggest something quite as obviously therapeutic, but I do suggest something similar to something else that Michels promotes:

He gives procrastinators a tool he calls the Arbitrary Use of Time Moment, which asks them to sit in front of their computers for a fixed amount of time each day. “You say, ‘I’m surrendering myself to the archetypal Father, Chronos,’” he says. ‘I’m surrendering to him because he has hegemony over me.’ That submission activates something inside someone. In the simplest terms, it gets people to get their ass in the chair.” For the truly unproductive, he sets the initial period at ten minutes—“an amount of time it would sort of embarrass them not to be able to do.”

Again, I'm less likely to get people to say things to themselves (or to surrender to various deities), but the idea of simple and arbitrary time-discipline as a solution to a wide variety of otherwise "psychological" problems certainly resonates with me. Michels, who is a psychologists, does actually take psychology quite a bit more seriously than I do. If I don't it is precisely because I worry that my techniques will have a too directly "transformative" effect on people's lives beyond their writing. This worry is less relevant when dealing with "creative" writers (or, as in the case of scientology, actors) because a case can be made that art is precisely supposed to transform life. Making art, then, might understandably transform the artist.

Goodyear gives us an example of a writer who had the problem (faced by many academic writers too) of always "flip[ping] over to the Internet". Michels connected the cure to another problem this writer had: flirting too much. The solution is called "reversal of desire":

“We used it not only to get him to write and face the pain of not seducing women but also to understand pain better, because one of the criticisms of his writing was that his characters weren’t deep enough. He couldn’t quite connect to their pain, because he was avoiding his own.”

There is an important point here that can be applied to academic writing as well: the thing that is keeping you from writing at all may also be keeping you from writing well. Michels calls it "Part X". There is a distinct possibility that the same thing is also preventing you from living well. Sometimes, the solution to your problems as a writer really is to (for a lack of a better phrase) become a better person.

This also occasions resistance. Some people just don't like being told they have to improve spiritually in order to succeed professionally. This is especially true among academics, I think. But you find it in Hollywood too, it seems:

The novelist Bret Easton Ellis ... went to see Michels after he moved to Los Angeles to help with the production of a movie based on one of his books. The situation had grown sour—he was no longer speaking to his best friend, Nicholas Jarecki, with whom he wrote the screenplay, and the director, he felt, had misinterpreted the material. After working with Michels for a few months, he called Jarecki and invited him to a makeup dinner. Jarecki brought along his friend Sharon Stone. Ellis recalls that when the dinner conversation turned to the work that he had been doing with Michels, Stone interjected, “Barry and Phil and all that Shadow shit, all that Part X shit. I love my Part X, I’m not letting go of my Part X. Fuck Barry!”

I'm sure there a people who talk that way about me. But maybe that conviction is just a veiled form of self-flattery. The New Yorker probably writes about writers so much because a lot of its readers are writers in one way or another. The aesthetics of getting your "ass in the chair" sells magazines to a certain kind of people (and I'm definitely one of them). This is another reason to read that magazine on a regular basis. The first reason, however, remains that it provides you with a weekly dose of exemplary prose.

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Note: I apologize to my regular readers for the somewhat irregular posting these last few weeks. I've been traveling quite a bit, which has interfered with my writing discipline and my sleeping patterns. Regular service should resume now.


Jonathan said...

What makes our blogs uncult-like is their utter transparency. The methods are out there transparently for all or none to follow. If someone uses writing advice and transforms their life in the process, that's a voluntary decision.

Thomas said...

Yes, blogs have an important aspect of openness. But keep in mind that I am also a resident writing consultant. So I run writing groups and develop pretty close relationships with some of my authors. A bit like Michels and his patients, I would think.

Jonathan said...

Yes, but I think you give the same advice in private that you'd give in public.

Thomas said...

That's a good point. I don't have some secret message that you have to pay extra for.

Andrew Shields said...

I just finished Tim Parks's latest book, "Teach Us To Sit Still: A Skeptic's Guide to Faith and Healing," and this post echoes some of the themes of the book: in his case, he's trying to deal with chronic pain and consulting various people about it, and he ends up using relaxation methods to relieve tension, and finally at a meditation retreat. He's an atheist-materialist who is utterly skeptical (even at the end of the book) about mumbo-jumbo, and his experience with various guru types (and their behavioral tricks) is fascinating.