Monday, May 20, 2013

Guest Blogger: Timothy Hallinan on Murch and Ondaatje

One of the interesting things about writing novels is that there are tips everywhere.

Almost anything about creativity relates to the writing process.  My two favorite quotations about the creative process come from a visual artist, Pablo Picasso (“Inspiration exists, but it must find you working.”) and a screenwriter—the world's most prolific screenwriter, Yoji Yamada with more than 100 produced screenplays, who said, “Sometimes you have to take your leap and grow your wings on the way down.”

And now it's The Conversations, Michael Ondaatje's masterful series of interviews with film editor/director Walter Murch, who edited all three parts of "The Godfather," "The English Patient," "The Conversation," "Apocalypse Now," "American Graffiti," and many more.

They met when Murch was editing "The English Patient," which of course was based on Ondaatje's novel.  One of the first things Ondaatje noticed about the edit when he saw the film after the soundtrack had been mixed was a moment when The Patient bit into a plum and there was the chime, barely audible, of a distant bell. (This part of the film is set in Italy, where the landscape is especially rich in church bells.)  A moment later, The Patient begins to remember a bit of what has happened to him

When Ondaatje asked Murch about it, Murch was very pleased that the bell had registered. The bell, he said, takes over from the taste of the plum as the catalyst for the memory; and also, in a film that up until now has been filled with the sounds of battle, it's "the first positive sound of human civilization."

Gee, I thought, that's a lot like writing.

And the book turns out to be absolutely jammed with things that writers will respond to -- even beyond the obvious ones, such as story structure, scene pacing, directing the viewer's/reader's eye, patterns of light and dark, and on and on and on.  Murch is a remarkable man, as is Ondaatje, and I love this book.

Walter Murch, "Violin," 1952
One thing that especially appeals to me is one of Murch's memories of his father, also named Walter, who was a well-known painter. Before Murch Senior would put paint on a canvas, he would let life "distress" it: he'd carpet the hallway of their New York apartment with blank canvases "for weeks at a time. The life of the apartment, with cats and people and kids, would just continue. People would be tramping back and forth on the canvases, accidents would happen, things would get spilled on them."

Then Murch Senior would search the canvases for the most interesting section of "distress," which is the word Ondaatje suggests, and "Then he'd put that canvas up on the easel and on top of that he'd paint these realistic still lifes. But somehow the ghost of those random events would work their way into the objects. He called those distress marks "hooks." A canvas for him, without that distress was a canvas with no hooks on it, and without them the image was in danger of simply sliding off the canvas."

This made me literally sit up.

It seems to me to be analogous to a writer's need to find an area of distress within him/herself, and make sure that distress works its way into whatever is being written. Obviously, "distress" isn't used in the emotional sense (although it could be), but more in the sense of something that's been marred, faded, roughed up. It seems to me that a book needs to have some personal distress, in that sense, woven into it, or the words will be in danger of sliding off the page.  It's those hooks, often, that turn a narrative personal, that suggest to the reader that there's something more at work than a facile intelligence.

Anyway, I suggest to any writer whose imagination is engaged by anything in this piece -- take a look at this book.

Tim – sitting in for Leighton on Monday


  1. At workshops I always paraphrase Mark Twain - it's a matter of bum on seat and pen on paper! Was that Mark Twain? It's a good answer anyway for the 'I could write a best seller but I don't have the time' brigade!

  2. You are a Zen Master, Tim. All of life's endeavors are the same: to create something 'real,' some amount of reality must be woven into its fabric.

    But you were (as usual) more poetic.

  3. We llove perfect beauty, but The imperfect makes it bearable. You said it better!