Barrymore’s Basics

“You can only be as good as you dare to be bad.”
John Barrymore

John Barrymore is considered one of the most thrilling, chilling Shakespearean actors of all time. Here’s a great story about his huge success on Broadway playing Hamlet:

A newspaper reporter came backstage to interview our boy John after his fifty-sixth performance. He had a deadline, but had to wait an hour and a half until the company’s rehearsal was over. When he finally got his interview, he told the actor, “Mr. Barrymore, I’m surprised that you would need a rehearsal after fifty-six performances on Broadway. Why, you’re being acclaimed the greatest Hamlet of all time and a genius of the stage.”

When he heard this, Barrymore started laughing and told the incredulous reporter: “Listen. Do you want to know the truth? For five months, nine hours every day, I read, re-read, studied, and recited that part. I thought I’d never get it into my head. Several times I wanted to quit. I thought I’d missed my calling, and that it was a mistake for me to ever have gone into acting. Yes, a year ago, I wanted to quit, and now they are calling me a genius. Isn’t that ridiculous?”

Fantastic story, isn’t it? I love it, not just for what it says about Shakespeare and Hamlet, but because of how candid the great Barrymore was when it came to revealing the massive amount of time and energy he devoted to mastering his craft. And even more impressive, when he was at the top of his game and getting rave reviews, he continued to rehearse and fine-tune his performance. Now, that’s dedication. That’s mastery. And that’s an appreciation for the fundamentals.

Think about it: Here’s the fabled Barrymore sitting on his butt for nine hours every day for five months. If this is accurate, then he was spending well over 1200 hours immersing himself in this part, learning it backwards and forwards, making it part of him, so that saying it was like breathing.

He must have been drilling himself constantly, practicing it again and again, feeling discouraged, pushing on, feeling he had a handle on it, then feeling like it was falling apart. Yet he kept on practicing, day after day.

There’s so much to inspire us here: The self-doubt that John had to overcome to keep going. The understanding that mastery of the role could come only after he drilled relentlessly and completed his “basic training.” The intense concentration he brought to the job at hand. And of course, the willingness to laugh at himself and topple his public image. Write on!

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Something Wonderful

As we move into the days of leaves and harvest, let us take a few moments to ponder the nature of our livelihood as scribes and storytellers: It is a sacred calling. Kahlil Gibran said that “work is love made visible,” surely a beautiful thought to take with us as we set forth each day on the page. And to help us make the most of each day’s labor, let’s keep in mind Kahlil’s powerful poem On Work, which I quote in part here:

On Work
Kahlil Gibran

“You work that you may keep pace with the earth and the soul of the earth.
For to be idle is to become a stranger unto the seasons,
and to step out of life’s procession, that marches in majesty and
proud submission towards the infinite.

When you work you are a flute through whose heart the whispering of the hours
turns to music.
Which of you would be a reed, dumb and silent, when all else sings together in unison?

Always you have been told that work is a curse and labour a misfortune.
But I say to you that when you work you fulfil a part of earth’s furthest dream, assigned to you when that dream was born,
And in keeping yourself with labour you are in truth loving life,
And to love life through labour is to be intimate with life’s inmost secret…”

Wishing you and yours a peaceful, fruitful Labor Day.

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Simple Strategy

“What do you think about when you strike out?”
“I’m thinking about the next home run.”
Babe Ruth

A Babe Ruth story: It’s the summer of 1927, on a beautiful afternoon at Philly stadium is packed with more than thirty five thousand fans. The Athletics were leading the Yankees, 3 to 1. The bases were full and there were two outs when the Babe grabbed his favorite bat and headed to the plate.

The Athletics’ left-handed pitcher was ready. He threw a blazer. Strike one! He threw another ball so fast no one could see it. Babe took a huge swing — and missed! Strike two! Not only did he strike out again, Babe also took a tumble: He had swung at the ball so hard, he literally whirled himself around and off his feet. He sprawled in the dust. The crowd roared. He brushed the dirt from his trousers, wiped off his hands, and got ready for the next pitch.

Another blazer! Babe gave another mighty swing. This time, the Bambino connected with the ball. It sailed over the scoreboard, flew across the street, and disappeared — one of the longest baseball hits ever recorded. The Babe loped around the bases with his teammates for what proved to be the winning run.

Later in the season, an interviewer asked, “Babe, what do you do when you get into a batting slump?” Babe answered, “I just keep goin’ up there and keep swingin’ at ‘em. I know the old law of averages will hold good for me the same as it does for anybody else, if I keep havin’ my healthy swings. If I strike out two or three times in a game, or fail to get a hit for a week, why should I worry? Let the pitchers worry; they’re the guys who’re gonna suffer later on.”

Babe didn’t see a strikeout as a failure: he saw it as a worthwhile effort, as another step toward his next home run. What a great attitude! Keep swinging, take the good and bad in stride, meet both failure and success with unruffled calm, and play on: This is a simple strategy that we can use on our own playing field: the page.

Some days, we’re going to “get up to bat,” take a “mighty swing” and “strike out” — whatever we are going for is going to elude us and slip away like a fast ball. Sometimes we’re going to swing so hard and miss so badly that, just like the Babe, we’ll throw ourselves off balance and end up in the dust. When that happens, let’s embrace our inner Bambino and pick ourselves up, brush ourselves off, and swing again. And write on!

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Slow Motion

Does this ever happen to you? Your day never quite seems to get going and when it does, everything happens in slow motion? Though you had the best of intentions, your creative motor never quite shifts into gear? You’re tempted to blame it on the heat, but in your heart of hearts you know that it’s not the weather outside, it’s your inner climate control that’s off kilter?

What to do, what to do? When a day of this kind hit me recently, I decided to try something different. Instead of resisting it, which is often my MO, and bravely soldiering on, I decided to let it take me where it wanted me to go. Instead of “seizing the day” I let “the day seize me” (many thanks to the wonderful, wistful film Boyhood for this new twist on an old phrase).

What this boiled down to was that I stopped trying to rev my motor and I just let it idle. I got as much writing done as I could squeeze out of myself and then I stopped. I went for a walk, and thought about my story instead of writing it. Then I came back and just read something enjoyable but not overtaxing.

In the midst of this, I saw pretty clearly that my brain was just feeling frazzled and needed a break. Maybe I blew a circuit or two working and reworking a tough section of my YA novel the day before. Maybe I had a weird dream and didn’t even remember it, but it was haunting me somehow. Who knows? Writing isn’t just a joy and a marathon, it’s also a mystery. Sometimes, we just have to remember this and be kind to ourselves when our well runs dry for a spell. And then “freelax” as Alex used to say and get a good night’s sleep. And then, energized and emboldened, we can write on!

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Breaking Free

One of the joys of garage sale browsing: coming across a book that you’ve been wanting to read or thinking about reading and picking it up for a song. That’s exactly what how I came to have a door stopper of a novel, The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. This is a truly hefty tome: It weighs in at almost 1,000 pages.

While I’m not sure when or whether I’ll tackle the entire story, I did dip into the Preface, which was well worth the buck I paid for the book (in mint condition, too!) In it, Ken described how he almost didn’t write the book — and why he’s glad he did.

Here’s what happened: Since his late twenties, Ken has been fascinated by cathedrals. He’s studied them, visited them, and even came up with a novel idea about one. His agent passed on it and Ken went down the thriller track and eventually penned his breakthrough novel, Eye of the Needle. Instant bestsellerdom.

But, oh that cathedral novel! It kept calling to Ken. And so after a bunch of successful thrillers, he finally decided to write a historical novel set in medieval times. Needless to say, his agent, publisher, friends — everyone felt he was making a big mistake by breaking out of his genre niche. But Ken resisted their warnings and spent more than three years writing The Pillars of the Earth. And guess what? Readers loved it! Fans raved about it, called it their favorite book, and asked him to write a sequel.

As Ken tells the tale in his Preface, “This was a word-of-mouth book. It’s a truism in the book business that the best kind of advertising is the kind you can’t buy: personal recommendations of one reader to another. That was what was selling Pillars. You did it, dear reader. Publishers, agents, critics, and the people who give out literary prizes generally overlooked this book, but you did not. You noticed that it was different and special, and you told your friends and in the end the word got around.
“And so it happened. It seemed like the wrong book. I seemed like the wrong writer; and I almost didn’t do it. But it is my best book and you honored it.
“I appreciate that. Thank you.”

What a wonderful love note to his readers, isn’t it? Breaking free of a genre you’ve mastered: Now that’s a risky business — and that’s writing dangerously. Bravo, Ken! Write on!

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Then Again

“To be a writer is to sit down at one’s desk in the chill portion of every day, and to write; not waiting for the little jet of the blue flame of genius to start from the breastbone—just plain going at it, in pain and delight. To be a writer is to throw away a great deal, not to be satisfied, to type again, and then again, and once more, and over and over…”
John Hersey

This tough-love quote comes to us by way of Where Writers Win (a wonderful book marketing site). From a guest post, I also learned that James Joyce was said to feel that he had a “successful” writing day when he came up with three sentences that he liked. Gustave Flaubert, literary stylist extraordinaire, often labored over one page of prose for a week. That’s right: He devoted a week of his writing life to crafting 200 or so words. Every day, his writing desk was surrounded by discarded drafts.

It can be discouraging to think of so much effort expended on words that didn’t go anywhere, that led to a dead end or simply fell so flat they had to be shoveled off the page. But then again, we can take heart from learning that even accomplished writers — especially accomplished writers — like our boys Gustave, James, and John found the strength to let go of what wasn’t working.

They fully accepted, even embraced, the ebb and flow of writing. They forged ahead, “in pain and delight,” knowing that if they were in pain and just kept writing, they’d stumble upon delight and that if they had a moment of delight, it would soon be followed by more pain. And yet, they wrote on.

So often, we’re tempted to quit, to give up on a project, when the pain of working on it seems to overwhelm us. We may have made a strong start, but find ourselves stumbling in midstream. We may have taken a long detour and realized that we were just spinning our proverbial wheels. We may be struggling to pull all the elements of a fictional world together in a harmonious, convincing way.

Whatever the writing crisis we face, let’s remember that there’s delight awaiting us on the far side of pain, and that we need to experience that pain fully to find it. And when we do, we’re in the company of all the writers who endured this cycle before us. If they accepted it, so can we. If they survived it, so can we. If they out-wrote it and penned work the world loves and still remembers, so can we. So let’s all write on.

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Show Up

Isabel Allende’s debut novel, The House of the Spirits, started as a letter written to her dying grandfather and was published when she was 40. Some 30 years later, she has sold more than 56 million books, which have been translated into 30 languages.

Isabel gave a pithy but powerful interview to Gabriel Packard featured in The Writer magazine (August, 2014). Since it’s filled with inspiration for us all, I’m sharing the entire interview here:

Q: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about writing?

A: Show up. Show up in front of the computer or the typewriter. And if I show up long enough — it happens.

Q: How has that helped you as a writer?

A: When I started writing, I always had the feeling that the book was like a gift — that it would fall into my lap like an apple or something. So I almost had the feeling that it wasn’t going to happen again. That I had written The House of the Spirits, and that was it. Or I had written the second or third book, and that was it. But what I learned in time, in 32 years of writing, is that it’s a lot of work, and I just show up, and I work and work, there is a moment, a magical moment, at some point, when it gives. And then you don’t need the effort anymore. It’s like dancing. When you’re dancing and counting the steps, you’re not dancing. When your body just goes — then you’re dancing, and then there’s a rhythm, there’s a velocity, there’s a feeling, there’s a joy that you cannot describe. And it happens in spite of me. I think that’s the moment in writing when the book starts to happen. From that point on, it’s all joy. At the beginning, it’s work.

Q: You can’t get to that moment without just showing up?

A: Showing up and being patient. I can hit my head against the wall, because it’s not happening. But just keep going. Keep going. And it happens.

Show Up and Keep Going: Now that’s how to write dangerously. Write on!

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