Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Requiem for a Dream

A writer’s bucket list

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Darren Aronofsky

I never thought I’d say this, but I may as well admit it: I’m getting pretty excited for Noah. When Darren Aronofsky announced that he was tackling an epic Biblical movie as his next project, it seemed like a strange departure from the director of Requiem for a Dream and Black Swan. The trailers have been oddly thrilling, though, and early word is that this is a deeply weird, personal movie that just happens to have cost a hundred million dollars to make, which is a prospect I can never resist. And in fact, Aronofsky’s obsession with Noah goes back a long time, and it reflects the intensely meaningful nature of the material he chooses. In an excellent New Yorker profile, Tad Friend writes:

In the mid-nineties [before his first film was made], Aronofsky wrote down ten film ideas he wanted to pursue. All six of his films have come from that list, and all have been informed by his early years: the stress and the bloody toes his sister incurred in ballet practice became Nina’s in Black Swan; his parents’ cancer scares informed Izzi’s cancer in The Fountain. After he wrote a prose poem about Noah for his seventh-grade English teacher, Vera Fried, he got to read it over the P.A. system—”The rain continued through the night and the cries of screaming men filled the air”—and was transformed from a math geek into a writer. He rewarded Fried by giving her a walk-on in Noah as a one-eyed hag.

I love this story, because I can relate to it: I suspect that every writer has a short list of stories that he or she would love to write one day, and Aronofsky has been lucky and tenacious enough to see many of them on the big screen. (Black Swan was the kind of unexpected international success that gives a director one free pass for his next movie, and Aronofsky, to his credit, seems to have cashed it in on the greatest possible scale.) In my own case, I’ve got a private roster of ideas that I’ve been carrying around in my head for a long time, many for close to two decades, and I’ve occasionally had the chance to get them in print. The Icon Thief was my attempt to write a conspiracy novel that would reflect—and at least partially exorcise—the love I felt in high school for Foucault’s Pendulum, and my desire to write something about the vision of Ezekiel, which dates back to around the same period, informed a good chunk of City of Exiles. As for the others, I’m developing one right now in the form of a new novel, although I’m not sure where it will end up, and I hope to get around to the rest one of these days. And if I don’t tell you what any of them are, it’s only because I want to keep them all for myself.

George R.R. Martin

In practice, though, it’s easy to postpone such ideas in favor of ones that seem more immediately pressing, both because we’re afraid that we may not be able to do them justice and because we think we’ve got more time than we really have. This can be a dangerous assumption to make, as George R.R. Martin points out in a recent issue of Vanity Fair. After discussing the early death of his friend, the writer Tom Reamy, Martin says:

But Tom’s death had a profound effect on me, because I was in my early thirties then. I’d been thinking…well, I have all these stories that I want to write, all these novels I want to write, and I have all the time in the world to write them, ‘cause I’m a young guy, and then Tom’s death happened, and I said, Boy. Maybe I don’t have all the time in the world. Maybe I’ll die tomorrow. Maybe I’ll die ten years from now…After Tom’s death, I said, “You know, I gotta try this. I don’t know if I can make a living as a full-time writer or not, but who knows how much time I have left? I don’t want to die ten years from now or twenty years from now and say I never told the stories I wanted to tell because I always thought I could do it next week or next year.

I can relate to this, too. Life is short and art is long, and it seems like there’s no excuse for putting off the stories you love for a day that may never come. But it’s also important to leave room on that bucket list for surprises, and even to depart from it occasionally to see what else you might discover. If there’s one problem with tackling nothing but your own passion projects, it’s that you’re too close to the subject matter to evaluate your work on its own merits: I’ve often done my best work when I’ve been able to start a project from a position of detachment, feeling my way into a passionate engagement with the material from the outside. In the end, like most things in an artist’s life, it’s a matter of balance, and it’s important to keep a middle ground between the stories you’ve always wanted to write and those tricky, intractable ideas that seduce you when you least expect it. (It’s perhaps no accident that Aronofsky’s two best movies, Requiem for a Dream and The Wrestler, were based on stories by others, however closely they may have overlapped with the director’s own obsessions.) For most of us, we don’t need to choose: a writer’s life includes many stories written on impulse, under contract, or because it was all we were capable of doing at the time. And that’s fine. Because on a real writer’s bucket list, there’s only one item, which is to keep writing at all costs.

Written by nevalalee

March 18, 2014 at 9:56 am

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